Tuesday, 17 January 2017

010. The Weakest Square

Black: L.T. Ellis - BCCA Gambit Tournament, 1999

As all beginners quickly learn, the weakest square in each sides' position at the start of the game is KB2 – that is f2 for White and f7 for Black – which is only protected by the king. We learn this by losing (often more than once) to sequences like 1 e4, 2 Bc4, 3 Qh5 and 4 Qxf7 mate. One of the aims of the King's Gambit, too, is to open the f-file and target this square with as many pieces as possible.

In the following game, White did indeed aim for f7 with 6 Qxf3 and 7 Bc4. For instance, 7...Nxd4? 8 Bxf7+! Kxf7 9 Qh5+ Kg7 10 Be5+ Nf6 11 Bxd4 and wins, or similarly 7...d5 8 Bxd5 Nxd4 9 Bxf7+! Kxf7 10 Qh5+ Kg7 11 0-0 with strong play for the two sacrificed pieces in the style of the Double Muzio. But Black forestalled any such ideas with his early queen manoeuvres.

Instead, the weakest square turned out be Q2 (d7), which is covered initially by four pieces: b8-knight, c8-bishop, queen and king. In fact three of them (knight, bishop and king) were still defending it in the key position at move 31.

The trouble was that the knight and bishop had not moved throughout the game, nor had the a8-rook, nor did they. Meanwhile White had amassed five attackers: knight, bishop, queen and two rooks, and could theoretically add the e-pawn as well if required.

In the end, the "weak" Q2 square didn't collapse after all. But preventing that cost Black too much and he soon resigned.

Friday, 6 January 2017

009. Patzer Sees a Check

White: stormytlc - thematic tournament, ChessWorld.net, 2011

Talking of articles, I once wrote an article on 1 e4 e5 2 Bc4 f5!? (the Calabrese Counter-Gambit) for a special issue of Tim Harding's magazine Chess Mail (May 1997). Nineteen years ago. Damn. My theoretical investigations have moved on quite a bit since then.

Jänisch's "refutation" 3 d3 Nf6 4 f4, which I indicated as still being the critical line, had in fact already been neutralized by Mark Lyell: 4...Nc6 5 Nf3 fxe4! (I concentrated on the inferior 5...exf4, utilizing some transpositional analysis from Matthias Wahls) 6 dxe4 Nxe4 7 fxe5 Nxe5! 8 Bd5 (or 8 Nxe5 Qh4+) 8...Nxf3+ 9 Qxf3 Nf6 and Black is fine, J.Emms-M.Lyell, British Championship, Southampton 1986.

In his later book on the Italian Game and Bishop's Opening, Beating 1 e4 e5 (Everyman 2010), John Emms suggested two other possibilities for White: 3 d4!? exd4 4 e5 d5 5 exd6 Bxd6 6 Ne2 Nc6 7 0-0 Na5 8 Bxg8 Rxg8 9 Nxd4 “with advantage, J.Pietrasanta-K.Shirazi, Pau 2008”; and the simple 3 d3 Nf6 4 Nf3.

The first, a sort of reversed Falkbeer, was missing from my article. I subsequently faced 4 e5 three times (1998-2001), though White always retreated the bishop in my games. After 5 exd6 etc, Shirazi's play might be improved by 7...Qh4!?, when something like 8 g3 Qf6 9 Nd2 Ne5! 10 Nxd4 Bd7 and ...0-0-0 is quite unclear.

The second line, 3 d3 Nf6 4 Nf3, can indeed be tricky if Black develops "normally". I gave (among other things) 4...fxe4 5 dxe4 Nxe4 6 Qd5 Nd6, following L.Bledow-P.von Bilguer, Berlin 1839, which looks extremely dodgy to me now, especially if White just plays 6 0-0!. Instead, Emms notes that 4...Nc6 5 0-0 Bc5 6 Nc3 d6 7 Bg5 “is a King's Gambit Declined with reversed colours, and 7...Na5 8 Bxf6! Qxf6 9 Nd5 Qd8 10 b4! Nxc4 11 bxc5 was somewhat better for White in D.Fryer-M.Lyell, Hastings 2003/04.” The problem is the combination of Bg5 and Nc3-d5 which the natural ...Bc5 does nothing to prevent. Trying to solve this led me to the patzer's variation 4...fxe4 5 dxe4 Bb4+!?.

White has four reasonable ways to block the check, all of which rule out the Bg5 and Nc3-d5 plan: (i) 6 Nc3 sees the knight pinned; (ii) 6 Nbd2 puts it on the wrong square; (iii) 6 Bd2 allows the bishop to be swapped off; (iv) 6 c3 Bc5 leaves the c3-square obstructed by a pawn. Almost all of my opponents have chosen option four, when White's position does look rather good. It will take at least four moves for Black to evacuate the king from the centre, while the c5-bishop is an obvious target for space-gaining advances on the queenside with b2-b4 and a2-a4-a5. Nevertheless, it turns out that it's not so easy for White to prove anything, while Black gets on with the slow plan of ...d7-d6, ...Qe7, ...Be6 and ...0-0. It's often possible (and better) to insert ...Nc6-d8 before ...Be6 as well.

The game below was one of my earliest with this set-up. As it happened, my opponent managed to keep me from castling short, but by that time it was okay to go long. Note that 18 Qxd6?? would lose for White after 18...Nb8, while 18 Na3 Rhe8 19 Qxd6 Qf4 20 Qd2 Nf6 21 Qxf3 exf4 is fine for Black. And also that no one has yet managed, in my 16 further games, to cast doubt on Black's position after 5...Bb4+. It may be possible to cast doubt on the whole idea of 2...f5, but that will have to wait for a future post.

Friday, 23 December 2016

008. Spoilsport Chess

White: M.W. Johnson - BCCA Championship, 1992/93

Issue #102 (April 1989) of the BCCA magazine (before my time as editor) featured an article by Peter Millican on the King's Gambit, Double Muzio. The basic tabiya arises after 1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4 3 Nf3 g5 4 Bc4 g4 5 0-0 (the Muzio) 5...gxf3 6 Qxf3 Qf6 7 e5 Qxe5 8 Bxf7+ (“doubling up”) 8...Kxf7 9 d4 and if 9...Qxd4+ then 10 Be3 Qf6 11 Bxf4. Yes, White is two pieces down here, but the rest will all soon be in play and attacking, whereas Black's forces are almost all still at home, while the king sits uncomfortably on the f-file. Peter concentrates on this line, assessing it as “objectively equal”, and supplies a fascinating, at times brilliant exposition of the attacking resources at White's disposal.

Offering the article for download on his website, Peter comments: “It's all good fun, though I've since discovered a lot of improvements” and, pertinently, “Some day it would be good to redo the entire article with computer assistance.” Yes, indeed. As I know only too well, undertaking highly complicated, tactical analysis without a chess engine to tidy it all up is fraught with peril. Today's engines can rip everything to shreds in minutes, or even seconds.

For instance, Peter's main game (Millican-Down, BCCA Gambit Tournament 1986/87) continued 11...Ne7 12 Nc3 Nf5 13 Ne4 Qg6 14 g4 Be7 15 Kh1 Nh4 16 Qe3 Kg8. Here he rejected 17 Be5 (Estrin & Glazkov) on account of 17...b6! (Korchnoi, ECO) and played 17 Bh6!! (threatening 18 Nf6+ Bxf6 19 Rxf6 Qxf6 20 Qe8+) which won by force: 17...Qe6 18 Rf2 b6 19 Raf1 Ng6 20 Qd4 Bf6 21 Nxf6+ Kf7 22 Nd5+ Ke8 23 Qxh8+ Nxh8 24 Rf8 mate. Very nice. However, my Houdini software is less impressed, pinpointing Black's 16th move as an outright blunder, and refutes White's play with, ironically, the refutation of 17 Be5, only a move sooner: 16...b6!, when Black keeps the option of both ...Ke8 and ...Kg8 and appears to win in all variations. The emotionless computer gives not one whit about the discovered check.

That doesn't mean it's all over after 12...Nf5. Instead of 13 Ne4(?), White does much better with the natural 13 Nd5(!), while Houdini suggests a startling improvement of its own: 13 Be5!? (the Triple Muzio!), which it rapidly calculates to a draw: 13...Qxe5 14 Qh5+ Ke7 15 Qg5+ Ke8 16 Rxf5 Qe7 17 Re5 Kd8 18 Rae1 Nc6 19 Rxe7 Bxe7 20 Rxe7 Nxe7 21 Nd5 Re8 22 Nxe7 Rxe7 23 Qg8+ Re8 24 Qg5+ and so on. In other words, despite the computer finding flaws, sometimes serious ones, here and there in his 1989 analysis, Peter's intuitive/empirical assessment seems still to stand up. Moreover, in practical play, White has a huge plus score. It's easy to pick holes in variations after the event, especially with multi-processor enhancement.

But before the silicon era was even a dream, there was the first World Champion and first great spoilsport, Wilhelm Steinitz, who subjected his contemporaries' enthusiastic commentary to critical scrutiny and found it wanting. Steinitz looked at the Double Muzio too, but rather than get involved in the shenanigans after 9...Qxd4+, he recommended that Black avoid the whole thing by playing 9...Qf5!. I first discovered this in Stefan Bücker's interesting little book Das neue Königsgambit (Schach bei Franckh 1986), where Stefan wrote:

“Wäre das zweite Figurenopfer wirklich so stark, so hätte man es in der Blütezeit des Muzio-Gambits gewiß nicht übersehen. In Wahrheit hat schon die folgende Partie 1889 den Nachweis für die Inkorrektheit erbracht: Showalter-Taubenhaus, New York 1889. 9...Df5! (“Am besten”, Steinitz) 10 g4 (10 Lxf4 Sf6) 10...Dg6 11 Sc3 Sf6 12 Lxf4 d6 13 Lg3 Kg7 14 Sd5 Sxd5 15 Dxd5 Sc6 16 Dc4 d5 17 Dxd5 Le6 -+ (0:1, 26). Oder 11 Lxf4 Sf6 (11...Le7) 12 Le5 Le7 13 Lxf6 (13 Sc3 d6 14 Lxf6 Lxg4) 13...Lxf6 14 Sc3 (Nugent-Smith, USA 1909) 14...Kg7 15 Sd5 Tf8 16 Kh1 Sc6 -+.” (If you don't read German, Google Translate will give you the gist.)

Peter noted similar lines himself after 10 g4 and therefore, in Millican-Rawlings from the same BCCA tournament, opted for 10 Bxf4 Nf6 11 Qe3, which led to another rout: 11...Bg7 12 Be5 Qe6? (12...Qg6 13 Nc3 Re8 14 Nd5 d6 is more testing) 13 Nc3 d5 14 Rae1 Nbd7 15 Qf3 Nxe5 16 dxe5 Qb6+ 17 Kh1 Rf8 18 Nxd5 Qd4 19 exf6 Bxf6 20 Nxf6 1-0. Houdini evaluates Black as already worse after 15...Nxe5 and losing after 16...Qb6+.

But if you're aiming to be a spoilsport, I think you should do it properly. In such mean spirit, I played 11...Qe4!? in the game below.

What is really annoying about this move is that White can now regain virtually all the sacrificed material – i.e. 12 Qxe4 Nxe4 13 Be5+ Kg8 14 Bxh8 with rook and pawn for the two pieces – but then the anticipated attack has completely vanished. Worse still, after 14...d5 15 Nc3 Nxc3 16 bxc3 Nd7, the two pieces will soon be two bishops, which means a horrible endgame for White. Preserving the h8-bishop from exchange, on the other hand, would cost a pawn; e.g. 15 Be5 Nc6 16 Bxc7 Nxd4 17 Nc3 Nxc3 18 bxc3 Ne2+ 19 Kh1 Nxc3 and White is pretty much just losing.

Understandably, Maurice (who was British Correspondence Champion at the time) wasn't too keen on any of that, so he retreated the queen again. But then Black has a superior version of Millican-Rawlings, and I won quite quickly (albeit without the reassurance of a powerful engine predicting the result in advance). That Houdini of course suggests improvements on my play, too, hardly matters since Black's play doesn't need improving. It's White who has to improve – and there the computer has nothing to say.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

007. The Flying Wedge

Black: A. Richards - BCCA DJKO 33/1, 1998

Pattern recognition is a significant factor in chess. This has actually been tested. Set up a normal position on the board, get someone to look at it for, say, ten seconds and then ask them to reproduce the position from memory. It turns out, in general, that the stronger the player, the better they succeed. That's because they have an increasingly larger memory base of categorized patterns.

Take, for instance, the following configuration on the black side: Kg8, Rf8, Bg7, Nf6, Pf7, Pg6, Ph7. Show that to a chess player, almost irrespective of strength, and they'll immediately notice that Black has castled behind a kingside fianchetto. That unitary formation could then be reproduced on the board in a few seconds. But to a non-chess player, it has no meaning; it's just seven items to be remembered more-or-less independently.

Now build it up into a position from a main line Classical King's Indian. The patterns in this much more complicated array are still readily appreciable to anyone who knows the opening: the arrangement of the two kingsides, the central pawn structure, the standard procedures of attack and defence on each flank. That's now perhaps five or six things for a chess player to recall, each of them interconnected. Whereas a non-chess player may have to try and remember 32, each piece and pawn individually, with no overarching principles to guide them. Dump everything randomly across the board, on the other hand, and chess players fare little better, because there are no familiar patterns for them to discern.

But the game below isn't really about any of that. The pattern arising after White's 21st move is not a particularly common one for chess players to recognize; it's just rather pleasing in its geometry.

Cochrane's Gambit gave White two pawns for a piece, which have now been assembled in a flying wedge. From Wikipedia: “This V-shaped arrangement began as a successful military strategy in ancient times when infantry units would move forward in wedge formations to smash through an enemy's lines.” The symmetrical white pawns have certainly done that. Better still, the white pieces are arranged symmetrically too: queen and bishops lined up behind the lead pawn, the rooks each behind the secondaries. Even the outlying b- and h-pawns hang back in proportion. (For the king to be sitting on e1 as well would probably be asking too much.) Meanwhile Black's forces seem indeed to be scattered randomly about the board. That doesn't necessarily mean that Black is losing, but he is.

Having set up their wedge, the white pawns rested for a little while... until the f-pawn (okay, strictly speaking, the g-pawn) moved forward to join its colleague on the sixth rank, at which point Black resigned.

Friday, 25 November 2016

006. The Game of Analysis

White: AndyAndyO - thematic tournament, ChessWorld.net, 2016

Most over-the-board players I've spoken to about correspondence chess regard it as a waste of time. Everyone just uses computers now, they'll say, so what's the point. In other words, computers have destroyed CC as a meaningful contest. Personally, I don't think that's true; but computers have certainly changed it – to such an extent that I gave up playing serious CC ten years ago.

That's not because I think the use of computers is "cheating" or anything. I don't think that at all. In fact, I think entirely the opposite. Correspondence chess is the game of chess analysis – it's about whose analysis of each ongoing position is the best – and to undertake any proper chess analysis today without referring to a computer (at least at some stage) would be pretty much ridiculous.

No, I gave up because computers have taken the fun out of it for me.

In bygone days we played by actual post, writing our moves turn by turn on specially designed scoresheets or postcards, sticking on stamps, going out and posting them, waiting for the replies to drop through the letterbox, rushing to the door to see – and often being surprised – by what our opponents had done. All that has gone. Okay, the material aspect is not to be mourned: the long delays between moves (especially when playing internationally), moves going astray (or people claiming they had), the sheer expense of it all. But the surprise has gone. Nowadays, I know what my opponents will play 90%, 95% of the time (even 100% in some cases), because it's what my computer would have played. Nowadays, games turn on small margins, a positional error, an erroneous plan, a misassessment through not analysing deeply or incisively enough. This is grandmaster chess and, more than that, grandmaster chess where no one ever blunders outright. And that's fine, really it is. But it's not much fun.

If I'm to play that type of chess, I need there to be more at stake than just winning or losing. So the only remote chess I play now is in online thematic opening tournaments, mostly those I set up myself with my own pet lines. Yes, I still know what my opponents are going to play most of the time, and I see the same erroneous plans being carried out by different opponents, unfamiliar with the variations and overreliant on their engines. And then, sometimes, they (or their engines) come up with different ideas, new ideas, stronger ideas, and sometimes I lose. And yes, I do still hate to lose.

But more than winning or losing, what I want from these games is truth. Every win, every loss, every draw, increases my knowledge, refines my analysis through critical practice. And as an opening theorist more than a player these days, that's what makes it worthwhile to me.

Here's some truth I was taught very recently. In this line of the Wagenbach, Black's set-up with 7...Bh6 8 0-0 h3 9 g3 Nc6 looks, admittedly, very artificial (especially as an early ...h4-h3 is almost always wrong in the Wagenbach), but it had survived computer-aided assault surprisingly well.

Not any more. White's play with 10 e6! fxe6 11 d5! appears to refute it completely. I spent a long time on this position, looking at all sorts of different variations, but failed to find a satisfactory defence for Black. The rest of the game is just me playing it out. I thought for a moment I might survive with 15...Nb6 and then 16 Nd4 Nxc4 – but White inserted 16 Rf1! first, and Black is just losing after that.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

005. A Different Gambit Declined

White: P. Dodd - BCCA thematic tournament, 2003

When I was around ten or eleven years old and competing in national junior training tournaments, I used to play the Göring Gambit (1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 d4 exd4 4 c3), having learnt it from Leonard Barden's The Guardian Chess Book (signed copy). I won brilliancy prizes as well, perhaps partly because Mr. Barden was awarding them and I was playing "his" opening, but it helped that people usually accepted the pawn(s). Whatever its objective theoretical assessment, the Göring Gambit Accepted (with 4...dxc3 5 Bc4!? cxb2 6 Bxb2) is not easy for Black to defend over the board. In practical terms, declining with 4...d5 makes a lot of sense.

The game below is a Göring Gambit Declined. And yet if you look at the opening moves, you'll notice it begins 1 d4 d5 2 c4 Nc6 – in other words, as a Queen's Gambit Declined: Chigorin's Defence. Before no one writes in to complain, I'll reiterate that I did say “1 e4 e5 – or transpositions thereto”. And if you continue on to White's 8th move, you'll find that it reaches the same position as after 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 d4 exd4 4 c3 d5 5 exd5 Qxd5 6 cxd4 Bg4 7 Be2 Bb4+ 8 Nc3, which is indeed a Göring Gambit Declined.

I find that rather surprising myself – and it can seem much more so to White. As far as they're concerned, they're playing the Queen's Gambit and may have no idea the Göring Gambit even exists. Even worse, this is not a very good line for White anyway. After 8...Bxf3 9 Bxf3 Qc4! (as in F.Marshall-J.Capablanca, Lake Hopatcong 1926), Black scores an impressive 59.4% from 588 games in MegaBase. I've also done well (4/5 to date) from here – not least, I'm sure, because my opponents had never seen this position before; two in fact began with 1 Nf3, ruling out ...e7-e5 on their first move, and still ended up in an Open Game.

The most common course (after 9...Qc4) is 10 Bxc6+ bxc6 11 Qe2+ Qxe2+ 12 Kxe2, when White may have thoughts of exploiting a superior structure. In actuality their d-pawn is weaker than Black's doubled c-pawns. And sometimes you get a helpful a2-a3, driving the black bishop towards its desired post at b6, increasing the pressure on d4. In the game, too – where White offered the queen swap on b3 – Black has the more promising play. While White should expect to hold (the draw percentage is 47.8%), having to defend right from the opening clearly isn't the best use of the first move.

Incidentally, there's another surprise lurking after Black's 4...e5!?. The critical response is reckoned to be 5 Qb3 Bxf3 6 gxf3, as Steinitz played (twice) against Chigorin in their 1889 World Championship match. But if an unwary opponent tries instead to keep things solid with 5 Be2, then 5...e4 6 Nfd2 Bxe2 takes the game unexpectedly into a reversed French Defence, in essence a reversed Alekhine-Chatard Attack (1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Bg5 Be7 5 e5 Nfd7 6 h4!? with 6...c5 7 Bxe7; the omitted ...h7-h5 is not significant), when the natural 7 Qxe2?! Nb4! already sees White in difficulties. Checking my files, I discover that I've won an online game (ChessWorld.net 2004) with this against a “Jonathan Dodd”. Okay, it's probably just a coincidence.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

004. The Rorschach Knight

Black: M. Camejo de Almeida - 14th CC Olympiad (Preliminaries), 2000

This was the first time the Correspondence Chess Olympiad had been conducted by the astonishing new medium known as “email”. I was on board three (for England) and made a lot of draws. My opponent in the game below was playing for Portugal.

It is also my personal record for the longest (by a long way) I've ever followed “theory”. The position after 30...Qg5 was (with a slight detour on moves 26-28) from V.Anand-A.Beliavsky, Madrid 1998. At this point I deviated (from Anand's 31 Neg6) with 31 Bxc5, but this too was following theory – specifically, a line given in MegaBase (by either Anand or Wedberg) through to 38...Ke7, assessed as “with compensation” (for Black, who is a pawn down), which seemed reasonable in view of Black's active bishop and king. Nevertheless, I managed to grind out a win.

My analysis of this endgame was quite comprehensive. Whether that analysis is correct or not is another question, but my notes do indicate several things (which, again, may or may not be correct):
— 40...Kc5 “?!”. Rather than going towards the queenside, albeit temporarily, centralizing the king at once with 40...Ke5 seemed better.
— 46...g5 “!?”. In other words, not necessarily bad. All the same, I might have preferred 46...Ke5 again.
— 50...gxh4 “?”. Here I reckoned that 50...Bf7 would have held. Whereas after 50...gxh4, White has the strong plan Kf4, Ng6, Kg3, Kh4, Kh5 and Kxh6.
— 61 g5+ “+-”. With the added comment: “since Black cannot prevent the pawn reaching g7”. Which is correct, since the Lomonosov tablebases now tell me it's mate in 32.

But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the game comes in the sideline 70...Ka4 71 Kg6 Bg8 72 Kf6 Bh7 73 Ke7 Bg8 74 Kf8 Bh7 75 Ne8 Kxa3 76 Nf6 (and wins). White's lone knight has clearly done a lot of work – in fact it has made 24 moves so far. For this type of situation, ChessBase offers a Special Annotation: “Piece Path”, which maps all of a designated piece's moves on a small insert. Running that function on this knight produces the following picture:

Well, isn't that nice. The symmetry created by the knight's peregrinations is almost a Rorschach inkblot test.

So, what do you see? :)