Sunday, 24 May 2009

Combinations and sacrifices

Recently, May 2009, at the Chessbase site Edward Winter published a new column in his series “Chess Explorations”. These columns are based on Winter´s numerous “Chess Notes”, which can also be found on the internet and in several books from him. These “Chess Notes” make an interesting and entertaining reading for everyone with a broad interest in chess in all its aspects. Here by recommended!

The column in question was titled “What is a Chess Combination?”. It was mostly based on “Chess Note 1960” (!!). Yes, Winter has produced an incredible quantity of them - so far, according to the website, 6105! The “Chess Note 1960” was also published in Winter´s: “Kings, Commoners and Knaves” from 1998. The ChessBase column did leave something out compared to that, but also added a page from Cecil Purdy´s article “What is a Combination?” from 1955.

Cecil Purdy (1906-1979) was an Australian IM and the very first world champion in correspondence chess. He was also an esteemed chess writer with his own magazine and many fine books on his record. I suppose he was a kind of dean in that field in his part of the world, at least I have not heard of anyone who could equal him. His writings were also widely acknowledged internationally, also, but far from only, because of his often controversial, independent and non-authoritarian points of view, also on the subject “combinations”, but more on that later.

Now, the issue here is combinations and sacrifices. As you can understand from the above, Winter started this discussion up more than ten years ago, but that does not really matter to a dedicated researcher, no matter what the subject is. And especially this subject, “the combination”, is at the very core of chess. You cannot have chess without combinations, so the discussions and the tentative understandings of what it is, I guess we will always have as long as there is chess. “Combinations - The heart of chess”! Yes - sic! -, and that was also, according to Winter (who else?), the title of a book by Irving Chernev.

The long-lasting discussion goes on the definition of a “combination”, which I will hereafter refer to as a “C”. Usually I do not join such discussion with much engagement, as I find other issues far more important. But in this case the concept and the phenomena it covers are absolutely essential to chess, and especially when it comes to playing the game. For chess didactical reasons it is therefore of the utmost importance to have a clear, all-embracing definition. If we have to teach our students/pupils a subject, at first we need ourselves to have a clear, conscious understanding of it. And chess students, from the very beginner to the strongest masters, need to learn to see and handle C´s, and they are never really finished with that business. Yes, this is true! Even the super GMs do some “tactical” exercises now and then. I know that from many sources.

Actually I do not find any of the many definitions of C, which Winter quotes, completely satisfactory. The closest agreement I can come to, is with the old sage, Emanuel Lasker in his sublime “Manual of Chess”.

In the “Third book”, on “The Combination,” he writes about the many variations a chess player has to calculate during a game, and then it comes: “In the rare instances that the player can detect a variation or net of them which leads to a desirable issue by force, the totality of these variations and their logical structure are named a “combination”…” That is a fine formulation, as it also describes the process whereby the C occurs to the player. I am also for the formulation “… variation or net of them”, as I think a C is not always just a string of moves with no nodes. But I do not think that C´s are “…rare instances”. They are everywhere during a game of chess, most of them of course not actually seen on the board, but hidden in the calculations of the players. Many of them lead to “a desirable issue” for the opponent, and the player who sees them has to take measures against them. Overall the question about the motive of C´s needs to be tightened up. Of course no player would actually play a C if he did not think it led to “a desirable issue”, but it often happens that his calculations are wrong and the C does not lead to the goal. In Lasker´s definition there is no place for “unsound” C´s.

For some reason some of the greatest authorities on the game have insisted on having a sacrifice (hereby referred to as a “S”) in the course of the C. Most notably we have Mikhail Botvinnik, former WCh and by many hailed as the "patriarch" of Soviet chess. He defines a C as “A forced variation with sacrifice”. Romanovsky (one of the older Russian-Soviet masters, quite influential by his writings in the early Soviet Union), according to Purdy, had set up a definition, very much in line with and expanding on Lasker´s, which did not include sacrifices He was criticised by Botvinnik, “…because it would include things which come under the category of manoeuvres rather than combinations” (cited from Purdy). I had never read that before and it really baffled me, because I have always experienced and regarded Botvinnik as excellently clear in his thinking and formulations. In my view a “manoeuvre” is something only ONE of the players can carry out – a C is a forced string or sequence of moves by BOTH players. “Manoeuvres” and C´s have nothing in common, whatsoever. They can only have some connections, as a C can be a means to carry out a manoeuvre.

Against this Purdy rebelled, as you can see and read in Winter´s article. Purdy brought this position to the reader´s attention:

