That's me in the blue shirt

I was looking forward to the London Chess Classic all year and I was really glad I took some time off work to go along. I thought I might get bored but I couldn’t get enough of it and only failed to turn up on the two Sundays when I had to do some domestic duties.

It took such a huge chunk out of my life that I’ve been busy catching up since then and haven’t had a chance to write down what I learned from it.

One of the great things about chess is there is a very informal feeling about it. You can rub shoulders, quite literally, with all the great players and even have a chat in the toilet if you’re so inclined. Personally I can’t stand it when people talk to me in the toilet. Well, in truth, when they’re in the middle of a game, the players also tend to have a distracted and distant air that discourages trivial banter. But I did hold the door open for Nigel Short. I was going to say, “Well, Nigel, you really made a mess of that position, didn’t you? What are you going to do now?” That’s one of the few occasions in my life when, in retrospect, I’m glad I held my tongue.

But look at the position.

Kramnik has just played 19. … d5. Nigel’s bishop on b3 is entombed and White’s position is hopeless.

But you’ve got to admire these players even when they are losing. I came home with a headache on a few days because it’s really hard to follow 4 simultaneous games for hours on end and at the same time keep up with the exhaustive analysis in the commentary room.

Octagenarian Viktor Korchnoi managed to do not only that but also to play 25 simultaneous games while he was at it. Twice. “The first simul was a bit tough,” he complained. “I discovered I was up against two or three serious players.”

One of the highlights for me was listening to Julian Hodgson comment on the games. I wish he’d been present in the public commentary room for longer but he got heckled by some soccer fans and disappeared to the VIP room never to emerge again.

The final day of the tournament was an anti-climax. The games just fizzled out and Kramnik won without much fanfare. The prizes were awarded in the Savoy Hotel on the other side of London and the audience wasn’t invited.

Can you think of any other sport where the winner skulks away and is given a trophy in secret but where you can meet the players in the toilet in the middle of the match?

I first came across Sam Collins in a book he wrote giving a repertoire for White starting with 1.e4. At first, I wasn’t very impressed. I found the book to be superficial. There wasn’t much explanation of the chosen lines and he was very dismissive of what he called “rubbish” responses from Black.

It’s all very well for the national champion of Ireland (and Japan! — how did he manage that?) to be dismissive of “rubbish” but amateur players like me have learnt to show a great deal of respect for rubbish moves, especially when Fritz plays them.

However, I was very impressed by his commentary on the Slav opening on the Chessbase Openings Tutorial #3 DVD, so I decided to buy this one on the Carlsbad structure.

From his book, I’d imagined a thick-set thug in Doc Martins and denim jacket but it turns out Sam is a very soft-spoken intellectual with refined manners and impeccable presentation.

For those who don’t know, the Carlsbad structure arises from the exchange variation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined (1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.cxd5 exd5) and is one of the most important structures in classical chess.

It quite clearly says on the cover of this DVD that it is Vol 1. However, in the DVD itself, Sam refers to it as Vol 2, following on from where he left off in Vol. 1 because there is just so much material to cover. In fact it appears to be 2 volumes combined and is packed with information and analysis on 7 hours of video.

Sam’s analysis is very clear, very enlightening and very thorough. Thanks to his quiet, thoughtful and articulate delivery, this is quite restful to watch at the end of a busy day wrestling with non-chess-related matters and has become one of my most-watched DVDs for this reason alone. He presents full games from the very best players and his comments are very insightful.

I’ll certainly be buying more of these Know The Terrain DVDs.

 I’ve always found the Nimzo-Indian Defence a little bit daunting. Thanks to the latest Chessbase opening DVD on the Indian Defences, it’s starting to make more sense.

However, two out of the four video presentations on the defence have technical problems. The video lags so far behind the commentary that it’s useless and I had to enter the moves using a different chess program. This defeats the purpose of a video presentation, doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s why Igor Stohl was sweating so much.

This is the worst technical flaw I’ve found in the Chessbase products so far. Quite often the databases referred to in the commentary are missing. Videos are often presented in the wrong order and mistakes in the commentary are just left there.

I was watching another Chessbase DVD this week, which had quite clearly been cobbled together in a hurry, as the intro claimed that it was part 2 of an in-depth study on the Carlsbad structure, for which I had somehow missed part 1. I couldn’t find part 1 anywhere but after spending a bit more time with the DVD it seems part 1 is there after all. At least I think it is. I’ll tell you after watching all 7 hours of it.

These DVDs are very expensive so it’s annoying to find amateurish production errors on so many of them. However, the content is so amazing that I’m prepared to overlook these problems. And chess experts have to make a living somehow, don’t they? I’m quite happy to pay out good money to have the benefit of some of the best chess instruction in the world.

Being an avid reader of both New in Chess and Chessbase, it is very exciting to see these two chess media giants having a fight. I have weighed in with my own opinion, which was published on the Chessbase site. (It’s there somewhere, don’t give up!) But it wasn’t without a sense of guilt for ignoring Nigel Davies’ excellent advice to spend more time on chess rather than chess news.

There are far too many polticial arguments in chess. I gave up trying to understand them years ago. I have no idea how the world championship works, who the world champions are, or even how many there are.*

I wonder what Nigel thinks about writing chess blogs. Are they a waste of valuable time, Nigel?

Nigel doesn’t allow questions or comments on his blog, so I thought I’d ask it here.

*Only joking, Vishy.

I have now finished watching all of my dear friend Rustam Kasimdzhanov’s Chessbase DVD called Strategy Step by Step.

Why do I call him “my dear friend”? It’s because he has the endearing habit of calling all of us, his viewers and pupils, his dear friends, and I feel very honoured and privileged to be amongst this select group of chess players.

It is difficult to know from the blurb on a Chess DVD who it’s going to appeal to. When I ordered this I thought it might be too advanced for me. In fact Rustam makes everything very clear, whatever your level of playing ability. He has selected the games to illustrate some general strategic principles but he explains almost every move. Even in the opening.

For example, after introducing the first game (a win aginst Anand from San Luis, 2005), he shows the first moves 1.e4 c5 and he says “And this is the first place where I’d like to stop.” He then begins an explanation that he continues throughout the game showing how White is fighting on the light squares and Black on the dark ones.

There are only six games on this DVD but Rustam breaks them down into several parts and gives a very detailed commentary throughout. He talks quite fast but I just about managed to keep up with him most of the time. In fact his language is very attractive. I like to listen to him because his words are very well-chosen.

I was a bit surprised by the way in which Rustam approaches teaching strategy. I was expecting topics like control of the centre, blockading, open files, isolated pawns and so on. Rustam does mention these things but he mentions them almost incidentally. He is a very concrete player. He talks about strategic themes only in so far as they provide a basis for a concrete plan. Much of his analysis is focused on specific variations, with the strategic considerations simply providing the backdrop to the action.

For example, in his game against Dautov, Rustam, who is playing Black, has an open file occupied by two rooks. A winning advantage, you might think. But the rooks can achieve nothing on their own. Black needs to whip up some action elsewhere on the board and that’s why Rustam is looking at the d5 square, where he’d like to place a knight. Knowing this, it’s not hard to guess his next move.

Position after 23.f4 (Black to play)

But you need to do the analysis.

By the way, like many Chesbase DVDs it seems to have been put together in a bit of a hurry. This is no reflection on Rustam, who has prepared his commentary very thoroughly, but on the Chessbase production team. The order in which the videos are presented does not appear to be the order Rustam intended.

This doesn’t diminish the instructive value of the material but makes the presenter look a little bit confused when he says “Finally, I would like to present…” and follows it with a final game at the end of which he says “… and so we will proceed with some other examples in the next lessons.”

Now here is the rest of the game against Dautov.

23…. Ne4 24.Nxe4 dxe4 25.Qxe4 Nf6 26.Qe5 Nd5 27.Qxc7 Rxc7 28.Ra1 Rxa1 29.Rxa1 Nxe3 30.Ra8+ Kh7 31.Nc1 Rd7 32.Nb3 Nc2 33.g3 Nxb4 34.Kf2 g5 35.Kf3 Kg6 36.Rg8+ Kf5 37.g4+ Kf6 38.fxg5+ hxg5 39.Ke4 Ra7 40.Nd2 Ra3 0–1

I suppose there are those who like to read chess books and those who don’t. I love reading chess books. I like to think I read them purely for pleasure but at the back of my mind there has always been the dim hope that one day I might benefit from all the reading I was doing and become a better player.

For years it didn’t happen and I’ve come across the same complaint from other people. For twenty years they had read chess books and followed master games but their chess skill remained largely unchanged.

Last year I found myself in the position of having no spare time. By January the situation had improved slightly but reading chess books was still out of the question. However, I was missing chess badly so I decided to buy some videos from Chessbase. I found I could spend between 10 and 20 minutes every night watching a video clip.

Something miraculous occurred. I got better at chess. I could measure this in two ways. First of all, I could play rapid games against Shredder at increasing levels of difficulty and occasionally win. And secondly I got pretty pleasing scores when I played against test positions or games of the sort provided by Igor Khmelnitsky, Daniel King and Jeroen Bosch.

I suspect my chess has also got stronger because I have stopped using Fritz. I used my own judgement instead of checking everything with the computer. I used to be always in the habit of using Fritz to check what I read in books. I have always been sceptical about experts in the past but the players who present these videos are chess legends: Nigel Short, Viktor Kortchnoi, Alexei Shirov, Garry Kasparov. I’ve learnt to trust them. I’ve also found that it is easier to find strong moves if you are trained in human chess thinking rather than trying to follow the correct but sometimes unfathomably complex advice of the computer.

But another measure of how much I’ve improved might be my growing taste for endgames. Endgames are difficult, in my view, because you need to calculate precisely. You can’t rely on instinct or strategic concepts.

There aren’t many good chessbase videos on endgames. Not that I’ve found so far anyway. The best endgame lessons I’ve come across have been in the collected games of Kortchnoi and Short. Short’s commentary is particularly clear.

But I’ve recently started to read a book that I bought because it was half price. It’s called Endgame Virtuoso Anatoly Karpov by Tibor Karolyi & Nick Aplin. It’s not as effortless as watching a video but neither is it as dry as I expected.

Here’s a position that arises from analysis of Karpov’s game against Vaganian in Leningrad, 1969.

Black to move

Karpov was Black. The correct moves, according to the book’s authors are

49…e4! opens the passage for invasion. In opposite-coloured bishop endings you often have to play aggressively. 50.fxe4 Ke5! (White must go one way with the king, then the Black king invades in the other direction. Just like taking a penalty in soccer).

Like soccer, yes. Pretty easy, really, isn’t it?

Some chess teachers say that if you want to improve, you should study end games. Yet many people are addicted to openings. Openings are full of life and activity. Opening books provide concrete solutions to a problem we face in every game. We learn what to do in a known position and we learn how to avoid getting off to a bad start.

There are plenty of publishers cashing in on this opening addiction. Some publishers seem to publish nothing else but books on the openings and they always give them really swashbuckling titles. A killer opening repertoire! Slay the Spanish! Seven ways to smash the Sicilian! The Sniper!

The end game is an acquired taste. It’s almost like a different game. It’s often explained badly in books. There are some end game experts out there who are the worst teachers in the world.

But what about the middle game? I often get bogged down in the middle game and end up exchanging off all my pieces and going into an end game simply because I don’t know what else to do.

But I have found that the best way to learn all aspects of the game, openings, middle games and end games is to play through the games of people who really know what they’re doing and pay close attention to their comments.

One common motif that I’ve noticed recently is penetration. When two players are well-matched, the key moment comes when one of them penetrates the other’s position. This is often done by a rook on an open file. Rooks and open files are old hat, of course. But I noticed that in a casual game I played just a few days ago, I failed to seize the opportunity to penetrate down an open file when doing so would have secured the win. Instead I played very lamely and let my opponent exchange rooks, going into an endgame that I won (thanks to my opponent’s carelessness) by the same technique – penetration.

Black to move

In this position with Black, I should have played 24…Re3! 25.c5 Rfe8 with decisive pressure on the e-file. Instead I was hesitant and played 24…c5 25.Rg6 Kh7 26.Rcg1, after which I was forced onto the defensive.

Black to move

Later, after all the rooks were off the board Black penetrated with king and bishop.

Black to move

39…Kg6 40.Kf2 Kh5 41.Kg3 Bb3

White to move

This position is easily winning for Black because the bishop will threaten White’s blockaded d-pawn while Black’s kingside pawns come crashing through.

Here’s a more complicated example from a game between Karpov and Hort in 1982.

White to move

After 24.Rc5 b4 25.Rb5 Qa8 26.Rc1 White has a firm grip on the queenside and his opponent is forced to defend.

Black to move

Some variations need to be calculated and there is still a game to be played but White’s superiority is clear.

Once you are aware of the power of penetration you see it in every game. In the following position against Vladimir Akopian, Nigel Short, playing White was worried about his opponent’s rook penetrating on the f-file.

White to move

Nigel played a crucial defensive move, 21. Nf5. It was more important to shut out the rook than to continue blockading Black’s advanced passed pawn. Short’s defensive play was effective and he went on to win, despite the insecure position of his king.

You should always be alert to your opponent’s opportunities for penetration. In the following game played against Jan Timman, Qi Jingxuan correctly saw that he couldn’t take Black’s c-pawn even though it was attacked twice and only defended once.

White to move

After 29. dxc5 dxc5 30. Bxc5 Re2+, Black’s advantage would have been crushing. Instead, White defended the e-file with 29. Re1.

Whenever penetration is threatened, there should be prophylaxis!

In this position, however, Qi Jingxuan’s defensive play wasn’t enough. Timman’s two bishops slowly squeezed the life out of him and the Dutch grandmaster won a fine game.