Unplanned but Effective

by admin on August 26, 2015

This weekend I was reviewing the games from my last tournament, the National Open, in preparation for my next one. I had thought that my win in the fourth round was not very interesting, but actually there was more to learn from it than I expected. I was playing Black against Travis Guenther from Texas.

guenther1Position after 26. Bf1. Black to move.

FEN: 3r1r2/p1p1bq1k/1p3pp1/2n1P2p/b1P4P/P1B3Q1/3N1PP1/R3RBK1 b – - 0 26

In this position Black could simply play 26. … fe, winning a pawn. White’s bishop can’t capture because it is needed to defend the knight on d2. The queen can’t take because it needs to defend the pawn on f2. However, surprisingly enough, the rook can take! If 26. … fe 27. Rxe5! Bd6? 28. Nf3! Bxe5 29. Qxe5! I have to give credit to Rybka, the computer program, for this discovery. Black’s only move to avoid disaster is 29. … Kh6, and then White (if he wants) can draw immediately with 30. Qg5+ Kh7 31. Qe5.

Sadly, I do not remember my exact thought process here. I wish I could say that I saw the exchange sac 27. Rxe5! and the followup 28. Nf3!, but I’d be lying. I think that one of two things happened, and I’m not sure which. One is that I just forgot I could win a pawn with 26. … fe, Embarrassing but quite possible. The other possibility is that I looked at 26. … fe but I was worried about White’s possible activity with Nf3 and Ng5+. I don’t think I calculated a precise variation like the one above, but the idea of removing the pawn from f6 too early looked quite risky to me.

Even without calculating, I think I hit all the key positional features right on the head. White has targets on e5, d2 and f2; Black has to worry about Nf3 or Ne4. So I played a prophylactic move: 26. … Bc6!

When  I went over the game this weekend I was really struck by how cunning this move is, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. It puts the question to White: what are you going to do about that weak pawn on e5? And what are you going to do about the weak knight on d2?

As it turns out, those questions are not easy to answer. 27. f4? definitely looks like a bad idea, as it creates even more weaknesses in White’s position. Rybka gives Black a huge advantage after 27. … fe 28. fe Nd3! Did I see this during the game? No. But I had a gut feeling. More natural for White would be 27. ef, exchanging off the pawn. But White’s problems aren’t over! After 27. … Bxf6 28. Bxf6 Qxf6 we get to this amusing position.

guenther2Position after 28. … Qxf6 (analysis). White to move.

FEN: 3r1r2/p1p4k/1pb2qp1/2n4p/2P4P/P5Q1/3N1PP1/R3RBK1 w – - 0 29

White’s knight on d2 is under attack, but where can it go? Any move that it makes will lead to immediate loss of material. White has to play the awkward 29. Ra2, but after 29. … Rd4 Black is at minimum winning a pawn (with threats of … Rg4 or a capture on h4).

My opponent played the most natural move, but it turns out to lead to a disaster:

29. Rad1? …

Psychologically this is a very interesting moment. White is now overprotecting his knight on d2, two defenders against one attackers, so I think he relaxed a little bit and didn’t think of it any more as a problem. So after I played 29. … fe he automatically recaptured with 30. Bxe5? (He should have just let the pawn go, but then his position is much inferior.)

guenther3Position after 30. Bxe5. Black to move.

FEN: 3r1r2/p1p1bq1k/1pb3p1/2n1B2p/2P4P/P5Q1/3N1PP1/3RRBK1 b – - 0 28

I showed this position to the kids in the Aptos Library chess club yesterday and asked them what Black should play. I was stunned when the first suggestion, from a newcomer named John, was 30. … Nd3!? This is actually a terrific move! If 31. Bxd3 Rxd3 32. Qxd3 Qxf2+ White gets mated. On the other hand, if White leaves the knight there it’s a beast. (This idea of … Nd3 is kind of thematic; note that it came up earlier in the 27. f4 analysis.)

Picturesque as this would have been, the move I played, 30. … Ba4, is just a killer. White is obviously losing the exchange at least, and it’s actually worse than it looks. He played 31. Bxc7 Rd7 32. Be5 Bxd1 33. Rxd1 Ne4! and White resigned.

guenther4Final Position.

FEN: 5r2/p2rbq1k/1p4p1/4B2p/2P1n2P/P5Q1/3N1PP1/3R1BK1 w – - 0 31

One of my students, Aaron, asked why my opponent resigned and didn’t play 32. Qe3 instead. I have to admit that I gave him the wrong answer. I said that Black could play 32. … Bc5 33. Qxe4 Qxf2+, which wins by force, e.g., 34. Kh2 Qg1+ 35. Kh3 Qh1+ 36. Bh2 Bg1. But this is all more elaborate than necessary. As Rybka points out, after 32. Qe3, the simple 32. … Nxf2 wins a pawn, threatens the rook on d1, and keeps the … Bc5 threat in reserve for next move. Rybka gives Black a ridiculously huge advantage here, like 7 pawns. Practicality over tacticality!

As I said at the outset, after the game I wasn’t all that impressed with it, because there weren’t any brilliancies and it just seemed as if White had collapsed. I didn’t fully appreciate how clever my own move, 26. … Bc6, had been — passing up the chance to win a suspect pawn and in the process giving White a false sense of security about his position.

What can we learn from this game?

  1. Sometimes you don’t actually need to calculate. If you identify the key positional problems for both players, that can actually lead you to the right move even if you haven’t calculated all the variations.
  2. It is often good psychology, as well as good chess, to maintain the tension in the position instead of resolving it too soon. In this case, I could have won material with 26. … fe, but instead I kept the tension and ended up winning the game in a rout just a few moves later.
  3. Just because your opponent retreats a piece, that doesn’t mean he can’t put it back! Something weird was going on psychologically with the moves 26. … Bc6, 27. Rad1, and 28. … Ba4. I really think that my opponent forgot that the bishop could come back to a4. Maybe we could call this bishop a Terminator Piece (“I’ll be back.”)
  4. Practicality over tacticality. Given a choice between a flashy sacrifice (John’s 30. … Nd3, and my 32. … Bc5 in answer to Aaron’s question) and a move that just steamrollers your opponent flat (30. … Ba4 and 32. … Nxf2), choose the steamroller.
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“Grandmaster” Beau

by admin on August 18, 2015

This weekend a circle in my life closed, in a very strange way. One of my Facebook friends posted a link to an obituary of his former next-door neighbor in Atlanta, a man he lived next to for six years but never really knew. The one thing that jumped out at me was that he was a chess teacher, and allegedly he was a “grandmaster.” His name was Beau Hardeman.

Something about the name was familiar, and I started burrowing through my old chess notebooks. Sure enough, I found a game that I  played against Beau Hardeman in New Orleans, back in 1994.

A couple comments here before we go on with the story. First of all, isn’t this a weird chain of connections? In 1994 I know these two students in Ohio, David and Teena. Completely on a lark, I decide to go to Louisiana and play in a chess tournament. Presumably equally whimsically, Beau does the same thing. (He lived in Atlanta and according to the USCF database, this was his only tournament in Louisiana.) Then, maybe four or five years later, David and Teena move in next door to him in Atlanta, not realizing that they already had a mutual acquaintance. Before Facebook and the Internet, there was no way I would ever have found out about the coincidence.

Second comment: Of course, Beau was not a grandmaster. The obituary says he was, but it also says that he “never told anyone his rating,” and there’s a good reason he didn’t. At the time of our game he was rated 1801. His rating never went over 1900.

But he taught chess to kids, and in my opinion that excuses a lot. In fact, kids have no idea how to tell whether someone is a master and they don’t care. My students at the Aptos library started calling me “the chess master” even though they had no idea whether I had that title or not. However, if they had ever called me “grandmaster,” I would have stopped them. (In fact, I do think that I have been asked once or twice whether I was a grandmaster, and I use the opportunity to tell them about the rating system and the US Chess Federation.)

