Beating Gnome Chess?

Since my previous post about my chess ability or lack thereof, I have not until now felt the need to post anything on chess. I had decided that I did not have the time or inclination to achieve anything higher than beginning chess.

Since that time I have been playing for fun and only chess against whatever program is on whatever electronics I have near. Nothing serious, just casual play. I started to take Hold’em much more serious as Hold’em is where the money is. I feel that I am short of time to devote to playing chess well. Well enough to actually earn any money from chess. To be truthful, Hold’em is a lot easier – for me at least.

In hopes of becoming better at Hold’em, I have a few five minute games I play daily to help my visual awareness become stronger. Or at least that is the plan. They are both tile games. One game is Mahjong and the second is a game is named Shisen-Sho, both played with tiles. Mahjong has always been the easier of the two games for me. I have had to work at Shisen-Sho.

In the last year or so, I have cut my puzzle solve time almost forty percent. I attribute this to improved visual awareness. I find matches more quickly. The hope is, improved visual awareness will transfer to Hold’em as I will have better focus at the table.

If you have watched videos of the master chess games, perhaps you appreciate the beauty of their moves. Watching those high level games is like watching a complex choreographed dance. Moves and counter moves flowing over the board. Opponents lose their King to such pretty combinations of play.

I appreciate the same beauty when I play chess engines though they are not as pretty. Every move I make has a more powerful counter move both thwarting my move and creating a stronger position for the chess engine. It makes getting thrashed by an over powerful chess engine less painful and more fun. I provide the dancing clomp-about that spurs the engines power.

I choose for the most part to limit my chess to casual levels where the machine moves are fairly mindless. When I lose, the next game is only a click away. Until last week that is when I became bored with mindless chess moves and wanted to play a stronger opponent. I downloaded a number of boards and chess engines to play against (I use Linux).

Most beat me easily, I almost feel like a spectator in the match. Last night one game was different. I played against the chess engine Fairy-max. I could not find a definite Elo rating, but the few posts I found seem certain Fairy-max is rated around 1800 – 1900.

I beat Fairy-max! It was not pretty. There were no ballet moves and pretty combinations. There was me playing as a barbarian, hacking and slashing whenever there was opportunity, all the while waiting for the ax to fall and the game to be over.

I managed a checkmate before I made a bumbling move or two and lost the game through poor play and decision making. I was really proud of myself. My game was not pretty, and I am sure to someone who really plays chess, my mate is quite ugly. But a win is a win and I will take it.

Then came the sad news. I played Fairy-max through Gnome Chess, which previously has been unbeatable for most people. After my win, I knew something was not right as the game was sloppy on the computers part.

Ugly Checkmate

One ugly checkmate, but I’ll take it

After looking around, I found Gnome Chess now has preferences. There are now three levels of play strength. Gnome Chess defaults to the lowest level. So much for my vastly improved ability….

I am not able to determine what level play the levels really are. I am able to beat Fairy-max in the normal setting, which is the middle level. I have not tried the top difficulty level yet.

I doubt you will ever read a post by me on extolling the beauty and strength of a game I played, or seeing a checkmate twelve moves out. I enjoy leaving these things to others. I am grateful for what I have achieved in the moment and that is enough for right now.

I almost forgot to mention, my Hold’em game has improved too!

Visualizing Chess to Improve Your Game

In the time since I last talked about chess, I have learned a little more, mostly about myself. I think the biggest challenge for me to learn is to teach myself how to visualize. One of the ‘tricks’ of chess masters when they go on the road is to play multiple chess games without looking at the board, either blindfolded or having their backs to the boards.

This makes it obvious to me, pattern recognition by itself can only go so far. Looking at the board and searching for a pattern that worked before is not the same as really seeing. Perhaps this is how famous warriors throughout the ages planned their campaigns.

They could see them play out, and analyses different situations easier and with more clarity. Famous generals and chess masters I believe are far better at visualizing than the rest of us. I stare at the board, and I see chess pieces. I move them around in my mind in a certain pattern looking for what has worked for me in the past.

When that pattern in the void of my head is interrupted or otherwise disturbed, I am like a lost little child not knowing which way to turn. It is in this moment that being able to visualize the game in my head would be so beneficial.

Plodding through a single turn, thinking about the consequences of moving this piece or that pawn, how it effects the next move or two, and not seeing the game as a whole is a bog handicap. Being able to visualize, see the game as an animated movie must be far superior. Possibilities and paths for different moves and lines that are played out on the screen that passes for thought.

How slick would that be! Being able to holistically watch the effects of different moves, watching sequences, spotting the flaws. Reforming the chess army, playing out athe whole campaign. Having strong visualization skills, especially in chess has to be a major game changer.

Visualization, and the willingness to really think instead of play remembered patterns work sometime, but fail me at other times. When I talk with players that are stronger than me, they too have their glass ceilings. Mostly they talk about not having enough time to give to the game. How their life gets in the way.

Maybe they too are too concrete too in their thinking, and have not imagined the next plateau. Being able to visualize enough to make a difference. How much our game could improve using the ability to play out a chess puzzle in our head away from the game,  waiting for something, or just relaxing for a few minutes.

This is a skill I think is important to improving at chess, and perhaps other areas of life as well. It is a skill I think I want to cultivate. I too lack the time and inclination to learn fifty different openings and their counter play. I can’t give hours a day to chess puzzles, and other forms of chess learning in order to improve.

What I think I can do is learn to better use those resources I do have, mainly those resources between my ears. Maybe I learn to play a little better and have more fun in the process.

Chess Barely Past 1000

I have made it past 1000! Only 1,600 more points to climb before I say I know how to play chess. Just kidding, if I get to 1500 to 1600 I will be thrilled. I now know, there is no magic bullet. It takes time and energy to learn anything, especially chess.

Chess feels to me like a series of interwoven steps. I climb one, and step back two steps to correctly integrate what I think I now know. Some days I feel like a six year old would beat me. Then slowly, my newest learning starts to meld with the little I know. Then, for a few moments, I gloat over my new found skill. Then reality happens, again.

My biggest weakness right now is choosing to move too fast. I can’t seem to stay off the gas peddle of moves. I see a nice move, and I do not see (take time to look for) anything better, so I move. Then I watch one of my pieces I didn’t notice eaten, because I moved too fast. When I slow down, protect my pieces and  not leave them hanging, my chess ability will improve.

As I watch the Masters playing their game via a .pgn file, their play looks so thoughtless and effortless. I am learning, every move made in the late opening is meant to support a later move. I used to think they were wasted moves. For my part, I am busy getting my pieces out so I can castle. For no real reason, I forget what I am supposed to be doing, and poof, another piece bites the dust.

A second learning from the master level games is moves that made no sense to me and looked like errors, are starting to make sense. White moves their pawn to block a two move knight problem before it can be made. Black moves a bishop to tie up a rook, planning to over extend the rook in another move or two, while they plan trap the queen.

They had a plan, and a backup plan. My first plan is to get my pieces active. While doing this, I watch my pieces disappear from the board because I am not thinking and I am moving too fast. That is my current best chess ability.

I am a master at allowing my pieces to be taken. I am starting to appreciate the focus and thinking needed to pay chess well. I need a forced pause between mouse clicks. Counting does not work. I can not count and think at the same time. Perhaps having a clock close by would help, so I know when an acceptable amount of time has passed. Or in my case, an acceptable amount of looking and thinking has not yet passed.

When last spring rolled around, my frustration with chess was high. It was easy to set chess down and pretend chess is something for people with a lot more free time than I have. That is what I did. I told myself, it was not worth the effort. There were better things to do with my time.

This fall however, I started spending more of my spare time with chess. I am finding chess is a lot more fun, as long as I am willing to do some thinking as I play. My frustration level has dropped because the more I think, the more I see good changes in my chess, and in my life.

If you work in a group, I strongly suggest you take up learning chess (again if you stopped). The need to focus and analyze in chess will help you in your work and with the problem of office politics.

It is a good feeling to create a situation where a potential problem is either solved or deflected before can cause you harm. Chess also helps one focus on actually doing work. I’m my case at least, it helps me see ways to be more valuable by using the tools I have to work with in new ways.

Chess and Aggression?

I read an interesting blog post from another chess player today who wants to pass a 1400 rating. Is was a short to the point post. The blogger questions their aggressiveness on the chess board to reach 1400.

The basis for this question is the blogger finds it easy to win games against players at or below their current level, but finds very difficult to play people at a high enough level above theirs to actually change their own rating.

This question is a good question and worth pondering, I am not sure the question is a correct one though. However, beauty of course, is in the eye of the beholder. While I think aggression is the wrong tool, it may be a case of semantics, or I may be confused about chess and aggression.

In poker, where I am more comfortable talking about aggression, aggression is a major part of winning. If a player is not aggressive, their win rate drops. In chess, because there is nothing at stake except perhaps how we see ourselves in relation to chess, I do not see aggression being a major factor in chess. The other person will usually only resign from the game when it appears they won’t win, not when the other player is playing aggressively.

If aggression where a major part of becoming a highly rated chess player, there would be no need to learn the other areas of chess. The biggest requirement would be get your pieces down the board and destroy the enemy by decimating his army. Winning chess it seems, takes a lot more than ram and jam with your army.

Many Master Level Chess Players both past and present are positional players first and attacking players second. Positional players are generally players who are more focused on the deployment of their chess army than they are on initially creating an attacking position.

I do not think aggression can be a real factor in improving ones chess rating. Most better players agree that tactics rule the chess world for the lower ratings. The more tactical problems and the higher level of difficulty of those  tactical problems one can solve and put into action, generally determines who will be the winner of a chess game.

Setting aggression aside for a moment, there are other reasons why people play chess. Not everyone plays chess to become a master chess player. If we only played chess to become master level players, there would be few active chess players in the world, and a large number of ex chess players.

Determining why you play chess is important. We can all say we want to be a 2xxx level player, but what does that really mean? For myself, I want to be a worth while opponent to whoever is on the other side of the board. I want to enjoy chess while I play. I may want to comment on my own, or my opponents play as the game progresses. I do want to win my share of games.

These are reasons why most of the chess playing world plays Chess. Fun, challenge, victory, feeling chess is a worthwhile game to play. Paintball, Poker, and most sports have varying degrees of aggression built into them if they are seriously played.

I am not so sure about chess being aggressive. We all want to win against tough players, but we also have a family, a life, and other obligations. Most of us have a limited amount of time to give to Chess. Sadly, or perhaps fortunately, most of us lack the raw talent to be truly great on the chess board.

Beginning Chess Books you can use

I wanted to talk about chess books. Over the past years I have collected about a dozen books on various aspects of chess. A few of the books I own are for a beginner. Content wise – this is a chess board type of book. Other chess books I own are about finding and preventing mistakes in your play, playing a complete chess game, chess openings, and other topics.

There is a problem with my book collection though. All my books except the beginner level books, have a lot in common foreign language. I know generally what they about, but most of the concepts are lost on me. I am not comprehending what I read.

These more advanced books have had little impact on me because I barely have the basics down. I have a large stack of paper with foreign language typed on the pages in the form of chess notation and higher level concepts. I look at some of my books and my eyes glaze over after the first three or four sentences.

After a few months of really trying to learn how to play better chess, I now understand most of the gibberish my books contain. I can not follow all of them without breaking out a chessboard though. What these books try and do is teach some intermediate chess skill(s). For a beginning player like myself what these books become  are paper weights.

I did not know there was such a thing as a beginner level chess book. I was under the impression there were beginner chess books that teach you how the all the pieces move, and the rest of the chess books teach you how to play better chess.

I have a strong collection of chess books however. An added plus is three of the chess books are worth many times what I paid for them. Perhaps not because they are great books that will take me to the heights of chess-land, but because they are rare chess books. Kind of funny because I bought them because they were cheap – as in less than eight dollars each. They may be worth the real asking price, but I am not there yet.

The rest of my chess books, (I thought) I picked using a brilliant method. I checked and cross checked ratings on popular chess books. Now a few years later, I have some of the most popular chess books, and my few rare chess books. I know now most of the books I have are not intended for readers at my level of play. I have learned chess annotation I can follow the thought process for a short time before I am lost in following the annotation.

So what is in this post for you? If you intend to buy chess books, ensure the books you think you want are written for your level of chess ability. It is rather frustrating to buy a highly reviewed and recommended chess book only to find it is way above your level.

If you buy more challenging chess books as I have, they will only sit on your book shelf until you are ready to think while you read. Reading a chess book past the intro is work. I know once I want to move past beginner level chess and still want to progress, I will need to read, and think about what I am reading.

I recommend when you search for books, you look for the words, beginning, intermediate, or advanced. I have found certain authors tend to write for a certain level audience. If you find an author you like, and you understand what they are writing, chances are their other books will be books you can use right now. The highly skilled master level players are brilliant, but generally their books are far removed from basic chess concepts unless they state they were written for new(er) players.

One final thought about Chess books. In mathematics the words: elementary topics,  reads   like a math topic any child can read. In truth elementary topics is a level of math most of us never get to. Some chess books are the same way. Titles that contain words such as simple, basic, or the like may not be what they seem. Ensure you know what is between the covers.