Before we begin, I want to apologize: I'm about two weeks behind on answering my e-mail. I'm sorry. If you've written to me recently and haven't yet received a reply, I should have an e-mail hitting your box in the next few days!


by Steve Lopez

One of the problems we chessplayers have at the class level is that we tend to get angry with ourselves for not being major opening theoreticians. "I should have known how to handle 5...dxc4 but I've never seen that played before", etc. For cases like these, there's a quick rule of thumb about openings that you should keep in mind:

Nobody can know it all!!!!!

There is more to opening theory these days than any single player can know. We live in a world where even the World Champion gets caught with his pants down by a computer with an opening trap that many club players know by rote.

The trick is to select opening lines that cut down on the amount of theory that you have to know. If you can steer the game into certain narrow channels in the early stages you can keep it in (your) known territory for an extra few moves.

For example, after 1.e4 c5 you can bypass much of the tangled maze of opening theory by playing 2.c3 (the Alapin Sicilian) or 2.d4 (the Smith-Morra Gambit). Heck, some people even play 2.b4 (the wild and hideously unsound Wing Gambit) just to throw the game right into areas they're familiar with and keep their opponent off-balance. If you choose one of these openings, you can ensure that you need learn only a few lines in the Sicilian rather than the endless reams of analysis that follow after the standard 2.Nf3.

I wish I had a buck for every time I've heard a player complain that he doesn't understand all the openings that arise after 1.e4 e5. "I can't learn all the theory for Black in all of those openings!" So why bother? Play the Caro-Kann (1.e4 c6); there are only about a half-dozen basic lines you need to know to get started. Once you have these down pat, you can start branching out into weird sublines (1.e4 c6 2.d3) and slowly adding lines to your main repertoire (as we discussed last week in Electronic T-Notes).

Really adventurous souls who want to cut down on the theory they need to know as White play things like 1.b4 (the Orangutan) or 1.g4 (the Grob). Both openings are a tad suspect, but if you know them inside and out, you can get away with playing them, achieving a decent middlegame position with few problems.

You might also try learning openings that are related in some way. The French Advance (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5), the Caro-Kann Advance (1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5) and early e4-e5 variations in the Pirc Austrian Attack (1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.f4 Bg7 5.Nf3 followed by e5, or else just 5.e5) all share something in common: the advance of the e-pawn to e5. Consequently, the openings are all distantly related and certain principles and ideas apply to all three.

The main idea is to keep things as simple as possible. Once you have a firm grasp on the ideas behind your chosen variation (such as the French Advance) it's easier to branch out into other more involved lines of the same opening (i.e. the French Winawer).

Another concept to learn is that of tabia. Tabia are opening setups, positions that you know well and try to get into, or positions that you are so familiar with that you don't even have to think about your moves until after the positions are reached. Here's a example:

This is a typical setup in the Pirc Austrian Attack. You can get here a number of different ways:

and on and on. Notice that White always follows the same move order, while Black varies the order but his pieces always end up on the same squares. The move order is not as important as the position reached. The players are shooting for a familiar setup from which to begin the middlegame.

Grandmasters have literally thousands of these tabia stored in their heads. They can close their eyes, visualize the position, and understand what's required for both sides to continue from that position.

A common error made by us mere mortals (and not just novices either) is that we conceive of the opening as a rote list of moves. "I go here and he goes here and I go here and he goes here..." etc. I know dozens of players who can rattle off the first twelve moves of their favorite opening variation by heart. The trouble is in what they're seeing in their heads as they do so: they're not visualizing a board, they're visualizing the moves as they appear printed on a page of some opening book. Blindfold the same player, play through his pet variation through move seven, whip off the blindfold, say "White to move", and Joe Theoretician will be completely baffled. He's had that position in dozens of games but he doesn't recognize it, because he didn't play through the moves leading up to that position. He's played the variation dozens of times but he's never really looked at the board as he did so.

Chess is really weird that way. It's a strange mixture of momentum and inertia, like looking at a movie still. Each position is a moment frozen in time, devoid of context until we provide that by dreaming up the next move. Yet each position is intimately and inseparably linked to the one that preceded it and the one that follows it in a constant flow of moves and positions. By using tabia we use a shortcut: we know the position we want to get to; seeing that position in our mind's eye eliminates the memorization factor of "he goes here and I go here" and forces us to look at the board and think about what comes next, rather than just regurgitating "book moves".

