Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Monday, November 27, 2006
I am still not sure I believe it. But, yes, it is true. The worst ever blunder by a World Champion--and by the man considered the least blunder-prone of any champion in history--was committed today before a stunned and saddened chess world. After demonstrating for the second time that a human could still get slightly the better of a machine (while holding the draw in hand), Vladimir Kramnik walked into a mate in one. Incredible. See the story at the Daily Dirt Chess Blog, the Susan Polgar Chess Blog, or the official Kramnik vs. Deep Fritz match website.
We should mention that in Chess Notes #3686, Edward Winter established (based on signature) that the correct spelling of Spielmann's first name was actually "Rudolf" and not "Rudolph."
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Chess Opening Links
I have been planning to update my links to opening analysis, because I noticed recently that it has accumulated quite a few broken links and I know there is lots of new stuff to add since my last update (including practically everything I've written at my blog!) Unfortunately, I did not think to organize my listings by ECO codes, which would have made it much easier to use (especially those not familiar with the English names for the openings they like.) It is still a very good resource.
World Chess Links: Theory
Follow the links on the left to navigate to either general resources or links to specific opening lines, by ECO categories and common names. Then be sure to use the page buttons to access everything. This is a very strong and deep site with more information than my own. It is relatively new (less than a year old), so most of the links are fresh and good.
Described as a directory or a database of opening analysis links, this seems a very promising site, only recently re-opened. They also publishe some original analysis, including an excellent and detailed article on the Alekhine's Defense, Two Pawns Attack.
The Chess Portal (Schackporalen): Chess Theory: Specific Openings
One of the better links collections, but like my own rather out of date. Written in multiple languages.
I think my own site is more up to date than this one, which means it is very out of date indeed.
MECCA - CLINK! - Click the link - Theory: Openings
This one also seems a bit out of date, but it does offer lots of links.
Saturday, November 18, 2006
I have lately begun playing the Two Knights Defense as Black more often than I do as White, and was surprised by how often I've had to face the Perreux Variation (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.d4 exd4 5.Ng5). I suppose it is what I deserve for having popularized it with my website.... I now think the line basically stinks, but it is certainly hard to prove in blitz games, where sharp tactics, a good memory for theory, and a bit of nerve can change a bad opening into a winning middlegame. My recent game with "joesixpack" was more proof, however, that the Perreux should be laid to rest...
Friday, November 17, 2006
Monday, November 13, 2006
Most chess historians are like scientists bent over their lab tables; they rarely step back to view the larger meaning of their subject or to find ways of communicating their insights to non-specialists. It often takes an outsider to construct a paradigm that can help interpret the insiders' knowledge for the rest of us. In his excellent new book, The Immortal Game: A History of Chess, or How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Art, Science, and the Human Brain (Doubleday 2006), David Shenk serves that outsider's role, and he demonstrates a remarkable capacity for explaining the power of our game for both masters and the masses, even though he admits to playing it himself no better than Paul Morphy's romantic contemporaries. He succeeds because his thesis is large enough in scope to frame the full sweep of chess history. Put simply, he argues that chess offers a model, metaphor, problem, or symbol that is complex enough to help people comprehend their world in important ways. His thesis thus not only explains why chess has fascinated us throughout history but also offers an implicit argument for why chess will be useful in the future, despite the fact that computers are already better at it than all but the best human players.
If anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss claimed that "animals are good to think with" (especially among hunter-gatherers), Shenk would claim that chess is even better (especially for those living in large, complex societies), and he traces how multiple generations have used the game as a model for explaining their world. Along the way, he touches on some of the following ways that the game has been an aid to human thought and expression:
- Chess offered kings used to bloody conflict over land a powerful model for the "bloodless war" of diplomacy.
- Understood the way Philidor saw it, where "pawns are the soul of chess," the game offered a social model where everyone, including the most lowly, could see themselves as making important contributions to society.
- Its dialogic and dualistic nature helps to train the healthy mind to understand the world and anticipate the motives of others, but it equally can cause a psychologically disturbed player's undoing, offering a vehicle for schizophrenic cleavage from reality or for delusional paranoia (after all, in chess someone really is always out to get you).
