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    Friday
    Jan222016

    A Brief Review of the Sveshnikovs' A Chess Opening Repertoire For Blitz And Rapid

    Evgeny & Vladimir Sveshnikov, A Chess Opening Repertoire for Blitz and Rapid: Sharp, Surprising and Forcing Lines for Black and White. New in Chess, 2015. 459 pp. $29.95/€27.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.

    If you follow major rapid & blitz tournaments, you'll notice that most top players choose openings that they don't (or rarely) employ in tournaments with a classical time control. Players who despise the "boring" Berlin let their hair down and let their freak flag fly by employing the London System in blitz. (One is reminded of Bent Larsen's quip: "If you play the Caro-Kann when you're young, what will you play when you're old?") Systems with an early b3 (even on move 1) are also common, and as a general rule players experience more freedom to experiment with slightly offbeat lines in events with shorter time controls. Another strategy is to go in the opposite direction, looking for ideas in super-sharp lines that aren't the computer's top choice and may even be objectively mistaken. With a classical time limit, these tries might be punished; in rapid & especially blitz, that's much less likely.

    This two-tiered approach isn't just for professionals; I'm sure that at least some of you have blitz (if not rapid) repertoires that are at least partially independent of your classical opening repertoire. (I even have a three-tiered system: one set of openings for classical games, another for blitz, and still another for bullet chess.) There is value in using blitz to test your repertoire for "real" chess, but there are, I think, two good reasons not to have your classical repertoire do double duty for blitz (rapid, at least "slow" rapid, is perhaps another story). First, it's a good idea not to make it too easy for your opponents to prepare for you. Second, it's fun to try and useful to learn new things. Blitz chess is great for experimenting, and helps a player stay mentally fresh.

    Against that background, it makes sense to consider a book like this one, co-authored by the father and son team of Evgeny and Vladimir Sveshnikov (respectively). The father is a very well-known grandmaster, a successful tournament competitor in his own right best known for his massive contributions to opening theory in the 2.c3 Sicilian (sometimes called the Sveshnikov), the Sveshnikov Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5), the Kalashnikov (the first three and a half moves are the same, and then Black plays 4...e5; this variation could deservedly be named after him as well), and there are other openings (like the Advance French) to which he made significant contributions. His son, an international master, is less well-known both as a player and as a theoretician, but he has been making steady contributions to theory in his quieter way. In fact, many of the suggestions in the book are based on Vladimir's work and repertoire choices rather than Evgeny's, and the authorial "I" is almost always Vladimir's.

    They attempt to provide a full repertoire for both colors, largely with secondary variations. With White, they suggest meeting the Sicilian with 2.b3, 1...e5 with the Vienna, and both the French and the Caro-Kann with the Two Knights variations. (They don't cover the Pirc, Modern, Scandinavian or more ephemeral lines.) With Black they propose meeting 1.e4 with Alekhine's Defense, 1.d4 with the Queen's Gambit Accepted (and with sidelines within that opening framework), and they also offer replies to 1.Nf3 and 1.c4.

    I think it's safe to say the following about all of their repertoire choices:

     

    1. They are fundamentally sound, in the sense that White should do no worse than achieve equality and Black no worse than suffer a slight disadvantage.
    2. They all lead to interesting, complicated, and non-traditional positions.
    3. None of them is maximalist: Black is unlikely to equalize and White is unlikely to obtain a theoretical advantage against a well-prepared opponent.

     

    This seems to me satisfactory for a blitz (and rapid - at least "rapid" rapid) repertoire. Certainly their choices can be tried in serious games as well, especially at the sub-2000 rating level, but for master chess caveat lector is the watchword.

    There is lots of analysis and lots of explanatory text in the book; not surprisingly, given the book's length (over 450 pages). The authors even offer a bit of opening philosophizing, including a list of ranked principles for White and for Black in playing the opening:

    When playing White:

    1) seize the centre,

    2) develop pieces,

    3) safety,

    4) attack weaknesses.

     

    For Black the principles are similar, but are formulated differently and are in a different order of importance:

    1) fight for the centre,

    2) safety,

    3) develop pieces,

    4) defend and don't create weaknesses.

