Opening Evolution: Nakamura’s Rb1

Back in late 2015, I made the argument that despite his record against Magnus, Hikaru Nakamura was the player most in form going into the Candidates Tournament. I even boldly went so far to claim he would beat Magnus in a match with the way he played that year. Things didn’t pan out as a slow start in Moscow put a kibosh on Nakamura’s Challenger aspirations, but it is worth mentioning that shortly after the Candidates he did net his first win against Carlsen in Bilbao.

While Hikaru’s current standing among the world elite won’t be the focus of today’s article, I did want to revisit a game I analyzed in my aforementioned article.

An Opening Reborn: 8. Rb1

Millionaire Chess 2 pitted Nakamura against young Grandmaster Sam Sevian early, in which we reached our tabiya for today.

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Nakamura–Sevian, after 8. Rb1

If you aren’t familiar with the game, you should quickly look over it here, as it will give you an idea as to White’s main ideas in this line. This win was particularly attractive for me as an English player, and for a short time, I even incorporated it in my opening repertoire.

The underlying idea is pretty simple! With an early b2-b4 thrust, White intends to make Black choose between a having a weaker center, or letting White expand quickly on the queenside. If Black isn’t familiar with White’s ideas, these positions are quite dangerous. I remember a particularly euphoric win I had on chess.com against WGM Camilla Baginskaite (granted it was bullet, but the quality of chess was reasonable), after which I decided that this move 8. Rb1 was a legitimate weapon and sideline.

A year removed from this game, its been really interesting to see how Black’s play has evolved at the Grandmaster level, and I thought the development of this line would make for a fascinating conversation today. For such a minor sideline to evolve so quickly, I can only imagine the headache it is to catch up with Najdorf or Grünfeld theory!

Origin Story: 8…g5!?

As the last sub-title suggests, 8. Rb1 was not Nakamura’s creation – in fact, Kasparov even played it in 2001! However, Nakamura’s win against Sevian (and later Topalov) played a huge role in its return to prominence. So why did this line disappear among Super GMs in the first place? White’s plan seemed so easy – why would English players not play 8. Rb1? My best guess is because of the complications the crazy move 8…g5?! caused.

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With his rook still on h8, Black intends to punish White for castling so early!

There’s actually quite a number of games here. Black’s intent is to quickly throw everything at the kingside and punish White for a slow 8. Rb1. This line was first really fashioned in 1993 in a clash between then top Grandmasters, Grigory Serper and Viktor Kortschnoj. Kotschnoj blew White off the board, and this move 8…g7-g5 really took off from there. I did a quick search by ChessBase in this line by Black’s rating, and was amazed by Black’s results.

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So it makes some sense that 8. Rb1 went out of fashion – this move really gave White a headache. But there’s a story untold here – Black’s wins in this line for the most part predate the development of super computers like Stockfish and Houdini.

I took a quick look at the Almasi-Wang game played in 2011, and White managed to solve his opening problems (though his game was spoiled later on – perhaps thanks to the rapid time control). Since this game, 8…g5 has been played only ten times, with White scoring a splendid 7.5/10.

Black Starts Digging with 8…a5

Nakamura has most certainly looked at 8…g5, and for him to play 8. Rb1 means that he’s found something satisfactory for White as well. While this sideline had been played by GMs prior to Nakamura, his games accelerated the evolution of this line. As we see below, many of the strongest players who tried their hand at 8. Rb1 tried it after 2015, this putting it in the brief spotlight of Grandmaster level chess.

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So what can Black do? As we’ve seen in each of these games so far, Black failed to come up with an intuitive solution to 8. Rb1 and was punished for it. However, with 8. Rb1 starting to catch the eyes of strong players, it didn’t take long to find Oleg Romanishin’s tries in 1993 – 8…a5!

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Black plays the simplest move to stop b2-b4!

This move simply asks White why the rook is on b1! This is the most simple move for Black, and moves us to the next chapter of opening evolution. Luckily for us, this move was featured three times in the Paris leg of the 2016 Grand Chess Tour, starting with Topalov’s try against Nakamura.

Topalov’s idea of simplifications in the center backfired, leaving the American a position where he could play for two results. Vesilin actually liked this game so much he tried 8. Rb1 as White later in the same tournament against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and won! We’ll get to that game later as it will be the starting point of a future chapter.

Remedy?

Unfortunately for me,  I did not learn about 8…a5 through this game, but rather three months earlier in an over the board game against my Pitt teammate John Ahlborg!

John hadn’t studied this 8…a5 line, but found it over the board and the game was smooth sailing for him from there. After the tournament, I started looking into this 8…a5 line and decided to stop playing 8. Rb1 entirely. It’s a great weapon against someone unfamiliar with theory, but with a little time, there’s not reason a strong player can’t find 8…a5 and play from there.

Of course, opening theory evolves beyond my understanding, and its been an interesting journey to watch how 8. Rb1 progressed. Just ten days before I played John in the Pittsburgh Open, Russian Grandmaster Evgeny Tomashevsky neutralized White playing 8..a5, and needless to say, had I analyzed this game, I would have reconsidered playing 8. Rb1 in my own game.

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Russian Grandmaster Evgeny Tomashevsky

Trades on b6, a Last Gasp?

Now we’ve seen 8..a5 a few times, it would be easy (like I did) to dismiss the 8. Rb1 line altogether, but one of the great things about opening evolution is that Grandmasters are always looking into new ideas!

In each of the losses against 8…a5, White tried Bxb6 at some point, giving up the bishop pair for control of the b5 square. Topalov, as I briefly mentioned before, also tried this idea but with a lot more success against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave!

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Topalov may not have had a stellar event in Paris, but taking a play out of Nakamura’s book got him a crucial win!

Black seemed powerless in that game! The novelty MVL came up with 11…Qd7 hardly challenged White, and the game quickly went into a lost endgame. So perhaps giving up the bishop pair for control of b5 is the right approach! Of course Black had some solutions too, and when a nearly 2600-rated  Grandmaster went for 8. Rb1 against Sergey Karjakin in the recent World Blitz Championships in Doha, Karjakin quickly put an end to the shenanigans.

Conclusions

I think this 8. Rb1 line is a fun line to try, especially in shorter time controls, but having played it myself, I don’t think I would advise it as a primary weapon. As we’ve seen through the evolution of this line, whenever Black’s found ideas to slow down White’s play, its become difficult for White to find ways to improve the position.

screen-shot-2017-01-30-at-11-51-54Objectively, I think White surrenders his opening advantage if Black plays 8…a5. At some point the rook will have to move from b1, costing White a critical tempo, as a b2-b4 push is no longer really possible.

On principle alone, we could say this violates moving the same piece twice, and White therefore fails to maintain the initiative. This is not necessarily to say that 8. Rb1 is a bad move – just not the most effective when trying to prove an advantage against 2000+ rated players. While I’m sure White may come up with new ideas in the future with this line, Black will always have solutions given his extra tempo in development.

A Once in a lifetime opportunity?

For many chess fans, this past fall’s World Chess Championship in New York City may have been their  only chance to ever see the top players in the world play live.  The question for many who  attended, however, is: Is it what we expected?

 

Challenges for AGON, the company that owns the rights to the World Chess Championship, started right from the beginning.  Initially, organizers struggled to find a suitable location in downtown New York City.  In early August, the championship’s website announced that the venue would feature a 500-person viewing area with tickets, beginning at $50 each, going on sale in early September on Ticketmaster.  After weeks of waiting, the memo on the “World Chess” website was changed to say “Ticket Sales Available Soon”.   Impatient fans started messaging AGON via email and Facebook almost daily asking what “soon” meant.  The biggest concern for many fans was the prospect of spending several hundred to $1,000 on travel arrangements before ticket sales and final details of the event were even announced.

Finally, on Oct. 6, the tickets were put on-sale via ticketfly.com with a starting price of $75 ($100 for the opening round).  Although the $25 difference per ticket may not have made a difference to most fans and chess professionals, those who were interested in attending were not thrilled with the high prices to enter the venue.  Nevertheless, many fans ponied up for the tickets Opening Day tickets were soon sold out.  However, after about a week of tickets being “sold out,” organizers announced that more tickets were being made available for nearly double the price.

On Day 1 of the event, hundreds of fans waited in line to enter the grand-looking Fulton Market building.  Posters and logos of the World Championship littered the building’s windows, and large sign in the courtyard offered fans a spot to enjoy a photo op.  Russian and Norwegian reporters walked up and down the line of fans hoping to find an interesting story in their native languages.   Chess friends seemed to be having reunions all over, with hugs and many conversations taking place about the hopes of that day’s events.

Walking into the venue, the security seemed sufficient, as personnel checked bags and scanned tickets before fans traveled up an elevator expecting an amazing experience.  Fans had seen AGON’s rendering of the building with beautiful giant chess sets and nice seating areas.

The upstairs was modestly decorated with tables and chairs in the lounge area.  The advertised chess store and chess café were nice enough, however the general atmosphere lacked the luster of a World Chess Championship.  The majority of people there seemed to be special guests of one of a number of companies involved in the event.  A few chess personalities wandered around and some blitz games were being played on the tables.

Chess coach Paul Swaney (and fellow chesssummit.com writer) traveled from Northern Virginia for the event. Said Swaney: “It was a great privilege to experience the fight for the crown in person. My only complaint is that the area for listening to commentary was not ideal. There was not enough seating, and the acoustics made it impossible to hear Judit (Polgar’s) commentary.”

Another spectator, New Yorker and International Master Kassa Korley, who attended several rounds of the event, said at the time: “The competing styles on display in this match have created enough interesting games to greatly outweigh the quality of AGON’s organizing, which at best leaves much to be desired.”

The “Spectator Lounge” was a large open area with rows of hard wooden benches culminating in a press conference table at the front of the room.  Fans saw Judit Polgar, the event’s “live” commentator, behind a somewhat blurred glass wall in a TV-like studio room.  The advertised live commentary was portrayed on TVs across the venue.

The main attraction for fans was the possibility of seeing or maybe even meeting World Champion Magnus Carlsen and his challenger Sergey Karjakin.  Fans piled into a room with cave-like features.  They were told to be quiet as the velvet rope in front of the glass was gradually pushed back, as fans were apparently pressing to close to the players.  The one-way glass hindered fans’ view of the players, as did the media who piled in to the room in front of the spectators.

During the first round, fans were permitted to freely come and go from the Spectator Lounge. However, as more fans arrived on Saturday and beyond, fan viewing times were restricted to 15-minute windows throughout the day.

The much sought after VIP experience lived up to much of the hype.  Adia Onyago, a Chess Expert and fan of the game said of the VIP experience: “The VIP lounge was the ultimate way to take in the World Championship.  Inside there was a breathtaking view of the city, wooden chess boards to play out the games, plenty of comfortable leather furniture, large screen TVs everywhere, a continuous flow of hors d’oeuvres, and an open bar.  The plethora of stimulating conversations with celebrities and chess lovers from all over the globe made it a ‘can’t miss’ experience.”

There were some important VIPs in the area including FIDE Vice President WIM Beatriz Marinello; top-level chess coach FM Sunil Weeramantry; GM Alexander Stipunsky; and famed Searching for Bobby Fischer writer Dr. Frank Brady.  Celebrities spotted during the event have included movie star Woody Harrelson (who made the ceremonial first move the championship; HBO’s Entourage star Adrian Grenier; astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson; and HBO’s The Wire star Gbenga Akinnagbe.  The promise, however by FIDE President Illumzhinov that billionaire Bill Gates and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg would attend has yet to occur at the time of this article’s publication.

