Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Post paste (with Grandmaster Keene)

I know we posted on Ray Keene a few days ago but barely had we done so than his reputation was besmirched on Edward Winter's Chess Notes, which, surely unfairly, accuses England's leading chess columnist of copying, an accusation unheard-of in Grandmaster Keene's long and distinguished literary career.

However, at the weekend Grandmaster Keene provided a defence so powerful and persuasive, on his Chessgames.com entry, that we felt it ought to be brought to the attention of our readers.

The complaint against Grandmaster Keene involved a passage concerning the Guinness Book of World Records and published in Mr Winter's Chess Notes on 29 October 2006 (see #4682).
'The world's biggest-selling book' is the boast on the back cover of Guinness World Records 2007 (London, 2006). Two pages include entries on chess: page 99 has a couple of dozen words about Sergei Karjakin being the youngest grandmaster, while page 137 offers brief features on the smallest and largest chess sets, as well as the following: 'On 25 June 2005, 12,388 simultaneous games of chess were played at the Ben Gurion Cultural Park in Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico.' That is all. The four entries from the 2006 edition (see C.N. 4035) have been dropped.

Although poker has five entries on page 136, games such as draughts and bridge receive no treatment at all, and the editorial team's interests are evidently on a different plane. For example, pages 8-9 document such pivotal attainments as 'most heads shaved in 24 hours', 'fastest time to drink a 500-ml milkshake', 'longest tandem bungee jump', 'fastest carrot chopping', 'largest underpants', 'most socks worn on one foot' and 'fastest person with a pricing gun'
That was written nearly two years ago. This month, Chessville published a piece by Grandmaster Keene discussing the Guinness Book of World Records - choosing, no doubt for very good reasons, to write about the same 2007 edition Winter wrote about two years ago (although the piece is illustrated with a photo of the cover of the new, 2009 edition).

Anyway, Grandmaster Keene writes:
"The world's biggest-selling book" is the boast on the back cover of "Guinness World Records 2007". Seven pages in total include entries on Mind Sports: a couple of dozen words about Sergei Karjakin being the youngest chess Grandmaster, while another page offers brief features on the smallest and largest chess sets, as well as the following: "On 25 June 2005, 13,388 simultaneous games of chess were played at the Ben Gurion Cultural Park in Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico."

Although poker has five entries, games such as draughts and bridge receive no treatment at all. For example, it documents such pivotal attainments as "most heads shaved in 24 hours"; "fastest time to drink a 500ml milkshake"; "longest tandem bungee jump"; "fastest carrot chopping"; "largest underpants"; "most socks worn on one foot" and "fastest person with a pricing gun".
It is hard not to be struck by the remarkable similarity between the passage originally written by Mr Winter and the passage subsequently written by Grandmaster Keene. Indeed, as noted on Grandmaster Keene's Chessgames page, by an apparent snark using the handle Justinpatzer, some of the phrases used in the two pieces are so individual, that of all the billions of articles appearing on the Internet their use is exclusively, or almost exclusively, restricted to these two pieces alone.
Oddly, a Google search for the phrase "is the boast on the back cover" produces only three hits, one of which is Mr Winter's piece and one of which is GM Keene's.

The phrase "such pivotal attainments", however, produces only two. One of which is Mr Winter's piece, and one of which is the subsequent piece by GM Keene.
He continues:
Extraordinary, too, that they should single out the same seven records - in the same order - as deserving the description "pivotal". I note that on Mr Keene's website, there is a piece suggesting that Mr Winter is, in fact, Mr Taylor Kingston.

But perhaps the truth is even stranger - GM Keene is, in fact, Edward Winter?
Well, whoever this snark may be, there is surely no need to take him seriously. Because Grandmaster Keene provides a perfectly adequate, indeed unanswerable explanation of the similarity between the two pieces. Of course there has, in fact, been copying - but he was not aware that it was Winter he was copying from.

He tells us - indeed, he tells the world:
i have an email note to myself from feb 2007 to write at some point about the guinness book of records -and the wording i have is the one quoted here- at the same time i also bought the book to check the facts-i have never read ed. winters chessnotes for ages-in fact i thought they had been discontinued after his contretemps with hanon russell. the first mention i cd find in chessbase archives of these comments-when i looked back- was in feb 2008. all i can think of is that somewhere winters comments may have been quoted without authorship or attribution so i regarded them as being in the public domain -i wd never quote ed. and i never knowingly read what he writes.i am -of course-happy for chessville-for whom btw i write entirely free of charge- to append any genuine attribution for any quoted material-no problemo!
What bad luck! It happens to the best of us, and Grandmaster Keene surely is the best of us. But of course we cannot and must not suspect him of copying from a writer he says he doesn't even read: that would be to cast doubt on his word as well as his integrity, and in all Grandmaster Keene's long literary and entrepreneurial career, no such thing has ever previously happened.

We must, surely, believe this, even though on the Internet there is no apparent trace of Mr Winter's work being reproduced, as Grandmaster Keene suggests, "without authorship or attribution". No doubt it was there until recently, but, as is often the case on the Internet, it has - in the last couple of weeks - disappeared, leaving no trace at all for the search engines.

These things happen. Even to somebody who can boast the impeccable professional reputation that is possessed, deservedly, by Grandmaster Raymond Keene.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Club News: The Season Starts

Welcome back to the club news slot, which again will be featured fortnightly on Mondays - starting today with two bits of news.

And our first bit of club news is, alas, bad news. Drunken Knights can certainly put out a strong first team when they want to in the London League, as their victory over last season's Champions Wood Green showed. And on Monday 22nd against ourselves, they put out a very strong team indeed - including no less than an International Master on board six . . . We succumbed 6½-3½ on the night, with two games adjourned.

Secondly, a date for your diary: Tuesday 7th October, 7.30pm. And a location: Woodfield Grove Tennis Club, our home venue. And the reason? We will be holding a Blindfold Simultaneous Display, with FIDE Master Rawle Allicock bravely taking on 7 to 10 of our club players. Any bets on the final score?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Chess related gubbins

Recently we gave you t-shirts, today it's candles.

The pieces are available in either colour but since prices range from £12 for a pawn (15 cm tall) to £35 for a king (32 cm) building a full set would be rather costly.

I found these at Soho's do-shop.com, just a few doors along from Fernandez and Wells - my current favourite coffee shop.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Chess in Art XVI

Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare Playing At Chess

Karel Van Mander (attr, 1604)

[Chess in Art index]
[Chess in Art collected]

Friday, September 26, 2008

Dog eat doggerel

The new chess season has arrived, and shortly most of us shall be playing our first meaningful games for several months. But if, like myself, you have barely seen a chessboard over the summer, it is entirely feasible that you will have completely forgotten the rules of the game. Fear not! For those who can no longer tell a passed pawn from a frog's pawn, as Bill Hartston put it, below is a comprehensive and not at all convoluted aide memoire courtesy of the great D.B. Pritchard (right):

The KING may move a single square in any free direction;

Should he succumb the game is lost, so play with circumspection!

To crossword clues a ROOK may take - it moves across and down;

If lines are clear he changes gear and really goes to town.

The BISHOP travels cornerwise if ways are unrestricted,

His diocese but half the board - the rest is interdicted.

The QUEEN may radiate at will if she is not obstructed;

Like rook or bishop, as required, her journeys are conducted.

The KNIGHT, a problem child, extends (according to decree)

To the diametric corner of a figure two by three.

The PAWN moves only forward, and but a single square;

Is promoted on the eighth rank (assume it reaches there).

Initially, however, its functions to enhance,

The pawn retains the option of a double-square advance.

- D.B. Pritchard, The Right Way To Play Chess. (Kingswood: Right Way Books, 1950), p.19.

Never let it be said that the S&BCC blog fails to provide a public service. The challenge today, dear readers, is to extend this verse: in the comments box, please provide additional couplets in the Pritchard style explaining a) the en passant rule and b) how to castle. The most imaginative entrant wins Tom's cats, or something.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Shadow

"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!" From 1930-1954, the wealthy Lamont Cranston was one of the best-known characters on radio, using his mystical powers to fight crime. The only person who knew The Shadow's true identity was his "friend and companion, the lovely Margot Lane" ...

"The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay! The Shadow knows!"

I'd never heard of The Shadow until last night when I came across a radio play called "The Chess Club Murders" while browsing i-tunes for anything connected with our favourite game. I couldn't resist the dialogue from the preview clip ...

Margot Lane: Why the hurry to get to the club Lamont?

Lamont Cranston: I'm due there right now for a directors meeting.

ML: (laughing) Oh Lamont, that's the dullest thing I've ever heard of. A directors meeting in a chess club.

LC: There's nothing dull about it. You see there's quite a feud going on down there. It may split the club wide open.

ML: Ooh it sounds momentous. What's the trouble is somebody trying to change the colour of the squares?

LC: Alright, alright. Have your fun.

ML: Well what else could a chess club feud be about?

... and immediately splurged all of £0.95 to download the entire episode.

I was feeling very pleased with my bargain until I discovered this website and found that you can listen to the whole thing for free.

It's 29 minutes long. Go on. You know you want to.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Things fall apart

A few bits and pieces for your amusement, here on this miserable-looking Wednesday.
  • Dead-rock-legend to-be Pete Doherty played chess at school, according this report. The headline of the article has already inflated the revelation from a former classmate, saying Doherty was a "chess champ". The way news reporting goes in this country, he'll be a Grandmaster by the weekend. The way FIDE is going, he might be anyway.

  • It's always worth keeping an eye on our comments, here at S&BCC. Like yesterday's find by David of this curiosity where by move 18 (see diagram) white had managed to achieve eight isolated pawns, maintaining them until move 22 no less. It doesn't get any better than that. Or worse.

  • Finally, sports fans amongst the readership will no doubt know that Portsmouth took a 6-0 battering the weekend gone in the Premiership. And lo, this coming weekend sees the Portsmouth Congress - a six rounder spread over three days, offering you the chance to repeat that scoreline. I'm playing in the Open where I'll probably be on the receiving end of it. See you there?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Something I found in an old Chess Magazine

Theoretical Novelties
by Malcolm Pein

Pergamon Chess Vol 53 No 2, May 1988

This position did not occur in Short - Sax, Game 3 St. John 1988 but might have done so had the Hungarian played ... a5 instead of ... Rxh4?? on move 27 (see below).

Has anybody actually been able to achieve seven isolated pawns in a real game? How about all eight? Black has a couple too. Is nine isolated pawns on the board simultaneously a record?

after 27. ... a5 one line is 28. Re1 axb4, 29. Rxe4 Kf7, 30. axb4 reaching the position at the head of today's blog.

btw: the TN under discussion was 12. ... f4.

Monday, September 22, 2008

How do you solve the problem - with Sofia?

The brief draw that was agreed by Adams and Short at Liverpool, and the subsequent shortness of the leading games in the final round, have raised the question, once again, of the problem of the short draw in chess, whether something needs to be done about it, and if so, what.

I've never felt it very urgent to address this question, for a number of reasons, one of which is that it's a mite hypocritical for me to do so seeing as my ratio of draw-offers-made-to-draw-offers-received runs at something like five or six to one. Another is that a lot of commentary on the subject tends to come from The Man In The Bar, who has no interest in understanding why short draws happen or indeed in anything but mouthing off about it. (Sometimes this commentary comes from people who do know and understand why they happen, but mouth off anyway and pretend they don't.)

I found myself agreeing very much with John Saunders:
the players themselves... have a living to make and a limited shelf-life (very few players maintain their status and earning power after the age of 45-50 these days). They simply adapt their approach to the prevailing conditions. They carefully assess their share of the prize and how many rating points they stand to win or lose. Where the two players' aspirations coincide, a draw is going to happen regardless of the demands of the spectator. They agree draws because they can.
It's easy to complain when somebody plays for a draw: less easy to explain why they should listen to you when it's their living at stake rather than yours.

Players have other reasons than money, too. They are trying to chase IM and GM norms, for instance, or trying to avoid risking too many rating points. (The present writer threw away a dozen Elo points at a single tournament this summer, by losing the last two games to lower-rated players. A couple of short draws would have suited my needs much better.) As ratings, and titles, have a sizeable impact on whether players get invited to tournaments and what conditions they receive if they are, it is asking a lot to expect the professional player to ignore them. And it is too, too easy to simply accuse them of a lack of fighting spirit.

