Saturday, 19 August 2017

023. Winning By "House"


White: J.J. Wagenbach - friendly thematic, 1998

Twenty years ago (really?!) we used to play friendly thematic games to test out variations of the Wagenbach. One line which saw quite a bit of action was 4 Bc4 h4 5 Ne5!?, whereby White tries to improve on 5 d4 g5 6 Ne5 (as in Game 1) by attacking f7 before Black has played ...g7-g5, so that a later ...Qf6 does not also defend the rook in the corner. After a while, 5...Nh6 6 Qh5 Qe7! was worked out to be fine for Black and the line was more or less abandoned, but not before we'd had several interesting games. The one below is one such.

However, I'm not showing this game for any reason of Wagenbach "theory", nor subjecting it to modern computer analysis, but rather because of a possible position at move 32. Here White might have played 32 Rh1!? and claimed a win by "house"; i.e. by filling in a complete line on the board – and, very oddly, on the h-file.



Obviously, there's no such rule in chess, so János opted for something more sensible in 32 Bg3 (and only subsequently went wrong). All the same, I might as White have played 32 Rh1!? anyway, just because.


Thursday, 27 July 2017

022. Queen vs. Rook, Bishop and Knight


White: N. Christophe - ICCF thematic tournament, 2000

Back in my very first post, I mentioned that my pet lines include the Calabrese Counter-Gambit (2 Bc4 f5!?), Wagenbach King's Gambit (2 f4 exf4 3 Nf3 h5!?), Traxler Two Knights (2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 Nf6 4 Ng5 Bc5!?), and Schliemann Ruy Lopez (2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 f5). Subsequent posts have featured two or three of each of those so far – with the exception of the Traxler (aka Wilkes-Barre Variation), so here's one of those now, which also fits into the ongoing Material Imbalances theme.



In the diagram position, the titled piece configuration is only temporary. Black can quickly regain the e4-pawn for a start, while another game (Holzner-Tait) soon reached Queen and Two Connected Passed Pawns vs. Two Rooks and Bishop – which I lost. As it happens I seem to be the only person to lose (and lose twice) as Black from this position, though the other games in the database hardly represent best play either.

Black has tried a variety of moves here: 20...a6, 20...Qh4+ (going for the pawn straight away), and the anodyne 20...Kb7 (my choice). That move looks bizarre to me now. White is getting close to consolidating the kingside and I'm bothered about losing the a-pawn?! Obviously Black should be trying to generate counterplay and, to that end, might consider either 20...h5 (intending ...h5-h4, when 21 Rh1 Qe5 has at least disrupted White's artificial castling) or 20...h6 (probably stronger), followed by ...g7-g5. Houdini marks the latter down as only slightly better for White.

As for 20...Kb7?!, someone else did win with this move (with a bit of help), and in Holzner-Tait 28...h5 (rather than 28...g5?! etc) 29 a4 Qg2 might have offered Black more chances. But in the game below I lost without any fight whatsoever.

In his recent book, Black Gambits 2 (Quality Chess 2012), GM Boris Alterman stops at 18 Nf3 and writes: “Black has no more attack, and White's rook and two pieces will eventually overpower the black queen.” Certainly that proved to be the case in both my games, though whether it's entirely inevitable is not so clear. All the same, the standard 7...Qh4 is probably the right way to go.


Tuesday, 11 July 2017

021. Queen vs. Two Rooks and Three Pawns


White: W. Goedhart - ICCF thematic tournament, 1998

So the queen was unable to compete successfully with three minor pieces in the previous game. How about two rooks and three pawns? That's virtually a +4 point count in the latter's favour. This situation arises in a main line of the Schliemann Defence and is duly assessed as winning for the +4.



In The Ruy Lopez Revisited (New in Chess 2009), GM Ivan Sokolov writes: “Black is too much material behind, without serious chances to create an attack. While White still has to round off the technical part, it is obvious that Black is better advised not to repeat this opening preparation.”

White's mass of material should indeed be sufficient to win. Nevertheless, there are still some practical difficulties to overcome: (i) the rooks are not yet in play; (ii) the white knight is currently a slight liability; and (iii) there are some light square weaknesses for Black to try and exploit.

These factors were all demonstrated in the game below: (ii) Black's 23rd move threatened ...Qg5, forking the knight and g2-pawn; (iii) White's response (24 g3?) made the light squares even more vulnerable; and (i) the rooks never really got into the game at all.

In fact White went wrong straight away. 24 0-0-0 is to be preferred, after which Sokolov concludes: “White had a winning advantage in Todorov-Boudre, Cannes 1997.”

Well, yes, probably. All the same, I think 7...Qd5 is worth an occasional punt over the board. The critical line (up to 18 Ba3!) is a lot for White to remember, supposing they've even looked at it before. From half a dozen games with 7...Qd5 over the years, only one of my opponents has ever got this far, and I won that game too.


Thursday, 29 June 2017

020. Queen vs. Three Minor Pieces


Black: draco - thematic tournament, ChessWorld.net, 2016

Unusual material equivalences usually lead to interesting games. That is, where each sides’ "point count" is roughly the same but made up of different forces. Such as:

  • Rook and pawn(s) vs. bishop and knight;
  • Rook vs. minor piece and two pawns;
  • Two bishops vs. two knights;
  • Queen and pawn(s) vs. two rooks;
  • Queen vs. three minor pieces.

And so forth. Which side comes out on top naturally depends on the position, but some generalizations can be made. Such as:

  • For the rook to beat bishop and knight in an endgame requires the aid of an outside passed pawn;
  • For two knights to beat two bishops, the pawn structure has to favour the knights;
  • For the queen to beat two rooks or three minors, the queen needs to have some targets to attack.

The following game featured the last of those, with queen vs. bishop and two knights, and arrived on the board as early as move eight. I'd generally prefer to have the three pieces because they're more fun: three rooks (of the feathered variety) mobbing the big bird. This time I had the queen but in what seemed quite a favourable situation, since, two moves later, all my opponent's pieces were sitting on their original starting squares.



Nevertheless, there were no targets in his position and I was unable to create any as the game proceeded. In fact, in attempting to do so, I allowed my opponent to create some in mine, the main one turning out to be the king. By the time I'd finally achieved anything (connected passed pawns on the seventh), the three minor pieces (assisted by a pawn) had combined to give mate.


Monday, 12 June 2017

019. Revisiting Steinitz


White: juliangon - thematic tournament, ChessWorld.net, 2017

Back in the day, the Scotch Game was considered to be fairly harmless, because it resolves the situation in the centre “too soon”. The 13th World Champion overturned that assessment, and yet a modified form still has some validity: with the central tension resolved, it is hard for Black to direct the game away from established paths. From my own perspective, how on earth am I going to play ...f7-f5 here!?

That's not to say that the main lines of the Scotch don't lead to interesting games. They very often do. The Mieses Variation (4...Nf6 5 Nxc6 bxc6 6 e5 and so on), in particular, leads to complicated and unique positions. But post-Kasparov, they are now rather well explored; and even if I did once follow theory to move 38, I generally prefer openings where I can affect the course of play in the early stages, rather than battle on my opponent's territory. This proves to be quite tricky against the Scotch – unless, perhaps, you feel like trying Steinitz’ favourite response, 4...Qh4!?.

By centralizing the king's knight, White allows the black queen to take up a very active post, attacking the e4-pawn, which proves surprisingly difficult to defend: 5 f3 is illegal, 5 Bd3?? drops the knight on d4, while 5 Qd3 and 5 Nc3 are met by 5...Nf6 and 5...Bb4 respectively. Theory therefore recommends that White sacrifice the pawn for a lead in development.

In the 1990s GM Lev Gutman reinvestigated 4...Qh4 and published his findings in his book 4...Qh4 in the Scotch Game (Batsford 2001). In the critical line 5 Nc3 Bb4 6 Be2! Qxe4 7 Nb5 Bxc3+ 8 bxc3 Kd8 9 0-0 (which Steinitz never faced), Gutman highlighted 9...Nf6! as being the best continuation and, together with the German correspondence player, Peter Leisebein, strengthened Black's defences in a key game (Z.Azmaiparashvili-J.Hector, San Sebastian 1991) and elsewhere.



One move Gutman doesn't mention is the engines’ preference, 10 Nd4!?. It looks rather odd to retreat the knight again without waiting for ...a7-a6, but it's not such a bad idea. The knight has fulfilled its function on b5, forcing the black king to move sideways, so now returns to the centre. GM John Shaw picks up on this in his recent book Playing 1.e4: Caro-Kann, 1...e5 & Minor Lines (Quality Chess 2016) and writes: “For the sacrificed pawn, White has the bishop pair, much the safer king, a lead in development and a flowing initiative; all that is more than enough.” Quite so; 10 Nd4 offers White good practical chances.

All the same, Black is neither losing nor, it seems, significantly worse. I'm currently competing in a thematic round-robin tournament with 4...Qh4, eleven of the twenty games reached the position in the diagram, and five continued with 10 Nd4. Here's the first of them to finish (against the same opponent as in Game 2) – it ended in a draw. Can White improve? That remains to be seen.


Friday, 19 May 2017

018. All Rook Endgames are Drawn


Black: tripoduk - Chess.com, 2017

For five years now I've been playing an ongoing series of friendly games on Chess.com against someone under the name of “tripoduk”. I generally visit the site first thing in the morning, make a couple of quick moves, and go away again. As my opponent is much weaker than me, and as I don't play against anyone else on Chess.com, my win-to-loss ratio is very high indeed. In fact there have been no losses at all, and when I'd racked up a score of +89 =2 -0 (98.9%), the site administrators decided I must be cheating and banned me – albeit only temporarily. Once I'd explained the situation to their satisfaction (CC-SIM vs. relative novice), they let me back on under a new name and gave me a Diamond membership too as a titled player. Well, grand.

Since then we've played another 41 games, the score in which is currently +32 =9 -0 (89.0%) in my favour. Still no losses, but you'll notice that my percentage has decreased somewhat. My opponent is getting better. And in the game below, he should have had me.

Most of the games with me as White have been King's Gambits, and the following critical line of Becker's Defence has arisen several times: 1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4 3 Nf3 h6 4 d4 g5 5 Nc3, followed by 6 g3. John Shaw's King's Gambit book (pp 171-6, 231) has been useful here, and up to 2016 I'd scored 8/8 as White: five wins after 5...d6 6 g3 Bg7 7 gxf4 g4 8 Rg1!; one each against 6...Nc6 and 6...g4; and one more after 5...Bg7 6 g3 fxg3 7 hxg3 d6 8 Be3.

In our most recent game, my opponent repeated the last of those variations – and much more strongly. After his 12th move I was struggling to find any compensation at all for the sacrificed pawn. I continued struggling to find any as the game progressed, and watched rather helplessly as my position declined from worse to bad to lost. In the diagram below, White is completely lost.



The logical plan for Black now is to trade the g-pawn for the white a-pawn, swap the bishops off in the process, and win the rook endgame with two extra pawns.

It's not entirely trivial: the direct 55...Bb2 56 Kxg5 Bxa3? etc leads to a draw (as in the game); but rather than take the a-pawn at once, the switchback 56...Be5! forces the white rook to give way (57 Rd7+ Ke6 58 Rd8? runs into 58...Bf6+), after which Black should win easily enough. Temporizing with 56 Kf5 doesn't help either, since 56...Bxa3 57 Bxa3 Rxa3 58 Kxg5 wins for Black, if only just (58...Ke7! 59 Rd4 Ra1 60 Rxd3 a3 61 Rd2 Rf1! 62 Ra2 Rf3 63 Kg4 Rb3 64 Kf4 Kd6 65 Ke4 Kc5 and so on); while 56 Bd2 Rxa3 57 Kxg5 (or 57 Bxg5 Rc3) 57...Be5! is equally hopeless for White.

The immediate 55...Be5! is good too; e.g. 56 Rd7+ Ke6 57 Rd8 Bb2, when White can't take on g5 and otherwise Black takes on a3 and wins again.

Instead, I was given a reprise: 55...Bc3? 56 Bxc3 Rxc3 57 Kxg5 Rxa3 58 Kf4 and this rook endgame is drawn since Black can make no progress; e.g. 58...Rb3 59 Ke3 a3 60 Kd2 Ke7 61 Ra6 and if the black king advances up the board it gets checked away from behind; or 58...Ra1 59 Rxd3 a3 60 Rd2! a2 61 Rf2 (safeguarding the white king from checks) and if the black king advances up the board to the third rank, it gets checked away from the side. This made me think of Tarrasch's maxim: “All rook endgames are drawn”. By which he meant that even quite favourable-looking rook endgames can be difficult to win, and sometimes they can't be won at all.

As it happens we've just started another game with the same line (up to 8 Be3 so far), so I'll have to find an improvement pretty soon. Hmmm.


Saturday, 6 May 2017

017. Numerical Error


White: G. Benson - Koshnitsky Memorial Tournament, 2002

Most correspondence chess nowadays is conducted on online servers. Rather than replying to your opponent in hard or electronic format, as we used to do, you go and make your move on an actual board. The advantages of this method are significant: there is no chance of moves going astray, the time used for “thinking” is clear, and those errors unique to correspondence chess, such as writing your move down wrong, are ruled out. Obviously, human stupidity can never be prevented entirely; input errors are still possible.

The (Gary) Koshnitsky Memorial was played by email, using international numerical notation. In this system the squares on a chessboard are each given a two-digit code according to its file (1-8; replacing the usual algebraic a-h) and rank (1-8 as well), so that the square f3, for instance, is now 63. Making moves involved sending a four-figure number: the first two digits denoting the starting square of the piece or pawn you want to move, the second two digits indicating its destination. Thus 1 e4 would be sent as 5254.

International numerical was standard for international correspondence games, because different countries have different initials for the pieces arising from their different languages: such that a bishop is B in English, but A (alfil) in Spanish, C (слон) in Russian, F (fou) in French, L (läufer) in German, and so on. Using numbers rather than letters eliminates those discrepancies. The slight drawback in human terms is that moves are harder to visualize. 1 Nf3 may be immediately appreciable, but 7163 you have to think about for a moment. In the game below I failed to visualize a move correctly and duly made a numerical error.



The position in the diagram, arising from a Scotch Game, had been seen before. H.Staudler-V.Piccardo, 19th World CC Championship ¾-final 4 1999, continued 21 Ne3 0-0 22 Nxd5 Rxd5 23 f4 Bg5 24 Rc4 Re8 25 Kf2 c5 and was later drawn. My game went a different way: 21 Be2 c5 (aiming to ease my defence by eradicating the queenside pawns) 22 Ne3!? (an unexpected and dangerous sacrifice) 22...cxb4, and now 23 Bb5+ Kf8 24 Kf2 bxa3 25 Rhd1 gives White a strong initiative for the pawn. I hoped to be able to defend, but it didn't look at all easy. And sure enough my opponent played 23 Bb5+, but not as 23 5225. Instead, 23 6125 came back. Checking his earlier emails I discovered that White's 21st move was not 21 Be2 (6152) at all but 21 Kf2 (5162), which means that he basically has an extra tempo for his attack.

Returning to the diagram again: 21 Kf2 c5 22 Ne3 is now not even a sacrifice, and 22...cxb4? (22...0-0 is necessary here) 23 Bb5+ Kf8 24 Rhd1 gave White a big advantage. Subsequent play led to an endgame with rook vs. bishop and knight which I was unable to hold. Fuckadoodledoo.

Fortunately, that was my only loss in the tournament and I finished in joint second place, with a nice win against OTB GM Colin McNab along the way, and received a cheque for a pleasant amount of Australian dollars. I also, as I discovered years later, achieved a CC GM norm in the process. Damn, if I'd realized that at the time I might have tried to get another one. Nevertheless, I can't quite regard this as a missed opportunity, since in my next major tournament I came last.