Sunday, December 14, 2008

Matthew Effect in Chess

Jennifer Shahade has written an interesting review of Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers. I saw a video of one of his speeches where he talks about the "Matthew" effect. In a nutshell, the effect is seen in certain activities such as hockey in Canada, where a disproportionate number of professional players are born in the early months (January, February, March) of the year. The explanation is that the grooming system for young players favors those who are largest, strongest, and fastest for their ages. Since Jan 1st is the cut-off for birth in hockey, those with early birthdays are generally more developed than their age peers. They are singled out as "talented" and groomed with coaching, encouragement, more playing time, and so on, which perpetuates into "excellence." Jennifer (who incidentally had the misfortune of being born December 31st) tracks a similar occurrence in chess (on a small sample admittedly), but it's clear that age effects are quite possible in a competitive game such as chess where cognitive development and practice time are so critical in acquiring various skills and knowledge necessary for skillful play. There's a body of research that supports the notion that higher level chess invokes memory of positions and themes rather than purely calculation. This would imply directly that having had, say 9 months more practice than your opponent would have an important impact on relative winning chances. And at younger ages, those extra 9 months would be a larger proportion of total practice time and so would have progressively larger impact. This would logically lead to the conditions necessary for the Matthew effect to occur as young players deemed to be talented and successful are encouraged to continue while their birthday-challenged peers might gravitate towards other activities.

I read this with some interest since I have found that in my limited personal experience, there does appear to be a bias in chess towards birthday beneficiaries. Of course I don't mean to say that age is the only factor and all credit to the students and their respective supporting organizations and families. It's an interesting problem, with probably no easy solutions. Players could be grouped into smaller buckets to limit the effect but that would probably split the field up too much.

The other observation that I made recently is that the vast majority of top scholastic chess players are playing rated tournaments weekly. Malcolm makes the point in his book that practice time is a necessary requirement for excellence. There are almost no cases of "born" field geniuses. My guess is that chess is that way as well. There may be differing aptitudes for learning, but at the end of the day, it appears that those who play the most are the most successful.

In some ways that's a little disheartening because it basically means that in order to play at the top level, even in scholastic chess, the time involved would crowd out other worthwhile activities. I guess at the end of the day, nothing can replace passion for the game. There is simply no way to stay at or near the top without extreme dedication. I suppose I will continuously question whether the effort is commensurate with the value of the experience.

2008 National K-12 Championship

We just finished the K-12 Nationals in Orlando Florida. Richie scored 5.0/7.0, tying for 2nd place on points and receiving 6th place on tie breaks (there was a cluster at 6.0 and a cluster at 5.0). Since the top 10 finishers received (very large) trophies, this was a very nice result. I have been emphasizing the importance of work so I was hoping that some concrete gains would reinforce this concept with the kids. Richie was so happy with his trophy. He was "a little" nervous going into the final day since he knew he needed to win both games after a slight upset loss on the 2nd day. He managed to pull it off, though. Congratulations, Richie!

Alyssa scored 2.5/7.0. The competitive bar is much higher for 2nd grade, so I was actually glad that she wasn't completely swept. Actually she managed a first round win versus a much higher rated opponent which really boosted her confidence. I think she has been improving by leaps and bounds recently and is now on par with Richie. Considering the gap between their play as recently as a few months ago this is pretty impressive. I guess there was just a small aspect of her play that changed which made a big impact.

Heading into the event, I had found that there were at least two 1000+ rated players in the Kindergarten section. There turned out to be one more that I missed because he was 6 yrs old already. All three of these strong players, Arun Khemani, Awonder Liang, and Zane Ice, finished tied for 1st place. Congratulations to them! We met Arun's father (Arun finshed 1st on tie breaks) in the skittles room. He recognized the kids from our blog and we had a nice chat. I expect we will see more from these young talents in the future.

We decided that it was too much distraction for Richie to keep game scores. I didn't see many Kindergarten players writing moves so this wasn't unusual. Unfortunately this means it's hard to really analyze what has been going on in his games. Alyssa kept all her scores and that will certainly lead to further insights into playing strengths and weaknesses.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Ready for Nationals

We have started on an online program of instruction with NY Chess Kids. So far I have been pleased with the way the online lessons have turned out. I have written in the past about some of the advantages. The technical execution of the lessons is very smooth. It's virtually the same thing as having a live lesson but more efficient. It helps that the instructor has a prepared lesson plan each time and all game scores and tactics pre-loaded into a database from which he teaches (and gives us afterwards). We have one recorded lesson which is a good example.

Alyssa seems to have benefited the most. She has gotten much more focused recently and I think she realizes that there's a direct correspondence between her win ratio and the effort she puts into following the lessons. In a recent tournament game she got to apply one of the first lessons which was drawing with a K vs. K + Pawn. She probably wouldn't have been able to do that a few weeks ago. Alyssa's rating has shot up a few hundred in recent tournaments and the quality of her games has improved noticeably.

We have been stepping up the number of tournaments and lessons they have been getting ahead of the National K-12 Scholastic Championship in Orlando, Florida on Dec 12th-14th. This will obviously be our first national event so everyone is looking forward to it (and to Disneyworld afterwards). I looked a few past events and current top player lists and my best guess is that Richie will be somewhere around 5th-15th highest in rating for the kindergarten section but there's a lot of variance. There's definitely at least two much higher rated 5 year olds. Alyssa, of course, will have an uphill battle but with her recent strides I'm hopeful she can enjoy the tournament. She recently toppled an 800 rated player who probably got frustrated with the resistance she put up while a piece down and eventually blundered away the lead. If she plays with that kind of fighting spirit, I'm pretty confident she won't get zero points at least.

Monday, November 24, 2008

New Jersey State Grade Championship for 2008

Richie had a very nice result at the New Jersey State Grade Championships. He scored a perfect 5.0/5.0 in the Kindergarten section to take 1st place ahead of a small field (13 players, I think). Richie seems to be "in between" levels right now. He had an easy time with unrated or inexperienced players, but has quite a bit of difficulty against 1st-3rd graders rated over 500. We made the trip out to NJ, hoping to give him a chance to play stronger competition in his age group, but from that perspective this tournament turned out to be no different than local tournaments. There were only two rated players and the rest were early beginners so the experiential value was a little less than I had hoped. Alyssa scored 2.0/5.0 in the 2nd grade section. There were quite a few players that are objectively stronger than her and her results pretty much followed expectations based on ratings.

Inline with my recent realization that Alyssa and on occasion Richie are still making simple sight errors (not having anything to do with strategy, but simply overlooking a chance to win a free piece easily, or moving her pieces in a way that they can be captured immediately), I asked both of them to try their best to avoid these two types of errors on every single move. That's quite a bit of concentrating to do over a whole day, so I'm proud of them for their efforts. I believe that until this much can be mastered, working on other skill development may be premature.

Most of the time these errors are the side-effect of a good thing: trying to plan ahead. Usually at some time during their previous turn they plan something, often something that follows some generally recommended action (castle, or develop a piece, for instance), but they execute the move without pausing to consider the opponent's most recent move and how that move changes the dynamic of the position.

