Over the Board with Dan Schultz – Michael Gladis

Welcome to the second episode of Over the Board! This week I have the privilege of interviewing my good friend, one who I’ve lost MANY a game to, Michael Gladis. While most recognized for his performance as Paul Kinsey in Mad Men, Mike has also made appearances on Law and Order, House, Eagleheart, and many…MANY more shows. Mike has also showcased his acting skills on stage and in blockbusters such as K-19 and Terminator Genisys. In short, you have certainly seen him somewhere, even a chess catalog! As if that’s not enough, Mike makes time to play guitar, work on projects with his fiancée (actress Beth Behrs), and continue to play a damn good chess game! I’ve been looking forward to this interview for some time and I’m happy to share it.

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I know you started playing chess around the age of 5 or 6, but what passion came first, acting or chess?

Definitely Chess. I didn’t start acting until I was in High School.

I also learned how to play from my dad when I was about 6, I think that’s one of the reasons why I love the game so much. Your goal was initially to beat your dad at chess, which you did around 15 years old. Do you two still play from time to time or talk about the game?

Yes, we still play occasionally, either online or when I’m at home. He gave me a beautiful wooden board and set when I first beat him, and bought me a USCF membership, which he still renews for me to this day!

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That’s and awesome dad! In an interview you said chess isn’t just a game but “THE game,” a sentiment our readers and I can’t agree enough with. What do you think makes chess so great?

One of the things I love about the game is that it’s a conversation in the abstract- a language of its own. Whenever I travel abroad I look for chess players- whether it be people playing on a large lawn-type chess set in Amsterdam, a little old man with a board in front of him at a café in Paris at 2am, or some guys playing in the bitter cold and snow while drinking vodka on Arbat Street in Moscow- It’s always so satisfying to play a few games with someone who comes from a completely different culture, who might not speak the same language as you, but after a few games of chess you can look up at each other and feel like you just had a genuine interaction- a conversation- a debate. There are arguments, rebuttals, and even jokes on the board. You get a sense of that person’s personality from their play. I love that.

I love that explanation! Maybe not as deep a topic as the unspoken language of chess, but would you mind telling the story of how you modeled for the Chess Life catalog?

One time at a party in college, I got to talking to a woman my friend had brought with her and asked her what she did. She replied that she was the head graphic designer for a magazine, and when I asked which one she replied, “Oh, you’ve probably never heard of it.” I pressed, and she replied, “Chess Life.” Well, of course I flipped and start gushing about how much I love playing chess, and how my dad bought me my USCF membership when I first beat him, and how he still renews it to this day, and on and on and on… and she tells me that she sometimes pays some of the other actors in the Theater Department (like her friend who brought her to the party) to model for the Chess Life catalogue, and that it doesn’t pay much but if I’m interested she’d love to have me come down. Well, $100 bucks buys a lot of beer when you’re a poor college student, plus it was a chance to go check out the USCF headquarters (which was in Newburgh, NY back then).
So I arrive at the photo shoot (I did a few)- and I had a plan in mind. The pics in the USCF catalog of people at chess sets always bugged me because they looked SO phony- the “player” was always sitting ramrod straight at the board, with a goofy smile on their face, holding a chest piece just-so above the board with one hand, and it looked so fake. So I wanted to bring some veritas to the photo shoot- some gravitas, even! I wanted to be hunched over, face twisted into agonized concentration, fingers tearing out my hair, they wouldn’t let me smoke but I would have if they had- etc.

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So the photo shoot goes on and I’m modeling a Chess tie or some bullsh*t, and finally they bring up the board. This is my chance! So I set up a position from a famous game (I don’t remember which one) just in case there are fellow nerds out there who might appreciate that, and I summon all of my young acting abilities and scrunch myself up into position, face twisting and hair pulling galore, and the photographer says, “Michael, could you straighten up a little bit? And smile? But not raise your eyebrows too much? And pick up a piece? And hold it up just a little bit? And slide your elbow over?” and SNAP! The picture’s taken and it’s the same bullsh*t photo that I had been trying to avoid taking. You gotta laugh.
There was one photo they took of me at a board with my friend Laura sitting on my lap- y’know, how chess players always play chess, and I heard later they had to pull it from future catalogs because people were complaining it was too risqué!
That graphic designer, Jamie, became a good friend, though. She was always very kind, and I got to play some GM’s at the USCF because of her. I once brought Arthur Bisguier a bottle of Dewar’s and he played me all afternoon. I don’t think I ever gave him anything resembling a challenge. Eventually he was spotting me a rook and still crushing me so badly it seemed like a magic trick. Jamie later gave me the board and the House Of Staunton set we played on that afternoon- I still have it to this day.

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Outstanding! So, why do you think chess has stuck with you for so long?

I love it because it never gets boring, it’s always a challenge, and I’m just good enough to want to get better, but never nearly as good at it as I want to be.

You and I play chess on just about a daily basis and I know you’re quite busy with your career and plenty of travel, so how does chess fit into your daily routine?

I recently started using one of those apps that tracks your phone usage, and I’m pretty much spending most of my phone time either on chess.com or twitter. I’m gonna try to wean myself off of twitter, but I consider Chess to be calisthenics for my brain. I play a lot of 3 min blitz, and then usually have a few longer daily games going. I play like everyone else. If I’m in the waiting room of an audition, or the dentist, sitting on the couch watching TV and a commercial comes on, or (sorry) at a long red light, I’ll pick up the phone and make a move.

I have the same habit, you’re not alone. What does your fiancée think of your chess obsession? Does she play?

I think she thinks it’s a healthy mental exercise. It’s a better way to spend phone-time than social media or candy crush (which I’ve never played). I was really flattered to learn that when we first started dating she made a stab at learning the game, without telling me, in hopes of being able to play with me, but it didn’t take and she let it go.

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That’s awesome! My wife picked up the game when she saw how passionate I was for it. It really meant a lot to me as well. Now, thanks to you’ve I’ve fallen in love with Yasser Seirawan’s Play Winning Chess; it’s pretty much become my Catcher in the Rye and the number one book I recommend to all players I talk to or work with. Are there any other books or content you would recommend for players looking to improve?

That’s the chess book I’ve recommended to (and bought for) SO many people looking to learn the game. Yasser’s writing style is so accessible, and so readable, and his love for the game is evident on every page- so I’d go on to recommend all the rest of his books in that series (Winning Chess Tactics, Winning Chess Strategies, etc.) How To Reassess Your Chess by Silman is another great book.

So you had the opportunity to play with and learn from the renowned hustler “Russian Paul” in Washington Sq, NYC. What was that experience like and how do you think learning the game from a player of that caliber effects your own playing style?

