30 December 2006

The Best of ChessCafe

For the first time in a long while, I received a chess book as a Christmas gift this year. The last time I can remember getting a chess book was when I was a teenager and my chess library had a total of one or two books, half of them by Reinfeld. That last gift was Lasker's 'Manual of Chess', which is one reason why I think so highly of it: people always have fond memories of their first loves. Another reason is that it's such a good book that even as my knowledge of chess deepened, I always found something new and interesting in it.

The book I received this Christmas was 'Heroic Tales: The Best of Chesscafe.com 1996 - 2001', edited by Taylor Kingston. It was a good choice of book mainly because I didn't have it already. I received it from a friend of the family, who once was a decent club player and who knows the difference between 1.d4 and 1.e4.

The Amazon.com page...

Heroic Tales: The Best of Chesscafe.com 1996-2001

...has a single Customer Review that says, 'An attempt to paint a rosy picture of FIDE administrators under the guise of impartiality. If you are interested in distorted facts and half truths then this is probably the book for you. If not, don't waste your money!', along with a single star. As far as I can see after browsing the book for a few days and reading 100 pages or so, this comment has nothing to do with anything, so I reported it to Amazon as 'inappropriate'. Since the report form didn't allow me to say why I thought it was inappropriate, my report will probably end up in the bit bucket.

The book was also a good choice as a gift for me because I'm not a big fan of ChessCafe.com and haven't read much of their material. Yes, I know they offer oodles of wisdom from some of the best chess writers on the Web. All of them have outstanding credentials as players, trainers, organizers, or the like. The problem is that the site makes it as difficult as possible for me to determine what, if anything, might interest me.

The ChessCafe home page uses a style of mystery meat navigation that makes its visitors click through to an article to find out what the topic is. For example, at this moment the first article in the list of Columns (ChessCafe's term) is titled 'New Stories about Old Chess Players, Jeremy Spinrad, December 30'. That's all. There is nothing that tells me what kind of story about which old player is featured this month. If I visit the site a month from now, I will see 'New Stories about Old Chess Players, Jeremy Spinrad, January 30', or whatever date the column was last updated.

I've read one of Spinrad's columns and I know that he is a first class chess historian. I might learn something new and interesting from his current column. I might also learn something interesting from 'Opening Lanes, Gary Lane, December 6'. GM Lane might be writing this month about one of my favorite openings. I am never going to find out, because I don't have the time to click through 20 columns (I counted them) to discover which ones interest me personally.

I can only guess why ChessCafe does this, and my guess is arrogance. I suppose that the person responsible for the site's administration just assumes that visitors to the site have nothing better to do than to click through uninformative descriptions of content. This may have been true in 1996, when ChessCafe started operating, but at the end of 2006, nearly 2007, there are more sites competing for everyone's attention than there were in 1996.

A twenty-something told me proudly today that he is a member of the '0-1-2-3' generation. When I asked what it meant he told me that whenever he uses technology, he wants zero manuals or user guides, one button maximum to push, two buttons maximum on the gadget, and three seconds maximum response time. I'm probably the last person in the world to have heard this joke, and I had to laugh.

ChessCafe, in contrast, wants me to click through 20 links to find out what's on offer this month. No, thanks. I'll move on to another site. Have I missed something? Maybe so, but it's only chess and it's just a game, and I can live with an element of ignorance.

There are other reasons why I think the ChessCafe navigation stems from arrogance, but I'll keep those to myself. Unlike many web writers, chess or otherwise but especially chess writers, I'm not out to pick fights with everyone else; not on this topic, at least.

What do I think about the book 'Best of ChessCafe'? It's excellent. In a way it's a pity that someone had to destroy a tree before I could discover this fantastic content that has been a mouse click away for the last five years.

I might have more to say about the book on this blog. Then again I might not; there is so much else to write about. I would enjoy reviewing it for About Chess, but since it was published in 2002, it's too old. Maybe there will be a 'Best of Chesscafe.com 2001-2006'. If there is, and it turns out to be as good as the 1996-2001 version, I am certain that it will be worth an enthusiastic review.

28 December 2006

Is the KID dead?

Another quote from the introduction to Shereshevsky's 'Mastering the Endgame: Closed Games'
caught my eye.

The reader will note the relatively large number of 'King's Indian' endings, presented in the 'Dark-square strategy' section. The King's Indian Defense occurs increasingly rarely in top-level tournaments. The charm of its novelty has largely been lost, whereas the degree of risk has grown several-fold. White has a wide range of possibilities for developing his initiative -- from direct play 'for mate' in the Saemisch Variation to 'emasculating' set-ups with the exchange on e5.

I am a great fan of the King's Indian Defense (KID) and this was news to me. The introduction also mentioned, 'In recent years [the book was published in 1992], however, thanks to the successes of the World Champion [Kasparov], there is a justification for talking of another burst in popularity of the King's Indian Defense.'

Now that Kasparov is retired, has anyone taken up the slack? From a recent ChessBase article...

'King's Indian: Fear and trembling on the chessboard' by Steve Giddins

...'In recent years, however, the popularity of the [King's Indian Defense] at top level has waned sharply. If one thinks back a while, KID adherents amongst the super-tournament regulars included Kasparov, Gelfand, Judit Polgar, van Wely, Svidler and Topalov, yet if you search your database, you will be hard pressed to find a single KID game, featuring one of these players as Black, in the last five years. Fashion being what it is, this decline in popularity has been reflected at lower levels.'

Giddins went on to compare the unpopularity of the KID with 'flared trousers' (aka bell-bottoms) and to blame it on two Kasparov losses to Kramnik. The rest of the article is a puff piece for a DVD titled 'A World champion's guide to the King’s Indian' by Rustam Kasimdzhanov. [An aside: Has the world abandoned Nigel Short's initiative to spell the ex-FIDE World Champion's name as Kasimjanov?] Puff piece or not, Kasimdzhanov 'sets out to convince you that not only is there nothing wrong with the King’s Indian, but it remains one of the most dangerous defences for the 1.d4 player to face.'

Whew! I can still play it. Now I'm left with two questions: 1) What were the two Kasparov - Kramnik games? -and- 2) Who else besides Kasimdzhanov (currently FIDE 2672) plays it at the 2650+ level? Answers to follow.

26 December 2006

The 'Grand Formation' of the Steinitz Defense

In his introduction to Tarrasch - Lasker, World Championship Match 1908, game 4 (see The Lasker - Tarrasch rivalry; the Steinitz Defense for background), Soltis made several remarks on the historical value of the game.

Lasker defended against Tarrasch's 1.e4 with the Steinitz Defense. This was something of a gauntlet. Tarrasch had scored six wins out of seven previous games against the various forms of the Steinitz. In fact, the best known previous example of the Steinitz Defense was [Tarrasch - Schlechter, Leipzig 1894]. Tarrasch, the finest strategist of his time, had built a Grand Formation based on Bb2, Rad1, Rfe1, and Pawns at b3, c4 and e4, followed by a Rook-lift. It was the "correct" way to punish Black's third move, he said. If he had been able to make strategy, not tactics, the issue in the match, Tarrasch would have become the third official world champion.

The position in the diagram shows the Grand Formation. White hasn't played the move order mentioned by Soltis -- the Rook-lift to the third rank was played before c4 -- but the formation is the same.

Leipzig 1894
Schlechter, Carl

Tarrasch, Siegbert
(After 19.c2-c4)
[FEN "4rbk1/ppq2ppp/2pprn2/8/N1P1P3/1P1QR2P/PB3PP1/4R1K1 b - c3 0 19"]

Schlechter played 19...Nd7. Within a few moves the only plan that he could find was to maintain the status quo and do nothing. Tarrasch pushed g4 and h4, doubled his Rooks on the g-file, and broke through on g5. Black resigned on the 37th move.

What is the origin of the phrase 'Grand Formation'? Soltis doesn't say.

24 December 2006

22 December 2006

Shereshevsky's 'Mastering the Endgame: Closed Games'

Via eBay I was lucky to get a copy of Shereshevsky's 'Mastering the Endgame, Volume 2: Closed Games' (Cadogan 1992) for a reasonable price. This is the sequel to 'Mastering the Endgame: Open and Semi-Open Games'.

