GM ALEX COLOVIC: Advice on how to play for the draw

By GM Alex Colovic / On / In Chess improvement, Grandmaster Tips

There are two ways to play for a draw – to enter a variation that leads to a forced draw (though in this case the opponent should also be willing to enter there) or to go for a simplified and drawish position, which still needs to be played but one where the probability of draw is rather high.

While there are quite a few forced draws in chess theory, we assume that when we want to make a draw our opponent wants to avoid it. Therefore the likelihood of these variations happening is low.

The Najdorf Sicilian Simplified
GM Colovic’s course, The Najdorf Sicilian Simplified

This leaves us with the second method, choosing openings and lines that simplify the game and make the draw relatively easy to obtain.

This “relatively” is a dangerous term. Depending on the strength of the player it varies in meaning – for some a certain position may be “a draw” while for others the same position may be still full of life.

Always be ready to adapt!

Therefore take into consideration your own understanding of the positions and the easiness of playing them out to the draw.

When playing for a draw it is of utmost importance to be psychologically ready to play a normal game if required, especially in cases where the opponent deviates from the best theoretical lines (that lead to a draw!) and chooses an inferior line in order to get a game.

Then there won’t be an immediate draw, but the position should be comfortable enough for an easy game. But easy or not, the game will be played and for this a different state of mind is required.

In short, never expect that you’ll make an easy draw thanks to your preparation and always expect that you will have to play the game!

Here’s an example

In Round 6 of the 2008 Bratto tournament, I was playing White on Board 1 against the reigning European Champion, GM Sergei Tiviakov.

I prepared for that game for more than four hours, checking all the possible options in the two openings he was playing – the Scandinavian and the Rossolimo (I wasn’t going to play the Open Sicilian). I was ready to play, but what happened, in fact, was what I actually hoped for.

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 d6 4. O-O Bd7 5. Re1 Nf6 6. c3 a6 Until here he was playing a-tempo, even though I had never played this line before, but after my next move he became uncomfortable.

GM Alex Colovic Vs GM Sergei Tiviakov
FEN: r2qkb1r/1p1bpppp/p1np1n2/1Bp5/4P3/2P2N2/PP1P1PPP/RNBQR1K1 w kq – 0 7

7. Bxc6 Bxc6 8. d4 And here he started to grow nervous. He thought for some 10 minutes and then played the next three moves rapidly and offered a draw.

GM Alex Colovic Vs GM Sergei Tiviakov
FEN: r2qkb1r/1p2pppp/p1bp1n2/2p5/3PP3/2P2N2/PP3PPP/RNBQR1K1 b kq d3 0 8

8… cxd4 9. cxd4 Bxe4 10. Bg5 Bxf3 A draw agreed.

GM Alex Colovic Vs GM Sergei Tiviakov
FEN: r2qkb1r/1p2pppp/p2p1n2/6B1/3P4/5b2/PP3PPP/RN1QR1K1 w kq – 0 11

After 10… Bxf3 11. Qxf3 Qa5 12. Nc3 Qxg5 13. Qxb7 Rd8 14. Qc6+ is a well-known theoretical draw by perpetual check.

GM Alex Colovic Vs GM Sergei Tiviakov
FEN: 3rkb1r/4pppp/p1Qp1n2/6q1/3P4/2N5/PP3PPP/R3R1K1 b k – 2 14

A triumph of my preparation as I got what I wanted, but in case he deviated I was ready to play a normal game. Sometimes it happens that you prepare for hours and the game lasts 10 minutes.

Playing for a draw is not easy and many players simply cannot play in this way. But sometimes it is necessary, for a variety of reasons.

It is then when we have to calm our nerves and do what is required.

Grandmaster tips: Studying endgames, with GM ALEX COLOVIC

By GM Alex Colovic / On / In Chess improvement, Grandmaster Tips

There are two types of endgames, theoretical and practical and the way to study them is different.

I remember when I was a kid and was about to learn the theoretical endgames. The best manual at the time was Fine’s monumental work Basic Chess Endgames. I had it in two volumes, a 1951 edition in Croatian from Sahovska Naklada. Even though Averbakh’s tomes on endgames were also out by then, I didn’t have them so Fine it was.

My way was the pedestrian way. I simply played over all the examples in both books. I would set up the position and then I would play over the moves. I would pause and try to understand the principles that were explained in words. Then make the moves on the board, often repeating the process. After finishing the work (which lasted for what seemed an infinite amount of time) I noticed a marked improvement in my endgame play. As if some inner pieces of the puzzle fell in place and I was just playing better.

Revamped: 100 Endgames You Must Know
Revamped: 100 Endgames You Must Know

After some period I would repeat the process. It was a very long and not too interesting process, going through all the theoretical endgames, but I knew it was a useful one, so I did it. That is how I acquired my theoretical knowledge of endgames.

