Hannibal Lecter Presents: Readers' Questions
Due to the crash of my website email address (which has finally been fixed), I didn’t look at my business letters for a month and a half. There were about 60 waiting for me. One was from a guy that wanted me to give him a study program that featured him looking at chess for 15 hours (!) a day. Since I didn’t reply, he wrote another letter, this time offering to pay me $300.00 to create this course for him. Once again I didn’t reply, and he wrote a third, very disturbing letter where he said, “If you would rather see me kill myself than have an effective 15 hour a day study plan then so be it.” The title of his final letter was, “Committing Suicide.” (I’m not making this up!)
Since I’m not a soothing voice on the end of a helpline, and since that final letter was a month old, there wasn’t much I could do for this gentleman. However, it struck me that I hadn’t answered quite a few Chess.com letters! Does this mean that some irate (and perhaps hungry) chess fan will hunt me down in Hannibal Lecter fashion? Does it mean that I’ll get more letters like the one above? Will I be stalked, bound, and forced to give chess lessons in some deep, dark basement?
These things sound far-fetched, but just in case some psychopath is plotting his revenge, I thought it best to respond to several recent letters/comments.
Assessing a Rook Endgame
“You mention that if you played ...Rd6 the game would head for a draw. Really?? I think it’s Black that has a better endgame and it will be a mistake for White to go for the rook exchanges after Rgd1 Rgd8, RxR RxR, RxR KxR, Kf3 f5! and Black’s pawns are controlling the board and the king is in the center ready to invade White’s camp.”
After your 1...Rd6 2.Rgd1 Rgd8 (2...Rxd3 3.Rxd3 Rd8? [Not good. Correct is 3...Ke6 with a more or less equal game] 4.Rxd8 Kxd8 5.Kf3 f5?? Black loses by force to 6.g4 fxg4+ 7.Kxg4! Ke7 8.Kf5 Kd6 9.h4 and Black’s busted.) 3.Rxd6 Rxd6 4.Rxd6 Kxd6 5.Kf3 f5 you claim an advantage for Black.
Sorry, but the position is drawn: 6.g4 Ke6 7.Ke3 Kf6 8.f4 (not the only way to draw, but the simplest), 8...fxg4 (8...e4?? 9.gxf5 Kxf5 10.b4 wins for White; 8...h6 is a draw, though you might find it instructive to analyze.) 9.hxg4 exf4+ (9...h6?? 10.f5 wins for White) 10.Kxf4, =.
Was This a Hail Mary?
“In the Weiss vs. Pollock game I can’t imagine Black actually pulling off that mate as planned from 11 moves back starting with sacrificing the queen. Ridiculous if true!! That walked, talked and smelled like a Hail Mary all the way! Now, tell me Pollock did that blindfolded, while hopping on one leg...
“It was quite lovely!”
Yes, it WAS lovely. However, it was definitely NOT a Hail Mary since Black had other ways to win that didn’t call for sacrificing his queen (19...g6 won, 19...Qe2 won, and many other moves also won). However, William Pollock was a gifted tactician with a great imagination and the lines following the queen sacrifice were well within his calculation range (Almost all of White’s moves were forced, so it really wasn’t that difficult – at least for him!). The fact is that his sacrifice was the best way to continue!
Oh, and I’m 100 percent sure that Mr. Pollock COULD and WOULD have played the queen sacrifice blindfold. As for hopping on one leg, he loved doing that, but it would cost his opponent’s extra.
For those that didn't see that wonderful game, here it is again:
An Active Alternative
“I saw 18.Nf1 heading for f5, but thought it is a bad move since it is slow. Can’t Black play ...f5 himself? After 18...f5 19.exf5 Nf6 (stopping the c3-knight from immediately jumping to e4) with the idea of ...h5-g4-Bh6. Although a pawn down, hasn’t Black got enough compensation?”
Dear Mr. sswarnendu,
I give you lots of credit for looking for ways to get counterplay for Black. However, in this case I can’t believe Black will get enough for the pawn. If White only had an extra pawn and Black had most of the play, then fair enough. But White has many tasty plans/possibilities: Once the knight gets to e3, a well-timed Bxe5 followed Nc4 might prove annoying (18...f5 19.exf5 Nf6 20.Qd2 Qd7 21.Ne3 h5? 22.Bxe5 Rxe5 23.Nc4 wins for White). And don’t forget about White’s b2-b4 plan, which would create some serious problems for Black in many lines. Another possible line is 18...f5 19.exf5 Nf6 20.Qd2 Qd7 21.Ne3 Rab8 22.h3 h5 23.Nc4 Nxc4 24.Bxc4 h4 (24...Qxf5 25.Bd3 Qd7 26.Qxg5) 25.Bh2 g4 26.Re6 (26.Qf4 and 26.Qg5 also look crushing) and Black is doomed.
