Monthly Archives: April 2015

Guided by Structures

Flores Rios, Mauricio. Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. 464pp. ISBN 978-1784830007. PB $29.95, currently around $22 at Amazon.

One of the marks of the strong player, as opposed to the novice, is that she knows how to derive some of the positional traits of any given position from its pawn structure. Such knowledge comes from induction and experience, but precisely how one gains that knowledge… well, there’s the rub. A few books – most notably Andy Soltis’ Pawn Structure Chess and, to a lesser degree, Jeremy Silman’s How to Reassess Your Chess – have been written to that end. Now Mauricio Flores Rios has made a welcome and important addition to the literature with Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide.

Flores Rios’ book is a collection of 140 games and fragments divided by defining pawn structures. His rationale for writing the book, as explained by GM Axel Bachmann in a Foreword, is interesting. Bachmann explains that when he and Flores Rios were teammates together at UT-Brownsville, they discovered that they had very different approaches to studying chess. Bachmann writes that

Mauricio read books, analyzed his games and prepared openings. I did these things too, but in reality the vast majority of my time was spent looking over current chess games and playing. I was surprised when Mauricio told me he had written a book partially inspired by my training methods, and I was certainly interested to see what was in it.

We might say that Flores Rios’ approach is the classical one, not dissimilar from the methods used by all the great players in the pre-computer era. I imagine Bachmann, in contrast, downloading new issues of TWIC each week and playing through each and every game at high speed, turning on the engine to check a few things, and then retiring to ICC for blitz and some R&R.

Bachmann’s study method is basically that proposed in many places by Jeremy Silman over the years. Play through as many master games as possible, as quickly as possible, and you will begin to pick up typical themes as if by magic. But few people possess the sitzfleisch required to play through so many games, and there’s no guarantee that the conceptual osmosis will take place. So we might see Flores Rios’ book as a middle path, where the Grandmaster selects games that are particularly instructive for typical ideas, analyzes them, and distills them down to the most essential patterns and ideas.

We can break the typical pawn structures in Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide down in a few ways. There are five main ‘families,’ for instance: those that come from d4 and …d5, Open Sicilians, Benonis, King’s Indians and the French. Each of those five families is broken down further into 21 categories (with seven additional categories crammed into a ‘catch-all’ section). With each category the defining pawn structure is named and typical plans and ideas are discussed, model games are given, and summaries provided. A set of exercises and solutions round things out.

Let’s take as an example his coverage in Chapter 7 of the Grunfeld Center. It begins with a schematic diagram of the pawn structure in question, and we leave aside for now the question of why the g-pawn remains on g7.

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As part of his introduction to each chapter, Flores Rios offers summaries of typical plans for each side. Here is what he says about the Grunfeld Center.

White’s Plans

  1. Create a central passed pawn with d4-d5, dominate the center, gain space.
  2. Create a kingside attack, which will probably include the moves h2-h4-h5 and e4-e5 to gain control of the f6-square, which is usually weakened when Black develops his bishop on g7.

Black’s Plans

  1. Create a queenside passed pawn, especially after some simplifications.
  2. Pressure the center, place a rook on the d-file and find tactical resources associated with the open position.

In general White will get pretty good middlegame opportunities since he dominates the center and has a little more space. This advantage disappears rather easily, as the position is open and Black has multiple opportunities to trade off pieces heading into a good endgame. One major factor in this position is control of the c-file. If White controls the c-file it will be easier for him to expand, to create a passed pawn, to neutralize Black’s play. Likewise, if Black controls the open file, White’s central or kingside play will face many difficulties. One may say that open files are always important, which is often true. But in this position the open file is even more important than usual – it is essential.

There are then a series of annotated games that are used to illustrate his main points. In the first of the five games in the Grunfeld Center chapter, Flores Rios makes a point so striking (at least to me) that it is worth another diagram.

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The reader should examine this position carefully, as there is more than meets the eye. Players of all levels could glance at this position and say, ‘Chances are level.’ Even my engine agrees with this evaluation. In practice matters are not that simple at all. Black experiences some difficulties, as the e7–pawn is under attack, the a6–pawn is vulnerable, and White intends to take control of the c-file. Black could solve his problems by playing two moves in a row: …Qd7 and …Nc4 momentarily blocking the c-file. Having only one move, Kasparov failed to cope with his difficulties, and played…

21…Re8?! In the post-mortem, Kasparov referred to this move as a positional blunder, saying that after losing the c-file his position was ‘completely lost.’ He probably exaggerated, but the point is clear: fighting for control of the c-file is an essential task in this kind of position.

  • A better choice was 21…Nc4! 22.Bxe7 Re8 (22…Nb2? 23.Qd2 Nxd1 24.Bxf8 winning a pawn) 23.Ba3 (23.Bg5? Nb2–+) 23…Nxa3 24.Qxa3 Rxe4 25.d5 “when White’s position is somewhat easier to play, but Black should be able to hold with care.”;
  • 21…Qb7 22.Qa3 Nc4 23.Qxe7 Qxe7 24.Bxe7 Re8 25.Bc5 Rxe4 “with level chances, though Black will need to be careful after…” 26.d5!?;
  • Black loses a pawn after 21…Qd7? 22.Qa3 Nc4 23.Qxa6

22.Rc1 += A logical decision, taking control of the essential c-file.

This note is typical of Flores Rios’ style and ability. He is very good at explaining what is going on to his audience, who are mostly non-grandmasters and who also tend to rely on engine evaluations a bit too much. These notes are backed up with concrete analysis, and in most cases he hits just the right note when trying to balance brevity and depth of analyzed lines. I also found some of the explanations of endgame positions very useful, with the discussion of the value of space in an endgame from the IQP chapter popping into my head during a few of my own games.

If I had to guess, I’d wager that Flores Rios was consciously trying to emulate his college textbooks when writing Chess Structures. Each game is tagged with a learning objective, and ‘final remarks’ are provided after each game as well. It seems that a lot of thought went into the pedagogical makeup of the book, and that effort has paid off grandly. This is among the best non-beginner works for learning chess that I’ve seen.

Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide is not a primer of positional play; for that, try Michael Stean’s Simple Chess, Herman Grooten’s Chess Strategy for Club Players, or Silman’s aforementioned How to Reassess Your Chess. Instead, you might think of Chess Structures as positional chess ‘finishing school.’ Flores Rios does an exceptional job of clearly describing the interrelation between pawn structure and planning, and he offers his readers a stockpile of typical plans and ideas in most of the major pawn configurations. Here’s hoping that this is not the last book we see from this young Grandmaster!

Putting a Second in your Corner

This review has been printed in the April 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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There was a curious moment at the opening press conference for the 2013 World Championship Match. A local reporter asked the players to name their “seconds.” Anand answered first, cheerfully disclosing the makeup of his four person team. After thanking Anand for his “openness,” Carlsen said that he would not return the favor.

Why the secrecy? Why wouldn’t Carlsen reveal who he’d been working with?

And what’s a second anyway?

For those unfamiliar with the term, a second was originally an assistant in dueling. If he could not negotiate a satisfactory means of regaining honor, your chosen second – usually a friend or family member – helped you in your preparation for battle and saw that the agreed conditions of the duel were met.

In chess, a second is something like a research assistant, a sparring partner, and a confidant all rolled into one. Because adjournments no longer exist, and because the opening has become so important in the post-Kasparov era, the modern second works primarily on openings.

Perhaps this was why Carlsen was so reluctant to name the members of his team. Knowing who your opponent employs as an opening analyst might give you some insight into their match preparation.

Carlsen must have known he’d face the same question in the run-up to the 2014 rematch with Anand, because, when asked, he had a prepared answer: “there’s the Dane [Peter Heine Nielsen], and there’s the Hammer [Jon Ludvig Hammer], and that’s about it.” But this was only half-true. Among Carlsen’s other, ‘secret’ assistants was Mickey Adams. Had Anand known this, he might well have predicted some of Carlsen’s openings in Sochi.

The wide availability of databases and powerful engines would seem to obviate the need for a second, but many world-class grandmasters still retain them. Garry Kasparov had Yuri Dokhoian as his second for many years; after Kasparov’s retirement, Dokhoian was hired by Sergey Karjakin. Elizbar Ubilava worked for Anand for about ten years before he was replaced by Peter Heine Nielsen. Nielsen was then poached by Team Carlsen before the 2013 Anand match, but he recused himself from that contest in the interest of fairness.

Right now I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I might be a mere B player, but I also employ a second. In fact, I employ twelve of them, and for a price that is a true pittance, you can too.

ChessPublishing.com is a subscription-based opening analysis website owned and operated by Grandmaster Tony Kosten. The concept is simple. Recent games with opening innovations are annotated every month by leading theoreticians and sorted into sections. Each section update consists of approximately five to ten games. Subscribers can purchase access to one or more sections, and they can view both the monthly updates and archived data while their subscriptions remain active. They can also access their subscriptions through the Forward Chess app.

ChessPublishing.com divides its data into twelve sections. Because the way in which the sections are constructed is slightly idiosyncratic, let me list each section with its contents and its current author, and in the order that they appears on the website.

  • 1.e4 e5 (ECO C20-C99): GM Victor Mikhalevski covers the full range of the Open Games.
  • French (ECO C00-C19): No one knows the French better than IM John Watson, and he is your guide through the thickets of French theory.
  • Dragons (ECO B27, B34-39 & B70-79): The ever-popular Sicilian Dragon gets its own section, and GM Chris Ward is its long-time editor.
  • Open Sicilians (ECO B32-33, B40-49, B54-69 & B80-99): GM Michael Roiz is (at the time of writing) the highest rated section chief, and his updates cover all the non-Dragon Open Sicilians.
  • Anti-Sicilians (ECO B20-31 & B50-55): GM David Smerdon analyzes all of White’s attempts to avoid the Open Sicilian. He is a particular expert in the 2.c3 lines.
  • 1.e4… (ECO B01-B19): The remaining defenses to 1.e4 – Alekhine’s Defense, the Caro-Kann, the Pirc/Modern and the Scandinavian – are all found here, with new ideas carefully scrutinized by GM Neil McDonald.
  • 1.d4 d5 (ECO D06-66 & E01-09): IM Max Illingworth analyzes innovations in the Queen’s Gambit (Accepted and Declined), the Slav, the Semi-Slav, and the Catalan.
  • d-Pawn Specials (ECO A45-49 & D00-05): For the fanatics! Openings like the Colle, the London, the Torre and the Trompowsky are scrutinized by IM Richard Palliser. There is extensive coverage of the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit in the archives.
  • King’s Indian (ECO A41-42, A53-55, A68-69 & E60-99): IM David Vigorito covers all the latest trends in the King’s Indian Defense. The Old Indian also appears here.
  • Nimzo & Benoni (ECO A40, A43-44, A50, A56, A60-79 & E10-59): Many players pair the Nimzo-Indian with the Benoni in their repertoire, in part to avoid the Taimanov Benoni. GM John Emms covers both openings in this section, throwing in the newest ideas in the Queen’s Indian and the Bogo-Indian to boot.
  • Daring Defenses (ECO A40, A50-52, A57-59, A80-99, B00, D08-09, D70-99 & E10): GM Glenn Flear treats some of the most dynamic defenses to 1.d4 in this section, including the Albin, the Benko, the Budapest, the Dutch and the Grunfeld.
  • Flank Openings (A00-39): Site owner GM Tony Kosten covers all of the Flank Openings. 1.c4 and the Reti are the main subjects of inquiry, but the King’s Indian Attack, the Bird and Larsen’s 1.b3 are also analyzed here.

Let’s take a closer look at one update and see what ChessPublishing.com has to offer. Chess Life readers can examine Richard Palliser’s February update of the d-Pawn Specials section at this link, courtesy of Tony Kosten.

Suppose, just for argument’s sake, that I play the Trompowsky. It is becoming popular again – there are two new books about it and a video series on chess24.com – and I want to keep tabs on its theory. How to proceed?

Mark Crowther releases game and news updates for The Week in Chess every Monday night. So perhaps I might download the new database each week, search for games in the Tromp, and try to discern what’s new or important. This is not a simple task for a class player, even for someone well equipped with books, databases and engines.

In Palliser’s February update I find four Trompowskys, although two transpose to other lines. The games are well-annotated, and new ideas are put in the context of existing theory. Some of the games are of real theoretical relevance, while others, like Popov-Mozharov (Parsvnath Open 2015), are just plain fun to study.

I know that some will see this as wish fulfillment – and they might not be wrong! – but I can’t help but see each section editor as my own virtual second, lending me their theoretical expertise each month. And I don’t think I’m alone in doing so. There are multiple IMs and GMs who subscribe, with former World Champion Ruslan Ponomariov being the most well-known among them.

Palliser’s updates are among the best on the site, but there are others of note. John Watson, who used to handle the Flank Openings and 1.e4… sections, does a bang-up job with the French Defense. David Vigorito and Glenn Flear are excellent as well. I had worried about the 1.d4 d5 section when GM Ruslan Scherbakov was forced to take a leave of absence, but the young Australian Max Illingworth is proving himself up to the task.

Among the other benefits for subscribers, a few stand out. Opening summary files (“ChessPub Guides”) are updated each month and made available in .pgn format. Some sections also have ebooks in .pdf and ChessBase formats, although these are not updated as regularly. At the time of writing there are 940 ChessPub Guides available, along with over 22,000 annotated games in the complete ChessPublishing .pgn archives.

There are four levels of paid membership. Access to one section is $19.50/year. Any three are available for $39, while six cost $69. A subscription to all twelve sections is $99 for the year. If updates are late, as sometimes happens, I have seen subscriptions be extended so that members receive twelve full updates.

I find ChessPublishing.com to be an indispensible resource, and not just as a tournament player. Elizabeth Spiegel (formerly Vicary) noted its value for chess teaching in her 2007 CLO article on “E. Vicary’s Top 10 Teaching Books.” As she wrote, you can quickly find annotated examples of most any opening variation in its archives. It has saved the bacon of this chess coach more than once.

If you remain unconvinced or uninterested, let me suggest one more website to visit. ChessPub.com, owned and operated by ChessPublishing.com, is a free forum devoted primarily to analysis and discussion. While the site was originally conceived as a kind of advertisment for its subscription-only sibling, ChessPub.com has taken on a life of its own. There is a lot of high-quality material there, mostly about opening theory, but the Endgames section is also of particular interest. No less an authority than Mark Dvoretsky has cited some of its posts in his books!