Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Calculation in attack versus defense

Principle number 39 from Soltis' wonderful The wisest things ever said about chess:
Exact calculation is needed more in defensive positions than in attack.
I wish I had considered this before taking up the Caro Kann!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Chess for Zebras, Chapter 5 (Building your chess muscles)

A summary of Chapter 5 of Rowson's book Chess for Zebras, which is titled 'Concentrate! Concentrate? Concentrate.' In this Chapter, he picks up on a point he made in Chapter 1, essentially expanding it into a general training method.

Recall that in Chapter 1, Rowson argued that the way to improve is not to gain more cognitive understanding or knowledge of the game of chess (e.g., knowledge that you should get your rooks onto open files), but to develop skills at chess. In that chapter, one of his suggestions for building chess skill was to take complex problems and spend about 20 minutes solving them. The present chapter unpacks this suggestion, both justifying it and describing how to do it.

In this chapter, he opens by reprising a theme from Chapter 1, saying, "I believe that the surest way to improve our results is to practice solving complex problems at home, and to do this as often as possible, in a timed and disciplined manner. This helps to make concentrating more habitual and therefore makes it easier for us to focus at critical points in our own games." Rowson feels very strongly about this technique, saying "One exercise completed with full application for 20 minutes is easily worth an hour of playing through games."

Rowson's suggestion is simple. First, find a good position. This can be done many ways, but the key is that it is a position you find somewhat confusing, that you feel you don't understand. It shouldn't be a simple tactics puzzle, for instance. You can find positions online, in master games, or puzzle books, but ideally the positions should come from your own games. Save them on your computer for later use (I save tough positions when annotating my own games, squirreling them away for later Rowsonalysis).

Second, get to work! Set 20 minutes on your timer and hack away. The focus should be on analyzing the position, working out potential solutions to the problems it poses, thinking through any sharp lines to quiescence (and one move more!). You want to read the position rather than write your biases and preconceptions into the position with counterproductive narratives.

Rowson's method has many positive consequences. For one, it makes you less likely to fall into the trap of being a 'lazy detective.' You see a couple of clues, they suggest one suspect, and instead of pursuing the evidence and alternative possibilities, you just go along with the story you wove from limited evidence. Rowson's method doesn't leave much room for this. He says, "It gets you away from all the storytelling stuff and makes you more focused on working things out over the board. It also makes you more attuned to your opponent's possibilities, because in the process of training you realize that to be accurate you must constantly anticipate your opponent's ideas."

When you are really concentrating on a position, you are totally immersed, focused on exploring the game tree, testing out ideas and plans, hacking away at the position. When you are in this focused state, it is what the psychologists would describe as 'Flow.' In the state of Flow you are immersed in the task, not thinking about irrelevant details (I'm hungry), or even about thinking itself. You are thinking about chess, the concrete position in front of you and the possibilities therein. Similarly, when reading you are not thinking about reading, you are just reading.

Rowson also discusses the importance of setting up conditions before a game so you are more likely to experience Flow. If you are hungry, tired, or distracted by general emotional worries, it is much harder.

Rowsonalysis isn't particularly unique. Something similar was suggested by Kotov as I summarized here, and sometimes goes by the name Stoyko Exercises. I did it before my tournament last week for four days, and it clearly helped a lot, especially when I was mentally fresh in my first game. One consensus many people seem to be reaching, though, is that blindfold chess is not a great way to work on chess concentration. You don't play blindfold in tournaments. Practice how you play!

That finishes the summary of Part I of Rowson's book. So far, I am quite impressed. The first five chapters form a helpful coherent story that I can summarize as follows:
To improve at chess you don't need more book knowledge. Such knowledge often interferes with your performance by blinding you to the position in front of you. What you need is skill, and one way to improve your chess skills is to analyze complicated positions with intense focus for approximately 20 minutes.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Tournament report

I played in a tournament yesterday in Raleigh, NC. Blogger luminary loomis was there, so I had my first in-person meeting with a blogger. That was cool. Loomis kicks ass at chess. I was watching him play an endgame and I was sure he was dead. His opponent had all of his major pieces aimed at Loomis' King, which was seemingly protected only by a porous pawn barrier. But talking to him afterwards, he had it all calculated out.

I scored one loss and two draws. Here's a little rundown on my games....

Game 1: Draw, as white, against 1622 player. This was ridiculously fun. I played a gambit against his French and blew open the position with a gnarly attack, but I had about 3 minutes left in the endgame and started playing stupid blitz and he got the draw. To my chagrin, loomis was watching and afterwords kindly explained the fifteen ways from sundown I could have won the game.

Game 2: Draw against 1212 as black. I was up a free bishop by move 10, so I proceeded to mindlessly trade everything, thinking I'm ahead I'll trade everything off and the endgame will be an easy win. Well, I implemented that strategy, except for the win part.

With a lone Bishop it turns out things aren't so simple. He let me trade down, put long and strong pawn chains on the opposite color, and worked the draw. Well played by my opponent. It was my first Caro-Kann in a slow game, which was exciting. It is a great opening.

Game 3: Loss against 1506 as black. 1. e4 c6. He sits there thinking for a few minutes, and plays 2. d3. He develops very slowly, but then unleashes a crazy attack after lots of maneuvering. I asked about his second move afterwords, and he said, "I thought and realized I didn't feel like dealing with the Caro-Kann today, so played d3." OK, that's impressive. For one, he has more than one trick in his bag. Second, it made me happy that e4 players tend to hate the Caro-Kann. I know I do. That's one reason I'm playing it.

I'd post the games, but my opponents obsessively read my blog and do tons of preparation before they play me. Either that, or I'm lazy.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Whatever happened to the chess carnivals?

About a year ago, Jack Le Moine had a great idea, to start chess blog carnivals. It seems to have died after a few issues. Say it ain't so, Jack! One of you young whippersnapper bloggers with some time should revive it. You can start new carnivals here, or just do it on your own. Carnivals are a good way to keep track of the best in the blogosphere.

If anyone wants to do it, just leave a comment here and we'll try to promote it. It's a great way for new bloggers to instantly increase their readership.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Following Rowson's lead

I'm switching to the Caro-Kann as black. I'm doing this to balance my openings a little bit. I play gambits on every other line, but I need to be able to handle quiet positions.

The Caro-Kann has many of the advantages of the French, and some additional advantages. For one that light-squared bishop is free! If white tries the advance variation, you can squirt the Bishop out to g4 or f5 before closing off your light-squares. One disadvantage is that you don't play c5 in one shot in the Caro-Kann, so that slows things down a little bit.

Also, it is known as an opening for people that "like" endgames. If black plays it right, and fends off white's attempt to kill him quickly, he will typically have an advantage in the endgame. Frankly, that turned me off at first. But how will I learn to play the endgame well if I pick openings for which the game is typically decided by move 20?

I like it so far. It sort of feels relaxing to not have to worry about starting my attack before his pawn advantage gives him the win in the endgame. I found a very nice (long) book excerpt from Schiller's book on the Caro-Kann here. People like to trash Schiller's work, but he played this a lot in tournaments and has some wonderful stuff in there on general piece placement, strategy, and common tactics.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Chess for Zebras, Chapters 2-4 (The logic of storytelling)

Here is a summary of Chapters 2-4 of Rowson's Chess for Zebras. There is so much overlap among these chapters that things will be more tidy if I lump it all together.

Recall that in Chapter 1, Rowson argued that chess is more a game of skill than of conceptual understanding. In this chapter, he discusses how our "knowledge" can actually harm our chess skills.

Many people incorrectly believe that chess primarily requires skills in deductive formal logic. While a computer can succeed via purely logical variation-crunching, humans are fairly slow and error-prone using this Kotov-style of reasoning.

For example, since humans can't exhaustively search the game tree, we have to use something other than pure logic to determine which moves to begin analyzing. Rowson says, "[L]ogic by itself cannot tell you which features of the position are most important, and therefore what you should be reasoning about."

So if we aren't logic engines, what are we? Commonly, we act as storytellers that construct narratives about positions and games, and these narrative arcs give individual positions meaning and context. One typical idea might be, "He created pawn-structure weaknesses around his King on move three, so from that move onward the winner looked for ways to exploit that weakness and go in for the kill." This one theme can be highlighted while explaining multiple moves and make us feel that we really understand the core idea of the game.

Unfortunately, people's narratives often harm their performance over the board, and chess is a game of skill, not of understanding. People's preconceptions about chess, and themselves as chess players, engender narratives with detrimental consequences . In an excellent summary, the Brixton Chess Club blog says, "We tell ourselves a story about [the position] and we consider the board in the light of the narrative rather than the objective truth."

So, should we try to clear ourselves of the narrative urge, stop reasoning in terms of stories and plans about the position? No. We are story-telling creatures and this is part of what makes chess so much fun. What is needed are better narratives, not zero narratives.

Narrative Pollutants
Before discussing what a good narrative would look like, let's examine a few examples from Rowson's taxonomy of narrative pollution.

Opening narratives
Standard narratives often accompany a pet opening line. If your opening has a typical set of moves, those moves start to feel "right," to the point where you overlook better moves. If you typically castle queenside in an opening, for instance, you might overlook cases in which that would be a mistake.

Rowson has a funny story about this. After beating a cocky player, in the postmortem Rowson suggested his opponent should have castled. Rowson says, "My opponent looked at me like I was a complete idiot and said: "No black does not castle in this line." [H]e had become rather too attached to the idea of not castling and had rigidly associated that idea with the opening, thus limiting his legitimate options considerably."

Chess identities
Our stories during a game are also strongly shaped by our picture of who we are as chess players. There are several common mythological characters with whom people self-identify. One, the 'sacrificial attacking player' will often overlook strong quiet moves, or take unnecessary risks that severely weaken their position.

There is also the 'noble apprentice', who doesn't deign to get emotionally involved in games of chess. He dispassionately looks at each game as a learning experience, especially when playing against higher-rated players. Rowson says, "Be careful with the idea of learning from your defeats. If we become comfortable with the idea of learning, it can undermine our will to compete." Sure, learn from your losses, but get in there and fight to win! Don't protect yourself from the agony of defeat by sacrificing your competitive spirit.

There is also the 'thwarted genius', who places such a high value on their intellectual understanding of the game that they don't have particularly good skill at actually playing. They are often good at pointing out errors in people's games after the fact, and will often try to "outplay" their opponent, hoping for an impressive win rather than simply a win. Rowson says, "Don't try to 'outplay' your opponents; just try to beat them!"

Overall, identifying too strongly with such mythological characters screens us off from seeing objective features of the position that are important. Rowson says, "The primary effect, I think, is that when the myth imposes itself on us, we try to impose ourselves on the position."

Good Narratives
The common denominator with counterproductive narratives is that they are constructed without enough sensitivity to the complexities of a position. It is all too easy to take in one or two facts about the position and integrate them into an overarching grand narrative. We end up with vague narratives such as "His Kingside is weak, I'll attack!"

In contrast, one of the main properties a good narrative has is that it is specific. Instead of "His Kingside is weak", how about "The f7 square is unprotected." Instead of "I'll attack" why not "Perhaps it is time to attack. I might move my rooks to the semi-open f-file to put more pressure on his King." A helpful narrative often mentions specific squares or pieces.

On a related note, good narratives typically involve short-term plans, not grand long-term plans. Rowson says, "[I]t is wise to be extra suspicious of any plan that takes more than three moves to implement. It's not that you can't make long-term plans, but just that your opponent will usually obstruct them in some way, so anything that takes more than two or three moves at a time to complete requires an extra-careful look to see how the opponent will intercept your idea."

In addition, a good narrative should be flexible and open to revision. While playing a game, the outcome of the story is still not set. We should not get attached to any particular story we are telling ourselves (especially be wary of those that carry over from several moves ago). We also need to remember we have an opponent, another author contributing to this story, and he is trying to sabotage your work.

Perhaps most important, the position has a story to tell, so we need to spend time reading the story of the board rather than writing it. Rowson advises, "[Y]ou need to leave space for your opponent's version of events, and also think of the story the position is trying to tell you, before letting your own story dominate your thoughts. If you manage to do this, your assessments should become a little more tentative, and this usually helps you to make better decisions."

One of the main ways to find holes in the plot, i.e., defects in the story we are telling, is to work through concrete variations that will result when you play it out. As for how to analyze such variations, Rowson discusses the study I talked about in depth previously on my blog. The main result is that high-level players look for worst-case scenarios when they considering a move. They pick at the move like a nagging stepmother, trying to come up with their opponent's best response. This tends to yield a fairly objective evaluation of the move. More novice players, on the other hand, tend to consider responses that are weak, that confirm their prejudice that a particular move is a good move.

The better a player is, the less confident he tends to be in his initial evaluation of a position, saying things like, "White looks better here, but we'd have to analyze it." This humility in the face of chess complexity tends to make them more thoughtful in their analysis of a position. Rowson says, "It is much wiser to approach chess with an "I don't know; let's see" mindset, than an "It's like this; I'll prove it" mindset."

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Simple stuff first

Crumpled up in the back of my car I discovered a printout of a comment on tactical thinking during games. I thought it was something I posted here, but actually Google revealed it was just a comment I left at Steve Eddins' blog:
Recently I’ve vastly simplified my thinking during games, making it a priority to look at checks, captures, and threats first. And by threats, I mean simple one-move tactics such as fork, skewer, etc.. I try not to let myself think about more complicated stuff until I’m sure my candidate moves can survive this basic tactical evaluation. It has simplified my thinking in games (no more 10 minutes spent thinking about pawn structure: I allow only quick thinks when it comes to quiet positions), made the games more fun, and resulted in fewer embarassing losses (though I’ll always have embarassing losses I’m sure).

My reasoning when I started this was, “Hey beginners start by learning simple mates and one-move tactics in their books and puzzle software, maybe I should reorient my thinking in real games to look for simple stuff first, and once it becomes second-nature to do that, I will be more disposed to build vision for the higher-level stuff.”
Since I started playing slow games again, I realize I need to start doing this again. Look at checks and captures first. Back to the simple basics. I've missed some subtle but devastating checks I could have made in a couple of games.