Friday, 23 May 2014

The most 180 of all - #chess180

This is a response to the ridiculous chess180 post on the usually excellent Streatham & Brixton Chess Blog.

By most measures, 180 ECF is a pretty decent level of chess - not outstanding, but not bad.

In the January 2014 ECF grading list, there were around 800 UK players (including Jonathan Bryant) graded 180 or above, and over 9,000 (including me) graded 179 and below.

180 - it's pretty good

Unless you're some sort of child prodigy, getting to 180 ECF is hard.  But staying at 180 is harder - anyone can improve or get worse at chess, but staying where you are takes some effort.  

From a level where there's so much improving to do, for someone who takes the game seriously enough to play most weeks during the season, and writes a blog dissecting his games and those of others, improvement should be almost guaranteed.

Jonathan claims to be "more 180" than me - but let's take a look at the real facts about who of me and Jonathan is the most dedicated 180-strength player.

Who's more 180?

I re-started playing chess in 2011, after a few years off.  My grade in the July 2011 ECF list?  Interesting you should ask - it was exactly 180.  Compare this to Jonathan Bryant's grade of only 172.

In fact, if you look at all six grading lists from 2011 to 2014, my grade was within 5 points of 180 in every list - it's only in the last list that Mr Bryant has even got close.
Who's more 180?
So clearly I'm a more dedicated 180 than Jonathan - I'd suggest that such an improvement in grade over the last couple of years is pretty amateurish for someone who claims to be the "most 180 of them all".  

If you want to stay 180 Jonathan (and I'm assuming you do), I'd hold off on the rook endings and play some more dodgy exchange sacs.

The most 180 of all?

More dedicated than Jonathan I may be, but am I the most 180 of all?  Absolutely not.  Looking at the ECF gradings, there is a man who has been exactly 180 on all of the last 4 lists.  Step forward Nick Keene of Wimbledon, the most 180 of all.

Now that's dedication to a grade...

Friday, 14 March 2014

Calculation's what you need...

Following a long lay-off from blogging for various reasons (but not from chess - I'm quite a few games behind, including some instructive losses) I've finally found myself with
  1. a bit of time to write the blog
  2. a game that (in my opinion) is interesting enough to discuss here
So here it is! There's no particular lesson but I was quite happy with my judgement of the position throughout (though I didn't quite manage to calculate all the complexities).

White - Matt Fletcher (179)

Black - Charlie Allum (144)
13 March 2014
30 moves in 75 minutes, plus 15 minutes for the rest of the game.
1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Nd7

The Caro-Kann defence, Modern variation.  I almost played 5. Qe2 here, purely because of the line 5... Ngf6?? Nd6 checkmate. 

But I assumed my opponent, an experienced player, would know to play a move like 5... e6 instead!  So I played something else.

5. Nf3 Ngf6 6. Ng3 g6

This is playable, but quite a rare move - normally in the Caro-Kann, Black wants to play e6 and later c5, and this makes it much harder to follow this plan.  As a result, 6...e6 is much more common here.  After ...g6 Black needs to be a bit careful not to get to a position that's like a Sicilian but where he's taken two moves instead of one to play c5.

7. Bc4 Bg7 8. Qe2 e6?!

Black now needs to be very careful on the black squares, particularly d6 and f6 (and maybe h6) - if the black-squared bishop is taken, there will be real problems.  Also, playing e6 makes life slightly difficult for his white-squared bishop.

9. h4 h5 10. Bg5 0-0 11. 0-0-0

Anticipating attacks on both sides, and hoping that my lead in development will tell.

11... b5 12. Bd3 Qb6 

All my pieces are now developed and well-placed, and I felt there should be a breakthrough on the cards with a few more preparatory moves.  On the flipside Black's pieces (other than the Bishop on c8) aren't too bad and if I'm too slow then Black can build up on the Queenside fairly quickly.  

Here I thought for a long time (almost 20 minutes) to work out how best to press my advantage.  I came up with:

13. Ne5

I think this is a pretty decent move - there are some options for Black but the obvious choice is to go down the lines below.  Interestingly, my computer isn't at all keen on this move - but it still suggests taking the Knight which seems to lead by force to some lines that give White a pretty big advantage.

13... Nxe5 14. dxe5 Nd5

I'd expected 14... Ng4 when I'd analysed 15. f4! Nf2 16. Nxh5! Nxh1 17. Rxh1 gxh5 18. Qxh5 or 16... Nxd3+ 17. cxd3 gxh5 18. Rg3 (actually 18. Bf6 is even better!) 

Or 14... Nd7 15. f4 Nc5 16. Ne4 Nxd3+ 17. Rxd3 which is similar.

After Black's 14th move, I had a close look again at 15. Nxh5 but couldn't find a clear win.  I then noted that there was nothing Black could do to defend h5, and decided that if I was going to play Nxh5, I'd want to have the Rook on h3 instead of h1.  So I looked at options for Black after 15. Rh3.

15 ... Nb4 looks like it could be interesting but I managed to calculate that 16. Nxh5! still works - 16... Nxa2+ gets nowhere but 16... Nxd3+ 17. Rdxd3 gxh5 18. Rhg3 is going to win pretty quickly.

[Looking at the game afterwards, it turns out that the sacrifice is sound on move 15 (the lines are very similar to those below).]

15. Rh3!? a5 This potentially gives Black the option of defending across the rank with Ra7 in some lines.  Again I spent some more time (another 8 minutes) to see if I could calculate a clear win after Nxh5 - I failed but I got far enough to be happy that my attack should be too strong.
16. Nxh5! 

My calculations ran 16... gxh5 17. Qxh5 f5 18. exf6 e.p. Nxf6 19. Qg6! where the Rook can switch to f3 or g3, or the h-pawn runs. 

Amusingly (though I didn't spot this till afterwards), after 19... Qxf2?? 20. Be3! just traps the Queen!

I also thought about 17. Bf6!, because 17...Bxf6 blocks the f-pawn's advance so that 18. Qxh5 is hugely strong as it can't be met by 18... f5. This is a motif worth remembering when attacking h7 like this - if f5 is a resource, can it be blocked?

Instead 17... Nxf6 18. gxf6 looked (and is) equally hopeless for Black.  The move that worried me was 17... Nf4 forking Queen and Rook - in the light of day, this isn't a threat because of 18. Qf3! when Black has no time to take the Rook as 19. Qg3! is coming.

After the game, I discussed this position with some chess-playing friends on Twitter and came up with some more interesting analysis.   

Jonathan Bryant suggested the inventive and excellent 17. Bh7+! Kxh7.  He initially wanted to follow up by taking off the Knight on d5 with the Rook which unfortunately just about fails because Black can take the f-pawn with his Queen at a vital moment.  But 18. Qxh5+ Kg8 19. Bh6! is quickly decisive.

Pablo Byrne suggested that Black might want to try getting counterplay with 16...a4 instead of 16... gxh5, ignoring the Kingside attack and going for something on the Queenside.  A sample line is 17. a3 b4 (really going for it) 18. Nxg7 bxa3 (still ignoring the Kingside) 19. bxa3 Nc3 (and still) 20. Qf3 Qb1+ 21. Kd2 Qxd1+ 22. Qxd1 Nxd1 23. Kxd1 Kxg7 

Unfortunately for Black, after heroically ignoring the Kingside for so many moves, even an extra exchange isn't going to save him after 24. h5! which just wins in all lines.  For example 24... gxh5 25. Bf6+ Kh6 26. g4 Rg8 27. Rxh5#.  Pretty! 

In the game, my opponent just thought he was getting mated (as you can see above, he probably is doomed, but perhaps not as quickly as he'd anticipated) so he played the horrendous 16... f5?? which just gives me everything I'd have got from the en-passant line above, but with an extra piece.  The game ended:

17. exf6 e.p. Nxf6 18. Bxg6 Nh7? 19. Bxh7+ Kxh7 20. Nxg7 Kxg7 21. Qe5+ Kg8 22. Rg3 Qb7 23. Be7+ Kf7 24. Qg7+ Ke8 25. Rd8#

Quite a comprehensive checkmate - Black's c8 Bishop and a8 Rook never made a move! I was pretty happy with the standard of my calculation in this game (if not the speed) and that having calculated to what seemed to be a decisive position I managed to make the pragmatic decision to make the sacrifice 16. Nxh5!

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Never give up (2)

This was the first league game of the season for the Letchworth & Hitchin team.  I'd like to start the entry with an apology, to my team captain and to the rest of the team.  Not for playing badly (although as you'll see, I didn't exactly play well), but for agreeing a draw in the final position which I knew I was winning.  

It was an odd decision, and one that I won't be repeating.  It was based on 
  1. a vague thought that I might not have reached the time control (though I was fairly sure I had) and 
  2. a strong feeling that I didn't deserve to win what must be the worst game I've played in years.
The lesson here, for me more than anyone reading, is to play what's on the board.  Don't think back to how badly (or well) things were going before - all that matters is the current position, and playing as well as you can from that position.  You don't always get what you deserve.

White - Andy Tinker (172)

Black - Matt Fletcher (175)
20 October 2013
35 moves in 75 minutes, plus 15 minutes for every subsequent 7 moves
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 
The GrΓΌnfeld Defence, Exchange variation - I'm re-learning this opening having played it as a junior, but I've been struggling slightly to stick to the lines recommended in the book I'm reading.

5. Nf3 Bg7 6. Qb3 Nb6 
This is a playable line but the book recommendation is 6... Nxc3 7. bxc3 O-O 8. e3 c5 which is what I'll play next time.

7. e3 O-O 8. Be2 Nc6 9. O-O e5?!  
Based on a mis-calculation - 9... Be6 was the other move I contemplated and is much safer. For example 10. Qc2 Nb4 11. Qd1 N4d5 looks fine. 

10. d5 Ne7 
I had intended 10... Na5 but suddenly realised that 11. Qb5 was going to pick up my Knight.

11. e4 a6?! (11... c6 was better but Black is horribly cramped) 12. Be3 Qd6 13. Rac1 f5 14. Rfd1 Nd7? (running out of ideas, I felt I ought to try to move the Bishop from c8) 15. Na4 b6?? (consistent, but awful)  

16. Rxc7?  The question mark here is not because Rc7 is such a terrible move, but because 16. Rc6! (which was made possible by the previous move) finishes the game immediately - Black's Queen is lost after 16... Nxc6 17. dxc6+ Kh8 18. Rxd6.

16... Kh8 
I thought for a long time here, but realised I have nothing.  I only really played on to avoid the embarrasment of going down in under 20 moves...

17. Rcc1 f4? 18. Bxb6 g5 (opening the g-file is my only idea in the position, even if it loses another pawn) 19. Nxg5 Qg6 20. Ne6 Rg8 21. f3?! (there's no real need to open the a7-g1 diagonal - but White is still winning easily) Rb8 22. Qa3?? Possibly the worst move of the game, although there are other clear contenders!  Almost any other move here retains White's winning advantage.

22... Bf6 defending the Knight and threatening checkmate on g2 23. Bf1 Nxb6 24. Qd6?! Nxa4 (24... Bxe6) 25. Qxb8 Bxe6 26. Qb4 Bd7 27. Rc7?!  Bb5 28. Rd2?? 

28... Bh4? (28... Bxf1! 29. Kxf1 Nxd5! 30. exd5 (the Rook can't take because of Qxg2+) Qb1+ 31. Kf2 Bh4+ is a pretty straightforward combination which finishes the game quickly.  My only excuse for not seeing this is that I was incredibly short of time by this point.  But then what's my excuse for the rest of the game?)

29. Bxb5 Qb6+ 30. Kf1 axb5 (this is better than 30... Qxc7 31. Bxa4) 31. Rxe7?? Qe3! 

Threatening an immediate mate on e1 and getting right into White's position.  I realised immediately that this move was going to cause my opponent some serious problems.  32. Re2 Qc1+ 33. Re1 Qc2 34. Re2 Qb1+ 35. Re1 Qd3+ 36. Re2 Qb1+ 37. Re1 1/2-1/2??

In this final position, 37... Qd3+ 38. Re2 Nxb2! wins pretty much on the spot.

After my 35th move, made with my flag hanging, I checked with my opponent that we had made the time control.  He said he wasn't sure so we played another move each, after which I was offered the draw.  I knew by now I was winning if I had reached the time control.  The reasons I accepted his offer were that my nerves were shot after blitzing out the previous moves, and that I really had a strong feeling that I shouldn't be winning a game like this.  But that's not how chess works...

All in all, this was a very disappointing game, full of mistakes and errors of judgement.  I don't want to play like this again - but it feels good to have shared it!

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Never give up (1)

This was played the day after my previous game, and was the first game I played for Athenaeum in London.  My opponent was Stephen Ledger, who is currently graded 188 ECF (2100 FIDE) but has been higher in the past.  

He played very well for the first part of the game and I was hanging on by my fingertips after playing what seems like a dubious opening line.

But as Tartakower said, you never win a game by resigning, and my position had a few plus points so I carried on. I managed to keep the Bishop pair and an active Rook to compensate slightly for being down a couple of pawns.  And in the end, I didn't lose...

White - Stephen Ledger
Black  - Matthew Fletcher
8 October 2013
30 moves in 75 minutes plus 20 minutes quickplay finish

1. d4 Nf6 2. Bg5 

This is the Trompowsky.  Not a good start as it's not an opening I know well at all.

2. ... Ne4  3. Bf4 d5 4. e3 c5 5. Bd3 Nc6 6. Bxe4 dxe4 7. d5 

I thought for a while here and couldn't find anything better than:

7. ... Nb4?!
I looked this line up at home as I assumed this was about where I'd gone wrong.  But according to my database, my move is the most common in this position, having been played 25 times at all levels from Grandmaster down.  Unfortunately, the score in those games is 24½  - ½ in favour of White... Not a good sign when you're playing Black.

The computer gives 7. ... e5!? as a better move - I looked at this during the game but was worried about the passed d-pawn.  It also gives 7. ... g5!!? which didn't even cross my mind but might be worth looking at for a future game.

8.Nc3 Bf5 9. a3 Na6 10. Nge2

Somewhat bizarrely, all of this has been played before by as strong a player as GM Shakriyar Mamedyarov who played 10 ... g6 against Hikaru Nakamura in the 2010 blitz world championship.  But to be honest it looks rubbish (as proved by Mamedyarov who proceeded to get beaten in 26 moves).  Black is behind in development, his pieces struggle to find squares and the e4-pawn is very weak.  I felt like I'd been thoroughly outplayed up to this point.

10. ... Qb6 11. O-O Rd8 (11. ... Qxb2 fails to 12. Qd2 Qb6 13. Rab1 Qg6
14. Rxb7 - I can never realistically take the b-pawn) 12. Ng3 e6 13. Qe2 

White is just playing simple moves and improving his position.  I spent a long time here trying to think how to make my position work but failed, ending up with some serious time trouble and the uninspiring:

13. ... Bg6?! 14. dxe6 Qxe6 15. Qb5+ Qc6 16. Rad1 Be7 17. Rxd8+ Bxd8 18. Qxc6+ bxc6 19. Ncxe4 (there goes a pawn) O-O 20. Bd6 Re8 21. Nxc5 (and another one - but at least my pieces are starting to come to sensible squares) Nxc5 22. Bxc5 Bf6 23. c3 Rb8 24. Bxa7? (24. f4 is maybe more to the point, looking to hit the Bishop on g6 - or b4 which drops the c3 pawn but at least leaves the White Queenside connected) 24... Rxb2 

I was pretty happy with how the game had progressed in the last few moves (although by this stage I had very little time to appreciate it fully).  Although I'm still two pawns down, his Knight has few squares and I've got very active pieces.  If I could win another pawn on the Queenside I'd have every chance of getting a favourable result.

25. Bd4 Be7 26. f4 f6 giving the white-squared Bishop a bit of room and setting a little trap:

27. a4??  (27. c4 looks the best move, but Black's doing OK after 27. ... Ra2 which will pick up the a-pawn) 27... c5! White's Bishop has no moves! 28. f5 Bf7 29. e4 cxd4 30. cxd4 Ra2 31. e5 Rxa4 32. Rd1 

Having just about reached the time control at move 30, here I managed to spot a neat little tactic to finish White's resistance:
32. ... Rxd4! 33. Rxd4 Bc5  34. e6 (Ne2 defending the Rook is simply met by fxe5 attacking it again) Bxd4+ 

The rest is relatively straightforward - I felt that the easiest way was to make sure he couldn't get a Pawn chain from h3 to e6, then swap off one of the Bishops, round up e6 and win with the extra piece. 
35. Kf1 Be8 36. Ne2 Bb5 37.Ke1 Be5 38. h3 g6 39. fxg6 hxg6 40. Kf2 Bxe2 41. Kxe2 Kf8 42. Kf3 Ke7 43. h4 Kxe6 44. g4 Bb2 45. Ke4 Bc1 46. Kf3 Ke5 47. Kg3 Ke4 0-1 

Not the best game ever played, but I've taken a few things from it.  Firstly, I've found a possible new line to look at against the Trompowsky (7. ... g5)  -  not sure whether it's in Richard Pert's new book

Secondly, it shows how important it is in chess to keep trying to make good moves in poor positions - although my opponent played very well to build up a substantial advantage going into the endgame, he failed to completely break my resistance and made a couple of small inaccuracies which gave me some chance to defend.  I think even without the blunder my position improved quite a lot in the first part of the endgame.


Saturday, 2 November 2013

Beating a dangerous opponent

My first game this season was played in my local club championship against Ian Mutton, an experienced and sharp player graded 144 ECF (1800 ELO).  Based on the difference between our grades, I should score about 80% in our encounters - and I probably get around this in the friendly matches we play at the club.  But we score very few draws which is the way of these 'skittles' games - both of us trying out some new ideas and him getting one over on me on occasion.

The difference here is that we were playing a 'serious' game which meant that I was determined to win without allowing Ian any winning chances - the pros call this "playing for two results" (ie a win or a draw).  To this end, I decided to:
  • Keep it simple
  • Aim for imbalances (either in pawn structure, or in pieces eg Bishop for Knight)
I also told myself not to fear equality, on the basis that my opponent was more likely to make a mistake provided I don't try to force it.

White - Ian Mutton (144)
Black - Matt Fletcher (175)

7 October 2013
All moves in 80 minutes

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2 c5
So we have a French Defence, Tarrasch Variation. The most common fourth move here is exd4 but Ian's move is perfectly playable and often transposes.

4. Ngf3 cxd4 5. Bb5+
I was happy to see this move which I thought was slightly inaccurate. Black's normal problem in the French is how to develop the c8 Bishop - but here White allows Black to swap it off painlessly. 5. exd5 or 5. Nxd4 are better alternatives.

5. ... Bd7 6. Bxd7+ Qxd7 7. Nxd4 Nc6 8. Nxc6 bxc6 9. 0-0

I was pleased with my position and thought Black was at least equal with chances to be better, particularly due to the asymmetric pawn structure and open b-file.

My one concern was that it wasn't absolutely clear to me where all my pieces belonged, and at this stage, I thought for about 10 minutes to work out where my pieces ought to go.  I do this quite regularly in my games at about this point - not sure if it's a good or a bad habit.  

I decided the best plan was to move the Bishop to d6.  If 10. Qg4 (which is a thematic move in the French) I'd intended to play Kf8 (again a thematic move) to defend the g-pawn but White can just drop back to e2 and it seems like he'll have a small edge.

Instead we got:

9. ... Bd6 10. Qe2 Ne7 11. e5 Bc7 12. Nb3 Bb6 13. a4 a5 14. Be3 Qa7 15. Bxb6 Qxb6 

All of this seems eminently sensible from both sides, and White looks at first glance to be doing fine.  

But looking a little closer, Black already has an easier game - there are a number of moves I can play to improve my position (0-0, Rfb8, followed by slowly pushing forward with c5, c4, d4) where White has to be quite careful on the Queenside, has no open files for his Rooks and doesn't have any easy targets on the Kingside.

With no obvious plan, White starts to go wrong.

16. Rad1?! (16. Qd3 may be better, eg 16. ... 0-0 17. Nd4 with perhaps a slight edge to Black)  16... O-O 17.Rd3?

White puts his Rook on a square where it can be forked with a pawn on c4.  So I can just make a threat by pushing forward with c5. 

Do I need to worry about White playing his major pieces to the Kingside (Rh3, Qh5)?  As a rule of thumb, it's very rare that two pieces will be able to checkmate against a defended King.  If the Knight was on the Kingside (eg f4) it would be a different matter - there would be every chance of an attack with three pieces succeeding.

As it is, White gives it a go but there's nowhere near enough.  And in the meantime he loses his Queenside.

17... c5 18. Rh3? 

He had to try 18. Qe3 when I had intended 18. ... d4?! where White plays 19. Qe4 with a playable position.  Instead 18... Rfb8! 19. Qxc5 Qxc5 20. Nxc5 Rxb2 giving the position below - Black is much better because White will lose at least one, and probably both, of c2 and a4.

18... c4 19. Qh5 h6 

This simple pawn move shows White there will be no Kingside attack - he is simply lost.  An amusing line here goes: 20. Rg3 where despite the apparent threats, Black can calmly play 20. ... cxb3 because 20. Qxh6? (threatening checkmate on g7) is met with the lovely 20 ... Nf5 which defends g7 and attacks everything else!

20. g4 cxb3 21. Rxb3 Qd4 22. Kh1 Qe4+ 23. f3 Qxc2 24. Rb7 Ng6 25. g5 Qe2 (25... Qg2+ followed by Nf4+ winning back the Queen is prettier but not as strong) 26. Rg1 Qxe5 27. f4 Nxf4 0-1

This was a pretty smooth win which is what I'd been hoping for.  Ian missed his chance with 10 Qg4 and entered a position on move 15 that was close to equal, but easier for me to play due to the unbalanced pawn structure.  In the absence of an obvious plan, White abandoned his Queenside for a Kingside attack - it's interesting (to me) to see how quickly his position went downhill after move 17. 

Monday, 14 October 2013

What is this?

I've been playing chess since I was about 8 years old, with varying degrees of success.  I'm now trying to improve my rating from 175 (ECF) which is around 2000 (ELO).

I decided to blog my games this season, to get me into a routine of analysing better, and trying to understand  where I'm going wrong (or right).  My notes will make sparing use of computer analysis - my general aim is to work out how I'm making my decisions, and maybe even to give some hints and tips to other chessers.