Friday, August 31, 2007

Sleep, ratings, and paperwork

First, note that there is now a blog for the Carolina Cobras, a team in the US Chess League.

I really need to recalibrate my circadian rhythm as I am tired all the time, staying up until the wee hours of the morning. Good habits in the areas of sleep, nutrition, and exercise are important off-the-board facets of chess improvement.

I hit a rating high with my secret ICC account. Not 1500 yet, but starting to taste it (I hit 1443). I need to remind myself that it doesn't matter. Whenever I hit a "milestone" I start to worry about my rating, start to think that I shouldn't play because I don't want to lose, that I should study tactics or openings for a week and then come back more likely to win. Screw that crap. It's a game. It's for fun. The way to improve is to lose. A lot. Also, that strategy just does not work. I get better when I play a lot. When I take time off to "study" chess I always come back rusty and actually play worse. The best approach is more balanced between study and play.

Also, a boring "administrative" question for the Knights Errant. How do you feel about adding one more duty to the Secretary Knight? Namely, the Secretary needs to maintain the FAQ and provide a link on the sidebar? If I don't hear any objections, I'll update the FAQ to reflect this change.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Avoiding opening theory with 1. e4 2. d4

Note added: It turns out that Tacticus Maximus (aka Glenn) had already advocated this repertoire. Check it out here.

In blitz I tried out some crazy line against the Sicilian, something that looked reckless, but like a potentially sound gambit: 1. e4 c5 2. d4 cxd 3. c3 dxc 4. Nxc3. I later looked it up and it was the Smith-Morra gambit! I had actually tried this out about a year ago, but because in my first game my opponent refused the gambit and transposed to the French I gave it up (and obviously forgot that I had tried it out).

There is an interesting analysis of the Smith-Morra here.

I've had a few fun blitz games with it, and since I'm also going to likely switch to the Goring Gambit against e5, which has similar structures, why they hell not (Goring gambit, apparently, is 1. e4 e5 2. d4 exd 3. c3 dxc 4. Nxc3.

This will be a nice way to avoid too much opening study, and give me the chance to play around with gambit play, which I've been doing a lot lately and enjoying. Sure, the GMs won't touch this stuff, but my goal is to reach 1500, not to be a GM. At worst, I'll learn more about initiative, time, piece activity, and attacking.

Oh, and note to self: don't even bother playing slow games when really tired. You will blunder like a quivering little crack baby.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Chess is counterintuitive...

Following position is from CTB (white to move). What is white's goal?
White's goal is to draw. Draw??! WTF? White has a pawn way up on the sixth rank while black's pawn hasn't moved.

When I saw this problem I was thinking: sure thing, a win for white, just march the king up and gobble the black pawn. Wrong. The only correct move here is 1. b3! So it isn't even like there's lots of moves white can choose from if he wants to draw. Frankly, I don't understand this problem. Can anyone explain it?

So far my thought is, white can't move up because he can't avoid the tribochet (see Silman). Hence, he can't win. Hence, he should try to draw, but the only way to draw is to get underneath the black king and time it so he gets the opposition asap when black starts moving up toward the pawn, at the latest once black captures the pawn.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Solution-focused approach works

I've gone through Phase 5 of Chess Tactics for Beginners once, and am now repeating those problems I got wrong.

About 100 problems into this 300 problem set I started the new solution-focused technique for understanding each problem. All indicators suggest it works great. While not perfect, I am remembering many of the solutions quite vividly after just one time through. For the problems I did in the traditional stare-for-ten-minutes way, it's not so good.

One cool thing: in many of the problems I don't remember the exact moves, but the plan (recall that part of my new technique is to generate an explanation of the position, especially what the overall plans are). Once I recognize what the plan should be in that particular position, I start looking for the right moves to implement it. This is interesting, as it is more like what happens in games. This reinforces that pattern recognition includes the recognition of plans, not just moves and locations of pieces.

While the 'active solution' technique is very tiring mentally, that mental effort has paid off. Otherwise I'd go back to the stare method.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Why start by looking at threats?

There's a new first step in my thought process: 'Look for threats.' This is in contradiction to those who would suggest you first try to figure out the opponent's plans (who cares what his plans are if you have a mating net?).

