Andrei Sokolov was born in 1963 in Vorkuta, Russia (then part of the USSR). A superstar in the 1980s, he is largely unknown by chess fans today because his career as a top player was relatively short.
Sokolov won the World Junior Championship in 1982, and captured the USSR Championship in his first appearance in 1984. At 21 years old, he was one of the youngest-ever Soviet Champions.
Still, he kept rising. A 3rd place finish in the 1985 Biel Interzonal (behind Rafael Vaganian and Yasser Seirawan) was followed by a tie for 1st-3rd place in the 1985 Montpellier Candidates Tournament (with Artur Yusupov and Vaganian).
Finally, there were Candidates matches. After defeating Vaganian (4 wins, 4 draws) and Yusupov (4 wins, 7 draws, 3 losses) in 1986, he faced former World Champion Anatoly Karpov in the 1987 Candidates Final. A victory here would have meant a World Championship match with Garry Kasparov!
Sokolov lost this match (7 draws, 4 losses). This is the same score Ian Nepomniachtchi managed in his 2021 World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen … and it’s also the same score Kasparov had against Karpov after 11 games in their 1984 match!
In 1987, Andrei Sokolov was ranked World #3 (with Yusupov, behind Kasparov and Karpov) at 2645, and he was just 24 years old. It seemed the sky was the limit.
Alas, the 1985-87 cycle would be the peak of Sokolov’s career — after 1988 he fell out of the Top 20, never to return. Since 2000, he has represented France.
Here we look at an early battle between Sokolov and Igor Novikov (born 1962) who would become one of America’s top players in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Wolfgang Uhlmann (1935-2020) was eight-time champion of East Germany between 1955 and 1985, and an early International Grandmaster, earning his title in 1959. He reached the Candidates Quarter-Final in 1971, but was eliminated by Bent Larsen.
Uhlmann was arguably the greatest expert on the French Defense in the history of chess. He replied to 1.e4 with 1…e6 almost exclusively. This is exceedingly courageous in high-level chess, when all of his opponents would have been expecting it! To this end, I still highly recommend Uhlmann’s 1995 book Winning with the French, as his insights are invaluable even if some of the theory has moved on.
Today we’ll look at Uhlmann’s sparkling victory with the Black pieces against Miguel Cuellar Gacharna (1916-1985) in the first round of the 1973Leningrad Interzonal. Cuellar Gacharna was an International Master (1957) and nine-time champion of Colombia between 1941 and 1971. During his career he scored several victories over top players including Efim Geller, Viktor Korschnoj, Miguel Najdorf, Oscar Panno, and Samuel Reshevsky.
Anton Korobov (born 1985) is a Ukrainian Grandmaster (2003) and four-time Champion of his country (2002, 2012, 2018, 2020). His peak rating was 2723 in January 2014, and he has been ranked as high as World #25 on a couple of occasions.
He is a formidable player on the international circuit, having won such events as the Czech Open, Abu Dhabi Masters, and Poikovsky Karpov Tournament. In addition, he has collected individual gold medals at the Chess Olympiad and European Team Championship.
Anton Korobov is currently the top seed at the 2021 Sunway Chess Festval in Sitges, Spain — an event he won in 2019. In Round 3 he played a game that should make it into future textbooks: the isolated pawn couple that appears reminded me of Akiba Rubinstein‘s classic game against Georg Salwe in 1908.
Korobov’s opponent is Yosef Theolifus Taher (born 1999), International Master (2018) from Indonesia and winner of the 2018 Asian Universities Chess Championships (Men).
Nona Gaprindashvili was born in 1941 in Zugdidi, Georgia (then part of the Soviet Union). An unstoppable force from a young age, she convincingly defeated Elizaveta Bykova 9-2 (7 wins, 4 draws) in 1962 to become the 5th Women’s World Champion.
She earned no less than 20 gold medals (individual and team) across 12 Women’s Olympiads from 1963 through 1992, and competed successfully in “men’s” international tournaments.
In 1978, she was the first woman to be awarded the International Grandmaster (GM) title by FIDE. Unfortunately for Nona, this would be the year she lost her Women’s World Championship title to countrywoman Maia Chiburdanidze. Gaprindashvili’s 16-year reign nearly matched that of Vera Menchik (1927-1944, the year of her death).
Since 2004, the country that scores the most total points in the Open and Women’s Olympiad wins the Gaprindashvili Cup.
Russia won in 2004, 2010 and 2012; China won in 2006, 2014 and 2018; and Ukraine won in 2008 and 2016.
I mention all of this because I came across a very nice Rossolimo played by Gaprindashvili in 1964 against Lyubov Idelchyk (1936-2006), Ukrainian Women’s Champion in 1963 and 1969 who later immigrated to the USA.
How did Gaprindashvili conclude her attack? White to play.
When deciding which openings to employ, there are a lot of possible shortcuts one can take…but this entails some risk.
In the 2000s, a setup now known as The Black Lion (due to a book of the same name published by New in Chess in 2009) became popular for the second player. It is a Hanham setup reached via a Pirc Defense move order (to limit White’s targeted replies against this brand of Philidor Defense).
This kind of setup has something in common with the recommendations in An Explosive Chess Opening Repertoire for Black(Gambit, 2003) — a popular and well-regarded book in its time that I suspect still holds up due to the nearly theory-less nature of the setups examined.
Note: I may receive a commission on products purchased through Amazon links on this page. Thanks for your support!
FIDE broke news that Istvan Csom (1940-2021) passed away on July 28. As the report mentions, this Hungarian Grandmaster (1973) and International Arbiter (1991) was a two-time champion of his country (1972, 1973) and part of the 1978 Buenos Aires Olympiad team that won the gold medal over the USSR in a historic upset.
The idea of defeating a stronger player appealed to a “weakie” like me, so I devoured Superior Opponent in my early years. Unfortunately, I did not score upsets that often…
But over the years I learned a lot. Now that I have more experience, I’ll give you some of my own advice on beating players better than you.
Good psychology only goes so far.
I’m not going to insult your intelligence by telling you there is a formula to consistently beat players rated 500 points higher than you. Exception: anything goes if we’re talking about players rated under 1000.
The tips I’ll discuss can give you a slightly better chance against such opposition, but luck is your best friend here: hope the opponent underestimates you, miscalculates something, or has a bad game.
If you are a massive underdog, just play the best moves you can … for as long as you can … and don’t get too far behind on the clock. This last guideline is important: an experienced, higher-rated player will just keep the game going in your time pressure, shuffling pieces until you collapse.
For the rest of these tips, I’m going to assume you’re facing someone rated 1000+ and roughly 200 points higher than you. This is a steep hill, but not an impossible one: statistically you should score about 25% against such a player (one win and three losses in four games, or two draws and two losses).
For context, with a 300-point rating difference you’re expected to score 1 point out of 10.
Don’t change your playing style.
You have certain strengths as a chess player. Don’t abandon your strongest weapons based on who you’re paired against. If you’re an attacker, attack. If you’re a good endgame player, trade. If you know a certain opening well, play it — don’t be afraid of the opponent knowing it better than you do. Sidebar: targeting the weaknesses of a peer or an inferior opponent is often a good idea!
Believe in your ideas, and don’t try too hard.
It’s tempting to make “extra” efforts to beat stronger players, but I think the best you can do in this area is to make sure your concentration is as good as it can be for the game.
If you think you’ve found a good move or plan, and don’t see any flaws, go for it. Maybe you’re wrong and missed something, but don’t assume this is the case! That’s called “seeing ghosts.”
Calculate until the evaluation is clear.
If you’re a good calculator, this is not a problem. For others, like me, calculation is not our strong suit.
Don’t go crazy trying to see everything till the end, unless mate or a decisive material balance is at stake. Otherwise, just use the Chess Informant classification that I discussed previously.
Don’t offer draws to higher-rated players.
I’m not one of those coaches who says you should always “play till bare kings!” There are a number of situations in which offering or accepting a draw makes sense, or when aiming for a more drawish position is a good idea.
However, there is almost never a good reason to offer a draw to a higher-rated player. There are two rather obvious reasons for this:
If you have the advantage, you shouldn’t be offering a draw! Doing so communicates fear and increases the confidence of your opponent, who might be on the ropes. If you’re really afraid of messing up when better against a higher-rated, you can play solidly and safely, avoiding risk. Just strike a confident pose at the board while doing so!
If you are worse — or even equal — your opponent won’t accept your draw offer. Moreover, it again shows weakness. Whether your opponent is torturing you or merely shuffling pieces back and forth, just keep finding the best moves you can while not showing any frustration. Imagine you are at a picnic on a warm summer day!
Wait for the higher-rated player to offer the draw (or, if you’re playing against a peer, the player with the superior position has the “right” to make the peace offering). Only when you’re playing against a lower-rated player can you offer a draw in an inferior position.
Experienced players: are there any other general tips I didn’t mention? Leave a comment!
No matter why you decided to pick up chess, Congratulations, and Welcome!
I played my first chess tournaments in 1995-96. While I started teaching beginners as early as 1997 (when I was not much past 1000 USCF), I didn’t become a full-time chess teacher and coach until 2005 (I had surpassed 1800 by then).
I’ve seen and learned a great deal over the years, and I’d like to share some of my best advice.
How you perform against friends and family means nothing.
Just because you can beat your dad, your friends, or your co-workers in chess says absolutely nothing about how well or poorly you play the game. The only way to know where you stand in the pecking order is to play in official (rated) tournaments. And no, online ratings don’t mean anything either, whether you play on ICC, lichess, or anywhere else. Online is just practice.
Expect to lose a lot of games. A lot.
No one becomes a strong chess player without losing hundreds, no, thousands, of games. People who say otherwise are lying. The sooner you accept this, the better off you’ll be.
Related to this: genius is exceedingly rare in chess. Unless your name is Kasparov, Anand, Kramnik, or Ivanchuk, you are not a chess genius and your kid isn’t either. If someone tells you otherwise, they’re only after your money.
Academic achievement and chess aptitude? Probably unrelated.
I’ve already written about this here. I’m not a scientist or a researcher, but have worked with thousands of students over the years, age 3 and up.
Endgames are overrated.
Most games between non-experts (97+% of the chess population!) will be decided before the endgame is reached. You should know some basics, but don’t spend more than 20-25% of your study time on this phase of the game.
Openings are underrated.
Don’t listen to people who advise you to ignore openings! Effective opening study is well worth your time, even as a new player.
The opening gets a bad rap because it is often presented very poorly. That’s the fault of the material, not the phase of the game itself! I recently reviewed a book that presents the opening pretty well for inexperienced players.
About a year ago, I wrote a multi-part series on the French Defense (first part here), the opening that I often cite as having saved my chess career. I played it from 1998-2008, and would not have reached 1900+ without it.
Subsequent parts of my series can be found here: 2a, 2b, 2c, and 3.
While not a complete survey, I think it gives the aspiring Frenchie enough to get started. Anti-Frenchies should take a look as well.
Recently, I received a donation from NYC-area chess coach Nikki Church (thanks, Nikki!). When I asked her if she had any topic requests, she asked me what to do about annoying sidelines such as 2.c4 in the French, apparently called the Steiner Variation. Her students like to play this against her, and it proves once again that the French is an opening people either love or hate. There’s little in-between!
So, it seemed I would have to revive my series! I promised Nikki I would inflict some pain on her students’ schemes!
French Defense, Steiner Variation: 1.e4 e6 2.c4
My feeling is this move should be a welcome sight! I believe black should play 2…d5, preparing to exchange center pawns and liberate the pieces, especially our light-squared bishop.
Well, not so fast. The challenge is that we won’t end up in a very French-like position after the following moves … and I know French players can be very formulaic …
Variation A: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.cxd5 exd5
Variation B: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.exd5 exd5
Variation C: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.e5
Variation D: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.d4
A: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.cxd5 exd5
Now there are two main choices — A1:4.Qa4+ and A2: 4.exd5.
As a cautionary tale, the great Savielly Tartakower was barbecued by Endre Steiner himself!
Ugh. This kind of game sends shivers down the spine of a French devotee, as we’ve all had accidents like this! Nevertheless, I have a few points to make.
First, I think 4…Bd7 was already dubious, in light of the strong reply 5.Qb3! This compelled the awkward 5…Bc6, making the cleric a bystander from early on.
I would prefer 4…Qd7, or even 4…Nd7 5.exd5 Nf6 followed by …Bd6 or …Bc5 and kingside castling.
I really didn’t like 7…Nfd7?! Just look at that queenside! Maybe 7…Ne4 was already forced.
After 8.Qg3! Tartakower’s position was critical, and Steiner was off to the races.
Moshe Czerniak showed a simple and good way to deal with white’s play:
Against this, the French player has to be comfortable developing their pieces to more aggressive posts than usual. I know from experience that such “comfort” is not a given. Still, it’s the only way.
White’s most challenging lines against the French mainlines involve squeezing the second player with an eventual e4-e5 advance, clogging up kingside development. With the black king knight barred from f6, there’s always danger of a strong attack.
So why not use this idea in the Steiner Variation as well?
I think this is a sensible approach by white. I would advise black to play 3…c5 gaining space in the center and preparing to develop in a similar fashion to the Advance Variation.
You could do a lot worse than emulate the play of GM Schmidt:
That leaves one more possibility.
D: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.d4
This is not actually part of the Steiner Variation, but the Diemer-Duhm Gambit (DDG). I think this continuation is unlikely because white can reliably get the same position after 2.d4 d5 3.c4.
Just take the center pawn and develop comfortably, as GM Santos Latasa does here:
That should conclude my coverage of the Steiner Variation. Did I leave anything out? What do you think of this line? Please leave a comment to this post!