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.