Sunday, May 31, 2009

How passed is your pawn?

Typically I've thought of pawns as either passed or not passed. However, that isn't a useful way to think of them during games. Since there are three files with potential enemy pawns that stand between a (nonflank) pawn and its freedom, each file that is emptied increases the probability that your pawn can become a passed pawn.

The following diagram shows what I mean, the four cases from zero percent passed to fully passed pawn:

I realize this is sort of goofy, but in practice thinking about passed pawns this way has been helpful during games. It encourages me to look for ways to create passed pawns, and helps me calculate faster which pawn exchanges to make.

Wrinkles include the fact that files can have more than one pawn, and flank pawns pass in halves rather than thirds, but the general idea is the same. Of course there is more to pawns than passing. This is just one criterion to use in evaluating the potency of your pawn structure.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Weekend blogging

Over at Wang's Chess House we have some excellent book reviews, some of the best I've seen in the blogosphere. It reinforces my view that Kaufman's repertoire book should be called 'A Soporific Repertoire for Black and White.'

Liquid Egg Product, whose blog was down for a bit, is back!

Drunknknight is playing in the finals of a tournament where he kicked serious butt.

I wish DG would come back to BCC. That site used to be awesome, now it's just sort of parochial.

I think Elizabeth Vicary's blog has become a branch of Comedy Central.

For more weekend blogging, see this post.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Beware phishing sites for downloading chess books

I Googled the book title 'The Sharpest Sicilian.' In Google, the fifth site to come up was called Torrentreactor. Torrentreactor is a scam. It showed five different sites that you can download the book from. It turns out this is an entire network of sites that refer to each other that are one big phishing expedition. Even if you search there for 'torrentreactorisascam' it comes up with five different sites where you can "download" this product.

If a torrent site ever asks you for your credit card information, it is bullshit. Be careful, everyone.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Visualization practice=ankle weights

A couple of months ago I expressed heavy skepticism toward the common improvement advice to memorize square colors, visualize lines, and practice blindfold chess.

One of my main complaints was that when playing a real game, the board is there. I can look at it. Why waste precious time learning something unnecessary? My slogan was 'Practice how you play.' If you play with a board, practice with a board. In training, try to recreate the conditions of the actual competition.

I am still skeptical, but I thought of an analogy that kills my 'Practice how you play' slogan.

Quite often you simply do not practice how you play. This is obvious to anyone with serious experience in sports. In baseball, before going to bat we will put weights on the bat, purposefully making it harder temporarily so that in the actual batter's box, you will have an extra zip in your swing. Runners will put on ankle weights. Bikers will ride hills in a low gear.

None of these things are done during the competition.

That, essentially, seems what visualization training is: wearing ankle weights during training to give you a little rebound during the actual games. Of course the board is there in real games (duh), but is it all that crazy to think blindfold training will help you visualize moves when it comes to the actual competition?

Has anyone worked on blindfold/board visualization and actually found that it helped in practice (e.g., did your rating improve, and do you think it is because of such visualization?).

Parenthetical remark: I've noticed in reading through Eastern European improvement materials, they are good at telling people what to do, but really bad at explaining why. Perhaps the Russian mindset was to accept such orders and just do them. That may explain why they are so good at chess. They don't try to find a million exceptions to rules, they just learn the rules (like a child learning the game).

This was all inspired by my work at the International Chess School (ICS) (not free), and discussions at the ICS Forum (free).

Friday, May 22, 2009

Final round of tournament

Below is the last-round game in the tournament I entered a couple of weeks ago. I post this game not because I am particularly proud of my play (we both made a lot of mistakes), but to remind the commentariat what games between patzers are typically like, even in "slow" openings.

I play black, time control is 70/5.

(show chess board)(hide chess board)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Is 1 d4 not good for those who want to learn tactics?

Craig Evans left an interesting post over at Chesspub. This bit struck my eye:
I would never recommend 1.d4 for beginners or aspiring players. A lot of club players around 1500-1800 have played 1.d4 or 1.Nf3 religiously and are very solid players... with absolutely no tactical awareness or imagination. Closed openings will stifle players who are learning the game, and I am a huge advocate of playing open positions and gambits with both colours whilst improving.Positional understanding and mastery of closed positions will come with experience, but if one is completely unable to string together any sort of tactics, then positional players will not be able to convert their advantages. Playing 1.e4, or at worst the BDG, will make white players acutely aware of the value of the initiative, provide them with the skills to counterpunch or even "swindle" should their positions not be great, to search out and successfully navigate tactics where they are favourably there. Once this is learnt, or at least the player reaches a fair proficiency with tactics, then they can ally this with positional development and mastery of closed positions, and we have a good player on our hands. I think there was an element of jest in Schaakhamster's comment about giving a novice a book on tactics and a BDG opening manual... but there is more than some truth as well. If you can get a beginner to quickly improve his/her tactics and attacking play, then this will stand him/her in good stead in the short-term, and as long as he/she then works on his or her other parts of their game in due course, they can become a good player. I do not know of many people who've made 2200+ without gaining experience in open and tactical positions before graduating into positional understanding.
I think perhaps he needs to watch some d4 games between amateurs. Because they are both off book so soon, and don't have the positional skills he speaks of to create a slow positional battle, the games typically become tactical fairly fast.

I don't think it's an either-or proposition (tactical versus positional). At the patzer level where I reside, the question is how many moves before the tactical fireworks begin, not whether there will be sharp clashes. Indeed, playing d4 against rank patzers like myself may be a good thing. We are likely to get impatient and prematurely attack. Games between patzers in d4 lines are not going to generate the kind of slow positional masterpieces you'd find in a strategy book written by a GM. Someone will make a mistake, and tactics will follow.

Don't get me wrong, I've had a lot of fun with my kooky gambit e4 lines, especially the Danish/Goring. But I also am starting to appreciate games where it takes longer for the fireworks to begin.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

One of my favorite mate puzzles

Black to move:

It is from Level 2 of the software Chess Tactics for Beginners. I think I also saw it in Chessimo.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cock Fight!

Or perhaps I should say Bird Fight. There are two Bird systems that have been rolling around in my head since talking with Coach B last night. There is the queenside fianchetto variation (the Bird-Larsen Attack) and the Classical variation (corresponding to the classical Dutch).

Timothy Taylor pushes fairly strongly toward the classical, while Coach B has some experience playing the Bird-Larsen. According to Fritz and the databases, they are pretty much the same in terms of quality. Both lines, with ideal play from black, give black an OK position. Of course, the same can be said of any opening. Hence, because there is no objective way to decide between them, I am going to evaluate the two main tabiyas here using my own limited wits. Any ideas, opinions on the comparison appreciated (with one caveat in the last paragraph of this post).

The Classical Bird (1 f4, 2 Nf3)
This is Timothy Taylor's recommendation, though he seems to have experience playing every single permutation of the Bird and is quite proficient in general. The main tabiya in the Classical is shown below.

The classical Bird after 6...c5

In this position, White's main idea is to play e4, and end up with a pawn duo on e4 and f4. This kingside spatial advantage is to be used as a ground for a Kingside attack. Once white has that duo, he has many options. He can push the f pawn to form a battering ram, or the e-pawn (locking in the dark-squared Bishop), maneuver the Queen to h4 via e1. The Knight move Ne5 from White is also thematic. Black, on the other hand, will either aim for d4 or e5, and try to use his queenside space advantage to go for an attack therein.

On the down side, White's Queen Knight is a little awkward, especially since c3 is a natural place to put a pawn to take away activity from black's g7 Bishop. Hence, sometimes the b-Knight ends up on a3 or some such queer square. Also, it can happen pretty quickly in the main lines that the queens are traded off, rooks are traded off, and we have a fairly quiet perhaps even drawish game pretty quickly. Indeed, that crazy planning exercise which generated so many good comments is a typical position reached in the Bird. By most accounts, it is fairly drawish.

Also, black's Bishops are both better than white's, and that may offset the spatial advantage white enjoys in many lines.

Also, Coach B pointed out that in the same line in the Dutch, getting in e4 (well, e5 for black) is considered equalizing. As white, do I really want to play an opening where meeting my main goal is merely equalizing? Of course white is a tempo up in this variation, and isn't the Classical Dutch halfway decent (I actually don't know, I don't know anything about the Dutch, have no basis of comparison in my mental database)?

Bird-Larsen Attack (1 f4, 2 b3)
The second major line I have been thinking about is the Bird-Larsen attack. The major tabiya after black's sixth move is as follows:
The Bird-Larsen Attack

Comparing the pieces to the Classical, we see that white's Bishops are better placed. His dark-squared bishop is a monster. His light-squared bishop is decent, though perhaps not as well-placed as black's light-squared Bishop.

The main fight is for the e5 square, which right now white has clamped down pretty impressively.

On the down side, black still has a spatial advantage on the queenside. White's Queen-Knight again is awkward, especially compared with black's Queen-Knight. This might even be more awkward than in the Classical. Where is it supposed to go? To get it to d2 requires weakening e3. a3 is a strange place for a Knight. c3 jails the Bishop, which sort of defeats the purpose of the fianchetto (or am I wrong about that?).

This position is tough to evaluate. There is a great deal of dynamic tension with the two Bishops facing off.

On the other hand, unlike the Classical variation, I'm not quite sure what the main plans are for white. OK, fight for the e5 square. Great. Now what? I have control over the square. What's next? What are the main attacking themes? In the Classical the pawn duo suggests all sorts of kinky pawn pushes and kingside attacks, coupled with Qe1-Qh4 and such. I love that shit!

Unfortunately, Taylor spends tons of time orgasming all over the Classical, and gushing about the surfeit of plans, but just badmouths the Bird-Larsen type lines, doesn't talk at all about general plans and such. He says basically of the Bird-Larsen that "This is drawish if black plays well, so don't do it. Plus it's old and overanalyzed, so don't do it."

Coach B gave me some games of his to check out, so perhaps that will give me some ideas about typical plans and attacking ideas. One thing I read last night is that white will often put his light-squared Bishop on d3, and with the other B on b2 that can form a pretty devastating rake against black (especially if black doesn't fianchetto Kingside). That's what I'm talking about. I want to see more such ideas!

The verdict
The databases agree that black has decent chances in both positions, the two Birds are statistically equal. Indeed, black actually scores better than white in both lines in my database, and Fritz gives a slight edge to black in both tabiyas, with pretty much the same evaluation to each (around -0.10).

Hence, as I said there is no "objective" difference between the two lines. I am starting to think Coach B has a good point, though. As white, I want to play to win, and if I go into lines where black can pretty much force the trade of all the major pieces, leaving us with a drawish endgame, what does that say for me as a fighter?

Plus, Coach B is my coach, and the whole point of hiring a coach is to put my faith in someone better than me, drink the koolaid and follow him down the yellow brick road to see if I can find chess skills (there should be a fourth character in the wizard of Oz, the crappy patzer Tiger looking for chess skillz). He's rated 2300, has some experience with the Bird-Larsen, so why not take the plunge? That said, he doesn't really strongly prefer either one, and said he would probably prefer the Leningrad Bird (aka Polar Bear, where white fianchettoes Kingside--this is what Tempo plays).

More important than any of that, though, is what is the most fun to play? I've been playing around with the Bird-Larsen, and frankly it is a lot of fun because of the increased piece activity. Coach B pointed out that the Classical is actually a fairly quiet, strategic opening, that if I want a little more fireworks the Bird-Larsen may be a better bet (though it is also fairly quiet and strategic). [Edit: he emailed me to say that he actually thinks both of them are fairly quiet and strategic.]

Frankly I haven't completely made up my mind, so I will play around with both for a bit and see what's going down. Whose koolaid will I drink? Of course, both is an option.

What do you guys think? If your only thought is that at my level none of this matters, you don't need to share it because it is obvious. Yes, I know I could play the 'Hit my head with a stick' opening and it wouldn't affect my rating. My games are typically won and lost in the middlegame. Regardless of such facts, this is fun, so let's talk about the chess, not the meta-chess.

Any people play the Dutch or Bird out there that have good intuitions about this?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Notable Posts

Some recent blog posts that I've enjoyed:

*An opium repertoire for white, explained: from Katar. If you want fun and swashbuckling, this is for you. A great blog entry that reminds me of bloggers of yore. Until just recently, I followed an opium repertoire and it was a lot of fun.

*Yes, I Do: or some such hard to penetrate title from chesstiger. He's talking about our new love, the International Chess School.

*Inaccurate calculation, from chessskill's blog. I like it for the following quote: "In chess, there is good enough and there is correct. Moves that are good enough work against weak opposition, correct moves always work."

*Reassembler tells us how to beat a Grandmaster. Excellent advice, very inspiring. I think someday, I will beat a GM!

*Castling Queenside shares the trials and tribulations of multitasking at tournaments. I can't do it. Hell, I don't even like to do skittles at tournaments as I get too stressed out.

*Blunderprone probably doesn't need the traffic, but there's yet another great entry in his Ken Burns special on chess tournaments. The most recent entry covers a guy I had never heard of Laszlo Szabo.

Saturday, May 09, 2009


I finally went an entire tournament without giving away a piece for free. The result? I went 3-0 and was clear first in the U1300 division, and took home $150. Thanks, Asheboro Open! The best player I beat was rated 1233, the lowest was 983. So, nothing to get cocky about, but it sure feels good for once to leave a tournament and not be thinking, "Why the hell do I bother with this crap if I'm just going to drop pieces?"

The main difference in my training is i) playing games at ICC with a real board rather than the computer, so my chess vision doesn't need time to adjust, ii) the international chess school, iii) the games were G75 which was nice, gave me time to really look at the board and think about what I was doing.

The chess board practice with ICC is key I think. It was always very hard for me to make the adjustment for the first couple of games at tournaments before, but today it felt natural to work over a real board.

My rating went from 1064 to 1175, a high for me. My goal, fairly lofty, is to reach 1400 by next April.

One cool thing was that there was a blind dude there playing in his first tournament ever, and he won a game!