The Campbell Report
Hard Chess
with USCF Senior Master Mark Morss

January 2000
My Advice Criticized; The Dark Side of the Noteboom

The advice to correspondence players that I expressed in this space last month elicited some interesting criticism. The very strong correspondence chess player Stephen Ham took issue with my claim that detailed openings preparation is unnecessary. Some readers may have seen the discussion on TCCMB, but it's worth quoting some of the key remarks here. Ham wrote:

I recognize that if one's goal is merely to have fun, then this is OK. Of course rolling the dice to generate moves may be fun for some people too. If however, the goal is to win more games and improve results (which is fun in and of itself!), then I believe one MUST thoroughly research their openings prior to playing serious chess. I remember reading a comment from GM Paul Keres where he said that he tested his opening novelties in hundreds of speed games and lots of serious games with trusted masters before trying his new moves in a serious tournament game.

If I were to advise somebody who's preparing for opponents all rated at least at the master level, my advise would be: "Know your Openings". If instead, the level of opposition is weaker, this opening study should produce even greater dividends. Yes, one needs to know how to play the middle-game and endings, but all things being equal, an opening advantage conveys a head start in the race to win the game.

I do believe that the benefits from [detailed openings] study increases in direct proportion to the amount/quality of work done.

I replied:

No doubt [the last statement is true], but the same is true of study of any part of chess. The question I raised was, where is time for study best spent? I really don't think that detailed openings study is the best way to make oneself a better chess player. Nor do I agree that such study in necessary in CC (it is OTB).

Whatever any player's analytical skills may be, I think it's an acceptable approach to CC to do one's theoretical labors when the particular problems come up. I don't think I need to have 50 columns of home analysis on EVERY possible white system before I take up the King's Indian Defense, for example. I doubt very much that ALL successful cc players at the Master level, or above, are a keen on theory as you seem to be. So I think your claim that deep theoretical study is essential to play at a high level is somewhat overstated. No doubt it is useful, but more useful is a good grasp of rook and pawn endings.

I am grateful to Steve Ham for his willingness to engage in this interesting debate. The reader will have to judge for himself or herself the merits of the different methods advocated by Ham and me. I would emphasize, however, if one does not prepare much before the game begins, this commits one to a great deal of work during the opening phase. One needs then to look ahead, reviewing all the games one can find, survey the theory books, and work hard to try to find new ideas for both sides. The paths recommended by theory are often the quickest roads to defeat.

Another strong master, my chessfriend and current opponent in the 1998 U.S. Absolute, Joe Shipman, e-mailed some thoughtful comments that I reproduce in full [I supply an occasional rejoinder like this].

Shipman wrote:

Although I keep a card file and note date received directly on the cards, I keep my game records in an ordinary school composition book (bound not looseleaf) which I keep in my briefcase so it is with me both at work and at home. This leaves room for very short hints to myself so I don't have to spend time rediscovering a difficult move; I very rarely need to write out analysis on paper and never use a computer to keep track of analysis. (Maybe once in 3 games will I get a position confusing enough that I need to write things down to keep track, and in such cases the analysis typically takes up a full page or more.)

While "avoid style" is in general a good principle, it is very important to know one's own strengths and weaknesses (and, to a much lesser degree, one's opponents' strengths and weaknesses) and choose appropriate openings for your style. [I think the choice of opening should be determined by a system's objective merits and by the kind of positions one wants to exercise oneself in. I think it is much better for a player's development, and enjoyment of chess, to try a wide variety of these than to try to stick always to certain kinds of positions. How dreary and self-limiting, for example, always to play gambits! But I agree that there may be some opening systems that depart so much from one's understanding of chess that it may be wise to avoid them.] Once the opening variation is set, positions where the best move is a matter of style are extremely rare, but before that they are common. [I disagree entirely. Many times, for example, one has to decide whether to press an attack or convert to an ending.]

You are quite correct that one should "Devote more time to your won positions than your lost ones. A mistake in a lost position counts for very little, but you lose a full point if you blunder in a won position, and losing half the point is easier still," but you should draw a sharp distinction here between bad positions and lost ones. Too many half-points are lost because players write games off prematurely and don't give them extra attention instead at the critical point. [Yes, it is always worth taking time when the game reaches what seems to be a critical juncture.] Just as one should devote special efforts at the point when a difficult win exists, so as not to let it slip away, one should devote special efforts at the point when a difficult draw exists. [In my view, whether a draw "exists" should guide play mainly in technical endgame situations. Otherwise, the point of play in bad positions should only be to keep setting hard problems for the opponent. If the position is in any sense dynamic, whether a draw actually exists is too difficult to discover and therefore is not worth worrying about.] Only when you are really sure that the game is objectively lost should you reduce the time spent on it at all. [I disagree. The worse a position is, the less time you should devote to it. To be "sure that a position is objectively lost" requires in itself too much expenditure of time to be a useful rule for deciding how much time to spend.]

The other big time saver: Don't be afraid to accept a draw in an equal position! Your thinking time is probably better spent on winning good positions and saving bad ones than on trying to find ways to win an equal one. [I agree so long as equal is understood as "flat." In positions that are equal but dynamic, you should play for the point.]

Ending technique is very important, but don't underestimate tablebases. If used properly they can be very helpful (particularly R+P vs R and Q+P vs Q, though I have also drawn two games with N vs R+P with the help of tablebases [in both cases I analyzed difficult draws, one of them extremely difficult, but might not have had the confidence to steer for the ending if I had not confirmed my analysis with a database]).

Yes, one should expand one's opening repertoire when moving from OTB to CC. I could never have made the investment needed to try the KID in serious OTB chess, but in CC you only need to learn one variation at a time.

Many thanks to Joe Shipman for sharing these interesting views.

I experimented with the Noteboom Variation in the 1997 U.S. Absolute, based upon no deep preparation but only upon a casual perusal of van der Werf and van der Worm's Play the Noteboom Variation, Cadogan 1996. I achieved a score of +1 in the four games where it arose, not bad for Black. But the Noteboom is a very difficult system, skating right along the edge of viable chess play. So perhaps not surprisingly, I did fall into worse positions in two my Noteboom games.

Because so much of Black's play in the Noteboom depends on his passed a- and b-pawns, the great danger is that White will be able to blockade these. This is exactly what happened in Concha-Morss. My opponent then proceeded to squeeze me hard in an ending where his king was much more active than mine, and his passed c-pawn was very menacing. Fortunately, I was able to sacrifice a knight for his c-pawn and then retreat into a kingside fortress that would have been very difficult for White to break into (I would also have had the continual threat of converting to a pawnless R+B vs R ending). My opponent chose not to contest further, and the game was drawn.

Lapham-Morss was less fortunate for me. My opponent converted the game into a very challenging ending where I fought against his two rooks with my queen and a passed but isolated b-pawn. Lapham understood the position much better than I did, outplayed me, and scored the point. Even so, I believe that this critical ending should have been drawn, and I sincerely invite the reader's review and criticism of my notes.

Game 1: Concha - Morss 1997 U.S. Absolute

Game 2: Lapham - Morss 1997 U.S. Absolute

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Next Month: Schliemann Defense

Copyright © 2000 by Mark F. Morss

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