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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

Here’s what I’d do with a programmable chessboard 03/01/2017

Here’s what I’d do with a programmable chessboard, like the DGT or the SquareOff: It reads in a gamescore, compares your moves to the movdarth-vader-vs-chess-pieceses in the scoresheet, and if not a match, it replaces your move with the correct one.

In other words, that an automated version of the Purdy method for practicing chess the right way. (Play through a game, covering the winner’s moves and guessing as you go — I talk about this very often.)

For as long as I’ve practiced in this fashion, the practice was its own reward. But for this idea to work, people would want their Solitaire Chess scoring (Horowitz did that first in Chess Life, now Pandolfini does it), or grading by the Toga engine (from the Guess the Move feature at chessgames.com).

Chess teachers would get good use from this. They could assemble groups of games to demonstrate a pattern (or a useless opening) or model player.

In the mid-’70s, the mechanical device for this kind of practice was test marketed (they called it CyberChess, though there was nothing cyber about it). At each turn, six candidate moves were presented, and the user moved sliding panels to get a score from +3 to -3 (coincidentally, that’s the range the Toga implements). It was a great idea — because it helped chessplayers study the right way — but RRS said the games selected for version 1.0 were all wrong. RRS would’ve installed his Blue Knights collection, right?

Whether you perform the guess-a-master’s-moves exercise online or in a box, or do it the old-fashioned way with a book plus a 2×3 card, it can’t be beat. With practice, you string together enough correct guesses to put you in the master’s league.

I used to think the most fun about this practice was when I guessed a better move than the master actually played (the annotations say when this happens), but nowadays I love this: When you’re playing a hard game, sometimes you make your move with a mental shrug while thinking: “OK, fine, I cannot be sure how this move will work out, but it was the best I muster at the moment”. When you’re guessing a game, and you guess a move with that uncertain feeling, sometimes it’s the right guess, and you feel like you’re sharing the feelings of a master, as well as the thinking.

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Categories: chess

Bronstein Gambits accepted and declined leading to the same tactical motif at the CalChess senior championship 02/13/2017

The boom in kiddie chess gave us old-timers a greater appreciation for the CalChess Senior State Championship: the age requirement meant we had old stories to share with our opponents, when most weekend tournaments these days pit an adult against three or five children.

In the late ‘70s, Sonoma County organizer Thomas Boyd commemorated a joyous event — the birth of a daughter — with an occasion of chess volunteer work: Boyd named his chess tournament the Cynthia Ann Quads. For many years following, people told Boyd they remembered playing in the Cynthia Ann Quads — these days, can anyone tell one MegaFrankenSwi$$ Open from another?

5…Nc6 compelled 6. d5 before Black could play …e7-e5 to prepare the comfortable retreat …Nc6-e7. 6. d5 Ne5 7. f4 Ng6 crammed Black’s pieces into a tight spot, then Black invested a huge chunk of time — 8…Bg4 plus 9…Bxf3, 10…e5, 11…fxe6, 12…Nd7, 13…e5, 14…Nf4 plus 15…exf4 — to make an outpost on e5 for his knight. By that time, White was fully developed with 16. O-O-O, and Black shied away from 16…Ne5 for the looks of 17. Bh5+ g6 18. fxg6 hxg6 19. Bxg6+ Nxg6 20. Rxg6 Qd7 21. Nd5 O-O-O 22. Qd4. But 16…Nf6 17. Qxf4 Qe7 enabled White to open the position by 18. e5 dxe5 19. Qa4+, and then the self-pin 19…Nd7 ran into the crossfire 20. f6! gxf6 21. Bh5+ Kd8 22. Bg4.

Curiously, I got to play 1. d4 Nf6 g4 with both of my white games at the 2017 CalChess Senior State Championship, and the winning scheme in each case was a bishop check to push the black king to d8, pinning a knight on d7 to death. The curious aspect was that Black took the gambit in round one, and refused in round three — tactical patterns in the middlegame are usually very different depending on whether an opening pawn sacrifice goes accepted or declined.

Black was one of those opponents whose computers won the post-mortem by exposing the warts in White’s unsound opening play. They seem to think that gambit players would be surprised to learn that their opening moves are an unsound proposition, and change their speculative ways, consequently.

An original position arose from 3…Ng8, a Benoni formation where White is gifted with the space gained from g2-g4-g5, while Black’s kingside pieces are restrained. The g-pawn advance also came in handy to enable the bishop development 9. Bg2 — White blocked the f1-a6 diagonal with 7. Nge2 to fight the c8-bishop — if Black chose to develop …Bc8-f5, then White had Ne2-g3 in store; while …Bc8-g4 could fetch f2-f3 if appropriate. 13…Bxe4? was a mistake, bringing 14. Bxe4 forward with a threat (Black was better suited by 13…hxg5 14. Bxg5 Be5 with …Ng8-f6-g4 to follow). Instead, 16…Be5 met the intuitive line-opening sacrifice 17. Rxe5!, after which 20. Bf5 crippled both black knights, and 21. Qd5 made for a winning coordination on the white squares.

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Categories: chess

Time controls 02/08/2017

king-2_orig

200 years ago, chess games weren’t played under “time control”, so players could sit in cogitation interminably. (One legend goes that the German master Paulsen studied his board for five hours until he looked up and asked if was his turn to move.) This was unacceptable — mostly because chessplayers have to understand that whether one ponders a position for one hour or 10, one doesn’t see 10 times deeper, just the same thing 10 times longer.
So chess clocks were invented, and a standard tournament time control was, say, 40 moves in 2 hours, followed by 25 moves in one hour until conclusion. In the old days, a game might go on until the the start of the next round, or midnight. Then there was the odd practice of adjournment, where one player chose his next move and put it in a sealed envelope, after which the players could analyze at home until resumption of play. This used to favor the player with a team of analysts, until computers make adjournments wholly impractical.

To eliminate adjourned games, the “sudden death” time control came along, in which the player had X number of minutes to play the game, and if time ran out, the game was lost, no matter the situation on the board. This opened a new can of worms, because there were many positions where losing wouldn’t be a reasonable expectation except for the “sudden death”. One rules adjustment was that a player running out of time could claim unrealistic or insufficient “losing chances” — some of these claims were crystal clear, like the common occurrence where the player who was about to promote the last pawn had too few seconds to deliver the checkmate. Other “insufficient losing chances” claims were murky at best — sometimes you had tournament directors running to find the strongest player on the tournament staff, who could form a more knowledgeable opinion about whether those claims were valid. There was a rule of thumb: If a player rated 1400 could plainly hold the position against a master, then an insufficiency claim could be upheld. (In my opinion, this was a bad rule of thumb, because most chessplayers and organizers don’t know what chess masters can do to upset the mind of a 1400-rated player.)

In order to fix the problems with Rule 14H (the insufficient losing chances rule became such a common bug that players memorized its place in the rulebook), chess clocks were improved in a couple of ways. A player could be given some additional seconds with each move — the idea was that if a position fell under the 14H umbrella, the incremental time would suffice to keep that player afloat while demonstrating the easy win or easy draw. Or the clock would be put on delay, giving the player three or five seconds to move before the time started ticking off his clock. (Every basketball fan knows how this goes — if you’re on your home floor, the referee can signal “start the clock”, and the local staff on the clock can brainfreeze for a *long* time.)

At tournaments these days, I’m accustomed to time controls of sudden death in 2 hours, plus a 5-second delay. This weekend, I’m playing 90 minutes plus 30 second increments. Do the math, and they’re almost the same. At two hours plus D/5, if you play 60 moves and use the whole delay each move (which never happens), it’s 125 minutes. At 90 minutes plus 30, a 60-move game is 120 minutes. I’m wondering if there will be any noticeable difference in the feel of the game.

For example, 40 moves in 2 hours or 30 moves in 90 minutes are both three minutes per move, but 40/2 feels comfortable to me, while 30/90 feels hurried — because chessplayers don’t think “three minutes per move”; there are two or three times per game where the player takes a long think, though the other moves require much less time. At 40/2, there are 30 minutes to give to the long-thinking moves that aren’t available at 30/90.

This effect is most evident at “rapid transit” chess — you never see “rapid transit” these days, because players hate it — in “rapid transit”, there’s a 10-second pause followed by a 5-second interval in which the player *must* move. It’s like 15 seconds per move, but chess thinking just does not happen like that. At any time control — whether game-in-one-minute or 50-moves-in-3-hours — moves like recaptures, and especially automatic “only” moves, require less than instant of thinking; the 15-second “rapid transit” mode tortures players during those moves.

 

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A sacrificial motif shared across the Wilkes-Barre Two Knights and the Nimzovich Sicilian 01/13/2017

The appeal of the Wilkes-Barre or Traxler variation in the Two Knights — 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. Ng5 Bc5 — is that Black just ignores the threat on f7. No matter which way White captures, Black suffers a little discomfort, but emerges with gain of time after pushing White’s pieces back.

There’s a similar idea in the Nimzovich Sicilian:

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Categories: chess

New felt for the bottoms of my Lardy analysis set 01/05/2017

Let me tell you again about my favorite chess set.

Back in the ‘70s, cool kids had sets from the French company Lardy. They used to talk about these chess sets the same way guitarists talk about guitars, whether they got the natural or painted Lardy, and what kind of oil they rub in to preserve the wood, and the Lardy knights do not look like dogs, no way.

My best friend had a Lardy, and I’d swear he did some things with that chess set that people don’t usually do with chess sets.

In ’95, the card game NetRunner was still alive, and I was at a gaming con. They conducted a flea market, which I visited early in order to beat the other NetRunner players. A gamer displayed a plastic bag: “CHESS SET MISSING TWO PIECES $2”.

I peeked around the tape that held the bag together, and holy shit, it was the smaller, analysis-sized version of the antique Lardy. The guy repeated the price on the bag: “Two bucks!”.

I said: “Are you kidding, it’s missing two pieces! I’ll give you *one* buck”.

(This was out of character. When I bought a car from a dealer, it didn’t occur to me that he might sell it for less than the sticker price, and I said: “Just give me something to sign”.)

He accepted my offer of $1, so I had a Lardy. It was still a gamble of a dollar, because I didn’t know which pieces were missing; for all I knew, I’d just bought a bag of replacement pieces for someone else. Turned out that the set was missing one pawn of each color, and RRS had spare pieces with pawns that were slightly smaller than the Lardy, though you can’t tell unless you look closely.

If I’m on the road with a chess set, it’s probably that $1 antique Lardy with two misfit pawns. When my ’69 Beetle burst into flames, my thinking was: “My car might explode, do I have two seconds to spare to reach to the passenger seat for my chess set and Capablanca’s Best Games by Golombek, revisions and new material by Nunn?”. I risked it — the Capablanca book is still stained by soot, or whatever was coming off my flaming engine.

I was reviewing games at a kid tournament two months ago, and a kid said: “How much are the books?”.

Twelve dollars, I said, two for 20.

“How much for the chess set?”

“Set’s not for sale.”

“Everything’s for sale. How much?”, he said, as I wondered about his parents.

I almost reiterated its unavailability, but remembered that I work as a teacher and a writer, and it’s just a chess set. “Two hundred dollars,” I said.

“I’ll get my…” he said, and he began turning his head as if to search for the parents who seemingly had never said no to this little asshole. Then he walked off, and I didn’t see him again.

That set’s been through a lot. It’s 40 years old, been saved from an automobile fire, and seen more basketball gyms than probably any other chess set in the world. Over time, the felt on the bottom of the chessmen falls off — the green felt was hanging from one of my black knights, and I thought pulling off the felt would hurt me more than the wooden piece.

Tonight I stopped in an art store for a sheet of self-adhesive felt. Then I spent some minutes cutting imperfect circles of black felt for the pieces that needed it.

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Categories: chess

Fast time controls at chess960 miss the point, and risk alienating players 01/04/2017

Fast time controls for chess960 exasperate me. I’d like to see chess960 catch on, but players who try 960 at blitz or bullet time controls can be dissuaded by having to guess so early. In position #518 — the “standard” setup — players can rattle off 10 or 20 or 40 moves without thinking; their experience tells them which kinds of positions are forming, while instinct and pattern recognition remind them which sorts of moves are appropriate. A quick-fingered chessplayer can succeed at a one-minute game with 10 moves of book plus a series of educated guesses, but at 960, there’s no book to precede the guesses, which themselves are more likely to be blind.

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Categories: chess

Four miniatures for the price of three 01/03/2017

Chess students know this game, and some are aware that Judge Meek is otherwise recognized for losing many games to Morphy.

His Honor’s 6th move was an unsophisticated trap, which made for a cute game, but lacked a logical thread. Steinfeld-Fruteau is an improvement with that theme:

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Categories: chess