Monday, May 6, 2019

The Sicilian Berlin

After I finished my last game of the Belgium interclubs I was surprised to see in the pub that many players were busy following the ongoing game of Magnus Carlsen. A Belgian FM even showed me on his smartphone how that game finished by a beautiful and surprising mate see 2019 Grenke chess classic round 8. Players seemed (at least temporarily) more interested in Magnus' game than the ones of their teammates.

Unless you were completely disconnected from chess last couple of months, you could've not missed the news about the recent amazing successes of the reigning world-champion. While he defended last year with a lot of difficulty his world-title against Fabiano Caruano, suddenly wins are obtained again very easily. Magnus is again absolutely hot and that creates again speculations about the magical barrier of 2900 elo which can or can not be broken by a human player.

It just proofs to me that elo is relative. We all have fluctuations in our playing-strength. Sometimes there are clear reasons for that like e.g. new responsibilities but we should also not exclude luck (see my article the lucky one) especially in a short timeframe. I guess this last aspect can play here an important role as the gain of 40 elo by Magnus happened in only 31 games.

In the Chessbase-report of the last round in Grenke we can read that Carlsen can today benefit of the analysis made for the last world-championship. Magnus:" I can still use ideas and concepts which we have analysed." We notice this clearly in his shift from e5 to c5 as main-choice against 1.e4. In the last 10 years Magnus used e5 as his preferred weapon in standard-games but since the world-championship of last year he has another favorite. This is clearly shown in the table below which I created by screening the Big database 2019.
The switch brought some clear profit. After the world-championship Magnus achieved in 7 games, 4 win and 3 draws against (very) strong grandmasters. It is the new Berlin which everybody can't break. Meanwhile the solution is also known to the riddle which I asked in the article curieuzeneuzemosterdpot. Why nobody tries to play the mainline? Finally the Azerbaijani top-grandmaster Teimour Radjabov tried it in the last Tata Steel. I assume Teimour also got curious and he never minds a draw either.
You probably wonder what is special about this line. Besides Teimour doesn't choose the most critical test. The answer you can find in the Ultracorr-x. If we select the games played with the position after 12....Rb8 by the very best players in correspondence-chess (both players having + 2500 elo) during the last 10 years then we discover below devastating statistic.
Indeed all 32 top-games played in the last 10 years were drawn. Not once white or black won. It is the Berlin in a much stronger version. By the way I also noticed that lower rated players rarely can win. I already discovered this in 2015 after I made a serious analysis of the opening which popped up in my game played in the clubchampionship of Deurne against Marcel Van Herck.
It is the reason why I don't play anymore the mainline of the Svechnikov. So there will be no follow up anymore of a theoretical duel in the Svechnikov and the scientific approach. However what else I will play is something you will need to find out for yourself. I already surprised somebody with it and I hope to do it a few times more. I already share a lot of information on this blog, likely more than what a dozen of players share together so I don't think somebody can blame me of being unfair.

Anyway I still try to keep track of the developments in the mainline. This is new for me as before when I stopped playing a line, I lost interest. Nowadays I do also regression-analysis. So at some points of time I look up if something has changed which maybe makes the line again playable. Since 2015 I've analyzed some recent small discoveries for white  but simultaneously there were also some shifts favoring black which cancelled out any possible advantage for white.

Today Magnus has an edge but I am sure his opponents won't rest. Sooner or later people will find anti-dotes which will decrease the scores of Magnus in the Sicilian. Openings are for many players something boring but a few can also enjoy the eternal fluctuations.


Friday, April 26, 2019

My most beautiful move part 3

I once played a game of which the missed combination has been graved in my memory forever as it is extremely weird. I need to correct myself as it was not a combination but rather a wrong continuation of my opponent which is countered by a very non-standard refutation. Which I didn't see and I have never detected in any book about combinations or any game. The "combination" or rather the refutation is so "unique" that I never ever seen it before: letting a piece to be captured with check and not take back but stop the check by putting another piece in between, as there exists a long-term threat which is stronger than the temporarily loss of the piece.

I didn't notice it in the game. The only game with this "line" in Chessbase is Piscopo (2364) - Zakharchenko (2197) played in 2012 - and so I am in good company: also the Italian international master Piscopo didn't find the move. Another move which can be categorized as invisible see part 1 and part 2. So unfortunately I played the automatic 10.bxc3 which let slip the white advantage away. Below you can replay the remainder of the game.

At the blog of Quality Chess there was recently a discussion about automatic moves. Often mistakes are made because players don't consider sufficiently alternatives. By spending more time you can find those moves was the logical remedy proposed by the author. However some readers didn't agree. Automatic moves leave extra time for other moments in the game when complex decisions need to be done. If you start to question each move so also the automatic ones then you risk time-trouble creating much bigger problems. It will be a disaster for the playing-strength to find that one unique move in one particular game in exchange for many blunders due to lack of time in dozens of other games. Still for my most beautiful move, I would've liked to make an exception.


Sunday, April 21, 2019

Exchange pawns when standing worse

In my previous article I introduced the book Applying logic in chess and wrote that the content is often rather abstract. This means it is not always straight forward for the reader to figure out how to materialize the training guidelines into concrete activities. Still this doesn't mean you can't find any simple advice in the book. Personally I was surprised that the author advised several times in the book how important it is to exchange pawns when you have an inferior position. He considers it a basic-rule to improve the defense.

Well I have to admit that I never heard about such rule before. I do know that you have to exchange material when being ahead and you have to avoid exchanges when being down in material like I demonstrated successfully in the great escape. However I never heard about making a distinction between pawns and pieces. So as FM and having more than 20 years of tournament-experience I wondered if the American writer wasn't exaggerating again. Nonetheless only a month later in the February-edition of Chessmagazine the Dutch International master and senior fide trainer Jeroen Bosch wrote something similar in one of his articles. Also he recommends to exchange pawns when standing worse.

More than 20 years I never heard this so called basic-rule but now it suddenly pops up twice in a couple of months. I checked around me and it appears that I am not the only one so maybe Jeroen just read the book "Applying logic in chess". This wouldn't surprise me as I strongly recommend this book to any serious trainer as it will be a standard work in the future for training pedagogically chess. Basic or not, known or unknown, fact is that Jeroen thinks the rule is useful for anybody so we should not ignore it.

Besides if I would've considered it nonsense then obviously I would not spent time writing about it. Also unconsciously I am sure we all are already applying sometimes that rule via the endgames. Many endgames are a draw even when one side has a material advantage of +3 when no pawns remain on the board. I am thinking about only knight or only bishop but also rook+ knight against rook or rook + bishop against bishop. I am talking purely from the theoretical point of view as there always remains practical chances as happened recently in the game Veselin Topalov against Ding Liren played in Shamkir, Azerbaijan. It is incredible how 2 absolute world-class-players managed to misplay an endgame of rook against knight despite having sufficient time remaining on the clock.

Mistakes are human especially if you need to calculate after many hours of play. Nobody is immune. However I also see many mistakes in the endgame which have nothing to do with calculations but are rather a lack of knowledge. I already wrote about this before see quicker part 2 that our youth is lagging in that domain and this once again became clear in the endgame occurring in my standard-game played in the Christmas-tournament of Deurne end of last year against fresh FM Sim Maerevoet. The 17 year old made in the 3 previous years a rating jump of no less than 600 points ! Contrary to my students he works hard at chess so is also more successful but the endgame still remains something special.

I advised Sim to work at it and I think he will do. This was shown when we did a long post-mortem after the game while all other players already left the tournament-room. While others were enjoying drinks and making a lot of noise, we tried to investigate deeper the complexity of our endgame. I told him that I wasn't sure if the endgame was won against best play so I hesitated during the game to enter it. Sim was surprised but admit that a win without exchanging rooks was not simple at all. Eventually I was able to find a narrow path to the victory after using the best engines for several hours. Clearly in practice it would've been unlikely to find all those moves.

Some would categorize my judgment as intuition but I believe it is not just that. I was trying to force an exchange of rooks as that would make the win much easier. I would only exchange pawns when all other options were exhausted. From earlier experiences I know that winning such endgames against optimal defense would be a close call and that is also proven in my long analysis. It is not easy to keep the activity of the black rook within limits, defend the white pawns and simultaneously cause a weakness in black's camp.

Ok that is all nice but how can this be studied somehow? I am no specialist of endgame-books but I don't think this type of endgames has been analyzed deeply somewhere. No I think a healthy curiosity is important to improve. I wrote in my previous article that I spend (too) much time at analyzing endgames. However it is never useless doing such research. For this type of endgame I made an extra mile by analyzing similarly endgames which were played recently. During the Christmas-holidays  I was spending family-time in Russia so anyway also had a lot of free time. I don't have chessbase but by downloading scid which can be done fully legally, I was able to make a selection of games in which the endgame of Rook + Bishop against Rook popped up but in which there were also pawns on the board at one side of the board and the side without bishop has one extra pawn. Some endgames were very interesting stuff to analyze. Below you can find the most interesting ones. I start with an endgame played in 2018 between 2 Cuban grandmasters.

Despite the large evaluation of the engine, I don't see a win against a correct defense. White's pawns are too advanced so the winning mechanism as shown in my game against Sim is not possible. Nevertheless black still managed to lose the game which I regularly noticed in such type of endgames. In practice many people falter as defending such positions is far from easy. This is also the case in the next example. This time we see the Latvian grandmaster Toms Kantans collapsing while a draw was feasible.

Here the problem were not the advanced pawns but rather that they were not anymore connected. This doesn't allow to coordinate attack and defense. Now it are not always the defenders making mistakes. In the next example we see a very favorable version of the endgame for white but black manages to defend. It is nice performance of the Argentinean grandmaster Federico Perez Ponsa.

Black executes nicely the basic-rule of exchanging pawns when standing worse. Besides we also see that the drawing chances immediately improve when 1 pair of pawns disappear. Still it doesn't mean a draw is given easily even when black is the super-grandmaster Peter Svidler is.

Black didn't blink. White tried all his tricks and waited as long as possible till it was not possible anymore to avoid pawn-moves. In the next example we see again it is a draw but both players can't avoid making mistakes.

So you always need to be alert in this endgame even if you know which position is a draw or not. For me analyzing such endgames is fun and it also extends my horizon of the endgame. Only in 2018 I found dozens of this type of endgame in the big database. Some of them were an exact copy of my position against Sim. Also I do think some conclusions are valid for other type of endgames.

Finally I find it very important to think via concepts instead of concrete moves. You first need to figure out what you want to achieve and then you need to match the right moves to your idea. In my recent courses in KMSK I obliged my students to train such endgames by playing them out against each other. I opened a new world for them as they never tried to play chess in such way.


Friday, April 5, 2019

How many games should I play?

Many chess-clubs offer lessons for the youth but adults are often ignored. Contrary any adult able to play chess is begged to give courses even it is just explaining the basic principles of step 1 and 2 at children. Now and then I hear another teacher at KMSK telling me that I am instructing things to my children which they haven't learned yet themselves.

It is very rare that I hear an adult trying to start playing chess. Sometimes a parent having a child playing chess, wants to know more about the hobby of his child and tries to get involved into chess but also very rapidly quits. It is emotionally tough to see how even young children are progressing much faster and easier than yourself. A degree at the university of laws, engineer, doctor... doesn't give any added value to play better chess.

Adults making big improvements is something very exceptional. So I was very surprised to hear last year that an American claimed to have developed a training-method to improve from beginner to international master as an adult. Not only that but he said that he did it himself in 3 years to get that renowned title. Too good to be true I thought so I liked to see for myself what he wrote in his new book Applying Logic in Chess. What am I doing wrong or what can I do better? I assume many players are regularly wondering this.
If we look at the fide-rating-profile of the American IM Erik Kislik then we see he got his first rating beginning of 2008 and already in 2012 achieved the IM-title. So 3 years is a bit exaggerated even if we take into account the slowness of fide attributing the titles. On the other hand it is still an incredible performance for an adult.

However having quite some experience with salestalk and particularly with Americans I know you should always look deeper than just the surface. After some research on the internet I quickly detected that Erik already had in the year 2002 a 1900 USCF rating. 1900 USCF corresponds with about 1800 fide. More than half of the clubplayers never get such high rating so stating that in 2008 you are still a beginner is a very open interpretation of the term "beginner". Gaining a couple of 100 rating points in 3 years is something much more realistic to achieve.

Still we should not underestimate the feat of Erik. Very few players have succeeded to get multiple titles when they were already an adult. I did some research and I found only a few examples: the Scottish grandmaster John Shaw getting his GM-title at the age of 38,  the English grandmaster Jonathan Hawkins getting the GM-title at the age of 31 and the Swedish grandmaster Axel Smith getting the GM-title at the age of 30. They managed to improve a couple of hundred elo while being adults. Not a surprise that both Jonathan and Axel have also written a book about their individual journeys: Amateur to IM: Proven Ideas and Training Methods and Pump up your rating.

Each of the books are showing the many obstacles on the road to the title and give the readers advise what to do and not to do. If you compare the books then you find resemblances but also big differences. I was surprised about that as I expected not so different roads for improvement exist as we know so very few success-stories. I think this is something interesting to investigate a bit deeper by comparing the books "Applying Logic in Chess" en "Pump up your training" as they suit best for this task. Below you can find my short summary of the comparison together with some comments from myself.
You can see many serious differences in the approach of both. Personally I am feeling more affinity with the method of Erik Kislik but there is certainly also good advise in the book from Alex Smith so I recommend them both. Alex often gives more concrete advise while Erik will tell which parts of the training should get the most time. I think a mix of both taking into account your own preferences and situation is likely the most optimal choice. Surely a coach can help you with that.

Finally in both books there is clearly one common advise which is to play as much games as possible. With games they mean of course standard ones so no blitz. In each training-plan this should get absolute priority. To know how many games we are talking about, I checked the activity of the authors on their path to the titles. I start with the American IM Erik Kislik.
At the age of 22 he got the FM-title. At 25 he became IM. Averagely he played 140 games each year for standard fide rating and that for a period of 5 years. So in 1 year he played (much) more than what I played in the last 10 year together!

Eventually we only see a gain of 150 elo compared to his initial rating. The Swedish GM Alex Smith did much more. However it took him 10 years to climb about 350 elo as an adult.
We see Alex only making serious progress when he starts to play more games in 2007. In 2008 he became IM and only in 2016 he got the GM-title. In those years he played averagely 110 games per year with an insane peak of 185 games for standard fide rating in 2008.

Finally the British GM Jonathan Hawkins shows that improvements don't come solely from playing a lot of games. Maybe he played many games without being rated but I doubt that as strong players don't get much chances this way to get interesting opponents.
FM he became at the age 25. At 27 he got the IM-title but only at 31 he finally became GM. So we see more than 300 elo gain over a period of 8 years. Only for the jump from IM to GM he played considerably more games but still less than the 2 other earlier mentioned players.

So I think we can conclude that playing many games is necessary to make progress. However as an adult it is very difficult to free enough time for playing those games. If you are not rich then this can only be done by combining lousy paid temporary jobs and you must be satisfied with minimum comfort. It is no wonder that over the age of 30 it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain such way of life. You can't combine this with starting a family.

For me there won't be any big improvements anymore and I should not wait for my retirement like strong Jan. Jan was able to stop working at the age of 60 but likely I will have to continue till 70 which makes a big difference for a chessplayer.

Last year I started to play rapid-tournaments together with my children see my article memory. This year I am planning to play together once a standard-tournament. It is a small step to become again a more active player.


Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Free of charge part 2

Free of charge, it still exists in this era of the internet 3.0 or 4.0 (or which version are we using nowadays?).

You can still find quality however more and more on payment, provided in different formats (see e.g the old sites, of which the historical one of Olimpiu Orcan is a nice example: Another famous example from the stone age of the internet,, which meanwhile can only be accessed for a fee. Before it was a nice collection of articles written by professionals about many aspects of the game, but unfortunately now not anymore available for free. Fortunately I downloaded many articles so I can still access them today.

I am not going to discuss free databases here, they exist in all different sizes and qualities sometimes also including analysis. I also will not talk about free chess-software, also of that you can find many of them and I don't mean hacks but rather good software like arena, scid, and other tools/ apps to work with like making gifs of games (popular at twitter).

In this article I want to give a summary of where you can find on the internet good pdfs with chess-content, just to download legally, so no torrent sites (sooner or later just giving you a virus). I also limit myself to non-interactive pdfs, The advantage of a collection of books on pdf-format is that you can take dozens of them on USB-strick - very handy for holidays: no trunk full of heavy books needed.

About the format I also want to add that pdf is fine but dejavu (djvu) is also popular, as it compress the files a lot. And you can find as much chessbooks in dejavu as in pdf.

The first place to look is naturally google, but a more direct and fully legal place to access chess-documentation is the internet archive (, where you can find a number of interesting pdf books and magazines. It is not a lot but a good start. Anybody interested in American chess-news of 50-60 years ago can download some years of Chess Review. Very nice.

A second address is, where you can download a limited number of pdfs and djvus. No recent publications but it looks all copyright free. The most interesting subcategory seems to be the collection of games, with some less famous work.

A third location is probably less correct : They show some books online but I doubt this is all legal.

Only now you should google the titles of the book so type (or just "schaak", "chess", "ajedrez", "xadrez", "schach", "skak",…) + "pdf" (or djvu) which will give you some hits, likely some fragments of the books will be given free of charge. An exception is, where you can "just" download some pdfs. Or the simple search "schaak pdf" generates the complete "Ome Jan leert zijn neefje schaken".

Related to the fragments: New in Chess has the nice habit to show a number of pages free of charge of each of their books online - a nice balance between free and paid content. Also QualityChess puts similar extracts online - definitely worth a visit. It is not a goldmine, but some scrolling can let you discover some stuff.

Belgian clubs with a lot of content online: here we have to mention CREB ( tabs archives and publications) as somehow the historical database of all what happened about chess in Brussels, Brabant and Belgium. Thanks to a.o. Etienne Cornil you can find a load of interesting information about chess in Belgium for everybody. The other important historical site about Belgium is of course still Belgian Chess History ( - no pdfs but almost all games of Belgian players played in important tournaments/ matches from before the year 2000. But I digress so I go back to the pdfs.

KBSB-VSF members also get via VSF bi-weekly the VSF-magazine online in the mailbox. It is actual news so easy and interesting. No need to search for it. The magazine is a good mix between historical information, game-analysis, announcements and tournament-results. The KGSRL also puts their club-magazine online for many years already, but the games are mostly from grandmasters so less relevant for the clubplayer. Clubs like Jean Jaures, Veurne and Landegem have published some editions online but unfortunately didn't maintain that service. I probably still forget some clubs but this article is not an actual scan of what each club does in Belgium so just summarizes what I have detected in the past online.

Thanks to Rokade Westerlo I discovered, but that is more for chess-historians.

The Netherlands also have a good portion of online content. Maybe the clubmagazine with the best layout is the one of Rotterdam Charlois Europoort ( It is a pity no more recent numbers are added to the archive.

Interesting and still today relevant is the newsletter of the Max Euwe center. It is not clear what the focus is in the articles but many lovely stories can be found (not about Euwe)(

Delft ( also puts their clubmagazine online. A little advice I can give is that many clubs only show the most recent ones (e.g. the last 5) of their clubmagazine but often older ones are still on the server. You can find them by just changing the edition-number (in the case of Delft see link just change 32 to 31 or 33). They remove analysis of games from the online-magazine but you can't get everything for free always. It are just a few samples but Rotterdam I have known from the past, Delft I found immediately with some simple google-search. It also allowed me to find Groningen, Assendelft, Winterswijk...

For lovers of endgames and studies there is Arves allows you to download lots of material.

Netherlands has also some good sites for general information and after some searching also historical documentation: and are 2 sits with a lot of content.

Not on the Internet but something which gets a lot of attention in Netherlands are jubilee-books about the history of a local chess-club - many small and big ones have already created one with mixed results (qua format and content - we are in the Netherlands - often with miserable language). But again I digress...

Swiss: one of the places I like to return is the address of the Swiss chessmagazine (SSZ: years of fun reading (and good for your German, French and even Italian) about 8 editions per year. Swiss is a country with relatively independent federations (like big provinces) each having their own organization - which generates some interesting material. And in recent years Swiss chess has been flourishing - first due to an injection by Kortchnoi, Nemet, Milov and Gallagher, but now also by their own youth (Studer, Jenni, Georgiadis and Bogner).

Germany: the magazine Schach has all their lessons online (more than 100 numbers) see ( This looks useful for teachers. The section is historically grown from a mix of all kind of lessons to a more structured and thematic guide. This is educational for any player. Besides you can also subscribe to the newsletter of the German chessfederation: (, but I didn't do that (already enough mail) so I can't give much feedback about that.

For the magazine of the club of Roeselare De Torrewachters I am busy creating a series about chess in America. I found some good address of the American federations and clubs which contain some interesting files about local and federal level. General rule: the most populated regions have also the best websites to download material.

And I can plagiarize myself (for California): " A summary of the chess-activities can not be done without mentioning the Mechanics’ Institute ( That chessclub is the oldest of the USA (The Kolty chess Club in Campbell is the second oldest of that region) and has in the past organized many tournaments (also for computers). The site - and surely the Chess Room History is definitely worth a visit. But a real goldmine is, with a wealth of old magazines, for free in pdf to download. The best of club- or tournamentreports are that you can replay some games of strong, not grandmasters which otherwise you can't find. Those games are often interesting, well analyzed and are discussing some interesting openinglines and endgames - the reason why there were chosen for publication. Briefly, it is something else than Vlaanderen Schaakt Digitaal.

In this summary I have focused myself on getting easy and quick information taking into account language, relevance, copyright and easy access. People willing to try other languages (Spanish, German,...) should try google ("schach pdf/djvu" or "ajedrez pdf/djvu" which will generate a lot of interesting stuff, not always copyright conform or free of virus I assume). I found a Spanish site with a lot of Spanish and English content but likely not fulfilling all copyright-obligations so up to the reader to investigate.

I didn't want to discuss databases as there are many sources but I make one exception: which has already 600 million (!) games, played on their platform, so mainly blitz. But a blitzgame between grandmasters is still a good game so...

Another site which I found at the very last minute was the one of the chessclub of Tessenderlo (, on which you can find a lot of club-information - the site is maintained already for more than 20 years - quite an accomplishment of the webmaster for sure.


Thursday, March 14, 2019

Lc0 vs Stockfish superfinal TCEC season 14

1. Pre-match expectations of Leela.

Beforehand SF was considered the clear favorite. There are a number of reasons for that: the rating of Leela (Lc0 v0.19) at Ccrl40 was not great: the engine wasn't mentioned in the top-100 (version v0.20 was later during the match ranked at the 45th place). Second, Lc0 performs weakly using classical hardware compared with the traditional engines. That is no surprise as Lc0 is built for fast chips of graphical cards (GPU's), instead of CPU's. On a normal CPU Leela can't obtain maximum strength just like Fritz3 initially couldn't perform well as it was lacking RAM for the hash-tables. See for more information in the article of Frederik Friedel at Chessbase (the adventure of chess programming part 3). Finally I also thought the engine was tactically not mature yet which we saw in the previous tcec competitions and based upon my own usage of the engine. So a match against the undisputed leader of ccrl40....

2. Summary of the match

At the beginning SF was clearly the better engine, twice it took a lead. First 2-0 after only 10 games, but after game 13 the score was again tied. After that SF won 3 games on a row!, but again this didn't last very long: after game 29 Leela equalized the score. After that Leela took the lead: games 49 and 53 were won by Leela. It became an exciting match with switching leaders: we hadn't seen this for a longtime between engines. Maybe it didn't happen anymore since the Braingames "candidates-match" between Fritz en Junior in Cadaques 2001, when the engines were playing for a match against Kramnik. Junior got in that match almost 5-0 for free, after only 5 games but Fritz equalized in the second half of the match (24 games in total) and won the play-off with 2-0.

However the lost games were very painful for Leela - it reminded me to the match Botvinnik-Bronstein: Bronstein played ingenious chess, used new concepts, played very differently than Botvinnik. Botvinnik tried to reach draws by adjourning games and had a lot of trouble to score some wins. Leela wasted several half points by lacking tactical awareness. A good example is the 20th game, in which Leela plays the losing move (39...Rb6-d6) with an evaluation of 0.26, but SF answers with 40.Rg3+ and immediately shows +8.56 - probably the "boom" of the match. Maybe it wasn't a draw (SF was already giving +2,5 to itself), but more blunders would occur. In the next game it happened again: in an equal position Leela blunders once more and SF hits back immediately with taking at f2 (-4.46). Game 66 again. A very weird loss was the 85th game, the last decisive game of the match: Leela still believed it was a draw (overvaluing a far advanced free a-pawn) while SF considered the position for white already for a longtime as totally hopeless. When Leela realized it then the evaluation plumbed to -14.28 (SF was given already mate in 41…). In a very rare case Leela missed a certain win (65th game) in which SF (using 6-men tbs) was already 100% sure of the loss. This was the consequence of the low search-depth and less extensive usage of tbs. At game 80 the score was tied again.

3. Learnt lessons about openings, playing-style and other aspects

Besides the impressive performances in the middlegame (Leela) and endgame (Stockfish), there were also a number of important learnt lessons about the openings.
A first highlight was game 11, in which Leela gradually increases the white advantage from the opening (French). This was very impressive, especially as the evaluation of Leela was more than 10-20 moves ahead to the one of SF - it looked like grandmaster against amateur - only, the amateur has the strength of a super-grandmaster. Beside the evaluation of Leela is something you need to take with a grain of salt: in the first game the evaluation of Leela at move 104 jumps up to 2.65, while SF sees no problems. The same happens in game 9 : suddenly Leela shows an evaluation of +2,24 when it can exchange queens and obtain a bishop-endgame with a free a-pawn - SF again evaluates the position as fully equal and the game ends in a draw. Also in the 85th game: it seems Leela puts to much trust into the free a-pawns? There are many other examples of the too optimistic evaluation.

As stated before, the variance in the opening is good, but the engines seem capable of turning the most sharpest openings into forced sequences leading to boring drawn endgames. Fortunately some nice middlegames were played, but when SF after e.g. 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3 e6 7.a3 b5 8.g4 Bb7 9.Bg2 h5 10.g5 Ng4 11.Bc1 Qb6 with white and black gives very quickly 0.00 then such perfect play looks not exciting anymore. The same scenario in the 5th and 6th game: SF makes very quick draws in the Kings-Indian.

Leela couldn't do much with the kings-gambit and lost - SF could just hold the draw with white. Although a couple of games can't define the correctness of an opening, it is rather symptomatic that it is the kings-gambit leading to troubles for white. It seems the romantic opening isn't more today than just a surprise-weapon? As earlier written, the French game (game 11.1) was a highlight for Leela in the match - this time SF couldn't show the same quality for white. The French opening seems something Leela knows best as also in game 35 we saw SF having big troubles after the opening.

The win of Leela in the Nimzo-Indian was rather related to some small errors in the middlegame of SF so not due to the opening. In game 16 SF practically destroys the Pirc in the opening. The Pirc had a rough time in this match: in game 55 SF almost didn't make the draw. It became the longest game in the TCEC-history: 264 moves before Leela agrees with the draw. In game 71 we see the Pirc creating another dramatic turnaround. Leela has a stranglehold but can't break the defense despite dominating the whole board. White has everything - black even has to evacuate the king to the a-column - but it is not enough.

Generally we see that the smaller openings don't stand very well the test, nor do the sidelines of the big openings: it is striking that the white advantage is only disappearing after move 25. An example of this is game 23.

A great win is scored by Leela with a white stonewall in game 25. A Philidor/ Lion-opening in game 27 is annihilated by Leela - one of the seldom moments in which Leela manages to get SF away from the 0.00 evaluation and wins deservedly.

Games 59 & 60 show what "sharp" lines for humans mean for engines: the Sicilian Dragon creates 2 short draws. Even the Spanish is used but survives a Leela evaluation of 5.76 in game 75. The end of the match looked like football, in which team A has a lot of ball-control, but team B scores twice via the counter in the final quarter.

4. What could've been better in the match set-up?

Contrary to earlier tcec super-finals, this match of 100 games seemed "too short". The engines were very close in strength, and after 70 games there was still only a gap of 1 point. After 100 games this is also the final difference: 50,5 - 49,5. Also the openings could've been chosen a bit better. In most cases positions were chosen after 5 moves which were more or less neutral, mixed up with some deeper lines (which were randomly chosen from the opening-book created by Jeroen Noomen). Those deeper lines were not always creating interesting middle-games. The problem (for humans) with fun openings (like Marshall-gambit, Sic Dragon, Botvinnik-gambit, kings-gambit, Albin countergambit, Sveshnikov, Sämisch KID, Sevilla-variant Grünfeld, …) are that they equalize quickly ( due to a too forced mainline) or almost always give a win/ loss for white/black (as one side has a too big advantage). Some openings are complex for humans but that is not necessary also for engines. Nonetheless I agree with the critics to use more starting-positions from grandmaster-games. this would improve the relevance and use (for the practical player) more. Maybe this is something for the superfinal of season 15?

5. Other things which we can improve?

SF had the advantage of using 6-men tablebases (tbs), Leela only worked with 5-men. That difference for sure meant for 1 game the difference between win and draw, and had - with equal weapons- given a tie so 50-50 as final score. Now engines can already use in the opening those endgames tbs, so this is important in a match. Probably over 10 years we will have 8-men tbs (so having a solution for all rook-endgames with 2 pawns each - great !) so this aspect will become in the future even more important. Or maybe we should do the opposite so forbid the engines using tbs at all?

6. Conclusion: are we close to perfect chess?

Positionally Leela is close as to beat SF this needs a very high level of play. Tactically SF is still (a lot) stronger. The great search-depth avoids missing any tactical traps. Also this allows SF to defend some very difficult positions. One aspect of the development of Alpha Zero and Leela reminds me of what professor Jonathan Schaeffer experienced when developing his prefect playing checkers-engine Chinook (by the way if you want to read a beautiful and emotional story about the first engine beating a reigning world-champion then I recommend very much "One Jump Ahead"). It is something what Schaeffers team and also recently the team of Demis Hassabis (Deep Mind and Alpha Zero) noticed: further development leads to an increase of the draws (an indication that chess is a draw when played perfectly, or that there is a limit to further improvement). That effect can be partly explained by the fact that "a draw is a draw" for an engine. In other words: the simple evaluation of 0.00 should be added with other parameters as otherwise the first move in the list leading to 0.00 will be played (see for that behavior to an article of Tim Krabbé about pealing an orange in Alaska ("morons"). An intelligent add-on would be that the engine selects the move bringing the most chance to errors for the opponent (let us not consider contempt). This can be a line with many forced moves or avoiding exchanges. I guess some modern engines already use such parameters doing something like that but it is not yet working perfect.

The advantage of Leela is that "the engine" can now do the development - sooner or later the development of Stockfish (despite all tests the engine plays against itself eventual with a self-learning function) will stop when reaching the limits of human programming. Leela has the absolute minimum needed code to seek maximum results. One of the Leela developers wrote on his blog that if a developer of a classical engine (e.g. SF) takes a holiday for a week then the engine remains the same while with Leela after a week it became by itself again a bit stronger. It appears Komodo already hit the ceiling: at ccrl40 release 11.3 has 3 points more than release 12 and 12 points more than release 12.3. And also the MCTS-version of Komodo is getting close to the classical one. It looks like the Americans have reached their tipping point.

But as I have said: the evaluation of Leela - contrary to SF - is not fireproof: never did I see so many positions with a "winning" evaluation (+2, +3, +4, or even +5 and more…) not transformed to a win. The winning line is often so small for engines that one small deviation is sufficient to lose the advantage. Leela is not yet able to avoid those mistakes - so this looks like us humans playing chess :-) However for the practical player, this disadvantage can become an advantage, and Leela is definitely a good addition for new ideas (plans), or to find practical chances in non-tbs endgames (something which SF will rather evaluate as 0.00 without giving a view about practical chances).


Some critics have pointed to the openings as not well chosen, so additionally a rapidmatch was created without any pre-selected openings. Leela won this one with 56-44 (see e.g. s14 bonus match leela stockfish. That is a very large margin especially as tactics are normally much more dominant in rapid-play. The next season will have to answer the open questions.


Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Leningrad

I bought during the first years of my chess-career from each (big) opening in my repertoire a book. The Spanish, the French, the Caro-Kann, the Aljechin, the Pirc and the Dutch (stonewall) were the openings. It costed me about 3000 Belgian francs (approximately 75$) as the euro was not existing yet at that time. For a student with almost no money, we talk about the beginning of the 90's, this was a serious investment.

Later I never wanted to buy any new opening-books. The rise of the engines and databases allowed me to create my own opening-analysis. Besides if I would like to keep my repertoire up to date by buying always the newest opening-books then this hobby would become very expensive. Also I noticed that many books are repeating a lot of what has been written before so you get less and less new interesting information. Finally I experienced a lack of motivation to study all the theory from opening-books. Very often an opening-book was only used as a reference work so it was never studied properly.

Only beginning of last year I made an exception. After more than 20 years I bought another opening-book: The Leningrad Dutch. I had decided to add this opening to my repertoire (see why previous article) but I realized immediately this can't be done quickly without external help. The Leningrad has a labyrinth of different variations. It is completely impractical to check 10.000 games in the databases to build an overview of the opening. So it is necessary to ask an expert for advice, somebody having played the opening for many years. The easiest and cheapest way to do that is to buy a book which I did. There are a few options but eventually I chose the book written by the Ukrainian grandmaster Vladimir Malaniuk. He was probably the biggest pioneer as he played the opening during more than 3 decades against other grandmasters. I use the word "was" as he died in 2017 (some sources say he was assassinated).
Meanwhile I already read the book twice through. In my 2 recent standard-games with the Leningrad I was able to use immediately some recommendations from the book. However when I investigated the correctness of those ideas later at home then I discovered that the author is often too optimistic for black in his evaluations. I start the review with a first position which I had on the board see again my previous article.
The Leningrad Dutch page 123 variant 1
The author tells us that white should try to equalize with accurate play. However after the novelty exf5 followed up with Qc2 my engines show a clear advantage for white.
The Leningrad Dutch page 123 variant 2
We have moved 2 moves in the same game. This position is reached in the book via a different sequence of moves than in the game. The author evaluates the position as equal while the engine again shows a clear advantage for white after Nce2. Fortunately my opponent missed that idea in our game.

A fragment of another Leningrad played in one of my standard-games, was already published in the article desperado part 2. Again we see that the author is too optimistic.
The Leningrad Dutch page 269
White can't equalize and the author continues to prove this with the weaker 14.Rf3. However I already showed by using the engines that 14.Qg4 is still sufficient for equality.

I have bought the book mainly for the Leningrad but I also had a look to what the author tells us about the anti-Dutch systems. I was curious if the author had noticed a quite recent development in the Staunton-gambit.
The Leningrad Dutch pages 57 and 62
In the book is written that black's extra pawn compensates the small lack in development. However 14.Nd4 is completely ignored and already known from practice since 2009. White scored already 4 important victories with it in mastergames. The engine is very positive about the move for white.

I wasn't able to check most of the analysis of the book but I fear that I only revealed the top of the iceberg. It again confirms my perception that most books are written for the casual chess-player but don't withstand scrutiny.

Fortunately I didn't have high expectations in advance so I wasn't disappointed. I wanted a skeleton of the Leningrad and that is what the books supplies. The author has built a repertoire for black by showing for each of the important lines of white how he would respond to it. You could say that you have the shell of a house but all the rest still needs to done. This book is sufficient to start playing the opening after you read it but if you want to regularly play the opening then you better do a lot of additional analysis.

Finally I also want to add that I can remember a lot of analysis from the book but I also forget still a lot. I started to read the book for a third time but that will still not be enough to remember all the sidelines. Nevertheless especially in the Leningrad it is very useful to also remember what needs to be done in less frequently played variations. Some suggest to type all the lines from the book to a pgn-file so you can practice with e.g. chess position trainer. This is a Herculean labor which I don't want to do. Only the mainlines is for me the maximum. A recent new initiative is chessable. They do the job of digitizing for you. It is not free but neither much more expensive than a book which you can economize. Unfortunately the site offers today only a limited choice of books. The Leningrad Dutch is not included in their base. I have no experience with Chessable but looking at their increasing numbers of subscriptions, this could become a big player in the future of sharing chess-information.