The Chebanenko Slav

Recently I published my 7th course on Chessable, after the Simplest Scandinavian, the three courses of the QGD series and the Najdorf with the Anti-Sicilians. You can see these on the right hand side under My Chessable Books. The latest course is part of Chessable’s new golden standard, the so-called Lifetime Repertoires. The opening I chose for it – the Chebanenko Slav.

Why the Chebanenko?

I always thought that if a player is to play an opening for a lifetime then this opening should be less reliant on concrete variations and more on general understanding. The Chebanenko fit this description perfectly. Black needs to understand his main plans and ideas and these are more important than the concrete variations, mostly because the concrete lines come from these main principles and ideas.

As I mention in the Introduction of the course, Black has 5 of these main development ideas:

  1. To develop the bishop from c8 outside the pawn chain before playing …e6.
  2. To fianchetto the dark-squared bishop in order not to close the h3-c8 diagonal for the light-squared bishop.
  3. To play …e6 with the idea to take on c4 and expand with …b5 and …c5 in order to develop the bishop on b7.
  4. To play …e6 with the idea to to push …c5 and develop the knight on c6, in order to put pressure on White’s centre.
  5. To play …e6 and …a5 in order to fix the b4-square when White has played a4.

Add to these the possibility to play the move …b5 that is aided by the …a6 move and you already know the basis of all the variations in the Chebanenko!

Now you understand why my choice fell on the Chebanenko. It is easy to grasp conceptually, it is solid and robust and it provides strategically rich middlegames where Black can hope to outplay his opponent.

The course has more than 25 hours of video, which I recorded in the Chessable studios in 5 days. As a curiosity, I recorded the video on the Chapter White Plays Nf3 and Nc3 in one single sitting of 6 hours and 1minute! Don’t ask how I did it.

You can take a look at the course (which is still at a big discount) here. The course also has a free version, the Short&Sweet that has more than 1 hour of video.

An aspect I was very excited about was the promotional video of the course. I got to act! The video was a very professional high-level production and I really hope all promotional chess videos in the future are made at least on this level or better.

The Chebanenko Slav is out on Chessable.

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Against All (Draw) Odds

Ever since the draw odds were replaced in the World Championship matches (starting with the Kramnik-Topalov unification match in 2006) there has been an endless debate about the mixture of time controls in the most important event in the chess world.

In the past, things were clear. Rapid chess didn’t exist and the Champion had the draw odds. The reasoning was simple – if the Challenger wanted to become a Champion, he had to defeat that Champion. He had to prove that he was better than him in order to become one. Being equal to the Champion didn’t make him a Champion. Remember Bronstein.

Things changed in 2006 because in the unification match there had to be a winner. There was nobody to give the draw odds to – Kramnik beat Kasparov in 2000 and drew Leko in 2004 (maintaining his title because of the draw odds in his favour), but he was outside FIDE, though he did follow along the traditional lineage of “a Champion is the player who beats the previous Champion in a match”; Topalov was the FIDE Champion after winning San Luis in 2005. So there was a duel between the FIDE Champion and the Champion of the traditional lineage. There had to be a winner. They decided on a rapid tie-break.

Going again back in the past for comparison, in case of a tie of a Candidates match for example, the players were playing more classical games, until one player won. The extreme case was that of Vassily Smyslov winning the match against Robert Hubner by guessing the colour on the which the roullette ball would land, following a tie after 14 games of their Candidates match in 1983.

But surely a World Championship cannot be decided by a roullete ball? In fact, it can be much worse.

Nowadays we have rapid and blitz tie-breaks in case of a tie. Magnus Carlsen won his last two World Championship matches in the rapid tie-breaks. He is also of the opinion that there should be no draw odds and that playing rapid (and blitz) tie-breaks (and an Armageddon at the end) is fine.

But there is also another camp, and I agree with it, that the classical World Champion should be decided in classical chess. We already have rapid and blitz World Championships. The question is what to do in case of a tie?

I don’t see anything wrong with the old system. The logic of “beat the king to become one” makes perfect sense to me. Now that we have a legitimate World Champion (no need for reunifications a-la 2006) the old system can be reintroduced.

The main argument against that is that it gives the Champion a priviledge, that he can play only for a draw and keep his title.

I don’t think this is a priviledge or an advantage for the Champion. Playing for a draw is never good and it puts the player in a psychologically inferior position. The draw odds in favour of the Champion also motivate the Challenger to show that he is better, to actually win the match. It creates the imbalance that is needed for an exciting match.

If taken to the extreme, to the Armageddon, today’s system makes mockery of the world title. As aptly put by GM Ivan Sokolov, one player will win because the other failed to win. Theoretically, a player can become a World Champion by drawing all the games. Imagine, a Challenger can draw all his games against the Champion and this will make him (her) a Champion! Isn’t that the same as draw odds? Only that the draw odds will be decided at the end, when one player chooses to play Black in the Armageddon, meaning that we don’t know from the start who has these draw odds in their favour.

It is too easy to accept the current situation because Carlsen is better than everybody else in all time controls. But try to imagine the chaos if he loses his title in an Armageddon game by drawing it with White. In the eyes of the public, will that player stand in the same line as the previous holders of that same title? I know (s)he won’t in mine. The point is that the current system can produce an “accidental” Champion.

It is irrelevant whether the probability of the above happening is low or insignificant. We are talking about the system here.

Chess is a traditional game and while we are trying to make it more in tune with modern times by employing faster time controls I think we should still respect the centuries-old traditions. We have more than enough rapid and blitz elsewhere, we don’t need to mix them with the classical match.

There is nothing wrong with keeping the traditions. The old system worked fine and, as they say, why fix it if it wasn’t broken?

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Going Passive Magnus?

Magnus Carlsen’s domination in online chess continued with yet another win at the Chessable Masters. The win was convincing, beating everybody 2-0 in matches, but only because the other players couldn’t use the chances they were given.

The one thing I noticed during these matches was that it appeared that Carlsen was affected more than necessary by the result in the match. In other words, when he was leading he would often play for a draw, which is fine as long as it’s done properly.

A good case for a proper playing for a draw is the 4th game of the tie-break of his World Championship match with Karjakin in 2016. He played a solid opening and kept control throughout the game.

A bad way to play for a draw is to go passive and “hope for the best.” Surprisingly, that is exactly what Carlsen was doing in his final match with Giri.

In the first match, needing a draw with White to win it, Carlsen played a very passive opening:

This tendency towards passivity was also shown in his choices of openings when he played with Black. For example, in the first game of the first match he went for a solid, yet passive Slav set-up a-la Tiviakov:

In the second match the tendency continued. After winning the first game in great style Carlsen switched to bunker-style in the others.

In the third game he went for the English Opening and after 16 moves he was already slightly worse.

To his credit, Carlsen successfully managed to defend the passive position by setting up a fortress in the end.

The worst case was the last game of the match. Again needing a draw to win the match and the tournament Carlsen went for a very passive choice. It was his preparation until this point at least (he said that the move 18…a5 was in his files), but what puzzles me is why would he voluntarily go for this position?

Black’s last move was 18…a5

Even if Black is objectively fine here (which I doubt, though I’m sure Peter Heine did his work), why would anybody want to play in this manner, giving White all he wants and needs. Even more so, why play this when needing a draw?

Carlsen was outplayed and dead lost in this game, but thanks to a 1-move blunder by Giri he saved the game and won the match and the tournament.

It is quite possible that Carlsen is testing various strategies in these matches to see if he can get away with them. I am also pretty certain that he would never play like this in a high-stakes OTB game. Still, seeing him go passive like is a strange sight.

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Oversaturation

Too much of a good thing is still too much.

I love chess, looking at it, analysing, playing, working on it. I love to watch the best players play, the commentary is excellent nowadays and it adds value to the experience. I sometimes learn something new while watching.

The pandemic forced everybody to stay at home and chess content exploded as result. Incessant tournaments, one following another, streams, publications, webinars, coaching, all you can imagine is coming out on a daily basis, often a lot of them at the same time.

While it is better to have than have not, I think that currently there is an oversaturation of chess content. It feels like an insane schedule where everybody feels compelled to produce, produce, produce. I cannot keep up, but can anybody? Unless it’s somebody’s job to keep up with everything and they dedicate their whole day to it, I sincerely doubt it.

I feel overwhelmed by the bombardment of chess content and in view of my own commitments I gave up on even trying to keep up.

I follow the news and the games, but not live. When the day (or the tournament) finishes I’d download the games and check them quickly, mostly for opening information. If I had read somewhere that a game had been interesting for some reason, I’d check that one in more detail. Otherwise, it’s mostly browsing.

That is my best effort to try to stay afloat, yet there is this constant feeling of fear of missing out. I haven’t watched a second of any of the streams out there, though I’d like to, I’m sure Nakamura or Kovalenko have curious things to say. I would like to watch the events live, to spend hours following the games, as Svidler, Leko and co. have those rare insights that I’m after. But, no time for that, I have things to do instead of just observe.

For how long will this continue? Personally, I don’t see it stopping any time soon. Even when chess returns to the playing halls the online content will continue to blossom. Chess is moving in the direction of e-sports and I expect it to establish its place there. It may be different from the chess we are used to playing, with its premoves and disconnects, but that is the “new reality,” whether we like it or not.

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The Curse Of The Premove

I sincerely envy the people who have the time to follow all the chess that is happening now. There are so many events, commentaries, streams, webinars, banter-blitzes, courses, books, that it feels overwhelming.

Perhaps that is just me, with my work taking all the time and making it impossible to even watch a single event or listen to a commentary. And yet the sheer amount of chess content appears to have increased manifold.

Chess has moved online and this makes it akin to the e-sports. The rules of the game are still the same, but some of the abilities to do well online are quite different from the ones to do well over-the-board.

Online it is all about speed. Even when there is some increment per move, speed is what counts. Speed wins games, often in spite of quality.

One of the new habits of the “online generation” is the so-called premove. The art of the premove (I wonder how Botvinnik would understand this phrase) is to foresee with certain degree of probability what the opponent will play and then premove your own move, with the sole aim of not losing even a millisecond of your own time.

Here are two extreme examples that show to which length the advocates of the premove will go in order to take maximum advantage of this feature.

The starting moves of the Reti Opening, Black has many options at his disposal. But can you guess which move has the highest score for Black (I wouldn’t dare call it “the best”) in online chess?

The move 2…Bh3. This is online chess, with its own bluffs and probabilities. The move shows that Black expects White to premove 3 Bg2 so he wants to take immediate advantage of that by winning a piece on the spot. Of course, in case White doesn’t premove, then Black loses a piece. Is the risk worth it? Every online player should decide for himself.

The second example is from a short video clip I saw on Twitter. The World Champion is playing Black and he is completely winning.

But Carlsen, who is also part of the “online generation” and uses all the “tricks of the trade,” fell victim to these tricks. He clicked (that’s more precise than to say “played”) on the move …Ka4, which is a perfectly reasonable move, as it wins. That was not the mistake, the mistake was that immediately after making the move he premoved the next one, namely …Kxa3. And White, probably a shrewd online player himself, paused for a 1-2 seconds before cunningly playing Kc5! A fantastic move, banking on the “premove effect”. In OTB chess this means nothing, but online… Upon seeing this Carlsen immediately started to laugh, as the system executed his premoved …Kxa3 when White took on b5 with a draw.

Yes, online chess is often absurd with its own rules, tricks and speed demons. Whether we like it or not, we’re going into this territory now. Some of us will adapt, others will decide to wait until the next OTB tournament. In the meantime, expect more of the above-mentioned excitement.

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Learning Languages II

Continuing with the stories about Italian, Spanish and Russian.

In my first year at University I had to choose a second language. I didn’t know which one to choose, but my father told me that at the end of the first year, in the summer, there is a chance I can go to Milan to stay at an apartment of a business friend of his who will be out of town. So I took Italian. Unfortunately my Italian professor wasn’t very good (or I was bad at learning a language in the “scholarly way”) so I didn’t learn anything throughout the year even though I was regularly visiting the lectures. This was worrying as I had an oral exam to take. I was pinning my hopes on that trip to Milan. When that one came, in the summer of 1995, I was feeling as lost as possible. It was my first trip completely alone (I even had to take a bus to Belgrade to take the flight to Milan) and upon landing in Milan I had no idea where I had to go. I somehow found the bus to take me to the Central Station and when I got off I had no idea where in the city I was. I had one map of the city with a circle around the address of the apartment but since I couldn’t see where I was at that moment (in spite of me finding a McDonalds and sitting down and carefully studying the map) it was of no use. I wandered around for a while and eventually got tired, so I decided to take a taxi. I found one, but the driver refused to drive me to the address! He explained (in Italian, of course, which I didn’t understand one bit!) that I was very close to the apartment and I could walk there. Sign language helped as he pointed me towards the street and after some walking I finally found my home in Milan!

Apart from trying to learn the language my idea of going to Italy was to play tournaments. So I bought some chess magazines where the tournaments were announced and I started calling them. This was the biggest frustration as they didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Italian (often I forced myself to, leading to more frustration) so it was very difficult to get the information I needed. I barely opened my mouth in Italian for the month I spent in Italy that summer. But I was exposed to the language all the time around me, both in spoken and written, and upon returning to Skopje I was amazed at the miracle that happened at the exam. When I opened my mouth to speak I started to speak fluently! The professor was as shocked as I was, she couldn’t understand how a student who didn’t know a single thing during the year now suddenly speaks fluently! So the exam consisted of me basically retelling my Italian trip and she enjoying the story. Needless to say I got the highest grade.

If this wasn’t strange enough, the fact that the exactly same story repeated during the second year at University makes it even more perplexing. As the lectures started I again returned to the “know nothing, understand nothing” student. I couldn’t follow the lectures, which this time were more complicated, and I also had problems understanding when things were discussed in class. After another year of frustration I went to Italy again in the summer (this was in 1996) and it had exactly the same effect as the year before – in spite of me not speaking the language (I remember a funny story when after struggling to find a tournament address I ran into a chess player who was also looking for it and when we found it he told me “Abbiamo trovato il torneo”, meaning “we found the tournament” but I didn’t understand that simple sentence then, it only dawned on me the following day what it meant) it was the exposure that did the work and when I returned and took the exam it was with the same success as the year before.

In 1996 I visited France and Spain for the first time, but while I started to play in France more often almost immediately, Spain was still further in the future for me. As for Italian, I kept on going there every single year and was spending more and more time there playing tournaments and soon enough I was speaking it fluently. I must say that I don’t speak it in the way I’d like to, for example I never use congiuntivo and passato remoto, but after the years of frustration I’m just happy to feel comfortable when I speak it and when I’m in Italy.

The year 2005 was a huge year for me. I made my second GM norm and I travelled extensively. Two of those travels had big impact on my languages.

From May to July I spent a month and a half in Cuba and immediately after that a month and a half in Spain, all the time playing tournaments. These three months in Spanish-speaking countries helped me learn Spanish.

It is curious that I first learned Spanish in Cuba. It is different than the one in Spain and I was surprised to learn that when at the end of my stay in Cuba I understood Cubans talking to me I didn’t understand the Spanish in Spain!

The way I learned Spanish was again by exposure. My knowledge of Italian also helped, even though I often confused and mixed the two. I remember what helped me a lot was watching films on TV in English in Santa Clara that had subtitles in Spanish and this was very useful for me as I am a visual type who best remembers when he sees something in writing, thus helping me distinguish words and their meaning. Of course, the social life in Cuba is fantastic and the constant communication (or the attempts at it) sped up the process of learning. I remember one funny episode in the restaurant of the hotel in Santa Clara. For some reason GM Borges Mateos, who spoke only Spanish, and IM Schilow, who spoke Russian, thought that I am the best person to translate for them so they can communicate. As I described above Russian still sounded “nyanyanya” to me and in Spanish I could barely distinguish the words, but somehow I managed to enable them to understand each other! This is probably my most successful translation attempt ever!

Coming to Spain from Cuba took some time to adjust to the new accent but at the end of these 3 months in Spanish-speaking countries I could speak the language. Not ideal, of course, but I could understand it and people could understand me.

In the winter of the same year I had a chance to spend one month in Russia. I played a tournament in Saratov and then I spent some 20 days in Moscow. This is when Russian “clicked” for me. I started to distinguish the words from the “nyanyanya” and since I already had enough book knowledge of words from my childhood and chess books I could easily start talking. My accent was far from perfect, but for me the feeling of comfort with a language and in a country where that language is spoken is the measure by which I determine how well I speak a language.

There was a curious episode with my Russian. I was standing in line for a ticket in one museum and I noticed that for Russians the price of the tickets was literally cents, while for foreigners it was almost 40 times that much. So I thought there is no harm in trying to pretend I was Russian. While still standing in line I was thinking whether I should say something or just hand over the money. I knew I was running a risk to be recognised as a foreigner if I spoke… When my turn came I gave the cents for the ticket and with a tightly closed mouth said “один” (“one”). The cashier abruptly raised her head, looked at me sharply, but said nothing. She gave me the ticket and I walked away. I knew that if she talked I would have been exposed, but I was lucky she didn’t.

Ever since the end of 2005 I feel comfortable with Russian and speak it freely, which has helped me tremendously in the chess world.

In 2007 I was invited to live in Spain and it is then that I finally mastered Spanish. That year I also went to Cuba but this time I felt different and much more comfortable, practically serving as the local guide for the foreign players. It was a great time going to discotheques in Havana and mingling with the locals. Starting from 2007 I lived in Spain for 2 years and as my job consisted of coaching the kids in the local club. I was forced to speak Spanish all the time and this meant that finally I felt in Spain like at home.

After feeling at home with Spanish I was surprised to find out that it has overtaken my Italian and in the period 2009-2010 I had problems in Italy as all the time the Spanish words were coming out of my mouth! This was frustrating, but then things evened out as I started to go more often in Italy and eventually both languages somehow “separated” in my head.

Nowadays it is a nice feeling to go to Italy or Spain and feel like home. It brings back memories from decades ago and I really feel comfortable in these countries. And I am happy for that.

People have told me that I have talent for languages. I don’t know what that means, but I suppose it’s the same for talented chess players – it just comes naturally. It’s not always easy, but sooner rather than later you overcome the difficulty and come to a new level.

This concludes the stories of the languages I learned. I have been asked whether I’ll learn another language, to which I always say “I don’t think so” even though I’ve always liked the sound of French. But as I don’t see myself spending a prolongued time in France I think that for now I’ll stay with the above 7.

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Learning Languages I

This post is from my newsletter. Some time ago I decided to put down to (virtual) paper the stories of how I picked up the languages that I speak. I think it makes for an interesting reading, so here I share it again.

After reading my Coaching and Playing email, Scott, a reader of this newsletter, pointed out that perhaps there is similarity between teaching a language and learning a language in the same way there is similarity between coaching and playing chess. While I have never taught a language, I have managed to learn a few and this comment spurred me to write the story of each language I have learnt.

There is no direct chess connection in this email, but if it wasn’t for chess I would have never been in all these situations where I was exposed to the languages I eventually learned.

I speak 7 languages: Macedonian, English, Serbian, Bulgarian, Spanish, Italian and Russian. I understand some French and I can say a few things in it, but I don’t really count it as a language I know. While Macedonian is my mother tongue, all the others have a different story how I came to master them. Here are their stories in chronological order.

The second language I learned was English. I was always in contact with the language since I was a child, even though living in Yugoslavia this wasn’t always that easy. I think it was my father’s interest in western culture that brought the language in the house. Both him and my mother went to English courses and they knew to speak it. I think an important factor in my grasp of the English was that when I was 6 or 7 my parents bought a ZX Spectrum computer and I was fascinated by it, even more so by all the games I could play on it. The computer worked in the computer language Basic and I learned some of the commands and how to write simple programs in it. The games were also in English (my favourite was Football Manager) and I was forced to learn in order to be able to play them. I was constantly asking my father what something meant and we also had two huge volumes of English-Serbo-Croatian and vice versa dictionaries that I quickly learned how to use. A bit later, when I was around 10 my parents sent me to the School for Foreign Languages which I visited until I was 18. Long before the end of those courses I spoke, read and wrote English without a single problem and this only made my University studies in English Language and Literature more pleasant and easy. English became an integral part of me so much that I often think in it and I even don’t remember a time when I didn’t speak it in some way.

Serbo-Croatian was the official language of the country I was born in, Yugoslavia. I was constantly exposed to it when I was a child as there were many books, newspapers, comic books and TV shows that I was consuming that were in that language. Similarly to English it didn’t feel like a foreign language and I never felt like I had to “learn it”, I just understood it. When I started going to tournaments in Yugoslavia as a junior and I got to know people from the country I started to speak it. The language has cases, unlike Macedonian and English, but this has never been a problem for me even though I never learned them – in fact this gave me some problems in school later on when we were learning the cases as I couldn’t really be bothered by the grammar when I could speak the language without mistakes. Generally, and this applies to all the languages I speak, I never liked grammar and never studied it, always relying on the exposure to the language and speaking it myself.

[Curiously enough, I also struggled when I had to learn “logical languages” like Latin in high school and Old English at University.]

Bulgarian is a language I also assimilated quickly. In the early 90s there were many tournaments in Bulgaria which were easy to go to and were rather cheap to play in. Bulgarian always sounded to me as mixture of Macedonian and Russian and I never had problems understanding Bulgarians when they spoke to me. This led me to conclude that they can also understand me when I spoke Macedonian to them, but while this was mostly true for the chess players, it wasn’t so for the other people. So what usually happened was me speaking Macedonian to the chess players, them speaking in Bulgarian and we understood each other perfectly, while I spoke Bulgarian to people outside the chess world. A bit later, at the beginning of the new century, I had a Bulgarian girlfriend and I was spending a lot of time in the country, which only made me more comfortable with the language.

These three languages were the only ones I spoke for quite some time. As a child I was also exposed to Russian, because of the many Russian chess books we had at home and my father also knew some Russian. He even made the Herculean effort to translate Nimzowitsch’s My System from Russian, writing in a notebook, so he can read it while we were going over the book. After a while I started to read the chess books in Russian myself, but as I later found out a funny thing happened with this “reading.” While after a while (bugging my father for the meaning of the words and later constantly using a dictionary) I could understand 100% of the chess books I realised that this wasn’t the case when what was written wasn’t about chess. I discovered this when I attempted to read Botvinnik’s memoires about his life. I saw that when he was talking about chess I could understand everything, but when he was talking about other topics I understood very little. Another issue was that at that time I didn’t realise that what was written was not pronounced in the same way as the letters used, a bit similar to English. I was rudely awakened to this difference when I first heard Russians speak at a tournament – it all sounded like “nyanyanyanya” to me! So I couldn’t speak or understand spoken Russian until 2005 when I spent one month in Russia.

In the next installement I will tell how I learned Italian, Spanish and Russian.

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The Online Threat

Ever since the lockdowns started I kept hearing and reading how chess was so fortunate because it can easily be played online. Everybody was saying it, starting from the World Champion, Garry Kasparov, many Grandmasters, FIDE… It sounded logical, so without giving it much thought I concluded the same.

After a while the famous quote by Mark Twain resurfaced in my consciousness: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” And so I did.

The current situation in the world and how it is developing mean that there will be no over-the-board tournaments in the near (or even mid-term) future. Simply nobody will allow (or want to be part of) big gatherings like the usual open tournaments. But even when the measures are finally lifted, how many organisers will still have the funds and the enthusiasm to organise tournaments again? Not many.

(Please note that I’m not talking about the elite players. For them there will always be an OTB tournament to play, for understandable reasons.)

With no OTB tournaments in sight, the temptation is big to make everything online. Official tournaments, rating, norms, long-control games, all goes online. We adapt to the current situation.

While it is true that chess can easily played online, we must understand that in the majority of cases this play is purely for fun or entertainment. In such cases nothing matters so much. The problems start if we start to take online chess seriously.

There are two major problems when it comes to taking online chess seriously: cheating and “divine intervention”, i.e. disconnecting.

A lot has been written about prevention of online cheating. The chess platforms have their own systems and algorithms they wield with little mercy. The principle is “decision without explanation” as no proof is ever given when somebody is “caught cheating.”

Then there are cosmetic methods like cameras showing the faces of the players and their screens from front, from back, from side. I guess better something than nothing.

The bottom line is that cheating online cannot be prevented, it can only be punished. So if the punishment is draconian perhaps the potential cheaters will think twice before attempting it. Perhaps. This will depend on what they have to lose. Of course, a few innocents will die in the process, but that is the price of progress.

What to do with the second aspect, the force majeure called “disconnect” is unclear. Not everybody in the world has stable internet and even though gens una sumus, not all connections have been created equal. The repercussions of this aspect can be far-fetched and sometimes life-changing for the players (imagine winning a big prize or qualification and then a disconnect happens two moves before mate).

So let’s imagine now all official tournaments go online. The games are rated with FIDE ratings, norms can be achieved. Cheating is punished severely, (innocent?!) people complain but they are forced to accept the decisions, it will be in the regulations. Players from all over the world get their ratings, make norms, become Grandmasters, earn prizes. Everybody is happy.

The question now is, will anybody want to play OTB chess again? How many players will want to fork out airfares, hotels and other expenses to travel to play tournaments when they can do it for free from home?

Is going online completely really such a blessing for chess? Or is it the end of it?

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Karpov’s Ruy Lopez

Anatoly Karpov always had a classical opening repertoire. Against 1.e4 it was either 1…e5 or 1…c6, while against 1.d4 the Nimzo/QID complex or the QGD. The deviations from these choices were rare.

The Ruy Lopez is an opening Karpov played all his life. It served him tremendously until his matches with Garry Kasparov.

As I wrote in a previous post about both Kasparov’s and Short’s motivations for choosing certain openings, one may wonder why Karpov persisted with the Ruy Lopez when things stopped being favourable.

When facing Kasparov, Karpov was constantly under pressure in the games when the Ruy Lopez was played. He won just one, Game 5 of the match in 1985, and lost 4, two in each of the next two matches – the London/Leningrad in 1986 and New York/Lyon in 1990. It was not only about the losses of these games, they also turned out to be the decisive ones for Kasparov’s victory in both matches.

I had a chance to speak to one of Karpov’s seconds for the New York/Lyon match and he told me that in preparation for that match they worked very hard and prepared the Caro-Kann. Karpov worked independently on the Ruy Lopez with Portisch. He was surprised why Karpov didn’t play the Caro-Kann in the match even once.

With Kasparov’s emergence the treatment of the Ruy Lopez from the white side evolved in a more dynamic direction. I think this is the main reason why Karpov started having problems with his favourite opening. However, when playing his great rival Karpov realised that he couldn’t hope to win only with White, as Kasparov’s opening preparation rarely allowed him promising positions. Therefore he willingly entered the complications from the Zaitsev Variation in order to create winning chances with Black as well. Unfortunately for him, after that Game 5 he never managed to win a game, even though he was winning on more than one ocassion. That just wasn’t his type of game.

After the matches with Kasparov, Karpov slowly started to move away from the Ruy Lopez and switched to the Caro-Kann. In the 1990s he was playing the Caro-Kann on a regular basis.

Even though Karpov never abandoned the Ruy Lopez completely, the effect of increased dynamism in the Lopez that started with the matches with Kasparov forced Karpov to change his primary opening against 1.e4 in favour of the Caro-Kann. This was a positive change and it helped him maintain his competitiveness for almost another decade.

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Now What?

As I wrote in my Preview, the Candidates unfortunately did not finish. Or is it perhaps fortunately?

In this post I will give my thoughts on the whole mess that started before the tournament and is still ongoing after its postponement.

In a world that was rapidly shutting down FIDE decided to go ahead with its flagship tournament. It ran against common sense yet they insisted. The mantra they kept repeating “it’s only a 8-player tournament” was simply not true, if not insulting – it implied that there were only 8 people that needed to be protected. What about all the other persons who were present and working there to make sure the tournament was running “smoothly”?

Why did FIDE insist against common sense and strong opinions from the public and recommendations of institutions like the WHO? Why it didn’t mind that one of the participants withdrew and another publicly stated that the tournament should not have taken place? They said they couldn’t postpone the tournament “legally or practically.” Again, this turned out to be untrue, especially after the Russian government issued a statement to stop all international events from the 16 of March and FIDE’s reply that that didn’t apply to the Candidates because they started on the 15 of March (which was arrivals day, with Round 1 on the 17 of March).

I think there are two main reasons for FIDE’s behaviour: financial and moral.

The financial reason is that FIDE needs the money from the World Championship cycle. The cherry on the cake is the World Championship match. FIDE announced that they agreed to hold the match in Dubai in December. But you need two players for a match and one of them is the winner of the Candidates. No Candidates, no match. No match, no money.

The moral reason is “we promised, we delivered”. Even some heroics is implied, “we delivered against all odds.” Fair enough, they kept their word (if we accept that 50% of the tournament is indeed “delivered”), but to insist in times of a black swan force majeure where some flexibility would have been much more prudent would have sent a much better message to the public. And would have done wonders for their reputation.

There are world-class Grandmasters and very intelligent people in FIDE and I don’t think that they failed to “calculate” the development of the world’s events that led to what we are seeing now. They were running out of time, so they took their chance with the event, pushed through and hoped they get at least to half of the tournament. The risk paid off.

With half the tournament played FIDE now is safe. They insist that the Candidates will be resumed but I don’t think that matters anymore. If it’s impossible to resume, due to the world situation or any other reason, they can still proclaim a winner from these 7 rounds (Vachier) and the match is on. Of course, there will be outrage, but legally everything will be right: the tournament results are valid as long as 50% of the games have been played. They will have delivered the cycle and the match.

(I don’t want to go into discussing the implications when a tournament is split in 2 parts with unknown time between them, disrupting the whole dynamics of the tournament. It’s a different story altogether, again not ending well for FIDE).

If what I say above is true, then it’s evident that all this has been about FIDE’s interests and nothing else. I for one love to see orderly World Championship cycle and calendar of events, but if the Olympiad, with its decades of history could be postponed, I don’t see why the World Championship cycle could not. The explanation that at the time the tournament started the situation was different is pure demagogy. It’s the same as a Grandmaster evaluating a position without calculating a few moves ahead.

The situation with the players is also an interesting one. There were two, Radjabov and Wang Hao, who expressed their concerns before the event – Radjabov even acted upon them and withdrew. There was Grischuk who openly said during the tournament that he didn’t want to be there and play, the atmosphere being “sick”. There was Caruana who in an interview said that it’s impossible not to follow what’s happening in the world. There was Nepomniachtchi who really got sick (though not from corona). There was Ding Liren who played awfully and didn’t say a word about his quarantines. There was Alekseenko, who is sponsored by a Russian company and couldn’t say anything. And there were Giri and Vachier who basically said they didn’t care and were concentrated solely on themselves. It’s interesting that even Magnus Carlsen expressed a similar view – the world may be falling apart, but you’re there to play and win, so do that. Get rich or die trying I suppose.

This is nothing new in the chess world. Every man for himself. I wonder what would have happened had they coordinated before the tournament. Perhaps finally we would have had “power to the players”? But we will never have that.

Radjabov’s decision to withdraw was justified in hindsight, but that is a different can of worms with no solution that is acceptable for all. I wonder how FIDE and the public will handle that one.

Chess, as the whole world, is now on hold. There will be no Olympiad this year and it’s hard to say whether there will be anything really. Perhaps the World Championship match in December? Let’s see. As the Chinese would say, we are truly living in interesting times.

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