Category : Personal

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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A Complex Game

Some weeks ago I played in the 4NCL and I was lucky to get a chance to play a very strong opponent. I rarely get a chance to play strong players nowadays and I miss that, but on the other hand the rare chance I get puts additional pressure to raise my level and perform well.

The game turned out to be very complex. Chess was the same game for centuries, but I think that with the engines showing us so much we have also started to look more deeply and what was before only possible for the absolute best, being able to see deeply and calculate difficult lines, nowadays a lot of players of all levels are exposed to the complexity of the game. And then you also have the post-game engine-aided analysis when all hell breaks loose…

Here’s the game with my comments.

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Wrong Mentality

This is from my newsletter. If you like to read posts like this one consider subscribing using the yellow box on the right.

I have written before about the character of openings, how different openings require different treatment. Getting into the right mentality for the opening isn’t always easy.

As a lifelong Najdorf player I have got accustomed to always seeking counterplay, with the moves being aggressive and counter-attacking. So when in 2006 I played my first Petroff, I was far from ready from it (and I am not talking about the theoretical part).

My opponent, a strong GM, was surprised by my choice and chose a sideline, for which I was prepared, and I got a great position.

Black has a great position – smooth development and no weaknesses. But this position is different from the typical Najdorf middlegames. Here calm play is required, solid moves are the norm. A move like 14…Ne7 with the idea of …Nf5 is a good idea. But I remember I was kind of at a loss here – I knew I was doing more than alright, but I didn’t know how to continue. I simply didn’t know how to think in this type of position.

What I did was to treat the position in Sicilian style! Completely wrong mentality, of course, but it was so characteristic: I thought I saw a concrete line that gave me good play. This is common in the Sicilian, but here and in similar positions it is not necessary; in fact it is often counter-productive.

Take a look at my next moves. I went for 14…Bh4. The first incursion. Even looking at it it appears so out of place… After 15 Bf3 it came 15…Bd3. The calm 15…Rb8 with …Ne7 was still OK. My bishops are now scattered around, but I had an idea…

He went 16 Bd5. The bishop is annoying here, though my idea was to continue in aggressive style with 16…Qf6. This is actually a blunder, as after 17 Nf3 my bishops are hanging loose. See how easy it is to spoil a perfectly safe position in 3 moves when your play doesn’t correspond to the requirements of the position?

My opponent didn’t play 17 Nf3, he went for 17 g3, which was also good enough. After 17…Qg6 18 Qf3 Na5 a simple comparison between the previous diagram and the next one tells the whole story. Black’s pieces are all over the board, definitely not a way to play!

This is not the way to play the Petroff! I learned my lesson the hard way.

The point of this example is to draw attention to this important, but rarely mentioned aspect of opening play – the mentality the opening requires. And also, how and if the mentality of the player is suitable for the given opening. In the example above I definitely wasn’t suited for the Petroff and that showed immediately.

It pays to think about this aspect when you think about your openings, both your current ones and also the ones you would like to take up. A careful consideration beforehand will save you a lot of effort (and suffering) afterwards.

In my case, I learned. My next outings with the Petroff and 1…e5 in general were more successful, at least when it came to my mentality and approach. Though, to be honest, I am still unsure whether I am suited for 1…e5…

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Busy Times

It’s been a month since I last posted and this is the longest period I’ve gone without a post since I started this blog back in 2014.

As usual, I followed everything that was happening in the chess world, the Grand Swiss, the European Team Championship, the Fischer Random World Championship, to name just the biggest events. But I didn’t have the time to write about them, so I think this is a good opportunity to explain what I am so busy with and what my activities are nowadays.

The last period was entirely dedicated to the creation of my Chessable repertoire on the Anti-Sicilians. This was the plan ever since my Najdorf repertoire was published. I had to complete the work and provide a full repertoire after 1 e4, not just the Najdorf.

It took me quite some time to finish this and in order to do so I had to block out everything else. Now of course “everything else” is coming back with a vengeance. But first, this blog post.

Apart from my online coaching, I do quite a lot of writing. I write for a few websites (Chessable, The Chess World) and for British Chess Magazine. I have my newsletter, which I send out every week and of course this blog. I also have a YouTube channel, but that one has been the most neglected of all.

When I mentioned the coaching, this is not only online. On Friday I go to Montenegro to be a captain and coach of the Italian women team of Caissa Pentole Agnelli in the European Women Club Cup.

I also manage to play a game or two from time to time. I love playing chess, but in view of all the other engagements this one suffered a heavy blow. So these games are mostly league games as I play in teams in England and Germany (with the odd game in the Swiss league).

