Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Mind games

My bus reading of the moment is an old copy of The Chess Mind by Gerald Abrahams, which I picked up last week in a used bookstore on West Pender Street in Vancouver. I'm not using a chess set for this effort, and I recommend the same policy to anyone who wants to analyse positions or games while riding on public transit. Do play over the moves on your mental chessboard if at all possible. Bringing out a pocket set on a bus can easily lead to a reputation as a local eccentric, especially if you are a regular commuter.

Gerald Abrahams (1907-1980) was a well-known London barrister with a keen intellect and many outside interests besides chess. To my knowledge he had no formal training in psychology, which will be evident to the informed reader of today. His purely chessic credentials are similarly open to debate. From the game fragments and analysis that appear in the book I would assign him an Elo rating of no more than 2300. He participated in a number of British Championship tournaments, but never approached winning the title. Yet Jeff Sonas of Chessmetrics fame assigns him a world ranking of #45 for 1946. This is probably based on his result in the Great Britain vs USSR match of that year, where he scored a rather fortuitous win over Mikhail Botvinnik's longtime sparring partner Vyacheslav Ragozin. Interestingly enough, in The Chess Mind Abrahams does not mention this happy result, at least explicitly. When he does talk about Ragozin in another context, he describes him as “one of the strongest Soviet grandmasters.” (Here is another piece of good advice: always express praise and admiration for players you have beaten.)

The Chess Mind is an unusual, interesting and somewhat ambitious book that seeks to describe the process of playing chess through the prism of mental constructs such as vision, imagination, memory, technique, and that old standby common sense. I say “describe” because I'm not persuaded that the author actually explains very much with this taxonomy. I find myself disagreeing with some of his reasoning and many of his conclusions, but I must admit to being forced to rethink old ideas. When I have finished reading The Chess Mind I will consider writing a more detailed review.

On to some chess. The position in the diagram arose in a game between Frederick Yates and Reginald Michell played at Marienbad 1925. Abrahams, who cites this game example in a chapter entitled Imagination: Its Use and Abuse, was a great admirer of Yates, one of the few British players ever to defeat Alexander Alekhine.

After such an elaborate buildup the reader may be disappointed to learn that I am going to refute Abrahams's assessment of this position. I don't do such things intentionally. But when you are forced to analyse on your mental chessboard, and when you have to visualise things as clearly as possible, from time to time you will see something that others have missed.

From the diagrammed position, the game carried on as follows:
25.f4! Nxd5 26.Nh5+!
The exclamation mark is from Abrahams. It is in fact the best move. Michell now played 26...Kh7? This loses, although brilliant play is required to prove it (see below.) But what about accepting the knight sacrifice?
This is dismissed as inadequate by Abrahams.
This check is followed, writes Abrahams, “by an overwhelming attack.” Really? I can agree that playing the Black king to h7 or h8 leads to immediate disaster, but how about the natural
How is White to continue the attack? The only way forward is
creating the threat of 29.Rh8 mate. There is only one defence:
In one stroke Black defends the mate threat, returns the sacrificed material, and forces further exchanges. Quite a lot for one move!
29.Rxe8+ Kxe8 30.Bxd5 Rxd5 31.Rxf6
Now Black must contend with the deadly threat of 32.Qg8+ followed by 33.Rxf7+. Again there is only one satisfactory defence:
With this simple move Black defends against the mating attack and forces White to start worrying about his passed d-pawn, which is supported from behind by a centralized rook. The only real defect in Black's position is his somewhat offside queen, but that can easily be remedied. The conclusion is that White has no advantage at all, and so Michell could and should have accepted the knight sacrifice. Abrahams's assessment of the position, based as it was on faulty analysis, was not correct.

Here is how the game itself concluded:
26...Kh7? 27.Bxd5 Rxd5 28.Rxe7 Qxe7 29.Nf6+ Kg7 30.Nxd5 Qd7 31.Qxd4+
Black resigned.

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About Me

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Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada
National master (Canada) since 1984. B.C. Champion 1977 and 1984. Runner-up 1991 and 2002. B.C. Open Champion 1972 and 1982. B.C. U/14 Champion 1964-65-66. Mikhail Botvinnik once wrote that publishing your analytical work forces you to be accurate because it exposes you to criticism. Hence this blog.