Happy Halloween … Oops, Wrong Time of Year

by admin on January 18, 2017

Yesterday I wasted a ton of time playing against Shredder on my computer, and losing game after game… Finally I “dumbed the computer down” to a rating of 1977 just so that I would have a chance to win. And what do you know? I got a chance to play probably my nicest combination ever against the computer, a two-rook sacrifice (in effect). The sacrifice actually had three stages: an exchange sac, a bishop sac, and then a rook sac. The first two were accepted, but the third one was declined (for good reason).

The other cool thing is that this was, I believe, the first time I’ve played the Halloween Gambit against Shredder. That’s the crazy piece sacrifice that begins

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. g3?! Nxe4!?!?

There is also a “colors reversed” version of the Halloween Gambit that begins 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Nxe5?!?! However, I consider that one to be not quite sound. The extra move 4. g3 actually works against White in two different ways. First, the pawn on g3 takes away what would be the best flight square for the knight. Second, by playing 4. g3 White has created weak light squares on the kingside that Black can exploit.

As always, it’s kind of hard to tell where White went wrong, but I got full compensation for the material and then some after

5. Nxe4 d5 6. Nc3 d4 7. Ne4 f5

In the Halloween Gambit you get to do exactly what your teachers said you shouldn’t — throw all of your pawns at the opponent.

8. Neg5 h6 9. Nh3 g5 10. Bb5 Qd5 11. Qe2 Bd7!

A key move. White can’t win a pawn with 12. Bxc6 Bxc6 13. Qxe5+ because of Black’s pressure on the long diagonal.

12. Bc4 Qd6 13. Nhg1 e4 14. d3 O-O-O 15. de fe 16. Nd2 Re8 17. Bf7 Re7 18. Bc4 …

This little bishop dance to f7 and back must be a mistake for White, as it gives Black a free tempo.

18. … Bg7 19. c3 e3 20. Kf1 ed

Winning back the sacrificed piece, with a huge positional advantage.

21. Qxd2 Rhe8 22. Kg2 Re1 23. Be2 …

halloween 2Position after 23. Be2. Black to move.

FEN: 2k1r3/pppb2b1/2nq3p/6p1/3p4/2P3P1/PP1QBPKP/R1B1r1NR b – - 0 23

This is one of those “Oh no, what have I done?” moments. In a tournament game I would have thought harder, but against the computer I just played 22. … Re1 because it seemed like such an obvious move. But after 23. Be2, my foolhardy rook is surrounded by a sea of White pieces! It almost looks like a misprint. What can I do?

Luck was on my side, as I have an unplanned but excellent move.

23. … R8xe2! 24. Nxe2 Qd5+! 25. f3 and now here comes sac number two: 25. … Bh3+!!

At first my thinking was just to draw White’s king away from g2 so that I can take his rook. But the trouble is that after 26. Kxh3 (which the computer played) now 26. … Rxh1? is not so good because after 27. Kg2! the rook is still trapped!

The solution? Another sacrifice!

26. … Qxf3!!

Forget about winning back the material — let’s checkmate Black’s king!

halloween 3Position after 26. … Qxf3. White to move.

FEN: 2k5/ppp3b1/2n4p/6p1/3p4/2P2qPK/PP1QN2P/R1B1r2R w – - 0 27

The proof of the pudding: If 27. Rxe1 then 27. … g4+ 28. Kh4 Bf6+ 29. Kh5 Qf5+ 30. Kxh6 Ne7!

This variation is worth another diagram:

halloween 1Position after 30. … Ne7 (analysis). White to move.

FEN: 2k5/ppp1n3/5b1K/5q2/3p2p1/2P3P1/PP1QN2P/R1B1R3 w – - 0 31

White is up two rooks but as Craig Mar likes to say, Black has a force advantage in the crucial sector of the board. A cute point is that if White plays 31. Nf4 to stop mate on g6, Black can play 31. … Ng8 mate instead. The knight, after being a bystander on c6 for the whole game since move 2, gets to strike the winning blow!

Of course the computer, even dumbed down to a rating of 1977, would not go for a line where it sees a forced mate. So in the second diagram above, it gave back the rook with 27. Nxd4 Qxh1. It’s kind of funny — here I thought, “I won a rook, so I’m winning the game.” It was a little bit of a shock to look at the position and realize that, because of my earlier sacrifices, I’m only back to even material!

Still, I was right. Black is winning, not because of the material but because White’s king is still exposed and White’s pieces are undeveloped. The game now continued 28. Qf2! Nxd4 29. cd and I had to make my last hard decision of the game.

halloween 4Position after 29. cd. Black to move.

FEN: 2k5/ppp3b1/7p/6p1/3P4/6PK/PP3Q1P/R1B1r2q b – - 0 29

White has a cunning trap: 29. … Rxc1? 30. Rxc1 Qxc1 31. Qf7! would force Black to give back the bishop in order to avoid mate on e8. Darn computers! They never give up!

I looked for a long time at 29. … Qe4 and although I feel as if this must be winning, it still seemed to me as if 30. Qf7 posed some practical challenges.

