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My System

“We do not stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing!”
– Benjamin Franklin

Readers may recall that I’ve made various game theory comments about Chess over the past two years.

In practice, what it has meant for me is that I’ve not been comfortable with charging into the center with White. It seems like leaning into it.  This led to me playing 1. g3 for some years.

After a few disappointing results, not due to the opening itself, I became bored and recently switched to the center pawn openings.

My results have been mediocre. I consistently obtain good positions and then fail to execute. I feel like I don’t belong there. My heart isn’t in it.

It’s too much work for someone who isn’t a full-time chess player. I have to find my niche, and I think I found it in 1. g3 and should probably stay there and be happy if I don’t lose games and leave the spectacular winning streaks to the pros.

Jacques Delaguerre

Not Always A Win With An Extra Bishop

It is well known that a game can be saved if you leave your opponent with only a Bishop and a rook’s pawn of the wrong colour. If you can do that, you can save the game by getting your King to the corner, so that your opponent can not promote the pawn, and will stalemate you if he attempts to do so.

Did you know that you can also save the game if your opponent only has a Bishop and a Knight’s pawn of the same colour?

In this week’s problem, Black has to save the game. How does he do that?

In last Monday’s problem, Black mates in 4 with 1… Qxe1+ 2. Kf3 Rd3+ 3. Be3 Rxe3+ 4. fxe3 Qf1 mate. I missed that.

Steven Carr

Louis C.K.’s Chess Advice

I sucked so bad, I wanted to quit, but I’d been doing comedy for 15 years. It would be like leaving prison: how do you reintegrate into the workforce? – Louis C.K.

Louis Székely may or may not be a chessplayer, but if he were one, he’d be a good one. If Réti was correct that chess is a portrait of the intellectual struggle of mankind, the traits and habitudes that make for excellence in other fields have analogues in our Noble Game.

A recent motivational video highlighted what the editor takes to be a summary of Louis C.K.’s rules for success. I found that Louis’s brilliant observations really hit home with regards to chess. The video is pithy, entertaining, and probably not suitable for young children, though technically safe for work due to extensive bleeping.

Jacques Delaguerre

Does Chess Have a Future?

On Facebook …

Jonathan Tisdall: Does [Nigel Davies’ plan to revive competitive chess] include going back in time and preventing chess engines?

Jacques Delaguerre: You think engines are bad, wait until IBM Research builds a full-scale quantum computer which solves chess.

Jonathan Tisdall: Not sure how much worse that will be. We know it’s a draw and we can’t cope with how much is solved already unless we cheat.

Jacques Delaguerre: Quite true, grandmaster. Well, it’s just a game and it lasted 1,000 years. Perhaps the video gamers will one day realize that the triumph of chess was its minimalism and abstraction and build a game for the modern age which rivals Chess in beauty.

Jonathan Tisdall: On a more practical note, would Fischer360 or whatever its called, buy us more time or will the machines solve that more or less instantly?

Jacques Delaguerre: F360 is more combinationally complex, but not immensely more so than standard chess. Shogi is more combinationally complex than chess and a little farther back w/r/t the engines. How’s your shogi?

Jonathan Tisdall: I love shogi, prefer it to chess as a game. But life is too short…

Alex Fishbein: I’m not in favor of turning to other games just because chess has been either fully or partially solved. On the contrary, I believe that chess is more interesting to play because truth is easier to find in theory while humans would never be able to solve it over the board in any event. Anand was quoted expressing this viewpoint, I agree, and I believe that many other top players agree.

Jonathan Tisdall: I basically agree, though I confess I would prefer truth being mysterious, and not listening to amateurs who think they possess it because they can.

Computer exhaustion of chess can never exhaust it for the human mind, since we can’t absorb it all. The answer may be “42”, but what was the question?

For some perspective on the contrast between abstract mathematical solution of chess and the human experience of chess, consider a puzzle from the Baghdad era of Chess, circa 1000 CE, composed by Abu Bakr Muhammad bin Yahya al-Suli, a study not definitively solved until modern times!  It uses the ferz piece which is like a bishop that only moves one step.

 . . . . . . . .
 . . . . . . . .
 . . . . . . . .
 . . . k . . . .
 . . . . . . . .
 . K F . . . . .
 . . . . . . . .
 f . . . . . . .

White to move and win by capturing Black’s ferz (capturing opponent’s last piece without losing one’s own being a win at that time). For the solution, visit John’s Chess Playground.

Jacques Delaguerre

Rook and Pawn Endgames

The solution to last Monday’s problem is that White can draw with 1. Kg2! Ke4 2. Kg3 h5 3. h3! Kf5 4. Kh4 Kxf4 and we have a stalemate.

