A Soggy New Year

by admin on January 18, 2020

Somewhat belatedly, this is my first post of 2020, so I wish a happy New Year to all of you who are (like me) about two weeks behind.

The main explanation for the absence of new posts is that I spent ten days in Hawaii! For vacation? You might wonder. No, in fact I was working quite hard — probably harder than when I am at home. For the first five days I was in Honolulu, attending the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society. For five days after that I was on the Big Island (or Moku o Keawe, for those of you who want an authentic Hawaiian name for it).

The reason for my trip was that I want to write about the controversy over the building of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea. This construction, originally scheduled to start in July, has been delayed indefinitely by protests led by the kia’i or defenders of the mountain — native Hawaiians (mostly) who believe that Mauna Kea is sacred and should not be spoiled by the construction of one of the world’s most enormous telescopes. My hope was to talk with people on both sides: the astronomers and the kia’i, as well as people caught in the middle, such as students and ordinary people.

In fact, my trip was wildly successful; I got lots of interviews and learned a lot about all aspects of the issue. In particular I learned that there is a whole spectrum of opinions on the TMT and about many related issues. It really oversimplifies the problem when you reduce the complicated spectrum of opinions down to a single word, “pro-TMT” or “anti-TMT.”

Because this is a chess blog and not a blog about astronomy, Hawaii, or politics, I am not going to go into any more detail here about the TMT. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to write about it elsewhere. If not, then at least I managed to educate myself.

The rest of the trip was quite an adventure, especially the back half of it when I was on the Big Island. We had monsoon-like rain for three of the four days I was there. I had never seen rain like this! It wasn’t like raindrops dropping from a cloud, it was more like someone dumping a bucket of water on you, and dumping and dumping… The airport in Hilo recorded 3 inches of rain on Sunday, but there were some places on the outskirts that got 7 inches. And some places on the island recorded more than 20 inches in a two-day period. It was insane! All of the main highways across the island were closed due to landslides or floods. This ruined my plan to drive to Mauna Kea on Sunday, and it even jeopardized my plan to get to the airport and fly home on Monday. Fortunately, the rain finally tapered off and Monday was a decent day. I was able to drive to Mauna Kea and spend a couple of hours at the protest camp, and from there I drove to the airport and caught my plane flight.

This photo pretty much sums up my experience in Hilo. The sign says, “Area Floods During Heavy Rainfall.” This was actually the least rainy day of my stay in Hilo; the next day the road was completely underwater.

Another reason for the absence of posts lately is the fact that my laptop finally died, or became unusable (which is kind of the same thing). That means I temporarily have no access to Chessbase and also have more limited means for generating chess diagrams. I can still do it using Shredder on my desktop, but it looks like an annoying procedure where I have to save it as a PDF and then convert it to a JPG. Also, for computer analysis I trust Shredder less than I trusted Rybka.

Anyway, I should have a new laptop and a new copy of Fritz 17 within a few days, which I’m looking forward to very much, and at that point I should be able to get things up and running again much as they were before.

I did get to play some chess on my trip! The public library in Hilo has a board-game afternoon open to the public every Saturday. I found three other people playing chess and had a good time. In keeping with Hawaiian hospitality, they graciously let me win all of my games. 😉

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by admin on December 30, 2019

Yesterday Mike Splane hosted his last chess party of 2019. Though somewhat lightly attended (only eight people this time) it gave Eric Steger and me a chance to show our games from the last round of the Kolty Chess Club championship, in which we tied for first. Also, Mike showed his last-round game, which I thought was quite instructive, though not for exactly the same reasons Mike did. I think it’s a great illustration of a concept I just learned a name for: “quiescence.”

Position after 9. … Bf5. White to move.

FEN: rn1qr1k1/pp3pp1/2pb1n1p/3ppb2/2P5/1P1P1NP1/PB1NPPBP/R2Q1RK1 w – – 0 10

In this position, Mike startled us by saying, “White wins by force,” and further saying that he had to analyze ten moves deep to find the win. He gave us some time to “find the win,” and this turned into one of the longest and most awkward silences I’ve heard at one of his parties, as nobody could see anything remotely resembling a win for White. Finally Richard Koepcke broke the silence by saying, “Mike, I think you’ll just have to show us.”

In fact, Mike’s first two moves were the same moves that I would have played:

10. cd …

This is useful, as it loosens up Black’s center and moves a step closer to opening the long diagonal.

10. … cd 11. e4! …

While it is a good, thematic move, it’s just not right to say that this move is winning. Richard pointed out that 12. … Bg4 is certainly okay for Black. If 13. h3 Bh4 14. ed Nxd5, 15. g4? would be a bad idea, leaving many weaknesses in White’s position (h4, f4, d3). Instead, the computer recommends 15. a3 (keeping the knight out of b4, and also preparing b3-b4) with a minuscule, 0.1-pawn advantage for White. This seems like a fair evaluation to me; both sides have targets, and after 15. … Nc6 Black has caught up in development.

However, my main purpose isn’t to criticize Mike’s over-optimistic evaluation, but to talk about the very interesting mistake his opponent now made.

11. … de?

Black should have realized that this is exactly what White is hoping for. Now the play gets really tactical for a really long time.

12. de Nxe4?

Pouring oil on the fire. There was still time for Black to cut his losses with 12. … Be6 or 12. … Bh7. By “cut his losses,” I mean that Black has to sacrifice the e-pawn for probably insufficient compensation. The second capture on e4 turns an already risky position into a catastrophe.

After the game Mike asked his opponent (Raymond Fergerson, a class-A player), “Why did you play this move?” Fergerson’s answer was extremely revealing. He said, “I thought you blundered a pawn.”

Just contrast the approaches of these two players. On move 10, Mike spent 20 minutes thinking about the position and analyzed the tactics 10 moves deep. His opponent, on the other hand, analyzes two moves deep and concludes that his opponent blundered a pawn. In a nutshell, that is the difference between a master and an amateur.

A question that people often ask masters is, “How many moves ahead do you calculate?” or “How many moves ahead should I calculate?” There are many answers to this question, some facetious and some serious, but I recently read one answer that I thought really hits the nail on the head. In his book Is Your Move Safe?, Dan Heisman (well-known chess teacher and national master) says that you should calculate until the point where the position becomes quiescent. He defines this as follows: “A quiescent position is one where further checks, captures, and threats either do not exist, or further analysis of them would not change the evaluation of the position.”

“Quiescent” is a great concept that I have struggled to put into words. When I teach my kids in chess club, they have no sense of quiescence. Sometimes they want to keep analyzing way past quiescence, in positions where one player has won a rook or a queen. More often, they want to make a very superficial, snap judgment about a position where there are all sorts of things happening (as Fergerson did here). The first is a waste of time, and the second one is an invitation to blunders.

I don’t want to pretend that quiescence is an easy concept. In fact, I think that many games are won and lost right up to the grandmaster level because one player sees a position as quiescent, while his opponent keeps on analyzing and finds a deeper tactical resource. It’s very often a judgment call, as the last words of Heisman’s definition indicate (“further analysis of them would not change the evaluation”). But Heisman has at least given us a standard that you should aspire to. You should not stop analyzing until the position calms down tactically – unless you are low on time, in which case you might just have to go with your instincts and roll the dice.

But here, on move 12, no one was low on time. And the position is anything but quiescent. There are discovered attacks and loose pieces galore (f5, e4, potentially d6, and finally the little prizes at b7 and a8 that are waiting for White at the end of many variations). Black has to be attuned to that and play a move like 12. … Nxe4 only if he is absolutely sure he has a way to hold everything together.

13. Nh4 …

This move is so obvious that I would probably have hardly looked at anything else. It forces an immediate crisis: Black has two pieces hanging and he cannot defend them both. His only hope is to keep capturing material and hope that he ends up with more in the end.

13. … Nxd2 14. Nxf5 …

Again, really obvious, although I give Mike credit for looking at several other options. The key point to me is that this move turns the knight into a powerful attacker, while any other move leaves it on h4 where it is potentially going to be a bystander.

One key point is that after 14. … Nxf1 the knight is trapped on f1, so White can very comfortably play 15. Nxd6. Although White is down the exchange, quiescence has not been achieved yet. Black has a rook hanging on e8, a knight hanging on f1, a pawn (and then a rook) hanging on b7, and a weak pawn on e5. Therefore we should keep analyzing. The most reasonable moves seems to be 15. … Re6 16. Nxb7 Qxd1 17. Rxd1. Still not quiescent: White still has back-rank threats and discovered-attack threats. After 17. … Nc6 18. Na5 White threatens to win the exchange. Still not quiescent. 18. … e4 stops the threat – but only for a moment, because 19. Nxc6! Rxc6 20. Bxe4 is a lethal skewer. White wins the exchange back and will also win the knight on f1, thus ending a piece ahead. We may now consider the position quiescent. Before playing a move like 12. … Nxe4, this is how deep Black should have analyzed. (And we have to give Mike a lot of credit, because the combination is ten moves deep, just as he said. Actually eleven, if you start with 10. cd.)

Even so, we’re still not done with our analysis, because Black has other variations besides 14. … Nxf1. In fact, he played one of them:

14. … Bc5

Here White could play 15. Bxb7, but Mike has prepared some even stronger medicine.

15. Qg4! …

White gains a free tempo because of the mate threat on g7. This gives him time to save his threatened rook on f1. The only slight worry after that is his sensitive pawn on f2. But Black has a zillion things to worry about, while White has only one.

15. … Qf6 16. Rfd1 g6

Black’s position is so bad that you have to consider really desperate alternatives like 16. … Bxf2+ 17. Kxf2 Qb6+ 18. Ne3 f5. At first it looks as if Black may be getting somewhere, because 19. Qxf5 runs into a skewer with 19. … Rf8. Or does it? We have to keep analyzing to quiescence, and if we do that, we quickly see that 20. Bd5+ turns the tables. But 19. … Nc6 might still leave some room for argument. So I think that White’s most precise move order (after 18. … f5) is 19. Bd5+ Kh8 (or 19. … Kf8 Qxf5+) 20. Qa4. Now all the problems for Black come home to roost: the loose rook on e8, the loose knight on d2, the weak pawn on e5. And don’t forget, Black has already sacrificed a piece to reach this position. I think the most fitting finish is 20. … Nc6 21. Rxd2 f4 22. gf ef 23. Qxf4 Rf8 24. Bf7 Rae8 25. Qxh6 mate! In this variation we never really got a quiescent position until checkmate.

The actual game continued

17. Rxd2 Nc6, and White eventually won.

Finally Black finishes developing, but his 17th move basically puts up the white flag because he is a piece down with no compensation. The last try was 17. … Qxf5, but then White can simply trade queens and take the b-pawn: 18. Qxf5 gf 19. Bxb7. White isn’t just winning the exchange, he’s winning a whole piece because the knight has nowhere safe to move to. Once again, it has taken us ten moves to reach quiescence and a position that is safe to evaluate.

You can legitimately query whether Mike really had to analyze ten moves deep in this game. Maybe he could have stopped somewhere around move five or six: White just had too many threats, so it was extremely unlikely that a miracle move would come along to get Black out of trouble. However, I would warn you that the penalty for stopping your analysis too early is much greater than the penalty for stopping your analysis too late. Black found that out the hard way in this game. Don’t let it happen to you!

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R+P vs. Q: The Naughty List and the Nice List

December 26, 2019

In my last pre-Christmas post I wrote about the game Magnus Carlsen – Levon Aronian, in which Carlsen played a beautiful rook sacrifice that enabled him to promote a pawn. However, when all was said and done he still found himself in a fiendishly difficult endgame to win. Here is the position after Carlsen’s 41st […]

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The Sickest Move of the Year

December 24, 2019

This is part one of a two-part post. Come back after Christmas for part two! Every now and then I see a game that makes me realize that the chess I play is just a completely different game from the chess that 2800 players play. I’m looking at you, Magnus Carlsen. FEN: 8/P4pkp/2Rp2p1/8/8/7P/1r3rP1/R5K1 w – […]

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Addendum: Tiebreaks

December 21, 2019

As you know from my last post, I tied with Eric Steger in the 2019 Kolty Chess Club Championship, both of us scoring 6-1. At the time I thought that it was very likely that Eric would win the tiebreaks, but I was mistaken. Wolfgang Behm, the tournament director, sent me an e-mail to let […]

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… And Now For the Thrilling Conclusion

December 20, 2019

Unlike a good mystery novelist, I will not keep you in suspense. I won my game in the last round of the Kolty Chess Club Championship. That gave me a record of 6-1 and a tie for first place with Eric Steger, who also went 6-1. I don’t know yet for sure, but I think […]

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Fortune Favors the Brave

December 13, 2019

Sometimes chess is about logic and finding the right moves. Other times, chess is about the things that sports are about: coping with adversity, finding opportunities, and exerting your will. That was the kind of game I played last night in the sixth round of the Kolty Chess Club Championship. If you look at it […]

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Trying Too Hard to be Like Petrosian

December 7, 2019

First of all, I won the game. So don’t get the wrong impression from the title of today’s post. In round five of the Kolty Chess Club championship, I defeated Michael Ho with the Black pieces to improve my record to 4-1, still within striking distance of the leader. (More about that below.) However, I […]

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Rainy Sunday

December 3, 2019

This weekend we had an abrupt change in the weather in Santa Cruz. After zero inches of rain so far this fall, the heavens opened and we had three straight days of downpour. The only thing to do was stay inside and play chess, so Gjon Feinstein and I met up with Eric Montany. Actually […]

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Poor Confused Computer Needs Your Help

November 23, 2019

Last night, in the fourth round of the Kolty Club Championship, I was paired against an expert, Chris Atkeson. We played what I think was a really high-quality game… and as it usually happens in games where nobody makes an obvious mistake, we drew. It was a draw that both players were happy with (at […]

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