Thursday, February 24, 2011

Learning to Sense Danger at the Amateur Teams

Goeller - Williams, White to play
Should White play 25.Bxb6 or 25.Rxb6?
Goeller - Lima, White to play
Should White play 21.g4 or some other move?
Kopec - Goeller, Black to move
Black wants to play Bxf3 and dxc4, but in what order?
I have annotated three of my more interesting games in a piece titled "Learning to Take My Opponent's Threats Seriously at the 2011 World Amateur Teams."  That sums up the big lesson I needed to learn from my games, and the three diagrams above show the crucial position from each game where I went wrong because I did not think carefully enough about my opponent's threats.  I did see the threats and sensed the danger.  I just did not take those threats seriously.  Fortunately, I was able to get a draw in two of the games.  And I managed a 50% score on Board One for our team, so I'm pretty happy with how things went overall.

I will be posting some more games and stories from the recently concluded World Amateur Team tournament soon.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Amateur Team Weekend

The Chess Party of the Year Is About to Begin shouts the headline at USCF online as we head into President's Day weekend and the 41st year of the US Amateur Teams.  There seem to be some strong teams in contention, including one organized by Dean Ippolito that comes in at 2199 and is sure to be sitting on top board for at least the first rounds.  In the past few years, I have played on the Kenilworth A team and have been myself in the hunt for the top prize, which usually includes your team's photograph on the cover of Chess Life (the ultimate amateur chess player validation).  But after we lost last year despite being the only team going into the last round with a perfect 5-0 record and playing on Board One for all the marbles, I think it seemed inevitable we'd go our separate ways this year.   

This year there will be many teams with Kenilworth players, including the wonderful Chessaholics teams organized by Mike Wojcio (who came back special from Hawaii to play again this year).  My own team will be The Kenilworthians (rated 1931), with myself, Ian Mangion, Don Carrelli, and Max Sherer in board order -- a true Kenilworth team, with all of us having participated in the club championship.  We'll see how it goes.  Those looking to get psyched should read Team Spirit by Glenn Petersen and Tournament for the Rest of Us by Glenn Budzinski.

Meanwhile, just for fun I annotated three interesting games from USATE 2010 to help me remember that there are always chances and second chances in amateur games.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Big Clamp

I have assembled a games collection at titled The Big Clamp to help me study IM Lawrence Day's "Big Clamp" strategy. I first read about "The Big Clamp" in Modern Chess Theory where it was published as "Sicilian - The Big Clamp" (3:5-6, pp. 46-59) and "The Big Clamp II" (4:1, pp. 42-55).  Those interested in getting a copy can purchase the 1980-1981 and 1981-1982 volumes of Modern Chess Theory edited by Raymond Keene from Hardinge Simpole, or search out Day's rare little volume titled The Big Clamp: An Anti-Sicilian System (The Chess Player 1984) which reproduces those two articles with two additional games Day played in 1983.  In researching this post, I discovered that Day's 32-page pamphlet can also be viewed and downloaded at Scribd (see The Big Clamp: An Anti-Sicilian System).  My 100-game collection includes most of the games given by Day along with some of my own supplements showing the 19th Century origins of the clamp theme and some of its continued influence.  

I was intrigued enough by the 19th Century origins of the strategy that I picked up Cary Utterberg's wonderful book De la Bourdonnais versus McDonnell, 1834: The Eighty-Five Games of Their Six Chess Matches, with Excerpts from Additional Games Against Other Opponents (McFarland 2005) which made me recognize how Philidor's pawn strategy influenced play up until the Romantic era of Anderssen and Morphy, when the focus of theory turned to tempi and made pawns mere objects of sacrifice to blast open lines for piece play. One of the most common ways to pursue the Big Clamp today is the Grand Prix Attack (1.e4 c5 2.f4) which McDonnell first employed with success in game five of the first match.  According to Utterberg, this line was called the "Philidor Variation" because it followed analysis by Philidor.   Not surprisingly, Morphy greatly disapproved of this line, writing, "If there is anything to be regretted in connection with the combats between these illustrious players, it is the pertinacity with which McDonnell persisted in adopting, in two of the debuts which most frequently occur, a line of play radically bad."  He continues: "The move of [2.Nf3], or still better, [2.d4], are those now generally recognized as the best" (quoted in Utterberg, p. 58). In some ways, The Big Clamp represents a rediscovery of Philidor's legacy, as I suggested in my piece on The Philidor Clamp.  

That legacy continues today, most visibly in the intriguing 1.e4 c5 2.Na3 line in the Sicilian, which Stefan Bücker connects directly to the Big Clamp concept in his article "A Knight on the Edge, Part One"  and Part Two. Nigel Davies (who had recommended the Big Clamp via 1.e4 c5 2.d3 in "Strangling the Sicilian with 2.d3!") picks up on 2.Na3 in "1.e4 for the Creative Attacker" which sets forth a very interesting Big Clamp inspired repertoire that includes Glek's Four Knights with g3, the McDonnell - Labourdonnais Attack (1.e4 e6 2.f4), and 2.f4 vs the Pirc.  You can see a nice games collection at Chessgames to get a feel for the rest.  

You know an idea is deeply entrenched when even amateur players are invited to develop a repertoire based on its principles.  A Big Clamp repertoire with 1.e4 followed by d3 is set forth in De Witte Leeuw (The White Lion) by Leo Jansen and Jerry van Rekom, the amateur authors of the interesting Black Lion (on 1...d6 leading to the Philidor).  Another repertoire based on 1.e4 followed soon by f4 is presented by Alex Bangiev in White Repertoire for 1.e4, which includes the Vienna Gambit, Grand Prix Attack, and Advance Variation vs. the Caro-Kann.  I have personally presented a number of articles that together begin to set forth a Big Clamp repertoire for White built around the Grand Prix Attack vs the Sicilian and the McDonnell - Labourdonnais Attack vs the French.  Day's The Big Clamp has been a continuing inspiration, and one I wanted to share with others.  I welcome readers' suggestions for how to fill out the rest of the repertoire, and I am especially intrigued by the idea of building a Big Clamp repertoire from the Black side.    More to come.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Another McDonnell - La Bourdonnais Attack

White to play.  What's the best plan of attack?
I have annotated the game Goeller - Sherer, Kenilworth CC Championship 2011, from the fourth round of the club championship played Thursday night.  It was my second McDonnell - La Bourdonnais Attack (1.e4 e6 2.f4) of this tournament, and a very complex and interesting game.  Of course, it probably could have been even better if I didn't have to play the second half of it with less than a minute plus 5 second increment on my clock.  I definitely have to work on my time management!  But despite my time challenge, I still managed to pull off a win, putting me in contention for the championship next week in a final round game with tournament leader Ken Chieu.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Frank Brady's "Endgame": Review and Webliography

Frank Brady's Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness is the only book that tells the complete story of Bobby Fischer (now that his years have been numbered at 64), and the only biography to do so with deep knowledge and compassion.  It has justly received widespread attention and praise, as detailed in the webliography below (which I have updated to include Kasparov's comments).  

From the opening chapter (available for preview online), readers sense that this is not a standard biography of the Cold War chess champion and later reclusive anti-American anti-Semite.  Instead, it is a compelling recreation of Fischer's life and times that helps us understand how he saw the world so that we can leap over the barriers of negativity we may have constructed around him to recognize again what an amazing person Fischer was (especially given his circumstances).  Brady does a remarkable job of combining scrupulous historical research with a storyteller's gift for significant detail, so that readers not only trust the teller but allow themselves to be transported by the tale.  It is quite appropriate that Brady has recorded an audio CD of the book (you can hear clips online), since the author -- a famous biographer who knew Fischer well -- has a powerful ethos and deep affection for his subject that is made contagious through his voice.  I have often said to myself that I "despise the man but love his games," but Endgame's humanizing vision of Fischer makes it possible to accept the whole package.

Brady's description of Fischer's economically impoverished childhood inspires the most sympathy, not only for Fischer but for his entire family.  Many biographers have portrayed Fischer's mother, Regina, in a very negative way, practically blaming her for Fischer's later greed and paranoia.  But Brady gives the full background, more accurately depicting Regina as a WWII Jewish immigrant forced to flee Europe and return to the country of her childhood, leaving behind her credentials (she had studied medicine for six years) and her husband (Gerhardt Fischer's German citizenship prevented him from emigrating to the U.S.)  She raised two children in Brooklyn as a single, working mother driven to take a variety of jobs while studying to be a nurse.  I am fully persuaded by Brady's view (mentioned in "In Defense of Bobby Fischer's Family," where he mostly debunks ridiculous spying allegations) that Regina did the best she could for young Bobby and that we should admire how tirelessly she worked to support her kids and to promote Fischer's success.  I knew some things about Fischer's family and childhood circumstances, but Brady's account helped me appreciate what it must have been like for Fischer as a "latchkey child" coming home "to an empty apartment," with no father and "little sense of neighborhood" due to his family's frequent moves.  We come to see how chess provided the male mentoring and sense of community that Fischer craved, inspiring him to the long hours of study that made it possible to rise to the top and achieve international celebrity.

Probably anyone could make us sympathetic toward Fischer the child.  That's the Fischer we already love -- the brilliant boy who played the Game of the Century.  It takes a lot of work to make us sympathetic to Fischer the adult, especially in the pages that follow the description of Fischer's many diatribes against the U.S. and "the Jews" during interviews on Hungarian and Phillipine radio, including the infamous interview following 9/11 when he said "I applaud the act" and "I want to see the U.S. wiped out."  Brady reports these facts carefully and offers no defense of Fischer's ravings, though he suggests some of what inspired his animus.  But while he rejects the words, he does not give up on the man, and Fischer remains always very human, if very flawed, in Brady's account. 

Brady's description of Bobby's indomitable fighting spirit as a youth helps us to understand and even identify with some of the more uncivil and even bizarre ways that trait was expressed in later life.  Fischer's demands, his seemingly peevish outrage over arbitrary limitations, his refusal to bow to authority under any circumstances -- all these behaviors can be interpreted as natural extensions (if sometimes exaggerations) of the very personality that helped him at the chessboard.  With his personality and background in mind, it becomes easier to understand Fischer's actions, as when Brady tells the story of Fischer's incarceration in Japan, where he physically resisted arrest and fought the guards on numerous occasions.  Fischer's behavior had been depicted in the press as obvious evidence of dementia, but Brady simply presents the facts in the context of Fischer's personality so that we see him as fighting for his right to be free and independent -- desires with which we can all identify.  To make this work, Brady turns to the techniques of a fiction writer.  Reader preconceptions dissolve from the opening sentence as Brady recreates the scene of Fischer's 2004 arrest, using the moment when our epic hero most felt like he was facing death to transport us, in medias res, into Fischer's worldview: "'I can't breathe!  I can't breathe!' Bobby Fischer's screams were muffled by the black hood tied tightly around his head.  He felt as if he were suffocating, near death.  He shook his head furiously to loosen the covering" (1). By making us occupy Fischer's perspective, he helps us to understand better what drove him to the perpetual struggle against his jailers, who Fischer clearly saw as adversaries in a very serious game.  One passage from the book gives some telling details:
Bobby was like a caged panther, pacing up and down, continually complaining about everything, from the food, to the temperature, to the disrespect his captors showed him, and screaming at the guards. [...]  Once, when he told the guard who brought him his breakfast that his soft-boiled eggs were really hard-boiled and that he wanted an additional egg, they got into a scuffle.  He ended up in solitary confinement for several days and wasn't permitted visits or even allowed to leave his cell.  Another time, he purposely stepped on the glasses of a guard he didn't like and was given solitary again (283).
When I heard about similar behavior in news accounts following Fischer's arrest, I think it made me less sympathetic toward him and simply sad that he was so "insane."  But reading this in the context of Brady's biography, I felt a sense of identification with Bobby, some agreement with his view that his detention was unjust (as Brady points out, he was the only known individual against whom the U.S. government attempted to enforce sanctions), and a willingness to see his behavior -- while atrocious -- as a potentially sane response to a crazy situation (simply exaggerated by what Malcolm Gladwell would call "the power of context").

Brady's book brings readers to a place where they can sympathize with Fischer even at his worst, such as in his seemingly grasping and greedy behavior. I was especially persuaded by Brady's parallels between Fischer and impoverished artists who rarely are able to capitalize on the fair market value of the beautiful things they produce or the memorabilia they owned.  Again, Brady's specific and scrupulously researched details tell the story.  Of the Game of the Century he writes: "In today's market, the estimate auction price for the original score sheet is $100,000.  Bobby's remuneration from the American Chess Foundation for his sparkling brilliancy?  Fifty dollars" (65).  In 1982, Fischer sold his infamous pamphlet I Was Tortured in the Pasadena Jailhouse for $1 per copy.  "Twenty five years later, an original copy of I Was Tortured... was selling as a collector's item for upward of $500" (228).  You begin to understand why Fischer may have become so obsessed, late in his life, with the fact that his possessions in U.S. storage were auctioned off (a Jewish conspiracy against him according to Bobby, but an unfortunate mistake that those responsible for tried to correct according to Brady). With so many out to exploit and profit from his celebrity, why shouldn't Bobby get a piece of the action?  Why shouldn't he feel deeply betrayed that his possessions were auctioned off to become items of trade among the chess public?  These are the type of sympathetic questions that Brady's book makes readers consider, and we cannot help but gain a much more rounded view of a very complex man after reading it.

The book's release seems to coincide with a rising tide of Fischer reappraisals, including Liz Garbus's much-touted documentary film Bobby Fischer Against the World (HBO).  It may just do a lot to help restore Bobby to the country and the people he worked so hard to alienate and make it possible for chess to have its king again.

Selective Webliography of Thoughtful Reviews and Interviews
  • Mike Barry, "Eye on the Island" at AntonNews "This might sound odd but Fischer’s career arc was comparable to that of a successful boxer, with a meteoric rise followed by a stunning, slow-motion fall. "
  • Kim Becker, "Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall" at LiquidHip blog
  • Will Boisvert, "The Troubled King of Chess" interview with Frank Brady
  • Brooklyn64 blog, "Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall"
  • John Carroll, "Juggling chain saws" at
  • Caroline Jackson, "Mentor helped young Bobby Fischer make right moves" interview in The Villager.  "Brady met the chess master-to-be when he was in his late teens and Fischer was 10 or 11. Brady saw a group surrounding a table where Fischer was playing a quick match between tournament games. Brady said a man asked Fischer why he made a certain move and Fischer exclaimed, 'Please, this is a chess game. This is brain surgery. Don’t ask me that.'"
  • Garry Kasparov, "The Bobby Fischer Defense" in The New York Review of Books.  "Brady’s book is an impressive balancing act and a great accomplishment. Before even picking up the book there is no reason to doubt that Brady liked Bobby Fischer and that he has a friend’s as well as a fan’s rooting interest for the American chess hero. But there are few obvious traces of that in Endgame, which does not shy away from presenting the darker sides of Fischer’s character even while it does not attempt to judge or diagnose it. What results is a chance for the reader to weigh up the evidence and come to his own conclusions—or skip judgments completely and simply enjoy reading a rise-and-fall story that has more than a few affinities with Greek tragedy."
  • Al Lawrence, "Looks at Books: Frank Brady's Masterpiece" at USCF Online. "The book’s you-are-there quality comes in large part from the fact that Brady was indeed so often there, involved in directing both the 1963-64 U.S. Championship, in which Bobby scored his famous 11-0 sweep, as well as Fischer’s participation by telex in the 1965 Capablanca Memorial, where the rest of the competitors played face-to-face in Havana, while Fischer hunched over a board at the New York City’s Marshall Chess Club through games extended several hours by the transmission process. Brady shared walks, talks and dinners with the young chess champion, experiencing first-hand both Bobby’s comradeship and pique."
  • Dana Mackenzie, "Review of Frank Brady's Endgame" at Dana Blogs Chess "The first 200 pages of Endgame, which take us through the end of the Fischer-Spassky world championship match, do not contain any revelations that will knock your socks off. But they do provide a rich narrative of this more public part of Fischer’s life, which will help you understand Fischer’s point of view a little bit better. ... The last 130 pages are the ones that chess players, I think, will read the most avidly. Brady fills us in on all the things we didn’t know about Fischer’s life after 1972, the details that Fischer himself tried his best to keep hidden (as, indeed, he tried to keep himself hidden)."
  • Tom Mackin, "Endgame: A book review" in The Star Ledger.  "In this stark, unsparing biography, Frank Brady, who spent a good deal of time with Fischer, calls him “a brilliant, quixotic chess prince.” He also displays his deep knowledge of the game, managing to make a simple chess notation like “pawn to king four” as exciting as a game-winning pass to a receiver in the end zone."
  • Janet Maslin, Odd, Odd Case of Bobby Fischer in The New York Times.  "Mr. Brady, a biographer dangerously drawn to megalomania (he has also written books about Aristotle Onassis and Orson Welles), takes a demystifying approach to Fischer’s eccentricities. He sees the person behind the bluster, and he presents that person in a reasonably realistic light."
  • Laura Miller, "Endgame: The genius and madness of Bobby Fischer" review at  "Frank Brady's Endgame ... presents Fischer's story with an almost Olympian evenhandedness that ends up making it far more absorbing than any sensationalized account. Brady knew Fischer as a child, as Fischer was emerging as a chess prodigy in New York City, but the author renders himself almost invisible in this book. The cloud of chaos and ire that Fischer walked around in all his life doesn't seem to have infected his biographer at all."
  • Dennis Monokroussos, "A Review of Frank Brady's 'Endgame'" at The Chess Mind blog.  "Brady is also rather gentle with Fischer. It’s by no means a whitewash, but it would be very easy to write a book – an accurate and objective book – in which he comes out looking far worse than he does in Endgame. My overall impression is that Brady is a little too sympathetic, but perhaps it helps balance one-sided portrayals of him as an anti-Jewish, anti-American nutjob."
  • Jamie P., "Check(mate) this ego - 'Endgame' by Frank Brady" at the Suchabooknerd blog.  "I don’t know jack about chess. ... Interesting note:  One of Fischer’s classmates was a young girl named Barbra Streisand, who admits to having had a crush on the mysterious Fischer.  Who knew?"
  • Matthew Price, "Brilliant Player, Bad Moves" in the Boston Globe. "In “Endgame,’’ Frank Brady, a communications professor at St. John’s University, tells the story of Fischer’s life with dramatic flair and a sense of judiciousness. Fischer could be unruly, pathologically touchy, and repulsively insulting, but he played chess brilliantly. At times, Brady, who knew Fischer and studied his life for decades, cannot quite keep the fiend and genius in balance, however much he fills us with a sense of Fischer’s torments. “Endgame,’’ to its credit, is not written solely with chess aficionados in mind; Brady, a longtime chess hand and founder of Chess Life magazine, explains the technical aspects of the game with an appealing clarity as he tells the story of Fischer’s fame and fall."
  • Guy Raz, "The Troubled Genius of Bobby Fischer" on NPR's All Things Considered.  Interview and book excerpt.
  • Jim West, "Definitive Book on Bobby Fischer" at Jim West on Chess.  "Endgame is a page turner, like a detective novel except the mystery never gets solved because Fischer's life is stranger than fiction."

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Chess Ngrams

Karpov vs. Kasparov

I was testing out Google's Ngrams tool (which allows you to search the relative occurrence of words across one million books in English) and got some expected results.
Chess, checkers, and backgammon