White wins by playing 1.Bb5+, Ke7 2. Nf5+,Ke6 3.Nxg7+ and white wins black´s queen. Here there is no S, but it is a completely forced sequence of moves. Is this not a C? As Purdy put it: “I hardly think that Botvinnik would call this a manoeuvre…”.
The crucial point is that games of chess abound with such forced sequences of moves, and that they -the C´s - are something special in the vast jungle of chess variations. And most importantly: To play any kind of decent, meaningful chess, you need to be able to manage them to some extent, even if it is just a little. And to manage them, you first of all need to be able to distinguish them from the rest of the variations. Because C´s can be your strongest weapon in the fight, but also the most dangerous pitfalls, if you are not aware of them, and that applies no matter if there is a S included or not.
So, in my view Purdy’s line is indeed a C. Another thing is that, as a reader of “Chess Notes” pointed out, white could play even better in the line given with 3.Bc4!,Qxc4 5.Qxd6+ mate! And then the C would after all include a S. That was bad luck for Purdy, but I believe we got his point.
Purdy gave his definition of a C as: “Play of which the initial moves would lead to gain in every possible variation, through weakness at more than one point”. And another, later and shorter one: “A sudden coup which brings about a substantial gain, no matter what reply the enemy makes”, of which one he states that it “…is not an attempt at complete definition, but at one which will be understood by beginners…”. Well, I never really understood why beginners in a certain field should be provided with especially simplified and reduced explanations and definitions, at least not if we are not dealing with children. But, anyhow, I prefer the first and oldest definition, even though I have my objections. To add that something about “weaknesses” is redundant. It will not be possible to gain anything by any means, if your opponent’s position does not have weaknesses – we have known that since Steinitz. And, again, he leaves out unsound C´s. And then there is still something lacking, something about the units actually taking part in the C. More on that later.
But about S´s I will stretch it further: You never have a S in a C! Of course you quite often give material in these forced lines to gain your desired goals, but is this really a S? It could be that you could call it so, technically as a means in one of the steps in the sequence. But as we are dealing with a forced line which leads (or should lead) to something more than you had before you initialized it, I do not think you can say that you “sacrifice” anything. A true, genuine S is when you in a position give material for some far-sighted goal, the course to which you can not calculate precisely in detail.
This distinction is also very important for didactical reasons. A beginner’s first real, pure joy from chess comes very often, if not always, from C´s, where material is given away in its sequence – and I suppose most of us never really grow out of that joy. But to manage such C´s is by no way the most difficult step in a player’s development, even though such steps you simply have to climb, otherwise you will not get higher. Far more difficult is it to learn to carry out a genuine S with a farsighted goal, and many players, even quite strong ones, never really manage it, and so back off from them.
And now, to illustrate the above outline – and add some more - some positions from very recent games, all collected from the three latest issues of New In Chess.
This is from Leko-Morozevich, Amber 2009.
White is to move and plays 40.Ng5+! and black resigned. 40.-,hxg5 41.Qh5+,Kg8 3.Re8+ is mate.This is a genuine C, and white even gives up materiel in the sequence, so every one will agree on that.
For a super GM as Leko to carry out this C is just a matter of technique, and he probably saw it in a flash, even though the game was played blindfold. But I still think he enjoyed the moment.

In the former white´s desired goal was check mate. Here it is more modest, which in fact is the case with most C´s. It is Anand-Leko, Amber 2009, again played blindfold.
White wins with 1.Bxf7+!,Rxf7 2.Qh8+,Kxh8 3.Nxf7+ with an ensuing decisive material advantage, which wins the endgame, at least for a strong player. A C with this mechanism was also seen in a WCh-match game Petrosian-Spassky, 1966, and you can be sure the present WCh knew of this. That is also part of his chess education.
These were easy cases, but then what about this:

Morozevich-Topalov, Amber 2009, again played blindfold.

Black has just played the unfortunate 39.-a6?, which is followed up by a surprisingly forced sequence: 40.e5!,Rh6 41.e6,Ne5 ( 41.-,fxe6 42.Re7+ ) 42.e7,Kf6 43.Nd5+,Ke6 44.Rd8 and black resigned. Here we have several nodes in the string, the most attractive line being 40.-,Rd1 41.Rd8! and there are still more nodes, but it is a forced win in all lines.

Is this a C? I think it is, but I admit it is a difficult case to categorize. To do that we have to take into account the playing strength, and thereby the players´ capacity to calculate lines. I have no doubt that Morozevich calculated this all out (blindfold!), and also lesser gods than him could do that. But less strong players would likely fall back from calculating all the lines after especially 40.-,Rd1. Anyhow, I believe most players, from a certain, rather low level, would see and play 41.Rd8, just to set up the pin, and then win the game, employing the forced line of the C. And it does happen that you intuitively stumble into a C. It is a C anyway. And most important: It is possible for a human brain to calculate this all out, and a player who wants to improve simply has to learn to do that.

Some more questions emerge on this case:

Carlsen-Grischuk, Wijk-an-Zee 2009.

Here Magnus played the completely forcing 33.Ba6!, There are many lines after this, but black can do nothing about the passed pawns white creates. The game went 33.-,Bf6 34. Bxb7, Rxb7 35.c6,Rxb6 36.Rc1! This is necessary as 36.c7??,Rc6! stops the pawns, so Carlsen indeed had to calculate something before playing Ba6. 36.-,Bxb2 37.d7 and black resigned.

But, as I wrote, there are many lines after 33.Ba6! – did Carlsen see them all through? I am not sure. It is about this “desired goal” of the C, which again is about the ability to evaluate the positions at the end of the forced sequence of moves. This ability to evaluate positions is quite likely what really counts when it comes to playing strength. From that it follows that strong players at times can stop earlier in their calculations of the sequences, because at an earlier point they can evaluate the position. They – so to say – do not have to see the movie to the bitter end. In this case it could be that Carlsen stopped his calculations when he saw the two mighty pawns reach the sixth rank, which mostly is decisive. But lesser gods would probably want, by calculation, to be absolutely sure that one of the pawns would actually queen.

Now this is about the distinction between S and C, between which I admit it can be difficult to draw the borderline:

Aronian-Leko, Amber 2009

Once again blindfold, and in spite of that I do not think Aronian found it difficult to find the next sequence of moves: 21.Rxg6+,fxg6 22.Qxg6+,Kf8 23.Qxh6+,Ke7 24.Nf5+,Kf7 25.Nd6+,Ke7 26.Rd1,Rf8 27.Rd5,Rf6 28.Qh7+,Kf8 29.Rg5 and black resigned.

