20 January 2018

Annotated Game #185: Take those free tempi

This next tournament game continues the theme (from Annotated Game #184) of the value of a tempo.  My opponent at various times gives me a free tempo; in particular, 15. Qc1 is a turning point in the game, as I am able to then seize the initiative.  The value of the advantage of active piece placement is then demonstrated a few moves later, as various tactics hang in the air and my opponent misses a key square weakness.

The game also illustrates the strengths of the Caro-Kann Classical as a defense, as Black's setup allows his pieces to spring into action whenever White lets up the pressure; along those lines, see also the classic pawn break suggestion by Komodo on move 17.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class B"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B18"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "48"] {[%mdl 8192] B18: Classical Caro-Kann: 4...Bf5 sidelines} 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. Bc4 e6 7. N1e2 Bd6 8. O-O Nd7 9. Kh1 $146 { this just seems to waste time.} Qc7 {with the idea of opening the way for queenside castling, as well as establishing a Q+B battery on the b8-h2 diagonal.} 10. Bg5 Ne7 {this is the usual square for the knight in this variation of the Caro-Kann Classical, largely to further protect against an advance of White's f-pawn.} (10... Ngf6 {is certainly possible, however.} 11. f4 O-O $11) 11. Bxe7 {an unnecessary exchange of bishop for knight.} Bxe7 $15 ( 11... Kxe7 $5 {is a suggestion by Komodo, leaving the bishop on the better diagonal. Black's king would then drop back to f8 if necessary.}) 12. f4 O-O-O {Black now has a pleasant position. My king is well protected and my pieces are better coordinated.} 13. f5 exf5 {no need to let White exchange off my bishop.} 14. Nxf5 {White's knight fork is taken care of with my next move.} Bf6 {the two bishops are looking good together.} 15. Qc1 {whatever the intent behind this move was, it was too slow. Now I'm able to start taking the initiative.} (15. Bd3 Kb8 $15) 15... Nb6 16. Bd3 Kb8 {prudently moving the king off the h3-c8 diagonal.} 17. c3 Rhe8 {getting the rook into play on the open file.} (17... c5 $5 {is Komodo's idea, a pawn break which would further activate Black's pieces.} 18. dxc5 Na4 19. Ned4 Nxc5 $17) 18. b4 {this is aggressive-looking, but it just creates more weaknesses.} (18. Neg3 $5 $15) 18... Nd5 $17 {there are now various tactical ideas swirling, including a knight hop into e3 and a potentially overloaded Bd3. White currently has everything covered, but with his next move signals that he missed the weakness of the e3 square.} 19. Qc2 $2 Bxf5 $19 20. Rxf5 (20. Bxf5 Ne3 21. Qb2 Nxf1 22. Rxf1 Re3 $19) 20... Ne3 21. Qb2 Nxf5 22. Bxf5 Re3 {clearing the e8 square for the other rook to double up on the open file.} 23. a4 {White is still pinning his hopes on an attack on my king position, but again it is too slow.} Rde8 { White now has back rank problems and his pieces are vulnerable.} 24. Ra2 (24. Ng1 {there is nothing better in the position} Qf4 25. Bd7 $17 R8e7 26. Bh3 Re1 $19) 24... Qf4 0-1

11 January 2018

Book completed: Mastering Opening Strategy

I recently completed Mastering Opening Strategy by GM Johan Hellsten (Everyman Chess, 2012).  The book took a beastly long time to complete - more on that below - but I think it was worth it, in the end.

