Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Short Break In Singapore

Caroline and I needed to get away. We love travelling and going to new places and we'd both only ever transited through Singapore before. Admittedly, Changi airport is an amazing place, but that's still not the same as visiting the place! We had a short break for 6 days going somewhere warm and interesting.

Firstly Singapore was very warm, and the heat and humidity took its toll on both of us. At the end of each day we were thoroughly exhausted from sightseeing around the town in averagely 30C+ days. We stayed in an area just south of the Singapore River, slightly north of Chinatown, and 5 minutes walk to Clarke Quay. The city is pretty flat so walking isn't the biggest problem, but the transport system is pretty good, so we used that a fair bit.

Singapore isn't as old as I thought it was, at least not in its recent history. Modern Singapore can be dated back tot he 1800's, when Sir Stamford Raffles landed on the island and negotiated a treaty which made Singapore part of the British Empire. There is a colonial feel as you wander the streets of central Singapore, and Raffles name isn't usually far away.

Raffles Hotel at the heart of Singapore Colonial District
While there is a heavy colonial feel tot he city, there are also distinct ethnic sections to the city that are rich in cultural heritage. We visited Chinatown (more than once), Little India and Kampong Glam, or Arab Street Quarter to experience some of this culture. Chinatown is fantastic, bustling, loads of food places and, of course, a distinctly Chinese feel to it. Oddly enough our first stop was at the Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple. It was strangely coincidental that our last port of call in Little India was at the Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple. All the religious buildings we saw, including the Sultan Mosque and Buddha Tooth Relic Temple were ornately decorated both inside and out.

Ceiling art at the Sri Mariamman Temple

At the doors to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple

Sultan Masjid Mosque at the end Bussorah Street

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
A visit to these areas should include some ethnic dining. I guess our favourite restaurants were the Eight Treasures Vegetarian Restaurant in Chinatown, and Kailash Parbat in Little India but there was definitely something for everyone.

Singapore has a very modern feel to the Marina area. We arrived the day after the Grand Prix was held and they were clearing up the city centre course. By the end of the week, you'd hardly have known a Grand Prix had been held there. The city is very clean, and even though the humidity was high, I thought the air quality was pretty good. We spent a little time in the Marina area, and watched the free evening concert and light show in the Gardens By The Bay.

The massive Marina Park Sands Hotel dominates the Marina

The Helix Bridge

Science Museum in front of the business district
The mix of old and new was nicely explained at the Chinese Cultural Heritage Centre, which gives a great feel for how tough life must have been for early Chinese immigrants to the settlement. Interestingly, I learned that most of what you see in the picture above would not have been visible 100 years ago, as that is reclaimed land built upon much later.

The Gardens were magnificent, and I intend to write a further post about them. It was a great short break in the tropical warmth after a wet and cold Victorian winter, and I'd certainly recommend Singapore as a place to visit.

View from Marina Bay Hotel Skydeck across Gardens By The Bay to the Straits

Singapore Flyer from Gardens By The Bay

Supertrees at Gardens By The Bay

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Rainy Day Thoughts (Chess Thoughts Mainly)

As I sit looking out the window at the constant rainfall, it's hard to believe that when I arrived in Australia just over 10 years ago the state of Victoria was in a drought condition with water restrictions on a year long basis. The news from around the state is all about floods and if the weather forecasters are to be believed (they're not, they are liars payed for the privilege of making guesses!) there is plenty more rain to come in the next week. So the week before my holiday to Singapore will make the trip to the tropics more inviting than it already is!

It is good weather for sitting indoors and reading a good book. Today marks the date that the prestigious Man Booker prize cuts the longlist of books down to the shortlist of about 6. Over the years I've read a lot of books that have made the longlist, and the shortlist, and the actual winners of the prize. So far this year, I'm reading my third nominated Booker Prize novel, "His Bloody Project" by Graeme Macrae Burnet. It would be unfair to judge this based on half a read, but so far it is my favourite of the 3 I've read, but that's not saying the others were bad (Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy and Hystopia by David Means). So far, I don't think the 2 books I've finished quite live up to some of the past winners, some of which have been amazing reads (The Long Road to the Deep North, Bring Up The Bodies, Remains of the Day etc) so I'm looking forward to seeing the shortlist revealed later today.

The 42nd Chess Olympiad comes to its conclusion today. It has been a memorable event for spectators with excellent online coverage. The game relay has been mostly excellent, while the chess news sites and journalists have covered the event in detail bringing images, interviews and stories to the public. The play has been hard fought and interesting. I've been following the exploits of Australia and England and as the tournament has proceeded I've found myself disappointed if Nigel short, or Sam Shankland aren't playing as these 2 players' games have been full of intriguing, fighting chess.

From Australia's point of view, the highlight has to be the performance of 15 year old Anton Smirnov, who is unbeaten and has a GM norm in the bag (a double norm). The team have played pretty well and a win tonight will see them finish above their initial starting rank of 46. Other highlights include Daivd Smerdon's draw with the world champion, Magnus Carlsen, and a team win against Brazil. The Aussies have had to face 2 top 10 teams, and have gone away from both with closer than expected 3-1 defeats. All in all, I think the Australian game looks to heading in the right direction. Our girls have struggled to find form and are well below their starting position in 78th place. Still, a win against Japan in the final round should get the girls back to near their starting position of 54th. 

At the top of the table, it looks as if nothing can stop the star studded USA line up from winning the Open section, though I', sure Canada are excited to be on board 1 in the final round. I very much like to see underdogs doing well, and as such it is great to 62nd ranked Turkmenistan sitting in equal 4th place and earning a last round match up with 4th ranked hosts, Azerbaijan A. In the women's section, China have finally come good, and it will take a loss to Russia today to deny them of first. The top places are dominated by the top teams, but Malaysia have sneaked from 66th rank up to a share for 9th and get to play the host team in the final round. These games start earlier than normal and I will be able to follow them along with the kids I teach later today.

One thing I noticed from the Olympiad is that Blackburne's old trap is alive and well. In my formative days I was able to use Blackburne's famous opening trap before someone told me how bad it was. The women's team from Kuwait have mastered this particular trap, having won 2 games in the Blackburne-Schilling Gambit. For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, it is probably the second trap you'll learn as a kid after the 4 move scholar's mate...

After the Italian moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 black has the dubious move 3..Nd4 at their disposal. This is known as the Blackburne-Schilling Gambit, and has been played twice by the Kuwait women's team at the 2016 Olympiad with a 100% score! 

Of course, moving the knight twice can't be good, and removing a defender of e5 is just too tempting so white will often grab the pawn 4.Nxe5 when black hits out with 4..Qg5!

Black's counter attack will take a novice player by surprise, especially one who is only looking at their own plans. In 2016, the favoured move has been 5.Bxf7+ [5.Nxf7 forking queen and rook is answered by 5..Qxg2 6.Rg1 Qxe4+ 7.Be2 Nf3#

This is the move order that I was able to use at junior level] 5..Ke7 6.Bc4 [4 rounds later, a player from the Maldives was able to improve upon this by playing 6.Bxg8] 6..Qxg2 7.Rf1 Qxe4+ 8.Be2

White has found an ingenious defence using the e5 knight to protect Nf3# At this point the game score suggests black played 8..d5 but I would imagine this is a transmission mistake and rather 8..d6 was played. Notwithstanding that 8..Qxe5 and 8..Nxc2+ were worthy options, the Kuwaiti player came up trumps after white moved their knight away allowing the mate on f3.

Despite this win, Kuwait managed to lose to Maldives, but it is one reason that I like the Olympiad as an event. Great players rub shoulders with not so great players, and it gives the chance for those not so great players to compete with their heroes, and for their countries. (There is also a wealth of material for coaches of young players like myself, brilliancies, blunders, tricks and traps and coming so soon after the Rio games, this Olympiad really caught the imagination of the kids in my classes.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Wednesday on the Go

If this blog post comes out somewhat broken up today, it's because I'm writing as and when I can. A typical day for me involves going to a school at 8.00 am and running a class until 9.00 am. I then have a break till lunch time, but have to drive somewhere else, and then drive somewhere else for later classes, and then drive to our centre for evening classes. Wednesday is particularly mobile. The good thing is that I get the chance to see lots of Melbourne, and lots of cafes.

I'm currently sat in the Armstrong Street Foodstore where my first coffee of the day has been brought to me. I'm trying to cut down on the coffee I have, but I'll still have one or two a day. My preference is for a long black, which is like an Americano for those of you not in Australia, but I'll occasionally have an espresso. I like to spend 20-30 minutes of the day in a cafe, leaving the real world and getting lost in a book. I'm currently reading the Booker Prize longlisted "Hystopia" by David Means. I have to say that I struggled to get into the novel to begin with, but I'm so glad I did. It has become absolutely electrifying, with beautiful writing describing both the brutality and beauty that runs through the book. So that's where I'm off to now. I'll write more later....

...from the seafront near St Kilda and Middle Park, my next job takes me inland to Camberwell. Much like St Kilda, Camberwell has no shortage of places to grab a coffee. I'm currently sitting in Cattivo, which has a great range of food including plenty of vegetarian options. In fact, it's a shame I'm not hungry, because all the food looks delicious, especially the eggplant parmigiana. The coffee is smooth and mild flavoured with a slightly chocolate after taste. It is not as thick as I like, but it is still a good coffee.

There is just a week and a half left before I travel to Singapore with Caroline for a week holiday, and my thoughts are beginning to go there. I'm even following Singapore's fortunes at the Chess Olympiad (and Hong Kong for that matter!). Like many, my only experience of Singapore has been Changi airport, which is quite amazing in itself. Coming form the UK, short breaks to south east Asia are a luxury I'd never have dreamed of before moving to Australia. Now it seems like a short hop! I really don't know what to expect from Singapore, and am excited to be staying there. It seems a hotch-potch of cultures, Chinese, Indian, colonial British, Malay etc. The next week and a half I'll be open to suggestions as to what to do in Singapore from anyone that's been there.

I've moved east again and picked up a roll from my favourite bakery in Mitcham. The ladies in the bakery struggle with spoken English, so it's always fun trying to order something with misunderstandings going both ways. The best was when i asked for an egg and salad roll, and was made a hot pork roll. We all had a laugh about my funny way of speaking!

Of course misunderstandings are a daily hazard to most adults in first world countries. As someone who has to drive a lot for work I can certainly testify to that. The one thing I've noticed is how misleading car stickers can be. But I've learned to interpret their true meanings:

You might think this is a witticism for "I've got a crap car", but it in fact means "Stay clear of me because I'm a maniac driver behind the wheel"

You might think this means "Please keep your distance for the safety of my child", but it in fact means "Stay clear because I'm a maniac driver behind the wheel".

You might think this means "Respect braking distance" but it in fact means "Stay a fuck of a long way clear because I'm a maniac driver behind the wheel of a huge fucking truck".

I'm back home safely now and ready to settle down to read (no chess at the Olympiad tonight). I've always got more than one book on the go. I'm reading a thriller by Australian author Matthew Reilly which is an easy, page turning, romp. I kind of think of books like most people think of TV series. I can change books like changing TV channels, and then go back a bit later to catch up on the other book. It also means that I can read different types of books and have something to read dependent on my mood. Anyway, that's all from me today, it'll probably be back to chess again tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Draw with the World Champion!

I haven't been writing here for a while which was a bit of a surprise, because just before I stopped I had a sharp increase in viewers, about an extra 5000 a day from Russia. Anyway, I've given those new guys (and bots) time to go through my blog, so I'll start posting again now. And it is a great time to be posting. Spring is rapidly coming to Melbourne, the chess Olympiad is in full swing and I'm sat outside a cafe, with a long black and an almond croissant (not good for my chances of avoiding diabetes but what the hell, it looked too good!), with Donald Trump continuing to lag in the opinion polls.

I've got quite a bit of catching up to do, especially about chess. Since I last wrote, there has been a venue found for the World Championship in New York, and Wesley So won his first super elite event in St Louis. But the chess focus has all been on the Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan. My first thought goes out to the poor Armenian team who are not playing for political reasons, and while I can sympathise with Azerbaijan wanting to host, FIDE really should be responsible for finding a venue that everybody is at least capable of playing at. My second thought is that the coverage of the event is really very good this time round. Partnering with chess24 was a good move, and the live game feed has been excellent. As for the chess, I really only need to look at one game now.

In the 4th round, Australian GM David Smerdon drew with the current World Champion Magnus Carlsen! The Aussie teams have been doing ok up to now, but hopefully this result will give them the self belief to go to bigger and better things

David is white in the position above and he sees a chance to guarantee a draw against the World Champion. I wonder how many people would have taken this opportunity if they'd seen it? A definite draw against Magnus Carlsen! The game continued 21.Rg1 h6 22.Rxg5 hxg5 23,Bh7+ Kh8 24.Bd3+ with a perpetual check. A fantastic result for Australian chess and David Smerdon in particular.

Of course, we could be harsh on David. I wonder if he'd have taken that draw if he was playing me, for example! Knowing David's combative spirit, I'm sure against almost anyone else, and perhaps not in a team event when your result effects other people, he would certainly have tried for more. But in the circumstances, this was the absolute correct decision by David for himself and the team. I'm unbelievably happy for him, and it takes quite a bit in chess to move me much these days.

There is an interview with David here. (I'll admit, I haven't seen it yet, but will do so straight after posting this) And the best place for Aussies, and others for that matter, to follow the Olympiad is FM Dusan's Stojic's excellent blog about the event. Dusan, if you're reading this, you should be blogging all the time, your writing, and your points of interest are excellent! All the best to you and Alex in Baku!

I promise that I'll write more again now. Besides chess, I want to write more about coffee (the one I just had was good, but not excellent, though the almond croissant is among the best I've had in Melbourne), and I'll be writing about travel too, as I'm heading off to Singapore soon. And to my newly found Russian readers, I hope you enjoy my chess writings, my travel writings and my anti-Trump and anti-Brexit political views!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Morphy's Knight in the Corner

For me, the most amazing thing about Morphy was not how far ahead he was of other players at that time. For me, it was the phenomenal ability to play crazy tactical positions blindfold, and his brilliance at odds games. Here's a game he won when he was about 12 against his uncle, playing at odds of a rook!

The final position is quite extraordinary, with a knight on h8 delivering mate!

Of course Black could have defended better, but that is hardly the point. Building a repertoire of mating patterns is more important than building an opening repertoire for most players. Building tactical awareness  and vision is the single most important improvement factor for beginners, and even intermediate level players.

Chessbase 13 allows a search of similar moves, and the unusual Ng6xh8 is certainly a move worth checking out. The database search brought up 751 games where the move Ng6xh8 has been played, of which white scores over 70%. One game that isn't in the database is Potter-Matthews London 1858.

1.e4 e5 2.d4 exd4 3.c3 [The Danish Gambit] 3..c5 4.Nf3 d6 5.Bc4 Nc6

So the first thing to consider if you really want to get a Ng6xh8 manouvre in, is that fast development is the key to early attacks. Morphy knew this as well as anyone. Open lines help as well! 6.0-0 d3 7.Re1 Bg4

Black's play has been too slow, too many pawn moves. If the centre was open, then black's king would be in the firing line. 8.e5 Nxe5? [one pawn grab too many]

9.Nxe5!! An excellent queen sacrifice 9..Bxd1

Now there's a discovered check on the e-file crying out to be played, but Potter wants more, he wants it to be a double check. 10.Bb5+ Ke7 11.Bg5+! A fantastic check skewering black's queen.

11..f6 Not the best defence, but black was lost whatever he did, so he might as well block the check and hold on to his queen. Anyway, it lets us see another Nxh8# move!!

Now it's mate in 2 starting with the double check 12.Ng6+ Kf7 13.Nxh8#

A very similar position has arisen to the Morphy-Le Carpentier game!

And for those of you who think these things are a bygone relic of the 1800's, here's a game from the 2000's. Now it won't be Grand Masters playing this sort of chess anymore, but then again, the majority of players reading this blog won't be Grand Masters. And even the GM's will have a chance to play this sort of thing during their simuls. So look at these games, add the pattern to your repertoire, and most importantly, don't let these things happen to you.

In this position white has sacrificed a piece, but now has mate in 2 starting with the double check 1.Ng6+ and then 1..Kxf7 2.Nxh8#

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Line Opening with Paul Morphy

I put up a couple of positions by the great Paul Morphy from his most famous games the other day. Time to have a look.

Paulsen-Morphy USA ch 1857
This has been my game of the week this week for showing to kids. It starts with a sensible 4 knight's opening, there are some nice tricks, and some strange/poor moves that are instructive. Morphy, as black in this position played to his strength which was opening lines for rapid development. He came up with the great sacrifice, 17..Qxf3!! Paulsen must take back 18.gxf3

White's king has been ripped open, and Morphy's pieces now stream into the holes. 18..Rg6+ 19.Kh1 Bh3

[The threat is 20..Bg2+ 21.Kg1 Bxf3#. 20.Rg1 is not playable as white is mated after 20..Rxg1+ 21.Kxg1 Re1+ 22.Qf1 Rxf1#] Paulsen carried on but was forced to resign on move 28. Morphy did miss a couple of quicker mates, but the sacrifice of the queen on f3 to open lines was simply excellent.

The second position I put up was from the game Bird-Morphy London 1858, one of the most analysed games in history.

Bird-Morphy (m5) London 1858

I wonder if Morphy was thinking about his masterpiece against Paulsen from the previous year when he came up with a plan to offer his queen to open lines for rook and bishop. 17..Rxf2 An astounding idea, opening the third rank. This move, and the few following have been subject to an immense amount of analysis over the years. Was this sacrifice correct? Should the game have ended a win for black, a draw? Try googling bird-morphy and see what results come up, or just try to make the white defence stronger. 18.Bxf2 Qa3!!

An amazing queen move from Morphy! Obviously, the queen can't be taken, 19.axb3 Bxa3#. Notice the similarity to the Paulsen game? Bird, who wasn't the best defender succumbed to the onslaught on move 29, and one of the greatest queen moves of all time proved successful.

More Morphy to come....

International Chess Day

Did you know that July 20th is International Chess Day? No? Well, neither did I! Well, actually, I knew there was an International Chess Day, and it was sometime in the middle of the year, but July 20th didn't ring any bells of recognition for me.

The 20th of July has been chosen to represent a special day for chess as it was the day in 1924 when FIDE, the international governing body was founded. Now I have to say that I can think of a heap of better days to commemorate chess, as FIDE has not done a brilliant job of uniting the chess world over the years. FIDE claimed the rights to the World Championship after the second World War and the organisation of this event gave the governing body some level of credence. However, it has always fought against individuals and national federations to maintain its central governing position, and through the Presidencies of Campomanes and Ilyumshinov the chess world seems to have become more divided than ever.

So why not choose a date that can rally chess players, and means something to all, rather than a celebration of an organisation which has seen to be divisive, money-grabbing, corrupt...

Here's a few:

October 21 - The most famous game in history, the Opera House game was played on this day in 1858

January 11 - The start date of the first 'official' World Championship between Steinitz and Zukertort (pre FIDE times) in 1886 (or March 19th, the date that Steinitz was crowned as the first World Champion)

May 20 - Birth date of Max Euwe, the only person to be a World Champion, amateur World Champion, and President of FIDE, though not all at the same time! (Of course, the birth date of any random chess great could be used and it make us happy).

I'm pretty sure that in the scheme of things, the founding of FIDE is not high up in the list of things that mean most to chess players!

Anyway, Happy International Chess Day!