Sunday, September 17, 2017

NUS IFG 2017 Post-Mortem: Part 1

One more tournament done and dusted. The International Chess category of NUS Inter-Faculty Games 2017 was held on 10 September, and while I had no interest in the final rankings, I was more concerned over what could be learned from the games I played. And no matter what result each games ended with, they provided instructive lessons that I will like to share with y'all.

Playing hall before the first round

Games 1 and 2: Mad about squares

After a few moves into my first game, it became apparent that my opponent was a beginner, who fed me a free piece on the tenth move. But early in the opening, I made a major inaccuracy, which weakened the squares around my king. Thank goodness the other side was not able to exploit this weakness; a more seasoned veteran would have punished me badly for this mistake!

A close shave, and a good lesson on the dangers of creating weak squares around the king!

Game 2 was when the day's struggle really began.

Position after 12. Nh4

The position resembles a reverse King's Indian; the centre is closed but Black has the spatial advantage rather than White! With their last move (12. Nh4), White prepared an f2-f4 advance, reminiscent of Black's classic f5 pawn break in the King's Indian. How should I, as Black, respond?

A glance at the pawn structure reveals a pressing problem for both sides: The bishops risk being shut out of the game. For Black this can be solved with … Bc8 and … Ng4 finding new diagonals, while the White clerics find a better future on c1 and h3. Another point worth noting is that the dark squares—especially e3—in White's position will be weakened if White pushes f4. Thus, if Black can threaten to swing a knight onto e3, it might discourage White from getting in f4.

Thus, Black should consider … Bc8 relocating their pieces to the kingside, where the heat of the action is most likely to take place. This should be followed up with … Ng4, preparing to occupy e3 should White insist on advancing f4. In essence, this would escalate into a battle of squares, similar to Game 1.

So, did I play Bc8? No… during the game, I was so "mesmerized" by the prospect of White getting in f4 that I didn't even look at the e3 square. Instead I decided upon a half-hearted attempt to mimic White's plans with 12... Nh5, preparing my own pawn push f5. But this gave my adversary the initiative after 13. Qd1 Bxh4 14. Qxh5 followed by 15. f4, and White struck first. While the game was still playable after that, a terrible blunder soon sealed my fate, and spoiled what could have been a very interesting game.

What can we learn from Games 1 and 2? While chess is a battle of pieces, one should not forget about the squares. Along with the pawn structure, they form the terrain through which pieces seek anchor points and offensive/defensive pathways. A weak square near a king can be deadly, for it can be used as an invasion point for enemy pieces.

To summarize in a flamboyant manner, I paraphrase a famous quote from “Red Cliff”: With a strong understanding of squares, all 64 squares on the board will become soldiers at your command.



Game 3: Beware the pawn centre!

Back to the White pieces, and a tumble down the ranking table after my team's whitewash in Round 2. Funnily enough, I found myself in a "King"s Indian-ish" position again, with one difference: My pawn centre was not locked up, but instead given the freedom to advance anytime!

"It is of the greatest importance to strive for the mobility of our pawn mass, for a mobile mass can in its lust to expand, exercise a crushing effect"
-Aaron Nimzowitsch, My System

Soon, I was teaching my opponent a lesson on how dangerous an unfettered pawn centre can become:

The lesson from this game is a reminder on why a pawn centre should be blockaded, especially in King's Indian positions. Their desire to expand and wreck unparalleled destruction must not be underestimated!

"I came in like a wrecking ball..."

With that I wrap up the first half of IFG 2017; in Part 2, I will go through my next 3 games.

To be continued…

Sources:
http://www.listal.com/viewimage/7604726
https://cinematicfanatic.wordpress.com/2011/04/22/indiana-jones-raiders-of-the-lost-ark-1981/

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Post-NST Tactical Presents 2017

Although NST is over, learning is never over!






Have fun!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Strategy and the Mastery of Imbalances: Part 2

In Part 1, we were introduced to the different imbalances that can occur in a game. Today, we will see how these concepts are employed to analyze critical positions, leading to the formulation of viable plans.

To recap the strategic imbalances discussed so far:

  • Material
  • Development
  • King safety
  • Centre and Space
  • Open files and diagonals
  • Piece activity
  • Pawn structure

Before coming up with a plan, use these ideas to do a breakdown of the imbalances on both sides, before deciding how to make use of those imbalances where you have the advantage.

