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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Lopsided Correspondence Team Match

     The Correspondence Chess League of America, the ICCF representative for US, started a 17 board, double round match against Lechenicher SchachServer back in April.  As of now the score stands at CCLA 3 vs. LSS 17, so LSS needs only a draw to win the match.  In view of the crushing (so far) defeat of the CCLA, I have to wonder if anybody at the CCLA, which does not permit engine use, was aware of the fact that LSS has no rules against it. It seems unlikely that CCLA members were aware of the fact and so are losing badly to the LSS engine users.  Not much for LSS to brag about!  This shows the futility of these inter-organization matches unless the rules are clear and the same for everybody.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Another Non-Chess Post

I like this kind of stuff...

Got Real Chess Talent?

This has been around awhile but maybe you haven’t seen it. GM Jonathan Levitt created a simple, self-test to determine chess aptitude. This test is discussed in his book, 'Genius in Chess.'  All it requires is a clock, board, one white knight, and one black queen.  Place the white knight on square b1. Place the black queen on square d4. The knight has to move up the ranks, visiting the squares that are not controlled by the Black Q in order.
      So you visit c1, e1, f1, h1 then a2, c2, e2, g2, h2, and so on until you reach g8.  During the test you cannot take the black queen or put the knight en prise.
      Only do the test once, and time yourself. Supposedly if you can’t do the test in ten minutes or less on the first try then according to Levitt, you don’t have real chess talent.
      This was a lot harder than it looks and I won’t reveal my score but will only say it showed what I already knew: I don’t have real talent. GM Matthew Sadler completed the test in 4 min. and 20 sec. GM Michael Adams in 5 min. and 30 sec. GM Julian Hodgson 7 min.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Geller-Euwe Zurich 1953

Engine Analysis Methods

Most people running an engine analysis of a game simply have Fritz run a full analysis for a set time limit per move or a set ply-depth, but that does not always give satisfactory results.  Below is a list of some methods that will give better results, but in the end, if one is going to learn anything or hope for decent results in high level CC events where engine use is allowed, then it is going to require interactive analysis where you work with the engine in trying to ferret out the best move in any position. And that is going to require more than just plugging a game into Fritz and letting it do its thing. It’s going to require patience and, as you will see, making some judgment calls based on your understanding.  Anyway, I hope this brief guide will be of use in assisting readers in understanding how to analyze a game with an engine and perhaps help in using engines in their quest for improvement.

Sparring Partner
      You come up with a plan and use the engine as a blundercheck to see if the move loses material. This is a good way to check out your ideas because engines will put up tough resistance to you moves. This method is also effective because sometimes we get so carried away with our ideas that we can overlook the best moves but the engine will not.
      Another way of using this interactive analysis is, once you have a line you want to analyze, go to the end and keep going back one move and wait to see if the engine’s analysis makes a large change. If it does then you will want to check out those side lines to make sure the engine did not miss anything in its original analysis.
      Note: if the engine pauses for a long time and/or it keeps jumping back and forth between candidate moves, it means it is having a hard time deciding on the move it thinks best. For you, this means it’s a good place to stop and investigate further the move the engine was considering.

      In this mode you click on the + or – to increase/decrease the number of moves variations displayed. When the difference between the first and second choice is about one Pawn and the position is relatively quiet tactically, then the conclusion is that the first choice is probably best. However, in a tactically wild position before concluding that the first choice is clearly best, you need a difference of 2 or 3 Pawns before concluding that the first choice is definitely the best one. If the difference is about a half Pawn, you can’t draw any definite conclusions.

Multiple Engines
      Running more than one engine at the same time is one of the best ways to analyze a position because different engines will not always come up with the same first choice. When you get different suggestions, you will have to investigate them further and make a decision as to which move offers the best possibilities. Another point to understand is that when it comes to positional evaluations, engines can vary greatly in the numbers they display. Usually the difference will only be a half-P or less which is insignificant, but it can also be quite large. When this happens we usually either go with the engine showing the largest difference or the one that’s rated the strongest, but this can be misleading in positions where there are material imbalances but one side has attacking possibilities. So the question then becomes one of which engine are you going to believe?

