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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’!