Friday, June 16, 2017

Scholar's mate

There exist no shortcuts to play better chess. I can give advise to my students how to make (much) quicker progress but without spending a lot of time at chess, you won't see much improvement. However most players are very lazy and don't like to work hard so very few reach master-hood.

At short term it is of course possible to make some small gains. Many like to play lines of which they hope their opponents will fall into a trap. Books like 1000 Miniature Chess TrapsChess Openings Traps and Zaps101 Chess Opening Traps ... are therefore quite popular among average amateurs. The most known and probably easiest trap is likely scholar's mate which is very effective against absolute beginners. I always advise my son against playing for such easy points at youth-tournaments but he sometimes ignores this when I don't look at his games.

In the long run playing for such traps won't teach you anything. You don't develop your chess-knowledge. Besides the success-rate depends very much of the surprise-element and the strength of the opponent. As a consequence you won't see many experienced players willing to try the scholar's mate. The American top-grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura is for a reason considered an outsider as he is the only +2600 player having tried this scholar's mate with rather disappointing results.

It is obviously strange to play for scholar's mate when you know in advance for sure that the opponent won't be fooled. On the other hand I do empathize with the at that time 18 years old Hikara. Fooling around as teenager is something very natural and makes part of growing up. You often only realize years later how arrogant and impudent such choices were.

Besides technically playing for scholar's mate isn't so bad after all. Many gambits are much more dubious. My analyses don't find any advantage for black so it is playable. It is not stupid to use it once as a surprise-weapon to avoid somebodies superior opening-knowledge. The Belgian expert Marc Ghysels proofed this a couple of years ago by making a sensational draw against the German IM Hans-Hubert Sonntag. In the game a variation of the scholar's mate was played with the queen immediately at f3 instead of h5. This has the advantage that black does not get an extra tempo with g6. On the other hand black gets the extra interesting alternative to develop the bishop of the black squares differently. Both lines look playable to me.

Recently this line also occurred in my game of the Belgian interclub when playing the expert David Roos from Zottegem. He told me after the game that he doesn't spend time anymore at studying theory to find some small advantage for white. He chose the scholar's mate because he was pretty sure that I never studied it deeply before.
David at the Flemish championship of 2015
There was a lot of unbelief when I demonstrated in the post-mortem which lines of the scholar's mate I had analysed during my preparation of the game. People often question my work-ethic of preparing a game for several players. However this time nobody could deny that I was right to prepare also against David's teammates. Earlier I wrote in this article about Marc and he is accidentally a teammate of David, playing on top a board higher. In my article openingchoices I wrote for a reason that players of the same club often play the same openings. The intended surprise-element failed and I quickly got the better position.

Although scholar's mate looks objectively ok, it is not an opening easy to play for white. Bringing the queen early into play is a violation of a basic-rule for which a certain price must be paid. If players really want to avoid main-lines then better alternatives exist. I wrote about this in the comments upon my article playing the person. Especially with white it is rather easy to choose something solid like 1.a3. I once lost a game childishly against this move see universal systems.


Friday, May 12, 2017


After the Belgian youth-championship I asked my students to analyze a couple of their games so we could discuss them together. Only 1 of them did an effort and that was just a print of an automatically generated engine-analysis. Pretty sad if you know that I work with some of the most talented youngsters in Belgium. 2 of them are reigning Flemish champions and got both 4th place in their respective age-categories of the latest Belgium youth-championship. This mentality explains of course why there is such big gap with the level of top-players in neighboring countries.

Deep analyzing of your own games is crucial to develop yourself maximally as a player. 1 of the first to propagate this was world-champion Mikhail Botvinnik and any trainer will still repeat it even today. However Mikhail Botvinnik continued by stating that we should also publish our analysis. This allows to control the quality of the analysis by the eyes of dozens of players.

This last piece of advice is nowadays doubtful. I agree with John Hartman in his article at us-chess that our current best engines are sufficient to easily detect our mistakes in the homemade analysis. On the other hand engines still don't give answers always. Feedback from other players can still be very useful. A computer only spits moves with an evaluation and can't talk to us.

However any player with some experience in publishing analysis will surely have noticed, how rarely you still get reactions of readers nowadays. The frustration in the article "getting attention on my analysed games" is very clear. I don't expect any reactions for a long time anymore on the many analysis which I publish on this blog. I write because I like to share something otherwise I would've stopped already.

Maybe the best place around to get analysis commented, is the forum of chesspub. The site was in the first place created to promote their paying services at chesspublishing but it also has its own identity. Many members visit the forum daily already for many years (I do in the meanwhile for more than a decade) and post regularly without being obliged to take a subscription. An important element in the success are the French GM Tony Kosten and a bunch of moderators, managing to keep away any trolls. Many forums die quickly due to a lack of monitoring.

I often post analysis myself. On the other hand with 750 posts I am looking quite inactive compared to the undisputed number 1. The counter of Mark Nieuweboer having posted some articles here too before has crossed the milestone of 10.000 ! Of course all of this is not always very serious. I prefer to write only when I feel a connection with the topic. Last an opening was popping up in a discussion which I covered here on this blog see king's gambit with Nf3. Buddo encountered a problem for white which he could not solve see chesspub: John Shaw King's Gambit. I spent a couple of hours analyzing the position at home and found an answer.

Buddho used also his engine to analyze the position but could not discover this. In my article computers achieve autonomy I tell that in the ongoing world-champion final of correspondence-chess we see a drawing rate of almost 100%. However it is serious mistake to deduct that anybody can analyze like in that top-tournament. I even dare to state that making never (detectable) mistakes in analysis is something very few are capable of. Please remember my comments upon the fantastic game Navara-Wojtaszek in the article g4 in the najdorf  or more recently in the game Wojtaszek - Mamedyarov after which black contributed his loss to an error made by his helper in the preparation of the game see chess24, a site quickly gaining popularity.

So I help others but sometimes I learn something too. In January there was a brief thread about a very specific line in the Dutch Defense. I didn't want to spend much time at analyzing the line as I only got it once in a standard game on the board. That game was played more than 20 year ago, see below.

The rating-difference allowed me to escape with this premature draw. I was a warned man so I did follow with the necessary interest the rest of the discussion on chesspub. MNb (Mark Nieuweboer) proposed an interesting anti-dote (5...Bxc3) which I checked at home with my engine.

Only one and a half month later I was happily surprised to meet the line on the board. Almost 20 years it didn't happen and now suddenly it does. When you talk about the devil then you see his tail. The surprise prepared by my opponent, the Belgian FM Frederic Verduyn returned as a boomerang. I wasn't able to win the game which is at least partly due to Frederic's strong defensive skills.

I would like to tell you more successful stories about chesspub but the truth is that the best days are passed. We had 183312 posts in the last 15 years. That is averagely almost 34 posts each day. However lately we see regularly days without any post. The silent periods are becoming longer and longer.

Most posts are today about chess-books, DVDs and repertoires. What do you recommend and what not? Analyzing of positions has become seldom while originally it made the backbone of the forum. I suspect that we can point again to the engines as culprit. Their answers are for most amateurs sufficient. Besides that people are less open and are more fond of privacy. People prefer small closed groups eg. at Facebook. Initially the chesspub-founder Tony did not have the intention to keep the site running for 15 years but now it seems the chesspub-forum is slowly dying. Everything ends but after 10 years it hurts.


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Annotations part 2

After one of my last games my opponent polity refused my invitation for a post-mortem. He didn't consider it useful and preferred to drink a beer quietly at the bar. Engines are today much stronger than any player so why wasting time at some lousy analysis. There is definitely some truth in this as with some simple clicks you can generate automatically an analysis which is many times more accurate. Besides in part 1 I advertised a method of annotating completely based upon evaluations of the engines.

The recent Penrose Chess Institute Puzzle demonstrates clearly the dangers of blindly trusting these evaluations. Engines show a winning score for black while any experienced player easily sees it is just a draw. One and a half year ago I wrote on this blog about computers achieve autonomy but this doesn't mean that we can't play any role anymore. The doom-scenario described in the recent article at "is this the future of chess" is just ballyhoo.

1 example of some fabricated position not looking close to any normal position in standard play doesn't refute the absolute dominance of the engines. Therefore some only consider positions from serious games relevant to judge about the supremacy of the computer. Do such positions exist which we as human can access quicker and more accurate than the current engines? If yes which ones?

In my article fortresses I already covered some positions of which we can prove that the computer-evaluations are inaccurate or even plainly wrong. However humans won't do necessarily better without using any tools. Nonetheless there exist some exceptions where we are stronger than engines. 1 group of endgames, opposite bishops stands out. An experienced player can often very quickly access correctly such position. In below position the engine is not eager to exchange the queens but Robert correctly values the endgame as harmless.

In the final position the engine still gives a small edge for me but I was already for a long time convinced this is a dead draw. Another recent example is shown below. Again the engine calculates the position as better for white as black loses the c7 pawn. White still could continue instead of repeating moves but the draw is not hard to achieve of course.

In both examples I consider it stupid to stick meticulously to my method of annotating. I exceptionally deviated from the evaluation of the engines and replaced them by my personal more accurate judgement.

In a recently played endgame I took it a step further in my annotations. Only a handful pawns are on one side of the board. The computer makes a complete mess when evaluating the played moves. Some moves are considered weak while there is nothing wrong. Others aren't annotated while there are clearly better ones. The original annotations linked to the evaluations of the engine can be found below.

After swapping all this with my personal more accurate evaluations we get a very different image of the endgame. I assume this also much better matches our intuition of such type of endgame.

This endgame shows there is also often a clear difference between understanding and actual play. We are still much more prone to blunders especially when we are running out of time.

Objectivity/ searching the truth still get absolute priority in my analysis. Engine-evaluations are used intensively but it is still good not to ignore your own chess-knowledge.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Young and old

Our sport needs advertising to grow or just even to survive but rarely its biggest asset is used. Chess can be played a whole life. It keeps intriguing and enjoying us. I am addicted to the game for more than 25 years and still every day I discover new things. Chess is an endless source of exciting stories on and off the board. Countless examples are shown on this blog.

An important role in all this are the absence of strict age-categories. Any physical sport must take into account the age of the person but a game of chess can be played between a very young player and a very old experienced player. Chess acts as a bridge builder between generations. It not only is a lot of joy but it is also a very easy topic of discussion.

Besides very young can be considered literally. At the age of 3 years children are already capable to learn the rules and adopt them in a game. My son Hugo wasn't yet 4 years old when he was together with his sister Evelien introduced to chess see cheating. On the picture below we see Hugo playing a game at home just before his fourth birthday.
No, I am definitely not a parent pushing my children to play chess. My daughter quickly dropped the game while Hugo slowly learned more and more about chess. Nothing was mandatory so it took 2 years to finish step 1. I believe there is a big difference with the performance of the 3 years old Misha Osipov in a Russian TV show. A genius or just a kid? I am not the only one asking if this is appropriate.

On the other hand support of the parents is absolutely necessary for very young children. Clubs must warn the parents if this isn't happening. I even dare to state that some minimum conditions should be demanded from the parents when they subscribe their child in a chessclub. Too often I see parents dropping their 7/8 years old child in the class without any further commitments. Sorry but this sounds more like an elite day care. Children can/ should play youth-tournaments once they are at step 2. I don't recommend earlier as often the rules aren't well mastered yet and the child risks otherwise to lose a long demotivating string of games. Hugo was already 6,5 years old when he started to join me to the youth-tournaments (see basic).

Beginning of 2017 Hugo achieved step 3 so time to try his luck in standard games. However here I encountered a problem as there is no club in the neighborhood arranging a standard competition in the daytime. No club had experienced issues with players going normally to bed between 8 and 9 PM. I toyed with the idea to contact my old club de Torrewachters in Roeselare. I know they have a very nice championship on Saturdays at 2 PM. But I didn't like the prospect of each week to drive more than 300km for just 1 game. In the end KMSK offered an emergency solution. Hugo could play a couple of games in 1 of their 10 teams of the interclub. 1 day after his 8th birthday Hugo played his first official game. Coincidence or not but there were 75 years difference with his 83 years old team-mate Walter Huyck.
Both players are clearly enjoying side by side a game of chess. The huge age-difference was no obstacle. Besides Walter remembered a cute anecdote which he shared with my son. Walter played 17 years ago once against me. Playing chess at a very advanced age seems to train the memory as indeed I do have a game in my personal database which I played against Walter.

Walters playing-strength has decreased over the latest years but I don't think he really cares. Korchnoi or Strong Jan are/ were big exceptions. Jan playing our first board this season got 70 years old. Extraordinary if you know that last year he was laying for some time in the hospital for a cerebral infarct. In the past some players already died during a game due to cardiac failure see e.g. deaths at the chess olympiad. I know several (older) players whom don't play competitive chess anymore after their doctor warned them.

A lot depends of course of how a player looks at chess. Is winning still very important or can you quicker accept a loss? If I look at my son Hugo then I notice already a positive trend. It has been a while that he cried despite losing the first 3 games in the interclub. Nevertheless he is still motivated which his big smile betrayed when he won his very first game against the 55 years old Greek Nikolaos Zaimis.

It is still too early for Hugo to go to big international tournaments like Gent, Charleroi,...  I think step 4 is a minimum with a rating of approximately 1400. I don't want to run before walking as some other youth-players do. Some -10 players already are at step 5 or 6 while technically they are not mature at all.

A real danger is children advancing too fast and getting exhausted at some point. I also see adults with unrealistic goals. Fun should always be the most important. Only if we respect that then chess can be something unique of which young and old can enjoy at the same time.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Dogmas part 2

I use regularly my very light playing schedule as excuse to read non educative chess-books. I find it much more enjoyable to read anecdotes and stories about chess than studying modern opening-lines or solving all kind of exercises. I very much liked reading the books Nadorf x Najdorf and Timman's Titans in the last couple of months. Najdorf's daughter writes some kind of biography about her dad from her very special but at the same time also extremely interesting point of view. Jan Timman pleasantly surprised me with his very witty style of writing in which he managed to share a personal story for each of the 10 former world-champions.
Jan Timman's book has contrary to Najdorf's book a lot of high quality analysis. Jan clearly had fun finding a number of ameliorations upon the already classic My Great Predecessors written by former worldchampion Garry Kasparov. The release of the series has been almost a decade already so Jan obviously was able to use much stronger software and hardware than Garry Kasparov. Beside his own games against the world-champions Jan focus especially at the less or even unknown games. Hereby a lot of attention is given to a bunch of secret training-games which Botvinnik played between 1936 and 1970.

Ragozin, Kan, Averbakh and Furman were Botvinnik's most regular sparring-partners. A game played in Moscow 1953 against Ilya Kan, famous for the Sicilian variation bearing his name, caught my attention. Particularly move 16 in which Botvinnik makes a remarkable choice.

In 1998 Jan added 2 exclamation-marks to the move. Today he still thinks it is the best practical choice in a game but at the same time he also shows how the current engines manage to neutralize the concept.

In my most recent class I was pleased to use this fragment.  After discussing a number of good examples of pawnstructures, I found it important to warn my students for too dogmatic play. Dynamic elements must get priority upon structural aspects. In other words you sometimes need to weaken your structure to get the pieces active.

As my students often wonder if this kind of chess can also occur in their games, I had prepared some examples from my own practice. The at that time 21 years old Dutch Sebastiaan Smits impressed me with his audacious 17th move.

You can replay the complete game in my article the neo-scheveningen.

Another example happened in 2003. The same thematic move occurred on the board in Open Le Touquet. The German Erwin Hein seemed to me much stronger than his rating.

So here it didn't end well but in the game black did achieve sufficient counterplay with the idea.

After these examples my students were convinced of the importance to also look at less common themes we find in grandmastergames. You never know what to expect in a game. Also eventually learning a lot of small new things will help you making another step forwards at chess.