Saturday, September 22, 2018

Quicker part 2

A couple of months ago at the blog of LSV questions were raised about why some out-dated rules of the federation weren't adapted to modern society. We see that big changes only happen after some big disaster. The board of most clubs consist of older players not willing to give up their comfortable positions.

On the other hand nothing stays the same forever. There are continuously small changes which don't cause much resistance as most people consider them insignificant. Sometimes only after a decade we see how those little things have accumulated to a big shift. Chess isn't anymore the same. Everybody has adapted to the new situation except a few wondering if playing chess is still interesting.

In part 1 I wrote that the Bruges masters of 2006 was the first Belgian tournament using the quick standard-tempo G90 + 30 seconds. This year so 12 years later all the other remaining big tournaments in Belgium have adopted this tempo. The Zilveren Toren, Open Gent and Open Leuven made the change this year to this fast standard-tempo. So there are no more big tournaments in Belgium left where you can play at the old slower tempo. For the majority of the players this is a logical evolution. However I also hear a few other sounds of disappointment and even bitterness as players can't choose anymore between tournaments with different tempos.

Initially I was also against this quicker tempo but gradually I started to appreciate the advantages. No more enormous blunders due to playing moves with only seconds on the clock. There is also no need anymore of an arbiter to decide if somebody is not making any winning attempts. The games are shorter which is something I welcome in my hectic time of life. Even in Gent I noticed this. Games played at the new tempo of G90 + 30 seconds were averagely quicker finished than games at the old tempo of G120 + 0 seconds. Finally players enjoying the analysis don't need to worry about the recording of the game. You don't have to rely upon a good memory or live-boards. My game played in the 5th round of Open Gent against the tournament-winner Elshan Moradiabadi shows those benefits clearly. Already very early in the game I was down to 2 minutes on the clock but thanks to the increment I was able to avoid making big mistakes and to maintain recording of the moves.
Nevertheless there are some disadvantages too. Because of the increment we never know when a game will be finished the very latest. Theoretically the game can go on forever. 1 very long game can disturb the planning of a tournament. So this is annoying for the organizers but also for the participants it is no fun. Players have to wait longer between the rounds played at the same day and often don't get any time to prepare themselves. I noticed that the tournament-winner of the Bruges Masters 2018 the Spanish grandmaster Oleg Korneev of Russian origin was trying to get around this issue by deliberately being late to a game so he could still prepare for the crucial encounter. The Belgian international arbiter Geert Bailleul will try to discuss this at the imminent Olympiad of Batumi, Georgia. Can this be considered as cheating? Afterall Oleg did consult chess-software during the game.

Just like in 2006 we see that the Bruges Masters is today again a pioneer. For the first time in Belgium a mechanism was introduced to stop the very long games. After 4h40 minutes of play the arbiter can decide to abolish the increment and give both players an additional 5 minutes which transforms the tempo to QPF (quick play finish). At first sight this doesn't make sense as we return the old headache of playing without increment. However if we look more closely then we see that you need to play already minimum 100 moves with G90 + 30 seconds to have a game lasting 4h40 minutes. Games of more than 100 moves are extremely rare (I have in my personal database only 2 out of + 800). So I believe the gain of comfort for the tournament fully compensates the very limited reduction of quality in a couple games.

Still at the first implementation of the new system there were some childhood diseases. The switch from increment to QPF had to be done manually so took a lot (too much) time. I assume the arbiter got more experienced with it after a few times but it is still a very disturbing activity. It was neither clear what exactly should be considered as the duration of a game. Should we start counting from the official starting-hour or from the real starting-hour? As often happens in opens we see that the first round starts delayed. As a consequence the first round-game between the Belgian international master Steven Geirnaert and the Belgian FM Frederic Verduyn was already switched from increment to QPF at move 87.
The involved players weren't happy about this. We still need to get used to this but maybe we should also try to optimize the mechanism. I think it should be better if the clock can do the switch manually. I don't know any clocks able to do what needed to be done in the Bruges masters but we can try to make a compromise by making the switch after x number of moves. So x would be 60,80 or 100. Each player gets in return of cancelling the increment y = 5,10, 15 minutes extra. However only some clocks can execute such switch and they are not often available. I guess it is not easy to buy 100 such clocks for one tournament as this is not cheap at all.

A less visible disadvantage of the quicker tempo which I already mentioned in my article the scoresheet is that the play becomes more superficial. Players thinking for more than half hour at 1 move, is not possible anymore. That would be suicide with the current tempo. This also leads to poverty in the endgame. In my article practical endgames I already warned that endgames would be reduced to instincts and some minimized calculations. However in the recent summer-months I detected another alarming threat of those quicker games. Our youth doesn't know how to play some very basic endgames. I still can understand that my 9 year old son Hugo spoils the endgame below as he lacks experience of playing endgames.
The self-destruction of the very talented young player Enrico Follesa in the next game is more serious. I still accept the small mistakes in the queen-endgame but not the deliberate exchange to a completely lost pawn-endgame. I even warned about this in my article queen-endgames part 2. You have to be very careful about the transformations from queen- to pawn-endgame. It is almost always better to keep the queens on the board if you are not 100% certain about the evaluation.
Finally my own game against my most talented student Sterre Dauw played in the last round of Gent is the most shocking example. Sterre exchanged rooks while hardly thinking about the resulting pawn-endgame. I immediately knew that white has excellent winning chances with his 2 against 3 islands of pawns. Black escaped because I only had 2 minutes on the clock remaining so I missed a last devilish trick.
We can conclude that the youth is just gambling in the endgame. Before one could easily invest 15 minutes or more at 1 move in the endgame and gain some experience. The introduction of the increment has stopped this. Only by analyzing endgames at home we can still get the necessary skills but who (of the youth) does that? Yes I still do but my students were very surprised to hear in my most recent course that I sometimes spend several hours analyzing just 1 endgame.


Monday, September 17, 2018

The scientific approach part 2

In my previous article I gave a glimpse of about what is needed to become a world-class-player. This information is very hard to find. Only by an extensive research through the games of former world-topper Vladimir Epishin I was able to discover how enormous his opening-knowledge is. I summarized it by comparing the number of Vladimir's openings with my own's. It were about 25x more and besides Vladimir often was also much more versed of the theory which is something really astonishing.

Though I do work quite a number of hours myself at chess. So an interesting question is how Vladimir succeeds to maintain and remember so many different openings. Well the simple answer is that he only plays a selected number of openings during a period and he only maintains and studies those. So it is definitely not the case that I could encounter all possible 72 positions in our game. However only Vladimir knows which openings in his repertoire are active. I have to guess which means I only play safe by checking everything.

At that time I didn't get enough time for such elaborated study but there exist a couple of rules which help to improve the odds of a preparation. 60% of Vladimir's openings were single experiments. I guess professionals can become bored of the usual traditional stuff and like to spice up from time to time the opening. An extra bonus is that the opponent will be surprised.
So only 12 of the 72 opening-positions were played by Vladimir in more than 5 games. Of course those 12 get a higher priority. Anyway even more important than the frequency is when an opening was played last. Vladimir plays no opening all his career.
80% of the openings Vladimir played, were used maximally 2,5 years. That is a very short period of time which obviously was influenced by the many one-time openings. Eventually we discover that only for a limited amount of openings that their lifespan overlap. I made an overview per year of the number of overlaps to better illustrate this.
Obviously there are less overlaps in the initial and the latest years. The peak is in 2008 with no less than 17 overlaps. The average is 8,2 overlaps. In other words if you would know which 8-10 openings are today overlapping then you could just limit the preparation on those.

For sure the best is to start with the most recently played openings if time is lacking. However it is wrong to assume that by looking solely at the openings played in the last 2,5 years that you have an 80% success-rate to prepare the right opening of the game. Beside the lifespan of an opening, also the frequency of the opening must be taken into account.
So in about 50% of his games this former top-player chooses for brand-new openings of his repertoire. I guess that preparations at his playing-level can be so detailed that it becomes almost mandatory to continuously reinvent yourself. We also see that we need to return 5 years back to get an 80% hit-rate of preparing the right opening of Vladimir's repertoire. The pareto-principle is definitely also valid for chess. Finally we also remark that in about 10% of the games, Vladimir likes to reuse an old love. Vladimir surely knows about the benefits of using old wine in new skins see part 1 and part 2.

So Vladimir cleverly uses all the assets of his arsenal of openings. It is still a lot of work to study and maintain but not something impossible for a professional. Anyway his approach stands diametrically opposed to how I play chess. Scoring is for me less important. On the other hand I can enjoy more the historical aspect of an opening (which probably explains partly why chess960 is still a small niche today despite some serious tries to get the public more excited about it like last by attracting former world-champion Garry Kasparov, see the current ongoing St. Louis-chessfestival).

That means I am for sure not a polygamist as a chess-player. I am a serial monogamist. Besides a few exceptions, I don't play several openings in parallel in the same position. So contrary to Epishin, you will see that the lifespans of my openings are almost never overlapping. If I make the same exercise for my own repertoire as I did for Epishin's repertoire then this becomes clearly visible. I checked each of my games played in the last 5 years how old my chosen openings were.
Contrary to Epshin many of my old games in the database (10 years and even older) can often still be used in the preparation. It is something which some opponents knowing me well, gratefully take advantage of. On the other the fact that I am using in 30% of my games fresh openings, shows that I do work at my openings. Openings which have shown weaknesses, are replaced immediately.

That last aspect was once more explicitly shown in the opening which occurred in the 8th round of Open Gent. It concerns a rather long rare line of the Dutch stonewall which I encountered for the first time in a correspondence-game. We have to go back 20 years in time for that game when I was renting a small student-room at the Paardenmarkt in Antwerpen. I just ended school and started working (besides today I still have the same employer).

The game is stored today also in Ultracorr-x. An OTB-game of mine with the same opening which managed to get in the standard databases, is the one below against Emmanuel Bricard, at that time still an international master but today he is a grandmaster.
15 years later the Belgian FM Marc Lacrosse chose for exactly the same line as Emmanuel. Maybe Marc had prepared an improvement which isn't so hard to do. Anyway I deviated first with my improvement and I got very quickly a comfortable position. Probably it is karma for some people but against Emanuel I threw away a half point by proposing a draw in a winning position. This time Marc gave me a half point back by resigning in a drawn position.
In part 1 I explained how I as amateur can achieve openings with a much richer complexity in my games by using a scientific approach compared to somebody whom prefers to variate a lot so choosing a more creative road. This article to some extent confirms this but also shows another side of this scientific approach. By playing the same opening for several decades you get also a historical ingredient in the games. Call me a stupid nostalgic player but I like to write some history even at the expense of some ratingpoints.


Wednesday, September 5, 2018


At the age of 17 I started to play competitive chess. Before I spent my free time exclusively at music. In 1985 as a 9 year old boy I assigned for elementary music classes. A year later I started practicing an instrument the trombone.  Another 2 years later I joined a harmony orchestra: the Gildemuziek of Roeselare. There I first got to learn to play music together with other children on Sunday-mornings. A couple of years later I was permitted to play music in the main-orchestra in which even some professionals were playing. We rehearsed weekly on Friday-evenings. It was an interesting and lovely time with many performances in Belgium and abroad. I remember once that I participated at a notorious procession in France. Before we got a free lunched offered from the organization which included martini as much as you wanted. I don't have to explain this heavily impacted our music afterwards.

The members got many privileges. The orchestra got a lot of revenues thanks to the performances and the members were allowed to enjoy this. Clothes, memberships, drinks, food, instruments, music scores, transport, camps... was often completely for free. Also the most loyal members got celebrated every time they achieve a 10 year jubilee. I experienced 1 such jubilee myself. The complete orchestra came to my (elderly) house for a serenade. As commemoration you got a golden star on the hat of your music-costume which from then onward stayed on it.

That episode of my life came to an end when I moved at the age of 22 to Antwerp. It became too difficult to still attend the Friday-evening rehearsals. Besides at that time I already got in love with the game of chess which meant I preferred to play chess in Deurne than playing music. I did however have a look for an orchestra or fanfare in the neighborhood but my chess-ambitions interfered. Today I still possess my instrument. When my children were very small, I did play music on it a couple of times but in the meanwhile things again got quiet.

It is again a special introduction but I do believe something which can be interesting for chess. Many clubs in Belgium are having difficulties to survive. Last year the chessclub of Schoten was even liquidated. If there are no members then it stops. So it is very important as club to keep your members happy and seek new ones. The Gildemuziek has today more than 90 members. They are still very successful after 95 years. Of course chess has much less financial resources but a jubilee for our most loyal members shouldn't cost much. This can be done easily at a yearly club-party by giving them a small present. Maybe we can also think at a sweater/ t-shirt of the club (something already done by kmsk). Each time a jubilee is reached an extra piece is added next to the emblem of the club.

The club KSK Deurne for which I play today, is also experiencing difficulties. If you check the homepage then you notice 6 candles. Each candle represents somebody important for the club and whom recently died. Also we don't see any youngsters breaking-through to competitive chess despite a decade of youth-trainings. This year the club celebrates their 60th anniversary with a quiz. I don't like to quiz but this jubilee is a very good opportunity to make changes and prepare for the future.

So jubilees for chess players don't exist which doesn't mean I can't consider this year as a jubilee. It was in 1993 that I participated at my first big open international tournament at that time still as unrated player. Big can be considered literally as in that year there was a record of participants in Open Gent, 539 see palmares. I scored a modest 3,5/9 in that tournament. I guess that I still can find the score sheets in an old box (at that time I didn't have a computer and I never digitized it) but I won't publish anything here of it as nobody wants to be reminded about how bad my play then was.

25 years later so now in 2018 I again participated at the Open of Gent. I assume the organizers didn't notice. Some tournaments do pay attention to such details. In the last Open Brasschaat the organizers offered a present to the most loyal participants by inviting them for a simul. This wouldn't be interesting for me of course but it is the gesture which is important. In the end I probably gave myself the most beautiful present for this jubilee by competing against some very interesting opponents. In round 5 I played against the congenial American grandmaster from Iranian origin Eshan Moradiabadi, later winning also the tournament. However in round 7 I got an even more fascinating opponent: the Russian grandmaster Vladimir Epishin.

Once Vladimir was the 10th highest rated player in the world, helper of Karpov in his world-championship-matches and achieved a peakrating of 2670. Any real chessplayer loves to get a chance to play a standard game against such famous grandmaster. So I was eager to bring my best game. However in the morning I discovered very soon how difficult the task would be. He has 3441 games in my database (I only have 287) of which already 781 with black against 1.e4 (compared to 63 of mine). Besides I was also very surprised by the sheer amount of openings he dared to play. Even when I just stick to my fixed repertoire (so I don't change my openings) then I should still consider 72 different positions conform the database (I am sure that this doesn't include everything Vladimir knows as many games never get in the database). For this article I summarized it (so I prepared this a month after I played the game) as you can't fully understand this without viewing the details. I have never seen such large arsenal of openings from any player but I do suspect that the Ukrainian grandmaster Vassily Ivanchuk would easily beat this record.
Vladmir Epishin's arsenal of openings which I had to take into account
To understand the magnitude of it, I made the same exercise upon myself. It sounds weird but how many openings would I look at to prepare for a game against myself by using the same kind of database.
So that are only 3 or 24 times less than Vladimir. Most amateurs are wondering what it takes to become a top-player. Well you see there is still an enormous difference between what a FM knows and what an (ex-) worldtop-player knows. By the way don't assume Vladimir just plays something randomly as most if not all chosen systems he knows very well which he also proves in our game.

It is pretty futile to prepare for such amount of openings during an open tournament. I got up at 6 o'clock in the morning to start. Anyway I don't need much sleep during a tournament due to the excitement of the games at the condition I don't drink any alcohol. I stopped at 11 o'clock out of necessity to leave timely from Kontich to Gent and to pick up along the way 2 players having troubles to find transport. It is like you go to an exam but you only learned a part of the complete course as many systems Vladimir played were completely new for me. In orange I indicated at which openings I had looked briefly of the 72 possibilities. It are 24 of them so 1/3.

In the game I was lucky as Vladimir chose number 68. On the other hand my luck didn't last long. I hadn't found any games of Vladimir beyond move 5 so there was still a lot to guess. Eventually I couldn't remember properly all my preparations. Looking at a maximum amount of lines comes at a certain price. It is necessary to repeat to remember things well. Anyway it was a great fight. In below hyper-sharp game both players were pushed at and over their limits.

That is the sort of games why somebody likes to play chess. My 25th jubilee is behind me but I still hope to play many games in this crazy world of chess. Enjoy each of your games as nothing lasts forever.