Category : Personal

My First Book

I was sure that I would never write a book. I always felt that it was too much work and not worth the effort. And yet here I am talking about my first book.

I have to blame some friends (Josip, Dusan, looking at you guys!) for tricking me into it. I have to admit I liked the idea to write something that nobody has written about. You know the old saying, write the book you’d like to read.

And I always liked to read about the psychology and the preferences of the players and how they translated to the moves on the board. Nobody seemed to provide the proof when they say something like “Anand plays well with knights”, fine, but do the work and find those examples and convince me! Also, don’t stop with the knights, how about a complete analysis of Anand’s (or any other player’s) style and preferences, corroborated with concrete examples that show the correctness of the statements?

Botvinnik did that. But we only learned about it when his secret notebooks were published. I was fascinated reading those “characteristics” about the players. He dissected their styles based on their games with concrete examples.

I have desperately looked for something similar ever since reading those notebooks. An occasional glimpse here or there was not enough to satisfy my curiosity. I wanted the full picture but nobody would provide it.

I also understood why. It’s hard work! Looking back, I still find it hard to believe why I accepted to do that type of hard work… Going over hundreds of games of the player, trying to understand him, looking for patterns and preferences, avoiding false ones, while picking up the correct ones to form a complete “portrait”. Not easy, I assure you.

And yet somehow I did it. I enjoyed the hard work in fact, as this type of work fulfills me and I only wish I didn’t have a million of other things to do while doing this work. I remember envying guys like Hemingway who only wrote and had fun when not.

Still, I wish players like Kramnik or Anand (or maybe Peter Heine Nielsen!) wrote something like that. I am sure they have done this type of work for their most important tournaments and matches, as they had to know their opponents inside out. But for now their work remains hidden though I am hopeful that one day we will get to see the secret notebooks (in electronic form this time) of these great players.

But before that, the world is stuck with my work on the brightest American talents. I feel honoured to continue Botvinnik’s tradition and to have done something that nobody has done before, to analyse players in such detail and publish that work. Whether I have done a good job it’s on the world to judge.

The Sinquefield Chess Generation is out now.

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Tribute to Sveshnikov

In the beginning I had problems with the Sveshnikov.

A few of my junior competitors used the variation extensively and after several painful losses I discovered the cure: 3.Bb5 instead of 3.d4 and I was never getting mated again! Many years later Anand discovered the same when Gelfand used the Sveshnikov Sicilian against him in the World Championship match in 2012. In fact not playing the Sveshnikov won the match for Anand.

I saw the man in many tournaments over the years, but I never spoke to him. I maintained respectable distance and just observed how he played and how he analysed. And of course, I read everything he wrote and said in interviews.

In 2011 I played the European Team Championship in Porto Carras. There I got to face Evgeny Sveshnikov with Black.

I remember that in the preparation process I decided that I didn’t want to play my usual Sicilian because I didn’t want to face his Alapin. In spite of my excellent results against the Alapin I thought it’s probably not the wisest choice to play it against someone who has played and analysed it all his life and was likely the world’s best expert on it.

I decided to play 1…e5 because his choices of the Scotch and the Italian seemed easier to deal with. I remember I was expecting the Scotch, but he played the Italian instead.

After the game we had a very pleasant post-mortem, the results of which you can see in the comments to the game above. Evgeny was friendly and I was honoured to analyse with such a legend.

Only two years later I met Evegeny and his son, Vladimir, in Bratto, Italy. The Bratto tournament turned out to be a successful one for me (I finished 2nd in the end) and not in the least because of the following game facing Vladimir Sveshnikov.

I already knew that I was facing the Sveshnikov opening lab. Both father and son paid extremely high attention to the opening preparation and I knew that I had to find a way to surprise them, just like I did with Evgeny in Porto Carras.

This time I decided to play the Sicilian. The reason for my decision was that I had already prepared a line that I had never played before, a line that at that time was becoming popular. I knew that they would have something against it, but I was hoping on the element of surprise.

We didn’t analyse the game after it finished, but I could sense that Sveshnikov Senior was looking at me with certain respect. After all, I managed to outfox them in their strongest point, opening preparation. And on top of that, I won the game with Black in mere 23 moves!

After Bratto I occassionally saw Evgeny at tournaments, always cordially saluting him. I continued to follow his ideas, books and interviews. I admire independent thinkers who openly say what they think and Evgeny was one of them.