I am going to experiment with speed chess as a practice routine. The goal of the exercise is not to win the game (they are hardly dexterous enough to win a close game at 5-minutes), but to focus on a short set of thoughts that should be made every single move. For example, play through a 5-minute game making an effort on every move to check a. if the piece they just moved is free, and b. if it attacks something that should be moved. If a. or b. they should respond appropriately with a capture or an evasion, otherwise they should make the first safe move piece move they can think of (or pawn move if no piece move seems obvious).

[Edit: I had previously called Richie the 2008 Kindergarten Champion, which technically incorrect. That title is reserved for NJ state residents. The NJ State Kindergarten Champion is Jai Narayanan. Congratulations to him and congratulations to Richie for taking first place.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

NY City Public Schools Chess Tournaments and Online Lessons

For a change of pace we recently entered the kids into a NY Public School chess tournament run by NY Chess Kids. I had heard that the NY City players were stronger and they definitely were. Richie had to enter the Primary section because his rating exceeded the 500 maximum for K-1. So he and Alyssa actually played in the same section. Alyssa went winless while Richie scored 1.5/4.0. His win was against a very inexperienced player though, and he lost to all players with an established rating (even those much lower than his). Credit to the NY chess programs. They really do a good job of teaching the kids. Overall I feel that Richie, in particular, will benefit from playing up out of the K section. There's a very big difference between playing someone with less than a few months experience and playing someone whit a year or more experience. From a learning perspective the former is almost a zero value experience. So at the risk of letting him get a little discouraged, I am going to start putting Richie into tournaments where he has a chance to play players stronger than him more often. The upcoming NJ state championship will probably be an exception. Based on last year's turnout, I am going to guess that Richie will be among the top rated Kindergarteners in the tournament.

We are looking into taking online lessons from one of the instructors from NY Chess Kids. I will post more about that if it happens. We had one demo and it was conducted online using Adobe conferencing. It was very well run and quite nice. I was able to log in from work to observe while the kids had web-cam set-ups and could see the instructor while watching. I'm convinced that online lessons are actually more efficient than in person lessons for several reasons, some obvious and some not so obvious.

The most obvious reason is that material can be presented much more quickly. Tactics puzzles can be prepared in advance, for instance, and do not require time to set up on the board. Use of arrows, highlights, quickly reviewing variations, etc. all help kids absorb information quickly. Kids are naturally visual learners so the more "pictures" that are associated with verbal words of advice, the better. Whole games can be run through quickly, and without errors, and games can be played and recorded so that they can be immediately reviewed.

The less obvious reason is that for some reason, kids pay more attention in front of the computer. Maybe they're used to television or video games, but they aren't as easily distracted and tend to focus more on the lesson. In person, there is more tendency to lolligag, play with objects nearby, wander away, and so on. In chess clubs, they get distracted by the other kids and have to spend time setting up boards to play, and so on.

So I'm optimistic that this will be a great way to learn the game and am looking forward to starting them up with regular lessons soon.

81st ACTA Scholastic Chess Tournament

On November 1st, the kids participated in the 81st ACTA Tournament. Richie ran away 4.0/4.0 to take first place for the Kindergarten section. In general it seems the competition in CT in the Kindergarten age group is not really much challenge currently. I'm very proud to report that Alyssa scored 3.0/4.0 to take 2nd place in the Primary Novice section. More importantly, she was very proud of herself and even started to say that she "kinda likes chess now." I had told her many times in the past that it was just a matter of time before she started winning more. We've recently worked a little bit on tactics (or "tictacs" as she calls them) which has helped her quite a bit. She is still strangely reluctant to use her queen. She fears losing her major pieces and therefore plays passively, but she is a little more careful nowadays. In her final game, for instance, she lead by a queen and a minor piece at one point, but never moved her queen off of d1 and eventually lost it for free on that square to bishop!

The more I watch them kids play the more I realize that the following skills are most important (in descending order):

1. moving pieces when directly threatened if that piece can be taken for free
2. capturing an opponents piece that has just moved if it is now free
3. not falling for simple counting errors (3 attackers to 2 defenders)
4. not trading pieces for pawns

Surprisingly, Richie, for example, who is sometimes quite strong at tactics and can spot mate in two with a clearance sacrifice, for instance, still sometimes overlooks a chance to win a the most recently moved piece with a pawn.

Someone should make a drill for K-1 age players which repeatedly makes threats and the only task is to save the threatened piece (by capturing the attacker if it's free, or by moving to a safe square if it's not). This is so basic that it's not even covered in tactics books or software, but it really requires practice.

It's pretty hard to make kids play slow enough too. I still struggle with finding away to remove these types of hasty errors from their play.

Monday, November 10, 2008


I signed Richie up on ICC so he can play real people. I'm not sure why but most computer programs I've seen that try to make opponents rated 1200 or lower don't seem to be able to mimic the typical mistakes and playing strength exhibited by real human players.

This is Richie's first unassisted win. I find it interesting that the opponent played generally well in the opening but lost a queen to a capture from the bishop coming from c8--a mistake I've seen Richie make several times. Is that a hard one for kids to see? (I'm presuming the opponent was a boy aged 9 or so based on his handle.).

Richie inexplicably gives away a knight for free early in the game, even though there's another obvious candidate move for that knight that takes a pawn. I'm not sure what leads to this type of error. After the queen capture, I was impressed by Richie's moves from that point forward, especially his queen maneuvering which was done with very little time per move. And the recapture of the rook 36. Rxa7 Qxa7 which is a hard one to see usually because the queen is moving backwards. He played this move instantly which makes me think he had planned to guard the pawn when he moved to f2.

Richie is playing black in this game. His online rating is 985 but this is overstated since it starts at 1600 and has been coming down with his losses. His opponent is rated 1050.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Video: a new frontier for Kids Chess and Go

We recently got a DXG-567V HD handheld video recorder. It's pretty neat and I may do a separate review later. The best thing about it is that it's really small and convenient to use. I perched it from the overhead light in our dining room and captured this short video of Richie playing Go with me. As an added bonus if you listen carefully you'll hear Alyssa practicing piano in the background. I even signed up on YouTube to host the video. I feel so proficient.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Video of Richie Playing Chess

I uploaded a recent video of Richie playing chess with me.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Richie Turns 5!

On the eve of Richie's 5th Birthday I thought I'd give a short state of the union address. For just about the entire summer, Richie played almost no chess at all. After returning we put him back into chess club but decided for the time being not to continue with individual lessons. It was unclear that he was getting much out of it towards the end of the last school year as his enthusiasm waned. After the break, however, he seems to have begun enjoying the game once again. He still prefers Lego Star Wars over chess, but now he enjoys occasional games against Dee. (At the moment she holds a small edge over him it seems, but it's not one-sided at all). I also find it interesting that he now plays Chessmaster quite willingly and has become aware of his rating. As he turns five, his current Chessmaster rating is around 700. (He hasn't played a USCF tournament since last school year but his rating at the end of Pre-K was around 550). He has played about 100 rated games over the last year on Chessmaster but they were really done in about two spurts of activity: the first 80 games in his first few months of playing and the last 20 or so games in the last few weeks. Interestingly despite the nearly 3 month break from playing, his rating was pretty much unchanged at around 550 when he resumed. Then in the last 20 games it shot up 150 pts. To be honest I don't think he's actually improved from 4 months ago, but he does take his Chessmaster games more seriously.