I played with Paul every day in the summer of 2001, just after shooting my first big Hollywood film- so I had money and time. I’d make my way to the park almost every afternoon and sit with him for a while. I also played him and on and off the whole time I lived in NYC. I would pay him $10 for 3 5min blitz games, but eventually he’d ignore the clock and start analyzing positions as they came up, showing me possible moves/lines etc. He’s a really strong player- and very Russian about it. Very matter-of-fact, usually smoking a cigarette. I don’t know that it affected my style that much, I probably wasn’t that great a student. But I do quote some of the hustlers I used to play in Washington Sq. back in the day once in a while: “The pin wins!”
I still find Paul up in Union Sq. when I travel back to NYC, and pay him for a few games. He still slaughters me. He says I’m not as good as I used to be – which is probably true. I used to play over the board every day when I lived in NYC. Now it’s only on the phone, so when I play on a real board in person I make a lot of mistakes I probably shouldn’t.

I know we talked about it but I’ll be headed to NYC this summer to do a chess tour of the town. Where do you think people should stop in the city to get a game or learn more about the history of chess there?

There are still players in Washington Square Park, so go there just because it’s a pretty place to play, and a part of NYC chess history. Unfortunately a lot of the good hustlers (like Paul) all moved up to Union Square and play on milk crates and folding tables because there’s so much more foot traffic (and business) for them there – so go there, as well. Bryant Sq. has some strong hustlers, and that’s right near the NY Public Library, which you should also check out (not for chess, just because it’s cool). I also like to go up to the Chess & Checkers pavilion in Central Park, but it can be a little tough to get a game there. The same old crusty dudes have been meeting up to play each other there for decades, and they’re not always eager to include strangers, but you can ask. It’s a great place to play if you already have a partner. You can even rent boards/pieces there I believe. There’s some chess tables in the park area in the center of Stuyvesant Town- there are some surprisingly strong players in there (I used to play on one of their BAL chess teams). Also, definitely try to make it to the Marshall Chess club. It’s a beautiful, historical place. Play in a tourney there if they’re having one!

Any interesting chess stories?

I was living in NYC on 9-11, and, like everyone, woke up to a world in chaos. I had seen the 2nd plane hit the Towers on TV, and I was living just outside Times Sq. at the time, so I thought to myself “Where would I hit next if I was them?” and decided it wasn’t safe to stay in my apartment. I walked down 9th Avenue, saw the Towers fall, stood with groups of strangers around pickup trucks with radios blaring trying to get information, bought water for and tries to comfort the people covered in ash, covered my face with my t-shirt when the air got too bad to breathe… eventually I made my way to my best friend’s father’s apartment. Donald lived on Washington Place in the West Village. He was a dear friend himself, so it was the place I felt safest in the city. After 4 or 5 hours of staring at the TV, I had to get out and take a walk, get some air, clear my head and try to process what the hell was happening. Washington Place borders Washington Square Park, so, almost instinctively, I walked over to the SW corner of the park where the chess tables are. All the hustlers were there. Paul was drinking vodka, and I think I actually asked him if he wanted a game. He said no, but one of the other hustlers piped up and said “I’ll play.” So, I remember sitting down and playing this guy- playing a game of chess during the apocalypse- and of course we were playing badly and making all sorts of stupid mistakes and eventually we looked up at each other, and I think I actually said out loud “What the hell are we doing??” and we both stood up and abandoned the game and I took a swig of Paul’s vodka and went on my way, out into a different world.

Wow…that’s a powerful story. I really appreciate you sharing that with us. So, what’s your next chess goal?

I’d like to start playing in tournaments this year. Someday I want to do what you’re doing – actually take lessons from a Master or GM and really buckle down and study and try for a title.

I’ve also thought about competing in a Chess Boxing match (I like to work out at boxing gyms), but I’m a way better chess player than I am a boxer, and my face is so pretty, and I’m not in the best shape, and I just hit 40 so… sanity will probably prevail and I won’t.

Well, if you do take up Chess Boxing I’ll be right there in the front row! If you need a cutman, I’m your guy! So, outside of acting, chess, and playing guitar, any other hobbies or passions?

I recently acquired an old Toyota Land Cruiser that I’m working to fix up and using to explore SoCal and the South West- I love camping and getting off road. I also like to take photos, so those two hobbies go hand in hand.

Are you working on any projects presently that you’re really excited about?
Working with my fiancée on producing our own projects, which is very exciting, and potentially a lot more fulfilling than waiting around for acting auditions. I’m also starting to write, which is challenging, to say the least.

Mike, thank you so much for your time! We’ll definitely be looking forward to what comes next, on and off the board. I’ve had the honor losing many a match to Mike, but I always learn something and we always have a laugh – the whole point of the game.

 

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Finding the Right Coach

Until recently in the timeline of chess finding a quality coach to work with either required fortunate proximity, fees or travel restricting the average player, or pure luck and who you knew. With the advent of the internet and the growth of the game in schools and social clubs across the world, as well as the current chess boom which I greatly hope continues, there has never been a better opportunity to find a guide on your chess path. Whether a casual player looking for a few lessons to grow a bit stronger or an ambitious player looking for the tools to become a champion, a coach is an irreplaceable asset and can become a lifelong friend and mentor on and off the board. The time and money invested in coaching whether temporary or long term will pay dividends in the enjoyment of being a better player and further understanding this game we love.

I only began working with a coach 7 months ago, but in that time I feel like I have learned a new game from the ground up compared to what I knew before. I have also seen more progress and overall understanding of the game week by week, much more than I would have if I had continued on my own. I am fortunate enough to have a FIDE Certified coach who is a remarkable player, has been teammates with a world champion, and truly cares about his students development and enjoyment of the game. I am equal parts honored and challenged to grow having a coach like this.

Geographically speaking I live 2 hours away from the nearest chess coach, so being able to reach out to my coach in Chennai via Skype and instantly begin learning would not be possible any other way. So where do we go with this technology and what can we do to find a teacher?

By and large on of the most popular ways, and the fastest growing way, to study chess is online. You can receive personalized lessons from a teacher of any level without leaving your home and have more time to study and less to travel. There is only so far you can go without a coach and while the amount of content in terms of books, YouTube content, and shareware are astounding, nothing can compare to the one-on-one experience and growth a coach brings. There are many sites out there where you can locate a coach, but the two most people rely on are USCF and chess.com‘s robust rosters.

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In the above example, you can see chess.com staff member and NM Sam Copeland. On this site you can see if they are titled, what their ratings are, and can usually find their rates and availability. You can send direct messages and use this information to look up their games and learn some more about them. I suggest seeing a player’s style if you can. If they play a style you want to learn or find fascinating, you might have found a solid match. My coach and I came into contact through Twitter and after some discussion, going over schedules, and viewing his credentials I knew I was in good hands. I was able to find a few of his games and enjoyed his playing style and felt confident I was going to be growing as a player. Finding a coach is a two-way interview, it requires give and take on both sides. You want to grow as a player and have a coach that can teach on your level and build you up to your goals. Likewise, this is a big commitment on the part of your coach, so their time needs to be rewarded with the progress and dedication they expect of their students.

It seems every day more social media platforms emerge, each full of countless coaches and players of varying strengths offering lessons. The sensory overload of ads, promoted content, and oversaturated pages can get in the way of finding the right coach for you. Some things you will want to consider when searching for a coach are:

Your Level of Commitment – If you are a casual player you don’t need to seek out a GM or other titled player. Furthermore, you do not need to pay the fees often associated with high-level players and coaches if you just want to improve enough to beat your friends or have a fighting chance. That being said, if you are committed to the game and want to elevate yourself to the next level, you will likely need to find a certified or other recognized coach. Sites such as the ones mentioned above show you the caliber of player and coach you will be working with. You need to be honest with yourself and your current level, and this is true of your coach as well.

Your Coaches Level of Commitment – If your to-be coach is a touring player with pupils on several continents, they simply won’t have the time to give you all the attention you may need or desire. It is also concerning if your coach has no other students or has gaps between students, not in all cases but in most this can be a bad sign. A good sign is if your coach follows up on you between lessons. My coach often sends me tactics puzzles or interesting topics between lessons, something I love.

Finances – Chess lessons can be quite expensive, but with the growing market the prices are trending down for the most part. Now, this ebbs and flows based on economies, popularity of chess, and conversion rates. For instance, the USD goes further than some other currencies so conversion rates may be helpful if learning from a teacher outside the US. I wish I could say there was a “standard going rate”, but much of this depends on factors in and out of a coaches hands. I would recommend “shopping around” and being honest with yourself and your financial situation. You do often get what you pay for, but based on your level of play and goals this may vary.

Your Schedules – My coach and I are in different time zones, a separation of 9 1/2 hours to be exact. Depending on your job, family situation, and other obligations it may be difficult to find your desired coach. Discuss their schedule and needs and compare them with yours to see if you can make it happen. Don’t try to force yourself or your coach to be on the same schedule, it will only impede the relationship and the learning process.

I recommend checking out the links above and seeing if there are any coaches you find interesting. Remember to be honest and patient when seeking a coach. Like any other relationship professional or not, it needs to be a natural fit and cannot be forced. A student seeks a wise and patient coach, a coach seeks a patient and committed student. If your commitment matches theirs, you should have a long and mutually beneficial relationship.

 

 

 

Over the Board with Dan Schultz – Chris Wainscott

Hello, and welcome to the first edition of Over the Board. In this monthly Chess^Summit exclusive I will go one on one with players, personalities, and writers from around the world. We’ll discuss their lives on and off the board and get advice on how to improve.

For this inaugural edition, I have the great honor of doing an extended interview with a player and writer I greatly admire, Mr. Chris Wainscott. Chris has written for Chess Life, Chess Life Online, and American Chess Magazine while also maintaining his website ontheroadtochessmaster.com. Like myself and many others, Chris began to pursue his chess ambitions later in life setting his goal to prove you can achieve a title, something I know he will do. Chris has done a lot for the sport and is a very talented writer, we discuss a great deal and cover a lot of ground in this unabridged interview.

Wainscott-Wallach - photo credit Allen Becker

Wainscott v. Wallace – photo credit Allen Becker

Chris, what first sparked your passion for chess? Do you have a first chess memory?

The passion came later, but my first chess memory is from the age of four. It was 1977 and the Fischer Boom was either dead, or at least in its death throes. My mom and some friends of hers decided they wanted to learn, so they bought this cheap hollow plastic set that came with a folding cardboard board and were teaching themselves the rules.
Like so many kids I wanted to do what they were doing and so I pestered them to teach me as it looked interesting. I liked games in general and this one just had that ‘something’ that made it too tempting to pass up.
They taught me, and within just a few playing sessions I was beating adults. That gave me a special connection to the game.
For the next decade or so my chess career was confined to the occasional one-off game, mostly with either my mom or my grandfather. Occasionally I might meet some kid at school who also knew how the pieces moved and play them as well.
The passion came in 1987 when at the age of fourteen I learned that my ninth-grade history teacher, Charlie Vetter, was also the guy who ran the school’s chess team. It had never occurred to me before that there could be such a thing as a chess team.
Shortly thereafter I played in my first tournament, which was the Texas Junior Championships. I came in fifth, losing only to the prodigy David Peterson, who went on to be featured in the Chess Kids documentary a few years later.
Of course, my result speaks a lot more about the relative weakness of the field than any strength of mine. Keep in mind that in 1987 scholastic chess was nothing like it is today. Not to mention that the event was held in my hometown of Midland rather than in a major population center.
So, what prompted you to write about chess?
I have always thought of myself, at least vaguely, as a writer. When I was a kid I used to write stories that I would read as a sort of one man play for my family. I’ve written a lot of (unpublished) stories and fragments over the years.
I read Botvinnik’s essay which is in the beginning of his 100 Selected Games book in which he gives the advice that players should analyze their games critically and then publish the analysis to subject it to criticism and correction. His viewpoint was that airing your work would both force a person to be completely subjective as well as helping to improve since you’d get feedback from others.
So shortly after setting the goal of getting to 2200 I decided to start blogging. I did this since at first, I’d say to myself ‘I should do X, Y, and Z’ but didn’t necessarily follow through with those plans. I figured that if I openly wrote that my plan for the month was to do something, and then followed up along the way and recapped at the end I would have to hold myself accountable if I failed.
You can still see the early blog here: ontheroadtochessmaster.blogspot.com
At some point during the year or so this blog was active I decided that it never hurts to ask when you want something, and so I emailed Chess Life editor Dan Lucas and told him I wanted to write a column for the magazine. He let me know that there were no openings for columns, but that he’d happily give me space for a feature. So my first paying gig as a writer was the January 2014 issue of Chess Life which featured my article on improving as an adult.
Around a year into blogging, my friend and mentor Sevan Muradian asked me to blog for his website ChessIQ. That lasted a couple of years until his untimely death in February 2016. Now I write for my own blog, ontheroadtochessmaster.com as well as a regular assignment covering University Chess for American Chess Magazine. I also still contribute to Chess Life and Chess Life Online at times.
Now I saw in an article from Quality Chess that you stopped playing from 1992 until 2011. Can you share what caused the break and what brought you back into the game?
The stock answer to this question always seems to be something about a job and family causing life to get in the way, etc.
My case was completely different. In 1992 I moved from Texas back to Arizona where I had lived for several years previously. I was 19 at the time, and within a few months of being back in Phoenix I wound up a drug addict.
After spending a few years completely out of my mind on meth I got my life together in 1996, but by that time chess had more or less passed me by. It just wasn’t something I thought about much. I didn’t play but maybe a half dozen casual games during my break.
Then, in late December of 2010, I was visiting my grandfather and while digging through boxes of old photos he happened across one of my scoresheets from the late 80’s. I felt something stir deep within the primal part of my brain and I remembered how much fun I had in the five years I had spent as an active tournament player from 87-92.
I recall texting my then girlfriend, now wife, and saying something like ‘I think I’m going to start playing tournament chess again.’ She replied ‘again? When did you ever do that?’ A few weeks later in January of 2011 I resumed playing and haven’t looked back.
Do you feel chess is different now than it was in 1992?
There are so many ways in which it’s completely different. The biggest of course is access to information. For those who didn’t come up in the internet age it’s probably not something easily grasped, but access to information was incredibly hard when I was first playing.
I can recall going to the Midland Public Library with a notebook and copying down games out of books. Or digging through microfiche copies to find game scores from articles in the New York Times or Los Angeles Times.
This is how my ‘database’ was compiled. Nowadays when it’s so easy to decide you want to look at the games of any player and with a few strokes on your keyboard, you can look at pretty much anything. All those memories feel like a dream.
One really funny way in which things changed was the advent of the digital clock. I say funny because of course when I started playing again I immediately bought a board, set, and clock. I was so proud of the fact that I owned a shiny new battery operated analog clock. Then I got to my first tournament and saw the digitals, learned about delay, and realized my brand-new purchase was obsolete right out of the box.
Of course, some things felt exactly the same. I was delighted to find that Vishy Anand was the world champion when I came back. I’d enjoyed his games when I was younger.
I think Vishy Anand is timeless, he still has plenty of championships in him. I greatly enjoy your Quality Chess Challenge and agree their vast content is just incredible. We are coming up closely on February 13th, one year from when the challenge started. How do you feel this challenge has impacted your game? Are there any specific books from Quality Chess that really made an impact?
The Challenge started from an offhand remark by a friend of mine, NM Richard Martin, who said something like ‘Quality Chess’s products are so good you could probably get to master just by studying them.’ So I messaged Jacob Aagaard, who I’m Facebook friends with, and mentioned this to him. He had some interesting insights and input.
I decided to give it a year and so I posted in the Chess Book Collectors Facebook group that I was going to do this. The ‘Challenge’ portion came up when Belgian player Johan Verduyckt said he was going to do the same but using only New in Chess books.
While the Challenge part has kind of died since life got in the way for Johan and he hasn’t been able to play much, the event itself has been both fascinating and frustrating.
Fascinating because QC does, in my opinion, put out amazing books. They are instructive and entertaining at the same time. I really feel that I’ve grown a lot in my understanding of the game during the past 11 months or so.
Frustrating because I am a chess book collector, and so for the past year or so I have acquired a bunch of books that I haven’t really looked at much.
I should point out that one thing I noted going in to the challenge was that I had no intentions of being overly dogmatic. So, there are a few non QC books I’ve used when I didn’t have a QC alternative to use. So I’ve used books on tactics by both Susan and Lazlo Polgar, along with Minev’s book Practical Rook Endgames.
As for books from QC that have really made an impression, I’d say Questions of Modern Chess Theory by Lipnitsky, Soviet Middlegame Technique by Romanovsky, Positional Play by Aagard, and How I Beat Bobby Fischer’s Record by Judit Polgar have helped a lot. The most useful though has been the Yusopov series. If I have one regret from this project it’s that I didn’t really make time for a lot more Yusupov.

arturyusupov

Artur Yusopov

I also enjoy your chesstempo challenge. Could you tell us a little more about that?
I kept seeing George Takei posting these ‘100 Days of ____’ things on his Facebook page which would show how someone improved greatly at something after 100 days of doing it.
I decided that it would be interesting to do 100 days of tactics on chesstempo. I am a firm believer in the value of tactics training, although I also understand that since tactics flow from a superior position just studying tactics alone without working on the other parts of my game would do me very little good.
My initial intent was 100 days of one hour a day of tactics. However, I’ve realized that I need to change that since one hour is eating up too much of my study time. I’ve been thinking about how to modify that, and it’s likely that I’ll change it to 30 minutes a day and roll out the revised version over the next few days.
In fairness to the concept I’ll start over from scratch. Although I should point out that I’ve gained 30 points or so in the couple of weeks I’ve been doing these.
There’s an awesome picture on your website where you are seated between Aronian and Carlsen. What was that like and what kinds of conversations did you have with the players?

SinqCupAutograph2013 Sinquefield CupNakamura, Aronian, Wainscott, Carlsen, and Gata…looking up

That picture was taken the day before the first round of the inaugural Sinquefield Cup in 2013. The photo shoot was pretty much just an assembly line where they were moving people through pretty quickly and so I didn’t get much more than a ‘hello’ out of it.
Something amusing about that photo is just before taking the photo the photographer said ‘look up’ and while four of the five of us looked at the photographer, Gata seemed to take it literal and is looking at the ceiling.
At the time while I of course knew who those guys were, I didn’t actually know any of them. Since then that’s changed a lot. Gata was a friend of a friend, and I had the chance to have dinner with him later that night. In the ensuing years there have been a couple more dinners and some great conversations.
I’ve also been able to spend time in a social setting around Lev Aronian after the past two Sinquefield Cups. Once at the club, and once at the ‘Chess House.’ Watching Lev play bughouse is otherworldly. He’s also the funniest GM I know and what makes that so amazing is that he’s cracking jokes that are perfectly on point in English, which I think is his third, or maybe even fourth, language.
I was very moved by your November Article where you discussed the Sevan Muradian Memorial and the incredible generosity of Hikaru Nakamura. As an outsider, I was very touched and, as a huge fan, it made me love Hikaru even more. What did it mean for you personally to be involved in this?

sevanThe late Sevan Muradian – photo credit Betsy Dynako

Hikaru and I have been friends for a couple of years now. When we first started talking one of our early conversations was about Sevan. Hikaru had known Sevan fairly well and had only nice things to say about him.
After Sevan’s death there was a strong desire within the community to hold a tournament in his name and to donate the proceeds to his family. So some friends and organizers held an event in Fall of 2016 and raised some money.
The decision was made to hold this as an annual event, and at some point leading up to it I realized that there was a chance for us to harvest some resources we hadn’t thought about.
Between myself and event organizers Glenn Panner and Daniel Parmet we know several dozen GM’s, including world champions and other elite players. I had the thought that we should try to get some merchandise signed so we could have some sort of raffle or silent auction to help raise some additional funds.
I reached out to Hikaru and asked if he’d sign a couple of boards for me and he immediately agreed. I sent him the boards and one day I got a message from him saying he had gotten the boards and signed them and that he hoped we raised a lot of money.
He then said he’d like to match whatever was raised up to $3,000.00. I was simultaneously stunned, thrilled, and proud to be Hikaru’s friend.
It was an unprompted and amazing act of generosity. As Hikaru was playing in St. Louis at the time I immediately emailed Jenifer Shahade and let her know about it so they could talk to Hikaru on air during his post-match interview at the Showdown the next day!
It should be pointed out that Susan Polgar and Paul Truong also donated. Both were good friends of Sevan’s.
So which players past or present are heroes or inspirations for you?
WGM Sabina Foiser and her fiancé, GM Elshan Moradiabadi are both huge personal inspirations to me.
Just look at last year, Sabina loses her mother and then within just a couple of months puts up the best result of her career. I can’t recall anyone more deserving of something who was so unassertive about it. A friend and I had dinner with her and Elshan the night she won, and she was beside herself with happiness but also completely humble. It was amazing to watch.
Elshan, who was born in Iran, has had to endure so many things, and is often looked at as an outsider everywhere he goes. Yet he’s one of the most hopeful and pleasant and polite people it’s ever been my pleasure to know. I wish the two of them happiness for the rest of their lives and beyond.
Hikaru is another hero. I was a huge fan of his play long before I ever met him, but having seen him do things like match the funds for Sevan’s tournament and his recent trip to Africa where he spent time with a bunch of kids there and is now sponsoring training for a couple of them has made me glad to know him. It’s always inspiring to see people who understand how blessed they are who make sure to give back.
Yasser, of course, deserves a special place in everyone’s heart. To paraphrase Maureen O’Hara when she went before Congress to persuade them to honor her friend John Wayne – ‘I beg you to strike a medal for Yaz, to order the President to strike it. And I feel that the medal should say just one thing: Yasser Seirawan, Erudite.’
Getting to know Yasser a little over the past couple of years has been great. The fact that he’s also a Dallas Cowboys fan is just icing on the cake!
From the standpoint of chess inspiration, of course Fischer. You have to separate the man from the player, but his games and work ethic stand on their own.
My all-time favorite player is Kasparov. For one thing, I love his saying ‘Hard work is a talent.’ Also, his approach to the game was, and is, unparalleled. I don’t think that anyone has ever worked harder at being the absolute best than he did.
One player who I’d like to give a shout out to is the Russian teenager Vladislav Artemiev. I’ve been following his career for a couple of years now, and I’m really struck by his competitiveness. He grew up, and as far as I know still lives in, Omsk, a town in Siberia. OK, granted you’re not as limited these days by your location since coaching can be done through Skype, etc. But as far as I know he works only with a local coach.
Last year he crossed the 2700 mark, though he is just below that now. He’s also been one of the top blitz players in the world for some time.

Wainscott at SPICE 2017 - photo credit Paul Truong

Chris at SPICE 2017 – photo credit Paul Truong

What article have you written that means the most to you and why?
My obituary for Sevan, published on uschess.org. This was written just a few days after Sevan’s death. The emotions from everyone were still raw and unprocessed. It was easily the most difficult and most rewarding thing I’ve ever written.
The most prestigious thing I’ve written would be the July 2015 cover story for Chess Life ‘A New Golden Age for American Chess.’
That piece on Sevan is such a touching and wonderful piece of writing. So what do you think makes an interesting article? 
I think it’s important to be inspired. As a writer it’s too easy to force yourself to write about something that doesn’t necessarily inspire you. Maybe it’s something you’re doing for the money or for the prestige or whatever, but if you don’t truly believe in what you’re writing then it will reflect in the finished product.
I agree, inspiration and belief in your content are huge priorities. So, what advice do you have for other chess writers?
Don’t be afraid to kill an idea. If you’re writing a non-time sensitive article on a topic that interests you but it’s not going well, it’s OK to take it out back and shoot it. Or at the very least set it aside and come back to it later.
As an example, I am writing an article about the Log Cabin Chess Club, which was one of Fischer’s early outlets for improvement. The leader of that club, E. Forry Laucks, was both a tireless chess promoter and a reprehensible Nazi sympathizer. This is truly a fascinating topic.
I pitched the idea to a publisher and they gave me the green light. However, the research is hard going. There’s just not much information out there than can easily be corroborated. The information that can be verified tends to be repetitive. So to get 3,500 words has been a real challenge.
The original deadline for this piece was around three or four months ago, but I knew that the publisher didn’t have a set place where they intended to run it. So rather than force it and use unverified information, or worse yet filler, I’ve just set it aside. I still look for information sources and have gathered some, and I feel that when I go back to finish this that the final product will reflect the time and love that it took to properly craft it.
I’m presently 30 years old and my personal goal is also to become a titled player. What advice would you give to aspiring adult players who want to improve?
Don’t listen to the haters, of which there will be many. I was told in 2011 when I was rated just below 1500 that if I was lucky and worked really hard then perhaps someday I could gain 100-150 points. Peak to trough the gain has been over 400.
I couldn’t agree more, there are many people telling me the same thing. So do you have a routine or schedule for training? Any specific tools or apps you use that you would recommend?
I try as best I can to do some work every day. I analyze my games, and usually put the results on my blog. I’m a big believer in tactics books, and in ‘solving’ in general. I think that active training such as analyzing my games and solving puzzles has led to my growth as a player.
When I train passively, say by watching a video or GM commentary, I think there is still some value, but nothing like that achieved by active training.
Now, about how much time a day would you say you spend playing or working on your game and what do you work on?
It varies a lot. On a good day I get at least an hour. Some days more, often less.
I play a rated game each week at the Southwest Chess Club on Thursday. I intend to play at least one weekend tournament a month this year since I know that I need to play a bit more than I do now in order to improve to where I want to be. The goal for this year is 1900.
Luckily for me, my wife said at the beginning of the year that she hopes I’m not gone over the weekend ‘more than once a month’ so I’ve decided to take that literally and work on playing in one event each month.
I don’t really work on openings much, but I am trying to get better about that. When I say ‘much’ I really mean ‘at all.’ I spend maybe 1-2% of my time on openings. I’d like to increase that to at least an hour or two per week.
I do play over a lot of GM games, so I’m trying to be more engaged in that process as I know that I have a real weakness with planning and structures.
I do spend a lot of time on tactics and endgames. I’d say I’m probably 30-35% on each of those areas.
That’s reassuring, I spend most time analyzing and working on tactics. What do you feel is the biggest key to growth as a player?
Total immersion. There is no substitute for improvement at anything that beats it. Chess is a fascinating game and really diving deep into positions will pay off.
Are there any roadblocks or plateaus you’ve experienced on your journey?
If you look at my ratings graph, you’ll see that I have had wild swings of 150 points in either direction quite often.
I have plateaued a number of times, although it no longer concerns me since I see it as just part of the process.
Interestingly, the biggest roadblock is one of my own choosing, and that is the fact that I decided to become a writer. If I could take the hundreds of hours I’ve spent researching and writing and give those hours to improvement as a player I have no doubt that I would be much stronger than I am now.
I have no regrets about that though. Let’s say I had already hit my goal of becoming a master but I had never written a thing. Who would know? Who would care? I’d be a weak master, and while personally that would be quite fulfilling, it would have cost me a lot in the way of friendships and experiences.
I had met so many people and made so many friends in the chess world, and almost none of that stems from me as a player.
I understand the feeling. I love chess and writing but often have a hard time balancing them. So when you do have down time, what are your interests outside of chess?
Dallas Cowboys football. Although it’s getting so much harder to watch football these days knowing the kind of harm these guys are doing to themselves. I met John Urschel at the Chess House last year and told him how glad I was he had the sense to retire.
I also enjoy music. I may be 1800 at chess, but I’m like 2600 at being a music fan. I listen to everything from the Grateful Dead to Slayer. Some favorites include John Lennon, Black Sabbath, Willie Nelson, Miles Davis, and Sade. I also play some guitar and mandolin.
Nice! I’m also a guitar player…I’d say NM strength. So what projects are you currently working on?
I mentioned the Log Cabin article from earlier. I also have an interview with GM Awonder Liang which should be on uschess.org by the time this interview runs. I’m also working on a piece about the recently concluded Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Championships. It will appear in the next issue of American Chess Magazine and I’m going to take what I hope is a novel approach and cover a story that is rarely if ever covered. So stay tuned for that!
I will! So Chris, If readers would like to get in touch with you, what are the best ways to contact you?
Email is good. chris.wainscott13@outlook.com Or you can follow me on Twitter @cwainscottmke
Thank you, Chris, for your time, openness, insight, and a fantastic interview. Next month I will interview a good friend of mine who is a “mad man” of television, stage, and movies. He also happens to be a great chess player who’s helped me out a lot and has some great stories. See you next month on Over the Board.

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Order in The Court: Keeping Your Pieces Happy

Paul Morphy, arguably the most accurate player in history and a hero of mine, famously said “help your pieces so they can help you.” This idea has been mirrored or paraphrased in most chess books and is one my coach often reminds me of. These eight words frequently run through my head when I’m deciding which move to make next and I often ask myself if I’m helping or hindering my pieces when I analyze a game. This may seem to be an obvious concept, but executing this theme is not always easy and to the uninitiated it can be a major barrier. The challenge is that your opponent is trying to do the same thing and there are only so many squares. So how do you balance attacking, defending, and keeping your pieces happy? Let’s look at each member of the royal court and discuss:

Pawn – the foot soldier of our kingdom. Often overlooked or seen as a piece for trade and protection, you must bear in mind that it can capture en passant, promote to a stronger piece, and create a great barrier on your opponents diagonals. That being said, the pawn is also very susceptible to attack in the following examples:

pawns

An isolated or backwards piece is always a liability. Hanging or isolated pawns are usually easy targets and the cost of protecting them isn’t always worth the price spent in terms of tempo or opportunities brushed aside for an easy piece. An isolated pawn can sometimes be a trap to draw your opponents attention from another area of the board. Double pawns are often a liability and are often calculated as one piece. Both pieces are up for grabs if not properly supported and block diagonals and spaces that can be desirable for your other pieces. An essential element to consider with your pawns is the act of creating a chain. Think of this as a series of pieces that “have each others back” and support their fellow pawns and other members of the party. Let’s look at the example below and see this in action:

iagonals

Now in this example which side would you rather be playing on? See how white has  channels and escape squares for it’s Bishop meanwhile black has bottled theirs in? When constructing your pawn chain keep piece activity in mind and look to improve their mobility, not hinder it. This brings us to the Bishop…

Bishop – unlike other pieces, a Bishop can only be on one colored square its whole life. When constructing your pawn chain or developing an attack keep this in mind. If you lost a Bishop of one color, it is often a good practice to open paths for the remaining one.  The Bishop can be a powerful tool on its own, but if used in tandem with another piece, particularly on a diagonal as backup to the Queen, the Bishop is a major force to be reckoned with. Fianchettoing not only give the Bishop a perfect diagonal, it puts pressure on the Rook and depending on which side your opponent chooses to castle on, can threaten mate with another piece as we can see in the below example. Note the beautiful diagonal the Bishop has across the board and, with the Queen ready to strike, ensures a victory.

diang

Knight – I have never shied away from admitting this is my favorite piece. The Knights unique movement and capabilities make it a dangerous piece. A Knight can fork and elude pieces like no other and is an absolute ninja when the opponent has to guess which square you’re eyeing up. Keeping in mind that it has to alternate colored squares every move, planning ahead is key in using this piece to its fully potential. Look at the example below and identify the “good” Knights:

k1

Notice how Black has given its Knights nowhere to go while white has ample opportunities? Another point to keep in mind is available squares for these Knights, particularly how blacks Knight on b4 has nowhere to move. Remember, much planning and forethought is necessary to get the most out of your Knights and without a plan they will likely impede your development or become easy targets.

Rook – the battering ram of the King’s army, the Rook is most lethal when it can achieve an open file and go behind enemy lines, especially on the 7th rank. A doubled Rook is also an incredibly dangerous weapon. The Rook requires some forethought and clearing out space to do things such as a Rook lift or to load “Alekhine’s Gun” but, in my opinion, it is an easier piece to master than some others. Most endgame books and lessons I’ve seen start with mastering Rook endgames as this mighty piece often survives until the end due to it’s starting location and lateral mobility. Alekhine’s Gun, named after a 1930 game between masters Alexander Alekhine and Aaron Nimzowitsch showcases the raw power of the Rook and is a game I highly recommend everyone studies. Below is the final position where you can see the gun, an unstoppable battering ram!

alekhine

Queen – it is in any Kings good interest to keep his Queen happy. Indeed the safety and mobility of the Queen give the army much power and her loss often cripples the assault and morale. To keep the Queen happy, consider what makes the Bishop and Rook happy as she has the same needs as they do; open files, diagonals, and escape squares. I will refer to the example above used under the Bishop section to drive home the sheer power of this piece. It can be an easy trap to fall into to build your attack around the Queen, so always consider your other pieces before banking on the Queen to do all the work.

King – the irony that the King, the target that must be eliminated to gain victory, is the least powerful piece. Defense is the name of the game here, period. King safety is one of the cardinal virtues of the game in all phases and can never be forgotten. Balancing King safety and mounting an attack is a difficult task, but it is an essential skill to master. Castling early, maintaining a strong pawn structure around the King, and ensuring minor or major pieces can come to the rescue are things to keep in mind as you move through the game. Many masters and I too believe that three pawns on the second rank defending the King is the strongest formation. While I often play the Kings Indian Defense against a d5 opening, I stay towards a traditional three pawn defense otherwise.

So let’s go over some key points to keep each piece happy:

Pawn – pawn structure sets barriers and traps for your opponent. Passed pawns are powerful and underdeveloped or backwards pawns are a major liability. In short, let pawns assist your forces deeper and, if the opportunity arises, promote and fulfill their destiny.

Bishop – do not block your Bishops diagonals! I repeat, DO NOT BLOCK YOUR BISHOPS DIAGONALS! Give the Bishop a powerful diagonal that covers ground and supports a major attack and you have a strong opportunity ahead!

Knight – remember the Knight must alternate colors with each move. The Knight requires a great deal of forethought and planning to utilize wisely and can be trapped or lost if moved without a plan. Give the Knight open squares of the opposite color and keep it towards the center of the board and you have a powerful weapon.

Rook – the Rook is powerful in controlling an open rank or file. Doubling Rooks or mobilizing them to the 7th rank will give you a major advantage and opportunity to mow down the enemy. And again, study Alekhine v. Nimzowitsch 1930 and the use of “Alekhine’s Gun.”

Queen – give her what she wants and get out of her way,  but don’t rely on her to win the day by herself. Protect her, don’t use her too early in the game, and keep in mind the rules for the Rook and Bishop when planning her attack.

King – it seems silly to say, but just don’t let him die! Don’t give your opponent opportunities to attack and with every move, assure your King is not under threat of a mate, whether it be direct or discovered. Also keep in mind that having a piece pinned to the King is a dangerous idea.

Now that we know some essential principles to keep the King and his court happy, keep them in mind in your next encounters. Remember to keep your King safe and give your pieces opportunities for activity and advancement.

Free Game Analysis: Putting it All Together

In one of my earlier articles, “Analyze This”, I discussed a basic, multi-dimensional approach to analyzing a game. This method discussed physically replaying the game on a board as well as leveraging an engine to confirm decisions or show alternatives then comparing the two. In my last article of 2017 I will go through a brief but illustrative example of putting this method into action.

This game was recently submitted for analysis at Chess^Summit, a game between myself and someone I have been playing with for some time. The game took place back in September and is brief at only twelve moves, but in those moves I can showcase the tools made available in the framework I have discussed for self-analysis. First, let’s take a look at the scorecard and run through the game.

card1

I first played through the game on a board and made some notes as I progressed. I played from each side of the board and considered alternate moves, what my idea was, what my opponent’s idea was or may have been, and where the advantage rested. Being as the game is a few months old, my ideas and playing style have changed a bit. That being said, going over older games is a great way to gauge progress as well as observe bad habits or positive trends. Now that we’ve put the board away, let’s load the pgn into an engine and compare our observations to the database.

chessbase0

I have been doing much of my analysis in the free version of ChessBase Reader 2017. This free but powerful software is a basic version of the industry standard and has a very user-friendly interface. I’ve highlighted the Kibitzer option at the top of the screen. This feature will show where an advantage lies and which moves are traitionally best. I have also highlighted the opening bar. If you are unsure what opening you or your opponent are playing or choosing a variation from, look no further than this bar. Now, let’s explore this game…

chessbase1 After the move e4, we can observe the Kibitzer in action at the bottom of the screen. As you can see there is little in the way of an advantage after this first move, (0.01) denoting a miniscule advantage to white if black were to play e5. You can also see a very common continuing line.

chessbase2Alright, now we are five moves into the game and we can see the Kibitzer thinking. We can see from this position that white is making a supported threat to the King with a minor piece. We can also see the control the pair of Knights has on the center of the board and that white has a fair lead in development. In the opening I compare development, King safety, central control or possession, and pawn structure. White is one step away from castling whereas if black  wants to castle short they must deflect the attack by white, use two tempi to move pieces and a tempo to castle. While both sides are missing a strong central pawn, black has had their piece routed to the side by capturing and white has many avenues to protect the King while exerting further pressure on black.

chessbase3

Following the scorecard, we can see that move 10 is where the noose starts to really tighten for black. White identifies the weak f7 square and looks for a way to exploit it. Offering the Bishop, white could either try to compensate and recapture or go further into the enemy camp and end the game. Black’s Bishop attempts to threaten the Queen on move 11 with …Bf6, but with that move it is too late, Qxf7#.

While it worked for white in this example, looking back and knowing what I have learned from my coach, studying, and much reading, I have to embarrassingly admit I violated some fairly basic principles in pursuit of a relentless attack, something that admittedly was very much my style in the past. Instead of Nc6, if black played Bd7 it would have been a very different game. Another opportunity black missed was move 11; Qe7 would have undermined white’s attack on f7. While many observations and notes could be and some have been made for every move in this game, for the sake of this article I will sum up my analysis with three key observations for both sides:

My top 3 takeaways for white in this game, good and bad, are:

  1. Sometimes you might get lucky, but loose or poorly supported attacks in the opening can be easily countered and put you at a significant disadvantage or cost you the game.
  2. White developed their minor pieces quickly and attacked with all the pieces.
  3. White kept consistent pressure on their opponent and didn’t leave much breathing room, but some of these moves could have crippled white’s further attack if black had countered or responded in a different way.

My top 3 takeaways for black this game are:

  1. Look at the whole board when considering your next move. Try to think WHY your opponent made that move or attack and consider what if any other pieces may be teaming up to take down the King.
  2. Identify weak squares and maintain awareness of them; again, multiple attackers were focused on that pesky f7 square and had significant firepower directed at it. A position such as this should send up some red flags
  3. When the Queen and a minor piece are in your camp and eyeing up your King, you may need to exchange or counter to survive. Options to artificially castle are present even if you need to exchange Queens and capture with the King.

I hope this brief example of leveraging technology in tandem with using your brain and growing situational awareness has helped. I’m happy I can utilize this game between a chess.com friend and myself as an introductory example of self-analysis. I feel this is a nice follow-up to my prior article on analysis and should give you all the tools you need to being your journey. As you progress and analyze your games you will begin to see trends and have data to back it up. The immense power of modern chess engines is incredible and much of it is absolutely free; I’ve attached a link to ChessBase Reader below if you’re interested.

Have a wonderful and safe holiday! I promise we at Chess^Summit will be growing and are excited for what 2018 will have to offer you. I can’t wait to share the future, our future and the future of this game we love with you!

xmas

See you in 2018,

-Dan

https://en.chessbase.com/pages/download

 

Making a Plan – Setting and Achieving Goals

I recently posted an article on chess.com publicly setting my goals for 2018. A question I get asked quite often is how I developed my training plan, or why I chose certain numbers as goals. I received several messages after the article asking me to explain just this, so I will share it now on Chess^Summit.  As an amateur, setting goals can be a bit daunting. You want to make goals you can achieve, but at the same time you want to see big improvements and jumps in growth. Balancing this can be challenging, but borrowing a template from organizational psychology, I have made the process simple. I’d like to share the SMART way to progress in chess:

S – Specific – you need to set specific, quantifiable goals in order to progress. If it is clearly written out and can be judged by a simple yes or no, you have made a specific goal.

