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Frisco Del Rosario writes about chess960, women's basketball, minor league baseball, unsupported collectible card games, lettering in comic books, and Golden Age movies

11/24/2016

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We never thought we’d see Monument Valley 2, but here it is 11/11/2017

screenshot_2017-11-11-04-36-46Despite 5 million paid (and 21 million free) downloads of Monument Valley, its developer — Ustwo — said there would be no more work on its award-winning mobile game.

To me, this meant Monument Valley was another “Firefly” TV show or NetRunner card game or Lone Justice rock band — something that was much better than anything else in its class, but died prematurely and somewhat inexplicably.

While Ustwo worked on its virtual reality game Land’s End, a couple of things occurred. One, the game designers spun off their own company from the graphic design firm; and two, women at Ustwo Games had babies, which inspired talk about a Monument Valley sequel with a mother and daughter exploring the impossible architectures.

So Monument Valley 2 happened, and arrived on Android last week.

It’s prettier than Monument Valley, which is remarkable: Ustwo sells 11×14 prints of Monument Valley images because the game is that lovely. The mother and daughter characters give Monument Valley 2 more feeling than Monument Valley had.

Monument Valley 2 even provides a greater number of puzzles, but the single disappointment about Monument Valley 2 is that the puzzles are easier to solve.

Monument Valley had one puzzle that required correctly timing the movement of a crow before Ida could successfully move herself. The expansion Ida’s Dream had one great puzzle with many red herrings, many false turns.

There are almost no false moves in Monument Valley 2. It seems that the developers intended to put the story and the graphics before the problem-solving.

Chessplayers know that when there are two candidate moves, and one of them leads to disaster, then they don’t have to think about the other. At Monument Valley 2, there weren’t always a fork in the road. The annoying crows are gone, while the friendly totem pole is also limited by the scope — “there’s one move to try with totem, OK, I’ll do that”.

When do we get Monument Valley 3?

If Ustwo Games gave us one new puzzle per week for 99 cents, I’d be among the first to buy a subscription.

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If a chess student must annotate his own game, start at the point where both kings are active 10/28/2017

If a chess student were tasked with publishing or sharing analysis of one of his games, and asked me which to choose, I’d say: “Find a game where both sides have active kings in a roughly equal position. Otherwise, forget it.”

Each of us — little kid students and creaky old teachers — should learn chess from the end of the game. If the idea of analyzing one’s own game is learning from the mistakes, then analyze the phase of the game where the mistakes actually matter. At the start of the game, one mistake won’t kill you. At the end, one mistake will turn a win into a draw, a draw into a loss.

Asking a kid to annotate a chess game from move one is nonsense, because no kid is capable of doing that. The opening is the *hard* part. If we teach them with the endings, let’s find out if they’ve learned anything.

Mistakes in the opening —unless they’re blundering pieces — are too subtle for kids to appreciate. In the endgames, the mistakes are easier to identify: A passed or potentially-passed pawn wasn’t pushed. A rook didn’t seek activity. These are mistakes that can be corrected.

Chess educators should agree on this much: Chess should be learned from the endgame. Middlegames should be approached with the notion of simplifying into won endings, or avoiding lost ones. The only real objective in the opening is to reach a playable middlegame.

The goal in the ending is succinct: Create a passed pawn, and promote it before the opponent does.

The goal in the middlegame has to be based on some feature in the position, of which there can be dozens.

The goal in the opening is to get to the middlegame alive.

It grows increasingly vague the earlier it is in the chess game. Why ask people to write about unclear topics?

The later it is in the game, the more specifically a writer can be about the prose, and the more likely a student can dissect his or his opponent’s thinking.

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2003 Frisky Awards for Best Animated Feature Among Those Nominated by the MPAA

The 2003 Friskies

The nominees are “Brother Bear” (Disney), “Finding Nemo” (Pixar), and “The Triplets of Belleville” (Les Armateurs).

Brother Bear

In today’s parlance, I could say about “Brother Bear”: “It’s so Disney. I can’t even.”, and you’d know what I meant.

It’s about a boy whose tribal customs deem him of age, but he doesn’t truly grow into it until he’s been magically transformed into a bear, and goes on a vision quest with a younger bear. While his human brother tracks him for the kill, in the mistaken identity trope that belongs in every body-switching movie.

Throw in some music that kinda reminds one of “The Lion King” — unintentionally, you bet — gorgeous ink-and-paint animation, and a rousing party where everyone’s a talking bear, and it’s so Disney.

It’s pretty good, just a distant third behind 2003’s other nominees.

Finding Nemo

Pixar had hit the jackpot by addressing childhood fears: monsters under the bed, and toys that come to terrifying life.

Then they said: OK, let’s scare the adults by making a movie about a lost child, but it has to be adorable. What, we can’t satisfactorily animate hair until next year’s “The Incredibles”? But we’ve got water down? All right, let’s make them adorable fish. The state-of-the-art underwater graphics, lay it on thick.

And let’s get Ellen DeGeneres to voice the partner in the dad’s rescue party, because she’s awesome.

Pixar used to make fantastically great caper movies. Woody had to rescue Buzz. Albert Brooks the fish has to avoid sharks, while his missing kid and his new friends concoct a scheme to escape an aquarium — a scheme that works with insanely great cartoon logic.

I’m glad I don’t have children. I’d be more overprotective than Albert Brooks.

The Triplets of Belleville

“The Triplets of Belleville” is everything last year’s MPAA award winner, “Spirited Away”, wanted to be: graphically bizarre and grotesquely drawn, but understandably stated.

“Spirited Away” expressed all that an animated film might desire, except for a thread of logic. “Triplets of Belleville” gave us a kindly gnome of an aunt who pursues an ocean liner across the Atlantic in a paddleboat, because the French mafia has kidnapped her bicyclist savant of a nephew for a gambling operation.

Penniless in North America, she finds allies in the Triplets of Belleville, music hall singers in the ’30s, turned improvisational jazz group, playing kitchen items for instruments. They’re so broke that their diet is only frogs that they’ve dynamited out of the lake.

With the aid of the triplets and the faithful family dog Bruno, Aunt Souza uncovers and breaks tne gambling ring. The chase scene at the end can only work if it gives the sense of making fun of every movie chase scene, ever.

With almost zero dialogue

It wouldn’t do the movie justice to say “the story is off-the-charts weird and the animation is outlandish, but I mean that in a good way”. I mean it in a *great* way.

I preferred “The Triplets of Belleville” to “Finding Nemo”, but it surely would not be everyone’s cup of tea. If I had to recommend either to a group — especially one including children — everyone will love “Finding Nemo”. It’s the only tiebreaker I can imagine.

The winner of the 2003 Frisky Award is “Finding Nemo”.

Frisky Awards for Best Animated Feature Among Those Nominated in That MPAA Category

2003 — Finding Nemo
2002 — Lilo and Stitch*
2001 — Shrek

*The Frisky doesn’t correspond with the Academy Award.

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AlphaGo makes me think I went in the wrong direction 10/21/2017

I like to think I was born at the perfect time. I was 9 in 1972, when Fischer won the world chess championship, giving American chess a jolt. I was 21 when Apple’s ‘1984’ commercial aired, and 34 when Deep Blue beat Kasparov in an exhibition match. That is, I’m old enough to remember Fischer as a great chessplayer — whereas younger folk might tend to remember Fischer as a crackpot — and young enough to relate to computers better than my parents did.

But when I read about AlphaGo Zero — Google’s latest iteration of a Go-playing program that taught itself to crush the world champion — I think: damn, I picked the wrong game.

Most people who excel at a game of skill have tried the others, and spent enough time to get good enough to understand that they’re in the right place. Some get really good at more than one — in my circle of friends, there’s Elliott Winslow, an international chess master and a world champion backgammon player. Jennifer Shahade won the US women’s chess championship twice, but now she’s living by poker.

