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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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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Reversing Mate: World Champions Edition Vol.1

Drilling is one of the most important aspects of chess training. In spite of being so, it is often neglected, most often because it sounds boring. What a mistake.

I use drilling exercises quite often. They are good for getting into rhythm and practicing very quick board vision. This is good not only for blitz, but also for classical chess because it gives you confidence when you see the “small tactics” quickly.

There are different types of drilling exercises. Chessable recently published “the ultimate”ones – the mating exercises.

It is funny that I haven’t done these types of exercises since I was a kid. At that age it’s all about the king and mate, mate, mate! As we grow, we like to think that we’ve “outgrown” playing for mate as we concentrate on other aspects of the game. But the aim of the game is still to give mate, so when I started going over the Reversing Mate: World Champions Edition Vol.1 it all felt distantly familiar.

The author Alan Bester is not widely known. But as Kasparov used to say, I’ll paraphrase, an amateur with passion can sometimes create great things. Alan did the monumental work of first collecting and selecting and then classifying the games of all the World Champions that ended in mate.

The course works in two ways. One the more elementary level there are exercises that are mate-in-one drills that can be practiced with Chessable’s patented MoveTrainer. On the more advanced level, the one that I used, the exercises are multiple-move mating exercises. As I understand it, the author intended the mate-in-ones to be the first step towards the solution of the more complex mutltiple-move mates. From the simple to the complex.

An interesting part (for me at least!) was that even though all the exercises were from the games of the World Champions, not all of them were won by them! Very often they would be brutally mated (often in simuls) by completely unknown players.

While solving the exercises I experienced on myself the addictive aspect of this type of chess work. Once I started it was difficult to stop (and this is way much useful for chess improvement than the endless online blitz sessions, which are equally addictive!). With a huge number of exercises it’s easy to see the next one and say, OK, just one more and I’m off to bed. Then suddenly you discover it’s almost dawn.

But this is actually good! That is the actual point of drilling. Being exposed to the wide variety of mating patterns is hugely beneficial for sharpened attacking instincts and recognition of these patterns in one’s own games. What I found appealing with this course is that it is benefical to pretty much everybody – I found it beneficial to myself and the range of players who can use it to their own advantage goes all the way to beginners who can happily solve mate-in-ones to their own delight.

Alan did a great job creating this training book. I enjoyed it tremendously working through the exercises, especially as I knew this was to my benefit. Giving mate is always sweet, even if it is just in training! I hope you will find the course both enjoyable and useful, so please check it out  following the link below.

Reversing Mate – World Champions Edition Vol.1

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Individual European Rapid and Blitz Championship 2018

The tournament took place in my city of Skopje from 6-9 December and I was eagerly waiting for it. I did some preparation for it and was curious to see how things will work out.

In short, they didn’t. I was forced to leave the tournament (the second day of the rapid) due to a bad stomach bug.

However, I won’t dwell here on my health issues. I think there were other, more serious ones, that were at play and led to me having an unimaginably horrible tournament.

Looking at the statistics, I lost only 2 matches in the blitz section. Not bad, at first sight. But from the total of 11 I also won the same number. Not good at all.

There was another thing that was bothering me more and that was the fact that I was constantly playing players below my rating. I have written about this before, being stuck “in the mud” of lower-rated players who you cannot beat and you keep being paired against them. To make it worse, I was “lucky” enough to continuously be paired with players whose classical ratings were several hundred points above their blitz or rapid ratings.

So what was my problem then? Why I couldn’t peform on at least a satisfactory level? The following may read a bit like a stream of consciousness prose, but since these things are still fresh in my mind I write them as they come.

I always prefer to concentrate on my own play. External factors are important, but if anything they would mean that I couldn’t adapt to them in an optimal manner, hence again making myself responsible for what affected me.

The strangest thing was that in fact I was quite happy with how I was playing and feeling (until the last day, when I simply couldn’t get out of bed and didn’t go to the playing hall). My head was working fine, my time management was good and I was regularly getting winning positions.

Only that I wasn’t winning them. Something was missing in the last step, I couldn’t wrap things up. (I will explore an aspect of this “missing link” in a bit more detail in my Saturday newsletter, so if you’re intrigued use the yellow box on the right to sign up for it.) Coupled with my opponents’ resilience this led to a lot of missed points.

The missed points only piled up the frustration. With each round I was growing more frustrated and this feeling is not one you want to be feeling when needing to win. In fact, you need patience and frustration is very closely related to the opposite trait, impatience.

Usually I manage to keep myself under control and this time it wasn’t different. This was the case because I felt the reason was a mix of chess-related and psychological aspects.

From a chess aspect I was lacking the ability to clearly see the final blow with little time on the clock. Usually when in good form (and this is a good indicator of good form) the correct move suggests itself and you manage to calculate it properly. Then everything goes smoothly.

