Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sometimes I Hate Computers

Wednesday night I played in a match in the Chicago Industrial Chess League where I thought I had successfully refuted my opponent's novel opening strategy. As I played, I was thinking about the instructional value of the game and the interesting post I would write for this blog. When I got home and ran the game through Fritz, I was sadly surprised to find that there was a big hole in my refutation. Moreover, the cute little tactic I found to reach an ending with an extra pawn was much less impressive given that I didn't find the fairly obvious tactic to win a bishop and rip the game wide open.

I decided to post the game anyway figuring its instructional value is the warning not to be overly confident that you have seen all there is to see in a position.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Prospect Upsets Buffalo Grove's by Virtue of Correct Priorities

Prospect dealt Buffalo Grove its second defeat of the season yesterday after several BG players including top board Matt Wilber inexplicably decided to compete for the school's math team in Libertyville rather than its chess team in Mount Prospect. Prospect's mathletes were not forced to make such a choice as its math competition was just a couple of miles away at Hersey, although I am confident that they would have made the right choice had they been forced to do so.

1st Board: The Sicilian Dragon

As I pointed out last week, players usually have to balance the need to thwart their opponent's plans with their desire to pursue their own. Sometimes, however, when the players castle on opposite sides of the board and race to attack their opponent's king, neither side can afford the time for defensive moves. Such games often end with one of the players being checkmated in spectacular fashion. Few openings lead to such games as frequently as the Sicilian Dragon that BG's Andrey Puzanov played against Prospect's Robert Moskwa on 1st Board.

I have always loved the Dragon, and though I no longer play it in tournaments, I still resort to it regularly when playing on the internet. When White plays the Yugoslav Attack, as Robert did, Black needs to remember a couple points: (1) If both sides advance their pawns, White has the advantage so Black needs to attack with his pieces, and (2) Black must be prepared to sacrifice the exchange with ...Rxc3 in order to create weaknesses that his pieces can exploit. Unfortunately, Andrey's pawn storm proved too slow.

2nd Board: When to Agree to a Draw

Most high school players never resign no matter how hopeless their position. On one hand, I can appreciate the logic. Even if there is no rational expectation of winning, there is nothing to lose by playing the game out on the outside chance that an opponent will blunder and allow a stalemate.

On the other hand, there are situations in which playing a game out is a mistake. Sometimes, a position is so evenly balanced that neither player can reasonably expect to create winning chances without taking unnecessary risks. In such cases, the reasonable course is to agree a draw rather than giving one’s opponent the opportunity to win. On 2nd Board, Prospect’s Mike Zwolenik blundered a pawn in the opening but got it back when BG’s Ryan McGonagle missed a tactic in the middle game. In the resulting ending, both players had very solid positions that were evenly balanced. An agreed draw would have been a very reasonable outcome. Instead, Ryan tried to create imbalances which gave Mike the chance to win.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

New Format

I am experimenting with a new template for the blog due to the new javascript playable board that I am using. By widening the column for the post, I can put the board and comments side by side making it easier to follow the comments and the game on the board at the same time. Comments and questions are welcome.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Playing Serious Chess

When I got to high school, I looked forward to joining the chess club. I had grown up playing against my older brothers and I thought that I was a pretty decent player. In my first couple visits, however, I was crushed in every game I played. I didn’t go back for the rest of my freshman year.

During the summer before my sophomore year, America’s Bobby Fischer beat Russia’s Boris Spassky for the World Chess Championship. For one brief shining moment, chess was cool and hip. A friend of mine got interested in the game and we spent the summer playing chess and following the match. In the fall, we both joined the chess club and eventually worked our way up to 3rd and 4th boards.

I think a lot of the players who come to Prospect High School's chess club are like I was. They have played the game casually for a few years and they have a decent eye for tactics, but they have never thought about most of the things that serious players need to think about. They don’t think about controlling the center developing all their pieces or getting their king to safety. Other than obvious direct threats, they don’t worry about what their opponent is trying to do to them. Perhaps more importantly, they only think hard about some of their moves. Most of the time, they just make the first move that comes into their heads.

I want to say up front that there is absolutely no reason that anyone should take chess more seriously. As far as I am concerned, all chess is good chess. If someone just wants to push the pieces around, that’s fine. That’s the kind of attitude I have towards golf. However, like me, some of these players might find that they might enjoy chess more if they took it a little more seriously and they enjoy out thinking their opponents.

I wanted to get that all out in the open before I take a look at a couple of the games from the lower boards in Prospect’s match against Rolling Meadows because I cannot help but point out a lot of poor moves. I hope the players won’t take anything I say as a character judgment. I just want to point out the kind of things that they might want to think about if they would like to improve their play.

One of the most important things that the serious player does is to work hard on every move. In many games and sports, it is possible to come back after a lapse in concentration because every point is independent, however, in chess a single oversight can so ruin a position, that chances of recovery are almost non-existent. I often find that casual players are capable of solving a complicated problem when they think it through, but too often they play the first move that occurs to them only to be surprised by their opponent’s response. Serious players think about their opponent’s threats and potential responses on every move.

Respecting Pawns.

One thing I have been noticing a lot this year is a lack of respect for pawns. Most high school games are decided by one of the players overlooking a tactic and dropping a piece so it may be natural to think that pawns don’t matter much. However, in addition to having the potential to become queens, pawns control space, protect the king, and restrict the movements of an opponent’s pieces. They should always be treated with respect.

Neither Prospect’s Tom Hanley nor Meadows’ Daniel Rabbotini showed much respect for pawns in their game on 6th board. It was Tom’s first game in a match and he can feel good about the 3.5 points he got for a draw that provided Prospect’s margin of victory. On the other hand, had he been a little more parsimonious with his pawns, he could have brought home the full point. On the other hand, had Daniel realized the potential of his pawns he might have scored the win.

King Safety.

Another thing that distinguishes the serious player from the casual player is attention to king safety. The serious player takes precautions to protect his king from attack. This usually involves castling; however, castling alone is not enough. The serious player takes care to maintain the pawn cover for his castled king and brings pieces to help in the defense when necessary.

On 7th board, Prospect’s Alex Esau dropped a knight when he overlooked a tactic that many stronger players have missed. After that he castled, however, he castled to the side of the board where his opponent had more space and more pieces. This might not have been fatal though if he hadn’t invited in his opponent’s major pieces by opening the pawn cover in front of his king.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Whose Plans Matter?

To pursue your own plans or thwart your opponent's plans: that is the difficult question that comes up time and time again. Sometimes players ignore each others plans completely when they castle on opposite sides of the board and launch attacks against each other's kings because everything depends on who breaks through first. More commonly, however, the players must solve the problems their opponents are creating as well as create problems for their opponents to solve.

Before sending me his score from his game against Tom Chung in the Prospect-Rolling Meadows match, Robert Moskva wrote down what he was thinking at several points during the game. I found this very helpful as I usually have to guess at what might have been going through a player's mind. In the opening, Robert spent too much time defending against possibilities that were not very dangerous, but in the ending, he did a very good job of assessing which threats were worth worrying about.

My comments are in blue italics.

1.e4 c5 2.Bc4
This is a perfectly logical developing move, but it is rarely seen at the master level. In most cases, White would rather wait to see how Black develops before he decides where he wants this bishop. 2...Nc6 (2...e6 is more popular, but i wanted to play a solid, well thought-out game) My choice would have been 2...e6, but I like the thinking behind this move. Black isn't sure exactly how he wants to deploy his pawns, but he knows that he's going to want the knight here so he defers the decision about his pawns for a move. "Knights before bishops" is sometimes cited as a principle of opening development (although I don't think it qualifies as much more than a rule of thumb). I think the point is that the bishops have a lot more possible destinations, each of which requires a pawn move. Knights really only have two, so developing a knight first leaves more flexibility.

3.Nf3 d6 4.Nc3 Nf6 5.0-0 e6
(blocked my bishop, but it shortens opponents bishop diagonal and I'm planning to play d5 at one point) Interesting thing about the blocked bishop: other than the Classical Variation of the Caro-Kann, I cannot think of any mainline openings in which Black's light squared bishop ventures out to f5 or g4. I'm not really sure why this is so. 6.d3 Be7 7.d4? (? because he wasted 2 moves for the same idea) 7...cxd4 8.Nxd4

Now we have reached an Open Sicilian where White has an advantage in space and easy development. As compensation Black has a very solid compact position, an extra central pawn, and the possibility of counterplay on the c-file. If White wants to make something of his advantages, he is almost obligated to launch an attack against the Black king. Black usually expands on the queen-side, often targeting White's pawns. Sicilian endgames tend to be good for Black. Timing can be crucial in the middle game though, so the fact that White spent two moves to get the pawn to d4 is a serious drawback.
8...0-0 9.Nf3?! By bringing the knight back to f3, White is signaling peaceful intentions. It would be hard for him to get an attack going without advancing his f-pawn. 9...h6 (Once again, he makes an odd move order, but I played h6 in order to stop any funky bishop or knight g5 stuff followed by maybe bxe6 and then Nxe6. So in a way, I'm proving his light square bishop a bit more useless) This is a bit too much precaution for my tastes. I don't think that Bg5 is that dangerous when Black has already played ...e6, ...Be7, and ...0-0. There is a little tactic Black should know about that sometimes wins a pawn against Bg5. 9...a6 10.Bg5 h6 11.Bh4 Nxe4!? 12.Bxe7 Nxc3 13.Bxd8 Nxd1. As far as Ng5 goes, if White had been thinking about Nxe6, he would have left the knight on d4. 10.Bb5 a6 11.Ba4

(I had to make a tough choice,did I want to win the pawn or not? I chose not to because my pawns would be very extended and my position would be slightly awkward, and from what I have realized I have a reputation for blowing good positions, so I played more solidly trying to prevent e5) Having played the Sicilian for years, I can say unequivocally that Black must be careful about trying to pick off the e-pawn this way. However, I would have gone for it for based on the following logic: (1) Black has developed reasonably in the usual Sicilian fashion; (2) White has lost time by using two moves to get his pawn to d4, moving his knight back to f3, and moving his light squared bishop three times. (3) If the Sicilian Defense is sound (which it undoubtedly is), Black should be able to take advantage of White's dilly-dallying. After 11...b5 12Bb3 b4 13 Ne2 Nxe4, Black's position is dominating.

It is not possible to calculate every possible line or visualize every possible position, particularly in shorter time controls. Therefore, a player has to factor in his assessment of the relative development when choosing between thwarting plans or pursuing. If he is confident that he has done a better job developing than his opponent, then the chances are that his own threats will be more dangerous and he shouldn't let them slip away.

12.Bxc6 bxc6 13.Re1 d5 ( I finally allow the pawn push but in exchange He now has to worry about the pawn a little and the only truly open side for play is the queen side, which I have the advantage in) An accurate assessment and quite typical of the Open Sicilian. 14.e5 Nd7 15.b3 Bb7 16.Bb2 c5 (Now I decided I was defensively solid, so I'm trying to win his pawn/storm him with my pieces) I think Robert was defensively solid several moves ago and that he has let his opponent get more solid in the meantime. 17.Nb1 Nb6!?(Better was 17...Rfb8, should've kept some pressure on e5) I like the rook move, but I think this is fine, too. I don't think that pressure against e5 would really do much for Black as White has it more than adequately protected. 18.Nd2 c4?! A good idea but it gives White a lovely square for a knight or a bishop on d4. I think Black could have increased the pressure with 18...a5 or 18...Rc8. 19.Bd4 Rac8 Why not the other rook? 20.Qe2 cxb3(20....Nd7 21. c3)21.Bxb6?(why give it up?)Qxb6 22.cxb3 Rc2 (I should've tried to open up my light-squared bishop with a5! but I got to excited with my position) Robert may be right about this. His neglect of that bishop was a problem in this game, but it is hard to resist the temptation of putting a rook on your opponent's second rank. 23.Rec1 Rfc8 24.Qe1 Qc7?!(24...Rxc1 25.Rxc1 Bc5! and black is clearly winning) I am always reluctant to use phrases like "clearly winning" when analyzing games between high school players, but Black certainly would have had a strong position. 25.Rxc2 qxc2 26.Ne1 Qxd1 27. Rxd1 Bg4?!

I think that most masters would prefer to have the two bishops in this ending, particularly with pawns on both sides of the board. The key to exploiting the bishops is opening lines for them. I would have liked to see 27...a5 to get the light squared bishop into the action or 27...f6 to open things a little on the king-side.

28.Nef3 Rc2 29.Nxg5 hxg5
Robert is stuck with a "bad" bishop because his pawns restrict its movements. 30.a3 Bc6? Robert finally tries to get his bishop into the game, but this allows White to get his knight to a more active square. 30...Rc3 would have kept the knight tied down defending the b-pawn. 31.Nf3 Rc3 32.Nxg5 Nxb3 33.Rc1 g6??

(All the advantage I had was lost, simply 33..Rxa3 and I'm fine, I just did the move for extra precaution on the back row, but in exchange white got a great knight) I think that "??" is unduly harsh, although 33...Rxa3 was certainly stronger.) 34.f3 Be8 35.Rc8 Kf8 36. Nh7+ Ke7 37.Nf6 Bb5 (It was essential that I play my defense in pin-point accuracy, and I'm glad to say that I did) "Pin-point" might be a little too strong, but I really do like the way Robert keeps his wits about him with a White rook and knight deep in his territory. 38.Rc7+ Kd8 This is a key point. Black's only chance to make progress is by giving up the f-pawn. If he plays 38...Kf8, White can force a repetition with 39.Rc8+ Ke7 because 39...Kg7 would give White nasty mating threats after 40.g4. 39.Rxf7 Rxa3 40.Rg6 Bd3(Seems like this move allows the deadly-looking Rd7+, but it is a harmless check and his position would end up the same in any way, I wasn't bothered by his possible little advantage, I was happy with my past a-pawn) After being unduly cautious earlier in the game, Robert does a very good job of figuring out which threats are really worth worrying about in the endgame. 41.Kf2 a5 42. Ra7 a4 43.Ra8+ By this point White is in serious time-trouble and he succumbs to the natural temptation to deliver some checks. It is a serious mistake, however, because it lets the Black king off the back rank and allows it to support the a-pawn. This is one of the most common errors that inexperienced players make in endgames, i.e., checking the opposing king and driving it where it wants to go rather than confining it. 43...Kc7! (important to play the kind here contrary to 43...Ke7 because that allows a bit of chance for a draw, while the more crazy looking 43...Kc7! maintains my advantage) 44.Ne8+ Again pushing the Black king where he wanted to go anyway. Inexperienced players tend to think "Always check because it might be mate." Stronger players know that checking is frequently a mistake and should not be done without good reason. 44...Kb7 45.Ra5 Bc2?(d4!) It would have been good. 46.Nd6+ Kb6 47.Ra8 Ra2 48.Rg8? a3 49. Ke2??(I'm guessing it was time trouble, but this blunder cost white the game) After 49.Ke3 Rb2, White is still losing because he is going to be forced to give up his rook to stop the a-pawn, but this does make Black's life easier.49...Ba4+!(Just a bit better than Bf5+ and less riskier by far) Actually, it is quite a bit better. 50.Ke3 Rxg2? This gives White a chance to prolong the game. 50...Re2+! 51.Kxe2 a2 would have been quicker. 51.Nc8+?? Once again, an impulsive check in time trouble. After 51.Ra8! Bd1 52.Rxa3 Rxh2, Black would be up a pawn but would have a lot of work left to do. Now there is no way for White to get to the a-pawn. 51...Ka5 52.Ne7 a2 53Ra8+ Kb4 54..Rb8+ Ka3!(Now all is lost. The earlier ...Ba4+ was a very useful move; it safeguards the king) and it shields the pawn. 55. Ra8 a1/Q 56.Kf4 Qd4#.

Crossposted at Bill Brock's Chicago Chess Blog.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Weakest Squares: f2 & f7.

In the starting position, the weakest square on the board for White is f2 and the weakest square for Black is f7. These squares are vulnerable because they are only protected by the kings. The Fool's Mate (1.f3? e5 2.g4?? Qh4#) and the Scholar's Mate (1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Nc6 3.Qh5?! 3.Nf6?? Qxf7#) exploit this weakness. In fact, in any game that gets decided in the first ten moves, the odds are pretty good that something bad happened on f2 or f7.

What this means is that players should keep a watchful eye on these squares, particularly before castling. If you start to see your opponent's pieces aiming at your vulnerable square, take the time to make sure that you can handle the threats.

Martin v. Kawalek,

On 4th Board in the Rolling Meadows match, the trouble that Prospect's Nick Martin found himself in can be directly traced to his neglect of the f2 square. While Black's king was neatly tucked away after castling, White's king was under fire for the entire game. Meadows' Matt Kawalek missed several opportunities to shorten White's resistance, but he had so many threats against White's exposed king that the result was almost inevitable.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Prospect Beats Rolling Meadows

Prospect squeaked by Rolling Meadows today by a score of 36.5-31.5. Prospect won the top three boards but Rolling Meadows dominated on boards 3-8. Were it not for a draw on 6th Board the match would have gone the other way. I won't be able to get to the games for a few days so I figured that I would pontificate upon a couple of notation rules that came up in the match.

Writing Your Move Before You Make It

Many players like to write down their move before making it on the board. After concentrating on a position for many minutes, the act of writing down the move breaks their focus and enables them to take a fresh look before they make the move on the board. Sometimes this enables them to spot something that they missed before. The problem is that if they realize that the move they wrote is a blunder, they will erase it or scratch it out and make a different move. Some people claim that this is "making notes" rather than simply taking notation.

I am not personally persuaded by the arguments against writing a move first, but the fact of the matter is that these arguments seem to be carrying the day. The United States Chess Federation has ruled that a move must be recorded after it is made. The Illinois High School Association seems to be moving in that direction. So my advice to all players is to get used to writing down your move after you make it. You never know whether both your opponent and the steward might happen to be anal retentive.

Taking Notation in Time Trouble

When a player has less than five minutes on his clock, IHSA rules allow him to quit taking notation or to ask one of his teammates to take notation. Should he do so, his opponent is also permitted to cease taking notation or turn the responsibility over to a teammate even if he still has twenty minutes on his clock.

I advise the player with more time on his clock not to take advantage of this provision.

The biggest mistake that a player with a large time advantage can make is to move as quickly as his opponent. If a player has twenty minutes while his opponent has two, the best way to get his opponent to use up those two minutes is by using part of the extra time to come up with a move that forces his opponent to think. Moving quickly wastes the time advantage.

I have seen several games in which a player with plenty of time on his clock turned over notation to a teammate because his opponent had done so in time trouble only to begin moving as quickly as his opponent. On several occasions, the player with the time advantage blundered and lost. Had he continued to take notation, I cannot help but think that he would have been forced to play somewhat more slowly and might have come up with a better move.

The game on 1st Board in today's match was very even all the way to the endgame, however, Prospect's Robert Moskva had a considerable time advantage. After Rolling Meadows' Tom Chung turned over score keeping to a teammate, Robert continued to keep his own score and played the ending very deliberately and accurately enabling him to win. I do not know that he would have played less carefully if he had quit taking notation, but I have seen it happen several times.