Sunday, September 25, 2005

I truly am a knight errant

I started reading Don Quixote last week. It is fun so far, and feels quite fitting given that I am a knight errant. The translation by Grossman, linked above, is a smooth read and has useful historical footnotes so the 16th century references aren't all obscure. I never realized that Don Quixote was meant to be utterly nuts, driven mad by the chivalric tales popular in Spain at the time. I always thought he was just stupid. Now I see we are truly knights errant: not dumb, but crazy, driven mad by tales of chess improvement, especially the tales of one Michael de la Maza....

On a related topic, I have been chugging away at Tasc Chess Tutor (TCT). I have made some headway into the third Step, but am still repeating the final theme from Step 2. As you can see, there are various themes in Step 2: double attack, discovered attack, pins. This final, 12th theme in Step 2 is the well-known tactical motif of Tests. The right panel shows my performance on mini-circle two:

Sometimes these minicircles start to feel like a fight between Good and Evil, where TCT is Evil and I am a noble Knight. However, I usually end up feeling like Quixote after battling windmills:

[Don Quixote] spurred his horse, Rocinante, paying no attention to the shouts of his squire, Sancho, who warned him that, beyond any doubt, those things he was about to attack were windmills and not giants. But he was so convinced they were giants that he did not hear the shouts of Sancho, and could not see, though he was very close, what they really were; instead, he charged and called out: "Flee not, cowards and base creatures, for it is a single knight who attacks you."

Just then a gust of wind began to blow, and the great sails began to move, and seeing this, Don Quixote said: "Even if you move more arms than the giant Briareus, you will answer to me."

And saying this, and commending himself with all his heart to his lady Caissa, asking that she come to his aid at this criticial moment, and well protected by his shield, with his lance in its socket, he charged at full gallop and attacked the first mill he came to; and as he thrust his lance into the sail, the wind moved it with so much force that it broke the lance into pieces and picked up the horse and the knight, who then dropped to the ground and were very badly battered. (pp 58-9)

That's pretty much been my experience with chess so far.

Note: it seemed fitting to substitute 'Caissa' for 'Dulcinea', Don Quixote's actual damsel: my apologies to Cervantes. The above quote is from the version of Don Quixote cited above.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Pattern Recognition + Position Evaluation = Pattern Evaluation

Thank goodness when I started trying to improve at chess about 6 months ago I stumbled upon the idea that because of the complexity of the game, one of the best ways for a beginner to improve is to build up pattern recognition skills.

I have indeed learned to see many patterns (e.g., Scholar's Mate), but it is much more than that. I have learned to see patterns with values: my king alone on the back rank with the three pawns hemming him in is not just a pattern, but a bad pattern: even its anticipated presence in the end-game warps my evaluation of the board until I have properly guarded against a back-rank mate. It is not a cold cognitive judgment, but is typically accompanied by a surge of emotion, often a sharp slap of excitement or fear. That is to say, this is not a stale and detached pattern recognition, but pattern recognition melded with pattern evaluation. Yes, the ability to recognize is necessary for this, but the experience is also laden with a history of previous consequences of the pattern. If I were a psychologist, I would probably say that the valence (i.e., positive or negative) and magnitude of the emotional response to a pattern provides a running record of the net reward associated with that pattern in the past.

I can't imagine what it is like for the players who don't suck like I do. Your pattern evaluation skills have reached heights of subtlety that are years away from my mind. I'd imagine it prevents you from wasting valuable clock-time considering moves that I would wrack my mind over. Also, your experience makes you consider high-quality lines that I can't even think of at this early stage. This must make chess a more satisfying and rich experience altogether, much like my experience now is richer than it was six months ago when I first learned what a 'knight fork' was.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Sacrifices feel so...wrong

I am at a section of the Tasc Chess Tutor (TCT) program titled 'Mate in 2 (access)'. In other words, get access to the castled enemy king by sacrificing a beloved piece and then mating. I am unbelievably bad at this: I really need to overcome my aversion to killing my queen when it is for the good of the monarchy (err...for the bad of the enemy monarchy?). One problem is that I (rightly) do not trust my ability to calculate when a sacrifice is well-advised: so often in real games I think I have a brilliant sacrifice, when in fact it turns out to be a pointless, easily defended sacrifice that loses material. Because of this, I tend to avoid sacrifices except in very simple board positions when I can be sure I am not making a other words, never.

At any rate, TCT is excellent: just when I was getting a little bored repeating previously taught lessons, it has thrown things into high gear and introduced a bunch of new stuff. (For those working on TCT, I have finally started Step 3).

On a completely different topic: I didn't see any chess boards at the refugee camps in Texas or New Orleans. Perhaps chess could take people's minds off their problems for a little while. The kids, especially, would probably stay distracted for hours with a couple of dozen chess sets.