"...a Chessmaster should be a combination of a beast of prey and a monk."

Thursday, August 30, 2012

What's going on?

This post is just sort of to keep track of what I've been doing.  Lately, I haven't been playing people at all.  I was on a trip and was a bit distracted and have kind of been getting back into my regular life now that I am at home.  I have been playing my computers though.  I was able to beat the Josh-age 6 character several times, including wins as both white and black, so I decided to jump up a notch.  I am now playing Risa that Chessmaster rates at 1253.  So far I haven't beat or even drawn her.  The first game I played with her (really the second but the first of this series of games) I had her beat.  She made some quite bad moves losing substantial material in the middle game.  I was in the process of hunting down the king, but her queen was still on the board and I made a blunder to let her get me in a tricky little mate.  Other than that, I have been playing good games where I feel I'm in it but usually some blunder or another on my part will lose the game.  Basically, I found that against the Josh character if I was able to play a blunder free game then I would win as usually he would lose material one way or another along the way and end up lost.  So far I haven't really played a blunder free game against Risa.  I do feel I am in the games though so the move up was probably reasonable.  One thing I've often heard about improving is that it's important to play better players so that you are forced to step up your game.

I have been playing against Hiarcs too, but that tends to be when I am tired and almost ready to sleep but want to get at least one game in.  Usually these games are pretty low quality and I make a blunder of some kind to lose the game.  I was doing ok for awhile against Hiarcs set at 1200.  I was winning about 1 in 4 or so.  Lately I haven't been winning at all.

I expect as I get settled back into more of routine now a days I will be able to play more quality games and get back to playing on FICS sometimes.

As far as training goes, I have been doing some problems at chess tempo.  Right now I am rated 1456.4 at standard tactics training.  I was up in the 1470's for a bit but came back down slightly.  So far it seems like I am on the upswing.  Clearly there is a big difference between solving problems and playing games.  But I do feel that on the whole my tactics training is useful.  I am definitely sticking to the point of view that tactics training should be a huge part of the process of getting better at lower levels like mine.  I'm no de la Maza acolyte.  I haven't read his book, only read some negative reviews from Silman and others.  Still, I think many people would agree that studying tactics is probably the most important way for the very rookie player like myself to improve.

I have also been working through Nunn's "1001 Deadly Checkmates".  I am liking this book quite well.  I'm on mate 197 and they seem to be getting harder as I go along.  I've gotten most of them, though I do make a mistake from time to time.  I got this as an e-book for the ipad so I would have problems to work on during the trip without lugging a book, and if I didn't have internet.  But I haven't been looking at it as much since I got back.  The other book is Reinfeld's "1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate".  This I use primarily on the subway when I am traveling around the city.  I feel a lot more comfortable carrying a cheap easily replaceable paper back around town with me than the ipad which pretty much just stays at home.  This book is interesting.  I'm in the 70's in it.  What I find is that on average I can do 5/6 problems.  The level of the problems seems to be quite jumbled up, which is fine by me.  Nunn's book puts them in order of difficulty which is also fine.  With Reinfeld, I am just putting a small circle next to the problems I can't seem to solve even with a good amount of time spent on them and then moving on.  As I said in a previous post, my general outlook on problem solving is that I should work on the problem till I solve it.  That's not an absolute rule I live and die by.  If I have spent a long time working on a problem and feel that I have exhausted my creativity on the problem and just don't see where the solution could be then I will give up and look.  Often I was close but just made some slight mistake that turned me aside from the right answer.  Reinfeld's book puts all the answers together in the back of the book though, and I am always afraid that if I look, I will accidentally see the answer to problems I haven't done yet, so for the most part I just don't look at the answers there at all.

I also do the daily chess puzzle at chessgames.com when I can remember.  I can reliably get Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday sometimes, and not beyond that, though I think I may have solved a Thursday once or at least gotten close.

Other than that I am reading Chernev's "Logical Chess".  I'm on game 17 there.  I've seen a lot of people swear by this book, and I am liking it quite well.  It seems to have a lot of basic kind of chess knowledge that people like me are lacking but that other authors won't spell out explicitly.  I really enjoyed the discussion of loosening the pawns around the king, and showing how that's done, and he seems to give lots of interesting nuggets along the way.  It's also just a lot of fun to be able to go through a game and really understand what is going on, and specifically why the outcome came about.  My opinion is that, for myself at least, going through uncommented grandmaster games just isn't very useful.  I have tried looking at games where I looked at the game without comments first, and then looked at the comments.  Often when I did this I would end up with quite distorted, quite wrong ideas about what was going on.  On the other hand, I think going through commented games, particularly like the ones in Chernev's book that are geared to lower level players (I've heard Nunn's similar book is pitched at a more sophisticated level) is really very helpful to illustrate how a game of chess works and give me ideas that I can easily apply in my own games.

Pretty much the only other chess stuff I've been doing is that I've been poking around in John Emms "Starting Out: The Sicilian".  This is another one that I am enjoying quite a bit.  I was on the lookout for exactly this kind of book and found it in a used bookstore.  Basically, it's just a really introductory guide to the Sicilian.  It covers all the major stuff that a beginner would want to know.  Now, just to stress the point, it is very introductory.  What I like about it is that it covers the main variations, like the dragon, the Najdorf, etc. and it gives about 3-4 of the main responses that white can make to each of these variations.  Then for each of these it does a very nice write up.  first it will give a commented recounting of the specific moves that make up the variation.  Then it gives you a very basic overview of the kind of themes this opening will feature, the kind of strategies that will be pursued by both sides.  It gives an assessment of how theoretical each line is, basically whether you need to memorize more or can play more according to general principles.  It gives a statistical assessment of the opening detailing the number of games in a big database, the win percentage, and how many games are decisive. Often this section will give you some interpretation of the data, suggesting ways that you may need to think twice about what the numbers are saying which is useful to a novice like me as well.  Lastly it will give 2-3 commented example games for each of the white replies to the major black setups.  I feel this book is exactly right for my level.  I have looked at several other opening books and often find them too sophisticated for me.  This is pitched at just the right level to explain the main ideas and give me a very basic roadmap around the Sicilian.  I know there's a second edition out but I have the first.  Don't know what the differences are but I recommend this book for players like me.

That's pretty much it for chess activities of late.  I was on quite a spending spree with chess stuff, and right now am trying to rein that in and focus on reading and using the stuff I've acquired for the time being.  We'll see how I do with that.

Chessmaster: Grandmaster Edition

I recently bought "Chessmaster: Grandmaster Edition" and have been enjoying that.  One of the main things I like about it (and one of the big reasons I was drawn to buying it) is the personalities that it provides to play against.  There are many of them from extremely low (rated less than 100) all the way up through grandmaster personalities to the Chessmaster unleashed.  Several of the personalities are based on real people.  Most of those are at the grandmaster level, like Alekhine, Fischer, Morphy and many others.  But there are also several characters based on Joshua Waitzkin at different stages of his development.  Most of the characters are provided with pictures (the exceptions are the real grandmasters and I imagine it has to do with getting the rights to use the images which is of course not a problem for made up characters).  These characters are also given different playing attributes.  I find that these two things in combination give me a much more vivid experience than playing Hiarcs set to some specific elo rating.  For instance, I have been playing two characters, one is Josh-age 6 rated 1200.  He will play the Scandinavian defense most of the time.  So, what I find is that the combination of the name, the photo, and the playing style get me more engaged in the battle.  I have more of a sense of wanting to win.  It's still not like playing real people, even online, but it's definitely nice for when I don't feel up to playing a real person.

The other major thing I like about Chessmaster is that the wealth of very low rated personalities, (there are many personalities rated under 1000).  This means that my twin boys who are 8 and don't seem to be prodigies can get a game where they have a real chance at winning.  One problem is that they can be a bit competitive so if they play each-other, then feelings will often get hurt at the end.  Playing me isn't much fun as I am better than them.  I suppose I could try to play weaker moves but I think that would be pretty frustrating for me, particularly when they would miss some simple gifts I might offer them.  Playing against the computer is good because they don't mind losing to it, particularly because they can win a good number of the games.  I also think for them there is some sense that the different personalities are engaging as well.

Chessmaster also comes with some tutorial material.  I have tried out a little bit of this but not delved deeply and it seems reasonably good.  There's also a database of professional games and an area geared to little kids with cute rabbit pieces and stuff like that.  I got it for $20 for the download edition at amazon.  Particularly considering the price of most other serious (and note Chessmaster has beaten a grandmaster) chess playing software this seems to be a great deal.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Chess training, knowledge vs skill

Today I had an interesting question come up in my mind after browsing various chess improvement blogs.  Basically, the question is "Should chess training be more like preparing for a test, or more like practicing a musical instrument?"  I will say I don't think this is an original question in my mind.  I was browsing Soltis' "Studying Chess Made Easy" and he has a chapter claiming studying chess isn't like studying an academic subject.  It was also mentioned to some extent in some of the blogs I was looking at.

For instance, there seems to be two schools of thought about solving problems.  One school holds that you should look at the problem and solve it, however long it takes and only look at the answer when you are sure you are right, some even argue you should never look at a solution.  The other school holds that you should only spend a fairly minimal amount of time trying to solve it and then look at the answer (I was browsing Dan Heisman's pages today and he seems to favor this approach).  The first school of thought emphasizes the importance of working things out for yourself as a way of learning.  Part of the idea seems to be that you are training similar skills as you will need to use in a game, the skills required to confront specific problems and think through to a solution.  The second school of thought emphasizes the notion of pattern recognition.  Going back to the duality I started with, it seems that the first school is more the skill training or 'like a musical instrument' approach, whereas the second approach is more like the knowledge approach.

I think both of these approaches make sense.  For the most part when I solve, I try to work until I feel I have solved the problem.  I'm not a purist, and if I have worked for a while and just don't see what I could be missing, I will look at the solution.  I have a belief that doing that work makes you better at solving problems and that practice will pay off when you are analyzing specific situations in games.

On the other hand, building up a base of knowledge also seems crucial.  It seems to me very true that this is a major component of being able to cope with specific real situations is to break them down into component pieces that you are familiar with.

The point I want to get at is that really problems can be used to train both of these aspects of chess thinking.  I do believe in the skill sort of idea.  Problems are to train the ability to work through situations that you are confronted with.  But at the same time, building up a store house of knowledge of patterns is a crucial way of improving that process.

I think the same can be said in a more general sense.  With a question such as "Which is more important for improvement, playing games or studying?"  Building your knowledge base is important, but so is the process of thinking through the specific issues that come up as they come up.

I am a believer in the importance of reviewing my games, but on the other hand I almost never do it.  That's one goal I have, to be better about doing that.  Again, it gets back to the idea of learning the process of thinking through the specific chess situations.  On the other hand, without the knowledge provided by study, this process could be a fairly meaningless meandering through random variations.

I saw a lot of people talking about 'getting rusty' on the blogs I was browsing today.  I think it's natural.  It seems to me this lends credence to the idea of it as akin to practicing an instrument.  A skill that degenerates without practice.  It's the practice of the thought process that is lacking when someone is away, it's the practice of calling up the relevant information, principle, or pattern.  Of course, I'm sure there is a simple amount of forgetting, but often the bloggers who discuss this problem speak of their mistakes not as mysterious but as ones that seem evident to them with just a bit of hindsight.  The knowledge was there, just not effectively employed.

I guess the way it seems to me, the increase in knowledge is crucial to improvement, but so is the ability to integrate knowledge into the actual thought process which seems to be a skill which you practice by doing.

Sunday, August 5, 2012


Here's some background on my chess experience.

 My Dad taught me chess when I was around 6-8.  He taught us the rules and some basic ideas like controlling the center of board.  My parents got me a book called "Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess".  I liked it quite a bit at that time although I know a lot of people look down on it.  As I got a bit older he got me one of the little chess playing computer units they used to have.  Some people may remember them.  (This was the '80's :)  Basically, it was a chessboard with some computer controls on the side.  The computer indicated it's move by lighting up a light on the two sides corresponding to the rank and file the piece was on, then you pressed the piece on that square and the computer would light up the lights indicating where the piece was to be moved to.  You did much the same when it was your turn.  I think mine had 10 levels and I never beat it on the easiest level so you can tell I was no boy genius!

At that time I also had a few Reinfeld books, like "How To Think Ahead in Chess", "Why You Lose at Chess", and a collection of games.  I knew a tiny bit about chess history, like that there was a movement that was called the Hypermodern School, and that Nimzowitch was one of them.  I even had an idea that they played moves like Na3 or Nh3.  Needless to say I wasn't serious at all and only played every once in a while.  I also remember clipping an article from the paper about one of the Kasparov-Karpov matches.

I gave it a break till my teenage years when I had a friend that I played with sometimes. At that time I would also play with people in a coffee shop I hung out at that had a lot of chess players. During these times I didn't really study the game. I just played and tried to follow a couple of ideas in the opening such as trying to not lose any pieces, try to control the center, and really that's about it.  I knew the main idea of the Stonewall setup as white, and like the first 5 moves of the Ruy Lopez and that was it.  I had some good games but only one good one against good opposition. I got more into go though and have spent more time in my life playing and studying go.

In 2008 I got back into the game.  I was frustrated with go and thought maybe chess could offer an alternative.  I signed up at FICS and played some games. I also joined chessgames.com.  I made the somewhat ridiculous purchase of the Fritz 11 program and played on playchess.com through the subscription that came with it. I got some books like Silman's endgame course. I followed the Anand-Kramnik world championship, got into correspondence chess on schemingmind.com, and got some more books particularly Nimzovitach's "My System" and started to study it fairly seriously. After a while though I kind of dropped away from it again, and then I got back into go pretty seriously for awhile.

A further factor drawing me back to chess is that my kids are into chess but don't like go. I taught them how to play a couple of years ago and they enjoyed it pretty well, and they started going to a club run by someone in our building for kids, and then later a club at school. One of the boys in particular is pretty keen on it and asks me to play sometimes so I started thinking about it more.

Last year I got back into it playing by playing on the ipad against the Hiarcs app and doing tactical puzzles first through the chess.com app and then at chesstempo.com.  I pursued it again for awhile but the move to Taipei brought go to the forefront again.

Anyway, now I'm back to chess, and this time feels more serious.  I've been playing a fair bit on FICS the last few months as well as against the Hiarcs app.  I've been doing a lot of problems, both in various books and on chesstempo.  I've also been reading Chernev's "Logical Chess".

I don't have any official rating.  I have never played in a rated event.  That's something I would like to change, but on the other hand, living in Taipei I may not have many chances.  My ratings as of right now:

FICS-1338, I was down into 1100's for a bit in this last go around and worked my way up into 1300's but without much trouble.

chesstempo-1430.4, this is the standard tactics rating which is how I solve most of the time.  I've worked this up from 1300's where I was for awhile.

ipad Hiarcs-904, yah, this rating is quite low.  I've played it several different ways.  One way was that I set it to adapt to my level.  That is it automatically adjusts it's level of play to what it assesses me as.  Then for awhile I set it at the constant level of 1400, and right now it is set at the constant level of 1200.  Basically, I beat it regularly but probably not the majority of the time yet at this level.  I think part of the problem with this rating is that it is where I was playing when I came back to chess this time, so I played a lot of bad games against it when it's rating was set quite low also, so I got a rating from it that is weighted with a lot of really crappy losses.  One thing I might do is reset the rating it gives me so I can get a fresh one and see where it puts me now.

chessmaster grandmaster edition-1153, I just got this a couple of weeks ago and haven't played that many games against it.  Mostly I've played against the Josh-age 6 character rated 1200.  I have been winning about 1/3 there.  My rating here is probably not very settled but still seems pretty close to right even if it's lower than my FICS rating.


This is a new blog to track my progress with the hobby of chess.  My goal is to reach expert level, that is over 2000.

I want to keep a blog for various reasons.  One reason is that another interest of mine is writing, so combining these two seemed natural.  Another reason is that tracking progress seems like a way of keeping my spirit up for what's bound to be a long journey.  I also think it can be a good way of making sense of lessons I am in the progress of learning.  Lastly, I like history and keeping track of quests like this is something I know interests me from reading other improvement blogs.

I think it is very natural to seek improvement in our pursuits.  I think it's true that the most important aspect of a hobby is to have fun playing and not worry overly much about ratings.  On the other hand,  it's also important to learn and feel some sense of progress.

At this point, I do see chess as a hobby.  I like the idea of having something like this in my life that isn't necessary but at the same time doesn't feel like a waste of time precisely because there's progress.  I like learning and I like competitive mental games.  I'm drawn to games like chess and go because of their rich history as well as the fun of playing.  I don't think I have the talent to make it too serious.  I also have other interests that I wouldn't want chess to displace as well as a family life and of course the need to make money.

As far as expert level, it seems a natural goal in that it is a real challenge that can take a lot of time and effort to achieve (at this point I am thinking on the order of 20 years) but at the same time seems reachable for someone who is serious but not absolutely devoted to the game.