Category : Understanding Chess

Level of Precision

In a recent (immediately after this year’s Wijk) interview Peter Svidler expressed a notion that got me thinking.

When speaking about Vladimir Kramnik and a conversation they had at the party after the Wijk tournament, Svidler relates how he was taken aback by Kramnik’s opinion that the level of chess played 20 years ago was higher than the one now.

This was surprising. Normally I would expect to be the other way round, since we have learned more about chess since those times. But when I thought about it a bit further, I discovered two factors that may vindicate Kramnik’s opinion.

The first one is the domination of pragmatism in today’s chess. The end of the 90s was still Kasparov’s era with his scientific method of always playing the best moves after obtaining an advantage in the opening due to superior preparation. Today, this time under Carlsen’s influence, the emphasis is on practical play. This came as a result of the rise of the engines (sounds apocalyptic, doesn’t it!) and the end of White’s advantage in the opening.  The aim today is just to play and preferably play better than the opponent, who would make a mistake that can be used to win the game. So less science, meaning not always searching for the best move, and more pragmatism.

The second factor, again connected to the strength of the engines, is the vast difference of the level of precision when the opening ends. Svidler also mentions this factor. Since everybody studies the opening with an engine, it means that everybody plays the opening at a 3500 Elo level. But once the preparation has finished, everybody drops at the level of their competence, be that 2700 or 2000. And here comes the important moment – the over-reliance on the work with engines makes the players less reliant on their own ability and as a result of this their own ability is neglected and it aggravates. This leads to decrease of the level of precision.

Perhaps there is an additional psychological factor. For the players nowadays the engine is God. They feel humbled and know that their own efforts rarely stand up to scrutiny. Today there is no greater praise for a player when he is told that his moves were approved by the engine! They may not necessarily be the first line, it is enough that the engine doesn’t change the evaluation drastically after the move made by the player. This feeling of lesser worth affects the players and as a result they may play weaker than they used to.

So perhaps Kramnik was right. He usually is, though I would have loved to hear his own explanations!

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An Exclusive Interview with Boris Gelfand

During the European Club Cup in Skopje in 2015 I had the bright idea to conduct interviews with the elite players. One of the best interviews was with the wonderful Boris Gelfand.

Boris agreed to meet us (me and my very good friend Kiril Penushliski, a PhD and an avid chess aficionado) after the tournament and we spent a few good hours walking in the park and talking about chess, life, Universe and pretty much everything else.

It is probably long overdue, I should have published this gem long time ago, but the initial plan was to have the interview transcribed and publish it in a written version. Alas, this never materialised, so I decided to publish the audio version.

I would like to thank Boris for giving us this opportunity to talk to one of the best chess players in the world. He answered truthfully and at length, it was sheer delight to talk about chess with somebody who has seen and done it all.

You can enjoy the interview following this link.

 

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The Best Move

What follows is from my latest newsletter (to which you can subscribe by using the yellow box on the right). I discuss Garry’s problems and how chess has changed since his retirement.

When I was growing up, which coincided with Garry’s time at the top, the general idea was that in every position there should be a move that is if not the best, then at least better than all the others. The player’s task was to find that move and play it. Perhaps he may take into consideration some psychological factors, but generally, as Fischer put it, players believed more in good moves than psychology.

And then came the engines. By a coincidence or not, Kasparov retired in 2005 and Rybka 3’s emergence was in 2007. What Rybka 3 and all the others that came afterwards showed was that in many positions there were more moves of relatively equal value. The engines will still show you the “best” move as the first line, but in fact the miniscule difference of value between the first and the fifth means very little to the human sitting at the board and thinking for himself. (Obviously I am talking about balanced positions which are far from a forced win or where there is a clear best move available). The players who grew up with these engines accepted that fact as a given. They were happy to play one of the five best moves. The players from the older generation kept on looking for the best move.

