History Repeats

by admin on September 25, 2016

One of my teammates at this year’s US Amateur Team tournament, Larry Smith, has an interesting semi-blog. It isn’t publicly accessible like a blog is, but he sends out chess-related e-mails a few times a week to a couple dozen people on his distribution list. The e-mails are usually of the “position of the day” variety but they sometimes go into a little bit more depth to explore a theme. He sent out a very interesting one earlier this month that I’d like to share with you.

light frostPosition after 33. … Kh8. White to move.

FEN: 3r1b1k/q4Bpp/p2P4/2p5/2Pp1Q2/3P2PP/P7/5RK1 w – - 0 34

This is a game between Bjarne Light and Peter Frost from this year’s Kiel tournament, played in July. Naturally, a lover of word play like me has to note the rarity of seeing Light-Frost in July.

Anyway, see if you can find White’s best move, and if you want to pay along with Larry Smith’s e-mail, take a note of how much time it takes you.

Some back story: Larry got this position from Susan Polgar’s blog, and she got it from a site of Alex Baburin called ChessToday.net. So you’re getting from me fourth-hand! The caption to the position on Baburin’s site is very telling: “Daily Chess Improvement: 8 Second Chess Tactic!” In other words, you’re supposed to solve it in 8 seconds or less.

I was able to spot the key move in easily less than 8 seconds: it was the first move I looked at. I spent a minute or so making sure that it really worked and that there wasn’t anything better, but if I had been down to a few seconds in a blitz game, there’s no question that I would have played the move in the game: 34. Be8!

It’s a neat idea. White puts both his bishop and pawn en prise, but whichever one Black takes, his back rank is too weakly defended and he loses to Q(x)f8+. Black could create luft for his king with 34. … h6, but he loses a piece right away to 35. Qxf8+ and it’s obvious that more losses are coming. In the game, Light simply resigned.

Larry had a very similar experience to mine. He wrote, “I didn’t so much solve the puzzle as the move 1. Be8! popped into my brain. It was a reflex that I had no control over.”

As he was puzzling over why this instantaneous flash of insight occurred, Larry realized he had seen the combination before! In fact, it occurred in the game Reti-Bogolyubov from New York 1924, one of the most famous tournaments ever.

reti bogoPosition after 24. … Kh8. White to move.

FEN: 3r1b1k/ppq2Bpp/2p5/2P2Q2/8/1P4P1/P6P/5RK1 w – - 0 25

The positions are so similar that it’s uncanny — only the positions of Black’s queen and a few pawns are different, and they do not affect the combination in any way. Now that you’ve seen the pattern, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble figuring out Reti’s move, 25. Be8! Once again, Black resigned immediately. The only complication that wasn’t present in the earlier game is that Black could try interpolating 25. … Bxc5+ 26. Qxc5 Rxe8. However, whether by luck or design, the White queen is still attacking f8, so 27. Rf8+ (or 27. Qf8+ if you want to be flashy) leads to a back-rank mate.

So now Larry was wondering: Did he solve the Light-Frost position so quickly because it had been implanted in his brain already? If he were truly seeing it for the first time, would he be able to come up with the answer so fast?

That’s when he decided to do an experiment with his e-mail discussion list. He asked his friends whether they had found the key move, how long it took, and whether the position looked “familiar.” Four out of 11 said that it “looked familiar” (two knew the exact game Reti-Bogoljubov) and of those, three solved it in under 5 seconds and the other solved it in under a minute.

As for the other seven, who did not recognize the position, six of them took significantly longer, from 1 to 10 minutes. So it seemed that recognizing the motif helped. The one person who did not recognize it but still solved in in 5 seconds… was me.

That complicates things a bit, because it introduces another factor — player strength. The four people who recognized the position were all over 2000. I’m also over 2000. So maybe you don’t need to know chess history. Maybe people over 2000 are just good enough at spotting mating patterns that they will solve a puzzle like this very quickly. Speaking for myself, it was as easy as 1-2-3. (1) I want to open the f-file. (2) I want to set up a back-rank mate, and cutting Black’s rook off from the defense of the bishop would help. (3) Be8 does both things.

So in the end, Larry’s experiment didn’t have a definite conclusion. Maybe the moral is that studying the classics can teach you to recognize important patterns, but also hours of practice and years of exposure to chess ideas can accomplish the same thing. I do feel a trifle embarrassed that I don’t know my chess history as well as the four who recognized the idea; on the other hand, I feel a little bit pleased that, alone out of Larry’s 11 respondents, I solved the puzzle immediately without having seen the idea before.

By the way, one thing that impressed me as I played out the games (not just looking at the static positions) was that both Reti and Light saw the combination coming. Both of them played Bf7+ on the previous move to chase Black’s king to the corner and set up the back-rank mate.

Unrelated postscript: One of my readers informed me that the link to the “Bird by Bird” series on the right-hand side of my blog page is now broken. I’m not quite sure what is causing this issue. It’s stored on a part of my website that I thought would be more stable than the blog, so it’s a shock to see it disappear all of a sudden. Probably I should take this as a warning that I need to update and upgrade my blog site, too.

This is something that annoys me about computers. I feel as if they should be designed like most other appliances, in such a way that once they are working, they should continue working unless they literally break. But with computers, the outside world is constantly changing and so the interface between the computer and the outside world changes, and sometimes software that worked perfectly well one day no longer works the next. Argh!

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Olympiad Coverage in the New York Times

by admin on September 14, 2016

Here’s the good news: the New York Times had an article about the U.S. gold medal in the 2016 Chess Olympiad.

Here’s the bad news: the New York Times had an article about the U.S. gold medal in the 2016 Chess Olympiad.

What do I mean? Well, first read the article, “U.S. Wins Gold at Chess Olympiad With Help of Imported Talent,” here.

It took me three Facebook posts, but I finally figured out why this article bugs me so much. It takes an issue that Internet trolls were talking about — the idea that America allegedly “bought” its championship — and makes it into the primary focus of the article. Not a word about the games themselves, or about how dramatic the final round was, or the crazy whiplash effect when it first appeared the U.S. had lost on tiebreaks and then it turned out they had won. Nothing about the valiant second-place team, Ukraine, which had a performance that would have won any previous Olympiad but did not win this one. Nothing about the fact that many chess masters have been coming to the U.S. for many years, and they do it without anybody paying for them or guaranteeing them spots on the national team. They do it because of the opportunities to play in big tournaments. Yes, some make bigger money than they would have back home, but they earn it by finishing in first place in our tournaments. It’s not just given to them.

Frankly, that is something that makes America different from most other countries. We are a nation of immigrants. Always have been and (assuming Donald Trump doesn’t get his way) always will be.

There are a couple things that I want to praise the author, Dylan Loeb McClain, for. First, he explained the facts about the one person who could be considered “bought,” in some sense of the word. That would be Fabiano Caruana, our first board. McClain explains that Rex Sinquefield, the wealthy chess patron, played a very active role (including providing financial help) in persuading Caruana to come back to America. This was interesting and I appreciate the fact that McClain went to the trouble of interviewing Sinquefield.

But to call Caruana “imported talent” is just ludicrous. He’s a native-born American citizen, who started playing chess as a kid in the U.S. He has every right to play for the U.S. team.

As for the other so-called “imported talent,” Wesley So, he wasn’t imported. That implies the existence of an importer. So chose of his own accord to come to the U.S. and nobody paid for him to do it. That’s the other good thing McClain does in the article — he points out that Sinquefield had nothing to do with So’s decision, only Caruana’s.

The other three players — Hikaru Nakamura, Sam Shankland, and Ray Robson — have spent essentially their whole lives here, and they are not the least bit imported or foreign.

In fact, one thing that’s kind of interesting about the U.S. national team this year is that it had no one of Russian or Soviet descent. That is amazing, and I don’t know when is the last time it happened. If you had told me 20 years ago that the U.S. would win a chess Olympiad, I would have said for sure that it would only happen by virtue of “our Russians beating their Russians.” That would be completely all right with me — we are a country of immigrants, and “our Russians” are completely American after they take a vow of citizenship. Nevertheless, it is amazing to me that we have won a gold medal with essentially home grown talent, plus one person born and raised in the Philippines. It speaks to the vast changes going on in chess over the last generation or two, making chess a more worldwide game.

Why didn’t McClain write about that?

The whole business about “buying” a title just did not deserve the kind of attention he gave it. As I said, it’s what the trolls are talking about. McClain did mention a tweet by Magnus Carlsen, who is not an Internet troll, but it was also completely clear that Carlsen was joking.

I hope that the New York Times will give McClain a chance to write at greater length about the U.S. team’s triumph and the many other stories at this year’s Olympiad, including showing us some of the crucial positions on the chessboard!

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U.S. Wins Olympiad!

September 13, 2016

Did I call it or what?! You might recall that in yesterday’s post I wrote about the upcoming U.S.-Canada match: I think the one weak link for Canada is board one. Evgeny Bareev is a strong GM for sure, but board one is a really tough assignment and he has only managed 4½ out of […]

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U.S. Clinches a Medal! (2016 Olympiad)

September 12, 2016

Surprisingly, my predictions yesterday were not too far off the mark. In the penultimate round of the 2016 Olympiad, the U.S. and Ukraine both “took care of business” as I predicted. However, I was slightly wrong about Russia. I predicted that they would beat India, but in fact they only tied. That leaves the standings […]

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2016 Olympiad — Pre-Round 10 Predictions

September 11, 2016

The ninth round of the Chess Olympiad in Baku brought some clarity to the proceedings. On the men’s side, the U.S. team beat Norway, Ukraine beat India, and Russia crushed the home team, Azerbaijan. That leaves the troika of the U.S., Ukraine, and Russia on top of the standings with 16, 16, and 15 match […]

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Remember the Date!

September 10, 2016

September 10, 2016. That’s the day when both American teams, the men (or “open”) and women, were tied for first place at the Chess Olympiad. Does anybody with a better knowledge of chess history know whether this has ever happened before, with so few rounds remaining? Quick summary: Since my last post, the open team […]

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From Uganda to Azerbaijan to the Red Carpet …

September 7, 2016

… In one week! That’s the amazing odyssey of Phiona Mutesi, who is playing on the Uganda women’s team at the Baku Chess Olympiad. If the name sounds slightly familiar to you, it will probably become a lot more familiar later this month. Mutesi is the real-life heroine of the Disney movie Queen of Katwe, […]

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So Many Things Happening!

September 6, 2016

I feel guilty for not writing any posts for the last week when there are so many things happening in the chess world. The past weekend was the traditional weekend for state championships in the U.S. Also, halfway across the world, the Chess Olympiad is going on in Baku, Azerbaijan. Let me start local and […]

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All’s Well That Ends Well (Memorable Games, part 6)

August 28, 2016

We’ve arrived at game number six in my series of Six Memorable Games. It is not at all a perfect game, but in some ways it is a perfect illustration of both the good and bad features of my chess: occasional moments of creativity interspersed with frustrating moments of self-sabotage. Does that sound familiar? I’ll […]

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What Jesse Missed, What I Missed

August 24, 2016

 A couple weeks ago I got a really cool surprise in my e-mail. A chess player named Frank Brown, whom I didn’t know previously, sent me a photograph that he had taken in 2009, when I played against grandmaster Jesse Kraai on one of the top boards at the Western States Open in Reno. I […]

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