I Wanna Be a Paperback Writer!

by admin on April 11, 2019

Coming to the U.K. on May 2!

Last week I got a package in the mail from England: ten copies of the paperback edition of The Book of Why! The occasion brought to mind that goofy old Beatles song, Paperback Writer. In fact, I’ve been waiting quite a long time to be a “paperback writer.”

My first book, The Big Splat, never sold enough to make it to paperback. My editor at Wiley told me that to be even considered for a paperback, it would have to sell 8000 copies. Ten years later it sputtered out and died at around 7500 copies sold. 

My second book, The Universe in Zero Words (now renamed The Story of Mathematics in 24 Equations) did make it to paperback, but under somewhat odd circumstances that make it hard for me to think of it as a true success. I’ll spare you the full details, but Elwin Street (the London publisher) took back the rights from Princeton University Press so that they could publish a paperback in the U.K. The book now has no U.S. publisher. It was more bad news than good news, in my opinion, because I really liked publishing with Princeton University Press.

And that brings us to The Book of Why, which has been all good news, all the time! Penguin UK, the British publisher, is releasing a paperback version on May 2. Note that this edition cannot be sold in the U.S. If you go to Amazon and try to buy it, and give them a U.S. address, I don’t think they will sell it to you.

So I am now going to be a paperback writer twice over in the U.K., but I am still not a paperback writer in the U.S.! According to our editor at Basic Books, the U.S. publisher of The Book of Why, their paperback version is scheduled for release in February 2020. I probably should not say too much about the reasons, but if any of you are wondering whether the sales are weak, the answer is no — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The book continues to sell very well, and the editor is very happy with it. But as I said, the decision on when to go to paperback is a business decision, and the publishing business has changed in some obvious and less obvious ways. It’s no longer automatic that a successful book will come out in paperback after a year in hardback.

Which means, for my friends and readers in the U.S., if you’ve been saying, “I’ll wait for the paperback,” you probably shouldn’t. February 2020 is a long time away. I would recommend either buying the hardback, or taking a trip to England (which I strongly recommend anyway!) and buying the Penguin paperback.

A peek inside.
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OMG! I Played Capablanca’s Move!

by admin on April 9, 2019

You know the move I’m talking about. Or if you don’t know, you SHOULD know. Ossip Bernstein versus Jose Raul Capablanca. Moscow 1914.

Position after 29. Rxc3. Black to move.

FEN: 3r2k1/p4ppp/1q6/8/8/2R1P3/P3QPPP/6K1 b – – 0 29

In this harmless-looking position, Bernstein (White) was surely expecting Capablanca to play something like 29. … Qb1+ 30. Qf1 Qxa2, when White should be able to hold a draw. But Capablanca played a shot that should be the dictionary definition of “bolt from the blue”:

30. … Qb2!!

Amazingly, White has no way to simultaneously defend the rook and prevent checkmate. For example, 31. Qe1 Qxc3!, or 31. Rc2 Qb1+ 32. Qf1 Qxc2, or 31. Rd3 Qb1+ 32. Qf1 Qxf1+ 33. Kxf1 Rxd3, or 31. Qd3 Qa1+ 32.Qf1 Qxc3, or … you name it, Black has an answer.

One hundred five years later — yesterday in fact — I got to the position below in a game against my computer. Shredder had Black, and it was set to a rating of 2288, which I have found to be a good level where it is hard to beat but not impossible.

Position after 48. … Qc8. White to move.

FEN: 2qr3k/6pp/3r4/1p3pP1/p6P/P1P2Q2/1P2R3/2K1R3 w – – 0 49

Shredder has just played 48. … Qc8 to stop the back-rank checkmate. Something about the position gave me the sense that there might be a combination in the air. Even though the back rank is defended for the moment, Black’s queen looks overloaded. Black’s rook at d6 is not able to help atall with back-rank defense.

The first moves I considered were 49. Qe3 and 49. Re7, but although they were promising, they didn’t look decisive to me.

That’s when a voice in my head said, “Wait, isn’t this kind of like the Capablanca position?” And I played:

49. Qb7! …

As in the Capablanca game, Black can’t take the queen because of Re8+ followed by mate. But I didn’t just make this move for show; I have some serious threats. The main threat, of course, is 50. Qxc8 followed by mate. Meanwhile, I’m also threatening Qf7 (the dream square for my queen) as well as the prosaic Qxb5.

Shredder played the move that I thought was forced.

49. … h6

Actually this move is not forced, and Rybka after the game pointed out 49. … Kg8, which defends f7 and also escapes from the back-rank mating net. I completely missed this! Nevertheless, White is winning after 50. Qxb5 Qd7 51. Re8+! Rxe8 (51. … Kf7 52. R8e7+ is also hopeless) 52. Rxe8+ Kf7 53. Qxd7+ Rxd7 54. Ra8. White wins a second pawn and the rook gets back just in time for defense. A really thematic variation is 54. … Ke6 55. Rxa4 Ke5 56. Rd4! (diagram)

Position after 56. Rd4 (analysis). Black to move.

FEN: 8/3r2pp/8/4kpP1/3R3P/P1P5/1P6/2K5 b – – 0 56

If you’re not sure, you should really play out a few moves after 56. … Rxd4 57. cd+ Kxd4 58. Kd2 to convince yourself that White’s connected passed pawns easily trump Black’s protected passed pawn. If Black doesn’t trade rooks, ,then White’s rook at d4 just dominates the board, and the armada of three connected passed pawns will decide.

Okay, now back to the game.

Position after 49. … h6. White to move.

FEN: 2qr3k/1Q4p1/3r3p/1p3pP1/p6P/P1P5/1P2R3/2K1R3 w – – 0 50

50. Qf7! …

Threatening a check on e8. This time I believe Black’s reply is forced:

50. … Kh7

51. Re7 Rg8

52. R1e6 …

I have to admit, after this I thought the game was just over. I was expecting 52. … Rxe6 53. Rxe6 (threatening Rxh6 mate) Kh8 54. hg, when White’s attack will not be denied. But Shredder came up with a move I hadn’t counted on.

52. … Qd8!

Position after 52. … Qd8. White to move.

FEN: 3q2r1/4RQpk/3rR2p/1p3pP1/p6P/P1P5/1P6/2K5 w – – 0 53

Whoa! All of a sudden Black is threatening mate in two, so it’s do or die for White’s attack.

There is probably more than one way for White to win here, but I found what I think is a really neat solution.

53. g6+! Kh8

54. Qxg8+! …

That’s right, my second queen sac in five moves! If Black plays 54. … Kxg8, then 55. Re8+ Qxe8 56. Rxe8 mate is a very pure checkmate. So Shredder played

54. … Qxg8

55. Rxd6 …

Black can’t defend the back rank and his queen is way too far from my king to force a perpetual check. For example, 54. … Qa8 55. R6e6 Qh1+ 56. Re1 and White can start celebrating. Instead the computer goes into material giveaway mode.

55. … b4

56. R6e6 Qf8

57. Re8 Kg8

58. Rxf8+ resigns

My combination is not quite as clear-cut as Capa’s, but I still love the idea of Qf3-b7-f7 and I love the second queen sac, 53. Qxg8+. I also think that this may be the first time when knowing chess history enabled me to find the winning move. I readily admit that I do not know as much chess history as I should, so this was a rare treat.

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Two Landmarks for Mike Splane

April 5, 2019

Mike Splane, one of my regular readers and the inspiration for countless posts on this blog, has often asked why I often identify my younger opponents as, “John Doe, the #17 14-year-old in the country.” Why don’t I refer to older players like him the same way? Well, there are three reasons. It recognizes the […]

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Blind Pigs and other Life Lessons

March 29, 2019

I have some questions for all the chess coaches out there. Do you ever play games against your students? Do you think it is ever worth playing a bad move on purpose against them, to give them a learning opportunity or a chance to win? Do you think it is appropriate to coach them during […]

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The Unbreakable Pin and the Long March

March 23, 2019

This week I played a game against the computer that featured two of my favorite strategic themes. The unbreakable pin is, of course, well known. The second concept, the Long March, is one that I named but of course didn’t invent. It’s simply the plan of marching the king from one side of the board […]

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Best Checkmate Ever?

March 20, 2019

With the San Francisco Mechanics not qualifying for the PRO Chess League playoffs, I didn’t watch the playoffs last night. It was my loss, because I missed the chance to watch in real time what one fan called “the best 60 seconds in PRO Chess League history” and what GM Robert Hess called “the most […]

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End of Season Blues

March 12, 2019

Tonight was the final night of the regular season for half of the teams in the PRO Chess League. For the San Francisco Mechanics, it was our last chance to make an improbable comeback and qualify for the playoffs. To recap the whole season to this point, we started out the year very badly with […]

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Jumping Into the Deep End

March 11, 2019

This weekend two of my protégés at the Aptos Library Chess Club, Emmy and Ryder Pimentel, ventured into the world of rated chess for the first time. And they did it in a reallllly big way: they played in the CalChess Super State Championships, a scholastic tournament that was expected to draw more than 1300 […]

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Cautionary Tales

March 10, 2019

Ordinarily we think of the endgame as a time when our kings are safe from checkmate, and they can roam with impunity around the board. But in complex endgames (where each side has two or more pieces, or a queen) it isn’t necessarily so. There are three ways in which mate can come into the […]

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Brutal. Epic. Fail.

March 7, 2019

Someone get David Pruess an ice-cold Yoo-Hoo, because he’s gonna need it. The San Francisco Mechanics’ manager was speechless after our unbelievable last-round meltdown last night. He looked like Sheldon Cooper in the TV show “Big Bang Theory,” who wrote a paper he thought would win the Nobel Prize, only to find out that an […]

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