Photo by Fred Lucas

Since I’ve been taking lessons from Rustam Kasimdzhanov he has become one of my dearest friends. Even though he is a world class player, he never makes me feel inferior. Nor does he show off. He is rightly proud of some of his games but when he shows them to me it is the games that we focus on rather than Rustam’s ego. He has a passion to help me improve my chess and simply to enjoy it more. He does this by talking me through his games move by move, explaining everything that he was thinking about. He melds strategy and tactics into a single coherent plan that he elaborates with amazing clarity. His English is perfect. His vocabulary is rich. His explanations really sink in and everything seems easy when I listen to him.

Yesterday he gave me a very good illustration of something that often gives me problems when I try to follow master games. It’s the idea of the positional pawn sacrifice. Those grandmasters can be baffling sometimes. They tell you to avoid dubious gambit lines where you throw away pawns in the opening in order to wrong-foot your opponent and get an attack. These cheap attacks can be fended off by any half-decent player who knows how to defend and then you are simply a pawn down. Pawns are important, they say. “Pawns are the soul of chess.” So they play the openings very precisely and cautiously. They resign games when they are a pawn down saying airily, “the end game was easily winning for White.” Yet they wilfully litter the board in the middlegame with pawns en prise, which their opponents stubbornly refuse to capture. They do this, they tell you, for “positional reasons” where any attack, if it exists at all, is veiled in fog.

So this puzzle has never been resolved in my mind. When is a pawn merely a pawn and when is it everything? Rustam cleared up my confusion completely.

He showed me this game from the world championship tournament in San Luis, 2005.

Kasimdzhanov, Rustam (2670) – Anand, Viswanathan (2788)
FIDE-Wch San Luis (4), 01.10.2005

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3 Ng4 7.Bg5 h6 8.Bh4 g5 9.Bg3 Bg7 10.h3 Ne5 11.Nf5 Bxf5 12.exf5 Nbc6 13.Nd5 e6 14.fxe6 fxe6 15.Ne3 0–0 16.Be2 Qe7 17.0–0 Rad8 18.Bh5 Kh8 19.Re1 d5 20.a4 Nc4 21.Nxc4 dxc4 22.Qg4 Qb4 23.Qxe6 Rd2 (see diagram 1).

Diagram 1

Rustam’s pawns on a4, b2 and c2 are vulnerable and under attack.So what does he do? How should he defend? Why, by centralising his rook of course!

24.Rad1!

Diagram 2

The pawns, after all, are only pawns but a centralised army can win the game.

Vishy is a tricky player, of course, so he plays on without taking any of the pawns.

24… Nd4 25.Qe4 Nf5 26.Be5 Rxf2 27.Bf3 Rd2 28.Bxg7+ Kxg7 29.Qe5+ Rf6 30.a5 Nh4

Diagram 3

Now Rustam has a problem. He knows he has done everything correctly. He has left his pawns to fend for themselves because he knows he can win with his pieces. But how? Where is the tactical blow that will initiate the brilliant mating attack? Rustam would like to do something decisive with his bishop but Black is threatening 31… Rxg2+, winning the g-pawn with check, so Rustam must try something else.

31.Qc7+ Rf7 32.Qe5+ Rf6

Diagram 4

The checks aren’t working as the position simply repeats itself. Rustam must try harder. Then he remembers that a pawn is only a pawn and abandons the g-pawn to its fate.

33.Bh5!!

Diagram 5

After this there is no defence. Vishy tries a few more tricky moves but only confuses himself and stumbles into a mate in two.

33… Ng6 34.Bxg6 Rxd1 35.Rxd1 Kxg6 36.Qe4+ Kg7 37.Rd7+ Kg8

Diagram 6: White to mate in two

Even I could finish the job!

38.Qh7+ 1–0

This game is explained in detail in Rustam’s DVD for Chessbase, Strategy Step by Step. If you watch it, you too will become one of Rustam’s dear friends and he will certainly become one of yours.

The photo of Rustam is by Fred Lucas who seems to specialise in this kind of thing.

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Zukertort was taught by Anderssen

“Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master” – Leonardo da Vinci.

One of the most useful skills you can have as a chessplayer is the ability to move the pieces in your mind’s eye rather than on the board. You can train this skill by playing blindfold games. However, it is very difficult to play blindfold, so you need to approach it in stages.

