Tag Archives: Anatoly Karpov

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!

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!

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!

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.

Garry Kasparov Tribute, and My Favorite Kasparov Game

The Greatest

Garry Kasparov was born April 13, 1963; today is his 57th birthday.

MasterClass photo of Garry Kasparov

MasterClass photo of Garry Kasparov

Kasparov retired from classical chess in 2005 after winning the Linares tournament (shared with Veselin Topalov). It was the ninth time he won clear or shared first at the most prestigious tournament of all.

Though he retired at the relatively early age of 41, Garry Kasparov accomplished so much there’s no way I can recount everything.

Garry Kasparov Career Highlights

  • In 1985 he became the youngest (official, undisputed) world chess champion in history: 22 years, 6 months, 28 days. He is the 13th World Chess Champion, defeating the 12th Champion Anatoly Karpov.
  • In January 1984 he became the fourth player to achieve an Elo rating of 2700 (after Bobby Fischer, Karpov, and Mikhail Tal). He simultaneously became World #1 for the first time.
  • In January 1990 he became the first player to achieve an Elo rating of 2800.
  • In July 1999 set the record for the highest Elo rating: 2851 (surpassed by Magnus Carlsen in 2013).
  • Except for July 1985 (Karpov) and January 1996 (tie with Vladimir Kramnik), Kasparov was ranked World #1 from January 1984 through January 2006 (when he dropped off the ranking list for inactivity following his retirement the previous year).
  • He won or shared first place in 15 consecutive tournaments from 1981 through 1990.
  • He was the Classical (i.e. lineal) World Chess Champion from 1985-2000.

My Favorite Garry Kasparov Game

The Kasparov game that made the biggest impression on me was his positional sacrifice against Alexei Shirov from the 1994 Credit Suisse Masters. As usual, Kasparov had no fear of a major mainline opening, in this case the Sveshnikov Variation of the Sicilian Defense. Let’s start from the position before white’s 16th move:

16. ?

White has a powerful knight on d5, but black has two pieces that can remove it: his knight and, more directly, the light-squared bishop. This leads Kasparov to an idea that’s logical once you see it, but striking nonetheless.

White sacrifices a clean exchange, but White’s d5-knight is a tower of strength. Black’s knight can’t move and needs at least three moves to challenge its counterpart.

There’s no immediate win, and indeed the game continued for some time. White can keep improving his position, but what can black do? Positions like this are very hard to play.

What’s your favorite Garry Kasparov game?

Capablanca’s Chess Fundamentals

Blast from the past

When I first borrowed Capablanca’s Chess Fundamentals from the library as a beginner in 1996, I didn’t like it. A few years ago I saw it in Barnes & Noble and purchased a copy; the way you view a book as a beginner is very different from how you see it as an expert!

Mikhail Botvinnik, the 6th World Champion, called Chess Fundamentals the best chess book ever written. I disagree with the Patriarch, but could I recommend the book to players trying to learn “fundamentals?” As it turns out, not so much.

Chess Fundamentals was originally published in 1921. This was the same year its author José Capablanca became the third World Champion, a title he held until 1927.

Capablanca may be the greatest genius in chess history. Undefeated from 1916 to 1924, he lost only 36 official games in his career. He was called “The Chess Machine,” and influenced future champions including Tigran Petrosian, Bobby Fischer, Anatoly Karpov, and Vladimir Kramnik.

 

Good, but incomplete

In some ways, Capablanca’s genius is the biggest fault with Chess Fundamentals. 

He doesn’t grasp that many of us are clueless and need a lot of help. He refers to the book as a guide and not a substitute for a good teacher or practical experience. There’s a lot he doesn’t spell out, and often tells “the student” to figure it out “for himself!“ For example, there’s no guidance on dealing with common pitfalls like Scholar’s Mate.

Some people are just too talented to teach others.

Capablanca’s insights on middlegame strategy and on endgames are thought-provoking for experienced players, but I much prefer the explanations of a different champion: Max Euwe.

Euwe, the 5th World Champion (1935-37), didn’t ask his readers to work things out for themselves; he gave short, precise commentary and presented instructive and memorable examples. He is one of my favorite chess authors.

Who would benefit from reading Chess Fundamentals?

Not only was the book written in 1921, its formal writing style is very different from modern books. Therefore, I can’t recommend it to children, but teens and adults can give it a try.

I would also hesitate to recommend Capablanca’s Chess Fundamentals to a chess newcomer, unless they had an appetite to explore chess for themselves and fill in the gaps. Otherwise, it would be an exercise in frustration.

If you’re a teen or adult who has played in a few tournaments, or has experience playing in a strong social circle, Chess Fundamentals could help you a lot. It could also serve as a decent guide for an ambitious parent teaching their child chess.

Opening for Black according to Karpov

If you like Karpov’s black openings this is an underrated gem

Opening for Black according to Karpov was written by Alexander Khalifman and published by the Bulgarian publisher Chess Stars all the way back in 2001. I believe it was one of their first books.

Now, I have to admit being attracted to this book when I first bought it many years ago because Anatoly Karpov, the 12th World Champion, has always been my favorite player. I remember enthusiastically reading his Grandmaster Musings column in Chess Life magazine in the late 1990s.

Khalifman did a five-volume series on Vladimir Kramnik’s white opening repertoire, Opening for White according to Kramnik, and years later made a new edition of these books. He also wrote a 14(!) volume series on Viswanathan Anand’s white opening repertoire, Opening for white according to Anand.

The Karpov book is a slim 187 pages plus an Index of Variations, and there are no other books in the series. Still, it’s a definitely worth having if you have interest in playing drier openings that resist cutting-edge theory.

The openings for black

Against 1.e4: Caro-Kann

After 3.Nc3/Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4, he gives 4…Nd7.

Of course…this is often known as the Karpov Variation!

In the Advance Variation, Short System after 3.e5 Bf5 4.Nf3 e6 5.Be2,

Khalifman gives 5…Ne7

which indeed Karpov favored. Coverage is light here, and theory has certainly moved forward, so I would supplement study here with a database of modern games.

Khalifman’s guidance on sidelines is sound and easy to understand. In general Chess Stars authors really shine at conveying the ideas behind the moves.

Against 1.d4: Nimzo-Indian, Queen’s Indian, Catalan

You start with 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6, as Karpov usually did.

Against 3.Nc3 you go for the Karpov Variation of the Nimzo-Indian (3…Bb4 4.e3 c5 5.Bd3 0-0 6.Nf3 d5 7.0-0 dxc4 8.Bxc4 cxd4 9.exd4 b6).

The coverage is better than I’ve seen anywhere else. Again, supplement with newer games.

Against 3.Nf3, the recipe is the Queen’s Indian with 3…b6.

I suppose 4.g3 Ba6 is the main line here

so you’ll want to consult a database for more up-to-date games.

Against 3.g3, when white plays the Catalan, you play 3…d5 4.Bg2 Be7 5.Nf3 0-0

The explanations are great, but as I keep saying, you need to supplement the text with contemporary games.

A similar approach with …Nf6 and …e6 is given against Queen Pawn Games like the London, Trompowsky, Torre, Veresov, etc.

Against 1.c4: English with 1…e5

I’m not a specialist on these lines, so I can’t comment on how theory now views the lines given, but once again the commentary is instructive.

Against 1.Nf3: 1…Nf3 2.c4 b6

Some similarities with the Queen’s Indian section, but in many lines Khalifman recommends a double fianchetto and does a great job showing how the play can develop. Again, newer approaches are missing, but it’s a great start.

Khalifman also gives some guidance against 1.b3 and 1.g3 in this chapter.

Verdict

As you can see, this book has definite limitations in 2020. Still, the structure of the repertoire, care taken about move orders, and above all the easy-to-understand insightful commentary make Opening for Black according to Karpov one of the forgotten opening book gems of the past 20 years.