There is something to be said about not giving a damn in chess. As aspiring amateurs we often find ourselves trawling YouTube videos, congress book stalls and other sources of knowledge for the definitive answer to our self improvement. We desperately pour over each game looking for the secret kernel of truth that will lead to a couple of extra rating points. We self categorise and insist on playing a certain way because “thats who I am”. Ive spoken before about amateur players categorising themselves as a certain type of player (“Im a positional grinder”) and the dangers that this can bring. Perhaps sometimes we just need to stop all this philosophising and just play? So what does happen when we stop caring and leave our baggage at the door?
It was last week when I found myself on the wrong end of a bad blitz session online. Going full tilt (its a poker term for those who haven’t heard this before) meant I kept playing and playing and playing, losing more and more rating points and perhaps most importantly of all playing worse and worse chess. Having lost over 200 points in ELO I did the right thing and shut down the browser window.
How could this happen? I know my opening repertoire inside out. Some of them I’ve been playing for years. Ive been studying tactics and endgames yet I’m hanging pieces for fun.
I was in a bad mood.
I had a bad taste in my mouth.
Back to basics
The next day was the Second Chess Patzer Blitz Arena Tournament on Lichess (do check out the ChessPatzer movement here – Ill be doing a future piece on these crazy streamers). I had a trip to IKEA planned and knew I couldn’t take part but could probably squeeze a few games in. Remembering my disastrous play the day before I approached it with a kind of “f*** it” attitude and decided I would simply toss pieces up the board and play. Enough with the systems Ive studied endlessly and the memorised lines. Still smarting from the day before and with half an eye glaring at my new 200pt lower rating I clicked enter.
My first opponent in the Chesspatzer Tournament popped up.
An FM with a 2389 rating.
He opened with c4. In true care free fashion I played something novel and burned a pawn just because I could and I didn’t know what I was doing anyway.
I won in 19 moves!
Ok it was a crazy game of online blitz so we can’t put to much weight behind the result but it is still my largest victory by a country mile. At the time my opponent being almost 700 ELO above my rating.
My point is that for the first time in a while I stopped thinking about the ratings and the openings and the sidelines and all the other stuff and just played.
I felt free and liberated. From move three I was having to actively think and check lines. the autonomy of bashing out the first 15 moves of theory that I know off by heart had gone and I was actually playing chess.
By move 16 he was going to win the exchange. I didn’t even blink. I didn’t care. I would just attack his king where previously I would have been racked with guilt searching for the right move.
By the time I delivered the killer blow on move 19 I was probably just as surprised as my opponent. Suddenly reality returned and I was left staring at the screen wondering what I had just done.
“Im back” I confidently declared as i moved onto my next game and promptly lost to a 1500 rated player as I resorted to my established repertoire and habits.
Cleansing the pallet
Somehow I achieved one of my best results in all my years of chess by playing an opening I didn’t know, sacrificing material I didn’t know I could afford and ignoring the fact that my opponent was titled.
As amateur chess players we often spend an age defining ourselves and the way we want to play. Whilst this can be great and is part of the joy of establishing your chess persona, sometimes you do just need to swill your mouth out.
Just once every now and then.
Try playing a game that really pushes your comfort zone. That really challenges everything that you have defined about yourself and the game. Most importantly, don’t give a damn when you do so.
Apart from my immediate loss to ChessPatzerWAL straight after this game (Well done BTW), I clawed back 150pts of the 200 I had lost almost immediately. I am convinced that a lot of those subsequent victories were because of my “system reboot” game where I stopped caring, cleansed the pallet and remembered how to play chess.
Regular readers can see this post as the unofficial third article in my summer series on assessing your chess, in particular your opening repertoire. The earlier articles can be found here:
Summer is a great time to seek changes and improvements in your game. It would also appear to be an especially a great time of year to stop caring.
Until next time.
Jon is the Editor of The Bristol Chess Times and Publicity and Recruitment Officer for The Bristol & District Chess League. He plays for Horfield Chess Club and has been known to play 1. b3 on occasion.
One of the hottest days of the year and a massive cycling event blocking a lot of roads in the centre of Bristol wasn’t the best day for chess – but the hardiest fans still arrived ready for a different kind of heat over the board (and the actual heat).
If you’re ever having a bad day, then my performance in this tournament may cheer you up. Casually late for round 1 I was lucky to get a half-point bye, then an undeserved win with White in round 2 gave way to four straight losses. From the benign to the blunderous and then the classic ‘forget your own surprise opening and burn a rook’.
But there was also some good chess happening – first of all in the Open there were many Cliftonites (Cliftonians?) setting the pace but one newcomer Antony Stannard from North Bristol managed to work his way through the pack to get to board 1 for the final round – a win over IM James Cobb would steal the title. Sadly no heroic tale this time, as James calmly took the title ahead of the other IM Cobb (Charlie, looking on from board two in the final round).
