Wednesday, January 15, 2014

New Things In Chess

  We had a new guy named Steve start coming to the chess club in Marshalltown last month. Steve has never played tournament chess but is an experienced on-line player who is the equal of most of the players in the club. Steve told me about a series of chess videos on YouTube called the Chess Network and during my vacation over the Christmas holidays I decided to check it out.

Here is the last chess tournament video from Jerry at Chess Network. While he is still active on his YouTube channel he hasn't done a tournament video in a couple of months. Maybe someday...

  The Chess Network is the videos of a master chess player named Jerry who makes chess videos of games played by grandmasters, on line games played on, or his stream of consciousness ramblings while he plays in 1 minute tournaments. Jerry is an attacking player and his game analysis mostly points out attacking possibilities for both sides but the commentaries of his one-minute chess have given me a whole new way of looking at chess in general and one-minute chess in particular. Jerry searches for piece activity from the first move of the game and is always pointing out what pieces and squares are under attack. It's fascinating to see a master point out a weak square in his opponent's position and have the immediate feedback of seeing his attack launched over the next five or ten seconds. It's encouraged me to try some of the same ideas in my one minute chess and even when I launch an unsound attack and lose a piece or two I tend to find myself with a time advantage and can come back and win over the board or on time. The other thing I’ve picked up from Jerry is always pre-moving recaptures (Pre-moving is making a move before your internet opponent has moved. If your pre-move is legal the chess server makes it with no more than a tenth of a second going off your clock. Since the recapture is only a legal move if your opponent makes the intended capture there is no downside and the fractions of seconds often come in handy when both players are short of time. The Chess Network channel is a lot of fun to watch and even though each video begins with a commercial, the longer ones allow me to bypass them after 5 seconds.

  I know a lot of people who use ad blockers on their web browsers but I like to see what ads Google and their like send my way. When I entered a Google search for a new car last year many of the web sites I frequent started showing me ads for cars. When I purchased some trophies from Trophy Depot, I got a lot of ads from – you guessed it – Trophy Depot and Crown Trophies. Since they were chess trophies ads were also displayed for the United States Chess Federation and the House of Staunton. I’ve wondered how effective these ads are since I already knew about all these companies but one day on Facebook I saw an ad for free chess training software called Chessimo. I don’t have a lot of chess stuff on Facebook so I wasn’t sure how they decided to target me with that ad instead of the normal fare of testosterone boosters, luxury automobiles, hair loss remedies, and life insurance ads but I was intrigued by the ad and decided to download the free app on my iPod and check it out.

  The Chessimo program displays groups of puzzles in the categories of Tactics, Strategies, Endings, Commented Endgames, and Openings but the free version of the software only offers up a small selection of tactic, strategy, and ending puzzles so I ponied up $7.99 for the full version of the software which includes all the puzzles. The software is fairly configurable: the time per puzzle can be set from one to 30 minutes, the correct move can be shown after a certain number of mistakes or not at all, and most intriguing is an end date which allows the software to give you a graph of how far you are along in the training and where you should be based on when you set your goal to finish the training at.

  I presume the iPod app was converted from a web or desktop application. There is an ‘Openings’ section that does little more than walk the user through one variation of each of the major openings while offering links to games in the Chessimo database for further study. The links work and the games in the database can be accessed through the menu but whenever I scroll through the games too quickly or back up a move or two the app crashes.

  I started in on the Tactic exercises and have completed the first of the five 51 unit segments. The first unit was almost exclusively one and two move checkmate puzzles and instead of concentrating on well-known tactical themes the puzzles are excessively weighted towards queen sacrifices. The units build on themselves by giving a few new puzzles at the beginning followed by puzzles that have been previously solved but with less and less time to solve them and finally finishing the unit with the new puzzles that were shown at the start of the unit (Some of the units are nothing but previously solved puzzles). While I didn’t care for the puzzle content I really liked the idea of solving previously solved puzzles in less and less time to build pattern recognition. Unit two starts off with more checkmate puzzles but there are some double attack puzzles and ‘trap the piece’ puzzles and when I peeked ahead to the last unit all I saw were some reasonable complicated tactical puzzles so I will assume the creators of the software have a method to their training sequence to have the simple mates and queen sacrifices leading the parade of tactics.

The two positions on the left are fairly standard queen sacrifices that Chessimo's tactics training begins with. After a few thousand puzzles simple forks start to make their appearances and by the second stage you get to trap some pieces (leave a message in the comment if you want the solutions).

  The strategy puzzles shows a typical middle game position and asks the user for the best move. The puzzles started by concentrating on maintaining one’s own pawn structure or wrecking that of the opponents, moving on to opening files for attacks and now the positions are showing the proper methods for pawn attacks to create weaknesses in the opponent’s positions. The format is the same as the tactics: Each unit shows a few new puzzles, some previously solved puzzles with less time for solving, and then a refresher of the new puzzles. When the puzzle is solved there is some text explanation (sometimes two or more paragraphs and generally in poor English) but I’ve found if I make a wrong answer the program hangs and I have to quit and reenter the training to start the puzzle from scratch. I can’t say I understand a lot of the puzzles or solutions but as I move along with the training I may get it more.

A sampling of Chessimo's strategy puzzles and the explanatory text...

  The Endgame puzzles follow the same format at the tactics and strategy puzzles except the puzzles have a distinct progression, going from King and Pawn vs. King to King and Pawns vs. King and Pawn to Bishops and Rooks against Pawns and ending the units with Rook and Pawn vs. Rook Endgames. Unlike the simple tactics or cryptic strategy puzzles, I found the endgame puzzles are very challenging and I had to stop numerous times to understand what was going on. There is even a ‘Commented Endgame’ section that covers some of the really complex endings like Queen vs. Rook. I was ambivalent about Chessimo until I saw the Endings module but after seeing it I think that Chessimo would be a great training tool for any number of chess players as long as they are willing to take the time to understand the puzzles. I’ve started using some of the endgame and tactics puzzles at the St. Francis chess club I teach on Fridays before work and I consider the $7.99 well spent since I now have a new way to study chess.

Chessimo's endgame course is superb. From the most basic endgames the user is quickly asked to solve quite complex puzzles requiring more than a little thought.

  One thing I don’t need is a new way of making NFL playoff picks this year as I managed to go 3-1 for the second week in a row. Someone mentioned to me that since I was willing to wager $300+ to win $100 on the money line in the Seattle and New England games and both covered the point spread I could have tripled my winnings by giving the seven points in each game with even money odds. This point of view makes some sense but EVERYTHING about making sports predictions looks better the next day and besides New Orleans was one missed field goal away from covering against Seattle and the Colts were only seven points behind in the fourth quarter. While Cam Newton and the Panthers were a huge disappointment when they only got three points from two possessions inside the five yard line in their 13 point loss to the 49ers, I caught a major break with the Chargers late comeback to cover the 10 point spread and pad my bankroll to $380 heading into the next to last week of the football season. As usual I’ll be using the odds at from the Yahoo odds page and NOT betting any real money on any of the games.

New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
This Patriots team reminds me a lot of their first Super Bowl team in 2001 – a competent offense featuring a running attack and a bunch of guys I never heard of on defense that just get the job done. While the defense is not nearly as good as the 2001 team, the running attack is much more potent than a decade ago. The Broncos were easily handling the Chargers with a 14-0 lead late in the first half that would have been 21-0 except for a pass that turned from a Broncos touchdown to a Charger interception with just one bobble. The Broncos fell asleep with eight minutes left and a 24-7 lead and allowed the Chargers to close to 24-17 but held the ball for the last 4 minutes to make every Denver fan that didn’t give the 10 points happy. When these two teams squared off in New England 8 weeks ago, the Broncos punched the Patriots in the mouth and took a 21-0 halftime lead only to give up the lead and lose 34-31 in overtime. I think the Patriots will win this game but will hedge my bet and play the point spread risking $110 to win $100 taking the 4 and a half points instead of taking the money line and betting $100 to win $195.

San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks defense was very impressive against the Saints but the 49ers defense was even more impressive in pressuring Panther quarterback Cam Newton all game and stopping the Panthers with their two goal line stands. 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick had a shaky start but found his rhythm and confidence with some great throws on the team’s two touchdown drives to get the lead. He then switched to game manager mode and let his defense secure the game but I think he could have lit up the vaunted Panther defense had it been required. I was not impressed with Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson’s performance last week and with his top wide receiver Percy Harvin doubtful for the game with concussion symptoms, I believe the 49ers will be able to shut down Marshawn Lynch and squeak out a victory over the Seahawks. I’ll pick the 49ers and will again hedge my bet and take the 3 and a half points on a $110 bet instead using the money line which would net me $163 for a $100 bet.