Saturday, May 29, 2010

Pawn formations Part 2: Rubinstein vs Nimzovich

A study on the pawn formations common to the Rubinstein Variation of the Nimzo-Indian Defense:

Akiba Rubinstein was a good endgame tactician in the times of hypermodernism in chess. He approached the hypermodern defenses with a sense of winning the endgame early on in the opening. He had a solid grasp of pawn formations. He stepped up to the challenge of the potentially weakened hypermodern pawn center brought on by the likes of Nimzovich and Reti. He knew that a well supported pawn center gave him the mobility he needed while Black conceded the breaking pawn moves to “release” the latent forces. The levers and breaking moves had a tendency to create targets in the endgame ( like d6 being backward) if he created a solid support system for his central position. Thus, the Rubinstein variation was exercised by this creative tactician against the Nimzo-Indian defense.

I actually tried to find an early game of Rubinstein versus Nimzovitch playing their signature lines. The closest I could come to this was a game played in 1928 in Berlin.

The variation takes on more of a classical but by move 5, you start to see the signature moves of his variation. Perhaps he played a move order variation to throw any preparation by Nimzovitch. It’s an interesting game that has a knight sacrifice on move 36 targeting the weakened d6 square after a middle game scrum over the center and pawns.

The true Rubinstein variation begins on move 4 of the Nimo-Indian following 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3. Black has several real choices 4… Nc6, 4…d5, 4…0-0, 4…c5, 4…b6. Before I get into a cursory discussion of these branches, I want to point out the starting pawn formation:

For White, e4 is weak and supporting it will become a theme for the next several moves. White does enjoy more space to place the pieces but Black tends to get a jump on development given the minimal pawn moves. Black’s choices from above can be broken into three categories, 1) Stay ahead of development, 2) Target e4 or 3) Attack the center.

In the category of developmental lead, 4…Nc6 and 4…0-0 follow that idea. 4…Nc6 is most assertive as it prepares the advance of e5 for Black. Best for White is to support e4 directly with 5.Bd3, e5 6. Ne2 ( intent is twofold, supports knight on c3 as well as holding g3 as a place to support e4.) 6…d5 ( thrash on the center) 7.cxd5 Nxd5 8.e4 Nb6 9.d5 and you now have the d5-pawn chain with similar themes from my previous post. The exception is that White enters this with initiative. Black will have to play energetically to make the break moves of c6 or f5. Position after 9.d5:

If Black castles on move 4, White can play 5.Nf3, 5.Bd3 or 5. Ne2. I like the last two as the Nf3 move is more like the classical variation. If Ne2 is played first, the light squared Bishop can fianchetto and white can grab some advantage. Remember, a characteristic move by Rubinstein, was playing a3 at the right moment which gave him initiative. With either Bd3 or Ne2, Black will attack the center with either c5 or d5. With 5.Ne2, white can immediately put the question to the Bishop with 6.e3 and then recapture on d5 right away without worrying too much on c3. With 5.Bd3 first, Black needs to challenge the center while white sets up Ne2 before playing a3. After 5.Bd3 d5 6.Ne2 dxc4, 7.Bxc4 e5 Black plays aggressively towards the center.

White can castle and either prepare for a good IQP position if Black captures on d4 or continue with a3 followed by d5 and achieve the d5-pawn chain game again.

If Black chooses to attack the center with 4…c5 right away, we can assume that Black will postpone castling in favor of immediate action in the center. White can use the same three choices as above with similar results preparing for either an IQP (if Bd3 first)with active pieces or perhaps an opposing pawn majority on the queenside (if Ne2 first).

The IQP has the following ideas:
Themes for White: d4-d5 break, sacrifice of the isolani, outpost on e5, kingside attack.
Themes for Black: Blockading the isolani, trading pieces for a favorable endgame.

The isolani leads to lively play revolving around the d5 square. If Black can clamp down on the pawn, her positional strengths and threat of exchanges give her the advantage. If not, the threat of the d4-d5 break is ever present, and the isolani can sometimes be sacrificed to unleash the potential of White's pieces, enabling White to whip up a whirlwind attack.

