Wednesday, November 29, 2017


I had been casting about for things to pique my interest and thought that reading a book about Paul Morphy might do the trick. I had done some translating of a German book about Leonid Kubbel and thought that translating a Spanish book about Morphy might also be entertaining. Alas, most games were listed in this book with little commentary. Eventually, I found Johann Lowenthal's book on Morphy. While dated, it provided me with a suitable biography and a selection of games against Adolf Anderssen. It was rather sad to read of his problems late in life and the fact that he never seemed to have a worthy rival to push him to greater heights. None of his games are in Burgess' World's Greatest Chess Games, not even the Opera Game, since his opposition during his brilliant games was rather weak.

With only a modicum of humility, I submit one of the games I played this year for the adjective of Morphyesque. In any event, I might as well dedicate this game to his memory. It was played at tournament time controls against an opponent with Elo 1900. It is short enough that I'm not going to use any diagrams, but instead appeal to the reader to try to follow the game "blindfolded". I have White against N.N.(1900).

1. e4 e5 2. Bc4 Nf6 3. d4 The Urusov Gambit is like the Scotch Gambit for the Bishop's Opening. It aims to open up the game quickly where tactics may provide for a quick win for White. There are a decent number of transpositions to Two Knights Defense and the Max Lange Attack. 3...Nxe4 Risky, but not bad yet. The worst part of this move is that Black begins to violate all kinds of opening principles, e.g. moving pieces multiple times and falling way behind in development. 4. dxe5 Notice that the knight is centralized but awkward because the pawn prevents the natural retreat to f6. 4...Nc5 5. Nf3 Ne6 6. O-O White hasn't even gambited a pawn and he has a strong e5 pawn, two naturally strong minor pieces, a castled king, and some possible heavy piece action on the d- and e-file. Black does not sense the danger and tries to catch up in development with an aggressive piece posting. 6...Bc5 7. Nc3 With the e5 pawn leading the charge, I have the natural Ne4 coming. My opponent saw this move and wasted two more tempi getting his bishop to a7. 7...a6? 8. Ne4 Ba7??

What move should White play? Hint: It's a developing move. If you are following along with no chess board in front of you, Black has two pieces developed: a knight at e6 and a bishop at a7. He also has moved one pawn to a6 and his e-pawn is missing. The rest of his pieces including QR, QN, QB, Q, K, and KR are on their home squares. White on the other hand has knights at e4 and f3, a bishop at c4, kingside castling, and the QR, QB, and Q on home squares.

9. Bg5! It looks like White is going to let Black exchange off a pair of pieces, but White gets the better of the deal. While Black loses a defender at e6, White gets the g5 outpost for his knight and opens a path to h5 for his queen. Development begets development. The pawn at e5 assures that f6 is only going to lose material for Black. 9...Nxg5 10. Nfxg5! O-O What's the naturally aggressive follow-up? 11. Qh5 h6 to prevent Qxh7#. I had calculated most of the outcome from here, but I must confess, that I didn't know what I would do if after my next move, Black sacrifices his queen. I thought I would just win the queen with Nxg5, but in another line without the queen sac, I saw that Nf6+ was strong. It turns out it remains strong even after the queen sac. I played a fun move here. 12. Qg6! My opponent resigned, so I didn't have to make the error of 12...Qxg5 13. Nxg5?!. I rationalize that maybe I would have found 12...Qxg5 13. Nf6+! Qxf6 14. exf6 and with two pins on the pawns in front of his king, Black is helpless to stop 15. Qxg7#.

Monday, July 24, 2017

A Fairly Simple Miss

My chess enthusiasm has been waning a bit even as my rating hit a peak of 2140 after winning a semifinal match in the club championship. I'm currently down 0-1 in the finals, so the struggle continues. Much of what brings me to chess can be attributed to two things: 1. defending my repertoire as the right way (at least for me) to play; and 2. other people's enthusiasm. By this I mean that I spend time with club players who seem to have a purer enjoyment of the game than mine. A new kid came to town and seemed quite keen on playing blitz with some skill. I invited him to our favorite coffee shop chess hangout and played a few games with him on Sunday.

One endgame stuck out in my memory and after I reconstructed it at home, I discovered something both of us missed. My opponent lost the exchange at one point and was annoyingly hanging on. I knew that my rook was better and that at some point, I needed to trade rook for bishop and pawn and win in the pure pawn ending. Here was a position right before that exchange took place. I was actually playing Black, but the diagrams work out better this way. White just played Rg4. Black to move:

I have surrounded the g5 pawn and plan on taking it soon. The rook is preventing Black from breaking through on the queenside. I could see my opponent do some quick calculations and decide that the pawn ending was drawn. He then played Bf4, probably as a prelude to Kb4 and Kxb3.

White to play: What's the best move? I had been prepared to take the bishop for a while. Now that the opportunity was present, I lost objectivity and only looked at my rook and his bishop disappearing from the board. I played Rxf4? and gxf4 Kxf4 quickly ensued. Now with Black to move, this is the position:

We soon found ourselves in a drawn Q+PvQ ending, confirmed by tablebases. In the previous diagram, what should I have played? I could have gained one critical tempo with the killer move Rxg5. Now if Black wants to regain the exchange with Bxg5 Kxg5, my king is magically transported from f4 to g5 with Black to move:

But this time my pawn queens quickly enough to win.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

TPS Report #20

A friend I hadn't seen in a while showed up at the club and congratulated me on my recent successes. I confessed that despite the success, my relationship with chess had been languishing toward ennui again. Having finished the tournament and rated the results, I have to remind myself of the good things.

After the year of no rated tournament games, I jumped into club games with the 2016 Holiday Swiss starting after Halloween. After a good 10.0/12 run in the Club Championship Qualifier, I now have the highest rating of my career at 2135. The statistics seem to be stacking up to say that I have made a quantum leap, but I worry that crowing about good things calls the attention of the karma-balancing forces. Here is one version of the cherry-picked statistics:

Opponent ClassPre-2004 (N=206)
Performance Rating
2004-2013 (N=240)
Performance Rating
2014-2015 (N=89)
Performance Rating
2016-2017 (N=17)
Performance Rating
Class B1877196320841949
Class A1885207820732200

In 2004, I volunteered to do the games bulletin for the master tournament in Reno. I had to annotate somewhere around 60-100 games between players in the rating range of 2000-2600. I think the two things that struck me most were how efficiently the masters moved their pieces in pursuit of their plans and how relentlessly their technique converted advantages into points. 2004 was the year I gave up the Sicilian in favor of the Modern Defense and I think 2004 was also the year that I fell in love with the endgame. In retrospect, my technique improved at beating the players in Class B and in Class A. However, playing against fellow Experts was a misery since I was only an Expert by virtue of a prize rating floor and I often felt outclassed.

In 2014, I gave up the English Opening and the Modern Defense in favor of more open, tactical games. I also started systematically studying and reviewing my opening repertoire with Chess Position Trainer, developing my own opening theory, and familiarizing myself with key positions and themes. I think that was the year that I began to fear Experts less and turn a losing percentage against them (37%) into a winning one (58%).

I don't have an explanation for what happened in the past 7 months, but I seem to more consistently avoid the emotional attitude of "I'll just make this move, see what happens, and hope it turns out right." My job is to know as well as possible what will happen and in as much as I had chances to avoid worse and losing variations, I seem to be capitalizing on a reduction in my mistakes. I'd like to say that some of my recent work with endgame studies has improved my kinetic linking to see further and clearer. Conversely, my opponents seem to be making disastrous mistakes more frequently. Or maybe I have improved at spotting opportunities.

Of course, there is still room for a regression to the mean since the N-number is small for the 17 recently picked cherries. Still, with my tendency to accentuate the negative, it's therapeutic to highlight the positive.

