Sunday, April 27, 2008

Chess memorization as seed planting:
Relax and let the roots grow

Over a year ago, when I posted my new method for learning a bunch of tactical problems, Haunted Knight made the following excellent comment, a sentiment that has been expressed by many bloggers in response to the Circles program of study:
But something that worries me about repeating the same set of exercises over and over is that I'll just be learning that set of exercises, rather than tactics in general.
I waited all this time to reply to Dean, wanting to finish the Circles and better judge their effectiveness. I think now I have a slightly better perspective, being done with the Circles for quite a few months.

My quick and dirty response is an analogy. Memorizing a set of tactical problem or master games is like planting a bunch of seeds in a garden. Initially these seeds are isolated, unconnected. After a while, these seeds have become a garden with a beatiful complicated and interconnected root system. The difference is, for chess the roots are neurons and they can talk to each other. This is very good for us.

I said at Phaedrus' blog (when he made a similar point to Dean's):
I'm not convinced simply "memorizing" 1000 positions is all that bad. It all depends on how our brain treats those memories once they are implanted. The brain may (with no conscious effort on our part) integrate these different memories into more general categories, form cross-links among categories, striving to build an ever-more coherent picture of the chess world, even while we sleep our brain probably does this. If this speculation is right, the individual problems are like nodes in our brain that are initially implanted, but connections are formed among these nodes so ultimately it becomes a more general and useful integrated tactical skill set.
From my experience with the Circles, I think we can eliminate the worst-case scenario, in which case you memorize the exact position, and that's all you've learned so you only recognize it when it appears exactly the same as during training. This would be fairly useless. Luckily, this isn't how my memories of the solutions work. Back-rank mate, for instance, pops out at me regardless of the exact location of the King (e.g., queenside, kingside) and whether there are two or three pawns hemming him in.

In general, it seems the way our neuronal pattern recognition machinery works is to store not just the exact template, but a more general category into which it will place similar but not identical instances. For instance, once I've acquired the memory/pattern of a person's face, it then generalizes so that I can recognize him laughing, frowning, talking, at sunset, in artificial lighting, or even if his face is upside down (though in the latter instructive case it will take me longer, and I'll have to double-check just to make sure it is really him, just as when my recognition machinery kicks in for chess it is imperative to check to see that the tactic will really work given the particulars of the situation).

We don't know how this works, but we certainly don't consciously force our brain to do this. But we can probably help our brain do it by taking a single position and studying little variations on it from multiple perspectives. Like looking at an elephant from the front, you might not recognize one you see from the tail-end, so you want to walk around the elephant, see it moving around and interacting with things, to really build up a more perspective-independent ability to recognize it. This should help with basic chess tactics. E.g., study the back rank mate twenty different ways and it should stick better.

So, in contrast to Tempo's focus on the importance of conscious feedback and narratives, I give our brain more credit. I say, be more Zen. The vast majority of information processing going on in our brains is not consciously accessible, the brain does amazing and wonderful things with "isolated" individual things we've learned. It seems to strive to build models of the world, models that will generalize so we can use them in novel but similar situations. There is a tendency to want to force oneself to improve at chess via conscious exertion of will, but my hunch is that most of the learning goes on beneath consciousness, when we are sleeping, when the brain is consolidating into long-term memory the bits we have most recently learned.

Of course, we still need to work, and all the narratives and such are very helpful (in practice, I learned a bunch of tactics much faster when I started using narratives to explain each problem to myself). The two approaches are not in contradiction. Like with a seed, you can create good conditions for it to grow (lots of feedback, narratives, conscious effort), but then you have to step back and let it grow. If you fuss with it too much, try to force yourself to improve faster than is humanly possible, you will just get frustrated and may even kill the plant.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Chessplanner: final revision

The loose ends are almost all tied up...

Based on some great comments I got on the penultimate draft of my thought process (discussed here), I have built the final draft that can be found here as a PDF. I added an acknowledgments section to the document for those that helped. Overall, I am very happy with it, consider it the best thing I have written on chess. I spent more time on it than I care to admit, but whenever I read it it makes me want to go kill some Kings.

No huge changes this time. I added a little bit about confirmation bias (try to kill your candidate moves!). Also, one suggestion I got from readers was to add a bit about time management. I added a little squib, which I paste here:
In practice, will applying Chessplanner chew too much time off the clock? Indeed, it does take up a good deal of time and is probably not possible to use in blitz games. However, there are a few reasons not to fret too much about time. First, note I haven't advocated spending a ton of time on every move—recall from §3 that the only positions which demand time-consuming thought are the sharp positions.

Second, while applying Chessplanner is initially quite intellectually demanding, it becomes easier and faster with experience, just like your ability to multiply two numbers. It becomes somewhat unconscious, automatic, and effortless with extended practice.

Third, board evaluations have a good deal of inertia during a real game; there is a big difference between evaluating a novel board position and evaluating the board on move 30 of a game you have been playing with good evaluation the whole time. Typically, features such as pawn structure have changed very little. You do need to be careful, of course: that helpful evaluation inertia can lead to blunders, such as when your opponent unleashes a discovered attack that wasn't present in previous positions.

One thing I should stress: if you don't apply (at least unconsciously) a sound thought process on every move, you will simply play worse. Heisman (1999) rightly points out, "In order to be a good player, you have to at least try to play correctly on every move, not just most of them. Consistency is important: remember that your chain of moves, in many cases, is only as strong as the weakest link.

There is a lot written elsewhere about practical aspects of time management (see, for instance, Heisman (2001b)), so I recommend reading that and the other articles Heisman has written on the topic. Briefly, the most important thing is to use all the time on your clock. Doing anything else short-changes all the hard work you put into the game when you aren't playing. It is a recipe for sloppy chess. Resist the urge to move quickly after making a blunder (to make it seem you meant to give up your rook), and also after going up material (you may get over-excited and make a blunder of your own). In other words, use your thought process on every move. For practical advice on how to avoid taking too much time on moves, see the cited Heisman article.

A final note. To be clear, I don't think everyone needs to follow an explicit, conscious, step-by-step thought process. Some people are beyond that and already have a perfectly good implicit thought process. For discussion of what use a thought process is, check out this post (and the posts directly before and after it), the discussion in the comments here, and especially the first, beginning of the second, and the last sections of the Chessplanner PDF.

At this point, I am happy with the content of the document, and only plan on making minor word-choice and grammatical improvements. That is, there may be a 3.1 and 3.2, but not a 4.0 for a long time. The links on this page will be maintained so they are always to the most up-to-date version of Chessplanner.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Hypothesis, Movement, Procedure

Psychological studies of chess are not only cool, but if we are lucky they can suggest practical ways to improve. Readers will be familiar with this wonderful study that helped me out a great deal (discussed in practical terms here).

Here I discuss two studies that may also have practical implications. One is a nice paper that someone recently sent me. The other has been on my 'Blog This' pile for a year or so now.

1. Candidate move evaluation as hypothesis testing: amateur confirmation bias

The first paper, Chess Masters Hypothesis Testing is extremely interesting. In looking at chess players' thought process, they fruitfully frame candidate moves as hypotheses. The hypothesis, for each candidate move is: "This is the best move in this position." What is the best way to test this hypothesis for a given candidate? Obviously you must consider how your opponent will respond (especially sharp moves such as checks, captures, and other threats). Unlike science, where the data are measurable quantities like voltage and mass, the only data we have to go on are variations we calculate and patterns/procedures stored in our memory.

If you'll forgive a brief digression, an early and common view of hypothesis testing in science was that we should go out and seek confirmation. E.g., if you think F=ma, then look for instances in which that is true. Observe it enough times, and you have good scientific support for your hypothesis.

But that isn't often the best way to do things. It suffers from a 'confirmation bias', our tendency to look for data that confirms our theories, much like a UFO conspiracy theorist who sees every unexplained light in the sky as being controlled by little green man. It is like a person that believes God created all species that seizes on any gaps in our scientific knowledge of biological speciation as evidence for intelligent design.

In contrast, a good scientist will do her damnedest to kill her own pet theories, to falsify her hypotheses. They try to find the most unexpected, surprising prediction and do the experiment. After a while, those theories that remain, that survive these falsification attempts, are taken much more seriously.

And that is what we should do in chess. When considering a candidate move, we have to consider the worst possible outcome, we have to put ourselves in our opponent's shoes and try to kill that move. If we just look at moves we'd like our opponents to make, we are not being objective, and will get demolished. Sure, it might lead to mate in three if he plays like a jackass on crack, but if he plays like a human being, you will get destroyed. So be objective.

Getting back to the study, the researchers studied thought processes of amateur versus master-level chess players, and they found a significant confirmation bias in the amateurs. Specifically, when analyzing candidate moves the amateurs tended to spend their time thinking about subvariations that were good for them, but overlooking variations that refuted that line. The master-level players were much more objective, able to quickly see the bad aspects of a move as well as the good aspects.

That is really cool.

We have known for some time that in chess, the least bad move is the best move. So while it is good to have positive plans and strategies, once time is running and you have settled into the nitty-gritty of evaluating a particular candidate move, hold nothing back, attack it with all your intellect. The candidate that is least bad is the best.

Amateurs, beware the tendency to see UFOs where there are just flying turds.

Note also I think this confirmation bias is ubiquitous in the chess improvement literature. There are not enough objective studies of chess improvement, so you end up with chess improvement clans. What we need are chess improvement data and studies, not anecdotes and emotion anchored in a cult of personality.

2. Learning 10,000 Pictures
The second study, Learning 10,0000 Pictures, is just amazing. Subjects were shown more than ten thousand pictures in one session, viewing each picture for five seconds, and saw each image only once. Two days later, subjects were tested for their recall of the images (some they had been shown previously, some not). They were able to accurately recall over 6500 of these pictures! The experimenters didn't even try to train the subjects on more images in this heroic experiment, but simply concluded "the capacity of recognition memory for pictures is almost limitless."

Holy shit. So why do we have so much trouble remembering a few thousand chess positions? If we remembered positions the way we remember more natural visual images, we'd all be much better at chess: we could scroll through a bunch of positions or problems and remember them without a lot of trouble (especially if we did the Circles on them!).

Why are we so much worse with chess positions? I think there are two reasons. I didn't mention before that subjects did much worse when the task was to recognize words, and much much worse if they were shown nonsensical strings of letters. So it seems important that the images be of things you would tend to actually see in real life rather than abstract names or symbol strings. Chess seems to be more like language than real life in this regard--abstract symbols that you wouldn't exactly encounter in nature were it not for human cultural scaffolding.

If only there were some way to translate chess information into naturalistic images in our brains, so we could better remember the former.

The second difference between the study and our chess learning is in the task itself. Subjects only had to recognize the images, not do anything with them that could be construed as right or wrong. In chess, pattern recognition is not enough. I have had many instances of remembering a pattern in a tactical puzzle book, but having no idea of the solution even though I had worked through it before. Pattern recognition and solution recognition are different species. Indeed, I don't care if I recognize the original position as long as I remember the bloody solution!

It seems there are two components to chess mastery--yes, pattern recognition which humans are very good at (though better with realistic images than symbol strings). That is fairly passive, and happens without any effort (like you recognize your mom's face). But there is also a more active component--the ability to do something. I can recognize the dials and gizmos in an airplane cockpit, but I have no idea what to do with them. Becoming a good pilot, so you are flipping the dials like an old pro, takes a great deal of experience; no matter how much book knowledge you have it just takes a great deal of time to develop the procedural expertise. In other words, it is a motor skill only partly guided by pattern recognition.

Chess seems to be the same way--sure it helps to recognize patterns, but it is even more helpful to just move your hands to the right piece and move that piece to the right square with minimal thinking. That is, you need to build up procedural memory, and that just takes a lot of time, and you can't force it no matter how smart you are.

What can we do with this? Well, one thing to do is follow Temposchlucker. Like Fox Mulder, he is getting closer to the truth than he has ever been in his recent post that touches on this selfsame topic. Tempo and I have been orbiting this topic for over two years, and I think this study sheds some light on the topic (that post was the first one where I brought up and defined the distinction, from psychology, between procedural and declarative memory).

But what would falsify this hypothesis about motor skills in chess? To be objective, it is crucial to think in those terms: otherwise I'm no better than a new-agey Creationist UFO hunter. Can someone with severely impaired motor skills, such as a quadriplegic, excel at chess? If a theory implies that Stephen Hawking couldn't get good at chess, the theory is in need of revision. If so, does that falsify this motor skill based hypothesis? What types of procedural learning is there besides specifically motor learning? Not all actions involve flexing muscles. I can learn to do mathematical problems in my head by practicing them, until I can do them quickly without thinking. That is a type of procedural learning that may be more relevant for chess mastery.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sweet Leaf--The Best Books

Hidden Leaf wrote up a very useful bibliography of the books that got B's and better in my reviews (that is, the stuff I'm keeping). One really nice feature is that at the end of each bibliography, he notes which video that review is in! Thanks a lot, Hidden Leaf. Seriously, you help make it feel worthwhile.

Grade/Author/Title/Publisher/Date/Year/Vid #

'NR' means 'not reviewed' in the videos, but good material I didn't have at hand when I did the videos.

The A Pile
A+ Silman, Jeremy; Silman's Complete Endgame Course. From Beginner to Master, Siles Press, 2007/01, 5
A+ Wolff, Patrick; The Complete Idiot's Guide to Chess, Alpha, 2005/05, 7
A/A+ Cheng, Ray; Practical Chess Exercises. 600 Lessons from Tactics to Strategy, Wheatmark, 2007/05, 4
A/A+ CT-Art (Chess Tactics Art); Convekta (*, NR)
A Basman, Michael (Mike); Chess Openings, (Crowood Chess Library), Crowood Press, 1987/04, 3
A Chandler, Murray; How to Beat Your Dad at Chess, Gambit Publications, 1998/08, 7
A Chess Tactics for Beginners, Convetka, 3*

The B Pile
B Anderson, Ian; Chess Visualization Course, 3
B Buckley, Mark; Practical Chess Analysis, Thinkers' Press, 1987/06, 7
B Burgess, Graham; Winning with the Smith-Morra Gambit, (Batsford Chess Library), Henry Holt & Co, 1994/12, 4
B Chernev, Irving; Logical Chess. Move by Move. Every Move Explained, Batsford, 2003/06 algebraic, 6
B Collins, Sam; Understanding the Chess Openings, Gambit, 2005/07, 4
B Davies, Nigel; Gambiteer I. A Hard Hitting Opening Repetoire for White, Everyman Chess, 2007/05, 6
B Dzindzichashvili, Roman; Unbeatable Secret Weapons for Black; Roman's Lab volume 17: Sic Def, Scan Def, 4*
B Emms, John; Attacking with 1e4, Everyman Chess, 2001/08, 7
B Euwe, Max & Meiden; Walter, Chess Master vs. Chess Amateur, Dover Publications, 1994/03, 5
B Fischer, Bobby; Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, Bantam, 1992/07, 7
B Gilliam Simple Checkmates, Ballantine Books, 1996 (NR)
B Golombek, Harry; Capablanca's Best Games, Intl Chess Enterpr, 1997/02 8
B Grivas, Efstratios; Chess College 2: Pawn Play, Gambit Publications, 2006/06, 7
B Harding, Tim; The Total Marshall, 2*
B Heisman, Dan; Elements of Positional Evaluation. How Chess Pieces get their Power, Chess Enterprises, 1999/06 rev. ed., 6
B Heisman, Dan; Back to Basics: Tactics, (ChessCafe Back to Basics Chess), Russell Enterprises, 2007/09, 3
B Kasparov, Garry; On My Great Predecessors Part I, Everyman Chess, 2003/08, 7
B Kotov, Alexander; Think Like a Grandmaster, Batsford, 2003/06 algebraic, 6
B Littlewood, Paul; Chess Tactics, (Batsford Chess Book), Batsford, 2003/03, 6
B Maza, Michael de la; Rapid Chess Improvement, Everyman Chess, 2002/06, 6
B McDonald, Neil; Chess the Art of Logical Thinking. From the First Move to the Last, Batsford, 2004/09, 6
B McDonald, Neil; The Art of Planning in Chess. Move by Move, Batsford, 2006/08, 7
B McDonald, Neil; Queens Gambit Declined, (Starting Out), Everyman Chess, 2006/12, 2
B Müller & Lamprecht; Fundamental Chess Endings, Gambit Publications, 2001/10, 7
B Müller, Karsten; Fritz Endgame Trainer Vol 1, 1*
B Pandolfini, Bruce; Beginning Chess. 300 Elementary Problems for Players New to the Game, (Fireside Chess Library), Fireside, 1993/08, 3
B Pandolfini, Bruce; Russian Chess, (Fireside Chess Library), Fireside 1987/03, 8
B Pandolfini, Bruce; Weapons of Chess. An Omnibus of Chess Strategy; (Fireside Chess Library), Fireside, 1989/11, 6
B Renaud & Kahn; The Art of Checkmate, Dover Publications, 1962/06, 7
B Rosario, Frisco del; A First Book of Morphy, Trafford Publishing, 2004/10, 3
B Sawyer, Tim; Alapin French, Thinkers’ Press, 1995/06, 3
B Snyder, Robert M.; Unbeatable Chess Lessons for juniors; (McKay Chess Library for Kids), Random House, 2003/11, 2
B Stean, Michael; Simple Chess. New Algabraic Edition, Dover Publications, 2003/1, 6
B Tisdall, Jonathan; Improve your chess now, Everyman Chess, 1997/12, 7
B Ward, Chris; It's your move, Everyman Chess, 2004/01, 6
B Weeramantry & Eusebi; Best Lessons of a Chess Coach, (McKay Chess Library), Random House, 1994/02, 7
B Chessmaster 10th edition, Ubisoft, 2*
B Chess Tactics for Intermediate Players, Convetka, 4*
B Fritz 09, 1*

* = not a book

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

100 Chess Book Reviews: Part 8

This is the final movie. Phew!

Soon I'll finish posting a few loose ends, and then it will be time to close shop. Thanks to Liquid Egg Product's mascot for making another appearance in this video, though the bastard sort of took me hostage so perhaps I shouldn't be thanking him.

I forgot to thank the Knights Errant in general at the end of the vid, and some Knights in particular-- especially Takchess, PMD,Sancho, Nezha, and Celtic Death. But especially Takchess, who should have been near the top of the list (though the list was in no particular order). Sorry about that bud. There's no going back now--I deleted all this stuff from my hard drive.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Damn it feels good to be a patzer

Sure, there are downsides to being a patzer. Like....well, sucking at chess. But there are a lot of perks that come along with sucking at chess. In no particular order:

1. You get to be a reckless gunslinger.
All that subtle opening advice meant for GMs? Fuck it. It's not meant for me. I can blithely play unsound gambits such as the Englund, and it is not a problem. Indeed it seems to actually be a good thing because it helps me get better at tactics (see #2) and throws my opponents off guard. Yes, playing unsound gambits is said to be a stage, but it sure is a fun stage, and also a helpful stage. If I were better, I'd have to settle into openings my grandma used to play. So, beginners, go ahead and play gambits. You won't be able to forever, so take advantage (and see #2).

2. Tactics is everything.
Sure, I learn other stuff to be well-rounded and all that, to gain an aesthetic appreciation for the game. But in practice 90% of my games are decided by simple tactics, and even more in blitz play. This was true even before I started playing gambits. So there isn't a lot of subtlety about what I need to work on, how I can improve. Until the pieces stop dropping, there is nothing else as important to work on. (Note as my rating approached 1500 at ICC, I noticed this percentage started to drop off significantly, and it seems to continue to drop off as you improve, until games are won by boredom--but by then you will think winning a game because someone dropped a piece to a two-move tactic is boring, so you will be fine).

3. Pretty much no matter what you do, you will improve.
When the temperature is absolute zero, the only way to go is up. Yeah, we bicker about methods for chess improvement here. I am a broken record about the importance of chess coaches, some like to write subtle treatises on motor control and implicit memory and 'knowledge transfer.' But when you suck, none of it really matters. You will improve when following either trendy or old-fashioned study methods, as long as you do something to improve.

4. The learning curve is very steep.
When starting out, you learn a lot of really cool things really fast. The better you get, the more slowly you improve, the less often you have mind-blowing insights into the mechanics of the game. It is the exact same way in any science. When I started out in my neuroscience training, there were these orgiastic insights nearly daily as I gobbled up all the basic facts I could about the brain. Now, even though I monitor all the journals, the rate of such major insights is much lower, very few things surprise me. As a beginner, you get an intellectual feast from the most elementary sources.

Those are the most obvious cool things about being a total patzer. So, fellow patzers of the world, enjoy it! If you can think of any others, let us know. Of course, the list would be much longer if the topic were 'Why being a patzer sucks.' But the up sides shouldn't be ignored. It makes me want to stay a patzer the rest of my life. Yeah, I'm a patzer because I want to be! That's it.

Pic above from one of the best movies of all time, Office Space (click for some scenes).

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Judge not

I'll post the 8th and final video this coming Thursday. Then I'll post a list someone kindly made of all the A+ through B books (you might also check out the 'Book Reviews' section of my Blog Highlights for more nuanced PBS-style reviews). I'll also give some recommendations for beginners who want to be efficient in getting to around 1400 ICC. I did a lot of things inefficiently, so if a beginner like I was can avoid that, that would make me quite happy.

Speaking of reviews, DK recently blew a gasket when I criticized a chess book, ironically saying I was pathologically judgmental, and he characteristically steers the conversation from the interesting to the awkwardly personal and irrelevant (below I tack on my original post and his response). Even for him, it was over the top. Not that I'm bitter.

Hey, wait, I just did it myself! What monster have I become?!

To prove his judgment wrong, I've updated my Blogotypes post, which classifies chess blogger personalities. I filled in some details on existing types, and added some altogether new categories. Of course I had to make fun of people who make superficial reviews of chess books (see the Creationist blogotype). And no, I didn't change the entry for the DK-transform blogotype--I stand by that one.

The present post instantiates several of the categories; e.g., hypersensitive nutball (number 31).

[1] For those who give a shit, here's the DK throwdown. You can visit the original post (linked above) to see the context. I put it here to let people form their own opinions.

I said:
I really like his articles, which have strong and extreme positions on everything.

My two cents on his claim.

I think that in practice he seems to be wrong on this. In a position is relatively quiet it would be a bad use of time to do extensive variation crunching, time that should be saved for sharp positions with lots of forcing moves. In such quiet positions, in which extensive variation crunching would be a practical blunder (Soltis rightly says, spending too much time on a move can be itself a blunder), it is really helpful to use general principles to make a faster move, saving time for the tough positions that absolutely demand deeper calculation.

I haven't seen that GMRAM book but it sounds horrible. No annotations, just a bunch of positions? It makes me cringe. I do understand what he is trying to do with the book, but would it have hurt all that much to give his take on the positions in an appendix or something? Would that actually hurt the reader, encourage reader laziness? It sounds more like a classic case of author laziness, analogous to informant-style game dumps that are sold as opening repertoires.

That said, I know many people love the book, so perhaps he really has picked some wonderful and illuminating positions (which presumably provide insights into general principles that can be useful in real games--hey wait, didn't the author say that general principles are useless?).
To which DK responded:
Ok BDK: there goes your pronounced tendancy again to make others wrong and criticism as a habitual way of being.

my turn now. who told you that you were less so that you must so often put yourself there? i thought that you quit blogging or dedication to chess? what do you want now? do you know what it is?

you havent seen the book or the positions and how it is assembled and all this. oh my god. this makes no sense and is silly.

see how that one feels. :)

Monday, April 07, 2008

If you are thinking of becoming a gambiteer

A little snippet from McGrew's article Dimensional Analysis:
When you select an opening, you are not selecting the position that arises at move 20 after best play by both sides. You are selecting the whole opening with all of its traps and twists, its side lines and main lines.

And you are selecting it to play against flesh-and-blood opponents who will very frequently deviate from best play – probably early. Which raises a very important question, supposing they do deviate from best play, what will happen then?

The answer depends on what I will call the “Caltrop Coefficient,” or CC for short. For readers not familiar with military history, I should explain that caltrops are mid-sized pieces of metal shaped rather like gigantic jacks with sharpened points. Canny soldiers camping just on the other side of a river from their enemies would sow the riverbed liberally with caltrops so that an enemy cavalry charge across the river would be demolished as the horses stepped on the caltrops and went down. Mutatis mutandis, every wild-eyed gambiteer uses this strategy in chess as well. The more caltrops the better, particularly at blitz or bullet time controls! Let’s agree to say that an opening with a high proportion of moderately well-hidden traps has a high CC.

Two factors determine whether you should take the CC seriously in selecting your openings. The first is the speed of the game. The faster the time control, the better the chances that an opening high on CC but low on SES [standard evaluation symbols] will lead to success. Since many of us play thousands of fast games on the internet every year, this factor probably applies to most readers of this column. Second, the level of your opposition is important both as an index of their likely familiarity with your weapon of choice and as a measure of how well they are likely to cope with
unforeseen caltrops.
This seems to be right all around.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The New Englunder: I finally like d4

As black, I have always hated when white plays d4. I played the QGD, locking in my light-squared Bishop, settling in for a relatively closed, symmetric, long, boring game. Not any more. The other night, I got pissed when white played d4 so I tried something crazy: 1. d4 e5!?. Fun fun fun! Not just a win but a tactical melee.

I looked it up later and found that it is a gambit line called The Englund Gambit. This extremely rare opening is unsound at GM levels (good news, as this means the opening books for white will likely only offer up a single subvariation, probably insulting it as broken and only popular in the 1880s).

I have gone 3-0 with it so far, and while I know I will amass many losses with the Englund, I finally am looking forward to when white plays d4! What speaks in favor of playing it at my level are a few factors:
1. White immediately is taken out of his comfort zone. Unless he is a Blackmar-Diemer gambit player, most d4 players prefer a slow, closed game. There is no way for white to achieve a slow, closed game against e5.
2. White is immediately taken out of book. As is black, as there is virtually nothing on this opening out there. So both players are playing chess from an early move.
3. Lots of fun little cheapos for black (see this video--I don't play the line in this video, but the line I play has other little cheapo traps that are good as they don't involve weakening the position, but normal developing moves).
4. Great for blitz, which is all I'm playing right now. One or two games a night.
5. The version I'm playing, which doesn't have a name, and which is played in only 146/3000000 games in my database, has a lot of similarities with the Smith-Morra and Danish, both of which I play as white, so there is synergy action.
6. It's actually not any worse (from Fritz's perspective) than other gambit lines I play. Yes, black is down a pawn, but a small price to pay for clearing lines for bishops, castling quickly, and blowing things wide open.
7. Not a bunch of stuff to memorize. I have found playing natural moves leaves me with a good position (i.e., big advantage in piece activity, but down a pawn, which is how I like it).
8. I just like it. It is fun, it fits with my style, and no longer will I let out a groan in 1/5 of my games as black.

The downside, of course, is that if white plays it right, it is better for white. Black makes no effort to recoup his lost pawn, but simply tries to mount an attack. So if white manages to build a stable position and grind down to the endgame, black is at a disadvantage. Luckily, at my level, this hardly ever happens. Even in my QGD games, most of them are decided by tactical oversights.

This makes me want to dive into chess again. Must resist....must resist...

Here is what Cox, in his great book Starting Out: 1 d4 says of the opening, of course in the miscellaneous section at the end of the book:
1...e5, the Englund Gambit, offers a rite of passage every chessplayer should go through in the form of the gamelet [sic] 2 dxe Nc6 3 Nf3 Qe7 4 Bf4 Qb4+ 5 Bd2 Qxb2 6 Bc3 Bb4 7 Qd2 Bxc3 Qc1 mate, but instead 6 Nc3 gives White a virtually winning position.
Hee hee. This is a really good book, fairly broad as well as deep. This quote makes me very happy. It says "I am not taking this opening seriously, and I am showing this as a novelty, as spectacle. Don't worry about this Englund crap, dear reader of my d4 book."

I deviate as black before move five into a line more to my style. My version, which I am dubbing 'The New Englunder' (I am from New England, after all), goes 1 d4 e5!? 2 dxe f6?!. Crazy, looks horrible, but it is actually quite hard to bust, and I have found that nobody I'm playing has any idea what to do. Play often continues 3 exf Nxf6, and I have an acceptable lead in development to compensate for the pawn I just gave up (pic below after these moves, white to move). An open file for my rook once I castle, which will nicely protect the Knight when white invariably moves his dark bishop to g5. I like it. Total open possibilities for my queenside pieces. No need to worry about a cramped light-squared bishop. Heaven.

Note added--of course, this ends up having a name, The Soller Gambit. It is basically a reversed Blackmar Diemer Gambit. Didn't I just sell a book, the bible, of the BDG after reading Collins saying "Nobody who plays good chess plays the BDG, and nobody who plays good chess ever will"? My saving grace is that since I'd be playing black, I don't care. I'd rather be reckless and have fun against d4 than get caught in the crazy world of heavily booked responses.

Some more reviews

Can be found here. Way better than my reviews, much more creative.

Friday, April 04, 2008

100 Chess Book Reviews: Part 7

Seven down, one to go. Lots of positive reviews in this one...

One major blunder, I say Watson's book on the French is from white's perspective, when it is really from black's perspective. Also, I was starting to run out of space on my video camera so I really started to rush, and many of the reviews become even more impressionistic. Also, for some reason the music is too loud. In my eighth and final video I'll fix the music dealie.

Chess tests how hard you've worked, not your IQ

A while ago, I wrote:
Chess is just a game, not an IQ test. It is largely a battle of who has more experience and who is thinking more carefully during the game. If you are thinking carefully, then you will either win or you will be able to learn a good deal from the loss.
There have been previous studies that bear this out, and there is yet another one showing that the amount of time put in is the best predictor of chess improvement. Here is the full summary (which can be found here):

Good chess players are really smart, right? Only up to a point, according to a study that concludes practice is more important than brains.

Merim Bilalić, a psychology doctoral student at Oxford University in the U.K., studied 57 primary and secondary school chess players, giving them chess problems and IQ tests and logging their daily chess practice.

Although years of experience and IQ correlated with chess skills, the researchers found that the highest correlation was with the number of hours a day the children spent playing or studying the game. And among the top 23 players (all boys), the correlation of chess skill with IQ disappeared. Within this high-IQ group (average 133, versus 114 for the other 34 players), it wasn't the brightest but those who practiced the most who did best, the researchers report in the September issue of Intelligence. The smartest ones actually practiced less.

Chess has long pitted proponents of "expertise" theory, which emphasizes the cultivation of specific skills, against those who argue that talent is important. Psychologist Neil Charness of Florida State University in Tallahassee says that the study bears out "the drudge theory of expertise. Once you're about average IQ, the most important predictor is deliberate practice." But Robert Howard of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, points out that chess prodigies "rapidly outpace the average grandmaster" despite much less practice time.
So, the upshot? IQ does matter, but practice time is the best predictor of chess performance. It would be interesting to see if the same results hold for adult newbies to the game.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

I sold 'em

A bookseller chess enthusiast came over yesterday and bought every one of the books I gave a C through F. Sort of sad to see them go, and I don't even want to think about how much money I spent versus how much I sold them for. But it wasn't money wasted. Each book was another iteration of my random search process which ultimately ended in me finding a great book for the topic of interest. Those are the 40 or so books remaining on my shelf, the most fit genes in the struggle for survival. Good riddance Aaagaard. But a sad farewell to 'Just the facts.'

I kept only two sellable books so I could trade them with someone for a DVD. Sorry to anyone else who wanted anything, but it is a pain to ship individual books so I just got rid of all of 'em at once.