Welcome to Dana Mackenzie's chess blog! I am a national master, two-time former champion of North Carolina, and a regular lecturer at www.chesslecture.com. Don't let all of that stuff impress you, though. Deep down inside, I'm just an ordinary player. I don't play chess for money or glory, just for the love of the game.
If January 1 is a good time for resolutions, then July 1 is a good time for semi-resolutions. I’ve decided that it’s time for me to do away with playing chess against the computer, at least for the rest of the year.
One thing that crystallized this decision for me was meeting
with Gjon Feinstein for a few blitz games last weekend, and realizing that they
were my first serious games against another human, in person, since early
January. I am excluding the online games I’ve played against humans, which of
course are instructive but not quite the same as playing in person; also I am
excluding the games I sometimes play in chess club against the kids, which are
not serious games for me and which I only play as a good training exercise for
them. (And because they ask me to.)
Also, when I met with Gjon, I showed him one of my recent
games against Shredder, and he found it downright unpleasant to watch. Granted,
the position was wild and crazy and the tactics amazing, but it just bore so
little resemblance to normal games between humans that you couldn’t after the
game answer the question, “What have I learned from this game that could enable
me to play better in the future?”
But to end on a high note, I’d like to show you my last game against Shredder this year. It’s also only the second time I have ever beaten it when set at its highest rating (2600). I’ve played somewhere between 50 and 100 games against it at full strength, which should put my 2 victories into context for you.
This is also a good chance to show off my favorite opening again, the Bryntse Gambit, which I almost never get to play against humans but is easy to play against computers because they believe (incorrectly, in my opinion) that accepting the queen sac is good for Black. In my opinion it’s equal at best, and Black’s task is much more difficult than White’s.
Of course, Shredder at 2600 is usually up to the task, and
Dana Mackenzie at 2100 (my strength in action chess?) usually makes mistakes
eventually. But in this game, Shredder played with unusual passivity, and I had
to find only one or two good moves to break through.
FEN: rn1q1b1r/pp2p1pp/2k5/2p3N1/4pPB1/8/PPPP2PP/RNB1K2R b KQ – 0 9
If you haven’t seen it before, this is the tabiyah or basic setup for the Bryntse Gambit. White gives up his queen for two pieces and a pawn and a massive list of other advantages: better-developed pieces, Black’s shaky pawn structure, Black’s exposed king. Generally speaking, success depends on keeping Black’s stronger pieces (especially the queen) bottled up and ineffective, while White’s smaller and more numerous pieces take over the board and eventually make too many threats for Black to cope with. White typically gets the initiative for at least 30 moves, far too many for a computer to calculate, and therefore computer evaluations of the position are at least somewhat untrustworthy.
9. … Qd6
Shredder likes this move and plays it often in the above position. In general, the computer places a little bit too much trust in its ability to generate threats with its queen, while ignoring its other pieces. Humans are more likely to play a move like 9. … e6 or 9. … e5 and try to get their pieces out.
10. O-O Nd7 11. Nxe4
Qd4+ 12. Kh8 Nf6
Of course, the computer would never fall for 12. … Qxe4? 13.
13. Bf3 Nxe4 14. Nc3 …
White has a couple of decisions to make in the next two
moves. I think that 14. Nc3 is better than 14. d3, because capturing on e4 with
a pawn would open the d-file for Black, and close the e-file, which is
sometimes useful for White because Black has a weak pawn on e6.
14. … Kb6
Now, which way would you capture?
Position after 14. … Kb6. White to move.
FEN: r4b1r/pp2p1pp/1k6/2p5/3qnP2/2N2B2/PPPP2PP/R1B2R1K w – – 0 15
15. Bxe4! …
I played the less effective 15. Nxe4?! in a few games, but
eventually I realized that the knight is better placed on c3 than e4, while the
bishop on e4 is better than it was on f3. Just look at how many pieces are in
each others’ way. After 15. Nxe4 the knight is in the way of the bishop and the
bishop is in the way of the rook. After 15. Bxe4 nothing is in the way of
anything else. Another benefit of 15. Bxe4 is that Black is discouraged from
playing … e5 because that makes the beautiful square on d5 available to White’s
15. … e6 16. d3 g6?!
Shredder starts making some strange decisions. Black’s
biggest problem is lack of development, so 16. … Bd6 makes much more sense.
Rybka evaluates the position as equal after 17. a4 a6 18. a5+ Kc7 19. Ra4.
17. a4 Rc8?
This is definitely a blunder; Black has to play 17. … a6 to
create luft for his king.
18. a5+ Ka6
After this I was sure that I was at least better, if not winning. The king on a6 is a permanent target; he cannot get away without allowing … a5xb6, which will leave him in a hugely compromised position. One of Shredder’s weaknesses is that it does not understand permanent weaknesses or trapped pieces (which this king sort of is). It goes back to the horizon effect. Because Shredder does not have a concept of “move infinity” (i.e., a problem that cannot ever be solved in a reasonable way), it systematically underestimates that kind of disadvantage. I believe that is why it was willing to let its king be chased to a6: it sees that square as a short-term, maybe even medium-term safe haven.
19. Ra4 Qd8 20. Be3
This move highlights another quirk (I won’t say it’s a
weakness) of computer chess: inconsistency. A human, after playing 16. … g6,
would surely want to justify that move by fianchettoing his bishop. But
Shredder, after feinting that way, says, “Nah, I want to put it on e7.” In this
case, consistent was better: 20. … Bg7 would be a little bit more challenging
Position after 20. … Be7. White to move.
2FEN: 2rq3r/pp2b2p/k3p1p1/P1p5/R3BP2/2NPB3/1PP3PP/5R1K w – – 0 21
21. d4! …
After this move, White’s game plays itself. The threat of 22. Bd3+ is too strong — Black cannot allow it, so he has to play 21. … c4. Incidentally, if Black had played 20. … Bg7 21. d4! would also have been good, and maybe this is why Shredder didn’t see any value to playing the fianchetto. However, the difference is that after 20. … Bg7 21. d4! is actually a piece sacrifice, so White would have had to do some calculation to make sure that 21. … cd 22. Bd3+ b5 23. Nxb5! de 24. Nd6+ leads to mate. That being said, I do think I would have found this variation.
