High-Class Abacus

by admin on December 22, 2014

In a comment on my most recent post, Hal Bogner used the delightful sobriquet “high-class abacus” to describe chess computers. Quoth Hal: “What’s with this worship of high-class abacus evaluations of positions in which their evaluations are in hundredths of a pawn?”

Good question, Hal! In general I agree that you should not use a computer to evaluate a grandmaster game or any of your own games played under tournament conditions, until you have studied the game at least once without a computer. Occasionally I break this rule (for example, if I want to write about a game quickly for a blog post), but in general I stick to it. The reason is that to get the maximum educational benefit from a position, you should try to put yourself in exactly the same position again and try to do better. (Ideally, you would even recreate the tournament conditions, with a clock running as y0u analyze. However, even I am not that fanatical.)

However, there is one case where I think it’s fine to use a computer for analysis: going over blitz games. Blitz games are a dime a dozen. I never invest the kind of emotional or intellectual effort into them as a tournament game. For that reason, I do not think they demand the same effort in analysis. Blitz games are all about snap judgements, and so what I really want to know is: Are my snap judgements reasonably accurate, or is there something big that I’m overlooking? A computer can give you a quick and dirty answer to this question, which is appropriate for a quick and dirty form of chess.

Let me give two recent examples where the computer pointed out some misguided thinking in my blitz games. The first game was played at Mike Splane’s chess party last week. I was White against Austen Green, a master who moved to the Bay Area from Texas last year.

silly1FEN: 1r2k1nr/p3ppbp/2p3p1/q1p1P3/2P1QP2/1P3N2/1B4PP/1R2K2R w Kk – 0 16

Position after 15. … Qa5+. White to move.

Austen has just gone pawn-hunting on the queenside with … Qxa2 followed by … Qa5+. I was pretty skeptical of this idea, because the queenside pawn majority is rather crippled, and meanwhile his development is lagging. Nevertheless, it’s time to get concrete here. How do I get out of check?

The move I played was 16. Kf2, with the idea of connecting rooks and hopefully getting an attack on Black’s king before he can castle. However, it doesn’t really work. Austen played 16. … Qb6, defending the c-pawns, and after 17. Rhd1 Nh6 18. h3 (I’m not sure whether this was necessary) O-O he was out of danger. After many adventures, including a positional piece sacrifice, I ended up losing on time in a won endgame.

Because it was such an interesting game, we had three other people joining in the postmortem, all masters. And yet not a single one of us even had an inkling of the best move in the above position. Do you see what it is?

The high-class abacus sees it: 16. b4!! Black cannot afford to take with the pawn or rook, because White would get to play 17. Qxc6+ trapping Black’s king in the center. And if Black takes with the queen, 16. … Qxb4+, now is the time to play 17. Kf2! connecting the rooks. It’s a whole lot stronger now than in the game, because there is an immediate discovered attack threatened on Black’s queen, and even if the queen steps aside from that, White is going to take over the b-file before Black can get his king to safety.

Ironically, in the game continuation 16. Kf2 Qb6 17. Rhd1, I would have been thrilled if Black took the b-pawn. But of course he wasn’t that stupid. By playing 16. b4!! I could have taken matters into my own hands, getting rid of the b-pawn and opening the b-file by force.

What do we learn from this? Five masters had the same blind spot — they wouldn’t consider a move that puts a pawn en prise in three different ways. I think there is a legitimate psychological issue here. I have no problem sacrificing a pawn if there is only one way that it can be taken, but somehow it’s twice as hard if it can be taken in two ways, three times as hard if it can be taken three ways, etc. It makes no sense, but I see this tendency in myself. So the high-class abacus in this case has succeeded in drawing my attention to a recurring flaw in my thought process.

On to example number two. This is from a blitz game that I played against Gjon Feinstein yesterday afternoon. Gjon was playing White, and I was Black.

silly2FEN: r2q1k1r/pp3p1p/2n2B2/1Nbp3N/4p3/4P3/2PP1PPP/R2bKB1R w KQ – 0 13

Position after 12. … Bxd1. White to move.

Black has just taken White’s queen, and now has three pieces en prise: the bishop on d1, the rook at h8, and the queen. Which one should White take?

We spent 15 or 20 minutes after the game looking at the position just before this. White had played 12. Bb2xf6, allowing me to play 12. … Bg4xd1. Gjon had another option, to play 12. Bf1-e2, and that was what we spent all of our time analyzing in the post mortem. (The conclusion is that after 12. Be2 White has a slight advantage.)

Ironically, we spent zero minutes analyzing what White should do in the above position! We both operated under the assumption that of course, White has to take the queen. But it’s not true! The high-class abacus says that 13. Rxd1! leads to a big advantage for White. After 13. … Be7 (the computer’s recommendation) 14. Bxh8, White has a rook, bishop and knight for a queen. Let’s do the arithmetic, girls and boys. That’s 11 points. Black has 9 points. White should be two pawns ahead. And that’s pretty much what the computer says: White is 1.78 pawns ahead.

Why didn’t we consider this, either in the game or the post mortem? I think that there may be two separate blind spots at work. First is the tendency to always consider taking the largest piece first — especially where queens are involved. But I think that, as masters, we both understand that you have to “look at all the checks and captures.” That’s a mantra I tell my students at the Aptos Library Chess Club every week. So I’m going to blame it on a different, somewhat more sophisticated blind spot.

I think that Gjon and I, and most human chess players, have a great unease about going into positions with multiple pieces against a queen — for either side. Queen versus two rooks, queen versus three minors. We don’t have a lot of experience with such positions, and it’s tough to evaluate the nuances. Most of us would rather just avoid them.

So in the above position, after 13. Rxd1 Be7 14. Bxh8, my initial thought was that Black probably has compensation for the “two-pawn deficit.” There’s a protected passed a-pawn for White to contend with, and also White is a little bit behind in development.

On the other hand, here are some reasons the computer might be right.

  1. In a queen-versus-multiple-piece situation, the queen’s great forte is preying upon weak pawns. In this position White’s pawn formation is exceedingly solid and compact. Black is not going to be able to “steal” any pawns with forks or whatever.
  2. Black’s pawns can only go so far. They may get to b4 and a3, but it’s very hard to go any further. If Black chooses to play that way, it takes time — plenty of time for White to castle and get all of his pieces in play.
  3. Once White gets his pieces in play, they will take over the board. A rook, bishop and knight really are a heck of a lot of material. White has almost twice as many fighting units as Black does. They should be able to overwhelm Black’s queenside pawns in Benko Gambit fashion.
  4. Finally, let’s not forget that Black’s kingside has been somewhat compromised. If White manages to castle, pry open the f-file, and put his knight on f6, it will be a tower of strength.

Even with all this, I’m still not sure I accept the computer’s evaluation that the position is +1.78 for White. I would be interested in playing this position for either side. What do my esteemed readers think? What are the plans for both sides? Is the high-level abacus correct in thinking that White has a big advantage, or is it just doing the equivalent of 11 – 9 = 2?

In any case, I do think that there is a tendency for humans to discount such lines (R + B + N vs.  Q) as being too “exotic” or “hard to evaluate.” If we find them hard to evaluate, we need to work on evaluating them better.

By the way, if you’re wondering what happened in the game, after 13. Bxd8 Bxh5 14. Bf6 Rg8 15. Nc7 we got to a position where I had to find a good move (and did).

silly3FEN: r4kr1/ppN2p1p/2n2B2/2bp3b/4p3/4P3/2PP1PPP/R3KB1R b KQ – 0 15

Position after 15. Nc7. Black to play.

It looks as if White is going to win the d-pawn, with a significant advantage. What is Black’s saving move?

I believe that this was actually where Gjon made his mistake in analysis. When planning his 11th and 12th moves, he probably got to this position and stopped there, thinking that White was simply winning. The move he overlooked was 15. … Nb4! Of course, if White takes on a8, then 16. … Nxc2+ is not only a fork, it’s checkmate. Gjon played 16. Rc1, but then after 16. … Rc8 17. c3 Bb6 18. cb Rxc7 19. Rxc7 Bxc7 I got a slightly better endgame. As in the game against Austen, we eventually got to a position where I was winning on the board (queening in two moves) but my flag fell. In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s a pretty common motif when I play speed chess.

So in the end, we have to admit that chess is a pretty hard game, especially if you have only 7 minutes for the whole game. Perhaps if Gjon had spotted 15. … Nb4 earlier, he would have taken a harder look at the 13. Rxd1 idea, but since he thought he was just winning, he didn’t think he had to. That, too, is a very common human blind spot.

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Doing Something vs. Doing Nothing

by admin on December 19, 2014

Doing something is always better than doing nothing, right? Don’t our chess teachers tell us always to have a plan?

At Mike Splane’s latest chess party, we looked at a game that will have you seriously questioning that wisdom. The game was Miles-Huebner, Wijk aan Zee 1984. Mike thought that this would be a good game for us to analyze at the party because there are essentially no tactics: the game is completely played at a strategic level. What can we learn from such a game?

Here’s a brief synopsis of the game. Miles got a slight advantage out of the opening due to the two bishops and his flexible pawn duo at e4 and d4. He proceeds to do nothing for 20 moves. He shuffles his king from g1 to g2 to g1 to g2. He dances in a circle with his light-squared bishop, going from e4 to f3 to g2 to f1 to c4.

Meanwhile, Huebner rearranges his pieces and puts every one of them on its ideal square. At the end of this, Miles makes one pawn move and Huebner’s position collapses. Presumably, after the game, Huebner asks, “What the **** just happened here?”

Well, let’s see.

Anthony Miles — Robert Huebner, Wijk aan Zee 1984

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Qc2 dc 5. Qxc4 Bf5 6. g3 Nbd7 7. Bg2 e6 8. O-O Be7 9. Nc3 O-O

miles hubner 1FEN: r2q1rk1/pp1nbppp/2p1pn2/5b2/2QP4/2N2NP1/PP2PPBP/R1B2RK1 w – - 0 10

Position after 9. … O-O. White to move.

Surprisingly, even in this apparently harmless position White has to be a little bit alert. Mike wanted to play 10. Rd1 here, but it loses material. After 10. … Bc2! White’s queen is trapped! If 11. Rd2 Nb6. So White would have to give up the exchange.

Amusingly, according to ChessBase more people have played 10. Rd1? in this position (played 48 times) than Tony Miles’ move (played 44 times):

10. Bf4.

The most popular move, if you’re wondering, is 10. Re1, threatening e4. Black usually prevents this with 10. … Ne4. After Miles’ slightly unusual move, which does not threaten e4, Huebner sticks to the tried and true:

10. … Ne4.

Because this move was not required yet, Rybka suggests 10. … Qb6 first. White’s next move shows that he really does want to play Rd1, not Re1.

11. a4.

The point is that 11. Rd1?! would still be weak because of 11. … Nxc3! Then 12. bc Bc2! would once again cost White some material. And 12. Qxc3 Be4 would just be barren equality. So Miles plays a4 to give his queen a flight square. However, there is an objection to this move: it weakens b4, which becomes a perfect outpost for a Black minor piece. But which one?

11. … a5 12. Rfd1.

Mission accomplished for White. Now what should Black do?

miles hubner 2FEN: r2q1rk1/1p1nbppp/2p1p3/p4b2/P1QPnB2/2N2NP1/1P2PPBP/R2R2K1 b – - 0 12

Position after 12. Rfd1. Black to move.

