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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The End of Correspondence Chess?

“I have sort of independently come to the conclusion that CC is about played out. Anyone who loses a game with White clearly does not know much about chess, how to use databases, or does not have a state of the art computer. So it comes down to the fact that you have to have a sound innovation over the books in every game you play (unless you are content to draw) which is essentially impossible.” so Hans Berliner, former World CC Champion, wrote in 2005.

I was out of chess for about 20 years until returning to CC in 2004 so I don’t know what engines were available then (probably Fritz) but think I had Chessmaster 2100. I joined the Correspondence Chess League of America and, figuring I’d lost some ability in 20 years, started at Class A (1800) but managed to get to over 2000 fairly quickly. About that time I discovered server chess which was a lot better that using post cards. The first server site I played on was IECG and started there at my CCLA rating. The IECG was e-mail chess and you had to keep track of your moves and reflection time, etc. exactly like in postal chess. IECG is in the process of closing down because of the popularity of server chess which does all the bookkeeping, etc. They are transferring everything to LechenicherSchacserver.

My first event there netted 2 draws out of 6 games and at first I wondered about my 2000ish rated opponents. They were playing at a much higher level than I expected. At first I put it down to the fact that Europeans are much stronger than Americans with similar ratings, but then I realized IECG, like LSS, had no prohibitions against engine use and everybody was using them. OK, no problem. By that time I had Fritz (6, I think it was) and a 10-12 year old computer. My database was, and still is, current to 2002. Results were better, but not much! My record there is +9 -10 =18 and I lost 200 points. In my latest tournament which I joined to try out the free Firebird engine even though I still had an old computer and the same old db has so far resulted in +0 -0 =4. So far about half the games in the 8-player event have been drawn which is pretty typical.

On other server sites I’ve hit a rating of about 2300 and leveled off and was losing frequently. Now I’m not saying everybody over 2300 or so was using engines because that’s simply not the case. A few were, but like I’ve said before, there are a lot of players better than me, so it’s likely I’ve reached my potential with or without an engine.

Anyway the whole point I’m trying to make is that Berliner was pretty much correct, but only at the highest levels. For most average players engine use isn’t a real factor because they are, or soon will be, playing at the upper levels where the vast majority of us will never reach. Again, with or without an engine.

I’m not interested in spending a lot of money for state of the art computers, deep-whatever engines and db’s with millions of games I have to update all the time. I don’t have the patience to let an engine run overnight and I’m not good enough to find innovations in the openings…actually every game I play has a TN, but it’s never a good one!

So CC isn’t dead and never will be. Most of us will continue to try and bash each other’s brains out and there will always be a few who will try to rise to the challenge Berliner outlined and see if they can claw their way to the top.

The SSDF (chess engine) rating list is interesting to check out. All games were played at 40 moves/2 hours followed by 20 moves/each following hour. In matches two separate PCs were used, connected with an auto232-cable. i.e. the engines have only played other engines, not humans, so the ratings are pretty meaningless, but it lets you know which ones are the strongest.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Great Blog!

I came across an interesting site by IM Dr. Mark Ginsburg called A Personal History of Chess. To quote from his site:

The chief motivation for this site is to present interesting games that for the most part are not yet part of electronic databases. In addition, there is entertaining (semi-recent) history and the blog format is ideal so readers can chip in and flesh out the memories. The best thing about semi-recent history is that most of the characters are still alive!

The site is divided, generally speaking, into decades starting from the 1970s and going into the 2000s. To kick it off, I simply started annotating “undiscovered” games in June 2007 along with whatever memories I could muster.

Check it out!

Odd thoughts

I got cussed out last night...we're talking serious profanity and I was accused of using an engine. It happened on Yahoo in a 10 minute game I won. Seriously, I thought that even in 5 and 10 minute games the idea is before you play a move you should think about what you are doing.  On Playchess I got cussed out in German in a 10 minute + 10 seconds a move when I won and had about a minute and a half left. My opponent had about 15 minutes! Maybe if he would have spent more than 10 seconds on a move he might have done better. But maybe I'm wrong about this. Maybe the idea is not to win the game but to see how many moves you can play before you lose or in the case of bonus time, maybe the goal is to finish with more time than you started with. You know, "I started with 10 minutes and finished with 14. Maybe I can break 15 minutes. Heck, I could break 20 minutes if it wasn't for those engine users who keep refuting my Fish Gambit in under 20 moves."

I read a post on one server site where people were howling like wounded monkeys about engine use on the site. One person said he suspects everyone on the site rated over 2000 is using an engine. He is an idiot. And I don't mean that because he's not a very good chess player because chess ability and intelligence are two different things. I mean he's an arrogant idiot. First of all players rated in the 2000's are, in the overall scheme of things, not really very good players; they make a lot of errors. Second, I might be the best player on my block, maybe even in the whole town, but I'm not so stupid as to think that makes me one of the best chess players on any site I play on and every time I lose it was to an engine. A lot of players are just plain better than me.

Reminds me of the time I was playing at a small chess club while in the military. Some snotty kid who was visiting a relative on the base showed up and asked to play me a game. I beat him easily a couple of quick games and he said I must be a very good player. I told him no, I wasn't and that's when he said, "You must be because where I come from I haredly ever lose." My answer was, "Really? Around here I hardly ever win." He kept badgering me to play, but he was so bad I didn't want to so I finally told him I preferred to play somebody good and that shut him up.

There are links to ads on these pages now. What that means is that if you buy a book or somethng by linking to it from this site, I get paid. I am not doing this to make money. Considering the number of readers this Blog has and the fact everybody has their favorite vendors I don't expect people who buy books and equipment to do so through through this Blog.  It's done as a matter of convenience for readers and/or because I believe in the product or site. So far I think my Adsense account is up to 50 cents. Big deal. So, if I link to something here it's just because I think it's a good value or beneficial to improving one's chess. I'm not selling anything. Well, technically I am, but not really. What's the purpose of this Blog? As I stated in the very beginning...to amuse myself. Just look at the comments and the number of hits if you don't believe me.

Winning Pawn Structures

When in one of my recent CC games I ended up with an isolated QP, it wasn’t Nunn’s Chess Openings or MCO that I turned to. It was GM Alex Baburin’s book, Winning Pawn Structures.

Just to give you some idea of the value of this book, Baburin wrote in the preface that while he hoped it would be of some interest to his fellow professional players, he actually wrote it for the club player who wanted to know more about positional play.  I'd say this book is good for masters down to about 1400. It's going to take serious study, which will turn most players off right there, but he approaches the problem from the point of view that it’s a good idea to learn positional play by studying typical P-structures. In this case the P-structure is the IQP and he does an excellent job.

Baburin adds in the preface the observation that one side wins not because they just happen to get a winning P-formation by some lucky chance, but it’s done through better planning, superior strategy and more precise play.

The IQP occurs in a variety of openings: QGD, QGA, Nimzo-Indian, Sicilian, Caro-Kann so that makes this book an important opening book on several openings.There’s more though. It’s a manual on the middlegame and ending because Baburin also covers those aspects of the IQP. He discusses various strategies: White advances d4-d5, attack on f7, K-side attack (the R-lift, B-sac on h6 and Q-shift, h-Pawn battering ram, Q-side play and play on the c-file, play on the e-file anf he also adds a section on the disadvantages of the IQP.
In addition he discusses the endgame, not just in general, but endings with all the various pieces. And to round out the book he discusses hanging P’s, the isolated P-couple and changing the P-structure.

This book is a perfect example of how a chess book should be written and I highly recommend it. It will definitely help one win more games if they are willing to put in the effort to actually study it. Alas, I lost the game in question, but not because of the IQP or any fault of Baburin’s book. My opponent was higher rated than me and knows more about chess than I do so he won but he had to work for it.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Latvian Gambit

I finally met a decent opponent on Chess Hotel. He has a mid-1800 rating there, I think. He played the Latvian Gambit…a gambit about which I know absolutely nothing. I knew it as the Greco Counter Gambit but these days it’s rarely called by that name. It’s an aggressive but dubious opening that can lead to wild and tricky positions. Surprisingly some correspondence players actually use the Latvian Gambit and some of them are pretty good players.

I should add though that in one book I was reading (I forgot which one and who it was) the author was pointing out the dangers of books advocating these types of openings. He pointed out that the authors often, well...lie. They give games played by low rated players that illustrate their "proof" that opening is good. Whomever it was that I was reading gave an example using one of these Latvian Gambit books and proceeded to destroy a lot of the analysis. Of course he was a GM and most of us won't be going up against any players of that caliber who will be able to so handily refute bad lines.

I learned my lesson a long time ago (before engines) when I was playing a CC game against a former US championship competitor. I was following a line in a popular opening book. Shortly after mailing my move I was studying the position when I saw what looked like a refutation, but what did I know? I didn't write the book. As it turned out I was right and my opponent refuted the move then informed me there was a mistake in the book.

The Latvian Gambit has a lot of adherents despite it’s generally poor reputation and I can understand people’s fascination with it. But the fact that I don’t know anything about it, and really am not all that good a player, but in this game had no trouble against it, ought to tell you something.

And as Jeremy Silman wrote, “There is a whole community of players who live for this opening, but the fact that no grandmasters use it speaks volumes for its true lack of soundness. Nevertheless, it is tricky, and offers Black good practical chances against an unprepared opponent. Though various “refutations” have appeared, fans of the gambit always find ways to keep Black alive (or so they claim), until gambit debunkers come up with new ways to kill it. Then Latvian aficionados fix it again, the debunkers kill it, and…well, it's a never-ending cycle." I guess if you’re willing to gamble, it has merits.

Fritz 12

A few weeks ago my old desk top computer was getting to be a problem. Actually I’ve had a problem with it running extremely slow and getting hung up ever since I was required to update to Windows Service Pack 3 in order to get Turbo Tax to run. I finally bit the bullet and bought a new laptop. I continued to run my old chess programs on the old computer though. I considered buying the latest Fritz and was checking around and found it available from between $50-$80. Personally I would have thought the USCF would offer the best pricing around for its members, but silly me. It’s all about the money with them and they have one of the highest prices.

So a couple weeks ago I was in Office Max to buy some poster board and was walking down the software aisle and what did I happen to spot? Fritz 12! I never would have expected to find such a specialized product in Office Max. So I pick it up with the idea of purchasing it and when I noticed the price I could hardly believe it! It was $19.95! So for US players, before you send away for it anywhere be sure to check out Office Max!

The system requirements have, not surprisingly, increased from my old Fritz 6. Also included is a one year premium membership at Playchess.com.

Minimum System Requirements: Pentium III 1 GHz, 512 MB RAM, Windows Vista, XP (Service Pack 3), DirectX9 graphics card with 256 MB RAM, DVD-ROM drive, Windows-Media Player 9, internet access (playchess.com, updates and activation). Windows Vista, Windows XP, Windows 7

The online manual stinks though. And apparently when using the infinite analysis function there is no way to paste the engine variation into the position. A feature I found very handy. If there’s a way to do it, I haven’t discovered it. Another feature, or lack thereof, I don’t like is the inability to delete games from a pgn database. You can delete games OK from cbh db’s but not pgn’s. I’ll have to find another program to better handle pgn db’s. Perhaps the simplest to use is Chesspad. ChessPad is a great little program that allows you to create, view and edit pgn databases, create games and diagrams for use in WordPad, Word, or HTML-pages and you can use Winboard-compatible engines for playing and analysis, view games in a tree and there is an opening classification system. Not bad for free.

The purpose of this post is not to review Fritz 12 as there are plenty of sites where it’s done far better that I could, but I did want to advise readers to check out Office Max or perhaps other office supply stores, or maybe even computer stores like Best Buy, before purchasing this product at the much higher prices.

Thoughts on Improving

I was looking over a slim book by GM Danny King and IM Chris Ward titled Choose the Right Move. The book covers advice on openings, tactics and combinations, how to calculate, positional play and planning, how to win won positions, practical play and endings.

King and Ward are trying to teach chess the right way; they cover all areas of the game without placing emphasis on one area and making claims that learning an unsound, inferior gambit and practicing tactics will win games. They are recommending an all around approach and I commend them for that! Some highlights:

“Above all it is vital to have a fundamental grasp of opening principles...When the concept of rapid and efficient development is brought up, there is one players who comes to my mind…Paul Morphy.” He goes on to say, “It is worth looking at Morphy’s play when he faced decent opposition.” One thing Morphy taught was development and sound strategy easily refuted the thoughtless sacrificial attacks so prevalent in his day and lead to positions from which he could deliver merciless tactical blows of his own. When he faced players like Daniel Harrwitz who understood the necessity of quick development, Morphy’s genius still allowed him to win with some great tactics, but his play was of a much more positional nature.

King wrote, “I think the first book I ever bought was Bobby Fischer’sMy 60 Memorable Games. I blindly copied the openings that he played…if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me. Unfortunately, I had no idea of the strategic basis behind these openings…”

GM Artur Yusupov wrote, “…the entire game is an aggregate of mini-operations united by a general strategic idea that has its basis in the opening you have chosen.”

Two points stand out here: 1) Like GM Alex Yermolinsky advocates, King played mainline openings and 2) he had to learn the strategic ideas behind them, not just memorize lines. The authors give the following advice when playing stronger opponents: “I have discovered some interesting secrets. In general, they are only too pleased to see a weaker opponent come out fighting and willing to take risks to randomize the position, because they can rely on their vast amount of experience, intuition, ability, etc. to win…” Again, they are in agreement with Yermolinsky on this point. They mean strong players love to see weaker opponents play junk openings. Play your best opening, hopefully one that is reasonably sound. If you play the Budapest Gambit, then play it against everybody and don’t avoid it against a master just because you know it may not be theoretically the best. That was exactly what Yermo wrote in The Road to Chess Improvement.

Tactics and Combinations:
“…one thing is clear, you must have a basic grounding and understanding of tactics. It is no good playing the best positional chess in the world only to find you miss a tactic and lose a piece...Tactics are short term maneuvers that try to take advantage of opportunities available in the position…the most important objective is to train yourself to spot tactics and combinations in your games.”  Like CJS Purdy before them, they emphasize the need to be aware of the different tactical motifs. What they are emphasizing is that you can’t just force a combination if the position does not call for it. This is a point that seems to be lost on many players. “In this chapter the various types of tactics are systematically discussed…so you can learn how to spot them.”