It was a big shock to read that he passed away today. He always seemed so full of energy and I had the feeling he would live until 100 with that amount of life force. But it wasn’t meant to be.

Evgeny Sveshnikov was one of the rare legends I got to meet, play and analyse with. I am grateful for the opportunity and I only wish I had more of them.

Rest in Peace Evgeny Sveshnikov.

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Lag

The following post was sent out as part of my weekly newsletter, to which you can subscribe using the yellow box on the right.

As I already wrote on my blog, the hybrid event went fine for me, in spite of losing the match. I already complained in the previous posts of my head not working properly in the preparation process, but when I started playing it worked really well, so I can conclude that the preparation served its purpose.

What I noticed is that when my brain works well there is either no, or very little, lag. By lag I mean the time between seeing a position and the moment the brain starts coming up with moves.

So when the brain is slow and sluggish there is a lot of lag. It usually manifests as mere staring at a position in the same way I stare at a wall. Just staring, the brain is blank, there is no connection between what I see (the position) and the brain, no moves are being produced.

An ideal visual motivation for me is the sight of what happenes when I press Alt+F2 (start engine) in Chessbase. The engine immediately starts coming up with moves and changes them as it calculates the position more deeply. This is how I want my brain to work during a game, not to waste time staring but to continuously come up with moves and improve the quality of those moves.

I have noticed that the best players, apart from having no lag whatsoever, have another extremely important quality of their mental work. This quality is relevance.

I had the good fortune to comment online with players like Svidler and Harikrishna and I noticed how they immediately come up with moves the moment a move is made on the board, but more importantly they always come up with relevant moves. They never propose moves that are out of touch with the position.

I remember seeing a video of Nakamura and some IM when they both solve the same puzzles and then they share the thoughts they had while solving them. It was incredible how Nakamura was always, without a single exception, so much to the point while the IM was often meandering and “lagging” in his thought process. He would often see the same move like Nakamura but then would just “lag” instead of continuing to come up with moves. Nakamura, on the other hand, was like an engine switched on, relentlessly going forward with the moves, and coming to conclusions.

From my own experience, lag can be reduced significantly by constant practice. The key, as always, is in the word constant.

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Hybrid Isn’t That Bad

After some consideration I decided to participate in the European Qualifier for the World Cup. This event was the first big hybrid event and I was curious to see how it would work in practice.

An additional motivation for me to play was that I have never played a match in my life. Here I was guaranteed 2 games against a strong opponent and this spiked my curiousity to see how I can deal with a match situation.

I was paired to play against GM Ivan Salgado Lopez from Spain. I happen to know Ivan pretty well, he was a board member of the ACP for quite some time and we worked together well. When I analysed his games I saw that he is very gifted tactically, so I thought that my chances would be higher if I “dulled” the game somewhat. I also noticed that he prefers to attack, so taking the initiative was also a priority (you can notice how this affected my decisions in the second game).

I cannot say that my chess preparations went particularly well, due to other commitments, but I did what I could.

The venue in Skopje, where we played, was in one of the best schools in the city. It was comfortable and the internet connection was stable. I used a chess board to think and move my pieces on, which was a bit unnatural in the beginning, as I had to make the move on the laptop first and then on the board. This made it a bit difficult to concentrate at the start of the first game, but I was surprised how quickly I got used to it and soon enough my concentration was quite alright.

The only time I ditched the chess board was at the end of the first game, when I had several minutes left to finish the game, so I moved to my laptop to execute the moves directly. Unfortunately that was when I blundered.

Generally speaking, I was pleasantly surprised by the hybrid format. My main concern was the ability to concentrate under strange conditions, but with that out of the way everything was normal. In a way I felt more relaxed than usual, without having a physical opponent to see there was less tension.

The match was very exciting and I enjoyed it tremendously. I should have won the first game and in that case I would have played the second one differently, but both games were full-fledged fights and this is something I have missed for quite some time with lack of playing opportunities.

In the first game I was Black and in spite of all the preparation we left theory rather early.

It was a real pity not to win a game where, as he admitted after the match, I completely outplayed him. But there was no time to waste and this is what happened in the 2nd game.

All credit goes to my opponent who found two great moves to refute my rook sacrifice. Still, I enjoyed playing the game the way I did – I am not sure going for a draw and a tie-break would have increased my chances in view of my complete absence of practice when it comes to online games at quick time controls.

So I lost the match, but it was an experience I thoroughly enjoyed. It reminded me how much I miss playing chess and now I feel a bit sad going back to the “usual routine.”

As for hybrid chess, having experienced it personally, I am now more optimistic about its future than before. With proper technical preparation, like the one we had in Skopje, and a stable online platform I don’t see a reason why there shouldn’t be more tournaments like this.

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Interview with GM Oscar Panno

After 7 years of maintaining this blog I can now firmly say that all the good opportunities I had in this period were thanks to it. These include but are not limited to my work in ACP, Chessable, various coaching and writing opportunities.

The latest one isn’t an exception.

Some time ago I was contacted by Sergio Panno, the son of the legendary Argentinian Grandmaster Oscar Panno. He said that GM Robert Hungaski has informed him of my blog and that perhaps I would be interested in sharing a word about a book on his father. Sergio informed me about a translation to English of a biographical book about his father called Oscar Panno, The Southern Chess Grandmaster that Challenged the North.

The above link has quite a lot of free “look inside” pages that you can read, which I did and the book captivated me. I consider myself well-educated when it comes to chess history, but while reading those pages I realised that there was a chess world that existed in South America in the 1950s that I knew very little about.

As I kept reading I came to the idea to ask a few questions the great man himself. I asked Sergio and he said that his father wouldn’t mind. That is how the interview below came into existence.

For me, this was like getting in touch with history itself. A player who became a World Junior Champion in 1953 (ahead of Larsen, Ivkov, Olafsson), qualified from the Gothenburg Interzonal in 1955 for the Amsterdam Candidates in 1956 and who played against 7 World Champions. It was just a big unbelievable WOW for me.

The Grandmaster wrote back in Spanish and I translated his answers to English. This translation was approved by Sergio so I present you the interview fully in English.

You come from a country with rich chess tradition. How did the chess culture in Argentina help you to became a World Junior Champion at the age of 18?

Buenos Aires has always been very connected to Europe via France and England and chess was one of the favourite activities. From the beginning of the 20th century we were visited by great players who left their trace. The highest points were the match Capablanca-Alekhine in 1927 and the Olympiad in 1939. Due to World War II a lot of players remained in our country, Miguel Najdorf being the most famous example, who established himself and served as a great inspiration. The 1950s were the golden period of Argentine chess with 3 silver medals at the Olympiads in 1950, 1952 and 1954. This atmopshere helped me become a World Junior Champion at the age of 18. However, in the next period we suffered financial and sporting decline and this was notable in the next showings on the international arena.

You rose to prominence in the 1950s when study material was scarce. What type of chess work did you do in that period that made you one of the best players in the world? To be more precise, how did you work on the openings, middlegames, endgames, calculation, technique?

The chess information was very scarce and it reached us very late. For example, at the moment of boarding the plane to go to a tournament GM Julio Bolbochan gave us the Russian magazines Shakhmaty with exactly 1 year delay since their publication. For these reasons we were forced to compensate these problems with great personal efforts.

You have played 7 World Champions: Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov. Can you describe how it felt playing each of them?

Smyslov: a great player who deserves all my admiration because he had a great impact on the strategic development in many openings.

Tal: a unique genius, who unfortunately suffered from health problems.

Petrosian: “first among equals” (as described by Averbakh) in the 1960s who deservedly dethroned the veteran Botvinnik. I had good relationship with him in spite of the language barrier.

Spassky: a great tactician who managed to beat Petrosian. I had good results with him and also good personal relations because we also shared a passion for tennis.

Fischer: completely dedicated to chess who impressed his rivals with his confidence and eagerness to fight.

Karpov: a product of the Soviet school who deservedly dominated for many years and was a model for conversion of small advantages.

Kasparov: in my opinion, the greatest player in history (in his best years) who mastered all the styles and techniques.

How did you prepare for Candidates tournament in Amsterdam in 1956? Did you have any specific player-oriented preparation or was it a more general one?

It was not possible to prepare because I was in the military until 1 day before the trip.

In spite of becoming a World Junior Champion in 1953 and becoming a top 10 player you still decided to change your career and become an engineer. What were the reasons for abandoning the career of a chess professional?

I was never a professional player because in Argentina it cannot be a way of life. For this it was necessary to travel to Europe as various players did, like Pilnik, Quinteros and later many others. I chose to stay because of my family and then I discovered other passion in engineering, to which I dedicated many years.

Even after leaving professional chess you kept a very high level. How did you manage that?

Because of my work and family commitments I had to plan my vacations for dates when an important event took place. Meanwhile I participated in local tournaments to keep me active.

What do you think was your strongest feature that made you different from the best players in the world?

Possibly I had to compensate the absence of an absolute dedication with great effort.

The Variation with 6…Nc6 followed by …a6 and …Rb8 in the Fianchetto Line of the King’s Indian bears your name (the Panno Variation). How did you invent it?

Up until 6…Nc6 the idea originated from the Yugoslavs, inviting White to play d5. I asked myself, what happens if White doesn’t push d5? So I proposed to attack the centre with the flank pawns, which was completely compatible with the Yugoslav system.

At the age of 85 you are still very active in chess, giving lectures every week to young players. What is it that keeps you going and what is the advice you give to the young players of today?

Today’s chess is heavily impacted by computers and the only advice that seems valid to give is to study the games of the great players to understand and improve one’s technique.

What is in your opinion the best way to integrate the chess education of your time with today’s use of databases and engines?

It is of utmost importance to obtain the chess literacy of the youngest, for this having chess in schools is fundamental.Then every one can develop his or her abilities since computers and internet are available to all.

After the interview was concluded I received a link from Sergio about a talk between Oscar Panno and Levon Aronian that was published on Youtube. You may wish to have a look at it here. It’s curious to see an interaction between Grandmasters of different epochs!

To conclude, I wish Oscar remains vital and that he continues to be an active part of the chess life not only in Argentina, but thanks to modern technology also in the whole world.

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The Future of Chess

The best way to predict your future is to create it. – Abraham Lincoln

In times when the whole world is concerned about the future our game is not an exception. What will happen to chess? Does chess have a future?

I dare say that chess as a game has a future. Homo ludens has always loved games so there will always be people who will be enchanted by the 64 squares and 32 pieces.

Another question is how that future will look like. We have grown accustomed to the classical chess that comes from time immemorial, with the special atmosphere of the tournaments and matches, feeling that there is something precious and exalted in the aura of the chess world.

The pandemic forcefully changed the scenery. It forced us to stay at home, to forego all chess tournaments and if we wanted to play we were offered a digital version of our game.

I already wrote about this new world and its leader, Hikaru Nakamura. In a very recent interview Nakamura spoke about his disbelief in the future of classical chess and openly said that the future is online.

I understand that saying these things is in line with his business as a streamer and esports celebrity and that this type of future would be very favourable for him. As Carlsen has built his business companies that are slowly taking over the chess world Nakamura also wants to build his own domination, only in the online world.

When it comes to talk about the future, I always remember Kasparov’s words from 2011. Paraphrasing, he said that chess will be played only by the elite, the rest of the world will watch and be considered amateurs.

The elite just finished the only OTB tournament in this period in Wijk aan Zee. Previously it was Norway Chess. The rest? We stayed at home, watched the elite play and moved the pieces on our screens.

The pandemic sped things up, but all seems to be falling in place for Kasparov’s and Nakamura’s future.

I don’t like that future. I may be a tourist, amateur or Candidate Master in Kasparov’s terminology, but I love playing chess. I want to be the doer, not the watcher.

I also firmly believe in Abraham Lincoln’s words. It is always the person’s responsibility and it is within his or her own powers to create his or her future. What will happen to chess depends on us.

By “us” I mean the players who are not the elite. There will always be classical chess and OTB tournaments for them, they will look after their interests well. If the rest want to play OTB and want it badly, OTB will live. Then there will be organisers and sponsors who will make them happen. FIDE can also help, a major step in this direction will be including the opens in the World Championship cycle.

Of course, a lot depends on how long the pandemic continues to paralyse the world. If it is for too long, then no amount of love for the game will be able to change things simply because there will be no choice. But there are positive news in the world today so let’s try to be optimistic.

There are many actions in the world where the common people show their will and when united they manage to change things. The same applies to chess as well, so when the masks are finally down we will see how strong our love for the game is. I like to believe that it is and that we again get to experience the special atmosphere of the chess tournaments. The online world can and will exist, but nothing compares to the feeling of holding and moving your pawn from e2 to e4.

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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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