Friday, September 26, 2014

Napoleon and Chess

Did you know that Napoleon Bonaparte was a chess lover? Yes: The French military genius who reformed the First Empire, turned the armies of France against the rest of continental Europe, and won stunning victories on the battlefield also devoted most of his time towards the royal game. Unfortunately, as he was too preoccupied with conquering Europe, he was unable to spare time to train his chess to the top level; as a result, many sources label him as a mediocre player. Only three of his games have been recorded, and the authenticity of these games have been disputed.

Napoléon Crossing the Alps by Jacques Louis David, 1801 (Image from Wiki)

But for today, we will not go into a lengthy discussion on how strong Napoleon was as a chessplayer, or whether those games which he played were authentic (if you're interested, you can read this article by Edward Winter on Napoleon and Chess: Today, we will just relax and take a look at one of his games against Madame De Remusat, a distinguished lady at the consular court of Malmaison Castle. The  game features bold (although rash) sacrifices by Napoleon to hunt down the enemy king, a symbol of the Romantic School of Chess which was predominant during the time.

Napoleon Bonaparte vs Madame De Remusat
Malmaison Castle 1804

1. Nc3 e5
2. Nf3 d6
3. e4 f5?!
4. h3!?

After 4. Bc4 Nc6 5. d3 White has a huge lead in development.

4... fxe4
5. Nxe4 Nc6
6. Nfg5?! (D)

Position after 6. Nfg5

Today, standard theory would recommend continued development as the wiser option: For example, after 6. Bb5 Nf6 7. d3 Bd7 8. O-O Qe7 9. Be3 O-O-O we have an interesting double-edged situation where both sides threaten to attack on opposite wings, as is seen in modern games.

6... d5
7. Qh5+ g6
8. Qf3 Nh6?

"Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake"
-- Napoleon Bonaparte

A blunder that relinquishes control of the f6 square, allowing White to unleash a brutal attack on the enemy king. In contrast, after 8... Qe7! 9. Bb5 (there are too many tactical problems for White to solve) 9... dxe4 10. Bxc6+ bxc6 11. Nxe4 Bf5 White would have been a piece down with little compensation!

9. Nf6+ Ke7
10. Nxd5+ Kd6
11. Ne4+ Kxd5 (D)

White to move and mate in 3

"One sharp blow and the war is over"
-- Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz (1805)

Now spot the mate in 3 before scrolling down!
12. Bc4+! Kxc4
13. Qb3+ Kd4
14. Qd3# (D)

Final position after 14. Qd3#

And hopefully y'all have been entertained well by this miniature. I will end off with another quote by the Emperor that relates directly to what we learn in chess:

"The battlefield is a scene of constant chaos. The winner will be the one who controls that chaos, both his own and the enemies."
-- Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz, by François Gérard (Iimage from Wiki)

Vive la Empereur!


Thursday, September 25, 2014

5 things which distinguish a real chessplayer from the rest

In all my years as a chessplayer I have interacted with all sorts of fellow player, from the fresh amateur to the experienced FM. And throughout the course of my career, I have found out several things which distinguish real players-- those who truly are committed to improving themselves in the game-- apart from the rest of the world.

No, I won't be talking about the cliche stuff such as "Oh real players are better at seeing tactics, they can calculate better, " etc. Instead I have picked 5 main things which I have observed quite often during my interactions with these people:

1. Real players know how to use ALL their pieces

I have taught several people how to play chess, and the first things they say after learning the game is: "Oh I hate the king so much, it's the most useless piece of sh1t on the entire board!" or “Why are the pawns so weak!?”. Many chess newbies are only able to appreciate pieces with vast mobile capabilities such as the Queen and Rooks, and this is not surprising; obviously, if your gun is bigger, you would want to use it more often.

However, what they fail to see is that although it is not as mobile, the king is an incredibly powerful piece when it comes to the endgame; many endgames have been decided simply because one side’s king is more centralized than the other. Similarly, pawn play is an extremely important part of the game, and the lowly infantryman has the potential to turn the tides of a battle if used in coordination with the pieces. Real players appreciate this, thus they are able to use every single one of their pieces and pawns to their advantage, no matter how limited in movement the piece is.


