Friday, January 18, 2013

Simple Chess by Michael Stean

I found this post in my blog 'drafts' section and realized I never published it!   This is something I should have shared long ago and I hope someone finds some value in my recommendation.  (KT - 2013).

In my in opinion Michael Stean's Simple Chess is easily the best chess primer I've ever read. In point of fact, it's the only chess primer that I've ever read cover to cover and that is exactly my point! Why didn't anyone tell me about this book when I was first learning?

In order to explain why I think this book is so great, I need to explain what happened to me during my initial years playing the game. I started late at chess, having learned little more than the rules before starting to play more regularly in high school. My only opponents in high school were similar late bloomers. Most of us were good students, we thought we were pretty bright, so I took great satisfaction in edging them out over the board. Of course, I think one of the main reasons I started playing better than my friends is that I actually put some work into getting better, where they were mostly content to wing it.

I played a lot of blitz chess with my friend Ben and his older brother, Dan. Dan used to drive me crazy playing this pseudo Fool's Mate opening and so my life long addiction for chess opening books (I own nearly 100 of them and have read probably 5% of the pages!) began with Modern Chess Openings. Much to my chagrin, Dan's opening was deemed to be unplayable by the authorities, apparently, so I never did get much benefit from MCO (clearly I never learned from my experience, though).

So I eventually turned to Nimzovitch's My System. I recall reading somewhere that Petrosian slept with My System under his pillow, but I found it unbearably dense and never had the confidence that I could actually get through a comprehensive reading of it. Sure, I used it as sort of a reference tool, but I never made an honest study of it.

If only I had known about Simple Chess! I think the title of a book is wonderfully apropos. Chess is not a simple game. But in order to play an unfathomably complicated game, the human mind needs an approach. We need some way to organize our thoughts. We need to know what to focus our attention on and some way to think concretely about a position which sits at head of an exponentially expansive tree of possibilities.

What should that guiding approach be? Well for many positions the answer is, in fact, simple. The pawn structure is the roadmap for the game. Every pawn move is at once revolutionary and irreversible. Each pawn move weakens some squares, strengthens some squares, vacates as square and occupies a square. A good chess player must make his decisions based on the pawn structure or the future pawn structure. Everything about positional chess derives from this concept. Simple chess uses this conceptual framework to explain many of the tenets of positional chess in clear, simple prose, with perfectly selected games and examples.

Each of the short chapters takes some concept and deepens our understanding of it beyond face-value assertion. I will give one perfect example of how this book really bridges the gap between things you hear are good in chess and real application of the concepts at the board: Every beginner knows that rooks belong on open files. But open files are two way roads which can turn against you if you aren't prepared. In Simple Chess, Stean points out that the main purpose of having a rook on an open file is to penetrate with it to the 7th or 8th rank or to invade with other pieces on the squares you control along the file. Therefore a rook on an open file is only really useful if your opponent doesn't control at least one of the invasion squares. Likewise if you can control the squares on your side of the open file, your opponent will have difficult doing anything constructive with it, even if he has the rook there first!

That was a relatively easy one to explain, but he does a great job with other more advanced concepts like white-square/dark-square strategies, how to play with a space advantage, etc.

The only thing that would make things a little better for this book is if there were fewer typographical errors (be sure to check the comments on Amazon or google to find the minor errors) and if there were a companion workbook or exercises manual.

Caissa Chess

One of my most memorable courses in college was an introduction to evolutionary biology taught by the late Stephen Jay Gould.  What I enjoyed most about the course wasn't the biology itself, but rather his powerful and unique essay style.  One of his commonly used  essay strategies (and his essays were aimed mainly a popular audience, not professional biologists) was to draw in his audience by finding connections between seemingly unrelated topics (e.g. baseball, or his personal life history) and concepts of evolutionary biology.  Seemingly serendipitous links between esoteria like the disappearance of the .400 batter in baseball and the Adaptation vs. Progress evolutionary 'debate' abound in his works, serving to draw in his readers and triggering a creative/contemplative/curious state of mind which is ideal for learning.

A couple months ago my kids watched a National Geographic special on Charles Darwin.  Later we were chatting and somehow we got around to the topic of how Darwin came up with his theories.  I explained what I could remember about his visits to the Galapagos Islands and how his theories were imagined to explain the occurrence of adaptive radiation in finches.

Darwin's theory of natural selection was born from his struggle to explain how a single ancestral species of finches could give rise to multiple species of finches that exploited different environmental niches.  He posited that this ancestral finch species arrived in the Galapagos and after a million or so years of survival of the fittest adaptive pressure and isolation, we ended up with finches that have differing beak structures to exploit the relative abundance of different types of food in various locales.

An opposite phenomena is called convergence which is when different species take on similar physical forms due to adaptive pressures to survive in similar niches.  The canonical example of this are birds and bats (and pterodactyls and maybe flying squirrels and flying fish!) all developing wings for flight.

And so I come to the Caissa Chess Club which has seemingly sprung from thin air on a small island off the coast of Hong Kong, much like the varied finches of Darwinian fame.  Caissa has in very short order begun to serve the chess community of Discovery Bay and to some extend the city at large as a casual club, organised training facility and tournament organiser.

Of course I say this in jest, as the club's emergence has nothing to do with evolutionary forces, but rather the vision and hard work of it's founder, Mr. Garceran (and his talented children).

Nevertheless it pleases me to see this group flourishing and creating brand new opportunities for youth and adults in Hong Kong to enjoy the royal game.  If anyone needs any information about chess in the country, Mr. Garceran has kindly consolidated information about upcoming tournaments and playing opportunities and I would encourage anyone to visit the club's site.

We ourselves visited the club recently for the first Discovery Bay Blitz Tournament which Richie was fortunate to come away with a top youth prize.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Hong Kong Chess Association Student Challengers Tournament

Richie played in the Hong Kong Student Challengers chess tournament which his held a couple of times a year by the Hong Kong Chess Association.  The Student Challenger tournaments are unique in Hong Kong as they are the only two-day events that combine all students into a single player pool (regardless of cage) over 8 rounds of G/30.   This has pro's and con's but for a strong younger player it's definitely a positive to have the opportunity to play against students in high school.  On the negative side, you can get some strange results because certain players will have to 'play-up' against older children more often.

Richie did very well and finished with 6.0/8.0 points with one of his losses coming from the tournament winner.  Here are the results.

This is the first tournament in awhile that Richie has kept his game scores for.  I picked one interesting game out that highlights his tendencies.  Richie was really happy with his game and came out of it explaining that he went for a "crazy attack."  It features a piece sacrifice followed by another piece sacrifice offer (which turns out to be unsound but dangerous looking enough that his opponent declined).

Richie is black.  Can you find the refutation?

Oh yeah.  One more unique thing about these tournaments:  they offer cash prizes.  Richie was quite pleased with his $300 prize.  It didn't seem to bother him at all that this was HKD (~45 USD).

Hong Kong Scholastic Blitz Championships

Richie participated in the Hong Kong Scholastic Blitz Championships held by the Hong Kong Chess Association in late May, 2012.  The event was a city (country?)-wide event that attracted around 100 players in total.  It was a G/10 event and the players were divided into different age categories (U8, U11, U18).  Richie managed to go wire-to-wire with a perfect 7.0/7.0 to win outright by a full point.   The skill level in HK varies a lot in every age category, so despite being in the younger end of the range for the U11 group, Richie was probably a favorite to be top 3 or so going into the event.    There isn't actually a rating system in HK, so it's pretty hard to know for sure, though.

This event was run a bit better, in my opinion, than the team championships which were conducted by the same organization earlier in the year.  That competition was marred by a the fact that they allowed parents into the playing hall throughout the event which led to a lot of noise and distraction for the players.

In contrast, this event was run much more "professionally" with rounds beginning on schedule.  My one criticism would be that it should have been run with each player playing twice, once as black and once as white, in each round.  This would be more fair and probably would give a more accurate picture of relative strength.

I couldn't observe Richie's play so I don't know how he did really but I do know that he was lucky to come away with a win against the 2nd place finisher as I was told that he was down considerably in the game but his opponent blundered in the endgame.

Nevertheless, it has been a long time since Richie went wire-to-wire and I think that in itself is a good show of mental fortitude.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Hong Kong Inter-School Team Championship

The Annual Hong Kong Inter-School Championship was recently held at the South Island School. This is one of only two major country-wide chess tournaments in HK and unlike it's sister event, the Inter-School championship is an Olympiad-style team event with four players per team. There were over 60 registered teams (many schools entered multiple teams), and Richie's team from Quarry Bay School won in convincing fashion. Richie competed on board 1 and scored 6.0/7.0 points. His team was perfect over the event, though, and emerged with a clear 1.5 point lead over second place.

When we first enrolled our children into QBS, we had very little expectations for any school-organized chess. Truth be told, the club is not exactly instructional and only ran for half the year. Nevertheless there's a small group of relatively enthusiastic players and parents and I think Richie's presence at the club may have helped raise the standard of play amongst his friends. Of course the real irony about the school team is that in all the time Richie played chess in the states, he was always a lone wolf and never had the opportunity to play as part of a school team.

Richie has been doing only maintenance level study for the better part of a year now and rarely plays online or otherwise, but I did have him continue with almost weekly lessons with Ian Harris (his last coach from the US) and he gathers several times a month with a few friends and a local teacher for a group lesson. It seems though, that with the level of chess seriousness as it is in HK, he still has quite an edge over the field.

Strangely, I can't actually gauge his strength. When I watch him play I still feel there are a lot of basic errors going on that I'm surprised to still see, and when he's asked questions in his lessons, I often come up with the answers quicker than he does. On the other hand, when we play (and he takes it seriously) he seems to beat me routinely. (Maybe I need to take it more seriously!).

Perhaps it should be obvious that his tactical strength is ahead of mine, but to make it concrete, we had a father-son challenge to be the first to reach 1800 on tactics and while I'm consistently stuck around 1600 he's gets very close to 1800 when he's focused. But more importantly, in actual games, he seems to be more consistent in spotting tactics throughout the game than I am.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Recent Updates

We've settled in to life in Hong Kong. Of course the first priorities when we got here were finding a permanent place to live, getting into school and adjusting to life in a new town. I didn't really expect to find much of a chess scene here. Certainly compared to New York, you can't really call it a scene at all, but there are actually a number of instructional programs for children and a couple of organizations than run small tournaments.

I will post later about what we found. In short, the quality of instruction is sort of spotty so it takes some effort to find something that works depending on your child's level. There are only 6-8 scholastic tournaments each year but there are a few kids/parents that seem quite into it nevertheless.

Richie went to just one tournament and finished 3rd in his age group (9 yrs and under). He actually had first place in hand when his final round opponent offered a draw, but Richie declined and pushed for a win as he didn't know he only needed half a point for clear first. One thing that's different about the tournament compared to the ones in the states is that all age groups (up to high school) were in the same player pool, but results were then determined by age group. That put Richie at a bit of a disadvantage as he had to play much harder players in the end as he was winning his games early. Anyway it was a good tournament that spanned two days with 8 G/60s.

Richie is entered for another tournament in two weeks and has participated in a couple of warm-up sessions conducted by one of the organizers.

One interesting thing for Richie this year is that he will actually have some teammates. His school turns out to have had a pretty decent chess team in the past (completely by chance). There's a weekly chess club which he joined, of course, but it's completely non-instructional. They just meet to play and then the strongest players are selected to play boards 1-4 in the team competition which happens I think a few times a year.

Otherwise, Richie has not been practicing at all and only plays for fun with his classmates once a week.

I did get a chance go gauge his play during a recent visit to Australia where he played a game of blitz in the park. It was a pretty fun game. I feel a little guilty for unleashing him on unsuspecting old guys... Ah who am I kidding, I love doing that!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Moving to Hong Kong

I've been very busy with a lot of change recently and haven't kept up with blogging at all. Long story short, we are relocating to Hong Kong! We did try to keep up with chess to the end, we attended what may be our last nationals in Dallas in May and in the lead up to it Richie had an opportunity to work with Ian Harris, a coach at the Chess Club of Fairfield County.

I don't really know how much chess we will play in HK. I was recently there for a business trip and investigated the local scene a bit. Chess is no where near as well organized as it is in NY and the number of players is quite small. I think it will be difficult to find local coaching of high calibre. If Richie wishes to continue playing he will probably need internet coaching. But I think the lack of local tournaments and players may negatively impact his enthusiasm.

I was expecting to find a much better Go scene than in the US, but surpisingly, I found very few established go clubs in the city. Chinese chess seems to be the only game that I saw played casually in parks and such. It's a shame because in Mainland China there are plenty of strong players.

Well I haven't done all that much investigation so maybe I'll find more when we get there.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Odd skill transference

I often wonder how the brain and behavior is affected by frequent chess play at an early age. In Richie's case, I would say most of the impact has been behavioral. His school teachers, for instance, often tell me that he is very methodical/careful in his work and demonstrates a lot of patience for his age. That shouldn't really come as any surprise when you consider what it takes to play a competitive 3 hour chess game.

Yesterday, while cleaning house, I dug up some flash cards I made for Alyssa and Richie to help them understand numbers as quantities. They consist of approximately 50 cards with 1 to 50 red dot stickers arranged in random patterns. When they were around 3 years old, I would teach them the numbers by asking them to count the number of dots and as they got a little older I taught them to group into sets of 5.

Well it had been several years since I had seen these cards so I decided to trot them out and asked Richie and Alyssa to identify the quantities using the grouping tactic.

Strangely, Alyssa is still quite facile at grouping by fives and could quite easily and quickly identify any number up to 20 or so within a second or two.

But what I found quite fascinating was that Richie would stare at the card for two or three seconds and then close his eyes (!) and count with his eyes closed. I couldn't imagine why he'd do that so I asked him what he was doing and he said he was memorizing the image and counting the dots one by one... I was skeptical so I tested him several times and even removed the card from sight to make sure he wasn't peeking, but he was really doing it that way. His accuracy dropped above 18 or so, but my interest was piqued nonetheless. I can only speculate that hours of visualization at the board has trained this particular visualization skill. I asked him whether he was actually seeing the image or if he was was remembering them in groups or something and he claimed that he was just seeing it as if his eyes were open. That is interesting in that it contrasts with how strong chess players are able to play blindfolded. Typically they are relying on relationships of the pieces on the board rather than holding a photographic image in their minds.

Monday, March 14, 2011

US Amateur East and Upcoming Nationals

The Spring Nationals will be held in Dallas, TX. This is a convenient location for us, in a way, since we have opportunity to combine the trip with a visit to family there. I have been quite remiss in my recent blog postings owing to many factors. In fact, as happens with almost everyone involved in the game at one point or another, chess has been put on the back-burner recently as the kids have been more involved in music and language lessons and I have been busy with other things.

Richie's practice has schedule has suffered recently. He has scarcely been playing or studying the last few months. Just yesterday I asked him to try out a few games online and he was summarily dispatched in several games in a row. It was a little like listening to an out of tune instrument. Hopefully he'll get back in tune before the Nationals, otherwise he may be disappointed with his placing.

We did manage to sneak in a trip to Parsippany, NJ for the US Amateur East tournament. I had heard over the years that this was one of the most fun events for chess players of all ages and I was really looking forward to it. We formed a team with our friends Daniel Levkov and his father Dmitry. Dmitry played board 1, I played board 2, Richie played board 3, and Daniel played board 4. Richie had a lot of stiff competition on board 3 and mostly played "up" in his games. But even accounting for that, I couldn't help but feel that the mistakes he was making were not typical of his strength, and was left with the impression that a lack of recent practice has dulled his game somewhat. He even lost to a mate in 1 in a winning position, which has much more to do with carelessness and lack of desire than anything else. That last game stung a bit, but overall, I think he enjoyed himself.

Our experiment with coaching didn't really work out so well. I think the lack of a local coach has certainly cost him, particularly in the last 6 months or so as I have been less focused. He could have used some guidance from a professional coach, but we made the mistake of not committing enough to coaching and ended up with a few scattered lessons here and there rather than any purposeful training.

I don't think it's easy to make up for so much lost time in the next six weeks, but we'll see what we can do within reason.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Grade Nationals Report

Richie scored 6.0/7.0 in the 2010 Grade Nationals which put him in a tie for 2nd (4th on tie-breaks). He was pleased with his result since 4th was just high enough to get a four-poster (a trophy with four posts on the bottom). As expected, the deep field made for a very interesting tournament with many upsets wins and drama, but at the end of the day the event favorite, Joaquin Perkins, emerged as repeat champion. Congratulations Joaquin!

I've become a pretty decent judge of chess strength at the grade-school level, so I was not surprised at all that Richie's friend Corwin placed 2nd and came within a move of winning outright. I had been quite impressed with a couple of games I saw him play when he was just starting and even more impressed after watching him review a few games this tournament with his coaches--considering how long he has been playing, he has a very mature understanding of chess from what I can tell.

Although Richie's final placing was pretty much in-line with his pre-tournament seeding, I actually feel that he's made real strides in his play in the last few months. Perhaps I am succumbing to parental pride, but I really feel his play is more sophisticated than his rating suggests and expect that with a little more maturity he will soon pose a real challenge for players rated under 1500. Whereas many of the games at his level appear to be won by "tactical bullying," I found his wins from this tournament to be due mainly to excellent logic which ultimately is what is needed as he progresses to tougher and more careful opposition. Richie will still need to improve his defensive skills a little in order to more comfortably dispatch the sort of naive "aim everything at the King" desperado attacks that are commonplace at the scholastic level. He'll also need to tighten up his endgame and endgame transitions to convert more "won games" than he is currently, but overall I think the near-term future is bright for his progress.

+ Four-poster for the win.
+ Friends in the tournament make it more fun.
+ Mastered the art of lowering our expectations at Disney: the food ... didn't make us sick, the coffee was ... hot, the buses were ... free, and the lines ... ok, there's nothing good to say about lines.

+/- Supposedly this is the last year at the Coronado Springs. Hopefully the next place will be an uptick.
+/- Based on consumption patterns at Disneyworld, the New Normal is the same thing as the Old Normal.

- 40 degrees in Florida? So much for swimming...
- Sketchy Orlando cab driver purposely driving us to the wrong branch of a nearby restaurant to run up a tab.
- Sketchy Orlando cab driver driving our friends in circles to run up a tab.
- Why is every meal at Disney $20 a person for food court fare?
- Endgame blunders that turn losses to wins to draws to wins to losses...

Monday, November 29, 2010

How Do You Prepare Your Kids For Big Events?

I often find myself wondering what (if anything) other parents of children in these large national chess do before the large national events.

Before one of his first major events, I had Richie focus on tactics. This was the advice I had seen and heard over and over, and for good reason. Mostly I had Richie work through problem sets with specific tactical motifs. I found that he was very good when he knew what to look for, but in real-life game situations he could still miss simple tactics. The result: he did well, but got fancy in some games and sacrificed unsoundly...

As his tactical strength improved I shifted focus a bit and would (before major tournaments) attempt to prepare for him for the most common openings. Part of the reason I did this was that I ultimately wanted him to study middle game concepts and positional thinking but I needed him to get into similar positions as often as possible so that we could talk about common plans. I just wasn't strong enough to have these discussions if he played a wide variety of openings where I couldn't study beforehand the common ideas. The result: he did well, got some decent advantages out of the opening but then missed some tactical wins. On the other hand, he began playing very quickly in the opening as they became rote and didn't seem to realize he was out of his "book." Relying on "feel" to choose the right moves and coming to expect appropriate moves to jump out at him made him liable to play superficially at the early stages of a game.

Over the last summer, we worked a lot on positional chess. I tried reviewing grandmaster games with him that systematically touched on certain positional themes. The result: he'd win a pawn or get an outpost and then relax assuming his opponent would fold. Unfortunately his opponents somehow managed to comeback from positional bankruptcy with surprising regularity.

Then I thought, endgames. That's the ticket. I'll admit I don't like studying endgames. I find so much of it to being akin to learning how to spell esoteric words that you'll never use in everyday writing. So we studied some endgames. The result: I have no idea. Richie's only ever reached a handful of endgames that resembles something we studied.

Sometimes it makes me wonder if doing nothing is best.

But then I quickly come to my senses.

So for this year's Nationals I had him go through a carefully refined study program of endgame, tactics, strategy, and openings! Seriously, though, my goal has been consistency of practice rather than quantity. We decided to skip some of the local events. And to get acclimated to a slower pace of play, for the two weeks prior to the Nationals we avoided having Richie play anything faster than G/45.

This year we opted to fly out on the morning of the event so he will have a pretty rough first day. Usually parents are advised to fly out the night before to get a good night's sleep. One time we tried that, though and the wait from the time he woke up at 7am to the first game at 1:30 pm felt truly endless.

So we're trying something different this time around. We have a very early flight out (hopefully we don't miss it!), and I'm hoping that he sleeps on the plane and catches up on his rest then. Even if that backfires and he's too wired to sleep perhaps he'll have an afternoon siesta, which otherwise would be unusual for him.

His section has turned out so far to be very competitive with at least a dozen players at the 1100+ level with good chances to win it all. I think in 1st grade last year there were a couple of standout players at the 1500+ level, but only 5 over 1100. The depth of strength should make for an exciting tournament.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

2010 Grade National Chess Tournament, Orlando FL

The 2010 Grade Nationals will be held in Orlando, Florida this year. For those who don't know, there are two major Nationals each year, one held in the Winter and one held in the Spring. The Winter tournament has each grade competing in a separate sections, while the Spring nationals have certain grades combined (e.g. K-1).

The table below is mainly for my own convenience to make it easier to look up the top contenders in each section and how they have performed leading into the event (since there is a six week gap between cut-off of the December rating supplement and the actual tournament), but last year, the table got a couple thousand views so I guess I wasn't the only one using it.

This year Richie will be playing in the 1st grade section. Even accounting for late registrants, I think he should be comfortably in the top 10 rated players going into the event, but there are at least a couple higher rated players in his cohort that either haven't registered yet or aren't planning to participate.

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Monday, November 8, 2010

Rating Supplements

I was trying to work out how ratings are determined for tournaments and found out that there's an element of uncertainty that isn't obvious at first.

The basic problem is this: prior to any major tournament, sections and pre-event ratings must be determined based on some rating snapshot in time. Ratings themselves are based on rated games which should be rated in event order, but the results for rated games must be processed or submitted by tournament directors which can take anywhere from a few hours to several days or weeks depending on how they process and submit (electronically, or by mail).

The USCF approaches this problem by publishing monthly "rating supplements" which are official snapshots of every player's "concurrent" rating for events scheduled for that month. For example, the "December 2010" rating supplement is intended to be use for any events held in December. (Tournament directors have the ability, however, to choose to use earlier supplements if the desire).

For the December supplement to be ready for December, it obviously needs to be finalized before the month of December begins, so it is generally published shortly after the first Friday of November, aiming to capture all events completed in October.

The wrinkle is that some events played late in October may not actually be submitted in time to be reflected in the supplement. Players really can't be certain what goes into the supplement until it's actually published.

One point I am still confused about is how re-ratings are considered. It's my current understanding that each week, the USCF actually re-rates recent tournaments to properly take into account the chronological order of events and correct for the problem of receiving results out of chronological order. (Incidentally, the rating algorithm itself uses a two-pass system, meaning that a first pass is made to estimate each player's post event rating, and then a second pass is made to actually rate every player for that event). This process is impacted by any new incoming data for any player so I believe the re-ratings are done in batch and I assume they go back over some reasonable window and do a roll-forward re-rating of every player and every event.

In other words, eventually, your rating is always computed the "right" way, using the latest rated results for you and your opponent at the time the event was played, regardless of when those recent events results were submitted to the USCF.

But I believe the ratings supplements cannot be altered once they are published. I could be wrong about this, but historically official supplements were published in Chess Life Magazine so once they published that was it and I doubt that would have changed. So whatever is in the supplement is going to be used for that month's events, regardless of any more up to game data, even if those games were held before the date-cutoff for that supplement.

Anyway this probably doesn't have any major impact on the vast majority of players, but in some situations you may find that your rating used for an event isn't based on what you thought it would be.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

World Youth Championships

The World Youth Championships are currently running in Halkidiki, Greece. Simone has a nice blog post about the event with some links to the official site. I noticed that several US players are doing very well so it will be fun to see how the rest of the tournament goes.

I was pleased to see a few games in the U8 Open published. I thought Awonder Liang's (1807) win in round 1 over a top rated Vietnamese player, Anh Khoi Nguyen (1980) was a nice example of how sophisticated young chess players are at the highest levels. Awonder is just 7 years old, so I believe he actually has one more year to compete in the U8 should he choose to.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

10th Annual Chess-In-The-Parks

Richie played in the 10th Annual Chess-In-The-Parks event this weekend. This is an annual outdoors quick chess tournament. Before I go further I have to offer kudos to chess-director-extraordinaire Shaun Smith at Chess-in-the-Schools and his team for putting on a splendid event under challenging conditions. Several hundred players participated in five sections, I think. Richie played in the Intermediate section which boasted over 80 players (both youth and adults) rated from 1000 to around 1300. It's a credit to Shaun and his team that he is able to consistently deliver high quality chess tournaments (which are free to enter due to the generosity of the CIS foundation) that run smoothly and efficiently. This event was no exception. New York scholastic players are certainly lucky for the opportunity to play in his nearly 30 events per scholastic year.

This particular tournament was a G/10 format which is slightly unusual time control because at 10 minutes per side it's not pace that anyone really practices often. It seems that most players are used to either blitz or slow chess, but this in-between time control (which is even shorter than the popular 15-minute ICC time control) seems a little odd.

Nevertheless, I had a suspicion that Richie would be in his element at this speed since quite honestly I think he plays at nearly full strength in his G/15 games (that's not really a good thing), except he plays them a touch too fast, making G/10 practically ideal. It's a very natural playing rhythm for him (whereas I think at five minutes the quality suffers quite a bit).

One nice thing about a 10-20 minute game (total) is that you can actually watch it and try to figure out what moves you would make so it's an ideal "spectator" speed.

Have a look at this final round game to see what I mean. I haven't analyzed it in depth, but while watching it live, I was really challenged to find the "right" moves and plans throughout the game and impressed by both players. Though this final game wasn't for a big prize or even for a high placing, it was exciting nonetheless and features several swings in momentum, which ultimately went Richie's way. I thought Richie did a good job in this game and at the tournament in general in searching for "even better" moves and remaining defensively vigilant. I would characterize his play as "creatively aggressive" and that seemed to be enough to win against most of the players in the class and time-control. (Of course that can tend to backfire at a slower time control when opponents have more time to work out the tactical nuances of the position better).

It's been about two years since the last video I posted, so it's interesting to see how much has changed in the interim.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Richie on the Rise

Richie has been scoring well in his recent tournaments, bringing his rating up to around 1200. Interestingly it had fallen to around 1000, after incorporating some different openings into his play. We spent most of our effort over the summer in understanding middle game concepts better and actually did almost no tactics practice. The shift in focus seems to have taken awhile to adjust to but it seems that he's gradually assimilating the new knowledge.

Interestingly, when I ask if he thinks about the concepts we've studied during his games he says he's "not sure" which indicates that at this age (nearly 7) there is still not much of an "internal dialogue" going on in his mind about longer term plans or positional considerations. His move choices are largely based on direct calculation of lines or some kind of application of rules/guidelines that he's internalized to a subconscious level.

As a side benefit of our studies over the summer, I seem to have improved around 150 points or so on ICC at blitz. Since I went many years without any significant blitz improvement I can only speculate the recent studies were directly responsible for the improvement.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Local Chess Club in Norwalk, CT.

Players from the Fairfield County Chess Club meet at Barnes & Nobles in Norwalk on Wednesdays and Fridays. Richie and I have been going periodically for speed chess and bughouse. For younger (and weaker) players its a little more accessible than some of the other meet-ups in the area because there are usually 2-4 scholastic players present. It's a fun group so I hope it continues to meet through the school year since Richie really enjoys going.

I think his recent play at speed chess has improved a little. Last weekend he tied (with me!) for 1st in the FCCC speed chess open for U1600 ahead of a bunch of higher rated players. He even scalped a 1900(!) player so I think that's a personal best. Of course blitz and slow chess are totally different, but it was nice confidence boost for him nevertheless.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Tactics from the Bradley Open

Last weekend we played in the Bradley Open in Windsor Locks, CT. I played in the U1600 section and Richie played in the U1200 section. This tournament was a great opportunity to play long time controls (2 hours for 40 moves + 1 hour for the rest). But after Richie played too fast again in several games, I've basically given up trying to convince him to slow down. I think it's just something he needs to realize on his own after he loses more games to players he feels he could otherwise beat. Still, he managed to win 3.0/5.0 which wasn't too shabby. I only won 2.0 of my games. I had really been looking forward to playing some slow endgames to work on my calculation since I rarely get to think online during endgames (either the result is decided already or there's not enough time to play carefully). Ironically, I blew both close endgames that I managed to reach.

On the bright side, Richie really impressed me with his tactical alertness. Here are two interesting moments that featured themes we had recently practiced.

Position #1.
This first one is pretty elementary once you look around at the whole board. Richie is up material but his opponent has the simple threat of c2 followed by c1=Q. What's the most easiest way for Richie to wrap up the victory?

Highlight below to reveal answer:
Richie played Ba5! Black cannot defend against the double threat to win the pawn and mate on the backrow. Note that Bxf6 is worse because it opens an escape square after gxf.

Position #2
Richie's opponent dropped a pawn early in this game but turned things around by making use of the open lines/diagonals vacated by the lost pawn to launch a severe attack. Richie attempts to hold his position together with duct-tape and string but he senses his imminent demise. The position calls for a major swindle so Richie responds with the mysterious Bc8?!, inviting his opponent to increase the pressure with f6. After all if the position is a win now, it's definitely a win with the pawn on f6 right?

Highlight below to reveal the missed win, and Richie's devastating counter-attack. Had his opponent followed Richie's camp coach's advice to always analyze the forcing moves in the position, he could have found the winning attack or at the very least, discovered uncovered Richie's trap before it was too late:
His opponent misses the forcing line: Bxg7+, BxBg7, Rh3+, Nh2, RxNh2+, f6+, Bf5, Qg7#. Instead the attack on the f-pawn provoked the seemingly strong f6??. How can opening up the diagonal for the bishop bringing the pawn closer to the enemy king be a bad move? No doubt, his opponent counted on something like gxh??, Qg7# or gxf?? Qg7#, or maybe just Bxf6, where he thought Rxf6 would be good enough in view of gxf6? Qg7#.

Instead, after f6??, Richie surprised his opponent with Qxf3!!, after gxQf3 (forced) comes the cute Bh3#.

What impressed me the most about this was the "trapiness" of the move. Richie realizes he's lost but plans this tricky mate with his move Bc8. From the diagrammed position he had to visualize the removal of the pawn on f5, the distraction of the pawn on g2 via queen sac, and the two bishop's mating motif.

Of course we'd prefer to not get into losing positions in the first place, but having the resourcefulness to turn things around by inducing non-obvious blunders is a valuable skill to have as well.

Monday, July 19, 2010

NSCF Westchester Chess Camp

Last week Richie participated in the Westchester Chess Camp which is run by the National Scholastic Chess Foundation. The NSCF actually runs two summer camps, one which is targeted at stronger players (over 1200) and one which is for any level. Although we had gotten permission to put Richie into the advanced camp, after finding out that there probably weren't going to be many kids near his age and that there would be some significantly stronger players we thought it probably wouldn't be too fun for him. Instead we opted for the general camp after getting some assurances from Sunil (Weeramantry) that the instruction and play would be at an appropriate level for him. Most chess players are familiar with Sunil since he is Hikaru Nakamura's step-father and coach (as well as being a FIDE master).

The camp began at 10:00 am each day and went to 3:00 pm with a lunch break and free play period. At the beginning of the day campers were paired with each other (or an instructor) for a slow, tournament style game which was recorded. I believe that this game was reviewed afterwards. Later in the day there were two lecture periods which seemed mainly to consist of going over annotated games or solving tactics.

Richie enjoyed the camp, especially after a couple of days when he had gotten to know some of the other kids. Personally I was a little disappointed with the turnout(around 10-12 kids) since I think it would be nicer to have a more boisterous atmosphere, but Richie didn't seem to mind at all. And of course, the upside to those numbers are that the student to instructor ratio was a very healthy 5 or 6 which insures an appropriate level of supervision.

One thing to note is that Sunil himself doesn't give the lessons and generally is only present for part of the day. But the master level instructor he selected seemed to be quite good from what I could tell and there were always one or two other strong players helping out as well.

Overall I was quite pleased with this camp as well. Having now seen several camps with different pros and cons I would probably say that for anyone living near Scarsdale, this camp probably offers the best bang-for-the-buck and convenience for somewhat serious players compared to other summer offerings I've seen.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Castle Chess Camp, Atlanta GA

Richie attended the Castle Chess Camp in Atlanta, GA a couple weeks ago. This camp is probably one of the pre-eminent chess camps in the country, judging by the sheer number of titled instructors.

At this year's camp, GMs Var Akobian, John Fedorowicz, Greg Serper, Julio Becerra, IMs Anna Zatonskih, Daniel Ludwig, Carlos Perdoma, and FMs Kazim Gulamali, Mike Klein and Alex Dunne led the instruction. The approximately 120 campers were divided into ratings categories and each assigned a "home" instructor.

The schedule was intensive but most campers didn't seem to struggle much at all with the load. Each morning was kicked off with an unrated slow tournament styles game. During this game instructors would go from board to board, observing play and making notes on what to address with each young player during the reviews. Immediately after the game each playing pair would go off to have their game analyzed by one of the instructors. Following that there would be three lessons spread out over the day, broken up by meals and a free play period. The first lesson was given each day by the home instructor while the other lessons would have rotating instructors. At then end of the day there was an optional quick tournament or event which took a different form each day (blitz, bughouse, endgame blitz, simul). The week is capped off with a normal rated tournament which many of the campers stayed to participate in. Each camper receives a final review and given some advice on how to improve their game.

Before I go into my thoughts on the camp, I would have to say that one of the things I found most impressive had nothing to do with chess instruction per se, but with the organization of the camp. The team of organizers, led by camp director Jennifer Christianson, the well prepared instructors and volunteer counselors put together a truly praise-worthy camp experience. Any parent that is thinking of sending their child to Castle Chess can rest easy that their child will be in good hands for the week.

Considering Richie's young age, we decided to attend as observers. It seemed that most campers under the age of 9 or so were either local commuters or attending with a parent. I was able to observer first-hand most of the camp activities and came away appreciating some things that I might not otherwise had noticed.

I'll start with the obvious though: 6 to 9 hours of chess related activities every day for 7 straight days is bound have some positive impact on your chess, no matter what your skill level. For children, the impact is probably magnified, even. But the big open question is how does a camp experience, and specifically, how is does the Castle Chess Camp experience compare with other chess activities like playing tournaments or taking lessons with a coach, or even other less structured non-overnight camps? The answer is simple in a way: people (and kids especially), learn better when they're having fun. Fun and enthusiasm are sort of infectious in a way. I don't think it's possible for a kid with even a moderate degree of interest in chess to not get really excited about chess during a camp like this.

Oddly enough, the single biggest bonding experiences for the kids that I saw (since we didn't stay in the dorms) were meal times and bughouse sessions. These social activities proved to be great enablers for of the formation of friendships at the camp. The subject of bughouse probably deserves a separate post, but suffice it to say that I wouldn't take bughouse away from Richie even if it held him back years in development (which I don't think it does).

You never know what's going to trigger a child's fascination but I think for Richie, seeing IM Daniel Ludwig win a blindfolded speed chess game against one of his friends left an indelible impression of what strong players are capable of. Watching Kazim Gulamali, live up to his reputation as one of the strongest bughouse players in the world as he played at a lightning pace against all comers was also a unique display of human talent.

The sheer amount of chess energy at this camp is something I've never witnessed before (even national tournaments with thousands of players don't compare). Of course Richie had a blast, and already has asked to return. The impact on his chess isn't totally obvious but there's a notable uptick in his keenness to play. Just a few things he did which would almost have been out of character before camp: He couldn't wait to show off Anna Zatonskih's impossible mate in one puzzle to his sister. He specifically asked me to help him prepare for an opening he had trouble against which was also something novel. And after a couple of his tournament games he actually told me he thinks he can play better.

As part of his review I learned something about Richie's play that I had not noticed so much before. (He often overlooks piece mobility and he needs to work on breadth of calculation, not necessarily depth). Knowing what to focus on in the immediate future is in itself pretty valuable. At least until we have made some decisions on chess instruction, I'll have something to try and practice with him.
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