Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Online Go at 361 Points

This is cool. You can play a "full" go engine, Gnu Go, at 361 pts. No software required, except java maybe.

Chess Fever

The chess bug is spreading through the family like a virus. We had Auntie Kumi visiting us this week and learned that she's taking chess lessons. She's a natural puzzle afficionado (Sudoku, number puzzles, etc.) so it doesn't surprise me that she's started enjoying chess, especially chess puzzles. She gave us a book by Lazlo Polgar called appropriately enough 5334 Problems, Combinations, and Games.

Thanks a lot, Kumi. That's 5334 more things on the To Do List.

Even Grandma Yoko has gotten bit by the bug and has been learning chess so she can play with some of the kids she works with at her job. We even rented Searching for Bobby Fischer which Richie took some interest this time around. (He had seen it before he knew how to play and wandered off to do something else 15 minutes into it).

Right after the movie Richie wanted to play chess. I brought out a chess clock for fun because there are a lot of scenes where the players are dramatically banging the clock after their moves. Richie played some excellent aggressive moves and was banging the pieces down on the table like they were (!!) worthy! I have noticed a definite step up in his strategy lately. He requires fewer prompts and is finding out on his own the effectiveness of bringing the rook down to the opponents 7th or 8th rank, and even more sophisticated, in endgame situations he has been able to keep threats on both sides of the board against a lone King.

He's started inventing some games on his own. He wanted to play Kumi with his side missing bishops and her side missing knights. And last night he wanted to show me a checkmate puzzle so he put down a bunch of pieces around the King until it was checkmate. Then I got the idea to start removing unnecessary pieces so I'd point to one and say "Do you really need this, or is it still checkmate if we get rid of it?." The results were sometimes surprisingly elegant checkmates.

Dinosaur Chess

We got Dinosaur Chess from Convekta for Christmas for the kids. I'll start by pointing out this comprehensive review to which I'd like to add my own thoughts. As Robert rightly highlights, this product gets good marks for presentation which is graphic, engaging, and fun. Since my children have already learned almost all of the basic rules of chess, I was less interested in the introductory lessons and more interested in the game engine and tactical training. Unfortunately, for me, the real strength of the program is for introducing the game to complete novices right from how the pieces move. In order to grow your dinosaur, you must do the lessons which I thought were nicely done but the training exercises were short and there were only a few of them per lesson. I give the authors credit for building up playing strength through very basic sub-games (e.g. just pawns, or just pawns + knights vs. pawns).

The game playing engine adjusts to playing strength. I think this is probably the highlight of the program for our purposes. I tried having the kids play the weakest levels on the ICC Dasher program who is rated 1000 and that opponent is simply too strong for them right now. Dinosaur Chess starts with advantage games that are appropriate for day 1 players and the full game engine (T-Rex) also starts at a weaker level as far as I can tell than 1000. I have no basis for this, but I think it's probably a good milestone for a child to be able to play a complete winning game on their own against T-Rex before they are ready for tournaments.

The kids really were engaged by the lessons, Richie more so than Alyssa, but both of them disliked the exercises with little raptors walking around on the board. They didn't like the pressure, or they were "scared" of getting touched by the raptors and didn't want to do the exercises. They knew everything already, except for en passant, so it was only marginally useful for them.

My biggest gripe with the program, however, is that there is no exercises for introducing the tactical topics that I had hoped for. I was really hoping they had lessons on pins, forks, skewers, discovered checks, and basic mating patterns. I think these could be best learned with software, but I've yet to find a good program for very young kids (3-5) that has them. I believe Chessmaster may have it but that is aimed at slightly older children.

OK, here's a multiple choice question.

Which person spent the most hours consecutively playing Dinosaur Chess since we got it?
A. Richie
B. Alyssa
C. Auntie Kumi
D. Grandma Yoko
E. None of the Above.

Highlight below for answer:
Grandma Yoko! She didn't even know how the pieces moved before and got obsessed learning how to play and trying to beat successive levels of opponents. Maybe there really is a chess obsession "gene"...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

How kids think about Go

Lately, Richie and Alyssa have been taking interest in Go again. After a brief respite where Richie only wanted to play chess, in the last few days we've played at least 1 game of go a day and I've also seen them playing each other.

Go is a simple game to explain the rules to, so they basically know how to play already, and I think they even know the concept of Ko now, as well as how to score the game. They like to play on the 19x19 side of the board. I guess even kids have pride and think that the 9x9 game isn't the real thing.

But as anyone who plays the game knows, the strategic aspect of Go is very deep, and it's hard to know how to start explaining it.

Without any instruction from me, I noticed two tendencies of their play that needed to be addressed: 1) too much focus on capturing/contact and not enough almost no attention paid to making territory and 2) no concept of efficiency of play, or preferring solid structures.

I think some of the first problem I was able to address by showing them several times how we count points at the end and after I demonstrated a few times that a 2-point jump, for instance, could surround territory faster than solid connections and was just as difficult to break into.

Initially they had difficulty understanding that the opponent couldn't just cut through the space made by the jump, but eventually I showed them some variations where they could wait to fill the space until I approached or tried to cut and still end up with a solid territory line. I called this "dot-to-dot" fence building. I said they should build fences using dot-to-dot and connect the dots later if someone came close. I admonished them not to play too close to the enemy since that ends up making the enemy stronger but I am having a difficult time explaining when conditions are good to attach. They also have a tendency to want to save stones that are dead but it's hard to explain why that is the case.

They were excited to learn to learn that there was a "knight's move" in Go as well as chess and that double-atari was like forking in chess too.

The Inventor of Trophies was a Genius

At the last chess class Richie got the idea that he had "won enough games" to get a "Piston Cup"*. Here's an interesting dilemma, do you tell a 4 y.o. that he can't have a trophy until he wins it in competition? Or do you allow the chess teacher to award him with a trophy for participation or some minor milestone?

Well actually his chess teacher decided for us by offering him a trophy based on his progress so far, so Richie (and Alyssa) were thrilled. They got to choose the colors of their trophies and displayed them proudly in our house.

In chess they have started working on 2-move checkmates. Michael introduced the problem by noting that they had already solved some before (Alyssa protested that they would be too hard), and then worked backwards from a 1 move mate to a position where the 1 move mate would be forced after a simple check on the king. They also learned how to notate the moves. Alyssa took particular interest in this part, and later on was attempting to write down moves of a game between me and Richie.

They got homework of 6 chess problems to solve. We'll have to do them on the board together as they don't have as much interest in solving the puzzles from looking at them as a diagram.

* My son loves all things related to the Disney movie, Cars, and naturally thinks all trophies are "Piston Cups" which is the what the top racing prize is called in that story.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Chess Variant for Kids and Encouraging Multiple Move Considerations

Michael recommended that I play a game with the kids where I give them all of the pieces vs. my lone king. The idea is that it is difficult for young children to coordinate several pieces or visualize the lines of force from multiple attackers. It also reinforces the concept of stalemate which can be hard to avoid when there are too many pieces in play.

I played a few times with Richie, who really likes this variant because of the huge advantage, I guess. On Michael's suggestion I enforced the touch-move rule. The first game ended in stalemate and I captured one piece that was left hanging. The second game he checkmated me by getting a second queen.

After that I decided to remove his two center pawns and Queen, and I told him he was not allowed to make a new queen. At the start of the third game, he hung a piece again and was a making a few aimless moves when there were "obvious" better moves available. So tried a new experiment which worked out pretty well, I think. He was in the habit of touching a piece before actually deciding where it should go. That's pretty natural for new players. I can remember doing this myself--keeping my finger on the piece after I moved while I "looked around" to see if it was a good spot. But in order to slowly get him used to planning his moves a little more, I asked him before each move to point (without touching) to the piece he wanted to move and then point to where he wanted to move it. Then, I asked him to pick another piece (or I suggested another piece to consider), and I asked him to point to a move for that piece. Finally I asked him which of the two choices he preferred and asked him to move. Interestingly, when I did it this way, he was reasonably likely to choose the stronger of the two moves, usually picking the move that checked the King. At least once, though, he preferred his initial move.

The last game ended with R to f8 checkmate which he found after I said "you can checkmate me in one move!" but it was a bit of an accident as he didn't immediately see what prevented me from escaping to d2. I think he's figuring that checkmate usually happens when he moves a piece next to the king! I also was surprised when he used a discovered check on me for the first time on purpose.

Alyssa's attempt using all pieces demonstrated a preference for symmetry which I found interesting. All of her moves were made to preserve symmetry up until the end.

I produced the ending position diagram with this editor. I recommend it as it's very easy to use. "You can set up an arbitrary position (as many queens as you want or black pieces at the bottom) and generate a JPEG image of the chessboard. Everything happens online through your browser. No downloads, no applets."

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Chess Lecture vs. Ice Cream

Richie and Alyssa enjoyed another chess lesson this weekend. Michael started by having the kids play through a game where he suggested the moves for both sides. Then he reviewed some Q and K checkmates, along with introducing a few new patterns involving a Bishop and Q versus a castled king position. He touched on escapes, and he introduced the concept of stalemate. At one point he was about to demonstrate the strength of a rook battery to create a back rank checkmate against a castled king when Richie surprised him by grabbing the first Rook and quickly playing through the 3 move sequence. This didn't surprise me too much because he often says "if I go there then you go there then I'll go there and eat you!" but Michael was pleased.

On Michael's suggestion we decided to try Richie out in Alyssa's afterschool chess class. I arrived at the end to pick them up and learned that Richie was a mini-celebrity. Michael played a small prank on his class by telling them that Richie was the world's youngest chess master. They got a thrill out of having him visit and several mentioned to me that they thought he was so "cute" and were surprised he could play because he's so young. I thought that was pretty funny coming out of the mouths of 1st and 2nd graders. Richie got an ovation at the end. I think he's enjoying his star status.

Later we stopped by another of Michael's weekend classes for advanced scholastic students to see if that format might be a good addition or replacement to their private lessons. The class was held at Norwalk community college, which turned out to be a really nice venue, and the lecture room was perfect for the 20 or so students. Overall I've been pleased to see the levels of participation in scholastic chess in the area and I'm beginning to realize that Michael's organization, ACTA, is probably the driving force behind everything. There were no kindergardners in the class which makes Richie the youngest by a big margin. I thought this might be a problem but he took to it like a fish to water. There class starts with a free playing period and then transitions into a lecture.

This week's lesson featured an ending combination that the kids were asked to find. I have to admit that I couldn't see the forced victory which involved a bishop sacrifice followed by a knight fork on the king. Richie was enraptured by the lecture, to my surprise. I thought he'd only be interested in playing.

Alyssa was bored by the lesson but seemed to have a fun time playing and was pleased with herself after she checkmated another girl at the class.

Of course the real highlight for both of them was the 15 minute snack break where everyone brings a dollar or two down to the cafeteria and gets to buy an ice cream or cookies from the vending machines. I'm realizing that Michael is a clever motivator. As a funny aside I saw all the kids playing chess with a few dollars in front of them at the beginning of class and was a little disturbed because I thought they were gambling! But at the break everything was illuminated.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Disturbing Event

This is my first post using email to

We were at a chess tournament this weekend and I witnessed a very disturbing thing.  To be honest I don't know if it's fair of me to write about it since I don't even know the people involved.  But anyway, I feel compelled to mention it nevertheless.

I remember watching Searching for Bobby Fischer and thinking that the part about chess parents being worse than the kids was satirical.  Well, this weekend I saw that there's more than an element of truth it.  We were allowed into the tournament hall to quietly observe since our kids were not in the tournament.  We had gone just to meet some other chess parents and maybe set up some play-dates for our kids and give them a chance to play some friendly games.  Inside the tournament hall I was watching one boy who was kindergarden-aged and seemed a likely candidate for a playmate for Richie.  He was having a truly grand time playing a game with another boy.  He was clearly quite talented and was up in his game a substantial amount of material.  Towards the end he was up at least 2 rooks and a queen.  I think he didn't really want the game to end, though, so as he played a move he would suggest to his opponent moves for him, even going so far as to allow him to take back moves to prolong the match.  I stepped away for awhile and when I looked in again, it appears that they had both eliminated all the remaining pieces, ending the match in a draw.  His father, who had seen how far ahead he was earlier, was not pleased.  What began as a stern lecture, devolved as the boy started to cry.  This brings up the difficulty that chess parents may have in becoming too invested in the results of their children achieve.

It was a humbling experience, and a reminder for me that there are much more important things than playing chess or winning tournaments.

On the bright side, Richie and Alyssa both seemed to enjoy themselves.  They played several games with older kids.  I saw a toughness in Alyssa that I haven't seen before.  She fought on to the end in a lost game but never stopped trying--it made me quite proud to see.   And Richie made me happy as well--at the end of the day he told me, "I love to play chess!"

1 month update on Dad's Go progress

I wonder how far I'm going to get without learning any Joseki. I'm still at the point where I'm getting better just from playing games, without too much study. I used to frequently lose large groups because I wasn't staying connected and that's happening less frequently. I'm also starting to get a little better at keeping groups alive by making eyes I think. I've been watching a few of Guo Juan's audio lessons which are excellent. I highly recommend them. I think I'm on number 5 now in the beginner lessons. I enjoy watching them a lot which I guess means that's a good way for me to study.

Richie's First Chess Lesson

We had Alyssa's school chess teacher, Michael, come to our house to give the kids a chess lesson. Alyssa has been in his after-school class since the start of the school year. Richie, who is in Pre-K at the same school is not in the same class since the starting age is Kindergarden. I had talked to Michael after class about enrolling my son since he started to show interest in the game a few months ago. When he started trying to teach to our nanny, and some kids we had over for a play-date chess, I figured he was ready to ge some instruction himself. But Michael said he needed to see Richie himself since in his experience kids don't usually have a long enough attention span to benefit much from 1 hour lessons until they're a little older. Anyway, after Richie continued to show interest, I decided to have a test lesson to see how it goes. Yesjavascript:void(0)
Save as Draftterday was the first one.

Michael began the lesson by explaining how the pieces moved. Throughout the lesson he used little rhymes to teach a point or he would animate the pieces (this bishop is a cow eating grass on this square, the rook comes and eats him, chomp chomp, but then this other rook says hey you just ate my cow, now I'm going to get you!) The kids liked that a lot.

I think he was a little surprised that Richie already knew how the pieces move, but when Richie started to get distracted by a toy on the table, I think he figured it out and moved on.

Next he explained the point value of the pieces. This was setting up a later discussion about whether or not a trade is a good trade. I haven't really emphasized this at all, that might explain why both kids have shown willingness to sac pieces for pawns.

After that he showed them a few basic checkmates and had them play a game. He pretty much directed them on which pieces to move. He did enforce touch-move and at one point Alyssa hung a bishop because she dropped it down on the wrong square and he allowed the play to continue. Richie captured and was up a piece. During the middle game several opportunities to initiate exchanges occured. Michael tried to have them count attackers and defenders to emphasize that if there were more attachers than defenders it was a good exchange sequence.

He introduced the rook battery, as well as making a few rules that he wanted them to follow such as always opening with the King pawns, moving knights and bishops before the queen, and castling early.

He flattered us by mentioning that he was pleased with Richie's grasp of the game already and said that it was rare to see such a young player pick up this quickly which he thought meant that Richie would probably take to the game well and could compete in the K-1 nationals later next year or the following.

He mentioned that he had one other student who he thought highly of that he'd like us to meet to set up a play date.

Coffee shop chess

A couple of weeks ago we went to the new Barnes & Nobles bookstore in the Stamford mall. It's really huge. I think it might be the biggest one in Connecticut and it has a Starbucks inside of course. We brought the chess set because Richie wanted to play. I put him at a table and told him to set up the board while I stood in line to get a coffee. After a minute or two, some curious kids--obviously wondering what this little guy was doing playing chess by himself--came over to talk. When I got there with the coffee, they asked if they could play with him. Richie loved it and was very happy with his game which he won by taking all the opponents pieces. He didn't know how to checkmate. His opponents were a trio of kids in the 4th to 6th grades. Both sides barely knew how the pieces moved (though Richie gleefully pointed out when his opponent made a move he knew was illegal) but they older kids still got a kick out of being run over by a 4 year old. I hope the praises they gave him encourage him to play more. Since then he's been asking to play chess at the bookstore a lot. I picked up Janice Kim's series of books on Go. So far like them a lot. They're full of diagrams are easy to read in short sessions.
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