Monday, September 25, 2017


Mute Swan on the Thames

One of the problems with emigrating from England to Australia is the distance you suddenly are from family and friends. Platitudes about the world getting smaller don't really cut it when you're sitting on a 13 hour flight after an 8 hour "short leg"! There are a lot of theories about jetlag but it is probably safest to say that it affects each person differently. My wife, Caroline, for instance, suffers minor jetlag problems, while it hits me quite badly.

We left Melbourne late on Wednesday flying Malaysian Airlines.The first flight was comfortable and the service was excellent. A 3 hour stop in Kuala Lumpur was followed by the gruelling 13 hour flight landing in London on Thursday afternoon. It's a short drive to my family which is our first destination, Basingstoke, in north Hampshire.

Village clock in Burley, New Forest
In Australia, when people ask me where I come from in England, I say that I am from about 70km west of London. Trying to describe where Hampshire is can be difficult, and as soon as you move away from London in a description, you have lost the main reference point that people have about England. So where is Basingstoke, really? Basingstoke is a crossroads, a market town between the historic centres of Reading to the north, Winchester to the west, Southampton to the south, and of course, London to the east. While it has historic prominence from Basing House, which sits to the east of the town, Basingstoke is essentially a new town, growing in the 1950's and 60's from London overspill. And as a new town, Basingstoke is a hotch-potch of housing estates built around a relatively small central shopping area. In itself, the town is not very exciting, but its location is excellent. Basingstoke is an hour from London, an hour from the coast, a short hop to the Thames, and surrounded by places of historic interest.

The bridge at Pangbourne over the Thames
Our plan was to have a couple of fairly easy days when we first arrived, so as to get used to the new time zone. We were treated to drive to the Thames on our first day by my brother and his partner. The Thames is a beautiful river through the counties of Berkshire and Oxfordshire and we were driven to the village of Pangbourne just west of Reading, about 30 minutes drive from Basingstoke. A pub lunch by the river as narrow boats and swans glide past is about as idyllic as it gets. This was followed by a riverside walk. It was a mild autumn day, and we were enchanted by scenes which inspired Wind in the Willows illustrator E. H. Shepherd, and the author, Kenneth Grahame retired to Pangbourne.

Thatched roof in Burley, New Forest
The following day I was still suffering from jetlag. So another short trip was welcome. The weather has been very pleasant, with plenty of sunshine and temperatures in the high teens Celsius. So we went off to the New Forest to search for ponies. Again my brother drove and the 4 of us headed to the picturesque village of Burley. The magical natural countryside has an ancient history with evidence of prehistoric barrows while the area was the land of the Jutes in Anglo-Saxon times. Royal interest goes back as far as William the Conqueror, who proclaimed the area a royal forest. For us, though, it was a matter of having a scone and seeing some beautiful wildlife, and both of these were found!

New Forest pony in front of an Oak

Pony on the New Forest heathland
Sylvan magic
It's been great to see family, and see how my former home has changed over the 30 years since I lived here. And its been a beautiful start to our trip to England with a couple of stunning days out.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Downhill at 50?

I turned 50 nearly a year ago, and for some reason have been ill more in the last year than the previous 49 put together. Perhaps things do start to go downhill at 50? A frozen shoulder wiped me out at the end of last year and a flu bug has taken hold for the past....well I can't even remember how long! And now, I've strained/pulled/torn something at the top of my leg which has me hobbling around like someone much older than 50. I've struggled to hold concentration at times, and get tired more easily than usual.

But life goes on and as my 89 year old mother says every time I call her, "Complaining doesn't help!". In fact, I'll be seeing my Mum soon as I'm heading back to England in a couple of weeks. It's been a few years since I was there so it will be good to catch up with my family again. More about that as it happens as I like writing about my travels. But first we have to get there, and as we're flying Malaysian Airlines who have had some notable incidents recently, I'll be happy when we do get there! (Actually, flying back on Friday 13th October is even more harrowing!)

To be honest, things could be a lot worse. I feel for the people in extreme weather conditions dealing with hurricanes and earthquakes etc. We've had a colder than usual winter but nothing to complain too much about. I live in the most livable city in the world according to the Economist, and Australia hasn't the uncertainty over its future like other Western Democracies at the moment. I'm not sure what is happening in Europe and the UK with their break up, nor am I certain what is happening in North America with a seemingly ineffective executive branch of government in the USA. At least in Australia things are fairly stable. We have our issues such as human rights abuse against asylum seekers, a vociferous opposition to marriage equality, and a dangerous relationship with North Korea with which we are within striking distance of their missiles. But generally speaking, life is good for your average Australian.

So besides work, and being ill what have I been up to? Not a lot really. I have been playing a lot of chess which has been going quite well. And reading a lot of fiction. Since the Man Booker Prize announced it's Longlist I've read 4 of the novels and I must say, they were all great. (I'm currently reading number 5 which also started brilliantly). I read a lot of fiction of all genres, including fantasy, crime, YA, historical and even some romantic types. But I make an exception for the Booker Prize nominees because over the years they have become some of my favourite novels. I have been blown away by winners such as The Remains of the Day and Narrow Road to the Deep North and even those that didn't win such as Do Not Say We Have Nothing and Ruth Ozeki's A Tale For The Time Being which I felt should have been the winner in 2013.

This year of the 4 novels I read so far, there is already one stand out. Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad is unbelievably good, and taking into account that the other 3 novels have been excellent, this is really saying something. The Booker Shortlist is announced on Wednesday and the biggest shock for me is if Whitehead's novel isn't on it. Of course, there are still 7 novels I haven't even started yet, which may be better, but they will have to be astonishingly good to better The Underground Railroad.

I try to devote a little bit of time every day to leaving the world of what I'm doing and just sit at a cafe drinking a coffee and reading, usually about 20 minutes before the day really begins. The Underground Railroad has been the best book I've read this year so far though it was very uncomfortable reading at times. Crying in public is not considered the done thing for men in Australia!

So there you have it. Can life really be that bad if I get to spend a little bit of time each day drinking coffee, reading good books in the most livable city in the World with the woman I love? There might be some little issues, but like my Mum says, "Complaining doesn't help". :)

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Ultimate Climax

Chess players are fascinated with what they consider to be beautiful motifs on the chess board. It is sometimes hard to describe what is beautiful in chess, and it may be different for different players. I mean, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

When we start learning the game, traps fascinate us. But after a while we learn that these are just guiding posts for us to avoid,or for us to deliver if someone doesn't know them.

As these traps usually involve moves which don't appear natural, such as sacrifices, our next fascination comes with the unusual in actual play. There are no end of famous sacrifices in the history of chess and just mentioning words like Morphy, Tal, Immortal or Evergreen will conjure images of wonderful combinations. But again, after a while playing chess, we realise that sacrifices work rarely (which is why they are probably so wonderful in our minds) and we are more likely to win a game of chess by playing solidly, winning a little bit of material, and converting in the endgame.

Which then brings us to a study of endgames. With minimal pieces on the board there can also be beautiful ideas, moving pieces around in seemingly impossible fashion to manufacture wins or draws, using various methods to save positions, especially stalemate themes, or creating amazing pawn breakthroughs to promote. However, the practical reality of the endgame is that what is most useful for us, is to develop a technical understanding of how to generally play endgames, backed by a reasonable theoretical knowledge of basic endgame positions that can help guide us in making plans.

So it would seem from what I'm saying that we are attracted to the beautiful in chess, but then most of us develop a playing style which is practical and technical, rather than flamboyant and beautiful. And that is fine. It doesn't mean that we can't enjoy the beautiful, or on occasion, dish out an extravagant move.

I remember thinking about these things and wondering if I'd ever be able to play a double rook sacrifice in my games like Anderssen in his Immortal win against Kiezeritsky. I have then since wondered about using various endgame ideas that I've worked on in my games.

But I now have fully seen the light, with the most amazing move possible. Can you imagine under-promoting to a knight in a corner square to deliver mate? Not in a made up study, in a real game? Well if you manage it, then you certainly won't be the first. I don't know if anyone else has done it, but Ding Liren managed it last night in a play off game in the World Cup against Kravtsiv.

I'm struggling to think of a move more stylish than this to finish a game of chess!

Monday, September 4, 2017

MCC Open Round 2

I often ask the kids that I coach what they think is the most important tournament. I inevitably get answers like the World Championship, or the Olympiad, or even the latest super-GM event. I tell them that the most important tournament is the one you are in. So while it is natural to get excited and follow something like the World Cup of chess with Magnus Carlsen and all the rest of the world's elite, that still shouldn't mean as much to each player as the tournament they are playing in. I'll admit that I get more of a buzz being in a chess club watching live chess, than viewing it on my laptop as it is broadcast from across the globe.

And with that intro, we enter the second round of the MCC Open. There have been a few late entries and the field now sits in the mid 40's for size. The tournament is wide open after top seed, Thai Ly lost last week. Today should see a settling of the field. Top board is Dizdarevic-Papadinis, but Jim Papadinis hadn't showed with 10 minutes left on his clock.

8.15 Update

An hour down....yes, we started on time tonight. The first winner is Mehmedalija Dizdarevic who moves on to 2/2 after Jim Papadinis didn't show. There are some exciting games happening,though. Tom Kalisch has tried the King's Gambit against Sally Yu who has taken. A bizarre position sits on the board at the moment. David Lacey is going for a big king side attack as black in a Dutch against Richard Voon. Thai Ly also has a promising king side attack against Sophie Chang, who has had a remarkably tough start to this event after playing so well against Tom Kalisch last week, but losing in the end. I'll go get a position or 2...

David Lacey as black just played ..Nxf4. Richard Voon replied Ne4 almost immediately.

This is the top game in progress, Kalisch-Yu which arose from some weird Bishop's Gambit.

9.00 Update

There are some crazy time differences on some boards. Here are some examples of time left:

Kalisch 53 Yu 39
Gusain 62 Fry 37
Voon 76 Lacey 24
Harris 62 Li 34 (and Oliver Li has gone walkabout)
Culbert 70 Snow 28
Ragavendran 27 Ashlock 67.

I don't know why players are taking so much time, but they will need to look at their confidence and decision making skills.

Ben Frayle finds himself a rook up, but somewhat tied up by an advanced passed pawn and an excellently placed king by Kerry Hopkins.

An interesting endgame. Colin Savage has an extra pawn, but will the opposite coloured bishops help Kevin Liu?

Club President Elizabeth Warren is putting up a very good fight against Roger Beattie. Elizabeth is just a pawn down, though the connected passed queen side pawns will probably give Roger the win.

Meanwhile, the giant killer from the last round, Alex Jones is playing another solid game against Sushant Manuja who had an excellent performance in the previous tournament, the Malitis Memorial.

9.45 Update

The Ben Frayle-Kerry Hopkins game is reducing to a pawn endgame. Who fancies some calculation training?

I guess Black must play ..Kc2 when white should move his rook forcing black to promote, but who is quickest after d1=Q Rxd1 Kxd1? Actually, the game continued 47..Kc2 48.Ke2 and black has won the a-pawn and should win the game! What a turn around from being a rook down!

Kalisch-Yu is still in this complicated position with clock times 29-22. I don't know if I prefer white's bishops or the better black structure. I think a knight swing from c6-e7-g6 could make white concerned about those offside king side pieces. But it is white to play...

Manuja-Jones, and I think black is ok!

10.00 Update

It is time for me to go home. My predictions? Carlsen will progress to the second round....

Kalisch-Yu too close to call. I'm beginning to like white
Harris-Li Unclear with Anthony bishop and pawn for a rook, and Oliver down to 9 minutes left
Gusain-Fry Looks like Daniel has this one dead to rights
Anton-Watson Sarah looks to be in control
Manuja-Jones I'm going with another giant killing here, black is ok
Hooi-Nordruft Black is material up and should win

Finally, the Frayle-Hopkins game ended in a draw! Black did win white's a-pawn, but instead of then swinging his king to the king side to pick off white's pawns, he got himself stalemated trying to promote his own a-pawn! Moral of the story: Work on your endgames!

I would verymuch like to see the full games of Kalisch-Yu, Harris-Li and Anton-Watson as they all were very interesting. I'll see about getting them off the players :)


Monday, August 28, 2017

MCC Open

I am sitting in the MCC as the roll call of the MCC Open tournament is happening. Unfortunately I can't play because I'll be in England for 3 or 4 weeks of the competition, but while I can, I will blog about the event. A field of 41 players have entered so far with Thai Ly the top seed. I t is a very open field and I'm sure there are quite a few players who feel they have a chance of doing well.

L-R Thai Ly, Simon Dale (Chief Arbiter), Elizabeth Warren (MCC President)

A well attended playing venue for the current Monday night event, the MCC Open

8.00 Update

The tournament started fashionably late at about 7.30 so we've had about half an hour of play and there are already some interesting positions on the board.

Any ideas what the result of this one will be? This is from James Watson-Ben Frayle, and it the type of position I'd hate to be in for either side! Meanwhile, we have Tom Kalisch having to defend against the Morra Gambit of young Sophie Chang. Board 1 sees Thai Ly having to play against Alex Jones, so it is a very competitive first round already, and I'd be surprised if all the games went the way of rating tonight. Perhaps the most interesting pairing is the junior battle between Gavyn Sanusi Goh and Daniel Gusain, both vastly improving players.

8.30 Update

Still no winner yet which is good for a first round. Time to catch up on some returning players. It is good to see MCC stalwarts Felix Wyss and John Beckman returning after periods of absence. Scott Stewart is also playing again, and walking around shaking his head, murmuring "Rusty....rusty". Well Scott, the good news is that the rust wears off pretty quickly, and his opponent, John Beckman, hasn't played much in the last 6 months either!

Perhaps the most pleasing returner is Sally Yu who finds the Monday night at MCC the most convenient for her. Hopefully, she will make a full return and fight for the women's Olympiad spot that she previously held. Sally is the second seed here at the MCC Open.

John Beckman returns to the MCC after 6 months off

Sally Yu makes a welcome return to the game
On the boards, the biggest upset is Tom Kalisch who appears to be an exchange down to Sophie Chang! Sally Yu is showing signs of rustiness. She is half an hour down on the clock. Thai Ly is black against an IQP type position which looks promising for white to me, though I've recently been looking at dynamics in chess so I guess it would appeal! But the big news is a piece sacrifice by Jim Papadinis (usually a safe stodger!) against young Jacob Day. Is it good enough?

White to play. Papadinis-Day

9.00 Update

The MCC is trying to secure its FIDE rated future with new arbiters. Congratulations to Giles Lean and Hans Gao for becoming National Arbiters so that FIDE rated chess will be able to continue at the MCC. This is something I'd like to do as well, but unfortunately the last course clashed with the Victorian Championship which I was playing in.

Newly minted arbiter, Hans Gao who is assistant for the MCC Open
There still isn't a winner, but a few are close. Sarah Anton is a piece ahead of young Emma Chang. Jim Papadinis is now an exchange up against Jacob Day, while James Watson is a piece up against Ben Frayle but with his king still in the centre. One of the returners, Felix Wyss, has a tough challenge against an in-form David Lacey. David played excellently in the recently finished Malitis Memorial finishing equal first with me, but he was really the pyrrhic victor of the event and should be carrying some confidence into this tournament.

No endgames yet :(

9.30 Update

Thai Ly has sunk into deep thought against Alex Jones. Thai took a piece, but his queen has become a little open and his position is looking difficult.

Thai Ly as black taking a long time over this move.

I take back that Jim Papdinis is an exchange up, he is a rook and pawn for 2 pieces. Oliver Li is an amazing talent. I am thankful that I have avoided him in the draw throughout the year, especially after he drew with FM Greg Canfell in the MCC Championship back in February. Oliver is a piece up and looking uninterested like a GM rather than a 10 year old!

We have the first winner of the night. James Watson won a crazy game against Ben Frayle. The diagram position from earlier is well worth looking at, it has loads of possibilities.

10.00 Update

Tonight, this is the last update, as I feel crap and need to sleep! Tom Kalisch now has 2 pawns for the exchange against Sophie Chang and the game is in the balance. A big upset is on the cards though as Richard Snow has a rook and 3 pawns against Richard Voon's knight and 5 pawns. I think the rook is in very good shape, but we'll see how both players finish this off.

Can Richard Snow as white cause an upset?
 The slowest players in the hall? Sally Yu is down to 17 minutes, while Gavyn Sanusi Goh has only 13 minutes left. There opponent's are about an hour left on the clock!

No upsets yet, but I have my hopes :)

Next week I'll be here to the end....unless I'm still sick! Hopefully a few more players enter the event. It would be good to get the numbers up toward 50.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Those Annoying Time Zones

The worst thing about living in Australia is the time zone differences with Europe and America where many important events happen. I'm not going to stay up into the middle of the night to watch Federer win Wimbledon, or Usain Bolt run the 100 metres in the World Championship. I can see the replays the next day, but it just isn't the same. Similarly with chess, I generally play catch up with events the day after they happen, which isn't bad in terms of keeping up to date, but it still isn't the same as watching some live chess.

While this is usually the case, I have been rather fortunate with the Sinquefield Cup. While I can't see the start of the games, I am able to catch the end of the games when I wake up in the mornings. For me this is far more preferable than catching a few opening moves before having to leave the games as they start to get interesting. So far, I've eagerly followed 3 endgames from the event. The amazing finish to Aronian-Caruana in round 2 had me spellbound. Anand's defence against Carlsen in the following round had me thinking abut my own technique. And then this morning, I wake to find the game Vachier Lagrave-Carlsen in full swing when Carlsen blunders to give MVL a winning endgame.

During the endgame this morning I had one of those moments where you realise that your understanding of the game is just not on a level with other players.

Now in my primitive way of thinking, black is 2 pawns up though white could win the f-pawn. However, winning the f-pawn involves trading bishop for knight which would leave a lost pawn ending where black just forsakes the h-pawn and marches the king to the queen side. So, this is an easy win and there doesn't seem much that white can do? Isn't it just time to resign?

Magnus continued with 63.b4. I was sitting at my computer watching the game, thinking a trade on b4 would probably be ok, or just advance the king to g5. If black's king can get to g3, it's game over. However, neither of these "obvious" moves would have been good enough to force a win. The only move here which leads to victory is the far from obvious 63..c4 and amazingly, that is what MVL played! Would I have played this move, or even thought of it as an option? Probably not. But a deeper look at the position makes it clear why my candidate moves aren't good enough.

63..cxb4 64.cxb4 Kg5 65.Kf2 [blockading the pawn and the g3 sqaure for black's king] 65..Kf4 reaching the following position

So the question is, how does black progress? At least one of black's pieces needs to protect the f-pawn which means only one of them can try to win white's b-pawn. But that won't happen because white's bishop will sit on c6 and eventually the b-pawn will advance to b5. Even worse, from c6 the bishop can go to e8 and win white's h-pawn!

63..Kg5 64.bxc5 bxc5 65.Bd5 Kg4 66.Kf2 Kf4

Very similar to the last position, black can make no progress. In fact, with white to move there is already a repetition likely by 67.Bf7 Kg5 68.Bd5,

So this all goes with the need for strong calculation at all phases of the game. If it is possible to see that these 2 moves lead nowhere, then the next thing to do is look for other moves. MVL's 63..c4 just loses that pawn, putting on the same colour sqaure as controlled by white's bishop. But in winning the pawn, white gives black time to mobilise their pieces, and black's knight especially, moves from its depressing defence from the the edge of the board to an attacking piece in the centre. 64.Bd5 Kf5 65.Bxc4 Kg4 66.Kf2

So far, all seems fairly natural, but what now? Black's knight has 3 squares to move to but they all appear to lose a pawn. 66..Ng2 67.Bd5 wins the f-pawn or black's knight has to return to h4. This must be bad as white's queenside pawns will start marching. 66..Nf5 67.Be6 pinning black's knight after which white will advance the queen side pawns forcing black's king to defend which allows white to win the f-pawn with and the h-pawn. So 66..Ng6! but this also loses a pawn to 67.Be6+ Kf4 68.Bf7

Black's knight is skewered to the h-pawn and black's king has taken the f4 square from it. But amazingly this position is winning, thanks to the activity of black's pieces and the advanced passes f-pawn which is being nursed to promotion. 68..Ne5 69.Bxh5 Nd3+ 70.Kf1

What a turn around in position. White has levelled the game materially, but white's king has suffered an indignity in being pushed to the back rank. White's bishop is also somewhat askew. Meanwhile, black's king is in great shape and can infiltrate further into e3 or g3 (MVL chose g3) while black's knight has transformed itself. Carlsen resigned a few moves later when the knight further improved it's position by the maneuvre Nd3-f2-e4-d2/c3 or Nd3-f2-d1-e3/c3. White would have to part with his bishop for the f-pawn nad cannot force a trade on the queen side.

Lessons learned? First, we all need to calculate stronger in all phases of the game. Second, it is wrong to make assumptions based on general concepts such as material levels. While mostly material is of primary importance, there are times when other factors need to supplant this. I know that I am overly materialistic in my games, so seeing more examples like this and trying to adopt similar ideas when appropriate can only improve my chess.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Most Instructive....

I'm guessing that many chess players have been following some of the top class action in the northern hemisphere's summer season. For me, the British Championship is an interesting event to follow as I know some of the players. But like many, I've been keeping an eye on the Sinquefield Cup in America with Carlsen and a group of the world's elite. The first 3 rounds have brought about much fighting chess and a joy for those players who include 1.e4 e5 in their repertoires.

However, if we mere mortals want to improve our games and learn from the best what would be the 1 thing that we should study from this tournament so far? Well, any interesting position is good to study, and non standard types of manouvres, like Aronian's 10.Rh4 from his first round game vs Nepomniachtchi is a fun move.

Aronian-Nepomniachtchi Sinquefield 2017
In answer to black's 9..Qa5 Aronian here didn't defend his a3 bishop, or retreat it, but played 10.Rh4!? which protects the bishop due to the threat of Ra4 trapping a queen. Neat!

However, openings, tricks, fanciful ideas are to my mind beautiful to see but unlikely to bring many long term benefits to the game of an average club player. No, in my opinion, the best position to learn was Anand's defence of a rook ending a pawn down against Carlsen.

I'm sure that many people reading this blog will know that this is supposed to be a draw, but I wonder how many would be confident of holding this position with white against Magnus Carlsen? Anand did it comfortably and to be honest, white is starting with the best possible pawn structure for the defence and it is impossible for black to get his rook behind the pawn before white does. But the black a-pawn will force it's way down to a2 or a3. In fact, in just another 4 moves this position was reached.

White still just has to sit and wait for black to try something and then react, but what can black do? Advance on the king side? Bring the king to the queen side? With the pawn on a3, black's king has a hiding square on a2, but white's rook will be able to take king side pawns as black won't be threatening to promote. So the other option is to advance the pawn to a2, but what then? black's rook is as immobile as white's, and if black's king comes to the queen side, it will be subject to checks that it won't be able to escape from.

Carlsen didn't give up trying, and eventually, this position was reached with black pushing his g-pawn. So what would you play here as white? What would be your candidate moves? Perhaps hxg5, or Ra7+, or even Kf3? Let's look at trading a pair of pawns as that's what we're told we should do as defenders. After 1.hxg5 fxg5

Now what? White's king is becoming more open, and what black would like to do is have his rook on a1, pawn and a2 and swing the rook over to do a check. So imagine doing nothing like 2.Kf3 Ra1 3.Kg2 

Now the position is critical for white after 3..g4! If white shuffles the king, black's king will come to the queen side, while if white aims for more trades with 4.f4 exf3 Kxf3, then white's king becomes more exposed.

The whole endgame is a nightmare, and there are simplifications to other endgames that need to be understood as well. Anand's solution was excellent. If we go back a few moves:

Anand chose to play 60.g4! here. I have to admit, it wouldn't have been first among my candidate moves, but the resulting positions are all level.

If black captures hxg4, then white can play hxg5 fxg5 and Kg3 picking up one of the g-pawns before retreating the king back to the corner. Carlsen took the other way 60..gxh4 but after 61.gxh5, this h-pawn gives white sufficient counterplay. Look at the final position when the game was agreed drawn.

It is black to move and although he has an extra pawn, and 2 passed pawns, black has virtually no moves. Playing h3 will allow Kh2 when the only move is Kg8 but a repetition will occur after Rg7+ and the rook will fly back to a7.

While opening knowledge and tactical and imaginative flair are essential ingredients in a players arsenal, learning technique can help us save valuable half points, or like with Carlsen, squeeze out victories from unlikely positions. Remember that very often, the defence in the endgame is being carried out after 4, 5, 6 hours of intense concentration so it is important to keep trying and to keep putting pressure on opponent's. Here's the endgame with some notes by me. I strongly urge anyone with any chess ambition to learn the technique from Anand's play so that you can use it your own games.