Reader Question: Which Sicilian?

A few weeks ago I received this question from a reader; sorry for the late post and reply!

Hi Andre,
My name is Marc and I love your website! I am trying to find my Sicilian! I like your article. I don’t want to play Sveshnikov or Dragon or Najdorf as it’s too much theory. Though I do like sharp positions.
I was thinking of playing the Richter-Rauzer and vs most other moves [like] f3, Bc4, and Bg5 play a Dragon (or if Be3, play …Ng4) or play Schevenigen with …e6 move order and deal with Keres attack.
I think Taimanov though also combative is under hard times somewhat due to Be3 and Qf3.  Or do you have another idea?
Thanks,
Marc Sicina

Hi Marc,
Thanks for the kind words and the question!
My first thought is that if you want to play a sharp Sicilian, don’t run from theory.
I don’t think the Classical (against which the main line is the Richter-Rauzer, as Marc points out: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 and now 6.Bg5) is right for a sharp player. It’s more of a positional system.
I’m not an expert on the Scheveningen, but allowing the Keres Attack seems very risky and gives your opponent the sharp position, not you!
The Sveshnikov is theory-heavy, but not super-sharp, but of course a great choice.
I’m going to give you the answer you probably already know but won’t like: I think if you want a sharp (and sound) Sicilian, you have to choose the Najdorf or Taimanov, if you want to avoid Dragon theory. Remember that you whatever theory you don’t know, generally your opponents will know even less!

Carlsen vs. Nepomniachtchi: A Brief Take

Maybe the Greatest?

Dubai skyline
Dubai’s stunning skyline. Image: LonelyPlanet

With Magnus Carlsen‘s dominant 7½—3½  title defense against Ian Nepomniachtchi in the Dubai 2021 FIDE World Championship Match, the 31-year-old Norwegian has already amassed one of the best records in title matches … perhaps the best.

I remain heavily critical of Carlsen being declared winner of the 2013 London Candidates Tournament by virtue of having more wins than Vladimir Kramnik, and not through an over-the-board tiebreak. Even blitz or rapid would have been better!

But in the cauldron of a World Championship Match, Carlsen has proven invincible. In late 2013 he convincingly wrested the crown from Vishy Anand, and defeated him again in 2014 when the Indian legend surprisingly won the next Candidates Tournament.

Carlsen drew his next two matches against Sergey Karjakin (New York, 2016) and Fabiano Caruana (London, 2018), eventually subduing his rivals in rapid tiebreaks.

Carlsen Nepo 2021
Carlsen wins again. Image: chess24

With this victory, Carlsen has one win as Challenger and four title defenses as Champion; in five World Championship matches he has lost a total of just two games out of 56 played!

In tiebreaks? Carlsen has five wins and two draws in seven games!

Matches are shorter now than in the past, but I don’t think anyone in history can claim better.

I value longevity, so I’ve long said Garry Kasparov is the Greatest of All-Time, for now … but Magnus Carlsen has a an argument that gets stronger every year.

What happened to Ian?

Nepomniachtchi was not widely considered the strongest Challenger this time around, but perhaps he was less afraid of Carlsen than others. How would this dynamic affect the match? While unclear, I predicted a three-point Carlsen victory.

During the first five games, “Nepo” probably played as well as Magnus did.

I really think losing the a3-pawn in Game 6 was his undoing. Even if the engines say the resulting position should be drawn, it was always going to be difficult against a top player, let alone a notorious grinder like Carlsen.

A game behind, Nepomniachtchi had to take on more risk.

A poor Game 8 simply ended the match. There was no coming back down two games against Carlsen with six left. Frankly, I think Magnus would be unlikely to level the match if Ian had a two-game lead.

Nepomniachtchi knew this very well, and I think he simply couldn’t play at his best any longer: doing so would just delay the inevitable. So, I agree with the consensus view that he just collapsed.

Who’s Next?

Alireza Firouzja
The next Challenger? Image: Twitter (@AlirezaFirouzja)

Many chess fans expect Alireza Firouzja to be the next Challenger. I think there’s a decent chance of that happening.

