Thursday, April 25, 2013

Chess on The Cosby Show

This is a Cosby Show episode in which chess plays a minor role.


I haven't watched the Cosby Show in a long long time, but for many years I used to have a MAJOR crush on Clair Huxtable
Clair Huxtable

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Positional Analysis II - A Knight's Tale

I recently blogged about a methodical way to analyse positions and formulate plans:

Breaking down a position into these 7 criteria and analyzing them in turn is a very useful technique to evaluate a position and formulate plans:

1. Material Balance
2. Immediate Threats
3. King Safety
4. Open Files
5. Pawn Structure, Strong and Weak Squares
6. Center and Space
7. Development and Coordination among minor and major pieces

Using this approach, we recently looked at another game. The following position is from the 13th game of the 1978 World Championship match between Victor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov.
Korchnoi - Karpov, Game 13, World Championship 1978, Baguio
1. Material Balance: The material balance is even. White has a light-squared bishop, Black a dark-squared one.
2. Immediate Threats: Immediate tactical threats do not exist.
3. King Safety: The position of both kings has been compromised to some extend. Both Black and White have advanced their kingside pawns a little bit, resulting in weaknesses for both players. However, as both players castled kingside, neither player can be too reckless about attacking the opponent without exposing their own king, too. Considering the situation on the queenside, king safety is probably not a key factor in this position.
4. Open Files: There are currently no open files. Black can take control of the semi-open e-file. White's pawn on e3, however, is well protected and due to the support from the pawn on f2 not a good target for Black. White on the other hand controls the semi-open c-file and can easily put a lot of pressure on Black's c6-pawn. 
5. Pawn Structure, Strong and Weak Squares: White has weak squares on a4, c4, h4, and to some extend e4 (because playing f2-f3 makes the e3-pawn a much easier target), Black has weak squares on a6, e5 and f6. 
6. Center and Space: It's a half-open center. Both sides have a lever to potentially open it at some point. White could play e3-e4 to attack Black's pawn formation in the center. However, for the time being this is not recommended because after Black takes on e4, his battery on the d-file would immediately exert tremendous pressure on White's d4-pawn. Black on the other hand could conceivably play c6-c5 sooner or later but only White gives up control over the c5 square.
7. Development and Coordination among minor and major pieces: Both sides are fully developed. White has a considerable space advantage, especially on the queen side and is much better able to regroup his pieces. Black's major pieces seem oddly misplaced on the d-file, which won't open any time soon. Both players also need to find better squares for their Knights.

Conclusion: White has the much easier game. He has more space, and a simple and straightforward plan: put pressure on Black's weak c6-pawn. It seems that Black can't do much other than defend the weakness on c6. 

Standard chess strategy describes several ways how Black can defend a weakness like the pawn on c6:

A) Black can try to defend the pawn and protect it with as many pieces as possible. This is typically the worst and most passive option and only recommended in situations when options B) and C) are unavailable.
B) Black can try to get rid of the weakness by playing c6-c5 to exchange the pawn. That of course is usually a very effective way of dealing with weaknesses. However, this approach won't work here because White controls the c5-square and won't allow Black the freeing maneuver c6-c5.
C) Black can try to generate counter play elsewhere on the board to distract White from attacking the c6-pawn. This does not work here either because Black can not open the center, and does not have a way to create promising counter play on the kingside.

However, Karpov found an astonishing move. He played Pawn b6-b5!
Pawn b6-b5 is the beginning of a remarkable repositioning of the Knight on c7
Pawn b6-b5 is a truly remarkable solution to Black's problems. The move is highly anti-positional and would under normal circumstances be just terrible because it only aggravates Black's problems on the queenside:
1. After b6-b5, Black no longer has the potential lever c6-c5. The move takes away most of Black's queenside pawn mobility
2. The move also surrenders the critical c5-square to White, and gives up control over a5

Of course, Karpov was aware of all this. He played Pawn b6-b5 anyway because he realized that this move also creates a formidable outpost for his Knight on c4. On c4 the Knight blocks the c-file and completely paralyzes White's queenside play. The weak pawn on c6 no longer needs to be defended, and Black can put his pieces to more active use.

After a few more moves, the players reached the following position:
In just a few moves Black has completely swung momentum in his favor
Through one brilliant maneuver Black managed to swing momentum almost completely in his favor. Black still needs to do something about his misplaced Rook on d6, but the weakness on c6 is securely defended thanks to the Knight on c4, and suddenly it looks like White's b4-pawn might be in a bit of trouble. It's probably premature to say that Black has an advantage in this position, but he has definitely fully equalized. 

Black eventually won the game.

Why I chose this example:
1. I still remember how eye-opening I found this position when we analyzed it at my chess club many years ago. I realized that I would have never found a maneuver like Kc7-a8-b6-c5 on my own. In fact, in my games at the time I wasn't even looking for such maneuvers. Thanks to this game and a few similar examples the coach showed us at the time I was able to expand my arsenal of strategic ideas. Today, I wouldn't miss an idea like this in a serious game.
2. I like this position because it is a little more difficult to analyze than the previous example from the Gelfand-Ivanchuk game from the 2013 London Candidates Tournament (link at the beginning of this article). In that game, White's very bad bishop makes it pretty easy for Black to formulate a plan. In this example, all Black really has is a weakness on c6. Coming up with the right idea is much harder. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Aliens - In Space No One Can Hear You Scream

As a chess player, this is my favorite scene from the 1986 classic "Aliens":

Queen takes Bishop
Queen takes Bishop
Queen takes Bishop
An artist's rendition of the same scene; clearly the "Zerg" race in Starcraft 2 was inspired by the Alien films
The first two films of the Alien franchise are among my favorite science fiction movies. I prefer dark and gloomy science fiction over the PG-13 comic relief embarrassments such as the Star Wars franchise.
If Star Wars was as dark as the first Terminator, it would far and away be the best science fiction franchise out there. But characters like 3-CPO and Jar Jar Binks make it very hard for me to enjoy the films.
Aliens - This time it's war. Iconic poster that I remember from my childhood

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Narrow Escape

In my last session with Pyre, one of the positions we discussed was the following:
Kobaidse - Zereteli, Tbilissi 1970. Black to move
Black has a serious problem: the knight on b6 is in deep trouble and might very well fall to White's mobile Bishops. White's plan seems obvious: after the black Knight retreats to a8 (an abysmal square for a Knight), White can win the piece if he manages to bring his light-colored Bishop to b7.

However, White's most direct approach to win the Na8 fails: after
1. ...     Na8 
2. Bc8 threatening Bb7 to win the Knight. However, Black can now play
2. ...     Ke8! this forces White's Bd8 off the a5-d8 diagonal, after which Black's Knight can escape safely via c7. The game should quickly end in a draw.

However, after 1. ... Na8, White has a much stronger move than Bc8. If White plays 2. Bh5+!, Black's position is hopeless:
Analysis Diagram after 1. ... Na8 2. Bh5+!
Black's Knight on a8 can't move, and the King is cut off from the e-file. White is simply going to march his King to e6, grab the d-pawn, and win the game without difficulties.

So it is clear that Black's most obvious attempt to save the position by playing Na8 does not work. Therefore, he came up with a much more radical solution, a solution that I didn't find when I analyzed the position. Black played

1. ...         Ke8!! Black simply leaves the Knight en prise
2. Bxb6    Ke7!!

This results in the following position:
This position is - remarkably - drawn
White is now a whole bishop up, but can't capitalize on it because Black has cleverly encaged the Bishop on b6. It can not escape, and sacrificing it for one of Black's pawns also doesn't help because the resulting opposite-colored bishops endgame is dead drawn.
In the diagram position, Black simply moves his Bishop back and forth between b4 and e1, and there's no way how White can improve his position. A remarkable position indeed.

I found this example not just interesting in itself, but I was also intrigued by the fact that I did not find the solution on my own. Admittedly I didn't spend too much time on this, but typically when I fail to solve a chess puzzle, it's because I can not solve all the calculations involved. In other words, I fail tactically. In this case I failed strategically because I didn't see the idea of trapping White's Bishop. In other words I failed strategically.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Episode VII - How to Make Money at Chess and Starcraft 2 (If you are not Kasparov or MarineKingPrime)

This article is not necessarily a comprehensive treatment of the topic. It is merely a collection of thoughts and opinions of mine on the economic realities behind coaching. I spoke to a lot of people in the SC2 and chess communities for this article, but all errors and omissions are my own.

This article is a continuation of a piece I wrote about prize money at the top level in chess and SC2. If you missed it, you can find it here:

The main point of the article was that unlike in other sports like soccer, basketball or golf, in Chess and Starcraft only a few players at the very top make good moneyIn this article I'm arguing that for SC2 and chess players who aren't quite at that level, coaching is probably the only way to make a steady income.

Synopsis of this article:
1. It is very hard to make money at SC2 or chess if you are not part of the global elite
2. Coaching is a much better way for talented players to make a stable income
3. Good players don't necessarily make good coaches.

Before I discuss the coaching business, I first want to talk about the kind of money that I've seen semi-professional SC2 players make.

The Texas Holdem Massacre: In recent years several second-rate grandmasters have given up chess in order to pursue a career in professional poker, where with the skill set of a chess grandmaster it is much easier to make good money compared to being a "mediocre" grandmaster on the chess circuit. And yes, the 1974 original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is my favorite horror movie ("Who will survive? And what will be left of them?")
In 2011 and early 2012 I was part of the management of Team Revoki, which in its prime was one of the best semi-professional teams in North America. Even though we had some very promising talents on the team, there hasn't been a single player from that time who has succeeded in become a full-time SC2 professional. The only possible exception is Chris "RevIllusion" Lee

But even he doesn't seem to be good enough (yet?!) to establish himself as a top SC2 player based on the SC2 earnings I posted in the previous article. Though of course I wish him the best of luck.
My time on Team Revoki taught me a lot about the semi-professional SC2 scene, and the business side of e-Sports
But despite the undeniable skill we had on the team there was nobody who made even remotely enough money to be considered "professional". The situation of players on the teams Revoki was competing with was very similar.

For a Top 8 Master league players and GMs we had on the team, other than coaching there were the following ways to make money:
1. Sponsorships and Salaries: Revoki and rivalling teams could only offer very limited amounts to their players. Personally I was also of the opinion that whatever resources we did have should be spend on the team as a whole (e.g. pay for the website, team-internal KotH's etc.) rather than be used to pay "salaries".
2. Prize Money: From time to time our players won money at LANs similar to the prize Col.Firezerg is collecting in the picture below. Several GMs I spoke with lamented the fact that the collapse of the Playhem Daily series meant a serious blow to their potential to regularly win money and get their name out to get invited to better teams.
3. Show Matches: We occasionally hosted show matches between our leading players and somewhat more known SC2 "celebrities". For example we had one show match between RevJsung and ESC.Goody. It was a Bo7 for a $100 prize. To be totally honest I was a little surprised and disappointed that even a player like Goody had to agree to a show match like this. Considering the amount of time a B07 takes, $100 is not very much reward.
4. Streaming: Initially some of our players thought that the revenue from their streams could potentially amount to something substantial. However, it has since become clear that this business model does not work for the players, and some streaming platforms (e.g. Owned3d) have already gone under. On Twitch and other platforms a streamer needs at least several thousands of viewers before the incomes becomes significant. This is a lot more than the average "semi-professional" player can attract.
SC2 GM Col.Firezerg (right) wins $160 at a university LAN 
Even a player like Pyre who's clearly one or two levels above the talent we had on Team Revoki "only" managed to make about $1,000 in his SC2 career so far. I think that's a great achievement, but it also shows how difficult it is to make money even as a very strong GM if you are not part of one of the top teams like EG.

For several years, my former clan mate HyDra[VcK] was a leading player in the Fastest Map Possible (FMP) community in North America in the original Starcraft / Brood War.  
Though it has to be said that the situation in the SC2 amateur community is already a lot better compared to the old original SC / Broodwar days. To put this into perspective, I asked my old clan mate HyDra[VcK] about the money he made in his "Fastest Map Possible" (FMP) career. His earnings were about $600, exclusively prize money, consisting of individual prizes of mainly $50-$100. Fortunately (?!) not nearly enough to ever make him consider going pro.

I also spoke with Gerome[VcK], another old clan mate of mine. He was also part of the FMP community and occasionally won smaller amounts at local high school LANs (you may remember that back in the day "LAN" actually meant "local"), typically in 2v2 tournaments. Commenting on his limited success, he said "when you're in high school, it's pretty cool to win any kind of money, but my advice for people considering a professional SC2 career would be 'Don't quit your day job!'" I couldn't agree more.
Russian-German Grandmaster Arthur Jussupow (left), shown here in conversation with Garry Kasparov in Zurich 2009, is one of the world's foremost chess coaches and author of several excellent books on training for competitive chess players. On his website he offers online lessons for only 60 Euros/hour. 
So. Now that we have firmly established that there is no real money in SC2 unless you are part of the global elite. How do you actually make money off your SC2 or chess skills? In my opinion the only people who manage to do that are (good) coaches.

I also want to say that I firmly believe in the value of good coaching. In both chess and SC2 I have personally reached levels that I could have never achieved without the help of good coaches. I no longer play SC2, but I will almost certainly at some point hire a chess coach again to help me improve my game so that at some point I might actually break the 2300 ELO barrier, which is my long-term goal in chess.

Who are the people willing to pay for lessons? For this article I spoke to a number of well-known SC2 GMs and coaches, and they all confirmed that their typical clients are slightly older and economically more stable than the average SC2 player. Players who pay for lessons are typically in the late 20s/early 30s, have decent jobs, and not the time/desire to acquire skill through grinding out ladder games.

In chess, the situation is a bit different. First of all, compared to the rather APM-heavy SC2, chess is a much more knowledge based game. This means that coaching in chess makes even more sense than it does in SC2 because there are many concepts that will be very hard for a beginner to understand without external help from either a coach or a book or other resources. Many strategic and positional ideas for example, just as endgame technique or the mechanics of calculating variations a player can't simply learn by playing games.
Modern technology offers completely new ways of teaching chess in a class room setting. Whether all these new gimmicks really make sense is something I'll look at in a future article. But the short answer is "No!"
Coaching as a Business:
Even if they aren't famous grandmasters, qualified coaches make anywhere between $25 - $50 / hour. Let's assume an average rate of $30/hour and 4 hours of coaching 5 days a week. That translates into a weekly income of $600. It does take some serious effort and commitment to build a reputation strong enough to attract this many students, but talented coaches can do so without too much difficulty.

Compared to that, the number of people who make $600/week through playing chess or SC2 is very small. And really good coaches make significantly more than $600/week.

In fact a 20 hour coaching commitment per week leaves enough room for other professional activities such as college or a (not too demanding) day job.

In my case for example I could make that kind of money if I devoted enough time to coaching chess. I'm not doing it because my full time job keeps me busy enough (and is more lucrative) but if that was not an option I would seriously think about coaching full time. Not only because of the money, but arguably even more so because by coaching talented players, I as a coach go through a lot of teaching materials that benefit me as a player, too.
However, when it comes to my hobbies, financial considerations are secondary. I play chess and played SC2 primarily because it's a lot of fun.

Magnus Carlsen's very first coach said that he never learned as much about chess as he did in the year he was teaching Carlsen. 
On, Team EG's Idra offers lessons for $300/hour. Obviously Idra is a good player, but I doubt that he is good enough a coach to be worth so much money.
However, the fact that coaching is the only way for many talented players to make some money does not mean that every player is equally qualified for coaching. Strong players don't necessarily make good coaches, and many excellent coaches have seen only very limited success as players. The problem with coaches like Idra is that the student ends up paying a lot of money for the "celebrity" status of the coach, but does not get very much coaching expertise in return.

A great example of a good SC2 coach is Zanderfever, who played an important role in my eventual promotion to diamond league. Though at the time he was "only" a top 25 Master League protoss (I was playing terran). I highly recommend you check out his website:

In the next article on coaching I'll be talking about how to identify a good coach.

To be continued...

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Chess in Advertising

Chess imagery frequently appears in advertising. I think the reason is clear, chess is seen as sexy, sophisticated, and intellectual. By extension, at least in advertising, chess players are seen as smart, cosmopolitan and affluent. Which makes them an ideal target audience for all kinds of luxury goods. After all, who wouldn't want to be smart, cosmopolitan, and affluent?

Financial institutions and consulting firms are particularly prone to using chess imagery in their advertising. I'm sure you've all seen "Make the right move" etc. kind of campaigns.

Though it is a lamentable fact that most companies that use chess imagery in their advertising do not spend any money on sponsoring chess events.

However, from time to time I come across some clever advertising, such as these billboards in California:

I think BMW's response to the AUDI ad was pretty awesome. We even discussed this example in one of my marketing classes in business school.

AUDI's response to the BMW ad however was pretty lame:

If you don't want to play chess, you shouldn't be the one who starts using chess vocabulary in your advertising...

The following is not an actual ad, but a nice way how Mercedes-Benz could have joined in:

Friday, April 5, 2013

Bullet Mini Match vs. GM Sam Shankland

Today I managed to hold GM Sam Shankland to a 2-2 draw in a 4 game minimatch. It was just bullet, but still a nice achievement!


I have many years of experience teaching chess to players rated anywhere from 800 to 2000 USCF. Over the years I have also had several excellent chess coaches myself. From them I have learned a lot not only about chess, but also about effective coaching.

As both a student and a coach I can honestly say that taking lessons with an experienced coach is the fastest and most enjoyable way to improve your chess.

This blog provides many samples of the kind of material I go over with my students in a lesson. I also provide examples of my own thought process during a chess game and how I go about becoming a better chess player myself.

If you like what you see and are interested in taking lessons with me, contact me at

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Building an Opening Repertoire - How to Play the French Defense

Now that I'm taking chess a little more seriously than I have for the past 10 years or so, I'm going to have to brush up on my openings as well. Many players - regrettably many beginners and novices among them - are fascinated by studying openings. I never liked it all that much, I think a lot of time is wasted on memorizing lines, which becomes an unfortunate necessity approximately once a player crosses the 2000 ELO barrier.
The time I have to devote to my opening repertoire I would much rather spend on studying middlegame strategy or endgame technique. However, a somewhat solid knowledge of the openings you play is necessary, and of course there's an obvious advantage to getting good positions out of your openings.

The first opening I want to take a closer look at again is the French Opening, particularly playing White. I want to play the Winawer Variation because I think it gives White very practical attacking chances.
As someone who used to enjoy playing the French defense with both colors, I now think that from a practical point of view, many variations and in particular those that I'm talking about in this article, are easier to play for White.

Having said that, I think it is clear that if I want to play the Winawer, I have to be prepared for Black's 3 main responses:

a) The Rubinstein Variation (Black plays 3. ... dxe4)
b) The Classical Variation (Black plays 3. ... Nf6)
c) The Winawer Variation (Black plays 3. ... Bb4)

A) The Rubinstein Variation:

The Rubinstein Variation after 3. ... dxe4
This is my least favorite of Black's 3 approaches to the Winawer. Basically I play the French defense because I enjoy the positions where the center is closed. Structures like the Rubinstein Variation, or the Exchange Variation where White takes on d5 do not look very "French" to me. In fact, for many years I had considered giving up playing the French altogether because I had no way to prevent my opponent from exchanging pawns in the center. Fortunately, the Rubinstein Variation is fairly rare and much less common than Black's other 2 responses. This is certainly because the Rubinstein Variation is not a very ambitious approach for Black.

B) The Classical Variation:

The Classical Variation after 3. ... Nf6
After playing this variation for many years with Black I've come to the conclusion that the pressure White is putting on Black on the kingside is far more significant than any counter play Black can generate on the queenside. I know that theoretically chances should be about even in the Classical Variation, but years of experience playing this opening tells me that practically this is much easier to play for White, at least at my level. The French defense is a good example that psychologically the defender has a much tougher job than the attacker.

C) The Winawer Variation:

The Winawer Variation after 7. Qg4
This is the position I want to play the Winawer for. It seems to me that White has a pretty straightforward attack and a lot of natural moves to support a strong kingside attack. I'm really looking forward to exploring this line a little further.

Approach: Even though it is quite old already, I think Lev Psakhis' "The Complete French" is still the definitive treatment of the French defense. In my studies of this opening I'll rely mostly on this book. I'll supplement this theoretical treatment with some more recent games from top level tournaments, some of which I plan to be discussing here.

If any readers of this blog have good bad or ugly experiences playing the Winawer, I'd like to hear from them. 

It takes brass balls to play the French Defense, particularly for Black. (Scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, one of my favorite movies)

Magnus Carlsen Wins 2013 Candidates Tournament

Magnus Carlsen after winning the 2013 Candidates Tournament
The 2013 Candidates Tournament is over. MagnusCarlsen won and is now the official challenger of Viswanathan Anand. I have been following international chess for almost 20 years now, and I can unequivocally say that this was one of the best tournaments I've ever seen. Many great games, unexpected results, and lots of drama till the very end. What more could chess fans have asked for?

Thanks to the internet and live streams it's also become much easier to share in the excitement of top level chess tournaments. I remember when I first got into chess and my parents bought me a one year subscription of a chess magazine, it just wasn't the same. Without the real-time experience, all the drama is lost. In fact I find watching chess tournaments online even more exciting than the seemingly more fast-paced Starcraft 2 events such as MLG.

I'm not surprised that Carlsen won the whole thing, but I certainly didn't expect it to come about the way it did. I thought I would see a neck-and-neck race between Carlsen and Kramnik all the way. Instead, the first half of the tournament saw Carlsen and Aronian pulling ahead of the field while Kramnik failed to convert his many promising positions into a single win.
And just when I thought Kramnik was out of the running for sure, he pulled a pretty impressive comeback while Aronian completely collapsed at the beginning of the second half of the tournament.

Many in the chess community seem relieved that there will not be a rematch of Anand - Kramnik 2008. I am not so sure. Leaving aside the fact that rematches are kind of fascinating in themselves, I do think that a second encounter between the two would have produced much more interesting chess simply because Kramnik was clearly out of form in 2008.  Foto by Fred Lucas.
Magnus Carlsen: I'm not surprised that he won the candidates tournament. I am surprised however that he managed to squeeze so many points out of drawn positions, especially in the first half of the tournament. It's really instructive to see how he so "effortlessly" keeps accumulating tiny advantages until he's got enough to convert the position into a win. I often have "dead drawn" positions just like he has, but of course I lack his superb positional skills. My play is just too inaccurate to capitalize on tiny positional imbalances the way Carlsen does.
Some commentators - rightfully in my opinion - pointed out Carlsen's comparatively weak opening repertoire. While his skill to win drawn positions is remarkable, it is equally remarkable to see that a player of his calibre more often than not fails to get any advantage out of the opening, especially when playing white. I know it is his strategy to deviate from well-known theoretical lines early in order to render his opponents' preparation useless and force them to start using up time early. On the other hand though this approach does allow his opponents to equalize without much effort.
Against a well-prepared Anand, Carlsen will most certainly have to show better opening preparation. At this tournament, Carlsen got most of his wins from the lower half of the field. In the match with Anand, there is no lower half.

Magnus Carlsen and Boris Gelfand at the 2012 Wijk "Super Tournament". Maybe Carlsen has really bad body odor. Or maybe Gelfand simply had a cold. Foto by Fred Lucas
Vladimir Kramnik: one of my personal favorites and the tragic hero of the tournament. He's been criticized for having lost his interest in chess after getting married and having two kids a few years ago. In fact similar things are being said about Anand. Kramnik however showed fantastic chess in London, and this tournament has been called "maybe his best performance ever" by Garry Kasparov. I think Kramnik is still a very serious contender for the world championship title, and might very well win the next candidates tournament, especially if Carlsen beats Anand later this year.

They also used a new chess set at the Candidates Tournament. I agree with the criticism voiced by some of the players that the pieces are a little too big for the board.