Monday, March 30, 2015


As almost all of the chess reporting is about top-performances, we sometimes forget that chess is also done recreational. For 99% of the chessplayers the efforts spent to become master aren't fully understood or even appreciated. This was unfortunately shown last week in some harsh reactions on a message of Oscar in which Oscar only mentioned that our new grandmaster Tanguy Ringoir had to pay 330 euro himself to get the title. A more explicit example of this apathy was demonstrated last interclubround in Oude God Mortsel when several players were drinking beer while playing. So I am very well aware that only few players are seriously/ fanatically playing chess as I do.

In my last article I talked about a scientific method to optimize openingchoices but in practice we see that many amateurs are already satisfied if they simply survive the openingphase. Tuning a repertoire is something many don't bother about. However to avoid frequent openingdisasters often players choose for a well-defined collection of side-systems. Some play the same systems for many years or decades, becoming dangerous opponents even for experienced players. The openingrepertoire becomes a part of the identity of the player. This immediately reminds me of Leo Boeye, opening each game with Nh3/Nh6 so always putting his mark.

If you are an amateur only playing locally then it is fully acceptable to ignore openingtheory. However once games of you are stored in databases and you are playing against more serious opponents then it is much harder to stick to this strategy. I guess once your rating surpasses 2200 see the list of force, it is time to adapt. I remember that once I lost a game against a grandmaster and 2 rounds later I got the same line again on the board by a 2300 player. I also lost that game despite better resistance. By the way here we also see the danger of blindly trusting statistics. Somebody finds a weak spot in your repertoire and there are immediately other players ready to use this discovery. In such situation you can't wait for the statistics as otherwise you risk to lose a long string of games.

Now and then it happens that I have to replace a piece of my repertoire which I played for many years. I never surrender easily a variation as that wouldn't be very consistent with the scientific approach I apply in my games. However I do admit that I many times wondered if it makes not more sense to ditch the Dutch in which I spent countless hours to repair lines and instead study some more solid openings. I don't find it easy to say goodbye to an opening at which you spent so much time and energy.

Nevertheless when I am convinced an opening is beyond salvation then it immediately and forever disappears from my repertoire. More precisely I only keep the variation in blitz/ rapid. Competitive players (see playing on the man) will surely find this an excessive decision but I consider it a logical step of my approach to the game. Some earlier examples of such changes were covered already on this blog: see Dutch steps in the English opening or the fake truth. In this article I want to show a extreme switch of repertoire which I recently did.

Maybe some loyal readers will still remember my article Gligorics concept against the Spanish exchange-variation. In that article I described how I started to play the system in 1998 and got over the years very experienced with it but had still some doubts about the correctness surely compared with the much more popular c5. My suspicion became reality when I recently discovered during a game-preparation with houdini and stockfish that a problem exists.

I didn't find a solution during the game-preparation so in the end I chose to experiment with something new. A deeper analysis of the specific problematic line was planned for after the game.

So I also didn't manage to repair the line later. This meant that the opening went to the waste-bin although I have a very strong suspicion that nobody knew about the problem. Nor in the big database nor in correspondence games you can find the critical line and white has to find some very typical difficult engine-moves. It is an extreme swap of opening but I don't want to wait till somebody does his homework and shows on the board what I already would know longtime.

Talking about extreme switches I shouldn't forget my opponent of the previous game,  Gorik Cools. In the database I found many games of him from 1989 till 2011 with the kingsgambit but in 2012 he exchanged the opening for the exchangevariation of the Spanish. One of his kingsgambit-games which didn't make it to the databases can be replayed below.

The type of position in the exchange-variation of the Spanish is totally different from the tactical positions of the kingsgambit. Yet I do believe Gorik made the right decision to make this switch. With the ever stronger playing engines it becomes harder and harder to play successfully gambits on the long term. Besides it is also more difficult to show the same tactical alertness than we were 20 years younger. By the way I read that the writer of the recently published book on the Kingsgambit, John Shaw made exactly the same switch in his repertoire. It looks indeed sensible to realize that we stay not forever young and our identity slowly evolves over the years.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015


In my article creating a repertoire I described my methods of refining and enlarging my openingknowledge of my repertoire. However to built up a repertoire from scratch is for a novice something very difficult. Which opening should I pick up first and what matches with my style? Any opening can be learned but I do understand that many players don't know where to start with the abundance of possibilities. On the internet as in the club people often ask my advise. Should I play e4, d4 or still something else with white? Should I answer 1.e4 with the Sicilian or French.. and which variation?

Except a rare case, I normally refuse to help. I have a very narrow repertoire so there are surely players better qualified that myself, able to compare better openingchoices. It also makes little sense to define somebodies repertoire if you don't know well the player. Besides many novices don't have a clue about what chess is about and what exactly can be expected.

Therefore it is important as novice to try and taste many openings. I remember that I started with 1.d4. Some readers maybe still remember my article gambits in which I stated that I played hundreds maybe thousands of games against computers. From experience I learned that 1.d4 gives better chances to hold out against computers than 1.e4. Today we all know that 1.d4 leads to a closed game so is more efficient against computers but those basic rules I only heard many years later. I only switched to 1.e4 when big blunders became more rare and I started to play more often against humans.

So our openingchoices are heavily influenced by external elements. I still remember that in my first tournament (1993) I wasn't satisfied about my openingchoice 1.d4 and in that time I just acquired the book Dr. Max Euwe Praktische schaaklessen deel 3.
The book is probably sold out but a player starting with competitive chess doesn't need anything extra. Of course the latest developments aren't covered but the didactic style is very comprehensible and I've consulted regularly the book still many years later. It was this book which let me discover the Dutch defense as an acceptable answer on 1.d4.

Computers, books have a big influence on our openingchoices but also the openings which other players choose. It is no coincidence that in some (smaller) clubs, half of the players have a similar repertoire. The best player of the club is successful with a specific repertoire and the other players try to copy this to improve their chances. It is pretty logical to play an opening which you can't refute yourself.

In fact our repertoire is a product of coincidences and emotions. Some more ambitious players aren't satisfied by this. Wouldn't it be better to build a repertoire in a more scientific way? In my first years I created a mathematical model based on piece-activity to define which openings are good and which are less good. The more extra possibilities you had compared with the opponent, the better the openingchoice. In the initial position white has 16 pawnmoves and 4 knightmoves so 20 in total. 1.e4 is the move which increases maximally the possibilities to 30: 15 pawnmoves, 5 knightmoves, 5 bishopmoves, 4 queenmoves and 1 kingmove.

Obviously an absurd method as quantity says very little about quality. On the other hand I learned from this the fundamental principles of occupying the center and strive for activity so it wasn't all useless. A very similar but more complex mathematical model was recently published on Chessbase in which conclusions were made based on square utilization and occupancy. The power of a modern computer was used to process thousands of games. However the same remark is also valid here that such numbers can't be converted to concrete moves. An apparently small detail can chance the complete picture of a position.

So is there really nothing which we can use to make in a scientific way a proper openingchoice? Yes there is as we have today engine openingbooks which show statistics of the performances for each opening in practice, see my article green moves. We also have the Chessbase reports which can be queried per player. Not only you get a view about what a player has played before but also how well the player scored in an opening. Although there are serious limitations as Kara rightly remarked in a reaction on my previous article. Such report often shows a distorted picture for amateurs because it mainly includes the games against stronger professional players. Of my 720 standardgames only 255 games can be found in the Big database 2015 and you can only find 1 partial one of my 20 correspondence games in the databases. Besides it is often not really better to choose a variation in which the opponent lost before. If the opponent repeats the line then you can be almost sure that he prepared an improvement. Often it is more interesting to choose a variation in which the opponent scores well or in which he has recently won a game on the condition that you have a fresh idea prepared.

Another angel to optimize openingchoices is to start from the own qualities instead of the opponents. A coach can surely help but even without a coach a lot is possible. If you already play chess for some years and you archive the games properly then you can make an openingbook of it which is much more accurate than a Chessbase report from the Big database 2015. If you play many lines by both colors (see article swapping colors) then it makes sense to create a separate openingbook for white and black. I demonstrate the possibilities of this scientific method with an example of my white openingbook after the first move 1.e4.

You always have to be very careful with statistics as very often wrong conclusions are made. First we need to check if there are sufficient data points to absorb statistical fluctuations. In the article to study chessopenings I indicated that the influence of openings is rather limited to the final result of the game. 10 games is the absolute minimum to tell something meaningful but preferably we have many times more. We also need to take into account the opposition. Instead of looking to percentages it is more interesting to look to the TPR achieved.

In the example we see some remarkable differences in TPR between the different black answers on my first move which can't be just explained by statistical noise. Some openings really fit me better than others. We see that my opponents with the Scandinavian defense (d5) averagely underachieve with 200 points (2000-1790). However with the Caro-Kann (c6) my opponents perform averagely 100 points more than expected (2011-2132) so there I lose rating. This info shows clearly where a repertoire should be adapted or improved.

The same process can be repeated for positions deeper in some openings. The repertoire is built by openings which statistically result in superior performances. Players with a broad repertoire can extract an extra advantage from this method by also applying it during a game-preparation. Suppose your opponent plays against 1.d4 a line in which you score slightly negatively but against 1.e4 he chooses a line in which your report shows a +100 TPR for you then of course you start the game with 1.e4.

Now I surely don't claim that with this scientific method always a perfect openingchoice will be made. Sometimes you are in the mood to play something more creative or a draw is more than sufficient. Playing an opening in which you don't score well, can also be educative. Besides a score doesn't have to stay forever negative as below screenshot from my Caro Kann games demonstrates.

Despite the negative TPR of 100 points we discover that I won my last 9 games although against modest opposition. Some study can influence a performance positively. Therefore it is often better to prepare statistics from only the more recent games again at the condition there is sufficient data.

Playing and trying a lot is fundamental to get an acceptable return by this method. The last few years I couldn't play much due to the combination of work-family so I just muddled around. Small adjustments to my repertoire are regularly made but I don't experiment with completely new openings. Pragmatism or fear, something which is open for debate.


Monday, March 9, 2015

Exchange sacrifices

Most clubplayers have sacrificed material in some games to launch an attack. However sacrificing purely for strategical or positional grounds is something which I almost exclusively see in games of more advanced players. Less experienced players don't grasp yet the abstractness of activity, strong squares or weaknesses. Obviously you only sacrifice material if you understand the value which you get in return.

In this category of sacrifices there is often used the exchange sacrifice. A player sacrifices the rook for bishop or knight. For most topplayers this is something very common but when I look in my personal database of standard games, I have to admit that it is rather rare in my practice. My non-attacking style (see gambits) doesn't explain everything as a game is always played by 2.

One of the very first times that I encountered an exchange sacrifice on the board, was in the Open Gent 2000 by the Belgian grandmaster Vladimir Chuchelov  (today not anymore an active player but a trainer of among others the number 2 of the world Fabiano Caruana)

A simple but efficient example of how quickly a defense can collapse after an exchange-sacrifice. Much more creative was my exchange-sacrifice in 2002 against Raf De Coninck.

Of course black should've refused the exchange but understood too late how large the compensation is. Sometimes sacrificing an exchange isn't fully objectively correct but it is an ideal practical tool to change the character/ course of a game. Such speculative/ practical sacrifice was played by Wouter Gryson in our mutual game. The complete game was earlier covered in the article the fake truth.

The previous examples are clear but it is often much less evident. Last I had to decide to permit or not an exchange-sacrifice in my game against the Belgian FM Gorik Cools. In the end I chose to avoid the possibility but ended up in a dangerous position.

So the exchange-sacrifice was surely playable but not winning. It is an open question what would've happened if I permitted the complications. Such reluctance exists much less with top-players. Still it was a big surprise in the previous worldchampionship that Anand dared to sacrifice the exchange in his last black-game especially as there were perfectly acceptable alternatives.

So exchange-sacrifices are certainly not always straight-forward. For defense and attack it is often a difficult balance. Personal taste, tournament-situation,... play an important role. However it stands firm that exchange sacrifices more or less guarantee creative positions and interesting complications. Did you play once such type of exchange-sacrifice (so not the famous sacrifice on c3 of the Dragon) and there was no direct tactical justification then write it down in a reaction !