Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Chess Poetry Comedy on the Internet

There aren't enough funny poems about chess on the internet.

In fact, until just now, I didn't think that there were any funny poems about chess on the internet at all. So, I shall take the liberty of reproducing this first I just found in full. Although of course after reading it, you might well still think that there are no funny poems about chess on the internet, which is how things go with matters of taste.

So without further ado, here is said Laureate-level effort:

All your base are belong to white.

I kill two pawns in the morning.
I kill two pawns at night.
I kill two pawns in the afternoon
And then I feel all right.
I kill two pawns in time of peace and two in time of war.
I kill two pawns before I kill two pawns.
And then I pwn them all.

And, yes, that's it. Although, I suspect the title and last line might need a note of explanation. The title stems from an internet in-joke about the bad English in a Japanese video game. While the word 'pwn' in the last line is internet slang for the word 'own'. 'Own', that is, in the sort-of online Americanese meaning of 'defeat' or 'dominate'.

So, did you like it or not? And can you do any better?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Cats have nine lives, queens have only one

More Raetsky and Chetverik. I was flicking through their section on 5...a6 - reaching the diagram below - with which line Anand beat Leko in Morelia. (I hate it when my pet openings become trendy, by the way. Except that a Cat isn't really a pet.)

They say:
White can choose to prevent ...b7-b5 by spending a tempo on 6. a4 .... but this cannot be recommended because ....the weaknesses of both b3 and b4 will prove significant. The difference between this system, and 5...c5 can be appreciated in the following variation: 6...c5 7.O-O cxd4!? 8.Qxd4 Qxd4 9.Nxd4 e5 when the inclusion of a2-a4 and ...a7-a6 benefits Black as b5 is unavailable to the knight and a4 to the queen.
Readers may be able to work out for themselves what is absurd about that last claim.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Chess as an Official Sport?

"The issue is really quite simple," emails Gerry Walsh, President of the English Chess Federation, about his campaign to improve the status of chess in Britain: "The recognition that Mind Sports and Physical Sports should have equal status in a modern society. We are all conversant with the comment 'a healthy Mind and a healthy Body'."

And hence, the creation of this Petition, whose wording reads simply: "We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Require all Government Departments to give Mind Sports such as Chess and Go equivalent status with physical sports." The 'more details' section adds that:

"The mind sports, such as Chess and Go deserve equal status with the physical sports, which would provide easier access to funding. Mind sports bring great benefits in terms of personal development, social interaction and improved attitiudes to learning, and are accessible to all members of society. This petition seeks to improve their status by requiring all Government departments to treat mental and physical sports on an equal basis."

You'll find many familiar names have already signed. What about you?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Toddling Through The Blogging

You never know what intrigues and amusements the chess blogosphere is going to throw up next.

Witness The Kenilworthian describing a session of his teaching chess to kids:
At a recent lesson, I played a simultaneous exhibition against my chess students, spotting Queen and move. I told them that a prize was at stake - that anyone who could beat me would get something big.

With my Queen off the board and some mystery prize in the offing, they were really into it and tried their confident best to beat me. Even as they started dropping pieces, they did not quit. One student even caught me off-guard with a check I had not noticed.

In the end, however, it was a shocking slaughter. I routed them in under 30 minutes. I must admit, I played with a mixture of disappointment and glee.

And then featuring a very different kind of chess lesson indeed, there was this hilarious video. Who'd be a chess teacher?

Meanwhile, over at J'adoube, I've been nicknamed 'Gentle Tom'. Gentle Tom! Compared to Tom 'Chess Thug' Chivers, that makes for an . . . interesting change!?

Our blog is now three months, one week old. I'm only starting to wonder why we didn't think to do this sooner.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Bielski Cup

Yesterday evening, Chris, Richard, Alexei and I represented the club at the Bielski Cup, held this year at South Norwood Chess Club. In each round you play two blitz games against the same opponent (one after the other, not simultaneously - although now I come to think of it that sounds like fun).

We ended up coming third out of four - probably the best we could hope for given we had the massive handicap of having me on top board. That would be bad enough in itself but I was outgraded by both the bottom boards of Crystal Palace (who won) and South Norwood A (who came second) so we were obviously going to be up against it.

The position at the top arose in my very first game of the night. I was White against a 188 graded guy from Crystal Palace.

I've just played Ra1-a4 and to be perfectly honest I was expecting nothing more than

... Qxb2
Ra2 Qb4

with a draw.

Hardly very inspiring play but I was already getting on for two minutes down on the clock (in a 10 minute game) and half a point was much more than I expected to get from the match.

To my huge suprise he played ... Qxa4 and I went on to win. At the time it felt like I was about to nonce it up at any moment but playing over the game again (see below) I seem to have kept control pretty well. Of course being a Queen up tends to make things somewhat easier!