Chess newbies don’t understand this, and thus they only know how to use their most powerful pieces. But once these pieces are traded and a king-pawn endgame is reached, they become helpless… and get crushed by their opponent’s centralized king and pawns.

2. Real players know how to coordinate their pieces

This is slightly similar to the first point: Chess newbies only know how to use each piece individually, especially the Queen. They are exceptionally good at running their Queen/Rook/Bishop/Knight all over the board and attacking their opponent, but when it comes to using more than one piece to create a united offensive/defensive, they sorely lack the technique.

Real chessplayers understand that in order to gain victory, a team effort is needed (yes, chess teaches you about teamwork!). Thus they are able to utilize all their pieces to achieve a desired plan, rather than just letting a lone Queen take a walk in the enemy camp.

3. Real players appreciate the importance of time management

Many a time I hear my friends saying: “You won on time? That’s dishonourable!” That’s really sad, because it means that they don’t understand is that time management is an integral part of the game. Which means that there is no shame in winning on time.

The chessboard offers two dimensions of warfare: Strategic, and tactical. The chess clock adds a third dimension to the game: The dimension of logistics. In war, battles are not won purely through military skill; it is also decided by which side is more efficient in supplying their troops with food and ammunition. On the chessboard, the logistics of the battle is time; the side who can manage his time better has the advantage. So if you lose on time, it is largely your own fault for not being able to effectively handle the time you have been supplied with.

"The fact that a player is very short of time is, to my mind, as little to be considered an excuse as, for instance, the statement of the law-breaker that he was drunk at the time he committed the crime"
-- Alexander Alekhine

So really, time management is an important skill that every serious chessplayer has to pick up, which is why I state that there is no shame in winning on time. Real players understand this.

4. Real players understand that they have to make sacrifices

Now most amateurs know about the importance of gaining material superiority and simplifying it into a winning position. As a result, they cling on to every single piece and pawn out there on the board, not knowing that sometimes, you have to make certain sacrifices in order to gain an even bigger advantage.

As one progresses further in chess, he or she will start to appreciate the fact that winning in chess is about making compromises. In order to create a lasting attack on the enemy king one might have to give up some material; in order to get more active and centralized pieces one may have to damage his own pawn structure.

One of my favourite examples that I use to illustrate this point is the famous Opera Game, played between Paul Morphy and the duo of Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard. In the game, Morphy is not afraid to give up his knight, rook and queen to achieve a swift mating attack on his opponents' uncastled king:

The point is being able to calculate the variations to calculate whether a sacrifice is worth making, and real players know the importance of doing this. They know that sometimes in order to win... you just have to let it go.

5. Real players have the will to push themselves

This may sound the most cliché among all 5 points, but it is probably the biggest thing that distinguishes a real chessplayer from the rest of the population: Their level commitment to the game.

I have observed this familiar trend among our own team: Those who merely turn up for one session per week and play a couple of games don’t make any noticeable progress in their playing skills. On the other hand, those who make an effort to turn up twice, and even learn on their own outside the classroom have improved significantly, despite having started out poorly.

Robert James "Bobby" Fischer, the 11th World Champion

 "I give 98 percent of my mental energy to Chess. Others give only 2 percent."
-- Robert Fischer

As Mr Lim has always said, how well you do in a subject depends on how much time you are willing to spend on it. You cannot hope to improve in chess if you only spend 2 hours per week dozing off during CCA. It’s all about pushing ourselves to do more than what is expected of us; no one can help you except yourselves. Real players understand this.


And thus here are the 5 things which I feel that distinguish a real chessplayer from the rest of the general population. Do you have anything else to add on? If so, feel free to comment below (:


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Rook-Pawn endgames: Two vs One

After this long hiatus on rook endgames we will finally come back to continue where we have left off. Previously, we have focused mainly on endgames where the tussle between rooks revolves around a lone infantryman. Today, we will extend our discussion to include cases where there is more than one pawn on the board.

