Chess Tactics: Anand — Lautier, 1997

There must be something

The sudden finish In Przepiorka—Cohn was a little unexpected because few pieces were left on the board.

Vishy Anand sees chess tactics like few ever have. Photo: Grand Chess Tour
Vishy Anand sees chess tactics like few ever have. Photo: Grand Chess Tour

The chess tactics in Anand — Lautier arise out of a wild struggle where calculation will decide the day. To find the possibilities, we need to look for checks, captures, and threats … and use our imagination. Don’t reject “strange” or “crazy” moves at first sight, because they just might work!

Black has play of his own, which in some ways makes things easier. White knows that if he doesn’t act urgently, the game will turn against him.

What did the future World Champion play, in what would become one of his most famous victories?


20. ?

A modern classic

Chess tactics will show up in your games if you activate your pieces! Train your tactics and calculation, and don’t forget to actually look for them in your games!

The First Chess Game: Castellvi — Vinoles, 1475

According to the MegaBase, the first chess game Castellvi — Vinoles was played in Valencia, Spain in 1475. By “first chess game,” I mean the first recorded game played under rules similar to those used today. Earlier versions of chess did not have queens and bishops, for example.

Sofonisba Anguissola's The Chess Game; Castellvi—Vinoles predates the painting by 80 years!
The Chess Game. Sofonisba Anguissola, 1555

Being the first chess game, Castellvi — Vinoles was not very well-played, but that doesn’t matter much. I drift off and try to imagine what life was like over 500 years ago, during the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance! As a former history major, thoughts like this fascinate me.

I’m not sure castling was allowed in 1475, because the players had opportunities to aim for this most desirable move but did not! I’m almost certain en passant wasn’t in the rules yet; keep that in mind as you play through the game.

The Dawn of a New Era

Don’t Worship Your Chess Engine!

Chess engines can be a valuable tool…

Chess computer software is extremely popular, and has been for a long time. A chess engine can analyze your games and give you an idea of how well or poorly you played. With ratings topping the 3400 mark, these monsters are several hundred points stronger than any human chess player, dead or alive.

…that is abused by less experienced players

Beware blindly following the output of a chess computer! An engine does not “understand” chess the same way a human does, and we cannot achieve the near-perfection in play that a computer can. When analyzing tactics the computer sees nearly everything, but what if you want to understand a position where pieces aren’t flying everywhere?

Here’s an example. You enter a game into ChessBase (or open one from a database). Then you open your favorite chess engine to analyze it, such as Fritz or Stockfish. How helpful might this be?

Let’s take the classic game Evans—Opsahl from the 1950 Dubrovnik Olympiad.

The value of a chess engine is limited here.
Evans-Opsahl, 1950, after 17 moves. I have opened Stockfish 11. How helpful is the engine, really?

The screenshot is not easy to see, so I’ll fill you in on some details. I turned on Stockfish 11 after black’s 17th move and let it analyze for awhile.

At 36 ply (half moves) or 18 full moves, it considers white’s best move to be 18.Rb2 for some strange reason, giving an evaluation of +/= 0.68. This suggests white is slightly better. In a real game between humans, I totally disagree!

Situations like this usually arise from the Exchange Variation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined (1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.cxd5 exd5; other sequences of moves can reach this same position). After both players support their d-pawns, and castle, we get a Karlsbad pawn structure, like this:

Both sides hope to start a minority attack on the flank where they have less pawns! White plays on the queenside, and black on the kingside. The idea is to create weaknesses to attack later. White’s play is quicker and easier, but if black succeeds the reward is a dangerous assault on white’s king.

What the engine can’t tell you

Let’s take another look at the game position:

White is ready to play 18.b5! to break apart black’s queenside. Notice that white’s pieces are in position to pounce. Of course, the future five-time U.S. Champion did just that.

Black has not played in the most accurate manner, and his attack is nowhere near threatening enough to disturb white seriously. Things would look better for him if his knight was on a more threatening post.

But wait, there’s more…

I’d like to mention that if black had the move here, an interesting possibility would be to play 18…b5!? himself. That makes is much harder for white to break through, and black has only one weakness to defend, on c6, though it’s a very serious one. Slowing white’s queenside play would also give black time to organize counterplay against white’s kingside. Either that, or try to land the black knight on c4 where it shields the weak c6-pawn from white’s pieces:

After the computer suggestion 18.Rb2 the move 18…b5 gains even more punch, because if white now follows with 19.axb5 axb5:

You can’t go wrong with this classic by Ludek Pachman.

White’s heavy pieces trip over each other and struggle to fight for the newly-opened a-file!

A chess engine can’t explain all of that to you. You have to either read a middle game textbook (such as Pachman’s Modern Chess Strategy), study well-annotated games from a database, or hire a coach. You can also read this blog regularly!

I could have left the engine on even longer, and maybe it would have chosen 18.b5 after all. It was the second-choice move with an evaluation of +/= 0.63. The point is, the computer couldn’t tell an inexperienced player the ideas behind any moves it suggests!

Evans was more than “slightly better” after 18.b5

The second player had to passively defend a weak structure for the rest of the game. In a practical game, this is a nightmare scenario. Opsahl finally succumbed after 81 moves.

The Chronos Chess Clock: America’s Favorite

Chronos Chess Clock
A classic beige “long” Chronos with buttons, and box.

The Chronos chess clock is the most popular timer in U.S. tournaments, and has been for years. I say that as a longtime tournament director who has walked through countless playing halls. These clocks can accomodate time delay and increment, so they can be used in USCF and FIDE-rated events.

The Chronos is extremely durable and reliable. I’ve owned mine since January 1998, only having to replace the batteries a few times. The $120 I paid is worth $191.18 in 2020 dollars. You probably won’t pay $120 for a Chronos even today!

The Chronos Chess Clock has options galore

In the 1990s, the Chronos only came in one style: long with buttons (as pictured above), in an off-white color. You can activate the lights signalling the player to move, and turn its beep on or off. You can even change the pitch of the beep!

Later, Chronos introduced a “touch” version, with silver disk-like buttons in place of the push-buttons. Many players preferred this as it was “cooler” and the push buttons can come off accidentally.

Nowadays, it’s hard to find “long” Chronoses. The newer versions are about 3/4 the size of the originals: easier to fit into chess bags, but less available digits on the LED. In addition, you can now buy the Chronos in a variety of colors.

Years ago, the downside of the Chronos was learning to set it. In an age where games are almost exclusively timed with digital clocks, they all have their quirks with settings. On the plus side, adjusting the times (for example, in case of an illegal move) is easier and more intuitive with the Chronos than other timers.

I said in a previous review that I now prefer DGT clocks aesthetically, but the Chronos chess clock is still the go-to for a lot of players, and I don’t blame them! The Chronos has unmatched sturdiness; I wouldn’t expect my DGT North American to last 20+ years.

Chess Tactics: Przepiorka — Cohn, 1907

Beware chess tactics when the king lacks defenders!

This seems like obvious advice, but it’s easy to let your guard down when there aren’t many pieces left. “Forget about chess tactics…it’s going to be an endgame soon, let me get ready for it…”

Just like in Uhlmann—Zwaig, chess tactics start with looking for checks, captures, and threats before considering other moves!

What should black do here?


Don’t let your guard down…and never assume all the chess tactics in a position have evaporated! A weaker player facing a stronger one might score a knockout because the higher-rated player doesn’t take the opponent seriously enough.

Remember: a player rated 200 points higher than his opponent should statistically score 76% — great, but nowhere near a certainty! Sit there and calculate as best you can, whether you are the favorite or the underdog.

Chess Endgames for Beginners

An important topic is chess endgames for beginners. Huge amounts of material have been written on the endgame, but how much of it does a beginner need to know? For players rated less than 800, not much. In most beginner games that reach the endgame, one side is way ahead and only has to give checkmate without allowing stalemate.

Which chess endgames for beginners, exactly?

The Ladder Mate is the most basic of the chess endgames for beginners
The Ladder Mate uses rooks and/or queens.

The must-know chess endgames for beginners include three mates: the Ladder Mate (two rooks), King and Queen vs. King, and King and Rook vs. King mates.

Don’t waste time learning the two bishops’ mate or the bishop and knight mate until you’re well over 1000. They happen too rarely to justify studying them. Other endgames are even rarer.

The other chess endgame to learn is King and Pawn vs. King. Know how to win when possible, and how to draw. Fortunately, I’m going to help you out.

The Key Winning Position

This position is winning for white no matter whose turn it is, unless this setup occurs on the edge of the board. That’s because white’s king can gain control of the queening square (here, e8) and escort his pawn to the end of the board.

First, with white to move.

Now, with black to move.

Getting there

Let’s start with this position:

To win, white needs to control the squares in front of the pawn with the king. Whenever white can’t control the pawn’s next square, the game will be a draw.

First, let’s see poor play from white that leads to a draw.

We have arrived at this position:

Don’t confuse it with The Key Winning Position! in that case, with the white king ahead of the pawn, the first player wins no matter whose turn it is. This position with the pawn in front is a draw no matter who moves first! Black to move would simply play …Ke8-e7. With white to play:

The winning method

As in most endgames, lead with your king. Do not advance the pawn until necessary. When is it necessary? The moment your king can’t make further progress on his own:

Notice that white controls the e4, e5, and e6 squares with the king. That’s why 5…Kd6-d5 would not work for black; white would just push the pawn and the king when given the chance.

The Weaker Defense

A Better Defense

Black should play the king to e7, but it doesn’t make a difference.

Chess endgames for beginners: conclusion

Endgame books show a variety of basic mates, but beginners only need to know three basic mates. Other than that, players should know some basics about the King and Pawn vs. King endgame: commit The Key Winning Position to memory and remember to lead with the king!

ChessBase and MegaBase: Essential!

At least, they are essential for advanced players and for coaches. If you’re already familiar with ChessBase and MegaBase and understand their value, feel free to skip this post. Otherwise, you need to keep reading.

What is ChessBase?

ChessBase: makers of ChessBase and MegaBase
ChessBase: makers of ChessBase and MegaBase

ChessBase GmbH is a chess publishing company founded in 1985 and based in Hamburg, Germany. The company’s flagship product is also called ChessBase: a database program that can organize chess information in myriad ways. The current version is ChessBase 15.

The primary information ChessBase manages is chess games, which we’ll discuss below. The program can also play chess videos, organize opening “books,” and utilize endgame knowledge contained in “tablebases.”

What is the MegaBase?

MegaBase is a collection of annotated chess games played from the year 1475 to the given year. Pulished annually, the current MegaBase 2020 contains more than eight million games! You will find plenty of games with commentary by grandmasters and world champions including Garry Kasparov, Viswanathan Anand, etc.

The information available to you with ChessBase and MegaBase is staggering.
The information available to you with ChessBase and its databases is staggering.

A cheaper alternative is the Big Database, which contains the same eight million games as MegaBase, but few have commentary. It’s much better than nothing, but I highly recommend MegaBase.

For working seriously on chess, ChessBase will save you a huge amount of time and effort. Search games in a database and study them on your screen without combing through books or using a chess set.

You can search databases for opening positions, distributions of endgame material, brilliancy prize games, games with commentary by a certain player — the possibilities are extensive. In addition, you can also create your own database files that contain games in a certain opening, or study material for a particular student. Which brings me to my next point.

ChessBase and MegaBase: the most important resources for coaches

I would cry if I couldn’t use ChessBase to prepare lessons and manage my students’ material.

I make a new database file for every student I teach privately. This allows me to keep a running track of what we have worked on together; I just keep adding to their database. I can import games from MegaBase and the internet, recreate instructive positions from physical books, enter my own commentary, and much more.

Preparing for lessons can be a very time-consuming process, but ChessBase cuts that time down tremendously. When I’ve finished preparing my lesson, I print out the material and go to my student’s home to teach the material.

The Pawn Game: a Good Way to Learn Chess?

It’s very common. A parent or chess teacher shows a new player how to move and capture with the pawns, then they play the pawn game. It starts with this position:

To win, a player needs to capture all of their opponent’s pawns OR get a pawn to the end of the board. This seems like a fun, easy way to start learning chess…but there’s a problem.

The dark side of the pawn game

Hey…shouldn’t we bring out our pieces and castle early in the game?

Absolutely! Remember: pawns are not pieces! This is a foundation of chess strategy.

Move the center pawns, develop the minor pieces (knights and bishops), and castle.

This student is not stuck on the pawn game!
Child moving pieces during a chess lesson

If a new player gets too used to playing the pawn game, they can overestimate the strength of the pawns when the other pieces are introduced. That leads to making way too many pawn moves, and not getting the pieces out: a recipe for disaster.

Instead, I recommend teaching a new player how to move the straight-line piece pieces first.

Show them the pattern of the rook moving. Then, set up some pieces randomly and have them practice capturing with the rook. Repeat the process with the other pieces. In order: bishop, queen, king, pawn (now use the pawn game!), and finally the knight.

This approach takes a longer view of chess education. Yes, the student may learn to play a bit slower, but they won’t have the bad habit of making too many pawn moves. If you want your chess newbie to join the USCF and play chess competitively, don’t play the pawn game too much.

I’m sure some chess coaches will disagree with me. Share your thoughts!

French Defense, Part 2a: Winawer & Classical Variations

Notre-Dame de Paris
Notre-Dame de Paris in August 2016. Photo: Andre Harding

In Part 1, we looked at French Defense lines where black exchanges pawns on e4.

Now we’ll start looking at the most common center type in the French: white plays e4-e5. In this post we’ll look at the Winawer and Classical Variations.

The next post will feature the MacCutcheon and the Tarrasch.

White locks the center with e4-e5; Winawer and Classical

There are several important lines where this can happen. In all of them, the main idea is the same: Black wants to attack white’s d4-pawn, starting with the pawn advance …c7-c5!

(a) Winawer Variation 3.Nc3 Bb4

The Winawer is the most dynamic system in the French Defense. It starts as follows:

Now black tries to break down the white center, while white accepts weak queenside pawns in order to get black’s strong bishop. Typically, white attacks on the kingside, and black goes for counterplay in the center and on the queenside. An important example:

This is the Winawer Poisoned Pawn Variation. Both sides face danger! In other versions of the Winawer, black castles kingside while he still can and creates counterplay on the queenside and in the center, while white goes for mate.

A classic example of Winawer chaos comes from the first game of the 1960 World Championship match:

Or the famous duel between Fischer and Tal later that year:

I have never played the Winawer as black in a tournament game…too crazy for me! The next possibilities occurred in plenty of my games, however.

(b) Classical Variation with 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7

This is another double-edged variation, but play is not as “fast” as in the Winawer. Still, attacks can appear suddenly:

Games in this line often become positional struggles where black’s “problem” bishop on the light squares is a long-term factor:

(c) Classical Variation with 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e5 Nfd7 6.Bxe7 Qxe7

Both sides have attacking chances here as well, but too much enthusiasm can backfire, as here:

White can also play more aggressively, and offer a dangerous gambit.

(d) Alekhine-Chatard Attack: 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e5 Nfd7 6.h4

Black can take a pawn but needs to be careful, as shown by games like the following:

With care, black has chances as well.

Let’s stop here. Next time, we’ll see examples of the MacCutcheon and Tarrasch Variations.

Chess Tactics: Spielmann—Flamberg, 1914

This is one of my favorite examples of using chess tactics in an attack on an uncastled king. When facing an aggressive opening like white plays here, develop your pieces and don’t get greedy!

A True Romantic

Rudolf Spielmann knew all about attacking an uncastled king
Rudolf Spielmann was one of the world’s best players from the 1910s through the 1930s.

Playing white is renowned attacker Rudolf Spielmann (1883-1942). Even in his own time he was a throwback, preferring romantic, swashbuckling chess from the 19th century. Still, he performed well in tournaments and had respectable records against most of his contemporaries, including a lifetime 50% score against Capablanca (two wins, two losses, eight draws).

Spielmann wrote one of the early books on combinations and attacking chess, The Art of Sacrifice in Chess, which I highly recommend. It’s not just a textbook; the games selected are a pleasure to go through!



Classic Attack on the Uncastled King

Things to Remember

One player can reach the middlegame while the other is stuck in the opening! To avoid this fate, think carefully before accepting a “free” pawn, especially with your king in the center. Your opponent often hopes you take it — and stop developing new pieces. They will bring out more pieces and chase your tired forces around, leading to an attack on the uncastled king.