Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Manuel Aaron: Happy 79th Birthday!

The period was around the 1950s. While the world had great players like Botvinnik, Tal and also the upcoming Fischer, chess in India was absolutely undeveloped. People all over the nation were playing a game that resembled chess but with no fixed rules. In such a situation arose a man from Tamil Nadu, India, who single-handedly popularized the game of chess in the country. 

Friends, I am not talking about the great Viswanathan Anand. He was not even born yet. The man who first brought India to the international chess scene was none other than IM Manuel Aaron.
Manuel Aaron was born on the 30th of December 1935. So today this legend celebrates his 79th birthday.

Manuel Aaron, the first International Master of India and also the author of the recently published Indian chess history (picture taken at the World Juniors, Pune in October 2014)

Today chess is my profession as well as the most beloved thing in my life. I cannot imagine what I would be doing without this game. This would not have been possible without the efforts of the great man called Manuel Aaron. He gave the game of chess an identity in India. He made a lot of forums and groups thereby systematizing this sport.

Father Manuel with his son Arvind. Both of them have successfully managed one of India's top chess magazine called Chess-Mate for years

Aaron was the only active chess player that India had in the sixties. India got its next international master V.Ravi in 1978. That means Aaron was one man army for nearly 17 years in Indian chess. He won the National title nine times.

Manuel Aaron was the first chess player to win the Arjuna Award

He became one of the strongest chess players in Asia and qualified for the Stockholm Interzonal in 1962. It was an amazing tournament with all the top players playing in it. Look at the top players of that tournament.

Bobby Fischer, Geller, Petrosian, Korchnoi, Filip, Gligoric, Benko! Phew! What a list!

Aaron finished last in the tournament but not before he had inflicted defeats on two great players Portisch and Uhlmann.

Here are both the games for you to have a look:

Even against the great Bobby Fischer, Aaron had a pretty decent position but I guess he lost due to some excessive respect for his opponent.

Aaron had even beaten the fifth world champion Max Euwe with a huge pawn storm:

A player who has faced the best!

Today I take this opportunity on behalf of all the chess players of India to wish not only a happy birthday to Manuel Aaron but also to thank him for making chess one of the most popular and lovable sports in the country. 
Without your efforts sir, it would not have been possible.

Pictures by Amruta Mokal

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Maurice Ashley's thanksgiving study

The "Thanksgiving" is a festival celebrated in United States of America every year on the fourth Thursday of the month of November. People thank each other for the various things that they are grateful for in their life. GM Maurice Ashley, who is known to think in offbeat and unorthodox fashion decided to thank the chess world by composing a beautiful little study.

A small google search on Maurice shows that he is not only a chess grandmaster but also a commentator, author, app designer, puzzle inventor and motivational speaker! Truly a multi-faceted personality. And wait I almost forgot he is now also an organizer and the highest prize fund open tournament in the world, "Millionaire Chess tournament", was his brainchild.

Let's have a look at the composition!

White to play and draw.
My suggestion would be to take 15 minutes on the clock and write down your answer. After attempting it, have a look at the solution given below.

The first thing that we see in the position is that the black pawn is about to queen. But we must always starts our calculations with a check or a capture. Taking the knight is futile as it met with d1=Q. Giving a check to the Black king with 1.Rc3+ is a little more interesting but after 1...Kb6 2. Rb3+ Kc5 3.Rb1 Kc4 4.Rd1 Kc3 The d-pawn is going to cost an entire rook after which the win is trivial. After having convinced ourselves that no checks or captures work we settle down to the only move for White and that is 1.Rd3. The d2 pawn is now attacked. But it is easy to see that black has the very nice retort with 1...Nf3! 

With this tricky little move, the black knight boxes in the white king. Kg2 looks impossible because of the fork on e1 and if the rook moves to d5 with 2.Rd5 then after Kc6 3.Rd8 Kc5 4.Kg2 Nd4! The view of the rook is blocked and the pawn is promoted.

We now understand that White is in a huge spot of bother. Black king is marching down the board and there is nothing much that he can do about it.
But there is a way out of this mess!

Theoretical knowledge

Before we move ahead I would like to discuss two theoretical endgames with you.

King vs knight + pawn on seventh rank
It is well known that a knight and a rook pawn win against the opponent's lone king. (Unlike the bishops there is nothing like a wrong coloured knight!) But there is one drawn position which you have to be aware of and that is the following one:

Place the black king anywhere on the board, it doesn't really matter. All that white has to do is shuffle his king between a1 and b2 to make a draw. If black king comes too near on squares like a3, c3, c2 or c1 then it would be a stalemate.

Thus, we come to the conclusion that the knight that supports a rook pawn on seventh rank is a drawn position if the opposite king can stop the pawn from queening. A rook pawn on any other rank supported by knight from behind it will be a win. Hence, this is a unique draw.

Let's see the second theoretically drawn position.

This position is also drawn irrespective of who is to move.

The white king keeps moving between b1 and a1 and there is no way to win. Once again, if the black king tries to come closer, it will end in a stalemate.

Knowledge of these two theoretically drawn positions is crucial for solving the Ashley study. If you do not know them you will be like Mr. Houdini who thinks that Black is winning. Don't believe me? Here is the proof:

As you can see on the lower right screen of the corner, Houdini 4 thinks that this position is won for black. It's time to prove it wrong! :)

We can see the contours of the two theoretical drawn positions over here. All that we have to do is to eliminate the d2 pawn. How would you continue?

There are two different ways to get rid of the little guy on d2. One is playing Kg2 and the other is taking the pawn directly with Rxd2.
Which variation shall we begin with? I always prefer to start with captures and forcing variations and hence 2.Rxd2 is the move that I would analyze first. After Rxd2 Nxd2 3.Kg2 we reach the following position.

We already know that if the white king were to settle down on the b1 square it would be a draw. He is still quite a few moves away but we need to be accurate as Black. How should black play?

I personally find such positions extremely difficult to calculate, mainly because there are so many plans and possibilities available for both sides. Let us start with the most natural plan of capturing the a2 pawn. After 3...Nb1 4.Kf3 Nc3 5.Ke3 Nxa2 6.Kd3 Nb4 7.Kc3 a2 8. Kb2, the white king arrives in the nick of time to stop the pawn.

We already know that this is a theoretically drawn position.

So is this position a draw?

No, it is not. There is a win in there which is not so easy to find but strong technical players like Karpov and Kramnik would solve this position very easily. And how exactly do they do it?
They think of the positions that their opponent would want to reach and try to stop their idea. Long term prophylaxis you can say!
In the above position, white would like to get his king to b1 to reach a theoretically drawn position. Now is the difficult part. We have to put all our energy as black here and try to stop the idea in the best possible way. I am sure if you give your 100% you will be able to find the winning setup of putting our knight on c3 to prevent the king from coming to b1 and the black king on b4 to protect the knight.

Putting these ideas into moves we find 3...Kb6 4.Kf2 Kb5 5.Ke2 Nb1 6.Kd3 Kb4 7.Kc2 Nc3! -+ 

And there you have it! The white king has been prevented from going to b1 and next black takes the pawn on a2 and doesn't make the mistake of pushing his own pawn to a2. He will first bring his king to b3 and then play a3-a2 to earn a well deserved full point.

We now understand that 2. Rxd2 doesn't quite work. What is now left is the second option with 2.Kg2!


Black goes 2...Ne1+ 3.Kf2 Nxd3 4.Ke2

White wins the d2 pawn and in much more favourable conditions than in the last variation. His king is much closer to the queenside, especially the b1 square.

The only option left for Black now is to win the a2 pawn as bringing his king would be too slow. So after 4...Nb4 5.Kxd2 Nxa2 6.Kc2 Nb4 7.Kb3 a2 8.Kb2=

It's a draw! I have shown you this position so many times that you are not going to forget it for the rest of your life.

As you could see that in order to solve the study successfully you not only needed the theoretical knowledge of two positions that we saw but also hardcore calculating and execution skills in order to decide between 2. Rxd2 and 2.Kg2. As it turned out the latter was the right way to start.
Congratulations if you were able to solve this position correctly. We must definitely thank Maurice Ashley for composing this beautiful study.

By solving this position I came to a very important conclusion which I would like to share with all of you:
There are two very important things that a chess player must possess in order to improve.
1. Sound theoretical knowledge (opening, middlegame and endgame)
2. Strong execution (calculating) skills.

Lack of theoretical knowledge with good calculating skills is like going in a car without headlights on a dark road. You will keep moving but you don't know whether you are going in the right direction. Not to mention, a huge accident might just be waiting to happen!

At the same time good knowledge without execution skills (calculating ability) is like going in a car that has run out of fuel. You can see where you want to go but just don't have the resources to reach there! :)

Improve both the above mentioned skills and you will zoom ahead on the road of chess improvement!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Shyam Sundar: the man who held Vladimir Kramnik!

Do you recognize the person in the above picture? Here are some clues:
1. He is a Russian
2. He became a GM without attaining the IM title!
3. He beat Garry Kasparov in 2000 to become the 14th undisputed World Chess Champion.
4. I can see most of you getting irritated because you recognized him instantly and never required the clues!

Yes, friends, I am talking about the one and only Vladimir Kramnik. One of the best chess players to have ever graced this game. Kramnik is such a legend in the game of chess that whenever a player wants to learn about positional chess, the best advice a coach can give him is, "Go and study the games of Vladimir Kramnik."

The same was the case with a young Indian GM, Shyam Sundar.

Shyam is 22-years-old and has a rating of 2484

Shyam learnt a lot from Kramnik's games when he was young. On 27th November came the day, when he was paired against the legend in the second round of the Qatar Open 2014. As Shyam himself said before the game: "I have many times used Kramnik's ideas in my opening preparation and today I have to prepare against him!"
Playing a chess legend and a player you have immense respect for is never easy! Kramnik's achievements and technique are enough to intimidate any player, not to mention that the he has a towering height of more than six feet (an article mentions that he is 6' 6").

But fighting all his fears and admiration for the opponent, Shyam played a terrific game and fought hard with the Russian giant, posing him enough problems and drawing the game with black pieces. What is particularly impressive is that Kramnik was in a creative mood and hence played an irregular setup that had no theory involved. Shyam managing to hold his own in such original positions against such an experienced player speaks volumes about his talent! Have a look at this crazy game:

Seeing this game, one of the top Russian women players, Natalia Pogonina, made a nice tweet:

Vladimir Kramnik vs Shyam Sundar

A dead drawn endgame against Vladimir Kramnik!- GM Erwin L'Ami looks shocked!

The above two pictures were taken by Dmitry Rukhletskiy

What Shyam has achieved is really unbelievable. I think we should congratulate him because even the best players in the world have struggled to make a draw against the Big Vlad with the black pieces!

Shyam, Me and Swapnil at Varna, Bulgaria in 2013

The quality that I love most about Shyam is that he extremely down to earth and a very humble person. He is a true lover of the game of chess and works really hard at it. He is one of the very few GMs who would prefer chess to any other interests and pass-times in life.

In our personal encounters, Shyam has never been kind to me!

My personal score against Shyam is a dismal 2.5-0.5 but I will not let that come in the way of wishing him all the best for the remaining rounds of the Qatar Open! All the best Shyam!

For all those who want to improve their game, I would highly recommend these two things:

This is a brilliant book entitled "Kramnik- My life and games". The games are all annotated by Kramnik himself and Magnus Carlsen has praised this book by saying that it has had a huge impact on his chess. 
You can buy the book from the top most left corner of the blog.

This is a must have ChessBase DVD in which Kramnik talks about his path to the top and how he toppled Garry Kasparov to become the world's greatest player. 

You can watch a video clip from the DVD over here:

You can buy the Kramnik DVD from here.

Some of the pictures by Amruta Mokal

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Ankit's brilliancy at the Qatar Open!

The Qatar Open is the strongest Open tournament in the World. With Anish Giri and Kramnik at the top and all the 154 players almost above 2300 it promises to be one of the most exciting tournaments in the history of the game.
Particularly impressive was the performance of a young Indian grandmaster, GM Ankit Rajpara, in the first round of the tournament. (the first round took place yesterday)

20-year-old Ankit Rajpara (2494) played a brilliant game. And who was his opponent?

The German superstar: GM Arkadij Naiditsch (2719)

Not only did Ankit have the black pieces, Naiditsch was really the man in form having beaten the World Champion Magnus Carlsen at the recent Tromso Olympiad 2014.
The game was a tactical slugfest which saw Ankit drag Naiditsch's king from g1 to e4 and then finally mate him on b1! But what I loved about the entire game was this brilliant idea in the opening executed by Ankit. Let's check the opening moves:

Naiditsch's last move was g2-g4 in this position. What should Black play? Have a think and then check the answer below.

The most natural move in this position would be 9...Nh4. And Black has a decent position after that. For eg. 9...Nh4 10.Nxh4 Bxh4 11.f4 f5!? is ok.

But here Ankit chose a very interesting idea which I really liked. He played 9...Nh6 10.h3 and would you like to guess what he played now?

Black to play here. What would you do?

Ankit here played the fantastic undeveloping move 10...Ng8!!

