Posts tagged ‘chess’

Herb Healy Open House 2014-01-01

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

One of my favorite tournaments at the Boylston Chess Club is the annual Herb Healy Open House held every New Year’s Day. You get to socialize and play four relatively quick (G/40) games of chess, and there’s an unrated section if you stayed up too late the night before. This year I played in the unrated section as usual and had four interesting games. Let’s take a look!

In the first round, my opponent and I both fumbled around through a weird opening move order until we ended up in a King’s Indian sideline that neither of was familiar with.

Schmidt 2003 – Rood 1634 after 11.Ra1-d1

I think that this position illustrates a frequent 2000 vs 1600 phenomenon. As White I haven’t done anything super tricky yet, but all my pieces are developed and ready to take action in the future. Black’s pieces are scattered all over the place; his queen and bishop haven’t moved yet and his knight on a6 isn’t much better. One of the things I feel I’ve gotten much better at in the last couple of years is just putting my pieces on good squares and seeing what opportunities present themselves instead of constantly pressing and trying to make things happen before I’m fully developed.

Black tried to get a little more developed with 11…Bd7? but this takes a retreat square away from the knight on f6 and leaves the bishop in a spot with two possible attackers and only one defender. After 12.e5! Black’s only reasonable move is 12…Nh5 but that’s clearly not what he wants to be doing in this position. After 12…Ng4? 13.Bf4! there was no way to avoid losing a piece to the upcoming h3. He resigned a few moves later.

In round 2 I ended up in a weird kind of reversed Benoni position and I found myself on the defensive, with my pieces rather tied up. The tide started to turn in the following position:

Huntington 1916 – Schmidt 2003 after 17.Ng5-e4

White’s been making me rather unhappy with threats against my d4, c7, and b7 pawns all game. Searching for a way to untangle myself, I looked in desperation at 17…Nd8! and was surprisingly pleased with what I saw. Moving the knight frees me to play …c6, blunting the effect of White’s light-squared bishop, removing a target from c7, and forcing White’s b5 knight back. I also protect the b7 pawn in the meantime so White doesn’t have any tricky discovered attacks against it. Despite all those pieces on the back rank, I finally felt really good about my position and expected to bounce back off the ropes with great force.

White went all in with 18.h5 Bh7 19.Be5, attacking the d4 pawn, but I hadn’t thought this would work. After 19…Ne6 20.f4 f6 (my point; the bishop is trapped) 21.f5 fxe5 22.fxe6 Qxe6, I was already pleased with my extra pawn when White suddenly played 23.Ng5!?

Huntington 1916 – Schmidt 2003 after 23.Ne4-g5

Yikes! After 23…hxg5 White pins and wins my queen with 24.Bd5. For a while I thought I was in big trouble; if 23…Qf6 24.Bd5+ Kh8+ 25.Nf7+ Rxf7 White has 26.Rf1, which looked like it would win the exchange once I moved my queen. But then I realized I could just take on f1 with with 26…Qxf1+ 27.Qxf1 Rxf1+ 28.Rxf1 and I’m still a piece up. Gratefully, I played 23…Qf6 and White bailed out with 24.Nxh7, but after the intermediate 24…Qf2+ White’s king was in trouble. In the ensuing complications I picked up a piece and exchanged down to an easily winning endgame.

My 2-0 start meant that in round 3 I got to play on board 1 against Mika Brattain, who at 2402 is the third-best 15-year-old in the country. (One of the things I really like about playing in chess tournaments is the way that it totally flattens out lots of differences like age. I’ve literally seen a 90-year-old play a 9-year-old on equal terms.) He played a Najdorf with …h5, a plan that I know a little about but have never encountered myself. The main idea is that it stops White’s g4-g5 plan in its tracks. I thought I remembered that the standard antidote was to push on the queenside, so I did so, but a couple of moves later I was not too pleased to find myself in this position:

Schmidt 2003 – Brattain 2402 after 14…Qc7-c6

Black is about to get …d5 in with the help of his queen, and then he’ll already have accomplished everything he could have hoped for from the opening. After the game, Mika said that he thought that my earlier a5 was a big mistake because now I can’t push the queen away with Na5. What am I supposed to do, take the rook that I just moved from f1 to c1 and put it back on d1?

