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!

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!

200 Modern Chess Traps in the Fianchetto Openings

A Book on Chess Traps that is Cheap, Abundant, and Still Useful

Howson’s book was issued in hardcover with dust jacket!

200 Modern Chess Traps in the Fianchetto Openings was written by J.B. Howson in 1970. As you might expect, the notation of choice is Descriptive.

The author divides his material into three parts: Queen’s SideKing’s Side, and Miscellaneous.

Looking through the chapters in each part, you realize that “Queen’s Side” refers to closed games: King’s Indian Defense, Grunfeld Defense, Modern and Old Benoni, Queen’s Indian Defense, Nimzo-Indian Defense, and English (1.P—QB4 and 2.N—QB3) and Reti Openings (1.N—KB3 and 2.P—QB4).

In the “King’s Side” section, you’ll find just two systems: Pirc Defense (Including Robatsch) — Robatsch is the traditional name of the Modern Defense — and Sicilian Defense. The Sicilian section mostly features various Dragons and Accelerated Dragons, but also a few Najdorfs and Classical Sozins.

“Miscellaneous” contains the Budapest, Bird (including From Gambit), Catalan, Center Counter (Scandinavian), Dutch, King’s Indian Attack, Alekhine Defense, Orangutan, Spassky’s Defense (!? — this refers to 1.N—KB3 N—KB3 2.P—KN3 P—QN4), Grob, Three Knights, and Chigorin Defense.

The author incudes complete games or game fragments that illustrate the trap in question. Each trap has one or two diagrams.

Order it Now. Here’s Why.

Obviously, this 50-year-old book doesn’t contain the latest hot theory! But I think most players would have greater opportunities to apply the lines here than what might be found in contemporary games.

No matter which openings featured in this book appear in your games — I’m betting several do regularly! — there are important pitfalls that aren’t obvious at all. You might be surprised to see the names of some of the victims!

Almost any player would find this book helpful. It can be had for under ten bucks on Amazon. I’m sure there are at least a handful of points to be harvested using the ideas in Howson’s book … well worth it, I say.

Chess Teacher vs. Chess Coach

Teaching Comes First

Teaching imparts knowledge and skills to the student that they are lacking.

Coaching helps the student use his/her knowledge and skills more effectively.

Over many years working with students in New York City, I primarily referred to myself as a chess teacher.

I have always believed that knowledge is power in chess … and most of my students needed to increase their knowledge in order to improve their results. It wasn’t only a matter of doing things better.

Knowledge must be shared in a way that is both memorable and useful. Don’t assume your student knows more than they actually do!

You Must Be a Teacher

A good teacher must be well-prepared and engage their students.

Nowadays most players, no matter their age, don’t read chess books. They especially don’t study middlegame and endgame textbooks like I and generations of players before me did. The names Euwe, Fine, Nimzowitsch, Pachman, Romanovsky, Shereshevsky, etc. mean little, if anything, to them.

Solving tactics (recommended) and trying to learn openings through YouTube (not recommended) has somehow become a substitute for taking out a board and pieces, or at least using ChessBase.

Of the thousands of students I taught over the years, only a handful were interested in reading books, watching DVDs, or using ChessBase. If they won’t do this, we have to fill in the gaps during classes or lessons. Otherwise, the student will have gaps in their chess understanding everywhere.

This is where chess teachers earn their money! I have never *expected* my students to do intensive work between lessons unless they expressed an interest in reaching a certain rating level or aimed to win a particular tournament.

If you want your students to improve, quickly … find their weaknesses and eliminate them through thoughtful lesson planning. This is where being well-versed in classic games really comes in handy. I can turn any student weakness into a strength in 3-8 lessons.

A Shortcut to Coaching Success

World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik believed the surest path towards improvement is in learning from your own games and opening analyses. I can’t disagree with him.

I offered the next best thing: to analyze my students’ games for them (with extensive text comments — not computer analysis!) and send them PDFs of my work for them to study between lessons … at no extra cost.

Few of my NYC students ever took me up on this … but the ones who did so consistently saw massive improvement, and fast. This was the biggest secret to my coaching success! Well, that and diligent lesson preparation in general.

It took me hours to analyze and comment on my students’ games … but I didn’t mind. I was immersed in chess and derived great satisfaction from their quick progress.

Conclusion

If most players are spending the lion’s share of their time on tactics, how do you separate yourself? Sure, you can do the same things your peers do, a little better … but ultimately, you need to create a competitive advantage — to borrow a term from economics.

Coaching, at least good coaching, will help you become more efficient and beat yourself less often. Not having critical knowledge will leave you trying to reinvent the wheel every game … that’s where good teaching comes to the rescue.

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.

How to Get Better at Chess: Chess Masters on Their Art

Wide-Ranging Opinions by Chess Pros

How to Get Better At Chess contains answers from Grandmasters and International Masters about their thoughts on chess improvement, motivation, study methods, etc.

I can’t remember how I discovered this book, but I’m glad I did. It was hard to put this book down, and I read it all in a few sittings.

Because the interviews were collected in the late 1970s and 1980s, this book doesn’t talk about analysis engines or databases at all … I find this refreshing! The respondents also don’t give too much advice on openings.

You’ll find answers given by players like Nick DeFirmian, Larry Evans, Bent Larsen, Vladimir Liberzon, Viktor Kortschnoj, Yasser Seirawan, and lots more.

The players often have conflicting opinions, but that shows there isn’t just one recipe to success as a chess player. I find it inspiring that different approaches can be highly successful. Find what works for you.

The authors also includes a selection of games.

If you’re a fan of “thought-provoking” chess literature, I consider this book a must-buy!

Scholastic Chess in 2020-2021

Scholastic chess education in the near-term

My elementary school, though I’m not sure they offer chess instruction. Photo: ThisIsTheBronx.info

We have been blindsided by a pandemic that has changed our lives. Schools have a tough road ahead — positive outlook notwithstanding.

Parents are concerned about sending their children back to school; teachers are nervous about returning as well. Not that I blame them.

Let’s imagine what effect all of this will have on chess over the next year or two.

I expect a lot of schools to seriously cut down or eliminate their chess programs for awhile, as they are not “core” subjects.

The elevation of chess to mainstream respectability has transformed this industry, especially the rise of chess in charter schools. I fear COVID-19 will cost us years of progress.

Scholastic tournaments?

Huge, in-person Swiss tournaments with hundreds of children and parents will likely be on hold for a long time to come. I do think tournaments will return quicker than anticipated, however — albeit in a different form. To understand why, we have to look at “tournament economics.”

8-section, 200-player tournaments are more expensive to run than smaller events. Organizers have to spend more money in staffing and especially prizes (trophies and medals). They may also need to pay for more space, depending on the agreement they have with the host school.

More prizes than ever are awarded in scholastic tournaments. Naturally, this has raised entry fees significantly over the years. In the next year or two while the virus keeps things uncertain, organizers can put a hard cap on entries and control expenses for prizes and staff accordingly.

I also expect more smaller events to emerge, especially quads.

An organizer can take a max of, say, 32 entries (8 sections of 4 players each). For this they might only need one tournament director to assist them. A group of quads is much easier to manage than a big Swiss, so a good TD could be persuaded to work for less than their “Swiss” rate.

It’s like comparing a stroll in the park to an uphill run!

Anyway, the organizer can charge an entry fee of \$30 or \$40 per player, and pay half of the fees collected in cash prizes to first and second place in each quad.

Alternatively, the organizer could charge \$30 per player and award trophies to all players. This would be more appealing to primary (K-3) students.

These are examples, but very easy to make a reality if an organizer has the necessary space.

Post COVID-19 realignment?

It will be interesting to see what the scholatic chess landscape will look like post-pandemic … especially in major markets like New York City.

I predict smaller programs and tournaments for a few years. I also expect less students to take chess lessons in the near future.

How many chess professionals will leave our industry under these conditions, and who in, say, 3-5 years time, will step in to fill the void?

Is Chess for Everyone?

Maybe it’s obvious, but I thought I would reiterate that the game of chess is not for everyone.

My sister’s birthday is this coming Sunday, which reminds me that in all my years of playing chess and being a chess professional I could never get my mother or sister interested in the game. My sister knows how to move some of the pieces, but I doubt my mom could identify all of them!

On the other hand, my dad is a beginner, but has real interest in the game, sometimes calling or texting me random chess questions! He is the one who taught me how to play one fateful night almost 30 years ago…

I love them dearly all the same. I think it’s better that we’re not all into chess.

My experience with my family has informed my philosophy in spreading the game to others. I like chess, but there’s more to life than a board game.

Whenever I taught chess in schools as part of a curriculum (i.e., students had to learn chess and couldn’t get out of it), I tempered my expectations. Not everyone wanted to learn, and I wasn’t going to force them to like me or “my” game.

I always say, chess is one of the worst possible activities to be forced to participate in if a person doesn’t like it! Squinting at a board of full of plastic pieces in a nearly silent room? Can I blame a kid for preferring sports, art, or music?

I didn’t try to “convert” anyone. I just asked that students gave a decent effort and didn’t disturb others who were interested in learning.

It turns out that some students believe from the very beginning that chess is not for them. It is a game “for smart people,” and they believed they were not smart enough.

This is a different issue than not being interested: here I would try to build the student’s belief in themselves that they could learn. Chess is like anything else: if you work at it some and have decent instruction, you will learn! Genius is rare in chess.

I remember one third grade student in particular two years ago at my last school. For some reason she was convinced she couldn’t learn chess. But she had my class five days a week!

I promised her that if she came to class and simply tried, she would learn.

And she did! Once she realized she was starting to get it, her confidence soared. I actually think she missed me when she didn’t have my chess class any longer!

No wonder karate and taekwondo schools have forever sold “self confidence” as one of the main benefits of taking their classes!

Should Every Kid Get a Prize?

The question of every child receiving something for their participation in a competitive activity is a controversial issue. Personally, I don’t think it’s a big deal — and the reason is simple.

Let the Market Decide

Whether or not an organizer gives one of these to each child…is it that serious?

Some events give every child a ribbon/medal/trophy, and others do not. Often, this is a question of economics more than philosophy: buying enough prizes for each participant gets expensive quickly!

Parents who want to guarantee their child a participation prize can enter their child into competitions that award them. On the other hand, families that take issue with such a policy can avoid these events. To each their own.

There’s no need to debate whether these trends are good or bad for society in general.

What’s Really Important

As a coach, when I have a student ready to play a tournament, I never consider the prizes when suggesting which event to play. And I can’t remember a parent being concerned with the prizes on offer.

Their primary concern is that their child is prepared enough to give a good performance.

Know your students! When choosing a tournament for them, I consider the following:

• My student’s schedule!
• Does the tournament have a reputation for being well-organized? This includes factors like a good playing environment and competent/impartial tournament staff,
• The rating/grade/age sections on offer. Each tournament offers different divisions, some of which may make more sense for my student than others.

Always keep your chess goals in mind (as a player), or your student’s goals in mind (as a parent or coach). There are very few absolutes in this game — it’s hard to judge another player or their family because their situation or objectives may be completely different from yours.