Category Archives: Opinion

Andre’s personal opinions on various chess topics.

Which Chess Opening Move is Best? Part 2

In Part 1, we discussed 1.e4. I opined that the King Pawn universe is not for everyone. That begs the question:

What About the Closed Openings?

This is a much broader topic, because it includes basically everything except 1.e4!

Still, there’s an obvious place to start.

1.d4 — Have it Your Way

Generally, you’ll prefer 1.d4 to 1.e4 if you don’t want to play directly for kingside attacks most of the time. 1.d4 tends to lead to White seeking an advantage on the queenside. That doesn’t mean you can’t play aggressively if you choose to! Far from it.

Botvinnik Keres

Botvinnik and Keres met in 20 tournament games. Photo: Verendel.com

White can go for the throat against even Black’s most solid options: consider the classic game Botvinnik — Keres, 1952 (given at the end of this post).

The 6th World Champion meets the Queen’s Gambit Declined with the seemingly dry Exchange Variation … and then plays directly for a central and kingside attack! He won in crushing fashion; even now this is considered a model game for the QGD Exchange.

For many club players, it’s the model game.

On the other hand, White can adopt a slower strategy; consider the model game Evans — Opsahl, 1950 which I discussed in an earlier post.

Against the solid Nimzo-Indian (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4) White has many solid approaches, but he can also satisfy his bloodlust with the Sämisch Variation.

When Black tries more double-edged systems like the Modern Benoni Defense (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6), Dutch Defense (1.d4 f5), King’s Indian Defense (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 and 3…Bg7), or Grünfeld Defense (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 and 3…d5), White can play solidly (the first player could choose a quiet kingside fianchetto against each of these, for example) or meet fire with fire.

Even when Black seeks to take control from the get-go with the Benko Gambit, White can throw down the gauntlet.

Efstratios Grivas

Efstratios Grivas. Photo: FIDE

If you’re a 1.d4 player looking for several good recommendations against Black’s options in one place, I recommend taking a look at Beating the Fianchetto Defenses by Efstratios Grivas. The esteemed Greek trainer is not always my favorite author, but this offering is very well done.

He chooses sensible systems against the Benoni, Benko, KID, Grünfeld, and Modern Defenses, and then delves into the typical middlegames and endgames that arise from them.

 

I hope I’ve provided some food for thought. Below is, as I promised, Botvinnik — Keres, 1952. Note that it arises from a Nimzo-Indian move order.

The fun doesn’t stop here. In Part 3, we’ll discuss the Flank Openings — perhaps the most interesting way to open a game! Stay tuned!

John D. Rockefeller V Gift to USCF

Yesterday, the US Chess Federation announced a huge $3,000,000 donation from John D. Rockefeller V. These funds will be used to perpetually endow many USCF Invitational Events, old and new.

One of the best parts to this story? Mr. Rockefeller is a Senior Tournament Director and has directed over 100 tournaments! That tells me more than anything else that he loves chess. We are very fortunate.

Congratulations to the USCF, and chess in the United States!

And from one Senior TD to another: thank you, Mr. Rockefeller, for your generosity.

Which Chess Opening Move is Best? Part 1

Should I Open with 1.e4, 1.d4, or something else as White?

Not surprisingly, the short answer is “it depends.”

Let’s dig deeper.

First, there is one thing you certainly should not do. Don’t play offbeat moves (1.b3, 1.b4, 1.f4, 1.Nc3, etc.)  just to avoid theory. I’ve touched on this before. Only use moves like this if you enjoy playing the resulting positions. 

Having gotten that out of the way, we really have only four or five serious moves left. There’s no question which one we should discuss first.

1.e4 — Best by Test?

The famous game Fischer-Tal from the 1960 Leipzig Olympiad was a sharp draw in the French Defense. You can actually purchase a print of this photo here.

To a certain extent, I think Bobby Fischer was right. But not everyone should follow his advice.

Opening with the King Pawn requires the most well-rounded skills. Generally, you must attack the Sicilian Defense or give Black at least equality. Aggressive play is also the best recipe against the French Defense, Caro-Kann, and Pirc Defense, among others.

At the same time, patience and maneuvering skills are needed to play the Ruy Lopez or Italian Game well.

The higher up the rating ladder a player advances, the less opponents are afraid of gimmicky attacks — aside from feeling confident against gambits, they might willingly enter slightly worse positions with a chance to grind you down. Michael William Brown was in my group at the 2008 Western Invitational Chess Camp (organized by Robby Adamson). His main defense was the Closed Ruy Lopez, and he really knew how to play it. Sure enough, Michael became a Grandmaster in 2019.

Maybe the biggest question is: can you break down the Berlin Wall or Petroff Defense?

My point is, I think 1.e4 requires the most diverse range of skill to play well consistently — in other words, to legitimately play for a win against strong opposition. Contemporary role models include CarlsenCaruana, and Karjakin. 

It’s no coincidence these players have contested the last two World Championship Matches!

Not everyone prefers the King Pawn, or possesses the ability to play it well — or at least as well as the ability to play other first moves.

Next time, we’ll discuss some alternatives, starting with 1.d4.

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.