Friday, March 31, 2017

Fischer's eccentric brilliancies: Part 3

Fischer had a penchant for stirring up trouble, as we had seen in his accusations of the Russians in the 1962 Candidates. This was again portrayed during the 1967 Interzonal, where a series of disagreements with the organizers led to his withdrawal while leading the tournament. This effectively removed him from the 1969 World Championship Cycle, dashing his hopes for another shot at the World Crown.

But his record of controversies was shadowed by his meteoric rise in the 1970s. After a brief period of inactivity in 1969, he returned to play in the 1970 USSR vs Rest of the World match in Belgrade, defeating Tigran Petrosian with two wins and two draws. This left no doubt that Fischer had put his temporary rest from the competitive scene to good use.

And with enough willpower to make a comeback

1970 was proving to be a good year for the American genius, who was racking up a string of tournament victories. But the highlight of the year was his top placing at the 1970 Interzonal, where he finished with seven (!) consecutive wins. This qualified him for yet another Candidates Match in 1971.

We might remember from Part 2 that in response to allegations of Soviet collusion, FIDE had changed the format of the Candidates from the standard round robin to a series of 12-game knockout matches. How would Bobby fare in this new format?

His first victim opponent was Russian Grandmaster Mark Taimanov. Fischer was seen as the favourite, though Taimanov would not go down without a fight; a hotly contested battle was expected.

Today, we will look at the 4th game of their match. If the fight between Fischer and Tal in Part 2 was a fine showcase of good bishop vs bad knight, then the following game would be a masterpiece. It is a classic example of what a monster the bishop can be in the endgame when under the command of Robert Fischer:

It is amazing how a mere piece can perform such heroic acts, taking on the enemy single-handed before being sacrificed for the greater good! Had this been a real war, the bishop no doubt would have been recommended for the Victoria Cross.

Having suffered 4 consecutive defeats, Taimanov dug in and soldiered on. He managed to gain an advantage in the 5th game, but threw it away with a horrible blunder after the adjournment:

Taimanov, Mark vs Fischer, Robert
Candidates Match 1971, Game 5
Position after 45... Kh6

46. Rxf6?? Qd4+ and White resigned in view of 47. Rf2 Ra1+ 48. Kh2 Qxf2 losing the rook.

Alas, what was initially thought to be a close fight turned out to be a massacre. Fischer routed Taimanov 6-0, sending the chess world into an uproar. There was no doubt the American would win, but by such a margin!? A match among the world’s best players would typically produce margins or 1, 2 or at the most 3 point differences (*World Championship 2013 cough cough*), while a total whitewash was almost unheard of.

Naturally, the Soviet authorities were not pleased with this embarrassing rout, and felt that there was no way a Russian could lose so spectacularly to an American unless some grand conspiracy was taking place. So poor Taimanov bore the brunt of the Motherland’s fury:

“The sanctions from the Soviet government were severe. I was deprived of my civil rights, my salary was taken away from me, I was prohibited from travelling abroad and censored in the press. It was unthinkable for the authorities that a Soviet grandmaster could lose in such a way to an American, without a political explanation. I therefore became the object of slander…”
-Mark Taimanov

The KGB's words translated into English

Meanwhile, Fischer was preparing to face his second opponent: Bent Larsen. We have witnessed one of Bobby’s victories over the Danish grandmaster in Part 1, but Larsen was still a formidable opponent, having dealt Fischer his only loss at the Interzonal. Nevertheless, Fischer was still the favourite, so he would likely win the match by a margin or 2, or even 3 points…

No, Fischer massacred his opponent with another 6 straight wins! Larsen attributed it to his poor form during the match, which was made worse by the hot climate at the playing venue. However, it was not sufficient to explain a second 6-0 by the American. Once might be a freak coincidence, but twice!? There was definitely something crazy about Fischer’s ability that could make this possible.

After both sides played a sharp, exciting 1st game where Fischer beat off a strong attack, the players faced a long, tougher game in the 2nd round. Larsen was making slow but steady progress in an asymmetrical rook + bishop endgame when he blundered into a strong tactical combination:

As the score made headlines around the world, the Reds realized there was no reason for a Western Imperialist to conspire with another Western Imperialist by losing all his games. So they were horribly wrong about their wacky conspiracy theories on Taimanov, and had no choice but to “forgive” him and lift all the earlier sanctions. By suffering such a stinging defeat, Larsen had unintentionally saved Taimanov from destruction by his own country!

But that was none of Fischer’s business. His next order of battle was against former world champion Tigran Petrosian. The Soviet government, alarmed over the growing power of Fischer, expressed concern on whether Petrosian could take down the American juggernaut. But despite Fischer’s performance in the earlier matches, Iron Tigran was optimistic that he could do the impossible. And he had good reason to be, having been the ex-world champion, with an extremely solid playing style that made him incredibly difficult to beat.

After starting with a loss, Petrosian won the second game, finally snapping Bobby’s winning streak. He then held out with solid draws for the next 3 rounds, but somewhere the Armenian faltered and all of a sudden Fischer found himself winning the next four games. The following is a short but interesting game where Petrosian had a passed pawn, which turned out to be more of a burden than an asset:

It is incredible how Fischer won this game through superior positional understanding, against an opponent who was himself an outstanding expert on positional play!

Petrosian (left) vs Fischer, Candidates Match 1971

The result of the match—6.5-2.5 in favour of Bobby—was once again a shock to the chess world. While not a clean sweep, who would imagine that a former world champion could lose 4 games in a row? After the match, Petrosian remarked: “After the sixth game Fischer really did become a genius. I on the other hand, either had a breakdown or was tired, or something else happened, but the last three games were no longer chess.” (Wiki)

Botvinnik, who was Taimanov’s second in his ill-fated match, sums up the story of Fischer’s wild Candidates journey succinctly:

"It is hard to talk about Fischer's matches. Since the time that he has been playing them, miracles have begun. His match with Taimanov was surprising, the one with Larsen even more astonishing, and the Petrosian-Fischer match was altogether staggering. In the first two matches everything was clear to the general public, but that which occurred in Buenos Aires remains a mystery even now. From the 1st to 5th games Petrosian essentially dominated, but in the remaining four he 'descended' to the level of Taimanov and Larsen...”

So there we go. After so many failed attempts, Fischer had finally secured victory in the Candidates, clearing a path for him to the 1972 World Championship. Now, only one man stands between him and the pinnacle of the world: Tenth World Champion Boris Spassky…

To be continued…

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

"My Great Predecessors" by Garry Kasparov

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Pre-NSI Tactical presents: Part 2

In view of the fact that NSI IS LESS THAN 4 DAYS AWAY (please don't kill me guys), here are a few more tactics for y'all to try out. Don't worry, I am a kind soul, so most of them should be quite easy...

Have fun, and all the best! (:

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The truth about chess theory

A few weeks ago I was having a Whatsapp conversation with a few chess acquaintances, when the following position was raised:

Position after 15. fxg6

The question was, how would Black respond after 16. Bxg6? At first glance it seems he is in trouble. His pawn structure is ruined, with a backward e6 and doubled g-pawns. But the main problem is that gaping g-file before his king. If White tries something like Rg1 followed by Qd2 and O-O-O, he would double rooks on the g-file and give Black a very unpleasant time.

We tried to find out if there was anything that could keep him in the game, and concluded with the following:

  1. By creating doubled g-pawns, Black opened up the f-file. His rook is ideally positioned to hammer targets like that hanging knight on f3, or the potential weakness on f2 (since White’s king has yet to castle!)
  2. The d3 hole is an ideal outpost for Black’s knight. Again, the uncastled White king plays into Black’s hands, with the tempo gaining check … Nd3+ being a possibility. However, the square is guarded by White’s light-squared bishop, so it is best for Black to trade it off (e.g. after 16. Bxg6 Be8).

So we spent a good few minutes debating on who is better. Indeed, while Black may have the advantages listed earlier, they may not come in time to save Black from a determined kingside attack. If I were to unleash Deep Fritz/Stockfish for a deep analysis, the silicon monsters would likely give a huge plus for White, simply because of Black’s incredibly exposed king.

But does that mean Black should resign if we conclude White is better? Definitely not. He still has potential to create lots of problems for White using the advantages we described earlier. For example, after 16. Bxg6 he could continue 16… Be8 attempting to trade the light-squared bishops, before playing … Nd3+, and even a possible rook sacrifice on the f-file to unleash a counterattack against White’s uncastled king. Even if the engines calculate that White’s attack would crash through first, what is the likelihood a human opponent would play perfectly? Especially in a sharp, unclear position like the one we see?

In the actual game, Black dug in and continued fighting. Eventually his opponent made an inaccuracy, allowing him to launch a brutal counterattack that swiftly turned the tables:

Apart from the fact that doubled pawns provide an open file to play with, and that you should think twice before you exchange, what can we learn from this game? It is that you should not give up simply because a position is theoretically not in your favour.

We are taught to analyse positions, to determine based on a number of factors (e.g. open files, king safety, material) who has the advantage. We learn different types of endgames, and how each of them is a win or draw with accurate play from both sides. That’s chess theory for you.

Then, we may ask, what is the purpose of finding out who is better? To resign when you are losing, or to claim a victory when you are winning? Sounds weird to do so, but that’s what many people actually think. They would determine that a position is better for so and so, then finish off by saying so and so would win without suggesting a concrete plan for either side.

A plan based on the positional/tactical elements both for and against you, regardless of whether you are losing or winning.

That means if you figure out that a game is not going well for you, you do not throw in the towel so quickly. Instead, you should be figuring out how to generate counterplay in order to equalize. Likewise, if you have an advantage in your game, you still need to figure out a plan to convert it. And chances are your opponent is going all out to create problems for you in his/her attempt to find a counterattack.

I give a simple example. In rook endgames, we know that a Lucena Position is a theoretical win. At least, that’s what we learn in chess theory.

"I thought my days of rook endgames were over!"

So if you are playing Black in the above position, will you resign the moment the Philidor appears on the board? Simply because your theoretical knowledge tells you it’s not defendable?

Against an experienced veteran, I might. But against a young club player? I wouldn’t. I know the Lucena Position is a theoretical win, but the opponent may not (he might even be contemplating a draw offer since he can’t seem to make progress!). So I would dig in and play something like 1… Rf3, keeping his king boxed in.

Only after he has chased away my king with 2. Rc2+, followed by the critical move Rc4, would I be convinced that he knows his endgames, and that all hope is lost for me.

Unless your opponent’s name is Bobby Fischer, he/she is as human as any other chessplayer out there. Unlike engines, humans make mistakes. So if you can create as much problems as possible for your opponent in a game, chances are he/she is going to slip up somewhere and blunder.

This is why when we first learn chess, we are taught to fight to the end instead of resigning. At the beginner level everyone is prone to blundering, even in winning positions.

This is also why at top level play, Grandmasters tend to resign after a simple mistake such as losing a piece. They are aware that their opponents know how to convert the advantage, even in tricky positions that will snag a weaker player. So might as well conserve their energy for the next game.

If you’re still not convinced, I will use another example. How many of you remember the theory of the rook vs rook + 4th rank pawn endgame?


I covered it in a 3 part series a long time ago, and to tell the truth most of us won’t remember Black’s key drawing move 1… Kd6 in the knight-pawn scenario. Heck, we might not even recall how many ranks/files the enemy king must be cut off from the pawn in order to force a win.

What we probably know though, are the general rules that the defender has a better chance of drawing if his king is on the shorter side of the board, and that he should keep his rook as active as possible.

So if I am defending such an endgame in tournament play, I will simply get my king to the shorter side of the board if I am unable to bring him in front of the pawn. Then I will use my rook to watch the pawn, or unleash a checking barrage on the enemy king. Without knowing the critical moves it’s not going to guarantee a draw, but at least I can create problems for my opponent.

With any luck he will be even more clueless than I am, and miss the key winning ideas, even if the position is a theoretical loss for me.

Simply put, using chess theory to understand a game is not the end, but the means to an end. It’s not just about whose position is better. It’s about whether one can find a plan which can give the best possible outcome, regardless of whether he/she has the upper hand.

Even if it boils down to throwing stones at the enemy (Image from the History Lab on Facebook)

So the next time you analyse your position and find out it is not going well for you, don’t be too dejected. Find out what resources you have, and use them to fight back! Who knows, your opponent may be unsure on how to convert his advantage, and eventually return it back to you. Just because it is a theoretical win for him/her doesn’t mean it is a guaranteed win.

Chess players are humans. If no one makes mistakes, we would be living in a world where Stockfish and other silicon engines compete among one another, churning out perfect but boring draws. It is the very imperfections of man that make chess such a perfectly beautiful game.


Friday, March 3, 2017

Pre-NSI Tactical Presents: Part 1

I don't need to say more... have fun!