Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Third circle is complete

Just a quick post to announce that I've finished the third circle of the Lou Hays tactics book.

Powered through the 534 problems in nine days and actually increased my accuracy.
  • Circle 1 - 65% correct

  • Circle 2 - 69% correct

  • Circle 3 - 83% correct

  • Next circle will have me completing the whole book in six days. So speed and recognition are going to be critical.

    Wish me luck!

    Monday, July 23, 2007

    NSWCA July Weekender

    Another tournament, another kick in the pants.

    Even though the score didn't reflect it, I think played better in this tournament than the last one.

    Not too many drastic blunders, but still the result was that I got beaten by the people rated higher than me and held my own against people rated lower.

    But still - that's no way to improve.

    Results went something like this:

  • Round 1 - 1611 player (lost) although at least one person watching from the sidelines thought it might have been a draw

  • Round 2 - 1449 player (lost)

  • Round 3 - 990 player (draw - bishops of opposites colour)

  • Round 4 - unrated player (won) mostly because my opponent didn't see a way to sacrifice his rook to allow him to queen his pawn on the 7th rank

  • Round 5 - 1420 player (lost) we actually saw an endgame and a pawn promotion race in this one

  • Round 6 - 860 player (draw) after being down two pawns, then up a pawn, then equal, this rollercoaster ended when all the pieces came off the board with our pawns locked together

  • Round 7 - 1374 player (lost) this was pretty dreadful and involved missing one of his checks and later dropping a piece on move 24

  • 2/7 is not something to write home about, but I think I'm playing more careful considered chess.

    A couple of learnings:

  • Now that I'm making a conscious decision to slow down my thought process and consider all checks, candidates and threats I think I was playing a bit slow for the time control. In all but the last game I stopped writing my moves down because I was low on time.

  • After doing so many hundreds of chess exercises where each position had a chance to win material or mate, I was surprised to see how many of the positions had no tactics in them.

  • It's making me reconsider my approach to training and think that maybe the pendulum does need to swing back to general principles and some positional play.

    Perhaps I should put this question out there:

    When you look at a position and there are no tactics - what do you do? Once you've exhausted all the checks, captures and threats, is there any algorithm or thought process people use to come up with candidate moves?

    Let me know what you think.

    Thursday, July 19, 2007

    Ready for Saturday's tournament

    Last day before the July weekender tournament in Sydney.

    Here comes the part where we see whether all the tactics I've been doing is merely an amusing theoretical exercise, or whether it addresses the critical question:

    Does the reptition of tactical puzzles help in winning games?

    Brushed up on some openings last night (just so I don't get caught out in the first eight moves), so now I should be just a matter of having a red wine, getting some sleep and waking up fresh for Saturday.

    Time to put Michael de la Maza to the test.

    Tuesday, July 17, 2007

    I destroyed my copy of Bain

    A while ago, as penance for (yet another) dreadful tournament in Philadelphia, I took my copy of Bain and destroyed it.

    Dan Heisman, my chess coach at the time, said that Chess Tactics for Students by John Bain was a good book to drill basic tactics, but he made two additional points:

  • Don't look at any of the supporting material for each diagram (other than White to Move). Otherwise the problems are just too easy.

  • The tactics in Bain are laid out by chapter headings like Knight Fork, Pin and Back Rank Mate - which also makes it too easy.

  • The solution? Destroy the book!

    Or more accurately, I took the book to Kinkos and asked the guy to chop the book up so that all I had by the end was 421 little diagrams with nothing more than "White to Move" and the problem number written on them.

    I shuffled up all the diagrams, and then photocopied them so they fit nine to a page.

    Slap them in a binder, stick the answers in the back and presto!

    Now I have a neat, random, easy problem set which is actually thinner and more useful than the original book.

    And that's what I used to do my first ever successful "seven circles" exercise!

    Monday, July 16, 2007

    I've been tagged!

    Image credits: turtblu
    What is your blogger name and URL?
    My real name is Phil Willis, but I blog as Down Under Knight at

    How did you learn about the circles?
    I saw Rapid Chess Improvement in the Barnes and Noble just near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia.

    It was just over the street from where I used to play some of the locals in the park. I don't think I won any money, but I did have a lot of fun.

    When did you learn about the circles?
    My history of attempting the seven circles of chess tactics looks something like this:
  • Nov 2003 - Seven Circles using CT-ART (failed)
  • Dec 2004 - Seven Circles using Bain (failed)
  • Apr 2005 - Seven Circles using Hays (failed)
  • Feb 2006 - Seven Circles using CT-ART (failed)
  • Jan 2007 - Seven Circles using Bain (success)
  • Jun 2007 - Seven Circles using Hays (in progress)

  • How long have you been going through the circles or how long did it take if you finished?
    It took me 34 days to work through the 400+ relatively easy problems in Bain. By the last circle, I could do the entire problem set in about an hour.

    How is your progress?
    I've been pretty consistent (surprising for me!) and I haven't missed a day. Although now I am venturing in to the territory where the urge to quit is strong.

    Does working with the circles alone work for chess improvement, or is it more helpful to join the Knights?
    Joining the Knights and blogging about it means that I have more reason not to give up, but having said that - I was able to finish one series of seven circles without their help. All I needed was four failed attempts. ;)

    Are you a scholastic player?
    No - but I've been beaten by plenty of them. ;)

    Would you recommend the circles to a scholastic player?
    Sure, but I'd make two points.

    Firstly, scholastic players probably have more time available to devote to chess study than middle-aged working guys with wives and families and lives (and all that jazz). So the time commitment required might be easier for them.

    Secondly, practice needs to be fun, otherwise it's just another chore a kid needs to do - like making the bed and stacking the dishwasher. If they can get past those issues - it would be great for a young person learning chess to do.

    Do you use other training methods to supplement the circles?
    I don't do too much other chess specific training - other than play in OTB tournaments regularly to practice what I've learned. For me the other essential training comes from meditation, running and playing other games like poker, Scrabble and video games.

    Any general comments about chess training or the circles?
    I can't claim any credit for naming these elements, but I have to thank my former chess coach
    Dan Heisman for listing what he calls the "big five":

  • Safety - (in other words "tactics")
  • Piece Activity - use all your pieces
  • Thought Process - play real chess
  • Time Management - use all your time every game
  • General Guidelines

  • Heisman believes if you don't do all of those reasonably well, then you're automatically making improvement much harder for yourself.

    For example, if you are tactically brilliant, but your thought process doesn't include looking for unstoppable threats from your opponent then obviously doing an extra 100 hours of tactical study will not cure that problem.

    Check out the whole article

    Who is next to be tagged?
    I tag
    The Retired Pawn.

    Sunday, July 15, 2007

    Finished the second circle

    Good news: Finished the second circle through the Lou Hays tactics book today!

    Bad news: Not only are there five circles to go, but my accuracy didn't really improve that much.

    I'm up to 69% correct as opposed to 65% the first time through.

    I think I might just go through the book again and either just focus on the ones I got wrong or do the second circle again at the same pace, but this time paying closer attention to accuracy.

    Another milestone down in the journey and one step closer to finishing Michael de la Maza's seven circles of chess tactics idea.

    Thursday, July 12, 2007

    Time constraints

    So I'm nearly at the end of the second circle, and I'm worried that the next circle will be the toughest.

    Even though I'm getting better, I don't really feel like I'm recognising the tactical patterns by sight.

    I'm spending about an hour each morning to go through 38 tactical problems, and I have concerns that in the third circle I won't be that much faster than I am now. Which means I'll look forward to more like 90 minutes of tactics a day.

    Maybe it's too early to judge. Or maybe I should just repeat the second circle using the same time constraints.

    Or maybe I should stop whining and do some more tactics?