This was a position that Mike really wanted to dissect, because he wanted to know: “What is Black’s plan in such positions?” Unfortunately, I think we completely failed to answer his question at the chess party.

What happened was that about four candidate moves got suggested, each with its own strong advocates. We proceeded to talk about those four moves for more than half an hour, without moving a piece or looking at any lines. There was a total lack of communication. The people who wanted to play … Nb6 didn’t listen to the people who wanted to play … Nd6. The people who wanted to play … Qb6 didn’t listen to the people who wanted to play … Nb6. The people who wanted to play … g5 (that was me) didn’t listen to the people who wanted to play … Qb6. And so it went, in a circle, getting nowhere. Finally, out of complete desperation, Gjon Feinstein (who wanted to play … Nb6) went to the board and managed to drag us through some analysis of his move, but without really convincing anybody that it was best. I’m afraid I’ve never seen a more wasted half hour at one of Mike’s parties.

Just to give the computer a chance, I put this position on Rybka and let it go for 25 minutes, almost as long as we spent at the party. After that time, its top choice is 12. … Nd6 (+0.10 pawns for White). Its second choice is 12. … g5 (My move! Yay!) (+0.19 pawns). The other moves we talked about finished sixth (12. … Nb6, +0.26 pawns) and seventh (12. … Qb6, +0.27 pawns).

I think the bottom line is that none of these moves is a mistake. They are just choices for how you want to play the game. The move Huebner chose was 12. … Qb6, which was a mistake according to the book that Mike was reading, but in my opinion no more of a mistake than anything else.

If you’re curious, the reason I wanted to play 12. … g5 was that otherwise I saw Black’s position potentially drifting into passivity, and I wanted to take advantage of the space-gaining move … Ne4 by gaining some more space. Ultimately, if I were playing Black, I would have dreams of playing … f5 and maybe working up a kingside attack. Also, 12. … g5 would have preserved the two bishops for Black, which the move in the game does not.

Anyway, after 12. … Qb6 the game continued 13. Nh4! Bxh4 14. Nxe4 Bxe4 15. Bxe4 Be7 16. Bf3 Nf6 17. e4 (diagram).

miles hubner 7FEN: r4rk1/1p2bppp/1qp1pn2/p7/P1QPPB2/5BP1/1P3P1P/R2R2K1 b – - 0 17

Position after 17. e4. Black to move.

So what should we make of this position? Well, White definitely has a slight advantage, because he has the two bishops, which are eyeing both sides of the board, and he has an advantage in space because of the pawn duo at e4 and d4. The duo is not easy to challenge with either … c5 or … e5. This is exactly the sort of “drifting into passivity” position that I was afraid of five moves earlier.

I even made a somewhat facetious remark to Mike: “If you wanted to learn how to play such positions for Black, the answer is that you should avoid them.”

However, Craig Mar was also at the party and did not share my dim view of Black’s position. He said that, knowing of my impatience for playing a waiting game, if he were playing against me he would try to get me into a position like Black’s. But in reality the situation is not so bad for Black. What Huebner undoubtedly did here was ask, “Where should I place my pieces?” Well, obviously the rooks should be doubled on the d-file, where they can focus on the most sensitive target in White’s position, the d4-pawn. It would be nice also to attack d4 with the queen and bishop, say the queen on f6 and the bishop on b6. Finally, where does the knight go? Well, White has done Black a great favor by playing a4, because this gives the knight a beautiful square on b4. The knight can never be driven away from there, and it eyes the very important square d5. That does two things: It discourages White from advancing d4-d5, because of massive exchanges on d5 leading to a draw. It also discourages White from advancing e4-e5, because Black’s knight would then gain another ideal outpost on d5.

So over the next 20 moves we’ll see Huebner head toward that arrangement of pieces. Notice that he does not worry about playing a pawn break with … c5 or … e5, reasoning that the correct pawn break will present itself after the pieces have been put in the best places.

That, my friend, is how you play this position for Black.

What about White? Well, his ideal setup is not so clear, and Miles seemingly stumbles towards it by accident. But the fact that Miles is still in control of the position, even after “wasting” several tempi, is actually part of the point. One reason that he has the advantage after move 17 is that he has the luxury of time. He does not have to commit himself yet. The two bishops will always be an advantage. The pawns at e4 and d4 will always give him more elbow room. In fact, it is absolutely imperative for him to “do nothing” in the center, because “doing something” would mean playing d5 or e5, and both of those moves are bad.

The only place where White can “do something” is on the kingside. It takes a while, but he does eventually do something there, as we will see.

The game continued: 17. … Rad8 18. Be3 Qc7 19. Rac1 Qd7 20. Rc3 Bb4 21. Rcd3 Qe7 22. Kg2 Rd7 23. b3 Rfd8 24. Bg5 h6 25. Bc1 Ba3 26. Be3 Bb4 27. h4 Ne8 28. Qc2 Nc7 29. Qe2 Na6 30. Kg1 Bd6 31. Bg2 Nb4 32. R3d2 Bc7 33. Qg4 Kf8 34. Bf1 Bb6 35. Bc4 Qf6 36. Kg2 (diagram).

miles hubner 5FEN: 3r1k2/1p1r1pp1/1bp1pq1p/p7/PnBPP1QP/1P2B1P1/3R1PK1/3R4 b – - 0 36

Position after 36. Kg2. Black to move.

This position is a turning point, and I wish we had spent more time on this position in the party than we did on move 12.

First, let me point out that White’s “doing nothing” moves were not quite as pointless as they may have seemed. 24. Bg5 provoked … h6, which as we’ll see was exceedingly important. The first 22. Kg2 served no purpose that I can see. However, 30. Kg1 was a good move, freeing g2 for the maneuver Bg2-f1. That maneuver, which seems so unthreatening, had a purpose too: to discourage … c5 (which can be met in many cases by Bb5) and to bring the bishop to c4, where it eyes the e6 pawn. In fact, we can imagine Miles going through the same sort of thought process on move 30 that Huebner did on move 17: Where do my pieces belong? The rooks and dark-squared bishop are clearly in good places, but the queen and light-squared bishop were doing nothing. 33. Qg4 was a really nice move, the sort of move that grates on your opponent like sandpaper. And the second 36. Kg2 had a point, too. If Miles was already thinking about Qh5 and g4 as a possible plan, he needed to play Kg2 first, to cover the f3 square. Notice how GM’s keep all the weak points in their position guarded.

However, I do not want to over-praise Miles. The computer actually thinks he has frittered away his advantage (which was never great to begin with). Here, Rybka says it is time for Huebner to “do nothing” and just mark time with … Bb6-c7-b6 and/or … Qf6-e7-f6. That puts the onus on White to “do something,” and in Rybka’s estimation there is nothing he can do. So Rybka gives the position a big fat 0.00, dead equal.

Alas for Huebner, he was too determined to “do something.” After focusing all of his pressure on d4, he was undoubtedly dismayed to see that he still can’t take the pawn because of 36. … Bxd4? 37. e5! — a neat tactical stroke that takes advantage of the pin on the d-file. Huebner naturally thinks that if he defends the d7 rook one more time, White will finally be forced to do something about the attack on d4. So Huebner played

36. … Ke7?

The losing move! The king is now in no man’s land: too close to the center for comfort, too far from the kingside to defend the weaknesses there. As I mentioned earlier, the pawn on h6 turns out to be the Achilles heel. Miles now plays the impressive move:

37. Qh5! …

Once again the pawn is taboo: 37. … Bxd4? 38. Bxd4 Rxd4 39. Qc5+! (even better than taking on a5) d6 40. e5, winning the rook.

Huebner realizes his king has wandered too far, and races back to safety with 37. … Kf8. But it’s too late! Now Miles playes 38. g4! One little pawn move and it’s all over. The threat is g4-g5, and if Black takes on g5 then Bxg5 skewers the queen and rook. Huebner therefore removed his rook from the booby-trapped square d8, with 38. … Rc8, but 39. g5 hg 40. Bxg5 was still decisive. White threatens mate on h8 and the queen on f6. Perhaps Huebner was under the impression that the move 40. … g6 would save him, but Miles then played the coup de grace, 41. Qh7! and Huebner resigned, because if 41. … Qg7 42. Bh6 pins and wins the queen.

Possibly the suddenness of Black’s collapse had something to do with time pressure, but in the end, “do-nothing” chess prevailed. That’s partly because of the nature of the position, which gave White time to play that way, and it’s also because Miles’s “do-nothing” moves actually did some subtle things, such as inducing … h6, freeing the queen to go to g4 and h5, and defending the f3 square so that the g-pawn could advance.

A very fine game by both Miles and Huebner, but especially by Miles. To me, such a game is like a painting, where the individual brush strokes and the order they are placed are not as important as the overall picture. As a chess player I tend to focus on individual moves, but it is clear that both players in this game thought in terms of the “big picture.” It is difficult to reach that level of mastery, but something we should all strive for.

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Russian 101 (off-topic)

December 11, 2014

To anyone who wants to learn Russian, I have one small warning: One of the first words you’ll see is also the second-hardest word to pronounce. The word is “Hello,” or in Russian, “Zdravstvooeetye.” That’s the bad news. The good news is that once you’ve learned that word, all the other words (except one) are […]

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Khachiyan’s lecture, plus thoughts on my style

December 10, 2014

Thanks to Gjon Feinstein and Mike Splane for telling me that GM Melikset Khachiyan has posted a lecture on chess.com about the game that we played in the recent Reno tournament. If you’re a member of chess.com (and you should be, because membership is free), go and check out his lecture. My short description: It’s […]

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Bad Trap, Good Lesson

December 9, 2014

Today’s chess club at the Aptos Library was one of the best I can remember. We had 18 kids, and everybody seemed to find a good match to play against. In the lesson I talked about an age-old trap: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nd4? 4. Nxe5?! Qg5 5. Nxf7?? Qxg2 6. […]

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Pop Goes the Kitty

December 8, 2014

I’m sure that some of you have noticed that I haven’t posted in a couple weeks. The main reason is that I’ve been pretty busy doing my real job. I have made some time for chess (studying the games from my last tournament, in Reno) but not for chess blogging. I’ve been a little bit […]

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Carlsen-Anand: Post Mortem

November 23, 2014

Today, as I expect most readers of this blog know already, Magnus Carlsen won the 11th game of his match with Viswanathan Anand to retain his world championship title. The final score of the match was 6½-4½ (+3 – 1 =7 for Carlsen). What can I say? I think the primary reaction of the chess […]

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Queen and Bishop versus Two Rooks

November 15, 2014

A couple days ago I read this in Wikipedia’s entry called Chess endgame: Queen and bishop versus two rooks. This was thought to be a draw [before computer tablebases -- DM] but the queen and bishop usually win. It takes up to 84 moves. This got me curious. Like most players, I only know the […]

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Wrong Moves and Wrong Conceptions

November 12, 2014

At Mike Splane’s last chess party, the question came up: “Is one bad move enough to lose a game?” Of course the answer is yes, if the move is really, really bad, like hanging a rook or a queen. But in games between more or less experienced players, say above a 1500 rating, outright blunders […]

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Carlsen-Anand: A Mathematical Analysis

November 11, 2014

Today a seismic shift happened in the world championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand. Vishy finally won a game! Last year, you might remember, Carlsen defeated Anand without even losing a single game. Even though Anand went into the match as the world champion, he didn’t even look as if he was in […]

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