For the practical endgames, I am greatly indebted to Shereshevsky’s Endgame Strategy (Konturi Endshpilja in Russian). The book was full of general principles and good examples. Even though nowadays with the help of computers I discover many mistakes in the book, the main teachers were the players who played those endgames – Capablanca, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Fischer… By playing over their (end)games it seems that the subconscious picks up the invisible threads that are required to produce good endgame moves.

Apart from Shereshevsky, there were also other books and games of the great players. Three of them, in particular, were very impressive: Capablanca, Botvinnik, and Smyslov. Botvinnik’s three tomes (1923-1941, 1942-1956 and 1957-1970) were amazing as was Smyslov’s Letopis Shakhmatnogo Tvorchestva (Annals of Chess Creativity). (All of these are in Russian, as I studied them in the original). It was the recommended method back then – you study the (end)games of the great players and after a while, your general game improves.

Theoretical first, practical second

Nowadays there are new books. I usually recommend Jesus De la Villa’s 100 Endgames You Must Know. It is the most basic knowledge a chess player must have.

And then there is, of course, the Endgame Bible – Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual. Dvoretsky is the ultimate guide to the theoretical endgames, it is what Fine and Averbakh used to be in pre-computer times, only this time the variations are error-free. Some time ago I did with Dvoretsky what I did with Fine many years ago, only this time it was tougher with all the computer lines involved. I have read that The Manual was Kasparov’s favorite book.

The great Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual

I would say that the order of studying endgames should be theoretical first, practical second. The rationale here is that you must know what you’re going for, what your end-position is, with a clear understanding and knowledge of its evaluation and method of play. These end-positions are the theoretical endgames and you must be able to rely on them without a shadow of a doubt. The actual memorization of these theoretical endgames is similar to learning the multiplication table. It is problematic at first, it requires effort, but they must be memorized and after that life is much easier! (Understanding the principles etc. goes without saying.) As with all things requiring memorization, repetition is something that you will need to do from time to time.

For practical endgames, the most important thing here is to develop a feeling for them. You get that feeling by playing over countless games by the great players. I’d recommend the players from the past (notably my favorites Capablanca, Botvinnik, and Smyslov) because their play is somehow easier to understand and assimilate. Today’s chess is just way too burdened by computer variations and is too complex.

I would like to finish with a modern method for getting better at endgames. It consists of trying to win a technically winning position against an engine. I remember I read somewhere that this was the method Topalov used before his stellar period in the mid-00s. I tried it myself and what I can say is that it is even more frustrating than solving Dvoretsky’s puzzles. In other words, I rarely, if ever, managed to win a game.

Now all that remains is to get down to work. Good luck!

Grandmaster tips: How to stay calm under pressure, by GM ALEX COLOVIC

By Leon Watson / On / In Chess improvement, Grandmaster Tips

One of the most important aspects of self-control during a game of chess is the ability to stay calm under pressure.

Imagine a situation when on move 30, in a highly complex position you have a few promising options at your disposal but you have only 10 minutes to reach move 40.

To make it worse, your opponent also has a few options against each of your promising options, so things can easily get out of control and you slowly start to feel overwhelmed.

Don’t panic!

It is easy to panic in such situations. It is not so much the depth of the variations that will scare you, it is the breadth – the Kotovian variation tree branches out so quickly that you cannot seem to be able to control it.

GM Colovic is the author of The Najdorf Sicilian: Simplified

This is the exact moment when the above-mentioned self-control should kick in. The first thing is to remember it under those conditions, as it is easy to lose yourself in the variations. Stop and step back. Realize that panic is taking over and calm yourself down.

Only a calm player can navigate complications successfully. The second step is to take each option one by one. Without panic, calmly start calculating each opponent’s option one by one.

Learn self-control – it’s important!

When you finish the first, go to the second. It is not that difficult once you’ve calmed down. If there are time constraints like time-trouble you may have to cut short some of your calculations and make preliminary evaluations, but that is still better than not looking at the variation at all.

As an example, I will show you a very simple position.

Rinaldo Bianchetti was an Italian endgame composer

White moves here in the finale of Bianchetti’s study from 1924.

At first sight, you may be overwhelmed by the emptiness of the board and the many options Black has after White attacks the rook by 1 Kg7. This fear of having too many options to deal with may even paralyze you and your mind may not want to continue forward. In a self-defense mechanism, the brain may just shut down.

This is a critical moment. First, you must become aware of it happening and then you must override that subconscious self-defending mechanism by consciously making your mind continue where you want it to.

The rewards for your increased awareness and self-control may be beyond your expectation. Take another look at the position above. Calmly check every single move the rook can make and you will see what I mean. As so often in life, the goal is the closest at the moment when we consider giving up.