The other favorites are Caruana and Ding Liren.

Still, Candidates Tournaments are arguably as grueling as a World Championship Match; but those eight players don’t have to face Carlsen to become Challenger!

I Got a TD Promotion …

Flashback

In a May 2020 post, I briefly talked about USCF tournament direction: how to become a tournament director, what a neophyte could expect in their first events, and the different levels of TD.

To review, the levels are, in ascending order:

    • Club Tournament Director
    • Local Tournament Director
    • Senior Tournament Director (SrTD)
    • Associate National Tournament Director (ANTD)
    • National Tournament Director (NTD)

The tiers are appropriately named, in my view: “Club” and “National” describe exactly the level of events these TDs are qualified to lead!

Club TD does not require an exam; to promote to the higher levels, you need tournament “experience credits” that qualify you to take an exam, each requiring a passing score of at least 80%.

Early Career

In February 2002, as an 18-year-old, I began my directing career as an assistant at The Right Move scholastic tournaments in New York City. I wasn’t officially a TD at the time, and my biggest responsibilities were moving the tables before and after the event, setting up and packing up sets, crowd control, and going out to get the staff lunch. A well-earned $50.

That summer I became a Club TD; in June 2003 I became Assistant Manager at the Marshall Chess Club and began directing constantly. Sometime later that year I took and passed the test for Local TD.

By 2005 I had enough experience credits to test for Senior TD, and passed my exam to earn that rank in April 2005.

One (or Two) Tournaments Short

I continued directing scholastic and adult tournaments heavily through mid-2010 before taking a salaried job that allowed me to cut back.

By 2009 I had fulfilled all the requirements to test for ANTD except for a a Category R tournament – a round robin event with 6 players with an average rating of 1400 (this was lowered at some point from 8 players with an average rating of 1800).

Not only that, I fulfilled all the requirements for NTD as well, except for the Category R tournament and a Category N tournament – an event that awards a National title (with some further stipulations).

I could have organized a round robin … or been more proactive about getting on the staff of National events. I guess I have a habit of leaving unfinished business

So I remained a Senior TD. One told by several NTDs that he had the chops to be an NTD himself.

FIDE to the rescue

I hoped that by becoming a FIDE Arbiter I would have opportunities to run my own round robins and clear the Category R requirement for ANTD.

It happened even before my title became official in September 2021!

Alex Ostrovskiy contacted me in August about running a norm event around Veterans Day – this became the recently concluded New York Invitational.

Almost immediately after all the tournament paperwork was submitted, I requested the ANTD exam from the TD certification group (there’s a quite detailed form where you list your experience credits). Chris Bird sent me a form of the test (is there anything he doesn’t do at USCF!?).

It was a doozy.

The Test

USCF 7th edition rulebook
You’ll need this for your next TD exam!

I read through the test and let it marinate in my brain for about a week before tackling it. Besides, I wanted to mentally prepare for my upcoming stint at the National Chess Congress following Thanksgiving.

I was on staff with NTDs David Hater (Chief), Bob Messenger, Boyd Reed, and Harold Stenzel but I didn’t tell any of them what I had just undertaken or ask them any questions. Additionally, I teach for NTD Sophia Rohde, but didn’t tell her I was doing the test until I already sent it in!

It was my mission, and my mission alone.

When I got home from Philadelphia, I started. How do you eat an elephant?

Obviously, I won’t discuss test questions here. But I will say that it’s a mix of the practical and the technical, and the bulk of the test relates to how you would resolve realistic disputes that could arise during an event.

I spent many, many hours on the test over the course of a week; when I finished writing my answers the length was more than nine pages!

Challenging as it was, I found the exam itself to be well-written.

However, I find USCF rules to be much more ambiguous than the FIDE Laws of Chess which left me quite unsure of some of my answers. You have two months to submit the test, but at some point I decided there wasn’t too much more I could do, and I sent it in December 6.

Chris confirmed receipt of my exam and informed me that he had sent it to a grader. Gulp!