It's a bit of a pity I missed mate in 2 on my last move but since he resigned anyway perhaps it doesn't matter too much. In any event this is the first time I've beaten a player graded 170+ so I'm pretty chuffed about that.

Despite my rather fortunate point we lost to Crystal Palace 7-1. We improved against South Norwood A, losing 6.5 - 1.5 (no help from me there - I got smashed 2-0).

That left us with our last round tie against South Norwood B. Although they'd lost 7.5 - 0.5 against Crystal Palace they'd somehow got a 4-4 draw against South Norwood A so were 2 points ahead of us going into the match. We were going to have to win at least 5.5 - 2.5 to reach third place. I'm glad I didn't know that at the time!

Well, no thanks to me we made it by the skin of our teeth. Chris won his mini-match 2-0, Richard won 1.5 - 0.5 and Alexei drew 1-1.

I won the first game on time with just two seconds left on my clock when his flag fell. In game two I'd messed up a very promising start to reach the following position:-

even here Qe3 is reasonable for White since if ... Rxa2 then dxe6 and Black can't take it back because of Bb1 with all sorts of nasties in the pipeline.

Unfortunately instead of Qe3, I thought I had
dxe6 Bxe6
Bh7+ Kh8

and the Queen and Rook cover the back rank ... So I played it.

Black's reply surpised me but would not, I'm sure, come as a shock to the erudite readership of this blog.

Afterwards I could not even console myself with the thought that I had, at the least, created an entry for Justin's Worst Move on the Board contest (here and here). In the diagram position dxc6 is equally bad and there are three moves (Qc2, Qd4 and Qf3) that manage to get White mated in one rather than two.

So despite my rather poor effort we made it to 8 game points and snuck ahead of South Norwood B who ended up on 7. It was a good team effort. Chris top scored with an impressive-given-the-strength-of-opposition 3/6 and the remaining points were shared pretty much equally between the rest of us.

Thanks to Chris for organising us. Let's see if we can get a few more players involved next year and enter at least a couple of teams.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Riddle Me - What?

White to play - and win. (Ratner, 1926.)

Every now and then, I like to post a puzzle on the blog. I do this when I've found a position that either amuses me, or one where I think the solution is particularly aesthetic, like this one. I like to try to say something worth reading related to the position as well. If I were to post that last link again, I would for instance certainly add this comment from Goran:
There is funny story behind this game. It was two german players, champions of neigbhoring cities, that were playing the match. The guy with white pieces had to hurry and catch up the last train to go home, and in this position he moved quickly 1. Nxe5. After his oponent took 1. ... Bxd1, he resigned and rushed to the station. On the way, he was still thinking about the "blunder" and then he found brilliant idea how to continue the game. He goes back to the cafe and resumes the game to deliever great combination. Of course, then he had quite a walk home.
On the other hand, this position was not so popular with Justin - who quite correctly observed, also in the comments, that: "The only problem with the puzzle is that the key move is a bit obvious given that it's a puzzle." From an aesthetic point of view - maybe it's not such a big deal. But when you know it's a problem - the position is indeed loaded with an absolutely enormous clue. You sort of know what the first move has to be, and then work at filling in the blanks.

This got me wondering. What do you really want to see in a puzzle? A quick tactical test? A novel idea? Just some fun, unusual moves? A really tough brain work-out? You don't mind, provided I don't whitter on too much? Well - I post the above position with such questions in mind - since Lasker, no less, said of this composition that it "comes near to the ideal." High praise indeed.

But what I want to know is - do you agree . . . ?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Worst Move On The Board II

In January last year I was playing a open tournament in Marianske Lazne in the Czech Republic and met a Polish player, rated 2186, in the seventh round. Having made my twelfth move (12...Ne5-g4) in a Spanish Exchange I got up, satisfied with my position, and walked around the tournament hall for a while.

After a few minutes I looked over at my board from the other side of the room and thought I saw a white knight inexplicably on e6. My eyesight without glasses is not to be relied upon so I hurried back and saw that it was, indeed, so. I looked at the board and at the player and back at the board again and finished the game swiftly.

It wasn't the Worst Move On The Board, though: there were any number of ways of allowing the mate. What made it inexplicable is that my twelfth move threatened my thirteenth: it's hard to see how the threat can have been overlooked. (I suppose my opponent might have seen it, but then somehow thought "after the knight takes the bishop, the queen has to recapture". But from the expression on his face after I delivered mate, this wasn't the case - he'd simply missed it.)

Possibly this helps to explain the two blunders we looked at in the first of this series. In each case, the threat only existed after the loser had made his final move. It only existed as a consequence of that move. Easier, I suppose, to overlook a threat which doesn't actually exist at the time you are considering your move.

Even so, it's hard to credit today's sample, taken from a game played at Hastings a dozen years ago between David James and Daniel Bisby. The latter's a good player, rated above 200, a frequent opponent for Streatham and Brixton players in Surrey League matches against Redhill. His last move in the diagram position was 13...Qd8-c7. His next move delivered mate, after White found The Worst Move On The Board - the only continuation that would allow instant defeat.

