Sensational Chess Club Battle

by admin on 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 has; whatever he knows is what he’s learned by playing and maybe by watching my lessons. I think his tactical sense is a little bit better than Luke’s, and also he really has an advantage in the intangible area called “will to win.” Even though I’m a 2200 player and he would probably be below 1200 if he had a rating, he still tells me every time we play, “I’m going to beat you this time.”

Yesterday they finished a game that took two weeks to finish — about forty minutes last week and thirty more minutes this week. They were able to “adjourn” it because Luke keeps score of all his games. I’m grateful to him for doing that because it gave me a chance to go over the first part of the game with them yesterday before letting them continue where they left off.

Even though this is a game between 1200-strength players, I still think there were a number of things that even stronger players could learn from it. I enjoyed it just as much as I would enjoy a game between 2200-strength players.

Here’s how it went down.

White: Luke  Black: Alex

1. d4 Nc6 2. e4 Nf6 3. Nc3 b6 4. Bc4 e5 5. Nd5 ed 6. e5 Ne4 7. Qf3 Ng5 8. Bxg5 Qxg5

luke alex 1Position after 8. … Qxg5. White to move.

FEN: r1b1kb1r/p1pp1ppp/1pn5/3NP1q1/2Bp4/5Q2/PPP2PPP/R3K1NR w KQkq – 0 9

I’ll refrain from comment on the opening, except to say that Luke has done a better job of following opening principles and should have a large advantage. Even so, he has to be careful! How do you think White should play here?

Not surprisingly, Luke played 9. Nxc7+?!, the move I would expect 99 of 100 players at his level to play. It looks like a free win of the exchange. But here is where a stronger player would anticipate the opponent’s counterplay and stop it before it gets started. In this case, White has to see moves like … Ne5, … Bb4+, … Nxc4 and/or … Qxg2 coming. It’s clear that, for the moment, White’s knight is doing an important job on d5 and White should not rush to grab the rook on a8, which will put the knight completely out of commission.

I think the best move here is 9. Nh3!, harassing Black’s exposed queen. Also, it sets a trap. If 9. … Qxe5+ (the move I would expect 99 out of 100 players at Alex’s level to play), the sidestep 10. Kf1! sets up the murderous Re1. If Black tries his own sidestep with 10. … Kd8, White wins big material with 11. Re1 Qd6 12. Ng5! (the other point of Nh3) 12. … Ne5 13. Rxe5! Note how in this line White was able to delay Black’s key … Ne5 move until he was able to do something about it. The other key tactic after 9. … Qxe5+ 10. Kf1! is 10. … Be7 (trying to block the e-file) 11. Re1 Qd6 12. Nxe7! when it turns out that Black has no good way to recapture. Again, notice the value of keeping the knight on d5, because it had the flexibility to go to e7 instead of c7. And in general, both of these lines show that sound strategic thinking leads to nice tactical consequences.

Of course, after 9. Nh3! Black doesn’t have to take the pawn and can go 9. … Qh4 or 9. … Qh6 instead. But then White can either play 10. Nxc7+, when he is a tempo up compared to the game (and Black’s queen is on a worse square), or — best in my opinion — White can continue to develop with 10. O-O. All of White’s threats are still intact, plus White has developed two more pieces and defused all of Black’s counter-threats. Huge, huge advantage for White. Notice that 10. … Ne5 will be met by 11. Nxc7+ Kd8 12. Qxa8. One more benefit of the patient approach! Instead of taking on a8 with the knight and leaving it out of play, White has gained the option of taking on a8 with the queen, which is not at all out of play there — in fact, it makes very dangerous threats.

Lesson 1: Do not rush to grab material at the first opportunity. Often it is better to let your threats “ripen.”

Okay, so what happened in the game? After 9. Nxc7+ Kd8 10. Nxa8 Nxe5! White had a problem. A big problem.

luke alex 2Position after 10. … Nxe5. White to move.

FEN: N1bk1b1r/p2p1ppp/1p6/4n1q1/2Bp4/5Q2/PPP2PPP/R3K1NR w KQ – 0 11

Two of White’s developed pieces are under attack, the third one is useless, and all of the others are still sitting at home. The natural move here is 11. Qd5 — it’s the only move that defends all of the weak points — but Black gets a very dangerous attack after 11. … Bb4+. When we went over this in chess club, I missed White’s answer 12. Kf1!, after which I think White is still better. But this is certainly a very perilous road for White to travel.

Instead of 11. Qd5, Luke had a clever idea that backfired on him. Why not gain time by counterattacking against Black’s queen? As I mentioned above, that would have been the right idea a move ago, but it has a fatal flaw now.

Luke played 11. h4? and Alex gleefully pounced with 11. … Nxf3+Check. So White doesn’t get a chance to capture Black’s queen. Obviously, Luke hadn’t realized it was check.

But I want to emphasize that the seeds for disaster were actually sown earlier, on move 9, when Luke failed to anticipate Alex’s counterplay. It’s much easier to make a blunder when your pieces are overworked and underdeveloped, and your opponent has several different threats.

Lesson 2. Blunders don’t come out of nowhere. Faulty strategy often leads to faulty tactics.

However, the game didn’t end here! If this were a game between 2200 players, it would be over now. But there is a lot of excitement left.

Let’s fast forward to another critical position:

luke alex 3Position after 25. g3. Black to move.

FEN: 3k4/p2p1ppp/1p1r4/3qb3/3p3P/P2R2P1/1PP1BP2/1K1R4 b – – 0 25

As I’ve said, Luke is a stronger player strategically than Alex, and the difference was really apparent in the middle part of the game. Alex has kept his queen-for-rook material edge, but White has consolidated his position to a tremendous extent and Alex hasn’t demonstrated any semblance of a plan.

In particular, the value of the queen is not that it’s taller and prettier than a rook and worth 9 “points” instead of 5. It’s only worth that much if you do something with it.

And what queens are especially good at doing is attacking undefended pawns. So to me the right move for Black was completely obvious: 25. … Qg2. Note that, per lesson one, good tactics flow from good strategy: If White plays 26. f4 Qxe2 27. fe Qxe5 he loses a pawn. So White has to hunker down and defend the f2 pawn. After, say, 26. Rf3 Rf6 27. Rxf6 Bxf6 28. Rf1, White has succeeded in shoring up his weakness, but the cost is that he has made his pieces completely passive. Black now has some attractive plans like pushing the pawn to d3 to open the long diagonal against White’s king, or possibly sacrificing his bishop for three pawns on the kingside and creating an unstoppable avalanche. (Really, even sacrificing the bishop for two pawns on the kingside should be good enough.)

The most important thing is that Black has plans. But in the game Alex had no plan at all. He played 25. … Rc6?

This move is bad on two different levels. First, it obviously loses the exchange. But that’s not really the main thing that is wrong with it! The main thing was that Black did not ask the Mike Splane Question.

Lesson 3: When you’re ahead (or even if you’re not ahead), ask yourself, “How am I going to win this game?”

In fact, if Black had asked the Mike Splane Question and then played 25. … Rc6 on purpose, I would give it an exclamation point! The point is to lure White into playing 26. Bf3 Qc4 27. Bxc6 (which happened in the game) and then play 27. … dc! (which did not happen in the game). Yes, Black lost two “points,” but more importantly he gained a plan. The c-pawn will now advance to c5 and c4 and possibly c3, and Black’s queen and bishop will come alive.

Instead Alex played the dreadful 27. … Qxc6? and now he has a totally dead position that is probably not winning any more.

But that’s not all folks! Remember, this is a game between 1200-strength players, and the excitement is just beginning.

At this point I did not see the next few moves, and the next time I came around Luke and Alex had gotten to the following position. I don’t know what move it was any more, so I’ll just call it move 1.

luke alex 4White to play.

FEN: 3k4/p2p3p/1pq2b2/8/6P1/P2R4/1PP5/1K1R4 w – – 0 1

At this point I regret to say that I might have had some influence on the game. In this position Luke saw me looking at the position and said, “Do you see what I see?” I tried giving a noncommittal response, like, “I don’t know, it depends on what you see.” In any case, he played 1. Rd6, which is most likely best but nevertheless has certain subtle points that I don’t think he saw.

Black’s reply 1. … Qf3 is forced, and now everything seems hunky-dory for White because he can take the d-pawn with check: 2. Rxd7+ Kc8. (Of course not 2. Rxf6?? Qxd1+.) But now is when the tricky business starts! Both of White’s rooks are under attack, so he can’t either take on h7 or defend his pawn on g4. Luke played 3. R1d6 and Alex captured: 3. … Qxg4 (diagram).

luke alex 5Position after 3. … Qxg4. White to move.

FEN: 2k5/p2R3p/1p1R1b2/8/6q1/P7/1PP5/1K6 w – – 0 4

Obviously Black’s bishop is still taboo, but what about the h-pawn? Or the a-pawn?

Luke played the more obvious — and losing — pawn capture: 4. Rxh7?? In my opinion, 4. Rxa7 would have given him extremely good drawing chances. For instance, the game might go something like this: 4. … b5 5. Rxh7 Qg1+ 6. Ka2 Qg8+ 7. Kb1 Qxh7 8. Rxf6 Qg1+ 9. Ka2 Qd5+ 10. Kb1 Qd1+ 11. Ka2 Qxc2 12. Rf4! (diagram). White plays his rook to b4 and sets up an impregnable fortress.

luke alex 6Position after 12. Rf4 (analysis). White’s dream position.

FEN: 2k5/8/8/1p6/5R2/P7/KPq5/8 b – – 0 12

Lesson 4: Rook versus queen endgames can sometimes be drawn if the pawns are all on one side and the player with the rook has an extra pawn. Try to set up a “fortress” with the rook in front of the pawn and protected by it.

This is really, really advanced stuff and I wouldn’t expect Alex or Luke to see it. But, going back to diagram 5, White should at least see what is wrong with taking the h-pawn. I said above that Luke’s weakness, compared to Alex, is the tactics, and that cost him big-time on the next couple of moves. All of his hard work for the last thirty moves or so went down the drain.

Once again it’s possible that I had an effect on the game, because after 4. Rxh7?? Alex started to play some nondescript move like 4. … Qg6. But he looked at me for a reaction — kind of like Luke’s “Do you see what I see?” I didn’t want to give him anything, so I turned around and walked away, but I did say, “Look hard.” I thought that was pretty general advice, but it definitely could be interpreted to mean that there was something to look for. I had seen it but I really, really didn’t expect Alex to see it.

Alex saw it.

4. … Qg1+! 5. Ka2 Qg8+!

All I can say is, bravo. What a great climax to a hard-fought struggle. And even if I gave Alex the tiniest of hints, I am so impressed that he figured it out. Psychologically this is very hard to find, a long-distance move to create a long-distance check that forks the king and rook.

Lesson 5: In queen versus rook or queen versus minor piece endgames, always be on the lookout for combinations that lead to a fork. The queen’s great strength is her forking ability.

Believe it or not, after all this the game is still not over. Luke now made a second mistake that may be what really cost him the game.

6. b3?? …

Such a tiny slip, but this “automatic move” costs him a second rook. He had to play 6. Kb1! Qxh7 7. Rxf6. We then get a line very much like the one above, leading to White’s “dream position.” However, in this case Black will still have the a-pawn and so White cannot set up a successful fortress. So in theory, Black is winning. But again, this would be far above the level of 1200 players. From the practical point of view, Luke would still have had good drawing chances.

Having found the first forking combination, Alex had no trouble finding the second.

6. … Qxh7 7. Rxf6 Qxc2+ 8. Ka1 Qc3+

and Black wins the second rook. With Black now a full queen up, the rest of the game does not require comment.

To sum up, here are (some of) the lessons from this very exciting and hard-played game.

  1. (All levels) Anticipate your opponent’s counterplay and prevent it before it gets started.
  2. (All levels) Do not rush to grab material at the first opportunity. Often it is better to let your threats “ripen.”
  3. (All levels) Blunders don’t come out of nowhere. Faulty strategy often leads to faulty tactics. (Likewise, good strategy often leads to good tactics.)
  4. (All levels) When you’re ahead (or even if you’re not ahead), ask yourself, “How am I going to win this game?”
  5. (Advanced) Rook versus queen endgames can sometimes be drawn if the pawns are all on one side and the player with the rook has an extra pawn. Try to set up a “fortress” with the rook in front of the pawn and protected by it.
  6. (Intermediate/advanced) In queen versus rook or queen versus minor piece endgames, always be on the lookout for combinations that lead to a fork. The queen’s great strength is her forking ability.
  7. (All levels) In games between equals, victory often goes to the player with more fighting spirit.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Roman Parparov March 23, 2016 at 2:12 pm

There is a relatively rare book, called “Puti sovershenstvovanija” (???? ?????????????????) by V. G. Zak (the coach of Spassky, Korchnoi, Salov, Kamsky and others) about the development of young players you may enjoy.

I found it online:


admin March 24, 2016 at 10:10 am

Wow, cool! I like the fact that on page one it starts with a kids’ game with a huge number of mistakes (1. e4 e5 2. Qh5 Bc5?, and it only gets worse from there). Yet Zak doesn’t disparage the players for playing that way, and in fact he points out some of the things that the young players are doing right. I think that’s very refreshing to see, and something that I always strive to do. I haven’t read further yet, but thanks for the link.


paul b. March 23, 2016 at 2:25 pm

Since the topic is beginning players and their teacher, I’d like to segue into the question of how a student should select a chess teacher and how to prepare for the first training session. I’ve never had a teacher but I think it’s time to get one. I live a few blocks from the Marshall Chess Club in New York and while I’m not a member I do occasionally pay to play in tournaments (my rating was around 1750 after my last tournament in 2015).

One member of the club spends $300 a month on training by an IM who charges $60 an hour. I can’t afford nearly that so I want to start with a one-hour session and see where that takes me. I guess that at the Marshall I could seek training from not only IM’s but lower-rated players as well, say a 2000 rated player at lower cost.

My question to Dana is what should I be asking my teacher and what should my goal be for the first training session. Also, what are the pros and cons of training via the web?


paul B. March 24, 2016 at 9:03 am

I’d like to clarify my previous post. Finding a teacher is not just about the cost. 60 Minutes did a piece on the chess playing financier Carl Icahn in which he bragged that he had hired a GM to teach him. What Icahn missed is that a GM rating doesn’t necessarily correlate with teaching ability, very possibly the opposite. The reason that I subscribe to Dana’s blog is that he is an exceptional teacher and I’d be very lucky to find someone of his caliber. As a 1700 player, I have so much to learn that a 2000 player – if he is a gifted teacher – could help me tremendously, even how to win against the French 🙂


admin March 24, 2016 at 9:50 am

I hope some other people will tell us their experiences. I definitely know or have heard of people who have improved significantly with Internet lessons. On the other hand, I have never had a chess teacher or coach. It’s possible that this has held me back. But I like developing my own ideas, and in addition I think I have benefited by having a peer group, the Mike Splane parties, which I have learned from a lot. However, my actual improvement in terms of results has been glacially slow.

I think that for kids under 18, there’s no question that a coach can have an immense impact. Assuming the kid has the desire — an ingredient that has to come from within — a coach can channel that desire and put it to good use, teaching the kid what he needs to know at a developmentally appropriate time. The approach I took, reading random things with no guidance (even if they are good things, like Fischer’s “60 Memorable Games”) is definitely inferior.

For players over 18, I think that playing with a strong peer group — and not just playing, but talking about the game — might be just as helpful as lessons with a coach. (If you can play at the Marshall, wow!) I also am a fan of online chess lectures, of course. I think the ideal arrangement — if possible — would be lessons with a coach who also does online chess lectures! That way you could learn from their lectures, you could try to apply the lessons in your games, and then they could critique your efforts.

Does anyone else have any helpful comments?


Roman Parparov March 27, 2016 at 5:08 pm

The opposite is also true – mostly playing with opposition below your level will likely drag you down. So if a 2300 player goes to battle the 1900s and the 2000s it won’t do the 2300 any good.


paul B. March 24, 2016 at 11:02 am

Jesse Krai recommended solving lots of chess problems and to avoid blitz games.
that advice has stood me well. Solving mating problems helped me immensely to internalize mating net patterns. My hang-up is what I call the “Now What…?” problem: when my development is complete and I don’t have a clue what to do next.


admin March 24, 2016 at 1:02 pm

I had the same problem for a long time. I found Jeremy Silman’s concept of imbalances (see “Reassess Your Chess”) to be very helpful at getting me unstuck. You identify which imbalances favor you and which ones favor your opponent, and try to maximize the favorable ones while remediating the not-favorable ones. Often it can be something as simple as improving the position of your worst piece, or forcing a favorable trade. Plans do not always have to be super-deep.


weng March 25, 2016 at 9:36 pm

In a recent interview published on Chess24, GM Anish Giri was asked about his chess lessons growing up:
“You’re considered an adherent of the Soviet Chess School…

It’s tough to say. I got very lucky that I began to study chess in Russia. I can’t say that my first coaches were very well-known chess players. At first that was Asya Kovalyova, then Andrei Praslov – they still coach now at the Sports School No. 2 in the Kalininsky District of St. Petersburg. They weren’t particularly well-known, but they knew which books chess beginners needed to read, and that’s very important. Often western coaches, who are international masters and grandmasters, are clearly stronger, but sending the right book by post or giving it to read over the weekend is a very important quality for a children’s coach.”

I think that sums up a bit about the importance of a chess coach. There are many things written about choosing chess coaches but I think it is important to choose one you can relate to and most importantly, one you respect (otherwise you will not listen and do as you are told.)
I think that in this time and age with books, internet, dvds, videos, one can certainly improve from 1800+ to 2200+ without engaging a chess coach. But it will really take a certain type of person. In children education development studies, two of the current buzzwords are Carol Dweck’s “mindset” and Angela Duckworth’s “Grit”. Of course these are just slogans and needs a lot of unpacking and there are other factors. I think equally they apply to any learning endeavours, children and/or adults.
But an important question to ask oneself: “how much do I really want it? how much work am I ready to put in? How long will I persist, day in day out, week in week out, month in month out?”
Caveat? I am not a professional chess coach nor a strong player but I run a chess club in a public school and I have coached my own son, and one or two others on an informal basis, and I have read and been thinking about “learning” for a long long time.


paul b. March 26, 2016 at 1:33 pm

Chess knowledge makes me think about computer skills and how mastery of each is achieved. I can spend hours trying to write a piece of computer code or I can take a shortcut and ask an experienced programmer who’s done it many times and have an “Aha!” moment. Likewise, I can spend many hours unraveling the mysteries of the French Defense or I can ask someone like Dana. I think of chess coaches as guides who can give me those “Aha!” moments.

What Dana said previously is also valid – if you hang around better chess players and ask questions you can get pretty much the same benefits as with a coach. I’ve avoided joining the nearby Marshall because I don’t want to become an obsessive chess player (I also hate losing) but maybe it’s time to join…


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: