Saturday, September 30, 2006

Pissgate: Day 2

Not surprisingly, no match today. It has been postponed so that FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov can work with Kramnik and Topalov to try to resolve the impasse. I actually feel bad for Kirsan: the guy set up a really cool match, and these two spoiled brats are ruining it for him. If I were him, and had dictatorial powers, I'd throw these primadonnas into the gulag and not let them out until they've played 100 games. The winner gets freedom. The loser is forced to listen to Bobby Fischer discuss his views on the Middle East for three hours a day.

Our resident barrister over at Chessforblood has cut through the noise and provided an excellent analysis of the contract. He makes a compelling case that Kramnik's contract has not been violated, thereby undermining Kramnik's argument. Highly recommended. In fact, it makes me want to enter litigation just so I can hire Patrick to represent me.

Topalov and Kramnik pushing wood in the gulag.

Friday, September 29, 2006


Update 6:30 PM:
Seirewan has weighed in with a pretty reasonable opinion. The best coverage of Pissgate is at Chessbase.

Why can't chess championships be normal?

I woke up early today to look at the game between Topalov and Kramnik. It turns out that Kramnik just forfeited Game 5!

Why did he forfeit when the stakes are so high? Has his life-threatening illness returned? Is he making a statement about crumbling democratic reforms in Russia? No. It is much more important than that. He is protesting that FIDE asked him to use a different bathroom.

Here's the chronology. First, Topalov's team complained that Kramnik went to the bathroom as many as 50 times per game (this after reviewing bathroom video!). FIDE then made a subtle change in the bathroom rules: they want both players to use the same bathroom, but would not limit the number of visits. A letter from Kramnik's camp shot back that "Mr. Kramnik will stop playing this match as long as FIDE is not ready to respect Mr. Kramnik’s rights, in this case to use the toilet of his own restroom whenever he wishes to do so." Indeed, Mr. Kramnik forfeited his game today. Because he wants his own bathroom. The most important match in chess in the last 34 years, and he forfeits because he wants his own bathroom.

All the different official documents are online here. You can find out what Kramnik thinks here.

Oh, and Topalov has hired a parapsychologist.

Note this is not a joke. Why can't chess championships be normal?

Some of the video footage of Kramnik's "special" bathroom.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Where are the counting problems?!

Counting problems are problems in which you have some material attacking a piece, your opponent has some material defending it, and you need to determine whether to make the capture, and which piece to use. Where are all the counting problems? They are great exercises for patzers like me to build calculation muscle, as they force you to visualize simple game trees.

Here is a very simple example, from Wolff's book (see below). White to move.

There isn't much written on such problems. Perhaps authors consider them too simple. They usually just give the rules for solving them, and provide a couple of examples (usually authors say that if there are more attackers pointing at a piece than there are defenders guarding it, and/or the sequence of exchanges will leave you with the better position, then take the material). A simple rule, no? A monkey could do it! Well, in practice, in the thick of a game, with multiple potential captures, with time constraints, things aren't that simple. Not for me, with my inefficient thinking and poor visualization skills.

There is some writing about such problems. A Counting Primer by Heisman provides a good introduction, as does The Complete Idiot's Guide to Chess by Wolff. Heisman has other relevant stuff: for instance, an article on queiscience errors here, and he talks more about counting errors here. The above two authors' puzzles amount to fewer than 30 such problems!

A set of 1000 such counting problems, in increasing order of difficulty, is what I need. If it does exist, or something close, I will send whoever points it out to me first a copy of a chess book in my collection. I'll have to check it out to make sure it is truly a bunch of counting problems, not general 'tactical' software, of which there is no shortage. Many tactical puzzles end up being having counting problems as subproblems, so that is helpful, but they aren't straightforward counting problems.

You might say "Just play lots of games to improve at this" I could, but just like basic tactics, I could pick it up a lot faster with 1000 counting problems! I should be able to solve these simple problems effortlessly, but according to Dan Heisman, players under 1400 make lots of counting errors.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Counting and quiescience: woe is me

One of my biggest problems involves counting and quiescience (they usually go together). I end up being lazy, not thinking through natural sequences of captures or (especially) considering good moves that don't seem 'natural'. Often, if there are multiple options I am very inefficient, switching back and forth in my mind in my analysis of different lines. Kotov, in Think like a grandmaster has a funny description of how efficient my thought process sometimes is:
Let us suppose that at one point in your game you have a choice between two moves, Rd1 or Ng5. Which should you play? You settle down comfortably in your chair and start your analysis by silently saying to yourself the possible moves. "All right, I could play Rd1 and he would probably play ...Bb7, or he could take my a-pawn, which is now undefended. What then? Do I like the look of the position then?" You go one move further in your analysis and then you pull a long face - the rook move no longer appeals to you. Then you look at the knight move. "What if I go Ng5? He can drive it away by ...h6, I go Ne4, he captures it with his bishop. I recapture and he attacks my queen with his rook. That doesn't look very the knight move is no good. Let's look at the rook move again. If he plays ...Bb7 I can reply f3, but what if he captures my a-pawn. What can I play then? No, the rook move is no good. I must check the knight move again. So, Ng5, h6, Ne4, Bxe4, Qxe4, Rd4. No good! So I mustn't move the knight. Try the rook move again. Rd1, Qxa2." At this point you glance at the clock. "My goodness! Already 30 minutes gone on thinking whether to move the rook or the knight." If it goes on like this you'll really be in time trouble. And then suddenly you are struck by the happy idea - why move rook or knight? "What about Bb1?" And without any more ado, without any analysis at all you move the bishop, just like that, with hardly any consideration at all.

Here is a nice little problem that I consider a fairly nasty test of counting/quiescience skills. Should black capture on e4. If so, with which piece?

I took this from a game between Anand-Ivanchuck at the Linares tournament in 1991. I stole it from McDonald's excellent book Chess: The art of logical thinking.

What is the best way to improve at these types of problems? Are there any puzzle books or software that focus on them?

Monday, September 18, 2006

This is working. Minicircles 1-10 Done

I have worked through Phase 1 of Chess Tactics for Beginners 10 times. I am finishing the 120 mate-in-one problems in 10-15 minutes. Typically I see the solution instantly, but sometimes it takes up to five seconds for the answer to click into place.

More exciting, in blitz games mates are starting to pop out at me in ways they didn't before. I have won a bunch of games in the past week because my opponent missed my mate-in-one threats. Often they were weird mates, perhaps ones I would have missed before this training. I have also started to see my opponents sneaking up on me with mating attacks that I wouldn't have seen even a month ago.

There is further evidence that it is working: after my sixth minicircle, when it was clear I had learned the problems cold, I went to a new set of mate-in-one puzzles to see if I had merely learned the 120 problems, or if learning them actually improved my ability to see other mates. On average, I saw the mates pretty fast, usually within 10 seconds, suggesting that my mate vision is not a brittle artifact. (Note that in the statistical pattern recognition literature, you always divide your data into a 'training set' and a 'test set': after using the training set to set the parameters on your mathematical model, you then apply this model to your test set to see if it generalizes beyond the training data, as there is a danger that your model has simply 'memorized' the training data. We usually call this a 'brittle' model because it is easy to 'break' it).

Many of you are thinking "Wow, so you've reached the level of crappy patzer." I can only respond with an embarassed shrug. We'll see if it affects my performance in real (i.e., long) games.

# CirclesPercent Correct
Problem Set 11098-99-100-100-100-100-100-100-100-100
Problem Set 20
Problem Set 30
Problem Set 40
Problem Set 50
NOTE: Circles done with CTB.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Eye movements: Master vs Amateur

As I start to truly recognize patterns in my mate-in-one problems, I have noticed a new style of looking at the board. I mean this literally. When I see an overall pattern that I think I recognize, my eyes rapidly flick to key squares to make sure it is indeed the right pattern (e.g., is there a bishop on a1 pinning the pawn, which allows mate?). Such rapid, simultaneous eye movements are known as saccades, and we perform many saccades when we read or when we are first confronted with a visual scene, or for that matter when we look at a chess board. The pattern is saccade-->fixate-->saccade again...etc..

Sacaddes do not randomly flick about a visual scene. Psychologists have known for some time that they direct our eyes to locations in the visual environment that are likely to tell us something informative or useful. In a classic study, by Yarbus's group, they monitored subjects' saccades when they were shown a picture of a face, demonstrating that rather than randomly sampling the image, a disproportionate amount of time was spent fixating on certain key features:

It turns out that similar experiments have been performed in chess players. The researchers compared the patterns of saccades in masters versus amateur players. Here is the abstract of the paper:
Expert and intermediate chess players attempted to choose the best move in five chess positions while their eye movements were monitored. Experts were faster and more accurate than intermediates in choosing the best move. Experts made fewer fixations per trial and greater amplitude saccades than did intermediates, but there was no difference in fixation duration across skill groups. Examining the spatial distribution of the first five fixations for each position by skill group revealed that experts produced more fixations on empty squares than did intermediates. When fixating pieces, experts produced a greater proportion of fixations on relevant pieces than did intermediates. It is argued that expert chess players perceptually encode chess configurations, rather than individual pieces, and, consequently, parafoveal or peripheral processing guides their eye movements, producing a pattern of saccadic selectivity by piece saliency.

This is a very interesting study. There is a lot to it, but aside from the obvious stuff, two peculiar facts strike me as interesting. One, masters produced higher amplitude saccades than amateurs. That is, their eyes tend to move longer distances. This is probably because they realize how important it is to consider what is happening long distances from the main action. All chess teachers notice that newcomers to the Game of Kings often miss a long-distance pin when the same students would spot it right away if the pinning piece were adjacent to the pinned piece.

Second, they found that masters fixated on empty squares more often than the amateurs. I am not sure what to make of it, but I know that both Sancho and Tempo have mentioned that as they improve, their focus shifts from material to a more nuanced focus on empty squares as well as filled squares.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Minicircles 1-4 done

I've worked through my first problem set four times now. It is Stage 1 of Chess Tactics for Beginners, which consists of 120 mostly easy mate-in-one problems. I am starting to do many of them without thinking (some I would have done without thinking anyway: there are a couple of elementary back-rank mates in there). It is a strange feeling, blowing through problems without effort. It feels like cheating, like I should be slowing down and thinking things through more. If it were a game, of course, I would have to do that, but such rapid pattern recognition is what I'm trying to attain. I just need to remember not to get cocky and think that it means I can play like this in real games!

If I could spot every two move mate and tactic on every move this way, I'd probably be rated four hundred points higher...

Percent Correct in Circles

Mini-Circle 1
Problem Set 1
PS 2

PS 3

PS 4

PS 5

NOTE: Circles done with CTB.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Tactical Agnosia: Is there a Cure?

There is a consensus that pattern recognition is a key ingredient of chess mastery. What are the psychological signatures of pattern recognition? There seem to be two: it is effortless and operates very quickly. If it takes you more than a few seconds for you to see a tactic, then it isn't part of your pattern recognition armamentarium.

A good example of pattern recognition is our ability to recognize faces. Do you have to sit and consciously deduce whose face you are looking at? Only if you have prosopagnosia, the neurological disorder in which normal face recognition is impaired. The rest of us recognize faces immediately, expending no conscious effort. More generally, the class of disorders known as the agnosias involve the inability to recognize sometimes very specific types of objects (e.g., animals). I sometimes wonder if I have tactical agnosia.

While everyone agrees that learning tactical patterns is important, there are disagreements, sometimes quite feisty, about the best way to build up such skills. Those of us doing the Circles are trying to burn tactical patterns into our memory by repeating the same problems multiple times. Given this strategy, there are a few variables that can be played with: number of problems total, number of problems to work on before moving on to another subset (i.e., mini-circle size), time per problem, number of times to repeat the same problems, etc..

Based partly on arguments I've read in the other Knights' blogs, I've decided to tweak some of the variables in my training. Here's my modified plan. I will pick small groups of simple tactical problems (under 300 problems) and work through them following a doubling law. The first time through, I will do 5 problems in a study block until I finish all the problems. Then I repeat the same problems, doing 10 per block, then 20, etc, until I am doing the entire set of problems each day, 100% correct, with no thinking. Then I will move on to the next set of (less than) 300 problems.

I am not yet sure how I will finesse repeating sets of problems that I have already learned. Maybe once I've worked through the five problem clusters in Chess Tactics for Beginners, I'll then do a bunch of Ubercircles in which I do them all. I'll figure that out once I get there. Any suggestions on that phase appreciated.

Thanks to Man de la Maza, Sancho, Tempo, J'adoube, Quandoman, and others for stimulating this. I think this will be a better way to remedy my agnosia.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

"Training" update

I just realized I have been a total idiot for not taking advantage of Bill Hargrove's Thursday night lectures on master games over in Chapel Hill. Each Thursday, at a cute little coffee shop, he uses a board to lecture on a master game.

I haven't touched the Circles in a couple of weeks. I've been playing lots of fun and sloppy blitz games, a few slow games, and skimming Soltis' interesting book How to Choose a Chess Move. It has been a nice break.

I am seriously considering revising my plan based on some of Temposchlucker's recent excellent posts. Namely, I'm thinking of something like J'Adoube's video-game approach. Basically, take 200 problems (or so) and repeat them until I instantly and effortlessly recognize them like a loved-one's face. That is, build up some true pattern recognition. If I do this until the 1200 patterns in Chess Tactics for Beginners are a cakewalk, that will (I hope) be a good core of tactical know-how around which to build up my other skills.

Also, what the heck happened to Quandoman? His posts are all gone, which is a big loss for the chess blogosphere. His post on the importance of studying master games is one of my all-time favorites.