Friday, January 29, 2021


Earlier on this blog I already wrote that the Netlfix-series The Queen's Gambit is a visual masterpiece but also the dialogues are often intriguing. Particularly a fragment from episode 4 "Middle game" with the very young Russian grandmaster Giorgi Giev, caused a stir. At reddit there were a number of discussions about it like : I still don't fully understand Beth's interactions.
Netflix: The Queen's Gambit 
This is not a film blog, so I will not dissect fragments here, but I don't want to pass up one question Beth asks Giorgi. "What are you going to do when you become world champion?" It is the big question of the series, as Canadian author and life coach Patrick Mathieu also noted on his blog, because the question can of course be interpreted much more broadly than just becoming world champion. It is a question which is actually asked to each of us. We all have dreams or goals that we pursue but what are we going to do once we achieve them.

When I look around and I don't just talk about chess, I notice that many, like Giorgi, do not have an answer to the question. Sometimes one works very hard to achieve something but when one has finally achieved it one feels totally lost. This is also how Scottish grandmaster Jonathan Rowson describes his complete withdrawal from chess in his latest book The moves That Matter published in late 2019.
As a child, Jonathan had the ultimate goal of reaching 2600 elo. In the end it became 2599 and virtually just above 2600 so you can say that he made it. He reached that peak in 2007 at the age of 30. At first you don't immediately know that you have reached your peak, but as the years go by it becomes more and more clear that you can no longer climb further up the ladder. Jonathan also writes in his latest book that players like Anand and Kramnik are simply of a totally different league that he could never match despite all the best efforts.

After that Jonathan slowly lost interest. The great life goal had been achieved and pursuing anything bigger in chess had become impossible. More and more Jonathan asked himself why he was still playing chess. The chess breaks got longer and longer. One day it turned out that Jonathan had stopped playing chess for some years already. Chess was only seen as a huge waste of time and energy.

It's a sad story, but one that returns very often. In his book Jonathan also writes that the Danish strong grandmaster Peter Heine Nielsen (second of Magnus Carlsen) was not surprised when Jonathan recently told him that he was no longer involved in chess. Peter replied coldly that he had never considered Jonathan a real chess player. I suspect this must not have been a pleasant comment, but Jonathan was able to understand Peter's point. Peter was right that Jonathan never loved chess as passionately as he did/ does. Everything revolved around scoring points and winning prizes for Jonathan, but the real beauty of chess was far too little appreciated.

With this long intro again we slowly get to the core of this article. There is nothing wrong with setting goals and pursuing dreams, but we should never forget to enjoy the process. Chess is hard work, but at the same time, take the time to reflect on all the surprises you encounter along the way. Even the most boring tasks often contain beauty and I recently experienced that again while studying openings. Studying openings can be fun and that contradicts of course with the increasing call to choose Fischer Random or other forms of chess where openings are thrown overboard.

In the words of Peter I do not call those chess players real chess players. I would even say that the opening is perhaps the most interesting phase of a game. It is the phase of a game which is historically by far the richest. It is also the phase where geometry / patterns play a role more than ever due to the fact that not many moves have been played yet. I can understand that many players don't care much about history, but is geometry / patterns not the beating heart of chess? Eliminating the openings seems to me to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Recently I have also slightly adjusted my working method to study openings. Usually I just look at what the computer was offering me or what can be found in the databases about an opening. That in itself is quite a lot of material, but it mainly remains operational work which needs very little reflection. However, due to the many online chess I have also started to explore a new side of openings. I discovered that a lot of players play online always the same moves by which I mean that they very often choose the same type of setups without taking much into account what exactly the opponent is doing. This often saves a lot of time and they also know very well the geometric motifs of the chosen setup.

On the other hand, I also know that every small change in a position cannot simply be dismissed as something unimportant. I introduced this new aspect in my opening study. I started actively looking for positions with great geometric similarities to determine how different they were or not, and that quickly yielded some remarkable results. I will start with the Scheveningen which was discussed in my previous article. After I had discovered how strong the surprising 9 ... e5 was in that big opening, I also checked other similar positions to see if it was also playable there. It did not take long that I had a hit again in another big line of the Scheveningen and again never played in a master game before.
[Event "Rated Rapid game"] [Site ""] [Date "2015.11.26"] [Round "?"] [White "vid"] [Black "iantoo"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B84"] [WhiteElo "2277"] [BlackElo "2271"] [PlyCount "68"] [EventDate "2015.??.??"] [EventType "rapid"] [TimeControl "300+8"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 d6 6. Be2 a6 7. O-O Be7 8. f4 O-O 9. a4 e5 {(Nearly 600 master games in the mega database but none played this move. Again it is not surprising that the black player's account was closed the same day for cheating.)} 10. Nf5 Bxf5 11. exf5 Nc6 12. Kh1 Nd4 13. Bf3 Nxf5 14. Bxb7 Ra7 15. Bf3 Rc7 16. g4 Nd4 17. g5 Nd7 18. Nd5 Nxf3 19. Rxf3 Rc8 20. Rh3 g6 21. Qe2 Nb6 22. Nxe7+ Qxe7 23. b3 Qd7 24. Rd3 Qc6+ 25. Kg1 Nd7 26. c4 Nc5 27. Rg3 Rb8 28. Rb1 Rfe8 29. f5 gxf5 30. Rh3 f4 31. Rh6 Rxb3 32. Qc2 Rd3 33. Ba3 Qe4 34. Bxc5 Rg3+ {Normal} 0-1
I was able to download the above game from lichess and again it concerns a player whose account was closed shortly afterwards for cheating: Well, I keep repeating that online chess cannot replace standard chess. E5 is again the computer's first choice here.

This pattern is therefore not a good example of an independent search for geometric similarities in the opening. My 2nd type of position, on the other hand, is a model example. I start by first discovering the pattern thanks to an analysis in a small side-line of the Caro-Kann that had been getting on my nerves for several decades but I had never taken the time to take a serious look at. The strongest engines surprised me with a brilliant pawn sacrifice to put black under pressure.
[Event "CCRL 40/40"] [Site "CCRL"] [Date "2019.02.06"] [Round "141.3"] [White "Counter 3.1 64-bit"] [Black "ECE X3 64-bit"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "B15"] [WhiteElo "2783"] [BlackElo "2644"] [PlyCount "56"] 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 b5 4. a3 dxe4 5. Nxe4 Nf6 6. Nxf6+ exf6 7. Bd3 {(The first choice of Stockfish and Leela. White sacrifices his important center-pawn but gets plenty of compensation for it in return. In none of the 28 master-games with the opening found in the Megadatabase this was ever played. Meanwhile I've already successfully tested it in a blitz online.)} 7... Qxd4 8. Nf3 Qd5 9. a4 b4 10. Qe2+ Qe6 11. Be3 Be7 12. Bc4 Qg4 13. h3 Qd7 14. Rd1 Qf5 15. g4 Qa5 16. Bf4 b3+ 17. c3 h5 18. Nd4 Qb6 19. O-O Qb7 20. Bd6 O-O 21. Bxe7 Nd7 22. g5 g6 23. Qe3 f5 24. Nxf5 Kh7 25. Bxf8 Nxf8 26. Nd6 Qd7 27. Ne8 Qf5 28. Rd8 Bb7 1-0
After that I wondered if this pawn sacrifice might not be playable in the currently very popular line without the extra moves a3 and b5. This time the pawn sacrifice with Bd3 was not preferred by the computer. That did not surprise me otherwise it would be certainly played more regularly today. However, I was also glad to see that there was no refutation either. It was playable and extremely dangerous to meet for black. In the meantime I have already tested it online 20 times in the last 2 months. Yes 20 times !! so we are talking about a very popular opening here. I scored 14.5 / 20 and TPR 2500 so very nice. Remarkably, the pawn was only taken once.
[Event "Rated Blitz game"] [Site ""] [Date "2021.01.11"] [Round "?"] [White "Brabo"] [Black "wiggiepols"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "B15"] [WhiteElo "2460"] [BlackElo "2427"] [PlyCount "49"] [EventDate "2021"] [EventType "blitz"] [TimeControl "180"] 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Nf6 5. Nxf6+ exf6 6. Bd3 {(You can find a number of master-games in the mega database with this pawn sacrifice but it remains under the radar for now. My ex-student FM Sterre Dauw told me that he once accidentally blundered the pawn away. He only realized afterwards that he had compensation.)} 6... Qxd4 {(19 of the 20 online blitz-games the pawn wasn't captured. I suspect because most people did not realize that the pawn was unprotected.)} (6... Bd6 {( The most often played move.)} 7. Qh5 {(I think Ne2 is more accurate after which we possibly win a tempo on the main line by playing c4 all at once. However, Qh5 ensures that black can't play his usual stuff as Qh5 prevents 0-0.)} 7... O-O 8. Qxh7# {(I won exactly 4 games in this way. 2 players had almost 2600 elo including a grandmaster. This was blitz so no bullet with which I want to prove that many players play on automatic pilot online.)}) 7. Nf3 Qd6 (7... Qd8 8. Qe2+ Be7 9. Bf4 O-O 10. O-O-O Nd7 11. Rhe1 Bc5 12. Bh6 gxh6 13. Qe4 f5 14. Qxf5 Nf6 15. Qxc5 {(This was a line which I showed in one of the weekly meetings of the Belgian online chessclub as the Belgian FM Sim Maerevoet thought the pawn sacrifice was easy to refute.)}) 8. Qe2+ Be7 9. Be3 O-O 10. O-O-O Qe6 11. Bc4 Qf5 12. Nd4 Qg4 13. f3 Qg6 14. h4 h5 15. Bd3 f5 16. g4 hxg4 17. h5 Qh7 18. fxg4 Bf6 19. Nxf5 Bxf5 20. Bxf5 Qh8 21. g5 Bxb2+ 22. Kxb2 Re8 23. g6 Qh6 24. gxf7+ Kxf7 25. Bg6+ {Normal} 1-0
I suspect that these kinds of geometric discoveries are much more common. In any case, it brings life to the brewery and suddenly makes the study of openings a lot more attractive. Every discovery is of course not always suitable for playing in a standard game, but when I see what people dare to play today, I think that a lot is possible.


Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Revolution in the millennium part 3

Last month I put a lot of effort in setting up the Belgian online chessclub. I created a bi-lingual website for it and steered several meetings to work out a calendar of activities to entertain and attract new members. Nonetheless I still managed in parallel to continue working on a number of mini-analysis projects. Those projects are analysis of openings which I have carefully selected from blitz games that I have played in the past 2 years. In less than 3 months, I have meanwhile finished already 22 of such projects. It is an incredibly interesting work. In the first place because now also openings are treated which maybe would never be studied as I consider the probability very low that those openings will ever occur in one of my standard games. Especially now as almost all chess is played online, it makes sense to look also at openings which are popular at blitz or rapid.  I notice that many of them aren't so innocent as I thought they were. Very often I have been playing those "little" openings wrongly already for decades.

Large openings or main lines are of course also on the menu. First I try to unravel the critical lines. Not infrequently I improve the analysis in my chess books or offered by chesspub. However, at least as important in this research is discovering alternative variants which are playable. I am already looking forward to chess after corona, so when we return to playing standard chess on a real board. For that kind of chess it is very useful to possess a repertoire in which one can choose between several playable alternatives. This makes preparing for my opponents a lot more difficult (more than ever I will take this into account now that we are all putting a lot of information about our repertoire online) and it also creates more flexibility in one's own game strategy.

Finally, studying those critical lines is always a test of the repertoire. The last thing you want to discover is that you have to throw an opening overboard in which you built up tons of experience and earned you loads of points in the past. I know some players close their eyes when they find something so painful but I don't think you're doing yourself a favor with this. Yes it is quite possible that you will outsmart many more opponents because they do not know the weakness of the opening, but this also means that you will never be able to break a certain ceiling. A strong player (master) has a nose to find the weaknesses in a repertoire and nowadays it is a piece of cake with a strong engine to punish such gap.