Is this a S or a C? I believe it is the latter, mainly because I think Aronian simply regards the execution of this series of moves as pure technique. I believe he calculated the lines with the queen checks and when the knight could enter the battle after Nf5+ he stopped, evaluating the position as simply won, as if he had entered an ending two pawns up. No reason to go further, when he was sure to reach his desired goal.

The next position was heavily in focus at the Internet Chess Club, when it was transmitted live:

Kamsky-Topalov, Match Sofia 2009
Kamsky has a splendid position, but it still took him 30 more moves to gain the victory after he played the cautious 43.Bb4. As he points out in his comments in NIC, he could have won a lot faster by playing 43.Bxf8!,Rxd2 44.Qc1!,Rxf8 45.Rxf6,Qd7 46.Ngf1,Rd6 47.Nf5!. He admits that he did not see the last, strong move in the sequence. This line is of course a genuine C, there are not even that many nodes in the string, but with its many hanging pieces it is not that easy to see through.

At the ICC some members seems to enjoy having their computer engines working on the positions in the games they are watching. At times it can be quite irritating with all these “comp eval´s” in positions that are not at all suitable for it. But when it comes to C´s, the “comps” of nowadays are merciless, they see it all, that’s it. And in the position above they – as quickly as light – saw the C that Kamsky missed. At the ICC some members, and presumably fans of Kamsky, went almost berserk, waiting for his move (fortunately, you only join this club in cyberspace!), which of course made them all fall down, as it was not what the “comps” had suggested. Some of them even took the liberty to criticise poor Kamsky, who was after all, after four hours´ play and in an immensely tense match situation, still sitting there playing, trying his best. Well, these people should try for themselves if they could find a C like this: But I doubt they will ever be able, the way they make use of their silicon oracles. This is a sad aspect of modern chess.

The next position contains a possible C, which the player replaces with a genuine S. It is from a crucial last round game between the two penultimate leaders of the B-group in Wijk-An-Zee, annotated in NIC very open-mindedly by the happy, young winner.

Caruana-Short, Wijk-an-Zee 2009
The game so far has been wild and fluctuating, which, in connection with the tense competitive situation, quite likely has taking its toll on the players. However, they keep on fighting it out.

Now there is, according to Caruana, a C that should win for black: 47.-,cxd2!48.Rxc6,dxe1N+! 49.Kf1,Nxf3 50.Rxd6,fxe4. This, according to Caruana, “…leads to an amusing endgame. Black is winning, but it is possible to lose control”. Here you see that if the desired goal of this C is reached, it depends on the evaluation of the nontrivial endgame it leads to. The sequence is not that difficult to calculate (underpromotion, but with check, and almost no nodes), so it all hangs on this endgame. Caruana believes it is winning for black. Well, I am not so sure, and it could be Short had the same opinion. But the continuation of the game indicates that it after all was by far the best to play this C. Short seems simply to have evaluated the consequences of the following S wrongly.

Instead he played 47.-,Nh4+!? Caruana: “A Shock! At first I was sure I was going to be mated immediately, but after I calmed down I realized that I was safe for the time being.” That seems to indicate that he at first thought that Short had come up with a C, that he had overlooked., and such incidents can indeed be shocking! Well, it could also be that Short thought he carried out a C, but overlooked something, turning it into an unsound S.

Then came 48.gxh4,Rg6+ 49.Kh3,Qd7 50.Qh5,cxd2 51.exf4,Rh6 and now Caruanas 52.Qg5+? should be a mistake, “…letting black off the hook” . He gives 52.Rg1+ as better, leading to an advantage for white in, again, a nontrivial endgame. In the continuation Short missed some chances to give perpetual check and finally lost.

And now we come to some remarkable recent S´s.

Akopian-Vachier-Lagrave, Ol Dresden 2008
White played the S 19.Bxg6!, Nxg6 If 19.-,fxg6 20.Rxf6,Qxf6 21.Rf1 wins the queen for the two rooks. Timman in NIC: And now “Black has little to hope for”. That is an evaluation from some kind of an expert. I believe him, the queen and the two knights are a formidable force, which black will not be able to contain, but it is still an evaluation. In the game came
20.Nf5,Qe5 21.Qxb6,Bxe4 22.Qxd6+,Qxd6 23.Nxd6,Bxc2 24.Rxf6 and white had regained his material and black´s position had fallen apart. Very nice, but not that, comparatively, difficult - that is for a strong GM. It could be on the border to being a C, as I claim the above Aronian-Leko is. But still, this is after all a far more complicated position, where even the best calculators cannot see to the end of all the branches of the tree of variations. The move 19.Bxg6 has to be based on some kind of intuition, so it is a S.

And finally, once again Caruana, this time as the ignitor of the fireworks:

Caruana-Berg, OL Dresden 2008
With all his heavy pieces on the king side and most of black´s off side it is no surprise that white can turn to drastic measures: 20.Nxf7!,Kxf7 21.Rxe6!, Nc5. It is not that difficult to see that black after 21.-,Kxe6 will be mated by force. In a way you could call this an “imbedded” C, which was most likely calculated by Caruana. 22.Rxd6!,Rxd6 23.Qf4+ I doubt if Caruana went much further than this in his pre-calculations. It is obvious that black is under hard pressure with his exposed king. 23.-,Ke7 24.Re1+,Kd7 25.Bb5+,Bc6 26.Qf5+,Ne6 27.Bxd6,Qxd6 28.Rxe6 and black resigned. That went fast, but black does have some alternatives which could have prolonged the fight, eg. 21.-Qc6!?. But in praxis it would have taken a super-human effort to stand up against this onslaught. Maybe Rybka could have managed, but I doubt it. You may try it out for yourself, if that is of some interest to you.

