Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Book Review and ...I Swear This Isn't Erotic...

...but I really love chess. I've had many loves (other than people) in my order, I think they were baseball, classical cello, Magic: the Gathering (because I was a big nerd 7th-1oth grade), rugby, Korean martial arts (Hapkido primarily), Judo, and now chess. The big ones were music, Judo, and chess. I got pretty good at the first two, and I'm improving at the third. What I love about chess is the way intricate, detailed calculation combines with fantasy to produce beautiful ideas. Chess is no different than anything else: to really appreciate the beauty of it, you have to be somewhat good at it. You have to give enough time and effort to it to understand its subtleties. Once you do understand them, they become beautiful. The better I get, the more positions I understand, the deeper I can calculate, the more I love the works of great chess artists like Fischer and Tal, Capablanca and Kasparov. The different ways in which they weave masterpieces are as unique as fingerprints. The simplicity and directness of Fischer and Capa, the imagination of Tal, the naked aggression of Kasparov. I really love them all. I strive to create the same beauty in my games, though at best I only play one or two beautiful moves every 20 games or so, and I still haven't played a truly beautiful game. I'm not good enough, and neither are my opponents in most cases. We make too many errors. A truly sublime chess game should be close to error free, and what errors there are should be subtle.

It is funny what people think makes a beautiful game. As I implied before, I think it's a combination of exacting calculation (i.e. chess 'truth') and fantasy. An unexpected and original idea supported by valid analysis is the recipe for beauty. It's not necessarily a brilliant attack or a deep combination, though those can be beautiful. Many attacks can be formulaic even if they involve multiple sacrifices. The beauty for me lies in the originality of the conceptions involved. That's why Tal's games are so pretty. Not because he sacrifices material, but rather the way he sacrifices material. The positions in which he does so, the unorthodox (but so often exceptional) compensation he recieves. Anyone can sacrifice. To do so in a position where no one else would even consider it but yet it's still valid is where the beauty lies. Another player whose games I am astonished by is Petrosian. He had as much appreciation for the possibilities of a position as Tal did, but rather than exploiting them directly he prevented his opponent from taking advantage of them. Playing through some Petrosian games is like watching Shaq play one on one versus Vern Troyer. He doesn't have to hurry and he doesn't seem to work particularly hard, because his opponent can do absolutely nothing to stop him from doing whatever he wants.

After that extended soliloquy, here's a game I just played which is not beautiful in the least, though it's an example of reasonably good play by both sides. Note to everyone: I hate the black side of the French. Really. Hate. It.


There you go. And now for a book review.

Forcing Chess Moves: the Key to Better Calculation, Charles Hertan

So this book won the Book of the Year prize for 2008. After getting it, I'm not surprised. This is an excellent educational tactics manual, which is a pretty hard thing to do. This tome goes beyond the standard review of a few typical combinative themes followed by problems. Way beyond.

Well, 'way beyond' may be an exaggeration. The chapters do consist primarily of many examples of tactics, followed by a set of exercises. I suppose it seems so different from a standard tactics book because it's so much better. I haven't seen any of the combinations before, and writing is enthusiastic, and then of course you have COMPUTER EYES.

I wrote the phrase in all caps because that is how it appears throughout the book. Just so you know, computer eyes is the phrase Hertan uses to describe the search for non-obvious but forcing, winning moves. Other reviewers have complained that it's a silly term repeated too often in the book, but I happen to find it a very useful concept. As I believe repetition is the mother of learning, I also think it's good that Hertan repeats it over and over. Truly, the idea of looking at forcing moves first even if they don't look initially promising is worth remembering. You can probably tell I really like this book, and I recommend it to anyone. I would add that if you're under ~1700, don't expect to get the exercises right. The examples will still help you though, and the idea of examining all forcing moves will probably raise your rating anyway if you apply it consistently.

New tourney at Boca starts Friday. Peace.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Return of the One Day Tournament...

...for me at least. Even though I was on a steady diet of these in Indy, it's been a while since I played one. This particular tournament happened to be G60 5/inc, with four rounds. The first round was dirty.


I'd beaten this guy two times in a row despite our rating differential, but I screwed this game up badly. What can I say? It was early, I miscalculated. I don't really enjoy playing these coffeehouse guys so much. They launch a crazy attack and either win or lose, play really fast, and their style is almost completely based upon tactics. I'm not saying that because they beat me...I usually do well against these types of players. I just don't feel like it helps my chess as much to play these guys as it does to play someone with a more classical style. This is not to say that coffeehouse players are patzers, because that isn't the case. Some very strong players play in this manner to a greater or lesser extent, I just don't have much respect for the style. I like chess that makes positional sense.

So the second round went better. I played Jon Haskel whom I've played twice before (all whites), and he seems to have trouble with me even more than our rating disparity would suggest. I've seen Jon play some good games, but when we play I always seem to roll him. I guess it's some sort of karmic justice since his son always kicks my ass.


I misnamed the file, but I promise I was white. Jon and I went to analyze and eat at Panera, and when I got back for the third round I found myself paired with Sergio Liberatore. He's an 'A' player who I had not played against before. I actually consider this my best game of the tournament even though I lost. It was very hard fought and only the short time control prevented a good finish.


A tough loss, though I didn't feel nearly as bad about this one as my round one loss. This was a good game, not a blunderfest. The fourth round saw me paired against another player I'd not played before, a medium strength 'B' player. He played a classical Dutch which I've never studied, and he got a good position from the opening. Unfortunately for him he blundered and gave me a nice tactic which resulted in a totally winning position. The game didn't last much longer after that.


This wasn't a horrible tournament for me, though I will lose a few rating points. I was only unhappy with my play in the first game, which is not so bad considering how self critical I tend to be. I played one more game this last week in the final round at Boca, and it was very frusturating. My opponent had no pretensions in the opening and I was at least equal, but I blundered into a losing endgame. The worst part is, I saw the drawing move and played a blunder anyway. I simply didn't realize that the position was critical. Those sort of oversights really piss me off.


I was not pleased at all with myself after that one. In other news, I went to the Miami Chess Academy in search of lessons. While I liked the owner IM Blas Lugo quite a bit, it's a very long drive for me. We'll see. I did get to meet Julio Becerra (sort of. He nodded and went back to ICC) and play some blitz with a master, so it wasn't a waste of time. I even won one of those blitz games. Peace out.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sicilian Reflections

The Sicilian is an interesting and singular opening within chess, and I've spent a lot of time studying it and thinking about its various branches. One thing that has always interested me is the mindset of open Sicilians versus 'anti' Sicilians. Examples of open Sicilians being the Dragon, Najdorf, etc. 'Anti' Sicilians are the Closed, Grand Prix attack, the Moscow, basically anything where white's second and third move aren't Nf3 and d4. Top 1.e4 players all play open Sicilians the majority of the time, though there are a few 2600+ GMs who consistently employ some of the 'anti' Sicilians. The best example of this is probably Tiviakov, who in fact maintains that the Alapin (charactierized by 2.c3) is a better try for advantage than the open Sicilians. When I used to play 1.e4, I always played the open Sicilians. I thought of it as a point of honor in a way to play what I thought were the 'best' moves, rather than cede equality to black by playing some inferior 'anti' Sicilian system. Now I'm not so sure.

For one thing, I used to play 1...e5 as black in response to 1.e4. Having no experience on the black side of the Sicilian and having never played the white side of any 'anti' Sicilians, I really had no basis for comparison other than what the top guys play. Since I've been playing the Sicilian as black, I've gained a lot of respect for the various systems at white's disposal. I find that I have more trouble against some 'anti' Sicilians that I do against open Sicilians. This is partly because I play the Classical variation of the open Sicilian, against which the Richter-Rauzer is the most testing response. However, nobody at my level plays the Richter-Rauzer because it's very theory intense and not a weapon they're going to use much (the Classical pales in popularity to the Najdorf and the Dragon at amateur level). People who play open Sicilians against me usually get a look of slight confusion on their face when I play 5.d6 and revert to either the English attack or play 6.Be2, neither of which are that scary. The 'anti' Sicilian players on the other hand know exactly what they're doing and often have a lot of practice doing it. After all, they get to play the same system every time an opponent answers 1.e4 with 1...c5. Open Sicilian players on the other hand may only see a given variation once in a blue moon. Think about it. If you as white play 6 Sicilians in a tournament and play 2 Najdorfs, a Dragon, a Sveshnikov, an Accellerated Dragon, and a Kan, you have to know so much more and be comfortable in so many more positions than someone who plays the Closed Sicilian.

Another thing to consider is that you really shouldn't go by what top players play. I don't mean that it's bad to play what they play, because it isn't. What I mean is that you shouldn't automatically play what the best play because their situation is completely different than ours. Two big things jump out when you start assessing the variations of the top guys. The first is that they have a lot of time to learn as many systems as needed. They're professionals who usually have seconds, plus they're so good that they can play any position they're given well. The second consideration, tied closely to the first, is that the top guys have the advantage of knowing what their opponents play. They can look in a database and see 'Hey Kasparov plays the Najdorf, and against the English attack he plays the Ng4 line'. This is a huge advantage because it means they only have to study one or two systems for each opponent. If you read match books (Tal-Botvinnik 1960 for example) you can get a feel for how much of a guessing game it is for top guys to figure out what their opponents are going to play. At that level it's also incredibly important because getting an edge in the opening really matters. Not so much at the class level.

Where I'm going with all this is that I think soon I'm going to start playing 1.e4 again and I think I'm going to play the Grand Prix Attack. Not because I think it's better than the open Sicilians, but because it entails so much less study time and I like the positions I get when I play it online. Here's a 5/0 blitz game I played using it on ICC. The game is of course not perfect, but it gives you an idea of how natural and strong white's play is:

Grand Prix Example.pgn

There are something like 4-5 legitimate answers for black against the Grand Prix, as opposed to hundreds of possible playable lines black can choose in the open Sicilian. It just cuts down on the number of things for white to study, bringing the Sicilian in line with the French or Open Games in terms of preparatory time. Frankly, I have a lot of trouble with the Grand Prix as black and I think it's a good system for white. I've also had my share of trouble against the Closed Sicilian and the Alapin, while the Bb5 variations are almost as main line these days as the open variations. A year ago I might have thought you were a little bit of a bitch if you didn't play the open Sicilians. Now I'm starting to wonder why any non-professional does so at all. Now if I can just find a way to get an attack against that damn Scandinavian, I'll be back to 1.e4 for good...

Monday, May 18, 2009

And So It Goes...

A loss, and not only a loss. A really horrid, detestable loss. Losing a competitive game against an opponent who plays very well is one thing, just not showing up is another. The game I played in the last round at Margate was one of the most pathetic I've played in the last year, certainly my worst since coming to Florida. I simply didn't feel like working hard at the board, and I didn't work. At all. And I got rolled. Blunderville.


I did win a game against a strong A player, but it was marred by his being a dick and not resigning for many moves after being a piece down with no compensation.


So those are my recent games. I think I'm going to take a break from playing twice a week for a while. I need to recharge.

On another note, I was asked in a comment what has led to my recent rise in strength. I didn't want to answer in the comments, so here are the reasons I think I've been playing better:

1. Studying. I've been studying a great deal, and that helps. My opening repertoire is much more solid than most players my rating, and my endgames are coming along.

2. Working. Working is different than studying. Chess is math, not history. What I mean by that is that to be good at chess regurgitation is not required, or at least it is not the main thing. Playing chess, like doing math, is the process of solving problems. The problems are novel, but are usually similar enough that practicing solving problems will help you a great deal in you own games. To play chess is to analyze. Practice in analysis makes it easier to go deeper, and imprints patterns that act as shortcuts when you are trying to solve problems OTB.

3. Analyzing. Analysis is not just a question of solving tactical problems, but also looking at positions and analyzing possible moves for both sides. This part of my chess work is closely tied to opening study, as the positions I usually choose are transition positions between the opening and middlegame (though I need to look at middle-to-endgame transition positions more). Solitaire chess is a good exercise at this stage.

4. Critically assess your own thinking process. After analyzing my own games at length, I found that I often did not take enough time to look at my opponent's possibilities. This led to me getting surprised by his responses to my moves. Once I started looking more broadly at the other side's chances, as well as trying to figure out what his plans were, I started playing much more consistently. This has also helped my planning, as often if you are at a loss for a plan then prophylaxis is a good option. Dvoretsky has said that consistent prophylactic thinking bring steadiness to your play, and I agree. You will have to find the flaws in your own thinking process, these are just some examples of mine. This step probably did more to improve my results than anything else.

5. Time. I put in the time, played a lot of games, and really got a handle on how hard you have to work at the board. While natural talent plays some role in chess, it's not that big of a deal for most of us. We lose because people outwork us, both at home and OTB. If you want to get better, assess your play critically and work hard to fix your deficencies. Chess will give back to you what you put into it (like everything else in life).

6. I've never had a teacher, but I have had friends and traveling companions who were stronger than me, and I can tell you that having stronger players assess your play makes finding your weaknesses much easier. I would love to have a titled instructor, or even a USCF master. It can be done on your own, but it's harder.

So that's about it. Work on your openings (though not too much), analyze positions from different points in the game, solve problems, and take the time to really examine your thinking process. If you need some help getting started, hosts a column by the excellent Dan Heisman called Novice Nook. Don't let the name fool you-it's a great column on thinking processes and everyone should read it. Go the Chesscafe archives and read them all. At the very least, they'll make you think. And for those of you who don't know why I've written all this mildly self indulgent prose, my rating has risen from ~1700 to ~1850 in about 6 months, and rose ~100 points the year before that, so I feel that I can pontificate just a bit about improvement at the class level. Can't help you make master though. Sorry.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Tiny, Barely Significant Win Streak

That's about all the love I can give to four wins in a row. Especially since two of them were against over matched players. The last two however I am quite pleased with. Both were against higher rated competition, and while neither were flawless they were both excellent efforts on my part.

In the third round at the South Florida Chess Club I had to play Paul Muro, who is a dangerous 'A' player and is in fact the only non-master I've lost to since coming to Florida. I had white in this game, and Paul played a fairly main line Benoni. I missed an early chance to become much better, but he in turn missed an equalizing tactic and a complicated middlegame ensued. I was able to maintain and even increase my space advantage while getting way ahead on the clock. An eventual pawn push on the kingside created too many threats for black to deal with, and Paul resigned in a losing position with less than two minutes left on his clock. I was very happy to get this win not only because Paul had beaten me in our last meeting, but because it kept me in a tie for first in the club tournament (which wraps up next Wednesday). Here's the game:

Rampley-Muro 2.pgn

My next win came on Friday in Boca Raton. Paired up against an older gentleman I had not played before, I was really in the mood to play. I misplayed the opening and he equalized easily, then he blundered and I won. ...Oh, wait, I forgot the part about how he made me keep playing after he was a piece down with absolutely no compensation. This is his prerogative, but I think it's pretty rude. I'm really not going to screw the game up that badly. Don't waste my time and yours. It's so much easier on ICC. There's that nice little resign button, and I can even suggest to my opponent that they press it. Not so easy face to face. I like to think my dirty looks said it all. As (I can only assume) consolation to me, he did withdraw from the tournament immediately after the game. Is it really that shameful to lose to me? I should have told him I've been on the rise. In any case, here's the game:


Quite a barn burner. Next week I think I'll probably play a master, or at least a strong expert. With black. I'm looking forward to it (really). On Wednesday I have to play a very underrated 'A' player to win the monthly tourney at the SFCC. If I win, not only do I get a cool $80 (they're very inexpensive tournaments to enter), but my rating would most likely go over 1900. That would be pretty sweet, but the way I've been playing I think it's probably only a matter of time. Assuming, or course, that I can stay steady. I'll let you know how it goes. Peace out.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Relatively Smooth Little Win, and Two Book Reviews

Okay, I made one blunder, but luckily it was late enough and I was winning by a large enough margin that I held on anyway. The game was an offbeat Sicilian. My opponent played too slowly and I was able to establish a dominant position. As quite often happens, once he realized he was constricted he lashed out reflexively without checking the variations thoroughly enough. I obtained a better ending, increased my advantage, blundered, but was still able to convert my smaller advantage into a win. Here's the game:


Not such a riveting affair, but I take wins where I can get them. In other chess news, I will not be going to the Space Coast Open since I still don't have a job and really shouldn't spend money on tournaments. Luckily I still get some free books, so here are a couple of book reviews:

Playing the Queen's Gambit, a Grandmaster Guide by Lars Schandorff,

This is a very high level manual for how to handle the white pieces vs. various black defenses to the Queen's gambit. I got this book to shore up my repertoire since many of the lines I play are covered. These include the Modern Exchange line in the QGD, the 6.Ne5 lines in the Slav, and Bg5 versus the Semi-Slav. There is also coverage of 3.e4 in the QGA which I don't play but might take up, as well as a section on less popular lines like the Albin and Baltic. The Chigorin is given it's own section, which is probably appropriate given how its popularity has increased recently. The Tarrasch has a stand alone chapter, as does the highly fashionable a6-Slav.

The book is organized in the complete game format, which I prefer, and there is a good mix of prose and variations. As this is a book aimed at higher level players however, the prose is not as explanatory as you might find in a 'Starting Out' book. Generally the author will give a 5-10 move variation with only a few comments as to why a certain move was played and to describe the underlying concept. This is exactly the level I want in an opening book, but may not be enough for some.

The variations are generally not too long, though as Schandorff has opted for a main line repertoire they can become very complex. This is not a book to get if you simply want a playable middle game and are happy to let black equalize as long as you retain play as white. The purpose of playing these lines is to get positions where white has a real chance of being better out of the opening, and to put serious long term pressure on the second player. That cannot be done playing the Colle (sorry Colle people. Please don't leave a ton of analysis in my comments. The Colle is playable but equal).

Schandorff's style is conversational without being too chatty. Many correspondence games are cited, and there appears to be a lot of original analysis. I was little surprised not to see Chess Publishing listed in the bibliography, but other than that all the major periodicals and books were used.

I like this book a lot, but I cannot recommend it if you are just starting to play the Queen's Gambit. For that purpose, Everyman has two good introductory texts that I can think of, one by Chris Ward entitled 'Play the Queen's Gambit' and of course John Cox's wonderful 'Starting Out: 1.d4' which is hardly a starting out volume at all and of the two is the more theory heavy. If you are however an experienced player of the Queen's Gambit, Schandorff's book is an excellent resource to help your understanding of the critical lines and a valuable update to some rapidly changing theory. I have in mind the Anti-Moscow Gambit and the a6-Slav when I make that statement. Don't buy this if you're under 1700. If you're over that, give it a whirl. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual, Mark Dvoretsky

There's not much I need to say about this book. The reviews have been uniformly stellar, and after working with this volume I can only agree. The material is well explained, and the presentation order is very logical and facilitates learning.

Oh, and it's really, really hard. Really. Really. Difficult.

That's not to say the concepts are hard to grasp. In fact the opposite is true; Dvoretsky's writing is clear and his jargon is kept to a minimum. When he does invent a term, such as 'mined squares' to describe squares your king cannot go to in pawn endings, his inventions are easy to digest and remember. What always kills me about Dvoretsky books is that he is one of the few authors who really does write only for masters. The exercises in this book are exceptionally difficult, requiring calculation powers way beyond my abilities. Dvoretsky books are definitely aspirational rather than practical for most of us, but that doesn't mean we can't improve by trying to solve the problems he sets forward. If nothing else, they force us to go beyond our usual variation threshold which hopefully will improve our calculation abilities.

So I guess the bottom line is, get this book, work through it, and try the exercises. Don't give up easily, but don't feel too bad if you can't solve them. They are extremely hard, and unlike many problems grasping the key ideas does not make the problem easy. These are not the sort of puzzles where you say 'oh, the knight's hanging after sacrificing the pawn, duh' and then the variations are easy to work out. These are the sort of puzzles where you say 'oh, if I move my king backwards in this complex pawn ending then 8 moves down the line after an only semi-forced series of exchanges, I think I'll have the opposition which may be enough to pick up the additional pawn and win by one tempo another 9 moves forward'. This is a book for the very serious player who is willing to endure a lot of headache and suffering, but who is committed to getting better. This book and these terribly hard problems will help you improve if you put in the work. Not great for the casual player, but a must for anyone who want to reach expert or master.

One final note, concerning FIDE's proposed changes to the K-factor. For those who don't know, the k-factor determines how much your rating changes with each win or loss. FIDE is thinking about doubling the k-factor, which would mean that when you lose you drop twice as many points as under the current system. The argument is that by increasing the k-factor you would make ratings a more accurate predictor of future performance in the near term. Rating guru Jeff Sonas has presented quite a bit of statistical evidence supporting the increase in the k-factor.

Of all the arguments for and against the change, one I haven't heard that often is that increasing the k-factor might reduce some of the gridlock at the top of the rating charts. It seems to me (totally off the cuff, no stats to prove it) that of the top 20 probably 10-12 of them are always there, even when their performances seem a bit lackluster. This increase would create more turnover at the top, which might put more players in the super-tournament and world championship mix. I get really tired of seeing Peter Leko and Peter Svidler draw 3/4 of their games at Linares every year. While it's true they are strong enough to draw often, I'd like to see players who take a little more risk (and thus could expect the commensurate payoff in rating points under the new system). In my humble opinion, anything that can be done to make the ratings system more dynamic is good. I personally think live ratings are the way to go, but FIDE will never go for that. Way too logical. Plus, it would be harder for FIDE to game the system for their favorite players. Did I just say that? I guess I did. Peace.