Problems in February with GM Jones

I was interested to receive feedback that it would be good to see problems that featured more game-like positions. This set me thinking. ‘Mate in 2’ positions are very unlikely to fill the bill as White must have a totally overwhelming position with a choice of apparently immediately killing moves of which only one forces mate next move. Problems in other genres – helpmates, selfmates – certainly won’t fill the bill! (Though most of us have had the experience of unwittingly creating an inelegant helpmate in the course of a game…) So the likeliest place to find such problems is in the ‘Mate in x’ field where “x” is a large number.

I haven’t yet come up with a really good example to publish here. A candidate would be this mate in 9, but it’s hard work just reading through the solution, never mind trying to solve it!

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Andrei Zhuravlev, U.S.Problem Bulletin 1995

It turns out that Black has to try to keep his Bishop on a square that guards white squares from which the white Knight is imminently threatening to reach f7. In case you’re interested, the first move apparently is 1.Ng4, and thereafter there are numerous variations, in each of which White manages to wrongfoot, and so overload, the black Bishop.

In fact, this is similar to many studies that feature such duels between minor pieces (it’s just that in this case penetrating the defences gives rise to a mate, not just the win of a crucial Pawn or whatever). And if we’re thinking of studies then there are plenty of studies from game-like positions that are much more enjoyable, for instance this one, by former World Champion Vassily Smyslov (Pravda, 1976):

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White to play and win (solution below)

I’m indebted to Jonathan Mestel, who expounded this study in a recent issue of The Problemist (the magazine of the British Chess Problem Society). I’ll basically be cribbing his commentary! It looks as though White has a straightforward win by forcing Black to sacrifice his Bishop for the fP and preserving at least his hP which will in the end be able to promote. After 1.f7 Ba3 2.Bg7 does Black have any resources? As Jonathan remarks, he could try 2…Kd3 3.f8Q Bxf8 4.Bxf8 e2+ when 5.Ke1? f3 6.gxf3 Ke3 is a draw, but 5.Kf2 wins.

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2. …Kd3 isn’t the answer leading to white victory with …5.Kf2. What else?

In a game, you might be quite pleased to see this way to give White the chance to go wrong, knowing that you’d resign if he played 5.Kf2. In solving a study, you’d look deeper to see if there’s a way to show this idea without 5.Kf2 being available to White. And you might then find (if you’re a strong solver!) 2…f3! 3.gxf3 Kd3. The point is now that now, surprisingly, 4.f8Q only draws: 4…e2+ 5.Kf2 Bc5+! and either 6.Qxc5 e1Q+ leading to stalemate or 6.Ke1 Bxf8 7.Bxf8 Ke3 capturing both Pawns.

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Amazingly, promoting to a queen only leads to a draw after 5…Bc5. Hmmm

So we need an under-promotion! After 4.f8B! Black no longer has his stalemate defence and we have 4…e2+ 5.Kf2 e1Q+ 6.Kxe1 Ke3 7.f4! 8.Kxf4 Kf2. Jonathan adds 8…Bc1, saying that then 9.Bh6+ (and not 9.Bf6) is the only win. I don’t see why 9.Bf6 doesn’t also win (in the end) – perhaps you may be able to tell me. Whatever – this point in no way diminishes my enjoyment of the main play.

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The final position


chriscircle

Christoper Jones

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).

Using chess.com explorer to prioritise opening study

For most of us in the amateur club scene we regularly purchase books or trawl YouTube for the latest “Win with Black with the Bonecrusher Opening” (editors note – This is not a real opening). Many club players spend ages reading and nodding along with the main line of their new opening only to discover that hardly anyone plays it against them.  Thus the big dirty secret of amateur chess emerges – the frequency of mainline theory is far far lower in amateur chess circles. Often the lines covered as an afterthought at the back of opening books, DVDs and YouTube under the “Other sidelines’ title are the very lines that we encounter most often. Lets look at how we can overcome this problem using a great feature on chess.com called MyGames Explorer.

For a while now I have been interested in the differences between professional and amateur chess players with regards to opening choices.  Fortunately, chess.com contains a lovely feature that does just that! Lets first look at what this feature is and where to find it and then we will look at an example using the Nf6 Scandinavian.

Looking at My Games with the chess.com opening explorer

When logged into chess.com go to “Explorer” in the navigation:

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The Explorer option is underneath the weird blue and white icon with an arrow on it…

You will see the following page:

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The main Explorer page on chess.com.

At the top of the Explorer page are two dropdown menus. Change the first dropdown from “Master Games” to “My Games”.  And you will get a full breakdown of statistics for all your games.  The second dropdown menu allows you to view your games with black or white.

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With MyGames and black selected I can start to look at the opening statistics of different lines that my opponents play against me online.

Now you know where to find this great feature, lets start to use it to understand how amateur chess players differ from professional and thus aid ourselves in directing our study efforts.

Comparing Profesional to Amateur Opening Statistics – An example

Ive been playing the Nf6 Scandinavian for almost 18 months and like most players who want to learn a new opening I bought a book and started playing loads of blitz games.  I highly recommend Smerdon’s Scandinavian by GM David Smerdon if you are interested in this opening, it really is one of the best opening books I have ever read. One feature I love (which is sadly missing from most opening books) is a diagram outlining the likelihood of facing each line out of every 100 games.

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The diagram (editors note – taken from Amazon’s preview feature, I don’t know why its grey and blue?!) at the start of Smerdon’s Scandinavian showing the likelihood of each line occurring. A wonderful feature for all opening books.

Im not going to dwell on Scandinavian opening theory in this article.  What I want to look at is the percentages of common lines occurring amongst professional / strong players according to GM Smerdon:

1. e4 d5 2. exd Nf6:

  • 3. d4 – 47% 
  • 3. c4 – 19%
  • 3. Bb5+ – 17%
  • 3. Nf3 – 11%
  • 3. Nc3 – 10%
  • All other lines – 6%

This all looks nice and normal right?  It would seem that I would be sensible to prioritise looking at d4, c4 and Bb5 lines as part of my study. Now lets compare these statistics to my own experience in online games against 1300 – 1900 rated opposition.  The MyGames Explorer feature on chess.com shows me that I have played 340 games of (admittedly blitz) in the Nf6 Scandinavian and my opponents have responded in the following way:

1. e4 d5 2. exd Nf6:

  • 3. Nc3 – 26%
  • 3. c4 – 18%
  • 3. d4 – 17%
  • 3. Nf3 – 13%
  • 3. Others – 8%
  • All other lines – 18%

Comparing the predicted occurrence of a line in the book to amateur occurrence shows some interesting insight:

  • The d4 mainline occurs a whopping 30% less of the time compared to predicted theory.
  • The third best line for white, Bb5, is not even on the radar of most amateurs with a measly 7 occurrences from 340 games or 2% of the time.
  • The fifth most common line at professional level, Nc3, is the most popular line at amateur level occurring 2.5 times more often.
  • Almost 20% of players don’t take on d5 on move 2 (compared to 6% of professionals).  A response widely regarded by theory as leading to inferior positions for white.
  • The propensity of greed (i.e. keep the d5 pawn) amongst professionals and amateurs is about the same (editors note – this is a joke before anyone kicks off!)

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Amateur chess players seem to demonstrate an annoying obsession with 3. Nc3…

To back these numbers up in over the board play, in the last 18 months I have played the Nf6 Scandinavian 12 times with the following breakdown of white responses:

1. e4 d5 2. exd Nf6:

  • 3. Nf3 – 25%
  • 3. d4 – 25%
  • 3. Bb5 – 25%
  • 3. Nc3 – 25%

Admittedly 12 games is not a large sample size but the percentages are certainly close to the amateur statistics observed online (with the exception of Bb5).

This is not the first time I have spoken about the differences between amateur and professionals in their opening choices. My article from last summer comparing responses to Larsen’s Opening has become one of the most popular blogs I have written and highlighted stark differences again. To me it is becoming clear that there is a demand at the amateur chess scene for opening statistics for the club level player to help prioritise which lines to study, especially given how time poor your average club player is with regards to study. This is exactly the gap that I see chess.com’s MyGames Explorer filling.

 

Conclusion

Whilst we all recognise that below 2000 ELO, opening study is unlikely to yield big changes in rating compared to studying tactics and endgames, we can’t get around the fact that we all love playing with our opening repertoires. Using the My Games Explorer has the potential to identify differences that we didn’t even know existed and allow us to plug valuable gaps in our knowledge at the amateur level.

I remain fascinated by the differences in move choice between amateur and professional levels and am certain that many publishers and producers of opening content could benefit from thinking about and recognising these differences.  In my opinion, we can’t ignore the fact that when it comes to amateur chess the sideline is the new mainline.

The MyGames explorer on chess.com could prove an invaluable tool to the average club player in terms of prioritising which lines to study or atleast which lines to have a response too. For example, I am now very comfortable with my response to 3. Nc3 in the Scandinavian scoring a respectable 53% with black. No I’m not telling you what it is, I need some secrets!

Thank you for reading and do let me know if you discover any other interesting differences in your own opening repertoires and if that changes which lines you study.


mecircle

Jon Fisher

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.

 

More mini games for coaching chess

The less experienced you are, the harder it is to take specific lessons from a full game of chess. This is the claim that I made in the last article on coaching. There are just way too many factors in a full game, and most of the time any interesting strategic play will be dwarfed by blunders. It is for this reason I believe more in the value of mini games – this means a game specifically designed to teach one or two aspects of the game.

Last time I showed a few games which only use one major piece.

Bristol league alumnus Chris Russell has contributed a further mini-game which he has used with great success in coaching: King, Queen and 8 pawns vs. King, 2 Rooks and 8 pawns. A queen vs. two rooks does come up from time to time in games, and depending on the position, can be much better for either side. The rooks like to be co-ordinated, and the queen likes more open positions and some loose targets. In the scenario with 8 pawns on their starting ranks – Chris notes that the queen has a slight edge because she can keep attacking pawns early on, and the rooks find it hard to establish the right battleground for them – but there’s not much in it.

Since writing the first article, I’ve also discovered that Chess.com has several training games of exactly this nature. I tried the ‘Queen vs. Queen with two extra pawns’ game (you have 5 pawns, the computer has 3) and surprisingly I ended up losing the first two games…
Once I had snapped out of that I managed to press the advantage for a bit and ended up drawing the next two. Fifth time lucky, I triumphed – but I had to calculate a queen trade very carefully. It just shows how hard these ‘winning’ positions are to convert! Anyway, this time let’s see a few other types of mini-game:

Classic mini chess

I started playing this as a youngster; it is arguably a streamlined chess game, reducing down to one of each major piece. Apart from being a shorter game, I like this one for coaching for a couple of reasons. Firstly there is an immediate way to blunder checkmate, so it doesn’t take much to explain the link between a general strategy and checkmate. Let’s take a look [n.b. the board is 5×5, pieces set up with R,N,B,Q and K on a- to e- files; and pawns in front of them, which can only move one square per move, unlike regular chess]:

minichess

1.d3 ed??

Blunder! (You have given your opponent both control and access to the square right in front of your king!) It is forced mate in four:

2.ed – threatening Qe2+ and mate on e4. Black can prolong this with cd (answered by cd) or Nc3 (answered by bxc3) but mate will come on e4 soon enough.

The other thing mini-chess should teach well is that pawns are powerful weapons – where they are only three moves away from queening from the start, strategies for promotion should quickly become apparent.

(It can also teach you about zugzwang – but that’s a bit advanced!)

Push or defend

For this one you’ll have to imagine a solid line between the a and b file. One pawn starts on the a file and can freely wander to the other end. Once it is promoted, you win the game.

However, the other side is trying to checkmate you. Try this one: (White doesn’t have a king in these games, just some pieces to attack with. Here it is Qh1, Rg1, Pf2. Black has the pawn on a7 – which will promote in 5 moves unless Black uses up some moves to avoid checkmate: Kg8, Rf8 and pawns on f7,g7 and h7.)

Push or defend.PNG

This should teach the basic importance of time, and having your own plans (counterplay). As an attacker it should force you to think about forcing moves, and see which threats really are threatening.

Endgame cuts

This one I recommend for absolutely all levels of chess – and was surprisingly inspired by a method for cutting cake fairly! I remember a puzzle from years ago about cutting cakes that are not uniform – different amounts of icing, toppings, corners etc – a potential minefield for any cake cutting scenario. The question was how can two people can ensure a cake is cut fairly between them, using only a knife? (n.b. you are not told anything about the shape or design of the cake).

The answer was pretty simple: One person makes the cut, and the other one gets to choose their piece. This encourages the cutter to cut as fairly as possible.

Okay, its not perfect – it’s a little unfair on the cutter. However, the same approach actually works much better for chess training:

One person sets up an endgame, and the other person chooses their colour.

Why does this help? Two reasons – it gets you to try to evaluate positions. As you set the board up, you will be thinking through all the various parts of the position. Material, time, and quality. Two connected past pawns? Maybe that’s equal to a bishop? Maybe they’re not, maybe they’re easily better. The point is it’s up to you, and you can modify the position until you think it’s equal.

The second reason I like it (except that it trains endgames, which let’s be honest we all need to do more of!) is that when you lose with the side that you picked, you are forced to re-evaluate. Psychologically it’s much harder to ignore the flaws in your thinking when it’s you who chose the position!


mikecircle

Mike Harris

Mike is a regular pretender in Bristol’s top division and can also be seen propping up local tournament ladders. He writes a regular column for the Bristol Chess Times and plays a solid 20 openings a season.