Going forward, I will try to mentally rest for a few weeks until the championship matches. Perhaps I will blog about more interesting and practical endgames that have come up in my games and in those of the masters.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Tomb Raider Revisited

I have been watching the Saint Louis Chess Club's YouTube coverage of the 2017 U.S. Chess Championships. In round 8, Ray Robson played a Gruenfeld Defense against Alexander Onischuk. After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.Nf3 c5 8.Be3 Qa5 9.Qd2 0-0 10.Rc1 Nd7 11.Bd3 b6 12.0-0 e6 13.Qe2 Bb7 14.Nd2, they reached this positon:

Ray Robson decided to raid the two pawns at a2 and c3. I'm not sure where he thought he was getting away with the loot, but the tomb closed up and Ray's Raider got trapped 14...Qxa2 15.Ra1 Qb2 16.Rfb1 Qxc3 17.Nc4!

I think Onischuk speculated that Robson might have missed 17.Nc4. Play could have progressed with 17...b5 18.Ra3 Qb4 19.dxc5! Qxb1+ 20.Bxb1 bxc4 21.Qxc4 with only +1.15 pawns to White.

Instead, Robson tried to get out with 17...Nf6? 18.Ra3.

It struck me here how similar the queen trap here is compared to the one in my own game. Not completely analogous, since I know there is a difference between Qb3 and Qc3. And now Robson played his own knight desperado 18...Nxe4

Unfortunately, the tactics are all in Onischuk's favor at this point. 19.Bxe4 Bxe4 20.Rxc3

Eventually, the game traded down to Queen and the 3 white kingside pawns versus Rook and the 4 black kingside pawns. Someone mentioned a fortress, but White forced some pawn exchanges and the Black king became too exposed to wait out the siege.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Tomb Raider

The Tomb Raider franchise began in 1996 when game studio Core Design released under its parent company Eidos Interactive, a third-person 3D action adventure featuring acrobatic (and shapely) Lara Croft as the Tomb Raider navigating through traps. Since that time, the franchise has gone on to publish about fifteen game titles and inspire two movies starring Angelina Jolie. A reboot of the film franchise is in development with Alicia Vikander (from Ex Machina) in the title role.

I won a game last month that reminded me of the Tomb Raider. My opponent offered material for the possibility of trapping my queen. I stayed one step ahead of the traps and managed to escape with the material advantage intact. I'm playing Black. White's 20th move was 20.Qc2-e2, loosening the protection of the Nb3, to which I responded 20...Qc7-d7 threatening to capture the white pawn on a4 and having a follow-up threat against Nb3 for the next move. Notice that Black has a loose a7 pawn.

My opponent and I were both a little short on time, about 15 minutes to make 10 moves and reach move 30. Ideally, both sides could sink into 30-45 minute thinks and try to work out the next 8-12 plies with some level of certainty before making such committal moves. Barring that, I fell back on intuition that I could use the pawn exchanges at e4 and b4 and my well-placed rooks at c8 and d8 to aid my queen's escape. If the two white rooks came to a1 and b1, the bishop would have trouble discovering the attack of the b-rook because a1 was occupied and Bc1 allows simply Qxc3. If the minor pieces could not trap my queen, then I might be able to sac my queen for a rook, thereby gaining at least material parity. I also used a rough risk-reward calculation: if I took on a4, worst case scenario was that Ra1 forces my queen to retreat to d7 and then I would have to contend with Rxa7. So, sometimes, I used shorter variations than I really should have to substitute for calculated certainty. My opponent sweetened the reward by cutting off the protection of Bb2. 21.Nc2??

I knew that I was getting the a-pawn and at least positional play against a pair of awkward knights (if either knight goes to a1). If he tried to trap my queen with Ra1, I would get the Nb3 and tempo against the loose Bb2. So I took the bait and entered the tomb. 21...Qxa4 22.Ra1

Last chance to bail out with Qd7 Rxa7. No guts no glory. 22...Qxb3 23.Reb1

White is one move away from trapping the Black Queen with Ra3, but Black has several resources to delay that outcome. The most immediate is cxb4. This has the possibility of opening the c-file for the Black rook and it also temporarily prevents Ra3. However, White would almost certainly play Nxb4, keeping the c-file semi-closed. Another resource is dxe4, temporarily giving Black the potential of Qd5, but fxe4 leaves the queen trapped. I already began to see the possibility of a bailout sacrifice to get my queen out of trouble, but I wasn't sure it was going to work. So I went for the pawn exchanges to improve my rooks. 23...dxe4 24.fxe4

24...cxb4 25.Nxb4

A pause now that we're five moves closer to time control. I was annoyed at the weakness of my a7 pawn and the tempo that Rxa7 might get on my Bb7. Since I was already up a knight and a pawn, I calculated that 25...a5 26.Ra3 Qxa3 27.Bxa3 axb4 might be a bailout strategy. Do you see the other possibility of bailout yet? 25...a5 26.Ra3. White moved in to kill my queen.

Even though 26...Qxa3 27.Bxa3 axb4 28.Bxb4 carries the material advantage of queen (9) for rook and two knights (11), White's position seemed annoyingly consolidated. I couldn't see how I was going to organize my pieces for the next round of battle. With White's Nb4 under attack and both our time troubles becoming serious, I decided to play my ace in the hole. 26...Nd4!.

If he captures my queen with Rxb3, I capture his queen with check Nxe2+ with more even exchanges helping Black's endgame. If he captures my knight with cxd4, I capture his knight Qxb4 and get my queen away safely with the knight advantage. If he saves his queen, I save my queen with Qe6. My opponent let his time tick down to about 1 minute for 4 moves as he tried to work out this mess. He finally settled on 27.Qd2 Qe6.

At this point, I figured that White should trade knights and gain a protected passer at d5, e.g. 28.cxd4 axb4 29.d5. Another variation could have gone 28.Nc2 Nxc2 29.Rxc2. However, with his time trouble, White tried too hard to avoid exchanges and came up with a move that made his knight, bishop, and rook awkward. 28.Na2?

With the remaining time on my clock, I retreated while picking on the awkward rook. 28...Nb5 29.Ra4 Nd6 30.Qf2 Bc6. With a piece and a pawn down and the possibility of losing the rook, my opponent resigned. Black's most straightforward win goes 31.Ra3 Nb5 32.Ra4 Qb3 going back to the tomb to loot more treasure.

Monday, March 13, 2017


Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" is a movie about a dystopian, Kafkaesque world of bureaucracy, superficiality, and terrorism. The main character descends into criminality and madness when he tries to swim against the current using his conscience, passion, and resourcefulness. One of the images toward the end of the movie involves a heroic figure becoming enveloped and then consumed by flying scraps of paper, a metaphor for the triumph of bureaucracy.

One of my recent games involved enveloping an enemy piece in pins and cross-pins in order to eventually win. Here is the position after Black played 16...h5:

Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) wakes up one night to find the central heating in his apartment has gone on the fritz and is now too hot. He leaves a message with the Central Services answering machine and goes to sleep with his head in the refrigerator.

Black seizes the initiative with a flank attack on White's g4-h3 pawn chain. Note that if g4-g5, Black has the fork Bf4+. 17.Nh4?!.

Sam is awakened by freelance outlaw repairman Archibald "Harry" Tuttle (Robert De Niro represented by the White knight) who tries to resolve the heating problem.

I think that my opponent wanted to try to exploit the hole at g6, but there is no time for that because the Black rooks are going to use the tempo Rh6 to assist in doubling on the h-file. 17...hxg4 18.hxg4 Rh6.

The call to Central Services goes through and two repairmen, Spoor (Bob Hoskins) and Dowser (Derrick O'Connor) are dispatched to Sam's apartment on a collision course with Harry Tuttle.
With some quick thinking, Sam rebuffs the attempt by Spoor and Dowser to bully their way into his apartment by requesting official paperwork, thereby preventing an armed confrontation with Tuttle. Tuttle zips away via a zipline.

White regroups with an awkward sequence: 19.Ng2 Reh8 20.Rg1?!. I mentioned after the game that White should have probably exchanged one pair of rooks so that I wouldn't get so much activity with the second rook on White's third rank.

Far from being defeated, Spoor and Dowser (Black's rook pair) keep showing up at Sam's apartment, once to pull all the ducting out of the walls, and then once more when the system has turned the apartment into a freezer. During the daytime, Sam spends all his efforts at work trying to track down the girl of his dreams, Jill Layton (Kim Greist).

Black's rooks soon lodge in White's position, first at h2 where it causes immobility in the Ng2 because of the looseness of f2. White tries to stabilize his weaknesses by moving his king from c1 to e2. This is double-edged in that his king becomes the target of pins and skewers. 20...Rh2 21.Kc2?! Be8 22.Kd2 Bg6 23.Ke2 R8h3 24.f3. With the third rank pressure preventing White from moving his Rd1 for fear of Bd3+, White blocks this coordination by advancing his f-pawn. But now the knight is pinned to the king.

With the aid of Sam's erratic behavior, Sam (White King) and Jill (King Bishop Pawn) run afoul of the law and are soon labeled as terrorists.

I'm somewhat proud of this next sequence which was not easy to find and advance the attack. The light-squared bishop is hindered by the f3 and g4 pawns. It would really like to participate in the attack on g2 and therefore belongs on e4 or h3, but there is currently no path. Luckily, a pawn break 24...f5! was handy, weakening the f3-g4 structure enough to become porous. Then followed 25.gxf5 Bxf5 26.Rdf1 Rg3 27.Rf2 Bh3.

Once 27.Rf2 appeared on the board, I had to calculate the possibility of 27...Bh3 being answered by Ng2 jumping. The trickiest jump is 28.Nf4 because it cuts the rooks off from their protection by the bishop on d6. At first I thought I had to trade both pairs of rooks 28...Rxf2+ 29.Kxf2 Rxg1, but I worried about 30.Nxh3. I couldn't see clearly enough to find 30...Rh1 which reopens 2 threats of Rxh3 and Rh2+ skewering the Bb2. But I was reassured when I found 28...Rxg1 29.Rxh2 Bxf4 30.Rxh3 Rg2+ 31.Kd3 Rxb2. Unfortunately, the next pair of moves were both blunders. White bluffed and Black blinked with 28.cxd5? exd5?. 28...Bxg2! would have been completely winning as Bxf3+ is difficult to meet. But finally, the White king walks into the trap that Black initiated with 20...Rh2. 29.Kf1. The knight is pinned again.

Sam hatches a daring plan to erase Jill from the Ministry of Information's databases. Unfortunately, Big Brother is more than a one-trick pony. Information Retrieval, e.g. police forces and interrogators, find Sam's hideout, break down the doors, and arrest him.

With the rooks and knight and king largely immobilized, the plan of Bd6-Bf4-Be3 seemed decisive. 29...Bf4 30.Re2. Here I missed the clever zugzwang 30...g5!. 30...Rxf3+ is enough to win, but my advantage falls from 5.9 to 3.0. 31.Rf2 Rxf2+ 32.Kxf2.

Sam finds himself about to be tortured. Suddenly a shot rings out and he is rescued by some commandos, including Harry Tuttle. There is seeming triumph over bureaucracy when Tuttle blows up the Ministry of Information buildings.

A semi-crucial move appears at this point of the game. If I had felt confident with all the pin pressure I had put on the Ng2, I still had to find my way to a winning endgame. The extra pawn at g7 could still win, but the ending should be bishops of same colors to win it. With that in mind, White must not be allowed to unpin the knight and capture Kxf4. Therefore, 32...g5! was necessary. My opponent said he thought he had a chance at this point, but the advance of the g-pawn shut down his last hope. The cocoon around the knight unravels, but the knight is also gone. 33.Kf3 Rxg2 34.Rxg2 Bxg2+ 35.Kxg2 g4

But the falling paper debris from the explosion envelops Tuttle and mummifies him like a spider's prey. Sam rushes to help, but by the time he unravels the paper, Tuttle has seemingly evaporated.
The authorities chase Sam until he finds Jill again and they escape to the idyllic countryside.

The game concluded with fairly simple plans of centralizing the Black king to f5, possibly e4, and trying to queen the g-pawn. The exploitation of two weaknesses is a common endgame principle. 36.Kf2 Kd7 37.Bf3 Ke6 38.Ke2 Kf5 39.Kd3 g3 40.Be1 g2 41.Bf2 Bh2 42.a4 g1=Q 43.Bxg1 Bxg1 44.b4 Kf4 45.Kc3 Ke4 and White resigned.

The unharmed faces of Sam's tormentors, Jack Lint (the Black King Bishop, played by Michael Palin) and Deputy Minister of Information Mr. Helpmann (the Black King, played by Peter Vaughan) interrupt Sam's fantasyscape, revealing that Sam has only escaped his torture by becoming completely delusional.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone was found in Egypt in 1799 having parallel texts of ancient Greek, Demotic, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Rosetta Stone proved key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. I wanted to review one of my wins at the club last month with some attention to the language used to in analysis, from what I was thinking at the time to what postmortem analysis has shown, and try to translate it into Temposchluckerese.

As Black, I had just played 24...Bd7-c8. The evaluation is approximately equal. White's centralized knights and queenside pawn chain to c5 threaten to create a b-pawn passer. Black's f5-e4 pawn chain and attack against the e3 isolani provide central space and counterplay. It looks like Bc8 overprotects a6 from Qxa6 so that my Nc7 is freed up a bit from defensive duties. This increases not only the mobility of the Bc8 and the Nc7, but also the Rd8 which now faces White's Nd4. The main defect of Bd7-c8 is that the c6 pawn is now held only by my Qh6. I had been keeping my eye on White's weak e3 pawn for the past 10 moves. White had not improved his defense of that pawn for a while. Now that my rook faces Nd4, the Pe3 is that much more vulnerable, especially in a sequence where Be7-g5xe3 lands with check. In my usual language, I was going to try to remove the Pe3 guard of the Nd4.

As I understand Temposchlucker's terminology, e3 is a Point of Pressure (PoP) as is d4. Lines of Attack (LoA) include h6-e3 and d8-d4. The Nd4 is a Barely Adequately Defended (BAD) piece, but I would also like to label the Pe3 and Black's Pc6 and Pf5 as BAD. In addition, Pe3 is already immobilized and blockaded by Black's Pe4, but a functional immobility also exists in that the Nd4 is only defended by Pe3. With these critical items in play, White missed chances to bolster the e3-d4 problems and decided to press his queenside pawn majority with 25.a4. Of course, I played 25...Bg5 and my opponent sank into a long think. I felt somewhat confident at this point and walked around the club. I came back after 26.Kh1.

This shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. Kh1 comes close to solving White's problems. Sometimes if you have to lose material and time, the solution is to quickly concede what you have to concede and move onto getting something in return. Black will capture Bxe3, but White will follow with Nxc6, making the queenside majority scarier and temporarily threatening a Nxd8 win of the exchange. Now that I saw White's plan, it was my turn to concede something and try to gain something in return. I could see that Rd2 might be a devastating blow if I could camp heavy pieces on White's second rank. So I decided to go down this variation. 26...Bxe3 27.Nxc6 Rd2.

At this point, I worried about White's offensive possibilities. 28.Ne7+ is a move. Can Black counterattack with 28...Kf8? I decided, correctly as verified afterward, that 29.Nxf5 threatening Black's queen and a discovery on Black's king were too dangerous, so I was going to have to play 28...Kh8. Because of the balance between pieces en prise at Be3 and Nc6, White probably felt he had to keep his queen in contact with Be3. Also, it was difficult to see past 28.Qc4+ Be6 because you have to look extra ply ahead while the queen is attacked, but 29.Ne7+ Kh8 30.Qxe4 would have smashed Black's center and brought the Nc6 back into the protection of the Bg2 and Qe4.

