Monday, April 30, 2007

The Chess Capital of Norway

Thanks to the late Arnold Eikrem, Gausdal used to be the chess capital of Norway. I know some foreign chess players even believed it was the real capital of Norway. That illusion was hard to retain after having visited the site, because it really was (and is) a quite desolate place.

During the eighties and nineties I spent altogether more than half a year at Gausdal Hoyfjellshotell or the surrounding cabins. It was not at all a bad holiday resort. But without Eikrem as a driving force, and with new owners of the hotel, the tournaments lost much of their attraction for me and many others. Now I see that the Gausdal tournaments again are attracting Norwegian players, and I consider playing a high mountain tournament again after a more than 10 years long break. Future will show, but I fear it will not be the same.

Below is my second to last Gausdal game, played two years after the death of Eikrem.

A.Berg - Sv. Johnsen
Troll Masters Gausdal (8), 1996
1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Nf6 3.c4
Actually my main preparation for this tournament was the Portuguese gambit 3.d4 Bg4!?, which had been scoring well for some time.
This is the Icelandic Gambit. Probably 3...c6 objectively is a better move. Black’s compensation after 4.dxc6 Nxc6 is hardly in doubt. The main problem is 4.d4!, which after 4...cxd5 leads to the Caro Kann, Panov variation - a line I had not prepared.
4.dxe6 Bxe6
This is a developing move, but not particularly aggressive. In contrast to the 3...c6 4.dxc6 lines, it’s not at all clear that Black has got enough for his pawn.
5.Nf3 Nc6 6.Be2 Bc5 7.0–0 Qd7 8.a3 0–0–0 9.Nc3
This appears to be a novelty.
a) 9...Rhe8 10.d3 Bf5 11.Bg5 Bxd3 12.Bxd3 Qxd3 13.Qa4 Nd4 14.Nxd4 Qxd4 15.Nb5 was unclear in Cherniaev-Liardet, Cannes 1997
b) 9...Nd4 10.b4 Nxf3+ 11.Bxf3 Bd4 12.Qb3 Bg4 13.Bxg4 Nxg4 14.Ra2 Qd6 15.g3 Qh6 16.h4 Bxf2+ gave Black a clear advantage in Antoniewski-Teske, Koszalin 1999
It’s hard to say how much compensation I have got for the pawn safter 10.Nxg5, but the semi-open g-file seemed more useful than the pawn.
10...Bd4 11.b5 Ne5 12.Qa4 Nxf3+ 13.Bxf3 g4 14.Be2
14.Bd5 may be a better defensive try.
14...Rdg8 15.Bb2
White unpins his knight on c3 so that it defends his queen, thereby preparing b6.
15...g3! 16.hxg3
16.b6 gxf2+ 17.Kh1 Bxb6 18.Qxd7+ Bxd7 =+.
16...Rxg3 17.b6

This loses but there actually is no defence.
This brutal move decides immediately.
18.Kxg2 Rg8+ 19.Kh2 Qd6+ 20.f4 Ng4+ 21.Kg3 Ne5+?! 0–1
White resigned rather than allowing 22.Kh2 Bd7. But actually 21...Nf2+ 22.Kf3 Bg4+ 23.Kg2 Bxe2+ 24.Kh2 Qxf4# was a quicker mate.

The A-factor

Absolute playing strength is not an easy term to define. But it's mainly a question about the objective strength of moves played, and can to some extent be measured by today's strongest chess players - the PC chess engines. It would have been very interesting to magically put together chess players from different eras to fight it out over the chess board. That will never happen and that's exactly why it's such a great discussion subject.

My preliminary nomination for the top ten players of all times, based on actual peak playing strength is as follows:

1 Kasparov
2 Anand
3 Topalov
4 Kramnik
5 Fischer
6 Karpov
7 Shirov
8 Leko
9 Capablanca
10 Spassky

No doubt many players of the older generations would quickly adopt to the new situation and raise their level of play. It would not take them too long to catch up on the opening theory in their repertoire and - possibly more important, simply to realize that chess is a professional activity, requiring their full attention. That could even happen during the relatively short duration of a tournament or a match. Still I believe today's professionals, battle hardened from countless tournament games since their early youth and grown up with huge databases and strong analysis engines would come out on top.

Monday, April 23, 2007

A Grossly Unfair Test

A couple of reviewers have compared our "The Ruy Lopez: A Guide for Black" (RLGB) with Greet's "Play the Ruy Lopez" (PRL) by checking the line where our black repertoire meets Greet's white repertoire. This of course is a test we are doomed to lose, or in Watson's words: "Taking this as a 'test' would be grossly unfair to Johnsen & Johannessen, who must spend the bulk of their efforts to justifying Black's position against the many mainstream attacks against the Ruy Lopez; hence they are hardly about to invest a lot of time and space into addressing the Worrall System."

But as two reviewers have already had problems getting this comparison right, let's go through the exercise anyway. It's the PRL-guy with the white pieces against the RLGB-guy, and there is no doubt about the first moves:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.Qe2 b5 6.Bb3 Be7 7.0–0 d5 8.d3 0–0 9.c3 Bb7 10.Nbd2 Re8 11.a3 Bf8
Here RLGB runs out of theory, as only 12.Ba2 and 12.Rd1 are given. Giving up White’s central foot-hold doesn’t seem very desirable and there is only one game in MegaBase 2006 with this move: Summerscale-Mannion, Dublin 1993. But let’s assume that the game doesn’t end there, and Black plays the natural recapture:
The PRL-guy is still not out of book, and flashes out:
This activates White's queen-side, but isn’t really forcing. Black seems to have several playable alternatives. However, one move that completes development stands out as particularly natural:
This is the main-line in PRL, so White’s reply again comes instantly:
With some luck ‘our’ man will now discover that he’s back in book. This position can be found in RLGB under the move-order 10.Re1 Re8 11.Nbd2 Bf8 12.a3 Qd7 13.exd5 Nxd5 14.Ne4. That is not a trivial transposition but the RLGB-guy’s odds are considerably improved by the fact that there’s a diagram with the exact position at page 160.

Now Black has three alternatives that are listed in the same order in both books:
a) 14...Na5?!, which both books give as leading to an advantage for White.

b) 14...Rad8, which in RLGB gets 10 lines of analysis and seems to be fine for Black. This move is however shown to be dubious by some quite impressive analysis by Greet where he improves on Short-Almasi, Wijk aan Zee 1995.

c) After 14...f5!?, both books offers the drawing line 15.Ba2 Kh8 16.Nfg5 h6 17.Qh5 fxe4 18.dxe4 Nf6 19.Nf7+ Kh7 20.Ng5+ 1/2–1/2 of Tiviakov-Grischuk, Linares 1999, and RLGB stops there. However, this obviously isn’t theoretically satisfactory for White (although it may have great practical value), so PRL offers two pages of analysis on 15.Ng3!?. The move in itself isn’t very impressive, but Greet’s analysis beginning with 15...g6 16.Bg5 quickly gets sharp, and it cannot be denied that the RLGB-guy will have a tough task for the next dozen moves if he stumbles into Greet’s mainline. Whether White objectively has any advantage is another question. Let me suggest the natural 16...h6 17.Bf6 Bg7!?, which Greet doesn’t mention. Whether this will be sufficient for equality I cannot really tell. Most analysis engines indicate that White has a very small plus but for a further evaluation I would have to consult my GM co-author.

Conclusion: A RLGB reader will have more of a challenge than a PRL reader reaching the position after 14.Re1. If he does reach it, he could get into trouble if he choses option b), the natural looking 14...Rad8. If he instead plays option c) the risky-looking 14...f5, he may have to accept a quick draw or face the unknown, but not too dangerous looking move 15.Ng3.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Watson on the Ruy Lopez Guide for Black

I am embarassed that I have not been able to keep up my updates for some time. I have simply been too busy on too many fronts. But now it's starting to clear up, so maybe I will be able to fill an almost normal quota for April anyway.

I was pleased to see a review by Watson at the Week in Chess news site. It was fairly short (JW: "Unfortunately, this is one of the titles that I'm going to simply recommend without giving it the close consideration it deserves") but in general very positive. Watson, like Silman, draws attention to the alternatives we offer to the Zaitsev main line and warns amateur players against the dangers and efforts associated with the Zaitsev. It's becoming obvious that I will have to comment upon this in an entry quite soon.

I was more surprised to note that not even Watson manages to get the comparision with the Greet book on the Worrall quite right, as he too seems to miss that our lines merge quite quickly after the first departure. This actually is a quite straightforward subject, and another good theme for a blog entry.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Silman's Review has Arrived

My apologies for missing an entry last week. I am having a very busy schedule these days and even rephrasing leftover text bits takes too much time and energy. So again I will only refer to a book review - this time at the excellent Silman's reviews. The review is by Silman himself this time (there are three other very competent regular reviewers at his site: Bauer, Donaldson and Watson) and it's one of his meatier ones. In addition to the actual review we get an old but very relevant Silman win against de Firmian with 9...Qd7 in the Closed Ruy Lopez.

Actually it seems that Silman is the first of the reviewers to really notice (and point out) how central the early ...Qd7 lines are in our book. These lines not only avoids a lot of theory, they add a lot of extra options to Blacks play and they are Black's most important resource if he wants to avoid the Zaitsev draw 10...Re8 11.Ng5 Rf8 12.Nf3 Re8.

Like a few other reviewers, Silman loves the preface by Leif and is a bit sceptical about our choice of the theory heavy Zaitsev as Black's main weapon. I hoped the reasons for our decision outlined in our book would be sufficiently convincing. But it's quite likely I will return this in a later entry.

If you are not already familiar with it, make sure that you have a look at Silman's impressive chess site - not only his review section. It's definitely one of the better chess places on the net. It has got a lot of instructive material and is regularly updated.