Monthly Archives: May 2020

The Canal Trap

The Canal Trap arises from the Italian Game (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4):

This has been extremely popular at high level for many years now. The consensus among top players seems to be that black’s strongest reply is 3…Bc5, entering the Giuoco Piano:

From there, White typically plays the modest pawn pushes c2-c3 and d2-d3 and develops quietly. This, the Giuoco Pianissimo, has become perhaps the mainline of the open games:

Instead, White can develop a knight to c3 and go for piece play. The Canal Variation comes about after 4.d3 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6 6.Bg5:

Black has some different choices, and that can be a problem. After the sequence 6…h6 7.Bxf6 Qxf6 8.Nd5 Qd8 9.c3 (other moves will be analyzed in the notes below):

Black should play 9…a6 which preserves the dark-squared bishop from exchange from white’s d2-d4 or b2-b4 pawn advances. Instead, he loses after the normal-looking 9…Be6? 

Can you see why? This is the Canal Trap.

Use the Canal Variation (and maybe the Canal Trap) to win games!

Sound, Solid, Infrequently (Well-)Played…

Esteban Canal

Peruvian GM Esteban Canal (1896-1981). Photo: ajedrez365.com

Three characteristics of an opening line to consider! By my count I am 3-0 in tournament play with the Canal (all against lower-rated players, so take that for what it’s worth).

More important, my students score quite well with it, and always get good positions out of the opening. Since it’s a forgotten line, their scholastic opponents don’t know the subtleties of defending it.

How To Review a Game During a Chess Tournament

A game review during a lesson, is very different from a review that takes place during a chess tournament, with emotions at their highest. Post-game review at scholastic tournaments is what I will focus on here.

My Best Advice

This post is intended to give advice for inexperienced coaches (and parents serving as coaches). The most important advice I can give? Know your students! Everyone deals with winning, losing, and tournament pressure differently. Adjust accordingly…or your students will tune you out.

A Common Scenario

Your student just finished their tournament game and is back in the team room to review it. How can they get the most out of the review and take those lessons into future contests?

The Carrot and The Stick

Game review at SuperNationals

There are lots of games to review at SuperNationals! Photo: USCF

Sometimes a student will do just about anything to avoid reviewing a particular game. This is likely because they are ashamed of one or more mistakes they made and are worried about their parent or coach’s reaction — especially if they have repeated a previous mistake. It is YOUR JOB to reduce this pressure and reassure them.

Earlier I said my best advice was to know your students. My next-best advice might well be: know their parents!

I often tell my students that no matter what mistakes you made in your game, I have made those same mistakes myself! And it’s true.

You can always find something positive to say about a student’s game, and you can always find something for them to improve next time. You have to read their emotions to get a feel for how you should conduct the game review.

Always remember that you are a human coach teaching children, and not a chess computer. Spitting out variations is rarely the most helpful approach unless you have a very strong student who also responds well to this kind of analysis.

Game review is more art than science. More persuasive essay than mathematical proof.

Dealing with Losses and Wins

If your student just lost a long, tough game, this is not the time to get into the minutiae of their errors! Broad strokes will do. The art of a chess game review is in what you emphasize.

Maybe they played too fast at some point and missed a tactic. OK — ask them to show you the correct sequence and remind them to slow down in critical moments. Then move on. Don’t harangue them for ten minutes about it.

Perhaps your student won a game they are pleased with, or upset a higher-rated player. They may not be fully “present” after experiencing such a high.

This is also when they are least likely to accept your critiques, so find one or two main “things to remember” and refocus them for the next battle.

Final Thoughts

Don’t expect to uncork brilliant coaching points during a tournament — the performance has arrived and rehearsals are over. At this point you are managing psyches and emotions — of students and parents. Be kind, be honest, and be understanding. There are always more tournaments, and your game reviews may play a bigger role than you think in determining if your student plays next time.

Edmar Mednis: Great Chess Authors, Part 1

A Completely Biased New Series!

