Shredding and Being Shredded

by admin on December 16, 2013

Lately, over the last month or so, I have been playing more chess against the computer. This training technique (if you can call it that) needs to be employed with the utmost caution, if at all. The reason is that it’s so easy to become discouraged and get forced into an ultra-defensive mindset.

However, some limited good can come of sparring with the computer. My #1 example was discovering the Bryntse Gambit (1. e5 c5 2. f4 d5 3. Nf3!? de 4. Ng5 Nf6 5. Bc4 Bg4?! 6. Qxg4!). That was back in 2004 or so, when the program I was using was Fritz 7 (and later Fritz 9). Fritz was very cooperative: it would always play into this variation, at least if it chose the Sicilian Defense. As my longtime readers know, I eventually developed the Bryntse Gambit into a pretty good computer-bashing system, and then in 2006 I bashed an IM with it and that gave me whatever limited notoriety I have as a chess player.

Unfortunately, the program I play against now, Shredder, hardly ever repeats opening variations. So my games against it have been an exercise in humility. I rarely even get as far as move 20 without making some bad mistake. I haven’t beaten it yet and have picked up only a smattering of draws. (It doesn’t help that I usually play it at a game/10 minutes time control.)

Even so, I do think it has been somewhat useful as a short-term training tool. First, I have been forced to explore a lot of opening lines where I thought I knew what was going on but didn’t; and also I have been experimenting a bit with new openings. Finally, playing against the computer can really sharpen your tactical awareness. I noticed this yesterday because I went to another chess party.

This was a combination chess and birthday party thrown by Jeff Mallett, whom I hadn’t seen in five years. Unlike Mike Splane, whose parties I have written about on many occasions, Jeff is not interested in deep philosophical and intellectual discussions about chess. He just wants to play. So at the party we had a little round-robin blitz tournament, in which I lost a game to Gjon Feinstein but then won seven games in a row to finish in second place. (Gjon had seven wins and a draw to finish first.) After playing so much against the computer, it was a real treat to play humans again because they actually make mistakes! I felt my tactical vision was better than usual, probably because of playing against the silicon monster, which sees tactics everywhere.

Here is a recent example of a tactical surprise I experienced against Shredder. Readers who know me will find it amusing and ironic, I think. It was actually one of my better games, but I had one moment of not being vigilant and it cost me.

Shredder — Dana (Game/10)

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nd4 4. Nxd4 ed 5. O-O g6 6. d3 Bg7 7. Nd2 Ne7 8. f4 c6 9. Bc4 d5

Position after 9. ... d5. White to move.

FEN: r1bqk2r/pp2npbp/2p3p1/3p4/2BpPP2/3P4/PPPN2PP/R1BQ1RK1 w kq – 0 10

A position that is very familiar to me, if not to most players. It’s Capablanca-Blackburne, St. Petersburg 1914 (!). Most human players have an interesting blind spot in this variation (which I call the Blackburne Variation or the Blackburne Subvariation of the Bird Variation). Usually human player will omit the move pair Nd2 and … Ne7, and they will play 9. ed cd 10. Bb5+ Kf8! They have a misguided belief that they have gained something by giving me “ugly” isolated pawns on d4 and d5.

I’ve written about this before, but I’ll say again that what’s ugly about the position is the way that White has made his f4 advance pointless, by trading off the e4 pawn, and even worse than pointless because if the f4 pawn gets stuck on that square then it blocks the dark-squared bishop. What’s ugly is the way White has no communication between his queenside pieces and the kingside. That’s a lot of ugliness, so I’m perfectly willing to put up with a little bit of ugliness in Black’s pawn structure.

Note that Capablanca understood the position much better than an ordinary human, and was not tempted by the pawn trade on d5. Neither was the computer.

The game continued 10. Bb3! h5! (My attempt to improve over Blackburne’s 10. … O-O) 11. Qe2 Bg4 12. Nf3 Qd7 13. ed cd 14. Re1 Bxf3 15. Qxf3 O-O 16. a4 a5 17. Bd2 b6 18. h3 h4.

Position after 18. ... h5. White to move.

FEN: r4rk1/3qnpb1/1p4p1/p2p4/P2p1P1p/1B1P1Q1P/1PPB2P1/R3R1K1 w – – 0 19

At this point White has ben stymied everywhere — on the queenside, on the kingside, in the center. I felt that if I could just shore up the defense of my d5-pawn and then bring my knight to f5, nothing bad could happen to me. Shredder at this point failed to come up with a constructive plan and played what looked to me like a “computer move.”

19. Rec1 …

What is this? Why the e-rook and not the a-rook? I was going to reply 19. … Rad8, but then I thought okay, well, there is some chance that the c-file will open up and I’ll want to bring my a8 rook to c8. So I played 19. … Rfd8 instead. Whereupon the computer moved its rook back: 20. Re1.

Of course I could just move my rook back, 20. … Rdf8 and offer a draw by repetition. But that move would make no sense except as a craven way to play for a draw. Or I could play 20. … Rde8, which is probably the most sensible move, contesting the file and essentially gaining a tempo. But as stated above, I didn’t see how anything could possibly be wrong with deploying my knight to f5. So I played 20. … Nf5?

Position after 20. ... Nf5. White to move.

FEN: r2r2k1/3q1pb1/1p4p1/p2p1n2/P2p1P1p/1B1P1Q1P/1PPB2P1/R3R1K1 w – – 0 21

Do you see how Shredder took advantage of my momentary lapse?

Hint: I wrote about this tactical trick for Chess Life and lectured about it for ChessLecture.

Answer: The machine played 21. Bxd5! and the bishop cannot be taken, because 21. … Qxd5 allows the Hook and Ladder Trick: 22. Re8+! Either 22. … Rxe8 23. Qxd5 or 22. … Bf8 23. Qxd5 Rxd5 24. Rxa8 win for White. So I shrugged my shoulders and played on a pawn down with 21. … Rac8. Against a human I might still have had hopes of saving this position. But against a computer, if you blunder a pawn (as opposed to sacrificing a pawn for compensation), you can forget it. You’re toast.

Well, it was mighty annoying to walk into my own trick! But it was a good reminder to never think the position is so dry or so safe that I don’t need to stay alert for tactics. And that alertness helped me yesterday.

Also, I was really happy with how the game went up to move 20. Although the computer gave White a 0.31-pawn advantage after 19. Rec1, in my opinion it completely failed to demonstrate any advantage for White (as shown by its apparent willingness to repeat the position after 19. … Rfd8).

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Matt December 16, 2013 at 5:36 pm

It’s funny you posted about this because I was re-watching of Jesse Kraai’s lectures today where he discusses three games that helped him earn his first GM norm and how ChessLecture.com helped. The final example he gave was the Hook & Ladder Trick.

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