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    Tuesday
    Jul302013

    An Error, or the Cost of Doing Business?

    We'll bring our collection of woeful tales to a close, at least for now, with the following odd example from the 2009 Indiana State Championship. I came out of the opening with a clear advantage in a sharp position against a mid-2100 rated player, but then blundered and was fortunate to come out of the mess only a pawn down. Much later, hoping to take advantage of his time trouble and not wishing to get ground down, I went for active play rather than holding steady, but my opponent responded well and played the next phase better than I did.

    The game reached a rook ending where at one moment my opponent had four pawns to my none, which would normally constitute not just a lost position but one meriting instant resignation. It wasn't quite as bad as that, however. I was able to recapture one pawn right away thanks to a stalemate trick, and after that he had a c-pawn and doubled e-pawns.  He was winning, but it wasn't trivial. In due course he came up with a very good plan, sacrificing both e-pawns to reach a Lucena-type position with his one remaining foot soldier, but he was down to around 20-25 seconds left for the entire game, plus five seconds' time delay every move. When he was on the verge of reaching a textbook Lucena position, I made a good decision to play something completely bizarre. Objectively, it would let him win even more quickly, but at least he'd have to find it; he couldn't just follow the elementary Lucena build-a-bridge recipe.

    To my tremendous relief, the solution he came up with involved giving up his rook to promote the pawn. Queen vs. rook is not easy to win against good defense even with plenty of time on the clock, and considering that he was down to his last five seconds (plus the time delay) I thought my chances of getting a draw were now better than his chances of getting the win. (Even strong GMs like Walter Browne and Peter Svidler have failed to win with the queen.) About five moves later he had a little "think", after which he was down to two seconds, and after 25 moves of casting about we reached this position:

    It's his move, and as I have a third rank defense (rotated 90 degrees) Black still has serious work left to win it. If he has access to a tablebase it can be done before the 50-move rule draw kicks in (barely! It's 48 moves in), but for humans it is by now a lot easier to hold the draw with White than to win with Black. Anyway, here he felt that he wasn't making progress and took another little think...and lost on time. My nerves were shattered after this 103-move roller coaster ride, and I can only imagine my opponent's feelings. He shook hands, spent a couple of minutes alone composing himself, and then came back to talk about the game. I was extremely impressed by how he handled his feelings and the situation.

    His outstanding sportsmanship could be the subject of its own post, but the focus here will be on his decision to go for the win. There has been an interesting split in people's opinions about this game, going all the way back to the players and the live spectators. Some tended to think that Black should have just traded the queen for the rook at some point, especially once he was down to two seconds. Just get it over with and keep the bird in the hand. Maybe it's a theoretical win, but in practice it's pretty iffy, and under the circumstances the losing chances were pretty significant; indeed, White lost. By contrast, others (both players included) felt that of course Black should play to the very end. Yes, there is the chance that something might happen, but you have the time delay and you know that it's a theoretical win. It's a matter of self-respect and trusting oneself to pay attention to the time.

    I'm tempted to say more, but I will wait to see what you think. Where do you line up, and why?

    Sunday
    Jul282013

    Mate in China, Paying an Interim Biel, and Who's Knocking at the Dortmund?

    Hideous puns, one and all, I know. Take a moment to groan, and then let's move on and see what's happening in the chess world.

    1. China vs. U.S. Team Match in Ningbo: This was a good old-fashioned whuppin', with our (the U.S.) team over grampa's knee and the Chinese team applying the "switch". It was 10 players to a team, five male and female, and one team's men played all and only the other team's men; likewise for the women. There were five classical rounds and ten rounds of rapid chess.

    Neither team had their absolute top players. The U.S. men came without Hikaru Nakamura, Gata Kamsky, Timur Gareev and Alexander Onischuk, for instance, while the Chinese did without Wang Hao and Ding Liren - but did have Wang Yue. Likewise, the U.S. women's team missed their (by far) top two players, Irina Krush and Anna Zatonskih, but the Chinese women did without Hou Yifan, Zhao Xue and Ruan Lufei among their 2500+ players, though Ju Wenjun participated.

