Monday, March 29, 2010

Little Shop of Horrors

In the Little Shop of Horrors movie, Steve Martin plays Orin Scrivello who speaks of a childhood when his mother discovered that he was a sadist. Martin then segues to the chorus line "You'll be a dentist."

My most recent opponent is an insightful fellow who observed that I had trouble getting in touch with my inner mean. I usually think of myself as a person who steers clear of making trouble or saying anything controversial. I might even admit that I'm a nice guy like Seymour Krelborn, who is played by Rick Moranis in the movie. When I play chess, I see it as a genteel exercise without hard feelings. It's a game right? Except for my own internal feelings of joy of winning and despair that mastery is so far away, I distance myself from outwardly directed emotions such as being angry at my opponent or holding them in contempt.

But the game of chess includes a ruthless element in taking away your opponent's chances. Not only was I proficient at this cruel technical element in this last game, but I discovered that I also enjoy it. I can recall several recent games in which my opponent resigned with me having about a 2-pawn advantage, and I would ask, "Are you sure you want to resign?" usually followed up with the self-effacing "I can still screw this up." But perhaps, I was subconsciously asking, "Can't you let me torture you for a little while longer?" Perhaps that was why I was somewhat unhappy recently with a quick victory, as if the masochistic Arthur Denton played by Bill Murray had come to my office and welcomed the punishment I was dishing out.

In my final game of the championship qualifier, I played White against the Burn Variation of the French Defense. I gave up the bishop pair early and castled queenside. Later I got rid of my opponent's bishop pair, but at the cost of giving him a pawn majority in the center. I worried about a pawn storm coming for my queenside castling position. Finally after 20 good moves, my opponent made a weak one that gave me a pawn and the initiative to open the center and attack his king. His king made a death march from e8 all the way to a7 while I defoliated his pawn cover and neutralized his ability to attack by trading pieces. The position had enough danger to remind me that the game won't win itself, but not so much danger to make me play too defensively. I was able to live in the zone of controlled aggression from about move 21 until move 57. And I thrived.

A perfect adult set of teeth includes eight incisors and eight bicuspids along with four canines and twelve molars. I extracted all eight of my opponent's pawns and got the sixth piece. It was pretty clear I was going to get the last two bicuspids, so he resigned. So my Heart of Darkness is closer to the sadistic dentist than the nice guy nerd. The horror!

Saturday, March 27, 2010


There is an old paradox posed by the question "What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?" I believe that this is just a problem with semantics because when a force meets an object, only two things can happen: either the force is resisted or the object moves. The words "irresistible" and "immovable" apply only to the past record and cannot both be true at the end of the meeting.

Juggernaut is often the nickname of an irresistible force. I first learned of juggernauts in the Dungeons and Dragons module "Tomb of Horrors" which has one pictured here powered by a Heffalump. But Google's imagery is dominated by the X-Men villain named Juggernaut. In the comic, Juggernaut is such a physical force that he can only defeated after his helmet is removed and he's incapacitated telepathically. The triumph of brains over brawn reminds me of chess. The helmet reminds me of paranoid delusions that wearing aluminum foil on one's head can block mind control. Juggernaut appeared in the 2006 X-Men: The Final Stand.

In the Reno Chess Club Championship Qualifier, a classic match-up was built up between Nate Garingo and myself, the highest and second-highest rated players respectively in our section. We had both racked up seven wins and no losses to that point. I had been nicked for a draw on the previous Sunday, but ever since coming back after a break from chess, I was on a streak of 14 games with no losses. Game #3 of that streak was my first and only win against Nate in our then six-game series, the other five games being all losses for me. Nevertheless, I dare say that I had built up some reputation as an immovable object.

I had prepared a weird line of the accelerated Dragon, but Nate opened 1.d4. I had briefly looked at my old modern games and wondered why I had given up the old plan of g6, Bg7, d6, Nc6, and e5. So I gave it a whirl. Nate deviated with a weird Nb5 and the struggle moved to the queenside. I tried to open the center and take advantage of his uncastled king, but his bishops tied me up. White's advanced queenside pawns had me cramped for the whole game. On move 19, I overlooked a tactic that lost me a pawn and forced me to blockade a pawn on a7. I got in time trouble and couldn't calculate accurately any more. When Nate briefly took his helmet off on move 27, I incorrectly evaluated a complex endgame and missed my chance for a draw.

On move 31, I resigned. Nate the Juggernaut triumphed against my no-longer immovable object.

Monday, March 22, 2010

I Like Dem Hippos

My favorite song from Madagascar 2 is Alex on the Spot, but the title of this post comes from a line in "Big and Chunky" in which channels the late Barry White in a song of attraction between hippopotami.

In The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal, Tal tells of a mental fugue that interrupted one of his games. I can't resist retelling this popular chestnut in its entirety.

JOURNALIST. It's perhaps not convenient to interrupt at such a culminating moment, but I would, nevertheless, like to know whether extraneous thoughts ever enter your head during a game?

CHESS PLAYER. Oh yes! For instance, I will never forget my game with Grandmaster Vasyukov in one of the USSR Championships. We reached a very complicated position where I was intending to sacrifice a knight. The sacrifice was not altogether obvious, and there was a large number of possible variations, but when I conscientiously began to work through them, I found, to my horror, that nothing would come of it. Ideas piled up one after another. I would transport a subtle reply by my opponent, which worked in one case, to another situation where it would naturally prove to be quite useless. As a result my head became filled with a completely chaotic pile of all sorts of moves, and the famous 'tree of the variations', from which the trainers recommend that you cut off the small branches, in this case spread with unbelievable rapidity.

And then suddenly, for some reason, I remembered the classic couplet by Korney Ivanovich Chukovsky:

Oh, what a difficult job it was
To drag out of the marsh the hippopotamus.

I don't know from what associations the hippopotamus got onto the chess board, but although the spectators were convinced that I was continuing to study the position, I, despite my humanitarian education, was trying at this time to work out: just how would you drag a hippopotamus out of the marsh? I remember how jacks figured in my thoughts, as well as levers, helicopters, and even a rope ladder. After a lengthy consideration I admitted defeat as an engineer, and thought spitefully: "Well, let it drown!" And suddenly the hippopotamus disappeared. Went off from the chess board just as he had come on. Of his own accord! And straightaway the position did not appear to be so complicated. Now I somehow realized that it was not possible to calculate all the variations, and that the knight sacrifice was, by its very nature, purely intuitive. And since it promised an interesting game, I could not refrain from making it.

And the following day, it was with pleasure that I read in the paper how Mikhail Tal, after carefully thinking over the position for 40 minutes, made an accurately- calculated piece sacrifice...

The game became known as Tal's Hippopotamus Game, but it doesn't feature a Hippopotamus opening which I learned from Andrew Martin's book, The Hippopotamus Rises, was mostly a name credited to J.C. Thompson. But Thompson's usual formation seems different and it's sometimes hard to define what the fully chunky Hippopotamus Defense really is, but I've taken to defining it as this Wikipedia article does with double fianchettoes, both center pawns to the third rank, and both knights sitting in front of the Royal Couple. As such, I played it four times in tournament practice before this year. My record in the four games is okay:

2 wins, 1 loss against experts
1 win against a Class D

I also played it once in a simul against former World Champion Boris Spassky not knowing that Spassky himself had played it even in his 1966 world championship match against Petrosian. Spassky crushed my hippopotamus.

In my eighth game of the Club Championship Qualifier, I was playing Black against a Class B player whom I guessed would play a Reti opening. I usually find it disheartening when my fianchetto gets neutralized by an equal and opposite fianchetto from the opponent's corner, so I aimed for a Hippopotamus Defense. My hippopotamus neither got drug out nor drowned. It neither rose nor fell. From seemingly nothing, my opponent created a serious attack and I had to fight off a raging kingside and center attack.

