Friday, December 2, 2016

Rise of the machines part 2

Regularly we have it on this blog about new engines. They don't only improve continuously but they also influence the way we play (see revolution in the new millennium) and analyze (see the fake truth). Besides we haven't yet met the ceiling as developments today are happening very rapidly. Personally I am really astonished about this after 2 decades of intensive programming done by several great talents. It is not easy to valuate this gigantic progression correctly  but I will give it a try in this article.

In 1997 Deep Blue defeated the at that time reigning world-champion Garry Kasparov which generally is considered as a milestone but it still took several years till every player could use an engine of the same strength. It is difficult to pin an exact date when that happened but I estimate 2003 will be close. 2003 was the period of the matches Kasparov against Deep Junior and X3D Fritz which were both drawn.

Ever since the top-engines have surpassed everybody and not a little bit. If we look at CCRL then Fritz progressed with 470 elo-points in the last 13 years. On top of that we notice that today Komodo 10 is an additional 210 rating-points stronger than the strongest version of Fritz. That makes a total of 680 points or averagely 52 points per year. If we only look at the 3 recent years then we have the same trend. End of 2013 I worked with stockfish 4. Last week I download Stockfish 8 which again is 165 points stronger than edition 4 based on the figures of CCRL. That is again 55 points averagely per year.

An important role during the progression of the last couple of years plays without any doubt TCEC (Top Chess Engine Championship). Ameliorations to the engines are allowed between the stages within 1 championship and this combined with the ever growing interest of the championship, clearly motivates most programmers.

Currently the superfinal of season 9 is ongoing and we are very close to the final decision. I see 2 big surprises this season. The first one is the non-qualification to the superfinal of Komdo while leading at CCRL. I guess this is related to new improved versions of the competitors which are not yet used by CCRL. The second big surprise is the comeback of our Belgian super talented programmer Robert Houdart with his engine Houdini. I didn't expect that as Houdini 4 already dates back from 2013 !. At the site of Houdini they claim a progression of not less than 200 ratingpoints which doesn't seem exaggerated to me.

In the separate rapid-championship Houdini won in front of Komodo and Stockfish but in the superfinal of the classical chess-championship, Houdini will most likely narrowly lose against Stockfish. Anyway 1 game will for sure be remembered for longtime if only because it created quite some controversy. Of course I talk about the 17th.

In the final position a win was awarded automatically to Stockfish based on the Nalimov tablebases. However many viewers didn't agree with the verdict. First both engines showed a quotation of 0.00 in the final position see TCEC but on top the 50 moves-rule was not taken into account. If TCEC had used instead  Syzygy tablebases then the rule could have been applied.
Evaluation by Syzygy tablebases of the final position game 17th TCEC season 9
DTZ tells us how many moves no pawn was moved or piece was captured against optimal play. DTM on the other hand shows us the number of moves to mate against optimal play. 123 plies or 62 moves for DTZ means indeed that the 50 moves-rule comes into force.

However we should not forget that the 50 moves-rule is something introduced for humans to avoid searching endlessly for a win in vain. As I already wrote in my article ICCF it does make sense to ignore this rule here too.

Besides that it is still looks strange to me to award a win when both engines don't see at all such win. I do understand that adjudications win a lot of time and energy. Till then this was always going smoothly but not this time. Afterwards some people claimed rightly that Houdini would have avoided the final position if it was allowed to consult in advance the tablebases.

Decisions by (much) weaker arbiters often create problems when they are related to playing for a win but the opposite also exists. The much stronger arbiter makes a judgment based on its capabilities but ignores the much weaker skills of the involved players.

By accident something similar happened to my son Hugo playing in the -8 category of the Flemish youth-criterium at Gent. His third game was adjudicated as a draw when an endgame of each rook + king was on the board and the opponent risked losing on time. After the game Hugo could not suppress his tears anymore. The arbiter made a call in good conscience but it is of course very painful when just a few weeks earlier you lost the exact same endgame in the step-tournament of Turnhout against a brother of the opponent.

Maybe Hugos opponent in Gent would have not made such kind of mistake but we can't be sure of that. You never know what will or will not happen in the -8 category so any decision is debatable. Eventually I advised Hugo to accept the decision of the arbiter. A draw was a fair result and from my experience I know that it is often better not to fight against such things on the long term.

I assume TCEC thought the same. The adjudication wasn't optimal but the decision was made and you can't change the rules during the superfinale anymore. In the end 100 games will be played and it doesn't look like this 1 game will influence who will win the final.

I expect after this superfinal CCRL will start to test the new versions of both finalists. Normally this means we will see Stockfish as the new number 1 with a bunch of ratingpoints ahead. Some difficult times are coming for the commercial engines as few will want to pay for a weaker engine while you can get the strongest one for free.

The exact elo-strength of the engines calculated by Carlsens rating + the progression since 2003 looks too simplistic to me. If we would do such math then it would mean Carlsen would not be able to score theoretically one single point in a standard game without a handicap. I do see him losing a match with a big margin but with the right openings it should be possible to score a couple of half points which means the rating-difference can't be 700 points.

On the other hand in this article I only talk about the strength of the engines. We don't take into account hardware developments, improved interfaces or new and bigger tablebases. Together they maybe push the rating another 200 points up.

It is not for no reason that I stated at the beginning of this article that the progression of the engines is difficult to valuate correctly. If you add up all the numbers then you get a dazzling rating of around 3800 elo which makes no sense. The only way to evaluate the engines is to let them compete against other engines. Unfortunately we also see a lot of players using the engines to denigrate our top-players which just shows a complete lack of respect.

Brabo

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Fear

How somebody reacts after a loss depends very much of the person and the circumstances. Some have not the slightest problem to forget about it. Others can be for a long time demoralized. Well known are Fischers 6-0 victories in the candidate matches against Taimanov and Larsen. After that both slowly disappeared from the highest echelons. Fischer wanted not only to win at the board but also tried to break the opponent psychologically.

We also see this behavior in youth tournaments. Some children leave their board after a loss with a smile and start to play football as nothing bad happened. Others can't hide their emotions and even cry. Naturally chess is not for everybody as much important. As a consequence the more ambitious players quickly take the lead. Players having more troubles to cope with a loss are averagely much more eager to learn something and make quicker progress than their more relaxed peers.

On the other hand emotions are not only a positive catalyst but can also often work paralyzing. A loss can be so detrimental each time that a fear is developed. A logical defense-mechanism is avoiding losses at all costs which can lead to some extreme cases. A few months ago I witnessed my son proposing a draw after only 1 move played in the tournament for debutants at Wetteren because he thought it would consolidate his first position. It became a tough lesson as not only there was a wrinkle in the rules which only gave him second place but he also had to listen to my reaction how disappointed I was in his behavior. I haven't seen him proposing any draws anymore since then.

I use the example of my son but in Belgium fear for losing is a very wide spread phenomenon. Maybe this is due to the great modesty of which Belgians are famous for which is why we are often satisfied with setting lower goals. In Belgium a draw against a higher rated player is considered as a big success. Seldom somebody will wonder if there wasn't more possible. I already encountered several inexplicable drawing offers of my opponents in my career. One example was already shown in my article Lars Schandorff. A second example below is from the Open Leuven played last year.
White proposed a draw while he has 10 minutes extra and the position should normally not be holdable for black 
Of course I know the expression that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. However the final position gives white 1000 better chances to win than the start position. Why would you want to play a game if you are not interested to win it?

Emotions often let us do crazy things. I won't deny the fact that even today I still have to fight against my fear of losing. Last couple of years my fear certainly decreased (something which I already explained in my article sofia rules) but it never completely disappeared. In the last round of Open Leuven this year I could again not resist to the draw-offer of my opponent Hans Renette while I knew that likely I had the slightly better position.
White proposed a draw. I wanted to play the correct b6 and black is a bit better as he can try to win by playing later e5.
I had a bit more than a half hour left for 21 moves. Last time I squandered a bigger advantage against Hans. I have after all black. I had chosen in my preparation to play the same drawing line as I did in Open Gent see Avrukh part 2 so my plan was to play a draw. With the draw I was certain of a nice prize (380 euro). It are all excuses to hide that I was afraid of losing. Arno Bomans showed more guts by declining the draw proposal of the top-favorite Stefan Docx (see his witty commentary) although we are here a bit comparing apples to oranges.

