Saunders: Is chess becoming faster?

by John Saunders
11/28/2019 – In his latest opinion piece, published in the December issue of CHESS Magazine, associate editor John Saunders reflects on the changing face of top-level competition chess as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, with particular emphasis on the way world champions such as Botvinnik, Kasparov and Carlsen have influenced competition formats. Official recognition of the Fischer-Random chess variant and the demographic of the next Wijk ann Zee A tournament — with not a single player aged in their 30s or 40s — show that this evolutionary process has never been stronger.

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Moves that matter

British Prime Minister Harold Wilson is usually credited as having said “A week is a long time in politics.” It strikes me that a month is a long time in chess as, since, penning my November article, we’ve had the finish of the FIDE World Cup, the inaugural FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss in the Isle of Man and the European Team Championship in Batumi. If we include chess variants, there has also been the FIDE World Fischer Random Chess Championship in Norway.

If all that high-level chess hasn’t provided enough to think about, I have just attended the launch of Jonathan Rowson’s new book, The Moves That Matter. I’ve only had it in my hands for a few hours and it’s already sent my mind racing in all sorts of directions. My article last month was on thinking in chess, but that was just paddling in the shallow end compared to this Olympian plunge into deeper waters, which we are told was 13 years in the writing, and represents a distillation of the Scottish GM’s thoughts about chess, how it relates to culture, how it’s perceived by non-players, and much more. It’s too early for me to say any more about it, other than to convey how much I am looking forward to reading the rest of it.

I felt incredibly privileged to witness the action in the Isle of Man, observing an unfeasibly large number of super-GMs fighting for the big money prize and the coveted seat in the 2020 Candidates tournament. It was possible to enjoy the tournament at home, via the good offices of Chess.com and their splendid commentators Daniel King and Anna Rudolf, but being physically close to the players, and chatting to them between rounds, somehow heightened awareness of the energy-sapping nature of big-time chess competition.

My primary emotion was admiration for the players’ stamina. Even more so, for the resilience of those players who took part in three or more of the events cited in the opening paragraph. Anyone who has ever played in a chess competition knows how wearing the experience often is, but it is hard to overestimate just how much more pressure is on, and energy expended by, top professionals who compete in these high-profile events. Hence their occasional double-question-mark lapses are all too explicable.

The Fischer Random championship in Norway had me thinking. FIDE has now given it their endorsement, as has Magnus Carlsen, who told an interviewer how he and all the top players love it. Mind you, that was before Wesley So had comprehensively thrashed him in the final. But good may come of that since it is more likely to whet Carlsen’s appetite for revenge. All it needs is for a sponsor to put up the cash for the Carlsen-So revenge match and I’m sure we will all be riveted to our screens.

One oddity was that this was billed as a world championship, but the title did not include the adjective ‘rapid’ or ‘rapidplay’. Is there no interest in using a slower time control for Fischer Random, or having separate world titles for slow, rapid and blitz as in ‘Chess001’ (as I am minded to nickname traditional fixed-start-position chess)? These are still early days, but I wonder if this is part of a gradual move to speed up the game in all its forms.

More generally, I was intrigued by Carlsen’s seal of approval. It’s perhaps another example of how a pre-eminent world champion (even a dead one, like Fischer) can exert influence on the format of the game. The last major change to the way the game was played occurred in the 1990s when adjournments gave way to single-session chess with a quicker time limit. Garry Kasparov was world champion at the time and I don’t think this was a coincidence.

Prior to Kasparov perhaps the greatest influence on the format of the game was Mikhail Botvinnik. It was the Soviet chess patriarch’s misfortune that what would have been his prime chess years coincided with the Second World War, but he made the best of things into his 40s and beyond when chess sessions were limited to five hours and you could benefit from your minions’ analysis in subsequent sessions after a comfort break. If you didn’t get the better of your opponent in the first session, you could refresh yourself, regroup and exploit your superior teamwork in the second. That wasn’t just the secret of Botvinnik’s individual games, but also that of two world championship cycles, as he went on to be the ‘second session’ destroyer of Smyslov and Tal in return matches in 1958 and 1961.

Moving forward to the 1990s, the Botvinnik pattern didn’t suit Kasparov. He sought to indulge his (and his helpers’) marked edge in the opening phase of the game and, being a younger and fitter man, was often able to outlast his opponents’ stamina in a longer single session. This led to the chess we have today, spuriously labelled ‘classical’ (at best neo-classical), with its premium on opening knowledge and physical stamina, at the expense of the endgame, which only Carlsen and a handful of others play at a level comparable with stars of the adjournment era, and the fading away of older players who can’t keep pace with the game’s physical demands.

I thought of this last point again when I saw the line-up for the 2020 Wijk aan Zee tournament. In descending age order: Vishy Anand, who will be 50 when the tournament starts; then a huge gap to the second and third oldest players in the 14-player event, Ian Nepomniachtchi and Magnus Carlsen, who will both be 29. The rest of the line-up is composed of younger players in their 20s or teens. It looks like a fascinating line-up, and will be great to follow, but it is amazing to think that not a single player aged in their 30s or 40s will be taking part.

I suspect Carlsen has broadly similar format preferences to Kasparov in the 1990s, minus the burning passion for sharp opening theory, hence the Fischer Random variant may look like an attractive prospect. The same goes for his younger rivals, of course: Wesley So’s performance in the event was very impressive and the variant might suit him rather better than it does Carlsen. It will be fascinating to see how this story develops.


A Sicilian Stunner - The Kalashnikov

A Sicilian Stunner — The Kalashnikov
Nick Pert, running time: 5 hours ChessBase PC-DVD

Another month, another Sicilian. I must admit, when my friend and I first heard someone say ‘Sicilian Kalashnikov’ back in the early 1990s, we assumed they were making a joke version of the name ‘Sveshnikov’ and my friend even went out of his way to correct what he had assumed was a humorous misnomer. Little did we know that it really was an authentic member of the Sicilian family, but information travelled much more slowly back in the pre-internet days.

The Kalashnikov has yet to reach the degree of popularity enjoyed by the Sveshnikov, perhaps because it allows White to play an early c4, due to Black delaying the move ...Nf6. It is worth stressing the difference in the specific move orders. The Kalashnikov starts thus: 1.e4 c5 2.♘f3 ♞c6 3.d4 cxd4 4.♘xd4 e5 5.♘b5 d6; whereas the Sveshnikov uses an extra knight move by bothsides: 1.e4 c5 2.♘f3 ♞c6 3.d4 cxd4 4.♘xd4 ♞f6 5.♘c3 e5 6.♘b5 d6, when c2-c4 is obviously not possible.

Presenter Nick Pert is keen to stress the advantage of choosing the lesser popular of the two:

“The Kalashnikov is a favourite weapon of mine in the main line of the Sicilian Defence. It is closely related to the Sveshnikov, but with much less theory to learn.”

When a reigning world champion makes a variation his top choice it is natural to see many others follow suit. Since Carlsen’s adoption of the Sveshnikov, the theory gap between that and the Kalashnikov is likely to remain for some time, which makes the latter a potentially easier option for club and tournament players to utilise. Furthermore, it offers the appealing promise of aggression to the second player.

Nick Pert notes that “Many of the ideas are thematic and Black can achieve attacking positions in several of the variations. The lines have all been thoroughly checked and will hopefully provide the viewer with the confidence to play this opening.” He is a good presenter, sticking admirably to the point

throughout the video lectures, although that is not to say there is no time for humour; he freely admits he was initially drawn to the Kalashnikov by its “cool name”.

The coverage starts with the sidelines on move five and six, such as 5.♘f5, 6.♗g5 and several others before hitting the main lines of 6.Nc3 and 6.c4. Then there is coverage of a couple of earlier oddities — namely 2.♘c3 followed by either 3.♘ge2 or 3.♘f3 — before 15 test positions and a training option bring the disc to a close.

It makes good sense to carefully examine the lines starting with 1.e4 c5 2.f3 c6 3.d4 cxd4 4.xd4 e5 5.b5 d6 and then 6.c4, which see White trying to exploit the main difference between this line and the Sveshnikov by setting up the infamous Maroczy Bind. The pawns on e4 and c4 can lead to a slow strangulation and some players would be naturally suspicious about the backward d-pawn. However, the defence is nothing if not dynamic and Pert shows ways in which Black can achieve the almost unthinkable by breaking out with ...d6-d5. Naturally, it does require a favourable breeze of tactics.

 

This position looks like a formidable Maroczy Bind, but Black can now play 16...d5!, exploiting the undefended state of the knight on a3, and if 17.exd5 xa3 18.dxe6 xe6 19.cd1 e7 with equal chances.

The layout and selection of material are both nicely judged. There are model games, a full repertoire for Black and a series of interactive questions to test viewers’ knowledge of the material. The Kalashnikov may be a suitable new weapon to hone between seasons and this DVD would be a very good source of material on which to start.

Sean Marsh


The Torre Attack

The Torre Attack
Simon Williams, running time: 7 hours ChessBase PC-DVD

The self-styled ‘Ginger GM’ is back, with two new DVDs for ChessBase. This time he turns his attention away from main lines featuring the earliest possible aggression and offers instead coverage of the Colle System and the Torre Attack. This review will focus on the latter, while noting that the Colle and Torre make ideal partners for a 1.d4 repertoire if White doesn’t want to address the main lines after 2.c4. Even here, theory has been expanding and it is quaint to see on the DVD cover the standard hook, “This opening is perfect for players who do not have unlimited time to memorise hours and hours of theory”, alongside a run time of seven hours (and five hours for the Colle System).

The seven hours are entertaining though; Williams is a presenter with an easy style, backed up by plenty of experience. The blurb has it right when it announces: “In this DVD, GM Simon Williams shows you how to play this opening in an aggressive yet simple way” by “Concentrating on learning being fun yet effective."

Williams Torre DVDThe Torre Attack aims to turn 1.d4, 2.♘f3 and 3.♗g5 into a potent weapon and one in which opponents may find themselves treading unfamiliar paths. Theoretically, Black should have no problems (otherwise it would be seen much more often at the higher levels), but at club level the Torre can indeed pack a punch, especially as most opponents will have spent most of their limited anti-1 d4 study time over the last few years trying to fathom a way to keep winning chances on the board against the amazingly popular London System. Having the energy to push the bishop one square further than f4 can definitely bring rewards.

Some players prefer to use the Colle against ...e6 and/or ...d5 options by Black, others use the Torre only against 1...♞f6 and 2...g6. Williams offers good suggestions against 1...Ìf6 and 2...e6 in addition to the King’s Indian Defence approach, but in the last of the 20 lectures he acknowledges that 1.d4 d5 2.♘f3 ♞f6 3.♗g5 ♞e4 is very comfortable for Black and one of the lines in which the Torre is just not effective. At such times, Williams is honest about the problem and recommends playing an early c2-c4 instead, abandoning the ‘d4 system’ approach or even 3.♗f4, with a London System. However, the Torre contains plenty of bite throughout the other video lectures. Needless to say, Williams is generally in favour of an aggressive approach, complete with hyperactive h-pawns. This gives him plenty of opportunity to call the pawn ‘Harry’, a conceit which is wearing more than a little thin (I never even liked Rowson’s ‘Delroy’, which is where this trend for anthropomorphism started).

Nomenclature aside, I was taken by the idea of White exchanging the Torre bishop for the knight on f6 without being prompted by ...h6. The point is that Black could eventually choose a good moment to play either ...♞d5 or ...♞h5, initiating comforting exchanges of his own. This looks like a fresh and energising idea, which had hitherto escaped my attention. There must be psychological barriers standing in the way of the voluntary, impromptu capture by the Torre bishop, which means the idea could come as a big surprise to the opponent.

 

In fact I was surprised to see how widespread such a capture is in the Torre, even in standard positions. Here, for instance, Black may think equality is on the way after the natural 9...e5, but could be in for a big disappointment, due to 10.dxe5 xe5 11.xe5 xe5 12.f4 and now 12...d6 (maintaining options of breaking the pin with ...♝e7) runs into 13.e4 dxe4? 14.xf6!, which forces the undesirable 14...gxf6, as 14...xf6? 15.xe4 e7 16.xd6 xd6? 17.xh7+! is clearly intolerable.

There is a lot of material here and seven hours is certainly not a trivial time investment, but the Torre Attack would make a useful addition to any white repertoire, albeit not necessarily as the main choice.

Sean Marsh


About CHESS Magazine

The above article is reproduced from Chess Magazine December/2019, with kind permission.

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In 1999 John Saunders gave up his job as an IT professional to become full-time editor/webmaster of 'British Chess Magazine'. During the 2000s he was also webmaster and magazine editor for the English Chess Federation, and regular webmaster and photo-reporter at Isle of Man and Gibraltar tournaments. In 2010 he became editor of the leading UK monthly 'CHESS' Magazine, retiring in 2012 but remaining its associate editor and regular contributor.
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