Studying Time

How can people find time to study chess?

If you try to find half-an-hour each day, then you won’t find half-an-hour each day.  Something will come up to prevent you studying.

You need to set up a a habit of studying. Most of what we do each day is done through habit.  Habits make things easier. You just go with the flow. If it is 7 o’clock, I will have breakfast. If it is 6 pm, I will have my tea. If it is 10:30 pm, I will get ready for bed. Habits save us having to think about what to do.

So setting up a habit for studying chess will make your life easier not harder. If you set up a plan – ‘After tea, I will study for 30 minutes’, then you save all the bother of working out how you are going to fit in 30 minutes of study time.  It will simply be less stress to study than to figure out when you will find time to study.

After a while, the new habit will stick, and it will be part of your routine. New habits can take a while to become routine. Some research I saw said it took an average of 8 weeks to learn a new habit.

So assign a time to your chess study periods. if you don’t assign a time to something you want to do, it is just wishful thinking.

If you are lazy, and human beings are not designed to be workhorses, then make your laziness work for you. Schedule time to chess study periods so that it becomes just too much effort to change your routine.

To give you an idea of how lazy people are, there is a story of a firm that used to have free sweets in containers in their offices. They gave away a lot of sweets. When they put a lid on the container, the number of free sweets given away dropped dramatically. All people had to do was lift the lid, but enough people were so lazy that they couldn’t be bothered to do that.

So set up a schedule of study time. Put in the effort for a few weeks until it becomes a habit. Then you can make your habits work for you, instead of against you. You will be in a routine, and you will find that time for study of chess that you cannot find at present.

Steven Carr

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Teaching kids the Ruy Lopez (1)

For years I used to teach kids the Italian Game as their first real White opening once I wanted to get them away from mindless development in the Four Knights. If Black played Bc5, then c3 followed by d4, or if instead he played the Two Knights we went for the Fried Liver Attack with Ng5.

The problem with this, though, is that it’s very much about remembering forced variations, which doesn’t suit everyone and may possibly come at the expense of genuine understanding.

So why not teach the Ruy Lopez instead at this level? In my opinion there are a lot of reasons why you should.

As a not entirely irrelevant aside, most openings books are totally useless for less experienced juniors. In fact some of them are useless even at my level. In practical terms, I’m not interested in what grandmasters play. I want to know what the random player sitting opposite me in my next Thames Valley League match is going to play. If you’re teaching young kids you want to know what young kids who haven’t studied the openings very much are going to play. As someone once said, what good is the book if your opponent hasn’t read it?

So when I teach the Ruy Lopez I’m not going to show them Mickey Adams’s latest TN on move 35 of the Marshall. Nor am I going to discuss Vlad Kramnik’s most recent subtlety in the Berlin Wall. They’re not going to see the Marshall or the Berlin Wall at all. Nor are they going to play an early Nc3 and d3 and transpose into a boring Four Knights Game. They’re not even going to memorise any variations or learn very much theory. Instead they’re going to learn a lot of devastating tactical weapons which they can use against the sort of moves they’re likely to meet over the board in kiddie tournaments. They’re also going to learn about quick development, castling early, controlling the centre, the importance of the c-pawn in the opening, using open files, making pawn breaks, winning a pawn and converting it in the ending.

At this level, the Ruy Lopez is essentially about the resulting tactics when White tries to capture the pawn on e5, and when Black tries to capture the pawn on e4.

So we’ll start by showing them some moves: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5. The Spanish Opening or Ruy Lopez. Named after a 16th century Spanish priest. Why are we playing this? On move one we stick a pawn in the middle. Our opponent does the same thing. We attack it with our knight and he defends it. So we attack the defender. Now we’d like to trade off our bishop for his knight and then chop off the pawn. Or would we?

If you’re playing this in a low level kiddie tournament there are all sorts of replies you might meet. Beginners will often move the knight away because they don’t want to lose a piece, not understanding that a trade of equal value pieces is fine (and forgetting that they moved the knight to c6 to defend the pawn on e5). They might decide to copy White and play Bb4. Fine – we’re going to play c3 to kick the bishop away, and then, before or after castling, d4. Important lesson about using the c-pawn to fight for the centre (which is why we’re not playing the Four Knights). They might play either Bc5 or Nf6, maybe because it’s what they’ve been taught to do against Bc4, or maybe because they look like sensible developing moves. If they’ve heard that doubled pawns are bad they might play Nge7. If they think their e-pawn is in imminent danger they’ll probably play d6. We’ll look at some of these in more detail in a later article, but we’ll start with what is, at most levels, the most popular reply: a6. They might play this because they know it’s the usual move, or just because they like creating threats, hoping their opponent won’t notice.

