Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Revolution in the millennium part 2

The possibilities are nowadays almost unlimited to improve at chess. With a few clicks of the mouse we can access countless games played at a high standard. A student can learn a lot by studying the good examples but does it also make sense to look at wrong examples? There is no agreement about that between trainers.

Even analyzing our own games already generated some discussions recently see my articles "Which games should I analyze? " part 1part 2 and part 3. Some young masters only do a blundercheck (15 minutes maximally) anymore of their games and prefer to spend more time at studying games of stronger players. Also for my classes I doubt it is a good idea to analyze games of my students. Sometimes I decide to include one of their games to discuss a specific new theme but generally I try to avoid it also because some of my students like to mock about someone other's mistakes.

Nevertheless amateurs make a lot of mistakes so mistakes are often much more important than finding complicated concepts or discovering new ideas. It is for a reason why we often say that the player whom made the penultimate mistake, wins the game. Therefore ignoring mistakes, doesn't seem to be for me the right choice. Some authors already understood this perfectly see e.g. swindels part 2. I also like that in the book "On the Origin of Good Moves" not only is covered what was known in the early years of the chess-history but also what the best players were still doing wrong.

Especially the first official world-champion Wilhelm Steinitz is targeted in the book. Tactically  but also strategically and positionally he gets harsh comments. Particularly Wilhem's theory that the king can take care of itself, is refuted convincingly by showing several failures of Wilhem. I think nowadays any experienced club-player would consider such risky strategy as nonsense but Wilhelm didn't hesitate to snatch a pawn even if this would mean that his king would have to stay for a longtime at the center. It is not a coincidence that a line of the kingsgambit with Ke2 got Wilhelm's name.

We should also not forget that Wilhem won many games with this risky strategy in his best years. Naturally it is not his fault that his opponents weren't strong enough to punish it. It is fully understandable to stick to something which worked before. I believe it is still possible to score points with such strategy even today against weaker players. However against a master it is a different game. I experienced that last in Cappelle La Grande. My opponent the strong French IM Chistophe Sochacki didn't know the opening and I thought to profit from it by winning a pawn but quickly regretted my decision.
I was annihilated in the game. White kept my king in the center on pain of huge material losses and demonstrated with the refined 24.a3 how hopeless my position already was. In other words masters know nowadays how to exploit a king stranded in the center. At least till shortly as recently we hear regularly another sound. With this we arrive to the essence of this article.

In the book "On the Origin of Good Moves" we get the theory of evolution presented. The improvement of chess has been a very slow process during the history. However in that case we are only talking about the human player. In the last decades there was a parallel evolution happening of engines which not only ran much more via jumps but also sometimes 100 times faster. Especially the introduction of neural networks opened a new world of chess which we never thought of as humans. Suddenly there was an engine playing hundred of points stronger positionally than any other one with knowledge built by playing games against itself in just a couple of hours.

A lot has been written already about it but I think one of these revolutionary changes has been largely neglected by most authors. Leela evaluates the safety of the king very differently compared to traditional engines like Stockfish. Last couple of months we didn't see much well played chess by humans but engines didn't suffer of the corona-virus and kept spoiling us with high-quality played games. The TCEC super-final of season 18 is still ongoing but in April we had already the fantastic TCEC super-final of season 17 which for the first time was even live commented by (top-) grandmasters at chess24.com. It is hard to choose between the plethora of games but below one is a great example of how Leela doesn't mind to omit castling.
Besides I can recommend to people willing to see more and learn more of such games, to create their own matches with Leela at home. Last year I already did that a few times see my article testing chess-engines and also during the corona-crisis I again repeated this enjoyable activity. Also in my own organized rapidmatches Leela proofed that it isn't afraid of keeping the king in the center. I've again selected one game which demonstrates this surprising feature very well.
It didn't take long before humans started to pick up this new insights from Leela and implement it in their own practice. I clearly notice this in my own opening-choices in which I much more go for maximum activity of the pieces even at the expense of the safety of my own king. A nice example of this is the opening which I played against the Belgian expert Tijs Cocquyt in Cappelle La Grande.  Optically it looks very dodgy for black as even some grandmasters already chose to play the position with white. However the engines show at the other hand that black is doing more than fine.
Another example of which I was impressed was the march of the black king played by the Belgian FM Hendrik Ponnet in our most recent mutual game. In a board full of pieces he decides to use his own king in the frontline so his other pieces can take up other duties. Later I read a report about the chess-weekend for adults only, earlier this year organized by Schaakinitiatief Vlaanderen in which was stated that Hendrik gave a presentation about the currently existing tools online to play and learn chess. So I suspect Hendrik also has experience with Leela or other neural networks.
This doesn't mean that Wilhelm Steinitz was right however. There is a big difference between the type of positions which Wilhelm obtained and the one Leela likes to play with the king in the center. Activity is the key here. Wilhelm captured material but very often got himself into terribly passive positions in which he could only hope that his opponent wouldn't have the tactical skills to punish it. That is for sure not the case in the positions chosen by Leela as she always can create very active counterplay. A last important remark is that we shouldn't forget that we humans don't have the calculating power of engines. Not rarely a position is theoretically fine but we as humans still go wrong as we are not able to find the best moves with the king in the center.

Brabo

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Old wine in new skins part 3

In 2013 I wrote on this blog a positive review about the book Move First Think Later see the article I knew it. 8 years after his first book the Dutch IM Willy Hendriks released his 2nd: On the Origin of Good Moves.
Some writers try to publish each year one or even more new books/ dvds. However if you want to achieve a high standard then you need a lot of time to do the necessary research. So when a second book is only released 8 years after a first masterpiece then you can be confident that also this new book will be something special. Anyway I didn't doubt about buying it as I ordered it even before the book was properly announced at my favorite chess-shop: de denksportkampioen.

And indeed I again loved it. Probably also due to the current corona-crisis I absorbed the pages in no time. I guess that I even went a bit too fast as I started to wonder what the book exactly was about after I finished it. The book consists of 36 chapters discussing sometimes very varying subjects of which the past seems to be a bit the only common thread between them at first sight. Besides just like the first book of Willy, the title of the book puts the reader rather on the wrong track.

For sure I was not the only one being deceived as in different reviews of this book which are currently already available see: review 1, review 2, review 3 (I guess there has been a lot of more reading lately due to the lock-down in many countries so this book was more than welcome) I read each time that this is some sort of history-book. Therefore the first thought I had when I finished the book was why we don't continue after 1894? In the next decades the level of the play went up dramatically with superb players like Lasker, Capablanca and Aljechin fighting and winning world-championships. It is also very strange that in a history-book there are practically nowhere any score or tables of tournament-results shown.

Nonetheless the reader also did get some hints like the monkey on the cover and the subtitle: "a skeptic's guide to getting better at chess" so more or less telling us that this is not an ordinary history-book. So to find out what exactly we are dealing with (or more precisely to confirm my suspicions) I decided to read the book a second time. However this time I didn't let me carry away anymore by the often very funny stories but rather tried to focus on the conclusions of each chapter and to figure out the concept of the book. With this new mindset I made very quickly progress.

If I need to summarize it in a couple of words then I consider this book as a follow up of his first book but this time the author explains us what we can learn from the (very) old masters (games played before the year 1900) to improve ourselves. So it is again a training-book and also again mainly written for the trainer although this time I think a lot of the given examples can be also useful for the trainees (I estimate between 1500 - 2000 elo).

However just like his first book, also this book is again very different from what a standard textbook about chess looks like. At the beginning of each chapter Willy asks the readers to solve a number of positions but some of those have multiple solutions or don't even have a clear-cut answer. I don't know many textbooks which use such approach. Contrary most authors will try to only use exercises of which there is one clear best move. Besides Willy even puts oil on the fire by claiming in his own book that those (very) old masters played some weak chess. At page 318 he writes that in the beginning of the 19th century (year 1800) the level of the best players was likely around 2000 elo while at the end of the 19th century (year 1900) the level had risen to the mediocre level of about 2400 elo. Wouldn't it a be much easier to sell a lot more books by referring to e.g. this site which tells us that Willhelm Steinitz achieved a fantastic rating of 2784 in 1876. However Willy does exactly the opposite by demonstrating in many examples that the top-players in that era were blundering sometimes horribly and were still lacking some fundamental basics.

Everything is upside down in the book but not without very good reasons which makes it again a masterpiece and mostly likely a reference for the next generations. Indeed despite that I agree that the old masters played very weakly if we compare to our super-grandmasters of today (a very interesting analysis not mentioned in the book is Intrinsic Ratings Compedium with ratings calculated also for the old masters based solely on the quality of the played moves and which confirm the roughly estimated ratings by Willy).

