Tuesday, March 28, 2006

How much opening knowledge does a novice need?

While playing against the computer, I often mess up badly in the opening. Most articles about learning to play chess say that beginners should not spend too much time on openings, but rather study tactics and endgames. I agree with the general idea of this and think it really does not matter to know the fine points of one opening line or another at the level I play. However, running into serious trouble during the opening phase isn't fun either.

Up to know, I tried to follow some advice I read somewhere: after the game, I would look up the opening and see what went wrong (I just bought a copy of MCO-14 for this, which will certainly cover more ground than Reuben Fine's "Ideas Behind the Chess Openings" that I grabbed from a local library a few weeks ago. However, for a beginner like me the more wordy style of Fine's book comes in handy). This certainly gave me some experience, but even if I wouldn't have such a terrible memory there are simply too many opening moves around! Therefore, I continue to get into messed up games regularly.

One reason why I am (still) hesitating to study openings is that if I look up an opening line I always see comments like "gives white an advantage". In most cases, however, I don't understand what the fuss is about because I simply do not have the knowledge/experience to see this "advantage". Nevertheless, I feel that I need to improve my opening play. Therefore, I decided to simply pick one opening move and stick with it for the foreseeable future. Starting out with the same move will hopefully cut down on the number of traps I can fall for and if I continue to look into MCO-14 after each game I will hopefully learn something. The only problem is, which opening should I choose? Every opinion I saw on which one is good for beginners seemed to attract others stating the opposite. Therefore, I will go with the best advice I found so far: at the beginner level, all openings are sound. The biggest obstacle for me will to not waste time browsing through websites and books any more but simply to stick with one of them!

Saturday, March 25, 2006

One of my best games so far

Here is one of the best games I played so far. It is from my first correspondence chess tournament. Incidently, I lost it. So why do I think it is one of my best games? I did some post-mortem computer analysis using Crafty. To my surprise, I saw that I actually managed to play the first 25 moves without messing anything up too badly (see scoregraph).

Anyway, here is the game with me playing white against "mike1970":

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 h6?! 4.c3 Bc5 5.d4 exd4 6.cxd4 Bb4+ 7.Nc3

The alternative 7.Bd2 would have been better: 7.Bd2 Nf6 8.e5 Ne4 9.Bxf7+ Kxf7 10.Bxb4 Nxb4 11.Qb3+

7...Nf6 8.e5 Nh7?!

Retreating the N to the corner renders it much less useful; better: 8...Ng4

9.O-O d6 10.exd6?

I clearly did not have enough foresight to see this: 10.d5 Bxc3 11.dxc6 Bxe5 12.Nxe5 dxe5 13.Qf3 O-O 14.cxb7

10...Bxd6 11.Qe2+ Ne7 12.Bd2 O-O 13.Nb5 Nf5 14.Bd3 a6 15.Nxd6 Nxd6 16.Rac1 c6
17.Rfe1 Bf5 18.Bb4 Bxd3 19.Qxd3 a5 20.Bxd6 Qxd6 21.Rc5 b6 22.Rh5 Nf6 23.Rhe5 Ng4
24.Rh5 Nf6 25.Rhe5 26.Qc4 cxd4

See diagram 1.


27.Qxd4 would have been better: 27.Qxd4 Rfd8 28.Qxd6 Rxd6

27...Rac8 28.Nf5?

Fortunately, black missed the reply 28...Qxe5 29.Rxe5 Rxc4 which would have cost me a rook

28...Rxc4? 29.Nxd6 Rc2 30.f3?

I wanted to give my K with some space and prevent ...Ne4 and ...Ng4. In reality, I lost the pawn that I desparately missed in the endgame. 30.R5e2 Rxe2 31.Rxe2 would have been the prudent choice.

30...Rxb2 31.Rb5 Rxa2 32.Rxb6 a4 33.Ra6 Nh5 34.Nc4 Nf4 35.g3 Nh3+ 36.Kh1 Ng5 37.Ne5 Re8

See diagram 2. 38.f4 would have been better as the original move apparently gives black the chance to mate with the combination 38...Rxe5 39.Rxe5 Nxf3 40.Ra8+ Kh7 41.Rh8+ Kxh8
42.Re8+ Kh7 43.Rh8+ Kxh8 44.h5 Rh2#, although I don't really understand Crafty's analysis here.

38...Nh7 39.Kg1 Nf6 40.f4 Ng4 41.Kf1 Nxe5 42.Rxe5 Rxe5 43.fxe5 Kf8 44.e6 fxe6 45.Rxe6 a3 46.Re2 Rxe2 47.Kxe2

White resigns 0-1. Right after clicking the confirm button for move 46 it occured to me that exchanging rooks is not exactly a good idea when there are no other pieces left and one is a pawn behind in the endgame. Hopefully, I will learn from my mistakes.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Tactics study: the first plateau

I just finished my third round through the set of one-move tactics puzzles I use for training and get the strong feeling that I reached a plateau: At the beginning roughly 10 weeks ago, progress was fast, but now I barely notice any progress. If at all, it takes me slightly longer to solve the problems (probably because recently I spent more time working). I know that regardless of what you are training/studying for, performance is never going straight up. Therefore, I will go for the fourth round and also include working on some more complicated problems.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The first victory is always the best!

I finally managed to win a game in my first correspondence chess tournament. Well, make it two, because I got my second win shortly after the first. I hope it was not only luck but also my tactics training paying off. In both won games, I managed to win some material early on and managed not to loose it again. So far, I won 2 out of 3 finished games. That feels not too bad for my very first tournament!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The value of a pawn

I just finished my first correspondence chess game - with a loss. While studying annotated games of grandmaster-level players, I realized that every pawn is important to them. But so far, I was not too concerned about the safety of my pawns and would sacrify them unnecessarily to "improve" my position or simply by careless moves. In fact, I am usually happy not to loose my pieces. My new (and limited) experience with very slow games, however, taught me, that every pawn is important, particularly when games reach the endgame with only few pieces around. In the game below I play black against mike1970 at ChessWorld and resign after giving away my rook, although I've been down a few pawns before that, anyway. In the future, I will try to care for all members of my "army"!

1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Nf6 3.d3 c6 4.Nf3 d5 5.exd5 cxd5 6.Bb5+ Bd7 7.Bxd7+ Nbxd7 8.Bg5 Bc5 9.O-O O-O 10.a3 Qb6 11.b4 Bd6 12.c4 e4 13.dxe4 dxc4 14.Nc3 Ne5 15.Bxf6 gxf6 16.Nxe5 Bxe5 17.Rc1 Rfd8 18.Qg4+ Kf8 19.h3 Qd6 20.Nd5 Qe6 21.Qxe6 fxe6 22.Ne3 Bb2 23.Rxc4 Bxa3 24.Rc7 b6 25.b5 h5 26.Rh7 Rac8 27.Rxh5 Ke7 28.e5 Rc1 29.Rh7+ Ke8 30.exf6 Rxf1+ 31.Kxf1 Rd7 32.Rh8+ Kf7 33.Rh7+ Kxf6 34.Rxd7 a5 35.bxa6 1-0

Monday, March 13, 2006

Think, think, think, ...

For a while I have been trying to improve my play by making a short check list to work through before making a move. I won't write about the "thinking process" here, because much has been written about this before (see for instance the articles by Dan Heisman and the chessplanner of a fellow blogger).Unfortunately, I had to realize that making a plan (for every move decisions, not strategy) is easier than sticking to it. Usually I realize that I drifted off my plan after making some terrible blunder. How can I get myself to plan every move carefully?

I started an experiment playing chess against the computer because this gives me whatever time I need to go through each step on my check list assuming that speed will be less of an issue once the process is "hardwired" in the brain. Next to the window with the game I keep my check list in a text editor and go through it for every move I make.

I feel that this improves my play against the computer significantly. However, it also takes me a long time to make a move. Thus it remains to be seen if the perceived improvement is only due to spending more time for each move or due to more organized thinking.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Linux and chess training

Computers can be very useful for both studying and playing chess. This is reflected in the large number of chess programs that are available. Most commercial programs, however, are written for a certain operating system from Redmond. Here, I will provide a brief introduction free chess software available for Linux. This is by no means meant to be a complete list of free chess programs for Linux but just a few personal suggestions.

The probably most popular chess programs are for playing chess against the computer, the so-called chess engines. A good chess program and the computing power of even a several years old PC is enough to beat the vast majority of amateur chess players. My personal favorite is therefore phalanx, which can be easily configured to play weaker using the "easy" settings.

Like many other chess engines, phalanx does not provide a graphical user interface. If you do not want to enter moves with your keyboard and visualize the position in your mind, you need an interface program. One common choice here is xboard. It not only lets you play against phalanx, but also provides an interface to play on internet chess servers such as FICS or ICC. People playing on FICS may want to take a look at eboard, which provides more features than xboard but works with FICS only.

Finally, if you are seriously into chess, you may want to save your games in a chess database to analyze your mistakes and to learn from games played by others. Scid is such a database program. It doesn't seem to be actively maintained any more, though. In addition to build your personal game collection, it provides numerous features to analyze games and to study openings.

Friday, March 10, 2006

No time to play?

Recently, I found myself to play much less. It is not that I lost interest in playing chess. However, it is simply hard to find 40+ minutes of uninterrupted time to play a game on the internet. It is relatively easy to find 10 min even on the busiest days to do some tactical exercises, but on most days, I simply do not find the time for a slow game. This leads to the question how much one can improve in chess without actually playing chess. The answer probably does not look favorably for me. Granted, I could get online quickly to play a blitz game. This would get me some practice, but I think it would also get me into some bad habits that would ruin my efforts to work on a thinking process. Therefore, I decided not to play blitz until I significantly improved my slow chess.

What are alternatives to slow chess games that do not require a big chunk of quiet, uninterrupted time? One thing would be to play against some computer program. In contrast to humans, programs do not mind being put on hold for a few hours. The drawback is that I am not sure how much this would prepare me to play against humans, which is more exciting, too. Another alternative is playing really slow chess games. About two weeks ago, I registered at ChessWorld and started my first correspondence chess tournament. With a time control of one full week per move I can play (or rather make moves) whenever I have time. Playing games that last weeks or even months, however, also requires a great deal of patience. I will write more about this once I have more experience with this form of chess. In the mean time, I guess that there is no way around trying to free up some time to play a few "live" games on the net.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

No (visible) tactics, and now?

Let's assume that doing all these tactical exercises transformed you into a tactical genius (lucky you, I am certainly a far cry from that). But what if there are no winning tactics for the next move? That is a point when strategy comes into play, although one could argue that strategy is just 10+ moves tactics...

Starting to play chess, I ran into many situations where I was not able to see any tactical opportunity and simply had no idea what to do next. This happened most often after the first opening moves. There are two reasons for this: Firstly, with nearly all pieces still on the board the position is often seemingly complex and therefore overwhelming to novices. Secondly, after one or more pretty stupid moves I am usually pretty busy just trying to survive in the later phases of the game.

What can a newbie do about these problems? I felt that I would profit from studying how other people play and decided to go through a collection of annotated games. A good start is provided by the book "Logical Chess: Move By Move" by Irving Chernev, a classic in the field. The author really comments on every move.

The first part of the book has only games starting with 1. e4 e5 and, yes, even 1. e4 is annotated every time it occurs. This may seem annoying, but it also serves the purpose to "burn" certain basic princiles in the reader's mind. Furthermore, not only the actual moves are annotated, but the reason why other moves, that sometimes simply looked so much more attractive to me, are really not a good idea. The text reads pretty well, too, and to my surprise it is not boring at all to sit down with the book and a chess set to play through a game. In contrary, it is a lot of fun to follow the various ideas throughout the games.

Does it really help to study games that were played a long time ago? For my part I think it helped me a lot. I can now look at position and actually get some ideas on how to win the game in a timescale that is beyond the 1 or occasionally 2 move tactics that (may) come to my mind. It is not that these plans become reality very often - after all there is somebody on the other side of the board who also wants to win. But al the very least playing with a plan in mind is much more fun, even when it has to be changed right after the opponent's response.

Up to now I worked my way through roughly half of the book. I like to think that me playing worse in games starting out with 1. d4 compared to 1. e4 is due to the fact that all games I studied so far started with the latter. This gives hope and motivation to play through the rest of the games in the collection. So far, the only thing I do not like about Irvin Chernev's book is that white seems to win all the time. This feels a bit like reading a murder mystery while already knowing the end.