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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Are you “Booked Up?”

For several years, I’ve been touting about opening knowledge, and how it’s so important. I mean, what good is starting a chess game if you are going to lose the thing in the first ten moves anyhow? However, I also believe that *too* much opening study is wrong. It’s good to know the ideas behind each opening, and maybe a couple zaps and traps, but you should always be *playing* chess, instead of pounding out pre-determined lines.

Why, though? Because, if you just slap out the first ten moves of the opening you know so well, without thinking, you may miss slight errors or even blunders from the opposing camp. Instead, think about the chess game from move one, and you’ll find you win a lot more games, even if the moves you choose aren’t “book” lines. Many times, the book moves will be correct anyhow, but decide for yourself *why* they are correct, and you’ll have a much deeper understanding of each opening and the way they work.

Of course, if you are a big 1-minute fan, this credo may not work so well because you don’t have as much time to ponder each position. But in a long game, or even a blitz game, simply insta-moving pieces because it’s the way the opening is supposed to look could be a big mistake. After all, the name of the game is winning, and if you can win in the first few moves because of a blunder the other side makes, you’ve got to take advantage of that.

The first, and most important, thing for you to do is decide which opening formations fit best with your style. If you like long, positional grinds then gambit openings may not be best suited for you. But if you are an attacking player who likes sharp, unclear positions, you may find that positional openings may prove a little too boring for your particular tastes.

Second, you must determine the *ideas* behind the openings. Believe it or not, GMs are thinking about the endgame while they make their first ten moves. Moving certain pawns or developing certain pieces to different squares greatly affects how the endgame will turn out, and so they can steer toward openings that favor their entire game style, and not just play for cheapos to win a pawn by move twelve. Sometimes, pawns are more expensive than they seem to be at first.

My advice is to pick an opening and play it in slower games for a while. Lose a hell of a lot of battles with it, and note where you went wrong and right. Then, once you get a better feel for them and what their aims are, you can begin to implement them into blitz games or bullet games because there may be less “thinking” involved, and more rote memory while still playing sound, solid chess.

Openings are an important, integral part of the game of chess, but they are not the end-all-be-all. Just as much, if not more, time should be spent on tactics and endgame structures. A well-balanced chess player will be much better equipped to win games than the one who spends all their time on one certain aspect. That’s just the way it is.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Chess and Cheating

I have been an administrator, and not an entry-level one, on a chess site for years and years. I was fortunate enough to be able to work the computer abuse team, which has taught me a great deal about not only how to spot cheaters, but some of their reasons for doing so, as well. People are interesting. I’m a people person, and never just fry someone without getting the story first. I take it from there. As a side note, I actually knew and worked with the guy who used ear buds in the 2006 World Open, and we were all there rooting him on. Sad.

I’m highly schooled when it comes to computer engines, although my fire for them is burning out quickly. That doesn’t change the fact that I know what I’m doing, though, and I can spot a cheated game a mile away with one eye open, at least as long as it’s on the Net. For me, separating a pretty strong player from an engine cheater is almost as easy as looking down to see if my shoes match. No big deal. All day long.

Of course, the players at big tournaments cheat for monetary gain, with rating gain being an included bonus. We don’t really need to speculate much about them then, do we? Their intentions and goals are very clear, and what they do is and should be punishable by law. They are literally stealing. OTB cheaters are after cash – cold, hard, cash. Got it.

Rather, I’m speaking of the 1500-level player on your favorite playing site who begins using an engine. While it may seem obvious to us that he doesn’t want to lose and he wants to gain rating points and so he decides to cheat, that isn’t always the case. Of course, there’s almost always some of that mixed in, but the real, underlying reasons can be severely different from cheater to cheater. Let’s take a few examples.

John plays on (fictional site for our purposes) every day, and he studies when he has time, although his college courses and roommates and part-time job make it more than difficult to improve much at the game. And of course, there’s girls. John is rated 1990 on the website, and he knows for sure that were he allowed to buckle down and hit the books proper, he could surpass his goal of 2100. Because he cannot do that, and doesn’t see a time where he will be able to do that in the near future, he breaks out Chessmaster and begins to seek games against higher rated opponents. After a few wins, his rating climbs, and it becomes addicting. He finds that it is much easier to swindle points than it is to trudge through the mire, losing some and winning some, never making real headway.

Aaron, on the other hand, is a fifteen year-old latch-key-kid who loves chess, but is unsupervised from the hours of 3pm, when he gets home from school, to 7pm, when his parents return home from work. He also spends his afternoons on, and would love to improve but he has severe A.D.D., and reading books is super difficult for him, although he has a deep love for playing. He sees the games the Masters play and he wants to play just like them, but he just can’t seem to find it in him to do things the right way. So, out comes Fritz and off he goes, right to the top. He knows he isn’t learning anything and maybe he even knows he’ll be caught someday, but it’s worth seeing that 2,000+ rating behind his name. It makes him feel good on the Internet, which is basically his world because, well, because he’s fifteen and spends time playing chess. Some nice girl will like him, someday, but for now, it’s all about his kingdom, which lies just beyond the monitor that’s slowly rotting his brain and stealing his morals.