I hope the above has provided some clarity on the issues, in at least provoked some thoughts. But we are still in a need for a proper definition of a C.

For that we may turn to an authority, not mentioned or cited by Winter, even though he is mentioned in one of the comments from his readers. That is Yuri Averbakh, in his heyday one of the strongest Soviet GM ´s, later an esteemed and leading writer and researcher on, in particular, endgames. Averbakh deals with the subject in a most accurate and profound way in his “Schachtaktik für Fortgeschrittene”, Sportsverlag 1978, translated from Russian and also published in several English versions, “Chess tactics for Advanced Players”, the first of these also by Sportsverlag, 1984. Whether the latter is a directly translated, maybe even from Russian, or adapted version, I am not sure.

In a short chapter, “Was ist eine Kombination?” (“What is a Combination?”), Averbakh deals with most of the above mentioned attempts at definitions, apart from Purdy´s, whom he does not mention (It could he did not know of him at the time of writing). He does criticise Botvinnik, and brings up some more examples to undermine his definition.

Averbakh focuses on the very etymological core of the latin word “combination”, which means something like “tying together” (of some units). In the english version the phrase "connections" is used, so I will apply that from now on - even though I feel it lacks some dynamics. Maybe "relations" is better? Well, it does happen, that a word, completely broken away from its original etymology, is used as a term for a concept. But, anyhow, I can follow him: In a C there must be some units, pieces, which in some ways are in "connections". You cannot have a C with just one or two pieces. In fact Averbakh expresses that there must be at least three pieces connected in a C.

This attempt at dealing with the phenomenology of a C is very clever and something completely lacking in all the other mentioned definitions. On the definitions from Lasker and Romanovsky (and I suppose it will go for Purdy´s as well) Averbakh remarks: "You will note that both of these definitions have been completely disassociated from the connections of pieces and pawns, but they have retained two essential features connected with the combination: The forced moves and the winning of an advantage by the side carrying out the combination:" After dealing with Botvinnik´s definition, Averbakh states: “From all this follows that, of the two definitions of combination we have, one is too broad and the other too narrow”. That’s it! – expressing all my own doubts and sceptiscisms!

And then comes Averbakh´s definition: “A combination is a rearrangement of the connection of pieces of both sides, which forces a co-ordinated connection of contacts, which is advantageous to one side”. Sic!

This is the way it is translated in the english version of the book. Actually I am not completely satisfied with this translation. which in my eyes contains a little to many non chessic terms (eg. "contacts"). But I admit that with this one it is difficult to find the right phrases. So, here is the German wording, if you want try for yourself: “Eine Kombination ist die Umgestaltung einer Verknüpfung von figuren beider seiten, die forciert zu einer koordinierten Verknüpfung von Bindungen führt, die für eine Seite vorteilhaft ist.“ I would be happy if someone could provide me with an improved version.

But basically this definition is fine, as we now have it all: The starting point of the process (some "connections of pieces”), the actual process (the “rearrangement...”), the end state of the process (the “coordinated connections...”) and the goal of the process. That a C is this “forced sequence of moves” you can easily deduce from the definition. And, if you look for it, you can also have the unsound C under this umbrella.

What Averbakh explicitly was after, was a definition which could be applicable in the “categorization” of C´s. After giving his bid, he goes on: “This determining of the concept we need for the classification of the combinations. We will see that, despite the huge number of combinations, it falls very easy to classify them according to the final connections og contacts, of which there is actually only a few.”

And then he goes on in his book, categorizing C´s. For “winning C´s” he is boiling it all down to some 7-8 types. Well, you may question that, but the crucial point is that Averbach manages to create some order and his “categorization” provides you with a powerful, didactical tool. If you study his examples, you will be sure to experience a lot of the utmost importance to a chess player, but maybe not all of it.

The only criticism I can come up with regarding Averbakh´s definition, is that it is not exactly accessible to a common chess player, eg. a beginner working on his own. Yes, it is an excellent tool for the expert, who works on providing some examples for coaching, teaching or writing, as Averbakh himself shows in his book, but I think we still need something more broadly intelligible.
Now I am almost through, and I know this little piece of text does not at all close the book. I am thinking about how to improve, or rather expand, the definition, and maybe I will come up with something in a while. Or maybe there is someone out there for a bid?

Finally, to all these definitions, also Averbakh´s, you could add something like: “The sequence of moves, constituting the combination, must be within the capacity of the human mind to calculate.” That is if you really want to come down to basics.

After all it could be that the game of chess is NOTHING but combinations. Some imagined Supreme Being, maybe some future super computer, could become (or is?) able to calculate the game all through. I suppose it will tell us that a game of chess by correct play by both parties should end in a draw. Such play could be phrased as “super drawing combinations”. But if you in any given position differ from these correct paths, there will be a “super combination” that inevitably will lead to your defeat.

Many a human chess player regards strategic, positional play as something more difficult and dignified than carrying out combinations. In the light of the paragraph above, what are in fact all these fine, elaborate terms used on this kind of play? They are merely heuristics we humans have to make use of because of our limited calculating powers. And so are basically also our humble attempts at defining C´s. It is the same as attempts to define the world: You can not really do it, but you can come with some good advicess on how to deal with it - and we need a lot of that!

