Category : Understanding Chess

Endgame Technique

The following game made a deep impression on me. We all know how strong Carlsen is, but how does he manage to beat the “common” 2700-rated GM with black in a smooth fashion always fascinated me. It is easy to understand it, but so difficult to do it yourself!

White plays a solid opening and openly for a draw, exchanging queens early. Then he even wins the bishop pair! Yet he goes down easily. I’ll try to explain the small inaccuracies and what they led to. Another instructive point is that when things have gone too far even if there is a saving way, it is so complicated that it’s impossible to find.

I learned a lot from this game and occasionally I replay it just to inspire myself and remind myself how chess should be played. I hope you can also draw valuable lessons from this exquisite masterclass by the World Champion.


Character and Conflict

I have noticed that when it comes to conflict outside the chessboard, there are three types of players: ones that thrive on it (typical examples are Botvinnik, Fischer, Kasparov and Korchnoi), ones that avoid it (examples are Spassky and Anand) and ones that are indifferent, neither looking for it, nor avoiding it if it happens (a typical example is Karpov).

The duels between the above types have been telling – the conflict seeking players almost always came out victorious. The Botvinnik matches, especially his return matches when he would always try to impose some irrelevant detail (the sealed move to be placed in two envelopes – just in case one of them got lost, postponing or advancing the match for several weeks because of the weather in Moscow) in order to impose his will and perhaps create conflict with the sole idea of extra motivation; the match Kasparov-Anand, with Kasparov banging the door when exiting the playing area and Anand keeping his rage inside and not reacting; the match Spassky-Fischer, with Fischer creating conflicts long before the match began, while Spassky tried to play the perfect gentleman. The matches Karpov-Korchnoi are a bit different, where the conflict seeking player was beaten, but he was beaten by a player who knew how to thrive on conflict when required – Karpov was always very adaptive to circumstances and didn’t mind the conflict at all. From the more recent history, the match Topalov-Kramnik in Elista was an exception, where the conflict seeking player actually lost to the conflict avoiding player.

The duels between these characters were always exciting and they captured the imagination of the public. Different characters attract different people because the people can recognise parts of themselves in the behaviour of the champions.

What do we have today when it comes to character and conflict? Very little from both. Today’s leading players are probably the best players in the history of chess (taking into consideration the advances in theory and understanding), but when it comes to character I cannot say it is visible from the way they behave outside the chessboard. The atmosphere at the tournaments today is sterile, the players are all friendly between themselves, there is no conflict; in fact, they are all trying to avoid it and just play chess. Almost all of them have worked for or with somebody they know too well, it is all too mixed up – no wonder they are all friendly (can you imagine Tal being hired by Botvinnik for his match against Petrosian?) Nakamura’s Sauron comments, Carlsen’s Mickey Mouse remarks and Giri’s boasting are just too meek compared to Korchnoi’s outbursts, Kasparov’s door-banging and Fischer’s cursing in the ping-pong room.

While today’s elite lacks spark outside the chessboard, they certainly compensate for it with the chess of the highest quality on the chessboard, for which I am grateful. But I would still like to see a bit more of the good old fashioned spite and malice. It just makes for a better spectacle.


Blitz Chess

We all know too well what can happen in blitz (everything!) but sometimes things happen that manage surprise even me (and I’ve seen things!)

From the recent Rabat blitz marathon, here’s the latest gem. White is a 2231-rated player and black is none other but the legendary Loek van Wely. You would expect van Wely to win a rook up in a simple position, right? You’d better take a look yourselves, as what happens next cannot be explained:

That’s blitz chess and why we love it!


Chess Legends

“We are masters of the unsaid words, but slaves of those we let slip out.” – Winston Churchill

Here are a few parallels that came to mind while watching the latest Kasparov-Short bludgeoning.

When Fischer returned to chess 20 years after his retirement in 1992 he played his “client” Spassky, who was rated among the Top 100 at the time (approximately). The result – public swooning for a Fischer return. Obviously Kasparov (who was probably jealous of  the record-breaking prize fund) was one of the loudest critics of the legends’ outdated and untheoretical rubbish openings, way of playing, and suggested Fischer should have picked someone his own size.

Kasparov picked Short 10 years after his retirement (and also a bit earlier, in another exhibition in 2011), a great “client” of his, whom he demolished in their World Championship match in 1993 and continued to stomp ever since. The result – oohs and aahs of the chess public begging for a Kasparov return.The openings – outdated and rubbish (Short even went for 1 e4 c5 2 Nc3 Nc6 3 Nge2, the move-order played almost all the time in the Fischer-Spassky rematch!). The way of playing – Short was beyond atrocious, as if serving the sole purpose to show how great Kasparov is even in retirement. Perhaps Kasparov should have picked someone his own size? But of course not, just like Fischer, Kasparov picked someone he knew inside out and risked very little.

At the press conference before the bludgeoning, the Grand Chess Tour was announced. The same 9 players (Carlsen, Caruana, Grischuk, Topalov, Anand, Aronian, Giri, Nakamura and Vachier) (+1 wild card for each tournament) will play in 3 already established tournaments (Norway Chess, Sinquefield Cup in St. Loius and London Classic) for an even higher prize find. As the saying goes, the rich are getting richer… I still think that having the same players play among themselves again and again is not the most interesting thing, but the elite has always been a closed circle. I will be curious to see how Grischuk fares so that is something to look forward to.

The Sochi Equation

The following analysis of the match in Sochi was published in the latest Informator, number 122. I have been a regular contributor to the legendary publication for almost a year and I must say that I’m proud to be part of chess history – the first Informator was published in 1966 and for many decades it was the go-to source of top-quality information.

The Sochi Equation

When Anand finished his final press conference he received a long and warm applause from the crowd. The moment he descended from the podium where the press conferences were held looked like a scene from a film, the ageing hero accepted his defeat and left the stage.
This match was always going to be more about Anand than Carlsen. Carlsen is a known variable, always performing on an extremely high level with only small deviations from the norm. Carlsen wasn’t at his best in Sochi, but even sub-optimal Carlsen is the best player in the world. Anand was the unknown variable in the Sochi equation, fresh from the Siberian triumph, but with not yet fully healed Chennai wounds.
Anand was better prepared in Sochi, mainly with white, as he realised in Chennai that winning with white in the Berlin was impossible against Carlsen. So a switch to 1 d4 was the only move for him and it did provide him what he wanted – in all his white games, except for Game 8 when he ran into deep Carlsen preparation, he got great positions with pressure and initiative. But he only managed to win one of those, Game 3, when it was Carlsen who fell into his preparation. It turned out that to win against Carlsen the advantages he was getting out of the opening weren’t enough – the quality of Carlsen’s moves was sufficiently high that he didn’t really have a chance to win another game.
Both players had problems when playing black. Carlsen’s strategy was to “jump around” and surprise Anand with his constant changes, similar to Leko’s strategy against Kramnik in 2004. He started with the Grunfeld in Game 1, not a regular feature in his repertoire, and followed it up with a Queen’s Gambit Declined in Game 3, which he lost badly due to bad preparation. This was followed by a Queen’s Indian, the Tiviakov line, in Game 5 and another Queen’s Gambit Declined in Game 8 (a different line this time, introducing the rare 9…Re8 and drawing easily – his only successful preparation with black). Game 10 saw the return of the Grunfeld with the lately-neglected Kasparov favourite 9…Na6 in the Russian System.
Anand’s black strategy wasn’t very different from Chennai and this was a surprise. This time he mixed the Berlin with the Sicilian, but people usually don’t play the Sicilian to get passive positions like the one he got in Game 6 from the Kan Variation. Surely they analysed it deeply and considered it holdable, perhaps he thought that with more confidence he can draw the inferior endgame, but why go there in the first place?
Much was said about the fateful Game 6 and indeed it proved decisive. Winning with black from a very dubious-looking position is huge in match play and undoubtedly it would have turned the fortunes of the players.
The mutual blunder in Game 6 was a cruel sign for Anand. When Fate unequivocally wants to show us she has made up her mind, she gives us a chance and watches us squander it. Anand had a unique opportunity, to win with black and take the lead in the match. But he didn’t take it, he only saw it after missing it and the inner flagellation that followed was inevitable. His inner peace was disturbed, he could not continue defending calmly and lost the game easily.
The inner peace was getting more and more difficult to maintain as the match progressed. The culmination happened in Game 11. Anand showed wonderful preparation in the Berlin and after 23…b5 he found himself in an unusual situation – for the first time in the match he got the initiative with black. Positive changes are also stressful and he had to adjust to playing for a win with black. The pressure led to loss of clarity in his thinking and the natural desire to defuse the tension as soon as possible. Keeping the tension is one of the most difficult things to do, waiting for the most appropriate moment to convert the advantage. This requires strong nerves and self-control, but Anand’s were shattered by this point and he obviously lost the self-control when he played the hasty 27…Rb4 and 28…cb4, his final mistake in this match.
Anand looked peaceful at that last press conference, content with the knowledge that this time he didn’t let himself down, he showed to himself that even though he may not be the best anymore he can still play with the best on equal terms.

Carlsen’s future lies in another direction. He has set his sights upon Kasparov’s record of 7 successful World Championship matches and even though the competition is getting stronger that will only serve as an additional motivation for him. The next match in 2016 should bring him a new opponent and a new challenge for which he will undoubtedly be more than ready.

Magnus Carlsen’s Mysterious Magic

This is my first post in 2015 and the holidays are almost over, so I thought I’d start the year with some magic. 

The following game, or rather the 8 moves I’ll take a closer look at, left a deep impression when I first saw it years ago. It is still very difficult for me to understand what happened, even though it is possible to explain every single move taken on its own. But as a whole, it’s a mystery (Botvinnik said that it was possible to explain every game Fischer won against Taimanov and Larsen, but the total score of 12-0 was a mystery to him). Bear in mind that Jakovenko was rated 5th in the world at the time of the game.
How is it possible to win a game like this? I don’t think I would have won this had I played against a player rated 200 rating points less than me and yet Carlsen beats world’s number 5 so easily! What does Carlsen do that the others don’t and how come it works for him and it doesn’t work for the others? I can see the logic and intention behind every move of his, as explained in the notes, I’m sure Jakovenko did it too, and yet he managed to lose in 2 moves (33…Kd6?!, 34…Ra6?). I don’t think he would have lost this had he played against Houdini or Stockfish or Kramnik. But against Carlsen he lost. Honestly, I think it’s impossible to explain why it happened and that’s why we call it mystery or magic. Or perhaps we should call it talent, or genius, which some individuals possess – take Fischer from the Botvinnik example above. And perhaps it’s even better that some things cannot be explained. In this period of festivity a little bit of magic is more than welcome.

Young vs Old

Just before the Tashkent GP starts, I wanted to take a look at the recently finished matches of Giri (aged 20) vs Shirov (42) and Jobava (30) vs Timman (62). The identical score of 4.5-1.5 clearly showed the triumph of youth and the inevitable passing of time.

They say that with age the main thing that does the most damage is the loss of energy. And everything else starts from there: no motivation, no desire to put in the hours of work necessary not only to progress, but also to keep your current level. All weak play and bad results in chess come from one single reason – lack of appropriate work.

Here’s an example of what I mean. The following is the second game in the match and Shirov, trailing 0-1, went for a line in which he made a forced draw against Wagner in April this year in a Bundesliga match. Since the position he went for is entirely in his style, Shirov must have been confident, but the young are not only confident, they also put in the hours and have powerful computers, so it wasn’t very difficult for Giri to refute Shirov’s opening. My take at this is that Shirov trusted his old analysis and liked the character of the position, so he didn’t check the critical position more thoroughly, while Giri trusted his work ethic and memory with the computer moves well remembered and produced on the chess board. Need I say who won?

It is curious to note that before playing this match, it was Shirov who represented youth in yet another match, this time against Evgeny Sveshnikov, aged 64. And Shirov was struggling in the openings against the veteran, but this time he won convincingly by 5.5-0.5. The reason was simple – Shirov was the stronger player. Once the games exited the opening phase, he consistently outplayed Sveshnikov. And another important thing was that Sveshnikov’s opening preparation, even though superior, didn’t bring the type of forced, computer-like positions where you can win the game by simple memorisation, like the game Giri-Shirov above. By playing 2 b3 and 2 c3 against the Sicilian, you cannot hope to win the game from the opening and once independent play started, Shirov was clearly superior. Here we have an example of an older player willing to put in the work and prepare thoroughly, but he didn’t really take into account the ensuing play – after all, the opening is just the beginning and you have to play well afterwards too. And in that play Shirov was simply better. This is the same reason for Fischer’s 6-0 results against Taimanov and Larsen – if you are better at playing chess, you can win (almost) every game.

And speaking of being better at chess, I can’t wait to see tomorrow’s start in Tashkent – will Caruana continue his winning ways without playing at his best?


Game Viewer and the Bishop Pair

I’ve been busy lately trying to find an appropriate game viewer for my blog. After the “negotiations” with Chessbase failed (their viewer as nice as it looks turned out to be buggy for me) I was looking at various others and on a suggestion of a friend, FM Riste Menkinoski, currently a coach in Bangkok, I turned to the options of the popular site and managed to do something.

So this below is an excerpt from a recent game of mine where I managed to play well and use the power of the bishop pair. It is also a test of the new viewer. Hope you like both!


Perfect Coincidence

Those are the words that GM Chuchelov used to describe Caruana’s performance in the Sinquefield Cup. Chuchelov is a long-time coach of Caruana and he could not have been more succinct.

In order to achieve such a result against opposition consisting exclusively of top-10 players a lot of things must fall into place: the openings, the mental set-up (both of the player himself and that of the opponents), the small (and big) decisions during the game.

Breaking it down on a game-to-game basis, Caruana had it look smooth from the very beginning. Topalov, who showed fine form at the Olympiad by winning gold medal on board 1, went too aggressive and Caruana’s solid position soaked up the pressure and busted the Bulgarian on the counterattack. In round 2 “things started to fall into place” as he won the game in his preparation when Vachier missed the best defence in a Caro Kann. Then it was Carlsen’s turn to make it look as if points were falling to Caruana from the sky – his odd opening led him to trouble, but then in the mess that followed Caruana showed that he also fully deserved those points: fantastic calculation and control won him the game. Another strong opening idea against Aronian (15 Na2!) followed by forceful play netted another point. Nakamura didn’t get anything as white in a Slav and Caruana outplayed him thoroughly – another sign that the quality of his moves was way above the others’. Then another strong opening idea against Topalov followed by forceful play – the same scenario as against Aronian. A surprise choice of the QGD against Vachier (instead of his usual Grunfeld) signified that he was happy to play it safe, but that didn’t mean he was ready to draw just yet – Vachier’s weird play at the beginning of the middlegame was duly punished and we got to the historical 7/7.

To generalise, Caruana’s play followed a pattern – excellent opening play (either obtaining advantage – Vachier from round 2, Aronian, Topalov from round 6, or simply a good and solid position – Topalov from round 1, Carlsen, Nakamura, Vachier from round 7) followed by accurate and aggressive play afterwards. A rather sensible game plan, easy to define, almost impossible to execute, the latter part especially. There is no secret behind Caruana’s result, we all know what should be done, it’s just that the doing part is so hard. And doing means playing moves of the highest quality, all the time. Every single move should be of the highest quality. Fantastic preparation plus moves of the highest quality plus, and here lies the difference, the opponent’s failure to keep it up with those moves (mind you, every day a different opponent, all of them incredibly strong players capable of coming up with moves of the highest quality, cracking on the exact day when they played Caruana – this is the ultimate luck in chess) led to this result.

