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.
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