Requiem for a Gentleman I Never Knew

by admin on September 23, 2018

Once upon a time there were two guys who liked to play chess in a park. One of them worked for a tech company, and the other had an idea. Why not build a chess website that would be both a hangout and a database? They didn’t really have a plan for making money, but it didn’t seem to matter. This was 2000, during the first dot-com boom, an era when it seemed as if anybody could set up a website and the world would come to it.

And so Chessgames.com opened its (virtual) doors in 2001, and lo, the chess world came. The membership grew to more than 200,000. The number of games in the database grew to more than 700,000. Everything was wonderful. Then one of the co-founders died.

But it was still okay, because the other co-founder, the tech guy was still alive and young and kept the website running with its own unique flavor that mixed chess geekdom with Reddit-style no-holds-barred user commentary. If you didn’t want to spend money on a database program, Chessgames.com was the premier free solution.

But then, completely out of the blue, the other co-founder, Daniel Freeman, died just two months ago at a mere 50 years of age. And now there are real questions surrounding the future of what has been for years one of the go-to chess websites.

First, let me say that I never knew Daniel Freeman, never had any contact with him except through visiting the website and appreciating his handiwork. However, the tributes that poured into the website in the days after his death all testified to the fact that he was a gentleman who treated every visitor who had a question as if that person was the only visitor to his website. If you submitted your game to Chessgames, you got a personal answer from Freeman. Even the trolls and flame-war lovers, of whom there were quite a few, didn’t seem to mind too much when Freeman told them they had gone too far. He was one of the most tolerant webmasters around, so if he said you had gone too far, you probably had.

In the aftermath of Freeman’s sudden death on July 24, a long-time user and friend who goes by the user name of Sargon (no one, not even Wikipedia, seems to know his real name) posted that he was going to keep the site running. He candidly admitted that he did not know all the ins and outs of the administrative software, but he knows enough. To those who say that the sky is falling in, he has said, “Don’t panic.” Chessgames may be running behind in posting new games, and some other things may be glitchy, and the trolls may be running wild, but the site is not going anywhere.

Still, one does have to worry a little bit. The ownership of the site is not clear, at least from the outside. The legal ramifications of a death can take a while to work themselves out. And even if it had happened in a less traumatic way, this kind of transition is exactly the problem with a one-man show, which describes a lot of Internet businesses.

I used to work for a nearly one-man show, ChessLecture.com. It ran great for a few years, but inevitably the pressure wore down the guy who was running it, and we went through a similar Perilous Transition. New owners were found who kept the website running and who have improved it in various small ways. But it was a difficult time and I think that it permanently impacted the site’s membership base. That and the fact that so many other sites, like chess.com and YouTube, have lessons that you can view for free.

My experience makes me think that the long-term solution for Chessgames.com cannot be simply transitioning to another one-man show. Whoever he is, “Sargon” will eventually run out of energy and/or enthusiasm, and probably faster than Freeman did. I hope that Chessgames will find a more sustainable business model, and a larger and more stable ownership. Frankly, this seems to me like something that either the USCF or Rex Sinquefield ought to support, because it provides such a huge service to the chess community.

Freeman, a 1700-level player, included seven games of his own on the Chessgames database. Although the database is supposed to consist mostly of master games, I don’t think that anyone would begrudge him this small bit of self-indulgence. One of the seven games is particularly notable, because of who his opponent was. And it was quite an exciting battle, which teaches an important lesson.

Daniel Freeman (1726) — Ray Robson (1972)

U.S. Open 2004

When this game was played, Robson was nine years old!

1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Be7 5. e3 O-O 6. Qc2 h6 7. h4 …

Of course, White is begging Black to take the bishop and open the h-file for him. But Black doesn’t have to take the bait, and it is open to debate whether this move is creating a long-term weakness or serving as the launching pad for a kingside attack. White is committed now to castling queenside, which as this game shows is a risky choice in a queen pawn opening.

7. … b6 8. cd ed 9. Bd3 Be6 10. Nf3 c5 11. Bxf6 Bxf6 12. O-O-O Qc8 13. Ng5?! …

This move looks a bit like an amateur’s move to me, although the computer does not suggest anything much better. White is again playing “hope chess,” hoping that Black will take the knight and kick-start White’s attack. On the plus side, White is trying to put pressure on his opponent, and one has to commend Freeman for that. But meanwhile, the knight has moved away from the center, causing the d4-pawn to become especially weak. Robson wastes no time in taking advantage of that fact.

13. … Nc6

Rybka thinks that taking on d4 right away is slightly better, but this move cannot be wrong.

Now White’s “hope chess” really goes into overdrive.

Position after 13. … Nc6. White to move.

FEN: r1q2rk1/p4pp1/1pn1bb1p/2pp2N1/3P3P/2NBP3/PPQ2PP1/2KR3R w – – 0 14

Here the computer and I agree that White’s best try would be 14. Nh7. This move at least creates some kind of tangible result of the knight sortie. After, say, 14. … Nb4 15. Nxf6+ gf 16. Qb1 c4 White’s position is congested, but at least he has compromised Black’s pawn structure on the kingside, so there are chances for both sides. (Rybka says it’s equal.)

But Freeman played the shocking piece sacrifice 14. Nxd5?

What was he thinking about? Fortunately, he has told us his thoughts: “Yes, 14. Nxd5? was an error, but it wasn’t a mindless error. I became engrossed with the variation 14. Nxd5 Bxd5? 15. Ba6! winning the queen. However, I also found that the intermezzo 14. … Bxg5! seemed to refute my idea, although I had a vague feeling that it still might leave me with an attack.

At that point, I committed a cardinal sin of chess: I bluffed. I had fallen in love with my conception so much that I decided to play it anyhow, hoping that my young opponent wouldn’t be savvy enough to find the best defense. Bluffing is for poker, not chess.”

Well said! I especially like the part about not falling in love with your own ideas. This is a very important point on the road to chess mastery. For every tactical trick that a chess master plays, he sees at least two more that don’t work. To be a master, you have to be stone cold sober in your assessments. If it doesn’t work, you don’t play it, period. But also masters are very adept at keeping these ideas alive as possibilities, which might become playable one move or five moves down the road.

It goes without saying that I also agree with Freeman about bluffing. Every now and then a bluff might work, but usually it will not. You will lose more than you win, and your understanding of chess will not improve, because you took the easy way out (the bluff) instead of doing the hard work of figuring out what is actually the best move.

There are times when you honestly cannot tell whether a sacrifice is sound or not, and there are times when you might rely on the fact that it’s harder to defend than attack. This kind of bluff is perfectly okay. Often your opponents won’t take the material, because they have learned the same lessons too. But playing a move after you have seen what is wrong with it is definitely a recipe for disaster. It should be done only if you are in a completely lost position anyway. (If you can see refutations to all your moves, it becomes a matter of deciding which refutation will be hardest for the opponent to find.)

Robson, a future grandmaster, of course does not fall for Freeman’s bluff, and tears into his position with great gusto.

14. … Bxg5! 15. hg Bxd5 16. gh Nb4 17. Bh7+ Kh8 18. hg+ Kxg7

At least White has succeeded in opening the h-file. Not time to give up yet.

19. Qe2 cd+ 20. Kb1 Bxa2+ 21. Ka1 Bc4!

Giving the queen a route into the attack.

22. Qh5 Qa6+ 23. Kb1 Ba2+

And now, curiously enough, we have arrived at exactly the kind of position I was just talking about. Both of White’s king moves lose, but which one makes it hardest for Black to finish the game?

Position after 23. … Ba2+. White to move.

FEN: r4r2/p4pkB/qp6/7Q/1n1p4/4P3/bP3PP1/1K1R3R w – – 0 24

Here, if I were playing White, I would have played 24. Ka1. This counterintuitive move, walking back into the lion’s den, of course loses. But the point is that Black cannot win just by playing checks. He does not have a mating net. (That bishop on h7, in fact, does a great job of defense; Black can never play a move like Nd3+ or Nc2+ because the bishop takes it and then Black’s king is in a mating net.)

The problem for Black is that if he can’t checkmate White directly, or at least trade off either the queen or the rook at h1, then Black will have to play at least one move of defense. Here is what happens if Black goes for Maximal Attack With No Defense: 24. Ka1!? Bb3+ 25. Kb1 Qa2+ 26. Kc1 Rac8+? (26. … Rfc8+ is better, creating luft for the king) 27. Kd2 de+ 28. Kxe3! Rfe8+ 29. Kf4!! and Black has no way to checkmate and no good way to prevent Qh6+. According to Rybka, his only choice is 29. … Qxb2 30. Qh6+ = with perpetual check. I could totally see many players falling into this, although maybe not Robson.

Instead the silicon monster says that Black should play 24. Ka1 Bb3+ 25. Kb1 Qa2+ 26. Kc1 Rfc8+! 27. Kd2 Qxb2+ 28. Ke1 Kf8! Black’s king runs away and, supposedly, White can’t catch him. But if I’m White, I’m totally fine with this variation. If I can force Black to play some defensive moves, then I still have a chance. Even if I lose, it will be an honorable defeat.

Instead Freeman played the more natural 24. Kc1?!, which allows the young prodigy to win without ever breaking a sweat.

24. … Qc4+! 25. Kd2 de+ 26. Kxe3 Rfe8+ 27. Kf3 …

Note that in this variation, Kf4 is not possible.

27. … Qe2+ 28. Kg3 Qxh5

Mission accomplished. The attack is defused, and Black’s extra piece will win easily. Freeman played one more move, 29. Rxh5, but then he either resigned or lost on time.

Lessons:

  1. Don’t fall in love with your own ideas.
  2. Don’t play “hope chess.”
  3. Don’t bluff. (This is another form of hope chess.)
  4. But if you’re in a lost position, do play the move that gives your opponent the greatest chance to go wrong.
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The Moves You Don’t Even Look At

by admin on September 16, 2018

Sometime in my early twenties, I read Alexander Kotov’s famous book Think Like a Grandmaster, which revolutionized how chess players think about thinking. From Kotov I learned the idea of making a list of candidate moves, and analyzing each move once and only once (instead of bouncing back and forth between variations, which was my habit at the time).

Nevertheless, Kotov’s system had one big flaw, which many people have pointed out: Where do the candidate moves come from? There are actually two parts to this question: Where do you get the ideas for good moves, and how do you rule out the bad moves? In most chess positions, there are between 30 and 40 possible moves, and the great majority of them have to be ruled out instinctively. Otherwise we would never get anywhere in our analysis. Computers, of course, don’t rule any moves out, and that’s one reason they come up so often with ideas that shock us.

Here’s a game I played against the computer yesterday that really shocked me. Not the game itself (which I won), but the analysis afterwards, when I realized (with the computer’s help) that the move I played was wrong, and the move I discarded without even analyzing it was right.


Position after 35. … Rf8. White to move.

FEN: 5rk1/1p3p2/3qn3/pP1pNpPp/P1pP3P/2P5/KQ6/4R3 w – – 0 36

I was playing White and Shredder, with its rating set to 2220 so that it makes a mistake occasionally, was Black. I felt very good about my position. Although I am a pawn down, my knight on e5 is in a beautiful, dominating position, and my king is completely safe, so that I can concentrate all my forces on attacking Black’s weaknesses and attacking his king. And there are lots of weaknesses to attack: the pawns on d5, f5, and h5.

However, playing devil’s advocate for a second, we can also look at the position from Black’s point of view. Although his kingside pawns are kind of loose, after an eventual … Ng7 it’s not exactly clear how White will win any of them. I once lost a game against Jesse Kraai in somewhat similar circumstances. In that game, too, I had sacrificed a pawn to mess up his pawn structure, thinking, “Oh, I can win back that pawn any time.” But until you win it back, a pawn is a pawn. You can’t just dismiss Black’s material advantage. Furthermore, Black’s last move, 35. … Rf8, was almost surely made with the idea of (at some point) playing … f6, trading off a pair of pawns, and turning that weak extra pawn on f5 into a strong extra pawn.

I’ve given you this background so that you’ll understand why I never even analyzed the best move for White.

I took a time-out here, and I started out very well. The first thing I figured out was that Black’s “threat” to play … f6 is not a threat. For example, if 36. Rf1 f6 37. gf Rxf6 38. Qg2+ Ng7 39. Rg1!, an amusing situation has arisen where Black has no way to defend the knight on g7 without either losing the exchange or losing the pawn on d5 (after which his position would collapse). If instead Black moves his king instead of playing 38. … Ng7, for example 38. … Kf8, I was able to work out to my satisfaction that 39. Rg1 gave me a winning attack with ideas like Qg8+, Qh7, Rg8 or Re1, etc.

Now here’s what I should have thought: if the exchange of pawns is bad for Black, why should I wait for him to initiate it? Why don’t I initiate it? That would have led me to the candidate move 36. g6! If Black tries to keep the position closed with 36. … f6, then 37. Nf7 looks really good. It’s very hard for Black to keep White from invading to h6 with the queen and checkmating him. Probably Black would have to give up the exchange with 37. … Rxf7 38. gf+ Kxf7, but I think White is probably winning here because all of those weaknesses remain. On the other hand, if Black does trade pawns, with 36. … fg 37. Nxg6 Rf7 (or 37. … Rf6 38. Qg2 Ng7? 39. Qxd5! Qxd5 40. Ne7+ — a very thematic idea), White has tons of pressure not only on the three weak pawns but also on the g-file. The knight on g6 is a thorn in Black’s side that can go either to e5, or f4, or even to e7 or f8 with surprise checks, as in the blue variation I just showed you. The plan of Rg1, Rg5, Qf3, and Nf4 — winning the h-pawn with ongoing pressure against the king — is difficult for Black to stop. Rybka (the computer program I use for analysis) gives White about a 1.2-pawn advantage.

Why didn’t I see this? It’s so logical! Here’s why: Because I ruled out 36. g6 even before I began. Even with a 30-minute time-out, I never actually analyzed it. It was one of those moves that I “instinctively eliminated” from my candidate move list. Why? Because I thought it was playing right into Black’s hands. As I said before, it eliminates the doubled pawns and turns the (optically) weak pawn on f5 into an (optically) strong pawn that is defended by the rook. And even though I had just analyzed a line (the line in red above) where the combination of pressure on d5, h5, and along the g-file was decisive, I somehow thought of that as a peculiarity of that particular arrangement of pieces, rather than a fundamental truth about the position.

Now here’s what I thought instead. After realizing that 36. … f6 was not a threat, I felt that I had essentially a free move to improve my position. I looked at moves like 36. Qe2 and 36. Rf1, but I didn’t really see a way for White to break through Black’s fortress after … Ng7. (And indeed, there probably isn’t any way to do it without the extra punch of an open g-file!)

Then I drew on my vast wisdom accumulated by going to many of Mike Splane’s chess parties, and I asked myself, “What is the worst piece in White’s position?” And I came up with a stunning answer: the knight on e5! That’s right, when you think about it, the pride and joy of White’s position is all saddled up but has absolutely no place to go. Its only move is back to f3. Not only that, on e5 the knight is somewhat in the way of White’s rook, which also would love to come to e5.

So I asked myself, “How can I increase the power of my knight?” And I once again failed to consider the obvious answer: push my pawn to g6! If I do that, I will gain either g6 or f7 for my knight. But again, I couldn’t even bring myself to consider that possibility. And you can sort of understand why. After 36. g6 fg 37. Nxg6 the knight doesn’t look as if it has found a permanent outpost — it looks as if it’s just floating in air and will be driven away soon. You have to look at the position carefully to realize that it is in fact untouchable; for example, you have to see tricks like 37. … Rf7 38. Qe2 Nxd4? 39. Qe8+ Kg7 40. Qh8+ Kxg6 41. Rg1+ with mate to follow.

Instead I thought, “Aha! I can play 36. b6 followed by 37. Qb5! This not only gives me the possibility of winning back my pawn with Qxa5, but it also threatens Nd7, after which the knight will come to f6 and my game will win itself.”

So that’s what I played. And it worked! But it shouldn’t have.

36. b6? Nf4 37. Qb5? …

And now Shredder did me an unbelievable favor. According to Rybka, it should have played 37. … Nd3! 38. Nxd3 cd 39. Qxd3 f4! 40. Qb5 Rc8! Now all of a sudden it is White who has all the weaknesses, while Black’s previously weak f-pawn is turning into a menace! Rybka rates this position at +1 pawn for Black.

Instead, perhaps because it was set at 2220 strength instead of 2600 strength, Shredder played 37. … Ng2? 38. Re2 Nxh4? (diagram)

Position after 38. … Nxh4. White to move.

FEN: 5rk1/1p3p2/1P1q4/pQ1pNpPp/P1pP3n/2P5/K3R3/8 w – – 0 39

Shredder has won a second pawn, but allowed me to carry out my faulty plan.

39. Nd7! Nf3?

Probably 39. … Ng6 was best. Black has to give up the exchange. For instance, if 39. … Rd8 White has the wonderful finish (reminiscent of what actually happens in the game) 40. Qc5! Note that the threat is 41. Qxd6+ followed by 42. Re8+ followed by mate. So Black is basically forced to play 40. … Qxc5 dc. But because of the ongoing threat of the back rank mate, he is essentially powerless to prevent c6, cb, and b8Q.

40. Nxf8 Kxf8

And here it dawned on me that this was not a position where I was going to have to slog through a complicated exchange-versus-two-pawns endgame. It’s a position where I’m queening a pawn in five moves.

41. Qc5! Qxc5 42. dc …

Shredder can do whatever it wants on the kingside, but it can’t stop me from queening on b8.

42. … Nb1 43. c6! …

Sure, go ahead, take my rook.

43. … Nxe2 44. cb Ke7 45. b8Q Nxc3+ 46. Ka3 Black resigns.

You can see why I was super excited after this game! It looked as if I had won a beautiful game by asking the question, “What is my worst piece and how can I make it better?” But I was wrong! I only won because Shredder played too materialistically. In fact, I was too materialistic, too — allowing myself to be distracted by irrelevancies like winning the pawn on a5. And most unforgivably, my materialism prevented me from even considering the correct move, 36. g6!

What can we learn from this? How can we teach ourselves to think the thought that our brains refuse to think? This question may be beyond a poor mortal such as me. Or even Kotov.

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“Where Did I Go Wrong?”

September 13, 2018

“Where did I go wrong?” is a lament that every chess player sings at one time or another. Here’s a game I played against Shredder, the computer, recently that had me totally baffled after the game was over. I felt as if I was winning the whole way, but in the end I had to […]

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Chess Tsunami Hits San Francisco Bay

September 4, 2018

When you are an adult playing chess in the San Francisco Bay area, it sometimes feels as if you are that last person holding your finger in the dike, trying to keep the sea of young players from completely wiping out the older generation. Sometimes, the old folks actually do win. And then there are […]

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Epic Fails

September 1, 2018

In my blog posts I probably give the impression that I win most of my games against the computer. Of course, it’s only natural that I prefer to show the games where I played well. Also, because I intend this blog to have some instructional value for human players, I feel as if my readers […]

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It’s All About Timing

August 27, 2018

Who do you think is better in this position? What is White’s plan, and what should he do next move? Position after 25. … Nf8. White to move. FEN: r3rnk1/4pp2/1qnpb1p1/p1p3Pp/PpP1PP1N/1P1P2QP/1RN1B3/5R1K w – – 0 26 In this game I was playing White against Shredder, the computer, set at a 2050 rating. It had thrashed around […]

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Abstract Versus Concrete

August 24, 2018

Here’s a game I played against the computer that I thought was really interesting — not in a “fireworks” way but in a “strategical planning” way. It went down to a queen-and-pawn endgame, but what is interesting is that the endgame was present as a looming possibility throughout the middlegame, and affected all the middlegame […]

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Dolg, Nyega, and A Gentleman in Moscow

August 20, 2018

Why not start out the week with a book review? Okay, I admit it will take us off topic, but I really enjoyed Amor Towles’ novel A Gentleman in Moscow and would like to encourage other people to read it. I remember my Russian teacher in college expounding at length on certain concepts he felt […]

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A Reunion and a Paradox

August 13, 2018

Three posts in three days! Woo-hoo! I’m not promising to make it four for four, though. Last night I had a reunion with a former student of mine named Cole Ryan. He was one of the few kids who stuck with the Aptos Library Chess Club all the way through high school. (And he also […]

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The Statute of Limitations

August 12, 2018

Two posts in one weekend! Just for fun, here is another game between me and my computer. It’s a King’s Gambit that goes a little bit haywire, but most unexpectedly goes all the way down to an opposite color bishops endgame. I find it fairly hard to beat the computer with the King’s Gambit. It […]

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