Wednesday, September 28, 2011

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.

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