Sunday, August 11, 2013

Improving Your Chess
by Jason Morris
Hi All LCCC'ers,
I hope all of you are playing some great games while I'm up north. Of course I follow the blog and all the exploits of our members, as well as major events around the chess world.

I'm presenting a game of Mike Nikitin's from the just concluded 2013 US Open. There are a lot of ups and downs in this game, but it has lots of lessons. Mike's opponent was definitely playing above his provisional rating of 882!

Let's get to the action...
[Event "US Open 2013"]
[Round "9"]
[White "Li, Ethan"]
[White Rating "1500 provisonal"]
[Black "Nikitin, Mike"]
[Black Rating "1500"]
[Result "1-0"]
[Opening "French: advance variation"]
[ECO "C02"]

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 b6
In the Advanced French, 3. .. c5 is the normal and best move, striking immediately at d4. Normally, the main point of this move order is to exchange white's light-square bishop with Ba6. Perhaps black missed this idea?

4. f4 g6?!

To seriously improve, I recommend before each move asking yourself, "Does the move I'm about to make.."

a. [ ] Lose material immediately (i.e. am I leaving anything hanging)? <Here, no.>
b. [ ] Weaken squares, particularly around my king? <Here, yes! f6 and h6>
c. [ ] Threaten my opponent's pieces? <Here, not at all>
d. [ ] Threaten my opponent's king? <Here, definitely not>
e. [ ] Improve my control of squares in my camp? <Nope.>
f. [ ] Improve my control of squares in my opponent's camp? <Nope.>
g. [ ] Stop my opponent's threat? <Not really... see below.>
Black may think that g6 stops f5 at some point, but all playing g6 does is ensure that a file will get opened after moves like g4 and f5. It also will form a lightning rod for tactics later as we'll see. Better to defend actively with pieces than to waste a tempo on a move that only encourages your opponent to dynamite your fortress later.

So, let's recap: 4. .. g6 doesn't lose material, but it also carries no threat and it weakens squares.

 5. Nf3 Be7 6. Be3 Bb7?! (See note to move 3. What is this bishop doing?) 7. Bd3 Nd7
This knight is unlikely to have any scope in the middlegame. Why? Look at all the squares it could go to from d7. Nothing is available. When black plays c5 here (he has to at some point), white will play c3 to guard d4. Then black will see one of the drawbacks of this system - white doesn't have to take on c5. In fact, he shouldn't since it's wrong on principle: you don't capture away from the center, and white certainly won't do it after he's invested a move (c3) to protect d4. The normally useful b6 square is unavailable for black's queen to pressure d4 and b2. I can tell you from experience that I've suffered enough with such bad knights to know that they need room to roam! Be careful not to barricade them behind your pawns.

8. Nbd2 Rc8
Before black moved this rook, did he consider the possibility of castling queenside? Black has a space disadvantage on the kingside - castling there after having played g6? is suicide (e.g. imagine a knight landing on f6 and white advancing his f and g-pawns to open the f-file). So, castling queenside is a very French Defense thing to do. But now, black has burned that bridge and his king is stuck in the middle. If I were white, I'd 0-0 then be looking at doubling on the f-file and playing g4 and f5. Black would have no way out of the coming attack with the traffic jam on e7, d7, c7, and c8.

9. Rc1?! (Inaccurate. White's play is on the kingside, and trading rooks along the c-file does not further that plan. After 9. .. c5 10. c3 cxd4 11. cxd4 black has no penetration points on the c-file, and black can really see why Nd7 and b6 were not so good. If b6 was played with the intention of recapturing on c5 with a pawn after dxc5 at some point, then the move was illogical because white won't (shouldn't) do that.

9. .. Nh6
Knowing the general of the black army, I know where this knight is headed ;-)
  • Moving one piece multiple times in the opening = bad
  • Moving one piece multiple times in the opening to capture a bad piece = very bad
Captures in chess are not obligatory. Make trades only with the intention of trading an inferior piece for a superior piece or to retain pieces that are in harmony with your pawn structure. Avoid trading pieces out of a naive sense of value (e.g. bishops are better than knights, rooks are 5 points and bishops are only 3, etc.). A well placed knight can often be worth more than a rook, and a badly placed bishop can be no better than a pawn. In chess, quality trumps quantity.

Author's Note: IMHO -- It is this ability, to be able to discern the instantaneous relative value of each piece and pawn, that separates masters from amateurs. (e.g. when and why is a knight better than a bishop?)

10. Qe2 (Here 10. h3 has a point: it keeps the knight from g4 and it threatens g4 and f5 at some point. Unless black retreats before then, the Nh6 will be hanging. If 10. .. Nf5 then 11. Bf2 and 12. g4 next. 10. c3 is an alternative.)  a5?! 
Black is taking a great risk that his opponent won't notice his king on e8.
11. O-O c5! (Finally!) 12. c3 Ng4 13. h3 
White could have just played 13. Ng5 with more of a threat than 13. h3 gave.