After Qc4+ Be6 Ne7+ Kh8, the lines of attack (LoA) are c4-g8 and f1-f8. The Rf8 is a BAD piece as is the Pe4 (both are also on Points of Pressure, PoP).

Instead White played the passive 28.Qe1.

Here I thought for a long time on how to proceed. I was fixated by the looseness of my Be3 and his Nc6. I didn't want to trade evenly since my Be3 was quite strong as an unopposed bishop slicing into White's position and supporting eventual passed pawns. I soon noticed that the Nc3 was also loose and tried to limit the mobility of the Nc6 by playing 28...Bg5. Now that the bishop is safe, Qxc6 is back on and Ne5 runs into Bf6 skewering two knights on the diagonal.

But what I failed to appreciate was that Rd2 had given me a significant Line of Attack on PoPs g2 and h2. Plus my queen which had been at h6 for the past 15 moves had another serious Line of Attack against PoP h2. Add this to the already existing LoA against the BAD Nc6, and the limited mobility of White's King because of Be3 and I could have increased my chances of finding the brilliant 28...Rf6!! This move looks like it only increases the pressure on Nc6, but what it really does is threaten checkmate. White staves off mate with 29.h4 Rxc6, but has to soldier on a piece down. If he saves his knight, e.g. 29.Na5 or even 29.Ne7+ Kf7 30.Nxc8, there comes the shocking 29...Qxh2+ 30.Kxh2 Rh6#.

I emerged from the middle game with 2 extra pawns and converted them to victory.

Friday, February 24, 2017


Perhaps twenty years ago, I picked up a copy of Isaac Asimov's Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine because it had a cover story named "Queenmagic, Pawnmagic" by Ian Watson. The story was fairly good, about a boy named Pedino who comes of age in the medieval setting of Bellogard, a city of light locked in war with an antithetical city of dark named Chorny. Ordinary citizens live their lives ignorant of the conflict which is fought magically between the lords and squires of the realm. During a practical joke gone horribly wrong, Pedino is found to have a soul and overnight goes from the son of a tradesman to Pawn/Squire.

Recently, I was delighted to find out that the story from that magazine was part of a larger book, "Queenmagic, Kingmagic". However, my enthusiasm was tempered when I read the story to the end. I think Act I and Act II are strong with insight into the human experience transplanted to a chess-themed one. I suppose the main constant throughout is that the main character has a preoccupation with a series of women in his life. But I'm disappointed as usual with Act III, which almost discards the groundwork of the previous two-thirds. The story goes through palace intrigue and star-crossed romance, but then there is a left turn into action-packed multiverse theory before returning home to a meandering wrap-up. The story goes through a succession of discarded quests - victory, survival, home, family, love - none of which seem resolved satisfactorily.

Perhaps Mr. Watson didn't want to write for a chessically educated audience, since there seemed to be strange liberties such as a pawn being lost during castling. There were perhaps three main battles but treatment of the strategy and tactics were disappointingly superficial. One problem the author seemed to have is that in his description of Pedino's life, the pawn had agency and soul, but when the larger kingdom came into focus, there was an element of Destiny that stole the agency from the Pieces acting as players within this life-sized game.

My twenty-something self was struck back then by this passage relevant to our current discussion of dead and wounded pieces:

Queen Alyitsa was dead – murdered by Prince Feryava of Chorny. Bishop Slon was dead, killed by Bishop Zorn. Squire Iris was dead, protecting Bishop Veck.

The survivors were: the king, Bishop Veck, Sir Brant, Prince Ruk, and five of us squires. Henchy was injured; his wrist had been broken. It would stay that way for the rest of his life. Magical injuries did not heal unless you killed the person who inflicted them.

Despite its shortcomings, it was fun to see perspective shift to life among the pieces. It reminded me of this poem which I posted back during the death of Bobby Fischer:

‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
-- Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

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.