Category : Personal

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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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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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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Learning Languages II

Continuing with the stories about Italian, Spanish and Russian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Learning Languages I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Online Threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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