This is where Carlsen’s pragmatism comes from. And not only his, but generally the practicality of today’s best players. They are not trying to find the one best move, they are happy to “keep it between the hedges” and play one of the five. (For those who haven’t read Rowson’s Deadly Sins and Zebras and are not familiar with the term, it’s an advice for driving on unmarked country roads with hedges on both sides – there are no lanes on the road, but keeping it between the hedges should suffice.)

I am sure Kasparov understands where does this new pragmatism come from, but I am not sure he has managed to “re-program” himself as his great teacher Botvinnik recommended to all players who wanted to achieve longetivity in chess. Kasparov struggled at the board, his brain was looking for the best move and then his time on the clock ran out. Kasparov has been one of the best learners in chess, so I am sure he can learn to apply the new pragmatism that rules today’s chess, but I am not so sure we will see him again in action to see the fruits of his newly acquired skill.

It was fantastic to see Kasparov play again. But I felt uneasy to see my childhood hero suffer and his hands shake, after being used to see him dominate everything and everybody. Times have changed and he is not the best anymore. That makes me a little sad, something has been taken away from the legend.

Still, it was the contrast of Kasparov’s old ways and the new pragmatism of the modern chess that made it so compelling and easy to notice the change that has occurred in his absence. And as Confucius said, “they must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.”

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New Video On My Youtube Channel

In between flights I managed to make another video for my Youtube channel. This time I talk about Black’s possible reactions and defences against White’s minority attack in the Carlsbad structure.

And also why I didn’t walk around Milan this time.

Hope you enjoy it and find it interesting and useful.

 

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My Youtube Channel

With mixed feelings I am announcing the launch of my Youtube channel. Why the mixed feelings? Well, as I explain in my first ever video, I don’t like the video format so much. I prefer to read as then I can quickly scan and see if the material is useful or not. With the video format I feel compelled to see it all through, in case I miss something useful that may come at the end. Which means I am basically risking looking a useless video and wasting time.

Bearing that in mind, the idea with my channel is to keep it short and sweet. I explain an idea, concept, a plan, or anything really, and that’s it. Useful for the viewer and easy to grasp and apply. At least that’s my idea at this stage.

For now, just one video is up. You can check it out here. And I would appreciate comments and feedback how to make the videos better. I still don’t have a clue of all the fine points of video making, nor do I have an idea how often I’ll be filming myself, but it’s a beginning so let’s see.

The first video is about a typical reaction Black should implement when White jumps Ne5 in a position that can arise from the Queen’s Gambit Declined, the Queen’s Indian or the Zukertort System. Plus I explain a couple of plans Black can retort to if White postpones the jump. For more, please see the video.

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Lasker’s Psychology

Quite a controversial idea probably, but I really believe it is true. This text is from my newsletter, to which you can subscribe using the yellow form on the right. The next newsletter is due on Saturday.

 

Lasker’s Psychology

I will start immediately with the shocker – there wasn’t any.

As many books have often repeated, I’ll paraphrase here, Lasker played the opening in a dubious manner in order to lure the opponent into unfamiliar territory and then outplay them. Nothing can be further from the truth.

No strong player plays the opening dubiously on purpose. The fact that Lasker often ended up in dubious positions after the opening doesn’t mean that he intended it. As I have already written about this, and I advise you to read the part on Vukovic’s books for better understanding, I will just say that like anybody else he preferred to have a good position after the opening.

If there was any psychology in Lasker’s play, it was almost entirely his own. He didn’t care about the opponent so much. He was primarily concerned with his own safety.

Don’t let this confuse you. Popular literature leads you to believe that Lasker was the risk-taker, the gambler, the great fighter. Yes, he could be all these things once the game was under way, but before the game he was very cautious and often insecure. I would like to discuss two very famous games of his to demonstrate my point. In both he used the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez.

The first one is the first game of the match with Tarrasch in 1908. Here’s the game without comments.

 

 

We know that Tarrasch was a fierce critic of Lasker and often publicly stated that he wasn’t a worthy World Champion. They finally met in a match in 1908. It is not widely known, but before the first game Lasker was nervous and this showed in his comment to his brother. I don’t recall the exact words, but he said something along the lines, if I play the Exchange Variation, how can I possibly lose?

Note that he was primarily seeking a safe haven, he wanted to avoid losing in the first place!

The fact that he won shows that once the game started Lasker was just playing chess, trying to find the best moves. If an opportunity presented itself he would grab it and win the game, even if before it he was content with a draw. The game with Tarrasch was around equal most of the time, but Tarrasch erred and Lasker took his chance.

The second game is even more famous. In St. Petersburg in 1914 Capablanca was having a dream tournament. He was leading comfortably and playing excellent chess. He won the preliminary tournament with 8/10, a full point and a half ahead of Lasker and Tarrasch. These points counted toward the final standings and in the final he continued to play well. So what chances did Lasker have when they met in Round 7 in the final? He was trailing by a full point and he was playing a dangerous young opponent against whom he suffered for 100 moves in Round 2 of the final and who was openly intent on claiming his title.

Losing that game would have been a disaster for Lasker in the eyes of the public. Not winning the tournament and coming second behind the Cuban genius, much less so. How does then Lasker approach the game? No experiments, keep it safe and play the trusted Exchange Variation!

 

 

Just like in the game with Tarrasch, once the game started and he was safe out of the opening, knowing that he cannot possibly lose from that position, he started playing chess. And he outplayed Capablanca, who was probably somewhat confused: he became more relaxed after the innocuous opening choice but also concerned about what Lasker was trying to achieve.

These two games were the most striking examples I found of Lasker’s psychology. I was very surprised that even Kasparov, in his Predecessors book, fell for this myth of “Lasker the Psychologist” who played the Exchange Variation in the Ruy Lopez for a win.

“Lasker was a great man,” Capablanca said on more that one occasion. And great men are often misunderstood.

 

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Zebras

This is my first post on my new blog and I am very happy the process pf migration was quick and efficient. There are still some things that need polishing, but the most imporatant thing is that the blog is working well!

There are some design changes and the main one is the friendly orange sign-up box on the right, inviting you to join my Inner Circle. I think I should give you an idea what that means. I have envisioned the Circle as a place where more direct communiation will take place among its members. My intention is to share more personal stories and often give my opinions on various openings, ideas and concepts. As an illustration, please read below for an example of what that means in practice:

ZEBRAS

 

“When you hear hoof beats, think of a zebra.” – Sufi Saying

I love this saying. I first encountered it in the book of my favourite contemporary chess author, GM Jonathan Rowson, Chess for Zebras. It reminds me not to be on the side of majority (“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect” – Mark Twain) because the majority would think of a horse. And I try to think of a zebra.

I first got acquainted with Jonathan Rowson’s work in the previous century (that was a long time ago, wasn’t it) when his first book, Understanding the Grunfeld inspired me to seriously study and play the opening. I was always platonically in love with the Grunfeld, I was attracted to the sole bishop on g7, which both defended the king and attacked white’s centre. My results with the Grunfeld weren’t spectacular, but I always felt the thrill to push the pawn on d5 on move 3. Rowson devised a repertoire for black but from a completely different perspective – he told stories and explained concepts and then wrapped them up in some theory. It was exactly the kind of opening book that I wanted to read!

Years passed and in 2006 I played in Dos Hermanas. I was there with my very good friend, the Indian GM Neelotpal Das. During the tournament he gave me a book to read, imagine my surprise when it was Rowson’s second book, The Seven Deadly Chess Sins. I was completely immersed into the book that I read it in several hours during the night (yes, I can read pretty fast)! I also took notes from the book on a piece of paper – the size of the piece of paper was one from a notebook. It’s hard to believe, but somehow I managed to squeeze all the important information on that one piece of paper. I still have it, when I find it I will take a picture of it and I will send it to you (UPD: see below for this)! The book is about the shortcomings all chess players have (to a bigger or lesser extent) and what to do about them. As usual, Rowson discusses these topics in his usual educated and precise style, I would always catch myself thinking how he managed to put into exact words what I have only vaguely sensed. Needless to say my admiration of him only grew.

