Friday, November 30, 2007

First Recorded Game

This is the first game I've recorded between Alyssa and Richie. I tried to avoid giving any advice except to point out rule violations (of which there were a few). About 5 moves into the game I started asking them to tell me after the opponents move whether any of their pieces were threatened. My idea is to gradually build up a move thought process and impress on them they should think a little before each move.

In response to my question before each move where I asked them to identify if the last moved piece could capture anything, they answered correctly about 25% of the time. I think they may be getting confused between whether it's a legal move or if it's a "good" move, meaning one that isn't immediately punishable by recapture. Of course they are looking at most 1 ply ahead.

At this point I ended the game. Richie was inconsolable because he thought he was losing and that I was helping Alyssa (even though he's actually winning). Not sure exactly how to get them to play out to checkmate. Maybe I need to start with fewer pieces, but the problem is that they like having the whole army.

Thanks to this tool, though, I showed the kids the game again and we talked about some of the opportunities each of them had to make better moves.

They thought seeing the game was cool and both want to play again! As a little test, I showed Alyssa the moves and asked her if she recognized the game, but she didn't. I guess that's not surprising. Once I told them that it was their game though, they were able to recall some of the things they thought of during the game. Neat.

The game was generated using this text PGN without headers:

{This is the first game between Alyssa and Richie that I've recorded} 1. e4 Nc6 {They're geniuses!}
2. Be2 Nf6 3. e5 Rg8 {I have told Richie that he should move his center pawns and
minor pieces before trying to move rooks, but he seems to have forgotten}
4. Nf3 b6 5. exf6 {I started asking if anything can be taken here and Alyssa spotted it} exf6
6. O-O {Alyssa has remembered to castle early} Nd4 7. Nxd4 d6
8. Bg4 Ba6 9. Re1+ Be7
10. Qe2 {After Qe2 I asked if anything could be taken. Richie spotted that the Bishop was attacked.
But then confused himself by asking if he could castle and got distracted} Rf8
11. Qd1 {Alyssa was paying attention, but didn't see the better move} Rb8
12. Nc3 h6 13. Ne6 {A daring foray. But there was no plan behind it as far as I can tell} Qc8
{Both said No when asked if anything was threatened}
14. Nd4 Qb7 {R: If you move your knight you can eat my Q!}
15. Ne6 {If at first you don't succeed, try, try again! Neither one can see Rook under attack} Ra8
16. {This is a critical point, they've both run out of ideas and don't know how to proceed, I made the suggestion
that A should move the minor piece that's furthest from the center, a variation on a blitz rule of thumb,
when in doubt reposition your worst piece} a3 {But she couldn't tell which one was furthest.
I said just move a pawn but not one in front of your king} d5 17. d3 c5 18. Nxd5 Rh8 19. d4 cxd4 20. b4 fxe6
21. Nxb6 Qxb6 22. Bxh6 gxh6 23. Rxe6 Qb5 {Here I showed a few variations of what could happen with different Q moves but
Richie got upset because he thought I was helping Alyssa and not him}
24. c4 Qxc4 25. b5 Bxb5
26. Rc1 Qd3 27. Qxd3 Bxd3 {Richie is inconsolable because he thinks he's losing when in fact he is
winning but I can't convince him. We ended the game here.}

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Chess comic

And now to complete the round-trip back to chess via comics, I recommend this chess comic strip by Scott McCloud. It's nicely done. I usually enjoy these auto-biographical comics for some reason. I find the characters quirky and amusing I suppose. Anyway there are some eerily familiar things in this story made me smile as I reflected on my own experience with chess. I even lived in Cambridge, MA for awhile so the reference to Au Bon Pain gave me some happy memories. I wonder if the Chessmaster, Murray, is still there? I used to play him for kicks. I never won a game but I had a "won" game once when I used the 4 pawn attack and came out ahead piece but I lost on time when he made some tricky stalling moves. I suppose the thing I have most in common with narrator, though, is a tendency for serial obsessions.

Empty Triangle Comics

While on the subject of Go related entertainment, I thought I'd mention this strip which I found through ChiyoDad's blog. Empty Triangle is nice and I like the perspective of a novice (and a girl) in the Go world. Very well done. I wonder if I can commission the artist to do a drawing for my kids? They would definitely get a thrill out of that...

Hikaru no Go

One day while searching on Netflix for some cartoon movies to rent for the kids I came across the Hikaru no Go series. I knew almost nothing about Go at the time, though I did learn the basic rules when I was in high school. Since I never had anyone to play against, I had pretty much forgotten about the game until seeing this anime series. Strangely, Netflix didn't have the first disc available so I ended up starting with the second disk. My kids both really liked it as did I so I ended up just buying the series from Amazon. I really liked the way they dramatized all of the games and it had the nice effect of inspiring all of us to give the game a try. After having Chinese food in Flushing, NY one day I tried to drop by a local Baduk club. It wasn't very English friendly, unfortunately, but the proprietor was able to point me to a local Korean grocery store when I asked where I could buy a baduk board. We found the store without much trouble and picked up a cheap go board. I searched online to remind myself of the rules and went through the exercises on Hiroki Mori's site, the Interactive Way to Go.
I also used this teaching guide but it turned out that after watching Hikaru no Go, the kids had sort of picked up the rules already. I didn't bother explaining eyes, but they do manage to sort of play games. I actually found that using a chess board (9x9) in Go was the best balance. Much smaller than that and it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense and of course bigger than that is too much to handle for them. But at 9x9 I can play Alyssa with a 4 stone handicap and if I correct obvious mistakes where she misses that I'm about to capture a large group because she's failing to make an easy connection, she gives me a pretty good run for my money. It's surprising how easily they seem to grasp basic defensive plans. Strangely, enough they can play games with each other and (after correcting major oversights) Richie seems to usually get the upper hand over Alyssa. I've tried to teach them about scoring the game but they seem to lose sight of the goal of the game sometimes and will typically make "dead" moves near the end of the game as they start running out of open space to fill. They also seem to prefer building long walls and prioritize taking prisoners over taking space. Well anyway, I don't try to instruct them much, I'm just having them play as many games as I can right now.

Richie and Alyssa both enjoy playing. We got in a few games over Thanksgiving at Ben and Christine's house.

Posting Chess Games with Java Applet

Here's a test game posting using Chess Publisher by Andrew Ooi. This is a really nice free service that gives me an easy way to embed a game into the blog. Thanks and great work!

Right now I can only seem to get version 1 to work. Version 2 looks nicer and has some improvements.

While searching for a publishing tool I ran across this chess teaching blog.

Stopping by an ACTA chess tournament

The weekend before Thanksgiving, Michael ran a scholastic chess tournament. It's a USCF rated affair which apparently runs every other week or so. Michael's organization ACTA runs the tournaments so he invited us to stop by. I thought it would be a great idea to show the kids what a tournament looks like and maybe get them excited to learn. I wasn't disappointed. The event was held at the Stamford Holiday Inn which is just 15 minutes from our house. We stopped by around 10:00 am and found the event to be lively as expected with something like 30 kids of all ages competing in different rooms. There were a lot of parents at various spots in the hotels waiting for their kids to finish or playing games with them. Interestingly there was only 1 kindergarden-aged contestant who had to be moved to the 1st grade pool.

The highlight of the visit, however was the awards ceremony for kindergarden and 1st grade I think. There some really nice lighted trophies on a display table and every child got a participation ribbon. Michael graciously gave Alyssa and Richie ribbons and medals even though they weren't officially entered in the event.

The trophies left a big impression on Richie especially and he's been asking to be taken to a tournament to play because "he wants a trophy." I plan to wait until an event in December or perhaps a later one in January that "guarantees" a trophy for him. I imagine that if he missed getting one he would be devastated. Perhaps I'm being too soft but I want to keep the good vibes going.

A cute anecdote: we asked Alyssa to play chess in a friendly game with one of the kids there. There was a boy there and we talked briefly with his mother. She asked him to play with her. He seemed reluctant at first since he appeared to have more pressing matters to attend to downstairs, but eventually relented and agreed to one quick game. Then Alyssa refused to play. This didn't surprise me too much as she can be shy at times and was probably nervous about "performing." We tried to tell her that the outcome didn't matter but she wouldn't budge.

Surprisingly, though, Richie volunteered in her place. The boy, Sean (I think) who is probably in 1st grade or maybe 2nd, said something funny to me like "don't worry, I'll go easy on him." I was glad to hear that as I wondered how Richie would react to losing, and breaking his "undefeated" streak (since I've always let him win our games in the end before the tears start rolling). Sean proceeded to purposely hang most of his pieces, even pointing out as he moved his queen en prise that Richie could take it if he wanted to. They played out and with a little help from me we maneuvered Richie into winning with a bank rank mate. Richie was thrilled with his "win" and left with a glowing smile on his face. And was it a tiny spark of genius or an accident when on one move he ignored my wife's recommendation to take a pawn with his bishop and instead snapped up a rook across the board?

How to teach chess to very young kids?

After trolling the internet for some clues on how to start really teaching the game to my kids, I found the following sites useful:top

From Duif's Place
This has some suggestions on how to play a game fairly. I had never heard of switching side mid-way. He suggests giving the child the option to switch sides but this sort of bothered me because of the obvious perfect strategy of waiting until the situation was completely hopeless and then calling for a switch.
I tried this once and she seemed to like it as there wasn't any real pressure on her to find good moves. I'm not sure that's such a good thing but anyway I suppose it's more important that she just plays at all than that the method have merit as a didactic tool.
I read about a young chess star whose grandfather played her without rooks when she was young which she claimed makes her "vision" for knights and bishops quite strong to this day while she occasionally misses good moves for rooks!
The kids liked the idea of playing with a clock but don't have any real conception of the consequence of taking time or losing on time so playing with time odds doesn't make a lot of sense right now.

Michael Goeller's blog, The Kenilworthian, has a 8 part series on his experience teaching a class which I thought was excellent.

I think he'd be an ideal tutor for the game, but he lives in NJ so I think that's probably too far for lessons. I especially liked his mini-games approach which I imagine is a much better way for young players to absorb concepts naturally through play rather than being taught these concepts directly. I also found his "pattern of errors" analysis very interesting. I think it too is an excellent way to classify areas of improvement and are a way that a coach can naturally add tremendously to the speed at which a young player can develop.

This list on Amazon with comments by David Small was a real eye opener for me.

It made me rethink the way I should probably approach improving my own game.

I would love to find a product like CT-ART 3.0 that is appropriate for absolute novices children. I'd bet that if the presentation is done well in a game like setting that it would do well. Or even video lesson sort of like the game of the week videos on ICC, but for kids and at a more elementary level.

[Update: I found Chess Tactics for Beginners by Conveckta to be ideal for young children]

I actually bought Susan Polgar's instructional DVD and was really disappointed with it. I don't think the content is bad but it was way too dry to keep my kids interested. It also started at too advanced a level.

But most annoyingly, the computer display makes no use of the great features that most chess programs have like arrows, or marks for critical points. Since it's just a video and not interactive at all I can't imagine any kids really getting into it.
A far better approach would be something like Bruce Wilcox's Go Dojo which teaches Go. That's for adults and is sort of rules based, but it's interactive: you actually make moves to answer questions and reinforce concepts, there are quizes and a game walk-throughs.
With a little modification that would be a great way to teach kids I think. My daughter even likes Go Dojo and did better at some of the elementary quizes than I did.

I am aware of a few chess software products for kids: Chesster and Chessmaster come to mind. I bought Chesster 2, and found it too difficult for teaching a 4 year old and even a little too difficult for my 6 year old with zero experience. It was also buggy and crashed my computer so I've given up on it for now. Chessmaster holds some promise. I may get a PlayStation 3 just to have a safe and easy way for the kids to use a chess program (really, it's just for the kids). But since we already have Nintendo Wii and there's supposed to be a Wii chess game in the work, I think I'll just wait awhile to see that.

[Update: I found Dinosaur Chess to be good for my 4 year old. It's also, in my opinion, the best way to introduce the rules to a complete novice]

The chess teacher at Alyssa's school has written a book for kids about checkmate motifs. I think it's a fine book, but I really believe that interactive programs are the way to go.

Perhaps I'm jumping the gun, though, looking for a computer based solution. Perhaps there is something about physically playing and learning with people that cannot be replaced.

Well, I'm taking care of that too. I'm arranging for 1 on 2 private lessons with Michael from Alyssa's school. They start this Saturday.

First home lessons by Dad

After trying to teach Alyssa how the pieces moved and "playing" a few games with her I broke out Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess and began trying to explain checkmate to her. We didn't get very far. Even though I was quite surprised that she was able to answer some of the problems and felt she had some potential talent she didn't seem to have real interest in the game yet.

I decided not to push her and gave up again on teaching her for awhile.

When Alyssa turned 6 and entered a new school for 1st grade, they also offered a chess class as a once a week after school program for a few months. Though feeling slightly burned by our last experience, ever the optimist, I decided to put her into the program against her protests.

Thankfully this time it seemed to work out a little better. When I asked her which teacher she liked better she instantly responded "Michael," the new teacher, and from that I inferred that he was doing a better job of teaching to her level. We even began to "play" though a few games.

Around this time the kids enjoyed watching me click through games on the computer (I picked games from Paul Morphy since there are a few great short/open games to choose from) .
Unfortunately their attention span was short and we rarely made it through a full game unless it was a very short one.

One funny story: it occured to me that they might actually like to move the pieces physically on the board so I got them much more interested when I told them that they'd "play" chess against each other. I used one of Morphy's games and assigned Richie to move the white pieces and Alyssa to move the black pieces, simply pointing out their respective moves in turn. They enjoyed this a lot. The next day I set up the board again and picked another game and they started fighting over who
would be black. Richie said he wanted to be black and Alyssa also wanted black. When I finally thought to ask them why, Richie looked at me angrily and said "last time Alyssa got to win, I want black because I want to win!" In the previous game, Morphy as black had busted Paulsen with a devastating queen sacrifice and in the inimitable logic of kids--therefore in chess black wins.

Even now, almost 6 months later, Richie still prefers black and is disappointed when, after deep consideration he selects my left hand while choosing for colors only to find that it contains a white pawn. I let him play black anyway. I'm not sure whether to be pleased or alarmed when I notice him peeking from the side of my hands to get a read on which one contains the black pawn. I decide to save the ethics lesson for later.

Interestingly, most of the time I've tried to teach the kids to play I was really focusing on Alyssa. I just assumed that Richie was too young to learn much. Surprisingly, he seems to have learned almost as much as Alyssa has. I can see why, in families with several children, it is the youngest who generally seem to end up the more proficient at the game. I can think of a few examples: the Polgar's, Nakamura's, Shahade's. That's not to belittle the elder siblings accomplishments, but just to point out that the drive to beat the older sister or brother, can be a powerful motivator and accelerator of learning a game like chess.

JCC Stamford Chess Class

It all started last summer when Alyssa was 5. Although my plans were hatched at her birth (I have photos to prove it), I patiently waited until Alyssa was 3 before prosletyzing Chess to her. After she was born, I gave a gift to myself of a House of Staunton chess set which is housed in a heavy wood briefcase. Naturally, this mysterious latched item had piqued the curiosity of my children for years but they had never seen the game played. I took it out once or twice before as I was mildly curious myself what their reaction to it would be. But when Richie was 2, he used to grab the pieces and sit on the board so it was a little difficult to even begin showing them how the pieces moved.

Having failed at these first half-hearted attempts to teach my children chess, I realized that Richard was not yet ready and even when I was able to show Alyssa how the pieces moved in a rare quiet moment, I had hardly a clue how to start teaching her the game.

So until Alyssa turned 5, the extent of the 'game' was setting up the pieces in the right order and putting them back into the proper cut-outs in the foam casing. They both really enjoyed that part and even fought over which ones went where.

Then I discovered that a local community center offered chess class for kids and got the bright idea to outsource the teaching to a more qualified instructor. JCC stands for Jewish Community Center. It's a wonderful family center with a great swimming pool and gym and operates sort of like a YMCA.

My eyes lit up when I noticed that the instructor had a Russian sounding name and day-dreamed of having Alyssa magically converted into a mini-Kasparov while I swam laps in the pool. Those that know me would be hard pressed to tell which of those two is the more unlikely.

Anyway, in my fantasy-state I gladly signed the check and enrolled young Judit, I mean Alyssa, into the chess class. It was only after attending the 2nd class that I realized my mistake. I am sure that the instructor had the very best intentions but the problem was that the class was too large and there were kids of all levels from complete beginner to the instructor's son. It was a madhouse. He was struggling to keep control of the kids and when they finally quieted down 20 minutes into the allotted hour, he started the class with a sample game with a difficult minor piece checkmate. Alyssa's eyes glazed over. Then he paired them off, putting my daughter together with one of the other 2 girls in the class. Neither knew what to do and the instructor wasn't available to help them. I tried to show them a few things but then we ran out of time.

Needless to say after two more sessions, my daughter started saying "Oh no, not chess! I don't like chess," whenever it was time to go to class. Little did she realize that she was breaking her poor father's heart...

Well, at least she liked her swimming class.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Let there be light!

Let there be light!
1:1 - In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
1:2 - And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
1:3 - And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
1:4 - And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

As a first post, what could be more appropriate than a reference to the book of Genesis? Of course, as far as creations go, a blog isn't exactly on par with the celestial heavens but hopefully any readers will forgive my enthusiasm.

Welcome dear readers to our humble blog. Allow me to describe the who's, what's, where's, when's and why's.


There are three principal characters you will read about.

Richard. My son Richard has just turned 4. My friends claim he's built like a 3-foot tall linebacker. I like to think that his density will later be unleashed in a terrific growth spurt, catapulting him to a starting spot on the school basketball team, but I have to admit that he seems to be following in his father's footsteps in the vertically challenged department. Nevermind that though--let's hope he makes up for stature with character and with a little luck, some mad chess and go skills. He has a sweet disposition, is very affectionate and has a surprisingly long attention span for his age. He really dislikes losing, though and wakes up grumpy in the mornings.

Alyssa. My first-born recently turned 6. She looks...well she looks a lot like me, much to my
wife's consternation. Alyssa has always been Daddy's little girl and I think my wife felt a bit jealous that Alyssa took so much after me when she did all the work so somehow she made sure that Richie got her features. Alyssa is a quick study and very good with puzzles. She has a bit of performance anxiety, however, and sometimes shrinks from challenge.

Dad. I tend to get serially obsessed with my hobbies: chess & go, golf, reading, poker, computer games among others. I've been a life-long game player but only started playing chess in high school and go just a few months ago. I am cursed or blessed depending on how you look at it: my love of the game exceeds my talent by a huge margin. Lack of talent is difficult to admit. I have always wondered why my progress in chess, for example, seemed to have peaked at about the equivalent of a USCF 1500 despite numerous efforts to improve.Is it really lack of talent? Or is it lack of work? Or perhaps inefficient learning methods? Are games like chess and go only masterable if the brain is wired for it at an early age?

Mom. My lovely wife who puts up with my quirks. She is truly the light of my life.

What? I am teaching my children chess and go.

Where? Somewhere in Connecticut.

Why? Though I'd love for my children to sprout into super-talents at the game, I have a more selfish plan in mind: I'd like some playing partners in the family! I hope to bring them to a level above my own so I can learn something from them as they get better. While that's half a joke, the truth is that I'd like both of them to know the same joy that I get out of games of strategy. I'd like them to develop their powers of observation, gain confidence in the face of challenge, learn the merit of hard work and hopefully go a few places, meet a few people, and make a few friends.

So the title of this post refers not just to the birth of this blog, but to the opening of little Richie and Alyssa's minds to the wonderful world of strategy games.
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