In the major it was a cleaner sweep for North Bristol with Graham Iwi pipping Gareth Cullen to the post. Here is Graham surviving some pressure from Steve:
More North Bristol success came in the form of Waleed Khan who came third and also took the grading prize. We bring you one of his games against the top seed in the major. After some solid opening play, Gareth is on the attack – but Waleed finds the shuffling manoeuvre of Kh8, then back to g8, and Kh8 again to dodge the various attacking ideas – and he ends up a rook ahead with no danger left:
Well done to Clifton (particularly Igor and Dave) for organising, Geoff for arbitrating, and for North Bristol for a resounding success!
As for me I’ll hit the books.
News about upcoming tournaments
South Bristol Rapidplay (message from Roy Day):
To all our past entrants, friends and anyone that intended playing in the annual South Bristol chess clubs open tournament this year; I have been organising this tournament now for several years and thought I would give it a rest this year.
I apologise to all who may have intended playing but maybe this year with the present hot climate it may be for the best and we do not have air conditioning
All the best to all chess players
Downend Summer Tournament:
If you’re up for something a bit different then this may be up your street – a well-structured innovation from Downend to fit around busy summer calendars. Four nights of blitz chess but only your best three results count towards the total. So if you missed round 1, not to worry! The next round, conveniently after all the football and tennis excitement, is the 17th of July at Downend. You also play opponents with White and Black, so you can claim immediate revenge for that cheeky swindle…
Bristol Summer Congress:
Same place, similar huge field (probably) and cooler weather (probably) on the 24th-26th August.
Mike is co-editor of the Bristol Chess Times and plays regular league and tournament chess in Bristol
Competitive chess is traditionally a winter sport and therefore the summer months provide the ambitious amateur an opportunity to review the state of their chess. Chess players love to tell themselves stories (‘I am just like Tal’ or ‘I’m so Karpovian it hurts’) but the reality of the situation is often very different. Today I would like to talk you through a technique or framework that I’ve been mulling over to help club players assess their opening repertoire.
In a previous article (“Is the Scandinavian holding me back?”) I reviewed my opening statistics for the last two seasons of competitive chess in the Bristol & District Chess League. The findings were fascinating, breaking many of the assumptions that I had about my personal chess ability and skill. For those who haven’t read the article, a thorough review of 54 competitive games revealed a considerable personal weakness when I face 1. e4 compared to almost all other moves. It wasn’t the objective score per se that shocked me so much as the fact that if you had asked me what my strongest opening was I would have comfortably stated the Scandinavian. This statistical review led to me thinking about other types of assessment, which lead to my proposal for a new tool for amateur players.
“Do you feel lucky punk?”
It occurred to me that whilst just looking at raw statistics is pretty much what every chess player does, it doesn’t quite capture the human element and the different types of chess game that we have all experienced at different times in our chess career. For example, the loss in a won position, the lucky escape, the bore draw or the “how the hell did I win that?” type scenarios.
It occurred to me that if we could create a classification for these emotional descriptions of game and then apply them to our games could this lead to a new level of insight about our repertoires and types of position we excel in? Well lets give it a go!
To start us off I have identified six types of game:
“I was amazing” – Totally deserved. You played well throughout, perhaps utilising a favourite line, and sealed a comfortable full point. Whether it was tactical or positional is not relevant at this stage, simply that you controlled the game and deserved the point.
“Fair play mate” – Sooner or late you and your opponent had to shake hands. This is the type of game where perhaps you probed a bit, so did she. Perhaps you were up and then let your opponent back in. Not a blunder per se more good play from the opposition. In a solid draw, both parties have little room to argue over the result.
“Ouch, I deserved that.”– A loss. You were either never in the running or perhaps your opponent just knew more than you. Perhaps you knew you were drifting and punched out with an unsound line. Perhaps you were slowly crushed to death under the weight of your opponents play. Either way, you recognise that your score sheet doesn’t deserve anything other than a zero in the column.
“Phew! Let me buy you a drink” – This could be a win or a draw but either way your smile is bigger than it deserves to be! Somehow you were up against it and have wriggled free from your opponent’s grasp. Perhaps they committed a gross blunder in the endgame. Perhaps you tried the cheekiest most unsound move and it paid off. Whilst it is possible to play in a lucky way (for example, always trying to get your opponent into time trouble”) sooner or later it will run out. Look in the mirror and ask yourself if you truly understand the position you just escaped from or understand how you got into that mess?
“I just about held that” – This type of game is a draw. But unlike the solid draw above, I’m classifying this as the type of game where you walk away with a share of the points but were only ever really playing for two results – a draw or a loss. These are the kinds of games where you never felt like or indeed actually had any winning chances. I also don’t consider these types of game a lucky escape. You have justified the draw with good defence and play but victory was never in reach. In football (soccer for our American friends) we might refer to it as “parking the bus”
“Nooo, what have I done?” – The worst type of game. We have all been there. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Great play that at the last minute has somehow turned to dust. Typically thee games involve gross blunders but it can also be that we achieve a winning position and somehow let it slip through our fingers over several moves. Perhaps we achieve a great position and implement the wrong plan? Whatever happened, these ones hurt. A lot.
