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The Organized Army

Throughout history, most battles have been won by the more organized army. Win enough battles and you win the war. The same hold true with chess. An organized chess army is the army that wins the game. When we first learn the rules of this game we love so much, we concentrate on simply making legal moves with our pawns and pieces. We launch attacks that we’re sure will win the game only to become hopelessly lost in the weakest of positions. What started as a promising attack, with our powerful army leading the charge, ends in defeat. We moved the pieces according to the game’s rules, we launched attacks which you’re supposed to do in order to win games. So what went wrong, muses the novice player. Chances are, there was nothing in the way of organization and organization is the key to success on the chessboard and in life.

Organization really comes down to coordination. In life, those individuals who are organized seem to always accomplished things, seldom becoming bogged down and lost when facing any task, large or small. Disorganized individuals tend to take a lot longer to accomplish their goals and often don’t come close to reaching or meeting those goals. Chess requires having a flexible plan, one that isn’t so rigid that it can’t be adjusted to work within the ever changing positional landscape on the board. If you wish to create a plan that works however, you have to be organized!

Any discussion regarding organization should start with defining a plan. Simply put, a plan is a series of smaller steps that allow one to complete a task. Those steps have to follow a specific order. If you paint a room in your house, you don’t slap paint on the walls before you cover your furniture and floors with a drop cloth. You cover things up and then start painting. Thus most successful plans require the employment of a logical series of steps. However, in chess, there’s an added problem and that’s the creation of a plan that is flexible.

Positions on the chessboard can change drastically from move to move, especially in the games of beginners. Rigid chess plans are those that absolutely depend on one’s opponent making very specific moves that adhere to the plan. Of course, this is unrealistic because, one’s opponent is going to have his or her own plans and will not simply let you execute your plans without a fight. Therefore, you have to create a flexible plan that can change with the changing board positions from move to move. This means, when contemplating a move or plan, really thinking about what your opponent’s best response will be.

If you ask a beginner what their plan is they’ll tell you it’s to checkmate their opponent’s King. This is the goal of the game. The question is how you reach your goal through a series of smaller goals accomplished via plans. During the opening phase of the game, your goal is to control the center of the board by activating (moving) your pieces to active squares (those that control the board’s center) and Castle your King to safety. During the middle-game, your goal is to further activate your forces (pawns and pieces) and look for ways in which to reduce your opponent’s forces through exchanges of material. During the endgame, which many beginners never get to, checkmating your opponent’s King is the goal. These goals are met via short term or flexible plans. The point here is that you have to identify the immediate or short term goal in order to create a plan that allows you to achieve that goal. It comes down to organization. I have my students write down things they do in everyday life that require a plan and the steps they take to solve the problem they have to solve. This serves as an analogy they can use to create an organized plan when playing chess.

I say “organized plan” because I know plenty of people who, when faced with a task, take the long disorganized road to achieve their goal. In chess, time works against you so the longer you take to reach a goal via a disorganized plan, the more opportunities you provide you opponent to stop you from reaching your goal. This is where being organized plays a critical role.

Beginners need to think in terms of “what’s the simplest and quickest way to reach my goal?” When I say “quickest,” I don’t mean making fast decisions. Beginners often make quick moves without putting any thought into why they’re making those moves. We have to separate the idea of reaching our goal quickly with that of simply making moves at a break neck speed. Any move you make should have a legitimate reason behind it. I have my students pretend they’re a famous chess player surrounded by newspaper reporters who ask the question “why did you make that move” after the player’s turn. You need to be able to answer that question prior to committing to a move and if you can’t answer it, you have no business making the move in question.

Executing a plan quickly starts with the organizational skill of identifying the immediate goal. In the opening game, it’s control of the board’s center that fuels our plan. We know we have to achieves this goal during the first ten to fifteen moves and we can use the opening principles as a simple guide. We control the center with a pawn or two, further gain control of the board’s center by developing our minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) towards the four central squares (d4, d5, e4 and e5), Castle our King to safety and connect our Rooks. By using those principles we have an organized method for achieving our opening goal. However, it becomes difficult because our opponent is doing the same thing while also trying to stop us from achieving this goal. Therefore, we have adjust our plans slightly (flexibility) and try to foil our opponent’s plans while still trying to achieve our goal. This can become a confusing idea for the novice player.

The trick here is to always aim for our goals. If our opponent stops us from making a developing move we wanted to make during the opening, such as moving a Knight to f3, why not consider moving the other Knight to c3? You were eventually going to make this move so why not make it now since the move you wanted to make can’t be made immediately. To develop this way of thinking, planning in terms of flexibility, always come up with three possible moves you can make and then commit to one. Thus, if you had planned on developing your Knight to f3 but your opponent makes a pawn move that stops this before you had a chance to make that move, you have other moves you can make that fit in with your plan, centralized control during the opening.

When learning the art of planning and organization, I have my students write out their plans while they play practice games so their goals are clearly defined. They create plans with the fewest number of steps needed to achieve their goals in a logical sequence. On the paper they use for notes is written the phrase “what’s your opponent’s best response (counter move) to the move you’re considering?’ This reminds my students that their opponent is going to fight their plans to the bitter end. Try doing this when playing practice games and eventually you’ll find that you won’t need to write your plans down because you have them committed to memory. Take your time when playing and always have a plan that can change at a moments notice. This type of plan is flexible not rigid. Always remember, your opponent is never going to make the move you want them to make. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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