Bishop Endgame Theory

In particular, we’re going to discuss the same-color bishop endgame. The attacking side has one pawn, and the defender has none.

If the defender can sacrifice their bishop for the last pawn the game is drawn, so the attacker must proceed carefully.

What the Defender Wants in this Ending

The position is completely drawn if the defending king can reach a square in front of the pawn opposite the color of the bishops. The king stays put and the defender moves their bishop around forever … or until they can call over the Arbiter or TD and claim a draw. Here’s an example:

Things get much more complicated if the defending king is behind the advancing pawn. In that case, the bishop desperately tries to control a square the pawn needs to cross in order to prevent it from queening. The attacking king and bishop look to attack the defending bishop, forcing it to move and give up control of the pawn’s path.

This is why you nearly always want your king to blockade passed pawns in the endgame: he can control all of the squares around him, and it’s harder to push him away than a rook, bishop, or knight!

A Worst Case Scenario

Anyway, a plausible scenario is the following:

This is a famous endgame study by Genovese composer Luigi Centurini (1820-1900) published in 1856. You’ll find it in every endgame encyclopedia, for example Basic Chess EndingsDvoretsky’s Endgame Manual, and Magnus Carlsen’s favorite Fundamental Chess Endings … but for years I didn’t quite understand it.

The Black bishop can stop the pawn on either the long b8-h2 or mini a7-b8 diagonal. If White can gain control of both diagonals, the Black cleric will be unable to stop the pawn.

More Room to Operate

Notice that Black lost because of the short a7-b8 diagonal. To draw, Centurini taught us that the defender usually needs both diagonals to be at least four squares in length. Then, there will always be at least one square on one of the diagonals that the attacker cannot control.

Here’s a famous example of successful defense:

Hopefully you now understand this classic bishop endgame if you previously struggled with it!

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.

Positional Chess Handbook: Strategy for All Levels

495 Chess Lessons in Your Pocket

Positional Chess Handbook by Israel Gelfer

Positional Chess Handbook can be considered a strategy cousin to 1001 Chess Sacrifices and Combinations, the iconic puzzle book by Fred Reinfeld. Both are pocket-sized and ideal for studying on-the-go — but PCH is definitely the superior book.

I recommend Positional Chess Handbook to players (and coaches!) of all levels. Players rated from zero to at least 2200 will benefit. The book will give beginners ideas about strategy; it has much to teach club players; and it is a good refresher for the 2000+ crowd.

Originally published in 1991, it is filled with instructive game fragments from famous and not-so-famous players and composers. You’ll find examples from Morphy and Steinitz, as well as from Fischer, Karpov, and Kasparov. In all, there are 495 diagrams over 208 pages (plus index). I’m sure author Israel Gelfer (FIDE Master and FIDE Senior Trainer) spent many years compiling the examples that helped his students the most.

So what does it cover?

Positional Chess Handbook: Contents

Most of the 21 chapters isolate a certain positional feature, making it easy to reinforce understanding of a particular concept without distraction. A few sections are more general, but very instructive nonetheless. Of course, tactics are everywhere in this book, too — strategy cannot exist without them, right?

1. Instroduction; Strong and Weak Pieces
2. A Good Bishop versus a Bad Knight
3. A Good Knight versus a Bad Bishop
4. Bishops—Same Colour
5. Bishops—Opposite Colour
6. Knights
7. Rooks
8. Two Bishops
9. A Rook versus Two Minor Pieces
10. Choosing an Endgame; Some Aspects of the Endgame
11. Key Squares—Strong Points
13. Exchanges
14. Cramped Positions, Restricted Pieces
15. Pawn Structures
16. Pros and Cons
17. Active King; Central Supremacy
18. Inducing Weaknesses
19. A Diagonal
20. Two Diagonals,
21. Positional Sacrifices

Index of Players and Composers

Images from the Book

Positional Chess Handbook is one of the books I reread portions of regularly to keep my positional skills sharp. The others are Simple Chess and Judgment and Planning in Chess. You don’t need much else. Best of all in these tough times, each of these books can be had for under \$10!

The First Master Game I Studied

A Special Birthday

Today is the 65th birthday of the man who taught me how to play chess — my dad.

One Saturday night when I was eight years old, my dad was cleaning out the hallway closet of our family’s apartment. I noticed a folded chess board, similar to this one. I knew it was a chess set — I don’t remember where I was first learned what chess was — and asked my dad to teach me how to play.

That night and the next day, he did. I understood the basic rules plus castling and pawn promotion — later I realized that he didn’t quite understand en passant! We began to play.

Well … I am no Morphy or Capablanca! My attempts to win our early games went nowhere.

My parents, sister and I soon went to the now-defunct Coliseum Books near Columbus Circle. I was looking through the chess books and other things, and my dad saw this cool-looking book that had lots of colored arrows and diagrams! This was apparently not a common thing back then. The book was also written by a Grandmaster! It was …

Better Chess by David Norwood. It combined Advanced Chess and Chess Puzzles into one volume.

My parents bought me the book and I read it over and over and over.

I learned basic strategy and solved my first tactical puzzles.

I learned about a bit about four openings explored in the book: the Spanish Game, King’s Indian Defence (sic), Modern Benoni, and King’s Gambit.

And the cherry on top? Brief, fascinating bios of great players past and present: Paul Morphy, Wilhelm Steinitz, Jose Raul Capablanca, Mir Sultan Khan, Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov, and Judit Polgar. I loved this book so much!

In it, I also found my first master game played by the author which I tried to make some sense of with the help of the annotations.

Today, it’s time for me to annotate this memorable game.

I didn’t become serious about chess until a few years later, but the foundation was set. With my second chess book, I was on my way.

Chess Tactics: Spassky — Rashkovsky, 1973

Boris Spassky (born 1937) was the tenth World Chess Champion (1969-1972). Before that, however, he was one of the greatest prodigies of early modern professional chess.

Boris Spassky. Photo: Britannica.com

Born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Spassky defeated Mikhail Botvinnik in a simul as a ten-year-old in 1947, a year before Botvinnik became World Champion.

With a third-place finish in his very first USSR Championship, Spassky qualified for the 1955 Gothenburg Interzonal. At Antwerp he captured the World Junior Championship a point ahead of Edmar Mednis. He next qualified for the 1956 Amsterdam Candidates Tournament — earning an automatic Grandmaster title.

At 18 years old, Spassky became the youngest GM ever, eclipsing Tigran Petrosian‘s record by five years.

He established himself as a top player in the early 1960s. Highlights include the 29th USSR Championship (Fall 1961) and the 1964 Moscow zonal.

Spassky battled through the World Championship cycle to earn a title match with Petrosian in 1966. The match went the full 24 games, but Iron Tigran narrowly retained his title.

Undeterred, Spassky immediately won the Second Piatigorsky Cup. In the next Championship cycle he defeated Petrosian in June 1969 to become the new Champion.

Why he is underrated

Unfortunately, Spassky was outshone by two meteors: first Tal, then Fischer.

Mikhail Tal was born less than three months before Spassky. He won back-to-back USSR Championships, an Interzonal, a Candidates Tournament, and a World Championship match within four years! Just 23 years old, he shattered the record for youngest World Champion ever.

Bobby Fischer broke Spassky’s youngest-ever GM record by three years. Later, he won 20 consecutive games en-route to victory in the 1970 Interzonal and 1971 Candidates series with tallies of 6-0, 6-0, and 6½-2½. Then he took Spassky’s World Championship title in 1972.

This is a loss for chess! The casual fans who only know Spassky as “the guy who lost to Fischer” should play through some of his best games — they are as enjoyable and imaginative as those of any player in chess history, full stop.

By chance, an old student of mine was given a book of Spassky’s games. He was mesmerized by Spassky’s wide-ranging talent. Totally understandable!

