Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bob Dobbs Teaches Chess: On the Vital and Universal Principle of Slack

You may have noticed my new profile pic.  This is of course not my public visage but my "true" face:

If it strikes a chord of recognition, congratulations!

If not, you need to read Le Wik's take on the Church of the SubGenius.  Whatever you do, do not click on this link direct to heaven on Earth, for you are not ready.  Believe me, don't click on this link.

What does this have to do with chess, you ask?  Merely everything.  Wikipedia's tame description of slack does not do this important topic justice.  Think about it--the only reason you can get a glove on and off of your hand, is slack.  Why can you hit a golf ball 300 yards without ball and club exploding into pieces?  Slack.  How did the initial Singularity that spawned the Universe as we know it explode into matter and antimatter, most of which cancelled each other out, with just enough matter left over to make galaxies, stars, planets, people?  By now you well know...SLACK.

Slack is the reason chess is still interesting after hundreds of years of study; there is just enough slack in chess that LOTS of looking has never revealed a White forced win, and a player a pawn down can often still draw the game. Thousands of different opening sequences are "playable" just within the first few moves.  Attackers, defenders, positional players, wonderful weirdos like Nimzowitsch and upright physicians like Tarrasch, magicians, politicians, spooks, cops and criminals--all can touch for a moment the Universal Slack through the chessboard.

Will this knowledge make you a better player today?  Perhaps, if used intelligently.  Feel the Slack in the position, be creative and when in trouble, trust in the positional Slack that allows so many bad positions to be saved; at least you'll enjoy the game more, if you just keep the above picture in mind.  Try not to laugh out loud during the game however.  Your opponent may not yet be in on the Joke...

By the way, if you want some thing that ROCKS, this ROCKS:

ADDED 1/27/10:  For those who don't speak German, here is a rough translation (Feuer frei!" is the German expression used to order weapons to be shot, as in "Fire at will !". Literally it is "Fire freely")

Monday, January 18, 2010

Do You Care About Today's Grandmaster Games and Tournaments?

Over at IM Mark Ginsburg's blog I was moved to comment on his post The New Chess, "When young grandmasters whip out crazy theory backed by millions of pre-game CPU cycles."

Just as a personal impression and certainly not from some scientific poll, I think this kind of chess has led to some loss of interest by today's amateurs in current grandmaster games.  I commented in part:

My impression reading the chess proletariat’s blogs and talking to U-1800s at tournaments and clubs is that a lot of them just don’t care that much about GM chess these days. Sure, they look at the Corus results and sometimes follow on ICC but but games like the above, how does this help me whip Jones for the club class B championship? There are still beautiful tactics and interesting chess involved here, to be sure, but the masses increasingly don’t care about innovations at move 17 or 25, even compared to 20 years ago in the Kasparov era. We can study Tarrasch or Zurich 1953 or even 60 Memorable Games and get more out of it, in a purely practical sense.

I’m sure ambitious 10-year-olds are also studying this game, but my purely unscientific sample says that the over-teenage, under-2200 crowd spends a lot less time at the club discussing the latest GM games than when I started going to clubs around 1980.

So, for any reader who has been around serious chess long enough to have seen the beginning of the computer era, what say you?  Do you look at yesterday's Wijk aan Zee games with annotations by the excellent Dennis Monokroussos, or was it on your radar at all?  If you were around for both, were you more likely to look at the games from Karpov-Kasparov 1985 than Anand-Kramnik 2008?

While you think about it, LET US ROCK!

Friday, January 15, 2010

ACIS 2010 Update

Well, two weeks have pased since my first personal ACIS post, and finally a progress report; so far I have made it through through p. 34 of Silman's How to Reassess Your Chess (3d. ed.)--the introductory material, the "basic endgames" and the first substantive chapter, "Thinking Techniques."  While I was pretty familiar with the pawn and rook+pawn endings which are the bulk of the endgame chapters, it did me good to study it again, plus, I did pick up one valuable shortcut that somehow I had never explicitly seen (or it hadn't registered), that when the kings are far apart and you're trying to get the "distant opposition," as Silman states, move the king to a square or rectangle in which each corner is the same color.  While I had an idea of what the "distant opposition" is, this simple mnenomic will now be with me forever!  Here is the example:

White needs to go Kb2 to keep the distant opposition.  Even though Kc1 stays on the same color square as Black's king, it loses the opposition--note that the "corner" colors are different.

Besides this nugget, the best thing about the first chapters was getting back into really looking deeply into a few positions, getting back into the groove of taking apart a chess position in great detail.

It struck that Silman's book might have been titled My System after Nimzovich's, except that Silman assumes a certain level of familiarity with positional concepts like space, and doesn't go through what Nimzovich called "The Elements" first.  Reassess Your Chess is not for the true beginner, and I think it is telling that in the introduction Silman gives the example of an adult player who has made it to Expert (2000 Elo), but is stuck there, as who the book is aimed at.

Some Cool Links

Speaking of My System, Temposchlucker has posted his take, My System Redux.  His understanding and admiration have grown.

My friend and fierce opponent Vernon Young, who I managed to edge out for 2008 Reno Class B Champion, has started an intriguing, stimulating and eclectic blog about chess and other things at Vernon R Young's Blog.  You will note that since my two victories against him in that tournament he has shot ahead about 180 rating points.  And he makes chess videos!  Very cool, Vernon.

Blunderprone has yet another outstanding tournament series, Lone Pine 1975.  Look, Jeremy Silman!  Also, Part II is must read!

Thanks to these outstanding bloggers, and all the rest who post entertaining and valuable material as a labor of love.

And now, LET US ROCK!

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Break Out!

A NY Times article, How to Train the Aging Brain, while not exactly NEW! and IMPROVED! (I've seen the same basic prescription for some years) can serve as a reminder to us Adult Chess Improvement Seekers that we need to take some different approaches to learning than those young whippersnappers:

Educators say that, for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young. With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should “jiggle their synapses a bit” by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own, says Dr. Taylor, who is 66.

Teaching new facts should not be the focus of adult education, she says. Instead, continued brain development and a richer form of learning may require that you “bump up against people and ideas” that are different. In a history class, that might mean reading multiple viewpoints, and then prying open brain networks by reflecting on how what was learned has changed your view of the world.

“There’s a place for information,” Dr. Taylor says. “We need to know stuff. But we need to move beyond that and challenge our perception of the world. If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, you’re not going to wrestle with your established brain connections.”

Such stretching is exactly what scientists say best keeps a brain in tune: get out of the comfort zone to push and nourish your brain. Do anything from learning a foreign language to taking a different route to work.

This goes to the heart of what many good chess authors, including Silman and Rowson, have suggested as the prescription for adult chess improvers: Our thinking about chess in general, and how to choose a move in particular, tends to become routine, stale, stereotypical if we don't make special efforts to go beyond what we are comfortable with. We hit plateaus when we apply the same limited set of tools all the time. We need to break out of that comfort zone, even if we go backwards temporarily in rating, in order to lay the groundwork for a higher plateau. To break down our game like a muscle that lifts some heavy weights, and thus becomes stronger. Then, presumably, do it all over again at our next plateau...(ouch!).

A few easy steps that you could take come to mind. First, you could change up your openings, throw something out there that you've never played before; if you're an "e4 player" go to 1. c4 and don't study it too much in advance--try working it out on the board from move one. Or look into something like Hugh Myer's researches or even Benjamin and Schiller's Unorthodox Openings.

Something I've tried occasionally in blitz games with fair success is what might be called "Doing nothing and doing it well," that is, going totally contrary to my usual style and just developing pieces behind my own lines with no early intent to attack at all. Usually the "other guy" soon feels the need to attack and I end up with a tactical battle as good as any other, but it's interesting how doing this gives a new perspective on the game.

Who's to say
What's impossible
Well they forgot
This world keeps spinning
And with each new day
I can feel a change in everything
And as the surface breaks reflections fade
But in some ways they remain the same
And as my mind begins to spread its wings
There's no stoppin' curiosity

I want to turn the whole thing upside down...

Friday, January 01, 2010

ACIS 2010

I'm back, I'm excited and let's get right to it--to really be one of the ACIS, by Blunderprone's definition, one must post about goals, plans and methods and then follow up with progress reports. So here I go, taking the plunge...

