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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

At the used bookstore 07/23/2018

410qc9jcfhl-_sx326_bo1204203200_When the chess shelves in a used bookstore are replenished, it’s usually a sad indication of a retired player’s poor choice in literature. Opening books abound, because almost every inexpert player goes through the  useless “I’d be a better player if I could just learn the openings” phase.

Sometimes there are a few middlegame books, as though the player figured if his openings knowledge was flawless, he had a middlegame to muddle through. (If chess players took this to its logical conclusion, then endgame study is the best way to go, because the endgame is inevitable, given you can’t put pieces back on the board to return to your openings memorization).

Occasionally there are games collections by players whose games are way out of reach of the typical club -level player.  Tal and Alekhine are favorites of these players who sell their libraries because they never get anywhere (unlike the students of Morphy).

An openings book caught my attention today:”The Soltis Variation of the Yugoslav Attack”, by Steve Mayer (he doesn’t know who I am, either), published in 1995 by the fine folks at Hypermodern Press (hi, Jim).

The title doesn’t mention the trunk with the Yugoslav Attack  branch. The book assumes that anyone picking it up knows the Yugoslav Attack as the anti-Sicilian Dragon line, with which Fischer said weak players beat grandmasters . That might have been the dumbest thing Fischer said in 60 Memorable Games.

It was the  first line in the introduction that struck me as charming . Either the author Mayer or guest IM Jon Mestel (some ‘M’ name, I sort of recall) said the Soltis Variation of the Yugoslav Attack has achieved a form of openings greatness, since Soltis’ 12…h5 was once ridiculed as a  unnecessary weakening of Black’s kingside, but over time the move gained more and more respectability until it evolved into a main move (a main move deserving 300 pages of encyclopedic coverage! — the book is 23 years old, which is an eternity in openings theory; I wonder how many of those 300 pages are still valid).

The Soltis Variation is established as a weakening move that’s a good idea, like Igor Boleslavsky’s d6-e5 hole in other Sicilian variations (these dramatic self-weakening moves that turn out to be pretty good are wholly unnecessary if Black smartly goes 1…e5 or 1…e6).The Boleslavsky Hole is  unique in chess theory as a weakness with someone’s name on it. Boleslavsky was one of the top five players in the world at the turn of the 1950s, but we remember him for a giant positional flaw. Weird.

Let’s do the same for Soltis’ move. Let’s name 12…h5 (loosening g6, h6, and h7) the Soltis Scar or Soltis Stain or Soltis Self-Mutilation.  I’d hope grandmaster Soltis, whose credentials as a player-and-journalist are up there with M. Tal and R. Byrne, would chuckle.

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Categories: chess media

Backward-going moves are hard to see 05/08/2018

I have difficulty seeing pieces moving backward. It’s a hole in my play that’s cost many games— I made a study plan by finding then guessing Capablanca games that included important backward moves, but finding the games made spoilers. I appreciated the book Invisible Chess Moves for its inclusion of backward-going moves as a problem for many players (that is, I’m not alone).

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A Budapest/Tennison tactic 04/20/2018

When I talk about combinations in the opening, I start with the shortest example. For instance, Warren-Selman, correspondence 1930:

The Budapest Defense 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e5 is one of those openings that’s more promising as a black opening than a white opening, because 2. c4 means Black’s …Bf8-b4+ is a more serious nuisance. Since c2-c3 is unavailable, White would have to interpose with a piece, and then Black’s b4-bishop and e4-knight work in cooperation. Therefore, White played 3. a3, which isn’t bad, but isn’t as good as White wants from the opening. Then 6. g3? Nxf2! shows White’s king is overworked (7. Kxf2 Bg3+ wins the queen).

Tennison’s gambit 1. e4 d5 2. Nf3 is sort of a Budapest in reverse, where White has an extra move, but he can’t use it for the active Bf1-b5+ because …c7-c6 is a counterattacking interposition. So, whereas the Budapest Defense is good enough for grandmaster Short to play in a match with Karpov, the Tennison Gambit is best left to coffeehousers.


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My favorite offbeat Bronstein opening sacrifice 03/27/2018

Grandmaster Bronstein was the best player in the world in the early 1950s. He tied a world championship match in 1954, which he would’ve won if not for pressure he felt away from the board, perhaps unduly.