Fear may be something typical for the Belgian players but it also pops up elsewhere. Even some very strong players suffer from it. The congenial Australian grandmaster David Smerdon told us after his game against Carlsen that he would never have forced the draw against any player below 2700 elo with the advantage he had on the board see chess.com.

Respect is important but not exploiting fully your own chances is just fear. Currently I am reading the book Ivan's Chess Journey in which there are a few nice anecdotes. One of them is Ivan talking about the grandmaster Bojan Kurajica from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bojan was a great talent but never achieved his full potential because he was afraid to lose. However in 1994 he shined due to a concurrence of events. The war in Bosnia created for him a lot of practical problems but as if this wasn't enough his wife in the same period also gave him the divorcing papers. It was an enormous shock for Bojan as this really filled his glass of misery. He felt as a man having nothing to lose anymore. A man with a talent, without fear to lose anything is a formidable opponent. He became the hero at the 34th Olympiad in Moscow with not less than 6 victories. In the same year he also defeated the 200 points higher rated Karpov in a rapid tie-break.

Players need to try to overcome their fear of failure if they want to achieve the maximum out of themselves. The best players are fearless fighting-machines, gladiators fighting till the death. It is up to the coaches, parents, the entourage of our (youth-) players to make this mental switch and convince them to always go for it. Then again today at home we have a cute nice teddy bear hopping around. Do we really want to transform him into a a big dangerous grizzly-bear?

Brabo

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Pins

183.000 unique visitors followed the live broadcasting of the chess.com blitz final. Normally I am not interested in blitz or rapid but this time also I was glued to my screen to see the spectacle between Carlsen and Nakamura. The only bad point in the otherwise well organized match was the inability of the moderators to remove the many attacks of trolls. Even the commentators got visibly annoyed and experienced troubles to keep their focus on the games.

It is a recurring problem we encounter at many websites where you can respond anonymously. You always meet people eager to create chaos and frustration. They get thrilled by the power to control a conversation. It is doubtless also the main reason why we see today very few interesting comments anymore in comparison with the very first years of the internet.

It is not at all difficult to hijack a discussion even if you know very little or nothing about the subject. To express your opinion as a fact is a very often used method. To destabilize the credibility of somebody is another one. To focus on grammatical errors, semantic elements or tiny insignificant details is also a well known technique. As a highly experienced poster with 18 years of experience with many forums I have of course met my share of impostors.

The easiest is to ignore them and this is often necessary but sadly only creates a empty dessert of silence. Therefore I prefer to carefully select the terms I still want to continue the discussion. This strategy is not always appreciated especially if my discussion partner finds some points which I ignore rather important.

With this special introduction I want to link to a reaction upon my article X-Ray attacks. I don't think we deal here with a troll but the reaction does talk only about a technical detail. What is the different between a x-ray attack and a pin? I don't own the truth concerning chess-terminology but personally I believe there exists an essential difference between both. A pin is something static while an x-ray attack is dynamic. I mean in a x-ray attack we see the defense moving while this is not the case in a pin.

Maybe the confusion is created by the many themes around pins from the world of compositions. In those we also see movements of even the piece which is pinned as in the problem below made by myself.
Mate in 2
White plays the piece which is pinned. To counter the mate-threat, black unpins this piece.

A more complicated theme is the next problem.
Mate in 2
Again white plays with the pinned piece but this time we notice that the threat consists of unpinning a black piece. Black counters by unpinning the pinned piece. This is called the Kagan theme.

In both examples we see movements but the pins stay and can only be released by the other color controlling the pin. That is an important difference compared to x-ray attacks in which the pinned party still can decide for themselves to remove the pin although often leading to material losses.
Brabo

Solutions
Position 1:
1. Rf5 threatens 2.Nd4#
1. ... Qf6~ (unpins the rook) 2. Rc5#
1. ... e7~ 2.Qc5#
1. ... d7~ 2.Qe8#
1. ... b7~ 2.Qa8#
1. ... Nb5 2.cxb5#
1. ... fxg6 2.Bd5#

Position 2:
1. Rd2 threatens 2.Qa1# (unpins the queen)
1. ... Qe2~ (unpins the rook) 2. Rd5#
1. ... Rxd6 2.Bd6#
1. ... Ng3~ 2.Rf5#

Monday, November 7, 2016

Strange material imbalances part 2

End of last year I bought my very first chess-clock at de denksportkampioen. Ben advised me the DGT North American which should be good price-quality. From somebody playing chess more than 20 years this probably sounds a bit weird but contrary to America all tournaments here provide chess-material for the players. Besides till a couple of years ago I didn't even possess a chessboard because I prefer to make my analysis directly on the computer. Not only the computer is a strong partner to analyze but it is also very easy to save the work in a database.