And then came the Zebras, his last book to date. The subtitle is telling, Thinking Differently about Black and White. I am sure we all somehow feel that there are subtle differences when playing white and black. And it’s not only the advantage of the first move or the choice of opening or variation. It’s much more subtle than that, it’s an inner dynamic that is difficult to put into words, yet Rowson succeeds to pinpoint all the nuances – it took him some 250 pages to do it, but he did it and I doubt any other author would have done a better job.

Next weekend I will go to the UK to play at the 4NCL for my team Cheddleton. I started playing for Cheddleton in 2012 and have been a regular ever since. Several years ago (it was in November 2013) the league was played in Hinckley and after finishing my game rather late I was in a hurry to catch the train to London. I ran to the reception in a desperate need for taxi when I noticed none other but Jonathan waiting for his! I asked him if we could share the taxi since I was running late for my train. He didn’t mind and soon enough I found myself sharing the taxi with my favourite author! It was only in the taxi that we introduced each other, and then he introduced himself I told him, “Yes, I know, you’re my favourite author!” and he seemed to be a little embarrased by that. We had a very pleasant chat during the ride and on the train station and I remember that there were so many things I wanted to ask him (and I was already a GM by that time!) but time was short… We discussed a lot of things, some variations as well, and I remember one thing he told me, he considered it a mistake – he told me that he should have tried to go as far as possible with the Najdorf (he was a Najdorf player) instead of changing to the Spanish. Changing his main opening against 1 e4 took him time and energy to adjust to the new positions and he felt that this slowed down his progress. These kinds of observations are what have always attracted me to his style. He looks at chess from a higher perspective and this is extremely rare nowadays. And, coincidentally, I am now at the same point, incorporating 1…e5 into my own repertoire and playing it more often, after a lifetime of Sicilians.

During that taxi ride I asked him if he planned to write another book. He was hesitant, he had too many other obligations outside of chess and they were taking his time. But he didn’t say a direct no. Well, for sure I will be waiting for that next book when it comes out, whenever that may be!

Alex

My notes from Zebras

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Karpov and Old Age

There is no need to introduce Karpov. It is probably the only name, together with Kasparov’s, that people far from chess can still recognise.

I would like to touch upon the subject of playing on after certain age. Karpov recently played in two events and played one Bundesliga game in between.

At the beginning of October in Murmansk there was a match between Karpov and Timman. Karpov has beaten Timman throughout their careers mercilessly. The Candidates final in 1990 (6.5-2.5) and their World Championship match in 1993 (12.5-8.5) showed Karpov’s dominance. Timman always seemed to have problems playing Karpov and the match in Murmansk looked to be one more match victory for Karpov – even though both players are past their prime (both were born in 1951) I thought that Timman being Karpov’s “customer” will play the decisive role.

Karpov is very busy nowadays, among other things he is also a member of the Russian Parliament. He never quit chess officially, but he plays very rarely and doesn’t prepare or work on chess at all. Unlike Kasparov, who after officially retiring in 2005 kept working on chess and preserved his strength, as shown in his rare outings, Karpov just loves the process of playing and cannot seem to resist the urge to sit at the board from time to time for an official game or two.

Timman is more active than Karpov, he plays often, writes for New In Chess and composes studies. I am sure he prepared for the match in Murmansk.

The course of the match showed the dangers of relying only on one’s talent even if that talent is enormous. Karpov was rusty and lack of training and practice cost him the match – in the only decisive game Karpov blundered badly:

In the last game of the match Karpov couldn’t do anything with black and he lost the match – for the first time in his life he lost to Timman in an official match.

