A Beautiful Zugzwang

Solving studies is never easy, but it is very beneficial.

It develops the good habits of disciplined and structured thinking and often demands self-control in a situation where it appears that one side has a lot of options. In such cases it is of primary concern to control the feeling of overwhelm and tackle all options one by one.

The following position is a late favourite of mine. I have written before of my fascination when it comes to the theme of domination and this study by Rinck from 1922 is a beautiful illustration.

White’s last move was 1 Ng7-e6. On an empty board with seemingly a huge number of possible moves Black can simply resign as he is losing the rook in all the variations. Try to figure out the lines, it’s a simple exercise and the lines are maximum 2 moves long.

On Monday I start the European Individual Championship and these tournaments have always been very difficult for me. I think this one will be the last one I ever play, so my only hope it to improve on my previous (horrendous) results. Soon enough we’ll see how that will pan out.

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The Najdorf Sicilian – A Repertoire

The Najdorf. The ultimate desire for many, a common-place occurrence for others. I have a feeling that when it comes to the Najdorf there are two possible feelings about it: you either love it or you’re petrified of it.

I have always fallen into the first category. The reason is that I’ve played it since I was a kid and the main reason for the fear of the second category, the mind-boggling amount of theory, didn’t bother me because I learned it as I was growing up and that knowledge built itself inside me.

I have been approached way too many times with lamentations of “I would like to play the Najdorf, but there’s so much theory, I cannot study all that.” And I understood them, starting to learn the Najdorf from scratch is not a task for the faint-hearted.

However. When I stopped to think a little about it, I realised that a lot in the Najdorf is based on good understanding. And that understanding mostly revolves around the d5-square and what should be done about it. When I pushed the concept a bit further I realised that with the help of modern theory there is a chance for not-too-theoretical repertoire to be created.

The result of these ruminations is my Najdorf repertoire for Chessable.

My main goal with this repertoire was to provide the student with a feeling for the Najdorf positions. Once you have that feeling then even a surprise in the opening will not be enough to disturb you or prevent you from finding a good antidote. I provided ample textual explanations of the critical positions and the chapters with model games and typical strategic and tactical motifs were aimed exactly at this.

The second goal was of course the theoretical knowledge. The Najdorf is theoretical, there is no going around it. I tried to present the basic theoretical knowledge necessary for the student to be able to play the Najdorf. I concentrated on the modern lines, the ones that are most popular today, with enough information on the traditional variations that are less trendy nowadays.

The repertoire consists of the following chapters: Introduction, The Positional 6 Be2, The Sozin 6 Bc4, The English Attack 6 Be3, The Aggressive 6 Bg5, The 6 f4 Line, The Fianchetto 6 g3, The Modern 6 h3, Odds and Ends and also the afore-mentioned chapters Model Games and Strategy and Tactics. The theoretically heaviest ones (meaning with the most forcing lines requiring memorisation) are The Sozin and the Aggressive 6 Bg5.

Wherever possible (or practical) I proposed the typical Najdorf move 6…e5 as a reply to White’s 6th move attempts. Theoretically speaking Black is in fantastic shape in these lines so there was no reason not to take advantage of it!

I think that the main advantage of this repertoire, and this aspect took a lot of hard work, was that I succeeded to narrow down the theory to a manageable level. A lot of secondary variations were explained in textual terms rather than lines – from my experience of working with students I discovered that they remember better when things are described with words rather than with moves.

The books I used to learn the Najdorf from, The Sicilian Defence by Lepeshkin (in Russian), Najdorf for the Tournament Player, The Complete Najdorf: Modern Lines and The Complete Najdorf: 6 Bg5, all by John Nunn, were hefty tomes. I never found them difficult and always enjoyed working with them, but to be honest, had I had the resources available now, I would have definitely chosen the much more efficient ways provided by modern technology.

My effort to provide a concise yet profound Najdorf repertoire and to give a chance to everybody to try this wonderful opening is now before you to judge. I can only hope I did a good job.

The Najdorf Sicilian: Simplified is out on Chessable

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Square Off – World’s Smartest Chessboard

When I was a kid my father bought me the computer Mephisto Munchen. A multiple-world champion on a heavy wooden board, Staunton pieces and a strong opponent were a good substitute for practical play when I couldn’t play tournaments (and that was most of the time during school years).

