Sunday, June 28, 2009

June 2009: Behind the Scenes at BlunderLab

I’ll continue with the Zurich 1953 next post. First, I want to emphasize that I am by far, no master-level player, nor do I ever pretend to think I am. I am a chess enthusiast who puts himself in the category of adult improvement seeker. My analysis in these games are purely for exploration and discovery in this game. The more I learn, the more I understand but usually also means the longer the road becomes. Sure, I would like to be a master some day but, more importantly, I want to understand this game, its history, and human nature as to why some rocket to the top while others, try, but reach mediocre results.

Philosophically speaking: ( My journey so far)

I study the historic games and try to apply what I learn while playing. I also never claim to be a historian. I am a mere hack in comparison to Bill Wall, Ed Winter and Sarah Beth ( aka batgirl). Taking a historic tour has allowed me to no longer have that feeling of impending doom because I may not fully understand why and how a particular opening variation is played. My obstacles come from the transitions from opening to middle game and coming up with the correct plan.

When I studied the London 1851 series, the games were very dynamic but obvious. The openings had clear purpose with tactical results almost immediate with the placement of the pieces. The Hastings 1895 event built up from the swashbuckling the importance of positional play. Not only did it show me a respect for accumulations of small advantages but opening ideas around the center and pawn structures became more apparent.

The Hypermodern movement, shown moderately with the New York 1924 event, taught me that longer range planning of pieces meant a closed position could eventually open up when you least expect it. Placing bishops on long diagonals that are closed will eventually enjoy the freedom as they game open ups into the endgame. The appreciation of pawn structures for winnable endgames seemed to be more important.

The Zurich 1953 games (so far) , takes the hypermodern ideas from a quarter century prior and underscores once again, the importance of accumulating advantages while taking risks in your own position in an effort to create favorable imbalances. These nuances are advanced concepts, which require repetition and reviewing multiple games in order for me to recognize these patterns.

In all these events, I find digging for the biographical facts of the players brings to life this rich history. For me, anyways, it’s also been supplemental to creating more long term memory markers when I recall a position.

One thing I learned when I did the MDLM seven circles of hell tactical training was the visual challenge of 2D diagrams translating to three dimensional play during real tournaments. I found that I was not recognizing the same pattern presented with depth. I converted the CT-ART data base to PGN and ported it to Chess base were I can set view to 3D. It’s blocky and chunky but has helped tremendously in visual pattern recognition. Igor Foygel was the one to suggest playing the puzzles on a real board or at least converting them to 3D representation.

In that light, my chess lab ( the wife calls it my MAN CAVE), includes my laptop with a dual screen so I can feel like a mad scientist. I also have a dedicated full size set that I work through critical positions, especially where the games transition from opening to middle and late middle to endgame.

I advocate using a real tournament size set for study. Simulating near OTB experiences is critical to securing the learning process into deliverable results. I have to admit, that I was given a set by CSN distributers ( by agreeing to set up a link on my blog. Long story short, they approached me because of the popularity of this blog ( thank you all for the support) and I negotiated with them and received the top end Dreuke Wooden set and board ( retails $150) all for setting a link on my blog. Call me a sell out, I don’t care. It’s my first official sponsorship! Take that Monroi!

A closer look: A lesson in two types of gambits

(I couldn't help with the microscope shot, I was aiming to tribute my blogging friend, BDK, who was also photographed beside a microscope on Transformer's post back in June of 2007)
Some folks have been asking me to post a couple of my recent games.Rather than bragging about the wins, I want to dissect a couple of my losses to underscore why my journey needs to continue .

Exhibit A, I call “Swatting at Flies” because it results in a game that I was unfamiliar and underestimated, the Benko Gambit. I’ve seen a lot of QGD and QGA, but this one surfaces later in the history tour. A poor excuse, but I have run into this and the Benoni more often lately at the club and local events. The “tabia” I knew was to advance d5 when Black plays an early …c5 without a d5 in place. But then the Benko surfaces : 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5.

I know now, when in doubt, ALWAYS accept the gambit. That’s what my posthumous mentors, like Steinitz , Pillsbury, and Lasker would lead me to believe. Unless I have a prepared line, make your opponent prove the merit of the position while holding on to the extra piece. “Declining a gambit is almost unsportsmanlike ” ( Anderssen). Giving back material is always an option. In this game, I declined the gambit and played positionally.

At one point I seemed to have a rather good game until my opponent decided to open up my king side with Knight sacrifice for two of my sheltering pawns.

Like a muscle bound weight lifter trying to do yoga contortions, I could not bring my piece majority around to defend my king who was being swarmed.

The next game, I played an alchemist. I call Rumpelstiltskin because he was able to turn a rather crappy position into gold. I was on the black side of a Panov-Botvinik Caro-Kann. I started out on a quest on White’s c3. By move 12, I was ahead in development, I had his pawns fixed and a good weakness on c3 to build from. Then, I got it in my head that advancing the e-pawn was going to bring me fame and riches. In hindsight, this turns out to be an outrageous plan since White, with the bishop pair, would benefit more with an open game. By move 14 I boldly played into a bad plan. I wanted to expand e6-e5, exchange pieces. In the meantime, my opponent conjured up a Knight and Queen attack on my king. In an arrogant display of over confidence, I felt I really could walk away from it.

I think at this point I could have salvaged at least a ½ point. Instead I was spooked but the possible queen pin and dropping a piece. Greed motivated me in trying to hold on to material. I captured with the f-pawn and my game crumbled even further despite having a material advantage.

What did I learn?

In both games, the theme was around gambits. The first being more a traditional gambit pawn for piece mobility, the second, a piece gambit to gain initiative for an attack. In the game where I faced a Benko gambit, I decided a more positional challenge than sticking to basic principles. I didn’t have a prepared line and my opponent understood the nuances of the position better than I did. In the second game, I needed to give back material in order to neutralize the attack.
See you next time in Zurich 1953. It's back to the time machine as my journey continues.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Meet Ray, He’s my dad.

In case you are wondering how I got to be such a chess enthusiast, you needn’t look much further than one click up the genealogical tree in my family. Being father’s day, I thought I’d take the time and tell you the story of Ray, my dad.

Ray grew up in a small town in Maine and was the youngest of 4 children. Since his three older siblings were much older, there weren’t many shared interests. This meant my father had to find things to entertain himself with.

Ray heard of one person in town who proclaimed to be a checkers champion who he sought to learn the game. If I recall my father’s version of the story correctly, he won the second game. Impressed with his talent ( or fearing further embarrassment), the alleged checker champion steered Ray towards a more challenging game, CHESS!

Eager to learn, Ray found a local bookstore that carried some basic chess books. With the money he made as a young teen working at the family bakery, he picked up a couple of these books to get started. He began playing with his friends and anyone who showed an interest.

He found a few friends in High school to play. He yearned for better competition and discovered Postal chess to be an answer. He’d get several cards going in the mail playing several games. This was a great period for him to hone his skills in the days before the internet and ICC.

As a young man in the late 1950’s, he was a newlywed. He found the local chess club in the city of Portland, Maine to fulfill his growing passion for the game. My mother would rather see him head off to a chess club on a Friday than hanging out in the bars, which was never the case for my dad. The only time he’d hang out in a bar was on a Saturday morning, as their bookkeeper. After all, he was a CPA.

The early years of raising a family and moving to a small town in Maine gave him limited chess options other than the postal games. I was the youngest of three. Once I reached school age, I remember him teaching my sisters to play chess. Unlike Lazlo Polgar making a psychological study out of his children, Ray merely provided us the opportunity. As I watched my oldest sister attempt her best game at dad, with knights developed off the edge of the board and nothing in the center, she was in tears by the end of the game and swore it off. I, on the other hand, was eager to dive in. I didn’t care if my pieces were taken immediately off the board. I’d only come back for more.

It was about this time in the late 1960’s that he started up a chess club in small coastal college town. The pool of players came from the local Naval base, the college and several small hamlets in the area. What amazed me was the fact that chess was the great equalizer no matter what walk of life you were.
Through our house, over the years, I’ve met plumbers, doctors, carnival workers, teachers, students, and military personnel all with a common interest in a game that lasted two millennium.

My passion for the game grew as my father’s involvement for the club grew. I was eager to come to the club, but using reverse psychology he’d say simply “ Not yet, these guys are tough. When you are ready, I’ll let you know.” Ray was patient with this exuberant youth. He started to hand me the very same books that he learned from. I recall fondly, the book by Al Horowitz, “ How to Win in the Chess Openings”. Before this, my game resembled toy football players on a vibrating table that would fall off the edge of the board. Ray, got me started down the right path by learning some basic concepts of opening play and making his copy of Chess Life and Review ( before the USCF called it Chess Life in 1980) available. He advocated playing over annotated games as the real meat to learning the game. I was na├»ve and wanted to simply play. But still, I was not ready for the club.

The Fischer versus Spassky match of 1972, was brought into our living room through PBS and the genius work of a couple of men, Shelby Lyman and Michael Chase. The first ever real-time American televised coverage of a world championship match was being kibitzed by my father and I in our living room with portable chess sets on our laps.

One summer day, as I played Dad handicapped by the Red sox playing in the background, I ended up not losing! The draw was my qualification to allow me to attend the weekly Club. I started going on a regular basis, even playing in team matches against other towns like Portland, Saco, and Lewiston. He encouraged me to start a chess club in the high school and even chauffeured the rag tag team to a couple matches.

Not once in my growing up did Ray ever force this game down my throat or tell me to “concentrate”, or “ how could you play such a stupid move”. These are comments, I have heard chess parents tell their kids at recent events as I watched the enthusiasm get sucked right out of these kids. Rather, he cautioned me that “ these guys at the tournaments are playing for blood.” And “ Expect to get your face rubbed in the mud by these guys ( at the club), that’s the best way to learn.” He was there for the post mortem, never shaming, always encouraging, with a “ better luck next time”.

He was there for me when I won the top student in the state in 1979. (BlunderProne shown in a vintage photo with trophy on right) Not once did he rub it in my face that there were only two of us competing for the same trophy in the Maine State Championship that year. Rather, he was proud and let me feel good about the accomplishment. He bragged to all the club members of this accomplishment. He made me feel like I was part of something special.

Then I grew up and moved out. Ray kept the club going until his retirement when it got to be too much for him to keep up. He maintains his title as Maine Chess Association’s treasurer ( to this day). I had since moved out of Maine and could not keep the club going. What did keep going was the spark of enthusiasm for this game.

I did the same for my kids, as I learned from my dad. I provide the opportunity but I don’t force it down their throats. Even though my youngest daughter loses more games than winning, she still comes back for more because she likes the same things I like about this game. The experience of meeting people of all walks of life sharing a common bond to a game that has outlasted gameboys, play stations and Frisbees.

In 2004, at a local event, a little known fact occurred that went under the radar of the local chess media. Three generations of chess enthusiasts attended the same tournament. We may not be a family of masters but we are a family of enthusiasts.
In Ray’s words:

“ The beauty of this game is that the answer is always right in front of you. It’s your mind against your opponent’s. There’s no luck, no dice to be thrown, no cards to be drawn. It’s your own fault if you lose and it’s your skill and ability if you win.”

Say hi to my dad. He lurks here and lives vicariously through my blog these days. I love him. Happy Father’s day, Dad.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Zurich 1953: Alexander Kotov, The tree of analysis

Alexander Kotov was born on August 12, 1913 in Tula, Russia. He was about 40 at the time of this candidates match in Zurich. He studied engineering in Moscow in 1939 but also studied a great deal of chess by then. In fact, in 1939, he almost beat Mikkhail Botvininik in the USSR Championship in the final round. The result qualified him for the title of Soviet Grandmaster, the third Soviet player to hold that very title after Botvinnik and Levenfish.

A couple more pre-Zurich matches that are noteworthy are his win as Mosco Champion of 1941; winning the Soviet title together with Bronstein in 1948; and winning in Venice in 1950 ahead of Smyslov. In 1951, he was granted the title of International Grandmaster at the age of 38! He won the interzonal in 1952 which was the pre-qualifier for the Candidates match.

A look at his games here in Zurich reveals a resourceful attacking player not afraid to mix things up a bit. In round 11 he plays White against Taimanov in a pseudo Reti/English opening. Kotov gets both of his bishops on the long diagonals while Taimanov tries for his usual Queen side grab. Missing an opportunity to free up his game and utilize a mobile pawn center, Taimanov instead locks his pieces up on the Queen side allowing Kotov to one by one migrate the entire team to an unstoppable attack on the King.

Round 10 shows a classic struggle in the Najdorf against Gligoric. White survives Kotov’s notoriously vicious Sicilian with a position that should play itself. But as Bronstein puts it, “The road to victory is a narrow path of precise moves”. Gligoric would haver faired better had he chosen the “natural” moves like Rooks on open files; then on to the 7th rank, pile up on the backward pawn, create a passed pawn then queen it. He decided to create tension in the center. Kotov, not being one to shy from a complicated game, takes the initiative, then the open files, then the occupation of the 2nd rank…and follows through with the very things White should have done. It’s a nice turn about.

Round 14 wins Kotov a Brilliancy prize against Averbakh. This is one of those games that is almost as famous as a century ago with Anderssen vs Kieseritzky. It involves a queen sacrifice of the intuitive nature. One that goes beyond, Kotov’s tree of analysis stuff. On Move 30 the following position is reached with Kotov ( Black) to move:

Bronstein comments:

The creative element in chess is generally thought to consist of three things: logic, accurate calculation and technique. There is a fourth ingredient also, however, perhaps the most intriguing of all, although it is often overlooked. I refer to intuition-chess fantasy, if you prefer.
Occasionally a position arises in the course of a game which cannot be evaluated on general principles ( pawn weakness, open files, better development), since the state of equilibrium has been upset on several counts, rendering an exact weighing of the elements impossible. Attempting to calculate the variations doesn't always work, either. ( he goes on to say:) ... It is fantasy or intuition that comes to the rescue, that has given art to chess its most beautiful combinations, and allow chess players the joy of creating....Intuitive games were not only played in the days of Morphy, Anderssen and Chigoran.
30… Qxh3! Comes out of the blue. The whole point of the sacrifice is to draw the King out to f5 where it is exposed to the two rooks, knight and Bishop while White’s other pieces sit hopeless. It’s rather beautiful.

In the next round, he beats Szabo
in a game of opposite wings castling. But, being Kotov, this is not your typical pawn storm versus pawn storm on opposite wings. Rather, both sides end up pushing pawns in front of their own kings? Why? A game with a closed center tends to have peculiarities as such. Black castled short and attempted a break on the g-file and advanced the pawns. Meanwhile, White, castling long, gets a break on the b-file and fills it with major pieces. Both sides had breakthroughs but White had the initiative.
In round 23, he beats Reshevsky when he should have lost. The game looked rather drawn for the first 28 moves with lots of maneuvers but no real targets. Boredom coupled with the desire to mix things up, makes Kotov take a risk with a pawn move that weakens a couple key diagonals ( moves the f2-f4 and now c5-g1 and a8-h1 are weak). Reshevsky over-estimates the possibilities and returns the favor to give Kotov a chance to equalize and wiggle out of complications. Like a cat, he survives the middle game and enters a knight and pawn ending with a stronger knight position. Reshevsky attempts to sacrifice his weaker knight to gain two passers but they get stopped as Kotov had his own baby queen en route.
Smyslov, as you may know, is the key player in this match ( not to spoil the series…but since the book has been around for almost 40 years… Smyslov wins). He’s almost undefeated until…. Round 21 against Kotov. Kotov plays 1.c4 and brings on a space grabbing closed position. Black recovers from the opening by liquidating the center and then advancing and fixing a pawn on White’s e4. At one point, it appears Black gets over confident and lands a knight in a way the allows Kotov to sacrifice a rook for two minor pieces. The endgame shows how the “extra material” can be of advantage. Huzzah!
In a loose translation from Kotov’s “Memoirs of a Chess Player” :

At that point, Smyslov was leading. I was somewhere in the middle of the tournament table. Reshevsky was right behind Smyslov. The reader will understand my situation: just as in Groningen, I had obstructed a colleague’s path to the supreme sporting title, without the win bringing any material improvement to my own tournament position. I understood very well the absurdity of what had happened, and that I would not get any plaudits for this win over Smyslov from my compatriots, who so closely shared in the successes of the Muscovite.

It is sufficient to say that when, as usual, I telephoned my wife in Moscow that evening, she immediately asked me:

“What are you playing at over there? I’ve had chess fans on the phone here, cursing you. Is that what you want?”

But there was nothing to be done – sport is sport! I secretly hoped that I would be able to undo some of the damage later on. I still had one more game to play against Smyslov’s main rival, Reshevsky. And so it happened. Exploiting Reshevsky’s inaccuracies, I won.

Alexander Kotov’s Legacy is in his writings. I think one of the most popular books is “ Think like a Grandmaster” where he talks about the tree of analysis and other ways to prune the candidate moves. What’s even more remarkable is that until that book was published, we had “handbooks” on positional play, tomes on endgames and openings, puzzle books but none really on thought processes. He had a whole series on the “Grandmaster” theme. He was a very prolific author. He died in Moscow on January 8, 1981.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Zurich 1953: Mark Taimanov, the Romantic!

Much is already available about the biography of this well rounded chess player. On you can find an autobiography written in 2006 when he turned 80.

Being born on February 7, 1926 made him 27 at the time of Zurich. He was a freshly minted GM ( in 1952) and it sure showed. Though he tied for 8th place in this candidates match, his style shows a strong positional player who knows how to build on accumulations of small advantages meet hyper-modern games with some ingenuity .

Let’s start with looking at how he defeats Petrosian in round 5 with the Black pieces. Taimanov launches into a Queen’s Indian defense and Petrosian starts out by provoking the move c7-c6 to block that queen-side fianchettoed bishop. The game bounces in a typical White attack on the queen side versus black trying to stir up a central attack. Not willing to get strangled, Taimanov opens up the center by taking a risky knight move to e4. He follows through with the exchange and parries a double threat by exchanging his rook and 2 pawns for two knights.

(see diagram after move 17 ...Rxe4) This creates the right psychological imbalance as he secures White’s central pawns. Despite his exposed King hiding behind his pieces, Taimanov prevents Petrosian from rallying his rooks and exchanges one pair off the board while creating his own mating threats. In the end, the bishop pair trumps the white pieces.

He takes Averbakh, the end game technician if you recall, to task in round 6 through the exploitation of more than one weakness. The Game takes on a sort of Nimzo-Queen’s Indian flavor. Taimanov, as White, provokes the bishop exchange for knight on c3 as an incremental advantage to gain control of long term dark squares and a Bishop pair. Averbakh underestimates the weakening of the dark squares and the importance of a knight on f6 or f8 as he tries to create structural unsoundness in the center for white. The middle game struggle continues with Taimanov keeping his game flexible with a central knight posted. He fakes with a pseudo minority attack on the Queen’s side which gets Averbakh moving his forces in the wrong direction. Then he drives home with a bold mate threat. The threat itself is not the advantage but its how Black has to respond that leaves him in a positional zugzwang. In short, the long diagonal ( a1-h8) becomes too much to defend as this Romantic plays a late game King’s gambit ala Taimanov to open up a the diagonal black desperately tries to close.

In round 9, Stahlberg is taught a less on three weaknesses. Placing pawns on the same color as the remaining bishop is very sad. Getting rid of the king’s fianchettoed bishop makes for a weakness on g2. Finally, seizing the 7th rank is overwhelming when you have your pieces immobilized.

The interesting thing in round 12 against Geller, is that the wedge pawn formation of white’s c4-d5-e4 versus black’s c5-d6-e5 is actually more advantageous for white. Taimanov demonstrates the increased mobility having three ranks to maneuver versus two as he clears the third rank of pawns and swings his queen from one side of the board to the other like Tarzan and doubles rooks on an open b-file.

Taimanov faces Petrosian’s grudge match in round 20. Petrosian fights with the black side of a Nimzo-Indian and Taimanov takes him down an old and odd line of the Rubestein variation that almost looks like a Hubner. Taimanov also knew that in several earlier games of this match, it was important to take control of the center and get e3-e4 in. Otherwise the results seemed drawish at best in this attacking line for Black. He realizes that attacking the Queen’s knight allows him to play f2- f3 and e3 –e4. He then goes after controlling the dark squares which psychologically puts Petrosian on the defense early on in the game. At the last stage of the game,

he sacs a rook ( giving back material actually) to create an unstoppable mate threat.

But, wait, there’s more! A long game with Stahlberg again in round 24 shows in 72 moves the finesse of a knight ending. But the last one I want to relate is his victory over ( think like a grandmaster) Kotov in round 26. As white in a Nimzo-Indian variant with a d5 thrown in. He shoves that d5 down Stahlberg’s throat and opens up the c-file, creates structural pawn problems for black and storms the back rank.


Mark Taimanov beat 6 world champions in his dynamic career defeating Botvinik, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, and Karpov. It’s with regret to know because of his defeat by Fisher 6-0 in 1971, the USSR stopped his salary and prevented his ability to travel overseas. The man beat 6 other World champions!

It comes as no surprise that he has a a few opening variations named after him in the Sicilian, Benoni and, of course, the Nimzo-Indian.

Now, about the romantic, with his first wife, Lyobov Bruk, he formed a piano duo. He made some recordings that were included in the Great Pianists of the 20th Century ( Philips and Steinway series). You can learn more from the link provided above to his article. He goes on to mention about being a child actor of all things.

He doesn’t mention his brief marriage to Averbakh’s daughter in the 1970’s mentioned in my last post. After that marriage dissolves ( little reference on that and I am not 100% sure the accuracy of this), He marries a young Nadya and fathers twins in his retirement!

He is still playing some sweet music to this day on 88 keys and 64 squares.

As for my lead-in photo, I could not resist the shot with Che Guevara. In Taimanov’s words:
This is one of my most cherished photos. In it, following my game at the Capablanca memorial in Havana in 1964, is one of its organizers and spiritual leaders, one of the most legendary figures in the history of Latin America and of the revolutionary movements – Che Guevara. We were on very good terms, met at this and at other tournaments and even played chess in the Soviet embassy building. This was the brightest, romantic person, an idealist who thought that his place was in the barricades and not in the offices. This photo is also dear to me because it is signed: "To my friend Mark Taimanov. Che."