We continue, then, 3… a6 and see what happens if White carries out his ‘threat': 4. Bxc6 dxc6 (we’ll explain that this is the better recapture because it opens lines for the bishop and queen). Now we’ll play 5. Nxe5 and ask them to select a move for Black.

As they’ve been taught not to bring their queen out too soon they’ll probably suggest various developing moves like Nf6 or Bd6 before considering the idea of a queen fork. They’ll need a bit of prompting to see that there are three queen moves which Black could employ to regain his pawn: Qd4 (forking e5 and e4), which happens to be the best option, Qe7 (skewering e5 and e4) and Qg5 (forking e5 and g2). We’ll play a few more moves: 5… Qd4 6. Nf3 Qxe4+ 7. Qe2 Qxe2+ 8. Kxe2 and agree that Black stands better: he has the two bishops in a fairly open position and White’s king is awkwardly placed. You might possibly want to leave the discussion about the relative merits of the minor pieces for another time though.

Big lesson number 1: look out for queen forks in the opening. These are easy to miss partly because you may not be looking for tactics when your brain’s still in opening mode and partly for the reason mentioned above: you usually don’t want to bring your queen out too soon.

So we’ll take a few moves back and try to do a bit better for White. Instead of taking the pawn on move 5 we’re going to castle. You’ll see the difference very shortly. If he hasn’t seen the position before Black is quite likely to play a natural developing move such as 5… Nf6. Now we’re going to capture on e5. It’s time to play Spot the Difference.

Let’s suppose Black tries Qd4 as he was advised to play the move before. So: 6. Nxe5 Qd4 7. Nf3 Qxe4 and it’s easy to see how White can win the queen.

Or Black could take the pawn at once: 6. Nxe5 Nxe4 when White again uses his rook on the e-file: 7. Re1. If the knight retreats a discovered check will win the black queen. They may well be familiar with this idea from the Copycat Trap in the Petroff. If not, they should be.

Finally, Black could try to drive the knight back first, just as in the Petroff, say 6. Nxe5 Bd6 7. Nf3 Nxe4 8. Re1. Again we use the rook on the e-file. This time there’s an enemy knight in the way so we have a pin. Black can defend the pinned piece with 8… Bf5 but now we can simply attack the pinned piece with 9. d3 (or Nc3) and come out a piece ahead.

Simple first lesson on the Ruy Lopez, then. A little bit of very basic theory, but much more than that. A graphic illustration of why we castle quickly in positions where the e-file is going to be opened, and how we use the rook there. A lot of vital tactical ideas as well: queen forks for Black, pins and discovered attacks for White. If there’s an enemy piece between our rook and his king we can pin and win it. If there’s a friendly piece in the way we can move it with a discovered check. Next time we’ll take the opening a bit further and look at some more ideas.

Richard James

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Databases

Advances in computer technology have given the modern chess player a plethora of tools to advance their playing abilities. In fact, there are so many options now available to the student of the game that many players become lost in those varied options. However, there is one software program that all serious students of the game should have and that is the database.

A database is a large collection of something, in this case chess games, that is well organized and easily accessible. Historically, databases have been used for everything from population studies to Entomology classifications. In chess, the database is used to house large collections of games played throughout the ages. Prior to the development of the computer database, chess players kept a record of their favorite games in notebooks. Those games were copied from books, magazines and newspapers. Prior to the chess database, chess players had to put a fair amount of effort into building up their own collection of games. Now, a player can simply click their computer’s mouse a few times and have the game they wish to examine appear on the screen within a few seconds. My current database contains over six million games, from the first recorded game of chess, played in Valencia Spain in 1475 to games played as recently as last month. With a good database, our game’s entire rich playing history can be studied in detail. Does this mean that everyone should run out and purchase a chess database program?

If you’re a casual player, you might not want to invest in a database program, but rather visit one of the many websites that house game collections and play through their games online. You could also download a free PGN viewer and download games you find interesting, building your own database one game at a time. What’s a PGN? PGN stands for Portable Game Notation, which is a plain text computer file format used for recording both game moves and related data. This format is supported by the majority of all chess software. This simple format allows games to be replayed using chess databases or PGN viewers. The PGN viewer is essentially a stripped down version of the commercial database. Seeing as you could download a free PGN viewer and build your own database by downloading games from a number of websites that offer those games free of charge, why would you consider purchasing a commercial database?

There are a number of good reasons for purchasing a commercial database, such as Chessbase 12 or 13. The first reason is convenience. Please note, that I tend not to endorse chess products unless they really offer an advantage. Chessbase’s database program includes a huge number of games that are well organized, many of which are annotated by titled players. It’s current incarnation has a database of 6.1 million games. This means you have, at your fingertips, more games then you could play through in a lifetime. Their database allows you to refine or filter your search when looking for specific games. You can also look at games according to opening. A huge plus is the ability to examine a specific position and see all games (in the database) that include that position. It is easy to use and I’ve yet to have the program crash. It also allows you to create secondary databases, such as one with your own games

The second reason their database program is good is because you can use it to play training DVDs such as those done by Nigel Davies, Andrew Martin and Daniel King. These Chessbase Trainers are extremely well done and will help you improve your game. The database can be used in conjunction with various chess engines to thoroughly analyze the game you’re viewing, whether it is one of your own or the game of a master!

There is so much to say about this database that I could write a book! Come to think of it, Jon Edwards already has written a book for Chessbase database users titled Chessbase Complete. Having used this program for years, I thought I knew much of what there was to know about this program. After reading this book, I realized that I had only scratched the surface!

We improve our game by studying the games of others. The serious student of our game no longer has to rut around trying to find games to study from books, magazines or newspapers. With a database program, any game is a mouse click away! So should you run out and spend a fair amount of money on ChessBase?

The answer is “not right away!” If you’re new to the world of PGN files and databases, you might want to try a free program such as Penguin 9 or 10. Its a free PGN viewer and database program that you can use chess engines with for analysis. While it is nowhere near as pretty to look at as Chessbase, it will serve as a good introduction to the world of databases. You can use chessgames.com, which offers a huge number of games available in PGN format that are free to download to build up your game collection. Once you’ve logged in some time with a program like Penguin, learning more about database management, etc, you can move on to a commercial database program. There are other free PGN/Database programs to choose from but Penguin is well supported and easy to use.

After getting used to a simpler database program, you can then consider moving on to a more sophisticated program such as Chessbase. To give you an idea about the versatility of Chessbase, I’ll site an example from my own studies. I’m a huge fan of chess’s romantic period, the age of the gambit. I’ve been studying the King’s Gambit is great deal over the last two weeks. Most notably, I’ve been working through a Chessbase Training DVD on the King’s Gambit. When you start using a database system, you’ll notice that the various openings are coded. The King’s Gambit Accepted is coded, C33, for example. This coding system was developed in 1966 and employed in the Encyclopedia of Chess Openings or ECO. The letters used, A through E, represent a broader openings classification while the numbers, 00 through 99, represent subcategories. This system allows all chess openings to be alphanumerically broken down for easy categorizing. The first Volume of the DVD I was watching deals with King’s Gambit Accepted games in which 3,Bc4 is played.

Having a database containing over six million games would be an exercise in madness if there were no easy way to search through those games. With Chessbase, I was able to first filter the massive collection of games down to games in which the King’s Gambit Accepted was played. I simply entered C33 into the search filter which gave me 3,550 King’s Gambit Accepted games. To further reduce this number, I refined my search by entering the position after 3.Bc4, which reduced the number of games to a much smaller number. To my surprise, I found a game played in Rome from 1590, in which 3.Bc4 was played after 2…exf4. I had no idea that the King’s Gambit Accepted (3.Bc4 line) had been played so early on. The point here is that I was able to use this database program not only to watch my training video (Chessbase Trainers can be viewed using their database program) but to further research games employing this opening.

Of course, there are readers who will say “that’s all fine and good but Chessbase is expensive so why should I make the investment?” Think of investing in this program like buying a car. When you purchase a car, you’re using the idea of investing in problem free transportation to guide your purchase. You might find a car that is inexpensive but old. However, in the end you might have to invest a large sum of money into future repairs. So investing in a newer car that will last a lot longer, before needing repair work, might make more sense. Investing in a program like Chessbase might seem expensive but you’ll get years and years worth of useful assistance from it in the long run. If you want to save some money when investing in Chessbase, consider purchasing an earlier edition. Version 13 recently came out so version 12 can be purchased at a reduced rate.

Whether you use a free database program or a commercial program like Chessbase, you’ll add to your knowledge base by acquiring such a program. It’s a good investment in your chess training. Here’s a King’s Gambit Accepted game from 1690, which I guess you could say was an old school game! Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

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My Gripes About Correspondence Chess

Because Nigel has a “no offense” policy for this blog I will not use the names of the people that are involved in my stories. However, the guilty parties know who they are!

On ICC (the Internet Chess Club) I had numerous occasions in which my opponents exceeded the time controls and got off with warnings! Repeat offenders got off with warnings and were given extra time to play while I was NOT given any extra time to play my moves! That is why I quit playing correspondence chess on ICC.

I have had similar problems playing correspondence chess under the rules of the US Chess Federation (USCF). As I see it, the USCF rules for correspondence chess are not only inconsistent, but they are also inconsistently enforced. In an Over the Board (OTB) game, if my opponent takes too long to move and runs out of time he or she loses. The only out for my opponent would be if the clock was defective or not set properly. If my opponent had a heart attack, got food poisoning or was arrested in the middle of the game he or she would still lose if the clock ran out! This is not the case with cc!

I have played people who were already in prisons when the chess games with them started. These prisons sometimes have their own rules for how mail to inmates is handled. Now, I have an opponent who was free when our games started and he ended up in the county jail where he lives while our two games were in progress. It took two months for me to realize that I had not heard from this particular opponent and I sent him repeat moves. It took two more weeks to get replies from him. The TD for these games stated that I am supposed to charge this opponent for the amount of reflection time that he is actually thinking about his moves and not for “transition time”. If my opponent can’t get his mail while he is in jail, does that really count as “transition time”? I would say, “No”! By my calculations, this opponent ran out of time and I should win on time forfeit! However, I am being told otherwise!

The following was copied from the USCF website:

transmission time: The time a move is in the custody of the
Postal Service, that is, from the postmark date to date of delivery
at the recipient’s address.

This makes it clear that the time that my moves are sitting in someone’s mailbox is not transmission time!

The game below is from my most recent draw in correspondence chess that was played on the ICCF server. This draw leaves me in fifth place out of seven in this section. In my only remaining game from this section I am winning, but my opponent in that game has yet to finish any of her games in that section. I need to win this last game and then have her win a few of her other games if I am going to finish any better than tied third place in this section.

Although the move order can vary depending on what my opponent plays and what mood I am in, I played the Botvinnik System in this chess game. My opponent played the Kings Indian Defense. On move number 8, he started a maneuver with his King’s Knight that I rarely see in OTB chess. On move number 9 he put his Knight on d4, which has annoyed me on a few occasions.

For some reason that I no longer remember, I rejected 12.e5. At first glance it looks like it should win material, but the chess engines are saying otherwise. My move number 10 gets my Queen’s rook off the long diagonal that Black’s dark-squared Bishop is on and supports b4 on my next move. Black continued with his Knight maneuver. I continued with my kingside expansion. I then locked up the Kingside and we exchanged light-squared bishops. Further exchanges led to a position in which neither one of us had any advantage.

Then, we both centralized our rooks and tried to get some play on the Queenside. After a few more exchanges my opponent was left with a backward pawn on the b file and I had a backward pawn on the d file. A few moves later I found a good outpost square for my Knight on b5, but it failed to amount to anything.

On move number 30 , I put my remaining Rook on the open a file and I also had my Knight on b5. Again, these slight positional advantages were not enough to win. Further exchanges across the board lead to my having a passed pawn on the d file, but it still was not enough to win, so I settled for a draw against a provisionally lower rated opponent. These draws against provisional 1800 rated players has hurt my rating some. If I can’t consistently beat 1800 and 1900 rated players  then I will not likely ever get my ICCF rating over 2200 points!

Mike Serovey

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Balloted Openings

At the turn of the twentieth century 8×8 American and English Draughts (“Checkers”) players realized the game was being exhausted. Given their choice, most players with Black (first player) would open with one or two of the seven legal moves and their opponents would respond in similar narrow veins. At the top level the game was effectively drawn. The intervening century cooked a few endgames and forced minor re-evaluations, but the best players knew the main lines to the mathematical endpoint.

The result starting in 1900 was the America two-move restriction followed in 1934 by the American three-move restriction. Tournament players were balloted openings from a set of acceptable two (half-)move sequences, B-W, and then three (half-)moves, B-W-B.

Balloted openings did two things for Checkers

  1. It forced topflight players to know the whole game
  2. It revealed lines previously disregarded and even thought lost which have hidden resources in the weaker position.

The first result was practical, the second bespoke itself of the beauty of the game. Computers have performed a similar service for Chess in that they have awakened long-discarded “quiet” lines.

Apology : I was not accurate previously in this blog in blandly stating that draughts had been computationally solved. The particular problem claimed to be solved is, “Does the game end in a draw with best play?”  which was answered in the affirmative without exhaustive calculation of inferior lines.

Watch this interview with Alexander Moiseyev the 6th world 3-move checkers champion:

Jacques Delaguerre

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Bruce

My name is Bruce Tendai Mubayiwa and I am a chess promoter, board game entrepreneur and mathematics teacher based in Kathu, Northern Cape, South Africa. A very big thank you to Grandmaster Nigel Davies for the incredible opportunity to contribute to this website. I love the game of chess and have been playing the game for at least 25 years, having learnt from a friend. Little did I realise then that chess would be a big part of my life.

I think in terms of chess rating now I would be around 1600 but as a blitz I think I am much stronger. I have generally been much stronger as a blitz player than at classical time controls in chess.  I have represented Zimbabwe as a junior player, I took part in the 1996 Africa Junior Chess Championships in Maputo, Mozambique and am a former National Chess Champion. I won the lightning chess championships in National Chess Championships in 1997.

I would love to see many more children playing chess not just here in Kathu but across the continent. I believe there is so much that the game has to offer. My main reason for wanting more children to play chess is I truly believe that chess is an enjoyable and fulfilling game that teaches a lot in the process like the need to plan.

Bruce Mubayiwa

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The UK Counties and District Correspondence Chess Championships Division One

During the years that I have been playing in the Counties and District Correspondence Chess Championship our team from Hertfordshire has slowly climbed into Division One (Ward-Higgs) with me eventually reaching Board One. I have played many good players over the years, including drawing with the top two UK GMs.

This year I am playing an IM who is some 150 rating points above me, although the games are only in their early stages. Last year I drew and lost a game, also against an IM, Alan Borwell, who was some 170 rating points below me at the time and playing for Yorkshire. Alan is also a strong over-the-board player and is a past President of the ICCF. It seems an appropriate time to show you Alan’s win of a very complex game where I failed to find a safe haven for my King. Alan is currently just recovering from surgery and we all wish him a speedy recovery.

John Rhodes

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Opening Repertoire

In my process of improvement I have decided to get a solid opening repertoire. The main problem in an opening repertoire is  choosing what to play with Black against 1 e4. In the past, I alternated between the Latvian Gambit and the French. I have now given up on my once beloved Latvian , and play the French exclusively.

But playing the French can involve studying the Winawer. In my opinion, the Winawer is even more complicated than the Sicilian Najdorf. There are lines of tactical mayhem, and also lines of huge strategic depth that take a Botvinnik or a Smyslov to master. Emmanuel Berg recently produced two whole books on the Winawer. This gives you an idea of the depth of theory that has to be learned for just one variation in the French. There is also a defense to the Tarrasch to learn as well.

So I bought Nigel Davies opening videos on his training website. These cost 20 pounds for 21 hours of videos and are good value.

He recommends the Rubinstein Variation of the French Defense. This certainly seems easier to learn than the Winawer.

But isn’t the Rubinstein a little boring and passive? Let us look at some of the players who have recently played the Rubinstein – Anand, Bareev, Morozevich, Judith Polgar, etc.

Now Judith Polgar and Alexander Sergeyevich Morozevich don’t play openings they consider to be lifeless and dull. Anand and Bareev are not conservative players. They play to win.

I shall be following their example.

Steven Carr

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Checkmates in Queen Endings

Perhaps my all time favourite chess book is Chess Curiosities, by Tim Krabbé. There’s a chapter in this book about strange occurrences in queen endings.

The other day I was looking at games played by some of my friends in the recent London Chess Classic FIDE Open when I came across something which reminded me of this chapter.

Former RJCC star Richard Cannon was being outplayed in a queen ending by an opponent rated 300 points below him when this position arose.

It’s been a long struggle but now, on move 89, White is on the verge of victory with three extra pawns, one of which is about to queen. He can win at once with Kf7, when Black has to trade queens to avoid immediate mate. Instead he played 89. Qh5+, which is still winning easily. After 89… Kg8 he could centralise his queen again with 90. Qd5+ and then push his pawn to d7. But instead he pushed at once: 90. d7 Qa3+ 91. Ke6 Qa6+. Now White regrets leaving his queen offside. He’s either going to lose his d-pawn or lose his queen and promote his d-pawn (after, say, 92. Kf5 Qb5+ 93. Kf4 Qxh5 94. d8=Q+) when he’s going have to start the winning process all over again. Not fancying this he tried to keep both his pawn and his queen by playing 92. Ke7, only to find that, completely out of the blue, he’d lost his king instead when Black produced 92… Qf6+ 93. Ke8 Qf8# giving Richard a rather fortunate point.

It’s very easy to make this sort of mistake, and Krabbé gives examples of strong grandmasters suffering embarrassing defeats in this way. It’s been a long game, you’re feeling tired, you’re running short of time or perhaps playing on increments. You’ve long since switched out of Middle Game Mode and into Endgame Mode where you’re thinking about king activity and assuming there won’t be any possibility of checkmate.

I know from personal experience just how easy it is because almost a year ago I lost a game myself in the same way. There were some fascinating tactics earlier in the game, which I might share with you some other time, but for now consider this position.

I had the white pieces and, just as in the previous example, was trying to promote my d-pawn in a queen ending. The problem was that my king had nowhere to hide so I could expect no more than a draw. With not much time left I pushed the pawn here after which my young opponent swiftly demonstrated a mate in four: 44. d7 Qh1+ 45. Kg4 f5+ 46. Kf4 Qe4+ 47. Kg5 h6#

Note that the mate only worked because 44. d7 unpinned the black f-pawn by cutting off the white queen. Instead any sensible move such as 44. Qe7 would have drawn as long as I didn’t run out of time.

So I looked through some games played in 2013 in BigBase 2014 to see what else I could find.

I guess White was a bit unlucky in this one. You might think someone with a 1988 rating should have done better, but if you’re sitting there with the clock ticking it’s not so easy. Black has just delivered a check and White has to consider how to parry this. With 71. Qf3 he’d have had every chance of exploiting his two extra pawns but instead he played 71. Kg4 Qxg2+ 72. Kxh4 confident that Black didn’t have any dangerous queen moves. Correct, but instead he found a dangerous king move: 72… Kh6 with the deadly threat of g5#. Seeing that 73. Qg3 would be met by 73… g5+ 74. Kg4 Qxe4+ and mate next move he resigned.

In this example Black has a queen and a pawn on the seventh rank against his opponent’s queen. White’s been checking him for the last ten moves so he now decided to head for safety in the south east corner of the board, playing 92… Kg3. Not a good idea: suddenly White mates in two moves with Qf4+. Easily done, but Black, with a rating of 2084, is, by most standards, a pretty strong player.

Even grandmasters are not immune from this sort of thing. Here’s Kazakh GM Anuar Ismagambetov in action. He’s a pawn down but as his queen is securely blockading the extra pawn there should be no way his opponent can make progress.

75. Kc6 is fine for a half point, but 75. Kd6 Qb6# left White looking rather foolish. Ismagambetov? I’m not sure whether or not his gambit is off but in this game his ending certainly was!

So next time you reach a queen ending, don’t forget to look out for snap checkmates. Learning some queen and pawn mating patterns is also going to help you.

Richard James

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Rise of the Machines

Has the creation of chess playing programs and their subsequent use for game preparation ruined the game of chess? While it may not have completely ruined our great game (yet), it has taken some of the excitement away that comes from purely human play. Further more, it appears as if the silicon beast is raising a new generation of chess players that won’t make a move unless Houdini or Stockfish gives them the green light to do so.

A chess game can be a work of art. Art’s creative process requires taking chances. Sometimes those chances lead to absolute failure, but sometimes those chances lead to absolute beauty. Will the chess engine lead to artless, dull games? Can we find a way to balance computer play and human play in our own quest to improve as chess players?

For those of you with little understanding of playing software, what I’m talking about when I say “chess engine” is the heart of a chess playing program. Chess engines use brute force to determine what it considers it’s best response to your move. The chess engine can weed through hundreds of thousands of potential moves in the blink of an eye, finally settling on what it considers to be the best of those moves. Unfortunately, the human mind cannot match this kind of brute force thinking. This is why most of us simply cannot beat a strong chess engine.

The advent of the chess engine and GUI (Graphical User Interface) have given chess players access to an opponent anytime of day or night. They serve as an excellent sparing partner, allowing us to improve our game through play or practice. They can help us achieve our goal of becoming better chess players but we must tread lightly in regards to our usage of such programs.

These types of programs serve another useful purpose in that they allow a player trying a new move in a specific opening, for example, to see how that move might be successfully or unsuccessfully refuted. This is where the trouble often starts. A player might enjoy playing an opening, one of the Indian Defenses for example, and has done quite well with that opening at the local chess club. This same player reads a variety of chess periodicals and discovers to his horror that his favorite Indian Defense is no longer being played by master level players. It isn’t being played because a popular chess engine has come up with a way to refute it. Our club player decides that if top level players no longer employ his favorite opening, he shouldn’t either. He decides to switch to another opening which leads to a decline in his rating because he doesn’t play it as well. Of course, this is a simplified example but there are a lot of players that follow this type of thinking.

Younger players who have developed their chess skills to a higher level often take the opinion of the chess engine as if it were a direct message from some higher power. If chess engine “X” says this is the move to make then it must be right! If chess engine “X” refutes your opening then your opening is weak! With many younger players its as if the dreaded machine (or chess program in this case) is allowed to make decisions for them.

I was talking to a younger player about an opening he played and he kept repeating the phrase “Houdini says that this is the better move” over and over. I asked him if minded having his thought process controlled by a computer program. Of course, he was appalled by this notion and went to great lengths to carefully explain that the world’s top players employed the same method of computer preparation. I asked him if he considered himself a creative player. He said he didn’t understand the question. I went on to explain that creativity often meant taking chances in an effort to explore uncharted territory. He was quick to point out that trying to be creative in chess could only lead to lost games and a decline in rating points.

Because many players will simply accept the chess engine’s decision regarding a specific move as absolute, they don’t attempt understand the reasoning behind that move. If the engine’s suggested move occurs in the opening, a player might accept that move at face value and adjust the remaining moves of their opening around the engine’s move. Don’t play a move unless you fully understand the reasons for it. Of course, at Grandmaster level, players will understand the engine’s reasoning. However, at lower levels you’re apt to get into trouble. Develop your own chess brain before relying on the silicon monster. To quote my father (a U.S. Marine) “there was a time when men only had their wits to rely on when playing chess.” Of course, this is the same man who thought that standing in your underwear in a snow storm was an exercise in character building. The point is, you need to have a well developed skill set to understand why a chess engine makes a specific move. In fairness though, a decent portion of the moves made by chess engines do make sense to your average club player. However, it’s the moves that go over their heads that somehow seem to stick!

One of the reasons I enjoy the era of chess prior to computer analysis is because players had to use their own minds to work out positions when preparing for matches. Players took chances, albeit calculated chances, but chances all the same. Taking chances is a fundamental part of creativity. There are so many possible positions within a single game of chess that surely there must be some uncharted positional territory on the sixty four squares just waiting to be discovered by the intrepid and creative explorer.

It should be noted that I use Houdini in my work as an instructor and coach. However, it does not have the final say in the chess world I live in. It is a teaching/learning tool. I value my chess engine and it has helped me immensely with my own improvement. However, I insist on questioning it’s solution to every positional problem. I teach my students to ask a fundamental question when it comes to a computer based move: Do you understand why it is making this move? The move is of new use to your chess education unless you understand why it was made. By asking this question, students don’t simply accept the engine’s choice. They are forced to think for themselves and learn a bit in the process.

Where I see the worst use of engines is on many chess forums where a 1100 rated player will start picking apart the games of Magnus Carlsen as an amateur analyst, depending on the chess engine to do all the work and giving it none of the credit. It’s akin to someone bragging that they beat up a professional martial artist but not telling you they showed up in an armored tank to do so. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology but I love using my own mind more. At the rate this craze over using chess engines is going, chess tournaments of the future may be a case of laptops opposing one another in the tournament hall. Well, there you have it. Here’s a game to enjoy until next. No computer nonsense for these two players!

Hugh Patterson

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