I don’t know how it feels for such a great champion to fall so low and lose games like the one above. Spassky once said that he realised it was time to stop when he looked at his old games and saw how strong he was, while his last games had been very bad and he just couldn’t play on his usual level anymore. The realisation that you cannot do the same things you used to do before is probably one of the major disappointments of old age.

After the match Karpov played in the Bundesliga against GM Kempinski. Karpov always needed time to warm up and the match with Timman at least served that purpose. The game was a vintage Karpov win.

The game was decided by an elementary blunder by Kempinski, Karpov’s merit was in keeping the pressure.

One of the tournaments Karpov plays every year is the rapid tournament that bears his name, played in Cap d’Agde, France. It’s a rapid tournament where 4 male and 4 female players play a double-round-robin and then the first 4 players play matches of two games (with tie-breakers if needed), a semi-final and then a final. Karpov won his own tournament in 2012, but has found the going tougher ever since.

He started with a win over GM Sebag and a loss to Bacrot. In Round 3 he faced the lowest rated player, WGM Sabrina Vega, rated 2414.

I have always felt uneasy witnessing great champions tarnish their reputation with ugly losses like this one.

Karpov seemed to pick up the pace after this loss and went on to score 9.5/14 and finish one point behind Bacrot, who scored 10.5/14. It seemed that he finally got his form back and could look with optimism to the semi-final against GM Edouard, who scored two full points less.

The semi-final turned out to be one-sided. The result between a great and unprepared champion against a young and heavily prepared GM was 0-2.

In game 1, playing with black Karpov lost a pawn on move 14 and went on to lose. Game 2 was the most telling.

A very painful (not to say humiliating) defeat with white in a must-win situation. Again, my feeling of uneasiness seeing Karpov play and lose like this was difficult to conceal.

The game with Kempinski showed that Karpov is still capable of an occasional glimpse of his former glory. But let us not forget that it was played against a 2600-rated player and Karpov’s own rating is somewhere in this range, meaning that his current strength is approximately of a 2600-rated player.

Chess has changed dramatically since Karpov’s heyday, the young players calculate like machines and are prepared excellently: the computers raised the level of human calculation and their help in the preparation process cannot be overstated. Karpov was never a very hard worker off the board (unlike Kasparov) as he relied on his playing strength and talent. With age the talent remains, but the strength diminishes, primarily because of the imprecise calculations. Karpov was famous for his precise calculation of short lines but that is not the case anymore, as the increased number of blunders in his games show. Chess is a concrete game and if you cannot calculate well you simply don’t play well.

I have learned a lot from Karpov’s games and I always admired him for his fighting abilities. Seeing him lose games because of elementary blunders makes me a bit sad. Karpov’s legacy is eternal, but his present-day games will not make it to his future best games collections.

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The Magic of Mikhail Tal

I had the idea to write about Mikhail Tal for quite some time but I never found the time. What opened the richness of Tal’s play to me was Dvoretsky’s Secrets of Chess Tactics and in view of the famous coach’s recent passing perhaps this is a good time to write about Tal.

Tal was never my hero. Of course, I knew his games, but I was always more drawn to Capablanca for example, being fascinated by the ease and smoothness of his play. But then came Dvoretsky’s book. What I am about to describe took place in the mid-90s, when I first got to read Dvoretsky’s book. The second part of the book, called Attack and Defence features analyses of games of such attacking greats like Alekhine and Tal. The appetizer was the game Alekhine-Junge from Prague 1942, which introduced me to the concept of “slow attack” and the difficulties the defender faces in such situations. But the real shocker were Tal’s games. In the comments below I will give my own understanding of the games at that time while I will also quote Dvoretsky.

The first game was featured under the subtitle “Science Fiction!” and it did live up to the name of the subtitle!

A true eye-opener for me! I thought for a long time trying to understand what happened in this game. My “hows” and “whys” eventually led me to realise one very important truth about chess – it is possible to play like this. Tal’s talent and skills aside, it is possible to incorporate some of these elements into one’s game. Risk, pressure, aggression, both psychological and on the board, all these can work! There is no need to feel constrained in the positional dogma and always play by the rules. Yes, balance is required as this type of play can often backfire, but for me the most important lesson was that after realising this I felt liberated, I could let my fantasy roam free while I could still curb it, if necessary, with the “positional dogma”.

