Thursday, February 28, 2013

James Blunt and the London League II

And we sang, "Here we go again"
James Blunt

Today I go back to the question, Where are you now? And drop another dollop of James Blunt. Sorry about that.

It's a bit of a hostage to fortune, this post. I'm due to play in the Bielski Cup tonight and no doubt Sod's Law will now prevent me from arriving on time, or indeed at all. Such is the fate of bloggers.

I'll risk it dear readers, I'll risk it. For this post isn't about chessers not turning up on any given day, which sooner or later can happen to anybody for any number of reasons. Rather it's the process of defaulting boards becoming routine. Which is what appears to have happened at King's Head and Lewisham.

The steely gaze of a man who would like a game of chess

It's a strange business, being a First Team reservist. You never quite know what you're going to get. I've played as high as board eight - facing an International Master in last year's match against Wood Green - but most of the time when I sneak into the team at all it's on twelve, the very bottom board. Very occasionally I might then play somebody with a grade as "low" as the 160s (i.e. about the same as mine), but usually it's the 170s/180s. Once I played Alexis Harrakis on bottom board when he was getting on for 200.

All of which goes to explain why I spent some time looking up King's Head's previous matches before we played them last week. I was on twelve again and I wanted to get an idea of what kind of opponent I could expect.

What I discovered when I checked the London League website was that I only had a 50% chance of having an opponent at all. The King's Head first team hadn't had a twelfth board on three of six occasions in the season to that point. As it happens they did fill board twelve against Streatham and we had an enjoyable game. They defaulted board two instead, however, thereby putting themselves on a score of four out of seven for raising an eleven player team.

I got a game last week, then, but I was less fortunate against Lewisham this Monday. Their board three didn't show so it was an early bath for me.  When I got home I found out that for the second time in five days I'd played against a club who had failed to put a full side out more often than not this season. Lewisham, though, have defaulted a total of eight boards this season, compared to King's Head's 'mere' four.

 Alone at a table

I have no interest in speculating as to why the Lewisham chap didn't make it, nor in criticising him for his absence. Whether it was being unexpectedly delayed at work,  transport chaos, or getting caught up in a talent show for that matter, I'm sure he had a very good reason.

I do, however, think it worth pausing for a moment to reflect on the response of the Lewisham captain who gave a very passable impression of somebody who didn't give a hairy shit that I had schlepped up to Golden Lane for no reason whatsoever. As if what had happened was commonplace. Which for him I suppose it was, but it wasn't for me and frankly I rather resent the implication that the pissing away of my evening and £2.80 in bus fares is not worthy of the attention of those who did the weeing.

Bus ride home

The reality is the defaulting of boards is not common in the London League. Not for most clubs anyway. Why is it happening so frequently at King's Head and Lewisham? Are they having an exceptional run of bad luck or is there something more fundamental at play? That, Blunty would tell you, is a question they've got to ask themselves.

I appreciate that a captain's job is often a thankless task. I also recognise that smaller clubs like Lewisham are often on a knife edge when it comes to having enough players available.

What concerns me is that along with all the legitimate reasons there are for not getting a side out, another more troubling one might be creeping in: the sense of "it doesn't matter" and the feeling that wasting somebody else's time and money is of no consequence. Familiarity/contempt and all that.

I know chess has to coexist with what we might call 'real life'. Boards get defaulted. It happens. When it does happen, though, we might at least be polite about it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Chiv Chat

  • Good cartoon this one, by this lot and via Morgan Daniels:
  • Another thing. Apparently it is not possible to lose a tempo with a knight. What? Really? Why? Why not, rather? How did that happen? How did I only just find that out? And while we're on the subject, why are bishops tied to squares of one colour but rooks are not? A straight line is a straight line, right?
  • I prefer these kinds of questions to real chess questions nowadays, like "why did he play that?" Having returned to competitive chess after a year's absence, I'm getting thrashed in every game. Rusty isn't the word. I don't want to tell you what is.
  • And finally, another collector's item from Kier Eyles - a striking take on Magnus Carlsen's powers, accompanied by the signature of the Overrated One himself:

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

James Blunt and the London League

Got to ask yourself the question,
Where are you now?

James Blunt

Defaulting a board is a misfortune that can happen to anybody, but my last two London League matches have been against teams - Kings Head 1 and Lewisham 1 - that have failed to put out a full side more often than not this season.

More about this on Thursday.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Rubinstein Method

White to play in both
How to get from one to the other?
Rubinstein - Nimzowitsch, Gothenburg 1920

I've found I've started inventing names for things. It wasn't deliberate,  I wasn't even aware of it at first, but every now and then I'll see something in a rook ending and think: "ah yes, that's a ...." I'm quite sure there's no real justification for what I call a Rubinstein Rook or an Ulf's Spike, but anyhoo, I find my personal spurious terminology helps me snatch a little bit of clarity from the absurdly complicated world of rooks and pawns.

I'll come ack to RR and US some other time (sneak preview: White's 32nd move in Rubinstein-Nimzowitsch is an example of the latter). Today, I'll have a look at what I've come to think of as the "Rubinstein Method"

Rubinstein-Nimzowitsch, Gothenburg 1920. If you want a full analysis of how The Rubester transformed the starting position into the one in which Nimzo felt compelled to resign, you could do far far worse than get hold of Marin's Learn From the Legends. The analysis of this single ending fills about eight pages. What I took from it above all else was a relatively simple strategy for playing rook and pawn positions when you're the guy who's pressing.  To whit:

  • Get your rook as active as possible;
  • Use your rook to cover your weak pawns (thereby freeing up your king);
  • Inch forward

So at move 37, for example, we see this ...

... and at move 46 we have this ...

... and even when the rook isn't covering absolutely all the loose pawns (e.g. here at move 41) ...

... it's easy to see that White is defending those parts of his position at which Black is mostly likely to snipe.

And Bob Akiba's your uncle: a simple to understand, if deceptively difficult to implement, way to play rook endings.

Rook and pawn index

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Chess goes to the movies: Spice World

I regret to inform that, chess content notwithstanding, A Good Day to Die Yet Another MFing Time has not been a run away success. Number one at the box office it might be, but reviews have been rather poor.  So scathing in Mark Kermode's case, in fact, that Bruce Willis' flunkies cancelled their master's appearance on last week's Mayo/Kermode radio show.

Better play it safe today, then, and give you something of which the quality is not in doubt.

Chess goes to the movies Index

with thanks to the Brothers Horton

Friday, February 22, 2013

Figure of fun

How many chess players are there in the world? The figure will surprise you. It surprised me all right.

It's true. I read it in the paper.

I say the figure surprised me, since the last time I was following this statistic it was only half a billion. Good Lord, another hundred million or so in less than nine months, you'd think the world would take more notice.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

An Impromptu Meeting

Last Wednesday I received a phone call. Within an hour I found myself in an executive suite just off Whitehall, with an enormous wine glass in my hand and a small man rabbiting on at me about his ideas for the chess world. The wine was French and the man was American. The man was Andrew Paulson.

Not Andrew Paulson. Honest.

Myself and three others were there to voice our opinion on a new tablet app. Whilst I didn't sign a confidentiality agreement or anything, I won't reveal any details, simply out of fairness to the developers, who were attentive, lovely and gave me wine. Secrets for alcohol is a fair exchange in my book.  

Instead, I'm here to talk about Andrew Paulson, a man who has committed millions to elite chess over the next few years. Andrew Paulson, a man who has already been party to the further gentrification of the elite game in this country. 

Andrew Paulson, a man with a messiah complex who speaks only in personal pronouns. Or at least that's the impression I got last week.

 Not Andrew Paulson. Honest.

Now, it's fair to say things got a little heated. I imagine Andrew simply wanted us to go "Oh, yes, Mr. Paulson, this product is wonderful. Now, tell us another story."

But that's not really my bag.

We'd been invited there to criticise and discuss the elements of the app, so I was being quite direct. Once I'd heard "Just wait and see" for a third time, I went into full Paxman mode. I wanted proper answers and I distrusted the responses I was being given. 

Not Andrew Paulson. Honest.

It's hilarious to hear someone without a damn clue in a particular field disgorge revolutionary personal theories about it. Except when they have genuine power and resources to implement them.

 Not Andrew Paulson. Honest.

I don't dislike Andrew Paulson. But I do distrust him. I found him discourteous, considering I'd been invited there precisely to comment on something I know a damn sight more about than him. I am a chess player, a chess pundit and a chess consumer. I am both the target market and the commentator. 

I know my shit. And I know that I didn't like what I saw last week. 

I'm sure that Andrew Paulson is a wonderful entrepreneur and I hope that he is successful with his chess adventures. However, I invite everyone to be wary with me.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Random Rook Endings IV

White to play
Speelman-Sokolov, Brussels 1988

After last Monday's interlude, it's back to rook endings this week. We have two items on our agenda today.  First, find out how Speelman-Sokolov finished; second, have a look at how tricky rook endings can be.

Speelman - Sokolov isn't in this

If you were with us a fortnight back, you'll perhaps remember we left Spess having a "long think" in the position at the head of today's blog. In his article in CHESS (July, 1988) he writes,

On move 44 I wanted to play my rook behind his c-pawn, but somewhat misanalysed and so did something else constructive - improve my king's position.

Speelman felt he could have improved his play later on (48 Ra3! and 62 Kf8!), but he went on to win the game anyway. Sokolov sealed 67 ... Rg2 but resigned without resumption.

Time to move on to the trickiness of rook endings. 44 Rh8 was the move Speelman wanted to play. Let's have a look at why he might have rejected it.

Well, Black's got to get going or he'll simply be lost so what about,

44 ... c4, 45 Rc8 Rc5, 46 Rxc5 Kxc5

Now you're first thought might be - at least my first thought was - to try pushing the h-pawn. However,

47 h5 c3, 48 h6 c2, 49 h7 c1=Q+, 50 Kg2 Qa1

just loses. So instead,

47 Kf1! when 47 ... c3, 48 Ke2 c2, 49 Kd2

wins for White, but better would be

47 Kf1 Kb4!, 48 Ke2 Kc3 (to stop the White king getting to d2) 49 Kd1 Kb2, 50 h5 c3, 51 h6 c2+

when Black wins.

However, what about 47 Kf1 Kb4


48 Ke2 Kc3, 49 h5! Now, 49 ... Kb2, 50 h6 c3, 51 h7 c2, 52 h8=Q is check so it's +- again.

OK, but Black can improve too.

48 Ke2 Kb3!, 49 h5 c3, 50 h6 c2, 51 h7 c1=Q, 52 h8=Q


52 ... Qc2+, 53 Kf1 Qd1+, 54 Kg2 Qf3+, 55 Kg1 Qd1+, 56 Kg2 and there are no more checks

52 ... Qc4+

is just an instant draw.

To summarise, from our starting position after 44 Rh8 c4, 45 Rc8 the main line is,

45 ... Rc5, 46 Rxc5 Kxc5, 47 Kf1 Kb4, 48 Ke2 Kb3, 49 h5 c3, 50 h6 c2, 51 h7 c1=Q, 52 h8=Q Qc4+

when White has two extra pawns, but no way to win - as shown by Speelman in that old CHESS magazine.

nor this

How difficult are rook endings?

Think about this: a full consideration of White's options at move 44 is impossible unless you can calculate (or at least intuit) all of that lot in advance

Now think about this: after 44 Rh8 c4, White's 45 Rc8 isn't even the right move.

Rook and pawn Index

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Cover version: Bliss

Arthur Bliss, Bliss Conducts Bliss (Heritage, 2011)

[Cover version index]
[Thanks to Richard James]

Friday, February 15, 2013

A typical game for the variation

In his comment on last week's piece about the sudden disappearance of Chessville, Mark Weeks was kind enough to draw our attention to the existence of, thus enabling us to show you another curiosity from Ray's Chessville oeuvre.

Just for once, this isn't about plagiarism, but - as far as one can see - about making things up. Small things, but puzzling ones.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

March TT Fleet

I've never liked Audis much, anyway...

Given only one person really bothered, this will merely be a rundown of some of Matt Fletcher's best, with a few of mine thrown in for the craic. Incidentally, in case you were wondering, this particular individual is not the famous MattF from ICC.

The winner!

NONSEXUAL KARATE KID - Alexandra Kosteniuk

Honourable mentions

PENIS VALVE TOOL - Veselin Topalov
TANKER ANALOGY - Kateryna Lagno*
IDLE PERVERTS - Peter Svidler
OMINOUS LARVA PORN - Ruslan Ponomariov 

Some bonus bits

O'HANRAHAN'S EX-CLERK DEE - Alexander Areshchenko

 Not this guy

MUCKY NUN ZAHA - Anna Muzychuk

Not this guy either

* I've no idea when she changed her surname from Lahno.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Chess goes to the movies

Chess goes to the movies Index

Monday, February 11, 2013

Going Dutch

I think I’m ahead of schedule and can afford the breather, so I’m taking a break from rook endings this week. Instead, today I’m going to celebrate an anniversary: it was exactly five years ago that I first played the Dutch Defence in a serious game.

I’d answered 1 d4 with … e6 hundreds of times before. In that game back in 2008, though, rather than continue with … d5 or … Nf6 I pushed my f-pawn.

Looking back at it now, I think I was a little fortunate in that debut game.  White’s choice against my set-up was hardly the most critical and leaving aside the lack of kingside fianchetto (the standard recommendation for White), 5 a3 merely encourages Black to make the exchange he was hoping for in the first place. That said, my own play also has the feel of the ingénue. I somewhat doubt that Simon Williams’ new book recommends plopping a pawn down on g5 and then leaving it there for the rest of the game – the strategy that I saw fit to employ.

Anyhoo, while five years have passed since that first game it is only two days since the most recent one. The first round at Golders Green: a ropey beginning followed by consolidation, a kingside attack, inadequate defence from White and a point to me. Pretty much my Dutch career as a whole encapsulated in one Saturday morning rapidplay game.

And between 11.02.2008 and 09.02.2013?

  • 40-50 games at standard time controls (depending on whether you count those that begin 1 c4 f5 or 1 Nf3 f5 without an early d2-d4 as falling within the Dutch canon – for the record, I do)
  • a dozen or two rapidplay games
  • god knows how many internet blitz encounters

I’ve had some complete disasters, I’ve turned overwhelming positions into losses (the one I messed up on my birthday a couple of years back still hurts), I've played bad moves and I’ve lost rook endings. In short, I’ve learned the true meaning of the phrase a little dubious.

On the other hand, I've had some great scraps, one or two particularly pleasing finishes, I have a big plus-score (something like +22 =12 -14) and my rating performance in the main lines is 15 ECF points/a couple of hundred elo higher than the numbers you will find here and here. The variation chosen against me in that inaugural game has become the biggest point earner in my repertoire. I have +4 =1 -0 against it in standard play to date. +6 =1 -0, in fact, if you include games where White prevented the pin with a very early a2-a3.

It's a broad church, the Dutch Defence.  It would have to be able to fit me in.  Somehow I doubt Robert Bellin or the GingerGM have spent much time considering whether to pair the Berlin Ending with their favourite defence to queen's pawn openings.  I doubt they secretly yearn for a chance to play that ending in the Queen's Gambit Declined exchange that Nigel Short - another erstwhile Dutchie - used to favour either, come to that.

Whether I end up playing the Dutch for a lifetime like those guys, I don't know. Whether I'll be playing it for another five years, even, isn't certain. What I do know, though, is that I'll be playing it again: frequently and for a long time to come.

Friday, February 08, 2013


Here's a funny thing. A couple of weeks ago - specifically on Wednesday 23 January - we ran a piece piece demonstrating that a column that appeared on Chessville in 2007 was borrowed wholesale from an article in CHESS two years before. The author of that column was, of course, Ray Keene.

Not very long afterwards, it transpired that Chessville had subsequently gone offline. I don't know exactly when (I found out on Saturday 26) but it's been offline ever since and attempts to access the site obtain, instead, the screen displayed in our image above.

Most odd. Naturally one's first inclination is to see this as a question of cause and effect, but we shouldn't jump to conclusions. They've had server problems before now. So quite likely all that's happened is that somebody forgot to put a coin in the meter, or whatever the equivalent is when we are talking about websites.

One trusts this is so and that Chessville will be back before long. Whatever the immediate cause of their disappearance, there's no need to take down an entire website just because of one duff columnist.

But who knows? Chessville will either be back in the future, or they won't - and if they are, they'll either be back with Ray's columns, or without them. It may be presumptious of me to say so, but if Chessville do return to the land of the virtually living (which I hope they do) and propose to bring Ray's columns with them, they might like to check through them first, or get some kind of assurance from the author that everything that remains is in proper order.

Or both. I mean, where Ray's concerned you can't be too careful - what with, on Chessville alone, the piece currently under discussion, or the Guinness affair, or for that matter the strange case of the borrowed biography. (Or a stranger case still, of the illustrative game that never really took place. But we'll put that aside unless and until it reappears.)

Or, like I say, who knows? Anyway, we shall see. Either that, or we shan't.

[Ray Keene index]

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

A Trivial Interlude

I'm feeling uninspired. Proper chess can go hang for a week or so. Not that I regularly dish that out either.

Anyway, instead, I'm going to open up a little competition to the masses and see which of you fine folk can make me smile.


You have a pool of 199 players to choose from; the top 100 women and the top 99 men (Judit is in both lists).

You have until 2100 GMT on Tuesday February 12 to submit anagrams of our heroes, the sillier the better. I'll do a Lyttle Lytton-esque rundown of the best in my next column. 

Now then. Go away. Impress me. 


Monday, February 04, 2013

Sixty Memorable Annotations

#15: Speelman - Sokolov, Brussels 1988

White to play

Here I had a long think.

Jon Speelman, CHESS July 1988

I found this game, and Speelman's comment, when I was rummaging around a quarter-century old magazine. I didn't really think it looked like a position that needed a lot of thought, but then I read Speelie's notes and found out how wrong I was.

Spess, I suppose, had the luxury of a generous time control. A shade under two hours to play the 18 or so moves that would take him to the time control at move 60 and after that the game would be adjourned rather than be played to a finish.  An embarrassment of riches compared to the amount of time amateur chessers get to play out similar positions these days.

I don't think that's the reason that most players around my strength wouldn't spend too long here, though. I think, it's more an attitudinal thing. It's just a rook ending, after all.

29 Rd1
R. Pinto v JMGB, County Match January 2013

I reached this position a week ago during the Surrey v Essex u-180 county match. I'd been under pressure and played a mini-combo - a five-move forcing sequence - to get this ending, although I had overlooked that White could play his rook to d1. It is, of course, infinitely preferable to Rg1+, the move I expected when considering my 24th move.

No problem, I thought. I can cover the seventh rank with my rook, bring my king to the centre and all will be well. I had 14 minutes to make it to the time control at move 35 and I used precisely one of them to make this decision. So I played 29 ... Rc7 and quickly ended up in a difficult position. Too difficult for me, anyway, and I went on to lose.

In the coffee shop a few days later I showed the game to Angus. After a moment's thought he said, Can't you just ...? and proceeded to suggest the plan that I had tried.

A drink and a Portuguese custard tart later, we came up with a couple of alternative ideas for Black. How about sacrificing a pawn with 29 ... Kf7, 30 Rd7+ Kg6, 31 Rxa7 to get the rook active with 31 ... Rd8? (although we later thought 31 Kb3 first would be an improvement). How about - Angus's suggestion, this - trying to get at White's loose pawn with ... Rc6-h6? Neither of these even crossed my mind during the game.

There was a problem with the clocks at Coulsdon*, but that's not why I rushed my move. There was a certain time pressure (partly due to my own clock handling bungles earlier in the game), but I still had 14 minutes left when the game ended at move 65.

So not zeitnot, then. I think it was more a combination of failing to consider the importance of relative activity of the rooks - Random Rook Endings III - and not grasping that "just" rarely applies in rook endings.

Whether a different choice at move 29 would or should have led to a different result I don't know. Maybe if I'd paused a bit I would have ended up playing the same move anyway but made a different choice later on.  If I'd been thinking I might, for example, have tried sacrificing a pawn after 29 ... Rc7, 30 Rd5 instead of defending passively with 30 ... Rf7.

If nothing else I could at least have made it more difficult for my opponent, rather than walking meekly to my doom. Sometimes, even in the middle of an apparently simple rook ending, it's worth having a bit of a think.

Sixty Memorable Annotations Index

* I was told the time control was 35 in 100 minutes, plus 20 minutes to play the game to an end with a ten second increment from move one. Ten second increments are bullshit anyway, but around the time we reached the rook ending it became clear that the increment was in fact not being added. The board next to mine stopped playing for about 10-15 minutes while they fixed the clock. My opponent and I carried on with me expecting that there would be no increment at all.  Actually it kicked in at the point when the extra 20 minutes was added (which turned out to be move 43). It's not really relevant to today's post, but those digital clocks are utter shite.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Bad book covers XXVIII

Masters Of The Chessboard, Réti, New in Chess, 2011

[Bad book covers index]

Friday, February 01, 2013

From the opening into the rook endgame

This is Rook And Pawn Endgame Year on Streatham and Brixton. Perhaps not just on Streatham and Brixton, either, since when Chess Publishing's 1.e4 e5 section updated in January, the leading game involved an endgame of precisely that type.

Which is curious, since Chess Publishing (to which I've been a subscriber for about fifteen years) is actually a site devoted to opening theory, rather than technical positions at the other end of the chess narrative. But this is an endgame, all right. Not a queenless middlegame, another subject in which this blog takes an interest, but an actual endgame. Very much an endgame.

This is not entirely unheard of. Indeed one of my colleague Jonathan's favourite books is Edmar Mednis' From The Opening Into The Endgame.

We spent some time during Penarth last year looking through its various recommendations for cutting out the middlegame and getting as soon as possible from the opening moves into a marginally superior and hopefully hard-to-lose endgame. I particularly liked this one: 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 d5 3.cxd5 Nxd5 4.Nf3 g6 5.e4 Nxc3 6.dxc3! Qxd1+ 7.Kxd1

Get in. Thing is, though, even Mednis' recommendations (if I recall rightly) were mostly for queenless middlegames, like the one above, in so far as they can be distinguished from bona fide, no-doubt-about-it, endgames. Which are quite rare in opening theory, even these days, when opening theory often extends beyond the point where some chess competitions still have time controls.

Our position today, though, features an innovation on move 23. Not at all late by contemporary standards. (I've certainly played theory myself beyond that stage in correspondence - and quite likely OTB as well.) Lets' have a look at the position again. The last move has been a capture, made by Black, on his move 22.

What's left on the board? Each side has a king, two rooks and five pawns, which is eight bits each, exactly half the number with which they began. Not just the queens but all eight minor pieces have left the board. Quite a tally for so early in the game, especially when you bear in mind that they had a full board until move nine.

I can't immediately think of anything like it in opening theory - can readers? We'll need an offhand definition to work with, so let's define, for the moment, a theoretical position as "a position arrived after a sequence that has been played more than once in grandmaster chess". We can cross when we come to them the various bridges this presents, like
  • do international masters count?
  • is it a theoretical position if it's been played once (or never) but appeared in a book?
  • when we say "sequences", what view do we take of transpositions?
and just work within my definition for the moment.

I'd like to ask - can anybody think of a position reached in opening theory which features fewer than sixteen pawns and pieces on the board? Or one, not including the kings, with fewer than four pieces?

If you can, can you think of one that occurs after fewer than 22 moves?