Master Files 3.5
The Importance of a Pawn Break
How to Beat a Grandmaster
The Twelve Puzzles of Christmas
Hello fellow Chess.com members, and Merry Christmas! As a young child I learned that Christmas was a time to be generous in giving gifts and enjoying scrumptious festive food! So I've decided to share my expertise with you in the form of this small newsletter. My regular students receive a newsletter of this nature every week to supplement their training outside their lessons with unique material on subject matters that are important but not necessarily covered thoroughly by existing literature. If you find this sample newsletter instructive, enjoy my writing style and are serious about improving your chess, you should have some chess lessons with me! My coach profile can be found at http://www.chess.com/coach/max-illingworth.
To become adept in any field you need to work on it every day over a long period of time. The way chess players keep their synapses sharp is by spending a minimum of ten minutes each day solving tactics puzzles, such as those on Chess.com's 'Tactics Trainer'. Even a small effort, made consistently, can improve your results. To help you adopt this good training habit, here are three warm-up puzzles:
Enjoy the rest of the newsletter! Apologies if the formatting isn't ideal; this is the first article I've written using the word processor on this site!
Staying Protected - an Insurance Policy against Tactics
You have all seen an example of a tactic before. After seeing the said tactic, a logical follow-up question is 'How can I set up these tactical opportunities in my own games?'. This is a good question but to be honest it would be better answered by a book than a short article! However the short answer is: play lots of good moves!
One thing you may have noticed is that the majority of tactics entail attacking an undefended piece. Indeed in the variation to the second warm-up puzzle, White played a combination starting with 3.Nf5! where White constantly attacked the unprotected pieces of his opponent to win material. The most common type of tactic is a multiple attack, and attacking two undefended pieces can certainly be devastating.
A useful mnemonic is English GM John Nunn's dictum: LPDO, or Loose Pieces Drop Off. This means that undefended pieces are much more likely to be lost.
But don't just take my word for it - let's see some examples where undefended pieces are the victim of sneaky tactical operations.
Our second game is nearly as old as the first!
Incidentally NN has had quite a difficult chess career, playing numerous very strong players in his time and scoring less than 10% against them. In next week's article I'll be presenting the best games of NN, including his wins against several World Champions!
On a more serious note, now that we've seen the grave fate that can befall an unprotected piece, let's consider how we can minimise such accidents in our own games. On one of his trips to Slovenia, Australian GM Ian Rogers observed local players playing 30-second chess. The more experienced players made a point of keeping all their pieces defended, in the process avoiding most nasty tricks. A system opening such as the Colle emphasises this safety:
I don't recommend this style of chess (it is better for an aspiring inexperienced player to play sharp openings that lead to open positions, such as the Smith-Morra Gambit) but it is important to be aware of the safety of your pieces and the opponent's. If several of your opponent's pieces are vulnerable, there is a good chance that there is a strong tactic in the position.
I'll conclude this article within an article by showing two positions where White has safeguarded all his pieces, to give you an idea of how you can keep your pieces secure without compromising the overall harmony of your position.
If you would like a puzzle from this position, look for moves by White to threaten undefended pieces in Black's camp.
In this position Black has obtained a space advantage, but all of White's pieces except the a1-rook are protected, and you'd agree that the a1-rook isn't in serious danger of being lost soon!
Good luck with keeping your pieces safe! Why sacrifice your own pieces when you can sacrifice your opponent's?
The Importance of a Pawn Break
With this second article I'll delve into an important aspect of positional chess: the humble pawn break. Also known as a pawn lever, a pawn break is a pawn move that makes contact with the opponent's pawn structure. It will be easiest to demonstrate the difference a pawn break can make to one's chances with a position from the previous article.
In this closed type of position, many players at the club level and below struggle to find a good approach with either colour. Incidentally, this is why you should start your chess career by playing open positions: because to play closed positions (such as the one in front of us) well, you need to understand when and in what way it is favourable to open the position, and for this a good understanding of open positions is essential.