The first stage is to learn the board very thoroughly. One of the most enjoyable ways of doing this is to play over games from a book or magazine. If you use a board and pieces it is better than using a computer because you become more familiar with what each square is called. After you have played over many games in this way you know without thinking where f7 is or h6 or a3. It is very important also to learn the relationships between the squares, especially the important diagonals.

It is best not to get distracted by variations when you are playing over games at first. You can go back and study the variations later if they are interesting or if you were confused about why certain moves were not played.

The second stage is to play through a game in which you consciously make the moves in your mind before you play them on the board. You can perhaps play through two or three moves in your mind at first before the position starts to go fuzzy. As you become better at it, you can extend this slowly. You will find that it is easier in some positions than in others. Once the position is no longer clear in your mind, play out the moves on the board. Allow your mind to register the position fully and then continue in the same way for several more moves.

If you use entertaining miniatures for this training exercise, you are less likely to get tired and you will have the satisfaction of playing through an entire game quickly and seeing an instructive attack.

Once you become practised at this, you can learn a game and play it through entirely in your imagination. This also helps train your memory. A good memory is essential for opening preparation, for some end games and for increasing your mental store of common mating motifs.

Here is a short game that was played between two of the world’s strongest players in Breslau in 1865. Zuckertort, who had the White pieces, had been Anderssen’s pupil in Breslau. Anderssen was famous for his attacking combinations but in this game he found himself wrong-footed in the opening and fumbled the defence.

Zukertort,Johannes Hermann – Anderssen,Adolf
Breslau, 1865

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5

Diagram 1

This is the starting position of the Ruy Lopez or Spanish game. It tends to lead to complicated manouevring games with many pieces on the board. It requires considerable strategic skill to play it well, which is why it has endured as a favourite opening for hundreds of years. The position is well-known to every chess player. 3…Nge7 Black protects his c6 knight with his king’s knight. 4.c3 White prepares the advance d2-d4. 4…d6 5.d4 Bd7 Black unpins his knight and shields his queen, which would become exposed if the central pawns were exchanged. 6.0–0 Ng6

Diagram 2

With his knight on g6, Black provides extra protection for his pawn on d5 and opens the diagonal for his king’s bishop to protect the d6 pawn. White could possibly play d4-d5 on the next turn, in which case Black’s threatened queen’s knight could hop to e7. 7.Ng5 h6 8.Nxf7 White sacrifices a knight. Black must capture it or lose a rook. 8…Kxf7 9.Bc4+

Diagram 3

In this position you should see that Black must either move his king off the c4-g8 diagonal or else block this diagonal with either the d-pawn or his light-squared bishop. If he blocked with the bishop, White could advance the d-pawn to d5 and fork Black’s knight and bishop, so this is bad for Black. If instead he blocked with the d-pawn by advancing it to d5, it would be unprotected, so it could simply be captured by White’s bishop with the same inconvenient check. It is better therefore to move the king. But where? There are 3 squares available: e8, e7 and f6. It is necessary to do some analysis to decide which is safest, but we are not going to do any analysis. We need to concentrate on seeing the position on the board rather than thinking about variations. In the game, Anderssen moved the king to e7. 9…Ke7 Now the king is not directly threatened but Black has an unprotected piece. It is the knight on g6. The f7 square is empty because the pawn has gone. You should be able to see that White can attack this knight on g6. 10.Qh5

Diagram 4

This is an interesting position. White’s queen is powerfully placed on the e8-h5 diagonal. The knight on g6 is of course under attack. Black has four choices: a) move the knight, b) protect the knight, c) counter-attack or d) sacrifice the knight. In this case moving the knight would be fatal. If, for example, Black played 10…Nf4, attacking White’s queen, 11. Qf7 ends the game with checkmate. Counter-attacking with, for example, 10…Be6, would only delay White’s attack. If Black sacrificed the knight he would gain nothing, so he chooses, logically, to protect it. 10…Qe8

Diagram 5

Unfortunately it is a trap. White now has a forced mate. 11.Qg5+ White could have played his bishop to g5 with the same effect but it is more artful to sacrifice the queen. 11…hxg5 12.Bxg5#

Diagram 6

This mate with two bishops is a very common mating motif and is worth committing to memory. Black’s king is in a box and all the exits are covered. 1–0

One of the better books on tactics

One of the hardest things about studying chess is finding material that helps you improve. I love reading chess books but many of the ones I like best are way above my playing level, while books that might actually help me improve can be very tedious and unappealing.

Improving your tactical skills is especially hard. You need to study positions that stretch you but if they are too hard your brain seizes up and you get discouraged. I’m convinced also that a lot of chess professionals don’t understand how to teach tactics.

