Friday, September 30, 2011

Prospect v. Conant: Putting the Horse in the Corral

The third veteran to come through in the Conant match was sophomore Mike Monsen on 2nd Board. Although tactically a little rusty from the summer layoff, Mike played a very solid game positionally. The ending from the game provides a good example of the way that a bishop can dominate a knight in an ending.

While watching the game, I liked the idea of taking the c1 square away from the Black knight with 41.Be3 when Black will be forced to give up a pawn to extract his knight with either 41...c5 42.Kc3 Na5 43.Bxc5 or 41...b5 42.cxb5 cxb5 43.Kc3 Na5 44.Kb4 Nc4 45.Bd4 Nd6 46.Kc5 Nb7+ 47.Kxb5.  The knight would be trapped after 41...Na5 42.b4 Nb3 43.Kc3 Na1 44.Kb2.

The computer indicates that 41. Kc2! is an even stronger way to confine the knight. 41...Na5 42.c5 Nc4 43.Bd4.

The only way Black can save the knight is by giving up the b-pawn. 43...b5 44.cxb6 (Don't forget en passant!) Nd6. 41.Be3 merely wins a second pawn. 41.Kc2! wins a second pawn on the 6th rank.

In the game Mike played 41.Kc3 and the Black knight managed to slip away to a secure spot via c1-e2-f4.  Happily, Mike's technique was more than sufficient to win with only one extra pawn.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Prospect v. Conant: The Veterans Come Through

Here are a couple more games from the Prospect-Conant match.  On 1st Board, Caleb Royse won a piece in the opening and kept a tight grip on the position throughout the entire game.  His opponent really never had any counterplay.  On 3rd Board, Ekrem Genc built a very solid position out of the opening but blundered away a knight on the 19th move.  However, because Echo had a good position before the error, it was not easy for his opponent to consolidate his advantage.  When he failed to find the best move, Echo quickly took advantage.

Prospect v. Conant: Fast Freshmen Face First Foes

Prospect opened the 2011-2012 season with a 41-27 victory at Conant.  With Robert Moskwa unavailable, Caleb Royse played 1st Board for the first time and Mike Monsen and Ekrem Genc moved up three boards from last year to 2nd and 3rd.  On 4th through 6th Boards, Prospect fielded freshmen Kyle Gilligan, Marc Graff, and Alexander Johnson.  While a junior, Giovani Roldan was also new to chess club and playing in his first match.  Prospect started 5 points in the hole when it forfeited 8th Board and faced a 27-0 deficit after three of its newcomers lost quickly.  However, Mark Graff managed a win on 5th Board and the three returning players all won their games to give Prospect the win.

Freshman Futility.

I well remember my first visit to the high school chess club as a freshman exactly thirty years ago.  I had learned the game at home and I held my own pretty well against my older brothers so I was optimistic about my chances.  That didn't last very long.  I was slaughtered in game after game.  After a few visits, I gave up on chess and didn't return for the rest of the year.  

During the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, Bobby Fischer played Boris Spassky for the World Chess Championship and for a brief shining moment, chess was cool in the United States.  A good friend of mine became interested in the match and we played through the game scores that appeared in the newspaper.  We also watched some of the games on public television where a master would analyze the games.

While most of the analysis was way over my head, it was clear to me that real chess players thought through their moves in ways that had never occurred to me.  They did not play the first move that came into their heads and hope that something good would happen.  They considered all their possible moves and spent time trying to figure out how their opponent might reply to each one.   Real chess players played real chess.

When school started again, my friend and I both joined the chess club and we managed to move up to 3rd and 4th Boards by the end of the year.

The Newcomers at Conant

The performance of Prospect's newcomers was pretty typical for players in their first match.

(1) They played much too quickly.  All of them had made twenty moves before five minutes were gone from their clock.  Often they took no more than a few seconds to think about their moves.

(2) They did not think about what their opponent was threatening.

(3) They played the first move that occurred to them without thinking about alternatives.

(4) They did not try to figure out how their opponent was likely to respond to the move they were considering.

Here are a couple examples of what I'm talking about from the game on 5th Board between Marc Graff and Ming Tsai:

The game began 1.e4 d5.

Question:   What is Black threatening?
Answer:      2...dxe4 winning a pawn.

Question:    How can White deal with that threat?
Answer #1: Capture the attacking pawn with 2.exd5.  This is considered best.
Answer #2: Move the pawn that is being attacked with 2.e5.  This is reasonable.
Answer #3: Protect the pawn that is being attacked with 2.d3 or 2.Nc3.  These are rather passive.

What White actually played was 2.Nf3? which just loses a pawn.

Question:  Why did White play this move?

Answer:    Although I don't know for sure, my guess would be that he made his move automatically without thinking about what his opponent had done.  He might have expected his opponent to play 1...e5 which is much more common than 1...d5.  After 1...e5, the best move is 2.Nf3. 2.Nf3 is also the best move against 1...c5.  2.Nf3 is also a perfectly playable move against 1...e6, 1...c6 and 1...d6, and 1...Nc6.  2.Nf3 is only bad if Black plays 1...d5 or 1...Nf6 because those moves threaten the White pawn on e4.

(I will confess that I have played 2.Nf3? in the same situation, however, I did it in a one-minute blitz game on the internet.)

