Saturday, February 25, 2017

Fischer's eccntric brilliancies: Part 2

The last time we left off, Fischer was on his way to the Soviet Union, where you don't play chess, but chess plays you he was about to participate in the prestigious 1959 Candidates Tournament. Back then the Red Chess Empire was at its pinnacle; naturally the tournament favourites were the experienced Soviet grandmasters: Petrosian, Keres, Tal, and Smyslov.

How about the American, young and untested against the Russian war machine? Of course his chances were not rated highly; in fact many felt that he was not yet mature enough for such a difficult tournament. And true to the facts, he was unable to overcome the latest weapon that the Soviet players were employing against him: The Caro-Kann defense. As Kasparov noted many years later, "(Fischer's) score against them in the Caro-Kann was dismal: 1-4, and this with the white pieces!".

Although he was having major difficulties overcoming the might of the Reds, Fischer did start on a good note, scoring a hard-fought win over Paul Keres in the first round:

Keres (left) vs Fischer in 1959, while Pal Benko spectates

Fischer eventually finished 5th out of 8, while Tal won the tournament and went on to face Botvinnik in the World Championship Match 1960. Despite this seemingly disappointing performance, it was considered a good finish for a first-timer. Again, Kasparov invokes a few notable lines from the tournament book:

"World champion Botvinnik analysed many of Fischer's games and came to the conclusion that this youth does indeed possess a brilliant talent, but some people underestimate him. In his style and understanding of the game Fischer is close to the Soviet Chess School, the founder of which was Chigorin. Botvinnik is sure that the American Grandmaster has a great future."

A great future indeed. Fischer continued participating in tournaments and matches, slowly but surely racking up his battle experience. Meanwhile, the press was writing eagerly about the rising American star, picturing him as the next possible contender for the World Championship. Before long he had qualified again for the 1962 Candidates Tournament, brimming with confidence for another shot at the world crown.

His ego was quickly shattered by losses in the first two rounds, and by Round 7 his score looked pretty bleak: +2=2-3. Fischer realized that, contrary to what his romanticized ideals told him, this tournament was definitely going to be no walk in the park. So he dug in, and held out until he scored another well-deserved win against Tal in Round 11.

Now many would know that Mikhail Tal, the magician from Riga, was a master of attacking chess, often sacrificing pieces in order to confuse and out-calculate his opponents. But in 1962 he had just underwent a major operation, and was still unwell when he entered the Candidates. Fischer lured the out-of-form Latvian away from sharp, tactical positions, and entered a tricky endgame that was familiar territory to the American: Bishop vs Knight.

Position after 23. Rhd1

In the above position, Tal as Black could have exchanged on d4, simplifying to a classical blockade position where his knight would have an edge over the bishop. But instead, he was tempted by White's king in the centre, and proceeded with 23. f5?

This severely weakened the dark squares around Black's kingside, which wasn't a very good idea given that White had the ideal bishop to exploit them! Moreover, Fischer now had a beautiful hole on g5 for his bishop and king, which he utilized to the fullest extent. I fast forward the game to 16 moves later:

Position after 39... Nf8

Any fool can tell that White is winning: His bishop is far superior to the poor knight, and after 40. Rd6 it is only a matter of time before the defenders are exchanged and Black's kingside pawns fall. White's stranglehold on the dark squares is unquestionable.

As always it is best to show more details about the struggle:

Tal was pretty out of form during this tournament; he eventually withdrew from the tournament due to his ailing health. Fischer, who had great admiration for the Magician from Riga, visited him in hospital. Nevertheless, this game still shows Fischer's absolute tenacity and his renowned mastery of bishops in the endgame.

The only sport you can play without getting out of bed

But alas, the Candidates 1962 was not Fischer's for the taking. He finished in 4th place, behind Petrosian, Keres and Geller. But while the tournament had concluded, the sparks were only just beginning to fly! Once again Kasparov provides a vibrant narrative about this in "My Great Predecessors", so I will let him do the talking:

"This failure had an enormous effect on Fischer. Of course, he had to find some explanation, some justification for what had happened... And again a trait of his character told: instead of seeking the causes of the failure in his own play, Bobby looked for others who were to blame. And he found them! In an article with the colourful title 'The Russians have fixed world chess", published in the magazine 'Sports Illustrated', he directly accused Petrosian, Keres and Geller of making a pact. They had supposedly agreed beforehand to draw amongst themselves, which gave them a respite, whereas he had to play every game with full intensity."

These accusations of Soviet collusion sounded valid to some extent: All 12 games between the top three had ended in draws lasting less than 19 moves. But of course the Reds denied all allegations, and since we're here to discuss about Fischer's games and not some crazy conspiracy theory, I'm going to skip over the details (Wiki gives a good description and analysis of the controversy here if you're really interested). Anyway, all the players involved have since passed on, so it is unlikely that we will ever find out whether the allegations are true.

What matters was that in response to Fischer's outcry, FIDE decided to change the format of the Candidates. The traditional round-robin format was replaced by a series of knockout matches from the next cycle onwards, to prevent the possibility of collusion between players. It was the very same match format that Fischer would come to dominate during his return in 1971...

To be continued...

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

"My Great Predecessors: Part 4" by Garry Kasparov
Raising a flag over the Reichstag, by Yevgeny Khaldei, Fair use,
Unknown -, Fair use, 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Valentine's Day 2017 Tactical Presents

Oh... can you feel the love in the air?

Well me neither, because that's the life of a chessplayer. To remain single and keep solving tactical puzzles till the day you die XD

Have fun!

Picture by The History Lab on Facebook

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Fischer's eccentric brilliancies: Part 1

Robert James Fischer, the 11th World Champion, needs no introduction. Like Kasparov he is regarded as one of the greatest players of the 20th century, having gone up against the Soviet Chess Empire single-handed... and won. Yet his life was shrouded in such mystery. He was anti-Semitic, despised his own country, and lived a hermit's life for nearly 20 years after losing his championship title.

He was also fiercely motivated, pushing all out for a win in every game, and spending more time on chess than any other grandmaster would have. His tactical acumen, unsurpassed mastery of almost any position, and superior endgame skills contributed to his meteoric rise and domination of the chess world from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Robert James Fischer, a human chess engine

So how did the American rise from a young prodigy to a world renowned master, eventually overcoming the might of the Russian Chess School? Well obviously we should tell the story from its beginning. Having learned chess at the age of 6, he got hooked on to the game and made rapid progress. By 13, he was already winning tournaments and had earned the title of National Master.

In 1956, 13-year old Fischer took part in the Rosenwald Cup, where he went up against the best players in the United States. Although he finished in eighth position, he played a memorable brilliancy against Donald Byrne, who was himself one of the strongest American masters at the time.

Dubbed the "Game of the Century", it started off with a modest inaccuracy by Byrne (moving the same piece twice in the opening), which swiftly escalated into a disaster as Fischer sacrificed material for an unstoppable attack. The game made news around the world, convincing many of the great potential that young Fischer had.

By 1958, Fischer had already won the US Championship,  thus qualifying for the prestigious Interzonal tournament in Slovenia. Having already dominated the game in his home country, he proceeded to cross swords with the best of Europe.

The following game was the first of his many encounters with Danish Grandmaster Bent Larsen. In a nerve-wracking Sicilian Dragon with both sides advancing on opposite wings, Fischer was the first to break through, hence calling the game "Slaying the Dragon".

Fischer finished among the top 6, qualifying for the World Championship Candidates Match 1959. As the selection tournament for the World Championship, the Candidates naturally involved the best of the best, including several Soviet Grandmasters with many years of experience. Not very good prospects for a first-timer from the West...

To be continued...

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

"My Great Predecessors: Part 4" by Garry Kasparov
Saint George and the Dragon by Gustave Moreau - 1. w:en:Image:Stgeorge-dragon.jpg2. GalleriX3. GalleriX, Public Domain,

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Weak squares, or doubled pawns?

While I was halfway through writing my Doubled Pawns series I played an interesting game in November's Carinhill tournament. What struck me were the opportunities which the opponent had to ruin my pawn structure and give me doubled pawns, but whether they were really weaknesses were something that could be questioned. Since we have been learning so much about doubled pawns, this is a good time to look at how they can make or break your position, as I found out in this game.

My opponent's first chance came after move 12:

Position after 12... Ne4

Black has just sunk a knight into the inviting outpost on e4. Now White could give Black doubled pawns after 13. Bxe4 dxe4, but then the offending knight would be replaced with a passed pawn that is no less accommodating. Meanwhile, the pawn's rear counterpart on e6 keeps watch over the central squares. Such doubled pawns, far from being a weakness, actually help Black in this position.

Fast forward to move 19:

Position after 19... fxe5

Again, White can damage his opponent's pawn structure with 20. Bxh6 gxh6. This time the doubled pawns are located at the edge of the world, where they offer no help in centre control as compared to our first position.

Because they're too busy trying not to fall off the edge

Does Black get any compensation, then? Well yes: By trading off White's dark-squared bishop, he gains control over the weak dark squares around White's kingside. With a correct coloured bishop and queen to exploit these squares, he gains very good attacking chances against the enemy king.

Opponent vs Checkerboard 5
Cairnhill Chess Festival 2016 Open (Round 2)

1. e4 c6
2. d4 d5
3. exd5 cxd5
4. Bd3 Nf6
5. Ne2 e6
6. O-O Bd6
7. f4

To discourage Black from any ideas of ... Bxh7+. But there were better ways to defend that did not involve a weakening of the e4 square. A simple 7. h3 could solve the problem too.

7... O-O
8. Nd2

Keeping open the option of pushing c3/c4.

8... Nc6
9. c3 b6
10. Nf3 Bb7
11. h3 Ne7

The knight wasn't doing much on e7, so better to relocate it to the other wing.

12. Ne5 Ne4

Settling into the e4 outpost. Black's plan is to push ...f6 followed by ... e5, kicking the e5 knight and advancing in the centre, while his centralized knight interferes with White's attempts to counterattack.

13. Be3

Can White be rid of the offending knight? it seems that after 13. Bxe4 dxe4 Black has ruined his own pawn structure. But notice the doubled pawns here aren't weak: The forward pawn is a passer protected by the the b7 bishop, while his rear counterpart assists in looking after the d5 and f5 squares. Now White has to deal with the trouble of the e4 pawn interfering in his operations. So this is a case of doubled pawns offering an advantage by controlling more squares in the centre!

13... Nf5
14. Bf2 f6
15. Nf3 Qc7
16. g4 Nh6

It would not benefit Black to trade off his centralized knight, which is his key advantage: 16... Nxf2 after which White can set a trap: 17. Rxf2 (even 17. Kxf2 Nh6 puts White in a slightly better position.) 17... Ne3? while it looks like Black will win the f4 pawn, White calls the bluff with a powerful combination 18. Bxh7+! Kxh7 19. Qd3+ Nf5 20. gxf5 exf5 21. Qxf5+ Kg8 leaving White a pawn up. Black's two bishops will not offer much compensation in the closed position.

17. Be3 Rae8
18. Rc1 e5
19. fxe5 fxe5
20. Bxh6 gxh6

Uh-oh. For all his efforts in breaking open the centre Black has gained isolated doubled pawns in return. Furthermore, these doubled pawns are located at the side and don't help much in controlling central squares. Does Black get any compensation for this? Well yes: By trading off his dark-squared bishop, White has weakened the dark squares around his kingside. And Black has a bishop and queen which can perfectly exploit this weakness!

21. Qe1 Qe7

With the latest development Black modifies his plans: Invade the kingside via the dark squares.

22. dxe5 Bxe5
23. Nfd4?

Getting rid of Black's dark-squared bishop was a priority, otherwise the pressure against White's exposed king becomes too much. 23. Nxe5 Qxe5 While Black still poses a threat with his queen + knight duo, at least his firepower along the dark squares is not as strong.

23... Qg5

Destination: The e3 square.

24. Rxf8+

White spots a tactical combination, but it is not strong enough.

24... Rxf8
25. Ne6??

It looks like Black will lose material. But White severely underestimates the vulnerability of the dark squares around his king. 25. Bxe4 was the best response, taking out one of the king's attackers. After 25... Qe3+ 26. Kh1 Qxe4+ 27. Kg1 Black has no good way to continue the attack (Qe3+ is met with Kh1 and no progress can be made other than a forced perpetual). White can then consolidate with  moves like Nf5, closing off the file and getting his pieces out into the game.

25... Qe3+!

Now Black has a forced mating line.

26. Kg2

26. Kh1 Qxh3+ 27. Kg1 Qh2#

26... Rf2+
27. Kg1

27. Kh1 Qxh3+ 28. Kg1 Qh2#

27... Rxe2+
28. Kf1 Qf3+
29. Kg1 Qg2# (D)

Position after 29... Qg2#

White had no chance to exploit the doubled pawns he created, and his dark-squared weaknesses proved to be his downfall. What can we learn from this game?

  1. Doubled pawns aren't always bad; sometimes they come with valuable compensation, such as good piece activity or greater centre control.
  2. Don't leave your king exposed especially when you have weak squares around him, and the enemy has a correct coloured bishop that can exploit these weaknesses!
  3. Avoid trading off any active pieces that can aid you in the attack. Conversely, when defending it is best to get rid of the opponent's firepower by exchanging off his more active pieces.