What’s interesting about our game is that it’s somewhat historic, both for him and for me. The tournament where we met, the 1994 Gulf State Open, was my first tournament after reaching my all-time peak rating of 2257. And in fact, Hardeman was the first player I faced after hitting 2257. If you want to look at it in the most depressing way, it was the first game in a long decline that I haven’t completely recovered from yet.

It was also possibly the biggest upset, in terms of rating points, in my chess career up to that point. A 2257 losing to an 1801 — that’s a 456-point gap. Coming into the tournament I was all puffed up with pride about my new high rating, but this game burst my bubble in a hurry. I was embarrassed, but on the other hand I realized that Hardeman really deserved to win.

Here’s the key moment of the game.

hardemanPosition after 29. … Kg7. White to move.

FEN: 6r1/ppp1rqk1/5pn1/2b2PpQ/3pP3/P5RP/1PPB2P1/4R2K w – - 0 30

As Black I had taken too many risks with my kingside, but I still thought I was doing okay. If White plays 30. fg Qxg6 31. Qxg6+ Kxg6, I shouldn’t lose.

But here “grandmaster” Beau hit me with an authentic grandmaster move. Do you see what it is?

The answer is that he blew the position open with a piece sacrifice: 30. Bxg5! fg 31. Rxg5. Suddenly my king is looking down the face of a double-barreled assault by his rook and queen. Naturally my first instinct was to run, and so I played what was actually the losing move: 31. … Kf8? 32. fg and everything in my position is hanging. If the queen stays on the f-file White plays 33. Rf5+ and wins the queen, otherwise he can simply take the bishop on c5. I resigned a few moves later.

Black actually could have put up a much better fight with 30. … Bd6!, saving the one piece that can be saved. One point is that 31. fg? Qf2! 32. Qh7+ Kf8 33. Rf5+?? now loses for White, because of 33. … Qxf5. White could of course play 31. Rxg6+ but after 31. … Kf8 32. Qh6+ Ke8 my king slips away from his grasp. In fact the position is quite unclear. Although he has three pawns for a bishop and he has four connected passed pawns (!), I think I might actually prefer to play Black here because White has big-time dark-square weaknesses that my queen and bishop can exploit.

Nevertheless, I think that Hardeman’s move 30. Bxg5! was absolutely the right thing to do because it put so much pressure on me and caused me to panic. The computer may say that the position is equal, but in a game between humans (especially below grandmaster level) this would be a win for White 4 times out of 5, or maybe 9 times out of 10.

In a funny way, I’m pleased and proud to present this game to you because it was almost certainly one of the highlights of Hardeman’s chess-playing career. According to the USCF website, this was the only game he ever won against a player rated above 2200. It’s the Beau Hardeman Immortal! (Of course, there’s a caveat here; he might have beaten other masters before 1991, but the USCF’s computer database doesn’t go back any farther.)

The rest of my trip to New Orleans was very enjoyable. I was impressed by the music of New Orleans and enjoyed being outdoors in March when there was still snow on the ground back in Ohio. I went to the Café du Monde and ate beignets (a French doughnut), which was the one and only thing I remembered about New Orleans from my childhood. (My family had gone there to visit relatives when I was about nine years old.) Here’s what I wrote about the Café du Monde in my diary:

As I sat there, 26 years after my last visit, I marveled at how much and how little had changed. After all that time, still nothing but beignets on the menu, the tabletops still sticky with powdered sugar. But my perception of things was totally different. When I was a child, I never had to keep track of where things were, how to get where we were going or how to get back. Nor did I have much control of where I went. Childhood seems like a show, full of vivid sights and sounds but with the connections and context mysteriously hidden. That could be a concise description of childhood: life without a context.

If that comment seems too abstract, here’s an example. When I was a child, the beignets simply appeared at the table. I had no idea how much they cost. I didn’t see the kitchen they came from; the line of servers picking up orders like an assembly line; the young Asian server prompt and earnest, hoping for a good tip; the gray-haired manager keeping an eye on the organized chaos around him, trying to keep the order slightly ahead of the chaos. And even if I had seen those things, I wouldn’t have understood them the way I do now. For now, even though I have not been a waiter or a manager of a restaurant, I have been in positions somewhat like them, and I can imagine them.

It’s an interesting thought: childhood as life out of context. But I’m not sure that there is a bright line between childhood and adulthood in that respect. We’re constantly learning the context, throughout our lives.

For example, when I played against Hardeman, I didn’t know the context of his life or who he was. I didn’t know that he taught (or would teach in the future) hundreds of kids, that he would have a tournament named after him, that he was a math major at Morehouse College and worked as a computer programmer. Now, thanks to Facebook and my former students from Ohio, I do!

 cafe smallCafe du Monde, 1994.

nola smallDana in New Orleans, 1994.

Yes, I’m afraid I had a beard back on those days, part of the whole professor-at-a-liberal-arts-college shtick. Fortunately, as you can see, I kept in the shadows so that nobody could see it. 8-)

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Pace of Play, Easy versus Hard Moves

August 17, 2015

I was away for a few days at a science meeting in Seattle, but now I’m back. I had a chess-ful weekend. First, Eric Montany invited me and the Usual Suspects to a birthday party at his house. There were, like, real people at this party, not just chess players, and so Eric was too […]

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Things That Make You Go Hmmm…

August 5, 2015

As some of you may have noticed, when I write about games against kids in this blog I often quote their age-group ranking, as in “Yesterday I beat John Doe, the #48 14-year-old in the country.” Mike Splane noticed this and said, “Why don’t you tell them that I’m the #3 61-year-old?” Busted! I have […]

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The Cup and the Fly

August 4, 2015

A fly is buzzing around your table and generally making a nuisance of himself. What is the best tool for getting him to leave you alone? (A) A flyswatter (B) A machine gun (C) A cup The answer is (C). A flyswatter won’t work, unless he is unusually slow or you are unusually quick, because […]

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Failure Modes

August 1, 2015

In my latest Matrix Chess game against the computer I failed in an interesting way that actually involved winning the game. See what you think. Position after 15. Nb5. Black to move. FEN: rn1qk2r/pp4p1/3bb1P1/1N1p1p2/3Pp2p/5P1P/PPP1N1K1/R1BQ1R2 b kq – 0 15 I’m playing Black in this game, and I set Shredder’s strength to 2114 (somewhat lower than […]

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A Dash of Daisy

July 31, 2015

Let me go off-topic briefly for another update on Daisy, the puppy that my wife and I adopted from the animal shelter in April. First shocking news: She’s getting bigger! I mean, who would’ve thought, right? One day you bring home a spindly little four-pound fluff ball with wide eyes and geeky ears, and before […]

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“I love the past. Everyone in it is so stupid.”

July 24, 2015

I was doing some random web-surfing today, when I ran into a jaw-dropper of a thread on Google Groups, from 2002. Wrote Larry Tamarkin (a master from New York) in rec.games.chess.politics: Having played some of the great young talents of the last 20 years, I can give some perspective on the strength of the players […]

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Matrix Chess IV

July 23, 2015

For those who haven’t been following, “Matrix chess” is my name for a training technique where I play a blitz (10-minute) game against the computer but I am allowed to take a time out at one point in the game for as long as I want. It gets its name from the Matrix movies, where Neo […]

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Final ChessLecture Posted; Closure

July 17, 2015

Today my 157th and last ChessLecture went online, and I am now officially “retired” from CL. I already explained my reasons for leaving in an earlier post, so let me just say a couple things about the last lecture. First, I want to apologize for the slightly less than perfect sound quality. I was recording […]

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