Category : Psychology

Wrong Mentality

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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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The Draws in Jerusalem

The final leg of the FIDE Grand Prix is underway in Jerusalem. As I write this the first game of the final between Wei Yi and Nepomniachtchi is being played.

The intrigue of the tournament consists in who will get the final spot for the Candidates and here the Chinese is playing for the French – in case Wei Yi wins the final Vachier Lagrave gets the spot.

The Frenchman once again failed to secure that spot himself. In the semi-final he lost to Nepomniachtchi, his direct competitor for that final spot.

Final for the non-Russians, that is. Nepo still has a back-up plan in case he loses the final – he will play a match with Kirill Alekseenko (the third finisher of the Grand Swiss) for the wild card spot.

Vachier’s continuous failures at the last hurdle to qualify for the Candidates are truly only comparable to Aronian’s failures at the actual Candidates – they both falter when it matters most. What’s worse for the Frenchman is that he doesn’t have a strong sponsor behind him to buy him the wild card, as it happened for Aronian in Moscow in 2016. (At the time of writing he is still hopeful Nepo loses the final and somebody else does the work for him.)

Apart from the drama, there was one other thing that made the Jerusalem Grand Prix stand out for me. It was these two draws.

After suffering in the first game of the match against Wei Yi but eventually saving a draw, Anish Giri thought it was a good idea to play like this with White in the second game:

What to say? Giri living up to his reputation? A mockery of the system (or of himself?) The fact that Giri felt compelled to justify his decision by posting on social media (now already removed) something along the lines of, Carlsen is my friend so I copy him and do what he did in his World Championship matches, only shows that he was feeling the pressure from the public and knew it wasn’t the right thing to do. Otherwise why would he bother to explain (and excuse) himself?

True, Carlsen drew quickly against Karjakin in New York and then won the tie-break convincingly. But here the Latin wisdom is very much to the point – Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi. What worked for Carlsen, failed miserably for Giri.

Therefore it wasn’t a surprise that Giri lost the tie-break. The usual rules of “you don’t (try to) take your chances, your opponent will” may not apply to Carlsen, but they certainly apply to Giri.

The next player to go down the same road was Karjakin in the next round, again against Wei Yi. After drawing 9 (!) consecutive games against Harikrishna in Round 1, thus qualifying by drawing the Armageddon game with Black, Karjakin played this is the first classical game against Wei Yi.

That is even two moves shorter than Giri! Need I say Karjakin lost the tie-break? At least he had a bit of self-respect left not to try to convince the public of copying his “friend” Carlsen.

I read somewhere that this behaviour by the players is some sort of “feedback” to the organisers, showing dissatisfaction with the conditions or something else they may not like. I can relate to that, but these players are millionaires who are playing in the cycle for a World Championship. I think showing respect to the institution of World Championship cycle would be appropriate. After all, they are using that institution to try to qualify and become a World Champion.

Giri already qualified by rating and probably thought it would be too much to copy his other friends Radjabov and Aronian, call in sick and withdraw from the tournament. Playing a tournament with nothing (he got 5000 euros for being eliminated in the first round) in it for him was perhaps a waste of time.

As for Karjakin, unless there is an unexpected development in Russia and he is given a chance, the Candidates in Yekaterinburg will be without him. The tendency that started after his match with Carlsen of him being more interested in his public persona than in his chess finally caught up with him.

On a personal note, I would like to see Kirill Alekseenko in the Candidates. I would be curious to find out how far this lad can go.

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Choice of Openings

I like to think about chess. All aspects of it, whether they are psychology, plans in a certain type of position, openings, endgames, ways to study.

I have written before about certain puzzling moments from chess history that I will probably never know the reason for, like why Fischer chose 1 e4 d6 2 d4 g6 in Game 17 of his match with Spassky in 1972, allowing a King’s Indian. He didn’t play a King’s Indian in the first half of the match when Spassky played 1 d4, so why did he allow it in the late phase of the match (and why did Spassky not take that opportunity)?

These opening choices in the matches have always been fascinating to me, especially when they were out of the ordinary repertoires of the players. I have always wanted to know the reasons why the players chose those openings.

While I have my own opinions on these choices, no matter how deeply-thought they may be, only the players themselves can give the complete answer. From the recent chess history, two questions have been on my mind for quite some time:

  1. Why did Nigel Short play the QGA in his match against Karpov in 1992? He never played the QGA before that and very rarely after that match.
  2. Why did Garry Kasparov think the Dragon was a good choice against Anand in 1995? Similarly, why did he think the QGA was a good choice against Kramnik in 2000?

Luckily, the protagonists of these matches are still alive and well, and even more fortunately I had a chance to meet them and ask them these questions.

A bit more than a year ago, in the VIP room of the Carlsen-Caruana match I had a chance to ask Nigel Short about his match with Karpov. There were other GMs present and they were also curious to know Nigel’s reasons.

I was expecting a reply based on deep analysis of the QGA and the positions arising from them, resulting in understanding that these do not suit Karpov’s style. However, the answer was much simpler and a lot more practical.

Nigel said that he chose the QGA because that was the only opening that did not feature in any of Karpov’s previous World Championship matches. As simple as that!

He said that Karpov probably hadn’t analysed the QGA in the same depth as the QGD (which was Short’s main opening back then) and the others that were at his disposal. This answer was illuminating of sorts, as it showed how Nigel approached one of the most important matches in his career – in a practical way, yet armed with excellent novelties in all the QGA games in that match!

[On a sidenote, I didn’t ask him about the choice of the Budapest Gambit in Game 1 of that match. The next time I see him I will.]

A bit more than a week ago I was in Monaco for the European Women Rapid and Blitz tournament and during the event the first European Chess Awards ceremony took place. One of the winners was Garry Kasparov.

During the gala there was a lot of socialising and Garry was in the centre of attention all the time. I didn’t think I would get a chance to talk to him.

But suddenly, at one point later in the evening I noticed him outside of the hall posing for a selfie. I recognised my chance and approached him. He didn’t seem too happy to be bothered, but when I asked my chess-related question he sort of showed interest.

In view of the positive atmosphere of the ceremony I decided to skip the part on the Kramnik match, not to bring unpleasant memories back and I just asked about the Dragon and Anand.

Surprisingly, the answer was very similar to Short’s. Kasparov said that while checking Anand’s games he noticed that he wasn’t very comfortable playing against the Dragon and that his results there weren’t very good. Therefore he took the practical decision to prepare this opening. Again, a very practical approach!

My own take on the use of the Dragon was a bit different. I thought that since Kasparov expected Anand to limit him a-la Karpov, which he did rather successfully in the 6 Be2 lines of the Najdorf that transposed to the Scheveningen after 6…e6, just like in the first two matches with Karpov, he needed a weapon to break the grip. In the Dragon the only theoretical way for White to play for an advantage are the lines with long castle where a super-sharp battle ensues. (This is especially true for the mid-90s when the lines with 9 0-0-0 instead of the Yugoslav attack with 9 Bc4 weren’t that prominent yet. Nowadays White successfully curbs Black’s attack after 9 0-0-0 d5 10 Qe1.) Anand would be surprised and unwilling to enter the sharp territory knowing that Kasparov would be excellently prepared and this would give Kasparov a tremendous practical advantage. The match proved that my thoughts were not far from the truth, which did feel satisfying.

Kasparov also mentioned that once he got “wind” in Game 10 he decided it was time to use the secret weapon in Game 11 and the rest, as they say, is history. He turned the match around and never looked back.

It was great to talk to the legends and ask these questions. It broadens my chess understanding when discussing chess with these players who have been the best in the world ever since I started playing the game! I was happy to have my curiosity satisfied, but I still have a few more questions prepared, just waiting for the next occasion!

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Match Strategy

I write this in the deserted Holiday Village Hotel where yesterday the European Club Cup finished. I am the last man standing as all the participants have left and the whole hotel resort looks like a ghost town.

I was the captain of the women team Caissa Pentole Agnelli. Unfortunately we didn’t have a good tournament. We missed our big chance in the penultimate round, when playing the lower-rated team from Maribor we had superior or just winning positions on all 4 boards and yet managed only 2-2. Had we won we would have shared 2nd place going into the last round with everything to play for. But it wasn’t meant to be.

In this post I would like to explain my reasoning and strategy I had for one of the clutch matches that happened as early as Round 2. We played last-year’s champions and this year runner-ups, the team from Monaco. Last year they destroyed us, in spite of having good positions on all boards, so this year I wanted us to be more cautious.

On Board 1 we had Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, the Iranian superstar, facing Humpy Koneru. Sara is a sound positional player who prefers technical positions so we thought that simply playing her lines and the positions she obtains from them would suit her well. Bearing in mind that in team competitions it is usually considered that a draw with Black is good, we didn’t expect that Koneru would try for more, so I felt safe on that board – some pressure if it happens, if not, then a draw without a risk. And that is exactly what happened.

On Board 2 we had Pia Cramling against Elisabeth Paehtz. The board pairings from Board 2 to 4 were exactly the same as the previous year, when we lost all 3. I didn’t mind that, since I knew that our players were good and what happened last year was a mid-match collapse that will not happen again.

Lisa again played the Slav against Cramling and this time it wasn’t an Exchange, but the line with 4 Qb3. We expected it, and Lisa was well-prepared to obtain a solid and safe position. This year I wanted her to keep it solid, as last year she went for complications when the match started going wrong and lost. After a lucky blunder by Lisa on move 18, meaning that taking the exchange led to some positional compensation, which Cramling declined to take advantage of, the game was uneventful and we drew safely.

On Board 3 Olga Zimina was facing Monika Socko. Olga lost an atrocious game last year with White, being ouplayed in an equal endgame from the English Opening, so this year I wanted something more “central.” We decided upon the Catalan, with the fresh idea of 7 Be3, as in the game Caruana-Anand and also some others as our opening surprise. But Socko avoided it by playing 6…c5 before 6…a6, so it transposed back to the usual lines. We didn’t get anything out of the opening there, but I was happy with the resulting position as I knew Olga wouldn’t get in any danger. She pressed a little, but Socko defended well and the game was drawn.

On Board 4 Deimante Daulyte-Cornette was playing Marina Brunello. This was the board where I expected a more dynamic fight, as it fits Marina’s style. In an expected Najdorf we thought that the resulting positions would be to Marina’s liking where we fancied our chances. I was influenced by last year’s game where Marina got a great position in the Najdorf and outplayed her opponent, only to lose after trying to win too hard and blundering once the match turned bad for us.

However, on this board we ran into some preparation by our opponents. White played the fresh idea by Vachier-Lagrave, the move 8 Bg5 in the fianchetto Najdorf that he used to beat Wei Yi in the recent FIDE Grand Prix in Hamburg. We didn’t particularly prepare for it, so it was a surprise, but I thought that since Marina plays the Najdorf all her life she would find a good reaction to it. It turned out this wasn’t so easy.

We practically lost without a fight after Marina couldn’t find an appropriate reaction to the dangeous threats. This game decided the match and we lost 2.5-1.5.

We lost because we got caught in the opening and our own opening surprise didn’t materialise. After the match I was thinking whether our strategy was sound. In view of last year’s encounter it was definitely an improvement and we didn’t collapse, the match was under control except for Board 4. Perhaps we could have prepared better there, but it is difficult to prepare everything (and on 4 boards too!).

Eventually the match strategy to keep it solid on the first three boards, having in mind our players’ stylistic preferences and the opponents we were facing, and have a dynamic fight on the last one, where we had an excellent Sicilian player, backfired. Normally we are always well-prepared in the openings, but this time we got caught and that caused us the match. If that didn’t happen perhaps the strategy would have justified itself, who knows. For me, the lesson to learn is to prepare better when more is at stake on a single board.

The second ECC where I am coaching the same team was another great learning experience. Every match and the preparation for it is a valuable insight into the nuances of team competitions. I enjoy this type of work, devising a strategy for the match, starting with who plays, analysing our and our opponents’ repertoires, deciding what to play and then seeing it all unravel in the playing hall is very exciting. I do get frustrated because of the fact that I am only an observer once the match starts, but that is the nature of the captain’s work.

In the end, I would like to thank my players Sara, Lisa, Olga, Marina and Elena for their efforts. We did what we could and hopefully the third attempt, next year in Austria, will be a charm!

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World Cup 2019 Impressions

A huge knock-out tournament like the World Cup inevitably produces excitement and this excitement comes in many forms: unexpected streaks and winners, wild games, new opening ideas to name just a few.

In this post I’ll write about the things that made an impression on me, in no particular order.

Kiril Alekseenko

Apart from going far, losing only to Ding Liren in Round 4, his White preparation in the Giuoco Piano brought him 2 wins in the classical games, against Nguyen in Round 1 and Harikrishna in Round 3. He was very close to beating Ding Liren in the second classical game, again thanks to his preparation. He also put pressure on Ding in the second rapid game where he was in a must-win situation. The highlight of his performance was the 2-0 against Harikrishna. The young Russian shows good promise.

Anish Giri

Giri’s World Cup was notable for lack of notable things he did. The Armageddon win against Najer in Round 2 was the highlight of his tournament, but you would expect him to overcome Najer at an earlier stage. The same could have been said about his next match, but here he had no chance, as strange as it may seem. Read the next player for more.

Giri is slowly becoming one of the elite players who “deserve” to be in the Candidates but cannot qualify for different reasons. Luckily for him he will get there thanks to statistics, being the average highest-rated player for the year after Ding Liren, who qualified by making it to the final. In order to secure this Giri withdrew from the Isle of Man Grand Swiss, even with a signed contract, making sure he doesn’t lose any rating there. Not a courageous decision, to say the least.

Speaking of Giri’s game, I cannot escape the feeling that something substantial is missing there. He has fantastic opening preparation, calculates well, plays great chess (he’s changed a lot since his drawing days), he sharpened his game, but in spite of all this there is something that prevents him from moving forward. He often cannot overcome his opposition (the match with Najer started with 6 consecutive draws) and is struggling to win games. I can only guess it is something psychological, lack of breakthrough force or the internal intent that is bent out on winning, maybe lack of killer instinct. The only way I see him making progress is if everything falls into place for him as it did for Leko in 2002 when he won the Dortmund Candidates and qualified to play Kramnik.

Jeffery Xiong

For me, Xiong was the revelation of the tournament. His uncompromising aggression brought him farther than anyone expected. Beating Giri and Duda by playing courageous and ultra-aggressive chess was a feast to watch.

When I said above that Giri didn’t have a chance in this match I meant that Giri couldn’t adapt and handle such open aggression. Nobody in the elite does it so Giri wasn’t used to this type of high-tension tactical approach. The decisive game of the match was typical.

Xiong did the same to Duda before going down in flames in the same way in the second classical game against Radjabov, who was the first one who managed to navigate crazy complications better than him!

Teimour Radjabov

Quite a surprise this one. I never dreamed Radjabov could make it to the final and qualify for the Candidates, let alone win the whole thing. After his wunderkind years and the total collapse in London Candidates in 2013 I always considered Radjabov a very content wealthy young man who plays chess only because he has nothing else to do in his life. And even this often seemed against his will, as his games were mostly uneventful draws and he apparently lacked the ambition to try for anything at all.

In Khanty he didn’t seem any different at the beginning. But then he started winning games with White in technical style (the only exception is the second game against Xiong that I mentioned) and things started to go his way. It is no surprise that solidity is highly valued in knock-out events – another super-solid player, Ding Liren, was the other one who made it to the final.

In the final he showed better nerves. Coupled with his fantastic calculation he didn’t panic when low on time and just kept on playing good moves.

I cannot say how this will affect Radjabov. Will he motivate himself and wake up his ambition after the 6-year hiatus? Or will he come to Yekaterinburg to make draws and go home semi-content?

Vachier-Lagrave

The Frenchman failed again at the last hurdle. Last year it was Aronian in the semi-final, this year it was Radjabov.

I think his stubborness in the openings, especially the Grunfeld, has lately been causing him more trouble than bringing him benefits. The losses to Radjabov and Jakovenko plus some games in the match with Yu Yangyi proved that he can be caught in the opening and the players have started targeting him there with more success. A bit more versatility in the opening, finding a back-up to the Najdorf and the Grunfeld will be huge for him and I think will help him make the final step.

The fact he won the match for 3rd place is some comfort at least.

The Chinese

They are not coming, they’re here for some time now. Both Ding Liren and Yu Yangyi were impressive, each on their own slightly different scale.

Ding Liren seems to have reached a different level, doing what Carlsen mentioned some time ago – winning elite events. At least he showed this by winning the Sinquefield Cup before this event. However, losing a second final in a row in the World Cup shows that he has the stability and quality to reach two finals, but also that he suffers from nerves. In the tie-break he collapsed and lost a game that was impossible to lose with White and then didn’t take his one chance with Black. He will be very disappointed, but there is psychological work to be done here!

Yu Yangyi is establishing himself as a clear Top-10 candidate and the will power he demonstrated in the match with Vitiugov was impressive. Losing the match for 3rd place to Vachier shouldn’t bother him too much. He played 34 (!) games in total in Khanty, playing the most tie-breaks than any other player (he only won one match in classical, against Nepomniachtchi), so fatigue was definitely an issue.

Nikita Vitiugov

The look of Nikita Vitiugov after the heart-breaking Armageddon loss to Yu Yangyi will haunt me for quite some time. A blank stare, failure to understand how could reality so abruptly change the script. Everything pointed to him winning that match, the tendency was clear, and then, without any warning, everything came down crashing. It felt as if a law of physics has been broken, as if gravity ceased to exist on Earth. Unimaginable.

What Vitiugov did before that was fantastic. It seemed he raised his level and his wins against Karjakin and So, both in classical, were amazing. The fact that Karjakin blundered in one move in a technically difficult situation only shows the level of complexity of the problems he had to solve during the game.

There were also other notable things like Eltaj Safarli (knocking out Shankland and Nihal Sarin, the latter in quite an amazing way), Svidler’s fear of the Frenchman (after qualifying and observing Vachier’s game together with the official commentators his comment along the lines of “He is not in good shape” after Vachier missed a move reeked of fear to me as he knew he was going to play him next and subconsciously wanted to cheer himself up!), Christiansen’s knocking out Wojtaszek 2-0 in Round 1, Nakamura’s Round 2 loss to Nisipeanu (after managing 1-1 against Bellahcene in Round 1 and winning the rapid) which in fact wasn’t surprising (Nakamura’s not in the Top 20 nowadays), the Yuffa-McShane match and probably a few more things.

Knock-outs are great for the public, but much less so for the players. Just remember Vitiugov.

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The Taimanov Syndrome in St. Louis

The legendary champion sits behind the board once a year to the delight of all chess fans. Last year and this one the discipline he chose was Fischer Random.

(Strangely enough the Americans prefer not to use the name of their great champion for the game he invented – this time it was Chess 9LX, the last two digits are Roman numbers, in case you were confused).

These outings haven’t been too delightful for Kasparov. Last year he lost to Topalov, this year before the match against Caruana he said it will be “fun.” I wonder where he got the idea.

For anyone who has played chess a bit more seriously the only fun is the winning. Sometimes even that isn’t fun. For Kasparov to say that playing would be fun, simply cannot be true. Yet he said it.

You should probably be able to recognise this position:

It is the position that haunted Mark Taimanov for the rest of his life. It is the position from the 3rd game of his match with Fischer. In that moment Fischer was leading 1-0, the second game was adjourned in a drawn position and here in the third Taimanov had great position. He spent a lot of time and instead of trusting his intuition and play 20 Qh3 he went backwards 20 Nf3 and the rest is history.

In his book and all interviews afterwards Taimanov lamented how things would have been different had he played 20 Qh3 (he believed he was winning, though analysis shows he wasn’t), how the match would have been completely different, how everything would have been different. He couldn’t get this position out of his head.

Kasparov suffered a similar fate to Taimanov’s at Caruana’s hands in Saint Louis. In Game 2 he was winning (clearly, unlike Taimanov) but he blundered and lost. What happened next was a complete repetition of the Taimanov syndrome.

Kasparov mostly kept losing but it was all the 2nd game’s fault, if only he won, if only he didn’t blunder, the match would have been different. To make it worse, he kept getting winning positions but he also kept blundering, blaming it on that ill-fated Game 2. He said he couldn’t forget that game. A surprising thing to say by a player who often came back with a vengeance after a loss. Where did the psychological toughness go?

I am not sure how much Kasparov was saying what the public wanted to hear, or he was really fooling himself. He didn’t stand a chance in that match, irrelevant of that Game 2. Just like Taimanov would have lost that match to Fischer, Kasparov would have lost to Caruana. The fact that he was outplaying Caruana often means that Caruana wasn’t playing at his best, but even that sufficed to bludgeon the legend.

Time-troubles, age, lack of practice, these were the reasons given for the losses. Kasparov knew these would be present, so the real question is, why did he sit down to play and risk humiliation?

In 2016, when he decided to play blitz against America’s best players in the Ultimate Blitz Challenge, I asked him via Twitter why he was doing the same thing he criticised Fischer for in 1992 – coming back from retirement and risking a destruction of the legendary image he rightfully had. He never replied, of course, but I thought that perhaps the reason was the same as Fischer’s – money. But unlike Fischer, that money wouldn’t be from the prize fund.

I am sad that this happened to Kasparov. Perhaps even angry at him, for destroying his own image. He was my idol for as long as he played and I even briefly met him in Tromso in 2014. After the match Kasparov said that perhaps the suffering in the match was a sign from above to stop attempting to reverse time. I think he is right. Once retired legends should stay retired.

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Carlsen’s Meltdown

The main story of the Sinquefield rapid and blitz was Carlsen’s apparent inability to keep his composure.

Carlsen’s problem were his blunders. It has happened before that he starts with a loss or bad form, but this time he simply couldn’t manage to turn it around and in utter frustration he started to do odd things.

It’s not that he didn’t try to keep it contained. He tried to play more solidly (the French with a direct transposition to an endgame against Karjakin and the QGD against Ding Liren – he lost both) and then more sharply (transposing to a Dragon Sicilian against Yu Yangyi – he was brutally mated), but with equal (lack of) success.

Then came the most shocking thing for me – Carlsen’s own admission that he didn’t care anymore. I have never before heard a World Champion openly declare that he didn’t care about the remainder of the tournament (and Carlsen had a full day of blitz ahead of him).

The frustration was obvious, nothing seemed to be working, but to say that he didn’t care? That is giving up. How much did it have to hurt so that he saw no other way out but to give up?

Here’re a couple of examples of Carlsen’s frustration translated to chess moves:

If that was primitive, then this was too optimistic (to say it nicely).

There were other blows as well: getting mated by Yu Yangyi in a bad Dragon and losing to Dominguez in a Sveshnikov (a piece down on move 23). Additional pain must have been caused by his overall losses to Karjakin (2-1) and Caruana (2.5-0.5)

After such a long period of successes this was undoubtedly a shock to Carlsen’s system. Of all the players he is the one least accustomed to failures, but the strength of all champions has been their ability to overcome adversity. Carlsen has shown it before on more than one occasion. That is why I find this giving up so shocking.

Two rounds have already passed in the classical event in St. Louis. There have been 11 draws and 1 decisive result, Anand’s win against Nepomniachtchi. I expect it to continue in similar manner, with Carlsen more cautious than ever, not going after breaking records of reaching 2900. He is also human and a dent in his confidence is as bad as in anybody else’s.

In a way, and I’ll go off on a tangent here and speculate, I think that when the day comes, Carlsen will lose his title in a similar way Kasparov lost his to Kramnik. In frustration. Just to whom that may happen is the question, who will be capable to frustrate him like that? Though, what we can say for sure – nobody from the current players in St. Louis.

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Carlsen’s Sveshnikov

Bobby Fischer said that a turning point in his career came when he realised that he can play for a win with Black too, even against the strongest players.

I assume that this realisation must have happened during the period 1960-1963, because at that time he was still playing 1…e5. Fischer had relatively short draws in the Cordell Variation of the Ruy Lopez where he didn’t get chances at all in the Buenos Aires tournament and the Leipzig Olympiad in 1960. Even though his last two 1 e4 e5 games are from 1963, more or less from that period onwards he switched completely to the Najdorf. From the mid-60 he also incorporated the Alekhine Defence, but he never returned to 1…e5.

Nowadays there is no elite player whose repertoire does not include the 1…e5 move (barring the honourable Frenchman with 2 surnames and Nepo). After 1…e5 all of them play the Berlin Defence.

The World Champion is not an exception. He built his solidity around the Berlin and it has served him well for a very long time.

Then something happened during the preparation for the match with Caruana. Whether he thought that he should play different type of positions against this particular Challenger, or he wanted to change his approach with Black generally, or perhaps something else, Carlsen decided to adopt the Sveshnikov Sicilian as his main defence against 1 e4.

An interesting decision, the Sveshnikov. Kasparov used it several times as an alternative to his Najdorf in the early 00s and Gelfand made it his main opening in his World Championship match against Anand in 2012. Both did rather well. Still, generally speaking, it was considered that the opening lost a great deal of its former glory thanks to the line 11 c4:

This line stabilises the centre and largely kills Black’s dynamic counterplay. This change of character wasn’t to the liking of many Sveshnikov players and slowly the opening gave way to the eternally dynamic Najdorf.

So when Carlsen adopted the Sveshnikov, the first question I asked myself was, what does he have in mind against 11 c4? We are still waiting for the answer, as the only time so far this was played against him was in the blitz game with Nepomniachtchi, where the Russian was late for the game (!) so Carlsen accepted a draw after 11…b4 12 Nc2 a5 13 g3.

Theory aside (for this I invite you to join my newsletter using the yellow box on the right, since soon enough I will send a theoretical overview of Carlsen’s treatment of the Sveshnikov), I am very curious about the psychological implications of the use of this line of the Sicilian.

Let’s start with what Carlsen has said himself. He was quite open saying that he liked playing the position where he felt Black had easier play. This concerns primarily the 7 Nd5 line, played very often against him since the match with Caruana. In his own words, the engine gives an advantage to White, but when preparation ends then it is easier for Black to play who often has excellent compensation for the often-lost h5-pawn in view of an attack. His careful study of these positions has helped him understand the dynamics much better than his opponents – after the match he’s beaten van Foreest, Navara and Karjakin with only Caruana drawing.

Dynamism is present in the whole Sveshnikov, but at various degrees. If the above-mentioned line with 11 c4 lowers it to the minimum, the lines where White takes 9 Bxf6 gxf6 are one of the most dynamic ones in the whole theory of chess openings, while the positions after 9 Nd5 Be7 10 Bxf6 Bxf6 are somewhere in the middle. The level of dynamism is determined by White’s choice of lines, meaning that Carlsen is prepared for a different type of battle in each game he plays the Sveshnikov.

Does Carlsen’s newly-found liking for the dynamics mark a new phase in the development of the World Champion? Carlsen’s results in 2019 show that it appears that he has found his reliable mainstay opening against 1 e4 that, and this is crucial, allows him to play for a win with Black against any opponent.

Just like Fischer and Kasparov before him with the Najdorf, Carlsen may be equally successful with the Sveshnikov. It won’t be much about the actual theory and preparation, but more about the understanding of the inherent dynamics of these positions that will determine the outcome of his future games. So far, Carlsen seems to be ahead of the others in this aspect.

Still, nowadays the moat is always narrow as people learn to catch up very quickly. They will learn to understand the dynamics and Carlsen’s advantage may disappear. To quickly adapt and change is a vital advantage in today’s game. But that time still hasn’t arrived for Carlsen and, besides, he can adapt too.

While I don’t think this played a major role in his choosing of the opening, compared to the Najdorf, the Sveshnikov has one important advantage – it is more practical. If on White’s move 2 the possibilities are the same, after 2 Nf3 d6 White has quite a lot of sensible ways to avoid the Najdorf: 3 Bb5+, 3 Bc4, 3 c3 (not to mention the other, less critical ones) and even after 3 d4 cd there is 4 Qd4 and 4 Nd4 Nf6 5 f3. White also has the move-order 2 Nc3 with various ideas based on g3 and Nge2 while keeping the option to play d4, in addition to the Grand Prix Attack.

In the Sveshnikov these options are very limited. There is 2 Nc3 Nc6 3 Bb5 (as the Grand Prix is considered harmless after 2… Nc6) and after 2 Nf3 Nc6 only two options remain – the Rossolimo 3 Bb5 and 3 Nc3. This fact that White doesn’t have too many ways of avoiding the Sveshnikov may be very important in practice.

Carlsen’s choice of the Sveshnikov is definitely good news for the chess public. We already saw some and will definitely see more exciting games with the World Champion being aggressive with Black. The only danger lies in the possibility that people stop playing 1 e4 against him, but then again, as they say, you can run, but you cannot hide…

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European Club Cup 2018

It’s been hectic, chaotic, exhausting yet curiously rewarding time since the Olympiad finished.

In the few days between the Olympiad and the European Club Cup I thought I would rest, but life thought otherwise. So going to Porto Carras I was already tired. My job was not to play, but to coach and help my Italian women team of Caissa Italia Pentole Agnelli to reach the summit of Europe.

We really had a great team, comprised of top players: Valentina Gunina, world’s number 9, Elisabeth Paehtz, world’s number 10, Stavroula Tsolakidou, a triple World Champion (U14, U16 and U18) and one of the brightest young talents, Olga Zimina, reigning Italian champion and Marina Brunello, reigning Italian vice-champion and fresh from winning the gold medal on her board at the Batumi Olympiad.

The atmosphere in the team was one that was envied by all present in Porto Carras. We were always together, supporting each other, making sure everybody was comfortable and laughing and having a great time. Some Facebook photos easily confirm this.

Unfortunately there was one factor that we couldn’t control and that cost us dearly. That factor was fatigue. All the players were crucial for their teams in Batumi and played a lot of games there – Lisa played all 11, Valentina, Stavroula, Olga and Marina played 10. There were no easy matches in Porto Carras (we underestimated this fact in the beginning!) and the inner resilience that is required for a team to do well in a tough tournament was lacking because there was no energy for it – the girls were simply out of steam by the time they arrived in Greece.

Already the first match showed the problems we were facing. Playing against the weaker on paper but highly motivated team from St. Petersburg we were lucky to draw the match. The following game on Board 1 was one of the craziest I’ve witnessed in person. The comments below are my impressions while watching the game standing behind Valentina. I leave it to the reader to decide whether to switch an engine on or not.

When the tournament starts with a game like this, there are only two options – either everything will go your way or it won’t. Unfortunately for us, it was the latter.

Even though we won the next two matches against weaker opposition (one of these teams was our second Caissa Italia team) it was clear that the girls were not playing well. There were blunders galore and an apparent lack of energy. This showed in the 4th round when we faced the leaders Monte Carlo.

A win would have assured us of a qualification for the semi-finals (the women’s tournament was played not as a normal Swiss but rather a system of two all-play-all groups with the first two of each group qualifying for the semi-finals). We approached the match seriously and prepared well. I was happy to see our preparation on all four boards, especially on Board 1 where Valentina managed to catch Anna Muzychuk in a forced line in the Exchange Slav.

But then things started to go down. Olga obtained a drawn endgame on Board 3 against Monika Socko (that was the plan) but slowly drifted into problems and lost it. The mess Lisa created on Board 2 against Cramling was going to be decided in time-trouble and it didn’t go our way. Valentina faced an incredible resourcefulness by Muzychuk and failed to capitalise on the best chance, eventually drawing. On Board 4 Marina started to take over little by little only to blunder an exchange. The final result: 0.5-3.5.

We didn’t deserve such a loss, but quite unexpectedly we were given a second chance. The team from St. Petersburg drew against the weaker team of Maribor and now if we won against Odlar Yurdu from Azerbaijan we would still qualify!

I made sure we didn’t repeat the mistakes from Round 1 when we underestimated opponents who were slightly lower rated than us. We again prepared well. I thought we would take this chance.

And again things started so well. We got our preparation in on all 4 boards and I was content. Alas, this was only for history to repeat itself. Soon after leaving preparation Stavroula on Board 3 sank into thought and quickly messed up a perfectly good position. Not much later on Board 4 Marina misplayed a fantastic position and ended up a clear pawn down in a hopeless endgame. Lisa was pressing in an Exchange Slav with White while Valentina grabbed a pawn and I was hoping she would soon start playing for a win. A faint chance for a 2-2 appeared, only to be brutally squashed when Valentina blundered and lost. Lisa bravely fought on and won, but the match was lost 1-3.

This loss really took out everything out of me. Fatigue was there for all of us, but the hope of qualifying kept me going. Now with it gone I was flat.

Things didn’t get easier though. In the first match for 5-8 place we faced the tough club of Kyiv. If only we could win one match against strong opposition…

It wasn’t meant to be. On Board 3 we had the same scenario as with Monte Carlo – with White Olga obtained an equal endgame, which under normal conditions she would easily draw, but devoid of energy she lost. Lisa went for a complex endgame against Zhukova on Board 2 and was outplayed, but when things got tactical she started finding resources and saved the game. On Board 1 Valentina got the other Muzychuk sister, Maria, into her preparation, but she slightly misplayed it and the position was equal. Then she started to do what she does best – creating tactical threats and Maria started to err. And then, instead of simply either forcing a perpetual check or taking the sacrificed pawn with continuous attack, Valentina went for the attack immediately, missing that the king can run away from the kingside and hide in the centre. After that there was no attack and the extra pawn for Black decided the game. At least on Board 4 we got a consolation as Stavroula played a good game, first absorbing White’s pressure in a Najdorf and then winning in the endgame. We lost 1.5-2.5.

The final match was against the weak team of Beer Sheva. We were outrating them by almost 400 rating points on Boards 3 and 4. So what happened? We lost on Board 4 with White in 16 moves when Marina blundered her queen. 0-1 after merely an hour of play. Stavroula on Board 3 won a good game, a type of game we wanted to see more often, showing a difference in class and winning easily. Valentina misplayed the Caro-Kann on Board 1 and was happy to draw, while Lisa was an exchange up in a complex position she managed to transform to a winning one. But then she allowed unnecessary counterplay and Black had a draw, which she luckily for us (finally!) missed. We won: 2.5-1.5.

True to our atmosphere we had a great party afterwards, but it was clear that this result was a disappointment. It’s a pity that all players were out of shape and tired and even though other players also played at the Olympiad the fatigue seemed to affect us the most. As a coach and captain in almost all the matches I learned quite a lot. I understood what a team really needs in order to win a competition as tough as the ECC – I am not sure the word resilience is the one that best describes it, but what I mean by it is that the grit, the fighting spirit, the inner toughness of each player and the team as a whole is the main characteristic that leads the team to the top of the pedestal.

We are a “new” team – this was the first time we played together. Now we know each other so much better and we all learned from what happened in Porto Carras. In spite of all the efforts I really enjoyed working with all the girls. I also thank them for everything they did, because I know they did the best they could under the circumstances. I also thank Yuri Garrett and Gianvittorio “Il Direttore” Perico for putting together such a great team and allowing us an opportunity to go for glory.

Since our sponsor Pentole Agnelli is a cookware company, to which we are all indebted to as it was them who made our expedition possible, I think that we can safely say that we will be back next year with some nasty surprises cooked up beforehand. And if we somehow manage to win, I can guarantee the party afterwards will be an unforgettable one!

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Luck In Chess

This one is from my recent Inner Circle newsletter. If you like it, please subscribe to it by using the yellow form on the right.

 

Chess depends on you. – Bobby Fischer

Do I feel lucky? – Dirty Harry

I am a firm believer in Bobby Fischer’s quote. I believe that if you do the work and give your absolute best at the board, without any excuses, hidden or otherwise, you will be rewarded.

Fischer, as Carlsen today, won many games that would have otherwise been drawn if he didn’t keep on pushing, “giving his absolute best” at the board. Such players thoroughly deserve their “luck” when they win “dead drawn”  games.

This is not the “luck” I want to discuss, as I don’t actually consider it as such. This one fully depends on the player. What I would like to discuss is another type of luck that very often happens during the game. I will illustrate this with one example, even though there are countless situations with similar characteristics.

Let’s say that there is a position in front of us with two possiblities. The position is winning, but it is complex and requires serious calculation. In winning positions it is enough to find one way to win, but the complexity of the position won’t allow for an easy solution. Let us also assume that one move wins while the other doesn’t, but the calculation of both is very difficult and both moves look very tempting.

Here luck, defined as “success brought by chance”, comes to the fore. If you are lucky in that moment, you will start  your calculation with the correct move. You will calculate it, play it and you will win the game. You may check the other move as well, but once you’ve found a win you probably won’t bother much. End of the story.

But what happens if you’re not lucky? Then you will start your calculation with the other move, spend masses of time  and energy looking for the win that isn’t there and only then start checking the winnning move. Quite possibly you may end up in time-trouble so that there isn’t even a time to check the other move. Still, you may be able to navigate the complications and find the win, but the factors weighing against you are rather significant by this point and more often than not that will not happen.

You may even be less lucky. You may think you have found a win with the move that doesn’t win, and as you are about to play it you suddenly discover a hidden defence, then you go back to your calculations and go even deeper into the woods where there is no light. If you finally muster the will to abandon the move, in spite of it being so tempting and so close to winning, by the time you start calculating the winning move the external factors mentioned above will be even heavier and more aggravating.

So what does choosing the right move depend on? In situations as described above, your intuition should lead the way. But what if you just cannot decide, even with your finely tuned intuition? What if you don’t “feel” anything that would incline you towards one or the other? And sometimes even your intuition can deceive you!

What does then intuition depend on? Good form, good mood, the state of flow? How do you get to these states?

The bottom line is that we arrive at these ephemeral and elusive concepts that are the holy grail of every chess player’s quest for the perfect mindset. But nobody has even come close to a consistently reliable method how to induce this mindset.

As you can notice, I am not even considering the factor of the opponent, where a “lucky” day for you may mean that your opponent just grants you the win for no apparent reason. Is your opponent’s unlucky day a lucky day for you?

To be honest, I am not quite comfortable to attribute too much on luck in chess. But the situations as above are not at all rare and they affect the outcome of a game in a decisive matter.

For lack of a better word I use “luck” but the whole situation is much more complex and difficult to define. I hope to have managed to shed at least some light on it so that you can continue the analysis on your own and perhaps come up with some ideas.

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