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Archive for November, 2009

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!

LaughingVulcan’s Notation Course

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

In an earlier post I mentioned that every player should learn to take notation. I hyperlinked to a site containing how to take notation.

But the itch hit me tonight to write up my own course in how to take notation. And so, I am now posting it here! (It should also be available now in the right hand column listing Pages.)


Tools of the Trade, Part 1

Saturday, November 28th, 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. Eventually this series will have posts about the following: Chess set, board, tournament bag, score pad, clock, database program, playing/analysis program, beginning books, and any other things I can think of helpful to the beginning or novice player. (My first idea here is to present the different database programs available… but I’m going to hold off on that a little bit.)

So, let’s talk chess sets. (A ‘set’ in this context means the pieces only – not a board, clock, or anything else.) While some tournament venues supply equipment (our local Scholastic Chess association does, and tournaments at our local cafe/club do,) most do not. So it pays to be prepared.

First, bar none: Staunton pieces. The Staunton design is the officially recognized piece pattern of the United States Chess Federation. It’s actually in the rulebook that way (rule 40C, page 255, 5th Edition.) If you want to learn more about the Staunton pattern, try here.

The rulebook also specifies the following rules for standard equipment for tournament play:

* Pieces to be made of plastic, wood, or material similar in appearance.
* King height should be 3 3/8 – 4 1/2 inches. Cross or finial to be not more than 20% of total King height. Diameter of base to be 40-50 percent of total height.
* Other pieces are to be of proportional height and form.
* King and Queen must have different tops.
* Bishop may have angled groove in top.
* Pieces are to be colored of naturally light and dark wood, or approximations. (White and Black are OK. No specific allowance of White and Red, but not specifically proscribed, either.)

So, head swimming yet? Let’s talk one more factor, first. Pieces can be “weighted.” Weighting means that the base of the piece has been intentionally weighted so that it isn’t easy to tip over.

You may read, as you browse pieces, terms such as “unweighted,” “single weighted,” “double weighted,” “triple weighted,” or now, “quadruple weighted.” This refers to how much proportional weighting has been put into the base. “Triple weighted” pieces are very stable. But they are also very heavy in the base – if you play a lot of rapid chess, they may not be the best choice. “Unweighted” pieces are very prone to being knocked over – again not the best choice.

Last factor: How much money do you want to pay for a set you’ll play with? Pieces can (and do!) get knocked over, dropped off the table, knocked into each other, slammed down by players, share a bag/box/etc., and finials (the King’s cross, for example) can get broken. You can spend over $10,000.00 on a premium quality wood chess set. (No kidding!) I can’t afford one – donations gladly taken, though!

If you want wood, expect to spend no less than $50.00. A ‘really good’ wood set is in the neighborhood of $200.00. (And I wouldn’t want to take a $200.00 set to tournaments.)

I’ll sum up by simply showing what I use. Awhile back the owner of the cafe I play at was stocking a very reliable quadruple-weighted plastic set, manufactured by the House of Staunton. This set can be bought here. I haven’t regretted it since.

I chose my colors in Red and White. (See! There’s a reason my diagrams on this blog and on my database are Red/White pieces!) You should know that since Red and White aren’t specifically prescribed as allowable, some players may make a stink about that. You’re just as good off choosing the tan/black combination. (I just like Red pieces for “Black.”)

If you’re the parent of a scholastic player, you may want to have a smaller set (for smaller hands.) Keeping in mind the above restriction for what constitutes a tournament set, you might be able to “neck down” a little bit and still be OK. However, at a tournament the decision of the Tournament Director (guided by the Rulebook,) is what will determine if your equipment is considered within regulation for play – or not.

The set I have, though, is one I that I expect to use for the remainder of my life, barring upgrades (and getting the same pattern and weight in wood.) And for $24.95 plus S/H, a set that can last the rest of one’s life is well worth the expense. :)

Next time in this series… Boards!

Missing the Easy One

Friday, November 27th, 2009

I had a game earlier this week at the cafe that was interesting. Eventually I managed to win it, playing as Black. But after move 11 by White the position looked like this:

Position after 11. Nc3

Position after 11. Nc3

I was very tired, and I thought that 11. …Bh3 would confuse White immensely. My plan was that if 12. gxh3 then 12. …Qg5+ Kh1 and if I could manage it eventually …Qxh2 would put me very pretty. If, alternatively, White didn’t take and went 12. g3 then the Rook at f1 is now vulnerable.

(Post-game analysis with Fritz6 proves the old saying attributed to Nimzowitsch that, “the threat is stronger than the execution.” Actually 12. gxh3 is perfectly playable, giving a 2 point advantage to White. Black can threaten the check, but after Kh1 the threat evaporates.)

But, my opponent did play 12. g3. And, I was so enraptured by going up the Rook that I just took it (12. …Bxf1.) Here’s the missed part, though. If I had only played 12. …Qf3 instead, you get this:

This would have been so much better!  12. ...Qf3

This would have been so much better! 12. ...Qf3

Now, White’s next move is irrelevant – the next move following whatever White chooses for move 13 is 13. …Qg2#.

But I missed it. :O ;) It happens. And I still had a fascinating game, and eventually the win.

Down for a few days…

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

Earlier this week my main computer seems to have developed a major video card malfunction. (I say my main computer… actually my main computer after my desktop died.) And the current main is a tablet PC, so no just-add-another-video-card fix.

I’m operating on my last machine, an older laptop.

But I only have ChessBase Light Free running on this computer, not ChessBase Light Premium. And I haven’t pronounced the old tablet officially dead yet, so I’m not yet prepared to deactivate that computer’s copy of Light Premium.

Between the testing on the old machine, trying to elevate the backup machine to active status, etc. posting will be sporadic.

There is a chess-related lesson of the day derives from this: Sooner or later you may acquire chess data. (Games in your database program, openings databases, USCF logons, yada, yada, yada.) What happens if the computer those are stored in dies?

In my case, I can still take the hard drive out of that Tablet, open up a desktop system and cable that drive in. (Because I’m a technogeek, I don’t have to pay Geek Squad or anyone else.) But what if that drive died?

I’m still not in trouble, because all of my chess data is stored on its own USB drive. I also back up that USB drive regularly to another USB drive using Microsoft Backup, in case the thumb drive gets corrupted and/or dies.

This also occurs with my ‘regular’ data. I just find it convenient to have all my chess data with me when I go to the Club, or tournaments, whatever.

While not directly “Chess” related, it is still a question any chess player should ask themselves: Where is my chess data, and what’s my backup plan if that location dies or goes away?

TDing at IL All Grade in Bloomington

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

Today was the All Grade K-12 tournament. I ran the computer for grades 3 and 7.

I absolutely love running the computer. And, aside from a recording error that happened on the floor in one round and some people who failed to register their teams or registered the wrong team, I think I had an error-free run.

This is what I want to do as a TD. (Though eventually I would like to floor direct, also, just for the experience.)

More later. Bed now.

The Horror…. The Horror…

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

A very fitting title for a game played on Halloween Day.

I’m continuing the same game referred to in yesterday’s post, against a first time visitor to our club.

On move ten of that game, we achieved the following position:
Halloween game after 10. Nxe5
The first capture of the game just occurred (10. Nxe5.) I deliberately threw my Bishop to e5, hoping White would take. My plan was then 10. …Ngxe5, which I played. The Knight is protected by the other Knight, I’ve gotten what I think is an equal exchange off in a more-or-less equal position. I threaten to exchange that Knight for the c4 Bishop, and at the moment I block his dark square Bishop from coming down my throat – I’m fairly worried about both his Bishops. And it troubles me that my light Bishop hasn’t gotten off c8 yet.

I more-or-less expected that White could trade the c4 Bishop for that Knight.

Here comes the horror…

I wrote down the next move as 11. Qg5. Now, if you look at the board position above, you should be able to see that White can’t play that move. What White can do with the Queen is move either 11. Qg4, or 11. Qh5.

As I was loading this game into my database from the handwritten notation, I moved the Queen to g4. That would produce this board:


Right after I loaded that move (Qg4,) my jaw dropped in horror. My opponent put his Queen undefended and right where I could take it (called placing a piece en prise), and my next move completely missed that??? This was the “original horror” that I referred to in yesterday’s post.

But the real horror turned out to be mistaken notation. You probably can see that the other move (Qh5) is natural for White, and my d6 move makes sense as defending against that move:
Actual game, after 11. Qh5 d6
The actual moves, as shown above, were 11. Qh5 d6.