The knight has made a full trip from g8-e7-f5-h6 and back to g8 and for what? Black's idea now is to activate his rook on h8 with the move h7-h5! So the knight has in effect achieved the job of advancing the White kingside pawns that have now become a weakness. Truly a deep concept. 
In some ways it reminds me of Maurice Ashley's term of Aikido chess where he said that you force your opponent to attack you and when he does that, he will lose his balance. You can then use the fact that your opponent is off balance and strike him back which makes him susceptible to a quick knock out. The g4-h3 moves in Aikido terms were aggressive moves and now Black will strike back with h5 when it wont be easy for White to defend.

Ankit played a brilliant attacking game which you can go through below! To beat a 2700 player in such brutal fashion speaks volumes about the young talent.

I have not yet spoken with Ankit about this game as it just happened yesterday but knowing the sort of hardworking chess player that he is, I am quite sure that he has seen this idea from the game of Alexie Shirov vs Dragan Solak. Have a look at the opening of the game.

Isn't the idea used by Dragan Solak extremely similar to that of Ankit? It's wonderful how young and ambitious GMs build a repertoire of such ideas by looking at instructive games and subject it to their memory. I remember Carlsen saying that he has studied each and every volume of My Great Predecessors by Garry Kasparov extremely carefully. By studying the games of the great masters of the past like Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca etc. the current World Champion uses their positional and tactical ideas in his own games. When similar pawn structures or piece placement arises, Magnus draws the old games from his amazing memory and looks how best he can make use of those patterns.

And how exactly do you learn such patterns? Do you keep looking at each and every game in the mega database that has been played before. While it is possible, I think it is extremely time and energy consuming. Besides you will not able to know which game is instructive and which is not. To help you out in such aspects there are some wonderful books in the market out there.
And definitely I recommend the books written by the famous author and trainer GM Jacob Aagaard!

Strategic play is a book aimed at players above the rating of say around 2200. My cousin gifted this book to me from the USA on the occasion of my marriage!(yes, I force my relatives to give me chess related gifts!) I have had immense pleasure in solving the positions in that book and would you believe what lies on the 33rd page of the book?

Do I need to say anything more!

I would like to thank authors like Mark Dvoretsky and Jacob Aagaard who are doing a phenomenal job of publishing high quality books that is helping to bridge the gap between us and these elite 2700+ GMs.

For more information about this talented young Indian GM, do read the interview that I had with him around nine months ago.

I will surely ask Ankit as to where he picked up this Ng8 idea from, but as of now I can only wish him the best for the future rounds at the super strong Qatar Open! May he produce more such brilliancies!

Addendum, for players below the Elo of 2200, I would heartily recommend "Can you be a positional chess genius?" written by Angus Dunnington.

Ankit's picture taken by Amruta Mokal

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sunday, November 23, 2014

My duels with Vishy Anand

How many chess players in the world can boast of having played against the World Champion? I am sure not many! I am among those lucky few who not only got a chance to play a World Champion once but twice! And no marks for guessing who this World Champion was....

India's very own, five-time World Champion, Vishwanathan Anand

The first time I played with Vishy Anand was way back in 2005, 23rd June 2005 to be precise. I was in 10th grade (15 years old) and was participating in an inter-school tournament. The top 10 winners from 2 categories (20 in all) would play in a simultaneous display against Vishy. I scored 5.5/6 in the tournament and finished joint winner along with Meghan Gupte. It meant that I had qualified to play against the World Champion. In 2005, Anand was not yet the undisputed World Champion. It was only in 2008 when he beat Kramnik that he achieved that. Yet he had won the World Championship title in 2000 in Tehran when he beat Alexei Shirov in the final of the knock out event. So he already was a World Champion when I played him.

Playing against 20 talented kids is a tough task for anyone but not if you are Vishy Anand!

Anand beat his opponent's one after the other at a breathtaking pace. There I am trying to stand up in the background.

In 2005, I was rated 2037. We were given the option of whether we wanted to play with the white or black pieces. I really wanted to play black because I was very well versed with the Dragon variation back then!(At least that's what I thought) But then what if Anand would play 1.d4!?? I quickly turned the board around and took the white pieces.

The game began as a Slav and after seven moves I was already out of theory. Not a good sign when you are playing a 2785 player famed for his opening preparation. Even though it was a simul, Anand did not miss a single tactic against me and with a flurry of nice combinative blows he won a pawn. Rest was just matter of technique for the great champion as he exchanged all the pieces and converted the extra pawn in an instructive rook endgame. 
Naturally I was dejected at having blown away this wonderful opportunity of playing a good game against Anand. But there was some consolation. My game lasted for nearly 49 moves while many others got mated in some 20 odd moves! So people applauded me for playing so long against such a great player. While that comforted me a little, deep within I knew Vishy didn't have to stretch even one bit to beat me that day!
Here's the game:

My priced possession! The 2005 score sheet which thankfully I have preserved

Vishy's signature: A wonderful memorabilia for any chess player!

Receiving the first prize

Vishy had a tough time against two players out of the 20. One was Kaushal Shukla, the boy against whom Anand is making his move and Aditya Udeshi who is now an IM, the little kid in the red shirt.
(Both the games can be played through towards the end of the article) 

Kaushal Shukla who was rated around 1950 had a mating attack and was about to win in around 12 moves but missed his opportunity! Right now I am wondering what a blow it would have been to Vishy if he had lost the first game itself. But nothing of that sort happened and Vishy won all the 20 games! What was absolutely fascinating was how after every kid resigned, Anand would set up the position and tell his opponent where they had gone wrong! What phenomenal memory!

Concentration personified!

So my first duel against Vishy Anand ended in a convincing win for the champion and I was waiting for the day when I would get a chance to play him again. I had to wait for exactly five years before the golden opportunity dawned once again! 

On 19th of June 2010, there was an inter collegiate knock out tournament held at the National College, Bandra. The tournament was not at all strong and I had to just win two rounds to get a chance to play with Vishy once again! This time I was a better player. My rating had improved from 2037 to 2265 and I understood more about chess in general. On the other hand, Vishy's list of achievements since we last met were just mind boggling. Not only had he won the FIDE World Championship tournament in Mexico in 2007, he had also beaten Vladimir Kramnik in one to one match in 2008 and Veselin Topalov in 2010. Vishy had beaten Topalov just a month before he came to play this simul. Wow! I was going to play the strongest player on the planet at that point of time!

Shaking hands with the undisputed World Champion before the start of the game

This time I had the black pieces and Anand opened with 1.d4, the same move with which he had opened his games against Topalov. I knew I was in for some heavy duty prepared lines by the World Champion but I decided to go for it and played the Queen's Indian. The game was extremely interesting as it soon took the character of a Grunfeld Defense. I sacrificed the exchange and had excellent compensation for it but soon I started playing with complete lack of confidence. Within few moves, Anand consolidated his advantage. There was still some technical work left to be done when the games had to be ended due to time constraints. I am sure Vishy would have beaten me from that position but you never know. Even the best can blunder sometimes! 

Here is the 2010 game. I had annotated the game on the day it was played and as I publish it here, I decided to leave the youthful annotations as they were!

After the game i asked Anand whether the exchange sacrifice was good. He said,"yes, it was very interesting but why didn't you take the pawn on a3?" How in the world was i to say that it was out of sheer respect for you!
Humility and modesty are two of  Anand's biggest traits. He didn't tell me that he was winning here. He just said that he has a small advantage! Of course he knew that the advantage was huge and almost decisive but that's the way a great World Champion is made!

A huge crowd had gathered to watch the games

This time I did make Vishy sweat a little more than the game in 2005!

It was a great pleasure and honour to play against Vishwanathan Anand on both the occasions. Seeing such a legend in action and playing against him can really help your chess career in a big way. These two games are something that I will cherish forever. Vishwanathan Anand is an inspiration for every Indian chess player and I wish him the best for his 11th and 12th game against Magnus Carlsen in Sochi! Hope he wins once again and I can get a chance to play with the World Champion for the third time, maybe one on one! :)

Aditya Udeshi was 12 years old when played with Vishy in 2005. He was kind enough to send his game against Vishy with annotations that he had done back then. Learn how to get a winning position against the World Champion:

Cute little boy off the board but a terror on it! That's Aditya for you!

While Aditya's loss was sad, you must definitely have a look at the next game. My friend Kaushal Shukla had Anand on the mat to such an extent that it was simply impossible to wriggle out of it! But Vishy managed to do that though not before Kaushal had botched his chance to checkmate his esteemed opponent!

The boy who was so close to beating Anand- Kaushal Shukla!

Meghan Gupte who won the tournament along with me!

My favourite picture from 2010. Hansal Pandya who is a deaf and mute had the best 10 seconds of his life holding the hand of Vishy Anand!

When Vishy met Vishy! Vishvesh Kochrekar receives the prize from Anand.

A huge thanks to Kaushal Shukla who provided me with all the pictures of 2005