There are a couple of reasons to start by looking for threats. First, efficiency. We all know the side with more material will usually win (it is better to have a weak Bishop than to be down a Bishop). Imagine analyzing pawn structure for ten minutes before looking for threats. If it turns out you are about to lose a piece, then you've wasted ten minutes. It is simply more efficient to think about threats first.

Second, the longer you look at a position, the less likely you are to see tactics. Soltis (2005) says:
Looking for a way to attack enemy pieces should come at the start of the hunt for candidates. This is because tactical vision carries with it a surprising law of diminishing returns: The more you study the position, the less you will see tactically. One-move and two-move tricks often jump to your attention in the first several minutes you spend on a position. But if you don't see them during that time, it is unlikely you'll see them if you spend another 10 minutes on the position. For some reason we can't explain, the mind tends to block out relatively simple tactics that stare us in the face.
In other words, look for threats before your mind becomes blind to their presence.

Focusing on threats, first and foremost, is not something only beginners and club players should do. Buckley (1999) says:
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.
Why mess about when there are threats to be made?

Note: most of the above is from my thought process manuscript, which should be finished in a couple of months.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Threats rule in these parts, so take your "pawn structures" and stick 'em in yer clownhole, buster!

Another drastic revision in my thought process. Look for threats first and foremost. Obsess about threats. Tactics are the infrastructure within which you can do strategic thinking. Don't do what I do way too often: worry about subtle pawn structure or other strategery before looking for obvious code-red tactical opportunities. Don't worry about the mosquito on your arm when there is a gun pointed at your head. Worry about other stuff only after doing a thorough tactical reconnaissance mission. If there are multiple tactically equivalent lines, then go ahead and choose based on more touchy-feely strategic concerns (e.g., capture with a bishop instead of a pawn if it helps your bishop get activity).

This was all implicit in my thought process before, but not at the fore. Heisman says it over and over: checks, captures, and threats. Analyzing my slow games since my blitz binge, it is still basic errors. Not en prise blunders as much as quiescence errors (i.e., not thinking through the checks and captures until the position is quiet). Oh, that and not considering potential defensive resources for me or my opponent.

My thought process is starting to look more and more like DD's thought process (though, admittedly, when I only worry about threats, I end up with an awful mangled pawn structure and horrible mobility. So, strategy is important, but always constrained by the primary concern: threats! My comment about pawn structure in the title is a joke, so those of you looking for controversy, keep movin').

At any rate, it has been dawning on me the past few months that this threat-centric focus is how I should be thinking in games. And this will be reflected by a complete reworking of my thought process manuscript (which I am trying to cut down to 10 pages).

Another game "adjourned" tonight. I was up two pawns and the exchange, actually saw a pin he tried to pull on me, defended correctly, woohoo!, and my connection shit out. My dog ran upstairs to protect me when the screams commenced. Luckily I didn't have noescape set to 1, so I didn't automatically forfeit. I'm sure my opponent was happy: when I logged back on in 20 seconds he was gone. He'll probably avoid me, but I'll do adjudication.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Syntactic structures

I think Heisman hit it almost perfectly in his article The Big Five:
The first and most important step to becoming proficient at tactics is understanding safety and counting, followed by repetitious study of very simple problems, those involving counting and single motifs (pins, double attacks, removal of the guard, etc.). Acquisition of this skill usually requires the kind of drills suggested by Michael de la Maza in his two-part 400 Points in 400 Days article for Chess Café. The big contention I have with Michael’s method is that he suggests repetition of tactics of all levels, while I feel that concentrating on just the easiest motifs is sufficient. My reason is that many, if not most, difficult combinations contain permutations of basic motifs. Therefore learning basic tactical motifs “cold” in order to do harder problems better is similar to learning multiplication of one-digit numbers as the basis for all multiplication and even higher mathematics.
I am seeing this over and over in the complicated phase 5 problems in CTB. Without the first 4 stages, no way I'd get many of these problems.

However, there is one way I'd differ with Heisman: even though combinations involve the simpler motifs, that doesn't mean you should only study the simple motifs. While seeing the simple motifs is necessary for combinatorial play, it is not sufficient. Stretching the math analogy, if the basic elements of math were sufficient, you should be an expert at factoring prime numbers after just learning basic multiplication and division.

Now that I'm a bit stronger with the tactical alphabet, I am finding it very helpful in Stage 5 of CTB to work through more complicated combinations, as it is giving me good examples of the subtle syntax of combinations, concrete examples. And because of the new method of solving the problems, I am picking up certain tell-tale signs that a combination is possible (e.g., lots of open lines toward opponent's king, coordinated pieces, more material localized to one spot, a defending piece overloaded). Seeing a fork-in-one is a lot different than seeing a fork after deflecting the king with a Knight sacrifice. It involves harder work when considering the motifs in the tree of analysis.

I look at this as confirmatoin of the results of our previous discussion about classifying tactics, and it seems to mesh quite well with Temposchlucker's recent brainstorms, where the elementary motifs are the words, and combinations are sentences. It will be interesting to see if this helps me in games...

Here is an example of a Phase 5 CTB problem that combines three elementary motifs into a nice little combination (black to move):

All in all, CTB was the ideal choice for my Circles. The first three stages are typically fairly simple tactics. Stage 4 has a lot of very simple combinations (e.g., a deflection to set up a simple tactic such as a fork). Many Stage 5 problems combine more than two motifs. It also has longer mating nets. These are very helpful, forcing me to consider all possible checks, as lo and behold, what looks like a blunder could be the first move in a brilliant mating net. It's all about taking the time to analyze to quiescience, making sure to look at all the resources at your disposal. There is a lot less of this with 1-3 move simple tactics.

I should finish Circle 5.1 within 9 days...

Friday, August 17, 2007

For your lunch hour

A great site with tactical problems from games of the greats, at

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Find the best move

Rook just came down and attacked the queen. White to move:

There are really two good moves, a third OK move, and the rest all suck for white. In my game tonight, I found one of the moves that sucked. BAH!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Rotating blogroll!!!

My wife listened to me bitching about how many good chess blogs there are, and how I'd like to have a 'rotating blogroll' that randomly selects 10 from a larger list for display. This way, a more tidy blogroll, and when I hit refresh it selects 10 more random blogs.

It took her a few minutes to write me up a javascript that you can find at her blog. Feel free to use it, modify it with your own blogroll. You can just cut and paste the code into your template right where you already have your blogroll. Now I'll be able to make a very long blogroll but only have ten selected randomly. Sweet. The chess blogosphere is becoming so big and unwieldy, this is helping me tame the madness...

I put it at the top of my sidebar. The Knights Errant etc are below it (though I am frankly starting to think that having the Knights as a separate category is not the best way to do things: we are all chess bloggers after all. What is the best way to maintain a list of the Knights (it does help to follow everyone's progress with the circles) without having this separation? Perhaps an collapsable list in the sidebar).

Please let me know if you modify it (some features I'm thinking about are to alphabetize the list, or to ensure that it sample without replacement each refresh, or to renew the list every 24 hours instead of with every browser refresh).

The Samurai Warrior Returns, with Pale

Samurai Knight, who went on hiatus while tripping through New Zealand, is back! Welcome, Samurai, and best of luck in your katas. His first post-hiatus post asks for help finding free software to use on the Mac. Any suggestions? Aren't there like three free online tactics servers out there now? They aren't good for the Pure Circles, as you don't repeat the same problems over and over, but perhaps they can act as a stand-in until he gets his books back.

Also, you could try to run a windows emulator, or find Unix-based software (is there anything good for Uniz), since the Mac OS is now basically a Unix Skin (at least that's what I hear).

Also, one of the original Knights Errant, Pale Morning Dun, has posted anew, and is leaving comments at various blogs. Huzzahh!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Catch 22 at ICC

Set noescape to 1, and get two winning positions in a row and have your connection shit out on ya' in both games, losing 50 rating points (this just happened, and I am PISSED).

Set noescape to 0, and jerkoffs disconnect when they start losing, or when they decide you are moving too slow, or if their baby's face is on fire. Pussies.

There is no optimal solution. God is dead.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Getting people to read your blog: blog cred

This is a response to someone at BCC complaining that he does not get enough readers at his blog. I sympathize with this problem. The chess blogs have become a confusing jungle. Luckily there are patterns, an emergent social structure in the chess blogosphere ecosystem. Basically, there is an ever-flexible and expanding hierarchy of credibility and influence.

How do you get "blog cred"? At first it may be intimidating trying to break into this weird subculture. However, you are in luck in that bloggers as a rule are nerdy, lonely, pathetic people. We want friends. We love it when people leave a friendly comment, or even better, an amazing post with kick-ass content. A particularly insightful, funny, or provocative post will send ripples through these pitiful social networks, putting you on the map instantly. Also, blogging is not a zero-sum game: if your blog does well, that doesn't mean that mine won't do well. Indeed, if you have a great blog and it links to me, I'll get tons of blog spillover from you. So, the more the merrier!

These features of the blogosphere should relieve any worries that there are "barriers" to you moving up in the blog cred hierarchy. Anybody can get blog cred. It just takes a little work, but luckily no money.

The following is a list of ways to get people to read your blog, roughly in order of importance (and I assume the items apply to all types of blogs, not just chess blogs):
1. Be patient. It will take a few months, most likely, to get to levels of readership you want.
2. Post frequently. At least once a week. Of course, if you have nothing to say, don't publish scat (see #3).
3.Provide consistently good content. It will get you noticed. In an ideal world, this would be number 1.
4. Let people know about you, but not with the pathetic 'Hey check out my new blog; hey why didn't you cross link to me?' Rather, post helpful comments at well-established blogs, comments that make people want to find out who you are (Loomis is the master of good comments).
5. Do something original that involves other people. Review other blogs. Post about other blogs. The first-and-only axiom of blogger-psychology is bloggers are pathologically narcissistic.
6. Respond promptly to comments. When someone posts a comment on your blog, especially a substantive comment that obviously took some time to write, respond quickly. Don't wait two days, as it will be taken as a snub. If you moderate your comments, get them published promptly. Nothing kills a conversation better than waiting 24 hours for a moderator to post the most recent responses.
7. Don't have intrusive ads. Nobody is reading your blog anyway. Consider putting in ads once you get more than 500 readers a day.
8. Submit your best material to carnivals. If the entries are good, the well-established bloggers will see this, and bring you into the loop, where we want you anyway.

The above will get you lots of readers, pretty quickly. Feel free to add additional suggestions in the comments.

There are a couple of other options. One, being a GM or IM will get you readers. This is partly just mystique, but also they tend to satisfy condition 3.

Another option is to form a stable community of bloggers (e.g., the blogger crew, or the Knights Errant) whose individual members come and go. This is a double-edged sword, IMO. You don't want to end up creating a creepy incestuous community with a lot of ego stroking and weird membership requirements.

Stuff added later
9. Be controversial. This almost always generates a big response from people and gets you noticed. Be careful with this, as you don't want to be too annoying. Intelligent controversy is always fun, though.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Tacticus maximus!

Please welcome the newest Knight Errant, Glenn. Welcome to the tactical fray, Glenn. I'm dubbing him 'Tacticus Maximus' in my sidebar.

He starts out with a post that MDLM would surely applaud, analyzing one of our FAQs. From our FAQ:
14. This seems like a very narrow approach to chess. Isn't there more to chess than tactics?
This is the most common criticism of the Circles. Jeremy Silman voices it quite stridently in a review of de la Maza's book here. Clearly, chess is more than just tactics. Strategy, opening theory, and the endgame are important aspects of the game.
Glenn's response to this FGA (frequently given answer) follows:
A common misconception, in my view. Chess is not more than tactics. Chess is tactics. If we could calculate tactics perfectly, instantly to any depth there would not be any talk of "strategy." Strategy is the application of an accumulated common experience as a (poor) substitute for perfect tactical skill. The same is true of opening theory.

That said, we still work on strategy and opening theory and endgames. But they are not in any way superior to tactics -- they are a poor substitute for tactics. We work on those areas and concepts because as mere humans with limited tactical skill it helps us create favorable positions. Favorable for what? Tactics that benefit us, of course!
A provocative first post as a Knight! Is Glenn right? If so, should the FAQ be reworded? If so, how? I'll write more in the comments in a day or two after chewin' on such things.

Note, before you attack Glenn as a patzer for such heresy, you might check out his rating history. Even if he is wrong, that is an ad hominem which would be especially inapt in this case (though such ad hominem, while common in the blogosphere, is always an inapt, lazy, boring, conversation-stopping diversion).

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Conditions for a kingside attack

The Art of the Checkmate, by Renaud and Kahn, is the first annotated game collection I will work through when I finish the Circles (does anyone have the pgn of this book?). It has a lot of the same material as one of the most useful chess books I've ever read, How to beat your dad at chess, but all in the context of annotated games. In the following excerpt, they describe the conditions that tell you to look for a Kingside attack.
[I]f such an attack is to take place, certain preliminary conditions have to be fulfilled:

1) The castled position must show a weakness
There are two kinds of weaknesses:
a) Permanent and irrevocable ones, such as the advance of one of the Pawns protecting the castled position (KBP, KKtP, KRP).
b) Temporary ones, such as the removal of Pieces which defend the castled position. For instance, the removal of the King's Knight or one of the Pieces which protect the King's Knight; King's Bishop on K2; QKt on Q2; Queen on Q1.

2) The possibility of expoiting such a weakened position
For this it is necessary to have:
a) Open lines (files, ranks, or diagonals) on the castled position of the opponent.
b) Pieces on these open lines.
c) More Pieces for the attack than the opponent has for the defense. It is immaterial whether the Defender's total number of Pieces is superior to the Attacker's; the important point is that these Pieces have neither the time nor the opportunity to reach the defensive spot.

These are the principles which will constantly be used. They are equally applicable to positional and tactical play. In fact, they rule the conduct of the game.
Simple, to the point, and helpful. These are the kinds of principles I am starting to use to explain many of the tactics I encounter in Phase 5 of CTB.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Insert witty French witticism here

Please welcome the first Knight Errant with a French-language blog, Magic Knight. Those of you with some French skills, please do say hello so he isn't lonely.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?

I've developed a new method for learning tactical problems in which attention is focused most on solutions to problems rather than the original position.

After spending about a year on the circles I have come to believe that, for learning tactical problems, spending a lot of time staring at the original position is a mistake. While staring at a position for 10 minutes without moving is a good way to practice calculation (looking ahead in one's mind), I now believe it is not the best way to quickly learn the problems. For one, this technique has a certain awful side-effect: I sometimes learn the original board position, recognize it the next time through, but do not remember the solution. Even worse, when I spend a large amount of time thinking about the incorrect first move on my first pass, in the future I often incorrectly remember that as the correct move in the position! Takchess was the first to point out this humbling phenomenon of pattern recognition without answer recognition, in this classic post from last October, a post well worth reading.

This suggests there is something quite inefficient about the de la Maza stare-for-ten-minutes method for learning new problems. If all I remember is the position, but not the solution, then I am learning, but not what I want to learn! My new technique, which I've been using for a few days now, is to spend the majority of my time and mental energy focusing on the solution to the problem.

I'll look at a position for a minute or two, try to find the answer, and make what seems the right move. If I am wrong, the program will show me the solution. Then, the real work begins. Before moving on to the next problem, I actively engage with the solution by following these steps (acronym FOVEA):
1. Fast repetitions
Quickly mouse through the answer many times, especially focusing on the correct first move. This gives me an overall sense of the flow of the answer.
2. Once through
Work once more through the solution, slowly, being sure to visualize each move before I make it.
3. Visualize entire solution
Go to the start of the problem and visualize the entire solution from start to finish, without making any moves on the board. And then make them.
4. Explain solution
Explain the solution to myself. This step is inspired by the study that showed explaining moves to oneself improves memory of the solution. My explanations involve a description of the major tactical and strategic elements involved in the combination, particularly focusing on plans that the position demands. For instance, "A mating net initialized by decoying his rook to h5, which cleared the g-file for my rook battery." I also identify the general features of the position that made the tactic possible (e.g., he only has a knight on his kingside, while I have four pieces in that area and an open file).
5. Alternative moves
Look over defensive resources that I might have missed in Steps 1-4, any alternative resources that the opponent could have used. That is, are there in-between moves, interpositions, and the like that CTB didn't include in the variations? If so, how would I deal with them? Also, determine why other potential moves are not as good in the position. This is where I sometimes need to do some heavy calculation.

My experience using FOVEA is that it is extremely taxing mentally, especially Step 4 where I try to self-explain the position. There is no way to apply this method passively. I simply can't do it well when tired. Note that it isn't important that I do all the steps in order, only that I do them all before moving on to the next problem.

What do I hope to gain from this? Simple: I am hoping I learn the solutions faster. I am not using the Circles to get better at calculation, but to learn a bunch of tactics cold. By hand. Recognize the solutions like a friend's face. BAM! Calculation is a skill I work on implicitly in my slow games, and which I can worry about after the Circles. I am ready to be done with these bloody Circles and start with a more balanced form of chess study (including just playing a lot)!

If you want to work on calculation, don't use this technique. If you want to learn a finite set of tactical problems quickly, you might give this solution-oriented method a try. Focus your FOVEA on the solution, baby!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

From the desk of Howard Goldowsky (and some news)

First, the news. Good news first: we have a new Knight in the clan, I believe the first Knight from Bangladesh. Please welcome Knight Farhad to the increasingly noisy world of tactical monstrosity! Second, Patrick's blog 'Chess for blood' is no longer on line. This is a major loss: his blog was a rewarding cornucopia of useful information. Patrick, please bring it back!

On the topic of classifying tactics, a couple of things in the bag. One, I just noticed a nice post from Takchess that he wrote about a year ago discussing whether classifying tactics is useful or not. As was the case with my posts, the commenters had mixed feelings about the topic.

Along the same vein, I got a very helpful email from Howard Goldowsky, author of Engaging Pieces. Thanks Howard, for your thoughtful response. I include it here, with Howard's permission:
I can't help but follow with intense interest your series of posts regarding the classification of tactical motifs. Your blog doesn't allow anonymous comments, so I'm writing here.

After finishing my book I've decided to head right back to studying chess, and I considered creating a blog like yours to record my progress. I have over 65 pages of notes similar to your posts. What stopped me was the fear that the impetus for study would come from a need to create original and interesting posts rather than from a desire to get better. Hence, in a selfish yet unpretentious act, I now keep all my notes to myself. At some point, success or failure (I'm currently rated low class-A, and my goal is to make at least expert), if the time is right, my journy could be written in a memoir-type book. There's no need to tempt writing to get in the way of serious chess study.

In my view, traditional tactical motifs are the most fundammental 'basis' set of forcing moves. Combinations are just that: combinations of motifs. In my opinion, the interesting thought processes begin to occur when we begin to classify common types of combinaitons, like Lasker's Bishop Sacrifice, Alekhine's Cross, The Windmill, The Center Fork Trick, etc. When this happens our brains are creating a higher level of abstraction. This is what brains are best at: creating abstraction. When good chess players say "just play," what they mean is play until you don't think about tactical patterns, play until they're abstract enough so that they come without thinking. This is similar to what Josh Waitzkin gets at in his book, The Art of Learning. (I haven't read it yet, but I've read enough reviews to get the jist of what's inside.)

Waitzkin writes in his intro: "As I struggled for a more precise grasp of my own learning process, I was forced to retrace my steps and remember what had been internalized and forgotten. In both my chess and martial arts lives, there is a method of study that has been critical to my growth. I sometimes refer to it as the study of numbers to leave numbers, or form to leave form. A basic example of this process, which applies to any discipline, can easily be illustrated through chess: A chess student must initially become immersed in the fundamentals in order to have any potential to reach a high level of skill. He or she will learn the principles of endgame, middlegame, and opening play. Initially one or two critical themes will be considered at once, but over time the intuition learns to integrate more and more principles into a sense of flow. Eventually the foundation is so deeply internalized that it is no longer consciously considered, but is lived. This process continuously cycles along as deeper layers of the art are soaked in."

The whole intro can be found here.

What Waitzkin is saying, basically, is that we need to learn tactics like we learned the multiplication tables: work hard at it so that it's second nature.

Libraries of books on neuro-psychology have been touting this for some time. One book I recently read that provides a layman's scientific explanation of the way we learn is The Wisdom Paradox, by E. Goldberg.

I'm not sure if you should classify different types of combinations, just so you can talk about them in words. The basis set is already classified enough. Isn't it good enough to say something like, "I'm threatening a fork on g5, so he must deflect my knight with his own theat of a pin....etc.etc?" Once the basis motifs are understood, one can just talk away. An interesting site that has this type of verbal walk-through is here. This fellow, apparently, has taken his site and self-published a two volume hard-copy set of books with his site's material. When I go through the verbiage, sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn't.
Howard's mail has lots of ideas, and is another vote for the fairly common idea that the basic tactical motifs are sufficient. Complicated combinations are just that, combinations of the simpler motifs.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Empiricism versus rationalism. And next up, McNeil Lehrer.

Rise and Shine said in response to a previous post:
There's no need to classify tactics unless you're writing a book on them. All you have to do is become familiar with them through study and your brain will classify and recognize them for you. This is a group of people dedicated to chess improvement. This is not a group of people dedicated to pontificating about a bunch of pseudo-academic gobbeldygook. If that kind of stuff floats your boat, then have fun with it. It will not make you a better player.
First, the anti-intellectual tone surprises me, given the practical nature of my questions about tactical classification. As I started to hit harder tactical problems that didn't fit into the simple beginner schemes, I wondered if there was a more general scheme that experts use, that they found just as helpful to them when they started to improve as the basic 'forks' etc were to beginners.

That is, the point of my posts was to ask how much more detail a classification scheme needs to be useful in practice, once you get beyond the basic motifs (which, incidentally, in practice were very useful to know). While it is a practical question, that doesn't mean finding the answer is simple and won't require some thought. What is obvious to the expert will be confusing to the novice (i.e., me) and require conscious attention (just like a kid learning long division). So I chalk his acrimony up to stylistic taste. I wasn't called the 'PBS of chess blogging' for nothing. If you get bored or impatient that is likely jusifiable.

Ok, enough crap about style. Let's get on to chess improvement. Taken at face value Rise and SHine is saying that we shouldn't worry at all about classifying tactical patterns, that experience is sufficient. This seems wrong for a couple of reasons.

First, the experiment I discussed shows that people do better in the future when they construct explanations of positions. This is not pseudo-academic. It is data. You can argue about its interpretation, but there it is, data about chess improvement that could have practical implications. Simply playing is not as good as playing with an eye to explaining what is happening in the position.

Note that this thesis is not new, or some out of touch academic theory. Chess instructors don't explain positions to hear themselves talk! Annotated game collections have more than variations in them for a reason. Tisdall (Improve your chess now) says it is extremely helpful, in practice, to construct internal narratives at a general level about the position. This was also discussed in a nice post at the Kenilworthian. Perhaps Rise and Shine thinks such higher-level explanations are not useful for tactics, or that tactical classification schemes are not needed in tactical explanations. Perhaps he will clarify in the comments.

Second, taken literally, Rise and Shine is saying we shouldn't teach beginners what a fork is, or teach them that, when you have a piece pinned, attack it. No need to learn all that, as it will happen automatically if you just play enough games (unless you are writing a chess book, in which case you will be teaching these useless classifications to beginners who apparently don't need to know them). There is something to be said for simply playing a lot, but there is a middle ground. If having an elementary conceptual toolbox helps someone learn tactics faster, then they should learn it. The question is, how far, if at all, do we need to go beyond the basic classifications in practice? I concluded that we don't need to go far at all, as most combinations seem to be built up from such elements.

An anti-intellectual conclusion reached from pseudo-intellectual premises.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The good old days.

From Thursday, 20 February 2003:
"We will not see a machine replacing a human being in our lifetime. Man will be able to beat a computer in at least one game for a very long time," Kasparov told a press conference in Moscow a week after settling for a draw in a six-game match with the computer Deep Junior in New York.
Predictions about computers become quaint so quickly it is amazing. I'd say he has already been refuted. Kramnik couldn't win one game, and that was against a seriously handicapped computer!

Why subtle strategic understanding is key for beginners

From Heisman's article Chess Books and Prerequisites:
Many players who are not yet ready for How to Reassess Your Chess mistakenly think that just because it is well written and contains a lot of good information that they understand and do not already know that it must be able to help them immensely. As a full-time chess instructor I have run into dozens of players who feel this way about Silman’s books (or others), including both students and non-students who wish to discuss improvement with me. However, when I look at their rating and their games, it quickly becomes obvious that they are not sufficiently familiar with “removal of the guard” tactical patterns, or other similar basic tactical motifs, to play a reasonable “intermediate tournament player” level game, say 1500-1700 USCF. Instead they have “adult beginner” ratings of 900-1400.

Yet many of them swear by How to Reassess Your Chess because they learned so much from it. The problem is that knowing when a Bishop is superior to a Knight or how to identify the static strengths and weaknesses of your opponent’s position is not too much use if you lose pieces regularly, or don’t understand the principles you need to win a game when you are ahead a piece.