A Different World

Already a lot has been written about the differences of online and OTB chess. I will not go into those details here. I want to describe what I see as a creation of a separate world of online chess.

The most striking example, or even better, a new leader of this new world is Hikaru Nakamura. He needs no introduction: a former world number 2 and a constant in the top 10 in the past 10 years or so. An ambitious player too, his statement about Sauron is part of chess lore. So what happened to Nakamura?

After realising that he will never dethrone Sauron it seems that Nakamura lost his ambition and motivation. His results in classical chess declined significantly and currently he is ranked 20th on the FIDE list of active players. But his speed prowess remained, or perhaps even improved – currently he is the world’s number 1 blitz player and world’s number 4 rapid player.

Moving to the online world was godsend for Nakamura. He continued to demonstrate his strength at fast time controls (the only time control possible online), but more importantly he was one of the first to create an online persona around which he built a huge following. The amounts of money he earns from his online activities are considerable (to say the least) and dwarf his earnings that come from the actual playing.

It didn’t take long for others to follow. While there is the random Giri or Radjabov or some Indian GMs, the majority of these others are players not even close to the strength of Nakamura.

I don’t know personally any of these streamers so I won’t be naming them in fear not to miss or offend somebody. The main point is that their success shows that being good at chess has nothing to do with being successful in the world of online chess.

There are quite a few female chess players who have success with streaming and creating their own online personas. They are far from the elite women players, again proving the above point of no connection between chess strength and online success.

This is perfectly normal. The world of online chess is about entertainment, much less so about quality chess.

These cases show that the new online chess world has its own heroes and stars. The potential for earning in this (brave) new world is much higher as the internet knows no boundaries. These new stars soon will be earning a lot more than the top 10 player who isn’t present online.

Still, nothing in this world is easy. A new set of skills is required to succeed in this novel category of chess stardom. Also not to be underestimated is the investment in high-quality equipment and then developing the skills to make the most out of it.

The online and the OTB worlds will continue to exist as parallel dimensions when OTB becomes reality again. Until then, feel free to make yourself at home in a different world.

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Happy Holidays

The year ends in a hectic and messy day for me. A lot of things don’t work, a lot of things need my attention and I cannot manage everything. Frustration and despair abound.

Still, I would like to end with something beautiful.

The other day I saw the following position on social media. The solution is very pretty.

White to play.

Happy New Year and all the best for 2021. May it be surprisingly sparkling as the above example.

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Real Chess

I wrote about this in my newsletter (which you can join by signing up using the yellow box on the right) and here I will expand a bit on the idea.

Some time ago I saw the following position posted on social media.

I don’t know who the players were, but the clock times were shown and both players had around 50 seconds left. This obviously indicated that it was a bullet game. This is the first point to consider.

Next comes the move Black played.

He played 9…Ne4. This is the second point and, strangely enough, the winning move.

The third point explains Black’s winning move. Black didn’t blunder his queen, he intentionally played the winning 9…Ne4. If you’re still confused read the next sentence.

White premoved 10.Bf6.

Black naturally picked up the bishop and White resigned.

So what happened here? Simply put, Black gambled and won.

A bit less simply put, here we have a plethora of new factors that are present only in the online version of chess.

Nobody plays suicidal moves in chess and this is deeply ingrained in our sub-consciousness. It is very difficult to override this belief and we saw that White couldn’t, while Black could and he was rewarded.

As a game of complete information chess is an objective game. Moving to the internet, chess ceased to be a game of complete information. The player doesn’t have the information about his opponent’s premoves, disconnects, toilet visits or even time outs. Due to this lack of information chess now starts to resemble poker or other hazardous games, when gambling is very much part of them.

In the above example Black gambled that White would want to take the knight on f6 and since these captures are usually premoved in bullet, he bluffed by removing the knight that was supposed to be taken. The bluff worked and he won the game.

But how big a deal is this? Does it really matter if you win a bullet game by a successful bluff or you lose one by an unsuccessful one?

In my view, not at all. It is all a quick fix, a 5-second satisfaction before the next game begins and all is forgotten. The search for the quick fix and the instant gratification is prevalent in today’s society and with bullet chess has also found its ways to enter the mainstream when it comes to this type of human entertainment.

This behaviour of conscious bluffing by making suicidal moves exists only online. It makes online chess a different game to the over-the-board version. Online, and especially bullet, is entertainment, fun, sometimes a mindless clicking for hours, but ultimately something that is not serious. The fact that there are official tournaments with bullet time controls that have considerable prizes only further drives away online chess from its over-the-board cousin.

To address the title of this email. Real chess? In the current reality, it is indeed. Whether you like it or not, it’s here. And, I’m afraid, it’s here to stay.

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Morphy, Fischer, Firouzja

This text was published in British Chess Magazine.

My impression of Fischer has always been that in view of his encyclopaedic knowledge, knowing all there is to know in his time, he was an excellent implementer of ideas. He would recognise an idea and then he would either perfect it or use it as it is.

For a very long time I thought that Fischer’s most original idea was his plan in the hedgehog formation consisting of …Kh8, …Rg8 and …g5, starting an attack on the kingside. He used it first in the less-well known game against Garcia Soruco at the Havana Olympiad in 1966:

While this is not exactly a hedgehog formation, in view of the passivity of White’s position Fischer played 14…Kh8! followed by 15…Rg8 and 16…g5.

The more famous example of this plan was seen in his game against Ulf Andersson, played after the Siegen Olympiad in 1970.

The pawn is on c7 instead of c5 in order to have a proper hedgehog, but Fischer already knew what he was doing: 13 Kh1! followed by 14 Rg1 and then expansion on the kingside with g4, Rg3 etc.

It was only several days ago that I learned that Fischer was not the originator of this plan. When I discovered this I was both surprised and not surprised.

It is well-known that Fischer was an ardent student of Paul Morphy’s games and had the highest esteem for his talent. He probably knew all Morphy’s games by heart. Therefore, the idea from the following position must have rung a bell when he played that game against Garcia Soruco.

This position arose in the blindfold (!) game between Louis Paulsen and Paul Morphy, played in New York in 1857. Black is stable in the centre and he finds an ingenious way to take advantage of White’s last move 15 h3.

Morphy played 15…Kh8! followed by 16…g5, 17…Rg8 and 18…g4. He won with direct attack against the king, sacrificing a rook on g2 and delivering mate.

 One can only admire the genius of Paul Morphy, to be able to come up with such an original strategic plan in a blindfold game, more than a century (!) before the modern masters picked it up. It is also no surprise that it was Bobby Fischer, with his keen eye for ideas, who first implemented the plan of his great predecessor.

As they say, everything new is something well-forgotten.

Fast forward to 2019 and the Iranian talent Alireza Firouzja. There is no doubt that Firouzja knows of Fischer’s plan in the hedgehog, just like many other players. What makes certain players stand out is not the knowledge, but the ability to adapt that knowledge to a new, original situation.

I will now show what I have in mind.  Take a look at the following position.

This position is from the game Tari-Firouzja, from the World Blitz Championship in 2019. Black has a great position here, as he has everything he could dream of from the hedgehog – the eternal knight on e5, the safer king and an opening of the position at his disposal.

Here the typical 27…b5 would have been quite strong. Black is ripping White’s position apart in classical fashion, having pushed …d5 first and now …b5. The tactical justification of the move is seen after 29 ab Ba5!, hitting the knight on c3.

However, what Firouzja did is something completely different. He managed to adapt Fischer’s plan and played the extremely curious 27…Kh7! I’ll be honest and admit that this would have never crossed my mind. To my understanding, the position is too dynamic and with a safe king I would have looked for more direct continuations akin to …b5 mentioned above.

This doesn’t mean that Firouzja’s idea is bad, not at all. It is a very interesting one, showing that the position can be approached in more than one way. His idea is a good adaptation of Fischer’s plan – he sees the open h-file as the perfect place for the somewhat idle rook on e8. After 28 Bg2 Rh8 29 Qe2 Kg8 he achieved his aim and maintained the advantage.

A lot of players have knowledge, but what they do with that knowledge is what makes a difference. From what we have seen so far (and not only based on the above example) Firouzja is intent on making a difference in the chess world.

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A Surprising g4 in the Najdorf

You must be wondering how a g4 move in the Najdorf can be surprising, but there are some cases when it is.

The year 2005 was a great year for me. At the end of it I made my first visit to Russia. In total I spent one month in Russia, divided between a tournament in Saratov and a stay in Moscow.

The tournament I played in Saratov was the first of the Aratovsky Memorials that became so strong in the following years. Back then it was a relatively unknown tournament, though very strong nevertheless.

In Round 5 of the tournament I was White against FM Isajevsky. He played the Najdorf and I had a chance to use a rare idea I discovered while analysing a previous game of mine.

This position arose from the positional line 6 Be3 e5 7 Nf3, after 7…Qc7 8 a4 Be7 9 Be2 0-0 10 0-0 Nbd7 11 Nd2 b6.

Black’s treatment of the line was sub-optimal, as White has achieved the ideal set-up: he can continie with 12 Bc4 followed by Bg5, obtaining strong control over the d5-square, which coupled with Black’s inability to push …b5 leaves White firmly in control.

That would have been the typical treatment of the line from White’s side. However, while analysing my game against Gunnarsson from that year’s European Club Cup I discovered a surprising idea.

That idea was the move 12 g4. It was quite shocking for my opponent and understandably so – White is not supposed to attack on the kingside in this line!

The game was tense, it continued with 12…h6 13 h4 Qd8 14 g5 hg 15 hg Nh7 16 g6 fg 17 Nc4, which was very promising for White. My opponent blundered and lost only 4 moves later. This game didn’t make it into the databases (none of the Saratov tournament did) and even checking now I can only find 3 games with the 12 g4 idea, the latest one from 2015 when Wei Yi used it to beat Sevian.

These types of ideas, when a positional line is suddenly turned into a dynamic one, have become more common nowadays, with the modern engines coming up with such moves on regular basis. Still, it felt good to spark such a surprise back in 2005!

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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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