Chess trainer Martin Weteschnik noted that asking his pupils to solve a huge number of tactical problems didn’t help them improve. So he wrote a book called Understanding Chess Tactics. It’s not a bad book. But it’s not a complete solution either.

In this book Weteschnik gives an example of a game played by Holger Witt before he had read the book, in which he made a tactical blunder. This is followed by an example from a game where Holger played well after absorbing the lessons in the book. But the two examples are very different. The first is quite hard because there is a lot going on. The second is very easy because the tactical motif is very clear.

There is a problem with this book because none of the diagrams show whether white or black is to play. So it is difficult to use it interactively. The diagrams are there quite simply to illustrate the text. You are shown things and you need to absorb them. This is a very passive way of learning and is not very effective in my view. I become bored and tired of this very quickly, although the tactical insights Weteschnik imparts are no doubt worthwhile and helpful.

He also makes the mistake, in my view, of trying to explain simple points using difficult examples.

But my main problem with this kind of approach is that you don’t learn something as concrete as chess by reading a lot of abstract explanation about what is theoretically possible. It is a bit like trying to learn a language by studying a grammar book. It’s too dry and too remote from real life.

Training from Tiger Lilov

The worst example of the academic approach that I’ve seen is on a recent training DVD from Chessbase. It’s called Tactics: From Basics to Brilliance by Valeri Lilov. It sounds great, doesn’t it? From basics to brilliance. Who doesn’t want to be brilliant? There are a little over 100 positions on this DVD. Quite a lot of them are brilliant, there’s no doubt about that. And, unlike in Weteschnik’s book, you get the chance to work out the moves for yourself. But the explanations from Mr. Lilov – or Tiger, as apparently, we should call him – drive me mad. He quite often spends three or four minutes talking very fast about what you need to know before showing you the position and, I have to tell you, what he tells you you need to know is not what you need to know at all. Forget what Tiger says you need to know. What you need to know is not whether the advantage is static or dynamic; or whether what you are about to execute on the board should be referred to as forcing play, a forcing move, a tactical break or a tactical operation; or how many different sorts of sacrifice or combination there are. What you need to know is where the pieces are and where they can go. That’s what you need to know.

Moreover, these tactical combinations, though often brilliant, are not good for beginners. Some of them are quite stunning simply because they have a logical inevitability that is many moves deep and far from obvious. It’s hard to imagine using similar motifs in your own games.

Ivashchenko's book for beginners

What I recommend for beginners, or even very mature players who need help with tactics, is Chess Tactics for Beginners from Chessbase’s rival ChessOK.

Chess Tactics for Beginners 2.0 has just been released and can be bought on CD or downloaded straight to your laptop or PC. It is based on a book of 1,320 positions by Sergey Ivashchenko and it’s comprehensive, progressive and interactive. You are not given any explanations but you learn by doing. You learn to see in fact, which is very important.

But once you’ve started to master the basics, it’s helpful to have a top class player talk you though how tactics can be applied in your games. This is where Rustam Kasimdzhanov comes in.

Kasimdzhanov - a brilliant mind

Rustam Kasimdzhanov has presented a few training DVDs for Chessbase but the only one I have seen is The Path to Tactical Strength. His explanations couldn’t be more different from Tiger Lilov’s. First of all, all the positions he presents – and there are only 22 – are from his own games. Secondly, he shows you each position before he begins talking about it. And thirdly, which is most important, everything he tells you is of direct relevance to the position in front of you. He does an outstanding job of dissecting the tactical possibilities that are inherent in the position, what to look for, what he saw himself, what he tried to achieve with his pieces and how he solved his problems.

I love Kasimdzhanov’s explanations. I have watched and listened to them many times because I’ve had this DVD for a few years, and the more I watch it the more I appreciate it. But I’m under no illusion that this DVD will make me as brilliant as Kasimdzhanov or even help me improve very much.

I think Weteschnik’s book is more likely to help with that. I have been reading and re-reading his book recently because I think it does help when you are studying tactics to understand the mechanics and nuances that regularly occur.

But I think the key to becoming stonger is to learn three things. One is to calculate without looking at the board. The second is to learn to calculate more variations. And the third is to calculate longer variations. Some books have been written about how to acquire these skills but they don’t actually teach them, or teach them very badly. It’s something, it seems to me, that all strong chess players have to learn to do for themselves.

But I have a few hints that can help and I will write about them next time.

