Wednesday, December 07, 2022 10:30

Posts Tagged ‘Tools of the Trade’

Tools of the Trade, Part 10 – eNotate!!

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

The entry in a nutshell: eNotate by NACA is well worth the investment price for me, and a fine addition to any player’s tools. Additional review as of 1/9/09 at bottom on actually using eNotate in tournament, nutshell is eNotate is most excellent even though Windows 7 isn’t.

I’ve had my eNotate PDA for a bit over a week now. I’ve done testing with it, recorded actual games with it, uploaded those games to my PC, built my own case for it, and am about to use it for the first time in a tournament. It’s time to share my results so far about this great product with you.

Case open and ready, shot #2


Before I begin, let me state that there are some accesories that any PDA owner should consider also owning. I’ve detailed them in a post here. Also, while I’m getting better at taking photos of a PDA screen, some of the PDA screens below are tinted a little blue and the focus is what it is – those are my faults as a photographer.


eNotate is a program which belongs to a class of products called Electronic Score Sheets. (I call it an e-Scoresheet.) Instead of writing down the notation of your chess game on a paper score sheet, you record the actual moves played in the game on the electronic device. eNotate, along with the MonRoi product, are certified for use in tournament play through the United States Chess Federation.

eNotate runs on Windows Mobile 5 and 6 Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs.) It may run on a Windows based Smartphone, but it not certified for tournament use on them. You can either buy the program and install it to a PDA you have, or buy the PDA with the program pre-installed. Buying it with the PDA is one way to ensure it is fully compatible with the plethora of Windows PDAs out there.

I chose to buy the PDA and program, and the unboxing of the PDA can be found here. The PDA I received, a Dell Axim, runs the Windows Mobile OS.


Starting eNotate is the same as any other program.

Starting eNotate

Regular Windows Mobile Startup

When starting eNotate, there is a very professional looking “splash screen,” and then four options are presented.

eNotate Start Screen

eNotate Start Screen

“Profile” lists your profile as a player – your name, USCF ID, USCF rating, country, FIDE ID, and FIDE rating. (I have my name, USCF ID, and USA as my Federation listed.) “History” lists all games currently in the unit’s memory, and they can be replayed. “Configure” allows a shortcut for stylus calibration (important for PDAs!) and a shortcut to purge both games and existing tournament names.

“Tournament” is the meat of the program. This mode is where you enter the data about a tournament and/or record the moves of your game. I found it very intuitive and easy to use. The only “learning curve” was figuring out to enter the tournament data first, then enter the data about that game, then record the game.

One tip I will offer: If not playing in a tournament (casual games, for example,) you can still set up a ‘tournament.’ For example: when I play on Saturdays at Colley’s Chess Cafe, I’ll enter a ‘tournament’ of “CCC Saturday Open Play,” and then set the date to that day. ;)

The program icons and buttons are very intuitive and easy to figure out at a glance.

eNotate Main Entry Screen

eNotate Move Entry Screen

You record the moves of your game by touching the square of the piece that is moving, and then the square it is moving to. You can also review the game in progress, or look at the notation of the game so far. There are also icons for recording if you’re in check, or if a draw offer is made.


There are some design parameters set by the USCF certification rules that enter into play. First, the program cannot help you. This means several different things. It can’t indicate check – either given or received – or automatically notate that. It will not tell you your move is illegal. It will not guarantee that the piece you move was moved to the right square. However, there is no guarantee that if you are recording the moves on paper that you will get any of the above right, either.

I actually have had one game where I mis-set a piece to the wrong square. Correcting that was exceedingly easy, just find the wrong move and substitute the actual move – the scoresheet handles the notation correction and lets you go back to the current board position.

The more I use it, the more I realize an e-Scoresheet is better than recording to a paper score sheet. I still do advocate that one learns how to notate on paper first, and you should have a backup paper score sheet available to you just in case of hardware failure. However, it may actually make sense for children who haven’t learned to write yet to be able to actually record their games. I can’t judge that, but I can say that I enjoy using this more than writing my notation.

While you’re using the program to record moves, you will not be able to get out of that mode until you save the game as complete. You can’t switch to your address book, your calendar…. or the copy of Pocket Fritz or another chess playing program you’ve installed. And the last is why you can’t do that – a cheating countermeasure. But that’s good. When you’re recording a game, that’s what you should be doing with it. ;)


But recording a game is easy. Touch the piece moving, touch the square it’s moving to. The move is made. There’s a button for flipping the board orientation, also.

Game in Progress

An actual game I played, being replayed in History mode.

In game entry there’s also a shortcut button to calibrate the stylus again, as well as view the move list. The move list view is very cool – you can highlight a move pair and then select to see what the board looks like on black’s move or white’s. This is handy in demonstrating when a 3-fold repetition draw occurs, among other possible claims.

When done with the game, you touch the “Score” shortcut. You can enter the game result, use the stylus to add player and arbiter signatures, save the completed game (or go back to the game if you hit Score by mistake.)


After saving the game you can go back to the “History” shortcut and replay the moves of the game. You could also start recording your next game, if you’re in a tournament. Or you can exit the program.

All games are recorded in Portable Game Notation (PGN) format in an “eNotate” subfolder of “My Documents” in the PDA. The games are easy to find, being the last names of the players and the playing date.

The PGN file can be copied to a SD card – I will be buying a card reader and carry it in my tournament kit, so I can supply the organizer or TD with a copy of the game if necessary. It can be synchronized to a Windows PC by use of ActiveSync (appearing in your Documents synchronization folder.)

What I have done is beam the file via Infrared to my laptop – the Axim and my laptop both have IR ports. I have beamed several games to my laptop from my PDA. Eventually I will try beaming the file to an IR-capable printer (which I don’t have currently.) But for now, getting it to the laptop means it can easily get into my database.

Earlier Game now in ChessBase!

From eNotate to Laptop to ChessBase. Easy!

(Yes, that game is the one shown in the last picture above now in ChessBase, at the same point! Cool!)


To date I have experienced no problems with the device or the program. The only glitch I’ve experienced is when I tried to enter a tournament designation that had a slash in the title, “G/10.” But that cleared up when I titled it, “G 10,” instead. The program didn’t crash, just let me know it couldn’t, “create the tournament.” But I’m making a lot of stew from this – it isn’t a “problem” worthy of a paragraph. It’s literally the only problem I’ve yet experienced.

One thing I haven’t tested is battery life. I haven’t had a problem yet, but also haven’t used it in a full multiple-round tournament. But I anticipate no problems with that. The screen goes dark and the unit powers down in accordance with the Windows power settings. Bringing it back up is a matter of tapping the screen and/or pressing the power button.

The last non-issue… There was no manual for using the program when I ordered it – the NACA website was being updated. Currently the manual is available online here in PDF format. But honestly, I had no trouble figuring out how to use eNotate without one.

If I allow myself the conceit that I’m a very talented extreme technogeek with a gift for understanding technology and systems, I still can’t say that anyone who tries using it will find the learning curve challenging. In fact, in preparing this entry I turned my eNotate over to my wife, who is computer literate but not an extreme technogeek nor a chess player. She was able to figure it out and use it very rapidly.


Ready to record at Colley's Chess Cafe

Ready to Rock! Just add opponent! (In fact I was playing someone less than five minutes later with it....)

I am very pleased with the support I’ve gotten. I’ve gotten all the answers to questions I have had in rapid fashion. Customer service rating: Stellar.

I’ve saved what I consider the best for last: Price as of this posting. $135 includes shipping for the unit, including PDA. The program itself (if you already have a capable PDA): $25. It is available from the North American Chess Association. Even with the PDA, it is a third of the price of a MonRoi. And bonus: you get a full function PDA out of the deal also. :)

This purchase has already been something that has helped me to enjoy my chess. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I hope that, should you purchase it, it will also help you to

Enjoy your Chess!

9/20/10 Addition

eNotate continues to operate just fine for me.  I have used it in every tournament I have played since January (just doesn’t seem like it’s been that long!!!)  I’ve done 4 round G/80 tournaments where a couple of games went the distance, monthly 3 round G/20 tournaments, skittles play – you name it, it records it.

Dolloar for dollar, the best investment I’ve made in chess so far.  (And that includes my Chronos clock – which is a tall order to live up to.)  I can’t guess how much time I’ve saved have to bring up blank game slates and enter the moves from paper via mouse.  Yes, everyone should first learn how to notate chess on paper – that’s a given.  But I can say that after that stage, eNotate simplifies the process of game recording and then uploading to my database for further analysis.

I will offer one little caveat:  eNotate is not as well known as it’s cousin the MonRoi.  The rules of the USCF, as I understand them, should not allow a TD discretion to disallow the usage of an eNotate device.  However, I have read one report of a player at a larger money tournament being asked to discontinue use of it by a National Tournament Director.  The concern was that the Axim the machine was running on was Internet-Capable and thus a prohibited device in the playing hall.  Since eNotate while it is running is not capable of wireless communication, I have to disagree with the position taken.  Were it I, I would have protested.

I know in a couple of tournaments I have attended, players have asked the TD if what I was doing was legal.  Which doesn’t both me at all – I can see why a player may be concerned on the face of it.  It is up to the TD to know that eNotate is a legal device, and when used by in the manner it was certified as an e-Scoresheet by the USCF that it’s usage is allowed.  Period.  In summary, it may be advisable for eNotate players to check with the TD of an event ahead of time that they will allow its usage as the rules mandate.

‘Nuff said.  :)

Second/Third Tournament Usage Report, 2/1/10 Addition

eNotate usage: 4 rounds of G/45 with 5 second delay… Battery: 69%. Still impressive!
Also: 4 rounds of G/10 with 3 second delay. Battery not checked.

The main reason for this update is to say eNotate is still running *very* well. Plus, I have learned what to do about the docking problem I had with Windows 7. In Windows Mobile Device Center, there is an option in Connection Settings to “Allow automatic device authentication.” This is by default checked, and should be unchecked to allow usage with eNotate.

Once set up and synced, one’s games are found in the Documents Synchronization Folder in the “eNotate” directory. Getting them to the computer is a simple matter of drag-and-copy into the laptop. For ChessBase users, it’s then open the PGN database and copy the game into your regular database of your games. Easy!

So now I’m an even happier camper as far as eNotate goes!

First Tournament Usage Report, 1/9/10 Addition

eNotate usage: 4 rounds of G/70 with 5 second delay… Battery: 70%. Impressive! (I did reset the power settings to dim the display after 15 seconds and power the unit down after one minute. I think that certainly helped. Plus the fact that I never hit true time pressure in any of my games, and neither did my opponents.) I already got my games copied to an SD Card and then migrated to this computer.

Note: Windows 7 does not seem to want to connect to the Axim PDA at all – but I believe this is the fault of the Windows Mobile connection software and not the PDA itself or the cradle.* I have read a lot of problems with getting older PDA devices to work with the Windows software. Emphasis here is that I did get the games over to my laptop, but it took an SD card to do it at the moment. And double emphasis that the eNotate system is very good – still NO faults with using it, itself. Thumbs way up on it! I can say I am Enjoying my Chess with eNotate!

*In Windows 7 news, I’m also having lots of trouble getting it to recognize my near-new Sony MP3 player. (Sony says I can add music using Windows Media Player but they haven’t written a driver for the MP3 player for Windows 7.) I also had trouble installing the device drivers for the Targus Card Reader I just bought – though I can use the thing now. Although I like my laptop very much, so far Windows 7 is earning Epic Fail after Epic Fail in my book – I can’t see why Windows 7 is getting such impressive reviews. :(

Tools of the Trade, Part 9 (Database!)

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Finally, I get to talk about a major tool for players: Your database.

Databases are systematized collections of data. Usually, the system selected converts the collection from data into information. They aren’t limited to computers: A recipe file box, for example, is a database in manual form. You can take the data (ingredients and directions,) set them into recipes organized by category, find and select certain recipes, and make a meal from the collective information presented.

You can manually systematize your chess games, if you have recorded them. You could sort them by opponent, opening (if you have written the opening or code,) result, etc. Before computers top players actually did this.

But you can also use a computer to create a database of your games. One in digital form, you can: replay them, determine alternate moves that would have worked better, analyze them with a playing program, develop a functional opening repertoire, examine games of Grandmasters, play back games from books and magazines, search for games that meet certain positions and conditions, see if your position has been played before, and more.

I am not going to be able to give the subject its due justice. I won’t really be getting into features and what distinguishes the programs, mostly. They’re all good, in different ways. But I will outline what’s out there. There are two main commercial alternatives, and two freeware alternatives.

First, freeware! SCID (Shane’s Chess Information Database.) It has the distinction of being able to run in Windows, Unix/Linux, and Mac. I have used it a little bit for evaluation on Linux, but not much. It uses the PGN file standard. Seems to be very solid.

The other freeware alternative is the somewhat-dated XBoard/Winboard. I don’t think XBoard was ever intended to be as fully functional a database as the other alternatives here. But XBoard/Winboard has since been expanded to cover: Chess, Chinese chess (Xiangqi,) Japanese chess (Shogi,) and also supports chess variants (Losers Chess, Crazyhouse, Fischer Random, and Capablanca Chess.) It is usable to load and save PGN format games. An Old-School alternative that still has relevance today. It is available in Windows (Winboard,) and Unix/Linux (XBoard) versions. (I started out with Winboard some years ago.)

Now that the “free” is out of the way, paid versions offer additional features and flexibility that the free versions can’t quite match. Before getting into them: Both alternatives offer “light” versions for free download. They are sufficient to get to know the programs a little. But both have restrictions, either in database size or inability to save new games. Someday I’ll try to detail the differences between them.

First, I’ll cover Chess Assistant, published by Convekta, Ltd.. $79.98 at USCF Sales. It is a very good program. I’ve used the trial version on Linux – it seems to run OK under the Wine compatibility layer. I’ve used it a little, but not much. The “light” version can be downloaded here.

And it’s main competitor, ChessBase, published by ChessBase gmbH. It will be hard for me to not write a lot about ChessBase – it is the software I use regularly. But in fairness to the other good programs, I won’t go into detail now. (I will note that the diagrams I put up here, and the game replays I offer, are all created through ChessBase.)

Price on ChessBase is a little harder. Usually I plug the USCF Sales as much as I can. But the “Basic” version of ChessBase is listed as $199.99. And there is a cheaper alternative. The “Light” version of CB can be upgraded for about $72.00 direct from ChessBase, turning it into “Light Premium 2009.” This is the option I chose – ChessBase Light Premium (2007.) The differences between the various CB offerings are here – with Light Premium mostly you don’t get the huge Master/GM databases.

ChessBase also allows one to play online at their server. I won’t get into that at the moment, though. A future Tools will look at online play.

If you’re wondering why I went with ChessBase…. Back in the day, ChessBase Light Free did allow you to save games with a database restriciton of a few thousand games. (This was before “Light Premium.”) I’ve been a ChessBase user since version 6. And once you head down the path of using either CB or CA, you tend to stay with that choice.

I think that’s it for now. The best advice I can give you: Download one (or more!) of the packages and try them out a little – see if you find one that really works well for you. A database is not absolutely essential, but is helpful in more ways than can be listed. And it’s a great way to expand the ability to

Enjoy your Chess!

Tools of the Trade, Part 8 (USCF Membership)

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

Become a member of the United States Chess Federation! This one may or may not be optional, depending on your chess goals.

For 70 years the USCF has been the recognized governing body for chess in the United States. If you’re planning on playing in rated tournaments, membership is an essential. The same if you want to obtain an over-the-board rating (which one obtains by tournament play.)

(In full disclosure, there is at least one other rating service out there. However, I would suggest that the USCF rating has more legitimacy for various reasons. But it is not worth going into in this post.)

Also, it has been possible to get a ‘tournament membership’ which essentially means you get rated for that event, or are a member only for that tournament. I’ll be honest, I don’t know if that program is still in effect or not beyond 3rd Graders. I’d advocate joining USCF anyway.

Persons who have read some of my back posts will know that I only just recently started to obtain my ratings, yet I have been a USCF member on-and-off for over a decade. So let’s talk about some of the other reasons one would want to be a USCF Member.

* The USCF’s magazines.

    Chess Life


    Chess Life For Kids

. Both are fine publications. A “premium membership” will give you a paper copy of one of them. Both are accessible online for members. (And, I do have to say, I get things out of reading the Kids version myself in addition to the regular version.)

* Chess Life Online. Articles not published in the print/online print versions. Well written and timely articles.

* Access to the USCF Forums. Sometimes boring, sometimes over-dramatic, many arguments about how it’s run, blah blah blah. But still, a very good structured environment to discuss Chess itself, rules, tournaments, and issues affecting the USCF. It is also an interesting way to meet other chessplayers from around the U.S. outside the playing environment.

* The opportunity to eventually enter international play.

* Correspondence chess activities and the Golden Knights tournament, recognized as the U.S. Correspondence Championship.

* Membership in the USCF is a commitment to chess, and supports the continued awareness and growth of Chess in the United States.

With posts in this series I talk about prices. For the USCF, prices are variable depending on age and length of membership purchased. I’ll mention in passing the adult rates are $42 / year for membership with print copy of one magazine and $34 for online-only magazine access. There are discount rates for subscribing online, and for multiple family members in one household there are discounted family memberships.

(If this post has inspired you to join the Federation, I would appreciate your crediting the Twin Cities Chess Club with the membership. When it asks you for an affiliate credit number or affiliate recognition program ID, use A5010357. This costs you nothing and gives the credit to the club I’m a member of – I get nothing out of your doing that.)

You can certainly go your chessplaying life without being a USCF member. But getting involved and being a member is an integral part of enjoying my chess, and I would hope that joining helps you to

Enjoy your chess!

Tools of the Trade, Part 7 (MonRoi?)

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

Are you tired of having to hand write every single move you make on the chessboard?

Are you ready for something different? Wouldn’t you love to just slide pieces around the way you would on an Internet game to record your games?

Love technology and gadgets? Have a bit over $350.00 of disposable income you’re not using?

You may then want a MonRoi.

The MonRoi PCM (Personal Chess Manager) is sort of a mini-database for your games, as well as replacing the function of a score sheet. It looks like a PDA – it essentially is a specialized PDA.

I’ll give it props for the following: It’s about as easy to use as a PDA is. It allows you to make moves graphically, while converting that to move text. It’s easy enough to transfer the results to your actual database. (Databases will still be discussed in a Tools of the Trade yet to come.) Some large tournaments allow wireless transmission of the score sheet to the organizer. It is a USCF-approved scorekeeping device, and has been used at some FIDE tournaments.

Why would anyone not want a MonRoi?

In full disclosure: I have seen them used, got to inspect one close up. I have not used one.

But I’ll take a stab at why one wouldn’t want one: There is no greater accuracy guarantee using a MonRoi than writing on paper. (At least in Tournament recording mode – the USCF mandates that there is no ‘move legality check’ as part of its standards for electronic score sheets.) While it might be easier to see a problem comparing the visual MonRoi board to the actual board, there is no guarantee you will until you’ve still got a mess to be untangled.

As far as I can tell, the batteries are *not* user-replaceable. I could be wrong about that one, though. But if I’m right, that means every 1 to 3 years or so having to send it in for service. And it would not surprise me that this is true for anti-tamper purposes as well.

The eternal nay-say against PDA’s in general: Paper. Don’t. Break. I have yet to own a PDA device (and I’ve owned at least 3, going back to the Apple Newton,) that doesn’t eventually develop screen/stylus recognition problems. It’s part of the joy of touchscreens.

If you’re just learning the game, it is actually best you learn notation by hand before allowing a machine to do it for you. Even when you make notation mistakes, that can reveal errors in how you’re visualizing the board (as Lev Alburt has said, Chess Life, October 2009.)

Finally, for the money, there are cheaper or more multifunctional alternatives. Sevan Muradian’s NACA (North American Chess Association) has had a PDA program for Windows Mobile 5 and 6 devices called eNotate. For $25 you get the program. For $150 they’ll include a PDA capable of running it. (Note: When I tried accessing the link to it tonight as part of this entry, apparently that section is either undergoing maintenance or they no longer offer it. I’ll edit this post as soon as I know which.) I’ve talked to Sevan. eNotate is in fact available still, and he is simply upgrading his website as of this writing. eNotate, if you don’t buy it with PDA, does require a Windows 5/6 PDA but cannot run on a smartphone. (Security concerns, I gather.)

And, if you’re just looking for a casual non-tournament way to record… I use a Palm T|X and Chess Tiger 15 for Palm. I thus have a chessplaying computer, a way to record my casual games and sync them to PC, as well as a fully functional Palm Pilot. Sadly, the people at Palm have now apparently decided to abandon the Z99/T|X/Garnet OS in favor of their smartphones.

