Saturday, February 27, 2016

Why be ordinary?

Why do ordinary players remain ordinary? Is it because they lack the exceptional talent of good players? Sure. But that is not the only reason. Ordinary players can become far better than they are. In fact some like Lasker believed that following the right course of study anyone could reach Master strength. More recent teachers of chess (Purdy, Dvoretsky, Polgar, Ziyatdinov etc...) also believed that the right study will significantly improve anyone. If you have the talent as well as the right course of study, you will become a chess master.

But there is a problem. Human nature. Too much choice. Wanting things quickly without doing the work required.

Recently I was having another look at the great (perhaps greatest) teacher of chess, Siegbert Tarrasch. His book ‘The Game of Chess’ (1931) is still in print (Dover Books have a current copy). He wrote in that book that he had developed an innovative way of teaching chess compared to the manuals of his day.  He adhered to essentials, taking a total beginner to a stage where he/she would be a good player, and then able to go on improving according to their innate talents. He began with the elements (how the pieces move) then endgames, the middle-game and only finally the openings. It makes sense to master simpler forms, dealing with basic patterns, before tackling the complexities of the opening.

I picked up my copy and had a look at the openings Tarrasch discussed. I thought they were still of use to an ordinary player as a starting point to looking at modern ideas. Then it hit me. What I was doing wrong. Why I had not given myself the chance to reach my potential best. I was reversing Tarrasch’s methodology. Skipping ahead to the instant gratification of what opening ideas I could use. Not willing to follow his lesson plan. Cheating myself and disrespecting Tarrasch. How dumb is that?

I think that is what happens with many ordinary players who never become good players. Today’s players are spoilt by the myriad of openings books, databases, DVDs on openings and the idea that if you know an opening or a variation you can crunch your opponent. Having deep knowledge is seen as slow and ponderous compared to the panache of reeling off 20 moves and seeing your opponent squirm at your opening surprise.

What I should have done when young, and what young players can do today (even older players) is taken the time to go through the lesson plan of a great chess teacher (Tarrasch, Lasker, Purdy, Dvoretsky, Mednis, whoever is reputable and understandable), as they outlined it. Patiently absorbing the knowledge, learning the basics, step by step. In the case of Tarrasch, learn the basic endings, then the middle-game key combinations and patterns, before looking at the openings, studying great games and putting into practice his teachings. It may have taken 6 months, maybe a year to do? That is very little over a lifetime of playing chess. What a great investment in yourself.

It is of course what talented players lucky to be part of a sophisticated chess culture have done in the old USSR and in chess-advanced countries today. The chess teachers instruct and the students learn. By the time they start to play competitively they instinctively know the right thing to do. But we ordinary players can also improve and at any age. Just follow the program. What has been shown to work. Put aside your arrogance and impatience. Pick up the book of instruction and go through it as you are supposed to do. Invest the time. It really works.

I have recently gone back to Tarrasch’s book. There is a lot of wisdom in it and a genuine love of the game. This time I am starting to read it from the beginning.

Here is one of my favourite instructive games of Tarrasch, worth playing over a number of times for the Rook ending:
Manchester Tournament (1890) 
French Defense, Tarrasch Variation
Tarrasch Versus Thorold

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2 c5 4. ed5 Qd5 5. Ngf3 cd4 6. Bc4 Qh5 7. O-O Nc6 8. Nb3 e5 9. Ne5 Qd1 10. Rd1 Ne5 11. Re1 f6 12. f4 Bb4 13. Bd2 Bd2 14. Nd2 Bf5 15. fe5 O-O-O 16. Bd3 Bd3 17. cd3 fe5 18. Rac1 Kb8 19. Re5 Nf6 20. Rce1 Rhe8 21. Re8 Ne8 22. Re7 a6 23. Nb3 b6 24. Nd4 Rd4 25. Re8 Kc7 26. Re3 Kd7 27. Kf2 g6 28. Rh3 h5 29. Ke3 Rd6 30. d4 Re6 31. Kd3 Re1 32. Rg3 Re6 33. Re3 Rd6 34. Re5 Rf6 35. a4 Rf2 36. Re2 Rf6 37. b4 Rf1 38. Re5 Rf2 39. Rg5 Rf6 40. h3 Kd6 41. Ke4 Re6 42. Re5 Rf6 43. d5 Kd7 44. Rg5 Kd6 45. Rg3 Ke7 46. Rf3 Rd6 47. Ke5 Rd8 48. d6 Kd7 49. Rf7 Kc8 50. Rc7 Kb8 51. Rc2 Re8 52. Kf6 b5 53. d7 Rh8 54. Ke7 Rh7 55. Kd6 Rh8 56. Re2 1-0

Here is an instructive drawn game played between two ordinary players on a chess server in a correspondence chess tournament where no computer assistance is allowed. It makes a nice change and is more sporting. Dare I say, more authentic?
CCLA Bicycle Event B39, 2015-2016

Lam Choong Wai, Edwin (White, rated 1908) versus Eraclides, George (Black, rated 1889)
Ruy Lopez, Open Variation

1.e4 Nc6 2.Nf3 e5 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Nxe4 (Tarrasch believed that 1...e5 was the best reply to e4 and that the Open Variation the most principled variation in the Lopez) 6.d4 b5 7.Bb3 d5 8.dxe5 Be6 (this is best practice and known for decades. Black has mobility in return for a little looseness in his position; White is compact, castled and ready to uncoil) 9.c3 Bc5 (this move can lead to risky sacrifices on f2 but they did not seem sound to me. Instead, I played this variation because I liked the way this Bishop pinned the f2 Pawn and could not easily be driven off; but it has some disadvantages)10.Nbd2 O-O 11.Qe2 (he now threatens to win a Pawn and illustrates one of the disadvantages of Bc5 – the c5 square is not available for the night on e4) Nxd2 12.Bxd2 Qd7 (I believe the great Lasker played this move in an exhibition game he won, planning to open the centre after centralising his Rooks. It seemed to me a sound idea as well but I was not wholly pleased with my position just the same) 13.Rad1 Rae8 (maybe a little better was 13...Na5 first 14.Bc2 Nc4 15.a4 (15.Bc1!?) Nxd2 16.Rxd2 c6 17.axb5 axb5 18.Nd4 with a slight plus but perhaps Black can do something on the a-file) 14.a4 (this is why I was concerned. In the Lopez, White always uncoils and goes on the attack somewhere. If Black is not ready he /she will go under. At least Black has a little more space than in other Lopez variations) Na5 (best; 14...f6 just fails to 15.axb4 axb4, 16.QxP Bxf2+ 17.RxB Rb8 and White is better) 15.Bc2 Nc4 16.axb5 Nxd2 17.Rxd2 axb5 (hoping the two Bishops will balance Black’s prospects; 17...Qxb4 18.Bd3!) 18.b4 Bb6 (Black wants to keep the pin onto f2, the only plus in his favour) 19.Qd3 g6 20.Nd4 (very annoying) c6 21.Kh1 (getting out of the pin but as the game will show, the Bb6 retains an essential dynamism and arguable, saves the game for Black as will be seen) f6?! (is this a brave move? Black’s Pawns on the Queen side are obviously weak but 21...Bxd4 22.cxd4 Bf5!? 23.Qc3 Rc8!? 24. Bxf5 Qxf5 leaves c6 vulnerable but it is hard to see how White can ever break through) 22.f4 fxe5 23.fxe5 Rxf1+24.Qxf1 Rf8 (I began to see a glimmer of hope thanks to Lasker’s idea back on move 12.) 25.Rf2 Rxf2 (I offered a Draw here but it was declined. White should have taken it but he misjudged the position forgetting an essential point made by Tarrasch in his book ‘The Game of Chess’ as well as Purdy in his time) 26.Qxf2 Qa7! (the power of the Pin. Yes, he moved the King but placed his Queen in the line of fire anyway) 27.h3 Qa1+ 28.Kh2 Qxc3 29.Qf6 (the only move to avoid defeat) Bxd4 (best because it pins the e4 Pawn and the Qc3 defends c6. He now has to play for the perpetual check. If he tries anything cute he loses e.g. 30.Qxe6 Kg7 31.Qd7+ Kg8 32.e6? Be5+ 33.g3 (if K moves Qe1 mate) Qxg3+ 34.Kh1 Qh2+ mate) 30.Qxe6+ Kg7 31.Qf6+ Kg8 32.Qd8+ Kg7 33.Qf6+ Kg8 34.Qd8+ (White offered a Draw which was accepted) 1/2-1/2

Until next time may the spirit of Tarrasch look over you. And you better do as he tells you to do or else!

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