Apparently I wasn’t in good form, and it was a revelation for me to realise that I can feel good, my brain can work well, I can have all the desire to play and enjoy myself and yet the good form can pass me by.

So I was getting stuck in the winning positions. Not at all an uncommon problem of chess players of all strengths. I have noticed it happens to me when not in optimal condition, but as I wrote, I thought I was in optimal condition!

The psychological aspect was a tricky one to pinpoint. I had a few ideas, but the main problem was actually doing something while the tournament was in progress to change the tendency for the better. I have very rarely been successful at this, changing the bad tendency while it’s happening, and this time I failed again.

In fact, I never quite learned how to effectively do that. And I have tried what not. There never seems to be a one-size-fits-all solution that would work every time and in-between rounds there isn’t much time for experimenting.

In short, I bombed.

There was another very important aspect that a simple look at the results shows. I finished 7 matches in a draw. Of these 2 were comprised of two draws while the others were win/loss.

This tendency shows a clear lack of consistency. I would either win the first game and then play the next one badly, or I would lose the first one and then spring back and win in order to save the match.

There are two opposing psychological moments here: inability to hold a lead and the ability to motivate myself to come back from behind.

While the latter is commendable, the former is far from it. I have never played matches in my life (these being the first ones in probably more than a couple of decades) so I never thought about these aspects. I still haven’t, after all the tournament for me finished yesterday, but I will, as this introspection can unearth additional characteristics of my internal “set-up.”

As you can see, this is all still very raw. I wanted to get it out “on paper” while it is still fresh so I can start thinking about it without forgetting the important things. Let’s see now if I manage to come up with something constructive.

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Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Tie-Break

It was one-sided, even though it shouldn’t have been.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It seems like a stroke of genius now, that draw offer in Game 12. It is all justified looking backwards, there is no argument against success.

And that success was achieved today in a clean sweep. It seemed effortless and dominant, yet things were not like that before the games began.

I am convinced that Caruana did his best (and probably more than that) to improve his skills at rapid chess. He even started to show them in Game 1 as he managed to escape from a lost position. But then disaster stroke.

Carlsen’s opening in Game 1 was very shrewd. He was doing quite well in the Rossolimo in the match so what he basically did was play the same Rossolimo with White! It was amazing how quickly this brought him a winning position.

This game was the one that decided everything. Caruana pulled a miraculous escape, but unfortunately faltered at the end, when all the hard work was done and one more precise move was required. As I write in the comments, had he managed it would have broken the whole narrative of him being the hopeless underdog. It would have proven that he is at least equal in rapids and the match would have been open. All his hard preparatory hard work would have been rewarded. But it wasn’t meant to be. He erred and Carlsen won.

As he admitted in the press conferece, this first win was crucial as it gave him the necessary confidence. In spite of what everybody is saying, Carlsen still needs a win to reaffirm that confidence. And he got it when he needed it most.

In the second game Caruana at one point decided to go all in. As if he lacked the patience for a long struggle, he wanted a quick revenge. Alas, his lunge was premature and he was severely punished.

A brutal game after which the match was practically over. It rubbed in even further the whole narrative of the hopelessness of playing rapid with Carlsen, made Carlsen almost certain to win the match and killed Caruana’s spirits. But still, it was a very fine line between success and failure. Caruana’s attempt was a very ambitious one and he tried his luck, just that he was playing already-confident Carlsen who managed to refute his idea.

The third game was a wonderfully controlled game by Carlsen. Needing a draw he played in exactly the same manner as in the final rapid game of his tie-break with Karjakin in 2016. No main line Sicilians, a sideline giving him a space advantage and then carefully making sure nothing bad happens. This is how must-draw games should be played. And for the other player, when faced with this type of controlled play, the win-at-all costs attitude usually ends in a loss as he tries to avoid a draw at the expense of worsening his position.

Caruana could have easily drawn this game, but that wouldn’t have changed anything. What was important in this game was that Carlsen always kept things under control and never allowed Caruana to even come close to creating chances for a win. An exemplary game.

So after a 100% drawn classical part of the match we had 100% decisive rapid tie-break. The “small” things worked in Carlsen’s favour in the latter and he will remain a World Champion for the next two years. This was by far the most evenly contested World Championship match in recent history and it was also one with a very high level of play throughout. The opportunities were few and far between and even when they arose they were extremely complicated to capitalise upon.

At the end I am curious about two questions. Carlsen himself admits that in the last few years he has been stagnating and not playing his best. Will this triumph spur him to solve that problem or will he rest on his laurels?

Caruana showed that he is at least equal to the World Champion in classical chess. He is automatically seeded in the 2020 Candidates tournament. Will this defeat spur him to improve even further and try again to dethrone Carlsen?

Two years is a long time, but they will pass in no time.

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