It was with relief that I escaped into a more or less even endgame. It's possible I could have ground out a win, but having dodged a bullet, I decided not to tempt fate and go home with my skin, if not my perfect record, intact. My 7-0 record in the qualifier went to 7-0-1.

Hippopotami kill about 100-150 people a year which puts them at #7 on this list ahead of bears, sharks, and jellyfish.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


At the beginning of a recent round, one player who was scheduled to have the white pieces came up and asked me to confirm that when delay is on, you are supposed to deduct one minute per second of delay. e.g. a five second delay in a 30/90 time control becomes 30 moves in 85 minutes with the delay. I told him it's a TD option and that to keep things simple we usually don't deduct it unless we are running a tournament where the rounds are tightly scheduled together and timeliness of the schedule is a priority. Actually, I wasn't aware of a club decision to make our standard 30/90 with or without the delay. Since this was just one game on a Thursday night, it didn't make a whole lot of sense to me to worry about five extra minutes, but the player claimed that it would be better for his schedule if he didn't have to play a game late into the night. I just shrugged, since I don't consider it my job to make TD decisions. "I'm not the TD" is a commonly heard statement out of my mouth at the club in 2010.

The player of the black pieces then came to question me in a huff insisting that our time control was 30/90 not 30/85. I said it didn't matter to me. Someone suggested he call our TD at home. He did question me about delay and got me to agree that delay is supposed to last the whole game from the first to the last move. I don't know if he heeded that advice to call the TD or whether the game started 30/85 or 30/90.

When the second player had only 12 minutes on the clock left in the sudden death second time control, he brought the matter to my attention that he didn't think that the delay was on. I was still playing my game. Another TD was available who wasn't playing his game. In irritation, I privately wondered why I was always the go-to TD. Since I presumed it was an honest mistake, I suggested that they write down the remaining times and substitute a new clock with delay since it was white's claim and intention that he set the delay and Black had in my opinion done all he could to make sure delay was set short of checking it at the beginning of the second time control and providing his own properly set clock. I think the players expected me to be knowledgeable about their clock so that I could fix it. I just shook my head. Someone else produced a clock instruction manual. I went back to my game. After another five minutes of chaos, I think the resolution was that the players substituted a different clock with the correct times and the correct delay and finished the game. The player of black who had less time won. I never found out if delay was improperly set on the original clock.

I've been trying to pretend that I've given up directing tournaments, but perhaps I need to get a custom baseball cap to wear in the club that says, "I'm not the TD". Six months of staying away from the club last year and declining to run as incumbent Secretary were probably negated when I stepped in to help organize the Holiday Swiss and Club Championship Qualifier. Like Michael Corleone in Godfather: Part III, "Just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in." Luckily, my game was already decisive enough that the externalities didn't mess up my move selection.

The relevant sections of the United States Chess Federation's Official Rules of Chess, Fifth Edition are:
5F. [..] Players, not tournament directors, are responsible for knowing how to properly set (16B) their delay clocks.

5Fa. The tournament director has the right to shorten the basic time control, up to the number of minutes equal to the time delay used in seconds. Examples: Clocks for G/60 with a 5-second time delay (t/d5) may be set starting at 55 minutes through 59 minutes instead of 60; [..] There is no requirement to advertise this option in advance. It may also be used for games starting later than the official starting time of any particular round even when not used otherwise. TD TIP: Using (a), while acceptable, is also a problematical option that does not come highly recommended due to the confusion involved in properly setting an assortment of different clocks from a variety of manufacturers, all with diverse time control setting capabilities. Whatever option the director is using should be announced at the start of round one.

5Fb. A game with a mixed time control, e.g. 50 moves in two hours followed by sudden death in 30 minutes (50/2, SD/30), is to use a time delay clock set with 5-second delay from the beginning of the game, if available. However, if the game starts with an analog clock it should remain, except in the procedure described in rule 14H2, Claim of insufficient losing chances in sudden death.

