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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

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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Categories: chess

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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Categories: chess

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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Categories: chess

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?


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).


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:
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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Categories: chess

About the chess scene in Casablanca 09/07/2017


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 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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Categories: chess media

The meaning of Morphy-Bottin, Paris 1858 06/30/2017

If you sort a database of Morphy games by length, his shortest game as White was a 10-mover against Bottin, in which Morphy played the dubious Lopez Opening (or MacLeod Attack) 1. e4 e5 2. c3.

I’ve wondered for years what caused him to do that (variety, a form of odds, touching the wrong pawn?). It hit me today that he knew that in 200 years or so, some chess teacher would want to use his MacLeod Attack game to show why developing the pieces 2. Nf3 3. Bc4 before Captain Evans’ 4. b4! is the right way to play.

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Making “the king game” fun for both players in the chess classroom 05/31/2017

Every chess teacher knows this position, and has played the black side of it a million times.
If White is given the task of reaching the 8th rank, there’s only one first move that will succeed:

1. Ke2!

Now if Black moves to the d-file, White wins with 2. Kf3!. If Black moves to the f-file, White wins with 2. Kd3! (the student should work this out). The best defense is:


After which White’s sole correct play is:

2. Ke3!

The trouble with this arrangement is that if White goes awry, it takes some moves for White to see that, and lesson time goes wasted.

An improved starting position is:


If White makes a move toward the 8th rank, then only 1. Ke6! wins, whereas White is prevented from any further progress by 1. Kd6? Kd8 or 1. Kf6? Kf8. This is easier for students to get a grip on, and then the task becomes a bit more difficult by starting the white king on e3:


1. Ke4! (1. Ke2! also wins).

After students grasp the starting positions with the white king on e3 or e5, then we can go back to kings on e1 and e8. When the students have that well in hand, this one is tricky:


Because when White makes the only correct move — 1. Ka2! — then Black might try 1…Kb8 or 1…Kb7, and White must be careful. Some experienced tournament players can’t do this one. They say they know “the theory of opposition”, but can’t demonstrate it.

When you handle these positions with Black as a chess teacher, and steal the opposition with the black king, you might allow White to make 20 or 100 moves before White finally gets (or is given) the clue that the white king is stuck. In the chess classroom, on the other hand, playing the black side is no fun: you’re supposed to lose, and when you don’t lose, the only reward is that perhaps White has learned from another mistake.

We might make this more interesting for both sides with this game:


The pawns are stationary, and hichever king reaches his own pawn first wins. Of course, White should always win. Like before:

1. Ke3 Ke6 2. Ke4 Kd6 3. Kf5 Ke7 4. Kg6 and a white pawn will be rescued.

Say White opens 1. Kd2?. Then Black wins by 1…Kd6! 2. Kd3 Kd5.

Here’s the interesting variation. If White makes an incorrect 2nd move:

1. Ke3 Ke6 2. Kf4?

Then Black can stop White’s progress with 2…Kf6!, but Black has to settle for a draw. For instance: 3. Kg5 Ke5? 4. Kg6.

The best form of this game is:


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Three paragraphs of analysis about 1. h4 e5 2. h5 d5 3. h6 05/24/2017

Fifty weeks ago, a tournament began in which every game had to open 1. h4 e5 2. h5 d5. I’ve relished every moment of this: As White, you’re sacrificing time and central space and safety (I usually play 3…Bd6 heading straight for g3, right?) in exchange for a bit of kingside space. As Black, you’ve been given time and space and safety, so go like Steve Nash.
screen-shot-2017-05-24-at-4-01-55-pmAfter two qualifier rounds, the final round started last week. I’m in 2nd place (39-2-3). The leader (41-1-1) and I shook virtual hands, and the guy played 3. h6. Wow.
I thought: Why haven’t I thought of that? I’m serious. I said that White sacrificed time and central space and safety for nothing but some kingside space (the games you win as White, you probably made use of the h-file). 3. h6 takes the next logical step: there’s no trouble opening the h-file later, and Black isn’t gaining time with the capture, just material (if you’re my chess student, *get this*: let your opponents capture to gain material, you capture to gain time).
Following that cardinal logic, Black should not capture on h6, but should hope for h6xg7, so …Bf8xg7 is a genuine gain of time. Honest, chess is much more fun for players who get that. Scientifically, 3…Nxh6 gains a pawn > 3…Nf6 (say) 4. hxg7 Bxg7 gains a move, but artistically, it turns the difference operator the other way.
On the other hand, 3…Nxh6 means the knight has two different routes to g3: …Nh6-g4 and ….Nh6-f5. Also on the other hand, 3…Nf6 4. hxg7 Bxg7 points the bishop toward the queenside. And if you’re following the time > material notion, White doesn’t have to play 4…hxg7 — if fact, as long as the h6-pawn stands, the f8-bishop is tied to the defense of g7.
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Categories: chess

An Anastasia’s Mate miniature in 960 04/21/2017

My MacBook Pro was stolen three weeks ago. My WordPress password was saved in a keyring, and I didn’t remember it. It’s taken a little while to learn how to reset the WP password with the admin utility.

I might have created an Anastasia’s Mate miniature in a chess960 game, but Black didn’t move his queen at move 9, so 10. Ne7+ forked his queen, prompting his resignation, instead of 10…Kh8 11. Rxh7+! Kxh7 12. Qh5#.

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Categories: chess

Chess tournament named after my favorite guitar composer 03/31/2017

The Kolty Chess Club in Campbell, Calif., names its tournaments thematically. One year the events were named after mountain ranges, another year Beethoven compositions.

This year the Kolty tournaments are named for classical guitar composers. They’re in the midst of the Ferdinando Carulli tournament — Carulli’s my favorite composer for guitar, so I had to drag myself down there to play in this one (not the first time I entered a chess tournament just for its name —mi0002862260 in Feb. 1985, the Berkeley Chess Club named its tournament the Farewell Jack Clark Open because the San Francisco Giants had just traded their All-Star right fielder to the Cardinals for a bag of magic beans).

Black’s play at moves 5 through 8 is such that the only other occurrence in the 365chess database is by a 1300-rated German boy. After 15. Nxa7, the Fruit engine figures White’s advantage is more than four pawns.

Not much to talk about, except for what didn’t happen: In case of 3…exf4 4 Nf3 g5 5 h4 g4 6 Ng5 h6 7 Nxf7 Kxf7 8 d4 d5, following Corzo-Capablanca 8th match game 1901, what was I going to do? I’ve annotated that game several times for print, but always from young Capablanca’s point of view; I was going to have to find an improvement for Corzo over the board.

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Categories: chess