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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Houdini: The Best, Sure, but Necessary?

Oh, boy. I was reading a ChessBase article this morning, and they said something I thought was fantastically asinine and mind-bogglingly incorrect. I have been arguing about this exact thing for years now.  Here is the quote, regarding the Houdini 3 engine that is now available commercially:

If you were going to consult someone on a chess position, and had the choice between a grandmaster or the world champion, wouldn’t you opt for the world champion even if the grandmaster already provided an answer beyond your personal ability?

What? Why? That is ridiculous, in my opinion. Claiming that only the world champion would be the best coach/advice giver is completely off base. Miles and miles off base.

If I had a child who was just beginning to swim, would I need to hire Michael Phelps for lessons? Anything else is second best? Good grief, no. If I were starting to learn guitar, there would be many teachers besides Eddie Van Halen himself that would suit me just fine. 

It’s hype, folks. Most of the people who ask what engine they need are at the beginner or low intermediate chess level, and carry a rating somewhere between 1,100 and 1,600 Elo.

If we were to believe the article, then that player would benefit more from what the world chess champion has to say about their games as opposed to someone rated only a thousand or two above him. What a crock. That’s a load if I’ve ever heard one.

Is the new Houdini engine strong and smooth? Oh, I have no doubt. I just don’t happen to believe that, above the 3,000 Elo level, 100 points here and there is worth the sixty bucks you have to shell out vs. a free engine that’ll do the same thing for 99% of players out there.

Here is one thing I did like, though, being an engine fan:

These databases are known as endgame tablebases, and even just the sets with up to five pieces, take up about 7 GB. The Scorpio bitbases do the exact same thing, with perfect knowledge, but take up about 300MB and can be stored in the RAM, making them far more compact and easy for the engine to consult on the fly.

Okay, that’s pretty cool. That’s really cool, in fact. I have been into chess engines since around 2004, and I have seen tons of changes along the way. Back then, though, I would sign my engine on to a playing server and get into battles with other engines.

Tweaking them was the name of the game, back then. But they weren’t playing at the 3,300 level. I was screwing around with fast and strong (for then) engines like Aristarch, Arasan, TheKing (Chessmaster’s engine), Gandalf, Ruffian, and myriad others. This was all before the introduction of engines like Rybka and Fruit, two strong engines that pretty much wrecked the fun. 

In short: Hey, if you want to shell out sixty bucks so that you can say you have the strongest engine in the world, go for it. Houdini is a very, very nice engine and it’ll never let you down. If, however, you just need a grandmaster strength study partner, almost any free engine will do just fine. Trust me on that.

If you are rated in the 1,000, 1,500 or even 1,900 range, the 2,700 rated engine is going to tell you the exact same thing about your games that a 3,500 rated engine will. 

Just sayin’.

Looking forward, as always, to your comments. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Chess Study: What is Correct?

I see a lot of advice about what, when, where, and how much to study chess. This advice is flung around like the Sunday laundry on every chess site and forum I’m a part of. Of course, if we wish to improve we *should* study, and that does raise the empirical questions: How? What? When? How much?

It’s a cycle, really, and it never seems to end. So, I’ll throw in my two cents.

I do not have a FIDE title and I’m not even a USCF expert, but I don’t believe one needs to be a powerhouse in chess to know the answer to the above questions. I think a good, healthy dose of common sense can get us quite far, both in chess and in life.

1. What should I study?

Well, I think it’s crucial for each player to assess their own play and get an idea, however hazy, where they are weakest. Do you lose a lot of games out of the opening? Do you have zero endgame skill? Maybe you rush through middle games and end up with really bad positions? Whatever your weakness, it’s probably easier than you think it is to recognize them and strengthen those areas.

2. When should I study?

This one is easy: Whenever you have time! Take a chess book with you to the doctor’s office, watch video lectures in the evening instead of a TV show, play through your own games with a critical eye and then an engine to see where mistakes are made, etcetera. Each person’s own life situations will dictate when they can study.

3. Where should I study?

This one seems simple, but maybe it isn’t. Should you study at the PC? Should you study on a board with a book open in front of you? Should you buy chess DVDs and study that way? Should you hire a coach and do what he/she tells you? The options are almost infinite, and I believe it’s up to each person to determine how they learn best. I was dealt a good helping of ADHD and so book study for me is trying; I far prefer videos, and the information sticks deeper. Try each method – see which one is best for YOU!

4. How much should I study?

Again, this is largely going to depend on YOU, and how quickly and how much YOU would like to learn and improve. See the trend, here?  If you get bored and space off after an hour of study, then you should study for one hour at a time. If you really love delving into a good chess book and working through the positions and variations all day on Saturday, then you should study like that. If you hate studying chess and would rather play bullet and fast blitz, then do that; just don’t complain when your rating and skill level never increases.

So, you see, ladies and gents, it is MY opinion that each student and lover of chess will require something different to get the maximum benefits. I guarantee you that I can get more out of a quality thirty-minute video than I can from a full hour of book study most of the time. I learn well that way, and so I tailor my study habits to reflect that.

Play a few long games, whether OTB or on the Internet, then take a critical look at them and decide where you most often go wrong. Then, study that part of the game! It really is that easy, folks.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Greats who weren't Greats

Lately, I have been thinking about the greats who weren’t greats specifically because someone greater existed in their time. This has happened in every generation, but the 1920s and 1930s were a great example of the phenomenon, so we’ll use Alekhine as an example.

Because Alekhine existed and was so powerful, many great players unfortunately lived in his shadow, both then and now. When someone like Alekhine comes along, it’s very difficult to make a name for yourself.

Here is a list of a few greats who weren’t great because of Alekhine:

Hans Kmoch

Saviely Tarakover

Aaron Nimzowitsch

Frederick Yates

Frank Marshall

Rudolf Spielmann

Richard Reti

Geza Maroczy

David Janowsky

Edgar Colle

Fritz Saemisch

Akiba Rubinstein

Ernst Gruenfeld

Hans Mueller

Efim Bogoljubow

Vasja Pirc

Salo Flohr

Henry Grob

Vera Menchik

Reuben Fine

There are a ton more, but I’ll leave it at that so you get the gist. Now, just about every player on that list was very accomplished and extremely strong. Many of them had opening variations named after them, which are still regularly used today, such as Gruenfeld, Reti, and Pirc.

Now, have you ever wondered what the heck would have happened if the big boys like Euwe, Alekhine and Capablanca were out of the picture? Some of these ‘big’ chess names would have become giant chess names, that’s what.

I try and appreciate the games of these lesser masters, but the draw to Alekhine prowess is simply too great for me. I always end up firing up the Alekhine database and scrolling through the moves with awe.

Do you have a favorite player who lived in the shadow of a greater player?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

2012 World Chess Championship Rigged

As most of you already know, Anand has retained his world champion title. Gelfand put up a heck of a fight but in the end, Anand got him. The question isn’t who the champ is, the question is whether or not how he got there is even ethical, chess-speaking.

The world championship changed a bit this year, and the winner was to be determined via rapid chess in the event of a tie, which there was. I don’t believe, personally, that rapid chess has any place in the world championship.

Anand is clearly stronger in rapid stuff than Gelfand, and both players knew this. Therefore, all Anand had to do was draw the match for a guaranteed win, because there was no doubt he’d be the victor in rapid play.

Does that mean he’s stronger? I don’t know. Maybe. What I do know is that it likely stole from his fighting spirit in the long-chess games; what is he to risk fighting for, when the win is handed to him in the rapids? Nobody in their right mind would do that.

The “first player to six wins” type matches are inherently a bit flawed, because they can go on and on and on, but in my eyes they are more fair, more *right*, than deciding who gets such a prestigious title via blitz games. To me, that makes Anand the world’s rapid champion, not the world’s chess champion.

Who knows who would have taken the match had they continued in classical time controls? I believe both players had strong chances and, if Anand really is the stronger player, he would have eventually come out on top, anyhow.

But jeez, give Gelfand a chance!

Rapid chess is a completely different animal than long chess. Yes, the rules of chess are the same, but the game is cheapened quite a bit by limiting the scope of thinking time. We all saw what happened to Kimbo Slice, a backyard boxer, when he tried mixed martial arts: he got has butt kicked.

In this chess scenario, Anand would be the mixed martial artist because he’s good at both long and short time controls, and poor Gelfand is the backyard boxer. He’s tough, but he is limited in the arena of rapid chess, so he’s going to lose the match. 

Understandably, the world champion should be good at both, I suppose, and Gelfand is extremely strong at rapid – just not as strong as Anand.

But does it even matter? 

I’m not convinced it does. With over a million dollars at stake per player, let these guys hash it out until a true victor emerges. Those two weren’t playing a tournament in hopes of winning a couple hundred bucks by taking their section; they were fighting for the *world championship*, and as such, I believe they should have had to play accordingly.

Just saying.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The GM Draw: Let's Have a Look

I have blogged about this before, and there have been many discussions at about the same thing. While the ‘GM draw’ phenomenon can be annoying, it is also the natural, expected outcome many times. I’ll look at both examples below.

The annoying GM draw:

This is the one that is agreed to after twelve or fifteen moves of a boring-looking, well-known line between two grandmasters. Yawn. These short draws are only possible and only exist because of the half-point draw system. If draws were worth nothing, or if they *lost* half a point for the players, we’d see more fighting chess.  But that’s neither her nor there. It’s simply tournament strategy, nothing more. It saves them from expelling all their mental energy early in a match so they can use it for opponents who might prove problematic, as well. 

The natural GM draw:

Okay, this one is way more logical to me. You have two guys who have cleared the 2600 level in chess – 2600! That’s huge, folks. Beyond comprehension for most of us. Both the players know opening theory extremely well, they are tactical and positional monsters, and they are well-versed, if not complete experts, at endgames. 

Now, if you expect either of these players to fall for more than a few, really deep and well planned out tricks, you are smoking the good stuff. One player attempts an attack, the other sees it and thwarts it, and maybe creates a counter-attack. The first player sees this, thwarts it, and the game is eventually drawn after such a back-and-forth.

What’s so hard to understand about that?

The less mistakes and oversights each player makes in chess, the higher the chances of a draw. That’s just Logic 101, folks. The GM draw isn’t going away anytime soon, in either form, so get used to it.

If you like fighting chess, there are many, many GMs still around who don’t play for draws. Exciting chess still exists, you just have to know who to watch.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Anand vd. Gelfand Title Match

Yay! It’s time for another world chess championship. This year is a real nail-biter, too, if you ask me. Anand, who has defended his title four times already, is said by some to be slowly losing his sharpness. Gelfand, the same general age as Anand, isn’t nearly as accomplished but is a world-class player, nonetheless. In fact, he’s rated below Nakamura, who I personally think would have a shot. But that’s neither here nor there, for this entry.

I think the general opine that Anand is ‘losing his touch’ isn’t necessarily due to anything he is or isn’t doing, but rather what others are doing. Carlsen has broken well into the 2800s and is rated above Anand, as are Levon Aronian and Vladimir Kramnik.

I won’t go into the ratings conundrum, but I think it’s a little unfair to say that Anand is losing his touch. He doesn’t necessarily have fiery combos like Alekhine but then, who does? Today’s top players cannot afford to take too much risk or they’ll get the game handed to them quickly, for the most part

Kasparov, arguably the best player of all time, did incorporate huge tactical shots and deep positional understanding into his games, but that’s why he was on the throne for so long: he could get away with such. He is Kasparov.

So, who do you think the favorite will be in the Anand vs. Gelfand match? Is there a favorite? Is it anyone’s game? I personally tend to root for the underdog and would love to see Gelfand display a stellar performance but even if he does, it won’t guarantee the title. Anand is no beginner. He’s wildly strong and has shown, beyond any doubt, that he’s a true chess artist.


Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Chess Stamp

So, the other day, a friend links me to a chess stamp auction on eBay. It was expensive, but he just wanted to show it to me because he knew I was into chess.

The stamp depicted a chess position.

I was like, “Cool!”

Then I looked closer, and I was like, “Wait just a tic...”

I knew the position. I told my friend so over the IM window, and I got no response; I could tell from knowing him for so long that he didn’t believe a word of that.

Possible thought process: Uh-huh... random position on a stamp and he knows it. Riiiight...

But I did. I knew I did. Here’s a paraphrased rendition of the IM conversation; my friend is in italics:

Hmm, there’s been a queen sacrifice, here. That was a nice mate.


This is a mate that was brutally forced, and kind of right out of the opening.


Dude, I’m telling you, I know this game.

Cool! (disbelief pouring out of the IM window...)

Got it! This game was played by the first world champ, Anderssen, in the mid-1800s. It’s known as “The Immortal Game” due to the irrefutable and deep sacrifices.


(Silence for another two minutes)

Dude, use the magnifying glass over the stamp and look at the top. That’s a little freaky.

I did so, and it read:

Anderssen-Dufresne, 1852.

I’m officially a chess nerd. My friend couldn’t believe it and honestly, neither could I, despite that game being well-known and recognizable. I guess you know when you are a chess fan, eh?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Online vs. OTB Concentration

Last night I got to thinking about one of the main differences between online and OTB chess: concentration level.

When you are sitting across from another man (or woman, as the case may be), and there is a real chess board with real pieces and a real clock to worry about, our mind is much, much more into the game than when we are staring at a screen with a chessboard on it.

For one, the distractions at home can be severe: instant messaging, email, the phone, a TV, the doorbell, pets, kids, parents, etcetera. Combine them all and you end up with what – 20% concentration on the game at hand? That doesn’t ever make for good chess.

There may still be small distractions in a club or tournament setting, but not nearly to the level there are at home, on the computer. Also, losing to a player who is looking at you is much different than losing to a series of numbers and letters on a PC screen. Face-to-face chess is far more like a battle than is Internet chess, in my opinion.

If you are really wanting to improve your chess game but don’t, for whatever reason, have regular access to real live players, I give the following tips to practice during your Internet games:

1. Play long games.

I can’t stress this one enough. Fifteen minutes is not competition chess; it’s glorified blitz. 20/20, 30/30, 45/45 or even 60/0 are all good time controls if you really want to sink into a position you won’t necessarily lose if the phone rings.

2. Set aside good times to play.

Try and schedule or seek games when you have a good couple hours to play, and fill that time up with quality chess. If, for example, you have two hours to devote to chess, you’ll get much more out of playing a single 60/0 game than four 15/0 games. You likely wouldn’t hurry a big exam which required a great deal of thought and accuracy, so don’t hurry your chess games.

3. Study them afterward.

Once you complete a game, whether you won or lost, go over it again by yourself. Make sure you know where critical mistakes were made, which side made them, and how the win was executed. Go over it with your own mind before implementing an engine because they can make for lazy studying.

4. Minimize distractions.

Turn off the IM windows, close the Facebook tab, ignore emails as much as is reasonable, and keep the game on your screen. A single switch to another window breaks *all* concentration we had on the game. It’s a shame to lose a great battle because you switched back to the game and blundered. Ask me how I know that.  *giggle*

If you are a blitz or bullet player who simply enjoys speed chess, of course, that’s fine. More power to you! But if you are wondering why your rating hasn’t increased in the last year, and you are not taking your online games as seriously as you could, you are doing yourself a great disservice. Get into those games!

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Internet is Changing Chess

Well, that’s a pretty broad statement, but a very true one, as most of you realize. Beyond the obvious changes, though, lie subtle ones that are so commonplace now, some chess players might not even know they are new. Let’s take a look at a few of the ways Internet and computers have changed chess, permanently.

1. Hate-sitting

Sometimes called ‘clock-sitting’, it is when one player, usually the losing one, just stops moving and allows their clock to run down instead of resigning. It’s annoying in bullet chess, it’s downright uncool in long games. Back when chess was only played OTB, hate-sitting was a rare occurrence, indeed. It’s much more difficult to sit there with a smirk on your face letting your clock run down while your opponent is two feet away, physically looking at you.

2. Fast time controls

Sure, the old masters played speed chess, but not one-minute games, and not with anywhere near the regularity they appear today. In fact, there are far more bullet games played on the ‘net each day than any other type of chess. That is definitely a sign of the times. It’s very hard to play 2/1 when your clock is an hourglass.

3. Cheating

Ah, yes, cheating; you knew it had to be mentioned. There have been OTB cheaters, but the number is so miniscule compared to online cheaters as not to be mentioned. We’ve all heard of Toiletgate and the incident at the World Open a few years back, but OTB cheaters are caught pretty readily, whereas online cheaters using a program are much harder to detect, especially if they are doing it correctly.

4. Regularity

Imagine, for a second, there were no Internet chess games available. You would have to wait until club night or, if there are no clubs in your area, you’d have to play limited opponents that would likely be crushed by you every game if they were only casual players. Today, we can hop online and within seconds get any kind of chess game we choose, and against any type of opponent. That is amazing, when you think about how the chess-world was pre-Bobby Fischer. Just amazing!

5. Lessons for FREE!

Alekhine couldn’t sign on to YouTube in 1924 and learn the newest lines of an opening he was interested in. Back then, it was learn it by books or innovation, or don’t learn it at all. I believe this is one of the many reasons that kids and new players are so much stronger today than they were back when. Every one of us has access to thousands and thousands of chess lessons and published games at the click of a mouse.

6. Discussion forums (such as

Before the common household use of computers, you discussed chess news and lines with someone you physically knew (or maybe by telephone or mail), or you didn’t discuss them at all. Today, information moves so quickly that the average player knows much more about all facets of the game than they did in Alekhine’s day; that’s a fact.

7. Study habits

Before computers, players were meticulously going over opening lines, endgame techniques, and working things out with other players over an actual board. Today, we can fire up any of a gajillion databases, watch a sea of videos, hire strong masters to train us via Skype, and use powerful engines to immediately evaluate any position in the world. Times, they say, are a changin’.

8. Money

The Internet has opened up a great big highway for the money monster. Masters can now charge for lessons and give them from the comfort of their own homes. Businessmen can open up pay chess sites and collect both member and ad revenue. Grandmasters are paid to host online simuls, give lectures on games or theory, record video lessons for the masses, and even play each other. Try that in 1930. 

There are myriad other ways that the Internet/computer has changed chess, but I’ll leave you with those eight for now. Who knows what lies in the next five, ten, fifteen years? The huge changes we will see are going to be both exhilarating and terrifying.  

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Carlsen on Colbert

Eh. I’m torn on this one, I guess. If you missed it, you can check it out here:

No matter what Jen Shahade and others try, chess has always been and likely always will be sort of an ‘underground’ type thing. Having said that, I’m not sure that putting Carlsen on the Stephen Colbert show and broadcasting a couple of his modeling photos is going to do chess any good.

Then there were the questions: Do the pieces talk to you?


I realize that Colbert has his thing going and he has a show to run, but that’s the best he could come up with for the world’s highest-rated chess player? I know he had to make some schtick out of the whole thing, but I think any seventh-grader could have come up with that one.

And then challenging him to rock, paper, scissors; c’mon now! I’m glad, at least, that Carlsen won. I know that a joke is a joke and that I’m likely super-sensitive when it comes to chess heroes being ridiculed on live TV, but I was truly hoping for more than a three-minute waste of time segment of the show.

Weren’t you?

Any attempt to make chess mainstream is going to immediately fall on its face, and I think that’s a good thing. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to see a bunch of flat-biller morons wearing Tapout shirts at chess events, toting pitchers of beer and blaring house music.

No thank-you, ma’am.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Alexander Alekhine: No, he didn't choke.

Photo from, not mine.

Recent posts at have prompted me to create the blog entry I have always wanted to: One about Alexander Alekhine’s mysterious death. His entire life was shrouded in a sort of clouded veil but his death, I believe, is a downright conspiracy.

I’m pretty darned well-read when it comes to Alekhine. One guy who may surpass my own knowledge is GM Kevin Spraggett, who also thinks that Alekhine didn’t choke on any meat when he died. You can find his blogs on the subject here:

Also, the ChessBase article outlining the subject:

As you can deduce for yourself having read those articles, the world-champion chess match between Alekhine and Botvinnik was officially put into motion on Saturday, the 23rd of March, 1946. Alekhine was found dead the next morning, having “choked” on meat.


While Alekhine was born in Russia, he was playing for France. It is my belief that the Russians were terrified that a defector, Alekhine, would destroy Botvinnik, one of their own, over the board. Botvinnik was good, yes, but was he good enough to beat one of the strongest tacticians ever to grace the game of chess? They couldn’t take that chance.

The Russians, instead of risking one of their own being embarrassed by Alekhine, decided to snuff-out the problem permanently. If his death were just a total coincidence, and positively of natural causes, I likely wouldn’t bat an eye at it.

But it wasn’t.

If you look at the photo, which I snagged from ChessBase (it can be found on a ton of sites, though), you’ll see that Alekhine appears peaceful, as if he just dropped off in his sleep. One second there, the next, not.


You don’t need to be a medical doctor or a forensic scientist to know that people, when choking on food, don’t just lay back and let it happen. Therefore, there is just no way that his chess table would still be set up like that, that his dinner tray would still be arranged, and no way he’d be laying there peacefully.

Also, they claimed he was holding another piece of meat in his hand when they found him. Really? Seriously? Minute after minute went by while Alekhine couldn’t breathe, dying, and he still thought it best to keep the next bite handy? Crime Scene Fail is what that photo depicts.

A trained rescue diver can hold their breath for a few minutes longer than regular folks. For the rest of us, I have to assume that three minutes without breathing would be virtually impossible. But let’s go extreme and say he lasted a whole five minutes, choking on that piece of meat.

You mean to tell me he didn’t flop around and panic? That he just sat there calmly? C’mon, now.

According to one site, the brain itself begins to die in under six minutes when choking, and incurs irreversible damage in ten minutes. That sounds about right, to me, so my five-minute-suffering may be possible. It didn’t happen in Alekhine's case, though.


Now, look at the picture of his death scene at the top of this blog again. Does that look like a man who choked on meat? No, it doesn’t, not a single bit. That is a picture of a man who was positioned like that after he was killed.

More Weirdness from the Photo

Note the aforementioned peg chessboard off to the side, in start position. I guess it’s feasible that he would eat before studying but again, a choking, thrashing man would have kicked that shit all over the place. There’s no way it’d still be intact, just two-feet from where he “choked to death”. Again, I’m no M.D., but that seems way, way too far-fetched to believe.

Also, he was in a hotel. Why would he eat dinner in a coat? It isn’t like he was watching the gas bill. He doesn’t look very comfortable, at all, if you ask me. I don’t know too many cats who keep their bulky jackets on while eating indoors. Is it possible? Of course. It just doesn’t seem very probable.

Also note that all his plates are completely empty. How unfortunate that he choked on the very *last* piece of meat that was available to chew. Yeah, right. Meat usually comes with a side, right? Potatoes, vegetables – something. Who the hell eats the sides first and the meat last?

No, he was done with dinner and out for a walk, like it says in Mr. Spraggett’s blog. It was only later, after he was gunned down, that he was taken back to his room and posed like that.

This is just my opinion, of course, and I have no proof to support my case past the circumstantial stuff I’ve outlined here. Very compelling evidence would have to surface in order for me to change my mind, though; I'm pretty set on my opinion in the case of Alexander Alekhine.

Our fourth world chess champion was murdered, plain and simple.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Looking for Moves in Chess

In this blog entry, I’m going to discuss a few things about ‘moving’ in chess. This will be mostly aimed at beginner to mid-level players, because I think it’s something often misunderstood. The difference between ‘looking for moves’ and ‘carrying out a plan’ may seem subtle to the newcomer, but they are vastly different.

When asked how he wiped away his opponents, Alexander Alekhine said something to the effect of: I think up my own moves, and I make my opponent think up his.

That’s pretty powerful, when you think about it: he’s saying that no matter what the other player already knows, how ‘booked up’ he is, or how brilliantly he may play, Alekhine would still be able to out-think them in a match.

Alekhine is well-known for leaving book lines early in the game. He liked to mix things up, to dare his opponents to walk into his territory. Sometimes it worked and other times it didn’t, but no matter the outcome of the game, it was always a down-and-dirty street fight with Alekhine.

So, what was his deal? Yes, he is known as one of the most studious masters of all time and yes, he possessed oodles of talent and was a very intelligent man. But what did he mean by ‘thinking up his own moves’? Well, he wasn’t referring to single moves, I can tell you that.

A leg is a leg, and an arm is an arm. A torso is weird without a head, and legs are odd without feet. But, put them all together in the correct order and place, and you have a body. The same goes with chess. A move is just a single move; it can either be good or bad, or even indifferent, but it’s still just a move.

Each move indicates, or should indicate, a small part of a larger plan. The amateur just slaps out the first ten moves of an opening he kinda-sorta knows, and then ‘looks for moves’. In other words, he’s looking for knock-out blows like piece wins or immediate threats which may cause his opponent to blunder badly.

Masters look for moves, too, don’t get me wrong. But when they are looking for moves, they are trying to find moves that best support the plan they have come up with in their head. This is what’s largely referred to as ‘seeing X-number of moves deep’. Contrary to popular belief, there is no set number of moves ahead that a certain GM, or anyone else, can see. Depending on the position, that number could be low or high for all of us. It’s more that the GM can see the plan inside the position, rather than an exact number of moves deep. Through years and years of serious play and study, the board vision of a master becomes quite keen.

An amateur doesn’t understand the importance of a sound position. He or she just wants to have fun making threat after threat, sacrificing pawns and pieces, and doing their best to find brilliant moves. If they stick with the game long enough, they’ll find that brilliant moves are just an indication of a brilliant plan, and nothing more.

So what am I trying to say? I’m saying that instead of necessarily “looking for moves” each turn, formulate an all-encompassing plan. Of course, plan-less games are won every day by thousands of people, but not against strong opposition. If two inexperienced players have a few games, they can literally be as interesting as watching strong GM games, and sometimes more so. The wild piece sacs, the unsound pawn pushes, the ‘see a check give a check’ mentality; it’s all very entertaining. It really is.

But, you cannot go off half-cocked against a master and expect good game results. Why? Because in any given position, and I do mean any position, a master is going to come up with a better plan than the amateur. Because of that, he’s going to find better, stronger moves.

If you find yourself often without a plan in chess, you need to stop and reevaluate that part of your game. The ‘looking for moves’ bit works against 1500s on the Internet, sure, but if you hope to ever scalp a master, you’d better ‘look for a plan’, instead.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Dreaming of Alekhine

Okay, this is going to be a weird post. I should preface it by saying that I’m a pretty logical person who has a fascination with the unexplainable. Having said that, here are the highlights of a dream I had in which Alexander Alekhine gave me chess advice.

I was in a large hall, like a ballroom. There were tables with white cloths everywhere, and stuffy-looking men in dark suits were dining at each one. It was a chess master conference, via the ‘30s sometime, probably.

I recognized quite a few of them but I didn’t see my favorite guy, Alekhine. I remember hoping he was there and hadn’t been forced to miss the conference for whatever reason. I walked around slowly, looking around for a glimpse of the player who, at that time, was the strongest in the world.

I found him way in the back, throwing hundreds of white 8x10 pieces of paper into a large dumpster. I looked at them, and they were chock-full of long division, written in pencil. Each page had an impossibly big division problem on it.

I asked him what he was doing.

He replied that this is what the masters do to practice. He went on to say that when I could do problems like these entirely in my head, I would be ready to become a chess master.

Long division? Really? What the hell did all this mean?

I don’t honestly think Alekhine meant what he said literally. Rather, I think it was a metaphor for chess studying, but I’m not at all sure. If he did mean that I have to do page-long division problems in my head, I’m in real trouble because math is definitely not my forte.

I believe he may instead have been referring to board vision, memorization, maybe playing entire games through in my mind’s eye. I believe he was trying to say that the surface studying that I do (and, let’s face it: who doesn’t?) isn’t going to cut it if I want to be really good at the game. A world champion doesn’t casually watch a few videos and read half a chess book and then go conquer the competition. That just isn’t the way it works.

Weird dream, eh? I’ll never forget it because it seemed so... real. He was there, I fully believe that. But what did his cryptic message mean?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Call me Alexander

When I was in my early-to-mid twenties, I partied quite a bit. I always brought a chess board with me to parties, but this was before I started seriously playing chess; I didn’t even know that openings existed. I was just better than my friends.

Anyhow, I remembered a funny thing, today: Whenever I was playing chess and someone would call my name, I’d request that they call me Alexander. It just sounded “chessy” to me. I had never heard of Alekhine, much less any other famous players. I don’t believe I knew who Fischer was, either.

But then, several years later when I got heavily into chess, I found that Alexander Alekhine was by far my favorite master, old or new. I loved his style of play, I loved the time he lived in (for whatever reason, I’m highly intrigued by the late 1800s and early 1900s), I love his chess quotes and, of course, his name rocked, too. ♫

My obsession with Alekhine goes deeper than the surface, though. I will read any articles about him, I have most, if not all, of his books, I have even ordered 8x10 glossies of him from the Internet to hang on my wall. The man was more than just a chess god, too; he lived a very rich and interesting life. No, he never made much money, but his tale is an intriguing one, nonetheless.

Whenever October 31st falls on a chess club night, I bring a cake and candles for Alekhine because that was his birthday. I have Alekhine databases on every computer and I study them religiously. It’s neat to watch his style of play drastically change once he realized it had to if he wanted to play in the Big Leagues.

Do you have a player you are borderline or completely obsessed with? How come? Was he a world champ? Is it a she? Tell us a little something about why you like them!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

On chess, recognition, and memorization

I’m not a scientist, but I don’t have to be to know that children “absorb” things faster and more thoroughly than adults do. By now, that’s common knowledge. It is also the reason why kids who pick up the game of chess at seven years old are masters by the time they are ten or twelve, especially now days. Things “sink in” far deeper during our formative years, and at an unbelievable rate.

Do I have anything in my own personal life that correlates? Sure. We all do.

I’m a drummer, and have been one since 1994. I picked the basics up pretty fast, and then once I knew how to play, the improvement came painfully slowly, much like my chess game. Over years, I get better at each, but at a snail’s pace. I may not be able to tell that I have improved in twelve months’ time, but in twenty-four months, the change is obvious and positive. Had I learned to play the drums at four years old, I’d probably be playing with a jazz band on a cruise ship or something. I just learn more slowly, now.

If I am introduced to a song today and have to learn it for a band project, I have to listen to that darn thing over and over and pause it in places and go back and then listen fifty more times before I get it right. I suppose that’s par for the course, but riddle me this: I can play songs that I knew and liked when I was younger, before I became a drummer, with almost eerie accuracy.


Because those songs are ingrained much deeper than the stuff I attempt learning today. I didn’t even know I knew the drums to these songs, but I do. I was listening to everything, apparently, not just the parts I liked.

The same exact thing goes with chess. I sign onto the ICC and watch the GMs play bullet at an extremely fast rate and with unbelievable accuracy. Sure, a lot of it is “memorization”, but more precisely, I think, is that they “know” the game inside and out and so they literally see things much quicker than the average player.

They’ve been staring at millions of chess positions since they were young children. There is no way that someone who picked up the game at twenty-six years of age, as I did, can ever hope to outplay them, especially when speed is involved. The difference between my chess vision and that of a GM is astronomical in size. Not worlds apart, but galaxies. Anyone who doesn’t believe that isn’t titled. Period.

On certain days, my chess playing is “off”. You know the days: You can play your pet opening and although everything stays in book, you can’t for the life of you formulate a decent plan and instead, you produce a blunder. That’s probably playing at the 1600 level (Internet, not USCF), give or take, for me.

GM’s have “off” days, too, but when they drop their abilities 300 points, they are “only” playing at the 2200 or 2300 level, as opposed to their usual 2500 or 2600 strength. For that reason, an observer may not notice when these GMs are having their bad days, because even at their worst, they are playing above master level. It’s much more evident when a 1900 loses a game to a 1600 that things aren’t going well for that guy on that particular day. See what I mean?

Us normal folk who weren’t titled by the age of fourteen need much, much more board time to recognize patterns, to find tactics, to spot when our opponents have made a slight positional blunder, and to memorize and understand opening lines. If I have a really, really good day, I’m probably playing at the mid-expert level, which is 2,100-ish OTB. My average (at least on the ‘net) is probably 1900 in slow chess. That means that on an off day, I might actually play at the 1600-1700 level instead, which is about right.

Apply that formula to a GM, and your average 2500 player could be whipping everyone and realistically playing at the 2700-2800 level when he’s firing on all cylinders and “seeing” everything. Doesn’t that sound reasonable? That’s why the world-championship is played in a match over several days or weeks instead of a few games over a weekend.

When a GM is “off”, he may lose a game to a talented FM, and it wouldn’t be fair to him in a championship situation if his game is totally off its hinges. Now, let’s say the FM and that same GM play a match, and the first to six wins is the victor; well, I hate to say it, but that FM doesn’t have a chance. Just because you can play like a bandit one or two games in a row doesn’t mean you are actually stronger than your opponent, even though you managed to eek a win or two. As they say, you can win a few battles, but the war itself is another ballgame.

Go to your favorite site and pick a player, any player at all. Bring up their profile, and look at their “best” ratings in each category (blitz, bullet, standard, variants, etcetera). Now, look to see if their current rating is within thirty points of their “best” rating. I’d bet dollars to donuts it isn’t.

That is the result of this player’s “best” streak of playing, and it shows the level he or she *can* play at when all the puzzle pieces come together so that the picture is clear. Their average strength, however, is probably much lower. Most of the GMs on ICC have a “best” rating that is several hundred above their current rating. That’s just the way it goes.

Anyhow, I think you’d be doing yourself a favor if you did the following, and often: Play both sides of your favorite opening to about ten moves or so, when the opening is technically turning into a middle game. Now, just stare at the position for as long as you can possibly stand. Think about what you see: Try to spot nuances, try to see what each player’s plan should be, and what it usually is, and try to get a good grasp of what’s going on. Because most of us weren’t GMs before the age of twenty, it’s my opinion that we need to work four times harder to achieve desirable results in our chess games.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

WCL to the ICC

Well, this won’t be the usual-type blog entry. Instead, I’d like to inform you of a major change going on in my life, and it has to do with the chess server I work for.

World Chess Live (WCL) is merging with the Internet Chess Club (ICC)! That is both great and terrible news, for me: it’s great because I will no longer have to feel guilty about slipping over to the ICC to watch the GMs play, but terrible because that’s a *huge* server, and the workload likely just quadrupled. Of course, I’m joking about the terrible part; I really do like being busy! Sorta...

How cool is the ICC to me? For those of you who do not have accounts, let me run down a few of the highlights, here:

1. On the ICC, 2600 is a low rating, and I’m not at all kidding. The “Events” window consistently has 2800-3,300 games going on between titled players. Nakamura’s blitz rating at the time of this writing is 3,374; that’s not messing around, kids.

2. Videos, videos, and more videos! Seriously, ICC has so many game analysis videos done by grand masters it isn’t funny. They have their GOTD (game of the day) series which is nothing less than out of this world. That means I can watch these amazing videos and work at the same time. I can subscribe to that, friends and neighbors.

3. Several interface options. I personally have always signed onto ICC using Blitzin, but will probably use Dasher now that I’ll be on staff. You can also use Jin and a few others, so there’s no shortage in personalization possibilities. They even have iPhone apps and stuff, now. I don’t get into all that stuff, but I suppose it’s pretty neat.

4. New opportunities for me! I’m hoping that this major uprooting presents some new challenges and, if all goes well, opportunities to move up the ranks. I have been an administrator on Chess Live since 2004, and although they brought me over to the ICC as a Helper (basically a Service Representative), I believe I’ll get my badge back; I work hard and I’m really friendly. What more could they ask? :P

Anyhow, this post was more to inform and vent than to gripe or preach, but so be it, I guess. Wish me luck, gang, in my new venture at a new ‘home’!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Saturday Chess Thought: Keep it Simple, and THINK

I so often hear that people want to get better at chess, and what books they should buy. Books? Yes, they can be beneficial, but it starts with you, it really does. No book in the world can fix your faulty thinking if you don’t want it to. Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say you’ve adopted an opening. Like the rest of us, you’ve probably skimmed a book, looked at a few master games, and even watched a video on the thing. You are ready for battle. Watch out, opponent, because I’ve got a few moves up my sleeve!

Then you lose. A lot. You get angry at the opening, and abandon it, but why?

Every expert, master, FM, IM, and GM in the world will tell you that memorizing lines is almost 100% useless. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You need to understand the IDEAS behind openings or certain setups, rather than just their existence and move order.

If, for instance, you adopt an opening which thematically fights for the d5 square, but you don’t realize that, you are bound to let that d5 square go to your opponent more often than not, especially if he understands the goals of the opening you choose. Or, maybe you’ll choose to fight on the sides of the board, while your opponent reroutes his men to take control of d5.

You will never understand why you lose game after game, because the d5 square is a mystery to you. That’s why I always recommend playing s-l-o-w chess, and analyzing what your foe is trying to do, each and every move.

If he wants a square, take it away. If he sets up an attack, defend. If he leaves you an opening, launch your own attack. But, bashing out the first ten moves of your pet opening in three seconds is going to lose, and it’s going to lose often. Chess is a thinking game, and if we don’t think about each move, we aren’t thinking about the game. That’s all there is to it.

Remember, when studying a chess book, the goal isn’t a certain amount of pages per day; the goal is to understand each page before you move to the next. If you average one page a day, so be it. You either want to improve at chess, or you do not.

Here is a sample thought process from the very *first* move, if you can believe that:

“Hmm, e4, eh? Okay, so he controls d5 and f5 right away. As black, I have to get as much out of the opening as he does, theoretically. So, what can I do, here? If I move my pawn to e5, I control d4 and f4, and claim equal stake in the center. If I play the French with e6 and d5, I’ll control these particular squares, with the idea of c5 in few moves, challenging his center...” etcetera., etcetera., etcetera.

