Thursday, September 19, 2019

Testing chess-engines

Till a couple of months ago I never bothered about testing chess-engines. I didn't see any value in it. I would never be able to achieve the same quality as the results CCRL publishes weekly. Besides such work is not cheap as you need to invest into hardware, electricity, floorspace,... On top most of those games played by engines are pretty boring. You better watch games of humans to see drama and creativity.

However as I mentioned in my last article, I had an open question for Leela. CCRL nor other sites give me an answer about how strong Leela would be in comparison with the classical engines when both use exactly the same type of hardware. That is a problem for me. I can install for free Leela on my PC but I only want to use it for analysis if I know the engine is one of the 2 strongest ones I possess. I am using that rule already for a very long time see my article of 2012 about how I analyze. Maybe some will consider this a bit silly but it assures me that my opponents will likely not have any better analysis.

So in the end I decided to do the testing myself. Then the next question is of course how to do this job quickly, accurately and as cheap as possible. I could use a set of puzzles but that is only one aspect of an engine. I rather prefer the engine to be tested by playing games but I can't/ don't want to miss my hardware for several months. A good compromise was found in a rapidmatch with the rate of 15 minutes + 10 seconds increment over 100 games. That should give a good indication of the playing-strength. At stake was a place in my top 2 engines so logically I chose Komodo 11 as its opponent for the match.

Then the next question is what do we decide about the openings. Do we give the engines full liberty of choice or do we select a number of positions which need to played out once from each side as TCEC does? The free choice is as we humans play our games but there are some disadvantages to that. The engines will likely play openings which are not part of my repertoire. The risk exists that they play very safe and we get an abundance of draws. Finally Leela will without an openingbook play almost exclusively the same moves in the opening so you risk to see several times the same opening/ game.

Therefore I preferred to let the engines start from a pre-defined set of openings. Which openings to choose is then the next logical question. It didn't take me long to find a good answer for it. I created a new database and injected a selection of 50 recently played games of myself. Next I removed in all games the moves beyond the 10th. The few duplicates which I got, were swapped by selecting a few other of my games. The final result was a nice mix of 50 positions in which some of them the balance was already broken. This way I avoided a too high number of draws. Besides the engines will only play openings which have occurred before in my practice which makes it of course more fun to watch the match.

Finally everything was ready. Via Fritz I activated the window to initialize the match as obviously I wanted to automate the whole process. First I selected Leela. Next Komodo11. I selected the right tempo and the last step was linking to my special database of 50 positions. After verification of all parameters I clicked ok and the match got off.
About 3 full days lasted the match. I let my PC run day and night but I did interrupt the process a few times to allow my PC cool down as around that time we were having temperatures around 40 degrees in Belgium. Anyway it was very easy to continue the match from the point where I paused.

The match was a big success which superseded the tests. First it became quickly clear both engines were very close of strength but also had a very different style. Often games got extremely interesting and besides played from openings all part of my repertoire. A number of times, I sometimes even together with my children, watched live 1 or more games. My children also regularly asked about the preliminary score as we all got attached to little Leela which despite the tactical handicap (more about it later) often managed to defeat the giant Komodo .

It made me want to have more of it so I decided to organize twice more such match in the next months with newer releases of Leela. For the 3rd match I decided to replace some of the openings. If in the 2 previous matches 4 times the same color won (so irrespective of the engine) then it seemed more appropriate to select some other opening to use as test.

2 matches were narrowly lost by Leela. The second match Leela tied with Komodo. I considered this a very unexpected and exceptionally good result on my modest computer definitely not optimal for Lc0. On the other hand the matches didn't give an answer on my original question. The scores were too close to know for sure which engine of the 2 was the strongest. Anyway this is not a disaster as now I got to know Leela very well in the 300 games. I got a pretty good idea when to use Leela for the analysis.

In my previous article we already got acquainted with Leela by looking at how the engine reacts in different types of positions but it is only by replaying her games that we fully realize how different the engine is compared with the traditional ones. So to conclude this article I made a selection of 3 games which demonstrate very well the strengths and weaknesses of Leela. This was not so easy as there was a very large number of beautiful games. I start with a fantastic game played from the Chigorin-variation of the Spanish opening (I covered the opening recently in my article statistics). Leela sacrifices very early an exchange and succeeds like a real boa constrictor to slowly suffocate black.
The extraordinary of this game is that there is no fixed center. The battle rages over the full board but black never gets a change to exploit the extra exchange.

A second game starts from a Dutch stonewall which I encountered in one of my games played end of 2017 against the Dutch IM Xander Wemmers see secret. In the game we see the advance of both rook-pawns which is very typical for the style of Leela. Next we see a magnificent demonstration of activity. Komodo doesn't understand at all what Leela is trying to do.
Leela plays this game as many others with an understanding of open lines, bad bishops which is much more advanced than Komodo.

If you have replayed the 2 previous games then you probably start to wonder why Leela didn't destroy Komodo in the match. Well tactically things got often completely wrong. A nice example is the next one in which Leela sees the combination 5 moves too late.
Fans of my blog will likely already recognized the link to my article the butterfly-effect. All the moves were already covered in that article so it was definitely a surprise to see them all executed on the board.

I got to enjoy testing of chess-engines via these kind of matches. A new match won't be for immediately as other work needs to done first. Besides Leela is building a new network from scratch and today it is still much weaker than the networks of a couple of months ago. It would also be nice for a next match to have by that time newer and stronger hardware.


Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Leela (Lc0)

At the end of 2017 I mentioned on my blog about the first +50 year old player breaking the 2700 barrier. However most people expect that this record will be smashed very soon by former worldchampion Viswanathan Anand. In December he will be 50 and today he still has a sky-high rating of 2765.

The young Dutch topgrandmaster Anish Giri already expressed his admiration for him in a recent interview at Anand is a fascinating phenomenon. Contrary to his contemporaries he is still young of heart. Most people of his age aren't willing to make changes. They stop downloading the last software or they don't renew the apps like young people do. Anand however is still up to date with the apps on his smartphone. Fact that he still belongs to the world-top is the merit of continuously reinventing oneself.

That motivation is lacking for older players is something I see regularly confirmed around me. In the most recent Vlaanderen Schaakt Digitaal the publisher talks about Fritz. I used that engine 20 years ago to analyze my games. If you use today still Fritz while there exist free and much stronger engines then you definitely aren't ambitious anymore. However worse is when an author whom everybody considers absolute the best in his domain of opening-books, isn't up to date with the latest developments. In a recent interview the Israeli grandmaster Boris Avrukh confessed that he didn't use the best software to check his analysisHis repertoire-books are very popular so it is a shock to hear that he was still using an old version of Stockfish and never had worked with Leela.

It seems this 41 year old player has lost its appetite for chess. Therefore it wasn't a real surprise when he announced at the introduction of this most recent book that he would stop writing any new books. Just like the 44 year old former worldchampion Kramnik whom stopped his professional chesscareer a couple of months ago, he expressed his wish to make a career-change. Many new plans and challenges are already waiting. So there will be no time for being bored and in the end it is of course up to the individual how to live your own life.

I am in the same age-category as them but I am definitely not tired yet of chess. Contrary as this year I will play (much) more. End of this month I will play again chess abroad which has been more than a decade ago. Together with my son Hugo we will play in the same team for Axel Landau in the Dutch interclub. I am also again reading some new opening-books which was even 2 decades ago when I last bought such book (see e.g. statistics). Finally I am also closely following all chess-developments via different chess-sites. About 1 of those new kids in town I want in this article to elaborate a bit.

About the rise of Alphazero and later Lc0 I already wrote a number of times on this blog but I guess this wasn't very interesting for the average amateur. What is the sense to talk about something which you can't use yourself? Well this is not correct (anymore). 4 months ago I managed to install Lc0 on my PC and meanwhile I have become a real fan of it. Since beginning of 2018 I complained that our best engines are too similar which made it doubtful if it still made sense to use something else beside Stockfish see to analyze using a computer part 3. Lc0 is a game changer. It very often gives a totally different view which is definitely valuable.

So Lc0 is available for everybody. Many grandmasters are using it already for some time see e.g. a recent interview of the French grandmaster Iossif Dorfman but I only hear very rarely amateurs do. Nevertheless I think also for them this engine can be very useful. Often classical engines offer very complex and tactical solutions for some opening-questions. On the other hand it is not seldom that Leela chooses for a much more quiet alternative based on solid positional moves which are easier to understand and remember. In my most recent game-preparations of the last edition of Open Brasschaat I used regularly Leela to make some quick choices. A lovely example was below opening which was part of my preparation against  Guy Baete.
Openings played by amateurs are often ignored by grandmasters so it is for sure good to have Lc0 around to consult as a backup.

Also in the middlegame Leela performs very well. I checked my analysis made in the most recent years with Leela and Leela found practically all critical moves. Some readers will maybe still remember my article the horizon published in 2014 in which I indicated that engines like Houdini and Stockfish couldn't find the best move f3 even after 1 hour of calculations. Well Leela only needs 19 seconds on my desktop today.
The last release of Stockfish finds f3 now also very fast. It just proofs once more that the strength of the best engines have improved dramatically last couple of years.

Finally the endgame is maybe the phase in which Leela can demonstrate the greatest difference compared to the traditional engines. Especially when engines don't use tablebases I notice that Leela is far more accurate with the evaluation. Time over time this allowed Leela to escape from some very difficult to defend positions. A nice example is an extract from a game out of a match with Komodo against Lc0.
Then the next question is of course: "how strong is Leela exactly". I could refer to the most recent superfinal of TCEC which Leela won from Stockfish with 53,5- 46,5 but that would give on my PC a distorted picture. TCEC uses different hardware which allows Lc0 to play much stronger than on my 2 year old desktop (an AMD FX(tm)-6300 6 core processor 3,5Ghz with a Nvidia Geforce GTX 960 graphic card).  On CCRL it is a similar story as they don't compare the engines on the same hardware. In the end I decided to compare myself the engines on my PC. 1 of the 3 Leela-releases which I tested, managed to score a very nice 50-50 against Komodo (my only commercial engine which I still use today for analysis) in a match of 100 rapid games (more about this in the next article). I believe with a slower tempo Lc0 further gains some strength compared to the competition which is what CCRL also shows in its benchmarks.

So even on my modest hardware Leela performs approximately at the same level as recent releases of Stockfish and Komodo. I expect it would surpass them on faster hardware. Unfortunately I am not rich and unexpected expenses this year are forcing me to put on hold my dream of more powerful hardware.

Ok everybody is convinced that Lc0 is a must but I still need to explain how to install Lc0 on your own PC so we can all start to use it. For people willing to find this out themselves see Getting Started. However I warn that it is not so simple. On my 5 year old portable it didn't even manage. I guess it has to do with missing a good graphic card. Without a Nvidia graphic card it makes little sense.

First you need to download the engine and put it in a directory. You can choose between different versions. I chose as it is the most recent one and it works for my Nvidia graphic card. The cuda-version is stronger but I couldn't get it work on my PC probably because I don't have the right drivers or because my graphic card is too old. If you have stronger hardware then you should definitely try the cuda-version.

Next you need to download a network and put it in the same directory as the engine. You can choose between hundreds of networks. The site recommends network 42700 but I use at this moment 42820. It is possible that another network is still a couple of points stronger but it makes little sense to spend hours of testing to find this out.

Next double click on the Lc0 file after which normally a command prompt should pop up. Type "go nodes 100" and press enter. Wait till the command is executed. If you see on the last line "bestmove ..." then you can close the window.

Now go to Chessbase and start the application "Create UCI Engine" under the tab "Engine". Select Lc0 and click on ok. If everything went ok then you can now choose Lc0 as engine and start to analyze with it. I also want to warn that you need a bit of adjustment with Lc0. Lc0 will only give a first evaluation after some seconds contrary to the classical engines which give instantaneously an answer. Also don't be afraid of the low number of positions Lc0 checks. It is fully normal to see Lc0 calculating 1000 times slower than Stockfish. It won't play worse due to it.

Voila we are again up to date but the developments are not stopping. New neural networks are at the doorstep. Of course Chessbase wants a piece of the pie and has recently proposed fat fritz. More interesting I think are the new engines which are now competing in the mastergroup of TCEC season 16. Some new names like Alliestein, Scorpio and Stoofvlees are already infiltrating at the top. Yes stoofvlees also made me smile. The author is the Belg with Italian roots Gian-Carlo Pascutto preferring to eat stoofvlees instead of pizza.


Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Obstruction part 2

General rules are taught so better moves are found quicker. This is done so students can acquire in a very short time-frame a basic level at chess. However to progress further, it becomes more and more important to also recognize the exceptions as chess is full of those.

In my courses for the advanced player I use a lot of time to explain about e.g. "the superfluous piece" or "the line of Troitsky" (see my previous article for more information). Although those complex and often unknown examples of obstructions rarely occur in practice, they do have a didactic value. There exists a category of endgames in which it is useful to throw away ballast (useless pawns) so a more easy defense can be played.

Also my students are regularly surprised how it is possible that I can so often use own games as examples for a certain theme which looks to them very seldom popping up. I only play a fraction of the number of games they play each year. Despite my much longer career some of my students have already played almost the same number of standard games.

Maybe it is because I am playing at a higher level so averagely my games contain more content (sounds to me a very good reason to improve at chess). However I think the most important reason must lay in the difference of working-discipline. Contrary to my students I analyze my games thoroughly while using the help of engines. On the other hand they are satisfied with a simple blunder-check of a couple of minutes.

Now I do understand that somebody of 1600 is only checking his blunders as tactics should at that level be the number one reason of losing games. However a young ambitious +2100 player should look for different type of errors or he will not improve anymore. I clearly notice this in my students as none is doing more than those blunder-checks. Some have the potential to become stronger than myself but without a change of attitude this will most likely not happen.

Initially this year I wanted to stop teaching but my daughter Evelien convinced me to continue one extra year. I did 6 years the efforts for my son Hugo so refusing a second year for my daughter wouldn't be fair. Anyway I did warn them that it is the final year if none of both is willing to work regularly at chess independently. Also this year I will return to the basics and concentrate on my 1600 rated students. I think this is more useful than what I can do for the highest rated ones.

So analyzing your own games is really something I consider mandatory. Probably I am now living the most hectic period of my life but still I do reserve time to do this job. There exist no excuses just other priorities. I still develop myself each day as a player because I still discover new things. One of those I encountered in below position. All engines (Leela included) choose for a very special self-obstruction.
Qd2 is of course counter-intuitive but the engines calculate deeper and see that this obstruction is only temporarily. Also top-players are nowadays regularly breaking old rules as they use every day engines. Below position became very popular after Carlsen had tested it with success.
In my previous article I showed positions in which you don't see at first sight an obstruction but there is one hidden. In this article I show examples which let you believe an obstruction is obviously happening but it is just an illusion. Did I already tell you that chess is a difficult game?


Sunday, August 11, 2019


One of the very first things we learn is the value of each piece. Without this information it would probably take hundreds of games before we get an idea about which exchange is good or bad. However computers don't have this limitation. They only need to focus on playing chess. Besides they are also able to play very fast. Engines are perfectly capable of figuring out themselves the value of each piece and can even refine this by adding parameters like pair of bishops, position, endgame,...

This is how the traditional engines work today but I get the feeling that Alpha Zero and Leela don't define any value at all of the pieces. I didn't study the code of the programs but for sure mobility of the pieces plays a crucial role. So a piece which can't play, won't be taken into account. Below example illustrates this very well. This was the final position of my game against Marcel Vermaat (see comebacks part 2)

It is a dead draw but Komodo and Stockfish evaluate it totally wrong. Leela however detects that the 2 extra pawns can't move so shows it is completely equal. Counting material doesn't work here. Still I noticed that fortresses aren't necessarily recognized better by Leela. Mobile fortresses so in which pieces defend a zone, are still problematic to evaluate correctly even for this new type of engines.

Nevertheless looking at the mobility of the pieces seems a big improvement of the evaluation upon just counting material. Besides this reminds me of something I did when I started with chess. At that time I regularly tried to figure out on a piece of paper how the mobility influences the evaluation of a position. At a time when no computers existed, I chose a number of positions from a game and colored the squares which were controlled by the pieces. I only applied for a couple of months this method as it is very time-consuming and gives a very low return. Players often wonder when I say that more than likely I would be today a better player if I had access to a good coach. I wasted a lot of time in my childhood to try and error different methods. As an adult it is very hard to reclaim this lost time.

So for a human it makes no sense to figure out which moves will lead to the most positive gap between the mobility of both colors. Nonetheless there are a few themes you can find back in chess-literature which discuss mobility and can be implemented easily. One was introduced by late Mark Dvoretsky years ago in his concept of the superfluous piece. When 2 pieces of the same color are fighting for the same square this it can be useful for the other color not to exchange any of the 2 pieces. In my practice I got last year an opportunity to execute this theme. Although I was aware about it, I wrongly chose for something more ordinary.
Black to move
All my engines recommend Nd8 and consider it stronger than my standard developing move Rad8. So also classical engines do understand to some extend that mobility must be taken into account of the evaluation of a position.

Sometimes a piece is not only restricted in its mobility but it would be even better to not have it on the board at all. The own piece only obstructs. Basic examples are smothered mate and the back-rank mate (see e.g. When your chess pieces betray you). However there are also less clear examples of it. One of them I explained in one of my youth-lessons: 2 knights against 1 pawn.
Without the pawn it is always a draw but with it you risk to lose. The famous Troitsky-line explains us how far the pawn can be maximally advanced to keep winning chances with the knights. 

Another special case I mentioned casually in my article exchange pawn when standing worseBrand-new international master Daniel Dardha proved a couple of months earlier once more that rook + bishop against rook isn't fun to defend see his game against Vincent Blom played in the Belgian interclub but sometimes it is with an extra pawn in any case lost.

Parents regularly count material on the board of their child to get an idea if their position is good or bad. Only when you play chess at a certain level, you start to realize things are more complicated. So many exceptions exist that it makes little sense to judge a position by only looking at the value of the pieces.


Saturday, July 27, 2019


"Best by test", said former-worldchampion Fischer about 1.e4. He got the best results with 1.e4 so he kept playing the same lines which brought him fortune earlier. Chess is about results so logically we like playing openings which have won us games before.

On the other hand some amateurs ditch an opening from the moment they have lost a game with it. They change openings at the same rate as they change their underpants. They play any opening but know nothing. They don't want to make any effort to find a solution for a problem in the opening or worse they think wrongly that the defeat is because of the chosen opening.

In the book Ivan's Chess Journey Unravelled the strong Dutch grandmaster Ivan Sokolov gives therefore the advise to test at least an opening a couple of times before taking the decision to give it up. Next to that he also made the interesting comment that he sometimes removes openings from his repertoire although they are theoretically sound. If the resulting positions don't fit your style and results remain under par then obviously you can't keep on playing them as a professional.

So statistics influence our choices in chess but in comparison with computerchess this is child's play. In computerchess statistics have always been used very intensively to make progress. Each new minor-upgrade of an engine is tested extensively not only to remove any bugs but especially to define any change of the playing-strength. Besides in the course of the history of computerchess we see an increasing use of techniques embracing statistics.

Speed had always been the key. The faster we can evaluate, the faster we can make new changes. The first logical step was to make automatic testsessions to avoid the slowness of the human operators. In the last decade as hardware kept gaining speed, it became also more and more interesting to choose for rather short and more than slow and long (games). This change of analysis I already explained in 2015 here see computers achieve autonomy and nowadays I use it myself regularly.

In the last 2 years programmers even started to work with only bullet-games or faster. The path was cleared for the neural networks which more than ever need huge amounts of games to learn. This way AlphaZero played against itself 44 million games and learned to play the best ever chess performed in history in just a couple of hours. It was only given the rules of chess and the rest was figured out by the engine. At least that is what we were told everywhere as you could read e.g. at chessbase. The real story behind was much more difficult to discover. To learn more about it I decided to buy the very hyped book Game Changer.
I am halfway with the book but meanwhile I do realize the book wasn't meant to explain the code of Alphazero. The authors are in the first place players so not surprisingly they concentrate on the chess-content of the games. It is still a nice book to read but to learn about the technical aspects of the engine, you better study the scientific document of Google/Deepmind.

That file explains that the engine works with a probability-distribution of 4672 possible moves. Knowing the starting position only contains 20 possible moves then this is clearly something very complex which not everybody can create. Even the experienced Leela-developers which used the input from Alpha Zero had still many questions. Maybe this was also the purpose of Deepmind. They try to give a new method to the world for creating a superstrong engine but leave things open so developers are forced to use their imagination.

Besides such very sophisticated learning-process is totally useless for a chessplayer. Playing 44 million games in a couple of hours is no option. The only statistics based on games played by humans with some value, are openingbooks extracted from a database (see my article green moves). Still even then the value is rather limited which I experienced first hand recently. Last season I played a game in which I played after the moves 1.e4 e5 with black 19 consecutive moves considered to be the most popular one at master-level. The Chigorin-variation of the Spanish remains today the undisputed number 1.
Only at move 21 I deviate from the 4 last master-games in the big-database 2019. It already had little statistical value but more remarkable is that black was landed in an unpleasant position. This combined with a well prepared and excellently playing opponent made a deadly combination.
Benjamin is a redoubtable opponent about which I wrote before already on my blog see ambitions part 2. Likely we can consider this game one of his better or even his best. For me this defeat was a sign to study properly again the Spanish Chigorin. 20 years of experience doesn't mean you are done with an opening. Fortunately I was lucky as last year a book about this opening was written by 2 grandmasters: Ivan Sokolov and the Spanish grandmaster Ivan Salgado Lopez.
As the authors notice in the book, it is weird no similar book was ever written before about this opening despite it is the most popular line of the Spanish. In the meantime I finished the book and I can definitely recommend it for anybody interested in this opening. We get a very good and extensive overview of the opening and it seems the opening is still fully playable. Also many improvements are given upon old evaluations. At chesspub the critic was given that it is incomplete. It is not totally unjustified as also 20.d5 isn't treated in the book. Still we shouldn't be too harsh either. With Na5 you can find more than 8000 mastergames in the big database 2019 and we still need to add the correspondence-games. In the book there are numerous alternatives given so you can get with ease around any missing lines with both colors.


Monday, July 8, 2019

Computers achieve autonomy part 3

A non-chessplayer can't understand why somebody would love to stare for hours to a board with some wooden pieces while in the meantime the weather is nice to organize a barbecue with some friends. I rarely talk about chess with non-players. However also inside our chess-world there exists a lot of variety. The people playing competitions is the largest and most important group but we also have niches of which the computer-freaks are likely the greatest weirdos. They are the nerds of the nerds or some sort of super-nerd.

At least that was the case till recently as last year I noticed a clear change. The arrival of AlphaZero end of  2017 created a chain-reaction. This is very different from what we experienced after Deep Blue defeated in 1997 the reigning world-champion Garry Kasparov. At that time the revolutionary engine got dismantled leaving many questions unanswered. This time the momentum was kept as the code of the new engine was shared so other developers could create an AlphaZero for a standard PC. I am talking of course about lc0 or also called leela (more about this in a later article).

After decades of traditional alpha-beta programming we now see the steep and very spectacular raise of neural networks of which we could witness some very interesting clashes of styles in the most recent tcec-championships. Attractive games combined with a good marketing-strategy caused an explosive increase of chess-fans wanting to follow computer-chess see below graphic which presents the number of viewsessions per month for TCEC.

Getting 2 million viewsessions per month by just showing 1 game at once is definitely something extraordinary. Ok Carlsen does still much better but 99,9% of the other professionals never gets this kind of views. Besides this is not the only thing which proves that computer-chess is booming. On youtube we see a huge increase of videos in which games of engines are discussed. However even more stunning is that reporters now start to refer to games played by engines when they cover tournaments played by grandmasters. A couple of years ago this would've been totally unacceptable. The only reason of engine-games were till recently to understand which engine is stronger and almost nobody would value them equal to games played between humans. Well today some reporters do compare games played by top-grandmasters to a game played between Lc0 and Stockfish as happened e.g. in fide grand prix moscow semifinal chess.
Although the grandmasters started their game a couple of hours later than the engines, I do think this was just a coincidence. Nakamura had played this line already several times even just a couple of weeks ago in a rapid and such things aren't missed by a top-professional like Grischuk in his preparation. On the other hand I find it very remarkable that the engines manage to select a hyper-modern opening without using any openingbook nor any human intervention happened.

The fact that the engines can autonomously create games with interesting openings is something very important. Obviously top-players have discovered this too. Since 2010 I already maintain a database of games played by engines to use for my opening-analysis see e.g. using databases. I guess at that time I was an exception but today I am sure any ambitious professional does this even Magnus Carlsen. Well more likely his entourage takes care of it which I deduct from a twitter of his helper, the Danish strong grandmaster Peter Heine Nielsen: "Computer-chess is spectacular."

Besides those engine-games have also influenced Magnus' game. Many of the so called novelties already popped up in games played by engines. We see proof of this in the worldchampionship played against Caruana end of last year as in later tournaments.
The opening is the most obvious phase to learn from but also later phases can be instructive. The American top-grandmaster Sam Shankland would've never resigned below game if he had seen the 35th round of the tcec super-final of season 12. I already used the position in my article fake news to illustrate the gain of strength in endgames of Stockfish.
Earlier an engine was nothing more than a tool. Today more and more people consider engines as an entity with its own identity.  Many players cheer for their favorite engine via the chat-box or in fora. Some even make their own website for them as you can see in this example mytcecexperience.

So we see less and less difference between games played by engines or humans. Last Tuesday Ex-Machina was shown once again at the tv but this seems for chess to be today more reality than fiction.


Thursday, June 27, 2019

Computers achieve autonomy part 2

The recently finished top-tournament Norway Chess Altibox got very mixed reviews to say the least. The local hero, worldchampion Carlsen won as the organizers hoped for but quality and quantity was below the usual standard. Some players didn't hide their intentions to bypass the classical chess immediately for the armageddons. Unfortunately many of those armageddons were poorly played containing many blunders.

If the organizers had the intent to counter the death of draws in chess then they clearly missed the goal. Besides didn't Carlsen prove in the latest months that it is still possible to win against the best players? The cure made things only worse. In correspondence-chess however things look more grim at the highest level. I already wrote about that 4 years ago in computers achieve autonomy part 1 and it only became worse since.
The 30th WC-final is still ongoing but currently the draw-percentage is 93% with 95% of the games played. A change of rules for the wc-finale is needed or it makes no sense to organize it anymore.

However as often we see that changes don't happen despite everybody is aware about the problem. Big changes in history happen mostly only when extreme situations are occurring. Also for most questions history has already a solution but we easily forget. The death of draws is nothing new. Already in 1900 so 120 years ago a solution was defined for the many draws in checkers (on 64 squares). Initially players were forced to play an opening of which the first 2 moves were selected in advance by lottery. Later from 1934 onward this was extended to the first 3 moves. As every opening must be played with both colors, nobody was favored.

This concept also exists for chess. You have the voluntary thematic-tournaments which often are organized specially for a certain festivity like I explained in my article a mini-thematic tournament but nowadays it is best known from computer-chess.  By the way the imposed openings were initially not used in computer-chess to counter the number of draws but rather to get more variety in the games. Definitely old chess-programs had the terrible habit to always play the same line see chesskids but also the brandnew Lc0 does the same see my comment at the bonusfinal from March 2019 between Lc0 and Stockfish.

Only after the superfinal of season 8 in which 89 draws out of 100 played games occurred, people realized that it is not enough to variate openings to get an interesting match. Since then more attention was given to the choice of the openings so we could see more decisive games. This is not something easy to achieve. Some complex openings for humans were easily neutralized by the best engines. On the other hand you don't want to select openings in which the win/ loss is already defined from the start. So one color should not get a too large advantage which makes the other color without a chance.

We also see that it becomes increasingly difficult to select interesting unbalanced openings. Till a couple of years ago it was sufficient just to avoid openings which were tactically refuted. Nowadays we learn by experience that strategically dubious openings often can't be used anymore for a test between the best engines. A nice example of this is what happened with the Grob : 1.g4 in the TCEC super-final of season 12. Both Komodo and Stockfish showed a large advantage for black (-0,9 till -1,46) after already the first white move and both succeeded to convert this advantage into a win.
Only 1 move was played and in a higher sense the game was decided already. We are again a step closer to the apocalypse of chess. However how relevant is that for us? At chesspub some members thought this new information would only be useful for the worldclass-players. I objected as I proofed it a couple of months ago on my mediocre level. In 2012 I wrote on my blog about the Czech-defense not having found a clear anti-dote. Today engines have got much stronger and are able to got much further unraveling the puzzle. This new acquired knowledge I was able to implement perfectly against maybe the biggest expert in Belgium of the Czech defense, Frederic Verduyn in our game played during the Belgian interclubs.
After the game Frederic maybe gave me the nicest compliment by confessing to me that I am the first one to let him doubt about the soundness of the opening after having hundred(s) of standard games with it played. Personally I always enjoy winning more when I can do it on my opponent's favorite territory. I also remember till today after the British Senior International Master John Anderson resigned against me (see our correspondence-game published in the article using databases part 2) that he told me, I was the first one to defeat him in his favorite line.

Now I guess some people will not agree that I call the strategic dubious openings as refuted. Can you ever talk about a refutation when a human can't formulate a clear winning-plan? Except against the best players of the world, there will always remain practical chances. On the other hand who wants to play voluntarily with such handicap in standard games?

As a surprise-weapon strategic dubious openings will still be used. However engines will get better in autonomously refuting them so I do expect in the next years a decline of their popularity even in games played between amateurs. It is also the reason why I wrote last month in the article chess position trainer part 2 not to start playing the Dutch defense.


Friday, June 14, 2019

Romantic chess part 2

If you consider the year 1997 still as the modern times then likely you aren't that young anymore. So I wasn't surprised at all to discover that the author of the recently published article a romantic opening in modern times is already 53 years old. In the 2 last decades chess made a metamorphose.

Advertisements should never be accepted blindly. The purpose of the article is foremost to sell the new DVDs on the King's gambit produced by the British grandmaster Simon Williams so you don't want to spoil it by giving trivial facts like it hasn't been played in the most recent years in classical chess by the top-grandmasters.

Besides if you are no such super-grandmaster then I am sure you still encounter regularly those romantic openings. There are still many amateurs ignoring the objective evaluation of the openings and believe they will be able to profit from the lack of knowledge and low competence of their opponents (mostly also amateurs). However I do notice a change in the type of player loving to play those risky openings. When I started playing chess more than 2 decades ago it were mainly young players with an aggressive style. Nowadays it are mostly older players using some old forgotten gambits.
In above table, I made a summary of the romantic openings which I met on the board in classical games from +2100 rated players. You can argue what exactly is a romantic opening but the trend is clear. In the first years we see mainly yellow so strong young players below 30 year. In the most recent years we see almost exclusively green so players older than 50 playing those obscure openings.

I see currently a growing nostalgia but also many older players are blaming the youth of not knowing the classics. Young players only study the openings played by today's best players which makes them vulnerable for the traps hidden in many romantic openings. I hear some of those young ones complain as it is lame to win games based on traps instead of real chess. You can't make progress by just trying to score easy points that way and you definitely can't use it twice against the same opponent.

Many older players lack the drive and energy to keep developing and improving themselves. It is no coincidence that almost no +2300 plays a romantic opening in standard chess. Only 3 out of 63 opponents in the table had a +2300 rating. When I discuss this with young strong players then I can't convince them to give a romantic opening a try even if I can show them a fresh idea. Why would they spend a lot of effort for 1 game as next time the opponent will already have prepared an anti-dote with the engine. Time is precious so you better use it for more solid openings which can be used in a repertoire much longer.

Anyway at some point everybody hits their maximum. There is nothing wrong from then onward to choose a romantic repertoire which you enjoy. Eventually fun is the only track to keep playing chess and nobody else can tell you better than yourself what you like or not. Besides if you can stay below the radar of the databases (so mainly below 2300 elo) then it is often possible to become very successful with romantic openings.

A nice example is the expert living in Gent, Nouri Zouaghi. Last year he surprised me in the interclubs with a risky line in the Schliemann-gambit but he was able to compensate the doubtful reputation of the opening by a much better understanding of the position. We created an interesting game.
After the game it became apparent how different our styles are. While I was focusing on the defects of the black opening, Nouri considered a 0,6 disadvantage shown as evaluation by the engine, fully acceptable for black.

However when I met again Nouri this year with the same colors in the interclubs, I was again surprised by the same risky line of the Schliemann-gambit. How? Well I couldn't imagine somebody playing twice the same risky line against the same opponent. I don't know if it was ignorance of Nouri or something else. Anyway I am not the person to avoid a challenge (see a theoretical battle in the Svechnikov.)
The top-engines prefer 6.Nh4 to 6.Ng5 but it is not simpler for white at all. Black again had a better nose for the complications and afterwards I could only admit that refuting a romantic opening isn't always easy.

Naturally this is even harder when you get less time for a game. When you lack the time to remember the accurate moves or to calculate the details then a romantic opening can be a very dangerous weapon. It makes a lot of sense not to refute it in such quick games but just try to avoid the complications. A successful example was executed of that strategy in a decisive rapidgame played last year against the Belgian FM Sim Maerevoet.
I knew a few things about the Elephantgambit (Quality Chess announced last year to publish a book about it) but 3..Nf6 was for me unknown. Later I discovered that you can also enter the same position via the Russian opening : 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Pxe5 d5 and is one of the many original ideas of the eccentric Georgian grandmaster Baadur Jobava. More than likely Sim borrowed the idea from him.

In the article I mix romantic chess and romantic openings. However we can also split them into a theoretical part (the opening) and a practical part (the middle-game). Jobava demonstrates that romantic chess is still today playable even at the highest level on the condition your opponent hasn't studied yet your new idea. On the other hand the romantic openings (19th century mainly) are only acceptable at the level of the amateur.


Thursday, May 30, 2019

Chess position trainer part 2

What could've happened if I would've not made the wrong choices in my chess-development? I don't think it is an interesting question for the popular humorous sketch-program "what if" but it is definitely useful to reflect about the committed errors. No I can't reset myself today but I can learn from my mistakes so my students avoid them.

Therefore I strongly advise my students against playing the Dutch. Don't do it as I only encounter misery with the opening. Next I recommend my students to play as much as possible standard games. I don't play often enough but I do realize it is crucial for the development. It is more important than analyzing at home with an engine or reading chess-books. Finally don't make my error of stubbornly playing always the same openings. The element of surprise is very powerful in human chess. It is just nonsense in practice to use a scientific approach. My students want to score points and are not interested to develop the theory of openings.

Except some general advise, my students also need very often concrete tips. It is not so easy to vary successfully the openings especially for young players. Playing a new opening without knowing any theory of it, is very risky. We can't expect that young players already read opening-books or watch opening-dvds. If we force them then this could even be counter-productive. Also the information is often not adapted to their level or age. So this is a domain for which the coach should help. Unfortunately this is not so simple as this needs to be done tailor made. I didn't have the time and will to work out something for all my students. So it is not surprisingly that I only run this extra mile for my son Hugo.

In my previous article I wrote that I had decided after the Flemish youth-championship to teach my son Hugo a couple of new openings to be prepared for the upcoming Belgian youth-championship. So I started some brainstorming. I prefer no openings which I play myself. They are not suited for the level of Hugo and this would allow the coaches of the opponents to also study my games for the preparation. Neither did I want to select theoretically heavy openings. It is a nightmare for a 1600 rated player to be forced to study hundreds of moves.Also I didn't want any openings in which 1 mistake would mean immediately defeat. Finally I didn't want him to play any dubious openings. No known path to a clear advantage should exist for the opponent even if this is very hard to discover on the board.

A couple of weeks later I had made the selection. Next I made a short summary of the most important lines which I considered useful for Hugo. Finally all was ready for Hugo to study the prepared materials but that didn't go smoothly. I didn't want Hugo testing the new openings in the tournaments before the Belgian youth-championship as I wanted to maximize the element of surprise. Playing online with a nickname was my first choice but this only resulted in a very slow progress. That way it would take months before the basics would be known. I was getting desperate but then I suddenly remembered about having bought 2 years ago chess position trainer.

It figured out that it was very easy to add repertoires of other people without causing any interferences. You just click "add new repertoire" and give it the name of the new user. Next you add new folders and moves for the new user as I did for myself 2 years ago. Beside it is also possible to copy openings from 1 user to another if needed. In 1 hour everything was prepared so Hugo could start to practice.
As you can see above, there aren't many openings. I only inserted the openings which I considered annoying to meet for Hugo without any knowledge and have a reasonable chance to appear in his games. I limited the content for his level.

In my previous article about the chess position trainer I was rather negative as I couldn't get much from it. However for my son Hugo it became a fantastic revelation. The combination of learning quickly and efficiently the lines plus the funny mix of stimulating sounds/ music, worked like a magnet on Hugo. The first time he needed a half hour to have all the moves right once. Just before the games started on the championship he was able to execute all the moves perfectly within 1 minute. It was so fast that I even became anxious. Maybe he will play too fast during his game and make a slip.

To get a maximum return of the new openings we had decided to play them only for the important matches. This happened in the last 2 rounds of the championship. His opponents were not only surprised totally but again it was proven that preparations for young players are often counter-productive. Both opponents answered the new openings of Hugo as Hugo was still playing the old ones. Young players are very vulnerable for the einstellung effect. The game of the 9th round is the best example of it.
As a coach you are always choosing the middle ground between the danger of overwhelming the student with lines and the danger of teaching him too few lines. After 4.Bb5 we prepared against Bb4, Nd4, Bc5 and d6. The rarely played a6 was not one of the candidates. Maybe I should've known in advance by considering the young age of the opponent. Anyway hindsight it is always easy to state what should've happened.

Yes, I do admit that the impact of the openings was limited on the final results. Hugo achieved a very strong shared 2nd place (don't forget he was playing this time in a category 2 years older than his own age) but the points were never decided in the opening. Nonetheless it was not a waste of time to practice the openings on chess position trainer. I could clearly see that it improved enormously his self-confidence. It was that evident that my daughter Evelien became jealous. Why does always her brother get all the support for his games while she is left alone?

Evelien only started last year to play chess so it made little sense to study any openings at all. Besides her opponents are much weaker so often there was no information about them available. Only for the last round of the championship I made an extra effort. I looked at an earlier played game in the same championship of her opponent Jade Decraene and prepared a pgn-file with some recommendations which Evelien happily practiced with the Chess position trainer.
I mention this anecdote to show we can also work per opponent instead of per opening in chess position trainer. In my article curieuzeneuzemosterdpot I wrote that I started to maintain a player-database of preparations I've made per player per color. Well it is very easy to insert those analysis in the chess position trainer. There are some big benefits of this approach. You don't need to jump anymore from 1 folder to another one. Also you only have to look at the lines which are relevant for that particular opponent.

How did it end for Evelien? Evelien got a great position thanks to the game-preparation but she missed the experience to convert the advantage into a full point. She was disappointed but you can't expect to defeat a girl already competing for 4 years while you yourself  have less than 1 year experience. Her final result of 5/9 promises a nice future if she keeps playing chess of course.
So chess position trainer got a second life from us. I strongly recommend it for children if a coach can support them. For myself it was interesting to discover that I can also work per opponent instead of per player. Time is precious for me so I am always searching ways to optimize my methods of study.


Friday, May 24, 2019


Last week an invitation was put on schaaksite to participate at an experiment. During the experiment you play 2 tournaments. 1 tournament in which you get full information of the opponents and 1 tournament in which you don't know anything of the opponents as the games are played on the computer. With the experiment they like to find out if the results are impacted by the information or not.

In both tournaments 10 rounds are played at the rate of 3 minutes for each game with 2 seconds increment per move. So there remains sufficient time to visit Amsterdam during the Ascension weekend. The combination of the prizes (1ste prize is in each tournament 250 euro) and the interesting format have already attracted a number of strong players: 3 grandmasters and 3 international masters. It is an alternative for the Flemish championship which is played in the same weekend for players wishing to have a lighter schedule.

The experiment is destined for a master-thesis at the university so likely the results will be statistically analyzed. First the variance needs to be defined caused by the randomness of the results. Only afterwards they can define if the difference of the results between both tournaments can be partly linked to the influence of the information.

It is an interesting question which the experiment tries to answer but I fear the format of the tournament will not give solid answers. The rate of the games doesn't allow to prepare for the games. Even during the games you don't have time to think about strategies as you need the limited time to think about the moves. Besides most people will very quickly have a good idea how strong their opponent is. Some years ago I once made a comparison between my results of games played with and without rating see to study openings. My conclusion was that there was no clear difference between both.

Also my ten year old son Hugo was able to estimate pretty accurately how strong his opponent was in the last round of the Dutch interclubs despite nobody had given any indication about the rating of his opponent. When I warned him during the game not to take a quick draw as I considered my son the stronger player, he answered firmly: "I already detected that by looking at the moves in the opening of my opponent."
The opponent had 1427 elo. If you look at the opening then this is no surprise. White deviates quickly from the theory and chooses for an unambitious but solid position.

For the next extract of the opening I like to invite the reader to guess the rating of the player with the white pieces.
White only played pawn-moves so didn't develop any piece. It also looks grim for white as he destroyed his own king-side and with the last move white blundered an important center-pawn. It looks reasonable to me to estimate that white is a beginner.

If you made the same call then you were pretty close as white had 1190 elo. He was the opponent of my son Hugo in the Flemish championship of the -10 in round 6.

Now I expect a few readers also have recognized the opening. It are not random moves but they are well known from grandmaster-games. It is even a position which is regarded as promising for white by theory. So the answer on my question could've been also 2500 elo like in the game below. White was the famous Russian grandmaster Evgeny Svechnikov.
I don't believe the boy played some random moves which by chance correspond to a known theoretical position. He must have seen them before. More than likely a coach showed it to him as I consider him too young to find this independently. Besides this is something which happens quite a few times during youth-championships. Many coaches prepare their students for particular critical games by teaching them some new often high class openings.

It sounds logical but there is also a negative side of this approach. In the Flemish championship Hugo played what the opponent had prepared against after which he suffered a defeat without any chance. However for the Belgian championship I took this as a lesson. This time I learned Hugo to anticipate in the opening. Suddenly the preparations of the opponents of Hugo made by their coaches were not only useless but also often counter-productive.
Ignoring basic rules like development of the pieces, bringing the king into safety only works for some concrete situations. I am no fan of some coaches teaching their students moves which break those rules and are only trying to set traps and get short-term gains. The same is also valid for many dubious gambits. A month ago the strong British grandmaster Nigel Short told us that as a child he played the Morra-gambit for awhile due to his coach see article at Chessbase: "I never comprehended what black did wrong in the opening so white can permit to toss an important pawn."

Another funny anecdote happened in the last Belgian Youth Championship. 10 minutes before the start of the last round  a boy of the -14 came to me being clearly stressed. He stuttered: My coach asked me to sacrifice 2 pawns against the French opening of my opponent but I don't understand the compensation." What to do? I wanted to guide my children at their boards to assure they were installed properly for their last important game in the championship. At the same time I felt compassion for the boy so I didn't want to chase him away. "Follow me at the analyzing-room" I told him. "Forget the opening of your coach, I will teach you some very simple concept in only 5 minutes which is much more solid. The concept worked for Hugo in Le Touquet (see teaching chess to children part 3) and I didn't see any reason why this wouldn't work for somebody else. The boy did get the French opening on the board, he played the concept which I learned him in 5 minutes and won from his 200 higher rated opponent which let him win a prize. Amazing isn't it?

Of course there was some luck but I am serious that not every coach gives good advise. Anyway we don't have many coaches in Belgium so many are happy just to have one. Still it is not always the best for the development. I tell parents not to be afraid to switch from coach as you are not married with them. If you feel it is not working or you don't like the coach then change. Often you pay money to them so don't feel ashamed to choose for the interest of the child. Also know that many top-players have worked with many coaches. They have a coach for 1 or 2 years and they switch. It allows you to find out what methods fit best for yourself.

Anyway without a coach it is impossible to develop your full capabilities. Also a child without a coach is often having a big disadvantage compared to children having access to a coach. You see most children playing in the top-echelons having a coach today.

Once you play against only adults then this aspect practically disappears. Adults very rarely work with a coach. Nevertheless I am sure also for them this can be useful. This became clear during the just finished club-championship of Deurne. I was the strongest player by far so my perfect score of 9/9 wasn't so special. In only 1 game I experienced some problems in the opening.
Later I heard that the Belgian international master Stefan Docx had shown this line to my opponent as an improvement upon the old 6.Nf3. It contains quite some poison as 2 weeks after I got the line on the board the Bulgarian top-grandmaster Veselin Topalov used it to defeat the American top-grandmaster Leinier Dominguez Perez. Stefan told me last time that he doesn't follow the newest theoretical developments of the openings anymore as before but clearly he hasn't stopped all study yet.
Maybe adults have few ambitions. Maybe adults are too proud for asking help. Nonetheless a coach can be a motivator to keep playing chess as an adult. A coach can take you at a higher level where you wouldn't get on your own.


Monday, May 6, 2019

The Sicilian Berlin

After I finished my last game of the Belgium interclubs I was surprised to see in the pub that many players were busy following the ongoing game of Magnus Carlsen. A Belgian FM even showed me on his smartphone how that game finished by a beautiful and surprising mate see 2019 Grenke chess classic round 8. Players seemed (at least temporarily) more interested in Magnus' game than the ones of their teammates.

Unless you were completely disconnected from chess last couple of months, you could've not missed the news about the recent amazing successes of the reigning world-champion. While he defended last year with a lot of difficulty his world-title against Fabiano Caruano, suddenly wins are obtained again very easily. Magnus is again absolutely hot and that creates again speculations about the magical barrier of 2900 elo which can or can not be broken by a human player.

It just proofs to me that elo is relative. We all have fluctuations in our playing-strength. Sometimes there are clear reasons for that like e.g. new responsibilities but we should also not exclude luck (see my article the lucky one) especially in a short timeframe. I guess this last aspect can play here an important role as the gain of 40 elo by Magnus happened in only 31 games.

In the Chessbase-report of the last round in Grenke we can read that Carlsen can today benefit of the analysis made for the last world-championship. Magnus:" I can still use ideas and concepts which we have analysed." We notice this clearly in his shift from e5 to c5 as main-choice against 1.e4. In the last 10 years Magnus used e5 as his preferred weapon in standard-games but since the world-championship of last year he has another favorite. This is clearly shown in the table below which I created by screening the Big database 2019.
The switch brought some clear profit. After the world-championship Magnus achieved in 7 games, 4 win and 3 draws against (very) strong grandmasters. It is the new Berlin which everybody can't break. Meanwhile the solution is also known to the riddle which I asked in the article curieuzeneuzemosterdpot. Why nobody tries to play the mainline? Finally the Azerbaijani top-grandmaster Teimour Radjabov tried it in the last Tata Steel. I assume Teimour also got curious and he never minds a draw either.
You probably wonder what is special about this line. Besides Teimour doesn't choose the most critical test. The answer you can find in the Ultracorr-x. If we select the games played with the position after 12....Rb8 by the very best players in correspondence-chess (both players having + 2500 elo) during the last 10 years then we discover below devastating statistic.
Indeed all 32 top-games played in the last 10 years were drawn. Not once white or black won. It is the Berlin in a much stronger version. By the way I also noticed that lower rated players rarely can win. I already discovered this in 2015 after I made a serious analysis of the opening which popped up in my game played in the clubchampionship of Deurne against Marcel Van Herck.
It is the reason why I don't play anymore the mainline of the Svechnikov. So there will be no follow up anymore of a theoretical duel in the Svechnikov and the scientific approach. However what else I will play is something you will need to find out for yourself. I already surprised somebody with it and I hope to do it a few times more. I already share a lot of information on this blog, likely more than what a dozen of players share together so I don't think somebody can blame me of being unfair.

Anyway I still try to keep track of the developments in the mainline. This is new for me as before when I stopped playing a line, I lost interest. Nowadays I do also regression-analysis. So at some points of time I look up if something has changed which maybe makes the line again playable. Since 2015 I've analyzed some recent small discoveries for white  but simultaneously there were also some shifts favoring black which cancelled out any possible advantage for white.

Today Magnus has an edge but I am sure his opponents won't rest. Sooner or later people will find anti-dotes which will decrease the scores of Magnus in the Sicilian. Openings are for many players something boring but a few can also enjoy the eternal fluctuations.


Friday, April 26, 2019

My most beautiful move part 3

I once played a game of which the missed combination has been graved in my memory forever as it is extremely weird. I need to correct myself as it was not a combination but rather a wrong continuation of my opponent which is countered by a very non-standard refutation. Which I didn't see and I have never detected in any book about combinations or any game. The "combination" or rather the refutation is so "unique" that I never ever seen it before: letting a piece to be captured with check and not take back but stop the check by putting another piece in between, as there exists a long-term threat which is stronger than the temporarily loss of the piece.

I didn't notice it in the game. The only game with this "line" in Chessbase is Piscopo (2364) - Zakharchenko (2197) played in 2012 - and so I am in good company: also the Italian international master Piscopo didn't find the move. Another move which can be categorized as invisible see part 1 and part 2. So unfortunately I played the automatic 10.bxc3 which let slip the white advantage away. Below you can replay the remainder of the game.

At the blog of Quality Chess there was recently a discussion about automatic moves. Often mistakes are made because players don't consider sufficiently alternatives. By spending more time you can find those moves was the logical remedy proposed by the author. However some readers didn't agree. Automatic moves leave extra time for other moments in the game when complex decisions need to be done. If you start to question each move so also the automatic ones then you risk time-trouble creating much bigger problems. It will be a disaster for the playing-strength to find that one unique move in one particular game in exchange for many blunders due to lack of time in dozens of other games. Still for my most beautiful move, I would've liked to make an exception.


Sunday, April 21, 2019

Exchange pawns when standing worse

In my previous article I introduced the book Applying logic in chess and wrote that the content is often rather abstract. This means it is not always straight forward for the reader to figure out how to materialize the training guidelines into concrete activities. Still this doesn't mean you can't find any simple advice in the book. Personally I was surprised that the author advised several times in the book how important it is to exchange pawns when you have an inferior position. He considers it a basic-rule to improve the defense.

Well I have to admit that I never heard about such rule before. I do know that you have to exchange material when being ahead and you have to avoid exchanges when being down in material like I demonstrated successfully in the great escape. However I never heard about making a distinction between pawns and pieces. So as FM and having more than 20 years of tournament-experience I wondered if the American writer wasn't exaggerating again. Nonetheless only a month later in the February-edition of Chessmagazine the Dutch International master and senior fide trainer Jeroen Bosch wrote something similar in one of his articles. Also he recommends to exchange pawns when standing worse.

More than 20 years I never heard this so called basic-rule but now it suddenly pops up twice in a couple of months. I checked around me and it appears that I am not the only one so maybe Jeroen just read the book "Applying logic in chess". This wouldn't surprise me as I strongly recommend this book to any serious trainer as it will be a standard work in the future for training pedagogically chess. Basic or not, known or unknown, fact is that Jeroen thinks the rule is useful for anybody so we should not ignore it.

Besides if I would've considered it nonsense then obviously I would not spent time writing about it. Also unconsciously I am sure we all are already applying sometimes that rule via the endgames. Many endgames are a draw even when one side has a material advantage of +3 when no pawns remain on the board. I am thinking about only knight or only bishop but also rook+ knight against rook or rook + bishop against bishop. I am talking purely from the theoretical point of view as there always remains practical chances as happened recently in the game Veselin Topalov against Ding Liren played in Shamkir, Azerbaijan. It is incredible how 2 absolute world-class-players managed to misplay an endgame of rook against knight despite having sufficient time remaining on the clock.

Mistakes are human especially if you need to calculate after many hours of play. Nobody is immune. However I also see many mistakes in the endgame which have nothing to do with calculations but are rather a lack of knowledge. I already wrote about this before see quicker part 2 that our youth is lagging in that domain and this once again became clear in the endgame occurring in my standard-game played in the Christmas-tournament of Deurne end of last year against fresh FM Sim Maerevoet. The 17 year old made in the 3 previous years a rating jump of no less than 600 points ! Contrary to my students he works hard at chess so is also more successful but the endgame still remains something special.

I advised Sim to work at it and I think he will do. This was shown when we did a long post-mortem after the game while all other players already left the tournament-room. While others were enjoying drinks and making a lot of noise, we tried to investigate deeper the complexity of our endgame. I told him that I wasn't sure if the endgame was won against best play so I hesitated during the game to enter it. Sim was surprised but admit that a win without exchanging rooks was not simple at all. Eventually I was able to find a narrow path to the victory after using the best engines for several hours. Clearly in practice it would've been unlikely to find all those moves.

Some would categorize my judgment as intuition but I believe it is not just that. I was trying to force an exchange of rooks as that would make the win much easier. I would only exchange pawns when all other options were exhausted. From earlier experiences I know that winning such endgames against optimal defense would be a close call and that is also proven in my long analysis. It is not easy to keep the activity of the black rook within limits, defend the white pawns and simultaneously cause a weakness in black's camp.

Ok that is all nice but how can this be studied somehow? I am no specialist of endgame-books but I don't think this type of endgames has been analyzed deeply somewhere. No I think a healthy curiosity is important to improve. I wrote in my previous article that I spend (too) much time at analyzing endgames. However it is never useless doing such research. For this type of endgame I made an extra mile by analyzing similarly endgames which were played recently. During the Christmas-holidays  I was spending family-time in Russia so anyway also had a lot of free time. I don't have chessbase but by downloading scid which can be done fully legally, I was able to make a selection of games in which the endgame of Rook + Bishop against Rook popped up but in which there were also pawns on the board at one side of the board and the side without bishop has one extra pawn. Some endgames were very interesting stuff to analyze. Below you can find the most interesting ones. I start with an endgame played in 2018 between 2 Cuban grandmasters.

Despite the large evaluation of the engine, I don't see a win against a correct defense. White's pawns are too advanced so the winning mechanism as shown in my game against Sim is not possible. Nevertheless black still managed to lose the game which I regularly noticed in such type of endgames. In practice many people falter as defending such positions is far from easy. This is also the case in the next example. This time we see the Latvian grandmaster Toms Kantans collapsing while a draw was feasible.

Here the problem were not the advanced pawns but rather that they were not anymore connected. This doesn't allow to coordinate attack and defense. Now it are not always the defenders making mistakes. In the next example we see a very favorable version of the endgame for white but black manages to defend. It is nice performance of the Argentinean grandmaster Federico Perez Ponsa.

Black executes nicely the basic-rule of exchanging pawns when standing worse. Besides we also see that the drawing chances immediately improve when 1 pair of pawns disappear. Still it doesn't mean a draw is given easily even when black is the super-grandmaster Peter Svidler is.

Black didn't blink. White tried all his tricks and waited as long as possible till it was not possible anymore to avoid pawn-moves. In the next example we see again it is a draw but both players can't avoid making mistakes.

So you always need to be alert in this endgame even if you know which position is a draw or not. For me analyzing such endgames is fun and it also extends my horizon of the endgame. Only in 2018 I found dozens of this type of endgame in the big database. Some of them were an exact copy of my position against Sim. Also I do think some conclusions are valid for other type of endgames.

Finally I find it very important to think via concepts instead of concrete moves. You first need to figure out what you want to achieve and then you need to match the right moves to your idea. In my recent courses in KMSK I obliged my students to train such endgames by playing them out against each other. I opened a new world for them as they never tried to play chess in such way.