Let's go back to the Pirc position we were looking at earlier. We know that in this position, it's White's turn to move:

We've seen that we can get to this position by a variety of paths. By memorizing this position, instead of the move order it took to get here, we've made life easier for ourselves. With White to move, there are really just two options: 5.e5 and 5.Nf3. Which one do you play?

This is where Fritz5 comes in. You can easily step to this position using the Fritz tree and then try it out for yourself, playing each move dozens of times and seeing what develops. You can test ideas (your own and those of others) to find out what suits your own style of play. You can determine your preferences and make a mental note of what to play when this particular tabia is reached. And playing from the same "setup" helps brand that position indelibly in your memory.

After twenty or thirty games in each line, you decide that you'd prefer to play 5.Nf3 here. So now we have a new tabia:

Once you've memorized this position (so you can close your eyes and see it without the use of the board) you've cut a major corner. You now know the first five moves of the Austrian Attack no matter which way Black chooses to play it. Your next step is to learn what to play after both 5...0-0 and 5...c5, the two main responses in this position. Note that I said "in this position" and not "after 5.Nf3" -- we're trying to break the habit of thinking in terms of move orders and get into a new habit of thinking in terms of the position on the board.

Why do we want to think this way? Because memorizing a line from an opening book doesn't do a ding-dang thing for you except save you some clock time if you're lucky enough to have your opponent play into your prepared variation. All that rote memorization of an opening sequence does is lock you into a mechanical mode of thought. But looking at opening setups and board positions makes you look at the board and understand what's happening. Memorization won't make you a better chessplayer -- understanding will.

You can even create databases of your favorite tabia. You can either play through the moves and save it as a game fragment in ChessBase or Fritz or use "Setup position" to create the position from scratch and then save it into a database. This is a great time saver; you can store your favorite opening positions, double-click on them in the database using Fritz, and have the position automatically appear on the board in the main screen. You can then start playing against Fritz immediately, instead of having to step though the game tree.

Remember -- learning openings isn't all that tough as long as you keep in mind that you're better off learning the ideas behind the moves rather than just memorizing the moves themselves.



by Steve Lopez

It seems like I can't open any chess magazine these days without reading an obituary, memorial, or tribute to some player or organizer who's recently gone on to that great coffeehouse in the sky. "Organizer of the Lake Weemanwaunee Chess Roundtable, 1947; patron and sponsor of the Greater Wisconsin Open, 1953-1977; created the first 12-step program for postal chess addicts;" etc. And while I greatly admire these people who give so much to the game, I often think of the players in the trenches, those who live their lives hunched over the sixty-four squares and then pass on to the hereafter, unsung and unremembered.

This past Wednesday night, I went over to the county library where our local informal "club" meets to play twice a week. I hadn't been there for a long while and I was greeted warmly by my old friends and sparring partners. But something was missing...I couldn't quite put my finger on it...

"Steve, did you hear that Larry died?"

"What??!!?? When??" I exclaimed.

"He died last month. We knew it was coming...he'd been looking worse and worse for months."

Larry was a true original. He was a retired guy who was always at the library. The only other place I ever saw him was at the local minor league baseball games. I never knew a thing about him, away from chess and the ballpark. I never knew what he did for a living before his retirement, how he got by in his "golden years", how he lost his forearm. All I knew was that he was a patzer extraordinaire and one of the most infuriating players I've ever met. He was also my friend.

Remember the description of Israel Zilber from the book Searching for Bobby Fischer -- you know, the old Russian master who constantly sang and muttered to himself? The players in Washington Square Park called Zilber "the Sheriff". Larry was one step this side of Zilber. He was our "Sheriff", but he was closer to Deputy Dawg than Matt Dillon. Larry was a total patzer, but there was something odd about him. He would play like a house afire one week, wiping everyone off the board with ease, then the next week he could barely get out of the opening without falling for some cheapo. He was a complete cypher.

And Larry also had a mysterious gift for making you play at his level. If he was playing well he could bring out the best in you. If he was having one of his "patzer weeks", he could make a strong player blunder like a novice.

Larry was short, round, balding, and walked with a peculiar rolling gait. He spoke (and sang) in a high nasal voice, usually during a game and particularly when it was his opponent's move in a terribly complex tactical situation. The four most common expressions heard at the club were "check", "mate", "draw?", and "Larry, shut up!"

Larry had a wide range of distraction tactics. He frequently sang old-time gospel songs as he played. He muttered to himself in German (he was not a native German speaker, by the way). He had a vast repertoire of bizarre rhyming chess-related expressions: "I get in a hassle whenever I castle", "Take my Rook, you dirty crook", "Take a pawn if it turns you on" (a sure-fire tip-off that the pawn was poisoned), among others.

The most annoying thing about him was his laugh. Whenever he'd cop off one of your pieces or pawns, gaining a material advantage, he'd laugh that godawful laugh of his. It was identical to Sydney Greenstreet's laugh in The Maltese Falcon, coming from somewhere in the back of his throat. I have never been able to watch that film for the last eight years without thinking of Larry.

He had but one arm; one of his forearms was missing and he had a plastic prosthesis that was a peculiar yellow color found nowhere else in nature. So help me God, he used to put band-aids on the thing and wore a mitten on it in the winter. Once I thought I spotted a ring on one of the fingers.

You could count on Larry always being at the library on chess night. He was a fixture. He'd play anybody, regardless of strength or lack thereof. If he was odd man out, he'd try to corral passersby into a game. "Want to play chess?" he'd say in that high nasal voice, to anyone. And I mean anyone -- I once saw him asking a little kid, no more than four, if he wanted to play a game. Old men, gorgeous co-eds, bikers, little kids, businessmen, wealthy dowagers -- all were accosted by Larry looking for his next game. Larry was the reason the librarians made us stop playing at the tables by the card catalogs and stuck us back in the corner by the opera records.

Was this guy crazy or was it all just an act? I never knew. I'd make a simple bad pun and then have to explain it to him. Other times I'd crack a subtle joke with a hidden literary reference and catch him looking at me out of the corner of his eye with an approving smirk. He often acted like he didn't know what was going on around him, but then someone would fire off a particularly funny line and you'd catch Larry with a gleam in his eye.

His own sense of humor was quite -- different. One afternoon, while playing in City Park (the library was closed), somebody mentioned a newspaper article about homeless families catching and killing the geese that lived in the park, in order to feed themselves. Right in the middle of his game, Larry launched into a stream-of-conciousness sollioquy in which he was a homeless man talking about how he'd had a "park goose" last night and how good it tasted. Larry's monologue was completely unexpected and totally bizarre. It was also outrageously funny and all chessplaying stopped dead for the next ten minutes as we wiped tears from our eyes and composed ourselves. Larry, meanwhile, never cracked a smile and went on to lose gloriously in his game.

Larry carried the standard USCF-issue plastic chess set, the oldest one I'd ever seen. The heads of his Rooks and Queen were completely rounded off. It's frightening to think how many thousands of games must have been played on that set to get it into that kind of condition.

Even with all that chessplaying, Larry never seemed to learn a lick more about chess that what he already knew. When I first met him, he used to play Petroff's Defense and I nailed him with the same opening trap at least a dozen times:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 Nxe4 4.Qe2 Nf6 5.Nc6+

After many embittering losses to this variation, it finally sunk in and he hung it up in favor of the Ruy Lopez.

A Wednesday night tradition at the library was Larry's announcement of the library's impending closure. At 8:30 PM, the librarian plays a tone that sounds like a glass tumbler being dropped into a sink. A few moments later, you hear her voice over the loudspeaker saying "The library will close in thirty minutes...the library will close in thirty minutes". Ever Wednesday night, like clockwork, in the minute or so between the tone and the announcement, you could count on Larry to do an imitation of the librarian's voice, announcing closing in a half-hour. Newcomers to the group would always look at him oddly and then ask one of us,"Is there something wrong with him?"

The last time I saw Larry alive, I was in the middle of a game with someone else when the tone sounded over the intercom. Larry was seated at the table behind me, reading the newspaper. A minute went by -- Larry didn't speak. Another minute -- still no announcement. A third minute passed; it was like waiting for fingernails to be scraped across a blackboard.

Finally, I couldn't take it any more. I wheeled around in my seat to face him. "Say it!!!!" I cried. "SAY IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Larry merely looked puzzled, but he had a slight smirk playing about his lips. He knew exactly what he was doing.

Speaking of impressions, after a while I got to where I could do a really great impression of Larry. I'd wait for him to go into his distraction tactics (singing "He Touched Me" or mumbling in German) and then I'd start giving it back to him, in his own voice. Our fellow players were either greatly annoyed or totally amused by the "duelling Larrys". After a while, he didn't mess with me as much when we played; I guess he couldn't handle hearing himself trying to drive other players nuts.

