Dealing with the King’s Gambit

Many improvers are intimidated when they play Black and their opponent replies to 1.e4 e5 with 2.f4. IM Andrew Martin has released a new YouTube video that tackles the King’s Gambit. He reassures viewers that Black can play a comfortable game, with a little instruction on how to handle the opening.

Double Rook Endgames Require Patience

Double rook endgames can be a challenge. In the game below, I had a 3-2 pawn majority on the kingside against an opponent who was approximately 200 rating points weaker. A one pawn advantage is sometimes insufficient in rook endgames.

My opponent played well until the double rook endgame emerged. Then my opponent appeared to be unsure how to proceed. This is common among intermediate players in endgame play. Inexperience leads to weak moves. A common reaction is to make fruitless moves, waiting for their opponents to take the initiative. Then they can react.

Being patient is a critical skill in the endgame. You have to play precisely. That requires careful calculation. One false move can be the difference between loss and draw.

There is an important difference between patience and indecision. White had reasonable chances for a draw when we exchanged down to the double rook endgame. White should have tried to keep the center blocked instead of opting for doubled isolated queen pawns. This allowed Black to seize the e-file and separate the white king from its rooks. Black would have eagerly swapped both pairs of rooks, pressing the 3-2 majority on the kingside to bring the black king forward and then shifting over to the queenside as White dispatched the extra black kingside pawn, eventually promoting a queenside pawn.

Keep Your King Protected

I played the Albin Counter-Gambit against a player of equal strength. I felt quite a lot of pressure in the early moves of the game. My opponent had obvious experience against the opening. My opponent allowed me to equalize the game by playing somewhat passively, generally a mistake when facing a gambit (or a counter-gambit).

The black pawn on d3 can be a strong irritant in the Albin Counter-Gambit. White allowed it to sit there for a long time. That combined with keeping the king on e1 facing strong pressure from R+Q turned the game from equality into a rout. It appears that White missed the follow-up to a rook sacrifice on e3. The e-pawn was protected by the f-pawn. A rook for a pawn? Yes! By placing the queen behind the rook on the e-file and directly in front of the enemy king, a clearance sacrifice was possible that allowed the black queen to hurl herself down the e-file. White chose the wrong reply. Even playing 35.Kd1 would have left Black with a decisive advantage.

Bad Choice of Opening

I’ve mentioned before that gambits and risky lines are dangerous against an unknown opponent. I chose the Schliemann/Jaenisch Defence to the Ruy Lopez against a player of equal strength. Against an unprepared opponent, the Schliemann Defence can be intimidating.

My opponent was obviously prepared and exploited my opening choice. I ended up in a disadvantageous position after just eight moves! My development was behind, my queen was exposed, and my king was going to be less secure than White’s (which was already tucked away).

GM Daniel King Interviews Garry Kasparov

GM Daniel King has been conducting interviews at the 2014 Chess Olympiad in Tromsø. Just a handful of days before the FIDE election for President, GM King had an extended interview with the former World Chess Champion. The interview covered a range of topics, including the world championship, the campaign for FIDE President, and even what he taught Magnus Carlsen.

A Positional Sacrifice

A common trait among us improvers is to be too materialistic. We miss opportunities for game-changing sacrifices. Study the games of strong players, and you’ll find a willingness to make well-timed sacrifices.

I’ve found that the difference between winning and losing among strong players often comes down to just one or two moves.

I just finished a game today with a player who’s my equal in rating. I credit my win with three moves.

One was a quiet move. 19.Bh3. This move blocked the rook’s protection of the h4 pawn but the bishop had excellent scope on the h3/c8 diagonal.

The most important move of the game was 21. Nxd4: a positional sacrifice. I was willing to trade a rook for a bishop in order to place my bishop on d4 where it protected the passed pawn on c5 and had tremendous influence along the long a1/h8 diagonal. Black had traded off the very bishop needed to protect the black squares around the king. I reasoned that two strong bishops and a rook were worth more than two rooks that were doing very little except protecting the back rank and a knight.

The third critical move was 31.Rg1. This pin of the knight forced Black to play – in effect – without a minor piece until I released the pin with 34.Rd1. The rook protected my back rank from mate by the black queen and forced the black knight to stand there like a pawn while my bishop was free to maneuver.

Another interesting feature of this game is how I coordinated my pieces. I used my queen, bishop, and pawns to keep my queen and bishop to keep them all secure. For much of the endgame, my rook was hanging on the back rank. By a combination of shielding the rook with my f2 pawn (protected by my bishop), the rook remained safe on g1.

In the end, it was the passed c-pawn that won the game. By the time it reached c7, it was a true monster and Black resigned.

The Power of the Rook

My opponent chose to play the f4 Sicilian with little or no apparent experience. What’s more instructive about this game is the dominance of my rook down the d-file. White squirms under a pin on one bishop and then the second bishop. While that happens, my queen is free to pillage the pawns on both sides of the board.

White should resign. The position is, as the chess journalists say, “Hopeless.” White is caught in a mating attack. My forecast for the continuation of this game: more pain for White.

Opening Blunders

It happens. We all make mistakes. I made one early this morning. Right after returning from my AM walk. I carelessly blocked the protector of my b-pawn and my opponent immediately capitalized on my mistake. As a result, I was down a pawn with no compensation.

Losing a Tempo

Rook and pawn endgames can be tricky. The game below is one such endgame. If you look at the position, my opponent hoped to be able to hold a draw. Had I been playing White, I’d have offered a draw and if that was rebuffed then I’d resign.

The rooks are locked on the black pawn on a2. The White king is a long way from offering assistance. My rook has the a-file to protect itself, when the White king comes over to threaten it. The deciding action is on the kingside.

In order to win the endgame, I needed to lose a tempo by playing 51…Kh7. The calculation required is not deep but there’s no substitute for calculation in most rook and pawn endgames. The more direct 51.Kh6 would be a mistake, since the white king can then shoulder the black king away by occupying the f4 square. Losing a tempo with the side step to h7 allows the black king to penetrate and the win is relatively simple from that point onward.

Rooking the Queen

Yesterday I posted a link to an article on Chess Café by NM Bruce Pandolfini. The topic was using knight and bishop to capture the opposing queen. Today he has a new article. This one is posted on Chess.com. The topic of this article is using the rooks to capture the queen.

Click here to read Bruce Pandolfini’s article “Rooking the Queen” on Chess.com.

When a Bishop and Knight Rule the Queen

NM Bruce Pandolfini is a well-known and highly-respected chess coach. He has assembled a collection of ten tactical examples where a knight and bishop are used in tandem to capture a queen.

Click here to read Bruce Pandolfini’s article at Chess Café and try his tactical exercises.

Attack When the Time Is Right

I have been interested in the Albin Counter-Gambit since I watched the ChessBase video on the topic a couple of years ago by former FIDE World Champion Rustam Kasimdzhanov. An Internet turn-based game by an opponent this week allowed me to play the opening. My opponent and I are closely matched, about 100 rating points separate us and at the level of intermediate club players, that’s not really all that significant.

What is significant in this game is my opponent’s lack of familiarity with the opening. The tabiya for the Albin Counter-Gambit is easy to remember: White pawns on d4 and c4 for the Queen’s Gambit and Black pawns on e5 and d5 offering the e5 as a counter-gambit. White accepts the e-pawn. Black declines the c-pawn and instead advances to d4.

When White is experienced with the opening, as with many/most gambits, Black can have difficulty proving the rapid piece development is adequate compensation for the pawn. When White is unprepared, Black can develop his pieces with ferocious speed.

My opponent made the comment that (s)he was expecting the final conflict to begin. My reply was simple. Not yet.

Novices tend to play timidly or attack carelessly. Intermediate players learn better how to evaluate positions and their judgment about when to attack improves.

I agree with my opponent that the position in the diagram below favors Black. As I pointed out to my opponent, the White position is still defensible. White is definitely cramped and tied down on the kingside. There are still matters for Black to address, however. My preference is to finish my development and connect my rooks. The question is Be7 or Bg7. My evaluation of both moves is a coin flip kind of decision. I’m going to play Be7 because it reinforces the pawn on h4 and attacks White’s c5 pawn.

The point is this: don’t rush your attacks. Be sure to evaluate the position carefully by examining the entire board. Don’t just focus on the point of attack and its immediate surroundings. That’s how we fall into mistakes like back rank mates. As players become stronger, they learn to prepare their attacks carefully and initiate them when the time is right. My judgment here is, the time is not yet right. Thus, finish my development and continue to apply pressure on the kingside and in the center. Continue to probe the White position, trying to provoke weaknesses. Then, when I have overwhelming force in the correct position, that’s the time to attack!

Too Greedy

When I play the Scotch Opening, I tend to play the Scotch Gambit. I find that improvers are inclined to get greedy and take not just the first pawn that’s offered but also the second. Then they try to hold on to their material advantage.

The problem with this strategy is that it ignores why White would sacrifice two pawns in the first five moves. In blitz or rapid chess, an unfamiliar player might not have enough time to work out how to handle the Scotch Gambit. In the game fragment below, which has been played today, my opponent has plenty of time to reflect. It’s a turn-based Internet game with a three-day per move time control.

The general advice is to accept the pawn in a gambit. First, this is general advice and is not a good substitute for applying sound chess judgment by evaluating the position. Second, I’ve found that this rule does not work out so well when a second pawn is immediately offered. You should be alert to some sort of trap. If there is no immediate trap, then your opponent has to be offering two pawns for some sort of compensation. That usually takes the form of open lines and quick seizure of the initiative.

I chose this variation of the Scotch Gambit because it allows my pieces to shoot out with ferocity. If you play through the moves of the game, you’ll see that I rejected quieter alternatives on several occasions. I chose the opening with the idea of seizing the initiative. Each subsequent move I made, I weighed the effect on my initiative. If I surrendered it, I’d be down material without sufficient compensation. Within fourteen more moves, I recovered my two pawns and Black is hopelessly tied down.

The open lines for my pieces also made it difficult for Black to get developed. My pieces controlled so much of the board that Black was completely cramped. Take a look at the final move in the game fragment and you’ll see that Black’s queenside bishop and rook have an unhappy future after I reinforce my rook on c7 by playing Rfc1.

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.