Dear Hikaru

by admin on April 28, 2016

Recently I wrote a post (Checkmate Patterns, Moral Victories) about a game by GM Jonathan Tisdall, and I was pleased and delighted when Tisdall himself sent in a comment. That wasn’t the first time that my blog has gotten a grandmaster comment, at least indirectly. Three years ago, in 2013, I wrote a post called Rock, Paper, Scissors, to which GM Sam Shankland sent an extremely insightful comment. He sent the comment to me by e-mail instead of using the comment button, but I wrote a followup post Rock, Paper, Scissors (part two) that entered it into the official record of this blog.

This morning I started thinking: What if I wrote a blog post that was deliberately intended to get a response from a particular grandmaster? Would it work? Well, the only way to find out is to give it a try!

Here is a letter to Hikaru Nakamura, asking him for his thoughts about a game that is of some interest to me: Dana Mackenzie — Hikaru Nakamura, U.S. Open 1999. At the time we played the game, he was an 11-year-old but already rated 2328. I was, well, 40 years old and rated 2111. We met in the second-to-last round, when we each had a score of 4½ out of 7. The fact that I lost the game was no surprise to me; I’ve lost to 11-year-olds before. However, the way I lost made a deep impression on me. There were no brilliant combinations, as you might expect from Nakamura today. Instead it was just a very calm positional dissection. As I wrote then in my notes to the game (not knowing how great Nakamura would become): “Throughout the game, Black’s play was a model of avoiding risks while capitalizing on his positional advantage. It’s amazing to see an 11-year-old play this way.”

Dear Hikaru,

Recently I’ve been looking at a game that we played in 1999 and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about it. Most of all, I’m curious if you remember the game and whether you learned anything from it.

The game took place in the 1999 U.S. Open. I was White, you were Black, and the game started 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. Bb5+ Bd7 4. Bxd7+ Qxd7 5. O-O Nc6 6. c3 Nf6 7. Re1 e6 8. d4 cd 9. cd d5 10. e5 Ne4 11. Nbd2 Nxd2 12. Bxd2 Be7 13. Rc1 O-O.

nakamura 2

Position after 13. … O-O. White to move.

FEN: r4rk1/pp1qbppp/2n1p3/3pP3/3P4/5N2/PP1B1PPP/2RQR1K1 w – - 0 14

So far, very standard. When White avoids such dynamic ideas as 5. c4 or 7. d4!?, which involve pawn sacrifices, this line is considered to be somewhat drawish. Did the possibility of conceding a draw to a player rated 200 points lower concern you at all? Were you hoping that I would play the gambit lines?

For the record, I wasn’t particularly trying for a draw; this is a variation that I normally played at the time. However, my theoretical knowledge was not deep, and at this point I did not know what White’s plan should be. Today I looked it up on ChessBase and saw that the most popular move for White is 14. Rc3, which scores about 56%. This makes a lot of sense. The move Rc3 addresses many problems. It frees up the square c1 for the bishop (after White plays 15. a3, of course). The rook can swing over to the kingside for an attack (which is where White should be directing his attention; the pawn formation screams, “Kingside attack”). Also, in a pinch the rook can defend the d-pawn. Conceivably White could also double on the c-file if he wants.

Did you know anything about the position after 14. Rc3? Do you still like Black’s chances?

The actual game continued 14. Re2?! Rfc8 15. Be1 Rc7 16. R2c2 R8c8 17. a3 a6 18. Qd3 Nb8. The next two moves really changed the game.

nakamura 3Position after 18. … Nb8. White to move.

