In the past few months I was going over Nigel Short’s games from his book “Winning.” I always liked Nigel and rooted for him in the 80s and 90s as he was the “best from the West” and I was curious to see how far he could go.
I find the games in the book very interesting and revealing. One aspect that I found surprising was how sometimes these great players could have bad days and how easily they could be affected by psychological factors.
The following two games are good examples of both of these factors.
In the game Short-Timman from Reykjavik 1987, Black obtained a decent position in the French. However, instead of slower moves that improve his position (Short proposed …Kb8-a8) he lashed out with 14…f5??, which only gave him a hopeless position in exchange of a couple of tempi spent to bring the knight to e4, from where it was duly chased away.
Here’s the position after 7 moves, when Black is positionally lost. I found it really strange that a player of Timman’s strength, easily a top-5 player at the time, could commit such a bad positional mistake.
In the game Polugaevsky-Short from the same event, Short obtained a good position from the obscure opening 1.Nf3 d6. It resembles a Sicilian, where Black is very comfortable. Instead of simple play 17…a6 and b5, Short played 17…d5, which while not bad (though he criticises this decision in the book) shows a desire to force matters. In fact, Short admits to being rattled and feeling uncomfortable after the loss in the previous round. After 18.e5 Ne4 19.Bxe4 dxe4 20.Be3 he started to see ghosts and feared losing his e4-pawn.
So, instead of calmly doubling on the d-file, he lashed out with 20…f5? 21.exf6 Bxf6 22.Bf2 and what he feared he single-handedly made it happen – he lost the pawn on e4. He managed to draw the game, but it was not a good pair of decisions. In this case, the curious part is his confession of playing under the influence of his previous game.
This example shows that when GMs demonstrate clear misevaluations or play bad moves, there is always an underlying reason for that. It’s just that we rarely get to know it, like in Timman’s case, as honesty is rarely the best policy in the world of elite sport – revealing too much about oneself can easily help the opposition. Not everybody will be honest even after their career ends, which makes these glimpses even more valuable.
It is good that my Candidates prediction is the post preceding this one. This makes it easier to see that my predictions were mostly wrong! Indeed, of the first four finishers in Madrid, I placed three of them as the most unlikely to win.
I had the priviledge to share the same stage with the players. Working as a Fair Play Officer I spent my time in the same areas where the players were – the playing hall and the refreshment area. This allowed me a unique opportunity to observe them during the whole duration of the games.
Their behaviour while in the refreshment area, when hidden from the public eye, were particularly telling and while I cannot disclose some of them, in order to protect their privacy, they did contribute to the general impressions I formed.
This is what I think of the players and their performance in Madrid.
Nepomniachtchi – the winner had an event where everything went his way. From the starting victory over one of the favourites Ding Liren, to the pointed preparation against Duda, to the “gift” by Rapport, to the lucky, but deserved escape against Caruana (twice!) and the ideal set of circumstances against Firouzja.
He was in good practical form, playing fast and with confidence, his massive World Championship preparation bringing enormous dividends in every game. I think the secret of his success, which made him only the second player in history after Smyslov to win two Candidates in a row, was the ideal combination of good form and detachment.
The last word probably needs a bit of explanation. Nepomniachtchi repeatedly stated in press conferences, and he also told me several times before and after the games, that he just wanted the event to finish and to go home. To paraphrase Nakamura, he “literally didn’t care,” but at the same time he was fully focused and played great chess. It has long been observed that the state of flow, when everything goes your way, is best achieved like this, with full focus and detachment from results. Nepomniachtchi did it perfectly and nobody could come close to matching that combination. The final result speaks for itself.
Speculation aside whether Carlsen will play him in a match or no, I think this victory is a true sign of maturity for Nepomniachtchi and in the next match, against whomever he plays, he will be a much better player than in Dubai.
Ding Liren – the pre-tournament favourite for many, myself included, had a very uneven event. I still cannot grasp how could the Chinese Federation, so capable and efficient to organise the necessary games for Ding to qualify, couldn’t organise his trip to Madrid in time so that he arrives at least a week earlier and doesn’t suffer from jet lag. Also, how is it possible not to send a second with him, leaving him all alone in the most important tournament of his career.
These major organisational blunders cost Ding Liren a better shot at first place. The jet leg led to a loss to Nepomniachtchi in round one and this was followed by missed wins in rounds three and five against Rapport and Radjabov, respectively. When he finally hit top form, he won three games in a row, but then this was followed by an abysmal loss with White to Radjabov in mere 26 moves.
