Saturday, December 15, 2012

Assaulting The Dragon

I remember reading along with a taped version of The Hobbit audio book as a child. The story culminated in the slaying of the dragon Smaug by a well-placed arrow shot by the archer Bard. I believe the book was published using the images from the Rankin-Bass animated feature where the dragon Smaug has a bit of a feline look. This week, the first installment of Peter Jackson's live-action Hobbit trilogy hit the theaters.

During the Holiday Swiss, I faced two fellow experts, each time having the advantage of playing White. But it didn't always seem like an advantage because I faced systems that I only know how to play generically and sterotypically. In the first game, my opponent psyched me out with the Dragondorf with early a6 and b5, discouraging me from castling queenside. He delayed castling long enough for me to get fixated on an early Bh6 and I fell into a trap that I've probably sprung dozens of times in internet blitz games from the Black side. The game is so short that you can almost follow it blindfolded to the following position: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 a6 7.f3 b5 8.Qd2 Bb7 9.Be2 Nbd7 10.O-O Bg7

I had been eyeing the early Bh6 with Bxh6 Qxh6 and Qg7 to deny Black the right to castle kingside. I had a vague sense of danger that my knight on d4 was subject to a pin after Qb6, but I felt pretty confident that I could retreat Qe3 and play the tricky Nf5 if need be. But I overlooked a refutation that I only evaluated after I played 11.Bh6?? Bxh6 12.Qxh6 Qb6!. I resigned without making a thirteenth move once I saw that any move to protect the pinned knight is refuted by 13...e5. This includes my intended defense of 13.Qe3 e5 14.Nf5 gxf5. What I overlooked was that Black's ninth move 9...Nbd7 protects the queen on b6 so that Black has time to capture 14...gxf5 going up a piece for one pawn and also trading down toward a queenless middlegame.

I'm a little arrow-happy lately, so here's the marked up version of the combination I should have seen before I committed to Bh6:

In the second game against an expert, I avoided the Austrian Attack against the Pirc and soon transposed into a Classical Dragon: 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Be2 c5 6.O-O cxd4 7.Nxd4 O-O 8.Be3

Just after the time control, I got the following position:

The game continued 31.Ng5 Qh5 32.Kg2 h6??

My tactical vision failed me and I didn't even look for the winning combination. Instead, I meekly retreated back to Nf3. What I missed was Bard's archery strike at Smaug 33.Bxf6!, removing the guard on h7. I forgot that the Qh5 move that originally protected h7 as a pawn was no longer protecting h7 as a square once h7-h6 was played. Black's least worst line seems to be 33...hxg5 34.Bxe7+ Kg8 35.fxg5 which Fritz8 gives as +3.27.

Five moves later, I thought I found more fireworks to net me two pawns, but Black got back into the game with threats to my king and eventually I lost my two extra pawns.

Materialistic Fritz8 agrees with my combination beginning with 36.Rxe7! Rxe7 37.Rxe7 Kxe7 38.Qxb7+.

But instead of falling for 38...Kd8 39.Bb6+ Ke8 40.Qxc8+, my opponent played 38...Nd7! 39.Qxc8 Qf5!

Eventually, I lost both my extra pawns because Black's pieces were freer to move while mine stayed huddled around my king. After seeing my pawns picked off, I felt lucky to get a draw.

I scored only 0.5/2 playing against Experts who both played Dragons against my e4. Sometimes you get the Dragon; sometimes the Dragon gets you. I learned some lessons in attacking the Dragon's Keep. And it was a decent return to chess as I gained 7 rating points from the 3.5/5 result in the tournament.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Endgame Obsession #4 KBNvK

The ending King, Bishop and Knight versus lone King was probably one of my first endgame obsessions. I lived in a small dorm room in the middle of Chicago and owned (still own) one of the early-to-mid generation of chess computers: Radio Shack Chess Champion 2150. I think I paid $130 for it. Contrary to my hope of training with an in-house strong expert, eventual testing showed it to be closer to 1750 rating. Still, it was fun to set up openings and try to outplay the computer. I used to watch what it was thinking because computer chess was so new and I was curious how this machine "thought".

But one day, I found out that bishop and knight versus lone king was not a draw, just a difficult win under the constraints of the 50-move draw. So I started setting up positions on my trusty computerized punching bag and trying to win. I have known generally what to do and had even developed my own final phase beginning with this position:

My winning method involved moving the Bishop to the f1-h3 diagonal and shifting the Knight from e4 to f3, all the while taking care not to stalemate the Black King. The moves are 1.Ke1 Kg1 2.Bh3 Kh2 3.Bf1 Kg1 4.Nd2 Kh2 5.Kf2 Kh1 6.Bg2+ Kh2 7.Nf3#.

Last Sunday, I decided to try some internet chess and reached this position after my 55th move as Black in which I captured White's last pawn Kxe5:

So I had a chance to test myself. Over the years, I would not say that I ever learned this ending cold. And my successful but imperfect technique here pushed me to try to learn more of those subtleties that continue to elude me about this ending. With the help of the Shredder Tablebase website, I went over my game score with a fine-toothed comb and tried to figure out where I wasted moves and what the proper technique should have been.

I want to push the White King to the edge of the board by centralizing all my pieces. White wants to stay away from the light-squared corners because that's where he can be checkmated. Once I get the White King to the corner, I need to organize my pieces a certain way and maneuver to force the White King to the deadly corner.

56.Kd3! I have to execute the mate before my 105th move. Shredder says Mate in 25 which I will hereafter abbreviate like M25. Optimal would be to checkmate on move 80. 56...Nf4+ WASTE+1. 56...Nc5+ was better by one move, but I don't think I can really fault myself for some of these small differences. 57.Kc3! Kd5 58.Kd2 Kd4! 59.Kc2! Ne2?!

This time Shredder tells me I have wasted 2 moves: WASTE+2. Better was 59.Nd3! with the Knight and Bishop eventually taking away c2 and e2. 60. Kb2?! WASTE-1 (White helps Black closer to mate by one tempo). 60.Kd2 resists one move longer. 60...Kc4?! WASTE+1. 60...Kd3 was better by one move.
Notice that the Bishop is on one of the long diagonals pointing into the non-mating corner and dividing the board into two triangular regions. If the White King gets chased by the Black King to the smaller red triangle, then he's that much closer to getting pushed to the mating corner.

61.Kc2! Nd4+ 62.Kb2! Bg6 63.Ka2! Kc3 (This is where the Black King likes to be.) 64.Ka3?! WASTE-5

White does well to choose the corner with 64.Ka1! instead of the game allowing 64...Bf7 65.Ka4 Bb3+! 66.Ka5 (66.Ka3 Nb5#) Kc4 67.Kb6 looks like he's breaking free of the walls, but 67...Ba4 sets up a new wall from a4-e8 that with the Black King's help can contain the White King in the small triangle a5-a8-d8.

But here my stereotyped thinking hurt me a little. I knew of the idea of attacking the corner square with the knight to dig the King out of the spider hole. And then the follow-up is to attack the next square with the bishop. But the knight isn't in place yet, so I confused myself here. More properly following my slightly suboptimal strategy would have been to play 64...Nb3 and if 64.Ka2 Bf5 (biding time) 65.Ka3 and only then 65...Bb1 66.Ka4.

Unfortunately, my confusion lasts for the next seven moves during which time my opponent offered a draw, but I soldiered on until move 72 began to look familiar again. 64...Bb1?! WASTE+2 65.Ka4 Kc4?! WASTE+2 66.Ka3! Kc3! 67.Ka4 Bc2+?! WASTE+2 68.Ka3! Nb3?! WASTE+3 69.Ka2! Nc5?! WASTE+2 70.Ka1 Nd3?! WASTE+2 71.Ka2 Nb4+ 72.Ka1! Bb3! 73.Kb1 M20. After 17 moves, I've only moved five moves closer to mate. But I'm familiar enough with this position to make steady progress from here.

Here begins the maneuver to dig White's King out of the non-mating corner. 73...Nc2! If the Knight arrived here by checking the King on a1, the Bishop can waste time by simply moving along the a2-g8 diagonal. 74.Kc1 Ba2! 75.Kd1 Nd4!
Notice that by centralizing, the knight grabs more squares, particularly the e2 square where it currently stops the White King from taking a shortcut toward the safe h8 corner. e2 is also where the knight may drop in to help herd the White King toward its doom at h1. The Black Knight will make a W pattern from where it began on b4-c2-d4-e2-f4. 76.Kc1 WASTE-3. From the above diagram, White has one of his best chances to break for freedom. Black must know the technique of stopping the fugitive with some well-timed moves. This maneuver is one of the prettiest in the mate and helps illustrate the cooperation of Bishop and Knight. 76.Ke1 Kd3 77.Kf2 starts to see daylight above the first rank. 77...Ne2!
A friend of mine called this the lock position. The Black King guards the green squares at e2, e3, and e4 while the Black Knight guards the seemingly porous red squares at g3 and f4. The White King needs to find a path to h8 via f3-g4 or g2-h3-h4. Luckily for Black, Be6 cuts off all these routes, keeping the fugitive near the deadly h1 square.

