Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Vulture Culture

Temposchlucker's blog has spilled some digital ink (bits and bytes?) on vultures lately. I found this comment in a post entitled KISS:

The first state is when we circle like a vulture above the board and look with a disciplined mind at the board. We see, almost parallel, everything what's going on, without identifying ourself with whatever happens down there. We see the trains driving from station to station, and from above we can see all stations and trains at the same time (parallel).

The second state is when something catches our attention, and we jump on the bandwagon. From that moment on, we rumble from station to station in a sequential way. We are totally identified with what we see, and it feels as if our train is driving through a tunnel. We only know about the station we just left, and the station we are heading to, and what we can see sideways from the windows of our forth thundering train. Our attention progresses from station to station in a serial way, unaware of what is going on elsewhere.

In the language I'm used to, the vulture represents breadth of chess calculation, while the train represents depth of chess calculation. The goal of chess calculation is to miss nothing important, shallow or deep, and thereby play nearly perfect chess like the computers and Super Grandmasters. One kind of error in chess is the horizon effect, usually relating to computer search depth: a move looks good until you see three moves later that it is refuted by an inescapable sequence. This is the fault of the train in the analogy above. No one told us that the station three stops away was being repaired. For this post, I wanted to concentrate on the vulture because it relates more directly to errors of vision in chess and our quest to see those little Hobbitses that conspire to stay hidden:

One of the appeals of chess, or almost any board game, is that we sit surveying the board like gods above a miniature world. The chess world is populated by sculptures that are imbued with varying geometry of movement, as opposed to the uniform diagonal of checkers, or the character attributes of Dungeons and Dragons avatars. As opposed to information hidden in the roll of a 20-sided die, the information of chess is evident in the positions of the pieces with a tiny bit encoded in the history of that particular game (e.g. castling and en passant privileges). Vultures fly overhead and check out the lay of the land.

NM Dan Heisman states, ""The most important principle in chess is SAFETY; second is ACTIVITY; everything else on the board is relatively unimportant." Being a lumper, I interpret the activity of your own pieces to be the extent to which they threaten the safety of your opponent's pieces and vice versa. One piece's activity is another piece's lack of safety, so there is a reduction back down to a single principle of safety. As beginners, we start evaluating by counting the pieces. Pieces that are off the board don't count. They are effectively dead for the rest of the game. But before they are removed from the board, they can be in various states of health: convalescing in their home positions, immobilized by positioning in the corners or edges of the board, limited by enemy or frenemy forces, and at death's doorstep (en prise). In Go, groups of stones have Life and Death. Pieces in chess have safety and activity, death and life:

I find it ironic that the doctor in the comic uses the word "activity". As chess players, it is pretty much our job to notice when pieces are safe or unsafe, protected or loose, good and bad, strongly posted or insecure. As beginners, the first level of vulnerability we see in our opponent's pieces is the completely loose, unprotected pieces. Capture the free stuff is what I tell my beginning student.:

Especially in beginner-level chess, mistake-prone humans will leave material unprotected. All that is required at this level is being careful of your own pieces' safety and patience for your opponent to leave a piece behind to die alone the desert.

After a while, it's not enough just to wait for someone to drop something. Around Class A/B level, chess players get through entire games without blundering any material. In this environment, the vulture analogy breaks down a bit. It's no longer enough to be a scavenger. We have to upgrade to being predators. Alexander Alekhine is quoted as saying, "During a chess competition a chess master should be a combination of a beast of prey and a monk." Alekhine also said, "I think up my own moves, and I make my opponent think up his."

At least one article indicates that criminal predators choose their targets from the way people walk. Analogous to gait in a person, mobility of a piece on the chessboard depends on space, safe squares to move to, whether it is pinned to more valuable pieces, etc. When we capture a mere pawn, Aron Nimzovich spoke of an entire process, "First restrain, then blockade and finally destroy." So how freely a piece can move can often correlate with how vulnerable it is. If it is crawling, there is a good chance it might make a good meal for our vulture.

To broaden our definitions, sometimes the target in chess is not a moribund piece, but rather a key square. Vultures also need nice places to roost as well as the occasional carcass.

Computers have taught us that sometimes, positions that look hopelessly lost actually have hidden defensive resources in order to save a draw for the weaker side. Again, in Go, there is a state called Seki where two opposing groups of stones have features that cannot be resolved into Life and Death. These might be analogous to drawing fortresses or stalemate positions in chess. Investing in phantom possibilities is the flip side of being a vulture: when NOT to invest energy pursuing a line that evaluates unfavorably. The hypothesis must occasionally be nullified.

Draw! (gunslinging, art, and chess puns all intended). At the end of the game, what motivates us chess players is a desire for victory signified by the death of the opponent's king. In this pageant of flight, eyesight, error, opportunism, and death, the vulture is apt analogy.

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