The actual points to take away from this are:

* Be careful when taking your notation; anyone can write down the wrong square or piece in the heat of a game.
* When replaying the game, entering into a database, or analyzing with a coach – be alert to the idea that you could have written moves down wrong.
* Not only illegal moves, but also ambigous moves can occur in your notation. (Especially when both Rooks or both Knights can move to the same square.)
* Even when this happens it is often possible to reconstruct what actually happened.

And an omnibus, not yet mentioned…

* If you wish to improve your chess… Learn how to take notation of your games and then record them. There are so many things you can learn from going over your previous games. Too many things to list here! Also, if you want to learn from books, workbooks, blogs, whatever: You must know how notation works.

Honestly, if you can learn how the pieces move you can learn notation. In fact, I found it easier to learn notation than how the pieces moved. If you find it the same, I’d appreciate hearing from you!

Never known notation before, and want to learn? Try going here. I’d refer to Wikipedia, but Wikipedia’s article on algebraic notation (while nice,) has too many elements that would confuse a novice.

Edit to add: On November 29th I added my own class in learning how to write and read notation. It will be available on November 29th – Look at the “Pages” banner on the right.

Messy scrums and missed opportunities, part 1

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

I had an interesting game at the club yesterday. “Interesting,” in this context could be translated as, “Completely horrifying once posting the game for analysis.” The horrifying part and missed opportunity will be shared in a later post. For now, we open with… well… the opening.

I was playing a player brand-new to the club. Typical process when facing a brand-new player in a club setting, if you’re experienced at all, can be staying within your comfort zone as much as possible. (You’re looking to give your best, combined with feeling out the strength of the other player. Is this someone you want to play regularly in the future, or is this player too strong or too weak for you normally?) So you stay strong, and play what you know best.

I’m not typical. ;)

You may have read my earlier post on facing the Sicilian defense while playing as White. Well, this time I tried playing it as Black – for only the second or third time ever. The basic position I was expecting was following the moves 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4. This sequence produces the following board:
The Sicilian after 4. Nxd4
It didn’t exactly work that way, though. ;) Instead, I got 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 e6 4. d3. A very different position from the get-go:
A different sort of Sicilian...

My opponent admitted after the game that his purpose with the Bishop move was to take me out of my opening book rapidly. He didn’t know, of course, that I really don’t have a book for the Sicilian yet.

For new players, “book,” in this context means a set of fixed opening moves that a player has prepared in advance. (For example, if I’m black and my opponent moves 1. e4, I will respond with c5. Then if he follows with 2. Nf3 I will respond Nc6. Then if he plays 3. d4 I will play cxd4. Then I expect 4. Nxd4 as most likely.) Semi-experienced players will study and develop Opening Books for themselves, based on the extensive body of research in chess openings. If a player is, “in book,” it means they have already analyzed the move and position enough before the game.

Another example of books – if I’m playing White, I will almost certainly play 1. e4. What I’m really hoping for is that the opposite player will cooperate in giving me an opening called the Giuoco Piano (or Italian Game.) It will play 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5. It rarely works for me, though. Many players will respond either 1. c6 (an opening called the Caro-Kann Defense, or 1. c5 (the Sicilian.) Which is why I’m working on the Sicilian at present. :D

These days, new players aren’t generally taught to develop opening books until at least developing understanding some basic fundamentals of openings in general. The new player is encouraged to see what’s going on in an opening, as opposed to rote learning of sets of opening moves.

Besides, as you’ve seen above, there are so many choices that can occur in an opening. White has twenty possible first moves. Of these, five are common – about ten have no real purpose, and five are just too slow. Black likewise gets twenty possible first choices. I think around seven or so are popular, highly dependent on White’s first choice. Perhaps I’ll detail these in depth at some point. But this is just a long way of saying don’t panic about your openings at first. Even a semi-experienced player can get into a messy scrum off the bat.

Within that understanding, though, even a new player can ask these questions: What’s happening with the first four moves of the game I just played? Why did I play each of those moves? Did I get what I was hoping for? Over time – with many games that follow those same four moves recorded, start asking: Am I satisfied in general with what’s happening in those moves, and/or the game that results from them?

It helps to have a coach or teacher to help you explore these questions. You can also find the name of that particular opening and see what the Web can tell you about it. Always be careful about free advice – it may be worth less than you paid for it. But there’s a lot you can do yourself – after all, you’re a chess player! :)

Play on!

** BTW, apologies for the varying sizes of the boards in these opening posts. The size of the board is dependent on how I’ve sized my ChessBase board window before copying and pasting – I’m still trying to find the size that works for me.