From the mailbag: hula, horrified gasps, etc.

by admin on April 2, 2009

I’ve been slacking off on both my chess blog and my chess studying so far this year. Just look at those single-digit numbers of posts: 7 in January, 4 in February, 6 in March. But there’s good news, chess fans! With my first big tournament of the year approaching in a little over a week, I’m going to try to study a little bit each day for the next week to prepare. That should also provide some good material for this blog.

But first, let me respond to some of the great comments I’ve gotten in the past week.

First, Michael Aigner sent a link to an amusing video of Jennifer Shahade playing a chess simul while spinning a hula hoop at the same time! This is surely something that has never been done before. Some of you might wonder whether there is any connection between hula dancing and hula hooping. To the best of my knowledge the answer is no, but I can’t say that I have thoroughly researched the issue. I think the reason for the name “hula hoop” is that the gyrating motions of a hula hooper resemble some of the moves of a hula dancer. In particular there is a basic movement called “ami” in hula that involves moving the hips in a circle while keeping the upper body still, and this skill would be perfect also for keeping a hula hoop going.

It’s interesting how hula helps you discover certain muscles you weren’t aware of. My kumu, Leolani, talks about beginners “discovering their hips,” and it’s true; you can see it when it happens. It happens at different rates for different people. Some people figure out almost instantly how to move their hips independently from their body, and others take one or two years or more.

Thanks for the link, Michael!

Rob also sent a hula-related link on YouTube. The Merrie Monarch festival is the biggest hula event in Hawaii every year, and the “Miss Aloha” competition is the most prestigious event at the festival. If there is anything like a wold championship of hula, this is it. The video that Rob linked to shows Natasha Oda, the winner in 2001, performing her winning kahiko (ancient-style dance).

The performance is mind-blowing to me in several ways. First, there is the fact that she never repeats anything in this dance. The kahiko that we do in the Hula School of Santa Cruz usually have four or five verses, each one repeated twice. Our class is struggling now with a dance that has six verses, OMG! When you compare what we’re doing to what Natasha Oda is doing in the video, it’s like comparing nursery rhymes to Shakespeare. Nevertheless, the basic steps and a lot of the gestures are similar everywhere. So I can definitely pick out a few things in this video that I understand — “ike” motions for seeing, “ka la” for the sun, et cetera. One of the commenters on the YouTube video wanted to know more about what the dance is about. If you dance hula for a couple of years, you definitely become a more educated spectator.

Mahalo for the link, Rob! I will definitely look at more of the hula videos on YouTube, now that I know where to look.

Back on chess, Henry asked whether Jesse Kraai, Eugene Perelshteyn, David Vigorito, and I [ChessLecturers all] would all come up with the same plan if we were showed a middle-game position. The answer is, it depends on the position. I’m going to show you a position in my next post where I think we would all come up with the same answer; there is one plan that is clearly superior to the others. But in other positions, I think that you would find significant disagreements.

That is one thing that makes chess so wonderful and so frustrating at the same time. In many cases there is no “right” answer, or to put it differently there may be several right answers. It depends on the player’s personality and a lot of other things. So I think that if you are always looking for the “objectively right” move, you are making a mistake. Chess is a game about decisions, making good decisions move after move after move. This means you may have to decide between two moves that both look good in different ways, or two moves that both look bad. I think it’s definitely true that grandmasters have a more finely tuned sense of what is better and worse than amateurs do, but nevertheless they disagree. All the time.

As a general rule I would say that tactical positions are more likely to have a “right” continuation than more strategic positions. But what if you have a position that can be treated either strategically or tactically? Then you’ve got a decision to make!

Thanks for your question, Henry!

