The Best Way to Beat a GM

by admin on July 26, 2017

This title sounds like the beginning of a joke: The best way to beat a grandmaster… is ANY WAY YOU CAN. (This is spoken by somebody who has never done it.)

Nevertheless, if I ever beat a GM, I would want to do it the way that IM Eric Rosen did today. At the Xtracon Chess Open in Denmark, he was paired against GM Simen Agdestein, former trainer of Magnus Carlsen. As somebody said on Facebook, “Good job for showing us why that guy is Carlsen’s former coach haha.”

As White, Rosen played a nice aggressive variation in the London System, with a TN already on move 7 and queenside castling on move 9. Agdestein, to put it bluntly, overreacted. He thought he could punish Rosen directly and sacrificed a piece. But according to the computer it wasn’t sound. In fact, Rosen kept a cool head, gave back some of the material and was very much in control after that.

Eventually they reached the position below, where it’s White to play and win.

rosen 1Position after 24. … Bb5. White to move.

FEN: r5k1/5rpp/p3p3/qb1p3N/3P1B2/3B1Q2/PpP2P1P/1K4R1 w – - 0 25

White has two sacrifices that both look tempting: Bxh7+ or Nxg7. Which one should he play?

It’s a trick question, because they are both good and in fact White should play them both, one after the other. Nevertheless, I think that Rosen picked the most precise move order.

25. Nxg7! …

Here White’s threats are so overwhelming that Stockfish evaluated the position at +95.95 for White! Rybka is a little bit more conservative, and puts White’s advantage at “merely” 12.25 pawns. (But probably that advantage would grow if it went a few more ply.)

The reason for these extravagant evaluations is that both Stockfish and Rybka see that the only way Black can keep from getting mated is to give up his queen outright with 25. … Qe1+. I think we can all agree that if that is Black’s best move, he might as well just resign.

If Black doesn’t want to resign, the two most consequential variations are the one in the game and 25. … Bxd3, where Black at least tries to reduce the number of White attackers. After 25. … Bxd3 White has only one correct move, but it’s not hard to find: 26. Nf5+, which not only creates a discovered check but also blocks the Black bishop from interposing on g6. After 26. … Kf8 27. Bh6+ Ke8 28. Nd6+, basically the roof collapses on Black. 29. Qxf7+ will follow, and Black’s king cannot find shelter.

Black’s other option is the one he actually played: 25. … Rxg7, after which White has a mate in five. If you didn’t work it out in the initial position, see if you can find it now.

The answer is 26. Rxg7+ Kxg7 27. Be5+ Kg8 28. Bxh7+! The second piece sacrifice leaves Black’s king completely bare of defenders. Agdestein resigned here, as there is no alternative to 28. … Kxh7 29. Qf7+ Kh6 30. Bf4 mate.

rosen 2Final position (analysis).

FEN: r7/5Q2/p3p2k/qb1p4/3P1B2/8/PpP2P1P/1K6 b – - 0 30

For beginners, this mate pattern with the queen and bishop is very thematic and important to learn. The Black king is caught in a 3-by-4 box with the queen and bishop at the corners. I have a feeling, although I can’t prove it, that this mating pattern is one of the least well-known of the “pure” checkmates (where White mates with just two pieces against Black’s bare king).

I should also point out that this was Rosen’s second win in a row over a grandmaster, and it placed him in a seven-way tie for first place at 5½-½. Take a look at the players he is tied with! (Listed in order of rating):

  1. GM Baadur Jobava 2714
  2. GM Nigel Short 2688
  3. GMKrishnan Sasikiran 2688
  4. GM Marin Bosiocic 2616
  5. GM Daniele Vocaturo 2592
  6. GM Frode Urkedal 2543
  7. IM Eric Rosen 2369

There are four more rounds in the tournament, so plenty of time yet for Rosen’s Cinderella tournament to turn into a pumpkin… But we can at least hope that his enchanted run will continue!

By the way, I didn’t know anything about Rosen before today. He is a Facebook friend of a friend of mine, which is how I found out about this game. He is a 24-year-old student at Webster University, played for the Webster Windmills in the PRO Chess League, and you can find his webpage and a not very active blog here.

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John Hesp. Poker. Chess. Fantasy.

by admin on July 22, 2017

Last night and the previous night I watched parts of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) final table on ESPN. It’s the first time I have ever watched live poker on TV, although I have watched the “canned” broadcasts now and then in the past. Of course, whenever I watch poker I mentally compare it to chess, and wonder what we can do or cannot do to advance chess to a similar level of popular awareness.

One thing that surprised me was that the final table at the WSOP was not boring. I had read some opinions online to the effect that live poker would be boring to watch because it’s so slow. Most hands have very little real action, and most players fold about three-quarters of their hands. That’s probably why poker first appeared on ESPN in canned form, so they can fit a day’s worth of action into 30 minutes or an hour.

Nevertheless, I didn’t mind the slower pace of “real time” poker at all. The rhythm of the game was closer to the rhythm of chess. In chess, too, you spend a lot of time in routine positions building up to the relatively few moments of climax.

I also learned some things that I had somehow never figured out from watching the pre-recorded and edited broadcasts. I learned what terms like “3-bet” and “on the button” meant. From the canned broadcasts I couldn’t even figure out what “big blind” meant, even though they talked about it all the time. The live broadcast gave the commentators time to explain the strategy and gave me a chance to learn just by watching a lot of supposedly boring hands.

Lesson for chess, if we should ever make it to mainstream TV: Condensed, edited game packages might be a good way to attract viewers who don’t know much about the game. But don’t give up on the authentic game, played at the authentic pace. Don’t give up what makes chess wonderful and fascinating.

Now let me talk about what was special this year, 2017. The biggest story of the tournament was the man who finished in fourth place: John Hesp, a 64-year-old poker amateur from England who came to play in the WSOP because it was on his “bucket list.” Dressed in a dapper suit with patches of floral fabric and a white hat, he looked just like a tourist who had wandered in and started playing. He was the only one among the nine finalists who just seemed to be there to have a good time, and his presence definitely loosened up the others as well. The commentators marveled at him over and over, “John Hesp is great for poker.” Norman Chad kept saying that it was time for someone to make poker fun again and rescue it from the robo-poker players who never joke around, never do anything as déclassé as showing their cards after a successful bluff, and never use tactics like a lead out (a bet placed in the first position after a flop card). All of these, of course, were things that Hesp was doing.

Although I don’t know poker, there certainly is an analogue in chess, the kids who are booked up to the gills in currently fashionable openings and would never dream of playing something romantic and (supposedly) unsound like the King’s Gambit.

For a while on Thursday, Hesp was in the lead and was just having a grand time. Then came a calamitous hand against the player with the second-largest stack (and the only player who was close to him), Scott Blumstein. Because this isn’t a poker blog I won’t bore you with the details, but it was tragic because the cards seemed to conspire against him. The flop and turn and river cards (which are visible to all players) seemed to set him up perfectly. There was no way for him to know that they set up his opponent even better. It was probably the most pivotal hand of the tournament, because it dropped Hesp from first to almost-busted and gave Blumstein a huge chip lead that has continued to grow and grow.

In some ways I was most impressed by what happened next. I expected Hesp to lose the rest of his chips in pretty short order, which would have put him in seventh place. And in fact he was somewhat glum for a while, not the talkative, chatty player he had been. Chad said that “the life has gone out of the table.” But he hung in there, played patiently and gradually seemed to recover his good spirits. He stayed in the game for quite a long time after that and eventually finished fourth instead of seventh.

I have to admit, after watching this crowd-pleasing performance, that chess has nothing like John Hesp and I don’t see any way that we ever can. What Hesp offers the viewing audience is the fantasy that they, too, could go to Las Vegas, buy in for $10,000, make it to the final table and become famous. It’s sheer fantasy, of course, like thinking that you can win the lottery. (Except it costs a whole lot more!) However, in chess we cannot even offer this fantasy. An amateur cannot go to one of the biggest tournaments of the year, say the World Open or Chicago Open, and finish fourth. The difference in skill is too vast, and there is no way to make up for it with luck.

But chess does offer something that poker doesn’t: beauty. This is perhaps the number one reason, to me, why I can’t get interested in playing poker. Suppose you win a fantastic hand with a straight draw. What have you created? How have you added to the sum of human wisdom? It seems to me that you have created nothing except a momentary jolt of adrenaline. We already knew that 4 lies between 2, 3, 5, and 6. There is nothing particularly remarkable about this fact. By contrast, in chess a beautiful game lasts forever and teaches us about possibilities on the chess board that nobody ever knew before. Poker has a vacuum at its core that is covered up by money, while chess is intrinsically satisfying and does not depend on money to captivate us.

I don’t know if there is any way to communicate this beauty on television. And maybe we shouldn’t even worry about it. In spite of the fact that poker has higher TV ratings than chess (which doesn’t even have TV ratings), I actually think that the public perception of chess is higher than that of poker. Lots and lots of parents want their kids to learn chess, because they rightly believe it will teach them impulse control, logical reasoning, concentration. By contrast, I don’t know of any parents who take their kids to poker lessons. They instinctively understand that there are aspects to the game that are best for a young person to avoid.

When Norman Chad says that poker needs someone like John Hesp to save it, I think that it speaks volumes. Poker will always need someone to save its soul, because it doesn’t really have a soul.

Is that too harsh? I don’t think so. This morning I was reading some blog posts on a poker blog that reinforced this impression. One was from a guy who wrote about playing some games against a new and very well-funded player who started showing up at his local casino. This “whale” actually did very well at first, but before long the piranha (including the guy who wrote the post) surrounded him and bled him dry. The blogger found out from a casino employee that the high roller had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Poker was his way of saying, “Screw it, I have only two months to live so I’m going to do what I want.” The blogger hated being one of the piranha that fed on this guy. On the other hand, he said, he said he had to do it, because if it wasn’t him it would have been someone else.

Very sad, and from what I have heard about poker, typical. The way that good poker players get rich is not by winning tournaments like the WSOP, where just about everyone knows what they’re doing. The real money is in taking advantage of rubes who don’t know what they’re doing.

The second sobering blog post was from a guy who wrote about how he got started in poker in college, got completely addicted to it, made more money than a 21-year-old should have but lost even more, and made bad choices that cost him his best friend, who had gotten him into poker. He wrote that he “betrayed” his best friend by becoming everything that they had said they wouldn’t. But after that first year he learned to control his poker better, got a good job and a girlfriend. But still he was seduced by poker. He says he quit the job because of the lack of advancement potential. Worse, his girlfriend asked him to walk away from poker when he was up $1200 in a tournament. He said no, one thing that he could never give up for his girlfriend was poker. She left him, and he lost the $1200, and he was more torn up about that than the girlfriend.

That’s what poker needs saving from — gambling addiction, greed — and it will always need saving. The WSOP puts the best possible face on it, but the other side is there and people know it.

So that’s why I would rather be a chess player with no financial prospects. But it would be even better to be a chess player with financial prospects … 

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Stunning Finish in U.S. Junior

July 17, 2017

After yesterday’s post in which I wrote about eleven of the top junior players in the U.S., of course I have to write about the U.S. Junior Championship, which concluded today. Six of the players I wrote about yesterday — Troff, Liang, Chandra, Li, Brown, and Tang — were in the ten-man field. Perhaps the […]

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Even More Golden

July 16, 2017

Three years ago I wrote a post called The Seventh Samurai, which was motivated by the fact that I had looked at the list of the 100 top juniors in the world and saw seven Americans on the list. One of the names, Akshat Chandra, was unfamiliar to me then (though quite familiar now), and […]

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More Nepomniachtchi Genius

July 4, 2017

In my last post I showed a game between Ian Nepomniachtchi and Sam Shankland where “Nepo” played a favorite opening line of mine and won brilliantly. Curiously, this is not the first time he has done that! Here is a game that Nepo won against Anish Giri in 2013, featuring a double piece sacrifice. It’s […]

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Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death, But Don’t Make Me Change My Openings!

July 1, 2017

This week the most exciting news in chess for me was that the American team got trounced by the Russians in the World Team Championship, 4-0. Come again? Well, the real news was the Ian Nepomniachtchi beat Sam Shankland, and while I would ordinarily make me very sad, in this case I’m happy because Nepo […]

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Through the Shadowlands

June 25, 2017

I’m going off topic today to promote a book written by a friend of mine. This is a copy of the review that I posted at goodreads.com. Through the Shadowlands: A Science Writer’s Odyssey Into an Illness Science Doesn’t Understand by Julie Rehmeyer My rating: 5 of 5 stars I hope this book wins a […]

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What Do You Do When You Can’t Get an Advantage?

June 17, 2017

This weekend I ought to be in Las Vegas, playing at the National Open, but instead I’m at home playing my computer. The nice thing about playing the computer is that I can forget all of my losses and show you only my wins. So after losing about ten in a row against Shredder, I finally […]

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Books, King’s Gambits, and Cats

June 12, 2017

Yesterday I met again with Gjon Feinstein and Mike Splane, this time with Eric Montany as our fourth. For the last two years he has been working on a book, and this was the first time he had gotten together with us since he finished. Until this weekend, Eric had never revealed to us what the book was […]

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Flexing my King’s Gambit Muscles

June 3, 2017

How quickly can you spot the best move here? Position after 12. … Qxd5. White to move. FEN: rnb2rk1/p4ppp/5n2/3q4/2Np1R2/3B4/PP4PP/RN1Q2K1 w – – 0 13 This position arose in a blitz (game/7 minutes) game that I played against Mike Arne this afternoon. Mike is a veteran player who was rated in the 2300s in his heyday. […]

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