Play chess with people from all around the world!
Play online chess at

coffee mug     Coffee Break Chess
No. 13, 21th of July 1999

© 1999 by GM Alexander Baburin

Dear Chess Friends!

It's been a month since I sent out CBC No. 12. During that month I went to Russia for a family visit and then took part in Politiken Cup in Copenhagen. I played rather badly there, but had a lot of luck in the tournament and managed to finish equal 1st with Tiger Hillarp-Persson from Sweden on 8.5 out of 11. I guess that playing well against other GMs (2.5 out of 3) helped a lot. I wrote 2 tournament reports about that event for Chess Cafe, which you can find at and (archive). My new book review there is also out - you can check it at On FIDE's new rating list I am in 90th position with 2593, which is not too bad, I guess. If I can only keep this rate of improvement (7 points in 6 months), in mere 20 years I might overtake Kasparov! :)

In this issue I would like to answer some questions, which I received from my readers since February. I've been working as a chess coach since 1993 and have lots of experience in this field, so I hope that my answers will be of some interest to you. I believe in value of serious and critical analysis of your own games and think that without it it's impossible to make a proper chess diagnosis and work on chess effectively. This belief can be seen clearly in my answers.

So, I begin with a letter from Correspondence Chess Master Stephen Ham: Dear Alexander! Thank you for the latest CBC #11. Your game versus Becerra was most are a very brave man in playing 25 Be3! or was everything calculated out? That was a very deep move/concept indeed. Very impressive how you had everything under control.

I guess I was a sleepy man who wanted to wake up and thus tried to be brave! :) I needed some stress. No, not everything was worked out - perhaps, if it was, I would have won that game!. The idea to sacrifice a pawn was not bad (see the diagram):

Baburin - Becerra, Capablanca Memorial, Havana 1999


Here, instead of a safe move 25 Kh2, I played a more enterprising 25 Be3!?. After 25...Nxg3 26 Bxc5 dxc5 27 Kf2 Nh5 28 Nb7 f5? 29 d6 Nf6 30 f4! Nd7 31 exf5 exf4 32 Bd5+ Kg7 33 Be6 Ne5 34 d7 White got a winning position. Alas, I managed to lose that game...

My question is about the Arencibia game where you discussed his 31st move. My "merely mortal mind" expected 31...d4, which plans either ...d3-d2 or ...Rf7+ and ...Be3 when Black looks fine. You didn't mention these possibilities so I'm probably missing something BIG, as usual. Alexander, please tell me what I missed. Thank you.

We talking about the following position:

Baburin - Arencibia, Capablanca Memorial, Havana 1999


Here Black played 31...Rb7? and after 32 b4! axb4 33 Reb2 Ra7 34 Rxb4 White eventually won. Your idea to push the d-pawn is certainly very reasonable and it's strange that I did not pay much attention to it during the game. I believe that after 31...d4!? White's best strategy is to manage b3-b4, then force Black's pawn to d2 and try to win it after h2-h4 and g3-g4-g5. The continuation could be: 32 Reb2 d3 33 b4 axb4 34 Rxb4 Rf7+ 35 Ke1 Kg7 36 Rd1!? d2+ 37 Ke2 Ra8 38 h4. Perhaps, my 30th move was not as good as I thought and I should have preferred 30 Kf2! instead. I was concerned about 30...Bd2, where Black prevents the b3-b4 advance, but then White's rooks might be able to penetrate along the f-file. Thank you for spotting the move 31...d4!? - it would have been a better try for Black!

Alexander, you mentioned in a previous CBC that you'd answer certain questions about the lifestyle of a Grandmaster. Some questions I'd like to know answers too might also be of interest to others as well. The questions are:

1) How do most western GM's make a living? I've read that only the top 10 rated GM's can make a living strictly by playing chess. Besides writing/selling books, I presume the rest teach but surely there's not much money in that. Also, if you hold a "regular" job, how do you find the time to get away for tournaments? If they have a family to support, I presume they can't take too many risks with finances.
Indeed, very few chess players can make living just from playing in tournaments, though it's hard to say how many GMs can live just on that. A lot depends on how much money one needs: some GMs have no family and enjoy travelling between tournaments - obviously they can live on less money than those who must support a family. I guess that only about 20-30 players in the world rely solely on their prize winnings. The rest have to do other things in chess: writing books and articles, giving lessons and lectures, etc. Most GMs complain about the current situation, when it's next to impossible to make living being a chess pro, but I know very few of them who are willing to give it up. The truth is that chess is highly addictive - it's a challenge and once you take it, you don't want to give up! It's also an interesting life style - you get to travel a lot and to meet lots of people. Being your own boss is not least important too.

There is money in teaching, as there are more students than teachers, particularly GMs. I don't think that one needs to be an IM or GM to be a good teacher or that any GM would be a good coach, but it certainly helps to have high chess qualification. Rates vary a lot, starting with about $30 per hour with a GM. In certain places and for certain GMs it's a lot more. Most GMs don't like teaching though. I am fully aware of certain dangers here - when you teach, you talk about general rules, while when you play you often should look for exceptions. In order to teach one needs to imagine how amateur's mind works and here a GM may get confused. Personally, I've learnt how to deal with this problem.

Many GMs write books, but this can't make you rich, unless you spend little time and come up with rubbish (which does happen, as we all know!). Eventually an author may get a few thousand dollars for a solid 256-page book. It takes months to write a quality book, so this is not very profitable. Most GMs write chess books because they feel that they have something to say, money is not the prime incentive here.

2) I've read that GM's are paid a small fee just for showing up at tournaments. Is this fee the same for all GM's or can you negotiate a higher fee based upon performance or rating? How much is the usual fee?
Yes, GMs (and sometimes IMs) get appearance money in tournaments. How much depends on fame, rating and lots of other things - the principle "everything is negotiable!" applies here. In USA GMs usually do not receive fees, but the prizes are higher and tournaments are shorter (take less time), which somehow compensates for this. Fees vary between a few hundred dollars (for most GMs) and many thousands dollars (for top players).

3) GM's have to fly to many tournament sites. Who pays for this since this can be quite expensive? Are the GM's room and meals also paid for at tournaments or does the GM have to pay for it themselves?
Usually GMs pay their travel expenses - after all, it's up to you whether to fly first class or go by donkey! :) Sometimes organisers take care of tickets, but usually GMs pay for them from the appearance fees, etc. Everywhere except USA GMs usually also get free accommodation and food, but this again depends on the tournament, etc.

4) What/whom do GM's take with them to tournaments? Informants and other chess reference materials? Chess databases and programs on laptop computers? Do GM's still pay for seconds as they had back in the 70's or is this only for match play? Do they take family members?
Most GMs carry notebook computers and perhaps a few chess books to tournaments. Whether one can afford to bring seconds or family members, depends on the depth of his pocket. Only top players can afford to have seconds and this is one reason why they are better than the rest.

5) How many hours/day does a GM study when preparing for a tourney?
How many hours does a GM study when NOT preparing for a tourney?
How do the two study sessions differ?
I presume in the former that some time is spent preparing for certain opponents. If so, do you always know in advance who your opponents will be a tourney? Do you study alone or do you get together with other strong players when possible?

It's not possible to give a simple answer here. Sometimes I work a lot: analyse, annotate, etc., but sometimes I do not touch chess at all. I guess that most GMs are like me in this regard. Special preparation for tournaments is typical for top players, the rest does not do it - our work is less structured or organised. You know your opponents when you play in an all-play-all event. Then it makes sense to study their games. Many GMs like to work with a sparring partner. Before I left Russia, I used to work with my friend IM Roman Skomorokhin. I'd like to study with another strong player, but have not been able to do so in the past few years.

6) I read a humorous story about how you ended up in Ireland. I read you planned to move to Iceland but accidentally got off the plane in Ireland and fell in love with the beer so decided to stay. Is this true? Do any GM's drink alcohol while playing top level chess?
English GM Stuart Conquest introduced that story in 'Kingpin'. I've already sued him for moral damages (geography is the only thing I excel in!) and you may have noticed that nowadays Stuart travels from one tournament to another like crazy - he is trying to raise money to pay me off! :) Speaking seriously, in 1993 I was offered to work in Ireland for a year and the Irish could not get rid of me ever since. I like Ireland and stay here despite my dislike for Guinness!

As for drinking, I like beer and wine (prefer white), drink vodka (particularly Russian - with good food and nice company it's great!) and do not object to whisky or rum. I know that this may sound horrible, but I hate (American) political correctness and thus admit things like this freely. Besides, I control myself pretty well when it comes to drinking.

Playing in tournaments is very stressful and drinking alcohol surely helps to coop with stress. Many players did or do it, but it's clear that in a long run such players lose. During my career I got drunk only 2-3 times during a tournament - when things were going really badly for me and I needed a change. It always worked fine for me (I began to win), but I am reluctant to relax this way regularly. In general, top players seem to drink less nowadays than in the past - chess is more demanding now.

7) Do GM's do/eat anything to enhance concentration at the chess board such as consume caffeine?
Do many GM's have a certain routine that they follow that helps them to concentrate?

Many GMs eat chocolate during the game. They may believe that it helps their play, but I suspect they simply like the taste. Anyway, this is why I eat it! I often drink coffee during the game. Routine during a chess tournament is very important - the main thing is to stick to what you do, as long as things go right for you. Once a Russian master did really well in the semi-final of USSR Ch. He drunk heavily and smoked a lot and also played cards every night and so on. Yet, he was about to qualify to the final - he needed only a draw in the last round. So, he went for a nice walk in the evening, got in bed early and later he did his morning exercises. He played the last game like a novice and lost without any chance... The moral is clear, I think.

8) When in-between rounds at tournaments, are most GM's able to mentally relax and enjoy themselves or are they so focused on chess that all notions of fun are deferred until after the event. Speaking of relaxation, I'm very nervous when playing at tournaments and easily distracted by noises. Do GM's have nervous problems or have they generally overcome these problems to be able to relax enough to focus on chess.

There is life apart from chess and (most) GMs know that. Thus, chess pros pursue fun just like everyone else - meet other people, talk, walk, drink, eat out, play cards, read books, etc. If you cannot stop thinking of chess in-between the rounds, this is dangerous - you may not get relaxed and would play worse. It's hard to completely forget about your losses, fears, etc., but one should try - GMs with good nerves tend to succeed more often.

I often experience stress during the game. One of the worst cases was in 1995 in Vienna, when in the last rounds I was in trouble against Sakaev. Yet, I needed to win in order to make a GM-norm and to tie for first. When I had 5 minutes left, my heart began to beat like crazy and I felt very dizzy. I though that I was about to collapse... I said to myself that I don't want to have a heart attack over a game of chess and would rather prefer to lose it. So, I relax and spent a minute or so to come back to normal. I actually began to play well and drew that game. I never regretted that pause I took - better to be an alive IM than a dead GM! :)

Dear GM Baburin, I enjoy your coffee breaks very much. Most of us our casual players with limited time for the game, but want to improve. What advice do you have for us? What books would you suggest as the best for the candidate masters to study? Ralph
First of all I would recommend to decide on what you want to achieve in chess and how much time (and money!) you are willing to spend on it. I believe that it's important to keep in mind that chess is for joy and pleasure and should not become a source of frustration! Once you've defined your goals, it's possible to work out a program. Let's assume that you are a 'club player' and you want to get better at chess. Then I would suggest to the following:


  1. Play at least some tournament games, as pure studies are not enough and friendly games won't teach you much. It is up to you how many games to play a year - I guess 20+.
  2. Analyse and annotate your own games. No need to annotate every single game you play - probably something like 15%-20% is optimal: games which you lost, games where you feel you could play better and simply interesting chess encounters. When analysing, try to be critical. Don't use any computer program while analysing. Always write down your analysis and don't shy to show it to others, particularly to stronger players, as their advice might be helpful. Some people discuss chess in small groups, which is a good idea, provided they are of similar strength and get on well together. Once the analysis is finished, you may check it with some chess engine for tactical errors. Don't be put off if there are many - that's the case with me too! :)
  3. Do not spend too much time on opening books - study games of strong players (particularly annotated games!) in the relevant systems. It's good to pick a model player in your favourite opening and see how he handles it.
    For example, if you play Nimzo-Indian with 4 Qc2, check how GM Ivan Sokolov plays it. Another example - GM Sadler on the Queen's Gambit Accepted. This way you are likely to learn a lot.
  4. Invest your time into studying good endgame books and game collections. Avoid 'Informant'-style notes and look for explanations (words). Pay attention to endgame technique - it's a weakness of most players. Again, do not study anything in general for that is boring - take some endings you played and analyse them. Then move on to study endgames with similar themes or ideas. Remember: it should always go from your practice to your study (analysis) and then back to your practice!
  5. It's essential to receive at least one good chess magazine. I can recommend 'New in Chess' (Holland), 'Chess Monthly' (UK), 'Inside Chess' (USA). Also good is 'British Chess Magazine'. 'Chess Life' (USA) is not bad, but there are too many ads there. For those who read Russian, '64-Chess Review' is a must. Among German language magazines 'Schach' (Germany) is one of the best. In general, look for magazines which feature (well) annotated games and interesting stories about chess and chess players. Plain game scores are available in thousands - look for instructive stuff and human element in chess!
  6. There is no need to have a huge chess library, but make sure you have a good selection. I can recommend the following books: 'New York 1924 & 1927' by Alekhine, 'Moscow 1935' and 'Moscow 1936' (Caissa editions, USA), 'Candidate tournament. Zurich 1953' by Bronstein, 'Match-tournament Hague-Moscow 1948' by Keres, 'Match Botvinnik-Tal' by Tal. Game collections about Rubinstein, Capablanca, Keres, Botvinnik and other famous players are important. Among recent books I can recommend 'Chess the Adventurous Way' (New in Chess, 1994) by Timman, 'Fire on the Board' by Shirov, 'Vishy Anand: My Best Games of Chess' (Gambit, 1998) by Anand & Nunn. As for endgame books, 'Rook Endings' by Levenfish and Smyslov is an excellent work. Averbakh's books are good; GM James Howell wrote a nice book a few years ago. There are many instructional books around: I like 'Reassess Your Chess' by IM Silman, Dvoretsky's works are fine, but should be handled with care - one can get lost or mixed up in them. US IM John Watson is also a very good chess writer. Actually, there are quite many good books around nowadays. A good collection of tactical puzzles is a nice thing to have. Also, try to solve tactical positions when you see them in magazines. Please note that I do not give exact titles in some cases, so some research may be needed.

Hope this advice will help you and please don't forget to threat chess as fun - don't take it as a hard work!

Hello, Mr Baburin. I've only been playing for 18 months (through my son's interest in the game, he's 13) but I am seriously hooked now. One topic that I hope you might comment on in future is blunders, this of course is because I suffer seriously from them. Cheers, Alex Clark.
The only remedy I can think of is to write down your move first and then to make a check: does that hang a queen? Rook? Bishop, etc.? I think that this technique was suggested by Russian master Blumenfeld. He claimed that it helped him to cure the roblem.

Hi Alexander! I am currently a strong club player, but I want to improve my game and be able to compete successfully in tournaments. I want to draw up a training program for myself , but I do not know where to begin. Any help will greatly be appreciated! Gregory Ainsborough, South Africa.
Again, my advice would be to start with assessing yourself as a player and making a list of problems you have in chess. Then you can work out a program. Try to separate long-term and short-term goals. For example, you may want to improve your technique in rook endgames, but also need to fix some holes in your opening repertoire. Then just before a tournament it may be better to look at your openings and study endings later, when you have more time. You may also need to deal with other problems, e.g. lack of understanding of certain positions, etc. But the first thing is to make a fair assessment of your play - a sort of diagnosis. Then you'll be both a doctor and a patient! Playing training games and selected positions with a sparring partner may be a good way of preparing yourself for tournaments.

Here is message from David M. Cole, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA:
I'm 33. I took up tournament chess about two years ago, and have really enjoyed it. However, I have yet to find any published material that sets out a method of systematic study for the class player that will allow them to work hard and progress to the expert/master level. I can only find general comments ("study the endgame", "master tactics", "review GM games", etc.), that frankly, are quite vague and give little help. I'm playing at about the 1600 USCF level at the moment and can't seem to get beyond that, despite serious study of the game for about an hour each day, and I have several friends who have the same trouble. I'm not particularly talented, but I managed to pass two bar exams, so I am probably of decent intelligence. I would think that careful study would allow anyone of reasonable ability to reach the expert level. But it continues to be way out of my reach, and I suspect that the vast majority of players are in this boat as well (I know that several players in my club express the same frustrations). In short, could you set out a system of study that would allow myself and my club-mates to progress? There is so much training material available now, but so little advice in the way of direction that we are overwhelmed (especially in learning tactics and endgames). I think that such a column would be extremely popular if it presented a comprehensive system to build on, rather than just a number of examples. Did that make any sense? :) You don't need to respond directly; please just consider writing such a piece. I suspect that about 90% of your readers are below 1800 and would find such advice to be worth at least as much as the several dozen chess books they own. I know I would! Thanks again. David M. Cole.

Some of my advice given above would fit in here, but answering David I'd like to concentrate on a couple of things. First, don't start with 'I am not particularly talented...'. Of course, different people have different degree of chess talent, but it's hard to say how much talent one has. I also believe that anyone with general intelligence can reach the level of an expert, provided enough time and effort is put into it. How to tackle the problem is the question. You are right, there is a lot of stuff available on chess nowadays and one must be very selective now and know what he is doing with his time spent on chess.

Surely, you cannot make progress because you make certain mistakes and most likely those mistakes are typical for your play. So, first thing would be to define what is your weakness in chess (there could be a good few!) and then try to fix it. If you miss simple tactics, it would be wrong for me to say "Study games of Lasker and watch your rating go up!". Surely, studying his games is not a bad thing to do, but you would do better with a book on chess tactics. Also, if you have bad knowledge of basic rook endgames, it would be wrong to suggest you to study Rubinstein's rook endings - you would be better off with a rook on basic rook endgames first and only then should move to more advanced stuff. So, the problem is that everyone needs his own program and it's hard to write one, which would fit everybody. Once you know your weaknesses, start working on them systematically - for example, if you don't understand a certain pawn structure, then study a few games when such pawn formation happened. Looking at just one or two examples may not do. Always prefer to study typical positions in order to develop pattern recognition. Consider working on chess in a small group with your chess buddies. One player (let's call him a 'mentor') selects a few good examples about one topic and then you discuss it. Ideally, that should be followed by playing training positions, which 'mentor' should prepare in advance. Then analyse your play in those positions.


Dear Alexander, you might like to consider putting your picture at the end of one of your ezine, with the comment that you are providing the picture in response to a request from a Member of your fan club. With every kind wish, Clarry Webber (New Zealand).
This is an unusual suggestion. Yet, there is a point in posting a couple of photos - I remember cashing a cheque at my local post office: I had to show an ID, which happened to the one from Irish 'Aliens Registration Office' (what a name!). The postman, who had known me for many years, smiled at me and said: "So, you are an alien... How many legs do you have?" Here comes my proof that I did not arrive here from another planet:


This picture was taken during a simul I gave in Burlington Chess Club in California in 1997.

The following picture was taken during Capablanca Memorial in Havana in May 1999:


This issue of CBC turned out to be quite long, but I hope that you've found it both interesting and useful. If you have questions too, please e-mail me - I will try to answer them, although I cannot set any definite time for doing so. Also, I may not be able to answer questions on openings or particular positions.

Technical Support

I am very grateful to Igor Yagolnitser for his help with this project. For assistance regarding CBC, please contact Igor at

Alexander Baburin, Dublin.

Copyright © 1999 by GM Alexander Baburin. All rights reserved.

The recipient is granted a limited license to re-send this Newsletter to another in electronic form, or post it on an electronic bulletin, board or World Wide Web site, as long as no fee is charged for such reproduction. Any such reproduction must contain this license and acknowledge the author's copyright. Such reproduction does not waive any rights to future reproduction by the copyright holder.