Some days ago I received another chess-playing board. It definitely brought back some childhood memories. Heavy wooden board, Staunton pieces, strong sparring partner. This time it came in a big box.

Inside this box, there was another box, a white one.

The World’s Smartest Chessboard, Kingdom Set. That definitely sounded royal when I read it to myself. So I continued to unwrap the package.

I wondered what was in the envelope.

As it turned out, instructions how to start the whole process. The Square Off app is used to connect the mobile phone with the board so that it is used for pretty much everything – playing the game, challenging other people on the internet and choosing the strength of the engine. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I was curious to see the pieces. I have a soft spot for nice pieces and they didn’t dissapoint.

I guess it wasn’t called Kingdom Set for nothing. Next to the pieces is the adapter, with the conveniently provided plug for European sockets, as you can see below.

When everything was out of the box, I finally I set up the pieces and moved them around, just to get a feeling for the board and how the pieces glide over it.

After taking my time to enjoy the aesthetics, I eventually connected the phone with the board (via the Square Off app) and started a game against Level 16, rated at 2205. There are 20 levels, rated from 800 to 3380. The last three levels (20, 19 and 18) are rated 3380, 3185 and 2606 respectively, while already Level 17 is rated 2295. Quite a lot of variety for any type of user, from a professional to the casual player.

Naturally, for the world’s smartest chessboard the actual movement of the pieces was the real spectacle. For somebody who was used to moving Mephisto’s moves on the board, this was quite impressive. This is how that looked.

After checking Stockfish (no need to ask about the result) I tried challenging other people online (always via the app). I managed to play one game against a user. It all went smoothly (pun intended) and my only quibble was that I couldn’t see the clock and the time left during the game.

If you ever wanted to play chess with somebody (human or engine) but there was no one around and you didn’t want to use a laptop or phone and wanted the real feeling of actually touching and moving the pieces instead, the world’s smartest chess is made for you. And the best part about it, you even won’t have to move your opponent’s pieces, something that bothered me when I was playing the Mephisto.

With all of the above, it is understandable that the world’s smartest chessboard doesn’t come cheap. But my readers can use the promo code ALEX10 for a 10% discount on the official prices. I would also like to know how others find the experience of playing against an “invisible opponent”. My advice would be just to make sure not to choose too high a level. After all, why not enhance the joy of playing “real” chess with some pretty sacrificial and winning attacks?

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Chess as Spectator Sport

If chess players are taking half an hour to make some moves, how can you honestly enjoy watching it live?

This question is the core problem with chess becoming a spectator sport. Of course, I’m talking here about classical chess, not rapid or blitz, which are more easily “sold”.

The answer to the question is: you don’t. Unless you’re a strong chess player yourself and have the time to immerse yourself in the game in progress. The key word here is the conjunction and. Because in order to be appreciated chess must be understood and that understanding requires the time to put in the effort.

The main issue that prevents the “casual player” to enjoy chess is lack of chess understanding. This is a problem because the true excitement in chess (unless it’s a flashy sacrifice) lies behind the moves that are played. The moves played are just the tip of the iceberg, therefore spectators only see a movement of a hand. That is hardly an action-packed sequence.

Another hugely interesting aspect of a chess game is the whole process the players go through before sitting at the board – the preparation for the game. There are so many intricacies in the preparation that it’s a whole new (and well-hidden!) world. But only the chess player and his/her team would know of them, so the rest of us can only make educated guesses. For me personally, this aspect of trying to get into the heads of the players and to understand their opening choices is one that gives me huge pleasure. I will not talk about this aspect now, as you could have seen some of it in my comments to the games, especially the last World Championship match.

In this post I would like to illustrate the common “boredom” people whine about. In order to do this I’d ask you first to play over the following moves as if watching it live. Or even after the game finished, but without too much of a thought.

So what did you see? Just some senseless to-ing and fro-ing and then somehow White made some progress. Honestly, without pausing to understand the moves even I would have no idea what happened and how White achieved something. In short: no sacrifices, no flashy moves, boring stuff.

Now I would like to offer a new perspective of the fragment above.

This is quite different, isn’t it? It shows all the action behind the moves, the ideas, often the psychological moments. But in order to unearth all this you really need to understand chess at a relatively high level and to want to spend the time to understand the actual moves.