The Local and Senior tests are multiple choice; ANTD or NTD promotion requires essay exams that are sent to an NTD grader – you aren’t told who, and I believe the grader doesn’t know the identity of the applicant.

If you score 80% you pass; if you score 70-79% you can request a re-grade by two other NTDs at which point I think you pass if two of the three graders gives you 80%.

I scored exactly 80% and passed. Even after receiving feedback about the answers I lost points on, I must admit I still have lots of questions. I wish I could talk to my grader to clear up my misunderstandings. Oh well …

Next Step

Do a National Tournament and go for NTD. When? I don’t know. But it won’t take me 16 years, that’s for sure!

The 2021 FIDE Grand Swiss: Final Thoughts

A Grand Success

The FIDE Grand Swiss  and Women’s Grand Swiss (organized in partnership with chess.com) concluded this past weekend in Riga, Latvia. The COVID protocols were apparently effective, as we did not hear of any incidents during the event.

Grand Swiss

Alireza Firouzja
Firouzja won the FIDE Grand Swiss convincingly. Photo: FIDE

Alireza Firouzja (France) won clear first with 8 points out of 11. Fabiano Caruana (USA) and Grigoriy Oparin (Russia) finished in a tie for 2nd place with 7.5 points.

Caruana, the 2018 World Championship Challenger, had the better mathematical tiebreaks, even defeating Firouzja in their individual encounter. As a result, “Fabi” joined “Firo” in the next FIDE Candidates Tournament.

A Note on Tiebreaks
The primary tiebreak used was “Buchholz Cut-1.” Buchholz compares the total scores of tied players’ opposition, the idea being that a player who faced opponents that scored more points had a tougher road to the same final score. The “Cut-1” removes the score of the lowest-scoring opponent, to reduce the impact of an unlucky pairing. Each player therefore had the scores of 10 of their 11 opponents compared to judge who had the best tiebreaks.

Oparin, Yu Yangyi (China), Vincent Keymer (Germany), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Alexandr Predke (Russia), and Alexei Shirov (Spain) all got seats into the upcoming FIDE Grand Prix Series. This tournament series will have a total of 24 players; and the top two finishers at the end will qualify for the next FIDE Candidates Tournament.

Overall, it seems clear that Firouzja is the leading “young gun” who many fans are already picking to challenge Carlsen in the next World Championship Cycle. I can’t disagree; during this event he was knocking on the door of World #3 (live rating), nearly overtaking Caruana at one point.

Women’s Grand Swiss

Similar to the Open event, one player was in command for most of the Women’s event, but even more so.

Lei Tingjie
Lei scored 7 wins and 4 draws. Photo: FIDE

Lei Tingjie (China) won with 9 points out of 11, earning the only direct slot into the next Women’s Candidates Tournament. Her pre-tournament rating of 2505 shot up to 2536 afterwards!

I will note that Lei is only 24 years old, younger than her countrywomen Ju Wenjun (30) and Hou Yifan (27), the current and previous Women’s World Champions. She’s just a year older than Aleksandra Goryachkina (Russia), the previous Challenger, who played in the Open event.

The Women’s World Championship cycle should be fascinating! There are several contenders of similar strength vying for the crown, but none seem invincible (unless Hou decides to return).

Finishers 2-4 in the Women’s Grand Swiss earned a spot into the upcoming Women’s Grand Prix Series. They are Elisabeth Pähtz (Germany), Zhu Jiner (China), and Mariya Muzychuk (Ukraine).

Pähtz and Jiner each scored 7.5 points out of 11, and earned GM norms. The 36-year-old from Erfurt, Germany completed her title after a long and distinguished career, and becomes the 40th female to earn the “open” GM title. Zhu is the top Junior Girl in the World.

Muzychuk had the best tiebreaks among the 7 pointers, beating out Harika Dronavalli (India), Lela Javakhishvili (Georgia; she scored a 9-game GM norm), and Olga Badelka (Russia).

Bibisara Assaubayeva (Kazakhstan) also earned a 10-game GM norm.

A Note on Grandmaster (GM) Norms
A norm is a performance level (2600 for GM), in an event that meets other conditions relating to the makeup of a player’s opposition. Norms need to be scored in events totalling 27 or more games. With few exceptions, a player needs to play at least 9 games in an event to earn a GM norm, but the maximum number of games counted for a norm is 13. This is why players usually need three GM norms (plus a 2500 rating) to earn the Grandmaster title. In events longer than 9 rounds a player can disregard any games won, or not count any games played after a norm has been scored. In Assaubayeva’s case, for example, she had a GM norm after Round 10, but lost in the final round. Her performance rating dropped below 2600 after Round 11, so she doesn’t get an 11-game norm but keeps her 10-game norm. There’s little practical difference between a 9-, 10-, or 11-game norm since a player still needs three in any case.

What’s Next?

The FIDE World Championship Match starts November 24 in Dubai, UAE.

2022 should be a busy year: we should see the Grand Prix Series and Candidates Tournaments (open and women), as well as the 2022 Moscow Olympiad.

Stay tuned!

The 2021 FIDE Grand Swiss: Must the Show Go On?

Not such a tough decision

The FIDE Grand Swiss (organized in partnership with chess.com) was originally scheduled to be held on the Isle of Man, as the 2019 edition (won by the now-retired Wang Hao) was. This year was also scheduled to be the first edition of the Women’s Grand Swiss.

These tournaments are part of the Open and Women’s World Championship cycles. Namely, they help put the “World” in World Championship as entry is not only restricted to the 2700+ crowd.

However … COVID!

The tournaments could not be realistically be held in IoM as originally planned, but organizers in Riga, Lativa stepped up to rescue the events. Unfortunately, Latvia has been facing an uptick in cases and imposed a lockdown.

FIDE was able to get an exemption from the Latvian government, and the tournament will proceed as scheduled. The opening ceremony was held today, October 26, and the event will run through November 8.

Of course, like everything in the chess world, this sparked controversy. A few prominent players including Hikaru Nakamura and Vidit Gujrathi have withdrawn from the event.

In my view FIDE made absolutely the correct decision to go on with the Grand Swiss. I was skeptical about their decision to hold the World Cup and Women’s World Cup in Sochi this past summer, but they went quite well all things considered.

At this point it’s a case of “in for a penny, in for a pound.” Don’t disrupt the World Championship cycles any more if possible. The top finishers in Riga get slots into the Candidates Tournament or Grand Prix series.

It’s popular for people in the chess world to use FIDE as a punching bag and blame them for everything short of world hunger. True, they are far from perfect … but in my view things have definitely improved for the better in the past few years.

In times like these, it’s appropriate to cut them some slack.

2021 FIDE World Cup and Women’s World Cup

The biannual FIDE World Cup ended last week in Sochi, Russia. For the first time, there was a concurrent Women’s World Cup as well, which ended a couple of days before that.

 

How Does It Work?

FIDE World CupImagine an elimination bracket of 256 players, sorted strictly by rating from highest to lowest.

They are paired 1 vs. 256, 2 vs. 255, 3 vs. 254, etc. Each pairing plays a two-game match, one contest each on consecutive days, and the loser is eliminated. The third day is a rest day for players who won their matches 2-0 or 1½-½, or tiebreaks (rapid, and if necessary blitz or armageddon) for pairings that ended 1-1.

After the first round, 128 players are left, then 64, 32, 16, 8, 4, and 2 in the final.

The Open World Cup had 206 players instead of 256, where the top 50 players by rating didn’t have an opponent, and got a bye into Round 2.

Similarly, the Women’s World Cup had 103 players: a bracket of 128 players where the top 25 by rating got a free pass into Round 2.

In case you’re wondering, males and females can qualify for and play in the World Cup, while only female players can participate in the Women’s World Cup. This is analogous to other major events that have an Open and Women’s section; e.g.: the Chess Olympiad, the World Championship cycle, and most if not all National Championships.

 

World Cup in The Pandemic Age

A few players needed to withdraw during the event because of a positive COVID test, and others did so out of caution, including Levon Aronian (Armenia).

As I posted in March 2020, FIDE’s decision to proceed with the Candidates Tournament was risky but in my opinion defensible. Once again, FIDE took serious chances in holding the World Cups, with hundreds of players and officials from around the world converging in one place.

The verdict? In the grand scheme of things, FIDE came out smelling like a rose!

 

Winners of the FWC and FWWC

Jan-Krzysztof Duda
Jan-Krzysztof Duda and the World Cup trophy. Not shown: his 110,000 euro prize! Photo: FIDE

Jan-Krzysztof Duda (Poland) won the Open event, defeating Sergey Karjakin (Russia) in the final. Both qualified for the 2022 Candidates Tournament.

JKD, now just outside the Top 10, knocked out World Champion Magnus Carlsen (Norway) in the semi-final, while Karjakin eliminated Vladimir Fedoseev (Russia) in this round as well.

Carlsen beat Fedoseev in the third-place match, held concurrently with the final.

 

Having recently become the first female to ever qualify for a Russian Superfinal, I didn’t think anyone would stop Aleksandra Goryachkina (Russia), top seed in the Women’s World Cup. Honestly, I had more confidence in her than I did Carlsen in the Open event!

Alexandra Kosteniuk
Alexandra Kosteniuk has reached yet another peak in a long, successful career. Photo: FIDE

Indeed, Goryachkina mowed down the field … until the final, where she was vanquished by former Women’s World Champion Alexandra Kosteniuk (Russia)!

The “Chess Queen” played out of her mind. After a first-round bye as the 14th seed, Kosteniuk won ALL of her matches in regulation, not needing any tiebreaks, and collected 43 Elo points!

Tan Zhongyi (China) won the third-place match over Anna Muzychuk (Ukraine). Since Goryachkina is already qualified for the next Women’s Candidates Tournament by virtue of playing the last Women’s World Championship Match, I believe Tan joins Kosteniuk in the next Women’s Candidates.

 

Why I Love the World Cup

So much drama! Two-game mini-matches guarantee excitement and frayed nerves.

Even if the players decide to make two short draws in regulation, the presence of tiebreaks ultimately don’t give them an easy way out.

We typically see the same players doing well in knockouts over the years (remember, they go back to 1997 if we include the FIDE World Champioships held in a similar format). In years past, Mickey Adams, Vishy Anand, Ruslan Ponomariov, Gata Kamsky, and Levon Aronian always seemed to reach the final stages of these events.

I don’t believe that’s a coincidence — great nerves and ability to handle pressure really show in the World Cup. Fun fact: from 2001-02 through 2011, Ponomariov either won the Knockout (2001-02), or lost to the eventual winner!

In recent times, Karjakin has taken on the mantle of “KO King.” He staged an epic comeback in the final against Peter Svidler in the 2015 edition.

On the Women’s side, this is Kosteniuk’s second victory (2008) and third finals appearance (she lost to Zhu Chen way back in 2001!). Those events were Women’s World Championships.

What do you think of the World Cup? Leave a comment!

My Arbiter Journey: End of the Beginning

Prospective arbiters — read this! For everyone else, it may not be that exciting…

Rekindled Ambition

As recently as two years ago, I did not think I would pursue becoming a FIDE Arbiter or International Arbiter.

I did pass a FIDE Arbiter seminar in 2010, and worked a few tournaments as a Deputy Arbiter in 2009-10. I somehow didn’t get the FA title, however, and over the years didn’t decide to pursue becoming an arbiter.

When I was approached about being Deputy Arbiter for a Grandmaster Norm round robin tournament to be held in August 2019 at the Chess Max Academy in Manhattan (i.e., close to home) my interest in becoming an arbiter returned.

 

A Small Part of History

IA Grant Oen, responsible for FIDE Events in the USA at the time, informed me that I had to become a National Arbiter before I could officially work FIDE events. For this I needed to take and pass a National Arbiter exam with an 80% score. This exam is written and graded by the USCF, and only Senior TDs or above can take it (Associate National TD and National TD are the two higher ranks).

