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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Trashy Chess Sets

Some of you readers surely play at the local chess club. Maybe you play at two or three. Or maybe you play at tournaments, be them great or small. Either way, you have seen the guy I’m going to describe in this post. Or maybe, you *are* the guy in this post. Whatever the case, this needs to be said.

I take pride in my chess stuff. It’s just something I do. I don’t expect everyone to do the same, but that still does not make me understand it when they don’t. To me, chess is a beautiful and romantic game, full of history and charm. I am honored to call myself a chess player, and moving a solid, weighted rook across a roll-up mat and then thumping it down slightly on a square thrills me. It’s just full of cool.

Then there’s that guy. You know the one. He’s usually middle-aged or older and has zero pride in his equipment. If he brings a clock at all, it’s a ten-dollar analog job that saw its best days in the ‘80s somewhere. His vinyl mat is either rolled-up backward so that the ends and sides curl up, or he has literally folded into fours, causing pieces and pawns along the center ranks and files to list badly and sometimes even fall over. The mat is usually very dirty, and the pieces are the cheap non-weighted plastic ones that can be picked up for a couple of bucks almost anywhere. The kind with a hollow bottom and no felt. And the whole shebang is brought into the club inside a handy grocery bag. What? Really?

The gentleman has obviously been playing chess for years and years, and yet he has never felt the urge to upgrade his equipment, or even to take care of the gear he has. This boggles me, and always has. I simply cannot believe that a lover of the game would even own chess equipment like that, much less showcase it for anyone and everyone to see. It really isn’t hard to acquire a decent setup.

My first set was bought used, from a gentleman at the club for $15.00. It consisted of the big, heavy yellow and white pieces with a roll-up vinyl mat and a green carrying bag. It was very simple, but it worked. I got a Chronos digital clock for my birthday and my ensemble was complete. Chronos clocks are very expensive, but competitive models can be found for much less. $30-$40 can get you a fine digital clock, depending on where you look.

Each week before I went to the club I’d spread out my board and give it a once-over with a damp cloth, as well as inspect my pieces and make sure my clock had good batteries. Many times we’d play in restaurants and naturally, the board would become dirty or sticky. Although my mat and pieces were old, they looked very presentable. I really didn’t see it as a choice; the set was well-taken-care-of, no matter what.

Over the years I have acquired a lot more chess equipment, but I have never paid much for any of it. A few years ago I bought a couple plastic sets that look really nice. Not as heavy as my first set, but weighted all the same. One set had black and tan pieces, and the other were red and white, both identical make and model. I found that I could mix and match them and go for weeks without playing with the same variation twice. It made for good conversation and they were fun to play with.

Then I went looking for a nice wooden set that I could take to tournaments. I finally found one online for a steal. I believe I paid $18.00 for the set, and it normally sold for around $70.00. I snatched that up in a heartbeat and they look just gorgeous. Every set I have purchased after my first one has had four queens, a feature I really like. They make five-minute blitz games at the club a lot easier.

So, let’s just assume, for argument’s sake, that I had gone with a $40.00 clock instead of the Chronos. Amazon has the exact same triple-weighted yellow and black chess set that I have for $26.95, and it comes with a brand-new green and white mat. Shipping is free. Add in the clock and we have a grand total of $56.95 for a really solid, great-looking chess set that can be used for a lifetime.

If I decided to purchase that setup, I would only have to set aside a tad over $14.00 a month for four months. Take out the clock and it’s $10.00 a month for three months. Now, money is tight for everyone and I understand that, but there is no way I can be convinced that in the last ten years these cats couldn’t have saved ten or fifteen bucks a month for a few months and puarchaed a quality set they can be proud of.

And so, week after week and year after year, they bring their sorry-looking, filthy and dilapidated beginner sets and analog clocks that keep questionable time at best. They may as well not even bring their clocks, because they are shortly replaced by someone’s digital unit anyhow. In fact, at tournaments, someone with a digital clock can force it to be used over an analog. Can’t beat that accuracy.

In my opinion, if you are going to actively play chess, whether it’s in a club or a tournament scenario, you should think about getting a set and clock that is both nice to look at and that folks want to play on. Even if your income is severely limited, you could still buy quality gear inside of a year. A game with so much rich history and possibilities really deserves better than a grungy, crooked, featherweight children’s set carried around in a grocery bag. If the set is nostalgic and has sentimental value to you, at least take some cleaning solution and a rag to it. I’m just sayin’.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Resigning a Lost Position

This particular topic has been of interest to chess players of all levels for quite some time, and always will be. When should we resign a game? When *we* know it’s lost? When we are sure our *opponent* knows it’s lost? When we are sure even a complete beginner could find the correct continuation? When?

I believe many factors come into the equation, and it isn’t as simple as it may sound. Sure, the game might be technically and completely lost, but there is no guarantee your opponent knows it. I mean, if you outright drop a queen for no compensation, you may want to resign just to save yourself fifteen more frustrating moves. But if you drop a piece on accident and in return receive a couple pawns, you never know. Play it out. Folks on the winning end of a chess game sometimes relax, which is an open window for you to jump right back in the thick of things.

