Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Game preparation part 2

I already noticed several times that I am often the only one in opens carrying his portable. Some people even give me strange looks and wonder what I want to accomplish as there is anyway not enough time to prepare between the rounds. At maximum some players will consult their smartphones to get a quick glance at the most recent games of their next opponent.

I guess my backpack also generated some curiosity at the board-members of lsv chesspirant as end of last year I was invited to give last Saturday an extensive lecture about chess-software. It is a theme which I care about so I accepted the challenge. Almost 4 hours I kept on talking about all kind of different applications so the attendees were afterwards really exhausted and eager to get their refreshments offered in the format of a New Year-reception.  Impressive was the first reaction I got so I immediately understood things didn't go very smoothly. The lecture lasted too long and probably I should have made things much lighter.

The next day in my weekly chess-course in Mechelen I also talked about chess-software but I avoided the same mistakes. This time I first checked carefully which tools my students use and know today already. Not much I concluded. I recommended them to start using the Fritz-interface as I already did before in my article using databases. That one program is a sort of cockpit or control-room in which you can operate the different applications very rapidly. Below you can find a schematic drawing of all the components controlled by the Fritz-interface on my computer.

I use version 15 which you get for free if you buy Komodo 11 (80 euro). You can also get the same interface by buying Houdini 6 of the Belg Robert Houdart which won last year TCEC season 10 superfinal but it is slightly more expensive (100 euro). After all end of last year verson 16 of the interface was launched. However the new features (e.g. spelling-check and voice-recognition) are for me not important and besides you can get for now the interface only by buying the 200 points weaker Fritz-engine.

Next it is important to know very well all basic features of the interface. I really underestimated that in my lecture at LSV. I assumed advanced players know how to create an engine-book and how to interpret the output of an engine but I was wrong. Also my students in Mechelen never read any manual of a Chessbase-program. Anyway this is not something specific for chess. People read generally no manuals see eg. the recent hln article in which is stated that 75% of the drivers doesn't know the meaning of the many warning-lights of their dashboard.

I am not claiming to read every manual or every list of terms and conditions when I buy or subscribe to something as that would take maybe half of my free time. Still some things like a manual of a car one should really read for its own safety. I bought last year a new car after my 15+ year old car broke down so I spent several hours reading the manual of that new car. I also understood many years ago that it is absolutely necessary to read the online Fritz-manual if you want to prepare and analyze optimally. Anyway if next time somebody asks me to give some advise about how to use chess-software then first I will refer to the manual.

Finally sometimes I also get the remark that preparing is not possible for the lower rated players as there are insufficient games of the opponents in the databases. An available laptop, a good interface installed with up to date databases and having read the manual won't help for them. Still I know by experience that people often underestimate their possibilities even if only a handful games can be found of the opponent. A nice example occurred in the 4th round of the last Open Leuven. I first filtered the position after white's 4th move and noticed that the Dutch expert Eduard Coenen has no games with that position in the databases.
From above screenshot we detect that in the opening-book there are more than 10.000 games played with this position. It seems that the number of possibilities are too big to prepare anything seriously. Still now I address my special number-crunching-skills. In my daily job I need to find trends in sequences and something similar is possible even upon a handful games. Let us look at some of the most recent games played by Edouard. As explained in my article using databases the hotkeys "ALT+Q" are very useful for that.

I note immediately that Edouard prefers to play somewhere a6 in the opening irrespective of how white plays. That can be something consciously but more often it is a sign of a lack of flexibility by the player. People don't like change so will often stick to some habits. I already covered several examples of this phenomenon on my blog see game preparation part 1bjk part 1bjk part 2 with as most stunning ones of course my articles to open with the f-pawn and universal systems. So I concluded that it is very likely Edouard will also play a6 in the earlier mentioned position despite there exists no real proof. This information allows us to prepare much more efficiently. It is not much effort to at least look at the mainlines. Besides I already had some experience in that line see the fake truth. We see in below screenshot that the number of mastergames is very quickly diminishing.
I will cover the game in a next article but I can now already share that Edouard was totally surprised by my preparation. That is also something which I learned by experience when playing against somebody with very few games in the database. Those players don't expect at all any preparation so the effect is often much bigger than when you play against people with many games in the database. So next time you a play a tournament, consider to bring your computer and who knows maybe you will win an extra point.

Brabo

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Rise & Fall of David Bronstein

Recently I couldn’t resist buying the r&f of db by Sosonko. Anyone who has read Sosonko’s articles (in New in Chess magazine or books published by them) on masters of yesteryear appreciates his inside look of the chess world. Filled with anecdotes from a world now gone – but not yet forgotten – he recreates life as it was in those (for us westerners) dark Soviet times. His article on Genrikh Chepukaitis may still be the very best one yet.

So when Sosonko writes about David Bronstein, the man closest to the world chess championship, without effectively ever reaching it, you know this is worth your while.

For starters: the book contains no games of Bronstein’s, don’t expect some unknown game or some previously unpublished analysis. This is not a chess book – it’s a book about the person behind the chess player. Also no personal memoirs are presented either, this is “just” Sosonko’s view on Bronstein through his own observations, talks, discussions …

The book is divided in some chapters, roughly chronologically following Bronstein’s life.

Bronstein’s quotes on chess and his achievements in the first ten pages made a big impression on me: this was a chess hero completely nullifying his efforts, his accomplishments by stating that is was all for nothing. That what he did on a board with pieces meant nothing. It is one thing to think such a thing as a normal person, who considers chess as a hobby and after twenty or thirty years thinks that all this time in preparation, playing and analyzing chess was worth nothing, but it’s another thing to read this coming from an “almost world champion”.

For me in particular this was sobering and enlightening in the same instant – as a hobby player I recently quit chess (the official playing part – still follow the news on internet and play blitz), and find myself – approaching 50 – at a turning point in my life. Reading this and understanding the curse of chess – and at the same time realizing that for someone as Bronstein this must have been 100 times harder (after all he was so close…) – that struck me as very painful – for Bronstein.

Unfortunately, the impact of this hammer blow at the start of the book creates expectations which cannot be sustained throughout the story told. 

Very early in his life, Bronstein sees factors looming that hinder him in the realization of his dream: become world champion and change the history of chess. With his dazzling play, he is almost the antipode of the classic, dogmatic Botvinnik. He shoots to the top, eclipsing upcoming players as Keres and Smyslov and establishing himself as the challenger for the world title. He gets help from Vainstein and Boleslavsky, who support him against the state supported Botvinnik.

But his progress in chess knowledge is not complete: his opponents quickly realise that when the queens come of, Bronstein plays less inspired – and in the endgame he is not particularly better than any other grandmaster. His forte is imagination, his weakness technique. But just like Tal ten years later, the plusses outweigh the minuses and he becomes challenger. In the world title match the score favours Botvinnik, but the games themselves show that Bronstein is the one “making the match”. When he is one point up after game 22, everyone beliefs he will be the new world champion. But he does not want to take a time-out to calm down and to reset his mind to “play two more draws” and loses his advantage.

From that point onwards – his downfall begins. In chess, Keres, Smyslov, Geller and others start surpassing him. In life, his frustration on the missed opportunity starts devouring him. Both combined have the effect that he slowly gets more and more isolated, which only fuels his anger and selfpity. He becomes the “has-been” and fades away. Bronstein can’t forget, looks back in anger and keeps finding new external factors that must have influenced him in that famous 23rd match game.

He considers himself as the real forerunner of modern chess, thinks that he was the true giant, on whose shoulders the young players are standing, but the “lack of recognition” and his constant – but inconsistent – wining about this and other bad things happening to him, isolate him further. He is no longer taken seriously, loses the right to travel abroad and fades away.

Till… in 1989 the fall of the Berlin wall triggers the collapse of the Soviet Union and he gets to travel again. The west is delighted to have this famous name back in their midst – still unaware of his mental drawbacks. Bronstein himself loves the new attention and respect he gets everywhere, but gradually age catches up, the constant travelling starts to become a drag, his native country calls… and he goes back to Russia and a meager pension of 50 dollars per month…

The book describes these changes in his life not exactly, but gives some details unknown to me before – especially the comments of his fellow grandmasters are insightful. Despite the respect he had amidst them, they did know his eternal babbling, which could make your head spin before or after a game. His never-ending variations on how to play a new variation of chess, new time controls, new tournament formats… 
  
And then on page 198 it hit me: when reading “His philosophizing could be described by the term ‘asynchrony of appositions’, meaning a lack of connection between semantic strings. (note of the reviewer – at least for the listener – for the thinker uttering these words, there may very well be a connection, just like for a mathematician the link between electricity and a hyperbolic cosine is simple: the high voltage line hanging from a transport line mast) Put more simply, this meant jumping from one subject to another and a lack of coherent reasoning.”  I realized the book itself mirrored Bronstein’s mind: by jumping from one piece of information to another, Sosonko (willingly?) recreates the associative mind of Bronstein, linking everything with everything. Oh yes, here’s another analogy. And here, another anecdote illustrating how contradictory he was. And there, another good quote from an artist, philosopher, writer, scientist, characterizing Bronstein as he was indeed – such a good comparison – as if written with Davy in mind. It all piles up and there seems to be no direction, no storyline, just heaps of information, comparisons, ideas, similarities. And then you realize that this omnidirectional style is how Bronstein’s mind must have worked.

Indeed, when talking about chess, why not have the possibility to skip a move once in a game, or have a one-time knight jump available for a king in peril? Or the possibility to place a captured pawn back in the game? The game of chess is rich enough in variations (according to Wikipedia, more than 2000). There are limitless possible ramifications in the design of chess – everybody can be world champion in his own “style”. But is having thoughts like this not fleeing the reality? If you are not anymore the best in your field, it is easy to muse about a variation where you can still be the best. Take Fischer: he copied Bronstein’s idea for random chess (which – as far as I know it – is much older than both), to avoid that tedious bit of opening theory. Or Capablanca, who wanted to play on a bigger board with two sets of chessmen.

So we see an image of a chess player that I’ve not seen before. Of course, Sosonko has first-hand experience. You cannot compare this book to a biography of a historical chess player (see for example the series by McFarland). There, there is only indirect proof of how the player was in real life. The book shows us that chess players – even the very best – can have their demons, that they are not “perfect people”, successful, rich, amiable, gently, well-disciplined, respectful. A chess player is formed by his upbringing, his cultural background, his talent, his environment. And sometimes this all makes a good match, but sometimes the genius part is placed in a man “too light” to bear that part. It is a good thing we can read about the struggle of a man with his talent – and how he dealt (unsuccessfully) with that once-in-a-lifetime missed opportunity. This is the opposite of a hagiography: it shows the man Bronstein – and that’s all Sosonko wanted to show us. We may not like the subject of the picture (and I’d say, maybe the style of the painting is a bit too baroque),  but just like Adolph Northen’s painting of Napoleon’s retreat from Russia, it shows us reality.

What about the book production quality? The format of the softcover book is OK, the typesetting also, it reads fluently. The text on the back cover is printed slightly oblique.  The cartoon on the front cover is very well done: Bronstein throwing darts to a picture of Botvinnik on a wall – one has hit the aim, but the other is next to the frame, as a symbol that Bronstein in the end had critique on almost everything, Botvinnik-related or not. The wall representing not just the system supporting Botvinnik, but the whole world, limiting him, Bronstein to achieve his full potential.

So conclusion: is it a good read? Well, that’s the wrong question. “Good” is not the right word for this book. The story Sosonko tells us is insightful, tells us something about life, about achievement, about purposefulness. It is not a happy story – it does not end well. Our hero dies blind, alone, and almost forgotten, a relic from the past. A too large portion of his life he used his shield of eccentricity to camouflage his uncertainty, his indecisiveness, his disillusionment. It made him bitter, but in the end, he came close to reconcile himself with his past and the demons he made himself.

It is a difficult read – but the advantage of the complexity of the text is that it makes it easier to understand Bronstein’s train of thought – his stream of consciousness. Don’t expect a well-defined article about a certain topic like the ones Sosonko has written on other chess players. Bronstein was too complex and Sosonko’s interactions with him too frequent to draw a one or two-dimensional picture of the man.

Could the text have been written more “fluently” – probably. But by writing the way he did, Sosonko showed us there was more to cunning Davy than meets the eye. I think Davy would have liked the book: nuances and contradictions surrounded the man, and this book illustrates this well. Tip of the hat to Elk & Ruby for publishing this; not the easiest subject, not the easiest elaboration, but definitely worth your while.

HK5000

Monday, January 22, 2018

Halloween

Less than 2 months ago as every year there was again a lot of tension at home. The Saint Nicholas-day was approaching so my children were writing their wish-list of things they like to get as presents. Next it is always necessary to temper the expectations as the demand is always bigger than the supply. However the chat with my 8 year old son didn't proceed this time as forecast.
- I: "Do you really need to get this? Wouldn't that be a better present for you?
- My son: "It is probably again too expensive for you?"
- I: "Mmm? For me?
- My son: "I meant for Saint Nicholas of course."
- I: "Do you know something more already about Saint Nicholas?"
- My son:"Well I saw my ante Ellen when she was hiding the chocolate-eggs when I was 5 years old. I saw mama putting the coin of the tooth-fairy under my pillow when I lost my first tooth. So I also have figured out a long time ago who is Saint Nicholas."
- I:"Oh and I hoped to keep enjoying for awhile your innocence. Why didn't you tell me earlier?"
- My son:"Ach I just played my role so I wouldn't miss any presents. Does this mean that I won't get any this year?

Of course I didn't deny him his presents. All children are dreaming about it and each culture has its own children-day. In Russia this is the 31st of December: Дед Мороз & Снегурочка (Grandfather frost and his granddaughter Snegoerotsjka). Like Saint Nicholas in Belgium you can meet him/them regularly in shopping-malls or even on the street. You can see them showing up in many advertisements. Even some gigantic statues are made of them whereby it is queuing to make a picture together with the children.
My 2 children posing next to the statues.
Of course this means they can profit of some more presents. Grandpa and grandma (kortatei and nanei we call them conform their Tatar background) spoiled them with candy and a nice amount of pocket money to spend to whatever they liked.

We don't participate with our family at other children-days although I notice that Halloween becomes more and more popular in our country. In my childhood this day wasn't celebrated at all but today there are a lot of activities around Halloween. While being in Open Le Touquet there was a real trick or treating organized by the government see e.g twitter VilleduTouquet.

However it is not because I haven't experienced Halloween as a child that it is something new for me. Via chess I already got acquainted decades ago with Halloween. I am of course talking about the Halloween-gambit and this finally steers the story to the real subject of this article. I like not standard introductions.

The Halloween-gambit was originally called Muller-Schulze gambit or also Leipzig gambit (see wikipedia).  Only after an article of Jakob Steffen was published in 1996 the new name became popular. Halloween-gambit sounds much better so the old names were quickly replaced. At amateur-level the gambit became somewhat popular thanks to the scary character of the resulting complications. An article on the site of Tim Krabbe:  "A breeze in the sleepy Four knight's game" added some more fuel to the fire. However this also meant simultaneously the end of the gambit. The extra attention attracted some theoreticians and very quickly some anti-dotes were discovered. I still remember a less known anti-dote from that  period which I still like to play online, see example below.
That is the disadvantage of many gambits. You can often return the piece and maintain a nice position. Nevertheless the gambit is still sometimes used as a surprise-weapon. Hereby also some new refined versions of the gambit were discovered which are less dubious. I refer to the Halloweengambit against the glek which is sometimes also called the reversed Halloween-gambit. Even some strong players have tried this system with some success.
Finally there is also something like the double reversed Halloween-gambit or should we call it the reversed Glek. Also in that version the gambit is perfectly playable. This was already demonstrated by a very young Magnus Carlsen. His fondness for off-beaten openings, is something he clearly got from childhood.
Maybe this history is something already known by the reader and this article just refreshed your memory. The double reversed Halloween-gambit was already covered by an article published in 2008 on the blog of Sverre Johnsen but I assume few are aware about that. However I did knew about it which was something my opponent in round 3 of the Open Leuven experienced. The surprise failed and I quickly got a comfortable position especially after white hallucinated.
I sometimes hear parents complain that their children lose games due to those kind of dubious gambits. They find it lame that some players try to win by using traps so preventing their children to play a full game of chess. However traps are also an important part of chess which you need to deal with. Or you adapt the repertoire to avoid those kind of gambits or you learn the anti-dotes often after a number of losses. Recently I was again criticized of not willing to let my son play some main-openings. This would be bad for this development. Personally I don't see what the benefit is of letting my son lose games in less than 20 moves due to some traps. Today it is more important to let him play long games. First priority for him should be to build up a solid position and how to proceed instead of learning a number of theoretical moves.

Brabo

Friday, January 12, 2018

Swindles

Fighting back from a lost position is definitely not easy in chess. In my article comebacks I demonstrated that in most games an evaluation-difference of 1 pawn is an uphill battle. A recent article at schaaksite about reversibility proves the same but uses a totally different method. The Dutch expert Jaap Amesz played a couple of rapidgames against a top-engine rated 1000 elo higher than himself. Getting a piece extra to start, it became quite easy to defeat the tactical monster. Handicap-games make only sense for novices.

The endgame is an exception as a mistake will normally cause a much bigger impact upon the result of the game. In the past I often was able to save totally lost endgames due to a better sense of the intricacies see e.g. endgames of bishop against knightendgames of knight against knightendgames of opposite bishops,... I consider it a pity that we only deal with "playable" endgames in about 10% of our games. A higher percentage doubtlessly would've been positive for my rating. Besides the quicker games today compared with a couple of years ago were also deteriorating the endgame.

So a won middlegame with a relatively lower engine-evaluation will often be easier to win than a won endgame with sometimes a much higher engine-evaluation. Experienced players know how to avoid counterplay in a won middlegame. The defender often is restricted to just defending for several hours. It is not only boring but also such defense fails eventually in most cases. It is not a surprise that some players will try to swindle. The definition at wikipedia tells us to trick/ fool the opponent so a lost position can be saved.

So with a swindle-move you try to set a trap for the opponent but at the same time you also risk to lose much quicker or even immediately. When stiff defense will anyway will lead to a guaranteed defeat then such swindle is for sure the right decision. However in many other cases the right choice is not very clear. I am not an expert in that domain. When I try to swindle then it is mostly too late. It more resembles to my final gasp so without any real chance of salvation. I remember 1 clear exception in my career in which I tried to swindle in an inferior but not yet totally lost position.

The final-position is completely lost for black but I was fortunate. White was happy with the draw and didn't look beyond the repetition (something similar happened recently in the game Zaki Harari - Maxim Rodshtein played at Isle of Man). Very likely a stronger player would've deviated and my swindle would've failed. Anyway after the game I was not proud about the swindle. I got the feeling to have stolen a half point but also realized that most other players wouldn't hesitate to pull a similar feat against myself.

Totally different is the feeling when a swindle happens thanks to an unique hidden possibility after something changed in the position. Such swindles are not based upon provoking mistakes but rather use its own playing-strength by finding often stunning combinations. The most fertile territory is again the endgame. In my article holidays part 3 I wrote that I tried to kibitz the games of the other Belgium players in Le Touquet. Hereby I not only paid attention to the A-group but also looked at the players in the B-group. As such I saw a very lovely swindle executed by the 11 year old Leen Deleu.

Leen's results weren't fantastic in the tournament but this escape surely improved her spirits.

In Open Leuven I encountered my most beautiful swindle of my chess-career and on top in a middlegame. Just when I thought to finally overcome the resistance of my opponent, the flamboyant Belgian expert Emile Boucquet managed to knock off my socks by a marvelous piece-sacrifice leading to a forced draw. Initially I was disappointed to spoil a very good position with an extra pawn but later I did appreciate the beauty of the concept.

I assume Emile hadn't forecast everything but that doesn't really matter here and besides was practically impossible with the remaining time on the clock. Anyway I don't mind to lose half or even full points when my opponent can find such swindles during the game.

In fact such swindles should be collected for the real chess-amateurs. That is why we learned to play chess. Luckily the Australian grandmaster David Smerdon just requested on his blog to send him our best swindles as he wants to bundle them in a book see article: a swindle that never was. So if you experienced something spectacular in your games then respond to this post or send it directly to David.

Brabo