Editorial comment: Some of us actually *LIKE* having our phone and PDA separate. Not everybody wants a smartphone.

In the more expensive category: A Bluetooth DGT electronic chessboard, linked to a laptop on an AC charger. (Review on the DGT board still coming. Note to DGT: I will happily accept a demonstration unit for review – especially if I get to keep it. ;) ) However, I’m not sure if it’s 100% legal to use in tournament play.

It may sound like I’m saying don’t buy a MonRoi. Not at all. It’s a very good device at what it does. If I had $350 lying around, I’d buy it. But since I already own a Palm T|X (which I’m typing this on,) it just doesn’t meet what I’m looking for. And I do scratch my head when I see 1st-3rd graders whose parents have bought them MonRois for use at scholastic tournaments. But, whether you decide it is useful and buy it or not, choose the route that helps you the most to

Enjoy your Chess!

Tools of the Trade, Part 6 (Rulebook!)

Monday, December 7th, 2009

These series of posts are geared at providing players (or parents) new to the game with some of the things a new player should consider having.

We are actually past the ‘requirements’ now. At this point we’ll begin looking at optional gear.

So, you know the rules of chess? Sure – you know how to castle, en passant is vieilles nouvelles, and you can push pieces around with the best of us Club Players. But do you know when a touched piece cannot be moved from the square you put in on,* when touch move does not mean the touched piece must move,** or when you can legally receive position analysis/advice and help about a game in progress?***

The answers to these questions, for play governed by the United States Chess Federation, are in the fifth edition of “U.S. Chess Federation’s Official Rules of Chess,” edited by Tim Just and Daniel B. Burg. (When I refer to ‘the Rulebook,’ this is the book I’m referring to.)

Do you have to own the rulebook to be able to play? No, not at all. (You do have to have one if you’re going to be a Tournament Director.) But, even though not absolutely necessary, it is a very good idea to have the rules. There are many situations where players might believe they know what a rule is, but can be wrong.

For example, I used to think that if you touch any piece on the board you had to move it, even accidentally. But the actual rule 10E states that accidental touching of pieces does not make a “touch-move.” One has to touch a piece in a way that is reasonably interpreted as beginning a move. (There are other exceptions for disabled players in the rulebook, as well.)

There are still players, I am told, who believe that a promoted piece must become an already-captured piece. Not even close to a rule anymore in U.S. play. Nor are things like accidentally knocking over a King means you have resigned, forgetting to say “Check” (which is discouraged at high levels,) or that not being able to move means you lose.

Now, in international play (or internationally-rated games,) the rules of FIDE control. Those rules are available online. (It tickles me that, in the FIDE Handbook, the Laws of Chess are filed under, “Miscellaneous.” :D )

FIDE, however, allows national federation to have different variations of FIDE rules. The United States is a country where there are differences. And the publication of the USCF Rulebook has been and is under long-term contract to a particular publisher. Thus the complete set of rules are only available in book form. The cost is $18.95 at U.S.C.F. Sales. Updates to the rules are published at the USCF website.

Also, players should know that some variations of the main rulebook are allowed. Major changes have to be announced pre-tournament, minor changes may be announced prior to round 1. (Not to mention some local scholastic organization have local rules / rules variations which are legal.)

I can’t guarantee your chess will improve by owning the rulebook. But reading it may help you understand the rules of the game more deeply. Studying the rulebook can also be a way to…

…enjoy your chess!


* Rule 9A. – when the player’s hand has released the piece the move has been irrevocably determined. (So long as the move is legal.) You can pick up a piece and move it among several squares – I’ve saved many pieces from destruction when I set it on its’ square and saw it was en prise in that square. But I shifted it away and saved it. :)

** Rule 10D. If a touched piece cannot legally be moved (or an opponent’s touched piece cannot legally be captured,) then a player is free to make any legal move. Most often this occurs either because the player is in check, in pins whereby moving the touched piece the King will be put into check, or a touched opponent’s piece has no piece actually attacking it.

*** Most players may think, “Never!” And good for you! Rule 20E does state advice, whether solicited or not, is not allowed. But Rule 20F1 notes that during an adjournment of a game any form of help is allowed. (Adjournments are rare, but can potentially happen in longer time controls.) And in Correspondence Chess, most regulatory bodies state that databases, books, etc. are allowed (though consulting other people or using playing programs are usually disallowed on the honor system.) Correspondence rules are Chapter 9 of the rulebook.

Tools of the Trade, Interlude 1 (Why not a kit?)

Saturday, December 5th, 2009

These series of posts are geared at providing players (or parents) new to the game with some of the things a new player should consider having.

We’ve completed what I would consider “absolute essentials” of the tournament/scholastic/club player. There will be more posts about things a player ‘should’ have. But for this post, I wanted to talk a little about “kits.”

They are available out there. The USCF has a selection of several, including a “design-your-own-kit.” In fact, they have one kit at $44.95 that I would probably have purchased back in the day I was doing my initial shopping.

So, why not a kit, then?

I can think of two reasons. Kits almost always involve compromises of one sort or another. Even in the kit above that I said I’d purchase – I’ve used the Saitek clock that kit has. I like it well enough (and recommended it as a good candidate in the Clocks post.) But I like my Chronos better. It is better *for me*. At least in this day and age buying a kit doesn’t mean having to accept cheap quality.

The other reason is more subjective. I’ve spent about twelve years putting together the kit I currently use. Upgrading, changing, repairing, and personalizing has been a part of my way of life. There is satisfaction in finding the elements that enables me to get the most enjoyment out of my chess.

My first “kit” (beyond an el-cheapo set) was a set of very non-standard ceramic pieces that I personally stained, glazed, and had fired. My parents helped me cut 64 ceramic tiles and mount them to a *thick* sheet of plywood and cover the bottom and borders with felt. (The pieces eventually broke – I still have the Kings – and I had to dispose of the board when I improperly stored it and mice got at it.)

Anyway, enough of, “amnesia lane.” All I can say is – when you put together your own chess kit, you might experience a greater sense of accomplishment than just buying what someone else (including me) has suggested.

Enjoy your chess!

Tools of the Trade, Part 5 (Scorepad!)

Friday, December 4th, 2009

These series of posts are geared at providing players (or parents) new to the game with some of the things a new player should consider having. This is the last of the “absolute essentials” for a player. The series will continue more sporadically, after an interlude about complete kits, focusing on other tools can be useful to a player.

We’ve looked at set, board, bag, and clock. There’s one last absolute esstential a new player should have. Score pads!

This one is a *lot* easier for the beginner. Honestly, it’s hard to go wrong.

For the non-playing parent out there… Scorepads are what one records the moves a game on, using notation. I’ll mention in passing the “LV’s notation course” link at the right, an A-Z of basic notation. There is no singular thing you could do to improve your play more than to learn and take notation of all your games, then analyze them later.

A basic scorepad costs $2.25 for one at USCF. Each scorepad holds 50 games (pretty much a universal, no matter which one you buy.) I am drawn to Scholastic scorepads, mainly because their area to write moves in is a little larger than the ‘average’ adult version. (The sacrifice here is moves… ‘adult’ pads typically hold 80 moves. Scholastic pads hold about 60 moves.) Pads also typically have one diagram on which piece names could be put for a particular position, and record other data like event name, date, players, ratings, tournament round number, tournament board number, time control, etc.

One can get a little more deluxe, and actually buy a diary-style bound book that holds 80 games for $7.95. The main reason I’ve never bought something like this is that I always put my games into a chess database program soon after playing. Scorepads / books aren’t permanent storage for me by any means. The regularly-backed-up database is my permanent storage.

You can also get smaller. A friend on mine at the club always carries a tiny scorebook with him. It is, opened up, about half the page of a standard scoresheet. I don’t know where he gets them from – or how he records so tiny. But they’re obviously out there.

And, finally, the *extreme* economy version… Ruled notepaper.

Yes, it’s possible! Just handwrite moves in pairs all the way down the page. I’ve used this approach before when, for whatever reason, I didn’t have my scorepad to hand but wanted to record a game. A close runner-up are copies of scoresheets, printed two to a 8 1/2 x 11 inch page. They work, but with no binding or hole punching can get lost easily.

A couple of last notes. First, know that in tournament play taking notation is a requirement – rule 15A. And also that a tournament organizer can provide and specify that you will use the designated scoresheet for recording the game. Scoresheets are the property of the tournament organizer per rule 15G. (But if a tournament requires a copy to be turned in, they are responsible for providing duplicate scoresheets.) Editing to add: Today a thread at the USCF Forums reminded me that directors may excuse beginners from taking notation. But there is no requirement that a director must do so.

Whichever method you choose, keeping score is an essential for a player who wants to improve, or just enjoy replaying wins, or to write up a chess blog. :) Get a scorepad today, and

Enjoy your game!

Tools of the Trade, Part 4 (Clocks)

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

These series of posts are geared at providing players (or parents) new to the game with some of the things a new player should consider having.

We’ve looked at sets, boards, and bags so far. This time, it’s a clock.

Chess clocks are one of the most under-rated elements of gear (especially by parents.) Our local scholastic association has a limited supply of clocks for tournaments – far more limited than the number of boards playing in a tournament.

A clock is a necessity – and one that all-too-many players decide they don’t “need.” “Hey – the other players will bring one, I’m sure!” Give your Tournament Director a break – buy and bring a clock with you! ;)

There are two basic kinds of clocks, analog and digital. Analog clocks are what old-timers like me think of when hearing the term, “Chess Clock.” It’s two separate analog clock faces, and a plunger or button starts one and stops the other.

There are many beautiful analog clocks. I’ve lusted after this one for some years.

But, today more and more tournaments are set up requesting players to play with a digital clock. The reason? Time delay – the ‘countdown’ for a move can begin after a delay period, or a certain amount of time can be added back to a player after making a move. The rulebook now permits (and somewhat encourages) time delay. In fact, if time delay is offered at a tournament and you have an analog clock and your opponent has digital with delay… the digital clock will be used. (If both players have equally ‘regulation’ equipment, the player with Black gets the decision whose to use.)

The other revolution that has come in the last few years is price. There are several that are in the price range of analog clocks. You can now pay anywhere in the range of about $30.00 to about $100.00. (Back when I bought my clock, any digital clock was going to cost around $100.00.)

The limitations… Some digitals are harder to use and program than others. (And, I will acknowledge, all are harder to set than any analog.) Some aren’t all that clear in how the display works – you’ve got to learn to use it and then learn how some indicate time is up. This is more than outweighed by their utility.

So… recommendations.

In the cheap digital category, I have used this Saitek Competition clock. It’s a robust clock, especially for the scholastic player, and at $27.95 it’s hard to beat. Fairly easy to program and use, once you get the hang of it.

The only trouble with it at all is that on a couple of occasions, using my palm to depress the plunger, I’ve caught a tiny amount of skin between the plunger and the plunger depression. As Mr. Spock said when he mind-melded with the Horta, “PAIN!!!!!!!!!!! PAAAAAIN!!!!” Ok, not that much pain. But still. It’s still a great clock for the price, and I’d buy it if I didn’t already own a top-quality digital.

My personal clock, the Chronos
. I was extremely surprised to see on the USCF Sales page for it that this clock is now discontinued, but a limited supply is still available. This, for some years, has been considered “the gold standard” of digital chess clocks. It does take careful reading of the manual to learn how to use it. It has almost *too* many setting modes – it’s easy to get lost in it.

But it’s still absolutely wonderful. 11 plus years of ownership and NEVER had one problem with it. It is a *large* clock as far as width, and I’ve heard that some chess bags have trouble containing it. And it is probably the priciest clock out there at $109.00. But if you want a recognizable piece of what will be chess history, there it is. But if you want the same great features but not quite that price….

The reason that model is discontinued is that it has a ‘baby brother’, the Chronos II. This one is cheaper ($89.95 at USCF.) My understanding is that some of the programming modes have changed – taking away some of the modes nobody ever uses.

The other factor is that this clock uses touch-sensitive pads instead of buttons. (The Chronos also has a touch-pad model, even though mine and the link above is the button model.) The limitation here is that you can’t use a piece to depress a button – it must be your hand that contacts the metal surface of the pad. But this also has a pro-side, in that there’s no button or plunger that can be broken.

Final recommendation… If you want old-school analog, the INSA that I lust after way up above. If you want a Cadillac digital – the Chronos. If you’re on a budget, go for the Saitek competition. One last addition: If you ever think you’re going to play in international (FIDE) tournaments, go for the as-yet-unmentioned $79.95 DGT 2010, but only in that event in my very humble opinion. I’d strongly recommend digital over analog. But whatever you ultimately choose, a good clock will help you….

Enjoy your chess!

Tools of the Trade, Part 3 (Bags)

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

These series of posts are geared at providing players (or parents) new to the game with some of the things a new player should consider having.

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series we discussed chess sets and boards. Once you have both of them, if you intend to take them with you, you need something to carry them around in. (Unless you intend to never take your set and board anywhere…)

Your final answer will, of course, depend on what you have selected for your equipment. I’ll begin by assuming you bought a regulation-size set and vinyl board. (If you have a wood board, the USCF ‘bags’ link below does have padded board carry cases, also.)

There are a couple of very good commercial solutions. The “Deluxe Chess Bag” and “Ultimate Chess Bag” from USCF fill these needs quite adequately. They are available by clicking on their names. There are also other fine – and more deluxe – choices available at the USCF’s Tournament Bags page.

Ideal choices will provide for the following items: Piece set, board, scorsheet, clock, and pens/pencils. Additional storage may be desirable, for books and magazines, cell phones (turn them off in the playing room!), drink bottle, MP3 player and phones, etc.

Back when I was setting out my initial set, I decided to go, “old school.” My ‘bag’ is actually a case:

My Chess "Bag"

It’s fun, because I have been asked by many scholastic players what “instrument” I’m carrying in the case. :) It’s had it’s share of problems (witness the electrical tape on the inside case lid – patching up a fracture in the case lid. Gorilla Glue is wonderful stuff, though. And it is ‘stuffed’ when I try to fit my scorepad inside it.) But it’s worth it. There have been many chess cases made over the years like this one… but this one is mine! ;)

Sadly, I can’t seem to find it available anywhere online. Which means I have to take *good* care of it, now.

There’s one other avenue a new player can explore in bags… You may have noticed in the picture above my “pencil case.”
My "pencil case"  :)
Yes, it is two prescription bottles “welded together” with Gorilla Glue. It actually does work very well, and better than any other ‘inexpensive’ pencil case I’ve ever seen – and fits very nicely into my equipment case. Anyway, I do believe in “homebrewing” gear and making one’s own solutions. Plus, there are still a couple of ‘essentials’ left to purchase – a clock and scorepad, at minimum.

If you’re on a *really* tight budget, consider that one can store a vinyl board in a lightweight ‘shipping tube,’ you can get a bag for your pieces for only $5.95 at USCF Sales (or make your own!). Some clocks come with their own storage bags (my Chronos did when I bought it,) or again you can find one cheaply. Add a pencil box and a cloth “shopping bag,” and you’re ready to go! It may not be very ‘stylish’ at all, but are you trying to impress with your equipment bag or just carry your equipment?

If it were a choice between purchasing a bag for what you already have, or purchasing a clock and ‘homebrewing’ a bag, I’d go with the latter, personally. That said, the ‘deluxe tournament bag’ at $14.95 is pretty hard to beat in terms of price to value.

But if you can find the bag that works for you, fits your style, and one you can proudly say, “This one is mine!” then you’ve done well.

Enjoy your chess!

Tools of the Trade, Part 2 (Boards)

Monday, November 30th, 2009

These series of posts are geared at providing players (or parents) new to the game with some of the things a new player should consider having.

In Part 1 I shared some thoughts about chess sets. Now I’ll talk boards, and hopefully not be too board-ing about it. :)

There are five questions to ask about any board you might consider purchasing:

* What is the size of each individual square?
* What are the colors of the dark and light squares?
* Does it have algebraic coordinates on it?
* What material is it made of?
* What is the price?

*Size of individual squares: This is actually a big one. Whatever piece set you decide on purchasing, it should look “comfortable” on the squares. Not too crowded, not too loose. My first (and only regulation) board that I’ve owned was way too big for the first set I purchased for it.

The USCF Rulebook offers some general rules of thumb on pages 226 and 227. Squares should be 2 to 2 1/2 inches square, and it also recommends the King should occupy around 78% of the square. (The rulebook also suggests dividing the King diameter by .78 to get the proper size.) 2 1/4 inch or 2 3/8 inch are pretty standard. The board I use with my set is 2 1/4 inch, and is a good fit.

By the way, in many “good” boards, the squares aren’t exactly “square.” Confused? The reason is that squares that are just a ‘squidge’ longer then they are wide appear absolutely square when your eyes act together in viewing a whole chessboard. The technical term for this is forced perspective. But just take it for granted – slightly longer lengths make for “squarer” squares. :)

*Board Color: Another biggie! First, Red/Black squares (checker board) is specifically disallowed by the rulebook. Beyond that, you want colors that both contrast slightly and yet complement your piece colors. You want the pieces to stand out from the squares they are on, but the contrast shouldn’t be so jarring that you find concentration difficult.

Black and White are OK, but not very popular. Stark white can get glaring after awhile, and you want a board that you can stare at for extended periods of time. Green and Buff in vinyl are fine for a lot of sets, as are light wood/dark wood in various shades.

I have little sense of style in color. Many sites that sell boards will make recommendations for various piece colorations. The darndest thing is that we all know photos can deceive – what looks great in a picture doesn’t always look as nice as when you actually get it. But, with a bit of research, you can find a coloration pattern that will last a long time.

The best recommendation I can offer: Until you have looked at what others use, and find a good complement that way, first purchase inexpensive boards. Many players love to show off their set/board combinations – you can learn a lot just by asking others!

*Algebraic Coordinates: A stark board can look lovely. But if it’s a board you will play regularly on, ask yourself how comfortable you are taking notation without the square references. And, if you don’t currently take notation, there are places where you can easily learn how. You really should learn!!! OK, enough ranting about that!

You could, at least in theory, by some dry transfer letters and some Elmer’s glue, and modify a board to add in the coordinates. If I ever actually try that, I’ll blog about it! :)

There is one downside to this: When you set up your board, you have to be sure that you have the board set up correctly to the coordinates. (I’ve made the mistake of playing with coordinates reversed. My score sheet was, um, interesting to try and decipher later!) Whether you want a board with the ranks and files numbered on their edges is your choice.

*Material: The choices are endless. Metal, wood, wood boards that fold in half, vinyl, marble, cardboard, and leather are ones that I have seen. A big factor here is how you intend to use that board. Marble boards are absolutely beautiful. But have you ever tried lugging one to the club or a tournament? The same is true in lesser degree for a full-size wood board – if you’re going to do that, you almost certainly should invest in a padded board protection bag.

En passant, I’ll mention that you should also pay attention to the borders of the board – do you want a wide, narrow, or no margin? (Also consider where you might be playing with the board – in many smaller tournaments, you don’t have a lot of elbow (or border) room.)

But choice of material leads naturally into the last factor:

*Price: Like sets, how much can you afford? And, if you’re just starting out, how much do you want to spend? The price goes from *very* cheap to *very* expensive. For a wood board, entry level is around $100.00 – $120.00 for a decent board, without board bag. A later post in this series will detail the DGT electronic chessboard – an excellent choice if you have between $800.00 and $1,100.00 to spend on a set, board, and clock.

Fortunately, for those of use who don’t have $100.00 in disposable income (almost ever!), the simplest vinyl tournament board is an order of magnitude cheaper and will allow you to play the same great chess on it! And bonus: It rolls up – easy to carry in my tournament bag.

Just about every semi-serious player I know owns at least one vinyl (or similar material) board. In fact, one can be seen as being smarter carrying a vinyl board than lugging around a wood board.

* My board: Someday I hope to afford a wood board. I don’t really need one at the moment – I don’t have the space for it, and where I play has some very nice chess tables and sets already.

Back in about 1998 I bought my vinyl board from the USCF. They are still available here. Cost: $4.79. I bought green-and-buff. Very popular! But with my red-and-white pieces today I would now have bought burgundy-and-buff. (In fact, I may still do that. How can one go wrong at $4.79?)

I have owned smaller boards for analysis, cardboard boards which I hated, and tiny analysis sets (yet another topic for discussion!) I’m very satisfied with what I have now, even though I also think about what I could get in the future.

As I mentioned earlier, I do still wish to purchase a wood board someday. The three candidates I would consider purchasing today for my red/white set are this Drueke board at $119.00, this Teak and Bird’s Eye at $99.00, or this Redwood and Bird’s Eye at $109.00.

Ultimately, what you choose for your board is a personal decision. Find a combination of size, color, coordinates, material, and price that works for you, though, and you will not go wrong.

Enjoy your chess!