Resilience

After losing his title, Spassky won probably the strongest-ever USSR Championship, the 41st, in October 1973. The field included established stars like Lev Polugaevsky, Viktor Kortschnoj, Efim Geller, Paul Keres, and Mark Taimanov, youngsters Evgeny Sveshnikov and Alexander Beliavsky … and four other World Champions — Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, and Karpov.

Today we’ll look at Spassky’s minature against Nukhim Rashkovsky in Round 8. Like Maia Chiburdanidze’s classic win over Dvoirys, it comes from a Najdorf Sicilian with 6.Bg5.

White to play. How did Spassky punish his opponent’s imprecise play?

12. ?

Chess Tactics: Gashimov — Gelfand, 2009

Vugar Gashimov (1986-2014) was a top player from Azerbaijan who was dogged with ill health for much of his life. Despite this, he rose as high as World Number 6 in November 2009.

Vugar Gashimov. Photo: ChessBase

Gashimov reached a peak rating of 2761 in January 2012, the same month as Wijk aan Zee. As it turned out, this would be his last tournament … epilepsy and a brain tumor forced him to retire from chess at just 25 years old. He died two years later, only 27, reminiscent of Pillsbury, Charousek, and other top talents a century before.

His notatble tournament victories include the Cappelle la Grande Open (2007 and 2008), the FIDE Grand Prix (2008) in his home city of Baku, and Reggio Emilia (2010/2011). He also won the decisive last round game that clinched gold for Azerbaijan at the 2009 European Team Championship.

The Gashimov Memorial has been held annually since 2014 in Shamkir, Azerbaijan.

Gashimov wins a minature against the formidable Boris Gelfand. The Belarusian-Israeli legend was only the fifth player in chess history to achieve a 2700 Elo rating (after Fischer, Karpov, Tal, and Kasparov). He nearly reached the chess Olympus in 2012 when he drew a 12-game World Championship match with Viswanathan Anand (+1 =10 -1) but lost the rapid tiebreak.

White to play. How did Gashimov end the game quickly after Gelfand’s untimely castling?

11. ?

Mihail Marin: Great Chess Authors, Part 8

Today I want to discuss a very popular and highly-regarded chess figure who also happens to be the first currently-living author in the series. Serious work for serious people, yes, but more approachable than most Dvoretsky volumes.

Mihail Marin

Mihail Marin. Photo: Mihail Marin’s Twitter, @MihailMarin3

Mihail Marin (1965 – ) was born in Bucharest, Romania. A three-time Champion of Romania (1988, 1994, 1999), he competed in the 1987 Szirak Interzonal.

Marin has represented Romania in ten Olympiads, winning a bronze medal on Board 3 at Thessaloniki 1988. He earned the Grandmaster title in 1993 and was ranked one of the World’s Top 100 Players in 2001.

These are certainly impressive accomplishments, but Marin was destined for greatness in another realm of chess.

Starting at the Top

In 2003, Gambit Publications issued Mihail Marin’s first book, Secrets of Chess Defence, which was nominated for the 2003 ChessCafe Book of the Year Award.

Gambit also published Marin’s Secrets of Attacking Chess in 2005, which was also well-received. If you can even get one of these books, you’ll pay a pretty penny! Well, there’s always Kindle…

A Critical Building Block

New publisher Quality Chess lived up to their name by bringing Mihail Marin into the fold early on. He has produced a string of hits for them — behold:

Learn from the Legends: Chess Champions at their Best (2004)

This book won Marin the 2005 ChessCafe.com Book of the Year Award, and was so highly-acclaimed that it has been revised and reprinted multiple times.

Each chapter examines a distinctive feature of a great player of the past: Akiba Rubinstein‘s Rook Endings, Mikhail Tal‘s Super Rooks vs. Two Minor Pieces, Tigran Petrosian‘s Exchange Sacrifices, Bobby Fischer‘s Pet Bishop, and more.

A book that definitely lives up to its hype: pleasant and instructive.

Beating the Open Games (2007)

A player who has decided to play 1…e5 in response to 1.e4 needs to prepare for the different lines white can employ. Fortunately, few of them cause much trouble and Marin prepares his reader to understand the ideas behind his recommendations.

A second edition of this book was issued in 2008, but don’t let that concern you: the majority of lines in this book haven’t seen major advances in theory that should concern the casual player.

I’m not sure there’s a better resource for the Double King Pawn.

A Spanish Repertoire for Black (2007)

In response to the Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5), Marin recommends the Chigorin Defense (3…a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Na5) to his readers.

He gets into some of the history, maneuvers, and reasoning for why lines developed as they did. This is not a waste of your time: such insights come to the rescue when you find yourself facing a move you have not studied. Marin’s discussion of the “Spanish Knight” is worth the cover price alone.

This book should be used with Beating the Open Games, above.

Reggio Emilia 2007/2008 (2009, with Yuri Garrett)

This book celebrated the 50th edition of the Reggio Emilia tournament held in the Italian city bearing the same name. It contains plenty of photographs, crosstables, and stories — as every tournament book should.

Hungarian Grandmaster Zoltan Almasi proved victorious.

Held over the New Year holidays every year from 1958, the series unfortunately ceased to exist due to financial issues. Anish Giri won the 54th and final edition in 2011/2012.

Grandmaster Repertoire 5 – The English Opening, Volume Three (2010)

These three books ushered in unprecedented popularity of the English Opening at all levels!

From club players to super-GMs.

I have not read them myself, actually. But I have no doubt about their influence, as I recently alluded to. It could be decades before someone creates a more authoritative series of books on a major opening system.

Volume One covers 1.c4 e5, Volume Three covers 1.c4 c5, and Volume Two covers everything else after 1.c4.

Grandmaster Repertoire – The Pirc Defence (2018)

I don’t play the Pirc, or play against it, generally. So this book isn’t for me, strictly speaking.

Still, I agree with the rule that good chess authors write good chess books, and I’m sure I would learn a lot about chess in general by reading this book.

If you have any interest at all in the Pirc, I would highly recommend taking a look…but you probably own this book already!

Šahovski Informator

Old Wine in New Bottles (2019)

Mihail Marin has written a “textbook” for the makers of Chess Informant!

He stresses something that I often remind students and parents about: following the computer’s every move or recommendation is very limiting because the machine cannot help you during the game — at least it should not!

Having a good foundation of classical games and understanding cannot but help you. Over the years I have seen countless young chessplayers make serious mistakes because they lack this base.

ChessBase

I’ll also mention that Mihail Marin has authored several ChessBase DVDs (which can be purchased for download)  and contributed to countless others including, for example, the Master Class series.

I have an old ChessBase Catalan E00-E09 DVD by Marin somewhere. It was well-organized and thorough, even though I didn’t end up playing the opening after all.

Who knows what other great materials Marin has in store for us? I for one can’t wait!

What do you think of Mihail Marin’s books? Please share!

Chess Tactics: Timman — Geller, 1973

Efim Geller. Photo: Chessgames.com

Born in Odesa, Ukraine, Efim Geller (1925-1998) was one of the world’s best from the 1950s through the 1970s. He was a six-time Candidate (1953, 1956, 1962, 1965, 1968, 1971) and twice USSR Champion (1955, 1979).

He defeated eight world champions in all, achieving plus-scores against Mikhail Botvinnik, Bobby Fischer, Tigran Petrosian, and Vasily Smyslov.

I highly recommend his autobiographical Application of Chess Theory. It is an underrated game collection! Geller shares incisive comments on openings and strategy, and a rich selection of his games. Quality Chess issued a new edition of this work under a fitting title: The Nemesis.

35 years after the historic AVRO 1938 tournament, another AVRO event was organized in the Dutch city of Hilversum in June 1973. This win helped Geller tie for first with Laszlo Szabo.

Black to play. How did Geller initiate a surprising king-hunt?

17…?

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.

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!

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

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.

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!