Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Practical King and Pawn Ending

chess diagram
Moldovan-Kernighan, KCCC 2007
White to play and win.

chess diagram
Keres 1973
White to play. What is the result?

I have posted an article analyzing the endgame from Moldovan-Kernighan, Kenilworth Chess Club Championship 2007, which is a very practical King and Pawn ending. Moldovan gave up the position as drawn, but there is a win, as demonstrated afterwards by his opponent and by FM Steve Stoyko who was observing the final moves. Moldovan annotates the game at his Chess Coroner blog, where he explains that it was "A disappointing but acceptable result since I was clearly worse at one stage...." As he goes on to show, the winning strategy is to use the passed pawn to force the Black King to the last rank, then surrender the pawn in such a way that you can claim the opposition and win the pawn at g6, when the King on the sixth rank forces through the remaining pawn to the queening square. I have included some similar examples taken from Paul Keres's excellent book Practical Chess Endings (Batsford 1973/1974). One position he gives (see diagram above) shows a way for Black to draw by counter-attack if the second pawn is on the c- or f-file. So this is a good one to know from both sides!


Monday, February 26, 2007

Frankenstein and Dracula Meet the Werewolf

I thought I knew all about the Frankenstein-Dracula Variation of the Vienna (1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bc4 Nxe4 4.Qh5). Then the other night at the club, a mysterious stranger introduced me to the Werewolf with 4...Ng5!?!? and it really freaked me out. I had never seen that before. In fact, I had never even imagined that there might be another move for Black besides 4...Nd6.

As far as I know, that move is not in any book. As you might expect, it probably is not very good on close inspection. But proving that upon first encounter is another story--especially late at night at ICC, with a full moon overhead. I have been enjoying playing the Werewolf quite a bit these past few days. And I'm just itching to play it again.

For those interested in learning more about the mainline Frankenstein-Dracula, I suggest the articles by Tim Harding at ChessCafe:

You might also enjoy Vienna Backwaters by IM Andrew Martin, which offers an introduction to Santasiere's forgotten surprise gambit alternative to the Frankenstein-Dracula that may be even scarier: 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bc4 Nxe4 4.Qh5 Nd6 5.Bb3 Nc6 6.d4!?


Sunday, February 25, 2007

Examples of Underpromotion

chess diagram
Cole-NN, USATE 2007
White to play and win.
Play continued 1.Rf8!? Rxf8 ...

At the Kenilworth Chess Club the other night, I spoke with Jim Cole about his experience as captain of the Kenilworth CC Rookies at the US Amateur Teams East. It was his first rated tournament, so a lot was new and exciting to him. But he had one rather awkward experience that he was still having trouble digesting.

During one of his games, he reached the position in the diagram above as White against a young opponent. Seeing a quick way to Queen his pawn, Jim naturally played 1.Rf8!? and the game continued 1....Rxf8 2.gxf8, at which point Jim reached for and grasped the Queen that was sitting beside the board.

His opponent jumped up and declared, "Stalemate!"

"But I haven't even completed my move," Jim protested, just now realizing that a Queen on f8 would make an immediate draw.

"It doesn't matter," his young opponent declared with complete confidence. "Touch move rule! You touched your Queen! Stalemate!"

I assured Jim that his opponent was mistaken, and that he was allowed to touch any piece that was off the board without being forced to place it on the queening square. We analyzed the position a bit and it was clear that making a Bishop would win very quickly. I realized later that even a Knight would work. But the fact was past and, as a practical matter, it had been settled as soon as he shook his opponent's hand and signed the scoresheet--even if his move was never completed on the board.

When I got home that night, I immediately took out my rule book and looked it up. According to Rule 10H of the USCF's Official Rules, 5th edition, "There is no penalty for touching a piece that is off the board. A player who advances a pawn to the last rank and then touches a piece off the board is not obligated to promote the pawn to the piece touched until that piece has been released on the promotion square" (pp. 22-23). Jim was right to be upset.

But then I realized that, even if he had known the rule, Jim would have had a lot of trouble putting down his Queen and picking up a Bishop. Being an honest fellow, Jim would have had to admit that he had fully intended to place a Queen on f8 before his opponent had intervened by declaring "Stalemate!" Therefore to change his move would be unethical, practically like receiving "unsolicited advice" from others during a game (see 20E ff.)--even if the advice came from his opponent!

Best to just accept it as a lesson learned--and motivation for actually sitting down to read the Rules in full!

As I was puzzling over the position, I remembered an article by John Nunn on underpromotion that I had stumbled upon the other day in one of my chess files. I had torn it out of a magazine (likely New in Chess circa 1985-1986), so I can't give you the specific citation. It featured several fascinating tactical endings and a discussion of how rare it is to see a position where a player must underpromote in order to win. Having said that, he also gave the following interesting position, which I cover in my article.

chess diagram
Branimir Vujic - Marjia Petrovic
Yugoslav Ladies' Championship, Kula 1985
White to play and win.

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Today's Chess Columns

Chua-Vigorito, USATE 2007
Black to play and win.
I read two newspaper chess columns on Sunday.

The first is always The New York Times's chess column by Dylan Loeb McClain, who has proven an excellent successor to GM Robert Byrne. I especially like to see more current and local games in his columns than had been the case previously. Today's piece is titled "At Amateur Team Tournament, Having a Good Costume Helps" and features Chua-Vigorito, USATE 2007, which is one of the few master games I have seen from the event. It opens with the ever-wild Botvinnik Variation of the Anti-Meran Semi-Slav. Unfortunately for students of the opening, the game only diverges from theory on move 19 (see the diagram above), and its 19th move is probably not the most incisive (see my notes).

The second article I always read is The Newark Star-Ledger's chess column by Pete Tamburro and Steve Doyle. I was hoping they would have a USATE game today and expect they will have several in the coming weeks (as they typically do following the event). Instead, today they feature the excellent game Grasso-Stoyko, NJ Open 2006, which we annotated shortly after the event in a blog article titled "FM Steve Stoyko at the NJ Open."
I am glad that these papers feature these excellent writers and hope their columns are never completely supplanted by us bloggers....

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Friday, February 23, 2007

More USATE News

"Beavis and Butt-Vinnik" players James Critelli and Evan Turtel (right) sit down to play Kenilworth CC #1, led by Steve Stoyko (left).
I'm finally turning up some news stories about the US Amateur Team East, including a very good one out today by my fifth round opponent, Alan Kantor, titled "Beavis and Butt-Vinnik Take East" at Chess Life online. It includes some excellent photos, information about the event and a list of winners. It also presents Beavis and Butt-Vinnik's road to the championship. Of our teams' fifth round encounter Kantor writes: "We were paired against a tough New Jersey team. Despite Stephen Stoyko blocking the way we managed to squeak out victory with 2½ points." Very nice.

More details about the event can also be found at The Daily Record, which has a good story titled "Players from all over check in at Parsippany chess tournament." There you can get some numbers, which help to understand how big this event was (and why the bathrooms were so rank by day 3):

A total of 1,174 players --including nine international grand masters, 33 international masters and eight masters --are competing in the event, said E. Steven Doyle, past president of the New Jersey State Chess Federation. The field is diverse, with competitors ranging in age from five to 93 and hailing from various states on the eastern seaboard.