Can you be trusted with the secret weapons?

In his training DVD The Secret Weapons of the Champions, Adrian Mikhalchisin presents some positions from a game played in 1999 between Alisa Galliamova and Evgeny Propukchuk. One of the pleasures of watching Adrian Mikhalchisin’s video presentations, by the way, is listening to him pronounce names like Propukchuk. But his reason for presenting this game is to demonstrate the proper application of Makogonov’s rule.

Makogonov’s rule is one of the secret weapons of the champions. Very simply, it states that if there are no tactical tricks, then you should improve the position of your worst-placed piece. Galliamova applies this rule in order to set up a strong attack against the hapless Propukchuk. Galliamova, however, does not apply the rule properly. He forgets something. I probably shouldn’t tell you what it is he forgets. If everyone reading this blog knew every wrinkle in Makogonov’s rule then it wouldn’t be a secret weapon any more and Mr. Mikhalchisin’s DVD would lose its potency.

Fortunately, Galliamova’s oversight is not serious. Propukchuk is so overcome by the first hint of danger brought about by the secret weapon, that he stumbles badly and is brought to his knees without a fair fight.

I probably shouldn’t be watching Mr. Mikhalchisin’s videos. Quite apart from the secrets that should probably remain secrets, there is the matter of Mr. Mikhalchisin’s superior tactical brain. His level is far, far beyond mine. I should probably be practising pins and deflections instead of trying to get my grubby little hands on lethal secrets like these.

Mr. Mikhalchisin, for example, doesn’t explain the position that he presents. As soon as Propukchuk stumbles, Mr Mikhalchisin loses interest and he moves on swiftly – he does everything swiftly – to another game.

But Propukchuk is no novice. He was rated 2489 at the time of this game. He’d won the Canadian open championship just the year before. So perhaps the position deserves a closer look to try and understand just how he could have made such a terrible mistake.

Here is the position just after Makogonov’s rule has been applied and Galliamova has set up his attack. (Sorry, I am not going to reveal the secret of how the rule was applied in order to reach this position.)

Diagram 1

In this position one of White’s threats is 35.Bxg7+ Ke7 36.Rhe1, pinning and winning Black’s queen. Black answers this threat quite rightly by taking the bishop with 34…Nxe5. White recaptures with a pawn, 35.dxe5 and now Propukchuk blunders badly by taking the pawn 35…Qxe5.

Diagram 2

This habit of snaffling pawns is frowned on in elite chess circles and here it’s easy to see why. It was much more important to guard against the mating threats with 35…Qg6, after which Black could have fought on with equal chances.

But what was Propukchuk thinking? Why did he think 35…Qxe5 was a good move?

I think he must have seen the reply 36.Rde1 and saw that he would be a rook up after Qxe1+ 37.Qb1 Qxb1+ 38.Kxb1.

Likewise, Black has a won game after 36.Rhe1 Qxe1 37.Rxe1 Rxe1+ 38.Qb1 Rxb1+ 39.Kxb1.

Of course, after 36. Rhe1, Black’s queen can’t move away because then 37.Qh8 would be mate. The queen is pinned against the king’s only escape route on e7. This kind of phantom pin is very easy to forget about when you are calculating variations. It takes a zwischenzug to make the pin real:

36. Rhe1 Qxe1 37. Qh8+! Ke7 38. Rxe1+.

After which, Black loses everything.

This position is very similar to a position in a book called Winning Chess Tactics for Juniors edited by Lou Hays. It is the first position in the section on pins and actually comes from the game Donner-Hübner, Büsum 1968, in which Donner, like Propukchuk, thought it was safe to snaffle a pawn or two even though his king could be exposed to a deadly pin.

Diagram 3

Donner was so focused on the attack of Hübner’s c-pawn, bringing all his heavy pieces to bear against it, that when Hübner played the slippery c4-c3 (see Diagram 3), Donner thought he could pick up both pawns for nothing.

But after 26.Qxb4 Rab8 27.Qxc3 Qb6+ 28.Rc5 Donner was caught in a cross-pin, with a deadly zwischenzug to boot!

Diagram 4: Black to move

Sometimes you don’t need secret weapons, just a dastardly tactic or two.

In any case, if you can’t work out the conclusion to the game after Diagram 4, you are not yet ready for the secret weapons. Just keep practising those pins!

In his training DVD The Secret Weapons of the Champions, Adrian Mikhalchisin presents some positions from a game played in 1999 between Alisa Galliamova and Evgeny Propukchuk. One of the pleasures of watching Adrian Mikhalchisin’s video presentations, by the way, is listening to him pronounce names like Propukchuk. But his reason for presenting this game is to demonstrate the proper application of Makogonov’s rule.

 

Makogonov’s rule is one of the secret weapons of the champions. Very simply, it states that if there are no tactical tricks, then you should improve the position of your worst-placed piece. Galliamova applies this rule in order to set up a strong attack against the hapless Propukchuk. Galliamova, however, does not apply the rule properly. He forgets something. I probably shouldn’t tell you what it is he forgets. If everyone reading this blog knew every wrinkle in Makogonov’s rule then it wouldn’t be a secret weapon any more and Mr. Mikhalchisin’s DVD would lose its potency.

 

Fortunately, Galliamova’s oversight is not serious. Propukchuk is so overcome by the first hint of danger brought about by the secret weapon, that he stumbles badly and is brought to his knees without a fair fight.

 

I probably shouldn’t be watching Mr. Mikhalchisin’s videos. Quite apart from the secrets that should probably remain secrets, there is the matter of Mr. Mikhalchisin’s superior tactical brain. His level is far, far beyond mine. I should probably be practising pins and deflections instead of trying to get my grubby little hands on lethal secrets like these.

 

Mr. Mikhalchisin, for example, doesn’t explain the position that he presents. As soon as Propukchuk stumbles, Mr Mikhalchisin loses interest and he moves on swiftly – he does everything swiftly – to another game.

 

But Propukchuk is no novice. He was rated 2489 at the time of this game. He’d won the Canadian open championship just the year before. So perhaps the position deserves a closer look to try and understand just how he could have made such a terrible mistake.

 

Here is the position just after Makogonov’s rule has been applied and Galliamova has set up his attack. (Sorry, I am not going to reveal the secret of how the rule was applied in order to reach this position.)

 

[position 1.]

 

In this position one of White’s threats is 35.Bxg7+ Ke7 36.Rhe1, pinning and winning Black’s queen. Black answers this threat quite rightly by taking the bishop with 34…Nxe5. White recaptures with a pawn, 35.dxe5 and now Propukchuk blunders badly by taking the pawn 35…Qxe5.

 

[position 2.]

 

This habit of snaffling pawns is frowned on in elite chess circles and here it’s easy to see why. It was much more important to guard against the mating threats with 35…Qg6, after which Black could have fought on with equal chances.

 

But what was Propukchuk thinking? Why did he think 35…Qxe5 was a good move?

 

I think he must have seen the reply 36.Rde1 and saw that he would be a rook up after Qxe1+ 37.Qb1 Qxb1+ 38.Kxb1.

 

Likewise, Black has a won game after 36.Ree1 Qxe1 37.Rxe1 Rxe1+ 38.Qb1 Rxb1+ 39.Kxb1.

 

Of course, Black’s queen can’t move away because then 37.Qh8 would be mate. The queen is pinned against the king’s only escape route on e7. This kind of phantom pin is very easy to forget about when you are calculating variations. It takes a zwischenzug to make the pin real:

 

36. Rhe1 Qxe1 37. Qh8+! Ke7 38. Rxe1+

 

After which, Black loses everything.

 

This position is very similar to a position in a book called Winning Chess Tactics for Juniors edited by Lou Hays. It is the first position in the section on pins and actually comes from the game Donner-Hübner, Büsum 1968, in which Donner, like Propukchuk, thought it was safe to snaffle a pawn or two even though his king could be exposed to a deadly pin.

 

[position 1]

 

Donner was so focused on the attack of Hübner’s c-pawn, bringing all his heavy pieces to bear against it, that when Hübner played the slippery c4-c3, Donner thought he could pick up both pawns for nothing.

 

But after 26.Qxb4 Rab8 27.Qxc3 Qb6+ 28.Rc5 Donner was caught in a cross-pin, with a deadly zwischenzug to boot!

 

[position 2]

 

Sometimes you don’t need secret weapons, just a dastardly tactic or two.

In his training DVD The Secret Weapons of the Champions, Adrian Mikhalchisin presents some positions from a game played in 1999 between Alisa Galliamova and Evgeny Propukchuk. One of the pleasures of watching Adrian Mikhalchisin’s video presentations, by the way, is listening to him pronounce names like Propukchuk. But his reason for presenting this game is to demonstrate the proper application of Makogonov’s rule.

Makogonov’s rule is one of the secret weapons of the champions. Very simply, it states that if there are no tactical tricks, then you should improve the position of your worst-placed piece. Galliamova applies this rule in order to set up a strong attack against the hapless Propukchuk. Galliamova, however, does not apply the rule properly. He forgets something. I probably shouldn’t tell you what it is he forgets. If everyone reading this blog knew every wrinkle in Makogonov’s rule then it wouldn’t be a secret weapon any more and Mr. Mikhalchisin’s DVD would lose its potency.

Fortunately, Galliamova’s oversight is not serious. Propukchuk is so overcome by the first hint of danger brought about by the secret weapon, that he stumbles badly and is brought to his knees without a fair fight.

I probably shouldn’t be watching Mr. Mikhalchisin’s videos. Quite apart from the secrets that should probably remain secrets, there is the matter of Mr. Mikhalchisin’s superior tactical brain. His level is far, far beyond mine. I should probably be practising pins and deflections instead of trying to get my grubby little hands on lethal secrets like these.

Mr. Mikhalchisin, for example, doesn’t explain the position that he presents. As soon as Propukchuk stumbles, Mr Mikhalchisin loses interest and he moves on swiftly – he does everything swiftly – to another game.

But Propukchuk is no novice. He was rated 2489 at the time of this game. He’d won the Canadian open championship just the year before. So perhaps the position deserves a closer look to try and understand just how he could have made such a terrible mistake.

Here is the position just after Makogonov’s rule has been applied and Galliamova has set up his attack. (Sorry, I am not going to reveal the secret of how the rule was applied in order to reach this position.)

[position 1.]

In this position one of White’s threats is 35.Bxg7+ Ke7 36.Rhe1, pinning and winning Black’s queen. Black answers this threat quite rightly by taking the bishop with 34…Nxe5. White recaptures with a pawn, 35.dxe5 and now Propukchuk blunders badly by taking the pawn 35…Qxe5.

[position 2.]

This habit of snaffling pawns is frowned on in elite chess circles and here it’s easy to see why. It was much more important to guard against the mating threats with 35…Qg6, after which Black could have fought on with equal chances.

But what was Propukchuk thinking? Why did he think 35…Qxe5 was a good move?

I think he must have seen the reply 36.Rde1 and saw that he would be a rook up after Qxe1+ 37.Qb1 Qxb1+ 38.Kxb1.

 

Likewise, Black has a won game after 36.Ree1 Qxe1 37.Rxe1 Rxe1+ 38.Qb1 Rxb1+ 39.Kxb1.

 

Of course, Black’s queen can’t move away because then 37.Qh8 would be mate. The queen is pinned against the king’s only escape route on e7. This kind of phantom pin is very easy to forget about when you are calculating variations. It takes a zwischenzug to make the pin real:

36. Rhe1 Qxe1 37. Qh8+! Ke7 38. Rxe1+

After which, Black loses everything.

This position is very similar to a position in a book called Winning Chess Tactics for Juniors edited by Lou Hays. It is the first position in the section on pins and actually comes from the game Donner-Hübner, Büsum 1968, in which Donner, like Propukchuk, thought it was safe to snaffle a pawn or two even though his king could be exposed to a deadly pin.

[position 1]

Donner was so focused on the attack of Hübner’s c-pawn, bringing all his heavy pieces to bear against it, that when Hübner played the slippery c4-c3, Donner thought he could pick up both pawns for nothing.

But after 26.Qxb4 Rab8 27.Qxc3 Qb6+ 28.Rc5 Donner was caught in a cross-pin, with a deadly zwischenzug to boot!

[position 2]

Sometimes you don’t need secret weapons, just a dastardly tactic or two.

I really enjoy replaying chess games from the 19th century. Tarrasch’s book called simply 300 chess games is full of wisdom about concrete positions, searingly analysed without any help from the computers upon which modern day analysts depend. His confidence is sometimes annoying but he is invariably correct.

So it was with great pleasure that I read through the historical overview presented by Evgeny Sveshnikov in Chapter 1 of his recent book The Complete c3 Sicilian.

There was nothing stuffy about the great players of the past. They loved to bamboozle each other with opening surprises just as much as the creative geniuses of today. Simon Alapin, whose name is associated with the 2.c3 variation of the Sicilian defence, tried to bamboozle Tarrasch with it in the great tournament of Vienna in 1898. Tarrasch was unimpressed. He immediately brought his queen out, flouting common decency in a way that Evgeny Sveshnikov still cannot forgive:

It is amazing that it should be Tarrasch himself who made such a move! A queen sortie like this will not even equalize, let alone refute the system.”

A shocking queen sortie

Nevertheless, Tarrasch went on to win the game and the tournament.

Alapin-Tarrasch
Vienna, 1898

1.e4 c5 2.c3 Qa5 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.Na3 e6 5.Nc4 Qc7 6.d4 cxd4 7.Nxd4 a6 8.Bd3 b5 9.Ne3 Nf6 10.0–0 Bb7 11.Nf3 Bd6! 12.Re1 Ne5 13.Nxe5 Bxe5 14.Nf1 0–0 15.Qe2 Bc6 16.Bg5 Rfe8 17.Qe3 h6 18.Bh4 Nh5 19.Bg3 Nf4 20.Bc2 g5 21.Nd2 Qd8 22.Nf3 f6 23.Nxe5 fxe5 24.f3 Kh8! 25.Qc5 Qf6 26.Qd6 Rg8 27.a4 Raf8 28.Bd3?! h5 29.axb5 axb5 30.Rf1 h4 31.Bxf4 gxf4 32.Kf2 Rg5 33.Rh1 h3 34.gxh3 Rfg8 35.Ke1 Rg2 36.Be2 Bxe4 37.fxe4 f3 38.Bf1 Rg1 0–1

The Alapin Sicilian is still treated with contempt by many chess professionals. Alexander Delchev, who makes a living out of playing the Black side of the Sicilian Defence has only 3 sentences on Alapin’s variation in his book The Easiest Sicilian:

In the “normal” Sicilian [He means without the move 2… e6, which is the subject of his book] 2.c3 is considered to be rather timid. You’ll hardly see a top-level GM to play it regularly. The main lines are depressively equal and deeply explored.”

Sveshnikov, who has devoted his life to this variation, agrees that Black can equalise with correct play but can also go wrong very easily and, “In order to play for the win, Black has to take big risks.”

Like playing 2… Qa5, for example!

The Complete c3 Sicilian is a beautiful book. The New in Chess imprint is really one of the best and this is an excellent book for learning about chess. Sveshnikov seems to have a passion for teaching and he devotes as much energy to the middle and endgame positions arising from this variation as he does to the opening moves, which he explains in painstaking detail. There are some very interesting asides about all manner of chess lore and this promises to be the most absorbing collection of games I have seen in a long time.

Look out, it's the Alekhine!

Chess rules can be very confusing. I mean rules of thumb. In his book Art of Attack in Chess, Vladimir Vukovic goes to great lengths to establish the necessary conditions for different types of attack and to provide some general guiding principles for bewildered tacticians. Fortunately, he also has common sense.

“Some observations should be added to dissuade the reader from accepting the principles and maxims expounded as a rigid pattern. The game of chess is too complex and rich for it to be possible to reveal its finer points fully on the basis of a few formulae.

“The practical player comes up against exceptions at every turn. Consequently, Lasker is right when he recommends in his book Common Sense in Chess that players should follow the principles with a dash of humour.”

One of the principles we are taught is that in pawn captures, if given a choice, you should always capture towards the centre.

The Exchange Variation of Alekhine’s Defence is one such example where Black has a choice. After the moves 1. e4 Nf6 2. e5 Nd5 3. d4 d6 4. c4 Nb6 5. exd6 Black can capture with either the c-pawn towards the centre or the e-pawn away from the centre.

Taking towards the centre in this case, says Timothy Taylor in his book Alekhine Alert! “leads to a game where White’s position is very easy to play and Black’s is insanely difficult.” Instead, he recommends 5…exd6, which he gives an exclamation mark.

Taylor’s further recommendations are very easy to follow and can be savoured in several heroic encounters featuring Bent Larsen amongst others.

I like Timothy Taylor’s style. I have another book by him on Bird’s Opening, which I enjoy for its clarity and completeness.

I haven’t yet read much of Alekhine Alert. I don’t quite approve of the title. Pirc Alert (by Lev Alburt) is much more perky, unless you prounounce Pirc in an authentically Slovenian way, in which case it’s a bit awkward but at least it’s original.

One thing I particularly like about Alekhine Alert is that, although Timothy Taylor doesn’t recommend 5…cxd6, he gives a number of complete games to show why. One of them is Bobby Fischer’s win with this variation against Duncan Suttles in the Palma de Mallorca Interzonal from 1970.

D.Suttles – R.J.Fischer

Palma de Mallorca Interzonal (Game 10), 1970

1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.d4 d6 4.c4 Nb6 5.exd6 cxd6 6.Be3 g6 7.d5 Bg7 8.Bd4 Bxd4 9.Qxd4 0–0 10.Nc3 e5 11.Qd2 f5 12.Nf3 N8d7 13.0–0–0 Qf6 14.Qh6 Qe7 15.Re1 e4 16.Nd2 Ne5 17.h3 Nbd7 18.Qe3 Qh4 19.g3 Qf6 20.Kb1 Nc5 21.f4 exf3 22.Nxf3 f4 23.gxf4 Nxf3 24.Qxf3 Qh4 25.Be2 Bf5+ 26.Ka1 Rae8 27.Rc1 Be4 28.Nxe4 Rxe4 29.Rh2 Rfxf4 30.Qc3 Qe7 31.Bf1 Re3 32.Qd2 Ref3 33.Re2 Qf6 34.Bg2 Rf2 35.Rce1 Rxe2 36.Rxe2 Rxc4 37.Qe3 Qe5 38.Kb1 Qxe3 39.Rxe3 Rf4 40.Bf3 h5 41.Kc2 Kf7 42.Kd2 Rb4 43.Kc3 Rh4 44.b4 Nd7 45.Be2 Nf6 46.Rf3 Kg7 47.Rd3 g5 48.a3 g4 49.Bf1 Ne4+ 50.Kc2 Nf2 51.Re3 gxh3 52.Re7+ Kf8 0–1

You can download an ebook sample giving Taylor’s comments on this game at the Everyman website.

The upshot is that even the exceptions have exceptions. In this game, as it turned out, it was OK for Fischer to capture towards the centre.

"Why do people read this stuff, Nigel?"

I have to admit from the outset that I don’t have a natural talent for chess and have never been very good at it. But I nevertheless find it very relaxing both to study and to play.

I read a lot of chess books that are aimed at the serious student. They can be very daunting. Just the number of chess books that are published every year is intimidating. How do people find time to play when there is so much new theory to be absorbed every year?

Well, they play more and more blitz and rapid games. Earlier this month I was watching Alexei Shirov analyse one of his rapid games that he’d played two years earlier. He had clearly spent far longer analysing it than he had spent playing it.

I found this comforting. I, too, spend far more time studying chess than actually playing it, particularly over the last few years when I have hardly played at all. But this year I have started to play again more regularly. Shirov, I must say, is an inspiration.

Another inspiration is Nigel Short. I once read an interview in which he admitted to reading chess books in bed without a board. He was very proud of his extensive collection. But in an article in New In Chess this month he wrote that Garry Kasparov had confided to him as long ago as in the nineties that he no longer read chess books. Since then Mr. Kasparov has written several of course. I bought one, the first volume of My Great Predecessors, and queued up in the London Chess Centre to have Garry sign it. I read all the text and played through some of the games but much of the analysis was too difficult for me.

As Nigel says, somewhat sarcastically, “Garry’s analysis is far too intimidating and requires one not only to take out a board and set but to painstakingly grapple with labyrinthine variations. No – it is far easier to plonk them on the shelf and admire the hard covers in their nice red dust jacket…”

Which is what I’ve done with mine for the last few years.

It’s true there are also books for what they call “club players.” A club player is a talented amateur who has less time to study because of his day job. Club players go in for wooly positions in which “ideas are more important than concrete variations” or else try to trip up their opponents with dastardly and often dubious opening surprises. To date New in Chess has published a weighty 13 volumes of astonishing “Secrets of Opening Surprises,” with which these unstuffy students of the game can catch each other out.

“No need to study large quantities of stuffy theory, but an immediate return on your investment of time. And lots of fun while going at it!”

I am not even a club player. I am too busy and too anti-social to go to clubs. And if I studied an opening surprise, I am the one who would end up being caught out by it.

The big problem for someone like me is waiting for a line I actually know to come up in a game. By the time it finally appears, the chances are I’ll have forgotten all the theory I ever knew about it.

So I am starting this blog to document my thoughts on chess before they are lost to posterity. You could see it as an expression of my long hours of lonely preparation for the chances that never came. As I have heard Mr. Kasparov say somewhere “nothing in chess is ever wasted.” And now I am proving him right. (He is always right, of course.) For I am going to share, at last, the untold secrets of my chess knowledge.

The distilled wisdom of half a century is here!

(Or very soon will be.)