Category Archives: Improvement

Insights to help you win more games.

Should I Play 1…e5 Against 1.e4?

If you are rated under 1000, YES! Without a doubt. Start with the Double King Pawn.

It’s important to learn how to fight for and maintain control of the central squares before trying to counterattack your opponent’s center.

After my first few rated tournaments, I began playing the Pirc (1.e4 d6):

And had no idea what I was doing. I simply chose the opening because I saw it in MCO-13 and it had a lot less pages to “study” than most other defenses to 1.e4. By study, I meant “memorize,” because that’s what I thought opening learning was about in those days.

When I was around 1000, I switched to the French (1.e4 e6):

About which I did have a decent idea thanks to the books Mastering the French with the Read and Play Method by Neil McDonald and Andrew Harley; and French Classical by Byron Jacobs.

My play was passive and one-dimensional. I didn’t learn how to attack, instead sitting back and waiting to spring a counterattack. I played other dodgy openings like the St. George Defense (1.e4 a6) sometimes, scoring over 50% with it.

You can get away with this against the Under 1800 crowd, but I wouldn’t recommend it!

I dabbled with other openings over the years, too: the Caro-Kann (1.e4 c6):

The Scandinavian (1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Nf6):

Even, for one or two tournaments, Alekhine’s Defense (1.e4 Nf6):

I deliberately avoided 1…e5 and the Sicilian (1.e4 c5)

Because they were “too complicated.”

Yes, there are many choices available to white after 1.e4 e5, but not a lot of different ideas. That is the key.

You want your pieces to become active and to not allow white to get (or maintain) a pawn duo on d4 and e4.

After the common sequence 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6:

Black’s control of d4 does not allow white to push the d2-pawn there without it being exchanged. If that exchange happens black will have decent control over the center.

Black is fine in the Italian game as long as he or she doesn’t fall into a trap, so let’s look at a common line in the Scotch Game:

Black has nothing to worry about here, with good development and a solid position.

This begs the question: why not play an early c2-c3 in order to play d2-d4 and replace a captured d4-pawn with the c3-pawn? Well, that’s what the Ponziani Opening tries but fails to achieve:

Black has other good tries on move 3. The point is, white can’t keep the entire center intact.

That brings us to white’s best attempt, and the main one black traditionally worries about when deciding to play 1..e5: the Ruy Lopez.

This is perhaps white’s strongest attempt to trouble black after 1.e4 e5. Black can also choose the solid Petrov Defense (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6):

Which is arguably even more solid.

I recommend all new players get considerable practice in the Double King Pawn before trying something else. At 1400-1600 a player can branch out if they feel they must.

Chess Game Analysis: Triple or Quadruple

I’m sure these suggestions for chess game analysis have been mentioned elsewhere before, but let me share an effective way I studied my games when I was serious about improvement.

A chess game analysis method helpful for climbing this chart!

Better game analysis can help in climbing this chart.

The Method

  1. Make a database in ChessBase containing your tournament games. I call mine “My Games.”
  2. Play your tournament game. Really, you should have 60 minutes or longer of thinking time where you can give your best. Definitely use this method for multi-day events!
  3. Optional but highly recommended: Analyze the game with your opponent. Discuss the play with words and variations. This is the Quadruple Game Analysis variant.
  4. Enter the game into ChessBase and write detailed notes about it. Variations you saw and did not see, fears, emotions, internal distractions, general time usage by both players…everything you experienced during the game. At the end, enter a few paragraphs of summary: what you learned, things to improve, etc. If you did a post-mortem analysis with your opponent, include their comments and variations (noting the material that came from your opponent).
  5. Next, run your favorite chess analysis engine. Note that we do this after entering our own comments, to avoid computer worship! Don’t “correct” the previous analysis: you’re looking for resources missed in the previous analysis that radically change the assessment of a position (winning to drawing, drawing to losing, or winning to losing). Enter relevant comments into your notes. For example: “24…Rc7! 25.Ke3 Kf5 26.Be4+ Kg5 wins — Stockfish 11
  6. Email the whole thing to your coach and ask for their comments. They can enter notes into the game directly or type a detailed email summary. Alternatively, you can incorporate their comments during your discussion of the game during the next lesson.

What to expect from this kind of chess game analysis

A single chess game analysis using this method takes hours. It will bear fruit though, especially if you play fairly regularly and stick to the same openings (refining them over time). Commit to this method for 6 months or a year: your play will improve a lot, and you will move one or two tiers higher as a result.

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.

French Defense, Part 3: Exchange Variation

In this final part, we move on to the French Defense Exchange Variation.

We wrap up our coverage of the French Defense with the Advance Variation

A view of the Musée d’Orsay across the Seine in Paris. Photo: Andre Harding

We looked at structures with an early e4-e5 by white in parts 2a2b, and 2c. In those cases, white’s central pawn chain restricts black’s light-squared bishop and prevents black’s king knight from going to f6, its best square.

With 3.exd5, white releases the pressure on the position and makes the game much simpler and almost equal. Still, both sides can play for a win! In my French days, I was never disappointed to see the Exchange Variation and scored well against it.

French Defense Exchange Variation: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 exd5

Both sides have chances here, and there is more than one way for each side to play. Don’t let anyone tell you the Exchange is the prelude to an early draw. Not always!

White cannot fall asleep and hope for a draw

Even 90 years later, many consider this a model of how to play against the Exchange Variation.

Don’t underestimate symmetry either

Most players are taught to emulate Nimzowitsch’s play above. I preferred to model my play after Akiba Rubinstein’s in the game below:

White’s positionally-aggressive potential

Black isn’t the only one who can have fun in the Exchange Variation!

Simple, direct play can also work in the French Exchange

Richard Rapport goes straight for the throat from the beginning, and hits his target:

This concludes my overview of the French Defense! It has provided you with food for thought and the seeds of further discovery.

French Defense, Part 2c: Advance Variation

In this part, we move on to the French Defense Advance Variation.

Pyramid entrance to the Musée du Louvre in Paris. Photo: Andre Harding

Unlike in Parts 2a and 2b, White immediately plays e4-e5 before developing his knight from b1. Play is very straightforward.

Once again, black’s main source of counterplay is an attack on white’s d4-square. The second player starts with the pawn advance …c7-c5 and then involves both knights, and the queen — at least. White has to be careful to keep his center intact, but if he does there are good attacking chances to be had.

Advance Variation: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5

Will white’s extended pawns become a strength or a weakness? Overall the chances are balanced, but of course anything can happen in an individual game.

White’s bind in the Advance proves too strong

This classic game is too striking to not show for those who haven’t seen it, even if Nimzo’s concept is not completely sound:

Black’s counterplay in the Advance is a force to be reckoned with

Ehlvest was ranked World #5 back in January 1991 but gets shredded here.

That concludes our coverage of the French Defense Advance Variation. Next time we continue with Part 3, the Exchange Variation. Stay tuned!

French Defense, Part 2b: MacCutcheon Variation & Tarrasch

Our French Defense survey continues with the MacCutcheon Variation and Tarrasch Variation.

Not all variations of the French are as sturdy as the Arc de Triomphe. The MacCutcheon Variation is an example.

The Arc de Triomphe, Paris. Photo: Andre Harding

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

In Part 2a we began looking at lines where white advances e4-e5, starting with the Winawer and Classical Variations.

White plays 3.Nc3 in the MacCutcheon and 3.Nd2 in the Tarrasch. We again look at lines where white follows up with a quick e4-e5.

MacCutcheon Variation: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Bb4

As you might expect, the MacCutcheon Variation is combative. It has traditionally been considered somewhat less sound than the Winawer or Classical Variations, but is more than playable. White has options here, but we’re concerned with one line in particular.

White plays 5.e5

Here’s a high-level game played in 2019 which gives a flavor of the MacCutcheon:

Players with white are used to facing other lines of the French more than the MacCutcheon. For that reason alone, it’s a line to consider if you want a reasonable position with counterattacking chances. Of course, white’s decisions on moves 3 and 4 determine whether you’ll get the Mac.

Tarrasch Variation: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2

Unlike the MacCutcheon Variation, the Tarrasch is extremely solid. Blocking the queen and Bc1 with the knight may look funny, but the point is the pawn advance c2-c3 which supports the main target in white’s position: the d4-pawn. Considering black relentlessly attacks d4 with moves like …c5, …Nc6, and …Qb6, this is sound logic!

Black replies 3…Nf6

This is one of the classic responses to the Tarrasch, although other moves have become more popular in recent years. When white advances e4-e5, familiar French Defense plans appear: black wants to attack white’s d4-pawn with the pawn advance …c7-c5, and attack white’s e5-pawn with the pawn advance …f7-f6! 

(a) “Without f4”: 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3 c5 6.c3 Nc6

White hopes to convert a strong central grip and space advantage into a kingside attack or a long-term, suffocating bind. Sometimes this goes well:

and sometimes black finds strong counterplay:

That was the solid, “positional” line…

(b) “With f4”: 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ndf3

This variety of Tarrasch can get even more wild. A recent example:

Next time, we’ll take a look at the Advance Variation (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5).

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!

French Defense, Part 2a: Winawer & Classical Variations

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.

Notre-Dame de Paris

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

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.

French Defense: Intro and Part 1

The French Defense will always have a special place in my heart

In 1834, a chess match was played between the cities of London and Paris. When the Parisians answered London’s 1.e4 with 1…e6, the French Defense was born.

