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Hottest 100: My top ten

Posted by David Smerdon on Jan 24, 2016 in Non-chess

“You know, you’ve only got a day to go to write a certain annual post, mate.”

So said my mate Fitzy at breakfast this morning. I’m on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, a serenely picturesque region that encompasses glorious surf beaches, wildlife-filled swamplands and spectacular rainforests. I’m only here for three days (it is a work trip, after all), so why would I think about sitting on my computer to write a blog post?

But Fitzy was right: Every year before Australia Day I religiously get in my votes for Triple J’s Hottest 100. Triple J is Australia’s premier commercial-free radio station and at the start of each year it hosts the world’s largest music voting poll, ranking the top 100 songs of the last twelve months as chosen by its listeners. Then on January 26 (“Australia Day”), it plays the countdown starting from number 100 at midday through to the grand unveiling of number one. The countdown’s an integral part of an Australia Day experience, and I – an avid Triple J listener even from Amsterdam – never miss it.

It’s also the one day each year that I write with my ‘pretentious music critic’ hat on.

This year, for no good reason, my entries have taken on a decidedly more electronic flavour than in previous editions. I’m not sure why, as the bulk of my 2015 listening stuck firmly in the indie rock genre, as per usual. But somehow the cream that rose to the top had a bit more bass and beat than your typical glass-and-a-half alternative. Perhaps it’s because last year I finally tried my hand at music creation, and EDM (electronic dance music) is certainly the easiest genre to produce on a computer. Or perhaps it’s because I spent last summer in Greece, the mecca for deep house and annoyingly boppy dance tunes. Or perhaps – most likely – it was just the luck of the draw. Anyway, let’s get into it, starting with a couple of your more bread-and-butter indie ballads.

 

10:       SAFIA – Embracing Me

Readers of previous years’ editions will know that I’m not against voting for a track largely due to an exceptional video clip. This one is no OK Go (if you haven’t seen an Ok Go clip, click on this one immediately. And then block out the next half hour from your schedule as you find yourself on a whirlwind YouTube adventure of pure magic), but it’s encapsulating nonetheless. The song itself is nice in itself, though it probably wouldn’t have made my list if it wasn’t for the heart-warming video romance between two Amish youths. For that reason, I don’t imagine it to feature highly or even at all in the final countdown, but it’s a nice change for a bit of emotional depth in a charting song these days.

 

9:         The Meeting Tree – I Pay My Tax (I Hate Myself)

‘The Meeting Tree’ is made up of a bunch of Sydney boys who first got noticed last year with their debut urban EP entitled ‘r u a cop’. In general I loathe song titles that deliberately misspell words, so seeing that sin in an entire album title really made me shiver. But I have to admit, the deliciously quirky self-loathing of the lyrics in I Pay My Tax (I Hate Myself) is unexpectedly catchy. I didn’t recognize the lyricist Janet English so I was surprised to discover that she’s better known as a member of Spiderbait, while Seamus from Sticky Fingers also has a hand (ha!) in producing the track. Despite the chorus sounding almost like a somewhat depressing school camp fire, the roaring, heavy synths somehow manage to turn that title’s frown upside-down. And in a year where I had to fill out two tax returns in two countries, I had to giggle a little. You’ll end up singing along whether you like it or not.

 

8:         Jai Wolf – Indian Summer

I love all things Indian, and music is no exception. The oriental theme runs strongly through the entire piece, but meets an interesting musical fusion with massive synth chords and spliced vocals. This track begins with charming finger clicking and basic piano synths to accompany the beautiful pitched-up vocal melodies, but when the slow beat is dropped, the track morphs into a more euphoric piece that almost musically defines “feel-good”. It wouldn’t at all feel out of place on the wonderful Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, one of my favourite film-based albums, but the young New York producer has given the genre an electronic twist of his own. This is, incredibly, his very first musical release, although the backing of the Foreign Family label is already a strong indication of his musical talent. When I first listened to Indian Summer, I found my imagination reaching for the long train montage from Slumdog, and I can definitely see the track being sampled in future films. Definitely watch out for more from this guy.

 

7:         The Cat Empire – Wolves

From one type of wolf to another; but I must confess to being biased in next this choice. I’ve loved the Empire since they rose from the depths of Melbourne’s Fitzroy to take the international stage by storm, perhaps due in part to the fact that lead singer Felix liked to frequent the same café on Brunswick St as me. Blending a mix of South American street carnival vibes with grungy Aussie hip-hop, these guys are just the bomb. I’ve seen them live a bunch of times now, most recently a few months back in Amsterdam when their manager gave me some free tickets to celebrate our engagement. Seriously, how awesome is that?! But personal biases for the band aside, Wolves is an awesome track that sends a strong signal for their upcoming new album, which will have to do well to beat the outstanding Steal the Light from 2014. Having listened to a couple more tracks in the concerts that I assume will make the final record, I can tell you that the whole thing’s probably worth adding it to your wish-list already.

 

6:         Foals – Give It All

Moving away from electronic fusion for just a moment, Foals are a band that capture the lyrically deep indie vibe that is desperately lacking from the popular charts these days. Give It All is soft, dark and compelling. Both the lyrics and the moving video clip tell the story of a man suffering the deep aftereffects of a breakup, so pick your mood wisely when deciding to go all-in on this one. And particularly if you end up stumbling upon the music video director Nabil’s ‘Director’s Cut’, which has a somewhat more ‘intense’ finale. It’s probably not a song to get the party started, but like all good art, you’ll think, and you’ll feel.

 

5:         Set Mo – White Dress {Ft. Deutsch Duke}

Ok, so that last description was too pretentious even for me. Let’s lighten the mood somewhat with some classic summer house: Heavy bass, deep male baritone vocalist, simple harmonies, basic lyrics, and a couple of earthy synths thrown in for good measure. Think sandy beaches and cocktails, late nights and Mediterranean cuisine, sun, sea and summer romance. Get your deep house on.

 

4:         Vallis Alps – Young

The opening bars of Young sound suspiciously like Gooey by Glass Animals, the #12 hit in last year’s countdown. The high-pitched riffs are soon replaced by the sultry whispers of lead vocalist Parissa Tosif. Parissa is a good old fashioned Canberran, and she paired up with Seattle-based musician David Ansari to work on their breakout EP that took Triple J Unearthed by storm last year. Since then they’ve decided to work together out of Sydney and I’m really excited to see what they manage to come up with in the future. Take a listen to their flagship track and you’ll soon be, too.

 

3:         RÜFÜS – Innerbloom

RÜFÜS has been a real find this year, and the Sydney group’s alternative dance style has really endeared themselves to my eclectic music tastes. Their debut album Atlas reached number one in Australia featured a whole bunch of classy alternative-dance tunes of a similar style. But the released singles of their very recent second album Bloom, cleverly marketed to hit the virtual shelves just in time to get some heavy airtime during the countdown voting, are amazing. I expect all three of You Were Right, Like an Animal and Innerbloom to make the final 100, but even though the latter is supposedly the weakest on other popular metrics, it is definitely my favourite. It reminds me a little of Flight Facilities’ Clair de Lune (#17, 2012 Hottest 100) in that it’s a long, epic piece that hits the smooth notes and keeps a steady emotional grab. In fact, at almost 10 minutes long, Innerbloom will almost certainly be the longest song to enter the final countdown – and it’s worth every minute.

 

2:         Major Lazer – Lean On {Ft. MØ/DJ Snake}

What’s to be said about this track that hasn’t been said already? Major Lazer continues to impress in both the mainstream and indie charts, giving the guys wide airtime across multiple genres and earning them many fans from different backgrounds. By their own admission, their styles mixes EDM with features of reggae, dancehall, electronic, reggaetron, house and ‘moombahton’. No, I don’t know what it is either. In any case, their 2013 hit Get Free was a classic dance-chill track that also got a sniff into the Hottest 100 of that year, but they’ve outdone themselves with Lean On. The oriental harmonies are coupled with a similarly themed video clip, but for me it’s the the huge synthed beat drop in the chorus that wins the day. Expect to see Lean On finish in the top three on Australia Day, and possibly even take out first prize.

 

1:         Jamie xx – Loud Places

Although Lean On will almost certainly finish the highest of my votes, it would be disingenuous of me to claim it as my favourite track of the year. That honour goes to a song that’s slower, sultrier and sexier. I’ve been partial to the dulcet tones of the enigmatically named ‘Jamie xx’ since his remix of “Islands”, the huge 2009 track by – wait for it – ‘The xx’. Confused? Don’t be; The xx is made up of Jamie’s schoolmates, and the lead vocalist, Romy Madley Croft, is the voice behind this classic. She features a few times on Jamie xx’s album In Colour, which is all-round gold in terms of mood and background music. But the beat behind this track, coupled with groovy percussion bells and well-crafted lyrics, turns Loud Places into much more than just a chill-out track. It was even voted the UK’s ‘Anthem of the Summer’, and with good reason. Press play, hit repeat. You won’t be disappointed.

 

If you want to see how my picks end up faring in the countdown, you want to feel some Aussie love this Australia day, or you’re just a fan of good music, tune into Triple J on January 26. The countdown starts at midday Australian Eastern Standard Time.

 

 
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Leaping into 2016

Posted by David Smerdon on Jan 21, 2016 in Non-chess

The worst thing about taking a long hiatus from a blog is all the spam.

