Techniques of Positional Play

For today’s post, I wanted to recommend a book I’ve been working through. Techniques of Positional Chess by Valeri Bronznik and Anatoli Terekhin is by far one of the most instructive books I’ve read, and while it may be a reach for many chess^summit followers, it’s definitely one to put on your future reading list.

My coach, Grandmaster Eugene Perelshteyn, suggested that I read this book in conjunction with 100 Chess Master Trade Secrets by Andrew Soltis to help me prepare for the US Junior Open this summer. To say the least, I’m glad he did, and today I wanted to share a few examples from the book with some of own my analysis and insights to show you why this is the book to read.

The “Padlock”

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So here I’ve constructed a position to help demonstrate the padlock idea. The goal with a padlock is to reach a position where the pressing side can’t make progress. Here, if Black tries to push one of his queenside pawns to open up the position, White can lock up the position by pushing the other. For example, should Black play …a4-a3, White can simply push b2-b3, and no more progress can be made. Understanding this concept is not only important in race positions, but also a key feature of endgames. This next composition is taken from Bronznik’s book and highlights the importance of the padlock idea. See if you can find it!

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White to move and draw

So where’s the padlock? In these kinds of endgames, it’s critical that the Black rook has points of entry to infiltrate White’s set-up. Because of the padlock structure on the a- and b- files, Black can never hope to open the queenside as long as White does not move his a3 or b3 pawns. That being said, the only way to secure the kingside is the incredible 1. Kd1!! Rh2 2. Ke1!! Rxg2 3. Kf1! Rh2 4. Kg1 Rh5 5. f3 = and Black will never be able to make progress. As long as the White king prevents the Black rook from entering e2, e1, h2, or h1, the extra rook is meaningless for Black. Again, it’s the padlock idea on the queenside that makes this possible.

I have to admit, that one study alone made me want to write this post today… but we must go on!

Fighting with the Rook Pawn

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Steincamp – Chen (G/60 Pennsylvania State Championships, 2015)

After being under fire for most of the game, my opponent offered a draw here, and without too much thinking here, I took the half point. Not too much in this major piece ending, right? Well not quite. In this position, I actually had one opportunity to press for more. The a-pawn. Here, I could have tried a3-a4-a5-a6 at no cost, securing the b7 square for my rook and with play along the 7th rank. It’s not clear if this is enough to win, but the lack of an active plan for Black here does make this promising. Let’s take a look at one of the book’s examples.

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Botvinnik–Smyslov (1954 World Championship)

Black to Move

White is definitely cramped but Smyslov will need a point of entry to find a way to take advantage of his opponent’s passivity. 1… a4! 2. Bd2 Qb6 3. Be3 a3

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And just like in my own game (rather what should have been), Black takes over the b2 square, thus securing the critical point of entry. For the sake of brevity, looks fast forward a few moves later.

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White cannot simply take the rook on b2 without creating a strong passed pawn and weakening a2, so White must succumb to a worse position. To get out of Black’s grips, White gave up the bishop pair in the game by trading on c5, and eventually lost the rook and minor piece endgame.

The “Wavebreaker”

The last idea I will discuss today is a prophylactic structure called the “wavebreaker”. In my post, Catching Up – A Season in a PostI discussed a game from the World Open where I actually used this concept to secure my kingside!

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Steincamp – Zinski (World Open, 2015)

White to Move

So White could try a “padlock” set-up with 1. h3?!, but that would be structurally dubious after 1… h4 2. g4 because now the White king is at risk of being exposed. Much simpler is creating a harmonious set-up with 1.h4!

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Stopping the h-pawn push in its tracks. I originally got the idea from watching Jan Gustafsson’s commentary during the 2015 Dortmund Sparkassen Meeting. Black ought not to get too carried away with his antics, as …f7-f5 would give me a great outpost on g5. You can check out my analysis of that game with the corresponding link above, as I got a slightly better position, misplayed the advantage, and then had a little luck to secure the half-point in the endgame.

Understanding the “wavebreaker” structure is not only important to understand defensive play, it’s also an important element of the 4 v 3 rook and pawn ending. Check out this position from the book:

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Capablanca – Yates (1930)

Black to Move

As Bronznik explains, if it were White’s move, Capablanca would play g3-g4! stopping Black from creating the wavebreaker formation. This idea of having a pawn on g4 is the easiest way to convert the 4 v 3 ending, with the idea of pushing the h-pawn in the hopes of creating a passed pawn. If you are more interested in 4 v 3 structures, you should watch this lecture by Yasser Seirawan:

For this reason, the book explains that Black had to try 1… h5= to equalize but after the inferior 1… Rc4? 2. g4! was played. While White is far from winning, he is well on his way towards making Black’s life miserable.

It’s been a while since my last book review on the site, so I’m glad I chose this one to break the silence. I’m still working my way through it, and I feel like I learn something every time I sit down to read it.

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Tactics Trainer Revisited: The 2700 Club

This morning I managed to crack 2700 on chess.com’s Tactics Trainer, so I decided to do a revised post on that, with some key updates and coaching advice from my last post on the website’s tactical features.

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I’ve used chess.com since my sophomore year of high school, with this coming November marking my fourth year of membership on the site. Aside from video viewership and Chess Mentor, one of the advantages of a diamond membership is unlimited tactics a day on chess.com. Since I started using the feature in 2012, I’ve attempted over 15,000 puzzles and climbed the ranks to reach 2700.

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It may not last long, but for now, I’m ranked one spot ahead of chess.com’s CEO, IM Daniel Rensch.

So as a coach and an active player, how do I assess progress on Tactics Trainer?

For most of my students, I believe that your tactics trainer rating minus ~200 points roughly represents your level of play. While that’s true for most 1400-2000 rated players, I think what TT represents after it gives you a 2400+ rating is very different from the original intentions of its functionality.

For master level players, chess.com’s TT features are great for warming up or practicing calculation while on a bus, but it no longer serves as an exact gauge of your tactical ability. Since most of the puzzles are member-submitted, the target audience is usually 1500-1900, and sometimes even lower.

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Even chess.com’s bell curve shows the target audience for TT, and the number of players above 2000 are minuscule.

Chess.com does two things two things make Tactics Trainer more challenging for stronger members: Limit the amount of time to gain rating points and more endgame puzzles. Once you break 2400 on TT, the emphasis becomes much more on speed in a position where perhaps you have many different pleasant options, and you have to find the best one. Endgame puzzles become more frequent at the higher levels too, but often times, simply knowing opposition and achieving it on the board is enough to reach 50% of the solution, merely finding forcing moves and the right move order should be enough to earn the other half.

Does this mean that Tactics Trainer is bad for top players? Of course not – you just have to realize that it won’t push you to be as creative as perhaps a position in Secrets of Chess Tactics because chess.com’s interface is programmed so that only one move can be correct. Which leads me to my next point.

No puzzle is a bad puzzle. It’s so easy to get a puzzle wrong, look through the answer, and think “this puzzle is bad” before moving on to the next problem. Already in doing this, you deprive yourself of the greatest learning opportunity you have: your own mistakes. Whenever we play a tournament game, our natural habit is to review the game (perhaps with the opponent) and spend lots of time calculating the lines of the most critical position. Chess.com’s TT lets you cheat in the sense that it takes away the rest of the game and only gives you a critical position. You getting the puzzle wrong means you failed to find the best resource in said position. From my experience, I’ve kind of learned the different tiers of wrong:

1) You weren’t wrong, you just weren’t rightOften I find that when I make an error in a puzzle my line works perfectly fine, it’s just that it is simply not as good as the best solution. This may be frustrating but it’s important to understand why your answer wasn’t as right.

2) Move Order! Move Order! Move Order! This is the next rung down the ladder, as now we make the descent into actual mistakes and game-losing blunders. A move order error could simply fail to win as much material/checkmate, or even draw/lose to a discovered attack. This is one of the main tests TT offers, and what separates the complainers in the comments from the users that give answers.

3) Calculation Error… Now things turn sour. Maybe you left a piece hanging, or the endgame you were analyzing is actually a draw because you missed the critical in between move. Full board awareness is a skill, and you have to develop it by asking yourself one question….

4) What can my opponent do? On some puzzles, the computer introduces the position by offering a move for the opposing side. Asking yourself why the opponent made that move and understanding his plan is the first step towards getting the answer right. Then you need to look for critical weaknesses and themes in the position. Is a piece overloaded? Is there a mating net? This can get you back on the right track.

As a coach, there isn’t a student I haven’t recommended Tactics Trainer to. It teaches discipline while simultaneously offering a lesson in full board awareness. That being said, as a player trying to become a master, I have come to terms that while TT is a great resource to warm up, ease into a practice, and get in the mindset of calculating, it simply isn’t enough to bear the weight of all my tactical studies.

Beating the Chess Funk: Making an Agenda for Success

Well. It’s been another long week here at school, but in just a few hours I will finally be on my spring break and focus on my chess. Though I’m thrilled that the day-to-day stress of going to class and getting my homework done will be put on pause, there’s still the one big elephant in the room: my chess.

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The weather here in Pittsburgh has been very inconsistent, somehow reaching a balance of snow and 60-degree weather.

If I’m totally honest about it, I am not exactly pleased with my results and level of play over the last few weeks, especially considering the amount of time I’ve dedicated to my preparation. After an extremely disappointing third round last Saturday, I decided to do something I haven’t tried since the summer: stop.

With two exams this week, in addition to several other deadlines, I limited my chess to just fun excursions on chess.com and checking the results of the Aeroflot Open and Women’s World Championships. That’s right, no openings, tactics, endgames – nothing.

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Staying away from the chess board wasn’t easy, but I doing so meant I had time to draw for the first time in a very long time. Recognize some of these characters?

I’ve only tried this chess-free week once before, but it actually proved very helpful. Last summer, I had been putting in a lot of work into my play, but not really seeing any return in my results. After a 1.5/5 finish in the Open section of the Potomac Open, I decided to not study chess before my next tournament (aside from reviewing my games), the Washington International, which was scheduled for the following week. A risky decision, but the time gave me an opportunity to focus on reducing my overall stress and relax for my return to Rockville. In that tournament, I produced some of the best games I had played all summer, ending the season on a high note and a 40 point spurt.

That being said I don’t have a tournament tomorrow, so how will this work? What’s my goal? Well, next week is the Pittsburgh Open, and choosing to stay here on campus means I will have a lot of time to myself to improve on last Saturday’s performance at the Metropolitan Open. Given the level of competition, I’m going to need to review my main opening lines, work on my calculation, but most importantly, get more sleep! Getting back to top form won’t be easy, and it will take dedication, but this is the kind of work that will get me closer to winning the US Junior Open in June.

Why the Closed Sicilian isn’t Bread and Butter

This past weekend I played in a small, three round tournament in Pittsburgh to prepare for the Pittsburgh Open in two weeks. Unfortunately (for me at least), the U1800 and open sections got merged, so I only had one opportunity to play someone over 2000, in a game that went south really quickly. My two wins though were against much lower rated opponents, and highlight many problems for players rated 1000-1600. For today’s post, I wanted to share my round 2 win over a 1300 rated player.

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Even against much lower rated opponents, I still push to play extremely accurately. In this game, White plays an uninspired Closed Sicilian and quickly falls apart!

Woskob–Steincamp (71st Pittsburgh Metropolitan Open, 2016)

1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 Nc6 5.Nf3

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With this move, I can glean a lot of information about my opponent. By not playing f2-f4, White opted for a much less aggressive line by developing the knight first. This could mean one of two things: 1) My opponent feels more comfortable in slow maneuvering positions or, even more likely, 2) my opponent doesn’t really know theory, he just understands the basic set-up for White. If the latter is true, White will probably give us cues with a misplaced piece.

5…d6 6.O-O Bg4

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When my opponent played Nf3, I decided that I wanted something aggressive. To come up with this move, I had to decide where I wanted my e-pawn. With the goal of a queenside attack, I figured my fianchettoed g7 bishop would be crucial, so I wanted my pawn on e6. That being said, it made sense to trade the light squared bishop since the e6-d6-c5 structure doesn’t really give my light squared bishop life.

7.d3 Nd4 8.Bd2

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The first real clue that perhaps White doesn’t really understand the Closed Sicilian structure. This bishop belongs on e3, because from there it has the added benefit of attacking the critical d4 square. By failing to contest the center, I can continue to keep the pressure on f3 and develop normally.

8…e6 9.Re1?

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This move is a mistake because now the thematic f-pawn push has less support. White likely thought that with my king still in the center this move made sense, but my king won’t be on e8 for long! If you are truly knowledgeable in your repertoire, you know that there are some moves you must play. f4 is one of them.

9…Ne7 10.h3 Bxf3 11.Bxf3 O-O

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The first critical decision. Here I decided against taking the bishop on f3 since I believed that my knight on d4 was far superior. As you will see, this knight becomes instrumental in orchestrating the queenside onslaught, specifically in attacking c2. It’s critical to understand that Black isn’t winning yet, arguably only slightly better. But if White fails to take action, the fall would be difficult to recover from.

12.Bg2 b5 13.a3 =+

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With this move, I have a concrete edge. White has just created a hook on b4 while simultaneously weakening the b3 square. This will make it difficult for White to kick the knight away from d4 conventionally, as c2-c3 ideas allows …Nb3. Even though I’m temporarily unable to play …b5-b4, the amount of tempi that White has surrendered is enough to be close to losing.

13…Rb8 14.Qc1 b4

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My opponent went into deep thought here, as White faces concrete problems. For example, if 15. Ne2? Nxe2+ 16. Rxe2 bxa3 -+ and the a3 pawn is untouchable since 17. Rxa3?? Bxb2 is dead lost for White. Not only am I attacking White’s knight, but he also must be wary of …b4-b3 ideas, weakening the c2 square for a potential knight fork, thanks to the misplaced rook on e1.

15.axb4 cxb4 16.Ne2 Nec6

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The threats are renewed! My knight on c6 can reinforce the knight on d4, and White must already answer to the threat of …b4-b3.

17.Nxd4 Nxd4 18.Bxb4??

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My opponent thought he had just won a pawn here, but can you find the refutation?

18…Rxb4 19.c3 Nb3 0-1

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And Black retains the extra piece. I eventually converted with little resistance, finishing the round 2/2.

Before the blunder though, here is what I had anticipated:
18. Rxa7

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Even with the extra pawn, White suffers chronic problems after 18… Rc8, as the pressure on the queenside is too great. White’s rook is offsides on a6, and my bishop on g7 is still a monster. A sample line would go like 18. Rxa7 Rc8 19. c3 Nb3! 20. Qd1 Nxd2 21. Qxd2 bxc3 22. bxc3 Bxc3-+

So what’s the lesson? If you are going to play a strategic opening, you must understand the concepts to play it in tournaments. Here my opponent knew a general set-up for the Closed Sicilian, but failed to demonstrate any thematic knowledge of the opening.