Monday, December 14, 2009

Nationals Round-up

Richie ended up scoring 6.0/7.0 which put him in 2nd Place in the Kindergarten section. After a bit of a rough start, he worked very hard in his remaining games and made a nice comeback. He had some very nice games during the tournament. He also had a few games that were...ehh. He was certainly quite lucky to escape with a win in his final round against a very impressive David Zhurbinsky. In fact, what impressed me the most about the tournament was the strength of some of the play that I saw from the other Kindergarteners. (This was the first time in awhile I've actually seen other Kindergarteners playing).

His first round opponent, Diego Costas, showed great maturity in converting his win over Richie. He re-routed pieces well during the game and very effectively denied Richie counter-play by declining easy material that Richie offered as bait.

The aforementioned David Zhurbinsky had built an absolutely crushing advantage over Richie in the final game but fell victim to a back-row checkmate. Judging from the quality of his play to that point though, I'd say he seemed to be comparable in strength to Richie.

Max Roberts played a couple of quick games with Richie after the tournament since they weren't able to play during the official matches. They both seem to be attracted to highly tactical, double-edged positions and played a couple of amazingly complicated middle game positions where both sides needed to be mindful of continuous tactical threats and held the balance much longer than I could have. I think Max's game shows a lot of promise.

Richie made fast friends with and played a few games in the airport with Daniel Levkov on the way home. Daniel won a nice game over Richie, coming back from a piece deficit even, and also showed well developed endgame skill. It won't surprise me at all if he's soon rated much higher.

And of course, the event winner, Joaquin Perkins, deserves special mention for his perfect 7.0 performance. (Joaquin and his opponent, Alexander Medina, played a 2 hour game in the final match. I wonder if that's a record for Kindergarten). Sadly, Richie never had an opportunity to play with Joaquin but clearly he played at an exceptionally high level to run the field.

I wish all of these bright young players continued success and hope to meet them and their parents again in the future.

Hilton Anatole -- rooms exceeded expectations.
USCF -- tournament well organized, playing venue excellent.
American Airlines -- no major delays.
Breakfast buffet.
Kumi & Dan for driving out to visit with us.
Meeting Sarah -- what a cutey.
Meeting some very nice kids and parents.
Julian & Zachary & other familiar faces from the NY Tournaments.
Big Trophy

$20 for the *first* checked bag on AA??
Wide awake at 5:30 am on the first day.
No Italian restaurant or pasta at the hotel??
Apparently the muffins that K&D&S ate before the drive up from Austin.
Only 7 rounds. More games at shorter time controls would be nice.

Losing the first round.
Winning a game when down 2 pieces...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Setback

Richie lost his first round in the Nationals. While always mindful that in chess anything can happen in any given game, I must admit that I had some expectation that he would be in the hunt for top honors longer than the first game!

My initial reaction when Richie emerged from the playing room looking less than thrilled was of course to be disappointed. I had mentally prepared myself for this moment but I wasn't expecting it to come so soon. I knew that we had built up in his mind the importance of the Nationals. The whole point of even going is to give him something to strive for, to learn to set goals and push himself, etc. But the consequence of the build up is that if you stumble along the way, the let down is greater.

I have to confess that I more or less assumed that Richie blundered his queen or blitzed out his moves without thinking. But after reviewing the game with him, I realized that his loss was directly related to some of the combination exercises he had worked on recently--unfortunately, combinations (where you initially sacrifice material, but regain it through a tactical follow-up) introduce an element of risk into the game because they require accurate calculation a couple of moves ahead at least and if they fail you're usually left worse off. In this case, the combination was actually quite deep (in its intended form) but he didn't recognize that one of his opponent's replies created an immediate forcing response that saved the position. Still, the fact that he was even looking for this type of combination is something that was a direct result of his recent training exercises so I can hardly find fault with him for trying. My next thought was that he failed to put up resistance after he was down material and just gave up without fighting. In reality, he posed his opponent multiple tactical threats over the course of the game and even baited some clever traps, any one of which could have swung the balance, but to his credit, his opponent dodged them all and even found some very strong responses and eventually finished the game off solidly.

Richie generally handles losses with relative equanimity. This one was a little different. I asked how he felt and he defiantly replied, "fine," but I could tell he was upset because he knew that his chances for first place were probably over already.

Well, I suppose that situations like this are where the real life lessons are learned and I was actually looking forward to sharing the whole "a man's character is measured by how he reacts to adversity" thing, but before that, step one was just to cheer him up.

I had told him a few days ago about some of the world champions and what I thought made each of them so great. I told him that Paul Morphy was like a force of nature -- he was a great attacker and defeated his opponents right out of the opening. I told him that Capablanca played beautiful simple looking moves that created tiny advantages and was the best in the world at converting his advantage in the endgame. And I told him that Bobby Fischer was one of the most consistent players ever -- move after move, he just didn't make mistakes.

I raised his right hand and I said, "You had Paul Morphy, right here in this hand, look at the way you charged out in the opening and planned that combination," and I raised his left hand and said, "and Capablanca was right here waiting patiently to finish the game off in style," and then I searched in his left pocket and I searched in his right pocket and I said, "but you forgot to bring Bobby Fischer with you!" "Richie, Richie don't forget about me! You didn't here him calling for you?" He laughed. We hugged. We watched a Pokemon movie together.

In a calmer moment, we had the talk about setbacks and adversity and character.

While Richie was playing the next round, Julian stopped by to wish him well. I think he had heard about his first round loss and wanted to cheer him up but he had to leave for his own game before Richie could see him. I delivered the message.

"Richie, you just missed Julian. He came by to cheer you up and give you encouragement. Wasn't that a nice thing for him to do for you?"

"Yes. Well. That's O.K. Tell him 'Thanks, I'm already cheered up.'"

Never underestimate a kid's resilience.

[On a technical sidenote: it is possible to win a 50 player tournament even after losing the first round, but it's unlikely unless you came into the event seeded #1 or #2 especially in a field where the strengths span a wide range (Richie was seeded #5). The reason is that even if you win the rest of your games, in order to be picked to play against the tournament leader you need to be in clear 2nd place or have the highest rating among players tied for 2nd going into the last round (that haven't already played the leader. A series of upsets in this particular tournament is fairly unlikely due to the wide ratings span.]

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Most Valuable Lesson

I was recently asked to write a short article for a local newsletter about our family's chess activities and decided to repost it here:

The Most Valuable Lesson

When my wife gave birth to our first child, Alyssa, I brought two books to the hospital to read while they napped: What to Expect in the First Year and Bobby Fischer's My 60 Memorable Games. The first choice reflected my uneasiness with my new role as a father--I felt that somehow every thing I did from that day forward would shape my daughter's future in irreversible ways and I was intent on doing everything I could to make the right choices. The second book is a collection of chess games from the career of Bobby Fischer, one of the most enigmatic and talented chess players to have ever pushed a pawn. I had owned the book since I was in high school and over the years had made more than one failed attempt to unearth the chessic secrets that surely laid within. Of course, I should have read the pamphlet, What to Expect in the First Four Days, because if I had I would have left the chess book at home--I never got past page 2.

The truth is that I am a mediocre chess player. I have been mediocre ever since I started and I probably will remain mediocre for the rest of my days. Having had a certain degree of success in various other academic and competitive pursuits, my lack of progress at chess has always nagged at me. At the end of more than one failed episode of chess training, I concluded that I had just started the game too late in life--perhaps some subtle change occurs when we stop believing in fairy-tales that forever closes the door to chess mastery. Some say that we seek to create in our children better versions of ourselves--and so I planned to redeem my failings by teaching our children to play chess at a very young age.

It's now eight years later. In three weeks, my 6 year old son Richard and I are taking a father-son trip to Dallas, Texas for the 2009 National K-12 Grade Chess Championships, where nearly 1000 chess players from around the country will compete to determine the top players in each grade.

Richie is one of the top-rated kindergarteners in the country and is probably one of the top 100 chess players under 7 years old. He has already bested adult players, won countless trophies at local events and placed in the top 10 in the country as a pre-Kindergartener at last year's event.

I'd be proud to tell you that Richie is a genius and let you infer that it must run in the family. But the truth is much more prosaic. The secret to his success is simple: Richie, by virtue of having started when he was 4, has simply played more hours of chess than just about all the other kindergarteners in the country. Studies have found that for almost any activity, whether it is playing a musical instrument, playing chess or even learning to golf, achieving mastery had more to do with hours of effort than prior talent. Having seen the results of my two children diverge greatly based solely on their relative interest and effort put into the game, I can readily agree with their findings: expertise is earned through work, not granted at random.

All this effort, but to what end?

After allowing a child to devote hundreds of hours to a pursuit, often to the unfortunate exclusion of other worthwhile activities, there comes a point for every parent where they probably begin to question the value of mastery. Exactly what is Richie going to do with his chess skills? Will it help him get into a better college or have a better career? The short answer is, of course, "no." Why would it? And the long answer is, of course, "yes."

In chess, as in life, we learn through experience. Through trial and error, study, practice and competition, we make gradual improvements to our game and to ourselves. At times we may feel the opposition is insurmountable, or the required knowledge too vast to retain, or we may simply lose interest or focus. The mark of a successful personality is the ability to overcome these setbacks and obstacles and emerge from each defeat or failure with a desire to get better. To be self-critical and disciplined, to understand his faults and weaknesses and to continuously seek improvement is a mind-set that will remain useful throughout his life in all manners of pursuits.

At a tournament a few weeks ago, Richie lost a particularly difficult game where he was outplayed in an unfamiliar opening called the Dragon Sicilian. A year ago he might have been upset by the loss but on that day he emerged happily from the playing area and said, "I want to learn the Dragon!" I smiled to myself, content in the knowledge that in simply desiring to improve and being willing to put forth the effort, he had already learned the most valuable chess lesson of all.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Pokemon Debate Continues

In an earlier post I drew parallels between Pokemon and Poker as imperfect information games. As our kids have become more avid Pokemon card collectors and players I have realized that there is a distinct element of gambling involved in the collecting process. Cards are generally sold in packs of 10. The distribution of cards is non-uniform across the range of all cards. Generally speaking, each pack of 10 cards will contain 6-7 "common cards", 1-2 "uncommon" cards, 0-1 "rare" cards. As I watched the way the kids' eyes light up as they opened a new pack in anticipation of the possibility of receiving one of the elusive "rares" (which are obviously the more powerful cards in the game), I realized that this randomization of reward preys directly on the gambling preference. There have been studies that show that compulsive gamblers are more likely to have been exposed to gambling at a young age (younger than 10 years old) than non-problem gamblers so if this is any parents out there are concerned about gambling issues, its certainly something that should be taken into consideration.

On the brighter side, I also mentioned in my last post that I had hoped that wanting to play the game properly would motivate Richie to learn to read. Amazingly, I think Pokemon did just that. He relies on a mix of memory, sight reading and phonetic reading to work out what the cards do. Unsurprisingly his memory for the card rules is quite good relative to mine so when we play he's often correcting me about the correct use of a particular cards during the game. The game also requires basic arithmetic (addition and subtraction by 10s, multiplication by 2), and emphasizes some statistical concepts about sampling, but it's not especially challenging really. (As an aside, Richie learned what negative numbers were from Pokemon, because you need to determine if a pokemon is knocked-out by an attack (i.e. it has zero or fewer health points after damage and modifications are taken into account).

My general assessment so far is that the single-game strategy in pokemon seems more constrained and basic than in chess or go. It seems that the real art and skill is in deck building and the meta-game. Once you have chosen your deck and your opponent has chosen their deck, there is less correlation in the outcome of a match with skill level than there is in the other games I mentioned. But the skill really only gets tested completely when you have access to many different cards, strong opposition and a shifting universe of available cards. Without some of these features, the creative process is less demanding and less beneficial.

I would say that in addition to this negative gambling aspect parents should be aware that the entire Pokemon concept is based on "gotta catch 'em all!" (this is the pokemon theme phrase). The movies, cartoons, video games, etc. all feature collecting or catching as many pokemon as possible and training them into stronger and stronger versions to do battle.

If your child has any sort of obsessive impulse, this can be an issue because there are hundreds of Pokemon types (maybe 400 or so) and each type has multiple versions from past card series. The rarer ones are difficult to obtain so you end up with many duplicates of basic or common cards, but few of the more desirable rare cards. Needless to say this can quickly become expensive.

Overall, I'm comfortable with the game. The kids certainly enjoy it and I think the negative aspects aren't all that bad if the game is played in moderation.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

2009 National K-12 Chess Championship

The 2009 National K-12 Chess Championships will be held in Dallas, Texas this year from December 11-13th. Richie will be participating in the Kindergarten section. It took in a couple of months to regain his form from last year, but I think it's safe to say that he's playing quite a bit more strongly now than he was at the time of the Supernationals last Spring and is as well prepared as he could be for the nationals.

The two areas that I think he's definitely progressed in recently are his depth of tactical reading and his comfort with and use of slower time controls. Of course he has lapses all the time, but overall, I would say that his gross blunder rate is much lower than last year and that has resulted in more wins against higher rated opposition.

A word about ratings: In a previous post I had stated that ratings are an unbiased, and highly accurate indicator of practical chess strength. There is, however, a caveat. Ratings tend to better *relative* indicators within an active player pool than they are *absolute* indicators between players from different pools. Of course there is always a gradual adjustment of any misaligned ratings as players cross over from one pool to another but it is still quite easy to have a couple hundred ratings point difference between equivalent players playing in separate pools. I think our own experience has been that in CT, ratings can easily be inflated by 200 points over NYC ratings at the lower levels. In NY, the large player base and tendency for tournaments to have players from many different schools present leads to very consistent and accurate ratings for pretty much the whole city. In CT, it is possible at the lower levels to still be playing virtually entire fields of unrated or novice players even in 2nd and 3rd grade. An experienced player would have no trouble beating such a field, and could quickly achieve ratings of 1000+ but they might still struggle against a 600 rated NY player that has been competing regularly against other 600 rated players with some experience and coaching. Even within NYC there are overlapping, but on the other hand, graduated competition levels based on age group: many tournaments offer K-1, Primary (K-3), and Reserve (K+) sections which all might feature fields with top ratings close to 900, but the older, more experienced sections are without a doubt tougher at the same rating level.

In our case, Richie's peak nominal rating of almost 900 was achieved over a year ago after winning some local CT tournaments, but immediately dropped 250 to 300 points when he started playing tournaments in NYC against more experienced and deeper fields. He's since re-established that level but essentially he's "improved" from a CT 900 to a NY K-1 900 to a NY Primary 900 to a NY Reserve 900, while showing little peak rating change.

It will be interesting to see how things shake out at the Nationals which offers one of the few opportunities for direct comparison between regions (albeit on a small sample set). My suspicion, though, is that New York is one of the more underrated regions *on average.* Having said that, obviously ratings don't win tournaments, otherwise, players wouldn't need to bother showing up at all...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ray Robson achieves Grandmaster title

With Ray Robson reaching Grandmaster status, I thought I'd revisit this chart showing the ratings histories of some of the top junior chess players in the country (and Richie). This list is just representative. There are many other very strong chess players in each age cohort, but these were the ones that I was interested in comparing. [Edit: I had to republish this chart because Richie was upset to discover that he wasn't blue like Ray Robson. So sorry Ray Robson, but you're now magenta...]

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

2009 Grade National Chess Championship Player List

Last year when we went to the SuperNationals I had a spreadsheet where I recorded the players in the K-1 section. I used it to keep track of the top handful of players names and most recent ratings on the USCF website. Due to the lag between the most recently used USCF supplement and the actual tournament date, current ratings will often be a better indicator of playing strength than the listed rating from the official tournament publications.

I have a small story which probably says too much about chess parents in general and me in particular. Before the first round I was chatting with another parent as our kids played some practice games. The subject of ratings came up and we talked a little about how impressive some of the top players were. Then he reached into his bag and surreptitiously handed me a piece of paper. Imagine my surprise as he said, "I've recorded all of the most recent ratings from the USCF website. You can use this to see how strong your kids opponents really are." As I imagined the two of us (and who knows how many others) clicking through the torturous USCF website and scribbling down the latest ratings in the wee hours of the night, I got to thinking that there was probably a better way to do this.

This year, to spare myself the trouble, I wrote a small program to do the work for me. Once I had the data and a way to refresh it easily, I needed a nice way to put it on the blog. I found this is a neat applet to publish data on the internet from Socrata.

And voila! I will be keeping this as up-to-date as possible until the tournament start.

2009 Grade National Chess Tournament, Dallas TX

Powered by Socrata

Heat map of number of entries by state.


Monday, November 9, 2009

Chess In The Schools

A couple of weeks ago, Richie and Alyssa played in their first Chess-In-The-Schools Tournament. For those who don't know, CIS hold free tournaments throughout the academic year at public schools in the NY City school districts. Amazingly, CIS is one of two separate free chess programs in NYC (along with The Right Move) which co-exist alongside several well-organized and popular paid alternatives (NYChessKids, National Scholastic Chess Foundation, Continental Chess Association and several private schools that hold their own regular tournaments. There's even the Marshall Chess Club for higher rated players).

If you are at all a follower of scholastic chess you'll be familiar with the exceptional performance of certain NY public school chess teams at national scholastic tournaments. Many of these schools serve lower-income and minority residential areas which demonstrates quite convincingly that chess is an equal opportunity mind sport. After visiting the infamous IS318 (home of chess instructor extraordinaire, Elizabeth Vicary), it's really quite obvious to me why these schools are able to consistently turn out nationally competitive teams. (Observant readers will be able to make Elizabeth out in the photo).

If ever a picture was worth a thousand words, the few I post here certainly would make a short novel. When the top chess players in the school are prominently lauded on a chess hall of fame, and the hallways are decked with championship banners and newspaper clippings of past conquests and students have access top enthusiastic and top flight chess coaching, it's no mystery at all why IS318 is a perennial top-runner in team competitions.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Weakest Link

I happened to overhear a conversation that a father of a novice player was having with one of the NY chess coaches. The father was saying something like, "he seems really strong to me, he can play exceptionally well for 4-5 moves in a row but will then blunder a piece and throw away the game. If only he could play like that the whole game, I'm sure he'd do much better..." And the coach nodded and assured the man of his son's obvious talent for the game, etc.

I think this is really a common thought among parents of beginner or improving players. And it's pretty much universally true. Everyone could probably play 100-200 points stronger if they eliminated the 1 worst blunder from their games.

It's so common, in fact, that thinking this way is sort of a trap. It's easy to convince yourself that the player is somehow better than the results. The harsh reality is that the chess rating system is amazingly accurate given enough time. Rating is the unbiased, brutally honest measure of your strength as a chess player. I've often found myself thinking that Richie, for instance, should really be rated 200 points higher but why do I really think that? Perhaps it's because he beats me occasionally. But the problem is that when we play casually, do I really take the time to think and play near my full strength? Am I subconsciously soft-playing him? Surely letting him take back that one obvious blunder couldn't make a signficant difference. There's no way he'd make that kind of gross error in a slow tournament game, right?

I picked out a recent game to illustrate the point. Richie played this game against another player rated almost the same as him. Amazingly, even after putting this game through a chess engine, I could only identify 1 major blunder. In fact the game was within about 1.0 pt (1 pawn) of even until that blunder. It's no wonder that Richie playing strength seems to so hard for me to comprehend when he can play a nearly blunderless game with excellent positional control, only to uncork a stinker like 18... Bd3?? for no obvious reason. And this isn't exactly a fluke since he made an almost identical error later in the same tournament.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Structured Thought Processes

I was reading through some of Dan Heisman's excellent chess articles. One thing I like a lot about his writings on ChessCafe is his focus on the practical requirements to play well and improve. One lesson he gives is the importance of playing well throughout the game. After all, it only takes one major blunder to lose a game. At the scholastic level this is especially important. It's not a natural act for a young child to look at the board from their opponent's point of view or to weigh the consequences of their actions and consider multiple options before physically acting. The vast majority of players in the K-1 age group are playing the first decent looking move they can find. Alyssa and Richie have developed their basic skills enough and have been playing long enough that I thought it was time to introduce a structured thought process into their game. The idea is to have a few steps that you go through each and every move of the game. I had looked through some example processes in various sources but I thought for my kids that it was important to keep it relatively simple. It wouldn't do any good to give them a 12 step checklist since they'd never be able to do it.

The first thing I did was give them the analogy of the weakest link. I described a chain that had all its link made of steel and one of it's links made of play-doh. I asked them to imagine someone pulling on this chain. I explained that in a chess your game can only be as good as the weakest moves you make.

For the structured thought process, therefore I asked them to remember these things. Most importantly, I asked them to do this *every move* of the game.

On their turn:
1. Look for threats. Look at the last moved piece, scan the squares it attacks and check for moves that go through the square it left. This is far and away the most important thing to learn.
2. Choose three candidate moves that do not obviously lose material. Here is where you can really make things complicated if you want. But at this stage I wanted a realistic goal. In practice I've told them that some moves they should consider are moves that answer a threat defensively, moves that attack the opponents pieces or king, moves that move your pieces into more active positions. For Richie, I've asked him specifically to analyze in-between moves carefully.
3. Visualize their opponent's best response to their candidate moves, try to visualize at least three half-plies ahead, particularly if they are forcing their opponent to do something (e.g. checks, queen attacks, attacking a free piece).
4. Play the move they like the best

I noticed that during their games, they would focus when it was their turn but tune out when it wasn't their turn. I said that if you watched grandmaster's play, they thought just as hard during their opponent's turn as they did on their own. Since it can be difficult to guess what their opponent is going to do, rather than spend all their effort finding what they think might be likely continuations, I suggested that they should try something different.

When it's their opponents turn:
1. Look at all of their opponents pawns and pieces and identify which ones are weak.
2. Look for weak square that are not defended which can be reached by their pieces.
3. Look for three-move-plans. Pick an objective and find a three move sequence that helps accomplish that plan.

I've been talking talking to them about this process for about one month. I asked them recently to play a game against each other where they talked about the process out loud and I enforced the process at each move.

Not surprisingly they played a wonderful game. To all of our surprise, the game lasted nearly two hours and none of us noticed. Around move 50 I suspended the exercise and put them on a clock. The idea was to see if they could do an abbreviated version: look for threats, pick 2 candidate moves. Alyssa who was playing white and had been winning stumbled a bit under the time pressure but otherwise played well above her level in my opinion.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Teaching Game

I was taking a nap one day and somewhere in the middle of it, as I drifted between states of consciousness, I heard the sweet sound of Yunzi stones snapping on a bamboo board. Now I'm not 100% sure I heard this correctly, but on the edge of my consciousness I heard Richie reviewing a part of a game with Alyssa. He was saying, and I quote, "in this situation you could just play here, because then I go here, and you connect here." I'm a little vague on the exact wording but I'm sure about the vocabulary used. I recall thinking "situation" is a strange word for him to be using (I've never heard it from him before), and realized he must be mimicking my own review language. But as I enjoyed the moment, wishing to somehow stop time or bottle up the scene somehow, I soon fell back to sleep. When I awoke, Richie told me he played a 9 handicap game with Alyssa and lost. I said 9 stones is too many for a 13x13 board, but he was said "yeah, but I invaded all over the place, and I could have won."

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Feng Yun Summer Go Workshop

Last week we attended the Feng Yun Summer Go Workshop in Somerset, NJ. I had noticed an announcement in the American Go Association E-Journal mentioning the workshop and decided to attend with my family on a whim. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised. There are comparatively few opportunities for young players (or adults, for that matter) to play go and get exposure to strong players for instruction so I was really looking forward to having Richie & Alyssa get a proper beginner's introduction to the game. Having a chance to learn something myself was an added bonus. I was a little concerned that the attendence might be low, but the turnout was actually pretty healthy. There were over 20 players in attendence, and importantly, there were at least 7 that were about the same age as our kids, most of whom were absolute beginners. I was a little surprised that I was only one of two adults in attendence, but the healthy number of (mostly Chinese) kids, really added to the fun for our children who had an absolute blast running around the hotel with the other kids in between lessons.

The daily schedule was intensive but manageable even for the young ones. All meals are included and prepared in the hotel, which definitely streamlines the go experience. Each day after breakfast there was a 3 hour instructional session from 9-12pm, followed by lunch, a 2nd session from 1 to 4pm, an afternoon physical activity break from 4-6pm, followed by dinner and an evening session from 7-9pm. At first I thought this heavy a schedule would be too difficult and that our kids would get tired or restless, but surprisingly they had plenty of energy and seemed to enjoy even the late evening session.

The group was divided into 3 sections--a dan level group, a kyu group and a beginner group--and the activities were different for different groups. For the kyu players, usually the morning and afternoon session consisted of initial instruction (either a game review or solving problems) followed by an hour of ladder tournament games which continued all week. The dan level players spent most of their time playing teaching games with the visiting Chinese pro, Xue Lei 4p, who played 3-4 players simultaneously.

As a side note, I was surprised to find out that the Xue Lei had no problem playing several games simultaneously *and* could recall any particular game accurately hours or even a day later. All of the dan players could more or less remember their games as well.

I was especially interested in how the beginners were instructed and was pleased to find out that Feng Yun herself, a 9-dan professional player, actually taught around half of the beginner sessions while the rest were taught by Paul Matthews, himself a strong amateur player. Each of the beginners was given a book of problems which looked like material from a Chinese go instructional program. It consisted of an introduction to the rules of go, a few sections of basic problems (without answers), and a few sample openings. There were conceptual sections (corners, sides, center), meaning of the different lines, etc. and I was not that surprised to find out that it was very similar to the Korean books I recently purchased. The main differences seemed to be that the Chinese book was a little less entertainment focused (no cartoons), and had more exercises per section. Their lessons varied between working through the workbooks, playing each other, and playing handicap games.

I found out that the operator of the hotel is a go enthusiast and parent and had generously reduced the hotel rates which explains how the cost could be so low. At around $300 per person, including accommodation and meals for 5 days, the workshop certainly offers excellent value. The cost varies depending on whether you will need your own room or can double up with other attendees, but either way it's a bargain.

Probably the most difficult aspect of such a workshop (which it turned out was mainly for young players) is to balance serious study with fun. In my case, with such young children, I was only looking for them to have a better idea of how the rules of the game worked and some basic, beginner strategy. By far the most important thing was for them to like playing go and enjoy themselves. For some of the older children, some of the time, there were a few very minor discipline issues along the way, but overall I felt the right balance was maintained quite admirably.

I suppose the strongest endorsement of all comes from Richie & Alyssa who were both sad to leave. Richie wanted to know why we couldn't stay longer and Alyssa has said that she would like to come again.

It's too early for me to say if we'll be able to attend any of the upcoming workshops (which are held twice a year) but I certainly hope we can.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Nice Attack for a 5 year old

Richie hasn't been playing much chess this summer but over the last week we started playing a few games. He's very inconsistent right now. Sometimes he misses mate-in-one threats and he is generally playing more instinctively than actually calculating moves from what I can tell. During one particular such game, I tried to show him the folly of playing without thinking. He carelessly allowed is King to get too exposed when I had 2 minor pieces a rook and a queen in striking distance. I told him "with this much material nearby a checkmate is almost inevitable when your king walks to the center" The next day he played a game on ICC and produced this nice attack that showed he was paying attention. The beginning of the game has a few positional bumbles like allowing his pawns to get doubled but the material was still close. His opponent made a few inaccurate moves and Richie took full advantage.

I've had to switch PGN display methods as is now defunct. Unfortunately, after emailing Andrew, I found out that all of our stored games records are lost. This is a big disappointment because I don't think I had kept separate records. I'll try to go back at some point and replace the games that aren't displaying but I'm not optimistic that I'll be able to.

Fortunately chessflash is even nicer and as an added bonus the game will be directly embedded in the html source so even if chessflash goes down, I'll be able to recover the game records.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Gludion in Blogger

I got gludion working in blogger! Sweet. It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. All credit to this flash tutorial which pointed the way for me, except the google site maker they used is no longer current.

For anyone that wants to do this yourself, here are the steps I used.

1. I created a page on Google Sites. This is where I uploaded the executable swf file and sgf files.

2. Download Gludion. The only file you need is the file goswf.swf.

3. Use the menu in the upper right of Google sites to "manage the site" and on the left had sidebar there is an option to upload attachments. Upload the goswf.swf file and an sgf file.

4. In blogger, or presumably anything similar, you can embed the player using html like this:

<embed src=""
flashVars="c0=#83E9F3&c1=#E5E5E5&c2=#AABBAA&url=wanhychen-Hisashi.sgf" quality="high" allowscriptaccess="always"
type="application/x-shockwave-flash" pluginspage=""
align="middle" height="400"

And Presto!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pokemon TCG, Good Thing Or Curse?

For those who don't know TCG refers to Trading Card Game. Pokemon, the aggressively marketed, Japanese anime import has a variety of related product lines such as video games, TV shows and movies associated with it. But perhaps the most interesting among them from my point of view is the strategy/collecting card game. Pokemon TCG falls into an entire category of strategy card games most popularly represented by Magic the Gathering and Yugioh.

Like chess and go, TCG's are turn-based strategy games that are generally played between two players, but that's pretty much where the similarity ends.

Briefly, TCG's usually involve two players drawing cards from their own deck and battling with character cards based on rules of engagement/attacks/moves that are unique to each card type. A variety of rules govern interactions between cards which greatly affect game play. Because there are unseen cards and decks are randomized, TCG's are games of imperfect information. In addition, each player designs his/her deck prior to the start of the game, selecting a fixed number of cards from a pre-arranged universe of playable cards.

The marketing masterstroke, however, is undoubtedly the fact that the game designers periodically release new cards into the game and may even introduce new rules or clarifications to govern play with the new cards. This not only ensures that players continue to purchase products (cards) from the designers, but it adds a so-called "meta-strategy" to the game. As new cards are introduced, strategically powerful deck arrangements come into popularity. But if certain deck arrangements become too popular, it is possible to do well in competition by designing a deck which works well to counter the popular configurations.

Though the number of turns in a typical game is usually quite small (relative to chess and go), the number of potential card-sets/strategies is very, very large. When the game is well-balanced (there are no clearly dominant deck choices), the overall complexity seems to be quite high, perhaps even much higher than with perfect information games like chess and go.

As an old fogie that basically post-dated the popularity of TCGs, the whole trend is something I basically missed so I have very little knowledge of how to actually play these games.

But recently, Richie has become keenly interested in Pokemon which is widely recognized as the sort of "gateway" TCG game, targeted at the pre-teen set. Basically the young kids get hooked in from the cutesy cartoons and if all goes well, they (or more likely their parents) end up buying thousands of Pokemon, Yugioh, Magic, etc. cards over the next 15 years. The parallels with substance abuse is not accidental. In recent years, with the popularity of various forms of poker, we've actually seen quite a few former TCG champions emerging as tournament poker winners which isn't all that surprising considering that poker, too, is a game of imperfect information where strategy and meta-strategy can give a player an edge.

At this point, several of Richie's friends that are a couple of years older (he's 5 now) collect the cards but they don't actually play the game by the rules. They seem to be more interested in collecting their favorite characters or cards that appear to be strong cards, but they really don't know how to play by the rules.

So the question is whether I should this be something I let Richie really get into? There is probably as much of an argument for Pokemon as there is for chess as a mental development tool. But the whole card collecting aspect, where ever more high powered cards are needed to compete effectively is somewhat of a turnoff. To put it into concrete terms, Richie has decided that he wants a particular card for his upcoming birthday and is willing to spend $35 on it. This is for a card which will, in all likelyhood, be worthless in a couple of years at the latest.

Well, rightly or wrongly, I decided tentatively that we'd take the plunge and see how it works out. The main positive side-effect I hope to get out of this is that it might spur him to learn how to read a little quicker. Right now he basically relies on memory and by reading some of the key numbers on the cards but eventually, if he wants to play properly, he'll need to know how to read and understand the cards and the rules.

I have purchased a few "theme" decks, a rulebook and strategy guide, and of course Richie got his special card. I guess that will be enough to get started.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Summer Doldrums Redux

Just like last summer, our chess activities dropped off significantly towards the end of the school year. The kids played just couple of tournaments after the supernationals with uninspiring results. In the last tournament Richie accepted a draw against one of his friends in a completely winning position and it reminded me of the scene in Searching for Bobby Fischer where Josh offers a draw to share the championship with his opponent even though he sees that he has a forced win in like 10 moves. We'll have to see what we can do about stamping out that weakness (kidding). We have enrolled them in a summer chess program at Darien High School for a few weeks but except for the very occasional home game I don't expect them to play much before the next school year. Unfortunately I believe their new school will not have a chess club so they won't be able to play anymore in school. For the last few months, Richie has declined to play chess with me at all, but the other day, he took up the challenge. I played quickly but fairly seriously so I was actually a little surprised to lose. I told him that I was no longer going to go easy on him because he had gotten too good for that. Based on that game, I guess he might have improved over the last few months, but it has been harder for me to tell without actually playing him and with his relatively poor recent tournament results.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


We visited Washington Square Park. It was our first time back since Richie was 4. The last time he was there he was just learning how to move the pieces! What a difference a year makes. I asked Richie to play a game against "Cornbread." I'm not sure what his strength is, but he pretty easily beat me through simple positional play when we went into a knight vs. bishop endgame and I ran low on time so I presume he's around my strength or higher. Richie was reluctant at first. So I played went for his weakness: he had recently depleted his savings on a trip to Target, as he loaded up on Bakugan accessories. So I offered him an exorbitant prize to see if that would get him in the saddle. I was 100% sure he would lose to be honest because Cornbread was obviously pretty strong at speed chess. Then Richie pulled a fast one on me and exclaimed "No time!" before sitting down to play. Cornbread was eager to earn his $2 fee so he agreed and put away the clock.

Richie went into his zone and played quite literally the best game I've ever seen him play. It's a shame that I didn't record the moves so all I can do is give the eyewitness account. The game started out unusually, with Cornbread as black avoiding any standard double king pawn formation and instead opting for a somewhat cramped but solid development. Richie reacted with an early Queen foray to b3, and I sighed inwardly when I saw it because I assumed that Cornbread would find some way to exploit it later. Richie placed his pieces well, however, and found away to establish the e4-e5 pawn duo after first pinning and exchanging one of Cornbread's centralized pieces. When Richie found the d3-d4 advance after spending a full minute in contemplation, Cornbread smiled knowingly and seemed to realize that he was in for a sterner challenge then he had imagined. A lot of kids can learn how to develop all their pieces--they often do so by rote, knights to c3 and f3, bishops to c4 or f4, etc. Finding a good plan at the start of the middle game takes a much more complete chess understanding and calculation ability. At this point, Cornbread tucked his King away but Richie's firm hold on the center probably gave him a small advantage, though material was still even. Richie's clear 3rd rank allowed for a transfer of his Queen to the Kingside, obligating Cornbread to shift some of pieces to avoid any tactics on f7. Then Richie doubled up his rooks on the c-file even though it was pretty clear that nothing could come of it immediately as Cornbread countered by defending his c-pawn with a rook. After another long pause, Richie seemed to think that he was ready for the attack, and many many games of playing the King's gambit, led him to a bold decision, f4! Cornbread seemed unfazed and even said that he thought Richie might have given him "the chance he needed" as he moved his Queen with check to the g1-a7 diagonal. I knew Richie was really serious about winning when he spent a good 30 seconds deciding how to handle the check, eventually opting correctly for a move to h8. Cornbread had already lost his dark-squared bishop so it would be difficult for him to find any mate on h7 for instance. A few moves later and Cornbread was induced to lose his e-pawn to prevent the f5 push and also weaken his kingside castle with g6. Then Richie found a really nice sequence of queen maneuvers. First he repositioned to bring in another minor piece to the attack. Cornbread defended deftly, but after Richie switched the focus to the queenside by eyeing the rook on c8 with his bishop, Cornbread was forced to abandon defense of his c-pawn or lose the exchange. Richie picked up the c-pawn gaining a concrete material advantage and control of the c-file. The rest was pure Art of Attack-like. First he penetrated his rook to the 7th rank. Then after bringing his queen back to the kingside, he spotted a puzzle-like mate-in-3 combination that was led off by a rook sacrifice. The game lasted a full 30 minutes and I was surprised to find a small crowd had gathered and were giving Richie an ovation. He smiled shyly but I knew that he was very proud of his game. Most chess lovers know the thrill of playing a game where your opponent avoids obvious blunders but you manage to convert several minor advantages into a decisive attack. If the finale is a sacrificial mating attack, it's really chess heaven. I think this game may mark a new turning point for Richie. I hope he realizes that games that are won "fairly" are more interesting and enjoyable than games that are won by unsound tactical tricks. If so I think he is going to get much more out of chess in the future.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Supernationals IV

We had a great time at the Supernationals. The Opryland resort was quite a spectacle and was much larger than I had imagined. Richie competed in the K-1 Open section, but as a Pre-K he was at a bit of a disadvantage versus the field. He managed to garner 4.0/7.0 but he lost his first two rounds which meant that all of his remaining games were against lower rated opponents. That was a little unfortunate because I was hoping he'd get a chance to play some stronger players. I was a little surprised at how well his opponents rated around 300 to 600 played. To their credit they appeared to be playing much stronger than their ratings suggested they would. I guess most of the kids do some amount of preparation leading into the event and also they've had the benefit of a full academic year to strengthen their skills. Some are probably under-rated because they don't play in rated events that often as well. This seems to be less of a factor early in the year but towards the end there's more of a chance it seems that players will be mis-rated.My main goal for the trip was to spend some quality father-son time with Richie so we spent the time between rounds watching cartoons (Hikaru no Go, of course!), wandering the site, getting snacks, etc. rather than playing chess or preparing. I suppose if I were more serious I would have made more effort to make sure he was well rested and I would have asked him to play games or do tactics, but I felt it was more important this trip to make it more play and less work.

We did enter one of the simultaneous events given by Grandmaster Yuri Shulman. This turned out to be a nice experience. Richie and I had a little "last longer" wager which he won. He played a great sicilian with some nice thematic maneuvers that gave him surprisingly good counterplay against a Shulman's kingside assault before he lost to some tactics. Whereas I bungled the opening of my game and ended up being completely tied up and strategically lost by move 12 I'd say.

We played several games of Plunder Chess between rounds and Richie really took a liking to it. Of course we ended up coming home with a set. I don't really object to chess variants in general. I think they help in some ways because they force you to think creatively because you can't rely on the crutch of known patterns.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Heading to Supernationals IV

Richie and I are off to the Supernationals IV tomorrow. It's actually a bit of an accident that we're even going at all. I had made reservations for the Opryland hotel just in case we decided to go but I was 90% sure we wouldn't. The main reason I wasn't interested in going this year was that Richie is still in Kindergarten. (Actually he I should probably refer to him as Pre-K since he will be entering Kindergarten next year) but they only have a K-1 section. He has pretty much no shot at winning and only a small chance of getting the all important trophy so I was inclined to pass and just wait for next year. But, and let this be a lesson to myself for the future, I naively listened to the booking agent who originally told me I could cancel with 48 hours notice. That's apparently true for normal hotel reservations but not for conventions like the Supernationals. So I was basically stuck with the reservation and had to scramble to make other arrangements so it didn't go to waste.

It's nice though to go to the tournament just for the experience (at 5000 players it's the biggest chess tournament in history). I won't be so concerned about preparation because the results are not as meaningful this time and I can focus on making sure Richie is getting an enjoyable and edifying chess experience. It's actually awful that I care so much about the results at tournaments to begin with but to be perfectly honest with myself, they always matter to some degree. Having said that, the most uplifting chess parent moment I've had recently was when I showed Alyssa a grandmaster game that involved opposite side castling and a spectacular double edged race to land the first blow. At the end of it she said, "that game was so cool, I like that one a lot." She's always been more of an artistically minded person, so I had hoped that the creative side of chess would appeal to her, and it seems like the seeds of chess appreciation are taking root.

CT State K-1 Open Champion

Richie recently competed in the Connecticut State Scholastic Chess Championships and was fortunate enough to take the K-1 title. He scored 3.5/4.0 in the preliminaries and 3.0/4.0 in the finals. Due to the limited number of participants, however, he was playing in a combined K-3 group and ended up finishing with the highest score for Kindergarten or 1st graders. He won on a sort of technicality, however, because the actual highest 1st grade finisher (Julian Wang), was awarded the K-3 Open title which left Richie as the next highest finisher.

After it was all over, I guess it was worthwhile but I have to admit I had my doubts after the preliminary round. Unlike last year, which attracted probably over 200 players and was held at Yale University in a single day, this year's event was curiously split into two rounds. Only the top five resident finishers (and players rated higher than a pre-determined rating cutoff) were eligible for the finals. Also the finals were held in Storrs, CT which was quite a long way from home. I'm not sure if it was the tournament structure, or the effect of the recession, or what, but sadly the state championship only had about 60 players in all age groups. It was actually smaller than an ordinary weekend tournament in NY. The kindergarten and 1st grade sections had only six players (!) in the preliminaries which almost assured Richie of making the finals. Thankfully in the finals they combined his age group with older kids so at least he got to play a couple of rounds with opponents rated near his level.

He did have an enjoyable time, in part because a few of the players from his chess club (Alex Zarikos, Julian Wang) also did well.

As for his playing, I would have to say that it was a mixed result. He still appears to be unable to compete with 1000+ rated players. I'm curious to see what changes will occur in the next few months that will make him stronger than 1000 in practice. I already believe firmly that he is playing at a level at least on par with some of those kids but he doesn't seem to put it together during a tournament for some reason. His playing style is becoming more of an attacking, slash and burn style which is good against unrated opponents who offer little resistance, but some the soundness of his attacks is often more strictly tested by the slightly more seasoned 1000+ players.

In a warm up tournament in NYC, Richie had his first perfect score in a Reserve section tournament (for players rated over 800). In his play, I saw some more confident attacking skills coming into play like purposeful exchange sacrifices and creation of open lines with pawn moves. I would definitely characterize him right now as dangerous. Certain types of positions he can probably play like a 1200 player but clearly other types of games expose big holes in his knowledge base.

It will be interesting to see how he fares at the upcoming Supernationals.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Dangers of the In-Between Move

Richie is quite fond of the so-called "in-between" move where a player needs to make a certain move (e.g. save a piece) but can make a forcing move beforehand and improve his position. This is a somewhat advanced play for a Kindergartener to make because to pull it off it really requires that the player understand what a forcing move is and check all possible opponent responses to make sure that he benefits. Unfortunately Richie isn't always careful enough in evaluating if it makes sense. Sometimes when his piece gets attacked, rather than save it, he attacks somewhere else, intending to save his piece after the in-between move. He sometimes fails to find his opponent's best response which can leave him with 2 pieces en prise for example.

In this case it works out for him but it shouldn't have.

By the way. This is his first game that I've seen with the closed Sicilian which no one has ever showed him.

Can you spot the in-between blunder? Highlight below for the answer:
19. .. Bxd3? 20. exd6 Bxe2 21. Rfe1? {Nxe2 wins a piece} Bxf3

NY City and State Championships

We recently attended both the NYC and NY State Championships. The NYC championship was held at the New Yorker hotel in midtown Manhattan. The venue was quite nice since the playing area was in a ballroom with high ceilings. It was a step up from the normal playing experience. Unfortunately it was also extremely crowded and there was limited seating area for parents. Richie did well and finished as the highest Kindergartener with a score of 4.0/5.0. That was good enough for 10th place. His one loss came against an unrated opponent who turned out to be pretty strong and played patiently and methodically. I thought it was interesting that afterwards Richie wanted play that boy in some skittles games and at a faster pace had little difficulty winning. I mentioned to him that the reason he lost in the tournament was most likely that he was moving too fast. I'm not sure if the message sank in though because he is still a quick player and doesn't have the patience still for extended thought on important moves. I guess the maximum he's spending is 10 or 15 seconds on a move and the longer games he plays are probably a result of his opponent taking longer for their moves.

At the NY States, Richie didn't have as much success, finishing with a score of 2.0/5.0 against a pool of Kindergarten and 1st graders. He came into the event rated in the top 10, so I thought he had a chance of getting a trophy (top 20 got trophies), but a few critical errors against lower-rated opponents ended his chances. Generally speaking, Richie is unsuccessful against higher-rated opponents and rate of upset is relatively low. I would have actually thought that he'd have more mixed results against higher rated opponents and random results against lower rated opponents because I think his peak playing level is pretty high (maybe 1100) but he's inconsistent especially if he's tired. But the results speak otherwise. Richie may have gotten a little over-confident and wasn't interested in playing games or doing tactics before his matches (and hadn't really played in the preceding days). Even though we told him he didn't win enough games for a trophy he wanted to attend the award ceremony just in case. He was visibly disappointed when they finished calling out the winners. We felt badly for him but the upside is that he showed much more interest in playing again.

Interestingly, Alyssa managed to win a game against a 1000 rated opponent. She was thrilled with the result even though she was 2.0/6.0 I think her confidence was pretty high afterwards. I really admire Alyssa's fighting spirit. She has kind of come around to the game and seems to be enjoying the challenge more. She played one game that lasted over an hour and though she lost you could tell that she put all her effort into winning it. I couldn't be happier. I hope she her effort starts paying off with some more wins and higher finishes. Someone mentioned to me that his daughter really had a good time at an all-girl's event. I don't know if we can find one in the area but that would probably be a good experience for her.