The second Tal game from the book was no less impressive. It is from the same year, 1965, and from the same Candidates cycle, when Tal made it to the final where he lost to Spassky. The game was played in a moment when Larsen was leading by one point.

A similar scenario to the Portisch game and another elite player succumbs quickly after Tal applied his trademark pressure. These two games consolidated my newly-discovered truth about the possible ways to play chess and with it came the inner freedom I felt – there was no need always to play the “positional” move, sometimes it was possible to play what one wanted to play and it could work perfectly. I grasped the true impact Tal had on the understanding of chess as a whole, he showed that chess can be played in a different way and successfully too. These insights significantly broadened my horizons and even though I didn’t start sacrificing in every game I felt that I became a better player at this mysterious game called chess.

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Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy

I finished my last post with the invitation to my readers to suggest, if they wish, a book on which they would like to hear my opinion. My very good friend IM Chedomir Micic suggested a true gem, actually two of them – Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy and Chess Strategy in Action, both by John Watson.

I will start by saying that both books are incredible. They are one of the rare modern books (published in 1998 and 2003 respectively) that truly provide something new in the sphere of chess strategy. I don’t think I was the only one who was under the impression that the last thing about strategy was written in Nimzowitsch’s My System and from then on it was just studying the great players’ games and picking up strategical ideas (for example Petrosian’s exchange sacrifice). Even though I noticed that white players started to push g2-g4 in the opening more frequently, I wasn’t really surprised by that, after all we have the Keres Attack in the Sicilian and there were several games by Fischer when he did just that. But it is not for nothing that Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy has the subtitle Advances Since Nimzowitsch. Watson managed to categorise and organise the material in superb manner. There are two parts of the book, Part I deals with Refinements of Tratidional Theory and here we have the typical elements like Centre, Pawn Minorities and Majorities, IQP etc observed through the prism of the modern practice, taking careful note of what has changed since the times Nimzowitsch wrote his classic. One of the most impressive examples is from the game Ivanchuk-Anand, first game of their match in 1992:

17…gf6!!

White’s last move was a mistake, it was better to take on d2 with the rook. But after black’s unexpected next move white is worse! After 18 Rd2 h5! we see the depth of the concept – Watson quotes Anand who says that white cannot consolidate his kingside (black threatens …hg4 and …Rh3) and is much worse. The following two moves are also very instructive:

“A sterling example” – Watson.

The second book, Chess Strategy in Action is a continuation of the topic in similar vein. Again there are two parts, only this time Part II is analysis of complete games, 35 in total. In Part I he examines concepts like The Surrender of the Centre, Hedgehogs and their Territoriality (an important advice for black playing the Hedgehog is to avoid exchanges in spite of his lack of space, because without pieces his position will lose its dynamism!), The Flank Pawns Have Their Say (here’s the chapter dedicated to moves like g2-g4 for white and …h7-h5 for black, a common occurrence in modern practice), The Positional Pawn Sacrifice, a chapter dedicated to Bishops and Knights and many more. I will give here a couple of examples from Part II that left an impression. The first one is from the comments of the game Shirov-Kramnik from 1994:

Black to move

And Kramnik’s suggestion here is 13…Rh7 14 Nc2 Nh8!! Great stuff! The following example is probably the most original of all:

The true value of the books lies in the fact that Watson managed to organise the material and show in a systematic manner how modern chess is played. The conclusion is that modern chess is concrete to the extreme (the development of chess engines is also very responsible for this development) and there isn’t a single rule that doesn’t have an exception and these exceptions are becoming more frequent in modern practice. These books are a must for every aspiring player who already has knowledge of the classical chess and is looking for a concentrated and well-chosen material from the modern chess practice.

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