27 June 2015

Whispering a Fond Adieu!

They say, 'a watched pot never boils'. It seems the chess960 pot is in a constant simmer, but its boiling point remains as elusive as ever. My first blog post on the subject was Shall We Play Fischerandom Chess? (August 2008), and this post will be my last, at least for the foreseeable future. It's time to turn my attention elsewhere.

Google image search on 'chess960'

Heartfelt thanks to the many visitors to this blog for taking an interest in chess960. Special thanks to the two serial commentators -- GeneM and HarryO (in alphabetical order) -- who kept me honest because I knew each new blog post would get at least two hits.

A few months ago I received an email from GeneM, aka Gene Milener, aka the author of 'Play Stronger Chess by Examining Chess960'. He wrote,

In January 2006 I published a book about chess960. This year I will publish another chess book. Even though this new book is not about chess960, I am adding a section in its appendix to discuss or update the state of chess960 now that a decade has passed. Inasmuch as you have become the preeminent voice about chess960, I wondered whether you might be interested in contributing an essay for your own attributed subsection -- on your thoughts about the current state of chess960?

I first thought of this appendix chapter as an 'Epilogue' about chess960, but that sounded too final, like chess960 did not make it and died. I rather think that changes on this scale take time as measured by generations. So instead the chapter will be presented as something like the 'Current State of Chess960 in 2015'.

For years in your blog you have put spotlight and microscope on a broad variety of specific topics within the chess960 realm. Having read your chess960 blog every weekend now for years, I am curious to see what your assessment will be when you step back to consider how the overall picture has evolved, where it stands in 2015, and where it might be headed a generation or two from now.

My essay can be found at Fischer Chess in the Year 2015. I also told Gene,

If I were writing this for the web, I would link to my post debunking certain myths: Top 10 Myths About Chess960. I consider it my top contribution to understanding chess960.

When Gene's book eventually hits the web, I'll mention it on my main blog 'Chess for All Ages' (see the link in the right navigation bar), the same place where I'll post any new reports related to chess960. I agree with Gene that the acceptance of chess960 will 'take time as measured by generations' and I will continue to play for as long as there are opponents interested in Fischer's greatest invention.

Bye for now! - Mark

21 June 2015

Updated Database of SPs (2015-06)

I don't particularly like blog maintenance chores, but there have been so many recent posts dealing with specific positions that my database -- last seen in Updated Database of SPs (2014-10) -- needed a refresh. Of the dozen-or-so posts that were included, SP864 - BBQRKRNN won the popularity prize with three separate posts. I nominate it for the title of 'Most Difficult SP for Black'.

13 June 2015

Being Outplayed

The last of my five lost games from On a Losing Streak was the toughest. As start position, my opponent and I were given SP953 RKRBBNNQ. Once again, as in the other four losses, I had the Black pieces.

All chess960 start positions present their own special challenges and this one has two striking features. The first is the RKR bunched in the corner and the second is the Queen in the opposite corner. The minor pieces are placed between them in one of four possible arrangements.

I use the castling options as a guide to early play and decided to keep those options for as long as possible. While castling O-O-O looks to be the most likely choice, the Rook on the c-file has to move before this is possible. Before that happens, castling O-O might also be possible.

The first moves were 1.f4 d5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 Nf6 4.N1d2 Ng6 5.e3 Qf8, reaching the position shown in the top diagram. The two players have chosen different paths to develop the Knights. For my next moves I intended to move the diagonal pieces off the back rank, then castle O-O.

Before I could execute that plan, the position became very tactical. After the moves 6.c4 c5 7.Qf1 a6 8.a4 cxd4 9.Nxd4 Bd7 10.g4 Bb6, we reached the position in the bottom diagram.

My opponent played 11.Bg3, threatening discovered check, and I replied 11...Qb4, ignoring the threat while attacking the Knight on d2. After the further 12.f5+ Ka7, my castling strategy was in tatters. The next moves were 13.Nb5+ Bxb5 14.axb5 Qxd2 15.fxg6 a5, after which I let my opponent's advanced Pawn settle on h7, which proved to be enough to win the game 30 moves later.

Somewhere in the moves between the two diagrams I made a mistake. Even after looking at the game a second time while preparing this post, I still can't pinpoint it. Sometimes you lose simply because your opponent plays better than you do. It's called being 'outplayed'.

06 June 2015

Botched Castling

In my first three examples from On a Losing Streak, I could point to a section of the game where my play was substandard. In this next game my play was a botch from start to finish. Like the game from the previous post, An Imperfect Understanding, it was played on the LSS server.

I had Black in SP242 BNRKQBNR, where my opponent opened 1.O-O-O, and commented, 'What a funny first move! LOL!'. I had just finished the game described in 'Losing Streak', where I played 1...O-O-O!?, followed by a dubious idea. For this next game I decided to take a different road and to avoid castling for as long as possible.

The next moves were 1...e5 2.e4 a6 3.b3 b5 4.d3 Nc6 5.f4 f6, reaching the position shown in the top diagram. At some point during this sequence -- with 2...a6 & 3...b5 played to 'take advantage' of my opponent's early castling -- I realized that I had forfeited the possibility of castling 1...O-O-O, and would have to find another way to keep my King safe.

The next five moves were 6.Nc3 Bd6 7.Kb1 exf4 8.Nce2 Nge7 9.Nh3 Ng6 10.Qf2 Qe6, reaching the position shown in the bottom diagram. White is temporarily a Pawn down, but its recapture is guaranteed.

Instead of recapturing the Pawn, White went for a real sacrifice with 11.g3!. After accepting it I tried to get some counterplay with ...c5 and ...c4, but my opponent played d3-d4-d5, locking the Bishop on a8 out of play. By the time I decided to castle ...O-O on the 19th move, White had complete control of the center. The Kingside attack on the open g- & h-files was quick and decisive. When I resigned on the 36th move, material was still equal, but White was preparing an invasion that would net a few Black Pawns.

The castling choice in chess960 is often a difficult decision. Ignoring the common sense option can be a path to quick defeat.

30 May 2015

An Imperfect Understanding

Both game one of On a Losing Streak and game two, Passive vs. Active Play, were played on SchemingMind.com. The next three games were played on LSS. The biggest difference between the two sites is that engines are forbidden on SM, but allowed on LSS. That means the games on LSS are generally tougher and of higher quality.

For this next game I had Black in SP388 QBBRNNKR. The Queen is in the corner and the three diagonal pieces on adjacent files are aimed at the enemy King, While it might be advisable to get the King away from their influence by castling O-O-O, this is probably not going to happen. Opening the diagonals means moving Pawns, which means the Queenside will be too loose for the King.

The first moves of the game were 1.d4 d5 2.b3 c6 3.c4 Nf6 4.cxd5 cxd5 5.Ba3 Bd6 6.Bxd6 Rxd6 7.Ne3 Ne6 8.Nd3 O-O 9.O-O, leading to the position in the top diagram. After both players have castled, a chess960 game often starts to look like a position that could have arisen in traditional chess, and that is the case here. While I wasn't entirely comfortable with my position -- the pieces, especially the Rook, are not well coordinated -- I didn't feel that I was in any particular danger. My next few moves would be spent developing the rest of my pieces and coordinating them into some sort of a plan.

White has an awkward threat in Ne3-f5, so I played 9...g6, planning to reposition the Knight via g7, thereby opening the diagonal for the Bishop on c8. White played 10.f4, a move which I had underestimated. The hole on e4 is not really useful for Black, while White is planning to operate on the f-file with the possibility of switching a Rook to the h-file to support an attack on the King.

The game continued 10...Bd7 11.Ne5 Qd8 12.Qb2 Ng7 13.g4, leading to the bottom diagram.

Now I started to feel really uncomfortable. With every move White is building a Kingside attack, while Black has not yet latched on to a real plan. More pseudo-active moves for Black followed -- 13...Bc6 14.f5 Nd7 15.Qd2 Qb6 -- but after 16.Nf3, how does Black continue? I felt that my position was teetering on disaster and engine analysis confirmed it. White continued to whip up a terrific attack, I played on in an increasingly hopeless position, and finally resigned well after I should have.

Going back to the top diagram, I still can't find a better plan for Black. If that position is bad for Black, then I must have made a mistake in the moves preceding castling. But where? Was it a general problem of not finding an effective plan earlier in the game? If so, how to avoid this in the future? I'm afraid that there's something here that I'm not understanding.

23 May 2015

Passive vs. Active Play

Continuing with On a Losing Streak,
In recent months I've lost five important chess960 games. In most of those games I'm not even sure why I lost, so I'm going to spend a few posts looking at them in more depth. Perhaps I can uncover a general pattern of weakness in my play.

There were some extenuating factors in the string of losses:-

  • My opponents were competent players, rated 2000+
  • I had too many simultaneous games, including traditional chess, most of them against good opponents
  • The countdown time control was used in three games
  • I had a new tool set, i.e. software and methodology

In all five games I had Black, one of two parallel games with the same opponents where I drew the game where I had White. Achieving +0-1=1 in a single two game mini-match is not a good score; what to say of five such mini-matches?

I've already discussed the countdown time control in two previous posts -- The Lechenicher SchachServer (December 2012) and Thinking Time Can Be a Guide (January 2014) -- where the entire time for a game is allocated at the start of the game. There are no further increments. I now try to play these at the rhythm of one move a day, planning to increase the tempo when the game reaches the endgame. The non-countdown games were also played at a move per day, with a fixed time allocation at the start of the game and one day added per move.

As for the new tool set, the most important consideration is to be comfortable with the methodology. I normally practice a new methodology on unimportant games before trying it important games, but I had no such opportunity before these games were played.

The following game, like the game I discussed in 'Losing Streak', was played in a team match on the SchemingMind server, where I was on first board. SchemingMind is particularly difficult at fast time controls because of the site's no-engine policy.

We were assigned start position SP849 BRKBNRNQ. The most striking characteristic of this SP is the Queen in the corner, facing a Bishop on the long diagonal. After the initial moves 1.Nd3 f5 2.e3 e6 3.f4 g6 4.g4 fxg4 5.Bxg4 Bf6 6.Bf3 Ne7 7.e4 b6, we reached the position shown in the top diagram.

After the further 8.e5 Bxf3 9.Qxf3, I was comfortable with my position and played 9...Bh4, leaving the square g7 for the other pieces. The Bishop is slightly out of play on h4, but is in no particular danger. Now my opponent played 10.b4, a move which I had underestimated. Not only does it develop the Ba1, it also prepares the Rook lift Rb1-b3, where the Rook will operate on both wings. Combined with White's space advantage, this will present ongoing problems for Black. I was no longer feeling so comfortable.

After the further moves 10...Qg7 11.Ne2 c6 12.Nc3 g5 13.Ne4 Qg6 14.Nd6+ Nxd6 15.exd6 Nf5 16.Ne5 Qe8, the game reached the position shown in the bottom diagram. Here White played 17.Rb3. Now I had to decide how to wriggle out of my constricted position.

The move 17...Rb7 proceeds positionally; Black's Rook is temporarily out of play, but by continuing Kb8-a8, the King will be relatively safe in the corner while Black frees his position with Queenside Pawn moves. The move 17...Nxd6 leads to a tactical melee, where White has the upper hand because of the space advantage. I chose 17...Rb7.

My game proceeded as I just outlined, where I eventually sacrificed a Pawn to free the Rook on b7. I hoped to regain the Pawn by capturing on d6, but White was always able to defend it. I eventually tried to set up a fortress, but White was able to breach my defense and I resigned after 70 moves had been played.

If I had to play the position in the second diagram again -- which, given the nature of chess960, I never will -- I would try 17...Nxd6. With active play you might lose quickly, but sitting there for 50 moves struggling to escape a passive position is no fun either.

16 May 2015

On a Losing Streak

In recent months I've lost five important chess960 games. In most of those games I'm not even sure why I lost, so I'm going to spend a few posts looking at them in more depth. Perhaps I can uncover a general pattern of weakness in my play.

The first game I lost was in round three of the 2014 SchemingMind Chess960 Dropout Tournament. The last time I discussed a game from this type of tournament was for the 2013 event in The Initial Positional Considerations. I had played my opponent in three previous games, all of them draws. I told him, 'I see we're +0-0=3 in past games. Time for a tiebreaker?', and he answered, 'I think so!' He was White in SP218 NQRKBBNR and played 1.c4, giving the position shown in the top diagram.

I don't know what came over me in this position; perhaps it was an unconscious urge to take a risk. I normally would have played something like 1...c5, maintaining symmetry. Instead I saw the possibility of playing a gambit and after some analysis decided to roll the dice. I played 1...O-O-O.

My opponent played 2.d4, the move that I was expecting. I answered with a Pawn sacrifice, 2...e5, reaching the position in the bottom diagram. After 3.dxe5 f6 4.exf6 Nxf6, my gambit idea was achieved.

What does Black have for the Pawn? I thought the moves ...d5 and ...Bg6 would give me active play, especially since it's not clear where the White King will eventually castle to find safety. White played 5.e4, meeting both of my 'active' ideas and challenging me to find a new idea.

Now the idea 5...d5 6.exd5, doesn't work. The game continued 5...c6 6.Nb3 Bg6 7.Bd3, where another 'active' idea 7...Ng4, is met with 8.Nh3. After the further moves 7...Nb6 8.Ne2 Ng4 9.O-O-O, White's King is perfectly safe and Black has nothing for the Pawn. My position went from bad to worse to lost, and I resigned on the 33rd move, my King in the center, subject to a vicious attack.

In retrospect I would give my moves 1...O-O-O a '!?' and 2...e5 a '?!'. I can't think of a first move for Black in traditional chess that deserves a '!?'. After the game, my opponent said, 'I have found from past personal experience, castling on the first move makes for a very difficult game!' I could hardly disagree with him, especially when it is followed by a dubious gambit.