Chaos and Uncertainty

This position looks unclear. Every experienced chess players have heard that phrase at least a few times in their career.

Like many other things in life, chess is a complicated game. There are different approaches to different situations.

But that is what makes the game fun and interesting. By constantly looking at a convoluted puzzle, we will subconsciously find new ideas over time.

Four-time U.S. Champion Hikaru Nakamura is someone who loves to create complex positions out of nowhere and then constantly cause new problems for his opponents until they lose the thread.

I was watching the game Holt – Nakamura at the 2015 U.S. championship. Computers kept saying white’s position was much better, but by looking at Conrad’s body language, he never felt that way.

Rather it was Naka, who continued to show his confidence. Even though objectively he had a worse position, he kept putting more pressure and later on, Conrad blundered in time trouble.

Get used to the un-comfort zone – Make decisions to take chances

When I was playing, I often would search for clear paths, rather than to complicate the positions. I had the habit of looking for familiar patterns, and make decisions based on what I already knew.

I looked at the position objectively too often. I would forget that my opponent sitting across me is having just as many trouble accessing the position.

Now I know if I play chess again, I will be searching for chaos and unclear positions.

We tend to avoid chaos, but sometimes we should embrace uncertainties. That’s where the opportunities are.

Learn to dance in the rain. Thrive in chaos.

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What do I do Now?

This is a question I hear often from students when opening is finished and there are no clear tactical moves.

Let’s take a moment to think about this scenario.

The reason we often get stuck is because we’re looking prematurely for the final punch, even though there are plenty of game to be played.

Instead of thinking to finish the game, let’s take a step back, and make small improvement moves for our positions.

There are two questions we can ask

  1. How to activate my pieces
  2. How to stop my opponent’s plans

Activate My Pieces

what_to_do_1

Black to Move

All the minor pieces are developed for both side, now black should consider to bring rooks to the center and find ways to open up the files for the rooks.

Re8 or Qd7 are two good choices here. These moves does not win the game or have any immediate threat, but we are ‘waking up’ our heavy pieces.

Stopping Opponent’s Plans

what_to_do_2

White to Move

Similar to the previous position, white’s minor pieces are developed. Rb1 is a good idea to control the b-file, however, we can make this move later as well.

More importantly, what is black’s plan here. Where should black develop the light square bishop?

Once we ask this question, we can see g4 is the ideal square to pin white’s knight and queen. Based on this h3 would be a good prophylaxis move.


Chess can be a fast and furious game, but it can also be strategic in nature.

When the next time you don’t see clear cut moves, make sure to search for small improvements that will help you in the long haul.

How to win in Winning Positions

The experience to lose half-point or even the full point here and there adds up, and it starts to rattle your head.

Whether it’s up a piece for the U1000 crowd or having small advantage for the sub-1500 players, it takes experience to develop winning techniques to finish games cleanly.

How can we practice to improve our technique?

Winning Games (1)

Before we get to the answer, let’s drill in the number one focus to win a winning position.

SIMPLIFY

  1. Trade Pieces
  2. Reduce noise

Trade Pieces

For my U1000 students, trading pieces when up in material is a lesson we repeat a few times until it becomes second nature.

The reason is to avoid counter attacks and mistakes from our side to give back the ‘gift’.

In the position below what is the easiest way to trade the dark-square bishop?

U1000_trade

Reduce Noise

For the more experienced players, trading pieces has become a second nature, and we’ll start to working more complicated positions.

We may not be winning, but rather tiny bit better in the position.

If we are defending when up in material, it is important to reduce the attack from our opponent.U1500_simplify

In the position above, if white retreats the knight to f3, then black will play Ne4 trapping the rook and getting ready to attack on f2 as well.

There are lots of noise in the position, so white needs to reduce all of the problems on the king side.

The best move is to swing the rook to b3, attacking black’s queen and then retreat knight to f3.

After Rb3, the rook will be much safer than it is on g3, and then white can start to develop the rest of the pieces and march forward with the two extra pawns.


Simplify is always the strategy when you are winning, and the way to do that is to trade more pieces and reduce noises.

Now you’ve learn the concept of simplify, it’s time to practice.

Setup a better position and try to play a computer level that is a bit more stronger than you, and see if you can simplify the position to get the full point!

Alexa – How Can I Improve in Chess?

In an earlier post, I talked about AI and Chess. An adjacent topic to AI is the advancement of Voice capability.

We will discuss a few ideas I had for developing Voice Product for Chess in this blog post and a not-so-surprising answer to my question in the title.

Vision: Voice Product for Chess

How can voice help for the following groups

  1. Learn Chess for Kids
  2. Improve chess for serious players
  3. Play chess on the go as a hobby

Learn Chess for Kids

Learning chess visually is still by far the most effective way for kids to pick up the game. However, voice can supplement the learning steps.

Alexa Skills can remind kids to develop pieces and castle early for new players.

As a young player starts to playing tournaments, a good check-up would be to make sure they do not drop pieces easily.

Improve chess for serious players

For the more serious chess players, the integration between chess database, engine, and Alexa would be important.

Some powerful questions to leverage via Alexa:

a) What are the top novelties played today?

b) How many games played today by over ELO 2600 players used the Sicilian Dragon line

Play chess on the go as a hobby

Let’s get back to the chess hobbyist for a moment.

If given a chance, many people would glad to learn chess instead of playing candy crush to kill time.

The problem today is the friction and effort to pick up chess easily.

What if Alexa can combine historical chess facts together with the simple to digest chess rules and gamify the chess learning process.

We have the historical chess facts in Google.

And we have chess rules all over the internet.

What we’ll need is an Alexa Skill the integrate the information and design an gamify-version of the learning process


We’re very early in Voice chess products development, and I’d say AI chess products are way ahead due to chess engine developments.

When I asked ‘How can I improve in chess?’ Alexa told me ‘I don’t know how to answer this question.’

Unfortunately no straightforward way to use Alexa yet today, but don’t bet against the concept.

Alexa and other voice products will soon change the way chess players’ improvement journey.

 

The Journey From U1000 to 1500

Going from a new player to 50th percentile in USCF rating (around 700) is about reducing oh-no moments and tactics.

The journey from USCF 700 to 1500 is a path that continues on tactic improvements, but a shift of focus on strategical ideas start to emerge.

In this post, I’ll talk about a few common themes and recommend a Strategy book in the end.

Here are three things I see on the path to 1500

  1. Zero oh-no moments
  2. Activate your pieces
  3. Gain more space

Zero Oh-No Moments

When you start to play in U1000 instead of U400 sections, the oh-no mistakes will be punished swiftly. Opponent’s are stronger, and they don’t give back the gifts that your present to them.

Activate Your Pieces

In U1400 section games, losing a piece in 1-2 moves does not happen often. The result of wins and losses generally occur based on active vs. passive pieces.

U1000_1

White is down a pawn in the diagram above, but is very much in control of the game. Black’s bishop and rook are out of the game, and it’s only a matter of time that white’s attack will bring to fruition.

Practice asking yourself how to improve my pieces, and try to get them to active positions as much as possible in your games.

Gain More Space

The concept of Space is less clear for U800 players, but after a few games of getting squeezed, s/he could sense the pain.

The skill that players need to develop is to build more confidence. The reason many 1000 players are afraid is because they worry if they push too hard, the ‘backyard’ would become empty.

U1000_2In the position above, many players would choose d3 instead of d4.

d3 looks like a safe move and keeping things solid, but d4 is what really showcases white’s development advantage.


Getting to 1500 is a longer journey, and strategic components of the game starts to get more important.

I’d recommend Yasser Seirawan’s Winning Chess Strategies for anyone who are interested to improve their strategy understanding in chess.

How to Deal with Losing

Fall seven, rise eight

My kid are not playing well. I’m so bad at chess. How can we avoid losing.

These are the comments from parents and chess players alike when the chess journey gets tough with a bad tournament or game.

Parents often ask how can we deal with losing, especially when the younger players cry after games.

When I hear these questions, my response often will be: I hear you, and I can understand your pain for the short term.

However, chess journey is a long game and there are ups and downs for every player.

Let’s first get the painful truth out first.

Losing sucks! No doubt about that. Just ask Magnus about it, this is the best player of our time, and he’s still having trouble handle losing.

Now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about why losing is an important part of the chess journey, and why often losing early can be more beneficial than winning without progress.


If you’re a 2000 rated player, and hypothetically let’s say you can play in the U1200 section.  More likely than not, you’ll be able to win every single game. 

Losing may not be part of the equation in this hypothetical scenario, but will you improve chess skills over 1-year?

Not likely.

Every game, you’re playing weaker players, basically you’re providing training opportunities to the new players.

For anyone to improve, it is necessary to play against stronger players. And each time we jump to a higher section, it is part of the process to struggle against stronger players, but then improve thru the learning experiences.


The Chess Journey is a marathon, and losing in chess sometimes feeling like struggling on the 3rd mile on your first practice run.

That’s why we all need to practice many trial runs before the final marathon run. The first practice will be far from perfect, the second will be a little better, but still long way to go.

However, each time, you’re building stronger muscles physically and mentally, and by the show-time, you’ll be more robust and less likely to be bothered by small aches in the run.

Chess tournaments works the same way, in the first tournament for a child, losing feels like the end of the world.

Then it becomes less annoy, and soon many kids wants to play again especially after a lost because there are more fire in them now.

It’s not easy seeing your child cry from their first loss, but remember many players have the same experiences, I cried twice from chess games when I was younger (details in a future post).

The more a chess player experiences the ups and downs, the better s/he will handle in the future.

Next time you or your child experience a painful lost, please keep below quote in your back pocket.

Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.

                                                                -Mae West

Why Tournament Matters

Have you traded stock with paper money before?

Most of the time, this is an exercise used in High School or College finance classes, and it’s an opportunity for the students to learn about financial literacy.

I’ve done that.

When I traded stock with paper money, I did not check the daily ups and downs of stock trend for months.

During a good market (2009, right after the 2008 crash), when I returned to check results nonchalantly six months later, paper money have risen over 20%. I wish I could turn the time back and put in some real money instead.

Now fast forward to the first time I put $100 of real money into the stock market. The market had ups and downs as usual, however, this time my psychology changed completely.

I was checking stock tickers over 10 times a day on my phone, and everytime there’s a $1-2 of movement in price, I wondered whether I made the right decision to buy and when should I sell.

What does this story has anything to do with chess tournaments?

The title of this post tells you.

Playing in rated chess tournament versus casual games is like trading stock with real versus paper money.

The difference is in a player’s psychology.  To truly improve in chess, you have to go thru the trials of tribulation in facing tough times from tournament games.

Whenever I talk to parents of new students, we discuss how to improve in chess (topic for another time) and when should a student start playing in tournaments.

My recommendation: once basic chess skills are developed and the student has played 1-2 unrated tournament to get a feel of the environment, it’s time to get into the action of rated games.

Sometimes I hear parents say I want my child to work more at home and be ready to play in tournaments where we know s/he will have a good showing.

I politely disagree.

Chess tournaments are not like school tests.

School teachers often give students study guide after study guide.  If the student is well versed in all the practice questions, s/he is ready for the test and getting an A or 100 is no problem.

In chess tournaments, doesn’t matter how prepared you’re, you may face any of the following circumstances

-Other player’s strength; Stronger than their rating indicates

It’s often hard to gauge exactly how strong is your opponent. They can come from a different country or state, or they took time out from chess and only came back recently.

-You’re own emotional response to meaningful games

The way you feel in a casual game is not the same as a meaningful game. The stock analogy earlier in the article covers this point. The oh-no moments will be much more painful than a skittle room’s game.

-Tournament Surroundings

There are tensions in the tournament room. In any given moment, the room is quiet, you can hear chess pieces move but nothing more. The nerves and the tension become less intimidating for the more experienced players.

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You can only get better in tournament chess by experiencing more.

And remember, you’ll never be 100% ready.

Treat chess tournaments as job interview instead of school test, there is no guarantee, but the best practice to improve your odds of success is to experience more and learn from these experiences.