Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Old wine in new skins

Quality chess has regularly nice blogarticles to create traffic to the site, advertise their products and naturally eventually to sell more. They don't avoid on purpose controversial subjects. Recently a fun game from the Belgium interclubs was shown, see blog. In round 8 of the Belgium interclubs former Belgian champion Bruno Laurent scored a sensational victory over the known IM Cemil Gulbas. In a chrystal-clear game with incredible sacrifices black was forced to resign in a measly 23 moves. However quickly it was remarked that everything till move 16 was played already in 2012 in the game Ivanisevic - Dzhuaev and the amelioration till the final move are all the first choice of the today's top-engines. No not a new case of fraud but a model-example of a successful game-preparation as I have shown some examples earlier in my article de sterktelijst. Black had played the same opening before and Bruno obviously has an eye for taking advantage of this.

So far nice to know but nothing shocking. However then the author, the Scottish grandmaster John Shaw claims that Cemil could've easily avoided the defeat if he kept his repertoire up to date. Now this i find very short-sighted especially if you play barely games yourself (4 fide-games in the last year). If you only follow the games published by twic then you need to check each week more than 1000 if something important is mentioned. Those important games (averagely 10?) must next be screened with an engine to find improvements. Now twic is not the only source of info. There is also correspondence-chess, books, sites,... My experience tells me that very few amateurs are up to date with their repertoire. I often profits from this, see my blogarticles: iccfrevolution in the millenniumSwiss gambit, ... Being up to date (and I don't mean to have a perfect knowledge but just knowing the recent games played on grandmaster-level) not only demands a continuous effort but also an enormous perseverance as it is often very dull material. Even prof-players often don't succeed to keep up with the latest trends as you can see in the game Sergei Zhigalko - Pavel Pankratov played in the just finished Bronstein Memorial, which was won by the the Georgian top-grandmaster Jobava Baadur and in which our known Armenian player Mher Hovhanisian achieved a second grandmaster-norm.

Keeping up to date a repertoire is not something easy. I even dare to state that an amateur with limited amount of free time for chess, should simply forget to make such goals. Now to be successful in the opening it is not always mandatory to come up with something new and spectacular. Sometimes refreshing an old forgotten line can be also sufficient to score a convincing victory. This formula was used in the fourth round of the interclubs by my Lithuanian opponent Sarunas Sulskis. Nevertheless he took a (calculated?) risk as he already had used it once in 2009 against the Lithuanian IM Mindaugas Beinoras and that game i also had noticed during my preparations. However due to the extremely long list of possible opponents (see de sterktelijst) I needed to make choices which made that I gave priority to different more tactical openings.

Afterwards my kind opponent told me that nobody less than former world-champion Robert James Fischer played this concept several times so it certainly has some punch. I need to add an important nuance as Fischer played the exchange only after Nbd2. Here Saranus chose for immediately exchanging the pawns as he noticed in the preparation when flying from Lithuania to Belgium that I always answer Nbd2 with cxd4 which avoids the idea. However by exchanging earlier, black does get extra interesting possibilities which white agreed to accept as long it threw me on unknown territory. Now very extensive the preparation of white can't be otherwise he should have known the improvement on move 17 which yes was played by nobody else than Fischer.

Of course also a lot of amateurs know the value of surprising with old openings. Kingsgambits, Aljechins,... are openings which are still today very popular in the club. Nonetheless it also can go very wrong if you have a strong ambitious opponent which not only follows up the latest developments in the theory but also invests time in studying the classics. Below story was already in short told on the fefb forum by GM Luc Winants but I assume it is for most people still unknown and adding some interesting details certainly makes it more enjoyable. 

Some resources state that the strong American player Frank Marshall specially reserved his 'Marshallgambit' for former world-champion Jose Raul Capablanca. In 1918 Marshall introduced and surprised with this gambit Capablanca but it became a sore defeat as Capablanca defended brilliantly and the game became a classic.

This game was analyzed countless times, also by Kasparov in his book Garry Kasparov on my Great Predecessors, Part 1. Kasparov's serie certainly was a profitable business as many players possess it partly or even completely (I already mentioned some parts myself here, see the neo scheveningenkasparov's pircthe influence of wks on openings). It is not surprising that players use pieces out of the books to test in practice. The Belgian FM Ruben Akhayan took up the same gambit in his interclub-game of round 5 against the strong Dutch IM Twan Burg.

It is surely not my purpose to laugh with black but I do find it very remarkable how white succeeds to improve the analysis of Kasparov. Less weird it becomes when I also mention that white is an ambitious correspondence player and even recently made a SIM-norm. Young strong OTB-players still working hard for correspondence chess is something seldom seen. If this is also skillfully exploited on schaaksite then suddenly an increase of 18% new members is recorded for correspondence after years of decreasing interest. 

So serving old wine in new skins is certainly not without risks. Now some people will consider it rubbish but I do find that it gives something extra, magical to follow once in a while an old classic and pretend to be one of the former champions. This dimension can chess960 as was recently propagandized in Moscow never give to us.


Thursday, February 13, 2014


When studying openings I look attentively to what (strong) grandmasters play, which I already mentioned earlier in my article to analyze with a computer. However my choice of openings still remains something very personal. Besides this choice is already more or less for 20 years fixed (see the article the sequence). Even a line is only replaced when really no repairing is anymore possible (examples on my blog are  Dutch steps in the English opening , the fake truth ). This all fits in the philosophy of the scientific approach but most players play the game a lot more competitive. Swapping between openings is done regularly just to become not too predictable. 

This means a continuous search for new playable openings. An amateur has mostly neither the time, nor the courage to do all the necessary research so we look to what grandmasters have in their repertoire. Naturally the stronger the grandmaster, the more players are attracted to this repertoire. If an absolute topgrandmaster starts to play an opening which is on top also easily playable for other players (amateur or prof) then we sometimes see a chain-reaction. A few players pick it up and their opponents are so impressed that they too insert the opening in their repertoire. If after some time it also turns out that black can show a plus-score on master-level than it completely goes wild.

Some smart readers in the meantime will realize that I want to discuss this time the Aronian system or also called sometimes the Cozio defense deferred. 5 years ago this variant was still considered as eccentric but today a lot of (strong) players are playing it. The system has some unique characteristics. First it gives a direct answer on the Spanish, which today is still considered as the main-weapon for white after e5. So it is in the same category of openings like the Schliemann-gambit or the Berlin. On top we can play the opening via a number of sequences. When Aronian started to play the system in 2009, he chose for the sequence 1.e4 e5 2.Pf3 Pc6 3.Lb5 Pge7 4.0-0 a6 5.La4 g6 6.c3 Lg7. However soon it was discovered that it is also possible to play first a6 or even g6. These permutations mean permitting or excluding certain side-lines. I don't know the sensitivities but I do know that since 2011, Aronian changed to the sequence 1.e4 e5 2.Pf3 Pc6 3.Lb5 a6 4.La4 Pge7 etc. This means the exchange variant of the Spanish is again permitted but probably some nasty lines (quick d4?) are avoided. The impact of this change can be clearly seen if we put in a time-line the popularity (number of games per year with a player of +2300 in my database) with this specific sequence.
Popularity 1.e4 e5 2.Pf3 Pc6 3.Lb5 a6 4.La4 Pge7
Also end of last year in the European championship for countries (in which Bart achieved the grandmaster title) we noticed several games with this opening. First I want to show a marvelous game played by Aronian whom refutes harshly the white experiment.

Readers following my blog already for some time, will certainly understand that I am not surprised that our Belgium topplayer Tanguy Ringoir also has picked up this opening in his repertoire. Also he became a real fan of it which obviously is strengthened if you win games as shown below.

Now he is not the only Belgian player following this trend. I noticed in the previous interclub-round that the opening was successfully employed by GM Luc Winants. Other well-known Belgian players (or broader taken very active in Belgium) are e.g. FM Hans Renette, IM Koen Leenhouts, FM Michel De Wit and Roel Goossens. About this last player I want to elaborate as he played a very good tournament in the passed Open Leuven as he missed the tournament-victory only narrowly (see the final positions). I was very impressed by his play in our mutual game and I do know that I was lucky to obtain a draw. I don't need to tell you probably that we discussed the Aronian-system, right?

The examples are showing one by one that blacks opening has a lot of potential. The scores for black are exceptionally good which we notice from the screenshot of my opening-book. However I have to add in fairness that black also had in most cases the higher rating.
White scores only 47,1% after Nge7 !

The system is still popularized a lot as for example in the recent book Dangerous Waepons: The Ruy Lopez written by the English GMs John Emms, Anthony Kosten and the English IM John Cox there are at least 30 pages spent to it.
However it still is blurry what the future will bring for this opening. Is it just fashion or will it become more? In any case I don't expect the opening getting the same magnitude as the Berlin. If the opening will get a fixed place in a grandmaster-repertoire will depend a lot if refutations will be found or less strongly stated some annoying lines. In my analyse of the game against Roel, I show a possible path in which some advantage can be found. I admit it is still very complex but I do have reasons to be optimistic as afterwards I noticed that Tony Kosten also recommends the concept in his book. 

No, I didn't buy (yet) the book but by coincidence when preparing this article I found a review on Chesscafe which indeed exactly discusses this idea. Probably I again invented the wheel which is unfortunately the destiny of a player not buying books (if we disregard some exceptional books) and mainly bases himself on his own analysis.


Addendum February 14
Vass managed to ditch up a "model"game in his databases, see chesspub which represents the idea recommended in the article.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The lucky one

In Flanders we are still waiting for the winter as with maximum temperatures till 10 degrees, it is obviously way too warm for this period of the year. Snow we haven't seen yet so this makes it always more attractive to spend New Year Eve in the much colder Russia with family and friends of my wife. Ufa situates approximately 500km West from Siberia so snow is guaranteed. Dependent of the outside temperatures we often go walking with the children. We were lucky as only when we returned to Belgium the temperature dropped with 20 degrees to -30. This meant that during our stay we were able to let our children play in the snow, slide from the many ice- tracks, enjoy the ice- labyrinth ,... Because somebody requested to put more pictures in my articles, I added one below in which I accompany my children on a pony-trip through the snow.
Visiting Russia automatically includes also distributing presents. As we didn't want to forget anybody, we almost filled up a complete suitcase with Belgium chocolate which was very much appreciated as many already ordered extra for our next visit. Once the suitcase empty it was refilled by gifts which we received. For the children there is Ded Moroz (Grootvadertje vorst) coming with candy and toys so comparable with Sinterklaas or Santa Klaus. During the holidays in our guest apartment we also get visits from family and friends which again leads to exchanging a lot of presents. An aunt of my wife brought for me the most surprising present not particularly in material value but rather because of the very personalized warm message.
Above picture of the object shows a piece of a chessboard with knight, rook and some other toppled pieces so no doubt it is about chess. Looking more attentive, we remark a hoof which indicates a good-luck charm. The inscription is in Russian :"желаю только побед" and says "I wish you only victories". I am not at all superstitious but the fact that somebody spent time and effort in a not ordinary gift, I appreciate very much.

Superstition in Russia is still very much alive. A lot of people do believe that one can influence luck by respecting some invisible powers. It is rather a sensitive subject. Easier and more concrete is to look what we can do ourselves to improve our chances. In this article I will elaborate on this. The subject was already to some extend discussed earlier see e.g. how to win from a stronger player in which I explained the chaos-theory. However this time I am more looking from the stronger player point of view.

Doing the exact opposite of what the weaker player tries to accomplish is a bit too simple. Naturally it helps to sabotage their strategy but there is more what a stronger player can do. A stronger player calculates clearly quicker and more accurate. This can but not necessarily has to be based on a better pattern-recognition. There is surely some benefit in putting more calculation in a game if you are the stronger player with the condition that it doesn't become chaos so big (losing) mistakes can be avoided. If we today also take into account that a superior opening-knowledge is not guaranteed anymore for the stronger player with the available databases and opening-books to everybody then there is serious point to avoid theory as soon as possible.

All very well but how does this work in practice? A comment of Bruno on my article playing the man explains this vision well: "Deviating theory probably can be done easily. However also finding variations which are fitting your playing-style and not leading to dry positions, seems much tougher". It is a good question/ remark which many players for more than a century already in vain tried to answer. Former world-champion Jose Capablance introduced in 1920 already his own variant of chess by adding 2 column and some new pieces. Former world-champion Bobby Fischer introduced a different variant of chess: Chess 960 or Fischer Random Chess which is based on the older shuffle-chess. These solutions start from the position that high level chess has no future anymore and will quietly die from draws. Kasparov laughs with this shortsightedness of Capablanca in his book Garry Kasparov on my Great Predecessors, Part 1 but makes a bit later a similar mistake by stating that today top-level chess only starts after a lot of theory-moves. Differently formulated, there is today after the obligatory theory-moves on top-level only a rather limited (uninteresting) game left in which players have to find moves themselves. I believe that this is the main-reason why a decade ago the decision was made to increase the pace of the games to find again the entertainment value.

In 2004 this book was published by Kasparov and in that era this was indeed the norm. However end 2011 there was becoming a fracture in this conception as clearly was shown in an article on Chessbase. Suddenly contemporary top-players play much less theory than their predecessors. Below graphic shows the depth of the average novelty over time.
Bron Chessbase
The moment of change is of course connected with the raise of Carlsen. Carlsen showed the world that it is still possible to beat any player without relying on dominant opening-knowledge which is very different from his predecessors. I believe after obtaining the world-title even the last unbelievers (see the scientific approach) will now admit that they unfairly criticized his approach as inefficient and based on luck.

To win games, you need to put pressure on the opponent (which even works in world-championships). Carlsen shows today that you can be at least successful (and that is likely even an under-statement) by applying a less big but longer pressure. The pressure is less big as it is not based on super-human openings (today mainly created in advance by intensive use of engines) but is rather based on the own playing skills. However by deviating much earlier from theory and on top by choosing for positions which contain lots of possibilities, the opponent is forced to do much more thinking on the board. If instead of from move 20, you need to think from move 10 then in an average game there is a 50% increase of the number of moves you need to devise yourself.

So a stronger player will easier make the difference if more thinking at the board must be done. However due to our existing playing-tempo there is still a second aspect playing an important role in the success of this approach. The time for reflection doesn't depend on the number of moves one must devise. In other words, with this approach more classical oriented players are forced to think differently compared with their usual slower reflection method if time-trouble has to be avoided. They say that Carlsen plays faster than his opponents but in reality he just better takes into account that his type of play consists of making more decisions. Hereby we shouldn't forget that this strategy is even enforced if you also are technical stronger than the opponent. The stronger player can in (much) less reflection time still calculate as much as the weaker opponent using more reflection time.

Carlsen's first victory in the world-championship demonstrates this philosophy pretty well. Already at move 10 Carlsen manages to introduce an unknown queen-move which certainly doesn't refute black's position but nevertheless guarantees an open fight. The reactions on twitter are self-explaining: : "This will not be a short draw." and "This looks like spectacularly unimpressive opening preparation from team Carlsen".

An outsider sees mistakes from Anand which he in a normal situation will never make and thinks wrongly Carlsen was lucky. The Scottish grandmaster Jonathan Rowson describes the phenomenon on chessbase as if Carlsen manages magically to let disappear the talents of his opponent.

Ok all very well but we are no Carlsen. Bruno's comment: "I have few doubts Carlsen works enormously on his openings, if just to find a good way to divert from theory." I disagree partly. It is much easier to find something playable in a side-variation than studying critical continuations. Ok still some work must be done but is not anymore necessary to study the huge amounts of theory. A player adopting this strategy successfully is the strong Armenian player IM Mher Hovhanisian (living in Belgium). That Mher isn't interested in theoretical debates, can be read already in my article an extended black repertoire.

Variate in the same way with white existing openings as with black existing openings, has much less effect. Black largely defines which opening pops up on the board. It is the most important reason why preparing with black for me in general goes much faster than with white. However an advantage of having the white color is that you have more freedom in choosing moves. I mean that a slightly inferior move, doesn't lead necessarily to a difficult position. Mher also showed this in round 5 of Open Leuven in our mutual game. We were the only 2 left with 4/4 so we would decide between us 2 who would continue the tournament as leader. There was little time to prepare but that was not really necessary as after checking the database it became quickly evident that I would never be able to predict Mhers choice. Besides Mher didn't do any preparation at all in advance. In the game Mher already started to think deeply at move 2, produced the aggressive b4 and threw me out of book. After 4 moves already an original interesting position was put on the board with lots of possibilities.

Afterwards Valery Maes commented that Mher was lucky but I look differently to his victory. I made indeed a blunder which I likely easily avoid in a quiet situation but it is his merit to play quicker and more efficient. Besides if I would not have made the error then still I estimate the chance high that later another error would be made under the continuous pressure. So the lucky one has made his own luck which in fact tells us that we can barely talk about luck.

Finally a move like 2.b4 doesn't demand lots of preparations. It also has little sense as black has too many options and the chance to play this regularly is also rather slim. Discovering such moves is just a matter of keeping the eyes open for the non usual things. You can for example detect in an opening-book for engines that white scores 70% with b4 in 38 earlier played (master-)games. With an open mind, a reasonable memory and mainly guts there is already much to gain.