Sunday, January 27, 2008

Playing in Iceland

I'll jump ahead of these older games and show some of my more recent stuff. This was originally posted on the Daily Dirt website and is for a team event played in October 2007:

I finally played some classical chess (or the closest you can call it given the FIDE time control) again after five years away. I felt nervous and rusty, and it showed.

Since moving to Iceland I have seen how amazing the chess scene is here. I joined a small club team called Haukar. This past weekend the first leg of the Icelandic League Team Championships took place, with four rounds. Three more rounds will be played after the new year. I played in the second division (out of four) for the Haukar-B team. Like English league soccer, the top two and bottom two teams from each division (if I understand things correctly) move up or down to the next division each year. So, our team is trying to move up to the first division, though we already have a team there. The first division teams tend to have some rented GMs from overseas. I saw GMs like Kveynis and Nataf playing, but I didn't really look much because I was busy.

I may have only played four games, but I get the impression that Icelanders are vastly underrated, perhaps because they mainly play in a rather closed rating group here on an island. I have played many players between 2000-2200 over the last couple of decades, but these seem better. I Fritzed my games and found that my opponents played only a single significant mistake out of four games! I am used to amateurs making several small to medium mistakes throughout each game; I certainly always do, but these guys simply didn't. It sure made it tough. Two games I lost simply because I made very minor mistakes (that few on this board would see as mistakes at all) and then the games progressed very well all the way to impressive endgames where I simply couldn't save the games. I am not used to opponents playing nearly perfectly. I am weaker in openings and stronger in the rest, so I typically get average or poor positions out of openings and then fight back to win or draw, but that didn't work here. I complicated as best I could, but these guys seem to just be too good. Note that I am NOT suggesting any sort of cheating; it was obvious that everyone was playing real chess.

I played the first round on board three (out of six) and lost a very tough endgame. Then they moved me down to board four for the second game. I played too quickly at a critical point in the opening and blundered. This was my worst game. But, in round 3 our team lost its two best players (one had to leave because his wife was having a baby) and I had to move up to board two! I had to play black against the highest rated player that I faced, and I won! That made me feel a bit better. The last round was again against a player rated higher than me, and again it was a tough, grinding loss in an endgame after only a minor mistake in the opening. Oddly, not one game went into any of the opening lines that I know; they all diverged early into weird lines and I had to make everything up over the board.

Despite my relatively poor showing, our team did very well and finished in second place. This despite having forfeited a game in round 4 when one of our players never showed. So, we are in good position to move up to the first division, especially since out of the three rounds we have left to play, two of them are against the two weakest teams.

I am going to put up three of my games from the recent Icelandic League event in which I played for the Haukar-B team. I think each of these has instructive endgames, and maybe other small lessons for amateur players. Strong players will not want to bother with these.

[Event "Icelandic League Team"]
[Site "Reykjavik, Iceland"]
[Date "2007.10.12"]
[Round "1"]
[White "Cross, Ted"]
[Black "Jonatansson, Helgi"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "B02"]
[WhiteElo "2108"]
[BlackElo "2075"]
[WhiteTeam "Haukar Chess Club-B"]
[BlackTeam "Reykjanesbaejar-A"]

Ok, so this was my first FIDE rated game since March, 2003. I felt extremely nervous and rusty, especially since I didn’t want to let my new team down.
1.e4 Nf6
Ugh, I was already unhappy because I can't stand the Alekhine's Defense. I tried for many years to play normally against it, but recently I have tried to avoid it. In my last FIDE event I even beat a master with my 2.Nc3 variation.
2.Nc3 d5
But this was new to me, and I also really dislike playing against the Center Counter, so I didn't want to play 3. ed5. I didn't know if playing 3. e5 would be ok, but I decided to go for it.
3.e5 d4 4.exf6 dxc3 5.fxe7?!
Apparently this is a slight mistake, though not too bad. The GMs all seem to play 5.fxg7 cxd2+ 6.Qxd2 Qxd2+ 7.Bxd2 Bxg7 8.0–0–0 with equality.
5...cxd2+ 6.Bxd2 Bxe7 7.Nf3?!
I didn't realize that normal development in this position would be wrong. I overlooked the fact that my pawns on the queenside could be weak and easily besieged by my opponent's bishop-pair. So, better is 7.Qf3 (with the idea of castling quickly) 0–0 8.0–0–0 Be6 with equality, or even a simple 7. Bc3.
7...0–0 8.Bd3?!
Given the pawn weaknesses on the queenside, it is better here to play 8.Be3with equality.
8...Bf6 9.Rb1
Now I understood what I had done wrong, and while I never like to put a rook into such a ridiculous situation as defending on b1, I didn't see any compensation if I just gave up the pawn. However, Fritz seems to prefer doing just that - 9.0–0 Bxb2 10.Rb1 Bf6 11.Re1, with some compensation for the pawn.
9...Re8+ 10.Be3 Bg4 11.h3 Bh5?!
One of the only inaccuracies my opponent makes in the game. The bishop is better off on e6 to continue putting pressure on the weak queenside.
I failed to take advantage of his inaccuracy. I could have taken a slight advantage by playing 12.g4! Bg6 13.Bxg6 hxg6 14.Qxd8 Bxd8 15.0–0.
12...Nc6 13.Be2
I still could have had at least equality with 13.g4 Bg6 14.Bxg6 hxg6 15.Qxd8 Raxd8 16.c3=
13...Qe7 14.Qd5
Loads of small inaccuracies on my part, though at my amateur level these are not usually as fatal as they were on this particular weekend. These Icelanders played unbelievably well for their ratings! I thought my move was the only obvious one, but once I saw Fritz's recommendation (14.c3 Bg6 15.Ra1=), I thought that was even more obvious!
14...Bg6 15.Qb3 Qb4 16.Bc4 Rad8 17.Rfd1 a5 18.Ne1?
I had trouble coming up with a good plan here. I thought that by bringing the knight over to d3 I could undo the bishop's pin of the c2 pawn and finally free up my b1 rook. Fritz says I can hold black to a tiny edge by 18.Rxd8 Rxd8 19.a3 Qxb3 20.Bxb3 b5 21.a4.
18...Rxd1 19.Rxd1 Qxb3 20.Bxb3 Bxb2 21.Ba4 Rd8?
Finally, black makes a real mistake, and I actually find the correct plan at first! Better for black was 21...Bc3 22.Rb1 Bxe1 23.Rxe1 Re6 24.c3 Ne5 25.Rd1.
22.Rb1 Bc3 23.Rxb7 Nb4 24.Nd3 Nd5 25.Bb3?
But here I blew it. I had a slight edge if I just played 25.Bc5.
25...c6?! 26.Bxd5 cxd5 27.Rb3?
It has long been amazing to me how many small mistakes one can make in chess and still survive on the amateur level. This is another big mistake on my part, after many small ones, and yet later I still could have saved the game. Here I could have had equality with 27.Bb6 Rc8 28.Nf4 Bxc2 29.Nxd5 Be4 30.Rd7 Bxd5 31.Rxd5 a4=
27...d4 28.Bf4 h6 29.Rb8 Rxb8 30.Bxb8 Kf8 31.Bd6+ Ke8 32.Kf1 Be4 33.f3 Bd5 34.a3 h5 35.Nf4 Bc4+ 36.Kf2 Kd7 37.Bf8 g6 38.Ne2 Bb2 39.Bc5 Bxe2 40.Kxe2 Kc6 41.Be7 Kb5 42.Kd3 Ka4 43.Bc5
Now, looking at this endgame I was unsure whether I could pull off a draw or not. I know he had the edge, of course, due to the advanced a-pawn. I thought I couldn't move my king in front of his a-pawn since his bishop could just defend it on a2 while his king roamed over to the other side and won. It turns out I was wrong, though it is difficult to see it.
43...Bxa3 44.Bxd4?
How many times do we quickly play the moves we think are obvious only to find later that there was something more going on? Here I could have saved the game with 44.Kxd4! Bxc5+ 45.Kxc5 f6 46.f4 h4 47.c4 Kb3 48.Kd5 a4 49.c5 a3 50.c6 a2 51.c7 a1Q 52.c8Q=
44...Kb5 45.g4 Bc5 46.Bf6 a4 47.f4
Pretty much blowing my last chance, though it is hard to see the amazing defense over the board. By playing 47.Kc3 Bd6 48.g5 h4 49.Kb2 Kc4 50.Ka2 Kd5 51.Bc3 Be7 52.Bd2 the bishop and pawns would have coordinated to keep the enemy king away from my pawns.
47...hxg4 48.hxg4 Bd6 49.f5 a3 50.fxg6 fxg6 51.c4+?
Here 51. c3 gives me better chances to hold on.
51...Kb4 52.Kd4 a2 53.Kd5 Bc5 54.Be5 Be3 55.Bd6+?
Basically giving up. I could have made it really hard by playing 55.Ba1 Bf2 56.Bb2 Be1 57.c5 Bc3 58.c6 Bxb2 59.c7 a1Q 60.c8Q
55...Kb3 56.Be5 Bc1 57.c5 Bb2 58.Bxb2 Kxb2 59.c6 a1Q 60.Kd6 Qd1+ 61.Kc7 Qxg4 62.Kb8 Qb4+ 63.Ka8 Qa5+ 64.Kb7 Qb5+ 65.Kc7 g5 66.Kd6 Qd3+ 67.Kc7 g4 0–1
Yeah, I played on longer than I should have. I had just never been in an endgame before where my pawn was on the 6th against a queen. I was still thinking about how one can draw with a bishop pawn on the 7th, though in this case it doesn't work due to black's extra pawn – he can always just take my pawn with his queen and advance the other one, though he doesn't even need to do that.

[Event "Icelandic League Team"]
[Site "Reykjavik, Iceland"]
[Date "2007.10.13"]
[Round "3"]
[White "Larusson, Petr"]
[Black "Cross, Ted"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "B31"]
[WhiteElo "2134"]
[BlackElo "2108"]
[WhiteTeam "Haukar Chess Club-B"]
[BlackTeam "Akraness"]

Despite my losses in rounds one and two, I was moved up to board two for our team due to our two top players not being able to show up for this round. One of them had a wife in the hospital having a baby. We thought it would really hurt us, but we actually won this round 5.5 - .5! Only with some luck in my game though.
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5
These guys magically all seem to know the best lines to play against me! I have never done well against this variation; I really prefer the straight 3. d4 lines.
3...g6 4.Bxc6 dxc6 5.h3 Bg7 6.d3 Nf6 7.Nbd2 0–0 8.0–0 b6 9.Qe2 Ba6 10.a4 Qc7 11.Rd1 Rad8 12.e5 Nd5 13.Nf1 e6?!
Fritz doesn't seem to mind this move much, but later in the game I really regretted having played it. It got in my way for defense.
14.N1h2 Rd7 15.Ng4 c4
I was feeling a bit desperate here, with my black square weaknesses around my king. I needed counter-play in the center but the only idea I could see was to have a rook or queen on d8, and if the pawn was no longer on d3 then I could threaten to play my knight to c3. This is why I played 15...c4.
16.dxc4 h5 17.Nh6+ Kh8 18.g4 Qd8
This is the point of my earlier 15...c4 move; I now have the threat of playing Nc3. It is not really a solid threat, but I was grasping at straws here!
19.Bg5 is even better.
19...Bxh6 20.Bxh6
I sure didn't want to give up this bishop for the knight, but I couldn't go through with my plan otherwise, since at the end of the combination his knight would be able to take on f7 with a fork.
20...Nc3 21.bxc3 Rxd1+ 22.Rxd1 Qxd1+ 23.Kg2
Ok, here I was, hoping I might finally be in better shape having won the exchange, but the longer I looked at the position the less I liked it. He had too many threats, so I felt I had no choice but to offer the exchange back in return for removing his dangerous bishop.
23...Qd8 24.gxh5?!
He didn't want it, so I decided to keep it!
24...Rg8 25.Bg5 gxh5 26.Qh4 Rg6??
Ouch! A real howler just when I could have drawn the game with 26...Rg7 27.Qxh5+ Kg8 28.Kh2 Qd1 29.Bf6 Qf1 30.Bxg7 Qxf2+ 31.Kh1 Kxg7=
27.Qxh5+ Kg8 28.Kh2??
Lucky me! The one real blunder my opponents made all weekend! He could have simply played 28.Qxg6+ and then taken my queen.
28...Qf8 29.Bf6?
He could probably still have won by playing the knight to h4 - 29.Nh4 Rg7 30.Bf6 Qc5 31.Qf3 Bxc4 32.Bxg7 Kxg7 33.Qg3+ Kh8 34.Nf3 Be2 35.Ng5 Bh5 36.Ne4+-
Now I knew I should win if I could just get my rook out of the corner.
30.Qxh6 Rxh6 31.Nd2 c5 32.Ne4 Bxc4 33.Bg5 Rg6 34.h4 Be2 35.Nd6?!
Better is 35. Nf6+, though I would still win after 35...Kh8 36.Kg3 Bd1 37.Kf4 Bxc2 38.h5 Rg7 39.Ng4 Bxa4 40.Bf6 Kh7 41.Bxg7 Kxg7 42.Ke3 Bd1 43.Nf6 Kh6–+
35...Bd1 36.Nc8 Kh7 37.Nxa7 Rg8 38.Nc6 Ra8 39.Nd8 Kg6 40.Kg3 Rxa4 41.f3 Bxc2 42.Bd2
I was proud of myself for seeing right here that I could trap his knight. No matter where he goes, my pawns hem in the knight.
42...Ra8 43.Nc6 Ba4 44.Ne7+ Kg7 45.Kg4 Re8 46.Bg5 Kf8 47.f4 Rxe7 48.Bxe7+ Kxe7 49.f5 0–1

[Event "Icelandic League Team"]
[Site "Reykjavik, Iceland"]
[Date "2007.10.14"]
[Round "4"]
[White "Cross, Ted"]
[Black "Finnlaugsson, Gunnar"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "B45"]
[WhiteElo "2108"]
[BlackElo "2125"]
[WhiteTeam "Selfoss og nagr"]
[BlackTeam "Haukar Chess Club-B"]

Sadly, one of our players didn’t show up for this round, so we started with a forfeit. I actually knew the night before who I was going to play, so I looked up his games. He played a whole lot of Winawer French Defense games, so naturally he didn’t play it against me!
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Ndb5 Bb4
Uh oh! I had played this line many times but everyone always transposed into a Sveshnikov by playing 6...d6. I had vaguely seen Bb4 before but didn't know the line. I just assumed I was better after my move, but it turns out that black holds a slight edge.
Correct is 7.a3 Bxc3+ 8.Nxc3 d5 9.exd5 exd5 with a tiny edge for white.
7...Ke7 8.Bf4 e5 9.Nf5+?!
I felt that taking on c8 was wrong since it helps black get his rook to c8 quicker, aiming at the weak point on c3, but it turns out that white still holds a slight edge after 9.Nxc8+ Rxc8 10.Bg5.
9...Kf8 10.Bg5 d5 11.exd5
Keeping black's edge to a minimum would be 11.Bxf6 gxf6 ( 11...Qxf6 12.Qxd5 Bxf5 13.exf5 Rd8 14.Qe4 Rd4) 12.exd5 Bxf5 13.dxc6 Qxd1+ 14.Rxd1 bxc6.
11...Qxd5 12.Ne3?!
I didn't like the looks of Ng3 here, but Fritz thinks it is a little better than what I played - 12.Ng3!? Bg4 13.f3 Bxc3+ 14.bxc3 Qxd1+ 15.Rxd1 Be6 with a small edge to black.
12...Qd4 13.Bd3 Bxc3+ 14.bxc3 Qxc3+ 15.Kf1 Be6 16.Qb1?!
It felt wrong to play this, but I was desperately seeking some sort of counterplay and felt that getting the knight to d1 was my only chance. I wanted to bring my bishop back into the game via e3 and was ok with him taking it since I could take back with my pawn, which I thought might give me some chances. Fritz likes 16.Bxf6 gxf6 17.Rb1 Rd8 better though black clearly stands better.
16...Nd5 17.Nd1 Qd4 18.Be3!?
18. Qxb7 was worth a try here, because black would need to choose the correct responses or end up passing the advantage on to me, and for amateurs I think that 18...Rb8 is harder to see. 18.Qxb7!? Rb8 ( 18...Rc8? 19.Rb1 Nf4 ( 19...e4 20.Ba6 Nc7 21.Qxc6 Nxa6 22.Qb7 h6 23.Ne3 hxg5 24.Qxa6 gives black a tiny edge) 20.Bxf4 Qxf4 21.Ne3 e4 22.Bb5 Nd4 23.Bd7 Rd8 24.Bxe6 Nxe6 25.Qxa7 and I take over the advantage) 19.Qxc6 Rc8 20.Qxc8+ Bxc8 21.Rb1–+.
18...Nxe3+ 19.fxe3 Qd7 20.Nf2 f5 21.Ke2 e4 22.Bb5 a6 23.Rd1 Nd4+ 24.Rxd4 Qxb5+ 25.Qxb5 axb5 26.Kd2 Ke7 27.a4
Ok, so this endgame is hopeless, but I actually get a kick seeing how well I do to cut things closer than they look like they should have been!
27...Bd7 28.Rb1?!
Better is 28.a5 Ra6 29.g4 g6 30.gxf5 gxf5 31.Rg1 Rg6 though black should still win.
28...Rxa4 29.Rxa4 bxa4 30.Rxb7 Ra8 31.Nd1 a3 32.Rb1 Kd6 33.Nc3 g5 34.g4 Ke5 35.gxf5 Kxf5 36.Ra1 Ke5 37.Nb1 a2 38.Nc3 Be6 39.Kc1 h5 40.Ne2 h4 41.Nd4 Rf8 42.Kb2 Rf2 43.Rg1 Rxh2 44.Rxg5+ Kf6 45.Nxe6 Rxc2+ 46.Ka1 Kxe6 47.Rg4 Kd5 48.Rxh4 Re2 49.Rg4 Rxe3 50.Kxa2 Rc3 51.Kb2 Rc6 52.Rg5+ Kd4 53.Rg3 e3 54.Rg8 e2 55.Re8 Kd3 56.Rd8+ Ke3 57.Re8+ Kd2 58.Rd8+ Ke1 59.Kb3 Rf6 60.Kc2 Kf1 0–1

My best move

I have played several hundred rated games in my life, and this game may still be the only one in which I played a legitimate double-exclamation point move. The game itself is not remarkable. I played the Ruy Lopez for some reason; I never play the Ruy Lopez. I must have been frustrated with poor results with my normal Bc4 opening and decided to shake things up. I won a pawn in the opening due to my opponent's mistakes, but then I played poorly to allow most of my advantage to slip away. When my opponent threatened an immediate forced draw, I thought for a long time looking for a way out….and I found it!!

[Event "Memorial Day Open"]
[Site "Tucson, Arizona"]
[Date "1990.05.27"]
[Round "3"]
[White "Cross, Ted"]
[Black "Yergin, April"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "C70"]
[WhiteElo "1903"]
[BlackElo "1632"]

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5
As mentioned above, I always play Bc4 in this position. During this time in my life I played a bare handful of Ruy Lopez openings out of frustration with my poor results with Bc4.
3…a6 4. Ba4 Bc5 5. c3 b5 6. Bb3 d6 7. d4 Ba7?
This mistake gives white a clear advantage. Better was exd4.
8.dxe5 dxe5 9. Qxd8+ Kxd8 10. Bxf7
I have won a clear pawn, but I begin to meander without a plan through the next phase of the game, allowing my edge to dwindle.
10…Nf6 11. Bd5 Nxd5 12.exd5 e4 13. Ng5 Ne5 14. O-O
Being greedy with Ne4 is actually better here.
14…Bb7 15. Nxe4 Bxd5 16. Rd1 c6 17. Bg5+ Kd7
By this point black has enough counter play that the game is essentially equal even though white is still up a pawn.
18. Kh1 Ke6 19. Nbd2?
This is a mistake, overlooking that black could invade with Nd3. Better is f3 instead. Lucky for me she doesn’t see the tactic.
19…Kf5?! 20. f4 Bxe4?
Another mistake; Nd3 is still the right move.
21. Nxe4 Ng4 22. Ng3+ Kg6 23. Rd6+ Kf7 24.h3
At the amateur level it is difficult to see it, but this move apparently lets most of white’s advantage slip away, while Rd7+ retains the edge. The difference is that after Rd7+ the black king comes to g6 and blocks the g7 pawn, which stops black from playing the seemingly drawing variation that follows…
24…h6 25. Bh4 Nf2+ 26. Kh2 g5
Ok, here it is, the key moment of the game. It looks as if I have blown it. If I play the moves that save my bishop then black gets a perpetual check with the knight. I was devastated, having felt that I was winning for so long only to give up a draw. I recall this moment well, because April’s husband, Chandler, was playing on the board next to ours and I remember seeing the expression on his face as he studied the position, as well as after I found my remarkable reply. Since it is pointed out to you, it is probably obvious, but over the board when you don’t know it works, it is not so simple.

27. Re1!!
I was so proud of myself when I played this. There were a good number of variations that needed to be calculated quite deeply in order to be sure I was ok here, so just seeing the move itself was not enough; I needed to spend a lot of time calculating everything.
27…gxh4 28. Rd7+ Kf8
The main alternative was Kg8, which leads shortly to mate after 29. Nh5 Bc5 30. Re6 a5 31. Rg6+ Kf8 32. Rf6+ Ke8 (32…Kg8 33. Rg7 mate) 33. Rff7 and checkmate is impossible to stop. Obviously 28...Kg6 allows 29. Re6 mate, but it took me a bit more time before playing my 27th move to make sure that 28...Kf6 would win for me - 28...Kf6 29. Nh5+ Kf5 (29...Kg6 30. Rg7+ and mates next) 30. Re5+ Kg6 31. Rg7 mate.
29. Nh5 Bc5 30. b4 Re8
Bb6 might be slightly trickier as I would have to correctly see that I can trap the bishop after 31. Nf6 Rd8 32. Rb7
31. Rxe8+ Kxe8 32. Nf6+ Kf8 33. bxc5 h5 34. Kg1
I played to simplify here, since the knight is trapped. I saw that I could swap everything off to an easily winning endgame.
34…Rh6 35. Rd6 Kf7 36. Kxf2 Rxf6 37. Rxf6+ Kxf6 38. Ke3 Kf5 39. a3 a5 40. Kf3 a4 41. Ke3 Ke6 42. Ke4 Ke7 43. Ke5 Kd7 44. Kf6 Ke8 45. Kg7 1-0

Saturday, January 26, 2008


The following game has little of interest, except for its minor historical context. It is a game between two rank beginners, but one of them went on to become a Grandmaster and World Junior Champion! This was the first round of only my third rated tournament, and I was still considered to be 'unrated', though I had an unofficial rating of 1509. Tal Shaked, my opponent, was also unrated, and I believe this was his second tournament (I saw him playing at the Memorial Day Open a couple weeks earlier). I learned a tremendous lesson at the end of this game that has stuck with me ever since.

[Event "Nimzowitsch Classic"]
[Site "Tucson, Arizona"]
[Date "1986.07.12"]
[Round "1"]
[White "Cross, Ted"]
[Black "Shaked, Tal"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "C01"]
[WhiteElo "1509"]
1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. exd5?!
You can see that I had little knowledge of openings back then. This is not the way to play against the French Defense! I won't comment much on most of the game, first because it was so long ago that I simply cannot recall my own thoughts during the game, and second because the moves are obviously those of beginners, so we cannot judge them too harshly.
4...exd5 5. Bd2 Nf6 6. Bd3 O-O 7. Nge2 Nc68. O-O Re8 9. a3 Ba5 10. Bb5 Bd7 11. Bg5 a6 12. Bxf6
I was ever eager to grab material back then, even if I couldn't see if the resulting position would be in my favor.
12...Qxf6 13. Nxd5 Qd6 14. Bxc6 Bxc6 15. Ndc3
I would retain a very slight advantage if I had played Ne3 here; now black gets the tiniest of edges.
Better would have been Rad8 to put more pressure on the isolated d pawn. Threatening a checkmate, such as with the Qg6 move, is something beginners love to do, but here it allows white to gain approximate equality by pushing the pawn to d5. Naturally I didn't see it.
16. g3?! Bxc3?!
Bf3 is better, increasing pressure on white's pieces.
17. Nxc3 Rad8 18. Qd2 Qg4
It is difficult to call this a mistake considering both players are beginners, but white now regains a slight advantage over the next few moves. Without any large errors, the game moves toward an endgame in which white is just up a pawn with a winning edge.
19. d5 Bd7 20. Rae1 Rxe1 21. Rxe1 Qf3 22. Qe2 Qxe2 23. Rxe2 Re8 24. Rxe8+ Bxe8 25. Ne4 b6 26. c4 f5 27. Nc3 Kf7 28. f4 g6 29. Kf2 Ke7 30. Ke3 Kd6 31. Kd4 Bd7 32. b4 c5+ 33. dxc6 Bxc6 34. c5+
I had played the endgame fairly well up until this point, but now I rushed a bit. It would have been better to play a4 here. I am still winning though.
34...bxc5+ 35. bxc5+ Ke6 36. Kc4 Kd7 37. Kb4 Kc7 38. Ka5 Kb7 39. Na2 Bb5 40. Nb4 h6 41. a4 Be2 42. c6+ Kc7 43. Nxa6+ Bxa6?
This was a real mistake and white it dead won now. Better was Kc6, though white should still win with correct play.
44. Kxa6 Kxc6 45. h3 g5
Right here black makes the one move that gives him his only chance. I was so confident of my victory at this point that I spent no time thinking here, I just reached out and instantly played the losing move. Just about anything else wins for me, including a5 or h4.
46. fxg5??
A terrible blunder that throws everything away. This moment drilled a lesson into my head and I don't think I ever lost in such a manner again.
46...hxg5 47. Ka5 f4 48. gxf4 gxf4 49. h4 f3 50. h5 f2 51. h6 f1=Q 52. h7 Qf5+ 53. Ka6 Qxh7 54. Ka5 Qb1 0-1

Friday, January 18, 2008

My background history in chess

Everyone falls into chess in a different way. Many people learn about the game from one of their parents or a sibling. I was first given a cheap plastic chess set when I was five. Like many youngsters I was fascinated with the figurines, which looked like various medieval soldiers in two armies. I played around with them a few times, but I had no one to play with, so the game did not grow on me. I don’t remember what happened to that set, but like many toys I imagine various pieces got lost and eventually my mother probably threw it away.

Chess did not reenter my life until junior high school, when a friend convinced me to visit the chess club to which he belonged. This time I felt a mysterious pull from chess. It did not come from the boards and pieces being used by various students. It came from some chess magazines which the teacher had placed on one table. I never had any idea someone would write a magazine about a game! When I flipped through some pages I saw game scores in a mysterious code that I could not quite understand, though I knew they must be showing what moves were being made. I saw for the first time the terms Grandmaster and Master, and I think it was the idea of an adult, professional world somehow revolving around the game of chess that immediately drew my deeper attention. I never knew it existed, but having learned that it did, I wanted to understand it. Unfortunately, I found that I would have to pay a dollar each time I wanted to visit the club, and since I grew up in a terribly poor family and could not afford this, I could not return anymore. Chess once more disappeared from my life, though this time a small part of it simmered in the back of my mind and wouldn’t go away.

As with so many teenagers, various other sports took center stage in my life. I was absolutely in love with soccer, and I was also a little league baseball pitcher. Chess came back into my life due to a strange twist of fate. In my junior year in high school I went out for the soccer team as I did each year. This year the professional soccer coach was gone for some reason, and an English teacher from the school was filling in as coach. He instituted a strange rule for the tryouts- each person had to put down the position for which he was trying out, and cuts would be made strictly based upon this position list. Naturally I signed up for left wing, which had been my position for ten years. Sadly, the coach’s son also signed up for left wing! He was a tall, gangly kid who was not very coordinated. Needless to say, I did not make the cut. I knew and liked this boy, but I resented the way I was wrongly cut from my beloved sport. Looking back on it now, though, I have to admit that it turned out for the best, as it led me back to chess! For the first time in high school I had nothing to do, so when one of my friends suggested I come to the chess club, I agreed to go.

This time I was hooked immediately. There were about 7 or 8 members of the club, and I discovered that I already knew three of them quite well. They were playing a very fast form of chess that they called ‘blitz’ and used strange two-faced clocks. I was mesmerized, and I knew right away that I wanted to become good at this new sport. Yes, I saw it as a sport right away, as opposed to the ‘game’ that I had always considered chess in the past. Even better, this sport was based around individual talent. I did not need to rely on a whole team to determine whether I would win or lose; it was all up to me. I did not even attempt to play during this first visit to the club, as I knew I could do nothing playing at such a fast speed.

I learned from my friends that there were chess competitions between schools. They told me there would be one in just two weeks. I came to every club meeting. Of course I was thrashed badly in my first games, as I knew next to nothing about how chess was played. A major advantage of being young with few responsibilities is that I could concentrate my attention almost entirely on chess in my free time. I took out books from the library and spent hours poring over them, and I quickly learned the basics. In the first tournament I even managed to win a game. Chess supplanted soccer in my life!

I had joined the chess club when the school year was already drawing to an end, so I got to play in only three tournaments that year. I was disappointed to get so excited over this new form of competition only to have it end so abruptly. Even worse, every other member of the club was graduating, so I was the only member left for the next year. I worried about whether there would even be a club the next year- would enough new members join to enable us to compete in the school tournaments?

I was driven by the knowledge that I would be the only semi-experienced member of the club next season, so all that summer I studied books and imagined to myself that I was becoming a stronger player.

In my senior year of high school I forced the creation of a new club. I made sure the school newspaper ran an ad for the chess club. The coach from last year was gone, so I badgered one of my teachers into agreeing to coach the team. The teacher actually knew nothing about chess, but at least she agreed to oversee our club meetings and drive us to the competitions. I installed myself as the leader of the club. We were one senior, and six freshmen….and our team was very bad! I really had improved over the summer, so even on first board I managed to do quite well, but the rest of the team had nothing but enthusiasm keeping them going. Nevertheless I was never so happy in my life. I was truly enjoying myself, and my only regret was that I had not gotten into chess earlier in my life.

Early Chess Development

During this last year of school I saw an advertisement for a different kind of chess tournament, one that was not for students. The ad was trying to get people to join the US Chess Federation (USCF) by signing up for a tournament, and it said I could have a free chess set if I paid the fees. I still did not own my own set, and I was also intrigued by the idea of a non-scholastic chess tournament, so I signed up. The tournament ended up getting cancelled, but the idea of playing in an adult tournament was too strong to ignore, so in January 1986 I signed up for the Tucson Open. There were three different sections in the tournament- an Open section where the strongest players would play, a Reserve section for players whose USCF ratings fell within a certain range below the stronger players, and a Booster section for the weakest or newest players. As I had no idea how I compared against these adult players, I joined the Booster section.

The tournament was very exciting. There were three different rooms, one for each section. I was drawn to the Open section, fascinated by the interesting looking Masters and their deep, serious looking concentration. Whenever I could, I would wander into the Open section room just to watch. I did quite well in the Booster section, too, with six wins, one draw, and one loss (I played two extra ‘rating’ games). I had even been easily winning the one game I lost, being up a rook, but I managed to blunder the game away.

I entered every tournament I could after this. After winning first place in my second tourney, I decided that Booster sections were too easy, so I moved up to playing in Reserve sections.

I also joined two new chess clubs outside of school. In one of these clubs one day, I overheard the strongest Tucson master, Ken Larsen, speaking excitedly about a young eight year old kid, saying that he thought he was a prodigy who could one day be a Grandmaster. His name was Tal Shaked, a quiet, serious young boy, with an aura about him. I could tell right away that Ken was right, there was something special about this boy. I could not say why I felt this, but nonetheless that is exactly what I felt!

In the first round of my next tournament who should I face but Tal Shaked. I was excited at this opportunity. I focused and played as hard as I could, and we reached an endgame where I was up two pawns and was clearly winning. In fact, I thought the game was ‘over’ and that I could play anything and still win. I learned a harsh lesson when a quick pawn capture on my part allowed a trick where Tal could force a passed pawn that would queen before mine. I lost. As crushed as I felt at this turn of events, the lesson I learned from this game was one of the strongest of the many chess lessons I learned in my life, and I never again took any ‘won’ game for granted.

As I entered college I had to cut back on the amount of chess I could play. Instead of ten or twelve tournaments per year, I could play in only four or five. I measured my advances by my USCF rating, which started out at 1509 (Class C) but quickly moved up to the 1900's (Class A) in just a couple of years. My chess growth roughly paralleled Tal’s, though he still had that aura of special-ness about him. We played each other several times in tourneys, usually drawing, though I managed one nice win. Though this period of chess in Tucson drew to a close in 1993, I took great pleasure in watching from afar as Tal rapidly improved, first winning various US championships, then the World Junior Championship, gaining the Grandmaster title just has Ken Larsen had predicted.

Playing in Russia

Playing against Grandmaster Nigel Short

When I graduated from college, I had to move to Russia in order to begin working at the US embassy. It was chess that led me to my career in the Foreign Service. One cannot read chess literature and fail to notice the dominance of Soviet chess players, and in many of the tourneys in which I participated I got to see Russian Grandmasters playing on the top boards. I knew that I wanted to visit Russia somehow, so I switched my major from engineering to Russian Studies, and when the opportunity came, I signed up to work at the embassy in Moscow.

I have to say that my mother was not so sure I was making the right decisions with my life at that point! Just as I was about to fly to Moscow, members of the Russian Parliament led a coup attempt against President Yeltsin. CNN showed tanks firing on the Russian Parliament building, right across the street from the US embassy, and also showed massive gunfire as an attack was made on a television station. Two weeks later I was in Moscow and could see the blackened and burned Parliament building looming over the embassy compound. The first thing they told me at the embassy was to be aware of possible sniper attacks.

As I settled into the exciting life of living and working in a huge, vibrant, rapidly changing foreign city, my mind, of course, turned to chess. I discovered that the main chess club was within easy walking distance from the embassy, so I paid a visit. I learned the schedules of various chess competitions at the club. There were blitz and rapid tourneys each weekend, and there were real tournaments starting each month and played at two games per week. They were round-robin tourneys, rather than the Swiss style tournaments most common in America. This means that I had to compete against players of about my own playing strength, and I had to play each player in the tourney. In Swiss tournaments there are a set number of rounds, and one rarely plays against players of ones own strength, instead typically playing against players much higher and lower in rating.

My initial chess ‘career’ in America was dominated by learning the openings and playing almost solely for tactical considerations. In Russia everything changed. Despite the fact that I nearly always outplayed my opponents in the openings, I started out losing quite a few games. The Russian players tended to be quite strong at strategy, whereas the average American player concentrated much more on tactics. In game after game I would get an opening advantage only to watch it disappear as my Russian opponents continuously found ways of outplaying me in the middle-game. Over time I learned and adjusted my game, and I began to compete evenly against my Russian opponents.

Playing against future World Champion Vladimir Kramnik

I had many amazing chess experiences in Russia. The British embassy in Moscow began to hold annual charity chess events, and they invited diplomats from all the embassies to send their best players to participate. Due to this good fortune, I got to play exhibition games against several World Champions - current, past, and future. First I played a game in which GMs Vladimir Kramnik, only 18 at the time but a future World Champion, and Nigel Short alternated moves in games against nearly 20 opponents. The following year I got to play an exhibition game against World Champ Garry Kasparov. The year after that, I played former World Champion Anatoly Karpov. Few experiences can rival these for an amateur player!

Playing against World Champion Gary Kasparov

In 1994 I met GM Sergey Kudrin at the embassy. He is an American who was born in Russia. I was curious to see him there so I began a conversation with him. He was very nice, and he mentioned that the next Chess Olympiad was going to take place in Moscow in December. He invited me to visit him and the rest of the American team.

A few weeks later the Olympiad began. I took the metro train to the playing site, a large, dingy hotel near the huge television tower in Moscow. There were hundreds of people wandering around in several vast halls, so it took me some time to find a familiar face. I ran into the US team captain, John Donaldson. He turned out to be one of the nicest chess players I ever met, along with another member of the US team, Joel Benjamin. John got me a Players Pass so I could go into the restricted areas and watch all the games and see all the famous players. When they weren’t busy, John or Joel would sometimes walk with me, talking about professional chess, analyzing games, or watching interesting competitors. Although I was not playing, I never felt so close to the heart of chess. I was in chess heaven!

All good things must end, and in 1997 I reached the end of my tour of duty in Russia. I had gotten married to a wonderful Russian school teacher in 1996, and in the fall of 1997 she was pregnant with our first child. So we decided to move back to America instead of taking one of the offers I had to go to either Croatia or Byelorussia.

Playing against former World Champion Anatoly Karpov

Back to America

I did not get to return to chess right away upon returning to America. We were expecting a baby, and I had no job! We moved to Phoenix, where the job prospects were better than in Tucson, and I got lucky and landed a terrific job with a major computer consulting company, Compuware Corporation. I was never treated better in my life by any company, but it was hard work, especially after our son was born. It was two years before I could consider returning to chess again.

The only chess readily available in Phoenix at that time was at a place called the Chess Emporium. Sadly, there was no serious chess available, only ‘Action Chess’, where the games take place with only 30 minutes per player for the whole game. This kind of chess is quite fun, but I have trouble taking it seriously and I am not nearly as successful at it as I am at classical chess. In fact I did so poorly that my rating plummeted all the way from the mid-1900's (where it had been since I left the US in 1993) down to the 1700's! I decided to stop playing Action chess.

A good friend from Tucson told me he was going to a major tournament in Los Angeles called the Continental Open. This tournament cured all my chess ailments! I started off with three wins in a row then drew the next two. I was easily winning the next game, which would have put me within reach of 1st place and a large sum of money (at least for an amateur chess player), but I made a terrible mistake and nearly lost, though I managed to hold a draw. I won the last round and won around $500, which is the most I ever won at chess. More importantly, for me, I wiped away all the rating losses from the Action chess events.

I followed this terrific tournament with several more classical chess events, culminating in my most successful chess period in 2001, when I won ten games in a row and tied for 1st place in the US Amateur West Championship.

Back to the Foreign Service

Despite loving my job, I found life in America to be ultimately unsatisfying after the excitement of having lived in Russia for four years. Something was missing. So, I applied for the Foreign Service and was accepted in 2001. I had to give up chess again for awhile, since I had to go through some intense training for nearly a year, and then I had to move to Zagreb, Croatia. The tragic events of September 11 occurred as we were driving to Washington DC to begin my training. Our hotel overlooked the wreckage of the Pentagon, grimly paralleling my last start in the Foreign Service.

After finally settling down to life in the charming town of Zagreb, Croatia, I again began thinking of chess. I was out of luck, though, as each club I tracked down in Zagreb was closed down. There was one club that people told me still operated, but each time I visited it the doors were locked. I had to look elsewhere for chess.

On the internet I learned of a FIDE (the World Chess Federation) tournament taking place in nearby Hungary in March 2003. It was called the Budapest Spring Chess Festival. I was excited at the prospect of competing for the first time in a FIDE event, and I secretly dreamed of gaining a FIDE rating, though this would be a difficult task. Nevertheless, I managed to have a great start to the tournament, and despite falling very ill in the middle, I performed well enough to earn an official FIDE rating of 2108 (Expert level). I was actually a bit disappointed in the result, given my great start and some of the winning positions I had at the end. I could very easily have earned a Master rating!

Sadly, I had to go back into chess hibernation after this event for nearly five years. I did not get any more chances to play while we were in Zagreb, and in 2004 we moved to Beijing, China to work at the embassy there. Despite the fact that China has several top Grandmasters, there are so far no chess tournaments available in which foreigners can participate. I have scanned the internet trying to find good tournaments somewhere in Asia, but they are rare and I usually hear about them only after they have occurred. So, I played no chess during my three years in Beijing.

In August of 2007 we moved to Iceland, and I was excited at the prospect of getting to play chess again, though I feared I would be very rusty. Icelanders love chess. I won't go into detail here about my experiences here in Iceland, because I intend to do so in later posts. I have indeed shown rust in the two events in which I have played, but I have also shown a glimmer of regaining my previous playing strength, and I am enjoying getting to think about chess all the time again.

My Chess Life

I am not sure I will be much of a blogger, but I have been thinking lately that it would at least be nice if my kids could one day read about some of the chess stories from my life. I am just a poor amateur player, but I love chess and have had some wonderful experiences because of chess. I can honestly say that chess has changed my life dramatically, and mostly in good ways.

Why 'knight_tour'? That is a web handle that I have used for years on a few sites, such as Mig Greengard's Daily Dirt chess blog, as well as some political forums. I guess I have gotten used to using it on the web; it has sort of turned into an alternate persona for me; I am not exactly the same person when I write on the web as I am in real life. I chose the term knight tour because I felt it illustrated who I am - a chess lover who travels the world. A 'knight tour' is a demonstration, made famous by George Koltanowski, in which a single knight on an empty board is moved such that it visits each of the 64 squares without ever hitting any square twice. Thus it is a good representation for me as I hop around this world.

So, I will use this space to tell stories, interesting ones I hope, from my past, as well as news of my ongoing chessic adventures. It is an odd day to begin a chess blog, though, since Bobby Fischer just died. He was by far the most legendary figure in chess history.