Trying Too Hard to be Like Petrosian

by admin on December 7, 2019

First of all, I won the game. So don’t get the wrong impression from the title of today’s post. In round five of the Kolty Chess Club championship, I defeated Michael Ho with the Black pieces to improve my record to 4-1, still within striking distance of the leader. (More about that below.)

However, I got lucky because I made a mistake in the opening that could have allowed Ho to get a clear advantage. Mistakes almost always come because of flawed thought processes, so it might be interesting to some of you to see what I did wrong.

Position after 12. Rfd1. Black to move.

FEN: r1bqr1k1/pp3ppp/2p2n2/5p2/1bpP4/2N1P1P1/PPQ1NPBP/R2R2K1 b – – 0 12

White has just played 12. Rfd1, hinting strongly at a desire to break open the position with d4-d5. The most natural response seems to be 12. … Be6 but I didn’t like this, because 13. Nf4 renews the threat and after 13. … Nd5 now White gets excellent play with 14. Nxe6 fe 15. e4, when Black’s pawn formation is a mess.

The computer thinks that several moves are about equally good here, but its slight preference is 12. … Bxc3, a move I didn’t seriously consider because it trades off my “good” bishop. But perhaps I should have asked: What is this bishop doing, anyway? By playing 12. … Bxc3 13. Nxc3 I do accomplish one good thing – I take the move Nf4 out of the picture, so now I can play 13. … Be6. Now it will be very hard for White to win back his gambit pawn.

But both 12. … Be6 and 12. … Bxc3 involve making concessions to White, and I saw a move I thought I could play without making concessions: 12. … Nd5? What did I overlook?

The main variation that I considered was 13. Nxd5 cd 14. Nf4, when I had a surprise in mind for White: the Petrosian-esque exchange sacrifice 14. … Re4?! (diagram)

Position after 14. … Re4 (analysis). White to move.

FEN: r1bq2k1/pp3ppp/8/3p1p2/1bpPrN2/4P1P1/PPQ2PBP/R2R2K1 w – – 0 15

The computer is very skeptical of this and gives White a slight edge. I’d be interested in readers’ thoughts on what it takes to make a “Petrosian sacrifice” work. I thought that Black’s two bishops, White’s weak light squares and Black’s impressive pawn center (transforming the weak, in-the-way f-pawn into a strong point on e4) were easily adequate compensation for the exchange sac.

But when I look at the position more objectively, I can see why the computer isn’t so enthusiastic. First, White has a number of useful moves he can play before taking, like a3 or h4. But even if White takes straight away, 15. Bxe4 fe, is Black’s game so good? After 16. Qe2, where does the light-squared bishop go? The problem, I think, is that White actually has the best minor piece on the board, the knight on f4, which hampers any efforts by Black to attack on the light squares. And Black’s development is quite substandard. The Q, QR and QB have not moved yet, and the KB is out in no man’s land, doing nothing. Usually it’s not a very good idea to sacrifice material for an attack when you haven’t developed anything yet.

But there’s an even bigger flaw with 12. … Nd5? After 13. Nxd5 cd White can play 14. Qa4! and win his pawn back! The Black queen is overloaded, having to defend e8 and d5, and there is no time to deal with this problem because the bishop is also hanging on b4. All of Black’s self-inflicted weaknesses are coming home to roost. After 14. … a5 15. Bxd5 White recovers his pawn absolutely for free, and the c4 pawn is also critically weak for Black. Not to mention the b7 pawn.

Luckily, my mistake went unpunished. My opponent played 13. a4? instead, which is in itself an instructive mistake. This move shows that he is obsessed with preventing … b5, but it creates a permanent hole on b4 (which I made very good use of later in the game, bringing my knight to b4 and d3). White failed to realize the tactical opportunities created by Black’s awkward and delayed development. After his 13. a4 I breathed a sigh of relief and played 13. … Be6, after which he never again had a serious chance to win back his gambit pawn.

Lesson learned: Finish your development, even if you do have to make some concessions. As Steinitz said, a pawn is worth a little trouble.

The win against Ho put me into a pretty good position in the tournament. Eric Steger continued to do his Bobby Fischer impersonation, defeating Mike Splane to run his record to 5-0. So far it’s been a dream tournament for him, as he has now defeated the #1, #2, and #3 seeds. This is lucky for me too, because he has taken out the three players who would (before the tournament) have been considered my chief competitors.

I’m in a three-way tie for second, with Paulo Santanna and Shreesh Nanda, at 4-1. Because I’m the highest-rated of the three, the logical pairing for next round would have me playing against Steger and Santanna playing against Nanda. If I can get the job done against Steger, then it could be a very interesting last round with three people tied at 5-1. Steger would still have very strong tiebreaks, so he would still have the inside track to win the tournament, I think. But let’s not worry about that yet. As athletes are fond of saying, let’s just take one game at a time.

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Rainy Sunday

by admin on December 3, 2019

This weekend we had an abrupt change in the weather in Santa Cruz. After zero inches of rain so far this fall, the heavens opened and we had three straight days of downpour. The only thing to do was stay inside and play chess, so Gjon Feinstein and I met up with Eric Montany. Actually Eric couldn’t stay long because he has a two-month-old baby at home. (Congratulations, Eric! Did you see how I worked that into this post?) But Gjon and I played several speed games, most of which I lost, as usual. The last one ended in a very interesting position.

Position after 26. … Kd8. White loses on time.

FEN: 2rk4/pp2qrp1/2n1b1Rp/3pPp1Q/3P1P2/3B3P/P1N5/6RK w – – 0 27

I was White in a French Defense, and here my flag fell. It’s a real shame because the battle is just getting started. What do you think White should play? And how do you evaluate the position?

Gjon and I analyzed the position after the game, and later I came home and put it on my computer. I have to say that we got the first move right and everything else wrong. So be very careful and make sure that your analysis is correct.

It’s hard to see any way that White can improve his position any more with “slow” moves. All of the pieces except the knight are basically in their best possible locations. The knight would like to go to e3, but unfortunately 27. Ne3 would be met by 27. … Nxd4. Black’s king is in the middle of the board, so White would like to strike now, before the king can run to the queenside.

All signs, therefore, point toward the immediate exchange sacrifice: 27. Rxe6! If you figured that out, congratulations! You got the first part of the quiz right!

After the forced 27. … Qxe6 28. Rg6, Black’s can play either 28. … Qe8 or 28, … Qe7. The latter move gives White an extra tempo to play 29. Rd6+ Kc7 30. Ne3, when 30. … Nxd4?? now runs into 31. Nxd5+ forking the king and queen.

So 27. Rxe6! Qxe6 28. Rg6 Qe8 seems best, and then 29. Bxf5 is the most natural move, basically forcing Black to give back the exchange. In our postmortem it looked absolutely decisive. But not according to the computer! It finds the cold-blooded defense 29. … Qf8! 30. Bxc8 Kxc8 and White cannot stop Black’s invasion on the f-file. Rybka gives 31. Qg4+ Kb8 32. Ne3 Rxf4 33. Qd7 when 33. … Rf1+!! saves a draw by perpetual check.

Naturally, Gjon and I did not see the computer move 29. … Qf8! (let alone the saving move 33. … Rf1+!!). The natural “human” defense, which most likely would have happened in the game, is 29. … Rxf5, after which 30. Qxf5 Ne7 31. Rd6+ Kc7 32. Qe6 is all basically forced. Now there are several possibilities for Black: 32. … Qh5, 32. … Qb5, and 32. … Kb8, but they are all met by the same strong move for White: 33. Ne3! In all variations this defensive move holds off Black’s counterattack just long enough for White to win, although it takes a computer’s precision to be confident of this statement.

For example, I would consider the “main line” (or at least the most thematic line) to be 27. Rxe6! Qxe6 28. Rg6 Qe8 29. Bxf5 Rxf5? 30. Qxf5 Ne7 31. Rd6+ Kc7 32. Qe6 Qh5 33. Ne3! Qf3+ 34. Ng2 Kb8, when either 35. Kh2 (the insanely wonderful computer move) or 35. Rd7 (the normal human move) seem to be winning.

Note that White does not want to take the knight because 35. Qxe7?? Qxh3+ 36. Kg1 Rc1+ would win for Black. By playing Rybka’s prophylactic move 35. Kh2! White ensures both that the h3 pawn is defended and that Black will not be able to move his rook with check. For instance, 35. … Rc2 36. Rd8+ Nc8 37. Qg4! Qxg4 38. hg Rxa2 39. f5. Even though Black is a pawn up, White’s pawns are much faster.

Although I would never in a million years have played this way, there is something deeply satisfying in seeing how the computer combines attack and defense with moves like 33. Ne3!, 35. Kh2! and 37. Qg4.

The only move I can definitely say that I would have played (if my flag had not fallen) is the initial sacrifice, 27. Rxe6! In a game between humans, rather than computers, you sometimes have to go with gut feelings rather than 10-move-deep analysis. My analysis would boil down to three simple words: “Now or never.”

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Poor Confused Computer Needs Your Help

November 23, 2019

Last night, in the fourth round of the Kolty Club Championship, I was paired against an expert, Chris Atkeson. We played what I think was a really high-quality game… and as it usually happens in games where nobody makes an obvious mistake, we drew. It was a draw that both players were happy with (at […]

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Waiting for Paint to Dry

November 15, 2019

Last night I won my third-round game in the Kolty Chess Club championship. While last week’s game was short and invigorating, this game was more like waiting for paint to dry. I was paired against Anika Rajaram, who is the fourth-rated 11-year-old girl (and 54th 11-year-old overall) in the nation. I played my usual Marshall […]

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Return to Action

November 8, 2019

I’m back! Not only back to writing my blog, but back to actually playing tournament chess. Last night I played my first tournament game in 10 months, at the Kolty Chess Club Championship in Campbell, California. I’m not exactly sure why it’s taken me so long to try out the Kolty Club. Yes, it’s a […]

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November 5, 2019

Lately I have been going through a book called “It’s Your Move!” by Chris Ward with some of my chess club students. I like the concept of this book very much. It consists of 150 positions from grandmaster games, in which students are supposed to come up with the best plan. I like the way […]

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New Book, New Plans

October 20, 2019

If any readers of this blog are into mathematics as well as chess, you might be interested in my latest book, which has just been published by the American Mathematical Society. What’s Happening in the Mathematical Sciences (WHIMS for short) is a regular series of books about … well, exactly what the title says. Recent […]

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It’s Their League …

October 13, 2019

… But we don’t have to like it! The PRO (Professional Rapid Online) Chess League officially announced that its fourth season will start on January 6, and there have been some major changes. The big ones are: The league is contracting from 32 teams to 24. This is the opposite of what they said last […]

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Endgame Workshop

October 7, 2019

Yesterday’s chess party at Mike Splane’s house turned into an endgame workshop, because both Mike Arne and Paulo Santanna came prepared with some beautiful positions. Ironically, both of them went to Spain this summer but they didn’t play in the same events. Mike Arne played in the Benasque tournament, and showed us this deceptively simple […]

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Bill’s Book Bag (New Literary Award?)

September 25, 2019

This afternoon I got some amazing news from my co-author: our book, The Book of Why, was mentioned in a new documentary series on Netflix! It’s in a show called “Inside Bill’s Brain.” If you watch the first episode, about 21 minutes in you’ll see Bill Gates’ assistant loading up his book bag with books […]

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