Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

      International Master Joshua Waitzkin was the highest ranked player for his age in the US for over ten years and eight-times National Champion in his youth. In 1998 at the age of 21, he took up Tai Chi Chuan. Within four years he was competing in Taiwan in the semi-finals of the World Championships. Two years later, in 2004, Waitzkin became World Champion in Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands competition. This achievement in such a short period of time is truly remarkable.
      Waitzkin also did excellent lectures in the old Chessmaster  program and had an amazing ability to explain the nuances of the position as well as the psychological side of things.  In 1999 he retired from competitive chess.
       The average rating of this book on Amazon was 4.5 (out of 5) stars.  He writes about pivotal moments in his chess career such as at the US Junior Championship final and the final round of the World Tai Chi Championship.   The World Tai Chi Championship was held in Taiwan, where many of his opponents were trained in martial arts from early childhood. The odds of successfully competing against them were overwhelming.
       For various reasons his main focus became martial arts and he recognized many similarities about the learning process involved in both chess and martial arts.  At the same time he believed what he learned could be applied to many disciplines in life.
       His descriptions of the process of learning and adopting the right attitude could be used in any area.   He discusses learning theories, intimidation and conditioning.
       I would place this book in the ‘self-help’ category and it could be helpful for some because a positive attitude never hurts.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Invisible Chess Moves by Emmanuel Neiman & Yochanan Afek

 Subtitled:  Discover Your Blind Spots and Stop Overlooking Simple Wins
       We’ve all done it…missed simple wins; sometimes our own and it seems like more often, for the opponent.  Why is that?  Even GM’s suffer from blind spots but that’s little consolation when you’ve just blown the game by missing a simple win.
       Invisible Chess Moves tries to address this problem by categorizing hard-to-see moves and explaining the psychological, positional and geometric factors that are involved.
       In the introduction they write: How can it be that players who are capable of calculating ten moves ahead for hours on end, fail to see a one-move win? More remarkably, in many cases both players make these oversights…Our hypothesis is as follows: in chess, certain moves are harder to spot for human beings than other moves. For a beginning human player, clearly knight moves are more difficult to envisage than rook moves…A lot of elements in the games of experienced players are mechanical.
       This book won the 2011 ChessCafe Book of the Year award and is loaded with exercises and positions to solve and is recommended for the over 1800 crowd.
       Blind spots occur from time to time and psychological evidence is that they are unpredictable and, therefore, it may not be possible to avoid them even if you are aware they exist.  For example, see the invisible gorilla test HERE.
       In the test you watch a short video and count the number of times the players wearing white pass a basketball.  In the middle of the video a gorilla walks through the group, plain as day but half of the people who watched the video and counted the passes missed the gorilla. They also wrote a book on the subject. So, will this book really help avoid making stupid blunders?  The psychologist would probably say, “No.”  My guess is they are probably right because even world champions and Super-GM’s have fallen victim so where does that leave the rest of us?!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Chess Master at Any Age by Rolf Wetzell

         A much debated question is whether old folks can accomplish a significant rating jump.  Wetzell did it and this book is about his rise through the ranks to achieve his life-long ambition of becoming a master when he was over fifty years old. The general consensus of opinion in any field is if you haven't made it while you are still young then you never will. And it seems these days, in chess anyway, that if you aren’t a master by the time you are in your early teens, you will never make it. The general belief is that getting older inevitably results in an inflexible mind and an inability to absorb new material.  The truth is that usually by age of fifty most of us are not incapable of learning anything, we are worn-out and just too tired from the trials of life to make any intense mental effort.
         Wetzell has some interesting theories on the nature of chess skill and while it may be true that age is a serious handicap in any endeavor, he proved his point. It seems this book’s audience is the 1800-1900 player who wants to make the push to master. Interestingly enough techniques of modeling excellence of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder seem to suggest there are shortcuts in chess just as in any other field.
       Wetzell devotes a lot of time expounding his theory on the components of chess ability.  He discusses things like the ability to visualize future positions in your mind, move selection and one’s attitude and he offers detailed methods of improving each factor. He does offer some rather bizarre advice at times though: If you get in time trouble one of his suggestions is to ‘fine’ yourself by tearing up money!

       Probably one of the most useful suggestions is to create index cards or flash cards to reinforce certain points, to learn openings and help you improve your mental images.  Since the book was written this idea is made much easier with the use of computers and chess programs. A major part of his program is to study your own games by creating exercises, puzzles and positions like ‘What's the Best Move' then make flashcards with mnemonic phrases to convert concepts into a "durable image."  Wetzell also points out some good suggestions including the need for physical fitness.
        Wetzell is very systematic in his approach and he shows how to identify bad thinking habits and how to eradicate them.

        Personally, I’m not much into actually studying chess these days, being content just to play for fun, but if you want to reach the master level, Wetzell’s approach seems to have some merit.  After all, it did work for him, so what’s to lose?!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes by Raymond Smullyan

This is not a book of chess problems but a book of logic puzzles about chess positions with Holmes and Watson as the main characters.  These puzzles are challenging, novel, and ingenious. In the positions you have to, for example, deduce whether White has moved a knight, or whether the queen was promoted or the original or on what square was the White queen captured?

Like in all Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Holmes, by his remarkable powers of deduction, is able to demonstrate what must have happened, move by move.  Fun stuff.

Chess is My Life – Korchnoi

      My copy by ARCO Publishing was published in 1978.  Viktor Korchnoi, aka “Victor the Terrible” or as Chessbase called him,  the "Methusaleh of chess", was born March 23, 1931, in Leningrad.  He defected to the Netherlands and later moved to Switzerland. In 1974, he lost the Candidates final to Karpov and played World Championship matches with Karpov in 1978 and 1981. Korchnoi was a candidate for the World Championship ten times (1962, 1968, 1971, 1974, 1977, 1980, 1983, 1985, 1988 and 1991) and won the USSR Championship four times. In 2006, he won the World Senior Championship. A very impressive record, but his games remain mostly unknown to the players of today.       Korchnoi is either loved or hated but it must be admitted there hasn’t been anybody like him in decades.  In this autobiography Korchnoi voiced his opinion on openings, endgames, grandmasters, FIDE, the Soviet-Union, history, chess organization, the quality of food in Havana, Cuba and the contents of Karpov’s yogurt.
       Prior to his defection Korchnoi was a member of the Communist party but he left his wife and son behind when he decided to ask for asylum in the Netherlands and refused to go back to the USSR. It was left to his wife and son who had to take all the heat back home in Leningrad…a rather controversial decision.
       In this book he writes about his childhood in WW2-torn Leningrad, his time as a student of the university, his rise to the top in the USSR and the years before and after his defection to the West in 1976.
       Fascinating reading but it only contains 72 games, mostly unannotated.  Not worth the price unless you can find it used in which case buy it. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

ChessOK Aquarium

       I recently purchased this program as a download from ChessOK (for about $30) because I had been reading about Aquarium’s IDeA analysis function which I thought would be quite handy.  Unfortunately the program has proven to be quite disappointing. See my Blog posts for Sunday, May 6 and Thursday May 10 on my regular Blog for details.

If you are looking for a chess program, my recommendation is to buy Fritz and download the free Houdini 1.5 engine.

UPDATE: It's been over a month and I still haven't figured out how to use this program! In the past when I installed other programs like Shredder and Fritz, I was up and running in minutes...not weeks!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Chess for Tigers by Simon Webb

 Just for the record Simon Webb (10 June 1949 - 14 March 2005) was a British IM and Correspondence GM as well as an author. Webb also represented England at bridge with his brother, Roger, as a partner.

On 14 March 2005, he was stabbed to death in the family kitchen by his 25-year-old son, Dennis, after an argument. His son, who had spent time in jail for drug-related offences, subsequently crashed his car at high speed into a bus shelter, in an apparent attempt to kill himself. He survived with just a broken nose

Chess for Tigers is an excellent book and one that will be referred to time and again. The book contains real life ideas that can be applied in your games.
The first edition was published in 1978 and the third edition was updated just before Webb’s death.  This book is full of practical advice on how to play better players, improve your opening repertoire, handle drawn positions and so forth; in short, practical stuff... suggestions you can use regardless of your rating.  His suggestions on how to play against higher rated players is invaluable.

This is NOT a book for children who are just learning chess even though each chapter begins with a cartoon of a chessplaying tiger and has some silly chapter titles like How to Catch Rabbits and How to Trap Heffalumps.  Webb defines a ‘tiger’ as a winner and his suggestions are more psychological than a guide to improvement.  For example, in the introductory chapter Webb asks the question 'are aiming to play the best moves or are you playing to win?' He opines that if you want to be a Tiger, you must forget about playing the best moves and try instead to win.
Webb begins with the claim that, “You could be a much better chess player than you are.” and I doubt that any of us would disagree with him. I think it was US Senior Master Dr. Eliot Hearst who once described a ‘Master’ as ‘every player’s secret appraisal of his own ability’!!  Webb discusses aspects of practical play that are often ignored such as the art of the swindle, or creating chaos against a stronger opponent in hopes he will blunder. 

In the first chapter, Play the man – not the board , Webb argues only an engine plays the same way against every opponent and to be practical .   So, to be practical you should try to capitalize on any weaknesses your opponent might have.  He admits that you can’t spend a lot of time preparing for your typical weekend Swiss opponent "but you should still be able to make good use of anything you know about your opponent's style of play." Webb claims that even somebody you never met before gives clues by his appearance, his mannerisms, his age, etc. that might give you a hint as to what kind of player he is.
Most people tell you to play the board and not the man because if you alter your style based on your opponent you are more likely to get into positions you aren’t familiar with and you can get into trouble not only psychologically, but you run the risk of getting bad or unfamiliar positions.  I’m not sure I agree with Webb's advice on this though. 
Webb gives valuable advice on how to use the information gleaned from you analysis that will enable you to play to your strengths rather than to improve upon one's weaknesses. Once again, this advice is an attempt to maximizing your practical results.

When it comes to everybody’s favorite topic, openings, Webb recommends having a primary and a secondary opening in your repertoire and he includes some brief comments on how to go about learning an opening given a limited amount of time to study.

In the chapters How to catch Rabbits and How to trap Heffalumps, Webb recommends adopting a style to counter your opponent’s.  Again, some may find the advice to change their style questionable, but I do agree with his advice on how to play against weaker opponents…keep things simple and wait for them to blunder.  Come to think of it that’s how I play against stronger opponents in the hope that it's me that doesn’t blunder.  That goes against Webb’s (and other player’s advice) to go for for positions that are so complicated and unclear that either player is likely to make a mistake.

Remember that in this book Webb is only concerned with winning and not becoming a better player through increasing one’s understanding of chess. His point is that it’s only a game, and we are within our rights to do anything we can within the rules to win.

Other chapters include How to win won positions, What to do in drawn positions, Clock control, and How to avoid silly mistakes.

One point Webb makes in the latter chapter no longer applies though because of a change in FIDE rules.  Webb advised writing your move down on the scoresheet before playing it. This was almost always the way we did it back in the old days and it wasn’t uncommon to see scoresheets with half the moves scratched out as minds were frequently changed. Players often took three approaches. 1) write the move down and immediately play it 2) write the move down while shielding it from your opponent’s view with the other hand then lay your pen over the move and think a few more seconds before making it.  Then there was the third type; the type who would do something I’m sure would have met Webb’s approval; write their move down in full view of their opponent then stare at the board for a couple of minutes knowing that your opponent was thinking about how to meet the move written on the scoresheet then play something else. 

In the final two chapters Webb covers Quick Play and recommends a gambit opening repertoire because the clock is a factor  and in Correspondence Play he advises being particularly careful in your choice of opening since a poor opening can lead to literally years of suffering.

For all players under master!