Thursday, June 26, 2014

The expert

You win for a first time from dad, big brother, a friend or even better the teacher and you get caught by the microbe. I suppose many have started with chess this way. Both players have the same tools (16 pieces) and battle for victory on a board of 64 squares only by moving the pieces. The player with the best and most creative ideas wins. That is the picture which a lot of films use. The spectator sees naturally the smartest person win.

So it does not surprise me that regularly emotional reactions appear on my blog when I discuss game preparations, studying openings or last on my previous article. The image of an honest intellectual battle between 2 individuals is abruptly broken. Databases, books, coaches, preparations, training, experience, money, time,... influence drastically the chances in modern chess.

Players rarely will tell something about how much money, time and efforts were spent to improve. It is not cool to tell that the chosen line was already completely prepared at home. Today there exists a taboo on working at chess. However because of this a lot of less experienced players get a wrong view of what competitive chess includes. This blog often breaks this taboo which doesn't make me popular of course.

That a taboo exists, can be also detected in a reaction of my article The Czech defense. I called somebody an opening-expert and immediately the person started to counter that he doesn't consider himself an expert. The term "expert" has a negative connotation. It is not proper to win a game with the support of a superior knowledge of the opening. I consider such position completely redundant as everybody has its own favorite systems. I do know one nice player defining the first move with a dice. However also he knows something about openings as last Friday after our cup-match he surprised me by sharing the information that I deviated from the recommendation of the recently published and colossal book of the kingsgambit written by John Shaw.

So every player with a bit experience is in some openings a sort of expert. Now it is clear that not all experts are equal. An interesting question is if it would be possible to know an opening that well that one can't be surprised anymore. Can you become a super-expert in an opening so you don't need to fear any preparation anymore? Well I am afraid the answer is no. Bart told me after the game that he spent a lot of time studying the opening and I believe him but still I succeeded to copy an idea of a game which was unknown for him. To overestimate the experience or underestimate the preparation is something which I notice regularly. I remember a game against the Armenian grandmaster Sergey Galdunts in which I discovered on one of his favorite systems a novelty, posing him troubles.

I had looked only a half hour at this opening but it was already sufficient with the aid of the engines to find something interesting. Afterwards the strong Armenian grandmaster Vladimir Akopian joined the analysis of the novelty. My opponent was very surprised that my short preparation was superior than his expertise. How is it possible as besides 11 published games in the database with the opening, a similar amount of games played with the opening was not registered in the databases.

If grandmasters now and then make this judgmental errors then obviously we see it more often with less experienced players. Some examples on my blog are the articles Swiss gambit and revolution in the millenium in which I successfully achieved an advantage with a preparation in an opening of which I had no experience at all contrary to my opponents.

The reader having read the reaction of Kara on my previous article will probably conclude that I am a big exception and normally an expert doesn't risk so much. Well I still want to show an example of another Belg only 40 points higher rated on the Belgian rating-list, Bruno Laurent. The game was already mentioned in my article old wine in new skins to proof that keeping a repertoire up to date is for most players in-achievable.

So black suffered a very serious defeat despite being an international master and having a large experience with the Pirc. Is it completely senseless to be an expert? Of course not but you have to weigh up carefully the risks. Did my opponent have a lot of time to prepare? Does my opponent usually prepare seriously for this games? Do I have some new ideas in stock? In a lesser extend also other aspects play a role like the type of position, the match/ tournament situation, the rating difference,... to make the right choice. Surely sticking at all costs to a repertoire is not optimal and a slick competition-player will in good time variate when expecting danger.


Monday, June 16, 2014

The Modern French part 2

My college studies of engineer were not taken lightly in contrast with many of my fellow-students. I studied my courses at least 3 times seriously so I knew the materials thoroughly. As a consequence my results were always very good. This profound method of preparation I also inherited in chess. Even today after almost 20 years playing chess, there is still very little or no diminution of my (very) intensive game-preparations. However I also have to admit that big differences exist between a modern game-preparation and my formerly exam-preparations.

First there exists no limit on the amount of subject materials for a game-preparation in contrast with most classical exams. So as a chessplayer has to make choices e.g when stopping the preparation is reasonable or not. A question which I recently asked, is if it pays to spend time rehearsing the studied materials or that time better can be spend studying extra lines. Or a very similar question is, how much time one should spend per move? The answer naturally depends of a number of factors like how fast and well can the person memorize, how many (new) lines must be remembered,... Nevertheless I do believe most players choose if under time-pressure to spend as little time as possible repeating stuff as it is still possible via calculations and deductions to puzzle with the remembered fragments.  Of course it is no surprise that sometimes something goes wrong when puzzling.

There are also big differences in study-conditions. When I prepared for my engineer-exams then my surroundings deemed it very important that I was not disturbed. This way I could easily study 12 hours concentrated in 1 day. Today a game-preparation is tolerated by my surroundings but they also expect that I am at the same time available for other tasks. A preparation on a Saturday is as a consequence often nothing more than a string of more or less free half hours (with 2 small children it is never 100% quiet) between the many other activities (weekly groceries, driving the kids to the dance-school, art-school or swimming courses,...) Such chaotic way of preparing obviously influences the quality of the study. I will try to sketch a real example of such chaotic preparation in the continuation of the article. Or more specified, I will tell the part which is directly connected with the played game.

In the last round of the Belgian interclubs nothing was anymore at stake for Deurne. Our team was already relegated so only some personal success could still be achieved. Due to circumstances I would play first board, so the chance was real that I would meet the new Belgian grandmaster Bart Michiels. Obviously I prepared myself properly for him. In our previous encounter he chose the modern french but I estimated the probability low that it would be played again. This time it wouldn't be a surprise anymore and if Bart followed a bit my blog then he would realize that I take my preparations seriously. Now as earlier mentioned, I am not somebody leaving a preparation open to chance so in spite of I decided to study seriously the opening of our previous encounter.

The first thing which I looked at, was a concept from the correspondence-game to which I already earlier pointed in my previous article so with 0-0-0. Because I didn't meet the opening on the board anymore since my game (so from 2012) and as a consequence hadn't studied it anymore seriously, I believed it was the right moment to check the game with an engine more closely. Besides Bart could do easily the same if he read my blog.

I considered the concept ideal to combat Barts style but I didn't dare to play it due to the discovered hole at move 13. After our game I asked Bart if he read my blog and knew the antidote on the concept of 0-0-0 too. Bart confirmed that he had read my blog. It would've been a big surprise if a grandmaster didn't use the available free foreknowledge but his answer on the anti-dote was rather confusing. He answered that he already once replied successfully with c4 in practice. However the only game which I could find that Bart played successfully c4 after 0-0-0 was a line without the moves Be2 and 0-0 so I guess Bart didn't know the gap on move 13 (which doesn't mean that he couldn't find it at the board). It wouldn't be the first time that a (strong) player didn't take the opportunity to benefit maximally from the available info on my blog. Below I show the pretty interesting game in which Bart played c4 after 0-0-0.

The mistakes let me believe that such type of positions is not a bad choice against Bart if I would be prepared for it of course.

So in any case I searched for an alternative which  I found in a concept earlier mentioned in a reaction of TheUnknownOne. I made a quick glace of the consequences if Bart would choose for an identical setup as in our previous encounter and found out that I could play a nice novelty.

White probably doesn't have a tangible advantage but the resulting positions looked appealing for white. Besides I was almost 100% sure that the idea 11.Nb5 would be a complete surprise which would give me at least a serious gain of time on the clock.

However a week earlier I also read on that the strong Swedish correspondence-player Thomas Johansson claimed that black can immediately equalize with 9...,f6. I am not subscribed at the site (something which I warmly recommend to any player aspiring master-titles) but I was anyway able to rapidly find the reason. Now equality in correspondence chess doesn't mean a dry and dead position in OTB so I kept searching for some interesting ideas but more than below correspondence-game I didn't succeed.

So again I was not satisfied about the result and felt obliged to continue my quest. A weird but interesting game I found in the engine-database.

A bit too weird for me because I couldn't fully understand why exactly now Qe2. Besides the remaining time was too limited to spend a serious study at it so I put the idea aside. The concept of the next game which I show is much easier to understand.

The lines which I looked at, seemed attractive to me. On the other hand with a move like a3, the door is wide open for all kind of interesting or not black continuations. In other words the probability is high that black would throw me immediately out of book and without any experience this is not funny.

So what to choose? I did't want to study again something new from scratch as I was running out of time because still other openings needed to be reviewed. Is the final position of my original analyses on the recommendation of Thomas really that pessimistic? I decided to recheck the line and found some interesting ideas which finally convinced me to give it a chance. After this long article it is surely no surprise anymore that yes, the whole line popped up in our game.

If a 200 points lower rated player achieves a position against a grandmaster in which he can control and black must be careful thanks almost exclusively due to the preparation then I do consider the preparation as very successful. The Belgian IM Geert Van der Stricht remarked afterwards that such fate is something unavoidable as higher rated player but I don't fully agree with that. If you play twice the same opening against the same person then one can expect that the opponent will be (well) prepared. The resulting position is mainly the responsibility of the player and not some sort of luck.

That I managed to mess up the nice position, is something for another article as there is still much to tell about that. With this article I made at least an update of the interesting Modern French.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014


After the publication of my previous article I received an interesting question. "Which system do I apply to keep all my opening-study surveyable?". I couldn't answer this question properly in a few lines so I prefer here to write a separate article. However I want to add hereby immediately that I don't claim my system is the best. The system which I will describe here, has been empirically developed and is nothing more than a logical evolution of my personal needs. So everybody has to decide for themselves if some useful elements can be copied. The article therefore needs to be interpreted in the same way as my articles to analyze with an enginethe game preparation and annotations.

In my college-time I learned that writing down a summary on paper, was for me an important tool to captivate the subject material. I also do that today when preparing my games. A preparation summarizes all the possible variations which my opponent could play (mainly based on the games available in the databases) with the addition of my selected answers (minimally a few moves per line but it can also be much more). Below you can find a scan of such recent summary, built as preparation on the Bulgarian grandmaster Marijan Petrov.
Summary on paper
If you realize that in the first division of the Belgium interclub sometimes I was preparing for 6 different players then you know that those summaries quickly multiply. Such pile of summaries can be handy as passenger in the car to once again repeat the materials but for reuse in new game-preparation it is tedious. Therefore to win time I will regularly save the analyses of those paper-summaries in a personal database conform my white and black repertoire. It is a very simple mechanism which I created in 2005 in which a database is used of just 2 games. Below a screenshot to show how simple such database really is.
The first game consists all the lines which I can meet with white and which I have studied at least briefly. The second game consists of all the lines which I can meet with black and obviously also studied before. My answers on those lines are often unique in the sense of that almost no variation exists which obviously closely matches with my scientific approach. A screenshot of the first piece of my white-repertoire can be seen below.
Preview opening-book
It is easy accessible as I avoid using big trees of analysis for specific lines and because I mainly use only variety on 1 color (the opponent). The usefulness of this database mainly consists of having a tool to repeat quickly the most effective answers in the width of somebodies repertoire. Of course I also make in depth analysis but seldom for a game-preparation as time is often insufficient. If I study an opening seriously then it is not rare that I spend 2 weeks or more. I want to remark that today I don't hurry with the analysis as I anyway play few games and I do have a lot of other obligations. Somebody analyzing full time with the right equipment can probably achieve similar results in just a few days.

As most of the in depth opening-analysis happens on my own games, I mainly save those analysis for the sake of convenience in my game-analysis. In the meantime I have stored already 690 games so this has become a goldmine for opening-materials. Especially the more recent games include quite some interesting opening-analysis of which I already published often pieces on this blog. Furthermore I also possess a separate database of enhanced opening-analysis. Sometimes it becomes too difficult to maintain the readability if I save the analysis in the game. In other cases I sometimes want to check a system which I haven't met earlier in a serious game. A screenshot of this database shows us how this special database grew over the years.
Analysis database
Each entry presents this time an analysis of a certain system. A lot of text you won't find as for own usage not necessary. Here we will notice a lot of variety for both colors in contrast to the opening-book. An example of the analyse-dump can be found below.
Example from the analysis database
The loyal and clever blog-reader will surely have noticed that I show an analysis already used in my article aljechin with g6. Now and then I try to publish some pieces of the database to insert more content to the articles.

Next to building personal databases it is naturally never redundant to consult other sources of information. To integrate opening-books or online opening-analysis with the personal archives looks to me as a very doubtful strategy. If you know where to find the materials then this should be in most cases sufficient. Eventually we do want to win time with archiving.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Creating a repertoire

Recently a surprising letter was published on schaakfabriek. I am not going to discuss the subject of the letter but I do want to zoom out a fragment in which players confess to spend a lot of time at chess. The definition 'a lot' is obviously vague but the fact that almost all of the signers have some sort of master-title, let us believe there is a link between the level of a player and the time spent at chess. Nothing new of course as I already mentioned many time on my blog about the 10.000 hours rule. However here a whole bunch of Belgium (top-) players indirectly confess that their results didn't arrive by coincidence and that is not something I've read before.

The same fragment also tells us in which domains those players spend a lot of time. The 2 first domains mentioned, are linked to openings: to study openings and to prepare against opponents. Also this is remarkable as this small group of players indicates that openings are for them very important. Looking to the average clubplayer then I notice a very big difference as openings are by far not so important for them. At which strength do we have to consider studying openings as a substantial part of chess?

First we can't deny that studying openings has a strong correlation with how strong the personal ambitions are. To study openings is for most of us not one of the most attractive aspects of chess so perseverance and willpower are mandatory. Ambitions are closely connected with somebodies rating as described in my article ambitions. Nevertheless even more important than ambitions is naturally the effectiveness of studying openings. I once calculated that the difference for myself between a good and bad opening is about 80 ratingpoints in performance, see article to study openings. Further we also see a considerable increase of effectiveness once the opponents have more than 2250 elo. A possible explanation could be that players at that level can better maintain an opening-edge but I have to admit that my data is really too limited to make serious conclusions.

Although it is a fact that strong players have to fear much more a game-preparation. They have much more of their games published in public databases. In my article the list of strength I clearly indicated that above 2200 rating, games are inserted on a regular base in the databases. At contrary to the average clubplayer, these strong players don't possess the luxury to play many years without any worries the same (dubious) openings. Something which I already stated on this blog in a comment. So I dare to conclude that studying openings and therefore creating a serious repertoire becomes from 2200/2300 elo really important. How is such repertoire created?

In the article which games to analyze I indicated that 80% of my analyses are made on my own games. I guess today about 3/4 of that time is used to study openings which permits me mainly to create depth in my repertoire. I don't find this redundant as my opponents prepare themselves on the material which they can find about me. Thanks to those intensive analyses for which there is no sufficient time during a game-prepartion, I am able to survive the openings. It is also the only alternative that I have with the scientific approach compared with players frequently deviating. Attentive readers will certainly have noticed that I regularly publish pieces of those thorough analyses on this blog. E.g. Linton Donovan thankfully absorbed some of the material written in my article tactic to defeat the strong FM Martin Ahn, see game. To not become the victim myself of my own publications, I admit sometimes to hide on purpose some fragments. I try to limit this to the bare minimum so only the most sensitive elements are removed and often not much relevant anyway to the content of the article.

It is insufficient to create a good repertoire based solely on the own played games (something which I only found out by experience). Besides depth it is also important to work in the width and for this I mainly use game preparations. That game preparations are a very good incentive for a lot of players to study openings, was earlier affirmed in a reaction of the Belgium FM Tom Piceu which already was covered in my article the fake truth. The previous 2 interclub-seasons in the Belgian first division were for me an ideal catalyst to make serious progressions in my repertoire. More than 75 hours were spent at game preparations in only the season 2012-2013 as recorded earlier in the article the list of strength. Despite no direct results this was not a lost investment. All analysis (using among other things the method of the green moves) were always inventoried in a personal white and black opening-book on my computer.

This season I already could reuse a lot of those game-preparations. This not only let me win a lot of time but also permitted me to dig deeper in the repertoire of possible opponents (no luxury with the big imbalance between the smaller and bigger clubs of the first division). Because of this I was able to get a very decent opening in my game against Dejan (described in the article camouflage). Another advantage of my repertoire becoming more mature, I noticed in round 10 when suddenly the Dutch IM Henk Vedder popped up as opponent. He never played earlier in the season in the Belgium interclub so it was a total surprise. Nevertheless I got a very nice advantage out of the opening and it is really a pity that I was not able or didn't dare to face fully the complications. Maybe some time-shortness also played a limited role too as I always need a lot of time to remember an old analysis. I don't want to make a silly mistake in the move-order.

I played my 10th and 11th move quickly so I guess Henk did suspect my acquaintance with the nonetheless rare variant. His choice for a passive but more strategic 11..Qa6 instead of the explosive 11...Nxb4 is understandable. Surely not a wrong choice as I had looked at it extensively in 2009 in consequence of the repertoire of Mher Hovhanisian (see an expanded black-repertoire). When last year in the top-tournament of Dortmund (which was won surprisingly by Michael Adams) this variant popped up in a game, I was of course curious to check at which extend my analysis would correspond.

Thanks to the recent intensive game-preparations I was able to expand my repertoire but for some players it does not end here. Eventually you are still lagging behind on the latest developments if you only base yourself on played games of yourself or of the opponents. To be maximally competitive it is important to follow up all the trends. New books, magazines,.. must be bought at regular intervals. More about this was already covered in my article the sequence. Creating a repertoire is not only something which takes a lot of time but it is also never finished. I often envy less experienced players as this less beautiful side remains for them limited.