Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Yes It Really Does Have Something to do with chess

For many, Scrabble is merely a board game. For others it is an intellectual pilgrimage. In this book, Stefan Fatsis, journalist and self-confessed word freak, goes in search of the people for whom Scrabble is life and affords us a glimpse into the extraordinary world of the brilliant geeks and misfit savants who populate the highest ranks of the game.

Or so it says here.

I know. It’s about Scrabble. It’s a damn good read too. Much better than you might expect from the exceptionally mediocre publishers blurb.

And, yes, it really does have something to do with chess. Fatis’ book is littered with references to our game. Aside from the one on page 296 that goes

Almost all of the greatest chess players were afflicted with various neuroses, breakdowns and mental illnesses

without any supporting evidence or further investigation, the allusions to chess make an already interesting book even more fascinating.

It’s been a couple of months since I watched Word Wars - a documentary that came after Word Freak - but I don’t remember it making any explicit mention of chess. Even so, I think you’ll find it hard to watch without finding that the portrayal of the Scrabble tournament circuit and players rather reminds you of us and what we do. It’s an hour and twenty minutes long, but the film - and the book that inspired the film - are very much worthy of your time.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Our Electronic Pals: Then and Now

Black to play
Anand - Chess Genius, Intel Grand Prix (rapid) London 1994

Anand - Chess Genius. Perhaps you recognise the position from The Last Move of 2014. Well, Anand’s next move is going to be 36 h3-h4 after which he’ll wrap up the game rather easily. He can only do that, though, because first our electronic friend will play a real stinker: 35 ... h5??

We learnt from Ivanchuk - Jobava (SMA#30) that engines are still able to make a total horlicks of pawn endings Give your computer today’s position, though, and I’m pretty sure it won’t want to play ... h5. After a few seconds’ thought it’s my machine’s 9th choice with an evaluation of more than +13. Hell, even my three-generations-out-of-date phone sees instantly that pushing the rook’s pawn forward two squares is disastrous.

Things were different back in the 90s. It was a strange time for computers. The Chess Genius might have been able to toss out a move that even I can refute at a glance, but it was equally capable of defeating World Champions. It only got to play Anand in the first place because it had duffed up Garry K in an earlier round, after all.

Like I said, it was a strange time.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

What the well-dressed chess plagiarist is wearing today

I had no idea Ray had taken to dressing down in public. Whatever next?

[Ray Keene index]

Friday, January 23, 2015

Bad book covers XXXIII

Le bond du tigre au-delĂ  1600 Elo, volume 1, Jussupow, 2012.

[Thanks to Niall Doran]
[Bad book covers index]

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Not so smart

Having talked yesterday about how enlightening computers are, here's some evidence to the contrary.

This is Stockfish, running on an Android smartphone, against the owner of that smartphone, your humble servant. Position after my 43rd move.

It's the first smartphone I've ever had and therefore baffles and frustrates me in various ways, but at least I can always have a game of chess. Naturally I've skewed the clock to give me half a chance - the program gets sixty seconds for the whole game plus one second a move, I get fifteen minutes plus ten seconds a move plus access to the pause button - but even so the pattern is that the program wins long streaks of games punctuated by the very occasional win for me and the almost-as-occasional draw. And after 43 moves this seemed likely to be neither.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Giri Ivanchuk, last Saturday: "White is winning."

Very winning.

Or not, as the case may be.

Monday, January 19, 2015


White to play
van Wely - Wojtaszek, Wijk aan Zee (2) 2015

Someone told me during a recent tournament that he did not need to study the endgame because of his last twenty-two games only two had reached this stage. Later in the same tournament I saw him self-destruct in a position where he could have made it to a slightly worse endgame that offered drawing chances.
Jacob Aagaard, Excelling at Chess

Aagaard’s book might have been published 15 years ago, but that passage could have been written for van Wely’s game at Wijk last week. OK, the details are all wrong. We're talking about a king and pawn ending not endgames in general, the possibility to trade down occurs in a queen ending rather than a middle game and the question is can White win rather than will he save the game. We might add that vW obviously has studied pawn endings at some point.

Yes, the specifics are out of whack, but the central point is exactly the same. To wit: it can be helpful to know positions and ideas even if you never actually get them onto a board during a practical game.