– Measurable – chess is very much a numbers game. A player’s rating will be measurable.

– Achievable – while we want to set lofty goals for ourselves, we also need to be realistic. Family and work obligations as well as other outside factors will effect the amount of time we have to train, study, and play. You want to set a goal that is a challenge, but one you can feasibly make in the timeframe specified.

– Realistic – I will not be an IM next year, no chance. It would also be unrealistic for me to put my goals higher as I am only able to make one OTB tournament a month tops. You need to be honest with yourself.

– Time Specific – if you do not set a time frame or time limit on something you will tend to procrastinate or maybe never go after the goal, that’s human nature. If you set goals with hard deadlines, you cannot procrastinate or “wait until tomorrow.”

Bearing the above in mind, let’s look at my personal goals for 2018 as seen on chess.com

challenge

I have made my personal goals very specific. Remember, if you can assign a value to it, it has specificity. These goals are measurable based on how many people I teach/gift and what my rating is on the above dates in these categories. These goals are also achievable, difficult and involving some serious time management, but I do believe them to be achievable for me. I have chosen realistic goals, goals I am confident I can make based on progress, coaching, and advice from other players. By providing deadlines, I have made this a time sensitive endeavor, and in tandem with how public I have made them, I am even more motivated.

As far as WHAT you will be training on, that is something I can only briefly touch on as it is very dependent on how you are as a learner and player. Some people are kinesthetic learners and learn from doing while others may be visual learners, it can be difficult to be an auditory learner and study chess via that path…difficult but not impossible. I recommend working with a coach, but if one is not available you can reach out to someone in the chess world and I promise they will help…it is such a great community with tons of knowledge to share.

As for me, on a day that I work I commit 3-4 hours divided among playing games online, solving tactics, and reading. I work with my coach twice a week with one ours sessions. My coach also sends me puzzles to solve and articles to read between sessions. If I have a day off and no other commitments, the sky is the limit. For perspective, on a day I work I tend to play 6 to 8 games on chess.com and on days I’m off it’s closer to 10 or 12. Working on simple tactics like the one below until I recognize the patterns and can blast through them in a short time is an important component as well and pattern recognition is a cornerstone of my study.

FullSizeRender[108].jpg

For now, I believe this to be the best course of action for me, but everyone is different and as we develop we need to develop our methods of learning as well. If you aren’t learning or growing, you need to assess your methods for growth and adapt. I hope this article has helped to set your SMART goals and carry them out!!! Please share your goals with me either here or on Twitter .

A Good First Impression – Opening Strong

The amount of articles, books, apps, and video content devoted to the topic of openings is absolutely staggering and a bit intimidating. Indeed the opening sets the mood for a game and can determine long term success or failure. There is great pressure to make a strong opening as seen in any game from a casual pick up to the world championship. The good news is that a strong opening rooted in some basic fundamentals can help you determine the  path of your game.

As stated before there are tons and tons of sources on openings, but all share some of the same root principles. For demonstration sake, we will examine the Ruy Lopez or “Spanish Game”. This opening is named after a 16th century Spanish Priest and is still used at all levels of play today for very good reason, it works and follows some basic principles. So to begin, the first principle of a strong opening is also one that remains throughout the game – control the center.

a

If you can control the center of the board, in most cases you can control tempo and make your opponent play YOUR game. d4, e4, d5, and e5 aren’t just the heart of the board but the heart of many tactical and strategic elements. Controlling or possessing these squares can help ensure a favorable pawn structure and help to defend pieces on adjoining squares. So to control the center let’s play e4, arguably the best move on the board.

b

1.e4 does many things as you can see from the example above. First, it occupies a strong square in the center. It also allows for easy development of the Kingside minor pieces and opens a nice diagonal for the Queen to develop, part of the second major principle we will touch on – develop your pieces quickly. This brings more weapons into the fray and helps control the games tempo as discussed in my previous article “Tempo, Tempo, Tempo”. So let’s move to phase two…

c

2. Nf3 quickly brings the Knight into action and is the perfect compliment to a Kings Pawn opening. This move puts pressure on the e5 pawn and clears out space for you to castle very soon, another principle of a strong opening and one that remains throughout all games – protect your King. a Knight at f3 is a great defender of it’s King, can combat enemies in the center and the right side of the board, and can also really open up the Kingside and facilitate some great counter play as the game unfolds.

d

The next move in the Ruy Lopez line is Bb5. This prepares white to castle Kingside, threatens the Knight at c6, develops a minor piece, and controls the tempo all in one move. Once in this position white can determine many factors, set up some long term strategies, and leave many threats for your opponent to consider. From here there are tons of different lines and options for an interesting game.

To recap, let’s go over the key principles of a strong opening:

  1. Control the center – many say that whoever has the center has the game. As discussed earlier, controlling or owning these key squares in the center gives you a major advantage as the game unfolds. This ties in with the second point…
  2. Develop quickly – the more weapons you bring to the fight the better. If your pieces are bottled up or not developed with purpose you will find yourself at a big disadvantage at all phases of the game. When developing, do so with the intention to control the center. Remember – the sooner you have developed your pieces, the sooner you can castle.
  3. Get the King to safety – the ultimate purpose of the game is checkmate, period. The sooner you ensure your King is protected the sooner you can begin your assault on the enemy. Many games are different, so deciding how soon to do this will be dependent on many factors. As you develop as a player you will learn when better to delay this act in favor of attacking or developing other minor pieces.
  4. Move each piece once – as discussed in one my previous articles, “Tempo, Tempo, Tempo”, unless you can gain a major advantage such as a fork, do not move a piece more than once in the opening. Doing so will cripple your development and give tempi to your opponent. This allows your opponent to unleash their weapons earlier and put gross amounts of pressure on you.

The litany of opening theory is absolutely immense, but these guiding principles are the heart of a strong opening. Keep these in mind as your game starts and you are sure to have better battles with more victories. While there are many books and videos out there, in my opinion too many, the best content I have found is free on chess.com. From the landing page, the entire world of openings is readily accessible. https://www.chess.com/openings

e

I hope this article has helped to streamline one of the most daunting elements of the game and boosted your confidence. What my coach has always told me rings true, “follow the basic principles and put your pieces on their best square, they will know what to do.” While this is the briefest of introductions on the topic, this established a foundation that will make grasping opening theory and building a repertoire much easier. Remember to walk before you run, another piece of wisdom from my coach is to “know the rules before you break them.”