Monday, March 30, 2009

Chunky Rook=Good Blog

An auspicious beginning for a chess blog, over at Chunky Rook. He has gorgeous and intelligent posts, and we know those two things don't usually go together.

One of his posts reminds me of my Silman endgame project, which I will post about next week for those that have emailed me.

Oh, and this just over the transom: check out Tuirgin's blog which seems like a good addition to the faltering chess improvement genre.

Chess rants (एंड वही इस थिस इन अरबिक)

This post contains enough whining that you should imagine it being read aloud by Andy Rooney.

Went to chess club Saturday. It was pretty good. My first in-person trotting out of the Bird's opening, and I destroyed him. He played into a horrible line for black that I had been studying that morning. I really like the Bird. I like it so much so that I almost don't want to talk about it here, as when I begin talking about openings here people become little bitches and try to ruin it for me.

What is it about openings that turns grown men into know-it-all bitches? I'm as guilty as anyone. When people mention the French Defense I become a superlative dink.

Since I'm complaining already, let me continue. Have you ever had an experience where a new chess player shows up and you and another player are both competing to give him advice, and you get annoyed because you know you kick ass at giving beginners advice while the other person is saying shit that is too confusing for a beginner?

Also, why is blogger "autocorrecting" all the words I type in my title, replacing them with arabic script? WTF.

Overall, though, I'm in a good mood. Did a lot of chess this weekend, learning about the Slav finally, which is very cool. James Vigus' introductory chapter in 'Play the Slav' is a model of how to write about an opening. It's one of those pieces of chess literature that makes you grateful to the author for thinking deeply about his subject matter, digesting it, and then describing it to the neophyte in a form that is easier to eat. Much like a mother bird will eat a dead animal, then regurgitate it for her young. Thanks, Vigus, for throwing up the Slav into my mouth!

Sunday, March 22, 2009


I went to the second meeting of the Durham Chess Club yesterday. It was fun. There were only two people there, Conrad and Eric. They were good players compared to me, and also just the kind of player it is good for me to play. They don't know much about openings, but are very good middlegame players. So while I would consistently get a better game out of the opening, in my losses it was due to kooky middlegame tactics.

So, I will go again. It was very mellow and relaxed--no chess clocks, and quite a bit of innocent chatter. They aren't USCF players, and don't play online, just a couple of guys that want to play chess because they like the game. It is hard to rate them for anyone out there thinking about coming. I'd put them at around 1200 or so USCF though Conrad may be higher. He's been playing chess for like 50 years. Eric is one of those players that tries to construct elaborate traps in every game, and when they work you are totally fucked, when they don't he is fucked. That makes the games quite fun.

In one game I hung a rook. I thought I had a great response to an attack, putting my rook on the seventh rank, but I moved too fast and sloppy and didn't even think that his Knight was on the eighth rank and just took my rook. I'm still thinking about why I did that, given that I had explicitly moved my rook from the seventh rank when he moved his Knight back to the eighth! :(

Anyway, I will try to do some promotion of this club, but it is odd as now there are three chess clubs in Durham. Duke Chess started meeting again (Wednesday nights), then there is the Francecsa's Underground Club (Tuesdays (and sometimes Thursdays) at 730PM), and now this North Durham Library club.

So, no more whining from me about the lack of Durham Chess clubs.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

New chess club in Durham!!!

My wife was working at a library in North Durham (NC) today and sent me this pic from her phone:

Huzzahhh! This place is very close to our house, and I think this coming Saturday is only the second time they are meeting, so I'm getting in on the ground floor.

Hopefully this link takes you to their web site (it isn't much, just a brief description from the library web site). Sometimes I think the site starts playing weird music, so be careful with your volume.

At any rate, I'll be there Saturday so if anyone wants to chess it up in Durham, come on over!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Space cadet

Phaedrus has a great discussion of space, with a beautiful example from Stean's classic book. Phaedrus follows it up by applying the discussion to the position from my planning exercise.

As I say there, in some ways I feel I understand the position even less now than before I posted it!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Good stuff looming

Check out this recent post from Loomis.

Sacrificing position for opportunity

White's eighth move in the following game fragment is a great example of gaining activity at the expense of pawn structure. The example and commentary are from Chapter 7 of Chess for Zebras. For those interested, at the end of this post I include a bunch of statistics pertaining to the key position (stats about the 23 games in my database that have passed through the key position, as well as Fritz's evaluation of the position).

Pretty cool, huh? I want to use this example to tie together some points that came up during the planning exercise.

Analysis, planning, and time
As I've discussed before there is some consensus that quiet positions don't deserve much detailed analysis. Don't do too much analysis because there are too many reasonable futures for this game so the actual game will quickly deviate from what you imagined previously during your analysis of candidate moves. On the other hand, how can you tell, without doing some analysis, if you don't have a position like the one in this game that both Rowson and Shereshevsky think had a brilliancy on move 8?

Any nontrivial chess position can be examined for hours and you still probably won't feel like you have a complete grasp over all it's complexities. Of course, in a real game you should not waste time. These two facts stand in some tension. Based on the game fragment, Rowson says:
This is another example that highlights the difficulty of chess. Just when you think you have some positional understanding, a famous trainer comes along and tells you that 8 Nf3 is a good move.

Making use of opportunities like 8 Nf3 is hard enough, but even more complex is judging how much time to spend on deciding whether such moves are real opportunities. For instance, sometimes you have a choice between two moves. You know that one is decent and retains your advantage, but you can see that the other might be much stronger and win by force. However, in order to find out whether it wins by force you will have to think for several minutes. Many players just [go ahead with the analysis], only to realize it is not so clear-cut and then play the simpler move but with much less time on the clock.

A key element of practical strength, I believe, is to consider the value of Time at such moments...Once you start thinking about a line it is difficult to stop, so one aspect of being skilled in your use of Time is thinking of the opportunity cost of thinking time: if I lose twenty minutes now, I will certainly miss opportunities later; is it worth the investment?
That's beautifully sums up my problem: I am not good at answering that question. In positions without clear tactical opportunities or hit-me-over-the-head obvious strategic features, I am never sure if I am missing something big (like Nf3), or if I should just hurry up and move and save my time for cases where I know it is crucial for me to find the right variation. I tend to err on the side of taking too long to think, looking for Nf3 type moves when none exist and I should just plonk my Rook on an open file and be done with it.

For those that thought I did too much analysis on the position I posted last week, I would have to respectfully disagree. If you look at my planning session for that post, there is actually very little analysis at all. Indeed, the post ends where the analysis would begin, with a list of candidate moves! In other words, there is essentially zero analysis in my planstorm. Rather, it is all higher-level planning in terms of what pieces should go where, that sort of thing, the exact kind of thing people say to think about when it would be silly to do detailed analysis of game trees. That is, I made plans, which is exactly the sort of thing you are supposed to do in quiet positions, no?

Perhaps the problem (if there was one) was that I focused on long-term versus short-term plans, or that my plans were wrong, or that I discussed too many plans, but it definitely wasn't that I was doing too much analysis!

So how do I improve at planning, and become faster at doing it well? As I said in the comments, hopefully by doing it. "My hope is that I will develop better intuitions by thinking through a variety of "quiet" positions that don't require a lot of tactical analysis." Perhaps as I work through additional quiet positions I will get a better sense of which ones have these opportunities like Nf3, versus those that I should simply move quickly to save thinking time for the sharp positions.

And lest I forget, I should always harken back to the most important chess lesson I have ever learned, Safety First. All this planning and strategy isn't worth squat if I'm dropping pieces.

What follows are statistics and Fritz analysis for white's eighth move.

Some statistics on the position after black's seventh move
In my 3 million game database (average ELO 2170) the position after 7...Nxe5 has occured 23 times, and here are the stats from White's perspective. Nf3 clearly does best, though this hasn't exactly been heavily tested at top-level tournaments.
Move------Frequency -----------%W-L-D---------#W-L-D
1: Nc3---------11------------------ 18-64-18 -----------2-7-2
2: Nf3----------9-------------------67-11-22----------- 7-1-2
3: Be2----------2-------------------50-50-0------------1-1-0
4: f4------------1--------------------0-100-0-----------0-1-0

For what it's worth, Fritz 9 in infinite analysis mode for about five minutes yields the following evaluation of the top five moves for white at move eight:
1. Nd2------- +0.77
2. Nf3------- +0.66
3. h3 -------- +0.59
4. Be2------- +0.58
5. Bd4 ------ +0.45

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The full game

Here is the game the first Planning Exercise came from. It is from the 1976 Olympiad. White is rated over 2300, black's rating is not recorded in my database.

In the position I posted it is move 16 (White to move), as indicated in the Flash player. The comments on the previous post are gems so if you think the position is interesting be sure to check out the comments. The comments in this game (before move 16 anyway) are adapted from Timothy Taylor (IM) in his book 'Bird's Opening.'


Sunday, March 08, 2009

Planning Exercise (1)

The following is an exercise with no clear best answer, though the side to move (white) has a slight positional advantage. There is nothing tactically heavy going on, but the next few moves will determine the flavor of the endgame. I tend to flounder in these positions from the nebulous zone between middlegame and endgame. I tend to find few to no good plans, and then play aimlessly. Or I find too many plans, and have trouble prioritizing which ones I should take seriously. Typically I have both problems: I have lots of plans in my mind, but none of them is the right one.

What plans would you consider as white in this position? I post my long-winded thoughts as the first comment to this post. It is a pretty good indicator of how I would think during a real game when I felt the position demanded prolonged thought.

Note I'm not saying my thoughts are the right thoughts. I don't frankly know. This is exactly the kind of position I need to improve at, so I would appreciate any feedback on the position, what planning-relevant features pop out at you, and any criticisms of my posted thoughts.

White to move

Practical Chess Analysis: Is square-color memorization practical?

I have frequently mentioned Buckley's book Practical Chess Analysis. Now there is a helpful overview of the book at this web site so you can get a good sense of its content.

Buckley is in the camp that thinks you should memorize square colors. For reasons spelled out at the post where I lauded Buckley's discussion of "auras", I think memorizing colors is a waste of time. This is in contrast to a previous post almost two years ago, when I had a system for learning the board and was clearly quite concerned about this, and had a system of breaking up the board into four identical quadrants that should be memorized, blah blah blah.

While GMs claim to not visualize such inessential details (after all, if you remove the colors from the board you could still play chess), that doesn't mean it won't help a patzer like me. Further, even if it is technically true that the colors are inessential, that doesn't mean they won't help me visualize the board. After all, that's why they were added to the board in the first place after a few hundred years of inexistence (yep, the first chess boards didn't have black and white squares).

Let's temporarily assume that it is useful to learn the square colors. Should you memorize the color using descriptive or algebraic notation? When I am playing the black pieces, I see the board in a whole different way than when I have the white pieces. Simply memorizing square color in algebraic rips that contextual information out of the description of the square. Perhaps we should be memorizing square color from both perspectives (e.g., the K4 square for white is white, while the K4 square for black is black). For those that think memorizing square color is useful even though color is inessential, what would you say about this?

Stepping back, the key question is whether memorizing square colors is helpful. When playing a real game, the board is right there in front of me, so why should I spend time memorizing it? It seems the most helpful skill is being able to see the pieces (and groups of pieces) and their relationships to one another, both on the board in front of me as well as imagined future positions when analyzing candidate moves. Further, to get better at this, why not just do Rowsonalysis! Rowson made a very good case that the best way to improve at chess, in practice, is to take a semi-complicated position and think about it deeply.

Hence, my hunch is that memorizing square colors is useless, and good vision comes with chess improvement, not vice versa. However I may try it and see. Chances are it won't hurt my chess, other than sucking valuable intellectual energy away from more fruitful chess pursuits (so, indeed, it could hurt my chess, so fuck it maybe I won't try it).

I have previously discussed the issue of whether square visualization is something you should work on here (we need more psychological studies of this type of question, as these anecdote-sharing sessions from different GMs is a bullshit way to get at the truth, especially when there is no consensus. Please rich man reading this blog, give me money to study this stuff empirically!!!).

At any rate, I'd like to hear people's thoughts, especially people that disagree with me for concrete reasons (not because they "heard it helped" or because it "helped them"): specifically why and how has it helped?

Monday, March 02, 2009

Adaptive tactics server

In comments on my previous post, bulldog points out the Adaptive Tactics Server. It looks extremely interesting. It is a tactics server that gathers statistics as you solve problems: it "remembers" which types of problems you tend to have problems solving. Then it increases the frequency of those problem areas.

Simple, smart, and probably useful. Does anyone have experience with it yet? Kudos to its designer, and I hope someone will give some comments on it. It seems to be connected with this blog.

Caveat emptor: I haven't tried the site, so you might want to read the comments on this post.