30 June 2007


For the last few months, 'Europe Echecs' has been running a column about Web sites and blogs written by Gérard Demuydt. Each month Demuydt features one or two sites of special interest, most of them in French.

I know Demuydt's work from one of my old 'Chess History on the Web' newsletters (2001 no.11), Site review - Culture et curiosités. The site still exists as Culture et curiosités de l'échiquier, now with Dany Sénéchaud's name attached to it ('Une rubrique magazine animée par Dany Sénéchaud'). The chess material is very good although it isn't accessible to English speakers.

In June, Demuydt's column mentioned a blog called Echecs, cinéma, TV et DVD... léger (cinechecs.blogspot.com). If you know that 'ciné' is short for 'cinéma' and that 'échecs' is French for chess, you know immediately that the blog is about chess in the movies. The posts are filled with movie stills and YouTube links. The blog is worth a visit even if your French is limited to 'RSVP'. I'm adding it to the blogs I track monthly for Blog Trekking.

The June column also mentioned the well known site Chess in the Cinema, and said that it now has a thousand references to film. How many of these clips are already on YouTube?

28 June 2007

Excessive Sharpness

Continuing with Smyslov's Sparklers, the Gruenfeld Defense, Smyslov Variation was used in the Euwe - Smyslov game, played in the 24th and last round of the 1948 World Championship tournament. The opening moves were 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Qb3 dxc4 6.Qxc4 O-O 7.e4 Bg4 8.Be3 Nfd7 9.Qb3 Nb6, when Euwe played 10.a4. Kasparov noted that it was 'The continuation of a theoretical duel. The game Keres - Smyslov (12th round) went 10.Rd1 e5?! [...] with equality. Modern theory begins with 10...Nc6.'

The position after the moves 10.Rd1 Nc6 11.d5 Ne5 12.Be2 Nxf3+ 13.gxf3 Bh5, is shown in the diagram. Kasparov remarked, 'This key position was actively tested over the course of many years but in the 1990s it almost went out of use: possibly players began avoiding it on account of its excessive sharpness.'

(After 13...Bg4-h5)

Since the position doesn't look particularly sharp, I decided to investigate further. The early games using the variation used continuations like 14.f4, 14.a4, and 14.h4. For example, the move 14.h4 was used in the 11th game of the 1958 Smyslov - Botvinnik World Championship match.

In the 1970s, the move 14.Rg1 became popular. The idea is that White will continue Rg1-g3, shielding the h-Pawn from attack along the diagonal and preparing to 'castle on foot'. After 14...Qd7 15.Rg3, Black has the choice of two Pawn breaks, both leading to a sharp game:

  • 15...c6 16.dxc6 Qxc6 17.Nb5 Rfc8 18.Nxa7 Rxa7 19.Bxb6 Raa8, and now 20.Bd4 or 20.Rg5.

  • 15...f5 16.d6+ Kh8 17.dxc7 Qxc7 18.Nb5 Qb8 19.exf5 Rxf5, followed by 20.Nxa7 or 20.Nd4.

Black can try other Queen moves like 14...Qc8, but these also become sharp, e.g. 15.Rg3 c6 16.a4. The sequence 16.dxc6 Qxc6 transposes to the first line above.

Why would top players avoid a sharp line? I suppose that some killer defect was found, but I didn't manage to confirm this.

26 June 2007

Gruenfeld Defense, Smyslov Variation

The next game in Smyslov's Sparklers uses an opening that I've never understood, a variation named after Smyslov. I decided to research opinion on it. The diagram show the position after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Qb3 dxc4 6.Qxc4 O-O 7.e4

Of 5.Qb3, Kasparov wrote, 'This thrust was considered to be White's most formidable weapon [against the Gruenfeld] since the time of the 12th game of the 1935 Euwe - Alekhine match.' Fischer anticipated my own thinking when of the same move he wrote, 'The main line, but I don't believe this early development of the Queen can give White anything.' (60 Memorable Games, no.39; Botvinnik - Fischer, Varna Olympiad 1962)

(After 7.e2-e4)

Writing in 1964, Horowitz called the variation 'The Two Pawns Game', and said:

This method is most frequently encountered against the Gruenfeld Defense. White has a strong center but must guard against a breach. Black, on the other hand, has a plus in development and must bring pressure against the enemy d-Pawn. In this connection the thrust ...c5 is of great significance and constitutes the key to the most important lines of the defense. Many systems have been devised against White's set-up.
The Smyslov System: Black plays 7...Bg4, followed by the maneuver 8...Nfd7 and 9...Nb6. This converts Black's King Knight from a defensive piece to an aggressive one and keeps open the d-file and the long diagonal for concentrated action.
The Prins System: 7...Na6; The line is double edged in that it requires impeccable technique on the part of the defender.
The Boleslavsky System: The objectives here are different from the foregoing. Black's prime target is to enforce ...e5 in conjunction with the dispossession of White's Queen Knight from its central post. The latter is accomplished by means of ...c6, ...b5, ...Qa5, and ...b4. The usual thrust ...c5 may still play an important role later.

In discussing his game with Botvinnik, the only time he played the then World Champion, Fischer wrote:

Also interesting is Donald Byrne's provocative 7...Nc6. [As for Smyslov's Variation, 7...Bg4 8.Be3 Nfd7], So far theory has found no way to derive any clear advantage for White.

He gave several variations to make his point. Of the move 7...Bg4, Smyslov wrote:

Black puts into effect a plan involving action against the center by the pieces -- one of the most interesting problems of modern chess strategy.

Kasparov explained 8.Be3 Nfd7 with:

An unexpected and far from obvious reply, which is hard to explain from the position of the old classical school. But the Gruenfeld opening itself was a product of the new chess era, and Smyslov realized that only something extraordinary could help Black carry out the main idea of the opening -- a Pawn attack on the strong enemy center. By opening the diagonal for the g7 Bishop, driving back the White Queen (by ...Nb6), and developing the other Knight at c6, he sets up pressure on the d-file, and in the event of d4-d5 he can undermine the center with ...c6 and ...f5.

But he also warned:

More usual at present is 7...Na6, or Alekhine's 7...a6.

Clearer? Yes, thanks, although I count five different possible plans for Black: 7...Bg4, 7...Na6, 7...c6, 7...Nc6, & 7...a6.

24 June 2007

The Silence of the Annotators

Returning to Smyslov's Sparklers, the next game is the third in this series played between Smyslov and Reshevsky. Once again, the search for the cause of Reshevsky's loss is not trivial. Was it the opening, was it an inaccuracy on Black's 12th move, or was it something else?

The diagrammed position looks suspicious. Black played 20...Red8, but 20...Rad8 looks more natural. Neither Smyslov nor Kasparov comments on the move, leading me to wonder, 'Is there a tactical or positional problem with 20...Rad8?' In his book on the tournament, Golombek noted

As later becomes apparent, it is the Q-Rook that should go here. Though the correct choice as to which Rook should be moved to the center is one of the most difficult problems in chess technique, and one that sometimes baffles the greatest masters, it is rather surprising that Reshevsky should err here, as he has already centralized the K-Rook. Probably he has in mind the eventual maneuver 21...Qe8, followed by 22...Ne7, but he never manages to achieve it.

In his book, Euwe gave 20...Red8 a '?', and also recommended 20...Rad8. It's not certain that Black can hold the game, but it's better than the move played.

Moscow 1948 (Rd.11)
Reshevsky, Samuel

Smyslov, Vasily
(After 20.Ra1-d1)
[FEN "r3r1k1/1pp1qpp1/p1n1n2p/3RpQ2/4P3/1BP1B3/PP3PPP/3R2K1 b - - 0 20"]

The game continued 21.g3 Rd6 22.Rxd6 cxd6 23.Qg4 Kh8 24.Bb6 Nb8, burying the Rook on a8 and weakening the back rank. Smyslov used this to play a nice positional combination that eventually gave him a win.

To play through the complete game see...

Vasily Smyslov vs Samuel Reshevsky, World Championship Match Tournament 1948

...on Chessgames.com.

22 June 2007

Fischer and Schaap

When Bobby Fischer was released from Japanese detention a little more than two years go, a curious story hit the blogs about Fischer and father/son sportswriters named Schaap. I wasn't sure what this was all about until I saw the following video.

Bobby Fischer on Sportscenter [ESPN] (4:55) • Jeremy Schaap goes to Iceland to talk to Bobby Fischer

While researching the background of the story, I found a partial transcript of the video here: BOBBY FISHER APPEARS RAILS AGAINST FORMER 'FATHER'. Note to myself: when searching non-chess sources for 'Fischer', remember to do a second search on 'Fisher'. • Here's more about Jeremy's father Dick Schaap (Wikipedia.org).

20 June 2007

Ruy Lopez, Steinitz Deferred

Continuing with Smyslov's Sparklers and Ruy Lopez Same Old, Same Old?, why the interest in the Lopez? It's the opening that occurred in the next game I'm looking at : Smyslov - Reshevsky, 1948 World Championship.

The game started 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 d6 5.c3 Nge7 6.d4 Bd7, which is an opening I never see these days. After establishing that 4...d6 (the Steinitz Deferred) is relatively unpopular among the 2700+ players, I wondered who plays it at the next level and what they play. Going back to Chesslab.com, I found 93 games played since 1997 where at least one player was rated higher than 2600. The following table shows how often the main variations were used.

Although Reshevsky's variation (5...Nge7) was never played in the sample, I learned something about the more popular lines. A long, critical line appears to be 5.c3 f5 6.exf5 Bxf5 7.O-O Bd3 8.Re1 Be7 9.Bc2 Bxc2 10.Qxc2 Nf6 11.d4 e4 12.Ng5 d5 13.f3 h6 14.Nh3 O-O 15.Nd2 exf3 16.Nxf3 Rf7. Of the nine games using this, eight ended in a draw.

18 June 2007

Ruy Lopez Same Old, Same Old?

Is it just my imagination or does everyone play the same lines in the Ruy Lopez these days? I searched Chesslab.com on the opening moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 for games played in 2006 where at least one player was rated over 2700. I found 198 games, which evolved as shown in the following table.

At every move there is an overwhelming favorite. I listed its frequency compared to the frequency of the alternatives. Many popular moves of yesteryear (e.g. 4...d6, 6.Qe2) have been abandoned by modern players.

The top players have their reasons for playing the variations that they prefer. It would be foolish to suggest that they look at other moves. Lesser players, however, shouldn't ignore the wealth of alternatives available at every step of the Lopez. Those players who complain about the lack of opening diversity are only displaying their lack of imagination.


Now we see a little diversity. The move 7...O-O 'threatens' the Marshall Variation (8.c3 d5), which has been deeply studied and gives Black excellent drawing chances. The GMs seem almost desperate to avoid it.

The alternative 7...d6 leads to the Closed Lopez which features in the repertoire of many top players.

16 June 2007

The Birth of the Modern World Championship

The next game in Smyslov's Sparklers, marks the first time I've looked at the 1948 World Championship tournament on this blog. In signalling the arrival of FIDE and establishing the foundation for future World Championship cycles, the event was the most important chess tournament of the 20th century.

In Predecessors II (p.274), Kasparov introduced the Smyslov - Reshevsky round three game with the following remarks:

The means of determining the World Champion chosen by FIDE after Alekhine's death was far from irreproachable. [...] FIDE, the Soviet Chess Federation, and Botvinnik were aiming for a simple and rapid solution to the problem. A characteristic feature: when at the Congress in The Hague (1947) it transpired that Fine would not be playing in the match-tournament, they did not even bother to find a replacement, but simply reduced the number of players to five and added an extra, fifth cycle. It was unfair that Miguel Najdorf, who was playing brilliantly at that time, was not included in the match-tournament: he finished fourth in Groningen 1946, and moreover bet Flohr 500 guilders that he would defeat Botvinnik in the last round -- and won!
But why didn't they include Boleslavsky, who was runner-up in two successive USSR Championships (1945 and 1947)? 'God himself ordered that he be included,' thinks Bronstein. 'Isaak never complained to me: he also understood that he possessed some shortcomings in the eyes of Botvinnik, and perhaps, unfortunately, also of society. I am not saying that Boleslavsky, Najdorf, or I would have won the Candidates tournament, but, of course, the results would have been different. The reason why Botvinnik was in a hurry to play the match-tournament was that things had been difficult for Keres during the war, and he was all nerves, Reshevsky had played only in weak tournaments in America, and Euwe had not played chess at all.'
As for Smyslov, he was not yet sufficiently experienced to provide serious competition to his formidable compatriot in the 1948 Hague/Moscow match-tournament. But to fight for second place was well within his powers.

This portrait of Botvinnik as manipulator is not flattering. It is a recurring theme in accounts of the sixth World Champion after his death in 1995.

14 June 2007

Even GMs Stumble on K+P Endgames

Continuing with Smyslov's Sparklers, the first diagrammed position occurred almost 20 moves after the position discussed in Which Side Is Better. Kasparov started his notes on the game here.

Euwe played 33...Bd2 and eventually lost. Smyslov gave a long analysis of the alternative 33...Bg5, trading Black's bad Bishop for a Knight. The object of the analysis was to determine if the move is sufficient to draw. After 33...Bg5 34.Kb3 Bxh4 35.gxh4 Ne7 36.Nxe7 Kxe7 37.Kc4, he reached the position shown in the second diagram.

Groningen 1946
W: Smyslov, Vasily
B: Euwe, Max
[FEN "6n1/2p2k2/3p1p1b/3PpN1p/4P1pN/2P3P1/1K3PP1/8 b - - 0 33"]
(After 33.Kc2-b2(xP))

(After 37.Kb3-c4 (analysis))

King and Pawn endgames are notoriously tricky, and the diagrammed position is no exception. Smyslov gave 37...f5! (37...Kd7 loses) 38.exf5 Kf6 39.Kb5 Kxf5 40.Kc6, and established that both 40...Ke4 and 40...g3 are insufficient to draw. He didn't discuss 40...Kf4, which looks better than the alternatives.

Kasparov copied Smyslov's analysis, but gave a different set of variations. It appears that Smyslov changed his published analysis of the position, but the English translation of his book used the original notes.

After 37.Kc4, Kasparov gave 37...f5 38.f3 (Not 38.exf5 Kf6 39.Kb5 Kxf5 40.Kc6 g3! 41.f3 e4! 42.fxe4+ Kxe4 43.c4 Ke3 44.Kxc7 Kf2 45.c5 Kxg2 46.cxd6 Kf3 47.d7 g2 48.d8=Q g1=Q. [MW: After 47...g2, Smyslov terminated his analysis with 'etc.'; Kasparov didn't say why the position is not lost for Black after 48...g1=Q. In any case, 40...Kf4 needs attention.]) 38...f4 39.Kb5 Kd7 40.c4 Kd8 41.Kc6 Kc8.

Now another curiosity appears. Kasparov continued 42.c5 dxc5 43.Kxc5 Kd7, when White wins after a sophisticated maneuver that looks like triangulation. In fact, the game is won easily after 42.fxg4 43.h5, when White promotes first and checkmates Black immediately.

12 June 2007

Which Side Is Better?

After a long pause, I'm coming back to Smyslov's Sparklers. In the diagrammed position, which side is better?

On the earlier move 8...b7-b5, Smyslov wrote, 'This advance, which seriously weakens his Pawn formation, puts an onus on Black.' An online dictionary defines onus as 'a difficult or disagreeable responsibility or necessity; a burden or obligation.' Since Smyslov hasn't questioned any of Black's subsequent moves, White must be better.

Euwe played 14...Ne7. Here Smyslov commented:

Black brings the Knight over to the scene of coming events, but in doing so underestimates the tactical possibilities arising, after White's reply, out of the undefended state of his Knight on h5. More expedient was 14...Nf4 establishing the Knight in a strong position.

Strong Knight position indeed -- when I reach a similar position with a Knight on f4 (or f5 playing White) I'm happy; when my opponents do the same, I'm uncomfortable. So is Black better?

Smyslov gave no indication how he would have proceeded after 14...Nf4. I assume that if Euwe didn't play it, there is some feature of the position which gave him pause. One possibility is 15.a4, as played in the game. Now 15...b4 16.d4 doesn't look promising. Better perhaps is 15...Bd7 16.axb5 axb5 17.Rxa8 Qxa8 18.Ne3 Ne7, and I still can't decide which side I prefer.

Groningen 1946
Euwe, Max

Smyslov, Vasily
(After 14.Bh4-g3)
[FEN "r1b1qrk1/2p2pb1/p1np3p/1p2p1pn/4P3/2PP1NB1/PPB2PPP/R2QRNK1 b - - 0 14"]

After 14...Ne7, Smyslov continued 15.a4 and gave the move a '!'. He commented, 'The right moment! White creates tension on the Queenside and threatens to seize the a-file after a4xb5.' If 15...Bd7 16.Nxe5, or 15...Be6 16.Nxg5, both Knight moves attacking the Bishop and playing on the exposed position of the Knight.

15...Nxg3 Smyslov: 'Therefore he simplifies, resigning himself to the loss of the initiative on the Kingside.' 16.hxg3 Smyslov: 'Basically it is capturing with a Pawn plus the transfer of a Knight to f5 that kills Black's initiative. The Nf1 still has an excellent square at e3.' • The phrase 'Black's initiative on the Kingside' says to me that Black had the advantage going into his 14th move. How am I to understand that comment about 'onus'?

The game continued 16...Be6 17.d4 f6 18.Bb3 Bxb3 19.Qxb3+ Qf7 20.Qxf7+ Kxf7, reaching an instructive endgame, which I'll look at another time. To play through the complete game see...

Vasily Smyslov vs Max Euwe, Groningen 1946

...on Chessgames.com.

10 June 2007

The Waiting Game : Nimzo-Indian

The diagram shows the position after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3, the Rubinstein Variation of the Nimzo-Indian (ECO E40-59). This is one of several opening positions illustrating what I call a 'waiting game'. White would like to play a2-a3, forcing Black to decide the Bishop's future. Black would like to play ...Bxc3, crippling White's Pawn structure, but not before White wastes a move on a2-a3.

White's last move prepares Ng1-e2, when the Knight can recapture on c3. Playing the Knight too soon shuts in the Kingside Bishop. The opening becomes a game of chicken to see which side will act first (or react last):

  • White will play a2-a3, forcing the capture.
  • White will protect the Knight on c3 allowing the recapture with other than the b-Pawn.
  • Black will play ...Bxc3 without being forced by a2-a3.

(After 4.e2-e3)

There are other openings that illustrate this strategy of both sides playing chicken. I'll post them from time to time.

08 June 2007

Chess City

Today on Video Friday, I reveal the (not so) secret plans for the only pork barrel chess project the world has ever seen. Do the people of Kalmykia really like chess or do they feel obligated to like it?

Meet the President - Kalmykia (3:28) • 28 May 2007

'Al Jazeera's Jonah Hull travels to the Russian Republic of Kalmykia to meet Kirzan Ilyumzhinov, the president of the only Buddhist state in Europe.'

06 June 2007

Not a Misprint

When I first saw the diagrammed position (in 'Petrosian's Legacy' by Petrosian, p.43), I thought it was a misprint. It wasn't indicated who was on move and I couldn't see how the position could arise by any logical sequence of moves.

Budapest 1950
Candidates Tournament

Keres, Paul

Kotov, Alexander
(After ?)
[FEN "r2q1rk1/p1p2p2/bp2p1np/n2pP1p1/2PP3B/P1P2P1N/2Q3PP/RB2K2R w KQ - 0 16"]

In fact, the position is a good exercise in retrograde analysis. White is on move and the previous moves were 14...g7-g5 15.Qa4-c2 Ne7-g6. Now Kotov played the surprising 16.Nf4! and won on the 33rd move. To play through the complete game see...

Alexander Kotov vs Paul Keres, Budapest ct 1950

...on Chessgames.com.