Saturday, November 21, 2009

Schaumburg Beats Prospect 46-22

Playing While Behind

I remember a match at state a few years back where several Prospect players had poor positions out of the opening, but in which their opponents had a lot of work to do yet. Thinking that the games would be going on for awhile I decided to take a look at some of the matches that were taking place in the ropes. When I returned to the table ten minutes later I found half the Prospect players packing up their boards. It turned out that they had played quickly, gone for the first cheap trap they saw and then watched their positions fall apart when their opponents didn't take the bait.

Despite the loss to Schaumburg, I was gratified to see three of the games featured Prospect players handling poor positions very well. On 1st Board, Robert Moskwa actually did go in for a dubious tactic against Ben Wu after dropping a pawn, which lead to the loss of a rook for a bishop. After that, however, he settled down and played patient defense. As his opponent was a bit too careless with his pawns, Robert gradually regained enough material to draw. On 2nd Board, an oversight allowed Andrew Joo to develop a dangerous attack against Arun Nair, however, Arun played patiently and turned the game around when his opponent over-extended. On 4th Board, Alex Burke dropped a piece in the opening to Kanish Thakkar and fought back to equality, but failed to come up with the right plan in the endgame.

Question: Should black (a) trade his rook for the two Black knights, or (b) penetrate White's position with the rook and pick off some White pawns? See move 47 of Thakkar v. Burck for the answer.

Playing While Ahead

Among stronger players it is not uncommon to see a player resign upon losing a piece as happened in a game of mine that I posted recently. This is sometimes puzzling to high school players who tend to play most games out to checkmate. Stronger players, on the other hand, know that their opponent knows how to play defensively when ahead on material. The stronger player knows that if the position on the board doesn't promise them any chances to recover, their opponent is unlikely to take any risks that provide them with such chances.

The key to playing with a big material advantage is to think defense first.
“Think defense first” simply means that the more you are ahead, the more likely it is that any reasonable plan of yours will win so long as you do not let your opponent win back material or generate an enormous attack. Therefore, HIS moves become MORE IMPORTANT than yours!
NM Dan Heisman

Consider this position from Jaris v. Esau on 7th Board where Black is ahead by a rook and a pawn. This is more than enough material to checkmate White if Black can simply trade off all the other pieces. Black's question to himself should be "What bad thing might happen to me that would let White back into the game."

I hope that most players would see that White has a rook and a queen lined up against the Black king who is feeling rather lonely with most of his pieces on the other side of the board. If Black cans successfully parry the threats against his king, the win should come easily.

As so often happens, however, Black continued to play in the aggressive (and somewhat reckless) manner that he had used to achieve the material advantage in the first place. Although he responded to direct threats when he saw them, he did not think defensively. Here is a typical example from later in the game.

Black played 24...Nxg2+?! winning another pawn. However, Black doesn't need another pawn to win and the knight has nothing to do on g2. In fact, it was still sitting on that square when the game ended thirty-three moves later. I would have much preferred 24...Nc4+. Even though the knight is not stopping any immediate threats, it is well placed to prevent any later trouble that might develop.

Good players adjust their style to the dictates of the position. Having a big advantage dictates playing more defensively.

Monday, November 16, 2009

1. e4 or 1. d4?

I generally encourage players who are new to competitive chess to worry less about specific opening variations and more about general principles like development, central control, and king safety. However, it is very difficult to avoid questions about specific variations and the most basic of these is "1.e4 or 1.d4?" While I am a firm believer in "play what you like," I think there are good reasons why less experienced players might find they like 1.e4 better.

1.e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6.

This position occurs in countless tournament and match games every year between chess at every skill level from woodpusher to International Grandmaster. White has several good options that give Black immediate problems to solve. He can play 3.Bb5 (the Ruy Lopez) threatening to remove the knight that guards Black's e-pawn. He can play 3.Bc4 (the Italian Game) targeting the weak f7 square. After both these moves White is ready to castle. Another popular move is 3.d4 (the Scotch Game) which attacks Black's e-pawn a second time and opens up the game for active piece play.

The positions that arise after 1.e4 e5 are known as the "Open Games" as there is often an early liquidation of the center and open lines for pieces. This is certainly not always the case, however. Some lines in the Ruy Lopez can go twenty moves without a single piece being exchanged. Still, in many lines the players have the option of opening up the position.

