Another Excellent Training Game

by admin on November 21, 2021

In recent weeks, as I mentioned before, I have been playing a series of training games against one of my students from the Aptos Chess Club, Atlee, who I think is about a 1500-rated player. Given the disparity between our ratings it’s no surprise that I have won every game so far, but the margin of victory has been getting narrower and narrower. As a trainer/teacher that makes me happy! Our last game was the most exciting one yet, and really I was very lucky to win this one.

I’ll skip the opening, which I botched very badly by playing what I call “hope chess.” This is when you sacrifice a pawn in the hope that you’ll get some compensation, but without calculating concrete lines. It’s a lazy man’s way of playing chess that I can often get away with against a lower-rated player, but it’s still bad chess.

This time I sacrificed two pawns, and after some further inaccuracies we got to this position. I’m White, and it is Atlee’s turn to move.

Position after 25. Rhd1. Black to move.

FEN: 4r1k1/pp1brppp/2n5/3p4/3p2P1/3B3P/PP3PKB/2RR4 b – – 0 25

Black is clearly in the driver’s seat, with two extra pawns (even if they are crippled) and nice control over the e-file. He has completed his development. The question is: What comes next?

The approach I would take is to ask what pieces of mine are under-performing, and how I can improve them. I would also ask what are my opponent’s best pieces, and how can I exchange or neutralize them. Immediately I see that my bishop at d7 isn’t doing much, and the knight on c6 is in its way. I also see that White’s bishops are potentially quite powerful, and I might want to block their diagonals or try to exchange one of them off. In view of those considerations, I would strongly consider 25. … Ne5. This forces White to make a difficult decision. Exchange off one of the bishops? Or play 26. Bb1, at the risk of allowing Black’s rooks to penetrate to the seventh rank? Notice also that this gives Black’s bishop a nice square on c6, where it eyes White’s king.

Another philosophy, which I respect even though it isn’t my normal style, is for Black to take a move to improve his position without making any commitments. He can get away with this because White has no threats. One move that comes to mind is 25. … g6. It simply creates a flight square for Black’s king, so that there will be no back-rank mates in the future, and also it supports a possible … f7-f5 break. You will very often see moves like this in grandmaster games, where the GM will move his king aside or give it a flight square even if there is no need to in the present position. You never know when that might be a game-saving move in the future…

Instead of … g6 or … Ne5, Atlee played his first bad move of the game,

25. … Re6?

Not only is this move tactically flawed, it also doesn’t have any very good purpose. Atlee said his idea was to bring the rook to f6 or g6. But those are terrible squares for a rook, and create no real threats. I’ve noticed before that Atlee seems to be much too fond of rook lifts, and this is an excellent example. The rook is best right where it is, in a battery on the open e-file.

26. Bf5! …

This move is more complicated than it appears, and you should try to see if you can work out all the complications. I actually thought that Atlee might have played the move 25. … Re6 in order to bait me into playing this move.

26. … R6e7 27. Bd6! …

I could of course play 27. Bd3, offering a repetition of position, but that would give Atlee a chance to find a better move than … Re6. Atlee said after the game that he actually overlooked 27. Bd6.

27. … Bxf5 28. Bxe7 Be4+!

Kudos to Atlee for spotting this zwischenzug.

29. f3 Rxe7 30. fe …

How should Black recapture?

Position after 30. fe. Black to move.

FEN: 6k1/pp2rppp/2n5/3p4/3pP1P1/7P/PP4K1/2RR4 b – – 0 30

The answer seems to be obvious, and I think that Atlee took no more than a few seconds to play his move.

30. … de?

Black would be absolutely winning here if it were not for one little tactical trick up White’s sleeve. Now was the time to see that trick and bail out with 30. … Rxe4. Although this would be a bitter disappointment for Black, because he was hoping to straighten out his pawn formation, still he has a lot to be happy about: three pawns for the exchange, strong control of the center, and a beautiful e-file with an immediate threat of … Re2+. I thought this position would be in Black’s favor; the computer disagrees and evaluates it as dead even. Still, that is what Black should have played.

31. Rxd4! …

This is the tactical trick. Black can’t take my rook because he would be mated on the back rank. Now he regrets the fact that he didn’t ever take the time to give his king a flight square! (For example, with 25. … g6.)

As for me, I felt incredibly lucky that after being outplayed for the first 25 moves, I have a bolt from the blue like this that gets me back into the game.

31. … h6?!

Atlee was a little bit shell-shocked from my last move. This is the most automatic way of stopping the back-rank mate, but not the best. After the game he pointed out that he should have played 31. … f5, which at least saves a tempo compared to the game. That might have made the difference between a draw and a loss.

32. Rdc4 g6 33. Kg3 f5 …

Here Atlee had to go, so we adjourned the game and finished it two weeks later. The adjournment gave me a lot of time to think about the position and had a very significant impact on the outcome of the game. I encouraged Atlee to study the position at home and he did, a little bit, but not as much as I did. The first two moves after the adjournment were pretty automatic:

34. gf gf 35. Kf4 Rf7

But now we reach a huge fork in the road for White.

Position after 35. … Rf7. White to move.

FEN: 6k1/pp3r2/2n4p/5p2/2R1pK2/7P/PP6/2R5 w – – 0 36

Here are some questions to answer about this position. I encourage you, as I encouraged Atlee, to take a lot of time and make sure you thoroughly understand your answers. 1) Who stands better and why? 2) Should White sacrifice back the exchange with 36. Rxc6? 3) If not, what is White’s plan and how can White make progress?

I’d like to start with question 2. I can say that my intention when we were playing the game was to play 36. Rxc6, so the adjournment absolutely changed the course of the game. It’s extremely tempting, because I strongly suspected Atlee would continue 36. Rxc6 bc 37. Rxc6 Kg7 38. b4 Rf6. This is kind of what any class-C, class-B, or class-A player would do, but after the surprise 39. b5! Black cannot trade rooks: 39. … Rxc6?? 40. bc and Black’s king is outside the “square” of the passed pawns.

Unfortunately, the more I looked at the position after 36. Rxc6 bc 37. Rxc6, the more I became convinced that the endgame was just drawn. The method of drawing is extremely instructive. In rook and pawn endings, rook activity is everything. It’s almost always worth giving up a pawn to make your rook active. In this position, Black must let go of his pride and joy, the connected passed pawns, and play 37. … Rb7 or 37. … Rd7. For example, after 37. … Rb7 38. Kxf5 Rxb2 would be a very easy draw.

I wouldn’t expect Atlee to play this way. I wouldn’t expect anyone under 2000 to play this way, because they would be too emotionally attached to the protected passed pawns, which seemed to be Black’s main advantage. But you always have to assume your opponent will play the best moves. As White, I can’t play 36. Rxc6 unless I am willing to accept a draw. That brings us to question 1: Who stands better and why?

The most important thing about this position is that Black’s connected passed pawns, seemingly a great asset, are really a paper tiger. They are blockaded and not going anywhere, and as long as they are blockaded, Black’s pieces are tied down defending them. Also, as long as the pawns are immobile, we should expect White to have the advantage, simply because White has stronger pieces — two rooks against a rook and knight. White absolutely should not be satisfied with a draw.

Now we come to the third question: If not, what is White’s plan and how can I make progress?

First, it seemed obvious to me that if I could trade rooks, I would be winning because there is no way that the knight can hold the queenside against White’s rook. Unfortunately, it is very hard to force a rook trade. Black can play his knight to e7, covering the squares c6 and c8, and Rc7 is never possible because … Nd5+! wins a rook! Here I have to admit that my king position is very unfortunate on f4, but moving the king back to e3 is no improvement! Also, moving the king to e5 prematurely will just lead to getting my king chased around.

For a very long time I couldn’t find a way around this problem, until I had a very Nimzovichian thought. What if I just take all the squares away from his knight? Let me push my pawn to h5, preventing … Ng6; let me push another pawn to b5, taking away the c6 square; and then let me move my rooks to the d-file. It’s slow, agonizingly slow, but on the d-file my rooks can penetrate his position better than they can on the c-file. And meanwhile Black’s knight is just turned into a sad, pathetic piece on e7.

Further, an idea occurred to me that was not entirely correct, according to the computer, but which I liked: sacrificing my h-pawn in order to draw his knight away from the center, which will then allow me to play Rc8+ and Rc7, forcing a rook trade. I thought that this would certainly be winning.

So, bit by bit, the Nimzovichian idea of restriction with b4, b5, h4, h5, and Rd4 started to come together and look like a really promising way to play for a win, with no real downside. The computer doesn’t really disagree except that it thinks I should have started with the h-pawn instead of the b-pawn. Fair enough. I will still, however, give my next move an exclamation point because of the deep thought behind it.

36. b4! a6 37. a4 …

Again the computer says 37. h4 right away is better.

37. … Ne7 38. h4 Rg7?

The true test of my idea would have been 38. … Ng6+ 39. Ke3 Nxh4. I will not give the computer’s long-winded analysis, but with best play it seems as if Black will have to defend with amazing precision to maybe hold a draw. If the computer is right, then I should have pushed the h-pawn before the b-pawn in order to avoid the pawn sac.

As it turns out, Atlee takes the bait (the h-pawn) but in a worse way, with his rook.

39. h5 Rg4+ 40. Ke5 …

Now that Black’s rook has left its defensive post, this penetration with my king is decisive.

40. … Rg5 41. Rc7 Nc6+

Position after 41. … Nc6+. White to move.

FEN: 6k1/1pR5/p1n4p/4KprP/PP2p3/8/8/2R5 w – – 0 42

White wins with one last tactical trick.

42. Kf6! …

Now 42. … Nxb4 would walk into a mating net after 43. Rc8+. Also, 42. … e3 (pushing the passed pawns at last!) would be a classic case of too little, too late: 43. Rxb7 e2 44. Rxc6 e1Q. Black gets a queen, but White gets a checkmate after 45. Rc8+. The actual game finished somewhat similarly:

42. … Rxh5 43. Rxb7 Rg5 44. Rxc6 Black resigns

I really loved this endgame because of the deep conceptual problems I had to solve, and the way that it exemplifies some of my favorite endgame themes: the power of the more active king, and the power of checkmate threats, which many people underestimate in the endgame.

Also, I liked the game because it was not just a lesson for Atlee, it was a lesson for me. That’s a sign that I’m doing my job as a teacher!

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Life in the Genius Factory

by admin on November 10, 2021

Today I found out that my lifetime total of International Masters defeated had increased by one… and I didn’t even have to lift a finger!

The catch is — as everyone knows — that the best time to defeat a chess genius is when they are still young and have not come into their full powers yet. And in the San Francisco Bay area, there are many, many opportunities to play against (and occasionally defeat) young geniuses. In a Facebook post yesterday, Michael Aigner listed fifteen (!) players who started playing in this area and earned their International Master titles since 2000. Here is the Michael Aigner Honor Roll, listed in rating order:

  • Sam Shankland (Grandmaster, current USCF rating 2784)
  • Daniel Naroditsky (GM, 2702)
  • Andrew Hong (IM, 2610, top age 16 in the U.S.)
  • Steven Zierk (GM, 2584)
  • Christopher Yoo (IM, 2582, top age 14)
  • Vinay Bhat (GM, 2570)
  • Balaji Daggupati (IM-elect, 2496)
  • Cameron Wheeler (IM, 2488)
  • Josiah Stearman (IM, 2482)
  • Gabriel Bick (IM, 2475)
  • Yian Liou (IM, 2469)
  • Kesav Viswanadha (IM, 2457)
  • Dmitry Zilberstein (IM, 2447)
  • Ladia Jirasek (IM, 2433)
  • Vignesh Panchanatham (IM, 2427)

Michael omitted two names from his list who I think should be there, in part because they would soar almost to the top of the Honor Roll:

  • Samuel Sevian (GM, 2747)
  • Hans Niemann (GM, 2724)

Both of these players started out in the Bay Area but earned their titles after they left: Samuel Sevian moved in 2012, became an IM in 2013 and a GM in 2014, while Niemann moved in 2015, became an IM in 2018 and a GM this year. Arguably we in the Bay Area can’t take “full credit” for their success. But I personally think that Sevian was probably already IM strength when he moved away and certainly would have earned his IM title if he had stayed. Niemann is perhaps not as clear but I think that he certainly owes a big part of his success to the many strong players he faced and opportunities he had in the Bay Area.