How to calculate:
“The ability to spot tactics is the first stage on the road to calculation…you have to be able to fathom out long variations and work out the consequences…”

Positional play and planning:
“Having a view of the big picture is common to every strong player. Positional motifs recur just like tactical motifs. Such knowledge is built up by studying model; games, typical maneuvers and being able to recognize weaknesses in Pawn structure.” Funny, Yermolinsky said the same thing! “Playing positionally…involves a different skill, namely the weighing up of various factors on the board, resulting in the formulation of a plan.”

“The end gamne is a neglected phase of the game. Too many players are put off by the vast amount of dry theory…” King hit on the reason when he wrote, “…if your opponent hasn’t collapsed by move 35, then it’s just too much effort to keep plugging away…”

It’s also part of the culture for young people today. They want something where you can learn the rules in 5 minutes then exercise their lightening fast reflexes, not their brains. This attitude carries over into chess. Young players buy into the hype that if they learn some slam-bang openings and do a ton of tactical exercises the wins will come easily.

I’ve discovered when playing a few 5-10 minute games on Chess Hotel and Yahoo that all you have to do against the majority of players is come out of the opening with a solid position and wait for them to unsoundly sac something on f7 or h7 and the game is in the bag. Yesterday I was on the Black side of the Guioco Piano and my opponent, a half decent player, had a dead level position. He played the book move Bg5 and when I hit the B with …h6 (also book) what did he do? Played Bxh6 of course. The opening 1.e4 e5 2.Qh5 is also pretty popular. I know Nakamura has successfully played it a few times, but when you have his rating you can take some liberties.

I like King and Ward’s approach to instruction because they don’t overemphasize one area at the expense of another nor do they promise immediate rewards. Rather they emphasize it takes work in all areas to succeed. Honest fellows.

Friday, June 25, 2010


This interesting game was played in round 2 of the US Championship in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1975. For reasons I don’t remember it was not played during the regularly scheduled time, but was played in one of the hotel rooms and I was there for the post mortem. I remember that at some point Vukcevich asked Grefe why he’d played a certain move and Grefe commented that he was trying to complicate the position. Vukcevich laughed and said, “You nearly succeeded in complicating me off the board.”

I’ve posted about Vukcevich before. Vukcevich’s obituary on the USCF’s website had the following to say:

As much as Milan accomplished as a player, composer and scientist, he will best be remembered for his love of life and friendly manner. While playing in the 1975 Ohio Chess Congress, I had a chance to see first hand what a standup guy Milan was. The overwhelming favorite to win, he was upset early by an A player from Cincinnati by the name of Perry Sill, who beat him with a book trap in the Schliemann Variation of the Ruy Lopez in 19 moves. Many players in this situation would have been very angry and stomped out, but Milan congratulated his young opponent and stayed in the tournament for the remaining rounds despite no longer having any chance to win the event.

I well remember the incident with Sill because I was playing in the event. I was in the hallway when Vukcevich came out shortly before the game was over and somebody asked him what happened. Vukcevich said that he got caught in a trap and there was nothing he could do, adding that he thought he would have to resign. Unlike a lot of players, if they had been in similar circumstance, Vukcevich did not show the least animosity.

His opponent, John Grefe, was odd character in those days. Here’s an old interview with him: READ
John Grefe in recent years

Grefe doesn’t play much anymore and 2007 he was trying to battle back from a very serious case of diabetes that caused him to be hospitalized for over 6 weeks. The last I heard of him he was playing in a small international tournament at the Mechanics Institute in California.

The Chess Players

I was just looking at artist and chess master Marcel Duchamp's famous painting, The Chess Players, and it made me realize how unsophisticated I really am…looks like it was painted by a 12-year old to me.
I’ve been fortunate to hang with some multimillionaires in my life. You know, the kind of people who think being comfortable means removing your tie and jacket. Me? I prefer blue jeans and t-shirts.

I don’t drink, but have tasted “fine wine.” Tasted like vinegar to me. I’ve been to restaurants where I couldn’t pronounce the dishes and there was no prices shown on the menu. The food was OK, but I prefer Carrabba’s Italian Grill or Applebee’s.

This is my idea of music:

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Rating List – 1975

While browsing the August, 1975 issue of the British Chess magazine I ran across the FIDE rating list which contained 101 active GM’s listed. It’s interesting to see the top players and to observe how much lower their ratings were in those days. It’s also clear that Fischer and Karpov were in a class by themselves.

Women were listed separately and there were only 2 or 3 with rating in the 2300's and most women IM's were 2000-2300 with one rated 1985.  The lone exception was Nona Gaprindashvili of the USSR who weighed in with a healthy 2425. Clearly the best woman player in the world at the time.

1 Fischer USA 2780
2 Karpov USSR 2705
3 Korchnoi USSR 2665
4 Petrosian USSR 2645
5 Polugayevsky USSR 2645
6 Tahl USSR 2645
7 Portisch Hun 2635
8 Larsen Den 2625
9 Spassky USSR 2625
10 Huebner W Ger 2615
11 Ljubojevic Yug 2615
12 Mecking Bra 2610
13 Smyslov USSR 2605
14 Byrne, R USA 2600
15 Geller USSR 2600
16 Hort Czech 2600
17 Kuzmin USSR 2600
18 Smejkal Czech 2600
19 Bronstein USSR 2590
20 Taimanov USSR 2580

21 Gligoric Yug 2575 22 Savon USSR 2575 23 Krogius USSR 2570 24 Tukmakov USSR 2570 25 Andersson Swe 2565 26 Keres USSR 2565 27 Furman USSR 2560 28 Vasiukov USSR 2560 29 Kavalek USA 2555 30 Browne USA 2550 31 Ivkov Yug 2550 32 Lutikov USSR 2545 33 Panno Arg 2545 34 Szabo Hun 2545 35 Balashov USSR 2540 36 Gheorghiu Rum 2540 37 Holmov USSR 2540 38 Jansa Czech 2540 39 Schmid W Ger 2540

40 Gufeld USSR 2535 41 Lein USSR 2535 42 Olafsson Ice 2535 43 Planinc Yug 2535 44 Uhlmann E Ger 2535 45 Unzicker W Ger 2535 46 Euwe Neth 2530 47 Boleslavsky USSR 2530 48 Csom Hun 2530 49 Evans USA 2530 50 Gipslis USSR 2530 51 Matulovic Yug 2530 52 Reshevsky USA 2530 53 Vaganian USSR 2530 54 Kurajica Yug 2525 55 Velimirovic Yug 2525 56 Ribli Hun 2520 57 Suetin USSR 2520 58 Adorjan Hun 2515 59 Averbach USSR 2515 60 Benko USA 2515

61 Diez del Corral Spain 2515 62 Lombardy USA 2515 63 Torre Phil 2515 64 Najdorf Arg 2510 65 Pachman W Ger 2510 66 Parma Yug 2510 67 Radulov Bul 2510 68 Sax Hun 2510 69 Timman Neth 2510 70 Quinteros Arg 2505 71 Shamkovich USA 2505 72 Darga W Ger 2500 73 Kotov USSR 2500 74 Antoshin USSR 2495 75 Bilek Hun 2495 76 Gurgenidze USSR 2495 77 Mariotti Italy 2495 78 Forintos Hun 2490 79 Hecht W Ger 2490 80 Matanovic Yug 2490

