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...
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