I read in a review of Averbakh´s book that he was into some kind of "molecular" research on chess. It could be that he is rather on the cosmological level.

First and last in chess is the combination!

Sunday, 17 May 2009

More on Capablanca-Molina

The 13. of May ChessCafe - published one more great article on ”Attacking Chess” by my (almost) family namesake, GM Larry Christiansen. No, we are in no way related, apart from perhaps some spiritual relationship in our attitude to chess (and maybe to life in general?). I also by far prefer to err from boldness rather than from fear.
In the article Larry deals with the famous game Capablanca-Molina, which featured the well known bishop sacrifice at h7. It was played as some kind of exhibition game in Buenos Ayres, 1911. It should be kept in mind that, according tol Hooper and Brandseth, Capablanca took these games very seriously, as he was on his way to build a reputation as a worthy challenger to Lasker.
Analysing such classical, archetypical attacking games is first of all a great joy, maybe the greatest you can have from chess apart from playing it. And I also believe it is very profitable activity for every chess player who wants to improve.
But it is of paramount importance that you do the analysis “OTB” – “Over The Board”, as they say. Nowadays it is far to easy to switch on your computer chess engine and let it do the job. Sad to say, I have the feeling that many, especially young players do this far too much, there by depriving them self of a lot of joy and profit.
Larry´s analysis on the game in question seems to indicate that he is of the same opinion. From what I put forward beneath, I believe that he has done most of it OTB, and not checked it very thoroughly with his engine (I suppose he has one). And he is not at all to blame for that. His analysis is, as such, a fine job, and it raises some questions for the rest of us to go on with – and so it should be.
By the way, my advice to the few students I have and have had is always, when an interesting position gets your attention, to spend at least some 20-30 minutes on some OTB-analysis before switching the engine on – if you have to do that at all. And – can you keep a secret? – I am now at my advanced age once again thinking about staging a moderate comeback, so I am at least trying to follow my own advice. Ok, I am 56, and at that age Lasker won New York 1924 – so what?
What first drew my attention in the article was a curious omission in the comments/analysis. By coincidence I recently – for who know which time? – browsed though Laskers “Manual of Chess”. You should all do that now and then, all of you, including GMs like Larry! I remembered that Lasker also dealed with Capablancas combination/attack against Molena and had some critical remarks on it.
So – off to my library, and I also fetched Capablancas “My Chess Career” and Hooper & Brandreth´s “The Unknown Capablanca”. And there it was:
Lasker claimed that 15.-,f4! in stead of Kh6 would have kept the balance. He gave the line: 16.exf4,Nf5 17.Qg4,Nh6 18.Qg3,Nf5 etc. with repetition of moves. Against the bold try 18.Qh4 he gave 18.-,Qd2 “…and the attack has passed to black”.
NOW I was – by inertia, I also, admittedly, suffer from this chess-engine-oracle-mania – just about to switch on my engine to check these lines. But luckily my chess set was ready to go on my working table with some reminiscences of yesterdays analysis of some obscure endgame (something I also still need to learn). And at almost the same page I read Lasker´s wise words (years ago already underlined by me): “…the chess student should not trust an analysis merely because he sees it in print. He must examine, he must do his own thinking and by conscientious work he must form his own judgement.”
So – OTB! – after some pondering I found out that Laskers 18.-,Qd2 can be strongly met by 19.g4! fi. 19.-,Qxf4 20.Nh7+ and Qxc5+. Of course black has other options, but white seems to have quite an impressive attacking position after 18.Qh4!, fi. 18.-,e5 19.Rad1,Nd3 20.Nf3 aso.. So it is not at all proven that Laskers 15-,f4!? Leads to a forced draw, but maybe the move is after all the best.
OTB I also had a look at the position after 21.-,Ngf4! (also mentioned by Capablanca as a possible improvement) in stead of the game´s 21.-,Ndf4. After 22.Qg3,Rh8 Larry recommends 23.Nf3! followed by a rather forced line that leads to a drawish endgame. But why move the well placed knight? I recommend 23.Rfe1!? with the idea Re3 amo.. If 23.-,Re8 24.Re3!,Rxe3 25.fxe3,Ng6 26.Nb5 blacks position is rather precarious and at least demands very accurate defending. Also 23.h4!? is to be considered, fi. 23.-,Be6 24.Nxe6,Kxe6 25.Qxg7 and what is this?
Ok, after the, by my self recommended, half an hours analysis OTB, I did put the game into my chess engine, just to check. By the way, I am still using Fritz-8 on a half old PC, which should in some way signal that I am not that nerdish.
Most of my findings were confirmed, most affirmatively those on Lasker´s old analysis. And the engine very quickly came up with the defence 15.-,f4!?. The later lines from move 23 are very complex, and I would need to have my PC running on the task for a much longer time than I find interesting, to really prove something. Maybe someone would try these lines out with Rybka (or what ever they are called) on one of these fast running modern monster machines? I will and can not, mostly because I dont find it interesting at all (and I do not have Rybka).
But, as indicated by Capablanca and analysed by Larry, in the game 19.f4! should have been much better than the actually played 19.exf5?. Larry goes on with 19.-,Qd4+? And with some fine lines proves that whites wins after this. Sad to say, my little silicon helper quickly comes up with 19.-,Ncxe4! 20.Ncxe4,fxe4 21.Nxe4+, and all white can do is to give perpetual check.. I do not think there is much to do about that, so in fact 19.f4!? is not as challenging as 19.exf5. However, my engine suggests 19.Tad1!? – fi. 19.-,Nd3 20.f4,Qb6+ 21.Kh1,Ndxf4,g3 22.Rh8,e5+! and it could be that white is on top.
So, above there is maybe some new insights into one of the classsics. And that’s how it is: You can never really close the book when it comes to such a complex game.
And I personally spent some hours of joy and – if possible at all? – probably gained a little in tactical sharpness and feeling for attacking chess.
Thanks for the lesson, Larry. And keep it up – we are many waiting for more to come.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Oldest player to acchieve GM-title?

In this juvenile fixated ages there is a lot of focus on the very, very young players, in fact just kids. 14 years old Chinese girl Hou has just qualified for the GM-title as the youngest woman/girl ever. And now every bodies eyes are on 12 years old Nyznykh from Ukraine, who could happen to break Karjakins record of being the youngest GM ever (12 years and 8 months).
But I would, at least for a change, like to shift the focus:
Which player has at the OLDEST age qualified for the GM-title in a regular way? Meaning: NOT by being awarded a honorary title, NOT by winning the Senior-WCh, and NOT by getting some older results to count because of the newer, lesser rigid, if not to say too slack, rules.
This is not an easy matter to investigate into. At the Wikipedia they list about 1000 players with the GM-title in 2007, and from the recent FIDE-congress in Dresden you can add some 30 more.
Anyway, the Wikipedia-article lists both year of birth and year of achieving the title. From that your eyes fall upon Vladislav Vorotnikov, who got the title in 2005 at an age of 58. But I am not sure he did not get it on some older results. At least I know he made a GM-norm in Kislovodsk, 1982, where I participated myself.
Then there is my good old chess friend, Leif Øgaard from Norway, who is almost exactly my peer of age (and probably the strongest Norwegian player before Agdestein arrived). He got his title in 2007 at the age of 55. His final GM-norm was in the Norwegian team championship the preceding season. But...his former norms were achieved back in the early 80es. In fact the Norwegians claim that he could have been awarded the title some 25 years earlier, had the rules been less tight at the time.
Congratulations to Leif, I know his chess abilities and he certainly deserves the title. But I still do not think he holds the true record, for which the demands should be stipulated more precisely like this:
The player achieving the GM-title in a regular way, scoring his FIRST norm at the oldest age.
Who is that? I still do not know, but the searching goes on.
You know, this is a subject with also some very personal interest to me as an IM at 56, who believes he still has not peaked :). And if I want to take the record, I should not stage a comeback to soon, should I? And mind you: I have, so far, never scored a norm...

Saturday, 13 December 2008

In the twilight zone of chess rules

White to mate i 2 - Composer unknown

I suppose you know the problem above, it is an old hat. If not it does not really matter. But some fifty years ago your ignorance could have cost quite a few beers (or - sorry! - cups of coffee) at your club (or pub).

The intended solution is: 1. a8R Kh1 2. 0-0-0+ mate!

The last move is absolutely legal, the rook in question has not moved and there are no threatened squares between the rook and the king. Or WAS legal. Not that many years ago FIDEs rules was verified with an extra item on castling saying: "The king and the rook must be on the same rank". So there goes that problem (together with some others with the same theme), into the historical museum of chess curiosities.
Sorry to say, the same goes for this nice little problem:

White to mate in 2- N. Elkies
Add a black B8: White to mate in 2

Now we are on the track, that should not be that difficult. White plays 1. f8 black B, and no matter what it is 2. Nf7+ mate next move. If you put a black bishop at f8 i the position, the solution is 1. fxg8 black R, with again 2. Nf7+ mate to come.

This sort of "over promotion" was also legal once, or rather: It was not explicitly stated, that it was not. Now the rules says that you can promote to a queen, rook, bishop, or knight of the same color - no more no less. No less? Yes, in the 19. century there were in fact some proponents (even Steinitz it is told) of the right to promote to a pawn, a "dummy pawn" as it was called. You may ask: For what purpose? To counter that question, this position was composed at the time:

White to move and draw

Yes, white plays 1. bxa8P! and if black takes the bishop at h3, it is stalemate. Otherwise white takes on g2 and gain a fortress with the opposite coloured bishops.

Indeed, some nice problem has fallen with this ongoing tightening of the rules. One I am especially fond of is this, also from the good old days:

White to mate in 3 - Emil Palkoska, 1910

And that one you should try to solve for yourself - you have been given enough hints!

Ok, you may say that this is all old stuff, very entertaining but with no relevance for nowadays chess. So? Well, look at this endgame study which circulated among the chess insiders in the 80es:

White to move and win - my version (from memory)

I believe I have read somewhere that the composer is from Dar-Es-Salaam, but I can not find sources for that.

The solution is: 1. Kf7, Nd6+ 2. g7+!, Kh7 3. g8D+ and mate next move.

Then you may object that white is in check, in fact a double check, when he unaffectedly moves his little pawn at the second move. Yes, he is in check BEFORE the move, but is he after? You see, at that time the rules stated that the king is in check "...when the square it occupies is threatened by one or TWO of the opponents pieces." So the check is elegantly parried by making the kings square threatened by THREE pieces!

Relax, nowadays the rules state that the square in question must be threatened by " or more of the opponents pieces".