If one is familiar with the basics of chess, the he or she will remember the rule that when down on material, trade pawns instead of pieces. This is because when everything is traded off, the true executioners of the enemy king are not the pieces, but the pawns (due to their ability to promote). Thus, in the majority of endgames, the weaker side's drawing chances are improved with every pawn trade, and this is true especially for rook endgames.

For the next few articles, we are going to look at rook endgames where all the pawns are on one side of the board (i.e. neither side has an outside passed pawn). If the stronger side is only a pawn up, his opponent has some good drawing chances: The drawing plan here is to reach a Philidor/Inverse Philidor position which is an easy draw.

Yes, I ate it for breakfast this morning

Ah, of course, it'll be silly for me to assume everyone can remember the Philidor after such a long time. So here's the link to the original posts if you need some refreshing:

Inverse Philidor:

To achieve a Philidor/Inverse Philidor, the following set of fundamental guidelines will prove useful:

  • Keep the rooks on the board. Trading of the rooks at early stages of the endgame only makes it easier for the opponent to reach a winning king-pawn endgame. In general, the weaker side should only trade rooks if he sees that the resultant king-pawn endgame is an obvious draw.
  • Keep your rook as active as possible. That means using it to tie down the enemy king to the defense of his pawns. Sitting on the sidelines gives a passive rook which we know by now is a death sentence in rook endgames.
  • Get your king in front of the enemy pawns. Remember that if the king is cut off it becomes easier for the stronger side to acquire a winning Lucena Position.
  • Trade pawns, unless doing so severely weakens your pawn structure. With each pawn trade the defender's chances of getting a Philidor/Inverse Philidor Position go up.

We shall take a look at how this works by examining the simplest example: A Rook + Two vs Rook + One situation:

White to move, draw

1. Kg5

Threatening 2. f5 when White's pawns squeeze Black into a cramped position.

1... Rc5!

The idea as a defender is to NEVER let yourself get squeezed, because that forces your king and rook into a passive position that becomes a nightmare to deal with. To prevent this, Black threatens the hanging e-pawn should the f pawn advance. Such is the benefits of keeping your rook active!

Placing the rook behind the pawn for long distance attack also works, but things are more tricky here: 1... Rc1 2. Rb7+ Kf8 3. f5 (Black is getting squeezed; although it is still a theoretical draw, it is very easy to slip up over here especially in a tournament) 3... Rh1! (the more intuitive 3... Rc5? loses after 4. Kf6 Rc6+ 5. e6 fxe6?? 6. Rb8+ with mate to follow!) 4. Rb8+ Ke7 5. f6+ Kd7 6. Rf8 (D)

Position after 6. Rf8

 6... Rg1+!

The simplest way to draw; White cannot hope to win the pawn and escape the back-rank checks at the same time. On the other hand, both 6... Ke6 7. Re8+ Kd5 8. e6 and 6... Rh7 7. Kg4! (Zugzwang: Any rook move allows Rxf7 while any king move allows Re8 followed by Re7) 7... Kc7 8. Re8 (preparing 9. Re7 followed by the decisive 10. e6) both lose for Black.

Returning to the main line after 1... Rc5:

2. Rb7+ Kf8

2... Ke6?? 3. f5+! Kxe5 4. Re7+ Kd6 5. Rxf7 and Black is losing since his king is no longer in front of the enemy pawn.

3. f5

3. Kf5 Rc6 repeats the original position, while after 3. Kh6 Rc6+ 4. Kh5 f6 Black is able to trade pawns and get an easily drawn rook endgame (Black's king is in front of the enemy pawn, while White's king is offside).

3... Rxe5
4. Kf6 Re1

Back rank defense: A familiar motif to many of us by now.

5. Rxf7+

After 5. Rb8+ Black can safely trade rooks because the resultant king-pawn endgame is a dead draw: 5... Re8 6. Rxe8+ Kxe8 7. Kg7 Ke7 8. Kg8 (8. f6+?? Ke6 and White is in a losing Trebuchet position! See for more details) 8... Kf6 9. Kf8 and neither side is going to make any progress.

5... Kg8
6. Rg7+ Kh8
7. Rb7 (D)

Looks familiar?

We have reached an Inverse Philidor position.

7... Rf1!

The key idea of tying the king down to the defense of its pawn. Now, I will leave the remainder of the drawing technique as a revision exercise for y'all to try out.


So we have seen the importance of keeping your rooks active, deciding which pawns and pieces to trade, and utilizing the back-rank defense when playing a pawn down in rook endgames. That said, it is also important for the weaker side not to play too passively, lest he gets squeezed into a corner by the enemy pawns. The following example is a simple illustration of this:

Black to move and draw

Here, Black cannot afford to wait passively with something like 1... Re7? because after 2. f5 White puts a squeeze on his opponent: 2. f5 Re1 (Back-rank defense, but it doesn't work over here as White's king can find shelter) 3. Rb7! Kg8 4. Kh5 threatening 5. Kg6 winning the pawn.

Instead, Black has the saving move 1... g6! that freezes White's pawn majority. Now, any rook checks just leads to Black's king shuffling along the last two ranks, while 2. Rf6+ Kg7 also makes no progress.


I will just toss in one last example from my references to make things clearer:

White to move, draw

Here, Black can once again exploit the fact that after trading a pair of pawns, his king can easily get in front of the remaining pawn and create a drawn Philidor/Inverse Philidor position.

1. Rd5

Otherwise Black just shuffles his rook along the 5th rank.


Trading rooks is bad: 1... Rxd5?? 2. exd5 and Black has a losing king-pawn endgame: 2... Kf7 3. Kf5 Ke7 4. d6+! Kf7 5. d7 Ke7 6. d8=Q+ Kxd8 7. Kxf6 1-0

2. g5 fxg5+
3. Rxg5+ Kf6

And with his king in front of the enemy pawn, Black should be able to hold a draw with little difficulty.


So to wrap up, here are the basic defensive techniques used when a pawn down in rook endgames, and the pawns are on one side of the board:

  • Do not trade rooks unless necessary
  • Avoid passive play (e.g. getting squeezed by enemy pawns)
  • Keep the rook active by tying down enemy pieces/pawns, or using the back-rank defense
  • Put your king in front of the enemy pawns
  • Trade pawns until a Philidor/Inverse Philidor position is reached

And thus far we have examined cases of  two vs one pawn. In future articles, we will extend our discussion to involve rook endgames of three vs two (:

"Silman's Complete Endgame Course" by Jeremy Silman
"Chess Endgame Training" by Bernd Rosen

Friday, September 12, 2014

A simple pin: National Inter-School Teams 2014

So for some reason, yesterday's team line-ups made me play 5 Black games in a row (Jaren had 5 Whites, while Delvin also had 5 Blacks!). But it was the last game that was most memorable for me: Not only was it the first time I had beaten a Rafflesian in a tournament, it was also (very likely) the last game I would ever play for this school.

The game was mostly equal throughout; it was only a tactical blunder made by my opponent that allowed me to score the full point.

Opponent vs Checkerboard 5
54 National Inter-School Team Chess Championships 2014 

1. b4 e6
2. b5 Be7
3. Bb2 Nf6
4. e3 O-O
5. c4 d6
6. Nf3 Nbd7
7. d4 c6
8. Be2 cxb5
9. cxb5 b6
10. O-O Bb7
11. Nc3 Rc8

The motif of the middlegame revolves around the open c-file

12. Rc1 Ne4 (D)

Position after 12... Ne4

13. Nxe4

White could try 13. Qa4 Nxc3 14. Rxc3 Rxc3 15. Bxc3 Qb8 16. Rc1 taking control of the file.

13... Bxe4
14. a4 Nf6
15. Bd3 Bxd3
16. Qxd3 Qd7
17. e4 Rc7
18. Rxc7 Qxc7
19. Rc1 Qd7
20. h3 Rc8

Re-occupying the file. An alternative variation here that I looked at was 20... d5!? 21. Ne5! Qb7 22. exd5 Nxd5 23. Qe4 Bd6 24. Rc6 Rd8 (D)

Position after 24... Rd8

Would I have been able to exploit White's isolated d-pawn? Possible but not easy: White's pieces are clearly more active, and he has seized control of the open file. After 25. Bc1 h6 my opponent can bring his bishop back into the game. While I would say it is still playable for Black if he manages to simplify the position, I certainly won't want to play as Black over here.

21. Rxc8+ Qxc8
22. d5 exd5

After 22... e5 White can play 23. Ne1, eyeing the outpost on c6 (Nc2-Nb4-Nc6) where he can exert lots of pressure on Black's queenside.

23. exd5 Qc5 (D)

Position after 23... Qc5

Occupation of the c-file has paid off with an outpost for Her Majesty.

24. Ng5

The alternative variation by Fritz was 24. Bxf6 Bxf6 25. Qe4 g6

24... Qxd5
25. Qe3 Bd8

25... Qd1+ looks more active, but after 26. Kh2 Nd5 27. Qe4 g6 28. Qc4 Bf8 (28... Bxg5?? Qc8+ with mate on next move!) 29. Bd4 Black is in danger of losing a piece and getting mated at the same time.

26. Bxf6 gxf6

Of course not 26... Bxf6?? 27. Qe8#

27. Nf3 Bc7
28. g3 Qc5
29. Qe8+ Kg7
30. Qc8 d5 (D)

Position after 30... d5

31. Qb7??

This is the blunder that cost White the game; by removing the pin on the Black Queen, it allowed me to unearth a tactical blow. The best move for White here would have been 31. Nh4 d4 (Not 31... Bxg3? 32. Nf5+ losing a piece) 32. Nf5+ Kg6. Here I am a pawn up with a passer on the e-file, but the exposed position on my kingside with a pair of isolated doubled pawns negates that advantage. After 33. Nxd4 Qxd4 34. Qg8+ I would have to accept a draw by repetition.

Now, look at the following diagram and see whether you can see the best move for Black. It shouldn't be that difficult...

Find the best move for Black
31... Bxg3!

Exploiting a simple pin on the f-pawn opens up an attack on White's king.

32. Kh1 Qxf2
33. Qxd5

The only defence against immediate mate.

33... Qf1+
34. Ng1 Bf2
35. Qg2+ Qxg2+
36. Kxg2 Bxg1
37. Kxg1 Kg6 (D)

Position after 37... Kg6

And with my two extra pawns it did not take me long to convert my advantage into a win.

And thus, after 6 years of fighting under the banner of NUS High, I got to end my high school chess career on a high note. Sayonara, my fellow Black Knights!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Term 3 tactical presents (Part 4)

AMK is barely 3 days away! Let's all prepare by training our tactical skills as much as we can!

Once again, here are 8 puzzles of mixed difficulty for y'all to try out. As I have always said, it's not about how much time you spend per day on training; it's how often you do it. Really, 10-15 minutes per day working on puzzles is good enough if you're simply too busy.

Position 1: Black to move

Position 2: White to move

Position 3: Black to move and mate in 4

Position 4: White to move

Position 5: White to move

Position 6: Black to move and mate in 2

Position 7: Black to move

Finally, here's a position from one of my tournament games: I was White, and both my and my opponent had less than 5 minutes each on our clocks. It is my turn to move; can I hold a draw in this position?

Position 8: White to move, can he draw?

Have fun, and all the best! (:

Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3:

Thursday, September 4, 2014

When in doubt, Bxh7 (Part 6)

In our last section on the Greek Gift sacrifice articles, we shall take a look at a sample game featuring this gambit. Our hero of the day is the tenth World Champion, Boris Spassky. Born in the Soviet Union, he won the 1965 Candidates Tournament Cycle which earned him the right to challenge reigning world champion Tigran Petrosian for the crown. Although Spassky lost the match, he returned in 1969 to defeat Petrosian and claim his title. Spassky was known as an all-rounded player with a flexible style, which allowed him to adapt easily to the playing styles of his opponents. He is currently the oldest living (ex) World Champion at the time of writing.

Boris Spassky, the 10th World Champion

In the following game from the 1965 Candidates Tournament Cycle, Spassky demonstrates his keen tactical vision through the execution of a Greek Gift Sacrifice.