What impressed me most from his games was his ability to squeeze water from stone. Three games stand out: against Duda in round nine, when I expected a quick draw in a symmetrical and simplified position only to see the game turn very exciting thanks to Ding’s persistence and Duda’s mistakes; against Firouzja in the penultimate round, when faced with a theoretical drawing line (the same one Nepomniachtchi used against him in round eight) he sacrificed a pawn in the endgame only to keep the game going. He succeeded to put so much pressure on Firouzja that the prodigy was forced to find the only way to save the draw by sacrificing a piece; against Nakamura in the last round – in a must win situation Ding entered an equal endgame and managed to pose problems and eventually outplay the American and claim second place.
While eventually the second place can be regarded as a success (especially if that gives him the match in case of Carlsen’s withdrawal) in view of Nepomniachtchi’s dominance, I still think that Ding Liren didn’t manage to play at the maximum of his ability in Madrid.
Radjabov – he turned out to be my favourite player of the event! By far the friendliest of them all, with light banter both before and after the games, he always seemed to be in a good mood. What impressed me was something that I never thought was possible – that he could come back after starting and staying on -2 for a long time. But his London 2013 experience was crucial – there he went from 50% in round two to finish on -6 at the end, so this gave him perspective and, most importantly, patience. He kept grinding, taking it game by game and kept waiting for his chances.
They came, first thanks to his good preparation against Nakamura in round nine and Ding Liren in round 12 and a good defensive effort against Rapport’s over-optimistic sacrifice in the last round.
When talking to Radjabov at the closing ceremony, I asked him about his transition, from a dynamic player to a solid one, particularly when it came to the openings: the KID and Sveshnikov were replaced by QGD and Berlin. He said that he started losing games in the former ones, claiming that players like Anand, Kramnik, Leko, were very good at putting him under pressure there, so he was forced to evolve. He also predicted that Firouzja will also evolve in this direction, opining that it’s impossible to play and stay on the highest level playing constantly that type of dynamic chess that he used to play.
Radjabov benefited from his relaxed attitude, not putting too much pressure on himself to get a result. He knew that the tournament was tough and tiring so he took the games as they came. I think his result was the most surprising one, at least for me it was, and I am glad I was so wrong about Radjabov. I have criticised him in the past for boring play, but observing him in action for weeks on I realised the reason for this “boring” play – it is all about keeping the probability of loss to the minimum and waiting for one’s chances. When in good shape, like Radjabov in the second half of the event, this strategy can bring great results!
Nakamura – I found his games the easiest to follow. Possibly because his body language and facial expressions when seeing his opponent’s move while looking at the screen in the refreshment area were so telling!
There are several things I noticed in Nakamura’s games.
First, if he managed to get his opening preparation in, he would play with double energy and more likely than not would win the game – examples of this are all his wins, where he managed to surprise his opponents in the opening. He also had other opening surprises, like against Nepomniachtchi in round five when he misplayed a very favourable middlegame position and against Ding in the last round – even though he lost that game his opening was a great success and he should have drawn that without too much trouble.
It has to be said that the above is true for more or less everybody in the top nowadays – the importance of a good opening. If they don’t get anything out of it, not necessarily an advantage or a new move, but even a pleasant position that they have analysed, it’s almost impossible for them to outplay each other under normal conditions. As an example we can observe the game Nakamura-Rapport from round 11 when Nakamura didn’t expect the Sveshnikov, chose a harmless line and tried in vain to get more than a draw for 96 moves.
The above games were all played by Nakamura with White. When he was playing with Black he stuck to his usual repertoire (except in the last round game with Ding when he chose the Semi-Tarrasch instead of his usual QGD, but even there he transposed to a QGA, an opening he’s been playing lately as well), but he was under pressure in all of his games.
Here comes the second point I noticed – he was extremely resilient when in trouble. A characteristic example is his game with Firouzja, when he fould a fortress when it seemed that he was dead lost. He used dynamic defence, with his games against Caruana (round one), Ding (round six, when he was White) and Duda (round seven) being typical.
Third thing I noticed was his abitlity to play with utmost precision when playing with an advantage or converting it. I know the others are also quite capable of it, but in his games I noticed this more clearly. For example, in his game against Duda in the penultimate round, when his opponent left him off the hook, Nakamura started to play very aggressive and powerful moves and his conversion of the advantage in the endgame was exemplary.