After working on the exam for about eight hours, I sent it back to Grant and I passed with a 93% score (112/120). Now I had to do another FIDE Arbiter seminar and get three tournament norms since my efforts from 2009-10 were long expired.

FA seminar norms are good for four years, and FA tournament norms expire in six years. Since the early 2000s, player norms (e.g. for IM or GM) never expire, and players sometimes achieve norms decades apart.

Abhimanyu Mishra and his dad Hemant with Max Dlugy. I encouraged them to pose for this photo, and I believe I took it with Hemant’s phone!

After a positive experience and earning a norm in the first GM norm event, I assisted in another in November 2019 where I got my second norm. I worked under IAs Eduard Duchovny (USA) and Diana Tsypina (Canada), respectively.

At the end of the second event, I got to meet FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich! Brandon Jacobson earned a GM norm, and Abhimanyu Mishra became the youngest International Master in history by achieving his final IM norm with an ultra-solid nine draws in nine games!

Mishra actually earned his first IM norm in the August event, and in July 2021 he became the youngest GM ever.

These events would actually qualify for International Arbiter (IA) norms, but one must have the FA title before earning IA norms, and you can’t reuse FA norms in an application for IA! C’est la vie.

 

Other Technicalities

We’ve seen that a successful FIDE Arbiter application needs a seminar and passing an exam (with at least 80%), and three tournament norms. But the three norms must include two different types of tournaments (the most common event types are Swiss-system, round robin, or team). A candidate can use only Swiss tournaments if one is a Swiss event with 100+ players, at least 30% of them FIDE rated, and at least seven rounds.

In addition, participants from at least two FIDE federations need to participate, unless the event is a National (adult!) Championship (open or women, individual or team). And I didn’t expect an invitation to assist in the U.S. Championship or U.S. Women’s Championship anytime soon!

Well, those are round-robins anyway. I had two round robin norms, so I needed to find a Swiss to assist in — the requirements for team events are even more strict, and very hard to achieve for US-based arbiters because we are probably the only major country that does not have a National Team Championship.

But first … pandemic!

The world shut down, including over-the-board chess tournaments. In May 2020 I participated in an online FIDE Arbiter seminar and passed the course successfully.

I now needed the Swiss, and I was pretty determined to get it done as soon as things began to reopen. I did not want to let it linger.

 

Not the World Open

A five-round Swiss would have been good enough to complete my FIDE Arbiter title, but with such events it can be unclear in advance if enough players will enter such that the requirements listed in the previous section are met…

Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown, the event site. Photo: visitphilly.com

When the school year ended in mid-June I contacted IA David Hater, who hires TDs for Continental Chess Association tournaments, and got on the staff of the 2021 Philadelphia International. It would be my first CCA event since 2010!

Held directly before the World Open at the same location, this event draws dozens of titled players — FMs and IMs pursuing norms, and GMs playing for prize money and guaranteed cash for participating (as they afford opportunities for others to earn norms by playing them).

I arrived in Philadelphia on Friday night, June 25. The tournament ran from Saturday, June 26 through Wednesday, June 30. Two rounds per day Saturday through Tuesday, and the final (9th) round on Wedesday.

Overall, I had a great experience!

There were no disputes throughout the entire nine rounds. The atmosphere was serious but cordial, and the toughest part of my job was setting clocks and making sure players didn’t leave without submitting their scoresheets (FIDE requires this)! The players were outstanding, too, when it came to respecting the mask-wearing requirement of the event.

FM Vincent Tsay earned his second IM norm, and in fact clinched it without even needing to score in the final round! He ended up drawing tournament winner GM Vladimir Belous anyway. Belous scored 7 points out of 9, along with GM Hans Niemann and IM Andrew Hong, but received a small bonus for having the best mathematical tiebreaks.

At the end, it was appropriate that my final FA norm certificate was issued by one of my long-time mentors, IA Steve Immitt, who was the Chief Arbiter of the event.