Bronstein had an artistic bent like no other world championship contender, and the kind of mind that produced stories like this: When it was suggested to Bronstein that he convert a tournament cash prize into goods that couldn’t be taxed upon return to Russia, Bronstein was seen at the airport rolling automobile tires, whereas others might’ve bought, say, a wristwatch.

screenshot-from-2018-03-27-01-23-11Bronstein’s openings ideas have been part of my play for 40 years. I’ll never fall out of love with the King’s Gambit, and in the Two Knights Game, will still employ the bishop sacrifice he sprung against Rojahn (in an Olympics game, no less): 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. Ng5 d5 5. exd5 Na5 6. d3 (as usual, Morphy’s move is simpler than the ‘standard’ 6. Bb5+) 6…h6 7. Nf3 e4 8. dxe4!?.

Chessplaying software fascinated Bronstein, seemingly more than it did Botvinnik, who was an engineer involved in early Soviet chess programming research. Bronstein was a regular at the man-vs.-machine AEGON tournaments in the ’80s, and in 1992, he visited Palo Alto to help test Deep Thought (the precursor to Deep Blue).

Against Deep Thought, Bronstein uncorked this exchange sacrifice in the Sicilian Wing Gambit: 1. e4 c5 2. b4 cxb4 3. a3 d5 4. exd5 Qxd5 5. Nf3 e5 6. axb4 Bxb4 7. Ra3!?.

Against a computer, it seems nuts to try such a thing, and Bronstein didn’t even get to experience a reaction. I’ve played this twice in tournaments, and the looks on their faces when they focus their eyes on what just happened is priceless. I beat a 1900, and lost to a 2200, though I was briefly ahead in that game, so you can’t blame the oddball rook sacrifice for that.

One of the things about this variation is that Black has to play smartly just to get to that position at move 7. 3…d5 is the best move because it equalizes in the center when White can’t play Nb1-c3 to hit the queen. Then 5…e5 wins the center. Most Sicilian players aren’t smart enough to make those moves at 5 and 6. Sicilian players aren’t cagey, they’re just fashion-conscious.





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Harrström’s gambit strikes again 03/24/2018

My chess teacher would say this is the right kind of bad chess.

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In style 03/05/2018

When I was a boy, my chess teacher used to say some moves were in a natural kind of style. This 30-minute game has that feel from start to finish.

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Nothing is so healthy as a thrashing at the proper time 01/11/2018

Following the decisions to:

1) Bench Barrel Dougie for being mostly redundant in an all-blue deck that solely deals damage, and;

2) Try Robin Tweek and Shaman Token in the vacant card slot before settling on Purify:
I ran from PvP rank 33 to 36 without a loss. It was unnerving.  The PvP matchmaking in South Park: Phone Destroyer provides equal competition so players have to inch their way up through the ranks.

I found myself looking at my phone askance during the four-hour breaks between PvP pack refreshes, and thinking “the natural order is askew, and we’re in for a fall.”

Capablanca, the world chess champion whose games taught me nearly everything I know about chess, was unbeatable for long stretches (one spanned eight years — the guy didn’t lose a tournament game for eight years), had a famous quote about his occasional feelings of invincibility: “There have been times in my life when I came very near thinking that I could not lose even a single game. Then I would be beaten, and the lost game would bring me back from dreamland to earth. Nothing is so healthy as a thrashing at the proper time.”

To reproduce that quote, I could either get up from my chair and fetch a copy of My Chess Career, or  Google “capablanca thrashing”. I took the Google route, and after copying the quote, I caught glimpses of the writer saying things like “I’m on a roll” and “I know a speed bump is coming”.

There was something in those turns of phrase that prompted me to look at the byline: It was me. I wrote an entry on my chess dot com blog just like this one — I was on streaks at chess and chess960, and I had the same uneasy feeling about winning too often too easily, and a crash was coming.

It was a relief to lose an SPPD match a few minutes ago. My pirate gang literally could not get around Zen Cartman, and we lost. Whew.

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Spielmann–Wahle, Vienna 1926 01/02/2018

From the large pile of unpublished things.

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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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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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