Therefore the big question is of course "Why does it make sense to study those very old games still today? Wouldn't it be better just to forget them and look to better games played later? Maybe the old games (19th century and older) should be only stored by historians. That is the essence of this new book. Why shouldn't we forget our past? Which lessons of the past are still relevant today?

Well I believe the book consists of the 2 big messages:
-  Games or more broadly taken any publication of that time contains countless examples of (basic) ideas/ motives/ concepts in a very pure format and are therefore excellent to present them to a student (that is why I think the student can most likely profit from it in the range of 1500 - 2000 elo). Below 1500 elo I think some parts will be still difficult to understand. Above 2000 elo most players should already be familiar with most of the content. The author also refers to a funny quote about Plato at the beginning of the book. After Plato some people consider all new ideas just as a variation or mix of old ideas. Indirectly this is to some extent also for chess valid. Of course there exists no point in time when this era of "modelgames" ends but I like the choice of the author for the year 1894 as then the first edition was launched of Tarrasch Dreihundert Schachpartien.
- The second big thread of the book is about the evolution-theory and more broadly which old theories about the past can still be approved today. The author states not much as many old theories are nonsense and were copied blindly in later books. I already wrote in 2018 on my blog see fake news that also chessplayers don't mind to adapt the truth so it fits their view (everybody myself included prefers to look only at the data which confirms our theories ). Especially the established theory that players develop via specific stages, is countered by Willy. When I reviewed MFTL in 2013, I had little experience at teaching chess. However in the last 5 years I encountered many times students struggling to improve as they were almost exclusively doing tactics by the method of steps. I agree with Willy that we should also teach from the start positional themes and (basic) openings. My own children had the luxury to get this extra information from me and therefore improved much quicker than others. So I fully agree that a development of a player should happen gradually and simultaneously at many domains and not follow some arbitrary stages. This was also confirmed by a recent interview of the young Russian top-grandmaster Daniil Dubov in which he stated that it often harms the development of a player when a coach insists on implementing a specific style. I am no expert at teaching but my personal impression is that a teacher should let his students get acquainted with a large set of tools and pieces of knowledge. Let the student select from it whatever he/she likes or works for him/her in practice. Of course a good coach should be able to adapt the content of the classes to the specific demands of a student.

In the book we follow more or less the chronology of the events in history so the books becomes easier digestible but again I want to emphasize this is not a history book. Often the author jumps back and forth in time to discuss a subject. Also the author just admits that he doesn't know for sure if the example shown in the book is the very first of its kind. So it could be that historically there exists still an older one of it but this doesn't matter. Students don't care when or who exactly was first. They only want to learn the idea and know if this can still occur in games played today. That is also why I like very much the link to the recent top-games or even games played by the author (this is something I do also in my classes and which my students appreciate a lot or even in articles on my own blog see e.g. old win in new skins part 1 and  en part 2.)

By the way while preparing this article I discovered the recent book of the Romanian grandmaster Mihail Marinold wine in new bottles which uses the same concept. I am a bit disappointed not to find any reviews about that book as Mihail has a strong reputation as author. Anyway Mihail confirms what Willy writes in his book. The past contains plenty of valuable lessons. Nevertheless I think it is not so easy for a student to learn independently something by checking those old games. On the other hand coaches have no excuse not to look at them and extract interesting pieces for their their classes.
A magic cover so I don't understand why this book got so few reactions from the chess-community.
By not looking at games later than the 19th century we see that the themes are in most cases very accessible to a moderate advanced student. It is also not surprising that 90% of the content used in Willy's book is limited to the 19th century as there exists very little older material. I still want to make a little note to the references summarized at page 427. I miss the monumental book of Hans Renette about Henry Bird which gives an excellent overview about how chess was played (mainly in the second half) of the 19th century. This a rather modern book of exceptionally high standard and I am sure it could've been used as input for On the Origin of Good Moves.

Besides the theory of evolution presented by Willy is much more than the accumulation of small bits of knowledge. The subject of chapter 15 is also discussed very well in the book of Henry Bird. Many details are presented in that book about how the playing-conditions slowly improved in the second half of the 19th century moving chess from cafes to our current much higher tournament-standards (although this is not always guaranteed even today see chess-comfort part 2). In that book we also see the rise of organized competitions (first only matches and later larger and larger tournaments) which forces the best players to check their ideas more seriously. End of 2019 I already wrote on my blog that competition is of the uttermost importance for becoming a better player see How many games should I play? and which Willy treats in chapter 5.

Also a big increase of magazines and books allows a much better distribution of the new acquired knowledge so much more players are getting stronger from which also later generations profit. At the end of the book the author makes the balance. Who or what generated the largest progress for chess? Were it the few big champions so did the progress happen via jumps or was it rather something very slowly at many different domains simultaneously. I read a reaction at schaaksite of somebody thinking Steinitz generated a Copernican revolution in chess by being the first person to establish a systematic approach to chess and put his theories on paper but also that is countered in the book (see page 189). In 1865 Gustav Neumann published already the book" The newest theories and practice of chess". Many players even before Steinitz wrote anything, were already busy with analyzing their games, searching the truth of a position by paying attention to attack and defense, classifying openings, summarizing their conclusions and writing theories on paper,... That is something which we still do even today. Besides many theories of Steinitz but also of his successor Lasker were later considered as incorrect.

Maybe the most important piece of advice in the book is that there are no shortcuts in becoming better at chess. There exists no set of rules or a theory which allows you to play at the level of a grandmaster. Most rules are nothing more than the proverbial good grandmother-advice. That is also the end of the book. If we want to improve then we should be willing to allocate countless hours to do an enormous amount of hard work at chess.

Brabo

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Chesspub part 2

2020 had to be the year of my comeback to a full-active player but the corona-crisis decided differently about it. Last decade I limited my chess-activities to about 10 fide rated games per year so that I would have always sufficient time to spend with my children. However small kids don't stay forever small and at some moment start to do things independently. Therefore in 2018 I decided that it didn't make sense anymore to just watch and wait while they play chess. Instead I joined the rapidtournaments at which my kids participated. Last summer I made the next step by playing a 9 day-tournament together with the family in Belgium. Next I joined the team of my son in the interclubs of Netherlands and begin 2020 we made the last step by playing with the family a tournament abroad: 9 rounds of standard chess in Cappelle La Grande/ France.

In the past I played quite often chess without the family but I prefer to limit or even avoid this in the future. I have already a very busy schedule so it makes a lot of sense to play only together chess especially standard games. For 2020 I thought 50 rated games so about 5 times more than previous years should be manageable this way. Initially things were going smoothly till of course this corona-thing jeopardized our plans. Currently it is unclear when we will be able to return to normal chess. I am neither desperate to accept the very special conditions of the Bruges Masters/ Belgian Championship. It seems that I am not the only one as even the very low maximum of 120 entries is still not achieved after 3 weeks. At schaaksite some players think that it will take more than 1 year before we can again play normal chess. This would only be possible when a vaccine is available world-wide or when most people are immune.

Anyway I was't able to forecast such scenario at the beginning of this year so at that time I still was looking forward to play a lot of chess which was initially indeed happening. Because of that I thought I should be more up to date about the most recent theoretical developments. In the past I didn't bother much about being surprised about a modern line which was totally new for me as I only played few games per year. However the prospect of experiencing this very frequently didn't feel at all enjoyable. 

Top-players filter and analyze daily any played (top-) games to keep their repertoire up to date but I don't have the time for that as an amateur. Besides I doubt that I would want to do it even if I would have time for it. In my article fashion part 2 I advised as a quick fix chesspublishing.com and chessbase magazin but which one should I choose? I had some experience with Chessbase Magazin but not with chesspublishing.com. However end of last year the Belgian FM Frederic Decoster told me that he is already for some time a subscriber of chesspub and he really enjoyed the monthly updates. This convinced me to give it a try and I don't regret it at all.

First if you are only interested in openings then you will for sure get more for your money at chesspub. Chessbase magazin costs about 100 euro per year for which you get maximally about 20 x 6 = 120 games/ openings annotated/ discussed. If you subscribe to all 12 opening-sections of chesspub which is 90 euro then you get about 85 x 12 = 1000 games/ openings annotated/ discussed and this doesn't include the automatic access to the archives which goes back 10 years. Ok quantity is not necessarily better than quality but even the quality of the chesspub content is more than acceptable and sometimes even excellent. 10 cent per game/ opening at chesspub is ridiculously cheap as an author can't open even a database for such money never mind about writing any comments.

So as a new subscriber I got access to the archives till 10 years back which even allows me to claim that I only paid about 1 eurocent per game/ opening. How in earth can such commercial model work all those years as even a minimum of effort will take at least a quarter of an hour. Besides looking at some analysis I am sure the annotators spent often several hours at it. I am not surprised that some contributors gave up after some time. I don't think you can ever become rich by working for chesspublishing.com as I can't believe they have million of customers. I only want to say that it is financially a no brainer to be a subscriber of chesspub.

Nonetheless I also want to discuss the quality of the published analysis in this article as I think it is also interesting to know if we should spend time reading/ studying the content. While we are talking about time, I also want to make the remark : "don't do what I did by paying only 60 euro so trying to save 30 euro as I thought 6 out of 12 opening-sections are sufficient for me. By paying the full 90 euro I could've downloaded all the files at once automatically in one pgn. However I had to download each month manually and then still rearrange everything. If you know that it takes about 20 seconds per file then you can calculate for yourself that 12 x 6 x 10 = 720 files meaning that I needed 4 full hours for this very annoying task. It is not the first time that I experience saving money isn't the smartest choice.

Anyway it is time to check what we exactly got for the few euros we have spent. As I only subscribed to 6 out of 12 opening-sections, I can only review those 6. I think it is also fair to only look at the updates of the last 12 months. The current annotator shouldn't be judged on the work of the previous one. It is also not fair to check analysis of 5 years ago with the current engines which are several hundred points stronger now compared with the engines at the time the author could use. Nevertheless I notice each contributor has its own style which often leads to very different approaches how to select and annotate the games. Below I show a summary with a final score for each sections. 10/10 means that the analysis is made at the level of (top-) correspondence-level. 1/10 is what you can get by pushing the button "create automatic analysis by the engine on your pc. Looking at the price we paid then even 1/10 would've still be acceptable so I am only showing the scores to differentiate between the sections. To be very clear every section has an added value for the subscriber.

The maximum score I gave was 7/10. I am sure that the Israelian grandmaster Michael Roiz often spends several hours at annotating his games. I find it unbelievable that he is willing to do such efforts for probably peanuts. One recurring gap I noticed are games played by engines while I mentioned already several times on this blog that in the future those games will become increasingly relevant for the development of openings. Neither do I see many references to correspondence-games. I can understand this for some openings but in others all important discoveries are happening nowadays in correspondence-chess. I also get the impression that the writers aren't fully up to date with the most recent engines or tools (checking the age of some of them then maybe this explains why) as I doubt somebody already uses Leela (which is today absolutely indispensable for annotating games).

Basically I annotate my games much more thoroughly sometimes even spending a week or more at one game. It goes without saying that I can't demand such efforts from the writers. Besides chesspub is still very useful for me to use during a game-preparation when I wasn't able yet to make a serious analysis of a specific system. It is also nice to be warned in advance of some new trends or worse some refutation in the repertoire. This all sounds very nice but how relevant are the chosen games for my repertoire? To answer this question I checked my last 100 standard-games of which the opening matches the 6 subscribed opening-sections. Next I checked for each of the 100 games if the opening was covered by chesspub or not in the last 10 years. If 1 critical line was mentioned then I considered this as yes = included. Just stating the move is possible without any further comments I consider as insufficient so no = excluded.
32% doesn't seem much but the theory is nowadays so vast and extensive that this is a pretty good result. Maybe I should've selected the section "Flank Openings" instead of "Dragons" but best would've been a subscription to all of them of course.

I expect that chesspub will not give to everybody the same experience. If you only play against -2000 rated players and you always want to leave the theory as fast as possible yourself then a subscription to chesspub will likely be nothing more than getting a nice collection of annotated recently played games. I guess from +2200 it really comes interesting as at that level you will start to prepare for openings and play/meet more mainstream-openings. For correspondence-chess I believe the analysis is too light, except maybe the section "Open Sicilians". Last week I discovered while preparing this article thanks to chesspub a gap in my repertoire. I consider my subscription for sure successful.

Brabo


PS. I just noticed after I made the translation to English of this article that the new update of "Daring Defenses" includes some games played by engines. I guess this probably has to do with the fact that not much other games were played recently due to the corona-crisis. Anyway if the writer can do that more often then I would definitely find this positive and as such would increase his score with 1 point. Besides as a general advise I think there is some low hanging fruit for several authors by just looking more often to correspondence games and engine games just like downloading the most recent version of Leela/Stockfich for free.