Category : Personal

A Long-Overdue Update

It’s been very hectic several months since I last wrote. Here’s a recap of what I’ve been doing ever since.

In August I played the Segunda Division (the second Spanish league) in the legendary town of Linares. It’s 7-round tournament where I played six games. There is one double-round day and I skip the morning game on that day. I played pretty well, though I have to say that the level of my opposition was unexpectedly high, especially taking into consideration their ratings, which weren’t.

My shortest game in Linares was 41 moves long, the longest was 104 moves, with the average being 61 moves. I don’t remember playing games that long one after another in a single tournament!

In spite of this, I was content how I played. You can see one example on my Youtube channel, where I analysed my game from the penultimate round, one that could have been one of my most brilliant games, but alas, I missed these chances twice.

Still, things weren’t that bad until the last round. As usual, a morning game, and again I failed to adapt. I felt more awful than usual and I simply couldn’t play. To add insult to injury, my opponent mistakenly sacrificed a queen, which gave me a winning position, and while I was aware that I was winning, I was so sluggish in taking decisions and calculating, that I ended up losing.

Losing is no end of pain, and this one was particulaly bad because of the way it happened. I couldn’t win with an extra queen! I tried to look at it from the positive side and drew several important lessons, though I still haven’t figured out what to do with the problem of playing in the morning.

In September I was the official commentator at the FIDE World Senior Team Championship, which was held in my country near the town of Struga on the Ohrid Lake. I enjoyed the part, looking at games as they were played, sharing my thoughts and opinions. The few people who followed me live seemed to be very happy with my commentary, though in view of the very closed market for chess commentary nowadays, I doubt I would get new offers. A pity, I have to add, because I really like commentating.

A few days after Struga I went to Durres, Albania, at the European Club Cup. Usually I have played these events, but this time I went for a different reason. I was one of the lecturers at the Fair Play Seminar. As one of the seven Fair Play Officers (FPOs) in the world I taught a group of players, arbiters, organisers and interested parties about the importance of anti-cheating, prevention and protection measures and a lot of other areas of this wide topic.

After Albania I returned home to finish my new Chessable course 1.d4 Simplified. I enjoy working on openings and doing so allows me to find a lot of new ideas that can be used in my games. Only a fraction of those ideas can make it to the course, so by analysing deeply the openings I enrich my own opening repertoire. I did the same with 1.e4 and now with 1.d4 I have a pretty nice arsenal of ideas to use in my games.

I managed to finish the course and submit it for beta-testing before leaving for Germany. In the upcoming weekend I will play one game for my German team before I set off for the Isle of Man and the Grand Swiss. Ideally I would have loved to play the Grand Swiss, but as things stand this is not a very probable event, so going there as a press officer is the next best thing. I will be writing daily reports from the rounds and this should be interesting, as I will be following high-level games and writing about them for 11 days! As a chess fan, being at the same place where the top events are happening and being able to see the players in the playing hall is priceless.

I don’t have many plans after the Isle of Man. I will likely play more games for my German club until the end of the year and there is also one more possible arrangement that I am currently discussing, but that is all, more or less.

I have always wanted a calm couple of months at the end of the year. As the weather gets colder, I prefer to spend more time at home, not having to travel in adverse conditions. Let’s see if I get them this time.

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Rating Is The Enemy

Some time ago, I remember a young and promising GM crying on social media, in all seriousness, how the public cannot possibly understand the agonising pain of losing 20 rating points and dropping below 2600.

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry from such deification of the rating numbers. And yet, they control us.

Everybody is an addict to those numbers, to a bigger or lesser extent. Even Carlsen, who recently said he would like to remain number one with a solid advantage over the rest.

We are all trapped inside our own small circles, from the beginners who want to cross 1100 to the elite who want to cross 2800. Let’s mention again Carlsen, who not so long ago set himself the aim to cross 2900.

This slavery doesn’t bring anything good. I remember I played my best when I didn’t care about rating. And yet, nowadays, it’s all about the rating.

Perhaps the worst thing about the rating is that we are judged by it. People see those numbers and immediately they think they know you’re a patzer or a strong player. They “know” whether you deserve respect or not. Which is definitely not how it should be. 

When checking the results of the players I encountered frequently in the past, I noticed that without exception, they all lose or have already lost, a lot of rating. There are several reasons for this.

The first one is the broken rating system. FIDE, in their worldly wisdom, decreased the rating gain to zero (!) when playing players who have more than 400 rating points. So, an IM of 2400 can score 9/9 against players rated 1900 and he will keep her rating. But God forbid should he make a draw – then she immediately loses around 5 points!

The second problem is that due to various factors, there are a lot of underrated players, especially the young ones. So again, God forbid you have the bad luck of playing them in a tournament – once you may win, but they will definitely get you in the next games and you can start posting agonising cries on social media like the GM mentioned at the beginning.

The most certain way not to lose rating is not to play. The once feared GM Korneev, who outrated me between 150-200 points for most of the time since the mid-90s, now is within 20 points of my rating. You play, you lose.

There is one group of players, though, who manage to play and not lose rating. It’s the elite, who play among themselves. They draw most of the time, win some, lose some, but when playing players with similar rating and you are around 50% most of the time, you don’t lose rating. 

The elite is definitely stronger than the rest, but the case of the online tournaments where they often play lower rated opposition shows what a lot of us have known – they cannot, consistently, maintain their rating when playing lower-rated players on a regular basis. There are countless examples of players like Carlsen, Nakamura, Caruana, Kramnik etc. losing or drawing players rated 2100 or lower. If those games were actually rated, they would have been writing agonising tweets mourning their ratings a long time ago. Or they would have stopped playing these events.