Some may take issue with this so I hesitate to mention it but the main reason for his newfound zeal is related to another lesson I've been trying to teach him. Recently we have been emphasizing the concept of money and saving so we decided to give a small allowance to the kids to let them get an understanding of the value of money. But it occurred to me that without work, there is no association between work and value. So we have asked them to do some minor chores and let them know that we expect certain behavior out of them and if they fill these duties they will be awarded with an allowance to spend as they please. This turned out to be a HUGE hit with them. They really enjoy the idea of having some control over what goodies they can get and when. Then it occurred to me to try to motivate Richie to play good chess, so I offered him a small amount for each win he could produce against Chessmaster. Well obviously this reward system had a big impact on his playing frequency. He often plays several games straight now and is displaying much of his original enthusiasm for winning. He has matured over the year and is less tempermental about losses too so that is another big change that has made it easier for him to play the computer.

As I mentioned, I don't see much change in his play, really, but I think the motivation to win has made his rating go up. Or maybe he is improving but I can't tell.

Here's an example game he played as Black against Anders(859) who is described as a timid attacker.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Single Digit Kyu

Apparently I've officially crossed the threshold to single digit kyu (SDK) on KGS. It's taken me almost 10 months (less a 2 month break).

I thought I would outline on this occasion some of the things that I thought were most helpful to me on my way up the ranks.

26k to 20k -- I played against the computer on 9x9 go. I was fairly quickly able to get to the point where I could win with a 2 stone handicap.
20k to 16k -- I started to play 19x19 go on KGS. Many of my early games were very peaceful set-ups with each player mapping out huge moyos then turning them into territory then failing at invasion.
16k to 14k -- Around this time I got my first go books: Fundamentals of Go by Kageyama and Janice Kim's Learning Go Series. Both of these were very helpful. I began applying some opening concepts like: play in open corners, enclose, extend. I still could not invade anything but a huge moyo and would often lose entire groups in the corner. Most of my improvement came from just playing a lot of games, over a hundred in the first few months. Mainly I learned a little bit about ladders and some basic concept of making enough space to make eyes.
14k to 12k -- I picked up some more books. The most useful at this time were Tesuji by Davies, and Attack and Defense. Much of my improvement here came from getting a little better at local fighting, a little better at life and death in the corner, and I started preventing my opponent from getting large territory through reduction and invasion.
12k to 11k -- Here I think the most important thing I learned was a little bit more about opening theory, I experimented with moyo type openings. My middle game improved a little and I learned to take indirect profit from attack, how to make more optimal extensions. I would credit most of my strategic improvement to Audio Go Lessons, where I took the full beginner course and many others just for fun. I would especially recommend the lessons on how to attack by Jennie Shen and of course Go Juan's lessons for beginners.
11k to 10k -- I think I got a little better at middle game play here and my opening improved a little. I also read Get Strong at Invasion. I also played several 9 stone handicap games with a dan player and tried to study ways to make use of the handicap stones properly.
10k to 9k -- I felt I got a little better at using thickness properly and became a little more flexible in my game plan. I make slightly better choices about whether to emphasize territory or influence. I am getting a little better at finding big end game moves and getting a little better at playing sente moves when it matters. I am now better able to appreciate pro games and currently am studying Invicible (a Shusaku game collection).

There is so much more to Go than what I know now. It will be interesting to see how I develop from here.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Ponnuki Go

In the last few days I've experimented with playing Ponnuki-Go AKA Atari-Go as a learning method with my children (and wife). See Sensei's Library here for more information. Basically this is a stripped down version of Go, which has only the capture rule: i.e. if a stone or group of stones is completely surrounded it is captured. The first player to capture N stones (I used N=1) is the winner. There is some controversy in the go community as to whether or not this is a good teaching method. On one hand it is simple to understand even for very young children, it leads to quick games with no need for counting, it has more understandable and concrete goals so strategy is simpler to grasp, etc. On the other hand it tends to produce players who are pre-occupied with capturing which may become an hindrance to proper development later when making the transition to "real" go.

I suppose I personally subscribe to the view that it is fine to learn Go in stages. It's more important for young children to enjoy playing and trying to explain "eyes", eye-space, false eyes, ko rule, snap-back, along with some strategic notions can become overwhelming. Ponnuki-go is a very natural game to be playing on a go board with stones so I can see little harm in trying it out.

After a few quick games where my kids missed defending against atari (threatening to capture in one move), they quickly got the hang of things. They were still apt to make judgement errors which left them with an easily captureable weak stone (most often by playing "underneath" my stones in an attempt to capture something). But on the whole I was pretty pleased with how this version of the game taught them to make some basic extensions and other defensive moves.

Contrary to the concerns addressed earlier, I found that they were beginning to understand the value of staying connected. This is a concept which I had difficulty explaining during my earlier attempts to teach them "regular" go where they were focused on trying to surround territory. In my experience, getting good at staying connected is probably more essential to early development than learning how to efficiently surround territory. I don't have any real justification for that, it's just my impression based on my current level (around 10k).

Here's a game I just played with Alyssa where she capitalized on a reading error on my part. Much to my surprise she actually said "I win, thanks" as soon as I made the losing move, which implied that she was reading two moves ahead. Just for clarity, I did allow her to take back several moves along the way and also suggested some moves early on (such as defending with a 1 point jump or knight's move and not allowing me to easily cut her stones.

Unfortunately I don't have a way to display a 13x13 game so this is on a 19x19 board display. The borders of the game would be the lines attaching the 4,4 handicap points in all four corners.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Good Shape Utility and Playing Some Go!

I am very happy to report that my wife and kids have returned from their trip to Thailand. And I am even more happy to report that in the last week I have played 4 games of Go with Richie, 2 games with Alyssa, and even 4 games with Dee. (I hope they all get addicted... MuuwhHaaaaHaaaHaaaHaaHaaaaaaa).

Everyone really likes the new board and stones I bought so I think that's helped my cause. So far all games are on 13x13 and we have played both regular go and Ponnuki Go which I think is a great way to ease new players into the game. (More on this later).

Anyway, on this happy occasion I've realized that I had not found a way to post a Go record on this website.

After a little bit of search, the only suitable application I found is Good Shape courtesy of Hiroki Mori ( Since I don't have a game record yet from my family games, I've decided to post a historically famous game.

The game is Ito Showa 6d (White) vs. Kuwahara Shusaku 1d (Black). Shusaku is regarded by many to be one of the greatest players of the pre-modern period. In this game he is 11 yrs. old. According to my score estimator Shusaku is ahead by 3 points at the end of the game.

I will record the next game I play with the kids to give an idea of how their young minds approach the game. I'll throw in some with Dee if she let's me too which is an interesting comparison. Unfortunately I don't think there's a way to make the board 13x13 so I'll have to fudge it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Go in New York City and Stamford, CT

For a couple of months now I have been semi-regularly attending the classes of the IgoAmigo Go Club/School. I mentioned in a previous post that I accidentally stumbled into one of their classes at the New York Go Center on my first visit. I had originally thought that it was part of the NYGC, but actually it's a completely separate organization. They used to meet twice a month on Saturdays at the NYGC, but due to some disagreements with the NYGC (I don't really know the details) they have moved their class to Columbia University. It's really a shame that in the small circle of NY Go players, it's not possible to reach some sort of amicable solution that would enable the club to meet at the only dedicated go facility in the city. At any rate, I have decided for the time being to try to continue attending.

If anyone is interested in attending, the daily fee is still going to be $7, I believe. The teachers are 7d and 1d. Most attendees are Japanese but there are also English speakers and both teachers speak English fairly fluently.

I also am on the brink of finding some players to play with in the Stamford area. I have been looking for an opportunity to play in person somewhere around my home to no avail. Last Saturday, I randomly dropped by Starbucks in Stamford, near the Ferguson Library and came across a few chess players. I had my laptop and a book on Go which I started reading. One of the players noticed and asked if I played a lot. I learned that he was close to my level (he said 10k) and that he had a friend that was looking for people to play with. Another kid there said he used to play with his mother when he was young but didn't play anymore. Well, counting myself, the guy and his friend, the kid and his mother, and one other acquaintance, I know of 6 Go players in the Stamford/Greenwhich area. It also turns out that the 7d player from IgoAmigo also lives in Rye which is not too far.

I have also been exchanging mails with a guy named Mark, who also has a daughter near the age of Alyssa and a Go Blog. He lives in CT, but a bit far so it's unlikely I will be able to play him, but one can hope.

It would be awesome to play in Stamford so I am going to start hanging out at the Starbucks in my free time to try to stimulate some local interest. I think I'll need to hang a sign out that says "Ask me to Teach You, 5 minutes to Learn, a Lifetime to Master" or something like that.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


I guess it's in my nature to experiment with different ways of doing things, so sometime ago I tried to find out how well material reward would work in motivating the kids--not just for chess, but in general. It started harmlessly enough: Richie and Alyssa were showing signs of disinterest in chess. In particular, they started being reluctant, I would even go so far as to say resistant, to chess lessons with Michael. Since I had already committed to paying for the lessons I had to come up with some way to get them to participate. Of course, most parents will know the temptation of the quick fix: bribery. I offered to take the kids to Wal-Mart to buy one small toy each if they did their best during the lesson. Before I knew it everything, and I mean *everything* we wanted them to do came with a cost. Chess lesson? Small toy from Wal-Mart. Brush their teeth? A coloring book from the bookstore. Kumon homework? Build a toy airplane for them. Go to a tournament? Unlimited Wii game-playing for a night.

Of course I didn't think much at first, I mean, we give them those things anyway, so I thought I was getting a free lunch. But gradually I realized that they were purposely behaving badly or refusing any request to try to entice some sort of "good behavior reward" out of us. Clever little buggers.

So I did what any good panicked dictator does in this situation: I massively debased the currency! I drew a grid of forty squares on a piece of paper (one for each of them), and found some ink stamps and told them that if they did one good thing they would get one stamp. And after their page was full I would take them to Wal-Mart to pick out a small toy of their choice. This slowed down the flow of goods considerably, and I think it made them look forward to the reward more. They were very excited about the new system. They began carrying their stamp pages around with them and constantly asked if something they did was stamp-worthy.

Do I feel bad about bribing the kids for things that they should learn to do as responsible individuals (like homework, or cleaning up their toys)? Maybe a little. But I guess I'm just pragmatic.

It's worked so well, I'm looking around for some stickers which I think would go over very well indeed. I wonder how many stickers it costs to get my car washed?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Harvard Square Chess

I wrote this a month ago but forgot to post it:

Leave it to a scheming chess dad to figure out a way to squeeze some chess into a family vacation. This time, the wedding of my college roommate (congratulations Joe and Trish!), afforded us an opportunity to pass through Boston and Cambridge. This was the first time I've been to Cambridge since I left in 1995 and I was pleased to know that aside from some cosmetic changes and rotation of stores in Harvard Square, the general atmosphere is exactly as I remembered it. I have fond memories of playing chess with Murray the "Chess Master" in front of Au Bon Pain as student and I was eager to stop by and say hello, only discover that he wasn't around. There were plenty of other chess players around, though, so it wasn't a total loss. Richie and I played a game there (which drew some bemused looks) while we waited for Dee to wrap up her souvenir shopping. As fortune would have it, we had to make a second pass through the Square on our way home a couple of days later because Dee needed to exchange some items she picked up from the Coop and this time Murray was camped out at his usual table, looking pretty much the same as he did 13 years ago. This time I had Richie take a 15 minute chess lesson with Murray and played a game with him myself (I lost). Richie's lesson consisted of a short game where he got checkmated quickly and then a review of several opening options. The vocabulary was well over his head which probably meant very little of it made sense to him, but he was attentive and surprisingly unintimidated by the experience. I suppose he's gotten somewhat accustomed to playing chess with strangers and with adults, so I guess an adult stranger isn't really much of a leap.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Summer Doldrums

The local chess tournaments have ended for the year. They'll restart next academic year but it looks like there will be fewer opportunities for the kids to play this summer. This may be a good thing because lately, Richie has shown more interest in non-chess activities. I think his loss of interest coincided with his growing interest in video games (we've had a game system for awhile but only recently has he started playing it much). With respect to chess I fear that it got a little too easy for him to win trophies so he's not really motivated to find better ways of playing. I suppose the novelty has worn off a bit too. Alyssa actually has come around to chess and still enjoys solving mate-in-N problems (and prefers puzzles to actual games).

They'll be spending around 6 weeks in Thailand this summer with my wife so that's going to be a natural break for them. I plan to set them up Yahoo accounts so I can play with them over the internet but I don't know if they'll actually do it.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Visiting the New York Go Center

It has been awhile since I wrote a post on Go. Obviously compared to chess it's so much harder to find a place where for children play can play Go. I do live within striking distance of Feng Yun's Go School in New Jersey but it would be at least an hour drive each way and I don't think it's practical long term to go there. I had held out some hope that she would re-open a class in Flushing, NY which would be a comparatively easier 40 minute trip (which I could easily combine with other purposes since we got to Flushing for Chinese food fairly regularly). So far, though, it seems they lost their old venue. I happened to call up the NY Go Club to last weekend because we were in the city. It turned out that they were having a tournament that day so I the guy I talked to said it was a good day to stop by.

This was my first visit to their facility and I came away with a favorable impression. I was actually surprised by how much space they had (3 small floors with a courtyard in the back). Despite the $7 daily fee, I think it's worth it. The tournament had around 16 players I think. That's pretty small by chess standards, but I wasn't really expecting much else. All in all there were probably about 35-40 peole at the club which was probably the annual peak if I had to guess! If I lived in the city and had lots of time it would be a great place to play. I was looking to find out if they had kids instruction classes, and it turns out that there are always a couple of teachers on hand to give lessons (to adults and children) but no formal kids classes. I was hoping for something more organized so that was a little disappointing. I did go downstairs and stumbled in on a Japanese language instructional class for beginners. They were players of many levels (32 to 1 kyu) and the Japanese instructor was 7-dan, I think. They meet twice a week. There weren't many children (one was 7 years old), but there were at least a few kids from 7 to 16. I had the opportunity of playing a 1-kyu with a 9-stone handicap. I got decimated but I actually had a fighting chance since I was hemming in a large group which I ended up allowing to escape in exchange for a corner but was told later that the corner was probably less valuable than killing the group I was chasing. I also found that I was playing much more timidly than normal because I was worried about looking like an idiot. When really, with 9 stones, I should have been attacking more in some situations. It was still fun though. And I picked up two books for my birthday: Attack and Defense, and Tesuji by Davies. These will be my bedtime "falling asleep" reading for awhile. Of course I haven't solved the problem of how to get my kids to learn Go in a more fun environment. Maybe I'll have to make a trip out to NJ after all.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

77th ACTA Scholastic Chess Tournament

Alyssa and Richie both played in the Stamford city championship. Kindergarten and 1st grades were combined into a single playing section but prizes were separate. Richard scored 2.0/4.0 but since he was the high scoring Kindergartener he received 1st place for Kindergarten and is the Stamford City Champion for 2008. Alyssa narrowly missed getting a trophy but seemed in pretty good spirits anyway after scoring 2.0/4.0. Together they placed 4th as team and got a trophy for that as well. I don't have much to report about this tournament except I was a little surprised that one of Richie's games he lost to Scholar's mate. It seems there's always a danger of falling for that one for the young ones.

With the weather so fine, they enjoyed the day out more than the chess!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

76th ACTA Scholastic Chess Tournament

Richie and Alyssa both recently played in an ACTA chess tournament. We could see that the participants in both the Kindergarten and K-1 sections were relatively inexperienced so we thought it would be a good tournament to reintroduce Alyssa to competitive play. She is sensitive about losses so it was important, I think, for her to gain some confidence. Fortunately, a few players she faced were very inexperienced and she played well enough to score 2.0/4.0 games which was enough for 5th place and a trophy. After her wins she was noticeably more excited about chess which was really all I was hoping for. Richie came in 2nd place and scored 3.0/4.0.

I was especially impressed with both Alyssa and Richie for taking their time in their games. In at least 3 out of the 4 rounds they took almost a full 45 minutes to complete their games and were among the last of the kids to finish. Of course they still made some obvious blunders but I stressed to them that the only important thing I wanted them to try to do at this tournament was play as slowly as possible and to think of as many continuations as possible each move, even if it seemed like a forced line. Of course I didn't phrase it that way to them. Instead I came up with this story: "Imagine that it's Halloween and you are going trick-or-treating. But instead of a big Halloween bag, you only brought a small bag that was so small it could only hold a single piece of candy. So you go to all the trouble of putting on your costume, but you come home with just one little piece of candy. Now let's say that candy was a chocolate bar. What happens if you really wanted a pixie stick. Or maybe you were in the mood for a lollipop. Well tough luck, because you didn't prepare well. Instead of just a little bag, you should bring the biggest bag you can find, and collect as much candy as you can. Then when you want one you have all different types to choose from and you'll get just what you want. Playing chess too fast, without thinking is like trick-or-treating with a little bag instead of a big one. Fill your bag of moves with as many as you can find. The more you look, the more choices you'll have and the better your chance of finding a really fantastic one."

I did manage to get Richie to record the beginning of one of his games using a MonRoi device which I picked up a month ago. See my review. He still made some errors inputting the game and decided in the later rounds that he didn't want to play with it. Here's his first round game.

After their success at this tournament both of them seem a little more interested in playing again, after going to through a period of relative disinterest.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Unexpected Benefits

It's not often that I play a game that I actually feel pretty good about. More often than not, win or lose, the blunders on either side are so gross that the gulf between my games and high level chess seems so wide as to hardly qualify as being part of the same game. In this 15 minute game I played against an internet player rated around 1850. I played the black side of the Ruy Lopez which is an opening I have used to play with Richie for the last couple of weeks because I like logical progression.

It seems some of what I practiced managed to permeate deeply enough for me to apply in a real game. Maybe there's hope for me to improve yet.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Trajectory of Elite Scholastic Chess Player Improvement

After reading that Nicholas Nip has become the youngest US master, I dug around a little and tried to map out the ratings progress for him and several other exceptional young players (and Richie just for kicks). This was a good excuse to play around with Google's charting API which I have to say is pretty nice.

The exercise emphasized to me that chess strength has a lot to do with experience up until maybe 1500 or so. As you can see when we re-map so that the X-axis is scaled based on years of chess played, almost all of these elite players reached roughly 1500 after about 1 year of play regardless of starting age. Maybe that breaks down for really young kids like Richie, but it's hard to say since I don't have that many data points.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

CT State Championship

Richie and Alyssa took part in the Connecticut State Scholastic Chess Championship which was held at Yale University last Saturday. There were at least a couple hundred kids participating in the event with around 20 in the 1st Grade section and 10 in the Kindergarten section. The sheer numbers of kids and parents was pretty exciting for the our kids who hadn’t been to such a large tournament before but I have to admit it was a lot less fun than I imagined it would be. I think the main problem was that the event, which was supposed to run from 10:00 am to around 3:30 pm for 5 rounds, ended up started around 90 minutes late. Including inter-round delays, it didn’t actually finish until 6:00 pm. I felt that the waiting and long round time detracted a lot from the fun and made it very difficult for the younger children to enjoy themselves. In fact, Richard fell asleep during the break before the last round and I debated whether it was worthwhile to wake him up to play the final game. In the end I did wake him up but regretted it afterwards. He ended up scoring 2.5/5.0 and was contesting 2nd place in the final round. He lost the last game but his score was good enough for 5th place and qualified for a trophy which was all that mattered to him anyway. He was a little unlucky in that he had a particularly tough draw (he played all 4 players that finished ahead of him) and he actually had wins against two higher finishers and another finisher ended up moving ahead due to a full point bye with only 1 actual victory. The bad news is that Alyssa got swept and finished with no points. I wasn’t altogether surprised by this since she’s no longer playing for fun or practice and has all but given up on getting any better. I am disappointed because I feel that with just a minimum of effort she would easily pick up strength since her tactical puzzle solving abilities seem good, but I fear that my plan of sparking a competitive interest in her has backfired completely. I am fairly sure that the better that Richie does the less she will want to play to avoid comparison. We are no longer going to enter her into tournaments but she will continue to attend chess classes for the time being. I hope that she will come back around to the game some time later.

One nice thing about this tournament venue was that there was a viewing area from which parents could observe games in progress. Usually parents are in a separate room so you pretty much have no way of knowing how games are going and in the Kindergarten class they don’t even write down the game scores. This time I was able to watch Richie’s games for a change. Overall he played fine although he completely ignored my advice to play slowly. The two things that I think he really will need to work on have to do with hastiness. In his one drawn game, he was winning by a queen and two rooks but stalemated his opponent. He was moving quickly at the end, and didn’t bother to check if his opponents king had escape squares (a different type of problem than calculation errors I think). In another game against the eventual 1st place finisher (Julian Wang, as predicted) he exchanged his queen for a bishop on move 5 because he took the bishop instantly after it attacked his queen without checking if he could be recaptured. I will have to think of some ways to encourage slower play.

In general I agree with my sister’s coach’s assessment that Richie has reasonably good piece coordination and board vision for attacks but he does not defend well or handle aggressive opponents well. I think this is partially my fault since in our home games I tend to play defensively against him rather than putting him to the test with a lot of early pins and mate threats that are easily countered with correct play.

As an aside, I had the pleasure of playing a very strong 1st grader who used to live in the same building as our family in NYC. I believe he’s rated almost 1000. He had a super-aggressive style that at first I sort of laughed off and went up material in both games we played early on but he had the last laugh since I got blasted in mating attacks both times 10-15 moves later! It was pretty eye-opening.

I question the generally held view that scholastic players should learn opening principles rather than openings. At least for 4-5 year olds I think learning occurs through sort of fuzzy pattern recognition rather than through reasoning. I think it would take relatively little effort to learn at least a basic opening repertoire by rote which will keep them out of early trouble and give a good example of how to maintain equality in the opening. Openings are also interesting for them because they have cool sounding names.

Monday, March 3, 2008

75th ACTA Scholastic Chess Tournament

Richie played in the 75th ACTA Scholastic Chess Tournament last weekend while Alyssa opted out. We were a little unsure if it was wise to enter him since we were told that there were no kindergarteners in it (let alone Pre-K) which meant that he would have to play with 1st graders. The organizer let us know that Richie would be eligible for the kindergarten trophy regardless (i.e. guaranteed 1st) so when Richie heard that he decided he wanted to play. Our reservations proved unnecessary, however, as Richie actually ended up scoring 3.0/4.0 points which was good enough for 2nd place. He lost his final match against the event winner. I heard from an observer that the final game was back and forth and that at one point Richie was up a Queen after his opponent blundered, but he eventually returned the material. Apparently his opponent was a fast player and Richie was matching his pace which may have contributed to the blunders on both sides. The only thing I stress to him before games is the he should take his time and think before he moves. It's very difficult, though, for a 4 year old to avoid getting swept up in the heat of the moment. Richie ended up resigning when it was apparent that his opponent would be promoting a pawn to a queen. I'm not sure whether this is something I should address now, but it's probably better for him to fight out even seemingly hopeless situations for the chance of a blunder or stalemate. Richie was a little disappointed by the final round loss but he actually handled it quite well. I commended him on his good sportsmanship.
Afterwards told me that he wanted to practice more. But not before getting some well earned rest. I doubt he'll play much more chess before the upcoming state championship. I expect he'll run into some trouble at the state's if he plays Julian who I believe is probably the favorite to win K-1. I observed some of Julian's games at a recent chess club meeting and he continues to improve. I am not sure what he has been doing to improve but I've noticed, for instance, that he seems to know the basic opening moves for several variations that are not typically played at his level (Sicilian, Queen's Gambit, King's Gambit, Scotch Opening, Scotch Gambit, Spanish Game to name a few). Of course there are undoubtedly some players from outside this area that are also strong.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Vacations are distracting!

We took a two week vacation to visit Los Angeles to attend Kumi's wedding and get a little R&R. (Congratulations again Kumi and Dan!). Of course I brought along the chess set and laptop, thinking that the kids might want to play sometime, but it turns out they'd rather spend vacation time visiting the zoo, going to Disneyland, playing at the beach, playing poker in Vegas (or maybe that was me...) What's up with that? At least we got in some Chess Master games in on the airplane. Don't they realize they're playing in the CT State Scholastic Chess Championship in one week?

Monday, February 11, 2008

4 Month Check on Kids Chess Progress

As promised, I've included a recent game between Alyssa and Richie with no interference. Their progress in the last 3 months is evident. While by no means blunder free, there are several aspects of improvement: sounder opening moves which seek development, fewer hung pieces, more purposeful and aggressive moves with a semblance of planning. Actually many pieces were lost in sacrificial attacks which is something I hadn't really seen before this game. White (Richie) in particular shows directed force at the Black King rather than aimless time wasting moves. Now we just need to tame down the aggression a little. But that's much preferable than excessive passiveness I guess. One thing I noticed about this game in particular which is not obvious from the replay is how quickly Richie made his end game decisions. He wasted no time at all removing Alyssa's remaining rooks even at the cost of his queen and executed the finish very efficiently which is actually a pretty recent development. This game says a lot as it is, but there's the added bonus of an en passant capture. For her part I actually thought Alyssa's game was quite nice up until she sac'd two pieces in a row. I'd like a chance to review this game with her and show her that she was ahead. I hope that will make her look forward to challenging Richie to another round.

Friday, February 1, 2008

3 Month Update on Dad's Go Progress

Well if KGS rank has any meaning, it seems that I managed to improve slightly since last month. I am now barely 12k online which surprises me because I remember thinking a month or two ago that most of the games I had with 12k were hopelessly one-sided. In fact I don't think I actually won many games against higher ranked players, but I've become more consistent about winning against 14k and lower so I guess that's improved my rank some.

Shamefully, I have less motivation to actually study anything or do tsumego problems while my rank is still progressing just from games. I did pick up a copy of Fundamentals of Go by Kageyama which is a nice book that I would recommend highly. I like his conversational style and I found his examples to be quite interesting and enlightening. The unusual thing about this book is that many of the reviews of the book suggested that it is useful to read several times at different stages. Essentially reviewing this book helped a lot of people get over developmental blocks at successively higher levels of strength. They made comments which in effect said that the material is basic enough for someone like me or around mid-teens kyu to get something out of, but when you are much stronger, you can come back to the same exact material and find deeper insights still.

I especially liked the emphasis he puts on reading. I have to admit that I am sometimes lazy over the board and play many moves based on my meager intuitive grasp, when if I just sat and concentrated I could probably read out a solution.

In a game today against a 14k, I recalled specifically the first lesson in his book which requires reading out a ladder across the board. I had a similar situation in this game where I had a center facing stone caught in a ladder. I played an approach to the upper left corner which I had read out to be a ladder break. But my opponent failed to realize the ladder break was in place and proceeded to chase me for about 10 moves in a broken ladder. Of course, once he realized his error, his entire game fell apart as my diagonal thickness and his excess aji were too much to overcome. He resigned shortly afterwards.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Is Richie a Chess Prodigy?

After the Stamford Times article, I got to thinking about how Richie might be perceived by others. To get straight to the point, I'm pretty sure Richie is not a prodigy. He's a pretty normal 4 year old in just about every way. Generally prodigies exhibit exceptional talent in many different areas. I suppose that Richie stands out in that he has taken to chess at a pretty young age. But other than that, he's actually a perfectly ordinary 4 year old. He learned to walk at a normal age of 13 months or so (Alyssa was actually walking at around 9 months). As far as I can tell, his cognitive skills developed at a non-exceptional rate. He does not know how to read, or have an unusually advanced vocabulary. He doesn't know arithmetic beyond 3+3=6. His memory is good but not photographic or exceptionally good. If he has an unusual trait, it's that he's been able to focus on a single activity for long stretches of time since he was young which makes him suitable for a strategy game like chess.

The reason I bring these things up is that I think that parents shouldn't assume that their children must have an IQ of 180 to play chess at the age of 4. All they really need to do is introduce the game in a way that will make their kids like it, and from there learning takes care of itself.

Having said these things, I do believe that Richie is going to be strong for his age as long as he maintains interest. That's really a result of having played more games and seen more chess situations than most of his competition. At his current rate, I'd be surprised if that didn't remain true for the foreseeable future. To give an idea of how much playing he does, I estimate that he currently plays 3-5 games a day during the week and probably 10-15 games on the weekend. Most of his games are with me, or with kids in chess club/class but he's also started playing more with the computer. He also enjoys solving chess puzzles.

