Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Out Of Book, Episode 1

Studying opening theory is a horrible timesink. I have some strong opinions on how club players should choose and study openings, and will address this soon.

For now, here's part one of what will be an ongoing series of examples where my opponents leave book early without outright blundering. These should help drive home the point that studying opening variations isn't the most productive use of a club player's time.

I have just recently started to bite the bullet and play the open Sicilians, because I think the tactics and positions that result will help me become a better player. After 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. f4 e5 7. Nf3 my opponent in this blitz game played 7...Qb6

If you're new to chess and the Sicilian, you wouldn't think of move 7 as being an "early deviation". However, in the open sicilian White's first 5 moves are the same against any of a small number of Black responses, so in a sense we're talking about a novelty on the second move here. Black normally plays 7...Qc7 or 7...Nbd7 here.

7...Qb6 is not mentioned in any book I own, and there's only two rated games in my giant Chessbase database. During the game, all I could think about was the a7-g1 diagonal, my exposed king, and how kingside castling would be well-nigh impossible. I ended up winning, but I really didn't like this position at the time.

The solution appears to be 8.Bc4. The f7 square and e5 pawns are weak, so variations where a N hops into g5 or where white captures twice on e5 are strong. is weak. Fritz gives White about2/3 of a pawn advantage here after 8.Bc4 Be7 9.fxe5 dxe5 10.Nxe5 0-0.

The bottom line is that there's still play in the position, and the aggressive stance of the Black queen and the position of White's king make this a reasonable surprise weapon for least against patzers like me.

Monday, February 26, 2007

If You Read Nothing Else, Read This

At the time I'm writing this, my only "Recommended Chess Link" on this site is to, and specifically to Dan Heisman's "Novice Nook" column there. Eventually I'll add more links, but I intend to limit the list to those sights that will most help the average player improve.

I strongly recommend to anyone trying to improve their game to dig through the archives and read everything Heisman has written. However, before you check out the archives, let me explain why I endorse his articles so strongly.

Some people will have the same initial reaction that I had when I first glanced at his columns: "This is basic stuff. I'm beyond this." For quite a while, I would glance at the topic of the month, see what topic was being discussed without actually reading it, and then move on.

I'm not sure which of his articles I first read where I realized just how wrong I was, but it was probably one of the following:

1. One of his series of articles on "real chess". His original article for is in text-only format, but he has elaborated on the theme in several articles. In a nutshell: "real" chess is where you consider your opponents threats, come up with a list of possible moves, consider your opponent's responses to those moves, and only then make your move...all while practicing good time management (which is in itself another topic, and one Heisman addresses in several articles). If you skip a step, you're playing "hope" chess (where you hope you'll be able to deal with whatever your opponent's next move is) or, worse yet, "flip-coin" chess (where you pick a move almost randomly because it's your turn and you have to do something).

I'm possibly mangling his message, so I suggest you go straight to the source. This may seem like a simple or obvious concept, but the trick is to do this consistently on each and every move. This is like a basketball player being able to consistently make 3-point freethrows, or a golfer being able to consistently chip a ball onto the green and close to the hole. It only takes one "hope" move to blunder and lose a game. I'll likely be returning to this topic in the near future. To quote from one of Heisman's articles:

Ask yourself the following question, “Of all the games I have lost recently,what percent were lost because of something I did not know, and what percent were lost due to something I already knew, but were not careful to look for?” If you are like most non-advanced players many, if not most, of your losses are due to a tactical oversight on a pattern that you already knew: putting a piece en prise, miscounting the safety of a piece, missing a simple double attack or fork, allowing a back-rank mate, etc. Since you already are familiar with those tactics, that means either that
you played carelessly, did not practice “Real Chess”, or have no
consistent thinking pattern.

2. A Counting Primer. Up until I read this article, I had more or less been using the "Reinfeld" values for chess pieces (bishops and knights are worth 3 pawns or a bit more; rooks are worth 5 pawns; the queen is worth 9 pawns; the bishop pair is an advantage worth about half a pawn). That's a fine place to start, and really any "point count" system is inherently flawed and can only provide a "guesstimate" of the relative power of your pieces compared to your opponent. However, Heisman presents a more refined system based on an article by Larry Kaufman. With several caveats, the values are:

  • bishops and knights are worth 3 1/4 pawns
  • rooks are worth 5 pawns
  • the queen is worth 9 3/4 pawns
  • the bishop pair is worth 1/2 pawn

Not that different, except for the evaluation of the queen. However, the articles give examples of evaluating unequal exchanges using this system, and this had several revelations for me. For example, it's common for a beginner to sacrifice a B and N on f7 to gain the opponent's R and f7 pawn, while "weakening" their kingside:

However, if you do the math, this means that White sacrificed 6.5 pawns of material to gain 6, and usually the king's position isn't significantly weakened. If the exchange cost White the bishop pair, they are now down a full pawn's worth of material for and exchange they may have thought was slightly better for them. Also, if this exchange occurs early in the game (which seems to be the rule), the minor pieces are often more powerful than the rooks because the latter don't have open lines yet.

This counting system also makes sacrificing the exchange (rook for bishop or knight) more attractive, and these articles completely changed how I viewed these transactions. For example, if you sacrifice the rook for a bishop and get a pawn in compensation, you're only sacrificing about 3/4 of a pawn. If that exchange cost your opponent the bishop pair, your sacrifice is a measly 1/4 of a pawn, so other positional factors can easily outweigh this disadvantage. Kaufman's original article isn't quite this simple, but you get the point.

3. A Guide to P-R3. To someone new to chess, this might seem like an awfully specific topic, but this is such a common move that it deserves its own article. It is very common to push a rook's pawn to either challenge a bishop that's pinning a knight, or to prevent a bishop from creating that pin in the first place:

The rook's pawn can be used to deny other pieces a key square as well. For example, in the Sicilian defense a pawn on a6 often keeps the white pieces out of b5, or a pawn on h3 keeps black from playing ...Ng4 and chopping off a bishop on e3:

The push of the rook's pawn can be a fine move, a waste of time, or a stinker, depending on circumstance. Often your opponent will waste time with a move like ...a6 or ...h6 when they should be bringing their pieces out. Another consideration is that the move ...h6 weakens the king's position (e.g. allowing a piece sacrifice on h6 to open up the kingside). Heisman presents a series of rules to guide you in deciding whether moving your rook's pawn is a good or bad move in a particular instance.

As soon as I realized how wrong I was about Heisman's column being "beginner stuff", I devoured his other articles. Other recurring themes include counting errors, time management, and the importance of studying basic "winning material" tactics (i.e. not mating combinations).

Heisman's target readership is about the same as my own, and I agree with most of what he says. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I want to direct people to his articles right off the bat. I will be posting on topics that he and others have covered, but with my own spin and personal experience thrown in.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Bare Essentials

Yesterday, at the pet store, a little girl was bawling her eyes out. "I want a guinea piiiiiggggg!"

The mother patiently explained, "You can't have a guinea pig. Besides, you have one at home and you never play with it."

The girl wailed, "I want another one!!!!!"

My wife thinks this not much different than my chess book habit. We have a truce: I get to buy chess books, and she gets to buy clothes.

My "intended audience" for this blog are people that already play tournament chess or rated chess games online. They already know the rules, the values of the different pieces, how to read chess notation, and most likely use a computer to help them analyze and store their games.

However, maybe you're a scholastic player that just started playing, but you're getting beaten badly at the club. Maybe you're like me, and later in life something triggered a desire to learn more about the game. I want to make a few suggestions to those just starting out in chess, to help "bring them up to speed."

You can spend an awful lot of money on chess books, software and equipment. However, you don't have to. Some people just "have" to get the latest version of their favorite chess program, or just "have" to get that book on some opening they never play but that got rave reviews. I haven't been involved directly with scholastic players, but I'm willing to bet that parents often fall into two traps: getting books or equipment that their child doesn't use, or buying whatever book or program their child "has" to have.

I'm going to suggest a list of "bare essentials" that will provide the most bang for their buck. Some of the specific recommendations are a matter of taste, but if you stick with the general strategy you shouldn't go wrong.

1. The first things you need to know are the rules (including castling kingside and queenside, en passant capturing, and stalemate), and how to read and write chess notation. I'm assuming most readers of this are well beyond this. However, if one of the above terms was unfamiliar to you or your child, you probably want to tackle this before plunking down money on more advanced material.

2. Next, you need to know basic tactics...forks, pins, skewers ("X-ray attacks"), removal of the guard, deflection, and so on. I am going to argue on this blog, very strongly, that tactics is by far the most important thing you can spend time on. There is a lot to choose from in this category, but in general any book that explains the value of the pieces and the basic tactics mentioned above will be a good place to start. You can start with one or two of the books below, and add more challenging ones as you progress.

My two personal recommendations are out of print, but you may be able to find them online or in a used book store:

  • The Chess Tutor: Elements of Combinations by Leslie Ault. My first copy that I obtained as a kid was lost when I moved. I found another used copy and foolishly sold it to a friend. This book should have become a classic, in my opinion.
Unfortunately, if a book is good and out of print, it's probably expensive when you find it. For books in print, check out a book such as Sierawan's Winning Chess Tactics. I have not personally viewed a copy of Chess Tactics for Kids by Murray Chandler, but I've looked over his previous book How to Beat your Dad at Chess, and was impressed. The latter book is devoted to mating combinations, so those two books together would probably be an excellent place to start. If you're an adult learner, don't let the books titles, cover art, and your pride stand in the way.

One free resource for practicing chess tactics is the Chess Tactics Server, which I've just started using. One downside is that your performance rating is related to how quickly you solve the problem, so it encourages superficial thinking. Think of it as more of a drill to practice your ability to recognize tactical patterns quickly.

I could make many, many suggestions for studying chess tactics. I'll just say that time spent solving tactical problems is never wasted.

3. Test your newly-acquired chess kung-fu by joining a chess club and playing rated games. In the United States, this means joining the USCF and finding a local club. You can also play rated games online, for free (e.g. the Free Internet Chess Server) or by paid subscription (e.g. the Internet Chess Club, which is where I play most of my games). The point of playing rated games is that you can be matched against players of roughly the same playing strength. No one likes losing all the time, and beating much weaker players isn't going to help you improve your chess. Also, the rating gives an indication of how much progress you're making as a player, and gives an incentive to try your hardest each and every game.

Nowadays, playing chess online is the easy option, but there are many disadvantages. One is that most games are played at fast speeds, so bad habits tend to get reinforced. This is one of the problems I'm currently battling. Also, stronger players at your chess club will be able to go over your games and point out your mistakes. You may even find a local master willing to give lessons.

4. Now that you've played several games against other people, get software that allows you to store your old games and analyze them. I now use the Chessbase products Fritz 9 and Chessbase 9 , but there are cheaper options for people just starting out. The main thing is that you want to be able to:
  • store your games for future reference
  • analyze your games for tactical errors
  • read databases of games obtained from the internet or elsewhere
When I started out, I found a cheap program called Extreme Chess that was essentially a very old version of Fritz (I believe using the engines of Fritz 3 and 4). If you don't want to shell out the money for the latest Fritz, any older version will do. At the time I'm writing this, I see Extreme Chess for sale online for less than $3. Chessbase also has a free version of their older database software called "Chessbase Lite". It took some trial and error to figure out how to use it, but it worked well enough.

The most valuable ability of a program like Fritz or Chessmaster is that it can analyze your own games and find your mistakes. They're great at pointing out "you missed a mate in 3" or "you could have won a pawn here". Programs like Fritz and the Chessmaster series allow you to play against the computer as well. I think that training with the computer is a good way to correct yourself of bad habits, because computers will mercilessly punish your mistakes. The computers are so strong these days that it takes some fiddling around to get a program like Fritz to play almost as bad as you do (my understanding is that Chessmaster is a bit easier to use in this regard).

Whereas a program like Fritz is a computer opponent and analyzer with some database features, Chessbase itself is a chess database with some analysis features. Chessbase will not analyze your game while you sleep, or play a game with you, but it will analyze the current position if you tell it to. Chessbase is useful in finding things like:

  • here is where your game becomes different from all other games in its huge database of games
  • in this opening at move 12, the following 9 moves have been played by masters, and 12.d4 has the highest win percentage for white
  • you have played the Ruy Lopez opening as white 451 times in the last 7 years, and your opponent has responded with the Steinitz Defense 23% of the time.
  • here are all the games with players rated above 2400 with and endgame of same-coloured bishops and with pawns on g2, f3 and h4 vs. pawns on g6 and h5
You get the idea. Fun stuff, useful stuff, but is it worth the $168 for the Chessbase 9 starter package? Not if you're just starting out.

There's oodles of software out there, for both mac and PC, both commercial and free. I like the Chessbase products because they not only read the standard .pgn database files, but they also read their own .cbh and .cbf-format chessbases that allow for extra commentary like drawing arrows or key squares, or inserting diagrams that will appear when the game is printed out.

5. If you're still having fun and eager to learn at this point, get one basic book on endgames, and a book or two on strategy. My recommendation for endgames is Pandolfini's Endgame Course, although it has some typos. Just the Facts! by Lev Alburt and Nikolay Krogius is similar, but with fewer positions and more discussion. I could mention others, but pick one and read it cover to cover for starters.

I strongly recommend Best Lessons of a Chess Coach by Sunil Weeramantry and Ed Eusebi, and How To Reassess Your Chess by Jeremy Silman. However, if you're a new player or a young child you may want to look through a copy of each and make sure it's not too advanced. These are the two books I stumbled upon as a young adult that opened my eyes to what "real chess" was. The first book, in particular, was revelation after revelation after revelation. I have a terrible memory for master games, but the first game in that book demonstrated how a knight on a safe, advanced square (or "outpost") could be a terrible, terrible thing, and I have often used that idea in my own games. The latter book is close to being the bible of positional chess, and will teach you how to analyze a chess position and choose good moves.

I don't think beginners need to study a lot of chess strategy (tactics is far more important), but they need to be introduced to basic elements of strategy. Understanding positional chess helps you to choose good moves (or avoid bad ones, like weakening pawn moves) when there are no clear tactical shots.

6. Don't worry about openings at this point. I didn't forget to include suggested books on openings...I deliberately am not suggesting one at this point. I intend to write about openings soon, but at this point all you need to know is that you should get your pieces out as quickly as you can. If your chess program has a built-in opening book (and most do), you can compare what you play to what the "book" moves are and decide what you yourself like to play. You will go through an awkward phase where your pieces seem to get tangled up, or you realize your knight works better on d7 in a certain opening rather than c6, or you get punished for not castling soon enough, but you'll learn from your mistakes. At your level, actually learning "opening theory" is largely a waste of time because your opponents will also be playing lousy moves not found in any of the books. Getting your army mobilized faster than your opponent, and having a sharp eye for tactics, will be far more important.

To summarize:
  • learn the basic rules and tactics
  • play rated games against people, both face-to-face and over the internet if you can
  • use software to store your games and analyze them for errors
  • learn the basics of endgames and chess strategy
All of that can be done with free (or cheap) software, 3-5 books, and membership dues to your chess federation. In return you get hours (years, hopefully) of entertainment, and you get to meet and play other people that share your interest. I think that's a pretty good return on investment.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Under Construction

Welcome! If you're reading this message, you probably came across this page via a search. I will be adding content and learning the ropes over the next several days.

The first goal of this blog is to use my experience at playing lousy chess to educate others. I am a C-class player (1400s USCF) who has spent a lot of time on chess, but not wisely. I think, however, that I have a good sense of what steps a player should take to see the greatest improvement in their play, especially for those C-class and below.

The other goal of this blog is a selfish one. I feel that, if I were to follow my own advice, I would see improvements in my own game. This blog may force me to "practice what I preach" and thus become a better player myself.

If I do my job right, then at least one player (myself) will benefit from this endeavor. I hope that others will find it useful as well, and that I can direct them away from some of the traps and timesinks that I fell prey to. These words summarize this blog's concept: