Sunday, March 31, 2019

My Best Games: Attacking the King!

Although I'll admit my preferred style is to grind opponents down in an endgame, if given the opportunity, I won't back away from launching a good attack against your king! Here are three memorable examples where I did just that to ensure a quick victory.

Example 1: Piece sacrifice to remove pawn shelter

This was a game I played as an expert at a weekend tournament here at the chess center. In the opening I had sacrificed a pawn but in return made it very difficult for my opponent to develop his queenside. I used my extra piece activity to launch an attack against the king, who lacked defense from the dormant rook and bishop on the queenside.

Example 2: Using pawns to provoke weaknesses

In this more recent game, I first throw a pawn into the enemy camp to cause some disruption before sacrificing a piece to open up lines.

Example 3: Pushing the h-pawn to create a lock on the enemy king

When the king has castled into a fianchetto formation that lacks that all-important fianchetto bishop, there is always the potential to create a "lock" on the king by advancing the rook pawn. Here we see that at work: after my pawn gets to h3 white's king is locked down and constantly faces getting mated on g2.

Solutions to March Puzzles Posted

The solutions to the March puzzles have been posted in the comments section.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Vast Range of Chess Players

Is one mile a long distance to you? Perhaps, but it's certainly much shorter than 1,000 miles, the distance from Boston to Chicago. Even longer is 7,500 miles, the distance from Hong Kong to LA. It's about 25,000 miles to go around the circumference of the earth, and about 240,000 miles to get to the moon. Are those distances big?

What about 95 million miles, the distance from Earth to the Sun? Or 4.5 billion miles, the distance from the Sun to Pluto? It's already difficult to even imagine how big those distances are, yet compared to the width of the entire Milky Way galaxy we've barely gotten started. That length is about 100,000 light years, and 1 light year equals about 6 trillion miles.

The Milky Way is huge but is still nothing compared to the scale of the whole universe.

Now let's come back to Earth and talk about chess.

What does "really good" at chess mean to you? Perhaps for you it means being able to play a whole game without a major blunder, or maybe to be able to play king and pawn endgames perfectly or maybe to be able to quickly calculate basic tactics 2-3 moves ahead.

Well, maybe this will somewhat shatter your perspective. I would venture to guess that although people know "GM" is a lot better than "expert", not everybody really recognizes just how astronomically huge the difference in skill is between groups like "club player", "expert", "master", "International Master", and "Grandmaster".

What a typical playing hall of a large tournament looks like.

After you've played in enough brutally competitive tournaments and lost to enough GMs (and won some too), you come to realize what "really good" actually means in chess. It's quite a humbling experience.

So I'll break things down into rating groups and do my best to convey just how much better a GM is than a club player or a master. 

Rating: 2650-2750+
Carlsen-Caruana in their World Championship match, November 2018.
Top GMs are really really good. Take Carlsen, Caruana, Nakamura or any other hyper-elite player. These people basically play and study chess for a living. In the weeks leading up to and during a big tournament or match, the world's best easily can spend over 40 hours a week on chess, and you can be sure they have perfected their training schedule to maximize efficiency.

You don't get to be top 10 or even top 100 in the world by having chess as a mere side hobby. These people work hard and perhaps most importantly, work smart. They figure out what weaknesses they need to fix and then diligently work on improving them.

Rating: 2550-2650:
Sergey Erenburg, seen here giving a simultaneous exhibition, might be a "typical" GM to fall into this category. With a USCF rating of around 2660, he's a very strong player, but not as strong as Carlsen or Caruana.
"Average" GMs are still really good, but they're not quite as good as the very best. No doubt some of them have real jobs and don't have time to spend 40+ hours a week on chess, but you can also find plenty of GM coaches who teach and write the occasional book for a living (IMs do this too).

Now get this: there are only about 1500 people in the entire world who fall into the above two categories - that's roughly 0.1-0.3% of all chess players.

