Saturday, April 30, 2011

Every Picture Tells A Story: Hereford Ho Ho Ho!

Number 10 in a series of collaborative posts. This one by Martin Smith, with some minor tinkering by Richard Tillett.

In this episode we go back to Hereford for our third visit, as we continue our exploration of the life, works and milieu of Thomas Leeming. He was the painter of two versions of a tableau depicting various gentlemen of Hereford playing chess in 1815.

Or perhaps three versions; though the third one is partly, if not entirely, by another hand, or so we think. This version, which we haven’t shown for several blogs, could be an interpretation-cum-copy, and as copying is going to be the theme of this blog, here it is again:

While it may not do full justice to the original, it serves by showing the main features of the composition. You can compare the other versions here.

Readers of our previous blogs will know that we discovered, following our second visit to Hereford, that in 1817 Leeming was commissioned to copy an old master painting of Christ Carrying His Cross as an altarpiece for the Cathedral. It was thought in Leeming’s time that the original, in Magdalen College Oxford, was by the Spanish 16th Century artist Franciso Ribalta.

The imposing original in Magdalen College Chapel, Oxford.

But Mr Darwall-Smith of the Magdalen College Archive, whose advice we sought, referred us to an authoritative lecture delivered in 1955 by eminent art historian T.S.R.Boase which rejected the Ribalta attribution, proposing instead another Spaniard: Valdés Leal.

Irrespective of who painted the original in Oxford, the Leeming full-size copy was still, said the Cathedral Archive, with them in Hereford. So now, in March 2011, we are back, and this time with an appointment to see the whopping six by five foot chunk of Leeming in the flesh. It may only be a copy of a Spanish old master painting, we tell ourselves, but it is the next best thing to a Leeming original.

Before our visit to the Cathedral we renew our acquaintance with Catherine Willson in the Hereford Art Gallery; we meet for the first time the local historian David Whitehead, who has generously shared his thoughts with us about the members of the Hereford Chess Club in 1815, among other things; and we have another peep at the painting and the two lesser Leemings in the Gallery’s collection. Seeing the chess painting again we are struck by the skill and clarity in the portraiture and other details, including the chess position (which we analysed in our last episode), and the endearing pooch, who gazes at us so beguilingly.

The dog is in the detail

Catherine joins us in the visit to the Cathedral, and we meet Rosalind Caird of the Cathedral Archive, who is most helpful with her encyclopaedic knowledge of the Cathedral’s history. She takes us to the North transept where, hanging high some fifteen feet above us and gazing down humbly onto a workaday storage area, is Leeming’s copy of the Magdalen altarpiece.

Leeming's copy of Christ Carrying his Cross
[© Dean and Chapter of Hereford Cathedral]

But what is an altarpiece doing there, we wonder. Well, Ms Caird explains, it was indeed initially installed behind the Cathedral’s main altar, framed by panelling, or “wainscoting” as it was then called, but was relocated when the arrangement was changed in 1841.

Boase’s lecture also refers to Leeming’s copy having been removed in this 19th Century makeover. He says that none other than Gothic Revivalist Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (aka “God’s Architect” and one of the driving forces behind the design of the Palace of Westminster as we see it today) gave the full ensemble the thumbs down in 1836, contrasting it unfavourably with Durham Cathedral’s Gothic equivalent. Pugin made his point with this illustration, which shows Leeming’s copy in pride of place.

Pugin's 1836 Contrast of the Hereford Cathedral altar screen (left), showing Leeming's painting in its intended position, and Durham Cathedral's equivalent (right).

Whatever Pugin’s opinion of the wainscoting, the Institute of Thomas Leeming Studies invites readers to join with us in relishing Leeming’s contribution to the overall effect. Just imagine his magnum opus in its glory days standing tall as the focal point of a panelled screen filling the altar crossing at the end of the Cathedral nave. This is the vista it would serve:

The nave of Hereford Cathedral.

To round-off our third visit to Hereford we have just enough stamina left to meet Alan Leary and Ray Collett, the modern day gents of Hereford and Worcester chess, in the Cathedral tea room. We chew the chess fat, and ruminate on the significance of November 2012 – the bicentenary of the inauguration of the first edition of the Hereford Chess Club (as recorded on the original lining of Leeming’s canvas) and the 50th anniversary of its third edition. This happy co-incidence will call for a celebration!

Our next episode will be on 14 May, when we will take a look at some of the other characters in Leeming’s tableau.

Magdalen College photo: Ryan Harrison on Flickr
Hereford Cathedral photo: Mark Edwards

T.S.R. Boase. (1955) Christ bearing the Cross: attributed to Valdés Leal at Magdalen College, Oxford: a study in taste. OUP.
A.W.N.Pugin. (1836) Contrasts; or, A parallel between the noble edifices of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and similar buildings of the present day. Shewing the present decay of taste. Accompanied by appropriate text. London

Every Picture Tells A Story Index
Chess in Art Index

Friday, April 29, 2011

Did they mean compulsive?

As this is a day for unimportant things, for trivia, I thought I'd be a good day to mention this curious story which appeared on the BBC website earlier this week, noting that Armenia was making chess a compulsory subject on its school curriculum and wondering whether Britain should follow suit.

I can't have been entirely alone in shouting "no" as soon as the question was put, nor even in making a seasonal invocation of Our Lord immediately beforehand, an invocation I nearly repeated when the world's leading chess columnist was invited to favour us with his opinion. To his credit, Ray did stop short of approving the suggestion of making chess compulsory, though he did say that
if a child is good at six, they could be a grandmaster by the time they are twelve
which I'll file under "things Ray says that while highly misleading are not quite untrue", since so far in history it has happened precisely once.

Malcolm Pein, conversely, is apparently
a big supporter of chess being made compulsory at school
although as it happens the story doesn't quite seem to back up that claim, continuing
and recently made a submission to the government's National Curriculum review. It recommended that one class of chess - "or other thinking games like bingo" - is made mandatory every week for children in Year 2 (aged six) or 3 (aged seven).
Personally, I don't think I've played bingo since I was about that age, but I digress. I hope Malcolm doesn't seriously want to make chess compulsory in schools, since it would put him in the position of being the least sensible person in a group including Ray Keene and Chris Woodhead.

Well, Melanie Phillips likes him

Not that the question is any more than academic. Chess compulsory in schools? "And monkeys might fly out of my butt", as a noted American cultural commentator once put it, and indeed this story seems to have emerged from somewhere dark and obscure, since despite the present Government's liking for ridiculous ideas in education, I will obtain the Grandmaster title before any such thing occurs. And a good thing too.

Apart from the practical impossibility of the idea - where are all these chess teachers going to come from? - it baffles me that some people who love the game of chess manage to persuade themselves that the way to make the public love it, too, is to make them play it. I entertain similar thoughts about compulsory sport in schools: being somebody who loves football, I fail to see the value of giving people a lifelong hatred of the sport by forcing it on them as children. But at least they know what football is.

Some people like both

As it's not going to happen, it's probably not worth the time it would take to expound in depth what a bad idea this is - please feel free to use the comments box should you wish to do so, or for that matter to dissent. (I shall be working in a school all day, so my response may be somewhat tardy in arriving.) What struck me as odd about the story - apart from its implicit implausibility - was that while a decently-researched and written piece, it was yet another BBC story about chess without any actual chess in it.

It's as if they were to write about football - about football in culture, about football in schools, about interesting and amusing things that had happened in football - without ever mentioning the football results or having any match reports. The BBC - online at any rate - doesn't report the national championship or the national league, barely reports the world chess championship and to my knowledge hasn't reported on a single game played between two human players, in the UK, for a number of years.

Which is its privilege. There are other priorities. But it does mean that among the reasons why it would be absurd to make chess compulsory in schools, might be this: that when they see it on the timetable, the kids may well say "Chess? What's that?"

[Woodhead image: EducationNews]
[Aronian image: Chessbase]

[Ray Keene index]

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Interesting Sacrificed Exchange IV

Did you ever watch The Prisoner? Initially broadcast in the 1960s, I first saw this fine, if rather mystifying, programme when it was repeated some time in the late '80s. How incomprehensible was it? Suffice to say that it was a couple of months before anybody noticed that the episodes were being shown in the wrong order.

I mention this because all my posts seem to be coming out all higgledy-piggledy just now. Multiple double bank holiday weekends have already put a spanner in the works of what was supposed to be a trilogy of Anti Chess posts and now here I am jiggering about with TISE.

Today's post was originally planned as TISE VII, but I've moved it forward to today because I'm standing in for T.C. and I thought he would appreciate a game which features no fewer than five exchange sacrifices. I say five, although Browne-Timman from the 1980 Wijk aan Zee tournament only actually saw two. There were three near misses, though. Three exchange sacs that could have happened, but didn't quite appear on the board. Curiously, or perhaps I should say interestingly, despite four of these five examples being opportunities for Black, it was White who took his chance first and it was also White who went on to win the game.

I suppose the moral of this story is pretty clear: (a)if you want to win games of chess sacrifice the exchange as soon a possible; and (b) if you want to make TV programmes (or write chess blogs) don't worry about running order. You can always jiggle things around a bit and hope that your audience won't mind too much.

So, Browne-Timman, 1980. The game started off in fairly standard fashion,

1 d4 Nf6, 2 Nf3 g6, 3 c4 Bg7, 4 g3 O-O, 5 Bg2 d6, 6 Nc3 c5, 7 O-O Nc6, 8 d5 Na5, 9 Nd2 a6, 10 Qc2 Rb8, 11 b3 b5, 12 Bb2 bxc4, 13 bxc4 Bh6

A year later at Tilburg, Timman found himself playing the White side of this position against a young Garry Kasparov and chose a different course at move 14. After

14 Ncb1 e5, 15 Bc3 Bd7, 16 Na3 Gazza tried 16 ... Rb4

Apparently this is a well-known idea, and considered to be a fully viable, but Timman nevertheless went on to win the game. Anyhoo, back to his game with Walter Browne.

14 f4 e5, 15 dxe5 Bxe6, 16 Nd5

Still well within the realms of established theory even back when the game was played. Subsequently, 16 ... Rxb2

would become the main line. Indeed, Aagaard would later write,

"Practice has broken down the reliable possibilities here to include only this positional sacrifice."
(my emphasis) Excelling at Chess, Everyman Chess 2001

16 ... Rxb2 was known back in 1980, but Timman had already won a game against a strong opponent using ... Bxd5 (Portisch-Timman, Bugojno 1978) so I suppose he didn't see the need to change.

16 ... exd5, 17 cxd5 Ng4, 18 Nb3

You probably don’t really want to be giving Black a chance to exchange a knight that’s stuck out on the edge of the board, but since 18 … Ne3 doesn’t work White seizes the opportunity to prevent any malarkey on b2.

18 … Nxb3, 19 axb3 Qb6, 20 Qc3 c4+, 21 Kh1 f6, 22 Bh3 Nf2+

Black decides it's White's turn to decide whether or not to give up an exchange. Admittedly, it was a much easier choice for Browne at move 23 than it was for Timman at move 16.

23 Rxf2 Qxf2 Be6+ Kh8, 25 Qxc4 Qb6, 26 Bd4 Qxb3, 27 Qxb3 Rxb3, 28 Rxa6 g5

"?" according to Bellin and Ponzetto (Mastering the King's Indian, Batsford 1990), who suggest

28 ... Rb4 intending 29 e3 Rxd4

instead. The game concluded,

29 fxg5 Bxg5, 30 Rxd6 h5, 31 Rc6 h4, 32 d6 Rb1+, 33 Kg2 Rd1, 34 e3 hxg3, 35 hxg3 Rxd4,

"Too late" - Bellin and Ponzetto.

36 exd4 f5, 37 Bxf5 Rxf5, 38 Rc5 Rxc5, 39 dxc5 Kg7, 40 c6 1-0

What's the record for the number of exchange sacrifices or potential sacs in a single game, I wonder? Five's not a bad number to be going on with, I suppose ... and hopefully back in order from next week too.


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Street Party?

Anybody having a street party this week? Not that we at the S&BC Blog give a toss, you understand, but we felt we might ask on behalf of the EC Forum's 'Chris J Greatorix'.

Still, though we're not big on Royal Weddings hereabouts, not big on royalty in any shape or form for that matter, it must be admitted that Marina Hyde is quite correct when she writes in The Guardian that,

Say what you like about weddings, they do offer the chance to reconnect with loved ones from whom, for whatever reason, we have drifted apart

And so say all of us, Marina. Those of us who scroll down to the tenth comment after your article, anyway.

Monday, April 25, 2011

On grades and grading

Yes, I did say that this week would see the second instalment of the Anti Chess trilogy [April 11th's Invisible Anti Chess being part one], but I'd forgotten that today would be Easter Monday. Since next Monday will be a bank holiday too, let's agree that the series will continue on Monday 9th May.

Easter: a four day weekend we get every year which ensures that we have plenty of time to celebrate some bloke being nailed to a piece of wood a couple of thousand years ago/scoff chocolate/work out our grading performance for the chess season which is all but over/choose which of the above is most to our personal taste.

Since I had my calculator handy, and a quiet day at work prior to the bank holiday break, this year I thought I'd go beyond the usual general assessment of how well/badly I'd done and break things down into as many different sub-categories as I could think of. The results of this endeavour appear below.

The point to it all? Well, there's a little bit more grist to the Ron Harman mill in that I've performed better against higher-graded opposition and the EC Forum's Robert Stokes might be interested in the difference in my performance when playing White and Black.

Evidence, then, that a bit of tinkering with the grading system is warranted? Actually, I rather think the opposite. Certainly, in principle, an estimate of playing strength would be more accurate if it took account of the players' colour in games played and wasn't influenced by strength of opposition faced. In practice, though, these factors aren't the most significant cause of variance in my grading performance so it hardly seems worth introducing extra complexity into the system to correct them.

There is value in conducting this sort of exercise, I think, but it's got more to do with what you can learn about yourself rather than what you might find out about the grading system as a whole. That's subject I might come back to at some later date. In the meantime, have a look and see if you can spot any areas where I might be either doing particularly well or badly under-performing.

Whatever happened to Statto?

JMGB 2010/11
(12th October 2010 to 14th April 2011)

ECF Grade 2009/10: 163

Overall performance 2010/11:
26 games @ 165.4

Ron Harman method (top and bottom 10% excluded):
20 games @ 166.1

12 games @ 182.3

14 games @ 151
Black against 1. e4:
8 games @ 140

Black against 1. d4:
4 games @ 190.3

Black against flank openings:
2 games @ 119

London League:
15 games @ 179.7
2 games @ 158.5

9 games @ 184.9

4 games @ 179.8

All non-London League:
11 games @ 146.1
Surrey League:
6 games @ 154.5

Croydon League:
3 games @ 135.7

Thames Valley League:
1 game @ 141

Banks' League:
1 game @ 131

White, London League:
7 games @ 184

Black, London League:
8 games @ 175.9
Black, LL, 1. e4:
4 games @ 162.8

White, non-London League:
5 games @ 179.8

Black, non-London League:
6 games @ 117.8
Black, non-LL, 1. e4:
4 games @ 117.3

6 games @ 118.2

20 games @ 179.6

4 games @ 148.8

4 games @ 175

3 games @ 170.1

4 games @ 170.8

5 games @ 153.6

6 games @ 173.8

Higher-graded opponents:
12 games @ 168.9
Opponents graded 0-9 points more:
4 games @ 168.8

Opponents graded 10-19 points more:
5 games @ 168

Opponents graded >=20 points more:
3 games at 170.7

All higher-graded opponents, White:
5 games @ 196.2

All higher-graded opponents, Black:
7 games @ 149.4

Lower-graded opponents:
14 games @ 162.4
Opponents graded 0-9 points less:
4 games @ 183.3

Opponents graded 10-19 points less:
4 games @ 138

Opponents graded >=20 points less:
6 games @ 166.5

All lower-graded opponents, White:
7 games @ 172.3

All lower-graded opponents, Black:
7 games @ 153.3

London League
Golden Lane:
9 games @ 165.8

LL Other1:
6 games @ 201.3

Non-London League
S&BCC Home:
5 games @ 155.8

not S&BCC2:
6 games @ 137.8

1 Albany, Drunken Knights, Athenaeum, Civil Service, Morley College, London Deaf
2 Coulsdon (twice), Redhill, Banks League, Hammersmith, West Wickham

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sing a Song of Chess III

Bank holiday weekend bonus post ...


Pawns move one space at a time, time,
Almost always in a straight line, line.
On it's first move it can move up one or two.
Pawns get crucial in the endgame for you.

Sing a Song of Chess
Sing a Song of Chess II

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Literary Reference : The Tempest

I perceive these lords
At this encounter do so much admire
That they devour their reason and scarce think
Their eyes do offices of truth, their words
Are natural breath: but, howsoe'er you have
Been justled from your senses, know for certain
That I am Prospero and that very duke
Which was thrust forth of Milan, who most strangely
Upon this shore, where you were wreck'd, was landed,
To be the lord on't. No more yet of this;
For 'tis a chronicle of day by day,
Not a relation for a breakfast nor
Befitting this first meeting. Welcome, sir;
This cell's my court: here have I few attendants
And subjects none abroad: pray you, look in.
My dukedom since you have given me again,
I will requite you with as good a thing;
At least bring forth a wonder, to content ye
As much as me my dukedom.
Here PROSPERO discovers FERDINAND and MIRANDA playing at chess

Sweet lord, you play me false.
No, my dear'st love,
I would not for the world.
Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle,
And I would call it, fair play.
William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V Scene 1.

[A Literary Reference index]

Friday, April 22, 2011

Miss Easy Tactics! with Justin XVII

[Our pedagogical series in which we look at a portion of a game I played recently in which some obvious tactic was overlooked. Readers are invited to practice their skill by seeing if they can spot what was missed.]

Jario García-Horton, Aragón Team Championship 2011. Position after 16...Nc6-b8.

Play now continued 17.Qb3 c6 18.Bxf7 Rhf8 19.Ng1 d5 20.exd5 Rxf7 21.dxc6 Rxf1 22.cxb7+ Qxb7 23.Rxf1 Qg2+ 24.Ke1 Rxd3 and White resigned.

But in the above sequence, what did both players miss?

[Miss Easy Tactics! index]

Thursday, April 21, 2011


He used to be 'The Professor'. I read these articles from all these clever reporters who said he sat there like a chess master. He's watching the game and all the other idiots are jumping up and down, shouting and screaming, and Arsene Wenger sits there studying every move on the pitch. That was the year they went unbeaten. We can all sit there with a cigar when you're winning 3-0, saying 'this is good'. Suddenly they started losing and he was one of the biggest nutters of all. He's jumping around more than anyone now.

Harry 'jowls' Redknapp, speaking yesterday, on fellow North London football club manager Arsene Wenger. Rumours that Arsene had just called Harry a "wheeler-dealer" remain unconfirmed.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

In life as in chess

I'll take any excuse to link to my favourite web-comic qwantz:

That might be the best ever chess-life analogy: "Just as in real life, queens have a lot of real-estate buying options, and it's kinda weird when horses own land."

(Inspired, says the author, by losing a lot of games to Joey Comeau. Joey who? And Joey also wrote this chess-inspired short short story.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Interesting Sacrificed Exchange III

Black to play
Movsesian - Kasparov, Sarajevo 2000

Another Tuesday bonus post. Why not? Especially since last Wednesday's post has inspired me to get this series rolling at long last.

For today's TISE we journey back in time to join Movsesian and Kasparov for move 13 of their game at the Sarajevo Grandmaster tournament of 2000. Gazza is about to make a very good move and while I'm sure you can guess what it's going to be, the title of today's post being a bit of a clue, you might want to have a think about why he played it before reading on.

Of all the goodness-knows-how-many games of chess that I played before starting to write about exchange sacrifices last June, I can only think of two in which I gave up a rook for a minor piece myself. Actually, even those don't really count: the first was an accident - I played ... Rxf3 (knight) thinking I'd end up winning material, but I'd miscalculated and had to pretend that I'd done it merely to break up his kingside pawns - and the second wasn't truly a sacrifice.

White to play
JMGB v Bloke, London League circa 2000

Here I 'gave up' the exchange with 21 Rxh5, but really it just leads by force to a position that is concretely better for White. In six moves time I will be queen for rook ahead and any attempt by Black to avoid that fate will only lead to something even worse.

I was pleased to play it at the time, but rook takes knight is, at best, a temporary or ‘numbers’ sacrifice and not at all difficult to grasp.  Even I can understand that 9 is bigger than 5 and that mate ends the game. Much more interesting is what went on over on the other side of the board. White’s doubled c-pawns and the absence of Black’s queen's rook rather suggest that rook takes knight on c3 has been played at some point and the game had indeed opened in a manner familiar to all Dragonistas.

