Rook Endgames from Riga

The recently finished FIDE Grand Swiss had a lot of interesting games. I happened to be present in Riga for several rounds and I witnessed a few of them.

I was in the playing hall when the following two rook endgames were played. I had my impressions while the games were in progress and I will share them in the comments. As usual when we use our brains, my impressions were much more cautious than the definite verdicts of the engine.

The first example was from the women’s event.

The second example was from the same round, but in the open section.

The third example was the one I noticed once I left Riga. It was a game that was crucial for the eventual winner, as he managed to win from a drawn position.

I found these endgames quite instructive. Perhaps a bit comforting is that even the best players mess them up, as with the physically demanding time controls it is more difficult to keep the concentration until the end and as we know, who errs the last is what matters.


My First Book

I was sure that I would never write a book. I always felt that it was too much work and not worth the effort. And yet here I am talking about my first book.

I have to blame some friends (Josip, Dusan, looking at you guys!) for tricking me into it. I have to admit I liked the idea to write something that nobody has written about. You know the old saying, write the book you’d like to read.

And I always liked to read about the psychology and the preferences of the players and how they translated to the moves on the board. Nobody seemed to provide the proof when they say something like “Anand plays well with knights”, fine, but do the work and find those examples and convince me! Also, don’t stop with the knights, how about a complete analysis of Anand’s (or any other player’s) style and preferences, corroborated with concrete examples that show the correctness of the statements?

Botvinnik did that. But we only learned about it when his secret notebooks were published. I was fascinated reading those “characteristics” about the players. He dissected their styles based on their games with concrete examples.

I have desperately looked for something similar ever since reading those notebooks. An occasional glimpse here or there was not enough to satisfy my curiosity. I wanted the full picture but nobody would provide it.

I also understood why. It’s hard work! Looking back, I still find it hard to believe why I accepted to do that type of hard work… Going over hundreds of games of the player, trying to understand him, looking for patterns and preferences, avoiding false ones, while picking up the correct ones to form a complete “portrait”. Not easy, I assure you.

And yet somehow I did it. I enjoyed the hard work in fact, as this type of work fulfills me and I only wish I didn’t have a million of other things to do while doing this work. I remember envying guys like Hemingway who only wrote and had fun when not.

Still, I wish players like Kramnik or Anand (or maybe Peter Heine Nielsen!) wrote something like that. I am sure they have done this type of work for their most important tournaments and matches, as they had to know their opponents inside out. But for now their work remains hidden though I am hopeful that one day we will get to see the secret notebooks (in electronic form this time) of these great players.

But before that, the world is stuck with my work on the brightest American talents. I feel honoured to continue Botvinnik’s tradition and to have done something that nobody has done before, to analyse players in such detail and publish that work. Whether I have done a good job it’s on the world to judge.

The Sinquefield Chess Generation is out now.


Tribute to Sveshnikov

In the beginning I had problems with the Sveshnikov.

A few of my junior competitors used the variation extensively and after several painful losses I discovered the cure: 3.Bb5 instead of 3.d4 and I was never getting mated again! Many years later Anand discovered the same when Gelfand used the Sveshnikov Sicilian against him in the World Championship match in 2012. In fact not playing the Sveshnikov won the match for Anand.

I saw the man in many tournaments over the years, but I never spoke to him. I maintained respectable distance and just observed how he played and how he analysed. And of course, I read everything he wrote and said in interviews.

In 2011 I played the European Team Championship in Porto Carras. There I got to face Evgeny Sveshnikov with Black.

I remember that in the preparation process I decided that I didn’t want to play my usual Sicilian because I didn’t want to face his Alapin. In spite of my excellent results against the Alapin I thought it’s probably not the wisest choice to play it against someone who has played and analysed it all his life and was likely the world’s best expert on it.

I decided to play 1…e5 because his choices of the Scotch and the Italian seemed easier to deal with. I remember I was expecting the Scotch, but he played the Italian instead.

After the game we had a very pleasant post-mortem, the results of which you can see in the comments to the game above. Evgeny was friendly and I was honoured to analyse with such a legend.

Only two years later I met Evegeny and his son, Vladimir, in Bratto, Italy. The Bratto tournament turned out to be a successful one for me (I finished 2nd in the end) and not in the least because of the following game facing Vladimir Sveshnikov.

I already knew that I was facing the Sveshnikov opening lab. Both father and son paid extremely high attention to the opening preparation and I knew that I had to find a way to surprise them, just like I did with Evgeny in Porto Carras.

This time I decided to play the Sicilian. The reason for my decision was that I had already prepared a line that I had never played before, a line that at that time was becoming popular. I knew that they would have something against it, but I was hoping on the element of surprise.

We didn’t analyse the game after it finished, but I could sense that Sveshnikov Senior was looking at me with certain respect. After all, I managed to outfox them in their strongest point, opening preparation. And on top of that, I won the game with Black in mere 23 moves!

After Bratto I occassionally saw Evgeny at tournaments, always cordially saluting him. I continued to follow his ideas, books and interviews. I admire independent thinkers who openly say what they think and Evgeny was one of them.

It was a big shock to read that he passed away today. He always seemed so full of energy and I had the feeling he would live until 100 with that amount of life force. But it wasn’t meant to be.

Evgeny Sveshnikov was one of the rare legends I got to meet, play and analyse with. I am grateful for the opportunity and I only wish I had more of them.

Rest in Peace Evgeny Sveshnikov.


Back At The Board

It was a busy summer that eventually saw me travel again and sit at the board in an OTB tournament.

I write this just as the Second Spanish Division ended in Linares. I always love coming to Linares. The first time I came to play here was in 2002. I distinctly remember that tournament because the open where I played was held alongside the main event. The organisers even had the good sense to start the games of the open half an hour later than the ones from the supertournament, so that players from the open could come and watch Kasparov and co. first and then go and play their games.

I did that every single day. My tournament didn’t go so well, but I loved being in the main hall watching the great players. I remember how Kasparov won the decisive game for tournament victory against Ponomariov and being shocked at the what seemed over-the-top exuberant joy of his mother. His second Dokhoian didn’t show any emotion, as usual.

The Spanish Federation was and is one of the most active ones in these pandemic times. This year they continued with organisation of youth championships en masse and the Segunda Division was no exception, with 48 teams participating. They have their health rules and they follow them, which seems to work as, knock on wood, no cases have emerged.

The only thing I disliked was playing with a mask on, I would have preferred a plexiglass divider, like in Germany last year, but I didn’t have a say in the matter.

These events are always great fun. My team wasn’t a strong one, so we had no ambition except to enjoy the games and the time spent together. We managed to do that, though the result at the end was disappointing.

My own play was OK-ish. After the hybrid event in May, which wasn’t exactly OTB, this was my first event since last year’s Bundesliga in March. It didn’t feel strange to play after such a long break, but I could feel that things were not going smoothly. I will write more about this feeling in one of my next newsletters (to which you can subscribe using the yellow box on the right).

Generally speaking I played normally, but I missed a few wins and I also dodged one loss. I didn’t lose any games, drawing 3 and winning 2.

Here is a nice technical effort against a FM.

Who knows when my next OTB event will be, but at least I got to play chess again.


Even Botvinnik

This was published in my newsletter on 20 March this year.

Today it is unrealistic to expect the best players to play the endgames perfectly, even the theoretical ones. I remember seeing a game where even Boris Gelfand couldn’t initially give mate with a knight and bishop, though eventually he succeeded.

However, I always had the impression that the players of the past, like Botvinnik and Smyslov never made mistakes in the theoretical endgames and that generally played them better. Partly it was so because of the adjournments, when they could analyse and consult the endgame manuals so then they could play precisely.

