Sunday, December 24, 2017

December 2017 Tactical Training: Part 2

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Image from:

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Boris Spassky's Greatest Games

As promised a really long time ago, I wanted to write an article to pay tribute to Boris Spassky, who has been portrayed as the victim many times in my previous writings (such as my series on Fischer and Petrosian). While he didn’t have the fiery drive of Fischer or the iron defensive skills of Petrosian, Spassky was reputed for his universal playing style, which made him very adaptable. His greatest strength lay in the middlegame, where his tactical acumen made him a dangerous and aggressive player.

One of Spassky’s unusual opening favourites was the King’s Gambit, a line that is rarely seen in top-level play. This choice had served him well, as we shall see in the following two examples. In our first game, the Russian used a spectacular rook sacrifice to invade via the f7 square, a move which was described as comparable to the Evergreen Game:

Boris also used the King’s Gambit to great effect against his biggest rival: Bobby Fischer. While we already know what happened between the two of them at the historic 1972 encounter, here is a lesser-known clash 12 years before, where Spassky emerged victorious in a sharp, romantic-style game:

It is worth noting that prior to the 1972 match, Spassky had a positive head-to-head score against Fischer, with two draws and three victories in favour of the Russian! The next position is another encounter between these titans where Boris came out on top. I originally did not intend to include the game in this article, but the final tactical combination is so elegant that I cannot resist showing it as a puzzle:

You can see the entire game over here.

While the earlier examples were showcases of Spassky’s tactical mastery, he could also play strong positional chess if required. In Round 5 of the 1969 World Championship, Spassky demonstrated how a well-supported passed pawn could become so powerful that not even Iron Tigran could stop it:

Spassky (left) vs Petrosian, 1969

Not surprisingly, this was also the match which Spassky won to cement his position as the tenth World Champion.

“In my country, at that time, being a champion of chess was like being a King. At that time I was a King … and when you are King you feel a lot of responsibility, but there is nobody there to help you.” - Boris Spassky

Even in his later years, Boris Spassky was still a force to be reckoned with. Our final example illustrates his defensive prowess in a difficult position, played against a young and rising Garry Kasparov:

At the time of writing, Spassky is currently the oldest living world champion. The following webpage shows excerpts from an interview in 2014, where he fondly recollects his earlier days and what chess means to him.

Spassky (right) and Anand, Sochi 2014 (Photo by Anastasia Karlovich)

Like so many great names before and after him, Spassky’s contributions to the royal game are immeasurable, and he definitely deserves a place alongside Fischer and Petrosian as one of the greatest chessplayers of the 20th century.

“I still look at chess with the eyes of a child” – Boris Spassky


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

AlphaZero vs Stockfish part 1

As we all probably know by now, AlphaZero has played against Stockfish 8 for 100 games. Both sides have one minute per move, probably due to AlphaZero lack of time management yet. AlphaZero did not lose a single game to Stockfish and won 28 games. This type of result is almost never heard off in computer chess tournaments, it shows how AlphaZero developed 'intuition' on which positions to calculate, instead of an extremely fine-tuned alpha-beta search. AlphaZero searches just 80 thousand positions per second, compared to 70 million for Stockfish. However, its deep neural network focuses much more selectively on the most promising variations, similar to how a human would calculate[1], thus AlphaZero's games may seem quite human-like in nature. In this article, I'll be showing the first 5 games that are made public[2].
Board 1: Piece activity

AlphaZero's play is quite human-like, probably due to the way it searches. It also likes to immobilize white's pawns - a theme to be repeated many times.
The sacrifice by stockfish seemed quite promising at first, but it was not able to attack as AlphaZero's pieces are much more well placed in the middlegame compared to Stockfish's pieces. The games will start to get more interesting from here.
Board 2: Light square weaknesses

This game is extremely Nimzovich-like, overprotecting squares. In this Ruy Lopez variation, white exchanges away the light square bishop for a knight, hoping to exploit the doubled pawns, seems like keeping the light square bishop would have been a better variation, instead of having pawns on e4 and c4 as light square targets.
AlphaZero is playing chess more positionally, and less engine-like, similar to how people used to play against engines, until computational power took over.
Board 3: Dark square weaknesses

A middlegame zugzuang, how often do you see that. AlphaZero is really good at it's positional games, exploiting a kingside fianchetto structure when black does not have its dark square bishop, and then 'trapping the queen' and completely paralyzing black, forcing black to lose material by zugzuang.
The sight of having all the major pieces just sitting on your sixth rank dark square weakness looks extremely intimidating, and then having your pieces paralyzed, an extremely torturous game for stockfish.
The pawn sacrifice will happen on another game, suggesting that sacrificing that pawn for activity is possibly dangerous for black playing QID. Black may be able to draw by returning the d pawn which the queen and rook were applying pressure on even after weakening the dark squares.
Board 4: Backwards pawns

AlphaGo is really good at exploiting weaknesses, only a bishop of the wrong color and a backwards pawn and black crumbles. Stockfish is constantly getting positionally outplayed, surprisingly it survives the endgame for quite some time. It is also nice to have a French Defense game where black loses positionally(really dislike playing against french).
Game 5: Misplaced pieces

Looks like the 'Kasparov pawn sac' in QID is working quite well, immobilizing the queenside. 8...c6 was probably a blunder as it allows white to attack the d6 square with both its knights and queen.
AlphaZero repeatedly moves the same piece many times in the opening to misplace black's pieces, instead of development, misplacing pieces seems to be of higher importance than development here.
The QID is constantly losing to pieces being inactive from the pawn sacrifice, either Kasparov refuted QID many years ago and now AlphaZero also found the refutation or black should prevent the gambit by 6...d5! instead of O-O. We'll have to see AlphaZero play against itself in QID to know with higher confidence.
AlphaZero playing style is similar to William Steinitz for the middlegame and Capablanca/Bobby Fisher for the endgame. It's opening choice aim to get a positional advantage to completely outplay positionally in the middlegame, forcing weaknesses.
Stockfish has been positionally destroyed in all of the games, most likely due to AlphaZero learning to play more positionally than just brute force calculation. Brute force calculation is vulnerable to the horizon effect, trying to use an engine to evaluate shows this effect quite nicely, it gives stockfish an advantage or rate it as a draw until a few minutes later where it gives AlphaZero an positive score. We may be seeing more positional games in grandmaster games soon.
In part 2, I'll be showing the other 5 games and hopefully more games will be out by then.
References so I don't get sued:
[1] arXiv:1712.01815v1 [cs.AI]
[2]Google's AlphaZero Destroys Stockfish In 100-Game Match

Monday, December 11, 2017

December 2017 Tactical Training: Part 1

With Christmas coming soon, it's time to give some early presents. Have fun!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Random Games, Random Opportunities

With more time on my hands, it is a good period to clear the backlog of unanalyzed games in my database. Here I will show three friendly games played during the various meetups throughout the semester.

Game 1: The curse of isolated pawns

Our first game was a seemingly peaceful, casual game during NUS IGC training… until my training partner pointed out how close I was to scoring a win from an isolated-pawn position.

Put the following position in a puzzle, and it shouldn’t be difficult to spot the winning combination:

Now see the actual game and wonder how I manage to throw away such a nice position:

What can we learn from this game?
  • Being cautious is good, but too cautious makes you miss chances
  • Avoid hanging your own pieces, or they may be the target of potential tactics
  • When playing an advantageous position, don’t make your opponent’s life easier by exchanging off key attacking pieces!

Game 2: The curse of backward pawns

So how salty was I over that missed chance in Game 1? Very, but not as much as the next game, where what looked like a completely winning position for Black turned into an equal fight, and concluded as a dreadful blunder. Admittedly it was a 15+10 rapid game where anything could happen, but still, the saltiness is high in this one:

I'm sorry, I will work hard to redeem myself!

 What can we learn from this game?
  • Time-trouble is a b***h
  • At the rate that I am throwing away won games, it is probably time to write a 2nd edition of my Chess Patzers articles.
  • To play against backward pawns, first prevent them from advancing by fixing them with your own pawns, before using the square in front of them as “outposts” for your pieces

Game 3: The curse blessing of the Greek Gift!

Is it time to redeem myself? Here is a third game from the Asia Square meetup, and thankfully, this time I DID spot the winning blow!

It ain't everyday you get to send gifts like this!

A game well-played, but I will still need to go back and work harder on tactics. Until the next game, then!

By Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo - Own work, Public Domain,

Thursday, November 30, 2017

November 2017 Tactical Training: Part 2

4 simple puzzles to end off the month of November. Have fun!

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Queenstown Open 2017 Highlights: Part 2

At last, I have some time (while running away from the fact that I am supposed to study for finals) to do a quick looking through of my Queenstown games. Today, I will share the analysis for a few highlighted games, so here goes:

Round 2: Pawn couples, yay or nay?

I’m sure many of us are familiar with pawn structures like this:

Black’s isolated pawn couple can be very dangerous, for they may advance anytime to create a passed pawn. But the words “isolated” always signal a problem: Infantrymen left alone in the open cannot survive without assistance by the rear elements. If these pawns are not supported by friendly artillery, then they cannot make good progress, and may instead become targets of attack!

"Where was our artillery when we needed them!?"

I learned this the hard way in Round 2:

Round 6: Beware the two bishops!

Finally, it was my turn to teach my opponents an important lesson: The suppressing power of the two bishops cannot be underestimated, least of all by a mere rook!

Maybe a 3-second burst of suppressing fire should take down those castle walls

Round 7: More squares!

I know, I’ve talked about squares so many times in my IFG 2017 articles. Somehow, I always keep ending up in closed positions where square control becomes key, such as my final game in Queenstown 2017. Though admittedly, such a position arose because of my misjudged plan on move 13:

It was a good break looking at these games before my finals. Hope everyone learned from them, and here’s to more good games in the upcoming Cairnhill Chess Festival 2017!

Part 1:


Saturday, November 4, 2017

Chess Camp Curiosities: 2017 Edition

Thanks for the interesting – and hilarious – games that took place last Friday. Human chess is always a cancerous messy process, considering that it doesn’t take place under proper tournament conditions!

"Could someone pause the clocks while I adjust my personal drum set?"

In our first game, White somehow ended up emulating an opening that was played almost exactly a year ago in the World Chess Championship 2016: The Trompowsky. Incidentally, it was also pretty close to the first anniversary of a certain major election in the United States, whose winner’s name bore a close resemblance to said opening… *cough*

Here was the original game between Carlsen and Karjakin from Round 1 of the World Championship 2016:

Meanwhile, here’s a half-hearted parody—oops, I mean an all-out showdown between the Trompowsky’s mighty namesake and an extremely dangerous opponent, inspired from the earlier game.

WARNING: If you’re a chess purist who is looking only for expert-level analysis of high quality games, please do not read on, for the resulting moves will give you brain hemorrhage. But if you’re just a patzer looking for laughs, feel free to proceed:

"Wait, I don't remember Karjakin playing 4... g6, did he?"

What can we learn from this game?
  • Donald Tromp is a daydreamer
  • In human chess, the tactical vision of both sides drop by 50%
  • A pawn centre is an advantage that must be used wisely. If improperly supported or pushed too early, it will become a target of attack instead
  • Look out for weak squares created by PPPP (poorly planned pawn pushes)!

So Tromp walks away defeated, but insisting that the game was rigged and that he should have won. Thankfully we are spared a chain of ballistic tweets thanks to an unsung hero who deactivated Donald’s Twitter account.

Not a Liberal conspiracy, I swear

Meanwhile, our winner prepares to take on her next challenger. Enter, the creator of luxury vehicles:


So… what can we learn from this game?
  • Quantity over quality: A world famous singer can’t outwit an entire fleet of automobiles.
  • Tromp should consider buying over the new Audi fleet.
  • When about to lose material, desperado tactics may sometimes be an effective strategy
  • Similarly, when defending a difficult position, make life as difficult as possible for your opponent! This will increase the chances of them making mistakes.

If you’ve managed to read all the way to the end and still keep a straight face, kudos to you. Nevertheless, great job to everyone for your efforts, and considering that all three teams missed basic tactical combinations… let’s call that a draw.

Zyance - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Sunday, October 29, 2017

October 2017 Tactical Training: Part 2

Let us wrap up the month of October (and the Halloween Season) with another 4 simple puzzles!

Have fun!

Image Source:

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Queenstown Open 2017 Highlights: Part 1

Barely after IFG 2017 I went for another tournament in October: The Queenstown Open 2017. While I would love to post my analysis of all key games here, schoolwork has once again taken away most of my time. Hence I will satisfy myself by starting off with a miniature for this article.

The following game was played in the first round of the tournament, and shows a beginner's error of exposing the queen too early:

Keep her Majesty Safe!

I will leave y'all to enjoy this short piece for now. Perhaps I will be able to post more interesting games when I have the time to do so in Part 2!

Part 2:

Friday, October 20, 2017

NUS IFG 2017 Post-Mortem: Part 2

Apologies for the recent lack of posts; uni workload has been taking up too much of my time! Today, I will finish up the analysis of my remaining 3 games from IFG 2017, which has been more than a month ago (!).

Round 4: Fire on the long diagonal

Round 4 was where I scored my first and only win with the Black pieces. An anomaly, since in most tournaments I tend to perform better as Black, and score dismal results as White!

Having played against the Black kingside fianchettoed bishop many times while as White, I have had many painful experiences falling prey to tactics along the a1-h8 diagonal. This time, it was a relief to be on the other side of the board, with a fianchettoed bishop of my own spewing fire along the long diagonal.

Which is good unless your opponent has a freeze ray or something

While my opponent blundered on move 24, his position was already worse off by 12. b3, which weakened his c3 pawn and gave me tactical opportunities on the long diagonal.

Lesson learned: When your opponent has a fianchettoed bishop, avoid creating weak pawns in its line of fire!

Round 6: Attack on the kingside… except when it is wrong to do so

Round 5 was a walkover for Board 1, giving me a timely rest. And a much needed one as well, for I was to face stronger opposition in Round 6:

NN vs Checkerboard 5
NUS IFG 2017 (Round 6)
Position after 18. Kh1

On the 17th move I had allowed an exchange on f5, creating doubled pawns but giving me an open g-file and the strong e4 square in return. My original plan was to place my knight on e4 and double my rooks on the g-file, launching a kingside attack

In the actual game, I blundered with the immediate 18… Rg8?, weakening the f7 square. After White proceeded with 19. Ng5 (with Bh5 to follow), Black’s king was the one under attack, and my position quickly fell apart.

But what if I had been more prudent, and did some preparation first with … Bh6 and … Ne4, before placing my rooks on the g-file? Would my kingside plans have paid off?

Let us break down the imbalances in my favour:

  • An open g-file, with the White king directly in the line of fire
  • A strong e4 outpost for the knight to support any kingside operations

During the post-game analysis, my chess acquaintances pointed out factors that work against me:

  • The f7 square is potentially weak, so Black needs to make sure White cannot get any piece in to target it
  • Black’s queen and c6 knight are far away on the other side of the board; to bring them over to join the kingside attack would waste lots of time.
  • White has a bishop pair on the kingside, which complement the pawns in defending critical squares.

So, it seems that my prospects aren’t that great? Here is a post-game analysis of what could possibly happen after 18... Bh6:

Although the kingside attack looked threatening, the results were unclear. On the other hand, my friends pointed out that having my queen on the other wing presented a classic and more viable plan: A queenside minority attack.

It turns out that the good placement of my pieces on the queenside made the minority attack on that wing an excellent plan, and would have given me a long-term positional advantage. Better to have a clear-cut advantage than an unclear, double-edged position where the chances of success isn’t high! Next time, I would do better to read what the board tells me and devise a suitable plan, instead of rashly following the first idea that comes to my mind!

Here is the entire game:

Round 7: A knightly paradise

Round 7 was another lesson on squares, as well as the power which knights unleash in a closed position. Unfortunately for my opponent, he failed to understand this and closed up the position too early, giving my knights a powerful edge in the subsequent struggle.

When they realized that the walls they built couldn't keep the Mexicans out

With that, I wrap up my post-game analysis of IFG 2017. Hope you have learned the same lessons as I did, and thanks for viewing!

Part 1:


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

October 2017 Tactical Training: Part 1

Apologies for the recent delays in posts; school work has taken away whatever spare time I have for article writing. Hence, I will fill in the gaps with a few more easy puzzles:

Have fun!

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

September 2017 Tactical Training

4 more simple puzzles to finish off the month of September:

Have fun!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

NUS IFG 2017 Post-Mortem: Part 1

One more tournament done and dusted. The International Chess category of NUS Inter-Faculty Games 2017 was held on 10 September, and while I had no interest in the final rankings, I was more concerned over what could be learned from the games I played. And no matter what result each games ended with, they provided instructive lessons that I will like to share with y'all.

Playing hall before the first round

Games 1 and 2: Mad about squares

After a few moves into my first game, it became apparent that my opponent was a beginner, who fed me a free piece on the tenth move. But early in the opening, I made a major inaccuracy, which weakened the squares around my king. Thank goodness the other side was not able to exploit this weakness; a more seasoned veteran would have punished me badly for this mistake!

A close shave, and a good lesson on the dangers of creating weak squares around the king!

Game 2 was when the day's struggle really began.

Position after 12. Nh4

The position resembles a reverse King's Indian; the centre is closed but Black has the spatial advantage rather than White! With their last move (12. Nh4), White prepared an f2-f4 advance, reminiscent of Black's classic f5 pawn break in the King's Indian. How should I, as Black, respond?

A glance at the pawn structure reveals a pressing problem for both sides: The bishops risk being shut out of the game. For Black this can be solved with … Bc8 and … Ng4 finding new diagonals, while the White clerics find a better future on c1 and h3. Another point worth noting is that the dark squares—especially e3—in White's position will be weakened if White pushes f4. Thus, if Black can threaten to swing a knight onto e3, it might discourage White from getting in f4.

Thus, Black should consider … Bc8 relocating their pieces to the kingside, where the heat of the action is most likely to take place. This should be followed up with … Ng4, preparing to occupy e3 should White insist on advancing f4. In essence, this would escalate into a battle of squares, similar to Game 1.

So, did I play Bc8? No… during the game, I was so "mesmerized" by the prospect of White getting in f4 that I didn't even look at the e3 square. Instead I decided upon a half-hearted attempt to mimic White's plans with 12... Nh5, preparing my own pawn push f5. But this gave my adversary the initiative after 13. Qd1 Bxh4 14. Qxh5 followed by 15. f4, and White struck first. While the game was still playable after that, a terrible blunder soon sealed my fate, and spoiled what could have been a very interesting game.

What can we learn from Games 1 and 2? While chess is a battle of pieces, one should not forget about the squares. Along with the pawn structure, they form the terrain through which pieces seek anchor points and offensive/defensive pathways. A weak square near a king can be deadly, for it can be used as an invasion point for enemy pieces.

To summarize in a flamboyant manner, I paraphrase a famous quote from “Red Cliff”: With a strong understanding of squares, all 64 squares on the board will become soldiers at your command.

Game 3: Beware the pawn centre!

Back to the White pieces, and a tumble down the ranking table after my team's whitewash in Round 2. Funnily enough, I found myself in a "King"s Indian-ish" position again, with one difference: My pawn centre was not locked up, but instead given the freedom to advance anytime!

"It is of the greatest importance to strive for the mobility of our pawn mass, for a mobile mass can in its lust to expand, exercise a crushing effect"
-Aaron Nimzowitsch, My System

Soon, I was teaching my opponent a lesson on how dangerous an unfettered pawn centre can become:

The lesson from this game is a reminder on why a pawn centre should be blockaded, especially in King's Indian positions. Their desire to expand and wreck unparalleled destruction must not be underestimated!

"I came in like a wrecking ball..."

With that I wrap up the first half of IFG 2017; in Part 2, I will go through my next 3 games.

To be continued…

Part 2:


Saturday, September 9, 2017

Post-NST Tactical Presents 2017

Although NST is over, learning is never over!

Have fun!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Strategy and the Mastery of Imbalances: Part 2

In Part 1, we were introduced to the different imbalances that can occur in a game. Today, we will see how these concepts are employed to analyze critical positions, leading to the formulation of viable plans.

To recap the strategic imbalances discussed so far:

  • Material
  • Development
  • King safety
  • Centre and Space
  • Open files and diagonals
  • Piece activity
  • Pawn structure

Before coming up with a plan, use these ideas to do a breakdown of the imbalances on both sides, before deciding how to make use of those imbalances where you have the advantage.

Take a look at our first position:

Anand, Viswanathan vs Karpov, Anatoly
FIDE World Championship 1998
Position after 11... Nce7

The position's imbalances can be deconstructed:


  • More central space
  • More active pieces, especially when you consider Black’s trapped light-squared bishop
  • A slight edge in development (rook occupying the e-file)


  • Better pawn structure: White has an isolated pawn that is being blockaded
  • A strong square on d5, where the knights can be centralized

Imagine you are playing as White. There are no immediate threats on the board, so tactics are out of the question. How then, shall you formulate a plan? Of course you want to capitalize on your centre space, developmental lead, and better pieces, and shift the battle away from your isolated pawn weakness.

Having a lead in development and more active pieces are dynamic factors; they are temporary and can vanish if not exploited (e.g. the opponent can improve the position of his pieces if given enough time). With that in mind, White should mobilize his active pieces for an attack on the enemy king as soon as possible, before the opponent catches up in development.

On the other hand, his isolated d-pawn is a static factor, which is unlikely to change or vanish as the game progresses. So White should avoid the trading of pieces, since his isolated pawn will stay on the board and become a more vulnerable weakness in the endgame.

In essence, White's plan should be to use his more active pieces to attack the castled enemy king as soon as possible, and avoid trading into the endgame where his isolated pawn weakness becomes vulnerable.

How about Black? He needs to improve the position of his light-squared bishop, possibly by Bd7-Bc6. But more importantly, he needs to trade off White's active pieces to blunt any upcoming attack, and enter an endgame where Black has the better pawn structure.

Effectively, Black's plan is the reverse of White's. Improve the position of his light-squared bishop, exchange pieces to reach the endgame, and target White's isolated pawn weakness.

See how both sides carry out their respective plans in the ensuring struggle:

In our next example, White seems to have a problem: Black is threatening to exchange on d3 and remove White's bishop pair.

Checkerboard 5 vs Opponent
Online Chess Game 2017
Position after 8... Nb4

Some of us might think that the exchange will create an imbalance that helps Black, since he gets the two bishops. But although the bishop pair may be useful, they don't always work well in every position. We all know that tanks are powerful steel beasts, but put them in a muddy field and they are as good as useless.

Join the tankies, they said. Won't need to walk, they said

Similarly, the bishop pair becomes ineffective in a closed position, where the diagonals are blocked by pawns. A quick glance at Position 2 is enough to see that the closed pawn centre is not good territory for the bishops!

So White should not be afraid to exchange on d3, since his knights work well in the closed position, while Black's two bishop "advantage" gets neutralized by the myriad of pawns in the centre. The resulting imbalance is in White's favour, not Black's!

White's plan is to let Black exchange on d3, and concentrate on improving the position for his remaining pieces. He achieves this with the pawn push f4, opening up the f-file for his rooks and deploying his dark-squared bishop onto the battlefield. The game continued 9. f4 Ng4 10. h3 Nh6 11. fxe5 dxe5 (D)

Position after 11... dxe5

Break down the imbalances again:

  • More central space
  • A passed pawn on d5
  • The semi-open f-file
  • A slight lead in development: Black’s bishops are undeveloped and his king is not castled
  • Potential threats on the queenside with his queen-knight duo

Not surprisingly White has the advantage, and he should use the semi-open f-file to attempt a kingside invasion. This will be made easier by his centre control, which will interfere with Black's attempts to defend. However, White must watch for any counterplay Black may try on the queenside.

The last example is one of my most cancerous favourite games. It is a good demonstration of how one can use whatever imbalances they have at hand to save a bad position, and "scam" their opponent of any wins.

Opponent vs Checkerboard 5
Singapore Chess Meetup 2017
Position after 21. Ra2

It is obvious that things are going badly for Black. White has total control of the h-file, and a pair of dangerous—albeit doubled—passed pawns on the b-file. If we analyze the imbalances, it isn't hard to see the advantage lies with White.

  • Control of the open h-file
  • Control of the enemy 7th rank
  • Passed b-file pawns
  • Black has a hideously bad bishop on b7
  • A weak, isolated pawn on e3 to target
  • White's king is slightly exposed

As Black, I faced a dilemma. I could defend passively with Qc8 to preserve material equality. But then White would be free to carry out his plans, and after something like b6 he would use his imbalances (the h-file and passed pawns) to slowly crush me.

Or I could do something about the few imbalances I had. Namely, White's weak e3 pawn and his vulnerable king. That means bringing as many pieces as I could over to attack the enemy king. But this would mean that the poor b7 bishop would be left defenceless.

Which of these choices did I choose? Either way, I would be losing something. So rather than giving my opponent an easy, positional game, why not go all out and create as much problems for him as possible? I am already in a bad position, so I have nothing to lose anyway!

So I chose Plan B: Jettison the b7 bishop, and bring my remaining pieces over for an all-out attack against White's king.

Was my attack a sound one? No: White could have refuted it with 29. Nf1. But the numerous problems I created on the kingside made it easy for either side to slip up, and my opponent was unfortunate enough to do so.

And in case you were wondering whether this was a blitz game, it was in fact a casual game played without time control, so both of us had plenty of time to think. Now imagine what would happen in rapid time control, with both sides having limited time to think!

The lesson from this game is: When in a bad position, play as actively as possible and create problems for your opponent. After all, you have nothing to lose, and with any luck your opponent may make mistakes and get "scammed" of his win!

Wrapping up

Through these 3 examples, I hope y’all have a clearer idea of how to identify and use imbalances to your advantage. Again, the different positional factors are summarized as follows:

  • Material
  • Development
  • King safety
  • Centre and Space
  • Open files and diagonals
  • Piece activity
  • Pawn structure

It is by understanding the nature of a position that one can formulate an effective plan, and tip the scales in your favour. This is the art of chess strategy.

Part 1:

"How to Re-Assess your Chess" by Jeremy Silman
"21 Days to Supercharge your Chess" by Yury Markushin

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Strategy and the Mastery of Imbalances: Part 1

Many of us should be familiar with the term "Chess Strategy". It is the art of planning, based on what is happening on the battlefield. This is especially important when there are no immediate threats on the board for tactics to occur.

Image from

Unfortunately, many beginners fantasize their plans according to their emotions and preferences. They want to attack the enemy king, never mind that the position is cramped with no space to maneuver the pieces. Or maybe they just love trading pieces, not aware that a weak pawn structure will leave them crippled in the endgame.

A plan should be based not according to what you like, but what the situation on the battlefield calls for. In his work "Encyclopedia of Chess", Harry Golombek gives an accurate description of this:

"Planning is the process by which a player utilizes the advantages and minimizes the drawbacks of his position. In order to promise success, planning is thus always based on a diagnosis of the existing characteristics of a position; it is therefore most difficult when the position is evenly balanced, and easiest when there is only one plan to satisfy the demands of the position."

To analyze a position, one needs to understand the concept of imbalances, which are simply a difference between both sides in any position. They may or may not be in your favour; it is the player’s responsibility to maximize the imbalances that work for them, and reduce the effect of those against them. One can then work out a plan based on these imbalances, and adapt accordingly if the situation calls for it.

Imbalances: Tipping the scales in your favour

In our Positional Sacrifice article, we saw Jeremy Silman classifying material as an imbalance, to be analyzed alongside other positional factors. Now, we shall broaden our perspective to view other imbalances in the same picture.

Here is a breakdown of what strategic ideas one should consider when planning:
  • Material (how many troops you have)
  • Development (how many troops you have mobilized)
  • King safety (self-explanatory)
  • Centre and Space (the occupation of territory on the board)
  • Open files and diagonals (invading pathways for your pieces)
  • Piece activity (whose pieces exert greater control on the board)
  • Pawn structure (whether a system of pawns contains any weak points, or control key squares)
Some of these have been gone through in detail before, and the rest will be covered eventually. For now, let us see a brief overview of each one:


Everyone should know this by now... the side with more material has an advantage, since he can simplify to a better endgame.

But this doesn't mean material advantage is the holy grail of chess. We have seen many prime examples of this from our Positional Sacrifice article: If material is outweighed by other imbalances, then the advantage is not worth it!


There are many classical games which illustrate how a lead in development allows you to launch a decisive attack, even when down in material. Nimzowitsch gives a good example in the first illustrated game of "My System":

King Safety

Like material, King Safety is one of the more important imbalances: If your king is about to be mated in 3, then all other positional factors become useless, be it is your passed pawn on the 7th rank, your queen-rook battery on the open-file, or the enemy's hanging pawns.

Take a look at the following diagram, taken from one of my games played last year:

Checkerboard 5 vs Opponent
Queenstown Club 2016 (Round 4)
Position 1 after 15. Ne5

The imbalance is clear: White's king has castled, while Black's king is stuck in the centre. His knight is pinned and he cannot castle without hanging the knight. White threatens Bb2 and Rad1 increasing the pressure on e7.

The full game is shown below:

Centre and Space

Control of the centre is a common topic when beginners are introduced to the opening. The essence is that the side with more space has more freedom to maneuver his pieces and proceed with their plans. The following game gives a good explanation:

Open Files and Diagonals

Open files are a natural home for the rooks. They form the valleys through which our major pieces blast their way into the enemy position, with the goal of occupying the seventh rank.

"The main Objective of any operation in an open file is the eventual occupation of the seventh or eighth Rank."
-Aaron Nimzowitsch

In Position 3, White has occupied the open c-file, and prepares to advance his queen into Black's position. Black cannot mount an effective defense along the file, since his knight is cutting the bishop off from the c8 square.

Capablanca vs Horowitz
New York 1931
Position 2 after 24... Re8

White's plan is to play Ne1 defending his weakness on e3, followed by Qc7 invading Black's position.

Similarly, open diagonals are bishop territory. When not blocked by pawns, these diagonals form inroads into the enemy position. We witnessed a striking example of this not long ago, in Rubinstein's Immortal Game.

Piece Activity

Each piece has their own strengths and weaknesses, and it is up to the player to unleash their potential. More specifically:

  • Rooks and Queens:
    • Work best on open files, as covered earlier
  • Bishops:
    • Powerful in an open position, where the long-range bishop has an edge over the short-range knight
  • Knights
    • Excellent in closed positions
    • Stronger in the centre as compared to the side

Rubinstein's Immortal Game was a prime example of the bishops triumphing on open diagonals. Here is a counter-example revealing the dark side of the bishops: When they are blocked by pawns!

We have focused most of our attention on bishops. Next is a showcase of knights winning the day:

Pawn Structure

This is a broad topic, as there are many types of pawn structures that can arise from different openings. But the main thing to know is: The pawn structure dictates the terrain of the battlefield. This can mean anything from the presence of open files, to central pawns controlling key squares in the enemy camp.

Key things to take note of a pawn structure are:

  • The presence of weak pawns which can be targeted
  • Strong squares controlled by pawns that can be occupied by pieces
  • Whether the pawn structure creates an open or closed position

Common themes on pawn structures include:

  • Passed Pawn: A pawn which cannot be captured/stopped by enemy pawns. They can be extremely powerful if well supported by friendly pieces.
  • Isolated Pawn: A pawn which cannot be protected by friendly pawns. If not supported by friendly pieces, they can be weak and easily blockaded. But with sufficient support, they can control important central squares, and threaten to advance and become passed pawns.
  • Doubled Pawns: We have gone through this in our Doubled Pawns articles. Doubled pawns are a double-edged sword (pun not intended); they lack mobility, but help to strengthen square control in their immediate vicinity. 
  • Backward Pawns: Pawns that cannot be advanced or risk being captured. These pawns are often weak as they can be easily targeted by enemy pieces.

The study of pawn structures is too broad to be covered in a single article; I will just leave a couple of examples here. Our first game demonstrates the power that a passed pawn can have when advancing under strong support:

The next example explains how isolated pawns become targets of attack:

Opponent vs Checkerboard 5
Thomson Chess Fiesta 2017 (Round 7)
Position 3

Both sides have isolated pawns on opposite wings, but there is a difference: The proximity of Black's pieces to White's h5 pawn means they can easily pressurize it. Moreover, the h5 pawn is stuck on a light square, so White's dark-squared bishop cannot defend it.

With insufficient protection, White's isolated pawn is helpless. Black's plan would be to march their king to the pawn and pick it off. This will leave Black with connected passed pawns on the kingside, and a lasting endgame advantage.

In the actual game, Black did employ the above-mentioned plan, but blundered away his advantage later on. See the full game here.


When working out a plan, here are the following factors that should be taken into consideration:

  • Material
  • Development
  • King safety
  • Centre and Space
  • Open files and diagonals
  • Piece activity
  • Pawn structure

Now we know what type of imbalances are there, but how do we create, identify and convert them to our advantage? That will be covered in Part 2!

To be continued…

Part 2:

"How to Re-Assess your Chess" by Jeremy Silman
"My System: 21st Century Edition" by Aaron Nimzowitsch
"Understanding the Gruenfeld" by Jonathon Rowson

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Term 3 Tactics Part 3

Since NST is round the corner, here's 4 more simple puzzles to train your tactical vision.

Have fun!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Rubinstein's Immortal Game

Today we will look at a game showcasing the power of bishops on open diagonals. Our hero of the day is Polish chess master Akiba Rubinstein, who was considered one of the strongest players to never become world champion.

Rubinstein (right) vs Lasker, 1909

In this game, Rubinstein took advantage of his opponent's exposed king to execute a well-planned queen sacrifice, opening the diagonals for his bishop pair to swoop in for the kill. The resulting combination was called "perhaps the most magnificient... of all time" by Carl Schlechter (Wikipedia).

Rotlwei, George vs Rubinstein, Akiba
Łódź 1907

1. d4 d5
2. Nf3 e6
3. e3 c5
4. c4 Nc6
5. Nc3 Nf6
6. dxc5?!

Helping Black develop his bishop. More accurate was 6. cxd5 exd5 (6... Nxd5 7. Bc4) 7. Bb5 (7. dxc5 Bxc5 Black has an isolated pawn but has the possibility of pushing ... d4 creating problems for White.)

6... Bxc5
7. a3 a6
8. b4 Bd6
9. Bb2 O-O
10. Qd2?

Tatakower criticised this move as a "loss of time". Indeed, this is not the best square for the queen, as it does not exert any useful control over the centre. Better would have been 10. Qc2.

11... Qe7! (D)

Position after 11... Qe7

Giving up a pawn. The idea is to play ... Rd8 creating an indirect attack on White's queen.

11. Bd3

White was wise not to go for 11. cxd5 exd5 12. Nxd5 Nxd5 13. Qxd5 Rd8! gaining tempo with a strong attack.

11... dxc4
12. Bxc4 b5
13. Bd3 Rd8
14. Qe2 Bb7
15. O-O Ne5

Exchanging off the defender of h2.

16. Nxe5 Bxe5
17. f4

Black was threatening the following tactical combination after for example 17. Rab1? Bxh2+! 18. Kxh2 Qd6+ 19. Kg1 Qxd3 winning a pawn and forcing their way into White's camp.

17... Bc7
18. e4?!

White is planning for an e5 push, restricting the squares of Black's dark-squared bishop. But this exposes the king.

18... Rac8
19. e5 Bb6+

Alas, after all that effort in denying Black the h2-b8 diagonal, the bishop simply switches to another diagonal! White's king is in a precarious position now.

20. Kh1 Ng4!

Rubinstein wastes no time and goes straight for the attack. 20... Ne4 was possible too.

21. Be4

At last, Rotlewi realizes the danger his pawn pushes have created, and hurries to exchange off the bishop pair.

21... Qh4

Of course, Black is not going to exchange! He must press on the assault before White's king can find any safety.

22. g3 (D)

Position after 22. g3

A critical moment. Can you find Rubinstein's next move?


A stunning queen sacrifice, banked on the fact that that two bishops are strong enough to fence in White's king. Black's plan is to remove the two defenders of e4 so that he can capture White's light-squared bishop with check.

23. gxh4 Rd2!

Continuing with the plan, removing White's last defender of e4 with another sacrifice.

24. Qxd2 Bxe4+

White's king has no escape.

25. Qg2 Rh3 (D)

Position after 25... Rh3

There is no defense to ... Rxh2#. 25... Rc2 would have finished the game off in a similar manner.

This game was known as Rubinstein's Immortal and rightfully so; it is a spectacular demonstration of the power that two bishops possess on open diagonals.


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

National Day Presents 2017: Test your Trivia!

In case you're too bored during your National Day Holidays, here are 15 questions (+1 bonus puzzle) to test your trivia. How well do you know your chess history?

Image from

Q1: Which year did Kasparov first defeat Karpov to emerge as the World Champion?

(a)    1984
(b)    1985
(c)    1986
(d)    1987

Q2: What was Kasparov’s age at the mentioned year in Q1?

(a)    20
(b)    21
(c)    22
(d)    23

Q3: Fischer had a 20 consecutive win streak in 1971. Which player put an end to that streak?

(a)    Tigran Petrosian
(b)    Boris Spassky
(c)    Mark Taimanov
(d)    Bent Larsen

Q4: How many years was Emanuel Lasker World Champion for?

(a)    24
(b)    25
(c)    26
(d)    27

Q5: “Always put the rook behind the pawn… Except when it is incorrect to do so”. Who is credited for this famous saying?

(a)    Aaron Nimzowitsch
(b)    Wilhelm Steinitz
(c)    Siegbert Tarrasch
(d)    Saveilly Tatakower

Q6: How about this one? “The tactician must know what to do whenever something needs doing; the strategist must know what to do when nothing needs doing.”

(a)    Aaron Nimzowitsch
(b)    Wilhelm Steinitz
(c)    Siegbert Tarrasch
(d)    Saveilly Tatakower

Q7: Which event did the following position originate from?

White to move

(a)    Botvinnik vs Capablanca, AVRO 1938
(b)    Carlsen vs Karjakin, World Chess Championship 2016
(c)    Anand vs Caruana, Sinquefeld Cup 2017
(d)    Fischer vs Taimanov, Candidates Match 1971

Q8: What was White’s move in the above position?

Q9: Who is the famous chess master in the following photo?

Image from Wikipedia

(a)    Joseph Henry Blackburne
(b)    Wilhelm Steinitz
(c)    Johannes Zukertort
(d)    Paul Morphy

Q10: Mikhail Botvinnik held the title of World Champion from most of 1948 to 1963. But his reign was interrupted briefly by two other grandmasters. Who were they?

(a)    Robert Fischer and Bent Larsen
(b)    Tigran Petrosian and Boris Spassky
(c)    Alexander Alekhine and Anatoly Karpov
(d)    Vasily Smyslov and Mikhail Tal

Q11: In 2017, Teimour Radjabov won his first major tournament in more than a decade. What was this tournament?

(a)    Sinquefeld Cup 2017
(b)    Geneva Grand Prix 2017
(c)    TATA Steel Chess 207
(d)    FIDE World Cup 2017

Q12: Who is the oldest living former world champion at the time of writing?

(a)    Tigran Petrosian
(b)    Anatoly Karpov
(c)    Boris Spassky
(d)    Garry Kasparov

Q13: Boris Gelfand currently plays for Israel. But which country was he born in?

(a)    France
(b)    Soviet Union
(c)    Poland
(d)    Hungary

Q14: What was unique about the World Chess Championship 2007?

(a)    It was tied all the way till the Armageddon game
(b)    It was suspended halfway without any result
(c)    The winner won the match by a large margin of 3 points
(d)    It was a double round-robin tournament, rather than the usual match format

Q15: Which of the following is usually classified as a strategic rather than a tactical concept?

(a)    Passed Pawn
(b)    Interference
(c)    X-Ray
(d)    Skewer

Q16: Bonus Question: White to move and win

Enjoy your holidays!

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Positional Sacrifice

Many of us are happy to give up material if it means an unstoppable attack. How about sacrificing for the position? That’s where many players hesitate. For some reason it is particularly painful for us to part with a pawn or the exchange for some long-term positional gain.

That’s because by nature, we humans prefer immediate results. By sacrificing something that has been drilled into beginners as one of the most important assets of the game, of course we want something good to justify it. An unstoppable mate or an irresistible king hunt looks tangible enough. But something more abstract, like superior piece activity or a passed pawn, doesn’t look convincing enough to amateurs. So when it comes to sacrificing for the position, the verdict stands: We can’t do it!

Just take the leap, they said

Obviously we have to remove this rigor mortis, if we want to win more games. In his classic work “How to Reassess Your Chess (4th Edition)”, Jeremy Silman takes the bull by the horns by removing material advantage from its holy seat, and placing it alongside other positional factors known as “imbalances”. He explains the way to overcome this mental reluctance to part with material as follows:

“(The player) has to train himself to view each imbalance as something wonderful, and he has to view material as just another imbalance to be collected or rejected, depending on the nature of the individual position.”

 That means that while material advantage is important, you shouldn’t place it on a pedestal and lose sight of all other positional imbalances. Rather, it should be weighed alongside other factors such as the centre, pawn structure and piece activity, and treated equally.

Here is a simple example of how material can be given up for a huge positional advantage, again taken from Silman’s book:

White to move

White enjoys more space, and would love to put a piece on that inviting e6 square. But the only access point, the e-file, is contested by both sides, and Black has no intention of giving it up! So if White tries something like 1. Rxe7 Rxe7 2. Re1 Rxe1 Black trades off the rooks and White can never exploit his spatial advantage.

But now, armed with the knowledge that material is just an imbalance like any other positional factor, you might not take long to find the positional sacrifice:

1. Re6!!

And the reason for giving up the material becomes clear: After 1… Bxe6 2. dxe6, Black’s position is totally hopeless! True, he may be an exchange up, but if we analyze the imbalances of both sides we see a very different picture:

Position after 2. dxe6

  1. Up an exchange

  1. Enormous central space, giving White’s pieces far more activity as compared to Black’s
  2. A strong, protected passed pawn
  3. Weak enemy pawns on d6 and f6 to attack
  4. An outpost on d5 for the knight
  5. Uncontested light-squares along the h1-a8 diagonal that can be used as an invasion route for the light-squared bishop.
  6. Superior minor pieces compared to Black’s rooks: Without any open files, the Black rooks are in fact worse off than any of White’s pieces!

From the assessment of the imbalances it is not difficult to tell that White is winning despite his material deficit. After something like Nd5 and Re1, the weight of White’s forces will crush Black underfoot.

A less extreme example can be seen in the following game, between Petrosian and Spassky in the 1969 World Championship. I must digress for a bit to talk about Tigran Petrosian, who was remembered not only for his impenetrable defensive style, but also his fondness for giving up the exchange to get a superior position. So if there is any role model to look for while studying the idea of the positional sacrifice… look no further than Iron Tigran!

Iron Tigran, the master of positional play

Spassky, Boris vs Petrosian, Tigran V
World Chess Championship 1969 (Round 11)
Position after 30. Nd2

Black has a position similar to our first example: More space on the queenside, and control over the c-file. But Petrosian is unable to use the c-file to invade Spassky’s position, since all the invasion points have been covered by White. 30… Rc7 followed by Rac8 doubling rooks on the file comes to mind, but White can simply reply Rdc1 and Rac1 trading off all the rooks, resulting in a drawish, closed position. Is there a way for Black to push forth his agenda of advancing on the queenside? Turns out there is, and if we remember what White did in our first example, the candidate move here shouldn’t be hard to find:

30… Rc4!

If White accepts the sacrifice with 31. Nxc4 dxc4, we see that Black gets excellent compensation after laying out the imbalances:

  1. Up an exchange

  1. Two strong, protected passed pawns on the queenside
  2. An open diagonal for his light-squared bishop
  3. A backward e3 pawn to attack

This isn’t as clear as the first example where Black was totally cramped up, but the monster passed pawns on the queenside are more than enough to make White think twice about grabbing the material. Spassky wisely declined the sacrifice, instead finding other ways to keep the game complicated:

No article on the positional sacrifice would be complete without Petrosian’s classical defence sacrifice example. The next position is a famous one that some of you might find familiar, but such masterpieces never get too old to be shared:

Position after 25. Rfe1

Things are going badly for Black: White threatens Bf3 followed by d5, setting the central pawn mass in motion and wreaking havoc in Black's camp. If only Black could get his knight to d5 via e7, but moves like … Ra7 or ... Red7 don't work because of the pawn advance e6. This means Petrosian must find a move that can help set up a blockade on both d5 AND e6, which seems impossible unless some concessions can be made...

We have seen two fine works of art by Petrosian, but I cannot resist showing another one. I will cap off this article with another of his masterpieces, where he sacrificed the exchange to set loose a rampaging pawn army, eventually overrunning the enemy with its numbers:

Through these games we can see how material, at the end of the day, is just another positional imbalance. Weighed against other positional elements it definitely carries more advantage, but one must be prepared to let it go when you see an even better opportunity coming your way.

So don’t be afraid to make that positional sacrifice; even if it doesn’t work, at least you have overcome your mental block and learned much from it!

“How to Re-assess your Chess: 4th Edition” by Jeremy Silman