Bruce signs on to to play a specific buddy, whom he knows from the local chess club. Bruce cannot beat his buddy, and knows damn well that it’ll be a month of Sundays before he does. When the hammer hits the iron, he’s just simply tired of losing. So, he fires up Arena and uses an engine in a few of their battles. Hearing his friend tell him how much he’s improving and that he’s doing great is well worth the lie he has decided to live. When he gets beat badly at the club by that same friend, he can just say that he’s tired, or having an off day. Oh, what tangled lives we lead, when once we practice...

I have been busting people for cheating on the Net longer than I care to admit, and the fictitious cheaters above are just THREE examples as to reasons why someone would choose to not play their own games. Trust me, there are fifty-eleven others, and more waiting to come out of the woodwork. Just when I think I’ve heard them all, someone comes along with a new one.

The point to my long-winded post is that we simply do not know, not all the time, why someone does the things they do. That is, unless money is involved, and then pinpointing their motivations becomes a tad easier. Of course, some folks just want to cheat for the sake of cheating. Some of them actually enjoy maliciously taking the hard-earned points of others, and watching them become upset over it. Some folks want a big rating and they don’t care how they get it, and other people actually want to get caught, for one reason or another. Nothing is ever as it seems – trust me on that one.

I feel very strongly about cheating and chess. I loathe a cheater, and will never do so myself. Never have I, and never will I, cheat in a game of chess. You might find me with an ace up my sleeve at a family poker game, for kicks and giggles, but I’ll never shortchange the most beautiful game to ever grace the rock we call Earth. That you can bet on. Also, I will continue to bust players on the Internet who use software assistance, for as long as I’m able to spot their cheating asses. Will it solve anything? Nope. Cheating is here to stay, but I can play a small role in the prevention of it, maybe, and that’s what we all should do.

Here are some broad, very general tips on things to watch out for if you suspect your opponent is cheating on your favorite chess playing site:

1. big slow-game rating, tiny bullet or blitz rating. Not always a dead giveaway, but definitely an arrow pointing in that direction. Normal variations are 300 points or less. So, a 1500 bullet player with a standard rating of 1800 isn’t necessarily cause for alarm. However, an 1100 touting a 2300 standard rating should be looked into. Quickly. There are always exceptions. I see titled players regularly on the ICC with 1300 bullet ratings. Some people just don’t think that quickly, or operate well under time pressure. Needless to say, if that IM had more than 1-minute, he’d likely be able to outplay his opponents, and badly.
2. odd king shifts, when there doesn’t appear to be any attack on it. Engines love odd king shifts. For instance, if the engine wants to prepare, as white, for an f4 shove but sees that a queen or bishop could come out and harass it with a check, it may move its king to h1, just in case, whereas very few 1600 players on the Net are going to see that and prepare so thoroughly. Most players attack, not pre-defend. Watch those odd king shifts.
3. really strong, out of place looking pawn pushes, *especially* if they are sacrifices. Now, I’m not one to bad-mouth any chess player, as I feel we are all a part of a very cool thing, but really, what 1300 is going to sacrifice their d-pawn to make clearance for a brutal N outpost? Very, very few. An engine will, though. You betcha. Watch for really super slick pawn pushes, particularly in the middle and end game.
4. finally, and this one is very loose, watch for kingside pawn storms, especially when both players have castled on the same side. The reason being that an engine, even a weak one, will be able to see accurately over ten moves deep, and know if it’s safe to start shoving g and h pawns down its opponent’s throat. We as human players, however, have been (mostly) conditioned to *not* push pawns that are in front of our kings. It doesn’t feel natural, it feels risky and uncomfortable. Now, a real-life Expert or above player will surely launch pawn storms, but a 1400 isn’t going to if he or she wants to survive. Like I said, it’s a semi-weak sign but a sign nonetheless.

There are a ton of other things, but entire seminars can and are held on the subject of chess cheating. I feel that no matter what your motivations, if you cheat at a chess game, it says something about you as a person. If you’ll steal a dime, you’ll steal a quarter, type thing. Likely, there are other issues in that person’s life that will lead them to cheating at a chess game.

One of the best ways to keep the game of chess honest is just not to cheat. Don’t do it, under any circumstances, even if it’s a friendly sparring match with a good friend. Play the game, or else it starts to play you, and what fun is that? There is no “good feeling” or sense of accomplishment when we defeat a player using an engine. There just isn’t. As chess players, we win and lose and draw. That’s just the way it is. In order to truly improve however, we have to obey the rules. Nothing is gained by cheating, not in chess and not in anything else.