Indeed in one my mini-projects I encountered this dilemma. An opening which is already 20 years part of my repertoire, got into troubles after I couldn't find a good response to a concept which was played in one of my online blitzgames.
[Event "Hourly SuperBlitz Arena"] [Site ""] [Date "2020.08.29"] [Round "?"] [White "Brabo"] [Black "quarantine_for_all"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B84"] [WhiteElo "2423"] [BlackElo "2524"] [PlyCount "70"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Be2 e6 7. O-O Be7 8. f4 O-O 9. Be3 e5 {(The 2 step of the e-pawn is a familiar theme in the Scheveningen but here it is weird. I don't think it is a slip of the mouse but such type of moves aren't played easily.)} 10. Nf5 exf4 {(This is a blunder so I don't know if my opponent used an engine in this game. Some strong moves look not very human but it is no real proof. For sure my opponent plays moves without assistance of an engine too as he was only caught some months later.)} 11. Nxe7+ Qxe7 12. Bxf4 Nxe4 13. Nxe4 Qxe4 14. Bxd6 Rd8 15. Qd2 Nc6 16. Rad1 Bf5 17. c3 Rac8 18. Bf3 Qe6 19. Qf4 Qg6 20. Bc7 Rxd1 21. Rxd1 h5 22. Rd6 f6 23. Bd5+ Kh8 24. Bb6 Re8 25. h4 Bd3 26. Kh2 Re2 27. Rd7 Be4 28. Bxe4 Rxe4 29. Qf2 Rg4 30. Rxb7 Ne5 31. Bc7 Nd3 32. Qf3 Rxh4+ 33. Kg1 Kh7 34. Bg3 Rg4 35. Bf2 Nxf2 {(I lost on time as otherwise I would've continued the game.)} 0-1
At the beginning of last year I successfully played this opening with white in Cappelle La Grande and in 2004 I scored my very first victory with it in a standard game against a grandmaster. So I have many nice memories of that opening. On the other hand, if everyone starts to play this new concept, then I don't think that there will be much fun left in playing this opening. At the same time, however, there is something very strange going on here. This opening has already been played in more than 1000 master games (+2300 elo). A number of former world champions: Alexander Alekhin, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky, Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Viswanathan Anand have played that opening at least once in their career with black, but no one has ever played this concept.
So in a blitz game someone not only played a new concept but hereby overhauled 100 years of opening theory built up by at least 7 world champions. Coincidence or is there more to it? My experience has taught me that coincidence is very unlikely in such situations and that finally brings us to the core of this article. What I feared beforehand became reality when I checked the profile of my opponent.
So my opponent's account was blocked because he violated the terms of service and that almost always means that the person used the assistance of an engine while playing online.

It is a serious problem online and of course it is a recurring item on the agenda of the Belgian online chess club. However, I don't think there exists a good solution. It is a choice between draconian measures to slow down cheaters, but which for most players will spoil their fun of playing online chess or accept that there are cheaters. I choose the latter with as consequence that we should never award titles or prizes to online chess.

I digress because I have yet to explain what the link is to the title of this article. Well, I suspect you won't be surprised when I tell you that the concept with e5 is the first choice of our current top engines such as Stockfish and Leela. In part 1 I wrote about how engines revolutionized the openings by showing alternatives in well-trodden paths that no human would have dared to think about. In part 2 I wrote about how the new neural networks have learned us that king-security should be evaluated differently so refuting more than 100 years of undisputed chess knowledge. In this 3rd part I show that the current engines now also succeed in completely overhauling main-lines. So more than ever it appears that we still know very little about chess despite libraries full of opening books.

Some may think that I am exaggerating with my assessment of the e5 concept but then I subtly refer those non-believers to some quotes on by Israeli grandmaster Michael Roiz: "I have to admit, that it looks really good so far" and "Undoubtedly, ... e5 !? should also be tested in human games."

Again, it is not surprising that the concept has already been tested in correspondence chess because computers are allowed at iccf. In this niche of extremely high quality chess games, we see that the concept holds up very well. At the highest level, black neatly draws and against slighter gods has even achieved a plus score in recent years.
[Event "WC36/ct02"] [Site "ICCF"] [Date "2016.09.20"] [Round "?"] [White "Casabona, Claudio"] [Black "Tleptsok, Ruslan Aslanovich"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "B85"] [WhiteElo "2586"] [BlackElo "2532"] [PlyCount "60"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Be3 e6 7. Be2 Be7 8. f4 O-O 9. O-O e5 10. Nf5 Bxf5 11. exf5 Nc6 12. Bf3 Rc8 13. Nd5 exf4 14. Nxf4 Re8 15. Kh1 Qd7 16. c3 h6 17. Bg1 Ne5 18. Bd4 Bd8 19. Nd5 Nxf3 20. Bxf6 Nxh2 21. Kxh2 Bxf6 22. Nb6 Qb5 23. Nxc8 Rxc8 24. Qd2 Rc4 25. g3 Rg4 26. Rae1 Be5 27. Rf3 Qc4 28. b3 Rh4+ 29. Kg2 Qg4 30. Rxe5 Qh3+ (30... Qh3+ 31. Kf2 Qh2+ 32. Ke3 Qg1+ 33. Qf2 Qc1+ 34. Qd2 Qg1+ 35. Kd3 Qb1+ 36. Ke3 Qg1+ $11) 1/2-1/2
Maybe if I don't share this story I could keep the opening in my repertoire longer. On the other hand, every master works with very strong engines today, so sooner or later I would come across it in a standard game. Then I prefer to spend my time on games with openings that are more relevant to my development. Ultimately, broadening one's horizons is also ideal to keep the chess hunger alive.