    Why did the pawn cross the road?

    This morning I watch a parent with their small child crossing the road.

    The parent told the little girl, "Now we look both ways before crossing the street. Then where there are no cars, off we go."

    It was a classic example of needing a process to do something simple when you are still learning.

    My own weakness in chess tournaments at the moment is getting hit by the bus when I forget to look both ways before crossing.

    If you were to ask an adult, "Do you actively think about looking both ways before you cross the road?" most would (hopefully) say, "No not really - but I'm definitely aware of what's going on when I cross."

    If you were to ask most grandmasters, "Do you actively look for checks, captures and threats from your opponents before and after you decide on your move?" most would probably respond in the same way.

    I'm sure they're probably unconsciously aware of what is happening when they are deciding on their move.

    But for the chess equivalent of small children (like me) an explicit thought process is definitely going to be useful until I stop venturing haphazardly into heavy traffic.

    Monday, July 9, 2007

    Jennifer Shahade Simultaneous Game

    Chess Bitch by Jennifer Shahade
    In October 2005, I went to Philadelphia to attend a lecture and book signing by International Master Jennifer Shahade.

    Jennifer is two-time US Women's Chess Champion and her latest book Chess Bitch is a look at a pursuit dominated by men. As well as profiling female chess pioneers throughout history it poses the question: "Why don't more girls play chess?"

    As part of the promotion, forty lucky people who bought her book were able to play a game against her. I signed up and prepared to get my ass whooped.

    By a girl.

    I'd never even played a titled Fide Master before, let alone an International Master (the one rank below the coveted and glorious Grand Master title).

    I was super-keen!

    All I prayed for was that I wouldn't be eliminated first.

    The cast of characters that show up to play chess at tournaments is so varied and peculiar that it probably warrants its own dedicated story, but let me tell you about Al who cornered me before the book reading.

    Al and I began with some small talk. For chess players that inevitably concerns your official chess rating.

    Your chess rating is your badge, your identity, your rank and your status in the chess world.

    Every social group has a phrase to determine pecking order and how to act.

    Kids in a playground ask "How old are you?"
    Prisoners ask "What're you in for?"
    Republicans ask "What does your father do for a living?"

    Tournament chess players ask "What's your rating?".

    "My rating is in the basement at the moment I'm afraid," I ventured.

    Al's response was to tell me he was reading Dostoyevsky and that I should try reading him for inspiration. It wasn't until later that I realized he thought I said my writing was in the basement.

    Fortunately the conversation was over as quickly as it started when Al produced the second non-sequitur in as many minutes: "OK - there are such things as a full bladder" and left.

    The lecture was interesting. Jennifer read from a portion of her book where she discussed Reuben Fine's provocative theories of gender in chess from his book The Psychology of the Chess Player.

    "The profuse phallic symbolism of chess provides some fantasy gratification of the homosexual wish, particularly the desire for mutual masturbation. This is, of course, completely repressed."

    Um yeah. Completely repressed. Thanks Reuben. Pretty racy stuff for 1956 though.

    Fine had reduced the game of chess to an oedipal struggle between a boy and his father. The psycho-sexual symbolism of "mating" the king, the most impotent (yet important) piece on the board was not lost on him.

    Fine even ventured to suggest that even the rule about not touching your piece until you're ready to move was a veiled warning against *ahem* self-abuse.

    Or maybe he just had a dirty mind.

    Listening to Jennifer expound on this topic fraught with sexual overtones and double entendres was made only the more fascinating by the presence of about half a dozen pre-teen children in the audience.

    I was sitting next to eight-year-old Odette Moolten (and before you ask: yes I've played her before and yes she has beaten me) and I don't know what was more priceless - the confused glances she shot her father or the squirming he did in his chair.

    Jennifer signs her books
    After the Q&A I waited in line to get my book signed and said when it was my turn to approach the author's official book signing chair and book signing desk:

    "Jen - thanks for coming out!"

