Category Archives: navel-gazing

Update

It may seem that things have gone quiet here at Chess Book Reviews, but this is not the case. I’ve reviewed four books for print publication (Chess Life and BCM), all of which will appear here in due time.

In bigger news, however, I’ve been asked to become the permanent book reviewer for Chess Life magazine. You will see reviews by yours truly each month in that august magazine, and I’m as pleased as can be for the opportunity. All reviews will naturally appear here as well upon publication.

In the coming days you will _finally_ see a review and discussion of the Stappenmethode. I’ve continued my traversing the Steps, and in a game at my local club, I’m pretty sure that the work bore at least one night’s fruit. Enjoy.

“John from Omaha is on the line…”

Please pardon the slight departure from our normal operations.

Today, if you were listening to the second hour of “On Point,” you heard a very nervous chess book reviewer named John talk about technology and chess in the heartland. If you’ve never been a sap like me who calls into a national radio show, here’s how it works: you sit on hold for what seems like an eternity, heart pounding in your chest as you try to remember what you want to say, and then you’re on the air. You try to say something cogent, or at least comprehensible, and you hope that your less-than-baritone voice comes off ok as it traverses the airwaves. Suddenly your time is up, they move on, and you think, boy, I hope that made some sense.

The reason for my call to the show was the topic: a recent article by Seth Stevenson at Slate on the 2014 Sinquefield Cup called “Grandmaster Clash: One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and nobody noticed.” Not only is the title too clickbait-y for words, but it’s also factually wrong. LOTS of people noticed. Greg Shahade wrote a wonderful rebuttal to the article, and I recommend it to you. What follows are my thoughts, prompted by the show and the article.

1. Why does it seem like “nobody noticed?”

Chess, for better or for worse, is happening on the Internet. One of the first callers talked about how she played chess with her friends on an app called “Chess with Friends.” Right there we see both the blessing and the curse of chess in the Internet age. More people are playing chess – on Yahoo, on chess.com, on ICC, via specialized apps – but they’re doing so online, in private, away from the eyes of others. Chess is hidden from mainstream society, still somewhat stigmatized as a game for geeks, a respite for deviants.

One of the great successes of the St Louis Chess Club is precisely that they have made chess very visible, very public, both in St Louis and on the Internet. They host major, major tournaments, including all of the United States Championships (men, women, juniors) and what is becoming the strongest annual tournament in the world, and they locally advertise the hell out of them. The Club also broadcasts their events on the Internet, for free, with production values so good that Fox Sports Midwest was able to take their footage and put together television shows for cable showing.

So why does Stevenson think that nobody noticed Caruana’s winning streak? It would have been easy enough to get stats on how many people were watching the livestream from the Club. But how many people watched on ICC? on chess.com? on ChessBase.com? played over the games later via The Week in Chess? How many Norwegians tuned in to television coverage of their hero? How many Armenians?

Put simply, I think that the reason it might appear that “nobody noticed” is that chess is not a huge commercial success in the way that poker was before Black Friday. There are not millions of dollars to be made on running or broadcasting chess events, so the media hype is not and will not be the same. That doesn’t mean that people aren’t paying attention. What it means is that chess is not something that can be monetized in the same way that poker was or the NFL is.

What’s more, chess by its nature – being a game of perfect information with a steep learning curve – is not television friendly. What made poker interesting was that every viewer felt, deep down, that they too could be Chris Moneymaker if they got a great run of cards. Poker is a game of skill, but it’s also a game of luck. Chess is pure skill, which is why you won’t see a 1400 player win the Millionaire Chess Tournament next month. Real comprehension and enjoyment of chess requires some enculturation.

This is why, as Yasser Seirawan has said, the future of chess is on the Internet and not TV. People can dip in and out of the livestreams as time and interest allow. They can play over the annotated games from the day’s events asynchronously. Here we begin to run into the problem of monetizing once more. Making money off clicks and views still isn’t a viable business model unless you fold in advertising like Google and Facebook do. If there’s no money to be made, there’s no real sustained media attention in America. So it goes with chess. And I’m actually ok with that, for reasons I’ll discuss below.

2. The Internet and the Engines

I tried to talk about ‘chess technology’ at the top of my comment. What I meant, as noted above, was that the Internet and the chess engines are changing how we learn and play chess. While the Internet makes more of our chess activity hidden, we have vastly more opportunity to play and learn. You used to have to move to NY if you wanted to become a good player. Now, like Kansan GM Conrad Holt (who won the US Open this year), you play online and you take lessons online. No need to move!

The same is true with chess engines. In the On Point segment today Stevenson trotted out the “we still watch Usain Bolt run even though motorcycles are faster” line, and there’s something to that. For me, however, engines further the democratization of chess in that everyone with a modern computer now has access to a Super-GM 24 hours a day.  Nobody plays against their computers anymore unless they’re masochists or they’re being paid to participate in a novelty match. But everyone from beginner to World Champion can check their ideas against the computer’s silicon brain. Everyone can go to YouTube and watch instructional videos from the St Louis Chess Club. The barriers to improvement are dropping. This can only be good for the future of chess.

3. Popularizing Chess

The real task for chess lovers and organizers is to bring chess back out into the public sphere. We have to bring players back into the clubs and tournaments. We have to give them a reason to log off ICC and come back to over-the-board play. How to do that? If only I knew. I do, however, have a few ideas:

– The USCF used to pay Arthur Bisguier to travel the country giving simuls to popularize chess. Perhaps our benefactor Rex Sinquefield might be induced to do the same thing. Put Ben Finegold out on the road, or send Ronen Har-Zvi out on a month-long tour. You can get a lot of attention in local press when you bring a Grandmaster to town.

– Partner with the AARP to promote chess as a ‘brain-game’ defense against dementia and Alzheimer’s. Perhaps the STL Chess Club could host a US Senior Championship along with the Men’s, Women’s and Junior Championships. [Yes, I know this ‘contradicts’ the next point. So be it.]

– Rethink how we market chess to kids. Right now chess is pitched to parents as a way to make their kids smart. They send the kids to chess clubs and tournaments, the kids dutifully participate, and then they drop away from the game. Part of the problem is that we’re only giving purely instrumental reasons for taking up the game, and we’re not successful at inculcating love for the game in the young players. Methods of recruitment (and methods of pedagogy) affect outcomes. (For more on this, have a look at what Richard James has to say on the topic.)

4. Was Caruana’s win streak really that amazing?

Yes and no. Seven straight wins against top-10 opposition is pretty darned good. But keep in mind that this was only a 10 round tournament with a rest day and no adjournments. He could afford to play with max effort in those games, knowing that his playing schedule was short. I think the win streak would have been even more impressive were it in even a 12 or 14 game tournament, where Caruana would have had to calculate winning chances against the need to conserve energy.

What’s more, there are arguments to be made that (a) this was not nearly the strongest tournament of all time, given rating inflation and the non-existence of international ratings before 1970, and (b) that other streaks like Fischer’s in 1963 or 1971 are much more impressive.

5. Do we want more attention?

Perhaps the real question is this: do we want the kind of mass-market, commodified attention that Stevenson assumes as a good? Do we really want tabloid coverage of Nakamura’s outbursts and Carlsen’s modeling gigs?

What I’m asking here is whether or not we shouldn’t deny the premise of Stevenson’s article, which is great as a color piece on the state of modern chess, but (frankly) lousy on understanding why chess is so important to so many of us. Stevenson seems to think that chess needs and deserves the kind of attention that the NFL gets. I disagree.

Chess is valuable in that it teaches players everything that neoliberal society does not. It teaches critical thinking and the need for judgment. It requires sitzfleish. It is an arena in which the necessarily futile search for absolute truth is seen not as failure but as limit-ideal, where beauty is not extraneous but essential.

If we strive to make chess palatable for the masses, we risk losing all of that.

I prefer to be contrarian. I teach chess, think chess, dream chess precisely because it is unprofitable, because it is not quick, flashy, facile. I am always apprenticing myself to it, knowing full well that I will never begin to master it.

So I’m very, very glad to be able to watch chess on the Internet. Many of my fellow chess fans are as well. But I’m just as glad that I’m not watching it on CBS on Sunday afternoons and that there are no tailgates outside the St Louis Chess Center. I’d prefer to keep chess weird.

2014 US Open: Rd 9

The worst game I have played in my adult chess life. I am showing my ass here, but what else can I do?

Other items of possible interest: common sense prevailed for one moment at the Delegates Meeting when the knee-jerk ADMs about the problems at the National Elementary scholastics were defeated. It left the room when we spent 30+ minutes on the wording of the rule which specifies that you must touch the king first when castling. A NY TD introduced a slew of ADMs that would have added rules / TD tips to the rulebook to cover the rarest and most inconsequential situations. That took up another 40 or so minutes.

Everyone has plays a real stinker now and again, but did I have to pay so much money for the honor of doing so here?

At least I have the rest of the day to do something … once the thunderstorm that just rolled through passes.

I finished at 4/9 and I will lose dozens of rating points. A recap may follow eventually. Or not. Whatever.

2014 US Open: Rd 8

It is both a blessing and a curse to serve as a Delegate (pdf of Delegate’s Call) to the United States Chess Federation. On the one hand, it ‘gives me a reason’ to come to the US Open. I even get a small bit of financial support from my state association.

On the other, I have to sit through the meeting.

I’m told that meetings in years past were just painful, especially during the years of the Polgar wars. This year’s meeting, unlike last year’s, stretched into a second day. (I’m writing these words on that second morning right now.) But like last year’s meeting, this one has been mainly palatable, with the transmission of information flowing well and the embarrassing speeches from the floor at a minimum.

*Note that I reserve the right to revise these words after ADMs 14-32 through 14-34, which deals with the debacle at the National Elementary in Dallas this spring, and for which discussion is about to begin.*

The USCF is in a good place right now. The transition to 501c3 status is complete, opening doors to new fundraising and requiring the USCF to begin to rethink and reimagine its role in American chess. We have a new Executive Director who seems both competent and enthusiastic. Our financial status is better than it has been in the recent past, but it will be stressed with the inclusion of two international team events (Olympiad and World Teams) in the next fiscal year. And the executive board actually functions with the best interests of the membership in view. Someone pinch me.

There were, of course, a few uncomfortable moments. The motion which was a thinly veiled plea from a Delegate to let him work at national scholastic events? That was embarrassing. The near-hour spent talking about the US Open time control, based on experience in two and three day events, all of which is less-than-pertinent to the only American one-a-day in existence? So frustrating.

My round eight game was against a nine year old from Florida rated just south of 1500. Great. Just what I want when I’m having a rough tournament! I sat down to play, thinking that I should just try to keep the tactics to a minimum and use my superior intellect and education to grind the kid down. And then I blew open the center on move 12.

The power of the bishops told, and I won the game. Like many ill-educated children, Reddy refused to resign. So I played it out, and right at the point where mate was imminent, he resigned.

Hey kid, if you read this: (1) making me play it out is rude. I’m not a six year old who will stalemate you when I have nearly two hours on the clock. (2) If you’re going to make me play it out, let me deliver the mate. I know it’s not your fault, but your parents and teachers have failed you by not teaching you manners and decorum.

</soapbox>

Curious fact: this week at the Rosen Center and the surrounding area, there have been (at minimum) the following groups meeting:

Most notable have been the large numbers of young pageant ladies wandering about all week, besashed and bedazzled, both the aspiring Teen candidates and the current Miss America state crownholders. I saw just about every state, but not once did I see a Miss Nebraska – until last night.

Check out the pictures from yesterday, which include Jim Tarjan’s postmortem after his round 8 draw, and my picture with the 4th place finisher in the MAO Teen, Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Morgan Holen. Omaha represent!

2014 US Open: Rd 6, 7

I took a bye for round 6, leaving most of my Friday open.  I saw my good friend Abhinav Suresh, the NE representative to the Denker, along with his father in the morning, but as I had an early lunch scheduled, I had to pass on breakfast.

In an earlier post I alluded to the fact that I had undertaken a project to collect and preserve games from this year’s US Open. I think it is a scandal that there is no longer a bulletin service at the US Open. I think it is a scandal that the only preservation of games played is via Monroi. Many of the top players do not like to use the devices, and there are only so many devices to go around. Some weeks ago I contacted the event organizers and asked that I might make an effort to sort through the scoresheets and save what games I could.

The idea was twofold. First, I would encourage all players to e-mail me their games after the event for inclusion in a crowdsourced database. Flyers are up near the pairing sheets, the results sheets, and next to the scoresheet dropbox. I had business cards printed up to be distributed at each chess board before round 9.

I also planned to sort through scoresheets, sift out the top 20 boards from each round, and photocopy them for input into ChessBase. The organizers – Franc Guadalupe, Jon Haskell, and Alan Losoff in the backroom – have bent over backwards to accommodate this windmill tilt, and I would like to thank them publically. What I learned yesterday morning sifting and sorting was that my original plan would not work. Many of the yellow carbon copies of game scores would not photocopy. So the organizers agreed to ship me the scores, making my life much easier.

Lunch was had at Emeril’s Orlando with my friend John Watson. Being the fan of NOLA food that I am, Emeril’s was kind of a ‘gumbo patch’ for my NOLA addiction, and it served its purpose nobly. The trip out to the CityWalk was, if I am honest, disturbing. The sprawl of tourist sites shocked my Midwestern sensibilities, and I couldn’t understand how all of them – all the hotels, all the restaurants, all the waterslides – could make money. Maybe the economy isn’t as bad as everyone says it is.

I got back to the Rosen Center Hotel just in time to make part of the Publications Committee meeting, which was a bit of a shambles, and the Chess Journalists of America meeting, which was not. Injecting new life into a moribund organization takes time, and the CJA is transitioning. A few new initiatives were mentioned, and the Chess Journalism Awards were also announced. The home team was sadly shut out in all three categories for which it was nominated. Oh well – I’ll just have to work harder and win next year!

My round 7 game was against Steve Kuzma of Texas, who I learned was a former (and perhaps future) Husker like myself! I managed to win the exchange on move 15 and converted the point, although not without some difficulty.

This game was a good example of where my chess is at these days. I saw his idea on move 13, and nearly immediately saw the refutation at move 15. This kind of brute tactical idea is something that I think has improved in my game, and I attribute that mostly to the work with the Stappenmethode workbooks. I am stumbling, however, in positional areas. I’m too willing to eat a pawn and try to hold on. And I think I underestimate passed pawns while overestimating the bishops. The drive to improve never ends.

As I write these words, I am sitting in the Delegates Meeting, ‘enjoying’ the goings-on. More on that (with some pictures) tomorrow.

2014 US Open: Rd 4, 5

This was not a good day for me.  Well, not chess-wise, anyway.

My Thursday began with a visit with an old friend who I’ve not seen since my wedding some years ago.  This was lovely.

My round four opponent, Theodore Biyiasis, handed me a deserved defeat on the the Black side of the McCutcheon. I accepted a gambit pawn and failed to absorb the pressure.  After the game, we had a fruitful post-mortem and I got to speak a bit with Ruth Haring, current USCF President, while we located a set for analysis.  Both the post-mortem and the chat with Haring made up for the lost against the 2000+ Biyiasis.

In round five I lost, mainly through self-inflicted actions, against Alex Little, a 1630-ish player from Georgia. I got a dream position and then thoroughly misunderstood the lay of the land, giving up two minor pieces for a rook, a pawn, and the phantom of the initiative. By the time I understood that I stood worse, it was too late, and I folded like a house of cards. Kudos to the winner, but this one was on me.

As the night wore on, I had a few drinks with friends, and ended up meeting the coming scion of a salacious publishing empire at the bar.  He is in town for LeakyCon, the end-all of Harry Potter cons, and we traded stories about our respective events for a time. It’ll make for quite a tale for our friends back in Omaha.

Here are the games with light annotations.  I’m trying to avoid getting too deeply into analysis while the event goes on, preferring to focus on rest and socialization.  (I have even cut back on the opening prep after last year’s experience.) Today I attended the Publications and CJA committees, and my round 7 game is tonight. Let’s hope that this Lazarus can arise and play decent chess once more.

2014 US Open: Rd 2, 3

After a decent night’s sleep – decent, not sufficient! – I awoke to breakfast with Nebraska’s brightest young female chess player and her mother.  I took a quick jaunt to the Whole Foods to find coffee filters for my Hario V60 pourover, visited the bookstore with Jacey and her family,  and meandered a bit after they left for shopping and their flight home.

(Pro tip: if ever you forget to bring your special V60 filters with you on a trip. you can jerry-rig Melitta #4s and still brew your delicious, non-hotel coffee.  Don’t say I never did anything for you.)

Let me say something first about the bookstore, run this year (as last) by Chess4Less and the Rochester Chess Center. These guys do a great job stocking books, equipment, and swag. They are on-site for hours and hours, answering questions, suffering fools gladly, and letting bloggers like me take pictures.  Lots of them are provided in a link below.

As part of my quest to preserve the game scores from this tournament, I also dropped by the Director’s Room. The Director’s Room is where pairings are done and where the gruntwork of running a big tournament like this takes place.  I was tickled to learn that USCF directors have named their computers after world champions.

After a quick bite to eat, I dropped by the Scholastic Chess Committee meeting at 2pm. There was a bit of a kertuffle in Dallas this year at the National Elementary School Championship, as a team from WA were admitted to a section for low rated played for which they were dramatically overqualified.  Their USCF ratings did not represent their actual strength, while their NWS ratings (local to the NW) did. Naturally, when they won the event, things got ugly. Chess parents are about as delightful as stage parents.

So there has been a push among certain verbose members of the USCF community to make radical changes to procedures for dealing with foreign rating systems.  As I am the Nebraska delegate to the USCF, I thought I should learn about this issue and thus attended the Scholastic meeting.

What a mistake.

The meeting was filled with petty, backbiting nonsense from some of the ‘leading’ players in American scholastic chess.  One eminent figure repeatedly whined that no one contacted him to access his vast knowledge at key moments. (Nevermind the fact that this eminent fellow is no longer on the the Council, etc.) Another started to shout – literally – because he had to have the last word when his alleged ‘facts’ were corrected by someone with first-hand knowledge of a specific matter.

I think institutional memory is invaluable, but man, the USCF needs some new blood in a desperate way.

I managed to grab a quick nap and eat before my round three game.  As I took a half-point bye for the afternoon game, I started with 0.5/2.  My opponent was a plucky 11 yr old from Florida, and I managed to defeat him without too much difficulty.

In other news, Jim Tarjan drew the top rated player as he continues his comeback to tournament chess, and John Watson won his game to take his score to 4/5.

As promised, here are about 60 pictures from Wednesday!