Question:  What is Black threatening?
Answer:    17...Nex4 winning the e-pawn.

Question:    How can White deal with that threat?
Answer #1: Capture the attacking piece with 17.Qxc5??  This is terrible due to 17...Qxc5.
Answer #2: Protect the pawn that is being attacked with 17.f3.
Answer #3: Force Black to deal with a more serious threat by attacking the Black queen with either 17. Nf5 or 17.Rd1, which is what White played in the game, which was followed by 17...Nxe4 18.Rxd6 Nxc3 19.Rxc6.

Question:  Which is stronger, 17.Nf5 or 17.Rd1?
Answer:    17.Nf5.  If Black plays 17...Nxe4??, White plays 18.Nxd6+!  After 18...exd6, White moves his queen to safety.  Black must move his queen an the knight on c5 will be unprotected, e.g., 17...Qe6 18.Qxc5.

Question:   Why did White play 17.Rd1?
Answer:     I don't know for sure, but my guess would be that he saw that move first and did not take the time to think about other possibilities.  To be clear, 17.Rd1 was not a bad move, however, there was a much better move available and White had plenty of time to evaluate alternatives.

Casual Chess vs. Serious Chess.  

Chess can be a very unforgiving game.  If you make a mistake in a tennis match, you can forget about it and move on to the next point.  If you make a mistake in chess, however, you are stuck with the consequences for the rest of the game.  Lose a piece and you may never have the chance to get it back.  Allow a back rank mate and the game is over.

In serious chess, you have to think on every move.  You have to look for your opponents threats.  You have to consider your alternatives.  Most importantly, you have to think about your opponent's best response to the move you are thinking about playing.

The good news is that every time you put in the effort, your understanding of the game will increase. Patterns and tactics will become familiar to you.  You will learn to spot your opponents threats and anticipate responses to your moves more quickly.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bishop v. Knight at the 2011 Illinois Open

The most frustrating thing about taking up a new opening is when no one will let you play it.  I decided to try playing 1...e5 in response to 1.e4 earlier this year, but I only had one chance to do so at the Chicago Open and no chances at the MAC July Swiss.  At the Illinois Open, however, my luck changed and I faced 1.e4 all three times with the Black pieces and I won all three games.  Unfortunately, I could only manage a single draw out of three games with the White pieces which may be my worst relative performance with the White pieces in a tournament ever.  Of course, part of the disparity was due to the fact that average rating of the opponents' I faced with White was 2180 versus 1837 with Black.

In two of the games with the Black pieces I faced sidelines in the Ruy Lopez that I haven't gotten around to studying yet.   In one of the games, I managed to come up with the plan recommended by the books and in one I didn't, but in both games I wound with two bishops against two knights as compensation for a damaged pawn structure.

Bishops v. Knights

Novice chess players are usually taught that knights and bishops are equally strong pieces so that trading one for another is an even swap.  However, I have run across many high school players who view the knight as much more dangerous.  I suspect that this is because the knight's move is more difficult to visualize and they tend to show up on unexpected squares to deliver nasty forks. Many young players will happily trade their bishops for their opponents knights at the first opportunity.

At higher levels, bishops are thought to be slightly stronger pieces, although the features of any given position determine which one is superior.  The bishop does well in positions where it has open diagonals upon which to operate.  In a position blocked with pawns, knight's ability to leap over pieces and pawns may give it the advantage.   A knight is happiest when it has a secure outpost where it is defended by a pawn. (One thing to keep in mind is that blocked positions often open up, while the opposite rarely occurs).  In an ending where there are pawns on both sides of the board, the bishop tends to dominate due to it's ability to operate at long range, but when the action is confined to one side, the knight's ability to attack squares of both colors may be key.  Queen's and knights tend to work well together while the bishop would prefer to be paired with a rook.

One of the things that makes a bishop very handy in an ending is its superior ability to make a waiting move.  Whenever a knight moves, it no longer protects or attacks any of the pawns it protected or attacked before it moved.  If the knight is preventing an opponent's king from advancing to a more favorable square, it won't be after it moves.   When a bishop moves along a diagonal, on the other hand, it still can still cover squares on that diagonal. 

The position I reached in the 1st round of the Illinois Open illustrates some of bishop's advantages.  Although Whites is down a pawn, one might think at first glance that his nicely centralized king and superior pawn structure might give him some chances to draw.  In fact, it is a pretty easy win for Black.  There is no way for the White knight to get at any of the Black pawns, and the Black bishop easily forces the White pieces to give way.  The game continued 42.Nb1 c5+ 43.Kc3 Kd5 44.Nd2 Be2! (Just in case the knight had any thoughts about heading over to the king side via f3 and h4) 45. Nb3 Kc6 46.Nc1 Bf1 47. Nb3 Kb5 and the White a-pawn fell.

In the 4th round, the bishops proved their superiority in the middle game.  My opponent played the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez but the long distance power of my bishops prevented his knights from ever getting passed the third rank.  When knights are forced to defend each other it is usually a sign of a passive position.  The game finished  33.a3 Be5+ 34.Ka2 Kc3 35.Rd1 Re3 36.Rf2 Rd8 37.f4 Bxd3 38 fxg5 Bb1+ 39.Kxb1 Rxd1 0-1.