FEN: 1nr3k1/1prqbppp/p3p3/3pP3/3P4/P2Q1N2/1PR2PPP/2R1B1K1 w – - 0 19

Here I played the passive 19. Bd2. I bitterly regret this move. The bishop is like a ball and chain on my position, and this was my chance to activate it with 19. Ba5! After 19. … Rxc2 (possible is 19. … Rc6, but I think White is fine after 20. Bb6) 20. Rxc2 Rxc2 21. Qxc2 Qc6 22. Qxc6 Nxc6 (22. … bc?! 23. b4 with a bind) 23. Bb6 my bishop is outside the pawn chain, doing good work, and I think I should have no trouble holding a draw.

But looking at this line, it strikes me that your move 17. … a6 actually made this possible, by giving me a nice square at b6 for the bishop. Would you agree that the combination of 17. … a6 and 18. … Nb8 was a little bit inaccurate for Black?

You replied 19. … h6 and then I went all cuckoo and played 20. g4? The psychology of this move is interesting. Up to this point I have played boring, uncreative chess. Now all of a sudden I decide that I don’t like my lack of activity, and I play an “active” move that creates terrible weaknesses. Before this move my position was solid but boring. After this move I might still be alive — the computer says I’m close to equal — but my position is like a leaky boat, and I’ve got to keep my thumbs in all the leaks.

I’m not sure whether this move requires any comment from you, but I’d be interested in your thought process at the time and how you go about responding to a move like 20. g4? It seems to me that what you did was very instructive. You didn’t try to “refute” it, but just kept on playing calm moves that emphasized the looseness of my position: 20. … Rxc2 21. Rxc2 Rxc2 22. Qxc2 Nc6 23. Qc3 Qd8 24. Ne1 f6 25. f4 fe 26. fe. (Diagram.)

nakamura 4Position after 26. fe. Black to move.

FEN: 3q2k1/1p2b1p1/p1n1p2p/3pP3/3P2P1/P1Q5/1P1B3P/4N1K1 b – - 0 26

In this position you played a remarkable move, and even now I’m not sure whether it’s right or not. I would be very interested, and I think my readers would be very interested, in your thoughts on it.

You played 26. … Bg5!?, a move that I was absolutely not expecting. It seems as if this does White a great favor, by exchanging off his bad bishop. I think that very few amateurs would even consider such a move. However, I do think there is some point to it. While it does relieve me of an ineffective piece, the move emphasizes the passivity of my two remaining pieces, and it also opens lines that Black’s queen can use to penetrate the White position.

Would you still play this move today? Should we pay any attention to Rybka’s assessment, which is that the position is almost dead equal after the trade of bishops? Did you consider this the only way for Black to play for a win?

The game continued 27. Nf3 Bxd2 28. Qxd2 Qf8 29. Kg2 Qf7 30. Kg3. After the game, with 20-20 hindsight, I thought that this was the losing move and that I should have tried to contest the b1-h7 diagonal with 30. Qd3. Rybka agrees that 30. Qd3 leads to equality after 30. … Qf4 31. h3! (but not 31. Qg6? Kf8! indirectly defending the e-pawn because of 32. Qxe6?? Qxf3! 33. Kxf3 Nxd4+). However, Rybka also says that the move I played should equalize, so I haven’t given it a question mark.

You played 30. … Qg6! 31. h4 Qe4 and now I made what truly was the losing move.

nakamura 5Position after 31. … Qe4. White to move.

FEN: 3q2k1/1p2b1p1/p1n1p2p/3pP3/3P2P1/P1Q5/1P1B3P/4N1K1 b – - 0 26

Here I played 32. g5??, a move that looks unforgiveable to me now. White voluntarily restricts the mobility of his pieces and gift-wraps the f5 square for Black’s knight. It’s hard to fathom how I could have even for a moment thought that such a move was the right idea. This may be why I haven’t shown this game to my blog readers before. Moves like 19. Bd2 and 32. g5 seem to me not only bad but uncharacteristic of my chess.

After the correct move, 32. h5, White’s position is still extremely passive, but how is Black to break through? Black’s knight has no obvious routes into White’s position, except perhaps c6-e7-c8-b6-c4, but this is so slow that I think White will have no problem deterring it. Black also has no pawn breaks except … g5, but this move weakens Black’s kingside more than it weakens White’s, after the en passant capture. Finally, I would like to point out that White doesn’t just have to “sit” after 32. h5. After h5, a further g5-g6 break becomes a real possibility.

In sum, I feel that the position after 32. h5 is one where Black has “maxed out.” His position is optically impressive, but he has no way to improve it. Do you agree with this assessment? If not, how can Black play for a win here? If you agree, did Black make any mistakes earlier (perhaps the exchange of f-pawns?) that took the dynamic potential out of the position?

The rest of the game is pretty straightforward, but I will give it for the benefit of my blog readers. I like the confidence that you had in your ability to win the knight endgame, so that you were not afraid to offer queen trades. To me this shows an unusual maturity for an 11-year-old!

After 32. g5?? the game concluded 32. … h5! 33. Qf4 Qb1 34. Nd2? Qd3+?! (A slight inaccuracy, as 34. … Qg1+ is completely winning. But Black has a plan, and instead of winning material he just sticks to the plan.) 35. Nf3 Ne7 36. Qc1 Nf5+ 37. Kf2 Qc4! 38. Qd2 g6 39. Qa5 Qc2+ 40. Nd2 b6! 41. Qb4 Nxh4 42. Ke2 Qc7 43. Qa4 Nf5 44. Qe8+ Kh7 45. Kd3 Ng7 (A nice, unassailable formation for Black’s kingside pieces) 46. Qf8 Qd7 47. Qd6 Qb5+ 48. Kc2 h4 49. Qf8 Qe2 50. Qf3 Qxf3 51. Nxf3 Nf5 52. Kd3 h3 53. Kc3 Kg7 (Even here Black could have played his eventual winning plan of 53. … Ng3. But he is in no hurry, and takes his time to improve his king position before proceeding.) 54. Kd3 Kf7 55. b3 Ke7 56. Kc3 Kd7 57. Kd3 Kc6 58. Kc3 Ng3 59. Nh2 Ne4+ 60. resigns.

Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to take a look at this game again. My readers and I will be interested in your thoughts!

Yours truly,


P.S. (Added April 29.) Congratulations on your win in the Ultimate Blitz Challenge! I hope you enjoy your short breather from the tournament grind.

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Annual Report Card — Most Popular Posts

by admin on April 25, 2016

About once a year I like to take a look at my blog stats, just to see what is happening. What are my most popular posts all-time? What are the most popular ones recently?

The all-time list never changes very much — it’s always the same post at the top, and the same one in second. Even so, there is some gradual change over the years, and it definitely looks as if there could be a new #3 soon.

All-Time Most Page Views (> 1000)

Name 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 Total
Stop Presses II… Elizabeth Vicary Gets Hitched 78 414 2045 691 422 122 3772
How to Break Fort Knox in 13 Moves 129 264 740 490 530 132 2285
Dana’s opening philosophy 91* 274 500 289 345 228 156 43 1926
State chess champions… all states, all years 104 338 525 639 259 1865
Russian chess names – a guide for the perplexed 95* 344 275 268 343 171 134 29 1659
Why Not Nuke the Caro? 153 157 149 253 302 295 65 1374
Grading the Openings (Part 1) 1311 51 1362
What if There Were No King’s Gambit? 309 542 322 85 1258
Karpov-Fischer 34 149 220 230 192 172 165 25 1187
The “Other” Bird 153 278 370 263 90 1154
Mystery grandmasters + grandmasters named Alex 518 124 94 114 89 100 33 1072
Maris’d 91 413 316 65 61 66 8 1020

* Some page views before September 2009 not counted.

Red type = most popular post of the year.

Some thoughts on this list: First of all, one must remember that it only counts clicks, and doesn’t tell you how good the post actually is. So to some extent the list rewards posts with catchy titles. For example, “State chess champions… all states, all years” seems to promise something really fantastic. But when you read the post, it only says that somebody ought to compile this database. I haven’t done it personally. But judging from the popularity of the post, probably I should.

Also, external factors can make a huge difference. The most obvious example is my post on Elizabeth (Vicary) Spiegel’s marriage, which drew an overwhelming number of page views in 2013, the year the movie “Brooklyn Castle” came out. The post Grading the Openings (Part 1) attracted a huge number of views because somebody on Reddit linked to it. But that kind of popularity is really ephemeral. Probably 1200 of those 1300 page views came within the first two days after I posted it.

Now let’s take a look at the chart of current “hits.”

Most Page Views in 2016 (> 100)

Name 2016 Total
State chess champions… all states, all years 259 1865
USATW results 154 154
Bird by Bird, Part 6 138 138
How to Break Fort Knox in 13 moves 132 2285
Two Shining Moments 132 132
Queen vs Rook and Pawns 130 130
How to Beat a Grandmaster 127 265
Stop Presses II… Elizabeth Vicary Gets Hitched 122 3772
Touch move again 122 122
The Van Damme Truck Trick 121 121
Queen and Bishop vs Two Rooks 114 561
Why Does Anybody Play 1. e4? 109 201
The Fourth Endgame of the Apocalypse 103 363
Sensational Chess Club Battle 103 103
Checkmate Patterns, Moral Victories 102 102
Weeeellllll… 101 101
Do Superhuman Moves Exist? 101 101

“State chess champions” is doing really, really strongly, and its popularity has been building for several years. It would have been my most popular post last year if it hadn’t been for that Reddit-driven surge for “Grading the Openings.”

News posts like the #2 entry, “USATW results,” always do well for a very brief time and then disappear. I’m really encouraged to see the interest in my recent posts, Bird by Bird (part 6), Two Shining Moments, and Do Superhuman Moves Exist? They all have tremendous upside. “Two Shining Moments” was not very substantive from the chess point of view, but it did lead to a very substantive post, “Do Superhuman Moves Exist?” Finally, it was really nice to see the post “The Fourth Endgame of the Apocalypse” making the list. It’s an oldie but goodie, about the R + B versus R endgame, and of course the interest in that post was stimulated by Fabiano Caruana’s debacle in that endgame against Peter Svidler. I’m glad that more than a hundred people found their way to my discussion of that endgame, which I think is one of the best posts I’ve ever written.

Some of you might be interested in finding out what were my best posts, rather than my best clickbait. Last year in The Internet Never Forgets, I listed my 15 favorite old posts, and I’m glad to see that some of them had a noticeable increase in page views as a result. Here’s an update: my seven favorite posts since last May. I couldn’t cut it down to a shorter list, because there have been so many posts that I really, really loved.