Of course, with all of these players the biggest factor was their own ability and desire. I can’t emphasize that strongly enough. But given those things, the Bay Area chess scene gave them the opportunity to flourish.

Michael’s post elicited some discussion over how the Bay Area would stack up if it were a country. Almost everyone agreed that Iceland was the most impressive chess country on a per capita basis, with 10 GM’s and 10 IM’s in a population of 360,000. But how many of those have earned their titles since 2000? How many countries with fewer than 8 million inhabitants (the size of the Bay Area) can boast of 17 players who have earned IM or GM titles since 2000?

The other fun thing to do when you see Michael’s Honor Roll is to ask what your record is against these people. As it turns out, I have not made the most of my chances to win a game against a future GM or IM. I’ve gotten a lot of draws, but only three wins. Here’s the breakdown: against Sevian, one draw; against Naroditsky, one draw; against Zierk, one draw and one loss; against Bhat, two wins (!!) and one loss; against Daggupati, one win; against Wheeler, one loss; against Stearman, one loss; against Bick, one draw and one loss; against Liou, one draw; against Viswanadha, one loss; against Jirasek, one draw; and against Panchanatham, one draw. Overall, +3 -6 =7 for a 40 percent winning percentage. (But against the future grandmasters, +2 -2 =3 for a nice 50 percent winning percentage!)

The reason for Michael’s post was that he wanted to congratulate Balaji Daggupati for completing all the requirements for the IM title. He has not received the title yet, but all that is left is FIDE’s rubber stamp.

Now I have to confess that when I first read this, I shrugged my shoulders, because I don’t actually remember Balaji. Not even one little thing about him. But then I looked back over my past game records this morning, and was surprised to find that I had actually played him once! It was the New Year’s Open in Santa Clara, in 2015, when he was rated 1961. And though I don’t remember the person, I do remember the key position. I’m playing Black, so I will show it from my side.

Balaji Daggupati — Dana Mackenzie (after move 25)

Position after 25. … Bf5. White to move.

FEN: 4rrk1/p5pp/1q5n/3p1b2/2pp1P2/6NP/PPP2QP1/R1BR3K w – – 0 26

In this position, which came from a Two Knights Defense, White has been building pressure against Black’s lightly protected d-pawn. The question is whether he can get away with taking it, with 26. Qxd4. It does look a little bit scary for White. Black can try the Hook-and-Ladder Trick with 26. … Re1+, but there is no bite to it because White can just move his king aside with 27. Kh2. Or Black can play for control of the back rank in a more conventional way with 26. … Bxc2 27. Qxb6 ab 28. Rxd5 Re1+ 29. Kh2. But what comes next? If Black had some way of parachuting his other rook to the back rank to take advantage of White’s undeveloped queenside, then I would be winning. But there is no apparent way to do that. The computer evaluates the position as dead even (Black has compensation for the pawn, but no more) after 29. … Nf5. To be honest, in my notes after the game I wrote, “25. … Bf5 was nothing more than a good bluff.”

But it was a bluff that worked! Daggupati was convinced that he needed to finish developing with 26. b3?, but this move gives me the tempo I needed — not exactly to save the pawn, but to play a pawn sacrifice that really did have some bite. I continued 26. … d3 27. Qxb6 ab 28. Nxf5 Nxf5 29. cd c3!

Position after 29. … c3. White to move.

FEN: 4rrk1/6pp/1p6/3p1n2/5P2/1PpP3P/P5P1/R1BR3K w – – 0 30

This was surely the move that Daggupati missed. It’s amazing to see how my knight and pawn vacuum up almost all the squares that White’s bishop could move to. The only square left is a3, but that’s a really awkward place because it leaves him vulnerable to skewers on the a-file. Besides playing a good defensive role, my c-pawn is also a serious threat to promote, because my knight has no difficulty finding squares to assist it on its journey to c2 and c1.

The game continued as follows: 30. Ba3 Rf7 31. d4 …

Trying to deprive the c-pawn of protection. Another interesting way to play would be 31. Re1, with the idea of taking over the e-file. The computer comes up with this nice variation, where White gets his rook behind the c-pawn but then all of Black’s pieces work together to chase him away: 31. Re1 Rxe1+ 32. Rxe1 Ra7 33. Bb4 c2 34. a4 (trying to keep my rook out) Nd4! (Now the knight eyes the square b3, followed by queening the pawn) 35. Re8+ Kf7 36. Rc8 (seemingly stopping the threat, but now Black’s king just ambles over and there is nothing White can do about it) 36. … Ke6 37. Ba3 Kd7 38. Rc3 Rc7, and the rooks come off and the pawn promotes. A very pretty “slow-motion” variation.

After the move in the game, 31. d4, I played 31. … Re2 32. Rac1 Ra7. If he wants to, White can win the c-pawn with 32. Bb4 R7xa2 33. Rxc3 Rxg2, but Black has doubled rooks on the seventh rank and White’s king is in a mating net. After a long thought, Daggupati decided to give up the bishop with 33. Rxc3 Rxa3 34. Rc8+ Kf7 35. Rc7+, and Black won.

Actually I’m sweeping something under the rug by saying “and Black won.” Here I should probably have played 35. … Ne7, retaining a huge advantage because of my hyperactive rooks. Instead I played a little bit too conservatively with 35. … Re7?, which basically gives away my positional advantage in order to trade into an endgame with a winning material advantage of knight versus two pawns. I was confident I could win that endgame and I did, but it dragged on for 35 more moves (!) before Daggupati finally resigned on move 71.

One of these days, I hope, I will meet Balaji Daggupati at a tournament and congratulate him in person on his IM title!

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Playing against a Student

October 27, 2021

This summer and fall I’ve been playing a series of training games with one of my students from the Aptos Library Chess Club, Atlee, who is about 1500 strength (my estimate). Even though I have won all of the games so far, I’ve been quite impressed with his play. His openings are solid, and he […]

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“Fantastic!” — A Remembrance

October 23, 2021

Last Sunday, my father Walter Nance passed away at the age of 88. Walter taught me to play chess when I was about 7 years old, and I can still remember how excited I was when I beat him for the first time when I was 9 years old. He was a pretty strong player […]

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Out of the Blue

October 10, 2021

An incredibly nice surprise came in my e-mail yesterday. It was from Joshua Anderson of the Chess Journalists of America, informing me that I had won an award for the Best Online Blog in 2021. (The award was shared with Ray Linville, whose blog is at Even better was the way that I won […]

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House of Cards

October 9, 2021

Some of you might wondering, “When are you going to write Year 50 of your 50 Years of Chess series?” Patience! We are still in year 50. Actually, I had a plan that went awry. I was going to play in the “Real Bay Area Championship” in Santa Clara this weekend, which would have been […]

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Hook and Ladder in the Meltwater Champions Tour

October 3, 2021

Okay, I admit that I have not been following this extravaganza called the Meltwater Champions Tour, which Magnus Carlsen has now won with two rounds to go. (Yawn…) Mostly I don’t care about it because it’s rapid chess (game/15 with 10 seconds per move). Don’t get me wrong. I love to see players like Magnus […]

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50 Years of Chess: Year 49

September 28, 2021

When Mike Splane asked me to play on his team (the Kolty Club team) at the 2020 U.S. Amateur Team West tournament, I enthusiastically said yes. He had been trying to get me to play on their team for years, and now that I was officially the club champion it made sense for me to […]

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50 Years of Chess: Year 48

September 13, 2021

The last five years of my retrospective are kind of hard to write because (a) they are so recent that anybody who has been following this blog has seen the games before; and (b) I also haven’t been playing much. One tournament in 2016, none in 2017, two in 2018, two in 2019, and one […]

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50 Years of Chess: Years 45-47

September 1, 2021

As the finish line of my retrospective approaches, we’re going to put on a “finishing kick” and cover three years in one post. The reason is that I have almost no games to show you from the years 2016 to 2018. I played in only one tournament, with 5 games, in 2016; no tournaments in […]

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