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Month: February 2015

Getting Back to It

When 2015 began I was aware that there were certain things coming down the road that would take away much of my time from chess. I thought that much of what I was going to have to do would be balanced enough for me to continue writing regularly throughout, but the opposite has proven to be truth. In fact, the last chess tournament games I have had the chance to watch were some of the first round games from the FIDE Grand Prix Tbilisi 2015. Since then, I have not even had the chance to pick up a chess board or even read an article because my time commitments were so constrained.

Fortunately, today marks the end of those time constrictions and I have quite a bit of catching up to do in regards to researching the state of tournaments and the overall chess world, but now I have the free time to do such things. In regards to Campfire Chess, I am pleased to announce that the first edition of Campfire Chess Magazine will be available on March 1, 2015! The magazine replaces the quarterly OffMyChess.com Review publication, but contains many of the same article types, annotated games, and much more!

See you soon!

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Of Low Blows and Low Standards

Without a doubt Garry Kasparov is one of the best chess players in modern times. His famous rivalry with Karpov through the eighties and nineties evoked memories of the epic battles between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Yet, where Bobby Fischer was feared by his opponents, Kasparov has enticed a certain scorn and cynicism among chess players and journalists. In recent times he is probably more well known for his opposition to the Russian Federation and his attempts to unseat Kirsan Ilyumzhinov who has been the Führer of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) since the mid-nineties. Because of his temper, overt grandiosity, and transformation from World Chess Champion into political crusader, Kasparov has become the punchline of countless chess and political jokes. In the spirit of poking fun at Kasparov, authors Tibor Károlyi and Nick Aplin authored a parody of Kasparov’s penultimate book series Kasparov on Kasparov called Kasparov: How His Predecessors Misled Him About Chess.

For amateur players looking to improve their chess, losses are invaluable assets to a chess portfolio because they provide opportunities to improve one’s game. Yet, Grandmasters rarely publish books composed exclusively of losses, so the idea was unique and intriguing. Unfortunately, the idea itself is the only thing intriguing about the book. As a fan of Kasparov and his books I thought that it would be an enlightening experience to see how professionals attempting to channel his spirit would analyze and interpret some of his losses.

In the book, the authors present the text as if it were written by Kasparov himself. The intention is to present a defiantly humbled player who has decided to present some of his losses along with other key games as excuses for why he lost those games. The idea itself is pretty funny because chess players in general prefer to blame losses on a number of factors including the environment, the quality of the board, time trouble, or distractions caused by other players. Rarely will they look to themselves and simply say that the other player was better than they were. This book continues that tradition in the attempt to show what Garry Kasparov would have to say if he were trying to explain himself to the world.

As far as humor, this is about as far as the book goes. The blows are low and lack any true substance or depth. As far as the chess and analysis, it is even worse. This example is from the game Karpov vs. Markland, Hastings 1972 as presented in the book:

Position after 33…Bb5

44. Bxa7 Finally the ripened fruit drops quietly from the tree. White wins the pawn and so the rest is simple. 44…Ne7 45. Bb6 Nc8 46. Bc5 Kg6 47. a7 Nxa7 48. Bxa7 e5 49. d4 exd4 50. Bxd4 Kf7 51. f4 g5 52. fxg5 hxg5 53. Kg3 Kg6 54. Kf3 Kf5 55. g3 Karpov won this game in impressive style. This plan was implanted in my brain and I was just waiting for an opportune moment to carry it out in one of my own games. Quiet incredibly I had my chance against Karpov himself. 1-01

Here is the complete, unannotated game, which shows the prevalence of missed opportunities for deeper Kasparov analysis:

As far as the games go, they are highly educational pieces of chess history, but the commentary and analysis offered throughout the book simply does not warrant inclusion in a compilation or serious consideration by aspiring or current chess players. The book’s commentary throughout is much similar to the example above. Kasparov will offer a one to two line comment before making a statement such as The rest is obvious or The rest is simple and present 20-30 moves. For most players, ChessBase or an online database would be necessary to play through most games since little analysis is presented throughout.

I rarely write scathing reviews of chess books, but this one was incredibly disappointing. For the person who might be interested in chess history or an obsessive fan of Kasparov himself, having these games in a single collection might be appealing, but all of them are freely available online or in the ChessBase databases. In addition, there is more intriguing commentary for many of them available than what is presented in the book. Instead of being misled by this book, consider spending your money on the real deal and check out Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors or Kasparov on Kasparov.


  1. Tibor Károlyi and Nick Aplin, Kasparov: How His Predecessors Misled Him About Chess (London, UK: Batsford Chess, 2009), Kindle, Location 184. 

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The Big Deal About Berlin

In the recent World Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand, it became apparent early on that Anand was not willing to allow Carlsen the chance to dominate the contest like he had done in 2013. Instead, Anand employed a complicated opening system against the World Champion called the Berlin Defense (ECO C65-C67). This defense is a variation of the immensely popular Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5…) opening made popular by Spanish priest Ruy López de Segura. My serious study of chess has been ongoing for less than a year and it is apparent that there is more chess knowledge and application to be learned than there are hours in a person’s lifetime. Until the 2014 World Championship I had never heard of the Berlin and was intrigued by the way that chess commentators and even amateur players talked about the opening. Was it really as complex and devastating as people were making it out to be? I decided to take a look at the the feared Berlin Wall to get a better understanding of the opening and what makes it such a fearsome response to 3.Bb5.

The Beginnings: A Ruy Lopez Primer

The Ruy Lopez (ECO C60-C99) is the first opening that I learned when I began paying attention to opening theory and chose to focus on improving my chess. I did not realize until later in my chess studies that this opening was preferred by Bobby Fischer in his tournament games. The basic opening moves of the Ruy Lopez are: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5….



Fig 1: A typical Ruy Lopez game after 3.Bb5.

As you can see, White has immediate tactical control of the board and the Bishop’s position forces Black to respond to the 3.Bb5 threat or risk losing tempo to his opponent. This is where the concept of the defense comes into play. Until this point, each of these moves in the Ruy Lopez are standard and any deviation from the moves in this order moves it out of the Ruy Lopez ECO category and into another opening line. According to the Chessbase Fritz Powerbook, in most typical grandmaster games, the Berlin defense results in a 30% win rate for White, 22% for black, and a 48% draw rating. If this is the case, why would a player with the Black pieces even consider playing 3…Nf6? The answer seems to be as complicated as the Berlin Defense itself, but it seems clear that Black’s intention with 3…Nf6 is just to tell his opponent that victory will not be easy, nor will it be assured.

Berlin Defense in WC 2014

Vishy Anand used the Berlin Defense extensively throughout the World Championship match in response to Magnus Carlsen’s Ruy Lopez. For the purposes of this exercise, I have chosen to look at Game #11 of the match where I first noticed the intensity in which commentators were referring to the Berlin Defense.



Fig 2: The Berlin Defense to the Ruy Lopez.

As you can see from the diagram above, the Berlin Defense puts immediate pressure on Carlsen’s e4 pawn and challenges him for control of the d5 square. Magnus Carlsen played 4.O-O in response to 3…Nf6, which activated his Rook and put the White King to safety. At first, I recognized that this is not the move that I would have chosen and I am confident that is why I will never get to play Magnus for the title. :) On the surface, it can seem like 4.O-O is not a developing move, but it places White in an exceptional position to defend against Black’s coming assault.

Next, Anand played the Open Variation of the Berlin Defense with 4…Nxe4. In the Berlin Defense, there are three primary options that a player can respond with after 4.O-O:

  • The Open Variation (4…Nxe4).

  • The Classical Variation (4…Bc5).

  • The Rio De Janeiro Variation (4…Be7).

Another option is 4…d6 although the percentage of wins for Black drops considerably in the Powerbook to only 18% out of 78 games recorded. Each of these lines has advantages and disadvantages. Much of the theoretical research on the Berlin defense has focused on finding advantage after the e4 pawn is captured in the Open Variation. In my opinion, the capture of the e4 pawn looks much like a typical aggressive move from an online blitz game; not a world-class tournament. In any case, this was the move that Anand chose and Carlsen responded with the typical 5.d4, which attacks Anand’s e5 pawn and balances the attack on the e5 square with his Knight. Anand gained a slight material advantage by capturing the pawn, but finding the benefit of that material seems to be the challenge that many openings experts continue to debate.

The next move, 5…Nd6 is where things become overtly aggressive. The e5 pawn is left hanging in the center of the board as bait for Carlsen while the Knight on d6 attacks the waiting Bishop. In this case, the Bishop must make some kind of move, whether he chooses to launch an assault on Anand’s Queenside or to retreat back to safety. The most popular move in this position is for White to eliminate one of the Knights by playing 6.Bxc6. The Bishop is lost, but Carlsen gets one of the Knights in return. This also forces Anand to break his Queenside defense to capture the Bishop before it does any more damage.



Fig 3: The Berlin Defense Open Variation after 6.Bxc6.

Anand immediately recaptures with 6…dxc6, but the capture also enables Carlsen to regain the one pawn material advantage from the earlier 4…Nxe4. By playing 7.dxe5, Carlsen creates a dangerous passed pawn and aims straight for Anand’s territory. Anand has several options to choose from, but 7…Nf5 makes the most sense as it takes control of squares in Carlsen’s territory and opens up his Queen for attack. However, this move is one of three accepted variations in which two result in a Queen sacrifice. Either 7…Nf4 or 7…Ne4 result in a sacrifice with 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8. Carlsen responded to the move with 8.Qxd8 and Anand recaptured with his King 8…Kxd8. At this point in the game, Carlsen’s pieces are much more active than Anand’s and his King remains safely castled while Vishy has lost the ability to castle due to the forced 8…Kxd8. I have read in many chess books and heard from instructors that one of the priorities of an opening is to force the opponent to move his or her King before they are able to castle. This ensures that the King remains in the center of the board and is far more vulnerable.

9.h3 comes next although the Powerbook prefers 9.Nc3 as it gives White a slightly smaller chance of forcing a win. At this point in the Berlin Defense, it is worth noting that the Powerbook indicates that only 15% of grandmasters playing with the Black pieces have successfully forced a win from this position. However, in contrast, only 21% of grandmasters have managed a win with the White pieces. Therefore, the position is none too pleasant for either side given that the remaining 66% of games in this position have ended in a draw.



Fig 4: The most perilous position of the Berlin Defense?

The main line in this situation is 9…Ke8, but Anand deviates and plays 9…Bd7, which restores some sense of balance to the game. Carlsen and Nakamura seem to be among the top grandmasters that prefer 10.Nc3 in this position while most others play 10.Rd1 to pin the Bishop to Black’s King. Carlsen plays 10.Nc3 to which Anand follows up by developing his h-file pawn with 10…h6. This prevents Carlsen from attacking Black’s vulnerable King with 11.Bg5+ and also gives Black a little breathing room to advance his f and g pawns if necessary.

11.b3 Kc8 gets Black’s King out of danger. 12.Bb2 builds a tremendous fortress on White’s Queenside and gives additional protection to the powerful e5 pawn by moving the Knight on c3. Although White has strong counter-play against almost anything that Black can come up with, the Powerbook shows the game as already drawn with Anand’s reply of 12…c5??. As the most amateur of amateur chess players, it is difficult for me to see the real intention behind this move. There appears to be no strategic value to White’s advance of the c3 Knight to any of the squares now controlled by the c5 pawn although maybe there is some secret grandmaster handshake that must be known before this particular move can be fully understood. With the follow-on 13.Rd1, Carlsen targets the lonely Bishop guarding the Black King. 13…b6 develops another pawn on the Queenside, but it is too little too late. Carlsen played 14.Re1 and the game effectively left the book. The remaining moves were 14…Be6 15. Nd5 g5 16. c4 Kb7 17. Kh2 a5 18. a4 Ne7 19. g4 Ng6 20. Kg3 Be7 21. Nd2 Rhd8 22. Ne4 Bf8 23. Nef6 b5 24. Bc3 bxa4 25. bxa4 Kc6 26. Kf3 Rdb8 27. Ke4 Rb4 28. Bxb4 cxb4 29. Nh5 Kb7 30. f4 gxf4 31. Nhxf4 Nxf4 32. Nxf4 Bxc4 33. Rd7 Ra6 34. Nd5 Rc6 35. Rxf7 Bc5 36. Rxc7+ Rxc7 37. Nxc7 Kc6 38. Nb5 Bxb5 39. axb5+ Kxb5 40. e6 b3 41. Kd3 Be7 42. h4 a4 43. g5 hxg5 44. hxg5 a3 45. Kc3 1-0

Peering Over the Wall

The conclusion of game 11 solidified Carlsen’s win and he retained his title as World Chess Champion. Even now, chess periodicals and magazines are being published that analyze the psychology, strategy, tactics, and political overtones of the match. My February edition of Chess Life arrived yesterday and the Carlsen-Anand match is the issue’s highlighted event. I am normally fascinated with the sociological and psychological aspects of the game, but this was the first match that ever turned my attention to the nuances of a particular opening. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy playing the Ruy Lopez and after careful analysis of the Berlin Defense I can honestly say that it is a complicated position to play. There is little to no room for error in order for one side to find a way over the Berlin Wall. As I continue struggle through online blitz games and gaze endlessly at configurations from magazines and periodicals, I take solace in knowing that Vishy and Magnus are out there winning the big ones for me.

Play through the entire game below:

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Move by Move – Surber vs. 1127

I once read in a chess book that beginning players and anyone wanting to improve their level of chess play should never resign, but should play until checkmated or all material has been exhausted. Needless to say that I still resign in many of my games, but I am more hesitant to resign these days than in the past. These days, I look at a position I believe is lost, give it a quick analysis, and then decide whether there are things I can try based on the material and position I am given. Even if the position is obviously lost, there are often things to learn and challenges to behold past those positions. This game was hopelessly lost early on, but a series of blunders created by bait-traps I set throughout the game had an exhilaratingly positive outcome. It just goes to show that even when a position seems lost that unless a King is in checkmate (#), the game is not over until we, the players, decide it is. Enjoy!

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Streaks are a Fashion Trend

It is a brand new year and what an amazing year in chess that it is already turning out to be! Much of the chess world continues to look back on the 2014 Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis and compare current tournaments to Fabiano Caruana’s incredibly 7-0 winning streak. Just a couple of weeks ago, World Champion Magnus Carlsen completed a 6-0 streak to win the 2015 TATA Steel Chess Tournament in Wijk aan Zee. As Magnus closed in on tying Fabiano’s winning streak, it became apparent from the media and on the face of the champion that the pressure was mounting. After drawing the 7th game, Magnus appeared somewhat relieved and expressed little interest in extending his winning streak in the tournament. A series of missteps by Anish Giri eventually handed Carlsen the win in Wijk aan Zee. Here are the games from Carlsen’s TATA Steel 6-0 streak.

As I write this, the Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival is well underway and American GM Hikaru Nakamura just matched Carlsen’s performance with a 6-0 opening and garnering 7.5 points to begin the tournament. However, Hikaru’s streak came to an unfortunate end when he drew the 7th round game against GM David Howell:

Nakamura last faced Howell in 2011 at the 3rd London Chess Classic where he played with the White pieces and won 1-0 in 38 moves. Nakamura and Howell also faced off in 2009 and 2010 in the London Classic, but both games were draws:

Nakamura’s greatest threat to US Chess domination.

With Caruana, Carlsen, and Nakamura all performing amazing feats of chess in recent months I think that 2015 is going to be one of the most exciting years for chess! The battle for #1 player in the United States continues with Nakamura de-throning GM Wesley So due to his earning a 2795 live rating in the Gibraltar Chess Festival. Nakamura currently holds a one point lead over Howell going into the 9th round. Nakamura will face GM Axel Bachmann of England tomorrow at 8:00 AM CST with live game coverage on Chess.com and Chessbomb.

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