81 Donner Neth 2485 82 Filip Czech 2485 83 Liberzon USSR 2485 84 Padevsky Bul 2480 85 Tringov Bul 2470 86 Janosevic Yug 2465 87 Barcza Hun 2460 88 Ciric Yug 2460 89 Damjanovic Yug 2455 90 Robatsch Aust 2455 91 Pomar Spain 2450 92 Barczay Hun 2445 93 Bisguier USA 2445 94 O'Kelly Belg 2445 95 Bobotsov Bul 2440 96 Suttles Can 2440 97 Pilnik Arg 2435 98 Rossetto Arg 2430 99 Yanofsky Can 2415 100 Lengyel Neth 2410 101 Rossolimo USA 2390

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

My First Yahoo Game

I normally don’t play real time chess and if I did play a lot of it Yahoo would be my last choice because I’ve heard so many bad things about it. I did try it today though, figuring I should at least actually check it out.

I normally play the Old Steinitz Defense against the Ruy Lopez. It’s easy to play and not much can go wrong. Unfortunately that holds true against weaker players, too, and I’ve had some less than favorable outcomes. It works well against higher rated players though. Against lower rated players I’ve been using the Bird Defense because it seems to confuse them.

After the game I took a quick look at it with Fritz. I guess I understand the reasons for its evaluations but one thing it never takes into consideration is lack of technique. I knew I had an advantage in this game but never would have put it at nearly 4.0 after White’s 12th move. But when it comes to lack of technique, I rate pretty high!

Carlos Torre

In spite of the fact I’ve been playing the Torre Attack with considerable success for years I never knew much about its inventor. His name was... Carlos Torre (1905-1978)

I came across a used book of his games, The Life and Games of Carlos Torre.

I enjoyed the games, but a lot of the analysis is very poor! There is also some interesting historical comments. For example: “Boris Verlinsky (1888 – 1950) Victories…made him the first to receive the title: Grandmaster of Chess of the USSR. He was later stripped of it so that Botvinnik would officially be the ‘first’. The more I have read about Botvinnik after his death, the more convinced I am that he was definitely lacking in character. He used to be one of my early heroes. Oh, he played some great games, but as a man of character, he wasn’t much. But then again, maybe he did what he had to in order to survive the political system in which he lived. I read somewhere that the reason he held down his job as an electrical engineer instead of being a chess professional was because he lived in fear of falling into disfavor with the chess politicians. Who knows? Sometimes it’s hard to judge people because you don’t know the circumstances they are facing or what they’ve experienced.

Torre quickly improved by playing at the Manhattan and Marshall Chess Clubs in New York City. His style is universal and he played about every opening known but is famous for his Torre Attack (1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 e6 3.Bg5 followed by e3 and c3)

Torre’s real weakness was that he feared losing, so offered draws when he had better positions. Torre, himself, offered the excuse that he offered draws when he was winning because he was inexperienced. That may not have necessarily been the case though because he suffered from chronic illness and probably felt exhausted after a few hours of play. He apparently suffered from some kind of nervouis disorder.

As I said, the author’s style is poor in the biographical section and the annotations are of poor quality, bordering  on ridiculous. It’s not a very high quality book and I think many of the game selections could have been better. Still, it makes interesting reading on this fascinating minor character from yesteryear but I'm glad I didn't pay full price for it because I would have been upset. If you can find it used, it's worth getting but I'd recommend playing over the games with Fritz!

Nikolai Krylenko: The Father of Soviet Chess

I was looking through a copy of The Soviet School of Chess by Kotov and Yudovich and found mention of one Nikolai Krylenko but not much was said about him, so I did some online research. I discovered some interesting facts which Kotov and Yudovich failed to mention.

Krykenko was a Russian Bolshevik revolutionary and politician. He participated in the political purges of the 1920’s and 1930’s and ended up getting arrested himself. He confessed to numerous crimes...under torture, of course, and after a trial lasting 20 minutes, he was found guilty and and executed immediately.

While looking for Krylenko I came across an excellent Chessville article on him that was a good read. Check it out!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Chess Happenings in 1945

In just a few days I‘ll be hitting the big 65. Not that it’s that big a deal because I retired early from my job two years ago, but I was curious to see what was happening in the chess world in July of 1945.

The first thing I found out was the great Dutch player, Jan Hein Donner, was born on my birthday, July 6th, but he was born in 1927.

Unfortunately 1945 some chess players were killed in the waning months of the war. The Dutch master Arthur Wijnans died in an Allied bombardment in January, Austrian master Wolfgang Weil was killed in combat in the same month. Also in January another Dutch master, Arnold van den Hoek was killed in an Allied bombardment in a labor camp at Watenstedt, suburb of Brunswick, Germany. January was a bad month. Komel Havasi, a Hungarian master died in Budapest. A few months layer in April another Hungarian master Zoltan von Balla died in a traffic accident with a Soviet tank in Budapest, Hungary. On April 17th, 1945, the brilliant and very promising German master Klaus Junge, serving as a lieutenant of the 12th SS Battalion, refusing to surrender, died in combat against Allied troops in the battle of Welle, Finally, on Octoner 20th German GM Julius Diemer died.

In September there was the eagerly awaited USA vs. USSR Radio Match where 10 leading masters of the United States played the 10 leading masters of the Soviet Union in a two-game head-to-head match. The USSR team won the match 15½ - 4½. The results left the Americans shocked and Al Horowitz’ Chess Review magazine ran scores of letters from people who felt US players needed to be treated better…that is somehow paid enough money for playing chess so that they could make it a full time profession. It never happened.

In 1945 computers made their chess debut. Alan Turing, an English mathematician, logician, cryptographer, and computer pioneer, used chess playing as an example of what a computer could do.

On the international tournament scene Miguel Najdorf won at Mar del Plata. He also captured first at Buenos Aires. Rio de Janeiro was won by Erich Eliskases and the Australian Championship was won by Lajos Steiner.

There was a small tournament in Madrid that was won by Alekhine. The Estonian Champ. was won by Paul Keres and the Latvian Championship by Vladimir Alatorsev. Vladas Mikenas won the Lithuanian Championship

Also in July at Gijon, Spain the unknown Antonio Rico finished first ahead of Alekhine and Antonio Medina.

In July the US Open was held in Peoria, Illinois and was won by Anthony Santasiere. In the meantime Samuel Reshevsky was winning the Pan-Am Chess Championship in Hollywood ahead of Dr. Reuben Fine and Herrmann Pilnik.

The Hollywood tournament was held July 28th to August 12th. Early acceptances were received from the most of the sixteen masters from America and South America. Early acknowledgements were given by American masters Reubin Fine, I. A. Horowitz, Isaac Kashdan, Albert S. Pinkus, Edward Lasker, and Pfc. Herbert Seidman. Foreign players included Hector Rossetto and Jacobo Bolbachan of Argentina, Dr. Walter Cruz and J. Souza Mendes of Brazil, Julio Salas and Mariano Catillo of Chile, Alfredo Olivero of Uruguay, Major J. Araiza and Joquin Camarena of Mexico, Dr. Alfredo Broderman of Cuba, and Abe Yanofsky, Canada.

Unfortunately the original list of players did not attend. America was still at war in the Pacific and travel was difficult if not impossible. Pinkus and Lasker withdrew as they could not obtain reservations, Weaver Adams, a last-minute replacement, was delayed enroute and arrived three days late with Dr. Cruz of Brazil. Herman Pilnik, another replacement from Argentina, lost his plane reservation and proceeded by car. He crashed into an unlighted truck at night and woke up in a Yuma, Arizona hospital. He arrived in Hollywood three days late with his head swathed in bandages. Other players withdrew for various reasons. Here’s a link to an interesting account of the event. Hollywood Pan-Am 1945

In August Alekhine won small events in Sabadell, Almeria and Melilla while competing against minor masters. At Kecskemet, Hungary Gideon Barcza finished forst ahead of Laszlo Szabo. Ljubljana was won by Svetozar Gligoric ahead of the father and son team of Milan Vidmar, Senior and Junior!

So there you have it. A busy year!

Monday, June 21, 2010


In the following rather even position which resulted from a Ruy Lopez, my 1300ish rated opponent (Black) made a blunder of a rather common nature.

He played the hasty 13… Bg4? assuming that attacking the Q while developing the B had to be good. He saw 14.Qxg4 Nxg4 15.Bxd8 Rfxd8 results in an equal position and he also saw that it resulted in an equal exchange.

He missed that after 14.Bxf6 Bxf3 15.Bxd8 he was losing a piece so continued 15…Bxg2 16.Kxg2 Rfxd8 and had lost a piece for a P. Even after 14.Qg3 Bd7 15.f4 White has a fine game.

This seems to be a common mistake for players rated in this range. So what did he do wrong? He assumed White would have to move the attacked Q either by capturing the B or playing it to a ‘safe’ square. He failed to notice that the B was defended by only the N and that the removal of the guard by 14.Bxf6 left it hanging.

Had he noticed that it would have required running through the sequence to the end then counting up the material to see how things stood. This latter Part isn’t always so easy. GM Andy Soltis commented that it often turns out badly when your opponent has made the last capture, but that’s not always true. Black made the last capture in this sequence but he’d lost a piece.

Soltis gives two methods of how to review the material in your head. The first is rather clumsy in that you add up captured pieces as you go. The other method is to visualize the end position then count up the pieces. In this situation we would ‘see’ that for White the B, Q and g-Pawn have come off. For Black the N, B and Q. That leaves R’s and an extra White B on b3 still on the board.

Unfortunately there’s really no easy way of counting material and even GM’s have messed up. Black’s real problem was one of failing to notice the motifs listed in the following post: Thoughts on Development and Planning.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

I’ve learned a lot playing on Chess Hotel. What I’ve learned is that most players on the site that are rated 1100-1400 are making the same mistakes. They are all

a) Neglecting development. One recent game saw an opponent set up P’s on c3, d4 and e3 and this was coupled with the problem in “b.”
b) Playing a3 (a6) and h3 (h6) early. Apparently they are in mortal fear of pins so avoid them at the expense of development. Apparently they do not realize that B’s have other good squares in the opening besides inflicting pins on enemy N’s.
3) As mentioned in a previous post, sacrificing a piece on f2 (f7) without any justification.

In the game mentioned, while my opponent was playing d4, c3, e3, a3 and h3 plus putting a couple pieces on passive squares I had managed to complete development except for castling and connecting R’s. In the process he had also abandoned any semblance of influence on the center by playing d4xc4. The result was crushing defeat for him.

Players are often encouraged to not study openings at all or go to the opposite extreme and study an opening (usually an inferior one) until they know it like the back of their hand. In the latter case they are told that’s a way to win more games. Once out of their book knowledge everybody plays to their rating though.

Then there is the advice to study tactics until they puke. And that’s pretty much all they know. Whatever happened to authors who try to teach player how to play chess with understanding? In the past authors attempted to introduce beginners to openings, strategy, tactics and endings.

Jeremy Silman said, speaking of the players he writes for, “These people need something to grasp onto. This isn’t about tactics or openings – you can get that in other books. This is about how to get a grip on a position and how to understand what’s going on.” Silman complains that grandmasters will say to him, “No grandmaster thinks like that!” Silman answers, “In one way, he’s right. No grandmaster does think like that. And in another way, he’s wrong. They all think like that, but they do it subconsciously and instantaneously. But weaker players can’t do that, they need to learn to walk. Eventually, when they master this, it becomes subconscious for them too. That’s what the book is all about.”

As for those tactical server sites that are so in vogue today, read what FM Jon Jacobs had to say: "I'm also skeptical of all the adulation that guys your strength - those who blog, at least - seem to lavish on those automated tactics training programs. Of course tactical prowess is vital; but it could well be that people absorb tactical themes more efficiently by going over entire games in depth (especiallly, YOUR OWN games) - as opposed to analyzing isolated positions, which is what the tactics servers do. And of course, if you're focusing on speed - trying to solve X problems in Y minutes, rather than delving as deep as you can into each one until you either solve it or run out of ideas - then obviously you'll learn nothing, it's simply an aimless amusement.”

An interesting discussion of move selection can be found HERE

This site also has some discussion of tactics and improvement an includes some comments by IM Greg Shahade and Jon Jacobs:

US Senior Master Mark Buckley said it was his goal to become an all around master. In order to do that he had to study everything that he didn’t understand. It’s my contention that this advice applies to all players at all levels but unfortunately it’s advice that today’s authors don’t seem to dispense.

Interview with Anand

Must read...
This interview with Anand took place last year, but it's an interesting read. It's part 3 of an in-depth interview conducted by Indian colleagues with World Champion Viswanathan Anand. This article presents Anand's take on game formats, computer moves (ugly or creative?), Karpov, Kasparov, and secretly watching people on the chess servers. He also discusses what creativity in chess is. READ THE ARTICLE

Friday, June 18, 2010

This morning I played a 10 minute game at Chess Hotel and as I pointed out earlier I ran into the old Bxf7+ trick again. Or maybe I should say anti-trick. This mini-game shows why it’s such a bad idea.

What really irks me is all these bad chess authors out there who keep telling people to play tactics and leaving them with the idea that they don’t even have to be sound or based on the merits of the position. Just play some weird, offbeat opening and sac something. Your opponent won’t know the book on your opening and he will have to think on his own and of course that will lead to a blunder. What they don’t mention is that because your opponent doesn’t know the opening, he won’t follow the book and guess what? You’ll be thinking on your own too and just as likely to blunder. These guys are doing their readers a disservice. I understand why though...they make money.

I know. Been there. Done that. I remember playing in a tournament one time where I played an offbeat opening and a veteran master who’d been watching the game literally yelled at me after the game, “Play chess [expletive deleted]! Play chess!” I know what he meant.

Greatest Players in History

Coincidently after reading that Bobby Fischer is in the news again (he’s getting dug up for DNA testing, but that’s another story) I recently came across an old article from the early 1960’s by Bobby Fischer in which he listed the 10 greatest players who ever lived: Morphy, Staunton, Steinitz, Tarrasch, Chigorin, Alekhine, Capablanca, Spassky, Tahl and Reshevsky.

Fischer left off players like Lasker and Botvinnik claiming that just because someone held the world championship for many years it didn’t mean they were a great player. I can agree with that because in the old days the title was the personal property of the title holder and they often dodged matches against players against whom it was possible they could have lost. And of course, there’s some question about Botvinnik’s conduct as world champion.

When the article came out Edward Lasker wrote, “Fischer has a lot of growing up to do…I predict that despite his youth…Fischer will never become world champion.” He was wrong. Lasker cited the fact that Fischer had not produced works of art of the same quality as some of Emmanuel Lasker’s games. Of course Edward was living in the past.

Euwe claimed Fischer left Botvinnik and Petrosian off the list because at the time the article was written they were his rivals. Euwe also pointed out that during the time Tahl was world champion Fischer had expressed the opinion that Tahl was a weak player, but after Tahl lost the world championship, Fischer considered him a great player. Euwe expressed the opinion that Fischer added Tahl and Spassky to his list because they were not his rivals although Spassky was to become one.

There are different criteria for selecting the best player. One such method I saw was using an engine to measure “errors” per thousand moves, but if you rely on ratings only, and even then, there are some defects in that method (for an extreme example, see this article on Claude Bloodgood) then you get the following list which is based on the best 20 year performance. If I remember the list based on the number of erros per thousand moves showed Smyslov as one of the very best while Steinitz did very poorly, having made a lot of errors. As the ELO system inventor, Prof. Arpad Elo, pointed out, ratings measure performance, not ability. The Bloodgood story makes that clear but still, the best players usually have the best results so in my opinion, ratings are about as good a way as any of determining the greatest players who ever lived. This list is from Chessmetrics.

I’m not surprised to see Kasparov listed as number one; in my opinion he’s the best player in history…not my favorite though.

# Player Rating
1 Kasparov, Garry K-2853
2 Capablanca, José R-2841
3 Fischer, Robert J-2794
4 Karpov, Anatoly E-2788
5 Botvinnik, Mikhail M-2770
6 Alekhine, Alexander A-2762
7 Steinitz, Wilhelm-2733
8 Korchnoi, Viktor L-2732
9 Ivanchuk, Vassily-2728
10 Anand, Viswanathan-2724
11 Petrosian, Tigran V-2719
12 Lasker, Emanuel-2716
13 Spassky, Boris V-2716
14 Smyslov, Vassily V-2712
15 Reshevsky, Samuel H-2711
16 Keres, Paul-2707
17 Gelfand, Boris-2704
18 Polugaevsky, Lev A-2697
19 Tal, Mikhail-2692
20 Timman, Jan H-2719

Thursday, June 17, 2010


I’ve been playing a few 5 and 10 minute games on Chess Hotel the past few days. Most of the players have had site ratings of 1200-1400 with a few as high as mid-1700’s. With Black I’ve been meeting 1.e4 with 1…e5. The reason why this is the best is because at least half the players have played 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bc4 and then contrived a way to sacrifice a piece on f7. So far I haven’t lost any of those games.

I think it goes back to the old adage that chess is 99% tactics so these players will play sacrifices regardless of the justification. They never seem to learn that you have to play what the position demands, not what you want. Jeremy Silman points that simple fact out right in the beginning of his book, Reassess Your Chess, but it seems to escape notice.

I want to tell these guys to spend some money on a book like The Art of Attack. The author explains what the criteria are for these sacrifices to be successful. Too many people think that you can just willy-nilly make a sac and it will work; it’s just not so.

Then there were at least two opponents rated mid-1200’s who played about 800 points higher with no serious errors but then blundered away a piece or two. I suspect they are victims of tunnel vision where they concentrate on only the sector of the board where they are conducting operations. Their problem could easily be eliminated by doing a simple board scan of ranks, files and diagonals after their opponent moves and before they move. After while this becomes automatic and takes no more than a few seconds and it’s pretty amazing what you’ll see in that few seconds

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Revisiting Minor Pieces for a Rook - Part 1

I’ve posted on this before as to why it’s generally not a good idea to trade 2 minor pieces (usually a B and N) for a R and P early in the game. The person trading the 2 minor pieces most likely won’t have enough pieces left to conduct a winning attack. The R’s gain a little in strength in the ending though. Of course a lot depends on the number of Pawns.

Purdy can explain it far better than I can and I’m going to let him do so. It’s a little hard to grasp on the first reading and will require some careful thought. Anyway, the reason I’m posting it again is because I just played a 10 minute game where my opponent sacrificed a B and N for a R and P then quickly succumbed to an attack against his K.

When I went over the game with Fritz, it didn’t really suggest any major improvements for me, but in practical play, I kind of disagree with its evaluation as being over 3 points in my favor. I’m not Fritz and it’s entirely possible my play would not have held up in the ending if White had found the correct defense. I give the game because it shows how difficult these positions are to play even if you know how things should shake out!

First Purdy’s explanation, then the game.

The main facts are:

1) In the opening, two Minor Pieces (excluding two B’s) are normally equivalent to a R and two P’s. Two B’s are roughly equal to 2 and a half P’s.

2) In an end-game with P’s but no additional pieces the superiority of the two Minor Pieces (excluding two B’s) over the R’s is less than one P. For two mobile B’s, add nearly a P

So the difference in value (except for two B) decreases by more than a P as exchanges proceed!

The R has least worth in the opening because he is hard to develop. To induce the enemy to give up two pieces for a R and two P’s is usually fairly good business in the opening.

But the biggest jump occurs with the last exchange of pieces just before the ending described in 2) is reached. In other words, add even one piece to each side and the minor pieces' faculty for combining with other forces will appreciably increase their value. Indeed, Fine says in Basic Chess Endings:

"Three pieces versus two Rooks (equal pawns) is normally a draw, but in favor of the pieces because they have more play."

That is true for two B’s and N, the only combination that Fine gives by way of illustration. Two N’s and B are not quite so good; but even if they are barely equal to two R’s in an endgame, that shows that the third piece strengthens its fellows by appreciably more than the endgame value of one minor piece (three P’s). In other words-and this is the great point to remember-

B and N or two N’s without other pieces, are usually a poor team. The two Minor Pieces are much better in combination with at least one other piece.

In BCE, Fine makes the following statements which do not quite tie up.

A) "In the ending, two minor pieces are approximately equivalent to Rook and one pawn."

B) "Rook vs. two minor pieces (equal pawns) will usually be a draw, but tbe two pieces will win more often than the Rook."

If the difference were really about equal to a P on the average, Fine would have to say the ending is usually a win for the pieces. Clearly, a draw might occur fairly often; but a win for the R would be so infrequent as to make the second clause of B) a manifest understatement.

Which statement is slightly out, A) or B)? Probably both-i.e. A) slightly overstates the value of the pieces, whereas B) slightly overstates the value of the R. All of Fine's other remarks and his illustrative positions would tie up better had he changed A) and B) to A1) and B1). Thus:

A1): Substitute our Proposition 2) at the beginning of this article.

B1) R vs. two minor pieces (excluding two B’s) with equal P’s (P’s on both wings) ends in a draw or in a win for the two pieces with about equal frequency. The R may win in very favorable circumstances.

One cannot, of course, reduce chess to arithmetic. In all this, we are speaking in averages. Weak P’s on either side, badly placed pieces, and so forth, are likely to turn the scale; but nevertheless, a knowledge of the average values is a necessary starting point for forming a judgment in any given position.

Got all that? Good! The short version is: it's hardly ever a good idea to trade a B and N for R and P early in the opening. Now take a look at the game in Part 2.

Revisiting Minor Pieces for a Rook Part 2

The game:

That Was Odd

I tried placing both positions from the Bronstein post in one single post but I guess it was too much information for Blogger!  When I went to check it out, only one post appeared and the entire column to the right was missing. It was scary because I thought that for the second time I'd lost an entire Blog...the first one was hacked.  Fortunately splitting the post up solved the problem!

Pachman-Zita Position

He Should Have Been World Champion

David Bronstein came close when he drew the 1951 match for by a score of 12-12 with Mikhail Botvinnik.

The lead swung back and forth several times and every game was played hard to a clear finish. The quality of play was very high in the entire match. Bronstein led by one point with two games to go, but lost the 23rd game and drew the final game to tie the match and allow Botvinnik to keep the championship.

It has been alleged that Bronstein was forced by the Soviet authorities to throw the match to allow Botvinnik to win. Also in the 1953 Candidates' Tournament it has been speculated that there was pressure on the top non-Russian Soviets, Keres and Bronstein, to allow Smyslov to win. And of course during the Candidates tournament in Curacao, 1962, Bobby Fischer made claims that the Soviets cheated by agreeing to the outcome of individual games against each other. But that’s another story.

Bronstein never confirmed these rumors in his public statements or writings, admitting only to 'strong psychological pressure' being applied. In his final book, however, published in 2007 after his death, Bronstein wrote that Smyslov was favoured for Zurich 1953 by the Soviet Chess Federation, and that other Soviet representatives were pressured to make this happen.

In the really great book, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Bronstein wrote "I have been asked many, many times if I was obliged to lose the 23rd game and if there was a conspiracy against me to stop me from taking Botvinnik's title. A lot of nonsense has been written about this. The only thing that I am prepared to say about all this controversy is that I was subjected to strong psychological pressure from various origins and it was entirely up to me to yield to that pressure or not."

He also added “I had reasons not to become the World Champion, as in those times such a title meant that you were entering an official world of chess bureaucracy with many formal obligations. Such a position is not compatible with my character.” And he later wrote that it was likely better that he didn't win the world title, since his artistic personality would have been at odds with Soviet bureaucracy.

But that’s not the reason for this post. The reason is that many years ago I came across the game Zita-Bronstein from the Prague-Moscow match in 1946. In that game Bronstein played the fantastic exchange sacrifice 17…Rxa1 and I never exactly understood the reason why. It was only when I purchased The Sorcerer’s Apprentice that I found a satisfactory explanation which I give here. I was even more amazed to discover that earlier he had played the same move in a slightly different position against Pachman. I am giving both positions with Bronstein,s explanations in this post. For anybody that’s interested in playing over some truly fantastic games and reading a little history of Soviet chess in the days of yesteryear, I can highly recommend this book.

I urge you to follow Bronstein’s explanations of these two positions; he makes chess sound simple!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Book Review - The Search for Chess Perfection

I’ve often recommended this book by CJS Purdy as being one of the most readable and offering some of the best advice I’ve ever read. The book is actually a collection of Purdy’s magazine articles and as a bonus it contains his biography and a collection of his best games. What I really like is that you can open it up to any page, read an article and actually learn something. Purdy also had a knack for actually explaining things with words rather than just presenting the reader with long lines of analysis and saying “White is better.”

The Search for Chess Perfection

The transition from opening to middlegame, while not inherently a more difficult stage of the game than others, is one in which most players feel their deficiencies very keenly. For it is here that they take the plunge from known paths into the jungle.

After having started with a cut-and-dried strategical aim-development-they have to find a new aim, and that aim depends entirely on the position.

But stop a minute! Have you really completed your development? What about that K’s R still on fl/f8? He's not doing anything there, and you can't open the f-file. You say, "Oh, but there's no good file to put him on." What about the d-file? "But my own pawn is in the way on d4/d5; what could the Rook do on d1/d8?"

The answer is that he can't do anything. But the idea is to place him in the position of maximum readiness; to be more specific, place him on the file that is most likely to become open. For example, in the Queen's Gambit Declined a good player with White knows that Black is bound to want to play ... c5 sooner or later, so that he can look forward to the d-file becoming open in the fullness of time. Therefore White usually plays his K’s R to d1; the other R has normally gone to c1, because the c-file already becomes openable after the move c4 against ... d5.

As a general rule, the player who gets his R’s ready for the future, restraining himself from premature attack, is very wise. Time and again you will see masters break this rule, but it is best not to break it yourself without a clearly good reason. Don't break it just because there are no open files.

Certainly it does sometimes happen that the opening makes no good places for the R’s.. In the Giuoco Piano, for instance, with the N’s on c3/c6/f31f6 both sides are blocked from playing either d4/d5 or f4/f5. One player has to undertake the business of opening a file up for himself and his opponent, and that is why, in such an opening, the first move ceases to be an advantage. Prefer an opening that makes the provision for a P exchange in the center (as nearly all openings do).

Well, let us suppose that you really have developed your R’s, or else you have a really good reason for interrupting that development; in other words, the middle game may be said to have started.

The thing to do now is to discover a good strategical aim. Is it? No, any reader who has paid any attention to my effusions in the past will know that the first thing at every move is a look round the board for any possibilities of a combination (a forcing line of play), and if any appear, to examine them to see if any of them is sound.

Book Review - The Road to Chess Improvement

If you’ve followed this Blog, you have heard me make frequent mention of GM Alex Yermolinksy and this book. I wish it had been around when I was learning how to play chess. If id had been published 50 years ago, I’m sure I would have become a much better player.

Yermolinsky doesn’t offer any secret Soviet training methods or secret openings that will help you win more games. What he does offer though is advice and examples of what to study. My advice, if you are serious about improving, is to buy this book. If you are afraid of hard work though, save your money and buy something else you want. Here is an excerpt:

The Road to Chess Improvement by Alex Yermolinsky
On … important matters I couldn't get any useful advice from the classical positional theory ever since I began to compete on a mere 2200 level at the age of 14.

I'm far from blaming Capablanca and other greats for the miseducation of Alex Yermolinnsky. They can't be held responsible for the lack of development in the area of chess improeement methods decades after they wrote their books designed for beginners. Somebody or something had to pick up the slack and it wasn't there for me.

Many things have been said about the Soviet School of Chess and how it produced legions of good players due to the elaborate system of chess education. I tell you what, the picture in the western eyes is distorted. There was no building bearing such a sign, 'The Soviet School of Chess'. There were no secret methods of teaching, or 800 numbers with grandmasters standing by to provide you with chess advice 24 hours a day. 'I would have been a much better player if I had been born in the Soviet Union' , is what I often hear from underachieving chess players, and I wonder what makes them think so. In my 30 years of tournament experience I have seen a lot of bad players, and most of them lived in the Soviet Union. With that kind of attitude, those complaining underachievers would still have been bad players if they had been born in the USSR.

My highly decorated teacher, the late Vladiimir Zak, was the man who many years before my generation came around had made a name for himself by 'discovering' Korchnoi and Spassky. Indeed, he had a real knack for judgging talent, and his administrative position as the head coach of the City Pioneers Palace chess club gave him a wide pool of kids to select from. The best of the best would be taken under his guidance. Most of them would eventually reach First Category - some 1800 level, I suppose, but it's difficult to judge chess strength circa 1973 by today's rating standards - and duly stop there! Vladimir Zak couldn't help us any more. What we did afterwards and how we developed any further was largely left to the Darwin theory - survival of the fittest.

His chess strength aside, Zak religiously believed in the dogma of the classical school. In his opinion, everything young chess-players needed to know was written in stone many years ago. Any new (that would be anything after 1947) ideas were ignored or vehemently opposed when brought up by the students themselves; even the openings other than 1 e4 e5 or 1 d4 d5 were frowned upon. His training methods were simple: twice a week we played our tournament games, and once a week we would hold theoretical sessions in a classroom. During those Zak would show his beloved Two Knights Opening and we were supposed to take notes. He would also monitor our individual progress. Bothered by my rebellious 1.Nf3, Zak once gave me Keres' 'Open Games' book and told me to study it chapter by chapter. 'Studying' would mean copying variations to a workbook to be shown to the teacher. I don't think he cared if I remembered these variations; he did it in a secret hope to open my eyes to the beauty of the Two Knights Opening. I wasn't interested. Instead, I asked him about the Huebner Variation of the Nimzo. First he asked me what it was, and after I showed him the moves (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 c5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.Bd3 Bxc3+ 7.bxc3 d6) Zak dismissed it with no second thoughts. He said that ... Bxc3 without being encouraged by White's a3 was always a mistake. I asked him why, and he said that the pawn being on a2 allows White to neutralize Black's threats ( ... Ba6, ... Na5) to the c4-pawn by playing Nd2-b3, and if ... Nxb3 then axb3 repairs White's pawn-structure. Deep positional insight, but I never got a chance to show him that in the Huebner the knight actually goes to e7, such as in the famous Spassky-Fischer game.

Training the Mind’s Eye

Situations in which an obvious advantage fails to win often leave us puzzled. The answer is everything depends on the specific setting. Whenever the balance is fairly even in a sharp position, analysis becomes the only way to tell who stands better. It’s this evaluation of current and future positions that separate the master from the average player.

Studies show the biggest difference between amateurs and masters lies with their intuitive judgment. Masters see numerous strategic and tactical patterns that the average players miss. For example, in the Benoni Defense Black would be loath to offer the exchange Bg7xNc3 without substantial compensation, because of the Bishop's special value; in contrast, the exchange Bb4xNc3 often favors Black in the Nimzo-Indian Defense. The difference is in the pawn structure, a major element in any positional evaluation. Masters are, well, masters at this kind of pattern recognition.

As a beginner you saw an unlimited number of moves that seemed plausible, but with experience, you learned to discard most of these moves because you simply “knew” they were wrong. A master’s experience has developed intuition because many problems are seen and solved repeatedly. Over time, scores of games may be played focusing on the same theme, so the master tends to think in terms of ideas familiar to him.

For example, Fischer wrote in My 60 Memorable Games referring to a win against Larsen's Sicilian Dragon, "I'd won dozens of skittles games in analogous positions and had it down to a science: pry open the KR-file, sac, sac ... mate!" He added he could win such positions in his sleep.

One reason I think it’s better to study the old masters’ games is because their play usually contained clearer strategical ideas. The play of modern GM’s is eclectic because they borrow schemes and adapt them to the position in ways that often make it more difficult for us to comprehend. When the player fails to recognize a particular strategy or tactic it will mean the loss of the game. Herein lies the difference between the average player and the master. Average players often concentrate solely on positions they enjoy: openings and tactics usually. They are loathe to study strategy and endings and play over hundreds of master games. For some reason many of them think they should wait until they are rated at least 1800 before they undertake this and many will never reach that goal precisely because they fail to undertake the study of these areas.

Another area players need to concentrate on is correcting specific faults. A player must find the cause of his errors and attempt to correct them. Too often though I’ve heard players say the reason they lost was because they overlooked a combination without realizing that there may be a deeper reason they aren’t finding them.

One player told me a GM told him the way to find a combination is to look at the board and try different moves. While that method may work for a GM with loads of experience and lots of stuff in his mental database, I doubt it will work for average players because they often don’t know what they are looking for. The reason is because they don’t know the motifs that make a tactic possible or they fail to recognize positional aspect of the situation that gave rise to the tactical solution.

Most errors fall into categories and for most players the random blunder is not the main cause of defeat. For instance a player may realize he has an advantage but somehow it seems to dissipate. What happened? Maybe he doesn’t understand the requirements of the position. It’s important to remember good moves meet the requirements of the position! Improvement of the basic skills of foresight and judgment is critical but often neglected.

Fundamentally a master’s ability consists of the ability to analyze positions and correctly evaluate them. Much of this ability depends on the ability to see ahead and the clarity of the image held in our mind's eye.

The master has the skills that enable him to clearly see a situation that is far different from the one on the board. Practice is needed in this area.

Calculation hinges on our skill in holding the image in our mind's eye. Suppose the combination we are contemplating appears successful but we begin to wonder if our King is safe from counterattack but the picture in our mind is not clear. What do we do? Gamble and play it anyway or do we play it safe and defend? In either event we are relying on guesswork rather than calculation.

As we look ahead, the image becomes increasingly vague and renders judgment difficult. To extend the range of our radar look at the board position and retrace the sequence of moves to the forward position. At each move trace the auras of all the significant pieces and pawns that figure in the attack. Yes, pieces have an “aura.” In fact this is the way chess players think. We don’t physically “see” future positions. We “see” lines of force and auras. Tracing these lines of force and auras can be strengthened.

Blindfold players practice the reinforcement technique by replaying the game mentally. After each move they replay the game, from the first move, in order to keep the image fresh and accurate. We can borrow this idea when we analyze: run through our intended line several times until our mind's eye retains a clear picture of the future position. Over time this process gets quicker and things get clearer. This is another reason why it becomes important to correctly evaluate a position. It is better to see two or three moves ahead and make a correct evaluation than it is to see six or eight moves ahead, have a fuzzy mental image of the position and completely misevaluate it. For some reason many players simply cannot seem to grasp this.

Korchnoy, an expert in calculation, suggests studying chess books without using a board, doing all the analysis in your head. Most of us haven’t reached the level where we can to that, but the idea is good practice when playing over games. Speaking of which, I’ve noticed that playing over games is something many lower rated players simply don’t do.

Here is a position to practice on that was taken from Mark Buckley’s book, Practical Chess Analysis.

When attempting to follow the game without moving the pieces, pay attention to their auras and lines of force. Constantly trace them in your mind’s eye to reinforce the new position of the pieces. When the position becomes fuzzy, advance one move and begin anew. This is a difficult but valuable exercise that will help a great deal in practicing what this article is about.