Friday, 25 November 2016

006. The Game of Analysis

White: AndyAndyO - thematic tournament,, 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 ( 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? :)