14H2d. TD TIP: There is no rule allowing players, after the game has started, to ask for a properly set delay clock to be placed on their game, which would replace an analog clock or delay clock not set properly. Only the TD can initiate placing a clock with time delay capabilities on a game after a 14H claim has been made and the steps of 14H2 have been applied.

16P. [..] TD TIP: Often digital and delay clocks are a challenge to set properly. The director should use judgment in deciding if a digital or delay clock was set improperly deliberately, or inadvertently. Adding two minutes to the injured player's unused time should penalize deliberate incorrect settings. In either case the error(s) should be corrected.

39A. Choice of equipment. If the organizer does not provide one of more elements of equipment, the players should agree on any that meets the standards or, failing such agreement, play with Black's choice if it meets the standards. TD TIP: Players of the black pieces sometimes misunderstand this rule when they want to use an analog clock on a game with sudden death times controls. If any part of a game is composed of a sudden death time control, a properly set delay clock is preferred equipment and supersedes Black's choice in cases where White has such a clock and Black does not (42D).

42D. Delay clock preferable in sudden death. A properly set clock with time delay capability is preferable to any other clock in a game with any sudden death time control. Therefore, if White has such a clock available and Black does not, White's clock should be used. The only occasions where Black retains the right to use his/her analog clock are in games with no sudden death time control, in cases where both players have the same type of clock, or if White is late and Black has already set up standard equipment.

In 2006, a similar problem cropped up in a club game involving a friend/TD, asking for my ruling to substitute a delay clock for a digital clock that was set without delay by his opponent. I chose to go with the 14H2d prohibition on dropping in a delay clock. I had been a TD since 2004 and the Fifth Edition rules were newer back then, published in 2003. I think my ruling injured my friend in that he had a winning position that was spoiled by his lack of time and he took a draw. I think today in 2010, I would rule the opposite and replace the non-delay digital clock with a delay one, mainly since there has been time for people to learn how to use their digital clocks to the point that there is tradition in properly setting the delay and also I am now more familiar with Bill Smythe's unofficial DIRTY POOL rules. In both situations, a digital clock is available, everybody presumably wanted delay and meant to have it, but the complexities of these devices defy our abilities to properly set them, so the right remedy is to just fix it. I think that 14H2d is to prevent a person who is in time trouble on an analog clock from buying more time by requesting a delay clock.

Back when digital clocks took the tournament scene by storm, there were all sorts of arguments about what standards should govern their use. It's a little obscure to those without access to the USCF Tournament Directing forums, but since 2005, Chicago Senior Tournament Director Bill Smythe developed and regularly posted at his tournaments a DIRTY POOL sheet to supplement what he perceived as deficiencies in the USCF Fifth Edition Rules:

It is DIRTY POOL to use a digital clock without setting the delay. Such a setting can confuse the opponent into believing there is a delay when there is none. This confusion can result in questionable time forfeit claims and unnecessary disputes.

If you furnish and use a digital clock without the delay set, any or all of the following may happen to you:

1. The TD reserves the right, at any time during the game, to point out to your opponent that the delay is not set.

2. The TD may allow your opponent, at any time during the game, to substitute ANY other clock, digital or analog, furnished by him.

3. If you claim a draw by insufficient losing chances, the TD may summarily disallow your claim and subtract time from your clock. Your opponent, however, will receive the usual kind, gentle treatment should he make such a claim.

4. If you claim a win on time, the TD may dismiss your claim and give your opponent up to 5 minutes, plus delay time, to finish the game or reach the time control. No such consideration, however, will be given to you, if the shoe is on the other foot and your opponent claims a win on time.

If the tournament has two time controls (such as 40/120 followed by SD/60), the delay should be turned on for both controls.

Clocks which do not permit this, such as the Saitek and FIDE, should be set for just one time control, with the delay on. After move 40, reset the clock manually, again with the delay on.

If your opponent furnishes a digital clock, you should watch its operation closely, during the first few moves, to make sure the delay is on. Request TD assistance if necessary.