The other pawn formation is one with a pawn majority on the queenside with a space advantage.

The idea is to bring the expansive pawn forward enough to occupy Black’s pieces and then swing over to a king side attack. Black’s best hope is to muster up a minority attack against the mass before White can conjure up a king side attack.

If Black chooses to attack e4 with 4…d5, White transposes to a favorable position of the Samisch variation with 5.a3 Bxc3 6.bxc3 with a nice pawn center supported by c3 and e3. The open b-file is becomes a conduit for major pieces and a freer came for white.

This leaves the Fischer variation with 4…b6 with the intent of controlling the e4 square and further support of the advance of c5. This is probably one of the more aggressive responses to the Rubinstein variation. Here move order is critical. Moving the Bishop too soon forces the knight to play to f3 instead of the thematic Nge2 because of the weakness on g2. Making 5.Nge2 the best response. Here Black MUST play Ba6 otherwise white will be able to set up a strong pawn center after 6.a3 and 7.d5

This post is already too long. Next post I will cover the Grunfeld pawn formations. Enjoy.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

I’ll have a Benoni Samisch on a light Rye.

Indian Pawn formations Part 1:

Playing the Queen’s Gambit as white opens the door to lots of responses from Black. The more popular defenses I encounter at the club against 1.d4 are the King’s Indian, the Benoni, Grunfeld and Nimzo-Indian. As a continuation from my last post I thought I’d split this into two parts and take a look at Benoni and King’s Indian pawn formations because I think they are related.

A look at the Pawn structure after the first couple of moves reveals the hypermodern theme of daring white an expanded pawn center. Black immediately takes a stance on slowing the advance of white’s e4 with the Nf6 move. The concept of these first few moves is all centered around control of e4 and d4. White wishes to accomplish this with pawns while Black will use indirect methods.

For the King’s Indian Defense,

both King side minor pieces are influencing the central squares while White gets a chance to get c4 d4 and e4 filled with pawns and a Nc3 for support. This opening shows up in 1922 by Reti with a Win against Samisch. Yates and Euwe popularized it as well in that decade where it showed up in Karlsbad, Leeds and Liverpool. At first, this defense was suspect because a lot of these earlier games seemed to give White a considerable amount of freedom.

I mention this historic introduction because this is Black’s first challenge in the pawn formation. How does he compensate for a slightly cramped position? If black holds back too long on either …c5 or …e5 to open the position, White will be able to enjoy the space advantage. Thus, after white grabs the center with 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 Black’s first objective is to deal with the center. The two choices are then either to castle or to begin playing pawns in the center with the supporting …d6.
The Modern games have …d6 favored over 0-0 since it opens the possibilities for a Bg4 and a place for Blsck’s Q-Knight to go in support of the center and the e5 push.

After d5 or 0-0, White has several options including the Main line with 5Nf3, the Fianchetto variation 5.g3 or the one I like 5.f3, the Samisch variation.

Black Follows with 0-0 or immediately with e5 and white advances to d5. At some point the following Pawn structure is reached after about 7 moves:

Right away, if this were an endgame, White’s King is positioned to march over to the Queenside and advance the troops. The essence of this pawn formation is that of the d5-pawn chain:

Themes for White: Massive queenside space advantage, c2-c4-c5 break (optionally prepared with b2-b4), prophylaxis with g2-g4 (after f2-f3), f2-f4 break.

Themes for Black: kingside attack, f7-f5 break, g7-g5-g4 break (after f2-f3), c7-c6 break, prophylaxis with c6-c5 or c7-c5 transposing to a Full Benoni formation.

The theme is a race for a breakthrough on opposite flanks - Black must try to whip up a kingside attack before White's heavy pieces penetrate with devastating effect on the c file. Opposite side castling is common with a pawn push by white on the King side. The position was thought to strongly favour White until a seminal game (Taimanov-Najdorf 1953) where Black introduced the maneuver Rf8-f7 (After f5 is played of course), Bg7-f8 ( to keep the watch on the weak d6 base for Black), Rf7-g7 as a strong defense agaisnt the marauding white pawns and pieces. Play is much slower with tempo being of little value and featuring piece maneuvering by both sides, Black focusing on the c7-c6 break and White often trying to play on the kingside with the f4 break.

