Sunday, November 23, 2008

This was probably inevitable, and a cry for help

There's good news and there's bad news in my opening repertoire.

The good news
Because I hated the queen's gambit declined (QGD), I tried an unsound gambit (a variation of the Englund) for a while. I really liked it, as it lead to kooky open games. But it also is a bit tense. Since I've been playing the Caro Kann as black against e4, I realized I might as well play the Slav as black against d4. They have similar pawn structures, both are quite solid (neither will ever be "broken" by white), and neither requires a ton of memorization (in particular I have found this true in the Slav, where playing natural moves leaves me with good games).

These similar pawn structures show me something about myself: I hate having the "problem" of where to develop my light-squared bishop. As in the French, so in the QGD, you typically lock in that poor guy early on and then fight to find a place for him. That turned me off to the damned French. The Caro is the solution to that problem. The same logic applies in the Slav as compared with the QGD.

The bad news
As white, I'm almost happy with my repertoire. I like the Smith-Morra (a lot) against the Sicilian. Against the French as white, I'm thinking of taking up the Tarrasch variation instead of the Alapin gambit. Again, trending toward more solid openings, with an emphasis on good pawn structure from the start.

My main remaining problem, then, is that my Danish gambit (1 e4 e5 2 d4!?) doesn't score all that well. On the positive side, the Danish is nice because it basically forces black to play my game, but I'm realizing that it weakens my pawn structure too much, leaving me in a scramble to find an attack before I reach a losing endgame.

The problem is, I hate all the damned variations that come with the standard white openings like the Ruy. I've considered the Scotch, but then I'd still have to deal with the Petroff, the Philidor, and that whole early deviation bullshit. Is there any escape?

I want something offbeat, but solid in response to e5. The less memorization required the better, i.e., I want to be able to play natural moves and end up in a decent position, and don't want to navigate a 20 ply tightrope on every variation just to get to += (that is, no King's Gambit). That's not to say I don't want a gambit: I am quite happy with the Smith-Morra. I just tend to like openings that are sort of "systems" where there is a general strategy you follow most games unless the opponent deviates in unusual lines.

I would really like something something for which there is a really good book out there, one that explains strategy from move one, and which covers the early deviations very thoroughly (so even if you have a book on the Open Variation of the Ruy from white's perspective that you really love, I don't want to hear about it).

What about the King's Indian Attack? Are there any good books on that which start 1 e4 e5? [Answer: no].

And yes, I know the openings don't really matter at my level, but this is fun!

Update: based on some comments from masterwannabe, I just had a look at my old Bishop's opening repertoire. It was actually quite strong, and is a fairly systemic opening (there is a set structure you aim for, only deviating when black acts strangely). Why did I stop playing it? I think I stopped playing it when I picked up the Smith-Morra gambit against the Sicilian, under the idea that I wanted similar pawn structures, began playing the Danish (which almost always transposes into the Goring Gambit in the version I played).

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

How "knowing" can hurt doing

The Boylston Chess Club blog cited a recent interesting set of studies, the most recent entitled Why Good Thoughts Block Better Ones.

Sometimes expertise in a field can actually interfere with performance when new situations arise, situations in which your prodigious knowledge actually interferes with recognizing the situation as new and requiring a different or better solution. Imagine if someone switched the 'a' and the 'd' on your keyboard: if you were a really good typist (e.g., you type by hand, not by looking at the keys) this would screw you up for a really long time.

Investigators have studied this biasing influence of knowledge in chess players. What they did was provide a relatively easy smothered mate problem, and then another problem with two solutions. One solution, which takes more moves, is a smothered mate; the other faster solution is not. Those masters asked to find the optimal solution to the second problem performed worse when they first saw the smothered mate problem.

In the study cited above, they extended this research, monitoring eye movements (saccades) in the two groups of players. Interestingly, the masters that initially saw the smothered mate problem stared much longer at the squares and pieces that were relevant for that problem, and had trouble getting their eyes to the right places for the new problem. By measuring the time to find the solution, and comparing players with different ratings, they estimated that the bias effectively reduced the masters' ELO by 300 points.

These studies have many interesting implications. I'll focus on one.

The research highlights a danger in memorizing sets of tactical puzzles (which in general I think is perfectly fine, as I argued here). Namely, the problems act as a kind of cognitive gravity sink. You see something that looks similar to a memorized problem, but overlook the fact that there is a small but killer difference between the memorized position and the one in front of you (this is something I noticed while doing the Circles, and wrote about here with an example).

So, for those of us that like to solve tactical puzzles, what should we do? Most obviously, it seems better to pick problem sets with many little variations on a similar theme. For instance, including many back rank mates some of which take quite a bit of setup, as the opponent has defensive resources. This will stop you from making knee-jerk moves and force you to look at the position to see if the move you "recognize" is actually safe. Of course you should do this all the time, but as the studies show, when it is a motif we have seen time and time again, it can warp our minds to the point where it is hard to see the truth in the position.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Opening knowledge pitfalls

Heisman advises that the first time in a game your opponent makes a move that is not in your opening book, you should take a fresh critical look at the position. It's one of those times you need to drink from the well of The Think.

Oddly, when I feel I am "booked up" on an opening, and my opponent plays out of book early on, I often panic. I don't calmly evaluate the position, but often freak out, thinking "Crap they have me out of book."

There are a few reasons this is a mistake.

My main opening lines are fairly sound. When my opponent plays out of book it is often because they don't know the opening, or at least aren't playing the best line, and have just weakened their position. Instead of assuming they have some pet line prepared to devastate me, I should see if they have just missed a basic tactic, examine which squares and pieces they may have made vulnerable, etc.. In other words, start playing chess.

Worse, I sometimes don't even notice they pushed me out of book, and I just continue with my usual plans without looking at how their deviation from my preparation influences the position.

For instance, I was playing the Caro-Kann as black when white moved his Bishop to d3 (a common theme). However (perhaps because of his own narrative demons) he did it too early (black to move):Instead of grabbing the juicy pawn with Qxd4 I played some "normal" developing move (Nf6) in the Caro Kann without even slowing down to look for basic tactics. I could have had a pawn for free, and a beautiful position, but because I was locked into a Caro Kann way of thinking (which is usually a fairly quiet game), I failed to look for, and take advantage of, an early gift.

Good players exploit weaknesses in the opening. As Rowson would say, they don't let their little opening narratives get in the way of seeing what is actually happening over the board. Let the position, not all your book knowledge, tell you what your plans should be.

Keeping this in mind in a subsequent game, I actually got it right. I played the Smith-Morra gambit as white, and black played an early d5, which is usually a mistake in the SM because it leaves f7 vulnerable. The position was as follows (white to move):This position is not in my opening knowledge, but especially in the Smith Morra there is a kind of grand system where you castle kingside, move your Queen to e2, and rooks to the open files on c1 and d1. My initial candidate moves were all part of this general schema.

Luckily I remembered the lesson from the Caro-Kann, and I let myself drink The Think, and came up with Qd5! (mate threat at f7). I went on to get a nice miniature (the game concluded 7...Qc7 8. Qxf7+ Kd8 9. Qxg7 Bf6 10. Qf8#). My move violated the principle 'Don't move the queen too early', but when mate is in the air, nothing else matters!

Note this is an example where my knowledge of the opening actually helped: the principle, 'If black plays an early e5 in the SM, then attack at f7' actually helped me find the right move.

Chess is complicated.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Chess psychology bookshelf

I stumbled upon a Chess psychology bookshelf from Rick Kennedy over at chessville. It is a useful and fairly exhaustive annotated bibliography of books that examine the psychology of chess and chess improvement.

And I can't resist giving a big Huzzahhh for our inspiring and brilliant new President-elect Barack Obama. Also, a hearty handshake goes to McCain, whose gracious concession speech showed us his true self for the first time in months. If we had seen more of the Real McCain during the campaign, he likely would have won.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Lines of force (or for the hippies, auras)

When I had a chess coach, he frequently instructed me to imagine 'lines of force' emanating from my long-range pieces. Imagine the lines going through all squares, even those presently obstructed by material (I mentioned it here). This seems to be quite common amongst masters, and I have found it helpful. It helps me recognize pins, discovered attacks, and gives me ideas for which lines I want to open up with sacrifices or pawn moves when it is time to attack.

Imagining lines of force is not unique to my coach. Buckley, in his inconsistent Practical Chess Analysis, advises readers to imagine that pieces have "auras." He says:
[T]o see ahead, you first need to know the squares to which a piece may move...These potential moves enliven the piece, giving it an "aura." The aura refers to the array of squares available to the piece...

The aura is unaffected by obstructions. Think of the piece as if it were on an open board. Try to fuse the piece to its aura. The idea is simply that potential moves determine the value of any piece, and the aura comprises just those moves.
Buckley says this aura-visualization habit is a great way to improve your analysis skills, making it less likely that you will miss potential moves as you visualize the game tree in your mind. As you visualize the game tree, be sure you are 'adjusting the auras of the pieces that move. Let each new position soak into your imagination.' This makes it less likely that you will miss certain moves that people often overlook (e.g., horizontal rook moves).

Finally, we have a gorgeous demonstration of this phenomenon well before it was articulated by chess enthusiasts. In 1894, Alfred Binet (who invented the IQ test) published a book Mnemonic Virtuosity: A Study of Chess Players. One aspect of the study involved having masters literally draw what their mental image of a remembered position "looked like" in their heads. The following is one such diagram (position on left, diagram by master on right):
Gorgeous, eh? The little jester on c1 is the Bishop.

What we see are lines that pass through pieces and project to important parts of the board. These aren't exactly the lines of force or auras, as the lines don't project everywhere possible, but only along key squares. The position is stripped of almost all detail. No black and white squares (indeed, the black and white squares are not essential to chess, and initially chess boards had all squares with the same color), not even particular pieces labeled.

The abstract nature of the mental image seems to reinforce the idea that blindfold chess is not a great technique for regular chess improvement (I discussed this a bit here). It also seems that those study methods which have you memorize square colors are not very helpful. Such details are not particularly relevant for the position, and when visualizing moves you don't want to add a bunch of clutter. You want to visualize only the essential details. I have heard people say when they visualize moves, they try to visualize the 'woody grain' of the pieces, how the Knight looks, that sort of thing. This seems worse than unhelpful, since it adds additional load to an imagination that already has plenty of relevant details to think about.

These themes will come up again in my summary of Chapter 6 of Rowson's book Chess for Zebras.

Note I learned about the above Binet study in Shenk's book The Immortal Game (overall the book is just OK, but does include some interesting historical tidbits I hadn't seen before). The above image is taken from page 125 of his book.