The introduction to the book, co-authored with Slutsky, says, 'In games begun with the open and semi-open openings, the endgame for a long time retains its individuality; thus one does not confuse a Sicilian endgame with a Ruy Lopez, or a Caro-Kann endgame with one from Petroff's Defence. In the closed openings things are more complicated. In many of them identical Pawn structures arise and, for example, openings so dissimilar in spirit as the Queen's Gambit and the Gruenfeld Defence can lead to analogous endings.'

The book has only four chapters: Dark-Square Strategy, Light-Square Strategy, Symmetry, and Asymmetry. Dark-square strategy means games where Black has played ...g6, like the King's Indian and Benoni. Light-square strategy means games without ...g6 and usually without ...d5, many of them with ...b6. This was new terminology for me.

A translator's note mentions, 'To reduce the original manuscript to a manageable size for publication, several games have had to be omitted'. I have no idea how many. Since my first task on a new book is to find or create a PGN file, I should discover how many games are missing.

20 December 2006

MonRoi and Recording Moves: Now I Get It!

The November Chess Life has an article titled 'First the Digital Clock, Now This' by Jerry Hanken. Among other things, it explains why FIDE (and the USCF) added the rule forbidding players from writing a move on the scoresheet before playing it. This is a well established practice among many players and was recommended by Kotov in 'Think Like a Grandmaster' as a technique for reducing blunders.

The MonRoi, an electronic scoresheet, has a display which shows the current position. As Hanken pointed out, 'if one could see his or her move on the small monitor prior to making it, it would actually bring one a step closer to the personal horizon of analysis.' The rule change was made to avoid that problem.


That sentence I just copied strikes me as somewhat clumsy. What is 'the personal horizon of analysis'? Why not, 'if you could see the position on the small display before playing a move on the board, it would bring you a step closer to visualizing your analysis'? On the other hand, I have no training as a writer, so what do I know? Hanken is president of the Chess Journalists of America (CJA).

18 December 2006

The Lasker - Tarrasch rivalry; the Steinitz Defense

The next game in the series on Lasker's Moves that Matter is Tarrasch - Lasker, World Championship Match 1908, game 4. I've already discussed these two players in The Lasker - Tarrasch rivalry; the Berlin Defense.

In 'The Game of Chess', Tarrasch said of the Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5; p.278), 'There are two good defenses, viz. 3...Nf6 and 3...a6 4.Ba4 Nf6.'

(p.291); An unfavorable -- but very frequently played defense -- is 3...d6 a move that was strongly recommended by Steinitz. This move, which shuts in the King's Bishop, is as little recommendable here as at the second move. White invariably captures the center and thus obtains the better game.
The most important continuations are 4.d4! Bd7 (Naturally Black attempts to maintain the center as long as possible.) 5.Nc3 Nf6 6.O-O Be7 7.Re1 and Black must give up the center by 7...exd4, for, if 7...O-O? he certainly loses a Pawn and perhaps the Exchange, e.g. 8.Bxc6 8...Bxc6 9.dxe5 dxe5 10.Qxd8 Raxd8 11.Nxe5 Bxe4 12.Nxe4 Nxe4 13.Nd3 f5 14.f3 Bc5+ 15.Nxc5 Nxc5 16.Bg5 Rd5 17.Be7 Re8 18.c4 (Tarrasch - Marco, Dresden 1892). After 7...exd4 8.Nxd4 O-O 9.Bf1!, Black has a cramped game and only if White makes mistakes can it be freed.

Tarrasch said nothing about 8...Nxd4, the move Lasker played in game 4 of the match. He continued:

After 4.d4 Bd7 5.Nc3 Nf6 the following line of attack is even more forceful: 6.Bxc6. The exchange of a strong piece for an inferior one is justified by the continuation. 6...Bxc6 7.Qd3. Now Black cannot well support the point e5 any longer and consequently gets a disadvantage in position. After 7...exd4 8.Nxd4 White's position is appreciably the better. Black's best continuation is 8...Be7. The attempt to maintain the center by 7...Nd7 is refuted by 8.Be3 for then White threatens 9.d5 (8.d5? Nc5).
Steinitz's defense is only slightly strengthened by the interpolation of the move 3...a6.

In his 'Manual of Chess', Lasker had this to say (p.77):

The oldest defense [to 3.Bb5] is 3...d6 which is the most direct one. Surely a sound and substantial one, though it may not appeal to the high-flown fancy. 4.d4 Bd7 5.Nc3 (5.Bxc6 Bxc6 6.dxe5 Bxe4) 5...Nf6 6.Bxc6 Bxc6 7.Qd3. Black must now decide what to do with his e-Pawn. Obviously 7...Qe7 blocking the Bishop is doubtful, as is 7...Nd7, which limits the action of the QB. However, an unpretentious move suffices. 7...exd4 8.Nxd4 Bd7. Black desires to keep the two Bishops and to guard the point f5.

Quite a difference in opinion, isn't it. The 1908 match was a clash of two chess philosophies.

16 December 2006

Endgame: Marshall - Lasker, 1907 Match, Game 1

Continuing with Lasker's Moves that Matter, this is the fourth post on the same game. The endgame that starts with the diagrammed position is one of Lasker's most famous.

Kasparov mentioned some Shereshevsky analysis. I found it on p.87 of Endgame Strategy, along with an extended quote from Capablanca.

In his book Chess Fundamentals Capablanca comments as follows on this position: "In this position it is Black's move. To a beginner the position may look like a draw, but the advanced player will realise immediately that there are great possibilities for Black to win, not only because he has the initiative, but because of White's undeveloped Queenside and the fact that a Bishop in such a position is better than a Knight. It will take some time for White to bring his Rook and Knight into the fray, and Black can utilise it to obtain an advantage. There are two courses open to him. The most evident, and the one that most players would take, is to advance the Pawn to c5 and c4 immediately in conjunction with the Bishop check at a6 and any other move that might be necessary with the Black Rook. The other, more subtle, course was taken by Black."
Capablanca goes on to explain that with his Rook Black must all the time force White to defend something, when the activity of the White Rook and Knight is restricted, whereas the Black Rook and Bishop retain complete freedom of action.

Lasker played 19...Rb8, and the game continued 20.b3 Rb5 21.c4 Rh5 22.Kg1 c5 23.Nd2 Kf7

World Championship Match (g.1)
New York 1907

Lasker, Emanuel

Marshall, Frank
(After 19.Kg1-f1(xR))
[FEN "r1b3k1/p1p3pp/2p5/8/3pP3/6P1/PPP4P/RN3K2 b - - 0 19"]

Now Marshall played 24.Rf1+. All commentators condemn this as the losing move and recommend instead 24.a3, followed by 24...a5 25.Rb1. Here Kasparov showed that 25...Ke7 and 25...Ke6 are insufficient to win, while Soltis did the same for 25...Bg4.

Now I have to return to Lasker's 13...fxe5!, which he played instead of 13...Ng5 . Since 13...fxe5 draws after best play by both sides, does it really merit a '!' award? Perhaps '!?' is more appropriate.

14 December 2006

World Championship News

Here are a few notes for myself.

12 December 2006

Marshall - Lasker, 1907 Match, Game 1

Second-best moves sometimes win. Continuing with Lasker's Moves that Matter, the diagram shows the position reached at the end of the post on Candidate Moves. See that post for a link to the complete game.

After 13.f3, Lasker played 13...fxe5. Both Kasparov (KAS) and Soltis (SOL) gave the move '!'. KAS wrote, '13...Ng5 was more prudent, but Lasker makes a psychologically wise choice'; SOL wrote, 'Black was simply applying a traditional strategy of taking the attack to an attacker'.

World Championship Match (g.1)
New York 1907

Lasker, Emanuel

Marshall, Frank
(After 13.f2-f3)
[FEN "r1b2rk1/p1p3pp/2p2p2/3pP3/4n2q/4B3/PPP2PPP/RN1QR1K1 w - - 0 13"]

After 14.fxe4 d4, Marshall continued 15.g3. Both KAS ('?!') and SOL ('?') criticized the move, pointing out that 15.Qd2! dxe3 16.Qxe3 was much better and might win.

Commenting on Lasker's 15...Qf6, SOL showed that Tarrasch's suggestion of 15...Qh3 was no better. Now KAS gave Marshall's 16.Bxd4 a '?!', and analyzed 16.Bd2 to a perpetual check. SOL agreed that 16.Bd2 is 'at least equal', added that 16.Qd2 'is a close second', and mentioned that Marshall's 16.Bxd4 'would have been good enough to draw'. Now after 16...exd4 17.Rf1 Qxf1+ 18.Qxf1 Rxf1+ 19.Kxf1, the players reached a position that many commentators have believed is a forced win for White.

I've left out most of the detailed analysis here. The whole sequence is extraordinary. Lasker played the inferior 13...fxe5. Two world class commentators gave it a '!', then pointed out that Marshall missed a possible win and at least two ways to draw. Finally, we are told that Marshall should have drawn an endgame that has often been used as an example of Lasker's refined endgame play. I'll look at this last point in a subsequent post.

10 December 2006

Candidate Moves

Returning to Lasker's Moves that Matter, the position in the diagram is from one of Lasker's most famous games. Marshall played 11.Re1. What's the best move for Black? I fed the position to my chess playing software, and after about ten minutes, it established the following moves as its top choices.

  • Re8
  • Bf5
  • Bb7
  • Rb8
  • Ba6
  • a6
  • Qh4
  • Nc5
  • a5
  • Rd8

There was not much difference in the valuations of these ten moves. There are other moves worth considering, like 11...Be6. What move did Lasker play?

World Championship Match (g.1)
New York 1907

Lasker, Emanuel

Marshall, Frank
(After 10...Qd8-e7(xN))
[FEN "r1b2rk1/p1p1qppp/2p5/3pP3/4n3/8/PPP2PPP/RNBQ1RK1 w - - 0 11"]

Lasker played 11...Qh4. Kasparov (KAS) gave the move '!?' and quoted Zak, 'In search of complications Black avoids 11...f6 which leads to a good position: 12.f3 Ng5 13.Bxg5 fxg5 14.Nc3 Be6 followed by 15...c5.'

Marshall played 12.Be3.

KAS: 'The immediate 12.f3!? would perhaps have been better.'
Soltis (SOL): 'Hoffer led the critics in arguing for 12.f3 immediately. It has merits: 12...Qf2+? 13.Kh1 Nc5 14.Be3 drops a piece. But 12...Nc5 13.Be3 Ne6 and 14...f6 is nothing much.'

After Lasker's 12...f6, SOL commented, 'Tarrasch preferred 12...f5 13.f3 f4, but 14.Bd4 Ng5 15.Nc3 favors White because of the dark square bind. He's also better after 14.Bd4 c5 15.fxe4 cxd4 16.Nd2!.' Now after 13.f3, my software suggested only two moves which don't lose immediately: ...Ng5 and ...fxe5, with a big preference for the first move. What did Lasker play?

To play through the complete game see...

Frank James Marshall vs Emanuel Lasker, World Championship Match 1907

...on Chessgames.com.

08 December 2006

The Machine Sees Further Ahead

The recent Kramnik - Fritz match resulted in an indisputable victory for the machine. This set it apart from the previous match won by a computer over a World Champion -- the 1997 Kasparov vs. Deep Blue match -- where Kasparov's unfounded accusations of cheating convinced the more gullible members of the non-chess playing public that foul play was involved.

A decade ago chess playing software passed from not-as-good as a person to at-least-as-good. Since then the software, coupled with better hardware, has passed to better-than. What changed? The machines can see even further ahead than before. A paragraph in David Shenk's 'The Immortal Game' drove this point home for me.

With so much fluidity in the game -- a near-infinite number of ways to win and a near-infinite number of ways to lose -- a newcomer might reasonably assume (as I certainly did) that chess is mostly a game of quick thinking. Since a game is won or lost on a player's ability to outmaneuver an opponent's pieces, and since it is surely impossible to memorize or analyze even a tiny fraction of all the possible board configurations, one would naturally expect most games to go to the sharpest -- or deepest -- thinker, the player able to see the furthest ahead. (p.77)

While other factors might tip the balance for person vs. person, or for machine vs. machine, in a match between a person and a machine the computer is unquestionably the player 'able to see the furthest ahead'. The grandmaster's better understanding of chess no longer compensates for the machine's advantage in calculating variations. For man - machine matches to become fair fights again, some other form of compensation is required.

Can Kramnik beat Fritz if he starts with an extra Knight? With an extra Pawn? With equal material but two consecutive moves at the beginning? There is only one way to find out.

06 December 2006

Four-player Chaturanga?

While reading 'The Immortal Game, A History of Chess' by David Shenk, a passage on the birth of chess caught my attention.

After what might have been centuries of tinkering, chatrang, the first true version of what we now call chess, finally emerged in Persia sometime during the fifth or sixth century. It was a two-player war game with thirty-two pieces on a sixty-four-square board [...] Chatrang was a modified import from neighboring India, where an older, four-player version of the game was known as chaturanga -- which itself may have been a much older import from neighboring China. (p.17 & 18)

...Shenk's claim didn't square with my understanding of the early evolution of chess, which I documented in a recent introductory article...

The Origin of Chess

...'India - Chaturanga: It is not surprising that the earliest evidence of chess is also the murkiest. Forbes believed that the game called chaturanga, which means 'quadripartite' in Sanskrit, referred to a four-player version of the game using dice and was mentioned in the Puranas, which he dated to 3000 B.C. Murray showed that the four-player version came after the two-player version, discarded the notion of dice, and refuted the dating of the Puranas. This left literary evidence pointing to 620 A.D.'

One of my sources was 'The Oxford Companion to Chess' by Hooper and Whyld.

chaturanga, the earliest precursor of modern chess that can be clearly defined. [...] On account of the false trail laid by Forbes, the ancestor of chaturanga was once thought to be four-handed chess, no evidence of which exists before the 11th century.

Forbes became notorious for several factual errors. The same source says that he is 'now ignored'.

Forbes, 'Duncan (1798-1868), Scottish writer on chess history, professor of oriental languages. [...] Regarded by his contemporaries as a monument to scholarship, Forbes's history is now ignored.

Shenk provides extensive notes on many of his facts, but gives nothing to support the statement about four-player chaturanga. If he is right, this is new information that upsets the historical foundation that H.J.R.Murray built.

04 December 2006

Lasker's Aborted Matches with Tarrasch and Maroczy

Continuing a 'A curious affair': 1907 Lasker - Marshall, Hannak had this to say about Lasker's arrangements to play Tarrasch or Maroczy.

At Monte Carlo 1904, Ostend 1905, and Barmen 1905 Maroczy had scored three great triumphs in succession, and Tarrasch had convincingly beaten Marshall in a match (8:1, with eight draws). Surely, people said, it was about time for Lasker to defend his title against either Maroczy or Tarrasch, or both. Lasker was not unwilling, and negotiations were first started with Tarrasch, a provisional agreement was reached and the time actually fixed for the match. But Tarrasch suddenly decided to withdraw. Once again he had missed a chance to face that crucial test.

The obvious alternative was to defend the title against Maroczy. Once again negotiations were started, and an agreement was reached and published in the 1905 volume of Lasker's Chess Magazine. All the chess world was eagerly looking forward to an exciting struggle between Lasker and the Hungarian grandmaster; and there was widespread disappointment when Maroczy cancelled the arrangement at the last moment.

From 'Emanuel Lasker: The Life of a Chess Master' by J.Hannak, Dover 1991, p.111.

02 December 2006

'A curious affair': 1907 Lasker - Marshall

In 'Why Lasker Matters', Soltis' introduction to game 1 of the 1907 Lasker - Marshall match has four historical points worth further investigation...

The world championship match with Frank Marshall was a curious affair. The American had a plus score against Lasker [1]. but almost no one thought he had a chance -- despite Lasker's Chess Magazine's efforts to encourage Marshall's fans [2]. It was a backup event, a replacement for the collapse of Lasker's arrangements to play Tarrasch [3] or Maroczy [4].

...The first point ('[1]') is easy enough: Marshall - Lasker, Paris 1900, 1-0; and Lasker - Marshall, Cambridge Springs 1904, 1/2. As for the other three points, what are the details?