Thursday, August 30, 2007

Is Chess a Sport?

In his blog ChessExpress, Shaun Press asks the question: Is chess a sport?

I simply can't resist a full reply.

Chess is not a sport because there is no skill in the physical execution of the moves.

By that I mean, if I want to move rook to e1 I just pick it up and move it to e1. I can do that repeatedly with 100% precision. Every time. You can do it with a mouse. If you're playing blindfolded you can even do it just by saying the words: "Rook to e1".

Contrast that with tennis. I can't just think "medium paced serve into the top left corner" and have the execution of that move go perfectly every time.

The tactics and strategy of chess and tennis certainly require plenty of skill, but the difference is in the execution of the basic moves.

It's actually one of the things I love about chess.

Once the mechanics of playing the perfect forehand or swinging the perfect nine-iron chip shot are out of the equation, the game is entirely about tactics and strategy.

Incidentally, this was the same argument I had with a friend about whether motor racing was a sport. At first my reaction was no, but then when argued that there was a great deal of skill in the physical execution of the moves, I had to concede.

So motor racing is a sport. Chess is not.

If the amount of sweating was the only criteria to classify it as a sport, I can assure you that based on my own experience, chess would definitely qualify.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

How to turn enthusiasm into achievement

If you're anything like me, after reading Michael de la Maza's book Rapid Chess Improvement you were probably filled with enthusiasm, energy and zeal.

400 ratings points in 400 days. That's sounds like something I could do.

And even though de la Maza is very upfront about the time commitment you nod knowingly and say to yourself, "Sure I know it will be tough - but I'm up for the challenge".

Completing seven passes through a block of 1200 chess tactics, each circle getting successively quicker until on the last day of the program you're doing all of them in one sitting seems like an achievable goal.

And then, if you're anything like me, you fail. And then you fail again, and fail again, and again, and again.

After your ninth attempt you start to get the feeling this is too difficult and you give up all hope.

Or you can do what I did, which was. Try something smaller and simpler.

Studying tactics with five, six and seven move combinations is great, but the most powerful idea of the seven circles is about developing chess memory.

Anyone serious about chess tactics needs to have between 600 and 1000 board patterns memorized "cold". Positions that:

  • occur with some degree of frequency in real games

  • form the building blocks of bigger combinations

  • The only two seven circles programs I've been able to complete have been based along those lines - easy problems and plenty of them.

    The problem sets I used John Bain's Chess Tactics for Students (421 basic problems) and Lou Hays' Winning Chess Tactics for Juniors (534 fairly easy problems).

    Doing a smaller set of easier problems is not a waste of time - I assure you.

    Firstly, completing a seven circles exercise with fewer easier problems builds your confidence and gives you a sense of achievement. You can't underestimate how motivating it is to finish something to completion - no matter how small it is.

    Even doing a seven circles exercise on a smaller set of easy problems is not so simple. For me, the challenge of the Bain set was about discipline. Getting into the habit of practising tactics every day.

    The challenge of the Hays set was about focus and concentration. These problems were not trivial and I had to think carefully about possible refutations of the "obvious" moves.

    The other great advantage is that some of the basic problems you memorized in these exercises do appear in other chess tactics books. About 15% of the tactics in the Hays book I'd seen before (and knew instantly) in the Bain book.

    I'm anticipating that in the next seven circles I attempt with Fred Reinfeld's 1001 Brilliant Chess Sacrifices and Combinations I'll instantly recognise many "old friends" from the Lou Hays book.

    So before you quit altogether on the grand goal of completing the seven circles as specified by Michael de la Maza, turn your enthusiasm into achievement, build your base of tactics and make things easier for yourself when you do select a more difficult problem set in the future.

    Sunday, August 12, 2007

    What a great finish

    It was a pretty eventful weekend for me.

    Not only did I finish the seven circles through Winning Chess Tactics for Juniors, but I also did a personal best in the City to Surf fun run. 14km in 74 minutes means I qualify to start with the front-runners in next year's event.

    That's not my picture by the way - for those who were curious. I didn't dress like Superman, Batman, Papa Smurf or Borat. Just regular running gear for me.

    But you don't want to hear about my mediocre running career. You want to hear about my mediocre chess playing career!

    I can confirm that getting through all 534 tactical problems in one sitting was challenging, but it took less time than I thought. Two and a half hours and I was done.

    For the record, my accuracy went up, mostly due to recognising the patterns and remembering what the answer was. It felt like cheating ... or is that the whole point?
  • Circle 1 - 65% correct

  • Circle 2 - 69% correct

  • Circle 3 - 83% correct

  • Circle 4 - 91% correct

  • Circle 5 - 95% correct

  • Circle 6 - 98% correct

  • Circle 7 - 99% correct

  • I'll write a few blogs a bit later on some insights I've gained out of completing my second successful "Seven Circles" exercise, but for now I'm just relaxing and steadying myself for the next challenge.

    Tuesday, August 7, 2007

    Fifth circle complete

    Only two circles left so now I just have to dig in and get ready for a few days of really long tactics sessions.

    It takes me between 60 and 90 minutes to do 130 problems, which means I could be looking down the barrel of at least a few three hour sessions.

    Should be fun.

    Again, my accuracy keeps going up:
  • Circle 1 - 65% correct
  • Circle 2 - 69% correct
  • Circle 3 - 83% correct
  • Circle 4 - 91% correct
  • Circle 5 - 95% correct

  • If I was a gambling man, I'd say the number of tactics I get right in the next two circles will probably go down, but in these last two circles I'm just going for speed and pattern recognition.

    Monday, August 6, 2007

    Patterns emerge

    After so many days of practising this set of tactics, it's amazing to see these patterns just leap off the page.

    It literally takes no more than a couple of seconds before you think, "Hm, a lot of pawns there. What if I push one to bump the knight away. Oh wait! Removal of the guard!"

    It's like lines appear on the board directing traffic and the correct flow of pieces.

    "The h6 square is unprotected, I wonder can I drop my queen in there. Oh wait! He can't protect g7 if I distract his queen!"

    Just that sort of "aha" moment is making the practice itself very enjoyable.

    I've still got a lot of hard work left, but it's seeming less like work and more like fun!

    Friday, August 3, 2007

    Fourth circle is complete

    The fourth circle is now complete.

    Here comes the hard part, the final three circles, each completed in four days, two days and finally one day.

    My accuracy is increasing, but unless I want to spend two hours each morning on tactics I'm going to need to blitz through the problems as quickly as I can.

  • Circle 1 - 65% correct

  • Circle 2 - 69% correct

  • Circle 3 - 83% correct

  • Circle 4 - 91% correct

  • Once I'm done with Winning Chess Tactics for Juniors I think I'll move on to 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations by Fred Reinfeld.

    Thursday, August 2, 2007

    Going back to club games

    I'm nearly through the fourth circle and everything is progressing well.

    The one thing that struck me the other day though, is not really related to studying tactics, but is more about getting good practice at long games.

    One thing I'm concerned about is in a typical open swiss-paired tournament run in Sydney where there are only 60 players, I always have:

  • two rounds where I have not much chance of winning,

  • two rounds where I'm paired against very easy opposition and
  • only a few rounds of "equal" games.

  • So I've decided to go back to playing in club tournaments, because there are more opportunities to play people of your rating.

    In order to see results from practising tactics, it would be better to play nine rounds against 1300's than to play in a tournament of people with mixed ratings.

    Anyhow - that's the theory. I'll see how it works out.