Category Archives: Michael Koblentz

The Not-So-Quiet Italian

Last time I talked about the venerable Two Knights Defense 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6, focusing  on the move still popular at all levels, the “duffer’s move” 4.Ng5. I also  suggested the alternative  “Quiet Italian,” 4.d3 followed by 5.c3, building a solid center as a base for future operations … as opposed to moving the same piece twice in the first four moves in a greedy attempt to win material. After all, wouldn’t it be inconsistent to teach new players to develop all of their pieces at the outset and then to advise them to play 4.Ng5? I suppose that the same could be said of the Rubinstein variation of the Four Knight’s Game, 4.Bb5 Nd4, which moves the same piece twice but gives Black a fully equal game. Apparent inconsistencies in chess “principles” abound, and it’s hardly satisfactory to tell a young student “but, of course, everything is subject to the precise analysis of concrete variations.” So, I teach that the attempt at Scholar’s mate is a bad thing (and why), the duffer’s move is not the best, the Quiet Italian is better (and also better than the Four Knights – therefore no Rubinstein questions) and so on. Yes, you must teach both sides of the Quiet Italian and, sure, at some point you must tell them the chess equivalent of “there is no Santa Claus” (just before they start reading it in books), but by then they are far enough along that you can explain why.

The system 4.d3 Bc5 (or solid 4…Be7) 5.c3 has been around for centuries, but under the historically recognizable name Giuoco Pianissimo, Italian for quietest game. As far as I can tell, the moniker “Quiet Italian” may have originated from GM Glenn Flear’s 2010 book “Starting Out: Open Games.” At least that’s where I saw it. I think it’s rather catchy and slightly easier to pronounce (for uncultured savages such as myself) than Giuoco Pianissimo. By the way, I try to teach capturing “in passing” rather than  “en passant,” I avoid most scholarly Latin phrases like ab initio, a priori, and, in general, avoid twenty-five cent words when five-cent words will do. However, in a moment of haste I might forget and blurt out to a group of six-year-olds something like “notice the unobstructed f-file.” Ka-ching! 25 cents.

Regarding our variation’s unassuming name, we should understand that “quietest game” is a relative term, and was meant in contrast to the King’s Gambit, Evans Gambit, Max Lange Attack and other truly bloodthirsty openings.  Play in the Quiet Italian starts as purposeful, placement of the pieces, simple maneuvering and thought before castling… but can later become highly tactical, as shown in the example games below. I should add that one of the virtues of the Quiet Italian is that it can be played against 3…Nf6 as well as 3…Bc5 (both 3…Nf6 4.d3 Bc5 5.c3 and 3…Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.d3 reach the same position). As an aside, this same position can also be reached via the Bishop’s Opening 1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Nf6! 3.d3 Bc5 4,Nf3 Nc6 5.c3. Finally, the solid 4…Be7 is more like the Spanish Game and can actually transpose into a Spanish main line (with d3). So, I claim that the Quiet Italian is a stepping stone to the Spanish Game ;-)

Next, Black’s most flexible move is 5…a6, to prepare a retreat for the c5-bishop from attacks like b4/a4/a5,  Nbd2/Nc4 and, eventually, d3-d4. White can then proceed 6.Nbd2 and maneuver this knight to g3/e3 via f1 as in the Spanish, or to c4 if the opportunity arises. Soon the c4-bishop retreats 7.Bb3 and then even Bc2 to avoid being exchanged for a black knight. With the center still closed (there are few prospects of the e-file opening soon) neither side need be in a hurry to castle. In fact, castling too soon can be a costly mistake! This is a blog unto itself, but it is important for the Quiet Italian player to know this right away. In fact, a friend of mine used to say “He who castles first in the Italian loses!!” Although this is not precisely true, many times it turns out to be so..

Finally on the Quiet Italian agenda is prevention of the pinning moves Bg5 and Bg4 with h6 and h3, respectively. These useful moves may seem slow but they are directed against the opponent’s development and, again, the center is not yet open. Pins and pawn storms in front of your castled King can be quite awkward, especially if the opponent has not yet castled and feels no restraint in running you off of the board.. Other comments are in the notes to the games.

Michael Koblentz

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The Inexhaustible Two Knights Defense

The Two Knights Defense 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 has been around for centuries.  Well at least as far back as Steinitz-Chigorin, and I think before that, although I’m not quite old enough to remember. Like the energizer bunny, in modern times the Two Knights “just keeps on ticking.”

Energizer Bunny

Energizer Bunny

White’s most popular try against the Two Knights, especially among grandmasters, has long been 4.Ng5, the “duffer’s move” as Tarrasch called it. If you’re not a grandmaster, I would recommend as White the “Quiet Italian” 4.d3 Bc5 5.c3, which can also be reached by the move order 4.c3 Nf6 5.d3. As I hope to show in a future article, the Quiet Italian is, in fact, not so quiet.

So, why am I saying that for GM’s the duffer’s move is OK but for ordinary mortals it’s probably not? Simple. The Two Knight’s Defense is a gambit. Black sacrifices a pawn for a quite promising initiative. Promising, that is, unless your opponent has a grandmaster’s defensive technique and a grandmaster’s endgame skill to convert the extra pawn. Steinitz played 4.Ng5. Fisher played 4.Ng5. Kasparov, Morozevich, Radjabov, Sutovsky and many other GMs … they all played 4.Ng5.

But if you’re a duffer playing another duffer, you might say, hey, why not give it a shot? After all, Black might not see the threat to f7. Fair warning: a better duffer might roll out 4…Bc5!? and let you take on f7. Which way do you take? Imagine your surprise after 5.Nxf7 Bxf2+! What now? Or your opponent might play the book move 4…d5. You take 5.exd5, hoping to get a grisly Fried Liver Attack 5…Nxd5 6.Nxf7 Kxf7 7.Qf3+ – a sure win for White, right? Wrong! Recent computer analysis has found hidden resources for Black.

Not long ago I played in a correspondence thematic tournament (something I would strongly recommend if you have the time and patience) in the Two Knight’s Defense. All players played two games against all other players – one with White and one with Black, all games starting from the position 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6. I have to admit, in some of my games as White I played the Quiet Italian, but in others I played the duffer’s move! Please understand that this was a research project for my students – I haven’t played 1.e4 in over the board competition in quite awhile.

Below are a couple of games in the Main Line Two Knights with Nigel Davies’ suggestion 10…Bc5, from his book Play 1.e4 e5!, Everyman Press. In the first game (from the thematic tournament) I wish I could say that I followed Nigel’s book and played his suggestions. Alas, it was my opponent who did so!  This game features an instructive (and mercifully short) ending. The second game was a recent quick play teaching game with one of my students, Kunal Singh.

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Pawns for Pieces

As beginners, we learned the “static” values of the pieces: Knight equals three pawns, Bishop equals Knight, Rook equals five pawns and so on. Based on these values, we knew whether we were about to make a good trade or a bad trade just by counting. Later, we learned more sophisticated evaluations: bishops are usually better than knights in open positions (definitely with pawns on both sides of the board); Knights are better than Bishops in congested positions, much like motorcycles maneuvering deftly in congested traffic. We also learned a bit about the art of sacrifice – giving a rook for knight and pawn can be quite OK if you get something additional in the bargain, e.g. the opponent’s weakened pawn structure in the vicinity of the King.

It is quite common to see a piece sacrificed for a couple of pawns. Of course these need to be pawns of some importance, e.g.  pawns shielding the King from attack, or pawns preventing your pawn from promotion, or center pawns whose absence allows your pawns to come rolling through the center, unopposed. In such cases, the defending side would be relieved to give a piece back to stop the invading hordes.

It is more rare to obtain many pawns for a piece. Such cases are not really sacrifices, rather, gains in material. I was surprised, therefore, in a recent tournament to twice have games in which I obtained four or more pawns for a piece! In the first game below I had promising chances, but time shortage against a strong opponent prompted me to chicken out and take the perpetual. While I feel some shame for this, I take pride that in time pressure, for once, I made a “rational” decision. In the second game, with five pawns for a knight, it looked like i would have an easy time of it. But my opponent fought back resolutely, partially blockading my (many) pawns and creating tactical threats with the extra piece. The turning point came at move 37 where we both missed the shot 37…Nf1+!!, which would have forced a draw.

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Jacqueline and Sammy

From time to time the bloggers here have described their meetings with famous people of the chess world. Since I have no games this week, I’ll take this opportunity to do the same.

In the 1960’s there were two super-grandmaster tournaments sponsored by Jacqueline Piatigorsky and her husband, renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. Not surprisingly, these were called the First Piatigorsky Cup (1963) and Second Piatgorsky Cup (1966).  The prize funds were at record levels. Participants included many of the strongest players in the world – Spassky, Petrosian, Keres, Fischer, Larsen, Najdorf, Portisch, Benko, other elite grandmasters and, of course, Reshevsky.

At some time around the 1966 tournament, an announcement appeared in the Los Angeles Times for a simul to be given by Sammy Reshevsky. Back then I rarely read the newspapers and was too young to drive, but my mother spotted it and chauffeured me to the event, held at the Herman Steiner Chess Club. By the way, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and many other Hollywood celebrities frequented the Steiner Club, but they weren’t in sight that day, or perhaps they were all in disguise.

As I entered the club, I was greeted with a warm smile by Jacqueline Piatgorsky. I was stunned. Without exaggeration, she was one of the nicest people I ever met. I would have immediately agreed to adoption, but the subject didn’t come up. Although I had no idea at the time that Mrs. Piatgorsky knew much about chess, in fact, she competed regularly at the highest levels and nearly won the 1965 US Women’s Championship!

The chess sets were all lined up for the simul, something close to thirty boards. The pieces were the largest I’d ever seen – in stark contrast to my small set at home. Soon Reshevsky appeared in suit and tie, dressed far better than anyone there, with the exception of Mrs. Piatigorsky. As a bit of trivia, it seems that Reshevsky and Mrs. Piatigorsky were born in the same year 1911 – the year of the sharp dressers.

Although not a tall man, Reshevsky had a “presence” and seemed tall in stature. He was very serious. Without much fanfare, he got down to business, making a move with White at each board, moving down the line towards my board, where he firmly played 1.d4. When he came back around, I played 1…Nf6 and soon we were in a NimzoIndian. Little did he know that he was playing into my favorite variation, as I had been reading Nimzovitch’s My System during lunch breaks at the school library … To my everlasting regret, I did not keep score of the game. The following “reconstruction” is based on key features of the game that I do remember.

Samuel Reshevsky

Samuel Reshevsky

I believe that it was the Rubinstein variation of the NimzoIndian. Before too long Reshevsky planted a bishop on d6, right in the heart of my position. I didn’t know enough to be afraid. After all, the bishop didn’t seem to threaten anything, although its presence did make things a bit inconvenient for my queen and rooks. They couldn’t use very many of the dark squares. Well, I reasoned, that’s why they invented the light squares! I tried just “working around” the dark-squared intruder.

Some time after my opponent played f2-f3, I nervously responded …Qb6, setting a “trap” involving pawn advances and a discovered check. For the first time, he actually stopped at my board, and I thought: “Will he see it? Soon, Reshevsky said in measured words that I will never forget, “And so, ….you want to trade queens, eh?” I had no idea what he was talking about, but I smiled, knowingly.

So he played Qf2, seeing through my little swindle, and we did trade queens. Suddenly, without apparent reason, my King’s Rook went by itself on a fishing expedition, and got trapped on h5. Nowhere to go! I was losing the exchange. Only one honorable thing to do. When Reshevsky returned to the board I quietly announced, “I resign.” But to my great surprise, he then started studying the position! The seconds went by. Seconds turned to minutes. It seemed like an eternity. I began to wonder, “What if he refuses my resignation? I’ll look like a complete idiot, resigning a non-resignable position!” But at last he started to nod in affirmation – indeed, I was lost. Resigning was the correct decision. I breathed a sign of relief. I’ll never forget the feeling of that moment, forty-six years ago, as Mr. Reshevsky moved to the next board. He took me seriously; he treated a kid with respect.

 

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Chess Blindness, Redux

Robert Pearson recently offered thought provoking suggestions re: the causes of Chess Blindness, a frustrating subject that I groused about a couple of months ago. Tim Hanke has also written extensively regarding obstacles to improvement and concrete positive steps forward. Today I’d like to add a bit more insight from my own efforts to improve my “advanced age” competitive results.

Nearly every Sunday morning I teach three one-hour group classes (Novice, Intermediate and Advanced) to students age 5 to 13 (roughly Gaussian, with median 8.75, standard deviation 1.25). “Advanced” is relative term – as known by parents and students alike, it does not equate to a Black Belt! As students graduate from the Advanced group, they are ready to play on even terms against the lower rated club players. We also used to have a Beginner class (and we teach Beginners during the week in after school programs) but found it more efficient to give a few private lessons to beginners, then have them join the Novice group. Students who have already learned how the pieces move and have “some” playing experience go directly into Novice; these students also may be vaguely familiar with pawn promotion and castling, but do not yet have the finer points. Typically, they respond with blank stares to the word “stalemate” and, of course, all of them at this level are clueless about capturing in passing. After they learn about capturing in passing, I ask them, in the spirit of Soupy Sale’s New Year’s Day Incident  to teach their parents. Promotion to the next level is not at all automatic, and is based on demonstrated progress in the classroom and playing results.

Soupy and White Fang

Soupy and White Fang

After class (or before class in the case of the Advanced group) students have supervised free play in a large room adjoining the classroom with the parents. Unfortunately, there is practically no sound abatement between the rooms. Although classroom rules are strict – no food, no talking, raise your hand, etc. what all three groups have in common is their proclivity for making noise from the playing room. There is a familiar pattern: first it is quiet, then the noise steadily builds, and then … the crescendo! After a brief but stern intervention, the process repeats … Somewhere near the end of the three hours begins the onset of my “Sunday headache.”

The Chess Club (adult members, teens and a few younger students who play open tournaments) meets starting right after the group classes. When we have open tournaments, registration (handled by my wife, Belle) typically “ends” as the last group class is ending. Then I, as Tournament Director, handle the computer entries and pairings, plus a few parent conversations, late entries, etc. and try to get the event started within15 minutes. Then, if we would otherwise have an odd number of players, I play in the event. This happens irrespective of how much sleep I got or anything else, because the alternative is to have a player sitting out with a Bye every round. This sounds so very nice of me, but perhaps the truth is that I’m a chess addict and will use any excuse to play!

At the start of each round I’m usually setting clocks for players who should have brought their own clocks, while my opponent patiently waits. My lunch arrives sometime during the second round, courtesy of Belle. It is also around this time that I begin to wonder  “Did I take my blood pressure medication?” All too often, the answer is “no,” and even more often, “I don’t remember.”

So, what does all of this have to do with Chess Blindness? Maybe nothing at all. After all, I’ve had chess blindness when not playing in my own events, with longer time controls, no classes to give, etc. Well, I submit the following game against one of my former students for its dark entertainment value.

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Emanuel Lasker on Chess Improvement

From time to time I like to go back to the old classic books. These are mostly game collections of the world champions, annotated by those champions, as well as several players who came close to becoming world champion, or  were known as outstanding teachers and writers – notably David Bronstein, Victor Korchnoi, Paul Keres, Siegbert Tarrasch, Richard Reti and Aaron Nimzovitch. Of course there are many good modern books – too numerous to mention. I tend to read several of these books at the same time (well, not exactly at the same instant) but lately I’ve been focusing again on Lasker’s Manual of Chess or, as I like to call it, “Emanuel’s Manual.” Naturally, if this ever becomes an e-book we could call it “Emanuel’s e-Manual.”

Emanuel Lasker 1868 - 1941

Emanuel Lasker 1868 – 1941

Lasker was, of course, the Second Official World Champion, winning the title in 1894 from Wilhelm Steinitz, and then holding it continuously until his defeat by Capablanca in 1921. Lasker was also a noted mathematician and had a keen interest in philosophy, although he tended to focus on one or the other of these things – not all at the same time. A 1985 publication in Russian by Sadovskii and Sadovskii “Mathematics and Sports” speculated that neither bridge, nor chess, nor Go, nor any other game requiring great intellectual concentration is truly relaxing … So, if you need a break, they suggest walking, swimming or tennis. They give Lasker specifically as an example of a person not being able to do serious mathematics and chess at the same time. To this I would add that Botvinnik also “disappeared” for long stretches while pursuing his engineering work, then would typically have a bad result (by his standards), only to refocus on chess and soon reclaim his top spot in the world (matches with Smyslov and Tal). On a lesser scale I can relate to this personally, as when I played “serious” chess (and Go for a year) my academic and professional work suffered. I eventually gave up tournament chess for two periods of six and seventeen years, packing all books in boxes tightly taped shut, sequestered in the attic.

Before moving on, I’d like to get something off my chest. I want to know why authors feel obligated to so carefully prepend a world champion’s name with the phrase “Former world champion …” I can see the need for this in boxing, with its multiple world championship titles, multiple weight classes, and frequent changing hands of titles. But in chess? We have only one weight class  I suppose that a person who knew little of chess, if not so properly warned might, at a cocktail party some evening,  with champagne glass in one hand and hors d’oeuvre in the other, effusively blurt out “And so, Donald, what do you think of the current world champion Lasker? Our horrified host would be obligated to point out “Sir, Madam, or whatever you are, Lasker has unfortunately passed away, and so he simply cannot be the current world champion. You’re fired.” Well, there’s a scene we’d all like to avoid …

Emanuel’s Manual, first published in German in 1925, is an outstanding general treatise of instruction on chess. It also delves into Steinitz’s theories, the historical fact that Steinitz’s contributions to chess were unappreciated and even mocked at the time of his death (1900), and therefore, the great player Lasker, who vanquished the great thinker Steinitz, felt obligated to set the record straight. Steinitz’s key idea was to develop game plans based on the actual configuration of the pieces on the board (!) and not, as was the custom of his time, on the ability of the contestants, their fighting mood, their swashbuckling sacrifices playing for brilliancies no matter what, and their equally unreasonable but “honorable” practice of accepting and grimly holding onto all material sacrifices. Steinitz proclaimed that one should plan for attack only when one held an advantage of some kind and, as Lasker points out, that advantage must be expressed as a valuation. How obvious this all seems to us now, standing on the shoulders of Lasker and Steinitz, in an era of computers that spout nothing but valuations!

Wilhelm Steinitz 1836 - 1900

Wilhelm Steinitz 1836 – 1900

Lasker then goes on to offer criticisms and additions to Steinitz’s Theory, e.g. Steinitz gives specific advice to both defender and attacker, but does not address balanced situations in which the players are neither attacking nor defending, but maneuvering. Of course, this is what we now call position play, the key idea of which, according to Lasker,  is to achieve and maintain cooperation of the pieces. Lasker also describes the related Principle of Justice and the relationship between Chess and Life.  I’ll refer you to the book for this philosophical discourse, but here are a couple of quotes – the first one well known, the second one much less so:

“On the Chess-board lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite.”

“And many a man, struck by injustice as, say, Socrates and Shakespeare were struck, has found justice realized on the Chess-board and has thereby recovered his courage and his vitality to continue to play the game of Life.”

Finally, Lasker’s reflections on education in chess are quite interesting. Of course, his context is 1925, but probably most of it is still true today. He states that chess education goes on in a haphazard fashion and that most players reach a rather low level and stay there. Hmmm, 87 years later it seems that Richard James has been saying the same thing on this blog – it’s still true!

Lasker estimates that it would take 200 hours of instructor time to educate “a young man ignorant of Chess to the point where, if conceded any odds, would surely come out the winner.” The term “master” here is slightly vague and might conceivably mean anyone at a present day 2100, 2200 or 2300 rating. Let’s say 2200. Could not give pawn and move to what level of player? 1900 or 2000? Well, 200 hours is far short of the 10,000 hours of intensive practice, but we assume that the student is studying at home, playing casual games and playing in tournaments. This intensive effort would be spread over five to ten years. Frankly, this sounds about right! The ratio of instruction time to other intensive practice would need to be about 50 to 1.

Lasker’s 200 hours break down as:

  • Rules / Exercises – 5 hours
  • Elementary Endings – 5 hours
  • Some Openings – 10 hours
  • Combination – 20 hours
  • Position Play 40 – hours
  • Play and Analysis – 120 hours

Presumably the “Play and Analysis” would cover all phases of the game, i.e. some additional work on openings, more advanced endings and middle game attack and defense. What I don’t see here is two hours talking about how each piece moves, six months before the concept of checkmate is introduced, etc. which, in my carefully considered opinion, would have every single student dropping the program – at least in US schools. It would be an slight over-statement to say that we live totally in an instant gratification world, but neither the students nor parents have this kind of patience, even if you told them it was the way to become world champion.

Where I would quarrel with Lasker is his statement “Even if the young man had no talent at all, by following the above course he would advance to the class specified.” By his own admission, the actual results represent one-hundredth of one percent of his expectations. Four orders of magnitude! Lasker ascribes this huge disparity to our frightful waste of time and values, not only in teaching chess but also Mathematics and Physics, where the results are even worse than Chess. Well, Botvinnik said that young Karpov had no talent, so by that yardstick Lasker is right. In 200 hours of instruction you could get Karpov to the point that no one could give him pawn and move!

Lasker – “Education in Chess needs to be education in independent thinking and judging. Chess must not be memorized … memory is too valuable to be stocked with trifles (Einstein, a friend of Lasker’s, when asked by a reporter what the value of Pi was, said ‘about 3′}. You should keep in mind only methods. The method is plastic. It is applicable in every situation.”

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The Cat … Strikes!

No, there is no famous player or opening system that I’m aware of, known as “The Cat.” Yes, there was an article in the October 2006 issue of Chess Life about “The Cat in the Hat” – an incident involving alleged cheating via wireless transmission of computer moves to a receiver inside a player’s hat (beware of players wearing hats or leaving the board for frequent, extended “bathroom” breaks – especially if you can’t find them in the bathroom but you can find them emerging from the hotel elevator).  And, yes, there is a Snake Benoni, an Elephant Gambit, of course the venerable Orangutan, the Hedgehog and a host of other openings named after animals. Well, I too am an animal. And some of the guys at work, during a lunchtime blitz game, would sometimes kibitz “the cat … strikes!” As good as that was, I might have been even more proud if they had said, man, what an animal!

What an animal

 What an Animal!

But too me, “The Cat … Strikes” reminds me more than anything of the Queens’ Gambit Declined, Exchange Variation (QGDX). How many times has this “Cat” struck? The following 1994 game by then World Champion Garry Kasparov is both instructive and highly creative. Enjoy!

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Old Age and Treachery

We’ve all heard the above phrase, which by now is a well-established part of popular culture. There is even a song by this title, with lyrics by Willie Nelson  By the way, I also rather liked this one about the Old Sidewinders (Swindlers with poisonous fangs)

Willie Nelson (Photo by Larry Philpot, www.soundstagephotography.com)

Willie Nelson (Photo by Larry Philpot, www.soundstagephotography.com)

The full phrase goes either “Old age and treachery always overcomes youth and skill,” or the equivalent “Old Age and Treachery beats youth and skill every time.” I didn’t use that full phrase here because, well, it just isn’t true! Not always; not every single time. But often enough.

I read an interesting article by this title in Psychology Today. I’d recommend it to all you geezers out there. The basic idea is that, as we grow older, we can’t do some things as well as we used to – but there are other things that we do better; mostly things having to do with knowledge and experience, as opposed to brute force calculation and motor movements requiring youthful dexterity and speed (e.g. bullet chess). You might say that is pretty much obvious, but have you yet applied this idea systematically to your chess? When you plan your opening repertoire and game strategy in the broadest sense, do you consciously avoid the things you do less well in favor of the things that you now do better? If so, then you’re well on the way to what I’ll call “treachery in action!”

Here’s is a recent example:

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Halloween Chess

Halloween Chesscake

Every year, as close as possible to the actual day of Halloween, our club holds The Monmouth Chess School and Club “Horrible Halloween Bughouse” tournament. Bughouse (aka Crazy House, aka Bug) is one of the few chess variants that we recommend, although in small, controlled doses.  In fact, playing Bughouse without special permission is against Club Rules.

This year, because of Hurricane Sandy, we postponed the Bug tournament until November 18.  Nonetheless, most of the 20+ participants still had their Halloween costumes, which they were disappointed not to have worn on October 31 in the midst of our east coast power outages. Here are some photos from the event (including cheerful Bug Tournament Director):


 

How do you run a bughouse tournament? First, arm yourself … with a copy of the Official Bughouse Rules.  Conduct a brief training session then ask the players to form two-player teams. Any unpaired players then get assigned a partner according to “top rated player teams with bottom rated player, etc.  This is essentially a Halloween Party open to Students, Parents and brave Members of your club.

Next, and this is a VERY important preparatory step, make sure that all participants have access to large quantities of sugary drinks, cookies and candy – of course served in a room separate from the playing room, as sticky spills are all too frequent. The steady infusion of sugar will ensure that noise decibel levels are at an absolute maximum, both during play and between rounds. And I’m talking about  just the parents and the Tournament Director.

What is the best strategy for playing Bughouse? First, recognize that the values of the pieces are not the same as in normal chess – long-range pieces are worth relatively less (they can be unexpectedly blocked by dropped pieces) while knights and pawns are worth relatively more (knights can’t be blocked and their “mobility” is good since they can be dropped on an empty square within a critical battle scene.. A good rule of thumb is Pawn = 1, Knight, Bishop and Rook = 2, and Queen = 4.

Having the initiative is worth a lot. I would recommend moving no pawns other than the e- and d- pawns (you don’t want undefended vacant squares on your second rank). A case in point is the Alekhine Four Pawns Attack – it seems strong but White is usually positionally lost as Black starts dropping pieces on c2, f2, e3 and d3. Other than that, feel free to use your imagination – and that’s largely what the game is about, feeling free to use your imagination!

No discussion of Halloween Chess would be complete without the Halloween Gambit and, of course, the famous game played between the Frankenstein Monster and Count Dracula, the Frankenstein-Dracula variation of the Vienna.

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Bored With Chess? Then Go Wei Chi Baduk!

No, I’m not suggesting that anyone should be bored with chess – that would be sacrilege! But from time to time the subject of interesting chess “variants” comes up, including blitz, bughouse and Fischer Random to name just a few of the most popular. OK, you say that blitz is not a variant? In fact, it has its own set of official blitz rules.

In his Nov 9 blog here on chessimprover, John Rhodes described Chess960 (aka Fischer Random Chess), a variant proposed by Fischer as a solution to certain problems with regular chess, e.g. among professional over-the-board players and correspondence players, regular chess places a huge emphasis on research and/or memorization of long opening variations, arguably at some expense to creativity in the opening. Also, there have long been complaints about too many boring draws and the looming “draw death” of master chess, going back to the time of Capablanca. In fact, Capablanca suggested his own variant, played on an 8-by-10 board with two additional pieces, the Chancellor (which combines the moves of knight and rook) and the Archbishop (which combines the moves of knight and bishop). His idea Capablanca Chess is very interesting, but it never took off.

In addition to playing great moves, Bobby Fischer also had some great ideas about chess in general, including his patented Fischer clock, his insistence on improved tournament playing conditions, as well as Fischer Random Chess. Of course, he also had a few whacked out ideas, but we won’t go into them here. The idea behind Fischer Random is to throw players on their own resources at the outset, making memorization of openings impractical by randomizing the starting position (subject to a few constraints, as described by John). As a result, there are 960 unique starting positions which, together with some people’s desire to decouple it from Fischer’s name, is where the “Chess960” comes from.

I think that Chess960 would, in fact, provide additional scope for creativity, although it’s unclear whether there would be many fewer draws. However, if this variant became very widely adopted it would certainly not eliminate the need for study and memorization – in my view it would just make the problem 960 times harder! We now speculate regarding whether the opening position in chess is a theoretical win for white or a draw. With Chess960, 959 new debates will flare up. Which of the many starting positions are theoretical wins and which are draws? OK, few of us really care, but would chess professionals depending on tournament winnings for their livelihood really go into tournaments unprepared? No way! And for most people, if you increased your current workload 960 times, well, you could end up overworked, like this guy or even worse this guy.

From the viewpoint of educational benefits of chess, teaching Chess960 to novices (or anyone below some very advanced level) seems problematic. Clearly they would have to learn the rudiments of standard chess first. The Lucena position is still the Lucena position, no matter how the pieces were initially set up.

What about computers against humans in Chess960? Well, machines will still be better calculators and humans better at strategy, but neither side has much of an “opening book” advantage at this point. But If Chess960 becomes really popular, then I predict that book titles such as the following will soon appear:

  • How to Beat Your Dad at Chess960
  • Chess 960 Tricks, Traps and Swindles
  • NCO960, Volumes 1- 960 (yes, shipping is extra)
  • White to Play and Win From the First Move in Chess960 #117
  • Black is OK in Chess960 #238
  • Black is Not OK in Chess960 #239
  • Play 1.h4 h5! in Chess960 #322
  • Attacking with 1.Ne3! in Chess960 #402
  • The Opening According to Kramnik in Chess960 #501
  • Chess960 #712 Kobayashi Maru, Poisoned Pawn Variation

Of course, certain ones of the 960 variants might become more popular in club tournaments than others. Some variants are known to start out with multiple undefended pawns. This is akin to being forced to play the Latvian Gambit – or worse. There could also be political intrigue and scandals. The team from Baku is rumored to have discovered a bust to variant #444. A FIDE official is rumored to have leaked the secret number of tomorrow’s Linares960 match variant. Meanwhile, would players spend more time studying the endgame, or all of their time tackling the openings for each of the 960 variants? How much time would you spend on the first move? Would we see time forfeits at move 4?

So, what exactly am I telling you to do when I say “Go wei chi baduk?” Sounds a bit insulting, doesn’t it?. Even if the sentence doesn’t end with yourself. Well, you may recall that these were the exact  instructions given to the nuclear-powered robot, Gort, to keep him from reducing our planet to a burned out cinder (The Day the Earth Stood Still – 1951, 2008). Ha ha! No, no, the instructions were actually “Gort – Klaatu barrada nikto.” You must be very precise in speaking to Gort:

Gort – Do not say “go wei chi baduk” to him

In  fact, go, wei chi and baduk are three names for one in the same thing, a two-player game played with armies of white and black stones on a 19-by-19 board. The object of the game is to surround as much territory as possible and to kill off your opponent’s stones if they get in your way. Ha ha! Towards the end of the game a player may pass, so there is no concept of zugzwang. There are also no draws because White is given a few points plus a half a point as compensation for Black moving first.

Proponents of go (as it is called in Japan), wei chi (China) and baduk (Korea) tout the same kind of benefits as chess: improves memory and concentration, abstract reasoning, decision-making, time management, both tactical and strategic thinking, etc. I believe that professional players in Asia make a decent living, with matches being closely followed in the press and on TV. A player promoted to 9-dan professional is equivalent in rank to a top-rated grandmaster in chess.

So, again, although we don’t think it’s possible for anyone to actually be bored with chess, for your enlightenment an introduction to the rules of go are here. I personally played competitive go for about a year and played once in the US Open Go Championship. Interestingly, they used chess clocks (er, I mean go clocks) and I believe the Swiss System pairing rules. And let me tell you, there were some really old guys playing and probably still improving!

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