Category Archives: Opinion

Andre’s personal opinions on various chess topics.

Norway Chess 2020

Supertournaments Return Over-the-Board

Altibox Norway Chess

Norway Chess: a supertournament fixture since 2013.

Altibox Norway Chess will be held from October 5-16, 2020; the latest edition of the Norwegian supertournament held in Stavanger since 2013. It will also be the first major over-the-board tournament since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Magnus Carlsen has only won two of the seven editions of his home tournament (2016, 2019), the same amount as Sergey Karjakin (2013, 2014). Many players find it tough to perform their best with the hometown glare squarely on them.

Veselin Topalov (2015), Levon Aronian (2017), and Fabiano Caruana (2018) are the other winners. Carlsen has won the companion blitz event three times, however — Maxime Vachier-Lagrave has two victories, while Karjakin and Wesley So have one each.

Altibox Norway Chess 2020

This year Carlsen (Norway), Aronian (Armenia), and Caruana (USA) are joined by young stars Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland) and Alireza Firouzja (FIDE). Aryan Tari (Norway) completes the six-player double round robin. Firouzja defected from Iran last year and has yet to declare which country he will represent in the future.

In a sign of the times, the official player photos were taken with each man wearing an Altibox Norway Chess mask!

Over-the-board round robins are making a comeback in the latter portion of 2020, including norm tournaments and the National Championships of several countries … not including the USA, unfortunately.

In November, FIDE will restart the Candidates Tournament, another round robin that had to be suspended after the first half in March.

Small Swiss tournaments and round robins will return sooner than many expect. Large tournaments will be a concern for awhile, and I predict it will impact scholastic chess the most.

Thank goodness we have real chess again, and not only a bunch of online events! They’re better than nothing, but far from adequate in my opinion.

Who do you think will win Norway Chess in 2020? Post your predictions below!

Scholastic Chess in 2020-2021

Scholastic chess education in the near-term

Scholastic chess programs might be on hold in 2020-2021.

My elementary school, though I’m not sure they offer chess instruction. Photo: ThisIsTheBronx.info

We have been blindsided by a pandemic that has changed our lives. Schools have a tough road ahead — positive outlook notwithstanding.

Parents are concerned about sending their children back to school; teachers are nervous about returning as well. Not that I blame them.

Let’s imagine what effect all of this will have on chess over the next year or two.

I expect a lot of schools to seriously cut down or eliminate their chess programs for awhile, as they are not “core” subjects.

The elevation of chess to mainstream respectability has transformed this industry, especially the rise of chess in charter schools. I fear COVID-19 will cost us years of progress.

Scholastic tournaments?

Huge, in-person Swiss tournaments with hundreds of children and parents will likely be on hold for a long time to come. I do think tournaments will return quicker than anticipated, however — albeit in a different form. To understand why, we have to look at “tournament economics.”

8-section, 200-player tournaments are more expensive to run than smaller events. Organizers have to spend more money in staffing and especially prizes (trophies and medals). They may also need to pay for more space, depending on the agreement they have with the host school.

More prizes than ever are awarded in scholastic tournaments. Naturally, this has raised entry fees significantly over the years. In the next year or two while the virus keeps things uncertain, organizers can put a hard cap on entries and control expenses for prizes and staff accordingly.

I also expect more smaller events to emerge, especially quads.

An organizer can take a max of, say, 32 entries (8 sections of 4 players each). For this they might only need one tournament director to assist them. A group of quads is much easier to manage than a big Swiss, so a good TD could be persuaded to work for less than their “Swiss” rate.

It’s like comparing a stroll in the park to an uphill run!

Anyway, the organizer can charge an entry fee of $30 or $40 per player, and pay half of the fees collected in cash prizes to first and second place in each quad.

Alternatively, the organizer could charge $30 per player and award trophies to all players. This would be more appealing to primary (K-3) students.

These are examples, but very easy to make a reality if an organizer has the necessary space.

Post COVID-19 realignment?

It will be interesting to see what the scholatic chess landscape will look like post-pandemic … especially in major markets like New York City.

I predict smaller programs and tournaments for a few years. I also expect less students to take chess lessons in the near future.

How many chess professionals will leave our industry under these conditions, and who in, say, 3-5 years time, will step in to fill the void?

Leave a comment and share your thoughts!

Is Chess for Everyone?

Maybe it’s obvious, but I thought I would reiterate that the game of chess is not for everyone.

My sister’s birthday is this coming Sunday, which reminds me that in all my years of playing chess and being a chess professional I could never get my mother or sister interested in the game. My sister knows how to move some of the pieces, but I doubt my mom could identify all of them!

On the other hand, my dad is a beginner, but has real interest in the game, sometimes calling or texting me random chess questions! He is the one who taught me how to play one fateful night almost 30 years ago…

I love them dearly all the same. I think it’s better that we’re not all into chess.

My experience with my family has informed my philosophy in spreading the game to others. I like chess, but there’s more to life than a board game.

Whenever I taught chess in schools as part of a curriculum (i.e., students had to learn chess and couldn’t get out of it), I tempered my expectations. Not everyone wanted to learn, and I wasn’t going to force them to like me or “my” game.

I always say, chess is one of the worst possible activities to be forced to participate in if a person doesn’t like it! Squinting at a board of full of plastic pieces in a nearly silent room? Can I blame a kid for preferring sports, art, or music?

I didn’t try to “convert” anyone. I just asked that students gave a decent effort and didn’t disturb others who were interested in learning.

It turns out that some students believe from the very beginning that chess is not for them. It is a game “for smart people,” and they believed they were not smart enough.

This is a different issue than not being interested: here I would try to build the student’s belief in themselves that they could learn. Chess is like anything else: if you work at it some and have decent instruction, you will learn! Genius is rare in chess.

I remember one third grade student in particular two years ago at my last school. For some reason she was convinced she couldn’t learn chess. But she had my class five days a week!

I promised her that if she came to class and simply tried, she would learn.

And she did! Once she realized she was starting to get it, her confidence soared. I actually think she missed me when she didn’t have my chess class any longer!

No wonder karate and taekwondo schools have forever sold “self confidence” as one of the main benefits of taking their classes!

Should Every Kid Get a Prize?

The question of every child receiving something for their participation in a competitive activity is a controversial issue. Personally, I don’t think it’s a big deal — and the reason is simple.

Let the Market Decide

Should every kid get a prize?

Whether or not an organizer gives one of these to each child…is it that serious?

Some events give every child a ribbon/medal/trophy, and others do not. Often, this is a question of economics more than philosophy: buying enough prizes for each participant gets expensive quickly!

Parents who want to guarantee their child a participation prize can enter their child into competitions that award them. On the other hand, families that take issue with such a policy can avoid these events. To each their own.

There’s no need to debate whether these trends are good or bad for society in general.

What’s Really Important

As a coach, when I have a student ready to play a tournament, I never consider the prizes when suggesting which event to play. And I can’t remember a parent being concerned with the prizes on offer.

Their primary concern is that their child is prepared enough to give a good performance.

Know your students! When choosing a tournament for them, I consider the following:

  • My student’s schedule!
  • Does the tournament have a reputation for being well-organized? This includes factors like a good playing environment and competent/impartial tournament staff,
  • The rating/grade/age sections on offer. Each tournament offers different divisions, some of which may make more sense for my student than others.

Always keep your chess goals in mind (as a player), or your student’s goals in mind (as a parent or coach). There are very few absolutes in this game — it’s hard to judge another player or their family because their situation or objectives may be completely different from yours.

The English Opening: Playing 1.c4

The English Opening or …

I am by no means a specialist on openings in general, or the English Opening in particular, but I have opened with 1.c4, 1.d4, 1.e4, and 1.Nf3 in my tournament career.

As many before me have said, 1.e4 is the most straightforward first move, and 1.d4 can be very direct as well if the player intends it to be so.

A 1.Nf3 user often employs transpositional “games” against their adversary, aiming for certain openings or variations while avoiding others. Two defenses that regularly get frozen out in this way are the Nimzo-Indian and the Grünfeld, when white plays an early Nf3 and c4, but not d4.

Why 1.c4?

One of the main arguments for 1.Nf3 is that it avoids 1…e5.

In contrast, the 1.c4 player wants to play “English” positions; not just transpose into favorable d4-lines. Specifically, I’m talking about positions that arise after 1.c4 e5.

The 1.c4 player likes playing these positions since black has ceded control over the d5-square white hopes to clamp down on:

I began to like these positions after studying How to Play the English Opening (Batsford, 2007) by Anatoly Karpov. The ex-World Champion spends a lot of time covering the Four Knights Variation with 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.g3:

…mainly through his games against Garry Kasparov and other absolute top players. He also covers other choices on move 4 besides g3.

Game Changers

Kosten's famous book on the English Opening

I doubt Kosten imagined the influence his small book would have on the popularity of the English Opening!

Karpov’s book is underrated, but that likely has to do with the enduring popularity of The Dynamic English (Gambit, 1999) by Tony Kosten, and the authority Mihail Marin established with The English Opening (3 Volumes, Quality Chess, 2009-2010).

Kosten and Marin recommend the move order 1.c4 e5 2.g3. Kosten’s book in particular is very system-based, which appeals to many players. But with the explosion of chess information over the past 20 years, black players are more aware than ever how to deal with his main setup, the Botvinnik System:

That doesn’t mean white should hesitate to play this way if s/he enjoys the resulting positions. The strongest ideas in chess are those that are effective even if your opponent knows they’re coming.

But the “Old” English Opening was Popular for Decades!

1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 is less predictable: both sides have freedom to choose their preferred setup — black can even try 2…Bb4. Going into lines with 2.Nc3 is something to consider for a player who has more advanced positional skills than their peers and has reasonable hopes of outplaying them — though I wouldn’t recommend the English until a player is 1600, at least.

Flank openings are more structurally fluid than 1.e4 or 1.d4, but choosing 1.c4 over 1.Nf3 takes that to another level. If you can become a specialist in “pure” English positions, there are plenty of points to be scored simply through better familiarity of the terrain.

Should I Play Attacking Chess?

Studying tactics and checkmates is usually the first step for new chess players. Next comes classic. short attacking games: the miniatures. They’re exciting and more straightforward for inexperienced players than technical masterpieces.

What is an Attacking Style?

Sometimes, the position requires you to attack the enemy king. Even the most conservative players will launch an attack when it is clearly the right plan. Does this, then, make everyone an attacking player? Not quite.

An attacking player is one who most often chooses to attack when the best available plan is a matter of taste. In the same position, a different player might try to gain space, press a queenside initiative, or go for a promising endgame.

It’s more a question of a player’s mentality and approach to chess.

Let’s take a simple example from the Pirc Defense (1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6):

As I warned when challenging the idea that 1…e5 players need to worry about a lot of lines, while others have a much easier task: white has plenty of options against the Pirc, too.

Sedate players like Anatoly Karpov or Ulf Andersson would choose simple development with something like 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Be2 0-0 6.0-0 and play for central control:

Another treatment is the positional 4.f4 Bg7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.Bd3 favored by, e.g., Bobby Fischer:

An attacking player would not hesitate to pursue a kingside attack, for example with 4.Be3 Bg7 5.Qd2 c6 6.f3:

This was precisely the scheme Garry Kasparov used in his famous victory against Veselin Topalov at Wijk aan Zee 1999.

Garry Kasparov gets ready to play attacking chess against Veselin Topalov at the 1999 Wijk aan Zee tournament.

No one knew that one of the greatest games in chess history was about to begin.

Risk and Reward

Playing attacking chess in “borderline” situations increases the likelihood of a decisive result — either the aggressor breaks through or the defender repels the assault and winds up with extra material. You have to be willing to accept more losses with your wins.

There is also a greater burden on a player’s ability to calculate, even more so if they play sharp opening lines. We saw an example of this in Svidler — Vallejo-Pons. The player making the first mistake can lose outright. Some players love this kind of play, however!

What Kind of Player are You?

You have to play a lot of games and honestly assess what kinds of positions you feel more “at home” in. Does active play suit you…and how active are we talking? Do you prefer to initiate play or to play against your opponent’s ideas? Above all, don’t experiment too much in tournaments — that’s what online chess is for!

Another hint: which famous player’s games “speak” to you? It’s unlikely you’ll ever play as well as your hero, but finding a role model to emulate can be very helpful.

Don’t hesitate to keep tweaking your openings until you find a set of lines that you know how to play and actually want to play. If you would be happy to employ a line against a player rated 200 points higher than you, keep it in your repertoire!

What are your experiences? Please share!

The #1 Ingredient for Chess Improvement

Chess improvement is a goal of most players

Maybe you dream of raising your rating 100-200 points…achieving a rating of 2000…winning a Club or National Championship. I have done each of these things, when a year or two before it seemed unlikely.

There are endless chess books, websites, and coaching options available to players who want to get better. All of these tools can be helpful if utilized well, but one factor is more important than any other in determining how far a player will go in their chess endeavors: dealing with losses.

You’re going to make mistakes, blunder, and lose games you shouldn’t. You will also have bad tournaments — possibly streaks of bad tournaments — and sometimes feel like your efforts at progress are going nowhere.

Why am I spending all of this time, money, and energy training and playing tournaments? Maybe I should just cut my losses and stop torturing myself.

Have thoughts like this ever crossed your mind? They have for me, many times over the years!

Somtimes you can push these thoughts away, and sometimes they have a stronger pull, causing you to “take a break” from chess.

To keep moving forward, accept all results as simply feedback and don’t get so personally attached to it. Much easier said than done! And, admittedly, something I have never been able to do for even a full year at a time.

I reached my highest-ever rating in October 2016, at 2137. The dream of becoming a National Master after 20+ years seemed so close! Two great tournaments, three good tournaments, or four above-average tournaments might bring me to 2200.

Then I made a big mistake. Several mistakes, actually:

  • I did not recognize that my rating gains were partially luck and not the result of great play on my part. Winning from worse or losing positions, opponents walking into my opening preparation, timely draw offers accepted when my opponents should not have done so…
  • I forced myself to play events when I did not feel 100% prepared.
  • I decided to change my style and hired a coach to help me play in this alien style.
  • I put more pressure on myself as my rating slid further away from 2200 with each passing event.
  • I became demoralized and “pulled the plug” four tournaments later in June 2017 when my rating sank to 2075.
  • I have not played a tournament since!

I mean, I know better. When you lose your objectivity, you can lose everything.

Funnily enough, I was planning to play again in April 2020 alongside one of my students. Best laid plans…

I have been working on my game at a slow pace, and should be ready to compete again when COVID-19 becomes less of a threat.

My advice to you (and to myself):

I mean, I’m not providing earth-shattering advice here. Most experienced players know what to do…the question is, will you do it?

ICCF: Official Correspondence Chess

Intro to Correspondence Chess

Most players are used to over-the-board, or OTB, chess. Correspondence games are played over a period of months or even years, and not in person.

Screenshot of a completed ICCF correspondence game

Screenshot of a completed ICCF correspondence game.

They were traditionally played by postal mail, with each player sending moves to their opponent on a postcard. This is rare nowadays, and most games are played via a webserver — just log in, bring up your game, and enter a move on a chessboard. You can also exchange messages with your opponent if you wish.

Individual correspondence tournaments are round-robins with an odd number of players. You play all of your games simultaneously: half with the white pieces, and half with black. The time control is given as X moves in Y days: for example 10 moves in 50 days. This repeats as long as the game continues and a player has not run out of time.

Many sites offer correspondence chess, and the number grows if we include online servers that offer everything from blitz, to standard, to correspondence-style play. However, there is only one place to play official, FIDE-recognized CC: the ICCF.

The International Correspondence Chess Federation (ICCF)

The ICCF logo.

The ICCF logo.

Let’s learn a bit about ICCF’s history, from the body itself:

ICCF is the International Correspondence Chess Federation. ICCF was founded in 1951 as a new appearance of the ICCA (International Correspondence Chess Association), which was founded in 1945, as successor of the IFSB (Internationaler Fernschachbund), founded in 1928.ICCF

And the key part:

ICCF is closely co-operating with the leading world chess organization FIDE. All ICCF titles, championships and ratings are recognised by FIDE.ICCF

Titles

In addition to World Champion, the ICCF offers the following titles for correspondence play (in descending order):

  • Grandmaster (GM)
  • Senior International Master (SIM)
  • International Master (IM)
  • Correspondence Chess Master (CCM)
  • Correspondence Chess Expert (CCE)
  • Note: the Ladies Grandmaster (LGM) and Ladies International Master (LIM) titles have been phased out, as have Ladies Correspondence World Championships.

Normally, to achieve these titles a player must score two or more norms totalling a total of 24 games, similar to over-the-board GM/IM/WGM/WIM titles (two or more norms totalling 27 or more games).

CCE and CCM were added in the past few years, but I don’t think they’re prestigious, even though I have the CCE title and have a very good chance of completing the CCM title in my current tournament.

What About Computers!?

ICCF does not prohibit outside assistance. Players are allowed to use engines, which I freely admit to doing.

Besides ICCF being officially recognized by FIDE, this is the other main reason I chose ICCF play: they don’t pretend to police computer usage in long games played across the globe.

Now, no one suspects anyone else of anything. It would be much worse if computer assistance was not allowed, and some players used it anyway to cheat. I have no doubt this happens on other servers.

And I’ve got news for you: simply turning on the engine and having it do all the work for you will not get you very far when everyone else can do the same thing! This has made ICCF play very different than it was in the past, but I don’t see a viable alternative in the computer age. The vast majority of games end in draws.

I’m not very skilled in ICCF play, and don’t take it super-seriously. My opening prep is slipshod, and I’m nowhere close to being a computer expert. Still, there is scope for creativity in opening choices, directing the line of play, and steering games to the endgame. I find “centaur” (human plus computer) chess stimulating, and in some ways it has helped my standard chess, too!

Have you ever played correspondence chess before? Would you ever try it? And how do you feel about the ICCF not prohibiting engine assistance?

Watch Strong Players Play, in Person

Inspiration and Motivation

I recently wrote about my first chess tournaments. The beginning of a player’s career is critical in the development of their feelings and attitudes about the game and their own place in it.

The skittles area looks different, and yet the same. The site: Borough of Manhattan Community College. Photo: Tribeca Citizen

If you’re as clueless about chess as I was and feel you’re bashing your head against a wall — go watch strong players in person.

“Strong” depends on your level and respect for “chess authority.”

As a newbie, I was awed by the 1700s playing blitz and bughouse at the 1996 Greater NY Junior Championship organized by the Chess Center of New York.

They let me play some games, too…and crushed me in humiliating fashion.

I have never forgotten it. It kept me motivated to get stronger. Even when I sometimes wanted to quit.

A week later at the same location I watched GMs Joel Benjamin and Michael Rohde play a long series of blitz games…these guys wrote articles I read in Chess Life each month! I was starstruck.

It didn’t much matter that I finished 60th out of 65 players. Walking out of BMCC I was shaking my fist determined to improve.

Years later

During my time as Assistant Manager of the Marshall Chess Club (2003-2005) I loved watching “regulars” play. Examples: Marc Arnold, Julio Becerra, Salvijus Bercys, Jay Bonin, Fabiano Caruana, Asa Hoffmann, Giorgi Kacheishvili, Dmytro Kedyk, Kassa Korley, Irina Krush, Yury Lapshun, Alex Lenderman, Adam Maltese, Leif Pressman, Boris Privman, Raven Sturt and Leonid Yudasin. It was my favorite part of the job!

I always take the opportunity to watch high-rated players play as a player. spectator, or director. It isn’t about chess osmosis, though I do believe that exists. These experiences connect me with chess in a way solitary study and online play cannot.

The answer to chess improvement is desire…and maybe, just maybe, getting mad. You will manage a way. Watching strong players play in person, and sometimes getting your clock cleaned, can be a real help.