Steinitz vs. Zuckertort – 1st World Championship

Here is a classic game that every chess improver should study. Chess Grandmaster Bryan Smith presents game 12 from the first World Championship match between Wilhelm Steinitz and Johannes Zuckertort. This is part of the Grandmaster Lecture series from the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.

I’ve added the PGN and analysis from ChessBase Mega 2014 for the game so improvers can follow along and also study the game more deeply after watching the video.

Alekhine’s Gun: A Powerful Priyome

Alekhine’s Gun is a famous chess formation from the game Alekhine v. Nimzowitsch, San Remo (1930). Alekhine placed his two rooks on an open file and his queen behind them with devastating effect. It’s a powerful priyome. Six years later, Alekhine (as Black) defeated William Winter in Nottingham with the same formation.

Priyome is an interesting Russian word for positional patterns to learn and remember. (For more on this, you can read my article, Mastering Priyomes: A Key to Chess Improvement.)

In the game below, I played a variation on the same formation. I also had a queen and double rook battery. Instead of being placed behind my rooks, my queen was between them. The file has half-open instead of open already.

I used Alekhine’s Gun to pry open the file. Black then chose to liquidate a rook and queen. My passed and advanced c-pawn combined with the advantage of rook versus bishop resulted in an easily won endgame. Black resigned after the next move: 32.c6!. (32.Rb6 would also win, but the pawn advance to c6 wins more quickly and easily.)

Improving chess players should remain alert for opportunities to play Alekhine’s Gun. I’ve also included the game and analysis from ChessBase Mega 2014 for Alekhine v. Nimzowitsch, San Remo (1930) following the PGN and analysis for my own game.

Here is the game that gave the name “Alekhine’s Gun” to chess lore:

Tabiya

Tabiya is an Arabic word that has migrated into chess. In Arabic, it means “normal manner.” From Arabic, the word stretches back to Persian and Sanskrit.

In chess, a tabiya is pattern of pawns and pieces that arises during a chess opening that is so common that it becomes recognized as a “standard” or “typical” position for the opening. These are important mental markers for the strong chess player because they are also critical decision points. They’re critical because the alternatives lead to different plans.

When you watch strong players and you see them making the first several moves “automatically,” what you’re almost certainly witnessing is the players proceeding to some tabiya. Once reached, the moves will slow as the players deliberate more.

A quick example is the tabiya for the French Defense, Tarrasch Variation. It’s 1.e4 e6, 2.d4 d5, 3.Nd2. That’s it. Instead of playing 3.Nc3 to protect the e-pawn, White plays 3.Nd2. This leaves the c-pawn free to advance and also avoids the Winawer Variation (because 3…Bb4 is repulsed by playing 4.c3 and Black loses a tempo). The “problem” with the Tarrasch Variation is this: the bishop on c1 is blocked. That means an extra tempo at some point to get the black-square bishop into the game. Nd2 is also less aggressive that posting the knight directly on c3. Black has four reasonable alternatives to the Tarrasch Variation: 3…c5, 3…Nf6, 3…Nc6, and 3…Be7. Much rarer is 3…a6. The resulting plans are very different. For example, 3…c5 encourages dxc and Black has two ways to recapture. 3…Be7 and 3…a6 are “wait and see” moves. With those choices, Black avoids making an early commitment to a particular plan. Etc.

Tabiya come in hierarchies. The French Defense tabiya is 1.e4 e6. First decision point. 2.d4? That leads to the most common variations. 2.d6 signals the King’s Indian Attack. Let’s assume White chooses 2.d4 and Black responds with 2…d5. We can then explore tabiya for the Tarrasch Variation, the Advance Variation, the Exchange Variation. Within each, we will find tabiya for subvariations, and (in some cases) tabiya for well-known lines.

Here’s another example: the Botvinnik Variation of the Semi-Slav. That tabiya is fourteen moves deep.

From this position, Black can choose from several plans. During a game, when both players are familiar with the position at the end of these 14 moves, that’s when the analysis and planning really starts. For us improvers to really understand an opening variation, it’s best to ask ourselves why this position arises. What happens if we get the move order wrong? Once we understand why this particular position is “standard” and why the move order is critical, memorization of the move order will be easier. The next step will be to understand the alternatives that proceed from the tabiya. What are the different plans associated with those alternatives? Perhaps one of them lends itself better to our style of play. In this way, tabiya become more easily digestible chunks of opening theory than simply memorizing opening variations and subvariations.

Thoughts on Learning an Opening

I read a recent blog column by Hugh Patterson on the topic of learning an opening. He suggested learning them in units of three moves.

This made an immediate impression on my as reasonable. The more I’ve thought about it over the last couple of weeks, it seems a bit artificial to me.

I think a better learning principle might be to learn openings in small, digestible chunks. The basic tabiya of the Ruy Lopez is three moves: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5. That’s a natural first chunk and perfectly fits Hugh’s idea of learning in units of three. The basic tabiya of the Petroff (i.e., Petrov, Russian Defense) also fits the three move rule: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6.

Not all openings get to their fundamental tabiya in three moves. They might need a move or two more to get to that position. A few get there in less than three moves. The Sicilian Defense needs only one move, for example: 1.e4 c5.

Going from the basic tabiya for an opening to the next logical point, the tabiya for a particular opening variation, can take three additional moves in some cases, but others might need more or fewer moves to the to the next critical learning point.

I believe that tabiya are important for learning openings. They are built in logical chunks as we proceed deeper from openings to variations to subvariations to critical lines. Learning an opening like the French Advance Variation by first learning the tabiya for the French Defense (1.e4 e6) and then the tabiya for the Advance Variation (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5) is a more reasonable way for me to learn an opening variation than a “three move rule.”

Let’s stay with the French Defense tabiya (1.e4 e6) for a little longer. A critical lesson for the improver is to stop at the basic tabiya and carefully consider some of the less frequently played second moves for White. Instead of 2.e5, White can chose 2.d6 (the King’s Indian Attack), 2.f4 (Labourdonnais Variation), 2.Qe2 (Chigorin Variation), etc. Why would White choose one of these? Why does White typically choose to avoid them altogether and play 2.d5? What is it about 2.d5 that makes it the “typical” reply for White to the French Defense?

To thoroughly master theory, we might need to memorize many moves for an opening. We improvers are not ready for that intense study of any particular opening(s). What we need to learn about openings already comes broken out into digestible pieces. These are the “tabiya.” We start with 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 for the French and learn the major variations gradually. Back to the Advance Variation, we press on with 3.e5 and memorize at the same time 3…c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 and this is our second digestible piece. At this point, we reach a critical decision. The major choices for the Advance Variation of the French Defense are 5…Qb6 and 5…d7. Each of those options becomes the beginning of another digestible piece. From there, we move along incrementally until we’re familiar with “typical” situations in the French Defense, Advance Variation.

I’m grateful for Hugh’s column. It gave me reason to pause and reflect. For some players, a mechanical “rule of three” might work well. If that’s the case, crack on. For me, I find logical units easier to understand and with understanding comes less memorization.

Click here to read Hugh Patterson’s column Learning an Opening.

KO’d by the KIA

There are serious fans of the French Defense when playing Black against 1.e4. It is certainly a sound and well-respected opening. I’ve played it and enjoyed it. The problem for the chess improver is that White can choose from several very different opening variations and there’s nothing the Black player can do except be prepared for each. Contrast this with something like the Ruy Lopez and Black has much more control over the variation to be played.

In the game fragment below, it’s apparent my opponent has little (or no) experience with the King’s Indian Attack (KIA). Fischer found the French Defense to be a tough nut to crack as White and preferred to take the French Defense players out of their comfort with the KIA. When Black is prepared, (like any other opening) the KIA is manageable. White arguably gives Black more chances at equalizing than with mainline French Defense variations, like with Winawer.

When Black is unprepared, disaster can be quick. Although I have between 150 and 200 rating points advantage, it’s the mishandled opening that has us cruising for a miniature or near-miniature game.

My response, when I find that I’ve played the opening badly and I’m facing a losing position is to resign. I know, the philosophy of some players is to never resign. My reasoning is simple. By resigning early, I can study my opening mistake in isolation. If I was playing in a tournament, I could try to reduce my frustration and rest before my next round. I find that when I play really poorly in one game, my frustration with myself has a tendency to fester and can badly influence my next game. Better to allow my emotions to cool.

Take a look at the final position in the fragment below. Black has traded a minor piece for a pawn. A further trade of knights is forced. My king is castled. I control the only open file. My bishop is poised to dominate the long diagonal from a8 to h1. I have the initiative. These are important strategic trumps.

Even Grandmasters Blunder

It happens. Rarely. A grandmaster blunders. In the game Stein v. Moisieev from the 1970 USSR Championship, both players blunder. One was a master, the other a grandmaster.

The first blunder occurs with 18…e6. Black had a slight advantage already and his pieces are actively placed. Playing the pawn to e6 simply throws the advantage away. Black should have played 18…f5. The moves Ra7 or Ra5 were acceptable alternatives. Even h6 or e5 were better than the timid e6, which further weakens the black square around the king.

White took full advantage of Black’s error and played 19.Ne4 (which 18…f5 would have prevented).

22…c4 was another blunder. Black instead should have played cxd4. Playing c4 allowed white to stab forward with 23.d5.

What should have been a fatal blunder by Black was 24…Nc7. Black should have played Kh8 of Bc8. The catastrophic move left Black vulnerable to the move 25.Rd7!! Grandmaster Stein missed the move and instead played Rd1? I call this a blunder because the move objectively changed the position in a significant way. White still had a significant advantage even with Rd1 but White could have quickly won the game with Rd7.

Black could have played 25…f5 in response and made a real fight but instead blundered again with 25…Ne8?? instead.

The Grandmaster also blundered on move 34 with Qd1. Again, the move did not completely eliminate White’s advantage but Stein missed Qh3 and that would have sealed Moisieev’s fate.

The Grandmaster did win eventually, but the game illustrates that Masters and Grandmasters can blunder, make weak moves, and play uninspiring chess, even during a world class tournament such as the USSR Championship.

Even Experts Make Unforced Blunders

My opponent has an online rating that’s the equivalent of USCF Expert. He made two errors, the first very clearly an unforced error as early as move 9 in the King’s Gambit. He made an early resignation, immediately after the second error. My own play was OK. I made a couple of weak moves, but no blunders.

How (Not) to Play the King’s Gambit

Gambits can be fun! They offer chess improvers plenty of practice in attack and defense. They’re good for sharpening tactical vision, too.

Gambits are not all created equal. Some are more sound than others.

The King’s Gambit has a long pedigree. It’s a romantic museum piece from the nineteenth century that’s having a bit of renewed interest lately. ChessBase has just released a two DVD set on the opening featuring GM Simon Williams, which I strongly recommend. GM John Shaw has just published a comprehensive book for Quality Chess on it, too. His book is very advanced, more for experts and masters to study.

In the game below, I had a 500+ point rating advantage. What the game demonstrates is a line popular with novices, where Black makes an immediate queen attack that just as rapidly ricochets. I’ve added a lot of analysis to the game, so I won’t repeat that in my comments here.

This line is popular with novices because it looks ferocious but that’s superficial. If you’re going to play the King’s Gambit as White, the line is not so intimidating once you’re familiar with it. Once you get clobbered a time or two with it as Black, you learn to choose a different variation of the King’s Gambit.

When you play a much stronger opponent and believe you have a crushing attack in the opening, you’d better slow way down and calculate very carefully. We were playing a turn-based game with a five-day time control. Black didn’t need to play this game over just a few days.

Stronger opponents can overlook something. They can make a mistake. When you’re a significant underdog, however, you need to take the time and be certain before you rush into an attack. To do otherwise is to play “hope chess.” Don’t get so excited, you avoid calculation. If you’re correct, calculation will prove you’ve got a sound attack. That’s worth taking your time and carefully checking. If not, the time you spend on calculation can save you from making a blunder.

Paul Morphy v. The Duke & The Count

While this is titled a “Beginner Breakdown” by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, the Paris Opera game was a friendly game between Paul Morphy and two players, The Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard. It is truly one of classic games that every improving chess player should study carefully. (It’s the very first game I memorized.) FM Mike Kummer gives an excellent video analysis of the game.

I’ve added the PGN from ChessBase, together with the annotations from ChessBase so improving players can study this game seriously. I also suggest improvers read Garry Kasparov’s commentary on this game in Garry Kasparov on My Great Predecessors: Part One.

Introducing ‘Chess Constructs’

Brilliancies from chess history are fun to study. The same is true of artistic chess problems. But, as Dr. Azlan Iqbal notes, there is a big gap between the two. Positions from games demonstrate the natural beauty of actual play, while chess problems are highly technical and often have little practical relevance. Dr. Iqbal has written an interesting article for ChessBase that proposes an intermediate form: Chess Constructs.

Click here to read Introducing ‘Chess Constructs.’

Kasparov v. Topalov, 1999

Garry Kasparov was world champion in January 1999 when he played Veselin Topalov at the Wijk aan Zee Tournament. As GM notes, he hadn’t played in eleven months. He was having difficulty arranging a World Championship Match. He needed to show the world at Wijk aan Zee that he was still the preeminent player in the world. More important for improving chess players, both Kasparov and Topalov are terrific Sicilian Defense players. Topalov tried to surprise Kasparov early in the game, but Kasparov’s combinational genius made this a frequently analyzed game.

Grandmaster Grind

Between alternately dining on octopus in red wine and quaffing chilled ouzo in Greece while coaching the junior British team, IM Andrew Martin is still sharing videos for us improving chess players. His latest YouTube video analyzes a game between Grischuk and Kamsky from the Istanbul Olympiad, 2012. IM Martin makes the case, this is a master class in building pressure. I’ve added the PGN from ChessBase for improving players to study.

GM Igor Stohl included the following note: “Nowadays almost no one from the elite plays the Alekhine regularly, the exception being Carlsen and that mostly in rapid and blitz games. As Kamsky hadn’t used it previously, Grischuk must have been surprised and was hardly prepared for a sharp tussle in the 4 Pawns Attack…”

A QGD Miniature

Some intermediate players choose 1.d4 to avoid a tactical clash. I believe that’s a bad learning strategy for chess improvement. Intermediate players need to improve their tactical vision. Playing 1.e4 will more likely lead to an open center with an early tactical clash than other opening alternatives. It’s also incorrect to expect 1.d4 to lead to quieter, more positional play.

Both players have a say in what evolves from the first few opening moves. The example below is from a game played the last two days over the Internet. My opponent is rated about 100 points lower. He chose 1.d4 and the game was over in 19 moves. Actually, my opponent could have chosen to play on, but my advantage was decisive.

The opening was the Queen’s Gambit Declined. But I did not play a quiet, positional game as Black. I chose the aggressive 6…Qa5. This appeared to surprise my opponent. When this was followed with Ne4 and Bb4, I already had the initiative. With 11…Qxc3, I was already up a pawn. White was better developed and castled, so it was to be determined whether my delayed development was worth a pawn. I considered the position largely equal, with a very slight advantage for Black.

White was not entirely “switched on” for tactics. This was apparent when White missed the point of withdrawing my queen to a5 included the possibility of swinging it across my fourth rank after playing dxc. White made a much too aggressive move that ignored his positional strength on the queenside with pawn to f4 and then made the horrible blunder of grabbing my h7 pawn, a pawn he could not hold and opening my h-file for my KR.

The fact that White completely ignored where he should have been playing – with half open b file and a c file about to open – indicates that White was not even especially well-prepared for a quiet, positional opening.

Improve Your Thinking Process In Chess

I stumbled upon a blog entry today with the title Improve Your Thinking Process In Chess.

Have you ever lost a game because of a terrible blunder? Do you regularly have oversights of some kind? Or do you give up hope in a slightly worse position and lose because you can’t find a way out? It might all be due to your thinking process in chess.

The author has some helpful thoughts on improving our thinking processes while playing chess. Click here to read more.

Kramnik v Kasparov, Blitz 2001

A year after losing the World Championship, Kasparov played Kramnik in a rapid match. It was during the Botvinnik Memorial, 2001. GM Daniel King provides excellent analysis of game 7 in his latest YouTube video. The finish is spectacular as Kasparov has the two bishops raking across the board and his rook on the back rank. Black’s piece coordination is magnificent! This is a very instructive game for chess improvers to study.

The PGN is included after the video for improvers to study.

400 Points in 158 Days

Pawn to Rook 4 has posted an article today that should interest most chess improvers. The author discusses his increase of 398 rating points in just 158 days.

I’m very curious how much farther I can go rating wise staying with my current training regimen of lots of tactics, a little endgame/opening study and reading over annotated game collections. I don’t see any reason I can’t get another 200 points and hit class B with that, especially if my tactics vision improves a bit in my games.

Click here to read “400 Points in 158 Days.”

Path to Mastery: Effects of Piece Exchanges

The Path to Chess Mastery site has posted an interesting article on piece exchanges. More narrowly, the topic is piece-for-piece exchanges that change the course of a game. What’s a piece-for-piece exchange? It’s when the same pieces are exchange: bishop for bishop, knight for knight, etc.

Click here to read Path to Mastery: Effects of Piece Exchanges.

My Best Endgame Play

Maybe I’ve played the endgame better. If so, I don’t recall the game. It’s also timely, since I posted a link today to a video by my coach, IM Valeri Lilov, on the topic of prophylaxis and I believe this endgame is a good example of the concept.

It’s my opinion, I was outplayed in the opening and early middlegame. I’m unfamiliar with the Open Catalan and I made a couple of weak moves in the early part of the game. I was playing a stronger opponent, someone whose rating would be USCF expert.

I had the good fortune that my opponent made a weak move, 21.a4. That move allowed me back into the game. From that point forward, I concentrated more carefully, while it appeared my opponent became more uncomfortable. I was determined to make the most of my reversal and play for the win by trying to avoid any further mistakes.

I’ll forego repeating all of my comments from the game analysis below.

There were some important themes in the endgame that developed. My aim in the endgame was prophylaxis: prevent my opponent from advancing with any concrete plans by restricting his knight and king. White chose to exchange our remaining rooks and enter a knight v. bishop endgame. I made the comment at the time, I would have preferred as White to keep the rooks on the board in the position. In this case, the center was open. White had threats to queen a pawn on the queenside, but I was able to restrict the knight with my bishop. White maintained a pawn on c7 for several moves. I had the threat under control. There was no need to rush the capture. I continued to advance my plan of a kingside pawn roller and to keep the white knight restricted. The capture on c7 could wait until my endgame position was dominant. Four connected kingside pawns against two isolated pawns enabled me to keep the white king immobile and insured a won endgame, absent a blunder by me.

Topical Line for the English Opening

IM Andrew Martin walks viewers from one of his own games. William Hartston was among the strongest English players in the 1960s and 70s. He is also a well-known chess author. IM Martin played William Hartston in London during 1988. The game started with the English Opening. The line they played remains topical today. The PGN from ChessBase for the game follows, so improving chess players can study it further.

Karpov’s Prophylaxis

IM Valeri Lilov discusses how to apply prophylaxis with an example from Anatoly Karpov. The game was against Pablo Ricardi from 12th Najdorf Memorial in Buenos Aires, 2001. I’ve added the PGN for the game so improving players can study the game in detail.

Magnus Wins the Triple Crown!

Magnus Carlsen is the first person to win the World Chess Championship, World Rapid Championship, and World Blitz Championship in the same year. He was trailing briefly but beat his only serious competitors today: Nepomniachtchi and Nakamura. Congratulations, Magnus!

Click here to read the news on the ChessBase site.

“The” Classic Back Rank Mate

ChessBase released a new DVD by GM Maurice Ashley today on the topic of mating patterns. It uses their new interactive format, where you have to guess correct moves.

The first topic is back rank mates. I was pleased to see that the example GM Ashley uses for the back rank mate pattern is the classic game between Adams and Torre from 1920. The example has been included in many books because the combination is so splendid.

To achieve the back rank mate, Adams has to deflect the Black queen from defending rooks on e8 and c8. Adams leaves his queen en prise three times. No sacrifice. He simply offers the queen, knowing that Black cannot accept and must instead make a different move. Adams methodically takes all of the alternatives from Black’s queen.

A truly classic middlegame checkmate that every improving player should study. If you have not seen this game (or do not remember the sequence of moves), I suggest you look at the position below without reading the moves and try to calculate the checkmate for yourself. Hint: the checkmate takes six moves from the position you see on the diagram.

Expect a comprehensive review of GM Ashley’s new DVD soon. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a challenging collection of mating problems to solve?