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Month: January 2015

Tournament Report – Tata Steel Chess 2015

For the past few weeks the chess world has focused its attention on the small town of Wijk aan Zee in the Netherlands and the Tata Steel Chess Tournament, which features some of the strongest players in the world. The tournament consists of two sections: a Masters and Challengers group. The round-robin format of this particular tournament adds some interesting dynamics to the matches and there were no shortages of incredible moments in this year’s tournament.

Final Tournament Standings

77th Tata Steel GpA Wijk aan Zee | 9-25 January 2015
1. Carlsen, Magnus 2862 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 0 1 1 ½ 1 1 9 2877
2. Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime 2757 ½ 1 ½ 1 0 1 ½ ½ ½ 1 1 ½ ½ 2854
3. Giri, Anish 2784 ½ 0 1 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 1 2852
4. So, Wesley 2762 ½ ½ 0 ½ 1 ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 1 1 1 2854
5. Ding, Liren 2732 ½ 0 0 ½ ½ 0 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 2856
6. Ivanchuk, Vassily 2715 ½ 1 ½ 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 2805
7. Caruana, Fabiano 2820 0 0 ½ ½ 1 ½ ½ 0 ½ ½ 1 1 1 7 2769
8. Radjabov, Teimour 2734 0 ½ ½ ½ 0 ½ ½ 1 ½ ½ 1 ½ 0 6 2717
9. Wojtaszek, Radoslaw 2744 1 ½ ½ ½ 0 ½ 1 0 ½ ½ 0 ½ 0 2688
10. Aronian, Levon 2797 0 ½ ½ 0 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 2684
11. Hou, Yifan 2673 0 0 ½ ½ 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 1 5 2664
12. Saric, Ivan 2666 ½ 0 0 0 0 ½ 0 0 1 ½ ½ ½ 1 2641
13. Van Wely, Loek 2667 0 ½ 0 0 0 0 0 ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ ½ 4 2610
14. Jobava, Baadur 2727 0 ½ 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 ½ 3 2536

Tournament Analysis

It seems like these days that everyone is looking for the next player to “pull a Caruana” by winning seven games or more in a row as Fabiano Caruana did at the 2014 Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis. Magnus Carlsen came close to equalling Caruana’s achievement by winning six games in a row before drawing a game against Vassily Ivanchuk. The post game interview for that match turned out to be one of the highlights of the match. During the interview, Carlsen referred to the game as “nonsense” and stated that he preferred to “play good chess” versus Ivanchuk’s “nonsense.” The game was a paltry 18 moves and lasted only 25 minutes before Ivanchuk’s opening lines forced a draw.

Ivanchuck vs. Carlsen, 1.5-1.5, 2015.01.09

I recall some chat members on ChessBomb referring to the Round 11 game between Anish Giri and Wesley So as the “Blunder Collection of the Century.” That game lasted an agonizing seven and a half hours and totaled 111 moves at the end. Giri had several chances throughout the game to force a win, but seemed distracted and unable to find the appropriate winning lines. Once the game passed move 60, much of it was a King and Queen battle for supremacy which ultimately turned in Giri’s favor and brought Wesley So his first loss since April 2014.

Giri vs. So, 1-0, 2015.01.24

Winner Takes All!

In the midst of the exciting games, close calls, and winning streaks, World Champion Magnus Carlsen managed to earn the tournament win with 9 out of 13 overall. With his victory over Wesley So on Saturday, Anish Giri had pulled into a close second with Carlsen and had the opportunity to tie the World Champion, but a draw guaranteed Magnus a win if he could merely draw his game against GM Radjabov. Magnus Carlsen was in fine form during the tournament and earns his 4th win among the countless other great chess players to claim victory at the 70 year-old tournament.

Complete Tournament Masters Game Archive

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Beat the Losing Streak

This has been a rough few weeks for me in online and correspondence chess. I recently matched my live chess losing streak of eight games in standard time control (15|10), which was incredibly disappointing given that I had improved so much over the past year. In the heat of the losing streak, I decided to see if there were any tips or tricks available on Chess.com in the forums or available on any blogs. Suffice to say that I found a number of interesting posts about losing streaks and many of them contain a wide variety of answers and suggestions to help players beat a losing streak and to get back on their game. Considering that my standard time control losing streak is ongoing, but my blitz (5 min) losing streak is over, I have decided to examine some common techniques from the chess and mental health worlds to help players that might be experiencing a prolonged losing streak.

