Author Archives: johnfoley

Endgame masterclass from GM Oleksandr Sulypa

The Ukrainian chess team’s captain demonstrates the art of endgame play and explains why, even in time of war, his country is determined to keep fielding teams in international competitions

In a bonus edition of KCC Online, we invited Ukrainian grandmaster Oleksandr Sulypa to give a talk on calculations in the endgame. Oleksandr is coach and captain of the Ukrainian chess team, which is one of the top national teams in the world. They are current European champions and regularly feature on the podium in world and European championships. Sixteen Kingston club members attended the Zoom talk, which was well received and left a few of us wondering if we should brush up on our endgame theory in preparation for the 2022/23 season, when we will be playing a division higher.

In the well-researched talk, a number of important themes emerged. When we reach the endgame, there is usually not much time to consider the moves and hence knowing some solid endgame theory is invaluable. The strongest theme harkens back to Capablanca’s Chess Fundamentals – the importance of passed pawns. Once a pawn gets near the queening square, all sorts of tactics arise. Our first position was White to play.

Somkin, E v Vinogradov, D, Chelyabinsk 2005

A neat combination secures the win. 1. Nb6 axb6 2. Rd8+ Rxd8 3. Bxd8 and the rook pawn will promote.

We examined more than a dozen positions, analysing the tactical motifs in the endgame. It is recommended to start with studying rook endgames, since they are so prevalent – Oleksandr estimated that rook endgames accounted for 80% of all endgames. Whilst chess generalisations always have exceptions, it is hard to find exceptions to the rule that the rooks should be active. Don’t worry about saving or winning a pawn if you can get your rook active. One position caught the eye because one of the protagonists, GM Bogdan Lalić, is the father of one of our club members, rising star Peter Lalić.

Qendro, L v Lalić B, Bratto, 1995

The temptation to win a pawn by 1. f4 is strong, but would be a losing move after the response Rb2. The white rook must be activated immediately by 1. Ra8, after which analysis showed that Black cannot win.

Perhaps the most impressive endgame in Oleksandr’s talk was played by Vasyl Ivanchuk, as White against Levon Aronian, then of Armenia, at Linares in 2007.

Most club players would not think twice before playing 1. Rac1, but the Ukrainian number one had other ideas and played 1. Rcc1! This looks counter-intuitive, but is actually the start of a plan to play against Black’s isolani on d5. White drove away the temporary infiltration on his C-file and then won the endgame comfortably. Oleksandr was second and trainer to Ivanchuk from 1994 to 2001, when Ivanchuk reached world number 2.

An important conclusion from the lecture is that endgame positions do not always require heavy calculations if you can form a plan. For bishop endings, especially with opposite-coloured bishops, forming a plan is not so difficult. For example, If you know that your king needs to get to the corner square where it cannot be checked by the bishop, then you have a plan.

At the end of the talk, there was a more general discussion. What is his favourite chess book? My 60 Memorable Games by Bobby Fischer. During Soviet times the book was banned and so was held in particularly high regard. We also asked Oleksandr about the recent photo of him which went viral.

Image
Oleksandr Sulypa, manning a checkpoint in Lviv in February 2022

Oleksandr explained that in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion, he joined the territorial army and manned a checkpoint in Lviv. He is currently in Poland, with government permission, so that he can organise a Ukrainian team to play in international competitions – notably the forthcoming chess Olympiad in India, which starts on 28 July. Ukraine’s government is determined to show that, even in time of war, life – and chess – go on. This is a way of showing that the country is still functioning and preparing for a world beyond war. Several of the Ukrainian team’s key players have been dispersed throughout Europe, and Oleksandr is doing what he can to make sure they are ready for the Olympiad. If hostilities return to his home city, Oleksandr said he would return to do his duty.

