Coming Back to Life!

by admin on May 22, 2022

My chess calendar is finally starting to get busy again! Next weekend I will play in my first chess competition since February 2020, the last month of the Before Times. I’ll be playing in the 2021 CalChess Open State Championship, and yes, you read that right.

Salman Azhar, the founder, mastermind and guru of Bay Area Chess, had the brilliant idea of copying the organizers of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. As you might remember, the Olympic Games didn’t happen that year because of the pandemic, so the Olympic committee held them the following year, but still called them the 2020 Olympics. Similarly, the CalChess State Championship was never held last year, so Salman is organizing two of them this year. The 2021 championship will finish up on Memorial Day of 2022, and the 2022 championship will take place (*) at the normal time, Labor Day of 2022.

(*) The asterisk, of course, is because any plans made 6 months in advance during the COVID era are subject to revision.

But that’s not the only event on my chess calendar! This weekend Atlee Halderman, one of my students, is playing his first rated tournament in three years. This one is the 2022 CalChess Grade Levels Championship, also organized by Bay Area Chess. So yesterday I got my first glimpse of over-the-board tournament chess in the COVID era. I also had a chance to chat with Salman about the changes.

My first impression was wow, there aren’t many people here. In the 10th-12th grade section, which Atlee is playing in, there were only four entrants for a six-round tournament. They decided to combine that section with the 9th grade section, which had five registrants. There were more players in the younger sections, but still it was a far cry from the last scholastic tournament I went to with Atlee. The 2019 state scholastic championships had 1000 players, with a gigantic ballroom for parents and teams and vendors and another gigantic ballroom for the tournament games.

Salman, a perpetual optimist, said that the change was not as dramatic as it appeared. Yes, the book vendor is gone; he moved back in with his mother. (What a COVID thing to do!) But the grade levels championship (in May) is not the same tournament as the scholastic championship (in March). To compare apples to apples, I should compare the 2019 grade levels championship to the 2022 grade levels championship. Salman said that the turnout had dropped from 500 players to 400, which is really not a bad dropoff. He thinks that we have lost one “generation,” the players who would have started as 1st or 2nd graders during the pandemic and would have been 3rd to 4th graders now. “They’re gone and they’re not coming back,” he said. But he sees this as a temporary setback. We’re back to the levels of attendance maybe three or four years before the pandemic. Bay Area Chess built up before, and it can build up again.

I asked Salman if the growth of online chess during the pandemic was translating into a surge of in-person players now. He was much less optimistic about that. He says that kids who start out playing online, and even more so their parents, do not understand why you should shell out money for entry fees and travel and memberships, when you can play for free online. So it seems as if the chess world is fragmenting into two worlds — online and OTB — and the two worlds meet only at the top of the rating chart.

The other thing I was very curious about was how Atlee would do after his long layoff. As you know, I’ve been playing a regular series of training games against him, almost one game a week for the last several months. Would these games help him or hurt him? His official rating is 1077, but I feel certain that his true playing strength is at least 1500. Am I right, or am I just deluding myself? This weekend I’ll actually get some answers.

The first day was a moderate success for him. In the first round, he had the bad luck to be paired against the highest-rated player in his section, a 1900 player. Atlee lost his way very early on and his opponent won a piece very nicely with a cross-pin motif (a pin in two different directions at the same time, something I have rarely seen in a real game). Because there were an odd number of players, Atlee got a full-point bye in round two. That was definitely disappointing — you come to your first tournament in three years and you can’t even play!

But round three made up for it. Atlee won a long, hard-fought game, one that I’m sure tested his nerves and his patience. He won a piece in the opening, thanks to a discovered attack. But then he just sat and traded pieces and played passively. Meanwhile, his opponent relentlessly pushed for an attack, and so even after 40 moves Atlee was still not in the clear. Just as it looked as if his opponent might be able to pull out a draw, he made a tactical error and Atlee was all over it, playing a pseudo-sacrifice of his rook to draw his opponent’s king to a square where Atlee could fork his king and rook. The result was that Atlee won a pawn and his opponent’s counterplay evaporated.

If it were a boxing match, you would say that Atlee’s opponent won 10 out of 12 rounds on points. But Atlee won the other two rounds with two big knockdown punches, and that was enough to win the fight.

Both games, his win and his loss, will give us lots of material to talk about in our next training session. Meanwhile, Atlee has three more games coming today. I hope that the momentum and positive attitude generated by last night’s epic victory will keep him going today.

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Welcoming a New Book Into the World

by admin on April 27, 2022

What I did during the pandemic.

One of the best things about being a writer is the moment when you first hold a book in your hands that has your name on the cover. I think that it may be similar to becoming a parent. You spend months and months anticipating something — and when that “something” finally arrives, it’s so tiny compared to the amount of work you put into it! Also, specifically, it’s a little bit like becoming a father, because the actual nitty gritty (putting the ink onto the paper, binding and trimming it) is done by other people and the process is kind of hidden from me. All I get to see is the final result.

Yesterday I got the chance to hold a new “baby” for the eleventh time. If you’ve lost track, here are their names: What’s Happening in the Mathematical Sciences, volumes 6-12; The Book of Why; The Universe in Zero Words; Visualizing Geology; and The Big Splat, or How Our Moon Came to Be. The new arrival is Volume 12 of the What’s Happening series, which is published by the American Mathematical Society. You can order it from the AMS or through Barnes and Noble. Strangely, it does not show up yet on the Amazon website. I guess Jeff Bezos is asleep at the wheel.

I’ll probably always think of this one as my “pandemic book.” I started working on it officially on October 1, 2020, and for the next twelve months it was almost the only thing that I worked on. A large fraction of the book, three out of eight chapters, is devoted to the way that mathematicians responded to the pandemic. The chapters progress roughly from large scale to small scale. The first is about epidemiological models in the general population (don’t call them “forecasts”). The second talks about what happens when you have subpopulations with different characteristics — say, college students or prisoners or vaccinated people. When is it safe to open up a college? Why is it impossible to contain an epidemic if you have a massive incarcerated population? Finally, the third chapter talks about COVID-19 within the human body. How does the immune system work and why does it not work in people with severe cases? What are some targets in the virus itself that we can use to develop anti-COVID drugs? Many of these questions seem biological, but every one of them involves mathematical models.

When the COVID epidemic began, I initially had great zeal to write articles about it, but that zeal waned fast for two reasons. One was that the epidemic itself was such a depressing experience, as the lockdowns took away human contact and made every day similar to every other one. The second was that information about COVID was changing so fast, so something that seemed exciting and important today might be wrong, debunked, forgotten in a month or two. It was difficult for me to see the lasting value in the articles I was writing.

What’s Happening gave me a chance to step back and recalibrate. What can I say about this epidemic that might have permanent value? And What’s Happening also freed me from the pressure to produce something “newsy.” I was able to spend a month or two interviewing researchers in depth and understanding the intricacies of their models, which was not easy. The three COVID chapters were basically finished by the end of March last year. I was worried that they, like my initial forays into writing about the epidemic, might be outdated by the time the book finally came out (a year later!). But when I look at those chapters now, I think they held up remarkably well. Partly that is because of the honesty that mathematics imposes. If the model is mathematically correct and consistent, it will continue to mean something a month or a year from now. The only thing that might invalidate it is that we might find some of the assumptions that went into the model were wrong — but that’s not a mathematical error. In any case, it means we have learned something, and that is the way that science is supposed to progress.

So if you’re sick of reading politicized takes on the pandemic, take a look at these three chapters and learn about some pandemic science stories that you probably never heard before.

The best thing about the other five chapters of What’s Happening is that they are not about the pandemic! Life went on, even during the pandemic, and math did, too. Four of the chapters are about various topics in pure math, which are by turns fun and abstruse and sometimes both. The other chapter is about the mathematics of climate change. As in the chapters about the pandemic, the challenge was to say something new and interesting about a subject that has so much written about it in the popular media that has little value or consequence. Here again, mathematics is my guide. If the math is good, then there is surely something that we can learn from it.

So now, when somebody asks me what I did during the pandemic, I finally have something to show them!

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Analysis Without Words

April 7, 2022

Last year, after bingeing too many times on chess games played against the computer, I said, “No more.” I actually stuck to that resolution for about seven months, but then I updated the operating system on my Apple computer. The chess program I had on that computer (Shredder 12) no longer worked, so I pulled […]

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“There’s No Such Thing as an Even Trade”

March 12, 2022

First, let me say that the title of this post is not literally true. However, it’s something that I like to tell my students, and it’s not as far-fetched as it seems. It’s intended to correct a very harmful mindset that starts affecting players as soon as they learn the values of the pieces. According […]

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The World Changes Again

February 27, 2022

February, 2020. A previously little-known virus escapes from China, and within a few weeks it is everywhere. Even for those who were not infected by the coronavirus, it completely changed our view of what was possible. Most of us had never been through a worldwide pandemic that killed millions of people. Now we have, and […]

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The Student Draws the Master

February 13, 2022

The headline says it all! Yesterday, my student Atlee (~1500) scored his first draw against me in our weekly training game. I knew this was going to happen eventually, and I wondered what it would take for Atlee to draw or win. The short version: I blundered a piece but managed to fight back and […]

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Levels of Truth

February 1, 2022

As I mentioned before, I’ve been playing a training game each week with one of my students from the Aptos Library Chess Club, Atlee, who is about a 1500-strength player (I’m guessing). The games follow an interesting pattern. I win, I teach Atlee a lesson, then I come home and go over the game on […]

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Catastrophes in the Nimzo

January 16, 2022

When you play the move 1. d4 as White, you’re generally saying that you want the game to be a sumo match rather than a sword fight. You’re tired of all the sharp tactics of 1. e4, whether it’s the Sicilian Defense or the open games. You want to just get a solid, safe space […]

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New Year, New Opening!

January 12, 2022

Last weekend Gjon Feinstein and I met up for not only our first live chess games of the year, but our first since the pandemic began. Back in the long-gone days B. P. (before pandemic) we used to meet very frequently, at least once every two weeks. Times have sure changed. We saw each other […]

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Fairer Chess?

December 31, 2021

One of the first things that kids love to do, after they learn the rules of chess, is to tamper with the rules. I’m not sure why. For example, they say, “Let’s make every piece a queen!” Sounds like fun in principle, but what happens in practice is that every move is a capture and […]

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