Wednesday, May 4, 2016


I caught the last two rounds of the US Championship as they happened with LiveStream coverage and concurrent sports commentary. It was fun to see the nation's best find computer-like moves and also miss opportunities that the commentary and computer analysis allow us to see. I almost felt an attraction to the game of chess again. I don't think this translates into tournament action any time soon, just that the positives are coming back. I keep thinking about blogging about a game I played last year, but there are so many positions where the tide turned that I might have to do it in installments. Unfortunately, it will likely mean that I will beat one game to death, but so be it.

The RBvR endgame came up crucially in a Caruana-Svidler Candidates game. The winning strategy is still so opaque even though I have spent some time trying to understand it. Frustrating.

I read an article on grit yesterday. I don't have grit, at least not in my current moods. Sticktuitiveness is lacking even with my current pastime of playing hand after hand of Spider Solitaire. I hate it when a position is too deep or difficult to analyze, so my tolerance for a tough position is poor. But there was a day when I played two skittles games and the strategies and even the moves stuck with me. And winning was a good feeling.

Monday, January 25, 2016


The three-peat is already out of the cards as I declined to defend my club championship title this year. After playing my last game at the end of September 2015, I really haven't come to the board with any feeling besides indifference with a touch of loathing. A couple of strong 2100+ players are currently contending and I would put my money on either of them, but they have at least 19 games on the road to the championship.

I tried to use the title of this post as a double meaning, but astronomical declination seems hard for me completely grasp: the angle from the celestial equator, analogous to the latitude on the globe. Practical astronomy always seemed too tedious. I once had a telescope to look at the neon lights downtown, but even trying to follow the moon through the sky involved constant readjustments.

Tinkering on my computer is my main hobby these days with a touch of writing and standard consumption of movies and books. I discovered recently that the film "Butterfly Effect" starring Ashton Kutcher has two endings: a theatrical release with mostly happily ever after, and a director's cut with the main character suffering a tragic end. I hadn't seen the happy ending, but maybe it will leave me with a better impression of the film. I mourned the death of Alan Rickman who played the love-to-hate-him slick Hans Gruber in "Die Hard", the loathsome but ultimately sympathetic Severus Snape of "Harry Potter", and the funny self-parodying Alexander Dane in "Galaxy Quest".

"The Force Awakens" fed into my confirmation bias that J.J. Abrams is a rather derivative re-booter of franchises, recycling entire scenes and plots. I don't think that I am so much a fan that I need to see the same movie made over and over again. A decent helping of originality would be appreciated. Perhaps this is just my hostility showing through toward Lucas for Episodes 1-3 and toward Abrams for the Lost disappointment and Star Trek's Vulcan and Khan heresies.

On the brighter side, I am looking forward to the "WarCraft" movie and the "Zoolander" sequel and perhaps trying to "publish" something in 2016. I use the term "publish" loosely here as if publicizing things on social media such as Twitter tweets or Facebook wall posts or even Blogger blog posts are "publishing".

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


About a year ago, I blogged about an ending involving the snare-like properties of Plants vs. Zombies Winter Melon. Funny enough, a friend who didn't know I like PvZ noticed and we compared notes on the Survival:Endless levels. Here is my setup, which got me to level 1000 before I quit.

Well, I managed to survive some of my own attempts to mentally defeat myself and I won the club championship for a second year in a row. I struggled through the qualifier, grabbing the sixth seed. Funny enough, all four past club champions ended up on one side of the 8-man bracket. I defeated two players that I beat in last year's championship, this time more quickly as they each lasted 3 games each instead of last year's 8- and 6-game matches. But the finals this year took 8 games. Adding in the 9-game qualifier, the road to the championship lasted 23 games this year; last year it took 24 games.

I could complain about the length of the club championship, but perhaps the blame would be misplaced. I lack the stamina to concentrate on chess for a whole weekend swiss. Right now, I'm taking a break from chess, hoping that my natural rhythms will bring me back to it in time for the club championship qualifier after the New Year.

For now, here is the retrospective on 2015's year in chess, especially benchmarked against last year's assessment

    On the positive side:
  • Played 35 rated regular games, about 33% less than last year (54).
  • Had fun for the first 6 months.
  • Pushed my peak rating up to 2133, 1 point higher than last year (2132), but slid back down to 2105.
  • Won the club championship for a second time
  • Contended for the state championship for the second time (semifinalist)
  • Finished the year with a plus score against experts for the second time 8W-8D-6L
  • Five of my games against strong players went into trappy lines I had prepared resulting in 3 wins, 2 draws
    On the negative side:
  • Many of my games - wins, losses, and draws - seemed to be decided on luck as opposed to good technique
  • I didn't win any money, didn't finish at the top of any non-match tournaments, and felt too tired to play in weekend swisses

Fewer positives, but also fewer negatives. I'm debating whether I have enough motivation to contend for the championship again. But Plants versus Zombies also has a Threepeater plant...


As a writer, I should research a lot of information about Rubik's cube before coming to this article, but I feel lazy today and am content to direct your attention to a long list of sayings about cubers.

My family received several Rubik's cubes from a visitor when I was in 5th grade. It came with a set of pictorial instructions that taught me how to solve the cube layer by layer. I learned the algorithms and began showing off in middle school where kids would pay me a quarter to fix their cubes for them. I once solved it in 46 seconds, but it was a lucky break where the pieces fell just right. I never got too far in speed cubing, but I can regularly finish in under 3 minutes. While watching the Double Fine Adventures documentary about how the Broken Age adventure game got made, I was fascinated by how often Tim Schafer was playing with his set of cubes ranging from 2x2x2 to 5x5x5. I purchased a set for myself and they finally arrived in July. For much of the summer and early fall, I had been lost in cubing, distracting me from chess. I had never signed on to Rubik's Revenge or the Professor's Cube sequels, but now I have. Two of my chess friends have been cube crazy.

My best times for the 2, 3, 4, and 5 cubes are 0:32, 1:20, 4:45, and 8:51, respectively, which aren't anything special. One friend told me he can do all 4 in under 8 minutes cumulatively.

For some reason, I wanted to compare some of the astronomical numbers that come out of chess and cubing. Here is what I collected:

2x2x2 - Pocket Cube, Mini Cube, Ice Cube3,674,160
3x3x3 - Rubik's Cube, Magic Cube43252003274489800000
4x4x4 - Rubik's Revenge, Master Cube7.40x10^45
5x5x5 - Professor's Cube2.83x10^74
Atoms in the Universebetween 10^78 and 10^82
Positions in Chessbetween 10^43 and 10^47
Chess Game Tree Complexity10^123

Hypercube refers to an n-dimensional cube of which the standard 6-sided cube is the 3-dimensional version and the tesseract, popularly introduced in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time, is the 4-dimensional version. Don't watch the movie "Cube 2: Hypercube"; it sucked.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Practical Rook Endgames 08: Super Skewer

An attacking rook in front of its own passed pawn gets weaker and weaker the closer the pawn gets to queening because pawn keeps shortening the rook's backward aura. Such a rook belongs behind the passed pawn when it gets stronger as the pawn advances, but often this is the only way to assure that the pawn can advance. Usually this is because the attacking rook has spent so much time capturing a pawn in front that the defending rook has time to get behind the passer. In such cases, the position of the defending king becomes critical, especially when the pawn reaches the seventh rank. With White to move in the following position, the green areas are the only spots where the Black King can be in order to draw.
White can queen the pawn by moving the rook, checking the king (except for king on h6), and then playing h8=Q. The difference between a draw and a win is whether Black can capture White's last two pieces. The cluster of green squares f7, f6, g7, g6, and h7 are spots where, after White moves, the Black King can move into g7 (or h7) and eliminate the queen as soon as it appears. The cluster of two squares on a7 and b7 are places where if the rook checks on a8 or b8 respectively, the Black King simply captures the rook and then the Black Rook captures the pawn. If the king is not in contact with the 8th rank or g7, the White Rook lives long enough to protect the newly queened pawn and recaptures after h8=Q Rxh8 Rxh8. On squares such as c7, d7, and e7, the Black King is still not safe because White moves Ra8, threatening h8=Q. If Rxh7, Ra7+ skewers the king against the rook and wins the game.
A friend of mine played a game and ended up in this position:
White to move, Black is better

Black just survived a mating attack, but emerged into a rook and pawns endgame with a decent endgame advantage. His rook is actively placed near White's pawn weaknesses on a2 and c3. Black's distant a-pawn has some room to run down to a3. If White tries to stall this by playing a3 or a4, the pawn weakness on c3 falls even quicker. If the black pawn gets to a3, then Rb2 becomes a threat. Black's King is also closer to the center. Plus, Black's g-h-pawns can form an outside passer against White's lone h-pawn. At the moment, Black threatens Rb1+ and exchanging rooks. Black would have the win in the pure pawn ending because this outside passer would distract the White King while the Black King picks up c3 and d4. So those are Black's advantages.

What does White have going for him? It turns out there is one move that goes a long way toward solving his problems. 1.Rg5! hits the d-pawn which is the base of Black's central pawn chain. Black can defend with Ke6, but then White resolves one backward weakness with 2.e4! Now, White gains a dangerous protected passer at d4 and the White Rook gains a path to get behind Black's dangerous a-pawn if not capture it outright. This active plan would have gone a long way toward securing a draw. Instead, White chose a passive posting for his rook. 1.Re2

It is true that the passivity of the rook is temporary because Black can't stop e4, but one additional defect of Re2 is that Black is dangerously close to forcing the exchange of rooks. 1...a4! 2.Kg2 Kf6?!

Centralization of the king is key in endgames, but here I thought Black was better served forging ahead with 2...a3. Although Stockfish endorses this move, the win is quite difficult as both sides proceed to gobble up pawns until all that is left is Black's g- and h-pawns. 3.e4 dxe4 4.Rxe4 Rb2+ 5.Kg3 Rc2 6.d5 Rxc3+ 7.Kf2 Rc2+ 8.Ke3 Rxa2 9.d6 Rxa2 10.d7 Rh3+ 11.Ke2 Rd3 12.Rxc4 Rxc7 13.Ra4 h5 14.Rxa3 and the connected passers should win. 3.Kf3 Kf6 I thought it was futile for Black to try to prevent e4.

4.e4+ dxe4 5.Rxe4 Rb2

Here again, White faces a choice to keep his rook active or passively try to consolidate. The pure pawn endgame is not so clear for Black any more since Black has no pawn on e4. The protected passer at d4 will likely be stronger than an outside passer at g3. White is close to a draw with a variation like 6.Re5+ Kf6 7.Ra5 Rxa2 8.h4 Ra3 9.Ke4 Rxc3 10.Rxa4. Instead, White chose 6.Re2


White has something in that his rook cuts off the Black King from the passed d-pawn. However, Black just needs to stay in the square of the pawn and if White tries to advance it, an exchange of rooks should create a winning pawn endgame. White cannot exchange rooks on b2 as the passer is unstoppable. 7.Ke3

Since White is occupied with stopping the a-pawn from queening, Black can pursue a plan to create a second weakness. 7...g5! 8.Rf2+ Ke6 9.Rd2 If White does nothing, Black has a winning plan of advancing the g-pawn to g4, then the h-pawn to h3 and then creating an outside passer.

Here is a hard decision for Black. White is finally about to create activity for his rook with d5+ Kd6 Rd4. It would seem as if this should be prevented with Kd5, but then h3 h5 Rf2 seems to activate the rook anyway and now Black's g-h-pawns seem in danger. It turns out that the desertion of the second rank by the rook is good for Black's a-pawn such that even placing the g-pawn on the same rank where the rook will land is the strongest move for Black. 9...g4!

White has little choice but to follow through since h5 h4 h3 and g3 are coming. 10.d5+ Kd6 11.Rd4

Black has another interesting choice here: capture on a2 or h2. But then White has a choice also, capture on c4 or g4. The a-pawn is closest to queening, so trying to force the a-pawn to queen (and trying to prevent it) should make the choices easy. The game continued 11...Rxa2

White needs to make sure he can stop the a-pawn. If he captures Rxc4, there isn't enough time for the rook to come back to Rd2 or Rd1 to defend laterally. So Rxc4 commits to Ra4. Armed with the information given at the beginning of this post, you should be able to calculate a plan for Black after 12.Rxc4 and whether it succeeds. What's harder to calculate is that 12.Rxg4 is still lost, but Black has more work ahead. 12...Ra1 13.Rg2 a2 14.Re2! shielding the king from Re1+. Black's winning plan then is to advance his King to b3. White chose the worse variation 12.Rxc4

In this position, while watching the game, I hadn't appreciated that the plan starting with Ra1 was so fast. Here it is: 12...Ra1!

13.Ra4 a2

...and without a place to hide from check or a chance to get to g2 or b2, White is completely lost. Kf2 stops the check, but Rh1! Kg2 a1=Q queens the pawn or Rxa2 Rh2+ skewers the king on the rook. White's c-d-connected pawns are of no consequence if Black wins the rook. Instead, my friend made things hard on himself with 12...Kxd5?! Note here that White now has time to get his rook to e2 if necessary to stop Re1+. Exchanging pawns is good for the defender. 13.Rxg4 Rxh2 14.Ra4

Even with the reduction in pawns, the endgame is still quite interesting. Black retains the advantage of an advanced a-pawn. But he also has an unopposed distant h-pawn. The presence of this h-pawn as well as the placement of the Black King on d5 turns the Black Rook into a Super Skewer, able to operate on almost four whole ranks. Normally, Black would be content to advance a2, but his next move is both tricky and strong. 14...Rh3+!

Where can White's King go? Kf4 fails to Rh4+ skewering the Ra4. So retreat to the second rank seems necessary and Kd2 also holds the c3 pawn. 15.Kd2 Black exploits the position of the White King with 15...a2! White can't check the Black King indefinitely as it will just walk forward to b4 and stop the checks. White has little choice but to pursue the pawn with 16.Kc2

Here, my friend missed a golden opportunity to win easily. 16...Rh1!

The threat of course is a1=Q. White can prevent the new queen from living beyond a moment and White can also prevent Black from winning a clear rook. But because the exchanges happen on a1 or a2, Black's h-pawn runs free outside of the square of White's King. e.g. 17.Kb2 a1=Q+ 18.Rxa1 Rxa1 19.Kxa1 h5 and Black wins.

My friend was in time trouble and should be excused from missing some of the best variations. But the longer the game went on, the worse the time trouble. He played 16...h5?! 17.Kb2 Rh2+!

Black is still probably winning, but just barely. For one thing, White is close to a stalemate trap. 18.Ka1!? h4 19.Rg4 Through a combination of harassing checks and advancing the c-pawn, White just needs to get Black to play KxP and then the White Rook can check the king mercilessly, even giving itself away because the White King is stalemated.

Instead, White opted for some scary counterchances. 18.Kb3 h4 19.Rd4+

Black would like to keep the position under control by staying in front of White's passed c-pawn. Unfortunately, White has endless checks on the a- through d- files. For the win, Black has no choice but to move to 19...Ke5 Both sides race their pawns forward. 20.Rd1 h3 21.c4 Rg2 22.c5 h2 23.c6

Now my friend played an inexplicable move. 23...a1=Q 24.Rxa1 Afterward, he told me he thought he had a safe win with 24.Rxa1 Kd6? but then he realized that 25.Rh1 draws. I thought that the previous moves Rg2 and h2 set up 23...Rg1 24.c7 h1=Q 25.c8=Q

With the first move after queening, Black wins with 25...Qf3+ 26.Kb4 Rg4+ 27.Ka5 Qa3+ 28.Kb6 Rb4+ 29.Kc7 Rc4 The rook skewers once again, this time king onto queen. Once my friend realized 24...Kd6 draws, he went for 24...Rg1 25.c7 h1=Q 26.c8=Q

The Black Queen still moved first. With some judicious checks, he centralized his queen and won the rook. Then he weathered a bunch of checks, retreating with the king toward the relative safety of the space between friendly rook and queen. Finally, White ran out of checks and Black had a mating combination. 26...Qd5+ 27.Kb4 Qd4+ 28.Kb5 Rxa1 29.Qh8+ Kd5 30.Qd8+ Ke4 31.Qh4+ Kd3 32.Qg3+ Kc2 33.Qg2+ Kb3 34.Qf3+ Kc2 35.Qe2+ Kc3 36.Qg2 Rb1+ 37.Kc6 Rb6+ 38.Kc7 Qd6+ White resigned. After 2.5 hours for each side, Black had about 60 seconds remaining on his clock.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

I Want The Certificate

A couple of my friends who are masters have flaunted their master certificates on Facebook or in a blog post. I want one. I covet one. It reminds me of three conversations in my favorite chess movie. ***WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD FOR SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER MOVIE***

- - -

BRUCE PANDOLFINI: I want to show you something else. This is very rare. It says, "Master Chess Certificate...awarded to..." and there's a blank here for a name... "for highest achievement on this day of blank, nineteen hundred and blank." Careful with it. It's a mysterious and powerful thing. It's only been given out...I don't know...a few times in history. And then only to those who achieve a lot of master class points. Then there's a big ceremony and so on.
JOSH WAITZKIN: How do you get master class points?
BRUCE PANDOLFINI: You earn them. You just earned ten for that knight to c8. Ten...master...class...points.

- - -

BRUCE PANDOLFINI: It's white's move. Can we expect it any time soon?
JOSH WAITZKIN: How many points is it worth?
BRUCE PANDOLFINI: To make the opening move?
BRUCE PANDOLFINI: Forget the points.
JOSH WAITZKIN: How much is it worth if I do it?
BRUCE PANDOLFINI: Do it for its own sake. Do it for the love of the game.
JOSH WAITZKIN: I want to know how close I am to getting the certificate.
BRUCE PANDOLFINI: Forget the certificate.
JOSH WAITZKIN: But I want to know.
JOSH WAITZKIN: What do you mean you don't know?
BRUCE PANDOLFINI: I don't care. It's...white's...move.
JOSH WAITZKIN: I want the certificate.
BRUCE PANDOLFINI: [sighs] You want the certificate. You have to have the certificate. [gets briefcase] You won't move until you get the certificate. [opens it] You win. [gives him copy of certificate] Here's your certificate.
JOSH WAITZKIN: [takes it]
BRUCE PANDOLFINI: Fill it out. It doesn't mean anything. It's just a piece of paper. It's a xerox of a piece of paper. Do you want another one? [gives Josh another copy] Do you want 10? [gives Josh few more copies] Do you want 20? [continues stacking them on chess board one-by-one] 30? I've got a whole briefcase full of them. They mean nothing.
BONNIE WAITZKIN: [entering the room]
BRUCE PANDOLFINI: They mean nothing.
BONNIE WAITZKIN: Get out of my house.

- - -

BRUCE PANDOLFINI: I have something for you. It says, "This is to certify that Josh Waitzkin, on this day, has in the eyes of his teacher...attained the rank of Grandmaster."

- - -

So I decided to make myself a certificate. I googled "chess certificate" and found a suitable image to modify. The customized picture serves as the opening picture of this article. If you'd like to make your own certificate, just download the picture, add it to the background in your favorite word processor and then get to work on making up verbiage that sounds certificate-y. For my choices, I found an English Towne font to write medieval calligraphy letters. In the center of the certificate, I reproduced the club championship bracket for the year that I won the chess club championship. Printing was a bit of a disappointment because the printers within my reach don't print to the edge of the paper. Printed on 8.5 x 11" cardstock, the certificate serves as a tangible reminder of my road to the club championship.

Now if I could just pump my rating up about 67 points, I could get the certificate from the USCF that says "Master".

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Practical Rook Endgames 07: Frontal Defense in Norway

According to some records I found on the internet, when David Letterman played a slow game of chess with Garry Kasparov in 1989, after the 14th move on November 21, David declared, "There just isn't enough televised chess." While I would love to see our beloved game get the love it deserves from the general public, I understand that watching people sit at a board thinking for 95% of the time and moving small pieces for 5% of the time would not make for very exciting entertainment.

In this internet age, when YouTube has essentially made cable TV obsolete in my household, I recently discovered a wonderful guilty pleasure of watching the first leg of the Grand Chess Tour 2015 at the Norway Supertournament. The big story through the first four and five rounds was the tragedies following Norway's favorite son of chess and current World Champion Magnus Carlsen. In round 1, Magnus worked to get a completely winning position by move 60 only to let his flag fall when he didn't realize that more time was not added for reaching move 60. After round 1, their fortunes diverged so much that by the end of round 4, Topalov was alone at the top, sitting on 3.5/4 while Carlsen's name was at the bottom of the standings alone at 0.5/4. This weekend, I watched the coverage of round 4 and 5 which was quite fun. European commentators New In Chess' Editor-in-Chief Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam and German Grandmaster Jan Gustafsson have provided very insightful commentary on the games, rotating through the five boards on a regular basis, and interviewing players afterward.

Today, in the Norway Round 5 video coverage, a possible endgame popped up in the video feed at time index 03:57:30. The scenario never showed, but I was tickled that it was exactly what I had been studying lately. I was also tickled that both GM Gustafsson and GM Yasser Seirawan struggled to correctly evaluate the following endgame:

White to move and draw

1.Kd3! Re6 White breaks for a Philidor and Black cuts him off.

White to move and draw. Rule of Five says Draw. Shredder says Draw.

The Rule of Five has pawn on 3rd plus 2 cutoff files equals 5 which is not more than 5, meaning draw. Shredder says draw, but only if White plays an only move here. Gustafsson thought this was probably a draw. Seirawan thought it was probably losing. If you read my Practical Rook Endgames 04, you should correctly guess the one drawing move. 2.Ra1! Now Black can play many moves that lead to a draw, but the most testing is probably the one that makes the Rule of Five point in his favor. 2...g5. Now the Rule of Five says 4th rank plus 2 cutoff files equals 6 > 5 should be winning. However, this is a knight pawn and the Rule of Five probably doesn't apply because Black's King doesn't have a wide avenue to walk serpentine down the board toward a rook checking from f1, g1, and h1. The pawn behind can be skewered on one of the Rg1+ moves.

White to move and draw. Rule of Five says Win. Shredder says Draw.

Now, the drawing line is narrow, but doable. White uses the Frontal Defense and never lets the g-pawn get closer. 3.Rf1+! Kg4 4.Rg1+! Kh4 5.Rh1!+ Kg3 6.Rg1+! Kf4 7.Rf1+! and the Black King can't make progress. In the video, Gustafsson analyzed 3.Rf1+! Kg6 4.Rg1! Re8.

Here, Seirawan suggested 5.Kd2? but again, students of the Frontal Defense know that staying on the third and fourth ranks are the best bets for a draw. Gustafsson ignored Yasser's Kd2 and played 5.Kd4!.

Black to move, White to draw. Gustafsson and Shredder say Draw.

Gustafsson then proclaims the position a draw and goes on to admit that "I pretend like I don't, but I have read some endgame books in the old days." ten Geuzandam then asks Gustafsson what his favorite endgame book was. When he named Keres' Practical Chess Endings and Shereshevsky's Endgame Strategy, I was delighted to find both on my bookshelf.