Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Hyper Modern French

Last year my son collected a number of prizes. Especially money he likes as he was able to buy 2 boxes of lego, a trendy step, 2 footballs,... Briefly although he earned the money by playing chess, nothing is invested to improve his chess capabilities. Therefore he was quite disappointed to find out that he got a voucher to spend at chessconsult when he won the Antwerp championship for the category of -8. Fortunately I knew how to cheer him up as I exchanged the voucher with my cash and used the voucher myself to buy 2 new books: Nadorf x Najdorf and Timman's Titans both published in 2016.

In the meanwhile I finished Najdorfs book. We all know the opening but the person Najdorf is after this death (1997) already largely forgotten. This book tries to bring him out of the oblivion and I think they managed this quite well. The books reads very smoothly and also the selected games are well analyzed. Especially the countless anecdotes make this book a real joy. One is about why Najdorf didn't play his own opening anymore in his later years. There is nothing wrong with the opening but he didn't like to fight against the much better opening-knowledge of many youngsters while his strength mainly positioned around technique and creativity.

Some will state the same about the Modern French. The theory exploded in this opening due to its enormous popularity. I got it 5 times on the board in standard-games about which I wrote in my articles (see e.g. the modern french, the modern french part 2, switching colors part 2, ...). That is really a lot if you take into account that I only play approximately 15 standard games each year. Also today several systems are discovered which allow white to put pressure. An idea which I prepared for a next encounter, was introduced a few months ago accidentally by the strong Dutch grandmaster Benjamin Bok.

Not surprisingly we see more and more players looking for new ideas in the French opening. The 20 years old strong German grandmaster Matthias Bluebaum is for sure a pioneer in this area. More and more he likes to play with the sequence of moves to sidestep the preparation of his opponents. His influence upon the hyper-modern French opening in which Nc6 is delayed or even sometimes cancelled, should not be underestimated. His fresh strategical ideas gave this hyper-modern approach a serious boost. Even some super grandmasters have noticed this and gave it a shot. This year the Indian top-grandmaster Pentala Harikrisha scored a sensational victory in Altibox Norway Chess with this line.

Forewarned is forearmed but I shamefully had to admit in the last Open Leuven that I didn't understand anything about the opening. Besides I was totally surprised that the 47 years old Jan Rogiers had such hyper modern opening in his repertoire. That explains of course why I quickly got into troubles in our game and only an incredible counterattack avoided a big rating-upset.

My analysis causes doubts about the full correctness of this hyper-modern system but I expect we will still see new developments. Besides those rich strategical positions are excellent to play for a win with both colors. A noteworthy statistic is that all my 6 standard-games in this opening had decisive results while always respecting the rating-logic.


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Familychess part 2

Almost everybody frees some time around new year to visit their family. It is a very hyped period in which everything is about fortune and happiness but the reality is rather different. The preparation of the festivities is often creating a lot of stress and some family-members which you fortunately only meet once per year, still manage every time to irritate you. You can choose your friends but it is much harder to ignore family.

I am not going to complain here about my family. Especially my relation with my parents-in-law is very good. If they are visiting us in Belgium for a month during the summer or we visit them in Ufa as last 2 weeks, I am always surprised by their endless patience and concern about us. They clearly put their children and grandchildren in front of their own interests. I don't know if this is something typical for Russians but this is for sure not granted in Belgium.

Anyway despite good relations it is hard to have a conversation going beyond some chit-chat with the family. Most of us have very different interests. One likes very much football while the other doesn't care at all who won last the Champions League. A big exception are the foods and drinks which are normally abundantly available on any family-party. Also in Russia they know how to spoil their guests.  Of course parties have their own local characteristics. I noticed that the table always has to be overloaded by different dishes and drinks as you can see on below picture made at a visit of a cousin of my wife.
Last year we discovered an exceptional good restaurant and I had little trouble to convince my family-in-law to make a revisit. Afterwards I found out that Balkan Gril is according to tripadvisor at place 8 of best restaurants in Ufa. As a real bon vivant I enjoy such culinary excursions enormously. 
By the way you can find on youtube a funny clip about how the waiter serves the dish flambe.

