Introducing The Hive Mind

by admin on January 21, 2015

This Sunday I had the chance to meet with Gjon Feinstein, Mike Splane, and Eric Montany at a coffeehouse to go over my recent game with Ivan Ke. (See this post for some earlier discussion of the game.) We tore apart and dissected the game until there were only the smallest bones left, and I learned a lot from the collective wisdom of three National Masters.

I will refer to all three of them together as The Hive Mind. I’m doing that partly to be funny, but also to give them plausible deniability. If they got something wrong, they can always blame it on the other two members of the collective. Also, it’s an appropriate term because hive minds do not always have to be consistent with themselves.

So here’s the first turning point in the game, where The Hive Mind criticized my play. I was Black, and Ke-Mackenzie reached this position after White’s ninth move.

ke3Position after 9. Bxc4. Black to move.

FEN: r1bq1rk1/pp3ppp/2n1pn2/2b5/2B5/2N1PN2/PP3PPP/R1BQ1RK1 b – - 0 9

First of all, some of you might find it hard to believe that we reached this position with Black to move, because the position is symmetrical. Yes, it is correct. I had hoodwinked my young opponent into losing a tempo already, so in effect Black is White and White is Black. Here are the opening moves in case you want to check: 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 d5 3. Nc3 c5 4. e3 Nc6 5. dc e6 6. Nf3 Bxc5 7. Be2 O-O 8. O-O dc 9. Bxc4.

One interesting thing about this is that the position appears in ChessBase many times (more than 200) but almost always with White to move. So when I cite previous games below, it will always be with colors reversed. Hopefully that won’t be too confusing.

So the first thing that the Hive Mind (at least one member thereof) said here, and quite forcefully, was that they thought the best move for Black here is 9. … Qe7. That surprised me, because I thought that the move I chose, 9. … a6, was quite normal. And in fact, it’s played about three times more often than 9. … Qe7 in the database. But there is a valid point behind 9. … Qe7. If white continues copying Black’s moves, it leads to immediate disaster after 9. … Qe7 10. Qe2 e5! 11. e4 Bg4! (this is the point) and now copying is no longer possible because after 12. Bg5 Nd4 would be winning.

If White can’t meet 10. … e5 with e4, then he is in trouble because Black will follow up with 11. … e4 and get a strong kingside attack. See, for example, any classic game with the Colle System.

However, I still don’t think that the Hive Mind was completely right here. It’s true that White should not continue copying with 10. Qe2, but there are some other good alternatives. White can play 10. a3 as in the game, or perhaps even better, he can even try to get the jump on Black by playing 10. e4 himself. I don’t think that there is anything like a clear advantage for Black here. But it is still an interesting idea, and one of the things I like about it is that there is an actual plan behind Black’s move 9. … Qe7. He’s not just developing pieces for the sake of developing.

Okay, let’s carry on with the game. From the diagram I played 9. … a6 and Ke replied 10. a3 b5 11. Ba2?!

This is a mistake because the bishop ends up kind of out of play here. Either 11. Be2 or 11. Bd3 would be better, and indeed they are considerably more popular in ChessBase.

I continued 11. … Bb7 (11. … b4 would be an interesting possibility, to make the position more asymmetric) 12. b4 Bd6 13. Bb2 and we now reach the second diagram.

Position after 13. Bb2. Black to move.

FEN: /1b3ppp/p1nbpn2/1p6/1P6/P1N1PN2/BB3PPP/R2Q1RK1 b – - 0 13

Here I played 13. … Qe7 and I expected the Hive Mind to be happy because this was the move they recommended earlier. But no! They thought that 13. … Qe7 was inconsistent with the plan of fianchettoing the queen bishop. After all, the idea behind … Qe7 was to play … e5 and … Bg4. It’s not the moves themselves, but the ideas that are important.

Instead the Hive Mind proposed a really interesting idea. “Look at the pieces,” they said. “Wouldn’t you like to take the opportunity to trade your worst minor piece for White’s best one? So let’s play 13. … Ne5!”

During the game I may have considered 13. … Ne5, but I discarded it because I thought that too much material would come off the board. A typical superficial assessment by me. There’s more to it than that. If White decides to trade off a bunch of material with 14. Nxe5 Bxe5 15. Qxd8 Rfxd8 16. Rfd1, we get to a position that has appeared (with colors reversed) five times in ChessBase.

ke5Position after 16. Rfd1 (analysis). Black to move.

FEN: r2r2k1/1b3ppp/p3pn2/1p2b3/1P6/P1N1P3/BB3PPP/R2R2K1 b – - 0 16

Every game with this position has ended with a draw. And every time it was because the players, like me, didn’t realize the dynamic potential in Black’s position. The most egregious offender, because it involved super-GM’s, was the game Szabo-Pachman from the Portoroz Interzonal in 1958, where Szabo (remember, White is Black and Black is White) meekly played 16. … Rdc8. Right idea, sort of, but wrong move order. The correct move here, as the Hive Mind said, is 16. … Ne4!, which continues to put pressure on the weak points in White’s position, specifically the pinned knight on c3.

