Look for the Penguins

by admin on October 30, 2014

Here’s the finish of one of my games from the recent Western States Open in Reno. It was round three, and I was White against Ganesh Murugappan, the #43 12-year-old in the country.

muruFEN: 6k1/2p1rr1p/P2p4/1PnPpBP1/2n1P3/2B5/4K2R/7R w – - 0 81

Position after 80. … R8f7. White to move.

Black has just moved his rook to f7, which is understandable because I was attacking the h-pawn three times. Both players are in intense time trouble; he had less than 30 seconds for the rest of the game and I had less than a minute. (We do, however, have a 5-second time delay each move to help us out.)

Obviously Black is on the ropes, but what do I do for a knockout punch? The only real threat in the position is g5-g6, but I wasn’t completely sure what the consequences of that move were. As I was trying to make up my mind, my eyes happened to wander over six files to the left — to the a-pawn. And instantly I knew what the correct move was.

81. a7! …

Of course! Black needed his rook on the eighth rank to watch over the pawn’s queening square. With that guard gone, the pawn advance is decisive.

The game ended as follows:

81. … Nb6 82. g6! …

Now there is a point to White’s looming rook penetration to h8. Once I get to that square I will be able to queen the a-pawn.

82. … hg

If 82. … Rg7 83. Rxh7 Rxh7 84. gh+ Kh8 85. Rg1 is curtains. White will maneuver his dark-squared bishop back to d2 and then either to g5 or h6.

83. Bxg6 Kg7?

Played in a state of utter panic, with maybe 15 seconds left on his clock, this move makes it easy for me. But 83. … Rf8 also fails to 84. Rh8+ Kg7 85. R8h7+! and either 86. … Kxg6 87. R1h6+ Kg5 88. Bd2+ or 86. … Kf6 87. Rf1+ Kxg6 88. Rxe7. In this last line the a-pawn is essential — take it off the board and White would not be winning.

84. Bxf7 Rxf7 85. Rh7+ …

From here I traded rooks, played Rh8 and he resigned on move 90.

From the chess point of view this finish is a nice example of play on both sides of the board, where pushing a pawn on the a-file facilitates a breakthrough on the kingside and vice versa. However, I think it’s even more interesting from the psychological point of view, because it’s an example of lateral thinking.

A couple years ago the television program Brain Games had a fascinating episode where they asked unwitting volunteers to watch a simple shell game (the kind where you hide a pea under one of three shells, shuffle them around and ask the person to tell you where the shell is). Meanwhile, a few feet behind the table they were looking at, an actor walked around in a penguin outfit and then left. After the shuffling was done, they asked the volunteers if they had noticed anything unusual in front of them. Not one of them had noticed the actor in the penguin outfit! They were all so focused on the shells that they couldn’t see the penguin.

I thought there was a great lesson here for chess players. We tend to get so focused on one plan, or one part of the board, or one piece, that we fail to notice what else is happening in the position. Ever since then, I have made a note to myself: “Don’t forget to look for the penguins!”

That was exactly what I did in this position, and it won the game for me. I had been so focused on my kingside advance that I had momentarily forgotten about the a-pawn, and it was only when I stopped thinking about the kingside that I noticed the penguin.

I call it “lateral thinking” when, instead of looking at the move that seems to be a logical sequel to the previous ones, you jump laterally to a different idea, a different piece, or a different part of the board. In the above example, it was very literally a “lateral” jump, because I looked six files to the left. In the next example, my lateral thinking was more metaphorical.

lateralFEN: r1r1bb2/5k2/q1n2P1p/3Np1pP/2p1Q3/p6P/P1BB3K/R4R2 w – - 0 36

Position after 35. … Kf7. White to play.

This was a position from a training game against Shredder, the computer program, which I played a couple weeks before the Reno tournament (October 2 to be exact). Shredder’s rating was set to 2142 and the time control was game in 10 minutes.

Just as in the Murugappan game, Black is obviously on the ropes but the question is how is White going to finish him off. I had just played 35. Qe4 and he had played 35. … Kf7, so obviously my attention was focused on the queen. I spent several seconds, maybe half a minute, trying to work out which was better, 36. Qh7+ or 36. Qg6+. On either move he answers … Ke6, and I will probably play something like f7 and he will take my knight on d5. After that I just couldn’t see for sure where my checkmate was.

That’s when a little voice in my head said, “Don’t forget to look for the penguin!” If the problem with my position is that Shredder is going to take my knight, why not move my knight? As soon as I made that lateral jump — from my queen to my knight — the winning combination was laughably easy to spot. I played

36. Nc7! …

Not only does this fork the queen and rook, it threatens 36. Qd5 checkmate! D’oh! The answer to the question, “Where should the queen go, g6 or h7?” was neither! The right square was d5.

Shredder played 36. … Ne7 to stop the checkmate, and of course I could have taken its queen, but I preferred mate in two with 37. Qh7+ Bg7 38. Qxg7 mate.