So there we have my six definitions of the different types of game that I am sure we have all experienced at some stage. Im sure some readers may think of others or quibble with my particular definitions but for now, lets see how we could use this framework.
So is the Scandinavian really holding me back?
Again using the same 54 games dataset as previous, I worked my way through the 17 games of the Scandinavian that I have played in competitive OTB in the last two seasons. Obviously applying this technique requires the chess player to be completely honest with themselves (unless you work through it with a friend or coach).
Here are my results:
“I was amazing” (a deserved win) – 2 games
“Fair play mate” (a deserved draw) – 3 games
“Ouch, I deserved that” (a deserved loss) – 5 games
“Phew! Let me buy you a drink” (a lucky win or draw) – 3 games
“I just about held that” ( a solid tough draw that was never going to win) – 4 games
“Nooo, what have I done?” (a tragic loss) – 0 games
I don’t know about you but I find this really interesting as an additional level of analysis to the statistical breakdown that most players start (and stop) with.
As a quick recap, from our 17 game sample of the Scandinavian I had scored 41% against opposition typically ranked 10 ECF / 75 ELO lower than me. Not great.
But by applying our framework we start to see that even in games where I scored some points, often they were in positions where I was lucky or was holding onto the draw. Seven of the 17 games (1 win and 6 draws) I was able to classify as either a lucky escape or defensive rearguard action. This does not install confidence that I know how to play the kinds of positions I am getting in the Scandinavian. It also goes someway to explain the amount of games in the “Ouch I deserved that” column (5 games). If you are constantly clinging on then sooner or later you will fall off.
Another telling piece of analysis is that it shows I have not been unlucky or riddled with blunders. None of my games with the Scandinavian featured horrific blunders.
The application of this technique has really helped reinforce a belief that I already suspected regarding my play in the Scandinavian. That is that my tactics are mostly good but I don’t seem to understand or play well in the positions I find myself.
I haven’t been swindled.
I haven’t thrown won games away.
I was never winning them in the first place.
I have found this technique a fast and rapid way to get some additional insight into my opening repertoire and fully intend to apply it to the rest of my games. I feel that for the amateur player it could prove to be a valuable tool to break the cycle of telling ourselves false narratives around our play.
Its human nature in chess to remember the glorious wins whilst forgetting the crushing defeats but perhaps a lot of amateur players are missing a trick by blinding themselves with this bias.
Across the six types of game I have defined it seems possible to indicate a type of approach or teaching need for each type of game that you play with an opening:
“I was amazing” – You obviously know the opening and understand the plans associated with it. Well done!
“Fair play mate” – You again understand the opening well but perhaps need to work on identifying the right plan to help you push ahead and convert those draws into wins.
“Ouch, I deserved that” – Go back to school! Something has gone wrong for you and if you are having a lot of games classified in this category then start at the beginning again or get a new opening.
“Phew, let me buy you a drink” – A tricky conclusion. Being lucky can feel great but it may be holding you back in the long term. For example, always fluking a win against 1600 opposition may all be well and good but that might also explain why you don’t beat those 1800’s you so desperately want to. Is your luck blinding your inadequacies in understanding?
“I just about held that” – You get it. You understand the opening. But is it enabling you to push on. Having learnt the opening, how do you find winning lines or should you look for something a little more double edged?
“Noooo, what have I done” – Study tactics. Study endgames. Your problem isn’t the opening.
I hope you have found this technique interesting and can see the potential in spotting flaws (or even maybe coaching others). Its early days and I am sure some readers have some comments on the classification scheme. Keep talking to me and let me know how you get on using it.
Until next time!
Jon is the Editor of The Bristol Chess Times and Publicity and Recruitment Officer for The Bristol & District Chess League. He plays for Horfield Chess Club and has been known to play 1. b3 on occasion.
I used to think GM’s were all the same. They were all at least 50 years old, they played only the most mainstream openings, they never sacrificed anything and they won games by grabbing a pawn and hanging on to it.
This was when I was still at school and before the internet boom. Kasparov and Short were on TV when I was 6; I had learnt to play a year before that but I don’t think I watched it or knew what it was – and I didn’t find out they were both aggressive, highly creative players until much later (just think of Kasparov’s immortal game and Short’s infamous king-walk).
In 2018 we have an abundance of creative players, not least the exciting junior Richard Rapport. Check out any of his games for some fresh ideas, but meanwhile here’s a finishing attack against none other than Levon Aronian from 2016:
Here Rapport unleashes Rh1+! Whichever way White takes it there is devastation to follow (Nxh1 and Nf3+ or Kxh1 and Bxd4 followed by Qh4+ and mate soon) – but the more important point is that Rapport had to imagine this idea before he played the rook manoeuvre over to h5, as if the attack fails then it is really out of place there.
That’s how these young GM’s do it! But no, I thought GM’s had to be super patient, super restrained, super technical and super ruthless. And this is how I think many people outside chess still see it. Imagine for a second you don’t know the rules. You see on TV someone studying for 25 minutes and moving a pawn forward one square – you see the crowd going wild. What the…? As an observer you are hardly going to appreciate creativity here – because you won’t be seeing everything they are – chess is not naturally a spectator sport in this way.
But take IM Danny Rensch’s analysis of Gelfand’s extraordinary queen sacrifice here, saying he fell off his chair. This is more like the reaction you want for chess – seeing moves that are unexpected and intuitively creative – like a cheeky drop-shot in tennis. But creativity takes many forms and it is difficult for chess commentators to bring it all out.
From watching a lot of mainstream TV interviews with chess players over the years, the non-chess-playing interviewer often seems fascinated that the chess elite ‘spend their whole lives within 64 squares’ – they ask how a person can do it, they ask if it ever gets boring, they ask if they miss out on normal life. They are both in awe and also a little condescending towards the GM who is often attempting to debunk the myths of calculating 30 moves ahead, seeing every possibility, or of an inevitable descent into paranoia. What they never ask about is creativity.
The fact is that in chess, like in art, there are principles. To be good at art, you can learn the principles, but to be a great artist, you need to break them. Great chess players know when to break the rules – and they do it surprisingly often.
Every game is different. And to improve at chess it’s not just about openings, and not just endgame technique or tactics. You have to adjust how to approach your own thinking about chess positions.
And yes – part of this is your own brain – your own ideas and imagination. You will have many previous learnings about chess (doctrines like “passed pawns must be pushed!” or certain styles like Nimzowich’s ‘overprotection’). Let them advise you but don’t let them control you. The real fight is happening in your own mind – balancing impulses against logic, the innovative against the tried-and-tested, the right brain against the left brain if you will. Just let your creativity have influence – and have trust in your own moves.
See this video (or the game below) by Ronen Har-Zvi called ‘Trust your calculations’ where he focuses on a wild game from Dr. John Nunn. Notably Vishy Anand also said that the first time he beat a GM he learned to “believe in his own moves”.
I have a very different view of GM’s now – in fact almost the opposite from my 10-year old self. Sure they are technically very good, and sometimes win games by grabbing a pawn and hanging on to it. But to get there they had to hone their own style, and their own personal take on the game. They had to create something.
Here’s the game between Nunn and Anthony – played in Bristol in 1981!
Mike is co-editor of the Bristol Chess Times and plays regular Bristol chess
The Soviet school of chess espoused a diligent focus on the fundamentals. Here’s Kramnik describing the tenets of his training:
“Botvinnik’s example and teaching established the modern approach to preparing for competitive chess: regular but moderate physical exercise; analysing very thoroughly a relatively narrow repertoire of openings; annotating one’s own games, those of past great players and those of competitors; publishing one’s annotations so that others can point out any errors; studying strong opponents to discover their strengths and weaknesses; ruthless objectivity about one’s own strengths and weaknesses.”
– Vladimir Kramnik
Find the time, cultivate the habits and you too will develop a robust foundation of skills. For the majority of players, this program alone will be sufficient to eventually reach their chess goals. It’s reliable, safe and proven by test but it’s not all-encompassing.
There are unexpected factors which influence performance. You are doing chess a disservice to bundle them together as luck. I view breaking down ‘luck’ into learnable skills as a pivotal facet of whether coaching will be successful. Let’s look at how this works, drawing upon best practice from mental game training in poker.
Diagnosis (unconscious incompetence)
I have a student whose raw calculation ability wouldn’t be obvious from reviewing his games. Curious oversights litter his play and are holding back progress.
Awareness (conscious incompetence)
Before this leak can be plugged, the student needs to know precisely what’s wrong. Having a mentor diagnose and explain a weakness will speed up this process.
Harness (conscious competence)
Concrete strategies are presented to the student. We implemented a blunder check routine, discussed critical positions and measured the number of times he left the board during a game. The specifics here are less interesting than the model.
Mastery (unconscious competence)
Once the routines have been successfully embedded by the student, they no longer require his conscious focus. It’s time to find another weakness and the cycle starts over.
Presented in this way, the journey looks almost trivial but I can assure you it isn’t. Combatting psychological biases is complex and fascinating work. Progress is non-linear and difficult to predict. To help, I’m developing new coaching techniques in tandem with my dissertation research on practice in mathematics. Not yet ready to go public though!
Chess pretends to be a game of perfect information. Disguised within its simple structure are sources of variance. Recognising, harnessing and finally mastering these hidden variables will elevate your game beyond the fundamentals.
(editors note – This article originally published on 14th April 2018 on Makepeace with Chess. Republished with kind permission from the author)
Chris is a part-time member of Downend and Fishponds and formerly played for Bristol University. He is now based in London where he co-founded Makepeace With Chess.
The late great American composer Milan Vukcevich specialized in problems showing interesting things happening on on the lines on which a threat (often a threat of mate) is being defended. As such his problems are often more closely related to the game of chess than many I have quoted in Bristol Chess Times! Consider this mate in 4, which won 1st Prize in ‘Chess Life’ in 1988:
Clearly we need to find a move that threatens mate. It turns out that this move is by the rather out-of-play Nc1, but it’s not immediately obvious that 1.Na2! does carry any threat. White is angling after possible mates by Nb4 and Nc3, but these threats are at present defended respectively by the bQ and the bR. Aha! But there is a threat, 2.c4+! This move, to the intersection of the lines h4-b4 and c7-c3, would present Black with an impossible dilemma. If he replied 2…Rxc4 then the R can be decoyed away: 3.Nb4+! Rxb4 (the point is that …Qxb4 is longer possible) and now another square the Rook had been guarding is available to White: 4.Qc6#. Something very similar would happen after 2…Qxc4: 3.Nc3+ Qxc3 4.Be4#.
But of course it is Black to play and he has two first moves that defeat the threat. One is 1…Qa4, pinning the cP. But something similar (but more spectacular) happens now: 2.Qc4+!. Now we have 2…Rxc4 3.Be4+! Rxe4 4.Nc3# (this wouldn’t have worked as a threat because after 2.c4+ Rxc4 3.Be4+ there’s 3…Qxe4)
and 2…Qxc4 3.Nc3+ Qxc3 4.Be4#.
Finally, Black can defend with 1…Nxc2, and this time (hurrah) it’s 2.Bc4+ that works: 2…Rxc4 3.Nb4+ Rxb4 4.Qc6#
and 2…Qxc4 3.Qc6+! Qxc6 4.Nb4#. There are other black first moves which fail uninterestingly.
When moves such as these are to the intersection of two orthogonal lines of guard the device or motif or theme, call it what you will, is described as a Plachutta interference. The better-known situation in which the move is to the intersection of an orthogonal line of guard and a diagonal line of guard is known as a Nowotny interference. These interferences do sometimes crop up in games, and there are probably other occasions on which a player has failed to spot such an opportunity.
Christopher holds the Grandmaster title for Chess Problem Composition and uses his skills to write a regular column for the Bristol Chess Times. He is also a longterm Horfield Chess Club player (where he is acting secretary).
A massive field and many new players this year – the Spring Congress was as tough as ever.
The Bristol tournament scene continues to go from strength to strength with a whopping 117 entrants to the Spring Congress – including a GM, two IM’s and a host of other masters in a very competitive Open field.
The British weather was compliant also – not taunting dedicated chess fans with too much sun streaming through the windows.
I entered the Open but I also had clubmates from Horfield in every section to cheer on, and a good excuse to loiter around the top boards and try to ‘improve by osmosis’.
The Open was more than twice the size of some previous tournaments which meant that drawn games were likely to cost you at the top. After 3 rounds nobody had a perfect score – though plenty on 2.5.
Before the final round there were three on 3.5 and GM Arkell lurking on 3. The Merry-Arkell match-up (seed 1 vs. 2) was the final round everyone wanted to see – this time Merry sealing the deal – he couldn’t take the prize outright though as Mike Waddington beat Graham Moore to also finish on 4.5.
Another dream final match-up was for the title of Bristol League champion – between league players only. Patryk Kryzyzanowski was leading on 3, whilst a host of others (including myself) were on 2.5. Steve Dilleigh got the honour of trying to leapfrog Patryk – and was doing well in a rook ending, up a pawn and with a slightly easier king position – could Steve emulate Carlsen and squeeze it to steal the title? After some calculated risks to keep his rook active, Patryk did enough to hold it and is now Bristol champion!
Over the last year the juniors have been threatening a takeover, this time the prize was shared between one of them (Yuyang Wang) and 3 ‘non-juniors’ (Bob Radford, winner on tiebreak; Brendan O’Gorman; and Chris Strong) with 4/5 each.
Bob won a crucial game in round 3 vs. Max Walker, where he showed tremendous resolve to come back a piece down – making use of a few tempi and some useful central pawns and eventually forcing a rook to drop – winning this game gave him the best progressive scores overall and the title of major champion!
More good news for my own club (Horfield) with Mike Jennings sharing first place along with three others: Daoyi Wang, William Taplin and John Harris.
It was a fantastic weekend for Bristol chess – the organisers have done a great job raising interest and ensuring everything runs smoothly; more players, more newcomers, more non-Bristolians and more prizes.
We’ll be back soon with analysis of a few games from the Open section.
Look out for the Steve Boniface memorial on the 24-26 August for more high quality chess bouts!
Mike Harris is co-editor of Bristol Chess Times and plays regular league and tournament chess in Bristol
This aggressive opening with Black could be your next surprise weapon – highly recommended for a must win game.
The Latvian is one of the most aggressive sound openings out there, but it is underused and largely unknown. If you’ve ever considered it before – you may have run it past an engine. They give it roughly a +1 after 3.Nxe5 (my engine lands on 1.17, meaning that it thinks White is even more than a pawn up, for nothing).
This alone may put you off reading any further – and if it does please do stop now. This opening is not for the faint-hearted. 2…f5 is basically an unmistakable statement that you intend to sack a lot of pieces for checkmate. If its stats you want, I’ve played this in Bristol league and tournament games about once a season for the last 4 years and I’ve won all 4 games – admittedly three against slightly lower rated opponents but one of them against a top coach.
It’s not played at the top level but there are a few masters and even world champions who dabble – even the great Bobby Fischer lost to it. Okay so Fischer was 11 at the time – but this game does show important attacking themes. Black benefits from the f-file being open quickly, and the bishop on d6 (staring at h2) is very typical for Latvian attacks. Because Black played f5 so early, White had no chance to calmly claim or block the centre, which means those nice diagonals are open for bishops.
Let’s see how the bishops can quickly triumph if White is greedy:
Aside: What’s a pawn worth?
Is an extra pawn going to win you the game? For Grandmasters maybe yes. It also may be the case in simple positions – one open file, obvious squares to contest, the player a pawn up can comfortably force trades and win with a pawn breakthrough. Again, simple positions. But if you are a long way off an endgame, forget about the material. It’s never just about the material, and in the Latvian gambit material is pretty much out the window.
Back to move 2 – why f5?
First of all we must see the method behind the madness of f5. You should have a reason for every move you make, and it turns out f5 has many.
With e4 and Nf3 White is saying: “I’m going to castle kingside as soon as possible, distract you with defending e5, and have a comfortable life”
So what do we say in return? “Don’t get too comfy. Take my e-pawn, by all means; I’ll take yours. Or take my f-pawn and I’ll attack your only developed piece (with pawn e4 to e5). Castle kingside if you like, but I’ll quickly get a rook on the open f-file”
More strategically – you are opening the f-file for your own rook and threaten quick development by castling kingside. White can’t just let you do this, they must find something else to call an advantage.
After 2…f5!? we have several continuations. I’m not going to go into huge detail – I want to make you aware of the types of positions you get, and if you like what you see you can learn more about it on thechesswebsite.com, buy the book by Tony Kosten, or get a board out and try it yourself.
The main thing I want to tell you is that the engines have this one wrong. Well not totally wrong, but despite the evaluations a human playing White will have some major difficulty against the Latvian – unless of course they know it in great depth, which I would suggest is unlikely.
More to the point – the natural 3.Nxe5 is nothing to be scared of. The move to be mildly concerned about is 3.d4. But I will recommend a solid way to play in that case. Most of the time players will not play 3.d4 – and I’m talking about everyone below say 1900.
Why is this not played a lot?
There are some very simple answers here. It is sharp, a little bit wacky, difficult to play for both sides, and computers don’t think much of it. But the main reason I think is more psychological: Amateur players shy away from openings where they could lose quickly. Maybe it is fear of embarrassment, maybe it is the sunk cost of travelling to a venue to play a game of chess. But I’m here to convince you that is exactly the reason why you should consider these sorts of openings; because your opponent will have those same tendencies, and often will choose the safer (worse) option.
Let’s get down to some moves; so Black has two pawns en-prise – but the problem for White is they only have one move, not two. Either capture is okay for Black:
3…e4 4.Qe2 Qe7 5.Nd4 Nc6
and if they take our knight we take with the d-pawn, so that we recapture the f-pawn eventually and the other bishop settles on d6. They may try to hang on to the pawn but it’s not worth it.
6. Qh5+ Kd8
and you can easily attack that pawn with d5, Qf6, Ne7 etc. G4 will lead to interesting games but Black should be better with the big centre and chances to make White’s queen look foolish.
An alternative – for the real gambiteers, which I play on occasion – is 3…Nc6! 4.Qh5+ g6 5.Nxg6 Nf6! 6.Qh4 Rg8 7.Nxf8 Rg4! The engine still doesn’t love it but just look at the position below. Is White going to be loving life if they haven’t seen this before? We have rook takes e4 check coming (how many openings can say that?) with some awkward defence in store for White.
After the main line 3..Qf6 we have 4. d4 d6 5.Nc4 and we recapture the pawn with fxe4; White stops us playing d5 with Nc3, but here’s one key move you’ll have to get comfortable with: Qg6. It seems strange to move the queen again, but we are okay – the knight comes to f6, we renew the threat of d5, and we can develop with Bd6, Bf5 or Bg4, castle and if needed tuck the queen back again with Qf7 and we are sitting pretty.
So after 6..Qg6 it is the start of the ‘main line proper’ – which is way too much to go into now, but Tony Kosten covers pretty much all the possible 7th moves for White:
Instead of capturing, White can of course ignore both pawns and develop:
fxe4! 4.Nxe5 and either d5 or Qg5. Again things are going to get messy here. D5 is the most natural – but we do have to be comfortable with this line: 5. Qh5+ g6 6. Nxg6 Nf6! 7. Qe5+ Be7 8. Nxh8 dxc4 – and we are an exchange down but the knight is looking trapped – if White isn’t active then we can even walk the king over and take it.