I did some research online and found a few cases of kids that were playing competitive chess by age 4. One case in India was actually a 3 year old girl. I also looked at the tournament records of some well known scholastic chess players who are recognized as top talents in the game as well as some of the national tournament winners in K and 1st grade and just about all of them had unremarkable starts to their chess careers but they all played many tournaments and showed fairly fast progress. Chess talent develops through interest and experience. Kids don't just spring from the womb knowing the main line of the Ruy Lopez or how to take advantage of a weak dark square complex. I suppose chess ability is rather more like language ability which at this age can be acquired subconsciously and at a much faster rate then an adult might even though an adult has the advantage of more developed powers of reasoning.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

73rd ACTA Scholastic Chess Tournament

We had our 2nd chess tournament, the New Canaan City Championship, this weekend. It drew a slightly larger player pool than the last one we went to so Kindergarten had 7 players and 1st had 13 players, I think. Alyssa ended up getting 2.0/5.0 pts which put her in 8th place. She enjoyed herself, but had more fun running up and down a sloped hallway than actually playing. (After commenting that she was a pretty fast runner, she proudly revealed that she's the 2nd fastest runner in her class, which is something I never knew). Her confidence is growing over the board and I think it shows in her result. The 1st and 2nd place winners were two twin girls which was sort of interesting.

Richie surprised us again by scoring 4.5/5.0 pts in the Kindergarten section which tied him for first place. The other champion was none other than Julian Wang. The draw against Julian was especially surprising because I had watched them play 3 or 4 fast games in the waiting room and Julian won all of them easily. Apparently in the tournament game, Julian blundered his queen early but must have played strongly from there to reach a bishop vs. bishop ending which was declared a draw. Julian was a little unhappy with the result for awhile but they were all smiles when they received their trophies.

As I watched their practice game, I noted a few things about his game that I consider to be still undeveloped in Richie. The first was a willingness to put pawns/pieces en pris when the exchange was deemed to be favorable. For example, he often advanced his Queen pawn into the center whereas Richie would tend to move his pawn to d3 instead of d4 if the opponent was already on e5. Secondly, he plays an active, attacking style where he purposely sets up mate threats or forks and pins. Richie is aware of these tactical techniques but generally finds them by accident over the board, rather than planning 2 moves ahead to reach a position where he can employ the tactic. He is also much more inclined to move his pieces into the opposing side's territory, where Richie tends to keep his pieces back in safety. As a generality I would say that Julian is attempting to force mistakes more (e.g. trapping), where Richie generally capitalizes on unforced errors. I think there's a significant gap in strategic and tactical awareness there so I am guessing that their draw was a fluke.

Today I tried to show Richie & Alyssa a game from Logical Chess Move By Move. The example was the Guico Piano which Richie had never seen. Shortly afterwards, I saw him playing a game with Dee and he used the idea of advancing the pawn to c3 to set up the d4 advance. He also used a tactic of moving his queen to g3 to attack the g7 pawn and eventually ended up with a mate in 1 opportunity that he overlooked. Interestingly the mate was exactly like the Scholar's mate, but even after I mentioned that he had a mate in one the board, he was unable to see it because the King was in a slightly different position. Nevertheless, it was pretty neat to see him applying ideas that I taught him just a day or two ago to his own games already.

I realize that since their first recorded game just a few months ago, both Richie and Alyssa have come a long way. I will try to record and post another game soon. It really is night and day and will make an interesting comparison to that game, I'm sure.

New Haven Go Group

There's a small group of Go players in New Haven which meets regularly. I've been waiting for a chance to go down and visit and last Friday I convinced Dee to go with me. We brought the kids too, although it was really more for me than for them since I knew no other children would be there. The group met at a coffee shop in downtown New Haven. The premises are a little cramped to play comfortably, but anyway including me there were 5 people that came. One of the players, Mark, is 4d, I think, and I very much looked forward to meeting him and others to play with in the area. Both he and Greg were very nice and I think Mark, in particular, has a lot of experience teaching high kyu players so that's a real boon. He's now watched a few of my games online even and given me some helpful reviews. At the meeting I played with Greg who is about 11k, I think. I am a weak 13k so we played with a 2 stone handicap. I lost the game after I failed to prevent a snaking reduction from ruining the central influence I was aiming for. I think he is at a very good level for me to learn with since he's somewhat stronger but I can still make things competitive. I watched Mark win a 13x13 game with a 7 stone handicap against another member who seems a bit less experienced than me. That was pretty impressive.

Alyssa and Richie played a couple small games which Mark watched. I was a little engrossed in my own game so I wasn't able to pay too close attention to it, but Alyssa was seemed to be dominating the board by the end. Mark mentioned that it was neat to watch them play--I don't think he has any experience teaching such young kids--and that he could see them learning new basic concepts by the second game.

I'm hoping to enroll Alyssa and Richie in Feng Yun's go class for kids in Flushing which is supposed to start up in February. I'd like them both to learn a little more about the game. I actually think that knowing some Go will help with chess and vice versa, but maybe it all becomes too overwhelming. One of the players mentioned that a 7 year old girl was competing in the North American Oza tournament and was doing very well in the beginner section. I guess there are some youth players out there though I don't know how they learn since there's so few opportunities relative to chess. Fortunately for us, I think Feng Yun's school is the East Coast center for go instruction for kids as far as I can tell which is convenient.

The Secret to Raising Smart Kids

I have to admit that I've had a lifelong fascination with the subject of intelligence, genius, development, etc. I suppose it must have started when I was in grade school and started browsing through my mothers books on child psychology and development... So I was greatly interested to read this article in Scientific American, which I think parents will find eye-opening and practical. The somewhat counter-intuitive conclusion of the article is that parents that praise their children for being intelligent or talented may be misdirecting them to believing that those aspects are fixed rather than developed. This fatalistic view towards their own potential can cause motivation issues in school.

I'd like to relate a story from my own youth that illustrates the point.
I was aware from early in my academic experience that my older sisters were both "smart" and there were expectations that I too would be a good student. Certain things came naturally to me when I was very young and I had no experience with struggle before the age of 8 or so. At that point I had a pivotal moment. It was pivotal in the sense that, without exaggeration, it changed completely my outlook on my own intelligence and probably began a positive feedback loop that continued throughout my primary and secondary education.

When I was in third grade, I transferred classes in my elementary school and my new teacher had moved her class along in mathematics much further than my former teacher. This had a jarring effect on me because it was the first time that I had ever experienced self-doubt, or the feeling of being "dumb" since I was quite far behind the other students and had no idea how to do the work I was assigned. The task for me at the time was to memorize the times table. It sounds silly looking back on it, but before then I had never consciously memorized anything and to say that the problem seemed formidable is an understatement. I was literally in tears, believing that it was impossible for me to know "all those things" at once and I despaired at being relegated to the back of the class forever.

Fortunately, either Kumi or Mom (we're a little vague on who) came to the rescue with a little learning toy that allowed me to push buttons in the times table and helped me with memorizing the math facts. After working on this for awhile (I can only assume I got obsessed with it but I don't actually remember), I learned the times table and ended up being one of the fastest students in the weekly arithmetic drills.

This little event did wonders for my confidence in school and I never really struggled with math (until college at least), because I always believed that no problem was insoluble, it was simply a matter of working it out. In retrospect, I realize that that's an incredibly powerful belief to be able to fall back on.

Well I'm getting a little off topic here with this post, but to bring it back to the subject of chess and go, reading this article made me realize that I should recall my own formative years and guide my children in a way that teaches them the value of hard work. They should know that intelligence and talent are not fixed at birth but rather that mastery is a result of dedication, devotion and hard work. Chess, too, is a skill which is developed through exposure. There's a not insignificant amount of memorization, pattern recognition, and so on that is impossible to be born with. And in Go, there's a proverb or saying that the quickest way to learn the game is to lose 100 games.

I think Alyssa may already have begun to feel that she wasn't going to be good at chess and had begun to shy away from playing. I've been telling her that it's only a matter of time before she starts winning as long as she works at it. Today she contributed her first outright win to her team's victory at the advanced chess class and it was a very happy moment for her.

Ferguson Library Chess and Stamford Times Article

Every January, the Ferguson Library in Stamford, CT runs a chess program for children. It runs for 4 weeks on Saturdays and consists of 2 hours of play and instruction. This year Richie & Alyssa's teacher, Michael, ran the program so we brought them there during the month. There were a few interesting things about the Ferguson program that were great to see. First, because of its association with the library, perhaps, the program attracted a very broad cross-section of players in terms of skill level, age, and ethnicity. Despite the presense of scholastic programs in many public schools in the area, it seems that the vast majority of young players in the area are young male caucasians. The former is probably just a consequence of the combatitive/competitive nature of the game, while the latter has more to do with the general population composition in the area as well as income effects. It was refreshing to see such a diverse group of kids all enjoying the same game. Some were rank novices, but most had basic knowledge of the game and by the 2nd session they began a ladder tournament which gave everyone a chance to play many games against various strength opponents.

The local newspaper ran a story about the program and in it Richie and Alyssa are mentioned. If you read the article, I should caveat that I don't think I ever actually said that I thought Richie was talented, only that he seemed ready to play the game (when he turned 4). I think talent is not so easy to determine in such young players because they develop so rapidly. Just learning the moves may seem a hurdle one month but a few months later, almost every kid begins to develop a set of strategies. It is only later when games are won and lost based on more sophisticated strategic or deeper tactical considerations that I think real talent is observable. At this stage, and probably for a year, games are lost by the player that loses a piece by moving it en prise, or that misses a mate in 1.

Monday, January 7, 2008

72nd ACTA Tournament

On Sunday, Richie & Alyssa entered the 72nd ACTA Westport Championship scholastic chess tournament. Richie wanted an opportunity to win another trophy. Alyssa, on the other hand, was reluctant to play. I had mixed feelings about entering her since I didn't want to her to develop negative feelings towards chess unnecessarily, but in the end I decided to put her in and hope that she gets acclimated to the scholastic chess environment. She's typically a bit hesitant to try new things (food, activities) and she shies away from confrontation. I think chess could be a confidence builder for her but she needs to get over her initial reservations about competition. It's hard to know if we're pushing her unnecessarily, because she sort of needs some a bit pushing for a lot of things (getting ready to go to school, talking to strangers, trying new foods or activities etc.). Richie, on the other hand, despite being 2 years younger than any other kids in his section, showed no anxiety at all and was eager to play.

Alyssa ended up finishing with 1/2 a point which qualified her for the smallest trophy in the 1st grade division (5 players) (i.e. everyone gets a trophy!). Her half point came from a stalemate (she only had a king left), though in one of her games, Michael told me she had a 'won game' with material advantage and a mate in one but failed to see it. She did something similar in a practice game the other day, going up two pieces, only to go on to lose after forgetting to remove her pieces from threats. She is generally not very willing to use her pieces to get material advantage, and prefers to leave them back in protected positions. She also has not been playing many complete games so she does not really know how to convert a material advantage into a win in most situations.

I find that with the kids that it's hard to get across the idea that exchanges of pieces can be a good thing once you have a material advantage and vice versa.

Richie had a surprisingly strong showing in the tournament, winning 2nd place in the Kindergarden group (out of 4 players). His only full point came from a victory over a young girl who I think was also playing in her first tournament. He had several draws and also had to concede a draw in a winning position (Q vs. Bishop) when he had to interrupt his game for a bathroom visit. (Note to parents: take advantage of breaks between rounds to use the restroom). He played with a lot of confidence and wasn't intimidated at all by the bigger kids.

The winner of the K section was a young boy named Julian. He also studies with the same teacher and we had heard that he was very talented. Indeed he is a strong player in his age group and pretty clearly dominated the others. He said after the game that Richie was "tougher than he thought he'd be" which got a laugh out of us. They seemed to get along well. Julian is quite theatrical and full of youthful energy--he makes an interesting contrast to Richie, who most people consider a "serious boy" because he's rather quiet and watchful--he's always been very careful and deliberate in action. From what I can tell, Julian seems to be the real deal. According to his parents, he has fallen in love with the game and will likely eclipse them in playing skill soon at the rate he's improving. He appears to be gifted with natural aptitude for learning chess so it will be interesting to watch he progresses. Since he and Richie learned the game at about the same time, without getting too caught up in comparisons, I think it will be useful to use his development as a benchmark--we sort of get a peek into the future for how chess skills are acquired. I am curious to know what concepts he may be able to grasp that prove too difficult for Richie at the current time and what methods prove most effective for eventually learning those concepts.

It was nice to meet another enthusiastic young chess player. We hope to set up the kids for a chess play date sometime in the future.

Amazingly, after a full day of chess, after we got home that afternoon, Richie wanted to play Dinosaur chess some more.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Chess Tactics for Beginners

I bought Chess Tactics for Beginners. This a program in the Chess Assistant Family by Convekta. It's pretty much what I hoped for in that it offers a lot of basic tactical problems that can be quickly reviewed and it keeps some basic statistics. It's much easier to practice tactics on the computer than over the board because you don't have to spend time setting up positions. This particular program starts at a complete novice level with 1 move checkmates and works up. As a case in point, Richie went through the first 50 tactics in about 20 minutes. That's about 10x faster than he was doing with me or with Michael over the board. I'm pretty sure this is the best way to review tactics even for young kids. My only gripe with the program so far is that it arranges the problems by piece to move (e.g. rook checkmates, then knight checkmates, etc.) Even Richie figured out that this was happening and it sort of eliminates the need to think about which piece to move, you just need to find the right spot for it. Maybe I need to spend some time with the program and see if there's a random mode or something.

2 Month Update on Dad's Go Progress

My pace of improvement at Go has clearly slowed. There's fewer easy fixes to my game. My losses are coming less and less from close-fighting blunders or forgetting to connect some group and more from strategic lapses so it's harder to make improvement form just playing. I bought Kageyama's Fundamentals of Go and I'll be trying to work through that book. I am also still periodically working on Go Dojo. I went through Contact fights and now I'm working on Sector fights, although on this first pass, I'm really just browsing the material, rather than studying it. It's sort of the way I used to study math. I'm more curious what there is to learn than actually interested in learning it. It seems in Go, though, that progress without sweat is an impossibility so I'm going to have to buckle down if I really want to improve. I am now around 14k on KGS. I think my experience is not too dissimilar from some others that started around the same time as I did. It will be interesting to see where we hit our walls.

An area that I could definitely improve on is the opening. I'm not exactly sure how Go compares to chess in terms of the number of 'rote' openings one needs to know. I think it's a much wider game tree, but there are 'building blocks' of opening joseki or standard sequences that you sort of fit together to form opening plans, it seems. Of course, I'm just sort of winging it right now but when I play GnuGo I routinely get trashed in the first 15 moves so there's probably some work to be done there.
Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide