Sunday, May 17, 2020

Chess Secrets

"For in the idea of chess and the development of the chess mind we have a picture of the intellectual struggle of mankind." - Richard Reti

As the Czech grandmaster Richard Reti suggested, chess is fundamentally a game of ideas. Both players sit down, and using the laboratory of their minds, compete and try to out-think each other using their imagination and creativity. Generally speaking, whoever comes up with the best ideas will win.

For us mortals at the local chess center, the prize for winning is mostly just the fun of it - after all, who doesn't like to win? But at the elite competitive level, the stakes are much higher: the prize for winning a large tournament can be in the tens of thousands of dollars plus an invitation to a still larger event. As a result, world-class grandmasters ("GM"s) need sophisticated "laboratories" to compete and come up with ideas.

Not quite that kind of laboratory though.

For the most part, the ideas they discover in these laboratories are subtle new opening strategies that haven't been tried before. In the chess world, these new ideas are formally called novelties.

Now, these novelties vary in quality. By and large, if something has never been tried, then either:
  1. It is simply bad; or
  2. It is not bad, just nobody has ever thought of it before
While a bad #1 novelty can quickly ruin your position and even lead to defeat, a good #2 novelty can catch your opponent by surprise over the board. Depending on the actual position, this surprise factor can be a powerful advantage and make your opponent more likely to make a mistake, which all else equal, leads to more victories.

Finding good novelties used to be a lot of work. In the old days, a grandmaster's chess laboratory simply consisted of their friends and comrades, who came to be known as "seconds". When the Soviets sent their best to compete for the world championship title, they had armies of seconds put their heads together and come up with novelties for their champion that could be used against the opposition. Those novelties were closely guarded secrets, and there were often political tensions involved about who would get to use them. It is especially telling that the American world champion Bobby Fischer took the time to actually teach himself Russian just so that he could read information from Soviet chess sources and publications.

This snapshot of a 1979 Soviet chess publication is an example of what their chess analysis looked like.

Nowadays, these laboratories still involve seconds, but also computers. A free computer program today (called "engines" in the chess world) can quickly look at a vast amount of novelties and tell you if any one is relatively good or bad. Although not perfect, this incredible resource has been a serious game-changer - it means that today, even a relatively "weak" grandmaster, armed with one of these engines, can produce good novelties much faster than world champions of the 20th century ever could. All else equal, more novelties means you can surprise your opponents more often, which leads to more wins. One of my favorite examples of this in practice is this upset below:

One of my favorite examples of a killer novelty in practice. This was the position after black's 12th move in Pelletier (2557)-Nakamura (2816), EU Cup 2015. Hikaru Nakamura (playing black) is one of the best American grandmasters out there, and was the #2 player in the world at the time this game was played. His opponent, Yannick Pelletier, is a veteran Swiss GM but on paper nowhere near the same strength as Nakamura. Normally the world #2 would be expected to win a game like this without too much trouble, but here Pelletier uncorked the piece sacrifice 13.axb6! Rxa3 14.Nb5 Ra5 15.bxc7. Nakamura was caught completely surprised by this new idea and actually ended up in a lost position just a few moves later, which white won without much of a struggle. Incredibly, Pelletier had actually discovered this novelty some ten years earlier, but saved it for this game to score a big upset.

Putting all this together, it is interesting to think about high-level chess as an industry of unrestricted and pure innovation - the purest form in fact, where there are no patents or copyrights on ideas. If your secret novelty somehow gets out - suppose you actually play it over the board, or one of your training partners leaks it to a friend of theirs - well, tough luck, now anyone else can use it for themselves in competition. 
But what would happen if chess moves could be patented or copyrighted?

Would we still see exponential growth of chess knowledge if moves could be "owned"?

