Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Mystery chess position II

I took a look at this blog and noticed that I almost only post positions from games I lost. I do believe that analyzing the reasons behind loosing a game is more efficient for learning to play better chess than looking at won games. Nevertheless, I decided to brag a little and write a short post about a game I actually won (Yes, this happens every now and then!).

The game started with some pretty normal development moves with me playing white. The diagram on the right shows the position after black playing 4. ... e6. Being a correspondence chess game, I consulted a database and found that the most popular moves among master-level chess players in this situation is 5. Qb3. The games with this move looked interesting, so I decided to go with this (Sometimes, I spend a tremendous time to prepare a single move in a correspondence chess game, but more often I mess it up with a thoughtless move). Nevertheless, I felt a bit uncomfortable with this, because black may respond with 5. ... Bxf3 and I would have to recapture with gxf3, making my (future) castle a mess. I guess that the reasoning behind playing 5. Qb3 is the threat of winning a pawn with 6. Qxb7 (other opinions on this are appreciated). However, after some bad experiences I vowed to stop chasing pawns with my queen that early in the game.

The game continued pretty well for me winning a rook for a knight with a fork. The diagram on the left shows the position after 31. ... Ne4. I continued with 32. Qf7 which I though would be a pretty good move. To my dismay, however, my trusty computer chess engine Crafty found an even better one in the post-mortem computer analysis. Does anyone see the winning combination? The complete annotated game can be found here.

Monday, May 29, 2006

From the news: everybody can become a chessmaster!

Chessplayers often wonder what it takes to play like a grandmaster - does it require talent or can everybody achieve mastery if he/she just trains hard enough. And if talent is not necessary, is it important how the training is done or is it enough to just play a huge number of chess games? The article "Anyone can have his shot" in the St. Petersburg Times describes some recent work of Florida State University's psychology professor Anders Ericsson. I mentioned his work on talent vs. training already in a previous post. Here, I will summarize only a few remarks he made on chess improvement in the St. Petersburg Times interview.

First of all, Anders Ericsson stresses the importance of studying chess master games:
"If you can beat everyone very easily, how can you become a better chess player? People who become very successful chess players, they re-create games played by experts to see why these other players were picking these moves. If you find you pick the same move as they did, then you’re playing as well as them. If not, then it’s a clue that you’re not doing something right."

Secondly, he describes that the way how training is done matters a lot and uses amateur golf players as example: many players play golf for decades but do not improve much. This shows that experience alone does not necessarily lead to mastery. More important is the way training is done. The golf player (I assume that this applies to chess players in the same way) has to determine her/his weak spots and work on them. If the weak spot situation occurs only seldomly in real play, then improvement requires training that repeats this situation over and over until it is mastered. Conscious and repeated work is necessary to improve. In my opinion, this implies several consequences for chess training. First of all, it is necessary to analyze games after they are over to determine weak spots. Secondly, if this weak spot is, e.g., not recognizing a tactical pattern such as a fork, then it is necessary to practice forks until perfection.

Last but not least, motivation is important. Anders Ericsson says "If everyone has a shot, then it’s up to them to decide. If they don’t have the motivation and the drive, then they’re not going to reach the higher levels. It’s not so much that someone put in thousands of hours to be good at something. It’s that someone else gave up after an hour and a half. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy." After all, being a chess master only means that you are better than most other players. Therefore, all it needs to become a chess master is to train harder and to be more persistent than most others, even if it may take some of us more than 40 years to get there.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Why do people play chess?

I've been asking myself lately why people play chess. I am not talking about the few professional players who actually make a living with that. I am more wondering about the average player - most of them even paying for playing chess online or at the local chess club.

Just for fun. Playing chess "for fun" is something probably every amateur chess player agrees with - if it is not enjoyable and doesn't pay for the rent, why then would anyone do it? However, if playing "just for fun" would be the main motivation, why do so many people take chess so seriously?

To relieve stress. Chess is sometimes recommended to relieve stress and at the time I started to get into chess five months ago I believed that myself. I am not sure about this any more. Just looking at the training goals of many chess players and the desperation that overcomes myself when I realize that another day went by without giving me the opportunity to tackle dozens of chess tactics problems and analyze the positions of all my games at ChessWorld, I start doubting that chess relieves stress.

For distraction - a personal favorite. Playing chess requires both concentration an dedication, an unbeatable combination for getting unpleasant things out of the mind. A nice side effect is also that chess playing is supposed to improve the ability to concentrate. However, I start to doubt that, too. Lately I often catch myself at work thinking about some chess position. That is certainly not a great improvement of my ablity to concentrate on one subject.

It is addictive. Looking at my own chess habits and other people's chess blogs, I get the impression that playing chess can become quite addictive. If you are not sure about yourself, take the chess addiction test at Welcome to the not-so-anonymous chessaholics!

It allows to satisfy the killer instincts. Chess is considered to be an abstract wargame. It practically forces players to ruthlessly exploit the smallest weaknesses of the opponent.

Chess is good for your health. Now, honestly, who really plays chess to stay fit? Nevertheless, mental activity such as chess reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease by 75%, a sizable effect (the scary estimate that roughly 10% of the population above age 65 have Alzheimer's disease make all these repetitive chess tactics problems seem to be even more worthwhile).

Other reasons. Playing chess for blood is fortunately a the motivation of a minority, or are there vampires at your local chess club? There are many reasons to play chess, what are yours?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

On the web: how chess programs "think"

The computing power of modern PCs enables chess programs to beat nearly every human chess player. A good example is the famous match between the human world champion Kasparov and the machine Deep Blue (admittedly a bit more than your average PC). If you are one of the players who always gets beaten by his computer, then you might be interested in learning how computer programs actually decide their moves. Francois-Dominic Laramee wrote a series of articles that not only describes how chess programs work, but also published the code for a java chess engine that demonstrates the concepts described in the series. The series is well written and avoids programming jargon as much as possible and explains the basics as needed. It gives not only people without programming knowledge the opportunity to learn how chess programs "think" but also a good deal of information on the basics of writing a chess playing engine from scratch.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Mystery chess position

The position on the left is from one of my recent chess games against ChessSmith at ChessWorld after Black played 24. Rc7. A computer analysis with Crafty showed that up to this point the game was pretty balanced. This is actually pretty good for me (playing White) because my opponents can usually rely on me making some pretty bad decisions between move 15 and 20 (If anyone reading this has an idea why this happens to me most often between the 15th and 20th move, please leave me a comment. Suggestions on how to avoid this are of course even more welcome!). In the game, I played 24. ... g6 because I felt it would be a good idea to give my King some space. However, this defensive idea turned out to be the move that got me into trouble, and I ultimately failed to prevent a simple checkmate a few moves later. Any suggestions what to play here (and most importantly why)? The complete game can be found here.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Still doing chess tactics problems: stagnation or progress?

I finished another round through the one-move chess tactics problems. I lost count, but I am probably approaching the magic number of 7 repetitions. I noticed that I certainly recognize more pattern than before, but overall I am still pretty slow. A post at Patzer's Mind linked to an interesting review of a chess tactics training software written by Kjell Arne Brekke. The interesting part of this review is not so much the information on the software (Intensive Tactics Course 2) but the general comments on the psychology of playing chess well.

The article discusses the merits of doing a few hard problems vs. many simple problems. I have been concentrating on the latter approach by solving mostly one-move tactics problems (so far). Kjell Arne Brekke cites several psychological studies of chess players in the review. The main conclusion is, that the number of memory chunks with chess positions seems to be the biggest difference between chess masters and everyday patzers. The average grandmaster memory seems to hold 50000 of these chunks. The article concludes that doing many simple tactical problems is more efficient than a few hard ones because of the higher number of memorized positions.

I estimate that I learned roughly 500 positional chunks in the 5 months I am now playing chess. If I continue at the same rate, it will take me approximately 41 years to obtain the pattern recognition of a grandmaster. This means that I will won't the zenith of my playing strength before I am well into retirement age. But that should be a good time to play chess anyway. The positive consequence of this simple estimate is also that I really shouldn't feel too badly about the blunders I commit nearly every day - learning to play chess well simply takes a much longer time than the 5 months of experience I have!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Chess popularity: a quick and dirty Google Trends study

A quick search for the keyword "chess" on's new trend search page gives some interesting results. Google trends provides information not only on how often a keyword was used in internet searches on but also from which counties these searches originated and even correlates the results with the number of news articles on the same topic.

Both India and the Philippines share the top spot for the most searches for "chess" between 2004 and 2006 (unfortunately, the data does not go further back). India is a country with a huge population with internet access becoming more and more available in recent years. However, most of the other top spots in the popularity of chess searches are taken by countries with a much smaller population: the Philippines, Norway, South Africa, Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Romania occupy ranks 2 to 8. The United States, a developed nation with a population of close to 300 million people is only on the 9th place.

I have to admit that I am a bit surprised by these results. I am aware that even though the US has a large population with abundant internet access it is not exactly considered as a chess country. However, the nation that dominated competitive chess for decades, Russia, does not show up in the top 10 (Singapore is no. 10). A speculative explanation for the rankings is the age distribution of the population. Developing countries tend to have a higher percentage of young people which tend to use the internet more than older people. This theory would indirectly imply that US chess is an "old man's game". Opinions on the reason behind the Google trends data on chess are very welcome!

Another interesting point is the ongoing dominance of Bobby Fischer in chess, even more than three decades after his famous world championship match against Boris Spassky in 1972. The two biggest spikes in the amount of chess news from 2004-2006 coincide with his detention in Japan and his move to Ireland. Only Kasparov's retirement in March 2005 had a similar impact. However, there was also a significantly increased amount of chess news during the successful showing of the Delphian School Chess Club at the Whitford Middle School Tournament...

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The end of the endgame that was no endgame

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about an "endgame" in one of my correspondence chess games at ChessWorld. From the comments to that post, I learned that my position at that time should have been filed under middlegame and not endgame. The game just finished with a loss for me: I gave my opponent the chance to play a mate-in-three combination. This did not stop me from winning the tournament, though. The image on the left shows the position before my final mistake. White to move, what is the correct way to avoid mate? See the annotated game for the move I played and the mate in three.

I wrote in the previous post on "endgame" study that I should start some kind of basic endgame study. I actually started reading "Pandolfini's Endgame Course" by Bruce Pandolfini. Right now, I am working through the chapter on minor pieces vs. a lone king. The problems such as mates in four are not very complicated. In fact, I would probably resign if I would have only the king left, so I don't expect to encounter these situations very often. However, I try to solve the problems without a chess board which brings me to the limits of my current chess visualization abilities: everything beyond the next move still feels troublesome. But by not moving pieces during analysis I hope not only to improve my chess endgame skills but also my board vision. And soon I will move on to things like rook and bishop vs. rook endgames, a situation that is actually similar to another correspondence chess game I am playing right now, which gets me back to the question of just-in-time engame study...

Sunday, May 07, 2006

From the news: Why do some people achieve mastery?

In "A star is made", the New York Times discusses the reason, why people become good at something. The article describes results from a new study on an old topic: talent vs. practice using elite soccer players as example. The majority of "good" soccer players is born in the first three months of the year. The simple conclusion from this fact would be that the birthdate determines the chances to play professional soccer. The study by Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University, however, comes to a different conclusion: Practice is more important than raw talent.

From the viewpoint of the chess beginner who wants to learn play chess, the most interesting part of the study is, that the way practice is done also matters. Training methods that give immediate feedback are considered as most effective. What is the consequence for chess training? Studying tactics by solving tactical puzzles, should be good because feedback is provided after every tactics problem. But what about playing chess? The study results make me wonder, if . Learning strategic thinking surely requires more than just looking at one combination like in tactical problems. Playing many complete games is necessary to acquire chess strategy skills and the ability to correctly evaluate chess positions. In correspondence chess games, however, games stretch out over many weeks, giving no immediate feedback. Taking the results of above cited study seriously, playing slow over-the-board games is therefore a more efficient way to improve in chess than correspondence chess.

Friday, May 05, 2006

When is it appropriate to resign in amateur chess?

I am planning to start again playing "live" chess games on FICS since a few weeks. Tuesday night I finally found some time for a reasonable slow (20 30) game. After about one hour, I found myself playing white with the position shown here and about 1 minute left on my clock (take a look at the if you are curious how the game started). I came to the decision that my chances for getting one of my pawns promoted are practically zero and resigned.

I frequently read phrases like "she/he did the honorable thing and resigned" or complains about somebody who did not resign in a position that was hopeless (at least from the opponent's point of view) and forced the game to continue. On the other hand, I also see opinions like "nobody ever won by resigning". A quick internet search found 13 ways of the uneasy art of resigning and good "advice" on . I can understand that most chess masters resign quickly when they loose material. But when should amateurs resign? I think that it is rather impolite to force somebody to play through a long ending when it is pretty much clear who won. However, players on my level make mistakes, and in most games not only one. Therefore, I could always fight on and hope that my opponent messes up. For sure I won't resign right after loosing a minor piece. In the particular case shown here, though, I did not see much of a chance to win, not to mention the fact that I was getting hungry... But I'd like to learn how other people decide when to resign and why, so please leave a comment about your experience with this topic!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Motivation for chess tactics study

I just finished another round through my favorite set of and wondered if doing these problems repetitively actually pays off in terms of chess improvement. On the first thought, I am spending a significant amount of time on studying tactical pattern such as forks and pins that almost never seem to appear in the games I play. This got me rather frustrated. Nevertheless, solving chess tactics puzzles is widely considered as the most efficient study area for beginners.

Let's take a look at the few cases where these tactics pattern actually showed up in my games. In most cases, I lost a piece by not realizing that my opponent can fork some pieces of mine. I know that simple tactics (almost) never occur in the games of chess masters. Masters simply do not give their opponents the chance to apply these simple tricks. Although I was always aware of this fact, I never really thought about the consequences of this for my personal quest for chess improvement. The most important thing for me to learn is to apply the visualization skills that get acquired by solving hundreds of chess tactics puzzles to avoid giving my opponent any chance to use discovered attacks, pins, etc. against me. In fact, one of the reasons why I like the by John Coffey so much is, that they contain also "black to move" problems where you look at the board from white's perspective.

Therefore, I still see no alternative to solving tactics problems. However, this defensive view of tactics also requires the discipline to evaluate the opponent's opportunities each and every move. And with that, we are back to the often discussed , but that is another, may be even harder to learn, issue.