Normally I'm the kind of person whose eyes glaze over when I read legalese. I don't know why I was juiced enough to even research this, but perhaps someone will find it useful. When I found the title for this post, I read that Timecop was actually one of Van Damme's decent movies involving time travel and lots of action without being too stupid. Now if I could go back in time to that fateful day when I chose to be a TD you wouldn't be reading this legal mumbo-jumbo. We now return to our regularly scheduled program of trying to enjoy chess without the legal distractions.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


“'But I don’t want to go among mad people,' Alice remarked.
'Oh, you can’t help that,' said the Cat. 'We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.'
'How do you know I’m mad?' said Alice.
'You must be,” said the Cat. 'or you wouldn’t have come here.'”
--Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventure in Wonderland

Since Alice in Wonderland is currently in the theaters, you'd think that my cause for posting this would come from that movie. But actually, I remember this quote from Batman's trip through the world of his nemeses in the graphic novel Arkham Asylum. Interestingly enough, Alice in Wonderland's sequel, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, replaces Wonderland's deck of cards with a set of chess pieces.

Chess and mental illness are often portrayed together. I'm thinking particularly of Luzhin Defence from Vladimir Nabokov's The Defense which is based upon Curt von Bardeleben. Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer are popular fodder for psychoanalysis.

I personally can understand how chess can push a person towards mental illness. When I fell madly in love with chess during college, I neglected my studies and spent all of my waking hours playing chess on the old Internet Chess Server, reading chess books, or scouring bookstores for more chess books. I had many of the signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Paranoid Schizophrenia has made me stop posting a lot of club games at the Reno Club website for fear that the Las Vegas team is using it as preparation against us in our yearly match. A couple posts ago, I ranted that I had succumbed to Narcissistic Personality Disorder. A Dissociative Identity Disorder creates a voice inside of me that refuses to allow me to take full credit for my wins because they're "just luck". Especially after playing tournament games, I experience Bipolar Disorder's euphoria where my thoughts race and replay my game over and over and over, leading to insomnia. Wins make me manic while losses make me depressed.

Maybe I should take a break from this game soon.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Saving Private Ryan

Steven Spielberg's 1998 foray into cinema verite depicted the Battle of Normandy and its immediate aftermath. The story was based on the premise that saving the life of the last surviving brother of four was worth the risk to a squad of eight men. But a converse theme involves a principal character's pacifism versus the life worth taking embodied by a ubiquitous German soldier.

Actually, when I saw the movie, I thought that the German soldier who killed Private Stanley Mellish in the knife fight near the end was the very same Steamboat Willie the squad had let go free earlier in the movie. While researching Saving Private Ryan, I came across a website that debunks this common mistake. Steamboat Willie does come back at the very end of the movie, where the man who helped spare him earlier executes him. However, for the purposes of this movie-chess mashup, I'm going to go with my original mistaken impression and utilize the character of the enemy soldier who keeps coming back to make you pay.

Black King BishopBombardment prior to H-Hour
Black KingCaptain John MillerTom Hanks
Black QueenPrivate Daniel Jackson (sniper)Barry Pepper
Black Queen KnightPrivate Adrian CaparzoVin Diesel
Black King KnightTechnician Fourth Class Irwin Wade (medic)Giovanni Ribisi
Black King RookCorporal Timothy Upham (translator)Jeremy Davies
White Queen RookGerman sniper in Neuville
White King BishopSteamboat Willie, the German POWJoerg Stadler
White Queen BishopGerman machine gun nest

My sixth game of the club qualifier had actually been scheduled as round 2. I drove about forty miles to Fernley to meet my opponent on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I had hopes of driving back while it was still sunny, but that did not happen. I BS'ed my way through the White side of a French Defense and managed to get the opening advantage, but then I began to play moves without looking at my opponent's replies - Dan Heisman's Hope Chess. A faulty combination got me in trouble and I played the late middlegame one exchange down. At one point, my opponent had a tactic that would have made my deficit one full rook, but he didn't see it.

I felt bad about winning this one. My opponent had me dead to rights with 32...Qxd5! and was winning for most of the game. I tied him up for most of the late middlegame until time trouble helped him blunder away the a-pawn. Still, the endgame should have been drawn. A couple more careless moves when his clock was down to about five minutes allowed me to complete my swindle. My record in the Club Championship Qualifier remained spotless, but I felt dirty. I didn't break any rules, but I felt like I had won without honor.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ernie The Great

So I was reading a blog this morning and thought to myself, "What a pompous ass! All he does is say 'I'm so great. Look how fast I can win.' You'd think he had become a grandmaster overnight. Why do I waste my time reading his self-absorbed mental masturbations?" Then I looked up an saw that I was reading Soapstone's Studio. My blog.

I scrolled over my post again and thought, "Where's the witty stuff that would divert and entertain the reader? Where are the nuggets of knowledge and wisdom that I (great writer and teacher that I am) always impart to my audience?" Huh. Could it be that I've lost my humility and perspective? Or maybe I never had it?

In college, my friends used to tease me about my GPA and came up with a chant: I am Ernie! I am great! I have a 3.958!

I thought they were just jealous of my good grades, but perhaps, just perhaps, they were jokingly and gently pointing out that I'm really an arrogant bastard.

One reader castigated me for my paranoid rantings a few posts back. Chastened, chastised, criticized, censured. There are a lot of C words to cut people down to size. Here's one more: chess.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Anatomy of a Miniature

My opponent chose this tournament to trot out an opening he had just added to his repertoire, a version of the Accelerated Dragon Sicilian. At move seven, the position became unfamiliar to him and he tried to strike out on his own with a tactic in the center that seemed correct, but unfortunately I found the direct refutation. Up to my second-to-last move, I found the best ones and even my second best move carried a heavy psychological toll on my opponent who quickly resigned rather than face a difficult endgame.

My coach had gone over some of the ideas and I had some experience in two games, one I posted in Quagmire, facing this kind of Sicilian against one of the club's Class B members. I was lucky to win the second game.

My style is more of a ground and pound positional and endings game, as opposed to the flying strikes and knockdowns. But lately I've had some success with quick victories. Here's a histogram I generated using Chessbase 8 by highlighting all my games, right clicking and choosing Statistics. There's a radio button that changes the window from the win-loss stats to the game length stats and shows you a histogram.

The mean is about 42 and the mode is 45.

This game is one of my seventh shortest games at 16 moves.

Five weeks ago was my second shortest Flawless and Hollow game at 8 moves.

The longest game at 110 moves is featured in my post Never Give Up. Never Surrender.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Sliding Doors

The 1998 movie "Sliding Doors" showed two parallel universes in which Gwyneth Paltrow's character could have lived depending on the quantum event of her boarding or not boarding a train on time. From that moment, her love life and career diverged dramatically.

Cliche alert! I've been struggling to find writing inspiration and this post ended up with lots of cliches.

The fifth game of the club qualifier was against an opponent I know who liked to trade queens in the exchange King's Indian. So beforehand, I decided to trot out my old Modern Defense as somewhat of a surprise. Unfortunately, my Modern is so elastic and apparently undisciplined that I ended up tricking myself into a poor opening scheme. My opponent had space, development, king safety, and pawn targets. It wasn't quite a dagger to the heart, but he had a sacrificial line that should have eventually won.

But he hesitated and didn't board the train on time. This gave me time to castle my king to safety and mount a counterattack in the center. An advanced knight needed to retreat to safety, but my opponent chose to lose a tempo with 17.h3 and then the game shifted when I cut off the exits.

It was that moment that he chose to sacrifice. But the die had been cast, the chips had fallen, and I rode off into the sunset. Except for finding a nice queen creeping move (16...Qc6!) I felt like I didn't so much win this game as let my opponent to lose it. I could say that my poor opening play lured him into overreaching, but that would be taking way too much credit.

The evaluation profile shows that my opening sucked, but the late middlegame turned in my favor and then I never looked back.

The brilliant knight sac on move 13 became a blunder on move 18. Timing is everything.