Although it seems like an outlandish question, this issue has actually been seriously brought up before. In 2009 during the World Championship semifinal match between the Bulgarian GM Veselin Topalov and American GM Gata Kamsky, the host country, Bulgaria, prevented the moves from being relayed live, citing copyright infringement. More recently in 2016, right before the World Championship duel between the Norwegian GM Magnus Carlsen and Russian GM Sergey Karjakin, the match organizer, World Chess, sought a restraining order against numerous online chess sites in an effort to stop them from broadcasting the moves live.

Setting aside the issue of enforcement, I think most chess players would agree that allowing someone to "own" a move is wrong. Would it make players more innovative and competitive though? Probably not. Conventionally, the patent and copyright system is intended to give people monetary incentives for generating new ideas. In chess though, almost all novelties are discovered as sequels to previous novelties. This means that if new information is easily distributed, then the overall rate of innovation is actually higher.

Furthermore, there is already enough incentive for top players to find novelties. For an underdog like Yannick Pelletier, it can mean scoring a big win in an important tournament, which for some players can catapult their chess career to the next level. For the world champion, having good novelties in your back pocket can mean the difference between keeping and losing your title. The prize of "owning" a novelty if you are the first to play it publicly is not really that valuable in comparison; novelties are hard to use effectively more than once because then they lose their important surprise factor. For instance in that Pelletier - Nakamura game, people have since discovered new ways to defend for black and now the piece sacrifice that once took down the world #2 is not considered to be so dangerous.

I hope this article illuminated some of what goes on under the hood in high-level GM encounters! There is a lot of strategy and psychology involved in using novelties. Going back to the Pelletier - Nakamura example, the Swiss GM had kept that novelty in his back pocket for ten years (!) before using it in public to catch a very big fish. It is entirely possible that other grandmasters who play the same opening with white had also discovered it during that time and in fact, it's even possible that Nakamura already knew about it himself but had forgotten about it right up until he walked into it at that game!

Of course there is more to chess than just the opening, but with computers getting stronger and stronger, grandmasters will continue to discover more and more novelties. Although to some it takes away the fun of the game, there is no doubt that some novelties are awe-inspiring for chess fans to watch and will always be an exciting part of the game.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Community Chess Club Schedule & COVID-19 Coronavirus

Coronavirus Response & Updates 
Stay Home.  Stop the Spread.  Save Lives.

Monday March 23, 2020
Here are some links that may be of interest:  
 WHO launches global megatrial of the four most promising coronavirus treatments

Sunday March 22, 2020
If you are able to do so, please consider reaching out to one or more members of the club that you think might possibly need assistance.  This may be as simple as dropping off some groceries or picking up a prescription.  It may just be to have a conversation, a chat via Skype or email correspondence as most of us are somewhat confined to our homes right now.  This can do a lot to relieve stress and anxiety.  If you need help, please reach out by phone or email.  Do this by contacting any one of our club members and you can likely get the contact information for the person you are trying to reach.

Keep busy with some Online Chess:

Community Resources:

Helpful Mental Health Links:

Mental Health Info from the CDC

Saturday March 21, 2020
TJ Weaver put together a great set of his annotated games to enjoy especially now, during this time when we can't have our club meetings. Click here to view his blog.
Later, these games will be added to our club's game database.

Monday March 16, 2020
Important! Precautionary Tournament cancellations & Postponements

The following Rochester New York area chess tournaments have been CANCELLED:
42nd Marchand Open
Rochester Chess Center Monday Night Winter and Spring leagues
North Street Geneva tournament for scholastic players

The following Rochester New York area chess tournaments have been CANCELLED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE:
Rochester Chess Center Saturday tournaments (Youth & Open)
Community Chess Club of Rochester Wednesday Night tournaments

The following tournament has been postponed until summer:
15th Annual Woman's History Month Invitational

At this time, the Wayne Elementary tournament is still on for April 18th

This is a prophylactic action. There has been no indication of anyone affiliated with the club who has been infected with or exposed to the COVID-19 Coronavirus. Cancellations and postponements have been made out of an abundance of caution, and given the close conditions under which we play chess. Please be patient as the Chess Center and Community Chess Club staff work to see what will be done as we move forward.

