Sunday, April 30, 2006

Chess visualization training

Most people agree that is probably the single most important task for the aspiring chess novice. Regularly solving tactics problems is the usual prescription for this, and there are both computer programs and websites such as the to help with that. Tactics puzzles usually show a position and either black or white can gain a piece or mate by playing the correct combination. Solving many of these problems is said to improve board vision. A comment on an earlier post about free chess software for Linux made me aware of a java program with a different approach. The written by Dietrich Kappe gives problems without actually showing the board. For instance, it lets you decide if "e6" is a dark square or asks you if the position "White: K c6, R h3, P f3, and g4; black: K h5, N g6, P g5, and h6" with black to move is a mate.

In addition to the mate problems, it provides training material for the visualization of knight moves, and board diagonals. The probably most interesting feature, however, is the builtin chess engine that allows to play against the computer with the display lagging by a number of moves or not showing a part of the board. Therefore, this program might be a good thing to try for people who always wanted to learn to play blindfold chess.

I don't think that this kind of training is suitable for chess beginners like me, because I still have problems to visualize "combinations" with more than one move even when I see the starting position right in front of me. However, this might be interesting for more advanced players. The program is written in java and will work on most computers and operating systems. It can be started by clicking here without having to install anything. Of course, you can also download it to be able to use it without an internet connection.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Blunder day - cheap pieces for all!

Sciurus proudly announces that yesterday's "Blunder Day" at ChessWorld was a great success! After leaving a few pieces en prise in the best spirit of hiding Easter eggs, the day culminated in giving a won game away in the great match chess blogger vs. chess reader. After building up a nice material advantage (see position), I decided to keep it simple; the basic idea was to win the game by forcing exchanges. But instead, I gave my honorable opponent the opportunity for a mate in three, which he promptly used (See the annotated game for the continuation).

Looking for some distraction to soothe my soul, I started browsing over the list of my favorite chess blogs and stumbled upon the artice - the topic? Of course blundering. Learning to avoid blunders is probably the most important thing for chess novices. Therefore, many chess blogs contain articles either ranting about last night's blunders or discussing cures. In fact, I vowed to get into the habit of a clear not too long ago. What happened to that? In short, my plan was to go over a short checklist, before making a move. In contrast to over the board play, having a checklist would be even legal in correspondence chess games. However, it is always so much more exciting to analyze what I can do to my opponents then to figure out how they can beat me. Conclusion: setting goals is not enough to improve. From time to time one has to look back and figure out what is going wrong. It is time to get back to the discarded checklist!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Is correspondence chess ideal for beginners to learn strategic thinking?

Most chess games played on the internet are blitz games with fast time controls, although there are also . The other extreme are correspondence chess games that allow players several days or even weeks to make one move. Before internet connections became common, postcards were used to communicate between opponents. Nowadays, this is mostly done by email or by playing on one of the correspondence, or turn-based chess servers ().

I started playing correspondence chess on simply because it was hard for me to find time for a slow "live" game. After playing correspondence chess games for a couple of weeks, however, I found that being able to spend as little/much time on chess as my schedule permits and still be able to actually analyze a position is not the only advantage. Being a chess novice often means loosing pieces by simply leaving them en prise. Having as much time as I want to make a move (a time limit of one week or more allows more analysis then I would want, but I will come back to this later) reduces the number of outright blunders to a minimum. I have to admit, however, that I sometimes drop pieces even in correspondence chess games. The lack of time pressure makes this even more embarrassing.

In fact, I believe that some of my victories in correspondence chess games are less due to me being a better player than my opponents (who frequently have the experience of several hundred completed games) but more due to the fact that I play a lower number of simultaneous games and put more time into analyzing the positions then they do. In fact, as another wrote recently, this intense analyzing can become quite addictive! However, I've won also a few games so far where my opponents simply did not recognize a simple mate-in-one patters so studying tactics pays also off in correspondence games.

Granted, I did not suddenly become a chess master by playing slower. But at least the slow pace of correspondence chess allows me to form plans that go beyond the next move and to try to apply some of the strategic principles I learned from playing through annotated master games. In over-the-board games I am still too busy to just prevent my pieces from disappearing to actually care about strategy. But as recently noted in Edwin's , I also believe that forming plans while playing chess will lead to chess improvement, even if the plans initially lead to nowhere more often than not.

I believe that I learned the most from the games I lost. Therefore, I am happy that after finishing my tenth game on a few days ago, I am now qualified to play in tournaments that are categorized according to the players ratings. My current rating barely qualifies me for the second lowest bracket, so I expect a superior opposition and hope to quickly improve my chess play (ironically by loosing games, but of course I will do my best!).

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Kasparov vs. Klitschko - chess but no boxing

Since it was mentioned recently on NPR, Chessboxing seems to keep several chess bloggers occupied, see for instance an older post at the Boylston Chess Club Blog, a recent post by myself, and another one on Chess for Blood (quite natural for a blog with that title). Now the Boylston Chess Club Blog cites The Sweet Science Blog that caught the boxer Dominick Guinn comparing the upcoming box fight Klitschko vs. Byrd with a chess match. Well, what if the box champion Vladimir Klitschko would play chess against the chess heavyweight Kasparov?

Turns out that both Klitschko brothers actually like to play chess! Even better, both of them played chess against Kasparov during a simul chess match in Leipzig/Germany where they became friends after "kidnapping" the chess champion to rescue him from his fans. The full story can be read on the official Klitschko Brothers Website (the story is actually quite fun to read, so take a look yourself!)

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Just-in-time endgame study

The last game from my second correspondence chess tournament
got me into a - from my point of view - rather complex endgame (After posting this, several people commented that this position should not be called endgame, see comments to this post. No comments on the position itself, please, we are still playing!). This made me think that I should really start some kind of endgame study as planned. Will the long time scale of the games on turn-based chess servers give me enough time for a just-in-time study program?

"Pandolfini's Endgame Course" by Bruce Pandolfini contains 239 problems. If I manage to do 10 of them each day from now, I only have to "survive" the next 3 or 4 moves, assuming that I use the full week I have per move and that my opponent responds fast. But would studying basic endgames really help a beginner like me in a position like this one? I believe it will in the long term but it would probably not help much to win one particular non-trivial endgame such as this one. Therefore, I will simply give in to my chess curiosity (I really do want to know if I can win this one) and continue moving without extra delays for just-in-time-study. Nevertheless, it motivates me to finally study some basic endgames. I will post the game result when it is over.

Correction: seems that this position shouldn't be called endgame, see comments to this post.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

From the news: chessboxing

I couldn't believe what I heard on NPR this morning: the "latest" sports trend combines chess with boxing! According to the World Chess Boxing organization, "The basic idea in chessboxing is to combine the no.1 thinking sport and the no.1 fighting sport into a hybrid that demands the most of its competitors both mentally and physically." The events basically consist of alternating rounds of boxing and blitz chess games and the winner is determined by checkmate or knockout. See also this article in the LA Times and the interesting reference at Wikipedia.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Is burnout preventable?

Everything good can be overdone. If it is sports, solving crosswords, whatever comes in your mind that you were really passionate about for a while. Even work! The fact, that I am feeling burned out at work, something that I used to be very passionate about, is probably one of the reasons why I got into chess the first place. If something, anything, is overdone, the burnout syndrome hits hard and brings the excitement to a sudden stop.

Fortunately, I am still feeling enthusiastic about chess. I am even wondering if chess can become as addictive as gambling. Nevertheless, I am asking myself how to prevent a possible burnout. Loosing interest in chess, even temporarily, may negate all my efforts to improve - who knows what of the little board vision I acquired by now will be left after not playing for a month or two? Would it be advisable to restrict the time spend on chess to prevent burnout to occur as mentioned on Jeff Ashton's blog or is it simply unavoidable? What is the experience of the other players out there?

On a side note, the situation is not hopeless even when the burnout syndrome hits hard and a period of chess abstinence is needed: As Bruce Pandolfini wrote about getting back to chess "Once chess is in your blood, your mind and spirit will let you know when the vacation is up."

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Play chess on your mp3 player!

Thursday, April 13, 2006

From a recent game: white to move

Here is a position (top) from one of my recent games with me playing white. Too bad that I not only missed this chance but blundered with Bxf3??.

Nevertheless, I still managed to win this due to a blunder by black a few moves later exploiting a simple mate-in-3 pattern (2nd position). It seems that even tough doing tactics puzzles almost daily does not prevent me from making blunders, it still lets me recognize some opportunities every now and then.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A rant on timeouts

My first correspondence chess tournament ended. Although I placed second out of four, I am not happy with it. This is not because I lost two of the six games (in fact, I am happy that I won a few games at all in my first tournament), but because one player lost all his games by timeouts. I can perfectly understand that people get over the time limit in "live" games, where you have only minutes or even seconds to make a move. I can also understand, that something can happen within the multiple weeks that are needed to complete a correspondence chess game. Nevertheless, I think that people who sign up for a tournament should take their commitment seriously. ChessWorld even offers the opportunity to mark time slots as vacation, to prevent timeouts when people are unable to move for one reason or another. If someone does not intend to finish a game, the person could at least contact his/her opponents and tell them about it. But simply not responding anymore is like leaving for a smoke in an over-the-board game and never coming back - it is simply inpolite and makes me, as the winner of these games feel bad about the winning these games - I'd rather loose an exciting battle than to win by timeout!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Monday morning tactics blues...

Usually I do tactics puzzles only on work days and use the longer time slots during weekends for things such as going over an annotated master game. When I restart my tactics efforts on Mondays, it often feels like starting from scratch again - I fail to see the most obvious pattern and everything takes so much longer than it did on the previous Friday. Can one really loose significant board vision by skipping puzzles for only two days??? Or is it just because I should have gone to bed earlier Sunday night? Anyway, I have to get back to the tactics puzzles because I won't give up that easy!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

After the first three months - a look ahead

After reviewing my progress so far, it is time to set some goals for the next three months. So, here are the things I hope to accomplish, aside from the most important thing: having fun! In general, I'd like to gather some basic knowledge on tactics, strategy, endgames, and openings until June.

  • Don't waste so much time surfing the chessic internet anymore!
  • Do more tactics problems. I just failed to prevent a simple knight fork of my rook, queen, and king in a correspondence game... The goal is to (1) get fast enough to solve a reasonable number of problems (say 40) in less than 10 minutes, and then to go through tactics problems until this doesn't happen any more. Why 10 minutes? - I can always squeeze 10min somewhere in my daily schedule, so I wouldn't have any reason to skip studying anymore!
  • Start some endgame study. I got already a copy of Bruce Pandolfini's "Endgame course", which contains problems that are supposedly well suited for beginners.
  • For chess strategy, I will stick with going over well annotated games for now.
  • Start playing "live" against humans again. Up to now I mostly played against the computer and in correspondence chess tournaments on ChessWorld. I guess it is time for some (slow) games on FICS.
  • Use the same openings in all games and try to get familiar with them.
  • And finally again: don't waste so much time surfing the internet!!!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Three months playing chess - a look back

It's now three months ago that I started playing chess. Looking back, what would I do differently if I had the chance of going back in time? And what are the things that worked well?

The most important thing that I did wrong is wasting time. With a job and some social life there is always too less time for chess. I definitely spent way too much time surfing the internet to look for "the" way to learn chess. First of all, there is no single best way to learn a game as complex as this. Aside from that, reading articles on how to improve does not get you any better - only practice does. Therefore, I should have spend more time studying and playing. But of course it is much more stressful to solve tactics puzzles than to consume other people's thoughts (This applies also to blogging, so I should stop this and go back to studying tactics. And, yes, if anyone reads this: you'd better study or play a game, too).

The improvement I enjoy most did not come through solving tactics puzzles, though. In contrast to the very beginnings, I have now a plan for almost every move I play. However, most of these ideas don't work out as planned, or, even worse, backfire. For instance, I just captured a lone pawn with my queen in one of my correspondence chess games with the plan to go on exchanging queens two moves later. The outcome: now I do know why one shouldn't chase pawns with the queen... I think most of my progress in coming up with plans is due to playing through Irving Chernev's wonderfully annotated game collection "Logical chess: move by move". Not getting lost while calculating moves, however, will require more experience and of course studying tactics, tactics, tactics!