One also quite recent puzzle arises after the well known opening moves: 1. e4, e5 2. Bc4, Nf6. Now white moves and wins! You simply play 3. Qxf7+ mate! As you might know, checkmate ends the game immediately without any question. But whites last move was illegal, you may object. Yes, right, but if an illegal move is made, you have to protest before the game has come to an end, after that it is too late! Well, now they have added to the rule, that checkmate finishes the game under the condition that the checkmating move was legal.

FIDES commission of rules was at hard work in the end-80es and 90es. At the congresses in 1992 and 1997 they came up with some revision, up tightening and complementing of the rules, that makes puzzles and compositions like the above almost impossible. That is, one the theme on what the pieces actually can do on the board.

But there are still twilight zones in the rules, not least because new rules are introduced that can lead to a games abrupt finish.

In this position white is in the move, when the mobile phone of the player of the black pieces rings. What should be the result of the game?

By closer examination of the position you will find that the game in fact already has come to an end before the tragic incident with the phone. If white moves his knight it is stalemate. If the bishop goes to a7, black has to take it. The same goes if white moves his king, in both cases ending up with insufficient material. In fact blacks last move must have been Ka7-a8 and whites move before that b7-b8B, and already after that move the game has ended. It has reached a so called "dead position", as stated in the FIDE rules:

"The game is drawn when a position has arisen in which neither player can checkmate the opponent`s king with any series of legal moves. The game is said to end in a `dead position`. "

So, in principal both players should have received a warning from the arbiter after b7-b8B for not playing according to the rules...

If you want more of this "dead reckoning", I recommend you this site:

Ok, now I am maybe pushing it too far, or rather really exploring unknown territory: In this position it can be either white or black in the move. What happens then if the mobile phone of the player in the move rings?

If you study the position, you will find that who ever is in the move and what ever he moves, it is checkmate. So, I guess that if the white players phone rings he is lost, but that his opponent can only be given a half point, given that he had no possible way to win the game according to the rules.

Thomas Volet, 2006

And now, at the final, it gets really difficult. The position above was published with the stipulation: "What will be the outcome?"

By a retrograde analysis (you just try it!) it is possible to state that if white is in the move, the last 100 half moves have been without pawn moves or captures. But if black is in the move, there has only been 99. In the position both black and white can give checkmate, but without capturing ore moving a pawn.

So this is about the 50-moves rule, on which FIDE states: "The game is drawn, upon a correct claim by the player having the move, if....the last 50 consecutive moves have been made by each player without the movement of any pawn and without any capture."

And so what? If it is blacks move and he plays Rd8+ mate, can white then "claim" a draw? I really do not know. But a blogger at the has some distinct opinions on that, he even claims there are some "inconsistencies" in the FIDE rules! You would not be surprised...Read and judge for yourself at:

Who moved last?

After you hopefully gained some insights from the above, you should be able to solve this little puzzle. And after doing that, you may use it for teasing your local club arbiter.

And if you have become - or are - keen on such off beat chess problems, I would like to recommend "Outrageous chess problems" by Burt Hochberg, New York 1999. But do not read it just before bedtime!

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Chessmasters and the Principle of Justice

