Saturday, March 13, 2010

ACIS Notes 004 -- First thoughts on pawn chains

'm starting to go through Colin's Pawn Chains book (see previous post), and making mental notes about what I think I need to learn. Colin's book is about pawn chains, which is just a subset of all pawn structures, and then focuses on central chains. As focused as the topic is, it is very important and these structures come up in a lot of openings.

NOTE to readers. I am a chess novice. I am not an expert. In this blog I am trying to see if I can explain concepts in simple language, so that I might actually learn it. I need all the smart people out there to let me know where I get confused, and what I need to correct it. If I get something right, let me know :-)

The first few moves of the French opening are 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5. This is the quintessential fight for the center, and now White has to decide what to do next:

The decision making process is repeated for every move until the chain is fully formed. Do we keep the tension or release it? If we release the tension, do we use pawn exchange or pawn advancement? The diagram below is a schematic of the considerations at every move:

For each move prior to the completion of the chain White can maintain or release tension. All the while, Black has a clear shot at exchanging on d4, and looks for the right time (if ever) to liquidate.

Quite often, the White pawns on d4 and e5 are attacked and exchanged, by the Black pawns on c5 and f6. When that happens Black has three pawn islands, to White's two pawn islands. Further, the Black d5-e6 pawn chain constitute "hanging pawns". If Black can get the pawns moving they will be a powerful force. White's job is to stop them in their tracks. The strategy is to block the pawns by attacking or occupying the d4 and e5 squares (red squares).

Finally, as is typical in a hanging pawn situation, Black can take full advantage of the half-open files on the c-file and f-file (red arrows).

ACIS Notes 003 -- I'm Back & positional vs. strategic? & quick update

I'm Back From the Caribbean

Yes, the Caribbean, quite awesome. We've been going for years, and this was the first time we had a flight disruption that resulted in us staying an extra day. It was during the wicked strong snowstorms that hit the mid-Atlantic. But no, it wasn't a snow cancellation, it was because of a nearby volcanic eruption (Monserrat)! Yes, we were "forced" to stay an extra day on the beach, listening to the waves pound the shore...

However, the place on the beach for this extra day was literally right next to the airport - LOL!

While we were there, in our usual place on the other side of the island from the airport, we did the usual sun, beach, pool, hot tub, pool, etc. And I got plenty of reading in. Great news, I finally broke my mental block concerning tactics. I made it all the way past "deflection" and completed John Nunn's "Learn Chess Tactics". I don't know why, but the last time I tried his book, I failed at deflections. Now I made it with ~80% success. Now I am in the last chapter of "Miscellaneous" grinding along, also using Pocket Fritz 4 (much better than Pocket Fritz 3) and CT-ART 4 (much better than CT ART 3) for tactics. The mental block of tactics has been lifted, now it is "just" practice, practice, practice...

Bottom line, I feel much more confident in tactics (not over confident). I know that doesn't necessarily translate to anything positive unless other good things happen...

I also finished Grooten's book (see previous posts) and I have to say it is an awesome inventory of techniques. But how to put it all together? For this I read Stean's "Simple Chess". This book is small, not too many variations, and an awesome read. At the end I understood the main point which is that the pawn structure determines your game. Duh. I intellectually knew that when I started my "adult onset" chess in the 90's, but I didn't have a visceral feel like I got when I read Stean's book. Not that I can replicate his genius, but I am slowly getting it.

And part of the "getting it" is the linkage between tactics, pawn structure and openings. I frequently complain about folks who "just study openings", yet at the same time drool at how they can get great positions using 3 minutes on their clock and without breaking a sweat (arg!). Yet I still struggle mightily in the opening. So who is the chump?

How can I "study openings" (even better, understand them!) without all of the apparent memorization? Well, perhaps I can treat it like tactics, something like:
  • If I can learn tactics by going through drills of particulars, but try to memorize only the patterns...
  • Then maybe, just maybe, I can learn openings by studying lots of pawn structures and transformations (such as in in Soltis' "Pawn Structure Chess") and doing an OODA loop such as...:
    • Study a pawn structure
    • Review a number of GM games
    • Then look at a few related opening "book" sequences
    • And (drum roll...) what are the typical tactical motifs for each opening sequence?
Perhaps this will help me avoid the "why the heck am I just memorizing stupid opening lines??" feeling. Maybe. So now I start the quest of pawn structure knowledge. Curiously, years ago Igor Foygel dropped by my house to give me a lesson while he was on the way to a scholastic tournament where he had some students playing. The lesson was to go through all my books and pick out two or three to study. He basically said all the books are useless (to me, the chess novice) except for two or three. In addition to tactics (of course!) which I am finally making progress on, he shoved a copy of a book by Colin Crouch "Pawn Chains". I can't find it in Amazon, Powells, and so forth so here is a snapshot:
I'll be using this as I finally try to figure out pawns...
    Positional vs. Strategic?

    In the introduction of Soltis' "Pawn Structure Chess" there is a game in which Soltis makes a seemingly innocuous remark, perhaps obvious to all the readers, but was shocking to me, then I had a realization. First the game:

    At 11.Ne1, the game (to my chess novice eyes) appears to be a typical French. Soltis says that with White's last move, he is preparing for a Kingside advance. This certainly makes sense (moving the Knight out of the way), but I would wonder if that is too slow (compared to what?). Black responds with 11...f5 successfully blocking White's advance with the f-pawn, and locks the Kingside. Soltis says while it is "structurally sound", it is "dynamically bad". Hmmm... Then White moves 12.b4 and Black takes en passant 12...cxb3. Soltis again makes a confusing statement (to my chess novice eyes) when he says Black's move was "positionally desirable" and "strategically awful". Whew! What am I to make of this? Can any reader please tell me their thoughts?

    Quick Update

    Of course if you play the rest of the above game out, you'll see that White wins, but is this proof of anything? I don't know, but it did make me think, and try to relate to a discussion with a fellow MetroWest Chess Club member while we were eating a meal before a round at the recent CCA Eastern Class Championship tournament. For the voyeuristic reader, I played four games (skipped the last round), and won one game, close in two others, and wiped out in my first game to the lowest rating player I played. Despite the paucity of points, I was generally pretty happy with my performance considering the crushing work schedule I keep. I am working to ameliorate that, but it won't subside till summer.

    Back to the dinner conversation The fellow MetroWest CC player is Robert Harvey and he is playing in the MetroWest CC Championships (Class level) this month so he is very strong. He goes on to tell me that his decision making strategy is guided by "I.M.P.L.O.D.E.S.". Honestly when I heard him say that, I thought "dang it I do that all the time over the board, why do I need help on that??"... Here is how he explains himself:

    • (I) - initiative
    • (M) - material
    • (P) - pawn islands (not necessarily all pawn structural aspects)
    • (L) - [I'll update if I remember]
    • (O) - officers, what is the relationship between his minor pieces (Knights, Bishops)?
    • (D) - [I'll update if I remember]
    • (E) - [I'll update if I remember]
    • (S) - space - oddly he puts space last. I think because he includes some of this in how he explained initiative (he counts how many times his pieces "invaded" his opponents territory)
    He then went on to say that from an opening/pawn structure perspective, he concentrates 80% of his energy on the Colle as White, and Modern as Black. I won't go into the specifics of his preparation (some of it home grown), but suffice it to say he has a routine, a groove, that he uses 80% of the time, and takes the time to improve his body of knowledge. Me on the other hand am grasping in the dark for a decent opening, and then I find myself opting for moves that Soltis calls "positionally great" and "strategically awful" all at the same time. Arg!!

    That's it for now. I'm still sorting my thoughts out, doing tactics daily (finally) and beginning my personal pawn structure/GM games/openings study journey...

    Sunday, January 3, 2010

    Just do it!

    I caught this in a recent "Lifehacker" post.

    The philosophy makes sense and is in the spirit of ACIS in general, and my personal program specifically. I've given up trying to figure out a "perfect" curriculum for me. But I have embraced full-on "just do it", to the max. Right now I'm focusing on Grooten's book and I'll be going back to play at MetroWest CC this week. What if I "fail" in something? That'll put me one step closer to improving. While I go through the Grooten book, I try to work out the tactics in the examples so I haven't ignored that part too much :-)

    I'm up to Chapter 16 of "Chess Strategy for Club Players" by Grooten. I can't say this enough -- this book:
    • has not invented anything new,
    • is "merely" recycling material from back in the Steinitz days (old!),
    • and this material was rehashed by Nimzowitsch in the 1920's (old and rehashed!)
    and still... many authors have tried to be a compendium of middlegame strategy, for example Euwe (I have it but have not read his two volume set), and Silman (especially his Reassess book which I have read - almost - twice). The Silman book makes intellectual sense (at some level) to me, but I can't internalize it, or put it into practice.

    So why the heck am I still reading Grooten?? And why is it practically a page-turner-suspense novel for me? I put in all (except the most trivial) positions, game fragments or complete games either into Fritz 12 (thank you Santa this year!), or PocketFritz3 (thank you Santa last year!). I play through it all, comparing what the book says, vs what Fritz says, vs what I was thinking. Very time consuming, and yet (compared to other chess books) I am flying through it, and up to p. 240, and zooming along.

    Why is the book so compelling? I can't really explain except to say that it is teaching me about all the pieces, all the pawns, and more importantly all the muscle movements. In contrast, Silman's book is relatively one-dimensional, constantly focusing on whether the bishop or knight is stronger. But why the heck would one be stronger than another? That - is what the Grooten book teaches me, and the examples are perfect (for me) in illustrating principles in action. Then there are four(4) quiz problems after each (short) chapter to get the reader to participate. All the examples and quizes are from real games, IM to super-GM strength.

    I guess the best way to sum it up is that Grooten breaks down the concepts into the right bite size pieces, in the right order, and then focuses on the muscle movements (active, process) to do in various situations, with excellent examples. And then frequently puts emphasis on what the decision making process is, tradeoffs, and so on.

    I've never been this enthusiastic about a chess book before, maybe that is a good sign in and of itself...