Tuesday, September 4, 2007

One Jump Ahead

Earlier this summer checkers had been solved. This was solved using what is known as a "weak" solve. It was not a complete tablebase of all the positions, which would be a strong solve. But rather, using a combination of an opening database, deep enough searching to get to the tablebases and significant enough tablebases, they could essentially guarantee a draw in every game.

The process of how this was started is published in a book titled: One Jump Ahead by Jonathon Schaeffer, the computer programmer and researcher that was in charge of the Chinook Project.

While chess and checkers only share an 8x8 board, there are many similarities in how each are programmed. How a program "thinks" about a position.

The whole opening's problem that is oft discussed here, is vital in checkers. What often separates a master from a grandmaster is the ability to deal with unpublished information. Both the master and grandmaster have the entirety of published information at their fingertips, and many games are documented from opening move to draw at the end, with critical moves having been documented with a * so you don't forget. Grandmasters collect cooks, different moves that are perfectly good, but unpublished, so that you have to be dependent on ability instead of move list memory.

This also tells the stories of the elite of the checkers playing universe. From Dr. Marion Tinsley, who according to computers made less than 20 mistakes in his entire tournament career. To Asa Long who one the US championship in 1922 and 1984 a sixty-two year span. A world record according to Guinness. And a remarkable group of characters that had honed checkers to an amazing edge, an edge so fine with a player so perfect, that it drove a researcher to solve the game.

Besides the concept to openings and cooks. The program actually became worse before it became better. Though not documented per se in the book, it is talked about obtusely when Marion Tinsley described the program as not playing as well, even though by every reasonable measure the program had been improved. I personally attribute this to the nature of the game. As the program was improving it was following more and more documented lines. This was dramatically less interesting to the grandmaster who already knew all of this. It was the new lines that had been discovered by an extremely good, but maybe not exhaustive program, that made "checkers fun again" for Dr. Tinsley.

At any rate, and y'all know what a PITA I am when giving reviews, this is oddly enough a real page turner. For those interested in games, and chess, and improvement (who US???), it is a very very good read. A bit pricey, but well worth it.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Masters of Deceit?!?

Andy Soltis published an article today, titled: "Many Teachers, Masters of Deceit"

It is very short, but it reads like a crazed page from time to time here in the Errant's Arena.

It actually gives me hope about tactics training, it puts openings back on the table, (which I suspect, is probably correct), and still doesn't provide any path towards "understanding". The salient points...

September 2, 2007 -- CHESS CHESS teachers are masters of the maxim. For everyone trying to play better, they offer age-old bits of wisdom. Among them:

"To improve, you first must study the endgame. It's the most important part of the game."

"The key to the middlegame is learning the art of long-range planning and strategy."

"To play the opening well is a matter of 100 percent understanding and zero percent memorization. Never memorize."

The trouble with these pious pronouncements is none are true.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Here I go again...

I just love Searching for Bobby Fischer.  While ostensibly it is the Josh Waitzkin story, it does a remarkable job of capturing many many of the arguments and sentimentalities of scholastic chess and even chess in general.   More so than any other chess movie that I have seen.   Unfortunately, I have not read the book, but I think that I must at this point.

I have read, mostly,  Josh Waitzkin's book The Art of Learning.   It is the tale of a remarkable life. And Josh's viewpoint of how he got there.   Namely, through his ability to learn.

It does provide some interesting background from his view that shows up in the movie.  And it provides some interesting background of Tai Chi that I had not known, especially regarding the martial aspect of the discipline, and the competitive aspect.  And as an adult world champion in Tai Chi, his results there are superb.   But...   I got this book to help me in chess.   I was wrong.

It turns out, other than a bunch of parables about events in his life while growing up, it has almost nothing to do with chess at all.  It really doesn't help you learn about chess, and it really doesn't help you learn better about chess.  It pretty much only leads you to the despair that a successful young player can have at chess, and the doubts that can come at the beginning of mastery.  

Well, crap.  These are hardly the encouraging words that a parent needs, or is hoping for.  And it finally dawns on me, that even with the scholastic successes, and the apparent trajectory towards greatness, he stops with an FIDE rating of 2464, and hasn't played a rated US game since 1999.  He provides little help for guidance of a junior, and somehow, the glint of information that we are all hoping for hasn't been attained, and can't be communicated.

Parts of the book were an easy read, some quite difficult, and ultimately, for this reader, I just couldn't slog through it.   I wanted to, I usually really like books of this nature.   I love the movie.   I think I gotta read his Dad's book.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I am it, I suppose...

Pawn Shaman has tagged me...

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 have been playing for about 35 years.   As a kid I knew nothing, and pretty much nothing stuck.  Somewhere in about 10th grade I learned scholars mate, and was starting to get good enough to beat my dad.   I accidently became captain of the chess team at my high-school, and after years of being the nation's best chess team, we miraculously came in second.  I was third board and was a solid d-class player.   D&D came into my existence, and chess left my life.  My first attempt at college was aborted by a young nerds ability to play in real-life, so I joined the Navy.   I came back from the Navy, played on ICC for a little bit, tried some real life chess, and become a c-player, won 50 bucks, and didn't play competitive chess again.  About 10 years later, my son wanted to play chess.  And against my better judgement I have worked to tutor him to become a better player.   After looking around for best methodologies, and coming up with a training program, I had agreed that de La Maza's was by far the best approach, and that blogging about it was part of that.   It has helped a lot in creating clarity and motivation.   It still boggles me what is missing in the world.  But we muddle along.   Ultimately, lulls, for me, have been good.   I have been gone long enough that I am more open to fresh training, and that I have been ready for it each time.  And indeed I have found that each time I approach the game, I have improved 1 Quanta (~200 ELO).  This is true even with the stroke.

2. Aside from playing games, what is your primary mode of training?

Personal Chess Trainer.   But there are many, many other things I do as well.  (Primary, I suppose is a good qualifier, but I don't think PCT represents >51% of my training).

4. What is your favorite opening to play as white? As black against e4? As black against d4?

Currently, and this is because of playing against my son and scholastic players.  I like to play the Italian Opening as white against black e4.  This leads either to two-knights and then Ng5, or Evans gambit with b4.   Against the Sicilian I play Smith Morra gambit.   These are the main white systems.   As Black, I play d6 g6 Nf6 Bg7 0-0.  Pretty much against anything.   This is pretty bad, but it works well as black.

Most games at my level tend not to be decided by traps, but mistakes.  Most of the time, my plans are simply to increase pressure, and to wait for my opponent to err, and then take advantage.   My worse flaw is inattentiveness in won positions.

5. Who is your favorite chess player and why?

Magnus Carlsen.   I am continuously amazed at the developing ability to win against whomever he decides.  I was disappointed in Mexico, and it may not be his time yet, but it will be.   I also like Hikaru Nakamura because he is pretty much willing to throw anything on the table and go with it.

6. What is your favorite chess book?

This is the topic that will get me into the most trouble.  It is a question that I asked of others because I wanted it to be able to find a book that would help me at my level of the game.  At pretty healthy level.   And I have yet to find it.  I have a lot of chess books.  But the ones that have helped me the most, had been Sierawan's books.  Not just because he went to my school, but because they actually have stuck with me the most in providing insight.  But the best book I have seen will be in the next question...

7. What book would you recommend for a friend who knows only the rules of chess?

Without a doubt, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Chess.  For both the player and parent if applicable.   It is by far the best example of modern educational principles in book form, and help to get from knowing the rules to actually playing chess. 

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

Rarely.  They just do not have many tournaments here locally.  As a non-scholastic player, it is hard to find games that are appropriate for my level.  I have played some interesting skittles locally and online, but find I play more against the kids.   There have been some attempts to include adults in kid's tournaments locally, but the kids don't like.  This is different than kid's in adult tournaments.    I wish there was a more active scene locally, but I am going to go play in the park tonight.  I don't know if I have a "favorite" experience.  

9. Please give us a link to what you consider your best two blog posts (on your own blog).

This is a bit of a cheat, as I am only going to give 1 link and refer to several posts.  I have written several posts regarding "Position Tactics" or Opening Tactics that are based on the possibilities that come about based on opening pawn moves and where the pieces are.  This series covers an area that is not at all well covered by either beginning books or more advanced books, but are things that critical to understand to move on.   I think they are my best because they help to contribute to the arena, and highlight the kinds of things that I think are missing.

10. What proportion of total chess time should be spent studying openings for someone at your level?

My second favorite topic, mainly because I have raging ambivalence towards it.  I think the right answer is that it depends on the person.   For some the greatest amount of demonstrable strength will come from openings training.  This comes from real positional training, the conceit of learning something your opponents don't, the motivation of showing off your knowledge, the excitement of taxonomy, and the ease of getting the training.  For most, I don't think this will give you the greatest amount of strength.  I believe that templating and brain programming are the greatest level.  But that will give you the least amount of "understanding" and ultimately, I think that is what many want and strive for.   Unfortunately, there is very very little written to help you understand.  Hikaru doesn't take a second of any strength at all, because he doesn't want to teach them to play chess.   I am convinced that there is indeed, a higher level of understanding that comes at the super-gm level, that is not at all well communicated, or is guarded information.   I think some of it has been written about in the Kasparov's great predecessors series.  But that we have yet to get there, because the final book has yet to be written.   It may be something I will never get to enjoy or share.  And I really do not fully understand why emotionally, even if I do in cold reflection.

Unfortunately I have not been paying attention to the tagging, as I thought it had long passed me by, even more telling than the nags from BDK and untold others I suppose.   If there are any that need to be tagged, or you would like to, please comment.   Hopefully, I will be able to edit this last paragraph quickly to point to a more worthy blogger than I.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

How bad can that opening be?

All of this stuff about openings, and specifically chessloser's game that he won recently against an 1. f3 opener reminded me of a story that had happened about 6 years ago on ICC.

It was prior to 9/11 and the world that we now know.  In that innocent time, when we didn't know just how big a prick Bobby Fischer was.  Just how good a computer program could be.  Many of us were still in the midst of the opening revolution, and we had not finally been in the space where most of us, all of us, maybe should be spending our time, our brain programming time, with tactics.  During this time, there was this "guest" that would show up on ICC.   And simply kick everyone's ass. There was a lot of rumor that this was Bobby Fisher come to life. That it couldn't be a program because it was at bullet chess speed. But, to date we still don't know. 

But in many of the games white opened f3, then let his king travel to f2, e3 and back to f2, essentially giving his opponent all sorts of time odds and ultimately saying openings just don't matter, I don't care if you are Nigel Short.

A sample game, look carefully at white's first six moves!!!!

(1) Guest71 - Beber (2827) [A00]
ICC 3 0 u Internet Chess Club, 2001

1.f3 d5 2.c3 Nf6 3.Kf2 e5 4.Ke3 Bc5+ 5.d4 Bb6 6.Kf2 0-0 7.e3 Nc6 8.a4 a5 9.Ne2 e4 10.Nf4 exf3 11.gxf3 Bf5 12.b3 Qd7 13.Bd3 Rfe8 14.Rg1 Ne7 15.c4 dxc4 16.bxc4 Bxd4 17.Bxf5 Nxf5 18.exd4 Nxd4 19.Nd5 Nxd5 20.Qxd4 g6 21.Bb2 f6 22.Qxd5+ Qxd5 23.cxd5 Rad8 24.Rc1 Rxd5 25.Rxc7 Rh5 26.Bxf6 Rxh2+ 27.Kg3 Ree2 28.Nc3 Rc2 29.Re1 1-0

This was the coverage in the day.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Confessions of an Opening Studier

I don't think I am giving too much away here that hasn't already been said in the past, but I am old.

Back when I first started playing really competitive chess, we had just gotten Commodore Pets in the computer lab.  hmmm... chiclet keyboards in that fancy ABCDE layout!

It would be years before we had Battle Chess, and we could enjoy kicking the crap out of our computers.   I was no David Levy, but a crappy assed D-class player, and no computer could withstand me, not even my fidelity standalone that my parents gave me.   I learned chess the old fashioned way, by playing blitz in smokey cafes and reading dingy old opening pamphlets about crazy-assed openings and checking out books from the library reading about such things like the Ruy Lopez, and the French Defense.  I am so old, that the French defense was considered a staid boring defense, and not a tactical minefield that it is known today.

There were no computers, no Lazlo brick, no Idiot's guide, nothing but the barest guides about forks and skewers, and these nearly incomprehensible endgame guides that every knew were full of errors therefor they would rarely read.   So we hit the opening tomes.   And these were our sole educators.  The only place where we could gain some theoretical understanding. Where we learned different lines and tried to figure out how to take out our opponents by move 7.  All of our advanced knowledge came from these.   I remember Yasser beating everybody by playing the English opening.  Nobody knew anything about what to do if your opponent opens c4.  Nobody studied it, there were no to few books.   Yasser is an extreme talent, but it was clear to me that his opening understanding in the English left him in fine, fine stead against his opponents. 

This is entirely different than the world that my son lives in.  The technological achievements are amazing.  The best playing person in the world is my laptop.  Always available to help review his games.  But never played, because what's the point?  He has PCT to guide him through the process of learning tactical layouts.   These templates in his brain exist without names nor paths of how to get there.   He realizes that there are weaknesses to his training, but has a tough time articulating them, and it is very difficult to find ways to include them in his current regime.   And it is not necessarily clear that this is the best use of his time right now.   He plays the Reti and the Barcza.  Openings that were not even that well known nor played hardly at all, by anyone, in my time.  His path may end as a D class player as well, or may well exceed it.   It is not at all clear it will be due to his talents or his training.  But the world is different.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Do they matter at any level?

There was a very interesting story that was posted on the Rybka forum yesterday and it was a bit relevant to some of the current memes being tossed around on the Knight's blogs lately.

Namely there is a wide held belief that openings simply don't matter much for class play.  This belief was core to de La Maza's central plans. But, it conflicts with both the reality of more opening books are purchased than any other kind, and a large desire by all of us to get better and to find hidden secrets that will score us wins.  We have all done it, some are blogging about it. Many of the lessons from the GM to my son at camp were how to play the Sicilian.   But I also suspect that we all believe it's true, and that it gets in the way of our tactical training in both time, and in allowing our brains to focus on simple basic templating which is known to work, and sort of our raison d'etre. 

Anyways, the position in the picture was the beginning of a a round robin tournament between 6 very very capable engines.   With this move order... 

1. e4 c5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. g3 f5 4. exf5 Nf6.  

With these interesting results...

1 2 3 4 5 6
1 Rybka 2.3.2a mp 32-bit ** 11 11 11 11 11 10.0/10
2 HIARCS 11.2 MP         00 ** 10 11 01 01 5.0/10 19.50
3 Strelka 1.8 UCI        00 01 ** == 11 == 5.0/10 18.00
4 Fruit 2.3.1            00 00 == ** =1 11 4.5/10
5 Naum 2.2               00 10 00 =0 ** =1 3.0/10
6 LoopMP 12.32           00 10 == 00 =0 ** 2.5/10

This is a pretty striking result.  And it may just show, that at any level, it really doesn't matter what the opening is, it matters more how well (tactically?) you play the game.