Magnus Carlsen

Magnus Carlson

Magnus Carlsen is aged only 22 years old, yet he already has a serious claim to be one of the strongest and greatest players in the history of chess. By exceeding Garry Kasparov’s peak ELO rating world record in January, 2013, Carlsen ensured that his name will be engraved in the annals of chess history.

The Norwegian first came to international prominence when he beat former world champion Anatoly Karpov in a blitz tournament when aged just thirteen. In the next round, the teenager posed serious problems for then world number one Garry Kasparov. It was already evident that the Scandinavian was set to reach the pinnancle of the game.

Carlsen became the second youngset grandmaster in history later that year, and well before his teens were over, Carlsen was being invited to the strongest chess tournaments in the world. He won his first Chess Oscar in 2009, while still in his teens, and carried off further awards in the next two calendar years.

The play of Carlsen has been compared to Capablanca in that he has a tremendous endgame technique and is known for squeezing wins out of positions that at face value appear to be very even. In the last couple of years, Carlsen’s tournament play has become so strong that he has not only eclipsed Kasparov’s record, he has also opened up a gap of over fifty points between him and his nearest rival.

Carlsen is participating in the qualification process for the 2013 World Chess Championship, and a match between the young genius and veteran world champion Vishwanath Anand would be a dream for chess fans and sponsors alike.

Five Ways to Develop from a Casual Player to a Strong Amateur

In the long run, the only way to become a strong chess player is to play thousands of games, so that your brain instinctively recognises certain patterns within a game, and your experience guides your decision making process.

However, the best way to develop your chess in the short-term is to attempt to think in the fashion of a strong player. Here are five simple tips to aid you with this process.

1. What’s left behind?

Sometimes your opponent will make a move that appears superficially strong, but actually weakens their position considerably. It is easy to miss the details of a position when you are faced with a seemingly dangerous threat, so one of the questions to ask yourself when an opponent moves is “what’s left behind?”. What weaknesses has an opponent created in their position by making a particular move? Suddenly something that was guarded can be vulnerable.

2. Checkmate wins the game

It’s easy to become obsessed with material considerations. But even world champion contender Nigel Short has stated that people become too obsessed with pawn structures and minor details of a position and forget that “checkmate wins the game”. If you have a strong attack, develop it.

3. Exploitable weaknesses

Look for, and try to create, obvious weaknesses in your opponent’s position – eg. backward / doubled pawns, blockaded bishops, etc – and then concentrate your forces on exploiting them. Often the winning of a single pawn can decide a game.

4. King safety

Never neglect the safety of your own king. This is of paramount importance and shouldn’t be neglected for more negligible benefits such as the odd pawn won.

5. Consider opponent’s responses

It is quite easy to make what looks like a brilliant move, but overlook a response that completely busts your idea. Before making a move, even if it looks completely obvious, ask yourself the simple question “how could my opponent respond”? You might find that (s)he can mate you!

Down the Dominoes Rabbit Hole: Remembering how to play

Since last weeks famed discovery of an old dominoes set in the loft, and my subsequent Egyptology research and discoveries (or lack thereof), my dominoes research has moved on considerably. Now aside from just reading about the ancient history of dominoes, I’ve actually returned to playing!

I started trying to decipher the set of dog-eared 1920s style instructions that I found in my old set, and although I’m usually a detail person I couldn’t really get to grips with them. Finally I resorted to God’s latest gift to man – Youtube. On the howcast channel [that I also used back in the summer to learn how to paint on canvas with Acrylic] I found some basic video instructions on how to play dominoes that I have included below. 2 minutes and 49 seconds were enough to fire some brain cells and I finally remembered some of what I’d been taught all those years ago.

For those of you who aren’t very visual and prefer some written instructions on how to play, I’ll try to find a simplified set of the 1920s instructions to get you started and repost them. One thing to realise is that dominoes have lots of different variations in terms of the rules of play. The pieces / ’equipment’ (if I can call them that) are universal, but the rules vary.

After watching the dominoes video, it’s clear that I was taught how to play ‘draw dominoes’ as a child rather than the other variations that are mentioned on my instructions sheet. I’ve shown it to a few people at my local chess club and they seem to concur this is how they remember being taught to play. If anyone else has any other experiences, I would welcome the feedback below.

The other games listed here are ‘block game’, ‘matadore’, ‘threes and fives’, ‘sebastopol’, and ‘domino patience’. Last weeks research threw up lots more varieties, which I will aim to explore in some later posts.

What I’ve now learned is the dominoes sets that I used to buy are called ‘double sixes’. I think this is the sort of set that most people would have played with since they consist of 28 pieces which are suitable for 2 – 4 players. What I didn’t know was that you can also play with larger dominoes sets called ‘double nines’ (and also double twelves) which you can use when you have more than 4 people. The double nines have up to nine dots on each domino, which means twice as many pieces and combinations.

I’ve started a new Project – Dominoes

If you’re anything like me you probably played with dominoes when you were a child, but whether you played the actual game or just knocked them over is another question. I used to spend hours stacking them up and knocking them over, and I even remember making my Granddad drive me to every newsagent in the city looking for more packs of dominoes to extend the ever going trail around my bedroom.

As an adult and a nerdy chess player, I haven’t played dominoes for years.  I’ve never really been able to play properly, and to be honest I’ve forgotten the rules that I did know. I was rummaging in loft last weekend (clearing out for our impending house move) and discovered an old set. I’m not sure whether it belongs to my wife or whether it’s just a set of mine that I’ve completely forgotten about. It’s a pretty basic double six set, but I thought I’d bring it down and reintroduce it to the household.
Fortunately my fastidiousness has paid dividends for once because the original [slightly dog-eared] instructions are still with the set, although they look like they were written in the 1920s. This has inspired me to start a little side project and rediscover the game, and write a few posts about it along the way. For some reason it seems that a lot of the dominoes clubs and organisations have withdrawn from the internet, and during my quest for information I seem to have stumbled upon a lot of websites that are no longer running. I’m not sure why this is, but if you know what’s happened let me know by posting in the comments box below, I’d be really interested to find out why this is.

Where did dominoes come from?
In my epic search for information, I’ve had two unhelpful trips to the library, and spent several hours trawling through Google, yahoo and a many other web sites. A couple of websites mention Egypt as an originating source – I don’t think this is at all accurate. Many of these sites talk about a dominoes set being found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. After some more thorough Egyptology research I could only find a reference to a senet game and some other miscellaneous game boxes / playing pieces being found. There is a full catalogue of items in the tomb here at the Griffiths Institute, Oxford. There’s certainly no mention of what I would consider a modern domino set. If you’ve got any other information, please let me know. The general conscious (including Wikipedia) seems to be that dominoes came from China, and is mentioned in text books dating back from 1271.

In the age of Wikipedia and the Internet, it’s easy to get drawn into information posted on the internet as ‘absolute fact’. The Tutankhamen side story is a case in point, and there is a lot to be said for spending some extra time researching topics.

Openings for Beginners – d4

The most common opening move in chess is e4, for which I have previously recommended beginners looking at the Caro-Kann opening. The other logical and commonly employed opening move that one will face as black is d4. This, in my opinion, can be a harder move for beginners to face, as it tends to lead to subtle, positional play, in which long-term strategic considerations tend to trump in importance short-term tactical factors.

It is difficult to find a truly satisfactory response to d4, it has even troubled arguably the world’s greatest ever player, Garry Kasparov. He suffered at various times during his matches against Karpov when employing the Grünfeld Defence, was smashed to pieces by Kramnik in his 2000 World Championship match when playing the Nimzo-Indian, and abandoned the King’s Indian Defence after one too many loss to the same opponent.

Thus, for beginners I think a solid Queen’s Gambit / Slav opening is the best choice. This involves meeting 1. d4 with the symmetrical reply 1…d5. White will often reply with 2. c4…

…although there are other possibilities. Nevertheless, white will almost always ‘gambit’ his c-pawn on c4 at some point, as it has been definitively proven that this is a superior approach to locking his c-pawn in by playing Nc3 first.

Although there are many different variations and systems, the basic aim of the Queen’s Gambit opening is to establish a solid black pawn centre, often with pawns on c6, e6 and d5, to develop both knights, usually to f6 and d7, to support the knight at f6 (as it is often pinned by a bishop at g5) with a bishop on e7, and to castle kingside. It is a sound and flexible opening that, if played correctly, guarantees that black will reach the middlegame with very solid position.

There have been tens of thousands of top-class games played in this opening, and it has been described as “the opening of World Championship matches” by Kazakhstan grandmaster, and second to Garry Kasparov, Evgeny Vladimirov. Thus, there are no shortage of illustrative games on both Youtube and chessgames.com. However, one of the best resources if you wish to learn this opening is Garry Kasparov’s video for chessbase. You can see a preview of this by clicking here.

Improving Accuracy by Playing Against Computers

Nowadays computer chess programs on their optimum levels are so strong that only the world’s best human players have even a chance of competing against them. However, you can learn a great deal, and particularly improve the accuracy of your play, by facing off against one of your machine’s built-in lower levels.

This is particularly useful as it enables you to think about the game conceptually and try to make long-term plans in your chess without being crushed by the phenomenal accuracy of a machine, but also without being let off the hook by the sort of short-term blunders that human-beings tend to make. This can really improve your chess.

Here is an illustrative game that I played against one of the settings on ICC’s Dasher program (which you can download here):

White: C. Morris

Black: ICC Dasher (Setting: IM Ling_Fong)

23rd July, 2011

1. d4 Nf6; 2. c4 e6; 3. Nc3 Bb4; 4. Qc2 0-0; 5. Bg5 h6; 6. Bh4 d5; 7. e3 c5 8. Nf3 g5; 9. Bg3 cxd4; 10. Nxd4 Ne4; 11. Be2 Qa5; 12. 0-0 Bxc3; 13. bxc3 Qxc3; 14. Qd1 Nxg3; 15. fxg3 Qxe3; 16. Kh1 dxc4

(above: position after 16…dxc4)

Ostensibly white is worse here. Black is three pawns up (although the c-pawn is about to fall), and a full-strength computer or strong human player would defend this position. However, my idea in this game was to get a lead in development (look at the black pieces on a8, b8 and c8) and try to incite the computer to advance its kingside pawns to enable me to have a kingside attack. In the remainder of the game you will see that the often key f7 square becomes very vulnerable indeed, and ultimately decides the game.

17. Bxc4 Rd8; 18. Qh5 Rd7; 19. Nf3 Rc7; 20. Bb3 Kg7; 21 Rae1; Qc5

 

(above: position after 21…Qc5)

Although I missed some tactical chances in the last few moves, this is a very informative position. The white queen, knight, rook and on f1 and bishop are all pointing at the black king, and the e1 rook is ready to join the attack. Black has three pieces still at home, no viable defensive pieces near the king, and a weakened pawn structure. What is often said in such a position is…cut the board in half. Look where the black pieces are, and then compare them to the white pieces’ positions, and finally look where the black king is! White is much better.

Against a human, I would conclude this game easily, but against a computer, who can defend against direct attacks with perfect accuracy, winning such a position requires attention and accuracy; it is here and in long-term planning that you can really benefit from playing even a lesser computer opponent.

22. Ne5 Qf8; 23. h4 Qe8; 24. hxg5 hxg5; 25. Qxg5+ Kf8; 26. Qf6 Kg8; 27. Rf4

 ( above: position after 27. Rf4)

At the end of the game the computer throws its pieces away rather than resigning. Note that none of black’s queenside pieces move until the game is completely lost, emphasising the importance of development.

27…Qa4; 28. Ba4 Nc6; 29. Nxf7 Kf8; 30. Nd6+ Kg8; 31. Rg4+ Kh7; 32. Qg6+ Kh8; 33. Qg8#

Not the best game ever played, but an informative one for beginners to look at, I believe.

Howard Staunton

Howard Staunton (1810 – 1874) was an English chess grandmaster who was considered by many to have been the world’s greatest player in the mid-nineteenth century, before such modern inventions as world rankings were introduced.

Staunton led a rich life both within and outside of chess. Having established himself in the 1840s as one of the world’s greatest players, Staunton also became one of the first, and most entertaining, chess analysts and commentators, providing his world-class insight into what was at that time still a very mysterious game in terms of the level of human understanding.

He later conceived and organised the world’s first international chess tournament in 1851, which was held in London. This competition brought together such legendary names as Horwitz, Bird, Löwenthal and Staunton himself, although the organiser was eliminated by the eventual winner, the German Adolf Anderssen.

Having lost in this tournament, Staunton retired from competitive chess, and largely concentrated on his career as a Shakespearean scholar. Although attempts were made to incite Staunton to end his retirement to face the brilliant American Paul Morphy, these were unsuccessful.

Perhaps it is better for Staunton that this match never took place, as Morphy is now recognised as being the greatest player of the 19th century – at least until the first official World Champion Wilhelm Steinitz came along – and his play is considered well ahead of its time. Bobby Fischer considered Morphy’s handling of open positions to be unsurpassed even a century later.

However, Staunton’s legacy on the game of chess is secure for probably all eternity, thanks to the Staunton chess set design which was first released in 1849. The design is instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever seen a chess set.

The Staunton set is by far the dominant design in chess today, and virtually every top-class chess event utilises Staunton pieces. It is a fitting legacy for someone whom Bobby Fischer rated as one of the ten best players of all-time, describing him as the “first modern player” of the openings.

Candidate Moves

While playing a game of chess most of a player’s time is spent thinking about what to do next. It is quite obvious, therefore, to deduce that one of the best ways of improving one’s play is to use this time more productively or efficiently.

Of course, one of the problems that every human player faces is the sheer weight of possible moves that are possible in a game of chess. It is an oft-quoted statistic that there are more possible moves in a game of chess than atoms in the known universe. Many of these moves can be dismissed instantly as being stupid and pointless by a human player, but quite a few have some credibility, at least on the surface.

So two questions that any beginner might wish to ask are…how can I choose the best move in any given situation? How do strong players select a move?

One way of looking at tournament chess first suggested by grandmaster Alexander Kotov in his book “Think Like a Grandmaster”. Kotov referred to his system as ‘candidate moves’, and what the Russian essentially proposed was that in any given position a player should establish a ‘short list’ of several possible moves that appear to have merit, eliminate all other possibilities, and then assess the relative merits of the ‘candidate moves’ that have been selected.

This is an effective way of thinking about the game because it is an efficient way of managing resources. It prevents one from wasting time on exploring avenues that are fruitless, and it tends to cut down on the sort of unstructured thinking that tends to waste time. It concentrates your time, energy and thought processes on the few moves that are most likely to reap reward.

Of course, identifying the best candidate moves is difficult, and one still needs the skill of being able to assess who is winning in any given position, which is one of the fundamental skills of a chess player. But by structuring your chess thought in this way, you can give yourself the best possible chance of playing accurately and logically, particularly as a beginner.

You can see the first part of a six video series examining Kotov’s system by clicking here.

The ‘Octopus Knight’ Game

Game 16 of the 1985 World Chess Championship match between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov is engraved in the annals of chess history. The game is often dubbed now the ‘octopus knight’ game, with reference to a comment by British grandmaster Raymond Keene that the knight which Kasparov established at d3 in this game resembled an octopus, with its tentacles figuratively stretching out to dominate the board.

The game began with Kasparov employing his usual Sicilian Defence to Karpov’s king pawn opening. The first significant moment of the game came when after eight moves, Kasparov repeated a pawn sacrifice on d5 that he’d played earlier in the match, which goes against the generally accepted principles of this opening, and opening theory in general.

(above: position after 8…d5)

Kasparov’s idea was to gain a lead in development, and establish a powerful knight at d3 supported by a bishop on the b1-h7 diagonal. Karpov greatly underestimated this idea, and continued with normal development, assessing his position as one pawn up, with all of his pieces developed, and no obvious weaknesses, as simply better.

 

(above: position after 16…Nd3)

However, his position rapidly deteriorated over the next few moves until it reached the next critical point, which could best be described as a total embarrassment for the then World Champion.

 

(above: position after 24…Qf6)

It’s informative at this point to pause and consider what you would play as white. Let me illustrate your difficulty. Neither of white’s rooks can move due to the knight on d3. White’s queen has limited range, but can’t move to either the c or e-file because of black’s rooks. White’s b1 knight is held by the pawn on b4, and the a4 knight has no square to move to either. Black’s bishop is able to shuffle back and forth between the useless g2 and h1 squares.

Karpov was completely paralysed, and went on to lose heavily in 40 moves. This chesgame is generally considered the one that turned the tide in Kasparov’s direction in the match. It is a great game for displaying the value of the quality of one’s chess pieces over quantity.

You can watch the BBC television coverage of the time, featuring analysis by William Hartston and Michael Stean here.

The Scotch Game

One of the openings I like to employ as white is the Scotch Game, which you can enter after the moves 1. e4 e5; 2. Nf3 Nc6. The idea behind the opening is to advance your d-pawn to d4 to exchange it with the opponent’s e-pawn.

I particularly like to use this opening as most opponents who play 1. e4 e5; 2. Nf3 Nc6 are, firstly, expecting you to play 3. Bb5 which leads to the heavily utilised and analysed Ruy Lopez opening, and are also very well prepared to meet this opening scheme. The Scotch game completely bypasses all of this opening theory, and it is surprising how often competent players are very poorly prepared to deal with this opening, not even knowing the main lines of theory for it.

While it isn’t a good idea to limit the scope of your openings too much, and when starting out you should always attempt to play as many different types of positions as possible, nevertheless, in my opinion, the Scotch Game is a good opening for beginners to employ. It gives white a nice central position, a small edge in development, and no obvious weaknesses. You can develop your pieces naturally without worrying about missing some subtle tactical oversight, and it is a good opening for learning about the power of the bishop being employed on the a2-g8 diagonal, and the importance of the f7 square, often a key square that decides games.

There are lots of good resources on the web for learning more about this opening, and some of the ideas and concepts associated with it. In book form, Yelena Dembo and Richard Palliser’s tome about the opening can be highly recommended. If you want to get a flavour of the opening, then there are numerous Youtube videos examining it. There is a short examination of the key lines and ideas here, and a much more detailed discussion of the opening here, from the popular Kingscrusher chess channel. Finally, from the same channel there is a good example of how to play this opening, and another of how not to!