It’s Their League …

by admin on October 13, 2019

… But we don’t have to like it!

The PRO (Professional Rapid Online) Chess League officially announced that its fourth season will start on January 6, and there have been some major changes. The big ones are:

  • The league is contracting from 32 teams to 24. This is the opposite of what they said last year that they would do. I challenge anybody to show me an example of a professional sports league that became better by contracting. No, contracting is what you do the year before your league collapses.
  • No rating caps. Previously, for the entire history of the PRO Chess League and its predecessor, the US Chess League, teams could not exceed a certain average rating. (I believe it was 2400 for the US Chess League and then went up to 2500 for the PRO.) Rating caps were a huge part of what made the league fun and unique. They guaranteed that teams from smaller cities could be competitive. Also, very importantly, underrated young players on board four became a key to success. This meant that young players got a unique opportunity to play against superstars like Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana, and Hikaru Nakamura. There will still be some kind of cap on the number of players over 2700, but that is far less effective at democratizing the league. It just means that 2600s can play. Big deal.
  • Teams are now given country names and are “considered to be representing their country.” And yet… The U.S. gets four teams. (Every other country gets only one.) And yet… Free agency will still exist. In what sense will, say, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov be representing his country if he plays for Italy? This change is so bad that the PRO Chess League is undermining its own decision.
  • No relegation. At last a change that I somewhat agree with. In previous years, teams that finished in the bottom two of their division were “relegated” — they had to re-qualify the next year or else they were out. While this is a familiar concept to soccer fans in Europe it seems strange to any American sports fan, and I think that the PRO Chess League management is probably right that the drawbacks (lack of continuity) outweigh the benefits (teams that are out of the running for the playoffs have something at stake in the final matches of the season).
  • Larger prize fund. This is probably what’s driving the other changes: What the sponsors want, the sponsors get. But I don’t think that it is worth ruining your product and changing your “brand” in order to make a few people wealthier who are already wealthy anyway.

The comments I’ve read on chess.com about these changes are almost 100 percent negative. It’s clearly their chess league (i.e., the commissioners, the sponsors whom we don’t know much about), not ours. They can run (or ruin?) it in any way they see fit, whatever the fans might think.

Presumably there are some good reasons for these changes. We don’t know what is happening behind the scenes and what it takes to run a league. I hear that Chess.com’s commissioner, Danny Rensch, is keen on making chess attractive for television (think ESPN), and I totally agree that this is a direction that chess should go. It kills me that poker gets so much coverage on ESPN and chess doesn’t. Supposedly the folks at ESPN would not understand rating caps, and they think that the audience will only tune in to see the best players.

If that’s the argument, I disagree. Audiences like fair competition, and they love an underdog. Why do so many people watch the World Series of Poker? Because an ordinary guy in a loud suit (think John Hesp) can get on a good run and challenge the best pros. Because chess doesn’t have a luck element, we can never duplicate poker in this respect. But we can require teams to have a junior player and/or a woman player.

Or we could, you know, even educate fans about the rating system. It’s not that hard. Other pro sports have incredibly elaborate systems for leveling the playing field – salary caps, rules on how much you can pay a rookie, a second-year player, etc. Most fans, I think, just tune these out. They know that the rules are there, and they appreciate the fact that the rules make the leagues more competitive, and beyond that they don’t need to know the details.

In chess we’re lucky that we actually have a direct way of measuring playing strength. But if the rating system is too complex for fans, then we could go back to money, which people understand. The rules could go like this: You can pay a 2800 player up to $3000; you can pay a 2700 player up to $2000; you can pay a 2600 player up to $1500; you can pay a 2500 player up to $1000; and so on. You have a team salary cap of $6000. Now go and put together any lineup you want. (I have no idea if these figures are reasonable, I’m just throwing the idea out.) Tell the fans that there is a salary cap system in place, and let the details be public record for any wonks who really care about it. I don’t see how ESPN could have any objection to this.

In conclusion, I would like to ask for a moment of silence in honor of the following teams that are now dead, though no fault of their own. Maybe they should form a new league.

  • Estonia Horses
  • Volga Stormbringers
  • Riga Magicians
  • Oslo Trolls
  • Marseille Migraines
  • Cannes Blitzstreams
  • Ljubljana Turtles
  • Reykjavik Puffins
  • Miami Champions
  • Montclair Sopranos
  • Minnesota Blizzard
  • Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers
  • San Diego Surfers
  • Dallas Destiny
  • Australia Kangaroos
  • San Jose Hackers
  • Seattle Sluggers
  • Rio Grande Ospreys
  • Las Vegas Desert Rats
  • Tbilisi Gentlemen
  • Moscow Phoenix
  • Barcelona Raptors

There is still one – count ‘em, one – space left open for a qualifier, so one of these late lamented teams may get a chance to rise from the grave. I’ll be rooting for the Tbilisi Gentlemen, because they were the best team in the regular season last year. Of course, they’ll have to be renamed the Georgia Gentlemen because of the rule that teams outside the U.S. have to represent a country. If the players on the Minnesota Blizzard want to move to Antarctica, then I’ll root for them.

And in addition, I’d like to welcome the following new or new-ish teams, even though I don’t quite understand why they deserve to be in the league and Tbilisi (Georgia) doesn’t.

  • Hungary Hunters
  • Israel Counsellors
  • Spain TBD
  • Turkey Knights
  • Italy Gladiators
  • Poland Pierogies
  • France Roosters
  • Chicago TBD

(TBD = Name To Be Determined. I’d suggest calling the last team “Chicago WTF” because I don’t understand why the U.S. gets a fourth team that has never even been in the league before.)

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Endgame Workshop

by admin on October 7, 2019

Yesterday’s chess party at Mike Splane’s house turned into an endgame workshop, because both Mike Arne and Paulo Santanna came prepared with some beautiful positions.

Ironically, both of them went to Spain this summer but they didn’t play in the same events. Mike Arne played in the Benasque tournament, and showed us this deceptively simple position.

Black to move.

FEN: 8/8/p4p2/2k5/6K1/p1P4P/3N2P1/8 b – – 0 1

Mike was playing Black, and it’s his move here. As Mike says, it’s obvious that Black’s next two moves are … a2 and … a5 in some order. The first move threatens to promote the pawn, but it’s not a real threat yet because of the defense Nb3+. The move … a5 is needed to put some teeth into Black’s threat; it forces White to play Nb3 right away, lest his knight lose the b3 square.

Mike didn’t think that the move order made any difference, so he played 1. … a2?? Astoundingly, this turns a won position into a lost position! But not a single person at the party saw White’s winning plan. And in fact, Mike’s opponent didn’t find the win either. He played 2. h4??, and after 2. … a5 Mike was once again on the winning track. The game finished 3. Nb3+ Kc4 4. Na1 (4. Nxa5+? is hopeless because after 4. … Kxc3 White’s knight cannot stop the remaining a-pawn) 4. … Kxc3 5. h5 Kb2 6. h6 Kxa1 7. h7 Kb1 8. h8Q a1Q. This has the makings of a very long endgame, but Black should be winning. The f6 pawn definitely helps Black escape from White’s checks. The game actually didn’t last too much longer because of a mistake from Mike’s opponent. 9. Qb8+ Kc2 10. Qc8+ Qc3 11. Qf5+ Kb7 12. Kh5? Qe5! Here White resigned. On the trade of queens, 13. Qxe5 fe, we once again get a pawn race where both sides queen, but this time Black queens first, plays … Qh1+ and … Qg1+, trades queens, and then promotes for the third (!) time with his remaining pawn.

Now let’s see where both players went wrong. After Mike’s mistaken first move, White should have played the ingenious 2. Kf3!! The idea is to bring the king one step closer to the queenside. He still seems hopelessly far away, but this sets up a “stalemate defense”. After 2. … a5 3. Nb3+ Kc4 4. Na1 Kxc3 5. Ke2 Kb2 6. Kd2 Kxa1 7. Kc2, we see the point of White’s idea: although Black has won the knight, he is unable to move the king out of the way of his own pawns. He is reduced to making pawn moves, and meanwhile White will promote the h-pawn. The cutest line is 7. … f5 8. h4 f4 9. h5 f3 10. h6 (White can simply ignore Black’s pawn!) fg 11. h7 g1Q 12. h8Q+ with mate next move.

In order to eliminate the “stalemate defense,” Mike should have played 1. … a5!! right away. Then White has to play 2. Nb3, and after 2. … Kc4 3. Na1 Kxc3 we transpose to the line actually played in the game, because White’s king is too far away to play the stalemate defense.

After Mike finished showing us this wonderful endgame, Paulo got up and showed us a similar study by Mark Dvoretsky, which has some of the same motifs of a knight trying to stop a rook pawn.

White to play and draw.

FEN: 8/4k2N/7p/1p6/8/8/K7/8 w – – 0 1

Again, just as in Mike Arne’s position, it seems as if there are two possibilities, 1. Kb3 and 1. Ka3, that are absolutely equivalent. The hard part once again is not finding the right move, but telling it apart from the wrong move!

Most people would play 1. Kb3??, just because it moves the king one square closer to the kingside. Because this is a Dvoretsky endgame study, you might suspect that this is wrong and 1. Ka3! is right instead. But do you see why?

The reason is that after 1. … Ke6!, White needs to extricate his knight in order to stop the h-pawn. Generally speaking, White can draw with the knight against the rook pawn if he can stop it before it reaches h2. Then the knight can hop around the “circuit” f1-h2-g4-e3 and can never be driven away.

The beauty and ingenuity of Dvoretsky’s study is that in this position White’s knight has to travel a much longer circuit, which goes h7-f8-d7-c5-b3 (The key square!! This is why 1. Kb3?? is a blunder.) and then d2-f1-h2. Thus the drawing line is:

2. Nf8 Kf5 (Black does his best to shut the knight out, but this turns out later to be an unfortunate square) 3. Nd7 h5 4. Nc5 h4 5. Nb3! (not Nd3, because the knight has to blockade the pawn on h1, and as we saw in Mike Arne’s game that doesn’t work, unless the king can help out with a stalemate defense) h3 6. Nd2 h2. It seems as if the knight has arrived too late, but Dvoretzky has one more trick: after 7. Nf1 h1Q 8. Ng3+! forks the king and queen. Amazing! Of course 7. .. h1N 8. Kb4 is also a draw.

Just going over these two endgames makes me feel as if I have gained 10 rating points. Certainly I understand the knight vs. RP scenario much better. It’s interesting to see how the right moves depend on concepts rather than I-do-this-he-does-that style analysis. The concepts are (1) the idea of a knight “circuit,” (2) the fact that a pawn on R7 is much harder to stop than a pawn on R6 because the knight gets trapped in the corner, (3) the possibility of the “stalemate defense,” and finally (4) the heroic “let him queen but then fork the king and queen at the last minute” defense.

After this Mike showed us another endgame with a similar property – the correct moves depend on schematic thinking.

Black to play and win.

FEN: 8/pp2K1k1/8/2p1P3/6B1/2P4P/PP3r2/8 b – – 0 1

This was a game played by two Bay Area masters: FM Josiah Stearman (White) and IM Elliott Winslow (Black). Winslow played 1. … Rd2?, a sensible-looking move that tries to keep White’s king stuck in front of the pawn. But the trouble is that this is completely passive, and it doesn’t even work because White can play e6, Ke8, e7, Bd7, and Kd8 in some move order, just as in the game. The game ended up a draw (Mike didn’t show us how).

If Black wants to play for a win, he has to try 1. … Rxb2, with the idea of wiping out all of White’s queenside pawns and then sacrificing the rook for the e-pawn. Does this work?

As Mike pointed out, it all depends on whether the three connected passed pawns can beat White’s bishop all by themselves. He discovered a simple rule (actually, three of them):

  1. Is the RP the “wrong color”? In other words, is the queening square opposite to the bishop? The answer here is yes: White’s bishop cannot cover a1.
  2. Is the defending king too far away to help stop the pawns? Here the answer is yes, although just barely, as we’ll see.
  3. Can the pawns get to c4 and b5? If yes, then the pawns win, because they take away all the squares from which White’s bishop could stop the a-pawn.

So simple! Almost no analysis required. So in fact the following line would have won for Black: 1. … Rxb2 2. e6 Rxa2 3. Ke8 (unfortunately White has to lose a tempo this way, because 3. Kd8 would allow … Rd2+) 3. … Ra3 4. e7 Rxc3 5. Kd8 Re3! (… Rd3+ is unnecessary and would actually help White) 6. e8Q Rxe8 7. Kxe8 c4.

Position after 7. … c4. White to move.

FEN: 4K3/pp4k1/8/8/2p3B1/7P/8/8 w – – 0 7

Black is aiming for the b5-c4 setup, and White can’t really stop it. For example, if 8. Bd7 c3 9. Ba4 b5! 10. Bc2 a5 and the pawn runs to a4 and a3. Once the pawns are on a3 and c3, they are unstoppable.

The trickiest variation in the position above is 8. Kd7. Here 8. … b5? is wrong, because 9. Kc6 gets the king into the defense in time. Instead Black recognizes that the pawn on b7 is doing good work, keeping White’s queen out of c6, and he plays instead 8. … a5! And the a-pawn is unstoppable, for example 9. Bd1 b5 10. Kc6 a4 11. Kxb5 a3.

Although this might seem like a rather special position, it addresses a very fundamental question: When do three pawns beat a bishop? Every chess player (above a certain level) knows the answer for rooks: two passed pawns on the sixth rank beat a rook. Yet I think most of us do not know the answer for bishops. From the above lines, a simple rule is: two passed pawns separated by a file on the sixth rank beat a bishop. (For example, pawns on a3 and c3 in the above lines.) If you have three connected passed pawns, they win if you can answer “yes” to all of questions 1-3, basically because you can then force a position where the pawns reach a3 and c3.

Note: I originally posted this entry with an incorrect position for the Dvoretsky study. (I had the king on a3 already!) My apologies to anyone who was confused.

Also, a followup to my last few posts: Teimour Radjabov won the World Cup, which is of some interest to U.S. chess fans because it means that Jeffery Xiong lost to the eventual tournament winner. Doesn’t change the fact that he lost, but maybe it’s a “moral victory.”

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Bill’s Book Bag (New Literary Award?)

September 25, 2019

This afternoon I got some amazing news from my co-author: our book, The Book of Why, was mentioned in a new documentary series on Netflix! It’s in a show called “Inside Bill’s Brain.” If you watch the first episode, about 21 minutes in you’ll see Bill Gates’ assistant loading up his book bag with books […]

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Xiong Keeps Going!

September 22, 2019

In today’s playoff round of the World Cup, Jeffery Xiong became the only American player still standing. In a thrilling match, he beat Jan-Krzysztof Duda 4 1/2 – 3 1/2. White won seven out of eight games, so arguably it was the one game that Xiong managed to draw as Black (a Caro-Kann in the […]

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Xiong Train Running

September 21, 2019

Okay, bad pun, but now is the time to get on the Jeffery Xiong train! It’s currently boarding passengers in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, and the next stop is Yekaterinburg, where next year’s World Championship Candidates tournament will be held. All aboard! Okay, my announcement may be a little premature, but that’s part of the fun of […]

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I’m Back!

September 19, 2019

It’s been a month since I posted here, so I would like to reassure anybody who’s wondering that I have not fallen off the face of the earth! The above photo was taken three weeks ago at the Northern California state championship. I was going to play tournament chess for the first time in nine […]

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Learning the Right Lessons

August 11, 2019

Today I went to cheer on two of my students in the Aptos Library Chess Club, Emmy and Ryder, who were playing in their second rated tournament. They are a sister-brother pair. I was very curious to see how they would do, because in their first rated tournament (the state scholastic championship, last March) they […]

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The Abstract Era

July 27, 2019

It’s been amazing to me to see how double e-pawn openings have changed over the last 10 to 20 years. Once upon a time, White would always press for an advantage, making threats, working toward the pawn break d2-d4, keeping Black on the defensive. Not any more. In the new era, White just chills out. […]

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Last Computer Game for 2019

July 1, 2019

If January 1 is a good time for resolutions, then July 1 is a good time for semi-resolutions. I’ve decided that it’s time for me to do away with playing chess against the computer, at least for the rest of the year. One thing that crystallized this decision for me was meeting with Gjon Feinstein […]

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When a Miss Really is as Good as a Mile

June 20, 2019

Last weekend I played in the third round of the PRO Chess League Summer Series, in which the fans of the San Francisco Mechanics squared off against the fans of the St. Louis Arch Bishops. I won both of my games against a player named Typewriter44, and when I finished we had a comfortable-looking 15½ […]

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