More and more these days, analysis of chess games relies on chess engines (playing programs), whether to come up with ideas or just to double-check the human annotator’s calculations. That is not my gripe; computer analysis is just a fact of life these days. My gripe is that the people who are writing the analyses and using the computer programs are oddly reluctant to actually name them. Instead of saying “Rybka suggests 25.Nxf6″ or “Fritz thinks this is now a draw”, they’ll simply refer to “the computer”, e.g., “The computer has a brilliant idea here”. As a software programmer, it really bugs me that the creators of these programs, of which there are dozens with highly individual characteristics, don’t get any credit for their work, as if chess engines (which require an immense amount of both creativity and detail) were completely fungible and simply sprang into existence by spontaneous generation. Annotators, cut it out!
Posts tagged ‘chess’
It’s not every day you get to make a move like this. From a 3-minute ICC game:
It was very pleasing to be able to play 25.Qxd6.
This year’s US Chess Championship is currently being played in Saint Louis; it started yesterday and runs through May 24. The reason I bring it up here is that I think that the organizers are doing a good job of making it accessible and interesting for casual chess players, one of which may be you. The live coverage in particular is very nice; it’s hosted by Grandmaster Maurice Ashley and Woman Grandmaster (don’t get me started on that title) Jennifer Shahade, who are both really good at making the game exciting for people who are already a little interested in chess. They’re not trying to “jazz it up” for people who don’t care at chess at all; they assume you already know a bit about the game and are inherently excited by, say, someone sacrificing a rook for a knight, or pushing a pawn closer to queening.
There are also a bunch of different types of players, ranging in age from 15 to 50+, with a variety of personalities and styles, so it’s not hard to find someone to root for if you like that sort of thing. If you already have a casual interest in chess but don’t know much about high-level tournament play, I recommend checking it out and seeing if it grabs you. (If you don’t, never mind this post!) The games run about 2pm-8pm Central Time every day.
The worst possible blunder you can make in chess is to resign in a winning position. Accepting a draw in a winning position is only half as bad, but it is still pretty disappointing, especially after working hard for hours. In the Boylston Chess Club‘s ongoing Paramount tournament, I’ve already managed to accomplish that dubious feat twice — and against the same player each time!
Against Ken Ho in the first round, I misplayed a tricky opening and he took advantage of it to win the exchange. As often happens at these levels, losing material freed me to just try to deploy my pieces actively while he hunkered down and tried to simplify at the expense of the initiative. After a little combination (which had a fatal flaw, but neither of us noticed it — welcome to chess at the 1700s level!), I had gained a pawn, put his king on the run, and had a couple of nasty passed pawns. A few checks back and forth to gain time on the clock and it was time decide whether to go for the win or accede to the perpetual.
All my attention was focused on pushing my passed pawns, but after moves like 27.e5 I just didn’t see a way past Black’s blockade, especially since his a8 rook was going to finally be able to enter the action. After using 8 of my 32 remaining minutes before move 40 to think about it, I played 27.Qe5+?? and Ken played 27…Kd7, repeating the position for the third time and claiming the draw.
But as club champion Chris Chase always says, “Check the checks!” 27.Nb5+! wins trivially. If 27…cxb5 28.Rc1+ Kb8 29.Qd6+ and mates; if 27…Kc8 28.Nd6+ picks up the queen; and if 27…Kb8 28.Qe5 Kc8 29.Nd6+ gets the queen again. Why didn’t I see it? I was tired; I was focused too much on the passed pawns; and the c-file had just been opened so the idea that Rc1+ could happen didn’t register. But with all of those things working against me, I still would have found it if I had just checked the checks.
Our rematch occurred a few weeks later (the Paramount is a double round robin). I acquired what I thought a nice positional advantage, and when Ken sacked a pawn that was ultimately doomed anyway, I thought I would cruise to victory. But I exchanged the wrong set of minor pieces, and he ended up with a nasty outposted knight and open lines into my position. Seeing the chance for a perpetual check, I flung a few pieces forward, and it worked, as Ken saw through one perpetual check idea but not the other. Clearing the move-40 time control with minutes to spare, I accepted White’s draw offer.
But Black is winning! After 41…Qe2+ 42.Kh3, 42…g5! threatens Qf1 mate, and White has no way out. It’s a little tricky, especially since my own king is in some danger, and I think I didn’t even really think about Qe2+ since my queen had come from e4 and it was natural to move it back there. It’s also unintuitive to be able to mate with basically one piece. But I had tons of time, and worst, we were 10 minutes away from the game being adjourned, at which point I could have gone home and analyzed it at my leisure (and offered a draw over email if that didn’t turn up anything). There was nothing to lose from letting my clock run down 10 minutes, since I had the draw in hand.
What is painful about both of these situations is that it was simply a process failure, not a failure of imagination or calculation. In the first game, I had 30 minutes left and a draw in hand, and just had to check the checks, as I should be doing every move of every game. In the second, I had nothing to lose from checking out the position at home instead of immediately accepting the draw.
I would say live and learn but apparently I didn’t learn from the first game! Well, at least I didn’t resign either game…
What is even weirder than me having a sense of synaesthesia linking musical key signatures and chess openings is the fact that I never consciously realized that this was kind of a weird thing until today. Actually, calling it synaesthesia may be overstating it; it’s not like music springs into my head as I play an opening, but I definitely do feel a consistent correlation.
Here’s a list off the top of my head of chess opening/musical key associations, trying to think about it as little as possible so as to let my subconscious through:
Giuoco Piano: C major
– Evans Gambit: Bb major
Ruy Lopez: C major
– Open: E major
Sicilian Defense: G major
– Najdorf : D major
– Taimanov: E minor
French Defense: A minor
Pirc Defense: B minor
Modern Defense: B major
Queen’s Gambit Declined: Eb major
King’s Indian Defense: Bb minor
Grünfeld Defense: D minor
Benoni: B major (I know it is odd for this to be on the sharp side, but a pawn on c5 clearly implies a B natural in the tonic triad!)
Since I am doing this all subconsciously, it is hard for me to actually defend these associations, but I can identify some general correspondences. In general e4 openings tend towards the sharp side of the keys while d4 openings tend towards the flat side. I think there also seems to be some correlation between minor keys and Black only advancing his pawns one square. Both of these do seem to make some sort of sense: e4 openings are “sharper” and “brighter” while d4 openings are more “quiet” and “restrained”, while only advancing your pawns to the sixth rank is a little “sad”. But I would certainly not fight anyone who claimed that these associations basically make no sense at all.
If you know anyone who plays the board game Go, try asking them, “Hey, I learned the rules, I’ve played a bit, and I want to improve; can you recommend a good book?” I will lay even money that they will say, “Go this minute and read Graded Go Problems for Beginners.” GGP is a series of four books containing nothing but hundreds of problems (here’s a position, find the best move) and brief answers. Volume 1 starts with problems that basically just test if you know the rules, and by the time you eventually get through Volume 4 (I can’t, yet), you’re probably a dan player, or expert. You’re led through every basic tactical technique along the way; there’s no more efficient way to improve your game.
While there are tons of chess problem books, I’ve never been able to find a good GGP equivalent. The books are usually either aimed only at beginners, or only at experts, or mix up a bunch of problems of wildly different difficulty in order to keep you on your toes. But with Chess School I’ve finally found it: a graded problem book series that starts from square one, ends at square sixty-four, and covers every basic tactical technique. They were originally made for teaching Soviet children, and it’s hard to argue with those results.
There are four volumes, but Chess School 4 is an endgame collection; 1–3 are the real meat of it (to further confuse things, Volume 1 has been split up into 1a and 1b in this edition, and they’re sold separately). Volume 1 starts with mate-in-one problems and ends 1300 positions later with problems that I have to think about and sometimes get wrong (I’m rated 1800, for reference). Volume 2 is really the sweet spot for me. When I was taking chess lessons my teacher would give me homework problems from Volume 3, among other sources, and I’d rack my brains over them for a week; a master could still benefit from working through it.