Online/Phone chess lessons may become available.  To reschedule your chess lesson or to inquire about online/phone lessons, please contact the Chess Center or your chess instructor directly.

We are working on a way for members of our chess community to have a way to reach out for help from other members of the chess community.  Assistance could be picking up groceries, prescriptions or dropping off books, etc.  There are a lot of "helpers" out there and there will be people in need.

Community Resources: 
United Way
Monroe County
City of Rochester

Sunday March 15, 2020
The health and well-being of our members is of the utmost importance to us. Regarding the COVID-19 coronavirus, as part of our operations, CCCR is reviewing our schedule so that the organization will execute measures in accordance with the situation as it changes. Cancellations will be posted here.  Over the next couple days, we will decide whether or not there will be a club meeting on March 18th.

Right now, we are continuously monitoring the Monroe County Health Department, NYS Department of Health and Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) websites to ensure we have the latest information.

While we remain open for chess, we are providing members with hand sanitizer that we recommend using before and after coming into contact with others.  We also plan to spray sets with disinfectant and wipe down chess clocks.

We are encouraging all players to practice proper hygiene techniques recommended by the CDC, such as the frequent washing of hands, not touching their face, and respiratory etiquette when coughing or sneezing.

Players and visitors who feel under the weather should not attend the chess club meetings.
Keeping our members informed is a necessity. If the COVID-19 situation changes, please refer to this section of the page for updates related to our chess club's operations. We will post all necessary information.

As the COVID-19 situations changes daily, if we find it necessary to suspend chess play on March 18, 2020, we will send out an email newsletter to our registered members and post the cancellation here on this blog.  Regardless of whether the chess club meets or not, each player should use his/her own discretion to attend.  Though we normally average about 20 players/night with a few parents and visitors, we will not allow more than 49 people in the building at any time.

From the USCF: 
Practical Guidance for Running Events
 Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak

For events in areas that have received no federal, state, or city level announcements (or any related entity), you can still hold your event. However, here are a few tips:
1. If you have fewer players but your event is still going to run, spread your players out over the entire playing hall. There is little reason to bunch everyone up if you have less-than-expected turnout. If possible, you could spread players across multiple rooms of your event.
2. Soap and water is better for combating diseases than hand sanitizer. So, if there is a hand sanitizer shortage in the area, make sure your site has adequate soap and water supplies. If you can get hand sanitizer for your event, do so. You can also encourage others to bring their own if they have any.
3. If possible, have players provide their own sets. While this is less ideal for many reasons, it would cut down on the number of people who touch the same chess set. You can also require all people to clean their chess sets in between uses.
The same is true for chess clocks – they should be wiped down in between uses.
For both clocks and chess sets, wet wipes / sanitizing wipes are easiest to use. We recommend providing them at your event for people to use.
4. Have people provide their own pens and pencils for notation. The less people pick up a used pen that is left on the floor, or table, or anywhere, the better.
5. If you make any announcements about this sort of thing, title it “Common Sense Procedures” so people understand you’re just trying to educate them and not scare them.
6. Discourage shaking hands before, during (draw offers), or after the game.
7. Do all pairings, wall charts, results pages online. Hanging up paper copies encourages people to bunch together. If you still must make physical postings, spread them out as much as possible or have multiple copies in different locations.
8. Use common sense approaches to solve problems.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Game of the Month: The Fighting French

For our latest Game of the Month, we'll be taking a look at the game Janezic - Attaya played in the 2nd round of a Saturday tournament at the club. At first glance the game looked like a smooth win, but as we shall see it was not always so clear and both sides missed important chances.

Black's unconventional development approach paid off, although white could have done better than 9.Qb3 by just castling and bringing a rook to the e-file. The real critical moment though was the stretch from moves 15-20, where both sides missed white's strong idea of a2-a4, and black got away with the daring 20. ... c5?! After the final blunder on move 26, black had a nice tactical shot to seal the game in his favor.

Look forward to another post soon! I will be looking at a very interesting opening that appears to have been sweeping Rochester by storm lately...