13. .. Nxe3 14. Qxe3 c4?!
The c5 pawn was the thematic pawn lever against the white center. By pushing past to c4, black is effectively conceding the center to white for the rest of the game. If white ever manages to close the queenside, black is likely lost because white has the only effective levers on the kingside and more space in which to work. Plus, white has the superior set of minor pieces (black's Nd7 and Bb7 are not happy). If the black-square bishops are traded, white's advantage would magnify.

15. Bb1 b5

OK, so the fight is transferred to the b-file with b5-b4 on tap. The problem is that beyond that, black doesn't have any meaningful way to invade. If white just allows 16. .. b4 with 17. axb4 axb4, he'll just ignore any further invasive moves and mate black on the f-file. Black has no targets. Houdini rates this position as just about equal, but I'd bet that most masters would say white is much better long-term. In fact, white has the aggressive 16. g4! here with the thematic idea to crack open the f-file.

16. b3? (This is a bad positional move that actually gives black chances! Don't open lines where your opponent has space. White's mistake will ensure that black can create a useful target on the queenside. At the very least, white will have to fight a two-front war whereas before he could have localized the fight to the kingside where he was superior.) Nb6 17. Bc2 Ba6
This is OK, but 16. .. 0-0 or 16. .. b4 immediately were slightly better.

18. Rfd1?! (This is not where this rook needs to be. White is not following the demands of the position by pursuing black on the kingside.) Rc7?! (Just 18. .. 0-0 or 18. .. b4 were better.) 19. a3? (This is an outright mistake that looks tactically cute, but just pitches a pawn.) Bxa3 (20. cxb3 first was better since it avoids the coming complications.) 20. Ra1 b4 21. Nb1 Qe7?

21. .. cxb3! was the best move. This works because now if 22. Bxb3 any and 23. Nxa3, black has Rxc3 forking the Bb3 and Qe3. The queen move tosses most of black's windfall advantage.

22. Nxa3 bxa3 23. b4 (Another inaccurate move. You can see why White should have opened the kingside...he could be hunting black's king by now instead of parrying threats to pawns.) axb4 24. cxb4 Bb5? (Perfectly good was 24. c3! defending the a-pawn tactically by opening the c4 square for the Nb6.)

25. Rxa3 O-O
The smoke has cleared, and amazingly black has finally castled and has a microscopic edge, but...

26. Ng5 Ra7

Position after 26. .. Ra7

Black misses the hidden danger of having an enemy knight so close to his seemingly safe king. White could have turned the tables here with 27. Rxa7 Qxa7 28. f5!!. Black cannot allow the pawn to reach f6 and put him in a mating net, that leaves:
28. .. gxf5 29. Qg3! with a winning attack.
28. .. exf5 29. e6 with the following possibilities
  29. .. f6? 30. e7 Re8 31. Qe6+ Kg7 32. Qf7+ Kh6 33. Qxh7+ Kxg5 34. g3 and mate is next.
  29. .. f6? 30. e7 fxg5 31. exf8=Q+ Kxf8 32. Qe5 and white is threatening a winning king hunt or picking off the black queen with Qh8+.

Taking the pawn is asking for trouble:

  29. .. fxe6 30. Qxe6+ Kh8 31. Re1! is strong. If  instead 30. .. Kg7, then 31. Qd6! and white invades. If black tries to stay active, he comes to grief. 31. .. Re8 is met by 32. Ne6+ Kf7 33. Nc7 and white has some work to do, but he's up a piece.

  So, best apparently is:
  29. .. Qe7 30. Nxf7 (30. exf7+ Rxf7! and white comes up empty handed) Be8 (White is threatening 31. Bxf5!, so black must act fast to eliminate that entrenched knight.) 31. Bxf5! (Anyway! The piece is immune because of 32. Qg3+ and mate in 2.) Bxf7 32. exf7+ Rxf7 33. Be6  Kg7 34. Qe5+ Rf6 35. Re1 c3! and black can just hold a draw.

27. Qc3 (Bad since it misses black's next possibility.) Rfa8 (After the simple 28. .. Rxa3! 30. Qxa3 Ra8 31. Qc3 Ra2 and white is getting paralyzed and the b-pawn will drop.

28. Rda1 Qd7 29. Ra5 Qc6 (Ooof! Here, black should have recalled the first item on my checklist) 1-0
  • Ask yourself what the purpose is of each move in terms of what it does to improve your position.
  • Don't make unnecessary, weakening pawn moves.
  • Don't make bad piece trades. Especially at the expense of your development.
  • Work with direct, simple threats. Aim to keep your opponent defending and moving backward.


  1. Just an outstanding job of analysis....and in a straight forward understandable way.
    I have heard a lot of positive comments on this posting. I wish people would comment directly to this site.
    But Jason, great job and thank you!

  2. Thanks! Hopefully folks are getting something out of my analysis blogs. I'm following the World Cup right now. More games from that event to come soon! It's good practice for me too. I may just go for a FIDE rating this year!

  3. Oh... and if you like the posts.. please do comment!

  4. Thanks Jason for the review, and Mike for submitting the game. -Scott R.