Wrong Mentality

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I have written before about the character of openings, how different openings require different treatment. Getting into the right mentality for the opening isn’t always easy.

As a lifelong Najdorf player I have got accustomed to always seeking counterplay, with the moves being aggressive and counter-attacking. So when in 2006 I played my first Petroff, I was far from ready from it (and I am not talking about the theoretical part).

My opponent, a strong GM, was surprised by my choice and chose a sideline, for which I was prepared, and I got a great position.

Black has a great position – smooth development and no weaknesses. But this position is different from the typical Najdorf middlegames. Here calm play is required, solid moves are the norm. A move like 14…Ne7 with the idea of …Nf5 is a good idea. But I remember I was kind of at a loss here – I knew I was doing more than alright, but I didn’t know how to continue. I simply didn’t know how to think in this type of position.

What I did was to treat the position in Sicilian style! Completely wrong mentality, of course, but it was so characteristic: I thought I saw a concrete line that gave me good play. This is common in the Sicilian, but here and in similar positions it is not necessary; in fact it is often counter-productive.

Take a look at my next moves. I went for 14…Bh4. The first incursion. Even looking at it it appears so out of place… After 15 Bf3 it came 15…Bd3. The calm 15…Rb8 with …Ne7 was still OK. My bishops are now scattered around, but I had an idea…

He went 16 Bd5. The bishop is annoying here, though my idea was to continue in aggressive style with 16…Qf6. This is actually a blunder, as after 17 Nf3 my bishops are hanging loose. See how easy it is to spoil a perfectly safe position in 3 moves when your play doesn’t correspond to the requirements of the position?

My opponent didn’t play 17 Nf3, he went for 17 g3, which was also good enough. After 17…Qg6 18 Qf3 Na5 a simple comparison between the previous diagram and the next one tells the whole story. Black’s pieces are all over the board, definitely not a way to play!

This is not the way to play the Petroff! I learned my lesson the hard way.

The point of this example is to draw attention to this important, but rarely mentioned aspect of opening play – the mentality the opening requires. And also, how and if the mentality of the player is suitable for the given opening. In the example above I definitely wasn’t suited for the Petroff and that showed immediately.

It pays to think about this aspect when you think about your openings, both your current ones and also the ones you would like to take up. A careful consideration beforehand will save you a lot of effort (and suffering) afterwards.

In my case, I learned. My next outings with the Petroff and 1…e5 in general were more successful, at least when it came to my mentality and approach. Though, to be honest, I am still unsure whether I am suited for 1…e5…

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Anti-Sicilians

A few days ago my Chessable course on the Anti-Sicilians was published.

After working on the Najdorf it was only natural to round up the whole repertoire for Black against 1 e4 with the coverage of “everything else.” Now that job is done.

While I did intend the Anti-Sicilians to be suited for the Najdorf player, some of them can be used by other Sicilian players. In fact, if you play 2…d6 then the course is 100% suitable, while in the case of 2…e6 (except for Scheveningen players, who fall into the 100% suitability) or 2…Nc6 then only part of it is and this is basically all White’s 2nd move alternatives (the Morra Gambit, Closed Sicilian, the Grand Prix, the Alapin to name the more important ones).

The main difficulty in creating the repertoire were the move orders. The Najdorf players are particularly susceptible to these. I guess that’s the price to pay for playing one of the most popular Sicilians!

To illustrate my point, after 2 Nc3 the Najdorf player is already at a crossroad. If he wants to preserve the option to transpose to a Najdorf (but this option depends only on White!) he must play 2..d6 or 2…a6. The former is the traditional Najdorf move, but it is exactly here that White has come up with a plethora of interesting and testing options. Necessity is the mother of all invention and the necessity here being a desperate need for something to play against the Najdorf!

Everybody suffers when having to meet the Najdorf, even the World Champion. And it was him who came up with one of the more original ideas – after 1 e4 c5 2 Nc3 d6 he came up with 3 d4 cd 4 Qd4 Nc6 5 Qd2, followed by b3, Bb2 and 0-0-0. This line is still very much alive with no clear consensus of what Black’s best variation against it is.

Other tricky lines for Black are the Grand Prix Attack (currently with Bb5 instead of Bc4), the transposition to a Dragon via the Grand Prix (1 e4 c5 2 Nc3 d6 3 f4 Nc6 4 Nf3 g6 5 d4), the move-orders with Nc3, Nge2, g3 and then d4 when Black plays …g6, thus transposing to a Fianchetto Dragon and a few more.

Mind you, all of them are perfectly fine for Black from a theoretical perspective, which is only natural. However, when thinking about constructing a repetoire and wanting to make it easier for the students by eliminating tricky move-orders, too much theory and open Sicilians they may not be too happy with, then the choice is limited.

All of the above explains why I chose 2..Nc6 as the move to play against 2 Nc3. I was “helped” by the World Champion as in the past period he demonstrated quite a few ideas in the line 3 Nf3 e5. This further led me to create a repertoire that completely prevents a transposition to an open Sicilian, which should come as a sort of relief.

Everything else in the course was much easier to cover. The main theoretical alternative to the open Sicilian is the Moscow Variation (3 Bb5+) and here while all three Black moves are perfectly viable, I went for 3…Bd7, as the easiest one to play.

As usual with Chessable, the course comes with a free video where I give an overview of the whole repertoire in the duration of 1 hour. The total course has almost 10 hours of video. That also includes the chapter on Model Games where I analyse games that are important for the understanding of the material.

Generally I’m quite happy with the work I did on the Anti-Sicilians. It also helped me refresh my own repertoire and take a closer look at some lines that I have neglected for years (a good example is the Morra Gambit, where I came up with a very exciting idea for Black!). I like analysing openings and I like to explore them, so this type of work is something I always look forward to! I can only hope that it helps the others as it had helped me.

Break Down Anti-Sicilians is out on Chessable

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Interview with GM Avetik Grigoryan

A few months ago I was contacted with GM Avetik Grigoryan, who was curious about me after discovering my blog. We chatted for a while and came to the idea of an interview. I thought it would be interesting for the wider public to know how a very strong Grandmaster who is not part of the elite conducts his coaching sessions, how his career went and similar questions I was personally interested in. Below is the interview and I hope you like it! (All images are courtesy of Avetik Grigoryan.)

To start with, I’d like to know why you stopped enjoying playing chess back in 2012 and how that happened? Was it a continuous process that led to saturation or an abrupt realisation? After all, you were 23 years old at the time with a rating over 2600 and to stop enjoying chess that early sounds strange! 

Yep, it was one of the toughest decisions that I’ve made in my life. I worked so hard to get on that level and then I decided to stop. 

Well, I didn’t stop enjoying chess. Even until now, I love it very much.

I just stopped enjoying playing in tournaments, home preparation, where it becomes important whose computer is stronger, who can remember more lines. 

I started to enjoy the competition not as much as I used to and helping others started to give me more joy.

I believe, we should try to live appropriate to our values’ hierarchy, which gives us happiness.

It was then when I started to work with some talented guys, and I felt that their success gave me so much joy. See them growing, reaching their goals, and having success gave me real pleasure. 

So, I decided to switch to a professional coach career as I enjoyed it very much. I have so much info in my head and deeply analyzed material in my computer, which I could share with more talented students than me, who can achieve in chess more than I did. 

Never in mind I regret playing 16 years of professional chess and then stopping it. These are not lost years, as many may think. Chess gave me so much knowledge that I use in my life, and without it, I would not be here where I am now.

You mentioned that you started to practice Kung Fu and changed your lifestyle after stopping professional chess. Can you describe this in more detail, how did your new lifestyle look like? 

When I was playing professional chess, I used to work from early morning until late night. There was big pressure on me. To wake up very early and work till late night, six days a week was not easy.

When I stopped, I felt so much peace. I started to appreciate each day of my life more: fruits became tastier than before, the smell of flowers became better. I had time to read books, spend time with people I love. 

Then, one sunny day I just took a pen and wrote down what kind of person I should become and what kind of steps I should take. 

I started everything step-by-step. 

One of the things in my list was to be strong physically and mentally. And I thought what can be better than Kung-Fu 😊 In Armenia we have a very good Kung Fu school. 

Armenian Kung Fu Federation

I started to practice it seriously, and there were even days when I had three training. The first one started at 5 am! 

I was balancing my working time with the students and my personal time very well. 

You told me that you enjoy coaching. Can you describe your own coaching that led you to become a 2600-player? 

Well, I was very lazy until 13 years passed from my life. 

Spain 2002

Then one thing happened in my life which changed everything. 

If it’s interesting, I can tell the story. 

Yes, of course.

It was a late-night, with our family we were in a taxi, coming home.

The driver was very sleepy, and he was driving very badly.

My father asked him why he was driving when he was so tired, and the driver’s words changed my life. He said he had to. He had a family, and he should take care of his family. Every day he woke up at 7am and drove till 1am.

I remember I got goosebumps. That was the moment when I realized that I didn’t want to have such life, and for not having such life, I needed to work very hard now. I realized that if now I did things that were easy to do, I would have a hard life in the future, and if I did things that were hard to do now, later, I would have an easy life.

After that, I started to work on chess very seriously. I analyzed all the books of classics, starting from Capablanca.

Now in my database, I have around 1000 games, which I’ve analyzed and saved.

I worked with coaches, studied in the chess academy of Armenia. Then I started to work with GM Zaven Andriasian.  There were weeks when he came to my place, we practiced all day and started again in the morning.

Very fast, both of us became GMs, Zaven even became the World Junior Champion at 17!

By the way, I advise everyone to have sparring partners, a friend with whom you can work on chess.

And it’s best when your styles are different.

In our case, Zaven was a very sharp player, and I was positional.

Then you don’t notice how you “absorb” the strong skills from your friend and give yours to him.

Also, in my career, I had a few good coaches, but two of them have an irreplaceable impact on my chess career. GM Chibukhyan Artur, who believed in me and my goal from IM to become a GM in 1 year, and then GM Akopian Vladimir, who helped me to get from 2500 to 2600 level. These are the people that I’ll never forget what they’ve done for me.

Mark Dvoretsky said that coaches should also play from time to time in order not to lose the “taste” for the game. When you play nowadays, how do you approach the tournaments? Do you dedicate time to prepare beforehand, are you ambitious to win them? Do you update your opening repertoire with the latest games?

Yeah, I absolutely agree.

I play a lot of training games with my students.

We often play certain openings or certain kinds of positions, where the student is weak.

Recently I also participated in St. Louis Fall Classic tournament after not having pressed the chess clock for three years!

The reason I participated was to show my students on my own example, what our mindset can do! Right Mindset! That right mood and the inner energy can do magic.

About updating the opening repertoire, I check all the latest games, not for my opening repertoire but for my students.

As most of them are high-level players, and everybody plays different openings, working with them automatically makes my knowledge in the openings deeper.

In St. Louis, a fascinating thing happened.

I had a novelty in one of my favorite lines – English opening with four knights and with 5.e4 line, which recently Carlsen and other top Grandmasters also started to play. In that line, I had a novelty, which I found around ten years ago, but never had the luck to play it. Then when I stopped playing professionally, I showed it to my students. Unfortunately, they also didn’t have a chance to play it.

A few months ago, in St. Louis tournament GM Petrosian Manuel bumped to that novelty, which we had so long time ago.

You coached the national team of Thailand. How does coaching a national team differ from coaching individuals? Did you devise any team strategy?

It was a very interesting and unforgettable experience.

Interesting – because as a coach, you face different challenges. Now your task is not only to help them to grow their chess skills or strengthen their weak points in the game but to create a real team where everyone helps each other, where they become brothers no matter what happened between them before. 

Unforgettable – because we spiritually became connected very much, and even now, I am in touch with most of them. 

You have also been Director at Yerevan Arabkir Children and Youth Chess School. Armenia is well-known for its chess program and exceptional chess players. What does the training program for children consist of that it develops such marvellous players?

Yep, I wanted to do something good for my country. When I accepted the offer, I invited a few other Grandmasters and professional coaches to work together and create a chess school about which I had always dreamt when I was a kid.

Well, we have chess in school as a subject, and we have professional chess schools in each of the districts of Yerevan.

Chess is very popular in Armenia since we have World Champion Tigran Petrosian, Levon Aronian, and we won a few Olympiads and the team world championship. Many parents want to see their children reach such success.

I believe the main reason of Armenian players’ success is character. During the whole history, Armenians fought, and the fighting spirit is in our blood. We do not give up and continue the fight after blunders, bad games, or tournaments.

You have helped many amateurs and chess lovers to improve. While I understand that each individual case is different, can you still single out the one most important thing that must be done in order to improve?

I give lots of attention to psychology.

There should be a very strong ANSWER to the question “WHY”?

Why do you want to get the 2000 level? Why you want to become a GM.

If the answer is strong, very strong, nothing will stop you. You’ll find motivation when it’s tough; you’ll find resources instead of excuses; you will set up plans on how to improve and start the action. That strong energy will open many doors.

I know many people who want to become grandmasters, but at the same time, they spend countless hours in social platforms scrolling FB, and I know people who have the same dream but are very goal-oriented. They work with coaches, work with chess books, and when they are online, most of the time, they learn in some chess educational websites, read some chess articles or solve chess puzzles.

That is the difference that makes the difference.

I believe desire, a burning desire, is the 1st essential “ingredient.” I have even written an article in our blog in the series “How to become a Grandmaster or achieve any goal”.

When you decided to open your website www.chessmood.com you wanted to make something different, to offer online instruction with theoretical, practical and interactive parts. How is that different from individual one-on-one lessons? What are the benefits you are offering?

Many of our students say that the educational system of ChessMood is just a dream.

I understand them very well.

Myself, in my life, I learned lots of different stuff, and when I learned them from the Internet, my biggest challenge was this: I watched the course – the theoretical part, but then I didn’t know how to put the knowledge in practice or to whom give my questions.

ChessMood consists of all that three parts!

1. Theoretical part- courses. All of them are created by our Grandmasters, and behind each 1-hour material there are countless hours of hard work.

Many think that very high-quality courses are what differs us from the market, but in real, the next two parts are very unique in the chess world and has a big impact on our students’ successes:

2. Practical part – Streams and webinars based on the courses!

During the streams, we play and comment on the games, playing ONLY the openings we teach in our courses.

In this way, students not only memorize the lines, see how to punish the opponent, when he makes a wrong move in the opening, but also see the middlegame part, typical plans, and ideas of that opening in practice. 

Students can ask all their questions during streams, webinars, and also during the 3rd important step.

 3. Forum

Here, the students can give all their questions and get answers right from Grandmasters instead of searching the answer in random places. This is what students can’t find anywhere else.

Also, in the forum, our students help each other too, many have become sparring partners and friends in life.

There are 6 Armenian Grandmasters that are part of the Chessmood team – yourself, Melkumyan, Gabuzyan, Andriasian, Ter-Sahakyan and Hovhannisyan. How does the team work? Does everybody have a special area of expertise, are the tasks divided equally or perhaps the student asks for a particular coach?

Most of the material we create together. Everyone is an expert in some particular opening, so we share the knowledge and files with each other, analyze them in more depth, using cloud engines.

As all our Grandmasters are active players, the responsibility of sorting all the material, preparing files, finding and commenting model games, and then record videos I took on myself.

Recently, GM Gabuzyan plays not much, and he also started to record videos.

Well, I am absolutely open to working with other Grandmasters as well, who can keep our quality standards.

Many have tried, but it’s tough. I’ll ask to re-record the video if the explanation of the particular line or the idea is not very clear.

I understand, of course, that it’s harder work than they used to do for recording videos for other websites, and I am ready to reward more for that work.

But anyway, it’s very tough for anyone to keep that quality standard that we initially put with our Grandmasters.

Do you also provide coaching services to professionals (IMs, GMs)? Have you been approached by them and what can you offer to these players?

Hehe 😊 Well, now most of my private students are IMs and GMs, and only a few are not titled.

As I only work with students whose goals I believe, it becomes so enjoyable to work with talented and goal-oriented hard workers, to see their progress and eventually together celebrate all their successes.

There are 3 essential steps that I do with each student.

1. What’s the goal?

It is very important to have the right Big Goal, divide it into parts, and start to reach them step-by-step. If in this 1st step, something is wrong with motivation or mindset, we fix it first.

2. Identifying the weaknesses of the student.

In other words, finding out the “illness” even small ones, all of them!

3. Make a plan and start the action.

Start healing them with action, putting big effort.

I have a very big database in my computer, which I collected during my 20+ years of being in chess. Not just openings, but also collections of calculations, positional and attacking chess, defense, endgames… All the topics in chess.

I believe a good coach is like a doctor. The patient comes and has some problems, you find out the issue, and you begin to heal him with some therapies and, in a few cases with medicine.

Every student has very different weak points in chess and how precise is the coach’s therapy or medicine, as better.

It is also important to mention that each student has his language, and for the coach, it’s a must to find the right approach of teaching.

How does your usual day look like? How much time do you dedicate to coaching each day?

It may look very crazy, but almost every day with my wife we wake up at 6.30 am and work till late evening.

A part of the day goes on working with students and preparation for the lessons and the other part goes on developing ChessMood and on much work with ChessMood team which is now becoming bigger and bigger.


How can you manage to do so much?

There are three secrets.
1. I wake up early
2. I believe in my goal with 100%
3. My magic girl who covers my back and together we chase our dreams one by one.

What is your personal goal as a coach and where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

I believe that in the next five years, all the chess educational platforms, which, instead of providing value put effort on selling with nice marketing words, will go down under the water (:D), and the best ones will become partners, sharing amazing value with the chess world.

My personal goal in ChessMood is to help as many chess lovers as possible to achieve their goals, to unlock their full potential.

In 2019, our students raised their ratings on average by 70 points!

This gives me full satisfaction in life and happiness.

In the next five years, I also am going to publish a few books which I think will make a big impact on many chess players’ careers.   

I’ll also start to travel in the world, and meet our community members in real life, make camps, and have a good time together.

We had already such experience this year in the USA when I was playing in St. Louis. Imagine, what does it mean for the coach, when your (his) students from different states fly to meet you.

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The Draws in Jerusalem

The final leg of the FIDE Grand Prix is underway in Jerusalem. As I write this the first game of the final between Wei Yi and Nepomniachtchi is being played.

The intrigue of the tournament consists in who will get the final spot for the Candidates and here the Chinese is playing for the French – in case Wei Yi wins the final Vachier Lagrave gets the spot.

The Frenchman once again failed to secure that spot himself. In the semi-final he lost to Nepomniachtchi, his direct competitor for that final spot.

Final for the non-Russians, that is. Nepo still has a back-up plan in case he loses the final – he will play a match with Kirill Alekseenko (the third finisher of the Grand Swiss) for the wild card spot.

Vachier’s continuous failures at the last hurdle to qualify for the Candidates are truly only comparable to Aronian’s failures at the actual Candidates – they both falter when it matters most. What’s worse for the Frenchman is that he doesn’t have a strong sponsor behind him to buy him the wild card, as it happened for Aronian in Moscow in 2016. (At the time of writing he is still hopeful Nepo loses the final and somebody else does the work for him.)

Apart from the drama, there was one other thing that made the Jerusalem Grand Prix stand out for me. It was these two draws.

After suffering in the first game of the match against Wei Yi but eventually saving a draw, Anish Giri thought it was a good idea to play like this with White in the second game:

What to say? Giri living up to his reputation? A mockery of the system (or of himself?) The fact that Giri felt compelled to justify his decision by posting on social media (now already removed) something along the lines of, Carlsen is my friend so I copy him and do what he did in his World Championship matches, only shows that he was feeling the pressure from the public and knew it wasn’t the right thing to do. Otherwise why would he bother to explain (and excuse) himself?

True, Carlsen drew quickly against Karjakin in New York and then won the tie-break convincingly. But here the Latin wisdom is very much to the point – Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi. What worked for Carlsen, failed miserably for Giri.

Therefore it wasn’t a surprise that Giri lost the tie-break. The usual rules of “you don’t (try to) take your chances, your opponent will” may not apply to Carlsen, but they certainly apply to Giri.

The next player to go down the same road was Karjakin in the next round, again against Wei Yi. After drawing 9 (!) consecutive games against Harikrishna in Round 1, thus qualifying by drawing the Armageddon game with Black, Karjakin played this is the first classical game against Wei Yi.

That is even two moves shorter than Giri! Need I say Karjakin lost the tie-break? At least he had a bit of self-respect left not to try to convince the public of copying his “friend” Carlsen.

I read somewhere that this behaviour by the players is some sort of “feedback” to the organisers, showing dissatisfaction with the conditions or something else they may not like. I can relate to that, but these players are millionaires who are playing in the cycle for a World Championship. I think showing respect to the institution of World Championship cycle would be appropriate. After all, they are using that institution to try to qualify and become a World Champion.

Giri already qualified by rating and probably thought it would be too much to copy his other friends Radjabov and Aronian, call in sick and withdraw from the tournament. Playing a tournament with nothing (he got 5000 euros for being eliminated in the first round) in it for him was perhaps a waste of time.

As for Karjakin, unless there is an unexpected development in Russia and he is given a chance, the Candidates in Yekaterinburg will be without him. The tendency that started after his match with Carlsen of him being more interested in his public persona than in his chess finally caught up with him.

On a personal note, I would like to see Kirill Alekseenko in the Candidates. I would be curious to find out how far this lad can go.

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Choice of Openings

I like to think about chess. All aspects of it, whether they are psychology, plans in a certain type of position, openings, endgames, ways to study.

I have written before about certain puzzling moments from chess history that I will probably never know the reason for, like why Fischer chose 1 e4 d6 2 d4 g6 in Game 17 of his match with Spassky in 1972, allowing a King’s Indian. He didn’t play a King’s Indian in the first half of the match when Spassky played 1 d4, so why did he allow it in the late phase of the match (and why did Spassky not take that opportunity)?

These opening choices in the matches have always been fascinating to me, especially when they were out of the ordinary repertoires of the players. I have always wanted to know the reasons why the players chose those openings.

While I have my own opinions on these choices, no matter how deeply-thought they may be, only the players themselves can give the complete answer. From the recent chess history, two questions have been on my mind for quite some time:

  1. Why did Nigel Short play the QGA in his match against Karpov in 1992? He never played the QGA before that and very rarely after that match.
  2. Why did Garry Kasparov think the Dragon was a good choice against Anand in 1995? Similarly, why did he think the QGA was a good choice against Kramnik in 2000?

Luckily, the protagonists of these matches are still alive and well, and even more fortunately I had a chance to meet them and ask them these questions.

A bit more than a year ago, in the VIP room of the Carlsen-Caruana match I had a chance to ask Nigel Short about his match with Karpov. There were other GMs present and they were also curious to know Nigel’s reasons.

I was expecting a reply based on deep analysis of the QGA and the positions arising from them, resulting in understanding that these do not suit Karpov’s style. However, the answer was much simpler and a lot more practical.

Nigel said that he chose the QGA because that was the only opening that did not feature in any of Karpov’s previous World Championship matches. As simple as that!

He said that Karpov probably hadn’t analysed the QGA in the same depth as the QGD (which was Short’s main opening back then) and the others that were at his disposal. This answer was illuminating of sorts, as it showed how Nigel approached one of the most important matches in his career – in a practical way, yet armed with excellent novelties in all the QGA games in that match!

[On a sidenote, I didn’t ask him about the choice of the Budapest Gambit in Game 1 of that match. The next time I see him I will.]

A bit more than a week ago I was in Monaco for the European Women Rapid and Blitz tournament and during the event the first European Chess Awards ceremony took place. One of the winners was Garry Kasparov.

During the gala there was a lot of socialising and Garry was in the centre of attention all the time. I didn’t think I would get a chance to talk to him.

But suddenly, at one point later in the evening I noticed him outside of the hall posing for a selfie. I recognised my chance and approached him. He didn’t seem too happy to be bothered, but when I asked my chess-related question he sort of showed interest.

In view of the positive atmosphere of the ceremony I decided to skip the part on the Kramnik match, not to bring unpleasant memories back and I just asked about the Dragon and Anand.

Surprisingly, the answer was very similar to Short’s. Kasparov said that while checking Anand’s games he noticed that he wasn’t very comfortable playing against the Dragon and that his results there weren’t very good. Therefore he took the practical decision to prepare this opening. Again, a very practical approach!

My own take on the use of the Dragon was a bit different. I thought that since Kasparov expected Anand to limit him a-la Karpov, which he did rather successfully in the 6 Be2 lines of the Najdorf that transposed to the Scheveningen after 6…e6, just like in the first two matches with Karpov, he needed a weapon to break the grip. In the Dragon the only theoretical way for White to play for an advantage are the lines with long castle where a super-sharp battle ensues. (This is especially true for the mid-90s when the lines with 9 0-0-0 instead of the Yugoslav attack with 9 Bc4 weren’t that prominent yet. Nowadays White successfully curbs Black’s attack after 9 0-0-0 d5 10 Qe1.) Anand would be surprised and unwilling to enter the sharp territory knowing that Kasparov would be excellently prepared and this would give Kasparov a tremendous practical advantage. The match proved that my thoughts were not far from the truth, which did feel satisfying.

Kasparov also mentioned that once he got “wind” in Game 10 he decided it was time to use the secret weapon in Game 11 and the rest, as they say, is history. He turned the match around and never looked back.

It was great to talk to the legends and ask these questions. It broadens my chess understanding when discussing chess with these players who have been the best in the world ever since I started playing the game! I was happy to have my curiosity satisfied, but I still have a few more questions prepared, just waiting for the next occasion!

CONTINUE READING

Match Strategy

I write this in the deserted Holiday Village Hotel where yesterday the European Club Cup finished. I am the last man standing as all the participants have left and the whole hotel resort looks like a ghost town.

I was the captain of the women team Caissa Pentole Agnelli. Unfortunately we didn’t have a good tournament. We missed our big chance in the penultimate round, when playing the lower-rated team from Maribor we had superior or just winning positions on all 4 boards and yet managed only 2-2. Had we won we would have shared 2nd place going into the last round with everything to play for. But it wasn’t meant to be.

In this post I would like to explain my reasoning and strategy I had for one of the clutch matches that happened as early as Round 2. We played last-year’s champions and this year runner-ups, the team from Monaco. Last year they destroyed us, in spite of having good positions on all boards, so this year I wanted us to be more cautious.

On Board 1 we had Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, the Iranian superstar, facing Humpy Koneru. Sara is a sound positional player who prefers technical positions so we thought that simply playing her lines and the positions she obtains from them would suit her well. Bearing in mind that in team competitions it is usually considered that a draw with Black is good, we didn’t expect that Koneru would try for more, so I felt safe on that board – some pressure if it happens, if not, then a draw without a risk. And that is exactly what happened.

On Board 2 we had Pia Cramling against Elisabeth Paehtz. The board pairings from Board 2 to 4 were exactly the same as the previous year, when we lost all 3. I didn’t mind that, since I knew that our players were good and what happened last year was a mid-match collapse that will not happen again.

Lisa again played the Slav against Cramling and this time it wasn’t an Exchange, but the line with 4 Qb3. We expected it, and Lisa was well-prepared to obtain a solid and safe position. This year I wanted her to keep it solid, as last year she went for complications when the match started going wrong and lost. After a lucky blunder by Lisa on move 18, meaning that taking the exchange led to some positional compensation, which Cramling declined to take advantage of, the game was uneventful and we drew safely.

On Board 3 Olga Zimina was facing Monika Socko. Olga lost an atrocious game last year with White, being ouplayed in an equal endgame from the English Opening, so this year I wanted something more “central.” We decided upon the Catalan, with the fresh idea of 7 Be3, as in the game Caruana-Anand and also some others as our opening surprise. But Socko avoided it by playing 6…c5 before 6…a6, so it transposed back to the usual lines. We didn’t get anything out of the opening there, but I was happy with the resulting position as I knew Olga wouldn’t get in any danger. She pressed a little, but Socko defended well and the game was drawn.

On Board 4 Deimante Daulyte-Cornette was playing Marina Brunello. This was the board where I expected a more dynamic fight, as it fits Marina’s style. In an expected Najdorf we thought that the resulting positions would be to Marina’s liking where we fancied our chances. I was influenced by last year’s game where Marina got a great position in the Najdorf and outplayed her opponent, only to lose after trying to win too hard and blundering once the match turned bad for us.

However, on this board we ran into some preparation by our opponents. White played the fresh idea by Vachier-Lagrave, the move 8 Bg5 in the fianchetto Najdorf that he used to beat Wei Yi in the recent FIDE Grand Prix in Hamburg. We didn’t particularly prepare for it, so it was a surprise, but I thought that since Marina plays the Najdorf all her life she would find a good reaction to it. It turned out this wasn’t so easy.

We practically lost without a fight after Marina couldn’t find an appropriate reaction to the dangeous threats. This game decided the match and we lost 2.5-1.5.

We lost because we got caught in the opening and our own opening surprise didn’t materialise. After the match I was thinking whether our strategy was sound. In view of last year’s encounter it was definitely an improvement and we didn’t collapse, the match was under control except for Board 4. Perhaps we could have prepared better there, but it is difficult to prepare everything (and on 4 boards too!).

Eventually the match strategy to keep it solid on the first three boards, having in mind our players’ stylistic preferences and the opponents we were facing, and have a dynamic fight on the last one, where we had an excellent Sicilian player, backfired. Normally we are always well-prepared in the openings, but this time we got caught and that caused us the match. If that didn’t happen perhaps the strategy would have justified itself, who knows. For me, the lesson to learn is to prepare better when more is at stake on a single board.

The second ECC where I am coaching the same team was another great learning experience. Every match and the preparation for it is a valuable insight into the nuances of team competitions. I enjoy this type of work, devising a strategy for the match, starting with who plays, analysing our and our opponents’ repertoires, deciding what to play and then seeing it all unravel in the playing hall is very exciting. I do get frustrated because of the fact that I am only an observer once the match starts, but that is the nature of the captain’s work.

In the end, I would like to thank my players Sara, Lisa, Olga, Marina and Elena for their efforts. We did what we could and hopefully the third attempt, next year in Austria, will be a charm!

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Snapshots from the European Club Cup 2019

As I already said in my last post, I am currently in Ulcinj, Montenegro, for the European Club Cup. I am coaching the Italian women team of Caissa Pentole Agnelli, just like last year.

So far the tournament is going turbulently for us, we have won 3 matches and lost 2. With two rounds to go there is everything to play for, though it has to be admitted that the first place is almost certainly out of reach.

In today’s Round 5 I noticed quite a few crazy games that I wanted to share. I don’t know if it’s the constant storms with strong winds and rain that (finally) affected the players so they started to play in stormy ways, but the fact remains – today’s games were quite crazy. You can see for yourselves below.

Saric-Suleymanly, after 51 Bg8.

The engine displays 0.00 in this totally irrational position with 5 pawns for the rook. It reminds me of the famous Game 13 of the match Spassky-Fischer. In both games the side with the pawns won after the side with the rook missed a draw.

Zimina-Djukic, here White played 28 g4!

The above position was from our match. In a crazy game White took on g7 with the queen and continued to play for mate before taking back the material. Eventually Black resigned before being mated.

Velikic-Pogonina, after 27 f4

Another position where White is a rook down for some vague compensation. In fact here Black took on f4 and proved that the compensation was non-existent.

My time here is very restricted: after waking up in the morning the board pairings come out, after which we start preparation; then lunch, after lunch there is approximately one hour before we go to play; after the match it’s dinner time, then the team pairings come out after which we have a short team meeting to discuss the next match. When all this is finished, it’s already time for a short stroll or bed.

I even wonder how I found the time to write this post!

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Busy Times

It’s been a month since I last posted and this is the longest period I’ve gone without a post since I started this blog back in 2014.

As usual, I followed everything that was happening in the chess world, the Grand Swiss, the European Team Championship, the Fischer Random World Championship, to name just the biggest events. But I didn’t have the time to write about them, so I think this is a good opportunity to explain what I am so busy with and what my activities are nowadays.

The last period was entirely dedicated to the creation of my Chessable repertoire on the Anti-Sicilians. This was the plan ever since my Najdorf repertoire was published. I had to complete the work and provide a full repertoire after 1 e4, not just the Najdorf.

It took me quite some time to finish this and in order to do so I had to block out everything else. Now of course “everything else” is coming back with a vengeance. But first, this blog post.

Apart from my online coaching, I do quite a lot of writing. I write for a few websites (Chessable, The Chess World) and for British Chess Magazine. I have my newsletter, which I send out every week and of course this blog. I also have a YouTube channel, but that one has been the most neglected of all.

When I mentioned the coaching, this is not only online. On Friday I go to Montenegro to be a captain and coach of the Italian women team of Caissa Pentole Agnelli in the European Women Club Cup.

I also manage to play a game or two from time to time. I love playing chess, but in view of all the other engagements this one suffered a heavy blow. So these games are mostly league games as I play in teams in England and Germany (with the odd game in the Swiss league).

The above has been about chess. However, I am also involved in chess politics. Ever since I became a President of the ACP this spring I have had a lot of obligations on this front. These are mostly “under the hood” and rarely see the light of day. What the public sees will be an official announcement, while what happened before and led to that announcement is never mentioned. I can assure you that a lot happens and that it is hard work!

My work in FIDE is different, as it is of a less political character. I am a member of the FIDE Fair Play Commission (formerly known as the Anti-Cheating Commission). Here the work is expanding by the minute with the cheating cases we need to work on coming in on regular basis. There are many problems here as well that take away both time and energy.

When you add to the above the need for some time off, family time, meeting friends and probably also time to breathe, I think you get a pretty good idea why I called this blog post “busy times”.

To wrap up, just a fact from my upcoming schedule: in the period starting this coming Friday, 8 November, when I leave for Montenegro, until before Christmas (24 December) I will spend mere 13 days at home. The other 33 days I will be away travelling. Busy times indeed.

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A Technical Win

The Spanish Division de Honor, their Premier League, took place in Melilla from 30 September to 6 October.

I was present during the tournament and had a chance to observe the games as they happened in the playing hall. As it turned out, every round was more or less marked by Ivanchuk’s games.

In Round 1 he beat Cheparinov following the Fischer-Reshevsky game in the Classical Dragon from 1961 (which, to remind you, was an improvement over the Alekhine-Botvinnik game from Nottingham 1936), then he was lost in mere 15 moves after experimenting in the opening against Iturrizaga. And in Round 3 he produced the following technical masterpiece.

In spite of the inaccuracies at the end, mainly caused by lack of time, an impressive technical performance by Ivanchuk. It appears easy, yet it is anything but. With hindsight, I also admire his opening choice – to play an equal position but one where the long-term advantages are in his favour. This made his play easier and this translated to practical advantage which he managed to convert.

All in all, a complete masterclass by one of the best players in chess history.

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World Cup 2019 Impressions

A huge knock-out tournament like the World Cup inevitably produces excitement and this excitement comes in many forms: unexpected streaks and winners, wild games, new opening ideas to name just a few.

In this post I’ll write about the things that made an impression on me, in no particular order.

Kiril Alekseenko

Apart from going far, losing only to Ding Liren in Round 4, his White preparation in the Giuoco Piano brought him 2 wins in the classical games, against Nguyen in Round 1 and Harikrishna in Round 3. He was very close to beating Ding Liren in the second classical game, again thanks to his preparation. He also put pressure on Ding in the second rapid game where he was in a must-win situation. The highlight of his performance was the 2-0 against Harikrishna. The young Russian shows good promise.

Anish Giri

Giri’s World Cup was notable for lack of notable things he did. The Armageddon win against Najer in Round 2 was the highlight of his tournament, but you would expect him to overcome Najer at an earlier stage. The same could have been said about his next match, but here he had no chance, as strange as it may seem. Read the next player for more.

Giri is slowly becoming one of the elite players who “deserve” to be in the Candidates but cannot qualify for different reasons. Luckily for him he will get there thanks to statistics, being the average highest-rated player for the year after Ding Liren, who qualified by making it to the final. In order to secure this Giri withdrew from the Isle of Man Grand Swiss, even with a signed contract, making sure he doesn’t lose any rating there. Not a courageous decision, to say the least.

Speaking of Giri’s game, I cannot escape the feeling that something substantial is missing there. He has fantastic opening preparation, calculates well, plays great chess (he’s changed a lot since his drawing days), he sharpened his game, but in spite of all this there is something that prevents him from moving forward. He often cannot overcome his opposition (the match with Najer started with 6 consecutive draws) and is struggling to win games. I can only guess it is something psychological, lack of breakthrough force or the internal intent that is bent out on winning, maybe lack of killer instinct. The only way I see him making progress is if everything falls into place for him as it did for Leko in 2002 when he won the Dortmund Candidates and qualified to play Kramnik.

Jeffery Xiong

For me, Xiong was the revelation of the tournament. His uncompromising aggression brought him farther than anyone expected. Beating Giri and Duda by playing courageous and ultra-aggressive chess was a feast to watch.

When I said above that Giri didn’t have a chance in this match I meant that Giri couldn’t adapt and handle such open aggression. Nobody in the elite does it so Giri wasn’t used to this type of high-tension tactical approach. The decisive game of the match was typical.

Xiong did the same to Duda before going down in flames in the same way in the second classical game against Radjabov, who was the first one who managed to navigate crazy complications better than him!

Teimour Radjabov

Quite a surprise this one. I never dreamed Radjabov could make it to the final and qualify for the Candidates, let alone win the whole thing. After his wunderkind years and the total collapse in London Candidates in 2013 I always considered Radjabov a very content wealthy young man who plays chess only because he has nothing else to do in his life. And even this often seemed against his will, as his games were mostly uneventful draws and he apparently lacked the ambition to try for anything at all.

In Khanty he didn’t seem any different at the beginning. But then he started winning games with White in technical style (the only exception is the second game against Xiong that I mentioned) and things started to go his way. It is no surprise that solidity is highly valued in knock-out events – another super-solid player, Ding Liren, was the other one who made it to the final.

In the final he showed better nerves. Coupled with his fantastic calculation he didn’t panic when low on time and just kept on playing good moves.

I cannot say how this will affect Radjabov. Will he motivate himself and wake up his ambition after the 6-year hiatus? Or will he come to Yekaterinburg to make draws and go home semi-content?

Vachier-Lagrave

The Frenchman failed again at the last hurdle. Last year it was Aronian in the semi-final, this year it was Radjabov.

I think his stubborness in the openings, especially the Grunfeld, has lately been causing him more trouble than bringing him benefits. The losses to Radjabov and Jakovenko plus some games in the match with Yu Yangyi proved that he can be caught in the opening and the players have started targeting him there with more success. A bit more versatility in the opening, finding a back-up to the Najdorf and the Grunfeld will be huge for him and I think will help him make the final step.

The fact he won the match for 3rd place is some comfort at least.

The Chinese

They are not coming, they’re here for some time now. Both Ding Liren and Yu Yangyi were impressive, each on their own slightly different scale.

Ding Liren seems to have reached a different level, doing what Carlsen mentioned some time ago – winning elite events. At least he showed this by winning the Sinquefield Cup before this event. However, losing a second final in a row in the World Cup shows that he has the stability and quality to reach two finals, but also that he suffers from nerves. In the tie-break he collapsed and lost a game that was impossible to lose with White and then didn’t take his one chance with Black. He will be very disappointed, but there is psychological work to be done here!

Yu Yangyi is establishing himself as a clear Top-10 candidate and the will power he demonstrated in the match with Vitiugov was impressive. Losing the match for 3rd place to Vachier shouldn’t bother him too much. He played 34 (!) games in total in Khanty, playing the most tie-breaks than any other player (he only won one match in classical, against Nepomniachtchi), so fatigue was definitely an issue.

Nikita Vitiugov

The look of Nikita Vitiugov after the heart-breaking Armageddon loss to Yu Yangyi will haunt me for quite some time. A blank stare, failure to understand how could reality so abruptly change the script. Everything pointed to him winning that match, the tendency was clear, and then, without any warning, everything came down crashing. It felt as if a law of physics has been broken, as if gravity ceased to exist on Earth. Unimaginable.

What Vitiugov did before that was fantastic. It seemed he raised his level and his wins against Karjakin and So, both in classical, were amazing. The fact that Karjakin blundered in one move in a technically difficult situation only shows the level of complexity of the problems he had to solve during the game.

There were also other notable things like Eltaj Safarli (knocking out Shankland and Nihal Sarin, the latter in quite an amazing way), Svidler’s fear of the Frenchman (after qualifying and observing Vachier’s game together with the official commentators his comment along the lines of “He is not in good shape” after Vachier missed a move reeked of fear to me as he knew he was going to play him next and subconsciously wanted to cheer himself up!), Christiansen’s knocking out Wojtaszek 2-0 in Round 1, Nakamura’s Round 2 loss to Nisipeanu (after managing 1-1 against Bellahcene in Round 1 and winning the rapid) which in fact wasn’t surprising (Nakamura’s not in the Top 20 nowadays), the Yuffa-McShane match and probably a few more things.

Knock-outs are great for the public, but much less so for the players. Just remember Vitiugov.

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