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.

 

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Washington International Part 1

On August 8th through 15th I played in the expert section of the 7th Annual Washington International Tournament. It is fair to say that it was one of the most impressive tournaments I have every played in: the top section featured an enormous pool of very strong titled players (including numerous grandmasters), wooden boards with adequate space were provided, and rounds were limited to two per day!

Aside from the very pleasant playing conditions, the first half of the tournament could be best described as a cold shower for me. After rarely studying chess for over a month during my travels in Europe, I came back to the board with rather rusty calculation skills and a serious dent in my tactical vision.

Round 1

I got off to a shaky start in round 1 against Sathis Nath (1817 USCF, 1861 FIDE) when I played with excessive ambition, only to find myself defending a seemingly hopeless endgame:

WI Round 1 #1

Black has just played the direct 18…e5 in an attempt to dampen White’s activity along the e-file. White could easily play 19.Bd2 and try to nurture a slight spacial edge, but I instead chose the much more direct 19.dxe6 e.p. After 19…Nxe6 20.Nxe6 Rxe6 21.Qxe6+ (What else?) Bxe6 22.Rxe6 Be5 23.Bxe5 Nxe5 24.Ne3 Qf8 25.Bd5 Kg7 26.f4 Nd7?!, White has very decent compensation for the queen. However, after achieving my desired position, I made a serious strategic mistake…

WI Round 1 #2

In the following position, White has a couple of decent options: 27.Re1 is rather natural, to stop Black from trading off rooks on the e-file, while 27.f5 is in fact the most forceful and arguably strongest move. The computer offers the following sharp line to demonstrate what happens if Black tries to trade rooks: 27…Re8 28.Bxb7 Rxe6 29.fxe6 Qe7 30.exd7 Qxe3+ 31.Kg2 Qd2+ = with a draw in sight. However, in the game I played the rather poor 27.Ng4, allowing my opponent to comfortably trade off my rook on the e-file. 27…Re8  (Black is able to swap off his inactive rook for one of white’s active rooks.) 28.Rce1 Rxe6 29.Rxe6 Nb6 and Black’s position is already looking quite promising. A few moves later, my situation began to look hopeless.

WI Round 1 #3

After 34…Qxa3, Black is easily winning due to his two connected passed pawns on the queenside that will be ushered down by his queen. By some miracle, involving some help from my opponent, I was able to escape from this position alive and managed to draw the game.

Rounds 2-4

After coming so incredibly close to a round 1 loss against a significantly lower rated opponent, I played rather safe and uninspired chess in the following three rounds, finishing on 2/4 against approximately 1900-rated opposition. I knew that if I was going to make something of this tournament, I had to step up my game for the remaining five rounds. Step up my game I did!

Focus on the Craft

Result of wins and loses are easy to measure and powerful to experience.

But often these are short-term thrills, and across the many ups-and-downs, it is easily dismiss-able from our memory.

When we focus on short-term results, our mind are buried into looking at certain outcomes, and chess improvement is anything but certain.

On the other hand, the process to improve the craft is what matters in the long term, and we are in control when making the effort.


As many of you know, I’m not currently active in playing tournaments (albeit a fan of in-person blitz tourneys). Instead, my focus in chess is help more students reach 1000.

While working on the side hustle of teaching, I see the parallel of improving teaching methods to the process of chess improvements.

Rinse and Grind

In any training day, the calculation exercise that you work on, or the endgame study that you struggle with will not show result immediately.

They are, however, the seed of improvements. And it is by repeating the exercises day in and day out that the seed will blossom.

Teaching chess is similar, looking thru 1 game or 1 puzzle will not give me enough information to understand what is the student missing.

But the process of continuing to observe will slowly reveal patterns.


No one knows how long it will take us to the promise land. But we CAN control the effort.

Focus on the Craft!

Put in more effort and worry less about the result.

Preparing for the Washington International

A couple of weeks ago I made arrangements to play in my first nine-round tournament ever: the 7th Annual Washington International. Even though I will not be able to play in the top section, I am tremendously excited to play in the tournament because nine rounds against approximately equally rated opposition will be a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate good form and make serious rating gains. As I do not want to let such an opportunity go to waste, my chess studies in preparation for the tournament have been more focused, intense, and consistent than ever before.

Since the beginning of June, I have split my chess practice into two basic components: tactics/calculation and book study. The calculation practice ensures that I stay sharp and improve my board visualization abilities, whereas consistent book study allows for the acquisition of new concepts that will improve my chess understanding in the long run. While this may seem like a relatively standard training regimen, some of the methods that I have found to be very effective over the course of the past month may not be known to everyone. Allow me to dissect some of my favorite training methods from the month of June:

  1. Timed calculation with a real board: Setting up difficult tactical problems from online tactical training sites on a real board, and then giving myself ten minutes to solve each tactic using a chess clock has helped me tremendously in improving my tactical ability. I believe that the use of a real board and clock significantly enhances the calculation training because it stimulates tournament conditions: better focus due to time constraints and three-dimensional element of tournament chess. It is a good idea to keep some form of a log for tactics as it can be very rewarding to track one’s progress.
  2. Reviewing book material with a chess software: Up until late December of 2017, I would study chess books over the board, moving the pieces as I flipped from page to page. While this seems like a decent method, I found that I would not absorb everything that I studied, and more importantly, I would start to forget old material after only a couple of weeks. This frustrated me because essentially only 10% of what I studied actually aided my improvement in the long run. One day, I ran across a blog post by FM Daniel Barrish. In the post, FM Barrish discussed the technique of plugging chess positions from books along with corresponding analysis into a database software. The point of this technique is not only to exploit the benefits of active learning, but more importantly to create ready-made chess lessons on one’s computer that can easily be reviewed at any point in time after having studied the material. I tried out this technique myself with Artur Yusupov’s book series that I am currently studying, and have found it to be incredibly useful. With periodic review of old lessons on my computer, my recall of material has risen tremendously.
  3. Chess note cards: The idea of chess note cards came to me recently after having used Daniel Barrish’s technique for a while, and I am already starting to experience the benefits. A few weeks ago, I printed out many positions from the exercises in Artur Yusupov’s books and glued them individually onto the front sides of note cards; I then wrote the solutions for each position on the backs of the corresponding note cards, along with the names of the two players and the setting of the game (place and date). By now I have amassed quite a large collection of note cards based on the Yusupov books and am reviewing them periodically. As a result, I am able to recognize positions in my games that reflect certain positions from a Yusupov book, and then apply the same concept that was shown in the book. I highly recommend this method because it is a fantastic form of active learning: writing the solutions on the back of the note cards as well as reviewing them periodically engages the mind actively with the given position.

IMG_2427

Note card review underway!

I apologize for the lack of actual chess content in this blog, but I will be back to playing tournament chess as soon as the Washington International comes along. Stay tuned and until next time!

School’s Out: All Brains on Deck!

Version 4
Out on a much-needed coffee break before finals…

With my finals week over, an incredibly stressful semester has come to an end. In the course of four months, I changed majors twice, which meant taking a rigorous schedule to compensate. Ultimately, I had to leave chess behind to do well academically, as this term’s course load pushed me to become disciplined in my studies.

 

But that was yesterday! Even with the dreary Pittsburgh weather, I can’t help but feel a bit relieved, as for the next month, I get to be a full-time chess player! I’ve got four tournaments planned for May, so I’m looking forward to some over-the-board action. Here’s my schedule:

May 5-6: 2nd Haymarket Memorial (Chicago, IL)

After Beilin’s visit last March to the Chicago Chess Center, I decided I’d open my summer campaign here with a weekend tournament. I’ve actually never been to Illinois before, so that’s another state I can check off my list!

May 12: Marshall Chess Club G/50 Open (New York, NY)

I was hesitant to plan a trip to New York for two “rapid” tournaments, but a combination of wanting to play more games before the Chicago Open and frequent flyer miles convinced me otherwise. Besides, I won my first-ever tournament (I should clarify – non-scholastic) at the Marshall Chess Club!

May 13: Marshall Chess Club G/50 Open (New York, NY)

Playing in another tournament in back-to-back days is going to be exhausting. To prepare for this (and later the Chicago Open), I’ll need to work on my endurance and start running frequently. When I was preparing for Europe, I found the healthier I was, the better I performed.

May 24-28: Chicago Open (Wheeling, IL)

This one needs no introduction. I’ve signed up for the open section, which promises to offer a tough schedule of players. I’m hoping that by using the entirety of May to prepare, I can bring my best form to one of the toughest open tournaments in the country.

I’ve got ten days to prepare for my first tournament since last January, and I’m going to have to train intensively to play my best chess. While I’m going to have to push myself, I do think the semester has made me more mentally prepared to play tournament chess. Right now, I’m not too worried about breaking National Master, I just want to play good games by training right and focusing on the right things – long term, the title and the rating will both come as an affirmation if I’ve succeeded.

Based on some of my past results, I’m hoping it stays that way.

Bringing the Brain Back

One thing I’m curious about is what will my chess look like now that I no longer have the distraction of school. I’ve experimented a little – played a Pittsburgh Chess League match with an opening I had never used before, taking on new opponents on my Twitch Channel, managed the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers, but more recently I entered a correspondence chess tournament on chess.com.

Typically I’ve been terrible in online correspondence chess, as being addicted to my phone means needing to terminate all notifications!! As you can imagine, this means that I usually blunder once every 15 moves because I’m multi-tasking, but during exam week, it made for a nice five minute study break. Nothing serious – just something to keep my mind off the Keynesian IS/LM model for a bit. Anyways, I had a nice win in an Italian Opening as Black that I thought would be worth sharing.

Tartan_Thistle vs NapoleonBonaparteIV (me), Chess.com Tournament

The opening was predetermined, as the tournament set all games to the position 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4

Screen Shot 2018-04-24 at 15.52.57
position after 3. Bc4

I’ve had a lot of interesting games as Black, most memorably a game I won in the 2016 Pan American Championships for Pitt. One aspect I like about the Italian Opening is that it’s extremely rich with ideas, yet its fairly easy to learn at a basic level. To avoid the Three Knights theory, I opted for 3…Bc5 and “normal Italian play” ensued, 4. c3 Nf6 5. d3 h6 6. 0-0 0-0 7. h3 d6 8. Re1

Screen Shot 2018-04-24 at 15.59.43
position after 8. Re1

This was my first real think of the game. One fairly common idea for Black is to play ….Nc6-e7-g6, but if I played 8…Ne7 9. d4! more or less punishes my tepid play after 9…exd4 10. cxd4. I don’t really know where my bishop on c8 should go yet, so I played the least committal useful move 8…a5, which takes away a potential plan of b2-b4, while also creating a square on a7 should my bishop need to retreat. Now, should White try 9. d4 I can play 9… Bb6, and the point is that my knight (on c6 and not e7) supports the e5 pawn, so I don’t have to break the tension on d4.

White took on a much more restrained approach, and so the next few moves were somewhat simple 9. Nbd2 Bb6 10. Nf1 Ne7:

Screen Shot 2018-04-24 at 16.09.34
position after 9…Ne7

The difference in this position is that with my bishop on b6, 10. d4 is not as forcing so I can play 10…Ng6, having accomplished my relocation. Why is it that Black wants to put the knight  on g6?

This knight helps support the center, but also hints at a …Ng6-f4 jump in the future. Additionally, by moving the knight away from c6, I can now match White’s pawn structure with …c7-c6, with the ability of either playing for …d6-d5 or playing …Bb6-c7 to thrust forward my b7 pawn.

White’s been following the basic plans for White too, but can he keep it up? 11. Ng3 Ng6 12. Be3 c6 13. Qd2?!

Screen Shot 2018-04-24 at 16.15.45
position after 13. Qd2?!

This didn’t feel right. I thought after 13. d4! White maintains a typical Italian Opening edge. Had White gone down this route, I think Black will need to find a long term square for the c8 bishop, and that’s not easy considering its presently safeguarding the f5 square. I figured White’s plan was to sacrifice on h6, so I just played 13…Kh7 to sidestep the threat and wait. I figured I can choose to play …d6-d5 later, so this didn’t seem like much of a concession on my end.

As it turns out, White actually had 14. d4! here, which I completely missed because it left e4 unprotected. Luckily for me, my opponent chose the move I had anticipated, 14. Nf5 but then erred – 14…Bxe3 15. fxe3? d5! and I won easily after that… even with a few careless moves.

What I liked about this game is that it really shows you why it’s important to know how to open a game of chess. In many openings, having insight into what your plan for development is, and why its effective is a lot more beneficial than purely memorizing moves. This is how I handle a lot of docile openings without needing to know complicated theory – take this game I played against the Glek in Germany last year.

As I gear up for my tournaments this month, I’m going to be looking through a lot of my opening preparation. If I tried to memorize it all, I would drive myself crazy! So instead, look for key pawn structures, how your pieces work together, and key attacking ideas – these are the very elements the computer will never tell you! What you’ll find is that you will learn more from asking yourself questions than answering them!

Chess Side Hustle

I made this tweet in early 2017…

…and yesterday (April of 2018), I had the great opportunity to be featured on the Side Hustle School podcast.

Since we’re on the Chess^Summit journey, let’s compare the process of building a side hustle and chess improvements in the following three bullet points.

  1. The Journey is a Marathon
  2. Find a way to Get Started
  3. Appreciate How Far You’ve Gone

The Journey is a Marathon

Whenever you start a new adventure, there is a certain amount of excitement.

But after a period of extended work with little or no reward, a tiny voice of ‘why bother’ frequently starts to cloud our minds.

This is the moment to see how much energy you have for the LONG RUN, and it feels like the mile-10 mark of a full 26-mile marathon.

No one can build a sustainable side hustle in one weekend, and no one can improve 500 rating points in one weekend.

There will be many ups and even more downs, but it’s always about the process of getting back our energy and excitement when the moments are tough to get through.

Whether it’s teaching chess or improving chess yourself. As Jack Ma said: Don’t give up ‘tomorrow evening’.

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Get Started

In teaching chess side hustle: there is the website, then you have to talk customers, and there are contents you’ll need to create. These are just 10 percent of the efforts to build the business.

It’s not different in improving chess: you have to keep up-to-date in opening preparations, the endgame to study again, and your recent games to review.

One word describes both scenarios: Overwhelming.

The way to overcome is to START one thing. Immerse your mind to that task and not worry about all the other to-dos. Get started and continue to build momentum.

Appreciate How Far You’ve Gone

 

No matter how far we go, we often only look forward to the next goals. And we will always find a more challenging problem to keep us busy but giving us headaches.

In chess improvement, you surpassed the goal of reaching 1500, now you start to look for 2000. And in chess teaching, you have one student, you’ll start to look for 5.

It’s good to have the desire to continue improve. However, find ways to remind yourself to turn your head backward once in a while and appreciate how far you have gone.

Remind yourself of the work you have accomplished will give you more confidence to go forward.


Wherever is your journey – learn to look for small improvements to help you go forward.

What a difference 15 years makes

In 2003 – Columbus, Ohio welcomed the K-9 Junior High School Nationals.

This weekend – Atlanta, GA held the 2018 K-9 Junior High School Nationals.

 

I can’t help myself playing a few blitz games.

There are many things that had changed for US Chess over the last 15 years.

One such exciting event is the triumph Berlin candidate win for Fabiano (participant of 2003 JHS edition), thus becoming the World Championship Challenger!

Back home in our JHS tournament, we also see many changes.

-Stronger Top Boards

As you can see, the top boards are stronger today with about twenty 2000+ players in each of the championship sections.

Earlier rounds are definitely not a walk in the park for the top boards anymore, and the physical stigma are more important now than ever to finish these events.

-Chess popularity is growing

Platforms such as chess.com and others are popularizing the game, and it gives many opportunities to learn and play against stronger players even at home.

Here are my challenges to the active chess players and the chess educators (including myself).

Challenge to active players – Can you find a way to learn from a stronger player the next time you have a chance? And can you help a newer player improve the next time you have an opportunity.

Challenge to chess educators – Can you motivate one or more young player to gain the interest and continue his/her chess tourney towards 50th percentile or beyond?

The only blessings you own are the ones you share

-Frank Blake

Wherever you are in your chess journey, I hope you find a way bring more interest towards the game!