So I was surprised when I checked the endgame of the game between Janosevic and Botvinnik, played in the Belgrade tournament in 1969. The starting position of interest of the final phase of the game is the following one:

It is Black to move and he needs to decide how to make the (relatively easy) draw. Botvinnik went for the more active 76…Rg2, even though the passive 76…Ra7 was simpler, as White simply cannot make progress.

The game continuation allowed White to become active with the Ke5 idea and while the position remained a draw it required precise calculation from Black.

The second interesting decision by Botvinnik was in the following position.

Instead of stopping White’s idea of Kf6 by latching onto the e-pawn by 79…Rg4, which again would have given an easy draw as White cannot go forward, Botvinnik allowed White to achieve his idea by taking the g-pawn by 79…Rxg5 80.Kf6 when he was already forced to come up with the only move to save the game.

However, this was incredibly difficult and Botvinnik failed.

Where would you put the rook and why? It’s a nice exercise in analysis so perhaps you can give it a try. For starters I can tell you that Botvinnik’s natural move 80…Rg1 loses, while the drawing move is 80…Rg4. Now go on and figure out why!

But the adventures didn’t finish here. Even though White was winning after 80…Rg1? he also missed the win.

Here winning was 84.Rd5! liberating the d7-square for the king and also cutting off the black king from supporting his own g-pawn. Janosevic went for the direct 84.Kd8? and here Botvinnik had the last chance to save the game.

Where would you put the king? It’s not a very difficult decision if you’re fresh and know there is a draw here. But on move 84 Botvinnik failed again. He went for 84…Kg6? and after 85.e7 Re1 86.Rd5 (even the immediate 86.e8Q wins) he was lost.

However, after 84…Kf6! he would have drawn. The idea is that taking the rook after 85.Rf7 Kxe6 86.Rxf1 Ke5! Black draws as the g-pawn marches forward aided by the king while White cannot use his king to stop it. In the case of 85.e7 Ra1 the draw is trivial as the e-pawn is stopped in view of the threat of …Ra8.

A lot of mistakes, undoubtedly. To my surprise, I discovered that even Botvinnik could err.



The following post was sent out as part of my weekly newsletter, to which you can subscribe using the yellow box on the right.

As I already wrote on my blog, the hybrid event went fine for me, in spite of losing the match. I already complained in the previous posts of my head not working properly in the preparation process, but when I started playing it worked really well, so I can conclude that the preparation served its purpose.

What I noticed is that when my brain works well there is either no, or very little, lag. By lag I mean the time between seeing a position and the moment the brain starts coming up with moves.

So when the brain is slow and sluggish there is a lot of lag. It usually manifests as mere staring at a position in the same way I stare at a wall. Just staring, the brain is blank, there is no connection between what I see (the position) and the brain, no moves are being produced.

An ideal visual motivation for me is the sight of what happenes when I press Alt+F2 (start engine) in Chessbase. The engine immediately starts coming up with moves and changes them as it calculates the position more deeply. This is how I want my brain to work during a game, not to waste time staring but to continuously come up with moves and improve the quality of those moves.

I have noticed that the best players, apart from having no lag whatsoever, have another extremely important quality of their mental work. This quality is relevance.

I had the good fortune to comment online with players like Svidler and Harikrishna and I noticed how they immediately come up with moves the moment a move is made on the board, but more importantly they always come up with relevant moves. They never propose moves that are out of touch with the position.

I remember seeing a video of Nakamura and some IM when they both solve the same puzzles and then they share the thoughts they had while solving them. It was incredible how Nakamura was always, without a single exception, so much to the point while the IM was often meandering and “lagging” in his thought process. He would often see the same move like Nakamura but then would just “lag” instead of continuing to come up with moves. Nakamura, on the other hand, was like an engine switched on, relentlessly going forward with the moves, and coming to conclusions.

From my own experience, lag can be reduced significantly by constant practice. The key, as always, is in the word constant.


Hybrid Isn’t That Bad

After some consideration I decided to participate in the European Qualifier for the World Cup. This event was the first big hybrid event and I was curious to see how it would work in practice.

An additional motivation for me to play was that I have never played a match in my life. Here I was guaranteed 2 games against a strong opponent and this spiked my curiousity to see how I can deal with a match situation.

I was paired to play against GM Ivan Salgado Lopez from Spain. I happen to know Ivan pretty well, he was a board member of the ACP for quite some time and we worked together well. When I analysed his games I saw that he is very gifted tactically, so I thought that my chances would be higher if I “dulled” the game somewhat. I also noticed that he prefers to attack, so taking the initiative was also a priority (you can notice how this affected my decisions in the second game).

I cannot say that my chess preparations went particularly well, due to other commitments, but I did what I could.

The venue in Skopje, where we played, was in one of the best schools in the city. It was comfortable and the internet connection was stable. I used a chess board to think and move my pieces on, which was a bit unnatural in the beginning, as I had to make the move on the laptop first and then on the board. This made it a bit difficult to concentrate at the start of the first game, but I was surprised how quickly I got used to it and soon enough my concentration was quite alright.

The only time I ditched the chess board was at the end of the first game, when I had several minutes left to finish the game, so I moved to my laptop to execute the moves directly. Unfortunately that was when I blundered.

Generally speaking, I was pleasantly surprised by the hybrid format. My main concern was the ability to concentrate under strange conditions, but with that out of the way everything was normal. In a way I felt more relaxed than usual, without having a physical opponent to see there was less tension.

The match was very exciting and I enjoyed it tremendously. I should have won the first game and in that case I would have played the second one differently, but both games were full-fledged fights and this is something I have missed for quite some time with lack of playing opportunities.

In the first game I was Black and in spite of all the preparation we left theory rather early.

It was a real pity not to win a game where, as he admitted after the match, I completely outplayed him. But there was no time to waste and this is what happened in the 2nd game.

All credit goes to my opponent who found two great moves to refute my rook sacrifice. Still, I enjoyed playing the game the way I did – I am not sure going for a draw and a tie-break would have increased my chances in view of my complete absence of practice when it comes to online games at quick time controls.

So I lost the match, but it was an experience I thoroughly enjoyed. It reminded me how much I miss playing chess and now I feel a bit sad going back to the “usual routine.”

As for hybrid chess, having experienced it personally, I am now more optimistic about its future than before. With proper technical preparation, like the one we had in Skopje, and a stable online platform I don’t see a reason why there shouldn’t be more tournaments like this.


Candidates 2021 and What Lies Ahead

With the Candidates tournament finally finished we now have the name of Carlsen’s challenger. Many interviews were given and a lot of information appeared since the end of the event, so here I will try to summarise and give also my opinion.

The players who were leading one year ago finished on top, but their paths were different. Nepomniachtchi played solid and safe chess, Vachier was stubborn and paid the price for it.

Nepomniachtchi showed maturity and good control of his nerves. As he put it, one must never go crazy in these events. In other words, making draws is good. Vachier perhaps would have wanted to do the same, but insisting on the Najdorf and the Grunfeld made him a sitting duck and after a full year of preparation his opponents took advantage of it.

The revelation of the tournament was Giri. It seemed to me that he added a certain “forward intent” to his solidity. This was most clearly shown in the game against Caruana, when he first absorbed White’s pressure and then when Caruana decided to continue the game at all costs (instead of accepting a draw, which for him was unacceptable) Giri took over and there was no stopping him.

I was disappointed by Caruana’s decision not to try to beat Nepomniachtchi with Black. He explained this by being too early to burn bridges, but in fact already in the next round he was forced to burn those bridges against Giri. Postponing the said burning didn’t help him even though he was White against Giri. My experience says that it’s always best to try to use the first chance – in Caruana’s case the game against Nepomniachtchi. It was also more practical to do so – he would have caught the leader and in fact would have had a better tie-break in case of a win. When the first chance is not taken and when a second one comes (this often is not the case – life often gives just one chance) then taking the second one is more difficult. This was proven in Caruana’s case, when Giri played one of his best games. But, and I have noted this on more than one occasion, the modern generation of chess players is not a risk-taking generation. Nothing seems to “whip the blood when great stakes can be gained by resolute and self-confident daring” (Lasker). I see this lack of “self-confident daring” the main psychological weakness of today’s best chess players.

The rest of the field were not in contention for first place. The happiest is probably Ding Liren who scored the most points with 4.5/7. Wang Hao announced his retirement from professional chess due to health issues caused by stress. Grischuk directly decided the winner by beating Nepomniachtchi’s followers, first Vachier and then Giri. Alekseenko beat Giri in a nice game in the last round to sweeten his maiden attempt at the world title.

What can we expect from the match in Dubai? I expect a much more dynamic match than Carlsen’s previous matches. A lot of people have said that Carlsen can be beaten only in dynamic and perhaps even irrational positions. Nepomniachtchi can play like that, but modern chess is difficult because a strong player can skillfully avoid positions he doesn’t like by careful selection of openings. Let’s say Carlsen chooses 1.Nf3 – how is then Nepomniachtchi going to get a Najdorf or a Grunfeld?

As always, a lot will depend on the openings. And they will depend on the strategy the players choose. If Nepomniachtchi’s strategy is perhaps more probable to foresee, Carlsen’s is not. Does he feel strong enough to battle in sharp positions, or will he try to keep it quiet and technical?

One way or another, the match will be interesting. Just like any other World Championship match.


Countdown to Carlsen

This text was published in the April issue of British Chess Magazine.

After more than a year since the Candidates tournament was stopped, the hapless tournament will continue from 19 April in the city of Yekaterinburg. Guarantees are freely given that the players will be safe and that they can arrive to Russia without problems. According to the FIDE President anybody who wishes to receive the Russian vaccine will be able to do so. There will be many unknowns until the event starts, and likely during its course, so the only thing we can do is hope that everything goes well this time.

Here is a reminder of the current standings: Vachier and Nepomniachtchi lead with 4.5 points ahead of Caruana, Grischuk, Giri and Wang Hao on 3.5. Last place is shared by Alekseenko and Ding Liren with 2.5.

It is worth noting that in case of a tie the result of the direct duel between the players will be the first criterion. In the case of Vachier and Nepomniachtchi for now the Frenchman has the advantage as he won their game from the 7th round. The Russian will have a chance to level the score in the 13th round.

Even though the results add up, except for the players there is nothing in common between the two parts of the tournament. The period between them was so long and the world changed in so many ways that it makes no sense to predict the outcome based on how they played in March 2020. The players will return to Yekaterinburg in different form and state of mind and will play a very short tournament of 7 rounds when anything can happen.

What we do have, however, are the points and a full point is a huge advantage in only 7 rounds. This makes the leaders the clear favourites before the start. The standings also indicate that except for the last two players everybody else is still in the running.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t make it any easier to try to predict how the event will pan out. The players barely played any classical games in the past year and basing conclusions on their online performances can be loose at best. For example, it is not improbable for a player like Ding Liren, who played very badly in the last online event in early February (starting his games at midnight), to start winning games and turn the event upside down.

Of the players who managed to play some classical games, at this year’s Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee, Giri and Caruana can be fairly happy with their play, finishing shared first and shared third respectively. On the other hand the leader Vachier should be very worried, finishing on a heavy minus score. He lost to both fellow candidates Caruana and Giri in his beloved Najdorf, making it even more painful.

Still, often playing very badly before an important event (like Caruana having an abysmal Wijk before winning the Berlin Candidates in 2018 and Anand finishing last in Bilbao before beating Kramnik in Bonn 2008) can serve as a wake-up call and can mobilise the player. To spice things up, the first round of the resumption will see the duel Caruana-Vachier, a repeat of their game in Wijk aan Zee, so we will quickly see whether the Frenchman had managed to recover.

If there are no unexpected events we will know the name of Carlsen’s challenger by the end of April. The World Championship match is scheduled to start on 24 November in Dubai. This gives the Challenger 7 months to prepare for the most important event of his life while hoping that the world becomes a better place in the meantime.


Differences Between the QGD Repertoires

As you probably know, I recently created a Lifetime Repertoire (LTR) based on the Queen’s Gambit Declined (QGD) for Chessable. This one was not my first repertoire on the Queen’s Gambit Declined. In fact, I already had a trilogy published on Chessable that covered “everything except 1.e4” based on the QGD.

The natural question, one that I have been asked many times, was what were the differences between the two. Apart from the usual improvements thanks to the advances of chess theory and engines (these go without saying) in this post I’d like to give an overview of the differences in the chosen variations. Before continuing I want to stress again that the lines in both the trilogy and the LTR are perfectly valid and it is a matter of choice which ones to choose. I also intend to keep updating both repertoires, so rest assured that I will continue to provide feedback.

Without further ado, here are the main differences:

  1. In the Exchange Variation, after the moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Be7 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Bf4 c6 the trilogy analysed the move 6…Bd6 after both 6.e3 and 6.Qc2. The LTR analyses 6.e3 Bf5 and 6.Qc2 Nf6. The reason for the change was that the lines in the LTR have proven to be more dynamic and I considered them interesting enough to explore and propose them.
  2. In the Main Line with 6.Bxf6 I tried to condense the lines in the LTR by mainly proposing plans based on …dxc4. This is especially important in the lines with 8.Rc1 and 8.Qb3 (after the moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Be7 4.Nf3 Nf6 5.Bg5 h6 6.Bxf6 Bxf6 7.e3 0-0). In the trilogy I proposed 8.Rc1 c6 and 8.Qb3 c6.
  3. In the Main Line with 5.Bf4 (after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Be7 4.Nf3 Nf6 5.Bf4 0-0 6.e3) the trilogy analysed the lines with 6…c5 while the LTR analyses 6…Nbd7. The reason for the change was a more general approach to the whole opening by proposing a more unified repertoire based on …Nbd7 against White’s main theoretical tries of the Main Line with 5.Bg5, the Main Line with 5.Bf4 and the Catalan.
  4. In the Catalan, after the moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.g3, the trilogy looked at the variation 4…dxc4 5.Bg2 Bd7 while the LTR, in line with the approach described above analyses the Closed System after 4…Bb4 5.Bd2 Be7, followed by …0-0 and …Nbd7.
  5. In the Reti Opening, after 1.Nf3 d5 2.c4 e6 3.g3 Nf6 4.Bg2 in the LTR I concentrated on the lines with 4…d4, while the trilogy analysed 4…dxc4 in detail. After feedback from students I found that the lines with 4…d4 are much less theoretically heavy and therefore much more practical. The move 4…dxc4 still remains the main theoretical option, however.
  6. In the London System the choice of variation remained the same, but here there was a major shift in direction of better understanding of the ensuing positions after Bxg6 hxg6. After the trilogy was published there were several discoveries that showed the potential of White’s attack in these structures so in the LTR I came up with an important novel concept to defuse these attacks.
  7. In the Nimzo-Larsen, after the moves 1.b3 d5 2.Bb2 Nf6 3.e3 e6 4.Nf3 Be7 5.c4 0-0 6.Nc3 the trilogy looked at 6…b6, while the LTR analyses 6…dxc4, which leads to much more dynamic play.

The above 7 variations are the main differences between the repertoires. I hope this now makes it clearer when navigating between the two.

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