A third reason is that I remember similar discussions taking place in the world of football when it was at a very low ebb twenty years ago. We needed to change everything, to rip up scoring systems to make this declining game more exciting before it died.

Points for goals (Jimmy Hill, I believe) or awarding penalties for every foul (Hill again) or deciding drawn games on the basis of a corner count (Peter Corrigan in the Observer) or having shoot-outs at the end (because the North America Soccer League was such a roaring success).

Eventually none of this happened: the points system was tweaked a bit (three points for a win) the playing rules a tiny bit (the backpass rule) and football turned out to be enormously popular after all, not because of those changes but because it always had been. The game was what it was.

Still, there is a point of view that we are in a different world from the one in which we used to be, and that while it offers chess an opportunity to attract spectators which has never really happened before (or not in the West, at any rate) a serious part of that audience will necessarily come from people who are not regular chessplayers, who like the game and will follow it live on the internet (especially if there is sympathetic commentary) but are not likely to show much understanding, in any sense of the word, if they log on in great anticipation only to see 1/2-1/2 come up beside the board twenty minutes in.

Which is not to say that the regular players are that fond of the grandmaster draw either - but we'll come back next time, because it's still our game. Just as football fans will almost always come back next time regardless of the performance they see this time, because it's still their team that's playing. The casuals, however, may likely not.

So if that is to be considered a problem, it's a problem first and foremost for people organising professional chess tournaments and as well as for people concerned with how chess relates to people in the wider world and how it fares within our culture. John continues:
Delivering entertainment to spectators is not an issue for professional players themselves to decide – it is for tournament designers to address. The need to get tournament formats and prize structures right is becoming urgent because we now have a new – and huge – internet audience to consider... the problem obviously needs to be addressed if professional chess is to move forward and attract sponsorship
So if it is to be addressed - how? With what specifics in mind?

One can of course find any number of past discussions of the issue by means of a short search of the internet - sometimes involving the most convoluted ideas as to how the problem should be addressed - but this is today's. So today I'll identify and discuss five different potential ways of addressing the short draw problem, these being:
  1. the Sofia rule
  2. cash prizes for winning individual games
  3. skewing prizes towards the top
  4. three points for a win
  5. invitations policy.
I'd reject on principle more complicated ideas that involve splitting the points with a second, tie-breaking game or awarding a larger portion of the point to Black than White. You want tournament tables to be readable: you also want the rules to be comprehensible to the outsider. What is not simple, in this situation, is not good.

1. the Sofia rule

This has been tried out in a number of major tournaments now: it seems popular and is likely to be seen more often. Simply, it refuses the players the right to make draw offers directly to one another: they must be made through the arbiter, which can only be done in cases of perpetual check, threefold repetition and "theoretically
drawn endgames", the last of which requires some expert knowledge on the part of the arbiter.

The main success of Sofia is surely in eliminating the draw that occurs when either equality has been achieved or when an unclear position has been arrived at: the "cowardice" draw, if you'll forgive my coining a phrase that is somewhat short of fair. What it doesn't help with so much is the prearranged draw, since it's always possible to go down a line with an early threefold repetition or perpetual check provided you trust one another (or the line has been agreed on beforehand). There were some early repetitions in Liverpool - and I'm not thinking of the Adams-Short game here - that did make my wonder whether they had happened naturally or were just ingenious ways of achieving a quick draw while looking like you'd tried to do the opposite. I can imagine some people might think that's clever.

Also, Sofia is only suitable for a small and presumably closed tournament: where there's dozens of boards the arbiter will have many better things to do than act as a letterbox for people's draw offers. So that would have counted it out at a tournament like Liverpool: or for that matter, the British. (Or at least, until I get my way.)

2. cash prizes for winning individual games

In some tournaments there are rules encouraging attacking play by awarding cash prizes for wins. I assume there are different arrangements in different tournaments, but in Benasque, for instance, I believe it applies during the last four rounds, on the top fifteen boards only. (How much the prizes are, I couldn't tell you - you think I'm that high up the pairings that late on?) How effective this is, it's hard to say: I'd have thought it unlikely to induce a player to take risks that might cost him or her a shot at a four-figure prize if a draw will keep them in the running.

But if this is an issue of professionals playing safe to keep themselves in the money, possibly the answer does lie in changing the structure of the money.

3. skewing the prize money upwards

Prize money is, of course, already skewed upwards, but I mean doing so to extremes, having a much smaller number of much larger prizes, so that nobody with a record consisting largely of draws is likely to get close to it.

I believe that this is common, or more common, in the US, and it makes a certain amount of sense. In poker, it's not unheard of to have winner-takes all tournaments - sometimes these are even on the television, which is something chess might like to bear in mind - and if it leads to a more enthusiastic and a larger audience, one can argue that if the size of prizes increases and the number of opportunities to win them increases also, then many professionals will find themselves better off in the long run. Especially if they show more fighting spirit than they do now.

Moreover how badly would anybody be affected if the bits-and-pieces prizes were to disappear? Annoyingly, I can't find the entire prizes list from Liverpool, which I remember seeing previously on the tournament site, but if I recall correctly then after the top four, nobody won more than £337. Not peanuts to me or you, perhaps, but I don't really believe that anybody lives by winning bits-and-pieces prizes every week. So if they have to win the big prizes anyway, why not make 'em bigger?

Worth thinking about, perhaps, though one suspects that as a philosophy it conflicts with (and will not work with) the practice of giving "conditions" to titled players. And if you do not offer conditions, the titled players will go elsewhere, to a tournament that offers them more security. If you do offer conditions - then the players are not so desperate for the prize money. That's why conditions exist.

Well, you say, then abolish conditions - people shouldn't be paid just for turning up. But in fact, most people are paid, in some sense, for turning up, so it is not such an outrage that a professional chessplayer should be. But more importantly, if we consider outcomes, then how good is the US model at producing and sustaining professional chess? Not very. And without so many professionals, you do not have much of a professional circuit. So there will not, perhaps, be so many big prizes to win, and those big prizes will not, perhaps, be quite so big. (Besides, how do you encourage players to keep playing when they're out of the running for the small number of players?)

It might be added - the tournament at Sofia, which prides itself on producing attacking chess, has no prize money. Everything is paid in appearance fees. Which provides a completely different lesson, or at least a completely different point of view.

4. three points for a win

I believe that when this was used at the recent Bilbao tournament it was the first time it has ever been the system at a major chess tournament anywhere: I'm not even sure that the system has been used at any great number of minor tournaments. It seems to have functioned well, without any real complaints or any real anomalies: then again, none of the competitors at Bilbao has a particular propensity to take a lot of early draws.

It seems to work well in football, despite the claim that it originated in the mind of Jimmy Hill and despite the illogicality of splitting two points such that one side receives three of them. This in itself has made it easier to contemplate in other fields. It is simple, widely understood and provided an obvious incentive not to take the draw. Though of course, that is not quite so straightforward as it may seem: it's not as if defensive play has entirely disappeared from football. It's not a simple matter to understand or explain, but to look at one aspect alone, it is still perfectly possible to defend in the knowledge that the opposition has an incentive to attack - and is therefore, perhaps, more likely than before to allow a good defensive side to score goals on the break.

Similarly in chess, there may be just as much incentive as before to play a cagey game in the hope that your opponent, greedy for the win, will commit themselves to attack when perhaps they should not. But we can live with that: from the spectators' point of view, they see a struggle all the same. The idea is not to insist that everybody plays like Tal: it's to discourage or eliminate the early draw.

There are, of course, other objections to three-points-for-a-win. I am not sure if it will mess about with rating systems, but another objection was voiced on this site by Richard on Friday:
3pts for a win is not a viable option when there are serious and material differences between playing with the black and white pieces. It would certainly necessitate a remodelling of the pairing system to prioritise getting a colour balance over pairing players on the same scores.

It also puts far too much importance on the "luck of the draw".

Therefore it can only be considered viable in all play all events (as, indeed, in football)
I wonder, though, how far is this true? Or rather, not how true, but how important? Most closed tournaments, for instance, already have a White/Black imbalance, as do Swiss tournaments with an odd number of rounds, and to do well in the latter it is already necessary to try and win some games with Black. Moreover while there clearly is some injustice involved, we might well decide on pragmatic grounds that this was relatively small and a small price worth playing for a more attractive game. And maybe, given that necessity is the mother of invention, grandmasters will get better at playing for a win with Black.

This might be true and it might not: but at any rate the idea seems worthy of wider consideration and I see no insuperable reason why it should be limited to all-play-alls.

5. invitations policy

This was the point made by John Nunn in an article for Chessbase on the draw question.
As for my own suggestion, it is really quite simple. I am constantly astonished at how often tournament organisers invite noted draw specialists to their event, and then throw up their hands in horror at the number of quick draws that ensue. We all know who the drawing experts are, and if you don't know then it doesn’t take much work with ChessBase to find out. It is up to organisers to invite players who show fighting spirit to their events. The category of a tournament isn't everything, and organisers could be more imaginative in inviting slightly lower rated players who show imagination and fighting spirit. When the drawing masters see their invitations dry up, it might encourage them to change their styles.
Nunn's point is a good one, though of course it's not quite so easy as that: I played in an Open in the Czech Republic in 2006 which also featured two all-play-alls, an IM and a GM tournament. The highest-rated player in the GM tournament, proceeded to play eleven draws, nearly all of them quick (and the exceptions being games in which he was losing early on and had to rescue the half-point). Was this a notorious draw-master? No, it was a world authority on the Black side of the Leningrad Dutch.

I have no idea why it happened or who was to blame. But I wouldn't be surprised if the organiser didn't take Nunn's advice and invite somebody else the next time.

I always thought it would be a good idea to hold a tournament and invite only players with a reputation for original and daring play - Jacob Murey, Mike Basman, Jonny Hector, players of that kind. Perhaps this will happen in the future: if organisers think it's going to get them (and therefore their sponsors) a bigger audience, they'll invite players people will log on to watch. And nobody will log on to watch somebody play nine or ten short draws.

I mentioned Sofia above - that's an annual super-tournament with an invitation-only policy which relies on the players producing fighting chess. Play hard or don't come back - it's a policy the organiser can only take if they mean it. It's also a policy easily abused. I thought, for instance, that Luis Rentero's behaviour as his Linares tournaments was high-handed and petulant, and disprectful to both players and the game. But if, after a tournament, you don't think a player has given of their best, then you surely have the right not to ask them back. And then other players know you mean it.

But - like everything else on the list it's an idea of limited applicability: it applies to invitational tournaments and only to these. It won't work so well, if at all, with opens, with world championships, with national and transnational championships. Even in super-GM tournaments it might not always work as well as Sofia might suggest. Because what happens if a drawmaster is world champion? What if some of the biggest names - and therefore the biggest attractions for the audience - aren't the most aggressively-minded players? The tournament organiser doesn't necessarily have the whip hand. The strongest and most famous players have the most clout. So what happens if they prefer to use that clout for peaceful purposes?

Does it really matter? Isn't it normal, anway, for the casual audience to find that a sport isn't all excitement and end-to-end action? I'm sure everybody else who follows football as a fan is used to the syndrome whereby people who haven't been to a game in their lives tune in for a World or an FA Cup Final - which game is usually more cautious than the average match - and then tell you that the sport you love is boring.

It's a syndrome that I can't necesarily see how we break. The more important a contest, the more likely it is to attract the casual spectator. But at the same time, the more important it is, the more likely the players themselves are to exercise caution and to consider no consequences other than what suits them best. They're supposed to - that's what professional sportsmen and women do. And you can't necessarily so anything fundamental about it without fundamentally altering the structure and integrity of the game. If you do that, the likelihood is that the casual audience soon gets bored and wanders off to the next fad.

Besides, does it really matter, in an Open, or even in a closed tournament, if some of the players are peaceably inclined? My early experience of watching chess in London involved the Candidates' Semi-Finals and the World v USSR match. I remember almost nothing about the former games - there were only one or two games to watch (or none at all, on one occasion, where both games were postponed). The other was fantastic, because with ten games going on, if it wasn't happening in one place it was happening in another. That's perhaps the way it is. Who cares if some players agree quick draws on this board or that? On another board, they won't.

Of course I underetand that it does matter to some extent, in the circumstance that the main attraction, the players people have logged on to watch, play quick draws against one another, as happened with Adams and Short at Liverpool. But if they're still going to be the players people will to see the next time, then what can you do?

Professor Robertson, chief organiser of the Liverpool tournament, comments:
Some thoughts on 'short draws'. No tournament promoter, myself included, likes to see games concluded without a fight. Sponsors get confused; and the vast hordes of online spectators are disappointed at prospective enjoyment spoiled. But efforts to reduce or eliminate the 'short draw' offend against other aspects of the contest. 'Sofia rules' ban draw offers altogether; variants ban draws in under 30 moves, and so forth. These are, in my opinion, artificial intrusions that compromise the integrity of the contest. 'Bilbao rules' attempt to avoid this by introducing an incentive to win that doesn't interfere with the contest itself. Where 'Sofia' is the stick, 'Bilbao' is the carrot....

...the type of question we need to answer is: when is a win not in itself a sufficient premium? Put another way: at what point do additional incentives equalise the risk of seeking a win with the security of taking a draw? If we knew the 'tipping pont', we could design the incentive.

Clearly no sensible 'win' incentive could work in certain situations. Two examples from opposite ends of the problem. Last year in the GB v China match, Jonathan Rowson took heavy defeats in the first three rounds. He became disspirited both personally, and for his team. He simply had to end the sequence of defeat. No one raised an eyebrow when he quickly halved out in his remaining games. Jonathan didn't lack fight; he lacked form. Second: this year in the final round just gone, Jan Werle sees his closest rival draw. A draw now nets him a prestigious title and tournament win, not to mention plenty of cash. So an uncontested draw, it is. Between these two extremes, some 'tipping point' exists. But quite where is hard to establish.

For that reason, I've had no draw limitations in any tournament I've promoted. I prefer to trust the great players to look to their responsibilities and look after the game. It is after all their livelihood.
Fair enough - mostly - although I seem to remember the same Professor Robertson arguing, in re: the GB v China match, that in order to produce fighting chess it was merely necessarily to ask the players nicely. (I paraphrase, but I do not think I distort.) This isn't really the case, and if it were, it is unlikely that there would be a debate in the first place.

As there are a number of ways of addressing the problem - including deciding that it is not so great a problem that it needs addressing - and as all of these may be useful in certain circumstances but not in others, what I imagine will happen is that they will all be tried, at different times, by different organisers. The outcomes will be evaluated and discussed, in different ways and from their different perspectives, by the different groups involved, being professional players (of different standards) and organisers and sponsors and writers and chess fans both serious and casual. And at the end of the day, they will come to different conclusions. But hopefully something will be learned.

In this piece, however, I've tried to avoid coming to any conclusions at all. Which has not been hard, since there are none that I have come to. It's just a discussion. Over to you.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Chess Geeks

My Birthday cake

Rodolphe the Chef gets to work

Click to enlarge if you want to find out what's attracting T.C.'s attention

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Chess in Art XV

Arabes jouant aux échecs

Eugène Delacroix (1847)

[National Gallery, Edinburgh]


Ludwig Deutsch (1896)

[private collection]

[Chess in Art index]
[Chess in Art collected]

Friday, September 19, 2008

It was Adams, and it was Short

Michael Adams v Nigel Short, European Union Championship 2008, penultimate round, position after Black’s move 9...Be7-g5 - and indeed after Black's 11...Bh4-g5, after which White played 12.Qg3, inviting a repetition and offering the draw which Short accepted.

This swift and abrupt finale to a much-anticipated game produced a certain amount of disappointment, if not actual criticism. (In my case it produced a certain amount of relief that it had coincided with Jonathan's fortieth birthday posting, since otherwise I might well have liveblogged the game and this would have been a very damp squib indeed.) Whatever the rights and wrong, I don't think it was what any of us had wanted to see.

However, on the English Chess Forum, the tournament organiser, Professor David Robertson, bids us put aside our disappointment: it wasn't what it looked like. He says:
Adams-Short was not a "short draw", absolutely not in the sense that neither player relished the fight. I've spoken to both players at length this evening, separately and together. Both are largely in agreement on the circumstances. Adams arrived ready to play for a win; Nigel arrived well-prepared for Mickey. Nigel out-prepared Mickey, and Mickey was forced to bale out or risk significant disadvantage.
Well, fair enough. But is it really so simple?

It's probably not too much to say that Michael Adams could be considered the world authority on the White side of the Tarrasch version of the French Defence. I can think of no player, since Karpov ceased to play to super-GM strength, who has played 3.Nd2 so exclusively, for so long, at such a high level. Even in the 3...Be7 variation (in which Adams, normally almost unbeatable in the Tarrasch, has lost a couple of games to Morozevich) it would be highly unusual for him to be out of his depth before ten moves had been played. Is that really what happened?

Looking at the Chessbase online database, I find that after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Be7 4.e5 c5 5.Qg4 Kf8 6.dxc5 Nc6 7.Qg3 the reply 7...Nh6 had apparently only been played once before, previous to the game under discussion. But that game was scarecely obscure – Svidler v Nepomniachtchi in the 2006 Russian Championship, a game in which White declined the repetition with 12.Qa4 and went on to win. I'll say with confidence that it is inconceivable that Michael Adams has not studied both that game and the diagram position. He must therefore have formed a view on whether White was obliged to acept the repetition, or whether it could be avoided, either in the way Svidler did or with some other move. Yet nevertheless he chose to go down this line, and a grandmaster draw resulted.

So why would he do this?

(a) Although playing for a win, he deliberately chose a line in which he knew he would have to accept a draw, in the hope that Short didn’t know it. (This seems unlikely.)

(b) Although he thought White should be able to play for a win with Qa4, he was surprised that Short was prepared to go down this line. He therefore assumed that Short had also investigated the variation and come to a different conclusion, and on the day he lacked the nerve to test his preparation against Short’s.

(c) He was surprised by 7...Nh6 and decided that this was not an occasion on which he wished to reveal his preparation after Qa4, and thus decided to accept a draw rather than show it.

(d) This is all irrelevant as the players had implicitly agreed to draw before the game and therefore went straight for the repetition.

I'm not sure which of these best represents my view. But I'll say this, too, with some confidence: I don't think the evidence is wholly compatible with the idea that Adams arrived at the board full of desire to play for a win.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Two against one is not quite equal

L'Ami v Laznicka, European Union Championship, 2008, eighth round, position after White's 59th move, in which he took the last pawn on the board and thereby created the unusual ending of two bishops against a knight.

This is one of those endings of which our view has changed since computers were set to work on them. My edition (McKay, US, 1941) of Basic Chess Endings - which I consider still to be the greatest single book ever written about chess - has relatively little to say about the ending, and, perhaps unavoidably, is not able to offer a definitive opinion. Fine does say that (of all two-pieces-against-one combinations in pawnless positions) "two Bs against Kt offer the best winning chances of all" and he adds:
Attempts have been made to show that two Bs win against Kt in all positions, but the prooofs are inconclusive.
Half a century later in Batsford Chess Endings (1993) Jon Speelman was of a different view, giving four different ways to break down the "Horwitz and Kling fortress" (which can be seen here) which process takes, if Wikipedia is correct, a maximum of 45 moves with best play.

One assumes this means 45 moves until the knight is captured: the point is worth raising, since you'll see different figures used in these situations, and those different figures mean different things. When, for instance, I entered the diagram position in the Nalimov Tablebase it informed me that Black loses in 55 moves. Ah, more than 50, I thought - until I realised that of course this was 55 moves until mate, a distinctly and importantly different yardstick.

Indeed, while typing the last paragraph I received Wednesday's Chess Today in which Alex Baburin makes the point explicitly: "White checkmates in 55 moves against the best defence", although a more useful figure to give might be the number of moves it takes to capture the knight. I'll not take you through the analysis itself (you can of course employ the database to do this for you) except to give the final position:

in which, on White's 38th move after capturing the final pawn, the knight is finally trapped.

So, you ask, does this mean this is now a winnable ending within the fifty move rule? As it happens, not all positions of this type are won within the limit, since not only does it take nearly fifty moves to break down Kling and Horwitz, but it can take some time to get there in the first place, taking us well beyond the fifty. Wikipedia suggests 66 moves as the absolute limit, though Speelman gives 69 - so I can only assume that the analysis available to him a decade and half ago has been improved upon.

For this reason, there was a period of some years in which the fifty move limit was extended for (mostly) pawnless positions of various types. In 1992 the rule was changed back and the fifty move limit was applied strictly to all positions, which, in fact, had not been the case before.

Speelman gives two examples of the defender failing to hold the position: the second game of the 1961 Botvinnik-Tal rematch and his own defeat at Linares in 1992 by a very well-informed Jan Timman.

Laznicka did all right on Tuesday, though: and L'Ami threw in the towel after seventeen moves. Whether through fatigue, frustration, or recognition that his opponent knew what to do and he did not, I cannot say. Personally I'd have no idea whatsoever what to do if the ending ever came up: probably I'd just move the pieces around the board and see what happened.

But that's pretty much what I do most of the time.

[Also see John Saunders' round eight report from Liverpool.]

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Interesting French Exchange VI

incorporating JB's Favourite Moves III

Today is the day that the Tick Tick Tick ... is over. I've finally arrived at the age of 40 so a celebration is in order I think. What could be better than an S&BCC blog post that covers one of the most fascinating opening variations and one of my favourite moves at the same time?

After 1. e4 e6, 2. d4 d5, 3. exd5 exd5, 4. Bd3 Nc6, 5. Ne2 Bd6, 6. c3 how about Alekhine's 6. ... Qh4?*

White's quiet play leaves Black with a lot of options to choose from here. Psakhis, for example, has analysed ... Nge7 and Watson mentions ... Bg4 while somewhat further back Nimzowitsch recommended ... Nf6 and Alekhine himself also suggested ... Qf6 as a possibility.

Regardless of the objective merits of these moves it seems to me that amusement value alone demands 6. ... Qh4 be played. After all, it's not often that flinging your queen into opposition territory right at the beginning of the game is a remotely sensible idea. There's also the fact that ... Qh4 only works because Black is taking advantage of being a move behind in development**. Pleasing as these two points are, what I really like about the idea ("!!" according to C.J.S. Purdy, a more restrained "!" from Watson) is that Black isn't trying to start

or conclude

A. Bloke v J.B. @ RHP

an attack. No, he's chucking his queen deep into the enemy position simply to impede White's development. "It was important to prevent 7. Bf4" says old Alexander*** and I can't but agree.

What's not to love about 6. ... Qh4?**** The only downside is that I so rarely get to play it. Just once in fact and then, sadly, although I got an extremely good position out of the opening the game ended as if Amir Khan had suddenly taken over control of the Black pieces. Cue an instant knock-out.

Ah well. Maybe I'll get a chance to make amends to ... Qh4 soon. In the meantime there's always Alekhine's games to enjoy.

Two Alekhine wins on the Black side of a ... Qh4 French Exchange and the prospect of cake later on too. Being 40 is turning out to be not too bad at all.

The Interesting French Exchange
OK, I admit it. The French Exchange can be dull.

Castle long then chop him up.

Castle short then (nearly) chop him up.

Korchnoi shows the way.

Uhlmann can do it too.

Other posts that cover the French Exchange
Gurevich-Short, 1990
Nosher wins a critical game.

JB Plays the Black side of the French Exchange
but doesn't handle the clock very well.

Favourite Moves
JB's Favourite Moves I
JB's Favourite Moves II

Favourite Moves Index

* Just to be clear, the '?' is for the sentence not the move.

** As pointed out by C.J.S. Purdy. Needless to say Black wouldn't want to play ... Qh4 if White hadn't already committed the knight to e2 thereby losing the option of kicking her majesty with Nf3. Moreover in the French Exchange Black often plays ... Bd6 and ... Ne7 but the response Qh5 is ruled out because White will typically have already blocked the d1-h5 diagonal by developing the king's knight.

*** C.J.S. Purdy quotes Alekhine thus in "Action Chess: Purdy's 24 Hours Opening Repertoire", Thinkers Press Inc. 2000

**** See *

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Seeing things

While most of you were probably watching England beat Croatia last Wednesday, I was following the chess from Bilbao, as the game between Anand and Aronian stretched out well beyond the time control. Anand, having blundered, found himself with rook for queen, but in an ending that, it seemed to me, Aronian might easily fail to win.

One of my earliest memories of watching live chess on the internet involves a Gelfand-Svidler game from the FIDE world championship in 2001 which came down to Gelfand's rook against Svidler's queen, and other than that just the two kings*. It must have been a frustrating and embarrassing experience for the Russian, who will have known that it was a theoretical win, and presumably also knew roughly how it should be won - but in practice, he couldn't do it. (Especially embarrassing, on at least one occasion he missed a simple win.) It's not so easy though, especially with time running out. If you feel like giving it a go, try winning the same endgame against the computer - with the analysis window hidden. Not easy at all.

Anyway, Anand didn't manage to put up the same fight Gelfand had - or rather, Aronian proved rather more adept at finding the right line than had Svidler - and we got to the position at the top of the column after Anand had played 71.Kc5-b6. I was just expecting Aronian to check on e6 and finish off the game, when the online service claimed he had taken on a5 with the queen instead.

This seemed improbable unless either Aronian was doing it for a bet, or there had been some earlier error in the rendering of the moves and the position was therefore not as given. Still, play continued for some moves - the queen, suspiciously, not being captured - and I gave up in frustration and started following the football on text updates. Later, I went back to the Bilbao website and found that it had been corrected. The queen hadn't gone anywhere near a5: Aronian had indeed checked on e6 and won in short order.

No great harm done. Nevertheless, once that sort of thing starts happening, you start distrusting the evidence, not so much of your own eyes, as of the online board in front of them.

On Saturday we came to the last round and the last game to finish, Aronian v Radjabov. After Black's 44...Qc3-d3 we reached the position immediately above, and I naturally expected Aronian to finish the game with 45.Rbe1. Instead, however, after Aronian had thought for a long time, the board showed that he'd played the incomprehensible 45.Reb2.

What madness was this? Instead of winning the knight and the game, he takes his rook away from the open e-file and puts it en prise to the bishop on f6.

Naturally, the rook was captured and Black won the game in a few more moves: equally naturally, I decided that in all probability no such thing had happened and that there must have been some sort of transcription error prior to the Aronian's inexplicable 45th. I continued to believe this until opening my daily Chess Today newsletter the following morning and finding out that Black would have enjoyed rather more play than I had thought.

Alex Baburin gives a main line 45.Rbe1 Rxb3 46.Rxe8+ Kc7 47.Qh7+ Kb6 48.c5+ dxc5 49.Ne3 (49.Bxb3? Rf2+ 50.Kg1 Qf3! -+ is difficult to foresee, but impossible to answer) 49...Rb2+ 50.Kg1 (or 50.Ng2 Rff2!) 50...Qxh7 51.Bxh7 Rg3+ 52.Kf1 Rf3+ with perpetual check.

Indeed, if you input the position before White's 45th into a chess engine, you may find that at 14-ply, the winning advantage awarded to 45.Rbe1 (which, although less than on earlier assessments, is still a tasty +2.00 on my Rybka at 13-ply) suddenly flattens out to 0.00. It's still barmy though, since having a perpetual check half a dozen moves down the track is better than resigning after five, as actually happened. (I don't think White can do better than a forced draw: Baburin offers 46.Ne3 as a possible alternative but it doesn't seem to make any difference after 46...Bd4 47.Qg5+ Nf6).

So something, still, is very wrong. What did Aronian see? And what did he think he saw?

[* in point of fact this isn't quite true, since Svidler could, I believe have held onto his extra pawn with 75...Qf1. But even after that, the ending is of course still won.]

Monday, September 15, 2008

Clothes for Chess Players?

Now. Either my dress-sense has reached a new all-time low (again), or Chess Motifs really do produce some great clothing. My favourite from their vast array is this Fischer t-shirt:

And don't worry if green's not really you - it's also available in various other colours, a few different styles, as well as as a hooded-top, a tracksuit for women, a mouse-mat, a bumper-sticker, a bag, a teddy-bear, a mug, a bib and (as Americans are wont to call pants) as knickerbockers.

Then again, this badge looks to me the best reason to begin the game with an orangutan that I've seen for a long while:
You can buy a hundred here.

So will you see Chivers decked out in such items at a chess tournament near you soon? Probably not. Shipping from the States is usually prohibitively priced, and frankly, it's quite possible my dress sense really has just hit a new all-time low.

Or has it . . .

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tick Tick Tick ... X

Flag Hanging

I'm seems like we've only just said goodbye to last season but already the next one is just eight days away. Will a new chess year be any different to all the others? For some of us perhaps ...

  • Our London League Second Team captain has new domestic arrangements. There used to be a widely held view amongst professional players that getting married automatically led to the deduction of a good wodge of rating points. This time around Antony will be finding out if the same applies to amateurs. He, sensible lad, is rather more concerned about the impact of the demands of another year of getting us all to Golden Lane on time.

  • The allegedly rusty T.C. has not (yet) joined Antony in either matrimonial bliss or team captaincy but he does now have a swanky new grade to defend not to mention his title of S&BCC Club Champion.

Somehow I expect another successful season for both my club mates. My own prospects I'm not so sure about since I'll be finding out whether reaching my 40th birthday does indeed result in the immediate leakage of brain tissue out of the ears. Either way it is the passing of that particular milestone that I'll employ as an excuse to explain any disasters that befall me at the chess board over the next year.

Different or otherwise, one thing that is pretty certain is that most of us will be back. Our game, for the most part, is just not the sort of hobby that a person walks away from. Why so? Well to borrow and then mangle a phrase of Martin's from his latest contribution to the comments box (here):-

This is chess not art

That we all implicitly accept this is the only explanation I can think of for why we keep returning despite the near impossibility of playing the game properly. It's the competition that's the thing. We play because we like to play. We play because the rubbish we serve up for ourselves is better than not playing. Prettiness and accuracy are the exceptions not the rule and we accept that to keep playing.

Win Ugly was T.C.'s advice from his recent Improve your Chess series. Well most of us don't have any choice. Marriage, advancing ratings or advancing years won't change that.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Chess in Art XIV


Paul Klee (1931)


Paul Klee (1937)

[Kunsthaus Zürich]

[Chess in Art index]
[Chess in Art collected]

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ray of hope

The prominence of Ray Keene in English chess is such that I often feel he should be awarded some sort of official title, perhaps in lieu of "Grandmaster", which status, in Ray's case, is rather reminiscent of the safety routine on an aircraft: it is mentioned so often, without actually being used in practice, that nobody takes any notice of it any more.

Tatmaster might not be inappropriate, to mention one area where he has some stiff competition but nevertheless leads the the field. Grand Self-Promoter has a certain appeal: Ray On Anything usually means Ray On Ray. Van Gogh painted himself thirty-seven times, but at least when he painted The Potato Eaters he didn't paint himself in the middle of the picture, distributing chips. Or, as would be more likely if Ray were the artist, sitting at his favourite table in Simpsons-in-the-Strand, being served personally by the specialist Potato Chef.

Van Gogh, of course, was a genius, and died penniless. Ray's genius lies largely in his capacity to avoid that condition by an enormous distance without doing much that is meritorious to deserve it. It also lies in getting on my nerves, as occurred when I happened on this posting on Sean Marsh's blog and suffered some persistent irritation as a result.

You may read the whole thing yourselves, should you possess the patience, but in brief, it largely consists of a letter from Ray to Kate Hoey, proposing the organisation of an annual grandmaster tournament in London. Well, what an admirable venture, you may think, and you would be wrong. Of course in principle you would be right, but in this particular instance you would be wrong.

Why do I say so? There's a few reasons, as it happens, but in the first instance, I don't believe that prestigious chess tournaments - or anything else - are organised by people writing letters out of the blue to the Mayor's office, containing no concrete proposal, no indication of any funding and nothing at all more specific than an invitation to lunch.

What's more, I don't really believe that Ray thinks that either. If Ray had anything serious to say, he wouldn't be popping a letter in the post, he'd be in Kate Hoey's office talking to her about it. He'd be in her office - having first of all discussed it with her boss, Boris Johnson, for whom Ray worked at the Spectator for a period of six years. Or perhaps Boris isn't answering Ray's calls these days. Which is probably a good thing, but it casts some doubt on the suggestion that Ray is Mister Mover and Shaker in the world of chess.

He does, it's true, mention Boris in his second paragraph - the one in which he refers to the 130 books he's written, while wisely omitting to mention the reputation this oeuvre, substantial in numbers if in no other way, has earned him. Did I mention that Ray On Anything is always Ray On Ray? He starts to talk about himself in his second paragraph: the actual proposal has to wait until his sixth.

Prior to this, we have a spiel about how
chess is an extraordinarily - even uniquely - effective remedy and antidote in the fight against Alzheimer's and related dementia illnesses
which might or might not be true, but it is odd - or it ought to be - that rather than attach some of the research that has taken place on the subject (in the New England Journal of Medicine) Ray attaches
an article I have recently written for "The Times" about this
presumably considering his piece a more impressive authority.

Well, I could go on, as Ray goes on, eventually informing Hoey in a classic Ray Keene touch that
My preferred route would be to invite you to lunch at Simpsons in the Strand so that I can explain at leisure
but it is Friday and I suspect our readers lack the determination to plough though the whole letter raising their eyebrows at each questionable claim. So suffice it to say that:

i) an examination of his letter reveals that the total amount of funds so far raised towards the project is nil, this also being the total amount of effort that Ray has so far put in to secure any ;

ii) the letter, despite being written in May, has received no response.

Well I never. How rude.

I have been racking my brains to work out precisely what Ray is up to here. I have narrowed it down to three possibilities:

a) Ray knows very well that this is bullshit, but has written the letter as an effort-free way to make good publicity for himself ;

b) Ray thinks that something of the kind might happen in the future and has written the letter so that his name comes up if it does - it's all about positioning Ray Keene ;

c) I am quite wrong above and Ray really has started to believe his own publicity, perhaps as a result of spending too much time at Simpsons-in-the-Strand.

If so he must have been terribly disappointed that so far he has received no response. I am a little less so: personally I'd quite like to see a grandmaster tournament in London, but I'd like to see Ray Keene separated from any attempt to organise same.

I have to admit he has a certain style, Ray. I don't mean a certain style, in the sense that Thierry Henry or George Clooney has a certain style, I mean a certain style, which in his case which involves saying things that aren't, really, entirely true but which at the same time are not, entirely, demonstrably false. Not so much False Memory Syndrome as remembering with advantages.

Or perhaps the sheer extent to which he keeps getting away with it does constitute style, of a sort. Ray Keene as Arthur Daley. Or Ray Keene as Budgie.

Photo: Chessbase

Yes, I should probably let him bother me less, and see him instead as a comedy act, an important part of our cultural life, his place cemented by many years of performing a well-rehearsed and well-loved act. That title? Chief Embarrassment to the World of English Chess.

Oh, I see Ray's getting into vanity publishing now. A shame that, since I've always thought of vanity publishing as a means of parting the unwise from their money while doing very little for them. Which, for Ray, would be a new departure.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tick Tick Tick ... IX

Best Served Cold

Short v Arakhamia-Grant, 10/09/08

"That Short result can't be right . . ."

said T.C. as he pointed me in the direction of the EU Chess Championships live feed and the final position of Nosher's game against Arakhamia-Grant. I couldn't but agree ... until EJH suggested I read John Moore's post on the English Chess Forum:-

Round 2 breaking news - those who think that the result of the live Game Short- Arakhamia is a misprint and that it was agreed drawn are wrong. Nigel's phone rang - default 0-1.

So who was it that left Nigel hanging on the telephone? Is it out of the question, I wonder, that Nosher's mystery caller was Doris Stokes passing on a message from Tony Miles?