David Halpin

The personal website of David Halpin
The Contrarian Online

Chess

How did it start?

I first learnt the basics of how to play chess in 1958, aged 11, at the boys’ grammar school I was then attending. Sixty-two years later I am still playing, regularly competing in local leagues and week-end tournaments. 

Although I have never been a good player, I have more than held my own in the ‘B’ and ‘C’ teams of the various clubs I have played for, often achieving 50% and more scores over a season. The same success level is repeated in tournaments, though I have never played in any of their Open or Major sections. I am always a Minor entrant. 

My highest grade – achieved in the 1980s – was slightly above 90. Today, it struggles to get much over 70. Despite this low rating, opponents 40+ grading points greater than mine often find it hard to beat me; and occasionally I cause a surprise by defeating or making life hard for them. 

I have always taken chess seriously, many a time reading books to find out ways to improve. I also analyse my games after matches using computer engines to find out where I went wrong. But, despite all of this effort, I have never broken through as a player, forever knowing more about how to play better than my actual performances show.

Still, I love chess. But, over-the-board, it often does not love me back, making me regularly very frustrated. I have had to get used to decades of chess mediocrity.

Besides competition, I have also coached chess to primary school-aged pupils and organized chess clubs in several of the secondary schools where I worked as a teacher.

Additionally, I follow closely chess results, particularly those involving elite GMs, whose play I learn about in Chess, a monthly magazine to which I have subscribed for over forty years. Leonard Barden’s excellent weekly chess column in the Guardian newspaper has also been a constant chess companion. More recently, I have taken to following international tournaments using the Chess24 website, logging into it most days. 

What’s the best thing about playing chess?

Played by experts, chess has beauteous aspects, especially when a subtly executed combination of moves results in an unassailable attack, or when a close endgame is resolved for one side rather than the other.

Played by me, chess elicits pleasure when I create a piece structure that constrains radically my opponent’s room for manoeuvre, or when I launch an attack which cannot be beaten back, or when I find good moves in a losing position that result in a drawn game which previously seemed unlikely.

And the worst?
Blundering a winning position; blundering in general; knowing what to do, but not doing it; and losing to a precocious ten-year old.

Top tips? 
My self-help approach to over-the-board play boils down to a simple three-point plan: (1) identify existing &/or anticipate imbalances in the position, thinking how best to improve my setup and exploit weaknesses in my opponent’s (assess who has annexed the most territory on the chessboard; evaluate who has the better pawn structure; determine who controls key files, diagonals and squares; and strengthen/exploit undefended and trapped pieces); (2) work out what my opponent is up to, including identifying immediate threats and ones further down the line; and (3) think holistically, coordinating my pieces in a strategic rather than inchoate fashion, so as to increase both attacking and defensive potential.

Key strengths?
Although I am a mediocre player, I am a persistent one, which means I do not give up easily.

I am mercilessly self-critical of my deficiencies.

Having learnt over the years to be a good loser, I am very magnanimous in victory.

Key weaknesses?
I don’t have the skill and technique to boss games and put my opponents away.

I focus too much on trying not to lose, while concentrating insufficiently on how to win.

I am poor at realising an advantage.

I don’t know enough about the medium-term strategic implications of particular openings.

My endgame play is often inaccurate.

I move too slowly in the opening.

Chess books? 
I have bought and consulted a lot of chess books over the years, imagining with every purchase I will get closer to learning how best significantly to improve. This mostly does not happen, entirely because the books I buy include analysis which is largely over my head. Good chess players rarely write good chess books for the general reader, and certainly not for players of my lowly standard.

The exception is IM Jeremy Silman. His How to Reassess Your Chess (2010 edition), when it’s not being entertaining, offers mediocre players like me highly instructive advice, supported by easy-to-follow practical examples. I have learnt a lot from reading it.

 

Another book I like a lot is Stephen Moss’s The Rookie (2016). This isn’t an instructional guide, but rather an account of how its author – an average player – seeks to overcome his chess-playing failings. Although often mordant in tone, it succeeds admirably as a celebration of the game. It also understands what it means to be a player who struggles to improve.

 

 

 

 

Two other books I like dipping into are ‘collections’ of good games played by top players, which in each case includes excellent well-written commentary. It’s not clear however if I learn anything about how to improve my own game from either of these books, for top players frequently find moves that are totally beyond my ken.

 

 

 

 

 

The Mammoth Book of the World’s Greatest Chess Games (2010) studies the cream of two centuries of international chess, implicating 125 of the finest games ever played. All the game’s big names feature: Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky, Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen, plus a host of others.

 

 

 

 

Jon Speelman’s Best Games 1970-80 (1982) is a rare gem. ‘Rare’, because it has long been out of print, and so is hard to get hold of; ‘gem’, because its annotations are refreshingly honest and perceptive. Forty-seven games are discussed, taking in two which are listed below among my all-time ‘favourites’. 

What is your favourite game of all time?

I don’t really have one, because there are so many great games to choose from. But here are three involving overseas GMs that I particularly like playing through:

Kasparov v Topalov, Wijk aan Zee, 1999

Featuring Gary Kasparov, arguably the greatest player of the modern era, and Veselin Topalov, the Bulgarian GM, this is everything a chess game should be – a ferocious fight with brilliance from both players, numerous tactical themes, and a King hunt.

Aronian v Anand, Wijk aan Zee, 2013 

Undisputed world champion from 2007 to 2013, Vishy Anand is one of the most fluid and intuitive players in chess history. This game, in which Anand plays with the Black pieces, showcases his considerable attacking skills. Anand’s 16th move – Nde5 – is a beauty, after which his pieces burst forth and cannot be contained.

Bai Jinshi v Ding Liren, Chinese League, 2017

Ding Liren, currently the third highest ranked player in the world, playing here with the Black pieces, takes on his younger countryman GM Bai Jinshi. Ding continually places his pieces en prise to put relentless pressure on Bai’s King, which can’t escape the centre of the board. The game is filled with beautiful moves, but it is Ding’s 20th – Rd4 – that makes the biggest impression.

 

And here are two games, each involving an English GM, which I also like working through. Each is given prominence in Jon Speelman’s collection: 

Short v Lein, Hastings, 1979-80

This game features the young Nigel Short (aged 14) taking on and beating the Soviet-American GM Anatoly Lein (aged 48). The game illustrates well the ability repeatedly to play accurate moves. Short’s  28th move – Nh3 – is not the most obvious choice. But, by insightfully repositioning his Knight on g5, he significantly increases the power of his attack, creating new problems for his opponent as a result. All of the game’s moves can be found here

Miles v Spassky, Montilla, 1978

Tony Miles, England’s first GM, deservedly won a brilliancy prize for this attacking game against a former World Champion. The attack begins with 13. g4, 14. g5, to be strengthened with Qg4. All of the game’s moves can be found here

Your own best games?
Because I am a mediocre player, I don’t have any games which I consider merit broadcasting to the world as examples of outstanding play.

However, these two games illustrate features that reflect well on my limited strengths.

The first, dated 2018, shows me, with the White pieces, doggedly keeping up with a player whose grade (140) is very superior to my own. OK, I didn’t win the game, but I more than held my own during it. Although each of us played inaccurately during the opening, neither was able significantly to capitalise subsequently. A draw was therefore a fair result.

Game1: Halpin (67) v A N Other (140), Wetherby, 2018 [Sicilian Defence]

1e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Bc5 5.c3 a6 6.Bc4 b5 7.Bb3 Bb7 8.Bc2 Ne7 9.Be3 Qb6 10.Qd2 0-0 11.b4 Bxd4 12.Qxd4 Qc7 13.0-0 Nbc6 14.Qd1 f5 15.Nd2 d6 16.Nf3 f4 17.Bd2 e5 18.Ng5 Rf6 19.Bb3+ Kh8 20.Qh5 h6 21.Nf7+ Kh7 22.Ng4+ Kh8 ½-½ To play through the moves on-screen, click here

The second game, played in 2020, shows me accurately taking apart an inferior opponent, again playing White. This game, which features Queen and Rook sacrifices, culminates in a deadly check.

Game 2: Halpin (67) v A N Other (40), on-line, 2020 [English Opening]
1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.a3 d5 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.e4 Nxc3 7.bxc3 Bc5 8.Bb5 Bd7 9.d4 exd4 10.cxd4 Bxd4 11.Nxd4 Nxd4 12.Qxd4 Bxb5 13.Qxg7 Qd3 14.Qxh8+ Kd7 15.Qb2 Re8 16.f3 f5 17.Kf2 fxe4 18.Rd1 Qxd1 19.Qxb5+ c6 20.Qf5+ Re6 21.Qxh7+ Re7 22.Qxe7+ Ke7 23.Bg5+ Ke6 24.Rxd1 1-0 To play through the moves on-screen, click here 

Here’s a new game, played earlier this year (2020) in the Bundesliga Championships, which has deservedly enjoyed wide praise in the chess magazines. It involves the Hungarian GM, Richard Rapport, who is reckoned to be one of the most creative players on the circuit. Playing with the Black pieces, against a very strong GM opponent, Noel Studer, Rapport spectacularly launches an innovative sacrificial winning attack.

Rapport talks about the moves he made, explaining his approach here 

A chess pundit comments on each move of the game here.

And this GM game, played in October 2020 between Azerbaijan’s Rauf Mamedov and Germany’s Matthias Blübaim, is wonderfully creative too, culminating in a spectacular winning effort (25.Bh7 is very nice). All the game’s moves can be played through here

More games …… (to follow), though first a book review – of a new chess aid authored by Barry Hymer and Peter Wells, which has the very boring title Chess Improvement.

This is a different kind of chess book, for it does not set out to pass on guidance of a technical nature, but rather to enable players to be more aware of the different ‘mindsets’ they bring to their play, and how these can hamper and help progress.

It’s very good, I think, an assessment supported by my favourite chess journalist, Leonard Barden, who uses his Guardian column to praise it highly. Click here to read what he has to say.

In developing their thesis, Barry and Peter draw on interviews conducted with some of England’s best players (Michael Adams, David Howell and Nigel Short, & others) whose practical wisdom has relevance to the experience of even mediocre players like me.

The book includes this health warning: “chess is a cruel game, replete with iron logic and devoid of human sympathy” (p.180).

And this tip, which I have taken to heart: “the key to good opening play is not to learn lines verbatim. but to focus on the understanding of them” (p.152).

The book’s chapter on ‘failure’, including how to cope with and learn from it, is also especially good, I think. The suggestion (pp.211-12) that ‘blunders’ are not random, out-of-character, moments in a chess game, but rather more often the product of a trend in one’s play that needs fixing, is something I hadn’t thought about before.

Two tips from the chapter on ‘failure’ have also impressed me; (1) Be aware of the limitations of engines, for they can never explain why a mistake was made; and (2) When analysing your mistakes in a game, ask ‘why did you play that move?’ or ‘what was your thinking that led you to believe it was OK?’.

Earlier, writing about my ‘favourite games’, I identified one featuring Tony Miles  who died in 2001, aged just 46. He was a fearless and highly innovative player

A good collection of some of his best games is this one:

Click here to read a very good appreciation of Tony’s life in chess.

Reading Barry Hymer and Peter Wells’s new book caused me to look again at another one like it, published nearly 20 years ago – Jonathan Rowson’s The Seven Deadly Chess Sins, which also offers a psychological analysis of chess errors.

The book’s blurb includes this summary of its contents:

“Everyone loses chess games occasionally, but all too often we lose a game due to moves that, deep down, we knew were flawed.

Why do we commit these chess-board sins? Are they the result of general misconceptions about chess and how it should be played? And how can we recognize the warning signs better?

In this thought-provoking and entertaining book, Jonathan Rowson investigates the main reasons why chess-players sometimes go horribly astray, focusing on the underlying psychological pitfalls: thinking (unnecessary or erroneous); blinking (missing opportunities; lack of resolution); wanting (too much concern with the result of the game); materialism (lack of attention to non-material factors); egoism (insufficient awareness of the opponent and his ideas); perfectionism (running short of time, trying too hard); looseness (“losing the plot”, drifting, poor concentration).”

One of the things I like about Rowson’s analysis is the way in which it alerts me to the importance of what he calls the ‘inter-subjective’ nature of playing chess, which is to do with fully acknowledging one’s responsibility for the moves one is required to make makes, while simultaneously being aware of the presence of one’s opponent from a psychological point of view.

This underscores the important need to bear in mind more that it’s not just me that is fretting about the next best move, my opponent is as well.

Also, if I am ‘behind’, this doesn’t necessarily mean I am ‘lost’, for my opponent has to find out how best to beat me, which is rarely straightforward. The concept of ‘winning’ in many cases is an ambiguous one, suggesting that it’s a good idea sometimes to ‘play on’ in situations where technically one is ‘lost’. 

A VERY CLEVER CHESS MOVE – to see it, click here.  Be honest, would you have found Amos Burn’s brilliant 33rd move – Qg4? 

And, then there’s this very beautiful game which I have just discovered.

It was played in November 2020 in Round 2 of the Ayelén Invitational between the Ukrainian GM, Vassily Ivanchuk, and the Spanish GM, Francisco Vallejo Pons.

Ivanchuk wins with a wonderful sacrifice  Click here to see all the game’s moves.

 

 

Although it’s not a substitute for OTB play, the DGT Centaur Chess Computer provides a more than reasonable chess experience.

It has 3 levels or modes of difficulty: Friendly, Challenging and Expert.

I can’t give Expert a good game. It always beats me. 

However, I can win against Friendly, which is equivalent to 130 grading points; and I am able to keep up with Challenging.

To view a video about the different functions of this computer, which I have nicknamed ‘Gadget’, click here

The moves of a winning game I played against it in December 2020 are included on this scoresheet.

 

The next game highlighted is the decider of the 2020 Russian Championship played between the brilliant 24 year-old GM, Daniil Dubov and former contender for the world title, GM Sergey Karjakin.

It’s a sensational victory for Dubov – some pundits calling it the ‘Game of 2020’ – in which he takes Karjakin apart with daring sacrifices of Bishop and Queen.

The moves of the game are commented on in a video which you can watch here