This means that the casual player’s only chance is to have high-level commentators doing this work for him/her. Not all commentators are created equal and they really need to have a feel how to present the iceberg undeneath the tip. Only then chess has a distant chance of becoming a spectator sport, though even then only for a selected audience.

Going back to the question at the beginning. What to do for half an hour when a player is thinking? In such situations it is up to the commentators to try to delve into the position deeply. After all, if a strong player spends so much time then there must be something in the position that is worth that time! The commentators should understand what that is and then explain it to the audience.

Chess is not a visual sport, the pleasure from watching chess comes from the joy of understanding ideas. It is an intellectual pleasure and as such it depends less on the visual and more on the hidden.

Botvinnik liked to say that chess is a combination of sport, art and science. While it is impossible to compete to the visual attraction of football or basketball, the watching of chess should develop in the direction of explanation of the hidden. That is where the art and science are concealed.

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Kramnik

I am not sure how I felt the moment I read that Vladimir Kramnik was retiring. But I am sure that the next day I was sad.

If I could condense into one single word what I feel and think about the man that word would be respect. He earned it when he beat The Unbeatable in 2000 without losing a game. Nobody else could do that, it had to be him. Smyslov’s theory that World Champions are born immediately came to mind and it definitely applies to Kramnik.

Whenever I would check games from a tournament I would always check Kramnik’s games first. Because of the openings. If you want to see the state of theory, not the present, but also the future, you should look at Kramnik. What he does, everybody else does next.

Two things – beating Kasparov and enriching theory. That’s Kramnik for me in a nutshell.

I have followed Kramnik from the very beginning. Not surprising if you take into consideration that he is only half a year older than me. I remember the orange cover of the Russian 64 magazine with the report from the junior match Yugoslavia-USSR in 1991. Kramnik played in that one. The next year he scored 8.5/9 at the Manila Olympiad, won gold medal, both individual and team, and became a star.

In 2015 the European Club Cup was held in Skopje. A very good friend of mine managed to arrange an interview with Kramnik. But he couldn’t do it while in Skopje and told us to contact him in a few days when he would be home. Our thoughts – no chance he’s taking that call.

But he did! He didn’t know us, yet he spent several hours (!!) talking to us on all possible subjects. His kids were running in the background, but Big Vlad with big headphones on his head was having a video call with some guys he saw for the first (or second, in the case of my friend who arranged the interview) time in his life. RESPECT!

One of the things he didn’t know, and something we informed him about during the interview, was the existence of Kramnik humour. He loved it. In case you haven’t heard of it, here’s a glimpse:

  • When Kramnik was invited to the Melody Amber blindfold tournament for the first time he couldn’t understand what the difference was.
  • In 1991 Kramnik was surprised to learn that the Berlin wall has fallen and promised he will fix it soon.
  • Kramnik was named the best painter of all times since no one can match his drawing technique.
  • Russia is working on a new supercomputer with an exceptional hard drive since no other machine can store Kramnik’s analyses.
  • Houdini managed to beat Rybka after studying Kramnik’s games.
  • Magnus Carlsen is so popular in Norway he even got an invitation to the TV show “Who Wants to be Vladimir Kramnik”.
  • Even God is afraid of playing Kramnik. The games always end in a draw, but Kramnik still knows how to put pressure on his opponent.
  • While Kramnik’s classmates were busy proving the Pythagorean theorem, little Vova proved that chess is a draw.

I’ve often been critical of Kramnik’s play in the last period, especially at the Berlin Candidates and since, but now it all has a different meaning.

Kramnik said he came to this decision a few months ago. So Wijk must have felt like a last round on the merry-go-round. Like a kid, he wanted it to last as long as possible. He knew that when the music stops he will come down never to go back again. He wanted to make it memorable, he wanted to squeeze the last single drop of joy out of it. Because it was the last one.

It is a pity to finish a stellar career with a last place in a tournament, but that doesn’t matter anymore. Vladimir Kramnik did it his way, from start to finish.

Kasparov said that only the player knows when it’s time to go. And Vladimir Kramnik always knew what he was doing.

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Wijk aan Zee 2019 Impressions

After Round 8 we have a very curious situation in Wijk aan Zee – we have World Champions on both ends of the standings.

