Friday, 28 November 2008

Growing a chess club

Barnstaple Chess Club itself is not in a bad way at the moment. We have, by my reckoning, fifteen active members, of whom thirteen are signed up for this year's Club Championship. We are not losing money, we have a good club atmosphere, and our internal club events are well attended.

But the long-term trends are not good. We've suffered a slow decline in membership that's been visible during my six years at the club; if we are to survive, we need to do something to counteract this. At the moment, we are engaged in the passive strategy of making the club known to anyone who actively seeks out the information (for example, having it listed in the ECF Yearbook), which is all well and good, and some people occasionally come along on the strength of it.

The question is: is there anything more active we can do? This one is over to you, blog readers. In particular, I'd like you to post your suggestions using the comments option on this post, so we can all discuss them.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Mauritius final results

Mauritius finished the Olympiad with seven match points; their eleven matches produced wins against Seychelles, Surinam and Jersey, with a draw against South Korea.

Roy Phillips got 5 out of a possible 11 (four wins, two draws, five losses) for a rating loss of 1.6 points.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Bideford v Barnstaple

Bideford v Barnstaple match played at Barnstaple Chess Club on Monday 24th November. Bideford had white on the odd boards.

1Jack Rudd2151-0Peter Marriott143
2Peter Sandon118½-½Steve Clarke125
3Roger Neat1141-0Richard Smith108
4Rob Oughton1001-0Rick Dooley84

Opening Concepts: Hippopotamus

There are a number of chess openings that fall into the category of "universal systems"; sets of moves that can be played against most reasonable setups by the opponent. The Stonewall Attack, featured in the Matoewi-Phillips game here, is one such, and another is the Hippopotamus.

The position on the left here, taken from my game against David Grant at the Wellington College International, is a typical Hippo position. It started off 1.e4 d6 2.d4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.Be3 a6 5.a4 b6 6.Qd2 Bb7 7.f3 Nd7 8.g4 h6 9.h4 h6 10.Nge2, reaching the diagram, after which I replied 10...Ne7. Those ten black moves, in some order, constitute the Hippopotamus. Note that there are some subtleties in my move-order:

a) I started off with ...d6 and ...g6 because those don't immediately commit me to a Hippo. Had white played 3.c4, I would have changed tack with 3...Nf6 4.Nc3 Bg7, transposing to a King's Indian. Only once the knight had gone to c3 did I firm up my choice of opening.

b) I played 4...a6 for similar reasons: if white does not play 5.a4, I will not immediately rush to commit my b-pawn; it may be better left on b7 or advanced straight to b5 in some lines. Once white had played 5.a4, though, I needed to play 5...b6 in order to prevent his crippling my structure with 6.a5. (Not that this is necessarily the best move, but it cuts across my plans.)

c) I made sure to play 9...h6 before 10...Ne7 because, with the white queen and bishop lined up on the diagonal, the bishop can come to h6 if I play them in the other order.

Now, you may ask, once black has those ten moves in, what does he do? Well, that depends on what white does. If white chooses to make few pawn moves himself, and develops followed by castling quickly, there is often good play to be had with ...g5 and ...Ng6 or ...b5 and ...Nb6, aimed against the king on the relevant side. Alternatively, if white has committed himself rather more, black can play for a central pawn break.

The latter was what happened in this game. It continued 11.Ng3 d5 12.Bg2 (note that white cannot close the centre with 12.e5 because it all falls apart after 12...c5 13.f4 g5!) c5 13.f4 Nf6 14.g5 Ng4 15.Bg1 cxd4 16.Bxd4, reaching the position on the right here. I then completed my set of central breaks with 16...e5, blasting open the centre and giving me a position where I had the two bishops in exchange for white's having a central passed pawn.