Of course, White doesn’t have to play 20.Qd2 (he actually has quite a few tempting moves) and Black certainly doesn’t need to respond with 20...Qd7. I just wanted to give you a bit of insight into what might happen.
A True Brilliancy
Václav Pekař wrote:
“Recently I played a really good game which I would very much like to share. I realize it is pretty much ‘showing off’ from my side, but please, take a look at it, you won’t regret it. If you like it, please feel free to use it. I just love this game and I believe it deserves attention and some sort of publication.”
Dear Mr. Pekař,
It IS a beautiful game and you have every right to be proud of it. I’m sure members of Chess.com will enjoy it as much as I did.
Congratulations on your masterpiece!
Who Was the First Professional Chess Player?
“I wrote a thread in the forum asking what the author of the series My Great Predecessors could mean by writing that Fischer was the first professional player, but unfortunately nobody could answer me. So I thought that maybe a chess expert like you would know what he could mean?”
Interesting question! There were quite a few chess professionals in the game’s history: Wilhelm Steinitz, Emanuel Lasker (he had a PhD in mathematics but, as far as I know, made his living through chess), Alexander Alekhine (he had a law degree but never practiced law), and in the U.S. we had Frank Marshall, Israel Horowitz, Hans Kmoch, Larry Evans, and others. Soviet players don’t qualify as true pros since they were supported by the government.
Being lazy, I didn’t look up Kasparov’s comments in My Great Predecessors. Instead, I’ll try to guess his point of view:
Before Fischer, chess professionals made very little money (the exception was a few pre-Soviet World Championship matches), and they had to accept whatever conditions the sponsors created. Fischer singlehandedly changed this by demanding better conditions (good lighting, a quiet and comfortable environment, large appearance fees, travel expenses, and big money for all World Championship matches). To me, Fischer is the first modern chess professional in that he never had a non-chess job, he treated the game as a professional endeavor, and he completely changed the financial landscape for all chess professionals that followed him. The modern chess millionaires (Karpov, Kasparov, Kramnik, Anand, and others) have Fischer to thank for their financial success.
Improving One’s Chess Tactics
“How to improve my chess tactics quickly?”
You almost lost me on, “quickly.” If one could fix a part of your game with a snap of one’s fingers, chess would be useless. The fact that it takes serious study mixed with experience to rise to new levels shows the game’s depths.
You also failed to mention your rating (I would give advice that suits your rating group). A beginner would make a vast improvement in tactics by simply learning the basic tactical devices like pins, forks, skewers, etc. After that you would make a study of basic mating patterns (back rank mates, smothered mates, the classic Qh7 mate, etc.). Once you have those things in the “bag,” you would pick up a book, app (iTunes has dozens of puzzle apps, often for as little as 99 cents), or puzzles on websites (Chess.com has tons of these!) and solve many hundreds or even thousands of mates in one, then mates in two, and on and on it goes.
As you can see, you will go through layer after layer of knowledge as you work your way up the tactical ladder, and each tactical “rung” will become more and more complex.
Experience also counts for a lot. At first you’ll fall for one tactical trick after another, but that’s a GOOD thing since you will quickly learn to avoid those individual tricks and even make use of them yourself.
Real improvement and “quickly” rarely go hand in hand. Instead, experience and work are the catalysts for improvement. But those that stick with chess will find they enjoy study, and they enjoy learning through trial and error.
How Do Strong Player’s Study?
“Could you possibly do a series on how strong players study? I think it would be very helpful to us amateurs!”
I won’t do a series, but I’ll give you a taste. I’ll start by saying that everyone studies differently. All I can do is tell you how I used to study.
After a tournament, I would go over all my games in great detail to see what I did wrong or right, and what mental deficiencies I might have demonstrated during play (fear, overconfidence, lack of concentration, etc.).
Nowadays amateurs use their computers to tell them what they did wrong. However, this is very, very wrong. Yes, the computer will show you tactical mistakes, but it won’t explain why your other moves were wrong, and when it gives an alternative, you will usually have no idea why that move was better than the one you played. Computers don’t see chess as humans do, and they can’t fix your human failings. For that, you need a skilled trainer or, if you can’t afford that, then hours and hours of hard work deconstructing and exploring every nuance of your games as best you can.
If I felt that my openings needed work, I would create a list for all my opening weaknesses and proceed to patch those up opening by opening. This included a full knowledge of basic theory for those openings, the latest discoveries, and whether or not I still liked the systems I was playing. After that I would search for new ideas and moves, which would give me a huge edge over the competition if I managed to come up with something. I would also look at very old games where my systems were used (games from the 1800s and early 1900s), since many past ideas have been forgotten or ignored.
At times I would decide that I was weak in certain middlegame situations. For example, if I didn’t handle isolated d-pawns very well (as either side) I would make a deep study of those structures.
Though I would occasionally look at some specific endgame (like the rare but fascinating Star Maneuver in queen endgames), I was more interested in technique – having a feel for how an endgame should be played counts for a lot more than memorized endgame positions. To help my technique, I would study games by Lasker, Capablanca, Rubinstein, Smyslov, Fischer, and Karpov.
Dealing With Criticism
A Chess.com member asked (in September 2013):
“How do you deal with rude, obnoxious people even though you are trying to show them some chess knowledge for FREE? I noticed people are reacting personally to your comment about people thinking 99% of chess is tactics.”
Dear Chess.com member:
There’s an old saying that fits well with your question: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”
Lots of very low rated players (even 1000 players) tell me I’m wrong about this or that. If it’s some factual tidbit that I got wrong, I welcome their comment (I periodically make typos or get historic information wrong). But when it comes to chess instruction, I know what I’m talking about. My articles are to entertain, help people enjoy chess more, and/or to improve their understanding of various areas of the game. If a 1200 player wants to insist that chess is 99% tactics (meaning he doesn’t have to study positional chess) then good luck to him – he’ll probably remain a 1200 player for life.
There are a lot of players that parrot the old “99% tactics” hogwash (often to make themselves appear knowledgeable). However, tactics and strategy are two parts of the same puzzle, both help the other succeed. Embrace this or hide from it, it’s of no concern to me.
I will add that many people desperately want to believe that chess is 99% tactics since then they don’t have to do much work! Just look at lots of tactical puzzles and, in their mind, they will be great players with minimal effort. I am rooting for you, but I won’t hold my breath.
The Brussels Gambit
“I played this game (starting with 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 f5) and won but I thought that my 2nd move ...f5 was a blunder (I thought I was playing some different opening). After the game I found out that this opening has a name: ‘Sicilian Defense: Brussels Gambit.’ I was in shock because I thought that I played some blunder and won.”
Just because an opening has a name doesn’t mean it’s any good. And just because you win with it also doesn’t mean it’s any good.
I think Belgium should sue the person who named this horrible opening the Brussels Gambit.
Here's the game in question:
An Imaginative Comment About My Analysis
“In this position you said 17...d6 should be met by 18.Qxd5. However, far better is 18.Bxd6+ cxd6 19.Qxd6+ Qxd6 20.Re8 mate!”
In the game Black played 17...Ne7 and died a horrible death. 17...d6 was better and I recommended the simple 18.Qxd5 as the antidote.
It’s impressive that you noticed 18.Bxd6+ – it’s quite a beautiful line. However, let’s first look at my recommended 18.Qxd5 which leaves White with the big threat of Re8+ and also leaves White with a material advantage after 18...Be6 19.Qxb7. This position is a dead win for White.
Of course, after 18.Bxd6+ cxd6 19.Qxd6+! the game is over. But when analyzing, you need to look for the best defense and not the prettiest line. And this leads to 18.Bxd6+ Kg8! 19.Re8+ Qxe8 20.Bxe8 Be6 and White has two bishops hanging. His position is still better after 21.Bxf7+ Kxf7 22.Ne5+ Kf6 23.Ng4+ Kf7 24.Be5. White has a queen and a pawn for two rooks, but Black’s king is also a bit loose. It’s not nearly the clear win that White has after the simple 18.Qxd5.
Nevertheless, thanks for pointing out that lovely variation.
The Mystery of Aleister Crowley
I’ve had several letters that ask (some are angry and demand!) that I explain my use of Aleister Crowley as my Chess.com avatar. I find that very strange. First off, most use a crazy sounding fake name and view that as normal, but for some reason Crowley isn’t normal. Secondly, my previous avatar was a blob fish in a tuxedo with hat and cane. Apparently the well-dressed blob fish was also normal, but not Crowley. Finally, some imbecile said that anyone that follows Crowley should (I’ll paraphrase) “worry about his after-life.”
However, for those that are polite and genuinely interested, I’ll answer the question: Crowley is an extremely interesting character (I’m surprised they haven’t made a movie about him), and since I use him in my novel (Autobiography of a Goat - you can read about it here) I decided to give Mr. Crowley a bit of PR.
Since I’m into Buddhism and Shinto, perhaps my next avatar will be a Shinto priest, or the Buddha, or I may return to less serious images – perhaps a wolverine sitting in a lounge chair smoking a pipe?