Monday, February 23, 2015

Garry Kasparov on Greatness in Chess

Kasparov in typical pose

"Enormous self-belief, intuition, the ability to take a risk at a critical moment and go in for a very dangerous play with counter-chances for the opponent - it is precisely these qualities that distinguish great players"

The five (!) world championship matches between Kasparov and Karpov produced produced some of the best games ever played
Kasparov definitely hit the nail on its head with the quote above. Especially the part about risk taking definitely applies to amateur players, too. One of the biggest obstacles for improvement is a player's natural tendency to avoid risk, and too greedily hold on to his pieces

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Starcraft 2 - Legacy of the Void - Balance Update

Blizzard is expected to release the second expansion to Starcraft 2 - Legacy of the Void - at some point this year.

Of course, the SC2 community is in uproar. Even though many details about LotV remain unclear at this point, virtually everybody seems convinced that their race is getting the short end of the stick.

In a recent interview that has already gained some notoriety, the lead designer on the project explained some of the coming changes:

This video cracked me up. Thanks to FrozenImpact, who posted it on Teamliquid in the first place!

On a more serious note though it's always been my conviction that instead of whining about balance, virtually all players have enough potential for improvement of their own game, which would more than outweigh any actual or perceived imbalances. It's also worth noting that "imbalanced" doesn't necessarily mean "unfair".

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Aronian - Karjakin: Rules are for Fools

True masters of their craft regularly ignore rules and recommendations that act as clutches for the rest of us. Consider the following position from a blitz game between Levon Aronian and Sergey Karjakin at the 2015 Zurich Chess Challenge after 19. ... Rb8

White (Aronian) to move after Karyakin's 19. ... Rb8
Aronian played 19. Kf2 and eventually won the game after both players put their kingside pawns in motion.

I'm wondering though... in the diagram above... Why didn't Aronian just take the bishop on b7? 

It's a well-known rule of thumb that in endgames with pawns on both wings, the bishop is superior to the knight. In the diagram above, there may even be the chance to lock Black's queenside pawns in place on light-colored squares, which would make White's bishop even stronger.  

Obviously, Aronian is aware of all this, so he must have had his reasons to keep his knight (and Karyakin's bishop) on the board.

Would this not be a textbook example of a position where the Bishop is stronger than the Knight?
Was he afraid that the afraid that the advantage wouldn't be enough to win the position?
Did he see "ghosts" or overlooked something? After all, this was a blitz game. Or is the evaluation of the diagram above different at a super-GM level compared to mere amateur play?

Aronian won the game regardless. However, Karyakin "helped" by pushing for a win himself. It seems to me that if Black chooses to play for a draw, the task is much easier in the first diagram than in the second.

The complete game can be found here:
Aronian - Karyakin, Zurich Chess Challenge Blitz, 2015

I really don't know. Which is why I was fascinated by this example and chose it for this blog.

Oh well... these guys are 2700 GMs for a reason, and I am not...

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Tactical Analysis of a Complex Rook Sacrifice

My friend Pyre recently played in a rapid tournament, and when we went over his games, we came across a very interesting and incredibly complex rook sacrifice.
The variation did not actually occur in the game, but it allowed for some fascinating tactical analysis.

In the position below the question is should Black sacrifice the rook on e3?

The key position. Should Black sacrifice the rook on e3?
This is a very interesting position because even though the sacrifice on e3 looks very strong, and makes intuitive sense, the variations are very long and too complex to calculate all the way through at this point.

In a previous blog I had already written about this kind of sacrifice: somewhere in the middle between a very "concrete" and straightforward sacrifice (like the classic bishop sacrifice on h7, where there are typically only very few variations to calculate with lots of "only" moves), and a purely long-term sacrifice like for example the various positional exchange sacrifices in the French and Sicilian openings.

Pyre and I discussed this position on Skype, using a screen share of my Chessbase window. We did not have enough time to discuss this game with the detail it deserves, so some of our conclusions were wrong or at least inaccurate. However, that in itself allowed for some interesting observations.

This position would have likely occurred shortly after the rook sacrifice. 
The links to a more comprehensive (and accurate...) analysis can be found at the end of this article.

After we were done with our analysis, I looked at the position again, and only after that second analysis I finally turned to my engine to verify the analysis that we had done up to this point. The screenshot shows DEEP FRITZ 13's analysis after 20. Kg1:
In the position shown above after 20. Kg1, DEEP FRITZ recommends these moves for Black after about 30 seconds 
There are basically 3-4 variations worth looking into:

a) 20. ... Nxb4 
b) 20. ... Qg4+
c) 20. ... Qg3+
d) 20. ... d4

It is interesting to note that there are a great number of transpositions between these variations. It's also worth noting that due to the large number of checks Black has in all these variations on h3/g3/g4/, the number of variations and positions to consider is enormous, and too much for an amateur player to handle with certainty.
For a full analysis please refer to the link at the bottom of this article, but the main ideas are these:

Nxb4: to pin the Nc3, and potentially swing the Rc8 over to the kingside via the now available c6-square
d4: to undermine White's already wobbly center even further, open the g1-a7 diagonal for the Bb8, and prepare Nd4 to exchange the White Nf3, the key defender of h2
Qg4+/Qg3+: to shuffle White's King around to the right square (g1 or h1, depending on the variation), and then follow up with Nxb4 or d4

Of course, the ramifications of these moves are impossible to evaluate with great certainty when deciding whether to sacrifice the rook.

Even when looking at the game together, Pyre and I missed or underestimated the following opportunities:

a) Ba7+: We completely missed the idea that Black in certain variations can play Ba7+. With the Black queen on h3 it's a pretty common mating pattern. What may have contributed to us overlooking this move initially is that we were so fixated on the long diagonal b8-h2 that it would not even occur to us to place the bishop elsewhere. On the other hand though, when a bishop is fianchettoed on b7, moves like Ba6 to switch diagonals always occur naturally to me.
b) Ng4: We spent too much time analyzing this idea, at the expense of other more effective moves. Considering that so many kingside attacks involve moves like Ng4, and that it's a very natural and "human" move to make, it's not surprising that we gave the move too much credit. 
c) Nxb4: A "computer" move that pins White's Nc3, and activates the Rc8


1. Some - in fact a large number of - combinations and sacrifices are too complex to be evaluated with certainty. In such situations, following John Nunn's advice in his "Secrets of Practical Chess", a chess player should follow his instincts. If experience and gut feeling tell you the sacrifice is sound, you should proceed with it even if there is not enough time to work out every detail.
I know, however, from own experience that this is VERY difficult. In my own tournament games I frequently did not follow this advice, and usually regretted it later.

2.  When analyzing a very tactical position (let alone a strategic/positional one), it is very important to do it without the help of a chess engine first. Even if this leads to some wrong conclusions initially, it is vital that you exercise your ability to calculate accurately. This not only builds your tactical skill set, but also gives you the confidence to handle difficult tactical positions. I will expand on how to use chess engines effectively in another article soon.

Link to the game analyzed here:

Link to the same analysis in PDF format:

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2015 in Wijk Aan Zee

I want to make good on my new year's resolution to update this blog more regularly again. I'm going to ease into it with an observation from the Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2015 in Wijk aan Zee.

With only one round to go, it seems pretty certain at this point that Carlsen is going to win the tournament after all despite his rocky start, with only 1 point from his first 3 games.

Giri - So after 31. Qxb4 from the 12th round 
Giri is a pawn up. It's a distant passed pawn, and considering that Giri as a 2700+ grandmaster certainly has the technique to bring this position home, White is clearly winning. 

However, I was really surprised to see that the game went on for another 80 (!) moves. It's true that White's kingside has some pretty serious weaknesses around the light squares, and in queen endings the defender usually has a million checks available to prolong the game. But still, it's quite an achievement to have the technique to convert the a-pawn. 

So finally resigned after 111. a8Q

Pushing the pawn to convert it eventually is harder than it looks as I have experienced in many games myself. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Welcome to 2015!

I know I haven't been actively writing here lately, but I have been working on my chess, and one of my new year's resolutions is to be write more regularly here.

Best Wishes,

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Case Against Top-Heavy Prize Funds

The Intel Extreme Masters World Championship is a 3-day $100,000 winner-takes-all Starcraft 2 tournament. It is to my knowledge the first major tournament outside Korea with such a top-heavy distribution of the prize fund
There are two big tournaments that I am currently following with great interest: the IEM World Championship in Katowice, the culmination of the Starcraft 2 Intel Extreme Masters Season VIII; and the FIDE Candidates Tournament 2014, the winner of which gets the right to challenge world chess champion Magnus Carlsen to a match for the title later this year.

The FIDE Candidates Tournament 2014 is a massive three-week double round robin tournament in which 8 of the world's leading chess grandmasters determine the challenger for Magnus Carlsen for the upcoming 2014 World Chess Championship. The Candidates Tournament is also one of the most lucrative tournaments on the chess circuit.
One thing I noticed is that the distribution of the prize money differs greatly between the two tournaments. At IEM Katowice, the winner gets $100,000 while all other 15 players including 2nd and 3rd place get nothing.
The Fide Candidates Tournament distributes the prize fund of 600,000 EUROs (~ $832,000) more evenly. The winner gets 135,000 Euros, and last place still receives 25,000 Euros. The tournament is a 3-week commitment though. The winner, of course, also gets the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the world chess championship. The loser of that match is going to receive at least another $500,000. In other words, winning the FIDE Candidates Tournament is worth $675,000 easily. So in a sense the tournament is pretty top-heavy, too. However, even 25,000 Euros for last place is not bad at all for 3 weeks worth of work. And participation in this tournament most certainly increases a player's market value. I am not sure if that's true to the same extent for the SC2 tournament.

Despite his rocky start into the tournament, Armenian "Super Grandmaster" Levon Aronian is considered to be the likely winner of the FIDE 2014 Candidates
I just googled "SC2 dying" and got 422,000 hits. I have always thought that this "bullshit" about "SC2 dying" is largely just people bashing the game, trying to turn this into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
At the same time though I don't understand the reason behind this extremely top-heavy prize fund. It seems to me that a vibrant professional SC2 community is in the best interest of Blizzard and all sponsors (like Intel) that try to make money by selling products and services to the community. The more buzz there is in the professional community, the more exciting the big tournaments are to watch for fans like me, and the more exposure sponsors get for their products. But by making these tournaments so extremely top-heavy in their prize money distribution, the organizers make it very difficult for almost all SC2 professionals to continue staying in the game. 
I check about once a week, and whenever I do, there seems to be a new story about a pro gamer retiring, usually citing a combination of lack of interest and financial reasons.

Another - slightly less important reason - why I think the distribution of the prize money in Katowice is wrong is that there is such a big element of chance involved in winning a major SC2 tournament. Luck of the draw, a constantly changing map pool, patches, technical difficulties such as lag are just some of the factors  beyond the skill of the players that have a huge impact on the outcome of the tournament, and that turn the whole event into a lottery to some extent. If skill is just one of many factors (though arguably still the most important), it doesn't make sense to me to reward only one player for getting through all the "randomness" of the tournament. If the IEM tournament was to be held again in 4 weeks, the winner could very well be someone else. If the FIDE Candidates Tourney was to be played again, the winner would most likely be the same. 

And I'm not convinced that any player is going to try harder in a winner-takes-all format, no matter how much the casters hype this tournament.
As a former Terran, I would have liked Polt or Taeja to walk away with the $100,000 from IEM Katowice. Unfortunately, that is no longer going to happen.