Friday, March 30, 2007

The Greatest Player Who Ever Lived ~ Steinitz

You don’t believe me right? You think it should be Kasparov, Karpov or Fischer? Maybe even Capablanca, Botvinnik, Alekhine or Lasker? How about Paul Morphy then? Of the ultra moderns, like Kramnik and Anand it is too soon to venture an intelligent opinion, but the others listed above are surely in a pack ahead of Wilhelm Steinitz.

Arpad Elo in his rating of great players, gave Steintz only 2650 for his best rating period. So maybe he would be on a par with lesser world champions such as Petrosian, Spassky, Smyslov, Tal and leading grandmasters Keres, Korchnoi, Rubinstein, Tarrasch, Ivanchuck, Nimzovich, Larsen, Gligoric, Pillsbury and so on.

But then again, there are ratings and then there are standards.

I used the word ‘greatest’ instead of finest, or best, because it is often used in describing legendary accomplishments ('I am the greatest! Ali). I think Steinitz has earned that accolade because of his achievements. By objective standards of accomplishment he is the greatest player. Consider the following.

He was no child prodigy. He learned to play chess late compared to many other great players, yet he triumphed over them all

He was a pioneer in the understanding and teaching of chess principles. To borrow from the philosophical adage that ‘all philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato’, we can say that all subsequent discussions of chess praxis consist of footnotes to Steinitz.

Steinitz did not duck any challengers. He played the best quality opponents of his era from Andersen and Zukertort to Chigorin and Lasker, spanning 28 years. He even met with, and no doubt tried to entice into a match, the great Paul Morphy. Contrast this with the avoidance techniques of a Lasker, Alekhine or even Fischer.

He played in all the leading tournaments of his era, facing all comers, up until his miserable end. No premature retirement for Steinitz.

His ideas about chess and theoretical analyses were made public property. Others could, and therefore did, use his own weapons against him. Contrast this state of affairs with the hoarding of information in later times, in order to surprise an opponent. In fact, contrast it with ‘team analysis’, including the use of amazingly strong computers, which later champions were and are able to employ today.

Steinitz was the greatest fighter in chess history. Among champion level players, where mental toughness is as much a requirement for success as sheer talent, Steinitz stood above them all. He fought hard, coming from behind to win matches or crush an opponent comprehensively and in his final years against Lasker, to fight on to the bitter end. Again contrast this with the tossing in of the towel by Lasker against Capablanca, and recall that Lasker had a great reputation as a fighter.

His longevity is another important sign of his greatness. Much has been made about Lasker’s dominance over 27 years, but he ducked strong opponents like Pillsbury, Rubinstein, and Capablanca for as long as he could. Steinitz fought the best available all the time, and he lasted 28 years. In fact, he could have retired in his forties or after the second match with Chigorin, and he would have been an undefeated world champion. History would then have had no choice but to recognize him as ‘the greatest'.

He was reputed to be stubborn, but in fact he was wilful and of strong character, and had a powerful belief in himself which he proved in battle. He was unafraid. For instance, he incurred great risks to his King in order to prove a point. His mettle was often severely tested, and he was triumphant.

He completely altered his approach to chess as a result of his theoretical work, going from a slash and burn combinative player to a positional player without peer. In fact, let me remind you, he discovered positional play.

He lost his title against a much younger man, conceding 32 years in age. Think about that. The difference in age between Steinitz and Lasker is equivalent to the age of a fully formed grandmaster of the first rank. Incidentally, he did not duck the match.

Then there are his wonderful games featuring wildly exciting play from his ‘romantic period’ to ultra exact positional masterpieces.

To their everlasting credit, players like Lasker, Capablanca, Nimzovich, Euwe, Kasparov and Fischer, have acknowledged the greatness of Steinitz.

Steinitz belonged to another era – the era before computers – and what he initiated took chess in directions that he would have only dimly perceived, if at all. He died in poverty, afflicted by mental problems. But his legacy is gigantic, and it is to the shame of modern players and writers, that his games and achievements are neglected.

In Steinitz we have a uniquely individual approach to chess, which through his sheer force of will and talent, became the standard by which sound and attractive chess could be further developed.

I discovered his games in my middle age, and thus I too deserve to be censured for my neglect of the great man. I was also pleased to discover that I liked the early ‘romantic era’ Steinitz. He played King’s Gambits and the Vienna Opening, my personal favourite.

So I present to you a game which could have been played in the cafes of old 19th Century Vienna by a couple of ordinary players, imbued with the spirit of the great Viennese master Steinitz, but alas, not by his talent. Still, it is a ‘Viennese game’, and one can imagine a youngish Steinitz wondering by, looking at the game being played, and saying to himself dismissively, ‘This is coffee-house chess. I can do better than this. I can do so much better I can be world champion!’

To be dismissed by a Steinitz is honour indeed.

George Eraclides VERSUS Anton Nincevic

Box Hill Chess Club
(pretend it’s in Vienna a 150 years ago)
Winter Inter-club 1999 - Sixty minutes each player for the whole game

Vienna Game transposing into a King’s Gambit Declined

1. e4 e5
2. Nc3 Nf6
3. f4 d6
4. Nf3 Nc6
5. Bc4 Be7

Fearful of the Vienna he transposes to the King’s Gambit Declined. Note that 5…Nxe4 is too risky for Black after 6. Qe2 e.g. 6…Nxc3 7. dxc3! or if 6…f5
7. Nxe4 fxe4 8. Qxe4 and White is good. White can also play the conventional
6. Nxe4 d5 7. Bb5 dxe4 8. Nxe5 Qd6 (best) then 9. Bxc6+ or Qe2 are fine.

6. d3 Na5?!

Note that 6…Bg4 7. h3 Bxf3 8. Qxf3 Nd4 9. Qd1 (Qf2 Nh5) 0-0 10. Be3 c5 is slightly better for White who intends a King-side expansion after f5 and g4, with an interesting struggle.

7. Bb3 Nxb3
8. axb3

Larsen used to love these positions because Black is dead in the centre and the Queen-side while White can attack on the King-side almost at will, without worrying about a Black Knight on d4. White is now better.


If 8...Bg4 9. h3 or 9. f5 are good for White as well; Black will be attacked on the King-side.

9. Bxf4 Bg4
10. 0-0 0-0
11. Qe1

Breaking the pin and threatening Qg3


Fearful of the attack to come, he risks annihilation.

12. Qg3 g5?

Part of a faulty plan as it allows the following combination. Better was 12…Bxf3 as after Qxf3 (best) he can play Kh7 or Nh7 or Qd7 and try to regroup.

13. Nxg5!

Because of the relatively fast time control we were playing under, I had quickly analysed (and liked) Nxg5. I thought 13. Be3 Kh7 was unclear.

14. Bxg5 Nh5

There is nothing better, and White will regain his piece and two Pawns.

15. Qxg4 Bxg5
16. Qxh5

Possible but more complicated is Rf5.

17. Kh1 Qg5?!
18. Qxg5 Bxg5
19. Rf5

Black’s f7 Pawn is weak and King exposed. By combining attacks on the king with pressure on the Pawn White should win. Swapping pieces will also do the job.


If 19…Be3 threatening Bd4, simply 20. Nd5.

20. Raf1 Kg7?!

He hopes to get his Rooks mobile but Bg7 may be better.

21. g3 a6
22. Kg2 Rae8
23. Nd5

Intending to play Nf4 and threaten an important check. This is very much a Tarrasch type of position where constriction must be maintained and slowly increased.

24. Nf4

Planing Nh5+ and if Kg6, then g4 and h4.


The compromised Bishop is exchanged for the good Knight.

25. R1xf4

I knew I would have to exchange Rooks to win but I was concerned because getting to a ‘won’ position took up valuable time, and now I still needed to do a lot of careful calculating.

26. g4!?

Possible, but not worked out due to a concern with time-trouble, was
26.Rg4+ Kh6 27. Rh4+ Kg6 28. R4h5!? with the threat of driving the King back by Rh6+ Kg7 (if Kg5, R4h5+ Kg4, h3++). In the time I had available I could not see a clear path.

27. Kg3

Bringing up the King is critical as will become apparent.


Hoping to be allowed to play Rf7 and Kf8/e7.

28. g5?!

White wants his pund of flesh – h4 is safer. I had too long a think trying to see everything but failed, so I played riskily with one eye on the clock.


If 28…Rxg5 29. Rxg5 fxg5 30. Rxf8+ Kxf8 31. Kg4 wins. My opponent thought he had found a way out of losing and made a run for the toilet – his point is that the Pawn on g5 can capture with check. When he came back he was met by:

29. Rf4g4!

Now if 29…Rxf5 30. exf5 Rf6 31. Rxg5+ Kh6 32. Kg4 or just h4 win; if 30…Rh6 then 31. Rxg5+ Kf6 32. h4 and Kg4 wins. He sat down to think again, and I remembered Tarrasch’s famous observation about when a player makes a bad move, it is usually the precursor to a series of bad moves.

30. Rf5xg5 Kh6?

Thank you Tarrasch. See what he meant? 30…Rxg5 31. Rxg5+ Kh6 would have made life more difficult for White. I could play 32. h4 Rf1 33. Rf5 Rb1 (better than c1; if Rh1 34. Rf6+ Kh5 35. Rxd6 Rxh4? 36. Rh6+! wins) 34. Rf6+ and Rxd6 or 34. Rf2 Rxb2 35. d4 is even simpler. Now his game implodes after the realization that what he played was wrong.

31. Rxg6+ Rxg6
32. Rxg6+ Kxg6
33. Kg4 d5?
34. e5 d4
35. h4 c5
36. h5+ Kh6
37. e6 Resigns

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The French Connection and the Nature of Piquant Irony

I admire players who have discovered the openings suited to their style and stay faithful to them all their lives. They acquire a depth of knowledge that prevents them from collapsing in a heap at the latest theoretical innovation from the umpteenth openings database.

The trouble with me (a muddle-aged chess player), and I suspect most young players, is that I do not stick with an opening or defence long enough to understand its essence. If I lose or get a difficult game, I look elsewhere for redemption. If only I can find the perfect opening or defence I will not be put into difficult positions. But hang on a minute. Isn’t the point of chess that you will be in a difficult position? You have to fight and overcome your opponent, who is trying to do you over. And in case you haven’t noticed, there’s not much perfection in our imperfect world. The perfect opening or defence doesn’t really exist, despite what Mr Fischer once so loudly proclaimed.

The Bot has explained the key to success in chess, as getting to the essence of a position. Then and only then will your analysis be sound. The same is true of openings and defences. Botvinnik is right of course, but that’s no reason to follow his advice. After all, we are human, and therefore prone to acts of the gravest irrationality – like not listening to the great Bot.

One of my finest acts of irrationality, is to play openings or defences that do not suit my style (whatever that is; at 54 I am still working on it) but which I find attractive. They appeal to my aesthetics, or I hope to surprise an opponent, or worse, they are recommended by the latest opening’s guru (and especially by his or her publisher). As a result I fall flat on my still modest derriere, cursing myself for being such an idiot.

How lucky then, to have discovered about 15 years ago, that I like the French Defence, and can actually play it well enough to survive the opening and make it into the middle-game with a playable position. I like the complexity and counter-attacking nature of the French, and even when I have lost with it, I have given a good account of myself, ‘going down swinging’. The French gives you an anchor in the centre and enables you to shift to the attack in the complexities that inevitably arise. Great attacking players (Fischer, Tal) have had difficulties with it; stupendously talented players like Nimzovich, Alekhine, Capablanca, and even the great Bot himself, have relied on it; contemporary players like Short, Korchnoi, Vaganian, Dreev, Yusupov use it. The greatest player of the French, its most loyal paramour, is Uhlmann, who has played it all his professional life.

The other amazing thing about the French, is that I somehow I can understand its main themes. I can reach a level of comprehension denied to me in other defences against e4, such as the Sicilian or Pirc. Finally I had a defence I both liked and which seemed to suit my evolving style – which is attacking or counterattacking (with a sprinkling of the bizarre). Thus I play it with confidence. I can honestly say, there is no other opening or defence with which I have lost with greater confidence. Sarcasm aside (I am a foundation member of the ‘Coalition of the Sarcastic’), I do reasonably well with it across the board or in correspondence chess, and like the Vienna, it has become a staple of my chess diet.

The Bot was right. He always is. I bet even God has to listen to him when it comes to chess.

Advice to the young and innocent: Find an opening or defence which suits your style and which you can understand, and play it; get experience with the different patterns it produces. Save your aesthetic delights for the
middle-game or ending. There is nothing more aesthetically satisfying than a victory.

I present for your edification the following game, which has a ‘piquant irony’. If you have to experience irony in your life, then piquant is the best kind.

The place is Norfolk Island in 1995, the second time I played there (see previous post, Eraclides versus the Masters ~ Part 3 Not Slam-Dunked by Craig Laird, for details about this tournament). I decided to play the French Defence against e4 and swotted up a few main lines. This defence is one of the greatest contributions of the French to civilization, along with croissants and champagne.

Anyway, why is this game so full of ‘piquant irony’? I hear you asking as you open a bottle of brandy. Because my opponent, one of the first few times I ever played the French, was himself a Frenchman. He was on holiday in Norfolk Island with his young family, and being a keen chess player thought he would play in the annual tournament. His name was Bernard Laugery and he was tall, youngish, elegant. His opponent on that day, was a 40 something, swarthy Eraclides from Australia.

I am sure that Monsieur Laugery must have thought I was trying to psych him out by playing the French Defence, but it was not so. I would have played the French against a Frenchman or a Martian.

Donc, fait le jeu! And remember to have that glass of brandy ready, or better yet, cognac. Take a snort before you start playing over the game. The notes are light, as befits the game.

Bernard Laugery VERSUS George Eraclides

Norfolk Island Open, 1995

Round 3

French Defence

1. e4 e6

He looked at me as though to say, ‘Are you serious? You’re going to play the French against moi? A Frenchman?’

2. d4 d5
3. ed ed

The exchange variation came as a surprise. It is supposed to be drawish and I thought maybe he was nervous about facing one of his national treasures. In any case, the exchange variation is not as mild as it appears. Attacking players like Blackburne (BC) and even Kasparov have tried it. It leads to an open game, which is always dangerous, and may not be to the taste of the Black player. For the next few moves both players try to avoid drawish book lines in order to play for a win.

Incidentally, when I use ‘BC’ it stands for ‘Before Computers’.

4. Nf3 Bd6
5. Be2?! Ne7?!
6. 0-0 Bg4
7. Nbd2 0-0
8. h3 Bh5
9. Re1 Nd7?!
10. Nf1 c6
11. Nh4 Bxe2
12. Rxe2?! Qc7
13. Qd3?! Nf6?!?
14. Qf3 Rae8
15. b3

If 15.Bh6 Ng6 16. Nf5 Rxe2 17. Qxe2 Re8 and Black can take the Bishop on h6. White hopes to eventually play c4 and expose the Queen on c7.

16. Ng6 fxg6 (For the attack)
17. Qd3 Qf7
18. Be3 Ne4
19. Nd2 Nxd2
20. Qxd2 Bb1

A common ‘French’ manoeuvre after Rooks have been linked.

21. Rae1 Qc7
22. g3?! Qf7 (Eyeing the f3 weakness)
23. Rf1?? Bxg3 (White blunders and Black says thank you very much)
24. f4?! Qd7 (Continuing the pressure; Black pieces are woefully placed)
25. Kg2 Bh4
26. Rf3 Re4
27. Bg1? Rfe8
28. Rxe4 Rxe4
29. Bf2 Qe7!
30. Re3 Bxf2
31. Rxe4 Qxe4 (Central domination)
32. Kxf2 Kf7 (Heading to the centre for the ending)
33. Kg3 Kf6
34. h4 h5! (Black plans a check on g4)
35. a3?! Qe6
36. Qf2 Qg4+
37. Kh2 Kf5! (This King does his own fighting)
38. b4? Qxf4+
39. Qxf4 Kxf4
40. c3 b5 (Or Kg4 is even simpler)

And Black won the King and Pawn ending easily.