Category Archives: navel-gazing

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!

2014 US Open: Rd 1

I caught a 6:40am flight from Omaha to Chicago to Orlando, arriving in town at about 1:30pm.  I had hoped to sleep on the flight, as I awoke at about 5am and slept fitfully before that, but could only doze on the first leg and struck out on the second. I’d never considered it before, but there are a LOT of kids on fights to Orlando, and more than one decided that mid-flight was the time to sing us all the songs of their people.  Oy.

After picking up my car, I headed over to the playing site.  The Rosen Centre Hotel is a very big place, and there are two or three large convention type events going on at once.  Besides the chess, I have seen some kind of Harry Potter event, a meeting of the Tuskegee Airmen (wow!), and various parts of the Miss America Outstanding Teen pageant.  Chess players and beauty queens.  Gotta love America.

Between 3 and 7, when rd 1 began, I wandered around a bit and got the lay of the land.  The bookstore is impressive.  (More on that later.) The playing hall is tremendous. There are lots of kids playing bughouse and blitz everywhere you look. And ICC is on-site, handing out free memberships to players in the Denker, Barber, and NGIT. Some 20 year ICC members (ahem) might also have gotten themselves a six month extension after banter with the on-site rep…

My round one game was against a young expert from Cleveland, OH named Zane Eisen.  I think I was better after 15 moves, but got too ambitious and missed a shot around move 25.  My attempts at complicating were for naught, and Eisen collected the point after time control was made.  We had a good post-mortem, and Al Lawrence dropped by to say hello. Al, former Chess Life editor and a Lincoln native, is one of the good guys in American chess, and it’s always good to see him.

As I am playing in the six-day, I took byes in rounds two and six so as to minimize my having to play two games a day.  So today I had breakfast with Nebraska’s NGIT player Jacey Tran and her mom, made a quick run to Whole Foods for coffee filters, and met up again with the Trans in the bookstore.  Later I’ll take some pictures during rd 2 of the six-day and I’ll also begin the work of my US Open games project, about which more will be said in a later post.

US Open 2014: Preparation

Things may seem to have gone quiet here at Chess Book Reviews, but this is not the case.  Much has been afoot behind the scenes, most notably the drafting and submission of a longer-than-usual review to Chess Life on opening videos.  I’ve been watching a lot of video from a number of providers, including ICC, chess24.com, chesslecture.com, chess.com and Chessbase.  Combine that with a lovely trip to see family and friends, and it’s not hard to see why there have been relatively few reviews in recent weeks.

In three weeks time I make my second appearance at the US Open.  Attentive readers will recall that last year I ‘live-blogged’ my experience and games there, and it is my intention to do so again.  I began last year’s bloggery with a description of what I’d been doing to prepare.  I will do so again in this post.

My chess has been miserable this past year.  After an abysmal showing at the Nebraska State Closed Championship, I decided that I had to do something radical to improve my game.  That radical step was, in truth, six steps – the six steps of the Dutch Stappenmethode (available in the States at Chess Steps and in an Amazon storefront) program for learning chess.

I will give an in-depth description and review of the Steps in the near future, but for now, let me say that the idea of the Steps is to offer users a systematic course for learning and improving one’s chess.  It is designed for children – my wife, in fact, asked me why I was so busy with children’s workbooks at the start of my project – but I find it equally ideal for the adult self-learner.  I have been busy solving all of the puzzles, including those in the Plus books, since the spring, and am now in the midst of Step 4.  My idea was to finally learn the basic grammar of chess, seeing as I, like most Americans, had a rather slapdash chess education.  I think it’s helping, but it’s too early to know what the long-term benefits (if any) will be.

I will continue moving through the Steps as I prepare for the US Open, and I will also be looking at a couple of other books, namely Chess Training for Post-Beginners by Yaroslav Srokovski and Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual by Mark Dvoretsky.  Dvoretsky’s book is a classic, but Srokovski’s book is new, and it will also (not coincidentally) be half of the subject of a review in Chess Life by yours truly later this year.

I will also try to get some practice in, both in set endgame positions against the computer and in solving middlegame problems on a board.  The middlegame problems will come from Krasenkow’s new book Finding Chess Jewels: Improve your Imagination and Calculation.  The endgame positions will come from Dvoretsky and from Aagaard’s GM Prep: Endgame Play.

What about openings?  Openings are not such a big part of my preparation this year, and for a couple of reasons.  I did a lot of opening work for the Nebraska Closed, and I did just watch a lot of videos on the opening.  Mainly I hope to review what I already play and fill in gaps where needed.

So ‘tune in’ during the Open for daily updates, and watch the British Chess Magazine later this year for a report by this foreign correspondent on the event.  And stand by for some new reviews before the Open!

The Book of the Year?

Smith, Axel.  Pump Up Your Rating: Unlock Your Chess Potential.  Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2013.  ISBN 978-1907982736.  PB $29.95.

In a year where chess fans have been blessed with a multitude of great books – Ivan Sokolov’s Sacrifice and Initiative in Chess immediately comes to mind, as does Bronznik and Terekhin’s Techniques of Positional Chess and the Aagaard Grandmaster Preparation Series   – International Master Axel Smith might well have written the best among them.

Smith’s Pump Up Your Rating is, in truth, two books in one.  The first half of the book is an advanced course in chess strategy and thinking.  The second is a tested and thoughtful guide to chess training and improvement.  Were either half sold on their own, they would be worth your purchase.  As things stand, this book is a must-buy for the improving chess player and – especially – for the player who isn’t improving, but would like to.

The first two chapters of Part I (“Positional Chess”) discuss two very difficult elements of chess mastery.  Chapter One, entitled “No Pawn Lever – No Plan,” introduces readers to the role played by pawn levers or breaks in positional play.  Smith argues, through examples from Agrest’s play, that in the absence of chronic weaknesses, it is pawn levers that help to determine plans and direction of play.  “If there is neither a weakness, nor an achievable pawn lever to play for,” Smith writes, “[…] it’s difficult to find a good plan.  That’s why pawn levers are the first think to look for when creating a plan.” (42)

Smith takes Ulf Andersson’s games as his model in Chapter Two (“Fair Exchange is No Robbery”).  Here we are lead through the different types of exchanges and material imbalances, and we are given thematic examples of how to play such imbalances properly.  It has recently dawned on me – particularly after watching one of John Watson’s games at this year’s US Open – that one of the marks of chess excellence is the ability to unbalance positions to one’s advantage.  This chapter is one of the finest explanations of this topic that I’ve seen.

Chapters Three “(“Auxiliary Questions”) and Four (“Calculation”) deal with chess thinking and proper calculation.  In Chapter Three Smith offers a list of questions that players might ask themselves as they analyze positions.  Among the most important of these is whether or not the position is critical, meaning that “a decision is difficult and can’t be taken back.” (118)  While I’m not convinced that a checklist of questions is really practical during over-the-board play, Smith’s questions show us how to suss out the essentials of any given position.

Chapter Four follows in the tradition of earlier works by Kotov, Buckley, Tisdall, Nunn and Aagaard, outlining a theory of how best to approach calculation.  Smith is generally skeptical of Kotov’s famed ‘tree of analysis,’ but argues that some structure of calculation is necessary.  He takes the best from multiple authors and sources, and in the end I think he offers a very well considered method of structuring our calculative efforts.  The chapter, in my opinion, stands up to the best efforts in the genre.

As useful as I found Part One of Pump Up Your Chess, Part Two was, frankly, even more impressive.  Here Smith offers a full-blown training program for chess improvement, a program that helped Smith jump from expert to IM in just over two years.  Now, data is not the plural of anecdote, and we should not judge Smith’s prescription solely from its success in his own practice or that of his talented students.  How does it look to the class player?

The training program involves four key components: (1) analyzing your games and making a ‘list of mistakes;’ (2) using a De la Maza-esque program to study tactics; (3) doing serious opening work via the creation of ‘opening files’ in ChessBase; and (4) mastering approximately 100 key theoretical endgames.  Clear goals are to be set and chased, and Smith repeatedly argues that improvement is most likely when players have training partners.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of Smith’s book is that it contains, so far as I know, the first system for chess training that integrates chess software and engines.  Authorities since Botvinnik have held that self-analysis of games is a necessary condition for real improvement.  Smith’s program for self-analysis in Chapter Five adds two key conditions to this task.

First, he explains why players should not (initially) analyze their games with the help of our silicon friends.  We don’t have access to Houdini during the game – unless our name is Ivanov, of course! – so we should get used to analyzing with the engine switched off.  After we check our analysis with our training partners and finally the computer, we are instructed to make a ‘list of mistakes’ derived from our analyses.  The list is to be updated after each tournament, with the goal of eradicating as many of the typical mistakes as possible.

The discussion of opening study in Chapter Seven is more enlightening yet.  Here Smith describes his method for creating opening files, an example of which is available from the Quality Chess website.  We are admonished to approach opening study as human players, to moderate our use of the engines, to analyze human-looking moves, and to annotate key positions with our own words and not just with Informant signs.  A slew of tips and tricks for ChessBase use are scattered both here and in an appendix, many of which will be new to even the power user.  (I’ve been using ChessBase since its DOS days, and I learned a lot here.)  The discussion of preparation also warrants repeated reading.

To study tactics, Smith borrows from his friend Hans Tikkanen and prescribes a two-tiered approach.  Players should first go through basic motifs and themes.  After that, they should select a set of mixed theme problems and solve them repeatedly until they can run through the set quickly and without mistakes.  This second part, which resembles the infamous De La Maza program for improvement, is not uncontroversial.  Still, Smith makes a case for his recommendation, and even those unconvinced by the need for repetition will find much here to study.

I’m also less convinced by his method for endgame improvement.  Here, Smith says that you learn endgames by playing them and then analyzing them afterwards.  There are also approximately 100 theoretical endgames to memorize, all of which Smith provides in pgn format at the Quality Chess website, and four of which – Q&P vs Q, QvR, ‘short-side’ R&P, and R&P where the king is cut off – are analyzed in Chapter Eight.  It suffices, Smith argues, to study these theoretical endings only once, after which they need only be looked at once a year.  From my perspective, this approach seems impractical, especially for the class player.  Some Shereshevsky or Muller & Pajeken is useful insofar as they teaches a feel for endings and for strategic chess more generally.  The feel is the hardest thing; Philidor can be memorized, but becoming a good endgame player is more than just getting to theoretical positions that we’ve seen before.

These are, of course, minor concerns when set against the overwhelming value of Smith’s book.  Pump Up Your Rating is among the best books of its kind, offering its readers a training program that takes advantage of chess software and engines while not being stultified by them.  It leads its readers through some elements of chess strategy that aren’t often treated in the literature, and it does so with skill and aplomb.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Or, to put it differently: recently I learned that I qualified for the Nebraska State Closed Championship.  I will be the lowest rated player in the field, and I have a lot of work to do on my game.  Pump Up Your Rating is the blueprint I’m using for that work.  That’s how highly I think of this book.

Eighty percent of success is showing up

After a few days detoxing from my descent into US Open madness, I’m back in the saddle.  A new review should be up by the weekend, and a retrospective and diagnostic of my games from the Open shortly thereafter.

I thought that some backlash might be coming from my winning the CJA ‘Best Chess Blog’ award, given the nature of the blogosphere and my candor regarding its occurrence.  But even I was a little surprised at the speed with which the backlash came.

Enter Mark Weeks, a prolific chess blogger based in Belgium.

Weeks is peeved, it would seem, because there were originally no entries in the blog category as of July.  I relate the story of how I met Niro and Roland (thanks for reminding me to fix the typos, Mark) and how they came to know of my blog in a post I wrote mid-event.  I also describe my surprise and embarrassment upon learning of my win; my audible response was, I believe, “you’ve got to be kidding me.”

Here’s the thing about Weeks’ post that irks me.  It’s based on a lot of innuendo and conjecture.  He thinks it odd that I reviewed a book that won the CJA award, hinting at some vast conspiracy while lacking any evidence whatsoever.  (Is he the first ‘booker,’ a new variant on truthers and birthers?)  He links to my ‘About’ page without a word as to its content or lack of spelling mistakes.  He says nothing about the quality of anything I’ve written, save to point out typographical errors.  His remarks regarding my blog are nothing but potshots, and his consummatory congratulations ring tinny and hollow.

The CJA board read my work from stem to stern, and they deemed it worthy of an award.  Is it possible that there were more deserving blogs out there?  Absolutely – but none entered.  I ran into some people who read my work, judged it, and rewarded it.  Eighty percent of success, as Woody Allen (maybe) said, is showing up.  I showed up.  I’m proud of the award, and I’m proud of my work on this blog.

There are certainly problems with the CJA as it stands.  The organization is moribund, and the Awards process needs a dramatic overhaul.  Here again, I’m showing up.  I’ve joined the CJA and have offered to join the Awards Committee to help fix what’s broken about the process.  I’ll also be nominating my blog for the 2014 Best Chess Blog award as soon as nominations open, because I’m convinced that my work here stacks up against anything else in the chess blogosphere, American or otherwise.

Rd 9: A Deserved Hiding

I got to sleep in on Sunday, since the Delegates – miracle of miracles! – had managed to finish up all their business on Saturday.  After a late breakfast with John Watson, I tried to clear my head and get ready to play some chess.  The round time, as is common, moved up on the final day to 3pm.  My opponent came ready to play.  I did not.  This game is the result.

http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2013/8/7/Game32095973.html

Multiple flaws in my game are on display in this little disaster.  My bishop belongs on e7 and not c7; I got carried away with ideas of pushing …e6-e5 and breaking up White’s center, but even there, the bishop should be on e7 to hit the c5 pawn.  My calculative abilities, if one can call them abilities, were shocking.  I just don’t seem to have the sense of danger that I should.  If any readers have ideas on how to train that, I’d be much obliged.

The silver lining is that while Team Hartmann had a miserable event, Team Watson had a very good one.  John went 6-1 (plus two half pt byes in rds 1 and 2) to finish at 7-2 and grab a share of the U2400 money.  More important than the money was the quality of his play, which was very strong indeed, and all the more impressive given his time away from the competitive arena.  There is only one of his games in TWIC, but it’s a fairly good one, and well worth your time to track down.  Below is a picture of John analyzing with his rd 9 opponent and other future members of the US Chess Olympic team.

DSCN7706