The current US Chess FIDE Events Manager, IA Chris Bird, helped ensure all my documents were in order, arranged for me to pay the 50 euro fee to USCF, and sent off my FIDE Arbiter application to Baira Marilova at the FIDE Elista office.

The application now appears on the FIDE titles page, to be hopefully approved at the next FIDE Council meeting, which I believe meets in early August.

After that: my pursuit of the International Arbiter title! Stay tuned!

The Levon Aronian Transfer: My Thoughts

Levon Aronian from ARM to STL!?

Levon Aronian
Levon Aronian. Photo: europechess.org

When I first saw the chess24 tweet with news that Levon Aronian will switch federations from Armenia to USA, I seriously thought it was an April Fool’s Day joke!

Then I realized it’s only February 26…

Holy Crap. Of all top players, I never expected to see Aronian transfer from Armenia. He is THE living treasure of a chess-obsessed nation.

Then I read his comments in the press release of the Saint Louis Chess Club, and understood his decision. A new governement apparently didn’t support his endeavors the way he felt they should. It reminds me of Sergey Karjakin’s transfer from Ukraine to Russia several years ago.

 

More Support is Good for Chess as a Whole

I’ve already seen comments online criticizing the USA and particularly Rex Sinquefield, but I’m all for top players receiving more support, no matter which country they play for.

Personally, I’m grateful for Mr. Sinquefield supporting chess the way he has over the past 10+ years. He is the single most important person in American chess since Bobby Fischer.

Aronian playing for the USA in Olympiads and World Team Championships will be…strange… but otherwise, not much will change.

Levon Aronian will always be seen as Armenian by fans worldwide. Let’s discuss the rest of Team USA:

  • Wesley So is still viewed as Filipino because he changed federations when he was already a 2700 player.
  • The case of Leinier Dominguez is very similar to that of Aronian.
  • Hikaru Nakamura developed as a chess player entirely in the States — and won the top section of my first rated tournament.
  • Fabiano Caruana took his early steps in chess in America. I would know, he played in countless Marshall Chess Club events I directed. The first time he played in one of my tournaments, he was already a FIDE Master. This was long before he went to Europe.
  • Ray Robson, Sam Shankland, and Jeffery Xiong developed in the United States.

Chess doesn’t have the money of other sports, and players should find opportunities wherever they can. Those complaining on the sidelines aren’t going to pay these players’ bills.

Good luck, Levon!

Which Chess Opening Move is Best? Part 3

In Part 1, we discussed 1.e4. Part 2 was all about 1.d4. Now it’s time to talk about the so-called Flank Openings.

Since I have discussed 1.c4 previously, I’ll focus on other moves, starting with…

 

1.Nf3 — Definitely NOT for keeping things simple

Former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik was the most successful exponent of 1.Nf3. Photo: ruchess.ru

Unless you are married to 1.e4 until death-do-you-part, opening with 1.Nf3 seems very appealing because of the flexibilty it allows in the closed openings. You can weave in and out of different systems based on your preferences or the opponent you are facing.

I’ve dabbled with 1.Nf3 since 1999 (A Strategic Opening Repertoire by John Donaldson). Conclusion: the move is more trouble than it’s worth.

Prepare an opening repertoire based on main lines, then play it. Start with 1.e4, 1.d4, or 1.c4. Your rating will thank you. Don’t get cute. More often than not, you’ll confuse yourself or you’ll wind up in lines your opponents know better than you do!

There is one more move to seriously consider that doesn’t get mentioned nearly as often:

 

1.g3 — A reasonable choice!

Obviously, this move commits White to a kingside fianchetto; otherwise, I think it could be a good choice for the right player. Black cannot be sure what exactly he’s facing, or not facing: 1.Nf3 takes away the King’s English (1.c4 e5), the Benko, Albin, and Budapest…but it also creates limitations against the Queen’s Gambit, Grunfeld, and King’s Indian, for example.

GM Samy Shoker has made a career of this move and wrote a book about it, with Emmanuel Neiman.

 

Now onto a bunch of moves I don’t recommend against your peers or better. My commentary may be harsh or dismissive, but that’s exactly how strong opponents will treat these moves.

Yes, they are playable. No, you should not be struggling for equality with the White pieces! It’s not the right way to play chess (though anything is fine occasionally). Sorry, not sorry!

I wholeheartedly agree with Greg Shahade when it comes to building an opening repertoire.

Of course, all of this goes out the window if you are facing significantly weaker opposition, or find yourself in a blitz/rapid competition.

 

1.b3 — I thought Spassky refuted this in 1970?

I’m kidding…sort of. In case you don’t know, I’m referring to this:

Larsen-Spassky was played during the USSR vs. World match in Belgrade 1970. Photo: FIDE

50 years have passed since this game; even now strong players occasionallly use Larsen’s Opening. So why do I bring up this game?

Black’s play is easy and natural; White’s setup is shaky from the get-go. Why do this to yourself?

Once again, I’m not saying to never use it, but please don’t on a regular basis!

 

1.f4 — Are you sure?

Henry Edward Bird
Henry Bird (1830-1908). 1877 drawing by Sam Lloyd. Source: Wikipedia

Be honest, Bird’s Opening regulars: how many of you push the f-pawn because you don’t want to spend time and energy studying something else?

Experienced opponents will be on guard from the beginning, recognizing the latent attacking potential in your setup and prepare for it long in advance.

One can argue White is playing a Dutch with an extra tempo, so it can’t be that bad. Still, I would not want to use it all the time against players who know it’s coming.

1.Nc3 — Pointless

Most likely, this move will box you into worse versions of openings you’re desperately trying to avoid. Next…

 

1.b4 — At least it gains space and doesn’t weaken the kingside…

Alexey Sokolsky
Alexey Sokolsky (1908-1969) A giant of chess in Belarus. Photo: Wikipedia

I think the Orangutan (or Sokolsky’s Opening) is a great opening for creative types to employ against someone rated 400+ points below them, because it is not completely ridiculous, admittedly.

Fittingly, New York IM Yury Lapshun wrote a book about it, co-authored with late National Master Nick Conticello. RIP, NIck.

But I’ll echo what I’ve said many times already: White is taking on a handicap by regularly using this against peers.

 

Others?

1.g4 is, to me, a riskier version of stuff like 1.b4. Instead of this, you’re better off pushing the a- or h-pawns, if you feel you must.

If you want to play with chemicals, the Sodium Attack (1.Na3) and Ammonia Attack (1.Nh3) at least develop a piece.

Again, no argument from me if you want to use this stuff against much lower-rated players, or in non-classical settings. Otherwise, avoid!

No Playoffs for Round Robins!

Why do we need them?

I’m not necessarily against mathematical tiebreaks for Swiss-System tournaments, especially scholastic events with trophies.

For decades and longer, a high-level round robin would be held over multiple weeks, and at the end one or more players would emerge with the highest score. End of event.

Only when indivisible prizes were at stake — such as qualification to a future event — some kind of classical playoff would be held, either immediately or at some point in the future.

Otherwise, an event could have two, three, or more co-winners. No big deal.

The London 2013 Candidates Tournament would have benefitted from a playoff, but instead “most wins” was used to decide a Challenger for the World Championship! Completely asinine.

 

Endangered Traditions

Of course, I bring all this up in light of the recent controversy surrounding the conclusion of Tata Steel Chess 2021, the 83rd annual Wijk aan Zee tournament.

I won’t wade into the events surrounding Firouzja, Wojtaszek, and the arbiter. But I will say this: the organizers should have reconsidered the importance of having a playoff when they saw the possibility of disturbing a last-round classical game!

When the playoff did happen, between Anish Giri and Jorden van Foreest, it was not decided by brilliant play. To say the least.

An armageddon game decided a prestigious event after 13 rounds of classical chess where the two Dutchmen finished ahead of Carlsen, Caruana, MVL, and other rising stars. Seriously…why??

The few traditional tournaments we have left like Wijk aan Zee should not feel pressured to give into the rapid/blitz chess mob.

I would love to hear the thoughts of others in the chess community on this issue.