21. … c4 22. Rb1! …
The last move that required serious thought for me. I really wanted to play 22. b4 but the variations after 22. … cb were still a little bit too murky. I finally realized that bringing my rook into play first makes the break b2-b4 stronger, and there is nothing that Black can do with his extra tempo. Rybka agrees with me, giving White an advantage of 1.7 pawns after 22. b4, but an overwhelming advantage of 3.8 pawns after 22. Rb1. In this case, computer chess and human chess are in agreement: Maximize the power of all of your pieces before you launch the final assault.
22. … Qd7 23. b4 Qxa4
Black’s defense is lamer than lame, but there just isn’t any
good defense for Black, so Shredder pitches some material to slow down White’s
Technically speaking, 28. Be2 is even better, but I figured
that being a full piece up in a position where Shredder doesn’t have the
slightest iota of counterplay was plenty good to win, even if it takes longer.
The remaining moves need no comment.
Last weekend I played in the third round of the PRO Chess
League Summer Series, in which the fans of the San Francisco Mechanics squared
off against the fans of the St. Louis Arch Bishops. I won both of my games
against a player named Typewriter44, and when I finished we had a
comfortable-looking 15½ – 11½ advantage. But that lead quickly vanished and it
remained neck-and-neck until the end, when St. Louis’s bottom board beat our
bottom board to tie up the match at 22-22!
Under the league’s arcane rules, a tie was as good as a loss
for us. Each team gets 1 point for a tie, but the tiebreaker is which team has
more players, and St. Louis got the tiebreaker point. The thing is that we
really had to beat them to have any shot at catching them or Chengdu for second
The other phase of the Summer Series is a 4-person
elimination tournament between the “pro” players. That came down to a match
between Varuzhan Akobian (St. Louis) and Sam Shankland (San Francisco). They
drew their 15-minute game but Akobian won their bullet game (1-minute chess).
So St. Louis also got 3 points for the elimination phase, which combined with
their 2 points for the fan match put them into first place. The standings for
the whole three-week series were:
St. Louis – 14, Chengdu – 12, San Francisco – 8, San Diego –
There is still a chance that San Francisco will get into the playoffs, because two of the third-place teams will qualify by a popular vote. What I haven’t told you before is that the above group is only Group A, and in future weeks we will have Group B, Group C, Group D, and then the playoffs. I’ll let you know when it’s time to vote for San Francisco to make the playoffs.
In my games, Typewriter44 (rated 1602 on chess.com) did not put up very strong resistance. This game is an example of how good the King’s Gambit can be. I was pleased with the result, but then after the game I looked at the computer analysis on chess.com and realized that I had whiffed rather badly. Their computer software (Stockfish, maybe?) showed me with a 3.8-pawn advantage after move 16, but my 17th move shrank the advantage to 0.15 pawns, after which I had to win the game all over again. But in this case, a miss was as good as a mile — I won almost as fast as I would haveif I had played the right move!
Chessbase tells me that this is a TN. I liked the move
because everything in White’s position is solidly defended, it lets me fortify
my d-pawn with c3, and it begins the process of transferring my pieces to the kingside,
where I am planning to attack. If Black plays 10. … Nd5, I thought that 11. Bg5
would be a little bit awkward for him, e.g. 11. … Qd6 12. c3 Ba5 13. Qb3. Of
course I wasn’t sure, because the game was played at a rapid time control (game
in 10 minutes plus 2 seconds per move). Instead Black continued developing, but
somehow he drifted a little bit and his position very rapidly became critical.
10. … Nbd7 11. c3 Ba5?
I don’t like retreating the bishop this direction because it
is now unable to help defend the kingside.
12. Qc2 Bb6 13. Rae1 …
I didn’t have a really concrete plan yet, but experience shows that it’s a good idea to invite all of your pieces to the party. Meanwhile, Black is facing a considerable amount of awkwardness. His pieces are all stepping on each others’ toes, and his queen rook has no way to get into the game. His next move really highlights the problem.
13. … Rc8?! 14. b4 c6?! 15. Ng3 …
At this point 15. Bd6 was already really good, but this methodical move sticks to my plan, and I think it is also perfectly okay.
15. … Bc7 16. Bxc7 Qxc7?
The queen had to stay on d8 to keep White’s rook out of e7.
Position after 16. … Qxc7. White to move.
FEN: 2r2rk1/ppqn1ppp/2p2n2/8/1PBP2b1/2P2NN1/P1Q3PP/4RRK1 w – – 0 17
White to play and win!
17. Bd3?? …
This is the most interesting point, psychologically, in the game. The problem is that I’m accustomed to playing people who are about at my rating level. It doesn’t usually happen that I get completely winning (+4 pawn) positions after 16 moves. So I just didn’t realize we had gotten to the “White to play and win” stage. I was still looking for incremental ways to strengthen my position. I thought the pressure on f7 had run its course, and I really wanted my bishop on the b1-h7 diagonal.
All of this was wrong. Black has terribly bungled the position. The f7 pawn is critically weak, and his giving my rook carte blanche to go to e7 should have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Have you found the winning move yet? It’s very simple: 17. Ng5!, building up pressure both on h7 and f7. Black is in a terrible spot. He can’t move either knight because he would then get mated on h7. He can’t play … Re8 to keep my rook out of e7, because I would just trade rooks and play Bxf7+. But the reason I didn’t play this move was that I didn’t see how White wins after 17. Ng5 h6.
The answer is simple and beautiful: 18. Nxf7! Rxf7 19. Re7. Now 19. … Rf8 is forced, and White crashes through with 20. Rxf6!! (see diagram)
Position after 20. Rxf6 (analysis). Black to move.
FEN: 5rk1/ppqnRrp1/2p2R1p/8/1PBP2b1/2P3N1/P1Q3PP/6K1 b – – 0 20
Game over. After 20. … gf 21. Qg6+ Kh8 22. Rxf7 Rxf7 23. Bxf7 White threatens mate two different ways, and Black can’t stop them both.
For missing this idea, I should have my King’s Gambiteer license revoked. If you play the King’s Gambit, you’ve got to see combinations like this.
Ironically, even though the computer is now showing the position as equal, I managed to win almost as quickly as I would have after 17. Ng5! I got some help from my opponent.
17. … h6 18. Nf5 Bxf5 19. Bxf5 Rfe8?
Wrong rook. He needed to break the pin on the d7 knight.
The second week of the PRO Summer Chess League went a whole
lot better for me, and a whole lot worse for the team.
Quick refresher: the summer league is an offshoot of the main (winter) league. One big difference is that fans can participate and score points for their favorite team. Each match consists of two parts: a team match in which fans of one team play two games against fans of another (as many fans as want to play); and a 4-man elimination tournament in which each team is represented by a single “pro” player (most likely a GM or IM).
Last week the San Francisco Mechanics got off to a pretty good start, beating the San Diego Surfers in the fan match, 20-12, while Daniel Naroditsky, our pro, placed second in the elimination tournament. This week we were paired against the Chengdu Pandas, and had a complete wipeout. We lost 34½ – 19½ in the fan match and finished fourth in the pro elimination tournament. We are not mathematically eliminated from playoff contention yet, but we will definitely have to beat St. Louis next week and get some good breaks to make the playoffs.
After my disaster last week, I was paired against a 1600 player named “attackchesskid.” In the first game I won a rook and was cruising to victory, but then managed to hang a rook in the only way possible. Disgusted and frustrated, I bailed out to a draw by repetition (which fortunately was there for the taking). I couldn’t believe that I couldn’t even win a game with an extra rook.
Under the circumstances, I was ecstatic to win my second game almost without thinking. The whole game lasted less than three minutes. I played a trap in the Center Counter Defense that I discovered a few years ago. It’s what Roman Dzindzichashvili calls a “good trap,” i.e., one in which you don’t make any dubious moves to set the trap. In this trap, you just play normal moves in an unusual order. If your opponent doesn’t fall into the trap, you can go into normal variations; if he does, then you have a winning attack. This was my first chance to try it in a game that actually meant something.
Dana Mackenzie –
1. e4 d5 2. ed Qxd5
3. Nc3 Qa5 4. Nf3 …
The hallmark of the trap I’m going to show you is that White delays the “normal” 4. d4 for several moves.
4. … Nf6 5. Bc4 Bf5
6. O-O e6 7. Re1 c6?
Position after 7. … c6. White to move.
FEN: rn2kb1r/pp3ppp/2p1pn2/q4b2/2B5/2N2N2/PPPP1PPP/R1BQR1K1 w kq – 0 8
The great thing about this trap is that it absolutely does not look as if White is setting a trap. It just looks as if he is developing pieces and has gotten a little bit confused about the move order. I would expect the trap to be especially effective in speed chess or against “booked-up” players who prefer to play memorized moves – in other words, exactly the situation in this game.
In the normal book lines, 7. … c6 is the move Black
typically plays. However, there is absolutely no reason for Black to play it here.
Best is 7. … Nbd7, to prevent Re5. Then White has a choice between 8. d4, transposing
into the normal variation, or 8. d3, which would force the players to think for
themselves. I would have played 8. d3.
8. Re5! …
Seizing the opportunity created when Black played his
8. … Qc7 9. Rxf5! …
The whole point of the variation. White sacrifices the exchange
in order to win the pawn on f7 and chase Black’s king into the center of the
board. I have not done a thorough analysis, but the computer gives White at
least a 1-pawn advantage in all lines. From the practical point of view, the
position is much easier for White to play – as we see in this game, where Black
blunders almost immediately.
9. … ef 10. Ng5 Ng4
Position after 10. … Ng4. White to move.
FEN: rn2kb1r/ppq2ppp/2p5/5pN1/2B3n1/2N5/PPPP1PPP/R1BQ2K1 w kq – 0 11
A good, feisty move. I would expect nothing else from a player named “attackchesskid.” Obviously White would like to avoid playing a purely defensive move like 11. g3. So there are two checks that come into consideration, 11. Bxf7+ or 11. Qe2+. Which one would you play?
11. Bxf7+?! …
The wrong check! I was surprised to see that Rybka significantly prefers the other move, 11. Qe2+. After sacrificing an exchange, why would White want to let Black trade queens?
There are two reasons. First, White would rather take on f7
with his knight than with his bishop. With the bishop on f7 and the knight on
g5, both the knight and the bishop are vulnerable to attack, and the situation
is rather precarious. The setup with the knight on f7 is much more stable. Also,
the knight on f7 threatens to win more material – the rook on h8.
Second, after 11. Bxf7+ Ke7! 12. Qe2+ Qe5!, White is forced
to trade queens anyway, and in a worse position than if he had played 11. Qe2+
right away (because he has the bishop on f7 rather than the knight).
Thus, best according to the computer is 11. Qe2+! A third point, which is quite crucial, is that White is completely winning after 11. … Be7? 12. Bxf7+ Kd7 13. Qd3+! This funky little move wins the f5 pawn with check followed by taking the knight on g4.
If Black instead answers 11. Qe2+! with Qe5, the followup is 12. Nxf7 Qxe2 13. Nxe2, when White has the “right” piece on f7. A typical line goes 13. … Rg8 14. Nd6+ Bxd6 15. Bxg8 Bxh2+ 16. Kh1 Nf6 17. Bxh7 Nxh7 18. Kxh2. (See diagram.)
Position after 18. Kh2 (analysis).
This is a pretty amusing position! I’ve never seen a game
where White, after 18 moves, has not moved a single piece or pawn past the
second rank! Nevertheless, the extra pawn, lack of weaknesses, and
bishop-versus-knight advantage give White an excellent chance of winning the
In our game, Black chose the worst square to move his king
11. … Kd8?? 12. Ne6+
Kd7 13. Nxc7 Kxc7
With a queen for a rook White is easily winning. There was
just one more odd thing that happened.
14. d4 Bd6 15. h3 Nf6
16. Bf4?? …
Augh! Mouse slip! One more thing I hate about online chess.
16. … Nbd7??
What?! My guess is that Black played this as a “pre-move,” which
means he couldn’t take it back and capture the free piece that I offered him.
Yet another way in which online chess bears no resemblance to real chess.
Okay, I admit it, I’m a dinosaur. The whole chess world plays online chess, and I don’t. The last time I played online was maybe 15 years ago. But I thought it might be fun to give it another try, especially in the PRO Chess Summer League, competing as part of a team. I was curious to see how this new league would work, with fans competing along with the “pro” players.
So today the San Francisco Mechanics had our first match, against the San Diego Surfers. Sixteen fans against sixteen fans, with two games apiece played at a time control of 10 minutes for the game plus 2 seconds per move. And once again I was reminded of the three reasons that I hate playing chess online: bad play (mostly mine), bad software, and bad sportsmanship.
Let’s start with bad play. In the first game my opponent and
I got to this drawn position.
Position after 39. Kg3. Black to move.
FEN: 8/p7/1p3p1p/1Pp1kPp1/P1Pp2P1/3P2KP/8/8 b – – 0 1
Of course, “drawn” does not mean “drawn under all circumstances.” It means “drawn if both players keep their wits about them.” And I certainly didn’t keep my wits about me.
The simplest way to draw is to simply play 39. … Kd6 and await events. The main thing to realize is that I do not have to do anything active. All I have to do is move my king back and forth between d7 and e7 forever, unless and until White plays Ke4, and then I have to shut him out with … Kd6. White has no way of breaking through against this strategy.
Instead I played 39. … h5?!, which is already courting disaster a little bit. White could try 40. gh Kxf5 41. Kf3 and then Black cannot play the natural-looking 41. … Ke5?? because 42. h6! wins. Instead Black has to play 41. … Ke6, which holds the draw but does require a little bit of calculation.
However, my opponent played 40. Kf3 h4 41. Ke2. And then I made the horrific blunder, 41. … Kf4??
This looks “aggressive” but it is the only way for Black to
lose! White seizes the opposition and then squeezes Black’s king backward
through the center like toothpaste through a tube. Again, the way to draw was
to retreat with 41. … Kd6, heading for the d7-e7 squares.
Position after 41. … Kf4. White to move.
FEN: 8/p7/1p3p2/1Pp2Pp1/P1Pp1kPp/3P3P/4K3/8 w – – 0 3
Of course my opponent played 42. Kf2, and the rout was on: 42. … Ke5 43. Kf3 Kd6 44. Ke4 Ke7 45. Kd5 Kd7. Even though Black has gotten the opposition back, it matters not because White now plays 46. a5! Ke7 47. ab ab 48. Kc6, breaking through.
This is a super-instructive endgame. Black’s strategy of remaining flexible with the king on d7 and e7, and only coming forward to d6 “in the nick of time” to stop White’s king, is a common idea in king and pawn endgames. What’s galling is that I drew in exactly this way in a tournament game a few years ago, and yet I wasn’t able to retrieve that memory today. And I had no excuse. I still had 5 minutes to play on move 39. I absolutely could have taken my time and figured it out.
So that’s the “bad chess.” I hate online chess because I
play badly, partly because the board is only 2-dimensional and I grew up with 3
dimensions, and partly because online chess is always rapid and I’m not very
good at rapid chess.
Now the “bad software.” The one thing I was most nervous before the round was that I didn’t know how to offer a draw or resign on chess.com. I asked one of my teammates, and he said that the “Draw” and “Resign” buttons would appear as soon as the game started. And so they did… for the first move at least. I remember noticing them.
But after we got to move 48, and I was ready to resign, I hunted high and low for that “Resign” button and I couldn’t find it anywhere! So I had no choice but to keep on playing.
A word of advice to the programmers: Put the draw and resign buttons in a prominent place, and have them there before the game starts so that a newbie can familiarize himself with where they are.
That brings us to the third part of the equation: “bad
sportsmanship.” Okay, I get that my opponent was probably pissed, because I was
in a completely lost position and yet I wouldn’t resign. Nevertheless, one has
to ask: Does this justify continuing to play on for 99 more moves, capturing
all six of my pawns, promoting all six of his pawns to knights, and then
running my king on a merry dance around the board with his six knights until the
looming 50-move rule forced him to get serious about checkmating me?
It left a really bad taste in my mouth.
Anyway, on to game two. King’s Gambit. I got a great position, and the computer says I was +2.8 pawns at one point, but from then on I played “hope chess” (as in “I hope this sacrifice works”) rather than doing any actual calculation. After sacrificing a piece and then a rook, for no compensation, I would once again have liked to resign. But again, I didn’t know where the button was. So again, I had to sit through about 30 moves of my opponent queening both of his pawns, etc. At least he didn’t make them knights this time.
All in all, it was one of the least pleasant chess experiences I’ve ever had. But I got the last laugh: my team won, 20-12! My 0-2 made no difference, and it wouldn’t have made any difference if I had gone 1½ – ½, which I realistically could have.
As I mentioned in my last post, the fans vs. fans match was only half of the evening’s excitement. The other half is the pros vs. pros part. The way this works is that each of the four teams (Chengdu and St. Louis were also playing) selects one pro player (ours was Daniel Naroditsky). They play a short knockout tournament, with first place scoring 3 points, second 2, and third 1. These scores are added to the 3 points for the winners of the two fan-vs.-fan matches.
I didn’t watch to the end, but Daniel for San Francisco and Varuzhan Akobian for St. Louis won their first matches and faced each other in the finals. So if Danya beat Var, then the Mechanics scored the maximum of 6 points and had a great night. And even if Danya lost, we got 5 points and a pretty good night.
This is kind of a last-minute post, but if any of my readers are interested in playing in an online summer league, you can sign up now at chess.com to play for the San Francisco Mechanics (or another team of your choice).
Here is how it works. Unlike the winter season, the summer season will have fan participation. There’s a great deal I don’t understand about how these matches will work, but from what I have read on the website, the teams will have “roster players” (the “pros” who played during the winter season) and “fans” (under-2200 players who have signed up as fans of the team). The fans will play against each other, and the team that gets the most points will get three points toward winning the match. After that stage has finished, there will be a Knockout Match, which I assume is between the roster players. I don’t know exactly how that works, or how the score of the Live Club Match will be combined with the score of the Knockout Match. Here is a link that provides some of the same information that I just shared.
Step one, if you’re interested, is to sign up to be a fan of the San Francisco Mechanics, at http://www.chess.com/l/mechanics. Step two is to log on to chess.com tomorrow before 5 PM Pacific time, when our first match begins. Or if you want to play against the Mechanics, you can join one of the other teams in our group (the Chengdu Pandas, San Diego Surfers, or St. Louis Arch Bishops). See you tomorrow! Get ready for some chaos!
Once every year I take off my chess player and chess coach hat and put on my chess organizer hat. This weekend I directed an unrated chess tournament for kids at the Aptos Public Library. As always, I got a huge amount of help from the library, which provides the venue and the publicity and the medals, among other things. Also, the Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Library provided money for refreshments, and Gjon Feinstein and Shan Crockett helped out with the actual running of the tournament. The result, I like to say, is the best free chess tournament that you can find!
This year, for the first time, I limited the number of entries to 32. In previous years I always ran it on a “come one, come all” basis, but last year we had 41 kids and it was just too many to handle. For the first time we ran behind schedule because I couldn’t keep up.
The limit worked really well. All thirty-two spots were taken with two weeks to go before the tournament. Thirty of the 32 kids who pre-registered actually came, which is undoubtedly the highest percentage ever. The remaining two spots went to kids from my (short) waiting list. And with 32 players, I was able to keep the event running smoothly and on schedule, and even had a little bit of time to enjoy watching the games.
As usual, I split the tournament into two sections: ages 9 and under, and ages 10 and over. Let me get right to the results:
9 and under
Gold: Ezekiel Marca (3)
Silver: Louis Mendel-Holt (2 1/2)
Bronze: Logan Greenson, Owen Donagher, Ryder Pimentel, Kaiden Wang (2)
Ezekiel’s result was a big surprise to me. He started coming to chess club a month or two ago, and it was clear to me that he already knew quite a bit about chess. But I had not perceived him as being a class above the others. Louis was ecstatic about his second place, and did a little dance when I announced his name. He drew in the first round, and then in the second round he won “by accident”: he played a check that turned out to be checkmate! The third-place winners were all incredibly young. I normally think of Ryder (age seven) as young, but he was an old-timer next to Kaiden (six) and Owen (five)!
When kids as young as five want to play in the chess club, and especially in the tournament, I always quiz their parents and allow them to play with a little bit of nervousness. The trouble with 5-year-olds is that they sometimes don’t grasp the concept of playing by rules and they also sometimes aren’t emotionally ready to deal with losing. (Heck, I know 50-year-olds who also can’t deal with losing … but that’s another story.)
Even though I had never met Owen, his mother assured me that he would be fine on those two points, and indeed he was! In spite of losing in the first round he kept a great, positive attitude and won his second and third games.
10 and over
Gold: Benjamin Walker-Edwards, Alex Jory, Alan Lee (3)
That’s right — three golds, no silver, no bronze. This one takes a little bit of explanation. In the past I have always held playoffs to break ties for first place. But we never had a three-way tie before. Even if we had a blitz playoff, it would take a lot of time because none of the games can be played simultaneously. The prize ceremony would be delayed by at least 30 minutes, and probably more like 40.
Also, just from the sporting point of view, I thought that Benjamin, Alex, and Alan all deserved gold medals. All three of them had very hard-fought wins in round three that lasted nearly an hour.
You might also wonder how a three-way tie developed. The situation was that we had four people going into the final round with 2 points. Ordinarily, I could have paired Alex against Noah Skrovan and Alan against Benjamin and gotten (most likely) two winners. But this time we also had two people with 1 1/2 points, Autumn Henderson and Atlee Halderman, and they had just played against each other. So I had to split up the people with 2 points and pair Alex (2) against Noah (2), Alan (2) against Atlee (1 1/2), and Benjamin (2) against Autumn (1 1/2). The result was three nifty games. Both of the last two games could have gone either way. Atlee was pressing an attack against Alan and probably had a slight advantage, but got careless and allowed a back-rank mate. Autumn had a very solid position without the least hint of danger, but then allowed a discovered attack on her queen that caused her position to crumble.
I decided not to award silver and bronze because the people with 2 points were tied for fourth and fifth, and they don’t make medals for fourth place. Sorry if that’s a little bit harsh!
In any tournament report there is a tendency to focus on the winners, but of course there were thirty-two different stories at this tournament, some of which I don’t even know. For me one of the most fun things is seeing the kids who have come to chess club for a year, sometimes two or three, and who are daring to play in their first tournament. One of them, Mario Lari, was not only playing his first tournament but also trying to keep score for the first time. (Keeping score was optional, but he saw some of the other kids do it.) In the first round he botched the score and stopped writing halfway through, but still presented the scoresheet to me proudly. Then in the second round he succeeded in keeping score for the whole game and he won. Again he came up to me after the round and showed me the scoresheet. I praised him and said, “You might want to keep that scoresheet,” because I thought he was giving it to me. “Oh yes, I’m definitely going to keep it!” he said. I hope he does! One of my few regrets in tournament chess is that I did not keep the scoresheet of my first victory ever in a rated game. Although this tournament was not rated, I still think it was a special occasion for Mario.
I’m going to close with a photograph of the winners in the 9 and under section, courtesy of the parents of Ryder Pimentel. From left to right: Louis Mendel-Hold, Logan Greenson, Ryder Pimental, Owen Donaher, Kaiden Wang, and Ezekiel Marca. The guy in the back is me, of course.
Maybe I show too many computer chess games in this here blog… but here we go again. I love playing against Shredder, because we get some of the wildest positions I’ve ever seen. This week I was able to threaten one of the rarest moves in chess – checkmate with a king!
The ultimate and most famous example of checkmate with a king was the game in 1912 between Edward Lasker and Sir George Thomas, where Lasker sacrificed his queen on move 11 to launch a glorious king chase that led to the finishing move, 18. Kd2 mate. Fortunately this was a century before opening databases, so we know that Lasker found his brilliancy over the board, not through home preparation. It was also played all the way to checkmate, so that we could see Lasker’s answer to the burning question, “Which is better, 18. O-O-O mate or 18. Kd2 mate?” Evidently Lasker liked the economy of moving one piece rather than two. For anyone who hasn’t seen this great game, you should definitely check it out. For anyone who is really curious about king checkmates, I once recorded a ChessLecture about them, in which I dredged up a couple other historical examples.
Yesterday’s game was perhaps the closest I have ever gotten to playing a king checkmate myself. There actually was a king check, and it was the winning move, but it was not quite checkmate. A lot of other cool things happened in the game, so I’ll back up and start a few moves before the key moment.
Position after 13. … e5. White to move.
In the above position, as White, I made a mistake that started the game rolling down a crazy path. Instead of the reasonable moves 14. fe de 15. Bh4 or 14. Bg3, I played the speculative pawn sac
14. f5!? …
This being a rapid game, I didn’t calculate the consequences
very well, and in particular I missed Black’s strong answer,
14. … Bh6!
15. Nxg4 Nxg4
16. Bd2 …
White’s position is barely holding together by a thread. Here Rybka says that Black should play 16. … gf 17. Bxh6 Nxh6 18. Nh4 f4 19. Bxh5, and White wins back his pawn with rough equality. But such a move is totally not in Shredder’s style. Unlike the pragmatic Rybka, Shredder never met an attack it didn’t like, so it charged ahead with
16. … Be3+?
17. Kh1 gf
18. h3 …
Any retreat by Black would simply lose a piece, so Shredder
has no choice but to continue falling forward.
18. … Nf2+
19. Kh2 f4
20. Qc1 …
Position after 20. Qc1. Black to move.
Now it once again appears as if Black is losing a piece, but
with Shredder it’s never quite so simple.
20. … Ng4+!
21. hg hg
22. Bxe3 gf
With two pieces en prise, White has to give one of them back. So the material will come out even in the end. However, the more I looked at the position the more certain I became that White is just winning. It would have been much more impressive if I had calculated this all the way from move 16, but I didn’t. I just got lucky. I just kept playing forced moves and it all worked out in the end.
23. Rxf3 fe
24. Rg3+ Kh8
Position after 24. … Kh8. White to move.
And now the key moment. What move would you play? And can
you calculate it all the way to the end?
(Space inserted in case you want to think about it.)
25. Qh1! …
How could I resist? With this move White threatens 26. Kg1 mate! In passing, I would like to point how weirdly passive my “attack” has been. I’ve gotten to a winning position without ever moving a piece past the fourth rank, except for the one ill-advised move 14. f5.
As it turns out, the win is not as simple as I thought. See
if you can find Black’s hidden resource.
25. … f5
26. Kg1+ Qh7
27. Rh3 Ra7!
Even in a game I won, the computer makes me feel stupid. Yes, I’m going to win a queen for a rook, as I foresaw on move 25. But after that, my own queen is trapped! However, once the panic subsided I realized that I could interpose my bishop on h5, and it turns out to be not easy for Black to dislodge it.
28. Rxh7+ Rxh7
29. Bh5 fe
30. de Rf2
31. Rf1 …
There are other ways to win, but I liked the idea of getting my last piece into the attack.
31. … Rxb2
32. Qh4 Ne7!
The computer’s defense is tenacious. I would have expected a human to resign, because the threat of 33. Rf8+ Kg7 34. Qf6 mate looked unstoppable. After either 32. … Rg7 33. Bg4+ or 32. … Kg8 33. Qg5+ Rg7 34. Bf7+ Black’s king gets hunted down. But Shredder’s move stumped me for a few seconds before I found the solution.
33. Rf8+! Ng8
34. Qf6+ Rg7
35. Bg6! …
Position after 35. Bg6. Black to move.
I like this position almost as much as the one on move 25. Black’s defenders are all pinned. White’s bishop creates interference so that Black cannot defend with … R2xg2+; White threatens mate with Qh4+; and Black’s pawn on e3 is just a tempo too slow to make any difference. For a game in which basically nothing went according to plan for me, it looks as if I planned it all along.
35. … Rb1+
36. Kh2 resigns
As a postscript, let me mention that 25. Qxe3 also would have won, so setting up the king check (and almost checkmate) with 25. Qh1 was not strictly necessary. But during the game I couldn’t quite work out the win after 25. Qxe3. It seemed to me as if Black’s king might be able to escape to the queenside after 25. … f5. Rybka prefers 25. Qxe3 by a considerable margin (+7 pawns compared to +3). However, I still feel justified in giving 25. Qh1 an exclamation mark, because it’s such a unique move, and it does win by force.
Next post: My once-a-year-foray into tournament directing!
Yesterday I celebrated another anniversary, and a pretty big
one this time: the thirtieth anniversary of my wedding! Kay has been my rudder
and my guiding light for all this time. She claims to be pretty satisfied with
me too, although I’m not sure how much to believe her.
Because this is a chess blog, I have to somehow celebrate
this occasion by showing you a chess game. One of the smartest things that Kay
did during our courtship was to tell me that she would never play chess with
me. The only time I’ve ever seen her play a game of chess was against one of my
nephews, when he was five years old. She won, and she was pretty pleased with
But we have no record of that game, so I’ve decided to show you my first chess game after getting married. It happened sooner than you might think. We delayed our honeymoon for a couple weeks, for various practical reasons like the end of the school year. That year (1989), I was playing a weekly game at lunchtime against Greg Samsa, a two-time (1981 and 1982) champion of North Carolina. It was a great training experience, one that I think was directly responsible for my winning my first tournament after moving to Ohio later that year.
Let me say a little bit about Greg. He was a two-time
champion and I was a two-time champion (1985 and 1987), but that’s where the
similarities end. To put it simply, he was a way better player than me. The
ratings said so (he was around 2300, I was around 2200), but the difference was
bigger than that. He was a very Capablanca-like player. The game just came
easily to him. He once told me why he never got into time trouble: “There’s
just not that much to think about in chess.”
Can you believe it?! Not that much to think about?!
My style was completely the opposite. My only hope against
him was to play for obscure complications and hope that my concrete calculation
might compensate for his better understanding of the game. It didn’t work very
often. I never beat him in a rated tournament game. But in our training matches
that year I did score a win every now and then, and it just so happened that
the week after my wedding was one of them.
