30 May 2015

An Imperfect Understanding

Both game one of On a Losing Streak and game two, Passive vs. Active Play, were played on SchemingMind.com. The next three games were played on LSS. The biggest difference between the two sites is that engines are forbidden on SM, but allowed on LSS. That means the games on LSS are generally tougher and of higher quality.

For this next game I had Black in SP388 QBBRNNKR. The Queen is in the corner and the three diagonal pieces on adjacent files are aimed at the enemy King, While it might be advisable to get the King away from their influence by castling O-O-O, this is probably not going to happen. Opening the diagonals means moving Pawns, which means the Queenside will be too loose for the King.

The first moves of the game were 1.d4 d5 2.b3 c6 3.c4 Nf6 4.cxd5 cxd5 5.Ba3 Bd6 6.Bxd6 Rxd6 7.Ne3 Ne6 8.Nd3 O-O 9.O-O, leading to the position in the top diagram. After both players have castled, a chess960 game often starts to look like a position that could have arisen in traditional chess, and that is the case here. While I wasn't entirely comfortable with my position -- the pieces, especially the Rook, are not well coordinated -- I didn't feel that I was in any particular danger. My next few moves would be spent developing the rest of my pieces and coordinating them into some sort of a plan.

White has an awkward threat in Ne3-f5, so I played 9...g6, planning to reposition the Knight via g7, thereby opening the diagonal for the Bishop on c8. White played 10.f4, a move which I had underestimated. The hole on e4 is not really useful for Black, while White is planning to operate on the f-file with the possibility of switching a Rook to the h-file to support an attack on the King.

The game continued 10...Bd7 11.Ne5 Qd8 12.Qb2 Ng7 13.g4, leading to the bottom diagram.

Now I started to feel really uncomfortable. With every move White is building a Kingside attack, while Black has not yet latched on to a real plan. More pseudo-active moves for Black followed -- 13...Bc6 14.f5 Nd7 15.Qd2 Qb6 -- but after 16.Nf3, how does Black continue? I felt that my position was teetering on disaster and engine analysis confirmed it. White continued to whip up a terrific attack, I played on in an increasingly hopeless position, and finally resigned well after I should have.

Going back to the top diagram, I still can't find a better plan for Black. If that position is bad for Black, then I must have made a mistake in the moves preceding castling. But where? Was it a general problem of not finding an effective plan earlier in the game? If so, how to avoid this in the future? I'm afraid that there's something here that I'm not understanding.

23 May 2015

Passive vs. Active Play

Continuing with On a Losing Streak,
In recent months I've lost five important chess960 games. In most of those games I'm not even sure why I lost, so I'm going to spend a few posts looking at them in more depth. Perhaps I can uncover a general pattern of weakness in my play.

There were some extenuating factors in the string of losses:-

  • My opponents were competent players, rated 2000+
  • I had too many simultaneous games, including traditional chess, most of them against good opponents
  • The countdown time control was used in three games
  • I had a new tool set, i.e. software and methodology

In all five games I had Black, one of two parallel games with the same opponents where I drew the game where I had White. Achieving +0-1=1 in a single two game mini-match is not a good score; what to say of five such mini-matches?

I've already discussed the countdown time control in two previous posts -- The Lechenicher SchachServer (December 2012) and Thinking Time Can Be a Guide (January 2014) -- where the entire time for a game is allocated at the start of the game. There are no further increments. I now try to play these at the rhythm of one move a day, planning to increase the tempo when the game reaches the endgame. The non-countdown games were also played at a move per day, with a fixed time allocation at the start of the game and one day added per move.

As for the new tool set, the most important consideration is to be comfortable with the methodology. I normally practice a new methodology on unimportant games before trying it important games, but I had no such opportunity before these games were played.

The following game, like the game I discussed in 'Losing Streak', was played in a team match on the SchemingMind server, where I was on first board. SchemingMind is particularly difficult at fast time controls because of the site's no-engine policy.

