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 Jose 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.

Chess Tactics Software: Things to Remember

Chess tactics software has experienced a boom in the past 10-15 years, and many good products have hit the market in that time. First appearing on CD and DVD, this material can now be purchased via download. There are many online tactics trainers to choose from as well.

Which chess tactics software should I choose?

It doesn’t really matter which product you choose; pick one you like that presents a challenge.

Convekta chess tactics software
Convekta chess tactics software

A popular recommendation is the free  Chess Tempo, but I have never liked the look or functionality. Another possibility is chess.com, which I currently use and think is worthwhile, but far from perfect, and you need to pay to get access to more than about 10 puzzles per day.

I raised my rating from 1850 to 2000 over 10 months in 2008. The two main things I did were work seriously on my openings, and solve 40-100 tactics puzzles each day using Convekta’s Chess Combinations Encyclopedia and CT-Art 3.0. I absolutely adore these two tactics suites…maybe I should go through them again?

I should note that Chess Tactics for Beginners is the same material contained in Chess School 1a and Chess School 1b. Still, I recommend the physical books, especially for kids!

Remember: You are training to find tactics in real games!

Some players solve tactics purely for enjoyment; others want to improve their results in blitz (5-minute or less) or bullet (1-minute) games. Still, I assume most players who spend a lot of time solving tactics want to see results in their over-the-board tournament games.

At minimum, you have 30 minutes of thinking time for each game. There’s no need to bash out an answer for a tactics problem, or worse, a guess. Don’t worry about training for time scrambles; focus your training on the meat of the game.

I admit it’s tempting to play the first answer that catches your eye; I’ve done it more than I would care to admit! This is why I still recommend students use physical books to solve puzzles, even in this day and age — it’s not just nostalgia.

Instead, take your time and calculate! I can’t stress this enough. Some tactics programs give you more or less points depending on how quickly you solve the puzzle. Ignore this! Force yourself to see future moves, not just guess them or hope your moves work.

Hard work pays off

If you normally struggle with calculation, prepare to miss a lot of moves — for you and your “opponent!” If you keep at it, I promise you will improve.

Also, don’t focus on doing as many tactics as you can; do as many as you can while giving 100%.

You will quickly notice your play in longer games (say 15-minute) become much stronger. This is another reason, by the way, why you should give up blitz if you really want to improve your tournament results!

Four-Move Checkmate: How to Stop It

Four-Move Checkmate is an Initiation

Four-Move CheckmateWhen chess players find out someone is new to the game, they try to beat them as fast as possible. Scholar’s Mate (the “four-move checkmate”) is a big part of that.

Be that as it may, if someone tells you they’re so gifted they’ve never lost a chess game within ten moves, don’t believe them.

The target of four-move checkmate attempts is the f7-square:

This is the only square in the starting position that is protected by only the king. One defender…if white can hit f7 with two attackers, it might be checkmate. Many new players don’t know how to deal with this assault.

Please note: Since white moves first, tricks against f2 are much easier to prevent. The “extra” move so early in the game is crucial to avoiding immediate danger.

 

How Scholar’s Mate Works

The two attacking pieces white can quickly bring out to attack f7 are the queen and light-squared bishop, like this:

The white queen will capture on f7, and the white bishop on c4 will protect her from recapture by the black king. Checkmate!

It could happen something like this:

Or this:

Look at the second mini-game. Black moved the knight to f6 to deal with the queen, but it was too late. The key to stopping white’s silliness is to get the knight to f6 before the white queen reaches h5.

You can do this right away if white brings out the bishop first:

Now, if white plays 3.Qh5, the Nf6 can capture her majesty.

 

What if the Queen goes first?

A common way to cause confusion is to lead with the queen first:

The important thing to remember here: White is not yet threatening mate on f7!

The white queen is one attacker, matched by the black king, one defender. Everything is still okay there.

The real threat is to the e5-pawn:

Many players just hope to scare you so they can steal a center pawn! Surprisingly, I recall a kid with a USCF rating of over 1200 losing his e5-pawn at Nationals this way!

White hopes to win a rook, too, like this:

A classmate in middle school loved to spring this one!

 

No More Four-Move Checkmate! A Foolproof Recipe

There are a few ways to stop these ideas, but I’ll give you the simplest one, which is just as good as others:

Now black covers the e5-pawn AND the f7-square!

Even if white brings out the bishop as a second attacker against f7, black already has two defenders, king and queen. White’s stunts go nowhere, and next move the queen gets chased away:

Black is doing just fine. Just keep bringing out the pieces and castle.

By the way, white should not insist on capturing the f7-pawn:

Black has won a bishop for only a pawn, and is in no danger. In fact, the second player will win from here if both sides play their best moves.

Once you get comfortable with the material here, smile if someone tries the four-move checkmate against you!

Chess Lessons, Part 1: Should I Hire a Teacher?

Chess lessons. I offer them, as do many others.

So let’s discuss some issues, shall we? Starting with: should you hire a teacher in the first place?

The comments below apply to anyone, but I’m focusing on scholastic players because they most commonly take chess lessons.

Expectations for chess lessons

Why are you thinking of hiring a coach in the first place?

“I want my child to improve in chess” is an obvious but incomplete answer. Identify what you really want; it will influence who you hire and the work ahead.

If your child wants to aim for a National Championship, let potential coaches know this. You can then have an honest conversation about what is required of coach and student. Conservative estimate: 3-4 hours of chess study every day, three tournaments a month, and at least 2 hours of private lessons per week. To even have a chance.

Staircase of chess improvement
What do you REALLY want out of chess lessons?

Some coaches might be reluctant to take on such an ambitious student, because it would be very time- and energy-consuming. You want to know this before hiring them!

On the other end of the spectrum, your child might simply enjoy chess and not even want to play tournaments regularly, or at all. Again, let the coach know this; some don’t like working with students they don’t consider “serious.” Miscommunication can lead to a miserable experience for everyone.

Personally, I enjoy working with “less serious” students — we can bond over chess without obsessing over tournament results or ratings. They improve while enjoying a well-rounded life! And, chess lessons are more interesting and fun when we don’t need to “optimize” for results.

Chess lessons outside the box

There’s no rule that says lessons are “one hour a week, every week.” Coaching doesn’t even have to be a long-term arrangement.

I’ve worked with students who brought me in to spar with them for a few weeks before big tournaments, playing blitz and/or longer games. We can also agree on the openings we’ll play so that the student can sharpen their repertoire. I loved it!

Short “modules” are a good option, too. If a student is struggling in endgames, for example, I can turn this common weakness into a big strength over the course of a few months. This approach is also great when changing openings.

Of course, individual lessons can also be dedicated to special topics — just ask!

The right FIT is the most important factor in chess coaching

Ask for what you need. It’s your child, and your money.

A coach has the right to decline a particular student or the conditions you want, for whatever reasons. If this happens, don’t be upset; it wouldn’t have worked out anyway. Hire someone else. Some parents are determined to hire or keep a particular coach, and it ends up being a train wreck.

I know examples where the student doesn’t really like their coach, or the coach doesn’t like the student, or the coach and the parents can’t get along! I mean…what’s the point?

When I start with a new student, I have a conversation with the parent(s) and the child, to make sure we’re on the same page. A coaching arrangement could be a bad fit even if neither coach nor family have done anything “wrong.” Mismatched expectations are the usual cuprit.

To be continued…

Chess Tactics: Mikenas — Bronstein, 1965

Impressive

The back-rank checkmate tactic that occurred in this game is my favorite, and I’ve shown it to students for years. It’s the greatest back rank tactic I’ve ever seen, and one of the greatest tactics of any kind.

Black to play. 24…?

What shocking move did David Bronstein, World Championship Challenger in 1951, find?

David Bronstein pulled off a stunning back rank checkmate tactic over Vladas Mikenas in 1965.
David Bronstein at the board, locked in battle

Analysis

White’s king is stuck in the corner on h1, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Black is doubled on the e-file, but white can cover that. If 1…Qe1+, white cannot play 2.Rxe1??

Because of 2…Rxe1+ 3.Qf1 Rxf1#.

Instead of 2.Rxe1?? white has 2.Qf1!, and black has nothing.

So what should black do instead? The move will appear if he remembers how to choose a move and looks for checks, captures, and threats!

Clicking on the moves below will pop up diagrams to follow the analysis.

After 24…Rxa3!! Mikenas resigned at once, because he will either get checkmated or lose a ton of material. Sometimes you have to tip your cap to the opponent for a job well done!

Do agree with me that this is the greatest back rank checkmate tactic ever? Share your thoughts!

Mainline Chess Openings…Should I Play Them?

What are Mainline Openings?

“Mainline chess openings require lots of study time, which I could use to work on other parts of chess. I’ll choose sidelines instead.”

Definitely a mainline chess opening: the Botvinnik Semi-Slav.
The craziest opening in all of chess? Starting position of the Botvinnik Variation of the Semi-Slav in ChessBase.

It’s a common argument, but a misconception. There’s a difference betwen mainline and cutting-edge. Mainlines are commonly played by grandmasters but can be strategic in nature and not rely on “crazy” lines.  Cutting-edge theory on the other hand can be very sharp and is often based on engine preparation by Stockfish and others.

Mainline Example

True, there’s rarely one mainline per opening. Take the popular Najdorf Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6):

The moves 6.Be3 (6.f3 is similar), 6.Bg5, 6.Be2, and 6.Bc4 are definitely mainlines, all of which have different branches. One could argue that 6.h3 and 6.g3 are nearly mainlines as well. Then of course moves like 6.f4, 6.Nb3 and even 6.h4 are not to be ignored. Surely only professionals should wade into these waters?

I’m far from a professional, and I used to play the Najdorf with success. Even this, one of the most infamous mainline chess openings, is very concept-based. That’s because there are only two main structures for black. The d6-e6 center:

And the d6-e5 center:

In these, black’s piece placements don’t change that much. Not only that, a Najdorf player can completely avoid the second structure based on the variations they choose.

At first, you’ll have to memorize variations and play through a bunch of games to understand what’s going on. Yes, more than you would if playing a sideline. But after a little while, there are few surprises. Even enemy “preparation” can’t neutralize your understanding; at best it can give you specific tactical questions to answer.

Choose WIsely

Which brings me to my next point. If you play something wild in the Najdorf like the Poisoned Pawn Variation (6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 and now 7…Qb6)

Expect fireworks and nasty home-cooked surprises!

But as far as I know, the old line beginning with 7…Nbd7 8.Qf3 Qc7 9.0-0-0 b5 is still playable

In my opinion this is the Najdorf line where you need to remember the most specifics, and it’s not so bad. Of course, there’s no requirement to play the Najdorf Variation, or any Sicilian, but I wanted to show an extreme example.

Remember: there’s a difference between mainline and cutting-edge. Just avoid the latter if you don’t have the necessary time, memory, or study habits!

Okay, what’s the alternative?

Players who aim for sidelines in most or all of their games understand that they can expect less out of the opening. On the other hand, their opening repertoires are lower-maintenance.

But are they making their lives more difficult in the middlegame? I say yes.

Let’s take one of the most popular sidelines today, the London System, which traditionally begins 1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bf4:

White usually follows up with, in some order, c3, e3, Nbd2, Bd3, and 0-0.

It’s a trap!

White can almost close his or her eyes and play these moves, but what can black do? Actually, a lot. For example:

  • The light-squared bishop can go to f5 or g4 on the kingside, or to b7 or a6 on the queenside.
  • The dark-squared bishop can go to d6, e7, or g7.
  • The Nb8 can go to c6 or d7.
  • The Nf6 can stay where it is, go to h5 to attack white’s Bf4, jump to e4, or even d7 if black aims for an …e5-advance.
  • The queen can go to a5, b6, c7 if safe, d6 after a bishop trade there, or e7. Did I forget any?
  • The b-pawn can stay on b7 or go to b6 for …Bb7 or …Ba6.
  • The c-pawn can go to c6 or c5.
  • The e-pawn can stay on e7, go to e6, and maybe even go to e5.
  • The g-pawn can stay on g7 or go to g6 for a fianchetto.
  • And plenty of these options can be combined!

This seems like a lot more study to me! If you don’t want to study at home, you’ll have to study at the board! My advice: play mainline chess openings!

Basic Chess Endings (2003 revised edition)

A Thick Endgame Textbook You Won’t Mind Studying

Basic Chess Endings
Basic Chess Endings. 2003 revised edition.

After starting his pro career in 1932, Reuben Fine (1914-1993) had a claim to being the best player in the world during the late 1930s. He won a string of elite tournaments including Hastings 1935/36, Zandvoort 1936, Amsterdam 1936 (tied with World Champion Max Euwe), Margate 1937 (tied with Paul Keres), and AVRO 1938 (also tied with Keres). AVRO is considered one of the strongest tournaments ever held. World Champion Magnus Carlsen also rates Fine very highly.

Fine wrote Basic Chess Endings in 1941, and it covered endings of just about every type. BCE was a monumental work at a time when endgame books were scarce, especially one authored by a player of Fine’s caliber.

Unfortunately, such an extensive book published in the pre-computer era had errors and was notoriously tough to slog through. It was also written in Descriptive Notation (P—K4, Kt—KB3, etc.), which put many readers off.

So in 2003, Random House published a new edition revised by Pal Benko (1928-2019), former world championship candidate and renowned endgame expert. It also includes a forward by another renowned endgame authority, Yuri Averbakh. This version of BCE was written in algebraic notation (e4, Nf3, etc.) and is much easier to read.

What I like about Basic Chess Endings

The explanations are very well done; but many contemporary books could say the same.

What sets BCE apart is the sheer number of instructive examples: 1,131 in all. Not all of them have diagrams; often, just the positions of the white and black pieces are listed and the line of play given. But these are supplemental examples, and never the main teaching positions.

Too many endgame books skimp on the number of examples, especially positions with several pawns for each side.  Another favorite endgame book of mine is A Guide to Chess Endings by Euwe and David Hooper, which contains only 331 examples. That one is a pocket guide, but still.

What I don’t like about Basic Chess Endings

My only complaint is that a hardcover edition isn’t available. A softcover reference book 586 pages long? I try to be very careful with my copy. Economics were surely a factor; most readers wouldn’t shell out $40+ for a hardcover edition, but couldn’t they have done a limited run?

Study suggestion

I recommend picking a section and working through all of the examples. Not all of “Knight endings” in one sitting, but a section, e.g. “One Knight and Pawns vs. One Knight and Pawns — Material Advantage.” Pick a section and work through the examples — you’ll learn exactly how you should play similar positions.

DGT North American: Best Value Chess Clock

The DGT North American clock is as good as any chess timer on the market.

And it comes at a great price — around $40!

The DGT North American chess clock
The DGT North American chess clock

Why DGT North American?

The North American is different from other DGT clocks because it has settings for time delay, common in US Chess Federation (USCF) tournaments, but not elsewhere. Digital Game Technologies actually worked with the USCF to develop the clock.

I love the buttons on DGT clocks, and their displays are excellent. The DGT NA in particular is very easy to set and, in my experience, durable.

Verdict

I recommend the DGT NA over the iconic Chronos, even if the Chronos did not cost three times as much. It comes down to personal preference: I just find DGTs sleeker and less clunky.

If you’re using DGT boards and broadcasting games, or want to connect to the internet, you’ll need the DGT 3000. Otherwise, there’s no need.

At an international round robin I was Deputy Arbiter for, we used the DGT NA. The tournament was played under FIDE rules: Brandon Jacobson earned a GM norm and Abhimanyu Mishra became the youngest International Master in history.

The Magnus Carlsen Invitational. Let’s discuss online tournaments.

A Brave New Online Chess World

The Magnus Carlsen Invitational was just announced by the World Champion himself. The rapid and blitz tournament featuring eight of the world’s best players will begin April 18, online.

With sports shut down across the globe due to Covid-19 including chess, spectators can follow the Magnus Carlsen Invitational at home. Internet broadcasts have made physical audiences unnecessary for chess events. Pictures of empty audiences may give the impression that chess is unpopular, but that’s far from the truth.

The Magnus Carlsen Invitational won't be the first event without a physical audience.
Ju Wenjun defends her Women’s World Championship title…in front of an empty audience.

Rapid and blitz only, please

There should be limits to what we do with technology!

Organizers: please don’t try online classical tournaments. The risk of cheating is too high. Classical events are what fans remember for years to come; we quickly forget the winners of the world rapid championship.

It would be very difficult to ensure fair play when the games are played remotely. With no way to check for devices before or during games, there would always be suspicion. Arbiters sent to every player’s location would not erase all doubts.

The FIDE Ethics Commissions rightly punishes cheaters harshly, forever tarnishing them. Gaoiz Nigalidze and Igors Rausis were caught using chess computer programs in the bathroom, and lost their grandmaster titles as a result.

A successful Magnus Carlsen Invitational would be great for chess, but I hope organizers don’t take things too far.