13 January 2017

DVD completed: Typical Mistakes by 1600-1900 Players

This Fritztrainer DVD by GM Nicholas Pert takes a trainer's approach to identifying and addressing typical Class player mistakes.  Rather than focus primarily on teaching specific opening/middlegame/endgame knowledge (although there is an instructive chapter containing a couple of standard endgames), it looks at important concepts and practical decisions that improving players often get wrong.  Based on his commentary, it seems that GM Pert reviewed a number of internationally-rated tournament games featuring 1600-1900 rated players and then organized the DVD chapters based on common themes he saw in them.

Below are some of the highlights from my perspective.  In each of the chapters there are opportunities for the user to do some of their own "find the best move" practice, either by pausing during the video presentations or with quiz positions after the main chapter material.  As you'll see in the commentary, I found a number of common themes that have been previously highlighted in this blog.  Naturally some of the example games provided on the DVD contain multiple themes and GM Pert points this out when it happens.

-- Already there is a valuable observation here about the most practical approach to calculating and choosing variations. In the game example, a White knight is sacrificed on g7 and the Black player chooses a passive defensive line that is almost guaranteed to lose. The point is that any alternative to the chosen game continuation would be preferable, so Black should invest the time looking at critical lines (accepting the sacrifice) and other creative ways of countering it (one of which leads to an advantage).

Chapter 1: Not admitting a mistake
-- "Chess is a memoryless game" is a principle that many of us violate. We make a move and then realize it has problems, but then continue on with the idea anyway in order to try and recoup our investment. GM Pert shows how this is bad for our game. We need to have the mental toughness and lack of ego that will allow us to play what we (now) recognize is the best move on the board, even if it appears embarrassing - the chessboard does not lie, nor will it make fun of you for playing your best game.
-- In some of the game examples, it's not clear if the player recognizes their mistake, or simply doesn't see a better plan. It's still instructive to see those types of situations illustrated, since they prod us to always keep looking for a better plan and not be locked into a single idea, if we have the time to think.
-- I had a recent tournament game in which retreating a knight and admitting my previous idea was wrong would have saved a draw.  I even recognized this intellectually, but instead tried too hard to justify my previous play; in part this was because I'd had a string of draws in the tournament and was frustrated with that.  This was simply an emotional reaction, not wanting to experience the (false) embarrassment of retreating the piece and then deluding myself about my chances if I didn't.  I went on to lose as my opponent's pawns crashed through my center, without the knight to support it, so ironically I got my wish of "not another draw" - but not in a good way.  Accepting the truth of the chessboard is necessary for mastery, as is avoiding wishful thinking.

Chapter 2: Failed sacrifices
-- Concept: it's not necessary to calculate out all variations to the end, but one must focus on the critical ones.  This includes making sure that the opponent doesn't have any moves that refute the sacrifice, such as intermediate checks or captures.  To make the sacrifice, you need to be able to assess that it gives you prospects for success (in other words that you "get something for it" that is real).
-- Unsupported sacrifices clearly don't meet this criteria, as if the player has no other pieces able to attack, or if the defender can move his own pieces there first, there's no real attack.
-- Attacking play is highlighted in this section, including the important role of "quiet moves" such as withdrawals and opening squares for pieces, rather than always just going "all in" with multiple successive sacrifices
-- Sacrifices out of desperation often have no real prospects and just feel better (and lose quicker), rather than hard-headedly evaluating the needs of the position when careful defense is best.
-- An excellent example from this blog of a failed sacrifice is Annotated Game #162.

Chapter 3: Be aware of opponent's threats
-- This is a particular weak point of mine, as I often pay more attention to my own ideas and not enough to my opponent's threats.
-- The basic problem is focusing on one's own ideas, but not considering all of the opponent's possible moves. One antidote to this is to ask: why did they play their last move?  (This is in fact part of my simplified thought process).  Also, look beyond "obvious moves" to include possible captures and checks; sequencing of moves is also important.
-- On the flip side, you should be alert and look for your opponent's weakening moves, especially moving away defenders of key squares; this commentary game featuring FM Alisa Melekhina is an excellent example.
-- Common threats to look for: back rank or 7th rank penetrations; queen penetration into a position; taking advantage of hanging/vulnerable pieces (the "loose pieces drop off" idea).

Chapter 4: Standard Endgames
-- Short, but helpful on two specific endgame types (R+P, K+P)
-- Highlights the need for careful evaluation of potential transformations of the position, especially when choosing to simplify down in material.  This is a common problem among class players, for example in my simul game with GM Alex Yermolinsky.

Chapter 5: Too Materialistic
-- Short (too short in terms of content, I think, as this is a major failing of many Class players).
-- Emphasizes the need for players to make a dynamic evaluation of piece value (rather than just always thinking "rook = 5, knight = 3" etc.)
-- Highlights understanding the consequences for your opponent's piece activity when seizing material, including the idea of subsequently giving back material to end up with a small advantage, while taking away your opponent's threats.

Chapter 6: Miscalculating forced lines
-- Eye-opening about looking for lurking tactical issues (going back to previous chapter on your opponent's threats).
-- Difficult-to-see tactics/moves are highlighted, including a bishop retreat / long-distance skewer example, along with in-between moves that gain tempo (i.e. with check).
-- A personal issue of mine (as previously mentioned) is focusing too much on my own plans.  In practical terms, this translates to focusing on only one board segment and not having full board vision.  The counter to this would therefore seem to be deliberately expanding my the board vision.
-- Practical decisionmaking (a theme with other sections as well): if your alternatives all look bad, calculate the most critical line fully to see if you have any real chances with it. Always calculate the critical line for opponent fully to ensure that it does not work.
-- Test examples in this chapter included an "obvious" move being punished - see Annotated Game #149 for one of my own.
-- This chapter could have included more guidance / suggestions on how to avoid mistakes (or at least improve your calculating ability).

Chapter 7: Exchanging Bishops for Knights
-- Class players typically do understand that bishops are better in open games; the DVD includes an example of a positional tactic swapping knight for bishop.
-- One should also evaluate when knights are better (typically with closed pawn structures); this goes back to the idea of dynamic piece values.
-- The importance of piece exchanges was looked at here as a mastery concept.
-- GM Pert provides some interesting examples of how to work around annoying knights, rather than swapping good bishops for them, unless the swap is necessary to control key square(s).
-- The chapter is not systematic in examining piece exchange ideas, but was helpful in flagging general considerations (and the need to fully evaluate piece swaps).

Chapter 8: Pawn Structure
-- Very short (2 videos plus test); no attempt to be comprehensive, just offering a couple practical examples.
-- Opposite-colored bishops featured in one of the sample games, the point being that your pawns should control the squares of your opponent's bishop.
-- Undermining your opponent's pawn structure/control of a particular color square complex was another theme, including with pawn sacrifices when necessary.
-- The interesting idea behind sequencing a pawn advance was included, with an example of how a player could not execute a full (two-square) advance due to an en passant capture, so he did it "manually" rather than automatically - moved it one square, then moved up a supporting pawn, then moved the main pawn again
-- The flip side of the previous idea is the concept of an advancing a pawn primarily to block others' advance, by placing it in the en passant capture position.
-- Karlsbad pawn structure (d5-c6-b7-a7) vs. White minority attack: don't let White pawn get to b5 with the a-pawns on, advance a6 if necessary to guard b5.

Chapter 9: Improving your worst piece
-- Also very short, but very much to the point.
-- This is a key strategic and planning idea, especially when you have no other obvious plan (also included in my thinking process).
-- Another aspect of this idea is to bring all pieces into an attack - look at the ones which are not playing and activate them, rather than over-using the ones that are already developed.
-- Also avoid time-wasting moves in favor of developing moves, in general.
-- Work out the best square for a piece, then maneuver it as necessary (including getting other pieces out of the way).  This was included in a mastery concept - not every move has to "do something" in itself, it may just best facilitate the next move by a different piece, which is much more important.

Chapter 10: King safety
-- Exchanging pieces is the route to enhance king safety, especially the queens and when close to the endgame.
-- Anticipate problems (weak squares around the king, etc.) and then look for defensive tactics.
-- When on the offense, look to keep attacking pieces mobile and bring in additional pieces, while making sure your own king safety comes first (i.e. take away your opponent's threats).
-- Example given of moving a piece out of the way (the king) in order to add another attacking piece (a rook) for a mate threat - as in previous chapter's theme.

Chapter 11: Overestimating opponents plan
-- Common problem at all levels
-- This is the flip side of chapter 3 (being unaware of opponent's threats); this time, the problem is that you give too much power to your opponent's threats and don't play the best moves as a result.
-- If you have an advantage but can't see a complete path to a win, concentrate on making the best move in the position and keep on doing that; don't be deterred if your opponent gains back some ground, if you are still winning.
-- Example was given of an unnecessary defensive sacrifice of a piece for a pawn.  Maybe let a pawn go if you have to, but then shift to your own plan rather than giving all of the power in the position to your opponent and making it worse.  Don't focus only on the one evident idea/threat of your opponent and overreact to it.
-- Back to the original intro example, if you see only one bad alternative to your opponent's threat, it's a good practical decision to look for other, perhaps more riskier-looking options, rather than settle for a guaranteed poor position.

07 January 2017

Commentary: 2016 Olympiad Round 10 (Kramnik - Adhiban)

The following game was widely considered to be one of Kramnik's best at the 2016 Olympiad; you can see the original ChessBase "Learning from Kramnik" article for analysis of this and several other illustrative games of his from the event.  This particular game attracted my interest not just because of the quality, which was a standout in the Olympiad, but also because of the White structure Kramnik employs.  Essentially he transitioned into a Leningrad Dutch style position, after Black opposed his Reti (1. Nf3) by using a Slav structure.

I have aspirations of someday playing the Dutch (well) and currently play the Slav, so was able to take away some specific lessons in both cases.  The apparent simplicity with which Kramnik maneuvers, his patient redeployment of pieces to best squares, and positional dominance with tactical themes (note the repeated pins and forks in the end sequence) are also all models for improving players to emulate.

Kramnik, Vladimir (2808) - Adhiban, B. (2671)

Result: 1-0
Site: Baku
Date: 2016.09.12
[...] 1.¤f3 d5 2.g3 ¤f6 3.¥g2 it's been noted by commentators that Kramnik in 2016 often largely avoided theoretical duels in the opening, in favor of simple flank opening development early on. This parallels Carlsen's similar practice of often "just playing chess", a strategy that succeeds when your overall level of understanding and effort is better than your opponent's. 3...¥f5 4.O-O c6 Black is using a Slav-type structure, which is solid if unambitious. 5.d3 e6 6.¤h4 a standard maneuver against a Slav bishop developed to f5. 6...¥g4 7.h3 ¥h5 8.£e1 removing the queen from the line of the pin and supporting the idea of an e-pawn advance. 8...¥e7 9.f4 ¤fd7 pressuring the Nh4, among other things so that it cannot support f4-f5. 10.¤f3 White's last two moves have now given him a mainline Leningrad Dutch (!) structure in reverse. Kramnik knows these structures well. 10...f5 presumably aimed at deterring the thematic Leningrad Dutch e-pawn advance, but... 11.e4 anyway! 11...¥xf3 an understandable decision to exchange minor pieces, as the bishop is currently largely locked out of the game by its own pawns on the light squares. 12.¥xf3 nevertheless, the exchange seems to leave White in a good position on the kingside, with his own bishop now improved. 12...O-O 13.¤c3 White at this point has a clean structure with his pieces working relatively well together. Black now has a Stonewall pawn structure, but his pieces are not as well placed or developed. 13...fxe4 14.dxe4 d4 this seems overly ambitious. Black completely gives up his solid central pawn wedge in a forward thrust for space. It certianly inconveniences White temporarily, but in the longer term it weakens Black's game. 15.¤d1 e5 16.¤f2 Kramnik has plenty of time to usefully reposition the knight, as Black has to take additional time to shore up his advanced d4 pawn and get his pieces out. 16...c5 17.£e2 putting the queen on more useful diagonals and clearing the back rank to connect the rooks. 17...¤c6 18.¥g4 a beautiful place for the bishop. Now the downside of Black's earlier decisions - to exchange off his light-square bishop and advance the pawn wedge - is highlighted. 18...¢h8 19.¥e6 exf4 done in order to inconvenience and disrupt White's kingside. 20.gxf4 here Komodo assesses the position as completely level, although it seems easier to play as White. Adhiban makes a rather drastic decision to try to further disrupt White's structure, but this time the weaknesses he leaves behind after the g-pawn advance become more acute. 20...g5?!
After something like 20...£c7 21.¤d3 White has an equal but pleasant game, with ideas like f4-f5, Kh1 followed by Rg1, etc.
21.¤g4 the knight hops to a strong square, with multiple benefits (blocking the g-file, eyeing h6 and f6 as well as e5). (21.f5 also looks good here.) 21...gxf4 22.¥xf4± White's two bishops are looking really good now. 22...£e8 shifting diagonals with the idea of redeploying to g6. 23.e5!? this is a key moment and White has multiple ways to proceed. Kramnik picks a world-class and complex way, by offering the Ng4. 23...¥h4
23...h5 is the critical way to oppose White's idea, by threatening the Ng4. 24.¢h1
24.¤h6? is one option and something many Class players would first consider, since it looks aggressive. 24...£g6+ is the big problem with it. 25.¢h1 d3
25...£xe6?26.£xh5! leads to mate and would justify White's aggressive play.
26.£g2 (26.cxd3?26...¤d4 and Black wins due to the hanging Be6.) 26...£xe6 27.¦g1 ¦g8 28.¤xg8 ¦xg8ยต
24...hxg4? loses to 25.£xg4 with a completely open field in front of Black's king, versus White's queen, two bishops and rook.
25.£g2 ¤d4 a similar idea as in the above variation, but now the queen is on g2, so White can play 26.¥d5± with heavy kingside pressure.
24.¥c4 withdrawing the bishop after the discovered attack, but its effectiveness is not lessened any, plus e5-e6 is now a possibility. White's space advantage and mobility gives him a significant plus. 24...£g6 25.¢h1 avoiding the ...h5 threat, now that the Qg6 is present. 25...¥g5 naturally Black seeks to exchange off one of White's two bishops, but to no avail. 26.¥h2 again, the bishop retreat shows no loss of effectiveness for the piece, plus the f-file is uncovered. 26...¤b6
26...¦xf1+ would be an attempt to exchange off material and reduce White's threats, but after 27.¦xf1 ¦f8 28.¦xf8+ ¤xf8 29.e6!+⁠− the advanced passed e-pawn gives White the advantage.
27.¥d3+⁠− moving the bishop to an even better diagonal. 27...£e6 28.£e4 sometimes the obvious threats (in this case mate on h7) are still best. 28...£d5 29.e6! passed pawns must be pushed! White now would be fine with a queen exchange. 29...¦ae8 30.¦xf8+ now reducing material favors White's positional advantages, with the pawn sitting on e6. 30...¦xf8 31.¤e5
31.¦g1 is favored by the engines as an enhanced version of the idea behind the text move. 31...£xe4+ 32.¥xe4 ¢g7 33.¤e5+⁠−
31...£xe4+ 32.¥xe4 ¤d8 33.a4 an interesting idea and not one Class players would consider, given that it surrenders the e-pawn.
33.¤d7 has been noted as a more direct route to victory. 33...¤xd7 34.exd7 ¢g7 (34...¦f7 35.¥e5+ ¥f6 36.¥d5!+⁠−) 35.¦g1 ¢h6 and now White can win with either Bd5, controlling key squares, or going for material with Bxh7. It is still complicated, however.
33...¤xe6 34.a5 the point of the idea, chasing the knight away from defending the d7 square while the b-pawn is hanging and cannot be protected. 34...¤c8 35.¤d7 Kramnik by this point evidently saw a path to a win and was comfortable following it, without necessarily seizing every available opportunity.
35.¥d5!?35...¤f4 36.¤f7+ ¢g7 37.¤xg5 ¤xd5 38.¤e6+ ¢f7 39.¤xf8±
35...¦e8? not the best defense. It looks obvious, lining up against the hanging Be4, but White now uses the available tempo-gaining check to dominate Black's side of the board.
35...¦d8 36.¥xb7 (36.¥e5+ as in the game continuation is also a strong idea.) 36...¤e7 37.¤e5± with the two bishops so powerful and Black's weaker pawn structure, Kramnik must have felt he could bring the point home with best defense here.
36.¥e5+ ¤g7 (36...¢g8 37.¥d5 b6 38.¦f1+⁠− and Black loses material.) 37.¦g1 (37.¦f1!?) 37...¥h6 38.¥xb7+⁠− at this point White has achieved total dominance and can leisurely go about winning. Black has too many weaknesses, for example at h7 and c5, while White's three advanced minor pieces combine very effectively against them and the rook. 38...¤e7 39.¤f6 ¦f8 40.¥e4 ¤g8 41.¤xh7 ¦e8 42.¤g5 tactically defending the Be5 with the threatened fork (and mate) on f7. 42...¦e7 43.¥d3 ¥xg5 44.¦xg5 threatening mate on h5 now, given the pinned Ng7. 44...¤h6 45.¥xg7+ a simple, clean finish. 45...¦xg7 46.¦h5
Powered by Aquarium

03 January 2017

Book completed: Yearbook of Chess Wisdom

As is fitting for the end of one year and the start of a new one, I recently completed Peter Zhdanov's Yearbook of Chess Wisdom.  It is a unique format (for chess books, at least) offering one essay per day for a year (hence the "yearbook" part of the title).  There's no table or contents or index for themes, although the back cover offers the following examples of thematic topics:
  • IQ and chess skills
  • Talent vs. hard work
  • How many games to play per year?
  • Are women underrated or overrated as compared to men?
  • Rating inflation in chess
  • What does your chess tell about your personality?
  • Playing computers: dos and don'ts
  • Developing your chess memory and visualization
  • How does one prepare for an upcoming tournament?
  • Is 1. e4 really "best by test"?
The author has an entertaining writing style and deliberately chose the essay format (without a single chess diagram or variation given) to stand out from other books and, I would say, be more thought-provoking about the various topics.  As a relatively successful amateur (currently rated a little over 2000 FIDE) who also manages (and is married to) WGM Natalia Pogonina, Zhdanov offers a different and sometimes unique perspective on his subjects, the majority of which have direct relevance for improving players.  A couple of the most pointed essays have already been quoted from here, as Training quote of the day #9 and Training quote of the day #10.  

This is the type of book that can be enjoyed reading a few articles a day (my practice), or if you want to strictly do the one-a-day routine that also works.  In part because themes regularly recur, with somewhat different angles or emphasis from the author, I do believe the collection of essays is best enjoyed, absorbed and pondered a few at a time.  The book succeeds overall in making the reader think critically about a variety of different chess topics, while thoughtfully presenting its information, rather than trying to be a teaching manual.  It therefore fills a unique niche for training and general enjoyment purposes. 

17 December 2016

Training quote of the day #10

From Peter Zhdanov's Yearbook of Chess Wisdom.
In chess, one shouldn't be too dogmatic. I had a weakness of relying too much on theoretical assessments. For example, if I realized that my position should be winning, I used to lose interest in the game and hope that it will end soon by itself. Similarly, I didn't put up the best resistance in the positions which I adjudicated as lost for myself. WGM Natalia Pogonina provided me with useful advice in this regard. According to her, you shouldn't dwell too much on the mathematical assessment of the position. Instead, it makes more sense to try to improve the life of your pieces one-by-one. If you are ahead, it will usually lead to victory. If you are behind, it might give you some counter-chances if the opponent's play is not precise enough.