1 e4 c5, 2 Nf3 d6, 3 d4 cxd4, 4 Nxd4 Nf6, 5 Nc3 g6, 6 Be3 Bg7, 7 f3 O-O, 8 Qd2 Nc6, 9 Bc4 Bd7, 10 O-O-O Rc8, 11 Bb3 Ne5, 12 h4 Nc4, 13 Bxc4 Rxc4, 14 h5 Nxh5, 15 g4 Nf6, 16 Bh6 Nxe4, 17 Qe3 and now Rxc3

The more experienced chessers amongst our esteemed readership won't need me to tell them that … Rxc3 is a common idea in the Sicilian Defence in general and the Dragon in particular - and that it is not played with number compensation in mind. Knowing that and understanding it are two very different things, however. I suspect that, like me, my opponent was aware that he was supposed to sac the exchange, but didn’t truly know why. That might explain why he spent 40 minutes on his 17th move and then took another quarter of an hour on his following turn.

Anyhoo, it was stumbling across the scoresheet for this old game (stored in traditional pre-Chessbase 'shoved-in-a-shoebox-under-the-bed' fashion) that reminded me of Movsesian-Kasparov, a game I had come across in Jacob Aagaard's Excelling at Chess.

So, from the diagram at the head of today's blog,

13 … Rxc3, 14 bxc3 Qc7, 15 Ne2 Be7, 16 g5 and now 16 … O-O (! – Aagaard)

turning the battle into one of competing opposite-wing attacks. Movsesian, according to Aagaard, had played this line against Loek van Wely in many internet blitz games, but the Dutch GM hadn't risked castling in a single one of them. How to explain the difference of opinion as to whether it's safe for Black to walk into a White's kingside pawn storm? Let us quote The Voweled One quoting Kasparov:

"From my perspective it’s a matter of chess culture. If you take on c3 and the knight goes to a4, then Black is fine. Black need not look for an immediate approach. You castle, you put your knight on e5 and the queen on c7 or a5, and you have many options. Sometimes you strive for d5 or even for f5. The exchange means very little, since we both have such attacks going, the quantity of pieces is often more important than their quality."

Aagaard himself made precisely this last point when discussing his win against Lindberg in Attacking Manual 1 – the game that inspired this series in the first place. If I understand the argument correctly, the idea is that after … Rxc3, bxc3 Black will sooner or later follow up by swinging his king’s rook over either to c8 or somewhere similar. As a result Black is net +1 for pieces on the queenside, has got rid of White’s best defender and the doubled pawns might well make it difficult for White to transfer reserves across to even up the numbers. In consequence Black must have a decent attack and can castle short safe in the knowledge that the enemy king will always be in as much if not more danger than his own.

Simples? Well, not really. After all, castling short didn't occur to Movsesian and van Wely so I guess it can't be that obvious.

When I first played through Movsesian - Kasparov I found the exchange sac much harder to understand than the one from Aagaard-Lindberg. I'm not sure that's any less true today, but, still, I do feel that by looking at the game my understanding of these sacrifices inched a little bit further forward. Just a tad more comprehension, then, and certainly not a grasp of the 'chess culture' thing that Gazza talks about, but it was enough to help me to go on to play an exchange sacrifice - a real exchange sac - in one of my own games. That story, though, I think I'll save for TISE IV.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Letter to the editor II

I had originally intended to post Part II of my Anti Chess trilogy today (see Invisible Anti Chess last Monday for Part I), but I'm afraid I have to admit I'm running rather late.

Chessing - six games in the last two weeks - has rather been getting in the way of blogging of late. I wonder if there is a record for this sort of thing: 6 games for 6 teams in 4 separate leagues played under 3½ sets of rules for 2 different clubs - all inside 10 days. Fortunately I was in reasonable form and managed to score 50% which doesn't sound that good, I know, but by my standards the opposition was pretty decent.

As it happens five of those six opponents were graded ten points or more higher than me, my grading performance from the +1 =2 -2 I scored working out to 171.4. In comparison, my previous five games had been against folk graded at least 20-30 points below me so while my score, +3 =2 -0, was much better my performance rating, 168.8*, was a tad lower. Much of a muchness, then, although it could easily have been very different. Had I won the clearly winning position I had against Mr 179, or even only drawn it, there would have been a notable contrast between the outcomes of those two batches of games.

After my experience of the last couple of weeks, I'm not surprised that people say that playing higher rather than lower-graded opposition will boost your grade regardless of whether or not you actually get better. The idea isn't new, of course. Actually, I doubt it was particularly fresh thirty years ago when CHESS (May 1979 vol 44, #815-816) published this letter:-


The interesting letter from J. Anstead (CHESS 809-10) seemed to reflect a weakness in the grading system.

Mr. Anstead's theory that grading depends upon strength of opposition (and not simply one's own ability) is fully borne out by analysis of my own results:-

Opponents >180:270  Grading Result:192
Opponents <180:252  Grading Result:181

Opponents >180:255  Grading Result:215
Opponents <180:215  Grading Result:184

Opponents >180:113  Grading Result:205
Opponents <180:87   Grading Result:175

This sample of games, 1217, is much larger than Mr. Anstead's (92) and the results too significant to ignore. It would be interesting to hear form other players, particularly those in the National List. (I remember Ray Keene telling me on one occasion that he hasn't played anyone under 190 for years).

We all know that young players are undergraded (does this phenomenon explain my poor results?) and that adjudicated games should never be graded (weak players hang on to sacrificed material; adjudicators hang on to sacrificed material; adjudicators go by counting pieces etc. - the financial rewards don't justify really hard-working analysis).

Perhaps the answer is to grade only those games are played to a finish (excluding fast play-offs in weekend tournaments) and (a radical step) to include for grading a median of results (as in ice-skating) e.g.

Fred Pawn-Snatch Season 1979-1980
Games played 30
Average strength of opposition 155
Results W.20 D.5 L.5
Grading result 180
i.e. 155 times 30 plus 50 times 15, all divided by 30.

Exclude best 10% and worst 10% (i.e. 6 games). Say 3 at 210 and 3 at 90.

Games played 24
Averages strength of opposition 155
Results W. 17 D.5 L.2
Grading result 186
i.e. 5400 minus 630 minus 270, all divided by 24.

Imagine the differences to be obtained on players recording over a hundred gradeable games in one season! Food for thought anyway.

Waltham Abbey, 22 March 1979

Ron Harman, eh? Whatever happened to him?

Letter to the editor

* This includes estimating one opponent's grade based on those of the boards around him.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Every Picture Tells A Story: Leeming Plays A Blinder

The 9th in a series of collaborative posts. This one is a two-handed effort by Martin Smith and Richard Tillett.

There are three games in progress in Thomas Leeming’s depiction of the gentlemen of the Hereford chess club. The two in the background are largely obscured, but the one in the foreground is pretty clear. The artist earned his crust mainly as a painter of miniatures - tiny portraits executed with the finest brushwork - and here he has used these skills to show the chess position in remarkable detail.

In the two principal versions of the picture, the foreground player with the white pieces is Edwin Goode Wright. You can see him on the right in the ‘Hereford’ version:

Here the black pieces are played by Samuel Beavan (actually they are red pieces but let’s not quibble), although in what we call the ‘Greenlees’ version (which you can see here) Leeming has substituted James Buckton for Beavan.

We can do some zooming and cropping to work out what is happening on the board. Here is the ‘Hereford’ version, using the latest high resolution image that the Hereford Art Gallery has kindly sent us:

The best view that we can get of the ‘Greenlees’ version is from the scan we took of the reproduction in Mario Praz’s book (as we haven’t yet located the whereabouts of the original). Unfortunately it is flawed by the two-page spread - the join in the middle obscuring White’s fourth rank and the pawn on a4 - but here anyway is the equivalent to the ‘Hereford’ crop.

The details in both are astonishingly clear, especially when you consider that the real size of the painting of the chess board is only a little over three-and-a-half inches wide. You can see each square and piece, picked out as if in HD, and you can’t help but notice (in the second, anyway) that each player is wearing a ring. There is also exact correspondence in the chess positions in the two pictures. Even the red pieces off the board match one-for-one in the two versions.

Here’s our reconstruction of the position.

E Goode Wright v S Beavan, Hereford 1815.

It is a real position, and we like to think that Leeming was himself a player and so took real care to accurately represent a game in progress. But the position as shown above is not yet complete because in his left hand Edwin Goode Wright is holding what is clearly a pawn, and is about to make a move. His hand hangs over the centre of the board, suspended in eternal ambiguity. So the question is this: is he just making a move - any move - of no particular significance; is he about to execute the coup-de-grâce; or could he be about to throw the game away?

Let’s start with his and his opponent’s facial expressions. Could that be the ever-so-slightly-smug expression of a man confident of victory? (Your bloggers know this expression well as we see it so often on our opponents’ faces.)

Edwin Goode Wright: confident of victory?

And could this be the expression of a man coming to terms with imminent defeat?

Samuel Beavan: contemplating defeat?

If EGW is indeed about to make the winning move, then where is the pawn heading? From the position of his hand the pawn is advancing down the e-file, isn’t it? And if it is heading to e6 that would guarantee the win, wouldn’t it? This interpretation of the position invites us to imagine EGW, who may have commissioned the picture (a point to which we will return in a future blog), showing it off to his friends, and proudly explaining how he won the game with the e6 advance.

But suppose that the expressions are those of two players concentrating on a position where the outcome is as yet unclear to them both.

In this narrative the pawn may not heading for e6 at all, and other outcomes to the game might be envisaged. Then, if you were Beavan (or Buckton) telling the story after the event, from the Black perspective, you would want to relate in graphic detail how, after our opponent had played that pawn to e5 and allowed the exchange on that square, your passed h pawn had secured victory.

Leeming, consummate networker, that he was, has cannily shown a position so ambiguous that neither player would feel upstaged. Knowing that it would be peered at and picked over, perhaps he has deliberately left the whole thing unclear, and created a position that either side could claim to their chess-ignorant friends to be winning, without fear of contradiction from any chess buff peering over their shoulder. It was Leeming who played the blinder.

Thus Leeming can add yet another talent to his CV alongside miniaturist, copyist, and chesser. He was also a master of not making enemies, working his clientele with subtle flattery so as to advance his prospects of further commissions.

As if to make the point that he is the puppet master discreetly pulling the strings, he has put himself, retiring from view, in the background of the scene.

Every Picture Tells A Story Index

Chess In Art index

Friday, April 15, 2011

Bad book covers XVIII

Quick Chess Knockouts, Hodgson, Everyman, 1996

[Bad book covers index]

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Interesting Sacrificed Exchange II

Author's note:-

The Interesting Sacrificed Exchange is a series that I've been trying to get off the ground ever since I wrote One for Tom nearly a year ago. After a few posts that featured exchange sacs in various ways - A collection of Dutch bits and bobs; RCP VI; RCP VII; EJH's My favourite moves XII - I finally got around to the original TISE last October, but I'm afraid the planned monthly updates never quite happened.

Anyhoo, better late than never.  From now on there'll be one a month until the end of the year.  That's a promise.  

In this book, we are not concerned with [an ISE] if it is immediately followed by a mating attack, or by the achievement of material superiority. For this reason, the term ‘positional exchange sacrifice’ is sometimes used to indicated that the exchange is given up in order to establish long-term advantages which the sacrificer hopes will ultimately repay him.

John Watson
Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy

Watson may not have included today’s Sacced Exchange in his book, but it is no less Interesting for that.

White to play
Kasparov – Anand, Tilburg 1991

I doubt that Rxf6 would even have crossed my mind had I found myself playing White in this position before I started looking at exchange sacrifices last summer. These days, though, I’m pretty sure I’d at least be thinking about it and, given the forcing nature of the variation, I'm reasonably confident that I’d be able to calculate the first few moves too.

18 Rxf6 gxf6, 19 Nce4 (hitting the queen) Qd4, 20 Qh5 (attacking f7) Rf8, 21 Rd1 (hitting the queen again) Qe3, 22 Qh4 (attacking f6) Qf4

White to play

This is where I'd stumble. The position at move 22 contains a couple of points that are not immediately obvious.

  1. White has not just spent a tempo forcing Black to bring his rook into the game. As David Norwood* points out, the rook on f8 isn’t so much defending a pawn as blocking the king’s escape route.
  2. White’s queen is not out of play.

The combination of these factors means that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, White's attack has not run out of steam.

If you were to be parachuted into this position I suspect that the process of elimination alone would bring you to the game continuation, if not the full depth of the idea behind it. What I love about 18 Rxf6 is that you have to spot the plan several moves in advance otherwise you'd never give rook for knight in the first place.

Looking at the second diagram, then, I'm not sure it's so hard to find 23 Qe1 with the idea of switching Her Maj over to the other side of the board. It’s that or resign as far as I can see**. No, the real genius here is realising in advance that you have this resource. Very easy to get here in your analysis, think “Oh, I'm not breaking through” and then ditch the idea of the exchange sac in favour of some other continuation; very hard to grasp that your kingside attack is actually preparation for an offensive on the queenside.

So, 23 Qe1! then. The game’s not over even now, but, if White is prepared to leave his own back rank undefended, ready to deal with a little defensive zwischenzug from Black and able to remember that the threat is stronger than the execution, he will win in the end.

Anand resigns

Returning to Watson's definition of exchange sacrifices, I wonder if whether exchange sacrifices of this type might not be considered positional when lesser mortals play them. Yes, it was followed by a forced mating attack and, yes, Kasparov had worked it all out before he'd played Rxf6***, but there's no way a club player is going to be able to calculate it through to checkmate. More likely, you might be looking at 18 Rxf6, get to 23 Qe1 in your analysis and think something like, 'I've given up the exchange; his king's exposed; my pieces are actively placed; his bits are poorly coordinated; I've got attacking chances ... that'll do the job'. A matter of long-term judgement, then, rather than short-term calculation.

Anyhoo, it's marvelous stuff however you look at it. It's not surprising that David Norwood considered Kasparov's exchange sac to be of the best combinations of 1991 and, the best part of twenty years later, Jacob Aagaard thought it worthy of inclusion in Attacking Manual 1.


* Grandmaster Video volume 5

** The Bloody Iron Monster tells me I was wrong about this. Without Qe1 the machine thinks that White still has a draw although, to my mind, it's even harder to find than the game continuation - and spotting it would probably tip you off to the idea that there was a way to keep the attack going anyway. Still, computer pedantry aside, I think my basic point stands

*** Actually, it seems as if the whole thing was opening preparation and Kasparov had seen the end of the game not just before 18 Rxf6, but even before 1 e4

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Ray Could Play IX

White to play
JMGB v Red Hill Chap, April 2011

Tuesday the 5th of April was an extremely unusual day for me. A first, a long wait ended and chessboard achievement: along they came all in a row and all of them, students of coincidence might be interested to know, were in some way connected to S&BC Blog favourite Raymond Dennis Keene.

It started in the afternoon. Although I am very fond of RDK, our previous communication had consisted of the one word (“hello”) that we had exchanged at the Staunton Memorial a couple of years ago.  At 16:47 I received my first ever email from the famous RDKOBE address. It wasn’t completely out of the blue – Raymondo was kindly answering a question that I’d raised concerning his involvement with Anti Chess – but it was most welcome nonetheless.

A little bit later, I strolled down to the club for the Streatham v Red Hill Surrey League match and found myself on the White side of a Leningrad Dutch. Remarkably, just a couple of hours after receiving his email I finally got the chance to play an opening idea of Keene’s that I’d been waiting more than twenty years to get on the board. This happy coincidence would have been enough to make last Tuesday a bit of a red letter day.  There's more, though:  I won and set a new personal best for ‘highest-rated-player-that-I’ve-ever-beaten’.

That I won the game is clearly of importance to nobody but me. Of more general interest, perhaps, is That Move. 7. d5 in the main line of the Leningrad certainly wasn’t Keene’s invention, but he played it frequently in the early 1970s and remained an enthusiastic advocate of the idea well into the 1980s (e.g. see An Opening Repertoire for White, Batsford 1984).

I was pleased that Keene’s recommendation could still bring me a practical success all these years later. In the days after the game was played, though, I began to wonder about the theoretical status of that decades-old preparation. In today’s database + engine riddled chess world could it really still stand up? The answer to that question, I discovered, is yes. That old analysis has turned out to be exceedingly durable and, forty years of theoretical advances notwithstanding, it seems that 7. d5 is still worth a look even today.

So, it's the Streatham v Red Hill match.  My game quickly reaches the basic starting point of the Leningrad variation and I am pondering my move. 7. Nc3 - the main line and clearly the most natural choice - would have copied T.C. v GM Neil McDonald, the game being played just behind me on the match's top-board. What about 7. d5, an old favourite of Ray Keene's, instead? The move I had been waiting more than twenty years to play.

In pushing the queen's pawn, White opens up the diagonal of Black's dark-squared bishop. He also reduces his options against some of Black's choices since after 7. ... c6 (or 7. ... Qe8) 8. Nc3 we are back in the main lines but with White already committed to d4-d5 (e.g. Keene-Wirthensohn, Hannover 1976: see RCP VI). In practice that's only a problem if you don't want to advance in the centre anyway, but on principle it is preferable to 'reserve the greater option' [now, who coined that term?] unless there is a specific reason not to, so what's the benefit to Keene's move?

Raymondo's justification was that after the 'normal' 7. Nc3 Black could try ... Nc6, 8. d5 Ne5, 9. Nxe5 dxe5 reaching a position where s/he has a threatening phalanx of pawns in the centre. Thirty or forty years of theory later, the line might have been defanged - in Starting Out 1. d4! (Everyman 2008), for example, John Cox considers it to be "teetering on the verge of refutation" - but the pawns still looked intimidating to me and there was also 7. Nc3 Nc6, 8. d5 Na5 to consider, an idea which the aforementioned GM McDonald had suggested in a book published just six months ago.

All in all, then, reducing Black's options and avoiding ... Nc6 if I could seemed like a pretty good idea.  I was also mindful of the fact that many of Keene's opponents had responded to 7. d5 with 7. ... c5 aiming for a kind of Yugoslav King's Indian (with ... Na6-c7, ...Rb8, ... a6, ... b5 etc) but with the extra move ... f5 thrown in. My occasional fellow blogger, I knew, had scored particularly well against this set-up. 3.5/4, in fact, and against decent opposition too: Keene-Matulovic, Nice Olympiad 1970; Keene-Hindle, County Match 1970; Keene-Jansa, Nice Olympiad 1974 and the following game against a man who, several years afterwards, he would replace as second to Viktor Korchnoi.

So, 7. d5 it was, then, and, happily enough, I subsequently won the game. A couple of days afterwards I asked the Chess Pub folk how they felt the idea had aged.

The first response I received went,

... if Black is normally a 7.Nc3 Qe8 player, he should be able to meet 7.d5 with 7...Na6 or 7...a5 (according to preference) and his position is more flexible than in the main lines, since he can decide when to insert ...Qe8, or whether to play it at all ...

This is just armchair reasoning (and how I would think if confronted with 7.d5 in a game), so please correct me if I'm wrong!

which, as it happens, is exactly how my game had proceeded! I'd hoped that 7. d5 would give my opponent a small surprise, but he played ... Na6 and ... Nc5 without batting an eye.

Where does all this leave us with 7. d5? I suspect that the ChessPubber who described it as theoretically irrelevant is almost certainly right. Still, it's not a bad move and it is perhaps deserving a little more attention than it gets these days. It definitely has some practical value despite, or perhaps precisely because, not being mentioned in McDonald's Starting Out: The Dutch, or Stefan Pedersen's book on the Leningrad from back in 1996 (nor Beim either, according to the ChessPub thread).  McDonald's latest book, I discovered, describes 7. d5 as "annoying".  Reason enough to play it, I would have thought.

Anyhoo, I will retain some affection for the move just as long as the current game remains my highest-rated opponent beaten. Not that the opening had anything to do the with the result, of course. As you can see, I didn't play particularly well, just well enough to be hanging in there when, in time trouble, the other guy went for a mating attack that didn't quite work. Still, they all count.

Which brings me to the diagram at the head of today's blog. The game ended up finishing on move 42, but had Black sealed 42. ... Ba6 instead of ... Kg5 I might well have ended up having to travel to Red Hill to win a rook, bishop, knight and pawn against queen ending. Not that that should have been too tricky, but it would have been a drag and, moreover, it would not have been in the least bit necessary had I finished the game immediately from move 36.

White to play and win. I'm sure the man who gave me the idea of playing 7. d5 would have found the solution without any difficulty whatsoever, but then both as a theorist and at the board, Ray could play. I, however, cannot.

Ray Keene Index