Rating: 2400-2550:
Daniel Rensch (USCF ~2500) is a well-known American International Master.
In the grand scheme of things, International Masters (IMs) are good, but compared to the average GM they're real underdogs and many would be almost no match for a very strong GM (2700+). There are plenty of exceptions of course, but as a general rule, GMs tend to beat IMs pretty handily.

If you're curious, I probably fit best into this category, as my current USCF rating in the 2450-2500 range is probably too high for the next group down; however, so far I do not have an official IM or GM title.

Rating: 2200-2400:
The strongest players in scholastic tournaments are usually talented masters who are still quickly advancing in strength.
This group includes FMs and NMs (using the USCF rating system now). Players here will still totally dominate the average club player, but can occasionally punch upwards and knock out an IM or GM. I'll put it this way: GMs sometimes lose to players under 2400, rarely lose to players under 2200, and almost never lose to players under 2000.

However, things can go both ways too. It's highly unusual but certainly not unheard of for people even in the 1800-1900 category to upset a master (I most recently lost a game to an under-2000 rated player in January of 2018).

This can be an exciting rating range to be in. The jump from 2200 to 2400 is different from the jump between 2000 and 2200. Likewise, making it from 2200 to 2400 by itself does little to prepare you for going from 2400 to 2600, which is truly a giant leap.

Rating: 2000-2200 (USCF System):
At most chess centers around the US, the strongest players around are usually experts (2000+).
Today in the US, a rating of 2000 corresponds to about the 97th percentile. So it's a pretty big accomplishment to be an expert - fewer than 1 in 20 people ever get there. But even so, most experts pale in comparison to even FMs and IMs, who themselves are heavily outmatched by GMs. A 2100 beating a 2600? Practically unheard of, although it has happened. To be clear, a veteran GM in good form would completely trounce an expert in a 20 game match by an obscene margin (19-1 or 20-0) - it would barely even look like a contest.

Rating: 1600-2000:
Your garden-variety chess hustler in New York City might be a Class A player or expert.
Here we're getting to the Class A (1800-2000) and Class B (1600-1800) categories. Only about 15% of all USCF players have a rating of 1600 and above. Except for simultaneous exhibitions, most in this category have never actually played a grandmaster in a tournament setting, as they usually compete in U2200/U2000 sections. Although it's uncommon, a 1700 player might occasionally take down an expert by playing a superb game or simply getting lucky.

Rating: 1000-1600:
Many in this category simply see chess as an enjoyable hobby and may not be interested in the stressful competitive nature that is tournament life.
In the USCF, dead average is somewhere around 1100-1200. A good game in this rating category could simply be one where nobody blunders a piece or pawn. For comparison, two GMs might consider they've played a good game if they had a fierce opening debate over the board where each got to use their many hours' worth of preparation and computer analysis.

In the vast majority of cases, games in the 1000-2000 rating category are decided by tactics. We typically see some vague opening and get into a random middlegame, but the specifics are often irrelevant to the final result because usually the game ends when someone overlooks a fork or walks into a skewer, or even just blunders a pawn and then loses from there.

In this exciting world, whoever makes the second-to-last mistake usually wins. I say exciting because the unpredictable nature of errors can be part of the fun! You might blunder a bishop in the middlegame, but if your opponent later blunders a queen you could still win.

On the other hand between GMs, barring some knockout opening preparation, decisive games tend to be won in the late middlegame or endgame, where either by carelessness or time pressure someone overlooks an important detail and loses. However, it's well-known that many GM-GM games end in draws. Ergo the phrase "they took a grandmaster draw", used to describe the situation where two GMs sit down, play 10 or 15 moves on the board, and then quickly agree to split the point.

Rightly or wrongly, the "grandmaster draw" is widely criticized by lower-rated players.
Of course, GMs are not always friendly with each other over the board, especially in a must-win situation. To show their true prowess, they might uncork some insanely awesome opening preparation or ruthlessly grind out an 80-move endgame with near-perfect accuracy.