Instead of a detailed theory of opening concepts, a la Ideas Behind the Chess Openings, GM Hellsten's book has four core chapters that center around a number of annotated games and long quiz sections, along with a short fifth one on opening preparation.  The chapters are:

1 - The Nature of Development
2 - Crime and Punishment
3 - The Battle for the Centre
4 - Restriction
5 - A Few Words on Opening Preparation

My comments:
  • Chapters 1 and 2 overlap a great deal, in the sense that pretty much all of the examples show how the less developed side is punished for neglecting opening principles regarding the value of rapid piece development.  A lot of them revolve around king-in-the-center positions, which you learn must be cracked open as soon as possible, otherwise the slower side can consolidate.  Piece activity (via development) and looking for opportunities to initiate attacks with early sacrifices, done to open lines in the position (especially towards the enemy king), are key elements that are illustrated repeatedly.
  • Chapter 3 is interesting, as in a number of cases the importance of the center is underlined by efforts on the wings to undermine it.  There are plenty of examples of seizing central territory with pieces and/or pawns and using that to dominate the opponent, though.
  • Chapter 4 is primarily about prophylaxis, with the focus being on limiting (sometimes severely) your opponent's piece development.  This is probably the most sophisticated chapter and underlines the importance of understanding your opponent's plans as much as your own opportunities.  A number of positional crushes are presented at the top levels of professional chess, showing that this really is an effective and important concept.
  • Chapter 5 contains some useful principles on building an opening repertoire, although does not try to be comprehensive.  Hellsten's observations on the opening being the most apropos area of the game for exploring your personal taste/style were quite interesting, especially in light of previous insights shared here on the concept of style in chess.  Basically the idea is that you should look at openings with structural and style similarities when building a repertoire, with a number of different types of factors highlighted.  This is not necessarily a new idea, but Hellsten explicitly focuses on the opening as most suitable for the expression of "style" choices and largely discounts it for middlegame play.
  • Be prepared for a long time factor in working through this book.  Each of the chapters has a number of example annotated games, which works well, then a large number of games (long fragments, sometimes complete games) as quizzes where you are supposed to identify the next move.  For example, Chapter 3 has 34 example games and 37 quiz games.  If you take them seriously and don't blitz through them, even going through relatively rapidly (say 5 minutes per example game and 10 minutes per quiz game), that means a typical chapter will take you around 540 minutes = 9 hours.  So that means around 36 hours total for the whole book.  So if you go hard at it for an hour a day, every day without a break, it will still take you over a month to complete.  I typically did study sessions in 15-30 minute daily chunks, not sequentially and with substantial breaks sometimes, so that meant it ended up taking well over a year to work through it.
  • If you're expecting a detailed, systemic exposition of opening theory and principles, this really isn't the book for it.  If you're looking for a number of well-annotated illustrative games with connecting and recurring themes related to the opening phase, then that better fits the description of this book.  Repetition of the themes has ingrained the basic principles in my chess thinking and should help me take better advantages of these types of opportunities in the future, even without retention of all the details.

06 January 2018

Annotated Game #184: One tempo and the initiative

In this next tournament game, the role of the initiative is again highlighted.  As White, by move 16 I have achieved a great-looking position against my opponent's Dutch setup, but by a couple of moves later he is firmly in the driver's seat on the kingside, thanks to my losing the initiative.  I also make a critical mistake letting his knight into the e3 outpost, but then bravely (and somewhat desperately) sacrifice the exchange to get rid of it, in the hopes of eventual counterplay.  My opponent returns the favor later on, getting distracted and giving me a crucial tempo to let my queen penetrate his now-bare kingside, which gets me a perpetual and a draw.

It's interesting to see the importance of not wasting even a single move in tense positions and how quickly the initiative can turn - and then turn back.  It also yet again points out the importance of never giving up the fight until you are actually lost, with the game following a similar trajectory in that respect to Annotated Game #183.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class A"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "A10"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "66"] [EventType "simul"] [EventRounds "6"] {[%mdl 8192] A10: English Opening: Unusual Replies for Black} 1. c4 f5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Nc3 e6 4. d3 {making this an English rather than a true Dutch Defense. The placement of the d-pawn is a critical difference, as here White contests Black's control of the e4 square.} Be7 5. g3 O-O 6. Bg2 d6 {a Classical Dutch setup.} 7. O-O Nc6 8. Rb1 {initiating the standard queenside expansion plan, with a b-pawn advance as the main idea.} a5 9. a3 e5 {Black counters by advancing in the center. This however gives up the d5 square.} (9... Qe8 10. b4 axb4 11. axb4 Qh5 12. b5 Nd8 13. e3 g5 14. Nd2 Qg6 15. Qe2 Nf7 16. Bb2 g4 17. Ra1 Rb8 18. e4 e5 19. exf5 Bxf5 20. Nce4 Ng5 21. c5 Nh3+ 22. Kh1 Nd7 23. b6 c6 24. cxd6 {Schiendorfer,F (2190)-Kleinhenz,H (1920) Triesen 2013 1-0}) 10. b4 axb4 11. axb4 Nd4 $6 {Black will need to do something with the Nc6, but this doesn't help him.} (11... Qe8 {is almost always played here, with the idea of transferring the queen as part of the standard Dutch attacking plan on the kingside. Let's see a high-level treatment of this:} 12. b5 Nd8 13. Nd5 Ne6 14. Bd2 Bd8 15. Bb4 Qh5 16. e3 Ne8 17. Nd2 Qf7 18. Bc3 Kh8 19. Ra1 Rxa1 20. Qxa1 Bd7 21. Nb4 b6 22. f4 exf4 23. gxf4 Bf6 24. Rf3 Bxc3 25. Qxc3 Nf6 26. Rh3 Re8 27. Nd5 Nxd5 28. Bxd5 Rf8 29. Kf2 Qe7 30. Nf3 Rf6 31. Qa1 h6 32. Qa8+ Rf8 33. Qa1 Rf6 34. Qa7 Qd8 35. Rg3 Nc5 36. Ke2 Be6 37. Qa8 Qxa8 38. Bxa8 Rf8 39. Bc6 Bd7 40. Nd4 Bxc6 41. bxc6 Kh7 42. Rg1 Ra8 43. Nxf5 g6 44. Ne7 Ra2+ 45. Kf3 Nxd3 46. Nxg6 Nb4 47. Ne7 Rxh2 48. Ng8 {1-0 (48) Rustemov,A (2475)-Kobalia,M (2430) Moscow 1995}) 12. Nxd4 $16 {the next sequence is mostly forced.} exd4 13. Nb5 { I debated some time between this and Nd5. The text move is more critical.} c5 { otherwise the pawn on d4 is hanging.} 14. bxc5 dxc5 15. Bf4 {at this point White has a clear advantage, with the two bishops being especially effective. The Nb5 also combines well with the dark-square bishop in targeting c7 and d6.} Ne8 {this looks passive but does a good job of covering the weak squares.} 16. Bd5+ {here I wanted to dominate the e6 square and centralize the bishop, although it is also more exposed here. I thought that the gain of tempo would offset any problems.} Kh8 17. Re1 {I had another significant think here, as this is a critical position for White to try and find a good plan. The text move is OK, looking at opening the e-file, but I did not give Black's ...g5 response enough credit, even though I spotted it.} (17. Qd2 $5 $16 {and now if} g5 $2 18. Be5+ Bf6 19. Qxg5 $1 {and the Bf6 is pinned on both diagonals. Black's hanging Qd8 is a key component of this tactic.}) 17... g5 $14 {clearly the best and most active move. Now Black regains some initiative.} 18. Be5+ { I had seen this far but incorrectly evaluated how the piece exchange would result in a benefit to Black.} (18. Bd2 Nf6 19. Bf3 $14) 18... Bf6 $11 19. Bxf6+ Nxf6 {now Black has really solved most of his problems and can make some counter-threats on the kingside.} 20. Qb3 f4 {Black gets more space} 21. Bg2 { I thought for a while before playing this retreat. I had also considered the below option, but thought it would lead to a clear Black advantage.} (21. e4 $5 Nxd5 (21... dxe3 22. fxe3 fxg3 23. hxg3 {was what I was concerned about, but Komodo considers it equal.}) 22. exd5 $15) 21... fxg3 {now Black fully takes over the initiative.} (21... Ng4 22. Rf1 $17) 22. fxg3 Ng4 {targeting the f2 square and also eyeing the outpost square on e3.} 23. Qb2 $2 {with the idea of defending the second rank, but Black's next move keeps the queen shut out.} ( 23. e4 {was necessary to not let the knight into e3.} Ne5 24. Rf1 Rxf1+ 25. Rxf1 $17) 23... Ne3 $19 24. Rf1 {I considered sacrificing the exchange the only real way to continue playing with any hope of a draw, with some compensation due to the strong light-square bishop and Black's open king. Komodo shows this as a top choice as well (although all choices are bad by this point).} Nxf1 25. Rxf1 Rxf1+ 26. Kxf1 {I wanted to keep the bishop on the long diagonal, although this was not necessarily critical.} (26. Bxf1 Qe7 27. e4 $19) 26... Qf6+ 27. Kg1 Qe6 28. e4 (28. Nc7 {I of course looked at, but Black's queen goes to e3 with tempo and I really didn't like the idea of allowing it to get there.} Qe3+ 29. Kf1 Ra5 $19) 28... Qa6 {while this is still winning for Black, it indicates a lack of focus on the kingside, where I now have some hope for counterplay due to the open f-file and Black's exposed king.} 29. Qf2 {I had been looking at this idea previously and was very pleased that my opponent allowed me to play it. Now there is only one way for my opponent to keep the advantage, and he does not find it.} Qa1+ $2 {now it's a draw!} (29... Qh6 {is not an obvious move to find, for a human. Black has to keep the f6 square covered.} 30. Qf1 Bg4 $19) 30. Bf1 $11 {now Black cannot successfully defend both f6 and f8 from my queen.} Bh3 {defending against the mate threat on f8 and threatening to exchange the Bf1, but he never gets the necessary tempo.} (30... Kg7 31. e5 Ra6 32. Nc7 Rh6 33. Ne8+ Kg8 34. Nf6+ $11) 31. Qf6+ Kg8 32. Qxg5+ Kh8 33. Qf6+ Kg8 1/2-1/2

02 January 2018

What are your chess goals for 2018?

GM Gregory Serper has posted an excellent and relevant article "What are your chess goals for 2018?" over at Chess.com.  It's the season for New Year's resolutions, and he takes on several of the most common ones for chessplayers.  In particular, I found the below observation to be valuable in helping define how often one should play serious games:
2) Play more tournaments.
This is a very good resolution, provided that you use your common sense. It is difficult to get better in chess if you don't play serious over-the-board tournaments.  However, if you play a new tournament every single weekend and don't have time to analyze the games, it might be very entertaining experience, but you are not going to improve your chess much. 
Ideally you need to find a tournament frequency that will allow you to analyze the games, learn from your mistakes and play every new tournament as a new, improved self!
As mentioned in The Long Journey to Class A, over the past year I've found that playing tournament-level games on a monthly basis has let me strike a good balance between staying "warm" with competitive chess and offering enough time in between for meaningful study.

It was also a pleasure to see his reaction to the "gain rating points" goal:
When you set a goal to gain a certain amount of rating points, you shift your focus from chess to rating and therefore the fear of losing will ultimately stifle your creativity.
It's far better to set a goal of becoming a stronger player, ideally identifying the particular areas for personal improvement through your own analysis, and then let your rating catch up in its own good time.  Becoming a stronger chessplayer is fundamentally a lifestyle choice (establishing positive study/training/playing habits) and a longer-term commitment to excellence, rather than a quantitative goal.

My top chess goals for the year, in no particular order:
  • Integrate additional openings (or variants in my existing repertoire) into my play, by employing them in serious games, to help broaden the number of position-types that I'm familiar with and inject some variety into my game.  I've already started playing the Dutch Stonewall, to good effect.
  • Learn additional fundamental endgame positions by heart and delve further into the different types of endgame strategies (in rook endings, minor piece endings, etc.)
  • Make an effort to learn more comprehensively all of the typical middlegame structures and plans on a strategic level, so I better can recognize and apply them in my games.