And now we are at it again. The global, governing body of the chessplayers, FIDE is changing rules and regulations at an extraterrestrial pace, perhaps inspired by the presidents allegedly contacts with aliens.
"But time does not stand still, times change. And FIDE must adapt to the requirements of different times...", states the president. As he also has claimed that we all soon will be taken away from earth by aliens, that is maybe why he in such a haste.
Otherwise it is difficult to see the reason behind changing the formate for the contest for the world championship LESS than an year after it was changed the last time. The rules for forfeits if you are too late for the game they also wanted to change at the latest congress. Some constructive opposition made them slow down a little, so that the proposed rules will be deliberated and probably changed by the "Presidental Board". That should in fact not be legal according to the FIDE-statutes, unless it is "a matter of emergency", but maybe it is? From this, and a LOT of other instances from the last 12-14 years, it is not really surprising - and for no one with a little insight hairraising - that FIDE also is involved in some kind of blackmail against the Bulgarians concerning the match Topalov-Kamski.
But...decisions of such (star-?)quality sooner or later have their price, unless of course you change them very quickly, which is perhaps also one of the reasons for this unearthly speed? Some 6-7 years ago FIDE introduced a doping regulative demanding some selected players to give urine samples at the FIDE events. Some very prominent players did protest, but the circus went on, mostly regarded as some kind of joke. Of course no player was ever found guilty of any kind of abuse, but there were a few case with lowerranked players who refused to participate and got some kind of penalties. And the overall aim, to have chess promoted to a genuine olympic sport via IOC, has not come closer
But then...and it simply should happen sooner or later - after the last round of the recent OL in Dresden, world nr.3, GM Vasili Ivanchuk refused to provide his urine. According to the rules his team, Ukraine should be stripped for all its points and Ivanchuk banned from playing for some time, up to two years. The problem with the former is - among others - that it influences the distribution of the medals. How FIDE will crack THAT cockonut, we are all eager to see.
And now GM Aleksei Shirov stands forward and want us all to BAN FIDE!, speaking out in an open letter at A symphatic endavour, apart from that it is not FIDE per se that is the problem - realistically we can not do without it - but the chess politicians who have been in charge for too many years. I am especially refering to the president.
Shirovs letter starts up with: "I don’t know how many times I have said to myself that it makes no sense at all to keep getting involved in chess politics and that I should just concentrate on my work...". But then you may ask: WHEN has Shirov, or any other top grand master at all (maybe apart from Kasparov and a very few others) involved themself in chess politics? By "involved" I mean constructively trying to change the conditions in cooperation with peers.
You know, this has been going on since 1995, when Ijumshinov was elected for the first time. I suppose some of the very young present super Grand Masters can not even remember there has ever been anyone else. At that time I suppose we all thought that ANYTHING would be better than his predecessor, Campomanes. But soon strange incidents already took place. Participants at the OL and FIDE-congress in Erevan in 1996 can tell a lot about free gold watches... for some reason Iljumshiniov soon managed to turn the WCh-system upside down (for the first time, many to follow). In 1998, at the age of 36 (!), he released his autobiography: "The presidents Crown of Thorns". Oh, just the title, just the title...Yes, he has also been the president of the russian republic of Kalmykia since 1993. Where Putin failed, he managed...One chapter of the autobiography is titled "Without Me the People are incomplete". Yes, it is true! - and you can download the whole book from FIDEs homepage and see for yourself! And if you want to read more about Iljumshinovs merits, I recommend you the very well informed article at wikipedia.
But the president has also put a lot of money in chess tournaments, event if it is heavily questioned that they are all of his own (if at all). And Shirov, and the rest of them, has taken part in these tournaments for years, no, for a decade, time passes. Yes, and when a serious challenger, Bessel Kok, appeared in 2006, many of the leading grandmasters supported the incumbent president (Ok, not Shirov, as far as I remember). Of course chess masters also need an income, but the very best of them are not so poor that they have to stand up for anything. At least they do not need to be shortsighted, which you some times have to if you live a life in poverty, struggling everyday for your next meal (which some lowerranked masters indeed have to). It is a widely approved assumption, that FIDEs reputation during Iljumshinov rule has fallen to lowest level of almost any comparable international organisation, meaning that chess has become very little attractive to potential sponsors. One may wonder how many means for existence chess masters have lost on that account...And the strongest grandmasters maybe at times protest, but actually they DO and have DONE NOTHING about it. On the contrary, they have taken actively part in the whole charade.
So: Why are strong chess masters generally so shortsighted, indifferent, if not to say ignorant when it comes to matters apart from the chessboard? Nowadays social and political conditions may provide some of the answers. It is a hard, irrational, inconceivable, hypocrite, if not to say insane world we live in, without any recognisabe justice. We, the chessplayers, all need to hide in our beloved game now and then, and the professional players can do it all the time.
On THAT matter, let Emmanuel Lasker talk through his "Chess Manual":
"On the chessboard lies and hypocrisis do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hipocrite. Our little chess is one of the sanctuaries, where this principle of justice has occasionally had to hide to gain sustance and a respite, after the army of mediocrities had driven it of the marketplace. And many a man, struck by injustice as, say, Socrates and Shakespeare were struck, has found justice realised on the chessboard and has thereby recovered his courage and his vitality to continue to play the game of life. Later generations, not so narrowminded as ours, will recognise and appreciate this merit of our noble game."
Following that, I hope that Shirov, and the rest of them, after a very long respite at long last has gained a lot of sustance and recovered their courage and vitality. And from now on will take part in the game of life.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Futility in the desert

A FIDE-official is taking part in a tournament. He is rather late for the first round, and he knows as good as any what THAT means. Just when he is about to enter the playing hall, his cell phone rings. At the display he can see it is from Kirsan, so anyway he answers the call.
"Hello, Kirsan. It is a bit inconvenient just now. Can you call back later?"
Kirsan agrees and the FIDE-official hurries to the playing hall - so much that he forgets to switch off the cell phone.
After some twenty minutes play his phone rings again. He knows what THAT means, nothing to do about that, so he stops the clock and shakes hands with his opponent. Then he answers the call.
"Hello, it is Kirsan. I just want to tell you that the Presidental Board has postponed the new rules about forfeiting if you are too late for the round."

And now a difficult case for the future chess jurisdiction: Just at the beginning of a playing session a players cell phone rings. It is his opponent calling, telling him that he is too late and therefore resigns the game, which is anyway lost. Will they both be given a zero?

A FIDE-official is walking around in the Sahara Desert, wearing Bermuda-shirts, sunglasses and sunhat. A beduine comes riding by on a chamel.
"Excuse me, sir", says the FIDE-official". "Can you tell me how far it is to the beach?"
"Well, sir, about 1000 kilometres", the beduine answers.
"Ok, then I think I will stay on the beach."

Chess in Greenland?

Well, Greenland is not completely new to me. I was also working as a teacher from 2003 to 2006 in the town Upernavik in the North-Western part of the country, situated at the 73. latitude. And I did try to teach the kids some chess.

We purchased some chess sets (some very poor and cheap ones) and they were very happy for the opportunity to play "skakki", as they say. And then they sat up the pieces for...draughts! - and played on with great entusiasm. As the good teacher I finally took the lead and was in fact able, step by step, to teach them the rules of the real "skakki", NOT "tammorneq" as draughts is called in greenlandic.

One proof is the picture above, taken on a lovely, sunny day in june 2004. The big chess set we found somewhere at the school. Another teachers seemed to have tried to introduce chess some years before me. To what use the set was in that connection, I have no idea. Well, as a trained eye may deduce from the photo, I never got to teach them some openning theory...

Greenland has a population a little less than 60.000 inhabitants, scattered in small towns all over this vast territory. There are very few chess clubs, I guess 3-4 in all. But there are some chess entusiast among the genuine greenlanders. And then there is me and a few other danes with chess interest living in the country. So - who knows? - maybe we can get something up and running, maybe even a national chess organisation. But it will for sure take some years before we can put up an olympic team.