Aronian-Anand, Tata Steel 2013, position after black's 16th move. According to Anand (playing black), he had actually prepared this incredible line for black for his World Championship match with Gelfand in 2012 but didn't get to use it. A year later, he still was able to remember his analysis and Aronian (playing white) was resigning seven moves later.
Broadly speaking, grandmasters are simply pragmatists who don't shy away from hard work. They know what their weaknesses are and actively seek to remedy them. They know how to study chess and how to improve. They learn from their mistakes and do everything they can not to repeat them.

Perhaps contrary to popular belief, grandmasters know they're not perfect and frequently look for ways to improve their understanding of chess.
Maybe all of that blew your mind a little, but here's the nice thing about chess: you don't have to be "good" at it to enjoy and benefit from it. From beginner to world champion, playing a game of chess is still a great (and hopefully fun!) workout for your brain regardless of your rating or the final result.

That being said, next time I'll share my take on how one improves as a chess player. After all, I was once a rank beginner, but I improved and today am a strong master and state champion. What is that path like? How does it happen?

Maybe you're just happy with going from Earth to the moon, or maybe you have big goals and want to go all the way across the galaxy. Regardless, you start at the same place and the journey begins in the same way.

USCF statistics - the author of this blog is a former administrator at US Chess Live.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

41st Marchand Open March 16 & 17, 2019

The 41st Annual Marchand Open was held in downtown Rochester, NY at the Strong Museum of Play on March 16-17, 2019. Fortunately, there was not too much snow for participants travelling from far-away locations, but it was a cold weekend. This year's Marchand had a record-breaking 177 players including a large contingent from Canada! In the OPEN Section, GM Alexander Fishbein and GM Bryan Smith tied for first place. Our NYS Champion, Lev Paciorkowski, will be posting games and analysis in the near future.  Thank you to all the participants and spectators who attended the tournament.  Due to construction at the Strong Museum of Play, next year's Marchand will be held at a different location in Rochester.

The Chess Center hopes to see you again next year for the 42nd Annual Marchand Open.  

GM Alexander Fishbein (left) and Jason Liang
Round 3 - March 16th, 2019

GM Bryan Smith (left) and GM Alexander Shabalov
Round 4 - March 17th, 2019

Here are the Prize Winners of the 41st Marchand:

OPEN Section
1st place tie: GM Alexander Fishbein, GM Bryan Smith
2nd place tie: GM Alexander Shabalov, Eugene Hua, Daniel He, Matt Prilleltensky, Robert Sulman, Justing Arnold
1st place tie: David Phelps, Terry Luo, Chris Brooks
1st place: Joey Orozco
2nd place: Michael Opaska

U1800 Section
1st place: Ferdinand Supsup
2nd place tie: Chris Darling, Joseph Bello, Justin King, Jon-Paul Dyson, Ben Chernjavsky
1st place tie: Patrick Philips, Vincent Gagliano, Michael McGinnis

1400 Section
1st place tie: Joseph Hall, Erich Snell
3rd place: Jason Liu, Eric Addabbo
1st place: Grant Glor
2nd place: Sebastian Dankner

U1000 Section
1st place tie: Kevin Zou, Sam Lugar, Joseph Orozco
1st place tie: Ryan Shaffer, Ryan Beh, Brandon Norris

Portrait of Dr. Erich Watkinson Marchand displayed at the Rochester Chess Center

The NEXT big Event coming this Spring to Rochester, NY
 will be the Annual CCCR Simultaneous with our
Club Champion Lev Paciorkowski.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Game of the Month: February 2019

The time has come once again to choose a game of the month to annotate. I reviewed many good submissions, but in the end I just had to choose the game which featured a tense positional duel with a tactical finale for the best instructional value. Let's dive in deep here and see what we can learn.

Strazzabasco, John (1545) - Trowbridge, Jim (1477)
CCCR Wednesday

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e6 (D)

For those who are unfamiliar, this type of Sicilian where black quickly sets up pawns on d6 and e6 is called a Scheveningen, named after a small town in the Netherlands where this was popularized in the early 1920s.


Alternatively, the Keres attack with 6.g4 is the "big boy" move here, but it is unnecessary to go into its complications here. The text move is more in keeping with the old classical rules of development.

6. ... Nc6 7.Nb3

I see many club players in this situation play 7.Nxc6?!, which is generally inferior because after 7. ... bxc6 black captures towards the center and can later start steamrolling with e6-e5 and d6-d5.

However, it's also worth noting that the knight on b3 is a very poorly placed piece - all it can do is go backwards to d2! For this reason I would play 7.Be3 instead, developing while protecting the Nd4. There is no immediate ...Ng4 to worry about.

7. ... Be7 8.Bf4 0-0 9.Qd2 (D)

9. ... d5!?

There's nothing wrong with this move - it's perfectly thematic - but usually I like to be a little more developed before playing this break. So I would play a6-b5-Bb7 first and then from there things like ...Nc6-b4 and ...d6-d5 become more attractive.

10.exd5 exd5

There was also nothing wrong with 10. ... Nxd5 11.Nxd5 Qxd5= either. Black's decision to accept an isolated pawn makes the game much more interesting. 


White does well to castle before his king in the open center becomes a target.

11. ... Be6 12.a3 a6 13.Rfe1 Nh5 14.Be3 (D)

OK, let's pause here. We've developed the pieces and castled, but now what? I think many club players feel a little lost when it comes time to make a concrete plan for the middlegame.

So let's suppose I was playing this position with black. How would I go about evaluating the situation and coming up with a plan?

The first thing to do is take stock and figure out what's important about the position. From there, we figure out what both sides want to do and then come up with concrete maneuvers.

To my eye, there are three factors here which stand out as the most critical:

1. Black has an isolated queen pawn (IQP). Generally speaking, this means that white should want to exchange pieces while black wants the exact opposite - to avoid trades.

2. No pieces have been traded yet. That's very good news for black. More pieces means more opportunities to cause mayhem.

3. Black has some weak squares on the queenside - namely b6 and c5. This is the only bad news for black, and if not for this I would say white was slightly worse.

Taking all this into consideration, I'd say the position is about equal with mutual chances. A promising plan I see for black could actually be to target white's kingside and generate some attack - after all, the knights on b3 and c3 are far and away on the other side of the board, and we already have our knight roaming around on h5. I'd start with Qc7+Bd6, and if g2-g3 then f7-f5-f4 would cause some serious havoc. Ra8-e8 fits in there somewhere to complete development.

All that being said, let's come back to the game and see what happened.

14. ... Qd7?!

It seems like black just overlooked white's next move.

15.Nc5 Also strong is 15.Na4 targeting b6. 15. ... Qc8 (D)


Usually in these kinds of positions, this exchange actually benefits black. Long-term, the Be6 is black's worst minor piece - it does nothing to help defend the weak dark squares on the queenside and can't control d4. All it can ever really do is defend the d5 pawn, which is a pathetically passive role.

Stronger is 16.N3a4! targeting b6 while dodging the ...d5-d4 fork.

16. ... fxe6 Now black has a wonderful open f-file and d5 is solidly protected.

17.Bg5 (D) Seeking to trade the dark squared bishops makes positional sense for white, but again 17.Na4! deserved consideration.

17. ... Nf6 There was also an interesting opportunity to agree to white's demands with 17. ... Bxg5!? 18.Qxg5 so that we can play 18. ... Nf4! and get some counterplay on the kingside. It's unclear if it amounts to anything concrete, but I prefer that to this passive retreat.

18.Qe2!? Perhaps overlooking black's next tempo move? 18.Na4 was still a good option, as black's queen is tied to the defense of e6.

18. ... Nd4 19.Qe3 Bc5 Uh oh. Suddenly black's not kidding around. White's queen is on the run. 20.Qh3 (D)

20. ... e5 I agree that the alternative 20. ... h6!? looks scary after 21.Bxh6 gxh6 22.Qxh6, with dangerous rook lifts to e3 or e5 looming in the air. 21.Qxc8 Raxc8 (D)

Although we've traded queens, there are still a lot of tactical elements to resolve here. White has to choose between Rxe5 and Bxf6-Nxd5. The correct answer can only be determined through hard calculation. How do you actually go about working through the numerous variations though?

Although I normally don't detail my thought process in this much depth, I'll be fully transparent just this once and show you what it actually looks like...

Bxf6 is the first move I look at. Rxe5 looks like an immediate mess after Ng4, so I'll come back to that later if I need to. After 22.Bxf6 black cannot simply recapture because then 23.Nxd5 and white is doing great. So that means he has to do something complicated...probably 22. ... e4.

22.Bxf6 e4 23.Bxd4 and I'm up two pieces. After 23. ... exd3 24.Bxc5 Rxc5 25.cxd3 I'm still up a knight, so that means he has to play 23. ... both d3 and f2 are hanging. If I simply retreat 24.Bf1 then 24. ... Bxf2+ 25.Kh1 Bxe1 26.Rxe1 d4 27.Nxe4 Rxc2 - rook on the 7th, that's way too much counterplay. So what if instead I sac the piece back with 24.Nxe4...dxe4 25.Rxe4. Here, black probably wants to take on b2 rather than f2, since that splits up my queenside pawns. So 25. ... Bxb2...26.Ra2? If 26.Rb1 then 26. ... Bxa3 27.Rxb7 but now 27. ... Bc5 comes back to attack f2 and black's a-pawn becomes passed...meh. So 26.Ra2 Bc3...well I'm up a pawn but my Ra2 looks very stupid, although it can get out soon with a3-a4 and Ra3. That actually doesn't seem so bad; I can also do g3-f4-Kg2 and slowly start pressing...does black have any other options in this line? 22.Bxf6...e4 forced, 23.Bxd4...Bxd4 forced, 24.Nxe4 he has to take it...dxe4 25.Rxe4...if 25. ... Bxf2+ then 26.Kh1 and I simply have a free 3-2 majority on the queenside, that's yeah, 25. ... Bxb2 26.Ra2 with a4-Ra3, g3-Kg2 next...up a pawn...OK I like that.

Now, how about Rxe5? 22.Rxe5 Ng4 looks icky, I can't defend f2 so probably have nothing better than 23.Rxd5...if 23. ... Rxf2 I have 24.h3, or actually better yet 24.Ne4 forking. That means 23. ... Nxf2...What's going on here? I'm up a pawn, but black clearly has lots of counterplay...pieces close to my king and open diagonal for the Bc5. I could still consider 24.Be3 or 24.Rxc5 with Be7 it worth it? I don't think I can really win a piece, since Nxd3 is always an option for 24.Be3 probably just 24. ... Nxd3...25.cxd3...oops 25. ... Ne2+ and Bxe3, that's no 24. ... Nxd3, that doesn't look too good, I have to play 25.Bxd4? 25.Bxd4 Bxd4 26.Rxd4 Nxb2 looks like no fun...I don't like that. And 25.Rxc5 Nxc5 26.Bxd4 I'm just down an exchange. Going back to 22.Rxe5 Ng4 23.Rxd5 Nxf2 24.Rxc5 Rxc5 25.Be7...that doesn't really feel right, worst case scenario black just sacs back on c3.

22.Bxf6 is looking more and more attractive - I have a safe pawn-up endgame that I can comfortably press in. I'll take that; I don't really want to deal with the complications in the other line.

So in the end, I would play 22.Bxf6, which indeed is the best move for white.

Now of course, I don't hold two club players to the same calculation standards here :) Instead, the actual game went:

22.Rxe5 Ng4 23.Rxd5 Nxf2 24.Be3 Nxd3 25.Bxd4 I'm guessing white spotted the trick 25.cxd3? Ne2+! 25. ... Bxd4+ 26.Rxd4 Nxb2 This is where I had terminated this particular line in my calculations - if anything black is actually slightly better now. 27.Rb4 Rxc3 28.Rxb2 Rfc8 1/2-1/2 And after all the adventures, they peacefully agreed to a draw.

Even though the players were both rated under 1600, there was still a lot to get out of analyzing that game! Overall very well-played; I enjoyed going through it.