Greg could have won many more state championships, but during those years his job or his family commitments or both prevented him from traveling. The only tournaments he played in were one-day tournaments in the Triangle (Durham/Raleigh/Chapel Hill) area. For that reason I always felt that my two championships came with an asterisk, meaning best player in North Carolina not named Greg Samsa.
The Averbakh Variation was my favorite in those days.
6. … Nc6 7. d5 Ne5 8.
Qd2 c6 9. f4?! …
I thought this looked like a better version of the Four
Pawns Attack, with fewer weaknesses. But it’s just the sort of position that
Greg loves. He does not mind giving his opponent more space, trusting that his
more flexible pieces will turn the opponent’s aggressiveness against him.
9. … Ned7 10. dc? …
I was hoping to get some pressure on the d-file and weaken Black’s queenside pawns. But the move cannot be recommended (in spite of the result of this game) because it helps Black develop. Better would be 10. Nh3 Nc5 11. Nf2 etc.
10. … bc 11. Bf3 Ba6
Trying to provoke b3, which leaves me very weak on the dark squares. But the bishop ends up being rather poorly posted on a6.
12. b3 h6 13. Bh5 e5!?
Position after 13. … e5. White to move.
FEN: r2q1rk1/p2n1pb1/b1pp1npp/4p3/2P1PP1B/1PN2B2/P2Q2PP/R3K1NR w KQ – 0 14
Now the bear awakens from hibernation! As I’ve said, Greg typically
bides his time until the opponent has made enough mistakes, and then he
strikes. This move is a sure sign that he thinks I have weakened my position
too much with 12. b3, and now he is going to blow the position open.
But this was arguably just a bit premature. Black’s position
now has weaknesses, too – d6, c6, a6, the pinned knight on f6, a potentially
pinned knight on d7 – and so White is (as Greg himself might have said), “not
without counterplay.” An alternative was 13. … Qa5 immediately.
14. Qxd6! …
I admire the way I played in those days. Nowadays I would have looked at White’s knight on c3 and rook at a1, just floating in space, and I would have been too afraid to make such a move. But really this move is good for me. Although White may still have a disadvantage (the computer says so), Black is going to have to prove it tactically. In a complicated, tactical position, I would have a fighting chance.
14. … ef 15. O-O-O! …
This is what makes it all possible. White gets out of the
possible two-way pins on his knight, frees the e1 square for his bishop, and
increases his control over the d-file.
15. … Qa5 16. Be1 …
Now Greg’s Capablanca-like style works against him. He plays a calm positional move when the time was right to channel Alekhine.
Position after 16. Be1. Black to move.
FEN: r4rk1/p2n1pb1/b1pQ1npp/q7/2P1Pp2/1PN2B2/P5PP/2KRB1NR b – – 0 16
16. … Rfd8?
An absolutely natural-looking move, because Black wants to contest
the d-file and turn up the heat on White’s queen. But it’s just too slow. Chess
is about the initiative, and the way to keep the initiative in Black’s hands was
to play 16. … Nxe4!? Now 17. Nxe4? would lose to Qa3+ 18. Kc2 Qb2+ 19. Kd3 Ne5 is
almost mate. (White has to give up his queen.) Instead, 17. Bxe4 Bxc3 leads to
a wild mess, but one has to like Black’s chances a little bit better because
White’s king is more exposed.
17. Na4! …
White seizes the initiative and never gives it back.
17. … Qe5 18. Bc3 Qxd6 19. Rxd6 Rac8 20. Ne2 Ne8
Allows White to win material, but it’s hard to think of a decent alternative.
Position after 20. … Ne8. White to move.
FEN: 2rrn1k1/p2n1pb1/b1pR2pp/8/N1P1Pp2/1PB2B2/P3N1PP/2K4R w – – 0 21
Surprisingly passive. The obvious move is 24. … c5,
threatening to trap White’s knight. Greg must have seen that I could play 25. e5!,
denying his rooks the squares they need to attack the knight. After 25. … Rxe5
the computer recommends 26. Kc2! with the idea of Nc1-d3, both attacking the
c-pawn and chasing the rook away from its defense. Even so, Black should have
tried this, because White was forced to find some not-obvious moves.
25. Nc5 …
Now White’s pieces dominate the board. Black’s only hope is
that White will mess up in time pressure, because I was now down to less than 5
minutes for the rest of the game. However, this time I managed to keep alert
tactically in spite of the time trouble.
FEN: 3r4/p4p2/2p1rnkp/5Np1/2P1Pp1P/1P1N1B2/P5P1/2K4R w – – 0 30
30. hg! …
White has many ways to win, of course, but I thought that this was a neat twist. 29. … Rxd3 runs into 30. gf, and 29. … hg runs into 30. Rh6 mate! The variation that Greg chooses leads to a massive liquidation, after which White has an easily winning R+P endgame. I really like how smoothly this game went from move 17 on. It’s as if I was still living a charmed life after my wedding, and nothing I did on the chess board could go wrong.
30. … Nxe4 31. Nxf4+
Kxf5 32. Nxe3 fe 33. Bxe4+ Kxe4 34. gh Rh8 35. h7 Kf4 36. Rh3 and Black resigned a few moves later.
Apparently, marriage will do wonderful things for your
chess! For one week, at least.
Although I recently had a small reminder of the value of humility, today I’m going to soldier on in my immodest way and celebrate the first anniversary of one of the most exciting days of my life, the publication day of The Book of Why.
Being a writer, especially of books, is a strange business. You have to spend a very long time, months to years, working on a project with almost no encouragement or validation. It’s just you and your editor, and your co-author if you have one, as I did. You have to believe very strongly in what you are doing, because for the longest time that belief is the only thing that sustains you.
Then comes publication day, and suddenly the validation is very visible and very public. It’s like emerging from a cave into the dazzling sunlight. It may not have always been this way, but nowadays we have Amazon, which gives a writer immediate, hour-by-hour feedback on how the book is selling. Not actual sales figures but a ranking, which to a ratings junkie like me is like an opiate. (I used to religiously listen to American Top 40 every week as a teenager.)
A year ago today I got online at Amazon and checked my ranking. #5027. I was actually kind of disappointed, because it had been in the 4000’s the previous day due to pre-publication sales, and so it didn’t look as if publication had actually made much difference.
But then the fun began! By noon we were up to #3076, and my editor e-mailed congratulations. By 1 pm, #2179. By 5 pm, when I came home from the Aptos Library chess club, my wife had taped to the door a note saying “#1296!”. And then at 8 pm, we cracked the top 1000, at #952, something I had hoped and dreamed of but never really thought would actually happen.
Although that day was thrilling, for the most part that isn’t what the book business is about. What really matters is the next 364 days… and the 365 days after that… and so on. Thank goodness, the book business is the ultimate long-tail business. The value of a book is not measured by how many copies it sells on the first day. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions sold less than 1000 copies in its first year.
Over the last year, the reviews have been pretty good, the sales have been pretty steady, and Judea and I keep seeing encouraging signs that our message has been heard. For example, just a week ago he sent me an article about the head of artificial intelligence at Toyota, who basically quoted straight from our Chapter 1. We had written about something called the ladder of causation. The Toyota guy renamed it as “the ladder of autonomy,” which I think is an even better name within the context of AI. This is great! When people are taking your ideas and re-thinking them, it really shows that you are getting somewhere.
Of course this success is 99 percent due to Judea. I have no illusions about that. I am just enjoying being along for the ride.
Anyway, this morning, just for old time’s sake, I got onto Amazon and checked our book’s ranking. #6546. It won’t be zooming up into the 3000’s or 2000’s or 1000’s today. But after a whole year it’s still #1 in the “Discrete Mathematics” category and therefore gets the little “#1 Bestseller” ribbon when you visit its Amazon webpage. That’s totally not shabby. I don’t think that very many books are #1 in any category after a year, and I hope it means that people think our book has lasting value.
Amazon also does provide actual sales numbers to authors, courtesy of Nielsen BookScan. Those numbers update once a week instead of once an hour. I know that people reading this blog have been curious about it in the past, so here is a graph of the first year of retail sales for The Book of Why, week by week. This isn’t actually all sales — for example, textbook and book club sales are not tabulated — but it’s close enough to give you an idea of how you’re doing.
Retail sales of Book of Why according to Nielsen.
A few annotations:
New York Times bestseller territory is about 3000+ or maybe even 4000+ copies per week. As you can see, we never came within a country mile of that level of popularity. Some dreams are just plain unrealistic.
A few of the jumps have identifiable causes. The one-week jump in early June was most likely due to the New York Times review. The really dramatic jump in December was surely attributable to our selection as a Top Science Book of 2018 by Science Friday. Unlike the New York Times review, that honor seems to have boosted our sales for several weeks.
Also, the valley in October-November had an identifiable cause — our book was out of stock at Amazon due to supply chain issues.
For the last few weeks, sales have been pretty steady at 150 to 200 per week. The publisher (Basic Books) is very happy with this.
Thanks for your patience, apologies if this post was a little bit self-indulgent, and I’ll get back to writing about chess next time!
Last week I was talking with one of the chess parents at the Aptos Library Chess Club, and she asked me a really good question: “When is it okay to resign?” She has never been part of the chess world before, and she was genuinely curious: What is the common practice among chess players? I eventually came up with a pretty good answer — I think.
First, it obviously depends on what level you are at. Because most of the kids in my chess club are at a beginner level, it’s actually really easy to answer the question for them: Don’t resign. Play to checkmate. Even if you’re way down in material, there is a very real chance that your opponent will put you in stalemate instead of checkmate. Or make other blunders that will get you back in the game.
But what about kids who are starting to play in rated tournaments? There, I think that the question is more nuanced. I think that it is reasonable to presume that someone with an 800 rating knows how to win a K+Q versus K endgame. (Is this correct?) So I started to frame an answer to the chess mom in terms of material. Maybe, I told her, it would be okay to resign when you get a queen behind.
But the moment the words left my mouth, the idea seemed wrong to me. Because even queen-down positions have some variety. Most of them are completely hopeless, granted, but some are not so hopeless, and some are even won (although this usually happens only if the material was sacrificed deliberately).
You also have to add in the psychology of the players, and how they are feeling about the position. This is extremely important. I’ve watched games between kids, and you can often tell who is going to win just from the body language. One kid will be down a rook or a queen but he has positive body language: “I’m going to fight and I’m going to win.” His opponent has negative body language — all he does is defend and defend and try to hold on to his extra material. Then he loses some material, and his confidence starts to collapse. Eventually, the kid who believed in himself wins.
So then I gave the chess mom a two-part answer. First, we have to talk about the PRE-resignation stage, when you are know you are behind. No matter what has happened before, no matter how disgusted you may be with yourself, you have to put it behind you. You have to dig in your heels and say that, from now on, you are going to make every step as hard as you possibly can for your opponent. You take a vow of infinite resistance. On every move, your goal is to make your opponent think.
When you look at the pre-resigning stage in this way, then the answer to the question of when to resign becomes self-evident. You can resign with honor when there is nothing more you can do to make your opponent think.
By the way, this is your call, not the opponent’s call. Quite often the player in a superior position will think that there is nothing further to think about, but in his complacency he will miss something. In fact, when you are in a bad position that is something to watch for. A complacent opponent is a vulnerable opponent.
If there is anything you can make him think about — even if it’s just making him choose between two winning plans — do not resign.
By the way, I think that the context of the mother’s question was that she saw her kids giving up too quickly in games against each other. Their attitude was, “Oh, I messed up, I resign, let’s play another game.” That kind of behavior must be nipped in the bud, because it is a form of denial. Kids can be quite creative in their ways to deny that a loss happened. It’s understandable, because it is a blow to their ego. Nevertheless, the loss must be acknowledged. When you pretend the game never happened, you deprive yourself of the chance to learn from your mistakes.
TL;DR. Before resigning you must complete the pre-resignation phase with grit and with honor. Practice infinite resistance. Make sure that every move poses your opponent a problem. When you run out of any conceivable way to make your opponent think, then you can resign with honor.