I can also give you an example from over-the-board play. While still a top 3 player, Kramnik played the Qatar Masters open in 2014. He played as expected, leading the event and only a loss in the last round to Yu Yangyi cost him first place. His next open was the same Qatar Masters the following year, when he played equally well, sharing third place.

But already in 2017, when playing in the Isle of Man open, Kramnik (rated 2803 at the time) struggled, failing to beat Lawrence Trent (2427) and losing to James Tarjan (2412). The following year was similar, as he drew with Sundararajan (2445) and Kashlinskaya (2447).

This is a known phenomenon – when a stronger player plays a weaker player on a regular basis, the strength of the stronger player decreases while the strength of the weaker player increases. This is why the elite prefer to play among themselves – it keeps their rating and their status in the chess world intact.

These problems with the rating kills the enthusiasm of many players. They want to play, but they cannot win (rating). And this leads to a lot of older players stopping active play, leaving only the young ones to massacre each other.

I outlined several issues with the rating, which I have observed, but I don’t know the solution to these issues. FIDE recently announced that they are coming up with something, and pretty soon at that. I am not too optimistic, though.

Perhaps, there is no general solution, only an individual one. Each one of us should find the most appropriate way for him/herself not to be affected by the “magical” numbers so that (s)he can give their best on the chessboard. Eventually, that should be all that matters.

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Controversy in 1984

I grew up watching the Karpov-Kasparov matches in the 1980s. As a kid, I was rooting for Kasparov and I remember the joy I felt when I heard the news that he won the last game in Seville and kept his title.

When I started playing opens around Europe in the 1990s I encountered several players who were part of Karpov and Kasparov’s camps. Being fascinated by those matches, I never tired of listening to their stories. It was inside information I was craving for and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Some of that inside information was controversial.

Over the years I picked up bits and pieces of information and connected some dots. When Kasparov’s books on his Predecessors and the matches with Karpov came out, I considered that information in a new light.

In this post I will take an in-depth look at their first match in 1984-85.

The match started with a disaster for Kasparov. After game 9 he was already 0-4 down. Luckily for him, in an unlimited match, he could make draws and stay in the match, almost infinitely.

Kasparov started making draws. And some of these draws leave a strange impression. (In what follows I used the information from Kasparov’s own book on his match with Karpov. I have the book in Russian, so any quotations are translated from Russian.)

Being 0-4 down and having lost two games in his beloved Tarrasch Defence, Kasparov wrote that he intended to use the Grunfeld Defence that he prepared with his second Adorjan. I find this very strange, as he wrote that he prepared the Queen’s Gambit Declined as his back-up defence against 1.d4. Going for a sharp Grunfeld while obviously out of form and 0-4 down didn’t sound too sensible to me.

Implying an information leak, Kasparov believed that Karpov knew of his intentions and that was the reason he chose 1.Nf3 starting from game 11 and avoiding 1.d4 (that he played in games 7 and 9 and featured the Tarrasch Defence) for the remainder of the match.

Instead of going for the QGD, Kasparov dabbled with the double fianchetto in the English Opening and the Queen’s Indian in games 11, 13 and 15. He was under pressure in those games but he managed to draw them. From game 17 onwards he relied on the QGD and starting from that game we got a very strange series of draws.

One of the most shocking inside information I got to know from the seconds in both camps was that during the match there were strange phone calls happening. The player (Karpov or Kasparov) would pick the phone up and there would be no words spoken and then they would hang up. What the seconds thought was that these were draw offers and they came in couples, i.e. to draw the next two games.

The following analysis of the games, taking into consideration their content and time spent by the players, does seem to support those claims.

In game 17 they drew in 23 moves, with White (Karpov – he was White in all the odd games) spending 1.28 and Black 1.01.

In game 18 the draw was agreed in 22 moves with White spending 1.58 and Black 1.03.

Game 19 was the only one that lasted longer, 44 moves, but in view of Kasparov’s excellent preparation the draw was obvious already around move 20.

Game 20 saw a draw in 15 moves, White spending 0.34 and Black 1.03.

Game 21, draw in 31 moves, White 1.56, Black 1.38.

Game 22, draw in 20 moves, White 1.36, Black 1.24.

Game 23, draw in 22 moves, White 1.43, Black 1.22.

Game 24, draw in 17 moves, White 1.56, Black 1.38.

Game 25, draw in 21 moves, White 2.05, Black 1.34.

Game 26, draw in 23 moves, White 1.23, Black 1.10.

As you can notice, the games lasted around 3 hours, more or less, and the number of moves was around 20.

Then Karpov won game 27 and the score became 5-0 in his favour.

After the uneventful draw in game 28, more strange things started to happen.

In his book, Kasparov starts to contradict himself. He wrote that he started to feel safe in the QGD when playing Black, because in spite of the loss of game 27 he didn’t really have problems in the opening. So where is the logic of venturing a new opening when one step away from losing the match with the embarrassing score 0-6?

Yet, that is exactly what Kasparov started doing in the next games.

He wrote that he wanted to take advantage of the fact that Karpov wasn’t always confident when meeting a new opening, so he played the sharp Meran in game 29. He wanted to “sharpen the situation in the match” by playing the Meran with Black and playing 1.e4 with White. 

Sharpening the situation in the match when being 0-5 down sounds suicidal to me, but game 29 fell into the category of the above draws, lasting only 13 moves with White spending 1.39 and Black 0.51.

Game 30 saw the Petroff, with a draw in 20 moves, White 1.02, Black 1.19.

Game 31 saw a return go the QGD for Kasparov (he writes that he decided to postpone the use of the Meran after seeing the “fighting look of his opponent.” All this makes very little sense to me – it implies he got scared of some preparation, so he switched to the QGD, and yet in the next games he returned to the Meran!). The game gave Karpov excellent winning chances, but he spoilt them and there was another draw.