A final note to the Douglas Adams fans out there. It may help if you imagine Don’t Panic in large friendly letters. It helped me.

Grandmaster tips: Getting the most out of playing chess online

By GM Alex Colovic / On / In Grandmaster Tips

Being able to start playing chess online against another person after a couple of clicks has become a blessing that many of us take for granted nowadays.

Here I would like to discuss a few important aspects of playing chess online.
I will start with my own experience and the first thing I will say is that it is addictive.

In the early 00s, I was spending the springs on the Cote d’Azur in France. A friend of mine lived there and I was staying with him between tournaments or waiting to play for my club over the weekend.

GM Colovic’s QGD video-sync course

I wasn’t interested in tourism as I have seen most of the coast before, so there wasn’t much for me to do during the days (and nights). I started to play online.

I played a lot, and I mean a lot. Most of the days I would spend double-digit hours playing.

After a while, it became a problem. I didn’t want to move from the computer, neither to sleep or eat. Just endlessly clicking on the mouse and eager to start the next game.

Playing chess online: the pitfalls

If I won, I wanted to win more; if I lost, I wanted to get revenge. And the rating, of course, I wanted to get it to infinity. There was no stopping.

While there may have been some positive effects at the beginning, like practicing some openings and increasing tactical alertness, after a while, this became overshadowed by the negative effects.

The playing turned into clicking. A robotic finger movement with only minimal brain activity. I was no longer calculating lines, I played “on intuition”.

That’s what I was telling myself in order to justify the wasted time. It wasn’t intuition, it was me playing the first move I saw.

Intuition means you feel something, here there was no feeling. Just numb clicking. (In some cases this numbness can transfer to over-the-board play. Then it’s even worse. Fortunately, that didn’t happen to me.)

I was lucky that after some time I had to leave for a tournament, or visit the Melody Amber, which I always did in those days. This forced me to stop the harmful activity.

The itch was still there, but other things took precedence (game preparation, the actual playing, real people). When looking at it from a distance I realized that I was, in fact, wasting my time and not improving at chess at all.

Eventually, I stopped and I was surprised to find how easily I did it. Not all is bad with online chess, of course. So I figured what should be done if one wants to take maximum advantage out of it.

Discipline is the key

You must control yourself. Before starting an online session you must set the exact amount of time you will play and when the last game finishes you stop. No excuses. I would recommend a session no longer than one hour (and probably less).

Determine for what exactly you will use the online session. It can be for practicing openings (you can choose to play only with White or Black and practice your lines), quick calculation (keeping maximum concentration throughout the session without interruptions – consider it a high-intense exercise), endgame play (try to exchange queens and pieces as early as possible, sometimes even at the cost of worsening your position), a match with a known opponent and so on. Stick to your plan!

These two instructions can easily be overlooked if you decide to play online “just for fun.” Then you can easily forget yourself and the session will expand to fill all your available time. “Just one game” is never “one.” And the fun will quickly be gone if you start losing. As Benjamin Franklin wrote in “The Way to Wealth,” “It’s easier to suppress the first desire than to satisfy all that follow.”

Don’t do it every day

If you are serious about improving at chess, online chess should be used sparingly. Once a week should be enough. If you are to improve you must study much more than play. And the playing should be over the board, not online.

I hope this advice helps. That is, if you needed it in the first place.

Grandmaster Tips: A lesser-known defense

By GM Alex Colovic / On / In Chess improvement, Grandmaster Tips

Normally when defending unfavourable positions we tend to calculate a lot. This is normal and necessary, as in this way we make sure we don’t lose by force.

However, often thinking in schemes can also help the defense.

By schemes, I mean understanding where the pieces should be, on which squares they will have the highest impact on the position.

Compared to calculation, this is more general thinking, more abstract. I would like to give an example of how thinking in schemes helped the defending side.

The position is from a game between two World Champions:

It looks like a long and arduous defence is in sight for Anand (Black), especially against such a technical monster like Carlsen. But in fact the position is an easy draw.

Anand understood where his pieces should be. The dark-squared bishop will occupy the long diagonal and the knight will drop back to d6.

The key piece is the knight – from d6 it controls the light squares, so it will need help from the pawns to control the dark squares (in case the dark-squared bishops are exchanged).

Hence, pawns on f6, e5 and b6, together with a knight on d6 build an impregnable fortress! White cannot approach it as all the squares are controlled. This is particularly striking if you take the dark-squared bishops off the board.

You can check the remaining of the game Carlsen-Anand from Dortmund 2007 to see how Carlsen couldn’t do anything. In fact, he ended up taking the knight on d6 and agreeing to a draw in a position with opposite-coloured bishops.

In conclusion:

When defending, first and foremost you should make sure you’re not losing by force. But then try to understand where your pieces will feel best. They will thank you for it with doing a good job.

Grandmaster tips: Preparing in minutes, by GM ALEX COLOVIC

By GM Alex Colovic / On / In Chess improvement, Grandmaster Tips

Today’s hectic lifestyle affects everything. Chess tournaments don’t go unscathed either.

In the past playing one game a day was something that went without saying, nowadays two (or sometimes even three!) games a day are considered normal.

While I distinctly dislike playing more than one game a day, I don’t really have a choice but to adapt.

Almost all open tournaments in Europe have at least one day where two games are played. The situation in the USA is far worse – there two games a day is a common occurrence.

The Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2019
The Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2019

Apart from the issue of having enough energy to play more than one game, perhaps the main problem is the lack of time for proper preparation.

The pairings come out half an hour before the game and then what do you do, how do you prepare?

In such extreme situations, one must be very efficient with the time he has. First and foremost, after scanning the possible openings the opponent may play, one must determine the probability of a certain opening happening on the board.

After that, the preparation is done only for the most probable opening. There is simply no time for anything else!

With limited time the need for shortcuts is obvious. This means less theory to memorise. Some openings are more prone to shortcuts than others and this needs to be taken into consideration when preparing a line.

I will now give a few examples for such shortcuts so that you get a better idea of what they mean and how they look like. Bear in mind that these may not be suitable for everybody’s tastes and repertoires.

Kramnik’s shortcut

Preparing against the King’s Indian and the Grunfeld Defence is a pain for many White players, but some time ago Kramnik introduced a very interesting concept how to circumvent both openings.

It is not said for no reason that Kramnik was by far the most profound theoretician of our time!

The line in question goes 1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 g6 3. b3. With the fianchetto of the bishop White prevents …e5 for the time being and then develops by e3, Be2, 0-0.

Then, according to circumstances, either c4, Nc3 or Nbd2. And that’s it, against whatever Black does! (For a more detailed overview of this line please take a look at my video below)

Against Black’s symmetrical response after 1 d4 White can try to obtain a certain type of middlegame positions by playing 1 d4 d5 2 c4 e6 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 e3 and then fianchettoing the bishop on b2.

He can also play the same move-order against the Slav. This way of playing limits the necessity of extensive pre-game memorisation and if White had studied these setups he can confidently play them without preparation.

In the (semi)-open games it is more difficult to find shortcuts. One idea can be the Exchange Variation in the Caro-Kann, after 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd cxd 4. Bd3 White reaches a Carlsbad structure (with colours reversed) and even though some theoretical knowledge is necessary, the main principles of play remain the same. Striving for familiar structures is an efficient way to reduce the necessity for pre-game preparation.

It takes a bit of creativity to be able to come up with shortcuts like these, but I hope these ideas will inspire you to look for and create your own personal shortcuts!

Try our Strategy Training: Vladimir Kramnik course

Grandmaster tips: Patience is a real virtue in chess, by GM ALEX COLOVIC

By GM Alex Colovic / On / In Chess improvement, Grandmaster Tips

As the saying goes, “The hardest test in life is having the patience to wait for the right moment.”

We know that patience is very important during a game. But I will not talk about that patience now. I would like to share my thoughts about patience during a tournament.

Tournaments can develop in all sorts of ways. There are good ones, there are bad ones. Some start excellently and finish thus. Others finish badly. Some start badly and finish with a triumph. Or a catastrophie. Anything is possible.

Some tournaments are harder than others.

Don’t get frustrated!

I have found that the hardest ones are when you’re playing well, but you are not getting the results.

It burns inside, it is frustrating. Game after game, you outplay them, you are winning, but then something happens and you don’t win. Or you play well, but they also play well, in spite of being much lower rated than you, so you don’t even get a chance to win. Any way you suffer.

What to do?

There is only one constructive thing you can do: be patient. Do not, under any circumstances, go berserk and push your luck. When things are developing in the described way you will be punished.

The trend is not favourable and you cannot force it to become one. No, stay calm, keep composure. If you play well, you must keep your emotions under wraps, keep yourself under control.

Take your chances!

The next day, go in with the same motivation and desire. Do not do anything abrupt. Keep on playing your usual game. It doesn’t matter what happened before. Your chance will come.

You will probably have to wait for it longer than you’d want to. Perhaps until the last round or two. But if you manage to keep yourself composed, if you manage to keep the quality of your moves on a high level, if you do not lose your patience, you will be rewarded.

The chance will appear and then you will have to grab it. If you will, the tournament will be a success. And you will remember that tournament.

Patience in chess brings results

The chance will come, I can assure you. You will be rewarded for your patience. Patience will get you a chance eventually, but it is entirely up to you to take it.

Usually, you will. It will be too much pain if you didn’t. But that will also happen. And you will learn not to repeat the same mistake.

You will become stronger and then a tournament will happen when you go with the flow and all comes easily.

But even then, remember to be patient.