An unexamined life is not worth living.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Seirawan – Chess Duels: My Games with the World Champions - Book Review

I got this book as a gift for Christmas, having requested it because I had been a big fan of Yasser Seirawan’s annotations since having a large collection of “Inside Chess” magazines. Having been interested in any information about chess personalities, I probably learned more new facts about world champions than I ever did in the last ten years. With great respect for fellow chess player, Seirawan reveals a lot about top grandmasters – their personal strengths and weaknesses. Particularly interesting are his recollections of various episodes involving Garry Kasparov. The stories range from those of admiration for Kasparov’s ability to calculate variations (to the point of everyone in the room being quiet from awe), to those of confrontation with Kasparov over the board, when the World Champion would knock all piece off the board by pressing the clock too hard and having to apologize to Yasser.

image Having scored well against older Mikhail Tal, Seirawan had less success against Anatoly Karpov (and no, he is not giving a clock simul here!)
Photo by Gerhard Hund

In addition to stories and anecdotes, the book is also full of analysis of all the games that Seirawan ever played against World Champions. Those games reveal the difference between a very strong grandmaster – and the great ones. And it is a very subtle difference indeed, so subtle that you need explanation from the player involved in those games to even feel it. Among other things the book shows that the champions are only human! Seirawan’s positional instincts and style have posed some problems for World Champions, but overall by virtue of being consistently better in various parts of the game – Spassky, Karpov and Kasparov have been able to post a positive score against him. It is somewhat indicative that the only game that Seirawan won against Kasparov – was won after Kasparov over pressed in Seirawan’s time trouble. It is possible to beat the best players in tense complications, but it is very difficult to outclass them, and Seirawan’s notes on every move explain the inner struggle between the players – the thinking behind choices of openings, time spent on each move, comments made by players after the game, etc – all those details that you will not find by looking at a game in a database.

image The story about young Kasparov being a devoted communist is quite interesting
Photo from Owen Williams, the Kasparov Agency

Realities of professional chess players’ life, such as the need to travel and deal with time zone differences are explained very well in the book. The history of attempts to establish chess as a professional sport, starting from 1980’s and the GMA were also interesting to read about. The clash between FIDE and Kasparov in the 90’s, Moscow Olympiad of 1994 (which I had attended myself as spectator when I was a little boy), PCA tournaments and its quiet collapse are described in a lot more details than I had been aware of. If you are chess fan - Chess Duels: My Games with the World Champions by Yasser Seirawan is a great addition to your chess book collection.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Persistence in Chess

When I started to study chess seriously,I would typically like the quality of my play in the beginning of a tournament – until losing a game to a stronger player, or making a blunder. Confidence in good preparation and ability to find reasonable moves is re-enforced by playing several decent games, but a loss would destroy this sense of control. As a result, during the rest of the tournament – I would be
- less thorough while looking for a move, since I have less faith in “my system” of logically evaluating the position to find the move
- getting into time trouble due to lack of confidence
- lose motivation, since the “good tournament” is ruined
- start to think how to prepare better for the “next tournament”

Some of these points, especially the first one, are typical for players with “analytical approach”, among which, according to Mark Dvoretsky, are such players as Rubinstein, Botvinnik and Kasparov. Once the analytical apparatus reveals a flaw, the perfect machine is no longer so perfect.

A different attitude is typical for players with the “intuitive, or practical approach”, such as Anatoly Karpov. For me one of the most useful ideas about tournament play came from Karpov’s book where he talks about how

“Some chess players, would give up after a loss or two, but a real player would realize that a series of defeats has to be followed by better luck, and wait for his chance”.

image Anatoly Karpov – waiting for opponent’s mistakes

This patient waiting for your chance is what I consider persistence in chess. Even if you are not going to win a tournament – each game counts towards your ELO rating the same way, so previous losses should not affect one’s motivation, which I wrote about in an earlier post. Moreover – in the end of the tournament – your opponents get more tired and more likely to make a mistake!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Chess This Weekend at Lansdowne Centre – Richmond, BC

I thought I should re-post this note from the BCCF bulletin that I received today:

The BC chess community needs your help. Securing places to play chess is a challenge. We have found a potential sponsor in Colliers International. They manage hundreds of commercial properties throughout the province and have offered us a trial opportunity. We can use vacant store space at Lansdowne Centre in Richmond to hold a chess event next weekend. It is short notice but we are accepting the challenge. Attached are the notices for a Sat/Sun adult open event for strong players and a Sunday only K-12 tournament for beginners and first time tournament players.

In addition to the tournament there will be chess happening all day in the public courtyard of the mall with large sets, lessons, simuls and bug house games. The mall administration will be watching closely to see if people show an interest in chess. If they see a good response they will invite us back and expand the program. We need lots of people to play in the tournament and visit the public activities to make this a success.

We need everyone in the chess community to help however they can. Come and play in one of the tournaments if you can. If you can’t play in a tournament drop in for some social chess on the public boards, or just check out the action and have some fun. We need the chess community to stand up and be counted. What you do next weekend could change the face of BC Chess forever. It could lead to giant chess sets in a mall near you. So come and play, have some fun and help out BC Chess at the same time.

Email Ken at to help, or for more information -

To register and to find out more information go to

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Positional Exchange Sacrifice

DDT3000 – In-lightning, 15 minutes per game, ICC, 2011

image White to move. Would you, or would you not sacrifice an exchange here?
It depends, and while this is a question of judgement but I would argue that 20. Rxf6!? is not really a sacrifice, but instead a fair trade off. I took on f6 without much thought, and went on to lose a complicated game by dropping a bishop in a probably drawn endgame. But given the opportunity – I would take on f6 again and have a fun game. On to the actual positional justification of the move:

I was not too happy with my position, since my bishop was passive, rook on b1 - awkwardly placed, and while the knight had some prospects on f5 and d5 - Black has ability to cover those squares. So I took an opportunity, which, given that both White and Black had about 10 minutes left on the clock (no increment) - I would take again. In a standard time controls game - I would likely not take such a decision very lightly, but in rapid chess - this move is almost standard.

After 20. Rxf6 gxf6 21. Ng3 image In return for exchange, White gets the following advantages:
1) The knight gets a permanent control over f5
2) The bishop - permanent control over d5. Opposite coloured bishops definitely contribute to compensation.
3) Black's king is somewhat weakened.

Sure an exchange is worth something, sure White does not have any immediate threats; but the long term control over the light squares - is enough to create threats for your opponent, which given limited time - make things equally hard for White and Black. White has no bad pieces and a lot of positional trumps, so even if Black has a chance to try to convert an advantage, he would first have to defend for 20 moves. The game was not without mistakes, but here is a position which we arrived at after a few more moves

image White to move. After Nh6, Black can defend against Nf7 with Rc7, but he can’t really escape from the bind. For example: 32. Nh6! Rc7 33. Qe6 Bd4 34. b4 Bc3 35. b5 axb5 36. axb5

image Black to move. White has a fortress since Black has to guard f7 and g8; White can also give perpetual with Nf7-d6-f7.

Even though I went wrong with 32. Nd6? – I still maintained a lot of chance until the very end. The risk White takes upon with Rxf6 in my view is equal to the risk that Black takes by allowing such sacrifices.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

SQL to Chess – Querying Chess Database

Most Chess Databases use their own format for storing information about chess games and the games themselves. If you want to query or extract any data out of the database package – your best bet is to use pgn files, although recently Aquarium also added ability to export data via scripts. In either case – performance is likely to be an issue as text files can get pretty large. When I learned that Jose Chess uses MySQL, I was curious to find out how to connect to its database so that I can search it with my own queries. Eventually, I was able to get it to work, and run a query like this against its large database which comes with Jose Chess and contains about 1.5 million games

This query shows the opening that scores the best for White – A94 - who would have guessed! The most popular index is B22 – 2. c3 Sicilian. There is obviously now opportunity for running more metrics on players, openings, openings trends, etc.
Getting all the data extracted out of Jose Chess obviously took a bit of reverse engineering, but basically I had to:

  1. Find the path where Jose Chess and its embedded MySQL instance is storing the database. On Windows 7 it is - C:\Users\<UserName>\AppData\Local\VirtualStore\Program Files (x86)\jose\database\mysql\jose
  2. Install MySQL and MySQL workbench to have a standalone instance of MySQL
  3. Create a new database (schema) in MySQL workbench, and in that DB – tables to match the Jose Chess tables
  4. Drop the Jose files into my wherever my standalone instance of MySQL is storing its files - C:\ProgramData\MySQL\MySQL Server 5.5\data\jose_huge_db
  5. Restart standalone instance of MySQL
  6. Run the query on the screenshot above!

Here are the files that need to be dropped around:


The only (but significant) disappointment is that Jose Chess is still storing game text (moves) in its internal binary format, so I can’t easily get to that data …

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Chess Position Trainer 4 – Public Beta is out

After much anticipation, the new version of Chess Position Trainer is getting rolled out to the masses, as the program’s author announced on his blog.


First Impressions:
- It installed successfully on my Windows 7 – 64 bit machine.
- I was able to import my opening repertoire from a pgn file, and then navigate through the moves.
- The number of buttons and widgets seems to have increased dramatically since version 3, and the screenshot above shows the “Beginner Mode”!
- The “statistics” panel seems very promising. For example, after I went through one line, it showed me visually how much more of my repertoire I still have to study/review. 15 Positions reviewed, 17042 – not reviewed! A picture shows I still have a long way to go, to put it mildly…

This tool is sure to be a great New Year’s gift to chess players who use software for practising their opening skills.

Hit Counter