- It "became a symbol of nationalistic pride for totalitarian regimes seeking to prove their moral and intellectual superiority" (163).
- It provided modern artists with a powerful symbol for the type of abstract and complex (even difficult) aesthetic experience that they wished to convey in their art.
- It provided a perfect problem for computer scientists seeking to improve the ways that computers solved problems, with the goal of duplicating or perfectly imitating human intelligence.
Though his book explores complex ideas like these, it remains accessible even for those who barely know more than the way the pieces move. After all, Shenk is an experienced writer of creative non-fiction, and he knows how to present even technical material without making it boring. His style is very engaging and readable. He also has lent his book two narrative elements -- one personal and one historical -- that help carry the reader along and stitch the chapters together.
The personal element gives our chess-outsider author an insider's credential: his great great (and maybe great great again) grandfather on his mother's side was Samuel Rosenthal, one of the better (if lesser known) players of the nineteenth century (see pictures above). Rosenthal lost a few more spectacular games than he won, including Rosenthal-Steinitz, Vienna 1873 which is featured in a lecture at our website. Shenk's personal narrative of trying to understand his distant ancestor's legacy not only helps him move from chapter to chapter, it also gives him a place to stand and a personal voice in telling the story (what rhetoricians might call his "ethos" or ethical claim to the tale).
The second narrative element, while somewhat more artificial (except for the fact that it lends the book its rich title) is the interspersed discussion of "The Immortal Game" itself, Anderssen - Kieseritsky 1851, which is annotated between the chapters with a diagram for each move. The story of this game carries the book from beginning to end and helps to lend it a narrative unity to supplement the conceptual unity created by his overarching motif of chess as multivalent metaphor.
The book is a great success and, given its vigorous promotion, is bound to do well in the marketplace, especially during the upcoming holiday season. Where it may not do as well is among chess historians, but I think it would be a mistake for the members of that tribe to dismiss it for being popular. They would instead do well to use it as a guide to the type of socially and culturally engaged history that might win chess a more prominent place both in the academy and in the wider market.
If some reject Shenk's book, it may be because it is not in the style of chess writing that we know well, even though it is a style we should know better. We might divide chess historians into four types: the "lorists," the theorists, the archivists, and the social or cultural historians of the game. Shenk is one of these last and he therefore is in the small company of those who have made chess understandable outside its own narrow paradigms. The other three make up the bulk of what we think of as chess history.
- Lorists include Fred Reinfeld (The Treasury of Chess Lore and The Human Side of Chess) and Edward Lasker (The Adventure of Chess) among others. They are our early story-tellers, often spinning yarns about the players of the past drawn from first-hand experience or oral tradition in order to promote them as heroes for the next generation. They work with anecdotes to make historical personalities both humanized and super-human. You might say they are really precursors to modern historians since they generally do not check their facts very carefully or use end notes.
- Theorists include Imre Konig (Chess from Morphy to Botwinnik), Anthony Saidy (March of Chess Ideas), Max Euwe (The Development of Chess Style), R.N. Coles (Dynamic Chess), and Garry Kasparov (My Great Predecessors). These writers explain historical developments in the way the game was played, tracing the various schools of chess that have grown up over time (from "Romantic" to "Hypermodern" for instance), and thus offering a historical understanding that might actually help improve your game, since the development of the individual player usually retraces the development of chess theory itself (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny).
- Archivists include Edward Winter (Chess Facts and Fables), John S. Hilbert (Shady Side: The Life and Crimes of Norman T. Whitaker and Young Marshall), and Olimpiu Urcan, among others. These writers are focused on unearthing game scores, photographs, forgotten opening theory, and confirmed factual information about the players of the past, often in direct contradiction of their lorist predecessors. They are doing the very important work of laying a foundation for the theorists and the social historians, but they typically assume a very limited field of observation and are more focused on excavating historical information (especially the ever elusive game scores) than on generating usable knowledge or social context to explain their findings to a non-specialist reader. I would characterize my own attempts at historical opening research (discussed in Chess Restoration and the Usable Past, An Opening Novelty from 1923, and my series on The Panther) as archival work. So I certainly do not mean to disparage my fellow archivists. But I think we would all benefit if more archivists tried to write larger narratives of the social or cultural type.
- Social or cultural histories of chess, such as Shenk's wonderful book, are a little harder to classify or organize, mostly because there have been so few. The most compelling of these is probably Marilyn Yalom's The Birth of the Chess Queen, which argues that the changes in the Queen's powers in chess coincided with an important moment in European history where real queens ruled and women had increasing power within the culture (especially due to changing rituals of courtship). Her book found a relatively wide audience (with a sales rank comparable to Kasparov's) yet also was accepted as valid academic work. Other social or cultural considerations of the game might include Alexander Cockburn's Idle Passion (which combines Freudian and Marxist explanatory systems), George Steiner's Fields of Force (which does an excellent job of using the Fischer-Spassky match to review the history of the game and of the championship), Jennifer Shahade's Chess Bitch (which chronicles the history of women's chess through the lives of its most important players), and perhaps J.C. Hallman's The Chess Artist (though this last is more a travel-log with some history thrown in). I might include Tom Standage's The Turk or David Edmonds and John Eidinow's Bobby Fischer Goes to War, which at least allude to social or cultural history, but both fell a bit short of exploring the larger social dimensions of their subjects and tended more toward the archivist. One would expect Edmonds and Eidinow, for example, to tell us more about how the Cold War influenced the interpretation of the Fischer-Spassky match in the media. Instead, we get more of a focus on the players themselves and their individual stories, as though they were the ones who made history.
Part of why we do not have many social histories of chess is that chessplayers have always been heavily invested in the individualist ethos. The seemingly sui-generis Bobby Fischer is our modern anti-hero because he seems to have stood alone against his cultural moment and, if anything, bulldozed his way across the historical landscape with no regard for the prior features of its terrain. Readers seem to crave the stories of the "Great Predecessors," following the "great man" theory of history, accepting that it was the singular achievements of a few forefathers (rather than the organized behavior of many players and writers) as giving us the game as we have it. Chessplayers are all, at heart, libertarians and want, most of all, to be left alone so they can study or play, practically in rejection of (or retreat from) the larger society. The stories of our heroes feed into that self-isolating tendency and keep our historical literature from reaching a broader audience who might have only a passing interest in the game (or intense interest long past and waiting some revival by the right book).
What stories might our most pre-eminent chess historians tell if they attempted to write the larger social narratives associated with our game? And to what uses could that type of history be put? I can think of many. For now, here are three topics or questions that interest me, and about which I might some day get around to writing:
(1) A historical analysis of how the world chess championship as it has been received and written about within the framework of global politics, from the French-English power struggles of the 18th-19th Centuries (as mirrored in Labourdonnais - McDonnell and Staunton - Saint-Amant) to the emerging U.S. cultural power in opposition to the British empire (reflected in the non-match between Morphy and Staunton) to the Soviet-American Cold War conflict (as reflected in the reception of the Fischer-Spassky match). Such a study might conclude with a reflection of how, in this post-statist moment, many petty dictators of "failed states" (including Kirsan of Kalmykia) use chess to create an image of authority in front of their people and to project a falsely legitimate image on the world stage.
(2) Chess and philanthropy: What lessons does the role of philanthropy in chess, especially in the U.S., have for how chess philanthropy might be cultivated today? I am thinking especially about the New York philanthropists who aided Frank Marshall in founding the Marshall Chess Club or those that supported the Alamac Hotel tournaments (from New York 1924 to Lake Hopatcong 1923 and 1926). We might also examine the group that sponsored the Rosenwald events.
(3) A journalistic consideration of the positive role that chess has played in the lives of academics, many of whom abandoned the game as young people after achieving sigificant success. Does chess train young people to solve complex problems or are the people most capable of solving complex problems most attracted to chess? And in what ways does training in chess affect the sort of projects or areas of specialization that chess-playing academics choose?
As Shenk suggests, the castle gate that surrounds our game presents a high barrier for would-be players and readers. Though the basic rules might be learned in an hour, it can take many years to play even a halfway decent game. At the same time, a large number of people enjoy the game and enjoy reading about it, and it can be a great vehicle for learning more about history in general. As Shenk argues, chess offers a powerful model of society in miniature, so that a focused consideration of its role in history could provide just the tool for encapsulating the past in comprehensible and useful ways. I hope this small essay inspires some to take on that task.
The Chess Coroner has posted a java-replay and zipped PGN of the completed and annotated consultation game played at the Kenilworth Chess Club during its last two meetings. The critical moment occured (as it often does) at the adjournment, when the Black team did not correctly choose 25....d4! (as suggested later by our reader, Patrick), after which Black appears to have an advantage, but instead chose 25....Ng5? after which White exchanged dark squared Bishops with 26.Bd4! and dominated the critical d4-square. Note that, in the diagram above from the end of the game, it's from that same d4-square that the White Knight launches into the attack (hint, hint).
I was in Chicago for a conference and so was unable to see the end of the game myself. But reports all around are that the consultation game was a very successful experiment and one likely to be repeated next year.
Sunday, November 12, 2006
An Editor's note appended to the column says, "The Chess column will continue. A permanent successor to Robert Byrne has not yet been named." Several candidates come to mind, most notably super-blogger GM Susan Polgar, NY Times chess writer Dylan Loeb McClain (who did an excellent job of covering the recent World Championship match), pro-poker player and New York Masters director IM Greg Shahade, chess writer WGM Jennifer Shahade, author GM Eugene Perelshteyn, and super chess organizer and promoter GM Maurice Ashley....
Any other suggestions from my readers?
Some Additional Thoughts
After making the post above, I had some further ideas and thought I'd make a few comments about the future of newspaper chess columns generally. In this age of live chess broadcast on ICC and elsewhere, rapidly updated chess databases, mutliple sources of rapidly published chess analysis (even in video format), and chess bloggers of every stripe, you have to wonder what the best format for a chess column would be in the current climate.
One things is certain: GM Byrne's column, which had been very important (and twice-weekly) when he first began writing it had more recently become an afterthought for most chessplayers. There are at least three reasons for that.
First, it was simply too slow to have news value, often publishing games that had been contested over a month before. Ljubomir Kavalek's column at the Washington Post, meanwhile, often features games that were played a week ago or less. I have noticed a few occasions where his column features a game played on the weekend, and his column comes out Monday! Pretty amazing turn-around time and about equivalent to what you'd expect from a blog.
Second, his notes were generally very superficial. On some occasions, I have found them completely worthless, especially when I've already seen much better notes weeks before on the web. It used to be that the value of a chess column was mostly in the games themselves. But now, with all major international games available quickly on the internet, you can pretty much find major game scores -- often with commentary or analysis. So, if a column is going to stick to major games available from other sources, the notes become pretty important.
Third, there was very little news value in Byrne's column. If you compare the columns at the Post or LA Times, you'll see that they regularly feature recent chess news even when the game under review is not related to the most current events. The lack of news and notes in Byrne's columns arose, in part, because of his format--often opening with a long prelude devoted to drawing the moral lesson from the game at hand. That left no room for what was happening around the world.
Byrne's column was conceived in the pre-internet age (even the pre-computer age!) and has not changed to keep up with the times. I'd say just look at Kavalek's column in the Washington Post if you want to see something really excellent and relevant in a chess column. Everyone reads that. And I think he has won the Chess Journalist's of America award for a chess column several years running. Kavalek seems to be doing a much better job of showing that the weekly chess column can be relevant and worthwhile. If the Times wants to do the traditional chess column right, one easy way would be to woo Kavalek away from the Post...
But I think there are other ways they could make a chess column that was still relevant for the internet age. Here are three suggestions:
1) The "New York" chess column. The City is, after all, one of the centers of the chess universe -- and certainly the center of chess in the U.S. Why not feature relatively local, NY or regional games in regional events? The LA Times does that pretty often. And if you look at the great classic columns, like the Brooklyn Eagle columns of Herman Helms for many years at the beginning of the 20th century (especially great in the 1920s) you'd find a wonderful model for the coverage of local chess news. A New York chess column could be both international and local, featuring recent international news and a local game that you are not likely to see annotated elsewhere on the web (or even found on the web, since many local games never make the news or even the databases).
2) The "Feature Story" or Commentary chess column. Why, after all, does a chess column have to analyze a game? With games so ubiquitous and so few good feature stories and little authoritative commentary or news analysis, doesn't it make sense to simply drop the games altogether or make them an afterthought? I think that is one way to go. In any event, the game could be made less central to the presentation.
3) Chess for the Masses. A final suggestion would be to make a more popular presentation. Who actually reads chess columns anymore anyway? Just the few thousands of chessplayers capable of getting something out of them. Why not broaden the appeal of the column by turning it into an educational vehicle to reach a wide range of players? It could also include thoughts about the value of chess in everyday life. Sort of Chess for Living.... And maybe a puzzle or a few puzzles on a theme drawn from recent games. Maybe a discussion of good sources on the web. Stuff like that.
Obviously, these ideas are mutually exclusive. But I've tried to imagine ways that the chess column could be reconceived to keep it relevant for today or to reach a broader readership. I'd love to hear alternative ideas.
One last note: why is the New York Times's chess column in the Metro Section? Herman Helms's column generally was in the Sports section on Thursdays, many others are in entertainment. Does the chess column have to follow the Crossword Puzzle? Why not move it to the Sports section and treat it more like Sports coverage with real news value? That's the European standard.
Saturday, November 11, 2006
Thursday, November 09, 2006
White to Play and Win
After publishing a few losses (here, here and here) by NM James R. West on our blog, it seemed only fair to share some of his better games, along with a profile to add to our growing gallery of New Jersey masters, who include FM Steve Stoyko, FM Tom Bartell, NM Peter Radomskyj, NM Mark Kernighan, NM Evan Ju, NM Victor Shen (also here), and (formerly of our state) NM Tyler Cowen.
Asked to name his most memorable games, West suggested his 2005 Hamilton Quad victory over long rival Kernighan (see diagram above), which included a nice Queen sacrifice, and two games with the Philidor Counter-Gambit, a line which he has championed for many years.
Jim West has been one of the most active New Jersey chess players for at least three decades. A Life Master, he can be found playing rated games practically every weekend and sometimes during the week as well. He is a member of the Marshall Chess Club in Manhattan, a frequent visitor to the Polgar Chess Center in Queens, and a ubiquitous contestant in weekend quads and swisses throughout the tri-state area. When I asked what drives him to play so frequently, he could only say, “it’s better than staying home to watch sports. At least you get out of the house and meet people.”
West works at a large law firm where he specializes in asset location, mostly for purposes of judgment recovery. This involves a lot of research and problem solving, but he refused to accept my suggestion that his skill in researching and playing chess had in any way contributed to his choice of career. “Work and chess are two totally compartmentalized parts of your brain,” he said, though he granted that chess “trains you to be disciplined in your thinking” which is good in any line of work.
As a chess player, West looks back most fondly upon his team victory in the U.S. Amateur Teams East in 1999. His most salient individual achievements include a clear first place in the 1990 FIDE-rated NJ Futurity tournament in Elmwood Park, which unfortunately came during a year when the Atlantic Chess News (which gave extensive coverage to other Futurity events) stopped publication due to Glenn Petersen taking on the editorship of Chess Life. He also tied for first at the New Jersey Open of 1985, but the trophy went to Ken Potts on tie-breaks.
Outside of the competitive arena, West is best known for his many publications on the Philidor Counter-Gambit, in Atlantic Chess News, the Virginia Chess Newsletter, and in two books: The Philidor Countergambit (Chess Enterprises 1994) and The Dynamic Philidor Counter-Gambit (Chess Digest 1996).
I asked him how he became such a strong believer in the Philidor Counter-Gambit, to which he responded, “It’s not a matter of belief. I don’t know how it got its bad reputation to begin with,” though he suggested it probably had “some connection to criticism of Morphy” who played the gambit in the 19th Century, at the peak of Romantic chess, and whose games are often seen as flawed by modern standards. “Back in the 1970s when I first tried out the line I was told by someone, ‘How can you play that—that isn’t chess!’ I think that’s intellectual snobbery. There is a coffeehouse reputation to the opening, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good.” In West’s opinion, the PCG is no less viable than other sharp Black openings. “I played the Sicilian for 15 years, and that’s no picnic either for Black.” In the introduction to the 1994 edition of his book, which I own, he writes something similar: “Where it once seemed madness to play into the unclear complexities of the [Philidor Counter Gambit], it now seems foolhardy to play the Sicilian Defense, when even Class C players know the first fifteen moves from memory.” Meanwhile, with the PCG, his opponents have to think for themselves, sometimes spending as much as an hour by move 4!
According to West, the opening is quite principled…at least, according to Philidor’s principles, anyway! As Philidor famously wrote, “the pawns are the soul of chess,” and when White plays 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 he is practically inviting Black to play …f5 since exf5 invites ….e4! kicking the Knight and gaining space. Some may see the PCG as wasting time—it seems to involve too many pawn moves in the opening. But for Philidor, you had to develop your pawns as well as your pieces.
So what is the best move against West’s system? Well, he’s not about to reveal it. But in the only game I’ve seen where West himself played White against the line, he chose 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 f5!? 4.Bc4, which is encouraging for a Bishop’s opening fan like myself who might reach this position by transposition. On the black side of that line, West usually has played Morphy’s odd looking 4…Nc6!? which suggests that he does not fully trust the standard 4….exd4. Food for thought!
We welcome the games and stories of other New Jersey masters, and perhaps over the coming years we can profile all of them. Appropriately for our game of 8x8 squares, they currently number 64.
Sunday, November 05, 2006
An excellent and FREE alternative to Adobe Photoshop for general graphics creation and image editing, The Gimp can be downloaded from www.gimp.net. Windows users should be sure to download and install the proper Runtime Environment before installing the program itself.
I've been trying it out recently and like it a lot. Having gotten a new machine not long ago and misplaced my Photoshop installation disk, I was glad to find this alternative. Many of the tools are the same or similar to those offered by Photoshop so it is easy to just jump in and start working intuitively, learning as you go. If you want to add graphics to your blog or edit your photos before posting them, and you have some time to learn a new tool or Photoshop experience to guide you (but no money to buy Photoshop itself), then this might be the perfect solution.
I welcome suggestions for any other free programs you have found useful for chess blogging.
Friday, November 03, 2006
I have two books on my wish list, both due out soon and promising to provide perfect bookends for my "Knightmare Repertoire." Taken together, in fact, they will offer an almost complete repertoire for Black.
The first is Mihail Marin's Beating the Open Games (Quality Chess), which will likely supplant John Emms's Play the Open Games and Nigel Davies's Play 1.e4 e5! as the premiere Black 1.e4 e5 repertoire book, especially when he follows up with his long-anticipated Berlin Defense repertoire against the Spanish / Ruy Lopez some time later in 2007.
The second is IM Christoph Wisnewski's Play 1...Nc6! (Everyman) which I expect to update and improve upon A Complete Defense for Black by Keene and Jacobs (now out of print). Like that earlier book, it will focus on transpositions to the Chigorin Defense (e.g.: 1.d4 Nc6 2.Nf3 d5) and other lines I cover in my 1...Nc6 Bibliography. Unfortunately, that volume may not be out until 2007. But it gives me something to look forward to...
John Moldovan (The Chess Coroner) has posted the Zipped PGN and Java replay of the adjourned consultation game played at the Kenilworth Chess Club last night. I wish I could have been there and will make an effort to come next week to see the conclusion. The adjourned position is roughly equal, with White having the better structure but Black the better dynamic chances.
What should Black do next? What are the plans for each side?