Spassky, Boris vs Geller, Efim
Candidates Tournament 1965, Game 6

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bb5 a6
4. Ba4 Nf6
5. O-O Be7
6. Re1 b5
7. Bb3 O-O
8. c3

For those of us who are unfamiliar with the Ruy Lopez, 8. c3 is a prophylactic move that prevents White from falling into the Noah's Ark Trap (see,_Noah%27s_Ark_Trap for more information)

8... d6
9. h3 Nd7
10. d4 Nb6
11. Nbd2 Bf6
12. Nf1 Re8
13. N1h2 exd4
14. cxd4 Na5
15. Bc2 c5 (D)

Position after 15... c5

16. Ng4

After 16. dxc5, the continuation suggested by Fritz was 16... dxc5 17. e5 Be7 18. Qe2 h5 (to "restrain" the knight on h2) 19. Rd1 Qc7 20. Ng5 g6 (20... Bxg5 21. Bxg5 and White's pieces are clearly more active; 21...Rxe5?? loses immediately after 22. Qxe5 Qxe5 23. Rd8+ with mate on the next move!) 21. Nhf3. At first, it seems that White has the advantage because of his prospective passed pawn, coupled with active pieces that are poised to strike the kingside. But Black also has chances for counterplay with moves like ...Nc4, ...Bb7 followed by ...Rad1, which attempts to restrain White's activity and mobilizes his own pieces. Fritz gives this position a score of 0.14, which is roughly equal for both sides.

16... Bxg4
17. hxg4 cxd4
18. g5 Be7
19. e5 Bf8 (D)

Position after 19... Bf8

White's centre looks like it's about to collapse. But does it matter for him?

20. Bxh7+!! Kxh7

Collapsing pawn centre? Ok can (:

GM Valeri Beim: "The combinative motif present in this is clear to any player, even one with little experience. It is probably the best-known of all tactical motifs: The bishop sacrifice on h7. The calculation of the variations is also not terribly difficult in this case. Why Geller, himself a brilliant tactician, should have allowed such a possibility is another question."

21. g6+ Kg8

Here we see once again the main challenge of the Greek Gift sacrifice: The numerous variations to calculate so as to stop the enemy king from escaping the attack. In this case, 21... fxg6 22. Ng5+ Kg8 23. Qf3 leads to the same position in the main line, while after 21... Kxg6 White wins quickly with 22. Qd3+ f5 23. exf6+ Kf7 24. Ng5+ Kxf6 25. Qf3+ Kg6 26. Qf7+ Kh6 27. Re6+.

22. Ng5

The familiar knight motif we see as part of the follow-up attack.

23. Qf3 (D)

Position after 23. Qf3

23... Qxg5!

Black finds the correct route to prolong the fight. Other variations such as 23... Qe7? 24. Qh3 and 23... Be7? 24. Qf7+ Kh8 25. Ne6 lose quickly.

24. Bxg5 dxe5
25. Rac1 Ra7
26. Qd3 Re6
27. f4 Nac4
28. fxe5 Nxe5
29. Qxd4 (D)

Position after 29. Qxd4

White hasn't been able to launch a decisive mating attack on the Black King, but his gain in material (Queen vs two Knights) is good enough. Nevertheless, Geller will continue to put up a resilient defence for the next 15 moves before succumbing to his material deficit. I will now show the rest of the game without any commentary:

29... Rd7
30. Qe4 Be7
31. Be3 Nbc4
32. Rcd1 Rxd1
33. Rxd1 Nxb2
34. Qd5 Kf7
35. Rb1 Nbc4
36. Bf2 g5
37. Re1 Bf6
38. Kh1 Nb2
39. Re3 Nbc4
40. Re2 Nd6
41. Bd4 Ndc4
42. g4 Ke7
43. Bc5+ Kf7
44. Qb7+ (D)

Position after 44. Qb7+

A truly remarkable calculative ability as demonstrated by Boris Spassky!


And with that we close off this series on the Greek Gift Sacrifice. Hopefully you now have a better understanding of how this well-known tactical motif works and when is it appropriate to unleash it. Who knows, you might even get to use it in one of your own games one day!

Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3:
Part 4: 5:

"How to Calculate Chess Tactics" by Valeri Beim