Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Why You Should Learn The Endgame

Lots of chess players groan at the thought of learning the endgame.

Why are endgames so hard to master? That's because in the opening and middlegame play, usually, you do not get punished as severely when choosing sub-optimal moves.

In the endgame, there is no such thing as sub-optimal moves. Usually, the move has to be technically accurate and correct. The margins between winning, drawing and losing are on a knife's edge. Choosing the wrong strategy results in disastrous consequences.

For a long time, I've been trying to get my head around working on endgames (with many thanks to Karsten Mueller for his terrific tomes and DVDs). The problem with endgames are that you need to know what you're doing and you need to do it right every time.

Who are the greatest endgame masters?

On the top of my head, 3 famous names come to mind : there's of course the well known Cuban champion Jose Raul Capablanca, the inimitable singer and gentlemanly champion Vasily Smyslov and the monster that is Viktor Korchnoi.

If you want to learn endgames, choosing any books from these players with actual games from these masters and you are very unlikely to go wrong.

In addition, there are also many great endgame books eg. Averbakh, Nunn, Dvoresky, Fine.

As an example, take the following position (1st diagram on left):

This game arose out of a Sicilian Najdorf. I am White and it is White's turn to play.

Over here, Black activated the Knight to gain some activity with 27.... Nc5.

The question is: should you trade the dark-squared bishop for the Knight?

In this case, I took my time to carefully calculate.

And the answer is a resounding yes. Why?

All of black's pawns are on dark squares, surely it is more advantageous to have a dark squared-bishop so you can attack the pawns, no?

Not so in this case, in this game, I calculated that in order for Black to activate the bishop, his only route is via h6 and the only pawn he can attack is h4. In order to get around h4, he needs to manouevre his bishop h4-e3 or d2. The Knight is a fine blockading piece, I am going to move my Knight around to occupy e4.

28. Bxc5 dxc5

Now I manoeuvre Knight to the perfect outpost on e4 where it attacks b5 and f6 Now Black must spend the rest of its time defending and can only watch while I carry out my plans.

29. Nd2 a5
30. Ne4 Kf7

With this done, I now want to close off the a-file to stop any potential counterplay. I can take my time to do this because Black isn't going anywhere. Remember that it is important that you do not hurry in the endgame.

31. b3 Kg7
32. Kf2 Kf7
33. Kf3 Kg7
34. Ke3 Kf7
35. Kd3 Be7
36. Kc2 Kg7
37. Kb2 Kf7
38. a3 Kg7
39. axb4 axb4

now that the a-file is closed. I can carry out my plan.
40. Kc2 Kf7
41. Kd3 Bf8 (see 2nd diagram on left)

42. d6! Bxd6 (forced) if the Pawn is not taken, then d7 is coming followed by either Nxf6 or Nd6+!! (the Knight cannot be taken of course else the d-pawn queens) and the Black King cannot move around to attack the d7 pawn. Now all I need to do is move my King to attack the queenside pawns via the hole e4-d5 and White wins.
43. Nxd6+ Ke7
44. Ne4 Kd7
45. Nxf6+ Kd6 Black resigns 1-0

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The End Of The Samurai Chess Blog

Having passed on the torch as Knights Secretary, Samurai Chess is no more and I mean, no more as in, the entire blog has been deleted.

Shame really because samuraipawn had some wonderful posts like this.

Wherever samuraipawn is, I wish him well.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

I Have A Defective Brain

While poring through my old games, I'd noticed a serious defect in my play. I tend to play moves that look good without calculating properly.

Not calculating properly as in, not calculating my opponent's moves sufficiently deep enough and not seeing my opponent's moves and that is where I tend to get into trouble.