Back to the game after 76.Kc1

76...Ne2+ 77.Kd1 Kd3 78.Ke1 Bb3?! WASTE+2.
Here I mixed up the more crucial prophylaxis of 78...Ke3! with the timewasting 78...Bb3. If the White King goes back to d1, the Bishop can check him out of there. 79.Kf2 Bd5! Helping cover f3 ad g2 while the Knight covers g3 and f4. The White King either has to go g1-h2-h3 or back toward e1-d1. 80.Ke1 Ke3! 81.Kd1 Bb3+ 82.Ke1
Black's final tasks involve getting the Bishop to the d1-h5 diagonal and squeezing White down to two squares at h1 and h2. Unfortunately, many of my misconceptions still lead to inefficient moves. 82...Nf4! 83.Kf1 Be1 84.Ke1 Bg4 85.Kf1
Here I went awry again by trying to post my pieces according to my formation at the top of this post. The game finished with 85...Nd5?! WASTE+6 86.Ke1?! WASTE-4 Nc3 WASTE+4 87.Kf1 Kd2 88.Kf2?! WASTE-1 Ne4+! 89.Kg2 Ke2 (my formation) 90.Kh2?! WASTE-2 Kf2 91.Kh1 Bh3?! WASTE+1 92.Kh2 Bf1?! WASTE+1 93.Kh1 Nd2 94.Kh2 Nf3+ 95.Kh1 Bg2# I mated with ten moves to spare and a net wastage of fifteen moves. But my opponent chose continuations totaling about 16 moves where he helped me toward mate. Without those, I might have overstepped the 50-move draw.

The most efficient path I know now from the above diagram is: 85...Be2+! It's okay and actually desirable to check the king here. The Knight hiding at the Black King's shoulder is in the right spot to deliver checkmate if the White King chooses 86.Ke1 Nd3#. 86.Kg1 Kf3 The King takes a drunken path to g3. 87.Kh2 Kf2 88.Kh1 Kg3 89.Kg1 Nh3+ 90.Kh1 Bf3#

Although the bishop check is a little harder to remember, the aesthetics of this final position and the fact that it is fastest persuades me to memorize this final method as the way to go.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Butterfly Effect

The Butterfly Effect in science refers to chaos theory where small things can exert a great effect. Edward Lorenz coined the term when he conjectured that a hurricane can form as a result of a butterfly flapping its wings. In Jurassic Park, mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) demonstrated chaos by dripping drops of water on the curved knuckle of Ellie Sattler's (Laura Dern) hand. The movie entitled The Butterfly Effect explored various outcomes when Ashton Kutcher traveled to the past to try to change his fate as well as those of his girlfriend and best friend. Ray Bradbury's short story A Sound of Thunder also utilized a butterfly when the outcome of an election in the present was changed after a time traveler accidentally stepped on a Cretaceous butterfly. Florida's butterfly ballot played a chaos-inducing part in 2000's POTUS election.

I suppose that a butterfly could be a suitable symbol for the rebirth of my chess career, but it remains to be seen if this bug has the lifespan of an autumn Monarch or an adult mayfly.

I had a pretty easy time of it in my first tournament game in almost two years. I did outrate my opponent by 400 points, but my opponent blundered on move 4 and never really recovered.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e5 3.d5 Bc5 4.Bg5?

Black has two choices to take advantage. I didn't even consider 5...Ne4 which is a little unclear if White resists 6.Bxd8 Bxf2# and instead chooses 6.Be3 Bxe3 7.fxe3 Qh4+ 8.g3 Nxg3 9.Nf3 Qh6 10.Rg1

Instead of that, I chose the pawn-winning route of 5...Bxf2+ 6.Kxf2, but I spent a decent amount of time trying to choose between 6...Ne4+ and 6...Ng4+. At the time, I thought that they were close to equivalent, but it turns out that one is clearly much better than the other. I suppose I could blame it on greedy and holey analysis where I began to see my queen taking 7...Qxg5 and then when 8.Nf3 Qe3 and then if 9.Qc2 then 9...Nf2, trying to win the exchange. Finally, I decided Ne4 is more useful when I want to prevent White from exchanging queens with 9.Qd2. I did look at the variations where the White King marches forward to g3 or e3, but I didn't look far enough to see that 6...Ne4+? runs into trouble when White plays 7.Ke3 Nxg5 8.h4!. I missed that the knight is trapped. Little things matter and 6...Ng4+! followed by 7...Qxg5 is the accurate way to stay one whole pawn ahead. As it turns out, my opponent failed to punish 6...Ne4+? by retreating 7.Ke1. By move 11, I was a whole rook ahead.

This morning I missed problem 78837 at ChessTempo where I completely missed an important variation.
After ...g3-g2
I started off preoccupied about where my king would go if I started with 1.Rh7 threatening mate 1...g1Q+. So my candidate was 1.Kf6. Assuming 1...g1Q, I worked it out for a few seconds that I would have forced checkmate after 2.Rf7+ Kg8 3.Rg7+ Kh8 4.Rh7+ Kg8 5.Rbg7+ Kf8 6.Rh8#. I congratulated myself for seeing that Kf6 protects Rg7 so that Rh8 mates. So I went ahead and moved and got the answer wrong. Black need not play 1...g1Q. Instead a little prophylaxis goes a long way. 1.Kf6? Rh4! stops the mating attack. Oh yeah. Rooks attack backwards also, protecting h7. So the correct maneuver is 1.Rf7+ Kg8 2.Rg8+ Kh8 3.Rh7+ Kg8 4.Rbg8+ Kf8 5.Kf6. Now the mate is set and 5...Rh4 6.Rxh4 serves only to delay the inevitable. In this case, a bunch of seemingly useless checks make all the difference in the outcome.

Commentators on this problem noted that Nimzowitsch discusses rooks on the seventh rank in My System. In Chapter 3, he talks about the enveloping maneuver and the crucial square h7.

Limited mobility and backwards attacks seem to be a disproportionate number of my blind spots. I guess I just need more practice. But trying to maintain the fun of chess is my primary objective for now.

Sunday, November 4, 2012


Two weeks ago, I went to watch some games in the fourth round of the Western States Open. I watched the games unfold on the top boards. The openings seemed vaguely familiar, but they also looked strange. Between the motion and the act had fallen a shadow that obscured the idea. I felt I was seeing, but not grasping.

I laid eyes on a tiny Asian girl in the Class A section. After checking the wall chart, I found out it was Joanna Liu, or should I say National U-8 Girls Champion Joanna Liu. Seeing her reminded me of The Joy Luck Club's story of Waverly Jong.

I transcribed the dialog near the end of the clip because the words seemed rather apropos to my relationship with chess of late.

WAVERLY: Guess what? I've decided to play chess again.

MOM: You think it's so easy. One day quit, next day play. Everything for you is this way. So smart, so easy, so fast. Not so easy any more.

[Back in chess tournament. Waverly is losing in front of an audience including her family.]

NARRATOR WAVERLY: What she said, it was like a curse. This power that I had, this belief in myself. I could actually feel it draining away. I could feel myself feeling so ordinary. All the secrets I once saw, I couldn't see them any more. All I could see was were my mistakes, my weaknesses. The best part of me just... disappeared. But I can't put it all on my mother. I did it to myself. I never played chess again.

One of Amy Tan's big breaks was a short story called Endgame. I was somewhat keen on trying to find a copy, but then I realized that it's likely that the best parts of Endgame were cannibalized for The Joy Luck Club.

I showed up at the club Thursday ostensibly to collect on a few debts, but also to see how the Holiday Swiss began. Round 1 produced the usual 500-point mismatches, but there were quite a few upset draws and one upset win. Again, I simply spectated. I didn't feel an urge to play, but after I left, I could almost envision myself among the players, returning to the world of silent cerebral intensity.

Throughout my life, computers and chess have exchanged positions as my favored hobby. The past three years, computers have dominated, drowning out Caissa's siren call. But the season is turning again. Recursion. Reversion. I feel my interest turning back to chess. Waverly's words haunt me: curse, powerlessness, blindness, mistakes and weaknesses. Confident and powerful or drained and ordinary? Perhaps it's time to test myself again.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Spectator Sport

I was reminded today about this funny Geico commercial. My favorite moment had been that the player on move finishes capturing Nxg4 and then turns his dagger-like gaze on his opponent as if to say, "In your face!" I was curious about Andres Cantor's words, so I found this translation at

Ha sido una partida intensa hoy- (It’s been an intense match today)
Ya veremos qué está pensando- (Now we’ll see what he’s thinking)
Está pensando- (He’s thinking)
Veamos qué va a hacer- (Let’s see what he’s going to do)
¿Moverá a la reina o moverá al caballo?- (Will he move the queen or the knight?)
Qué tensión- (What stress)
Viene - (Here he comes)
Viene Viene Viene (Here he comes Here he comes Here he comes)
GOL! (Goal!)

Commentators at observed that:
(1) the board was set up with the correct light square on the right. But...
(2) White has two light-squared bishops.

It's hard to tell where Black's Queen Rook is (if it's even present), but from examining the video, it seems to be hiding at a8 behind the Bb7. That allows the material to be even in the position which is likely a Najdorf or Scheveningen Sicilian opening. So the initial position seems to be:

Utilizing the guesswork of retrograde analysis that I learned from The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, I can devise a plausible (but not realistic) path in which White's f-pawn captures Black's g-pawn and then underpromotes to a Bishop on g8 and then winds its way back to e2 via h7, g6, and h5, after which White plays pawn to g4.

The move ...Nxg4 is regarded as a mistake, but it's not entirely without merit. The idea is Bxg4 h5 (bishop moves) Bh6 pinning the White queen to the King. Unfortunately, White gets a lot of desperado moves such as Nxe6, Ndxb5, leading to a game that is close to equal.

Back to the initial position, the line b4 Nb1 Bxe4 seems preferable, winning a pawn in the center and gaining time. Fritz made up a funny line here: Rh3 d5 g5 Bd6!? gxf6 Qxf6 Re3 Bf4 (pin resurfaces!) with -/+ advantage to Black.

A retrograde problem and a tactical lesson inside a humorous commercial. Fake chess at its finest!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Endgame Caveat #5: Space Invaders

Researching for this post, I came across this 80's music video at YouTube. Cross-links at YouTube eventually led me to this free online Space Invaders game.

The Lucena position is an intermediate endgame position involving a non-rook pawn on its 5th rank, with the defender's king cut off from the queening square, generally precluding a Philidor defense.

The first caveat is that just because your king is cut off doesn't mean that the Lucena is inexorable. If Black doesn't pay attention, White could try 1. Ke2 Rf7? 2. Rf1!. Exchanging rooks allows a drawn pawn ending. If the Black rook moves away from the f-file, the White King crosses to g1 and White can choose either the Philidor (camp the rook on a3 until the pawn reaches g3, then go to a8 and harass the Black King from behind) or even the First Rank defense against a rook pawn or a knight pawn (just shuffle the rook back and forth from a1 to f1).

Black to play wins starting with 1... Kh4 2. Rh1+ Kg3 3. Rg1+ Kh3 4. Rh1+ Kg2 driving the rook away. After Rh6

Now 5... g3 6. Rg6 Kh2 7. Rh6+ Kg1 8. Rg6 g2 9. Rg7 sets up Lucena

Standard Lucena continues with 9... Re8+ 10. Kd2 Re5 11. Rg8 Kf2 12. Rf8+ Kg3 13. Rg8+ Kf3 14. Rf8+ Kg4 15. Rg8+ Rg5

The Space Invader will land at g1, spelling doom for the White King. Notice that the White King on d2 is too far after 16. Rxg5+ Kxg5 17. Ke2. From the previous diagram, had Black proceeded with 9... Rf5 10. Rg8 Kh2 11. Rh8+ Kg3 12. Rg8+ Kh3 13. Rh8+ Kg4 14. Rg8+ Rg5? 15. Rxg5+ Kxg5 16. Kf2 would be a draw.

Whew! So that's the background. From the first diagram, what if we move Black's King and Pawn back one step?

1... Kh5 2. Rh1+ Kg4 3. Rg1+ Kh4 4. Rh1+ Kg3 5. Rg1+ Kh4. Black's attempt to land the Space Invader is repelled because he can't protect the pawn at g5 while driving the rook away as he did before. The crucial thing is that the White Rook maintains distance from the Black King and Pawn. If White plays Rg2 to stall at any point, then he may be lost again. e.g. 1... Rf7 2. Rg2? Kh5! 3 Rh2+ Kg4 4. Rg2+ Kh4 5. Rh2+ Kg3 and the rook has to run, giving Black time to get into the Lucena groove with g4. Even spotting Black another file won't always give him the win.

As long as White keeps his king in the red zone and his rook at g1, he should be able to draw using the Space Invaders defense. One subtlety is that with White to move or a Black finesse, 1...Re7 2. Kd2? is losing. 2... Re5! protects g5 and creates enough forward momentum to let the pawn squeak to g4. 3. Kd3 (second thoughts?) Kf5! 4. Kd4 (4. Rf1+ Kg4 5. Rg1+ (5. Kd4 Ra5) Kf3 6. Rf1+ Kg2) Re4+ 5. Kd3 and either 5... g4 or 5... Rf4 stay on track toward Lucena.

There is still some trickiness to deal with. After 5... g4 6. Rf1+ Rf4 7. Rg1 Kg5 8. Ke2 threatens the aforementioned drawing maneuver, but calmly advancing 8... Kh4 removes the danger of Rf1. e.g. 9. Rf1 Rxf1 10. Kxf1 Kh3. After the trickier 5... Rf4 6. Ke2 g4! is the lone winning move followed by 7. Rf1 g3! another lone winner. Game Over, Man!

A long time ago, I read Jeremy Silman's When a Philidor Position Goes Bad. But missing so many RPvR endgames at ChessTempo continues to reinforce that it's not all just Lucena and Philidor.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Karate Kid

When he made Daniel Russo wax his cars, paint his fence, paint his house, and sand his floors, Mr. Miyagi was secretly training him, not to be a slave, but to have strength and muscle memory to be able to block all kinds of attacks. This week, I overheard a martial arts instructor talk about the stages of training the other day. She highlighted these four:
  • Unconscious Incompetence - You have no idea what you're doing right or wrong.
  • Conscious Incompetence - You know what you're doing wrong but can't fix it.
  • Conscious Competence - You are able to do things right if you think about it.
  • Unconscious Competence - You do things right without thinking about it.

A lot chess training is pattern recognition and I agree it is important. If you know the beginning landmarks of all the checkmate patterns, then your analysis tree doesn't have to re-invent those checkmates every time you see them, especially when those set-ups show up at the end of your own analysis horizons. Wheels need not be reinvented every time. But when you get to the state of unconscious competence, it's hard to trust that stranger upstairs when you don't even know his name or party affiliation.

Perhaps this is a totally different part of chess competence, but when I analyzed a postmortem with future world champion Steven Zierk, I was dumbfounded at how quickly he could snap through variations to get to the truth about a line. I have difficulty buying into the oft-held forth de Groot assertion that around the expert-master level, the depth of analysis is not different, but the intuition and experience of evaluating different positions is where the difference lies. Arthur C. Clarke said "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Well, Zierk was so advanced, I thought I was watching wizardry. He seemed to be able to find a 10-ply refutation with ease. That kind of concrete ability I think is at least as valuable as a 9-ply calculating ability with a 1-ply correct intuition.

I listened to the entirety of Malcolm Gladwell's audiobook Blink. Here's an article about intuition pertaining to emergency room physicians that briefly mentions de Groot and some research gender-typing chickens. They used the term "sexing chickens", but I prefer gender-typing as a safer term. :)

Maybe I'm stubborn and mistrustful of the non-concrete. Or maybe de Groot's analysis doesn't even apply if I'm a Class A player masquerading as an Expert. Until I'm able to correctly verbalize or at least demonstrate deep-ply understanding of a complex tactic or position, I won't be focusing on my intuition to get me to the truth. I guess I'll be stuck at training stage 3 for a while trying for conscious depth and accuracy.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Song of Ice and Fire

I spent most of my leisure time during the holidays reading A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. This is more or less a review with a bunch of quotes at the bottom. It's probable that I'll give away some ***SPOILERS BELOW***, so there's your warning.

Where to begin? It's difficult to summarize a work of such grand scope. Let's start on the positive. George R. R. Martin is a great writer. If you took the story-telling gifts of William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and J. R. R. Tolkein and rolled them all into one person, George R. R. Martin might be that person. He has a vivid style, flowery, but not excessively so. He has great instincts for pacing such that during climactic moments, the flowery words drop away and things happen in a rush. He has certain vocabulary mannerisms that seem very British ("arse") and some that seem a part of his invented fantasy universe ("Ser" instead of "Sir", "septs" instead of "churches", "sellswords" instead of "mercenaries"). There are also character mannerisms (every bearded character dribbles while drinking wine) and settings mannerisms (how many ways can you describe bone-numbing cold?) that mark his style. He also revisits about 10-15 themes such as "Winter is coming" (prudence) and "A Lannister always pays his debts" (monetary honor) that act as touchstones through the long tracts of pages.

The series is about a struggle to rule Westeros, a land of pre-gunpowder medieval chivalry, rival lordships, simmering feuds, legendary heroes, and ancient castles. Magic and mythical monsters seem extinct, although the very first chapter sets the tone for the return of an ancient inhuman evil. Martin's world includes a continent beyond the Narrow Sea that allows him to extend his tale beyond Western European culture into exotic Eastern cultures, such that if Scheherezade were an actual person, I would include her among Martin's inner muses. Most of the first book lays out the missteps and opening salvos of a war that engulfs a noble family of seven called the Starks. But the land is filled with carnivorous rivals: Lannisters, Targaryens, and Baratheons (oh my!). Against the backdrop of the rebirth of myth and magic, Martin weaves a Gordian knot of plots and murder mysteries among seven powerful families trying to grab the brass ring, or in this case an Iron Throne. Martin's characters run the gamut between stupid to genius, saintly to demonic, vivacious to listless and at least for the characters he concentrates on, they jump out from the page, warts and all. And just like in Shakespeare's tragedies, main characters die.

The deaths of main characters were jarring to me, especially since I hang on to childhood notions of "happily ever after". I hated the ending of Oscar-winning "Million Dollar Baby" and judging by the surplus DVD bin, so did much of America. But I was able to forgive Martin and keep turning the pages in hopes that enough of my favorite characters survive to justify my investment in their causes. But I now realize that perhaps Martin had little choice to create real danger and surprise. When I read the David Eddings' Belgariad (Pawn of Prophecy, Queen of Sorcery, Magician's Gambit, Castle of Wizardry, and Enchanter's End Game) or many of Asimov's works, I felt somewhat bored because their protagonists intelligently hatched plans, and executed them, perhaps improvising a little when things go wrong. Danger to main characters seems only a distant possibility. Martin actually gives his villains the elements of surprise, initiative, intelligence, and victory. Good guys haven't always won so far and perhaps I will grudgingly admit that the story experience has been richer for it.

This series is not for the faint of heart. George R. R. Martin originally started out in 1995 making a trilogy, but like the horizon, the final book keeps moving away, until now he estimates the final act to be book seven. He has only published the first five so far. The reading is voluminous. To finish book five, you have to read about 4,000 pages. Compare that to J. R. R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings at 1,200 pages. There is a cast of thousands and I am not exaggerating too much here. The books have appendices that show family trees out to four or five generations of semi-significant characters plus perhaps thirty minor families. There are so many names that it is almost a necessity to consult A Wiki of Ice and Fire to keep from being hopelessly lost in the crowd. The content of both the book and the first season on HBO I would definitely rate at NC-17. Martin does not shrink from describing the horrors of war including amputations and maimings, gang rapes, infanticide, and torture. He is also not one to gloss over consensual sexual situations; sex sells. But there is at least one child rape that I can think of and some tangential references to an underage sex trade from which I have some trouble withholding Victorian judgment. It does add realism and cultural richness to Martin's world in a time of war that such ugliness is not covered up.

Martin also tackles weighty issues within his fiction framework using a realistic and sometimes satirical viewpoint. In this endeavor, he follows Mark Twain whose Huckleberry Finn focuses on slavery and whose A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court take on chivalry. Knights follow codes of honor for each other, but treat the common folk as less than dirt. Slaves are not just servile robots, but human beings trying to survive through obsequiousness and insidious rebellion and the little resources that they can muster. One writer took Martin's work as a commentary on statecraft, concluding that Martin seems to advocate use of soft power.

In summary, the 4,000 plus pages of "A Song of Ice and Fire" are well worth the slog. For chess players, there are references to the "Game of Thrones" in the first three books. In book five, a game similar to chess named cyvasse makes its appearance. The plots to win the throne include of course the defeat of other kings with the death of the losing king the standard consequence. There's nothing like a tale of regicide to get a chess player's blood flowing. The characters in the first book roughly map out to a group of chess pieces:

King:King Robert Baratheon
Queen:Queen Cirsei Lannister
Queen's Bishop:Lord Varys - "The Spider"
King's Bishop:Lord Petyr Baelish - "Littlefinger"
King's Knight:Ser Barristan Selmy - "Barristan The Bold"
Queen's Knight:Ser Jaime Lannister - "The Lion of Lannister"
Queen's Rook:Lord John Arryn
King's Rook:Lord Eddard Stark
Pawns:Robb Stark, Brandon Stark, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark, Jon Snow, Joffrey Baratheon, Tommen Baratheon, Theon Greyjoy
Here are some quotes from the book that are tangentially relevant to chess.

Volume 1: A Game of Thrones
Ser Jorah Mormont: The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are.

Queen Cersei Lannister: When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.

Lord Eddard Stark: Lord Baelish, what you suggest is treason.
Lord Petyr Baelish: Only if we lose.

Volume 3: A Feast for Crows
Lord Petyr Baelish: Always keep your foes confused. If they are never certain who you are or what you want, they cannot know what you are like to do next. Sometimes the best way to baffle them is to make moves that have no purpose, or even seem to work against you. Remember that, Sansa, when you come to play the game.
Sansa Stark: What... what game?
Lord Petyr Baelish: The only game. The game of thrones.

Lord Petyr Baelish: I am tempted to say this is no game we play, daughter, but of course it is. The game of thrones.
Sansa Stark (thinking): I never asked to play. The game was too dangerous. One slip and I am dead.

Lord Petyr Baelish: I might have to remove her from the game sooner than I'd planned. Provided she does not remove herself first. In the game of thrones, even the humblest pieces can have wills of their own. Sometimes they refuse to make the moves you've planned for them. Mark that well, Alayne, It's a lesson that Cersei Lannister still has yet to learn.

Volume 5: A Dance with Dragons
Haldon Halfmaester: The day you beat me at cyvasse will be the day turtles crawl out of my arse.

"Prince Aegon," said Tyrion, "since we're both stuck aboard this boat, perhaps you will honor me with a game of cyvasse to while away the hours?"
The prince gave him a wary look. "I am sick of cyvasse."
"Sick of losing to a dwarf, you mean?"
That pricked the lad's pride, just as Tyrion had known it would. "Go fetch the board and pieces. This time I mean to smash you."

They played on deck, sitting cross-legged behind the cabin. Young Griff arrayed his army for attack, with dragon, elephants, and heavy horse up front. A young man's formation, as bold as it is foolish. He risks all for the quick kill. He let the prince have first move. Haldon stood behind them, watching the play.

When the prince reached for his dragon, Tyrion cleared his throat. "I would not do that if I were you. It is a mistake to bring your dragon out too soon." He smiled innocently. "Your father knew the dangers of being over-bold."
Smiling, he seized his dragon, flew it across the board. "I hope Your Grace will pardon me. Your king is trapped. Death in four."
The prince stared at the playing board. "My dragon..."
" too far away to save you. You should have moved her to the center of the battle."
"But you said..."
"I lied. Trust no one. And keep your dragon close."
Young Griff jerked to his feet and kicked over the board. Cyvasse pieces flew in all directions, bouncing and rolling across the deck of the Shy Maid. "Pick those up," the boy commanded. He may well be a Targaryen after all.
"If it please Your Grace." Tyrion got down on his hands and knees and began to crawl about the deck, gathering up pieces.

The thin man shifted an onyx elephant.
Across the cyvasse table, the man behind the alabaster army pursed his lips in disapproval. He moved his heavy horse.
"A blunder," said Tyrion. He had as well play his part. "Just so," the thin man said. He answered with his own heavy horse. A flurry of quick moves followed, until finally the thin man smiled and said, "Death, my friend."

Tyrion Lannister: I play better with a full belly and a cup of wine to hand.