Sunday, December 12, 2010


"The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much."
- Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), Wall Street (1987)

"There are seven deadly sins, Captain. Gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, pride, lust, and envy."
- Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), Se7en (1995)

When the subject of the Seven Deadly sins comes up, I can remember them without too much difficulty because of the movie Se7en starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. I can picture the scene for Greed of a lawyer having died in his office trying to excise and place a pound of his flesh onto a scale.

On Saturday, Mark Madoff was found dead in his home of apparent suicide on the two-year anniversary of his father's conviction. Mark was the 46-year old eldest son of Bernard Madoff, who is serving a 150-year sentence for committing perhaps the largest fraud in history via a $50 billion Ponzi scheme. Romans 6:23 says "For the wages of sin are death..."

Greed seemed to be the theme of the last two games I played in the Holiday Swiss. In the first, I was the beneficiary of my opponent's excess greed. For you readers, I'm giving away some of my opening secrets as this is my gambit variation of the 2...Nf6 Scandinavian when I let White hold the extra pawn and offer a second one on move 8.

It was fun being a gambiteer since I could foresee the negative consequences for my opponent giving into greed. To demonstrate that this glass-house dweller is not here just to cast stones, here is the more recent game where I was summarily punished for my own greed mixed with a little sloth for not calculating thoroughly.

So the wages of greed in chess are checkmate.

In Jonathan Rowson's book, The Seven Deadly Chess Sins, he spends some time in the Extended Preface discussing sin and theology and its relevance to chess. It's quite a good read that makes me sorry I haven't made more time for more of Rowson's writings. He enumerates the deadly chess sins as thinking, blinking, wanting, materialism, egoism, perfectionism, and looseness. Specifically, he tries to equate materialism with gluttony, to which I cried foul because I thought materialism was squarely equal to greed.

It doesn't seem fair that for the most part, avaricious computers can do well with greed and materialism because any negative repercussions are usually within their brute force calculating horizons.

"What shall it profit a man if he gains material but loses the game?"
- Caissa 16:26

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Moria and Lucena

From Wikipedia:
In the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien, Moria (Sindarin for "Black Chasm") was the name given by the Eldar to an enormous underground complex in north-western Middle-earth, comprising a vast network of tunnels, chambers, mines and huge halls or 'mansions', that ran under and ultimately through the Misty Mountains. There, for many thousands of years, lived the Dwarf clan known as the Longbeards.

Lucena - Illumination. Light. Mythological Roman Goddess of Childbirth and Giver of First Light to Newborns. Also Refers to Mary As Lady of the Light.

Speak, friend, and enter. The magic word to open the door into rook endgames is Lucena, which is actually a class of positions with material of King, Rook, and Pawn against King and Rook.

The Pawn must be a non-rook pawn advanced to its seventh rank. The attacking king stands on the queening square of its own pawn. The attacking rook cuts off the defending king from the pawn by one file (e.g. pawn-file-king). The defending rook hinders the escape of the attacking king from the queening square.

The winning maneuver begins with a check from the attacking rook to create some breathing room for both the king and the pawn.
If 1...Kf6, then 2.Kf8 and g8=Q on the next move. Note that if Black tries to checkmate with 2...Ra2 3.g8=Q Ra8+, 4.Re8 is conveniently available. If 1...Kd6, White may have to deal with a counterattacking king after 2.Re4 Kd5, but 3.Rg4 should win. So the generic case is

Now comes the key move of the Lucena position.

The purpose of the move is to provide cover for the White King who must dodge a series of checks from the Black Rook. The White Rook will block the check just as the White King disconnects itself from defense of the pawn on g7. Hooper and Whyld's Oxford Companion to Chess (1992) attributed the phrase "building a bridge" to Aron Nimzowitsch.

Now, a typical sequence of moves would be:
3.Kf7 Rf1+
4.Kg6 Rg1+
5.Kf6 Rf1+
6.Kg5 Rg1+

As the attacking rook intercedes in this bridge-building maneuver, my mind drifts to the Lord of the Rings scene where the Fellowship of the Ring is running from the Balrog found in Moria. His fellows having safely crossed the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, Gandalf in the middle of the bridge turns to face the Balrog and shouts:

You cannot pass! I am the servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the Flame of Anor. The dark fire will not avail you, Flame of Udun! Go back to the shadow!

You shall not pass!

Then Gandalf sunders the Bridge and the Balrog falls, but pulls Gandalf down with his whip. To the Fellowship, Gandalf's last words are, "Fly, you fools!"

It is not until the return of Gandalf the White in the Two Towers are we told what happened.

"[We fell] through fire and water. From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak I fought him, the Balrog of Morgoth. Until at last, I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountainside. Darkness took me and I strayed out of thought and time. Stars wheeled overhead and every day was as long as a life-age of the earth. But it was not the end. I felt life in me again. I've been sent back until my task is done."

You can watch the epic battle here.

If Black chose to exchange rooks

it would look as if Gandalf (the White Rook) and the Balrog (the Black Rook) fell into the abyss and disappeared, leaving the diminuitive Ringbearer to reach the queening square and win the battle for Middle Earth. Note that because of the first check in the variation, the Black King is separated enough from g8 that he cannot prevent queening.

