The Age-Old Question

With the recent conclusion of the Your Next Move leg of the Grand Chess Tour, we saw some things that weren’t surprising, and then some things that were in fact eye-opening.  We saw Carlsen and So perform exceptionally well, which wasn’t surprising at all, considering those two are probably the best players in the world at this point. We also saw the likes of Jobava struggle, which wasn’t all too surprising either, considering he was the lowest rated seed by 50+ rating points; however, some may say that the extent to which he struggled was surprising, considering that he won only one game and drew five out of 36 total games.

We also saw a few players uncharacteristically struggle, including Anand.  He finished with 16/36 and a minus score, which was surprising in its own right, considering that Anand was once considered one of the best blitz/rapid players in the world.  Anand also had a string of four straight losses in the home stretch of the event.  So why did he struggle?  Was it one thing that one could pinpoint?  Or was it a slew of reasons?  You may have an idea already, but let’s see exactly why and how this was made apparent.

Now, we won’t be focusing on the games that he lost as much as the games in which points were left on the board (i.e. wins into draws or losses, draws into losses) since mistakes tend to happen and everyone loses games.  However, games in which a player had a clear path to a draw or win but missed it are the true indicators of weak play.  The first case that we will take a look at was the game between So (White) and Anand (Black) in round 6 of the rapid section.

SoAnand
So-Anand, position after 31. f3

It’s Black to move, and Black has the bishop-to-knight advantage; however, the doubled b-pawns somewhat negate that plus.  The position is objectively equal since White has no clear entry into Black’s position without offering a trade of minor pieces, which Black would gladly accept since it would allow the Rook to enter through c4.  If White marches his king to b3 before trading, Black won’t be able to enter anymore, but that doesn’t change the evaluation of the position since Black can just sit and White can never make progress on the queenside.  Here, a move like 31 … f6 would do since it protects the e5 pawn and effectively prevents White from making any more substantial threats on the queenside.  However, Anand decided to force the issue and after a 5-minute think played 31 … Bg1?  The move looks fancy but in truth just blunders a pawn cleanly after 32. Rd6+ Ke7 33. Nxb6, which happened in the game.  White eventually won the game by nursing the extra pawn advantage from here on.  A fairly straightforward blunder by Black turned what could have been a draw into a loss.  You can play through the entire game here.

This next case that we will investigate was the game between Anand and MVL in the very next round, round 7.

AnandMVL
Anand-MVL, position after 20. …. Bg5

After MVL played the tricky move 20. … Bg5, Anand found the beautiful 21. Bb5!, and after 21. …. Bf4 22. Bxd7+ Kxd7 White had a clear advantage.  However, Anand’s technique was less than perfect, and in this position:

AnandMVL_2
Anand-MVL, position after 33. … Kg7

Anand played the blunder 34. Nc4?? which would have lost to 34. … Qh8 if MVL had found it.  Anand lucked out and MVL played 34. … Nxe4, which gave the advantage back to Anand.  No harm was done there.  Later, the players arrived at this position:

AnandMVL_3
Anand-MVL, position after 46. … Rf5

With the evaluation at a hefty +5, White could have played 47. Qa7 after which the threat of Qf2+ and Nxe5+ is enough for Black to resign.  However, White played 47. Qb6, which has a similar idea, but fails to impress on the account of 47. … Qg8 when both the knight on c4 and the rook on h7 are hit (If the queen was on a7, Qg8 would be met by b3).  Anand didn’t spot the key difference and continued with 48. Qf2+, and due to miscalculation, Black was, however improbable, winning the game.  This game was truly a heartbreaker for Anand as it looked to go down as another one of his brilliancies.  You can play through the entire game here.

The next case was in the first round of the blitz section, with Anand pitted against Carlsen with White.  The players navigated through the opening and middle game to an eventually equal endgame.  Up until this point, it was only White that had had any winning chances, but each of them was squandered away.  The players reached the position:

AnandCarlsen
Anand-Carlsen, position after 53. … Rxa5

After the interesting move 54. Rd7, the position is labeled as a draw in the tablebase.  Black can’t make any progress since if Black tries to vacate a path for the pawn by moving his King, White checks him from behind and returns to d7.  If the rook threatens to check in any way, the king is always close enough to attack the rook with the king or escape some other way.  However, Anand blundered with 54. d6, which loses to Re5+ and Rd5+, which collects the pawn.  Moreover, Anand had 22+ seconds to Carlsen’s 15 but still blundered in this way.  This was yet another game where a draw became a loss because of a horrible blunder near the end.  You can play through the entire game here.

These three games weren’t even the only cases in which mistakes in superior or equal positions were made, with others occurring in the last few rounds of the blitz section.  In the end, this seemed like a recurring pattern rather than a rare occurrence.  Now, we come back to our question asked earlier in the article.  Why was Anand struggling so much in the tournament?  There are a few possible explanations.  The first is a very plausible one – the games were rapid- and blitz-rated, and the short time controls could have played a role, especially if critical positions occurred with low time left on the clock.  However, the fact that there were so many different examples of suboptimal play decreases the chance that it was just low time.  Additionally, Anand has never been “known” as a slow player; as mentioned before, Anand was considered one of the best quick players in the world just a few years ago.  So, if the answer isn’t the time control, the other possible answer that’s been tossed around before is stamina.  Stamina was discussed heavily during the past two Carlsen-Anand world championship matches as a possible decider in who would win.  Since then, it hasn’t been brought up much in press conferences or conversations.  But with Anand in his 47th year, recent tournament performances seem to beg the question to be asked again, and Anand has realized it as well.  After the conclusion of the rapid section, Anand said in an interview, “It’s nice to say ‘just a little bit off’ – I thought I was just mental! … There’s no point playing chess like this.”  It’s clear that the missed wins against MVL and arguably Carlsen that day had taken their toll.  All we can hope for is that the Indian GM is in higher spirits next time around and can still play for as long as possible.

And, as always, thanks for reading!

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The Wild g2-g4?

One of the more interesting phenomena in modern opening theory is the unabashed g2-g4 push on seemingly arbitrary (at least to the unfamiliar) opening occasions.

Predictably, most of these shots are based on more dynamic intentions, and since each situation is different, it’s hard to pin down a lot of general principles here. The Shabalov-Shirov (who else?) line of the Meran Semi-Slav is perhaps the most famous (and theoretically heavy) example, demanding specific knowledge and tactical foresight to play at a high level. Black can accept the gambit (note the hanging pawn on h2), flout White’s attack completely (castling into some potentially open kingside lines), or play it safe with …h6 (as is somewhat more common), but all give White compensation in various ways.

Since each situation is different, discussing g2-g4 in general is more of a thought exercise (at least if you’re lazy or don’t study many openings, like me). Still, the potential of such a bold gesture is clear in many of these situations, compensating for what is often a gambit or positional gamble.

(By the way, g2-g4 can happen much earlier than move 7; for example, as 1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 e6 3. Nf3 Bb4 4. g4!? or even 1. d4 f5 2. g4!? if you’re willing to relax your definitions.)

In a game I skimmed over last month, a young 1900-rated player chose an early-looking g2-g4 that I was vaguely familiar with due to having seen it in a book. The author, being a Caro-Kann expert, is a fairly no-nonsense player and I, feeling similarly, didn’t think too highly of the early g2-g4.

Screen Shot 2017-07-04 at 3.22.14 AM

In this position from the Three Knights Caro-Kann, White has just played 8. g4!?. Admittedly, this makes much more sense than I thought at the time (since an ambitious White was probably going to castle queenside and his queen is fairly well-placed for any kingside action), but since I hadn’t castled kingside and had played pretty reasonable moves to reach this position, I didn’t feel like White should have much here. Black has three possible reactions to a potential g4-g5:

  • Ignore it.
  • Curb it with 8…h6.
  • Prepare for it in some other way.

According to a very limited sample of games from chess.com, the obvious continuation of the third type, 8…Nfd7, is very reasonable. Obviously, any further kingside pawn pushes are stopped for the moment, and Black can easily maneuver the other knight to c7.

8…h6 is an obvious candidate, but this creates an obvious target if Black ever castles kingside. Queenside is not the safest option in the world at the moment and White has plenty of power for say, an f-pawn push to break open the center, as in this crushing win for White.

From my previous comment, you can probably guess that I went with the first choice. Again, since I’d played logically up to that point, it’s reasonable to expect Black shouldn’t be too afraid of White’s primitive-looking attack. However, I chose to do this in a rather awkward way, tangling the knights with 8…Nbd7? 9. g5 Ng8, after which White is not as extended as I hoped in most reasonable continuations.