Take a look at our first position:

Anand, Viswanathan vs Karpov, Anatoly
FIDE World Championship 1998
Position after 11... Nce7

The position's imbalances can be deconstructed:

White:

  • More central space
  • More active pieces, especially when you consider Black’s trapped light-squared bishop
  • A slight edge in development (rook occupying the e-file)

Black:

  • Better pawn structure: White has an isolated pawn that is being blockaded
  • A strong square on d5, where the knights can be centralized

Imagine you are playing as White. There are no immediate threats on the board, so tactics are out of the question. How then, shall you formulate a plan? Of course you want to capitalize on your centre space, developmental lead, and better pieces, and shift the battle away from your isolated pawn weakness.

Having a lead in development and more active pieces are dynamic factors; they are temporary and can vanish if not exploited (e.g. the opponent can improve the position of his pieces if given enough time). With that in mind, White should mobilize his active pieces for an attack on the enemy king as soon as possible, before the opponent catches up in development.

On the other hand, his isolated d-pawn is a static factor, which is unlikely to change or vanish as the game progresses. So White should avoid the trading of pieces, since his isolated pawn will stay on the board and become a more vulnerable weakness in the endgame.


In essence, White's plan should be to use his more active pieces to attack the castled enemy king as soon as possible, and avoid trading into the endgame where his isolated pawn weakness becomes vulnerable.

How about Black? He needs to improve the position of his light-squared bishop, possibly by Bd7-Bc6. But more importantly, he needs to trade off White's active pieces to blunt any upcoming attack, and enter an endgame where Black has the better pawn structure.

Effectively, Black's plan is the reverse of White's. Improve the position of his light-squared bishop, exchange pieces to reach the endgame, and target White's isolated pawn weakness.

See how both sides carry out their respective plans in the ensuring struggle:

In our next example, White seems to have a problem: Black is threatening to exchange on d3 and remove White's bishop pair.

Checkerboard 5 vs Opponent
Online Chess Game 2017
Position after 8... Nb4

Some of us might think that the exchange will create an imbalance that helps Black, since he gets the two bishops. But although the bishop pair may be useful, they don't always work well in every position. We all know that tanks are powerful steel beasts, but put them in a muddy field and they are as good as useless.

Join the tankies, they said. Won't need to walk, they said

Similarly, the bishop pair becomes ineffective in a closed position, where the diagonals are blocked by pawns. A quick glance at Position 2 is enough to see that the closed pawn centre is not good territory for the bishops!

So White should not be afraid to exchange on d3, since his knights work well in the closed position, while Black's two bishop "advantage" gets neutralized by the myriad of pawns in the centre. The resulting imbalance is in White's favour, not Black's!

White's plan is to let Black exchange on d3, and concentrate on improving the position for his remaining pieces. He achieves this with the pawn push f4, opening up the f-file for his rooks and deploying his dark-squared bishop onto the battlefield. The game continued 9. f4 Ng4 10. h3 Nh6 11. fxe5 dxe5 (D)

Position after 11... dxe5

Break down the imbalances again:

White:
  • More central space
  • A passed pawn on d5
  • The semi-open f-file
  • A slight lead in development: Black’s bishops are undeveloped and his king is not castled
Black:
  • Potential threats on the queenside with his queen-knight duo

Not surprisingly White has the advantage, and he should use the semi-open f-file to attempt a kingside invasion. This will be made easier by his centre control, which will interfere with Black's attempts to defend. However, White must watch for any counterplay Black may try on the queenside.

The last example is one of my most cancerous favourite games. It is a good demonstration of how one can use whatever imbalances they have at hand to save a bad position, and "scam" their opponent of any wins.

Opponent vs Checkerboard 5
Singapore Chess Meetup 2017
Position after 21. Ra2

It is obvious that things are going badly for Black. White has total control of the h-file, and a pair of dangerous—albeit doubled—passed pawns on the b-file. If we analyze the imbalances, it isn't hard to see the advantage lies with White.

White:
  • Control of the open h-file
  • Control of the enemy 7th rank
  • Passed b-file pawns
  • Black has a hideously bad bishop on b7
Black:
  • A weak, isolated pawn on e3 to target
  • White's king is slightly exposed

As Black, I faced a dilemma. I could defend passively with Qc8 to preserve material equality. But then White would be free to carry out his plans, and after something like b6 he would use his imbalances (the h-file and passed pawns) to slowly crush me.

Or I could do something about the few imbalances I had. Namely, White's weak e3 pawn and his vulnerable king. That means bringing as many pieces as I could over to attack the enemy king. But this would mean that the poor b7 bishop would be left defenceless.

Which of these choices did I choose? Either way, I would be losing something. So rather than giving my opponent an easy, positional game, why not go all out and create as much problems for him as possible? I am already in a bad position, so I have nothing to lose anyway!

So I chose Plan B: Jettison the b7 bishop, and bring my remaining pieces over for an all-out attack against White's king.

Was my attack a sound one? No: White could have refuted it with 29. Nf1. But the numerous problems I created on the kingside made it easy for either side to slip up, and my opponent was unfortunate enough to do so.

And in case you were wondering whether this was a blitz game, it was in fact a casual game played without time control, so both of us had plenty of time to think. Now imagine what would happen in rapid time control, with both sides having limited time to think!

The lesson from this game is: When in a bad position, play as actively as possible and create problems for your opponent. After all, you have nothing to lose, and with any luck your opponent may make mistakes and get "scammed" of his win!

Wrapping up

Through these 3 examples, I hope y’all have a clearer idea of how to identify and use imbalances to your advantage. Again, the different positional factors are summarized as follows:

  • Material
  • Development
  • King safety
  • Centre and Space
  • Open files and diagonals
  • Piece activity
  • Pawn structure

It is by understanding the nature of a position that one can formulate an effective plan, and tip the scales in your favour. This is the art of chess strategy.

Links:
Part 1: https://nushsblackknights.blogspot.com/2017/08/strategy-and-mastery-of-imbalances-part.html

 Sources:
"How to Re-Assess your Chess" by Jeremy Silman
"21 Days to Supercharge your Chess" by Yury Markushin
http://www.military.com/video/combat-vehicles/combat-tanks/russians-t-90-tank-stuck-mud/3297266267001
https://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-13438421-stock-footage-low-angle-shot-of-a-chess-game-a-knight-being-taken-by-a-pawn.html

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Strategy and the Mastery of Imbalances: Part 1

Many of us should be familiar with the term "Chess Strategy". It is the art of planning, based on what is happening on the battlefield. This is especially important when there are no immediate threats on the board for tactics to occur.

Image from azquotes.com

Unfortunately, many beginners fantasize their plans according to their emotions and preferences. They want to attack the enemy king, never mind that the position is cramped with no space to maneuver the pieces. Or maybe they just love trading pieces, not aware that a weak pawn structure will leave them crippled in the endgame.

A plan should be based not according to what you like, but what the situation on the battlefield calls for. In his work "Encyclopedia of Chess", Harry Golombek gives an accurate description of this:

"Planning is the process by which a player utilizes the advantages and minimizes the drawbacks of his position. In order to promise success, planning is thus always based on a diagnosis of the existing characteristics of a position; it is therefore most difficult when the position is evenly balanced, and easiest when there is only one plan to satisfy the demands of the position."

To analyze a position, one needs to understand the concept of imbalances, which are simply a difference between both sides in any position. They may or may not be in your favour; it is the player’s responsibility to maximize the imbalances that work for them, and reduce the effect of those against them. One can then work out a plan based on these imbalances, and adapt accordingly if the situation calls for it.

Imbalances: Tipping the scales in your favour

In our Positional Sacrifice article, we saw Jeremy Silman classifying material as an imbalance, to be analyzed alongside other positional factors. Now, we shall broaden our perspective to view other imbalances in the same picture.

Here is a breakdown of what strategic ideas one should consider when planning:
  • Material (how many troops you have)
  • Development (how many troops you have mobilized)
  • King safety (self-explanatory)
  • Centre and Space (the occupation of territory on the board)
  • Open files and diagonals (invading pathways for your pieces)
  • Piece activity (whose pieces exert greater control on the board)
  • Pawn structure (whether a system of pawns contains any weak points, or control key squares)
Some of these have been gone through in detail before, and the rest will be covered eventually. For now, let us see a brief overview of each one:

Material

Everyone should know this by now... the side with more material has an advantage, since he can simplify to a better endgame.

But this doesn't mean material advantage is the holy grail of chess. We have seen many prime examples of this from our Positional Sacrifice article: If material is outweighed by other imbalances, then the advantage is not worth it!

Development

There are many classical games which illustrate how a lead in development allows you to launch a decisive attack, even when down in material. Nimzowitsch gives a good example in the first illustrated game of "My System":

King Safety

Like material, King Safety is one of the more important imbalances: If your king is about to be mated in 3, then all other positional factors become useless, be it is your passed pawn on the 7th rank, your queen-rook battery on the open-file, or the enemy's hanging pawns.

Take a look at the following diagram, taken from one of my games played last year:

Checkerboard 5 vs Opponent
Queenstown Club 2016 (Round 4)
Position 1 after 15. Ne5

The imbalance is clear: White's king has castled, while Black's king is stuck in the centre. His knight is pinned and he cannot castle without hanging the knight. White threatens Bb2 and Rad1 increasing the pressure on e7.

The full game is shown below:

Centre and Space

Control of the centre is a common topic when beginners are introduced to the opening. The essence is that the side with more space has more freedom to maneuver his pieces and proceed with their plans. The following game gives a good explanation:

Open Files and Diagonals

Open files are a natural home for the rooks. They form the valleys through which our major pieces blast their way into the enemy position, with the goal of occupying the seventh rank.


"The main Objective of any operation in an open file is the eventual occupation of the seventh or eighth Rank."
-Aaron Nimzowitsch

In Position 3, White has occupied the open c-file, and prepares to advance his queen into Black's position. Black cannot mount an effective defense along the file, since his knight is cutting the bishop off from the c8 square.

Capablanca vs Horowitz
New York 1931
Position 2 after 24... Re8

White's plan is to play Ne1 defending his weakness on e3, followed by Qc7 invading Black's position.

Similarly, open diagonals are bishop territory. When not blocked by pawns, these diagonals form inroads into the enemy position. We witnessed a striking example of this not long ago, in Rubinstein's Immortal Game.

Piece Activity

Each piece has their own strengths and weaknesses, and it is up to the player to unleash their potential. More specifically:

  • Rooks and Queens:
    • Work best on open files, as covered earlier
  • Bishops:
    • Powerful in an open position, where the long-range bishop has an edge over the short-range knight
  • Knights
    • Excellent in closed positions
    • Stronger in the centre as compared to the side

Rubinstein's Immortal Game was a prime example of the bishops triumphing on open diagonals. Here is a counter-example revealing the dark side of the bishops: When they are blocked by pawns!

We have focused most of our attention on bishops. Next is a showcase of knights winning the day:

Pawn Structure

This is a broad topic, as there are many types of pawn structures that can arise from different openings. But the main thing to know is: The pawn structure dictates the terrain of the battlefield. This can mean anything from the presence of open files, to central pawns controlling key squares in the enemy camp.

Key things to take note of a pawn structure are:

  • The presence of weak pawns which can be targeted
  • Strong squares controlled by pawns that can be occupied by pieces
  • Whether the pawn structure creates an open or closed position

Common themes on pawn structures include:

  • Passed Pawn: A pawn which cannot be captured/stopped by enemy pawns. They can be extremely powerful if well supported by friendly pieces.
  • Isolated Pawn: A pawn which cannot be protected by friendly pawns. If not supported by friendly pieces, they can be weak and easily blockaded. But with sufficient support, they can control important central squares, and threaten to advance and become passed pawns.
  • Doubled Pawns: We have gone through this in our Doubled Pawns articles. Doubled pawns are a double-edged sword (pun not intended); they lack mobility, but help to strengthen square control in their immediate vicinity. 
  • Backward Pawns: Pawns that cannot be advanced or risk being captured. These pawns are often weak as they can be easily targeted by enemy pieces.

The study of pawn structures is too broad to be covered in a single article; I will just leave a couple of examples here. Our first game demonstrates the power that a passed pawn can have when advancing under strong support:

The next example explains how isolated pawns become targets of attack:

Opponent vs Checkerboard 5
Thomson Chess Fiesta 2017 (Round 7)
Position 3

Both sides have isolated pawns on opposite wings, but there is a difference: The proximity of Black's pieces to White's h5 pawn means they can easily pressurize it. Moreover, the h5 pawn is stuck on a light square, so White's dark-squared bishop cannot defend it.

With insufficient protection, White's isolated pawn is helpless. Black's plan would be to march their king to the pawn and pick it off. This will leave Black with connected passed pawns on the kingside, and a lasting endgame advantage.

In the actual game, Black did employ the above-mentioned plan, but blundered away his advantage later on. See the full game here.

Summary

When working out a plan, here are the following factors that should be taken into consideration:

  • Material
  • Development
  • King safety
  • Centre and Space
  • Open files and diagonals
  • Piece activity
  • Pawn structure

Now we know what type of imbalances are there, but how do we create, identify and convert them to our advantage? That will be covered in Part 2!

To be continued…

Sources:
"How to Re-Assess your Chess" by Jeremy Silman
"My System: 21st Century Edition" by Aaron Nimzowitsch
"Understanding the Gruenfeld" by Jonathon Rowson
http://www.azquotes.com/quote/601564
https://openclipart.org/tags/libra
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/366973069614694452/

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Term 3 Tactics Part 3

Since NST is round the corner, here's 4 more simple puzzles to train your tactical vision.






Have fun!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Rubinstein's Immortal Game

Today we will look at a game showcasing the power of bishops on open diagonals. Our hero of the day is Polish chess master Akiba Rubinstein, who was considered one of the strongest players to never become world champion.

Rubinstein (right) vs Lasker, 1909

In this game, Rubinstein took advantage of his opponent's exposed king to execute a well-planned queen sacrifice, opening the diagonals for his bishop pair to swoop in for the kill. The resulting combination was called "perhaps the most magnificient... of all time" by Carl Schlechter (Wikipedia).

Rotlwei, George vs Rubinstein, Akiba
Łódź 1907

1. d4 d5
2. Nf3 e6
3. e3 c5
4. c4 Nc6
5. Nc3 Nf6
6. dxc5?!

Helping Black develop his bishop. More accurate was 6. cxd5 exd5 (6... Nxd5 7. Bc4) 7. Bb5 (7. dxc5 Bxc5 Black has an isolated pawn but has the possibility of pushing ... d4 creating problems for White.)

6... Bxc5
7. a3 a6
8. b4 Bd6
9. Bb2 O-O
10. Qd2?

Tatakower criticised this move as a "loss of time". Indeed, this is not the best square for the queen, as it does not exert any useful control over the centre. Better would have been 10. Qc2.

11... Qe7! (D)

Position after 11... Qe7

Giving up a pawn. The idea is to play ... Rd8 creating an indirect attack on White's queen.

11. Bd3

White was wise not to go for 11. cxd5 exd5 12. Nxd5 Nxd5 13. Qxd5 Rd8! gaining tempo with a strong attack.

11... dxc4
12. Bxc4 b5
13. Bd3 Rd8
14. Qe2 Bb7
15. O-O Ne5

Exchanging off the defender of h2.

16. Nxe5 Bxe5
17. f4

Black was threatening the following tactical combination after for example 17. Rab1? Bxh2+! 18. Kxh2 Qd6+ 19. Kg1 Qxd3 winning a pawn and forcing their way into White's camp.

17... Bc7
18. e4?!

White is planning for an e5 push, restricting the squares of Black's dark-squared bishop. But this exposes the king.

18... Rac8
19. e5 Bb6+

Alas, after all that effort in denying Black the h2-b8 diagonal, the bishop simply switches to another diagonal! White's king is in a precarious position now.

20. Kh1 Ng4!

Rubinstein wastes no time and goes straight for the attack. 20... Ne4 was possible too.

21. Be4

At last, Rotlewi realizes the danger his pawn pushes have created, and hurries to exchange off the bishop pair.

21... Qh4

Of course, Black is not going to exchange! He must press on the assault before White's king can find any safety.

22. g3 (D)

Position after 22. g3

A critical moment. Can you find Rubinstein's next move?
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.

Rxc3!!

A stunning queen sacrifice, banked on the fact that that two bishops are strong enough to fence in White's king. Black's plan is to remove the two defenders of e4 so that he can capture White's light-squared bishop with check.

23. gxh4 Rd2!

Continuing with the plan, removing White's last defender of e4 with another sacrifice.

24. Qxd2 Bxe4+

White's king has no escape.

25. Qg2 Rh3 (D)

Position after 25... Rh3

There is no defense to ... Rxh2#. 25... Rc2 would have finished the game off in a similar manner.

This game was known as Rubinstein's Immortal and rightfully so; it is a spectacular demonstration of the power that two bishops possess on open diagonals.

Sources:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bILXe1RpYy4

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

National Day Presents 2017: Test your Trivia!

In case you're too bored during your National Day Holidays, here are 15 questions (+1 bonus puzzle) to test your trivia. How well do you know your chess history?

Image from http://thehoneycombers.com

Q1: Which year did Kasparov first defeat Karpov to emerge as the World Champion?

(a)    1984
(b)    1985
(c)    1986
(d)    1987

Q2: What was Kasparov’s age at the mentioned year in Q1?

(a)    20
(b)    21
(c)    22
(d)    23

Q3: Fischer had a 20 consecutive win streak in 1971. Which player put an end to that streak?

(a)    Tigran Petrosian
(b)    Boris Spassky
(c)    Mark Taimanov
(d)    Bent Larsen

Q4: How many years was Emanuel Lasker World Champion for?

(a)    24
(b)    25
(c)    26
(d)    27

Q5: “Always put the rook behind the pawn… Except when it is incorrect to do so”. Who is credited for this famous saying?

(a)    Aaron Nimzowitsch
(b)    Wilhelm Steinitz
(c)    Siegbert Tarrasch
(d)    Saveilly Tatakower

Q6: How about this one? “The tactician must know what to do whenever something needs doing; the strategist must know what to do when nothing needs doing.”

(a)    Aaron Nimzowitsch
(b)    Wilhelm Steinitz
(c)    Siegbert Tarrasch
(d)    Saveilly Tatakower

Q7: Which event did the following position originate from?

White to move

(a)    Botvinnik vs Capablanca, AVRO 1938
(b)    Carlsen vs Karjakin, World Chess Championship 2016
(c)    Anand vs Caruana, Sinquefeld Cup 2017
(d)    Fischer vs Taimanov, Candidates Match 1971

Q8: What was White’s move in the above position?

Q9: Who is the famous chess master in the following photo?

Image from Wikipedia

(a)    Joseph Henry Blackburne
(b)    Wilhelm Steinitz
(c)    Johannes Zukertort
(d)    Paul Morphy

Q10: Mikhail Botvinnik held the title of World Champion from most of 1948 to 1963. But his reign was interrupted briefly by two other grandmasters. Who were they?

(a)    Robert Fischer and Bent Larsen
(b)    Tigran Petrosian and Boris Spassky
(c)    Alexander Alekhine and Anatoly Karpov
(d)    Vasily Smyslov and Mikhail Tal

Q11: In 2017, Teimour Radjabov won his first major tournament in more than a decade. What was this tournament?

(a)    Sinquefeld Cup 2017
(b)    Geneva Grand Prix 2017
(c)    TATA Steel Chess 207
(d)    FIDE World Cup 2017

Q12: Who is the oldest living former world champion at the time of writing?

(a)    Tigran Petrosian
(b)    Anatoly Karpov
(c)    Boris Spassky
(d)    Garry Kasparov

Q13: Boris Gelfand currently plays for Israel. But which country was he born in?

(a)    France
(b)    Soviet Union
(c)    Poland
(d)    Hungary

Q14: What was unique about the World Chess Championship 2007?

(a)    It was tied all the way till the Armageddon game
(b)    It was suspended halfway without any result
(c)    The winner won the match by a large margin of 3 points
(d)    It was a double round-robin tournament, rather than the usual match format

Q15: Which of the following is usually classified as a strategic rather than a tactical concept?

(a)    Passed Pawn
(b)    Interference
(c)    X-Ray
(d)    Skewer

Q16: Bonus Question: White to move and win

Enjoy your holidays!