Wednesday, October 31, 2007


I’m not a smoker and I generally detest the habit. However, whenever I smell cigarette smoke, especially when it’s carried by an outdoor breeze, it usually takes me back to a specific place. I did my graduate training at Northwestern University’s Chicago campus. The campus is located on the Great Lakes streets off the Magnificent Mile of Michigan Avenue. Chicago was usually cold as a witch’s teat or hot as the devil’s armpit, but once in a while the temperature had to be moderate while it was moving between the extremes. When the weather was nice, crowds of people walked, jogged, and rollerbladed on the Lake Michigan shore.

One mile north of my apartment was North Avenue Beach and there, right on the lakeside path, was the Chess Pavilion. Built entirely of cement, the pavilion looked like bleachers that were built for ogre-sized people. Situated at regular intervals, cement platforms rose from the benches to form cement chess tables.
You’d have to sit side-saddle or straddle the benches to look at the board which led to uncomfortable positions both in body and on the board. I don’t remember if the cement achieved the alternating colors of the chessboard, but the surface of the board was fairly rough such that you didn’t want to bring your good pieces. I’ve still got my first USCF plastic chess set with all the felt worn off the bottom. In good weather, the hustlers would be out talking trash and smoking like chimneys. Mostly I was too intimidated to play a game in such a public place for fear that some master incognito would totally humiliate me. Once in a while, I got up the nerve to compete. Usually there was a cool breeze coming off the lake such that I always shivered, part from the arctic air, part from the cold of the cement seeping into my butt, and part from the adrenaline of competing against hustlers, who were chess professionals in a sense.

Behind the pavilion were gray cement statues of a king and queen, imperious guardians of this little chess kingdom. The chess queen was not quite a caryatid column, but seemed to carry a similar air of danger about her. While my mind wandered between moves, I would imagine that the queen would say, “Beware!” or “Off with her head!” I could look down the shore at the rest of the Chicago skyline and watch it’s hive-like bustle from afar. Or I could stare across the vast waters of Lake Michigan, serene by comparison. We were surrounded by fresh air, as fresh as it could be in the middle of a major metropolitan city, but the chess players spiked it with the pungent yet familiar scent of cigarette smoke. That’s how in my mind, the smell of cigarettes on a breeze is hardwired with my memories of the Chicago Chess Pavilion.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chess

Originally, I was going to name this post “Love, Rekindled”, but after some brainstorming, I pulled together a lot of war-related movies to make a short novella about my favorite game from the 2007 Western States Open. Suddenly, one more movie reference seemed to fit the title of this post even better.

The night was sultry. Men's thoughts turned on the anticipation of going into battle in the morning, causing perspiration to be added to the cigarette smoke and humid air in the tent. I had been assigned to artillery duty with Queen Platoon Artillery and had been in a couple of battles that hadn't gone our way, so I was feeling quite nervous about our chances. General "Ol' Crusty" White got up and spoke: "This battle is crucial. Because of our recent losses, the President is thinking about giving up on the War. While that might be good for you and your fellow soldiers, I assure you that in the end, it won't be good for our country. Now go out there and win one for the Gipper". Major Queen stood up next. Behind him was a blackboard with the following list written on it:

Battle Script

Mobilize Troops

Seize High Ground

Lay Down Suppressive Fire

Advance Infantry

Place Artillery In Strategic Positions

Smash Enemy Defenses

Capture Enemy

"Gentlemen, here is your battle plan. At daybreak, we're going to march out to the battlefield, mobilize the troops so to speak. There's a hill right in the middle of the battlefield. We're going to seize the high ground. From the hilltop, machine gunners will lay down suppressive fire while the rest of the infantry press forward and the artillery get into position. Once the artillery is set, we're going to smash General Black's fortifications and capture him. Any questions? No? Dismissed."

