Jon Speelman: “Play your own moves”

by Jonathan Speelman
7/5/2020 – “The most important thing is to choose the moves you want to play — not somebody else, let alone an engine. They may not ‘theoretically’ be the best, but unless they can palpably be refuted you will do better with them than something ‘better’ which makes your stomach turn”, concludes star columnist Jon Speelman after exploring a number of instructional examples, including a couple of his games against Garry Kasparov!

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Energy and matter

[Note that Jon Speelman also looks at the content of the article in video format, here embedded at the end of the article.]

When I was Nigel Short’s second for his 1993 match in London against Garry Kasparov, I spent a lot of time sparring in ridiculously sharp Najdorf Sicilians against his other main second Robert Hübner.

At a time when computer chess was still in its infancy, analysis had to be attempted through human thought rather than with the (carbon directed) click of a mouse, and I invariably took the sacrificial side (energy) while Robert staunchly defended material (matter). Such was his prowess that perilous though the black positions looked to me, I was seldom able to split the atom. 

Chess positions in general, especially in the opening and early middlegame, can often be seen as a conflict between dynamic factors (ease of development, ability to create viable targets quickly enough) and static ones (material and pawn structure). We humans evaluate these instinctively through some alchemical process of relatively slow but highly directed analysis driven by pattern recognition, while (pre AlphaZero) engines calculate almost inconceivable number of lines, most of them irrelevant, and then count beans (maximising the minimum value of each move) in order to decide on the best course.

As we are all too well aware, the bean counting — which is admittedly very sophisticated nowadays with pieces given different values depending on where they are on the board and complex evaluations of pawn structures — is sufficient to defeat humans the vast majority of the time. However, this is arguably still not because “machines play chess better than people”, but because they are superb error checkers.

In the absence of software bugs or hardware failure, machines simply don’t make tactical errors as such  — or certainly not ones that we can exploit. But even the strongest human players do make the odd tactical mistake, especially when the move that exploits it appears antipositional — e.g. giving up a wonderful bishop for a useless knight to win significant material afterwards.

A marginal example of this occurred in the Armageddon game between Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura in the semi-final of the Lindores Abbey tournament in May. In the diagram position, I did actually notice 22.Bxd5 at the time (I have no idea whether Carlsen did). In fact, engines like it, but I'm not sure whether I’d have played it myself in a must-win blitz game since it does take some of the pressure off Black.


Should White capture 22.Bxd5 when Nxd5 23.Rxc6 is forced since other recaptures lose to Nf6+?


Exchange sacrifices

One material balance, which is difficult to assess accurately and was a real problem for the engines in the early days, is the exchange. 

In the same tournament, Sergey Karjakin, after losing the first game against Daniil Dubov in their quarter-final, in the diagram decided as Black to give the exchange for long term pressure:


Here Karjakin tried 23...Rxe3!?

Such exchange sacrifices are really hard to assess, and in fact Karjakin got a very decent game but in the end he tried a bit too hard and was splatted on the white squares on the kingside.


Here 79.Rxf7! soon led to utter destruction.

The really interesting question is how you assess 23...Rxe3 and whether you'd try to avoid it as White. Some people really like being the exchange up whereas others, including me, feel mild nausea over the black square weaknesses.

When I consulted our lords and masters, Houdini had Rxe3 in its top couple of choices and quite liked it afterwards; Komodo didn't really consider Rxe3 and wasn't very impressed; and Fritz also didn't really consider Rxe3 or like it much. The lesson is that computer assessments (in this range at least) are only numbers and you have to decide for yourself whether you like a move.

Of course this applies to assessments in fairly unclear positions, but if an engine suddenly jumps from + something small to +3 or +4 then you know that an accident has happened and can either look yourself or consult the engine itself to find the tactical refutation. 


Playing Garry

Nigel got splatted by Kasparov at the start of their world championship match but fought back admirably, taking Garry on in some breathtakingly violent Sicilians and actually drew the second half of the twenty game match 5-all: +1, -1, =8.

The sort of chess he played as White in those Sicilians is something I couldn't have contemplated myself, and my own record against Kasparov is fairly miserable with a lot of losses and some draws (which I generally achieved when I managed to impersonate “Trickster” sufficiently well in bad positions) and just a single win in a rapid game. 

But I actually enjoyed playing Garry — the games that is, not the results. I find naked aggression much easier to deal with than a more covert desire to win by the enemy. And when he showed his emotions, even when he was happy, it was far from unhelpful to be given an assessment by the best player in the world. 

The game I won was sufficiently flawed that I didn't include it in my “Best Games” book, preferring instead one game where I managed to draw after playing a move which bamboozled him but that still eventually led to an unpleasant ending. 


Here I very much enjoyed playing 21...Be3 even though I suffered later. 


In the game which I did win against Garry, I sacrificed/lost the exchange early on after a rather gruesome opening “experiment”, but fought on and then tricked him in an ending with rook and knight v two rooks. 


Here 41.Kh4? was a losing blunder.


Chess is too difficult for even the best human players to not sometimes make mistakes. The most important thing is to choose the moves you want to play — not somebody else, let alone an engine. They may not “theoretically” be the best but unless they can palpably be refuted, you will do better with them than something “better” which makes your stomach turn.

How I became World Champion Vol.1 1973-1985

Garry Kasparov's rise to the top was meteoric and at his very first attempt he managed to become World Champion, the youngest of all time. In over six hours of video, he gives a first hand account of crucial events from recent chess history, you can improve your chess understanding and enjoy explanations and comments from a unique and outstanding personality on and off the chess board.


Jonathan Speelman, born in 1956, studied mathematics but became a professional chess player in 1977. He was a member of the English Olympic team from 1980–2006 and three times British Champion. He played twice in Candidates Tournaments, reaching the semi-final in 1989. He twice seconded a World Championship challenger: Nigel Short and then Viswanathan Anand against Garry Kasparov in London 1993 and New York 1995.


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