If you want to improve your chess game and are rated below 2000 or so, there’s no better way than by studying tactics. And if you’re studying tactics, it’s hard for me to make a higher recommendation than these books. It’s not a complete chess course — you’ll need to learn about openings and endgames and strategy elsewhere — but it’s a great foundation.
(Unfortunately, these books can be kind of hard to find in the US. I’ve had good experiences with Chess Books From Europe.)
I have a terrible memory. I’m pretty good at remembering processes and techniques, but very bad at remembering raw information. Luckily, I went into computer science, which is all about the former, rather than biology or something. (My musical memory is quite good, but that’s definitely an exception.) I find it very frustrating to spend a fair amount of time amassing knowledge (say, reading a history of the United States because I feel embarrassingly ignorant of it) only to have forgotten most of it a year or two later.
So last year I was excited to read a Wired article about Piotr Wozniak and his SuperMemo program. The idea is that you can feed everything you want to remember into a program that is scientifically tuned to spit out the right flashcards for you at exactly the right times. What makes it work is the principle of spaced repetition, discovered in the 19th century, which asserts that the time between reviews of a given piece of information should increase (exponentially, in fact) over time. Since facts that you start out by needing to review every day can eventually be reviewed every hundred days or more as their period increases, you can regularly stuff more facts into the database and your daily quota of flashcards doesn’t need to increase too much. The SuperMemo program handles all of that automatically, as well as doing obvious things such as reducing the period of facts that you find you have forgotten.
I didn’t do anything about it until recently, when I was reading David Carlton’s posts about writing his own SuperMemo-like system to help him learn Japanese. I had been thinking for a while about using such a system to memorize my chess openings, and someone in a comment to his posts mentioned Mnemosyne, which is an open-source implementation of the same ideas, so I gave it a whirl.
Mnemosyne does handle images, but it’s a little painful to enter chess positions into it. I’ll put the technical details of how I do it in a postscript. I dutifully started entering positions; my general technique is to play blitz games online, and for each game enter all the positions up to the point that I feel I should know to have a mastery of that opening (if they’re not already in the database).
One month later, I’m up to a library of 200 positions (and counting). The repetitions have gotten spaced out enough that I generally have 10 or fewer positions to review on any given day (of course, the whole thing only really works if you do daily reviews, but because of the system, it’s not much of a chore, and in fact I rather look forward to it).
Has it helped? I think it’s helped a lot. My former method of remembering openings was mostly to frantically cram every once in a while. Reviewing 10 positions every day, day in and day out, is much more productive. It’s also nice to know that a program is in control of the system. I trust that it is handing out positions to me when I should see them, and that my knowledge of my opening repertoire as a whole will be maintained at a decent level without me having to cram. In fact, one of the nicest results is just a large increase in my confidence. I don’t worry, “I should know this line, but I haven’t looked at it in a while, I should probably cram it again because I’ll feel stupid if I run into that person at the club who always plays it and I’ve forgotten what to do”; I trust that if the line is in the database, I have the appropriate chance of remembering it.
Learning and remembering stuff in Mnemosyne is so much fun that I actually picked up Esperanto again, which I had dabbled with years ago, just to have another thing to memorize. (I figured it would be more rewarding in a shorter time than if I relearned French or Latin — though maybe I’ll do one of them next…) That has also been working out great, and I feel like I’m retaining vocabulary much better than the last time I tried. Even better than the short-term benefit is the supposed long-term benefit that if I stop actively studying it but keep on doing daily reviews — and remember, the time needed to do that will go down if I’m not adding material — I’ll theoretically be able retain most of it instead of letting it all go down the drain once more. If that is really the case, it would be great. We’ll see.
[P.S. Here are the gory details of the system I use for storing chess positions, for the morbidly curious who are interested in following in my footsteps. I store my opening repertoire in Chess Position Trainer, a free application that nicely handles things like transpositions. When I want to store a position into Mnemosyne, I copy the position from CPT in FEN notation using Ctrl-C and paste it into a chess diagram generator (I use this one. Then I save off the resulting image into my .mnemosyne/images directory with a name like 0187.png (the number increases every time, of course). In Mnemosyne, I make a card with that image and the correct move, perhaps with additional notes that I should remember about that position. Importantly, I also enter an annotation like "” to the position in CPT, so I know that I’ve already added it to Mnemosyne and needn’t do so again in the future. It’s slightly tedious but not enough so to stop me from doing it.]
There are many things that appeal to me about chess, and perhaps in some future post I’ll list them all, but one of the most important is the way that it creates a whole new sophisticated language, with inflection and shades of meaning, that doesn’t map to English (or whatever human language you care to choose) at all.
Music is the most obvious other abstract system like this. Music has a whole theory of meaning and communication, of what the composer is “saying” to the listener over the course of a piece, whether that is setting up expectations and fulfilling or dashing them, or getting a reaction out of a unexpectedly piquant chord or melodic leap or rhythmic displacement or what have you. There are a few obvious correlations to “actual” semantic meaning (major is happy! minor is sad! fast is exciting!) but largely music remains an abstract closed system. It mostly doesn’t refer to anything outside of itself (tone poems aside), and although it can be analyzed and frequently is, it has to be analyzed on its own terms, and not by “translating” it; it has some sort of “meaning” in the same way that English sentences have meaning, but there’s no mapping between the two spheres. (If you’re interested in this sort of thing, I highly recommend Leonard Meyer’s Emotion and Meaning in Music.)
Anyway, this post is supposedly about chess, not music. My point is that chess games and positions also carry some sort of untranslatable-to-language abstract semantic content, and that the richness of this content and the fact that it has no linguistic analog is one of the things that makes chess so aesthetically appealing to its devotees.
It’s so abstract it’s hard for me to put into words, but a chess enthusiast gets a certain feeling when he glances at a board and sees an open position as opposed to a closed or semi-closed one; or looks at possible pawn breaks; or notices that one player has sacked material for the initiative; or sees a fianchettoed bishop, or the possibility of a standard Bxh7+ sac, or a “bone-in-the-throat” pawn on e6, or Alekhine’s gun lined up, or a good vs bad bishop, or… I could name dozens of these, but the point is that they are supremely meaningful to me (in that they literally have meaning) and probably mean nothing to you. Not everything about chess always appeals to me — the competitive aspects, the need to calculate extremely accurately and to memorize openings and endgame techniques — but I will never tire of this aesthetic aspect of it.
(As I was writing this, I found an interesting attempt to make connections between two of these “languages”: Haskell Small’s “A Game of Go”, a musical accompaniment to a classic game of Go (about which I could say many of the same things). It’s a really cool idea, although it doesn’t get much past some basic correspondences (ko fights are tense! things wind down in the endgame!). I suppose that if it had been easier to make one-to-one correspondences between Go and music, my whole point that they are interesting and unique complex systems would have been undermined.)
I already have far too many books like How Chess Games Are Won and Lost, holistic tomes that attempt to somehow improve your chess game across the board by dispensing a couple hundred pages of advice. But this one has gotten a bunch of great reviews, so I gave in.
It’s actually a very good book, although the title is misleading. It’s not so much a manual as it is a collection of stuff Hansen has learned over the course of his career, supplemented with examples from his games (and some other games that he learned from). So don’t go in expecting to see a theory of chess improvement presented and supported, as you might with Silman or Rowson.
That said, this is a very entertaining book. I hesitate to grade the instructional value of any book, since I have read dozens of books in the last 15 years but my 1800-ish rating has not budged, so clearly they’re all useless. But Hansen does say a lot of interesting things, and his annotations are excellent, at exactly the right level of detail for my class A brain. (For the non-chess-players, that’s class A as in “one level below expert, which is one level below master, which is still way below grandmaster”, not class A as in top-notch.) I think it would be useful for players down to the 1600 level or so, with the caveat that some of the things he’s saying are really aimed at a higher level of player than you or me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if even a 2200 learned something, although what do I know.
I read the whole thing (and if you read chess books, you know that actually reading a book cover to cover is high praise indeed), and was sufficiently impressed by his writing and analysis to consider reading his other two books as well.