Larry either won brilliantly or lost like a total fish. The word "draw" disn't exist in his vocabulary. And the weird part was that winning and losing were all the same to him. When he won, he'd chuckle with that annoying-as-all-hell Sydney Greenstreet laugh of his. When he lost, he'd sigh and say "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, I really haven't been playing well at all lately; I should just give up the game". Either way, he'd be back at it five minutes later, singing gospel and uttering his odd chess rhymes, his previous game's result totally forgotten.

Strange as it sounds, I actually liked the guy. We used to get together once in a while for matches at another library closer to our homes (I lived in West Virginia at the time). I got a kick out of his uniqueness. Where else but in the chess world could you meet a guy wearing rumpled unlaundered clothes and a band-aid on his plastic arm, singing to himself as he played, and occasionally showing a keen wit behind his eccentric facade?

I was stunned Wednesday night when I heard that he'd died last month. I suddenly realized that I'd known the man for eight years and never found out his last name. Our games together are in my database with his name given simply as "Larry"; no other appellation was required. He was one of a kind.

When 8:30 came last Wednesday night and the librarian played the tone over the loudspeaker, there was an awkward, awful silence. It seemed like all the chessplayers caught their breath for a moment. Suddenly, there sounded the familiar high-pitched nasal voice, imitating the librarian: "The library will close in thirty minutes..."

Heads snapped around in all directions, jaws dropped in shock. I looked around, grinned, and said "Well, somebody had to say it." Everyone smiled at me, nodded, and went back to their games. They knew it was my tribute to Larry.

After the library closed, I drove around for a while, then stopped at a pub for a cold Sam Adams. As I finished it, I said aloud "That one's for you, Larry" and stepped back out into the night. The guy drove me bats, and I must have told him to shut up a couple hundred times, but I realize now that I'd give anything to hear one more chorus of "He Touched Me" coming from the other side of the board.

Larry drove us all crazy, but he was our friend. He was the glue that held our group together, the only guy you could count on to always be there, to always be ready for a game. I don't know what will become of us now, but I know that Wednesday nights will never be the same.

As I related earlier, Larry had an uncanny gift for making you play at his level, whatever it was at the moment. We shared many hours together over the board, and the results swung wildly between the good, the bad, and the ugly. I now present, without commentary, a particularly hilarious example of our glorious hackery, in which Larry manages to lose the Exchange early, winds up gaining material on me (a Queen for a Rook), and then loses the game anyway. A fellow player watched some of this game, saw me drop my Queen, left for the restroom (figuring I'd resign), and came back in time to see me deliver mate.

"How in the world did that happen?" he asked.

"Hey, that's just typical play for me and Larry, pal!" I laughed.

This one's dedicated to my fellow coffeehouse players who spend a lifetime over the board and, like Salieri in Amadeus, find themselves unsung. I can't think of a better way to close the first year of Electronic T-Notes than with this game:

SL - Larry [C64]
casual game, Hagerstown 8/23, 1995

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Bc5 4.0-0 d6 5.Qe2 Qf6 6.d3 Bd7 7.c3 a6 8.Ba4 0-0-0 9.Bg5 Qg6 10.Bxd8 Kxd8 11.b4 Bh3 12.g3 Bb6 13.Rd1 h5 14.Bb3 h4 15.a4 hxg3 16.hxg3 Qh6 17.Nbd2 Bg4 18.Kf1 Qh1+ 19.Ng1 Bxe2+ 20.Kxe2 Qh2 21.Rf1 Qh5+ 22.Ndf3 g5 23.Kd2 g4 24.Nh4 Kc8 25. Ne2 Kb8 26.Rh1 Qh6+ 27.Kc2 Bxf2 28.Nf5 Qg5 29.Rxh8 Ka7 30.Rf1 Nce7 31.Rxf2 Nxf5 32.Rxf5 Qe3 33.Nc1 Nh6 34.Rh5 Qxg3 35.R8xh6 Qf2+ 36.Kb1 g3 37.Rf5 Qd2 38.Rh1 g2 39.Rg1 b5 40.a5 Qxc3 41.Bc2 Qxb4+ 42.Nb3 Qc3 43.Rxg2 Qe1+ 44.Ka2 Qb4 45.Rxf7 Qa4+ 46.Kb1 Kb7 47.Rgg7 Kc6 48.Rxc7#


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