  • How to Beat a Grandmaster. An article about something I’ve never done! My friend and former teammate Robin Cunningham beat GM Glenn Flear last December at Hastings. A really impressive and fearless game by Robin, which gives hope to all of us fair-to-middling national masters.
  • Hans Niemann and the Fifth Endgame of the Apocalypse. This one blew my mind. I’m not sure if I’ve recovered yet. In the 2N vs. P endgame, the fast-improving young master Hans Niemann not only knew the “Troitzky line,” he also knew how to win when his opponent’s pawn was past the Troitzky line. You’d better keep an eye on this guy …
  • Queen and Bishop versus Two Rooks. Here’s an endgame that even Hans Niemann might not know. I’m not even sure if it has ever come up in grandmaster practice. According to the tablebases, K+Q+B vs. K+2R is usually a win for the queen, but I show you one easily-remembered setup that is a draw, if you can get to it. You can thank me later.
  • Checkmate Patterns, Moral Victories. Sometimes the best stuff is in the comments. This was a post about a cute out-of-the-blue checkmate combination played by Jonathan Tisdall, and who should send in a comment but Tisdall himself!
  • The Cup and the Fly. I’ve written several posts over the last year or so about my games against the computer. This is the one that you really shouldn’t miss. Sometimes the way to catch a fly (or win a chess game) is to lower the trap over your opponent so gently he doesn’t even know it’s there.
  • Things That Make You Go Hmmm… Who had the longest winning streak in the history of the U.S. Chess Federation? I’m not sure, but a strong candidate might be Alex Zelner, who won 108 rated games in a row from 2010 to 2011. There’s something a bit fishy about this record, because he was the TD for every one of those games, and many were against his own family members. I’m not sure if these should count for U.S. rating purposes. But check out the post and the comments for an explanation and a discussion.
  • “Grandmaster” Beau. Last year was such a stunning year for American chess fans. GM Walter Browne died. IM Emory Tate died. And Beau Hardeman died. Who?? Well, he was a chess teacher in Atlanta who told everyone he was a grandmaster. But he wasn’t. According to the USCF computer, his actual rating never went above 1900. The game in this post was historic for both of us, because I was the highest-rated player he ever beat, and this was the first game I played while I was at my lifetime peak rating (2257). Truly a case of “pride goeth before a fall.” I was sooo embarrassed to lose to an 1800 player, but if you look at the game, Beau deserved to win. He played like a grandmaster.

History is written about the famous players, the Brownes and the Tates, but let’s not forget all the other people who contribute in some way to the great game of chess.

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Straight Outta Delaware

April 19, 2016

Today was Tuesday, my regular day for Aptos Library chess club. A photographer came to take some pictures, because the library is preparing promotional material for a bond measure to support the public libraries in Santa Cruz. They wanted pictures of the good things that the library does for the community, and they sure picked the right […]

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Do Superhuman Moves Exist?

April 12, 2016

In my last post I asked readers for examples of games with “two shining moments” — in other words, one fantastic, seemingly game-winning move for each player. Mike Splane sent me a link to a game he played against Agnis Kaugars in 1993 that meets the description — and more! Both players were balancing over a […]

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Two Shining Moments

April 5, 2016

This will be a mostly off-topic post, for which I apologize, but I’ll bring it back to chess at the end. If you’re a college basketball fan in the U.S., you know what the title is about. Every year, at the end of the NCAA men’s basketball championship, the producers put together a montage of […]

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My First Hook!

March 29, 2016

Last weekend I played a 7-minute game that combined three of the things that I am best known for: the Bird Variation of the Ruy Lopez, the Hook and Ladder Trick, and … losing on time. Although I have written about the Hook and Ladder Trick many times and recorded a ChessLecture on it, I believe this […]

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And the challenger is…

March 28, 2016

In case you didn’t see it on any of the zillions of other chess news sites on the Internet, the Candidates Tournament in Moscow ended today with a clear winner: Sergei Karjakin. Karjakin and Fabiano Caruana entered the final round tied for first with 7½ points out of 13, and by a stroke of good […]

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Penultimate Round in Candidates

March 27, 2016

Let me start with an apology. I haven’t been following the Candidates’ Tournament in Moscow very closely — in particular, I haven’t been watching the live broadcasts, although I have been reading about the games on afterwards. I guess my apathy is partly because it seems to be all the “usual suspects” playing, and […]

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Sensational Chess Club Battle

March 23, 2016

At present the two strongest players in the Aptos Library Chess Club are named Luke and Alex. It’s so interesting to watch them play, because they have contrasting strengths. I think Luke overall has a more solid understanding of the game. He has actually done some reading on his own. I don’t think Alex ever […]

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50 Ways to Beat Your Computer

March 21, 2016

I’ve been playing my computer a lot recently, in case you haven’t noticed. And if you have noticed, and you’re tired of seeing me write about meaningless games against my computer, I apologize. I alternate between thinking it’s a useful training method when I don’t have anyone else to play, and thinking it’s a complete […]

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