As useful as Lucena would seem, I have not actually used it in a tournament game. Of 425 tournament games I have played since 1991, zero have ended in a Lucena position. Three have ended in Philidor type draws. My other heavily Tolkeinized post parallels the Battle of Helm's Deep.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Snowbirds and Cold Turkeys

For the third year in a row, my chess activity has gone into a seasonal lull. Except for occasionally skimming Dana Mackenzie's blog, I almost quit chess cold turkey. No blitz servers, no tactical servers, no books, no games, no engines. Hardly even any visits to the club since about late March. I think I played two skittles games in August. Period. There's a pattern developing: I played no tournament games in the months of June through October in both 2009 and 2008.

I had been doing a lot more computer programming primarily because of a career change. Information technology is mostly the transformation of one type of data into another. When I was young I used to try to dam up the gutter water with rocks or twigs or sand, perhaps to control the flow of water. Information is like a creek that keeps flowing and changing course. It's essence remains information, yet its pattern morphs in and out of recognition. Logic governs the 64-bit world as it does the 64-square world. IT problems seem less bounded and more amenable to creativity and sheer improvisational hacking, but there is still the search for the ideal solution, the best move. Programming ideals include speed, effectiveness, efficiency, scalability, object orientation, reusability, readability, abstraction, portability, maintainability, reliability, accuracy and freedom from bugs. The passion for chess that I used to feel seems to have translated directly into a passion for information technology.

Back in sixth grade, I tied for second in the individual state chess championship. But in seventh grade, I discovered the Atari 800 computer and BASIC and when the Computer Chess beat me handily on level 3, I pretty much gave up chess for eight years until junior year in college when I found out that one could study books about chess. My adult tournament career began in 1991 and went strong until career and family brought tournament chess to a halt between 1998 and 2002. There were short stints in 1999 and 2001 when I was crazy deep in programming, but chess came back strong from 2003 to 2006. The last four years have been a struggle against plateaus and valleys of strength and enthusiasm.

I was a professional programmer for 4.5 months. I would say that being laid off was a novel experience to add to my sheltered life. My logical brain hibernated for the past six weeks, but it's starting to throw off pangs again. I'm going to try to stay away from theory and books and the search for perfection and try to concentrate on remembering the fun of chess.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Two Scents

A musty-sweet decadent odor exhaled
From piles of sodden leaves sloshing beneath my feet
Rose to meet the comforting scent of wood smoke
Drifting on a chill breeze from a nearby hearth
And formed an elixir of molecular keys
That swirled within my nostrils
And unlocked a forsaken memory
Of chess battles won and lost
Within the safety of my warm den.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Back in the mid-1980s, I was preparing for college entrance examinations and/or the Advanced Placement examination in English. I read lots and lots of essays that either tested reading comprehension or served as models of good writing. Reading those essays was the single most helpful thing that improved my own writing. One essay that remained stuck in my mind was one that compared and contrasted chess and fencing. As I recalled, the writer's main point was that the dominance of chess masters over chess beginners was much greater than the dominance of fencing masters over fencing beginnners.

Over the last few years as I wrote about chess, I occasionally thought of that essay from over twenty years ago and wanted to know exactly what the writer said and how he said it. I tried in vain to find the essay on the internet. My main method of searching was to plug the terms "chess fencing SAT" into Google. My efforts were fruitless, so I decided to write my own essay partly in hopes that a reader could help me find the original. But I was handicapped because I really knew nothing about fencing other than what I read at Wikipedia. Google did help me find two good quotes about fencing:

"I consider fencing to be a great art which raises men to Knights in their thoughts and behavior. Fencing is a school of humility and develops speed, perfect control of the body, balance, beauty, and strong grace. It should be recommended to all men wanting to master their feelings and actions during their lifetime. Through this art they will think clearly and act always with style in their decisions." - Marcel Marceau in the forward to Julius Palffy-Alpar's book Sword and Masque

"Using a sword is like sex. You can't get good by practicing by yourself or with your relatives." - Jack Sparrow

Here's my effort:


Essay Test Question: Compare and contrast chess and fencing.

Chess and fencing in their purest forms are one-to-one contests where the combatants employ a repertoire of discrete offenses and defenses in an attempt to outmaneuver their opponents. Both disciplines share some warlike features, but they differ in complexity and the degree to which they can be mastered.

Both chess and fencing owe their heritage to war and are some of the best examples of warlike abstractions. More than most other games, winning and losing are metaphors of life and death. Because both are played in the physical world, health and physique play their parts in the outcome, but each has a panoply of maneuvers and strategems that to a large degree push the contests into mental realms.

Fencing is played with one weapon per side, chess with thirty-two pieces per side, but fencing ultimately seems to have the greater number of variables. It has been estimated that the total number of possible moves in chess is on the order of 10^120 which is more than the number of protons (10^80) in the known universe. Even though chess has a very large space of possibilities, in a given position, the variables are largely within the chess master's ability to understand and control. Ultimately there are only 64 squares on the chessboard with quantifiable elements of space, force, and time. Also, the rules of chess are quite rigid as to what is a legal and illegal move. However, the fencing master has many real-world variables which are out of his control. Fencing includes the interplay of hundreds of unknown muscles, reflexes, angles, and material strengths. Additionally, wielders of the sword who don't fight by the "rules" conspire to reduce the fencing master's ability to control the situation. While players at tournament chess can spend an average of three minutes per move, the fencing master has only split seconds to parry and thrust.

A chess master can see an amateur coming from a mile away and can prepare. The Elo rating system predicts that Garry Kasparov, at his peak rating of 2800, has a win expectancy over an expert rated 2000 of 99%; against an adult beginner of about 1200 rating, the win expectancy increases to 99.9%. Chess thought involves a scientific process of collecting data, testing hypotheses mentally, and then acting. Preparation in chess beats improvisation and the role of luck is minimized. In Romeo and Juliet, Tybalt is usually represented as a skilled swordsman, significantly better than Romeo. But the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt illustrate that Romeo's restraint of the former and Romeo's rage against the latter were pivotal to the outcome of the duels. Third parties who hold one's arms down or players who play in blind rage do not turn the tides of chess games very often.


As I looked back at this fourth paragraph, I noticed that I'd made the mistake of using a fictional example about sword fighting instead of fencing. This prompted me to consider that perhaps all these years I should have been searching for an essay on chess and swordsmanship, not chess and fencing. Using Google with "chess swordsman essay," I finally came across this:

White, Edward M., Assigning, Responding, Evaluating: A Writing Teacher’s Guide

"The best swordsman in the world doesn't need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn't do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn't prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot." --Samuel Clemens

Write an essay that explains what Clemens means by his description of the "best swordsman" and the "ignorant antagonist." Relate Clemens' concept to an area about which you are well informed.

Further down on this webpage is one sentence referring to a student's essay mentioning chess that triggered my ancient recognition. I bought White's book for $6.50 + $3.99 shipping from an Amazon partner. It came in the mail today. Here is the student's chessay which scored the highest rating of 6 out of 6:

The Expert Is Always on Guard Against Checkmate

When Clemens speaks of the "best swordsman," he brings up the trained expert, the professional who has mastered the rules of the game. This expert is ready for antagonists who play by the rules. The "ignorant antagonist" stands for the untrained or rebellious outsider who reserves the right to make up his own rules. The opposition between these two ways of fighting, playing, or living applies in many different ways.

When revolutionaries break diplomatic rules by engaging in acts of terrorism, the governments affected are often "caught out" and government leaders sometimes "ended on the spot." In today's world, the superpowers ready their defense for major confrontations with other superpowers or "second best" powers, but not for isolated and unpredictable acts of terrorism such as the taking of hostages, the assassination of political figures, or the hijacking of a plane - often for personal or even crazy reasons.

On the other hand, unconventional chess players don't have the slightest chance against an expert unless these outsiders are well beyond the novice stage. The brilliant innovations in chess have nothing to do with ignorance. No expert can lose to the novice opening with rook pawns or carelessly throwing his queen into opening positions. A brilliant amateur can win at chess, where nothing can by this time be entirely new, but the innovator cannot be ignorant. However, chess is here, as elsewhere, atypical. What Clemens says does not apply in this tight, square world, so unlike the disorderly real one.

Any proverb has a basic truth but needs to be applied with care. Maybe the very best experts are those most alert to the ways unconventional moves can work. Our swordsmen in foreign relations need to be ready for mobs, terrorists, and others who will refuse to acknowledge our rules. If the ignorant antagonist can do in the duelist, the swordsman has more to learn.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Serenity Prayer

Serenity Prayer for players of chess endings:

Grant me the Serenity to sacrifice the pawns I cannot salvage,
The Courage to save the pawns I should,
And the Wisdom to know the difference.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


She hung up and I set out the chessboard. I filled a pipe, paraded the chessmen and inspected them for French shaves and loose buttons, and played a championship tournament game between Gortchakoff and Meninkin, seventy-two moves to a draw, a prize specimen of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, a battle without armor, a war without blood, and as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find anywhere outside an advertising agency. - from Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye.

My brother-in-law suggested that I might like Mad Men, an AMC TV series about advertising executives of Madison Avenue, New York during the early 1960s. So I watched the series premiere. I liked the period style and the dramatic tension of ambitious people trying to out-create their co-workers and other advertising agencies. And I liked the debonair main character until it was revealed that he wasn't a very honorable person. Then I remembered that my brother-in-law told me Mad Men is noir genre.

Noir means black in French. But in English, it's used to refer to a black-hearted style or mood of film art. So nobody would say "I've got the noir pieces in the next round." Instead, it's more like the mood in Pearl Jam's "Black" when Eddie Vedder sings, "All the pictures have all been washed in black, tattooed everything. All the love gone bad turned my world to black. Tattooed all I see, all that I am, all I'll be."

The visual style of noir incorporates both black and white in high contrasts. One quote from Wikipedia's article on film noir uses one of my favorite SAT words: "The low-key lighting schemes of many classic film noirs are associated with stark light/dark contrasts and dramatic shadow patterning—a style known as chiaroscuro (a term adopted from Renaissance painting)." Chiaroscuro, light/dark interplay, is not unlike chess.

Film noir incorporates common themes of social desolation and existential survivalhood in a cruel, corrupt, crushing, and arbitrarily calamitous world. Not really being an authority on film noir, I'm going to resort to many more quotes. One blogger defines "Film Noir is that film genre in which a morally ambiguous and complex hero struggles against — and almost fails in — a corrupt world before he encounters a seductive and dangerous femme fatale who simultaneously challenges and saves him."

The heroes of noir are of a certain mold. Classically, they are private detectives such as Philip Marlowe of the above-quoted The Long Goodbye or Bogart's Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Encyclopedia Britannica Online says "The heroes of noir generally share certain qualities, such as moral ambiguity, a fatalistic outlook, and alienation from society. They also exhibit an existential acceptance of random, arbitrary occurrences as being the determining factors in life." Comic book writer Frank Miller said, "The noir hero is a knight in blood caked armor. He's dirty and he does his best to deny the fact that he's a hero the whole time."

I prefer to respect my hero for his adherence to honor. Because I have a pessimistic view and am usually a little south of balanced mood, I prefer my endings storybook happy and trite or at the very least redemptive so that they lift me up. Watching characters who are alienated from society gives me a feeling of alienation from them. However, I much prefer the flawed darkness of Batman to a perceived untouchable perfection of Superman. Show me a little human frailty and I'll relate to the character better. But the main character in Mad Men proves to be a philanderer, a liar, a flake, and an identity thief who smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish despite the fact that he has a high-paying job, the respect of his peers, the house in the suburbs, a gorgeous wife, and beautiful kids. He has everything, but seems determined to be unhappy.

I was going to devote a post to my comeback from chess after a six month hiatus, and speak of the renewal of my desire to get lost in calculation, lost in the moment solving pretty chess problems at Chess Tempo and in my games. But I think I already described the beauty of the moment two years ago in this post. In my comeback, I had a great tournament where my chess seemed to flow. That six-rounder dovetailed into the 11-round championship qualifier which with some luck continued my good results, but even before my streak came to an end, I lost the taste of sharpening my tactics at Chess Tempo. I recovered some ganas after rediscovering my cruel side, but over Easter I discovered "How quick the sun can drop away, and now my bitter hands cradle broken glass." I'm not alone in this feeling, but Caissa has left me again.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


The first time I saw Star Trek: The Original Series, I made fun of the cheesy sets, dated costumes and ham-fisted acting of William Shatner, but eventually I came to love the science fiction ideas played against a backdrop of sociology interpreted through the personality antipoles of Kirk and Spock. I identified a lot with Spock's struggle to fit in using intellectual means.

When The Next Generation came, Data became the logical heir of my character affections. Whereas Spock struggled to control his human half's emotions, Data sought integration with humanity despite being designed without emotion.

I credit chess with bringing me out of an oblivious shell I had inhabited for my first two decades of life. I thought only of pursuit of truth and achievement in a very egocentric manner. My manners must have been atrocious. But chess forces you to think about the mind of another. What is he thinking? What is he planning? What makes him tick?

For most of my life I've considered myself a man of science. Computers, medicine, science and mathematics were my milieu. Language arts and social studies were some of my weaker subjects. I did well and even had some moments like AP 5 on U.S. History, AP 4 on English, but only AP 3 in Spanish. But I once cried because I got a D- on a 6th grade social studies test on the French Revolution. But I find I care more now about music and writing and history and culture. I'm not exactly like Sting in having lost my faith in science and progress, but more often these days, I fall on the judgment that we're foolish in putting our efforts into technology that is within our reach, but beyond our grasp.

My brain has gone through changes the last few years. No longer is my memory as perfect as I remember and I find myself using shortcuts more and more to grasp things that my steel trap twenty-year old mind would have stored in entirety. As I've grown impatient on my way to becoming the grumpy old man I expect to be in twenty years, I also dump a lot more information into the recycle bin. Don't need to know that. This trumps that, so forget that. Information management in my mind seems to involve throwing out yesterday's papers to keep a clean and orderly workspace.

One consequence of these changes is that I think my Myers-Briggs personality has shifted. I took a web-based personality test at and was informed that I was INTJ. The N, which stands for iNtuition, was the weakest attribute at 12% while Introversion remained 100%. I had always thought of myself as ISTJ before where sensory information dominates my perception. But now this test says I'm more intuitive. Am I becoming more an artsy-fartsy and less a scientist?

What exactly is intuition? Is intuition seeing more of the forest and less sensing the trees? Is intuition of higher order or BETTER than sensation? Zbigniew Czajkowski, a fencing master, seems to place sensation near the bottom: "To look is not the same as to see, to see is not the same as to perceive. We perceive, really – on a higher, conceptual-functional level – only what we know, understand well and can give a name to."

A month ago I visited Alaska with the express purpose of seeing the Aurora Borealis. I was lucky that the terrestrial and solar weather cooperated on one of the six nights and I got to see one of the tamer versions of the Northern Lights. I bought a DVD that included a nice ending paragraph that I wish to quote both for its beautiful imagery about the aurora, but also for its separation of senses and intuition.

From "Aurora - Rivers of Light in the Sky" written by David John Rychetnik.
There are many secrets yet to be revealed about the forces that create these majestic lights in the northern sky. Like many things, we see these events in the heavens very differently depending on our worldly point of view. When the physicist and astronomer, the scholar and mathematician look skyward, they see energy and matter, motion and time weaving together, helping make visible an infinitely variable process normally hidden from the human eye. When the poet and storyteller, the mystic and the artist gaze above, they see revelation and meaning, mystery and imagination weaving together, helping make visible infinitely variable expressions normally hidden in the human mind. But anyone lucky enough to witness the aurora will above all find beauty and hopefully be thankful that this tiny fragment of the invisible has been revealed and that the infinite variety of nature's creative hand has touched us once again, stopping us for the moment to enjoy this marvelous and mysterious universe from our simple place within it. This is the aurora, the magnificent rivers of lights in the sky.

Besides Intuitive Perception, Feelings seem to have usurped some of the power I had given to Thinking in my Judgments. I think that I was always a little moody, but like Spock I could push those feelings into a dusty corner. Now I feel more acutely aware of feelings and allow them to rise in value relative to my thinking processes.

I'm still oblivious to all kinds of things. If the Blue Fairy one day turns me into a real boy, I hope I can still recognize the man in the mirror.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


With sadness, I read that one of my heroes died in my town a couple days ago. The movie Stand and Deliver tells the true story of how Bolivian immigrant Jaime Escalante set high expectations and transformed a tough Los Angeles school into an advanced placement calculus powerhouse, exposing as myth that inner city kids can't learn.

I'm not a teacher by trade, but the part of me that wants to teach is mostly inspired by Escalante's story. I remember the movie sometimes when I'm struggling to find motivation as a student of chess. I can hear Edward James Olmos' gravelly voice as he spoke of having "ganas" - the desire to learn.

We all begin as students. It is a rare blessing to encounter a teacher who inspires not only students but also other teachers to continue the tradition of passing on knowledge to those who follow.

Rest in peace, Mr. Escalante.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Little Shop of Horrors

In the Little Shop of Horrors movie, Steve Martin plays Orin Scrivello who speaks of a childhood when his mother discovered that he was a sadist. Martin then segues to the chorus line "You'll be a dentist."

My most recent opponent is an insightful fellow who observed that I had trouble getting in touch with my inner mean. I usually think of myself as a person who steers clear of making trouble or saying anything controversial. I might even admit that I'm a nice guy like Seymour Krelborn, who is played by Rick Moranis in the movie. When I play chess, I see it as a genteel exercise without hard feelings. It's a game right? Except for my own internal feelings of joy of winning and despair that mastery is so far away, I distance myself from outwardly directed emotions such as being angry at my opponent or holding them in contempt.

But the game of chess includes a ruthless element in taking away your opponent's chances. Not only was I proficient at this cruel technical element in this last game, but I discovered that I also enjoy it. I can recall several recent games in which my opponent resigned with me having about a 2-pawn advantage, and I would ask, "Are you sure you want to resign?" usually followed up with the self-effacing "I can still screw this up." But perhaps, I was subconsciously asking, "Can't you let me torture you for a little while longer?" Perhaps that was why I was somewhat unhappy recently with a quick victory, as if the masochistic Arthur Denton played by Bill Murray had come to my office and welcomed the punishment I was dishing out.

In my final game of the championship qualifier, I played White against the Burn Variation of the French Defense. I gave up the bishop pair early and castled queenside. Later I got rid of my opponent's bishop pair, but at the cost of giving him a pawn majority in the center. I worried about a pawn storm coming for my queenside castling position. Finally after 20 good moves, my opponent made a weak one that gave me a pawn and the initiative to open the center and attack his king. His king made a death march from e8 all the way to a7 while I defoliated his pawn cover and neutralized his ability to attack by trading pieces. The position had enough danger to remind me that the game won't win itself, but not so much danger to make me play too defensively. I was able to live in the zone of controlled aggression from about move 21 until move 57. And I thrived.

A perfect adult set of teeth includes eight incisors and eight bicuspids along with four canines and twelve molars. I extracted all eight of my opponent's pawns and got the sixth piece. It was pretty clear I was going to get the last two bicuspids, so he resigned. So my Heart of Darkness is closer to the sadistic dentist than the nice guy nerd. The horror!

Saturday, March 27, 2010


There is an old paradox posed by the question "What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?" I believe that this is just a problem with semantics because when a force meets an object, only two things can happen: either the force is resisted or the object moves. The words "irresistible" and "immovable" apply only to the past record and cannot both be true at the end of the meeting.

Juggernaut is often the nickname of an irresistible force. I first learned of juggernauts in the Dungeons and Dragons module "Tomb of Horrors" which has one pictured here powered by a Heffalump. But Google's imagery is dominated by the X-Men villain named Juggernaut. In the comic, Juggernaut is such a physical force that he can only defeated after his helmet is removed and he's incapacitated telepathically. The triumph of brains over brawn reminds me of chess. The helmet reminds me of paranoid delusions that wearing aluminum foil on one's head can block mind control. Juggernaut appeared in the 2006 X-Men: The Final Stand.

In the Reno Chess Club Championship Qualifier, a classic match-up was built up between Nate Garingo and myself, the highest and second-highest rated players respectively in our section. We had both racked up seven wins and no losses to that point. I had been nicked for a draw on the previous Sunday, but ever since coming back after a break from chess, I was on a streak of 14 games with no losses. Game #3 of that streak was my first and only win against Nate in our then six-game series, the other five games being all losses for me. Nevertheless, I dare say that I had built up some reputation as an immovable object.

I had prepared a weird line of the accelerated Dragon, but Nate opened 1.d4. I had briefly looked at my old modern games and wondered why I had given up the old plan of g6, Bg7, d6, Nc6, and e5. So I gave it a whirl. Nate deviated with a weird Nb5 and the struggle moved to the queenside. I tried to open the center and take advantage of his uncastled king, but his bishops tied me up. White's advanced queenside pawns had me cramped for the whole game. On move 19, I overlooked a tactic that lost me a pawn and forced me to blockade a pawn on a7. I got in time trouble and couldn't calculate accurately any more. When Nate briefly took his helmet off on move 27, I incorrectly evaluated a complex endgame and missed my chance for a draw.

On move 31, I resigned. Nate the Juggernaut triumphed against my no-longer immovable object.

Monday, March 22, 2010

I Like Dem Hippos

My favorite song from Madagascar 2 is Alex on the Spot, but the title of this post comes from a line in "Big and Chunky" in which channels the late Barry White in a song of attraction between hippopotami.

In The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal, Tal tells of a mental fugue that interrupted one of his games. I can't resist retelling this popular chestnut in its entirety.

JOURNALIST. It's perhaps not convenient to interrupt at such a culminating moment, but I would, nevertheless, like to know whether extraneous thoughts ever enter your head during a game?

CHESS PLAYER. Oh yes! For instance, I will never forget my game with Grandmaster Vasyukov in one of the USSR Championships. We reached a very complicated position where I was intending to sacrifice a knight. The sacrifice was not altogether obvious, and there was a large number of possible variations, but when I conscientiously began to work through them, I found, to my horror, that nothing would come of it. Ideas piled up one after another. I would transport a subtle reply by my opponent, which worked in one case, to another situation where it would naturally prove to be quite useless. As a result my head became filled with a completely chaotic pile of all sorts of moves, and the famous 'tree of the variations', from which the trainers recommend that you cut off the small branches, in this case spread with unbelievable rapidity.

And then suddenly, for some reason, I remembered the classic couplet by Korney Ivanovich Chukovsky:

Oh, what a difficult job it was
To drag out of the marsh the hippopotamus.

I don't know from what associations the hippopotamus got onto the chess board, but although the spectators were convinced that I was continuing to study the position, I, despite my humanitarian education, was trying at this time to work out: just how would you drag a hippopotamus out of the marsh? I remember how jacks figured in my thoughts, as well as levers, helicopters, and even a rope ladder. After a lengthy consideration I admitted defeat as an engineer, and thought spitefully: "Well, let it drown!" And suddenly the hippopotamus disappeared. Went off from the chess board just as he had come on. Of his own accord! And straightaway the position did not appear to be so complicated. Now I somehow realized that it was not possible to calculate all the variations, and that the knight sacrifice was, by its very nature, purely intuitive. And since it promised an interesting game, I could not refrain from making it.

And the following day, it was with pleasure that I read in the paper how Mikhail Tal, after carefully thinking over the position for 40 minutes, made an accurately- calculated piece sacrifice...

The game became known as Tal's Hippopotamus Game, but it doesn't feature a Hippopotamus opening which I learned from Andrew Martin's book, The Hippopotamus Rises, was mostly a name credited to J.C. Thompson. But Thompson's usual formation seems different and it's sometimes hard to define what the fully chunky Hippopotamus Defense really is, but I've taken to defining it as this Wikipedia article does with double fianchettoes, both center pawns to the third rank, and both knights sitting in front of the Royal Couple. As such, I played it four times in tournament practice before this year. My record in the four games is okay:

2 wins, 1 loss against experts
1 win against a Class D

I also played it once in a simul against former World Champion Boris Spassky not knowing that Spassky himself had played it even in his 1966 world championship match against Petrosian. Spassky crushed my hippopotamus.

In my eighth game of the Club Championship Qualifier, I was playing Black against a Class B player whom I guessed would play a Reti opening. I usually find it disheartening when my fianchetto gets neutralized by an equal and opposite fianchetto from the opponent's corner, so I aimed for a Hippopotamus Defense. My hippopotamus neither got drug out nor drowned. It neither rose nor fell. From seemingly nothing, my opponent created a serious attack and I had to fight off a raging kingside and center attack.

It was with relief that I escaped into a more or less even endgame. It's possible I could have ground out a win, but having dodged a bullet, I decided not to tempt fate and go home with my skin, if not my perfect record, intact. My 7-0 record in the qualifier went to 7-0-1.

Hippopotami kill about 100-150 people a year which puts them at #7 on this list ahead of bears, sharks, and jellyfish.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


At the beginning of a recent round, one player who was scheduled to have the white pieces came up and asked me to confirm that when delay is on, you are supposed to deduct one minute per second of delay. e.g. a five second delay in a 30/90 time control becomes 30 moves in 85 minutes with the delay. I told him it's a TD option and that to keep things simple we usually don't deduct it unless we are running a tournament where the rounds are tightly scheduled together and timeliness of the schedule is a priority. Actually, I wasn't aware of a club decision to make our standard 30/90 with or without the delay. Since this was just one game on a Thursday night, it didn't make a whole lot of sense to me to worry about five extra minutes, but the player claimed that it would be better for his schedule if he didn't have to play a game late into the night. I just shrugged, since I don't consider it my job to make TD decisions. "I'm not the TD" is a commonly heard statement out of my mouth at the club in 2010.

The player of the black pieces then came to question me in a huff insisting that our time control was 30/90 not 30/85. I said it didn't matter to me. Someone suggested he call our TD at home. He did question me about delay and got me to agree that delay is supposed to last the whole game from the first to the last move. I don't know if he heeded that advice to call the TD or whether the game started 30/85 or 30/90.

When the second player had only 12 minutes on the clock left in the sudden death second time control, he brought the matter to my attention that he didn't think that the delay was on. I was still playing my game. Another TD was available who wasn't playing his game. In irritation, I privately wondered why I was always the go-to TD. Since I presumed it was an honest mistake, I suggested that they write down the remaining times and substitute a new clock with delay since it was white's claim and intention that he set the delay and Black had in my opinion done all he could to make sure delay was set short of checking it at the beginning of the second time control and providing his own properly set clock. I think the players expected me to be knowledgeable about their clock so that I could fix it. I just shook my head. Someone else produced a clock instruction manual. I went back to my game. After another five minutes of chaos, I think the resolution was that the players substituted a different clock with the correct times and the correct delay and finished the game. The player of black who had less time won. I never found out if delay was improperly set on the original clock.

I've been trying to pretend that I've given up directing tournaments, but perhaps I need to get a custom baseball cap to wear in the club that says, "I'm not the TD". Six months of staying away from the club last year and declining to run as incumbent Secretary were probably negated when I stepped in to help organize the Holiday Swiss and Club Championship Qualifier. Like Michael Corleone in Godfather: Part III, "Just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in." Luckily, my game was already decisive enough that the externalities didn't mess up my move selection.

The relevant sections of the United States Chess Federation's Official Rules of Chess, Fifth Edition are:
5F. [..] Players, not tournament directors, are responsible for knowing how to properly set (16B) their delay clocks.

5Fa. The tournament director has the right to shorten the basic time control, up to the number of minutes equal to the time delay used in seconds. Examples: Clocks for G/60 with a 5-second time delay (t/d5) may be set starting at 55 minutes through 59 minutes instead of 60; [..] There is no requirement to advertise this option in advance. It may also be used for games starting later than the official starting time of any particular round even when not used otherwise. TD TIP: Using (a), while acceptable, is also a problematical option that does not come highly recommended due to the confusion involved in properly setting an assortment of different clocks from a variety of manufacturers, all with diverse time control setting capabilities. Whatever option the director is using should be announced at the start of round one.

5Fb. A game with a mixed time control, e.g. 50 moves in two hours followed by sudden death in 30 minutes (50/2, SD/30), is to use a time delay clock set with 5-second delay from the beginning of the game, if available. However, if the game starts with an analog clock it should remain, except in the procedure described in rule 14H2, Claim of insufficient losing chances in sudden death.

14H2d. TD TIP: There is no rule allowing players, after the game has started, to ask for a properly set delay clock to be placed on their game, which would replace an analog clock or delay clock not set properly. Only the TD can initiate placing a clock with time delay capabilities on a game after a 14H claim has been made and the steps of 14H2 have been applied.

16P. [..] TD TIP: Often digital and delay clocks are a challenge to set properly. The director should use judgment in deciding if a digital or delay clock was set improperly deliberately, or inadvertently. Adding two minutes to the injured player's unused time should penalize deliberate incorrect settings. In either case the error(s) should be corrected.

39A. Choice of equipment. If the organizer does not provide one of more elements of equipment, the players should agree on any that meets the standards or, failing such agreement, play with Black's choice if it meets the standards. TD TIP: Players of the black pieces sometimes misunderstand this rule when they want to use an analog clock on a game with sudden death times controls. If any part of a game is composed of a sudden death time control, a properly set delay clock is preferred equipment and supersedes Black's choice in cases where White has such a clock and Black does not (42D).

42D. Delay clock preferable in sudden death. A properly set clock with time delay capability is preferable to any other clock in a game with any sudden death time control. Therefore, if White has such a clock available and Black does not, White's clock should be used. The only occasions where Black retains the right to use his/her analog clock are in games with no sudden death time control, in cases where both players have the same type of clock, or if White is late and Black has already set up standard equipment.

In 2006, a similar problem cropped up in a club game involving a friend/TD, asking for my ruling to substitute a delay clock for a digital clock that was set without delay by his opponent. I chose to go with the 14H2d prohibition on dropping in a delay clock. I had been a TD since 2004 and the Fifth Edition rules were newer back then, published in 2003. I think my ruling injured my friend in that he had a winning position that was spoiled by his lack of time and he took a draw. I think today in 2010, I would rule the opposite and replace the non-delay digital clock with a delay one, mainly since there has been time for people to learn how to use their digital clocks to the point that there is tradition in properly setting the delay and also I am now more familiar with Bill Smythe's unofficial DIRTY POOL rules. In both situations, a digital clock is available, everybody presumably wanted delay and meant to have it, but the complexities of these devices defy our abilities to properly set them, so the right remedy is to just fix it. I think that 14H2d is to prevent a person who is in time trouble on an analog clock from buying more time by requesting a delay clock.

Back when digital clocks took the tournament scene by storm, there were all sorts of arguments about what standards should govern their use. It's a little obscure to those without access to the USCF Tournament Directing forums, but since 2005, Chicago Senior Tournament Director Bill Smythe developed and regularly posted at his tournaments a DIRTY POOL sheet to supplement what he perceived as deficiencies in the USCF Fifth Edition Rules:

It is DIRTY POOL to use a digital clock without setting the delay. Such a setting can confuse the opponent into believing there is a delay when there is none. This confusion can result in questionable time forfeit claims and unnecessary disputes.

If you furnish and use a digital clock without the delay set, any or all of the following may happen to you:

1. The TD reserves the right, at any time during the game, to point out to your opponent that the delay is not set.

2. The TD may allow your opponent, at any time during the game, to substitute ANY other clock, digital or analog, furnished by him.

3. If you claim a draw by insufficient losing chances, the TD may summarily disallow your claim and subtract time from your clock. Your opponent, however, will receive the usual kind, gentle treatment should he make such a claim.

4. If you claim a win on time, the TD may dismiss your claim and give your opponent up to 5 minutes, plus delay time, to finish the game or reach the time control. No such consideration, however, will be given to you, if the shoe is on the other foot and your opponent claims a win on time.

If the tournament has two time controls (such as 40/120 followed by SD/60), the delay should be turned on for both controls.

Clocks which do not permit this, such as the Saitek and FIDE, should be set for just one time control, with the delay on. After move 40, reset the clock manually, again with the delay on.

If your opponent furnishes a digital clock, you should watch its operation closely, during the first few moves, to make sure the delay is on. Request TD assistance if necessary.

Normally I'm the kind of person whose eyes glaze over when I read legalese. I don't know why I was juiced enough to even research this, but perhaps someone will find it useful. When I found the title for this post, I read that Timecop was actually one of Van Damme's decent movies involving time travel and lots of action without being too stupid. Now if I could go back in time to that fateful day when I chose to be a TD you wouldn't be reading this legal mumbo-jumbo. We now return to our regularly scheduled program of trying to enjoy chess without the legal distractions.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


“'But I don’t want to go among mad people,' Alice remarked.
'Oh, you can’t help that,' said the Cat. 'We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.'
'How do you know I’m mad?' said Alice.
'You must be,” said the Cat. 'or you wouldn’t have come here.'”
--Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventure in Wonderland

Since Alice in Wonderland is currently in the theaters, you'd think that my cause for posting this would come from that movie. But actually, I remember this quote from Batman's trip through the world of his nemeses in the graphic novel Arkham Asylum. Interestingly enough, Alice in Wonderland's sequel, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, replaces Wonderland's deck of cards with a set of chess pieces.

Chess and mental illness are often portrayed together. I'm thinking particularly of Luzhin Defence from Vladimir Nabokov's The Defense which is based upon Curt von Bardeleben. Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer are popular fodder for psychoanalysis.

I personally can understand how chess can push a person towards mental illness. When I fell madly in love with chess during college, I neglected my studies and spent all of my waking hours playing chess on the old Internet Chess Server, reading chess books, or scouring bookstores for more chess books. I had many of the signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Paranoid Schizophrenia has made me stop posting a lot of club games at the Reno Club website for fear that the Las Vegas team is using it as preparation against us in our yearly match. A couple posts ago, I ranted that I had succumbed to Narcissistic Personality Disorder. A Dissociative Identity Disorder creates a voice inside of me that refuses to allow me to take full credit for my wins because they're "just luck". Especially after playing tournament games, I experience Bipolar Disorder's euphoria where my thoughts race and replay my game over and over and over, leading to insomnia. Wins make me manic while losses make me depressed.

Maybe I should take a break from this game soon.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Saving Private Ryan

Steven Spielberg's 1998 foray into cinema verite depicted the Battle of Normandy and its immediate aftermath. The story was based on the premise that saving the life of the last surviving brother of four was worth the risk to a squad of eight men. But a converse theme involves a principal character's pacifism versus the life worth taking embodied by a ubiquitous German soldier.

Actually, when I saw the movie, I thought that the German soldier who killed Private Stanley Mellish in the knife fight near the end was the very same Steamboat Willie the squad had let go free earlier in the movie. While researching Saving Private Ryan, I came across a website that debunks this common mistake. Steamboat Willie does come back at the very end of the movie, where the man who helped spare him earlier executes him. However, for the purposes of this movie-chess mashup, I'm going to go with my original mistaken impression and utilize the character of the enemy soldier who keeps coming back to make you pay.

Black King BishopBombardment prior to H-Hour
Black KingCaptain John MillerTom Hanks
Black QueenPrivate Daniel Jackson (sniper)Barry Pepper
Black Queen KnightPrivate Adrian CaparzoVin Diesel
Black King KnightTechnician Fourth Class Irwin Wade (medic)Giovanni Ribisi
Black King RookCorporal Timothy Upham (translator)Jeremy Davies
White Queen RookGerman sniper in Neuville
White King BishopSteamboat Willie, the German POWJoerg Stadler
White Queen BishopGerman machine gun nest

My sixth game of the club qualifier had actually been scheduled as round 2. I drove about forty miles to Fernley to meet my opponent on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I had hopes of driving back while it was still sunny, but that did not happen. I BS'ed my way through the White side of a French Defense and managed to get the opening advantage, but then I began to play moves without looking at my opponent's replies - Dan Heisman's Hope Chess. A faulty combination got me in trouble and I played the late middlegame one exchange down. At one point, my opponent had a tactic that would have made my deficit one full rook, but he didn't see it.

I felt bad about winning this one. My opponent had me dead to rights with 32...Qxd5! and was winning for most of the game. I tied him up for most of the late middlegame until time trouble helped him blunder away the a-pawn. Still, the endgame should have been drawn. A couple more careless moves when his clock was down to about five minutes allowed me to complete my swindle. My record in the Club Championship Qualifier remained spotless, but I felt dirty. I didn't break any rules, but I felt like I had won without honor.