I tried to inject some excitement into the game by teaching them a new opening. I called it the "secret opening" and its... a secret! Alyssa really liked the idea of springing a surprise on her opponents. Unfortunately her opponents went out of her "book" by the third move. Still she got good opening positions and really lost her games in the middle and endgame, so I guess the secret opening is sort of a success.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Alyssa is getting stronger

Alyssa has improved by leaps and bounds recently. She is still a little inconsistent, but when she's focused the results are much better than before. This is a nice example of the counter-punching potential of the French Defense against an over-ambitious white side. Alyssa plays black and makes some fine defensive moves to parry the initial attack and then aggressively seizes the initiative while her opponent goes pawn-grabbing. I was so impressed with it that I awarded it with our household "Great Play!" prize for the week. This is a new concept which I am starting today. I made did a little editing to change a free online award certificate into a chess certificte. I think it came out pretty nicely.

Periodically, I will select one of their games for the Great Play award. The conditions are that it must be a recorded game (ICC 15 minutes or longer, or tournament game), and it should demonstrate relatively strong play at all stages of the game. By relatively strong, I mean of course relative to their current skill level. Finally, to receive the award (maybe a choice of Blockbuster movie, or proceeds towards a book, or two hours of weekday Wii/PS3 time or equivalent), the winner must present the game to the rest of the family by demonstrating the moves over the board and telling us what is going on. I don't know yet how this is going to go, but I think I want to foster a sense of pride for creating exemplary games. Chess

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

83rd ACTA Scholastic Chess Tournament

The kids recently played in another ACTA tournament. This one was unrated and was unique in that all 65 or so kids won trophies (winners choose first)! It was very successful in terms of entertainment value. Richie, who played up in the Primary section, ended up being undefeated which would have been a performance rating of around 1050, I guess, had it been rated. Alyssa played a great tournament and won 3.0/4.0. She was very proud to have earned to right to choose one of the larger trophies. Richie reached another milestone as he recorded his first tournament game by hand. Surprisingly the game score was completely accurate. When Alyssa started she made several errors, skipping moves or making other mistakes.

In other news, I noticed that our friend Julian Wang has made it onto the Top 100 list for age 7 and under! I'm not surprised at all, but it's still a cool thing to have achieved.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

What the ...!?

The title of this post refers to a phrase that Richie has become fond of using lately. When he's surprised by something he says "what the ...!?" I'm not sure where he picked this up from but it's always amusing to me when I hear it because he's learned it in this abbreviated form, rather than it's cruder extensions.

Anyhow, it happens to be the thought going through my mind recently in some of our chess sessions, especially since we've started playing blitz.

I suppose its a natural course of things for Richie to surpass me at chess, but I really wasn't expecting him to get close for at least a few years. A few months ago I was constantly throwing games, purposely missing better moves in favor of inferior moves that would lead him to a winning position. Once in awhile, I'd blunder badly and give up a queen or a piece but generally I didn't have much trouble equalizing. I could give him odds of a queen and still win most of the time. But gradually, the blunders were becoming more regular. They started feeling less like my mistakes, and more like situations forced on me by my diminutive opponent. The easy opening advantages became more rare. If I'm down a piece in the endgame, I am forced to concede defeat rather than embarass myself with a futile struggle. Of course I thought this was due to sloppiness on my part. Or maybe it's the fast time control, but today, for the first time, I made a real effort and still lost almost half my games with him! What the ...!? Losing to a 5 year old? You've got to be kidding.
I have to officially revise down my estimated rating. Apparently, I would struggle to win a Primary K-3 open tournament so that probably puts me safely below 1200.

It worries me that I might not have much more to teach him. I guess it will turn out that I might "know" more than him and be able to "explain" more than him, but he'll probably soon be able to "do" it better than me. For example, we recently played a quick game where we removed all except the K, pawns and two knights for him, and the K pawn and two bishops for me. I intended to demonstrate the power of two bishops by opening up the position, but my lesson plan had to be postponed after he non-chalantly forked a piece and a critical pawn then rolled through his pawns... Then I tried to punish him for using a "funny" opening (1. g3) and lost ignominiously after he punched through my overextended center and went up a piece after I miscalculated the exchanges. What the ...!?

So my first real (blitz) defeats have started occurring regularly at age 5 years and 3 months. How much longer do I have before my victories become rarities? I've spoken with other parents who have proudly mentioned that they cannot compete with their children, but I always assumed that this was just because they were complete novices themselves. I mean surely that wouldn't happen to me so soon. I've probably played thousands of games of chess in my lifetime. I'll be able to hold the line until he's 7, right? I don't know what Dee's been feeding the kid over the last 3 months but something fishy is going on here.

This post deserves some video evidence which I will try to provide in awhile.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Value of Blitz Chess

I think there are differing opinions out there about whether young players should play speed chess. The most famous of these may be from the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer," when 7 year old Josh Waitzkin's coach requests that he no longer be allowed to play speed chess in the park because it is teaching him bad habits, stating that it would make his job (of training Josh) harder. In the movie, Josh's mother ends the debate with the simple conclusion, "then I guess your job is harder."

I have to say that I side with the mother in the film. I only recently started playing blitz chess with Richie and it has had an immediate positive impact on his general playing ability. The reason for this is really simple, in my opinion. At the initial stage of learning (say rating under 600), the most common problems have very little to do with a lack of strategic knowledge, tactical strength, or even ability to calculate variations, but fall into the category of what I refer to as "sight" errors. Players become distracted or confused during the game and simply disregard the opponents last move, leading to hanging pieces or mate in 1 type errors. The best and surest way to reduce this type of error is practice. And blitz chess gives players an opportunity to practice this much faster than in slower time controls. Because blitz is fun, I found that not only do we play faster but we play longer than when we play slow chess which multiplies the number of moves played by 3x to 6x per session.

I'm sure there will come a time when blitz might begin having a negative influence, but I guess that's a ways down the road. Incidentally, many of the historical players I admire (Capablanca, Fischer, Kasparov) were fiendishly strong blitz players and are famous for their ability in post-mortem analysis for the rapidity with which they demonstrate variations. I have a theory that "intelligence," as difficult as it is to define, has a lot to do with how fast a person's brain can cycle through "variations." I have observed that even in my academic experience as a mathematics student, that my peers who had this sort of high calculation rate (as opposed to accurate or deep analysis) were generally the most successful. Of course, this may be an artifact of the correlation between practice (which would increase the cycle rate at any particular endeavor) and success. But I would suggest that there is also an inherent or innate cycle rate that gives some people a better chance of being "intelligent" than others.
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