Engine Tournaments
      Running a tournament with multiple engines from a given position is another way of testing a position. After the tournament you can look at the games to get an idea of different liens of play and see where they lead. One word of caution though…the results can be skewed by later engine errors, so don’t take the results at face value without checking them out first. The most effective positions to evaluate in this manner are those in which the next few moves will affect the game in some way. Examples: which side to castle on, P-moves that close the center or result in isolated or doubled P’s, exchanges leading to material imbalances, or positions that are complicated and open.

Deep Position Analysis
      This method of analysis is one that establishes an analysis tree and you can adjust the length of the branches. This method is probably the least desirable method and is best used when you don’t want to spend time interacting with the engine and are content to just let the engine do all the work. On the other hand if one’s understanding of chess isn’t very good this method is satisfactory.

Full Analysis and Blunderchecking
      This is good if you want to check a game for tactical errors, but remember that this analysis will be pretty meaningless in closed positions and setting blunderchecking at any value of a half-P or less will result in “improvements” that are, generally, meaningless.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Bobby Fischer from Chess Genius to Legend by Eduard Gufeld

I recently came across a copy of this in a used book store so of course snatched it up. The book is a collection of stories by people who knew Fischer: Eduard Gufeld, Carlos Almarza-Mato, Mike Morris, Wolfgang Unzicker, Gudmendur Thorarinsson, Bragi Kristjansson, and Bob Long, the book’s editor.

Fischer turned into a pathetic, repugnant character in later years…actually he was always a rather repugnant person but much of his behavior was excused because of his talent. When he quit playing chess there was nothing left BUT his loathsome character. In his latter days he called chess mental masturbation and made a lot of crazy and even downright ugly accusations against a lot of players and other people. Fischer was paranoid, racist, anti-Semitic and known for coarse vulgarity. I lost all respect for him as a person during his match with Reshevsky in 1961. OK, so Mrs. Piatagorsky acted like a real bitch, but that still did not justify Fischer’s language which was fit for the gutter.

Back to this book… the first 100 pages or so are by Gufeld who adds nothing we didn’t already know. It’s just a bunch material regurgitated from other sources. The writing was apparently left exactly as Gufeld wrote it which is “weird” and evidently was not proofread and corrected. For example: “Fischer correctly evaluated the game, having taken the game to an few pieces ending.”

In one place Gufeld said the first game of the 1971 Larsen-Fischer match was the most creative and that it would be worthwhile studying it. He then gave the unannotated game for the reader to play over. If the game was so worthy of study why didn’t the GM add some notes?! Some of his historical “facts” are also suspect.

As for the other contributors, much of what is contained in the book is hogwash. What does “May Caissa illuminate all of us in our chess initiatic paths so as we will be able to understand, discern, and learn” mean?! Also included in the book is trash written by authors, obviously hostile to the US, blaming the US government and anybody else you can think of for Fischer’s mental condition. I don’t agree that the US government was the fault of Fischer’s mental problems, but it’s OK to include it in the book because, after all, this is a democracy and everybody has the right, including Fischer and anti-US authors, to voice their opinions.

Overall I’d say if you see this book in the library it’s OK to check it out because it’s free and you can read it while you’re sitting on the toilet. If it didn’t belong to the library, it could be safely flushed after reading. If you have to PAY for it, save your money!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Interesting Game by Lower Rated Players

I came across this game that was published in Chess Life & Review magazine in 1975.  It was played between two “class” players; White was rated ~1650 and Black ~1550.  It contains some mistakes, of course, but Black’s 29th move was very nice.  It might be worthwhile to play over the game and see if you can spot all the tactics.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Dumb Advice