As a struggling 1000-rated player in 1997, chess was hard. I was weak at tactics and calculation, and simply not talented. I didn’t have any coaching, so it was on me to find a way to improve my game. 1…e5 and the Sicilian, which I tried to play because they were popular, did not fit me at all.

The French Defense is named for a game between London and Paris in 1834. The Parisians responded to 1.e4 with 1...e6.

The Eiffel Tower lit up during a summer evening. Photo: Andre Harding

What I did have was oodles of determination to grind my opponents down slowly, especially in rook endings. For this, the French fit me very well! It was my main defense to 1.e4 until 2008.

If you like more excitement in your games, take heart: the French Defense can provide that, too.

We reach the starting position after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5:

Black threatens the e4-pawn and counterattacks in the center.

White has four good replies. From most to least complex: 3.Nc3, 3.Nd2, 3.e5, and 3.exd5.

However, I suggest we look at things based on the center type we get. There are three main options: (1) Black can exchange pawns on e4; (2) White can lock the center with e4-e5; and (3) White can exchange pawns on d5.

Today we’ll look at the first of these. In later posts we’ll examine the other options.

Black exchanges pawns on e4

After both 3.Nc3 or 3.Nd2, black can exchange on e4. After 3…dxe4 4.Nxe4 we get this:

Now black has two main options. In the Rubinstein Variation with 4…Nd7

A typical line is the following:

Black has dissolved white’s center and found good posts for his pieces. The goal is to gradually neutralize white’s play and equalize. White has more aggressive attempts, too, so be prepared.

Even more solid (but passive) is the Fort Knox Variation with 4…Bd7, which I played for many years:

Play might continue something like this:

Black wants to play an ultra-solid game, but this is really passive and it’s hard to create counterplay. Still, if you’ve been struggling mightily with other openings, this can keep you in the game for awhile.

Another popular line

There is also the Burn Variation with 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 dxe4 5.Nxe4:

A typical line is:

Black has more potential counterplay with the kings castled on opposite sides, but runs a greater risk of facing a strong attack. Note that black can’t force the Burn Variation because white can choose 4.e5 instead of 4.Bg5. That line will be discussed in the next part where we examine lines with an early e4-e5 by white.

In all lines with an Exchange on e4, black wants to develop solidly and tries to avoid dangerous attacks or sacrifices. However, this allows white to dictate the pace of the game, which is fine if you’re a defensive or counter-attacking player.

In Part 2a, we start our survey of lines where white advances e4-e5.

Chess Tactics Software: Things to Remember

Chess tactics software has experienced a boom in the past 10-15 years, and many good products have hit the market in that time. First appearing on CD and DVD, this material can now be purchased via download. There are many online tactics trainers to choose from as well.

Which chess tactics software should I choose?

It doesn’t really matter which product you choose; pick one you like that presents a challenge.

Convekta chess tactics software

Convekta chess tactics software

A popular recommendation is the free  Chess Tempo, but I have never liked the look or functionality. Another possibility is chess.com, which I currently use and think is worthwhile, but far from perfect, and you need to pay to get access to more than about 10 puzzles per day.

I raised my rating from 1850 to 2000 over 10 months in 2008. The two main things I did were work seriously on my openings, and solve 40-100 tactics puzzles each day using Convekta’s Chess Combinations Encyclopedia and CT-Art 3.0. I absolutely adore these two tactics suites…maybe I should go through them again?

I should note that Chess Tactics for Beginners is the same material contained in Chess School 1a and Chess School 1b. Still, I recommend the physical books, especially for kids!

Remember: You are training to find tactics in real games!

Some players solve tactics purely for enjoyment; others want to improve their results in blitz (5-minute or less) or bullet (1-minute) games. Still, I assume most players who spend a lot of time solving tactics want to see results in their over-the-board tournament games.

At minimum, you have 30 minutes of thinking time for each game. There’s no need to bash out an answer for a tactics problem, or worse, a guess. Don’t worry about training for time scrambles; focus your training on the meat of the game.

I admit it’s tempting to play the first answer that catches your eye; I’ve done it more than I would care to admit! This is why I still recommend students use physical books to solve puzzles, even in this day and age — it’s not just nostalgia.

Instead, take your time and calculate! I can’t stress this enough. Some tactics programs give you more or less points depending on how quickly you solve the puzzle. Ignore this! Force yourself to see future moves, not just guess them or hope your moves work.

Hard work pays off

If you normally struggle with calculation, prepare to miss a lot of moves — for you and your “opponent!” If you keep at it, I promise you will improve.

Also, don’t focus on doing as many tactics as you can; do as many as you can while giving 100%.

You will quickly notice your play in longer games (say 15-minute) become much stronger. This is another reason, by the way, why you should give up blitz if you really want to improve your tournament results!