Monday, March 18, 2013

Episode III - Keeping up with the Kardashians

When former World Chess Champion Boris Spassky was asked in an interview whether he preferred chess or sex, he famously replied “depends on the position”.

A few days ago I was checking some chess news websites, just minding my own business, when suddenly I saw something that almost made me choke on my coffee:

Kim Kardashian wants to learn chess. Have we really sunk this low? I guess she got interested in chess when she heard that mating is the objective of the game…

So now the question is: Can Pyre keep up with Kim Kardashian? Of course he can. It may or may not seem that way to him, but over the past month or so I have already seen him make significant progress. Some of his recent thoughts and analyses are evidence of a much better understanding of the game compared to, say, 4 weeks ago.

[b]The ugly truth is that improvement in chess comes slower than improvement in SC2[/b]. I think Pyre once mentioned that he started in Gold League and became a Grandmaster within a few months.  Unless you are a prodigy, making comparable improvements in chess takes much longer.  One of the main reasons is I think mechanics. Even if you can’t play SC2 any “better”, you can always play “faster”. In chess, if you want to play BETTER, you need to play BETTER.

I think one of the reasons why chess is so fascinating to Pyre is that it must be so much easier for him to improve his chess compared to SC2. He already plays SC2 at a very high level, and for him it must be much harder to get the joy of getting better in SC2 compared to chess.
In my experience though I enjoy being good at a game very much, I enjoy getting better at a game even more.

Pyre recently already started showing initial success at offline/over-the-board tournaments. In my next article I’ll probably showcase one of this recent games to highlight some of his improvements.
And I’m gonna make sure he’ll always be better than Kim Kardashian…

The ability to recognize recurring patterns is an important skill of strong chess players. A significant part of my decision making in a chess game is based on intuition and experience rather than calculation and analysis.

For example, in one of my recent games I reached the following position:

I had just played Rook f8-h8 to counter White’s lethal threat Queen e3-h6. Generally speaking my position is a mess, White has a very strong attack and his Knights have two excellent squares on f6 and g5. Whether White’s position is objectively winning is unclear, but from a practical point of view his position is much easier to play than mine.
Now White committed a terrible blunder and played King e1-e2??, undoubtedly to activate his rook on a1. However, after my devastating response Bishop b7-a6 check the game is quickly over because to counter the check White has to either sacrifice his Queen on d3, or move his back on to the 1st rank, which disconnects the rooks again, and after I take on h1 it’s checkmate.

A few days later, I reached the following position in another game:

My opponent’s position is clearly better than mine: he has launched a very strong attack against my King. His Bishops and his Queen are targeting my king side, I was already forced to weaken my pawn shield by playing Pawn g2-g3. Black has just played Pawn h7-h5 with the intention to play h5-h4 to undermine my pawn shield even further and to open the h-file for his Rook.
To counter these very serious threats I had just played Rook a1-c1 to open the c-file, maybe in conjunction with Knight c3-b5 in order to force Black’s Queen off the critical diagonal b8-h2.
My opponent completely mishandled the position and a few moves later we reached the following position:

I don’t need to analyze this position in great detail for you. Suffice it to say that my next very strong move Bishop b2-a3 prompted Black to erroneously sacrifice his Queen to counter the check. Of course he lost the game soon after.

The lesson from these two examples is that I immediately recognized an important pattern in both positions: I had a fianchettoed queen side Bishop, and my opponent’s King was forced to come forward to e2 (or e7).  In these kinds of position I know that the Bishop check on a3 or a6 is usually lethal or at least very unpleasant.

I know this pattern, and when it occurs, I don’t have to calculate much because I’m already familiar with the implications. This also means that I never “overlook” a move like Bishop a3: while beginners have to “find” moves like Bishop a3, I already “know” it’s there and can immediately analyze its consequences when this pattern occurs in a game.

This also distinguishes a chess Grandmaster from a strong amateur player like me. A Grandmaster’s knowledge of typical patters greatly exceeds mine, and in many positions a Grandmaster simply “knows” what to do while I have to think about it.


I want to finish this article with a little retroanalytical problem. Typical chess problems ask you to solve questions like “Find Mate in 3” or “How does White win a piece?” Retroanalysis seeks to answer questions about previous events of a chess game. To solve such problems, you don’t have to be a strong player. Basic logic is all you need. For example, in the diagram below the question is

Has at any point a pawn been promoted in this game? The answer to this seemingly impossible question is surprisingly simple. I’ll post it here in my next article. Enjoy~

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