We were assigned start position SP849 BRKBNRNQ. The most striking characteristic of this SP is the Queen in the corner, facing a Bishop on the long diagonal. After the initial moves 1.Nd3 f5 2.e3 e6 3.f4 g6 4.g4 fxg4 5.Bxg4 Bf6 6.Bf3 Ne7 7.e4 b6, we reached the position shown in the top diagram.

After the further 8.e5 Bxf3 9.Qxf3, I was comfortable with my position and played 9...Bh4, leaving the square g7 for the other pieces. The Bishop is slightly out of play on h4, but is in no particular danger. Now my opponent played 10.b4, a move which I had underestimated. Not only does it develop the Ba1, it also prepares the Rook lift Rb1-b3, where the Rook will operate on both wings. Combined with White's space advantage, this will present ongoing problems for Black. I was no longer feeling so comfortable.

After the further moves 10...Qg7 11.Ne2 c6 12.Nc3 g5 13.Ne4 Qg6 14.Nd6+ Nxd6 15.exd6 Nf5 16.Ne5 Qe8, the game reached the position shown in the bottom diagram. Here White played 17.Rb3. Now I had to decide how to wriggle out of my constricted position.

The move 17...Rb7 proceeds positionally; Black's Rook is temporarily out of play, but by continuing Kb8-a8, the King will be relatively safe in the corner while Black frees his position with Queenside Pawn moves. The move 17...Nxd6 leads to a tactical melee, where White has the upper hand because of the space advantage. I chose 17...Rb7.

My game proceeded as I just outlined, where I eventually sacrificed a Pawn to free the Rook on b7. I hoped to regain the Pawn by capturing on d6, but White was always able to defend it. I eventually tried to set up a fortress, but White was able to breach my defense and I resigned after 70 moves had been played.

If I had to play the position in the second diagram again -- which, given the nature of chess960, I never will -- I would try 17...Nxd6. With active play you might lose quickly, but sitting there for 50 moves struggling to escape a passive position is no fun either.

16 May 2015

On a Losing Streak

In recent months I've lost five important chess960 games. In most of those games I'm not even sure why I lost, so I'm going to spend a few posts looking at them in more depth. Perhaps I can uncover a general pattern of weakness in my play.

The first game I lost was in round three of the 2014 SchemingMind Chess960 Dropout Tournament. The last time I discussed a game from this type of tournament was for the 2013 event in The Initial Positional Considerations. I had played my opponent in three previous games, all of them draws. I told him, 'I see we're +0-0=3 in past games. Time for a tiebreaker?', and he answered, 'I think so!' He was White in SP218 NQRKBBNR and played 1.c4, giving the position shown in the top diagram.

I don't know what came over me in this position; perhaps it was an unconscious urge to take a risk. I normally would have played something like 1...c5, maintaining symmetry. Instead I saw the possibility of playing a gambit and after some analysis decided to roll the dice. I played 1...O-O-O.

My opponent played 2.d4, the move that I was expecting. I answered with a Pawn sacrifice, 2...e5, reaching the position in the bottom diagram. After 3.dxe5 f6 4.exf6 Nxf6, my gambit idea was achieved.

What does Black have for the Pawn? I thought the moves ...d5 and ...Bg6 would give me active play, especially since it's not clear where the White King will eventually castle to find safety. White played 5.e4, meeting both of my 'active' ideas and challenging me to find a new idea.

Now the idea 5...d5 6.exd5, doesn't work. The game continued 5...c6 6.Nb3 Bg6 7.Bd3, where another 'active' idea 7...Ng4, is met with 8.Nh3. After the further moves 7...Nb6 8.Ne2 Ng4 9.O-O-O, White's King is perfectly safe and Black has nothing for the Pawn. My position went from bad to worse to lost, and I resigned on the 33rd move, my King in the center, subject to a vicious attack.

In retrospect I would give my moves 1...O-O-O a '!?' and 2...e5 a '?!'. I can't think of a first move for Black in traditional chess that deserves a '!?'. After the game, my opponent said, 'I have found from past personal experience, castling on the first move makes for a very difficult game!' I could hardly disagree with him, especially when it is followed by a dubious gambit.

09 May 2015

Unlearning Chess

On my main blog I've been posting an occasional piece on the theme Controversial Keene, using material from the English GM's forum on Chessgames.com, where
Keene chats with both fans and detractors, bringing to mind Em. Lasker's famous dictum that 'a fighter is a target as well as a shot'. While the conversation meanders through many topics of little interest to the chess player, it occasionally stops to focus on some aspect of chess history where Keene played a role.

After the post Keene on 1993 & 2000 WCCs, I continued working through the forum in my spare time, eventually running into this (kpage=79):-

Oct-18-04 ray keene: i hate fischerrandom - i cant even get chess right and along comes someone to make it more difficult and forcing me to unlearn decades of hard earned opening theory. bad idea. if you want another form of chess play shogi or xiangqi - beautiful variants of chess hallowed by centuries of oriental culture.

Although the opinion was written more than ten years ago, I doubt that Keene has changed his mind since then, unless of course he's actually played chess960. I also imagine that Keene's sentiment echoes the thoughts of many GMs and IMs. It's a restatement of 'I'm too old for this crap!' that we saw in my previous post Stuff Happens.

That in itself doesn't merit any further comment, but what caught my attention was the phrase 'unlearn decades of hard earned opening theory'. What's to unlearn? Since the fundamental opening principles -- development, center control, etc. etc. -- are the same in chess960 as in traditional chess, the real difference is that thousands of memorized variations no longer serve a useful purpose. Is that what Keene meant? He continued,

Oct-18-04 ray keene: [...] if you recall the roman senator cato used to end all his speeches with the words - cartago delenda est! well - a bas fischerrandom!!

The French phrase 'a bas fischerrandom!' translates to 'down with fischerrandom!' Keene repeated the condemnation after a few more posts before abandoning it.

I've said it before, but it's worth repeating: chess and chess960 are not competing against each other. It's not a zero-sum game where the winner takes all. Chess players who want to continue studying opening variations are free to do so. Chess960 players who have no interest in this are also free to do so, without being at a disadvantage against the traditional players. Players like me, who enjoy playing both chess and chess960, have no compelling reason to abandon one for the other.

Was Keene, the author of myriad chess titles which could become irrelevant in a chess960 world, worried that the chess960 public might stop buying his books? I doubt it, because players taking him up on his alternatives -- 'if you want another form of chess play shogi or xiangqi' -- would also not be interested in his books.

That raises another question: Are chess960 players interested in books on Nimzovich, Petrosian, or recent World Championship matches (topics about which Keene has written)? I know I am, because the history of chess960 extends back through the history of chess, but I don't know that other chess960 players would agree with me.

02 May 2015

Stuff Happens

Even though it's been four years since the demise of Chess Classic Mainz (CCM; see No Place for Chess960, February 2011), the Chess Tigers continue their support of chess960 in other ways. The Chess-tigers.de page, Chess Tigers Training Center: Chess960, lists 20 posts starting from the beginning of 2014.

One post that caught my attention was '"Ich bin zu alt für den Scheiß!": 5 falsche Gründe, kein Chess960 zu spielen', which Google helps to translate as '"I'm too old for this crap!", five wrong reasons not to play Chess960'. The five reasons are:-

I. "I'm too old for this crap!"
II. Chess960 will displace traditional chess!
III. Chess960 players are just too lazy to learn theory!
IV. Some starting positions are forced lost!
V. I will not embarrass myself ...

Points II, III, and IV are also on my list of Top 10 Myths About Chess960, so we are in substantial agreement. As for 'I will not embarrass myself', this refers to the possibility of losing in less than ten moves, where the Tigers give three embarrassing examples. I can't think of a way to express this as a myth. 'Crap happens!', as they say.