True Confessions

First off, some brutally honest history. I've mentioned here a number of times that I'm really into human performance and "self-help" books and materials. Back in 1995 I was in Northern California, working at a low paying job and basically just getting along when I revisited Tony Robbins' book Unlimited Power, a book I'd owned for several years and had read, but hadn't taken much action with. Rereading the book one night, I sat down and started doing some of the exercises, including thinking about what I really wanted and how to get it. I decided to move back to Juneau, Alaska, go to the university and get a degree, get married and have children and get into politics and government. It took longer than it might have, there were some bumps in the road along the way but I did all of those things, and now enjoy a great job, pretty good income and a great family. You may well think of Tony Robbins as some guy on late night infomercials but lo, he has put out some things that work, if you actually do them. And he learned a lot of them from NLP and through the pioneer Richard Bandler. I'm currently working with Bandler's latest book, Get the Life You Want, which I highly recommmend.

That's all fine, you may be saying, but where's the brutal honesty? Here: I've never faithfully, consistently applied these methods and techniques to chess improvement! Most of my improvement came from playing good players from 1982-90, and that's it! Oh, I have plenty of chess books, and I've intermittedly studied endings, done tactical exercises and looked at some master games, but I've never really applied what I know about performance psychology to my chess in a consistent way. Perhaps chess improvement is not quite as important as work, health, marriage and family, but now is the time, friend, now is the time. I think that I must either just play chess and enjoy it, which is great, or go for the gusto and do the improvement thing to the utmost of my ability:

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. So because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. (Rev. 3:15-16). I will not let that be me!

So here goes.

My Personal ACIS Program

As I noted in my last post, I have decided to base my ACIS plan on Jeremy Silman's How to Reassess Your Chess (3d. ed). A funny coincidence--this is one of the few well-known chess books I've never owned, but while I was in Anchorage, Alaska recently I dropped in at the fabulous Title Wave used book store and browsed the book for awhile, finally paying just $7.95 for a nice copy. It struck me that one of my weak points as a chess player is the lack of a consistent, cogent thinking process as I consider my move. Though I'm experienced enough to know about weak pawns, weak squares, dropping in a killer knight at d6 to paralyze Black's position, etc., I all too often go pretty much straight to "What threats can I make and how must he repsond to them?" and choose my moves almost exclusively on that basis. Also, I've been playing mostly internet blitz over the last months since I left Reno and its strong club tournaments. The "Reassess Your Chess" method does not lend itself, nor really apply, to blitz. It's about taking the time to really look at the "imbalances" in a position and considering how to nurture the ones favorable to your side, and to neutralize the opponent's. As I browsed through the book it dawned on me that perhaps this was just the approach I needed in my own unique situation--other people may best be served by another book or focus.

While there is a thorough and quite critical review of the book on the Amazon page that might give one pause, I decided that the reviewer's (apparently) legitimate criticisms of some errors in the book shouldn't really be a problem with my intended use of it. I will work my way through every line of "Reassess Your Chess" on a board, and perfect the thinking process presented, and any errors and ommissions I find on my own will just be great practice. After I have made it through the book (and can finally say that I have done so with at least one chess book) I will apply the process to games and positions from other books--games collections, opening books etc.

One other thing that struck me as I looked into the book is a Silman recommendation that I've seen in one form or another many times in many places: to take a rich position from a master game, set it up on a board and really get into it deeply, for 20, 30, 40 minutes or more, writing down all your thoughts, plans and calculated lines. Blue Devil Knight called it Rowsonalysis (see Chess for Zebras), Michael Goeller and Dan Heisman have called it the "Stoyko excercise" after Massachusetts FM Stephen Stoyko. By any other name, this is something I've never really done. I am going to do it as much as time allows and publish the results here.

Playing games is, of course, the other thing one must do to actually improve, well, results in actual games! I'm going to try to play at least two games on FICS at 15/5 or longer each week. That may be all I can fit in. I am going to avoid blitz for three months as an experiment, and see if the ACIS work will result in some significant improvement at blitz. As Heisman says, the best blitz players are the best slow players. I am intrigued by the possibility that this may or may not happen in this case.

Measuring Progress

Only ratings can really say whether one's strength has increased over time. My current ratings:

USCF - 1629 (all-time best 1825)
FICS Standard - 1606 (all-time best 1800+)
FICS Blitz - 1328 (all-time best 1442)

I plan to post something once a week about the ACIS plan and what I actually accomplished. If I miss a week I'm not going to freak out, however. From mid-January to April I am extremely busy in my professional capacity. Any time studying or playing chess will, however, be quality time.

Isn't that really what this is all about?