Friday, February 29, 2008

Navel Gazing

Sigh. Not that 99% of what I have written here isn't already navel-gazing tripe, but I'm feeling especially introspective today. What do I really want from chess?

From minimum to maximum my chess goals might be:
-To have fun playing chess
-To get a plus score in an expert section tournament
-To win the club championship
-To win the state championship
-To win a trophy in the expert section in one of the two large Reno tournaments
-To push my USCF rating to 2200 and start calling myself a national master
-To achieve a FIDE rating of 2200 so that I could call myself a FIDE master

But today, I feel like a mess. When I look at my blunderprone, inaccurate game, I can hardly believe I'm an expert. I don't study openings or middle games. I dabble in some obscure, useless endings. I can hardly bring myself to play internet blitz or train at the internet tactics servers. I have no energy for chess today. My laziness overwhelms my ambition. I know it's probably a cyclical thing, that all I need do is wait for my biorhythms to go back on the upswing, but bad funks have a way of magnifying themselves so that they seem insurmountable.

On a day like this, I have a hard time picturing myself rolling out of bed in a motel, getting up to do battle in the halls of a chess tournament. My chess travels have usually led to scores below .500. This often brings me to question if it's even worth it to travel and expend money on distant tournaments. So what? Some people who are significantly older than me seem to have unbounded energy and enthusiasm.

Maybe I'll just have fun playing chess. Does that sound like a sour grapes approach to my other lofty chess goals?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Chess in 2373

I was channel surfing today and happened to catch an amusing episode of Star Trek: Voyager. The episode was Season 3, Episode 14, “Alter Ego” which according to the Timeline of Star Trek happens in the year 2373.

ENSIGN KIM: That’s Kal-toh isn’t it? Vulcan chess?
LIEUTENANT TUVOK: Kal-toh is to chess as chess is to tic-tac-toe.

LIEUTENANT TUVOK: A common error among novice players. By placing the t'han on opposite sides of the kal-toh, you are attempting to introduce a spatial balance, a strategy that will almost certainly fail.
LIEUTENANT TUVOK: Kal-toh is not about striving for balance. It is about finding the seeds of order, even in the midst of profound chaos. May I?
MARAYNA: Please...How beautiful.
LIEUTENANT TUVOK: Kal-toh is not about beauty.
MARAYNA: I understand, but it’s still beautiful.

Closing shot: Ensign Kim and Lieutenant Tuvok starting a rousing game of kal-toh. A bikini-clad Hawaiian beauty (a hologram) walks up and asks, “May I join you?” In unison, the two male chessplayers say, “NO!”

So the Vulcans will help us take chess to more sophisticated, nerdier, misogynistic, and stereotypical places than any man has gone before.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Black Hole

Originally I entitled this post "Event Horizon" because of the difficulties in calculating long variations. I’ve never seen the Sci-Fi/Slasher named “Event Horizon” so I decided to change to a movie I had seen, Disney's 1979 The Black Hole. In the movie, there are two main robots: a good R2D2-like robot named Vincent and a 7-foot tall frankenstinian evil robot named Maximillian.

Here’s a diagram from my game. Black to move.
One of my favorite chess sayings is the Indian proverb “Chess is a sea in which a gnat can drink and an elephant can bathe.” Well, sometimes it’s a frickin’ black hole that sucks up all your creativity, ambition, energy, and time.

The reason why I’m so annoyed is that I thought I had this position 90% figured out, but it turns out I knew only 10% of what was happening. I was playing Black and I had just wrested the initiative from White. For this blog, I was all set to moralize on how White neglected his development, fell behind, lost his f2 pawn to a deep combination, and couldn’t find a safe place to put his king. But my beautiful combination was torn to shreds by an evil robot named Fritz.

This is what I thought in the above position: I’ve piled up my knight and rook on the soft spot of White’s position at f2. The only defender available is the queen and even though I’m a pawn down, I’d “buy” White’s queen and f2 pawn for my rook and knight, so I’m definitely going to capture on f2. Now which piece to capture with? If I take with the knight, White can legally castle short and take advantage of the fact that we both have open f-files. I might even be behind in development because of my undeveloped c8 bishop. What if I take with the rook? It’s pretty risky since the only thing guarding it is the g5 knight. If after Rxf2, Bxg5 is definitely out because of Rxd2. What about Rxf2, h3, removing the guard? That’s trouble, but oh wait, I have Qh4. Discovered check is a very strong threat. But then hxg4 threatens my queen which is supposed to deliver the discovered check, so I might have to use the double check to fight my way out. Let me first check out Qxh1+, then Kxf2 and I come out an exchange ahead with Qxa1. My queen is offside, but I should be able to get out with Bd7 and Rf8+. Going back to hxg4, does Rxe2 dbl. ch. work? Kxe2 is pretty much forced, but this connects the two rooks and I can’t capture Qxh1 any more. What about Bxg4+? This almost forces him into playing Kf1 cutting off the rooks’ mutual defense, but he has the resource of Nf3. Then I get exf3+, but White gets gxf3 and my bishop and queen are both attacked. I gave up calculating Bxf3+ Kxf3 Rf8+ because it was beyond my “event horizon”. 16…Rxf2 17.h3 Qh4 18.hxg4 Rxe2+ 19.Kxe2 Bxg4+ 20.Nf3 exf3+ 21.gxf3 Bxf3+ 22.Kxf3 Rf8+. Thirteen ply make my head hurt. At least, I have the other variation 16…Rxf2 17.h3 Qh4 18.hxg4 Qxh1+ 19.Kxf2 Qxa1 and I’m ahead in material. So I made the move Rxf2.

It turns out the variation with the double check 18…Rxe2+ is better because after, 22...Rf8+ follows 23.Kg2 Qg5+ 24.Kh2 Rf5! 25.Rhe1 Qh5+ 26.Kg1 Rg5+ 27.Kf1 Qf7+ 28.Qf2 Rf5 29.Qxf5 Qxf5. Black has more pawns and a safer king in the duel between the Black Queen and the White Rooks. And I only had to calculate 27 ply to get here! The variation I settled on at the end of the last paragraph is bad because of 20.Nb3 Qb1 21.Qd8+ and White gets at least a perpetual check. In the end, Rxf2 is a good move and White’s best answer is probably h3, drawing Black’s queen to h4. Then White castles long and uses the time Black takes to unwind his pieces to launch a counterattack.

I guess since Rxf2 ended up being sound, I can still moralize that White lost because he fell behind on development. Sometimes this is the advantage of playing Black: White plays too loose, overestimating his opening advantage. I have been guilty of doing the same thing and accentuating the mistake by opening up the position as well.

Why should I be complaining about my third win of 2008? Winning with luck and serendipity seems cheap. Winning like I know what I'm doing is where I have to be to get to the next level. Check out Dana Mackenzie's analysis of IM Josh Friedel's win for an example of what I'm talking about. Interestingly enough, Dana also has a more recent post talking about good and bad aspects of computer chess.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Endgame Caveat #4 Rule of the Square

One of the first endgame rules people learn is the Rule of the Square. Take a passed pawn, draw a forward diagonal in the general direction of the enemy king. Then draw a square around this diagonal. If the king is in this square after his move, then he can stop the pawn from queening; if not, the pawn queens by sheer speed.

Here's an easy question. In the following diagram, if White is on move, why doesn't the Rule of the Square apply?

The pawn utilizes its two-square jump and leaves the Black King in the dust like the Roadrunner does to the Coyote.

Here's a study from Alburt's Just The Facts! There doesn't seem to be a credit for the creator of the study. I switched the colors for expediency. Black to move, White to win.

The Black King can get in the square of the passed h-pawn, but White has an extra trick.
1...Kd4 2.f6! exf6 White sacrifices one pawn to spring the other. By capturing on f6, Black blocks his own path to a8.
3.h5 Ke5 4.h6 and Black's King runs into his own pawn.
4...Ke6 5.h7 Kf7 6.h8Q

When I was trying to remember the study above, I tried to create my own study and came up with this: Black to move, White to win

1...Kc3 Like above, Black gets into the square of the h-pawn.
What should White play in the following position?

The diagonal blocking maneuver from the above study backfires. 2.e5?? dxe5 3.h4 (3.Ke2 Kc2 Black queens first and win.) 3...Kd3 4.h5 e4 5.h6 e3 6.h7 e2 mate.

2.h4! is the correct move.
Now what should White play from this position?

3.h5! This indirectly protects the e-pawn, since 3...Kxe4 4.h6 and the king is out of the square.

What's the only winning move for White in the following position?

4.Kxe2! is semi-obvious, but still, I was surprised it was the only winning move.
4...Kf6 5.Kd3 Kg5 6.Kd4 Kxh5 7.Kd5 Kg6 8.Kxd6 Kf7 9.e5 Ke8 10.Ke6 Kd8 11.Kf7 and the pawn marches in.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Blunderful World

The game I played last Thursday was so full of turnarounds, you might not think two experts were playing. My opponent and I each had large winning advantages at various times in the game. Luckily, I was the beneficiary of the final blunder. Savielly Tartakower’s saying that “The winner of the game is the player who makes the next-to-last mistake” was quite appropriate here.

I managed to get a typical Botvinnik system position in an English Reversed Sicilian, but as is typical, my familiarity with the opening didn’t lead to an opening advantage. Instead, in the early middlegame, my opponent correctly sacrificed a minor piece for two pawns and an attack on my kingside. Soon there were two connected passers bearing down on my king. However, my opponent consumed a lot of time on the clock trying to win accurately. Eventually, he made a strategic mistake that allowed me to blockade the passers and take over the initiative. I traded most of the pieces down to a winning endgame, but then let my king get nearly mated and I had to give up my rook for one of the dangerous remaining passed pawns. Then my opponent had a winning rook versus bishop endgame despite my extra pawn, but time trouble caused a terrible blunder that saw my bishop triumph in a weirdly symmetrical way compared with my previous failed swindle against this same opponent.

This game highlights the tactical weaknesses of both our games which is embarrassing since we think as experts we should be less prone to such big blunders.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Infirmity and Immortality

Whew! That was one of the worst two weeks of illness that I can remember. I'm finally starting to feel like I have extra energy to blog. I postponed my last tournament game to avoid the situation of having an uncontrollable urge to cough in my opponent's face on every move. Life and chess are no fun when you're not healthy. Amos Burn once said, "I have never had the pleasure of beating a completely healthy opponent."

That reminds me, once when I was in large swiss a while back, my opponent more than visibly winced when a player on an adjacent board coughed every five to ten minutes. It was like he was trying to dodge the microbes flying through the air. His head was moving almost as much as a boxer dodging head blows. I figured I might win the psychological battle of the game, but my opponent smoothly beat me.

Two days ago was Groundhog Day and for the occasion, I watched the Groundhog Day movie several times. It's an attractive concept, getting to relive a day over and over, learning whatever you can, and taking the memory of what you learned to the beginning of the day again. In the movie, Bill Murray, having nearly infinite amounts of time on his hands, becomes a virtuoso pianist and also gets good at throwing cards into a hat. The chess angle would clearly be working on your game so that when you finally got out of the loop, you would have attained mastery overnight by the real time line. It might be good if Punxsutawney had a Grandmaster to cut your teeth against.

Wikipedia had even more information than IMDB on Groundhog Day. In the original script, Groundhog Day repeated for 10,000 years. Imagine having 10,000 years to get good at chess. Of course it would be silly to wait for a Groundhog Day time loop to pursue your hobbies. Chessloser wrote about vampires getting good at chess, but I think there might be too many unforeseen disadvantages to becoming undead.

I guess the point of this post was the lament we all feel when we look at our chess books and say, "So much work, so little time."