See the source image
Mikhail Tal (1968)

Oleksandr was impressed that Kingston play chess in a pub and related a chess anecdote. As a boy, he had operated the demonstration board at a tournament where former world champion Mikhail Tal was playing. Tal called him over, “Boy, fetch me a coffee, mixed with some cognac.” The Kingston club committee encourages players to buy a drink, but does not stipulate that it needs to contain alcohol. Cognac does not necessarily lubricate chess genius: we are sadly not all Tals.

The Kingston club intends to stay in touch with Oleksandr, and offer any assistance it can to him and the Ukrainian team as it struggles to carry on functioning in the face of war. It might seem odd to be playing out pretend attacks and sacrifices at a time when real ones are bloodily taking place on a daily basis. But sometimes the assertion of normality in the face of brutality can itself be an act of resistance.

John Foley, chair of Kingston Chess Club

The case for seeking draws in chess tournaments

Being quick on the draw can be completely rational in certain circumstances and where prize money is at stake. Just do the maths

John Foley

The re-emergence of weekend tournaments has drawn attention (no pun intended) to the use of draws. Chess purists would say that you should always try to win a game. By contrast, game theorists would say that you should always try to obtain the best payoff i.e. financial outcome. This divergence of perspectives gives rise to different draw strategies. We need to set aside the emotions and make a rational case for seeking a draw as players reach the last round.  It is more rational to be realistic rather than optimistic.

Photograph: R Nial Bradshaw

Last-round strategy

Let’s say you are in the fortunate position of coming into the last round of a tournament in joint first place, you are paired against someone with the same number of points and you are both a point ahead of the chasing pack. Let’s make this more concrete and assume that the first prize is £400 and the second prize is £200, and that these are the only prizes and this is shared among those in the top places. These figures are not atypical on the English chess scene. Not a lot of money, but enough to give pause for thought for an impecunious chess player.

What is the right draw strategy?  There are three outcomes arising from the game:

You win:          sole tournament victory and £400

You draw:        joint tournament victory and £300 (being half of the total prize money)

You lose:         zero 

The game theorist says you need to consider the probability of each outcome.  As a first approximation, there is an equal chance of a win, draw or loss. The “expected value” of the game is therefore:

(⅓ x £400) + (⅓ x £300) + (⅓ x 0) = £233

It is rational to offer a draw because you are guaranteed a return greater than the expected value from playing the game out. You avoid the possibility of defeat and get a share of the pooled prize money.  You are £67 better off than leaving it to the vagaries of a contested game. To express this in percentages, you get a 29% improvement in expected prize money by agreeing to a draw early on.

Young and ambitious players may prefer to slug it out. Youth knows no fear. Or they may lack objectivity and overestimate their chess skills. More seasoned performers will assess the opposition and, unless they are clearly superior, will often seek a draw.  Tournament organisers are wise to this temptation and seek to impose measures designed to avoid early draws. Nevertheless, the economic incentive remains. 

Penultimate-round strategy

By a similar argument it can be shown that, based on a reasonable set of assumptions typical of local weekend tournaments, if the tournament leader accepts a draw in the penultimate round, their expected value of the prize money is £267, whereas if they take their chances and play out the game the expected value is slightly lower at £256. The tournament leader can thus secure a small financial margin of £11, on average, by taking a draw in the penultimate round against the nearest challenger. That’s the price of a couple of beers if you live in London.

The outcomes can be summarised in this payoff matrix. This shows that it is always advantageous to seek a draw in the last two rounds. This decision must be made prior to or at the outset of the game. Try for a win only if you have grounds for believing you can beat the odds. Once the game is underway, then this analysis is superseded and depends upon the chances in your current position. Then the conventional strategy applies: If you are ahead, then go for victory; if you are at a disadvantage, try to get a draw.

The expected value of settling for a draw in the last two rounds of a Swiss

There are more substantial benefits of taking a draw before the final game. Nimzowitsch, in an article titled “The Technique of Tournament Play”, explained how he won Carlsbad 1929 ahead of Capablanca and others due to taking short draws to save energy.  The message is to save your efforts for the last round,when you may also have another drawing possibility.

