Friday, October 30, 2009

Hanging Tough and Letting Up

In the two games I posted from the Prospect-Conant match, players almost got away with some poor opening moves when their opponents failed to pursue their advantage with sufficient vigor. I thought I would take this opportunity to share a game of mine in which the highest rated player I have ever beaten achieved a dominating position against me but let me slip away when he hesitated to make the crucial breakthrough.

Onyekwere v. Hart

The game is from the second round of the 2006 U.S. Open that was held in Oakbrook, Illinois. I had the black pieces against Chickyere Onyekwere who I later found out was the champion of Nigeria. His rating at the time was 2272 while mine was 1969. The time control for the game was forty moves in two hours followed by sudden death in one hour. Due to my opponent’s rating, the tournament provided us with electronic score keeping devices so that the game was broadcast live on the internet.

I played the Najdorf variation of the Sicilian Defense which is a sharp opening that is popular at the highest levels of the game. I really didn’t have any business playing it against a player of Onyekwere’s caliber as I hadn’t kept up on the latest innovations. Not surprisingly, my opponent played a move that had recently become fashionable for which I was unprepared. I quickly found myself on the defensive and the following position was reached after I played 14...Ne8

Any time you find yourself retreating your pieces to the back rank against a master, you can be sure that you are in trouble. At this point, my opponent sank deep into thought for fifty-seven minutes. The move that scared me most was 15. f5, after which, I was pretty sure my position would be ripped open and my king subjected to a withering attack. However, after nearly an hour of thought, my opponent played the relatively sedate 15. a3.

When we looked at the game afterward, Onyekwere showed me all the variations he had thought about during those fifty-seven minutes. He spent most of his time considering 15. f5 and sure enough, bad things seemed to happen to me in almost every variation. However, he could not quite see all the variations through to an easily won position and he was concerned that I might come up with an unforeseen defensive resource. Moreover, he felt that his position was still very strong and that there would be future opportunities to storm my position. As a result he played a waiting move.

Onyekwere’s delay turned out to be fatal. Although his position was still commanding, his passivity allowed me to improve my defenses even if only slightly. As a result, while he continued to have attacking possibilities, they would never be quite as attractive as 15.f5 and having passed that up, he couldn’t bring himself to settle for less. More importantly, having invested so much time on his 15th move, he didn't have the time to test the later possibilities. As he kept trying to press his attack, he failed to notice that I was generating threats against his king and I finally managed to turn the game around with 26…Qc7.

After pressing the attack for so long and being low on time, Onyekwere was unable to adjust himself to the need to play defensively and he failed to counter my threats.

I have often thought that if Onyekwere had been playing another master, he would have played 15. f5 after about twenty minutes of thought. He knew that it was the right time to launch his assault and he knew that 15. f5 was the most promising continuation. Against another master, I think he would have accepted the possibility that his opponent might come up with an unexpected move, however, against a player he out rated by 300 points, he wasn’t willing to launch the attack without being absolutely sure that it would succeed. Against another master, he would have been afraid to let such an opportunity slip away, but against me, he expected that better chances would come.

As we went over the game, Onyekwere’s frustration over letting the game get away was obvious, but he was very gracious nonetheless. One of the most enjoyable parts of the evening was getting home and finding e-mails from three friends who had watched the game on-line. One of them congratulated me on my cool defensive play and I admitted that I just been hanging on for dear life.

Based on this game, I would offer the following advice to MSL players the next time they come up against a very strong opponent as they might in a match with Barrington or Buffalo Grove or at State:

(1) Don't be intimidated by your opponent's rating. Even the strongest players can go astray against determined resistance.

(2) Don’t change your playing style. Don’t be more aggressive or more passive

(3) Don’t change your openings. Your opponent may well know more about your favorite opening than you do, but he probably knows more about other openings as well. Playing the opening you are familiar with gives you the best chance of finding good moves.

(4) When you get in trouble against a strong opponent (or any opponent for that matter), work as hard as you can to find the best defensive moves that you can. As much as you might want to turn the game around in a single move, it may be enough just to keep your opponent from making progress. The pressure will build on him when the win does not come as easily as he thinks it should.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Prospect v. Conant: To Thine Own Self Be True

Prospect beat Conant 51-17 with Conant winning on 1st and 8th boards and Prospect capturing all the middle boards.

Yoon v. Zwolenik 1st Board

In working with high school players, I have noticed that they are not always the best judges of what types of positions they handle well. For example, I have known players who would choose openings that tend to lead to sharp attacking positions, however, at the crucial moment when it came time to throw caution to the winds and break open the position, they instinctively sought a sedate move. I think that such a disconnect between preferences and instincts was at work on 1st Board.

Playing the Black pieces, Prospect's Mike Zwolenik allowed Conant's Jiwon Yoon to play the legendary "Fried Liver Attack" (Yes, that's really what it's called) in which White sacrifices a knight in order to force the Black king out into the center of the board where it is subject to a withering attack. If Black survives the attack, he has an extra knight and an easily won endgame. That's a very big if though. It is not a position that I would have any desire to play as Black, but Mike has told me that he likes it. The board looked like this after White's tenth move.

Mike has two choices: (1) Grab the White rook with 10...Nxa1 whereupon White will capture the knight on d5 leaving the Black king all alone in the middle of the board with only the e-pawn to hide behind; or (2) shore up the center with 10...c6 allowing Black to capture the knight on c2. He chose to shore up his center. Discussing the position out in the hall with Prospect coach Don Barrett, I sympathized with Mike's reluctance to part with his only centralized piece while he believed that giving up the knight to pick up the rook was worth the risk. As I look at the game more closely however, I am persuaded that Mr. Barrett was correct. I think that Black could have survived White's attack and that the extra material would have paid off in the long run.

I certainly cannot fault Mike's choice on a practical level as the position is very complicated and he had to rely on instinct to some extent because there isn't enough time to calculate out all the possibilities. On the other hand a person who "likes" to play the Black side of the Fried Liver should be a person who is willing to take his chances on his king's ability to survive a drafty without its death of cold in order to gain a material advantage. The fact that Mike wasn't inclined to do so suggests to me that he might not be as comfortable with a variation like this as he thinks he is.

As it turned out White still had a very nasty attack and Mike found several very accurate moves to stay in the game although he eventually succumbed to the pressure. Even if he had survived the attack though, material would have been even and a draw might have been the result. On the other hand, if he had survived the attack after grabbing the rook, he would have had enough extra material to win.

Meyers v. Itskovich

The game on 5th Board between Prospect's Pat Meyers and Conant's Peter Itskovich provided an interesting contrast between a player who disregarded opening principles and one who adhered to those same principles a little too dogmatically. "Don't make too many pawn moves," "Don't bring out the queen early," and "Develop knights before bishops," are all useful principles, however, all opening principles implicitly include the caveat "without a good reason." The most common good reason is to either win material or prevent the loss of material, but acquiring dominant control of the center and a substantial advantage in space can be good reasons, too.

Openings like this are not all that uncommon on the lower boards of high school matches. The failure to fight for the center may make serious players cringe, but it does not lose automatically. Moreover, just because Black ignores accepted opening theory doesn't mean that he doesn't have some tactical skills that may make White's life miserable if he doesn't take the position seriously. As the game turned out, White did was not as aggressive as he might have been and Black came out of the opening with a tenable position. However, when Black cooperated in opening the position, White was able to take advantage

Three Keys to Improvement

There aren't more than a handful of the players in the Mid-Suburban League who wouldn't see their results improve significantly simply by concentrating on these three principles.

1. Take almost all your time for the game without getting into
unnecessary time trouble; i.e. avoid playing much too fast or too slow. For the overwhelming majority of high school players, playing too fast is a much bigger problem than playing too slow. You are much better off getting into time trouble occasionally than finishing every game with a half your time left on the clock. The bad moves induced by time trouble will be more than offset by the good moves you will find in by playing more slowly.

2. Keep your pieces safe and, win your opponent’s unsafe pieces. Check every move to see whether your pieces and your opponent's pieces are protected. Check every move for basic tactics like forks, pins, skewers, removing the guard, and discovered attacks. Never try to see three moves ahead if you haven't carefully checked one move ahead.

3. Attempt to involve all your pieces at all times.

As usual, my best advice is lifted from NM Dan Heisman's Novice Nook column at

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hopefully This Will Work for Awhile

I have switched the games to a different free webhosting service. The previously posted games are working for the moment.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

You Get What You Pay For

Apparently the free web hosting service that I was using to post the analysis of the games has gone rogue on me and the games cannot be accessed. My thanks to Mr. Mott at Rolling Meadows for pointing this out. I will try to straighten out the problem, but perhaps I will have to pay for a webhosting to get something reliable.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The First Rule of Endgames: Straight Back Draws

Here is the first thing every player should know about endgames: in an ending with king and pawn v. king, Straight Back Draws. Consider the following position:

POS. 1

With White to move, he draws if he drops his king straight back to e1 but loses if he drops the king back to f1 or d1. After either 1.Ke1 Kd3 2. Kd1 e2+ 3.Ke1 and 1. Kd1 Kd3 2. Ke1 e2, the following position is reached:

POS 2.

So why does it matter whether White drops straight back or not in POS 1? BECAUSE IT DETERMINES WHOSE MOVE IT IS IN POS 2! If White dropped straight back, it is Black's move and he must abandon his pawn or play 3...Ke3, which is STALEMATE. If White dropped back at an angle than it is his move and he must play 3.Kf2 to which Black responds 3...Kd2 with 4...e1=Q coming next move and checkmate soon thereafter.

While it is only that last drop back that determines whether White draws or not, I recommend that all the drop backs are handled that way. Consider the following position:
POS 3.
It does not matter whether White plays 1.Kd3, 1.Ke3, or 1.Kf3. It only matters that he drops straight back from e2 to e1 at the appointed time. However, I always feel much better when I see one of my players move 1.Ke3 because it gives me confidence that he understands STRAIGHT BACK DRAWS.
Their is an entire body of endgame theory regarding the principle of "opposition" which applies to most endings where only kings and pawns are left and the player who understands it will be able to figure out this position at the board. However, even if a player does not remember the opposition or is too low on time to figure it out, STRAIGHT BACK DRAWS will enable him to save the half point. It will also tell him whether he want to trade off rooks in a position where he has a rook and king against his opponent's pawn, rook and

Friday, October 23, 2009

Prospect Sweeps Elk Grove

After losing its first two matches, Prospect bounced back with a sweep of Elk Grove High School on October 22.

An Important Drawing Technique

Question #1: How does Black save a 1/2 point?

Answer #1: 1...Ka1!, because 2. Qxc2 is stalemate. The winning technique for White if Black had a pawn on the b, d, e, g files would be to repeatedly force the Black king in front of the Black pawn and bring White king to help. However, when Black has a c-pawn or f-pawn, Black can move into the corner because it will be stalemate if White captures the pawn.

The weaker side can also draw with an a-pawn or h-pawn if the stronger side's king is too far away. After 1...Kh1, White cannot bring up his king to help because Black will be stalemated.

These are important positions to keep in mind when deciding which pawns to exchange earlier in the game. The weaker side will want to leave himself with the pawns that give him the best chance to draw.

In Moskwa v. Rosca, Black missed the drawing possibility with the c-pawn and White got the win. However, White could have earlier avoided the exchanges that left Black with the possibility.

In Gonzalez v. Nair on 2nd Board, Black went for a quick queen side expansion. White had a choice between ignoring Black plan while completing his development and grabbing space for himself on the other side of the board or countering Black’s expansion immediately It seemed that White had a hard time making up his mind. When he did try to slow down Black's advance, he wound up giving him targets that he otherwise would not have had.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fremd Beats Prospect

After a twenty month hiatus, I am back to blogging about chess. My previous blog was Vinny's Chess Adventures which still exists. Unfortunately, Yahoo is shutting down GeoCities so the links to the games will only work for another two weeks. I still have most of the games on my computer so I may upload some of them to the new webhost if I think they have instructional value.

This week, Prospect lost to Fremd by 50.5-17.5, only managing wins on 5th and 8th boards. As was my practice in the past, I will analyze some of the games from each week's match with an eye towards illustrating basic chess principles that I hope will be helpful to high school players. I hope that no one will take any of my criticisms personally. I may say that a move is really awful, but there is no reason to be embarrassed. There are few moves so bad that I cannot show you one from one of my games that is even worse.

Question No. 1
In the starting position for the Ruy Lopez (or Spanish Game) that arises after 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5, is White threatening to win a pawn with 4.Bxc6 and 5. Nxe5?

Answer No. 1
No, not yet. Although White can remove the knight that is guarding the Black pawn on e5, after 3... a6 4. Bxc6 dxc6 5. Nxe5, Black can recover the pawn with 5...Qd4! with a double attack on the White knight and pawn.

This is a very basic opening tactic that everyone should know. As a general rule, White has to secure his own e-pawn as with 0-0 and Re1 before he can try to grab Black's. The most common move for Black is 3... a6.

Black can of course reinforce his e-pawn immediately with 3... d6 as Johnston did against Moskwa on 5th Board, although this is considered somewhat passive. Black should never, never do what White did on 1st Board, 3... Bd6?!.

There are very few moves I hate seeing in the opening as much as someone blocking one of his center pawns with his bishop. Essentially, this takes the bishop which is a very useful piece and turns it into a big pawn which is reason enough to hate this move. On top of this, it makes it much more difficult for Black to develop his other bishop. On top of this, it takes away Black's ability to open up the game with ...d5 if an appropriate opportunity should present itself. I won't say that it is never the right thing to do, but I can assure you that the situations in which blocking a center pawn with a bishop is the best move are pretty rare. Feldman v. Zwolenik bears this out.

Question No. 2

Black just captured a pawn with 31... Bxc7. What is White's best move.

Answer No. 2

32. Bxc7! Black cannot recapture with 32... Rxc7 because 33. Rb8+ leads to mate.

This game illustrates the need to keep concentrating even when behind. White had been playing down a rook for a dozen moves. One of his only hopes was that Black would be careless with his back rank, but when it came up, White still missed it in Burke v. Nanduri.