Let's say White plays a developing move such as 8.Qc2. Black's minor pieces are generally actively placed, but the c8-bishop is trapped behind the triangle of pawns stretching from b7 to f7. It makes sense to free this piece as soon as possible. Additionally, Black's major pieces will need an open file to achieve their full potential. Essentially, Black needs to open the position and lift the bars on the light-squared bishop's prison cell. To this end, Black could play 8...e5, opening the c8-h3 diagonal, but after 9.cxd5 cxd5 10.Nb5 (gaining a tempo on the bishop before trading on e5) 10...Bb8 11.dxe5 Nxe5 12.Nxe5 Bxe5 13.Bd2 Black is saddled with the static weakness of an Isolated Queen's Pawn (IQP) without any activity to offset it. White will in turn play Bc3 and Nd4 to establish a strong blockade of the IQP. Technically, 10.e4! is even better, blowing open the centre while White is ahead in development, but in any case it is clear that 8...e5 does not solve Black's problems.
This is why Black should start with 8...dxc4, releasing the tension in the centre (between the c4 and d5 pawns) and after 9.Bxc4 Black can now counterattack White's centre and liberate the c8-bishop with 9...e5. It's actually not so easy for White to resolve the central tension as 10.dxe5 Nxe5 frees Black's development and pushing forward with 10.d5 fails to the double attack 10...Nb6 (I hope you haven't forgotten LPDO!).
Black can also opt for the Meran plan of 9...b5 (instead of 9...e5), when after 10.Be2 Bb7, Black will hit back in the centre with ...c5, after first protecting the b5-pawn with ...a6 or ...b4. It's very important to understand that the idea of ...b5 in the Meran is not so much to gain queenside space as to prepare a counterattack against White's centre (perhaps preceded by a well-timed ...b4 to boot the c3-knight away). If White gets ambitious and plays 11.e4, we have 11...e5 to prevent the e5 fork and keep White's central ambitions in check.
Those are Black's plans - notice how after Black plays ...c5, the bishop on b7 becomes very active on the long diagonal. Interestingly enough White's own dark-squared bishop is a bit passive in the diagram position above, hemmed in by the pawn chain from f2 to d4. While 8.Qc2 is a reasonable move, the strongest move is 8.e4!, which has several benefits:
- The c1-h6 diagonal is opened, making White's c1-bishop much more mobile, e.g. it can come to g5 to pin Black's knight, though often White will develop it with b3 and Bb2.
- White increases the pressure on Black's strongpoint on d5, forcing Black to release this tension with either ...dxc4 or ...dxe4, which gives White a clear space advantage after he recaptures. White will then use this extra space to mobilise his pieces more actively than their Black counterparts.
- Conversely, after Black exchanges, the White major pieces obtain half-open files. For example, after 8...dxe4 9.Nxe4, the White rook will be well placed on e1.
- When the d5-pawn is traded off, White will eventually aim to break with d4-d5!, transforming the energy of his pieces into a clear initiative and breaking down the remains of Black's light-squared pawn defence line.
A number of instructive games from this variation were analysed by Chess.com author 'energia' in an article a while ago, but I can't find the exact article. But in any event I want you to notice how, by breaking down the position by the key pawn breaks, we were able to get to the heart of the position and understand the priorities of both sides. This is perhaps what Philidor meant when he famously stated that 'Pawns are the soul of chess'. Our fragment here also forms a good model for how you can improve your opening play - by asking good questions (an inquisitive mind is a big advantage in chess!) and learning the theory from the perspective of understanding why each move is played, and what both sides should be aiming for. Behind the 'best move' according to opening theory are the reasons why other moves aren't as good (or at least are judged so) and it's very rewarding to appreciate these reasons. I also intentionally didn't present all the ideas in a board window, to give you a chance to practise visualising ahead when looking at a position. Reading through games in a chess book without a board is another good way to improve your visualisation and I did this quite a bit as a kid.
The main game for our discussion on pawn breaks comes from the French Defence - an opening that leads to closed positions with pawn chains in the majority of cases! But closed positions almost always open up eventually, and in this case the position becomes open rather rapidly! I'll analyse this game briefly, only pointing out the most basic ideas, and then I'll set you several puzzles with variations to the game to give you a practical application of applying pawn breaks.
But there's still a lot more you can learn from this particular game! To acquire the maximum out of your study, you need to combine the acquirement of knowledge with its application in a practical setting to improve your overall chess understanding and train the tactical and positional elements of your calculation. To finish off this section and test your ability to apply pawn breaks appropriately, I'll present you with several exercises based on variations that didn't crop up in the game but lay behind the scenes. If you are still lost after five minutes, play through the solution and move on to the next puzzle.
Some of you might be aware of the rule of thumb that in a position with established pawn chains, you should play in the direction that your pawn chain is 'pointing'. So if you have a pawn chain b2-c3-d4-e5, your pawn chain 'points' toward the kingside and that is where you should play. However in the French Advance this rule has no relevance, as to be successful in this variation with either colour you need to play on both flanks of the board simultaneously, all the while keeping control of the centre.
This position could have arisen in the game, had White played 7.exf6 (instead of 7.0-0) 7...Nxf6 8.0-0 Bd6.
a) What is the most important square in this position? How can both sides go about reinforcing their control of this square?
b) How can both sides improve their pawn structure, perhaps with a pawn break?
You can find the solution at the end of this section.
Solution to Puzzle One:
a) The most important square in this position is e5. Whoever wins the battle for this square will have the advantage. White can play moves like Re1 and Bg5-h4-g3 to increase his control over this square, and Black can play ...Qc7 and ...Ng4 to control e5.
b) Black's key pawn break in this position is ...e5! - this is Black's dream pawn break in the French Advance! With this move Black makes use of his central majority, obtains a central space advantage and activates his 'French' light-squared bishop. In turn, it's not easy for White to prevent this ...e5 break, so White should change the structure with 9.dxc5! Bxc5 10.c4!, saddling Black with hanging pawns and then putting pressure on them. If White takes on d5, Black will be left with an isolated central pawn, and if Black plays ...d4 White can aim to blockade the hanging pawns on the light squares (d3 and e4).
That's all for now on pawn breaks; I hope that the ideas you've picked up bring you success in at least one of your subsequent games!
How to Beat a Grandmaster
For this section I'd like to show a game I played at a recent tournament, the Australasian Masters (a Grandmaster round robin). Although my result was modest, I was pleased with my score of 2.5/4 against the GMs in this tournament. With this game of mine I want to show not just that Grandmasters are also human (and beatable, if you play well), but also set a good example of how you can analyse your own games and learn a lot from them.
Incidentally with this section I'm following my advice of publishing your analyses to your games! In this way you're really forced to be accurate and objective and I think this outweighs the possibility of someone 'getting into your head' - after all if you constantly work on your game your style and strengths/weaknesses will keep changing anyhow.
Before turning on the computer I made sure to analyse the game myself and only use the computer to blunder check my ideas. As it turned out, this was one of my better games where I didn't overlook anything important or make any mistakes, but I was still able to find a few things I could learn from the game - namely what I did to get in 'flow' and how I can replicate this for subsequent games!
The Twelve Puzzles of Christmas
I'll conclude this newsletter with the twelve puzzles of Christmas, to give your brain a real workout! All twelve positions are taken from the latest TWIC, so it is unlikely that you'll have seen them before. For each position your task is only to find the best move; don't assume that there is a forced win in every position. For instance, in the first position your task is to defend against the opponent's attack. Good luck with the puzzles, and make sure you read the solutions afterwards if you didn't understand something. Don't be afraid of getting a puzzle wrong as you still learn something (e.g. a new pattern) from attempting it and reading the solution.
This sort of approach to puzzles is in my view ideal - you solve not just tactical exercises but generally try to find the best move in a position, and in this way you can train a wide range of decision making skills, including those relating to positional play. It's not easy to find good positional chess exercises and therefore a good coach can be very helpful in providing you with skill training that isn't easy to implement yourself (due to a lack of appropriate material or classification of appropriate material).
That concludes my Christmas chess newsletter. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it, and that you acquired some new insights and improved some of your chess skills in the process! Enjoy the rest of your Christmas festivities and have a Happy New Year!
Disclaimer: The newsletters I provide to my students are not as long as this one; this one is a special for Christmas to show my appreciation to the chess family as a whole. A normal sized newsletter might have one article and a few extra puzzles not directly relating to the feature article.