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.
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