In this week’s problem, White has to try to promote a pawn.

How does White play and win?

Steven Carr

Mental Exercise

As we get older, our muscles tend to ache more and function less. The same holds true for our brains. As we age, we all have what are referred to as “senior moments” where we forget something, be it where we parked our car or what we were just talking about. Like the rest of our body, our brain ages. Mental activities that seemed easy in our youth become more challenging with age. Often, we limit our mental activities to give our brains a rest (watching television, the opiate of the masses). However, this can do more harm than good because we become mentally sluggish. To avoid mental sluggishness, we must employ mental exercise. Board and card games are a great way to work our brains out and stay sharp!

One thing I’ve noticed in older friends is a lack of pattern recognition. I had a friend over and he was looking at a puzzle whose solution was based on recognizing a specific pattern. He was struggling and, in disgust, handed the puzzle to me. I found the pattern quickly and solved the puzzle. He was astounded and proclaimed me brilliant. I explained to him that it had nothing to do with brilliance (I’m two steps ahead of being the town dunce) and everything to do with spotting patterns. Being able to spot patterns helps to keep the mind sharp! This is why certain games can be beneficial in maintaining a healthy active mind.

One thing you can do is to play simple card games, such as solitaire, which employs pattern recognition. Like a physical exercise routine, you have to slowly develop your mental exercises, going from simple exercises to harder exercises. Physically speaking, if you’re going to get into weight lifting, you’re not going to start by lifting the heaviest weights in the gym. You’re going to slowly work up to it by starting with lighter weights. The same holds true for mental exercise. Play a few hands of solitaire each day. Doing it in the morning with your tea or coffee will get your brain working better than the caffeine in either beverage. Next you’ll want to try simple crossword puzzles. I say simple because taking on The New York Times daily puzzle will leave you with a headache if you’re not a crossword puzzle person. Of course, these activities are really a build up for the main event, playing chess. If ever there was a game that will keep you mentally fit, it’s chess!

Now, chess isn’t going to make you smarter. You’re stuck with the brain you were born with, but like muscles, you can build your brain up. Chess will help you get your brain into the best shape it can be in given age, etc. So why chess?

Chess combines a number of intellectual challenges ranging from pattern recognition to planning and thinking ahead. In short, it’s a one stop shopping experience for anyone wanting to workout their brain. When I first started playing, you had to find other human beings to play since there were no chess computers (or home computers for that matter). Now, you can get an app or software program that provides you with a playing partner around the clock. The advantage to a mechanical opponent is that you can throw fit when you lose and be completely non-sportsman-like when you win. You can also swear to your hearts delight when the app or program crushes you, something you can’t do with human opponents. Of course, I’m just kidding (Well, I do yell at my computer when I lose). The point is that you’ll always have someone to play (although there is no substitute for a human opponent). Let’s look at what chess can help you with, starting with pattern recognition.

Having great pattern recognition abilities is like being able to see a fourth dimension. We’ve all read about additional dimensions and can grasp the concept, but what if we could truly see in four dimensions? No you won’t be able to see Einstein’s Fourth Dimension, but you’ll more clearly in our Three Dimensional world. Nature is full of interesting patterns, many of which unlock it’s mysteries. Most humans have trouble seeing anything but very obvious patterns. Chess is a game in which pattern recognition is key. Recognizing patterns on the chessboard helps to develop mental focus and mental focus allows us to concentrate with greater ease (less stress on the brain). Recognizing patterns helps us to solve problems as opposed to becoming stressed because we can’t figure something out when the clues are right in front of us.

Planning is another problem for many people. We all know someone who can’t make the simplest of plans even if their life depended on it. The problem with “bad planners” is that they don’t consider all the variables in a given situation. Chess will help you think in terms of variables which will make your planning more full proof. Those who plan well in life do well in life.

Thinking ahead is something most human beings have trouble with. I know so many people (mostly non chess players) who plan something, consider 99% of the variables and then run into that one variable they didn’t think of. Their plan comes to a crashing halt and doesn’t go forward because the planner hasn’t thought ahead. When I say “thought ahead,” I’m talking about the backup plan that deals with the one variable you didn’t think of. Learning the game of chess and playing it regularly will help you learn how to create plans and backup plans because in chess you have to think ahead. Chess is a pleasant way to develop this type of thinking and will serve you well when facing one of life’s many major or minor daily roadblocks.

Patience may be the greatest lesson to be learned on the chessboard. Let’s face it, we live in a fast paced world in which technology sets the speed at which we do things. There was a time when it took thirty minutes to get online and hours to download a small file. Now people complain if they don’t see their Google homepage in under five seconds and have a fit if they can’t download a file in the blink of an eye. They then carry that thinking to situations like trying to drive from one place to another. This leads to them stressing out which is bad for the body and mind. Chess will help you develop patience which will reduce your stress level. Stress really does kill people. Therefore, chess can save lives (I know, kind of a shameless statement).

So, if you’re an older person or even a stressed out younger person whose brain sometimes shuts down, try taking up chess. However, don’t expect to master the game quickly. It takes time and patience. You might not ever master it but will reap the benefits I mentioned. I was never patient in my youth and had trouble learning things. My brain would freeze up at key moments and my planning skills were dreadful. Now, my brain works better than when I was 20 (except for forgetting where I parked my car at least four times a week – but I can recall the most obscure facts regarding science, chess and Mandarin – at twenty I was my village’s chief idiot). Play some chess or cards. Do something to stretch those mental muscles. Here’s game to ponder until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Entertainment from Qatar

Interesting to see how entertaining the chess in Qatar has been which surely must be a case for mixed strength tournaments. Here’s Magnus Carlsen essaying the Sicilian Defence rather than a Berlin and winning in fine style:

Nigel Davies

Chess Creativity

The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources. – Albert Einstein

An interesting actualité of the world of mathematics impinges upon the game theory of Chess.  László Babai, a mathematician and computer scientist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, claims a breakthrough in complexity theory. He is presenting today (2015-11-11) his algorithm for comparing two networks for identity, a P/NP problem traditionally way to the NP end of the spectrum. If his work is validated by his peers, it could have profound impact upon the game theory assessment of intrinsic difficulty of chess.

That from the cloudy upper reaches of game theory. Down here in the trenches I was pleased to discover new two youth members, about high school senior or college freshman age, of the Denver Chess Club last night perusing a certain class of openings. They were looking at the d3 line of the Spanish, and the King’s Indian attack, and other restrained employments of the legendary White initiative.

Together we compared the strategies of 20th century White openings, which seek to demonstrate that White has an attack. Karpov is the 20th century world champion of whom it was said that he “does not believe White has an attack”. Flash forward to the 21st century where the 20th century “main lines” of 1. e4 appear to be (when properly defended by Black) a White pawn sacrifice in order to achieve enough initiative to draw the resultant pawn-down ending.

The 21st century player views the problem of the opening as that of making the opponent commit first. S/he strives to develop in such a way that the danger to the opponent does not come from a scintillating attack on the king’s bishop’s square so much as from a falling into a enter-the-midgame zugzwang, overreaching against a restrained position and finding one’s self unable to make a move that doesn’t spoil the balance.

If we could but see it, the whole game of Chess from the starting position is a corresponding squares problem, i.e., computationally it’s a network. Hence the impact of the discovery announced by Babai upon the possibilities of computer solution of chess.

Jacques Delaguerre

Almost Masterpiece

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it. – Omar Khayyam

Is there anything sadder in chess than the “almost masterpiece”?

This game was on its way to being a masterpiece until White’s 27th move. White spent much of the game preparing the move f4. All White’s pieces are coordinated and in the game. Black’s pieces are ill-coordinated and one knight is definitely on leave on a6.

Still, White managed to convince himself that 27. f4 !! was unplayable due to 27 … Ng4. In reality, 27. f4 Ng4 28. fxg5 Nxf2 29. Rxf2 looks winning for White: 29 … hxg5 is impossible due to 30. Qh5#. Instead, White came up with the utterly unbelievable (considering the beauty and accuracy of the rest of the game) 27. h3 ?? , 30. fxe5 ?? and 32. Nxe5 ??

How? Why? My soul is dark this morning …

Jacques Delaguerre

Say it isn’t So, Wesley!

If you follow the tournament circuit, you undoubtedly know about what I am now referring to as “doodle-gate.” I use the word doodle, because that is exactly what Wesley did during a ninth round game at the United States Chess Championship in St. Louis earlier this month. An Arbiter declared Wesley’s game against Varuszhan Akobian to be a forfeit, giving the victory to Akobian after he complained about Wesley writing on a piece of paper, forbidden by FIDE tournament rules. What was he scribbling or doodling? Were they words that would turn the tide unfairly against Akobian? Absolutely not! They were merely a few self inspiring words, ” Double check. Triple check. Use your time.” Hardly a Machiavellian scheme to win the game. This has caused an uproar in the chess community and made tournament Arbiters about as popular as parking enforcement officers (those dunces that write parking tickets). My heart goes out to Wesley because, rules or not, I don’t think he did anything morally wrong. In fact, I think FIDE may want to reconsider their rule regarding this issue.

Chief Arbiter Tony Rich said that So wrote “words of general encouragement and advice” to himself on a piece of paper below his score sheet, which FIDE tournament rules forbid. Rich had warned Wesley twice before awarding the game to his opponent. Many chess players from around the world have taken sides on this thorny issue and Wesley So, proving what a decent human being he is, humbly explained himself on Facebook. While I think So received a punishment that outweighed the crime ten fold, the question arises, are the rules that govern tournaments in need of an overhaul? Should they remain as is? Why not take time off of his clock? This got me to thinking about governing rules or laws in general and when they become problematic.

There have been a number of well publicized cheating scandals in the chess world over the last few years. While the number of honest players far outweighs the number of cheaters, at least in over the board games, these cheating scandals have caused problems for honest players. An honest player who works extremely hard, putting in long hours of study and improving greatly for his or her efforts, can often look forward to being accused of cheating when they produce above average results at a tournament. What kind of culture rewards an individual’s hard work by suspecting them of cheating? The culture of black and white, Western culture!

In fairness to Arbiters and tournament staffs that run events, there is always the potential for cheating. The computer technology meant to improve our lives, has also made cheating an easily rendered reality. However, to accuse an individual of cheating should not be taken likely. To do so sullies a person’s reputation and in the end we’re only as good as our reputation in the eyes of others. The solution for putting an end to cheating is not an easy one and so far no one has been able to solve this problem to everyone’s satisfaction. Do we simply go through a full electronic body scan and sit naked at the chessboard? That’s not likely, for aesthetic reasons alone. The point is that there’s no immediate and easy solution.

I mention cheating because it’s an example of the plethora of problems chess federations around the world face today. The laws and bi-laws established in the past to make tournaments proceed smoothly should regularly be examined to see if they’re still valid today. In the United States, there are antiquated laws that make no sense. An example of this is the former Ice Cream law in the town of Carmel California. This city ordinance stated that it was illegal to eat ice cream on the main street of the town. Did I mention that there was an extremely popular ice cream shop on that street? Essentially, you could walk into the store, purchase an ice cream cone legally, walk out the door with cone in hand and become a criminal! Fortunately, Clint Eastwood became Mayor of Carmel and put an end to that law. I site this example because it exemplifies the idea that no rule of law can completely stand on it’s own merits forever. Of course, I’m not talking about laws regarding serious crimes such as murder.

To think that the rules that govern chess tournaments need not be reviewed and revised when necessary is unrealistic. A purist would say of Wesley’s actions, that his doodling was distracting. While I’m not a world class player by any means, my eyes are on the board, seeing only the position in front of me. Personally, I wouldn’t care if my opponent was formulating a cure for cancer on a cocktail napkin during our game. It’s about the action on the sixty four squares!

In fairness, Akibain had the right to complain. However, why not simply ask Wesley to stop, one human being making a simple request of another human being. If you know anything about Wesley So, you know that he is a polite, kind human being, not some wunderkind brat likely to laugh at your request. Chess tournament history is littered with stories of chess players literally insulting one another during a game, a much greater offense than inspirational doodling, with no forfeiture of the game for either party involved.

The Arbiter is trained to operate within the letter of the law but not trained to deal with the quirkiness of the human spirit and chess players can be a quirky bunch (which is why I feel so at home in the world of chess, more so than in the world of music). Serious chess players are a unique breed. They can be eccentric, outspoken, introverted and/or obsessed. The laws that govern tournament play only take into account the game and the environment in which it’s played. I say this because Arbiters need to be able to see beyond the black and white of the rule book, human nature. Again, why not take time off of Wesley’s clock?

What would happen if the FIDE rules changed and players were allowed to doodle during their games? Having a basic understanding of human nature, I could only image the chaos that would ensue. Some players might write unflattering comments about their opponents, making sure the opposition could see those comments. That would be an offense worthy of game forfeiture. However, Wesley’s words we simply inspirational. In fact, his opponent would have benefited from such inspirational words as well. I guess you could say that Wesley provided inspiration for both himself and Akibain.

Should Wesley have listened to the Arbiter? Absolutely! As much as I disagree with this ruling by FIDE, it is a tournament rule and you need to adhere to the rules. However, the punishment didn’t fit the crime. I’ve worked as an Arbiter and can tell you it isn’t easy. You cannot please both players when making a decision. As chess players we learn the games rules and mechanics or principles. Once we master the basics, we learn to think outside of the box, non mechanical thinking, which makes us better players. Shouldn’t a good Arbiter be an individual who, knowing the rules, thinks outside of the box to produce the best results? I challenge all Arbiters worldwide to be more creative and human in their rulings. Who knows, you might become more popular. Here’s a game by Wesley to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson