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.

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