Offering a draw can also have a psychological impact. Your opponent may believe you are lacking in confidence and therefore start focusing on you rather than the board. They may lose objectivity and take a more risky line. As a result, you may outperform original expectations. It is not as if you are bluffing. You are taking a rational approach to winning prize money.

We should acknowledge the legitimate fear that taking a draw could become habitual. We all know players who have a reputation as draw specialists. They are the chess equivalent of people who hug the middle lane on the motorway – ultra-cautious and annoying.

However, what is being advocated here is highly circumscribed. Firstly, the prescription is only relevant to Swiss tournaments where there are only a few top prizes and there is a shared prize pool for people scoring the same number of points. If you are in an all-play-all, then try to win each game. Secondly, it only applies to those two or three people in the lead – if you are in the chasing pack, then try to win your game.

Thomas Villiers v David Maycock

Southend Easter Congress (Open), Round 5, 17 April 2022

David Maycock, whose arrival this season has been a big factor in the revival of the Kingston club, made the early running in the Southend Easter Congress, winning his first four (yes, four!) games, with a 2800+ Elo rating performance. This was his fifth game at the congress – as Black against the tactically ambitious, 2219 Fide-rated Tom Villiers – and was played on Easter Sunday as the four-day, seven-round tournament reached its critical final stages. Maycock played with great control against Villiers, who, looking to blast open Black’s kingside, lashed out with a piece sac. The Kingston star had to play more than a dozen moves on the 30-second increment, but kept his cool, traded pieces – each trade increasing his advantage – and, with a passed pawn motoring, forced White’s resignation. A terrific victory for Maycock, which took him to 5/5 and maintained his clear lead in the tournament. Not that any chickens – or indeed Easter eggs – were being counted yet.

David Maycock: One of Kingston’s brightest new talents

David White (Hounslow) v Vladimir Li (Kingston)

Kingston 1 v Hounslow 1, Thames Valley League division 2, Willoughby Arms, Kingston, 11 April 2022

This match against Hounslow was Vladimir’s first outing representing Kingston. We had no doubts that he would justify our faith in him. During our introductory chess sessions, he had beaten Kingston’s finest, so now it was time for some real competition.

David White v Vladimir Li (foreground) conducting a post-mortem

My Sicilian odyssey

The Sicilian Defence can go horribly wrong, but this lifelong adherent argues that its variations offer rich rewards if you find the lines that suit you and learn from the occasional disaster

Alan Scrimgour

Part 1: Alarms and excursions

“Alarms and excursions” is an archaic expression meaning confused activity and uproar. I cannot think of a better description of the Dragon and Najdorf variations in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ulysses’s odyssey only lasted 10 years, while my journey with the Sicilian Defence has lasted more than 50. I first played it in 1965 at the age of 14 and lost in 19 hectic moves. To be honest it was barely recognisable as a Sicilian. I could have safely been two rooks up, but instead I ended up resigning when about to be mated on the next move. My opponent that day subsequently became one of the world’s best bridge players. 

I decided that I needed to learn a proper Sicilian variation, and opted for the then fashionable Dragon. I played my first Dragon the following year and lost. This time I accepted an unsound queen sacrifice and then resigned, thinking mate was inevitable (it wasn’t and I should have drawn). Otherwise, I had five fairly happy years playing the Dragon before giving it up when keeping up with theory seemed too demanding. 

Game 1 illustrates a number of the common Dragon themes, especially black sacrifices on f3, c3 or sometimes e4. The game was played in a qualifying tournament for a place in the Scottish students’ team. There were four players and we played each other twice. Both of my games with David Watt were Dragons (I did say it was fashionable) and in the first I lost, falling into a Nxe4 sacrifice. In the second it was my turn to sacrifice.

Enter the Najdorf variation – theory-wise this was frying pan to fire – which I played throughout the 1970s, despite losing my first game with it. As if the normal mainline Najdorf wasn’t exciting enough for me, I chose the Polugaevsky variation, which could lead to a position where White first sacrificed a piece on e6, followed by another on b5 for a ferocious-looking attack. I had the position after move 13 three times, losing the first, winning the second and drawing the third. Game 2 shows my victory.

If this has been too exciting for you, in part 2 I will show you my experience with more solid (for the Sicilian) variations.

Part 2: Looking for a safe harbour

Spoiler alert: there isn’t one in the Sicilian (but don’t let me stop you looking).

In the 1980s I moved to the more solid Scheveningen variation, and yes I lost my first game with it. This is the variation that I have played over a longer period and with most games. Statistically, I have done better with the Dragon and the Najdorf than the Scheveningen and the Taimanov, although I do have a plus score in all of them. I estimate that overall, I have played against stronger opposition with the latter two variations. 

Game 3 gives a good example of Black’s counter-chances on the queenside, illustrating an unusual potential mating pattern.

“That is no country for old men” – W B Yeats.

So, in my old age, I started looking for a more sedate variation, hopefully where I would not be mated in under 25 moves (if only – I have actually achieved this in all four variations). This led me to the Taimanov, often called the flexible Sicilian, even The Safest Sicilian (Delchev and Semkov, 2006).

Finally, I did not lose my first game with this variation – it was a draw. The Taimanov is flexible for Black, but it also leaves White with many options. Game 4 shows how Black may succeed against one of the more ambitious attempts.

Part 3: Epilogue

I mentioned earlier that in the 1960s and 1970s I played fashionable Sicilian variations. Game 5 was also in vogue at the time, with theory developing quickly. Just how quickly I found out the hard way.

The main reason for including this game is that, to the best of my knowledge, it is the only one of my games to feature in two books – Chess Olympiad Nice 1974 (Keene and Levy, 1975) and The Najdorf Variation (Geller, Gligoric, Kavalek and Spassky, 1976). OK, I admit it – it does allow me to do some heavy namedropping. 

It is also a game of which I am proud – it was played in round 1 of the Scottish Championship of 1974 against my old schoolmate and eventual Scottish winner that year (and several others), Roddy McKay. Roddy had recently played in the Nice Olympiad and had seen at first hand the Levy-Garcia game, with its Nd5 sacrifice on move 18. The sacrifice had been played before, but Levy found an improvement at the board. I cannot recall how many minutes (maybe 40 or 50) I took over move 18, but it was just as well that we played 40 moves in two and a half hours in those days. I also discovered later that my 21st move improved upon previous theory.

A fantastic night – except for aphantasiacs

Inspired by David Maycock’s theory that spending too much time looking at the board is inhibiting, we spent an evening playing chess in our heads … and our imaginations

John Foley

At our club night on Monday 28 March, we explored the theme of playing chess without looking at the board. The evening started with a talk from David Maycock on how he has been developing this technique over recent months. His argument is that if you can visualise the board, then calculating variations becomes much easier. As a simple example, when you are staring at the board and start to analyse a variation you might move a piece in your head but when that piece still remains in vision it interferes with the thought process and you falsely place it on its physical square rather than the square it moved to in your head.

David Maycock not looking at the deliberate mistake on the board

The argument for blindfold chess would be convincing but for the reluctance of many people to give it a try. Hence, we prepared to overcome this reluctance by means of some simple exercises devised by Peter Lalić, who is also a becoming a proponent of the “no looking” approach to playing chess. Peter prepared exercises in which players were paired with each other to play blindfold a simple pawn game on a 3×3 board. This was then followed up by a pawn game on a 4×4 board. Of course, there were no boards – all the physical equipment was removed before the exercises.

It should also be pointed out that “blindfold” does not mean that the players were wearing a mask around their eyes but simply that they were not looking at a physical board. When Magnus Carlsen was featured playing a simultaneous display against players from corporate America, he wore a substantial blindfold. However, this was more to suit the cameras than out of necessity. It looks impressive, but the blindfold is not necessary.

Some of our leading club members suffer from aphantasia – the inability to form any mental images. Stephen Moss readily accepted that he suffers from a mild form of this affliction but did manage to get through the 3×3 game stage, although the 4×4 game was going too far and he lost comprehensively, choosing the wrong one of two possible pawn moves and seeing (or rather not seeing) his opponent clean up.

We had an interesting discussion about why many of the world’s top players get up from the board and wander about. Clearly they are still thinking about the game. Sometimes they return to the board only to make their move. Our inference is that the ability to visualise the game is an important indicator of chess strength. At some point in every game, a critical position is reached. It is necessary to carry out some serious analysis. In these circumstances, it must be a huge advantage to have a clear mental vision of the board in order to construct a variation tree. Strong players are invariably good at blitz chess – perhaps this quickness of vision is also related to their visualisation ability.

Vladimir Li recalled a point made by Jacob Aagaard, the Danish grandmaster and former British champion, in one of his books: that to be an efficient mental analyst you should not keep reverting to the current position. Instead, you should analyse ahead to the critical position and thereafter use that as the staging post for subsequent analysis of variations. It would be a significant advantage for a player to be looking ahead several moves not from the current position but from a future position derivable, perhaps through forced moves, from the current position.

The evening ended with a grand final of blindfold non-consulting pairs. This paired John Foley and David Maycock against Peter Lalić and Alan Scrimgour. The pairs were not permitted to talk to each other – only to give meaningful glances which could be misinterpreted. I have never played blindfold chess previously, so did not fancy our chances, but surprisingly managed to find some moves which were not terrible.

Squeezing their brains playing blindfold chess

The four players sat alongside each other in a state of mental distress, with the display board behind us being operated by David Shalom and Vladimir Li. As we called out our moves, the assembled audience veered from fascination to amusement and finally admiration regarding the match. The game would not merit being featured on the Games section of the Kingston website but is a droll divertissement for the blog.

Michael Healey (Kingston) v Marcus Osborne (South Norwood)

South Norwood 1 v Kingston 1, Surrey League division 2, West Thornton Community Centre, 17 March 2022

This was the board one showdown for a crucial South Norwood – Kingston encounter, to see who goes up from a trio of ridiculously strong teams in Surrey’s division two (Epsom being the third). Mike is a former South Norwood player, and says it was good to see them fielding such a strong team.

Simon Lea (South Norwood) v Alan Scrimgour (Kingston)

South Norwood 1 v Kingston 1, Surrey League division 2, West Thornton Community Centre, 17 March 2022

This game was played on board six in the match South Norwood v Kingston which determined who won the Beaumont Cup (second division) of the Surrey League and hence which team was guaranteed promotion. Each game was tough and none resulted in a draw. This game gave confidence to the Kingston team. We didn’t know why Alan was the exchange down – maybe he sacrificed the exchange for an attack is always the best interpretation. White seemed to escape the king hunt but was not out of the woods. Kudos to Alan for a well-played game. In Alan’s annotations, he includes some possible lines which end in nice mating patterns which he only discovered in later analysis, so he is not claiming that he saw all these at the board.

The art of annotation: the Lalic Challenge

Annotating your own and other players’ games is a crucial part of helping you develop your analytical skills

John Foley

At the end of last year, Peter Lalic – one of Kingston’s highest-rated players – embarked on a series of blitz chess tournaments which saw him play an intense sequence of 45 Elo-rated games in six days. He performed extremely well and won the blitz tournament at the London Chess Classic on Sunday 5 December with an impressive 9.5/11, half a point ahead of Harry Grieve and two points ahead of grandmaster Keith Arkell, who was the top-rated entrant (2398). His overall performance exceeded his prior rating. We would (perhaps self-regardingly) like to attribute this to the new disciplines imposed by Kingston Chess Club – regular opponents and very detailed game analyses.

Peter was so exhausted by his week of top-level blitz that he mooted the idea of someone else annotating his games, all of which remarkably he was able to reconstruct from memory, and the club offered this opportunity to the members as a challenge. Here are three of the annotations that resulted: by the verging-on-master Michael Healey; by me, a strong club player; and by the rather more engine-dependent Stephen Moss. With only five minutes for each player, one cannot expect deep analysis, but nevertheless each game brings out some lessons.

The other aspect which is relevant is that Peter is averse to online chess and hence has not got into any bad habits. The theory is that, by taking chess seriously, even blitz moves are of higher quality: the surfeit of online blitz may lead to a routinised form of play. Time spent studying is more useful than mindless play, and time spent analysing and annotating is always time well spent.

Annotating a game tells two stories: the what happened and the what might have been. The first story is about how one player outwits their opponent at a critical juncture. One should not be tempted to present the moves with the benefit of hindsight – all moves are played under pressure and even an obvious move may require careful scrutiny. The second story is getting beneath the surface to carry out a post-mortem (or should that be post-ludum?) where we explore what might have been if only we had played differently. Each story is important to how we perceive a game, as we balance the conscious with the unconscious.

Annotation by Mike Healey


Annotation by John Foley

I am acquainted with both players, having captained Matthew when he was a junior playing for my 4NCL team and having known Peter from when we played a memorable game in the Surrey League and subsequently since he joined Kingston Chess Club. Both are talented and even a blitz game between them is likely to be hard fought.


Annotation by Stephen Moss

Kingston glide flatteringly past Hounslow

Thames Valley League division 2 match played at the Royal British Legion, Hounslow, on 28 February 2022

Kingston successfully continued their quest for promotion from Thames Valley division 2 with a win against Hounslow away. The 4.5-1.5 scoreline suggests a comfortable victory for the team, but in the first phase of the match such a result looked unlikely. Fortunately for Kingston, our match fitness told in the final hour.

Jon Eckert (near right) and Vladimir Bovtramovic (next to him)

An initial conundrum for captain John Foley was the whereabouts of our board five, Vladimir Bovtramovic. This was not Vladimir’s fault, as he did arrive in time to beat the default count, but was due to the coincidence that there was another Vlad, Vladimir Li, who had come along to the Willoughby Arms for the first time that evening.  John’s WhatsApp enquiry “Where is Vlad?” got the response from base “Vlad is here”, and it took a few more exchanges of messages to establish that this was the new Vlad, not the one required in Hounslow.  Anyway, it’s good to know that we are now very well resourced in the Vlad department. 

Hounslow fielded a strong team, with players rated over 2000 on the top two boards and experience all the way down. In the opening phase it was hard to gauge which side was doing better. Alan Scrimgour looked to have a level game against David White in a c3 Sicilian, and this was quite soon drawn. Jon Eckert was a pawn down in a rather dry position, while in Vladimir’s game his centre was in danger of caving in, so he sought compensation on the queenside. The board 1 Maycock-Vaddadi encounter, a Sveshnikov Sicilian, saw White controlling the central white squares in exchange for a sacrificed pawn. In Foley-Fincham a dead drawn opposite-coloured bishop ending had been reached (below), but John then rejected a draw because of the uncertain situation on the other boards. My own position, out of a Bird’s Opening (I wished I hadn’t missed Mike Basman’s recent talk) was a complex one, with play poised right across the board.  I thought I had a winning manoeuvre, plunging my knight into a hole on e3, but I had overlooked White’s defence and found myself facing a formidable pawn centre. 

Foley v Fincham: White managed to win from here due to a more active king

However, the second phase of play turned very much in Kingston’s favour.  John’s opponent neglected his king and allowed a passed pawn and an active king. David showed that he’d evaluated his positional strengths accurately, and he ended up trapping Black’s queen. I was very much on the defensive, but Matt Dydak was worried about his time shortage and offered me a draw – I grabbed his hand without a second thought. The greatest upturn was on board six, where suddenly Jon was a whole rook up, thanks to a clever sequence of moves resulting in a knight fork. Finally, Vladimir and his opponent agreed a draw and the match was well and truly Kingston’s.

David Rowson