Russian 101 (off-topic)

by admin on December 11, 2014

To anyone who wants to learn Russian, I have one small warning: One of the first words you’ll see is also the second-hardest word to pronounce. The word is “Hello,” or in Russian, “Zdravstvooeetye.”

That’s the bad news. The good news is that once you’ve learned that word, all the other words (except one) are easier! Not only that, in most situations you can fake it. First of all, in any informal situation you can say “Privyet,” which is very easy for American tongues. And second, even if forced to say the more formal hello, you can kind of fake it by saying “Zdrassssstye,” using the “s”s to replace all those troublesome consonants.

I can remember one time, though, when I heard every one of those consonants pronounced with utter clarity. I was in Russia in 1980, and I brought some chocolates as a gift for a friend of mine. We met out in the street behind a hotel, and I gave the chocolates to her.

Big mistake.

I grew up in a country where you don’t have to think about where you give chocolates to somebody. In a store? At home? On the street? No problem. But this was the Soviet Union, and I was a foreigner (which was already suspicious). We were near a hotel where foreigners stayed, and one thing that foreigners (especially Westerners) attracted like flies was black-marketeers, looking to buy jeans or trade money at a non-official rate.

So it all looked very suspicious, and within 60 seconds a police officer came up to us and said, very clearly and distinctly, pronouncing every last consonant:


It probably took him fifteen seconds to get through that one word. Long enough, if you’re a Russian, for your life to flash before your eyes. If you’re an American, you’re just wondering, “What is this police officer stopping us for?” Even so, the tone, the exaggerated politeness with malevolence behind it, was unmistakable, like the Wicked Witch of the West inviting you in for tea.

So he checked our passports and asked us to come with him. He left me in the lobby of the hotel, while he took my friend back to the interrogation room. (What, your country doesn’t have interrogation rooms in every hotel? Shame on you!) There they held her for half an hour while they searched the chocolates every possible way. They didn’t have an x-ray machine, or else they probably would have x-rayed them. Finally, seeing no contraband, they gave the chocolates back to her with a stern warning not to associate with foreigners any more.

Meanwhile I was out in the lobby wondering if I was ever going to see my friend again. In the bad old days, that’s how people got sent to Siberia. So it was a huge relief to see her emerge, and of course we got away from that hotel as fast as we could.

For years I told this story as Exhibit A for why I was glad to live in America and not in the former Soviet Union. Imagine living in a country where you could be profiled just for the way that you looked. Imagine living in a country where the people are terrified of their own police officers.

Yeah. Imagine that.

So you can see why I’m a little bit upset about the situation in New York, and before that the situation in Ferguson. It’s not that I personally feel threatened. I didn’t really feel threatened by the policeman in Russia, because if nothing else I had the magic U.S. passport. I have also never in my life felt threatened by the police in America. They’re on my side. I’m not doing anything wrong, I’m just handing out chocolates.

But I can see when my friends feel threatened, and that’s not a good feeling. It’s something that we have to work on and get right. Fortunately we have a democracy and an administration that should be sympathetic. But I think the real solutions will have to be local, and won’t come from Washington. People will have to talk with each other: the police and the people who are afraid of the police. They will have to talk, not yell, not chant slogans, not spray tear gas, not loot buildings.

Anyway, you are probably wondering, what is the hardest word to pronounce in the Russian language?

In my opinion, the hardest word is “Bodrstvooeetye.” Meaning “be awake, be alert, stay vigilant.” Good luck saying this word without spitting.

So, Zdravstvooeetye! And bodrstvooeetye! After that, everything else is a piece of chocolate.


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Khachiyan’s lecture, plus thoughts on my style

by admin on December 10, 2014

Thanks to Gjon Feinstein and Mike Splane for telling me that GM Melikset Khachiyan has posted a lecture on about the game that we played in the recent Reno tournament. If you’re a member of (and you should be, because membership is free), go and check out his lecture.

My short description: It’s a great lecture about a not very wonderful game. I made a couple mistakes in the opening and by move 16 Melik was up a pawn and had an endgame that was simply winning. The way that he handled the technical part of the game was very instructive, and the way he discusses it in his lecture is even more so, bringing in topics like restraint, overprotecting your vulnerable points, anticipating your opponent’s plan, dividing the board into quadrants, and finally exploiting little tactical tricks when they are there. This last bit is a polite way of saying that I walked into a helpmate because of my intense time pressure.

In fact, Melik paid me many more compliments than I deserve, at least on the basis of this game! He talks about me as a wild attacker who never left the nineteenth century. I take that as a compliment! However, it’s not exactly true. I’m trying to make my game sounder, and if he had watched my games in rounds 3 and 4 he would have seen two perfectly boring, Carlsen-esque grind-it-out victories, one of them lasting 90 moves and the other 60 moves.

However, one thing I hope to never lose is my focus on fighting for the initiative at all times. So my other two games in Reno did have a little bit of the wild attacking stuff. In round 5 I won a nice sprightly 29-move King’s Gambit. And round 6, as I’ve mentioned before, was my game against GM Sergey Kudrin featuring a queen sac on move 6 (the Bryntse Gambit). Melik mentioned that opening in his lecture, and was very amazed because he had never seen the queen sac before.

Bottom line: Every game against a GM is like a free lesson, and in this case the lesson was doubled because Melik actually made a lecture about it. Thanks, Melik!


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Bad Trap, Good Lesson

December 9, 2014

Today’s chess club at the Aptos Library was one of the best I can remember. We had 18 kids, and everybody seemed to find a good match to play against. In the lesson I talked about an age-old trap: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nd4? 4. Nxe5?! Qg5 5. Nxf7?? Qxg2 6. […]

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Pop Goes the Kitty

December 8, 2014

I’m sure that some of you have noticed that I haven’t posted in a couple weeks. The main reason is that I’ve been pretty busy doing my real job. I have made some time for chess (studying the games from my last tournament, in Reno) but not for chess blogging. I’ve been a little bit […]

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Carlsen-Anand: Post Mortem

November 23, 2014

Today, as I expect most readers of this blog know already, Magnus Carlsen won the 11th game of his match with Viswanathan Anand to retain his world championship title. The final score of the match was 6½-4½ (+3 – 1 =7 for Carlsen). What can I say? I think the primary reaction of the chess […]

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Queen and Bishop versus Two Rooks

November 15, 2014

A couple days ago I read this in Wikipedia’s entry called Chess endgame: Queen and bishop versus two rooks. This was thought to be a draw [before computer tablebases -- DM] but the queen and bishop usually win. It takes up to 84 moves. This got me curious. Like most players, I only know the […]

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Wrong Moves and Wrong Conceptions

November 12, 2014

At Mike Splane’s last chess party, the question came up: “Is one bad move enough to lose a game?” Of course the answer is yes, if the move is really, really bad, like hanging a rook or a queen. But in games between more or less experienced players, say above a 1500 rating, outright blunders […]

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Carlsen-Anand: A Mathematical Analysis

November 11, 2014

Today a seismic shift happened in the world championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand. Vishy finally won a game! Last year, you might remember, Carlsen defeated Anand without even losing a single game. Even though Anand went into the match as the world champion, he didn’t even look as if he was in […]

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November 10, 2014

You can have your Stockfish, your Rybka, your Houdini. I’ve got Max.

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Another San Francisco Giant

November 7, 2014

Step aside, MadBum! There’s a new hero in town, and his name is VigPanch! The San Francisco (baseball) Giants have Madison Bumgarner, the hero of the World Series. But the San Francisco (chess) Mechanics have Vignesh Panchanathan, the #4 fourteen-year-old in the country. There’s a very good argument that he has been their most valuable […]

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