     

    Note: White in the opening tries to seize the centre, and Black fights for it, so as to try to prevent the opponent from carrying out his plans. White should attack weaknesses, Black strikves not to create such weaknesses in his position.

    Let's finish this review with a look at a bit of their analysis of the Alekhine. After 1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.d4 d6 4.Nf3 dxe5 5.Nxe5 they recommend c6. From here we'll consider the line 6.Be2 Bf5 7.0-0 Nd7 8.Nf3 e6 9.c4 N5f6, and now the focus is on 10.Nc3, which is indeed the main line. Vladimir, whose 2014 game with Hedinn Steingrimsson offers the skeleton for the analysis, says this:

    Here White could already play 10.Nh4! In this case, it is clear, to my mind, that Black has problems, which will not be easy to solve. Admittedly, so far people have not realised what is going on, because Megabase has just one game in which this move was played. Everyone plays 10.Nc3, removing the knight from a possible exchange, and only then Nh4.

    This passage is admirable in an important way, but also disappointing. Vladimir Sveshnikov gets full points for honesty; this is especially commendable in a book offering a slightly offbeat repertoire. The disappointment is twofold. First, it's fairly shocking that an IM working as a trainer and writing books would not know about and/or use ChessBase's online database. If he has the Mega Database (which does indeed have but one game with 10.Nh4) he presumably has ChessBase, and if he has ChessBase he almost certainly has access to their online database. (All that's required is to click the "Online" button within a game window.) This feature includes the games that are in Mega (albeit without annotations) and correspondence games as well. Click on the online tab after 9...N5f6 and you'll see not just one but 24 games with 10.Nh4.

    Second, why not at least try to offer Black something in case White comes up with this move? If it were a White repertoire book I can see leaving off here and noting that White's position is promising. Leaving Black with this mess is more problematic.

    Back to the game. White played the main move, 10.Nc3, and after 10...Ne4 11.Qb3 Nxc3 12.bxc3 Sveshnikov played 12...Qc7, noting that 12...b6 "was worth considering". I'll agree with that, though I think White maintains a pleasant edge there as well, but will focus here on 12...Qc7. White replied 13.Nh4, and instead of 13...Bh7 Sveshnikov says that 13...Be4 is stronger, and after 14.Re1 h6 15.c5 Nf6 16.g3 g5 17.Bf3 Bh7 writes that there are "mutual chances". I would say that White's chances are a lot more "mutual" than Black's, and after h4 (probably on the very next move) Black is in huge trouble. He has less space, lags in development and has a very unsafe king. (This analysis can be replayed here.)

    This is a big book, and I do not want to generalize from a single example, even one which was found at random and initially chosen to praise the authors for their honesty. There are some lines I'm interested in and I'll use the book to explore them further. It seems clear to me, however, thumbing here and there throughout the book that the reader must be very careful and should use it as a start for one's research and not as its destination. I can recommend the book to players looking for something off the beaten track and who are willing to do some work on their own; to others I would suggest giving this book a pass.

    Friday
    Jan222016

    A Slight Advantage is More Than a Slight Advantage

    That's one way of expressing an interesting finding noted by IM and computer science professor Ken Regan. In brief, the finding is that players with a slight - even a very slight - advantage tend to blunder much less than those with a slight - even a very slight - disadvantage. Interesting, and possibly practical.

    Friday
    Jan222016

    Starting Tuesday: Gibraltar

    This Swiss-system event, like the Qatar Masters, is getting stronger every year. The 2016 edition of the Tradewise Gibraltar Masters includes 10 players rated 2700 and above, including Hikaru Nakamura, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and Viswanathan Anand! It may not be as prestigious as Wijk aan Zee, but the weather is a lot better.

    Friday
    Jan222016

    Wijk aan Zee: Caruana, Ding, and Carlsen Lead After 6 Rounds

    The first super-tournament of the year is approaching the halfway point, and after six of 13 rounds three players share the lead in the Tata Steel tournament in Wijk aan Zee: Fabiano Caruana (the early leader, who has been caught), Ding Liren, and Magnus Carlsen. All three players have +2 scores; let's see how they got there.

    Round 1 was a success story for the American entrants in the field. Wesley So won convincingly against Anish Giri, while Caruana won - less convincingly - again Pavel Eljanov. Caruana's compensation for a pawn sacrificed in the opening was sketchy at best, but the pressure of his sustained initiative led Eljanov to make some serious errors near the end of the first time control. The round's third victor was Ding Liren, who won a pawn and ground out a victory against Michael Adams in a rook and knight endgame with all the pawns on the kingside. Of the draws, Hou Yifan was much better and probably winning against Sergey Karjakin, and Loek van Wely had excellent chances against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.

    In round 2 all seven games were drawn, including the marquee matchup between Carlsen and Caruana. Carlsen had an advantage early on, but it quickly dissipated. Perhaps the best chance anyone had for a win came in the Hou-So game: Hou had an extra pawn but no obvious way to take advantage of it.

    Round 3 saw two decisive games: Caruana-Adams and Mamedyarov-Eljanov. Caruana was a bit worse almost through the first time control, and even once it had been made he was only slightly better. Everything went wrong for Adams in the second time control, however, and Caruana became the sole leader with 2.5/3. As for the other game, Mamedyarov was much better throughout and well on his way to a deserved victory. In fact, Eljanov's position was nearly resignable when Mamedyarov hung his rook for absolutely nothing. In general, Mamedyarov is a player who is blessed with "good luck", but not this time.

    The round also produced the first game of what could turn into a historic rivalry between Wei Yi and Carlsen; this time there was no winner nor anyone who could bemoan any serious missed chances. David Navara, by contrast, should have beaten Giri, while the other three draws were relatively free of drama.

    Round 4 was the last one prior to the tournament's first rest day, and like the first round it produced three winners. Hou Yifan stopped coming close to winning and finally did win a game - handily - against Navara. Eljanov parlayed his good fortune in the previous round into a second straight win, this time over van Wely. Van Wely faltered in an equal but complicated position due to time pressure, and not for the last time in the tournament. Winner #3 was Sergey Karjakin, who rolled up Evgeny Tomashevsky in almost embarrassing fashion. When was the last time you saw a super-GM so dominated in a final position? As for the draws, Wei Yi and especially Caruana had very good winning chances against Adams and Giri, respectively, despite having the black pieces.

    In round 5 Carlsen finally "woke up", though it could have turned out disastrously. An interesting but reasonably calm game with van Wely blew up when Carlsen tried the extravagant 21...Ng4!? 22.Bxg7 Kxg8 23.f3 Qg5?!? Objectively the sac was dubious at best, and it was clear from the subsequent play that Carlsen hadn't worked everything out - not even close. With a 200-point rating advantage and a big lead on the clock, however, Carlsen decided to take a risk to get his tournament going. Van Wely played well at first, but very short on time missed a clear forced win (29.Qh4+ wins the exchange at the very least), then lost the thread and finally blundered in an already lost position.

    Mamedyarov finally won a game, taking advantage of tournament tailender Adams' terrible form. The other winner was Ding Liren, who moved into a tie for first by beating Karjakin. Karjakin had singlehandedly defeated the Chinese team in a Russia-China summit last year, but the story in early 2016 is being written differently.

    And now, at last, round 6 - today's round. The concept of the "hot hand" in sports has been widely rejected by statisticians (though there has been some recent pushback against that rejection), but it seems to me that there are chess players for whom confidence makes a colossal difference. Bobby Fischer was one of them, and Magnus Carlsen is another. There have been numerous tournaments in recent years where he has struggled and failed to win a game for several rounds, and then once he wins one game more wins follow in rapid succession. That happened at the end of the London Chess Classic, and it's starting to happen here. A lucky but deserved win* over van Wely was followed by a speedy victory over Tomashevsky. The sequence 16.f4 exf4 17.Rf1 was very attractive, but even so Tomashevsky was alright until he played 20...Ne4. Had he traded on d4 first he would have been okay; omitting the trade, he wound with a horrid structure that Carlsen had no trouble exploiting.

    (* Deserved because he took a reasonable, calculated risk that put van Wely under strong pressure to go along with his difficulties on the clock; lucky because van Wely did obtain a winning advantage, and was only one) good (and not particularly amazing) move from converting it into a sure victory.

    Giri finally won a game, defeating Mamedyarov, and the remaining games were drawn. Two were especially interesting: So-Caruana and Hou Yifan - Wei Yi. Both games featured opponents from the same country, and in both cases the player with the white pieces enjoyed serious winning chances in a long game, though it's not clear that either So or Hou missed a clear win at any point.

    Round 7 is tomorrow, and here are the pairings:

    • Navara (2.5) - Karjakin (3)
    • Caruana (4) - Ding Liren (4)
    • Wei Yi (3) - So (3.5)
    • Mamedyarov (2.5) - Hou Yifan (3.5)
    • van Wely (2) - Giri (3)
    • Tomashevsky (2) - Adams (1.5)
    • Eljanov (3.5) - Carlsen (4)

    A brief note about the Challengers' section: Alexey Dreev and Baskaran Adhiban share the lead with undefeated 5/6 scores, and Eltaj Safarli is just half a point behind. For those who are interested I found two games especially interesting from today's play: Admiraal-Sevian and Van Foreest-Abasov.

    Friday
    Jan222016

    Norway Quits the Grand Chess Tour

    This is approaching ancient history by now, but it's still worth mentioning in case anyone missed the news a couple of weeks ago. The Grand Chess Tour comprises three events: the Norway Chess tournament, the Sinquefield Cup, and the London Chess Classic. At least that's how it worked in last year's inaugural version; this year, the Norway organizers decided to say thanks but no thanks. That tournament will continue, independently of the Tour, and the Tour organizers (the Tourganizers?) are looking for a replacement event.

    Friday
    Jan222016

    This Week's World Chess Column: On The Second-Place Finisher

    In the previous week's column, I noted Garry Kasparov's claim that Viswanathan Anand had perhaps the best tournament of his career when he finished second to Kasparov in Wijk aan Zee 1999. That claim is certainly arguable, but it was a great performance by Anand. So in this week's column I look at one of Anand's great games from that tournament, and then transition to a brief remembrance of the player perhaps most associated with second-place finishes: Paul Keres.

    Friday
    Jan222016

    Last Week's World Chess Column

    ...is here. Coinciding with the start of this year's tournament in Wijk aan Zee, I take a look back at the 1999 edition, won by Garry Kasparov in brilliant style. In particular, I take a look at his ultra-famous win over Veselin Topalov, along with the game he (Kasparov) prized even more, his victory over Peter Svidler.

    Friday
    Jan222016

    No Chess in Saudi Arabia?

    A couple of readers (Marc Beishon and Ross Hytnen) alerted me to the news that chess has been proscribed in Saudi Arabia, on the grounds that the game is "a waste of time" and "encourages gambling". (I'm inclined to joke that for some readers those are features rather than bugs - but I digress.) Further, the clerical ban claims that chess "causes enmity and hatred between people". (One might wonder if this is something that the Saudi leaders have a problem with in any general way, but perhaps the response is that they're worried about discord arising among Sunni Muslims.)

    Of course, there are benefits to playing chess as well: it's (generally) a safe way to channel one's competitive instincts, and helps kids in particular (but adults too) in their cognitive development. It can be a source of aesthetic pleasure, and as entertainments go chess is about as harmless an activity as can be. Alas, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia disagrees.

    What does this mean for Saudi chess players? Some sources have referred to this as a total ban on the game in that country, but it seems to be a religious rather than a legal proscription. That noted, Saudi Arabia is a theocracy, so I'm not sure how much room there is in between the religious and the legal. Perhaps it means that it's forbidden to Sunni Muslims, but anyone else can play?

    More reading on the topic here, here, and here.

    Friday
    Jan222016

    Don't Worry, Be Happy

    Fear not, friends: I'm well (as far as I know), just busy. And now it's time for a little blogathon, so get comfy.

    Friday
    Jan152016

    Shipov's Year in Review, Part 2

    Here.