    By ratings, the men's teams were fairly even. The Chinese men had an average rating of 2601, higher than the U.S. men's team's average of 2579, but not dramatically so. The women's teams, however, were painfully lopsided in favor of the Chinese, 2457 to 2247. Given that, together with the power of the home "field" advantage (especially significant considering the many time zones' difference) the results were dramatic, as one would expect. In the classical games, China won with a 31-19 margin, and in the rapid games it was really painful: 70.5-29.5. Hopefully our teams learned something - something more useful than "don't play in matches against the Chinese".

    2. Biel. After six of ten rounds in this six player double-round robin, they're enjoying a rest day. Etienne Bacrot leads with ten points on the 3-1-0 scoring system they're using there; he has two wins and four draws. Ding Liren is in second with nine points (+2 -1 =3), Alexander Moiseenko and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave have both won and lost a single game and have seven points, while Ian Nepomniachtchi and Richard Rapport are both winless and trailing with five and four points, respectively.

    3. Dortmund. Vladimir Kramnik's favorite tournament isn't going badly for him, but he's not leading it either. That deserved honor goes to Michael Adams, who defeated Dmitry Andreikin in round 2 and then upset Fabiano Caruana with Black in round 3. (So much for 2800 - for now - but Caruana is still more than welcome to return to the U.S.!) Adams has been playing consistently well for some time now, and seems to have rebounded quite well from the slump he suffered after losing the 2004 k.o. final to Rustam Kasimdzhanov and the disastrous computer match against Hydra. He has been in contention in a few super-tournaments lately, has beaten Viswanathan Anand in their last two decisive games, and is doing very well here too. Since December his rating has gone up 39 points, and he's within six points of his all-time peak rating.

    Kramnik and Georg Meier are tied for second with two points apiece. Igor Khenkin (who held Kramnik with Black in round 3), Peter Leko, Caruana and Wang Hao are on 50%, while Daniel Fridman and Arkadij Naiditsch are at -1 scores. Finally, Andreikin, who performed so well at the Tal Memorial last month (an undefeated +1 against an even stronger field), is taking it on the chin this time with one draw and two losses. There are six rounds to go.

    Saturday
    Jul272013

    The Mind Says Move Here, the Hand Demurs - And Other Tales of Horror

    We've been examining a variety of chess blunders lately, and will continue to do so in this post. The primary focus has been on blunders that transcend the purely chess aspect, and reflecting on my experience in the game I've thought of three more examples of quite different sorts.

    Let's start with the most painful example, from a local g/10 I lost in 2011. The following is an approximation of the position:

    I'm White and on move, and while winning would be difficult with less than a minute on my clock (likewise for my opponent) and without an increment, it's clear that I shouldn't lose it. This came at the end of a forcing sequence, and my intention a few moves back was to play either 1.Bd6 or 1.Bb6 - I can't remember now - and it still was upon reaching the position. So I reached out, grasped the bishop, and played...1.Bd4?? My opponent was understandably stunned and suspicious, but after a few seconds of checking and double-checking he took the rook and managed to win before running out of time. I've had some painful losses in my life, but this one, in an otherwise mostly meaningless game, was the only one that literally gave me nightmares!

    What was the cause? Maybe the importance of centralization and the aesthetics of putting a bishop on a great square like d4 worked like a sort of muscle memory? Beats me, but it's a horrible feeling when you don't understand why you did something.

    The second case is one that faithful comment-readers may have wondered about. Neal Bonrud regularly comments to this blog, but back in 1999 we played in a small tournament in Las Vegas. Things were going well for me on the white side of a French, and this was the position after 29 moves; the first time control was at move 30, and I had plenty of time to make a decision - something like seven minutes.

    What should I do? I recall considering 30.Rce3, 30.a4, 30.h5 and probably other moves as well. Can White break through (e.g. with h5 or maybe at some point c4 or even f5)? If not, should he aim to keep squeezing? Open a second front? Find some generic improving move? Finding the perfect move isn't so important here, but I wanted to find the best plan, find the right idea. I kept looking, trying this and then that; always comfortable with my position but unsure of how to convert the advantage into a win. Of course I was keeping an eye on the clock, but there was still enough time left such that I didn't need to make a "practical" decision yet; genuine thought was still possible. So I looked (3 minutes left), looked (2 minutes left), looked (a minute or so left)...and kept looking. At some point I came to a moment of internal resolution and made a decision. I calmly made my move and pressed the clock, and then saw with a mixture of horror and relief that I had done so with one second left. Somehow my focus had grown so deep that I forgot about the clock, and it was just good fortune, sheer dumb luck, that I happened to make the move in time. I'm pretty sure the blood drained from my face for a few seconds after seeing the clock!

    The third instance is just amusing, to be filed under "just deserts". I was a piece up in some meaningless, probably unrated online blitz game around 15 years ago, and with two bishops vs. one with no pawn weaknesses and plenty of time on the clock I was a little annoyed that my opponent was playing on. (This is an attitude I've by and large overcome - one simply must in order to play online without going crazy!) The position was something like this:

    Here, I uncorked the ridiculous 1.Ke3??, allowing 1...c5 regaining the piece. Argh! Shame on me for switching off mentally, but wait! The game continued 2.Bxc5 bxc5 3.Bd1 Be5 4.Bb3 (something like this - I'm just reconstructing the idea)

    and now my opponent played  the incredible 4...Kd6?? Of course I responded with 5.f4! and laughed myself silly as he disconnected. Most people learn better from their own mistakes than those of others, but this is carrying things a bit too far!

    ...

    In the next post, we'll look at another interesting error that likewise transcends the realm of pure chess, but is it a blunder or other sort of mental malfunction? Or is it just the cost of doing business? Stay tuned...

    Saturday
    Jul272013

    Dortmund 2013, Round 1: A Fresh Horror!

    The Dortmund super-tournament got underway on Friday, and Vladimir Kramnik, Fabiano Caruana and Georg Meier got off on the right foot by beating Wang Hao, Dmitry Andreikin and Arkadij Naiditsch, respectively. Two of the wins are particularly noteworthy: Caruana's and Kramnik's.

    Caruana's is newsworthy because it pushed him to 2800 (on the nose) for the first time in his career. It's not an official rating at this point, but if he can maintain or increase it he will be the 7th player in chess history to reach that peak, after Kasparov, Kramnik, Topalov, Anand, Carlsen and Aronian.

    Kramnik's is worth mentioning (and Ken Regan mentioned it to me before I had a chance to see the game for myself, so he gets a hat tip on this one) because the finale continued with the array of horrors we've seen lately.

    Kramnik-Wang Hao, position after 25.h3.


    White is a pawn ahead and has some winning chances, although whether that's the correct result here is something I'm not certain about. Whatever the ultimate truth of the matter happens to be, it isn't relevant to what happened. Wang Hao followed Dr. Tarrasch's famous advice that a rook belongs behind a passed pawn, whether one's own or one's opponent's. It's a nice rule of thumb, but tactics may occasionally interfere with even the profound and helpful bit of wisdom. Wang Hao played 25...Ra2??, and resigned after 26.Qb8+, the problem being 26...Kh7 27.Qb1+ followed by taking the rook. Oops!

    Round 2 Pairings

    • Leko - Caruana
    • Naiditsch - Kramnik
    • Wang Hao - Fridman
    • Adams - Andreikin
    • Khenkin - Meier

     

    Friday
    Jul262013

    Beijing Grand Prix: A Look Back at Some Highlights

    Yes, it has been a while and we're on to the next big event. But think about this way: the Grand Prix tournament in Beijing hasn't yet been covered in a ChessBase Magazine, an issue of New in Chess Magazine or Yearbook, the Informant, Chess Life or any of a host of print periodicals. So it's still timely...ish. Without any further ado then, some thoughts on and facts about the Beijing tournament and the overall Grand Prix.

    * First things first: the tournament was won by Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, with seven points in 11 games. He lost two games, which is a bit much for the average tournament victor, but five wins overcame and it and were enough to finish half a point ahead of Alexander Grischuk.

    * The biggest winner was Veselin Topalov. Thanks to his last round win over Alexander Morozevich, he finished tied for third (with Peter Leko), and that guaranteed him overall victory in the Grand Prix series. That means he is automatically seeded into the next Candidates. Right now Mamedyarov is second overall, but he isn't playing in the final Grand Prix tournament and can be caught. If either Grischuk or Fabiano Caruana wins that last tournament, that player will leapfrog Mamedyarov and take the second automatic qualifying spot in the Candidates.

    * There were some unusual occurrences in the tournament. One is that with the almost mandatory exception of Peter Leko (who scored a very Lekovian +1 =12) everyone in the tournament won at least one game and lost at least one game. Also unusual: the distance from 3rd place to 11th was all of one point. Topalov won in the last round and tied for third; had he lost he would have been tied for next-to-last.

    * Sergey Karjakin shot out of the gate with three consecutive wins. Intriguingly, he said in an interview that he wasn't in good form, and either he was very astute or he was adept at making self-fulfilling prophecies. He drew in rounds 4 and 5, and then lost three in a row to fall to 50%, where he stayed the rest of the way.

    * Boris Gelfand's tournament was very similar, but in reverse. He lost in rounds 1, 3 and 4 (the first two games with White), but held things together and made a comeback. He won in rounds 8 and 10 and missed at least two clear-cut wins in round 9. It wasn't a great tournament for him, but it was a good comeback.

    * Another surprising feature of the tournament was the number of miniatures. In tournaments of this level it's rare that there are any decisive games of 25 moves or fewer; this time there were three, and two other games that didn't miss by much.

    * It was an impressively hard-fought tournament. The Sofia rules were in effect as usual, but they had little real deterrent effect. Players who wanted to draw found ways to repeat or swap the relevant pieces as speedily as possible. Despite this, a good competitive spirit prevailed, and 30 of the 66 games had a winner, while the average game went a respectable 45-46 moves.

    Here are some of the more interesting games and moments from the tournament. Enjoy.

    Friday
    Jul262013

    A Short Review of Kalinichenko's Vassily Ivanchuk: 100 Selected Games

    Nikolay Kalinichenko, Vassily Ivanchuk: 100 Selected Games (New In Chess, 2013). 317 pp. $32.95/€28.95.

    Vassily Ivanchuk is one of the strongest and most creative players of our time, and has been a leading player for almost a quarter of a century. Despite this, Ivanchuk has not yet written a chess autobiography, and as far as I know there are no full-length chess biographies dedicated to him, at least not in English. Ideally Ivanchuk himself will rectify the situation at some point, but for now it's up to others to take up the slack.

    Nikolay Kalinichenko is a grandmaster in correspondence chess, and so one would expect him to be a strong analyst. There is a lot of analysis in the book - primarily variations - with "talk" serving primarily as grammatical glue. Further, a lot of the analysis appears to be independent. No bibliography is provided, so I did some spot-checking between Kalinichenko's notes and Ivanchuk's in the Informant, and found essentially no overlap. This surprises me. I believe wholeheartedly that Kalinichenko is completely right to do his own analysis without checking any other sources, but only in the draft stage. Even if one is convinced that one's own analysis is superior, it's still worthwhile to see what the player himself thought during the game, to see the direction of his thought and to grasp the "plot" of the game from moment to moment from the player's perspective. My impression is that Kalinichenko's analysis is largely computer-driven, rather than human-driven, and while that ensures that it will be at a high level it won't necessarily give an accurate picture of what the flesh and blood players had in mind.

    His opening commentary is generally helpful but somewhat idiosyncratic. Sometimes he cites very old games whose theory has been completely superseded, and the citations don't always seem to be there to make an instructive point. Overall though, the opening analysis, while not always cutting edge (or trying to be), does fill out the context.

    One area in which there could be a lot more context is the sporting background to each of the games. Kalinichenko opens the book with a functional but not inspiring pen portrait of his subject, and it touches on the familiar ground: Ivanchuk's talent, his wide-ranging chess erudition, his artistic approach and, of course, his sometimes shaky nerves. But once that's over and the main body of the text begins, it's almost 100% chess, with a near-complete absence of background information and "color". How was Ivanchuk doing in the tournament? How did he usually fare against that particular opponent? What did the game mean to him from a sporting or aesthetic point of view? There is very little of this, and again, that's one of the reasons why it's best when such books are written by the players themselves.

    Overall, the book is a little dry for my taste. Both because Ivanchuk is such a great player and because he's such an unusual figure, it would have been better if the book had presented a more fully-orbed picture of the man and his games. Still, despite its flaws the book's existence is a service to the chess community. To those of you who primarily think of Ivanchuk for his eccentricities, you are missing out on something special. His best games are exceptional and distinctive, and this book will give you a good taste of his greatness as a player.  There are wins over Kasparov, Kramnik, Anand, Carlsen, Aronian, Topalov, Caruana, Karjakin and pretty much every other great player of the past 20 years - generally multiple wins. Kalinichenko's analysis is competent and instructive, so although I hope for a better book someday I'm glad I have this one today.

    Friday
    Jul262013

    A Quick Review of Sveshnikov's The Grand Prix Attack

    Evgeny Sveshnikov, The Grand Prix Attack: Fighting the Sicilian with an early f4 (New in Chess 2013). 251pp. $29.95/€24.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.

    Evgeny Sveshnikov is famous for his advocacy of the 2.c3 Sicilian with White and for the Sveshnikov and Kalashnikov variations of the Sicilian with Black, but the Grand Prix Attack? Even stranger: most of the book covers 2.f4. If you've ever wondered why practically all practitioners of the Grand Prix play 2.Nc3 and only later play f4 (usually on the very next move), the answer is the gambit line 2...d5 3.exd5 Nf6, when the main variation runs 4.Bb5+ Bd7 5.Bxd7+ Qxd7 6.c4 e6 7.Qe2 Bd6. Black happily sacrifices a pawn or even two (e.g. after 8.f5 0-0). Black's speedy development and White's backward d-pawn have long been considered to give Black sufficient compensation for the material.

    This gambit starting with 3...Nf6 was invented/discovered by Mikhail Tal back in 1979, and has largely put 2.f4 out of business. White's score in the database after 3...Nf6 is a dismal 38.2%, and if this isn't bad enough here are two more bits of information: 4...Nbd7 (after 4.Bb5+) does even better than 4...Bd7, leaving White a shameful 34.8% score in the database, while even the compliant 3...Qxd5 gives Black, not White a 53% score. That's what Sveshnikov is up against; does he deliver?

    If the delivery in question is an antidote, something promising White an opening advantage in all or at least most lines, then the answer is a resounding no. Sveshnikov gets to 2...d5 3.exd5 Nf6 on page 200, and as one looks through the annotated games and the notes it's clear that with correct play - and often there are multiple "correct" lines - Black always enjoys full compensation and sometimes an outright advantage. So if theory is in Black's corner and practice is significantly on Black's side too - all the more remarkable since 2.f4 players are likely to have a big edge in practical experience relative to their opponents - it's pretty hard to recommend the line or the book.

    But let me retract that, at least somewhat, and offer some considerations in favor of the book and the line. First, the line has surprise value, and while that doesn't seem to have counted for much (for anything?) in the master(+)-level games dominating the database, it could make a difference at the club level. Second, freshness: the positions aren't like those in other Sicilian lines or in other openings in general. So if you're a bit bored of your usual anti-Sicilian approach, it might be worth considering an occasional trip to a sideline for variety's sake. Third, there's no guarantee that your opponents will play 2...d5 3.exd5 Nf6, though on the other hand Black has a plus with 2...Nc6, 2...e6, 2...g6 and even the slightly eccentric-looking 2...Nf6. (The pesky data keep getting in the way!)

    Those are factors that favor at least considering the line, and by extension the book; now, for a distinct point in favor of the book per se. The vast majority of the book covers 2.f4, but there's one chapter of 38 pages on 2.Nc3 followed by 3.f4; in other words, the Grand Prix Attack as it's almost always played nowadays. This could scratch many a club player's itch, and while equality for Black can be found in the notes, he presents quite a few attractive White wins featuring even very high-level players. And yet: after finishing his look at the contemporary Grand Prix Attack with a game won by Black, Sveshikov concludes his survey with these words:

    One may conclude that the Grand Prix Attack, which was so fearsome in the 1990s, has lost much of its power nowadays. Admittedly, it requires from Black accurate defence and, even more, precise knowledge of at least the main lines. However, in this case, it is White who has to think about equalising" (p. 182).