I’ve never met Irina Levitina, who’s won national titles at bridge and chess. That’s where I wanted to be when I was in my 20s, but didn’t get so good at either — my friends might say it’s because I spent a year mastering the arcade game Centipede, and a couple of years in the late ’90s at the card game NetRunner, which was a beautiful game that didn’t appeal to enough people to last.

I gave Go a try around the turn of the century. It was fascinating in that wow-I-will-never-get-the-hang-of-this way. It’s so difficult — I can’t imagine how more than a few masters actually enjoy Go. This is one of the things about chess — if you don’t have a master-level understanding, you can’t appreciate games played at a high level. At Go, that seems far out of reach, even for the best players at the local Go club.

AlphaGo makes moves that world-class players describe as “alien”, beyond our human understanding. To me, this sounds like a level beyond the best computer chess programs, which play moves that world-class players describe as “human”. The best chess computers perform at 3300 strength, when the world champion is just above 2800, and at that level, 200 points is greatly significant.

If we applied an Elo-like rating formula to AlphaGo, where is it? The best Go player in the world spends all his time these days analyzing AlphaGo games. This is another indication that Go is so much different from chess — looking at games played between the best chess computers is dreadfully dull, because there’s no scope for creative play in computer chess; the kind of risky, sacrificial plays that make human chess interesting doesn’t happen in top-flight computer chess. For the best Go player to find AlphaGo games interesting enough for immersion, that’s truly something extraordinary.

Now there’s AlphaGo Zero, which has removed the human element. It learned Go from scratch, and continued learning from games played against itself.

There are probably people who are genuinely afraid of this development, as if it’s the first real step on the way to SkyNet from the Terminator movies, the artificially-intelligent agents that determined it didn’t need humans at all, for any reason.

That AlphaGo has come so far makes me think I should’ve determined to reach some level of competence at Go so that I could teach it through storytelling. Go teachers and chess teachers operate in the same way: they describe patterns in memorable ways — lions and dragons take shape on both boards — and describe the game’s underlying logic.

But the impression I get from reading about the Go community is that when Go teachers “tell stories”, the students, as a whole, listen. Chessplayers suffer from weird self-delusion: They believe they’re so much better than they are that they seek teaching that exceeds their grasp. Study of the opening at chess is for masters, because the early game matters in master play, where neither side is doing stupid things immediately. Average chessplayers want to believe they’ve reached this level, and want to study openings.

The great teacher Mark Dvoretsky was famous for teaching not-yet-grandmasters to get to the next level. It’s shocking to me how many chessplayers recommend Dvoretsky to other players, as though they believe they learned enough from Dvoretsky to be qualified to share his teachings with others. Average chessplayers should be studying Cecil Purdy, who said average players should be trying to reduce the number of stupid things they do.

The impression I get from Go players is that they better appreciate how incredibly difficult their game is, and pay an appropriate amount of respect to it by striving to learn at the right level. I’ve almost always had just the opposite feeling about chessplayers.

The AI That Has Nothing to Learn From Humans

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Farmer and Pigs for the Player, Parent, and Teacher 10/15/2017

My chess teacher, who was a student of the nonpareil chess teacher Cecil Purdy, used to say that chess variants  — games played with chess pieces that might include some chess elements — “make chess easier by making it harder”. He meant that chess-like games that imposed a greater number of rules and restrictions on the player resulted in a game in which winning moves are easier to find.

Farmer and Pigs is  a chess variant that uses just two units: queen and pawns. So it that respect it is simpler than chess. The winning conditions don’t require two or more pieces working together, so it’s easier than chess in that way, too.

I use Farmer and Pigs as a teaching tool. It’s a chess variant that doesn’t make chess easier by making it harder, it makes chess easier by making it easier.

Farmer and Pigs for the Player, Parent, and Teacher

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What if you *were* allowed to play chess like an open book test? 10/13/2017

I’ve said hundreds of times during classes and lectures that openings study is useless because 1) chess isn’t an open book test, you can’t wheel a bookcase of openings literature to the board; and 2) even if you did, inevitably you have to make a move on your own, and there are you are lost in the woods, wandering without your ECO.

An old chess master friend thought: What if you let players play with open books? He figured that the game wouldn’t “start” with the normal initial position, but at some roughly-equal position at the end of some published analysis.

He’s right. What if you had to play two most important games against a slightly stronger opponent, and you were allowed to refer freely to two books? Which would they be?

First of all, you’d have to wrap your precious in brown paper, because any opponent with a brain would render your openings books worthless by stepping out of them as soon as he could.

Let’s say you had of those  all-purpose system-for-all-weather books — those are usually based on a kingside fianchetto, yeah? After 10 or so moves of that, don’t you think you could assess your position and think: “I didn’t need a book to get here”?

Middlegame books — honestly, “middlegame books” are hogwash because the no one can say when a middlegame will begin, or when a middlegame will end. The best you can hope for from an openings book or a middlegame book is that it discusses common pawn structures and the plans that pertain.

I always say people don’t lose short games because they’re bad at openings, they lose short games because they’re bad at tactics.

But taking tactics books to your open book chess test won’t help, either, because you couldn’t find the applicable moves unless you  recognize the pattern on the board — which you should’ve learned already in your studies, if you were studying useful tactics instead of stupid openings.

If you bring two endgame manuals to the board, your opponent will start getting worried in the middlegame because you’ll be prepared for the simplication that is bound to follow.

Go on, ask a trusted master or teacher which two books they’d take to an open book chess game. If you follow the logic, you’d have serious doubts about anyone who’d take openings literature.

Me? I’d take de la Villa’s 100 Endgames You Must Know, because they must occur. At one time or another. these endgames will happen.  And Chernev’s Capablanca’s Best Chess Endings because even if the exact formations don’t arise, somewhere in the middlegame, I can use the index to find the material balances that seem likely to arise, and see — generally — what Capablanca did with them.

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2002 Frisky Awards for Best Animated Feature Among Those Nominated by the MPAA 10/08/2017

The 2002 Friskies

The nominees are “Ice Age” (Blue Sky Studios), “Lilo and Stitch” (Disney), “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” (Dreamworks), “Spirited Away” (Studio Ghibli), and “Treasure Planet” (Disney).

Ice Age

“Let’s do a ‘mismatched trio forms a reluctant alliance during a dangerous adventure, and build respect and friendship along the way’, and they’re prehistoric talking animals!”. With luck, none of its sequels was nominated by the MPAA.

Lilo and Stitch

No one ever told me that the Hawaiian kid’s weird-looking pet was a extra-terrestrial death machine on the lam. Disneyfied science fiction for the kids, plus a touching story about building a familyfor the adults. Shockingly good.

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

Dreamworks, which successfully kicked Disney’s ass with “Shrek” the year before, tried again by making an animal movie with animals that don’t talk. The horses were supposed to communicate with each other and the audience through horse noises, body language, and soundtrack music, but Dreamworks lost its nerve.

Instead of believing in the idea to the end, the horse body language became ridiculously anthropomorphic, the soundtrack added songs by someone who sounded too much like Bryan Adams (becaue it was Bryan Adams), and a “Wonder Years”-style narration by Matt Damon.

They almost made an interesting slavery allegory in which the US military are the bad guys.

Spirited Away

“Citizen Kane” is said to a landmark, one of the greatest films in history. I can never vouch for that, because I can’t be sure I’ve ever seen the whole thing — it puts me to sleep every time.

And so did “Spirited Away”, the Studio Ghibli production that every film critic in the world freaking raved about. Critics liken “Spirited Away” to “Yellow Submarine” and “The Wizard of Oz” for psychedelic imagery and a far out story, but “Yellow Submarine” had Beatles music.

“Spirited Away” is non-stop creepy moving pictures, but that’s all it is — when something has to happen to progress toward the end, it’s just handwaving. When the three dream characters in “The Wizard of Oz” had to infiltrate the witch’s castle to rescue Dorothy, they cowboyed up (that is, the characters determined to do something and did, whereas in “Spirited Away”, the somethings just happened).

Treasure Planet

Rather than make an animated version of the Robert Louis Stevenson book with 21st-century technology, they made a space opera (so the parrot becomes a shapeshifter — maybe the most amusing character in the movie). Points for Emma Thompson as an animated Honor-Harrington-like feline, Patrick McGoohan’s last credit, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Jim Hawkins, though Gordon-Levitt’s voice always grates me when he’s upset.

The winner of the 2002 Frisky Award is “Lilo and Stitch”.

Frisky Awards for Best Animated Feature Among Those Nominated in That MPAA Category

2002 — Lilo and Stitch*
2001 — Shrek

*The Frisky doesn’t correspond with the Academy Award.

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2001 Frisky Awards for Best Animated Feature Among Those Nominated by the MPAA 10/01/2017

Welcome to the Frisky Awards for Best Animated Feature Among Those Nominated by the MPAA.

We are awarding Friskies because:

1)  It gives me a reason to watch  the Oscar nominees that I haven’t seen.

It’s easy to see all the nominated shorts — they show those together at small houses — but I miss many of the features. Thank heavens for home video and public libraries — even if some MPAA nominees will be handicapped by my having to watch a 13.3-inch MacBook screen.

2) The MPAA sucks.

The Oscars aren’t always given to the deserving artists or films — often they’re premature lifetime achievement awards, or makeup calls.

And when it comes to animated movies, there should be an additional category: Best Animated Feature from a Studio Other Than Pixar and Disney. For instance, “Finding Nemo” (2003), “Inside Out” (2015), and “Zootopia” (2016) aren’t locks to win the Friskies over “The Triplets of Belleville”, “Anomalisa”, and “My Life as a Zucchini”, respectively.

The 2001 Friskies

The nominees are: “Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius” (Nickoledeon), “Monsters, Inc.” (Pixar), and “Shrek” (Dreamworks).

Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius

Impossibly tech-savvy 3rd-grader sends a toaster into space to make alien contact, puts his robot dog in bed while he sneaks out to an amusement park, and the kids wish their parents didn’t exist. What could go wrong?

Wildly imaginative graphics — to save their parents from their alien abductors, the kids pilot a space fleet constructed from amusement park parts — and bonus points for an unknown voice cast. Despite the adult songs on the soundtrack (songs by Kim Wilde and The Go-Go’s), a kids’ movie all the way.

Monsters, Inc.

An early entry from the 10 years in which Pixar had an OPS of 5.000 (in other words, they hit a home run every time). There *are* monsters in the closet, but they’re more scared of children than the children are of them, so hell for monsters breaks loose when a little girl lands on the other side.

State-of-the-art motion (John Goodman’s blue and purple fur bristles) and goofy monsters who are genuinely scary when the story calls for it.

In a priceless bonus for adults, “Monsters, Inc.” reframes the Chuck Jones classic “Feed the Kitty”, right down to the monster fainting with the same facial expression as the bulldog.

Shrek

There are some movies that leave me thinking “That was outstanding. I have to see this again.”, but sometimes I don’t get around to it, which is one reason for The Frisky Awards (I can hardly wait for “The Triplets of Belleville” year).

In adult fashion, “Shrek” skewers Disneyfied fairy tales, while Dreamworks raspberries the Disney facade itself. A Michael-Eisner-sized wannabe king schemes to send an ogre — bargaining to regain his privacy — on a hero’s journey to rescue a princess from a dragon-patrolled tower.

“Shrek” follows the heroic journey tropes so the children can follow along, while brilliantly subverting the details. The princess’ Disney Song and Storybook is far from the reality of “Shrek”. Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, and Cameron Diaz haven’t made a better movie since.

The winner of the 2001 Frisky Award is “Shrek”.

Frisky Awards for Best Animated Feature Among Those Nominated in That MPAA Category

2001 — Shrek

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Farmer and Pigs for the real world chess instructor 09/24/2017

screen-shot-2017-09-24-at-5-06-15-pmI’ve doubled down on my notion that the variant game “Farmer and Pigs” is an excellent introduction to chess for reducing the number of units involved, and simplifying the winning conditions.

If a pawn reaches the 8th rank, or if a pawn captures the queen, the pigs celebrate. If the queen captures all the pawns, or blocks the last pawn from advancing, it’s barbecue time.

I learned something obvious last week: It’s easy to handicap myself by reducing my number of pigs (or if not reducing the number, by increasing the number of “pig islands”). Now that I think about it, I can handicap myself on the farmer side by making the 7th rank, or 6th rank, the goal.

The farmer should learn three vital chess skills through Farmer and Pigs: forking, skewering, and cutting off (say, threatening the pig from the behind is cutting off — and perhaps use this as a way to teach ‘rooks belong behind passed pawns’).

The pigs should learn the strength of pawn chains, and particularly recognizing and abandoning a lost pig (too many times I see a student waste a tempo by advancing a pig that’s in the farmer’s sights).

Both sides should learn to calculate a few moves ahead, and by golly, both sides had better learn to recognize PxQ when it’s there.

I’ve learned that a shocking number of students need to practice this: From which squares can the queen safely fork the pawns?

screen-shot-2017-09-24-at-5-12-22-pm

This is the simplest form of tactical puzzle, and we chess teachers unanimously recommend the solving of tactics puzzles. Maybe your students are way past finding all the forking squares here, but mine don’t possess that much board vision.

Farmer and Pig tactics can get tiresome. Then there’s this: Move the queen to a square from which she can safely capture the pawn with the next move. (And then checkmate the enemy king, if practice is needed there.) These are from the amazing Chess Camp (vol. 4, pg. 77).

screen-shot-2017-09-24-at-5-15-17-pm

This is useful stuff, with no more than king, queen, pawns. Some chess teachers think they can cram all 32 pieces into a kid’s brain in an hour — mostly what they’re doing is preparing a kid to avoid Scholar’s Mate, then slog around from this position — which my chess teacher calls The Scholastic Opening:
screen-shot-2017-09-24-at-5-16-53-pm
There is no life in this position, which is why the resultant games go on for 75 moves — and Grandma says: “Yay! You survived for 75 moves! You won a trophy!”.

Learning chess from move 1 isn’t conducive to playing after the K-3 Beginner events. Learn tactics and endgames with few pieces on the board. As you improve, add a piece to the board. After 30 years of learning, you’ll be prepared for games with all32 pieces on the board — those are hard.

 

 

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About the chess scene in Casablanca 09/07/2017

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Screen legend Humphrey Bogart was  a chess enthusiast, once appearing  on the cover of Chess Review magazine with his wife Lauren Bacall.

In 1942, the Warner Brothers film “Casablanca” won the Academy Award as Best Picture, its star Bogart won Best Actor.

Early in “Casablanca”,  Bogart analyzes a chess position while Peter Lorre implores him to hide invaluable travel tickets.

According to Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca by Aljean Harmetz, it was screenwriter Howard Koch’s idea to include the chessboard, representing the character Rick Blaine as a thinking man.

According to a chess.com forum post  without citation, Bogart’s examining one of his postal games. The Harmetz book says screenwriter told producer Hal B. Wallis that Blaine is supposed to be castling, as a metaphor for keeping himself out of trouble.

During the shooting of “Casablanca”, Bogart maintained a postal game with Irving Kovner from Brooklyn, the brother of a Warner Brothers studio employee. Bogart’s wont was to accompany his moves with a few personal words (“Now I’m in a jam”).

It would have been an extraordinary coincidence for Bogart’s analysis of the Kovner game to include castling precisely in accordance with the script. It’s my reasonable guess that the Kovner position was on the board, and Bogart castled perforce — out of sequence or illegally — then restored the Kovner setup after the take.

Paul Henreid, a “Casablanca” co-star, played chess with Bogart on the set. Round Up the Usual Suspects quotes Henreid as saying Bogart was a “fine chessplayer, very fine”. Like any chessplayer, Henreid said he won all the games for being a little better than his very fine opponent.

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