Yes, I am! After 15.Rd1! Black’s queen doesn’t have much point on c6, so the tempo loss isn’t a big deal. I can bring my a1 rook over to c1 and everything’s nice and tidy. This has been played 4 times in my database (out of 6 games) and White did fine, winning two games and drawing two. It can be really hard in chess to look at a position with fresh eyes and be willing to basically undo your last move, and I was not up to the challenge here. I played 15.Na4? and after 15…d5 Black was already better, and although I put up a decent fight, I lost in 30 moves.

The fourth round pitted me against the wily Tim O’Malley, whose rating is “only” around 1800 but who has a keen tactical eye and is always a threat; in fact, he had already dispatched two higher-rated players this tournament already. I thought that it would be a short game when he fell into the famous “Noah’s Ark” trap (so-called because of that’s how long it’s been around):

O’Malley 1812 – Schmidt 2003 after 7…d6

White played 8.d4? Nxd4! 9.Nxd4 exd4 and now he can’t play 10.Qxd4 because after 10…c5 and the queen moves, Black plays …c4 and traps the bishop.

At this point I kind of mentally chalked up the game, but Tim kept fighting, playing for maximum activity, and I found myself having a little trouble getting all my pieces working well, although it seemed like just a matter of time until I could simplify down to a winning endgame, especially since I was up on time 10 minutes to 1 in the following position:

O’Malley 1812 – Schmidt 2003 after 29.Qe5-g5

Probably the easiest way to keep everything under control here is 29…Rd7, protecting against Re7. Instead I immediately tried to trade pieces with 29…Bd5?, and after 30.Bxd5 Qxd5 Tim bashed out 31.Re8+! Argh, it’s the infamous hook and ladder trick, winning my queen for a rook!

After a minute of staring disbelievingly at the board, trying to decide whether to resign, I played on with 31…Rxe8, because hey, at least there’s not a lot of time left on our clocks, so the duration of my misery is limited. Besides, I remembered a fortress pattern from one of the Yusupov books and it seemed possible that I might be able to set it up, especially since Tim only had one minute and probably didn’t know what I was aiming for.

Long story short, I got there 20 moves later:

O’Malley 1812 – Schmidt 2003 after 51.Qf6xf5

I wasn’t 100% sure at the time, but according to the tablebases, this is in fact a theoretical draw. I played 51…Kg7 and from that point I can just shuffle my king between g7 and h7 and my rook between e6 and h6 as the situation warrants, and White can’t make progress. It’s very important that my pawn isn’t any further up the board, or there would be room for White’s queen to sneak around from behind. On move 72, with 7 seconds left on his clock, Tim finally gave up and agreed to a draw. I was upset that I turned a win into a loss, but on the other hand I kept fighting and turned the loss back into a draw with the aid of some endgame knowledge that a lot of masters don’t know, so I could be pleased with that. And the spectators enjoyed it!

Mnemosyne, part 3

Sunday, July 7th, 2013

Mnemosyne is a spaced repetition program for aiding memorization; see my first and second posts for more information on the program and how I use it.

I guess it is high time for another update; when digging out the above posts I was startled to see that they’re from four years ago. I’ll mostly discuss my experience using it for chess, since that’s what the majority of my 8000 cards are.

I’ll skip to the exciting conclusion first: since starting to use Mnemosyne for chess knowledge, my USCF rating has risen from a pretty stable 1800 over fifteen years of on-and-off playing to over 2000. That may not look that impressive, but the chess rating system is effectively logarithmic; the difference of 200 points means that new me would score about 75% against old me, so that’s a pretty big jump, especially for a middle-aged person with a previously stable rating like me. Of course, correlation does not imply causation, and there’s always a bunch of noise involved in chess results, but I’ve now played enough games in a row (around 60) with a performance rating of over 2000 that I feel comfortable assuming that I have actually improved.

The majority of my chess flashcards are opening positions. Here’s an example:

Mnemosyne flashcard

Sometimes the answer includes some explanatory text to help me remember why the move is good.

Having openings memorized has had the most obvious effect on my play of any of my flashcard categories. Although rote memorization of opening lines is generally frowned upon, I’ve noticed the following benefits:

  • Most obviously, I have internalized thousands of good opening moves, so I am less likely to make bad moves in the opening, or spend lots of time figuring out good moves on the fly.
  • I am often able to gain time on my opponents in the opening, as they are “out of book” and thinking on their own before I am. Even if they find good moves, they use up valuable time on them.
  • I am now able to play very sharp (tactical and tricky) openings because I’m confident that I can navigate their waters. This allows me to play much more interesting and dynamic chess than I previously felt capable of doing.

There are drawbacks as well: my memory can fail me in a complicated line, or my memorization can run out too early in a tricky position if I was careless entering the line, or I can enter a position by rote that I haven’t spent much time thinking about strategically and have to wing it. But overall it is a clear benefit.

Most of my other chess flashcards come from exercises in books. I started with theoretical endgame positions, which require concrete fact-based knowledge in the same way that openings do. (I used Bernd Rosen’s Chess Endgame Training for this.) But then I decided that since chess is largely about pattern recognition (so that your eye is drawn to promising moves), I could try shoving tons of patterns in my brain and hopefully they’d stick around subconsciously influencing my thought as I played. For this purpose I’ve used exercises from the following books:

  • Yusupov, Build Up Your Chess et al
  • Ivashchenko, Chess School
  • Cheng, Practical Chess Exercises
  • Hellsten, Mastering Chess Strategy

It’s hard for me to assess how these cards have affected my play. I don’t think I can recall any particular situation in a tournament game in which I consciously remembered a particular card (even an endgame one), prompting me to notice a specific good move that was otherwise eluding me. But they certainly haven’t hurt, and the effect I was hoping for was more of a subconscious one anyway, and as I said my rating has gone up along with this regimen, so I’m continuing to proceed with the assumption that they’re helping my play.

How much time does this all take? On any given day I have to review about 60 to 100 cards, which takes me probably between 10 and 30 minutes (opening positions can take a while, since when a card comes up I first play through the variation on a virtual chessboard), though I usually don’t review them all at once. Making cards can be a little tedious (I don’t want to do the calculation to figure out how much time I’ve spent making all 8000!), but it seems a small price to pay to prevent the knowledge I’ve just acquired from leaking out.

The other topic that spaced repetition has been the most useful for is math. I enjoy reading math and physics textbooks but my retention is poor, so I’m constantly starting over. This causes even more problems because I already half-know the early material in the book, so I skim it, which means that once again I’m not really internalizing it. Memorizing formulas and concepts means that I don’t have to start from square one every time.

Other categories in my deck:

  • Esperanto vocabulary: I still haven’t picked this back up since the last time I mentioned it, but it’s nice to know that because I review a few cards a day, it’s still in shape if I ever pick it back up.
  • Go problems and joseki: I’m not sure how much this has really helped me, since I haven’t played Go very actively in the last few years, but it’ll be interesting to see if I have less rust than usual the next time I pick up the game.
  • Japanese hiragana and katakana: I clearly still haven’t still internalized these, since once I do well enough on one of them that I go a few months without seeing it again, I tend to forget it the next time. I’m sure this is due to the fact that I’m not doing anything with this knowledge, so I never have any context other than the flashcards.
  • Cyrillic: so I can read proper nouns on Russian chess websites. Definitely a success.
  • Keyboard shortcuts for Sibelius (music scoring program): mixed success. A lot of shortcuts are very abstract like Ctrl-Shift-Down, so they’re pretty hard to memorize. I think I need to learn these more with my fingers than with my eyes and brain.

Overall, using spaced repetition has been a tremendous benefit to me. To take the chess example: even if I hadn’t seemed to have improved as a result, knowing that all the studying I do is not just pouring water into a leaky bucket (as it seemed to be for the previous 15 years), but instead is permanent in some sense, has made me immensely more motivated to learn. The same is true for other subjects like math. If any of the above discussion makes you jealous, I highly recommend you give it a try.

A gripe about chess annotations

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

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!

Double pin

Saturday, March 5th, 2011

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.

2010 US Chess Championship

Saturday, May 15th, 2010

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.

Snatching mediocrity from the jaws of victory

Saturday, April 10th, 2010

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!

Schmidt-Ho after 26…Kd7-c7

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.

Ho-Schmidt after 41.Kh3-g2

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…

Chess/music synaesthesia

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

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.

Sergey Ivashchenko et al: Chess School 1–3

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

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.)


Saturday, July 4th, 2009

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[1][2][3][4]. 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 “[0187]” 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.]

The language of chess

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

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 or she 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.)