I own several hundred chess books, and I’ve given several dozen books away over the years. I don’t buy books nearly as often as I used to, but even now I sometimes cannot help myself!

This is the first part in a new series of posts on writers I consider to be Great Chess Authors. I don’t yet know how long (or frequent) this series will be.

There will be obvious names, perhaps some surprising names, and controversial omissions! Everyone has a different taste in chess authors.

Today I begin with the author who makes up more of my chess library than any other.

Edmar Mednis (1937-2002)

Edmar Mednis. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame

Edmar Mednis. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame

Born in Latvia, Edmar Mednis emigrated to the United States during World War 2. A notable early result was second-place in the 1955 World Junior Championship. Future World Champion Boris Spassky won the event.

Few would proclaim Mednis a great player, but it’s incredible that the USCF refused to apply for his Grandmaster title. Puerto Rico did so in 1980. Mednis played on the 1962 Olympiad team and qualified for the 1979 Riga Interzonal. The first player to defeat Bobby Fischer in a U.S. Championship was not exactly a weakling!

A Tour of the Edmar Mednis Library

Mednis will be most remembered for his books (and columns in Chess Life magazine).

How To Guides

I don’t have one of his most famous titles, How to Beat Bobby Fischer, which includes his own victory plus 60 other defeats inflicted upon the 11th World Champion. A similarly-themed book is How to Beat the Russians, a collection of losses by Soviet Grandmasters to foreign players in 1973. I have the 1989 reprint How to Defeat a Superior Opponent.

Another, even more highly-acclaimed book is his How Karpov Wins, giving insight into the play of the 12th World Champion. I regret not finishing this one! Maybe someday…

Mednis game collections are an instructive, easy read for improving players.

Practical Advice

Mednis wrote a series of three books, all of which I have read and whole-heartedly recommend: Practical Rook EndingsPractical Bishop Endings, and Practical Knight Endings. They teach you the ABCs of these endings and provide great tips and examples. I only wish he had written books on pawn endings or queen endings!

“Practical” appears in a lot of the great author’s works, and in many of the titles! Mednis did not drown his readers in variations, instead providing step-by-step winning (or drawing) methods in a given position type, and then proceeding to lightly annotated examples.

He wrote a “Practical” series in the late 90s: Practical Opening Tips, Practical Middlegame Tips, and Practical Endgame Tips. I don’t think I own any of these works, so I can’t really comment. I do abide by the general rule “anything Mednis is a safe buy,” however!

Endgames and Strategy

Other endgame books I enjoy include Rate Your Endgame and Questions and Answers on Endgame Play. Mednis also wrote Advanced Endgame Strategies which I don’t believe I have, though it may be hiding somewhere!

Strategic Chess: Mastering the Closed Game is a good introduction to games starting with 1.d4, 1.c4, or 1.Nf3 for club players. Strategic Themes in the Opening and Beyond covers the strategic ideas in certain lines of the French Tarrasch and English Opening in depth.

There is also From the Opening to the Endgame, which features a selection of opening lines that can reach endgames (or at least queenless middlegames) almost immediately. This may be the only Edmar Mednis book that shows its age.

I’m leaving out some other titles (he wrote more than 25 books in all) but I think you can see the affinity I have for Mr. Mednis!

The Apple of My Eye

One book in particular had the biggest influence on the way I saw chess for most of my career.

From the Middlegame to the Endgame gave me hope. It gave me a grasp of the nebulous space between the middlegame and the endgame where I harvested so many points in the early part of my chess career. I finally found something I was good at in chess: endgame transitions. And there is no way I would have reached 1800, let alone 2100+, without this weapon.

Pick up an Edmar Mednis book if you haven’t already. Beware: you might fill your chess library with them before long!

Chess Tactics: Pillsbury — Gunsberg, 1895

Harry Nelson Pillsbury: A Top Player Gone Too Soon

Harry Nelson Pillsbury (1872-1906). Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame

Harry Nelson Pillsbury. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame

Harry Nelson Pillsbury (1872-1906) was one of the world’s best players, but died at only 33 years old. U.S. Champion from 1897 until his death, he was the top American player between Paul Morphy and Frank Marshall.

Pillsbury won the celebrated Hastings 1895 tournament ahead of World Champion Emanuel Lasker and former Champion Wilhelm Steinitz. He also left behind several past and future Challengers: Mikhail Chigorin, Siegbert Tarrasch, Carl Schlechter, David Janowsky, and Isidor Gunsberg.

The Crowning Moment of his Crowning Moment

Pillsbury won the month-long round-robin at Hastings by defeating Gunsberg in the 21st and final round with an endgame breakthrough that will live forever in chess history.

White to play.

27.?

 

Passed Pawns: Hard to Contain in the Endgame!

Harry Nelson Pillsbury gave us a powerful display of protected passed pawns and connected passed pawns being a huge help in winning games! Besides purely “chess” factors, decision making becomes a lot easier for the side that possesses them, while the opponent needs to be very careful.

Chess Openings Discussion

A Lively Chess Openings Debate

Chess Openings are always a contentious topic! My recent post “The Smith-Morra Gambit, and How to Beat It,” generated spirited discussion on Facebook, as I expected it might.

I don’t consider the Smith-Morra (1.e4 c5 2.d4) completely unsound or without merit, but a Sicilian player should embrace the Morra, Alapin, or Bb5 lines. If you fear Anti-Sicilians, study more!

As a (sometimes) Najdorf player (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6), which worries me more: the Smith-Morra or 6.Bg5? It’s not even close!

The Grand Prix Attack (1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 and 3.f4) is another line that is supposed to intimidate Sicilian players. Um, no. Well, at least white doesn’t give away a center pawn in the GPA…

In my French Defense years, I loved nothing better than facing the Milner-Barry Gambit (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Qb6 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.Bd3)! Because of my study I knew what to do and scored better than I did against French main lines.

Players wanting to cut down their chess openings study time with white are better off playing the London System (1.d4 with an early Bf4) every game than borderline gambits against decent opposition.

Old Games?

One objection raised against my post is that I only used games from 1972 and before.

These were the games that helped me learn how to defend the Smith-Morra! Old games are unacceptable in a cutting-edge mainline, but that’s not what we’re dealing with here. I’m sure white has some wrinkles I’m not aware of, but I would expect to come up with something decent in a tournament game.

This is also a great reason to play online chess: keep sharp and have a look at various attempts! Take it seriously; I don’t play anything online I wouldn’t consider using in a classical game.

Could a specialist “catch” me? Maybe! It’s a chance I’m willing to take in order to score more by accepting the gambit instead of giving white an easier time.

I don’t face Grandmasters often in tournaments. Against the 1900-2200 crowd I’m comfortable trying to emulate the play of Viktor KortschnojLarry Evans, and Henrique Mecking!

Conclusion

When it comes to chess openings, especially with the white pieces, don’t give in. Play a line capable of setting a variety of challenges for your opponent. It doesn’t have to be highly theoretical, but don’t give them the chance to rely on one pet line or one main setup.

Why has the popularity of the Ruy Lopez endured for more than a century? The resources for each player are seemingly endless! Most openings cannot match this level of richness, but it is something to keep in mind.

Happy Birthday, Anatoly Karpov!

My Favorite Chess Player

Anatoly Karpov was born May 23, 1951 in Zlatoust, Russia (then part of the USSR).

Anatoly Karpov, 12th World Chess Champion. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame.

Anatoly Karpov, 12th World Chess Champion. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame.

Karpov first gained widespread international attention after winning the 1969 World Junior Championship with 10 points out of 11 in the final.

He won the Moscow 1971 tournament (tied with Leonid Stein) ahead of World Champion Boris Spassky and former champs Vasily Smyslov, Tigran Petrosian, and Mikhail Tal.

Karpov’s World Championship debut at the 1973 Leningrad Interzonal was a success, tying for first place with Viktor Kortschnoj, and qualifying for the Candidates Matches. The winner of the elimination series would become Bobby Fischer‘s Challenger in 1975.

In the 1974 Candidates Matches, Karpov defeated Lev Polugaevsky 5½—2½ in the quarterfinal and Spassky 7—4 in the semifinal to meet Kortschnoj in the final. He won this Best-of-24 match 12½—11½, setting up a showdown with Fischer in Manila, Philippines.

It was not to be. FIDE accepted all but one of Fischer’s 179 match demands, but he refused to play and forfeited his title, making Anatoly Karpov the 12th World Chess Champion.

If anyone doubted the new champion, he proved his worth over the next decade by dominating matches, tournaments, and the rating list. While Garry Kasparov dethroned Karpov in the 1985 World Championship Match, he was the Number 2 player in the world through the mid-1990s.

Karpov won more than 160 international tournaments in his career, with his most resounding victory coming as late as Linares 1994. He scored 11 out of 13 (9 wins, 4 draws) in a superstar field, leaving Kasparov and Alexei Shirov 2½ points behind; one of the greatest performances ever in a top tournament.

My Favorite Anatoly Karpov Game

Anatoly Karpov could play flashy combinations, such as in his famous victory against Veselin Topalov at Linares 1994, but I most enjoy his positional masterpieces.

I began playing chess tournaments in 1996 and began receiving Chess Life magazine. Not only was Karpov’s Grandmaster Musings column one of my favorites, I remember following his 1996 FIDE World Championship Match in Elista, Kalmykia against Gata Kamsky with great interest.

Game 4 from that match is a great example of why I love Karpov’s chess! Enjoy!

Attack with Mikhail Tal

Attack with Mikhail TalAttack with Mikhail Tal was written by the former World Champion with sports journalist Iakov Damsky. Tal died in 1992, but Ken Neat’s English translation was first published in 1994 by Cadogan Books.

Some players have a special aura in chess history. I would definitely include Paul Morphy, Jose Capablanca, Bobby Fischer, and yes, Mikhail Tal in this category.

The Magician from Riga

Born November 9, 1936 in Riga, Latvia, Mikhail Tal became the youngest-ever USSR Champion in 1957 at 20 years old (a record later broken by Garry Kasparov). He repeated as Champion in 1958, and won six Soviet Championships in all, equalling Mikhail Botvinnik’s record total.

Tal won the 1958 Interzonal Tournament and dominated the 1959 Candidates Tournament to challenge Mikhail Botvinnik for the World Championship in 1960. He won the match 12½—8½ becaming the 8th World Champion, and the youngest. He remains the third-youngest official, undisputed Champion in chess history, after Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen.

Botvinnik won the rematch in 1961. Tal never reached another title match, increasingly dogged by ill health, but he remained a top player through the late 1980s.

Still, Mikhail Tal captured fans’ imagination by the manner of his victories. He dismantled the chess elite with daring sacrifices and rich complications. But how did the Wizard see the game?

The point of Attack with Mikhail Tal

While Tal includes instructive puzzles at the end of each of the nine chapters (“What Would You Have Played?”), this isn’t a textbook. It’s not a first book on attacking chess; for that, choose The Art of Chess Combination by Eugene Znosko-Borovsky (written in Descriptive Notation).

“Misha” tries to cultivate in his readers an opportunistic eye and aggressive mentality needed to launch successful attacks when appropriate. Attack with Mikhail Tal is one of my favorite books, and I have always been an “attacking-challenged” player.

Tal knows that not everything can be calculated “to the end.” He took risks, but his play was not reckless! I would sum up the attacking principles presented as follows:

  • Pay attention to defects in the opponent’s position (Chapters 1 and 9)
  • Get as many pieces as possible into the attack (Chapter 3)
  • Get those pieces into strong positions (Chapter 6) and find the right path for them to get to the enemy (Chapters 4 and 5)
  • Remove obstacles (Chapters 2, 7, 8, and 9)

A chessplayer cannot be unduly materialistic. Chess is more than counting the point values of the pieces you and your opponent have; one also needs to assess their possibilities. Extra material is useless if it doesn’t take part in the game.

Tal evaluated the compensation would receive for his sacrificed material. There is a defnite value to strengthening your pieces or reducing the power of your adversary’s units! With practice, you will improve your feel in positions with unbalanced material.

Who should read Attack with Mikhail Tal?

Ideally, you should not be prejudiced about either sacrificing material or accepting sacrifices; do whatever the position in front of you demands. Easier said than done!

Just about anyone would enjoy Attack with Mikhail Tal, no matter their rating! Instructive games, memorable recommendations, and the book is a series of conversations or interviews between Tal and Damsky.

However, I would not expect huge improvement with this book for players rated below 1700. I am not sure they have the chess strength to evaluate attacking potential objectively.

My advice for lower-rated players: enjoy the book and re-read it as you improve. You will pick up new things upon a second and third reading, and Tal’s ideas will become easier to implement in your own play.

The Smith-Morra Gambit, and How to Beat It

A Controversial Anti-Sicilian

Faced with the Sicilian Defense (1.e4 c5), many white players avoid the Open Sicilian that comes about after 2.Nf3 and 3.d4. Instead, they choose an Anti-Sicilian like the Smith-Morra Gambit (1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3)

At club level, an unprepared black player can quickly find themselves in serious danger. White aims for a menacing setup like this:

Of course, black needs to survive long enough to face even this!

Traps

The Smith-Morra Gambit player hopes their adversary will fall into a nasty trap, and there are many. For example:

Or this one:

Many black players look to turn the tables on white with the so-called Siberian Trap:

To avoid accidents, many black players decline the gambit or give back the pawn immediately.

I’m not one of them. If I knew all my opponents would play the Smith-Morra, I would always answer 1.e4 with 1…c5. If the line is so great for white, why do top players not use it?

The Recipe

In the traps above, black has problems on e5 and b5, and uncoordinated pieces. Knowing what you’re up against makes it far easier to deal with!

There are many viable setups for black, but I defend the Smith-Morra with the line 2…cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 a6! Don’t rush that …Nf6 move.

Let’s see some examples.

Early Games

Debut by Transposition

According to the MegaBase, Dutch master Lodewijk Prins first reached the position after 6…a6 against Savielly Tartawkower in 1950, but couldn’t recover after his pieces got tangled early on. The game started as an O’Kelly Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 a6).

Battle of Titans

Fischer and Kortschnoj drew in Buenos Aires 1960, also after transposing from an O’Kelly.

San Antonio 1972

Ken Smith attempted the Smith-Morra Gambit several times in San Antonio 1972.

The Tournament Announcement for San Antonio 1972. Source: Chess Life and Review, October 1972

The Church’s Fried Chicken International, held in San Antonio, Texas in 1972 remains one of the strongest events ever held in the United States. Lajos Portisch, former World Champion Tigran V. Petrosian, and future World Champion Anatoly Karpov tied for first place with 10.5 points out of 15.

American master Ken Smith (the “Smith” in “Smith-Morra”) tried the gambit several times, but without success against such chess heavyweights.

Let’s take a look at two of those games. Both were played in the second half of the tournament when black could have expected the Smith-Morra Gambit.

Round 9 vs. Evans

We saw this American legend play a model game before. He does again here:

Evans also played in Buenos Aires 1960, so he would have known the Fischer—Kortschnoj game above.

Round 13 vs. Mecking

The future World #3 emulated the Kortschnoj/Evans treatment and then collected material.

The bottom line on facing the Smith-Morra Gambit

If you play the Sicilian you should be happy to face the Smith-Morra, or any Anti-Sicilian for that matter. Playable though they may be, Anti-Sicilians are inferior to the Open Sicilian,

Don’t use the common excuse “white knows their pet line better than I will.” Study! Learn how to deal with the annoying sidelines your opponent can throw at you, and thank them for not challenging you in the most critical way.

I don’t have a perfect record against the Smith-Morra Gambit, but I score better than 50%. Anytime you can say that with one of your black openings, that is a big success.

Olimpbase.org: The Encyclopaedia of Team Chess

Get pleasantly lost for hours on Olimpbase!

I don’t remember how I found Olimpbase.org for the first time, but I’m so glad I did. It seems the site has not been updated for a couple of years, but I still want to bring attention to it for those who are unfamiliar with it. I’ve put it under “Product Reviews” even though it is free.

The Olimpbase.org homepage

The Olimpbase.org homepage.

Wojciech Bartelski has compiled the definitive reference on team chess. As the name hints, it contains extensive info about Chess Olympiads played through 2016. it has not been updated for 2018, and the 2020 event has been moved to 2021.

For each Olympiad (Open and Women), Bartelski includes a summary of the event and the results. These include the standings of the teams, player results, and medal winners. Also, most of the games can be viewed in a popup window, or downloaded as a zip file!

More than Olympiads

In addition to the chess Olympiads, Olimpbase.org has compiled information about all kinds of team chess events, including:

  • World Team Championships
  • Continental Team Championships (African, Asian, European, Pan-American)
  • European Club Cup and various National Leauges
  • Student and Youth Team Championships
  • USSR Team Championships
  • Others: USSR vs. World, Mitropa Cup, Asian Cities Championship, Pan Arab Games, etc.

More than team events, too!

Olimpbase now includes many individual events as well. Examples:

  • The World Championship cycles (from 1886-2000)
  • The World Junior Championships (Open and Girls)
  • Continental Championships and Continental Junior Championships
  • National Championships of the Soviet Union and Poland

Olimpbase has another important resource…

The site contains all FIDE rating lists since the first list in January 1971 up to October 2001! You can find everything since 2001 on the FIDE website. Ratings are a big part of our game, and full rating lists provide historical context. Some interesting tidbits:

  • Only Fischer (1971), Karpov (1974), Tal (1980), and Kasparov (1984) achieved FIDE ratings of 2700 or above before Boris Gelfand joined them in January 1991.
  • As late as July 1987, Artur Yusupov and Andrei Sokolov were ranked =3rd/4th in the world at just 2635! A player rated 2635 today wouldn’t make the Top 100!
  • Judit Polgar was rated 2555 and =55th in the world in January 1989…as a 12-year-old!
  • 16-year-old Gata Kamsky was ranked #8 in July 1990 with a rating of 2650…as a FIDE Master!
  • Only 16 players reached 2700 before the year 2000.
  • Did you know: Michal Krasenkow (July 2000) and Loek Van Wely (January 2001) were not only 2700 players, both were ranked #10 in the World?

Conclusion

Olimpbase.org contains a treasure trove of historical chess information. If you love chess history, the Olimpbase is not to be missed!

Chess Tactics: Shirov — Polgar, 1994

Polgar turns the tables on Shirov’s aggression

It was the perfect setting for a showdown between two of the most combative players of the 1990s and 2000s: a thematic tournament stipulating every game begin with an Open Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 and, after 2…Nc6, 2…d6, or 2…e6, 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4).

Polgar chose a Paulsen Sicilian, where black places pawns on a6, d6, and e6, and develops the queen knight to c6. Shirov, not surprisingly, decided to tackle it with an early g4 and f4.

This was risky, because it exposed the white king, who had not castled to safety. Decisions like these can create brilliancies — for the player or their opponent!

The Hungarian prodigy was up to the task. One of the first females to earn the Grandmaster title (1991), Judit Polgar broke Bobby Fischer’s record (from 1958!) as youngest GM ever. She is universally recognized as the greatest female player in chess history.

Black’s 10th move sets the stage for everything to follow, How would you deal with white’s coming pawn storm while gaining activity for your pieces?

10…?

Fight for key squares with all your might!

Judit Polgar retired from professional chess after the 2014 Tromso Olympiad, but this will not be the last time we see one of her games on chess-essentials.com!