Post-game analysis showed that this was not objectively justified, but the positions that resulted were extremely complex and hard to find the right moves in over the board, which is about par for the course with the Hippo. And this is the critical feature of the opening that determines whether you should play it: it's not really suitable for chasing an objective advantage that you can easily exploit, but it's highly appropriate for chasing an unclear position, one likely to be won by the player who is happier in sharp tactical melees.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

More Mauritius Results

Mauritius lost their round 5 match against Honduras, but won their round 6 match against Surinam. Roy Phillips got wins in both matches, and here they are.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Club Championship Table

The club championship table, updated to take account of last night's results (except for Marriott v Sandon, which was still in progress when I left):

Jack Ruddx1111116
Peter Marriottx11½
Peter Sandon0x11
Jon Munsey00x0011
Richard Smith1x12
Steve Clarkex½½
Rob Oughton0½x1
Theresa Garrett01x12
Rick Dooley00x0
John Howard00000x0
Roger Neatx0
Doug Macfarlane½x½
Sue James0x0

Monday, 17 November 2008

Visual Errors

This position appeared in tonight's club championship game between Jon Munsey and Richard Smith. White is two pawns up, but has been under heavy pressure for most of the game.

Now black could have maintained this heavy pressure with 26...f3 27.gxf3 Bxf3, with the possibility of 28...Re8 in the offing. This would have given him quite substantial compensation for his sacrificed material.

Instead, he thought he could finish the game off immediately, and played 26...Re3+??. This proved in the game to be the right decision, as white blundered in response with 27.Kf2, allowing 27...Re2#. However, the right response was the simple 27.dxe3, after which Richard's planned 27...Rd1+ 28.Kf2 Bxe3+ has one small flaw: it isn't mate. 29.Bxe3 leaves white a rook up with a winning position.

Why did Richard overlook this? It was probably a "visual error", one caused by not actually seeing how the pieces are going to be moving. The bishop on c1 isn't capable of moving to e3 in the diagram position, so it's harder to see that it will be able to do so when the d-pawn moves away. In addition to that, it's been useless and motionless for so long that it's hard to think of its playing a vital part in the game.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Mauritius update

Mauritius's Olympiad results so far:

Round 1: lost 4-0 to Turkmenistan.
Round 2: won 4-0 against Seychelles
Round 3: lost 3½-½ to Brazil.
Round 4: lost 3-1 to Lebanon.

Roy Phillips's results so far:

Round 1: lost to IM Amanmurad Kakageldyev 2449
Round 2: beat Kurt Meier, 2037
Round 3: drew with GM Darcy Lima, 2488
Round 4: lost to IM Fadi Eid, 2388

Nothing especially thrilling so far for player or team. If Roy gets some good results in the next few rounds, there's still a reasonable chance he could get an IM norm.

Blind Spots and Beamed Headlights

I have a love/hate relationship with county matches. The "hate" part is all about the travelling I'm required to do for them; any county match further from home than Taunton requires leaving Bideford at 08:30 and getting back at 00:10 the following day. Of course, part of this is because I play for a county in which I no longer live, but, given how much North Devon is represented in the county team, playing for Devon probably wouldn't help much.

The "love" part is all about the matches themselves. Meeting all my old friends from the Somerset League, getting practice playing serious games against tough opposition without its having an immediate effect on my FIDE rating, and on this occasion, winning 11-5 against Hampshire. Nowadays that's not such an amazing result, but when I first started playing for Somerset in 1987, Hampshire were by far the strongest team in the region, and beating them still gives a sense of achievement. (It's a little as if one's national football team beats Uruguay.)

In this particular county match, I also got the opportunity to notice some weaknesses in my own play; this is not something into which I usually have great insight, so I'm pleased when it happens. Take the following two positions:

This is the position after I played 20...Bd5, after which my opponent played 21.c4, attacking my bishop. A natural enough move, but I'd completely missed it. And the reason I'd missed it was that I have a blind spot in my play - I habitually overlook moves that allow en passant captures, even if the capture is not any good. (I had considered 21.c3 and was not going to capture on c3 had Yeo played it, so it certainly wasn't a case of rejecting the move based on how I would have responded to 21.c3.) As it happens, the move I'd overlooked probably wasn't the strongest anyway, but on other occasions it might have been.

From the diagram, play then continued 21.c4 Bf7 22.c5 Nxc5 23.Nxc5 Qxc5 24. Rac1 Qd5, and my opponent's next move was the natural and good 25.Bxf5, winning his pawn back.

I had also considered another move for him here, and this was 25.Bc4, attacking my queen. Some thought reveals why this is not a good move: I can play 25...Rxe1+ 26.Qxe1 Qd7, and white isn't getting his pawn back any time soon.

However, my mind had been distracted by another option for black there, and that was the positional queen sacrifice 25...Qxc4. This is probably not as good as the simple line I've just given, but it attracted itself to my consciousness a little like an oncoming car's headlight does when it's set to "beam", and it would take great effort to restrain myself from playing it in the game. This is, I suppose, an inverted blind spot: when an opportunity to create an unusual material balance occurs, I have to make a special effort to notice anything else.

Trying to find blind spots and beamed headlights is not easy, but it's probably something that will pay off for most players looking to improve their game. I hope it's something that will improve mine.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Unreasonable Alternatives

I believe it was Andrew Soltis who said that "most chess players blunder when faced with a choice of two reasonable alternatives". The reasoning is clear: when you've only got one reasonable move you can make, you just play it and, if it loses, you were losing anyway. When, however, you've got more than one, you've got to analyse all of them, and occasionally the process short-circuits, and you pick the wrong one.

The diagram above, taken from today's Mauritus-Seychelles match in the Olympiad, is a good example. Roy Phillips, playing white here, has just played 11.e5 to try to exploit his lead in development. How could his opponent respond?

Well, one obvious choice is to play 11...Nh6, hoping that the king will not come under too much fire if white goes in for 12.exd6 exd6 13.Re1+. The other option is to try to keep the centre closed with 11...d5, hoping that won't weaken the c5 pawn too much.

In the game, Kurt Meier decided that his best option was to keep the centre closed with 11...d5?, but he soon wished he hadn't. The game continued 12.Na4 Rb5 13.c4 Ra5 14.b3 e5 15.Bd2, giving us the position on the right. It is now clear that black will have to give up material, the c5 pawn is still weak, and he has ended up opening a vital file for white's rooks anyway.

Now this line is not very difficult to calculate, in and of itself. It's also not particularly guaranteed by the general nature of the position; had black's e-pawn already been on e6 in the first diagram, his choice of move would have been perfectly fine, because he would have been able to defend the c-pawn with ...Bf8. Which I think explains why the blunder happened: the move played made sense, and would have been the right move in a similar position. It just so happened that the specific features of the actual position were such that the move itself was a losing blunder.

2008 Olympiad

The 2008 Olympiad has started, and on this blog I will be providing coverage of one of the teams. Not, as you might have guessed, one of the six federations that make up the British Isles, but instead the island nation of Mauritius. Of course, the reason for this is that this is the team with a North Devon connection: former Barnstaple player Roy Phillips is on top board.

The team did not make the best of starts, losing 4-0 to Turkmenistan; Roy lost to IM Amanmurad Kakageldyev (2449). In round 2 they face another African side, Seychelles - this match looks highly winnable.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Opening Concepts: Sicilian Dragon

Today's Opening Concepts article is on the Sicilian Dragon, beloved choice of juniors everywhere. It is characterized by the moves 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6, reaching the position shown on the left.

There are many moves white can play here - 6.f4, 6.g3 and 6.Be2 all have their advocates - but the most aggressive and theoretically critical line is the Yugoslav Attack, 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 Nc6 8.Qd2 0-0, after which there is an important theoretical fork. One important line is 9.0-0-0, after which black can make the thematic Sicilian central advance 9...d5!?; sacrificing a pawn for open lines - the sacrifice line runs 10.exd5 Nxd5 11.Nxc6 bxc6 12.Nxd5 cxd5 13.Qxd5 Qc7 (this does not drop a rook because 14.Qxa8 Bf5 forces white to give the queen up with 15.Qxf8+.)

The other main option white has is to prevent the ...d5 advance with 9.Bc4, to which black usually responds with 9...Bd7. White's usual plan from that position is to build up a kingside attack, starting with something like 10.h4, after which many games have been won with some combination of h4-h5 (which, if met with ...Nf6xh5, is followed up with g2-g4 to kick the knight back), Be3-h6 and an exchange of bishops, and 0-0-0 to bring an extra rook into the attack. Black in turn will try attacking on the open c-file with moves like ...Nc6-e5, ...Qd8-a5, and some rook to c8 with the possibility of sacrificing the exchange on c3.

However, there is another way for black to play this position, and that is to forestall white's plan with a move like 10...h5, the Soltis Variation, giving us the diagram on the right. The idea is quite simple: without an h4-h5 advance, it's much harder for white to open a file for his rooks. He now has to work for g2-g4, but even then, it's not so easy: after ...h5xg4, h4-h5 can often be met by ...Nf6xh5, and there's no easy way to kick the knight away.

And so we come to a game I played recently: I had the white side of this position and tried to build up an attack by redirecting my c3 knight over to f4 to support an h4-h5 advance. Unfortunately for me, this allowed black an attacking idea of his own: ...a7-a5-a4 to take advantage of the absence of a defending piece. My king's position ended up smashed to pieces, while my own attack never really got off the ground.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Team Blitz Results

The annual team blitz was once again contested by the teams of Bideford, Holsworthy, Barnstaple A and Barnstaple B. All these teams had a constant set of four players playing, except for Barnstaple B; they had a squad of five players from whom they picked four each round. It was a double-round all-play-all, and the results went as follows:

Round 1: Bideford managed a 3-1 victory over Barnstaple A; Holsworthy managed a victory by the same scoreline over Barnstaple B.

Bideford, Holsworthy 3; Barnstaple A, Barnstaple B 1

Round 2: Barnstaple A beat their B team 3-1; Bideford beat Holsworthy on the top two boards and lost on the bottom two.

Bideford, Holsworthy 5; Barnstaple A 4; Barnstaple B 2

Round 3: Bideford beat Barnstaple B 4-0; Barnstaple A and Holsworthy drew 2-2.

Bideford 9; Holsworthy 7; Barnstaple A 6; Barnstaple B 2

At this point, we stopped for refreshments, including Steve Knight's famous egg sandwiches. One of the Barnstaple B players had to leave at this point, so the remaining four players played all the remaining games.

Round 4: Barnstaple A beat Bideford 2½-1½; Holsworthy beat Barnstaple B 3-1.

Bideford 10½; Holsworthy 10; Barnstaple A 8½; Barnstaple B 3

Round 5: The crucial deciding result came in this round, as Bideford managed to beat Holsworthy 4-0, with Barnstaple A beating Barnstaple B 3½-½. These results meant Bideford only needed 2 points against Barnstaple B to take the title.

Bideford 14½; Barnstaple A 12; Holsworthy 10; Barnstaple B 3½

Round 6: Bideford wrapped up the title by beating Barnstaple B 3-1; Barnstaple A got second place with a 3-1 win over Holsworthy.

Final scores: Bideford 17½; Barnstaple A 15; Holsworthy 11; Barnstaple B 4½

Leading scorers for each team:
Jack Rudd (Bideford, board 1) 6/6
Peter Marriott (Barnstaple, board 2) 6/6
Theresa Garrett (Holsworthy, board 3) 5/6
John Howard (Barnstaple B; two games on board 3 and three on board 4) 2½/5

I would like to thank my team-mates Roger Neat, Jon Munsey and Peter Sandon for their contributions to our victory, and everyone, particularly organizer Richard Nash, for making it a fun evening.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Wellington College International

This weekend, I shall be mostly be playing in the Wellington College International. This is an international event taking place over two weekends; the idea is to allow people to make title norms without having to take time off work.

If I play any interesting games there, they might end up on this blog.

Opening Concepts: Ruy Lopez

Opening Concepts will be an occasional series devoted to the ideas behind certain chess openings. Specifically, it will deal with issues relating to those openings I have spotted in the games of North Devon players.

So let's start with the Ruy Lopez, as featured in the game Garrett-Dooley. One of the most popular openings there is, it starts 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5, taking us to the position above here.

Now why, you may ask, is the bishop developed to b5, rather than the more "classical" square c4, where it attacks f7 and inhibits black's ...d5 break? Well, the answer is quite simple: the bishop is there to threaten Bxc6 followed by Nxe5.

Except, of course, that it's not that simple. If black replies 3...a6, white can't win a pawn immediately with 4.Bxc6 dxc6 5.Nxe5 because of 5...Qd4, and the fork of the e5 knight and e4 pawn wins black the pawn back with probably the better game. No, the force of the Bb5 idea is something slightly more subtle: it creates a potential threat, rather than an immediate one.

Let's carry on with the Garrett-Dooley game. It continued 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.d3 Bc5 6.0-0, reaching the position we see on the right here:

Now look at the subtle difference between this and the last diagram: white has played d3, protecting her e-pawn. This means that when black played the careless 6...0-0?, white could (and should) have won a pawn with 7.Bxc6 dxc6 8.Nxe5, exploiting the opening's thematic idea. Had black been alert to this, he would have prevented it with 6...b5 or 6...d6.

Which leads us on to the real reason why white plays Bb5 in the Ruy Lopez: it is to encourage black to play ...a6 and ...b5 early on. The bishop ends up on the same diagonal as it would have done had it gone straight to c4, but black has weakened his queenside to get it there. A number of lines in this opening then go on to attempt to exploit this weakening with a4, with the aim of either giving black a weak pawn on b5 or (if he advances it to b4) establishing a nice square on c4 for the knight.

Are these lines particularly good for white or black? It's hard to say; theory in critical openings like the Ruy Lopez changes all the time. But one thing is easy to say: if you are going to play this opening, don't forget the reason the bishop went to b5 in the first place.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Club Championship table

The current situation in the Barnstaple Club Championship:

Jack Ruddx111115
Peter Marriottx11½
Peter Sandon0x11
Jon Munsey00x011
Richard Smithx11
Steve Clarkex½½
Rob Oughton0½x½
Theresa Garrett01x12
Rick Dooley0x0
John Howard0000x0
Roger Neatx0
Doug Macfarlane½x½
Sue James0x0

Team Blitz

A reminder to everyone that the first North Devon League event of the season, the Team Blitz, takes place on November 10th at Barnstaple Chess Club. A fast and fun event, with each player's having just ten minutes for an entire game. Some people might say that this would make no difference to the way I play; I couldn't possibly comment.

The event is likely to be a double-round all-play-all, with entries from Bideford, Holsworthy, Barnstaple A and Barnstaple B. The first three of those teams will be fighting hard for the title; the last will be fighting hard to finish with some points.

Bideford, whose team will consist of me, Roger Neat, and two from Jon Munsey, Rob Oughton and Peter Sandon, will probably be seen as favourites: we have a good record in this event in recent years, with Jon and me in particular gaining from our speed of play.

Barnstaple may be weakened by the likely absence of their captain Steve Clarke. Still, a team with Peter Marriott, Richard Nash and two from Steve Knight, Rick Dooley and Richard Smith is still not a pushover by any means.

The Holsworthy team are somewhat more of an unknown quantity, because their players mostly do not play at the Barnstaple club. Nevertheless, a team composed mostly of Smollocombes and Garretts is also pretty strong at this level.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

The North Devon Chess Blog

Hello, everyone.

This is the North Devon Chess Blog; I will be trying to keep it up-to-date as a resource covering chess in North Devon.

This will mostly consist of news relating to Barnstaple Chess Club, seeing as this is the club of which I am a member. Should I have access to news relating to Ilfracome Chess Club, or anything else in the region, I will be more than happy to put it in.

So, to kick off: Barnstaple Chess Club. The club meets on Monday nights from about 7pm onwards, at the Alexandra Road Resource Centre, not far from the bus station. It has about fifteen active members, thirteen of whom are signed up for this year's club championship.

The following game was played in the club championship: