Monday, December 24, 2007

I'm baaack

So far the break from chess has been wonderful. I'm not sure how long it will last.

To the extent I'm involved with chess in the near future, it won't involve much blogging. The time I have spent on this blog, thinking about it, writing in it, commenting on people's blogs, responding to comments, has been invaluable, but voluminous. If I spent the amount of time on chess that I spent blogging I'd probably be fine.

Frankly I think in the near future I'll miss chess blogging more than chess. The people here are just great, and have been instrumental in helping me reach my chess goals. Sniff sniff. I think I'll miss you most of all Scarecrow. Ultimately though I want chess in my life as a hobby rather than an obsession. Perhaps blogging once or twice a month once I pick up the pieces again, once the ol' Caissa batteries are recharged.

In the meantime, I have a neuroscience blog that I update periodically, I also contribute at Philosophy of Brains, and am always caught hanging around at Dangerous Idea 2 and some over at Brain Hammer.

I'm currently reviewing linear algebra with the hope of writing up an extensive introduction to the subject, potentially even a book, for neuroscientists. In other words (explaining the title of the post) Eric is back, Blue Devil Knight is taking a back seat for a while.

Over/under on my next post here? 30 days. Place your bets.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Chess is a high-maintenance relationship

Once you finish the Circles, will you forever be a tactical wizard? No. You will need to work fairly hard to maintain the skill set gained. But even then, to improve past superficial chess, you will then need to work on strategy, endgames, and eventually openings. All these things also require active maintenance. It doesn't get easier as you get better, it gets harder, as you have all the more skills to maintain.

I am at a crossroad, having to decide if I want this marriage, or whether it is time for a divorce. Hence, a separation is in order. I'll be phasing back my chess for a spell, to examine my priorities in life: work, chess, exercise, family, and the like. My hunch is I'll play infrequently and for fun. I've already bowed out of both of my ICC teams, as those tournaments take up way too much time.

So, having finished the circles and worked tactics into my thought process (the real final step of the Circles), it is time for me to take a break and re-equilibrate and recharge. I'm not going to say I'm going to stop posting during this time, but I'm sure I'll scale way back. Two plus years of intense daily chess. I've earned a break!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Review: Chess Visualization Course Book 1

Book 1 of the Chess Visualization Course is a unique work consisting of 800 visualization exercises. The problems start out simple, consisting of basic counting problems (when a bunch of material from both sides is pointed at one square). The problems escalate in complexity as the book progresses, eventually ending up with tactics that involve visualizing moves across most of the board. Also, within each chapter, the number of moves you have to visualize increases.

The problems are set up in an interesting way. Your job isn't to find a solution to a problem: the actual moves are already given. Your task is to visualize the board after those moves are made, and to evaluate the position at that point. The solutions are in the back of the book and consist of an image of the board after the moves are made (is it how you visualized it?), and a brief evaluation of the position. There are lots of examples at the web site above. The book provides an ingenious implementation of Soltis' suggestion on how to improve at visualization in chess (as I discussed here). Namely, look at a position in a book and follow along the moves without using a board, and then compare your image of the board to the actual board after those moves.

The number of moves in each problem varies from 4 ply up to 39 (!) ply. On average they are around 8 ply. I found the exercises fairly easy, and I think this book is appropriate for most levels of players. This is the first, most basic book in this Chess Visualization series put out by Gelvert Publishing. The next three will focus on attacking, endings, and then 'deep visualization' problems, respectively.

Each chapter has a very useful introduction (again, you can find examples at their web site) that describes the essence of the problems in the chapter. For instance, the first chapter is on basic counting problems when there is the same number of attackers and defenders of material on a square. The introduction gives some useful general rules for such sequences of exchanges, and these rules are reinforced quite well by working through the problems.

There is a strange lack of counting problems to be found in the voluminous chess literature, and this book provides a most welcome exception: the first five chapters in some way or another involve visualizing sequences of exchanges at single squares! (See the table of contents of the book here). For those just getting into chess, this book would be a great way to familiarize yourself with the general rules for exchanges.

The most important question is, "Does it work?" I found the book very helpful. In real games, after working through the chapters on counting, I was able to much more quickly calculate whether a series of exchanges would be to my benefit. So, I recommend this book, with a couple of caveats given below, to those who wish to improve their visualization skills. As for difficulty level, things get pretty complex, so this book should be good for all skill levels, even if you find the early chapters too basic.

Reviews need criticisms of their subject, and this review is no exception.

First, the book is not very well put together. It is held together with a plastic spiral thing like you sometimes get for course readers in college. These things don't have the most longevity, and it is sort of a pain to turn pages. It was originally slated to be published by Everyman Chess, but for unknown reasons Everyman backed out of the original plan, so that probably explains the less-than-professional binding. That said, there were few typos and the diagrams are crisp and easy on the eyes, so the content seems well edited.

Second, the solutions are in the back of the book. For a book built like this, don't make us turn to the back to see an answer. Put them on the adjacent page, the bottom of the page, or the next page. It's just easier. This isn't that big a deal, but a minor annoyance.

Third, I would have preferred to see some real problems in the book. Being given 9 moves to visualize, and comparing them to the picture in the back is pretty helpful. But it can get pretty tedious after awhile. To spice things up, they should have included problems that, after a sequence of moves, concluded with, "Now what would be the best move?" where the best move is a simple tactic or something that you would easily see if the position were in front of you. That's more like the visualization you need in real games, and frankly it's just harder to stay motivated when the problem is "Visualize these moves" and there really isn't much feedback other than the picture of the board after those moves. There are evaluations along with the solutions, but they are quite superficial, in the form of a material count in the end position. Yes, keeping track of the material during a sequence of forcing moves is a crucial, perhaps the most important skill in chess, but more detailed evaluations would have made this book much better.

These criticisms weren't deal-killers for me. I am happy to have this tool for visualization improvement on my bookshelf. Overall, if you want to work on visualization, and the method used in the book sounds like your cup of tea, then get the book. The problems seem well-chosen to help us patzers improve at the elusive and important skill of accurately looking into the future on the chessboard. I look forward to future installments in this series. Let's hope the author, Ian Anderson, keeps at it.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Break from blitz, and some narcissistic rambling

I've been getting sloppy in my slow games, not thinking through obvious sharp continuations (that is, not looking at the checks, captures, and threats my opponent can make if I make the candidate move). To give my thought process a bit more time to sink I'm, I'm instituting a moratorium on blitz play for a spell. When I have the urge to play blitz, I study my opening book instead.

I was definitely peaking in my play right after the Circles, playing very strong tactically. Now I'm starting to see a little rust. I think working the Circles has a strong positive affect not just on my tactical vision, but it forced me to work on visualizing sharp lines every day.

My new puzzle routing is, first ten or so problems from the PCT strategy modules, 30 problems from the tactical modules, and then ten or so problems from CTB as review. Overall I'm less focused on chess right now that I was during the Circles, focusing more on work, and other intellectual pursuits relevant to science.

I'm thinking of really cutting back on chess, to resuscitate my old habits for more useful intellectual outlets such as doing a little math every morning. I have reached my chess goals, especially the broader goal of gaining an appreciation for the game as well as not sucking. In the context of club players, I still pretty much suck at chess, but in the context of the real world, I don't lose games. That was my real goal after all, to become a recreational chess player, not to become obsessed with this ridiculous game. I need to focus on my career more than I have been. Not time to give up chess, but to, perhaps, tone down the obsessive focus on improving at chess.

I'm not sure what will come of this. It is easy to say I should do less chess, hard to actually do less chess as I feel my chess muscles atrophy and then feel like I've wasted all that time getting to this point if I let them shrink, I'm an asshole for wasting all that time on the Circles, so I need to do something to keep my skills up a bit. OTOH, people take breaks, come back rusty, and then get back to their old form pretty quickly from what I hear. It's not like I'd be starting out back at square one after a break.

Part of the cause of my weirdness is the following. I have realized there is a significant difference between 1400 and 1500 at ICC. Up to 1400, games are pretty much all decided by simple blunders. Not en prise blunders (up to 1200 or so that was the norm), but things like skewers, forks, and the like. But the players around 1500 don't make those mistakes as often, and they quickly punish such mistakes on my part. The tactical mistakes are more complicated, things I am not as good as seeing, little combinations. To make that leap, the tactical skills must remain honed, but I also find myself having to think about the endgame very early in the game, thinking about things like weak square complexes and other positional factors.

On one hand, I would get bored if everyone sucked and just gave me a queen. But I also sort of miss the days of playing opponents that would do such things regularly. It is a new level of chess, a level such that I will need to significantly broaden my horizons to get to the next level.

Over a year ago, I reposted a wonderful quote from Stean's book Simple Chess. I always hoped to be one of those people whose games weren't decided by simple blunders, so I could delve into the mysterious realms of strategy and endgames. Now that I come to that crossroad I am a bit overwhelmed. I don't know if I want to make the commitment, or just remain a decent-enough patzer that doesn't give away his queen every game.

Also, note I realize in the big picture I still suck at tactics. I just am talking about simple one and two move tactics, which I now see fairly regularly (though I still miss them enough to need to work to stay sharp!).

I guess this is the second installment in my rambling autobiographical post-circles posts. The first was here. Perhaps I should look over that post where I realized I might need a break a little bit. Maybe it isn't unreasonable for me to blanch at the thought of undertaking intense endgame / strategy study right now. I should give myself permission to keep my tactics sharp, play some, and just enjoy myself until I actually want to work hard again. Maybe I should even take a break from tournament play at ICC.

Don't worry, Silman Endgame pgn club, I still plan on doing that. :) Email to you next week.

In case it wasn't clear, damn, chess is a hard fucking game!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A simple recipe for chess mastery

To avoid mistakes is the beginning, as it is the end, of mastery in chess. If you make no mistakes you can be certain of never losing a game, and very constantly you will win it.
                Znosko-Borovsky (How not to play chess)
Now isn't that easy? And all this time I've been trying to make mistakes. I thought I was doing really well, as I was making them every game.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Eat the worm

Wormwood has some thought provoking and practical comments on depth of search in real games. Great stuff it is (pardon my Bigfoot grammar). My new mantra is becoming, "Breadth not depth." I don't know why Wormwood wasn't in my rotation. That's been fixed.

Also, a big THANK YOU for reading my blog. Yesterday we passed hit number 100,000 since I started keeping stats about two and a half years ago. I am humbled and filled with gratitude that you visit my idiosyncratic blog.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Error propagation in combinatorial thinking

A while ago, after doing a statistical postmortem with around 60 of my games, I wrote:
Most realistic combinations are two or three moves long, typically one move. This is an extremely useful fact, and should be impressed into the minds of all beginners. When I first started playing chess, I looked at the board as a structure with infinite tactical possibilities that were well out of my reach, I would sit and search for complicated N-move combinations, wrongly believing that they must be there, but that I was just too stupid to see them. My post-mortem showed me how naive my thinking was, and this is liberating.

The law of short combinations also makes sense from an analytical point of view (and could probably be proven mathematically): the longer the imagined combination, the more likely it is that the opponent will have defensive resources, will have in-between moves that are hard to see, the more likely it is that you are simply missing an obvious weakness in your attack or somehow miscalculating the combination.
The truth of the "law of short combinations" has been impressing itself on my mind more and more, its relevance to practical play showing itself in spades. Still most of my games are lost because I become derailed thinking through lengthy and speculative sequences of moves rather than looking thoroughly for simple tactics (taking a piece, forks, etc). That is, I make the mistake of thinking deeply but not broadly in the middlegame (exceptions to the law of short combinations where it really pays to think deeply are for sequences of forcing moves and in the endgame (though in the endgame I am learning much of the thinking should involve coming up with a good general plan, and then thinking of move sequences)).

I mentioned the possibility of a mathematical proof of this law. I think that was a bit over the top, but making some simple assumptions it gives a good picture of what I was thinking. Let's define P(e1) as the probability that you made an error in the first move, and P(c1) is the probability of being correct (that, say, his piece is truly safe for free capturing, or you do actually have a mate in one). For me P(c1) is probably around 0.95 (and hence P(e1) is 0.05). So, one out of 20 times I'll make a mistake with something this simple.

Plugging it in my formulas (see below) you can construct a list of probabilities of making mistakes on N move combinations. I calculated it out up to four-move combinations, where the P(c) sequence from P(c1) to P(c4) is (.95, .76, .51, .245). The probability you are making an error increases by about 0.25 with each move in the combination.

So, for longer combinations, think very carefully, especially if it is crucial that it actually work. For instance, the other night I tried a rook sacrifice hoping for a mate (it would have been a three-move combination) that had an obvious refutation whose consequences were deadly. For nonsacrificial combinations it doesn't necessarily matter if it doesn't work if setting it up actually helps your position.

Some of the details
You can construct a chain where the first node is the first move in the combination (a kind of Markov chain). The second node is the second move, and the probabilities there depend on the pattern at the first node. E.g., P(c2)=P(c2|e1)P(e1)+P(c2|c1)P(c1) (this follows from probability theory: you are basically calculating the marginal distribution).

P(c2|e1) is zero (errors propagate). P(c2|c1), for me, is around 0.8. THat is, about 2 out of 10 times I make some mistake thinking about the second move of a two move combination, e.g., there are defensive resources I didn't consider). So plug in the numbers: P(c2)=0+0.8*0.95=0.76. So about 75% of the time I will be OK with a two-move tactic, and 25% of the time I overlook something.

You can iterate this algorithm for an arbitrary number of moves, substituting your own conditional probabilities. Just multiply each successive probability (it will ground it out at P(c1)). So, for an N-move sequence, P(CN)=P(c1)*P(c2|c1)*P(c3|c2) ... * P(CN|PCN-1).

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Silman pgn team project: any volunteers?

EDIT (2014): This never happened, sorry, I don't have the pgn file. We never completed it.

I'm entering all the unique positions from Silman's Endgame book into a pgn file (Amazon page here). It will take me a long time doing it alone. Anyone else interested in contributing chapters so we can get the thing done quickly, please email me and I'll organize who can do which chapters. I've done the first chapter (includes positions from the chapter and the puzzles at the end) to provide an example of formatting we might use.

Email me if interested at: bluedevil dot
knight -at- yahoo -dot- com.

I blew a won game yesterday because of endgame idiocy. I may post it soon. We each had six pawns or so, and I had a bishop and knight to his knight. I proceeded to put all my pawns on the same color squares as my bishop, allow two of his pawns to pass after exchanging knights.

Every month or so I lose a game because my endgame skills are weak, I forget to think of plans, move too quickly. Each time I do it I get motivated to study the things more...

Thursday, December 06, 2007

New volumes on attacking chess

A couple of months ago I asked for good books on attack in chess. At the time I asked, "Why are all these books on attack so old?" I wondered why no definitive new volume has come out recently. Opening books are a penny a dozen, there are great new endgame books, what's up with the old attack books? What we need is a Silman's Endgame Course type book but for attacks!

In response to my query, Quality Chess is releasing a new two-volume set on attacking in chess, due out in January:

Very cool covers. Very important topic. Unfortunately I have never been impressed with Aagaard's books in the past, usually overrated annotated game dumps without a lot of explanatory prose to help the patzer. I.e., very much the antithesis of Silman's Endgame Course. I hope to be pleasantly surprised, though.

Please, if you get a copy write up a review!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

CT-Art versus PCT

Tacticus Maximus has a post explaining why he prefers Personal Chess Trainer to CT-Art. I have been planning a post arguing the opposite, but it can now basically be seen in his comments. Note in that comment I mention the 5x5 board in CT-Art. For those who don't know, when you get the answer wrong twice, a 5x5 board pops up with a tactical problem containing the same theme as the original problem. Once you solve the problem in miniature, you are sent back to the original. Ultra cool.

Jiggly Eyes

An interesting study of memory showed that quickly moving your eyes left and right improves your ability to accurately recall items stored in memory. So, next time you don't know what move to make in a game (e.g., in your opening book, or to call up buried intuitive knowledge) try doing the moonwalk with your eyes. Those doing the Circles, shake those eyes in the later iterations!