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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


Chessize, Don’t Verbalize

Possibly the surest way to get better at chess is to avoid verbalizing about it. Chess is a non-verbal symbolic language. Chessize in your skull instead of verbalizing.

It’s a old saw that words are not the things they describe. Zen calls verbalization “a finger pointing at the moon”. And it’s a cliché that those who talk the most know the least.

Cold counsel for someone as verbally oriented as I am. But my best performances have always been at those times when I am able to suppress the rendering of my chess thought into words and express the game to myself internally as combinatorial musing.

In 1972, noted American interviewer Dick Cavett, a brilliant intellectual in his own right, asked Fischer what it takes to make a grandmaster. Fischer’s eyes darted for a moment, , then he smiled and replied, “Well, you have to be able to see the pieces move in your head.”

It follows that most discussion of chess is wasted. 90% of what one learns in books one must eventually discard. Reading words about chess is largely the coach coaxing you into doing the exercises that will make the right “muscles” grow.

Our host, GM Davies, will possibly disagree with me on this point, but I think his own words on Chess, as compact and as neat as poetry, support the thesis.

Jacques Delaguerre


Blackmar-Diemer Schemer

This chess game is one that I recently completed. I have not been writing articles lately partly because these correspondence chess games have taken up a great deal of my time and partly because I have not been feeling well. I am feeling a little better now and I am getting caught up on things again.

This chess game is one of three draws in this section. I also have one quick win when my opponent dropped a Bishop on move number 13 in another game. In this chess game I tried a gambit on a lower rated player and all I was able to accomplish was getting my pawn back and equality. The one win and three draws have me temporarily in first place in this section. I will need at least one more win in order to keep clear first place.

My opponent’s third move was something that I had never seen before. I disagreed with what the chess engines were recommending and stayed with my database of games on move number 7. From move number 11 on I was out of my database. I was using my chess engines quite a bit to blunder check the moves that my 40 years of experience told me to look at. However, my opponent was using chess engines too and thus he avoided making any blunders as well! Both sides played aggressively in both tactical and positional chess. We were evenly matched even though I was higher rated by 110 points.

Someone has been using the contact form on this chess site to send me spam! This needs to stop because all you are doing is annoying me!!!!!!!!!!

Mike Serovey


Choosing the Right Chess Set

When we first start learning chess we often do so using an old hand me down chess set that’s been sitting, dusty and neglected, in the family closet for years. These sets sometimes are thematic, depicting the pawns and pieces as characters from a popular historical period, movie or television show. Other times, these sets are made up of extremely tiny pieces that, because of their size, make it difficult to distinguish a Bishop from a pawn. While they serve their purpose for the beginner, they’re not the standard. By standard, I mean a chess set used in rated tournament play. When the beginner decides to take his or her game on the road and play at the local chess club, they’ll most likely not find anyone playing with a set that has Homer Simpson as its King!

My younger students as well as my adult students eventually ask me what kind of chess set they should be playing on. Before giving my answer, I’d like to mention the qualities that define a proper chess set. The pawns and pieces should easy to distinguish from one another. Small chess sets, those with a King height of 1 ½ inches or less, are often void of detail which makes the pawns and Bishops difficult to distinguish from one another. Other pieces, such as the King and Queen can be difficult to identify as well (at least to the beginner). Therefore, a good chess set will have a King height of 3 ¾ to 4 inches. Another factor to consider is the material the pawns and pieces are made of. After the beginner has spent many months studying chess, they sometimes feel the need to reward themselves with a decent chess set. When I say set, I’m referring to the pieces and board. You can find some amazing wooden sets available, some costing thousands of dollars. While these sets are lovely, they are made of wood and are thus fragile. If a Pawn or piece from your $1,000.00 set falls off the table and breaks, you’ll have to pay roughly $31.00 to replace that single piece, if you can find someone who sells replacement pieces.

A better choice is a plastic tournament set. You can buy them inexpensively and they are considered the standard for tournament play throughout the world. Therefore, when students ask me what type of chess set to purchase, my answer is always the same, a plastic tournament set. These Pawns and pieces are made from extremely durable plastic which makes them difficult to break (a plus with kids). They come weighted or unweighted. For young children, I’d recommend the unweighted set because the weights are often small metal cylinders that can eventually fall out of the piece’s base. This can be a choking hazard for children. For older students, I recommend a triple weighted set. The weight helps to keep the pieces from tipping over which can be handy when playing Blitz or if you play outside and wind is a factor.

The price of plastic pieces ranges from $10.00 to $40.00 which is better than spending $1,000.00. The other advantage to using an inexpensive set is that you can use the money you save to invest in chess books or training software which is far more important that a fancy set of pieces.

The standard design used in tournament play is the Staunton pattern. However, there are small differences in the way in which the pawns and pieces are designed in the various sets available. Some Knights, for example, have greater detail in their manes while some Bishops have a more pronounced Mitre. Normally, the more expensive the plastic set, the greater the level of detail. I’m very picky about my plastic sets, having settled on a plastic reproduction of the pieces used in the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match (an officially excepted pattern for use in tournament play). You have choices even when it comes to plastic playing pieces! Now let’s talk about boards.

Wooden boards are nice but they’re expensive and not very portable. Invest in a vinyl roll up tournament board. They cost less than $10.00, are easy to transport and if you spill something on them, you can simply wipe it off (try that with an expensive hand oiled Teak board that costs $300.00). These vinyl roll up boards are also the standard of tournament play. Vinyl tournament boards have 2 ¼ inch squares (designed to accommodate pieces with a King height on 3 ¾ to 4 inches) and letters and numbers running along the board’s edges that denote the files and ranks. This makes it much easier for the beginner to play through their own games as well as games from chess books.

It is best, as a beginner, to use a tournament set since they are used at chess clubs and in tournaments across the globe. However, there are additional reasons for using such a set. First off, because of the piece and board size, it’s easy to move the pieces around without accidentally knocking nearby pieces over (try that with a tiny chess set during a fie minute game of Blitz). The alpha-numeric symbols on the board’s edges make it easier for the beginner to start recording their games which is extremely important. It also serves to help teach chess notation to the chess novice since the beginner simply has to line up the file letter and rank number to identify a square. While the average player can do this on a board without these alpha-numeric markers, the beginner often finds this task difficult and can write down the wrong square without a visual aid.

There is also the notion that you’ll look more like a serious chess player with the right equipment. If I visit someone and they pull out a tournament set, I immediately think “this guy probably has some experience on the board. Lastly, you might want to consider a travel bag for your roll up board and pieces. This type of chess bag comes with inner compartments for your pieces and board as well as a chess clock. They run roughly $15.00 to $30.00 and are designed for the player on the go, having handles and straps to make toting it around easier. It beats carrying around your pieces in a brown paper bag (although I know a brilliant chess hustler who does just this to lull his opponent into a false sense of superiority)!

In closing, hold off on buying a wooden chess set. Again, your money is better spent on training materials. While top level players can be seen playing with lovely wooden pieces on equally wonderful wooden boards, they’ve earned that right. To be fair, I’ll make you a deal. Get your rating up to around 1900 and you’ve earned such a set. Until then spend your money wisely. There’s a big difference between owning great chess gear and playing great chess! Speaking of “until then”, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Studying the Endgame

I wrote a few weeks ago about spending more time on endgame study. This week, GM Davies responded to a reader on his Facebook wall that instead of buying a book on the 2. b3 Sicilian, he should study the endgame. That struck a sympathetic vibration. I believe that we chess improvers should spend more time mastering tactics, strategy, and technique and less time obsessing over openings.

I spend my time on tactics, master games, endgames, and openings. In that order. Maybe 10% on openings.

Endgame study covers a broad watershed. One of our local experts – who will tell anyone in the coffee shop he is a USCF rated expert, whether they’re interested or not – tells novices they need to learn the Philidor and Lucena positions. There are good reasons to learn these endgame maneuvers at the appropriate time. I think there are much more important endgame lessons that a novice needs to learn before they memorize the Philidor and Lucena positions. To my mind, that’s rather like telling a novice they need to master the Sämisch Variation of the King’s Indian. No, they don’t.

Novices need to master the basic checkmates. They need to know them cold. I run into many intermediate players who still struggle with basic mates and walk into stalemates that are easily avoided or waste moves when a simple path to mate is available.

I’ll suggest that a novice or intermediate player does not need to memorize the technique for lone king versus bishop and knight. When I mentioned this to my former coach yesterday at the coffee shop, he told me in his fifty years of chess, he’d seen it only three times. There is so much to learn that is vital and practical, the lone king versus bishop and knight mate can wait, in my opinion.

So, where should an intermediate player look to study the endgame. Well, I’d advise against starting with something like Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual. It’s a monumental work, but it’s best saved for experts and masters.

Let’s consider briefly what’s practical for the chess improver to study. Stated differently, what endgame knowledge will be immediately useful to us in our games?

Rook endings are the most common, but the most fundamental are king and pawn endings. The critical lessons we need to master are opposition, triangulation, reserved tempi, and shouldering. Identifying critical squares is also important. With a sole king against one pawn, it’s an easy concept to grasp. Put multiple pawns for both sides on the board and it quickly becomes complicated. Mastering the idea is where we learn how to breakthrough with the king and prevent breakthroughs.

According to both Glenn Flear in Practical Endgame Play and Fundamental Chess Endings by Mueller and Lamprecht, the most common endgames are rook and minor piece for each side. Working on those endgames will pay big dividends. Especially R+B v R+N. Next in frequency is pure rook endgames. They’re tricky. Bishop v. knight endings are common, too.

My suggestion is to spend considerable time on pawn ending fundamentals, rook endings, minor piece endings, and queen endings in pretty much that order.

I have a couple of suggestions on resources for endgame study.

Some players learn best from videos. The endgame series by Karsten Mueller is comprehensive. It pretty much follows his book with Lamprecht. I’d recommend that for stronger improvers. For intermediate players, I’d suggest instead the endgame DVDs in GM Daniel King’s PowerPlay series for ChessBase. GM King targets his videos at improvers and his instruction is always practical in focus. He doesn’t cover the entire breadth of endgames, but you will learn a lot from his DVDs on practical pawn endgames and practical rook endgames. Watch them, and your endgame should improve a lot.

For books, I’ll suggest that John Nunn’s recent book, Understanding Chess Endgames, is a great place to start. The book covers 100 endgame themes, all of them critical knowledge for the improving chess player who wants to advance to expert. I’d suggest complementing Nunn’s book with Mastering Endgame Strategy by Johan Hellsten. It’s also good to focus on the endgame play of some othe very best, such as Capablanca, Smyslov, and Fischer. You might also add Steve Giddins’ The Greatest Ever Chess Endgames for that perspective.

If you want a little more detail, John Nunn’s two volume Nunn’s Chess Endings is also practical in its endgame coverage. It would be an excellent follow-up after mastering Understanding Chess Endgames.

It’s nice to have a comprehensive endgame manual, such as Mueller and Lamprecht’s Fundamental Chess Endings or Reuben Fine’s Basic Chess Endings. Just realize, these are reference works, not introductory textbooks.

If you master the books I’ve recommended or sat through the 60 or 70 hours of endgame videos and worked diligently through all the material, then you’ll be ready for more advanced endgame instruction, such as that found in Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual.

Endgame study doesn’t end. Not even for GMs. The topics just get more advanced.

I wish everyone a happy holiday season!

Glenn Mitchell


Seeking Stronger Opponents

Your path to chess improvement might include tactics training, endgame study, adoption of a solid opening repertoire, study of master games in the lines you play, reading on strategy, regular coaching sessions, etc., but does it involve playing enough quality chess?

An area that players seeking improvement easily forget is that just spending many hours playing opponents that are better than them, where the focus is on quality not pushing wood quickly, is a key method of learning. It is all too easy for players to fall into the cosy routine of playing only opponents of a similar standard or weaker. If you really want to take a step up, you have to challenge yourself and seek out some tougher opponents.

If you get into the habit of expecting high quality moves to come back at you, you will improve your own move selection – because you will have to just to stay in the game. As one World Champion said:

“When you see a good move, look for a better one”. – Emanuel Lasker

How true that is – and a mentality of working hard at the board will be cultivated if you know that your opponent is fully capable of punishing mistakes.

The lessons learned in your own games are more real and unforgettable than anything you might learn away from the board. Nothing focuses the mind more than experiencing a painful defeat. And you just can’t recreate the intensity of playing an actual game in training exercises. Making time for playing more games with quality opposition has to be at the top of any improver’s to-do-list!

At tournaments, that might mean playing in the section above the one you usually play in. In team matches it might mean asking your captain if you can play on a higher board (as long as it doesn’t breach any rules). It might mean considering events you wouldn’t normally play in, because it’s keeping company with strong players, not playing weaker players, that improves your chess.

If you find it difficult finding enough opportunities to play stronger opponents over-the-board you may wish to consider correspondence chess on a server like FICGS. You will soon get used to strong moves coming back at you.

Once you’ve played some games, careful analysis of them will reveal what you missed – and what your opponents missed – and where you could have improved. You can do this most productively with a chess coach or with a stronger player that can spare you some time. A chess engine might help with tactics, but it won’t tell you why one strategic plan is better than another.

If you seek challenging opposition and analyse your games properly – and nothing else – you’ll be doing more than most people.

Angus James


“Nerves beat quality”

The FIDE World Cup in Tromso has seen some excellent commentary from Susan Polgar, Lawrence Trent and Nigel Short, among others. Even former World Champion Garry Kasparov, in his words “the highest-rated ever kibitzer”, rang in to add his views and you can still listen to his comments by clicking on this link.

One of the interesting things he said was that “nerves beat quality” in the knock-out tournament format, with performance in rapid and blitz games being key to making progress. Also, sheer stamina is required to merely survive the schedule. Indeed, failing to turn up on time to a game was enough to eliminate one player, misunderstanding or not.

Kasparov still concludes “eventually Kramnik will win” because of his “immense quality”. “Nerves beat quality” in knock-outs, unless you’re playing Kramnik then!

Angus James