Afterwards, we enlisted men all snickered at Major Queen. It started with his name, which was not too far off since he had effeminate features and mannerisms. He was fresh out of West Point where he had studied military tactics and strategy. But this was his first battle. One of the men sniffed, "Whoop-de-frickin' do. Wait'll the mortars start landing and we'll see if his shorts stay dry." We might not have gone to some military academy, but we were educated enough to have heard that some general had once said, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy."

Hong,E (2002) - Traub,I (2001) [A15]

Western States Open Expert Round 5, Board 15, October 14, 2007

1.c4 Nf6 2.g3 e6 3.Bg2 Nc6 4.Nc3 b6 5.e4 e5 6.Nge2 Bc5 7.0-0 0-0 8.d3 h6 9.Nd5
Machine gunners moved forward and started spraying fire in all directions. The enemy retreated. 9...Nh7 10.Be3

Enemy sharpshooters were pinning us down. Major Queen sent a platoon of sharpshooters to return fire.10...Bxe3 11.Nxe3 They took them out, but they also took heavy losses. A platoon of machine gunners had to pull back to carry their casualties off the battlefield. We watched the first casualties stretchered by and tried not to shudder in our boots. 11...d6 12.d4 With the sharpshooters gone, our lines began to move up the hill. 12...Bb7 13.d5 Ne7 The enemy fell back. Emboldened by the momentum, Queen strode forward. We were on the hill, but it was not yet secured. 14.Qd3 Bc8 15.f4 After surveying the field from the high ground, the Major decided to advance on the right flank to help secure the hill. 15...exf4 16.gxf4 Ng6 17.Nd4

Machine gunners set up a pill box at the hilltop. You could see the enemy begin to shrink in their foxholes at the withering cover fire.17...Re8 18.Rae1 Orders came to our artillery platoon to help support the guys on the hilltop. 18...Bd7 19.Nef5 The second platoon of machine gunners charged to the right hand side of the front line. They came under heavy fire from all directions. 19...Nh4 Then the enemy charged forward to try to flank them. 20.Bh3 Bishop's sharpshooters had been trying to shore up General White's compound after a stray shell had taken out the front wall, but when the enemy machine gunners showed up nearly at the doorstep, they grabbed their guns, took up positions, and started pouring fire at the enemy. 20...Nxf5 21.Bxf5 The sharpshooters charged forward to cover the escape of the machine gunners, but they themselves became pinned near the point of attack. 21...g6 General Black made moves toward sending his personal bodyguards to finish them off. 22.Qg3

Upon seeing this, Major Queen grabbed a rifle, took three steps to the right and sent a shot right into General Black's headquarters that made him duck for cover and keep his bodyguards around him.22...Kh8 23.Bxd7 Qxd7 24.e5 The line surged forward again. 24...dxe5 25.fxe5 Ng5 A brave enemy soldier charged forward right toward Major Queen and General White. 26.h4 Just before they met, an infantryman zinged a bullet past his head. He didn't fall so it must have just scared him. 26...Ne6 He changed direction and headed straight toward the pillbox, lobbing grenades everywhere. 27.Re4 We rushed ahead to help, but it was too late. 27...Nxd4 Just before a grenade blew up the pillbox, I could hear the machine gunner laughing hysterically and yelling, "It's beautiful, man! Frickin' beautiful!"28.Rxd4 We barely had time to pick up the machine gunner's body before enemy artillery shells began pounding the area around the pillbox. 28...Qe7 29.Rg4 Major ordered us to move to the right flank and start positioning against General Black's compound. The pillbox was now abandoned. 29...h5 30.Rg5 Qc5+ The enemy officer started to take up position in the pillbox. 31.Kh2 He got in a shot that made General White duck for cover and then made preparations to pull some artillery into the hilltop. 31...Qxc4 32.Rxf7 While that was happening, our artillery started raining shells down on General Black's compound. King Platoon Artillery took out one corner. 32...Qxd5 We were trying to get the aim just right for the other corner of the compound. Major Queen came over and said with a steady tone, "Line it up good and make it count." Just before the enemy artillery arrived at the hilltop, we crossed our fingers and let the shells fly. 33.Rxh5+

BOOM! The compound crumbled to its foundation, leaving General Black bereft of cover. Seeing as how he was in the sights of two artillery platoons commanded by the now imposing Major Queen, he surrendered right then and there. 1-0

As we celebrated our hard-fought victory, Major Queen pulled out a cigar. He coolly lit up and declared, “I love it when a plan comes together. I thought back to last night and realized that everything had gone according to the plan, Major Queen's battle script. I suddenly had this surreal feeling that perhaps someone had found a way to fight a war that wasn't chaotic, visceral, and random. Maybe Major Queen was a genius. Or maybe he was just damned lucky. Either way, it gave me confidence that we had such a person on our side.

I had been down on my chess, down on this particular tournament, thinking about giving up chess at least temporarily, but this game reminded me that if I try hard to think about the variations in front of me and have the patience to wait for a good position, eventually I'll enjoy myself and remember why I love chess.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Attack Must Turn

The Attack Must Turn

or How to utterly blow an h-file attack

I found out last night that I utterly suck at conducting the attack along the h-file. My opponent served me up a great combination, but I played a bunch of inaccurate moves and suddenly the attack rebounded.

My h-file attack was one dimensional and it ultimately attacked nothing but an empty h-file. The Bh5 move would have created the second dimension that I needed. It's no good to to be a super fast predator if you can't change direction while chasing your prey.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fly Like Iceman

The year: 1986. The movie: Top Gun.

Hollywood talking about Iceman: “It's the way he flies - Ice cold. No mistakes. Wears you down. After enough time, you just get bored and frustrated, you do something stupid, and he's got you.”

The summer of 1986 was between my junior and senior year in high school. A friend had access to a small fitness club that didn’t have much attendance yet. We went there and played game after game of ping-pong, starting at 9pm and often not finishing until midnight. My strategy was to just get the ball over the net and wait until my friend hit it off the table or into the net. Every time he made a mistake, I would shout “Ice!”

Game 1 of the Western States Open was my encounter with the Iceman.

Perhaps I need to put Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone" on my earphones while I'm playing chess to make me play like Iceman. That reminds me, I need to take a survey on the most awesome songs to listen to while playing chess. "Danger Zone" will be my vote. Any takers?

I leave with a small collection of sayings about chess and error.

“What would chess be without silly mistakes?” -- Kurt Richter
“Chess is the struggle against error.” -- Johannes Zukertort
”One bad move nullifies forty good ones.” -- I.A. Horowitz
”Without error, there can be no brilliancy.” -- Emanuel Lasker
“Chess is a fairy tale of 1001 blunders.” -- Emanuel Lasker
“The blunders are all there on the board, waiting to be made.” -- Savielly Tartakover
”The winner of the game is the player who makes the next-to-last mistake.” -- Savielly Tartakover
”Heaven knows, we all make mistakes. That's life - and chess.” -- Woody Allen

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Agony And The Thrill

Robert Pearson jokingly described his 2007 Western States Open as an epic. Tournament chess, in my experience, is an ordeal. Alekhine said, “During a chess competition a chess master should be a combination of a beast of prey and a monk.” It’s quite unnatural to sit in intense concentration for six hours at a time, twice a day, for three days straight, but this is what I paid $120 for. As I get older, my major problem is maintaining proper body functions so that my mind can concentrate. I predictably get a dehydration headache if I don’t drink enough. Perhaps I’m diabetic and I don’t know it yet, but I generally pour myself a large cup of water, swig it from every three moves or so, and then frequently visit the bathroom on my opponent’s move. Headaches bothered me on the first day of WSO2007, but luckily they faded in the last two days, paralleling my better results. Eating is a challenge, too. Sugary shocks hurt my performance as do heavy fatty meals. I try to eat a simple sandwich or a salad, but burgers and fries are hard to avoid on the road. I lost about five pounds this past weekend. Insomnia is so bad that I typically get four hours per night. While I lie in bed, my mind obsesses over the positions I had before me, especially those in which Fritz tells me I played a pivotal mistake. Sometimes the music is the worst. I don’t listen to music on earphones during chess; I hardly listen to music outside of chess. While calculating variations during a chess game or revisiting them during my nightly insomnia, songs get stuck in my head. During the 2007 Western States Open, my mind had an endless loop of Leann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance”, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #3, and Jerry Weikel’s rendition of “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round The Mountain” which he used to kick off announcements before each of the six rounds.

The title comes from an old commercial back before remote controls and VCRs. ABCs Wide World of Sports had a commercial with striking footage of a skier crashing and burning down the slopes. This reference is especially apropos since I had my own ski accident this year, the recovery from which I attribute a decreased energy level for tournament chess.

I started the 2007 Western States Open castling early. This is not to say that my king was placed into relative safety in a game. Rather, I learned recently that castling long tournament-wise means going 0-0-0 in three consecutive rounds. I started the Western States Open castling short with 0-0 and I began having an internal argument about whether I should just withdraw from the tournament. Since this was the latest in a string of disappointing results, perhaps I would quit chess altogether. I have never withdrawn from a tournament, but this was looking like the one. Both of my games were with White against 2100+ Experts. In both games, I achieved some advantages out of the opening or early middlegame, but by the late middlegame or endgame, I had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This technique of frittering away advantages is unfortunately becoming a regular in my repertoire. I made a deal with myself that if I lost the third game, I was going to withdraw and think about quitting.

Then luck found me. If anything we strive for in life lacks luck, it would seem that the outcome of a chess game should be as deterministic as anything, but despite that, there’s plenty of luck in chess. Round 3 was against a fellow tail-ender. My opponent sacked the exchange in a position he didn’t need to and then resigned just a few moves later when he probably could have set up a fortress. In round 4, I played black against an A player playing up. We equaled out in a Panov-Botvinnik Attack and soon there was a nearly symmetrical knight ending. Since I lost an equal knight ending in round 1, I decided not to tempt fate, so I offered an early draw and my opponent rapidly accepted.

Round 5 was the climax. I played a Bay Area expert who’s apparently fallen on hard times. Two and a half years ago, at FWO2005, he handed me my head on a platter by busting me up out the opening. I had a chance to swindle him in the middle game, but I blew it and lost miserably. This time, I had White, but that was little comfort since White lost the three decisive games so far. From the early middlegame, I had him rocked back on his heels defending against a central-kingside attack. There was only about one move possibility that he surprised me with. Outside of that, I saw pretty much everything including the final checkmate that he walked into. I was ecstatic after winning this one. The thrill of victory was a much-needed reminder of why I play this game. When I get around to annotating individual games, I’m entitling this one “Love Rekindled.”

Round 6 was a tactical slugfest with me on the worse end of it, but I kept my head. My opponent adopted some of my style and didn’t capitalize when he should have so we ended up in a dead drawn rook ending. So after starting off loss-loss, I finished with win-draw-win-draw and a respectable 3 points out of 6.

I didn’t win any money, but I gained a lot more important things. I was reminded that Experts make mistakes, too. I can and must work hard to hold my mistakes down to a lower rate by actually looking at the position and analyzing as thoroughly as a master would. I won the confidence that I CAN hang with the experts, I just have to stop my bad habits and find the good moves that are waiting for me. And I learned that sometimes, I really do love this game.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Opening Move

Inspired by my fellow chess club members and a short but significant meeting with the incomparable chessloser, I’ve decided to join the chess blogging community and try my hand at it.

My handle will be Soapstone, and if you see Soapstone playing at the Playchess server, that's me. Soapstone comes from my favorite movie, “The Shawshank Redemption.” The main character carves a chess set from soapstone and alabaster to keep his mind entertained while in prison. To beat all the metaphors into the ground as is my custom, "soapstone" reminds me that I am a work in progress and that I should maintain the central theme of "Shawshank", hope, that I can reach some level of mastery of this terrifyingly difficult game.

I hope this blog will help me reach my goal. If it doesn't, at least the journey through stagnation will be more scenic on the web.