Bishop Knight Exchange on Half-Open File

April 30, 2009

Last weekend, my appendix decided to have a blast, and since the hospital didn’t have wi-fi access, I wasn’t able to post any updates. I’ve also been dealing with an increased workload and I’ve been playing in a local tournament. So far, I have scored 1 1/2 points out of three games (unfortunately I had to forfeit my second game due to the aforementioned appendix bursting). I stumbled upon the following idea in the post-mortem of one of my games:

middlegame_openlines_06Today’s idea is, once again, dedicated to the topic of open lines. A bishop pinning a knight in the opening occurs frequently. Most players hesitate to exchange the bishop for the knight. However, if trading the bishop for the knight results in a pawn on a half-open line that can then be attacked by a rook, the trade might well be worth it.

Closing the Lines of the Defender

April 10, 2009

middlegame_openlines_05_ingame1This position is taken from Dvoirys – Khalifman, 1997. Dvoirys finds a suprising move with a brilliant idea.

The idea I discussed in my previous post was to open lines for attacking pieces before unleashing your attack. The key idea here is the reverse: closing the lines of the defending pieces! Black’s defence concept rests on the queen coming to e5 in order to defend h8 against queen/rook intrusions.

middlegame_openlines_05Dvoirys destroys Black’s defence plan by playing 21. Nd5!!, blocking the queen’s access to e5, allowing him to set up a decisive attack along the h-file. Source: Secrets of Practical Chess by John Nunn.

By the way, since I’m currently focusing on attack motifs, I introduced the tag “attacking technique”. I’m still thinking about a feasible approach to tagging the animations. Perhaps numbering or codifying each gif would be useful? As the collection grows, I need to have a quick and meaningful way to access diagrams relating to a specific topic. Have to meditate on that.

Addendum: In the spirit of anecdotal mnemonics, an episode from Dvoirys’ chess career I picked up at Chess Café:

The chief organizer told us that once in Russia Dvoirys had beaten his head until it bled with his opponent’s queen that he had just captured. “This is not quite true,” said Russian grandmaster Gleizerov. “It was a knight. The knight is very sharp in Russia. His behavior has to be explained by the fact that he is a one hundred percent chessplayer. Chess is his life.”

Pawn Storm and Open Lines

April 8, 2009

middlegame_openlines_041This idea originated in John Nunn’s analysis of the game Petrosian – Unzicker 1960. Since the animation leaves out the context of the game, you may have a hard time understanding what’s going on at first, but hopefully the key point will become clear.

The key idea here is to consider opening lines before you storm the enemy position with your pawns. We can use pawns as battering rams to open space around the enemy king,  but if the opponent has no counterplay available, why rush? Instead of letting our pawns loose immediately,  it might be wise to open lines for attacking pieces beforehand. This happens here: Instead of playing 1. g4 right away, White plays 1. f4!, freeing the second rank for his rook, enabling it to join the attack faster once it’s rolling. Source: Secrets of Practical Chess by John Nunn.

Fianchettoed Bishops Against Isolated Pawns

April 6, 2009


The isolated pawn or “isolani” is a pawn that can’t be protected by a fellow pawn. The isolani used to be considered a weakness, and is almost always a weakness in the endgame. However, in the middle game, an isolani can also be an asset. If the player with the isolani avoids too many piece exchanges, she may be able to use the isolani as a support base, a battering ram or for some other purpose to assist her pieces in the attack. So if you choose to play with the isolani, you have to be aware that you need to convert it into an advantage during the middlegame, otherwise you’ll end up with a weak pawn in the endgame.

If you play against an isolani, your plan often entails immobilising it and then besieging it with your pieces, forcing your opponent into a passive defence. The gif above illustrates this idea during the opening phase: when you see that the upcoming pawn exchanges leads to an isolani on your opponent’s side, consider fianchettoing the bishops to attack the isolani from the flank.

On a related note: Temposchlucker mentioned in a comment that his goal is “to recognize all kinds of characteristics of a position”. Incidentally, Blue Devil Knight posted a quote by Jonathan Rowson on the danger of evaluating a position on the basis of words and explanations rather than moves:

[T]hinking of such models explicitly while your clock is ticking will generally do more harm than good. Anything other than the images of moves and variations is likely to be unhelpful noise in your head that will lead you to create narratives based on applying the model to the position. This awkward predicament leads you to try to fit the position to what is in your head, rather than allowing you to concentrate on the position and enjoy the experience of playing…[Y]ou will gain more from the material in this chapter if you allow it to ‘seep in’ subtly and quietly, rather than using it as some kind of checklist during your games.

Rowson’s warning struck a chord with me. I used to make up such “position narratives” all the time, and the reason, I believe, was that I saw no meaningful candidate moves, so I tried to make some of the available moves meaningful by constructing a narrative around them. Part of what I’m trying to achieve with the Chunky Rook is to learn more concrete and substantial narratives, namely narratives that are associated with specific positions and specific move sequences. The fianchettoed bishop against isolated pawns is one example for this.

To Fly, You Need to Hit the Ground and Miss

April 5, 2009

Temposchlucker, whose many contributions to chess learning theory have contributed greatly to my inspiration for the Chunky Rook project, has commented on my previous post and makes an important point that bears repeating:

The danger [of the animated flashcard system] is obvious: it invites to learn on autopilot, which doesn’t work. If we could only find a way to stimulate a more conscious approach and combine it with your charming idea we could make progress. Maybe more text will help since that isn’t procedural and can provide helpful cues.

I couldn’t agree more with the assertion that “learning on autopilot doesn’t work” (although I also disagree with this notion, but I’ll come back to that). In fact, learning on autopilot, i.e. passive learning, is almost a contradiction in terms. Temposchlucker suggests learning needs a  “more conscious approach”, and I think he hits the nail on the head. However, we need to pin down precisely what we mean by conscious learning, and to that end I would like to make a couple of suggestions to prompt a debate.

When you hear “conscious” learning, you may think of a learner who’s alert rather than tired, who does things thoughtfully rather than mechanically, whose mind is present rather than absent. This is certainly a crucial, if very basic, requirement to learning: do not let yourself be distracted — focus, concentrate, switch the TV off.

Having said that, conscious learning requires much more than mere attention. In two recent posts (here and here), Temposchlucker suggests that the chief characteristic of conscious learning is what he calls “feedback”. He defines “feedback” as “the correction of errors with consciousness of sufficient intensity”. While I strongly agree that feedback is key to successful learning, I think our definition of feedback must encompass much more than “correction of errors with consciousness”, and I shall argue this point on the basis of the following premise: learning is about achievement and recall, that is to say, learning means acquiring a skill and being able to remember how to use that skill at a later point. Without recall, acquiring a skill is useless, and recall of something other than skill (e.g. “I totally remember this endgame position from Silman, but I don’t remember how to play it) is also useless. With this in mind, let’s see if we can get a better grip on the concept of feedback.

First: how do we achieve the acquisition of skill? The single most important thing is, perhaps, being capable of articulating what the skill is. That’s why teachers are so useful: not because they are good at something, but because they know what exactly they are good at and are able to tell you. (That’s also why grandmasters can be lousy teachers.) Of course, not all skills are equally easy to articulate, especially at a higher level when skill becomes a matter of experience more than anything else. Nonetheless, for successful learning it is paramount that the learner gets a basic idea of what it is he or she is learning, and a simple label (e.g. “I’m learning tactics”, “I’m learning the endgame”) doesn’t suffice. “Idea” is the key word here: learners have to understand how and why people who have already mastered a skill use it in practice, and they have to have that understanding from the start. Having been introduced to a new skill, learners ought to ask themselves, “Do I get the basic idea?”, and if they feel confident in answering yes, they can proceed. If not, they should either return to the initial explanation or try to figure out the idea from the material that’s presented next. But they should not leave an exercise or chapter or game without getting the idea in the mistaken belief they have learned something.

Second: how do we achieve recall? To answer this question, let’s consider the difference between adult learners and infant or adolescent learners. Temposchlucker posits that adult learners must use feedback to compensate for their lack of the “higher consciousness” that’s found in younger learners.  I’m no expert on child learning, but I think Temposchlucker is on to something here. Part of the reason why children are better learners, I believe, has to do with the fact that their brains aren’t as cluttered yet with conscious worries about survival and social interaction; they have an intuitive grasp of these things, no doubt, but they are not necessarily aware of them on a conscious level. This frees resources for learning. Secondly, children have no “expert structure” in place to sieve new information. On the one hand, this prevents them from learning more complex and advanced material. But on the other hand, they encounter the material that’s within their reach as genuinely new and genuinely fascinating, and this makes the learning experience much more memorable. In addition, they do not impose an expert structure on the material they are learning; their structure is much more malleable (perhaps right down to the actual plasticity of their brains) and responds much more flexibly and receptively to new learning matter. (Of course, this is mostly speculation on my part. I have no actual research to back this up.)

So to return to our question: how can adult learners achieve and improve recall? A simple answer is: repetition. No matter how you learn something, if you do not use it repeatedly or do not recall it for an extended period of time, chances are you will forget. That’s life. So repetition is key to learning, but it isn’t enough. You have to be able to recall a skill when it is needed. In other words, you need to know when a particular skill is useful. This is why knowing your skill is so important: you have to be able to contextualise it while you’re learning it, otherwise you won’t know when to use it once you’re actually playing a game, or worse, you won’t think of the skill at all during your game because it doesn’t occur to you to use it to begin with.

Also, we should ask ourselves: how can we facilitate recall? I think Temposchlucker’s “correction of errors with consciousness” is one way. However, the problem with merely correcting errors with consciousness is that it itself can become mechanical. As soon as you turn conscious feedback into a mechanic procedure, you are likely to lose your consciousness of the skill you’re trying to learn again because the process loses its uniqueness. In my opinion, conscious feedback, in order to be a successful long-term strategy, has to be coupled with something that anchors the idea you’re learning in a concrete, unique and tactile experience. Anecdotes, for example, are great for that purpose. If you do a post-mortem with a friend and he explains an idea to you, it’s much easier to recall that idea later because, in addition to understanding it, you are able to connect the idea to the social encounter, to your friend’s looks, his demeanour, the way he explained it to you, or to the game you’ve just played. This makes your learning experience unique and much more memorable. Of course, we have to be able to acquire new ideas on our own because our friends are not always willing to come over just so we can gaze at them while we learn a new endgame technique. But there are other ways to achieve the same effect. Temposchlucker suggested that “maybe more text will help since that isn’t procedural and can provide helpful cues”. This is spot on, I believe, not only in regard to explanations, which I think was what he had in mind, but with respect to anecdotal cues integrated into the explanations. I was trying to do something to that end in my previous post when I mentioned Worms and called the smothered mate the “bitch-slap of mates”. I am convinced that this innocuous and seemingly irrelevant comment will help me recall the smothered mate discovery in the future. It ties the idea to an anecdote, and makes the learning experience unique. Needless to say, different learner types respond to different cues, but the basic point remains the same: contextualise the skill and the learning experience to facilitate recall at a a later point.

One last comment on Temposchlucker’s verdict that learning on autopilot doesn’t work: I said in the beginning that I couldn’t agree more. But I couldn’t disagree more, either. I think learning on autopilot is extremely useful once you have learned the idea behind a skill. Once you have absorbed an idea, and once you’ve grasped what the goal of a procedure is, going through it on autopilot can become an effective tool to ingrain the skill in your brain. Your learning at that stage may no longer be fully conscious, you may not give real feedback, but your learning is still active in that you know what you’re learning. When you learn a poem by heart, you first have to learn it consciously, remember the words, remember the sentences; but once you’re past that stage, the act of reciting the poem to yourself no longer happens consciously; you’re acting on autopilot. And yet, the recital is extremely useful as a form of practice, until you reach the final stage, the master stage, at which you have made the poem your own and no longer need to practise it: the moment when you no longer try to do, but simply do.

To conclude and sum up, learning has to be active. This means you need to grasp the idea of the skill you’re learning and what it is you’ll achieve once you’ve mastered the skill. You don’t want to lose a skill you’ve learned, so you need to be able to recall it. This happens through repetition and by making the learning experience unique. Once you’ve achieved this and are able to explain and recall the skill you’ve acquired, learning on autopilot can help you make the skill a part of your unconscious skill set.

Discovery with Smothered Mate Threat

April 3, 2009


We tend to think of a discovery in terms of the power of the discovered piece rather than the discovering piece. Typical case: you sacrifice a knight with check that reveals an attack of the piece behind the knight, say a rook or a queen. The smothered mate discovery in this position has it the other way round: the knight is both discovering piece and the main attacker, while the discovered piece, the queen, is merely the “diversion”, forcing Black to move the queen rather than the rook. Once the queen has moved, Black can’t defend against both threats, smothered mate and losing the exchange. Source: “Seizing a Point” by Rolling Pawns.

While we’re on the topic of smothered mates, allow me a digression if I may: Remember the poke in Worms? The smothered mate is a bit like the poke in my opinion. It’s the bitch-slap among the mates. If you want to humiliate your opponent, the smothered mate is your weapon of choice. Of course, the smothered mate is also a magnificent triumph of space over material, and as such is a tribute to the beauty and depth of chess. Or something.

Checks, Capture, Threats and Long Diagonals

April 3, 2009

mygames_mate_01This post is more self-congratulatory than educational, perhaps, but what’s the use of having your own blog if you can’t indulge in patting yourself on the back every now and then? ;)

Dan Heisman’s advice for the novice is to look in each position for “checks, capture, threats”. In my experience so far, this is the single most useful and important motto to guide your thought-process in chess, and I’m still trying to burn it into my flesh by saying “checks, captures, threats” in my head every time me or my opponent make a move.

Yesterday I played a game as Black against an opponent rated at 2000. I live in a small country, so the rating may not say as much, but it’s still 2000, right? I managed to get into a favourable position and figured out a way to sacrifice my knight for the exchange after 1. … Qf7+ 2. Kxa4. So I half-heartedly forced myself to do the “checks, captures, threats” routine, my eyes greedily devouring the rook on f1, saliva drooling from my mouth — you get the picture — when on “checks” I behold Qa2+! Qa2+ is a difficult move to find because the queen moves on a long diagonal, and moves on long diagonals are tricky beasts because your chess vision has to stretch over the entire board. Owing to Heisman’s magic formula, I was able to spot it in time; I don’t think I would have, otherwise.

Of course, now that I had stumbled upon Qa2+ I was supposed to calculate. However, I was running short on time (15 minutes versus 40 minutes), and I am a lazy bastard, so I reckoned, what the hell, I’m playing with Fischer time control, so perhaps I owe it to Fischer to go for the mate. Later I found out that the position’s not mate, but yields Black a huge advantage (White has to sacrifice his queen if he wants to avoid mate). So today I am one happy pawn, and I would like to dedicate this victory to Mr Heisman.

Thanks to Tuirgin, the game in its entirety is now available here.