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September 03, 2016

Saturday Afternoon Chess/Open Thread 09-03-2016 [OregonMuse]

Chess ambush.jpg
When Medieval Chess Players Go Bad

Good afternoon morons and moronettes, and welcome to the Saturday Afternoon Chess/Open Thread, the only AoSHQ thread with content specifically for all of us chess nerds who pay homage in the temple of Caïssa, goddess of the chessboard. And, for those of you who aren't nerdly enough for chess, you can use this thread to talk about checkers, or politics, or whatever you wish, only please try to keep it civil. Nobody wants to get into a poo fight on a Saturday afternoon.

Secrets of the Masters

“…when playing if it is a clear day, and sunny, is to have your opponent facing the sun, because it will blind him; and if it were dark and playing by the light of fire, move with your right hand; because it disturbs the view, and the right hand will cast a shadow on the chessboard; so he will not be able to see where to play his pieces.”

--Ruy López de Segura

Problem 1 - White To Play

Hint: White wins material

Oh, looky here, Black is threatening Qxg2#:

20160903 - Problem 1.jpg
FEN: [2k4r/pppr2pp/8/3q4/N4n2/Q1R4P/PP3PP1/5RK1 w - - 0 1]

Too bad for him it's not his turn. So what's the best way for White to counter the checkmate threat?

Problem 2 - White To Play

Hint: White wins material

20160903 - Problem 2.jpg
FEN: [2k5/1ppb4/p7/P3P3/1P1P1pr1/2P1b1Pp/5B1P/1N3RK1 w - - 0 33]

The Advent of Modern Chess

Last week, I discussed chess as it was known by the Arabs, which they called shatranj or al-shatranj. Eventually, it seeped into Europe. There are 4 paths by which this happened. It was introduced to Spain and Italy by military conquest, in the Balkans via the Byzantine Empire centered on Constantinople (Istanbul), and in Russia and Scandinavia via the Volga River trade route from the Caspian Sea.

When the game reached Spain, the Arabic nameal-shatranj morphed into "ajedrez." One of the earliest known European books on the subject is 'Libro de los Juegos' ('Book of Games'), commissioned by the Spanish King Alfonso X and completed in 1283:

The book consists of ninety-seven leaves of parchment, many with color illustrations,[2] and contains 150 miniatures.[1] The text is a treatise that addresses the playing of three games: a game of skill, or chess; a game of chance, or dice; and a third game, backgammon, which combines elements of both skill and chance. The book contains the earliest known description of these games. These games are discussed in the final section of the book at both an astronomical and astrological level. Examining further, the text can also be read as an allegorical initiation tale and as a metaphysical guide for leading a balanced, prudent, and virtuous life.[3] In addition to the didactic, although not overly moralistic, aspect of the text,[4] the manuscript’s illustrations reveal a rich cultural, social, and religious complexity.

Chess was a pastime for the nobility, and there were a number of instructional books written back in those days as a sort of "manual for gentlemen". That is, these are the skills you must master as a gentlemen: how to fight with a sword, how to ride a horse, write a poem, play chess, etc. As a cultured gentleman, chess was something you were expected to know.

And as near as I can tell, the rules for medieval chess are pretty much the same as shatranj.

For whatever other virtues it may have had, medieval chess games tended to be long and maybe even boring. As in shatranj, the bishop could only move 2 squares diagonally, and by 2 squares I mean not *up to* 2 squares, but either 2 squares or none at all. So each bishop could only move to 8 squares on the board. This may sound hard to believe, so try this yourself: start with an empty chessboard, and put a bishop on either c1 or f1, their home squares. Now try to put a pawn in each square that is exactly two diagonal squares away from either the bishop or another pawn. If you're rigorous about this exercise, you will find you can only put 7 pawns on the board. You will also discover that the long diagonal of whatever color you have put your bishop on (either the dark a1-h8 diagonal, or the light a8-h1 diagonal) will be completely untouched. Neither bishop will ever be able to occupy any of the squares of these long diagonals.

In fact, just for grins, I combined the pawns and bishops from 2 chess sets and covered all possible squares that the bishops of both players could access. I was astounded to discover that there are 32(!) squares on the chessboard that no bishop of either player will ever be able to get to.

Now that's just messed up.

Medieval chess players must have thought so, too. Hence they changed the bishop move to any square on the diagonal that wasn't blocked by another piece. Under this new scheme, both bishops together covered the entire board, all 64 squares. Also the queen, a very weak piece, was given the attributes of a rook plus a new bishop, making it the most powerful piece on the board. In her historical study Birth of the Chess Queen, Marilyn Yalom argues that this change was facilitated due to a number of large-and-in-charge real-life queens (such as Isabel of Castile) that rose to power in late medieval Europe.

It is not really known precisely when the rules changed or who changed them. But somewhere around 1475-1500, we start seeing references in the literature to "old chess" vs. a variety of names such as "chess of the lady" or even "chess of the mad queen".

Later on, as the "old chess" died out, it was called just "chess" in its respective language:

Italian - scacchi
French - échecs
German - schach
Swedish - schack
Russian - shakhmaty (literally "checkmates")

How did the new rules change the game? In the monumental 1913 historical survey, A History of Chess, H. J. R. Murray says:

The changes in the move of the Queen and Bishop completely altered the method of play at chess. The initial stage in the Muslim or mediaeval game, which lasted until the superior forces came into contact, practically ceased to exist; the new Queen and Bishop could exert pressure upon the opponent's forces in the first half-dozen moves, and could even, under certain circumr stances, effect mate in the same period. The player no longer could reckon upon time to develop his forces in his own way ; he was compelled to have regard to his opponent's play from the very first. It became necessary to examine into the validity of the different possible ways of commencing the game. Thus analysis came into being, and the game was played in a more scientific way.

Compared to the slow, plodding "old chess", this newfangled chess is very fast and very aggressive. And things that were previously not very important suddenly became very important. Like, for example, opening theory. As I mentioned last week, under the old rules, you could spend 15-20 moves fiddling with your pieces "behind the lines", so to speak, getting them all set up the way you wanted before the actual fight would start. But now, you might see an enemy piece shoved into your face as early as move 2 or 3.

So the game was way more cool than it used to be.

Some years ago, I read that the Bishop's Opening (1.e4 e5 2.Bc4), mentioned by early chess greats Ruy Lopez and Lucena, was probably one of the first openings they tried out under the new rules. They probably thought, hey look, the bishop is now a pretty gnarly piece, let's get that bad boy out there early on so we can mix it up.

I have a pgn file I found on the internet years ago, "to1861.pgn", which is a pgn database of over 1900 games recorded up to and including the year 1861, arranged in chronological order. I have no idea who compiled these games, but whoever you are, if by some miracle you happen to be reading this, thank you. This wonderful collection contains, for example, all of Paul Morphy's games, and all the games of the 1834 McConnell-la Bourdonnais series of matches. It also has 72 games of the great Italian master Gioachino Greco (1600-1634), who obviously died way too young. These "games" are probably not actual games, but more likely studies. And if you play through them one after another, you can get the sense that Greco was studying chess almost scientifically, trying out different ideas, discarding ideas that don't work, and keeping the ones that do.

For those of you who are interested in looking at this historic database of chess games I think you can bing it up. If not, drop me a line. It's not even a megabyte (980K), I can e-mail it to you.

Problem 3 - White To Play

Hint: White mates in 2

20160903 - Problem 3.jpg
FEN: [r1bqk2r/p1pn1pp1/1p2pn1p/8/3P4/B1PB4/P1P1QPPP/R3K1NR w KQkq - 0 10]

Top Men

It's always interesting to peruse the FIDE Top 100 ratings list. I always like to see how "Team USA" is doing. Lately, I'm happy to say, we've been doing pretty darn good. The USA has three players in the Top 10 (Caruana, Nakamura, and So), and 11 players in the top 100. And recently, Caruana came within a hair of playing Carlsen for the world championship.

I resented Fischer for giving up on keeping his inner demons in check after he won the world title in 1972 instead of using his status and talents to promote chess in the U.S. -- which he easily could have done. However, we have so many good players now and many scholastic programs that can scout out the young talent that perhaps in the long run Fischer's personal failures don't really matter. And perhaps that's how it should be.

Problem 4 - White To Play

Hint: White mates in 4

20160903 - Problem 4.jpg
2r1nrk1/p4p1p/1p2p1pQ/nPqbRN2/8/P2B4/1BP2PPP/3R2K1 w - - 0 1

Endgame of the Week

In keeping with this week's medieval theme, here is a study from the aforementioned Italian master:

20160903 - Endgame.jpg
FEN: [r7/8/8/5bk1/8/5B2/5RPP/6K1 b - - 0 1]
Greco, 1623

It's Black to play -- he desperately needs to squeak by with a draw. Show how he can do this.

Hint: Simplify and sacrifice


Solutions Update

Problem 1

White sees that he can execute a nifty little knight fork, like this:


The knight forks king, queen, and rook. Beauty, eh? Note that the knight is immune to capture because that would expose the King to a check by the rook on c3. And 1...axb6 fails because of 2. Qa8#. So:


2.Nxd5 Nxd5

White has won the exchange and should go on to win the game.

Problem 2

This one is from an actual game. Black just played 32...f4?? which was a blunder. White looks at the board and realizes "Holy crap, I've just won me a free bishop!"


Low-hanging fruit. Black's recapture by 33...fxe3 accomplishes nothing because of 34.Rf8+ Be8 35.Rxe8+ Kd7 36.Rh8 which puts White up by a knight and two pawns, just like the main line. And Black's advanced pawn on e3 won't last long.

33.Bxe3 fxe3
34.Rf8+ Be8
35.Rxe8+ Kd7

Be careful here. I first tried 36.Rf8? against my chess app, and then it hit me with:

37.hxg3 h2+
38.Kxh2 e2

So the pawn queens and White has turned his won game into a lost game. The moral of this story is, don't get cocky in positions that you think you've won. There may be unpleasant surprises lurking.

Problem 3

This was a position from an actual game (Alekhine-Vasic 1931). I'm guessing it was one of Alekhine's exhibition games against an amateur player as I don't think even he would've been able to pull off a combination like this on the 10th move of a game against another master.

10.Qxe6+! fxe6

Look familiar? It should. It's another variation of Boden's Mate I discussed last week, where the king gets caught in the crossfire between two bishops.

Note that if 10...Qe7, then 11.Qxe7#

Problem 4

1.Ne7+! Qxe7

Black doesn't have to take the knight. He could move his King, but he'll be mated one move earlier. I'll get to that one in a bit.

2.Qxh7+ Kxh7

This is the move that may have been hard to see. I know it was for me. Black can't take the rook because the pawn is protecting the king from a check by the bishop on d3.


Let's see what happens if Black doesn't take the knight.

2.Qxh7+ Kxh7

Endgame of the week

The key here is seeing that White's 2-pawn advantage is not so formidable as it appears. And the fact that White may have to queen his *rook* pawn makes it even more problematic. The experienced player knows this position:

20160903 - Bishop wrong color draw.jpg

This position is well-known to be a draw. Why? Because the queening square is dark, but all White has is a light-square bishop. Therefore, all Black has to do is to esconsce his king on h8 and White will never be able to drive him away from it. White's bishop being on the wrong color renders it completely useless.

So Black thinks, how can I get something that looks like this drawn position. First, I can get rid of the rooks:

2.Rf1 Rxf1+

Done. So maybe I now can force a trade of my bishop for the g-pawn.


Now compare this position with the "wrong color bishop" diagram above. They're almost identical. The presence of the extra pawn doesn't change anything. You can work it out if you're not convinced, or set it up on the online Nalimov Tablebase for 6-Piece Endgames. The position evaluates to a draw.

Is there any other move for White other than 4.gxh3? Not really. If he tries any other move, say, 4.Kg1, Black responds 4.Bxg2. White must recapture and then what's left is pretty much exactly the wrong-color bishop position.

A point I keep hammering on every chance I get is that a major part of chess is pattern recognition. And the "wrong bishop/rook pawn" pattern is one you definitely need to have in your strategic toolkit when you're playing out an endgame.


Note: that cryptic line of letters and numbers you see underneath each board diagram is a representation of the position in what is known as "Forsyth-Edwards Notation", or F.E.N. It's actually readable by humans. Most computer applications nowadays can read FEN, so those of you who may want to study the position, you can copy the line of FEN and paste into your chess app and it should automatically recreate the position on its display board.


So that about wraps it up for this week. Chess thread tips, suggestions, bribes, rumors, threats, and insults may be sent to my yahoo address: OregonMuse little-a-in-a-circle yahoo dott com.

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