Jon Speelman: The search for less than perfection (or when -0.07 > 0.11)

by Jonathan Speelman
5/5/2024 – One of the most interesting aspects of the Candidates Tournament was the superb opening preparation, and in particular how they managed to set each other problems which hadn’t been foreseen. This is a special skill that involves interacting with the fearsome engines not to find the “best” moves but ones which are almost as strong according to the silicon evaluation — but lower down the food chain! | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

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Snowed under by variations

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

Last month I was writing at the beginning of the Candidates Tournament and prognosticated accordingly. Looking back, I didn’t do too badly except that I expected much more of Alireza Firouzja and discounted the eventual winner Dommaraju Gukesh because I simply thought that he was too young.

One of the most important aspects of serious tournament play is remaining relatively calm, and that is what Gukesh did par excellence in Toronto. Of course, he did lose one game at the end of the first half to Alireza Firouzja, but he says that this didn’t affect him badly at all and so it seemed as he started the second half after the rest day, roaring to victory against Vidit.

The crucial thing is not to be surprised by your own incompetence (you are a carbon-based human being and not a machine) and to get on with it. Apart from the blip, Gukesh remained focused and sensible throughout the rest of the tournament, and I don’t think that he was even in any real danger otherwise. It was a fantastic achievement that bodes well for when he plays Ding Liren (as I imagine he will, since I think that Ding will be able to pull himself together to defend his title).

Dommaraju Gukesh

Dommaraju Gukesh, the youngest World Chess Championship challenger in history | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

One of the most interesting aspects of Toronto was the superb opening preparation, and in particular how they managed to set each other problems which hadn’t been foreseen. This is a special skill and involves interacting with the fearsome engines not to find the “best” moves but ones which are almost as strong according to the silicon evaluation but lower down the food chain.

When I work with an engine I normally have three lines on, and I imagine that I’m not atypical in that. So if there are a number of more or less equally valid moves according to the engine, then it makes sense to concentrate on the ones lower down, which your opponent and his second(s) — very likely snowed under by variations and in something of a hurry — may have overlooked. It’s so easy to be swept along by the engines and not to look at the screen as you would if you were at the board.

And the best example of this is in the game Praggnanandhaa v Nepomniachtchi, in which Pragg hit his opponent with a move 18.Rb3 which for a human being screams out to be played but happens — according to our silicon masters, or at least my version of Stockfish — not to be especially favoured.

A couple of moves earlier, Nepo had snapped off the c3-pawn which is obviously something you consider, though as far as I know, hadn’t been played before in serious tournament practice. Indeed, Nepo himself had lost an online game to Rauf Mamedov after retreating with 16...Qa5-c7.

Of course both he and Pragg had looked at the consequences, but in a no doubt very heavy workload, Nepo was apparently overly guided by the software. It’s an experiment I’ve done before in lessons. I put this position on the board and turned on Stockfish on my system, which is moderately powerful, for a minute before taking a screenshot. I actually increased the number of lines to 7 before I started, which is not really what would have happened (as I said I’d only have just three lines), but in any case this is what I got:

  1. 18.Re1 0.11
  2. 18.Qe2 0.02
  3. 18.Rc1 0.00
  4. 18.a4 0.00
  5. 18.Bf5 -0.06
  6. 18.Rb3 -0.07
  7. 18.g3 -0.14

So according to Stockfish, Rb3 is the sixth choice, but after Qa5, of course it immediately comes up with d5!, which is a kick in the guts for a human player at the board. Not having analysed this in advance, Nepo now followed the old Soviet advice and “went into the tank”, taking 40 minutes on his reply! He did really well to defend himself but eventually made a misstep. By then Pragg was also on his own — or at least, while he must have known that the assessment was good for him, he either hadn’t analysed that far or couldn’t remember the details.

The winning line was really very difficult, and he made a suboptimal choice, after which Nepo was able to defend himself. It’s possible in fact that Pragg remembered enough to know that Bf5 was part of the win, but got it wrong.

In any case, although you must have seen the game already, I’ve provided it with my notes focusing mainly on the critical position after Rb3, and d5 and the glorious winning line.

Ian Nepomniachtchi

Ian Nepomniachtchi during the game against Praggnanandhaa | Photo: FIDE / Michal Walusza

Perhaps the greatest example of “centaur” (man + engine) opening preparation of recent times is a game won by Hikaru Nakamura against Sergey Karjakin in 2015.

Here Nakamura played 15.e4!, which had apparently been tried in a game Ponkratov v Zablotsky six years earlier but without success.

Of course, Nakamura had done a lot of work and knew that he was risking nothing, while setting his opponent a horrendous problem at the board.

As usual, the novelty was not a worry to chess engines, which (un)helpfully give the evaluation as precisely 0.00 since the main lines all end in perpetual check. But confronted by the dizzying maze of variations, Karjakin immediately made a decisive error.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this, and will be back on June 2nd. Please feel free to make any requests for then.

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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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philidorchess philidorchess 5/7/2024 06:10
lablue lablue 5/5/2024 08:06
it reminds me of: