Thursday, July 31, 2008

Going Down to Liverpool

I was going to have another look at my season-ending aberration today but couldn't resist returning to the British Championships to see what was going on.

Three rounds gone already up in Liverpool and the wheat is beginning to separate from the chaff. A tip of the hat goes to Nigel Davies (his connection to the blog escapes me for the moment) who is both leading the tournament and the only guy to have made it to a perfect three out of three. He's playing Mark Hebden (2.5/3) with Black today so will be hard pressed to keep that record up but we shall see.

Hebden, Angus reminded us, used to play for S&BCC a while back as did Glenn Flear who is in a bunch on 2/3 along with Sue Lalic and Stephen of the Ledger brothers. Of other players we're watching Andrew Ledger and Jack Rudd have 1.5 while Tryfon Gavriel, Michael Yeo, Dave Ledger and Venkat are just behind them on 1.

Anyhoo, today's position occurred yesterday in Nick Pert's game against Gregory. White has just played Re8+ and the Black king is going to end up mated ... but on which square?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


On 13 March 1977 hazelnuts dropped into a Bristol street beside Alfred Wilson Osborne and his wife, making clicking sounds on the pavement. Mr Osborne, a chess correspondent for a local newspaper, thought, at first, that buttons had come off his coat, but quickly realized something had fallen from the clear sky. Suddenly, hundreds more nuts fell around them. Another person experienced a nut shower on the same spot a few minutes later. Mr Osborne bit into one and said it was "fresh and sweet" but not only were there no nut trees in the vicinity, the hazelnut season is much later in the year. "I have thought that a vortex [might have] sucked them up, but I don't know where you suck up hazelnuts in March", he said.
All this according to the Rough Guide To Unexplained Phenomena, Michell and Rickard, 2000. (They do seem to whore themselves about a bit, don't they? Is there anything to which there is not a Rough Guide now? Has the one on chess been written yet?) And if you were reading it here and now, you'd likely move on to the next paragraph, the next unlikely story, and think no more of the Bristolian Mr Osborne and his airborne hazelnuts.

But since we have isolated the paragraph above, do not certain details catch the eye and help us build up a fuller picture of the incident? And of the good Mr Osborne himself?

His first thought, when little objects start bouncing off the pavement, is that his buttons must be bursting off his coat. Then, realising they're actually hazelnuts, he has no hesitation in taking a bite out of them - despite the fact that by his own account, he has no idea where they have been. You get the picture. The implication, surely, is that Mr Osborne is of the portly persuasion. Somebody to laugh at. A figure of fun.

He is also a nerd, judging by his statement that he thought a "vortex" might have "sucked up" the nuts. You may approach this in one way, from the viewpoint of scientific knowledge, wondering what Mr Osborne understands a "vortex" to be and whether a vortex can reasonably be said to "suck up" anything. Or one may approach the matter more sociologically, and speculate that the gentleman has acquired his language and his science from Star Trek.

So what else does the reader need in order to dismiss Mr Osborne and his story entirely? We already, surely, have more than enough, but is there not room for one more telling, detail? Some easily-recognisable character defect, some well-understood signal that as a human being, this chap is probaby a bit odd, quite likely several hazelnuts short of a Topic? No problem:
Mr Osborne, a chess correspondent for a local newspaper
Case closed. Take him away!

[my thanks to my brother Richard for the Rough Guide link]

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

We Almost Didn't Notice

Never let it be said we're not totally on the ball here at the S&BCC blog - well apart from yesterday when it wasn't until halfway through the opening round that we realised the British Championship had started.

In terms of S&BCC involvement Venkat, our London League top board, is playing and a the Ledger brothers are in Liverpool too. Stephen has been a club member for years but Dave and Andrew have also played for us in varying degrees of regularity. Since I'm talking of former S&BCC players I should mention Sue Lalic and stretching the concept of the S&BCC family still further I can see several names on the participants list that I recognise as blog commenters - Jack Rudd, Tryfon Gavriel and Michael Yeo for example (and apologies to anybody I've missed). The best of luck to them all.

The Championship website is showing the top boards live although due to 'technical problems' only a handful of games were broadcast. Hopefully there'll be the full 17 this afternoon.

T.C. EJH and I followed the games for a little while. Of the five on view it was probably Knott - Hebden that generated most discussion between us.

We, or at least EJH and I, thought Knott had winning chances but suddenly he played 51. Nd7+ and offered a draw. Hebden, not surprisingly, accepted.

EJH thought 51. Nf3 was worth a try. A little later Angus suggested White forced the draw since the knight has to stay on the kingside so there's no chance of queening any pawns anyway. Frankly, I've no real clue what's going on but my original feeling was that after Nf3 Black might be able to sac the bishop with 51. ... Ke6, 52. Nxh4 Kxd5. On reflection 53. Kd4 stops Black's king getting in so that doesn't seem to work.

So why not 51. Nf3 then? Isn't it worth playing on a little longer?

Championship Website:

Live Games:

Monday, July 28, 2008

Improve Your Chess IV: Read Rowson

In May last year, I wrote here:
I don't know anyone who can say: "I followed Rowson's advice, and gained this many grading points."
Well, I do now. It's me, because in the season just gone I gained 23 ECF points - approximately 115 FIDE Elo points according to the usual conversion, although Richard commented previously that 180 Elo points is the traditional figure! Anyway, although there were several things I tried to improve my chess, the simple advice of Rowson's I followed was to simulate over-the-board (otb) chess at home. Indeed, aside from "practice concentration" that's more or less the only piece of direct advice Rowson offers in his two books about psychology and chess improvement. And despite that, and despite all my misgivings about advice (here) - today, I'm advising you not just to base your attempts at chess improvement around otb simulation - but also to read Jonathan Rowson's two books about chess improvement. That is, my advice today if you are an adult player wishing to improve who has hit an impasse is just to read The Seven Deadly Chess Sins and Chess for Zebras and in that order.

And, that's it for today, that's all. The next in this series is on Monday next week. For now, all that's left to say is:


Still here?

Not entering your credit card details at Amazon, and simulating otb chess while you wait for the postman? You mean you've dared not to follow my advice? I knew it. I suppose I had better justify my opinion instead then. I'll focus on The Seven Deadly Chess Sins, henceforth Sins, adding a brief word about Chess for Zebras, henceforth Zebras, toward the end.

There are two reasons why you should read Sins, and the second is somewhat paradoxical and requires substantial justification. The first reason is simple, and it is that some of the content of the book - about psychological causes of error in chess with a number of well-annotated examples - will almost certainly be pertinent to your play, training, and thinking. However, there are lots of books that are pertinent to every chess player's play, in this kind of way or in other ways. Why I am recommending this one in particular? Indeed, over and above its practically-orientated competitors? Now I come to the second, paradoxical reason: the second reason you should read this book is for the style in which Sins is written, which is as follows. Sins is very badly written but in very useful ways which oblige you to really think differently about chess and yourself. The rest of this article are a justification of that statement, whereby I describe the main ways Sins is badly written and how this links to reader's learning. I am using here a slightly stretched meaning of "style" which includes Rowson's use of not-chess to write about chess. Anyway I've given each way a subheading.

Humpty Dumpty
Firstly, although there is an overarching structure at work in Sins - the book is organized by the seven different sins - for the most part the writing is disorganized, rambling, and stuffed full of digressions. This manifests itself less in the annotations than in the long stretches of unbroken prose, but even here there are plenty examples. Take the position to the right, for example, from Tal-Botvinnik, World Championship 1960 game 17 - on page 151 in the book in Chapter 5. Tal has just played 24.Qe3, and Rowson has just quoted Tal's explanation of why white is objectively worse, but why this isn't the end of the story: there are subjective factors at work here, because the position is complicated and the decisive complications look likely to crop up during time-trouble. Indeed this is what happened, and Botvinnik eventually blundered the whole game away on move 39.

Now, to Tal's description of the position and events, Rowson adds this digression:
This reminds me of something GM Peter Wells told me of a post-mortem with GM Stuart Conquest in which Peter asked 'Did you think you were better here?', to which Stuart replied: 'I don't have such thoughts during the game. I just look for ideas.' This is a little at odds with my suggestion in Chapter 2 about having some feel for whether your position is getting better or worse, but it is a valuable insight all the same. Certainly in games which are exceptionally tense, like last-round games for example, you might do more harm than good by trying to keep track of the 'objective' assessment because the errors which decide the outcome will be more closely related to the tension than to the assessment.
This anecdote demonstrates the disorganization in the book because it is more pertinent to the content of chapter two than the diagram position, and it is a digression because the diagram position and game itself have already been more than adequately explained up to this point. So all this is a distraction from Tal's explanations and Rowson's additional analysis. And this is one reason why the book is so useful. At this point, the reader who is willing to be fully engaged with the book is thrown back to thoughts of a previous chapter and further distracted from what's going on in the game for himself. In other words, s/he is forced to mentally arrange the book, the chess content and the psychologizing for him/herself, if s/he is going to keep up; in fact I might go so far as to say s/he has to deal with something of the messiness of thinking that occurs in our actual games. To stretch this even further, I might say that we are forced to try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again: But that because this impossible, the working trying to do so means that the book fully commands our mentally faculties, and in doing so even reminds of us of the infinite difficulty of chess.

In other words, all this enables us to learn by making us think for ourselves, and helps teach us some broad lessons about our thinking and chess in general.

Memories are made of this
Rowson's book is stuffed full of phrases, aphorisms and quotes, and I mean both stuffed and full. For instance, by page 25 we have had quotes from St Teresa of Avila, Gerald Abrahams, Tarrasch, Samuel Beckett, J. Krishnamurti, Sartre, Rumi, Octavio Paz, Kierkegaard, The Lutterworth Dictionary of the Bible, Simon and Garfunkel, and Bruce Lee. Then on page 25, we get one of the first direct pieces of chess advice Rowson offers: to talk with your pieces. Later on, amidst the analogies with quantum physics, relativity, philosophy, pop songs, Picasso and Churchill quotes, and a whole smörgåsbord more, we find other little snippets of chess advice too, such as remembering to ask yourself if you really believe something (for instance a speculative sacrifice.) If chess imitates life, then Rowson is clearly imitating DJs like DJ Yoda who have a real "mash up" style.

So what? Well, compare this to John Nunn's Secrets of Practical Chess, which contains nothing comparable of the sort. There are a few snippets of aphoristic advice in Nunn's book regarding things one should remember to remind oneself at the board such as "LPDO" ("Loose Pieces Drop Off") and DAUT ("Don't Analyze Unnecessary Tactics") amongst several worthy examples and mini-essays about other practical matters. The struggle with Nunn is making his acronyms memorable at the board, and the lack of alternative phrases if these don't really stick or make much sense to you. Indeed, if you are a strategical player with a taste for closed positions, remembering Nunn's LPDO and DAUT advice is more likely to do more harm than good, since you are probably not analyzing enough tactics and not allowing your pieces to venture out from behind your pawns enough.

With Rowson, there is no such problem. Something is bound to stick, because there is so much random stuff- and for the same reason, something is bound to be relevant. In my case for instance, I find, talking to my pieces ludicrous and a somewhat demeaning experience at the board. However, asking myself if I really believe something has really influenced my play in the season just gone, by cutting out unnecessary worrying. Who knows what will stick for you? Maybe, "jam lust", maybe "moment sensitivity", maybe "talking to your pieces", maybe one of the many others. Who knows? There is only one way to find out.

From The High Street to the Garden
The above section is about how Rowson's writing is great for allowing us via memorable phrases to package broad advice into a small mnemonic. However, the opposite is true too: Rowson's style of writing is great at "opening up" our thinking as well. This is partly because Rowson makes reference to a great many things, but also because he allows himself to "think out loud", unashamedly mentioning passing thoughts in, well, passing. For instance, for no real reason on page 35 Rowson talks about how the stronger the player, the more abstract their visual image is of the chess board. This had an interesting point of contact for me personally, because I have studied the psychology behind mathematical learning (I am a Mathematics graduate) where there is an interesting division between visual learners of mathematics and those who learn in other ways. For now I won't go any further, although sharp readers may wonder what the connection is to my advice here. Instead my point is there are many improbable points of contact that reading Sins allows different readers to make. Perhaps for instance you understand yourself via Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Well, that's here. So too Taoism. So too existentialism. And there's a mention of Star Trek. Or maybe you have a lot of knowledge about quantum mechanics? That's there too, and perhaps reading Rowson's thoughts about it will help you open up and change your own thinking about chess. After all, if you're an adult player who has hit an impasse, that is probably one thing you need to do.

If you're still unconvinced, let me suggest two analogies. One, imagine someone who lives a life of routine based around an average UK high-street, with its supermarkets of microwave meals, its clothing shops of slave-labour jeans - then imagine them visiting Camden Market, at least for an afternoon. They may not buy very much there or even like it, but the effect on their concept of food and clothing will be enormous, opening up new possibilities, although they may only find useful one or two for themselves. I said above that Rowson is a bit like a DJ with a "cut up" style; he's a bit like Camden Market, too.

Or, secondly, think about it this way. Each human mind is like a garden with unknown soil: we know things can grow there, but we don't know what will take root, what will perish. Rowson's writing style corresponds to the scattering of many seeds, whilst the chess content of Sins is about psychological causes of error in chess - so in this paragraph's analogy, it's a weed-killer. In my opinion it's important to remember that, however uncomfortable it may sound, learning is like this: we don't know what will work in advance, as my experience of chess coaching also taught me. Although Rowson's content could be interpreted at a stretch as somewhat prescriptive, his writing style works counter to this, and all the more usefully as a result.

Remember to Forget
I mentioned above that Sins includes enough phrases, quotes and aphorisms that something is bound to be memorable. However, the book's style means that it is so chockablock with bric-a-brac, that reading it inevitably means a great deal of if will be forgotten too. This then helps us discover anew at least some of its lessons, because as I argue above reading Sins involves the planting of many seeds.

In my own case, I actually managed to forget the book's main message entirely. A little while back I was thinking over chess, and the difficulty of trying to align our thought processes to the enormous actual difficulty of the game itself. Of course we can't do this perfectly, as computers show, but in understanding our limitations we can do our best to work both with and around the ultimately-unknowable reality of the game. Failure to do so often involves some misapprehension of the game itself - supposing it is more positional than it really is, for instance. I was thinking of writing a blog post about all this, when I suddenly thought it sounded like something Rowson might have said something about. In fact, it's very close to the overall main message of Sins, which I had more or less managed to entirely forget. There is, though, no way I would have thought anything along these lines had I not read Sins, both for the stimulation of its content and the high level of forgetability that comes from the (apparent) flaws of Rowson's writing style.

So, in conclusion, the content of Sins is likely to be pertinent to your play, if you are an adult player who has hit an impasse. However, it is the literary weaknesses of the style in which the book is written that provides unique opportunities to learn, because in various ways these oblige the committed reader to come to chess anew.

The same, in my opinion, holds for Zebras, although there are some differences. Zebras has a less clear overall structure than Sins, although internal chapters and passages themselves tend to command more clarity. The reason for this moderate tidying in writing style is probably that Rowson was slightly "dumbing down" in response to certain negative reviews, although this is a shame in my opinion. Btw, I should mention in passing two negative reviews that were useful in the writing of this piece: Taylor Kingston's at ChessCafe, and JimmyBob's at I agree with some of what they say, but my overall conclusion is entirely different.

Anyway, I believe Sins is a better book than Zebras but that you should read both, with Sins first. Of course, by read I mean not just the words - but that you also get out an actual chess set and actual pieces, play through all the examples and games as they come along, and whenever you can put the books to the side to analyze or play back through the particularly memorable sequences. And if you don't believe that, all I can do is recommend you read Rowson's writing in order to convince yourself. And who knows what else might happen if you do?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Sunday Puzzle

Today Sunday's puzzle is, Four-Handed Chess:


Never going to be as good as the real thing, is it?

But . . . perhaps I judge too soon. The above chess set was owned by Captain George Hope Verney who invented in the Victorian era a particular form of Four Handed chess, whereby the players sat opposite each other team up to try to mate the other team's kings, and it indeed gained some popularity. In fact, says the link above, Verney formed a club for four-handed chess in London in 1883/4, "which was inaugurated October 13, 1885 with 80 members. The club existed till the second World War, i.e., it existed more than half a century!"

Fancy a game? Well, a set itself might set you back a bit. The one pictured above was located by Richard T. here at the website of auctioneers Gorringes, who recently auctioned it with an estimate of £500-800.

Finally, thanks to Richard for the tip-off.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Chess in Art VII

The Chess Player

Graham Foster (2000)

[Chess in Art index]
[Chess in Art collected]

Friday, July 25, 2008


The righthand corner, as we all know, should always be occupied by a light square. But does anybody know how long that has been the case? Since chess took on its current form around five hundred years ago? Before then? After? How long has it been the convention that the righthand corner has been light, and how long has it been part of the offical and accepted Laws of Chess?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Improve Your Chess III: Simulation, not Computerisation

Believe it or not, we play real chess using one of these:
On top of which we place some of these:
To the side of which ticks one of these:
Yet there are those instead who believe real chess is located here:

Who are they?

They are to be found chattering away on the ICC in the early hours. Analyzing graphs that show their tactical ability increasing. Arguing in some forum against century-established theory because of what a bookless Fritz 6.1 just said. Kibitzing how World Champions are patzers for having missed Crafty's anti-positional win of the exchange. Occasionally they scalp a titled player at 1+0, and into their finger notes it goes with the rest.

Some, even, when they have decided they are ready, dare to venture out to an actual, physical, real chess tournament or club, confident that their estimated grade (a conversion of their online rating) is accurate. And suddenly it's not a computer screen but a living, breathing human being sat opposite them - fists clenched as if focused on destroying them - and the eyes of spectators are watching here - there - everywhere - and at the board there's no take-backs allowed - no pre-moves - and thousand and one clocks are going tickity tock - and everything looks wrong in three dimensions - and, then, somehow, the game is lost. And there's no play again button. And no comforting suspicion that the opponent plugged in a tablebase in the endgame. No reason to suppose the opponent is secretly Fischer. No chance for immediate revenge, just the bitter taste of a definite defeat. After which, the next round and more of the same . . . Back they retreat to their computer nightly, for months, only venturing out again when they have forgotten what happened before, telling themselves instead it was bad luck anyway the previous time. And after all, that graph of their tactical ability has gone up since then . . .

Am I being cruel? I'm certainly exaggerating, I think. But people do get very much over-invested in what they think they are proving about themselves or chess using a computer, an investment that is not useful for over-the-board (OTB) play, which is the one true test of chess. Here for instance is an example of emotional over-investment in on-line chess. And anyway, I was one of these people. Well, maybe not quite. But I certainly spent too many nights on the ICC, trying to get back over 2300 . . . trying to scalp the IM who keep beating me . . . waiting for my chance to have a crack at someone in a simul . . . that kind of thing, and I have also spent a fair share of my time on sites such as Chess Tactics Server which I am no longer convinced was an optimum use of my time.

At some point I decided to more or less give that stuff up (albeit not entirely successfully) and try something else. I dusted off my board, poured the pieces out from their musty box, got out my clock out, and decided instead to use my chess time at home to, as far as possible, simulate over-the-board (otb) chess. I will give examples of what I mean by this in a moment, but first the reason.

Or rather, reasons. Firstly, I became convinced that I remember things best when they are attached to experiences that have meaningful emotional content. Otb chess is inevitably like this, for me; solving a puzzle in a book on a bus is not. This is the most important reason. Secondly, I think various forms of computer chess skew your game in some not very useful ways. An obvious example is how after hours of blitz we think far more tactically but at the expense of our positional thinking. Thirdly, I think internet chess deceives us into thinking we are better or worse than we really are. Ok, you were feeling great and beat an IM two games in a row. How do you know he wasn't drunk, or that his son hadn't logged on to his account? Or the other way around. So you dropped a hundred and fifty points over a few hours; does that mean your otb form will be terrible, that you should lose confidence, be cautious, start offering as white early draws against weaker players? Maybe you were just tired. Or maybe it really was Fischer's ghost moving the pieces that time. Who knows?

So, I started simulating otb chess at home. I did this in three main ways. Firstly, I would play practice games against computers under the following conditions. I set up the pieces and clock as if a normal game. I turned the computer screen away from me, and set the programme to speak the moves as it made them. I played only one game per session, just like in league chess. If I blundered in the first five minutes, that was it for the night. If I lost on time, I lost on time. Secondly, I set up practice positions that other people recommended as appropriate for simulating otb chess. Once again I set the clock, usually to around 15 minutes, and tried to make a decision as if the position was otb. Below are six sample positions, if you want to take my advice and try this at home. (Remember, this involves setting up the pieces, setting a clock for up to 15 minutes, and trying to make a decision about which move to play as if you were playing a real otb game.) In these first four positions it is black to move:

Whilst in these final two it is white to move:

Thirdly, I tried reading chess books in this way too. That is, not by following the games on a computer or on a travel set, but by going through the games on a proper set, playing out the annotations or visualizing each one, and so forth. Afterwards I would then put the book aside and replay the games, trying to remind myself of the annotations and trying to really "get" what was going on in the games. All of this I found really quite hard to do, especially so when using opening books, which I find extremely hard to actually learn anything from.

Before I summarize today's post, I would like to just reiterate who my intended audience is with these posts: adult players who've hit an impasse. For the most part we are different from children who are growing up in a world where computers are just a straightforward part of chess without any complications. For such lucky children, their computer resources don't seem new and different and such strange temptations, but just a part of chess culture (as say New In Chess does for me.) This means they don't fall into the various traps that coming late to the world of computerized chess risks, as I did.

So, my conclusion. We learn best about chess over-the-board, and over-the-board is the real test of any player. However, various forms of computer chess are so artificial they frequently teach us nothing and merely deceive us, or at the best drastically skew any learning that does take place. Therefore, we should only use a computer in so far as it helps us simulate otb chess, and simulating otb chess at home is a key principle with which to engage in any training activity. Simulation, in other words, not computerisation.

PS. This post is part of a series started here. Number IV is scheduled for Monday next week, and I intend to follow-up with four or five posts on Mondays after that one before closing the series out.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Improve Your Chess II: Vice and Advice

The Chess Player's Personality
One of the qualities most common to chess players is an absolute unwillingness to follow almost any advice whatsoever. The game itself encapsulates this personality trait; in fact chess is an outlet for individualistic thinking. We sit alone at the board and there is nobody else there at our side, guiding our arm, helping us, taking over if we tire, chatting to us. Every single decision is ours and ours alone. There are no substitutes, like in team-sports, no switch of personnel, no following what the coach says, even if you disagree, no slotting into a role, no shared responsibility. The game is emphatically individualistic.

One side-effect of this character trait that chess requires is a resistance to following advice off-the-game-board too. For instance, whilst coaching on ChessWorld a few years ago I played six games in a row with an opponent rated a fair amount lower than me, and I won each game with a knight fork. In some cases the fork was the finishing touch to an already-won position, in others it was a basic tactic out of the blue that my opponent missed entirely. The diagram shows the simplest example from these games.

So it was obvious to me from these wins what my opponent's weakness was: that whilst he wasn't a bad player in most respects, he had an almost beginner-level blindness to tactics involving knight-forks. He had no trouble spotting knight captures and other one-move threats, but he was more or less entirely blind to two-move sequences involving a knight - but not, say, to simple pins. I advised him therefore to pick up Chess Tactics by Paul Littlewood, which includes a chapter that explains what knight forks are, explains how to defend against them, and provides the reader with various examples with which to test himself.

Now, this player wanted to improve; he also dedicated a considerable amount of time to chess, and as far as I could tell respected my opinion. A few months later when I played him again, I asked how he'd been getting on with the book. He'd not been reading it, he said; had not bought it in fact. Instead he'd been looking at some opening book about off-beat variations. You can guess the result: I won, with a knight fork. Would he now change his mind, I asked? Maybe, he replied - meaning, no.

So coaching allowed me to witness a weakness (psychological, in this case) in another player that I could then use to help recognize my own weaknesses. In my case, I realised that my natural-born refusal of advice manifested itself in chess most clearly in my choice of openings. Despite being well aware of the common advice to stick to an opening repertoire, and ensure it's not merely off-beat for the sake of it, I had gone the opposite way - especially with black. There is a reason why The Hungarian Defence is rarely seen; it's because it's passive, doesn't contest the centre, and leaves white various promising options to choose from. The position after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Be7 is simply better for white in all number of ways. But that's not what I was telling myself. Instead, I reminded myself my average grade with it was 173, that I'd not lost a game with it, and so on. The statistical reality, however, masked the real story: in most of the games I had had inferior positions, in two, outright lost ones. I had been lucky, and anyway I had not played enough games with it for the statistics to really count. That kind of luck would not last.

So, what changed my mind? A coincidence comprised of two things. Firstly, it was around the same time my opponent above was neglecting the study of knight forks, and witnessing his obstinacy in the face of advice reminded me of my own resistance. Secondly, I was lucky enough to be receiving explicit advice on my opening repertoire from my club-mate ejh. I was extremely lucky in this respect to be receiving expert advice at the same time as realizing I needed to take it, and for the quality, quantity and pertinence of the advice. Here is how the process started:
Right. This is important. In his book on creating a repertoire, Steve Giddins says how, when living in Moscow, he went to see IM Bimi (I think it was Beim) who, first thing out, asked him to say what his repertoire was. What his responses were to 1.e4 and 1.d4 (and the major branches thereof) and, as White, what his responses were to the major replies to his first move. Giddins couldn't, as he mostly made things up as he went along. Beim shook his head.

You need to do this. We'll kick off now. Don't worry if there are holes in it - but we will have to fill them by the end of the week and then you will have to stick to it. Not for the rest of your life, but every line must get a thorough working before you can be sure it doesn't suit you.

No "maybes", by the way. You can give options, but you have to be certain what the options are and why you're playing them.
What?, I thought. Stick to an opening? For more than a game or two? Know in advance what I was going to play? A thousand and one predictable ifs and buts flittered through my mind, but then I remembered my recent opponent's point-blank refusal to follow my advice, and that the person advising me here was graded twenty or so points higher than me. So, I took the plunge, followed advice, and created a repertoire.

'Almost' . . .
Now, my point so far is that chess players generally don't like to follow advice. Rather than willingly take it - impossible for our natures - the only thing left to do if we want to improve is swallow advice like a bitter medicine. Is my sole point, then, that you don't take advice but must swallow it anyway? Not quite. I began this article by saying: "One of the qualities most common to chess players is an absolute unwillingness to follow almost any advice whatsoever." Notice that there is an almost in amongst that lot. Why "almost"?

Well, there is one type of advice that many, if not all chess players follow; one might even say worship with religious devotion. That is, advice which conforms to opinions they already hold. In my case, the opinion I already held was that everyone else knew masses of mainline theory; I didn't have the right kind of memory for it; anyway, I was lazy and a more practical solution was to take them out of theory as quickly as possible, trickster-style. Thus I nodded approvingly at Miles's 1...a6, Basman's 1.g4s, gave Lasker a thumbs up, and so on. Of course I didn't play entirely ludicrous openings myself (and there were a few mainlines I fancied I knew, so counted them as "special" somehow) but in general I liked this sort of pseudo-pragmatic approach. For a while I even had more opening books along the lines of Secrets of Opening Surprises (SOS) than I did opening books about mainstream openings; in fact I even had a novelty published in one of the SOSs. Incidentally, a completely different example of how to think your way through conflicting advice and opinion can be found here, an interesting blog post about the right use of tactical exercises.

Anyway, I think it should be clear what my general conclusion is. Swallow advice, especially when you really don't want to. And if your standard is stuck, do not follow the advice you normally like to: you have probably gone as far as you can with it already.

Coaching versus Advice
Yesterday I wrote about chess coaching, today advice. Yesterday, I suggested chess coaching can help the coach; is the same true for advice? That by giving advice we help ourselves? My answer is 'no' and in general my advice (paradoxical as it sounds) is to avoid giving advice to other players unless you have a strong reason to do so, eg they are your team-mate, friend, they do the same for you, you enjoy writing for a blog, you are paid to do so, etc.

I will get to my reasoning in a moment, but I want to note two things before I do. Firstly, my use of the two terms 'coaching' and 'advice' has so far been somewhat casual. For instance, ejh was giving me a snippet of broad advice followed by a lot of actual coaching. Secondly, in what follows I instead try to push the two terms to their logical extremes, in order to separate out their differences. I hope that the loss of realism is compensated for by a gain in clarity. Anyway, here goes.

Let's define coaching as: a conversation, based around the board and actual moves, between two players of qualitatively different strengths. And let's define advice as a situation whereby one player emits instructions to a mute receiver. What are the differences? Advice is centred on the giver's knowledge, coaching is based on the receiver's experience. Advice is abstract, wordy, preconceived; coaching involves the game itself and its content is created anew. Advice is lofty, easy, and clear; coaching is down-to-earth, hard, and confusing. Advice does not require engagement with consequences - such as looking for improvements in results and ratings - coaching requires the search for changes and effects.

What does this mean? The thinking involved when giving advice is, for the giver, rote-thinking: repeating things they've already decided upon. However, the thinking involved in coaching for the coach is totally different: it requires rethinking one's chess knowledge from another's point of view and experience. Hence I think one vice in chess is to actually give advice, unless there is a specific reason to do so.

Finally, I started this piece by saying most chess players refuse to follow advice. One piece of advice in yesterday's post was, I suppose, for players looking to improve to start really trying to coach (not advise!) others. I wonder if anyone out there has proved my opening sentence today wrong, and done just that?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Improve Your Chess I: Why Coach Others?

Yesterday I wrote that in the season just gone I managed to make a leap in my standard of play, and that this week I intend to explain the different things I believe helped me to do so. This is the first of those posts.

I finally took the bait. Can you teach me? What advice do you have? Your play is awesome - please show me how you do it? I'd been saying I was too busy. Or not a good coach. Or not good enough to teach. Or thanks, but my play is really nothing special. Or whatever, as these requests meandered in, but someone or other made me laugh and I thought I saw some real potential in their play: And so I finally took the bait, and on the great all-round chess site Chess World I set up a coaching game with them (there is a superb facility for this there).

I found I enjoyed it - the dispensing of advice, the appreciation that came in return - and in no time my pool of students had swollen, I was trying to explain about doubled-pawns here, opening principles there, checking for checks and captures, recommending books on basic tactics all over the place, setting tests about pawn-structure undermining that no-one understood, and generally failing to teach anyone anything, as evidenced by the complete lack of increase in any of my students' grades over the following months. (I did manage to almost teach one student Légal's Trap, and was feeling pretty proud of the fact until he captured on e5 in the diagram to the right.)

Eventually my enjoyment turned to puzzlement. Why was I such a bad coach? I had no answer, shrugged, and accepted another invitation to a coaching game, where I found a grateful beginner asking me for any general basics about how to play the game. Of course, I thought, and went to paste a link to a long list of basic chess wisdom I have discovered, no longer on-line but similar to the 100 Tips for Better Chess that can be found here[link lapsed]. Once again I scanned the list and found myself nodding at the sensible advice - after all who could argue with things like:
35. If the centre is blocked, don’t automatically castle.
36. Trade pieces when you’re ahead in material, but not when you’re behind.
37. Trade pieces in cramped positions to create more space.
38. Trade pieces when under attack. This eases the pressure.
- and so on, from 1 up to 100?

Mm. What if you're behind in material, and in a cramped position? Does it depend on whether you're under attack or not? Mm . . . I wondered what on earth I thought I was doing. Was I really suggesting he thought through each of the 100 pointers in each position he encountered, working out which mattered and which didn't? Could he really learn effectively about chess with such a cluttered vocabulary? Without looking at positions? And not only that, am I really claiming that the game of chess can be understood properly by such wordy descriptions? Are such simplifications really 'useful lies' or is that just plain patronizing? Can I really say to him, Here Is Chess Understanding, and point him in that direction? Can anyone else truthfully make that kind of claim?

Whatever the answers, coaching enabled me to rethink these issues in terms of my own game. I realized I tended to think too much in words at the board, and that one of my problems in the middlegame was confusion as a result of too much verbal thinking. Little wonder that the middlegame to me seemed less bequeathed by God, as the phrase goes, than by a demon. I would like to say it helped me "clarify" my views on chess, but actually I would say the opposite: it helped me disclarify my view on chess, in particular abandoning the simplicities of various mantras we teach beginners, the mantras we try to make ourselves believe in order to feel vaguely competent amongst the vast mysteries of the game. At the board for me, I suddenly realised I had a tendency to treat the game as made up of "parts" - small advantages and disadvantages that accumulate, dissipate, interact - than to treat the game as a "moving whole", as, say, those playing romantic-style chess or prophylaxis-based chess did. The foolish win of a pawn and lack of sense for the overall "spirit" of the resultant position in the game featured here from a few years ago is a reasonable example; this game from a tournament on the Sunday just gone offers a more recent contrast:

[I'm afraid the internet has deleted this game. It was game 3912 on]

Anyway, that is one way that coaching others helped me: the sheer fact of having to try to explain chess concepts forced me to rethink them afresh, and in doing so I discovered various problems of my own.

However, there is a second way that coaching others teaches us something. That is, in doing so we get to see errors-in-action at a simpler level, and so we come to understand our own problems better. There is something of a Russian Dolls structure at work in chess, where the errors of a novice are simple versions of the errors Grandmasters make. Sometimes we can learn more about the nature of errors in chess by looking at them in miniature rather than at massive scale. This is something coaching provides. It is easy to imagine various plausible lessons one might take home from coaching that fit into this picture: you can see players play positionally well, but collapse amidst tactical complications. You see opening specialists play perfectly until the middlegame, when they fall apart. And so on. My point is that we are familiar with all sorts of errors in chess, but by trying to really help someone sort out theirs, we get a far better feeling for what those errors really are and how difficult they are to overcome. And in doing so, we can turn our learning back on ourselves. In tomorrow's piece about advice I intend to provide an example of this. (I consider advice linked to coaching, but different.)

So, my conclusions for today are:
  • because chess coaching is extremely difficult to do successfully, the coach gets to rethink his or her own chess, and thus discover things to improve
  • because during chess coaching the coach witnesses simpler versions of errors they make, they come to better understand their own problems in chess
  • sometimes - perhaps more often than not - chess improvement will happen entirely by accident; I did not try to coach others with the intention of improving my own game at the expense of theirs.
And that's it for today . . . Almost. One more thing. I am implying in all this that the chess coach learns more than the student. Which means that if there's a Grandmaster out there reading this hoping to gain a few more grading points this coming season, they should really consider offering free-lessons to - say - for example - thinking off-the-cuff here - a 186 or so ECF player from south London!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Happy Monday

Good morning. The English Chess Federation 2008 Grading List has this morning just been published.

I realise that English readers are now more likely to type in their own name and find out their own grade than, with rapt anticipation, to type in C-h-i-v-e-r-s. But were they to do so, they'd see that the present writer has jumped 23 points - from 163 to 186. (This, for our foreign readers, is approximately the same as a 115 point FIDE Elo increase, from roughly 2065 to around 2180.) They might also see that this is the first time he's been anywhere above the 160s, where previously he was rather stuck. Readers who especially wanted to make the present writer's day might then check the Most Improved list and note that his name just sneaks in at the bottom of it - in fact with the highest grade on the list, and one of only a few adult players there who've played thirty or more games this season (that is, has an 'A' in the Category column.)

In other words: I've had a lot of luck this season!

. . . but - I like to think - luck is not the whole story. Last season and a little before I started taking active steps in an attempt to improve my game. Some of them worked, some of them didn't, some of them lasted, some of them barely started. Over the next few days I plan to blog what I did, how it turned out, why I think what worked or what didn't. I hope that these posts might prove helpful for other adults looking to improve their game who've not been finding it easy to do so. I also hope they will be of interest to chess improvement bloggers, whose extensive writings about these things I have for the most part unfortunately been unable to keep up with. Perhaps they could let me know in the comments. Indeed, any ideas further to my own will of course be gratefully received, and not just by myself I am sure.

But for now, that's it. I hope that for those readers typing in their own name now, their new chess grade also makes for a happy Monday.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sunday puzzle

White to play and mate in three moves.

(CH Wheeler)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Chess in Art VI

The Chess Game

Charles Bargue (1882)

[private collection]

[Chess in Art index]
[Chess in Art collected]

Friday, July 18, 2008

Nor any drop to drink

I had a few strange experiences at the Benasque Open, which included adventures with food poisoning - scroll down to comments at 12:00 - as well as managing to cut open my forehead with my own thumbnail (don't ask). The total quantity of strangeness was not, however, reduced by the team of arbiters coming up with the single most unreasonable request to competitors I think I have ever come across in thirty years' tournament experience.

The tournament takes place in the Benasque Pabellón de Deportes, a sports hall run by the municipality (the Ayuntamiento) for the benefit of the population of the area. Quite properly and sensibly, the Ayuntamiento wish to preserve their building from damage and from the accumulation of rubbish. Not quite so properly or so sensibly, they take this to an extreme - or rather, they insist that the arbiters of their chess tournament do so.

During my first round game, I drank liberally from a bottle of water that I had brought with me precisely for that purpose, being aware that it was summer, it was hot and that in these circumstances, health professionals recommend the consumption of water. I was therefore surprised, at the end of the game, to be accosted by the Chief Arbiter, who told me that drinking water was forbidden at the request of the Ayuntamiento.

Less than amused, I put it to the gentleman that it was hot and forbidding people to drink water was actually potentially dangerous, but he was not to be moved on the subject and so, for the rest of the tournament, I found myself walking outside the hall every time I needed to take some water. Which was often. This was not, most of the time, an onerous obligation, but it might well be, if one were short of time for long periods - not unusual where Fischer clocks are concerned. Or if one were older, or in poor health, and not easily able to walk out of the hall and back at regular intervals. Or, indeed, if one were particularly young. Or, as I mentioned in Wednesday's comments, if one arrived at the board feeling ill and weak following a bout of food poisoning.

It's the sort of instruction that is very easy to issue - if you're making rules in the abstract and not thinking about real people in real circumstances. But I do wonder what any doctor would say about it. Of course it derives from the requirement not to bring food and drink into the hall but I suspect that that rule - a very sensible one - is designed to meet all sorts of other purposes, some of which I've mentioned above, but specifically not that of trying to deprive people of easy access to fluid during hot weather. (What damage the water was supposed to do, what with it being a stain-free and easily cleanable substance, was less than clear to me. I suspect that a few drops of water would do rather less damage to a floor than, say, the 520 pairs of footwear belonging to the players.)

Not that the effort was particularly successful: although the instruction not to drink was repeated over the microphone before one of the rounds, and individually communicated to many of the players, it was widely ignored. I particularly remember Jana Bellin, a couple of boards away from me, having a heated (if you will) midgame altercation with a minor arbiter and subsequently continuing to bring bottles into the playing hall and drink from them.

Rules are important, but health is rather more so: you don't mess about where that's concerned. And stupid rules that nobody will accept and cannot be enforced are worse than none, because they bring the whole fabric of rules and regulation into disrepute. I don't entirely (or even mainly) blame the arbiters here, since they were presumably acting on instruction. But really: I mean these are local people, they know what the weather is like. So who thought it would be a clever idea to make it harder for people to get water to drink - in the middle of July, in Spain?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

In the year 2133 . . .

"Nobody remembers their names today," wrote Czesław Miłosz about the pre-World War One Polish poets, "And yet their hands were real once,/ And their cufflinks gleamed above a table."

In chess, it's different. Whatever her short-term cruelties, for the most part Caissa turns out to be a kinder Goddess over the longer term than the Muses: many ancient games played even between patzers are preserved, played-through, remembered, loved, at least for a moment, something that cannot be said for the work of the failed and forgotten poets of yesteryear.

Take the game below. Badly played, chockablock with missed opportunities - but exciting and intriguing and vivid almost 125 years after the fact. Here the white pieces are handled by PJ Lucas of Sussex the black by South Norwood's JE Rabbeth, representing Surrey on the day:

And why am I telling you this?

It's my roundabout way of reminding you that Surrey County Chess Association is 125 years old, is celebrating the event this Sunday, and that you're invited to join in the fun.

(In fact the day will see a double-celebration. The Surrey Under 175 side, following their 2nd place in the SCCU section, progressed to the ECF County U175 Final to play Essex earlier the month, where they managed to grind out an excruciatingly-tight 8½ to 7½ victory.)

Anyway at least four Streatham & Brixton Chess Club players, including myself, will be attending on Sunday and if you'd like to join us and everybody else then you should email Mike Gunn now for full details and for an entry form.

Who knows? Maybe in 125 years, the gleaming or otherwise moves you make on the day will somewhere be remembered still, by someone . . .

PS. Thanks also to Mike Gunn for the game, who in his email to me added two historical notes. Firstly, that it appears as if Surrey and Sussex were the only two county chess associations existing in southern England at the time the match was played. Secondly, that "Rabbeth was playing one board lower than Leonard P Rees who after setting up the SCCA in 1883, went on to set up the SCCU (1892), the BCF (1904) and possibly even FIDE (he was described as a "senior FIDE official" in a report describing FIDE's attempts to get control of the arrangements of the World Championship matches in 1928)."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Imagine for a moment, dear reader, that you are a cretinous oaf.

Think of the crappiest chess player you know. Imagine that you are crapper than them. Far crapper with big crapping knobs on.

Imagine you sitting down at the board being like Heather Mills entering a "Who's got the most legs?" contest. Imagine a decades-long history of abysmal chess. Imagine that every time you play you take on two opponents - the guy sitting opposite and your own fuckwittery.

Imagine you are, in the rather unsound terminology known only to those who entered their teenage years in the early 1980s, a total Deacon. Imagine, indeed, that there is absolutely no shadow of a doubt that you are what Jerry Sadowitz would call (and I'm going to abbreviate this to spare your blushes) a F.S.C.

In short, for one horrifying and psyche shattering moment imagine that you are me.

Surrey Individual 14.07.08
A. Bloke v Idiot Blog Writer

Black to play and lose instantly

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Something I Found in an Old Chess Magazine

Addicts' Corner
by Mike Fox and Richard James
Pergamon Chess Vol 53 No 8, November 1988

"Chess is simply a medium through which concentration and a higher state of mind is achieved ... It is like contemplating your navel, only better. It is perhaps a way of making love."

F&J say they found this in Private Eye who had themselves lifted it from The Spectator ... but who are they quoting?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Miss Easy Tactics! with Justin X

[Our pedagogical series in which we look at a portion of a game I played the previous week in which some obvious tactic is overlooked. Readers are invited to practice their skill by seeing if they can spot what was missed.]

Horton v Bruned (FM, 2383). Benasque Open 2008, round five, position after White's move 34.Ba3-b2.

Play now proceeds 34...e4 35.Nxe4 Nxe4 and Black offers a draw.

Should White accept?

Miss Easy Tactics! index

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sunday puzzle

White to play and win

(Duras, 1927)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Chess in Art V

The Chess Match

David McKee


[Chess in Art index]
[Chess in Art collected]

Friday, July 11, 2008

There are more questions than answers...

So sang Johnny Nash in 1972, evidently unaware of such fundamental algebraic concepts as over and underdetermined systems. There is a long and noble tradition of outright lies in pop music (it is eminently possible that I might have seen something like the Mighty Quinn, for example, and I am not entirely sure that Chairman Mao 'dug' repetition, either), but usually that wonderful catch-all excuse, 'artistic license', is more than acceptable. Not so here. At the risk of almost vindicating Mr. Nash, however, there are indeed more questions than answers in this post. It's a close run thing, mind, and as much as Tom might argue otherwise, this blog probably ought not to be taken as a microcosm of the real world, where there remains far more answers than questions.

Two weeks ago, in a review of the first volume of the Duncan Suttles trilogy Chess on the Edge, I posted five interesting positions that could be found within the book. They were not tactical or positional exercises as such, more a collection of flashpoints illustrative of Suttles' tendency to play moves that one would never expect. I had promised to reveal all within a few days, and then promptly failed to do so. So for those of you still wondering, here are the solutions:

a) Suttles - Letic, 1981. 31.?

This was the real stumper; not one poster got even remotely close to the answer. It is not surprising, for Suttles played the extraordinary 31.Ng3!! After the natural 31...g5 there followed 32.Bxg5 hxg5 33.Rd8. Harper and Seirawan describe this as an 'absolutely pure positional sacrifice', the aim of which is completely bind up black's position. As the authors point out, this is already beginning to come to fruition: Letic has but one piece move which does not lose material (33...Rc7). For the conclusion of this highly imaginative game, go here.

b) Schulman - Suttles, 1965. 6...?

The answer here is the decidedly un-Suttlesy 6...d5. Given that Duncan once wrote that 'Most of my opening strategies are based on control of e5 and I rarely play ...d5, even though sometimes it is the best move', it is difficult to understand. But then again, can't we say that for all of Suttles' play? In the game Schulman wisely chose 7.e5 over 7.Nxd5 e6, followed by 8...Nxd4, or 7.exd5 Nf5.

c) Evans - Suttles, 1972. 14...?

An anonymous poster was straight on the money with this one: 14...Nxg4 15.Nxg4 (15.Bxg4 Nc4) Bxg4 16.Rdg1 (again, 16.Bxg4 Nc4) and white's position is a mess.

d) Filipowicz - Suttles, 1964. 15...?

This one's a rarity - an 'only' move with deep psychological impact all the same. The solution is 15...Ne3, which Harper and Seirawan assign two exclamation marks. 'The notes in Chess Chat give this a "?!",' they write, 'but since Black's alternative is to resign, that hardly seems fair!'

e) Suttles - Schmid, 1975. 1.?

1.a3, of course! Play continued with 1...d5 2.Nf3 g6 3.b4 Bg7 4.Ra2. Nuff said.

And now, some new questions. Below are six chess-related quotations which are far from well-known. For a bit of Friday 'fun', I would like to invite you to put a name to each quotation. Some clues: a) belongs to a Victorian aesthete; the author of b) was punched live on television in the early 1960s; c) was uttered by a Surrealist; d) originates from a 1976 NME interview; e) is perhaps the most obvious, especially if you're au fait with French existentialist footballers; and f) was said to Jacob Bronowski in the back of a taxi.

a) 'In painting and poetry the workers scorn analysis, and the best work defies it, and, so far as chess is capable of analysis, it is neither art nor play.'

b) 'My own enthusiasms are numerous and mostly long-rooted. Like other people's, some grow greater with the passage of time, and some recede, though some which appear to have vanished are only lying dormant; I used, for instance, to play a lot of chess when I was young - it was indeed a passionate enthusiasm - and have only played a handful of games these years past, but whenever I have taken the pieces out I have instantly felt all the old excitement and pleasure, the eagerness to start and enjoy.'

c) 'Chess is a game where the most intense mental activity leaves no traces.'

d) 'I don't appreciate a band that likes to play chess in their off-stage hours. If you have to spend a lot of time with people who are interested in their chess boards and little card games and shit like that, it can drive you nuts.'

e) 'You cannot be a great player without being intelligent... In one second, you have to imagine a lot of possibilities and decide immediately... It's like geometry in your head. Sometimes, there are 60,000 people in the stand and you give a good ball to somebody to score and nobody could see the ball.

Why? Because you have something special and can read things nobody else could. Maradona was like Kasparov. He could see 10 moves ahead. Platini was like a chess player. So was Cruyff. So is Zinedine Zidane. It is about creativity. I don't like people who say: "I paint so I am an artist". You are an artist if you create something.'

f) 'Chess is not a game. Chess is a well-defined form of computation. You may not be able to work out the answers, but in theory there must be a solution, a right procedure in any position. Now real games... are not like that at all. Real life is not like that. Real life consists of bluffing, of little tactics of deception, of asking yourself what is the other man going to think I mean to do. And that is what games are about in my theory.'

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Golders Green Rapidplay

Being a sarf Landanner means I've never been to one of Adam Raoof's Golders Green Rapidplays across the other side of the river. Still, don't let that put you off, especially as there's one this Saturday coming up. And also because as you can see from Vad's photographs here from one of the recent rapidplays, these certainly look like friendly events in a nice venue, replete with some familiar faces from the chess scene south of the river . . .

The playing hall in action

A remarkable hat opposite Alexei

A smile for the camera

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Scorched Earth

Today we head back once again to Excelling at Chess.

Aagaard's central thesis, regular visitors may recall, is that a "real chess player is someone who knows where the pieces belong." Well that's the idea anyway. Sometimes it goes a bit wrong. Which genius, and no I'm not being sarcastic, decided the White pieces belonged like so ...?

Black to move

You might also want to take a punt at what Black should play here but if you don't fancy that you can always take a guess at how many more moves White lasted before throwing in the towel.

Earlier in the week Tom mentioned the Richmond Rapidplay which is taking place this coming Sunday. I had intended to get along to this but unfortunately have ballsed things up and now I have to work that day.

Another event I won't be attending is Michael Adams' simul in Dover on the 19th July. I had very much hoped to be there - thanks for the offer David - but again the extremely irritating necessitity to earn a crust is going to prevent me. If you're free and fancy your chances details are available at if you're free that day and fancy your chances.

PS: I know I know - the Prisoner Penny Farthing image has got nothing whatsoever to do with today's post but I needed something to break up the page and I'm really fond of it. If nothing else it gives me an excuse to link to the "Magnus isn't rated number 2 after all" piece I wrote last week.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

A Classic Work. A Tragic Haircut. (A Book Review.)

Logical Chess: Move by Move

by Irving Chernev

If I could transport myself back in time to give advice about chess to the nine-year-old-me -

- the nine-year-old who'd just about stopped blundering a piece or two every game, the nine-year-old starting to sense that chess was in some indefinable way more than a game, the nine-year-old who'd had one chess lesson in which he'd been taught about the Sicilian Dragon, but which he misremembered and played only in a mirror image, with f5 and the fianchetto on the queenside, the nine-year-old beginning to get some kind of clue about a little more than the basics, the nine-year-old starting to like chess rather a lot more than his other hobbies - then I would simply advise him to play through the classic book Logical Chess by Irving Chernev.

After all, the first chapter called The Kingside Attack deals with the stuff young boy's dreams are made of: dashing kingside attacks, devastating invasions on the light-squares weakened by an absentee g-pawn, mating assaults on the castled monarch, sacrifices on h3, f7, the enemy king smoked out from his corner and swept across the board, and the like. And it does so from basics such as why we develop knights before bishops, why we move pieces only once in the opening where possible, from the importance of castling and rapid and efficient development, the fight for the centre and the centre as the zone of counterplay against flank attacks, the avoidance of weakening pawn moves in front of the castled position, how combinations arise as a matter of course from good play against weak play. And it does so in an enthusiastic, captivating prose style, that makes a virtue of repetition - the Move by Move of the subtitle is literal; each move is commented on - which enables the concepts to soak in gradually and unobtrusively in the learner.

In other words, there is a thematic compactness to the games chosen and the way they are explained, and this is Chernev's outstanding (both senses) pedagogical style in this book. This thematic compactness extends even to the variations he demonstrates and the order of the game, these things cleverly chosen to bring his points truly home. For instance, take a look at the position to the left of this text, from game 12 in the book. White's pieces got in a muddle earlier and abandoned his kingside, after which black was able to provoke the pawn-weaknesses we see in the chain running from f2 to h4 in front of a worried-looking white king. It's Flohr, black to move, and with 17...Qxh4! he caused Pitschak's immediate resignation thanks to the mate coming on h2.

Now take a look at the position to the right from game 13 in the book, where it's black to move in Dobias-Podgorny - one game later and eight pages on. White has just played 14.Rfe1!, and Chernev explains: "This unexpected zwischenzug (in-between move) threatens immediate victory by 15. Rxe7 Qxe7 16. Bxf6" - the analysis could have stopped here, but instead continues - "16... Qd6 17. Ng5 h5 18. Qxh5! gxh5 19.Bh7#!" How could a learner fail to absorb this exciting motif, demonstrated vividly in differing circumstances but so closely together in the book?

All this praise extents to part two of the book, The Queen's Pawn Opening. The emphasis here different: it's on the positional-pressure starting with 1.d4 promises white, which in these games usually manifests itself along the c-file in Queen Gambits Declineds, or via the built-up energy of Colle systems and similar. In other words, it's the sort of stuff positionally-naive nine-year-olds need to know how to avoid being on the receiving end of, the sort of stuff they might want to try out against tactically-rampant ten-year-olds. If this sounds less like the chess-dreams of children that chapter 1, it doesn't really matter. Chernev's pizazz, humour and enthusiasm carries us through. He even manages to describe castling kingside as "probably the most significant contribution to civilization since the invention of the wheel," and the chess-besotted-child is likely to half-belief this. Perhaps my life would have turned out better had I read this at nine - rather than instead deciding that the sofa and bath were civilization's greatest achievements, and that Man should more or less ceased his inventiveness with their discovery, as more or less I did in my life.

The third and final and weakest chapter of the book is called The Chess Master Explains his Ideas, and it is here Chernev's partiality as an author in this work is particularly visible. In several of these games, the winner plays reasonable moves, the loser pretty awful moves, and an absolute walloping results; yet Chernev rates these games as positional masterpieces. Crushes, yes; Masterpieces, no. Perhaps he rates them so highly because they demonstrates the principles he is determined the reader ought adhere to (despite occasional disclaimers to the contrary about flexibility.) Or some games in this section suffer the opposite problems. In these Chernev again explains the winner's play as flowing logically from ideal principles such as rapid and efficient development in the opening, piece-coordination in the middle-game, and accurate and efficient play in the endgame - whilst the loser flouts at some point one of these dictums, and suffers the consequences, he says. But in fact the actual losing point is sometimes a lot more elusive, the win far more sophisticated, the decisive error far later. Chernev's over-confidence that classically-correct play ought be rewarded with such wins risks confusing the learner who believes he is applying absolute-rules only to find the victories don't follow as smoothly from then as he's been lead to believe. No sense in this book of dynamics, hypermodernism, the "ugly" nature of modern play can be discerned; the reader who reads only this book will be strong against a certain type of victim, but against more sophisticated others the conceptual limitations will soon tell.

That is why, if I could go back twice in time, I'd travel back six months later and run through some of the limitations with the book. These are most easily seen in the lack of defensive resources Chernev demonstrates, and it is fun to try to search through these games for defensive improvements. Some are interesting but for Chernev's purposes ultimately irrelevant. In the diagram to the left, for instance, it is black to move, and the pin on the f6 knight implies he has two choices: 13...Kg7 or 13...Bf5. He chose the former, and white Spielmann already in his sacrificial-element finished the game off nicely starting with 14.Nce4!. Of the latter defence, Chernev analyzes after 14.Nxf5 gxf5 15.Qg3 how both 15... Kg7 and 15...Kh8 lead to immediate disaster for black.

Could black - Wahle - have done any better? Chernev omits an important possibility from the point of view of understanding the game more fully. After 13... Bf5 14.Nxf5 gxf5 15.Qg3, black can play 15... Nh5 or 15... Ne4 bailing out to an endgame. True after then 16.Bxe7 Nxg3 17.fxg3 (17.Bxf8 Nxf1 18.Bh6 is witty but inferior) white will pick up the f5 pawn and should have little difficulty winning the endgame, but nonetheless this would have been a much better try for black. And given this, perhaps even 13...Bg4 might be his best bet in the diagram. It is reasonable of Chernev to omit all this, since it doesn't change the ultimate result, and it is not thematically in-keeping with the chapter - but the reader should be aware this sort of thing quite often exists in these games, and must be look at the book not as a source of all wisdom but as a good starting point to understanding the spirit of a certain type of game of chess, but not the accuracy or sometimes even the inevitability of the result.

Sometimes the omission of a defensive resource is rather more deceiving for the reader. Take the position to the right from Tarrasch-Mieses (1916). White with his two bishops, better development, and extra space undoubtedly has a clear advantage. Black played 15... Rfe8? and after 16.Qh3 Qd6? (that 16...h5 is the only move here says enough about black's position) 17.Bxf6 gxf6 18.Qh6! soon lost. All this is well and good and clearly explained by Chernev. However, black's best defence is 15...h6! in the diagram position. It is true that after 16.Bh4 or 16.Bf4 white retains a clear advantage, but 15...h6 staves off immediate disaster by neutralising the threat of 16.Qh3 h6 17.Bxh6. Not only that, in several variations in the surrounding moves Chernev analyzes ...h7-h6 to show how it loses. Why did he not include 15...h6 in his notes, really the only move that keeps black in the game, and a defensive try he was happy to analyze in similar positions where it lost? Because, presumably, it contradicts Chernev's "message" about not making weakening pawn moves in front of your king unless absolutely necessary. But here it was necessary, albeit less obviously absolutely necessary than in some cases he presents, for instance cases where such a move stop an immediate mate. One might even say that Mieses applied the principles Chernev advocates rather too severely here and almost-immediately it cost him the game; this is something that without a doubt Chernev should have pointed out to his reader.

The omission of certain defensive opportunities is not the only partiality displayed by Chernev. For instance, in his note to 1.d4 in game 23 he writes dogmatically about how white's general plan should include keeping a pawn in the centre - especially for it to act in support of a knight outpost at c5 or e5, about the ideal deployment of the bishop and rooks, deployment of the queen at c2 or e2, and kingside castling. This is ludicrously over-prescriptive, yet Chernev castigates white's actual choice of the Stonewall Attack for similar reasons, writing that "Aside from the fact that making so many pawn moves in the opening is a flagrant violation of principle, the adoption of a system which calls for the launching of an attack by a preconceived formation of pieces, without regard to the advisability of an attack and without reference to the requirements of the particular position, is contrary to the concept of proper strategy and to the spirit of chess itself." That's true, but Chernev's own prescriptions seem perilously susceptible to a similar criticism. The practical problem is that occasional-disclaimers aside, it is not hard to imagine an easily-swayed reader becoming as dogmatic as Chernev is as to what is right and wrong in chess, without realising that chess is just not like that for the most part.

Why was Chernev apparently so unaware of these problems? Probably due to a lack of strategic sophistication that is evident in certain places in the book. Take the diagram position to the left. Black can recapture on d5 in two plausible ways: with the pawn or with the knight. He chose the pawn, a perfectly reasonable move, and Chernev condemns the alternative capture with the knight on the grounds that e3-e4 will leave white in control in the centre. But the situation is strategically a lot more complicated than this, and 9...Nxd5 is also perfectly reasonable move, since it more or less obliges the exchange of two minor pieces: after which white's extra-space counts for less, since after the exchange black's pieces won't be treading on each other's toes.

Still, all this shouldn't put off improving players picking up this book and playing through each game, with Chernev's commentary warm and welcome company. This is the book children who have learnt a bit about chess should get from Santa, this is the book adults who've picked up the basics should use to get to the next level, and every public library should have a copy. As for me, there weren't many surprises reading this work nowadays, because I have picked up these ideas in dribs and drabs over years. I only need a time machine now to receive their gift in one convincing, direct, memorable dosage at the stage one should, and perhaps to the nine-year-old-me I'll add in some advice about haircuts too.

PS. Take a look here for an example of how Chernev writes.