Studying Master Games and Berkmaster's First Over-The-Board Tournament Battle

Studying Master Games and Berkmaster's First Over-The-Board Tournament Battle

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I was a bit surprised at the comments about the study of master games made under my last Q & A (Snarky Silman, blah, blah, blah). As is always the case, everyone of every rating had an opinion. I’ve already written about this several times, but allow me to do so again (not in great detail, but enough to give you some food for thought) – the vast majority are very serious about this topic, and I don’t want to let them down.

While looking through the comments about this subject, I enjoyed many people’s views, but I was forced to reach for my blood pressure meds when I noticed the usual “Tactics is 99% of chess!” drones who once again promised you success if you followed their advice (though they are only in the 1200 – 1500 rating range). After I write this article, they will be back barking the same swill at anyone willing to listen. Those guys will never learn, but perhaps you will after reading what I have to say.

When I was just starting out (I was an instant chess addict!), I used game collections, tournament books, and eventually Chess Informants to zip through anywhere from 200 to 500 games a day, every day. That’s not too amazing when you consider that I only used 20 to 40 seconds a game.

I would also spend an hour a day on grandmaster annotations (taking the full hour to go over 1 to 3 games), or an hour a day going over some middlegame text (positional and tactical situations), and an hour on openings. And yes, you are right – I didn’t have any friends (other than a couple of chess friends... guess what we talked about?) so chess study was all I had or cared about.

Now to answer the question you are all thinking of: What could you possibly get by going through a game in a few seconds? The answer is a LOT! As I quickly bashed the moves down on the chessboard, I saw typical opening situations go by (opening patterns), pawn structures were built and pieces were deployed in ideal positions in reaction to those structures (also patterns), tactical patterns often ended a game or led to some kind of explosion, positional patterns calmed my tired eyes, endgames appeared and I saw (at warp speed) how kings were used in that phase, how the outside passed pawn often led to victory, and on and on it went. At first all that won’t compute since you’re “eating” the material subconsciously, but as you chow down on tens of thousands of games, the brain suddenly lights up and everything “computes.”

BUT... that kind of total immersion is only possible if you don’t have much of a life. It’s for those that live, eat and breathe chess, and are willing to put most of their time into the game.

So, when people ask, “How can I become a grandmaster?” I tell them that they need to do something like I’ve just mentioned (and it’s SO much easier now due to chess databases!) or your grandmaster fantasy is just not going to happen. Of course, it’s easier if you have some form of mega-talent, but even then you have to work very hard to reach the highest levels. Remember what they say in Norway: It takes at least 10,000 hours of hard work if you want to have any hope of becoming world class in anything.

No top player has ever just studied tactics. No top player has ever just studied any one area of the game. You need to be skilled in all phases or you’re not going to reach the sky. 

When I started teaching, I found that my students were hostile about the amount of work I mentioned (they actually had careers and families, while the younger ones had to deal with school!). So, over many years, I came up with a system (imbalances) that allowed them to absorb patterns in a pleasant, easygoing way. No, they weren’t going to be world champions. But those patterns did turn (after a good deal of time and effort) quite a few 1600 players into experts (2000) and masters (2200).

To sum up, I no longer recommend you go over tons of games in a few seconds (with the caveat that it’s a great way to study an isolated subject, like a particular tactic or opening). You want to get better, you want to maximize your enjoyment of the game, and you also want to live a full life away from chess. Thus, for the real man/woman who is living a “real” life, pick up patterns by reading my book (How to Reassess Your Chess 4th Edition or, for players under 1500, The Amateur’s Mind), or any of the other excellent books out there (there are more books on chess than all other games and sports combined, so it’s not hard to find a good chess book). Play and learn from your mistakes (a hard fought loss should be viewed as instructive gold). Look over annotated master games in the form of a favorite player (pick a hero, look at all his stuff over several months, and then pick another hero). Slowly but surely tighten your endgame skills. And finally do lots of puzzles every day so your tactical vision is (as a Russian friend once said), “Strong like bull!”

Ultimately, it’s all about having a great time. If you enjoy studying chess, do so. If you don’t enjoy studying, then just play for fun. And if you insist on becoming a chess professional, train your belly to like earthworms and mud, since that’s often the only food you’ll get.

The following battle was Berkmaster’s (his name, of course) first ever over-the-board tournament game. It’s a great example of a loss being used as an instructive gold mine.

Berkmaster (unrated) – Hustwit (1555)
Los Angeles Chess Club, 2014

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6 4.Nc3 Bb4 5.Qc2 0-0 6.e4 Bb7

6...d5 is also popular, though it often transposes to 6...Bb7. A completely different idea is 6...c5:

6...c5 7.e5 Ne8 (7...cxd4 8.a3! Bxc3+ [8...dxc3?! 9.axb4 cxb2 10.Bxb2 Ne8 11.Bd3 is very dangerous for Black: 11...f5 12.exf6 Nxf6 13.Ng5! h6 [[13...g6 14.Bxg6 wins]] 14.Nh7! Nxh7 15.Bxh7+ Kh8, Shabalov – Naumkin, Vilnius 1988, 16.Bxg7+! Kxg7 17.Qg6+ Kh8 18.Qxh6 Rf6 19.Bg6+ Kg8 0.Ra3! and Black’s toast] 9.bxc3 Ne8 10.cxd4 Bb7 11.Be2, +=) 8.d5 (8.a3 and 8.Bd3 are also important moves, and might be better than 8.d5. One example: 8.Bd3 f5 9.Bg5 Qc7 10.d5 d6 and now 11.0-0 is better for White since 11...dxe5 is met by 12.Nb5 Qb7 13.Nxe5 exd5 14.a3 Ba5 15.b4 cxb4 16.cxd5, etc.) 8...exd5 9.cxd5 d6 10.Bg5 (10.Bd3!? dxe5 11.Bxh7+ Kh8 12.Bd3 Nd6 13.0-0, +=) 10...f6 11.exf6 Nxf6, Magnus Carlsen – Wang Hao, Biel 2012, and now 12.Be2 might be a tad better for White.

7.Bd3 d5 8.cxd5 exd5 9.e5 Ne4 10.0-0 Bxc3 11.bxc3

Berkmaster said: “I have the bishop pair now both pointing at his king.”

JS: Quite right! It’s certainly not the end of the world for Black (since the e4-knight is, for the moment, containing the d3-bishop), but I really don’t see why anyone would willingly play the Black side of this position.


Not a good move. More combative is 11...c5:

11...c5 12.Nd2 (12.dxc5!? has also been tried a few times.) 12...f5 (not 12...cxd4 13.Nxe4 dxe4 14.Bxe4) 13.f3 Nxd2 14.Bxd2 and now the question is how should Black defend f5? Nevertheless, some good players give it a try from time to time. After 14.Bd2 14...Qd7 walks into 15.g4!, while 14...Bc8 is too passive. And 14...Ba6 begs White to play 15.Bxf5! Bxf1 16.Bxh7+ which should be winning. 14...Qc8!? is a thought, but then 15.g4 Ba6 16.Bxf5 Rxf5 17.gxf5 Bxf1 18.Rxf1 cxd4 19.Rc1 and White’s considerably better. Thus we’re left with 14...g6 15.Bh6 Re8 16.f4 cxd4 17.cxd4 Nc6 18.Qf2 and the weakened dark-squares in Black’s camp promises White a significant advantage.

Analysis of 11...c5:

Now we'll return to the position after 11.bxc3 and look at Black's alternatives to the rotten 11...h6.

Low rated players have tried 11...Nd7 and 11...f5, but these moves don’t inspire confidence:

  • 11...Nd7 runs into 12.Bxe4 (12.c4 also looks strong) 12...dxe4 13.Ng5, winning a pawn.
  • 11...f5 12.exf6 (12.Ne1!? is also annoying: 12...g6 [12...c5 13.Ba3 leaves Black with all sorts of problems] 13.Bh6 Re8 14.Qc1! and the threat of f2-f3 forces the win of material.) 12...Qxf6 (12...Nxf6 13.Ng5 threatens both a chop on h7 and a fork on e6) 13.Ne5 Qh4 14.Ba3 and Black’s under serious pressure.

Analysis of 11...Nd7 and 11...f5:


Berkmaster said: “Add pressure to the knight.”

JS: So far White has played perfectly, but here he tosses out a lazy move since the rook on e1 doesn’t really bother the e4-knight, and it’s not clear if it’s the rook’s optimal square. If his big plan is to eventually play Nd2 (in the game, White goes to great lengths to prepare this move) and get rid of Black’s knight, then he should just do it right away: 12.Nd2 Nxd2 13.Bxd2 c5 14.f4 Nc6 15.f5! (The simple 15.dxc5 would also favor White.) 15...cxd4

And this allows us to enjoy a puzzle. 

Puzzle 1:

Instead of Black’s 15...cxd4, the ugly 15...f6 is possible:

16.e6 cxd4 17.cxd4 Nxd4 when Black’s won a pawn, but that monster on e6 has to give White a clear advantage after 18.Qa4 Nc6 19.Rac1 (since 19...Ne5 encounters 20.Bb4 Re8 21.Bb5).

But, let’s create a simple puzzle instead and look for an alternative to 19.Rac1:

Puzzle 2:

So we have seen that 12.Nd2 gave White a very nice game.



Don’t endlessly prepare when you can hit him hard right away with the exact same plan.

However, White has another move that might be even better than 12.Nd2. Can you find it?

Puzzle 3:

After the puzzles, it’s time to return to the actual game and the following position:


There was no need for this move. Instead 12...c5 at least tries to drum up counterplay.

13.exf6 Rxf6


Berkmaster said: “Preparing Nd2.”

JS: Yes, you ARE still preparing Nd2, and that’s the problem with your move – too much preparation, not enough action! In the position after 13...Rxf6, White has all sorts of tempting, very dynamic, possibilities and the slow, plodding 14.Be3, while still advantageous for White, is missing out on a number of delicious alternatives. For example, 14.c4 (still trying to undermine Black’s knight) 14...Rxf3 (14...Nc6 15.Bxe4 dxe4 16.Qxe4 leaves White a very nice pawn to the good) 15.Bxe4 (15.gxf3 is also good for White, though you would have to see 15...Ng5 16.Bxg5 Qxg5+ 17.Kh1 Nc6 18.cxd4 Nxd4 19.Qa4! when the double threat of 20.Re8+ and 20.Qd4 wins) 15...dxe4 (15...Rf6 16.Bh7+ Kh8 [16...Kf7 17.Ba3!] 17.Bg6 Nc6 18.Re8+ Qxe8 19.Bxe8 Rxe8 20.Be3 and White has a Queen for Black’s Rook and Knight.) 16.gxf3 Nc6 17.d5 Nd4 18.Qxe4 Qf6 19.Kh1 Nxf3 20.Qe6+ and White should win.

But, as is so often the case, White actually has an extraordinarily powerful move here (on move 14). Can you find it?

Puzzle 4:



If you see a move you want to play but feel you can’t due to a capture or some other annoyance, don’t just give up and play something else! This is known as “the curse of I can’t” since once you say you can’t do something, you make it an iron clad fact. In many cases, a move you thought you couldn’t play turns out to be a move you can play, as long as you ignore your willing to look beyond your opponent’s “lies.”

14...Nd7 15.Nd2 Nd6


Very playable (taking away squares from the enemy pieces), but Black’s knight just left e4, so why waste a move keeping him out? Why not look for something more forcing? You should probably play to open the position for your two bishops: 16.c4! dxc4 17.Nxc4 Bd5 18.Nxd6 (18.Ne5!?) 18...Rxd6 19.Bf4 Rc6 20.Qd2 and the bishops give White a nice, easy edge.


Flexibility is important in chess. Many players think mate, and they can’t change gears as the position changes. The fact is, sometimes a positional advantage leads to a brilliant mating attack, and sometimes a promising attack leads to a long term positional plus.

16...c5 17.Bf2 c4 18.Bh7+ Kh8


I like White’s strategy (trying to force ...g7-g5 which will leave Black’s king open and vulnerable), but his tactics need serious work. He had to play 19.Bg6 Nf8 20.Bh5 with an edge.


Black not only tosses away the Exchange, he also misses a great opportunity!

Puzzle 5:


White could have also waited a bit (which cuts down Black’s options) with 20.Bg6 since 20...Rf4 loses to 21.Be7. 

20...Qxf6 21.Qg6 Rf8?

This doesn’t give Black much hope. Even though Black’s lost after 21.Qg6, find the best way to muddy the waters.

Puzzle 6:


22...Qf4 23.Rxd6 Qe3+ 24.Kf1!

This is actually a rather deep move. White is stopping Black’s queen from moving to e2 in some lines, and he’s also prepping the very strong Re1. 24.Kh1 also won, but 24.Kf1 is much better.



Berkmaster: “Sacrificing my knight for a mating attack. I think this was a big mistake.”

JS: No, this was a brilliant move.

25...Qxd2 26.Re7??

Such a pity! White missed a stone cold winner.

Puzzle 7:


Once again giving White a forced win. See if you can find a better defense in our next puzzle.

Puzzle 8:


27.Re1 Qd2 takes us back to the position in puzzle 7, which is winning for White.

27...Ne4+ 28.Rxe4 dxe4


Losing. White had to play 29.Rd7 when Black has to find a trick to draw.

Puzzle 9:

29...Qe1+ 30.Kg4 Bc8+ 31.Kh5 exf3 32.gxf3 Qe2 33.Qg3 Kxh7 34.Rxh6+!

A final cheap shot before giving up! Sometimes these things work!


Not falling for 34...gxh6?? 35.Qg6+ with a draw by perpetual check.

35.Rg6 Rf5+ 36.Kh4 Qe7+, 0-1. A very interesting game!


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