As stated by Adia, the VIP lounge did feature an open vodka-only bar sponsored by Russian vodka company Beluga. However, when purchasing VIP tickets, a full open bar was insinuated.  Passed hors d’oeuvres were apparently prepared by a Master Chef contestant ; however, there is no way to verify this.  Comfortable furniture and a special viewing area of the players was in fact much nicer and less crowded than the one for normal spectators; however commentary was still incredibly difficult to hear.

The price tag for the VIP experience cost around $900 per person unless you were lucky enough to be on the invitation list.  Most of those in the VIP area, however, seemed to be on that list via their sponsorship of the event.  The majority of those in the room were Russian and Norwegian business executives seemingly invited by the organizers.

 

A Few Highlighted Promises vs. Reality:

  • AGON advertised tickets offered starting at $50

Reality: $75-$100+ for any ticket offered

  • AGON promised “Live Commentary”

Reality:  A live video feed of Judit Polgar and the ability to view her behind tinted glass

  • AGON promised a “Spectator’s Lounge”

Reality: Hard benches and café tables with a few televisions (maybe 5) for viewing the games and no ability to see the players live unless you go into the “viewing room” or hear the commentary (though they did raise the volume somewhat in later rounds)

  • AGON promised live viewing of the players

Reality: A limited 15 minutes to see the players behind tinted glass that would not allow for clear pictures to be taken

  • AGON promised blitz tournaments, autograph signings, and classes for children

Reality: Some events and autograph sessions were arranged starting about Round 3.

 

The World Championship is definitely an attraction for all ages and interests.  Though not all parts of the event and venue may have lived up to the expected hype, it is worth the trip if you are a chess fan.  For chess in the United States and around the world, events like this rely on fans and their support to keep them going.

 

Steve Abrahams is a National Expert from Florida, USA. He was the New Hampshire State High School Champion and the 2016 u2300 Southern Open Champion. Steve teaches chess full-time at Franklin Academy in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Steve is the Co-Manager of the Miami Champions PRO Chess Team and Co-Founder of Champions Chess LLC.

 

Bryan Tillis is a United States Chess Federation Life Master from Florida, USA. He was the State Champion of both Mississippi and Alabama and achieved the rank of original life master in 2016.  Bryan teaches chess full-time at Franklin Academy in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Bryan is the Co-Manager of the Miami Champions PRO Chess Team and Co-Founder of Champions Chess LLC.

Why do Blunders Happen? Recapping the 2017 Liberty Bell Open

I had a rough performance in Philadelphia last week, but after looking over my mistakes, I realized a lot of common themes that were worth sharing. One of my goals in putting this video together was to discuss how strong players make blunders, and identify what errors in calculation happen building up to the fatal moment.

While using my Liberty Bell Open performance as an example was not my intention going into the tournament, being able to review my games several times definitely helped me learn from my mistakes.

I’m hoping to get in one more tournament before I go to Europe, so we will see how that goes! Hope you enjoy my video!

The Future of Online Chess Leagues

First of all I would like to thank Isaac Steincamp and the chess^summit team for giving me the opportunity to write for this site. I wish Isaac all the best on his chess tour around Europe this semester.

For those of you who don’t know me my name is Andrew Meyer. I’m currently a student at the University of Maryland in my sophomore year. I began learning chess at the age of five through a Long Island-based chess program cutely named “Chess Nuts.” I began to love the game the more I played it and I have been playing chess ever since. I am now rated 2100 trying to make the push for National Master.

To the struggling expert trying to push for National Master, the improving 1600 who is devouring book after book trying to improve, or the ambitious beginner starting his/her journey on the chess board. No matter your rating, I’m here to discuss one of the biggest movements in chess and how it could affect your online experience.

The highly anticipated Pro Chess League kicked off earlier this January with the goal of creating a professional chess scene that we haven’t seen before. For the first time, we are beginning to see big names join in the action such as World Champion Magnus Carlsen, Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and Wesley So. With weekly matches, prizes, and ESPN-style “ChessCenter” coverage on Chess.com, the chess scene appears to have finally started to mirror that of other major sports.

For nearly every sport I’ve played there have been local organized leagues that have allowed me to meet great people and pursue my passion for sports. With chess, however, it was a bit harder. As I’m sure any seasoned chess player knows, when your rating gets higher, it becomes harder and harder to find people of similar strength.

Online chess leagues are here to help that problem. The Pro Chess League does a great job with connecting players from the same area and forming teams. As it stands, over 400 top level players from all over the world have joined a total of 48 different teams. But what about the rest of us that want to join in the fun?

Pro Chess League teams have a limited number of roster spots and many club players are a long ways away from the rating they need to attain to compete on such a team. As a result, in the same way that major sports like Major League Baseball have semi-professional affiliates, I predict Pro Chess League will soon have its own ‘Minor League.’ Such a league would be the convenient solution for amateurs struggling to find a nearby coffeehouse or local tournament. It would also allow serious chess players that don’t have the rating for Pro Chess League to finally compete. And with millions of active players on chess websites, I believe it’s only a matter of time before the amateurs, Experts, and Masters create a league of their own.

The Pro Chess League has only been here for two weeks but it has already shown its great potential. With thousands of viewers tuning in weekly to watch Chess.com coverage of the league, chess fans seem to really enjoy this new form of “Professional Chess.” As this new form of online chess begins to trickle down to different rating classes, we will start to see a more social online chess community that could mirror that of a tournament or chess club, making anonymous online chess handles a thing of the past.

Simple, Clean Chess in Philly

It’s not foolproof, but seeing what one can achieve in chess just by playing natural moves is always fascinating. Sometimes, the best play is based on a few basic principles, without need for especially complex calculations or knowledge (although they can be useful).

Nevertheless, the above deserves a few caveats. “Natural” (as above) does not mean easy; consistently applying chess knowledge is much trickier than it sounds. Natural moves are often not even the best moves, but they should be sound (though not necessarily “safe”). And it’s not the only way to think about the game, but it has helped me the most (then again, I also have no dynamic intuition, so it’s probably the only way I can play).

I’d like to share how I channeled this into a strong start to the year, at last weekend’s Liberty Bell Open, entering in the bottom half of a 7-round FIDE-rated open section. After two early losses, I played some of my better chess to score four straight wins. My score of 4/7 only tied for 15th (just shy of top U2300), but I scored some upsets, got to play a GM and IM for the first time, and met a few fellow Chess^Summit writers (IsaacAliceGrant, and guest authors IM Alex Katz and FM David Brodsky).

(all ratings are USCF unless otherwise specified)

Round 1 (Friday): Erenburg (2635) – Li (2136)

GM Sergey Erenburg is not your typical opponent. Having never played anyone over 2400 before, I was a bit intimidated, but also excited for the opportunity, even if it was with Black.

The time control (for all the games) was 40/100 SD/30 d10. Unfortunately, that wasn’t particularly relevant to this game because I got pummeled in the middlegame and later blundered into a tactics book-type mate in 3. However, Sergey had some useful suggestions on the dangerous Caro-Kann lines I attempted (including not playing them at all).

Round 2 (Saturday): Li (2136) – Li (2009)

The next morning, I played young expert Jimmy Li (no relation) of New Jersey, achieving a pleasant edge on the board and on time out of the opening. Unfortunately, two ridiculous oversights led me to blunder a piece on move 16 (thinking I was trapping a queen) and later my queen after an inaccuracy from Black let me back into the game.

Obviously, it wasn’t great for either of us to have the game decided by a move or two, but they are as much a part of the game as anything else. Acknowledging mistakes at any level, rather than brushing them off, is central to the growth of a player.

Round 3 (Saturday):  Kampel (2077) – Li (2136)

Even before the tournament, I had been playing sloppier-than-normal chess for a while. The first few games often set the tone for a tournament, and a 0/3 start would have been even tougher to overcome. A much-needed win in the Caro-Kann Exchange turned that around. It was a solid game all-around; a strong knight on f4 and the characteristic Caro Exchange minority attack kept White at bay, eventually landing me the b2-pawn and the game.

Round 4 (Sunday): Li (2136) – Hallenbeck (2048)

Now things get interesting. I’ve known Alex for about two years due to CMU, though strangely this was our first tournament game against each other. Based on Saturday evening results I saw we could play each other, and prepared some Closed Sicilian, only to run into Bishop’s Opening prep (in general I’m terrible at opponent-specific prep, though that fortunately hasn’t correlated much with my results).

This was also a pretty good win, though long and messy (though no big tactical mistakes) due to scrambles in both time controls. The game centered around pressure on d6 for a while, and I won a passed d-pawn when Black tried to break out in the time scramble. I lost it after missing a check, but managed to swindle a mating attack a little later.

Round 5 (Sunday): Tanenbaum (2269) – Li (2136)

Having fought back to an even score, I moved on to face NM Zachary Tanenbaum, a talented but streaky player, in a game with clear similarities to my third-round game. Though I was a bit intimidated by someone who regularly holds his own against GMs, I just played simple chess in another Caro-Kann Exchange, holding off White on the kingside with a strong knight before the thematic minority attack. The worst mistake I made was offering a draw in a more comfortable position, although White declined and hung a pawn two moves later.

By move 30, I was just up a clear pawn playing against multiple weaknesses in the endgame, with a 41-minute advantage to boot. However, wanting to play in the blitz tournament, I tried to end the game quickly, resulting in some truly embarassing endgame technique. Although the game dragged on for 50 more moves and was complicated by a clock error (a TD corrected it, but lesson learned: check your clocks!), I won out in the end.

As in Round 3, my opponent didn’t play the most challenging lines, giving me more chances to just play chess. But if you’re playing up 100-200 points, you’re likely still playing someone who is expected to outplay you. Don’t underestimate the importance or value of slugging out these situations!

Pushing the Limits of Chess Sanity

The blitz tournament (a 4-round G/5 double-Swiss) was not, to say the least, worth my lazy attempts to end Round 5 early. I was late anyway and had to take a half-bye, got crushed by NM Aaron Jacobson twice, split against a 1700, and had to explain to my last opponent why I was playing 1. g4, 2. h4, and 3. Bh3.

The natural next step was to play more blitz with Isaac back at the hotel. Grant and Alex K. probably decreased their ratings just by watching us, as I managed to tally reasonable results from my own brand of bad but crazy chess. For clarity, this is completely different from my standard chess style and what I’m advocating; still, I maintain that against 1. c4, 1…g5 can be dangerous against the unprepared opponent.

Round 6 (Sunday): Li (2136) – Garcia (2321)

In another puzzling turn of events, I recorded my flashiest win of the tournament against NM Erick Garcia, who had upset GM Alexander Shabalov (who went on to tie for first with GM Erenburg anyway). He played into a dubious Bishop’s Opening line, allowing me a natural kingside attack and d-file pressure. At 20 moves, this is my 3rd shortest and also my highest-rated win ever.

Round 7 (Monday): Shetty (2511) – Li (2136)

Despite my slow start, the four straight wins put me in contention for U2300 prizes. With most of the other contenders having played their share of IMs/GMs, it was my turn to play one, IM Atulya Shetty.

Unfortunately, simple chess only goes so far, and although I held my own for a while in the Reversed Closed Sicilian (shoutout to Isaac for the practice) I underestimated the long-term importance of White’s d5-pawn, my weak e6 square, and the structural imbalances in general. While it’s important to master basic tactics and strategy, developing foresight for long-term plans and positional quirks is a lot harder, and probably one of the differences between masters and IMs/GMs.

Still, as my second game against a 2400+ opponent, it was a great experience, and certainly better than my first.

The Numbers

I outperformed my expected score (2.61), bringing me to a new high of 2162 USCF; my FIDE rating is also projected to rise, to 1889. That may seem low for a 2100-rated player, but my former rating was 1780 based on one tournament (apparently some of my opponents were surprised, but I wasn’t the only one).

Overall a very encouraging start to 2017, with solid play that I hope to continue as I look to get the most of out each event I play.