I bought the chess-clock because my son wanted to try to win a "real" game against his father. To give him a real chance and at the same time make the games also attractive for me, a handicap was introduced. At the beginning we had to explore which handicap would be optimal. Eventually we discovered that the handicap of 1 minute against 20 minutes for my son and an additional 23 points extra (one pawn = 1 point) for him, produced the best challenge.

These handicap-games allowed me during last year also to measure clearly his progress. Each time he won with a handicap, the handicap dropped with a point. If he lost then the handicap increased again with a point. Yesterday I was pleasantly surprised to experience that I couldn't get more than a draw with a handicap of only 4 points. My son made little progress last year in his step-books but it seems just by playing you can also learn a lot.

The handicap-games also let me appreciate again the power of the pawns. Especially when your son removes 4 center pawns then you quickly notice how hard it is to create something useful with the remaining pieces. The French chess-pioneer Philidor knew already that the pawns are the soul in chess. This quote dates from 1749 but is still applicable today. A modern brilliant application of this can be seen in one of Kramnik most recent games at the chess-Olympiad of Baku. This game brought Kramnik individual gold at board 2 and a personal record-rating of 2817 at the age of 41.

The final position of the game shows a strange material imbalance. Black is a rook up but is helpless. 

We don't often meet positions on the board in which a piece has to fight against an army of pawns. Probably the unpredictability plays a role hereby. Chessplayers don't like to play volunteerly a position which is alien and very hard to evaluate correctly. This maybe explains why my opponent Ian Vandelacluze in the 3rd round of Open Gent avoided on purpose such type of position with an objectively inferior move.

We are no engines which can play correctly such strange material imbalances so I do understand why my opponent found it too risky. By the way in the game he achieved comfortably a draw with his inferior played move although profiting from my time-trouble.

Many puzzles exist in which one color has a mass of pawns and the other not. However there exists a big difference with the rare positions from standard games. For each puzzle there is always a clear solution. In practice such solution is often not available. I very much prefer this open end which permits fascinating analysis.

Brabo

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Avrukh part 2

The Dutch Stonewall is not a popular opening at grandmaster practice. Thus theoretical developments only happen slowly. However also the character of the opening plays a role herein. Tactical refutations are rare compared with more open types of schemes. We have rather a battle between plans than exact moves.

1 of the last big shifts in the Dutch stonewall was the rise of the b6 systems which largely replaced the old Bc8-d7-e8-h5 (g6) systems. I wrote about this in my article manuals. Today I believe we experience a new shift. More and more white chooses to leave the classical setups with knights on e5 and d3 to control the black squares and instead chooses a more dynamic type of position recommended by Avrukh.

In my article of 2012 I already wrote that we saw an increase of 150% of this unorthodox system in the databases after the publication of Avrukhs book and this trend still continues. There are 50 games (+2300 elo) played in 2015 with this openingline in the database. That is more than 4-fold of what we see in the years before 2010.

This evolution doesn't surprise me. It is not easy psychologically to play the Dutch Stonewall when you are forced to drop the standard schemes. Whites score in my opening-book is more than 62% on + 400 games (+2300 elo) which only boosts the popularity. Also in Belgium I see a number of players picking up white. Grandmaster Bart Michiels is probably the strongest and most known supporter. His recent game against the reigning Flemish champion Ashote Draftian, a very big fan of the (Dutch) stonewall demonstrates well whites chances in this line.

Of course Bart is the stronger player but I assume Ahsote wasn't up to date of the theory as otherwise he would not enter the line with 10.b4. Obviously I play the opening completely different. Studying openings is today a big part of my study-time. Contrary to Ashote I do use extensively foreknowledge in my games. An extreme example is surely my game of Open Gent played in round 5 against Johan Goormachtigh in which I spent less that a quarter.

I will not claim at all that Nbd7 is the end of whites concept but the anti-dote used in most sources (as the one of Avrukh) is totally inadequate. The old game Efim Bogljubov - Savielly Tartakower played in 1924 is often used as model but nobody seems to be aware of the game Savielly Tartakower - Alfred Brinckmann played in 1928 which shows a totally different evaluation. Maybe this has to do with the different move-sequence but any database consists today of tools to bypass this problem.

By complete chance I got the same opening another time on the board in the last round of the same tournament. First I wanted to vary my play but as I was out of contention for the prizes (due to a discrimination based on Belgium ratings) I decided to check what my opponent has prepared. A mini-thematic tournament looked at first appealing to me but it became a disappointment.

Adrian did not know about my game against Johan Goormachtigh despite it was published via the live-broadcasting. He just chose the line because he saw a few rounds earlier Bart winning against Ashote with it. At move 18 I improve on the earlier mentioned game Tartakower - Brinckmann with something I had studied at home and a few moves later the game was dead already. Again I used only 10 minutes for the complete game which afterwards did feel a bit awkward especially as I would not be able to play chess anymore till the new season.

2 solid comfortable draws against FMs and earlier this season a very quick victory over Raf De Coninck (see resigning) is a promising start for this concept. On the other hand it does not offer a solution against mainly lower rated players which are only looking for a draw. I did not continue the endgames as they offer very few opportunities to play for a win. However I do remember one online blitz-game in which I managed to do the impossible although with some help of my opponent.

So I recommend to also know an alternative when you want to play for a win with black. The mainline with Ne4 surely offers more chances if of course you know the theory. Anyway it also looks prudent to not always play the same line and use the element of surprise in your games.

Brabo

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Comebacks part 2


Bad advertising is also advertising but I have my doubts when it is about chess. If you don't hear anything else about chess then as a parent you would not allow your children to play chess. Chess is of course much more than these incidents. In the previous olympiad we had more tension and drama than in any top-sport see e.g. tiebrake-system decides the olympiad. However nothing about this was mentioned in the media. Even in US nothing was reported while their team won gold. Well almost nothing as the New York Times had a very sad article about it. Instead of congratulations we were able to read how the journalist ridiculed the magnificent performance of the team by insinuating that US bought gold by importing foreign top-players.

It is a missed opportunity to show to the American public that chess can still be exciting and beautiful today. It really isn't very hard for a big newspaper to have a good and easy to understand annotation of a few of their best games. There exists definitely enough stuff to write a good story. Besides there wasn't any lack of drama either. I already mentioned the nerve-racking conclusion of the tie-brake but not less entertaining was the comeback in the game of the strong American grandmaster Samuel Shankland against the strong Indian grandmaster Sethuraman. 11 moves (from 23 till 34) white is completely busted. Some engines even show winning-evaluations for black of 18 points at some point of time but finally white still wins.

A loss instead of the win would've given 16 tie-brake-points less for US if the other results are kept identical. In other words this luck helped US to grab the gold as they only had 9 tie-brake-points more than Ukraine at the end.

At Chess.com Samuel explained that he has saved such bad positions before in his career but never against the caliber of Sethuraman. At some moment you just stop calculating and play a move which doesn't lose on the spot.

In a previous article the sadistic exam I wrote that competitive chess can be emotionally very though. A well played game can be destroyed by just one stupid move without any chance to recover. However at least as dramatic is not winning a won position because you can't finish off your opponent. Emanuel Lasker told us that the most difficult is to win a won game. Nevertheless it is incomprehensible what happened in my game against Vermaat. 27 moves (from 22 till 49) I have a completely won position but for some reason I can't find the k.o.

After the game the Indian IM Kumar Praveen rushed to me to explain where I missed a win. Not 1 but thousand wins I missed, was my snappy reply. I can't find any standard game in my almost 800 of my personal database where something similar happened to me. How is this possible?

Even so I had practiced tactics the last months a lot. On Chess.com I achieved a tactic-rating of +2600. Next I had won  the cup in Deurne which was played just before the open tournament of Gent and at Playchess I won even a couple of blitz-games against grandmasters during the last months. I was confident that I had sufficiently trained myself to perform well in tense situations. On the other hand the best training for standard-chess is still playing standard-chess. If you don't play for more than 3 months any serious games then you get unavoidably a bit rusty. Maybe the best explanation is given on the American chess-blog of Dana Mackenzie: "If there is anything, which even grandmasters, are not able to do very well then it are mating-combinations. That sounds to me a bit too simple so I will devote my next lesson to mating-combinations together with my students.

Brabo

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The chess microbe

After 3 years of lessons in Deurne my 7 year old son switched to Mechelen. It was a tough decision for me but at the same time necessary not to lose his interest in chess. The courses in Deurne were not anymore challenging and the club-management did not succeed to find a solution. The youth work can only survive by the selflessness of volunteers which isn't something you can force. On the other hand I do notice that we lack any flow of our children to adult-chess in Deurne. 10 years ago they started with giving lessons to the youth because they wanted to cope with the ageing club-members (see history). Today the problem is even bigger. An evaluation of youth-chess imposes itself.

In KMSK Hugo gets today step 2+ within a small group with their own teacher. The courses last almost 2 hours (twice as in Deurne) and consist of 1 hour working with a manual and the rest of the time playing chess. In the meantime I help the youth-chess just like I did before in Deurne. If you anyway have to wait then you better do something useful. I assume KMSK must have been delighted with my proposal as they immediately promoted me to teacher for the most advanced players so step 5 and higher.

That was a bit of a shock as I don't have any experience with teaching at that level. Besides I am an autodidact so I can't rely upon examples from previous teachers. Anyway what is meant with step 5 and higher? I noticed the strength of my students was very diverse from 1400 till even 2100 elo. A small questionnaire confirmed the heterogeneous picture of the students.  It is clear that it will be a big challenge to keep everybody satisfied in my courses.

The management of the club gives me carte blance which I will use to experiment a bit with some different methods of teaching. I have received the manuals of step 5 and 6 in the meantime which I will definitely use. I will also have a look to games played by the students. Additionally this blog can be a source for subjects to be used as teaching material. Nobody of them seems to follow this blog so I don't have to fear it will be just a repetition. Nevertheless last Sunday I didn't want to take any risks by selecting just an article. A Belgian IM has told me once that my article interferences is very interesting so I thought it is very unlikely that they would know the theme already.

Indeed nobody knew in advance what are interferences about. To explain the different types in a joyful way I let them solve in group a problem of each type. This made the course interactive and I assume this way they also grasped the themes better and quicker. Another advantage of this approach is that I get quicker feedback. Some of my students asked why some positions are very unorthodox.

It is a very natural and legitimate question. Some positions will indeed never occur in standard practice. Technically this subject won't learn them much. However I think the role of a teacher goes beyond just getting the students to play stronger chess. At least as important is to let them discover the love for the game. Winning points will give you a kick but on the long term only the chess microbe can survive if it is fed by inspiration and astonishment.

In this category we can probably consider the queen-sacrifice as the highest form of pleasure. The British and highly original attacking player Simon Williams wrote recently in an article on chess.com that such sacrifice is pure magic. Of course there exist many different degrees of beauty between queen-sacrifices. However in practice we will most likely see the real pearls played by stronger players. Unfortunately I am not one of them. There is always something lacking. I explain by one of my most dramatic games I have played in the last years. At least 4 fantastic queen-sacrifices were hidden in my 8th round of Open Gent against Marcel Vermaat.

The first appears at move 24 but my opponent doesn't allow it. On the other hand I have to admit that despite the queen-sacrifice being correct, there are other wins available which are more easy. It is even likely that I would have not played it if I had the opportunity.

A second queen-sacrifice is hidden at move 30. This time I would have definitely played it but again my opponent doesn't allow it.

At move 32 I get my first real chance to play a queen-sacrifice. Unfortunately I play a different winning move. Normally I should not miss this but as my time got low such things can happen.

The final queen-sacrifice is for sure the most sophisticated. The sacrifice is an introduction to a beautiful combination. Personally I think such combination is too difficult to find by myself alone.

I don't think there are many games in which you can find 4 totally different queen-sacrifices. It was a big disappointment for me not to win the game (more about this in another article) but (much) later I can still enjoy the beauty hidden under the surface of the game. My chess microbe is still very alive.

Brabo