That aside, I’m back, and looking forward to a big year. It’s always nice when the chess and regular olympics coincide, and in a leap year no less. I was trying to find something more mathematically special about the number 2016 than the simple fact that we get an extra day in a few weeks. I struggled. It looks similar to the supremely addictive “2048” game (click the link at your peril – hours will be wasted!). But it’s not. The best I could come up with was that if you add its square to its cube, you get a number that contains every digit from 0 to 9 exactly once. Hardly dinner-party conversation.  [EDIT:  We can do better. Get your math geek on below.]

So instead, I’m finishing my Triple J Hottest 100 votes. Forthcoming.

Happy 2016!

 

(…turns out 2016 is quite cool after all. It’s triangular: 1+2+3+…+63=2016. And if you take the square root of the triangle of these cubes, √(1³ + 2³ + 3³ + • • • +63³), we’re also back in 2016-land. But the coolest is probably its binary representation:  2016 = 11111100000)

 
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REVIEW: 1.e4 vs The Sicilian II (Parimarjan Negi)

Posted by David Smerdon on Dec 19, 2015 in Chess

Book review: “1.e4 vs The Sicilian II” – Parimarjan Negi (Quality Chess)

 (click to buy from Amazon)

Even after all these years, I still get a kick when I receive a new chess book. But there’s something special about getting a Negi book. Perhaps it’s knowing that the pages are full of exciting and practical novelties, or maybe it’s an expectation that each volume contributes concretely to furthering modern opening theory. Or maybe I just like the writing. Regardless, the third of the series lived up to my hopes once again.

The second Sicilian volume covers the Dragon, Accelerated Dragon, Rauzer, Lowenthal, Kalashnikov and Sveshnikov variations, which is an incredible achievement in itself. In the preface, Negi allows himself to reminisce on his work on the series to date, which I found interesting. He says that his writing style has evolved from heavy theory to trying to help the readers feel comfortable with the resulting positions. I’m not sure he’s quite got there yet, to be honest, as this book is again more of a theoretical monster with plenty of novelties and inexplicable computer moves to wrap your head around. But there’s a little more in the way of general explanation than the previous volumes, and Negi is correct in claiming that the book links the approaches in different chapters together much better.

Still, in my opinion (as you have no doubt guessed by now), the main trump of the Negi series is in the theory. Negi continues to find some wonderful new ideas, both for White and, crucially, for Black. This to me is one of the stand-out features of these books (by the way, this is a practice repeated in Gawain Jones’ recent Dragon books, which I will review in due course). It’s one thing to find improvements over current practice by choosing to address only those moves found in the database, but it’s a whole other level to actively seek out and then tackle new ideas for both colours.

But enough chit-chat; I bet you’re dying to know what Negi recommends against some of the most dangerous and popular Sicilian variations around. I have to admit up front that I was a bit surprised by some of his choices. Against the Dragon I would have predicted a 9.0-0-0 repertoire, but Negi instead opts for 9.Bc4, avoiding the classical Soltis in lieu of 12.Kb1. This in itself is not so surprising as without the inclusion of Kb1 and Re8, the Soltis Yugoslav attack is well-known to lead to a draw pretty much by force in every line. On the other hand, this move-order allows Black the option of playing the ‘Topalov Dragon’ with 11…Nxd4, a pawn sacrifice recommended by Jones, well utilized in correspondence chess and even employed by yours truly. Could Negi really have busted this bastion of the Dragon?

The answer is: almost! In this heavily analysed variation, Negi utilizes and then extends the current state of theory in the correspondence world to put new pressure on Black’s defences. The main line, shown below, culminates in Black needing to find the strong novelty 21…Rb8! after which things end in a draw by perpetual check after further fireworks. This seems like a fair result of the author’s labours: Busting the Dragon was always going to be an unrealistic goal in my opinion, but being able to pose new challenges that only the best-prepared opponents can navigate is all one could possibly ask from a repertoire book.

But while the Dragon is confirmed to be a risky but playable opening by Negi’s analysis, the real surprise for me was to be found in the second section on the Dragon’s hyperactive younger brother, the Accelerated Dragon. Here I would have bet money that Negi would recommend the Maroczy, but instead we see an invitation for Black to transpose back to a regular Dragon after 5.Nc3. Negi admits that it was hard to choose between the two approaches, but in my opinion the current state of theory is still that the Maroczy should promise White a slight advantage and is in principle the reason why the Dragon is a main-line Sicilian while the Accelerated has been relegated to the category of ‘popular sidelines’.

Still, things are definitely more exciting after 5.Nc3, so I was glad as well as intrigued to see it recommended. Unfortunately (well, for White), my suspicions were confirmed in that Negi’s analysis doesn’t quite manage to bust the best defences. On the one hand, Negi does an excellent job of obtaining pleasant advantages against the popular 7…Qa5, 8…e6 and 8…a5 variations with some strong theoretical contributions. I was also very impressed by the chapters on the ‘main line’ with 8…d6 offering a transposition to the Dragon, and in particular Negi’s presentation of two options for White after 9…Bd7: 10.Qd2 and 10.h4. However, one reason why the Accelerated can be a real pain to face is that there are just so many sidelines to consider if one chooses 5.Nc3, and I think two of them still seem to be holding up for Black at the moment. The stubborn 8…Re8, which keeps increasing in popularity, probably proved too difficult a nut to crack in the end (although the analysis presented is very valuable, and practically White has an easier game), while I’m not completely convinced by the conclusions following the interesting sideline 8…d5!?.

This was in fact essayed recently by the women’s World Champion against none other than Negi himself. White deviated from his own recommendations in that game, which led me to investigate the variation further. My conclusion is that although White is the one pressing, Black’s chances of equality seem higher than White’s chances of getting a stable edge, although arguably this is still a perfectly acceptable repertoire recommendation. And if this is as close as it gets to me finding a hole in the entire book, well, that’s probably as strong an endorsement as I can give!

 

 

An interesting conclusion that comes out of the first two sections is that, if we ignore the Maroczy argument for the moment, the Accelerated Dragon may well be sounder than the regular Dragon. This might be hard to swallow for some, but actually, I’ve recently been converted to this opinion myself (although it’s probably still a minority view among GMs). But moving on from dragons of any description, I was very impressed with Negi’s work on the Rauzer and in particular his strategic explanations. I found this especially useful as this isn’t an opening with which I’m well acquainted. But further investigations seemed to indicate that Negi’s conclusions here are again state of the art. The same goes for the Lowenthal and Kalashnikov, two sidelines that begin to look increasingly unsound to me in light of these chapters. One could have predicted that these would be variations that White should objectively be able to prove an edge against, but Negi goes further to bring his lines to almost decisive advantages.

But one could hardly expect those sorts of results against the stable Sveshnikov, arguably the soundest of the Sicilians covered in this volume. And indeed, this is indeed Negi’s final conclusion, although he proposes several routes for White to pose problems for the second player. In this final section, we really begin to see how Negi’s approach to the series has changed, as the emphasis is much more on creating practical problems and taking the style of the game out of one’s opponent’s comfort zone. This coincides with the chief recommendation for White, 13.Nxb5!? in the main line after 10.Nd5 f5 11.Bd3 Be6 12.c3 Bg7, giving up a piece for three pawns. Usually in the main lines of the Sveshnikov, Black looks to sacrifice a pawn for long-term activity and attacking chances, but in the variation following this material imbalance, Black’s position somehow lacks the usual dynamism that the opening promises. On the other hand, this is quite a committal variation for White because the slightest mistake can easily lead to popping a pawn here or there and landing in a lost endgame.

Still, for the practical reasons mentioned above, I highly approve of this recommendation. My opinion does not really carry much weight when it comes to the Sveshnikov, to be fair, but this line also has the approval of several strong correspondence players, which is not something to be taken lightly.

For a work of this kind, and in this sort of series, it’s understandable that it will be measured also solely on the quality of the analysis. However, I’m a stickler for writing, style and typesetting norms, so I will add a few words to those respects. Once again, the prose is clear and easy to understand, and although there is improvement on the past two works, the explanations are light and fall a little into the background as compared to the heavy analysis. But this is what this series is all about, and I don’t mind the ratio given the high level to which the book is pitched. Once again I struggled to find typos, while the diagrams and typesetting are both very pleasing. The one thing I wouldn’t mind seeing in this series is the inclusion of small text chapters in between the major sections to sort of bridge the work between openings. As it stands, the pages run straight from one opening to the next and a page or two of text would help break up the reading as well as introduce the new topic in more general terms. But this is just my stylistic preference.

To sum up, this book is once again an outstanding work and worth every penny, if only on a novelty quota alone. When I review a new book, I review HARD, and I go out of my way to look for holes. This makes it difficult for any author to meet my high expectations, but Negi continues to impress me. If I weren’t so lazy, I’d even take up the Open Sicilian myself after reading this one! Another Negi book, another five stars.

CONTENTS

Series Introduction 4

Preface 5

Symbols & Bibliography 6

Dragon

1 Sidelines 7

2 10…Qa5 and 10…Rb8 21

3 11…Nxd4 31

4 12.Kb1 53

5 12…Nc4 67

Accelerated Dragon

6 Rare 7th Moves 79

7 Various 8th Moves 90

8 8…Re8!? 105

9 Various 9th Moves 118

10 9…Bd7 10.Qd2 127

11 9…Bd7 10.h4!? 141

Rauzer

12 6…Bd7 and Others 162

13 6…e6 7.Qd2 Qb6 183

14 7…Be7 201

15 7…a6 8.0–0–0 h6 225

16 8…Be7 234

17 8…Bd7 243

18 9…b5 258

19 13…b4 266

4…e5

20 Lowenthal and Kalashnikov 287

21 Kalashnikov – 7…Be6 and 7…Be7 306

Sveshnikov

22 Sidelines 317

23 10…Bg7 330

24 10…f5 343

25 14…Bd7 360

26 15…0–0 372

Variation Index 389

 
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Superstars describe superstars

Posted by David Smerdon on Dec 8, 2015 in Chess

Check out this awesome video from the London Chess Classic where the participants take turns describing their fellow competitors in one word. So entertaining! Honestly, I wish organisers did this sort of thing more often. They have such an opportunity with so many top players gathered in one place, basically at their command, and yet the organisers always seem to end up choosing something bizarre for the GMs like tree-planting or wearing funny hats. But this is what we really want to see!

PS Somebody needed to tell Grischuk about the whole one-word thing…

 
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Computers can’t blunder…right?

Posted by David Smerdon on Nov 11, 2015 in Chess

The TCEC superfinal between Komodo and Stockfish is currently taking place. I have the games (a 100-game match I believe!) running in the background while I work, kind of like test-match cricket. It’s somehow soothing, a silicon version of Enya if you will. I bet noone’s ever used that analogy before.

Yesterday, in game 22, something amazing happened. Stockfish blundered. Stockfish, currently two games behind, was completely winning and gave its evaluation of the position as +26. Then, in two moves, it was 0.00. Really! And these guys (girls? its?) are supposed to be 3200+. If that’s not what you call throwing away a win, I don’t know what is.

You can see the game here. 64.Bc2 wins, although it’s a long, complicated variation (and obviously not one that I found myself!). After 64.Kg4 both computers immediately recognised the draw.

(Hat tip to Mark Watkins for the link.)

 

 
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REVIEW: Understanding the Queen’s Gambit Accepted

Posted by David Smerdon on Nov 7, 2015 in Chess

The Queen’s Gambit Accepted: A Black Repertoire
by A.Delchev and S. Semkov


I recently got my hands on a couple of new opening books by Chess Stars, the Bulgarian publishing house perhaps best known for the Openings For White According to Anand series. After the subsequent Openings For White According to Kramnik range, the guys decided to branch out with their coverage, and now we’re seeing plenty of interesting and diverse opening titles. With author names such as Dreev, Beliavsky and Delchev as well as their ‘poster child’ Khalifman, there’s reason to take the new selection seriously.

For this review, I want to focus on the new title by Delchev and Semkov: Understanding the Queen’s Gambit Accepted. The QGA feels like it’s been around forever, but of late I’ve noticed more and more top GMs adding it to their repertoires, so much so that I’ve even added it to mine. So, being familiar with the latest trends in this opening, I was extremely curious to see how the authors managed to squeeze not just one, but two entire QGA repertoires into such a tiny book! With a mere 240 pages of A5, it’s about a third of the size of my own new release, which is on a far less theoretical opening. However, despite my initial scepticism, I have to admit that the guys have done a remarkable job, and that the book indeed offers complete coverage.

Delchev seems to be the main engine behind the repertoire, and so there are many valuable insights from a top GM’s own repertoire and practice. That’s one of the nice things about this book: It offers a practical repertoire that the authors themselves employ, so they offer first-hand practical advice for your own games. This is enabled by what I found to be a pleasant and intuitive structure. Each chapter is broken up into three parts: a wordy section on the key theme and ideas, a systematic (but not overly heavy) theory section, and finally some annotated games. This allows the club player to use the book either with or without a chessboard; the sections on ideas and games are ideal for light café reading, while the theory requires a little more concentration.

Furthermore, the book offers a repertoire based both on the Classical System (…Nf6/…e6 against 3.e3 or 3.Nf3) as well as Delchev’s preferred repertoire based on 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 Bg4 coupled with 3.e3 e5. The authors also offer some interesting, though less rigorous, analysis on the topical 3.Nf3 a6!? 4.e3 b5, as well as a brief discussion of the dubious 3.e4 b5?! (in addition to their preferred 3…Nc6). And again, yes, all in less than 250 pages! This gives the reader a lot of options as to how he or she uses the material to construct one’s preferred repertoire. For the slightly stronger reader, I can attest that one can digest an entire repertoire from scratch and feel prepared to play 2…dxc4 over the board after, say, only four hours with this book. Now that’s a serious achievement.

However, to cram everything in to this mini-masterpiece, the authors had to cut a few corners here and there. While I find this book incredibly practical in terms of what the reader could reasonably remember for one’s games, not all of the natural options for White are always covered. If you’re the sort of player who when learning a new opening often asks “But what if my opponent plays THAT?”, you might find this a little frustrating. Fortunately, the variations in Delchev’s main repertoire (3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 Bg4, and 3.e4 Nc6) are reasonably plan-based and less reliant on concrete lines than other options.

I particularly like how the authors often employ explanations of general strategic themes in between detailing complex lines. Somehow, this breaks up the workload for the student and helps one to keep a broader sense of the positions. The following excerpt is a typical example.

 

 

“Let’s compare this position with the standard set-up with Nc3.

Both sides are deprived of their most common plans. White can not [sic] play Nfd2, nor can he jump to c4 since the e4-pawn is hanging.

Black, for his part, lacks the option of …Nf4 [with the plan of …Kh8, …Rg8 and …g5] due to the fork on e5 after Bxf4 and e4-e5 (White’s knights are connected so …Bxf3 does not help!). On the other hand, his “plan B”, which is based on undermining the centre with …c6, gains in strength because of the passive stand of the d2-knight. That transpires from variations like 12.Ne1 Bd7 13.Nd3 c6 14.dxc6 Bxc6 15.f3 Bb5…”

You’ll notice I cheekily highlighted a tiny grammatical mistake in this extract. [EDIT: It was pointed out to me that this is in fact not technically a mistake – my apologies!] I’m not trying to be pedantic, but simply want to mention that for those who are, there are a couple of funny little English slips in the text. Given that the book is written and edited by non-native speakers of English (in fact, I’m not sure there’s a native speaker on the Chess Stars team), this is to be expected, and the errors, like the one above, are hardly glaring. The language is simple, and the authors have chosen to replace verbosity for instruction. It’s not a book that will have you rolling in the aisles, but you’ll get every point the authors make. Moreover, in terms of typos (my personal bugbear when reading chess books), I couldn’t find any!

The book’s theory is really quite up-to-date (games up until mid-2015 are included), and the analysis has made use of engines as well as correspondence games. This really should be mandatory for all opening books but, alas, really isn’t, and so I commend the authors for this. However, readers should remember that the theory on these lines has been accelerating in recent years and so one should probably keep an eye on upcoming developments. For some of the variations (e.g. 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 Bg4) this is less important, but for, say, the current ‘drawing line’, 3.Nf3 a6!?, I’m sure we’re going to see plenty of theoretical action in the near future. After all, this line is either a forced draw or a forced win for White!

Another variation that certainly will soon have a definitive evaluation is the crazy 3.e4 b5?!. I’ve played this move myself, and I really enjoy these lines. How often does Black get to boldly sacrifice an exchange after only six moves?! So of course, this was the chapter to which I first jumped in, and I agree with Delchev’s assessment that the variation is ultimately unsound. However, it’s here that I’m for the first time going to criticise this book, as I feel the authors are too dismissive of Black’s chances, both practically and objectively. The refutations given rely on White playing incredibly accurately and remembering a string of only-moves deep into the middlegame, while deviation from the correct path is often fatal. Moreover, engines are also too sceptical of Black’s long-term counterplay after the sacrifice, which can lead to many analysts to settle for superficial rebuttals. For example, one of the key resources often underestimated by many from the white side (but, to be fair, mentioned by Delchev) is that a commonly reached endgame sees White with an extra exchange but Black with ‘four versus three’ on the kingside. These endings are rather trivially drawn, but are often the source of a computer giving an evaluation around +1.00 or so. But enough vagueness; let’s get into specifics!

 

 

But seeing how crazy these lines are, it’s no wonder that the authors chose to focus on more intuitive repertoire variations in their handy little guidebook. And despite my maniacal love of the positions after 3.e4 b5, I must say that I really like the analysis presented after the relatively rare 3.e4 Nc6, a Delchev speciality. And it’s certainly easier to learn.

There is one final point I want to highlight about this book. In addition to learning sections, theory, annotated games and multiple options for building a repertoire, the authors even managed to squeeze in a couple of final pages about how to handle alternatives to 2.c4. This is actually really important in my opinion, because one of the things that might put players off learning the QGA is the extra work required in learning extra variations to handle 2.Nf3, 2.Bg5, 2.Bf4 etc. I really appreciated Delchev’s simple yet logical solutions to these problems. I would have also appreciated something on the Torre (2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bg5) in addition to the Colle, Tromp and London systems, and I really would have liked to know Delchev’s consistent recommendations against 1.Nf3 and 1.c4 – but I guess I’m just way too greedy! Hopefully Delchev and Semkov might consider producing a complementary title in the future to handle flank openings that works in with a QGA repertoire. [EDIT: In fact, the authors wrote to tell me that just such a book is in progress!] Given the excellent way they’ve handled the current material, I’d be one of the first in line.  Four stars.

 

 

 
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Smerdon’s self-promotion

Posted by David Smerdon on Oct 21, 2015 in Chess

*** EDIT:  The ’50 Moves’ guys have kindly decided to make the webinar FREE!! So register here.

 

Well, the attention my Nakamura/Mcshane post received was overwhelming, with my website getting over ten times the normal number of comments for an article – some constructive, some hilarious, and a couple of ‘bizarros’. The post got picked up by most major chess news sites as well. And all that from some back-of-an-envelope scribbles! 

Of course, Naka had to go and win the thing and thus ‘disprove’ my arguments, as I feared! And he deserves a lot of praise for his guts and determination, particularly in the tie-break. His play in the final itself was outstanding. Still, just like someone who gets lucky on roulette, it doesn’t mean the decision was correct ‘ex-ante’, as we say. Some of the discussions were so fruitful that I went back and created a full mathematical model, although I’ve been too busy to type it all up. Also, it will be quite a boring read to most people, so I might just drop it in as an attachment in the near future.

One of the reasons I don’t have time is that, for readers who don’t already know, I have a ‘normal’ job. I work at the University of Amsterdam and am finally on the home straight towards finishing a PhD in economics. That doesn’t leave time for much chess, whether it be writing, playing or teaching.

However, I’m making an exception this Sunday, and – *warning* – this is where the self-promotion kicks in. The Aussie guys behind the 50 Moves Magazine approached me about doing a live ‘webinar’ for them on the topic of the Scandinavian, and particularly my 3…Bg4 repertoire. So that’s happening this Sunday from 7.30pm-8.30pm Australian Eastern Daylight Time (AEDT). AEDT’s a bit confusing, but it’s just the current time in Sydney (+11 UTC) and you can check out how it works with your location here.

The time’s not very convenient for North/South Americans, I must admit, so I don’t want you to feel left out. You can see a free, low-quality version of a lecture on the Scandinavian I did quite a while ago below: 

I won’t just talk about the Scandinavian, but will use it as a case study for how to choose a practical opening repertoire for part-time chess players, and other opening tips. The cost is AUD $15  FREE!!, and you can sign up here

See you on Sunday!

 
58

Nakamura and McShane’s big mistake

Posted by David Smerdon on Oct 12, 2015 in Chess, Economics

I love following this Millionaire Chess tournament. It’s really quite a spectacle: untitled players can pick up tens of thousands of dollars, one top player gets to go home with $100,000, and there’s even the bizarre “Win a million” lottery to keep us interested. And with so many ‘novelties’, it’s not surprising that there’s always the potential for controversy.

The biggest of these happened yesterday in the final round of qualification for Millionaire Monday. The main organiser GM Maurice Ashley was visibly irate when discussing the nine-move draw between the top seed Hikaru Nakamura and English GM Luke McShane. (You can see all the interviews of the draw controvery here.) He called short draws “a stain on our game”. Poor Hikaru and Luke suffered a fair bit of backlash in the chat channels and on Twitter for their performance, although they handled their interviews extremely well (particularly Luke, one of the real gentlemen of chess).

Hikaru also spoke well, aside from two notable exceptions. In the interview you’ll hear these two sentences: “the risk wasn’t worth the reward, frankly”, followed later by “I don’t think I did anything wrong”. At this point, the economist in me was highly dubious, although I have no doubt that both Hikaru and Luke actually believed this to be true.

I don’t know Hikaru personally, but in recent years I’ve been impressed by his interviews, and particularly how gracious and appreciative he is about being able to play chess for a living. And in games where the result is clearly not prearranged and either player would have to make a concession to avoid the repetition, I have no moral problems with a draw – so in this, the players are right. But in my opinion, one of the greatest innovations of Millionaire Chess is that its unique prize structure should naturally prevent boring draws. This is because the risk really is worth the reward in most cases.

So at this point, I did what any math/chess geek would do: I wrote down the problem :) And without going into too many details, it turns out that the short draw was almost certainly the wrong decision for the players to make for themselves. Even under some very tolerant assumptions, the expected payoff from playing on, for either player, was greater than the expected payoff from accepting the repetition.

In my analysis, I had to make a bunch of assumptions, although I think they’re all pretty reasonable. I took into account that by playing on, the players would most likely have a very long game that would sap their energy somewhat (Luke had had a couple of really tiring previous games, while Hikaru said he had been feeling unwell). This would decrease their performance in the tie-breaks (if they occured) and the rest of the event. I also assumed that whoever chose to avoid the repetition would have to make a concession that would decrease their chances in the game from what they were at the outset. I assumed that, all else being equal, Hikaru’s chances in tie-breaks and the final-four were above that of an average competitor, while Luke’s were average (…after a short draw, while a bit lower if he played on). Finally, as it turned out, almost the maximum number of players on 4.5 points who could get to a tie-break with 5.5 points did so, while really made Hikaru’s and Luke’s decision look silly – but they couldn’t have known that when they took the draw. So I relaxed this assumption a bit so that a normal number (five out of eight potentials) reached the ‘tie-break score’ of 5.5. 

The analysis is a lot more complicated than this, but you can already get a rough idea of things by checking out the prize list. It’s incredibly top-heavy, and so under almost any realistic assumptions, a player in their shoes would want to maximise their chances of making the final four, above all else. If Luke played on, his chances of beating Hikaru were slim – but they were still much higher than making it through a tie-break with seven other players, including Hikaru. And for HIkaru himself, despite being one of the best rapid players out there, the odds still suggested the same decision.

(For those interested: my final numbers suggested that Luke’s expected payoff was roughly $4,000 higher from playing on, while for Nakamura, avoiding the repetition was worth about $8,000 in expectation.)

Of course, ‘in expectation’ is such an economist thing to say; probabilities are one thing, but only one outcome can actually occur in real life. For Nakamura, he made it through the tie-breaks (though not without some very bumpy moments!), and so it looks like things have paid off. But that’s not the right way to think about things. It’s like winning your first ever spin of roulette: just because you got paid doesn’t mean you made the right decision. I would definitely advise Hikaru in future to do these sorts of calculations (or better yet, get someone else to!) before crucial money clashes.

(Luke, on the other hand, is not a professional chess player and probably doesn’t care that much about the money. While he didn’t make it through the tie-breaks, he’s still had a good tournament and has good chances of picking up a big consolation prize in the rest of the open. But still, from a purely academic perspective, the decision-making was dubious!)

Of course, this was mainly just an academic exercise for a bit of fun (although professional players may want to take note – I’m open for consultation Laughing). But there is one policy implication, and here I’m specifically talking to Maurice and organisers like him. The lesson is: Don’t be discouraged! The Millionaire Chess team have done exactly the right thing in their structure to promote fighting chess. It’s hardly their fault if the players haven’t yet worked out how to act in their own best interests. But this will happen through experience (and maybe through posts like this…), so there’s no need to panic.

For the time being, I’m going to sit back, relax and watch the final fight – in which, typically, I expect Hikaru to defy the odds, win the tournament and thereby blow a big, fat raspberry at my analysis  Cool

 
2

Rapid fire

Posted by David Smerdon on Oct 3, 2015 in Chess

I’ve had the opportunity to play a couple of rapid tournaments recently, in a weak attempt to shake off the rust before the European league season starts. There was a nice ‘holiday’ rapid in Luxembourg, whose chess community is super fun and social, as well as the eighth edition of the Amstelveen Brainwave Rapid. Both tournaments were run by really friendly and genial people and it was nice to push a bit of wood around for a change.

Unfortunately, like the Tin Man before me, I could have done with some oiling; no placings in either event. There were only really two chess highlights from my perspective. The first was winning the bughouse tournament in Luxembourg with Vlad Hamitevici under the moniker of our mutual friend “Casper”. And in Amstelveen, I managed to beat Dutch GM Dennis De Vreugt with black in 14 moves using my Scandinavian. I confess that I only just managed to hide a smug smile when some kibitzers came up to my opponent after the game and said in Dutch, “Haven’t you read his book?!”

 

A couple of snapshots from the trip, including a small vid of the bughouse. Luxembourg rules are a bit weird: there’s no dropping for mate, and you can only promote to pieces in your current ‘stock’ of spares. But you quickly get used to it!

 

Bughouse in Luxembourg. Team Casper for the win!

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The Amstelveen rapid tournament is always held in conjunction with the Dutch Rubik’s Cube championships. I was almost tempted to buy one of their clothing accessories, but I couldn’t quite think of an occasion where I’d wear it…

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Eventual tournament winner (and Luxembourg chess legend) Alberto David in a crucial round against recently redeemed French GM Sebastien Feller

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Those chess playing Luxembourgers really were a social lot…as was demonstrated in the post-tournament celebrations, which went on long after the prize giving. Bottles of home-made honey liqueur were produced, containing anything from between one and a dozen hot red chills. Want to see how that tastes?

 

 

 

 

The new Luxembourg university opened while we were in town. It has been built literally around an old, derelict steel refinery, which makes for an amazing architectural contrast.

The new Luxembourg university opened while we were in town. It has been built literally around an old, derelict steel refinery, which makes for an amazing architectural contrast.

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Old stuff can be beautiful, too. Get it?

 
0

Uptown Funk in 100 Movies

Posted by David Smerdon on Sep 23, 2015 in Non-chess

The fact that I knew every single movie reference does suggest I should be spending more time on my studies…

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