1.d4 d5 2. Nc3 Nf6

This position is seen with some frequency on the lower boards in high school matches, however, it becomes much rarer as players become stronger and it is almost never seen in games between masters. Although it looks very similar to the first position, the dynamics are completely different. Unlike the first position, Black's central pawn is defended more times than it is attacked and it is very difficult for White to increase the pressure. White cannot play 3.e4 without losing a pawn. He can prepare e4 with 3.f3 or 3.e3 and 4.Bd3, but the former approach makes king side castling less secure and the latter is time consuming.

The positions after 1.d4 d5 are known as "the Closed Games." There are generally fewer direct threats than in the Open Games and the players have more flexibility in development. There are also less opportunities to open up the game by liquidating the center. This can be frustrating for less experienced who may find themselves slipping into a passive position in which they are unable to come up with a plan.

1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6

This is the Queen's Gambit and it is the way 1.d4 d5 is often handled at the top levels. Chess masters don't play Nc3 without first putting pressure on the Black center with c4. Even so, White still finds it difficult to open the game by forcing the liquidation of the center and White is still four moves away from castling.

The Closed Games are in no way inferior to the Open Games, however, the center tends to remain static until the players have completed their development. Even then, the players often leave the center intact while they expand on one of the wings. This can be disconcerting for the player who is just moving into competitive chess from casual play where they are used to coming to blows much more quickly. I would never want to discourage a player who wanted to try these openings, but it is important to understand how they differ. I might suggest that they start out with something like the Torre Attack rather than the main lines of the Queen's Gambit.

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bg5 e6 4.e3 Be7 5.Bd3 0-0 6.Nbd2 b6 7.c3 c5.

The Torre Attack is a very sound way to play the Closed Games. Although I have never played it myself, I have faced it several times without particularly good results. White's plan is to leave the central pawn structure intact while he expands on the king side with moves like Ne5 and f4. He plays c3 to fix the pawns in place rather than creating tension with c4. The White knight goes to d2 rather than c3 with the intention of occupying f3 after the other knight moves forward. White's plan is not terribly subtle but it can be very dangerous even for a strong player as can be seen in Rozentalis v. Schneider, Stockholm 1990.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

My Return to Competitive Chess

Find the winning move for Black.

Morris v. Hart

Last night I played my first serious game of chess in over a year in a Chicago Industrial Chess League match. I had the Black pieces and my opponent had just played 21. Nd4 a little too quickly. I didn't feel like I had handled the game particularly well up until this point, but I spotted the tactic here. Click on the game link to see the solution.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Barrington Thumps Prospect

Prospect has been one of the few teams in the MSL that has found a way to beat Barrington in the last few years, but they had no such luck yesterday, losing 63-5. Nevertheless, Prospect had reason to be hopeful. Caleb Royse won on 8th Board in his first match and freshman Robert Moskwa playing in only his third match gave last year's top individual player at State, Zach Kasiurak, everything he could handle on first board.

Moskwa v. Kasiurak 1st Board,

After debuting two weeks ago on 5th Board against Elk Grove and playing 3rd Board against Conant last week, with Mike Zwolenik sidelined by the flu, Robert Moskwa moved up to 1st Board against Barrington's expert rated Zach Kasiurak.

Earlier in the week I had played a practice game against Robert in which I employed the Kan variation of the Sicilian because I knew that is what Zach had played against Prospect's Mike Pozsgay three years ago. However, I don't know the Kan system very well and I did not feel like I could give Robert much insight. So when Robert asked me to play a practice game before Barrington arrived on Thursday I played my usual Najdorf.

Our practice game went 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3 e5.

At this point, Robert played 7.Nf3. This is a perfectly reasonable move and at one time it was thought by some strong players to be superior to the more popular 7.Nb3. However, in the Open Sicilian variations with 2.Nf3 and 3.d4, White obtains a lead in development and space against a Black position that is solid and flexible and I think that he has to be willing to undertake a king side attack in order to exploit those advantages. I wasn't sure I should tell Robert this because I did not want him to be second guessing his judgment before such a big game but I did and I am glad.

As luck would have it, Zach decided to play the Najdorf rather than the Kan system and Robert put him under intense pressure for the first fourteen moves of the game. On his fifteenth move, Robert allowed Zach some breathing room and Zach methodically built his initiative until Robert missed a tactic and dropped a piece on his twenty-ninth move. Robert did not let it rattle him though and he took advantage of a couple of inaccurate moves to get some dangerously advanced pawns that made Zach's job extremely difficult.

At this point, Zach put on one of the most impressive displays of blitz play I have ever witnessed. With just a few seconds left on his clock, Zach forced Robert to give up a rook for a bishop. Then with a single second left on his clock, Zach unrelentingly harassed Robert's king until the advanced pawns dropped and the win became a simple matter of exploiting the extra material.

Bakol v. Burke 4th Board

Last week I talked about the problems that sometimes occur when a player chooses an opening that doesn’t fit his particular temperament. Aggressive players should play openings that offer attacking chances. Players who like endgames should play openings that offer the opportunity for early exchanges. Cautious players should choose openings that the type of positions that will make them happy.

The openings that I find most annoying are the ones that are designed to specifically suck all the life out of a position such as the Exchange Variation in the French Defense or the Exchange Variation in the King’s Indian Defense. Such positions often involve symmetrical pawn structures and an early exchange of queens. The players who choose these positions must be willing to play patient defensive chess in the hopes that their opponent will become frustrated and overreach in an effort to generate winning chances.

On 4th Board, Prospect’s Alex Burke reached such a position as Black when he played 1.e4 d6 2.d4 e5 3.dxe5 dxe5 4.Qxd8+ Kxd8.

I am not sure whether this opening has a name or not, but I have come across it a number of times while playing blitz on the internet. Black has given up the right to castle without gaining any offsetting advantage. However, it is very difficult for White to take advantage of Black's passive play. With the queens gone, king safety is not that big a problem for Black. The symmetrical pawn structure leaves White without any obvious targets. Black will be hard pressed to find any active plans of his own, but his position is solid enough to parry White's threats.

It takes a certain temperament to play this type of position well. Black must be willing to play defensively with the sole purpose of denying White any targets. He must patiently wait for White's frustration to build the point where he will take unwise risks in order to create active play. Unfortunately, it seems that it was Alex who became frustrated. He initiated an unwise exchange that gave White the open lines and targets that he wanted.

Royse v. Katz, 8th Board

Prospect's only win came on 8th Board where Caleb Royse made his debut against Nate Katz. It was a solid if unspectacular win that was remarkably free of the kind of wildly illogical moves that one often encounters on the lower boards. Still, the forty-nine move game was over long before any of the other games indicating that Caleb may have been making the first move that popped into his head when better moves were available. The good news is that the first move that popped into his head was generally pretty reasonable holding out the promise the if he uses his time more wisely, he will recognize those better moves when he sees them.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Art of Trading

As a general rule, the player who is ahead material wants to exchange pieces while the player who is behind wants to exchange pawns.

Consider the following position in which Black has lost a knight in exchange for a pawn early in the opening.

Ideally, White would love to trade off all the pieces to reach a position like the following.

White would send his king to one side of the board and his knight to the other side of the board and the Black king would be unable to defend his pawns on both sides.

Black, on the other hand, would like to trade off pawns, followed by trading off pieces, to reach the following position.

Black is still down on material, but White cannot checkmate with a knight alone.

If Black were down by a rook, simply trading off the pawns would not be enough to draw as White could checkmate with the king and the rook, however, Black's chances of coming back are better if he does not have to worry about White queening a pawn.

Even when it is in a player's interest to trade pieces, it may not be in his interest to initiate the trade. It is always important to consider what the position is going to look like after the exchange.

QUESTION: Which of the following positions is better for White?

Pos. 1

Pos. 2

If you said Pos. 1, you would be correct. In both positions, White is ahead by three pawns. However, in Pos. 1, White's rook is sitting on an open file threatening to win another pawn while in Pos. 2, it sits inactively in the corner.

Pos. 2 resulted from White's decision to initiate a rook exchange with 26. Rxe8?! in Martin v. Brahmbhatt on 4th Board.

While White is happy to trade rooks with his three pawn advantage, 26. Rae1 would have left him with greater control of the position.