Finally, Zach posted a great comment that started as follows: “I am Zach and I am a 12 year old chess player. My current rating is 1233 (big, horrified gasp) …”

Hold it! Stop right there! First of all, 1233 is a great rating for a 12-year-old. I started playing tournament chess in 1972, at age 13, and my first rating was 1226. So you’re ahead of me! In general, the less that you can worry about your rating, the better. At your age, you WILL improve, and rapidly, and so the rating really doesn’t mean much. But also, you WILL hit a plateau at some point, and then you will panic and think that you aren’t getting better any more, that you’re a washout and a failure. That is also not true. You can keep right on improving even though your rating doesn’t show it — and then suddenly, when you least expect it, you’ll have a breakout tournament and your rating will go up again.

So, no horrified gasps here. Ever. Now let’s go on to the rest of the comment. Zach asked if I could look at his blog (right here) and let him know if he is on the right track with his opening comments.

Okay, first some general comments and then some specific ones. An easy trap for beginners to fall into is to become too fascinated with ratings, as I just mentioned. Another trap is to become too fascinated with openings. I think that what you have written about the various defenses to 1. e4 is fine, but I don’t think that what players under 1000 really need is to know the names of six or seven different openings. What they need most is to master opening principles, especially the Big Three of Development, Controlling the Center, and King Safety. Study opening variations if you must, but study them with those principles in mind. As far as specific openings are concerned, I think that at this point in your chess development you should try lots of them, and not get too locked into one or two yet as your favorites.

But here’s the part I like best about Zach’s blog post: “The French is an aggressive opening that again supports the d5 squre before thrusting out in the center with 2…d5. However, it locks in the c8 bishop. White will want to create a dark square blockade by putting pawns on d4, e5, c3, b4, g3, and maybe f4. The reason for this is to block in Black’s only ”good” bishop, his dark squared bishop on f8. A French game may go 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 Qb6. Notice all the pressure towards the d4 pawn. The queen, knight and pawn. This version of the French (1.e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5) is known as the Advance Variation. Notice how uncomfortable White’s position becomes. I came up with this line and although I am sure it is a official opening, I have not seen it anywhere. This is how it goes. 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. dxc5 Bxc5 5. c4.

French Defense, Zach’s Variation

Now it is White who is pressuring Black. If 5…dxc4 6. Qxd8+ Kxd8 7. Bxc4 Nc6 8. f4.

This line constricts Black’s play, and any resistance by playing 8… f6 to try to bust open the center is just fine with White.”

The first thing I want to say about Zach’s Variation is that regardless of whether it’s right or wrong, it’s YOURS. And that’s why I like this part of your post so much. You thinking about the position, questioning the conventional wisdom and coming up with your own ideas. THAT is a good way to improve! Notwithstanding my comments in the next few paragraphs, I think you ought to try this out against players of various strengths and see what happens.

My feeling is that this variation will get you in big trouble against strong players. The main reason is that you are neglecting the first of the Big Three principles of opening play: Development. In the first five moves you have not moved a single piece, only pawns, and one of your pawn moves was a capture that helped the opponent get one of his pieces out. So after four moves you were already behind in development, and instead of trying to catch up, you made … another pawn move.

A second problem is that you correctly identified the fact that Black gets a lot of pressure on d4 in the Advance Variation. But trading off the d-pawn does not help matters at all. You still have a number of weak points on the dark squares, notably e5, f2, and b2. With both a lead in development, and easy targets to attack, Black should be in very good shape here.

In your analysis you looked only at one line, which is one of the worst possible moves for Black: 5. … dc? After reading my comments above, you should be able to find lots of better moves that Black could play. In particular, the way to exploit a lead in development is to keep on developing! As long as Black keeps bringing out a new piece each move, White will continue to be at least a tempo or two behind. Secondly, Black should be looking for ways to pressure the weak dark squares I mentioned. If this leads you to look at moves like 5. … Qb6, 5. … Qh4, and 5. … Nc6, now you are starting to look at the things that really matter.

I’m going to stop my analysis here, because it’s your variation and you should do the work. I’ll just say that I think 5. … Qb6 is the wrong move order. 5. … Qh4 is really primitive-looking, caveman chess, but it’s surprisingly hard for White to deal with. This is already a hint that you’ve done something wrong, because your opponent shouldn’t be able to get away with stuff like this. 5. … Nc6 is, in my opinion, definitely Black’s best move, because it does everything we want: it develops a piece, pressures the dark squares, and it doesn’t commit the queen because Black is not quite sure yet where the best place for it is (b6 or h4 or somewhere else like c7). After the natural 6. Nf3, for instance, now 6. … Qb6 becomes a huge problem.

I have one more little remark about something that might not have occurred to you yet: pawn tension. In my experience, beginners hate pawn tension. When they see two pawns attacking each other, they don’t like it and they trade the pawns as soon as they can. So, for example, your reaction to 3. … c5 was to take the pawn and resolve the pawn tension, even though this is advantageous to your opponent because it brings the bishop to a good square. Likewise, after your move 5. c4, the first thing you considered for Black was 5. … dc, even though this is a bad move that weakens Black’s position in the center, allows a Queen trade that takes away his castling privilege, and has nothing to do with Black’s positional advantages. There are many times in chess when neither player wants to resolve the pawn tension. What you should do in those situations is either to force the opponent to release the tension (to your advantage), or else to alter the position in such a way that you can initiate the pawn trade without disadvantage.

If that’s too complicated, let me make it simpler: Learn to live with pawn tension! The proper timing of pawn trades is a subtle art, and you’ll never learn that art if you are always trading at the first opportunity.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Aziridine April 2, 2009 at 10:12 pm

Also (this is related to your idea of tension), just because you took my pawn doesn’t mean I have to take it back right away. After 4.dxc5 I don’t have to recapture – I can play 4…Nc6 and try to take on e5 instead!


chesstiger April 3, 2009 at 3:10 am

If that is Zach’s blog you link to i must say that i find it an amazing good blog for a 12 year old.

Secondly, you follow hula classes? Does this mean you are a master in moving your hips? Does it have an Elvis Presley move since he was know to move his hips in a certain way?:-)

Thirdly, as a chess coach i never teach my kids openings before they reach a certain level (lets say 1500-1600) because they first have to play and learn by osmosis. The golden rules, like for example develop your pieces, must be enough to survive the opening phase.

But then again, it seems Zach is really trying to understand what the moves do so it’s not all bad that he already study openings.


Zach February 24, 2010 at 6:45 am

Thank you for your analysis. I just recently went to your website and found your response to my comment. I see how bad my French Variation was, but I found a line that might make it slightly more playable. You listed three main options for black after 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. dxc5 bxc5 5. c4 You said that probably the best response was 5…nc6 6. nf3 nge7 7. bf4 ng6 8. bg3 0-0 9. nc3 and maybe white is ok. Against 5…qh4 simultaniously attacking f2 and c4 now 6. qc2! allows white to handle both threats. Then 7. nf3 getting ready to harras the queen. 6…nc6 7. nf3 and now of course the black queen just looks very silly. 7…qh5 adding pressure to e5. 8. bf4 nge7 9. rg1! Now black cannot play 9…ng6?? loses the queen to 10. g4!! if 10…qf5 11. bd3 and 10…qh3 11. rg3 and black must call it a day. 9…0-0 is not possible again because of 10. g4!! and 10…qg6 11. bd3 and 10…qh3 runs into the same problem of 11. rg3! 9. rg1 can cause black some grief in the 5…qh4 lines. 9…f6 is blacks best response to allow the queen to escape. In the 5…qb6 variations then 6. qc2 nc6 7. nf3 nge7 8. bf4 ng6 9. bg3 qc7! 10. qe2 bb4+ and only here is black better. So actually in 5…nc6 istead of 6. nf3 maybe 6. nc3! nxe5 7. cxd5 exd5 8. nxd5 with the threat of 9. bf4 and maybe on move eight white is already a little better. I took your advice and analyzed all of this. Please let me know what you think about it.


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