    I cringed at my unoriginality.

    Star struck, I had just blurted out the first thing that came into my head. Even worse, after her gender defying choice of career and explicitly Freudian book reading, the phrase "coming out" was even more inappropriate.

    Jennifer asked my name then autographed my copy of Chess Bitch: "Phil - thanks for coming out! Jen"

    Wait a second. That was my line to you! And that's what you wrote in my copy of your book?

    I was at least expecting a droll chess witticism, such as:
  • "Castle early, castle often!"
  • "Chess players do it with queens!"
  • "Future pawn star!"

  • Bitch indeed!

    Almost game time and even the flagrantly Freudian Fine knows: You can't play chess on an empty stomach. I went downstairs to the Temple University cafeteria for a hoagie.

    The charming lady behind the sandwich bar loaded half a pound of ham onto a long roll and asked without apparent irony, "Is that enough sweetie?". I tried not to laugh and said that was plenty.

    She asked if I was from Philly.

    "Not originally. I'm from Australia, but I've been living here for four years."

    "I thought so! I could tell by your accent. Plus, you look like a cowboy."

    It's moments like these that make me love this country so much.

    Game time! The tables were corralled in a circle and the exhibition match began.

    The rules for this simultaneous match were:
  • Jennifer would play the white pieces on all the boards
  • When Jen arrived at your board, you would make your move in front of her, then she would make her move
  • If you are not ready to move when Jennifer reaches your table, you may pass - but you can only pass twice in the game

  • Handshakes were exchanged. The games started.

    What struck me was how Jennifer was demonstrably delighted with the whole process. She was beaming.

    She had good-hearted giggles at some of the more bizarre opening moves people played. I honestly don't think Jen was laughing at the players but genuinely finding humor in the board itself.

    The more you play, the more you see. It might sound strange but chess games can be beautiful, aggressive, funny, chaotic or even poetic.

    To see someone at the top of their game truly enjoying what they did for a living was an absolute treat.

    Jennifer plays chess with kids

    She was generous to the kids. To the little African-American kid who seemed only interested in moving his pawns she spun the board around and told him it was mate in one, but that he should try to find the winning move by the time she came back.

    To his credit he found the killer move, but then Jen added: "Good job! But that still counts as a win for me!" She grinned and kept moving. At least I wasn't the first person eliminated.

    "Are those for me?" Jen pointed at the open packet of M&Ms I'd laid out on the table.

    "Sure," I said, but how do you know I haven't poisoned them? Bwa hah hah haaah!

    Jen grabbed a handful, made a move and scurried to the next table. So far I'd survived the first ten moves but I thought it wouldn't be long before I'd join the ranks of the vanquished.

    Now 35 people are left.
    Now 30 people are left.
    Now 20 people are left.

    Novices and club champions alike are one-by-one being defeated by this International Master who is not spending any more than about five seconds per move at each board.

    Now 15 people are left.

    A wild rumor goes around the room that Jennifer has agreed to a draw with a player. So she's not invincible!

    A little while later, twelve-year-old
    Matthew Slesinski (and before you ask: yes I've played him before and yes he has beaten me) shakes Jennifer's hand. He quietly smiles, asks Jen to sign his scorepad and starts calmly packing up his pieces.

    He beat her! For the first time in the game I can see that Jen is not a god. She's a human being. I can win this game!

    Now 10 people are left.

    It's 11pm and even though I'm up a pawn my greatest concern is whether I'll make the last Amtrak train back to Washington DC. I'm thinking of options: maybe I can go to a pub until closing time, then sleep at the train station with the other homeless people until the first train of the morning.

    Three hours sleeping on a bench next to a toothless, homeless black guy named Leo (and before you ask: yes I've played him before and yes he has beaten me) seemed like a small price to pay if I had a chance to beat Jennifer Shahade.

    Now 5 people are left.

    I'm up two pawns, my king is in great position and my rook completely locks Jennifer out of the game. Jen reaches over the board, shakes my hand and resigns.

    I actually won!

    Jen's record that night was 36 wins, 1 draw and 3 losses. An incredible result for playing forty people at the same time.

    Since it was an exhibition match, nobody's rating is affected. Pity. That would really have launched mine out of the basement. No Dostoyevsky inspiration required.

    I managed to catch a train that would get me in DC at 3am. I was exhausted but couldn't sleep. I had just beaten an International Master. I had beaten the two-time US Women's Chess Champion. I felt on top of the world.

    Okay. To be fair - I gave the game my undivided attention for nearly four hours while Jen was playing thirty-nine other people at the same time, but a win is a win.

    my rating, you have to take what you can get.

    On the train back to Washington DC, I opened my copy of Chess Bitch and re-read Jennifer's crummy autograph "Phil - Thanks for coming out. Jen."

    Underneath I wrote my own reply:

    "Who's your daddy now, bitch?! Phil".

    Thursday, July 5, 2007

    Quitting in the third circle

    In my previous attempts to complete a seven circles of tactics exercise, I've almost always stopped somewhere in the third circle.

    I think the biggest problem comes there for a couple of reasons:
    1. By the third circle, you really don't have enough of them memorized to go quickly. You're still having to manually search, find and check your solution.
    2. I normally spend between 30 and 60 minutes a day doing tactics, which means the first circle is good, the second circle tends to go over the hour, and the third circle is rarely finished before 90 minutes.
    The combination of the two, means that by the third circle I give up.

    In future seven circles exercises (including this one) I'll have to be pretty conservative with the number of puzzles I try to do per day - especially in the early circles - because by the third circle you don't want it to get so difficult that you feel like quitting.

    Anyhow - I'm about halfway through my second circle of Lou Hays' book and I'm already having concerns about the time it takes.

    Here's hoping.

    Monday, July 2, 2007

    Day 1 of Circle 2

    First day of the second circle of Hays, and I was very interested to see if I would remember any of the positions that I had seen nearly a month ago.

    As it turns out - I did!

    It's amazing. I was looking at tactical problems that I had answered incorrectly in the first circle, recognising them and knowing what to do next.

    "I think this one was about pushing a pawn to shift his bishop." Correct!

    "I think this one needs his pawn out of the way so I have an open line to his undefended queen." Correct!

    When I got to the end of the seven circles of John Bain's book I could instantly recognise each of the positions and select the correct tactic. I'm hoping I can do the same for this problem set - because they are quite a bit harder.

    Sunday, July 1, 2007

    First Circle of Hays Complete

    Today I finished the first circle of the Lou Hays book Winning Chess Tactics for Juniors.

    534 problems in 24 days!

    Best chapters were knight forks and discovery, but the worst ones for me were some of the more vague ones like "attraction" and "clearance".

    Now the next circle is the same set in 14 days. (The idea is to do the seven circles in 60 days.)

    Hopefully I should recognise at least some of them or work through the second circle a little quicker than the first time.

    Safety First

    I think my mantra going into the next tournament in July will need to be "safety first".

    After reviewing each of the games from my previous tournament in Chessmaster, the most common mistake was missing the final safety check to see if my opponent had a killer reply to my last move.

    My thought process is something along these lines.

    • 1. What did he just do? If he had a free move, what checks, captures and threats do I need to be aware of? This sets up the constraints of the next steps.
    • 2. Based on step 1, I need to either:
    • a) prevent something
    • b) look for an offensive tactic using checks, captures and threats and if nothing comes up
    • c) develop my pieces to give me more activity
    • 3. Once I decide on the move, I need to give my opponent another "free move" to see what checks, captures and threats he could do. Can he just take my piece off the board?
    It's the step 3 that I have been most consistently missing in my previous tournaments.

    It seems like a simple thing to fix, but I will need to try really hard to do it every move to prevent some of the disasters from recent games.