Finally I calmed down and asked myself the Mike Splane question: How am I going to win this game? The answer is easy. I have an ironclad, unbreakable pin on the c1 bishop. If the queens came off the board, I would be winning. White’s queen is his only developed piece, so it’s completely logical for me to trade it off. I played 29. … Qf1+! 30. Qxf1 Rxf1 and the endgame was easily won after 31. d5 Bd4 32. Kg2 Re1 33. h4 g4, completing Black’s bind. I’ll skip the rest of the moves.

I know that it’s “just” a win against a computer, and a dumbed-down computer at that, but it sure was a satisfying game for me! From the mad-dog opening to the shower of sacrifices in the middlegame to the calm and methodical endgame, there wasn’t anything about it that I’d change. No, the only thing that I would change were the umpteen losses in a row that came before it…

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A New League in Town!

by admin on January 17, 2017

I’m sure it hasn’t escaped the attention of my readers that a new, worldwide chess league has come into existence. The old US Chess League is defunct, and in its place stands a NEW and BETTER chess league, called the PRO Chess league. (Yes, PRO is capitalized; no, I don’t know why; yes, I’m having fun with the “shift” key on my keyboard.)

pro chess map

Why is it NEW and BETTER? First, just check out the map. Instead of 20 teams, all based in the U.S., the new league has 48 teams in four divisions, and it is truly global in scope. There are teams from Africa, South America, Europe and Asia. To me, it is absolutely amazing that commissioner Greg Shahade has been able to scale up the league so successfully. It’s also a tribute to the global popularity of chess.com, which is both hosting and sponsoring the league. And it’s also a tribute to the new generation of chess players, who have grown up playing online and knowing no national boundaries. It’s their eagerness to organize teams that has made the league possible.

The league is also NEW and BETTER because of a new format. The games will be faster: game in 15 minutes, with a 2-second delay, instead of the slower time controls of the past. This will enable teams to play all against all: each of the four boards plays against all four boards of the opponent. Just imagine you are the fourth board for Reykjavik or Patagonia. If your team gets paired against Norway, you too may get a chance to play against Magnus Carlsen! (I say “may” because teams can change their lineups within and between matches.)

And the PRO Chess League is NEW and BETTER because of the star power. Look at some of the players who have signed up! Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, … When you watch football or baseball or any other sport, you want to see the best players. The US Chess League was pretty awesome, but it didn’t quite have the best. Now the PRO Chess League does. It’s not a minor league any more. I think this means the league has potential to attract real media attention.

There is also some real money at stake, as there should be in a league that calls itself “PRO.” The first-place team will receive $20,000, and there are various other prizes every week of the season. It’s up to the teams to decide whether they will also pay their professional players. (More on this in the P.S. below.)

In other professional sports leagues, there are salary caps and it’s public record who is getting paid how much. That’s not true in the PRO Chess League, and it could pose a fairness problem. However, in chess we also have something that other sports leagues don’t have: a rating system. Instead of a salary cap, the league has a rating cap; no team can have more than a 2500 average rating for a match. (Except that, as in the USCL, teams can get 10 bonus rating points if one of their players is a woman.) Hopefully, this will be enough to prevent a situation where the “rich get richer.”

I asked Greg Shahade (by e-mail) what motivated him to form the new league. He wrote, “We morphed into the PRO Chess League because it was clear that our old format just wasn’t working in terms of growing the popularity of chess in the U.S.A or the world. We were lucky to find a great partner in Chess.com who shared the same vision as us.” That vision includes faster time controls, more fun, and more action.

According to Greg, the first week of action drew 40,000 spectators around the world, and the live broadcasts lasted for 13 hours (!). Think about that. Forty thousand. That number would fill up a decent-sized sports stadium. And it can only grow from here.

I also talked with Judit Sztaray, the manager of my “hometown” team, the San Jose Hackers. (For people in the Bay Area, it’s going to be painful to decide whom to root for, the Hackers or the San Francisco Mechanics, one of the six remaining original USCL teams. I’ll root for both of them, except for this week when the Hackers are playing against the Mechanics.)

I think that the Hackers might surprise some people, because people always underrate San Jose. To start with, they have a legitimate top-ten player in the lineup, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. They also have four other grandmasters: Rauf Mamedov, Daniel Naroditsky (a defector from the Mechanics!), Zviad Izoria, and Ioan-Cristian Chirila. And they have the usual murderer’s row of young stars for board four, including Teemu Virtanen, Ivan Ke, and Christopher Yoo.

The first team to find out how good the Hackers are was the Webster University team (the Webster Windmills). Most or all of the commentators had Webster as the favorites, but San Jose handed them a resounding 11-5 defeat — and that was even with a forfeit loss by Mamedyarov in the first round! Christopher Yoo, with a rating of 1818, nevertheless managed to beat a Grandmaster and an International Master and draw another Grandmaster, for a 2½-1½ score. I think that teams with strong board fours (1800 players who can beat grandmasters!) will have a significant advantage in this league. All of the other San Jose players had positive scores as well: Mamedyarov 3-1, Naroditsky 2½-1½, and Chirila 3-1. Naroditsky’s win against GM Priyadarshan Kannappan won an online poll for “move of the day.”

