Revenge (Kind of)

I spent the back end of my winter break last week playing in the Eastern Open alongside Isaac!  If I was to describe the tournament in a single phrase, I would definitely say it was a roller coaster.  I began the tournament by playing GM Alexsander Lenderman on the top board.  We were locked in an equal battle for the majority of the game, but one slip-up at the end near time control proved fatal for me.  Had I just avoided that one mistake, the game would have probably ended in a draw; one mistake is all it takes sometimes!  Either way, I was not too fazed, as I was rather pleased with the way I had played.  I followed up that game with a win as White before drawing twice against consecutive lower rated players.  In my fifth round, I found myself playing against the lowest seed in the section, who had been playing extremely well based on his pre-tournament seeding.  I managed to win a pawn but had to play into a passive position in order to keep it; in hindsight, I probably should have avoided passivity altogether.  In the end, I blundered two pieces for a rook and wound up losing.  Those few games in the middle definitely marked the low point in the tournament.  Fortunately, I was able to regain something with a win over a mid-2000 rated player as White in round 6.  The tournament culminated in being paired with FM Ralph Zimmer, an opponent of mine similar to what FM Gabe Petesch has been for Isaac.

Despite being “only” 2300, he has been one of those opponents that I have never been able to figure out.  Perhaps it is his rather obscure opening choices in the Trompowsky and the Scandinavian, or maybe the fact that he plays relatively quickly yet always seems to find good moves.  Before this encounter, I had already lost to him five (!) times over the board.  And, to cap it off, I had lost to him twice in the blitz tournament that was held prior to the main event.  So, it was safe to say that I was not overly enthusiastic about having to play him once more, especially in a tournament where I was already performing quite poorly.  That said, I spent the next twenty minutes I had by preparing something to play.  Since I was playing something different as black since the last time I played him, I had to “restart” my preparation, and I wasn’t exactly fond of going back and repeating lines that I had played before.

Towards the end of that 20-minute period, I found a rather interesting and exotic-looking line that I felt fairly comfortable playing, but it wasn’t the computer’s top choice.  I still decided to go for it if it came up, and I was able to look at a few variations before having to leave for the game.  Let’s see how the game went.

Zimmer – Kobla, Eastern Open, 2017

In some ways, this game was a heartbreaker, sure.  However, I’m still content that I was able to play well against my opponent for essentially the first time.  This happened for a couple reasons:

  1. Active play – I still believe that playing actively is the best way to play against higher rated players. Playing passively and “for a draw” will only result in being ground down in the long run.  In this game, I chose moves such as g4 over gxh4 and Nxf6 instead of Bxf6 in order to keep the initiative and my pieces active.
  2. Focused opening prep – I tried to find a line that was obscure but still fit with my style of play. A common mistake that players make in opening prep is to pay too much attention to the engine.  It’s fine to have an engine to make sure you’re not making blunders, but other than that, it doesn’t tell you much.  It’s more important to choose moves based on what positions you feel comfortable playing with.

So, in the end, I should have won this game.  However, I’m not overly disappointed with a draw, either.  It’s still a step in the right direction.  Hopefully, by showing this game, I was able to offer something instructive.  And, with that, thanks for reading, and, as always, see you next time!  Happy New Year to everyone once again!

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The Exchange Sacrifice vs. Pawn Structure

This week, I’d like to visit what, in my opinion, is one of the most double-edged topics in chess – the exchange sacrifice.  When stripped to its core, the concept of the exchange sacrifice is one of the most intriguing and fascinating out there.  It’s still a sacrifice – in that when taking into account a hard count of material value, the propagator comes out in the negative.  Yet, the balance regarding the number of pieces on each side stays intact.  While the latter may seem like a rather primitive method of comparison, it can make a huge difference, especially when attacking.  They also create a dynamic imbalance in many positions, especially when considering square control, since one player has (or lacks) influence over certain sets of squares.

However, this week, I wanted to look at a different purpose for exchange sacrifices.  Specifically, I wanted to look at the use of exchange sacrifices in order to inflict pawn structure damage.  The reason for this is that I recently played a game where I was able to do just that, and while I wasn’t able to win the game, it could still serve as an instructional source.

First, let’s start with a few examples from more prominent players.

Szabo – Petrosian, Stockholm Interzonal, 1952

SzaboPetrosian

In this position, White really only needs one more move in order to claim the initiative.  If it was his turn, White could play moves such as Nc4, Be3, and even Qd3.  Thus, Black knows that this is a critical point in the development of the game.  Petrosian, sensing that the time to act was now, plunged forward with the exchange sacrifice

  1. … Rxc3

The main point of this is to destroy the king’s pawn cover.  However, it also accomplishes a few other things.  It loosens White’s grip on the d5 square, which allows Black to play d5 on his own and open up his dark square bishop against the newly-weakened queenside pawns.  You can see how Petrosian played against the pawns to eventually reel in the full point here.

Kramnik – Fridman, Dortmund, 2013

KramnikFridman

In this position, White lacks a clear target to attack in Black’s camp.  While White has started to push pawns on the kingside, Black’s pawn structure doesn’t offer any clear weaknesses.  Thus, Kramnik, with the intent of creating said weaknesses, decides to sacrifice an exchange with

  1. f6! Bxf6 21. Rxf6!

which shatters Black’s pawn structure.  With the clear weakness now on f6, Kramnik went to work on focusing essentially all of his pieces on that pawn and eventually broke through to get to the king, as you can see here.

For the last example, we’ll go back to that game I mentioned earlier.

Kobla – Stevens, K-12 Grade Nationals, 2017

KoblaStevens

In this position, Black’s centralized knight on d5 is the only thing worth writing home about.  Aside from it, the rooks are disconnected, and many of the pawns are immobile.  That said, Black has a fairly straightforward threat with Re8, since fork ideas with Nc3 are looming over White’s head.  In order to avoid all complications regarding that knight, I decided that sacrificing the exchange with

  1. Rxd5 cxd5 30. Nd6

would be best.  In addition, Black’s queenside pawn structure is severely weakened, as the pawns on b5 and d5 are both hanging and unprotected; the knight outpost on d6 combined with the queen’s positioning gives White full control over the e-file, at least for now.  The direct threat of Nxb5 followed by a secondary threat of Qh2+ gives White more than enough tactical compensation for the exchange.  While the game itself ended in a draw, this is still an example where sacrificing the exchange was the best way forward.

In these three games, we saw a player sacrificing an exchange for somewhat different reasons.  In the first game, we saw Petrosian sacrifice an exchange for a positional plus – White’s crippled pawn structure and control over the dark squares.  In the second game, we saw Kramnik sacrifice an exchange to give direction and coordination to his pieces such that they could converge on the damaged pawns and later the king.  In the third game, I sacrificed an exchange to get rid of my opponent’s strong point and give my knight dominance over some central squares and weak pawns.  Despite their differences, however, they all had one thing in common – making the opponent recapture with a pawn, thereby weakening their pawn structure and grip on the position.

To wrap things up, this will be my last post for 2017, so I’ll take this opportunity to wish all of you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!!  And, for the sake of resolutions, I challenge all of you to sacrifice an exchange and win if the opportunity presents itself at some point over the next year.  As always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time!

A New Alpha?

Approximately twenty years ago, the chess world witnessed something groundbreaking.  Deep Blue, the IBM-build chess engine, won a match using standard tournament time controls against a World Champion for the first time.  That World Champion, of course, was Garry Kasparov.  It was the first time that the chess world witnessed machine over man.  Some believed that was going to be the extent of the experiment, but the next couple of decades implied otherwise.  Ever since that first defeat, computers, by and large, have been increasing in strength, and consequently, the gap in strength between engines and humans has widened more and more.

The developers of the top engines in the world are always making incremental improvements to the program, resulting in single-digit increases to the engines’ ratings.  This is evident on a yearly basis at the TCEC – the Top Chess Engine Championships – where engine ratings are almost always higher than in the previous year.  In 2016, the engine Stockfish came out of the tournament victorious.  It looked like the strongest engine on the planet.

However, I guess it is now safe to say that it is no longer the case.  Meet AlphaZero, a newly developed algorithm created by Google in partnership with DeepMind.  The algorithm is an offshoot of AlphaGoZero, a slightly more specific algorithm meant for the purpose of playing Go.  The remarkable point is that the only information fed to the algorithm were the rules of the game.  From there, AlphaZero used self-play to learn the chess knowledge that humans have spent centuries and even millennia discovering.  For those interested in the mechanisms behind it, essentially the algorithm played against itself, and when arriving at a position at the “end” of a game, it evaluated it as either won, lost, or draw; it then used these evaluations to reinforce its neural networks so that it could decide whether entering into that specific position would be favorable or unfavorable.  In this way, within just four hours, AlphaZero quickly strengthened into a super-engine capable of [more than] competing with the current engines of the day.

In a 100-game match between AlphaZero and Stockfish, AlphaZero crushed rather handily, ending with 28 wins to none and 72 draws.  The researchers involved published a few of those games online, and I have two of them to share with you because of their complexity and ability to fascinate us humans.

AlphaZero – Stockfish

This game caught my attention because of AlphaZero’s depth of calculation and piece maneuvering/handling.  After 18. … g5, rather than saving the piece, AlphaZero calmly develops his rook; only a few moves later, the queen travels from a4 to h4 down to the h1 corner before reappearing in the center with deadly effect.

AlphaZero – Stockfish

This game also fascinated me, but it was particularly the end of the game.  After noticing the Black queen stuck in the corner after 45. … Qh8, AlphaZero proceeds to sacrifice an exchange so that it can plant the other rook on f6 to trap the queen in the corner.  This plan immobilized the kingside and allowed White to sit while Black exhausted all move possibilities until it would have to give up material.

In general, both of these games showed how AlphaZero was able to smoothly outplay Stockfish.  In a way, all of this is somewhat jaw-dropping, since the appearance of AlphaZero to the eventual match between it and Stockfish and its victory all happened so quickly.  However, if one thing is for sure, it is that AI, neural-network-based engines seem to hold promise (or doom, depending on your opinion of chess engines) for the future.

As always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time!

World Juniors Recap

This morning marked the end of the World Junior Championships, which were 11-round Swiss tournaments held in Tarvisio, Italy over a span of almost two weeks from November 13-25.  However, as the saying goes, it wasn’t over until it was over.  This was, in fact, the case for both the Open and Girls’ sections.  For those who were awake to watch the round, it proved to be a suspenseful couple of hours.

In the Girls’ section, the tournament wasn’t decided until the last round game between U.S. native Jennifer Yu and Kazakhstani native Zhansaya Abdumalik.  Down half a point (8 vs. 8.5), Jennifer Yu needed a win in order to leapfrog her opponent and win first place outright.  However, in what started as a symmetrical English, middlegame pawn structure and king safety were what made the difference in this one, allowing Abdumalik to win with the Black pieces and the tournament outright by a full point at 9.5/11.  Despite her last round loss, Jennifer Yu still finished with a Bronze (3rd place) with 8/11 since she was alone at second place going into the round.  This game, however, was not the one that caught my attention from the top boards in the last few rounds; it was the 10th round game between Davaademberel Nomin-Erdene and Jennifer Yu that piqued my interest.

Nomin-Erdene – Yu, World Girls’ Junior Championship (10), 2017

To elaborate, this game caught my attention due to its dynamic nature of piece play and the role of square color control and weakness.  We saw how White obtained a grip on the dark squares on the kingside early in the middlegame, but the “outstanding” bishop on h8 held the kingside long enough for Black to be able to generate counterplay on the light squares on the queenside/center.  This ended up being one of those cases where the counterattack proved to be stronger than the original attack; Black’s queenside pawns led the way as the major pieces found entryways en route to the king, which decided the game in the end.

In the Open section, more than one game was involved in the last round in terms of possible tournament winners.  Among those possible winners was the 12-year-old world sensation Praggnanandhaa.  All in all, seven (!) people were capable of winning the tournament going into the last round, with all but one of them at 7.5/10 (the only exception was top-seed Aryan Tari at 8/10).  As described in the tournament description for the World Juniors, the winner of the section would automatically receive the GM title.  This presented an added excitement factor for pretty much everyone in the chess world sans Sergey Karjakin.  If Praggnanandhaa was able to win the tournament, he would crush Karjakin’s record for youngest ever to achieve the GM title by 3+ months.  Unfortunately, to the dismay of much of the aforementioned people of the chess world, Praggnanandhaa only drew the last round, finishing at 4th place at 8/11 behind the three co-champions at 8.5/11.  While his last game didn’t present him much of a chance as Black, a game that Praggnanandhaa would most probably want back was the 10th round game against Lomasov.  With time trouble present, the two players reached this position during the sudden death portion of the time control:

 

PRLomasov
Praggnanandhaa – Lomasov, Position after 56. … Qg7

 

The winning move in this position is the relatively hard-to-find 57. Qa8, which protects the rook and threatens to penetrate with Ra7.  Most likely due to time pressure, Praggnanandhaa missed this idea and instead went for the perpetual with Qe6+/Qg8+.  If he had won that game, he would have had the chance to play Tari on even ground for the chance to win the tournament in round 11.  That didn’t happen, though, and Tari drew rather easily to maintain his position atop the rest of the competition.

With that, another World Junior Championships has concluded, and it did not fail to display the off-the-charts talent of some youth in the chess world.  Next time around, I will probably be discussing something related to the London Chess Classic, as that tournament is starting in about a week!  And, as always, thanks for reading!

2017’s Game of the Year?

This past week, the chess world witnessed what many believe to be a once-in-a…well…year event.  In this past match of the Chinese League, a huge 12-team event that takes place over the course of about nine months, Ding Liren was paired as black against Jinshi Bai (2585).  When this game started, no one could ever expect what was in store; yet, when it ended, many were debating whether it could take the title of Game of the Year for 2017.  Without further ado, let’s take a look.  Note:  My comments are located within the game viewer.

Jinshi Bai – Ding Liren, Chinese League, 2017

Simple a stunning performance by Ding Liren, and the king hunt at the end was nothing short of flawless.  This was made possible from the start with Black’s early d5 lunge, which set the tone for the rest of the game in terms of counterplay.  Of course, that pawn ended up making its way all the way to b2 before being taken.  The critical point was when Black sacrificed his queen in order to keep play on the open d-file and queenside.  If White had blocked with 17. Rd2, the game may have ended differently, but the text move essentially guaranteed a middlegame king hunt, something we see so rarely these days due to long and safe opening preparation.  After that move, Ding Liren played the rest of the game perfectly, with every move after 17. … Rxd8 being the engine’s top choice.

After playing through this game for the first time, I was immediately reminded of another “game of the year” caliber game from just two years ago between Wei Yi and Lazaro Bruzon Batista.  As the reaction to that game told us back then, both of these games were masterpieces of attacking.

While the chess world continues to sit in awe, Ding Liren now turns his attention to Magnus Carlsen when the two begin a mini rapid and blitz match in St. Louis.

Meanwhile, at the time of this article’s posting, I will be in New York City for a day trip.  Thanks for reading, good luck in your future games, and I’ll see you next time.

Back to the Board

Last Friday, I returned to the chess board for the first time in five weeks.  And really, the gap is even longer than that.  I had only played in a league match five weeks prior, and I hadn’t played in a tournament since Labor Day weekend in the beginning of September.  Granted, this was also going to be a league match, but considering that I hadn’t really looked at chess myself at all in those five weeks, it counted.  Studying for the SAT and school work, in general, had taken up too much of my time.

Going into this game, I had absolutely no idea what to expect.  Historically, I had always performed well after returning from an extended break, whether it was in one-off games or entire tournaments; the only caveat with that, however, is that I still studied chess on my own during those breaks.  This time, I hadn’t prepared at all.  Without further ado, let’s see what went down.

Kobla – Kinney, DCCL, 2017

That was certainly a roller coaster of a game, and if I’m being honest, I consider myself lucky that I was able to come out of that game with a win.  My play, in the beginning, was uncharacteristically rusty, especially for the opening stage.  Yet, Black missed the most crucial moves in the critical positions, allowing me to hang in there until I was able to break through in the late middlegame.  After solidifying the queenside and getting my major pieces behind the passed pawns, it was all but over, and I could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

I had a quick turnaround with an NVA Chess League match on Sunday, and with some luck in that game as well, I was able to win that, too.  Perhaps I will show that game in a later post.

I’m not sure what my next chess event is from here.  Typically, I would play in the Northern Virginia Open in the first weekend of November, but due to conflicts with a school program, I am not able to play in that.  However, one thing I do know is that I have to resume studying chess on my own time in order to avoid the horrific scene that was the first half of this game.

Good luck in your future games, and, as always, thanks for reading!  I’ll see you next time.

Recent Game Analysis:  Back to the Basics

As promised last time around, today I will show a game that I played just last month which I believe was instructive in multiple ways, especially for a few fundamental basics that we may need reminders for from time to time.  I had the black pieces against a player of relatively equal strength in a DC Chess League game.  The game began with the main line Catalan.  You can use the provided game viewer below to follow the game, as all notes and comments are located within the game text.

 

Steele – Kobla, DCCL, 2017

 

Except for a few inaccuracies (like 20. … Nd3), it was a fairly well-played game from the Black side in my opinion.  There were definitely a few lessons that I was able to take away from this game, and hopefully, they can be of help to you, too:

  1. Every tempo counts

We saw how White lost a tempo in the opening with the maneuver Bc1-f4-d2, which allowed Black to equalize with relative ease.  It goes to show how one must be accurate and definitive in his or her plans in the opening, as mixing up variations and move orders rarely makes one’s job easier when all is said and done.

  1. Active pieces make a difference

With the help of some early pawn breaks like 12. … c5, Black’s pieces had active prospects early on in the middlegame.  This paved the way for moves like 15. … Qd3 and 24. … Rd4, among others.  Not coincidentally, these active moves played a significant role in the final outcome of the game.

  1. Tactics, tactics, tactics!

It may seem like this point is overstressed, but it’s for good reason – all material gains, combinations, and positional motifs are all a result of tactics when analyzed at the roots.  In this game, for example, the concept of throwing a wrench in White’s system with 15. … Qd3 was a tactic that helped Black gain a few tempi and control over the center of the board.  Later, the trade of light-squared bishops and the subsequent use of the queen to influence that diagonal was a tactic in its own right, leading to a pin and eventually a mating net.

Hopefully, the game was interesting to follow and that the concepts discussed afterward were helpful.  Even though the concepts were probably ones that we’ve all heard before, it doesn’t hurt to recap them every once in a while, as we sometimes lose focus on what the most important “rules” are.  And with that, good luck in your future games, and, as always, thanks for reading!