This really is what you should be doing as a beginning or intermediate-level player. If you don’t think critically about chess, don’t get upset when your opponent does and whoops you. Just saying.

If you complicate your game with ideas and moves you do not or cannot grasp, you don’t have a chess game. You have an experiment. Which is fine, if you are ready to lose as often as you win, and tread water.

Chess really is simple. When your opponent makes a move, try to figure out why and if it was good or bad. If it was a good move, cook up a good one to counter it. If it was bad, show him why it was bad and come up with a plan. Chess is about plans, not moves. Once you get to thinking like that, your rating will soar.

Friday, February 17, 2012

What's in a Rating?

I know a lot of folks worry about their ratings, but in many cases the thinking is backward on the subject. They want a great rating, but they just keep playing the same old chess, and do very little studying. Ratings don’t just climb on their own; we must improve.

So, what *is* a rating, exactly? It’s just a number which represents the overall average of your playing results in a given time control or variant. It does not necessarily reflect your true strength, but rather a ballpark figure based on *results*, not skill. The reason for that is inconsistency. Even GMs have off days, but when they do they might play ‘only’ at the 2300 level, whereas if us plebeians have an off day and lose 300 points, we really suck. Badly.

Example: My bullet chess.

I play bullet sometimes on WCL, even though I shouldn’t; it’s horrible for your long game. The point is that sometimes my rating is in the 1800s, and sometimes it’s in the 1500s, and that can swing the full 300 points in a single hour. So, what’s my bullet strength? I cannot say it’s 1800 truly, because that’s the upper end of the spectrum. I’m definitely not a 1500 bullet player, either, although some days I play like one. Averaging the two out gives me 1650, and that’s probably about right (using the Glicko system). 1650 is a safe bet. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s better than the 1300 I was a few years back.

So, when a beginner asks how to improve his rating, he’s really asking how to improve his game, because that’s the only way to truly improve our numbers. A few opening zaps and traps are good to know, but they aren’t chess; they are memorized traps and zaps. My advice on improving your rating is to think critically about each move, starting with move *one*. Don’t hack out the first ten moves in a second-and-a-half because you “know the line”. That is a critical error. Keep your eyes open for mistakes, because doing so could turn a 34-move draw into a 15-move checkmate for you.

If you aren’t pleased with the number by your name on your favorite playing site, here’s what you do: log off, break out a chess book, and really go through it slowly and carefully. Your goal should be to learn a few new ideas, and have them sink in. You wouldn’t go into battle without a weapon, would you? The same principle applies to our chess: If we are unarmed when we start a game, the chances of our rating increasing aren’t so hot.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Kids: They Get It

I was at a friend’s house a few days back, and he had gotten me a great big chess set for my birthday. I had never seen anything like it, that’s for sure. It came with gigantic plastic pieces, a huge vinyl mat, and a small instruction booklet with the rules.

This is it, here:

Anyhow, we set the thing up and then I figured that would be the end of it, but his son wanted to play a game. Apparently, my friend had taught him the moves and whatnot a while back. Sure, I said, I’d love to!

Well, the kid hadn’t played but a few games in his entire life and so he was hanging knights and queens left and right, which I declined to take right away. I would hint at their impending doom and allow him to move them away, encouraging him to find the best square or, at least, be able to explain a reason for moving it where he did.

The kid ate it up. Soon, he was trouble.

We reached an endgame where he was a piece up. No, he didn’t actually outplay me to get there, I was helping him along the way; once I lost a rook, though, the help stopped. He had mate threats and piece threats everywhere, and a scary passed pawn.

I would make a move, see a really good reply, and ask the kid to take his time and find the move. By that stage of the game, though, he was finding better moves than I was. Seriously. He had the right idea, and you can take that to the bank. He made odd-looking moves I hadn’t seen and, after a few seconds of looking, I would see that the moves were very strong. Stronger than the moves I was looking at, and I’m not a beginner by a long shot.

We eventually reached a position where my king was stuck on the bottom rank and I had, or thought I had, one more defense before it was white flag time. I announced to the room that we’d reached a critical position and I explained to the kid why I had moved where I did. I asked him if he could find the win in two moves.

He checkmated me in one.

Needless to say, I was a bit embarrassed. In my defense, I had consumed more than a couple adult beverages and probably wasn’t playing at my usual Bobby Fischer level. The point is, that the child was picking the ideas up quickly. Scary quick. He is ten years old and I fully believe that if he took the game up, he’d be regularly smashing me inside of two years time, and it has taken me ten years to get where I am today. It really is amazing how fast they learn.

I didn’t have the opportunity to enter the chess world when my age was still a single digit. My father taught me how to play somewhere in my teens but I had no clue there was a whole chess underworld, full of tournaments, fun blitz and study. I just thought it was a board game, like every other average citizen.

Please, if you have kids, teach them the moves early and see if they like the game. If they take to it and stick with it, they’ll be masters in no time and with ease. I saw so many teenage FMs and IMs at the Vegas tournament it blew my mind. What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and carry a 2400 chess rating before I could legally drive a car.

Damn. Just imagine it...

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Connecting Winboard to World Chess Live

Connecting Winboard to a chess-playing server such as World Chess Live isn’t easy for the first-timer, but it can be done. This article aims to walk you through the process. I’m going to try and make it very complete, so you may want to bookmark it for future use. This article assumes that you have a working copy of Winboard installed and that you have already created a (C)omputer account on WCL.

This article will be long, so be sure you read it all.

To start: Let’s go to your desktop (for now). When you get there, right-click on any blank area and scroll the mouse down to “New”. Then, choose “Text Document”, and a file will be created. You can name this file whatever you want, but make sure it’s something you’ll remember, like the C account name, which is what I use. After you name it, hit ENTER and step one is done. The extension will remain .txt, for now, and that’s fine; we’ll change it in a bit.

Filling in the file: Double-click the file so that it opens, if it isn’t already. Inside, we are going to put some pretty wacky things, so be patient. Winboard’s language is known as “Zippy”, so many things in this file will have the word Zippy in front of it. I know, weird. I will walk you through each item, what you should fill in, and what it means or does. Don’t worry.

The first thing you’ll want to do is put in the location for Winboard on your computer.

Example: "C:\Program Files (x86)\WinBoard-4.2.7\winboard.exe" -zp (and yes, you want the quotation marks. Also, make sure you put a space between the last quotes and the –zp; each and every space is important when setting up these files. If you have XP or Vista, your Winboard will have been installed in a slightly different location, and that’s okay; just put down wherever the .exe file is. It’ll be in Program Files somewhere. An easy way to get the file location, once you find the file, is to right-click it, go to “Properties”, and a box will open up. Copy what it says after “Location” into your new Winboard file.

Next: -ics –fcp is what you want to type after the Winboard .exe location. Again, put a space between the -zp after the Winboard location and the –ics and -fcp. “ics” stands for Internet Chess Server and “fcp” stands for First Chess Program, or the engine you’ll be using. The ics tells Winboard you won’t just be playing against it on your computer, but that you’ll be signing it onto a chess server. That’s all.

So far we have: "C:\Program Files (x86)\WinBoard-4.2.7\winboard.exe" -zp -ics –fcp
This is from my personal Winboard engine file; yours will differ slightly during each step depending on file location and your preferences.

The engine: Now we are going to want to tell Winboard which engine you are going to use, and its location. It’s the same process as the Winboard.exe bit, only you’ll change the path to wherever your engine is located on your computer. I suggest, for organizational purposes, putting the engine in your Winboard folder. To do this, right-click on your engine, wherever it is. Scroll down to “Cut”, and then go to the Winboard folder in Program Files. Right-click again on any blank space and scroll down to “Paste”. Done.

Example: "C:\Program Files (x86)\WinBoard-4.2.7\sf-211-win-eng\stockfish-211-32-ja.exe"

As you can see, the example location uses Stockfish as the engine. Yours will read whatever your engine’s name is. An easy way to get the engine location is to right-click it, go to “Properties”, and a box will open up. Copy what it says after “Location” into your new Winboard file. Easy, huh?

Now your file should look something like this: "C:\Program Files (x86)\WinBoard-4.2.7\winboard.exe" -zp -ics -fcp "C:\Program Files (x86)\WinBoard-4.2.7\sf-211-win-eng\stockfish-211-32-ja.exe"

Computer account name: Next, Winboard wants to know the name of your bot/computer account, so it can log it in to the chess server. That will look like this:
-icslogon "logonMortimer.ini"

Of course, you would replace Mortimer with your own bot’s handle on the chess server.

Now your file should look similar to this: "C:\Program Files (x86)\WinBoard-4.2.7\winboard.exe" -zp -ics -fcp "C:\Program Files (x86)\WinBoard-4.2.7\sf-211-win-eng\stockfish-211-32-ja.exe" -icslogon "logonMortimer.ini"

Playing site: Now Winboard will need to know the address of the site in which you will sign the bot onto. For World Chess Live, it will look like this:
"" -icsport 5000

Again, pay attention to the spaces in between things. You can copy/paste this address directly into your file if you are signing your account on to WCL.

So now we have: "C:\Program Files (x86)\WinBoard-4.2.7\winboard.exe" -zp -ics -fcp "C:\Program Files (x86)\WinBoard-4.2.7\sf-211-win-eng\stockfish-211-32-ja.exe" -icslogon "logonMortimer.ini" -icshost "" -icsport 5000 (We’re getting there!)

Now Winboard needs to know what lag control is in place at the server. For ICC/WCL it’s Timestamp, and for FICS it’s Timeseal. So you’ll type (or copy/paste):
-icshelper timestamp

So now our file looks like:
"C:\Program Files (x86)\WinBoard-4.2.7\winboard.exe" -zp -ics -fcp "C:\Program Files (x86)\WinBoard-4.2.7\sf-211-win-eng\stockfish-211-32-ja.exe" -icslogon "logonMortimer.ini" -icshost "" -icsport 5000 -icshelper timestamp

Game End: Now Winboard needs to know what your bot will do after each game, such as seeking, saying something, rematching, etcetera. Here is an example:

-zippyGameEnd="seek 1 0 \nseek 3 0\nseek 15 0"

Note the “nseek” command. This is necessary for multiple seeks to be present. On most servers, a user can have up to three seeks out at once, which we enter in three separate seek commands. For bots, the first seek looks normal, and each subsequent seek is an nseek so that it can all be done in one command line. Also, note the backslash between seeks; a regular forward slash (/) will not work. You can, of course, change the seek parameters to anything you like, including wild variants (for engines that support them), increments, different time controls, etcetera. As long as it’s in between those quotes, it’s good to go.

Now we have:
"C:\Program Files (x86)\WinBoard-4.2.7\winboard.exe" -zp -ics -fcp "C:\Program Files (x86)\WinBoard-4.2.7\sf-211-win-eng\stockfish-211-32-ja.exe" -icslogon "logonMortimer.ini" -icshost "" -icsport 5000 -icshelper timestamp -zippyGameEnd="seek 1 0 \nseek 3 0\nseek 15 0"

Password: In order to sign the bot on to the playing site, Winboard needs the password for the account. You do this by typing:

-zippyPassword="password" -xzab

Of course, you’ll replace password with whatever your C account’s password actually is. Pretty easy!

So now your file should look similar to:
"C:\Program Files (x86)\WinBoard-4.2.7\winboard.exe" -zp -ics -fcp "C:\Program Files (x86)\WinBoard-4.2.7\sf-211-win-eng\stockfish-211-32-ja.exe" -icslogon "logonMortimer.ini" -icshost "" -icsport 5000 -icshelper timestamp -zippyGameEnd="seek 1 0 \nseek 3 0\nseek 15 0" -zippyPassword="password" –xzab

Other stuff: You are doing great. This is the last part for this file, I promise. The end of this file is where we can tell the bot certain things like how many times each opponent can play it in a row (reduces abuse), how long the break is in between the max games number and when the opponent can play it again, any variants the bot will play (such as crazyhouse or atomic chess), and the PGN file you want Winboard to save the games in. Winboard will create this file itself, you just need to name it. Here’s an example from my personal bot:

zippyMaxGames=20 -zippyReplayTimeout=60 -zippyVariants="normal" -sgf mortimer.pgn

This means that each opponent can only play my bot 20 times in a row before that person (or other C account) is forced to wait 60 seconds to play it again. This gives others who are waiting a chance to get in on the action. The numbers 20 and 60 can, of course, be changed to whatever you wish.

My bot is set up, as of right now, to only play regular, or normal, chess, and so that’s what I put after the variants option. Also, its games are stored in a file called Mortimer.pgn, which Winboard created after I put it in after –sgf (saved games file).

So, your completed *.bat file should look similar to this:
"C:\Program Files (x86)\WinBoard-4.2.7\winboard.exe" -zp -ics -fcp "C:\Program Files (x86)\WinBoard-4.2.7\sf-211-win-eng\stockfish-211-32-ja.exe" -icslogon "logonMortimer.ini" -icshost "" -icsport 5000 -icshelper timestamp -zippyGameEnd="seek 1 0 \nseek 3 0\nseek 15 0" -zippyPassword="password" -xzab -zippyMaxGames=20 -zippyReplayTimeout=60 -zippyVariants="normal" -sgf mortimer.pgn

If you want, you can copy/past this directly into your *.bat file and just change the information so that it works on your machine. :)

Saving your file as *.bat. Okay, now we have to save this file in such a way that Windows knows it’s an executable batch file. To do this, click on “File” in the upper left of the text box, and “Save As”. A new box will pop up, and you can type the file name there. Mine is “Mortimer.bat” because my bot’s name is Mortimer on WCL.

Before you hit “Save”, look at the line just below the one that says “File name”. See where it says “Save as type:”? That is a drop-down bar. Click on the arrow on the right of the line to drop it down, and scroll to “All Files (*.*)”. What this does is make Windows realize it’s not just a text file with a *.bat extension, it’s an actual *.bat batch file that does something. NOW you can save, and we are done with the first file. The second file is far easier, trust me.

The *.ini file: Now we need to construct an initiation file for Winboard. It’s super easy and may seem redundant, but the two files work together to get our C account signed on. Make sure you save both the *.bat file and the *.ini file in the same place or folder on your computer. They have to “see” each other in order to work correctly.

First, create a file the same way you did the *.bat file by going to the desktop (or My Documents, or wherever you like; I only choose the desktop at first because it’s far less confusing sometimes), right-clicking, scrolling down to "New", and then choosing "Text Document".

The most important thing here is that your *.ini file name matches, exactly, the *.ini file name you specified back in the batch file. For mine, it read:

-icslogon "logonMortimer.ini"

Remember that guy? So, for an example, if your C account’s name was “ChessBot”, you would type “logonChessBot.ini” instead of Mortimer – see? Simple.

What to type: So, you have your blank new *.txt document open, and you are wondering what to do. My friend, I have great news: This is the easiest part.

Here is what will be in the *.ini file:

Bot name
Bot password
Set bell 0 (or 1, if you wish: it turns the piece movement sound on or off. 0 is off, and you’ll probably like it better in the long run. Up to you, though!)
Seek 1 0
Seek 5 0
Seek 15 0
Anything else

Wait. What is ‘Anything else’? This is anything else you’d like your bot to do when it logs in. For instance, you can have it shout something, you can send a tell to a certain channel, you can set the formula, etcetera. So, for instance, Mortimer’s *.ini file might look like:

Set bell 0
Shout I’m ready for battle!
Set formula rated
Seek 1 0
Seek 3 0
Seek 15 0

Save the file: Now we save the file the same way we did with the batch file, dropping down to “All Files” and naming it *******.ini. Again, make sure this file name matches the one in your batch file. If it doesn’t, the bot won’t sign on.

And that’s it! There are a few common errors folks might make, and I’ll try my best to list three or four of them here so that you have an idea where to start and what to look for should you encounter a problem.

Spacing. I cannot stress how important it is to get the spacing correct between the zippy commands in the *.bat file. If Winboard doesn’t fire up at all or disappears right away, or it has trouble connecting to the site, this could be the reason. Check and double check it.

File name mix-up: As I said, it’s uber-important that what you specified in the *.bat and what you named the *.ini file names match up as far as the logon part. If not, they can’t speak to each other and Winboard will close down or, at the very least, not sign the bot in to the server.

Engine is bad: Sometimes, an engine (especially if pirated, which I never, ever condone) gets messed up and won’t load. If that happens, you’ll see “Starting Chess Program” on the top left of the chessboard, and then Winboard will either just sit there or shut down altogether. If this happens, I highly recommend trying another engine. There are plenty out there to choose from. Also, sometimes an engine will “load”, but then won’t make any moves once you get to the server. Probably also a corrupt engine. Change it out.

Engines: Engines MUST be *.exe (UCI – Universal Chess Interface) in order to work with Winboard. Engines with *.eng suffix, such as those that come with Fritz, will not load.

There are a ton of free and powerful engines out there, such as Houdini, Stockfish, and some versions of Rybka.

Houdini: (Go about halfway down the page. You’ll see the blue link that says, “Too expensive? You can still download the free Houdini 1.5 which at the time of the Houdini 2 release remains unmatched in strength by any other chess engine.”)


You can also do an Internet search for “Free chess engines” and you’ll probably come back with more than you can handle. If you are interested in a specific engine and cannot find it, contact me directly and we’ll see what we can do. I have collected quite a few (hundred) over the years. #totalnerd

Winboard stuff: (This is a GREAT page for Winboard users, as it has engines, Zippy stuff, links, and all kinds of other things. It’s where most of the Winboard pros get their start.

Just know that almost any chess engine that ends in *.exe and isn’t corrupt will work fine in Winboard. If you can find it, Winboard will make it play. That’s why so many folks like Winboard over other programs such as Chess Partner or Arena. It isn’t picky one bit with its engines, unless they are corrupt or have a virus or something.

I hope you have found this article helpful. If you have suggestions or see anything wrong, leave me a comment below or email me directly at: derekodm at gmail dot com (link left out so spam bots cannot find me!). Thanks for your time.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

I Miss the Chess Club

I had been a regular at my local chess club (meets in a bunch of different places, depending on which day of the week it is) for years and years. It was my first OTB experience with players who knew what they were doing. I had always been better at chess than my friends, but I was a fish in that arena.

When I first walked into the place (I had heard about them meeting on Thursdays from a friend), I saw a lot of clocks and vinyl chess mats and big, weighted pieces. I had brought a department store folding board and small, un-weighted plastic pieces in a butter container. I knew nothing of openings, middle games, endings, tournament mats, clocks, timed games, tactics – you get the idea. I wasn’t just green, I was light yellow.

Anyhow, I kept going back to the club, week after week, for a solid year (almost to the day) before I won my first game there. I had the right idea, but the execution needed some major work. I was an attacker, that was clear, and I didn’t want games to last more than twenty moves or so. Anything for a checkmate. You know, beginner stuff.

As I progressed, I got stronger and stronger and, a couple of years later, none of the players who regularly trounced me so badly before could take a single game off me. I was now the one to watch out for. Why? Because I was doing more than showing up for a few hours and playing five-minute chess. I was studying, I was playing in tournaments, I was taking boards to work and setting up positions on my lunch hour.

The club meets in many places, and I attended them all: the coffee shop on Thursdays, a Denny's on Fridays, the Senior Center on Tuesdays, a bookstore on Sunday mornings – I didn’t miss a beat. Now, however, and for several reasons, I rarely go, and I miss the hell out of it.

The Reasons:

Gas is expensive. I have since moved slightly out of the area and it takes a quarter-tank for the round trip no matter which night I attend. That adds up quick with today’s gas prices. I don’t usually gripe about the price of gas, but it’s a reality and it’s enough to keep me home if I don’t need to go out.

The Internet has made it possible to get a game any day, any hour, at any time control. That makes the process of eating dinner, getting ready, hopping in the car and driving somewhere seem like a whole lot of hassle for the same thing I could do in seconds at home. I hate the mindset, but I must admit it’s there. No, Internet chess is never nearly as satisfying as thumping down a triple-weighted rook and slapping the clock, but it’s a much easier alternative.

There’s a crazy, scary guy at the club that isn’t stable. Yes, I’m serious. This guy has no qualms about cornering someone for three hours or more and telling all about his jacked up childhood, about his drunk, drug-addicted mother and abusive father, about jobs he’s had (in excruciating detail – way beyond the norm), his military experience, his view on politics (you only have to listen for a few minutes to realize that this guy is extremely racist), etcetera. It goes on, and on, and on. I had always just had him pegged as extremely nerdy, but he goes beyond that into psychotic, I believe.

Lately, he’s my reason for not going. I had seen him at the club off and on for years, but he’d never managed to corner me. One Friday night after a rock concert, I motored into the Denny's because I was passing it anyhow and always have my tournament set with me. He and one other guy were there, and I played the other guy a few games. Once he’d had enough of dropping pieces to me, he took his leave, and this wacko started in.

I probably said twenty words in three hours; he just talks and talks and talks. Eventually, I packed up and said I had to go and he still talked for another twenty minutes. I really, really do not want to encounter this guy again, but he’s always at the club. He wasn’t just annoyingly talkative; the stuff he was saying scared me.

Anyhow, so those are the reasons I mostly stay home and play chess these days. I dearly miss the sights, sounds, and feel of pushing wood at the club, though; I may just have to make an appearance Thursday and show those patzers a little bit of what up. *giggle*

Monday, January 2, 2012

Free chess engines are cool!

I know that some of you out there have been wondering which engine to buy, and doing a ton of research on interfaces and the like. Did you know that you can get engines with comparable strength for free, though? You can, and have been able to for a long, long time. Of course, purchasing Fritz with your favorite engine installed is going to give the serious player/study-addict a few more options, but for analyzing your own games, you don’t have to spend a dime.

Stockfish is a giant in the computer engine world, and it’s absolutely free! In fact, it delivers a healthy beat-down to most of the commercial engines out there. Simply download the engine, which is an .exe file, and then install it into a free interface such as Arena, which has a plethora of features and settings. Arena is hands-down the coolest chess interface you can get for free, if you ask me.



Another great and very strong engine is Houdini. They have gone commercial now, but Houdini 1.5 is still available for free download. It is another engine that has the ability to consistently hand it to the big boys. Both of these free engines are rated well into the 3,000 Elo range, and so most humans on earth have no fear of beating them; if you need a great free engine to study with, I highly recommend one of the two listed in this blog post.


Go about halfway down the page, and you’ll see the download link for 1.5 in blue, just above the UNICEF banner.

If you have the $60 to spend on a copy of Fritz or something, go for it; they really do have a ton of features that the free interfaces do not. But, if you just want to analyze your own games or GM games with a high-quality, no-messing-around chess engine, either Houdini or Stockfish will work wonderfully. You can spend the savings on chess books, or a nice tournament set. Or the wife. Whichever will keep you alive longer.