Now I can’t quite credit Hive Mind with a Theoretical Novelty, because 16. … Ne4 has in fact been played once before, in the game Golubka-Stopkin, Chervonograd 2008. (These are not household names, but at least they are solid 2200-plus players.) However, Golubka botched it, because after 17. Rxd8+ Rxd8 18. Rd1 he played the peaceful 18. … Rxd1+? This trades too much and leads to a position where White can hold pretty easily after 19. Nxd1.

Instead Black has two good possibilities for turning up the pressure. One, found by Rybka (not Hive Mind), is the surprising 18. … Nd2! This seemingly walks into a pin, but White can’t exploit it and meanwhile Black threatens 19. … Bxc3 followed by 20. … Nf3+, breaking the pin and winning an exchange. Rybka rates the position after 18. … Nd2 as +0.6 for Black.

But that’s a little bit computer-y; it’s very unlikely that I would have come up with it over the board. Much more consistent with Black’s plan is 18. … Rc8!, and it also leads to a very comfortable position for Black. Here is what Rybka gives as best play from there: 19. Nxe4 (forced) Bxb2 20. Nc5 Bc6 21. Nxa6 Bxa3 22. Nc5 Bxb4 23. Nxe6! (see diagram).

ke7Position after 23. Nxe6. Black to play.

FEN: 2r3k1/5ppp/2b1N3/1p6/1b6/4P3/B4PPP/3R2K1 b – - 0 23

If it weren’t for this tactical shot, White would just have been busted. Hive Mind did not see this during our analysis, and I think that is only to be expected. We are now ten moves beyond the last position that actually appeared in the game, which is my definition of Fantasy Chess.

Even though White still has drawing chances (Rybka rates it about +0.5 for Black), I would be super happy to get to a position like this as Black. Black has the two bishops, an open board to use them in, and an outside passed pawn. I think that someone like Magnus Carlsen would win this position for Black without breaking a sweat.

In summary, I like Hive Mind’s second idea, the idea of 13. … Ne5, much better than the first. Black gains an effortless advantage, and he does so by applying simple strategic principles. Exchange bad pieces for good ones, put pressure on the weak points, and don’t let the exchanges bother you too much. Weaknesses remain weaknesses even when the material is reduced. In fact, in some cases the exchange of material clears away all the distractions and really focuses the attention on the key features of the position — in this case, the pin on the c3 knight. Here as well as later in the game, Hive Mind insisted that the knight on c3 is not well placed at all.

That’s where I’ll stop for today. Now that you’ve seen moves 1-13 of this game and moves 30-36, you’re probably wondering what happened in the rest of the game. Well, what happened was a bit of a mess with mistakes by both sides, and I think it has somewhat less instructional value.

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Dinosaurs Roam the Earth in Dublin

by admin on January 20, 2015

I did not go to the Golden State Open in Dublin, California, last weekend. I have a lot of work this month and couldn’t prepare properly for a chess tournament. But I wish I had! It looks as if it was a great tournament, although not quite as loaded with strong players as the New Year Championship was.

One of the interesting things about the tournament was that two people came back from long absences to win prizes. One of them was Nicolas Yap, a 2300 level player who finished fourth in the open section. He had not played rated chess since 2008. I don’t know him at all, but Craig Mar posted in a Facebook comment that he was “a kid no more,” so I would guess that his absence has had something to do with college and maybe graduate school.

The other notable returnee will not be familiar at all to California residents, but he’s quite familiar to me! The winner of the expert section was a guy named Doug Browning, rated 2131, who according to his USCF member page had not played any rated chess between 2003 and 2014. In 2003 he was living in Massachusetts. From his LinkedIn page it looks as if he moved to California to work for Google in 2013. He played in one blitz tournament and one rated tournament in 2014, presumably shaking off the rust but giving no idea of the kind of weekend he would have at the Golden State Open. This weekend he won 6½ out of 7, picking up 60 rating points and also presumably a heap of prize money. (This was a Bill Goichberg tournament. You know the prizes were big.)

Believe it or not, I know Doug from all the way back in graduate school. We were both at Princeton University in the early 1980s. As I recall, he was a 2100-level player even back then. I was still scuffling around in the 1900 to 2000 range. We played together on the Princeton chess team in at least one U.S. Amateur Team championship.

The only recorded game I have with him was from the 1982 Princeton chess club championship. I won that tournament by some fluke, with a 4-0 score, even though there were a couple of experts and a master rated above me. My game with Doug was typical of my good luck. It was a disaster for both sides. I played wretchedly in the opening, fell into every tactical trap, and emerged a pawn down with no compensation. But then Doug, for no apparent reason, blundered the pawn back and gave me a better endgame. Even though most of the game was pretty pathetic, the end was kind of cute.

browningPosition after 57. … Kb5. White to play and win.

FEN: 8/KP6/P7/1k2b3/6p1/8/4N3/8 w – - 0 58

This shouldn’t be hard to solve, but still the geometry of the position is nice. I played 58. Nd4+! with the idea of chasing Black’s king away from the a-pawn or deflecting the bishop from the queening square. If 58. … Ka5 59. Nc6+ forks the king and bishop. On other king moves, I simply play 59. b8 and win. For instance, if 58. … Kc4 59. b8Q Bxb8 60. Kxb8 Kxd4 (he has to waste a tempo taking the knight, otherwise I can easily stop his g-pawn) 61. a7 g3 62. a8Q and White wins easily. It’s nice that Black had a knight pawn rather than a bishop pawn or rook pawn. Finally, there is the move Doug played, 58. … Bxd4+, after which I played 59. Ka8 and he resigned, seeing that 59. … Be5 would be met by 60. a7 creating a queen.

There’s one other interesting thing about this endgame: It was adjourned after move 46. Yes, that was truly the era when dinosaurs roamed the earth, when sudden-death time controls were rare and clocks with five-second increments did not exist, and every tournament director had to have a supply of sealed-move envelopes. I’m not sure, but it’s possible that this was the last game that I ever played that was adjourned. I wish I could say that I found the above combination in my adjournment analysis, but I didn’t. In fact I mishandled the endgame and was lucky that the combination presented itself in this position. (I had a much easier win on move 51.)

After we both graduated, Doug and I completely lost touch. From his LinkedIn profile it looks as if he has had a very successful career in information technology, which probably accounts for his absence from the chess scene from 2003 to 2014. It’s interesting that we have had extremely similar rating histories. He had a peak of 2266 in 1994 (my peak was 2257 in 1995), then he dropped to a low of 2059 in 2001 (my low was 2075 in 2011), and now, after the Golden State Open, he’s back up to 2192 (and I’m back up to 2199). We’re practically twins!

Dinosaurs love company, so welcome back, fellow dinosaur!

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Top Chess States (Take Two)

January 16, 2015

I wasn’t completely happy with my post yesterday about the top chess states, because the measure I used (number of players over 2500) is skewed to the very high end of the spectrum of chess players. Half of the states don’t even have a player rated 2500. Also, the statistic is unduly influenced, in my […]

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Top Chess States

January 15, 2015

What do you think are the strongest chess states in the country? I think that most chess players would be able to guess the top state, maybe even the top two or top three. But what surprises me is how close the competition is. Fifty years ago, it would have been New York in a […]

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Thinking Big?

January 7, 2015

Let’s now turn our attention from the microscopic to the monumental … in fact, to the future of chess. I’ve been waiting for the right time to mention that there is a project in the works to make a movie about the (first) Millionaire Chess Open, Maurice Ashley’s grand experiment last year at running a […]

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Luck or Skill?

January 6, 2015

It’s an age-old question: is chess truly just a game of skill, or is there luck involved too? Here is perhaps the most crucial position I faced in the New Year Championship tournament last weekend. It’s round five, and I’m playing back against Ivan Ke (the #29 11-year-old in the country). I got a good […]

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My Kingdom for Three-Quarters of a Rating Point!

January 5, 2015

Back when I first joined the USCF, in 1972, you had to wait months to find out your new rating after you played in a tournament. Nowadays, if the tournament directors do their job quickly enough, you can find out overnight. In fact, Michael Aigner found out even before I did! When I logged onto […]

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New Year Championship — Results!

January 4, 2015

The New Year Championship has just wrapped up, and the victor in a runaway was the Chinese grandmaster, Xiangzhi Bu, who beat IM Andrey Gorovets in the last round to finish with a score of 5½ out of 6. There was a four-way tie for second at 4½ points, including the guy I wrote about […]

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The Argentinian Connection

January 3, 2015

This weekend I am playing in my first tournament of 2015, appropriately called the New Year Championship (as always, expertly organized by Bay Area Chess). For a local tournament it’s got a super-strong top section, with something like four 2500 players. The lower sections seem somewhat sparsely populated, however. I guess only serious players devote […]

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Odds and Ends 2014

December 31, 2014

Well, it’s December 31, a day that gets no respect because everybody is looking toward the new year. But it’s a perfect day for an “odds and ends” blog post, and that’s what I’m doing today. Everything today is either an odd or an end. 1) Congratulations to Bryon Doyle and Uyanga Byambaa on a […]

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