The time control plays a huge role in game-resigning decisions, as well. For instance, in 1-minute chess, literally almost anything can happen so I always recommend playing on no matter what the position. 15-minute games are a little more difficult to win in a lost position, but it’s really just glorified blitz and so of course possible. Now, a grueling six-hour match in a real tournament situation is a whole different ball game. In almost all instances, the time remaining in the game and the strength of your opponent should be taken into consideration. If you are really low on time *and* losing on the board, maybe it’s time to wave the white flag. But if your opponent has a huge advantage but only a few minutes on the clock, maybe stick it out.

I have heard it said that playing on in certain lost positions is “insulting” to the other player. It is? Why? Both players agreed at the outset of the chess game that the thing could last a given amount of minutes, and so for one player to use those minutes thinking, even in a lost position, is perfectly acceptable. I don’t care if one player is 2000+ and the opponent is a 1300s player, if both sides are relatively equal or if both players are completely unrated: If the game is a fifteen-minute battle, then both players agreed at the start that the game could take very near a half-hour to complete, no matter what positions are or are not on the board. It is perfectly within each player’s rights to keep playing no matter what. Period.

A lion cannot simply bite the hind legs of its prey and then expect it to give up because “things aren’t looking so good”. No, if the animal keeps running then the lion is forced to give further chase and *prove* to the other beast that it is superior in that setting. Why would it be different on the chess board? Simply because your opponent has taken a bite out of you does not, by any stretch of the imagination, mean that he or she will accurately move in for the kill. Stay in the game. You may still end up in the lion’s stomach, but you may as well make him really hungry before you do so.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Preparing for a Tournament

Have you ever been nervous about an upcoming tournament or big game? What did you do to prepare? Did you over-prepare? Maybe you didn’t feel prepared enough. I think it can be likened to a college student cramming before exam day. Just about every professor in the world will tell you not to do that, and yet it is the preferred study style for so many. Don’t do it. It will hurt you.

If you entered the tournament or agreed to the competitive game, it’s because you felt you were at a place in chess where you had a chance. Don’t freak out as the time nears. Don’t change your study habits, and for goodness sake don’t study more. In fact, many top players simply do nothing before a tournament. They go fishing, they go to the races, they relax with a loved one on the couch for a good movie. Anything but chess. In my opinion, starting the game or tournament with a fresh outlook is best.

Of course, we all have different ways of learning and preparing. Maybe watching four hours of video lectures and going over a thousand GM games the night before a tournament helps you. It doesn’t help me, though, and I’d be willing to bet many (if not most) of you out there are the same. Over-preparing is just as bad as not preparing at all.

What a strong player does before a tournament may differ significantly from what a weak or beginning player might do. I would advise to find an Expert or above chess player and ask what his or her study habits are, especially before a tournament. I’ll bet it’s far less than what you think. Sure, they read books, do tactical problems and watch GM games and lectures the same as you do, but they may not be quite as “freaked out” as you are when it comes to the big game or tournament.

For a couple days before a big tournament, just relax a little. Go for a drive, take in the sights, breathe in the fresh air. Your brain knows a tournament is coming, and it won’t let you down. Similar to what happens when we dream, our subconscious takes over and it is working for us, trust me. You won’t believe how fresh and ready for chess you are after a three or four day hiatus. As I said, it may not work for you but it sure does work for me. Good luck in your games!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

To Bullet or Not to Bullet

Have you, as an Internet chess player, found that some days you can think fast and play bullet, and other days it just doesn’t happen? I do, and when I don’t have time for the nice long games that I like it gets very frustrating losing quick match after quick match. So, what should we do about that? Can we do anything at all?

On the Internet chess site where I normally play bullet I have been into the 1900s, but even on a real good day I’m not worth much more than that. However, it’s the days where I’m playing like a 1400 that bug me. I don’t mind dropping a game here or there to 1600s or 1700s and fluctuating from the high 1700s to the low 1900s. I really don’t. What I do mind is dropping three or four games in a row to beginners. It hurts both the rating and the ego.

Some sites like the ICC (Internet Chess Club) feature players who frequently if not exclusively engage in 1-minute chess and do very well. Many are titled. You can really tell when they have an off day, because they drop a few hundred points, just the same as we do. The trouble is, their “bad days” consist of only playing at the 2200 level, and not the 2500 level they are used to. If I dip from the 1900s into the high 1600s I’m disgusted with myself, so I can only imagine what going from 2512 to 2240 or something must feel. Points are not gained so easily at the high level as they are down here in Patzerville.

If you can “feel” that your game is off, and really bad, I suggest only playing two or three and then leaving it alone for a while. There is no use becoming frustrated and becoming angry over the game. That will only cause further losses in my experience. Go read something, step outside for a bit, maybe talk to someone on the phone; do anything but chess. Then see how you feel in an hour or so. You might be surprised how your game turns around once you give your mind a rest.

If your bullet chess does not improve but you still feel you can play a decent game that day, try 3/0 blitz. I find that if I’m in a bullet slump and go to a slower time control my chess really wakes up. Of course, we don’t always have time for a rewarding standard game (and some of you may not even like standard at all!) but after playing loads of 1-minute chess, a 3/0 can seem like a really long game.