Sunday, December 06, 2009

Interview with David Rudel, Author of "Zuke 'Em"

 David Rudel, author of Zuke 'Em
When I was writing up my Review of Zuke 'Em and analyzing The Hybrid Zukertort Retort, I was in contact with David Rudel, who agreed to an email interview.  

Michael Goeller: It seems most chess players start to identify personally with the openings they play. How did you discover the Colle-Zukertort and why has that opening so appealed to you personally? 

David Rudel: My love of the Colle is mostly Irving Chernev’s fault. I felt he made a good case for the Colle-Koltanowski in his Logical Chess: Move by Move book [see games here]. It seemed like a natural set-up. I always like the idea of playing Nbd2 anyway, and as a youth I never really understood what was so hot about pushing c4.  Wouldn’t you rather push e4 instead? Perhaps my interest in symmetry was partially to blame (believe it or not, I actually refuse to wear dress shirts with a single pocket over one breast. Either no pockets or two pockets for me!)

The thing that made me switch over to the Colle-Zukertort was the “Boa-Constrictor-ness” of it. I like controlling the game completely, not allowing my opponent any counterplay. This aspect of my personality really came out when I played Magic: The Gathering, a collectible playing card game. I would create decks built on neutralizing and controlling my opponent and the game. The last thing I thought about was how I would actually kill my opponent. I would rather first make sure he couldn’t do what he wanted.

I think the Zukertort, where White allows Black plenty of space but creates a “pinch” in his position due to the immobility of his e6-pawn, really reflects my preferences in this regard. Even more important than this “pinch” is the denial of easy transformation in the center. As long as White keeps his c-pawn back, it is hard for Black to change the center in a way that allows quick counterplay.

People say that the Zukertort is not as tactical or attacking as other openings. In my view, the tactics and attacking just start a few moves later.

MG: What do you play as Black?  Are there any other openings that seem to make a good fit with a Colle-Zukertort repertoire? 

DR: People are often surprised to hear that I play the Semi-Slav and the Najdorf as Black. Or, at least I did up until very recently. Given how “quiet” and “positional” the Colle has a reputation for being, they find these options, especially the Najdorf, rather odd.

From my viewpoint, though, it is not a strange combination at all. First, the thing I love about the Colle is the control you have over the game and Black’s lack of dependable early counterplay. Obviously, there is no hope of having anything like that as Black. Thinking in those terms, sharp defenses that come with counterplay practically built in should be natural options.

The second reason these defenses make sense is the very practical point that if you play a low-time-burden opening for White (such as the Colle), you have more time to work on your Black opening, so picking an option that requires more work is feasible.

Recently, though, I have been attracted to an opening that I never, ever though I would want to play. Practically the last opening I would pick were I to have listed my options a decade ago. On some advice from a reader I picked up Tiger’s Modern. It is written in the same kind of laid-back style that I use, and people who thought Zuke ‘Em was tractable found Tiger’s book to be readable as well.

Anyway, after looking at his work, I decided his Modern had the same kind of system-like quality that the Colle has. I like the idea of natural, harmonious configurations, and he made a case for Black being able to set up his formation and then just “play chess” in many cases. I had thought about looking at the hedgehog for the same reason, but Tiger’s writing really won me over.

MG: What made you think that you could publish a chess book as an "amateur player," someone who most publishers think should be reading opening manuals rather than writing them?  And do you think amateur players bring anything special to the writing of chess books? 

DR: There is an interesting story behind this. I had been playing with the idea of writing a book for a while -- for reasons I will get to in your next question -- and had worked up a good chunk of material. However, writing at a book is very different from writing a book…just like playing at the piano is different than playing a piano.

Turns out, I’m a pretty gifted mathematician. It also turns out that if you can pass your exams and other qualifying work in grad school, the supervisors more or less leave you alone. These things contributed to my having a lot of free time in grad school. During that time I did a bunch of chess analysis, and I also did a lot of Bible reading.

With regard to the latter, I had come to the conclusion that, when one simply reads the Bible for what it says rather than what people tell you it is supposed to say, it says something quite different from what most people think it does. So I also had begun writing a book on theology.

Then it came time to write up my thesis. I had solved an open problem in mathematics regarding the dualization of Algebraic Quasi-varieties. I was the first person to find an algebraic Quasi-variety generated by a non-commutative, non-trivial ring that admitted a Natural duality. (My work was in the most theoretic subfield of one of math’s most theoretic fields, so I realize that mean almost nothing to most readers).

Unfortunately, due to some political issues that led to my having problems finding an advisor in my field, I ended up not finishing my thesis by the time my time was up at Dartmouth. I still had the option of finishing it (or, rather, revising it and editing it so that someone else could understand it) later.

This left me with three unfinished works: the chess writing I had done, the theology book, and my thesis. I actually had another one as well: some fiction I had started meant to be an allegory of the Christian faith. You can actually see a draft of the first few chapters on my myspace page. That story came from a plot I had had in my mind since high school but never actually wrote up.

With four incomplete books, I made a decision to stop the madness. I realized that part of the issue may have been a fear of failure. I had never had much reason to doubt myself in high school or college. Other than not doing quite as well on the Putnam exam and the Math Olympiads as I would have liked, I pretty much won everything I did. I strongly believe people should face their own psychological demons, so I decided it was time to finish some of these works in case there was a fear of failure at work.

It was probably the success I had had earlier in academics that gave me the arrogance and temerity to publish a chess book as a no-name player. I was a bit of a celebrity in high school and college among the nerd circles, and maybe the kind of delusions celebrities get helped me out in this case.

As far as the second part of the question goes… no, I don’t think amateurs per se bring anything special to the writing. What is more important is the mindset of the player and their ability to know how class players think. Tiger Hillarp Persson is obviously no amateur, but he writes in a way that club players can understand.

Depending on where the cut-off is for “amateur,” I’m not sure you can make a case for amateur’s writing less well than others. If you define “amateur” in the strict sense of “anyone who could not make a living actually playing chess,” then that label covers a vast number of players!
MG: What made you think that a book on the Colle-Zukertort would be popular? 

DR: The question of popularity never really entered the equation. I wanted to write a book on the Colle-Zukertort for the same reason I wanted to write my book on Christianity: I had some knowledge that others could benefit from. I had played the Colle-Zukertort more or less exclusively and had looked for answers to the problems that other books just didn’t want to address. It was when I found an answer to the Sneaky Gruenfeld that I decided I really had to let the chess community know what I had found.

I was actually shocked by the response (both positive and negative) in the chess playing community. I was saddened by the number of players who reacted so strongly (and very nastily) at the notion that I would have the gall to share my knowledge. I remember one person saying that my book had to either be plagiarized rip-offs from other publications and/or a database/engine dump. Obviously, this person had not taken a look at my book.

I suppose the fact that it was a book on the Colle [ick!] didn’t help things.

On the other hand, I was also shocked at the number of people who told me how much they appreciated the writing style of the book and how it gave them something that had proven elusive in their previous buys. I didn’t really expect any of that. I thought that the organization of the book and some of the things I threw in (the training exercises, new ideas index, grouping lines by ideas and themes, and moving a bunch of the denser stuff to a separate section) was maybe something others would find useful, but I was definitely not ready for the other notes of appreciation.
MG: How has your relationship been with Thinkers Press, and would you recommend that other amateur or professional chess authors take their work there?  Was there much difficulty in convincing them of the value of your project -- and how did you pitch it? 

DR: I knew of Thinkers Press from back in their ChessCo days. I remember being impressed as a kid by their prices and offerings. I think they provided a real service to chessplayers on a budget. They were one of the first three or four publishers I went to. Bob Long now uses a model where the author has to invest more in a given book but also gets more of a return than he would from other publishers.

I just found my original email to Bob, asking if he were even interested in a book on the Colle. It was pretty blunt. I had already received information from two other publishers that they were not interested on a book just on the Colle. Here was my first query to Bob:
I am in the midst of writing a book on the Colle-Zukertort...hopefully a book that will revolutionize the opening.
Remember what I said about arrogance and temerity?

Anyway, after he replied, I gave him a list of reasons for the book. I noted that a bunch of books skip some of the most important lines, that the Zukertort deserves to have a book devoted just to it rather than packaged with other things, and noted that I had new, never-before-published solutions to lines.

I sent him a manuscript, and he decided it was a worthwhile project after reading it.

As far as my recommending Bob for other authors, it really depends on your goals and personality. I’ve now done three books with Bob even though I am an independent publisher myself. I could have self-published my second and third book, doing all the typography, etc. myself and chose not to. Bob Long is one of the fairest people you could ever hope to work with, and he makes very good looking books. It’s really rare to find a business partner with ethics, but Bob is one of them. Andy Martin and he have been making products together for quite a while, so I would venture to guess that IM Martin is also quite satisfied with Bob.

Given the streamlined nature of Thinkers Press, my recommendation to authors is to have their work already carefully edited by an outside proofer. I learned this the hard way and let myself down by doing a poor job of editing my work the first time around. I’m actually an editor myself for Worse, I’m the line editor for them when they need it. Unfortunately, my ability to successfully edit my own work is evidently zilch!
MG: How do you balance the use of game research and your own analysis in what you present? 

DR: I don’t present many actual game lines because it’s never clear how close such a line is to best play. However, I used a ton of game analysis when doing the Bxh7+ book, looking at hundreds of positions from real games to determine common themes, motifs, and configurations to categorize and check when I was trying to nail down simple rules for that sacrifice.

My presentation is mostly focused on trying to convey as nuanced and complete a picture for the first few moves as possible so that players have an idea of what to look for as their own games unfold. Obviously specific analysis is needed to support the theoretical validity of any new ideas I suggest, but I think there is a certain art to knowing when to snip a line and give general themes for the reader to know about rather than just more branches to learn.
MG: What computer program or programs do you use for analysis? and what limitations do they seem to have when analyzing typical Zuke lines? 

DR: Rybka is the only engine I trust in general. I will occasionally use Zappa or another if I’m really hard up and desperate in a position. One major problem with Rybka, however, is that its end-game evaluation capabilities are far behind its astounding middle-game. I’m not just talking about the general computation issues with doing endgame analysis. I’m referring to evaluations where other engines simply seem to have a more accurate understanding of what wins endgames.

I don’t even own any of the modern Fritz programs. My proofers use Fritz, though, and in general it does not seem any more reliable than Zappa, Delphi, etc. The vast majority of the times Fritz disagrees with a line that Rybka has checked, I have found Rybka to be vindicated after future analysis. My proofers may have thrown up 15-20 flags, and only 1 or 2 were cases where Fritz’ concern proved warranted.

One problem with using engines with the Zukertort is that the goal of an engine (to provide evaluation assuming perfect tactical play) is rather different from the goal of someone playing the Zukertort. The blocked-in Bishop on b2 and the relatively corralled Knight on d2 penalize White’s position from the very start. And this is not just me making excuses for the Zukertort. Try running the Najdorf by a computer and it will think White has a huge advantage from the beginning.

Computers are also notoriously less skilled at evaluating blocked up positions (which the Colle-Zukertort leads to with great frequency) and have problems with calculating the theoretical value of vague threats (to say nothing of the practical value!) This was actually the basis for that “psychologist takes on Fritz” book where the silicon monster was tamed by amassing a bunch of pieces just a hop or two away from the King. That slow-building assault is common in the Zukertort because White naturally wants to make use of Black’s relative inability to add defenders to his kingside.

A final limitation is that Zukertort players often use a g-pawn advance after suitable preparation. Computers generally hate this play, and not without reason. Still, from a practical perspective, that g-pawn push is often a crusher, and in many lines it won’t be adequately considered when determining White’s chances.

All that being said, I would be lying if I indicated engine analysis was worthless to me. I am very much indebted to Rybka, and she has contributed critically to the quality of Zuke ‘Em.
MG: What are the main differences between the first edition (or revised edition) and the second edition, besides more pages? 

