Monday, April 30, 2007

How a patzer can raise his rating by 50 points in a week

Since last week's blunderfest, I have done two things. First, I've been playing just about every day. When I don't play, no matter how much I've been studying tactical puzzles or openings, I just play worse. That game was after about 2 weeks of not playing slow games. Oops.

Second, I have completely reprioritized my thinking. The first and foremost plan in my thought process is now: avoid one-move blunders (e.g., en prise blunders or missing one-move tactics like forks and pins). In sharp positions, when there is the possibility of a sequence of captures, or a tactic, I do my best to think through the possibilities to quiescence. I haven't been spending a lot of time looking for subtle or complicated tactics: when I do that I tend to miss the obvious pin or fork. When the position is quiet, when there aren't direct clashes between material, I don't spend a lot of time thinking. I make sure I'm not making a one-move blunder, and make a move after a relatively quick positional evaluation and make the best positional move I can find that is tactically justified. I save my thinking time for calculation during those sharp positions (just as Soltis and other GMs recommend).

A Knight once told me that simply avoiding one-move blunders will get you to 1400 at ICC. I think this may be an overstatement, but given a modicum of positional, opening, and endgame knowledge, I think it is true.

I haven't won all my games using this 'Just don't blunder'-centric thought process, but my losses haven't been embarassing. And just like I have learned 'book' tactics by starting with the simple, perhaps it is a good idea to focus my thought during games on the simplest of tactics. Eventually, perhaps, this will be second-nature and I can spend more time looking for the sexy combinations.

Tournament game tonight. I'm very nervous, as our team loses the round unless I win, in which case we tie.

Chess is 99% tactics!

Game update added later: I lost. It was a great game. He played the Berlin, which I had been studying for a couple of days in preparation. He had a tough mating threat and after a 10 minute think I found a great move, maybe the best move I have ever played in chess. It ended up pinning his queen to his King so I got his queen for a rook. Unfortunately, after that deep think my mind was fuzzy, I got lazy. I just wanted to simplify. But he smartly tried to complicate the position. Ultimately I made (yet another) one-move blunder and let him skewer my king to my queen, right next to my King, but I hadn't thought through that his rook was protected by his Bishop!!! So I traded back my queen for his rook. Then he just schooled me in the endgame, which technically should have been a draw. I don't swear much on my blog, but FUCK! I was kicking his ass and then I just blew it.

That said, the game once again proved the theory espoused in the post: if I avoid 1-move blunders I will win most of my games (against people U1400). When I lose, it is 9/10 times because I fail to avoid such blunders.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Two new Knights don armor

The influx of motivated tactical wannabes continues. Let's make room for two new Knights at the Round Table. First, a "Huzzah!" to Korsmonaut, who has been posting already about his plan for the Circles (the important "What program should I use?" question in particular. It's important as the Circles are much like a marriage: you don't want to jump in without having a good idea what you are getting into.).

Second, welcome to hisbestfriend has decided to join the fray and is using Personal Chess Training to bulk up tactically. Really, hisbestfriend counts as two Knights, as it is a father-son dynamic duo gettin' down with the tactics during this summer break.

Finally, another very good blog of note: stevelearnschess has consistently good content. Steve works at one of my favorite companies (Mathworks) and has literally written the book on using Matlab for image processing. Very cool.

It's getting hard to keep track of all the good blogs. A good problem to have!

[Note added 04/30/07] Someone has trademarked J'adoube's blog name. Check it out here. It has lots of great content. Click on 'Show all posts' for the great stuff.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Tough circle 4 problem

[Revised 11am 4/25/07]

White to move:

Note that there are a couple of responses by black to consider. You get 20% credit if you get the obvious solution, 80% if you get the less obvious move, 100% if you calculate both. The solution is in the comments to this post.

If I could consistently get tactics like this in real games, I'd be happy with my chess play. I'm very glad I am using Chess Tactics for Beginners (CTB) rather than CT-Art, as CTB Level 4 is just at the edge of my zone of proximal development (which, if you believe Vygotsky's educational theory, is right where I should be). What is nice about CTB is that it slowly progresses up to these problems after starting out with lots of mate in one. I predict if I could get tactics like these regularly, I'd be rated 1500 to 1600 ICC in this crazy time-sink of a game.

In the cold light of morning, I see this problem really isn't particularly hard tactically: it just involves thinking ahead to quiescience four moves, considering checks, captures, and threats on each step, which is more of a problem in analysis than tactics. Tiredness always leads to shoddy analysis for me, and I was fighting to stay away when solving problems last night. I can recognize patterns just fine when tired, but thinking ahead becomes a chore.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Chmess club, anyone?

For one of those blog carnivals, Daniel Dennett submitted a wonderful old piece about the perils of being a professional philosopher, called Higher Order Truths about Chmess. He works through an analogy between chess theory and philosophy that is quite apt. This is classic Dennett. Having spent three years as a philosophy graduate student, I can only say 'Hear, hear!'

Monday, April 23, 2007

Plans, goals, analysis, and all that

I had a nice chat with Heisman on the phone tonight about my confusion about the relationship between analysis and planning in chess. I think I have come to a much better understanding of the different substantive and terminological issues here. What follows is the summary and positive view I am developing (I am not quite done yet: it seems to take me 3-4 posts to clearly work something out). It is the email I sent to Dan (slightly edited, and stuff in brackets was not in the original):
I very much appreciate the time you took to help me understand my confusion (the most important thing I realized is that I shouldn't be worrying about this as much as getting better at tactics and analysis!).

While my question is largely one of semantics, for novices starting out, clear definitions are important (and it is especially scandalous that GMs scold amateurs for playing without a plan, but rarely provide clear and useful definitions and advice on how to avoid this).

I think there are two major discrepancies in the literature. There are two major definitions of plan:
1) A goal (note at Silman's web site the glossary defines a plan as "A short or long-range goal on which a player bases his moves," and Sierewan uses this definition in his 'Winning Chess ...' series).
2) A method for accomplishing a goal (Heisman), but you stop short of including specific moves as plans, even though moves are the ultimate method for accomplishing goals in chess. Rather, it seems your picture is one of general goals that spawn more concrete goals that are suggested by the position [lots of room for the creative hippy to find the most clever and imaginative concrete goals, such as pawn storms or sacrifices].

For example, 'Maximize piece activity' is a general goal, which may suggest, based on the position, the more specific goal 'Activate my bishop' that you might call a 'method for accomplishing the [general] goal.' Once the general goals percolate down to that level of specificity, it is time to start thinking of candidate moves to reach that goal [room for creativity here as well]. Typically, and interestingly, the general goals tend to be longer-term, while the most concrete goals tend to be short-term.

I like the idea of a heirarchy of goals, at the bottom of which are goals that transparently suggest candidate moves, and at the top of which are goals that are too general to be helpful. But note, in both 1) and 2) a plan is still a goal, but in 2) it is more explicit that plans are those goals in the bottom of the heirarchy, those which connect with the concrete: candidate moves.

A second point of definitional disparity is that some authors include tactical considerations in their definition of plans, while others only use the term to describe strategic, as opposed to tactical goals. Fine (Chess the Easy Way), Kurzdorfer (Every Chess Basics), and Rosario (First book of Morphy) include gaining material as plans (and not blundering away material of one's own). For instance, Kurzdorfer separates plans into 'tactical plans' and 'strategic plans.' On the other hand, you, McDonnald (his book 'Planning'), and many others have a different usage: planning is what you do when there are no tactics, and tactics are just something that you need to watch out for as you struggle to implement your strategic plans. Planning is based more on general principles, while tactical situations call for concrete analysis.

I tend to go with those who allow for tactical/material 'plans' partly because it seems a forced use of English to refuse to say we have a goal of forking his queen and king with a knight, or at least to refuse to say it is a goal that is special in that it doesn't count as a plan. Note it is still not quite a move-sequence, but it suggests that we look for ways to get the knight in the danger zone for the opponent. That is a method for accomplishing a goal, no? Of course it is perfectly legitimate to simply stipulate that you are using 'plans' only to refer to strategic thinking, but to me this seems forced and I'd rather have a more general inclusive definition so I don't have to keep track of all these different uses of the word 'goal.' Tactical goals are those in which the distinction between planning and analysis starts to dissolve. This seems fine to me.

Please let me know if I am off my rocker here, or if I am making sense. I think I am coming to a better understanding, one that will let me adopt a usage more in line with the experts out there, but also that I find useful in practice. It really is strange how many books I have that stress the importance of planning which never clearly define what they mean (McDonald's entire book called 'Planning' never actually defines the term, but is basically just a primer on positional chess).

Thanks to Dan Heisman for his help. He is a smart guy, very personable, and while I already have a coach I think he would be great. His handle is phillytutor at ICC. He asks lots of questions that often have surprising answers (e.g., Question: who knows more about chess: the 34 year old 1600 player who has read a lot of books, or the 14 year old 1900 player? Answer: the 1600 player: he knows a ton more, but just isn't as good at analysis and needs to work on that rather than reading up more on weak squares: his book knowledge is probably 2200, way behind his playing abilities).

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Blundermaster award goes to me

Damn you Caissa!!! A Haiku
I suck bad at chess.
Caissa is a succubus.
The Dunce cap is mine.

Just got done with the first game in the 45/45 tournament in which I'm playing. I blundered away a knight, and then he put his queen en prise later and I missed it. If I'm not gonna blundercheck consistently I might as well play tic tac toe.

One problem was I spent too much energy in the opening. I got a very strong opening, my pieces all well developed etc. By the time the position got really tactical and complicated I started to get into time trouble, my mind was already tired so my analysis was sloppy and lazy. In retrospect, I just spent too much of my time and energy in the opening. He was rated ~200 points less than me so I took a big rating hit.

I need to play more and think about playing, and how to play, less. Too much blogging, too much time worrying about subtleties of my thinking process. I need to push wood.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Planning: who needs it?!

I have a couple of questions about planning in chess. Let's define playing with a plan as playing toward concrete goals that are generated by a thorough evaluation of the position. (E.g., I see that his queenside is weak and I may be able to open up my c-file: my plan may be to open up the c-file and form a battery to hammer at this weakness).

Many authors say "It is better to play with a bad plan than no plan at all." Is this really true? What is so good about playing with a plan? I can think of two reasons. One, you get a kind of consistency and harmony across moves. Is this more than merely aesthetics? Another reason is that having a plan (e.g., opening up the c file) suggests candidate moves on the present and subsequent moves. But concrete analysis, ultimately, tells you whether you should stick with a plan.

I have a second question about plans. Most authors distinguish planning from analysis (crunching through consequences of candidate moves in your mind's eye to find the best candidate move). Is this distinction between planning and analysis qualitative or quantitative? I am starting to think it is a quantitative distinction between looking ahead in an optimistic, broad-brush way often couched in general principles (planning), versus a more concrete, calculating, and pessimistic way (by pessimistic I mean you really have to look for your opponent's best move, while during planning you can be more imaginative and hopeful, and discharge the responsibility of getting real to analysis).

Anyone have any thoughts on the relationship between planning and analysis? Do you make plans, list candidate moves, and then do analysis on those moves? Or do planning and analysis tend to all happen together for you?

My entire framework is starting to look much more fluid and messy than I would have liked. :) Back to the drawing board. I hate drawing, I'd much rather win.

A commoner joins the Knights

A new Knight has joined the battle: please say hello to The Common Man.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

A new twist on an old slogan

"If you see a good move, look for a better one," is often attributed to Fine.

I need to remember an even more obvious slogan, "If a move looked good when you imagined it N moves ago, look for a better one on the board in front of you!"

Heisman, it turns out, has already discussed the phenomenon of making a move really quickly just because you thought about it on earlier moves. Here's a snippet (I only include the first two reasons why this is bad):
“If A implies B, and B implies C, then A implies C.”

True in logic and chess, but does this also mean that if you calculate, “If I play move A and he plays B, then I can play C,” then you should quickly play move C following moves A and B?


Except in special situations, like severe time trouble, playing a move quickly just because you calculated it on the previous move is almost always a big mistake. Here are three reasons:

1. Visualization. No one can visualize a position that is yet to occur as well as they can visualize the position on the board. Good players are almost always perfect, but not quite.

2. When you thought about playing move C earlier, it was just hypothetical. The entire game did not depend on how good C was, only A, since that was the move actually played. If A was a good move but C was bad, then there is no harm done if you have not played C yet. But if you quickly play C just “because I was planning to do it,” then it can cost you the game.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Another great chess blog(s)

And perhaps the best blog title I have seen, check out Grandpatzer chess. It is a great blog, and he has some interesting comments on the Knights Errant. He comments on how the Circles, in undiluted form (i.e., 1300 problems on the last circle in one day), tend to lead to burnout. Indeed, the Knights who have done the undiluted Circles tend to stop posting and just shut down shop pretty soon thereafter (I think Pale Morning Dun is the exception). Grandpatzer pushes a kind of Silman vs the Knights drama, but I think that the Knights are pretty aware that strategy is important. However, some bloggers have expressed dislike of Silman's style of writing on the topic (though the biggest blog critic I have seen was a non-Knight, Patrick, in his review of Silman's book). The most popular books for strategy amongst bloggers seem to be Simple Chess by Stean and Weapons of Chess by Pandolfini.

At any rate, Grandpatzer provides great chess content, so check it out.

[Add on 4/17]
Also, check out Robert Pearson's funny tribute to Chessloser, whose irreverent and self-effacing quips are hilarious. As I mentioned in the comments there, TDs should hire this guy to do stand-up at tournaments to help unwind the uptight people in the U1800 sections trying to win $25 and +2 ELO. But no pressure, Chessloser. Write as if nobody is reading it, or else you'll end up with more ad space than content, and spending 500 hours on each post.

There seems to be an influx of great talent lately in the chess blogosphere. Or perhaps it was always there and I used to waste too much time trying to figure out what Temposchlucker was talking about.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Analysis and the heirarchy of threats

The following is an excerpt from the new version of Chessplanner that I am working on. It will be done in about a month.

When considering candidate moves that require deep analysis, which moves should you analyze first? First analyze the biggest threats, and then go on to more quiet moves. Buckley (1999) offers the following useful advice:
By ranking the threats, strongest to weakest, you discover where the critical battle will be fought. For instance, you pass over a hanging pawn in your calculation if there is any chance of mate for either side. Only after assuring yourself there is nothing better should you analyze the pawn win. Thus no time is lost. The most dangerous ideas are always checked first, before any minor threat is even considered.

Contrary to ideas held by some amateurs, the expert looks at mating attacks and material threats carefully before embarking on any positional maneuver. Nobody tacks about when victory is in sight. Instead, the master finds the sharpest idea available, then begins to evaluate plans and calculate variations. He abhors analysis that fails to consider a significant threat.
In sum, when evaluating the position, you will come up with some candidate moves that involve bigger threats than others. When it is time to analyze, rank your candidate moves into a hierarchy of threats and analyze those at the top of the hierarchy.

Above image from the Webeagles Chess Club.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Chess update, and Crystal Gail Mangum

I'm still plugging away in my first circle on Phase 4 of Chess Tactics for Beginners. These problems are hard. I hope I get 75% correct. In one group of 10 problems, I only got 28% correct! Ugh. In Phase 3, the problems were sometimes tricky, but if I would run through the list of typical tactics looking for the signatures of those tactics, I would usually see them (the list of the main tactics besides capture and mate is FSTDD (pronounced 'FISTED'): forks, straight-line tactics (skewers and pins), traps, discovered attack, deflection)). Now many more problems are endgame problems, and 3-4 move combinations that involve a subtle deflection to set up one of the main tactics. This stage is really showing me how far I have to go to be decent at tactics!

And, breaking with my usual policy of having an apolitical chess blog, I recommend people read this stirring article on Crystal Gail Mangum, the lying nutcase who derailed three Duke lacrosse players' lives by falsely accusing them of raping her. I hope people take to heart that someone merely accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty. Crystal Magnum makes Imus look like St Peter. She put these kids, and their families, lives into disarray for the past year (mainly to avoid a drunk-driving charge the night she made the accusation).

Here is a snippet from the article:
Her name is Crystal Gail Mangum.

She is the woman who falsely accused three Duke University students of rape. Yesterday, the attorney general of North Carolina came forward and flatly declared the three young men "innocent of these charges."

That means their accuser is a liar.

Her name is Crystal Gail Mangum.

It is the policy of the news media not to publish the names of rape accusers on the grounds that they should not have to fear public shame for coming forward with word of a horrifying personal violation.

That is a noble policy. But it needs a codicil. The codicil is that if a rape accuser is revealed as a liar, her name should be spoken loudly and often - as loudly and often as the names of those whom she falsely accused have been over the past year.

Her name is Crystal Gail Mangum.

She must be denied anonymity because she makes a mockery of the very policy of granting anonymity to rape accusers. We do not publish their names so that they will not fear public exposure. But people who are tempted to do the monstrous thing Mangum did should fear public exposure.

They should be terrified of it.

They should have nightmares about it.

They should be given no encouragement whatsoever to believe they can launch a nuclear weapon at someone's reputation and escape unscathed.

[Read the full article]

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A new Knight to battle windmills with us

Please give Cratercat, our newest Knight, a welcome. We've had a great influx of new chess talent into the Knights lately. Huzzahh!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Guten Abend!

A new Knight has joined our ranks: welcome, Abend, into the world of tactical silliness. Abend's blog already has some very good software reviews (e.g., a review of the new release of PCT, which includes opening study), and even has a cool trick for installing custom piece graphics on Convekta software.

Karpyan seems to be MIA, so I've updated my sidebar.

Also, I wanted to give a shout-out to an interesting blog that I hadn't seen before, by blogger XY, who has been discussing a lot of chess lately. He seems to play blitz exclusively, but has been discussing de la Maza's articles some lately, most explicitly here. He has been hashing out some interesting stuff about thought processes in chess for a few posts.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Letter to Knights from Michael de la Maza

Last night while practicing tactics I checked my inbox and would you believe, I had gotten a letter from Michael de la Maza, the cause celebre of the Knights Errant! After some very generous and kind words, he shared some interesting thoughts, which I'll include here in their entirety:
I've known about the Knights Errant for a couple of years now, since it consisted only of Don, Sancho, and Pale Morning Dun. It was very uplifting to see the Knights grow, and to see the creative ways that people have modified my original program to fit their schedules. Many people have wondered what I have been doing since I won the U2000 at the World Open. Well, surprisingly, I have found a lucrative career in the world of competitive Tic Tac Toe! Believe it or not, there is a rather large gaming subculture devoted to this most ancient of games, and a huge literature dating back over 300 years. Just like with chess, most of the books are on opening theory, but also like chess, the most important thing to learn is tactics. I have developed a version of the Circles for Tic Tac Toe training, which I call the Nine Squares, which involves playing through a database of all possible games of Tic Tac Toe nine times (there are approximately 1 million possible games of Tic Tac Toe). So far, I have made about 130,000 bucks in this unlikely endeavor.

Well, keep up with the chess, and hope to see you on the 3x3! Oh, and tell J'adoube that he should give up on Carolina: Duke is on the way up, and will go undefeated against those powder-blue smurfs next year.