Understanding this makes looking at a variation for the Benoni a little easier. Historically, the “Sorrow Child” was named as such from the studies of a Jewish Scholar, Aaron Reinganum who suffered from depression and sought relief on the chess board. Black’s pawn on d6 becomes rather sad if not handled correctly.

The benoni was originally thought to be a newer upgrade to the King’s Indian since it advanced one of the freeing moves right away. White wants to support the e4 advance with 4.Nc3. Black will fianchetto and have similar aspirations for King side attacks, timely and freeing central pawn breaks, while avoiding cramped positions.

The move order 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e5 is the old Benoni. While the Modern plays 3…e6. With either move, White tends to play 4.Nc3 followed by 5.e4 if Black doesn’t capture d5 first. So after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nb3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.e4 g6, I like to stick with the Samisch theme and look at the line with 7.f3 we now reach a similar pawn structure:

The same ideas from the d5-pawn chain are relevant here too. Black’s weakness on d6 is pronounced. The breaking move f7-f5 is important. White will continue to advance f3-f4 and push e4-e5 if needed. Castling Q-side is common for White and then after sliding the king over to the b-file, action on the c-file with the major pieces is not uncommon. Black needs to wait on the king side attack and redirect efforts to queenside.

In the Samisch, White will play the g1 knight to e2, the pawn on f3 prevents Black from intruding on g4 with a Knight or a Bishop. Bishops on e3 and d3 ( though in the benoni formation if the Bishop can go to c4 that might actually be stronger) with the Queen on d2 creating a battery on the c1-h6 diagonal are typical as this sets up a nice advance of pawns on the kingside ( h2-h4, g2-g4, h4-h5 etc)

Here is a recent game I played at the club. It’s not perfect play but you can see I was able to be flexible with the understanding of the d5-pawn chain formation and actually gained a pawn at one point. The game ended in a draw as my concentration was distracted by outside influences part way through the game.

Next post, pawn formations from the Grunfeld will be discussed along with the Nimzo-Indian. With the Black’s pawn on d5, I elected a different approach.

I hope this information is helpful considering its from the understanding of an amateur such as myself. This is how I process the information overload of too many variations. I try to find themes I can identify through the pawns.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Historical Perspective on the study of Pawn formations

In one of the comments to my last post lamenting the problems of trying to understand the openings beyond rote memorization, the concept of pawn structures came up. I find this is most essential today in navigating the waters of opening theory. In my process of discovery, I find that openings usually tend to follow a theme depending on the pawn structure. The side who doesn’t follow suit with the theme usually finds trouble early in the game. As I review the responses to 1.d4, I am trying to put into perspective how this may have evolved.

I look back in the days before Harry Nelson Pillsbury came on the scene. The romantic age of chess where swashbuckling gambits viewed pawns as more of an annoyance that gets in the way of carefully calculated sacrificial tactics. Pawn formation was not really considered since most of the games were open to allow the maximum piece play.

Howard Staunton penned The Chess Player’s Handbook in 1847. The mention of pawns is in Chapter VI under general rules. He goes on to mention that “..young players commonly overlook the pawns or deem them scarcely worthy of regard, and are amazed to learn that the combinations of these simple elements are among the most refined and arduous studies of the game.” His underscoring of the importance is critical in this handbook. He follows it with the first general advice around central pawns and cautionary advice about the struggle of maintaining both e- and d-pawns in the center. Most of the advice is given as cautionary and displays what I think is a timid approach. He emphasizes the weakness of moving the King’s knight pawn.

A few years later, at the dawn of the classical age of chess, Steinitz expand’s on Staunton’s ideas in his book, The Modern Chess Instructor. Prior to this, in 1862, at the London Congress, it was determined that when a pawn advances to the 8th rank, it no longer was held as a “dummy piece” until the right piece was captured to replace it. It was allowed to become any piece immediately. In the chapter of Relative piece values and Principles of play, he elaborates more on the importance of the central pawn phalanx. He goes on to describe a strategy for symmetrical e-pawn openings where both sides castle and how important it is to open the g-file. He also elaborates on the role of each of the pawns.

The positional ideas that Steinitz penned and later Tarrasch supported became the mainstay but many felt that chess was becoming stagnant as more and more draws were becoming commonplace at the top events. Here we saw the King pawn games move to Queen pawn positional games. Themes around isolated Queen pawns, the minority attack, the Wyvill and Karlsbad pawn formations and other closed systems were being realized and studied.

Enter, Pillsbury and Lasker at the end of the 1800’s and early 1900’s. They turned the dogmatic classical axioms upside down by attacking the Kingside with bishop sacrifices and attacking with Queens and minor pieces. They showed just how vulnerable an exposed king side could be if the defending forces were cut off by a closed pawn formation with pawns on e6 and d5. In essence, they demonstrated that positional play could account for material loss if given initiative and an exposed King.

This gave rise to the hypermodern defenses meant to thwart the Pillsbury attack and the Lasker Bishops. It evolved from the same roots of having a strong pawn center but challenged the idea of allowing the White pieces to over extend. They drew on the timid nature of Staunton’s warnings by allowing white to occupy the center with pawns. Having an indirect influence on the center showed later that when they broke through, the subtle positional elements proved important.

Nimzovich’s My System, has chapters dedicated on Pawn centers, Pawn chains, passed pawns, IQPs doubled pawns and more about pawn structure and weak squares. This was the first real manual relating positional elements with pawn structures. Weak squares created by pawn movement were first introduced by Steinitz. Nimzovitch takes it even further and talks about how to handle weaknesses created by pawns from both a defending and attacking perspective.

Later, we get Hans Kmoch’s landmark book on Pawn Power in Chess. Kmoch in 1959 builds on the same ideas of Staunton, Steinitz, Tarrasch, and Nimzovitch and breaks it down even further. He introduces terms like “lever” and Pawn cross as he dissects many variants and the interactions with each of the pieces. This is following the Modern Classical period highlighted with the Russian chess schools and the large opening theory that evolved 30 years after the hypermodern school debuted. The importance now shifts to the pieces and their interactions with the pawns.

Andy Soltis, recently wrote a book on Pawn Structure Chess and classifies the major pawn formations into 16 categories. He essays that understanding the schema of the pawn formations is the key to understanding the positional elements of the openings and prepares the player to handle subtle nuances and move order variations without having to study reams of opening lines.

In my next post, I will dig a little deeper on a few of these pawn schemas as they relate to my openings. In the meantime I suggest you look at this wiki link as it provides a nice synopsis of Andy’s ideas:

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Memory is the first to go.

My experiment last weekend at the Mass game 60 was a bit alarming in realizing how QUICKLY I lose my memorized opening lines. Now, before you all jump on me about opening preparation and how it shouldn’t be a case of memorization and all, sit down. I realize this and part of the reason why I do the history tour and review game collections from old tournaments is to learn this game from whole games. The way I process information requires me to find neural pathways into long term memory through experiential exercises that challenge more than rote memory. Getting into the narrative story of a match, the emotional build up of the opening struggle followed with a middle game melee seems to be seeping ever so slowly in this thick skull of an old dog learning new tricks.

The problem I have is that it’s very hard to “unlearn” my old ways of learning openings via rote memorization. It’s a process I have to work on. What happens is that when I have a lapse in chess activity, the first thing that goes is the rote memorization of the openings. In particular, WHEN I PLAY WHITE 1.d4, the number of lines to stay on top of is insurmountable. How do I approach this from a practical perspective when there are so many similarities yet nuances making a Benoni like a King’s Indian except that it’s not and I am not an expert.
When I played against IM Igor Foygel, I knew it was going to be a cat and mouse game. Right on move 4 I was lost. 1.d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3.d5 e5 was the move order for a Czech Benoni ( modern Benoni plays 3…e6). I know this now because AFTER the game I looked it up. During the game, all I could remember was that after 2…c5 White needs to advance the d-pawn to maintain the edge. That was it.

I didn’t know what followed. How do I maintain an edge with advancing the d-pawn? Building a strong pawn center but I can’t get my pawn to e4 because of his Nf6. I couldn’t recall that White’s plan is to build a center and maneuver for a king side attack while watching for Black’s breaking moves on the c- and f-files. Instead, I fell prey to creating false weaknesses and eliminating pieces in an effort to get to a playable middle game.

I played 4. dxe6 which allowed the Master to open up the f-file. During the post mortem, he asked me why I captured. I told him it was my intent to create a weakness. His words of wisdom “ Don’t create a weakness unless you can take advantage of it right away. Every Weakness is only good if you can use it.” Also, in hindsight, the choice between development versus creating weaknesses in the opening is now clear. Especially when I am taken out of “book”, basic principles should apply. Better to develop Nc3.

Here’s the game in all its ugliness.

Playing white is a problem for a patzer like me. I used to use an opening system to get by this hurdle but found it to be tiring against stronger players who know how to play sharply around them. I buckled down and decided to learn Queen’s gambits after I studied the games of Harry Nelson Pillsbury a couple years ago. But the problem with this is that in practice I have to deal with all the Indian defenses, orthodox defenses, move order variations, slav defenses and the friggin Dutch. It’s too late to switch gears before the World Open in July unless I wuss out and resort back to my London System.

The good news is that I play the Slav and after studying the New York 1924 Games, I learned the Rubinstein Variation of the Nimzo-Indian. The Kings Indian Defense of the Zurich 1953 studies have yet to make practical “head room” in my noggin. It’s overwhelming to think of all the variations I should be prepared for when I play a Queen’s pawn game. At one point or another, I “prepared” for the Dutch, Benoni, and other Indian defenses. Unforetunately, it only made it to the scratch pad memory of my internal processor. This gets reset every time I learn a new thing or take a break from “serious” play.

Igor says, “ Don’t worry about studying openings at your level. Just play chess. Look at book AFTER the game. Then you will learn.”

Yes master. Thank you Master.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The amateur’s scramble mind

(Have this playing while you read this... it will make more sense)

More than two months had passed since I really had any serious chess study. Like a lot of folks, life things took priority over my passion for this game. I knew I was in trouble when back in March, my rating was in a freefall, rapidly heading to my floor. THANK GOD for floors.

With the World Open looming in 2 months, and tied of life beginning to ebb, I thought I’d tip my toe into Caissa’s Ocean of Chess at the Mass Game 60 open tournament. Going into this event I knew I was not going to be playing my top game. This being a “quick” tournament and an All for one open section, meant some hard humbling lessons were waiting for me. I really wanted to practice controlling my thought process and went in with full intention of jotting down my ideas and thought process during the games. What ended up happening was an abomination of any real thought process. Like a vehicle that sits in the yard too long, the rust on this machine made the engine freeze.

Because life is full for me, the only time I had to prepare for the event was 2 evenings prior juggling schedules with after work appointments to take kids to and making sure everyone is happy. Add to this, a weekend at church where I had an obligation to uphold for this weekend. No problem, I was planning on a Bye for both Saturday and Sunday Morning to address this.

Let me digress a moment, more important than chess is when I make a commitment to someone or some fellowship. This was an important weekend for some of the youth at our church and I dutifully showed up for the rehearsal on Saturday… then extended myself even further and offered to accompany our youth minister with my bass guitar to augment the songs they were going to sing. This was a last minute decision three of us made and meant learning 3 songs before Sunday morning. So off I went to play chess on Saturday.

The first round, I had a confidence builder to ease me into the weekend chess event. The second round I played I was paired against IM Igor Foygel. That was a lesson … I will share in a subsequent post. Right now, I am decompressing. My last round on Saturday, I was paired against a strong class A kid. I almost got a draw but blew the position ( again, another lesson for a later post).

I rush home, pull off the web the three songs I need to learn. I had the chord charts from the team, struggled with those as my ear was hearing a different chord when I played the video of the original to try and play along with. Now, if any of you are musicians out there, repetition is a common theme. I must have played Joni Mitchell’s The Circle Game, The Beatle’s Let it be, and Leonard Cohen’s Halleluiah several times that I had this sound track for bed time.

Sunday morning came too early. I woke up, rushed out the door and headed to church with my acoustic Bass guitar. On the passenger’s seat was my chess set. First things first, there was one last practice with the team before the service. Then it was show time where we pulled it off with out a hitch. The youth loved it. We did a good service to show them how important they were to the community. My heart was full to see many smiles and hearing hope for the future of humanity.

With the many smiles, the service did go into overtime. My window was closing to make round 6 without my clock starting. I politely excused myself and made a mad dash.

Today was the first day that we hit over 80-degrees since winter. I needed to get out of church clothes and into summer chess attire. My clock had elapsed 13 minutes when I moved my black pawn to c6 to stop time. As luck has it, I was paired with a kid who took this as an opportunity to play speed chess. I rattled off an exchange C-K with my 4…Qc7 move meant for the unprepared. It served only as a speed bump.

Remember how I mentioned my intent was to focus on thought process. Enter, blunderprone post frantic weekend rush. What follows is the inner narrative stream of unconciousness:

“ Man, I can’t believe we pulled that off. I am so glad that worked out… Hallelujuh… ha ha, yeah that really went over well. I can’t see my clock, sh*t, I still have my sunglasses on. Well, I can see he moved e4, here we go ( shakes hands) sorry to make you wait ( snaps c6 and hits the clock)”

At this point I started to replace my sunglasses with my regular glasses and the kid already was making sure his clock didn’t dip below a minute. “ OK, I can see my clock now, 47 minutes… no problem, I can do this.”
We rifle through the next few moves. I am playing by memory, he is playing for speed. “ OK, I see this is going down the exchange C-K. Everything is good so far.” I get to play the Qc7 move hoping the kid slows down. NOT A CHANCE. I rattle off the next few moves and worked the time deficit down to 11 minutes. We get to a point where we both castle and I start leaving “book”.

“ OK, here we go, Positional evaluation… and go” … to fill the void, my mind does funny things. The refrain from Lenard Cohen’s song starts coming up in my head… over and over. “ … the forth the fifth, the minor fall the major lift….shut up!” I am having a hard time concentrating. “OK I see it… um… I can win a pawn in the center… Hallelujah… I said shut up… Let it be… NO damn it!” The kid missed my fourteenth move as he got up to do jumping jacks or something to take care of the ants in his pants. He comes back and asks “ Where did you move?”

OK, I wasn’t feeling particularly spiritual at that moment, so in a typical grumpy old patzer voice I chortled “ You figure it out.”

I look for a remedy to squelch the singing voices in my head. I fumble for my iPod shuffle, I get some soothing Bella Fleck and the flectones ( Nice bass work by Victor Wooten BTW) and it goes into some soothing Neko Case. I’m a pawn ahead and in my groove. Rodrigo Y Gabriella strum a nice Spanish flavored guitar instrumental as I flow through a series of exchanges. I’m down to Bishops of Opposite colors and an extra pawn, the kid extends his hand “draw?”

I grimace, “No” and continued to play now annoyed by the ants marching in this kid. Up and down, up and down. I was turning into this curmudgeon as I was surrounded by all these kids. When they here one of there “kind” announce a draw to an old fart like me, its like chumming the waters for sharks. They start circling. He did this a couple more times until I had to tell him to stop.

Cake queues up on my iPod, I just blew my chance to get two connected pawns by hastily making a capture with the wrong pawn. Time to shut the music off, I’ll take my chances with the random Leonard Cohen verses circling in my head. Instead, I hear Joni Mitchells voice singing The Circle Game… because I was thinking of circles… and how I should have done at least one tactical circle prior to this event.

I blow my chance for the win. The pawns are now even… I see a clear draw at this point with opposite colored bishops ( sigh) “ Draw?” I offer.

“No” He says smugly “ I have a clear win.”

Ok, I deserved that. He wants me to play this out. I did manage to prove my point and draw the game with this kid at 400 points lower than my rating.

So, I wasn’t quite ready to get back into the arena. I had a couple of really good lessons and that was really what I was looking for. I hope the voices in my head stop singing by the time the World Open comes around.