This was one of my most satisfying training games against Shredder, and it’s especially satisfying to think that the lesson on lateral thinking may have helped me to win my tournament game two weeks later.

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Reno Odds and Ends

by admin on October 22, 2014

A few final thoughts about the Reno tournament…

(1) The ratings went up today and I was surprised to see that my rating didn’t go up as much as I thought it would. Only from 2164 to 2182. This means that if I had won my last-round game against GM Sergey Kudrin instead of drawing, I still would have fallen short of 2200; I probably would have been at 2198.

I have to admit that, even though I’m a mathematician, I really don’t understand any more how the ratings are calculated. There used to be a simple rough-and-ready approximation that worked. But then they changed the formulas and the K numbers and the B numbers and what not, and I don’t know what’s what anymore.

(2) Mike Zaloznyy posted something interesting on Facebook. There was a player named Hamed Nouri in the open section who has somehow pulled off the feat of getting a FIDE rating of 2327 and a USCF rating of 1935. Remember, FIDE ratings are usually about 100 points less than USCF, and almost never greater. But this guy’s FIDE was 400 points greater! Of course, he entered the under-2200 section and even played the first round in that section until tournament director Jerry Weikel caught wind of the discrepancy and booted him up to the Open section with a 0-point bye for the first round. Even so, Nouri won 3½ out of his next four games. Going into the last round, I was under the impression that he was one of my two main competitors for the under-2200 prize.

Mike did some sleuthing on the USCF website and found out how Nouri got his low USCF rating. He has lost 11 games out of 48 against players between 1500 and 1900, while losing only 3 games against masters! Hmm, those tough class-C and class-B players.

Anyway, kudos to TD Weikel for catching on to this guy’s ruse. Also kudos to GM Melikset Khachiyan for beating him in the last round, so he wouldn’t have won the U2200 prize even if he had been eligible.

(3) This afternoon I had the chance to analyze my game with Kudrin. I learned something pretty amazing. Grandmasters are human! Did you know that?

Specifically, I was surprised by the way he crumbled over the last 10-12 moves of the game. This is not meant to be a criticism of him. Rather, it’s yet another testament to the power of the Bryntse Gambit (1. e4 c5 2. f4 d5 3. Nf3 de 4. Ng5 Nf6 5. Bc4 Bg4?! 6. Qxg4!!). White sacrifices his queen and in return gets two minor pieces, plus 30 to 40 moves of non-stop initiative. This game showed that even a grandmaster like Kudrin could get frustrated playing Black in this opening. It’s like battling an army of ants that just won’t go away.

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Almost My First Win Over a GM

October 19, 2014

What a finish to the Western States Open! In the last round, I almost… Beat my first grandmaster (a bucket list item) Tied for first in an open tournament, for the first time in 20 years Scored another historic victory with the Bryntse Gambit Got my rating back over 2200. But I didn’t. Instead, I […]

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How Could I Be So Blind?

October 18, 2014

This is a lament that every chess player utters at some point… some of us more often than others. My turn to utter it was yesterday. FEN: 7k/7p/P2R2p1/5p2/2p5/1K6/6rP/8 w – – 0 48 Position after 47. … c4+. White to move. Round one of the Western States Open in Reno. I’m playing White against Samir […]

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Millionaire Tournament Results

October 14, 2014

So So wasn’t so-so! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!) I tried to look up the winner of the Millionaire Open in Las Vegas this morning, and it wasn’t as easy as I expected to find out who won. When I went to chessbase.com, usually my first source, there was nothing about the playoffs. Next I went […]

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The Agony of De-draw

October 12, 2014

On ABC’s Wide World of Sports, the late broadcaster Jim McKay used to talk about “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” But in chess we have a third possibility, the agony of de-draw. The first seven rounds of the Millionaire Open in Las Vegas are over, and tomorrow is “Millionaire Monday.” The […]

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Oh, the Shame

October 9, 2014

I just discovered that Shredder lets you see your “rating progress,” just as the USCF does. I don’t know which to be more ashamed of… the fact that I have played more than 200 games against Shredder (that’s a lot of time-wasting, and it’s just in the last three months!) or the fact that my […]

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Millionaire Chess Preview

October 3, 2014

Well, Maurice Ashley’s Ode to the Almighty Dollar is almost here. The Millionaire Chess Tournament will be held at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas from October 9 to 13, dedicated to the proposition that big entry fees and big prizes will make for exciting chess. I sure hope so! So far, the tournament has gotten […]

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Mind-Blowing Endgame

September 30, 2014

I know that games played against my computer aren’t the most interesting topic in the world, but recently I had an endgame against Shredder that blew my mind. I learned something new and I think you will, too. Let’s start on move 88, when the computer played a move that totally shocked me. (Parenthetical remark […]

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(Off-topic) Fun time-waster

September 27, 2014

Today I discovered a fun new computer game — new to me, that is — called Fantastic Contraption 2. I had a great time with it, because it allows more creativity and originality than any other computer game I’ve played (besides chess, of course!). Most puzzle-type games have only one solution, or they may have […]

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