Friday, July 20, 2007

Checkers Solved

"Computers solve checkers" was the headline at ChessBase News yesterday. Turns out it's a draw. The article is worth a look, if only to read about the late Dr. Marion Tinsley's complete dominance of the game up until his death in 1994, and speculation about when, if ever, chess might be solved.

Funny, but knowing that checkers has been solved in no way affects my interest in playing the game....

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Tim McGrew

While I was in Michigan recently, I had the chance to meet Tim McGrew, who is probably best known to chessplayers as the author of "The Gambit Cartel" series at ChessCafe. In the world of academia, which he also inhabits, Tim is better known as "Dr. McGrew" and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Western Michigan University. Though his University duties have kept him from writing as regularly about chess as he used to, he still does occasional analysis for West Michigan Chess and remains active as a chess player and teacher. As a player, he recently tied for first in the Michigan Open and therefore can claim a portion of his state title. As a teacher, he can be found every week at the Portage Library giving lessons and advice to over a dozen young students of the game, including his two daughters.

Tim and Bethel McGrew
Tim and daughter Bethel at the Portage Library
Tim was kind enough to annotate his games from the Michigan Championship for our website. As with the games of young Evan Ju, who claimed the New Jersey title this past year, they demonstrate that it takes a rare combination of skill, stamina, and good fortune to take home a state championship.

I got proof of what a good teacher Tim is when I played a few skittles games against his daughter Bethel, who is a very strong 1600-player, as she proved by nicking me for one game out of two. Tim is nearing master at 2168 USCF but sports an ICC blitz rating of 2705, so I was not too surprised to lose both of our games (the first of which I have also annotated at the link above).

I asked Tim what he thought were some of the advantages chess offered to kids, and he quickly rattled off a whole list of things:
  • It teaches you to sit still and focus on one activity. That's a huge lesson for kids, especially these days.
  • It offers a built in feedback for hard work, so it teaches the work ethic.
  • It teaches kids to take responsibility for their mistakes and for their successes.
  • It teaches them to lose gracefully and learn from their mistakes.
  • It teaches a wide variety of other life lessons.
I told him I also thought that chess could get kids interested in reading. He thought that might be possible, but he suggested that his own experience was that you have to be a reader before you will read about chess. He says that he grew up as a "library hound." He learned chess from his father and figured out pretty quickly that the only way he would eventually be able to beat him was by studying the game and reading books. He got out books on Capablanca, Rubinstein, and Alekhine and would play through one game from each every day. Without already being a disciplined reader, it might have been hard for him to institute and carry out such an intensive study plan.

He remembers studying those games, "while Tchaikovsky played in the background" so that, to this day, he associates certain games and positions with particular musical passages. "Swan Lake makes me think of Rubinstein's Rook and Pawn endings," he said. The connection between chess and music is well known, and it is interesting that Tim plays the piano, though he says he only does it "when no one is listening who might be permanently harmed by the experience."

I have long identified with Tim as a chess writer. We are both academics, both enjoy gambit lines, and both retain an amateur status in the chess world. It therefore should not have surprised me that he was influenced by some of the players who figure so importantly in the history of the Kenilworth Chess Club.

Chatting on ICC, Tim told me the following story: "Believe it or not, I played Steve Stoyko once when I was a kid. I was rated 1300 or so; he was 2305. He crushed me in about a dozen moves. (I've gotten revenge recently against him online, though.) This was the late 1970's, in a little tournament called the March of Dimes Open. I beat an A player in round 1 and got Stoyko in round 2. I had never had a chance to play the Schliemann Defense before, but I decided to try it out. Of course, I got out-computed and crushed. I hadn't really expected to win, so I wasn't devastated, but I did feel that my opening had not held up well. I wandered out of the playing room and into the lobby, where an old guy was sitting quietly. I don't know why I went up to speak to him -- maybe he just looked in my direction. Anyway, we fell to talking about my game, and I told him of my woes, how this was the first Schliemann of my life, and I had lost it like a beginner, and I thought perhaps I needed to get a different defense. Stoyko himself had said, laconically (though not unkindly), 'Get something sound.' But the old guy held my eye and said, 'No, don't give it up, play it again.' So I did. For the remainder of my active tournament career until I stopped playing in college, I used the Schliemann every chance I got. I never lost another game with it, and I conceded only one draw. It was only years later that something clicked and I realized that the old guy had been Edgar McCormick."

As Tim knows, Edgar was my chess mentor growing up. It would be very much like him to urge Tim to keep playing the Schliemann. Edgar played lots of gambit lines, and was the reason I play the Albin Counter-Gambit (which Tim plays too, of course). I also find it very ironic that his story pits Stoyko's statement to "Get something sound" against Edgar's embrace of gambits, since in some ways I am perched myself between the advice of these same mentors, wondering if I should try to create a repertoire that is less focused around gambit lines or just embrace the openings I enjoy.

It was this same theme that I had identified with so much in Tim's pieces for ChessCafe, especially in the three he refers to now as "The Peter Stories": A Little Learning, The Power of Ideas (my favorite), and Master Class. In all of them, Peter struggles within himself to justify his choice of a gambit repertoire, often against external voices telling him to "play something sound."

The Peter Stories are a good illustration of how Tim's work as a philosopher connects with his chess writings, since they illustrate his view that we arrive at knowledge through "internalist foundationalism"; that is, our beliefs are based on a conscious choice that we arrive at through reasoning from basic premises. Ultimately, we are not convinced by outside influences alone but by our own examination and analysis of the evidence. And the evidence is pretty good for gambits, looked at from the right perspective.

As Tim argues, we should not judge the strength of a gambit by any "objective" measure of its quality, as played by a computer (with computer accuracy), but by the effects it has on human players left to their own devices in over the board or online play. He even suggests we try to quantify the number of difficult problems an opening sets for one's opponent as a factor in judging its quality. If a gambit line has a hundred pitfalls and only one or two true ways to advantage for one's adversary, that may be a better opening than a safer line that offers one's opponent numerous paths to reasonable play. If you play a line that gives your opponent lots of ways to self-destruct, he very likely will do so...
Gambits are a great training ground for learning to think on your feet and make the most of what you have. In a number of his ChessCafe articles, Tim explores how you can turn your material-dropping mistakes into gambits by just adopting the right attitude. You need to convince yourself that your gambit is sound before you can hope to turn your belief into fact over the board.

I hope you enjoy Tim's writings as much as I do. And I hope I have other opportunities to talk with "Dr. McGrew," who has made me much happier about my own embrace of gambit play.

Webliography of Tim McGrew's Chess Writings

  • Tim McGrew's 2006 Michigan Open Games, Kenilworth Chess Club website (July 2007)
    A Zipped file of all Tim McGrew's ChessCafe articles from September 2002 to August 2005
  • Jarosz - Budzenski, Michigan Amateur 2005, West Michigan Chess (July 2007)

  • Belsitzman-Rubinstein,Warsaw 1917, West Michigan Chess (May 2007)
  • Smooth Sailing, Michigan Chess Association (January 2006)
    Notes on games from the 2005 Michigan Open Reserve

  • The Heat of the Moment, Gambit Cartel #36 at ChessCafe (August 2005)
    Tim's farewell piece, which discusses several gambit lines in blitz games on ICC and World Chess Network.

  • Kevitz's Legacy, Gambit Cartel #35 at ChessCafe (July 2005)
    Discusses the interesting countergambit 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 c5 3.c4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e5 5.Nb5 d5!?

  • Master Class, Gambit Cartel #34 at ChessCafe (June 2005)
    A "Peter Story" about a young player who asks his master mentor to show him an opening against the French. The master teaches him 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Be3!?

  • Come to the Dark Side, Gambit Cartel #33 at ChessCafe (May 2005)
    A treatment of the Sollar Gambit 1.d4 e5 2.dxe5 f6 (or 2...Nc6 3.Nf3 f6!?) which is sort of a Reversed Blackmar-Diemer.

  • Call It a Gambit, Gambit Cartel #32 at ChessCafe (April 2005)
    Tim relates the story of one tournament game where he accidentally began 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.d3 d6 5.Ng5!? Qf6!? which you may as well call a gambit.

  • Bennett's Temptation Redux, Gambit Cartel #31 at ChessCafe (March 2005)
    A return to the same line covered in GC #30.

  • Bennett's Temptation, Gambit Cartel #30 at ChessCafe (February 2005)
    1.d4 d5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.e4 dxe4 4.f3 exf3 5.Nxf3 Bg4 6.h3 Bh5 7.g4 Bg3 8.Ne5 Nc6 9.Qf3!? Nxd4 10.Qxb7 which is more complicated than you'd expect.

  • The Bishop's Gambit, Gambit Cartel #29 at ChessCafe (January 2005)
    An excellent introduction to 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Bc4 as White.

  • The Omega Gambit, Gambit Cartel #28 at ChessCafe (December 2004)
    Discussion of a bad but accidental gambit that Tim frequently ends up playing on ICC, when, in a series of blitz games beginning 1.e4 e6 2.d4, his opponent suddenly switches to the Alekhine's Defense with 1.e4 Nf6! 2.d4? Nxd4 -- and then Tim beats him anyway...

  • The Power of Ideas, Gambit Cartel #27 at ChessCafe (November 2004)
    I consider this the best "Peter Story," and it is certainly my favorite of all Tim's "Gambit Cartel" pieces. It tells the story of a game where Pete opens with the Smith-Morra Gambit, describing his thoughts and emotions before, during, and after the course of play. It is really a ground-breaking piece of chess writing which manages to both instruct and entertain, while it also offers a rather convincing defense of playing gambits to develop tactical awareness.

  • A Shilling in the Mailbag, Gambit Cartel #26 at ChessCafe (October 2004)
    Follows up on the previous article to look more closely at a reader's suggested White counter-gambit: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nd4?! 4.Nxe5(?) Qg5 5.Bxf7+! Ke7 6.O-O! which is a very interesting way to turn a mistake into a challenging problem for your opponent to solve.

  • Reader's Showcase, Gambit Cartel #25 at ChessCafe (September 2004)
    Featuring the games of reader Charlie Gold who has had great success playing the Black side of Blackburne's Shilling Gambit: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nd4?!

  • Every Once in a While Part II, Gambit Cartel #24 at ChessCafe (August 2004)
    Tim returns to the Benko Gambit declined with 5.b6--from the Black perspective, of course.

  • Every Once in a While, Gambit Cartel #23 at ChessCafe (July 2004)
    Tim examines some recent games with the Benko Gambit line that goes 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5 4.cxb5 a6 5.b6.

  • Dimensional Analysis, Gambit Cartel #22 at ChessCafe (June 2004)
    Returns to the themes raised in "Gambits in Many Dimensions" in a much more clearly formulated way.

  • A Fistful of Novelties, Gambit Cartel #21 at ChessCafe (May 2004)
    Tim puts some old opening analysis under Fritz's microscope to develop some interesting novelties.

  • A Little Learning, Gambit Cartel #20 at ChessCafe (April 2004)
    The first "Peter Story," where Pete's chess instructor tries to convince him to ignore the database statistics and stick with the Smith-Morra Gambit, because if you look at the games where White loses you quickly see that he was just a complete putz.

  • Shall We Dance? Gambit Cartel #19 at ChessCafe (March 2004)
    Continues his discussion of the complicated line 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bc4 Nc6 4.f4!? Nxe4!

  • Blindsided, Gambit Cartel #18 at ChessCafe (February 2004)
    Discusses his first encounter with the Black side of 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bc4 Nc6 4.f4!?

  • Designer Gambits, Gambit Cartel #17 at ChessCafe (January 2004)
    Looks at 1.d4 e6 2.e4 Nf6 3.Nc3 c5 4.dxc5 Bxc5 5.e5 Nd5!? 6.Nxd5 exd5 7.Qxd5 Qb6! and some lines with related patterns.

  • Steinitz for the Defense, Gambit Cartel #16 at ChessCafe (December 2003)
    Steinitz liked to grab gambit pawns and hold onto them for dear life. Tim shows one Danish Gambit game where the pawn proved fatal.

  • Danish Pastry, Gambit Cartel #15 at ChessCafe (November 2003)
    Uses the publication of Danish Dynamite as a good excuse to look at some pretty games in the Danish and Goring gambits.

  • Terra Incognita, Gambit Cartel #14 at ChessCafe (October 2003)
    Tim looks at the Reti Gambit against the French with 1.e4 e6 2.b3 d5 3.Bb2!

  • Gambits in Many Dimensions, Gambit Cartel #13 at ChessCafe (September 2003)
    Tim develops a fascinating way of evaluating opening lines by considering how many ways your opponent can go wrong rather than focusing only on the one true way he might be able to survive or gain an edge.

  • Life on the Edge, Gambit Cartel #12 at ChessCafe (August 2003)
    Returns to the Damiano and discusses some other problematic gambit ideas.

  • Tactics of Mistake, Gambit Cartel #11 at ChessCafe (July 2003)
    Considers the Black side of Damiano's 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f6!?? with the idea of either challenging White to prove he knows the refutation or meeting 3.Nxe5 with 3...Qe7.

  • Electronic Alchemy, Gambit Cartel #10 at ChessCafe (June 2003)
    Teaches the reader how to use a chess computer and database to develop some unusual lines, such as the gambit idea 1.e4 c5 2.c3 Nf6 3.e5 Nd5 4.f4!??

  • Going Fishing, Gambit Cartel #9 at ChessCafe (May 2003)
    Looks at the line 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bc4 Nf6!? 4.Ng5 d5 5.exd5 h6 6.Nf3 e4 etc.

  • The Lemberger Counter-Gambit, Gambit Cartel #8 at ChessCafe (April 2003)
    Looks at 1.d4 d5 2.e4 dxe4 3.Nc3 e5!?

  • Not Exactly Opera Box, Gambit Cartel #7 at ChessCafe (March 2003)
    Looks at the Blackburne Gambit with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Bg4 4.dxe4 Nd7!? which does not lead to anything resembling Morphy vs. The Count and the Duke.

  • Winging It, Part 4, Gambit Cartel #6 at ChessCafe (February 2003)
    Looks at White's best: 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 e4 4.Ng5 b5!? 5.d3!

  • Winging It, Part 3, Gambit Cartel #5 at ChessCafe (January 2003)
    Continues the discussion of the interesting wing gambit 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 e4 4.Ng5 b5!? by looking at White's better tries.

  • Winging It, Part 2, Gambit Cartel #4 at ChessCafe (December 2002)
    Looks at White's less good responses to 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 e4 4.Ng5 b5!?

  • Winging It, Gambit Cartel #3 at ChessCafe (December 2002)
    Looks at some lines where White or Black play the wing gambit with b4 or b5.

  • Canning the Caro: The Milner-Barry Gambit, Part 2, Gambit Cartel #2 at ChessCafe (December 2002)
    Continues the discussion from the previous article.

  • Canning the Caro: The Milner-Barry Gambit, Part 1, Gambit Cartel #1 at ChessCafe (December 2002)
    In this first article for ChessCafe, Tim looks at Milner-Barry's favorite weapon against the Caro-Kann: the Blackmar-Diemer-like 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.f3!?

  • A Sicilian Surprise, Chess Openings for Heroes at (January 1999), reprinted at
    Excellent and very detailed analysis of the game Svidler-Kasparov, Tilburg 1997, where the champion lost to 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.c3!?
There are also several pieces (mostly featuring deep annotations of classic games with gambit openings) published at not currently accessible via the Internet Archive: The Electronic Campfire #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Chess Tourist Returns

I went into New York City on Saturday and did my Chess Tourist routine. I started out this time at Fred Wilson's chess book shop at the St. Denis, 80 East 11th Street (just around the corner from The Strand), in Suite 334.

The St. Denis (facing East, toward Broadway)

Fred and his cat, showing off classic chess sets.

Fred is always great to talk to and we spent a couple hours together while I browsed his selection of books. I have been urging him to put together a CD of his interview shows from ChessFM (preferably before I take my next long road trip), and he tells me that he finally intends to do so now that he has ended his relationship with ICC and secured control of his shows. He also wanted me to mention that he gives a lecture every third Friday from 7:00-8:30 p.m. in Suite 333, right next door to his shop, which is a comfortable little divan. The price is $15 per person. The next one is July 20th, on the art of the kingside attack. Space is limited, so he asks that you call ahead during his operating hours of Monday - Saturday, 12-7 at 212-533-6381.

Fred also pointed out that I was wrong in my Chess Tourist piece about his having inherited Albrecht Buschke's book shop at the St. Denis. He actually took over his current space before Buschke retired and he did not even get Buschke's merchandise. It's amazing to think that there was once a time when there were two great book shops in the same building. Later that night, I was to learn from Dr. Frank Brady, the current president of the Marshall Chess Club, that the offices of the USCF and Chess Life (of which he was the founding editor) were also once housed in the St. Denis, and that Dr. Brady once helped Marcel Duchamp find space there, where he very likely worked on one of his last pieces, Étant donnés, now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

After Fred's, I went around the corner to The Strand at 12th and Broadway. The selection was not as good as last time, but I did manage to pick up a very inexpensive copy of Andrew Martin's book on the Center-Counter.

The Strand Bookstore (12th and Broadway)

Finally, it was off to The Marshall Chess Club, at 23 West 10th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, where they were having a Swiss.

The Marshall Chess Club

I saw that Jim West published his three best games from the event with the remark: "My only loss came to the birthday boy, international master Jay Bonin, who received his present from me when I hung a piece."

I actually arrived at the club just as his game with Bonin ended and had the good fortune of being invited out with "the birthday boy" and Dr. Brady to celebrate between rounds at a fantastic Chinese restaurant just down the street (near 10th and 6th Ave. if I remember right, but the name escapes me).

IM Jay Bonin

IM Bonin offered me the score to his game with West for the blog (it was a Philidor's Counter Gambit), but his handwriting was too illegible for me to promise that I'd be able to reproduce it. Bonin must have thousands of interesting games like that one which will likely never be seen by anyone but the participants.

It turns out that he is such a regular at this restaurant that when they heard it was his birthday the staff brought out a date pastry with a candle in celebration after our meal (which he barely had time to finish as he rushed off to the last round). A nice way to end my visit.

Bonin blows out the candle...

Friday, July 06, 2007

Questionnaire Tag

Thanks to Blue Devil Knight, there is a questionnaire being circulated among chess bloggers in the form of a game of tag. Atomic Patzer has tagged me, so I guess I'm "it."

I tag DG of the BCC Weblog (he might be best prepared to choose the next victim).

Here are my answers to the interview questions:

1. How long have you been playing chess? Have you played it consistently since you started, or were there lulls in your play? How did these lulls affect your performance?

I always seem to have been aware of chess. My grandparents had an attractive red and white plastic set that I remember playing with long before I would have been able to learn the rules. And I remember my father tuning in to watch at least one game of the Fischer-Spassky match on TV, with Shelby Lyman commenting; I had no idea what they were talking about at the time--but it seemed important, so I remember it. I actually learned the rules of chess in third grade, at school, when one of my teachers allowed us to play at recess and even in the classroom when our other work was done. That would have been around 1973-1974. It was hardly a "Chess in the Schools" program and I think it was actually instigated most by a very bright red-haired kid named Bartholomew (he insisted on going by his full name) whose father was transferred by his company the following year. I still have a recollection of losing to him, as we all did, and being angry about it. I also remember picking up the bad habit of developing with Rook lifts via h4, Rh3, Re3 and a4, Ra3, Rd3, as most kids naturally want to do--as though trying to "get their dukes out" to fight.

I don't think I played again until seventh grade, when I befriended a very bright kid named Tom, who went on later to graduate at the top of our high school class. As he would likely admit, he was a skinny kid and typical "nerd genius" type. So when he beat me at chess--snatching my Rooks with his Bishops before I could even get my dukes out--I was very angry about it. "Who was this skinny kid to beat me up at chess?" Afterward he asked if I had ever read any books on the game.

"There are books written about chess?" I remember asking.

He had several on his shelf that he had inherited from his brothers (he was the youngest of five very smart boys). They included Chess the Easy Way by Reuben Fine, some opening books by I.A. Horowitz, Logical Chess Move by Move by Irving Chernev, and some books by Fred Reinfeld. He let me borrow them, and driven by the competition between us I worked through them very carefully. Soon I was able to hold my own with him and had nearly an even record. Then I discovered the books at our public library and started doing even better. By the time we entered high school, I had read over 20 books, including Tarrasch's The Game of Chess and Fred Reinfeld's Complete Chess Course, and was beating him fairly consistently. After all, while I was studying chess he was studying college math (he would later become a successful actuary).

What's funny is that before I discovered chess, I was not much interested in reading. In fact, at least one of my grade-school teachers told my parents she worried about passing me to the next grade because my reading level was so low. I think it's chess that got me into reading and taught me many of the academic skills I have now.

Around when my friend Tom and I were age 14, our parents began taking us to the Westfield Chess Club, where I quickly was seen as a very strong young player. An old master and chess teacher by the name of Edgar McCormick offered me some free lessons and gave me access to his very extensive library. In my first rated tournament, I had a strong performance and got a rating of 1600. By the time I went to college, I was rated over 2000. In college, though, I played much more haphazardly. Within a few years, I began to lose touch with my chess friends from home and only occasionally looked at chess books. I played in one last tournament -- trying my luck at the U.S. Open which had come to New Jersey (as it is coming again this year). But I had a miserable tournament and dropped out before the halfway mark. That was the last rated event I'd play for many years.

It's hard to believe, but I pretty much put chess away after that. I remember sometimes spending time with The Life & Games of Mikhail Tal and Bronstein's Zurich 1953, which were always my favorite books at the time. But after college came graduate school, and I almost never played or studied chess, except as a rare pleasure (when stumbling upon a chess column in The New York Times, for example).

At the turn of the century, in the year 2000 or so, I started to learn HTML and made my first websites to support my teaching. On a lark, I took an old analysis I had written up of the Urusov Gambit (which had been published my freshman year of college in The Castled King, which later became The Atlantic Chess News) and put it up on the web. It was just a long page of text with some links. But it was still much deeper analysis than anything else I had seen in print. I remember thinking that someone might stumble across it and we'd correspond.

Well, someone did--and pretty quickly too. A player named Max Burkett from Montana was using the line in correspondence and had put together an extensive games database for the Pitt Chess Archive. He came across my site and we began corresponding by email. He told me about his database and urged me to expand my analysis in light of those games. He also told me to get a copy of Fritz and use it to help me analyze more deeply. It took me a year or two to find the time to take up his suggestions. But in the summer of 2002, trying to avoid more important work, I dove in and revamped my website, even doing some library research at the Princeton Library and Cleveland Public Library to help me. My excuse at the time was that by taking up a hobby site, I would be motivated to learn more about web design and web-editing programs (including Photoshop and Dreamweaver). You can basically trace the progress of the site at the Web Archives. I worked on it off and on for about a year and then abandoned it the following summer (about August 2003).

I enjoyed doing the Urusov Gambit System. It seemed to bring together all of my strengths, as a researcher, writer, analyst, chessplayer, and budding web designer. It also got me interested in playing chess again, and I began to study the game and use what I had learned in analyzing the Urusov to analyze some other openings. Within a few years, I had a pretty well detailed repertoire worked out. What's funny is that I really only played against my computer during those years, if I played at all. What interested me most was research and analysis and the game was just a vehicle for exercising those skills.

In 2004, I was approached by a student at Rutgers who was interested in chess and had come across my website. He was interested in playing rated chess and starting up a club at Cook College (where I was on the faculty at the time and could sponsor his club). By the summer of that year, I had decided to join a New Jersey chess club.... And, if you're reading this, you probably know what happened next. The funny thing is it's a bit like coming home again after many years, since I knew many of these guys when I was a kid playing at other area clubs.

2. Aside from playing games, what is your primary mode of training?
If I were training for chess, the first thing I'd have to do is give up blogging.... I really don't do any training since I have no rating or improvement goals. I'm satisfied to remain an Expert player, and if I drop below 2000 you'll likely see me at the World Open or some other big-money class tournament (for which I might actually train a little). Occasionally I'll spend some time with a book of tough puzzles. But mostly I just enjoy researching and writing about chess-related things, especially opening lines. I prefer playing for fun over rated play. And, honestly, I have a lot more fun studying chess than playing it. Studying chess is very relaxing. Playing gets me nervous. Chess is my escape. If I took up serious competitive play, I'd have to get another hobby. And I'd definitely have to stop the blog!

3. What is the single most helpful method of improvement that you have ever used?
I think I learned the most from looking over well-annotated games very closely. I also benefitted a lot from analyzing my games with stronger players. When I was just starting out, I benefitted a lot from reading through all of Fred Reinfeld's books on tactics. Since then, it's mostly opening study and analysis.

4. What is your favorite opening to play as white? As black against e4? As black against d4?
After analyzing it for many years, of course, I feel most at home in the Urusov Gambit and related lines (especially the Two Knights with d4). As Black, I now play 1.e4 e5! and I'm cultivating an extensive repertoire there, which includes the Philidor Defense. As Black against 1.d4, I am trying out three systems: my old-time favorite Chigorin Defense with the Albin Counter Gambit on occasion; 1.d4 Nc6 heading toward the Tango but avoiding a lot of 1...Nf6 crap; and 1.d4 d6 to include the King's Indian, Old Indian, and Philidor by transposition (after 1.d4 d6 2.e4 Nf6 3.Nc3 e5 etc.) But my problem lately is that I'm always discovering something new to distract me--like one day when I visited with Fred Wilson at his bookshop and ended up getting captivated by the Spanish Four Knights of all things!

5. Who is your favorite chess player and why?
That is a very tough one. I actually have not spent a lot of time looking at the games of a single player since I was a kid, when I adored Frank James Marshall and Mikhail Tal--two great tactical swindlers. Occasionally, I have followed the games of Sveshnikov closely, but only because he plays some of my favorite lines. Maybe my
favorite player now is Igor Nataf, who has played some genuinely brilliant and inspired games, such as Nunn - Nataf, France 1999 (which Nunn annotates deeply in one of his books--rather like Spassky applauding with the crowd after Fischer beat him in Game 6). But Nataf doesn't really play any of my openings, so I don't usually seek out his games. I remember quite a few of them, though, because the tactical ideas just run so deep--rather like Marshall's and Tal's games, but a little more accurate and true.

6. What is your favorite chess book?
Generally, whatever I'm studying at the moment is my favorite. And there are so many things I go through. One of the first things I wrote up for the Kenilworth website was a list of my Favorite Chess Books, and that still seems pretty accurate. But I'm really a sucker for opening repertoire books--I go through them like candy. And I like books that have short articles on specific lines. So I like the Secrets of Opening Surprises series, the Dangerous Weapons series, Graham Burgess's 101 Chess Opening Surprises, Leonid Shamkovich's The Chess Terrorist's Handbook, etc. I like being able to read a short article on a line (something you can get through in one or two sittings) and then try it out in a game or add it to my repertoire as a back-up. Of course, they're hardly "desert island" reading like my Favorites list.

7. What book would you recommend for a friend who knows only the rules of chess?
Recently I gave my brother-in-law my copy of David Shenk's The Immortal Game (now in paperback, by the way) which he has really enjoyed. Of course, there is not a lot of real chess in that. If you mean a real chess book, with games and all, maybe Bruce Pandolfini's Kasparov and Deep Blue, which may be one of the best real chess books written for a general readership.

8. Do you play in in-person tournaments? What is your favorite tournament experience?

These days, with lots of work responsibilities and two young children (ages four and one), I can only find time for one serious tournament per year (if you'd call it a "serious tournament"), and that's the U.S. Amateur Team East. I really identify with Glenn Budzinski's classic ChessCafe article, Tournament Chess for the Rest of Us, which is still so true. This past year was my best experience, just playing in the mornings, alternating with a fellow Expert who just played the evening rounds. That way I got to see my chess pals, visit the book stalls, play my very best chess, and still spend much of the Holiday weekend with my family. Plus, we got to play on Board #1 in Round 5 against the guys who ended up getting their pictures on the cover of Chess Life. Ah, if only we had won, that could have been us...

I prefer to visit tournaments rather than to play in them, though I will definitely be doing something at the US Open (maybe a quad or speed event).

9. Please give us a link to what you consider your best two blog posts.
I was going to say, "Just two?" But the truth is, it pretty much is just two: A Chess Tourist in New York City and my series on The Panther. The New York City piece was something I had been planning to do for over a year until I finally got the chance to bop around Manhattan snapping pictures. I like having done it as something of a "public service" post, and I'd love to see other chess bloggers do the same for a city near where they live. But it was also personally pleasurable. It was a really gorgeous summer day and I was doing something I really enjoy, which I get to relive by looking at the photos I took. Looking at the piece now is sort of like looking at a photo album and remembering a great tourist adventure, which is basically what it was. It's also one of my most popular pieces and tends to get lots of hits this time of year. So I'm glad other people appreciate it. The Panther series, meanwhile, does not get many hits and does not seem to have generated any reader interest. But I just love that piece and I really enjoyed doing it, because it pulled together so many skills and interests--of research, design, analysis, cultural critique, and personal story-telling. I did a later piece on the Mad Dog which proved a little more popular, but The Panther is the one closest to my heart.

10. What proportion of total chess time should be spent studying openings for someone at your level?
I don't really know how much time I "should" study openings. Probably a lot less than I do now, since that is pretty much 90% of what I do. If I really wanted to improve, I think I'd have to get a coach and really take a close look at my games and my thought process. Too often, I just make bad decisions. And I should look through more games in "Chess Combat Simulator" or "Solitaire Chess" mode. I know what I should do if I really wanted to improve. But I just enjoy studying openings so much more...

I like the interviews that close with the subject discussing some of his best games. Two of my best I have annotated online: Goeller-Mess, Westfield 1982 and Goeller-Hall, Union County Ch. 1980.

New Jersey Futurity International, July 7-11

Though the US Chess League's season doesn't start until August 27th, The New Jersey Knockouts have set up a blog. One of their first items gives details about the New Jersey Futurity International tournament that begins tomorrow and runs July 7-11 at the Sheraton Parsippany Hotel with rounds at 10 and 4. Visitors are welcome, including to the opening ceremony Saturday at 3:00 p.m., with the first round action immediately following.

The Spanish Four Knights, Part Three

Continuing our series on the Spanish Four Knights, we look at the recent game Najer-Ippolito, World Open 2007, which features a twist on a frequently underestimated way of meeting the Rubinstein Variation with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 (or 2...Nf6 as in the game) 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bb5 Nd4 5.Bc4!?

Several books recommend the apparently simple solution of 5...Nxf3+ as the well-liked New Jersey IM Dean Ippolito plays here. But no one considers Najer's novel response 6.gxf3! when White quickly gets a bind on the light squares and dominates the center and the kingside (thanks to the open g-file). I think you will find the analysis worthwhile if you play either side of this double-edged line, as we consider a wide range of alternatives at every move and examine Black's best response, which is probably 5...c6! leading to an interesting gambit.

Previous pieces on the Spanish Four Knights include A Spanish Four Knights (C48) Bibliography, Sutovsky's Anti-Rubinstein 5.O-O! and The Spanish Four Knights, Part Two.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

2007 World Open

If you are at home today, as I am, and finally have time to look at some chess, I recommend you check out Monroi's 2007 World Open site and follow some games live on the net. Going into the last round, there is a five-way tie for first with Hikaru Nakamura, Leonid Yudasin, Varuzhan Akobian, Alexander Stripunsky and Sandipan Chanda with 5.5/7. I've been trying to follow some of their games and find it good training to challenge myself to find the same moves as the GMs. I'm also looking through early round games to see what I missed. Jim West does a good job of annotating Ippolito-Tanaka from yesterday, which was a great positional win by the New Jersey IM.

Chess bloggers at the event include Daaim Shabazz of The Chess Drum blog, George Duval of Blunder Prone (who is struggling but posted a nice win), and Steve Eddins of Steve Learns Chess.

Gary Lane on the Koltanowski / Max Lange Gambit

In his Opening Lanes column (permanent link here) today at ChessCafe, Gary Lane looks at some games with the Max Lange Gambit (a.k.a. Koltanowski or Rosentreter Variation of the Two Knights Defense or Giuoco Piano, which begins 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.O-O Nf6 5.d4). Most of his analysis follows Lev Gutman's excellent series of articles on the line and on the related Max Lange Attack in Kaissiber #22-27. As a firm believer in the Modern Horowitz Variation of the Max Lange, which Gutman endorses (with reference to my article and a picture of me, which was nice), I was pleased to see that Gutman's analysis is gaining a wider audience and wider acceptance, especially since the gambit with 4.O-O and 5.d4!? has long been in disrepute (despite some excellent discussion of it by Jude Acers).

I would not be surprised to see a general revival of this line, especially at the amateur level. One encouraging sign is that Mihail Marin's very recent and generally excellent Beating the Open Games recommends (in Chapter 8) that Black avoid the "risky" acceptance of the gambit pawn with 5...Bxd4 6.Nxd4 Nxd4 and instead transpose to the regular Max Lange Attack with 5....exd4 (which he calls "The most consistent answer"). If his recommendation begins to prevail, I may well make these lines more central to my repertoire, especially since his treatment of the Modern Horowitz Variation completely overlooks improvements mentioned in my piece and analyzed extensively by Gutman as being in White's favor.

You can read more about Gutman's analysis in Stefan Bücker's piece "The Magic of Move Orders." Or get a copy of his series of Kaissiber articles for yourself before they sell out.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Returned from Vacation

I am just back from vacation in Michigan. Sorry if you have come looking for recent posts, but it's never a good idea to let the world know that you are away from home. Now that I'm back, though, I have a few things to write, including the story of my visit with the current Michigan co-champion, who also happens to be among my favorite chess writers. More to come...