Monday, November 21, 2016

Cracked Pepper

They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery. I'm not sure who says it, but I suppose I could "google it", and come up with a reasonable answer. The problem comes when imitation is done in poor taste. Like a bandwagon of novelists writing about young wizards, cover bands who actually have the talent to create their own music, and right wing fascists pretending to be caring politicians.

Anyway, as most readers of this blog will know, the things I love most in this world are chess and coffee. (of course I love the beautiful people that surround my world the most, but I don't really like describing my friends as "things"). The chess world is pretty exciting at the moment with a host of top level events seeing out 2016, headed by the World Championship currently being played in New York. For me, though, the chess world has been a poor imitation of what is was 12 months previously as I have had a year of illnesses which have prevented me from playing much chess. While I enjoy watching and studying the game, nothing beats playing and competing. I have entered a tournament in a couple of weeks, and will see how I go because I've been in quite a bit of discomfort recently, and had brain fogs, but if I can play ok then I'll be happy.

Coffee is my other passion. I love sitting at a cafe, reading a novel, and drinking a long black. I've been asked why I don't buy a coffee machine. Well, the simple answer is I like sitting at cafes, reading a novel with a long black! I have been to hundreds of cafes around Melbourne and the quality of the coffee, service and food varies, but I don't mind, I keep going back to my regular favourites.

One thing I have noticed, however, is how some cafes seem to be trying to imitate their classier, chic rivals. I like the fact that you don't have to be in central Melbourne to get a decent coffee, but I sometimes cringe at some of the food options and service quality of places. My pet annoyance at the moment is cracked pepper. I'm happy to dine in an Italian restaurant in Lygon Street and have a waiter come to me when my meal is in front of me and ask if I would like cracked pepper on it. Sometimes I'll say yes, sometimes no, but the whole thing seems appropriate there. I've started noticing that more and more places have waiting staff hanging around with pepper grinders, ready to pounce on customers with their request to serve you cracked pepper. I've even had cracked pepper ground on to my food before I could stop the overeager waitress. I've seen looks of disappointment on the faces of waiters at cafes when I'm sat with a bowl of porridge for breakfast, and I've even had a young waiter edging towards me as if he was wondering whether I would actually like cracked pepper on my porridge. I kind of feel sorry for that young man who will probably never know whether I wanted cracked pepper on my porridge or not. Did he lose his establishment a customer by not offering cracked pepper as an option?

I'm not the only critic of cracked pepper offerings (Huffpost)

To be honest, the cracked pepper thing is beginning to die down. Just as well really, as it seems a bit of a contradiction to walk into a greasy spoon, order eggs on toast, and be offered cracked pepper and ketchup. There needs to be a sense of appropriateness, and I don't think any less of a cafe because it might not be as classy as those in the next suburb. As long as the coffee is drinkable, the food is ok, and the staff are friendly, there isn't much more you need. Except maybe some cracked pepper on your breakfast Muesli....

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Why Watch When You Can Play?

This week I've started my lessons by asking my students this question: "What is the best tournament in the world?" I get all answers, like World Championship, Olympiad, National Championship etc. In the end, I tell the kids that the best tournament is the one that you are playing in. Chess is a participation event. Ok, it can be great to watch games, matches, tournaments, and some of them are great to follow. But nothing beats playing, and nothing beats playing tournaments. Therefore, whatever tournament I happen to be in is more important to me than any event that I might watch. The same should go for everyone.

The World Chess Championship match has started, and we've had 2 not so interesting draws to start off with. My twitter feed is filled with the usual comments about how boring the chess is, and how the format of chess doesn't lend itself to producing a spectacle. Having never participated in a World Championship match, or at anywhere near the level that Carlsen and Karjakin are competing, I'm hardly fit to comment, but it seems that both players are easing themselves into the match, and getting over any pre-match nerves. They are both showing respect to the other over the board, and I'm guessing that the play will heat up for the rest of the match.

As for me, I want to start playing otb chess again, but I've been in quite a bit of pain with a probable torn tendon in my shoulder. I had planned to play at the Melbourne Chess Club's event next weekend, but my focus isn't good at the moment as I'm in quite a bit of discomfort. The event does look great, though. The MCC are hosting a match of MCC vs Rest of Victoria.The event will be split into mini matches based on ratings, so the top 4 MCC players will play a Scheveningen event against the top 4 Rest of Victoria players, and then the next 4 vs 4 in the same format etc. As a lover of team chess, this is something that I'd go out of my way to play, but I'm holding my decision until after physio this week. I'd encourage anyone who can play to join in. After all, playing is better than watching.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Immortal Plagiarised Game

Yesterday, I wrote posts about games that completely copied other games. Now while I've gone into games without much fighting spirit and been happy to take a draw early, I've never arranged to copy out a whole game (maybe when I was a kid I used the odd trap like the Fried Liver, but without my opponent's pre-knowledge) so I find it strange when players do. To me it is obviously cheating, as it suggests prior arrangement of the game by the 2 players. For Christ's sake, if 2 players want to draw, it isn't out of the realms of possibility to play some pretty boring moves that involve exchanges and avoid complications. But just regurgitating a whole game???

Of course, if you are going to copy out a drawn game, then there is no better game to follow than Hamppe-Meitner Vienna 1870, also known as The Immortal Draw. The players whose game I showed yesterday were not the first players to follow in the footsteps of the Immortals. This is a much copied game.

The first full copy of the game (the first 8 moves were played in the game Popsilova-Hausner Brno 1969) that I find in my database is the game Ullrich-Birke Wuerttemburg Ch 1986, although these 2 players "improved" the play by adding 2 extra moves of the 3 fold repetition. In all there are close to 30 repeats of the game in the database, with Banikas-Nikolaidis happening twice!

Possibly the best game was Zampaglione-Zampaglione Amantea 2010 where the game ended in 0-1 after white "fell into" the main trap at the end of this game.

If you haven't seen the game, then it truly is remarkable.

1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Bc5 3.Na4

Black now plays the amazing 3..Bxf2+ sacrificing a piece to bring the white king into the open. There followed 4.Kxf2 Qh4+ 5.Ke3 Qf4+ 6.Kd3 d5 7.Kc3 Qxe4 8.Kb3 Na6 9.a3 [Apparently 9.d4 was better, but I'm not getting into that here]

So has the white king breathing space? 9..Qxa4+!! Whoa, white's king gets pulled further up the board. 10.Kxa4 Nc5+ stopping white's king heading back to b3 and a2 11.Kb4

Surely now black will move away the knight, and white's king can retreat? 11..a5+!! 12.Kxc5 [11.Kc3 loses to 11..d4+ when the white king is forced up the board anyway] 12..Ne7!

This is a great position. White's king is trapped, with the threat of Bd7 and b6#. Meanwhile white's pieces try to come to the defence of their king. 13.Bb5+ Kd8

With the threat of 14..b6# looming over his head, white plays the only move. 14.Bc6!! b6+ 15.Kb5 Nxc6 16.Kxc6

Now black tries one last time for mate. 16..Bb7+!! 17.Kb5 [17.Kxb7? Kd7 18.Qg4+ Kd6 when Rhb8# can't be stopped.

This was the final position of the Zampaglione game] 17..Ba6+ 18.Kc6 and the game was agreed a draw as a repetition is unavoidable. An amazing game, one worthy of study, but certainly not of repetition.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

More Opening Preparation

My last blog post was about a game that completely copied the moves of another. How legal is this? How ethical is this? These are questions for arbiters and organisers. Like earlier this year, in the Victorian Championships, when the Chan brothers, Kris and Luis copied the immortal game Rotlevi-Rubinstein, when they were forfeited the game. I'm not sure if any other punishment came their way, but a 0-0 result was already a way of letting the players know that collusion is not tolerated.

Some might find it amusing when a famous game is copied by players, or even a not so famous game. But it is against the rules. I saw this game this week, but it isn't the first time I've seen the moves. Does anyone else recognise them?

I wonder if the game was awarded a 1/2-1/2 or a 0-0?

Opening Preparation!?

I was sitting at a cafe this morning, drinking a long black and musing over the fact that I haven't worked on openings properly for a long time. I spent some time looking at the Antoshin Variation of the Philidor last year, but I'm bored of it now and want to move on. The question is, how much opening knowledge do I need to know?

That's a question that all chess players need to answer, and it will be different for each of us based on a number of factors:

- what level are you at?
- what style of opening do you choose to play?
- what ambitions do you have?

So the level that one is at will determine how deeply a player needs to study openings. The higher your level, the more you will need to understand openings, as you'll probably be playing players of a higher level.

The style of opening is important because some openings have more tactical lines, while some require more positional understanding of structures and ideas. Of course all openings have tactics, and positional ideas, but certain openings tend towards one or the other.

Your own goals will influence how deeply you work on the game generally and openings specifically. I am not particularly ambitious having got to where I want to go, so I tend to not put much work into the game (or at least not the sort of work that might help me improve). However, a player who wants to jump 200 rating points might work on strengthening their opening knowledge as well as on other parts of the game.

The main thing to do is assess where you are at, what you want out of chess, and to make a plan going forward. Do not try to emulate the professionals unless you are close to their level, or thinking of becoming a pro. (If you do have these ambitions check out the new pro chess league at

I saw a game that made me feel odd about opening study. It was like, "why bother working on the game when this is where it will take you?" The game was Mamedyarov-Gelfand from the Rapid tournament in Tashkent. The game followed So-Giri Leuven 2016 all the way, ending in exactly the same 3 move repetition. I'll admit it is a fascinating opening, black sacrifices a piece and gets very interesting play for it.

The Semi-Slav has been a hot opening since the 1990's, and even I've played it! A topical line from the above position is 12.b4 making black's c-pawn very backward. Although it was first played in 1998, the move has been played more often since about 2012 when it was played in some top games, most notably Topalov-Kasimdzhanov London 2012. 12..a5 13.Rb1

Here, the most drastic way of dealing with the backward pawn is to ditch it with 13..c5. After 14.bxc5 Bxf3 15.gxf3 black has created weaknesses around the black king, particularly on h2 and g2. It isn't enough to win but seems good enough to offer equal chances. There are quite a few perpetual finishes in this variation.

So in this position, Giri played 15..Nxc5 sacrificing a piece for a pawn. Black gets a useful pin on the c-file, and the ability to transfer his rook and/or queen to the king side. After the sequence 16.dxc5 Rxc5 17.Rxb5, white regained the pawn to be a whole piece up, and has guarded a black rook swing on the fifth rank.

So now black sacrifices a rook to gain a perpetual. 17..Nd5 18.Rxc5 Qg5+ 19.Kh1 Qh5

The threat of mate means that white must play 20.f4 when black grabs the draw by Qf3-g4-f3-g4 etc.

It's a fascinating variation with some very interesting positions, especially concerning compensation for sacrificed material. There are also some very interesting endgames that occur, when white refuses to take all the material offered. I can understand why Giri played the variation earlier in the year, as there are ways for white to go wrong, while he had a cast iron draw available. What I can't understand is why anyone would repeat it. I guess that is why I am an not a professional chess player!

Anyway, here is the Mamedyarov-Gelfand game, and I've also built a file with all the games that start with the variation 12.b4. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Setting the Tone

It's November, it's World Chess Championship time! Sadly though, the match isn't really getting me that excited. I'm not sure why that is. The players aren't the most exciting I guess, and the format of just 12 games means that there will probably more emphasis on not losing than winning. Recent Championship matches haven't helped with 'attrition' being the new buzzword of these matches.

I will follow the match, and I hope for a good start to set the tone. Hopefully Magnus will play to the death in the games and I hope that both players are prepared with great ideas, and are willing to take some risks to win. I guess what I'm hoping for is something to happen early on to raise the stakes in the match.

I recently was looking at some games from the 1950 play off match between David Bronstein and Isaak Boleslavsky. Don't ask me why, I just like to look at random old games! The players had shared first at the Budapest Candidates and a match was organised in Moscow over 12 games (a further 2 were added as the match was tied after 12). Of the 14 games only 5 ended in wins, which doesn't sound too different to the matches nowadays. The match started with a bang, an amazing first game with threat after threat cranking up the pressure, ending with a nice queen sacrifice. After this first game, the match went into a kind of lock down as the next 5 games were drawn. It wasn't all boring though. Game 4 saw Boleslavsky sacrifice an exchange putting Bronstein on the defensive. Then came the next phase, with 3 victories out of 5 games, leading to an extra 2 game play off. In these last 2 games, the first was drawn, while the second was won by Bronstein who went on to play the World Championship against Botvinnik.

The first game definitely set the tone for the match. Both players were prepared to take risks to win the match, and after an early victory, it meant that Boleslavsky had to play to win in games. The play was tense, and the games are well worth looking over again. As a match that wasn't for the World Championship, it doesn't get the same coverage, but that doesn't mean it was any less exciting.

Here's the game that set the tone.

A sharp Grunfeld was the opening choice for this first game, and things got sharper when Bronstein sacrificed the exchange with 14.d5!? Boleslavsky accepted, and then grimly tried to hold on to his material lead. This variation is still topical today, but at the time it had only just been introduced into tournament practice. 14..Bxa1 15.Qxa1

White threatens to win the exchange back straight off with Bh6, so black continues 15..f6 blocking white's queen out. 16.Bh6 Qb6+ 17.Kh1 Rfd8

Cranking up the pressure. Black's bishop is attacked, but white's light squared bishop is also under threat via the pin on the d-file. 18.Rb1 Qc5 19.Bd2

The temptation to move the attacked bishop must have been strong here, but then Bb4 is very strong. Another possibility is just to give back some material by playing Nc6 when black will have rook and pawn for 2 pieces. Boleslavsky decided to keep the pressure on. 19..b6 A move which makes perfect sense, guarding the sidelined knight, and giving it an escape square on b7. 20.Bb4 Qc7 21.Rc1

Since sacrificing the exchange, Bronstein has been making threats while improving his pieces. Boleslavsky too has been answering all white's threats and is just waiting for the moment when he can take a breather and still be ahead in material. 21..Qb7 22.Qb1!

Now white threatens both a5 and e6, while white's queen protects the light squared bishop. 22..Rab8?
Boleslavsky finally blunders after an incredibly complicated sequence of moves. 22..Qd7 offered black chances, retaining the pin on the d-file. White's pieces really are running riot over the position though, so black still would have had some difficult defending to do. In the game, Bronstein took the bishop and ended up winning the game.

I have to show the end of the game though.

After his brilliant play earlier in the game, Bronstein finished in style. Here white forced resignation by playing 32.Qxf6, sacrificing his queen to let the e-pawn run.

I do hope that the upcoming World Championship lives up to the billing and produces a tense match with excellent play. But if it doesn't chess has plenty of matches to look back on and savour, and not just the World Championships. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Endgame at a School

I was at a Primary School this morning and the following position appeared in one of the games.

Even though the boys were 2 of the better players in the group I was still impressed and astounded that they had reached this position. From here on, though, the game was full of blunders, but each one was instructive for the kids. It was black to play and he started with the shocker 1..Kc5?? This immediately moves the king outside the square of the pawn and shows that kings can't catch pawns when they are behind them. In the above position, black has the undermining 1..a6! when his king is closer to the pawns and able to take both white pawns. Thus the kids are being taught about king activity and placement. The nearer their king is to the main action, the better.

After white's blunder, came a mutual shocker 2.Kd3?? allowing me to explain that passed pawns must be pushed. At this point the black player saw that he should have lost the game and he retreated his king rather than take on b5. 2..Kb6 and both kings manouvered 3.Kc4 Kc7 4.Kc5

At this point, black played the inspirational 4..Kc8! going straight back and was rewarded with a draw after 5.b6? axb6 6.Kxb6 Kb8 (with opposition) 7.c7+ Kc8 8.Kc6 stalemate.

While congratulating white on his fine defence I showed both boys how using the king actively is an important issue in endgames. Instead of 5.b6, white should have tried 5.Kd6! when the opposition move 5..Kd8 fails because after 6.c7+ Kc8 7.Kc6, it isn't stalemate as black has a pawn left.

Now black has to move their a-pawn. The best try for a kid is to play 7..a6, say loudly "oh no, can I take that back", and then mumble something about losing their last hope! But seriously, the majority of children that I teach would find it hard to resist the temptation of taking a free pawn. But the win is simply 8.b6 a5 9.b7 checkmate, while the tempting 8.bxa6 is stalemate again.

Of course this endgame isn't perfect, and is very simple, but it shows a number of endgame principles that everyone, not just kids, should know. And when kids play these positions and then receive instruction it sticks better in their mind than when they are learning endgames theoretically. By the way, all the advice I gave them came after the game, as I didn't want to interfere while the game was ongoing. Both these boys are yet to compete in events outside their school, but like most kids, the are learning fast.