The last two World Champions are leading the field with 5.5/8. The one before them is dead-last with 2/8.

While the results of the current World Champion are not surprising, I would like to take a closer look at what his two predecessors are doing.

It was Mikhail Botvinnik who first wrote of the need for “auto-programming” (as he called it) as a player ages. He was the first one to do so scientifically – before him Lasker was also very successful at an old age, but he never wrote about it. Botvinnik took into consideration the changes in his body and mind and successfully adapted to these by adjusting his style and approach and this helped him remain at the very top until his retirement at the age of 59.

At the very top of today’s chess pyramid we have Vishy Anand and Vladimir Kramnik as the oldest players. Anand is 49, Kramnik is 43. It is surprising that of the two it is Anand who followed Botvinnik’s path rather than Kramnik, who was a student of the Patriarch.

The most notable differences as a player ages are his decreasing energy, mental stamina and deterioration of calculational abilities. It is possible to compensate for these by training hard, but training can only get the player so far.

Anand went Botvinnik’s way. He adapted his style to power-saving mode, using his exceptional opening preparation to keep him safe and not minding draws. His results have therefore been consistent, mostly around the 50% mark but when things went his way he managed to win a tournament or two. Most importantly, he practically never had a disastrous result. Things are apparently going his way in Wijk and by beating both Kramnik and world’s number 4 Mamedyarov he is leading the field.

What Kramnik decided to do is completely the opposite. Instead of adjusting in the direction of energy-saving he upped the energy-consumption sky-high.

In a way, I find Kramnik’s decision akin to Roger Federer’s. With age Roger became a much more aggressive player, going to the net often with the idea to shorten the game points. He reasoned that with shorter game points the matches would also be shorter, which would suit him when playing younger players with more stamina, especially when having to meet them in several matches in a row.

While Roger had great success I doubt that Kramnik will achieve the same. What Kramnik achieved was a transformation of his style into one of the most exciting one. Even though his openings have remained the same (especially with Black, the Berlin, the various Queen’s Gambits etc.) he continuously manages to inject life into all positions – even an Anti-Berlin is guaranteed to spring to life if Kramnik is playing it.

The above change of style is great for the audience, but bad for the man himself. The high tension and strain that he provokes in his games makes him vulnerable when facing young and very precise-calculating players. Even though Kramnik calculates excellently, he often cannot sustain that level for the duration of the whole game and this leads to drops in the quality of his moves. The young are then unforgiving. A typical example was his game with Giri from Round 2. Still early in the tournament, so he couldn’t have been tired, yet he faltered in a very promising position.

Even though Kramnik repeatedly states that he enjoys the way he’s playing, I can assure you that no player enjoys being trashed. As any World Champion, Kramnik has an extremely high self-esteem and self-confidence and this unfortunately leads him to loss of objectivity. Perhaps the clearest case of this was his play and behaviour at the Berlin Candidates, but in Wijk he has displayed similar erratic judgement.

In a way Kramnik’s 14 g4 reminds me of Alekhine’s 7 g4 from the 7th game of the first match against Euwe, but I’d still say that Alekhine’s move was more positionally justified!

If Anand’s controlled way assures him against disasters, Kramnik’s gung-ho approach is one that invites them. Not only in individual games, but also in tournaments. With his current result Kramnik is losing 20 rating points and has dropped to number 14 on the live rating list. Anand is number 6.

Kramnik has always been one of my favourite players and it is sad to see him beaten as a result of his own attempts to “have fun.” I am afraid that once out of the Top 10 he is not coming back in. He has made a conscious decision to alter his style and he will not change it. Alas, his style suits his younger opponents better than it suits him. And he won’t have “fun” for much longer after getting repeatedly beaten.

Looking at the results of Anand and Kramnik it appears that Botvinnik was right. One must adapt to advancing age.

As a final thought, an idea I had as why Kramnik changed and started playing as if he’s a Tal reincarnate. Perhaps he does it now to compensate for the fact that he never played like that in his youth? Perhaps he always wanted to play like that but he couldn’t because he was always trying to achieve something and for that he needed to play in a way that brought results and minimised the risk of a loss? Perhaps without anything to strive for anymore he just wants to feel free of the constraints of his positional style? Who knows. And Kramnik will never tell.

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Playing Well and Blundering

This is in fact possible, as I recently discovered, much to my regret.

I discuss this topic in my latest video on my Youtube Channel.

On my recent trip to the UK and the 4NCL league I played two games where I was feeling good, my head was working well, my calculations were clear and yet in both games I blundered horribly.

In the video I try to explain why that happened.

I would also be curious to know if anything of the sort has happened to you, so feel welcome to share your thoughts.

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Goldchess

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In a couple of years, it will be impossible to become a good chess player without knowing Goldchess. The players familiar with Goldchess will be amongst the best ones. So, start learning and playing with us today. All you need is to register, download our software – which is your opponent, and you are ready to play. The rest can be found on our website under the -1st step and -How to play headlines.
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Grandmaster Preparation: Calculation

If you want to get better at chess you must train. Everybody knows this. But in my view there is one word missing at the end of that sentence. That word is hard.

After the passing of Mark Dvoretsky it is Jacob Aagaard who has assumed the mantle of the “world’s best coach.” Aagaard has worked with Dvoretsky and his work is a direct continuation of Dvoretsky’s method.

What is this method then? Its essence consists of having the best possible examples to demonstrate a theme. In the case of Chessable’s latest course, the theme is calculation.

The importance of calculation cannot be overstated. To train it you need good exercises. And this is where Aagaard comes in.

Just like Dvoretsky’s before him, Aagaard’s exercises are hard. They force you to apply your brain and if the brain is not in good shape the results will be disappointing – it is not possible to just guess the solution, you must calculate.

On the brighter side, if you manage to persist for a while and cross the resistance barrier of your brain, you will notice that you are becoming better. You will start calculating and noticing things. The exercises will not feel that hard anymore.

Aagaard’s book is a workbook. It does cover some technical aspects of calculation, like Candidate Moves, Intermediate Moves, Elimination, Prophylaxis etc. but the core of the book are the exercises. The book expects you to work hard, full stop.

The principle “from simple to complex” has been observed so the student should be able to get the momentum going in the beginning. What I noticed is that it helps to start on a positive note, though it will only get you so far. After a certain point you would really start to suffer.

I don’t want to sound masochistic, because I’m not, but suffering is good for chess improvement. Suffering means that you have left your comfort zone and you’re in an unknown territory where additional mental effort is required. Your task is to become comfortable in that unknown territory. Then it will become your new comfort zone, when the process will repeat with the next level of difficulty.

Aagaard’s book is an excellent tool for the tough characters, hell-bent on succeeding. They will know that suffering is part of the process and they have the will to endure it. Aagaard, like his teacher Dvoretsky, is looking for that kind of students.

Using the book on Chessable’s platform is a different experience when compared to just reading it or solving the exercises in one’s head. The fact that I was forced to make the moves on the board made me feel much more responsible with my thinking. Often I would make the correct move but completely miss the opponent’s response, which is of course unforgivable. These misses would feel like a sting and they forced me to get a better grip on my (lazy) thinking.

Will solving the exercises in Aagaard’s book make you a better player? Yes. Just don’t expect it to be easy. If you see it as a challenge to take the best out of you, you will succeed.

Grandmaster Preparation: Calculation is out on Chessable

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Happy New Year

Less than an hour before this year is over, so a few final words from me.

It was a good year. It was a busy year. There were mostly ups, not so many downs.

Just today I learned the news that I have been appointed a Councillor at the FIDE Fair Play Commission (formerly known as Anti-Cheating). A lot of work lies ahead for one of the most important commissions in modern chess. I have always said that the end of chess will not happen when the computer calculates the game until a final result, it will happen when the humans install chips inside their heads. So our work now is to prevent that from happening.

I tried to take a more laid-back December, but it wasn’t meant to be. A lot of work somehow kept coming and I never got to the long-awaited rest. I am still unsure I’ll have it in the next few days, though I do crave it.

From the chess events in December, the World Rapid and Blitz saw some exciting chess and surprising results. In the end, Team Carlsen was victorious. Isn’t it always?

For me the end of year is always a time for putting things into perspective. I have discovered that whenever I think I have problems and I feel anxious or upset about something “important,” a video like the following one immediately helps me put them right there, into perspective. And then I calm down. Enjoy and happy holidays!

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