by admin on January 2, 2018

Happy New Year! Here’s our first chess problem of the year, which doesn’t look like a chess problem:How many acorns do you see in the picture?

Yesterday I went hiking with my wife and one of her friends in a state park near Santa Cruz, and toward the end of our walk I took this photo of two woodpeckers in a tree. Here’s a somewhat enlarged version so you can see the woodpeckers more clearly.

If you’re like me, you don’t see any acorns in this picture at first. But then when you look more closely at the lower woodpecker, you start to realize that he’s got something in his mouth. In fact, it’s an acorn. Hooray, there is one acorn in the picture!

Then you start looking even more closely. You realize that all over the tree there are woodpecker holes. Hundreds of them! Well, that’s cool. We all know that woodpeckers peck holes in trees. But why do they do that?

As you’re thinking over that question, you start to realize that most of those holes are not empty. In fact, they have something brown peeking out of them. And then it hits you… Every one of those holes contains an acorn. This picture, which didn’t seem to have any acorns at first, is full of them!

At this point I don’t really expect you to sit down and count all the acorns, because you’ve already gleaned the most important insight. On the other hand, if you’re like me, you’ll print out a page-sized copy of the image and circle all the acorns. (Don’t forget to count the one in the woodpecker’s beak!) I counted 572, but I’d give this estimate a wide range of uncertainty, maybe plus or minus 50 acorns. For those of you who work with computers, this might be an interesting challenge to an image recognition program, because there are quite a number of things that could be acorns or could just be bumps in the tree bark. I’d be interested in the count that an image recognition program would come up with, and how much guidance the program needs to come up with a reasonable count.

The lesson for chess players is to use lateral thinking. Lots of times you may not see the right solution to a position right away. But when you use your understanding of the various ingredients in the position, you may have more success. In this case, getting the right number of acorns (not zero, not one, but five-hundred-and-something) is not an exercise in vision but in comprehension. You have to realize that the bird is a woodpecker, that woodpeckers make holes in trees, that he has an acorn in his beak, that he is either taking it out or putting it into one of the holes … and then the solution dawns on you.

By the way, the woodpecker in the picture is an acorn woodpecker, Melanerpes formicivorus, and you can read more about it here.

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How to Beat a Grandmaster (Part Two)

by admin on December 30, 2017

This morning I got a reminder in Facebook of a blog post I wrote exactly two years ago, called How to Beat a Grandmaster. My friend Robin Cunningham, a FIDE Master, was at that moment playing in the Hastings Masters tournament in England, which traditionally bridges the old year and the new year in chess. Robin got off to a great start that year, with a very impressive win in round one against GM Glenn Flear that was the subject of my blog post, followed by a draw in round two against GM Daniel Gormally. Robin finished with a score of 5/9, including a 2/6 score in his six games against grandmasters.

Robin isn’t playing at Hastings this year — in fact only one American player is — but history is nevertheless repeating itself. In round one a young British FIDE Master named Adam Taylor (rating 2242) defeated the highest-rated player in the tournament, Deep Sengupta of India (2586) on board one. And like Robin, Taylor has followed up his strong start by drawing against another grandmaster (Alexander Cherniaev) with the Black pieces in round two. Can Taylor keep the pace going?

At this point, though, the similarities end. The two games are quite different. Robin’s was complicated and hard-fought, and it includes a brave queen sacrifice. Taylor’s victory, on the other hand, was simple and pure. His opponent made a mistake in the opening, in a variation that looks a little bit suspect to me. Taylor then initiates a series of what seem to be harmless exchanges, but at the end of the exchanges it turns out that one of Sengupta’s pieces has nowhere to go!

If you don’t believe that a grandmaster can reach a lost position in ten moves against a FIDE master, this game will prove it to you.

Adam Taylor (2242) — Deep Sengupta (2586)

1. Nf3 d5 2. g3 Nf6 3. Bg2 Bg4

This move has been played many times, but I have to query what the point of it is. Why not just put the bishop on f5 right away? What is the point of giving White a free tempo for 4. Ne5? I’m sure these questions have reasonable answers, but Sengupta completely fails to answer them in this game.

4. Ne5 Bf5 5. c4 c6 6. cd cd

Position after 6. … cd. White to move.

FEN: rn1qkb1r/pp2pppp/5n2/3pNb2/8/6P1/PP1PPPBP/RNBQK2R w KQkq – 0 7

Here White already has an interesting option of playing 7. Nc3, adding to the pressure on Black’s center. The main point of this is that 7. … d4? would be met by 8. Qb3!, threatening mate on f7 as well as adding another attacker to the pawn on b7. In ChessBase Black’s two most common replies to 7. Nc3 are 7. … e6 and 7. … Nc6. However, each one of these has liabilities. After 7. … e6 White can play 8. g4! when the pawn cannot be taken because White trades a pair of pieces and then plays the fork Qa4+. So Black has to play 8. … Bg6 and then White continues 9. h4, and if Black plays 9. … h6 White can seriously compromise his pawn structure with 10. Nxg6. As for 7. Nc3 Nc6, 8. Nxc6 compromises Black’s pawn structure on the queenside, giving Black a rather weak pawn on c6.

These lines already convince me that there is something not quite right with Black’s position, and I have to go back to 3. … Bg4 as the source of the problems.

Taylor opts for a slower, safer approach, but as the game shows this approach too poses real problems to Black.

7. O-O e6 8. d3 Bd6?!

According to Rybka, this is where Black really gets into trouble. More flexible is 8. … Nbd7, so that Black can answer 9. Qa4 with 9. … a6. This game is a good example of why they always tell you to develop knights before bishops.

9. Qa4+ Nbd7 10. Bf4 Qe7?

Position after 10. … Qe7. White to move.

FEN: r3k2r/pp1nqppp/3bpn2/3pNb2/Q4B2/3P2P1/PP2PPBP/RN3RK1 w kq – 0 11

White to play and beat a grandmaster for the first time in his life!

The position after 10. Bf4 had occurred only once before in ChessBase, so there is no way that this was home preparation by Taylor. In the previous game, Black sniffed out the danger and played 10. … Bxe5, which is probably the “least-worst” move. However, in this game, Black is probably overconfident because he is a GM playing an FM, and he is oblivious to the danger.

It’s hard to blame him, because all of Black’s developing moves seem to be pretty natural. However, notice how all of Black’s pieces form a clump in the center. Positions where all the pieces form a clump often are worse than they look, and that is certainly the case here.

11. e4! …

A natural break that is made much stronger by the fact that there are so many pieces that White’s advancing pawns can attack.

11. … de 12. de Bg4

This is essential, in part because it controls the d1 square but more simply because 12. … Bg6? would lose to 13. Nxg6 hg 14. e5.

13. Nxd7 Qxd7

13. … Nxd7 would fail catastrophically because of 14. Bxd6 Qxd6 15. e5!

14. Qxd7+ Kxd7

Maybe Black thought he was safe here because White can’t play 15. Rd1. However, he underestimated the power of simple exchanges.

15. Bxd6 Kxd6 16. h3! …

Position after 16. h3. Black to move.

FEN: r6r/pp3ppp/3kpn2/8/4P1b1/6PP/PP3PB1/RN3RK1 b – – 0 16

And suddenly it becomes obvious that Black is completely busted. He has no way to parry White’s two threats: to create a “Noah’s Ark” trap on the bishop with f4, g4, and f5, or to fork the king and knight with f4 and e5. Note that 16. … Be2 does not get Black out of trouble because after 17. Re1 B-moves White gets to play the fork 18. e5+ anyway.

Notice, by the way, that the more aggressive-looking 16. f4?! would have been inaccurate because Black can play 16. … e5 himself. Black’s position is still difficult, but he is alive. If you want to beat a grandmaster, you’ve got to be precise in your execution, as Taylor was here.

The other thing I think is cool about the combination is how utterly prosaic White’s moves were. 11. e4, followed by a bunch of trades, followed by a completely ordinary pawn kick with 16. h3. A game won by prosaic methods counts exactly the same number of points as a game won by a brilliant queen sacrifice.

If you’re curious, the game continued 16. … Bh5 17. f4 Ke7 18. g4 Nxg4 19. hg Bxg4 20. Bf3. More exchanges! Black can’t escape with 20. … Bh3 because after 21. Rf2 his bishop would be on the endangered species list. So he played 20. … Bxf3 21. Rxf3 Rad8 22. Nc3 Rd2 23. Rf2 and I think I’ll stop here. It’s clearly “just a matter of technique” for White, with a knight versus two pawns and with Black’s counterplay completely neutralized. Of course, a “matter of technique” becomes more complicated when a grandmaster is sitting across the board from you, but White was up to the challenge.

In my previous blog post, I made a tongue-in-cheek list of steps to defeating a grandmaster. How did Taylor do on that list?

  1. Play White. Check!
  2. Don’t play the opening your opponent has written a book about. Check! Sengupta hasn’t written any books.
  3. Make him think that you’ve blundered. Fail. Taylor didn’t play any moves that looked dubious.
  4. Sacrifice your queen. Fail. Taylor played completely boring even trades.
  5. Don’t forget that he is human, not a computer. Check! The one thing that Taylor did well in this game was to go deeper than his opponent. It would be easy to shrug off moves like Nxd7 and Bxd6, thinking that White is just trading away his advantage, and besides, there’s no way that a grandmaster could overlook such obvious moves. Taylor did not take Sengupta’s word for it that Black’s position was okay, he kept on going and he discovered that it was not okay. That’s why Taylor won the game.

Of course my “list” was tongue-in-cheek; there is no list of rules that will enable you to beat a grandmaster. I’ve never beaten one myself. But I think that when it finally happens, it will be a game very much like this one. It will be very easy, and when it’s over I will wonder what all the fuss was about and why it took me so many tries to do it.

However, I do believe that point five on the above list is an important one to keep in mind. Chess is hard, and GM’s are human, and every now and then they will miss something, either because of overconfidence or plain human fallibility. Be prepared for the mistake, be confident of your ability to spot the mistake (but not overconfident), and be precise in your execution, and then you will win.

Happy new year, and I wish all my readers lots of victories in 2018!

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Assistants and Assistance

December 26, 2017

I guess, in retrospect, it was silly to think that anybody would come to chess club on the day after Christmas. Even though I told several parents last week that we would be open for business, I think that everyone is just too much in the holiday spirit to think of leaving home and coming […]

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Learning from the Students

December 21, 2017

In the most recent meeting of the Aptos Library chess club for kids, I decided to show them a position from a game that I played against Shredder, the computer. (Usually my lessons are taken from the excellent book Tactics Time by Tim Brennan and Anthea Carson, but every now and then I throw in […]

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Sort-of Book Review: Eric Montany’s Modern Samisch

December 18, 2017

First let me explain the title of this post: I don’t really do book reviews in my blog. And I especially don’t do reviews of technical opening repertoire books. However, I have to make an exception when one of my friends has a new book published, a labor of love that he has been working […]

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How AlphaZero Wins

December 15, 2017

So far I have looked at three games from the AlphaZero-Stockfish match: #5, #9, and #10 from the ten games provided in the arXiv preprint. All three are amazingly similar, and at the same time they are amazingly unlike almost any other game I’ve ever seen. In each case AlphaZero won by sacrificing a piece […]

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One Small Step for Computers, One Giant Leap for Mankind

December 6, 2017

Today, like many people, I was shocked by the news in my Facebook new feed. AlphaZero beats Stockfish! For those who (like me) had never heard of AlphaZero, let me explain that it is a new deep-learning algorithm created by the same folks who gave you AlphaGo, the computer program that vanquished the human Go […]

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My Shortest Loss

December 4, 2017

A few years ago I wrote a post about a game where my opponent resigned in a drawn position. I mean really, truly drawn: I had just sacrificed a queen to force a perpetual check, but he somehow misread it and thought it was a checkmate. Of course, there have been even worse cases in […]

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Video and Movie Reviews

November 28, 2017

I hope that everybody reading this will check out the new video about the 2016 Chess Olympiad at YouTube! I apparently cannot embed it in this post, but here is a link to the video. I really don’t think that people outside the chess world appreciated what a major event this was, definitely in U.S. […]

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Chess Personality Test

November 22, 2017

A few days ago my chess friend and correspondent, Larry Smith, sent me a position from a game he had played against his computer. Larry was White: White to move. FEN: r1b4k/pp2N2p/4p2Q/3pP2B/3b4/P7/KP3r2/8 w – – 0 1 First of all, let me say I’m glad that I’m not the only one who likes to play […]

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