Introductory Free Chess Lesson
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In spite of being trimmed by at least half, this will be a bit of a wordy lesson. It cannot be helped. Other ways of trying to demonstrate to the student the meaning of the phrase: it is not what you see but how you look have proved, more often than not, to be less than effective.

How do you think in chess? There is a very good probability that you have never even considered the question, let alone tried to answer it. At one extreme, this question refers to the immediate problem facing every chessplayer with an ounce of fight left in him – what move to play next on the board. At the other extreme it refers to the lifelong problem facing every player with an ounce of ambition left in him – what move to make next in one’s development.

That brings the Coach to the first logical premise: If you want to get better, you have to change. It is self-evident, really. You have to change because some of what you do now is flawed or second-best. Otherwise, you would be World Champion and the Coach would be taking lessons from you!

Let us begin with the thinking that takes place during a game. The Coach is NOT referring to the moves on your scoreheet. Those moves are the RESULT of the player’s thought processes. It is that process itself that must be changed if the resulting moves are to improve.

To help the student understand that it is the thinking process that must change and not the mere volume of study material absorbed, the Coach has repeatedly demonstrated that one need only know the barest amount of opening theory to play an opening strongly enough to win. The Coach has stated repeatedly that most strong players rarely calculate more than a few moves deep and has demonstrated this many times in his own games. Perhaps the student will better understand the truth of this assertion if we cite a famous Dutch research study.

The study was done by the strong Grandmaster and psychologist Adriaan de Groot. Around the time of the famous AVRO tournament in 1938, and later, he was able to question several of the world’s top players (Alexander Alekhine, Max Euwe, Reuben Fine, Salo Flohr, Paul Keres, and Saviely Tartakower) subject them to various chess tests and then compare their responses and results with those of weaker players (such as two female Dutch champions). One outcome was unexpected. To put it very briefly, when deciding on a move, the stronger players did not calculate any deeper than the weaker ones.

Read that last sentence again. The stronger player did not calculate any deeper than the weaker ones. So why did they win? What made them stronger?

The Grandmasters could memorize positions from typical games very well indeed, and seemed to have a huge internal store of arrangements and patterns of pieces (or "chunks"), but de Groot did not find that they analyzed more or longer variations than the others. This finding still has the power to surprise even today.

Please do not misunderstand this. Strong players can calculate deeper – and faster, with fewer errors – than weaker players, but that cannot be the entire explanation for some top Grandmaster rapidly annihilating strong opposition in a simultaneous display. Just because titled players can calculate deeply, does not mean that they do that all the time in all their games, nor can their calculation ability alone be the reason for their success. Take a quick glance at the following quotes:

"The game was awarded the first brilliancy prize and nobody was more surprised than me since I can remember at no time seeing more than two moves ahead." GM Miguel Najdorf on defeating GM Pilz in 1932

"So far as I can remember, I hardly calculated a single variation more than a couple of moves deep during the entire course of the game." - GM John Nunn on defeating GM Tal in 1982

There is another important finding by de Groot, which has been confirmed again and again by later researchers. Chessplayers, including the very best, do not as a rule immediately make a short and neat mental list of candidate moves that they then consider one at a time and only once. That is how the Russian GM and trainer Kotov recommended that developing players train themselves to think at the board in his famous book Think Like a Grandmaster. Many players of the Coach’s generation bought that book and spent many fruitless years trying to follow the recipe. But that is not how people think!

Here is how the reality is described in the brilliant book, “How to Think in Chess”:

Why so many approaches to the problem of which move to play next? Why not a single, 'true' way? Well, since many of the tactical and positional features of a position persist, what is discovered when weighing one line in detail, may be relevant to the analysis of another line considered earlier; that other line will then deserve a second look. Inevitably, the same lines will be reconsidered; rightly, the human player will recheck his conclusions. These are not defects in a chessplayer’s thinking that ought to be criticized and trained out. And often when studying a specific strategy or a combination, some thought has to be given as to which move will initiate the whole thing, whereas the general idea or theme is already clear. In other words, a prior selection had been made from among candidate plans rather than moves. A player may quite reasonably have decided that his best prospects in a particular game lie either in central consolidation, or in a queenside minority attack, for instance. Clearly, this was not simply a choice between two next moves.

Reread the underlined part of that quote again. The strong player does not seek the strongest move by imagining and then analyzing various candidate possibilities. That is what Fritz and all the other computers do. When you can beat a 3000+ rated computer then feel free to play that way. Until then, it is time to imitate the strongest human beings. They all first seek out the strongest PLAN. Only when that is done, do they look for the move that best fits into the plan they have identified as best.

To perhaps better illustrate the points indicated in the lengthy introduction, here is a online game recently played at the rate of 7 days per move. My opponent from Australia, playing Black, is listed as rated 1879.

[Event "Online Game"] [Site ""] [Date "2017.06.26"] [Round "?"] [White "WACy"] [Black "Lewis Carroll"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "B10/04"] [Opening "Caro-Kann: closed"] 1. e4 {Notes by WACy} 1... e5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. d3 d5 4. Nbd2 Bd6 5. g3 O-O 6. Bg2 c6 7. O-O Re8 8. b3 d4 9. Nc4 Bc7 10. a4 a5 {Novelty. Expected was 10... b5 as in Malmdin Nils-Ake (SWE) - Hermansson Emil (SWE), Skelleftea (Sweden) 2000 which the much lower rated Malmdin easily drew. My intent was to play 11. Nb2 as in the game cited and improve later.} 11. Bd2 Nbd7 12. Qc1 {Malmdin's idea [after 10... b5 11. Nb2 Bg4 12. h3 Bh5 13. Bd2 Nbd7] was to play 14. Qe1 but this made little sense to me. If White is to make anything from this opening then sooner or later a pawn break with either c3 or f4 would be required. By deploying the Queen to c1, both potential breaks are supported plus the Queen is eyeing a3 with potential ideas of dropping a Knight into d6. In short, White retains maximum flexibility while Black must continue to move. Given Black's reluctance to break on b5 and the closing of the centre with d4, Black's only other strategic based plan would be to try ... f5 at some point. However after the swap on f5, that would result in an open a8-h1 diagonal for that lurking Bee on g2 and the Rf1 would be much better placed on e1 than the White Queen. In short, while the position may be more or less equal, White has more options and thus the easier game to play.} 12... Nf8 13. Nh4 Ng6 14. Nxg6 {Another difficult choice. Tempting was to park the Critter on f5 and try for some kind of direct kingside attack with a later f4. However I could find no clear sacrificial way to break through and that Ng6 was potentially making the f4 pawn break less effective. So it made sense to simply swap and play the thematic f4 immediately.} 14... fxg6 {Big surprise! Now not only is Black's King exposed on the a2-g8 diagonal, but e6 is tender and last but not least, the f4 break will yield a passed pawn for White. At this point, my instincts were telling me that White had to be strategically winning now.} 15. f4 Ng4 {Another unexpected move by Black. Now White gets to drive away the Ng4, open the position and win the Two Bees.} 16. h3 Ne3 {Whoa! I can see no reason to pitch the pawn here. White now gets a clear strategic advantage plus an extra button. In a recent rapid game in St. Louis (see below), Aronian sacrificed a Knight vs. Navara to get the kind of passed central pawn roller that White can now get for free. In short, White has just been handed an attacking player's dream position.} 17. Nxe3 dxe3 18. Bxe3 exf4 19. Bxf4 Bb6+ {By capturing on f4, Black would have reduced the potential attackers against his King and at least forced White to decide which recapture was best. Having said that, all three captures looked to be winning. I was leaning toward Rxf4. Meanwhile Black cannot reasonably expect to profit from the temporary control of d4 since c3 and d4 is on White's menu.} 20. Kh2 h6 21. Qd2 {The sac. 21. Bxh6 was considered here in hopes of finding a quick flashy mate but nothing clear was apparent so it was back to Plan A - play c3 and d4 bring the sleeping Ra1 into the game and keep those doggies rollin'. If 21... Be6 then the prudent 22. Rab1 keeps complete control.} 21... Bd4 {Helping White of course.} 22. c3 Be5 23. Bxe5 Rxe5 24. d4 Rh5 {Another surprise from my opponent. However this one can be justified psychologically. I now wasted a few hours trying to find some way to force the trapping of the Rook. Meanwhile, Black might drum up some counterplay with ideas like ... g5, ... Bxh3 and ... g4 on a good day. My next move ruled all those possibilities out while eying a potentially juicy check on c4.} 25. Qe2 Qc7 26. e5 {No hurry... not only is the Black Queen locked out, but that Rh5 is actually now forced to go to f5 to avoid getting trapped. White then intended the nasty Be4 and the tactics all work for White.} 26... b6 {Black was probably hoping that White would chase the c6 pawn giving him time to activate his queenside pieces, but White has a passed e-pawn and eyes only for the opponent's King.} 27. Qc4+ Kh7 28. Rf7 {Now the impatient 28. Rf8? Be6! would actually turn things around in a hurry. Meanwhile 28. Qxc6 Qxc6 29. Bxc6 Bxh3 is still better for White but unclear enough to give Black hopes of saving the game. However White has no need to go pawn hunting. That passed e-pawn is about to become a monster.} 28... Qd8 29. e6 Qe8 (29... Ba6 30. Qxc6 Rc8 31. e7 Qg8 32. Qf3) 30. e7 {So that passed e-pawn rules. Now 31. Rf8 and 32. Qg8 mate is a real threat.} 30... g5 31. Be4+ {Lights out. That dubious 14... fxg6 capturing away from the centre, exposing the Black King and giving White that passed e-pawn was the decisive mistake in my opinion. Black's subsequent pawn sacrifice just added fuel to the fire at that point. Kudos to my opponent for coming up with a number of surprising tries to keep the game in doubt.} 1-0

An Inspiring Brilliancy

[Event "Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz (Rapid)"] [Site "St. Louis, MO USA"] [Date "2017.08.14"] [Round "1"] [White "Aronian, L"] [Black "Navara, D"] [Result "1-0"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 {The Nimzo-Indian after 3. Nc3 Bb4 is a perfectly sound defence for Black. Thus White will often play the text move avoiding the pin. The opening could then transpose to any number of Queen's Gambit lines or to the Queen's Indian as in this game.} 3... b6 4. g3 Ba6 5. b3 Bb4+ {This is a standard maneuver here by Black. The point is to force White to block his Queen's pressure on the d-file.} 6. Bd2 Be7 7. Nc3 O-O 8. Bg2 d5 9. cxd5 exd5 10. O-O Re8 11. Ne5 Bb7 12. Qc2 {Not yet a novelty but still rarely seen. Navara, on the White side of the position, has played the far more popular 12. Rc1 and won. Presumably Aronian was looking to put his opponent in less familiar waters. Given the rapid time control, it is a good practical strategy.} 12... c5 {Black responds to White's rarely seen opening treatment by aggressively inviting the so-called 'hanging pawns' structure in order to generate dynamic counterplay. The game Wang, Hoa (CHN) - Sasikiran, Krishnan (IND) 2010 seems to be the stem game for this line of play.} 13. dxc5 bxc5 14. Rad1 {The idea is to play 15. Bg5 with big time pressure against d5.} 14... Qc8 15. e4 {This sharp challenge to Black's centre appears to be new. The Wang - Sasikiran game continued with the logical 15. Bg5 but Black had enough defensive resources to draw in 37 moves. Aronian's idea is not only introducing some sharp tactics but it is also strategically quite logical. When playing against 'hanging pawns', the classic way to oppose them is to force one of the pawns to advance, then blockade the structure and eventually gang up on the backward supporting pawn. Obviously Black does not want to swap on e4 since that 'bowling pin' on c5 would surely fall sooner or later.} 15... Bf8 16. f4 d4 17. Nd5 Nxd5 18. exd5 f6 {Here we have Black's idea: with those annoying White Knights removed from their advanced central posts, Navara surely reasoned that his backward c5 pawn would be no more of a target than White's isolated button on d5. However the very creative Aronian has prepared a brilliant surprise.} 19. Rde1 {Whoa! Engines? What engines?! We don't need no stinkin' engines! Aronian instead appears to be channeling his inner Tal. There is certainly no way that either player could work through all the resulting tactics from this piece sacrifice. But forget Aronian's inspired intuition for the moment. The practical question is, 'What will White have for the sacrificed Critter?' Well to begin with, those advanced connected passers White will have after the swap on e5 are scary looking by themselves but Black has even more problems. That open f-file is going to be an attacking player's dream. Think of the lines in the King's Gambit (Muzio?) where White gives up a Knight as well to open the f-file for attack. Note also that Black's King will not have many defensive pieces to help defend the light squares. Thus after a subsequent push to e6, White will be controlling f7 and eying the h7 square. White certainly gets big time compensation and very real attacking chances.} 19... fxe5 {Those of us watching the live stream of the game noted that Navara took very little time in deciding to grab the piece. However, if he did not accept the sac. then he would have seriously weakened his position, particularly that e6 square, for nothing and be forced to give White control of the e-file as well.} 20. fxe5 Nd7 21. e6 Nf6 22. Rxf6 {Bang! It is spectacular of course but Black is rated over 2700 and had to have anticipated it. It was probably White's next move that he failed to fully appreciate.} 22... gxf6 23. Qf5 {Nasty. Not only is f6 hanging, but it is already looking quite drafty around Black's King. The technical keys to the attack for White are the denial of f7 as an escape square for Black's King and that fantastic "turning point" square at e4 which allows for a powerful Rook lift. Last but not least, it must be noted that although White is down a Rook, Black's extra Rook and his light squared Bee may as well not even be on the board.} 23... Qd8 24. Re4 Re7 25. Rg4+ Kh8 {It was Reuben Fine who once advised that in such positionally advantageous positions, "Combinations are as natural as a baby's smile." Thus if Black had tried 25... Bg7 then the natural 26. Be4 is crushing. A sample line: 26... Kf8 27. Bh6! Bxh6 28. Qxf6+ Ke8 29. Rg8+ Bf8 30. Rxf8++} 26. Be4 Rc8 27. Rh4 Kg8 {If 27... Qc7 then 28. Qxf6+ Kg8 29. Bf4 Qd8 30. Be5 Bg7 31. Bxh7+ Kh8 32. Bg6+ Kg8 33. Bf7+ etc. is the kind of line that experienced players don't even bother calculating in advance. It is just assumed at this point that there is a winning line no matter what Black tries.} 28. Rxh7 Bxd5 29. Qg6+ Rg7 {Or 29... Bg7 30. Rh8+! and mate next.} 30. Qh5 Bxe4 31. Rh8# {A brilliant attacking game by Aronian that at least one commentator suggested should win a prize as the Rapid Game of the Year. Given Aronian's demonstration of many of the classic attacking elements for weaving a mating net, the game will surely find its way into many future instructive game compilations. It is games such as this that keep true chess lovers coming back for more.} 1-0

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