Readers’ Games, Questions and Comments, Part 1

Readers’ Games, Questions and Comments, Part 1

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Curse of the Hasty Pawn Advance

EvgeniyZh (1192) – raj475 (1324)
ICC Live Game (30-0), 2014

1.e4 b6 2.e4 e6 3.e5

I’ve seen many sub-1500 rated players make this kind of hasty pawn advance, and I will take this opportunity to make a comment about it.

Though not the end of the world, this isn’t a particularly good move. Why? It seems to gain space, so what’s wrong with it? Here’s a breakdown of its flaws:

  • The pawn has already moved and White has so many other pieces that need to be brought into play. 3.e5 fails to do that.
  • Black is going to place his light-squared bishop on b7 where it will hit e4. However, the e4-pawn will also act as a block to that bishop. After 3.e5, the h1-a8 diagonal is wide open, making Black’s light-squared bishop very active.
  • The pawn can become a target. Black should continue with …Bb7 when an eventual ...c7-c5 (pressure against d4) followed by ...Nc6 (pressure against BOTH d4 and e5!) gives him serious play. Black was going to go after White’s center anyway, but White’s 3.e5 actually makes it easier for Black to do that. Instead of 3.e5, just 3.Nf3 Bb7 4.Bd3 is more flexible, and also develops far faster.

The game continued:

3...Bb7 4.Nf3


A poor move. Yes, it develops, but it blocks the g8-knight and fails to put pressure on White’s center. Instead, 4...c5, beginning an assault against White’s center, is the logical move. Play might continue: 5.c3 Nc6 (more heat on d4) 6.Be2 Nge7 when this knight (depending on how White plays) can go to f5 (more pressure against d4!) or to g6 followed by ...d7-d6 (pressure against e5!).

Black’s typical, “I’ll develop a piece but I have no idea what I really should be doing” approach to chess is yet another thing I often see sub-1500 rated players do. Of course, development IS important, but there’s an old saying that goes, “No development is better than a bad development.”

This means that at times a developing move actually makes the position worse rather than better! A more advanced player will first understand the long-term needs of the position (e.g. pressure against White’s center), and make sure that all his developing moves help to make this concept a reality. In other words, the plan and/or structure often dictate the moves, not the player! 

Taking this a bit further, one might ask, “Well, how would anyone know that Black should attack White’s center?”

That is not only a good question, it’s an important one! In fact, all players that want to improve should be asking this. And NO (for those, “Tactics is everything” zombies), it has nothing to do with tactics. You can study tactics all day and night and you still won’t have the answer. The only way you know this is by pattern recognition, which is acquired by experience (playing lots of games) and study (looking at master games and/or reading this article). Fortunately, this kind of “central pressure” pattern (found in so many openings, with the Grünfeld Defense being a prime example of killing a huge pawn center) is easily assimilated.


Can Children Learn If They Watch Master Level Games Zip By?

Jimmykay wrote:

“My 6-year old son understands how the pieces move, and what checkmate looks like. Although he is not interested in playing games, he loves watching me run through master-level games at blitz speed. It sounds from your recent articles that this might have some long-term benefits for his chess. Would you agree?”

Dear Jimmykay:

I think the following from Capablanca’s famous book My Chess Career will answer this:

“I was not yet five years old when by accident I came into my father’s private office and found him playing with another gentleman. I had never seen a game of chess before; the pieces interested me, and I went the next day to see them play again. The third day, as I looked on, my father, a very poor beginner, moved a knight from a White square to another White square. His opponent, apparently, not a better player, did not notice it. My father won, and I proceeded to call him a cheat and to laugh. After a little wrangle, during which I was nearly put out of the room, I showed my father what he had done. He asked me how and what I knew about chess? I answered that I could beat him; he said it was impossible, considering that I could not even set up the pieces correctly. We tried conclusions, and I won.”

This is quite a remarkable tale, but a couple things stand out (other than his mindboggling talent):

  • He learned how to move the pieces, and how the pieces interact, just by watching a couple games.
  • He absorbed some basic patterns just by watching, and (since his father was a hopelessly poor player) that (and his obvious talent at instantly turning those patterns into something usable) was enough to propel him to victory in the first game he ever played.

Jimmykay, if your son loves watching you run through master games, he’ll not only enjoy himself, but he will indeed pick up lots of subliminal information (patterns) that will, in time, “click” and become real chess skills.



Are Some Game Collections More Instructive Than Others?

Arlemanne1 asked:

“My rating is not particularly good, but I have decided to take your advice about quickly playing through a huge number of master games. Right now, I’ve begun with Garry Kasparov’s collection, My Great Predecessors. I’ll be done with the whole series in a couple of months. What other books of master games (or series of books) would you recommend for somebody of my rating (around 1400) who needs to improve in all areas of chess? Would you recommend collections of any specific master or would you just recommend getting a couple of volumes of Informants and just quickly playing through the contents?”

Dear Arlemanne1:

As I said in my previous articles, one should only zip through master games if you seriously feel you can be a chess pro, and can put in that 10,000+ hours of work (and even then it might lead to nothing). 

Most people should simply toss away the “zip” and instead study instructive chess books (like my 4th edition of How to Reassess Your Chess), and look through game collections at a reasonable pace (you really should take a bit of time and savor these amazing games and their notes).

The game collections you choose should be all about personal taste, though I usually recommend the older classics followed by working your way to more modern players. For example, my first chess hero was Alekhine, and his games (with his notes) will teach you what dynamic chess is all about. Capablanca’s games will teach you how quiet positional mastery and fantastic technique will overwhelm the most violent tactician. Emanuel Lasker’s games are harder to wrap one’s mind around. Ultimately they will show you how a powerful will to win, embracing every chess game as a fight to the death, a mastery of tactics (one of the greatest tactical players ever), preternatural defensive mojo, and outrageous endgame technique placed him firmly in my “top 5 players of all time” list (the great Mikhail Tal had him as number 1). After that game collections by Botvinnik, Keres, Smyslov, and all the World Champions should follow.

BTW, Karparov’s My Great Predecessors series, though criticized by some reviewers, is fantastic. It not only has tons of magnificent games, but it also introduces players to the thrilling richness of chess history. Read them all!

Kasparov signing his books in London 2010 | Photo Wikipedia

The Endless Debate – Can Anyone Be a Grandmaster?

Tmodel66 asked:

“There is a debate going on in one of the forums over the following question: ‘Can anyone become a grandmaster?’ I mean... if someone plays and learns chess and trains him/herself systematically, can he/her become a grandmaster? Or do you have to have some gift to do that?

“It seems evident to me that becoming a GM is not a possibility for anyone. IMO talent has to be a factor to some degree.

“The other side says that with enough study anyone (of reasonable intelligence and work ethic) could get there. What say you? And, if not GM, could ‘anyone’ become a Master? Also, how late in life is too late to become a GM (or a Master)?”

Dear Tmodel66:

This question could just as well be, “Can anyone become an astronaut, a doctor, a professional boxer, etc.”

The safe, politically correct way out is to say, “Yes, read a book on boxing, practice a bit, and you too can beat a prime Mike Tyson!” or “Yes, study hard and you can be the first man on Mars!”

Fortunately, I despise political correctness, so you’ll get my honest opinion (as always).

As I’ve mentioned in past articles, and in my answer to Arlemanne1’s question in this article, you have a real chance at success IF you are willing to put in those 10,000+ hours of nonstop, agonizing, nose to the grindstone, sacrificing, total devotion to your goal, work. But, how many are willing to do that? And worst of all, there’s no guarantee that all that work will lead you to your goal!

For those that want it without that kind of complete goal immersion, enjoy your dream and do your best (have fun with it!), but the odds are overwhelmingly against you. On the other hand, I really do believe that anyone can achieve a 2100 or 2200 rating (even if you start late!), but that also takes dedication and hard work.

I will admit that natural talent for the field of your choice gives you a huge edge over the competition. A very talented but lazy chess guy might, with experience and quite a bit of work, get that GM title, but he won’t be a top 10 player (he probably won’t be a top 100 player). That means that even Magnus, our present world champion, with all his amazing talent, put in those 10,000+ hours to reach the very top (note: to be world champion he combined 10,000+ hours of hard work, astronomical talent, and had a very rare kind of will power that you need to be born with).


It’s the same in other fields. If you work hard and put in the necessary hard work and sacrifice, you might successfully become a medical doctor. But will you be the best doctor? To be best in class, you’ll need talent and a driving desire to be number one.

Basketball. How many kids play the game endlessly and dream of being a professional? And they might well be very good players when all is said and done. But will they make the cut against those that worked harder, or those that have some kind of mega-talent?

When all is said and done, talking about success in any field is nothing more than spitting into the wind if you can’t embrace the necessary work ethic and sacrifice.

In my case, I learned how to play chess much too late (12 years of age... nowadays grandmaster hopefuls start at 5 or 6), I then worked nonstop to get my dreamed of grandmaster title until I was 19 (sacrificing normal childhood behavior/activities), and then I “reentered the world” and learned a lot about life, but failed in my ultimate chess goal.

For those that keep raving about how everyone can become a grandmaster, you should be working hard to do it instead of talking about it. Everyone can talk about it, but very, very few do it.

I’ll leave you with a story:

Emanuel Lasker, one of the world’s greatest thinkers and the world chess champion, took up the game of Go (it is also known as “weiqi” and other names). He played regularly against his brother Berthold and Edward Lasker, who introduced him to it (Edward eventually founded the American Go Association!), and all three became completely enamored by the game. After a while, Emanuel Lasker decided that he was an extremely good player (he even wrote about it). Of course, he should have known better, but he had never faced a real Go master and thus had no way of understanding the true depths of the game.

One day a Japanese Go master came to town and all three of them (Edward, Emanuel, and Berthold) joined together in consultation against him. They were given 9 stone odds (similar to queen odds in chess) and got wiped off the board.

To me, the people that think it won’t be that hard to get the grandmaster title in chess are suffering from the same (very human) illusion Emanuel Lasker had: they weren’t able to fully appreciate the insane amount of understanding and knowledge that the giants of chess/Go possess. Lasker, of course, immediately recognized his ignorance after that game! He still loved go and played it, but he no longer made the mistake of thinking too highly of his Go skills!

Emanuel Lasker

To end this discussion once and for all (yeah, sure... people will always dream of getting the grandmaster title without dedication or hard work), let’s take a look at a very funny, and very wise quote. In Saidy’s and Lessing’s wonderful book, The World of Chess, Norman Lessing (chess master, television screenwriter/producer, playwright) had this to say concerning hard work, talent, and criticisms about Fischer:

“Accusation four is usually put in the form of an inquiry: ‘why shouldn’t Bobby be good? He spent his whole lifetime on nothing but chess!’ Answer: Thousands upon thousands of chess players have done precisely the same with little to show for it, except an occasional divorce.”

Clearly, becoming a grandmaster is far from easy. And even if you do put in that 10,000+ hours, you might find yourself with “only” a 2100 or 2200 rating (not bad at all, but not close to the grandmaster goal).

Mr. Tmodel66, thanks for asking this question. You are quite right – becoming a grandmaster is, indeed, not a possibility for everyone. Instead, people should work towards more reachable goals: a 2000 rating is a great goal, and makes you an elite player (I’m not talking about an online rating, I’m talking about an over-the-board real tournament rating). If they reach that goal, then go for 2200 (Master! How cool is that!?). That’s what Magnus did, and he was overjoyed each time he reached a goal. Then, like all goals, you create a new one and strive to reach that.

If you want to dream, then dream. But if you want to achieve something, create a doable goal, work hard to reach it, and then create a new goal.

A Reader Game in the Alekhine Defense

Elkinm, who played White, wondered what he did wrong in the following game. I was happy to see it since I have always had a “thing” for this very interesting opening.

As for where he went wrong, the answer is easy! Your opponent was using a strong chess engine (Houdini) so you had absolutely no chance whatsoever! How do I know this? All his moves were perfect, and on move 21 he played the maneuver 21...Ra3 22.Qe2 Ra6, which is not a human maneuver. At that point I decided to see how his moves compared with Houdini’s. His choices (after he followed basic opening theory from some book) matched the computer’s top choices 100% of the time, and picked the number one choice 98% of the time.

After confirming that vahid608 is a cheat, I looked for his page and discovered that he was tossed from the site. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why.

Elkinm (1694) – vahid608 (1822) live chess, 2014 (30/0)

1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.c4 Nb6 4.d4 d6

Compare this to our initial game, EvgeniyZh – raj475, where the moves 1.e4 b6 2.e4 e6 3.e5 were played. In the Alekhine Black is willing to waste time with his knight to overextend (he hopes!) White’s pawn center. In the EvgeniyZh game, White’s 3.e5 overextended in the same way, but he wasn’t compelled to do so.


A popular move. White’s other mainline moves are 5.Nf3 (positional) and 5.f4 (sometimes quite violent). After 5.f4 dxe5 (Black also has reasonable results with 5...Bf5 and 5...g6!?, while the crazy looking 5...g5!? is also fun to look at.) 6.fxe5 Nc6 7.Be3 Bf5 8.Nc3 e6 9.Nf3 Be7 White can go for a quiet game via 10.Be2 0-0 11.0-0 f6 12.exf6 Bxf6 which leads to an interesting positional battle, or a crazy tactical war with 10.d5, though 10...exd5 11.cxd5 Nb4 12.Nd4 Bd7 13.e6 fxe6 14.dxe6 Bc6 seems satisfactory for Black.


5...exd6 is also common, but that’s a different story.


Believe it or not, this natural move is no longer thought to be accurate. Instead the following line is all the rage: 6.Nc3 g6 7.Be3 Bg7 8.Rc1 (Defending c3 and preparing d4-d5 in reply to ...Nc6) 8...0-0 9.b3 and now both 9...Nc6 10.d5 Ne5 11.Be2 and 9...e5 10.dxe5 dxe5 11.Qxd8 Rxd8 12.c5 leave White with a small but annoying edge.

6...g6 7.Nc3 Bg7 8.Be3 0-0 9.Be2 Nc6 10.0-0 Bg4 11.b3 d5 12.c5 Nc8 13.h3 Bxf3 14.Bxf3 e6 

Anyone who is serious about playing the Alekhine Defense is well acquainted with this position – not just the moves, but the structure, Black’s main maneuver, and the opening’s general philosophy.

One might think that White should be better due to his two bishops and queenside space advantage, but the truth is that Black’s game is already superior! The reason is that White’s bishops aren’t very active, and White doesn’t have a clear target to train his sights on. Black on the other hand is pressuring d4, and that pressure will increase after ...Nc8-e7-f5. 

I’ll give the rest of the game without notes. It’s worth seeing though, since it’s a powerful demonstration of Black’s dynamic potential in this opening.

15.Qd2 N8e7 16.Nb5 Nf5 17.g4 a6 18.gxf5 axb5 19.fxe6 fxe6 20.Bg2 Qh4 21.Rad1 Ra3 22.Qe2 Ra6 23.Qxb5 Rf7 24.a4 Bxd4 25.Bxd4 Nxd4 26.Qd3 Rf4 27.Rd2 Qg5 28.Kh2 Qe5 29.Kh1 Qf5 30.Qxf5 Nxf5 31.Kg1 Rb4 32.Rd3 Nd4 33.Rfd1 Nxb3 34.Rb1 Nxc5 and Black easily grabbed the full point.


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