How does one learn to calculate and analyse deeply? Kotov's method was to break them into candidate moves called the "Tree of Analysis" and start researching each branch of the tree in turn (in his book, Think Like A Grandmaster). Nunn, on the other hand, pours scorn on the idea in his book, Secrets Of Practical Chess and suggests treating sufficient depth of say, 3 major candidate moves before investigating each line further. Nunn also explains that quite often, we tend to forget to investigate a 3rd candidate move while working through the different variations in our heads for the first 2 candidates. This is especially true if the candidate moves are similar to one another or one transposes into the other.

With time controls as tight as they are, utilising your time efficiently is of the utmost importance in tournaments and it is here, I tend to suffer.

My brother-in-law has this innate ability to put pieces on nice squares (which reminds of the old adage that "GMs don't need to know how to place their pieces, they just throw them into the air and they land on a perfect square every time") and I wish I can learn how to cultivate that ability.

With my relatively poor rating of 1450, I can only continue to work hard on tactics. And sometimes, positional play. In any given position, I have to think. "Why does the Knight have to go here, why can't I move my bishop there, which pawn do I push now?"

The answers are not obvious to me at all. Is there any concrete steps that I am missing out?

I normally follow a 5 step plan:
1. Evaluate my opponent's possible threats
2. Evaluate my opponent's weaknesses
3. Evaluate my own weaknesses
4. Improve on my weaknesses
5. Re-evaluate my position after the candidate move.

Take for example, the recent game in Morelia between Leko and Topalov.

To many people, the continuation was very easy. However, even after looking at it for a few minutes, I just could not see the continuation:

Here's the diagram reached after 38. Rc5?? (see 1st diagram on the right)

(highlight between the brackets for the answer)
[Here, Topalov played 38.... Qb8. Threatening mate on h2 and threatening the Knight fork on f2. 39. Kg1 only loses the Rook on d1 after 39.. Qxh2+ 40. Kf1 Ne3+.]

Why are such moves hard to see? According to Neil McDonald in his book, Typical Mistakes, he says that the most difficult moves to see are backward and side moves. We sometimes forget the chess pieces not only can move forwards but sideways and backwards as well.

As a case in point, here's an example of a recent game I played. I am Black. Black is up the exchange but the position of my kingside is close to collapsing. In time trouble, I played the disastrous move 25... Nf8. Any other move leads to mate by the way.

I spent a good amount of time on this move. However, after I made the move, I suddenly see the threat and was gobsmacked that I missed the fatal continuation.

Unfortunately for my opponent, he did so too. What did my opponent missed?

[26.Rxe7 Qxe7 27.Qxc8 was the move]

At this point I start to question myself, how could I have missed this even though the combination is well known to me? It is not that I am unfamiliar with the threat. I know it and have employed it at times.

And yet I followed my own plan and I still could not see the most obvious continuation.

I think I have a defective brain.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Alekhine's Defense

"I played 1.e4. You played... what?!"
The look on Topalov's face tells it all.

For years, Alekhine's Defense was rarely seen in the top echelons of the chess world and was at times, heavily criticised for being unsound.

Today, this defence has a new champion. Magnus Carlsen defeated not just any pansy but currently ranked world #3 Veselin Topalov with the Black pieces using this defence at the Morelia -Linares tournament being held in Mexico now.

That's mighty impressive, considering how Topalov is normally armed to the teeth when it comes to opening preparation as Kramnik can readily testify.

What is more startling with this game was how quickly Topalov went down. In a mere 19 moves, the former FIDE World Champion Topalov was facing a losing endgame position!

Will we see a revival of Alekhine's Defense?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Opening Theory

While nursing my cough+sore throat, which practically put me out for the last 4 days, I got very little time to study any chess material.

Yesterday, my neighbour gave me some green apples and I proceeded to make an apple strudel out of it and gave my neighbour some of it. My wife liked it.

If anyone wants this recipe, it's fairly straightforward:

4 green apples, cored, peeled, chopped into cubes.
2 sheets of puff pastry
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon of ground cinnammon
1 cup dried raisins (shredded)
1 egg whisked in 1 cup of milk

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees
Line the baking tray with baking paper
Boil the apples till they are slightly soft and mix them in a large mixing bowl
Add sugar, raisins and cinnamon
Mix thoroughly
Line the baking paper with a sheet of puff pastry
Pour contents of mixing bowl into pastry
Raise the edges of pastry
Cover with the 2nd sheet of pastry and use water to seal the edges
Poke holes with a fork all over pastry to allow steam to escape
Brush top of pastry with egg/milk mixture
Bake for 35-45 minutes till pastry browns


Okay so what has this got to do with chess?

While baking, I started thinking of the steps I did to make the apple strudel. It was easy, straightforward. I had a plan, an idea and a strategy (making optimal use of time - took me half an hour to prepare the ingredients before chucking the whole lot into the oven).

And then I got to thinking how opening chess theory is so similar. You have a plan, you form your core strategy around your plan and you proceed to follow it like A-B-C.

Unfortunately, chess theory is also a lot more complex. Certain openings like the Sicilian Najdorf or the Sveshnikov runs into tens of lines of theory just to get an opening edge or not fall into a losing position. It's scary but it makes you wonder why people play this opening.

Lest it be known, I have a limited memory capacity. Unlike GMs who have Terabytes of RAM hardwired to their brains, unfortunately, little me is running on 64 Kilobytes of RAM and can only accomodate a limited amount of information. That's why my pet lines tend to revolve around tactics and endgames rather than on opening theory.

I'd noticed with lower rated players (I'm only a 1450 rated player), opening theory quickly went out the window. Last week against a higher rated player, I was playing the first 6 moves out of memory and then my opening theory ran out and started playing on my own. I didn't realise that my subsequent play had gone into one of the major lines of that opening.

Seeing players like Topalov who have such a huge opening theory in their repertoire scares me. There's no way I can commit to memory such long sequences and variations of an opening to boot (not to mention the analysis that goes into it).

When I throw in endgame theory, suddenly my brain is yelling me to stop before it threatens to implode.

Do I play offbeat lines then? I don't. Suprisingly, I play a lot of major lines. The Caro-Kann, Sicilian, Pirc, French, Petroff, Ruy Lopez, KID, KIA, QID, NID, Slav, Semi-Slav, QGD, English, Catalan etc.

Why do I do that? I am trying to get accustomed to different pawn structures and different middlegame strategies. Despite my lack of opening theory, I usually "muddle" my way through the myriad of complications and try to grasp a better understanding of each opening and the strategy behind them. eg. playing the KID involves understanding dark-square strategy or how to handle the Carlsbad structure and Isolated Queen Pawns positions arising from the QGD. I noticed that by playing a variety of openings, I start to slowly understand how to handle different positions.

I feel this is extremely important as a chess player. Pawn structures and pawn formations are fluid and change all the time. As a result, it is important to understand different pawn formations and how to handle them should they change.

I don't win most of my games but it was sure fun to play them!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Misplaying The Opening

When playing any opening, it is very important that you know how to play your opening especially razor sharp openings where the the line between winning and losing is on a knife's edge. Opening traps are abundant and one slip is usually fatal (even an incorrect move order can be detrimental).

Take for example, this miniature game (I'm White) in the French defence.

1. e4 e6
2. d4 d5
3. Nd2 Nf6
4. e5 Nfd7
5. c3 c5
6. Bd3 Nc6
7. Ndf3 Be7
8. h4 O-O??

All is peaceful, yes? No..........

In this case, my opponent didn't know the French Tarrasch defence well enough and what follows was .....

9. Bxh7! Kxh7+
10. Ng5+

Now all variations after

10. .... Bxg5 11. hxg5+ Kg8 or Kg6 12. Qh5 and it's game over
10. .... Kg6 11. Qd3+ f5 12. exf6+ (en passant) Kxf6 13. Qf3+ and it's not even funny
10. .... Kg8 11. Qh5 Bxg5 12. hxg5 and White mates the French like what Kramnik probably does everyday

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ryde Eastwood Rapid Part Deux

Tonight, at the Rapid chess competition over at Ryde-Eastwood League Club (continuing from last week), again I made a mess of my position.

My only loss tonight was against Arthur Hyunh (FIDE rating : 1889 - who is taking some serious coaching from GM Dejan Antic) .

Talk about suffering from delusions of grandeur. Have a look at the following position (see picture ).

Instead of playing 1. Ree2 (green arrow), I had this hallucination of attacking on the Queenside and played 1. Ra5? (red arrow).

What transpired in the next 5 moves was an absolute shambles. After trading dark-squared bishops, I moved my Queen to f4? and after that, things fell apart.

The problem with Rapids (25 min time controls) is that there's never enough time to calculate in the endgame.

*sigh*. It's 11.44pm and I need to sleep......... zzzzz...........

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Art Of Analysis

I popped over to the chess club at Manly-Warringah RSL last night to watch my brother-in-law Steven play. Anyway, while I watching his duel with Michael Morris, I was asked if I could give a very nice lady a game so we proceeded to play. Unfortunately, in the middlegame, she missed a tactical shot and lost a Knight in the process which was enough for me to convert to a winning R+N+2P v R endgame. I even missed a simple tactic (which I should have spotted) towards the end. She was very gracious and congratulated me for my game and we exchanged pleasantries. I noticed one change in my play. I am starting to play very very slowly in the endgame, sometimes, taking four times as long as I normally would, carefully calculating and analysing, playing prophylactic moves to make sure I don't blunder or lose the win. This was a surprise to me. Previously, when I am a winning endgame, I used to "rush". Now I play slowly, cautiously and taking my time to calculate lines when I normally don't when I see the win in sight. I think that is the most heartening thing to see.

As the saying goes,"It is of no use to have a winning advantage if you cannot convert it."

I've managed to acquire Alexei Suetin's book, 3 Steps To Chess Mastery. It's now my favourite bathroom reading material *grin*.

In the section "The Test Of Mastery", Suetin comments:

", by what means, does one learn to analyse correctly?"

"A player must first master various principles, schemes, and characeteristic tactical and strategic devices. At the same time, the development of one's thinking is preceded by the acquisition of combinative vision. This is also a complicated process. At first a player notices only simple threats, then he begins to see all sorts of double attacks, and finally, that harmonic interaction which leads to combinations. Only after going through such a schooling does a player obtain the nececssary basis, which allows him to use flexibly his knowledge and skill. The analysis of complex positions, where strategic and tactical factors are closely interlaced is first and foremost very hard work. For the unprepared, it may even be beyond their strength.

Therefore, don't try to take too many steps at once. Get to know your true capabilities, each time, of course, setting yourself new problems. Along this path there is much disillusionment, causing annoyance and dissatisfaction. Without these bitter feelings you cannot get by. But remember that if you are dissatisfied, it means that you are searching. This is one of the fascinations of the art of chess."

The above note definitely struck a chord with me.

I continuously get dissatisfied with my chess skills OTB. I get frustrated from making analytical mistakes, not thinking "correctly" or mis-evaluating the nature of the position. And usually after games, when I reach home, I fire up Fritz only to be told what I really should have played and I learn. As a result, I fall down, get up, fall down, get up .... ad infinitum, striving to improve my game. I acknowledge that I might never be able to reach master level or even attain a 2000 FIDE rating but that doesn't mean I can't try for it.

In the meantime, I just have to work much harder on my analytical skills. Botvinnik once wrote," What does the art of a chess master consist of? Basically - in the ability to analyse chess positions. Anyone wishing to become an outstanding player must strive for perfection in the field of analysis."

Someone once asked me,"Why are you so hard on yourself?"

The simple answer is,"Because I want to improve."

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Critical Point

During my last game at the Rapid competition at the chess club at Ryde-Eastwood RSL, my opponent and I arrived at the position shown (see 1st picture on right). White to play.

In this post, I am going to highlight my thought process.

Now there are no immediate tactics to be played here. Both of us have about 15 minutes of time left so there was no need to rush.

Strangely, I had the feeling that I am either at a critical juncture in this position or very close to it so I sank into a deep thought here for about 5 minutes.

(Fritz evaluates this position as even)

While looking at the position, what are the things to note?

1. My attack has stalled. Currently there's no way to continue any further development down the kingside. In fact, my Knight is doing a fine job stopping the Black rooks from infiltrating the position. So there's no way I am going to move my nice Knight on g5.

2. I have an advantage of space. How do I convert that advantage? For now, I cannot see any.

3. What are Black's threats?

Black has 3 main threats (see 2nd picture on right).

a. He threatens 1... Ba6 (red arrows) after attacking my Knight on d3 and if I play Bf1, my position easily falls to pieces if I allow him to put his bishop on c4 and my King would be in a direct line of fire from his Rook on g7.
b. He threatens 1... Nb5 (green arrows) attacking d4 pawn which is weak.
c. He threatens 1.... Nh6 (green arrows) with follow up of Nf7 and taking my Knight on g5 to open the g-file for his Rooks.

My weak squares are highlighted in yellow.

b5 and d4 as mentioned above. But in addition, the square on e4 is weak. If there was a minor piece there, I would have to attack it with one of my pieces either with my Knight on g5 or my Bishop on g2, running a potential risk of exposing my King down the g-file. h4 is also weak. If the black pawn on h5 pushes to h4, my square g3 becomes weak. For now, these 2 squares are hard to access so they don't pose a problem at the moment.

4. Is it possible to counteract them? Yes. Pushing the a pawn to a4 stops both of Black's plans (a) and (b).

What are the advantages of pushing the a-pawn?

If Black plays 1...b4 2. Nc5+ is winning with either a potential forking of the 2 Rooks after 3. Ngxe7 Nxe7 4. Nxe7 or taking the Bishop with 3. Nxb7.

If Black plays 1...Ba6, 2. b5 is crushing.
If 2.... cxb5 3. Rxc7+ Kxc7 4. Nb4! (hitting the Bishop on a6 - there's no rush to forking the Rooks) and once the Bishop moves, 5. Nxe7 winning the Rook and threatening 6. Bxd5
If 2.... Ba6 3. bxc6+ Bxc6 4. Nb4 Bb7 and the Rxc7+ tactic occurs again.

At that point, I played 1. a4, my opponent got pressured under time control a few moves later and made an unfortunate critical mistake and it was enough for me to convert my advantage.

Incidentally, if Black had responded to 1.a4 with 1... Rc8 (see 3rd picture on right). It would have been hard for me to break through and a draw might have been the result.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Karsten Mueller: Endgames Vol 1

I've finally got some time (in between fuelling a massive cough/sore throat) resting at home, sucking on Strepsils, gargling salt water and taking cough medicine, I got some time to sit down and watch Mueller's Endgame Volume 1 : Basic Knowledge For Beginners.

Mueller is a well known endgame expert GM (my wife calls him the "bun" - because his cheeks are rather round and the shape of his head looks like a bun) and also has a PhD in mathematics. In this series of DVDs, he lays down the basic rules which "all chess players must know" (as Mueller himself puts it).

A resident from Hamburg, Mueller speaks with a noticeable German accent. Mueller is concise, goes through each example slowly and it was thus, not a problem following him.

The layout of the DVD is as follows:

Chapter 1: Mating (with Queen, Rook, double Bishops, Bishop and Knight)
Chapter 2: Pawn Endings (Rule Of The Square, K+P v K, Bodycheck, Opposition, Passed Pawns, Triangulation)
Chapter 3: Knight Endings (Knight vs Pawns)
Chapter 4: Bishop Endings (Bishop vs Pawns, Opposite coloured Bishops)
Chapter 5: Bishop vs Knight
Supplementary Chapter: Queen vs Pawns (1 video)

In all, there are slightly over 35 video fragments.

Most of the material covered here is fairly basic but it is a very good refresher course (even if you do know it). Mueller chooses highly instructive examples to demonstrate his point and he is very comfortable with the Fritz GUI, using highlighted squares and arrows throughout his presentation.

Mueller's tone is slightly deadpan, he's not as interesting as say, instructors like Andrew Martin but he carries himself well in front of the camera and exudes confidence.

There are some slightly comedic moments eg. when Mueller says,"Even if I were to wake you from your sleep, you will still be able to know how to checkmate with your Queen!"

Do note that his material is taken from his encyclopedic book, Fundamental Chess Endings. So if you don't feel like spending the $$$ for this DVD, do at least grab his book.

One thing I noticed with regards to learning chess this way, I absorb the material much faster than if I were to read a book and play the moves from the book using a board. The downside is that Mueller unfortunately cannot cover more of this in just one DVD.

If I have to give this a rating, I would say, it's 8.5 stars out of 10 stars.

It's a very good chess DVD (the Chessbase Reader is included fyi) and one I would heartedly recommend.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Hunter Becomes The Hunted

I just got back from a Rapids (25 min time controls) competition at the chess club at Ryde-Eastwood RSL.

My first game was torrid. I had put on a huge amount of pressure on my opponent Thomas and was clearly better, then suddenly, one wrong move and my advantage started slipping and in the end, I lost. Think Quinn in the movie, Jaws and you get the picture (see inset).

My brother-in-law Steven could only shake his head in disbelief that I threw away a winning advantage.

My second game was largely forgettable when I blundered a whole Rook!

Stay tuned for more of my misadventures next week when the Rapid competition continues, folks!

Right now, it's past midnight and I need to sleep.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


While I continue to pore through dk-transformation's database, there are a couple of things that caught my eye. Amongst them are some very interesting games to play over.

The games dk picked are very instructive and some of the combinations are very beautiful.

The best way to make full use of the database is to pick up where some of them stopped and figure out for yourself how best to proceed. These games are really tough and will really stretch your chess brain (I'm not kidding).

Forget those simple 1-move checkmates. This database contains the creme-le-creme, as they say. If you wish to obtain his database, do drop him a note. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

Now for today's study, I am back to reading up on endgames.

In the following position, how does White save himself?

[1. Rg5!! f1=Q 2. Rf5+ Qxf5 stalemate]

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Oops! I Did It Again

In one of my earlier posts regarding Fritz 11, drunknknite spotted my error and corrected it. I had inadvertently keyed in the wrong move which explains why Fritz 11 went zonkers.

I apologise to everyone all around and would like to express my utmost thanks to drunknknite.

I've received dk-transformation 's excellent GM database and have finally gotten around to dissecting this wonderful database. It's quite mind-boggling, to say the least and clearly can only get better as dk-transformation continues to update it. My hats off to him for an incredible job!

My current rating on FICS is around 1300-1350 and on the basis of the following play, you can see why.

I have identified my weakness and that is tactics. In this game, despite this strong attack, I actually lost the game in the end because after this, I made not one, not two, not three but FOUR weak moves which basically erased any advantage I had.

In this position after 18... Nge7, White to play and win. I failed to find the correct combination and was severely punished for it and rightly so, I might add!

Can you find the strongest move?

Answer can be found by highlighting between the brackets.

[ It is checkmate in 8 moves. The beauty of this is to sacrifice your Knight.

19.Nc5+ dxc5 20.Nxe5+ Ke8 21.Qa4+ Nc6 22.Qxc6+ and Black cannot stop mate. If 20... Kd6 21.Nxf7+ Kd7 22.Qa4+ Nc6 23.Qxc6+ Ke7 24.Qe6#]