Outside the board Nakamura was less exemplary, but his dedication to produce daily video analysis of his games was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing for the millions of viewers who got instant view into his understanding after the games finished, but a curse for himself, because these recaps took even more energy and eventually this took its toll: in the last round, when he had to avoid a loss to take second place, in spite of obtaining what should have been easily holdable endgame, he failed to show his usual level and the more professional player won. Caissa is a jealous goddess and rewards the ones dedicated to the game, not the ones dedicated to activities built around the game.
Caruana – the other American had a heaven and hell in Madrid. What started like a dream tournament with three wins achieved in powerful style, turned into a hellish nightmare.
In the first half of the event Caruana was magnificent. Starting from his great opening round win over Nakamura he displayed excellent preparation (the game with Duda the only exception) and his wins over Firouzja and especially Radjabov were impressive.
During that game with Radjabov I witnessed what it seems to me the turning point of the whole event.
Caruana was playing for a win against Radjabov and the game Rapport-Nepomniachtchi was following a well-known theoretical draw. Caruana was watching that game and logically expected it to end in a draw so with a win he would catch Nepomniachtchi.
And then Rapport struck. Coming down a full hour down on the clock he decided to avoid a draw and enter an objectively worse (the engine says lost!) position. When Caruana saw that, he couldn’t contain his disappointment. He started shaking his head, as if he couldn’t believe how his main opponent is being given free gifts while he has to work so hard for his points. While he did manage to win the game against Radjabov after a gigantic effort, and stay within half a point behind Nepomniachtchi, it appeared that his energy was spent.
The next game was another titanic battle where Caruana defended to the best of his ability against Nakamura, but eventually lost. Then he had a chance to catch Nepomniachtchi with a win in the direct duel. He employed a very interesting early novelty in the Petroff, obtained a winning advantage, but the character of the position was such that there was so much calculation involved that in spite of his excellent abilities in that department Caruana was not able to overcome all the complexity and only drew that game. Then, exhausted, he tried to play for a win against Duda with Black, but did so very poorly and basically forced Duda to beat him. In the next round he obtained a promising middlegame position after Ding Liren missed a small trick and was playing safely for a win, but he could no longer keep his level constant during long games – he misplayed it badly and lost again. The last round loss against Firouzja was similar – he had a safe advantage but let it all turn around on its head and was lost. Then he defended well to achieve a drawn position only to blunder and lose.
When I spoke to his coach Chuchelov at the closing ceremony I shared my view that it must have felt as if Fate was leading his main rival to victory while blocking Caruana’s way at the same time. He basically agreed, confirming my impression that lack of energy in the second half of the event was a major factor.
It was a very high tempo that Caruana imposed on himself, but that is how he plays chess. This time, faced with Nepomniachtchi’s “easiness” it was impossible to compete, but the quality of chess he displayed in the first half of the event was impressive. I only have one question, which I forgot to ask Chuchelov: why did he gave up on the Petroff? It seems like the winner’s opening in the last three Candidates!
Firouzja – the prodigy showed that he was clearly not ready to win this type of event. Not even that, but he was lingering in last place for most of it.
The tournament showed several huge problems in Firouzja’s play. First of all were his problems in preparation. He had several opening fiascos, starting from his almost forcing loss to Nepomniachtchi in the Najdorf in round four all the way to his round 11 loss to Nepomniachtchi when he couldn’t remember that he had to insert a4 before playing g4. He misplayed the opening against Nakamura in round 10 and also against Duda in round 12.
The second big problem was endgame play. His level was far from a desired one for an event of this caliber – he went from drawn to losing against Rapport in round two, he missed Nakamura’s defence in round three and even in the last round he misplayed a technically winning endgame to a drawn one, only to win thanks to a blunder by Caruana.
The third problem was psychological. He didn’t seem prepared for the level of resistance and couldn’t maintain his level. The total breakdown was his reaction to his loss to Nakamura in round 10. He spent the whole night playing bullet games on the internet until 6am. Needless to say that he couldn’t remember his preparation and lost brutally to Nepomniachtchi the next day.
There were just too many problems in Firouzja’s play that prevented him to show his true talent. I hope he learns from the experience and comes back much stronger the next time.
Duda – to my mind, he was the least impressive participant. I was surprised how quickly he collapsed psychologically, after his first loss, in round six against Nepomniachtchi. After that game he was no longer the same, his body language gave away a disappointed and disillusioned player who didn’t have the strength to come back. As if he gave up on the tournament after that loss.
His next two losses were apathetic, Rapport mated him from a harmless position, Ding beat him in an endgame that should have been a relatively problem-free draw. The game Duda won, against Caruana, was more because Caruana was “playing for a win” by playing very badly rather than Duda winning. Even in that game he missed some moves and couldn’t believe his luck when he discovered he was winning after the time control – he couldn’t contain his smile and that was the happiest I saw him throughout the whole event!
Duda is a great player, but he turned out to be rather “soft”. He couldn’t pull himself together when things started to go wrong and that was the main reason why he failed at this event.
Rapport – was another favourite player of mine. I’ve known him since the tournament in Reykjavik in 2014 and he has remained very friendly and nice ever since. He complained that he was playing worse every day (like he told me after the game with Nakamura in round 11) but I don’t think he was in bad shape in Madrid.
I think the main reason for his bad result was the incompatibility of his fighting spirit and his preparation. He had the worst opening preparation from the whole field and his opening improvisations were rarely successful. This meant that he didn’t get very promising positions from the openings and as I stated above, without at least something to play for it’s impossible to outplay an opponent on this level from an equal position if he plays decently.
This incompatibility was possibly decisive for the eventual winner – his decision not to take the draw and play on against Nepomniachtchi in round seven led to his first loss and it gave Nepomniachtchi a valuable point.
What I liked a lot were two games where he employed a slow-burning attack. The first one was his win against Duda, when a harmless position transformed into a winning attack very quickly (not without Duda’s help, though) and the second one was his last-round game with Radjabov. After maneuvering for some time in an Anti-Berlin he started to build up a very promising attack on the kingside. Alas, by the end of the tournament his patience had also gone thin, so instead of continuing to build up he lashed out with an incorrect sacrifice that was refuted. In any case, that first phase where he was building up the attack was very nicely played.
Rapport was widely recognised for his fighting spirit and special approach to openings, but he will definitely have to raise the quality of his opening preparation. If he does that, his special approach will become an advantage rather than a disadvantage as it is now. Then he will become a mighty force to be reckoned with.
This text was published in British Chess Magazine.
My impression of Fischer has always been that in view of his encyclopaedic knowledge, knowing all there is to know in his time, he was an excellent implementer of ideas. He would recognise an idea and then he would either perfect it or use it as it is.
For a very long time I thought that Fischer’s most original idea was his plan in the hedgehog formation consisting of …Kh8, …Rg8 and …g5, starting an attack on the kingside. He used it first in the less-well known game against Garcia Soruco at the Havana Olympiad in 1966:
While this is not exactly a hedgehog formation, in view of the passivity of White’s position Fischer played 14…Kh8! followed by 15…Rg8 and 16…g5.
The more famous example of this plan was seen in his game against Ulf Andersson, played after the Siegen Olympiad in 1970.
The pawn is on c7 instead of c5 in order to have a proper hedgehog, but Fischer already knew what he was doing: 13 Kh1! followed by 14 Rg1 and then expansion on the kingside with g4, Rg3 etc.
It was only several days ago that I learned that Fischer was not the originator of this plan. When I discovered this I was both surprised and not surprised.
It is well-known that Fischer was an ardent student of Paul Morphy’s games and had the highest esteem for his talent. He probably knew all Morphy’s games by heart. Therefore, the idea from the following position must have rung a bell when he played that game against Garcia Soruco.
This position arose in the blindfold (!) game between Louis Paulsen and Paul Morphy, played in New York in 1857. Black is stable in the centre and he finds an ingenious way to take advantage of White’s last move 15 h3.
Morphy played 15…Kh8! followed by 16…g5, 17…Rg8 and 18…g4. He won with direct attack against the king, sacrificing a rook on g2 and delivering mate.
One can only admire the genius of Paul Morphy, to be able to come up with such an original strategic plan in a blindfold game, more than a century (!) before the modern masters picked it up. It is also no surprise that it was Bobby Fischer, with his keen eye for ideas, who first implemented the plan of his great predecessor.
As they say, everything new is something well-forgotten.
Fast forward to 2019 and the Iranian talent Alireza Firouzja. There is no doubt that Firouzja knows of Fischer’s plan in the hedgehog, just like many other players. What makes certain players stand out is not the knowledge, but the ability to adapt that knowledge to a new, original situation.
I will now show what I have in mind. Take a look at the following position.
This position is from the game Tari-Firouzja, from the World Blitz Championship in 2019. Black has a great position here, as he has everything he could dream of from the hedgehog – the eternal knight on e5, the safer king and an opening of the position at his disposal.
Here the typical 27…b5 would have been quite strong. Black is ripping White’s position apart in classical fashion, having pushed …d5 first and now …b5. The tactical justification of the move is seen after 29 ab Ba5!, hitting the knight on c3.
However, what Firouzja did is something completely different. He managed to adapt Fischer’s plan and played the extremely curious 27…Kh7! I’ll be honest and admit that this would have never crossed my mind. To my understanding, the position is too dynamic and with a safe king I would have looked for more direct continuations akin to …b5 mentioned above.
This doesn’t mean that Firouzja’s idea is bad, not at all. It is a very interesting one, showing that the position can be approached in more than one way. His idea is a good adaptation of Fischer’s plan – he sees the open h-file as the perfect place for the somewhat idle rook on e8. After 28 Bg2 Rh8 29 Qe2 Kg8 he achieved his aim and maintained the advantage.
A lot of players have knowledge, but what they do with that knowledge is what makes a difference. From what we have seen so far (and not only based on the above example) Firouzja is intent on making a difference in the chess world.
If chess players are taking half an hour to make some moves, how can you honestly enjoy watching it live?
This question is the core problem with chess becoming a spectator sport. Of course, I’m talking here about classical chess, not rapid or blitz, which are more easily “sold”.
The answer to the question is: you don’t. Unless you’re a strong chess player yourself and have the time to immerse yourself in the game in progress. The key word here is the conjunction and. Because in order to be appreciated chess must be understood and that understanding requires the time to put in the effort.
The main issue that prevents the “casual player” to enjoy chess is lack of chess understanding. This is a problem because the true excitement in chess (unless it’s a flashy sacrifice) lies behind the moves that are played. The moves played are just the tip of the iceberg, therefore spectators only see a movement of a hand. That is hardly an action-packed sequence.
Another hugely interesting aspect of a chess game is the whole process the players go through before sitting at the board – the preparation for the game. There are so many intricacies in the preparation that it’s a whole new (and well-hidden!) world. But only the chess player and his/her team would know of them, so the rest of us can only make educated guesses. For me personally, this aspect of trying to get into the heads of the players and to understand their opening choices is one that gives me huge pleasure. I will not talk about this aspect now, as you could have seen some of it in my comments to the games, especially the last World Championship match.
In this post I would like to illustrate the common “boredom” people whine about. In order to do this I’d ask you first to play over the following moves as if watching it live. Or even after the game finished, but without too much of a thought.
So what did you see? Just some senseless to-ing and fro-ing and then somehow White made some progress. Honestly, without pausing to understand the moves even I would have no idea what happened and how White achieved something. In short: no sacrifices, no flashy moves, boring stuff.
Now I would like to offer a new perspective of the fragment above.
This is quite different, isn’t it? It shows all the action behind the moves, the ideas, often the psychological moments. But in order to unearth all this you really need to understand chess at a relatively high level and to want to spend the time to understand the actual moves.
This means that the casual player’s only chance is to have high-level commentators doing this work for him/her. Not all commentators are created equal and they really need to have a feel how to present the iceberg undeneath the tip. Only then chess has a distant chance of becoming a spectator sport, though even then only for a selected audience.
Going back to the question at the beginning. What to do for half an hour when a player is thinking? In such situations it is up to the commentators to try to delve into the position deeply. After all, if a strong player spends so much time then there must be something in the position that is worth that time! The commentators should understand what that is and then explain it to the audience.
Chess is not a visual sport, the pleasure from watching chess comes from the joy of understanding ideas. It is an intellectual pleasure and as such it depends less on the visual and more on the hidden.
Botvinnik liked to say that chess is a combination of sport, art and science. While it is impossible to compete to the visual attraction of football or basketball, the watching of chess should develop in the direction of explanation of the hidden. That is where the art and science are concealed.
After Round 8 we have a very curious situation in Wijk aan Zee – we have World Champions on both ends of the standings.
The last two World Champions are leading the field with 5.5/8. The one before them is dead-last with 2/8.
While the results of the current World Champion are not surprising, I would like to take a closer look at what his two predecessors are doing.
It was Mikhail Botvinnik who first wrote of the need for “auto-programming” (as he called it) as a player ages. He was the first one to do so scientifically – before him Lasker was also very successful at an old age, but he never wrote about it. Botvinnik took into consideration the changes in his body and mind and successfully adapted to these by adjusting his style and approach and this helped him remain at the very top until his retirement at the age of 59.
At the very top of today’s chess pyramid we have Vishy Anand and Vladimir Kramnik as the oldest players. Anand is 49, Kramnik is 43. It is surprising that of the two it is Anand who followed Botvinnik’s path rather than Kramnik, who was a student of the Patriarch.
The most notable differences as a player ages are his decreasing energy, mental stamina and deterioration of calculational abilities. It is possible to compensate for these by training hard, but training can only get the player so far.
Anand went Botvinnik’s way. He adapted his style to power-saving mode, using his exceptional opening preparation to keep him safe and not minding draws. His results have therefore been consistent, mostly around the 50% mark but when things went his way he managed to win a tournament or two. Most importantly, he practically never had a disastrous result. Things are apparently going his way in Wijk and by beating both Kramnik and world’s number 4 Mamedyarov he is leading the field.
What Kramnik decided to do is completely the opposite. Instead of adjusting in the direction of energy-saving he upped the energy-consumption sky-high.
In a way, I find Kramnik’s decision akin to Roger Federer’s. With age Roger became a much more aggressive player, going to the net often with the idea to shorten the game points. He reasoned that with shorter game points the matches would also be shorter, which would suit him when playing younger players with more stamina, especially when having to meet them in several matches in a row.
While Roger had great success I doubt that Kramnik will achieve the same. What Kramnik achieved was a transformation of his style into one of the most exciting one. Even though his openings have remained the same (especially with Black, the Berlin, the various Queen’s Gambits etc.) he continuously manages to inject life into all positions – even an Anti-Berlin is guaranteed to spring to life if Kramnik is playing it.
The above change of style is great for the audience, but bad for the man himself. The high tension and strain that he provokes in his games makes him vulnerable when facing young and very precise-calculating players. Even though Kramnik calculates excellently, he often cannot sustain that level for the duration of the whole game and this leads to drops in the quality of his moves. The young are then unforgiving. A typical example was his game with Giri from Round 2. Still early in the tournament, so he couldn’t have been tired, yet he faltered in a very promising position.
Even though Kramnik repeatedly states that he enjoys the way he’s playing, I can assure you that no player enjoys being trashed. As any World Champion, Kramnik has an extremely high self-esteem and self-confidence and this unfortunately leads him to loss of objectivity. Perhaps the clearest case of this was his play and behaviour at the Berlin Candidates, but in Wijk he has displayed similar erratic judgement.
In a way Kramnik’s 14 g4 reminds me of Alekhine’s 7 g4 from the 7th game of the first match against Euwe, but I’d still say that Alekhine’s move was more positionally justified!
If Anand’s controlled way assures him against disasters, Kramnik’s gung-ho approach is one that invites them. Not only in individual games, but also in tournaments. With his current result Kramnik is losing 20 rating points and has dropped to number 14 on the live rating list. Anand is number 6.
Kramnik has always been one of my favourite players and it is sad to see him beaten as a result of his own attempts to “have fun.” I am afraid that once out of the Top 10 he is not coming back in. He has made a conscious decision to alter his style and he will not change it. Alas, his style suits his younger opponents better than it suits him. And he won’t have “fun” for much longer after getting repeatedly beaten.
Looking at the results of Anand and Kramnik it appears that Botvinnik was right. One must adapt to advancing age.
As a final thought, an idea I had as why Kramnik changed and started playing as if he’s a Tal reincarnate. Perhaps he does it now to compensate for the fact that he never played like that in his youth? Perhaps he always wanted to play like that but he couldn’t because he was always trying to achieve something and for that he needed to play in a way that brought results and minimised the risk of a loss? Perhaps without anything to strive for anymore he just wants to feel free of the constraints of his positional style? Who knows. And Kramnik will never tell.
During my recent trip to England one of the more fun things I did was to record a video together with my friend David. Our idea was to show how a lesson with a grandmaster looks like.
My training process is centered on improving the student’s thinking process. The logic is that a better thinking process will lead to a better decision. The “correction” is performed by closely monitoring the student’s thoughts and commenting on the critical moments.
I set up various positions for the students to think about. Often these positions do not have a “solution” as such – they are like real-life examples from the games in a tournament. The position would be a complex one where a decision needs to be made. I even expect different students to have different preferences and choose different moves. This is normal, as we all have different styles and understand chess in our own personal way. Idiosincracies are perfectly fine, my job is only to make sure they are based on correct foundations. In chess there foundations are precise calculation and evaluation.
The position I chose for our training with David is from the famous game Flohr-Spielmann from Bled 1931. Those of you who regularly read my newsletter (and the others can use the yellow box on the right to subscribe) already know that I made a thorough analysis of this position as a way to demonstrate how chess understanding has evolved over the years. During the video, being somewhat restricted by time, I couldn’t really go over with David with all the knight moves in the starting position and in a real-life lesson we would have analysed Flohr’s choice in more depth. After all, the aim of the video was to give an idea how an 1-hour lesson looks like and normally the work continues in the next one.
With all these explanations as a way of introduction, I now invite you to take a look at the video on my YouTube channel. I am really looking forward to hear your impressions!
I have heard many times about Alexander Panchenko’s teaching methods and successes. A talented player whose playing career was cut short by an unexpected request to head a school for promising young players. He put all heart into the work and in times (1980s) where it was very difficult to collect and organise high-quality training material he was one of the best ones in doing so.
Apart from the Middlegames, Panchenko also had a similar course on endgames, something he valued very much and following Capablanca’s principle that chess should be studied from the endgame backwards, he emphasised the study of the last part of the game.
Very recently my friends at Chessable.com prepared Panchenko’s Mastering Chess Middlegames in their well-known inter-active format. The whole book is organised in chapters, videos and problems to solve in the already recognisable and highly efficient manner. As a preview, they offer a free one-hour sample video that you can see here.
Mastering Chess Middlegames is a book that is a result of Panchenko’s work throughout the years. The organisation of the material and its quality is its highest value. The Chapters have the names like Attack on the King, Defence, Prophylaxis, Equal Positions etc. all being equally important for a successful navigation of the middlegame. Each chapter ends with several positions to solve individually.
It is not obligatory to read and study the book from the beginning until end. I was interested in the chapter Realising an Advantage and went directly to it.
One of the main things that I have noticed in the games of my students is that once they have an advantage they sort of “switch off” (Panchenko’s expression). They expect the games to be won by themselves and just sit back and relax. Coupled with this attitude can be a lack of combinative ability and these two together are the most difficult factors to overcome as a player doesn’t really expect he needs to play combinations or attack, as these two are never associated with “technique.”
Closely related to the combinative ability is the feeling for when “to go over to active operations.” Panchenko says that “this ability usually comes with experience.”
In the same chapter Panchenko addresses the problem of time trouble. It is often that an advantage should be realised with limited time on the clock, especially nowadays with the shortened time-controls and eternal 30-second time trouble. He states 5 main reasons why players fall into time trouble and of these I have found the “uncertainty in oneself and one’s strengths” to be the most common one.
When showing examples of successful realisation of an advantage Panchenko shows quite a few games where direct king attacks and aggressive play are involved. I found it very important to get used to the fact that realisation of an advantage is not a boring, “technical” task!
But there is plenty of that too, as the title “Playing for a Squeeze” would suggest. The classical game Botvinnik-Zagoriansky never fails to impress me.
This is how the whole book is structured. With so many instructive examples it is inevitable that you will increase the level of your play. And add to this Chessable’s structured repetition with their trademarked MoveTrainer and you have a winning combination to increase your playing strength.
Mastering Chess Middlegames is out soon on Chessable (linked) and you can claim your free 1h video here.
In a recent (immediately after this year’s Wijk) interview Peter Svidler expressed a notion that got me thinking.
When speaking about Vladimir Kramnik and a conversation they had at the party after the Wijk tournament, Svidler relates how he was taken aback by Kramnik’s opinion that the level of chess played 20 years ago was higher than the one now.
This was surprising. Normally I would expect to be the other way round, since we have learned more about chess since those times. But when I thought about it a bit further, I discovered two factors that may vindicate Kramnik’s opinion.
The first one is the domination of pragmatism in today’s chess. The end of the 90s was still Kasparov’s era with his scientific method of always playing the best moves after obtaining an advantage in the opening due to superior preparation. Today, this time under Carlsen’s influence, the emphasis is on practical play. This came as a result of the rise of the engines (sounds apocalyptic, doesn’t it!) and the end of White’s advantage in the opening. The aim today is just to play and preferably play better than the opponent, who would make a mistake that can be used to win the game. So less science, meaning not always searching for the best move, and more pragmatism.
The second factor, again connected to the strength of the engines, is the vast difference of the level of precision when the opening ends. Svidler also mentions this factor. Since everybody studies the opening with an engine, it means that everybody plays the opening at a 3500 Elo level. But once the preparation has finished, everybody drops at the level of their competence, be that 2700 or 2000. And here comes the important moment – the over-reliance on the work with engines makes the players less reliant on their own ability and as a result of this their own ability is neglected and it aggravates. This leads to decrease of the level of precision.
Perhaps there is an additional psychological factor. For the players nowadays the engine is God. They feel humbled and know that their own efforts rarely stand up to scrutiny. Today there is no greater praise for a player when he is told that his moves were approved by the engine! They may not necessarily be the first line, it is enough that the engine doesn’t change the evaluation drastically after the move made by the player. This feeling of lesser worth affects the players and as a result they may play weaker than they used to.
So perhaps Kramnik was right. He usually is, though I would have loved to hear his own explanations!
During the European Club Cup in Skopje in 2015 I had the bright idea to conduct interviews with the elite players. One of the best interviews was with the wonderful Boris Gelfand.
Boris agreed to meet us (me and my very good friend Kiril Penushliski, a PhD and an avid chess aficionado) after the tournament and we spent a few good hours walking in the park and talking about chess, life, Universe and pretty much everything else.
It is probably long overdue, I should have published this gem long time ago, but the initial plan was to have the interview transcribed and publish it in a written version. Alas, this never materialised, so I decided to publish the audio version.
I would like to thank Boris for giving us this opportunity to talk to one of the best chess players in the world. He answered truthfully and at length, it was sheer delight to talk about chess with somebody who has seen and done it all.
What follows is from my latest newsletter (to which you can subscribe by using the yellow box on the right). I discuss Garry’s problems and how chess has changed since his retirement.
When I was growing up, which coincided with Garry’s time at the top, the general idea was that in every position there should be a move that is if not the best, then at least better than all the others. The player’s task was to find that move and play it. Perhaps he may take into consideration some psychological factors, but generally, as Fischer put it, players believed more in good moves than psychology.
And then came the engines. By a coincidence or not, Kasparov retired in 2005 and Rybka 3’s emergence was in 2007. What Rybka 3 and all the others that came afterwards showed was that in many positions there were more moves of relatively equal value. The engines will still show you the “best” move as the first line, but in fact the miniscule difference of value between the first and the fifth means very little to the human sitting at the board and thinking for himself. (Obviously I am talking about balanced positions which are far from a forced win or where there is a clear best move available). The players who grew up with these engines accepted that fact as a given. They were happy to play one of the five best moves. The players from the older generation kept on looking for the best move.
This is where Carlsen’s pragmatism comes from. And not only his, but generally the practicality of today’s best players. They are not trying to find the one best move, they are happy to “keep it between the hedges” and play one of the five. (For those who haven’t read Rowson’s Deadly Sins and Zebras and are not familiar with the term, it’s an advice for driving on unmarked country roads with hedges on both sides – there are no lanes on the road, but keeping it between the hedges should suffice.)
I am sure Kasparov understands where does this new pragmatism come from, but I am not sure he has managed to “re-program” himself as his great teacher Botvinnik recommended to all players who wanted to achieve longetivity in chess. Kasparov struggled at the board, his brain was looking for the best move and then his time on the clock ran out. Kasparov has been one of the best learners in chess, so I am sure he can learn to apply the new pragmatism that rules today’s chess, but I am not so sure we will see him again in action to see the fruits of his newly acquired skill.
It was fantastic to see Kasparov play again. But I felt uneasy to see my childhood hero suffer and his hands shake, after being used to see him dominate everything and everybody. Times have changed and he is not the best anymore. That makes me a little sad, something has been taken away from the legend.
Still, it was the contrast of Kasparov’s old ways and the new pragmatism of the modern chess that made it so compelling and easy to notice the change that has occurred in his absence. And as Confucius said, “they must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.”