    My own conclusion is that I cannot recommend the line or the book to anyone looking for a high-quality weapon that will offer a reasonable likelihood of an advantage against a well-prepared opponent. Black is in excellent shape after both the 2.f4 and 2.Nc3 lines - even if he is a diehard Najdorf player replying to the latter with the cooperative 2...d6. Worse still, the amount of time Black needs to be adequately prepared isn't all that great, and while 2.f4 could surprise one's opponent no one is likely to be caught off guard by 2.Nc3 any longer.

    In light of the objective problems with the 2.f4 variation, the decision really comes down to one's subjective interest in the line. If you're looking for something fresh and off the beaten track, this could be a book worth considering. Sveshnikov's presentation is thorough and seems unbiased, and you'll have a good sense for what sorts of things you should and shouldn't do - at least after you've made the decision to play 2.f4.

    Thursday
    Jul252013

    Another Horror

    In the previous post we looked at one sort of mental malfunction, and as I went through the comments (much appreciated, and empathized with!) I recalled a horror story of my own from earlier this year. In the second round of a club tournament the position in a queenless middlegame was pretty complicated, and my decision was also a two-mover of sorts. To decide on my 24th move I had to weigh a pair of options on move 25, and after spending eight of my last 22 minutes picking a 25th move option I was happy with made my 24th move and rushed off to the restroom for a final time before zeitnot.

    When I came back to the board, my opponent had made the move I expected, and I immediately replied...only to realize with Kasparovian horror (but a slightly better poker face) that the move I played was the one I had rejected. Oof. Fortunately it wasn't much worse than the intended move, and the game turned out alright. Still, the feeling of horror was mind-blowing when I realized what I had done. It's not just the quality of the move and the sporting repercussions that come into play, but a feeling of helplessness - one thinks one thing and does another. As far as I can recall that's the only time that this sort of error has happened to me, whether as victim or recipient, but I have seen other examples of this sort in the literature.

    Has that, or anything similar, happened to you?

    Thursday
    Jul252013

    Lost In Translation?

    In the e-periodical Chess Today, GM Alex Baburin occasionally devotes an issue to showing recent blunders. Sometimes the blunders are instructive, but on other occasions I suspect the purpose is humor, identification and even a bit of schadenfreude. The following instance, from issue 4640, seems to belong in a category of its own:

    Zakhartsov (2560) - Westerberg (2410), Czech Open (rapid) 2013, position after 26.Nc3-a4.

    As you might guess from the pawn structure, the position arose from a Benko Gambit. Black is a pawn in arrears, but maintains enough control of the queenside that it's not yet merely a matter of technique. At any rate, Black has two good options here. The conventional option is 26...Qxd2 27.Rxd2 Bxb2 28.Rxd2, and the second is truly fantastic: 26...Qxa4 (this isn't so amazing in and of itself, as 27.bxa4 Rxb2 is obviously winning for Black) 27.Bxf6 and now the spectacular 27...Nc4. There's practically no chance of Black finding the second option, let alone considering it seriously, especially in a rapid game, so let's focus on the first. This was almost surely Black's intention, and then he played 26...Bxb2??

    A remarkable blunder, but Baburin offers a plausible explanation. He thinks that Black intended to trade queens first and then take on b2, but somehow skipped a step in the translation from intention to action. (My words, not his.) Interestingly, Baburin claims that this is a common phenomenon.

    I believe this has happened to me once or twice, but only in blitz games, and I think it almost happened to me on several other occasions - maybe even in a tournament setting. I also have a somewhat dim recollection of having been a recipient of such errors too. So the experience is a familiar one, but "common" may be overly generous if taken to mean something like "relatively frequent". What about you? Have you experienced this sort of error yourself, either as donor or recipient?

    Tuesday
    Jul232013

    Biel Underway

    It's not as strong as the FIDE Grand Prix in Beijing was or Dortmund will be, but Biel's not bad. It's a six player double-round robin with four players rated over 2700 and the remaining two rated 2693 and 2699. Round 1 was Monday and all three games were drawn.

    Round 2 pairings: Etienne Bacrot - Ding Liren, Richard Rapport - Alexander Moiseenko, Ian Nepomniachtchi - Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.