Saturday, May 31, 2014


As a scientifically minded person, I sometimes struggle against magical thinking that my mind clings to in its obsessive paths. I admit to some superstition to bring me good luck. My routine included:

  1. Wearing my light gray fleece sweater if I'm due to play white
  2. Wearing my dark gray fleece sweater if I'm due to play black
  3. Wearing my black Merrell loafers
  4. Writing on top of my lucky book
  5. Drinking water from my lucky blue Wild Island cup
  6. Using my lucky pen

Facing an important game last Thursday, I procrastinated doing my preparation until the last day. On the way to the game and with the ersatz devil-may-care attitude of a man who thinks he's over his head, I scrapped all but the last two superstitions and showed up. Instead of a fleece sweater, I wore a ketchup stained T-shirt. Instead of loafers, I wore Teva sandals. To my surprise, I had incredible luck. My opponent not only walked into my favorite chess trap, but at the crucial moment, he overlooked the one move that makes my trap work and zigged when he should have zagged.

Popular news reported the results of a 2004 research paper by Cowley and Byrne proposing to expose the reason how a strong chess player does what he does. The key word was falsification. Like scientists, chess players form hypotheses about where to search for the best move and what that move will look like. Chess calculation is the testing of that hypothesis and the falsification occurs when the player figures out "Wait, that won't work. Better try another line/hypothesis." Rejection of an erroneous hypothesis in chess is synonymous with avoiding weak moves and blunders. And luck in chess happens when your best line sits inside your opponent's blind spot.

I'm not completely free of my magical thinking and superstition, but I think I have partially falsified the hypothesis that my chess accoutrements have anything to do with my chess results. It's a pity that my game contains enough of my "secret sauce" such that I'm reluctant to share it. I believe that if someone found my blog and linked it to my identity, future opponents could study my repertoire and figure out its weaknesses. Perhaps that is another hypothesis that needs to be falsified.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Colorful Tactics

During some tactical study, I came across some patterns that have unusual features that probably defy generalization, but they seem to tell a small story that could be summarized in a colorful name.

Here's the first tactical problem:

This is Chess Tempo #64813. White has already sacrificed a queen, but the c-pawn is about to queen. The solution eluded me, probably because the setup for the discovered check is so tempting 1.Rxa7+ Kxa7 2.Rb8+ Rxe3 3.Rxc8. White is still winning after either 3...Re1+ 4.Kh2 Ne6 5.Rxh8 Nxc7 OR 3...Rxd3 4.Ra8+! Kxa8 5.c8=Q+. But queening with check and checkmate is the correct path, even if it means sacrificing both rooks. 1.Rb8+! Qxb8 2.Rxa7+! Qxa7 3.c8=Q+ Qb8 4.Qa6 Qa7 5.Qxa7#. Replaying this combination with heavy piece action almost seems like White is pummeling the Black King in the corner of a boxing ring with a five-punch combination. The best name I could find was this five-move combination from the Street Fighter video games, Balrog's Super Crazy Buffalo.

The second tactical problem is also from Chess Tempo:

This is Chess Tempo #91491. Both sides are threatening each other's knights with advanced queens. White's knight has no safe fleeing squares, so it can only be bolstered by a defender. Black's knight can both flee and be defended. The key finding in this position is to see that despite the number of empty squares around the White Queen, almost none are safe, only Qa1. Black can defend and attack at the same time with 1...Rb7! If White uses his move to protect Ne2, then 2...Ra8 wins queen for rook. If he pulls his queen to safety, then 2...Qxe2 wins. I named this problem Agoraphobic Queen to remind myself to look for trapped pieces, even seemingly out in the open. You could also name this one Claustrophobic Knight for White's terrible e2 knight.

The third tactical problem arises from a game a friend played recently. After Black's 21st move:

My friend playing White had an overwhelming position that can be solved tactically, but he missed the strongest continuation and played positionally, but won anyway. The best line was not spotted by White nor by myself and another friend trying to figure it out. White can land his rook on the eighth rank with 1.Bxf7+ Rxf7 2.Re8+ Rf8, but after that we tried bolstering with 3.Rad1 and 3.Nxd6, but the strongest is 3.Re7 and Black is helpless to stop mate. This implies that the final objective of Bxf7 was to land the rook on the seventh rank after bouncing it off the eighth rank. My friend called this maneuver the Bounce Back. This tactic is likely the most practical of the three colorful tactical patterns above.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Vader versus Kenobi

As two of his final steps toward the Dark Side of the Force, Anakin Skywalker killed Count Dooku in a duel and helped Darth Sidious kill Mace Windu. Darth Sidious bestowed upon Anakin Skywalker the new title of Darth Vader. But his next epic struggle, an 8-minute duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi did not go as smoothly as with Dooku and Windu.

The 1993 Illinois Open was probably the best tournament of my life. I had just crossed into Class A for the first time prior to the tournament, rated 1832. In round 1, I defeated Erik Karklins, rated 2141. In round 2, I defeated Kevin Bachler, rated 2234. But in round 3, I faced the highest rated player of my entire chess career, Erik's son Andrew Karklins, rated 2413. It's strange to see my play from 21 years ago. My faint recollection was that I just tried to defend everything as best I could. Computers weren't very strong back then, but when I check my game over with Fritz, it seems that through luck and grit, I was able to withstand all he threw at me for the first 25 moves in an offbeat Sicilian with 3.Bb5+ Bd7 4.Bc4. Karklins eventually played 7.c3 and 9.d4, but his big center didn't seem to become too dangerous for me. On the 26th move, I could have even offered a queen trade in an advantageous endgame, but my endgame was very weak back then. Then on move 29, he went for a dubious exchange sacrifice to get at my king. The evaluations stay equal until move 35 when I could have gotten a winning advantage from this position:

Unfortunately, I chose wrongly on move 35 to lose the win. Five moves later, I had this position:

My sense was that I had the advantage because of my advanced e-pawn. I just needed to hide my king from the White Queen's checks. Overconfident, I failed to appreciate that the checks could lead to the White Queen capturing e3 for a winning endgame.

VADER: This is the end for you, my master.
KENOBI: It's over Anakin. I have the high ground.
VADER: You underestimate my power.
KENOBI: Don't try it. [Vader vaults over Kenobi's head, but Kenobi cuts off Vader's left hand. Vader catches fire from the nearby lava. Kenobi walks away.]

After this defeat, I lost to an expert in round 4 and beat an expert in round 5. For my 3.0/5, I won $37.50, but my performance rating was 2279. Andrew Karklins went on to share first place with 4 others at 4.5/5.

In the intervening 21 years, I moved away from the Chicago area, reached expert rating in 2004, and struggled for the last decade with often disliking chess for teasing with false hope of my ever reaching master. Karklins seems to have spent almost a decade near the upper 2300s and lower 2400s before drifting down over the last 13 years and finally hitting a 2200 rating floor last year.

We were paired in round 3 of the 2014 Larry Evans Memorial.

According to this site, about 19 years elapses between Star Wars Episode III and Episode IV, when Vader and Kenobi have their rematch.

VADER: I have been waiting for you, Obi-Wan. We meet again at last. You should not have come back. The circle is now complete. When I left you I was but the learner. Now I am the master.
KENOBI: Only a master of evil, Darth.
VADER: Your powers are weak, old man.
KENOBI: You can't win, Darth. Strike me down and I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.

Prior to the game, another master, Viktors Pupols saw our pairing and said, "If you are an e4 player, I know what your opening is going to be. But I'm not going to tell you." I doubt that he had our opening in mind when he said that.

Even though the game was short, I feel that the early shock of the opening gave me momentum to cruise through the middlegame, doing little more than securing my king, pressuring the center, and challenging whatever blockader showed up at e6. Except for the move 22.e6, I didn't feel like I did anything fancy and I felt surprised and relieved when he resigned. The last time I beat a master was 9 years ago. After this game, I scored 0.5 in three games, finishing at 2.5/6. Karklins became more powerful after I defeated him, scoring 2.5 in three games and finishing at 3.5/6.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Rocky II

Rocky II suffers as many sequels do from the dilemma of giving the audience more of the same success or trying to surprise them with risky new material. Rocky goes through a rather mundane existence of becoming less and less successful again, living extravagantly, and losing his income streams. Act 1 is Rocky becoming a sympathetic loser again. Act 2 is Adrian falling into a coma - a rather weak part as it seems a third of the movie is devoted to waiting at her bedside. Act 3 is the Main Event: The Rematch with the memorable finish of both boxers going down, but only Rocky getting up in time for the count.

Like my favorite part in the first movie, in Rocky II, Rocky has self-doubt again, but it's confined to a short conversation between rounds:

Rocky: That guy is great.
Mickey: No, no. Listen, he's only a man. You can beat him because you're a tank, kid. You're a greasy, fast, 200-pound Italian tank. Go through him! Run over him!
Rocky: I'm a tank. I'm gonna get him.

One mustn't think of one's adversary as being flawless, or else you have already lost the battle of morale. The Larry Evans Memorial opened my eyes to the flaws of my superiors. Not that I thought that all the experts and masters that I've ever played were flawless calculating machines, but I thought that my error rate was so much more frequent that they were essentially perfect against me. I remember now they make mistakes too. Even grandmasters make blunders. I can at moments find my way through the thicket and emerge with the advantage. Then it is a matter of discipline to find the path of technique and cash in.

Rocky 3 and 4 seem like mostly revenge matches, one against Clubber Lang who causes Mickey's heart attack, and one against Ivan Drago, who kills Rocky's friend Apollo Creed in the ring. One more short vignette from Rocky IV:
Duke: [to Rocky] You see? You see? He's not a machine, he's a man, he's a man.
Drago: [to his own trainer] He's not human. He's like a piece of iron.

In my only game against our local youth phenom, I didn't feel outmatched. I even had the advantage for much of the early middlegame. But I threw away much of what I had earned early in the game until I had to struggle to hold a draw. Even into the endgame, I was struggling. Hoping for a knockout, my opponent traded material for time, only to find out that he now had to struggle for a draw. And then he blundered and allowed me to convert a book draw to a win. The Shredder tablebase indicates that in the rook pawn queen ending, it was a theoretical draw all the time until he failed to centralize his queen on move 88. Then he blundered on move 91. This was my second longest game ever. I went the distance, beat a former club champion, and broke my 3.5-year drought of wins against 2000+ rated players.

I will be facing the kid again in the club championship semifinals. I have to maintain morale, look for my chances, and run him over with excellent tank-nique.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Queen to Play

Queen to Play is a 2009 movie about a cleaning lady whose humble middle-aged life is transformed by her discovering she has a passion and a talent for chess. Set on the beautiful island of Corsica, the drudgery and isolation of Hélène, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, seem more pronounced among the tourists and the wealthy American expatriate widower, Dr. Kröger, played by Kevin Kline. Hélène has a husband, a daughter, and a small group of friends, but they seem too caught up in their own lives to notice how Hélène is changing, except to the extent that her chess lessons with Dr. Kröger resemble an affair. It seems to have been Caroline Bottaro's directorial debut. It found me on Netflix.

I really enjoyed this movie, especially how they get chess obsession right, without going too far into dysfunctional mental pathology like Nabokov's The Defense. Hélène stays up late into the wee hours of the morning sparring with her chess computer and begins to see chess in a checkered patio at work, on the tablecloth while dining, and even on her sink tiles while she brushes her teeth. In a subtle and sophisticated way that would be hard for chess illiterate viewers to understand, the movie captures the fun and passion of chess. The best part is the dialog between Hélène and Kröger which rings true with my chess struggles. There's even a cameo by Jennifer Beals as a mysterious earthly woman, but who could also be interpreted as Caissa herself.

Normally, I dislike foreign films since I feel something important is getting lost in the translation, but I much prefer subtitles to voice dubbing since the voice tone conveys so much of the actor's emotion. I am especially prejudiced against French films since the crazy ending of The Hairdresser's Husband gave me the impression that French artistic choices are too outlandish. But chess obsession being a cross-cultural language perhaps made the film even more charming than an American production could have been for me. The original title of the movie in French was Joueuse (joo-EZ) meaning female player. I now know that the French work for chess, échecs, is pronounced AY-shek, and checkmate or échec et mat, is pronounced SHEK-y-mot in French. I transcribed a bunch of the dialog, but in the end it would totally spoil the movie, so here are a couple of the less spoilery quotes.

Kröger: Rules are less important than exceptions in chess. Breaking rules at a timely moment, that's what you have to do. Do you understand?
Hélène: Not really, no.
Kröger: [chuckles] Neither do I.

Kröger: You ask too many questions. It's only a game. So play. Be yourself and enjoy it.

Sunday, May 4, 2014


I recently went back and watched the original Rocky movie and found it quite good. Rocky's relationships with his girlfriend Adrian, his friend Paulie, and his trainer Mickey, all say a lot about what his life is like. A whiff of desperation. Seeing Philadelphia's unadorned streets is also a gritty touch. Sylvester Stallone's life in a way parallels Rocky's as he struggled before he sold the story. My favorite part is when Rocky wakes up early with pre-match jitters. He walks around, visits the boxing venue, and then goes back to his apartment to express self-doubt:

Rocky: I can't do it.
Adrian: What?
Rocky: I can't beat him.
Adrian: Apollo?
Rocky: Yeah. I been out there walkin' around, thinkin'. I mean, who am I kiddin'? I ain't even in the guy's league.
Adrian: What are we gonna do?
Rocky: I don't know.
Adrian: You worked so hard.
Rocky: Yeah, that don't matter. 'Cause I was nobody before.
Adrian: Don't say that.
Rocky: Ah come on, Adrian, it's true. I was nobody. But that don't matter either, you know? 'Cause I was thinkin', it really don't matter if I lose this fight. It really don't matter if this guy opens my head, either. 'Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody's ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I'm still standin', I'm gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren't just another bum from the neighborhood.

I have had a long crisis of self-doubt that perhaps became self-fulfilling prophecy. From 2010 to 2013 inclusive, I played 8 games against fellow experts, winning 0, drawing 4, and losing 4. That's a point percentage of 25%. My point percentages against experts were 40% from 2004-2009, and as high as 43% before 2004. Mostly because I've put myself in position to compete again with a better attitude, I have had more success this year. The following game is not one of those successes, but like Rocky, I learned I can trade blows with a master. Unfortunately, my local blogosphere already had a boxing themed post, but I swear I was thinking about this theme on my own.

My fourth round game of the 2014 Larry Evans Memorial was against Mike Zaloznyy. I recognized his name not only for the unusual initial Z and double -yy at the end, but also for the fact that he won clear first in the expert section of the 2012 Western States Open. He was now rated 2242. If he'll forgive my impertinence, I thought his physique was better suited for physical combat than mental one or possibly the hybrid of chess boxing. To a nerdy guy like me, he looked like Dolph Lundgren of Rocky IV.

He showed up about 20 minutes late for the game and we quickly transposed through a Pirc to a Philidor Defense. Unfortunately, I didn't know anything about the Philidor except that a specific move order leads to disaster. In the same 2012 Western States Open that Mike won the Expert section, Ray Kaufman produced this nice miniature against Edward Formanek:

The variation was noted on page 69 of the paperback The Chess Advantage in Black and White written by none other than Ray's father Larry Kaufman. Ray was mentioned as a proofreader in the Acknowledgements.

Chess Position Trainer classified my game with Zaloznyy as C41, the Improved Hanham Variation.

After the game my opponent was very nice and "showed me the ropes" for the Philidor Defense. He told me that his Philidor had gotten smashed in a sacrificial mating attack by IM John Bryant in an earlier round such that he wanted to quit chess. I was reminded of Simon and Garfunkel's The Boxer:

In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev'ry glove that layed him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
"I am leaving, I am leaving"
But the fighter still remains

We also discussed all the crucial middlegame and endgame decisions. He pointed out to me that he was amazed that I had spent almost the whole 5-hour game sitting down looking at the board. He even asked if I had trained to sit so long. I've never gotten a comment about my sitzfleisch before. I usually try to move around a bit to avoid circulatory problems, so I was surprised that I had been so motionless during this game. After the next round, my opponent said he figured out he would play White against an IM Ricardo De Guzman, so he and his coach spent 5 hours preparing and he managed a draw. The fighter still remains.