I looked up White's rating and at first assumed it was the David James listed as being graded 48, despite the tournament being entitled the Hastings Masters. (They have tennis tournaments called "Masters" which usually means that the players were good twenty years ago but are now older, fatter, and unwilling to play more than a single set.) I don't think it was, though. I think it was a player currently graded 193 ECF - or, if you prefer, 2224 FIDE - and a FIDE Master.

See? Anybody can do it. Or there's another way to put it. If players like that can do it, so can you.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Streatham Chess Club

"We're a friendly group of players, who welcome players of all standards and ages" - is a boast many chess clubs would like to make. When I went along to find out what our friends and neighbours at Streatham Chess Club get up to, in their weekly Wednesday meetings from 3pm-8pm at Streatham Library, I found that they could not only say that about themselves - but a whole lot more besides. Here's my report.

Streatham Chess Club was founded around two years ago by Mark (pictured right.) In that short time the club has clearly flourished: when I visited, there were around twenty players playing friendly games (and sometimes suicide chess), chatting of course, learning from and teaching each other - and then also competing in the more serious clocked games of their internal league. The Library provides an excellent space for all this, with tables nicely spread out across the room - and the competition tends to hot up around 6pm, as the more experienced players turn up. (Some of whom Streatham & Brixton Chess Club members will also know well, as they play for us too in the Croydon and London League, under the captaincy of Mel - pictured left, below.)

Before that things are more casual, and Stan at the main table (pictured right, below with piece in hand) does an expert job of welcoming newcomers and teaching novices the ropes. And I mean expert - I was learning things both about chess, and techniques for teaching it too. A friendly atmosphere pervades the whole club, confirmed when some of us went out afterward to watch England lose at football.

On top of that, the club definitely has a real community ethos. Being located in the middle of the busy Streatham High Road, not charging fees, easy to find in a Public Library, and open from afternoon to evening - all these things bring together different people from the surrounding area's complex multicultural mix. So much so, the club in fact has players from over a dozen nations - for whom chess is now a common language.

In short - if you live near enough in south London and are remotely interested in chess, you should make this a regular fixture in your diary for Wednesdays. (Or you can email Stan for more information, if you prefer.)

I'll certainly be popping along from time to time - so perhaps I'll even see you there?

Note: there's an update on the chess club at Streatham Library here.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Beating The French

It's not news that the success and failure of particular chess openings varies widely according to the pool of players competing - I'm sure the King's Gambit is still ripping up junior tournaments, but I don't expect to see one in Linares this year. There, however, yesterday did see Morozevich draw as black against Leko (scroll down) in the French Defence - also a somewhat rare visitor to the top level, and indeed Moro looked far worse out of the opening. Yet on correspondence site Red Hot Pawn, the consensus seems to be everyone's pretty much afraid of the French, and not only that, but also that the Classical, Kasparov-endorsed 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. e5 offers too many chances to the black player for white to even consider.

Well, as far as I can tell, things have been very different to this in the London League this year - I've seen Streatham & Brixton Chess Club players do nothing but beat the French whenever it's been played against them. So here are two such games, from our match earlier in the season versus Drunken Knights. Both are exciting clashes, tackling the French head-on.

Finally, via a Smith-Morra, Robin also faced a typical French pawn structure in our recent match versus Kings Head, albeit with a pair of knights exchanged. It ended up another fine, sacrificial win for white, attacking through the extra space on the kingside.

What was it Fischer said about 1.e4 again?

(Note. In the first game, black resigned after 49. Be6. I'm not sure why the programme is adding in a bit of extra nonsense.)

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Three Puzzles for a Cent! Three Puzzles a Cent!

Ruster - Tribius (Magdeburg, 1925.)
White to play, and win.

Bargain or not? I picked up Lazlo Polgar's 1000+ page heavyweight tome Chess Middlegames in Holland, for just over twelve euros - in which the above puzzle is number 40. That's number 40 from a total of 4158 different puzzles, organized by middlegame theme (both strategic and tactical.) And there is - apart from the wordless solutions in the back, the contents and the brief introduction - nothing else in this book whatsoever. Just position after position after position, organised by theme. No explation, no words of wisdom, not even any jokes in passing. The fraction I've covered so far has been fun, anyhow.

Incidentally, do you need a clue for the above? Then here it is. The above position is offered by Polgar in the section called Epaulet Mate.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

To Play, Or Not To Play

Some interesting stuff on correspondence chess, from the latest online version of USCF magazine Chess Life, which includes some nice quotes for those contemplating (or not) this form of chess:
"Play correspondence chess!" — Boris Spassky on being asked how to improve

"For sustained and lasting improvement, correspondence chess is unquestionably the most valuable method known." — Fred Reinfeld

"I often had as many as 150 games in progress. [It] had the useful effect of deepening my theoretical knowledge and giving me an insight into all aspects of the game. Later on this proved of great value to me in tournament play." — Paul Keres

"Correspondence chess and over-the-board chess complement each other." — Alexander Alekhine

Worth a read.

Although, beware. If you take up web-based or email correspondence chess, your ability to visualise in 3D might suffer - as it has for others . . .

Friday, February 16, 2007

Computers on Drugs

Well, as the authorities are going to dope control human chess players, they may as well start doing the same for chess computers, since it equally makes no sense at all. Or does it? To the right is a screenshot of how Thinking Machine 4 pictures the board - and you'll be relieved to know it plays as if it's on drugs as well, as you can find out for yourself by giving it a game. Even the pieces look a bit like pills, but these ones you shouldn't be afraid to take.

Thanks to Andrew for that tip, which he found via Dutchman Tim Krabbé's diary.

Which reminds me of another little something. I was in Holland for a holiday last weekend, part of which involved wandering around some bookshops in the town of Leiden and small city of The Hague. In both of which there were sold more chess books than I'd ever seen before in one place. The Hague bookshop (pictured) was particularly impressive. The whole upstairs of the store was dedicated to all things chess: first a big room with new products, then a corridor lined with big framed photo portraits of the stars for sale, then a smaller room stacked with second hand chess books.

Thank goodness we live in an anti-brain, barely-literate, celebrity-soaked culture in Britain, where our high street bookshop windows typically raise nothing more than a minor sneer - at least from me - as with dollar signs in their eyes, casting the shadows of ghost-writers, the autobiographies of Jordan and Rooney grin from the shelves. It keeps my credit card sober, at least.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Not Some Boy Off the Street

Having discovered I am a near neighbour of Gunsberg's old house (we're separated by two hundred yards and one hundred years), I've been doing a bit of thinking about the total omission of his match with Steinitz from Kasparov's My Great Predecessors

Looking him up in Tartakower and Du Mont’s classic 500 Master Games of Chess, I found just five of his games – and that includes two that only make it so far as notes to the games of other players.

The games, all defeats, are:-

(71) Yates 1-0 Gunsberg, Chester 1914
(167) Gunsberg 0-1 Weiss, New York 1899
(409) Pillsbury 1-0 Gunsberg, Hastings 1895
[this is the game that led to the ending mentioned by Justin in the comments to the original post]

From the notes of other games there's:-

(497) Bird/Dobell 0-1 Gunsberg/Locock, consultation game Hastings 1892
(30) Gunsberg 1-0 Steinitz, World Championship Match New York, 1891
[This is the game at the top.]

It’s remarkably few given that Gunsberg is one of just five men to have played a match for the World Title prior to the 20th century.

T and D M allocate Chigorin 17 of their main games with 3 others in the notes while Tarrasch (one spanking by Lasker) gets 40 and Blackburne (no World Championship matches and beaten by Gunsberg 8-5 in Bradford, 1887) gets 17 all told.

To put all this in perspective, Gunsberg gets the same attention as one Reverend G. Atwood. Who the hell is he? He doesn't even have a wikipedia entry!

Perhaps Gunsberg was seen as slightly dull or just didn’t play that many publishable games? Certainly, having played through some of the Steinitz match, it seems Gunsberg's style was what might charitably be called "very steady". True, he played the Evans Gambit four times (+2 = 1 - 1) but that was only from game 12 onwards when he was already two points down in a 20 game match. His choice of that opening was 'punt and hope' more than taste I would think.

Which brings us back to the game at the top, which is game 16 of the match. At the end Steinitz chucked in the towel because after

21 ... Qe3
White has
22. Bf1

catching the Queen mid-board and it's Good Night Charlie (or Wilhelm in this case).

Finally, there's the consulstation game from Hastings 1892. It's a total hack and not in the least like Gunsberg's usual style but still ...

Not remembered much today perhaps, but Gunsberg was certainly not just some boy off the street.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Streatham Chess Teams - Bumper News Update

I've had stolid before, as well as boring, pain in the ass, dogged, dull and lucky - but never before has my style of play been described as scintillating chess. Still, that's how Captain Martin described my effort in Streatham & Brixton Chess Club's recent First Team match, on Monday in London League Division One against Kings Head I. I'd have gone for stereotypical myself, before anyone adds that in the comments.

Robin also won a spirited attacking game, but the evening itself ended up 6-4 to them with two games adjourned. We certainly have winning chances in each of them - and the prospect of a tied match would be a great result, since they outgraded us by 10 to 20 points on nearly every board.

However - and much more importantly, as far as the fate of the season as a whole is concerned - Toby won his complex adjournment from the match against Athenauem, meaning we win that one 7-4, with Susan's adjournment still outstanding. I don't know about you, but I'm starting to count some chickens...

Meanwhile, our Second Team - in London League Division Three - continue their remarkable run, having squeezed out victories from two close matches, beating both Battersea I and Wanstead by the score of 5½ to 4½. Although it remains incredibly tight at the top of the table - all this leaves them in second place, and thus in a promotion spot. Good luck for the rest of the season, chaps...

Are you thinking it's all good news for Streatham & Brixton Chess Club? Alas, not quite. On January 24th, Guildford knocked us out of the Alexander Cup, by a score of 5½-4½. Twelve days later they had the temerity to beat us again - this time in the Surrey Trophy at their venue - by a score of 4½-2½ (with Bob's game due for adjudication.) All that singing and dancing has obviously not gone to their heads, and Abba must be better for your chess than I'd guessed.

But - to finish on a high note - our second team faired considerably better on 8th February in the Croydon League, winning their match 3½-1½ against South Norwood. "Heroic performances from Alan and Alexey, who won both their games in spite of arriving late because of delays," emails Richard. The team now has a fully respectable score of 1½ points from 3 matches.

And - for now - that's it!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

How to play (more) chess?

Looking back over the season I see that between 5th October and my last game on 8th February I've played a grand total of 11 games. I might get perhaps another half a dozen games in before the end of the season at that rate. Although I'm having quite a good run this year (+6=4-1, thanks for asking) that doesn't seem like enough to get even vaguely competent at this game so I've been thinking of how I might play more.

I've come up with a few options...

  1. Stop offering early draws to make the games last longer
  2. Play Weekend Tournaments
  3. Play Quickplay Tournaments
  4. Join another club to play in Leagues other than Croydon/London/Surrey
  5. Try to get involved in County Chess again
  6. See if there's a 4NCL team I might be able to play for
  7. Play the Surrey Individual Tournament this summer
  8. Play Blitz chess on the Internet
  9. Play against my computer more often
  10. Start actually studying all those books I've collected over the years.
  11. Conduct a thorough analysis (perhaps computer assisted) of my games.

So what do people think would be (a) best for my chess and (b) most fun?

How many games a year is optimal for you and what's the format you most enjoy?

Monday, February 12, 2007

A little learning

White to play and mate in - apparently - a maximum of thirty-three moves.

The position comes from Reuben Fine's Basic Chess Endings, still to my mind the greatest chess book of them all and one that probably deserves a better fate than being parked, as mine is, next to the loo. (Although in my case, this does entail sharing shelf space with a translation of Virgil's Aeneid in a probably vain effort to impress our visitors.)

I very much doubt that I could find the mate in thirty-three, though I'm fairly sure that I could do it inside fifty. I learned how to go about it at a training weekend for Hertfordshire juniors in, I'm thinking, 1983. My tutor was none other than Nigel Povah, now of Guildford. He taught us how to manoeuvre the Black king into the "wrong" corner (of opposite colour to the bishop) before performing a delicate sequence which forces the king into the other corner, where he can be mated. You probably have to know what you're doing, as at one point the Black king seems to be escaping from the side of the board.

Being less of a utilitarian and more of an advocate of learning for its own sake, I can't really complain that despite having known, for quarter of a century, how to mate with bishop and knight, I've never had the chance to do it in practice. Not in a tournament game, not in a blitz game, not even in an offhand game. Ironically enough I've had it done against me, at St Albans in (possibly) 1994.

I've also seen it not done, when my friend Sean Terry was on the wrong end of the material balance in a 4NCL game. You can see his opponent fail to win by accessing Chessbase Online Database and inputting Murphy for White and Terry for Black. White's 75th move in particular demonstrates that he didn't know what he was doing. He was - had he known it - quite close to completing the first of the two stages outlined above: but that he was, however, baffled, is confirmed by the fact that his 76th move involved reversing the move that he'd just played.

Embarrassing, no? I think it'd be pretty hard to work it out against the clock, even for a good player, though in truth my St Albans opponent claimed not to have known the technique beforehand. In a blitz finish it'd be even harder. So - can you do it? Can you do it inside fifty moves against your computer? And have you ever had to do it in practice? Have you ever seen it done? Or seen it not done, for that matter?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Streatham & Brixton All-Stars

A few days ago Justin sent me an email with the following link

It seems Isidoro Gunsberg, who challenged Steinitz for the World Championship in December 1890/January 1891, lived just around the corner from me.

Gunsberg did much better than Zukertort and Chigorin. He only lost 10.5 - 8.5. Around 20 years later he was living in Knollys Road, Streatham. The chess club was definitely active back then. I wonder if he ever popped along for a game.

The house is still standing but, as you can see from the photo above, it doesn't look as if it's received too much attention since Isi was around and is looking a little grubby now.

Are they still handing out Blue Plaques I wonder?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A point of order

There's a certain flaw in the Raetsky and Chetverik book, involving the main line Catalan - the variation played most often in top-level chess. It involves the means by which we reach the position that arises after the following sequence: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.g3 Be7 5.Bg2 O-O 6.O-O dxc4.

Now there's any number of ways of playing those particular moves - for instance, I'd tend to start with 1.Nf3 and 2.c4 and I might either face 1...d5 and 2...e6 or 1...Nf6 and 2...e6 followed by 3...d5. However, normally after White's fourth move the following position is reached:

(This isn't entirely true, by the way. For instance the white knight could still be on g1 and the bishop on g2, and this has certain implications if White continues with 5.Qa4+, as Kramnik recently did for instance when playing the computer. However, at the moment we're discussing the normal main line where White continues 5.Nf3 if the bishop has already moved, or 5.Bg2 if it has not. It's the implications of Black's move-order that concern us here.)

Now anyone who's played the Catalan will recall that there are two main options here. One is the line described above, where Black plays 4...Be7 and then captures the pawn on move six. This is generally the more solid line (though this didn't stop me losing a brevity with White against a kid at Southend not long ago - the finish was published in Chess Monthly). For a riskier but more open game, one plays 4...dxc4 (as did Topalov against Kramnik) and then after 5.Bg2/5.Nf3 there's any number of options - 5...a6, 5...c6, 5...b5, 5...c5, 5...Bb4+, 5...Nc6 and a couple of others besides.

Oddly, though one never sees 5...Be7 in the position - or not in the books, anyway. Nor does one ever see 4...Be7 followed by 5...dxc4 - the pawn capture is always on move six rather than move five. This puzzled me in the past and indeed I played that way (4...Be7 and 5...dxc4) in a correspondence game once just to see what happened. Nothing did, except a transposition.

Which takes us back to Raetsky and Chetverik (hereafter, R&C): because their chapter on the main line does use this move order: 4...dxc4 5.Bg2 Be7 6.O-O O-O. They comment, explicitly:
The position after 6.O-O O-O arises in the main via the move order 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.g3 Be7 5.Bg2 O-O 6.O-O dxc4. But all roads lead to Rome.
Well, that's clear enough. It's purely conventional to take the pawn on move six: one could take on move five, if one preferred, or move four and then play 5...Be7 and no harm done.

Really? Well, I'd have known no different, but then I read John Donaldson's review in which he observes that there's a good reason why Black doesn't play R&C's move order.
you certainly would not see Anatoly Karpov playing this way with Black. No, he would opt for 4...Be7 5.Bg2 0-0 6.0-0 dxc4. Why, because of 4...dxc4 5.Bg2 Be7?! 6.Qa4+ Nbd7 7.Qxc4 a6 8.Qc2 and Black has no time to play ...b5.
What's that? Well, let's have a look at what normally happens and then we can perhaps see why the move-order may be a problem.

There's a lot of different ways of proceeding from the top diagram, but the one we're interested in here, and Kramnik's current favourite, goes as follows: 7.Qc2 a6 8.Qxc4 b5 9.Qc2 Bb7.

You'll note that White's queen is driven away by 8...b5 and then Black puts his bishop on the long diagonal the very next move.

So what if we use the R&C move order? From this position

White continues 6.Qa4+! Well ,what does that accomplish? The answer comes after the sequence 6...Nbd7 7.Qxc4 a6 8.Qc2!

Because now if 8...b5 trying to transpose back into the main line White has 9.Ne5! and Black is in terrible trouble on the long diagonal. This has come about because White hasn't spent a move on castling and therefore has an extra move to get the queen out of range of the b-pawn. White doesn't have this line after 4...dxc4 5.Qa4+ because even if White's played Bg2 already, claiming the diagonal, Black hasn't spent a move on ...Be7 and can therefore use the extra move to do all sorts of useful things. And White doesn't have the line after 6...dxc4 because Black has castled and 7.Qa4 wouldn't be check.

This doesn't mean Black's losing in the final diagram - it's just more difficult to free his or her position, which is what White wants. It's just, as Donaldson says, "a suboptimal move order" and therefore one I'd like to have known about.

But he says more than that.
I am 100 percent certain that the authors know that 4...dxc4 5.Bg2 Be7?! is a suboptimal move order and only used it for ease of presentation, but am not so confident that many of their readers will realize this.

But hang on - that's surely not good enough. Because if it matters, why weren't we told about it? What's going on here - and why? If R&C knew about it why deliberately leave it out? Isn't it precisely because we need to know about little move-order tricks like that, that people are paid to write books for our benefit?

I'd guess that Donaldson is wrong and that they didn't know about this trick - after all, neither did Alex Baburin in his review of the Dunnington book on the opening. Is the trick really that well-known? Chessbase Online Database shows twenty-four games where Black players of 2400+ strength used the "suboptimal move order", including Lautier and Beliavsky. Hardly any of them got beaten and hardly any of their White opponents played 6.Qa4+. So - if it's so well-known, such that we can be 100% sure that R&C knew about it - why isn't it more often played? Or, perhaps - what does the alternative move-order offer Black?

I don't know. It's a mystery.

Friday, February 09, 2007


"Soviet-style, I was not very concerned about hygiene. In my suitcase
there were a few sets of underwear, which I had brought with me from
Leningrad. Karin did not know how to conduct herself, but my behaviour
seriously irritated her. And one day she exclaimed: 'My husband changes
his underwear everyday!' And I remembered this phrase all my life."

... but who is our grandmaster?

Another Wild Position

This position is one of those that look like they must be composed but in fact comes from a real game.

It's Janowski - Ed. Lasker, New York 1924. I came across it while thumbing through Tartakower and Du Mont's 500 Master Games of Chess the other day.

Black is about to play his 67th move.

Would anybody care to punt some analysis as to what's going on here?

I never get anything this random in my own games, probably because many moves before the game has a chance to get interesting I've already offered a draw. Perhaps I should try to play on just a little longer!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Winning with the cat

My two obsessions are chess and cats: one can compare them in any number of ways, but both are cerebral and both, perhaps for that reason, defeat me utterly. To be in the presence of a cat is to be made aware of your own limitations, much as it is in the presence of the board and pieces. Cats have no masters and neither shall I ever master chess, though I can watch either for hours without getting bored. They are perfectly balanced: they are without flaw.

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety
thus wrote Shakespeare of Cleopatra. Queen of Egypt, where they worshipped cats. I use the quote often, to explain what I feel about cats: it will serve just as well for chess, for that matter, as never does the game become too familiar or lose its fascination.

Alekhine was a cat-lover too: not normally known for the admirable nature of his opinions, on this subject at least he showed excellent taste. Whether naming his cat Chess, as he did, was also a manifestation of that taste, I would not like to say (though I imagine it is possible that his missus, Grace Wishart, gave the cat that name). I don't know whether Chess had a fondness for knocking over the pieces on the chessboard, a facility much exhibited by my own cat, Ichy, who will leap up on the table and knock over pieces nine or ten times if necessary.

Normally, it is not, since after three or four attempts I give up and revert to a magnetic travel set. Alekhine's powers of recall were rather superior to mine: he would have had to have extraordinary powers of persuasion, too, to avoid losing his pieces to a determined cat.

I was thinking about this earlier, lying in bed (I'm not well at the moment) with Ichy sprawled across me and a copy of an Everyman book on the Catalan Opening, by Raetsky and Chetverik in my hand. It's not the only book I have on that opening, which I've been trying to play, on and off, for nearly a decade, with occasional success. My first was Angus Dunnington's Batsford effort, which I still quite like: it's not comprehensive, but it's intelligent and explanatory and that will do when starting out. I even remember buying it - in Blackwell's in Cardiff. Until recently I still had the receipt, since it was serving as a bookmark in the Dunnington volume: it was one of those receipts that doesn't just record the amount of money that you've paid but also identifies the item.

With a book, therefore, this would tend to be the title, insofar as you can get it all on the receipt. Unless you're going to have the widest receipts in the world, this can't always be done.

The names of racehorses are limited to eighteen letters (and spaces) to avoid similar problems, but the names of books are not. This particular machine had room for twenty, so that when the receipt was printed, it read:

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Short Draws: Problem Solved?

The Pro's have been polled, as have the chess public - in fact, twice. There's been long, well-researched articles - and recently after a certain last round, much disappointed talk.

The contentious issue that attracts such attention and debate is, of course, the number of short draws at the top tier of chess. So far, two main solutions have been proposed. One - a football scoring system of 3 points for a win, one for a draw, none for a loss - has yet to be tried out anywhere, as far as I know, and would surely lead to severely anti-meritocratic distributions of prize money, to bunny-bashing mad-hackers rather than refined perfectionists.

The other commonly-proposed solution - the Sofia Rule, that draw offers are only allowed late on in the game, when the arbiter agrees the position indeed is clearly drawn - has been tried out with some success. Although surely the reality is that at least some of the time, it has the dubious consequence of creating long and boring games, rather than short and boring games.

But, I myself have recently devised a third way to solve this problem, which I'm now going to share with you. Firstly, suppose the total playing time scheduled for a game is 7 hours - but, the players finish after 1 hour. Under my new rule, another game would then start, with swapped colours and a playing time of 6 hours. This would continue until a game with less time than half an hour each was reached. The final score of the days play would be fractional - so let's say you won one and drew one, you'd get 0.75, your opponent 0.25.

Aside from continuous intrigue for the spectators, my system will have numerous other advantages. For instance, draws agreed in advance - which they undoubtedly are under the current system - would now be utterly transparent and detectable, since no-one needs half an hour over 1. e4, or slows down to snails pace against their pals in dull positions. Also, a drawn position after move 15 can be agreed drawn, unlike under the Sofia rules - after which black gets rewarded with a game with white. And, drawing isn’t penalized harshly, unlike under the football score rules. And - so on.

Well, what do you think? Shall I email Kirsan now? He seems like a sensible chap...

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Chess, Too Easy?

For those who find chess all too easy, for those bored of winning all their games in 15 moves, with only a minute taken from their clock (that pesky toilet break of course) and blindfolded - there's some good news of a fresh challenge in your lives, for some clever fellow has invented Three Dimensional Eight Level Chess. And if that's not enough added complexity to really get those little grey cells firing, he's introduced some extra pieces to get the hang of as well, like "The Mace", "The Rookbishop", "The Red Knight" and "The Grand Knight."

But even that's not all! For as far as I can judge from the picture, you will also need to be seven foot tall to play, no less. At least Andrew will be alright.

(Via Rocky Rook.)

Monday, February 05, 2007

If Science Says It . . .

Some good news for dedicated chess idiots like me from Kathy Sierra, via The Atomic Patzer: it's never too late to become a Grandmaster.

"How many people think they've missed their opportunity to be a musician, or an expert golfer, or even a chess grand master because they didn't start when they were young? Or because they simply lacked natural talent?" asks Kathy. "Those people are (mostly) wrong." And since she found this out via "some brain scientists," there's obviously not much room for doubt either.

(On the other hand, I recall being determined once to learn Salsa Dancing, since a girl I met on a train decided upon a lesson as a first date. One fractured toe and a Thursday night in Casualty later, I vowed never to return, and just stick to Chess Club the week after.)

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Pop In To Popov's?

A new addition to the side-bar: Russian site SuperProblem, authored by problemist and study composer Grigori Popov. It deserves but also requires a note of explanation.

The site is a strange store of many remarkable chess problems and studies. Whilst some are contemporary by Popov himself - whom you might recall from this typical comedy classic - the site reaches much further back. In fact, the earliest puzzle I found so far (diagram right; click to enlarge) is from 1283, where it is black to play and mate.

Now, the site presents non-chess problems too; those of language. The confusingly translated note which accompanies the above position is also typical of the site: "In chess culture of a middle Ages the outstanding place was borrowed 'by the book of games' of the king Alfons Х Wise (1221-1284). In this book there were also chess problems - mansub. One of them."

But it would be a shame if that kind of obstacle - or the site's utterly opaque organisational principle - put you off. Whilst hardly encyclopaedic - the above has a even more ancient predecessor for instance - there are many gems here. I for one was pleased to discover the position on the left - where it's white to play and mate - as I believe Popov says it was composed by К. яниш in 1837, making it the first of its delightful kind; after which, others would quickly follow, of course.

At least we often do, when we think it's worth it.

Saturday, February 03, 2007


Martin emails this position from Karpov – Taimanov, Leningrad 1977. Taimanov, black, is to play - and described the key move he found to win in this position as "perhaps one of the most beautiful moves of my career."

"I wonder if Taimanov knew the Herlin problem?" asks Martin too - and it's a good question.

It also demonstrates the kind of either/or questions I'd been asking before - either Intrigue or Improvement, either Beauty or Bulldozers, or comparing Herlin with Taimanov, we might say either Comedy or Competitiveness - were wrongly phrased. There is no contradiction, unless we force one upon ourselves.

(Incidentally, here is the whole game. Which in turn, made me think of something else again.)

Friday, February 02, 2007

An Internet Parable

It is a well-known habit of bloggers to find out where their visitors arrive from. Often this reveals amusing search terms - witness The Kenilworthian's visitors looking for is sicilians part black? or panther attacks elephant, for instance.

Here at Streatham & Brixton Chess Club's weblog, we seem to be less vocabularious, with very few of our hits come from those looking for anything other than some combination of Brixton Streatham Chess Club - that, ninja club in croydon, surrey or something to do with certain famous blunders.

But, I did like this - a visitor from MSN Live, who got to us from a search for: Electric Chess Game Board with Playing Pieces that actually move on Board. This presumably implies levitating knights of course (or maybe some kind of trap door) as otherwise for instance here 1. Nf7 mate looks like it would get messy.

Pieces in electric motion around the board (like miniature trains around their tracks, up in a loft): a boyish wish, the opposite of Chess for Girls, something else unlikely to see reality. On the other hand, someone just invented Chess With Lazers, so who knows for sure? The internet promises everything, just keep on searching for that dream . . .

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Pinch, Punch

White to play, and mate in 5.
(Théodore Herlin, La Régence 2nd prize, 1860.)

So, pretty much that was the warmest January in Europe on record. One morning of snow in London - but Dutch daffodils already up, and fires in Hungary. The ice skating looks over for another year - which for me is something I don't mind missing out upon; the inelegant sliding around by the rails, the tumbles in the rink's corners - while others gracefully show how it should be done.

Anyhow, chess. Have fun solving this witty one.