The above has been about chess. However, I am also involved in chess politics. Ever since I became a President of the ACP this spring I have had a lot of obligations on this front. These are mostly “under the hood” and rarely see the light of day. What the public sees will be an official announcement, while what happened before and led to that announcement is never mentioned. I can assure you that a lot happens and that it is hard work!

My work in FIDE is different, as it is of a less political character. I am a member of the FIDE Fair Play Commission (formerly known as the Anti-Cheating Commission). Here the work is expanding by the minute with the cheating cases we need to work on coming in on regular basis. There are many problems here as well that take away both time and energy.

When you add to the above the need for some time off, family time, meeting friends and probably also time to breathe, I think you get a pretty good idea why I called this blog post “busy times”.

To wrap up, just a fact from my upcoming schedule: in the period starting this coming Friday, 8 November, when I leave for Montenegro, until before Christmas (24 December) I will spend mere 13 days at home. The other 33 days I will be away travelling. Busy times indeed.

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A Beautiful Zugzwang

Solving studies is never easy, but it is very beneficial.

It develops the good habits of disciplined and structured thinking and often demands self-control in a situation where it appears that one side has a lot of options. In such cases it is of primary concern to control the feeling of overwhelm and tackle all options one by one.

The following position is a late favourite of mine. I have written before of my fascination when it comes to the theme of domination and this study by Rinck from 1922 is a beautiful illustration.

White’s last move was 1 Ng7-e6. On an empty board with seemingly a huge number of possible moves Black can simply resign as he is losing the rook in all the variations. Try to figure out the lines, it’s a simple exercise and the lines are maximum 2 moves long.

On Monday I start the European Individual Championship and these tournaments have always been very difficult for me. I think this one will be the last one I ever play, so my only hope it to improve on my previous (horrendous) results. Soon enough we’ll see how that will pan out.

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Square Off – World’s Smartest Chessboard

When I was a kid my father bought me the computer Mephisto Munchen. A multiple-world champion on a heavy wooden board, Staunton pieces and a strong opponent were a good substitute for practical play when I couldn’t play tournaments (and that was most of the time during school years).

Some days ago I received another chess-playing board. It definitely brought back some childhood memories. Heavy wooden board, Staunton pieces, strong sparring partner. This time it came in a big box.

Inside this box, there was another box, a white one.

The World’s Smartest Chessboard, Kingdom Set. That definitely sounded royal when I read it to myself. So I continued to unwrap the package.

I wondered what was in the envelope.

As it turned out, instructions how to start the whole process. The Square Off app is used to connect the mobile phone with the board so that it is used for pretty much everything – playing the game, challenging other people on the internet and choosing the strength of the engine. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I was curious to see the pieces. I have a soft spot for nice pieces and they didn’t dissapoint.

I guess it wasn’t called Kingdom Set for nothing. Next to the pieces is the adapter, with the conveniently provided plug for European sockets, as you can see below.

When everything was out of the box, I finally I set up the pieces and moved them around, just to get a feeling for the board and how the pieces glide over it.

After taking my time to enjoy the aesthetics, I eventually connected the phone with the board (via the Square Off app) and started a game against Level 16, rated at 2205. There are 20 levels, rated from 800 to 3380. The last three levels (20, 19 and 18) are rated 3380, 3185 and 2606 respectively, while already Level 17 is rated 2295. Quite a lot of variety for any type of user, from a professional to the casual player.

Naturally, for the world’s smartest chessboard the actual movement of the pieces was the real spectacle. For somebody who was used to moving Mephisto’s moves on the board, this was quite impressive. This is how that looked.

After checking Stockfish (no need to ask about the result) I tried challenging other people online (always via the app). I managed to play one game against a user. It all went smoothly (pun intended) and my only quibble was that I couldn’t see the clock and the time left during the game.

If you ever wanted to play chess with somebody (human or engine) but there was no one around and you didn’t want to use a laptop or phone and wanted the real feeling of actually touching and moving the pieces instead, the world’s smartest chess is made for you. And the best part about it, you even won’t have to move your opponent’s pieces, something that bothered me when I was playing the Mephisto.

With all of the above, it is understandable that the world’s smartest chessboard doesn’t come cheap. But my readers can use the promo code ALEX10 for a 10% discount on the official prices. I would also like to know how others find the experience of playing against an “invisible opponent”. My advice would be just to make sure not to choose too high a level. After all, why not enhance the joy of playing “real” chess with some pretty sacrificial and winning attacks?

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Kramnik

I am not sure how I felt the moment I read that Vladimir Kramnik was retiring. But I am sure that the next day I was sad.

If I could condense into one single word what I feel and think about the man that word would be respect. He earned it when he beat The Unbeatable in 2000 without losing a game. Nobody else could do that, it had to be him. Smyslov’s theory that World Champions are born immediately came to mind and it definitely applies to Kramnik.

Whenever I would check games from a tournament I would always check Kramnik’s games first. Because of the openings. If you want to see the state of theory, not the present, but also the future, you should look at Kramnik. What he does, everybody else does next.

Two things – beating Kasparov and enriching theory. That’s Kramnik for me in a nutshell.

I have followed Kramnik from the very beginning. Not surprising if you take into consideration that he is only half a year older than me. I remember the orange cover of the Russian 64 magazine with the report from the junior match Yugoslavia-USSR in 1991. Kramnik played in that one. The next year he scored 8.5/9 at the Manila Olympiad, won gold medal, both individual and team, and became a star.

In 2015 the European Club Cup was held in Skopje. A very good friend of mine managed to arrange an interview with Kramnik. But he couldn’t do it while in Skopje and told us to contact him in a few days when he would be home. Our thoughts – no chance he’s taking that call.

But he did! He didn’t know us, yet he spent several hours (!!) talking to us on all possible subjects. His kids were running in the background, but Big Vlad with big headphones on his head was having a video call with some guys he saw for the first (or second, in the case of my friend who arranged the interview) time in his life. RESPECT!

One of the things he didn’t know, and something we informed him about during the interview, was the existence of Kramnik humour. He loved it. In case you haven’t heard of it, here’s a glimpse:

  • When Kramnik was invited to the Melody Amber blindfold tournament for the first time he couldn’t understand what the difference was.
  • In 1991 Kramnik was surprised to learn that the Berlin wall has fallen and promised he will fix it soon.
  • Kramnik was named the best painter of all times since no one can match his drawing technique.
  • Russia is working on a new supercomputer with an exceptional hard drive since no other machine can store Kramnik’s analyses.
  • Houdini managed to beat Rybka after studying Kramnik’s games.
  • Magnus Carlsen is so popular in Norway he even got an invitation to the TV show “Who Wants to be Vladimir Kramnik”.
  • Even God is afraid of playing Kramnik. The games always end in a draw, but Kramnik still knows how to put pressure on his opponent.
  • While Kramnik’s classmates were busy proving the Pythagorean theorem, little Vova proved that chess is a draw.

I’ve often been critical of Kramnik’s play in the last period, especially at the Berlin Candidates and since, but now it all has a different meaning.

Kramnik said he came to this decision a few months ago. So Wijk must have felt like a last round on the merry-go-round. Like a kid, he wanted it to last as long as possible. He knew that when the music stops he will come down never to go back again. He wanted to make it memorable, he wanted to squeeze the last single drop of joy out of it. Because it was the last one.

It is a pity to finish a stellar career with a last place in a tournament, but that doesn’t matter anymore. Vladimir Kramnik did it his way, from start to finish.

Kasparov said that only the player knows when it’s time to go. And Vladimir Kramnik always knew what he was doing.

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Playing Well and Blundering

This is in fact possible, as I recently discovered, much to my regret.

I discuss this topic in my latest video on my Youtube Channel.

On my recent trip to the UK and the 4NCL league I played two games where I was feeling good, my head was working well, my calculations were clear and yet in both games I blundered horribly.

In the video I try to explain why that happened.

I would also be curious to know if anything of the sort has happened to you, so feel welcome to share your thoughts.

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Happy New Year

Less than an hour before this year is over, so a few final words from me.

It was a good year. It was a busy year. There were mostly ups, not so many downs.

Just today I learned the news that I have been appointed a Councillor at the FIDE Fair Play Commission (formerly known as Anti-Cheating). A lot of work lies ahead for one of the most important commissions in modern chess. I have always said that the end of chess will not happen when the computer calculates the game until a final result, it will happen when the humans install chips inside their heads. So our work now is to prevent that from happening.

I tried to take a more laid-back December, but it wasn’t meant to be. A lot of work somehow kept coming and I never got to the long-awaited rest. I am still unsure I’ll have it in the next few days, though I do crave it.

From the chess events in December, the World Rapid and Blitz saw some exciting chess and surprising results. In the end, Team Carlsen was victorious. Isn’t it always?

For me the end of year is always a time for putting things into perspective. I have discovered that whenever I think I have problems and I feel anxious or upset about something “important,” a video like the following one immediately helps me put them right there, into perspective. And then I calm down. Enjoy and happy holidays!

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