I don’t actually see Bc4 very often – but I’ll give a line that tempts White even more: 4..Nf6! Let these two games from Joseph Blackburne sway you. It’s the same opponent, who first tries to land a knight on f7, and then tries with the bishop – and gets pretty well crushed both times!
As I say, Bc4 is not too common. Among players who are unfamiliar with the Latvian, I believe the most common response will be:
And this is just a different game. White tries to ignore the gambit and decides to save the light-squared bishop for defence. As Black we just continue with normal moves (Nf6, d6, Be7, 0-0) and plan on meeting exf5 with Bxf5.
The real test for you is when White decides to fight fire with fire, and opens up an attack on your e-pawn, with:
It’s a fairly decent move for White – but you’ll be okay if you memorise a few things:
Take the pawn that you threatened: 3..fxe4.
If they play Nxe5 and Bg5 then you’ll have to hold tight with Nf6 and Be7
Play either d5 or if you can’t then play d6 and kick the knight.
Remember the Latvian bishop – Bd6. For example in this game from Keres he plays d5 in response to Bc4, and his own bishop lands on d6. You don’t mind the knight staying on e5 – but you may have to get creative like Keres’ Kf8 and Kg7 to avoid tricks.
So – if you’ve read this far you hopefully view this opening as being worth a shot. With a bit of study, this is an awesome surprise weapon in your arsenal against 1.e4 and is a lot of fun to play.
Round 5 of a congress against the tournament leader who is half a point ahead of you? My advice is f5, Bd6, sack a rook and win the tournament in a blaze of glory.
I’ll leave you with none other than Boris Spassky employing the main line with great effect:
Mike is co-editor of The Bristol Chess Times and is a regular league and tournament player
Mike Wood will be remembered as someone who always preferred risky and exciting lines of play. The Evans Gambit and the Milner-Barry were among his favourites as White and here are some examples of his style of play.
Robert Wildig was probably Bristol’s best chess prodigy (after David Wells) in the early 1960s. He played for Horfield in those days and in this game he succumbed to a crushing in the Evans.
W.A. Oddy (was it Bill?) was in the middle of the Bath top three between Bob Northage and Ron Gregory for many years. Here Mike throws the kitchen sink at him.
And here is a game annotated by Tyson Mordue for the D&F magazine “Versus” back in 1985. “Who needs Tal?” indeed!
Mike generously left money to both the Bristol League and Downend and Fishponds and the D&F committee have been pondering how best to commemorate this. Part of it is being used to provide a trophy for the best attacking play in games on our website and this year there were 23 from which to choose. Committee members and team captains were asked to rank the three games which best reflected Mike’s style of play.
In third place is this wild game between two of our club members in the Pentyrch match. Neil and Richard certainly entered into the spirit of this always friendly occasion.
Second is a fine example of attacking play by Henry Duncanson, soon, sadly, to be lost to Bristol chess.
And first place goes to Aron Saunders for a game that is notable especially for the maturity of an eleven year old’s play. He was the clear winner, nominated by five of the ten voters and with three first choices. It should also come as no surprise that this game featured as the first Game of the Month on the re-vitalized BCT last September.
Incidentally, fourth, fifth and sixth places were filled by Toby Kan, Jack Tye and Oli Stubbs, showing that the senior players had all better watch out next year
After leaving school Ian trained as an accountant, therefore missing his true vocation, to take over from John Arlott as the BBC cricket correspondent.
Its June and chess is in lazy season. The cut and thrust of the league has finished and we have to rely on weekend congresses and one-day rapid plays to see us through the long sunny months of Summer. Traditionally I take this opportunity to review my chess with a full 360 degree review. Following in the advice of the excellent book Chess for Tigers by Simon Webb, every few years I review my opening repertoire to see if I am falling down anywhere. Whilst on holiday this week I started by poking around some of my opening statistics with some interesting findings.
At the start of last season I set myself the goal of reaching a personal best of 160 ECF / 1900 ELO. The grades don’t come out until July in England but I suspect I have come dangerously close but not close enough. My current estimates put me at around 158 ECF / 1885 ELO. Close but no cigar! Whilst I appreciate there are bound to be multiple areas of my game to improve (for example, spotting one move mate threats which cost me two games this year), lets break down where those pesky few points could be being dropped in my openings.
This analysis is relatively straight forward as I only play the one opening with white…
27 games / 54% / 158 ECF or 1885 ELO average opponent
Everyone knows I enjoy a good 1. b3. Lets face it I’m not going to change this up until it starts doing me a serious disservice. Over the last two seasons I have scored a respectable 54% with it against strong opposition in the top two divisions of the Bristol & District Chess League. A score of 54% seems to be about average with what a player with the white pieces should be scoring but it did lead me to question if I could be doing better with white by switching to something more conventional?
That may be the case but I think its fair to say I’m not under performing with white and seeing as a really enjoy these types of games why fix what isn’t broken?
I’ve broken down this analysis into two groups – 1.e4 and 1.d4. Only a small handful of games started with anything else and many of those that did, transposed back into mainline e4 or d4 openings anyway (I’m looking at you 1. nf3 players…). I have not included the “other” openings category as they are two small and varied in number.
Scandinavian Defence- 1.e4
17 games / 41% / 151 ECF or 1833 ELO average opponent
“I’m really enjoying and playing well with the Scandinavian”
“It really suits my style of play and the 2.nf6 lines give me plenty of room to play for a win”
Um. Well yes. Thats what psychology can do to you! I have been confidently trotting out the 2. nf6 Scandinavian for almost two seasons now believing that its treating me well. The fact of the matter is I have barely scraped in with a performance of 41%. To make matters even worse it turns out I’ve only won 3 of those 17 games (18%. Ouch!). So why do I so passionately defend and even recommend this opening to friends and club mates?
Well it turns out that I draw with it a lot. 8 times out of 17 to be exact. For a player desperately questing to both improve their grade and perform in the top local leagues, draws with the black pieces against strong opposition go a long way to cementing a perception of an opening.
I did actually double check the figures but the numbers don’t lie. My record with the Scandinavian reads:
In addition, the average grade of my opponents is 151, slightly worse than my current predicted grade. Although the sample of 17 games is relatively small, my predicted grade would seem to indicate I should be scoring atleast 50% with the Scandinavian against this level of opposition.
I checked the numbers in the database and black is scoring 46% at pro levels. Overall my numbers would seem to suggest I am underperforming with the Scandinavian and this important defence to the kings pawn may need to be looked at over the summer.
Queens Gambit Declined and assorted 1. d4 defences
11 games / 59% / 146 ECF or 1795 ELO average opponent
“I’ve always hated facing the queens pawn”.
“Never do well against it. Can’t stand it when they shove the d pawn forward, urggg”
Again my bias and psychology has been playing to the fore when the numbers actually tell a different story. In stark contrast to my performance against 1.e4 I have actually been scoring remarkably well against the 1.d4 openings.
A cracking 59% with the black pieces which actually rises to 71% (7 games) when you factor in I changed the way I play against 1. d4 at the start of this season. Again I double checked the numbers and was stunned to see that I have been comfortably handling the d-pawn all season long. So solid has my performance been that it made me wonder if it had not been a contributory factor to my victory at the recent Frome congress. At the time I had bemoaned getting three blacks over the weekend but actually my worst result came in a drawn Scandinavian whilst two cracking victories against 1.d4 had brought home the metaphorical bacon!
As a ringing endorsement for those people who recommend not losing too much sleep over opening study, I have been generally playing “good instinctive moves” against 1.d4, pretty much because I assumed I have a terrible record against it. Freed from the burdens of opening theory I have also hit upon playing in a way that befits my personal style. I should definitely review my 1.d4 games further to see what it is about those pawn structures and style that appeals to my play.
My average opponent strength in these d4 games is the lowest out of all the openings (approximately 10 ECF or 75 ELO) but the scores I am achieving reflect this, indicating my d4 openings are yielding what one would expect.
Perhaps the most pressing concern is how can I have such a large swing in performance between my responses to e4 and d4? Since my transition to the “Care-free Defence” (editors note – patent pending) there is a stark difference of 30% in performance!
Conclusion: “Is the Scandinavian holding me back?“
So there we have it.
Twelve months on from when I set myself the goal of achieving 160 ECF / 1900 ELO I believe (July ratings pending) I have fallen short by a handful of rating points. If you had stopped me in the local club and asked me where I thought it was going wrong, prior to this I would not have stated the Scandinavian Defence as a potential problem.
Perhaps 41% is not the worst ever score with black against 1.e4 but its clear that I am able to perform well with black as highlighted by my 1.d4 performances. I think the thing that bothers me is the win column. An 18% return of victories just isn’t good enough in my opinion (especially when one of those was against a much weaker opponent). I’ve been painting a false picture about my performance with the Scandinavian due to holding multiple strong players to a draw with it. In hindsight, there are very few games where I have been pushing my opponents for the full point.
In addition, my analysis of opponent strength seems to indicate that my White and d4 defences are scoring as expected if not better against my opposition. However, my results with the Scandinavian are a good 10% below where you would expect them to be over a large number of games.
The Scandinavian is very popular at club level and has an excellent reputation. To be clear, I’m not saying its a bad opening. But the important question to ask is is it right for me? As I strive to creep ever closer to competing against the top players in the local leagues is it the right kind of opening to give me wining chances? Perhaps an alternative defence to the kings pawn might have netted me those scarce few points I needed to hit my personal goal?
Overall, a very useful exercise that yields some interesting questions. I thoroughly recommend all amateur cub players perform this kind of analysis atleast once every two years as I have done. Its amazing the stories we like to tell ourselves and how we can be actively missing out on areas of improvement we didn’t realise existed.
Jon is the Editor of The Bristol Chess Times and Publicity and Recruitment Officer for The Bristol & District Chess League. He plays for Horfield Chess Club and has been known to play 1. b3 on occasion.