Caruana continued with strong play against Carlsen in round 8 and was close to winning there as well, but his previous game with Vachier showed that he was already happy to slow things down, as if he subconsciously didn’t believe he can win more (he even said something similar in the press conference, that he would have been happy with a draw in that game). The missed elementary win against Nakamura further convinced me of this and he also drew with Aronian in the last round, making a no less historic 8.5/10. Caruana wrote history in this tournament and the expectations of his future results are even higher now.

I noted a difference between Carlsen now and one year ago. Back then he was focused, accurate and very technical, with solid openings and all ready to go at Anand in Chennai. This year, starting with the Olympiad he was choosing strange openings in some games: Scandinavian against Caruana and Bird’s Spanish against Saric with black and Closed Sicilian against Wojtaszek and a peculiar treatment of the Slav against Solak as white. Here his white opening against Caruana from round 3 was pretty bad while with black the Maroczy against the same Caruana and the Steinitz Deferred in the Spanish against Nakamura also raised my eyebrows. I suppose it is an attempt to get some training in different positions. I think that he expects Anand to go for sharper stuff in the match, so he uses these as a way to get more practice in complex positions. He is no stranger to this (remember the Chigorin against Kramnik in London 2010?) but he largely abandoned that practice in the last few years. Another thing I noticed is that he started making mistakes in technical positions – missing a win against Naiditsch at the Olympiad and Aronian in round 9 and allowing Vachier to escape with a draw in round 6. Until these two tournaments this was something unheard of, he was winning more drawn positions than the one he got against Vachier. He did, however, win a good technical game against Aronian with black, so things are not that terrible for him. Alekhine said that technique is nerves, so Carlsen probably needs to do some calming down before his match with Anand.

Of the rest of the field Topalov was a pleasant surprise. After starting with 0/2, with that horrible loss against Aronian in round 2 I expected him to collapse and he was on the verge of it – he was close to losing in round 3 against Nakamura! Luckily for him, Nakamura turned out to be in an even worse shape and Topalov went on to win the game – this obviously gave him a lot of positive energy and confidence and in spite of losing to Caruana again (due to a very strong novelty by the winner) he went on to beat Vachier and Nakamura in fine style. It’s obvious though that he stands no chance in the fight for the title (or for victory in tournaments of this kind), he’s way too unstable and this year’s Candidates clearly showed his weaknesses. He’s also noted this himself in recent interviews, but his play is always exciting and his openings always full with fresh ideas.

Aronian continues his freefall after the Candidates. I thought his +3 at the Olympiad got him out of the hole, but it happened to be just a happy interlude in an otherwise gloomy year. After the lucky win against Topalov in round 2 he lost 3 in a row, something so rare that I wonder if it’s not the first time that has happened to him. Another rare thing is seeing him below the 2800-mark – at the age of 31 (32 in October) Aronian enters a critical phase of his career – the young players (mainly Caruana, but don’t forget the likes of Giri, Rapport, Wei Yi…) are coming and his chances of a successful assault on the throne are diminishing. It has always been psychological with him, I just wonder why he hasn’t managed to resolve that issue by now.

Vachier finished on -2 and it was a mixed experience for him. He had his highs – beating Aronian, but he also had his lows – the white game against Caruana (14 Qa4, 15 g3), the evaluation mistake in the Najdorf against Topalov, the unlucky opening disaster in the black game against Caruana. Overall a useful experience for the Frenchman, one that he will try to build upon if he is to progress further up the ladder.

Nakamura finished on -4 and played badly. His Olympiad wasn’t great either and after the missed win against Topalov in round 2 his tournament went downhill. It’s curious how one game can send the players in totally opposite directions – Topalov went on to play well and finish 3rd, Nakamura went down and lost 3 more games. The worst of them was his black game with Carlsen, when he misplayed the opening and was losing on move 10. He could have lost one more game, if Caruana didn’t miss an easy win in round 9.

From my experience, there are four types of chessplayers:

1. those motivated by their problematic personal lives;
2. those depressed by their problematic personal lives;
3. those motivated by their calm and harmonious personal lives and
4. those whose calm and harmonious personal lives take away their competitive edge and make them mushy.

It’s known that Nakamura found his dolce vita in his private life in Naples, Italy. Judging from his latest results he seems to fall into category 4. And that is a problem.

Next up on the calendar is the European Club Cup in Bilbao, the Grand Prix events and the World Championship match in November. It will be an autumn to remember!


The Fianchetto Grunfeld and Must-Win Situations

Here’s the second article I wrote for Informator 120

The Fianchetto Grunfeld and Must-Win Situations by GM Aleksandar Colovic

The last round of the Shamkir super-tournament saw a very exciting situation – Caruana had to beat Carlsen with black to win the tournament. Even though they were equal on points he needed a win because he had an inferior tie-break. So the first question was how he would approach the opening in this delicate situation.

Caruana showed his aggressive intention as early as move 5 when he offered a pawn for central domination. He could have taken on d4 instead and transposed to the well-known exchange variation of the Fianchetto Grunfeld, known for its solidity and drawing tendencies – it served Kasparov well in his matches with Karpov as he never lost a game in it. But certainly this isn’t the way to play when you need to win. Or is it?

Let’s go back in history a bit and see what happened in another elite game in a similar situation. Round 12 of the Palma Interzonal in 1970 saw the clash of the leaders – Geller was sole first with 8/11 ahead of Fischer with 7.5/11. He was white and a draw would have kept him in the lead, so he started with 1 Nf3, 2 c4 and 3 g3, similar to what Carlsen did against Caruana. Admittedly, the situation in Palma wasn’t as critical as in Shamkir, as a round 12 game in a 23-round tournament shouldn’t be that important, but here it was a principled fight – Geller had been Fischer’s bete noire, beating him in their last three encounters, so even though the tournament victory didn’t depend on this one game, we do know that for Fischer every game was a must-win situation. So how did he react to Geller’s obvious intention to sit and make a draw? He did not lunge forward like Caruana and calmly went into the exchange variation of the Grunfeld. Geller must have misinterpreted this as he offered a draw as early as move 7, the moment he took on d5. A big psychological mistake, but he was probably thinking that he was putting Fischer under pressure with the offer, as if telling him “if you don’t want a draw, try to beat me in this symmetrical and most solid position.” Fischer laughed at the offer and simply continued as if nothing had happened. This seemed to get Geller out of his comfort zone and soon he lost a pawn, but he defended well and should still have drawn, if not for his blunder on move 71. Eventually, Fischer’s decision proved to be right.

In the 44 years since the Palma Interzonal theory has advanced immeasurably, so I am pretty convinced that if white really wants to make a draw in the Fianchetto Grunfeld, he can do that rather comfortably. So Caruana was probably right not to go there. But where did he go?
After Carlsen took on c5 and both sides castled we were actually in yet another Fianchetto Grunfeld variation, but with colours reversed (and hence a tempo up for white) – now it was Carlsen playing the Grunfeld! This line was used (rather unsuccessfully, as he drew one and lost one game with it) by Romanishin in his match against Anand in 1994. White (or in Carlsen’s case black) sacrifices a pawn in order to establish a powerful centre and have chances for an attack. But if Anand was able to difuse the line with black, certainly Carlsen was in much better situation being a tempo up? He used that tempo to land a knight on d6 to obtain an advantage and win a good game.

Was Caruana’s choice on move 5 right? I’d say yes and now. Yes, because he avoided a probable draw in case of taking on d4 and gave himself a fighting chance to try and outplay Carlsen; no, because the position objectively was better for white, a whole tempo up compared to a line which is considered good for black when a tempo down. And giving Carlsen a pawn and a tempo is rarely, if ever, a good idea.
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