What Causes Losing Streaks?

Some of you might be thinking: If I knew what caused my losing streak, I would be able to fix it! This is an understandable question and response, especially considering the nature of the chess community. Chess players tend to be analytical and prefer to exist in a paradigm of rational thinking and logical processes. So when a player becomes mired in a streak of horrific games, he or she tends to look not only for the cause of their own losing streak, but to look at the greater philosophical or cognitive reasoning for extended chess losses. The first thing to understand about losing streaks in any sport or activity is that there is no single underlying universal force that creates these losing scenarios. There are no chess gods that have plagued me with an online chess losing streak nor does the phases of the Moon have anything to do with a losing streak. Losing streaks occur primarily because the person engaged in the activity is suffering from the effects of one of these items:

  • Fatigue: This is the most common theme I have encountered in both the chess and mental health worlds that leads to performance degradation. Sleep hygiene is critical to maintaining proper focus when playing chess. Ensure that your sleep area is clean and free of nighttime distractions. A full eight hours of sleep is recommended for best performance, especially as we get older. I had no problem staying up all night, working a full eight hour shift, and then feeling okay to play games or hang out when I was in my early twenties, but time takes its toll on our bodies and we must modify our lifestyle regimens to compensate for decreased energy and stamina. In fact, fatigue tends to be the contributing factor to the other elements in this list.

  • Distraction: The world these days moves incredibly fast. In the Campfire Chess studio, I have an iMac with three monitors, two laptops, and an iPad Air. Each of these devices allows me to connect simultaneously to a variety of websites and multimedia services. In theory, I should be able to get more done in less time, but typically it is the other way around. This is especially true with chess. It does not help to play live online chess with a desire to win and advance your rating when you are also playing YouTUBE videos, possibly a movie, and have multiple screens and other distractions at your disposal.

  • Poor Equipment: I have seen countless artistic photos with players playing on chess sets made of cardboard or old car parts and they are often playing in the snow, rain, or whatever elements can be added to the scenario to make it more dramatic. The reality is that chess is not much different from professional baseball or other sports when it comes to the effects that poor equipment can have on a player’s outcome. Get yourself a quality chess set and practice with real people OTB (over the board)!

  • Lack of Skill: Let’s face it, sometimes people just suck at chess. Most of the time, I suck at chess. That is why I started Campfire Chess and why I continue to work at it today: I want to get better!

Losing Streaks at All Skill Levels

Baku GM Teimour Radjabov became the youngest Grandmaster in the world at the time when he turned 14 years old in 2001. He is well known for his 2003 victory against long-time World Champion Garry Kasparov:

An impressive victory to be sure, but GM Radjabov would not be a subject of this post if it were not for what occurred some years later in the 2013 World Championship Candidates tournament and the most recent FIDE Grand Prix tournaments in Baku and Tashkent. In the 2013 World Championship Candidates tournament, GM Radjabov earned last place in the tournament with 4/14, losing half of his games, and shedding 30 rating points in a single tournament. In the 2012-2013 Grand Prix event in Zug, he was last again with 4.5/11 and eventually withdrew from the Grand Prix events.

Ending a Losing Streak

Much of what I have read about losing streaks comes from amateur players such as myself who are struggling to improve their chess. These players begin losing 4-5 games in a row online and flock to the Chess.com forums to seek out answers to their problems. Sometimes they find support and advice while other times they find score and ridicule. Sometimes they deserve it; sometimes they do not. There are some pieces of advice, such as utilizing the right training materials, that are specific to players with certain ELO ratings. However, there are some universal methods that can help a player to beat the streak and get back to winning at chess:

  • Don’t Panic: By far, this is the most important piece of advice that a chess player could ever receive. Do not allow yourself to be pulled into the dangerous spiral of panic and self-doubt when faced with a losing streak. As mentioned above, even Grandmasters lose games, but a loss in chess is always an opportunity to learn and grow. Take each loss with confidence that there is a message on the board to be collected, analyzed, and applied for future chess success.
  • Take a Break: On the Chess.com forums, higher rated players are always encouraging lower-rated players to play more games and to keep trying when they face a losing streak. Sometimes this works and sometimes it does not. I have found that the best way to beat a streak is to take a break from the activity and give yourself time to recover. This will allow the mind and body to regenerate and for you to approach chess from a refreshed perspective.
  • Slow Down: One of the beautiful aspects of chess is that it can be played in a variety of ways. There are passive players and there are aggressive players. Sometimes new players win a few games and gain enough confidence to begin playing more aggressively. This aggressiveness can lead to mistakes and losses. It is important for new and growing players to slow down and remain focused. I prefer to avoid playing blitz games and focus more on standard (15 min or 30 min) chess because blitz can damage your chess by causing poor habits and reducing attention span.
  • Analyze!: For the chess player, this one is a no-brainer. Skip ChessBase and chess engines. Instead, sit down with a printout of your losses and analyze them on a real chessboard. This will allow you to experience the loss in a new way and to try out different patterns and variations before proceeding. Pay attention to patterns and lines that appear regularly in your games. Do they work or do they lead to trouble? Take time to perform this analysis and do not rush through it. Thorough and comprehensive analysis is one of the keys to improving in chess.

There are countless suggestions out there to help people overcome losing streaks of all kinds. The link in the first paragraph to the Chess.com forums is just a small taste of the hopes for chess players to conquer their losing streaks and return to chess victory. These four items are not cure-alls, but they will certainly do more good for your game than harm. Chess is the ultimate mind sport and players must do what they can to maintain a healthy and focused body and mind.

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Downloads Page Overhaul

I am always excited when new material becomes available here on the Campfire Chess downloads page. That tiny little section of the site that began as a simple repository for game archives has grown into a fantastic collection of games from some of the greatest players in chess history, collections for select chess books, and various downloads that are designed to enhance your chess experience. Today I am excited to announce the addition of an e-book collection, which comes in part from the recently defunct Chessville website. Here is just a small sample of what is now available on the downloads page:

  • The Book of the First American Chess Congress – This is the world-famous chess tournament in which Paul Morphy solidified himself as one of the greatest American chess players in history.
  • On the Game of Chess – Written by Gioachino Greco, one of the first men in history to do extensive analysis and annotations of chess, this book is a collection of his theories and simulated games. It is a great primer for beginning students or chess history enthusiasts.
  • The Tactical Grob – Love him or hate him, it is difficult to escape the elephant in the room: Claude Bloodgood. Claude was a controversial American chess player that spent most of his life in prison for killing his mother. While in prison he organized countless USCF prison tournaments and was accused of gaming the USCF ratings system. While incarcerated he wrote this book on an opening called The Tactical Grob, which may or may not make you shake your head in disbelief.

As always, each of these items (and more) are available for free on the downloads page. It is my hope that I will continue to collect items and use them to refine the downloads section for future updates. There is an almost endless fountain of information on chess, its history, and its personalities out there. Perhaps someday Campfire Chess will be the hub that puts it all together. Hey, a man can dream, can’t he…

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Move by Move – Surber vs. 1151

The following game was played earlier this month on Chess.com and I believe that it demonstrates the level at which my play has improved over the past six months. There were several tactical blunders in this game, but the amount of blunders and errors in games like this have decreased significantly. It is with great pleasure that I present game #2 of Move by Move:

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Exploring the Master Class – Bobby Fischer

Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen hold much higher ELO ratings and have won more World Championships than he ever did, but Bobby Fischer is still considered one of the greatest chess players in history. This is due in large part to his absolute domination of the chess world and his single-handed defeat of the Soviet chess machine in 1972. Some of us, who grew up hearing the stories of Bobby and watching the world as the Cold War came to an end attribute the fall of the Soviet Union to cultural icons such as Bobby Fischer and Rocky Balboa to winning the war more than politics or diplomacy. Bobby’s victory that year in Iceland was as much a Cold War event as the Cuban Missile Crisis because the honor and intellectual supremacy of each nation. These days, you would be hard-pressed to find a hobby or club-level chess player that has not studied Bobby’s games and game theory. His depth of knowledge on openings and his talent in the endgame remain legendary among the world’s top players. His book My 60 Memorable Games (download games: PGN | ChessBase) is a staple in most chess player’s libraries.