And, "this is the first time we are promoted to be the World Amateur Team," Doyle explained. "We are the largest world amateur team event in the world."

The tournament primarily has been held in New Jersey since 1972, and has taken place at the Hilton for the last 15 years, Doyle added.

I have already mentioned blog coverage by Jim West on Chess and Derek Slater of the Reassembler blog. Today I found Globular's Blog and The Rainy Day Blog.

And I think I discovered why they are now billing it as the "World Amateur Team Championship": there will apparently be no playoff among the four teams this year. I guess that means Beavis and Butt-Vinnik are World Champs.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

USATE Wrap-up

White to play and win a pawn.

The New Jersey State Chess Federation website has the team results on their home page (just scroll down).

  • First Place - Beavis and Butt-Vinnick (we lost to them on Board #1 in Round 5)
  • Second Place - Whopper, Big Mac, Small Fry and a Lawyer (a BCC team)
  • Third Place - Bonnets Fellows
  • Fourth Place - Dean Ippolito LLC
  • Fifth Place - Predecessors 2: Electric Booga

    Beavis and Butt-Vinnik were the clear winners defeating Feds Up (2.5-1.5) led by GM John Fedorowicz in the final round. Team members were: James Critelli (2311), Evan Turtel (2206), Evan Rabin (2076), Nick Ponico (2022), and alternate Alan Kantor (2000).

    Even if my team did not finish as well as I had hoped, at least I played up to my expectations. The reason to have an Expert on Board 4, after all, is to register early wins, which can basically secure the whole match since everyone else is given draw odds. I've posted my Two Quick Kills on Board Four (Rounds 1 and 3). If only I had won in Round 5... Next year, I guess.


    Teaching Chess to Kids, Part VII

    Black to play. Mate in one.

    Teachers often ask themselves whether or not their students are actually learning. "Yes, I've been teaching them and we have covered what is important. But are they any better?" Sometimes it's tough to know for sure, especially when they are still making mistakes.
    At a recent lesson, I played a simultaneous exhibition against my chess students, spotting Queen and move. We only had space, time, and materials for five boards, so most of them had to pair up. Two were absent, so that meant that the two better players could face me solo. The others played in teams of two.

    I told them that a prize was at stake--that anyone who could beat me would get something big. I have candy and book prizes always handy, and we have medals and trophies prepared for the final tournament. But, frankly, if anyone had beaten me, I think I would have gotten him something REALLY big, like a video game or an entire video game system.

    With my Queen off the board and some mystery prize in the offing, they were really into it and tried their confident best to beat me. Even as they started dropping pieces, they did not quit. One student even caught me off-guard with a check I had not noticed.
    In the end, however, it was a shocking slaughter. I routed them in under 30 minutes. I must admit, I played with a mixture of disappointment and glee. One of my better games ended in a nice mate (see diagram above). On the other boards, I simply collected pieces until my advantage was overwhelming. One game began 1.e4 c5 2.Qh5?! (a GM move -- if your name is Nakamura!) 2...e6 ("You saw what we were planning, didn't you!" one declared) 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3?? Nxh5 etc.
    At the end of fifteen minutes or so, as the tide turned and one team dropped their Queen with a groan of agony, a player called out, "Man, we are losing bad! How are you guys doing?" They universally acknowledged that all seemed lost. "He got our Queen a while ago!"
    Fortunately, they all kept score, so I had some of their games to discuss the following session, to emphasize the importance of development, watching for threats, trading when ahead, and getting the king to safety through castling. I emphasized that when they were ahead in material, they not only should exchange but they should be more willing to play aggressively. "Make threats, don't get into a defensive posture. You have the Queen on your side, I don't," I said, "use her like a bully or a bodyguard to push me around! But most importantly, get your king to safety...."
    As they arrived at our following lesson, I gave them a review of castling, setting up a "puzzle" on each board where the question was, "How many legal ways are there for each player to castle on his next move--and what are they?"

    How many legal ways are there to castle?

    I then showed them my better win where castling early might have made a difference for White.
    At another lesson, I began by setting up some opening positions where one player disregards his King safety along the short diagonal, as follows:
    A) 1.d4 f5 2.Bg5 h6 3.Bh4 g5 4.e3 gxh4??
    B) 1.f4 e5 2.fxe5 d6 3.exd6 Bxd6 4.Nc3??
    C) 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nd2?! e5!? 3.dxe5 Ng4 4.h3??
    D) 1.e4 e5 2.f4 Bc5 3.fxe5?
    E) 1.e4 e5 2.f4 Nc6 3.Nf3 f5 4.Nxe5?
    Once they solved the problem position, I went over some of the moves to show them the basic patterns leading to mate or the win of material. I then showed them a game that two of them had recorded beginning 1.e4 e5 2.d4!? f6? 3.dxe5 fxe5? 4.f4? exf4? 5.Nc3? Qh4+ and White quickly got into some trouble. Obviously they needed a lesson on the short diagonal motif!
    The simul was useful, and not simply for gathering sample games and gaining their respect. I also was able to correct any persistent errors, especially involving the more difficult rules. For instance, there is one kid who wants to capture en passant whenever anything passes one of his pawns, including a piece!
    More importantly, the simul gave me my best chance yet to rank them by playing strength.
    I always end each lesson period with a final tournament, which is a 4-round Swiss with each round lasting 16 minutes. As we gear up for that event, I have to begin ranking the players so that the swiss pairings will work most effectively to determine a champion. Last year, but for one surprising player who came in second, I had them pretty much as they finished. This year, but for the top three players who are real standouts, I was not certain. So the session after the simul, I also started pairing them off to help me make the more difficult distinctions between the ones who are relatively even in skill level. As of this writing, I have practically decided the first round pairings for the tournament.
    One reassuring thing is that there are clearly some kids who are beginning to excel at the game beyond their peers. That suggests to me that some of them are learning something, even if not all of them are as devoted to the game. In the end, I guess that's all I can hope to achieve.


    Tuesday, February 20, 2007

    To an Adult Chessplayer Who Wants to Improve

    Recently, one of my friends from the Kenilworth Chess Club asked my advice on how he can improve his rating to move from about 1600 ELO into the 1800-2000 range. Here is a slightly improved and expanded version of the study plan I suggested to him....

    Improving is hard, and I'm certainly no expert at it since I have not improved myself (chess rating-wise, anyway!) in 20 years. But I will say that the biggest lesson I have learned over the years is that there is chess knowledge and there is chess practice, and the two are not the same. Reading chess books gives you knowledge, but you need training and experience to improve your practical results. Knowledge is in your head to some extent, though we should admit to ourselves that most of it remains in the books we collect as reference. Those of us, like myself, who have collected chess knowledge own a lot of books and know very well where to find information, but we can't always demonstrate our knowledge over the board. Practice, meanwhile, is in your body as something you really own and can act on. Most chess writers suggest that you need both knowledge and experience to improve. But the two are not equally important to practical results, and the truth is that most of the time you spend collecting knowledge is wasted if you cannot put it into practice over the board.

    Of course, I'm not the first to say this. That's what Michael de la Maza's famous Rapid Chess Improvement: A Study Plan for Adult Players (reviewed here at great length in 2005) is all about. And books such as John Nunn's Secrets of Practical Chess and Alex Yermolinsky's The Road to Chess Improvement develop the theme at length. But for those who have not read these books, let me boil it down for you into a ten point plan so that you can decide if you really want to do what it takes to improve.

    After all, to train well enough to improve your over the board results, you have to approach chess with a sportsman's or athlete's sensibility. I think we'd benefit more financially, romantically, and in terms of our life expectancy from committing to an intensive fitness training routine like P90X over an intensive chess routine. But if you want to get better at chess, or you have the motivation to do both fitness and chess (in which case, more power to you!), then you have to apply the same attitude to your brain as you would to getting a "beach body." It's just that most people will never see how fit your brain is...

    If you choose to make the commitment, here is the ten point plan:

    1) Study tactics, tactics, and more tactics. Learn the basic tactical motifs and practice combining them by doing lots of puzzles. Buy CT-ART or some other intensive tactics training program if you want to intensify your training and you are as committed as a Knight Errant. The CT-ART program helps you monitor your progress and presents material in a very usable format.

    If you don't feel like investing in a commercial program, there are plenty of free tools and puzzle collections available online, including the addictive Chess Tactics Server, DejaScacchi, Chess Puzzles by GMs, and ChessBase Puzzles. Design a program of trying to solve X number of puzzles in an hour and keep track of your scores, trying always to improve your percentages and your times.

    2) Do a limited amount of focused endgame training. With faster time controls, endgames are becoming more rare and endgame training is therefore becoming less vital to success below the master level. But it is important to possess some basic knowledge if you want to improve your results -- especially since any amount of study will give you a significant advantage over most players below 2000. And, again, it is not important to have a lot of books here to master the subject. Most endgame books, after all, are like grammar books, dictionaries, and other reference works: they sit on the shelf unread except when we have a specific question. If you buy one good training manual and actually read it you will get more benefit than you would from twenty books on the shelf. My best suggestion would be Bernd Rosen's Chess Endgame Training, which is ideal for class players through master who have learned some basics already but need training and practical experience to improve the knowledge they carry with them to the board.

    3) Commit to a single solid repertoire as Black and one as White. Decide on an opening repertoire, map it out carefully with the help of a stronger player and some literature (or CD or DVD), and stick to it for a long time. Since you'll be sticking to it for a long time, it should be a valid repertoire. It could have a gambit or two as a sideline or alternative line (unless it is something fully legitimate like the Scotch Gambit), but you should prefer openings you can keep for a long time and not grow out of.

    As you develop a repertoire, keep book-buying to a minimum. Not only will you then do more playing, but you'll also spend less time figuring out what theory says and instead learn to think for yourself. And remember: there are lots of great opening resources online for free. If I were to recommend a good opening system for a beginning to mid-range player, I might suggest one built around the isolani pawn formation with the following three books: Meeting 1.e4 by Alexander Raetsky (truly an excellent book), Meeting 1.d4 by Jacob Aagaard (not as good as Raetsky's, but a great fit), and An Attacking Repertoire for White by Sam Collins. If that is not so attractive, you could just go with Alburt, Dzindzi, and Perelsheyn's Chess Openings for White, Explained (reviewed here in August) and Chess Openings for Black, Explained. But whatever you choose, keep it simple and study it well. Don't stop with the books themselves but train yourself in these openings by doing your own analysis, playing often, and looking at lots of master games in these lines.

    4) Play through lots of games. Review hundreds of master games in your lines where the good guys win until you literally have the critical ones memorized and you have absorbed the key patterns from the rest. It's almost less important that you fully understand what's going on in these games than that you internalize the strategic and tactical patterns. Don't bother so much with annotated games or research, unless that comes your way naturally. Just try to get the patterns and make them stick.

    The simplest way to go through lots of games is online at any of the database sites, including NICBase (probably the best free tool for the study of opening lines), ChessBase,, and ChessLab. For most students of the game below 2000 rating, the commercial databases are a waste of time. It's less important to own a good database on your computer than to use a database well to improve the knowledge that you have with you at all times.

    5) Read on strategy only as it relates to your openings or problems you have in your play. If you are playing openings where you are likely to get an isolani, pick up an article or two or three or four on that theme. But don't feel you have to learn everything or master every strategic idea. Focus instead on the ones that apply immediately to the openings that you are playing or the strategic mistakes you are making in your games.

    6) Decide how to make decisions and practice it. Work on your "thinking" -- your decision making process. This may be most critical of all. If you have a good decision-making process and you train with it, you will reduce your errors and improve your use of the clock dramatically. You will also be able to play with more confidence and start to improve your calculating ability -- which you can only really start to hone through practice and experience.

    You can develop a rubric for guiding your thinking with a coach, with a book, or with any number of online articles. Dan Heisman has written some excellent articles on the subject in his Novice Nook column at ChessCafe, including "A Generic Thought Process," "Initial and Final Candidate Moves" and "Improving Analysis Skills." Those article alone would be sufficient for most developing players.

    7) Get experience, and lots of it. Play a ton of games against computers, against people online, at tournaments, and at the club. Getting your game count up will increase your experience and will reinforce your training. If nothing else, it will also give you some games to look at closely with a coach. Remember that you have to lose 10,000 games before you can improve....

    8) Find a coach or mentor. A coach will be most helpful with refining your thinking process (including intrusive thoughts), helping to choose your openings, and going over your own games so you can ask questions and start to understand "Why?" As you train, "How" is more important than "why," but eventually you'll need to know "why" also.... If you cannot afford an actual coach, try to develop mentoring relationships with stronger players. Or take advantage of free advice on forums such as Openings for Amateurs or Chess Publishing. But recognize that you get what you pay for and the best coaching does not come for free.

    9) Make a time committment. You have to devote at least two hours a day on average to it with weekly to monthly sessions that are longer -- sort of like going to the gym every day to train, doing some more intensive sessions on the weekend, and then running a marathon once a month. Basically, stop watching TV almost entirely. You should play in a tournament at least once per month.

    Remember: the one thing that Michael de la Maza never mentions in his book is that he was unemployed during his period of intensive training. I would guess he was also single, childless, and not a home owner. The reason why young people can improve so rapidly is because they have the time to devote to their training that most adults do not. The only advantage that an adult might have over a kid is that we can do things more consciously and deliberately than kids might. If you set aside the time, you can get it done.

    10) Find a partner. Think of it like getting a gym partner and choose one with the same attitude as you'd want in a friend likely to get your butt into the gym. You want someone who is willing to commit to going to tournaments and who will challenge you to go further with a bit of friendly competition. You want someone at about your strength or better who will also make a good sparring partner.

    I know that most of that advice is fairly standard and really applies to everything you want to do well -- from getting good at a sport to music to writing. And some of it boils down to "don't buy more books, just read the ones you have!"

    I just hope it discourages you enough that you choose P90X instead....


    USATE 2007 Update

    The US Amateur Teams East Championship is ended. After a great 4/4 run and a visit to Board #1, the Kenilworth Chess Club A-team stumbled to a 4/6 finish. Though we won no prizes, I had a very pleasant experience because I split Board 4 duties with another Expert and only had to play in the mornings. I ended up with 2.5/3 after drawing in the last round. I may share the two wins (against much lower rated opposition but nicely executed and short) in my next post. Anyone who played all six games is probably completely wiped out.

    I have been searching for news about who won the US Amateur Teams East with no luck. You can find a list of USATE Champions from 1971-2003 online and lots of old news, but nothing from 2007. I did discover that The US Amateur Team South was won by The Shocker and The US Amateur Teams West by Knights of the Republic, led by IM Enrico Sevillano. If anyone can enlighten me as to the East and the North, please do so in the comments.

    I found a few US Amateur Team bloggers online. Jim West on Chess posts an interesting draw with his famous Philidor Counter-Gambit. Patrick of Chess for Blood (who played in the USAT West event) has several nice games here, here, and here. And Derek Slater of the Reassembler blog has several entries on his USATE experience.


    Monday, February 19, 2007

    USATE, Round 5 update

    Well, that's a lame photo, but you get the picture.

    Going into Round 5 out of 6 of the World Amateur Team and US Amateur Team East 2007, the Kenilworth Chess Club #1 team played on Board #1 against team "Beavis and Butt Vinni."

    When I left, the match had not concluded. But, unfortunately, and barring some miracle, we likely lost. I drew my game relatively early on Board 4 against an Expert (my opponent described the position accurately by saying "if either of us tries to win, we lose"). Steve Stoyko on Board 1 likely could have had a draw by repetition but declined it in a tough time pressure battle which he lost to a young master. Meanwhile, Boards 2 and 3 had just made the time control, but it looked like Scott Massey was in a bit of trouble (having sacrificed the Exchange for complications in a worse position) and Ed Allen had only a slight edge at best.

    There were six teams with perfect scores after Round 4: the two teams just mentioned plus, the Fed Ups (featuring GM John Fedorowicz), Khodarkovsky's Tycoons, and UTD Orange. It looked like UTD Orange had won their match. I'll make no other predictions, except to say it will be a sad homecoming at the club this Thursday.


    Sunday, February 18, 2007

    USATE, Round 3 Update

    arthur bisguier GM Arthur Bisguier vs. FM Steve Stoyko

    I left before the conclusion of Round 3, when Kenilworth Chess Club's A-Team played Arthur Bisguier's team on Table 5 at the 2007 US Amateur Teams East. I did my job on board 4, winning in 15 moves with the Urusov Gambit so that everyone else could take an early draw and get some rest. Our board 2 was still playing when I left, with a clear edge over his opponent--who knows the draw is his for the asking. Barring disaster, therefore, we should be 3-for-3 and have a shot at advancing to the top table by the time I play again tomorrow morning. Expert Bob Rose and I are sharing board 4 duties (I'm the morning person and he's the night owl), with NM Ed Allen on board 3, NM Scott Massey on board 2, and FM Steve Stoyko (smiling in the picture above) on board 1. We feel more confident this year than in previous years, but winning any tournament requires as much luck as skill....

    Kenilworth has three teams entered. Our Kenilworth CC B-Team has had some tough pairings, playing the team of GM Perelshteyn and GM Dzinzichashvili in the first round. As third board Greg Tomkovich put it: "You know you are in trouble when Dzindzi is Board 2!" But, despite losing on the top boards (as expected), they managed to win on Boards 3 and 4 to get a team draw -- only to be rewarded for the effort by being paired with GM Yudasin's team in the second round! Needless to say, their first board, NM Mark Kernighan, is not likely to take home a clock....

    We also have an unrated team this year, the Kenilworth CC Rookies, headed up by Jim Cole. They began paired against college students, then played some high school kids, and this round expect finally to get a point against the grade-schoolers. But they are having lots of fun.

    More news and games in my next post.


    Friday, February 16, 2007

    US Amateur Teams East 2007

    The 37th Annual World Amateur Team & US Amateur Team East tournament starts tomorrow. I will again be Board 4 Alternate for the Kenilworth Chess Club A-Team (playing just the odd-numbered rounds). We should be among the top contenders with an overall team rating of 2192. Last year, we finished in 21st place (blog coverage here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). In 2005, we won best NJ Team. If you visit the tournament, please say "hello." I'm always glad to meet and talk to readers.


    The Mortimer Trap

    chess diagramBlack to play and win after 5.Nxe5?

    I have posted an article on The Mortimer Trap (arising after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.d3 Ne7!?), which is not well known among amateurs mostly because it has practically disappeared from the books after many years of disuse. With the resurgence of interest in the Berlin Variation of the Ruy Lopez, however, it is again seen occasionally even at the master level. I have played the line myself as Black on ICC and in casual games, catching a few opponents in the trap after 5.Nxe5? (see diagram above). I like it because it reminds me of my favorite lines of the Nimzovich (part of my Knightmare Repertoire), where the Knight often transfers to g6. Some recent published analysis and games (see the bibliography at the end of my article) inspired me to write up my own analysis of the critical lines, which will benefit players of both Black and White.


    Monday, February 12, 2007

    Chess and Evolutionary Theory

    Today is Darwin Day, which honors Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809 - April 19, 1882). So I thought I'd say a few words on the topic of chess and evolutionary theory.

    I began thinking about the subject of this essay a few months back when I read Garry Kasparov's "An Evolutionary Theory of Chess" (November 2006), which reminded me that the term "evolution" is quite common in theoretical histories of the game. Several works even use it in their titles, including Imre König's Chess from Morphy to Botvinnik: A Century of Chess Evolution (1977), Raymond Keene's The Evolution of Chess Opening Theory: From Philidor to Kasparov (1985), and Macon Shibut's Paul Morphy and the Evolution of Chess Theory (1993).

    Observing the popularity of the term "evolution" among chess writers gave rise to several questions: Do the authors who use the term intend reference to Darwin's theories? How much is the use of the term "evolution" accurately informed by a post-Darwinian paradigm? And how much might current developments in evolutionary theory (especially views that recognize the importance of symbiosis and lateral genetic transfer) broaden our insight into how chess theory really "evolves"? Some of the answers I found surprised me.

    A Problem with the Term Itself
    Former World Champion Max Euwe may well have started the trend toward evolutionary thinking in his ground-breaking The Development of Chess Style (1966) where he writes:

    The history of chess (under its present rules) is the study of the growth and gradual change of the strategic ideas of leading players of succeeding generations. Taking note of this evolution and throughly grasping it is the very thing which makes for better judgement and an increase in playing strength. The development of a chess player runs parallel with that of chess itself; a study of the history of playing methods therefore has great practical value. (Introduction, p. 8).

    People have generally read this passage as saying that chess offers proof of the old notion in biology that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," with the idea that our individual history mirrors the evolution of "the race" because the evolutionary story somehow inheres to our genetic make-up. By reviewing chess evolution, according to Euwe, we can speed up our individual progress by, as it were, skipping ahead in the story.

    Implicit in Euwe's treatment of chess "evolution" is the notion that the "march of progress" in chess (both individually and collectively) is ever upward toward greater improvement. However accurate that may be to our theoretically finite game (where Truth is knowable in theory, if often tricky in practice), it does not do justice to a post-Darwinian understanding of biological development. Rather, it reflects both the common use of the term "evolution" and the misunderstanding that the term has helped to cement into our collective consciousness.

    In his famous "reverie" on the opening of the New Haydn Planetarium, titled "What does the dreaded 'E' word mean, anyway?" the late Stephen Jay Gould reflected on how the word "evolution," which Darwin himself rarely used and would have thought inaccurate, came to signify Darwin's prefered description of "descent with modification" for describing his theory. As Gould writes:

    "Evolution," from the Latin evolvere, literally means "an unrolling"--and clearly implies an unfolding in time of a predictable or prepackaged sequence in an inherently progressive, or at least directional, manner.... The few pre-Darwinian English citations of genealogical change as "evolution" all employ the word as a synonym for predictable progress. ... Thus, on these two fundamental grounds--lack of inherent directionality and lack of predictability--the process regulated by natural selection could scarcely have suggested, to Darwin, the label "evolution," an ordinary English word for sequences of predictable and directional unfolding. We must then, and obviously, ask how "evolution" achieved its coup in becoming the name for Darwin's process--a takeover so complete that the word has now almost (but not quite, as we shall soon see) lost its original English meaning of "unfolding" and has transmuted (or should we say "evolved"?) into an effective synonym for biological change through time.

    This interesting shift, despite Darwin's own reticence, occurred primarily because a great majority of his contemporaries, while granting the overwhelming evidence for evolution's factuality, could not accept Darwin's radical views about the causes and patterns of biological change. Most important, they could not bear to surrender the comforting and traditional view that human consciousness must represent a predictable (if not a divinely intended) summit of biological existence. If scientific discoveries enjoined an evolutionary reading of human superiority, then one must bow to the evidence. But Darwin's contemporaries (and many people today as well)would not surrender their traditional view of human domination, and therefore could conceptualize genealogical transmutation only as a process defined by predictable progress toward a human acme--in short, as a process well described by the term "evolution" in its vernacular meaning of "unfolding an inherent potential."

    Following Gould, we might say that the notion of "evolution" presented by Euwe is consistent with the ways in which Darwin's theories have been absorbed in the West, even if his ideas about "evolution" are not consistent with some basic assumptions made by Darwin himself. The most important points (all related) that Euwe and others ignore are: (1) that Darwin did not depict biological change as "progress"; (2) that Darwin thought that adaptation happened due to unique local circumstances and not due to the natural movement toward an "ideal"; and (3) that Darwin therefore did not believe that the current state of things was necessarily better than any prior state.

    Kasparov's Theories
    Kasparov's theories of chess evolution do break from the model offered by Euwe. Though his writings are often rather generalized, they are also consistent with Darwin's own ideas. In his essay "An Evolutionary Theory of Chess," for example, Kasparov writes:

    The position of chess in culture is reflected by the way the game has evolved along with society. Every generation has its leading schools of philosophy, art, and, you may be surprised to learn, chess. And every generation of chessplayers has had its influential leaders. We'll look at a few of these leaders, their chess, and how the game changed in sync with the world around it (Kasparov 1).
    In other words, Kasparov is suggesting that the style of chess that evolved at any particular time was a local adaptation to larger historical circumstances. This is analogous to Darwin's theories. To give one example, from among many, Kasparov writes:

    With Philidor we also see the beginning of an interesting trend that illustrates how cultural and social currents spread and cross, even onto the chessboard. The best chess masters of every epoch have been closely linked with the values of the society in which they lived. The cultural and political background are reflected in the style and ideas of their play. It was no coincidence that chess developed and flourished in Italy and Spain during the Renaissance.

    Correspondingly, Philidor developed his concept of positional play during the Enlightenment and the era of rationalism. Looking back we can even find a historical context for Philidor’s most memorable maxim, “the pawns are the soul of the game.” His contemporaries, he believed, failed to understand the strategic importance of the pawns, the weakest but in some ways most complex and essential members of the army. Do not these thoughts of “power to the common man” in some way presage the French Revolution?
    What's more, Kasparov does not appear to believe that the current state of chess play is qualitatively superior to the play of the recent past. The players of today may know more, but they don't play better. In an interview, Kasparov had the following nuanced exchange with Mig Greengard:

    Mig: In My Great Predecessors you write about the evolution of chess over the decades. As with evolution in nature it’s hard to see up close. When you look at the top few players, the top five or ten, do they play at the level you and Karpov were playing at in the early 1980’s? Has there been an increase in sophistication and quality?

    Kasparov: There is increasing sophistication, but as for quality... When I played Karpov there were two of us well ahead of the rest. Today, can you say Anand is so much better than Leko? You have Anand, Kramnik, Leko, Mickey, Topalov...

    Mig: Okay, but are they better than you and Karpov were in 1983?

    Kasparov: Technically speaking, better because every new generation is better than the previous generation. But is the quality of the chess in the middlegame now better than 20 years ago? Openings are another matter. Any GM today could, technically, play better in the opening than you did then because of databases. I think the quality of the chess we played in Leningrad in 1986 was phenomenally high. I don’t think today’s players could beat that. In my view that was the best match we played and I don’t think they will ever reach it. Today’s players know more even in the middlegame positions because they learned from us, but in terms of the decision-making processing in ’86, no way.

    Though he accepts as a matter of course that the enlargement of chess theory will make the current generation of players quantitatively more knowledgeable than those of the past, he does not accept the notion that they are qualitatively better in terms of their "decision-making processing." Mig even presses him on that point, but Kasparov refuses to capitulate to the common notion of evolution as progress, suggesting that the players of the past may well have been better than they are today. Theory may have enlarged, but individuals are no better, while the population has moved toward greater uniformity in its ability. All very analogous to Darwin's theories.

    Lateral or Horizontal Transfer
    Kasparov's use of the term evolution comes closest to reflecting a Darwinian paradigm of any chess writer, but it also still subscribes to some older and limiting notions of descent. After all, in Kasparov's view, change in chess still happens exclusively in tree-like fashion, descending vertically to the present generation of players from "Great Predecessors." Change is the result of individual genius, not the collective workings of many players who creatively adapt both old and new ideas to novel contexts. Furthermore, in Kasparov's view, evolution happens only through combat and not cooperation. He is, after all, the author of Attacker's Advantage.

    A more recent and still emerging paradigm of evolution (supported by genome studies) stresses instead the ways that horizontal gene transfer (especially through viruses, by the same means we use for gene therapy) within populations has a powerful effect on biological change through time, and that evolution is as much driven by cooperation as it is by conflict. Though Kasparov's more traditional notion makes for a good story, it does not present the whole picture.

    There is a growing literature on lateral transfer, which offers a powerful explanatory system for understanding the speed with which genes (or, by analogy, ideas or "memes") develop and spread. It is therefore a valuable addition to our understanding of changes in chess theory, especially in this age of the internet with its incredible escalation in our ability to communicate and transfer knowledge "peer-to-peer" rather than waiting upon our forefathers....

    I am still compiling examples of the phenomenon, but several instances of lateral transfer of chess ideas can be readily observed. The obvious relationship between the Goring Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.c3 dxc3 5.Nxc3) and the Smith-Morra Gambit (1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3) is a simple example which can explain what I mean. Basically, a method or pattern that is shown to be useful in one opening line is adapted to another line by way of analogy. Even Black modes of defense (such as declining either gambit with an early ...d5 or ...Nf6) transfer readily between the two openings and almost certainly had some effect on their initial development.

