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    Wednesday
    May162018

    Evgeni Vasiukov (1933-2018), R.I.P.

    Another old great has gone the way of all flesh, as Evgeni Vasiukov has died at the age of 85. He's probably best known as the victim of a famous win by Mikhail Tal, who immortalized the game with his famous reverie about trying to save a hippopotamus drowning in a marsh. It's a great story, but it certainly shouldn't be the extent or even the predominant aspect of Vasiukov's legacy.

    He was a very strong grandmaster who defeated several world champions (including Tal), won the Moscow Championship six times, and won many beautiful games. One of my favorites was his annihilation of Loek van Wely in the 2002 Aeroflot Open. Up to that point, Vasiukov's name was just one I had seen in old books, but I saw that game that very day (or very soon thereafter) and was amazed: van Wely was a top 10-20 player, and Vasiukov was almost 70. No matter: he blew him off the board.

    There's a nice report on Vasiukov here, which includes the Tal story and his loss and win against him, the van Wely game, and more.

    Wednesday
    May162018

    Komodo 12 Available

    I'm not shilling for them, and probably shouldn't even write these posts. But I feel bad for people who have bought a one-year subscription for the Komodo engine and never get notified when they make the latest upgrade available, so here's your notice: Komodo 12 was released a week or so ago.

    How will it fare against Stockfish and Houdini? We should get a glimpse fairly soon, as the penultimate preliminary stage of TCEC Season 12 is around 2/3 finished.

    Friday
    May042018

    Russian Team Championship, Women's World Championship

    The next big round-robin is Norway Chess, starting May 27 (Carlsen, Caruana, Mamedyarov, Ding Liren, MVL, Karjakin, So, Nakamura, Aronian, and Anand - 10 of the top 13 and seven of the top eight players in the world), but some elite players are and will be in action between now and then. For instance, the Russian Team Championship is underway, with at least eight players rated 2700 (or just a hair lower) participating: Svidler, Vitiugov, Tomashevsky, Fedoseev, Matlakov, Dubov, Artemiev, and Gelfand. Naturally, many interesting games have been played there, of which I've picked a couple for your enjoyment. They aren't annotated - it will be more fun if you figure out what's going on for yourself.

    While the Women's World Championship is far less interesting when Hou Yifan isn't participating, it's still the world championship, and it's not the participants' fault that Hou Yifan has bailed out. It's a 10-game match between defending champion Tan Zhongyi and challenger Ju Wenjun, both of China, and begain May 3. Game 1 was drawn, and Ju won the second game with Black to lead 1.5-.5.

    Friday
    May042018

    Last Comments about *Chess - From Beginner to Grandmaster*

    A couple of posts back I mentioned the book Chess - From Beginner to Grandmaster: The Blueprint for Unlocking Your Own Chess Potential, by GMs Alexander Beliavsky, Adrian Mikhalchishin, Luka Lenic, and Dusko Pavasovic. Where I left off at the time of that post the title could have been Chess - From Beginner to Experienced Beginner, but as expected there were a number of more sophisticated chapters as the book went on.

    In fact, they were really too sophisticated for anyone who could benefit from the earlier chapters, so from a chess content perspective it's not clear who the book is aimed at. One way the authors try to bridge the gap and widen the potential audience is with a number of chapters offering general advice about studying and training, playing in tournaments, etc. But to my mind the book's most natural audience is coaches who are looking for a handy checklist of topics, to make sure their students know something about all the points addressed therein.

    I think the book can be read for free if you have Amazon prime, but I don't think it's worth buying. But browse it online and make your own decision.

    Friday
    May042018

    Erik Madsen on the Value of the Pieces

    [DM: This was a comment to the previous post, and it looks interesting enough to turn into a standalone post. Here goes:]

    I can offer my programmer's perspective. The values in my chess engine are:

    private const int _defaultPawnMaterialScore = 100;
    public const int DefaultKnightMaterialScore = 301;
    public const int DefaultBishopMaterialScore = 306;
    public const int DefaultRookMaterialScore = 485;
    public const int DefaultQueenMaterialScore = 962;

    Found by examining every position of a large collection of games between GMs, calculating the material difference* at each position, translating that difference into a 0% to 100% winning chance, comparing it to the actual result of the game, and summing the squared error.

    Adjust the material values, find the new error, and repeat. Select new combinations of material values to examine using a randomizing function** that balances examination of values near known best with exploration of wildly different values.

    Links with more detail on my Thank You page.

    * Actually the tuning algorithm considers positional factors too- such as bishop pair, piece mobility, passed pawns, etc.- it doesn't focus only on adjusting material values.

    ** I chose to use a randomizing function to select parameters because brute force calculation of every possible parameter combination is computational infeasible- on the order of 10 ^ 150 discrete parameter combinations.

    Tuesday
    May012018

    The Value of the Pieces

    I'm about halfway through Chess - From Beginner to Grandmaster: The Blueprint for Unlocking Your Own Chess Potential. So far it seems aimed at weaker players, but bit by bit it aims higher. I'll say more about it when I've finished, but one thing caught my eye in a very early chapter. The book is written by GMs Alexander Beliavsky, Adrian Mikhalchishin, Luka Lenic, and Dusko Pavasovic, who take turns writing chapters. In Beliavsky's first chapter, he offers a scale of values I'd never come across before.

    As usual, the pawn is worth one point while knights and bishops are each worth three points. But he says the rook is worth four points while the queen is worth eight. Really? Of course any values we give are approximations and abstractions. In some positions it's even possible for a pawn to be more effective than a queen, and there are plenty of less radical violations of the scale of values. Whatever values we offer are something like an approximate average based on a sort of averaging out of our experience.

    What I think is right about the relatively close assessments for bishops and knights on the one hand and the rook on the other is that it gets right the inequality between a rook and a pawn against two minor pieces. There are times when the rook and pawn hold their own, but that's rare. The two minor pieces are generally better, especially when at least one of the pieces is a bishop. (If they're both bishops, the side with the rook and pawn are often simply lost.)

    What seems wrong, however, is the idea that a minor piece and a pawn are equal of a rook. Of course that can be true, but we're speaking of the typical case or of averages. In this context, it seems to be false. The rook is generally better than a bishop (or a knight) and a pawn. On the other hand, against the traditional 1-3-3-5-9 scale, a minor piece and two pawns are almost always better than a rook - especially when the minor piece is a bishop. So if we set minor pieces to three points apiece, then I think the rook's value should be between 4 and 5 - let's say 4.5. One pawn for the exchange is not enough, all else being equal, and if the side with the minor piece has two pawns to go with it then it's the side with the rook that needs something to compensate for the material deficit. Alternatively, we could give the knight and the bishop a raise - maybe knights are worth 3.25 points while the bishop is worth 3.5 points. That would tip the hat towards those theorists who believe that bishops are more effective than knights, most of the time, in the abstract. (Of course, there are plenty of exceptions, many of them well-known.)

    How about the ratio of the rook to the queen? My inclination is to say that the queen is (at least) a match for a couple of rooks when the rooks aren't well coordinated or when they lack scope. However, in a pure ending with a queen against a pair of rooks, with an equal (non-zero) number of pawns distributed on both flanks, the queen has a fundamental problem. The rooks can gang up on a pawn, which can be defended by the opponent's king and queen. The problem is that if the exchange takes place, the side that had the rooks ends up a pawn ahead in what's likely to be a winning king and pawn endgame. When the pair of rooks can act like a pair of rooks, the side with the queen will be in trouble. So while there are times when the queen can perfectly well hold her own against the rooks, there are plenty of scenarios where she can't. So Beliavsky's 2-1 ratio of the queen's value to that of the rooks seems too generous on the queen's behalf.

    Finally, what about the ratio of the queen to an army of smaller forces, e.g. either three minor pieces or a rook, minor piece and a pawn? Here I'm less sure. It doesn't seem to be obviously right that three minors are better than a queen, as would be the case (in the abstract, on average) on Beliavsky's scale. But maybe further research and reflection would confirm his evaluation? I leave that as a project to the reader.

    Monday
    Apr302018

    Other Events: U.S. Women's Championship, Bundesliga

    The U.S. Women's Championship ran concurrently with the Open Championship, but as the former finished in a tie between 15-year-old Annie Wang and 2016 champion Nazi Paikidze, the event carried over to a playoff today. Paikidze trailed in the tournament before squeaking into a playoff, and she lost the first rapid game today. Unfortunately for Wang, she did not have a very good understanding of how to face the King's Indian Attack, and lost to it twice - badly - first in the second rapid game and then in the Armageddon blitz (thus making Paikidze the champion). Wang is improving quickly, however, and if she isn't pulled away from the game by whatever she's doing in academia she might be the favorite to win the title next year and will be a heavy favorite in two years (except perhaps from competition by other female junior players in the U.S.). I've annotated the three games from today's tiebreaker, here.

    Also, this was a Bundesliga weekend, and there was action yesterday and today, involving players like Levon Aronian, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and Peter Svidler (for starters).

    Monday
    Apr302018

    Informant 135: A Nice Mix

    The latest issue of Chess Informant, covering the period from the end of November 2017 through the beginning of March 2018, looks like a good one, and a step back in the right direction after a disappointing 134th issue. The usual features are all there (200 languagelessly annotated games, the best game and best novelty from the preceding issue, sections on combinations, endgames, and studies - and with a new section called "endgame blunders" [though in fact the errors were all subtle; there weren't any "blunders"], and the tournament results from the period covered), so let's have a look at the articles.

    There are two articles on the Gibraltar Festival. The first is by super-GM Richard Rapport, who was part of the big tie for first (Levon Aronian eventually won in a playoff). He presents two of his victories, and his annotations are very good. (There were quite a few typos and other minor infelicities, however, so the Informant staff should do a better job on their editing.) The other piece is by WGM Aleksandra Dimitrijevic, covering some of the ladies' highlights from Gibraltar.

    Then it's time for another pair of columns focused on a particular event; this time, the subject is the Rapid & Blitz World Championships, held in Saudi Arabia last December. First, the very well-known (and very strong) GM Baadur Jobava presents five games, four from the Championship (including two of his own). Then GMs Jan-Krzysztof Duda and Kamil Miton present eight fragments from the Rapid portion of the Championship.

    GM Mihail Marin is back with his "Old Wine in New Bottles" column. Beginners sometimes suffer when they send their queens on early adventures, losing time and sometimes getting their queens trapped. Marin focuses on a different problem that can arise when the queen goes off on a journey: her king suffers from the absence of a key defender.

    Then it's time for some opening theory. GM Ivan Ivanisevic offers a compact white repertoire in the English built on 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.e3. He doesn't promise an advantage, but the positions are fresh and not easy for Black to solve at the board - especially if he doesn't play the Sicilian with White, as many of the positions transpose into reversed Sicilians.

    Next, the well-known theoretician (and GM) Aleksander Delchev suggests 4.Bg5 in the Exchange Slav, which has more poison than one might suspect.

    Speaking of "poison", there was an opening book that came out in 2017 called "e3 Poison", and GM Robert Markus offers a suggestion along the same lines. His point of departure comes after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.e3, when he has chapters on 4...Be7, 4...c6, 4...Bb4+, 4...a6, 4...b6, and 4...c5.

    GM Milos Perunovic is best known for his opening work, but here he writes an article on transitions to pawn endings. One must be very careful about going into king and pawn endings, as the weaker side's defensive options are usually quite limited. One would think that professional players would always get these decisions right, but his article shows that this is far from the case.

    The last article is on the 28th World Correspondence Chess Champion, Leonardo Ljubicic. It begins with an interesting interview, and then Ljubicic takes us through four of his games.

    Finally, there's a mini-Informant within the Informant on Maxime Vachier-Lagrave's career, including 32 of his games, 12 of his most important opening novelties, 28 tactics from his games, and 13 of his endings.

    It was a good issue, and a big step back in the right direction. Ordering info here.

    Sunday
    Apr292018

    2018 U.S. Championship: Shankland the Champion

    Quite the surprise, but Sam Shankland definitely earned it! He scored +6, went undefeated, won four games with Black, won his last three games, gained 30 rating points, surpassed the 2700 barrier (becoming the 7th player from the U.S.A. to do so), and has reached #45 in the world. That's a great tournament! The only thing he didn't manage to do was beat one of the big three, though he came close to defeating both Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura. (Can you imagine if he had gone +8 in this field? That would have been Fischer-like - but to be fair Bobby Fischer never faced a U.S. Championship field like this one.)

    And despite all this, he still finished only half a point ahead of Caruana. That was the gap separating the players before the round, and they both won to maintain their relative positions. Caruana defeated Alexander Onischuk pretty easily when Onischuk sacced one pawn without any obvious justification and then blundered a second one. By the time Onischuk resigned, however, Shankland had such an overwhelming advantage against Awonder Liang that there was no real drama. Indeed, within a minute or two, Liang resigned, leaving Shankland obviously and understandably elated.

    I've annotated Shankland's and Caruana's last three games, plus Nakamura's attractive win against Varuzhan Akobian from round 10; they're all here. And here are the final standings:

    • 1. Shankland 8.5/11 (TPR 2884)
    • 2. Caruana 8
    • 3. So 6.5
    • 4-6. Nakamura, Lenderman, Robson 5.5
    • 7-8. Izoria, Xiong 5
    • 9-11. Liang, Zherebukh, Akobian 4.5
    • 12. Onischuk 3

    Sunday
    Apr292018

    U.S. Championship, Rounds 9 & 10: Caruana Good, Shankland Better

    Fabiano Caruana is having an excellent U.S. Championship. Despite having played practically non-stop for a month and a half, he is continuing to play at a very high level. His score of 7/10 has increased his already lofty rating, and aside from a bit of insanity in round 4 against Zviad Izoria he has played well and shown great resilience. In round 9 he was in serious trouble against Hikaru Nakamura, but held on grimly and saved the game, and then in round 10 he won a very impressive game - with Black - against Yaroslav Zherebukh.

    And yet, in this Championship he's playing second banana to Sam Shankland, who has caught fire after draws in his first two rounds. He won in both rounds 9 and 10, first winning against Zherebukh and then against Alexander Onischuk. Both games were long grinds, and in both cases he had to bounce back after missing chances to win the games more easily. He thus leads by half a point going into the last round.

    As for the other contenders, they have all fallen back. Varuzhan Akobian co-led through much of the first half of the tournament, but had already dropped out of the running with losses in rounds 6-8. He stopped the bleeding with a draw in round 9 before losing again in round 10, to Nakamura - who only then got his first win of the  tournament! (Coincidentally, Jeffery Xiong and Awonder Liang also won their first games in that round as well.)

    Aleks Lenderman's wins in rounds 7 and 8 turned him into a dark horse, and when he came out of the opening with a winning advantage against Ray Robson he looked like a serious contender. Unfortunately for him, he let the advantage slip away, and after drawing that game he lost a drawn king and pawn ending to Xiong in round 10.

    Wesley So began the tournament with two wins, and through round 10...still just has those two wins. No losses, but that wasn't good enough for him to retain his title. He had some advantage with Black against Akobian in round 9, but couldn't convert it, and in round 10 - again with Black - he drew with Robson in a game where neither side ever had any advantage to speak of.

    If I annotate any games I'll include them in my final round report. Here are the pairings for the final round (ongoing as of this writing):

    • Shankland (7.5) - Liang (4.5)
    • Caruana (7) - Onischuk (3)
    • So (6) - Nakamura (5)
    • Xiong (5) - Robson (4.5)
    • Izoria (4.5) - Lenderman (5)
    • Akobian (4) - Zherebukh (4)

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