So food and drinks play an important role at family-parties but it is of course more enjoyable if you have other things in common. Therefore I find it a good idea to try to find a hobby as parent which you can do together with the children. 4 years ago I teached my children the rules of chess (see cheating) and I am happy that today one of them still likes to play.

I find anything what my children do interesting but it is a bonus if you also like to do the same stuff. Besides my son very well realizes that he has a big advantage compared to the other children with a father able to help him any time with any problem (within the boundaries of fair play of course). Today we already see that he has a considerable lead with probably a temporarily biggest accomplishment of a first place in the final standings of the F-series of the last Flemish Youth-criterium.

Naturally I hope that we can play in the (nearby) future some tournaments together as some other families do in Belgium. On the other hand a confrontation at the board will definitely create some extra tension. I am not going to give presents as others do (see Familychess part 1) as I have to show the right example. On the other hand exchanging preparations or knowledge of openings will be obviously done extensively.

I also take this last element into account when I have to prepare against a descendant of a chess-family. In 2011 I played below game against Patrick Boons.

In the last Open Leuven I met at the board his brother Bert Boons. I didn't find many useful games of Bert in the database but still I won quite some time on the clock due to my rehearsal of my analysis made upon my game against Patrick.

Another well-known Belgian chess-family consisting of already 3 generations are Daniel, Arben and Bardyl Dardha. Also here we see an overlap between their repertoires especially of Arben and Daniel. In my recent game against Arben played in the interclub I followed for some time my preparation which was based on a game played by the son Daniel.

In my article openingchoices I already indicated that external elements heavily influence somebodies repertoire and this article just confirms this. That doesn't mean that family-members will automatically copy each others repertoire but you should take the possibility into account. Besides my son plays today very few systems which I also play. I did advise against the Dutch. Anyway my knowledge of most openings is more than sufficient to help him at the level he plays today.


Monday, December 26, 2016

The expert part 2

A few days ago I read another funny anecdote in the book Ivan's Chess Journey Unravelled. Ivan explains that he and his opponent the Latvian strong grandmaster Alexei Shirov got a standing ovation after that their game ended in a spectacular draw. The game was played in 1994 so before engines were strong enough to give accurate evaluations. That means nobody knew that the game was full of serious mistakes.

In those days chess was still magic. You had fans sheering for their heroes. Today an absolute world class-player like Wesley So has only a fanbase of just 3 members. Engines show us every day that everybody makes many mistakes so not much appreciation for talent still exists.

I am not fond of idealizing people but that doesn't mean that I can't sympathize with the results of others. Of course I do follow the first steps of my son in chess but I am also interested in the games of my team-mates and other friends. Besides kibitzing national or international games can be fun too.

Obviously some players are more attractive to follow than others. The rating plays naturally a role. I notice in each broadcast that the games of the reigning world-champion Magnus Carlsen are a magnet. Except the rating also somebodies style and theoretical knowledge are important for me. The strong British grandmaster Nigel Short is famous for this experiments with openings which we normally only see in games played at the club. The strong Ukrainian grandmaster Andrei Volokitin and the Greek grandmaster Vasilios Kotronias are interesting for me because of their refined opening repertoire.

Experts of openings which I play myself are good to follow and study. In my article switching colors part 2 I talked about the Turkish IM Burak Firat, meeting 17 times the same line on the board. However even better is to look at players above 2600 elo, selecting their opening-lines much more solidly and professionally. Anyway we already know that Botvinnik told Kasparov to learn an opening via studying the games of the best players.

Nowadays most players play a big variety of openings (which was covered in my article the list of strength) but there are still a few exceptions whom stick to a much more narrow repertoire. In this category belongs for sure former European champion and Russian grandmaster Vladimir Potkin. In the last 5 years he chose in 81 out of 104 games for the Sicilian after 1.e4. Further he answered 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 almost always (66 out of 69 games) with e6. Vladimir is a real expert in the Sicilian Taimanov as can be seen in the game below against the Russian super-grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi.

It is of course  not a coincidence that we see almost an identical copy of a game published in my article ambitions part 2.  After that game Benjamin confessed that he had studied the games of Vladimir.

On the other hand I noticed that Vladimir since 2015 switched to a6 again. I assume that he wasn't fully satisfied about the line and then even an expert will make some changes to his repertoire. Now he chooses the modern Negi concept as so many others. That line was earlier already covered in my article to shoot a mosquito with a canon.

Anyway I guess Vladimir had recently not much time to work on his own repertoire. During the candidate-finales as during the world-championship he assisted the challenger Sergei Karjakin with his preparations. A good worker for the openings is always useful but I assume Vladimir also influenced the opening-strategy of Sergei. We clearly see a difference between Magnus and Sergeis strategies
WC Strategy

The yellow moves tell us where Magnus deviated from earlier games in the championship. The blue moves are the ones of Sergei when he deviates. It is clear that Magnus is almost always the first one to do (10 - 4) and besides he does it very early. The Ukrainian super-grandmaster Ruslan Ponamariov wonders himself at Chessbase what Carlsen has shown us at the world-championship. Well maybe that it is possible to stay world-champion without going into big theoretical fights.

Finally we should not ignore the fact that Sergei came very close to get the title. Opening-experts are still playing an important role today for amateurs and finalists of a world-championship. Kasparovs tweet about the lack of preparation of Carlsen definitely contains some truth.


A nice article fitting to this theme is  Can You Still Specialize In An Opening?

Monday, December 12, 2016

The fake truth part 2

With the New Year celebrations in front of us a lot of money will be spent. We are searching the right gifts for our loved ones but should not forget ourselves. This reminds me that I am still looking for a good book about chess to read during the Christmas's holidays. Currently I am reading the book Ivan's_Chess_Journey_Unravelled which I like so something similar is fine but other proposals I welcome too in the reactions.

In this period of the year we see shops making extra efforts to attract customers. Advertising, newsletters, ... are just a few techniques used to promote the products. The commercial king of chess is already for several decades Chessbase. Nobody else succeeds better to earn money by selling chess products. Except a large variety of attractive products also huge investments are done in marketing which plays a crucial role in their sales.

The financial resources of Chessbase are many times larger than the competition. This advantage they exploit maximally via skillful marketing-plans. This year Chessbase didn't miss a golden opportunity like the world-championship to attract (new) customers. They were the only ones to get annotations of the games by the world class pros Ruslan PonomariovFabiano CaruanaWesley So and David Navara. I can't remember an earlier world championship for which 4 players with an average of +2760 elo were asked to provide their analysis. I write this blog unpaid but I am sure these guys got a very high fee for their services.

It is very hard to predict if Chessbase will see an increase of their sales by this stunt. Besides are the analysis of the best players in the world really better than what you can get on the other sites? In my previous article you could read that today's best engines play several hundred points better than any player. You could therefore deduct that an annotator will just talk through the analysis of the engine.

From pure analytical perspective I do not see much difference. The engines point out quickly and accurately the mistakes which are covered in any proper report. One big exception is the opening. The top-players play and know each others repertoire extremely well so are able to tell us which lines are critical and popular. I give one example. Game 11 was a pretty harmless looking opening but Wesley So demonstrates things can quickly get out of control.

The biggest added value of the best players is their commentary. Computers are not capable today to understand the chess-psychology in human games. Besides this is something very much linked to somebodies playing strength. Finally Wesley so also injects lessons in his commentary for the average player. You notice clearly that Wesley has quite some experience in coaching weaker players contrary to his illustrious colleagues. He tells us to be practical if we analyze openings. Don't spent countless hours into studying some opening which will very rarely pop up in your practice. You will develop much faster by carefully selecting and absorbing ideas.

Another remarkable statement of Wesley is that he doesn't fully trust his notes of 2013. He rightly claims that Houdini, the computer and the internet were much slower 3 years ago. This fully matches my previous article in which I wrote that we saw a jump in strength of 200 ratingpoints in only 3 years for the engines. On the other hand I do wonder what he exactly means with the internet. I see today many enjoyable and addictive multi player games ( boom via the faster network but I normally use only 1 or 2 PC's for the analysis.

The problem is for an amateur of course much smaller. The influence of the opening is rather small upon the final result of a game (see studying chess openings). On the other hand I always try to add something scientific into my games. It is pretty frustrating to discover afterwards that the used analysis in which quite some personal effort was put, are outdated. Something like that happened to me recently in the Belgian interclub. In 2007 I met for the first time a rather obscure line of the Sicilian after which I spent a number of hours to find an anti-dote.

In the second round I got recently again the same opening on the board by Hendrik Ponnet. I still could remember my recommendation from my opening-book but only after the game I found out that the theory was developed a lot since then.

I get the impression that Hendriks preparation wasn't very extensive as normally I should not have obtained any advantage out of the opening. Sometimes using outdated analysis can throw the opponent out of book but you can't count on such coincidences of course.

We know that the raise of the machines won't stop immediately so we do have to take into account also in the future that some of our analysis will be outdated. Especially if you play sharp tactical lines you have to be very careful to rely on old analysis. Next I also experienced that by studying properly the options of the opponent you can improve drastically the opening analysis. Till a couple of years ago I was already satisfied after finding an answer to the lines which the engine showed. Today I also investigate any line which was played with some success in practice (+2300 standard chess, chess between computers, correspondence chess and even my own online-games). Well any line is of course not possible as in the end you do want to finalize the analysis in maximum a couple of weeks.

By looking at a much bigger variety of lines, I get a more balanced evaluation of an opening. Finally I also discovered that this method of studying openings bears a number of ideas which I use as surprises.


Friday, December 2, 2016

Rise of the machines part 2

Regularly we have it on this blog about new engines. They don't only improve continuously but they also influence the way we play (see revolution in the new millennium) and analyze (see the fake truth). Besides we haven't yet met the ceiling as developments today are happening very rapidly. Personally I am really astonished about this after 2 decades of intensive programming done by several great talents. It is not easy to valuate this gigantic progression correctly  but I will give it a try in this article.

In 1997 Deep Blue defeated the at that time reigning world-champion Garry Kasparov which generally is considered as a milestone but it still took several years till every player could use an engine of the same strength. It is difficult to pin an exact date when that happened but I estimate 2003 will be close. 2003 was the period of the matches Kasparov against Deep Junior and X3D Fritz which were both drawn.

Ever since the top-engines have surpassed everybody and not a little bit. If we look at CCRL then Fritz progressed with 470 elo-points in the last 13 years. On top of that we notice that today Komodo 10 is an additional 210 rating-points stronger than the strongest version of Fritz. That makes a total of 680 points or averagely 52 points per year. If we only look at the 3 recent years then we have the same trend. End of 2013 I worked with stockfish 4. Last week I download Stockfish 8 which again is 165 points stronger than edition 4 based on the figures of CCRL. That is again 55 points averagely per year.

An important role during the progression of the last couple of years plays without any doubt TCEC (Top Chess Engine Championship). Ameliorations to the engines are allowed between the stages within 1 championship and this combined with the ever growing interest of the championship, clearly motivates most programmers.

Currently the superfinal of season 9 is ongoing and we are very close to the final decision. I see 2 big surprises this season. The first one is the non-qualification to the superfinal of Komdo while leading at CCRL. I guess this is related to new improved versions of the competitors which are not yet used by CCRL. The second big surprise is the comeback of our Belgian super talented programmer Robert Houdart with his engine Houdini. I didn't expect that as Houdini 4 already dates back from 2013 !. At the site of Houdini they claim a progression of not less than 200 ratingpoints which doesn't seem exaggerated to me.

In the separate rapid-championship Houdini won in front of Komodo and Stockfish but in the superfinal of the classical chess-championship, Houdini will most likely narrowly lose against Stockfish. Anyway 1 game will for sure be remembered for longtime if only because it created quite some controversy. Of course I talk about the 17th.

In the final position a win was awarded automatically to Stockfish based on the Nalimov tablebases. However many viewers didn't agree with the verdict. First both engines showed a quotation of 0.00 in the final position see TCEC but on top the 50 moves-rule was not taken into account. If TCEC had used instead  Syzygy tablebases then the rule could have been applied.
Evaluation by Syzygy tablebases of the final position game 17th TCEC season 9
DTZ tells us how many moves no pawn was moved or piece was captured against optimal play. DTM on the other hand shows us the number of moves to mate against optimal play. 123 plies or 62 moves for DTZ means indeed that the 50 moves-rule comes into force.

However we should not forget that the 50 moves-rule is something introduced for humans to avoid searching endlessly for a win in vain. As I already wrote in my article ICCF it does make sense to ignore this rule here too.

Besides that it is still looks strange to me to award a win when both engines don't see at all such win. I do understand that adjudications win a lot of time and energy. Till then this was always going smoothly but not this time. Afterwards some people claimed rightly that Houdini would have avoided the final position if it was allowed to consult in advance the tablebases.

Decisions by (much) weaker arbiters often create problems when they are related to playing for a win but the opposite also exists. The much stronger arbiter makes a judgment based on its capabilities but ignores the much weaker skills of the involved players.

By accident something similar happened to my son Hugo playing in the -8 category of the Flemish youth-criterium at Gent. His third game was adjudicated as a draw when an endgame of each rook + king was on the board and the opponent risked losing on time. After the game Hugo could not suppress his tears anymore. The arbiter made a call in good conscience but it is of course very painful when just a few weeks earlier you lost the exact same endgame in the step-tournament of Turnhout against a brother of the opponent.

Maybe Hugos opponent in Gent would have not made such kind of mistake but we can't be sure of that. You never know what will or will not happen in the -8 category so any decision is debatable. Eventually I advised Hugo to accept the decision of the arbiter. A draw was a fair result and from my experience I know that it is often better not to fight against such things on the long term.

I assume TCEC thought the same. The adjudication wasn't optimal but the decision was made and you can't change the rules during the superfinale anymore. In the end 100 games will be played and it doesn't look like this 1 game will influence who will win the final.

I expect after this superfinal CCRL will start to test the new versions of both finalists. Normally this means we will see Stockfish as the new number 1 with a bunch of ratingpoints ahead. Some difficult times are coming for the commercial engines as few will want to pay for a weaker engine while you can get the strongest one for free.

The exact elo-strength of the engines calculated by Carlsens rating + the progression since 2003 looks too simplistic to me. If we would do such math then it would mean Carlsen would not be able to score theoretically one single point in a standard game without a handicap. I do see him losing a match with a big margin but with the right openings it should be possible to score a couple of half points which means the rating-difference can't be 700 points.

On the other hand in this article I only talk about the strength of the engines. We don't take into account hardware developments, improved interfaces or new and bigger tablebases. Together they maybe push the rating another 200 points up.

It is not for no reason that I stated at the beginning of this article that the progression of the engines is difficult to valuate correctly. If you add up all the numbers then you get a dazzling rating of around 3800 elo which makes no sense. The only way to evaluate the engines is to let them compete against other engines. Unfortunately we also see a lot of players using the engines to denigrate our top-players which just shows a complete lack of respect.


Thursday, November 24, 2016


How somebody reacts after a loss depends very much of the person and the circumstances. Some have not the slightest problem to forget about it. Others can be for a long time demoralized. Well known are Fischers 6-0 victories in the candidate matches against Taimanov and Larsen. After that both slowly disappeared from the highest echelons. Fischer wanted not only to win at the board but also tried to break the opponent psychologically.

We also see this behavior in youth tournaments. Some children leave their board after a loss with a smile and start to play football as nothing bad happened. Others can't hide their emotions and even cry. Naturally chess is not for everybody as much important. As a consequence the more ambitious players quickly take the lead. Players having more troubles to cope with a loss are averagely much more eager to learn something and make quicker progress than their more relaxed peers.

On the other hand emotions are not only a positive catalyst but can also often work paralyzing. A loss can be so detrimental each time that a fear is developed. A logical defense-mechanism is avoiding losses at all costs which can lead to some extreme cases. A few months ago I witnessed my son proposing a draw after only 1 move played in the tournament for debutants at Wetteren because he thought it would consolidate his first position. It became a tough lesson as not only there was a wrinkle in the rules which only gave him second place but he also had to listen to my reaction how disappointed I was in his behavior. I haven't seen him proposing any draws anymore since then.

I use the example of my son but in Belgium fear for losing is a very wide spread phenomenon. Maybe this is due to the great modesty of which Belgians are famous for which is why we are often satisfied with setting lower goals. In Belgium a draw against a higher rated player is considered as a big success. Seldom somebody will wonder if there wasn't more possible. I already encountered several inexplicable drawing offers of my opponents in my career. One example was already shown in my article Lars Schandorff. A second example below is from the Open Leuven played last year.
White proposed a draw while he has 10 minutes extra and the position should normally not be holdable for black 
Of course I know the expression that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. However the final position gives white 1000 better chances to win than the start position. Why would you want to play a game if you are not interested to win it?

Emotions often let us do crazy things. I won't deny the fact that even today I still have to fight against my fear of losing. Last couple of years my fear certainly decreased (something which I already explained in my article sofia rules) but it never completely disappeared. In the last round of Open Leuven this year I could again not resist to the draw-offer of my opponent Hans Renette while I knew that likely I had the slightly better position.
White proposed a draw. I wanted to play the correct b6 and black is a bit better as he can try to win by playing later e5.
I had a bit more than a half hour left for 21 moves. Last time I squandered a bigger advantage against Hans. I have after all black. I had chosen in my preparation to play the same drawing line as I did in Open Gent see Avrukh part 2 so my plan was to play a draw. With the draw I was certain of a nice prize (380 euro). It are all excuses to hide that I was afraid of losing. Arno Bomans showed more guts by declining the draw proposal of the top-favorite Stefan Docx (see his witty commentary) although we are here a bit comparing apples to oranges.

Fear may be something typical for the Belgian players but it also pops up elsewhere. Even some very strong players suffer from it. The congenial Australian grandmaster David Smerdon told us after his game against Carlsen that he would never have forced the draw against any player below 2700 elo with the advantage he had on the board see

Respect is important but not exploiting fully your own chances is just fear. Currently I am reading the book Ivan's Chess Journey in which there are a few nice anecdotes. One of them is Ivan talking about the grandmaster Bojan Kurajica from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bojan was a great talent but never achieved his full potential because he was afraid to lose. However in 1994 he shined due to a concurrence of events. The war in Bosnia created for him a lot of practical problems but as if this wasn't enough his wife in the same period also gave him the divorcing papers. It was an enormous shock for Bojan as this really filled his glass of misery. He felt as a man having nothing to lose anymore. A man with a talent, without fear to lose anything is a formidable opponent. He became the hero at the 34th Olympiad in Moscow with not less than 6 victories. In the same year he also defeated the 200 points higher rated Karpov in a rapid tie-break.

Players need to try to overcome their fear of failure if they want to achieve the maximum out of themselves. The best players are fearless fighting-machines, gladiators fighting till the death. It is up to the coaches, parents, the entourage of our (youth-) players to make this mental switch and convince them to always go for it. Then again today at home we have a cute nice teddy bear hopping around. Do we really want to transform him into a a big dangerous grizzly-bear?