    In other words, chess ideas do not descend from founding fathers (whose names become associated with the lines they are imagined to have originated) along specific lines (such as within "the Orthodox Variation of the Queen's Gambit Declined") but are inspired through a process of cross-fertilization between players and between opening "lineages."

    In his wonderful chronological collection, The Evolution of Chess Opening Theory, Raymond Keene notes several examples where developments in one opening helped originate others. He writes, for example, that "Alekhine's Defense, with its deep insight that the avalanche of White centre pawns is, perhaps, not so deadly afer all ... was the precursor of such provocative defences, now commonplace, as the Pirc and first move fianchetto, although, ironically, Alekhine himself disapproved of 1.e4 g6" (75). He also notes that while Frank Marshall adopted the Modern Benoni during New York 1927, the opening "really came into its own as a by-product of the greater understanding of the King's Indian Defense during the 1950s, and in the dynamic hands of Mikhail Tal it was elevated into a fearsome tactical bludgeon" (Keene 171).


    Position after 6...h5!?

    One good example I have found of lateral transfer involves an early ...h5 advance by Black against White's g3 fianchetto, which I illustrate in "Chess and Evolution: An Example of Lateral Transfer." The examples I show come from various openings -- including the Vienna, the English, and a line of the Sicilian which is essentially the reverse of the English line. What I think you will see if you look through these games is that the essential patterns and ideas -- analogous to genes (or what some theorists call "memes") -- are what transfer, and they do not arise either through descent nor solely through closer consideration of the line itself. Instead, these ideas seem to be transferred from one line to the next.

    The idea of lateral transfer (which seems implicit in the writings of John Watson, from whom my main example derives) is very different from the story of evolution in opening theory as told by, say, Imre König's Chess from Morphy to Botvinnik, where the development of theory in the Orthodox Variation of the Queen's Gambit Declined descends in stages as various great players attempt to solve the problem of the Bishop at c8. For König, the story is of one of struggle between succeeding rivals, from Anderssen vs. Steinitz to Capablanca vs. Alekhine (pp. 74-96), with historically successive contributors to the theory along the way. That story is straightforward and fits well with traditional notions of evolution, as I indicate above. But it is neither fully accurate to how chess theory changes (since it leaves out the population of players as a whole) nor is it especially helpful to undestanding the rapidity of change in our own hyper-connected age, where information is exchanged with ever increasing speed. It is also a little different from the views presented by João Dinis de Sousa in his excellent "Chess moves and their memomics: a framework for the evolutionary processes of chess openings," which develops a theory of meme transfer that is more fully theorized than my own simple analogies yet remains confined to specific opening lineages (on the König model) with no accounting for lateral transfer between lines.

    The most important new source of chess ideas is the computer chess program, which inspires with analysis and even with ideas (such as its surprising Rook lift against Kramnik). Often, multiple analysts arrive at the same idea at the same time because they are using the same program. This is a bit different than lateral transfer but achieves the same effect.

    Evolution by Competition and Cooperation
    There is a long tradition of summarizing Darwin's theories as simply saying it is "survival of the fittest" (everyone for himself and God against all), which encourages us to imagine adaptation in the competitive arena of predator and prey, animal and environment, with "nature red in tooth and claw." Such a vision of evolution was especially encouraged by the Social Darwinists of the first Gilded Age in the late 19th Century, and such notions are especially popular today in our own second Gilded Age (especially among the red-meat Republicans).

    The notion of evolution by competition in chess is contained in a title like Anthony Saidy's The Battle of Chess Ideas (1972), which suggests a similar survival of the fittest in chess theory. Interestingly, Saidy's book opens with a rather mythic history of chess itself, in which the game is imagined as emerging in conflict, suggesting through this myth of origins that the seeds of evolution through conflict were planted long ago. "One may look for symbolic meaning in the game's attraction for great revolutionaries--Karl Marx, Lenin and Fidel Castro" writes Saidy.

    Chess is clearly a war game. It shows us two opposing armies comprised of royal hierarchies and their assembled soldiers. Its aggressive content is evident. World Champion Lasker attributed its unique attraction to the prime human delight in a fight, which he regarded as the essence of chess. To him, chess was an intellectual microcosm of the struggle of all life.... Thus, Lasker left us no new strategy nor a legacy of beautiful games. Rather, his games approach in chess the quality of that mythical being which he postulated in a philosophical writing, the Macheide ('Son of Battle')--a being which, evolving through eons of struggle and natural selection, reached a peak of indomitability (12).
    Chess would appear the perfect symbol of competitive evolution, as White and Black struggle always in a zero-sum game of one-upmanship. But this vision of chess ignores the cooperative nature of any human endeavor. New versions of chess might be depicted as "the next level of chess evolution," but it is clear that chess itself evolved through combination of games (see also review by Taylor Kingston and the interesting essay "Is Chess a Hybrid Game?" and this website on The State of Chess Research) rather like the first cells emerged through symbiotic combinations of much simpler organisms.
    Ideas are not put into battle only on the competitive stage, in actual contests between players. They are tested and analyzed long in advance, often in anticipation of a contest that never comes, often in small study groups of peers or teachers and students. What is more, after an actual game has ended, the contestants typically share ideas with each other in post mortem analysis sessions. These unrecorded "games" are actually more numerous than their recorded brethren and are as important as singular over-the-board encounters in helping to refine the theory of a line.
    Thus, to ignore the cooperative nature of chess evolution is to ignore the most important part of chess.

    There is a growing literature on evolution that emphasizes the importance of cooperation between organisms of different species in creating change. I could name a large number of books, but three that I found both useful and readable were Lynn Margulis's Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution (which argues that the role of symbiosis and incorporation or lateral gene exchange are the chief drivers of evolutionary change); Mark Ridley's The Cooperative Gene (which argues that the evolution of complex life was not possible until selfish genes were tamed through the creation of sex to allow for more productive non-clonal transmission); and Frans De Waal's The Ape and the Sushi Master (which argues that generosity and altruism must have evolved as they were selected for in socially organized animals). I recommend these to anyone who is interested in learning more about this alternative and important model.

    To ignore the role of cooperation as well as conflict in shaping biological change is to ignore an equally important part of the story. I think it is also, ultimately, motivated by blind ideology. In order to arrive at a deeper notion of how biological evolution may apply to chess we have to leave ideology behind and look at the science itself.

    In the U.S. currently, you will find less consensus on Evolution than you will on Global Warming--and that is only because of a sudden shift in our collective thinking about the latter due to incontrovertible evidence. We are a people who still wonder "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" when a sixth grade biology student elsewhere might be able to answer "the egg, of course, since it was laid by a proto-chicken whose genotype had not stabilized into the current species we know as 'chicken'--as developed through artificial selection not by God but by Frank Perdue (in his own image)."

    Why do limiting notions of evolution persist in our everyday discourse, including about chess? Because we are willing to stop far short of real knowledge. If you look online, you are more likely to find jokes about chess and evolution than you are any enlightenment.
    There is one intriguing essay titled "Reflections and Debates: The Evolution of Ideas about Chess" at the Chess Theory website (now buried behind PHP code, so I reference the Web Archive version) that tries to use a Kasparovian notion of situated evolution to explain historical developments in the game. Others have tried to use evolution to help develop better models for chess computers. Such attempts, motivated by real science, are rare, mostly because they are difficult. When you are explaining chess, the last thing you want to do is take the time to explain science as well.... It is so much easier to stick to familiar notions that help us dispense with explanation as much as possible. But a more accurate view of evolution can only aid us in understanding the history and the future of our game.

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    Saturday, February 10, 2007

    US Chess League Adds NJ Team

    The United States Chess League, which is the chess equivalent of major league baseball, announced this week the addition of two expansion teams, including one from New Jersey! According to "Commissioner" IM Greg Shahade's official announcement, "New Jersey will be led by GM Joel Benjamin with other confirmed players being IM Dean Ippolito, the #2 15 year old in the nation NM Evan Ju, and the former New York Knight, NM Mackenzie Molner." We featured the exploits of NM Ju at our blog when he became the youngest player ever to win the New Jersey Open Championship this past September.

    Other potential team members might be found on the NJSCF's list of top NJ Players, which strangely fails to list long-time NJ resident, several-time NJ Open Champion, and Kenilworth Chess Club regular FM Steve Stoyko, who would make an excellent addition.

    Hat tip: the BCC Weblog.


    Friday, February 09, 2007

    How many chessplayers?

    How many chessplayers are there worldwide? How many in the U.S. alone? How many who actually understand the game well enough to be interested in watching it on TV or the internet?

    Getting solid answers on questions like that is difficult, especially since those most likely to provide them have an interest in either inflating or reducing the numbers. But having a number you can trust is essential to making many arguments about the game.

    According to the The Chess in the Olympics Campaign, for example, "605 million people worldwide know how to play chess" and "285 million people play ... via the internet" and "7.5 million are registered players." These "staggering" numbers are repeated by Susan Polgar at her blog. Obviously, if you believe these numbers, chess is more popular than practically any other Olympic sport....

    On the other hand, in a recent post J'Adoube writes: "The chess universe is relatively small - only a few million competitive players world wide out of a population exceeding 6 Billion and only 80,000 registered with the USCF, so it's not unusual that distance between two players is relatively close." Of course, he is talking about "competitive players," which naturally would be much smaller than just those who play. But, if you consider that chess spectatorship depends upon being able to understand the game at a relatively sophisticated level, then his numbers may actually more closely reflect the potential audience for chess in the Olympics.

    The comments to Polgar's blog posting suggest the two natural reactions to the larger numbers provided by the campaign for chess in the Olympics: optimism and skepticism. One respondent writes: "As of the December 2006 ratings supplement, there were 83,754 USCF members- a mere 0.2% of the estimated number of chessplayers. This tells me that some serious promotion is in order! If the pool of potential chessplayers and USCF members is really so deep, then the organization has incredible potential!"

    Another writes: "For me 285 millions playing chess on internet is very difficult to believe. Where are they? I use[d] to play in ICC ,yahoo, playchess and probably all together are just 60,000 or less. And if really there are 300 sites to play chess on internet...where is the list? And one of each six (45 millions) knowing how the play chess in USA looks very strange too. ... Sorry but I do not believe these big numbers!" And another: "It is expected that by 2010 there will be a billion computer users... Even assuming there are a billion computer users today, is it possible that 285 million of them, i.e., more than 1 in 4 computer users have played chess on Internet servers? I would be surprised if 28 million people have played chess on the Internet, let alone 285 million. Something is wrong with these numbers."

    At Google Answers you can find a number of sources in response to "how big is the audience for chess online?" But all of them have an angle, so you have to wonder. How are you arriving at these estimates? By the number of chess sets sold worldwide? By survey data (and what survey ever asked about chess)? Inquiring minds want to know....

    Truth be told, though, I began looking into this only because yesterday I told my chess students that they were already better than 99% of the people living in the United States and could probably beat their fathers without a problem (a speculation that several quickly backed up with personal testimony).

    I like belonging to a relatively exclusive club. But I would also be glad to see chess in the Olympics. Most of all, though, I would love to see some numbers that I can trust.


    Thursday, February 08, 2007

    Patzer Etymology

    I recently came across "Patzer: An Etymological Study" by Dr. Helen Weissenstein (Chess Review, April 1961, page 117), which may be of some interest to the many chess bunglers and bloggers out there who like to use that term in self-descriptions.

    Weissenstein says she had met I. A. Horowitz at the Manhattan Chess Club one evening, where the famous American master and chess author asked if, given her expertise in language, she might be able to answer a question concerning a well-known chess term:

    "The day before he had watched a game during which one of the players, having made a few juicy blunders, called himself a patzer. Had the word been used correctly, Mr. Horowitz asked. Can a player still qualify as a patzer even though he acknowledges being one? Does not the expression imply a personality that will never admit his blunders?"

    At first, Dr. Weissenstein responded that "the word patzer had no such limitations and that also a person of great humility could claim the title provided he had the necessary qualifications." But after a little research in historical linguistics, she had her doubts. Here are some of her findings:

    There is an old German word batzen, now patzen, derived from backen, "to bake." As a noun batzen meant a clot, lump, a sticky mess; as an intransitive verb to be sticky, gluey, and as a transitive to do smeary, bad, superficial work, to blunder. We can see at once that this is where our friend, the patzer comes in, making nice big blunders.

    To the same family of words belongs also an adjective, patzig, archaic batzet or batzig, meaning bloated, boastful, impudent, conceited.

    Shame-faced, I have to confess that I did not think of this adjective as I answered Master Horowitz's question much too hastily. Now, having concluded my research, I would not dare to decide one way or the other because unfortunately I found so little literature about the word....

    Master Horowitz may easily be right in his assumption that the word patzer contains an element of conceit and bragging. Patzer and patzig come from the same family, and family will tell as we all know. And we certainly must admire his keen perception and flair for language. Which brings home for us the old truth that a master is always a master and a patzer--a patzer.

    As Weissenstein's implicit application of the term to herself in her conclusion suggests, it really does not matter what the historical usage of the term might be, since people communicate with words as they function for us in the present moment. If the original coinage was intended to describe pretenders to knowledge, our own more uncertain and self-reflexive age has found in the word a proper way of coping with our perhaps overly-self-conscious acceptance that chess is much more difficult than we can even pretend to master.

    I might also note that I think Weissenstein's research argues against Jim West's conjecture that the word "patsy" (from the Italian word for fool or "pazzo" according to William Safire) may be connected to "patzer," especially since there is no sense in which a "patsy" can be said to have an inflated self-image.

    But what do I know?


    Wednesday, February 07, 2007

    Mark Weeks's "Blog Tripping"

    Check out "Elsewhere on the Web: Blog Tripping in January" by Mark Weeks of This is one of my favorite monthly chess columns (one I wish I had thought of) and always worth reading. This month highlights the sudden rise of chess on video, especially with Peter Doggers's excellent video coverage of Corus at Chess Vibes and Patrick's great amateur chess videos (see here and here) at Chess for Blood. The Kenilworthian also receives a mention, which is nice....


    More Bishop and Rook Mates

    chess diagram White to play and force mate (6).

    chess diagram White to play and win (6).

    After my recent discussion of the Bishop and Rook Mating Pattern, Tom Chivers (who writes the excellent Streatham & Brixton CC blog) commented: "I've been getting stumped by so many strange and wonderful puzzles and studies recently, it's great to go back to some child's play!" So, for Tom, we are going to have to take it up a notch....

    The last puzzles were three-movers (more or less). The wins in the two diagrams above are about six moves deep. Solutions to these puzzles plus a dozen more games with the same theme can be found in Mating Patterns: More Bishop and Rook Mates, which I've recently posted at the Kenilworth Chess Club website.

    The Bishop and Rook theme is a favorite of mine, and in compiling these games I remembered one of my own favorites with the theme. I annotated it online several years back as part of my Urusov Gambit website: Goeller - Hall, Hillside 1980.

    I hope I have time to compile more of these game and puzzle sets. I think they are very useful for teaching these important patterns, since they show how they arise in the course of play. Those interested in finding more game sets along these lines should explore the wonderful Game Collections at, including the ones on Boden's Mate (a.k.a. The Bishops Cross Mate) and Mating Patterns. And then there is always Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, which offers loads of examples of the back rank mating theme....


    Tuesday, February 06, 2007

    2007 Kenilworth CC Championship Update

    chess diagram Sokolosky - Wojcio
    White to play and win.
    The Chess Coroner has been doing an excellent job of covering the games from the 2007 Kenilworth Chess Club Championship, posting annotated java applets for Rounds Four, Three, Two, and One. After four rounds, FM Steve Stoyko has a perfect score to lead the open section while Joe Demetrick, Greg Tomkovich, and Ed Selling have perfect scores in the Under-1800 section.

    I was especially pleased to see Bill Sokolosky playing in the Under-1800 section. Bill has been away from the club for some time while completing a masters degree at Rutgers. I was watching his game when it reached the position in the diagram above, where Bill found the clear path to victory with 62.Ke5! d4 (otherwise 63.Kxd4 wins easily) 63. Kd6 Ke8 (otherwise 64.Kd7 forces a queen) 64. Kc6 Ba7 65. Kb7! (Domination! The Bishop has no escape!) 65...d3 66. Kxa7 etc. and Black was soon forced to resign. I think I'll give that diagram to my students as a wonderful illustration of the domination theme in practical play.

    Teaching Chess to Kids, Part VI

    I have discovered the most important item in the chess teacher's toolbox: the lollipop.

    Specifically, I recommend "ring pops," since they are less likely to end up on the chessboard and because they most resemble a pacifier, which is the main function that they serve in my teaching. Ring pops make a good reward at the end of activities ("solve these three problems and we will break open the candy!") -- providing useful motivation to stay on task. But, more importantly, they magically create the most essential ingredient to a successful chess class for kids: peace and quiet!

    The first time my entire class of ten 10-year-old boys had their "pacifiers," the room grew suddenly silent and I could lecture at the demonstration board for a full fifteen minutes, keeping their focus on the lesson at hand. In fact, our group became so quiet that parents in the next room, used to hearing a constant staccato of competitive outbursts from the boys, punctuated by occasional raucousness on the verge of riot, had to peek in to see what magic I had wrought....
    In our past two sessions, I have used the ring pop moments to show my students some games, beginning with Morphy vs. the Count and the Duke (I know, I know: "old hat"--but very effective) followed by a few other games from my Mating Patterns I: Bishops and Rooks collection (especially Reti-Tartakower, Vienna 1910, and Onderka-NN, Austria 1913). Taken together, they all illustrate the concepts of Development, Initiative, and Attack on the King while helping to reinforce the "Morphy's mate" motif. I was amazed at how quickly they began putting these lessons to use in their own games: opening with the d- or e-pawn, developing pieces toward the center, castling to bring their Rook to open files, actually trying to attack their opponents' King, and even (in one instance) pulling off a mate with Bishop and Rook that was directly inspired by our lessons. Looking at games has had a powerful effect.

    In the end, nothing teaches chess faster than playing over games. I remember being told that by IM Mike Valvo when I was a kid myself, just starting out with chess and playing weekly at the Westfield Chess Club (which we both frequented in the 1980s.) During one of his lectures, he said, "Just get a games collection and play over as many games as you can. The most important thing is that they be great games. You don't need detailed notes -- in fact, no notes might be best. Just play over the games until you start to see the patterns!" Of course, you should play them over with focused attention, trying to understand and absorb as much as you can. But even playing them over with little conscious effort has some effect.

    At that time, I remember playing through every game in The Golden Treasury of Chess before getting hold of a Chess Informant. Today, kids can get the same effect by just browsing through or NICBase or one of the many free game database sites. I often recommend websites like that to the kids and their parents, but I'm not sure how many of them have tried them out. There is no question, though, that simply playing through a lot of games will teach them a tremendous amount about the standard patterns of the game -- from pawn formations to the best squares for the pieces. By seeing all of the stages of the game, from opening, to middlegame, to endgame, kids begin to see how the stages fit together, practically like a story. They see pieces and pawns get exchanged, lines open, attacks develop, king's field sacrifices blow open castled positions, and mating patterns or passed pawns rushing to the queening square finish things off. If they look at several hundred games (which they can do in an amazingly short amount of time online, just spending an hour or two each night), they will make an incredible leap forward toward real chess mastery.

    For now, I have enough of their attention for games as the ring pops allow. Maybe it's time to switch to "everlasting gob-stoppers."


    Friday, February 02, 2007

    Mating Patterns: Bishop and Rook

    mate with rook and bishop Onderka - Amateur, Austria 1913
    White to play and mate in three.

    mate with rook and bishop Duras - Olland, Carlsbad 1907 (variation)
    White to play and mate in three.

    I put together a handout (in Word and PDF) for my chess students to teach them the Bishop and Rook mating pattern. For the "solutions," I have posted a java replay page that includes the games from which the puzzles were drawn, along with several other games featuring the same motif. Our discussion of this pattern fit well with showing them "The Chess Instructor's Favorite Game": Morphy vs. the Count and Duke, Paris 1858.

    After putting together the file of games (which is based on articles by Walter Korn from Chess Review 1961), I did some database searches and compiled an original file on the same theme. I will post that one and several other handouts on other motifs as my lessons continue.


    Holmdel Chess Club

    The chess class I teach is located very near the Holmdel Chess Club, which meets on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. - midnight in the Holmdel Senior Center at 4 Crawfords Corner Road in Holmdel, NJ (basically behind the Garden State Arts Center if you are looking on a map). The club has an excellent balance between older and younger members, including several youngsters ranked at the top of their age group in the U.S. It also has both strong masters (including a number of NMs and FMs in attendance) and beginners. It's a great club for my students, and I hope to get some of them at least to check it out. Club dues are $25 residents and $30 non-residents (but no one hassled me to pay anything during my visit.) Boards and pieces are provided. The club sponsors lectures and team matches, and I saw several informal lectures on my visit -- including one by an 8-year-old champ to some older beginners. Highly recommended.