I asked Sztaray how they had managed to sign up Mamedyarov, who of course lives in Azerbaijan, not San Jose. First I should mention that teams are allowed to sign up “Free Agents” from elsewhere in the world. However, at most one Free Agent can play at a time; the other three players have to be designated “Locals,” which means roughly that they live within a two-hour driving distance or have a demonstrated connection to the city. She explained that Zviad Izoria and Faik Alekserov live in San Jose and Rauf Mamedov visits about twice a year. All three of them grew up in Baku, Azerbaijan, and were good friends with each other as well as with Mamedyarov. It was easy to sign up Zviad and Faik as Locals, and to persuade Rauf to join as a Free Agent. Although Mamedyarov surely had offers from other teams, he preferred to play on the same team with his friends. It’s refreshing to see that, even in this new PRO world, friendship matters!

The one hiccup for San Jose in the first week was that Mamedyarov had never played on chess.com before, and he wasn’t able to navigate the logging in process fast enough to play his first game. (Players have to start within 3 minutes after the beginning of the round, otherwise they will be forfeited.) Judit took the blame for this problem, saying that they should have practiced logging in ahead of time. In any case, it shouldn’t be an issue in future weeks.

Now comes week two, and that brutal match against the San Francisco Mechanics. The challenge got even tougher this week when grandmaster Sam Shankland signed up to play board one for San Francisco. (He qualifies as a Local, having grown up in the Bay Area.) Will the current Mechanics beat the former Mechanic (Naroditsky)? Will the Baku Battalion overwhelm the all-American lineup for San Francisco? And most important, which of the super-kids playing board four for both teams will step up and score the crucial points for their team? The answers are only one day away!

P.S. I just received an e-mail from John Donaldson, the manager of the Mechanics, which came too late for my original post. I asked him about the funding, and he said that there is no league-provided pay for players this year. The old US Chess League did provide a weekly stipend for each team until its last season. Greg Shahade and chess.com must have decided that the new league was better off spending money on a large prize fund instead of giving each team a steady income. Judit confirmed that Bay Area Chess is paying the professional players on their team, but not the junior players. I did not ask John whether the Mechanics are paying any of their players.

John also commented that in the first week of play, the quick time control seemed to work in favor of some of the younger players, but some of the “old guard” scored well too, such as Jim Tarjan (age 64) scoring 2½ out of 4 for Portland.

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Life Masters, Pretty Pieces

January 2, 2017

Welcome back! I’m officially ending my blog hiatus today, but I have to warn you that posts will continue to be very sporadic for the next month or two. My book still isn’t finished yet, and that has to be the #1 priority. Still, I will post here when I can, especially when I have […]

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The Kitten Awards

December 25, 2016

Hi everybody! My chess blog is not really back yet — I’m still working on my book — but I thought that on Christmas I could take a little time out for a Kitten Awards Show. As long-time readers of this blog know, my wife and I take care of foster kittens for the Santa […]

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Shocking Chess News

November 28, 2016

While the chess world waits for the epic twelfth game of the Carlson-Karjakin world championship match, there was another shocking piece of chess news halfway around the world that I’m still trying to digest. If you remember, the last serious post I wrote before going on hiatus was on the “Most Amazing Game of 2016,” […]

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Crunch Time

October 10, 2016

As many of my blog readers know, I’m working on a book project that has taken a lot of my time away from chess this year. That’s why I haven’t played in a chess tournament since February. It’s been hard to pass up on so many tournaments, because I usually like to play in at […]

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Most Amazing Game of 2016

October 9, 2016

One of my favorite ChessLectures ever was called “Double Queen Sacrifices,” in which I talked about the ultra-rare games where one player sacrificed a queen twice in the same game. Many chess players don’t even sacrifice two queens in their whole lives, so two queens in one game is pretty amazing. But this year there was a […]

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The Eternal Dilemma

October 2, 2016

To be or not to be? To play e5 or f5? These are the great dilemmas in life. A few weeks ago I wrote about a game I played with Shredder where I had to make a decision between e5 and f5 at a crucial point (although as Gjon Feinstein pointed out, d4 was also […]

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History Repeats

September 25, 2016

One of my teammates at this year’s US Amateur Team tournament, Larry Smith, has an interesting semi-blog. It isn’t publicly accessible like a blog is, but he sends out chess-related e-mails a few times a week to a couple dozen people on his distribution list. The e-mails are usually of the “position of the day” variety […]

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Olympiad Coverage in the New York Times

September 14, 2016

Here’s the good news: the New York Times had an article about the U.S. gold medal in the 2016 Chess Olympiad. Here’s the bad news: the New York Times had an article about the U.S. gold medal in the 2016 Chess Olympiad. What do I mean? Well, first read the article, “U.S. Wins Gold at Chess Olympiad With […]

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