DR: Well, in addition to the typos now being (finally, I hope) thoroughly beaten back, the three main differences are:

First, the mainline chapter has been completely redone. Earlier I developed an entire repertoire around playing 8.Ne5. I still suggest that move for a certain group of people, but IM Silman and John Dowling (a strong C-Z player) convinced me that it was not sound (though that is probably little comfort to the titled players who have been crushed by using the line I suggest; I could not find a single game White failed to win with the plan I gave).

In the expanded version, I cover 4 options there and indicate which type of players might want to play each one. The chapter nearly doubled in size. One of these is the Zukertort-Phoenix (8.dxc5 Bxc5 9.a3) that I was unable to find anyone play but that I am positive is the future for the Colle-Zukertort. It turns out that some strong, mostly correspondence players have used this by transposition by taking on c5 a move earlier. There is a database of those lines at 

Second, Chapter 2 has been greatly expanded by putting three high-quality illustrative games there to indicate what White’s general idea/setup is. One of these was Anand losing to Bruzon.

Third, a fair amount of energy was expended against the early queenside fianchetto line, where Black holds back …c5. I bumbled this in the earlier book because I thought my solution when Black uses a Queen’s Indian move order matched up with my solution when Black played an early …d5. They didn’t match, leaving a few people confused. Anyway, I like the new solution I found: 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 d5 3.e3 e6 4.Bd3 b6 5.Qe2!?  Things can get pretty rowdy if Black takes up the gauntlet with 5…Bb7 6.Nbd2 Ne4 7.Qf3.
MG: What do you do in your day job -- or what have you done, since you seem to have had more than one career?  And do you think playing and studying chess has helped prepare you in any way for the work you do, or do you see the world of chess and the world of work as separate realms? 

DR: I came to Virginia for a private school teaching gig. My then-girlfriend saw that was looking for a science editor. At the time she was looking for a job in this area for herself. It did not interest her, but she told me about it in case I wanted to do some side work. I applied for the job, but it had already been filled. However, the CEO liked my work and found other stuff for me to do. He eventually made a position for me.

The company, ExploreLearning, is the leading producer of science/math online interactive learning software in the U.S. We have won the CODIE award for best science software solution for like the last five years and have won or been a finalist for best math solution. I’ve done lots of stuff for them over the four years I’ve been there. I’ve designed Gizmos, written the curriculum for them, and generally been a watchdog to make sure our Gizmos actually comport to real science. I shared winning honors in the 1999 world-wide collegiate math modeling competition, and I’ve specialized a bit in that field. We have, as far as I know, the most stable, accurate four-tier food chain model anywhere. I’ve done other ecology and thermodynamic modeling for them. There is always a balance between modeling reality and presenting what the textbook says. In fact, that is an upcoming book I’m writing: discussing the over-simplification and sometimes just-plain-wrong explanations given in science classes all around America.

I also worked on the side doing mathematical modeling for They are sort of like an internet dating service. Except they don’t find good matches between people seeking romantic partners. Instead, they look for matches between state education standards and the educational resources of their clients. I designed their next-generation matching algorithm.

I don’t think chess has helped or is much linked to my other work. However, I did find some parallels between doing chess writing and working on my math degree. In both cases there is a lot of effort at finding creative solutions to problems others have already been trying to solve, and in both cases there may not be any solution. Most of a theoretic mathematician’s time is spent pounding his head against a wall. You never know if the problem you are trying to solve or the theorem you are trying to prove even has a solution. That’s similar to chess analysis.

There are even more significant parallels between theoretic mathematics and theology. Theoretic mathematics is mostly a discipline concerned with taking certain assumptions and seeing what can be logically proven from them and/or applying what others have proven to a given problem.  Theology is very similar. Instead of postulates like “For any two points, a unique exists containing them,” the postulates are whatever beliefs about God you have (including those revealed in scripture, if that is the way you roll). Similarly, applied theology can be seen as determining which of the various derived religious statements are most applicable when determining what is ethical or called for in a given situation. This is similar to applying theorems to problems.

MG: I see that you also write about religious topics.  Do you see any connection between the way you analyze the Bible and the way you analyze chess?  Both seem to rely on a combination of research and your own analysis, for example. 

DR: Unfortunately, the links between religious writing and chess are far more tenuous than those between each of those topics and theoretic math research. Theology, or at least the kind of theology I do, involves much more actual logic and reasoning than chess. It also requires more de-programming if you want to do it objectively. A century ago that might not have been quite as obviously true. Back when chess had not completed its hyper-modern revolution.

Theology deals with very general abstract ideas and beliefs whereas chess analysis is very detailed and concrete. A single pawn moved a single square might change everything in a given position.

Theology also is a trail fraught with apparent contradictions. Those apparent contradictions have to be addressed or at least understood and grappled with. “How can we have free will if God lies outside of time? How does one reconcile Jesus’ words recorded in Mark 9:43-49 with Paul’s dictum that we are saved by grace?” In fact, the richest areas of theological reasoning come from these apparent conflicts.

Chess, on the other hand, is not fraught with conflict, but is rather fraught by imbalances. There is no chess law that says “If you have connected, passed pawns in a materially balanced endgame, you always win.” Nor is there a law that says “If there are pawns on both sides of the board, a Bishop and King will never lose to a Knight and King.” Instead, we have general claims on what is good and what is bad, and we have to balance them in a given position to determine an evaluation.

In chess, if you have a position you want to analyze or a line you want to find an improvement for, you can work through line by line and at least feel you are getting closer to an answer -- or getting closer to realizing there is not one. In theology, after you have dismissed 20 possible answers to a question, there are just as many left as there were before.
MG: Earlier you said you decided to write on theology because: “I had come to the conclusion that, when one simply reads the Bible for what it says rather than what people tell you it is supposed to say, it says something quite different from what most people think it does.” Would you care to elaborate? 

DR: Do you have a few days?

I guess the short answer would be something like this:

First, the Bible clearly indicates Christ’s work accomplished the forgiveness of sins.

Second, the Bible clearly teaches about a Judgment and life after death with God.

However, some time in the fourth or fifth centuries, Christians began believing that the first of the above statements is the cause of the second. And eventually we wound up at the modern understanding of the Christian gospel, which is roughly… “Christ’s work allowed God to forgive my sins so I am no longer bound for hell due to God’s perfect sense of justice” (or something similar).

At that point, Christians decided “salvation” meant “saved from God’s righteous wrath at the final Judgment.” But that isn’t a definition of “salvation” that any first century Jewish Christian (e.g., Paul) would have held. Nor is it the definition of “salvation” we see even as late as Athanasius writing 300 years later. Nor is that the understanding of “salvation” you see in the Jewish prophets that described what the Jewish Christ would do.

Perhaps most pointedly, you won’t find any such description of the final Judgment described anywhere in the gospels, which in theory should be the first place you look if you wanted to know what Christianity is all about. There are about a dozen passages describing the Judgment in Matthew alone, and not a single time do you see this cinematic drama where everyone stands before God and those who were believers have their sins forgiven (or have already had their sins forgiven) and are admitted to heaven on that basis while everyone else is condemned because they did not lead a perfect life.

Indeed, the descriptions of the Judgment found in the gospels look really strange and awkward if you believe Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were attempting to convey the gospel message we hear today. This inexplicable behavior continues in the book of Acts, where there are nearly twenty places giving summaries of the gospel shared by Jesus’ apostles with people of every background after Christ’s death. Nowhere will you find anything approaching “Jesus died to save me from hell” as a component of their message.

The idea that Christ’s sacrifice was somehow designed to mitigate or meddle in his own righteous Judgment at the end of the age is biblically absurd and not to be found anywhere in scripture. Paul, Peter, John and the rest would have thought the whole notion laughable.

The book I’ve written on this topic: Who Really Goes to Hell --- The Gospel You’ve Never Heard: What a Protestant Bible written by Jews says about God’s Work through Christ. The entire thing is available for free download online.
MG: Thank you for the interview and good luck with future publishing endeavors.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The part on religion is most interesting. Reminds me of a story when I was a student.

A priest and a Rabbi were having a conversation. The Rabbi asked the priest, "What would happen if the Pope were perfect? Could the Pope become Jesus Christ?"

The priest said, "No, of course not."

The Rabbi replied, "Well, one of our boys made it!"

Tue Dec 22, 08:21:00 PM EST  

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