Interestingly though, there are ways to decline this without tangling all the Black pieces on the first two ranks. 8…Na6 has been played, after which White had little to show for the moment after 9. g5 Nd7 10. h4 Nb4 11. Qd1. Even 8…O-O looks dangerous, but White still has work to do before breaking in after moves like 9. h4 or 9. g5 and Black will have chances on the queenside when White castles. An interesting battle is in store once the opposite-side castling is declared.


Even for someone who doesn’t think terribly highly of them, the myriad g2-g4 possibilities are still pretty intriguing to me. Feel free to give a shoutout to any particularly interesting (or early) ones.

Reflections on Columbus

After the recent disasters that have plagued my play (and I wrote about in my previous article), I was anxious to break out of my funk but also was highly concerned it would continue when I played in last week’s Columbus Open with Isaac. Going into the tournament, I wasn’t feeling super excited to play and took a relaxed approach to the event. I ended up scoring a decent score of 3.5/5, but I believe there was the potential for the score to be higher. Regardless, I was glad to finally break out of my slump, and I noticed a couple of things from the weekend, which I discuss below:

 

Playing to always win or trying too hard to win can be worse than just sitting down and trying to play a good game. It’s easy to tell oneself this, but for me it’s been incredibly difficult to get my mind wired this way. Part of this is because my style is just to always play to win every game, taking risky chances to eschew draws and often lose. Another reason is my environment and personal situation. Ever since I’ve graduated high school and spent the most of my years at college in Pittsburgh, I’m almost always a top three seed in local events. As a result, not winning every single game feels like a disappointment. I am forced to try to win tournaments rather than just playing my best in a tournament that I have no practical chance to win. In addition, I’ve had to fund all my chess-related expenses since I’ve entered college, so winning back at least the entry fee and travel expenses is always in the back of my mind. Both of these things apply psychological pressure on me throughout games and tournaments that I play in now. I entered Columbus as the fifth seed, so while I obviously had a shot to compete for the top places, I didn’t feel obligated to go bananas trying to win the whole thing. This, and my lowered expectations based on my recent play, took a lot of external and internal pressure off me. I noticed I was able to play with a lot more freedom and clarity than I have in recent months because I approached the games in a much more normal, levelheaded way.

In rounds 1 and 2, I managed to win quite smoothly against lower rated players. I was able to dictate the flow and the direction of the game. Staying in control is essential against lower rated players, because the odds are better of an upset occurring when chaos erupts on the board. I also stuck to openings that I knew how to play, rather than using these opponents to conduct opening experiments on. Those experiments could be conducted in a no risk setting online.

In round 3, I was paired up to the top seed Mika Brattain (~2470+). After getting by Mika to win two state middle school championships back in Massachusetts, I was absolutely dominated by him ever since, unable to avoid losses in every single game we played. Clearly he had the psychological edge based on our head-to-head history. I told myself to play naturally and reminded myself every single move I could lose (I did this in all the games except the one I lost, as this mindset allowed me to remember a game is never over till it’s over). With very little effort, we reached an endgame where I was very slightly worse, but I thought a draw would very soon be the natural result. Sure enough, as soon as I thought the game was decided, I dropped a pawn and White’s advantage was objectively winning. I had two choices: defend passively (objectively better) or defend actively (objectively much much worse, but better practical chances). I decided to go for checkmate threats on the opponent king, forcing him to use up a lot of time. As time control approached, the computer evaluation swelled to a +9 for my opponent, but the continuous threats allowed me to luck out and escape into a drawn endgame. I breathed a sigh of relief and was happy with the result, but I also knew that I had to work much harder than I should have to get that result.

Due to color mismatches, I stayed on the top board in Round 4, playing white against Grandmaster Pavel Blatny. If I won this game, I would have had the inside track to winning the tournament outright in round 5. As it goes, I played simple, strong chess for 20 moves, obtaining what I thought was a small, riskless advantage. But once again, my mindset started to stray as I failed to consider even my opponent’s very simple ideas. Once I achieved a good position, I  relaxed and threw away my sense of caution, and this time I wasn’t able to luck out and salvage anything at all. The engine revealed I had a winning shot right before I started to give the game away. Thus, I entered the final round pretty irked about the previous game but also indifferent to the final game considering I had no chance anymore to play for the top prizes. I was able to smoothly defeat a master to cap off a satisfactory event. I realize that a break in concentration and mindset, even for a split second, can affect my results dramatically. My goal is to take some of the lessons I learned from this event to develop stronger mental discipline and play at a more consistently high level. Next major event: The U.S. Junior Open in Minnesota.