Game 32 was Kasparov’s first win. In spite of his decision to start playing 1.e4 (“to sharpen the situation in the match”) he chose 1.d4 and in the Queen’s Indian he won a very nice game.

Game 33 saw a return to the Meran (Karpov chose the Semi-Slav development) and a draw in 20 moves, White 1.37, Black 1.10.

Game 34, draw in 20 moves, White 1.20, Black 0.59.

In game 35 Karpov decided to return to the move 1.e4.

Kasparov writes that they prepared the Classical Sicilian already for game 7, strangely not going for his back-up the Najdorf, that served him well for an easy draw in game 5. Again we get a new opening for Kasparov and again, miraculously, the Classical Sicilian (with the Rauzer chosen by Karpov) giving him easy draws in the two games he used it.

Game 35 was drawn in 17 moves, White 1.45, Black 1.22.

Game 36 saw a big fight, where both players could win.

Game 37 was another Rauzer with another quick draw, 15 moves, White 1.36, Black 0.37.

These were amazing results with both the Slav and the Classical Sicilian, easy and quick draws with new openings that he didn’t prepare for the match. So why didn’t Kasparov continue to use them?

Game 38 and 39 saw identical play until move 22 but didn’t offer any chances to either player.

Game 40 gave Kasparov winning chances, but he missed them.

Game 41 was a special one. 

Kasparov writes that he lost confidence in the Rauzer (why?) and was in panic about what to play against 1.e4. He writes that he didn’t “fully trust” the Najdorf (strange admission coming from Kasparov – the only time he used it was in game 5 which was an easy draw for him, so no reasons to really complain about it)  so he decided to go for his opponent’s favourite defence, the Petroff. He toyed with the idea of playing the Ruy Lopez (something that he looked at from the black side in his pre-match preparation) but he writes “with the score 1-5 playing a complex opening without proper preparation was scary.”

This is an obvious contradiction in Kasparov’s writing. He did prepare the Ruy Lopez before the match, unlike the Classical Sicilian and the Slav, but he never mentions being scary playing those two openings while being one loss away from losing the match. But now, all of a sudden it was scary to play the Lopez.

Eventually he decided to rely on the Petroff, another opening he didn’t prepare before the match, but he didn’t have any ideas against with with White, so he thought it was safe. The opening went well for Kasparov, but he misplayed it on move 15 and Karpov obtained great winning chances. However, he missed them on move 33 and Kasparov held the draw.

Game 42 was a draw in 26 moves, White 1.31, Black 1.21

Game 43 was a draw, notable that Kasparov (finally) played the Najdorf. It lasted 21 moves, White 1.43, Black 0.45.

Games 44-46 were real fights with mutual chances, game 45 featuring the Najdorf and games 44 and 46 were Ruy Lopezes, Karpov deviating from the Petroff.

Game 47 was another peculiar game.

Karpov returned to 1.Nf3 and Kasparov again played the Semi-Slav. He writes that he felt confident trying it again. Karpov went for the sharpest option 5.Bg5, inviting the Botvinnik Variation, but Kasparov, surprised by the sharp choice, dodged it by going for the Cambridge-Springs. On move 11 (!) Kasparov offered a draw, but Karpov refused even though Black already had no problems. Karpov’s refusal of “it’s too early” showed some insecurity and he played the game very badly, losing in 32 moves. 

Kasparov won a very good 48th game in the Petroff and the match was then stopped, with Karpov still leading 5-3.

The above analysis points out several questionable moments in the match. The first is the “coupling” of the draws, short both in the time spent and the number of moves played. Second is Kasparov’s choice of openings at different moments in the match. If it is true that such “coupling” of draws took place (as the seconds I spoke with thought) then it’s not really surprising that Kasparov chose different openings, as he knew the game would end in a draw and was risking nothing. At the same time he wasn’t showing his ideas in his main openings and was “testing” the ideas that he had in the Slav and the Rauzer. Third is Kasparov’s contradictory reasoning when choosing his opening for game 41, also going contrary to the logic of choosing the mentioned Slav and Classical Sicilian.

Only the main protagonists know the truth and I don’t think they will ever speak out about these questions. However, these questions certainly raise some doubts about some games of this historic match.

There are questions about their other matches as well.

I have heard that the match in Seville was “decided” to be drawn after Karpov equalised the score in game 16. 

Before that game there were two games that fell along the lines of the above draws.

Kasparov’s toothless treatment of the Caro-Kann in games 10 and 14, draws in 20 and 21 moves, 1.35-1.30 and 1.34-1.14, respectively. Even more strange is his choice to switch to 1.e4 in game 10 after winning a crushing game 8 with the English Opening when he himself writes that Karpov had obvious problems in the English. So why change the favourable opening and give away an easy draw and the match initiative?

Game 14 was agreed drawn in a position where Kasparov had a safe and stable advantage.

After a very bad game 16, which he lost with White, with the result in the match tied Kasparov chose the most surprising opening in his game 17. He writes that he was out of form in Seville and that he was lacking fighting spirit and just wanted to end the match. The Grunfeld was serving him well and I find his explanations to choose the King’s Indian (!) in such a delicate match situation – to mobilise his inner reserves – a bit far fetched. Karpov chose 1.Nf3 in an attempt to avoid the Grunfeld (for a first time in the match!) and instead of the rock-solid QGD  or a variation in the English he had prepared, Kasparov went for the sharpest Mar del Plata variation! A curious selection of firsts by both players.

Similar to the games in the first match mentioned above, Kasparov again showed “courage” with his opening choice in a critical match situation. 

The next two games, 18 and 19, were QGDs, Kasparov returning to 1.c4 and Karpov replying 1…e6 and Karpov repeating 1.Nf3 but Kasparov this time going for 1…d5.

In game 21 Karpov returned to 1.d4 and Kasparov writes that he “understood that returning to the Grunfeld in such a critical moment was risky.” I just wonder why he didn’t consider the KID risky earlier, in game 17. Additionally, he didn’t consider the Grunfeld risky for game 23, when he offered a transposition to it, but Karpov declined it.

The last two games entered history as the most exciting finish in a World Championship match. I have heard that they were also part of an agreed “double,” but I leave it to the readers to believe what they wish.

The matches between Karpov and Kasparov had many situations that never made it to the public. In their last match in 1990, during the first part in New York, Karpov urgently had to fly back to Moscow. What could have been so important for Karpov to abandon a World Championship match and fly back to Moscow, changing time zones and completely messing up his regime and routine? The person who told me this didn’t know the answer.

Another curious information was that Karpov thoroughly prepared the Caro-Kann for the match in 1990, but he never used it then. The seconds and trainers working on it were puzzled by this choice. Karpov lost the match because of the sensitive losses in the Ruy Lopez in games 18 and 20. However, he used all that work on the Caro-Kann in his next tournaments and achieved great results in that opening. Does this mean that he saved all the work for after the match and didn’t consider the match “worthy” to show his preparation? Karpov was obviously under pressure in the Ruy Lopez, so it made perfect sense to change the opening, but the only time he did so was using the Petroff (giving him an easy draw!) in game 10. Why he didn’t repeat the Petroff, when it was such a success, is another question left unanswered.

In this lengthy analysis I posed the questions that I found logical and to which I couldn’t find the answers to. These were interspersed with bits of information that I have gathered throughout the years. I doubt that I will ever receive answers, but at least I put the questions out in the public. Who knows, maybe the truth will come out at some point.

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Riding a Bicycle

This one is from my newsletter.

In case you were wondering, I won’t be talking about physical exercise and actual riding of a bicycle, even though that is a painful subject for me, the lack of it, to be more exact. That will likely be a topic for another day.

Now I’d like to share a revelation that I recently found in a book.

For all my life I was playing the Sicilian with both colours. When I played it with Black I always felt more at ease because I knew that the long-term prospects were on my side. I only (only!) had to avoid being mated and then I knew that things will be great for me as the potential endgame would give me good chances for more than just a draw.

However, when I played it with White, I always felt rushed and under pressure. Larsen called the Sicilian a “cheap trap” in a sense that White exchanges the central d-pawn for Black’s c-pawn and then tries to “cheapo” his way to a quick mating attack. So I always acutely felt this pressure that if I don’t deliver the mate then my long-term prospects would not be something to look forward to.

With these feelings, I always treated the Sicilian in a very aggressive fashion. The English Attack, lines with f4 and g4, the Sozin in the beginning of my career, all of them aimed at either a pawn storm or a piece attack.

Of course, I knew Karpov’s games in the Sicilian, playing in so-called slow-mode and strangulating his opponents, but this was mostly because of his superior playing skills rather than the “correct” treatment of the Sicilian. When he faced a Sicilian player par-excellence in the likes of Kasparov, he was forced to abandon 1.e4 altogether – the positional Sicilians didn’t work anymore.

(Of the many slow-Sicilians I was particularly impressed by the game Smyslov-Hort from Petropolis Interzonal in 1973 where White’s knight arrived on g4 (!) before delivering the final blow on f6).

I never defined these feelings exactly and to be honest I never seriously tried. I knew what I was feeling and didn’t feel a need to share that with the world. But at the beginning of the year I invested half of my one-day commentating fee at the Rilton Cup in chess books and one of the books I bought was “Winning” by Nigel Short. While browsing the book I found what I’ve forgotten I was looking for: the accurate description of White’s play in the Sicilian. Here’s Short’s comment on Black’s 17th move from his game against Kasparov from the Amsterdam tournament in 1991:

“Playing White in the Sicilian is like riding a bicycle. You have to keep moving forward, otherwise you fall off.”

Incredibly astute observation by Short and one that perfectly described my feelings!

I have written before that one of the feelings I hate the most is the feeling of being rushed. Therefore it’s perhaps not a surprise that I have stopped playing open Sicilians with White. The itch for a full-fledged open fight with sights on the opponent’s king is still there, but most of the time I think better of it. The Rossolimo seems like a good alternative nowadays.

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Are the Days of Classical Chess Numbered?

It’s a valid question that crops up more and more lately. The latest impetus for asking it was Carlsen’s statement from his recent interview with chesscom when they spoke about the purchase of his company Play Magnus Group.

Carlsen openly stated that he expects classical chess to be phased out at his level. This is different to what Kasparov predicted more than 10 years ago when he said that classical chess will be played only by the elite, while for everybody else it will be just entertainment.

First we have to realise that Carlsen spoke as a shareholder of his company that was bought, so he had to play to the tune – chesscom is all about faster time controls. However, I think there is a deeper issue here.

Chronologically, Carlsen has called for change of the format of the World Championship to matches with faster time controls. Then this year he officially withdrew from the classical championship, something I wrote about in my previous post, where the main reason was the gruelling hard work necessary to play these matches. Then in the interview with chesscom he openly said that he expects classical chess to be played less. He said the reason for this was the difficulty of finding new ideas in the opening at his level.

Another notable thing he said was that he would like to play Fischer Random at classical time controls.

If we connect the dots of all of the above, we can come to the logical conclusion that Carlsen doesn’t want to work hard anymore.

Chess has always been very hard at the highest level. There was no World Champion who complained about that while they were still in their prime. They knew they had to work extremely hard to overcome their competition and come up with “new ideas in the opening.”

The comment about Fischer Random serves as proof of the above. Carlsen isn’t against classical chess per se, he likes to delve deeply in a position if he can just play from the beginning, not being burdened by preparation and memorisation.

But at 31 Carlsen became tired. He’s been working extremely hard for almost 20 years and doesn’t want to do that anymore. He wants to have fun, play on fast chess on chesscom and entertain himself and the world. He knows that his theoretical baggage from his matches is more than sufficient to keep him afloat, especially at faster time controls when even sub-optimal opening ideas can be tried without being punished.

I have to add that this doesn’t bide well for the still reigning World Champion. The moment you stop working hard you start going down. He is still head and shoulders above the rest, but that won’t last for long. That goal of 2900 will never happen.

After Carlsen other players also came out with the same preferences for faster time controls. With chesscom injecting vast amounts of money in their events, it’s easy to foresee a never-ending string of online tournaments which are financially more beneficial than any classical over-the-board event.

Who will care about classical chess then?

I care about classical chess and I know FIDE does too. But can anything be done to stop the tide?

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Why Larsen Lost

The following text is from my newsletter, to which you can subscribe using the yellow box on the right.

The match Fischer-Larsen in Denver 1971 is one of the most famous ones in chess history. It had never happened before, and it will never happen again, that in a match between two top-3 players (Spassky, Fischer and Larsen were top three players in the world then) one beats the other six (!) times in a row and not just anywhere, but in a semi-final Candidates match.

The reasons for such a result come from both sides – Fischer was playing almost perfect chess and Larsen had problems. Larsen wrote about them after the match, claiming the historically high temperatures in Denver affected him, leading to high blood pressure, thus making it difficult for him to play on his usual level.

However, there is one aspect that I haven’t seen mentioned when it comes to this match. Larsen indirectly acknowledges it, when he says that in the last game of the match he saw that he could force a draw by a perpetual check, but decided to continue anyway. It is his psychological attitude as a player.

Larsen has always been an uncompromising player, similar to Fischer. He played to win, full stop. And here comes the problem, that I have also suffered from.

When the player is in great shape this attitude brings great results, like the ones Larsen had at the end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s. But when the player is out of shape and if he is not aware of it and does not adapt to the situation, this attutude leads to disasters.

Lack of flexibility in the player’s mindset and behaviour will lead him to continue pursuing maximum goals, pushing in every game and playing for a win. However, coupled with the bad form this will mean that the opportunities that will arise as a result of that approach will more likely be used by the opponents than the player himself. If it continues, this can easily lead to losing streaks that the player would like to break with a win, leading to more losses – the match in Denver is the perfect example.

Looking at the games from the match Fischer-Larsen I see exactly this. Larsen could have drawn many games in that match, but every time he spurned that possibility in search for more, often at the expense of objectivity. As a result he was severely punished by a player who took advantage of all his mistakes with machine-like precision.

This has happened to me way too often. I refused to acknowledge the need for a more sensible and less-maximalistic approach, pushing at all cost, for which I was punished. Part of the problem was that I didn’t really know to play and approach the game in another way, how to be more pragmatic, how to sometimes play for a draw and take the foot off the pedal. I was punished so I could learn.

To be honest, I am not sure if I learned. I understood the problem and what needed to be done, by becoming more aware of my state of mind, but the actual implementation during the preparation process and the game was much more difficult to make. The difficulty also lay in my opening repertoire, which was suited to play for win with both colours, but less suited for more controlled play.

I am not sure what is easier to change – the mental attitude or the opening repertoire. They are connected and I think the start should come from the mental attitude. Accept that “draw is good” and the corresponding openings should follow.

An additional aspect is the attitude during the game. This is even more difficult to control as after many years of drilling the mind to search for sharp and demanding moves it requires a very difficult to achieve self-control to train the mind to search for solid and safe moves.

As I often like to say, self-awareness is the key and the process is simple (on the surface): understand the situation and do what is necessary, in this case to limit the damage. But if Larsen couldn’t do it, then perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves when we cannot either.

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The Olympiad in Chennai

There is a first for everything and Chennai was a first for me in more than one way.

It was my first Olympiad where I wasn’t involved in the actual playing – in the past I was always either a player or a coach while this time I had a role that required completely different set of skills.

It was also my first Olympiad when I was “on the other side,” the side of the organisation, trying to make the event as smooth and problem-free for the participants.

These aspects mean that this post won’t have chess content, but it will offer a different view of a chess olympiad as seen from “inside,” plus a small glimpse of the India I saw.

My official role was Fair Play Officer and that meant that my main task was to prevent cheating. It quickly transpired that this will mean control of the entrance gates and players’ behaviour while the games were in progress.

I had a team of 10 (at the beginning – as the event progressed I was left with 7 as the others had to join the smaller, but busier hall 1) Fair Play Experts and a varying number of volunteers who I had to organise in order to handle the flood of approximately 1500 people entering hall 2 every single day.

Hall 2, with quite a few rows of boards behind the camera as well

After a few days the team got into a good routine and the work started to flow, as we were able to finish with the pre-game scanning before the start of the round, always a major success in any Olympiad!

During the rounds I was constantly summoned to solve various problems and situations, requiring me to exhibit quick thinking, common sense and the good will to make decisions that made the event memorable and enjoyable for the participants.

It was an extremely hard work, every day from 1.45pm until 9pm of continuous problem-solving, but I cannot say I didn’t like it. It was something new for me and, judging by the results, it seems I did quite a good job.

From the aspect of Fair Play the Olympiad went smoothly and here I will have to congratulate the whole Fair Play Team (hall 1 was a nightmare for a very long time and my colleagues Yuri and Klaus did a great job of handling the mess!). It is the nature of Fair Play that it works best when it is spoken of the least, but the old cliche of “without you, none of this would have been possible” is 100% applicable to the team’s efforts and accomplishments. So, well done ladies and gentlemen and thank you!

The Fair Play Team

Chennai was also my first visit to India. I wasn’t sure what to expect and often things work out for the best when there are no expectations.

Due to the demanding work I regret that I couldn’t see more of India outside the hotel, but what I saw was enough to mesmerise me. I made two trips, one to Chennai (the venue hotel where I was staying and where the Olympiad took place was some 50km away from the city) and one to the nearby Shore Temple and its surrounding.

I have been to many big cities in the world, but Chennai was something completely different. The contrast of lush vegetation, luxury hotels, delapidated houses and unattended litter was an attack on the senses.

So was the food, but this time in a very pleasing manner. The restaurant owner where we had lunch (the Maharaja Thali was excellent!) in Chennai turned out to be a classmate of Vishy Anand. And as classmates usually do, he rang him up and we had a video call with Anand himself during our lunch. I wonder what were the odds of that.

One of my “to do” tasks in India was to dip into the Indian Ocean. I managed to do just that at the Marina Beach.

I am smiling here, but in the next moment or two I was washed away by a big wave, the ocean making sure I got the full taste of it.

The visit to the Vishnu temple in Chennai made the deepest impression. I have always liked eastern philosophies and as it turned out we entered it while there was a procession in progress. No photos were allowed inside, so I can only share one from the entrance.

There were monks chanting mantras and a lot of people doing their rites.

What made the impression on me was the atmosphere inside. It was the feeling of peace and calm that overcame me, exactly the same one I have experienced in the churches I have visited elsewhere in the world. Some things in this world are universal and this is one of them.

India did a lot to promote the Olympiad and one of the starkest sights was the chess bridge.

An excellent spot to take a photo!

The visit to the Shore Temple and its surrounding was another type of visit.

The Shore Temple

An area where a lot of temples have been constructed (or cut in stone!) along the centuries gave the aura of the spiritual side of India.

For me, the most amazing feature was nature’s wonder called Krishna’s Butterball.

How could a 250-tonne boulder balance on a steep surface for centuries without rolling downwards was beyond me. There were people trying to push it, probably a common tradition that I didn’t dare follow. I had the strange sensation that I may be successful, thus bringing unnecessary reincarnations and devastation to everything that lay in its path.

Here’s the boulder from the other side:

The area around was full of temples carved in stones. Here’re a few:

I spent some time at the temple on top as it gave a stunning view of the surrounding.

With my back against it and looking towards the ocean one could sense the infinity of space.

I also saw the Five Rathas, one of the most popular tourist sites in India. I was already finishing the visit by that time as my time was running out – I had to be back for the game.

The organisers showered us with courtesy gifts and among them was a book on Tamil Nadu, the state where the Olympiad took place. There were more amazing temples in that book and at first I hoped I could visit some, but upon realising the distances from where I was I quickly abandoned the idea – India is huge!

Time flew fast and the Olympiad finished sooner than I realised. My flight was scheduled a day later than most of the participants, so I could walk around the venue the day after. The abandoned buildings could not yet take away the buzzing energy that was flowing around in the past weeks.

In the evening I left the hotel and soon enough I was on my way home.

Thank you India, it was a pleasure.

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The Candidates 2022 – A Preview

With Karjakin’s appeal to FIDE’s Ethics and Disciplinary Commission rejected, we now safely know the eight participants in the upcoming Candidates Tournament in Madrid.

I always like to think about what can happen and what can be expected of the participants, even though I fully realise I will be completely mistaken about some of my predictions. Nevertheless, here’s what I think.

The Experienced

Ding Liren and Fabiano Caruana have seen it all, having been world’s number two and three for many years now. Caruana convincingly won the Berlin Candidates in 2018 and only lost the World Championship match with Carlsen that same year on tie-break.
Ding Liren didn’t have a good first part in Yekaterinburg in 2020, but won the second leg of the ill-fated Candidates in 2021. He suffered the most due to the pandemic, but after a frantic run of games in April he is all set to have another go in normal conditions in Madrid.

Both of them are the natural favourites to win.

Caruana had a topsy-turvy period in the last few years. The most significant event was his separation from his long-time second Rustam Kasimdzhanov, which affected his results so that he even dropped from the standard top-3 on the rating list. But in 2022 his immense work to perform better on faster time controls is finally showing, with his results quite consistent in rapid and blitz, and his win at the American Cup (in classical) in April seems to suggest that he is hitting top form. But then, in the same topsy-turvy style, he was sub-par in the Superbet Chess Classic where he finished on 50%. He experimented with his openings, playing everything with White (1.e4, 1.d4, 1.c4) and quite a bit of mixture with Black (even playing the Sveshnikov!) so it’s quite clear that he is keeping his opponents guessing and keeping his best preparation for Madrid. At 29 he has the perfect mix of ambition and experience and coupled with his high class and powerful play he can easily win another Candidates Tournament. He only needs to be in good form and it will be difficult to stop him. The only thing that bothers me is the question: can he repeat Smyslov’s feat? I don’t quite see him on par with Smyslov, but I definitely rate his chances higher than Nepomniachtchi’s (see also the part where I discuss Nepomniachtchi below).

Ding Liren is a bit of an unknown at this point because he’s played the least from the rest. The recent events in China that he needed to play in order to comply with FIDE’s requirements are not exactly telling and they do leave a strange impression. We know that he is fully capable of winning events like the Candidates, but we don’t know much about his form and work leading to it. He is of the same age as Caruana and perhaps his motivation will be bigger to win the right to challenge the World Champion for the first time.

The New Wave

The new kids on the block are Alireza Firouzja, Richard Rapport and Jan-Krzysztof Duda. They represent the new wave, players that belong to a new generation debuting at this level.

All eyes will be on Firouzja. At 18, he is among the youngest in history to play a Candidates Tournament, putting him in the same category as Fischer at 16 in Bled/Zagreb/Belgrade in 1959 and Spassky at 19 in Amsterdam in 1956.

He had an amazing end of 2021 when he won the Grand Swiss, thus qualifying for the Candidates, and continued with excellent form at the European Team Championship. This run brought him above 2800 and made him a world number two. He stopped playing for several months, living his life and preparing for the Candidates, as he put it. The return to chess practice at the Superbet wasn’t great – he ended up on a minus score and lost rating points which saw him drop below 2800.

A notable details is that in Romania he was seen together with Ivan Cheparinov, Topalov’s long time second and the main generator of ideas for the Bulgarian champion. This indicates that he will be extremely well prepared in the openings, especially if this cooperation started months ago.

It’s difficult to predict his performance. In the past he’s been way too susceptible to pressure and cracking under it and the Candidates is a high-tension event from start to finish. Chess-wise he is not inferior to anybody, but psychology will be the key for the teenager in Madrid. My personal opinion is that while possible, I still think he is too raw to win it.

I observed Rapport (26) very closely during the Grand Prix in Berlin. I was impressed by his ability to find ideas and pose problems even in the driest positions, while his decision to risk and play for a win in the final game of the match with Andreikin in Belgrade won him the event and gained him qualification – the man has the courage of champions!

However, there are a couple of problems with his chances in Madrid. The first one is that he is a loner. He works alone and likes it like that. I am all for going at it alone, a-la Fischer, but in modern chess this has proven to be impossible. Therefore I really hope that he has managed to find somebody he can trust and work together with in the period after the Belgrade Grand Prix.

The second problem is that he didn’t believe he could qualify for the Candidates! With this in mind, he just accepted all invitations to events, thus clogging his calendar. Now he’s stuck with a lot of commitments and this prevents him from properly organising preparation and play. Playing in the Superbet saw him dip in form, finishing on -2 and losing 12 points. He also has the Norway Chess scheduled, a tournament that finishes six days (!) before Madrid. In a recent interview he said that he will just take the Candidates as another tournament, but this doesn’t bode well for his chances there – in order to win the Candidates, a player needs dedicated preparation and strong will to win, something that Rapport doesn’t seem to be able to provide for himself. And to think of it, the reason for all this was his lack of confidence before the start of the Grand Prix in Belgrade! As much as I like him personally, with the issues outlined above, it’s difficult to see him win.

Duda (24) won the World Cup in 2021 and this secured his spot in the Candidates. The only classical event he played this year was in Wijk aan Zee, where he finished on a minus score. Everything else was online and rapid, where he has no problems holding his own against the very best. Even more so, before Madrid he is scheduled to play only in two events in Poland, one rapid and one blitz, which are part of the Grand Chess Tour. So no classical before Madrid for him.

The lack of practice can mean only one thing – Duda is very serious about the Canddates and is preparing heavily for it. One glimpse from that preparation is that in the last event he played, the Olso Esports Cup, he introduced the Grunfeld and the Berlin in his black repertoire. Players usually like to test their new openings in real-life events against the best players, so we can expect to see Duda play these openings in Madrid.

Armed with heavy preparation, it remains to be seen how (and if) the lack of practice will affect the young Pole. If he manages to get comfortable in the event then he can be a major surprise.

The Unlikely

I consider the remaining three players Ian Nepomniachtchi, Hikaru Nakamura and Teimour Radjabov, with the least chances to win.

There has been only one player in history to win two Candidate Tournaments (and he did it in a row) and that is Vassily Smyslov – he managed this feat in Zurich 1953 and Amsterdam 1956. (note that I am talking about Candidate Tournaments, not a qualification cycle). Is Nepomniachtchi (31) of the same caliber?

With all due respect, I don’t think he is. I was happy to see him play well after the debacle in Dubai, even though it was mostly rapid and online events. He is using his match preparation and his results in these disciplines were rather good. However, returning to classical chess he immediately suffered a setback: in the last event he played in – the Superbet Classic, he ended on a minus score. He can take some consolation from that result because he won a psychologically important game with Black against Firouzja, but playing classical is perhaps not too kind on his nerves.

Nerves remain his main issue. Keeping and not succumbing to the tension for many hours for a duration of 14 rounds will not be an easy task. Note that he won in Yekaterinburg not in one go of 14 rounds, but rather in two, as the event was stopped after seven rounds and resumed one year later. He is wiser and more experienced now, he still has leftovers from his match preparation, but I don’t think he will overcome everybody else and reach the status of a Smyslov.

The streamer-turned-unexpected-Grand-Prix-winner Nakamura (34) showed that he is a very strong player. The main ingredient in his success was lack of nerves – his earnings do not depend on his results, so he can play without fear. I am certain he will continue with the same attitude in Madrid and this will be his main strength.

Nakamura has a well-established opening repertoire – the Berlin and the QGD with Black, with a hit-and-run approach with White (where he prepares in a very concrete manner against the given opponent), which demands constant influx of fresh ideas. I also expect him to continue with the same strategy, most likely refreshed with new ideas within those realms.

The problem I see with Nakamura is that he doesn’t really have the ambition to win the event. There is no perspective for him there – a match with Carlsen won’t mean much to him financially (he is comforably set for life and a million doesn’t make much of a difference) and it will require a lot of time and effort in preparation and traning. Not to mention that playing Carlsen (against whom he has an awful score in classical chess of 1 win and 14 losses) in a World Championship match is as gruesome as it gets and he won’t be able to stream it.

The wild card for the event is the player who qualified to play in Yekaterinburg, but declined to do so because of the pandemic. As some sort of compensation, FIDE seeded Radjabov (35) directly in the next Candidates.

Radjabov’s last Candidates Tournament was in 2013, when he finished last with the awful score of -6. He qualified for Yekaterinburg by winning the World Cup in 2019. The last event he played in was the European Team Championship in November last year.

This scarcity of active play, coupled with his propensity to draws (his last classical win was against Ding Liren in the final of the World Cup in 2019!) makes him the least likely player to win the event. I can see him repeat Giri’s record of 14 draws, but I cannot see him win many (if any!) games. The reason for this is that I can easily see him continue doing what he has been doing for many years now, basically playing for draw with both colours, and I cannot fathom a return to the exciting player of his youth who played the King’s Indian and the Sveshnikov and who beat Kasparov with Black when he was 15. I would be delighted (and would like) to be proven wrong, but this is how things look to me now.

Like Rapport, Radjabov is scheduled to play in Norway Chess. Unlike Rapport, I think this will be good for him – after a way too long absence of classical practice, he will get a chance to get into some shape before Madrid. If and how much this will help, we will see in about a month.

For me, the Candidates Tournament is a the tournament I cannot wait to follow. I cannot wait to see the opening ideas, the high-quality chess and the eventual result, where the winner indeed takes it all.

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Impressions from the Berlin Grand Prix

The recently finished Grand Prix in Berlin produced a lot of fighting chess. I was very lucky to be able to observe the players on the stage, literally sitting next to them, as I was serving as a Fair Play Officer (FPO) for the event.

Apart from my duties as FPO I also followed the games as a fan and player. It is very different when you follow the games at home, even without an engine, and on the stage with the players. When I was there on the stage, I could more easily “plug in” and feel the position and the players. I tried to calculate lines myself and I had much higher respect for the moves the players were coming up with.

This last issue needs special mention. Since I am guilty of it myself I assume others are too. When I follow the games with an engine at home, I am so easy to dismiss the moves that are played if they don’t follow one of the engine’s top choices. This habit takes over very quickly and I soon find myself thinking the players are not very good. Yes, I understand they are very strong, 2750 rating is nothing to smirk at, but I easily forget the hard mental work and the calculations they had to do in order to come up with the move that I am so quick to dismiss just because the engine doesn’t rate it in its top 3 (or 5, 6…) choices. In other words, if a strong player calculates and thinks for a while and then comes up with a move that isn’t a clear blunder, then certainly there must be good reasons and definite advantages for that move to be played. I need to be reminded of this aspect when I am at home!

I didn’t fall into this trap when I was in Berlin. Simply because I was alone there, no engine, just the players and the positions. There I got to admire and respect their decisions again.

What I found to be an interesting exercise was to imagine the scenario of the games. There were two exceptional players who posed problems to each other and tried to overcome them. And then there was an engine, rated several hundred rating points higher, which would easily solve those problems and pose unsolvable ones to them. I imagined that it must be the same when I play opposition at my level, at higher level and at lower level, when I would be considered the engine!

This exercise helped me understand the need for consistency. Every single move had to be precise. At their level a single mishap is fatal. Connected to this is their constant creation of problems. Every single move poses a problem. I found some players easier to follow in this respect, for example I found Rapport’s moves easier to understand when it came to constant problem-posing.

By trying to get into the players’ minds I tried to understand their decisions from a psychological point of view. I tried to understand their approaches. For example both finalists, Nakamura and Aronian, had similar serve-and-volley approach when playing with White: the serve was the targeted preparation, often by entering a forced variation, aimed at catching the opponents unprepared and gaining time on the clock; if successful the rest would be the volley – converting the advantage.

With Black they were also very similar. They play solid openings against both 1.e4 and 1.d4 and don’t fear preparation in their trusted defences. If they change something it is usually a sideline within their repertoire, not the whole opening.

The experience in Berlin helped me greatly understand chess and the best players in the world much better. Unfortunately, most likely it won’t make me a better chess player because better understanding doesn’t directly transfer to better decision-making at the board. The latter requires practice of decision-making and that type of work is the actual calculation of variations. I did some calculation in Berlin, but that was far from enough to make me better at it.

They usually say that with time our understanding of chess improves, but our practical strength declines. I will try to fight that process, but for how long that will work I don’t know. In any case, I am grateful for every opportunity that I get to understand this game even a little bit better. May there be many more.

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New Year, Old Everything?

The new year, popularly called 2020 too, arrived. For me the new arrival is usually filled with optimism and big plans for the year ahead, but this time it was different. No optimism, no excitement, no plans. For apparent reasons, I should add.

To give you an example, the FIDE Candidates tournament was announced for mid-June in Madrid and I was very excited about the news as I would like to go and visit the event. But how do I plan that when it’s not clear what will happen tomorrow or next week, let alone in six months?

Perhaps an even more extreme case is the Bangkok Open, already announced for December.

The main problem with today’s situation is that there is way too much contradictory and confusing information that is being constantly fed to the public via all possible channels. I won’t go into debate whether this is on purpose or because nobody really knows what is going on so everybody’s guessing. The problem with contradiction is that it is difficult to tolerate as with lack of clarity and stability the stress levels are impossible to control.

Strangely as it may sound, chess calms my mind when I am not competitively involved. I have written about this in my newsletter, that it helps me fall asleep as I go over various variations in my mind when I go to bed. Recently I ran into the following game of Ulf Andersson. He had a choice of going for one of the two versions of a rook endgame:

Version 1:

or Version 2:

One of them is winning for White, the other one is a draw.

Andersson wenr for Version 2 and that was the drawn one. But as so often happened in his games the opponent didn’t show the necessary technique and lost anyway. The winning version was the first one, the key to the position being the more active position of White’s rook, as it can go to a5 as opposed to a4 from the second diagram. Details always matter in chess.

I suppose that chess calms me down because it focuses my mind and isolates me from everything external. It’s a very cosy bubble to be in. I understand that having the opportunity to enter this bubble is a priviledge, but it is still the outside world that will have to make some order out of the current chaos. Bubbles are nice, but they cannot offer refuge forever.

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