To take things to the next level, ChessBase has a special DVD called Master Class: Bobby Fischer. Featuring five hours of video instruction from world-class chess players such as GM Dorian Rogozenco, GM Mihail Marin, IM Oliver Reeh, and GM Karsten Mueller. The DVD covers almost ever aspect of Fischer’s games including extensive insight on opening preparations, tactics, strategy, and deep analysis of his endgame. As with all ChessBase DVDs, the course is interactive with a responsive chessboard and notation to keep the viewer engrossed in the world of Bobby Fischer’s chess. The tactics on the DVD are presented as interactive puzzles that provide responsive feedback to help sharpen your game and bring Fischer’s games to life.

The Good

There is a lot to love about this DVD. ChessBase has long been a pioneer in developing interactive software and the integration with the ChessBase database software or the reader software is excellent. I use ChessBase 12 for my analysis and DVD play, but the free ChessBase Reader software will allow anyone with a windows computer to use Master Class: Bobby Fischer without having to own the full ChessBase Software.

The instruction on the DVD is first-rate. There is a wealth of information ranging from the cross tables and tournament information to a full biographical history on Bobby Fischer. All of this comes together to bring the user a comprehensive picture of Bobby Fischer as a man and as a chess player. In addition to the training, there is an exclusive database included with the software that holds all of Bobby Fischer’s games along with many additional cross tables and annotations. Perhaps one of my favorite features in the software are the trees. Fischer’s games as black and white have been divided into two book trees that can be reviewed and analyzed using the ChessBase software. This is a valuable resource for someone wanting to explore the themes in Bobby’s games.

The Bad

Because of the diverse nature of the chess world, I try to give as much leeway as possible when reviewing a product. Therefore, many things that others may call annoyances or problems with a piece of software, book, or DVD, can often be attributed to a simple cultural, language, or other variation. In Master Class: Bobby Fischer, the only drawback I could find comes in the form of the opening analysis with GM Dorian Rogozenco. Although that part of the DVD is supposed to be an in-depth look at Bobby Fischer’s openings, GM Rogozenco skips most of the moves and proceeds directly to where the opening transitions more into the middle game. He does comment on the fast moves in these game reviews by stating that these are easy moves and that they have been made hundreds of times, but dismissing many of these opening moves, regardless of how mundane it may seem, does devalue the lesson in some respects. Bobby Fischer was a master of chess openings and I believe that more attention should have been paid to why he chose to play certain openings and opening variations.

Back to Class

Master Class: Bobby Fischer is an excellent product for anyone interested in chess history, the story of Bobby Fischer’s games and his life, or a person looking to expand their knowledge and skill at chess. This five hour DVD includes some invaluable knowledge and insight into Bobby’s thinking that could possibly change the way that you view and play the game of kings.

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Welcome to Campfire Chess!

I am very excited to reveal the next generation of OffMyChess.com! As part of the natural evolution of this site into a more diverse coverage of chess topics, OffMyChess.com has officially been rebranded as Campfire Chess. Inspired by ghost stories, smores, and games by the camp fire, Campfire Chess will continue to focus on my personal chess improvement, but will also begin working in the local community to promote chess.

Most of the website content has been migrated from the OffMyChess.com server, but there are some outlying elements that still need to be migrated. Please be patient as I continue to work out all of the bugs on the new server to ensure the site is fully operational before regular posting resumes.

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The Sad State of Chess on Mac

Prior to 2009, I was a die-hard Windows user. Once a year I would order a collection of parts from NewEgg and Tiger Direct to build myself a custom PC or upgrade an older system with new memory or storage space. In addition to my custom desktop machine, I would carry around a Toshiba Windows laptop and I also had an early edition Acer AspireOne 10″ netbook with a keyboard almost too small for my hands. In the Spring of 2009, I began experimenting with Apple products thanks to my new obsession with my iPod Touch. It was not long before every computer in my home sported the i-prefix: an iMac desktop machine, a Macbook, and countless iPods and iPads. It was at that time when my chess studies waned significantly and I refocused myself to studying the Bible and working on my Masters of Divinity. This type of study lent itself well to the Apple ecosystem with Logos Bible Software running with lightning-fast precision on my MacBook Air.

However, my interest in chess took center stage in 2014 when I started OffMyChess.com and began a serious and regimented focus on my chess studies. I soon realized that the Apple ecosystem, as beautiful as it is, remains a wasteland of broken chess interfaces and is devoid of any true competitor to ChessBase, the king of chess databases. Unfortunately, ChessBase runs only on Windows PCs and I learned the hard way that it is not compatible with Windows emulation software such as CrossOver. I was able to successfully install ChessBase Reader 2013 on my MacBook Air under OS X Mavericks, but the full edition of ChessBase 12 and Deep Fritz 14 simply would not install on the system without resorting to extreme measures. At the end of this post, I will examine two ways that I have learned to use ChessBase in combination with the Apple ecosystem and offer tips on how it is possible to run full-edition ChessBase and all ChessBase products within OS X itself.

OS X Chess

In my opinion, there is very little to say about this program. It is a visual and cognitive disgrace that I am surprised has consistently passed the rigorous quality assurance processes in Cupertino. The Apple computer line has long prided itself as the preference of intellectuals and artists, which are two categories that encompass a significant portion of the chess community. Chess is the most popular mind sport in the world1, it is difficult to imagine why Apple did not dedicate a little more time and effort to refining the appearance and function of this program. Even Winboard and its derivatives are more useful for even the moderately responsible chess player than this program. There are no portable game notation (PGN) options in this program, which is pretty much a necessity when playing to improve. If a simple game of chess with basic functions and below-average playing skill and strength, then let the default chess program in OS X answer your prayers.

Shredder for OS X

Shredder is an immensely strong chess engine that has user interfaces available for Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android. I used Shredder on iOS to practice my tactics for years before migrating to chess on the desktop. However, the OS X chess user interface and overall implementation of Shredder on the Mac is truly horrific. The program itself is split into multiple windows, which is an old-school way of creating OS X applications. The lack of a unified interface makes it difficult to work with games and in trial runs with OS X Mavericks and Yosemite, there seemed to be a myriad of stability issues that made the entire user experience less than stellar.

A ChessBase-like Database?

Apple’s reputation for creating first-class operating systems and computer hardware does not extend to most of its applications. Utilities available to manage files and hardware in OS X are among the best out there, but Apple’s applications are often lacking key features and dependent on specific hardware configurations to work. This has left the open source community to pick up the pieces that are often lacking in OS X. The curiously titled Shane’s Chess Information Database (SCID) is perhaps as close as a person can get to having a native version of ChessBase running under OS X. The program is incredibly stable, has excellent support from its community contributors over at SourceForge and contains many useful features necessary for serious chess study. SCID also features an interface for using the Free Internet Chess Server. If there was simply no way to access ChessBase resources on a Mac, then SCID or a combination of SCID and HiARCS Chess Explorer would be the way to go.

HiARCS Chess Explorer

In the world of computer chess, there remains a dispute over the title of the reigning chess engine champion. In the not too distance past, Rybka, which boasted that it was the strongest engine ever created, had its World Computer Chess Championship title stripped when it was revealed that some of the code lines were plagiarized from another engine. These days, the HiARCS chess engine is the reigning computer chess World Champion, and its authors have created native user interfaces for both Microsoft Windows and OS X. These interfaces are identical on both operating systems, which makes HiARCS Chess Explorer the best native OS X chess interface out there. This program utilizes the HiARCS chess engine by default, but easily allows for the installation of 3rd-party universal chess interface (UCI) engines such as Stockfish, Shredder, Rybka, and older versions of Fritz. The database options in the program are basic, but highly functional for collecting and analyzing different games. I also found great use of the engine match function where the user can program two chess engines to compete against each other. HiARCS Chess Explorer is a light in the dark chasm of OS X chess, and it is probably the best bang for your buck if the user seeks something strictly native to OS X.

ChessBase Under OS X

The only way to access ChessBase or its myriad of DVDs and resources is to install a program that allows crossover applications from Microsoft Windows to function on OS X. The most popular (and stable) of these options are CrossOver and Oracle VM VirtualBox. However, each of them have some limitations that must be considered when installing and operating ChessBase:

  • CrossOver

    • This application installs on OS X and allows native integration for Windows-based programs with OS X. The major limitation to this program is that it creates virtual bottles where individual operating system settings are stored and virtual drives are created to install Windows-based programs. I made several attempts to install ChessBase 12 and Deep Fritz 14 on OS X using CrossOver, but the installer failed on each attempt. Fortunately, I was successful at installing ChessBase Reader, which is included with every edition of ChessBase Magazine. However, this is the extent to which ChessBase is available as a natively integrated OS X application.
  • Oracle VM VirtualBox

    • By far, this is the most effective way that I have found to install and use Windows-based software on OS X. Using VirtualBox, the end user can create a virtual computer to install a myriad of operating systems including multiple Windows and Unix flavors. The program itself contains multiple control options that allow the user to determine the amount of RAM, hard drive space, and processor resources used to run the software. There are some limitations that must be considered before taking this route:
      • The user must own a legal copy of a compatible Windows operating system.
      • If installing on a MacBook Air, the user should be mindful of hard drive space requirements to install a Windows operating system, ChessBase, and its database extensions. To alleviate this problem, I recommend installing the operating system on the Air’s SSD and using a 128 GB SD card as an external hard drive to install ChessBase databases, DVDs, and ChessBase Magazines.
    • Running Windows on OS X will have a significant impact on a MacBook’s battery life, so close attention should be paid to the amount of power being utilized for analysis and game annotation.

Without a doubt, the best chess experience on an Apple computer comes in the form of the Windows environment. If the user owns a MacBook or MacBook Air and does not want to run Windows in a virtual environment under OS X, then the option to install Windows under BootCamp is available. This allows the user to install Windows on a separate hard drive partition and run the operating system without running OS X. As with the limitations of running Windows in VirtualBox under OS X, the user must own a legal copy of Windows and install it on the BootCamp partition for this to work properly.

Wrapping This Up

The OS X chess experience is less than stellar, which was a huge disappointment for me when I transitioned from Microsoft Windows to exclusively using Mac products. Much of the chess software available on the Mac will perform basic functions, but do not come close to the depth of function and resources that ChessBase and similar applications offer on the Windows platform. Hopefully ChessBase, ChessOK, and other companies will realize the growing OS X audience and offer alternatives to running this programs exclusively on the Microsoft platform. Until then, those of us in the Apple ecosystem will have to step outside of the walled garden to find our slice of heaven on the board.


  1. Raymond Keene, Chess Secrets (The Times Little Books) (London, UK: HarperCollins, 2013), 1. 

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Move by Move – Surber vs. 1057

Every so often, a chess player experiences a game that challenges them to move beyond basic strategy and tactics to explore the core of what embodies the fighting spirit of chess. For the first edition of Move by Move, we will examine a game that I played in December of 2014 against a player with an ELO of 1057 on Chess.com.

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Life and the Luzhin Defense

In the 1930s, the world was entering into a time of upheaval. The Soviet Revolution had solidified itself into the lives of the Russian people and Germany was in the midst of economic transitions that would give way to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Among the turmoil, Russian author Vladimir Nabokov was inspired by the life of his friend, Curt von Bardeleben, a chess master who died after falling out of a window in 19241, to pen a story for a Russian quarterly. Some people believe that if Nabokov had not written his 1955 masterpiece, Lolita, that his 1930 work for the quarterly, called The Defense, would be known today as his greatest work. Most chess players are familiar with the book, which was republished years later as The Luzhin Defense or by the film of the same name starring John Turturro, and opinions vary widely. The purpose of this entry is to examine The Luzhin Defense and its portrayal of life, love, and the stereotype of chess madness.

The premise of the Luzhin Defense is that Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin, the book’s protagonist, grows up in a high class family with exceptional education opportunities, but his homely appearance and lack of academic ability quickly earn him disdain from his family until it is discovered that he was born with a significant aptitude for chess. The novel and the movie portray this aptitude as a double-edged sword: Luzhin’s ability to play propels him to fame as a world-class chess player, but his obsession with the game is a hindrance to his social life and his ability to establish dynamic and meaningful connections with other people. This becomes most apparent when the father of Luzhin’s prospective bride makes a spontaneous “small talk” inquiry about the difficulty of playing chess. Luzhin’s calm and distant demeanor shifts to excitement as he arranges tabletop items into chess patterns and explains his thoughts and feelings about key opening moves. The father is obviously overwhelmed by the information and attempts to dismiss Luzhin’s ranting by playing off his words with a simple response, “Yes, a fascinating and difficult thing, this chess.”2 The scene appears in the book and the film and is a brutally honest evaluation of the public’s most typical perception of chess players. The game is viewed unfortunately viewed by many as a trivial pursuit3, and much more so during Luzhin’s era than today. For example, there are photos of Bobby Fischer, Paul Morphy, Alexander Alekhine, and other great chess players along with chess boards and art representing the game scattered throughout my office at work. While there are some serious chess players in my hospital, most people enter the room and look at the chess memorabilia in a way that clearly says, Look at the cute chess pieces, and belies the depth of meaning these items convey to me and so many others. The social challenges faced by Luzhin off the chess board are something that most players can relate to, but the stigma of chess madness is the epicenter of division of opinions on the merits of The Luzhin Defense.

Chess and the Psychosis Factor

It is said that life often imitates art, with most film and literature about chess emphasizing the social awkwardness and psychosis that accompany some of the greatest chess minds in history. Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer are as famous for their mental collapses as they are for their chess brilliance. After leaving highly publicized and successful chess careers, each of them succumbed to unusual behavioral patterns that indicated possible psychosis and eventually died in exile. I mention possible psychosis because neither player was ever formally given a psychiatric diagnosis. Unfortunately for modern chess, Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen may not be widely known outside the world of chess unless they suffer a significant psychological break or are involved in some form of controversy. Instead of chess greatest, the world tends to remember chess devastation and disappointment such as Bobby Fischer’s disappearance after his 1972 World Championship victory. Some people would consider this a chess-specific problem, but most professional baseball players are unknown outside of their home markets unless they commit a crime. The difficulty for many chess players with The Luzhin Defense is that it seems to perpetuate many of the stereotypes connecting chess players and psychosis because as it was with Morphy and Fischer, Luzhin meets an untimely end in the book’s final pages.

It is difficult to peer through the bias and prejudice that some people may have about the stereotypes The Luzhin Defense to see the story for what it is: the authentic psychological condition and experiences of a man whose life was held together by chess. Chess often carries the stigma that it drives its players insane, but the story of Luzhin’s life seems more like that of Morphy and Fischer in that chess was the force that held his life together. In times of chaos, people will search desperately for a way to control the world around them. Control is an illusion in itself, but a person experiencing a perceived loss of total control can become depressed or psychotic if the condition is left untreated. In the case of Alexander Luzhin, chess was the lifeblood that held his world together. He was unable to reconcile his physician’s instructions to give up the one thing that formed the fabric of his universe. Chess creates obsession in its players for various reasons, but Luzhin’s obsession had nothing to do with simple aesthetics or competition. Instead, chess represented a deeply philosophical and existential paradigm in his life. This depth of knowledge and experience within the game itself is why the love of chess has persisted throughout civilization for centuries. It is believed that chess originated as a way for military commanders to simulate battle line movements in combat4 and has been applied far beyond the military to finances and social networking. It is this apparent universalism and beautiful complexity that has cemented chess in the world’s psyche as a deeply intellectual and multidimensional game. Chess was the only thing that Luzhin had ever learned to control in his life. We may never know for sure if this was the case for Morphy or Fischer, but once Luzhin was ordered by physicians to stop playing chess or risk dying as a result, he found new ways to integrate chessic thinking into his everyday life. A simple “Hello” to a passerby could be represented by a pawn to e4, or a cordial meeting could be represented by a Knight to f3.

The Heart of a Woman

There are many fascinating parts of The Luzhin Defense story and its characters, but I believe that none are as fascinating as the unnamed young lady who marries Luzhin and becomes his rock of support through his downward spiral. It is safe to say that the story is less about chess and more about the human spirit of love and compassion in the face of hopelessness. Mrs. Luzhin, as she is referred to through the second half of the book, is arguably one of the most patient and devoted women in the history of literature. Despite Luzhin’s odd behavior and his obsession with chess, she remains a passionate and dedicated wife. In a sense, Mrs. Luzhin represents the unconditional love that only comes from the deepest and most personal place in our hearts. While most people would probably have discarded Luzhin, her open heart accepted his faults because she saw more in him as a person and recognized the elegance of a soul buried under decades of torment and despair. For a man who has known this kind of love from a woman, the story is intoxicating. For a man who yearns for this kind of love from a woman, the story is viciously inspiring. I wholeheartedly believe that if we as a people can believe the story of Alexander Luzhin’s psychosis through chess without blinking an eye, we can accept the unconditional love of a woman in the same manner. It is Mrs. Luzhin whose kindness and devotion reminds us that when the world is spiraling out of control, there is no safer place than in the heart of someone who loves us.

Are We Crazy or What?

Alexander Luzhin was probably crazy. Paul Morphy was probably crazy. Bobby Fischer was probably crazy. You are probably crazy. I am probably crazy. Do you see a pattern emerging? In some aspects, psychosis is in the eye of the beholder since what might be crazy in one culture or setting is perfectly normal in another setting. There are a growing multitude of examples where chess has proven to increase aptitudes in math and science and to help deter early onset dementia. I find it difficult to believe that chess itself is responsible for psychosis such as seen in Alexander Luzhin. Moreover, I believe that Luzhin already suffered from a psychiatric condition and that chess was a vehicle that provided him the ability to control that psychosis. Maybe someday a comprehensive study will be conducted into the development of psychiatric conditions and chess, but until then these stories will continue to exist only in the realm of conjecture, urban legend, and first-class fiction.


  1. Lasker, Edward (1951). Chess Secrets I Learned from the Masters, pp. 20-21, in the section on Curt von Bardeleben. New York, 1951. Retrieved from http://www.chesshistory.com/winter/winter55.html 

  2. Vladimir Nabokov, The Luzhin Defense (New York, NY: Vintage International, 1964), Kindle, Location 1407. 

  3. Ibid, Location 1293. 

  4. David Shenk, The Immortal Game: A History of Chess (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2006), Kindle, Location 295. 

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OffMyChess.com Yearbook Now Available!

When I began writing this blog back in May of 2014, I promised myself that I wanted it to be something simple…merely a way for me to share my chess experiences, thoughts, and passions. I have developed a significant obsession for the game over the past year or so and I am excited to announce that the first major publication from this site is now available for free download! The OffMyChess.com Yearbook 2014 is the culmination of a monumental solo-effort to compile the “greatest hits” from this site throughout the last year. There are several articles reprinted from the blog in PDF format creating an exceptional collection format.

What you will find in the yearbook:

  • God and Chess
  • Movie Review: Life of a King
  • Magnus Carlsen: The World Champion Reigns
  • Is Chess Losing Public Appeal?
  • Product reviews including Chessmate, Plycounter, and various chess boards.

Additionally, the yearbook contains 30 games annotated by myself for the OMC Weekend Review. This compilation features the news, stories, and articles from twenty weeks of OMC Weekend Review and have been revised with new annotations and diagrams to explain key moves and positions. Finally, the Yearbook is also available in ChessBase format and includes annotated copies of each game from the PDF document.

The OffMyChess.com Yearbook has been a labor of love since June of last year when I began publishing the weekly updates. It is my goal to expand on that practice through 2015 and continue to collect games that I believe are instructive and representative of the challenges that people face when undertaking a monumental task such as learning to play good chess. In the meantime, head over to the Publications page to get the PDF and ChessBase database files to enjoy the inaugural edition of OffMyChess.com Yearbook 2014!

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