      This is from a guy who’s been trying to reach 1700 for several years:  It doesn't matter if your position is superior if you blunder pieces and fall into mates so you need to study tactics before you study strategy and endings.
      This guy has played more openings than I have socks and his “study plan” consists of studying tactics and playing blitz games on ICC. The blitz games reinforce his bad habits and encourage superficial thinking.  Constantly changing openings is not to be recommended either. He is constantly advising players who want to improve that tactics and blitz is the way to improve and they should avoid studying strategy and endings until they are at least 1800.  He will likely never get there. I gave up giving him advice a couple years ago.  The other day a long-time master told him he needed to play a lot and then analyze the games (he was not referring to blitz games) and he needed deepen his knowledge of the positions from his openings by studying master games, study strategy and endings. A waste of breath if you ask me because the guy turned right around and complained that he lost his last couple of tournament games because of tactical errors so he was switching back to a previously played opening and was going to have to hit the tactical servers harder. Apparently it has never occurred to this guy that you can’t keep doing the same thing (changing openings, studying tactics and playing blitz) and expect different results (improvement). 
      Most players will never master tactics or any other phase of the game. That’s why they are not masters; they haven’t mastered anything.  Anyway, let’s say it’s a 40 move game and 10 are opening moves; that leaves 30 moves and let’s say a player makes 5 errors that could have lead to loss of material or mate.  That leaves 25 moves where he was doing what?  Just aimlessly shifting pieces around and probably weakening his position?  Or was he applying principles of sound strategy? Why can’t one study tactics, strategy, endings and play over master games to increase one’s pattern recognition skills simultaneously? 
      Yes, as CJS Purdy advised, you comb the board for tactics at every move.  But if you don’t find one, and most of the time you won’t, what are you going to do? Also, as an afterthought, I can’t help but wonder, if this guy keeps losing due to overlooking tactics, why does he insist on playing gambits? If he is devoting so much time to studying and not improving, then he’s doing something wrong.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Are chess engines ruining correspondence chess?

      Aren’t chess engines so good that humans cannot win against them? The truth is, at least at higher levels of CC play, that engines still have disadvantages. And in order to overcome those disadvantages, it still requires input from humans.
      To analyze a position to full accuracy, chess engines need to check all possible moves, all their countermoves and so on. This means their ability to look ahead and see developments is limited. To compensate for that, chess engines use different criteria to select moves which they believe are worthy of further analysis.
      For example in a middle game, where each position allows for 30 different moves, the engines would need to look at 531,440,000,000,000,000 positions to reach a depth of 12 ply (6 full moves). At an average speed of 1.2 million positions per second it would take, for all practical purposes, forever to compute. By limiting the number of moves they consider and including the different search algorithms used by different engines, they do make mistakes in evaluations.
      Another argument is that the use of chess engines allows weaker players to successfully play against stronger players so the gap between low rated and high rated players has been narrowed.
      Actually the gap between strong players using chess engines and the weak players using chess engines remains the same. Look at any GM CC tournament and you will find some players winning almost all their games while some players lose almost all of them. The result is not because of engines alone. It is because of a difference in human skills when it comes to correctly evaluating positions. The chess engines neutralize each other so the difference is based on chess skills.
      From a practical stand point let’s assume your average player lets his engine run for only a minute or two then selects its first choice. Let’s assume the stronger player lets his engine run for several hours, looks at the position and then evaluates its output and then runs though its analysis and in addition considers some moves of his own based on his understanding of the position. What's going to happen is that the stronger player will probably win. 
      When I started at LSS I lost a lot of games owing to using Fritz 5.32 and an old, slow computer. I never relied entirely on the engine to select my moves. I also tried out moves that looked best to me but did not realize I was not allowing sufficient time to get anywhere near a reliable analysis. The result was, believe it or not, a few moves that actually turned out to be tactical errors, and quite a few losses. As my knowledge of how to use engines, coupled with an upgrade in equipment, I’ve had much better results and have even bettered my overall score to a plus 2!
      Did chess engines change correspondence chess? Yes, they did, significantly so. If we look at games of the times before chess engines, we frequently find bad mistakes in the play of weaker players, including gross blunders. Today, we do not see such blunders even in the games of low-level players.
      The requirements on players have changed. Besides their chess skills and knowledge, players now need to know how to use chess engines efficiently and to complement to their own skills. Players need to know the strengths and limits of their engines. Another quirk of engines is that sometimes they do not consider moves until prompted to by the human. Also, in many cases you’ll see their evaluations fluctuating as they go deeper into the position. This means they are having a hard time finding the final solution and ultimately may require some human guidance. This is what makes correspondence chess interesting for some of us although I recognize this is not the case for everyone. In fact it has taken me a few years since returning to CC in 2004 to come to this conclusion. And, as my understanding of engines has gradually increased, my results have improved and my enjoyment of CC has returned.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Gull & Strelka vs. Houdini

       I recently downloaded a couple of new (to me) engines, Gull and Strelka.  According to the download site, Gull is rated 3000 and Strelka 2850. A very quick and unscientific test in some 5 minute games against Houdini showed that Houdini is, for the moment, still the strongest engine available.  I’ve entered another tournament at Lechenicher Schachserver, so I will continue to use Houdini as my engine of choice.
      These days I am finding that LSS, where engine use is not prohibited, is my site of choice for playing correspondence chess.  The main reason is that on most sites when you are playing at around 2200 and above most people are using engines despite the fact that they are prohibited.  I don’t have a problem using an engine when I know my opponent is, but on a lot of those sites you run into opponents who are rated under 2200 and they probably aren’t using engines. And then there is always the possibility that your 2200-2300 rated opponent is legitimate.  This means there is a problem of making a decision as to which opponent is using and which isn’t and to be fair you don’t want to be firing up your engine against somebody who is not using one.  On the other hand, you don’t want to find yourself playing unaided against somebody who is using Fritz because usually by the time you confirm your suspicions it’s too late.
      So, I prefer to avoid facing such a quandary by playing on a site where I can use an engine.  The problem with that is that I’ve had to try and acquire a whole new set of skills because, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, there’s more to playing CC than just letting an engine choose your moves…at least there is if you are serious about CC and want to feel like you’ve accomplished something.  Yes, just like winning a well-played game unaided gives one a feeling of accomplishment, teaming up with Houdini and outplaying some guy who’s teamed up with his engine will also leave you feeling like you’ve accomplished something.  Maybe not like the feeling I got 40 years ago when I knocked off a 2400 otb rated player who was in the top ten in the US in CC, but …well anyway, back to the Gull, Strelka, Houdini stuff…
      Gull vs. Houdini resulted in three draws though in the first game Houdini had a B+2P’s vs a lone N but could not win owing to running out of time.  Another alleged Rybka clone, Strelka, was crushed by Houdini when it lost 3 out of 3.  In the first game Strelka walked into a pin that lost a piece and in the other two games it also appeared to be inferior tactically.  The rating list on Zarkon Fischer’s site seems to bear out the results of my quick tests that Houdini 1.5a remains the strongest engine.  The top 8 engines on the IPON rating list, which didn’t have Strelka listed are:

1.Houdini 1.5a              3011  
2.Deep Rybka 4           2954  
3.Stockfish 2.01 JA      2916  
4.Critter 0.90 SSE42    2888  
5.Komodo64 1.3 JA     2830  
6.Naum 4.2                  2825  
7.Deep Shredder 12    2800  
8. Gull 1.1                    2788  

Many of these engines are available for download at SDChess.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Addendum to post on what to study

      In regards to what should be studied, strategy or tactics, I came across an interesting quote by CJS Purdy in his book Guide to Good Chess. “Position play is the art of improving your position in small ways when no sound combination is possible.” The first thing you do of course is as Purdy said, “comb the board for a tactic.” The question is what do you do if there is no combination that is playable? And this will be most of the time. Even so, let’s say you play a game riddled with tactical mistakes. For the sake of argument, let’s say in a 40-move game half the moves should have allowed a combination that lost material or lead to a mate. What were the other 20 moves? One should have been making sound positional moves.
      Realistically though, unless you’re an absolute beginner, tactical blunders are likely to have occurred on only a few moves. Say you make 4 or 5. All the other moves had to be of a positional nature. To concentrate on nothing but tactical study does not seem to make sense.
      Make a lot of positional errors like creating a N outpost for your opponent to occupy, allowing him open files for his R’s and diagonals for his B’s, weakening your K-side with ill-considered P-moves, or any one of a dozen other positional mistakes and you may end up losing in the ending or…allowing him to build up such a superior position that a tactical solution becomes possible.
      By avoiding the study of the positional elements of the game, it seems to me the “tactics only” crowd is avoiding what is actually the thing most of the game consists of…maneuvering your pieces around trying to get them into good positions from where they will have the most potential.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Dutch Defense – Krejcik Gambit

