Saturday, January 24, 2015

Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2015 in Wijk Aan Zee

I want to make good on my new year's resolution to update this blog more regularly again. I'm going to ease into it with an observation from the Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2015 in Wijk aan Zee.

With only one round to go, it seems pretty certain at this point that Carlsen is going to win the tournament after all despite his rocky start, with only 1 point from his first 3 games.

Giri - So after 31. Qxb4 from the 12th round 
Giri is a pawn up. It's a distant passed pawn, and considering that Giri as a 2700+ grandmaster certainly has the technique to bring this position home, White is clearly winning. 

However, I was really surprised to see that the game went on for another 80 (!) moves. It's true that White's kingside has some pretty serious weaknesses around the light squares, and in queen endings the defender usually has a million checks available to prolong the game. But still, it's quite an achievement to have the technique to convert the a-pawn. 

So finally resigned after 111. a8Q

Pushing the pawn to convert it eventually is harder than it looks as I have experienced in many games myself. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Welcome to 2015!

I know I haven't been actively writing here lately, but I have been working on my chess, and one of my new year's resolutions is to be write more regularly here.

Best Wishes,

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Case Against Top-Heavy Prize Funds

The Intel Extreme Masters World Championship is a 3-day $100,000 winner-takes-all Starcraft 2 tournament. It is to my knowledge the first major tournament outside Korea with such a top-heavy distribution of the prize fund
There are two big tournaments that I am currently following with great interest: the IEM World Championship in Katowice, the culmination of the Starcraft 2 Intel Extreme Masters Season VIII; and the FIDE Candidates Tournament 2014, the winner of which gets the right to challenge world chess champion Magnus Carlsen to a match for the title later this year.

The FIDE Candidates Tournament 2014 is a massive three-week double round robin tournament in which 8 of the world's leading chess grandmasters determine the challenger for Magnus Carlsen for the upcoming 2014 World Chess Championship. The Candidates Tournament is also one of the most lucrative tournaments on the chess circuit.
One thing I noticed is that the distribution of the prize money differs greatly between the two tournaments. At IEM Katowice, the winner gets $100,000 while all other 15 players including 2nd and 3rd place get nothing.
The Fide Candidates Tournament distributes the prize fund of 600,000 EUROs (~ $832,000) more evenly. The winner gets 135,000 Euros, and last place still receives 25,000 Euros. The tournament is a 3-week commitment though. The winner, of course, also gets the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the world chess championship. The loser of that match is going to receive at least another $500,000. In other words, winning the FIDE Candidates Tournament is worth $675,000 easily. So in a sense the tournament is pretty top-heavy, too. However, even 25,000 Euros for last place is not bad at all for 3 weeks worth of work. And participation in this tournament most certainly increases a player's market value. I am not sure if that's true to the same extent for the SC2 tournament.

Despite his rocky start into the tournament, Armenian "Super Grandmaster" Levon Aronian is considered to be the likely winner of the FIDE 2014 Candidates
I just googled "SC2 dying" and got 422,000 hits. I have always thought that this "bullshit" about "SC2 dying" is largely just people bashing the game, trying to turn this into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
At the same time though I don't understand the reason behind this extremely top-heavy prize fund. It seems to me that a vibrant professional SC2 community is in the best interest of Blizzard and all sponsors (like Intel) that try to make money by selling products and services to the community. The more buzz there is in the professional community, the more exciting the big tournaments are to watch for fans like me, and the more exposure sponsors get for their products. But by making these tournaments so extremely top-heavy in their prize money distribution, the organizers make it very difficult for almost all SC2 professionals to continue staying in the game. 
I check about once a week, and whenever I do, there seems to be a new story about a pro gamer retiring, usually citing a combination of lack of interest and financial reasons.

Another - slightly less important reason - why I think the distribution of the prize money in Katowice is wrong is that there is such a big element of chance involved in winning a major SC2 tournament. Luck of the draw, a constantly changing map pool, patches, technical difficulties such as lag are just some of the factors  beyond the skill of the players that have a huge impact on the outcome of the tournament, and that turn the whole event into a lottery to some extent. If skill is just one of many factors (though arguably still the most important), it doesn't make sense to me to reward only one player for getting through all the "randomness" of the tournament. If the IEM tournament was to be held again in 4 weeks, the winner could very well be someone else. If the FIDE Candidates Tourney was to be played again, the winner would most likely be the same. 

And I'm not convinced that any player is going to try harder in a winner-takes-all format, no matter how much the casters hype this tournament.
As a former Terran, I would have liked Polt or Taeja to walk away with the $100,000 from IEM Katowice. Unfortunately, that is no longer going to happen.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Chess in Advertising - Part II

A few weeks ago Chessbase published another collection of tv ads featuring chess imagery:

Another typical example how chess imagery is used in advertising
Most of these commercials follow the general themes I've discussed in previous articles such as this one:

However, as I was watching the commercials, I realized that there's hardly any women in them. Just like in professional chess, where there's not that many female players in the world's top 200, and none in the top 10, in most chess-themed commercials women don't seem to play a role either. I never really thought about this before, but I'd expect to see more women in these commercials because in marketing it is a well-known fact that in many families, the women make the purchasing decisions.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Different Kinds of Chess Sacrifices

I finally decided to resume writing this blog. I hope to write more regularly again from now on. Today what I want to write about are the 3 different kinds of chess sacrifices, and how each kind poses their own difficulties.

Basically there are 3 types of sacrifices in chess.

1. One kind of sacrifice leads to a pretty forced sequence of moves that gives both sides relatively few opportunities to deviate. A typical example would be the bishop sacrifice on h7. More often than not that sacrifice leads to a pretty much forced sequence of events where the outcome is clear even before the bishop is sacrificed.
2. Another kind of sacrifice is based on long-term strategic and positional objectives, for example the positional exchange sacrifice. 
I'm a very "greedy" player, and only when I get overwhelming positional compensation I'm ready to give up an exchange for it. I know that this is one of my weaknesses. I'd be a better player if I wasn't holding on to my material so much.
3. The third kind is somewhere in between the first two. One the one hand, the objective of the sacrifice is clear. On the other hand though the variations are less forced and somewhat fuzzy, which makes them much harder to calculate. Let's look at an example: The following position is from the game Liren Ding - Levon Aronian, Alekhine Memorial 2013. Ding is a Chinese grandmaster I was unaware of until recently. You can find the whole game here ("On a Ding and a Prayer"):

Liren Ding - Levon Aronian. Alekhine Memorial 2013
In this position, White played 37. Bxg7!!
White sacrificed his Bishop on g7. 

Liren Ding - Levon Aronian. Alekhine Memorial 2013
White's plan is clear: activate the Rook on f1 for a mating attack
White's plan is pretty obvious in this position. Activate the Rook on f1. The plan is easy to see, but very hard to calculate all the way through because many of the variations are not as forced as say all the checks that follow after an h7-bishop sacrifice. 
In this game, I would have certainly thought hard about 37. Bxg7!!, but I don't think I would have gone for it because I could not have calculated the many variations with enough accuracy even though the underlying plan is very simple and straightforward. I probably would have also concluded - erroneously - that Black's Queen and Rook on the 7th rank would be enough "hardware" to defend the position. 

However, after a few more moves (not that many actually), the following position was reached, and Aronian resigned:

Liren Ding - Levon Aronian. Alekhine Memorial 2013
Black resigned. There is no sensible defence against Rh8
I'm sure GM Ding is very proud of this game. Not only did he beat Levon Aronian, one of the world's foremost chess grandmasters, but he did so in great style.

I often ask myself what skills chess grandmasters have that I lack. Among them is most definitely the ability and willingness to give up material for intangible compensation. That's one thing that I have always had great difficulty with. My style is rather positional, rock-solid, and borderline boring. Nothing wrong with that, but it does set a threshold that's hard to overcome, and it makes it difficult, to create tactically brilliant games such as the one above.  

That's why especially in blitz and bullet games I often force myself to sacrifice material - often in a very speculative manner - as a learning experience. The jury is still out on this approach...

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Position to Pawnder - Pyre's Reflections on his Journey into the World of Chess

The following is an article written by Pyre, one of my chess students, reflecting upon his transition from competitive SC2 to chess. My thoughts on Pyre's progress will be published here soon.
This article can also be found on TeamLiquid:


When playing Starcraft, I was very often asked by friends and family, “What is Starcraft?” and “How do you play Starcraft?”. My response was always, “Well, it’s sort of like chess, but faster and more difficult”. On the one hand, who can argue that Starcraft isn’t a faster-paced game? Starcraft is in real time and chess is turn-based. Some Starcraft games end in 5 minutes, while some chess games last for 7 hours! However, I could never have been more wrong when assuming that Starcraft was a harder game than chess. Learning how chess pieces move is one thing, but mastering the art, beauty, and complexity that encompasses it is as different as night and day. 

Pyre used to be one North America's most promising SC2 talents and was consistently ranked among TOP 16 on the GM ladder before he turned his attention to chess

Optional Backstory:

      If you don’t know who I am, it's because I haven’t logged onto for about 8 months. Back in September, I joined my high school’s chess club thinking that my strategic brain would easily be able to convert my grandmaster Starcraft abilities into grandmaster chess play. I was terrible at first, and the mere thought of eventually becoming good at chess was slowly slipping away. I lost to every single person in the chess club every week and wondered why I was good at Starcraft and not good at chess. But eventually, the constant defeats and humiliation got to me and I decided to seriously train to become better. The same competitive drive I applied to Starcraft in my humble beginnings was being applied to chess. What began as a side-project to Starcraft shortly took over as I regained the desire to become better at something--the same something that attracted me so much to Starcraft in the first place.

      With this ambition, I was lucky enough to fall under RevTiberius's wing and become a chess student of his. Soon enough, I started to see results. It was not long before my first competition happened, which was the culmination of all the high schools nearby and I got third place. Good right? Well, not as good as I had hoped. All this did was tell me that I still had a really long road ahead of me. But after several hours a day of studying and playing from January to now, I can confidently say that my chess is at a decent level (approximately 1800 ELO from 1000 ELO) and I hope to continue at the same rate during my stay at UCSD. 

 "I could never have been more wrong when assuming that Starcraft was a harder game than chess". SC2 GM and chess enthusiast Pyre reflecting upon chess and SC2
      “We ain’t so different you and I”. It’s true. Both Starcraft and chess are similar games where both players start evenly and through smart decision making, the better player should win. There are starting imbalances very similar to that of terran, protoss, and zerg, although I doubt “white” is going to get patched anytime soon. There is a large amount of theory, strategy, and overall knowledge required in both games to be successful. Taking expansions in Starcraft is the same as developing your pieces and castling (bringing your king to safety, while bringing your rook into the game) in chess. Going for a baneling bust, or a 6 pool, is very similar to the infamous “Scholar’s mate” (trying to checkmate your opponent in 4 moves) in chess or even just moving your queen out too early and trying to do damage with it. 

      The strategy in both games is really no different. In both games, you build an army and often there is a main fight that decides the game. For all you positional, quiet players who like to “turtle” in Starcraft, guess what? You can do that in chess, too--just close up the position with pawns and its equivalent to a widow mine and siege tank line! And for all you attacking players who like blink stalker openings, roach baneling busts, and 1/1/1s, there’s aggressive type play in chess as well with what are known as gambits (sacrificing material for hyperaggression). 

      Both games have gone through changing times and changing ideas throughout their existence. In the beginning of Starcraft 2 in 2010, everyone (including zergs) opened on 1 base and it remained that way until even the 7 minute mark. Struggling, zergs eventually realized that they needed the extra larvae and they needed the extra base, so they started going hatch first. As a response, terrans started making reactor hellions to start putting pressure on the expansion. These are examples of trends. From the 1500s-1800s, chess players strived to control the center immediately and valued fast development. However, at the dawn of the 20th century, ideas changed and certain people (called “hypermodernists”) decided that as a response, chess players could let their opponent control the center at first, but then flank attack it later! This idea had never been seen before, but it changed the way people thought chess was played and it led to even more innovation further down the road. 

      Tournaments are seen in both chess and Starcraft 2 at the professional level and the amateur level. One of the most intriguing things I had found out about when I first started getting into chess was the fact that most local chess tournaments have sections. This was a new thing to me, as no Starcraft tournament I ever went to had a “diamond-only” section or a “platinum-only” section with cash prizes for them too. This seemed genius to me. Everyone who participated in these chess tournaments had something to play for. They weren’t just going to get “beat by a gm, then watch”.

      There are also chess pros, just like there are Starcraft pros. The “Flash” of chess would be either Garry Kasparov or Bobby Fischer. Both of these chess players are legends of their time and have been internationally recognized outside of the chess world. The “Taeja” or “Mvp” of chess would be Magnus Carlsen. Magnus Carlsen is currently the world #1 at only 22 years old! He is a superstar in his own world just as Starcraft players are in theirs.

      If you’re a fan of just one of these games, then I highly encourage you to try the other. As a non-Starcraft player, if you feel intimidated by the speed at which Starcraft is played, let me assure you that you don’t need 450 APM to be good. Plenty of successful Starcraft players, like Polt, are able to out-think and outplay their opponents purely out of strategy, tactics, and immense game knowledge. If you play Starcraft and have never gotten into chess, then just imagine you’re playing Starcraft except without the APM and constant movements--just the strategic portion. Nothing can match the pleasure of beating someone in a game of raw intellectual strength.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Bad Manner in Online Chess and Starcraft 2

One thing that has always puzzled me is a noticeable difference in the BM ("bad manner") I encounter in online chess and Starcraft 2:

Starcraft 2
Basically, in Starcaft 2 I got BMed in at least 50% of my games. As far as I could tell I got BMed pretty much across the board from players who were clearly better, about my level, and clearly worse. Here's a sample of the kind of trash talk that I'm sure anybody who plays online video games is only all too familiar with:

A classic

This one actually made me laugh

This came out of the blue at the beginning of a game

I never understood how someone who just lost a game can call you a "noob"

A classic... must have heard this about 1,000 times on Battlenet...

My all time favorite...

Overall, there's clearly a lot less BM in chess compared to SC2. I've always found this a little surprising because it seems to me that in chess, there's even more ego at stake than in SC2. Losing in chess is definitely more humiliating than losing in SC2.
The fact there is noticeably less BM in online chess might be explained by the fact that in both online and offline chess you're clearly dealing with an older and more sophisticated and mature crowd. Of course there are exceptions, but it is clear that a 40-year old corporate lawyer in a chess tournament won't trash talk nearly as much as a 17-year old kid in an SC2 tourney who's cowardly hiding behind the anonymity of the internet and thinks he or she can get away with anything.

Even more surprising to me however, is the fact that in chess, I only get BMed by players who are much much worse than me, usually rated at least 300 points below me. Here are some examples:

I should have my second comment on Control + C at all times so that I can always paste it when necessary... 

Another peculiarity about trash talkers on chess servers is they frequently lie against all evidence. This screen shot is an example of a message a pretty weak player sent me after a game. As the next screen shot shows, I did not "get owned" by him. Incidentally I believe Idra was banned from EG for a comment like "hope your death is slow and painful"

This speaks for itself

I really have no explanation why I only get trash talked by players who are, honestly, trash. From time to time I get clearly outplayed by players my level or better, but it is extremely rare to get some BM from them afterward.

Is it because these "noobs" are so disappointed because they think they are keeping their games against me balanced for longer than they actually are? Is it because they think they "almost" had a draw?

You'll always remember this as the day
This is the only "BM" I ever engage in. This line has come in handy many many time in SC2 and chess 
I'd be interested to know if any reader has some theories on this. I for my part have decided to no longer accept challenges from players rated below 2000. This has also had a very positive effect on my rating which is something I'll blog about next time.