      I stopped by a local club for a brief visit last week and there was a young man sitting there reading an opening book who asked if I’d like to play a game.  I agreed to play a quick game and since there was a clock nearby we decided on G30 and because he wanted to record the game, I thought It wouldn’t be a bad idea if I did also.  When he played the Dutch, I made a spur of the moment decision to play what I thought was a totally new move, 3.g4, but later found out some unknown 2400 beat me to it!  In fact it has a name…the Krejcik Gambit and you can discover more about it at either Chess Tempo or ECO Chess.
       The worst part of playing the move was listening to the guy running his mouth in the post mortem about what a bad move it was.  I just wish I had known it had a name at the time so I could have nonchalantly said, “Oh, didn’t you know it’s the Krejcik Gambit?”  OK, it’s not real good, but if it’s THAT bad, why didn’t he refute it?  Actually I’m not really sure WHY he lost this game, but it seems that starting about move 9 he got infatuated with the idea of harassing my undefended B with his Q and N.  The result was the loss of a little time and getting his Q and N’s on not-so-good squares.  All I kept doing was playing aggressive moves attacking his K, and before he knew it, his position was untenable.

Strategy or Tactics? Openings, Middlegame or Endings?

      The debate is on again on one of the forums. What should you study to improve? The most popular answer was, of course, tactics. We are always trying to separate strategy and tactics and openings, middlegames and endings, but they do not exist as separate parts of the game. The placement of the pieces dictates tactics and strategy. The reason why Morphy was so far ahead of his contemporaries was that even though they could play tactics as good as he could, they lacked his understanding of sound opening principles and strategy. The result was their positional weaknesses presented Morphy with a lot of tactical opportunities.

      Talking about strategy generally means long term planning while tactics is taking advantage of opportunities to win material or mate along the way (while those opportunities exist...which may only be for one move). If you are playing with a certain strategic goal in mind and the other player blunders you’ll (hopefully) seize the opportunity to take advantage of it regardless of the strategy.
      Speaking of tactics, most players haven’t got the foggiest idea of what they are looking for when it comes to tactics! Most players recognize positional features in a game, but few recognize features or configurations of pieces that hint at the possibility that their MAY be a combination possible in a given position. Not recognizing these motifs means missing the tactics.
      The whole point is you can’t improve very much if you’re a one trick pony. You have to study all facets of the game. I don’t understand those who think you should only study tactics until you reach a certain rating...mostly a rating they will never reach. Somehow they have fastened on to Teichmann’s statement, “Chess is 99% tactics” and won’t let go of it as if it’s the Holy Grail of improvement. It has blinded them to the statements many other respected teachers and strong players who point out there is more to improvement than just studying tactics. This is why when most players are asked by their instructors, “Why did you play that move?” the result is often a blank stare. They couldn’t see any tactics so just played a move.
      Think about it. When a person is in school, how many of them study only one subject, say math, per year? No, they study many subjects at the same time. Why do we think chess is any different and that you can’t devote study time to all phases of the game?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Free Material for Teaching Beginners

      A 303 page Chess Teaching Manual by IM Ton O’Donnell is available from the Clarksville (Canada) Chess Club HERE.  This giant manual is designed for adults to use in teaching children how to play chess starting from the very beginning. Each lesson is designed to take about 10 minutes and also includes exercise sheets designed to reinforce the lessons. I can see no reason why this manual couldn’t be used to teach adults also.

      The Rockford Illinois Chess Club also has a lot of free material available designed to teach beginners as does Professor Chess.  While you’re at Professor Chess you might like to try their "Recon64" page where you can try to guess the next move in some master games. In order to gain full access to all of their resources individuals have to pay $10 per year but they also offer a lot of free downloadable material suitable for small chess groups. Worth a look if you are in a teaching situation.