Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Chess Board Project

I've been kicking this idea around for awhile, now.  Last night I bit the bullet and went to Home Depot for a few supplies to get started.  My last chess board project featured a tabletop with two chessboards painted on, detailed earlier on this blog.  I wanted to follow it up with something a little more useful, but still unique.  I hit upon the idea of a chess board on both sides, top and bottom, of a piece of wood.  The chess boards would be different colors so that before a game, one could choose what colors to play with.

I recently got a chess set for Christmas that turned out to be a little larger than what I like to be comfortable on a 2.25" square board.  It still works ok, but I think it would be better on a 2 3/8" board.  I didn't want to make my new project that size because that would mean only that one set would work with it.  So I decided to compromise.  I would make two separate double boards, one with the pair of boards having 2.25" squares, and the other having 2.375" squares.  I also decided that I wanted to try a red color with my new set, so one of the two colors on that board would be red.  I would decide on the color to go on the bottom of that board based on which of the two other colors on the other board I liked best.  I had decided on a green and a blue for that board.  Below are the mock-ups of the layout and approximate colors for the boards.  Board one would have 2.25" squares on both the top side and bottom side.  One of the sides would be the blue and one would be the green.  Board two would have 2.375" squares on both the top side and bottom side.  One of the sides would be the red and the other side would be decided between either the green or the blue.

So, again, last night I bought all the supplies and put a couple of coats of the main colors on one side of each board.  I chose green and red to start.  After drying all night, I got out a yardstick and pencil and started making the grid for the board.  2 3/8" squares on the red and 2 1/4" squares on the green.  I have to wait until tonight to tape it up and start painting the light squares, so here is my first progress picture.  Here is the red board.  The grid is drawn on lightly in pencil, and I put my new Zagreb 59 chess set on it to preview the color contrasts and spacing.  I'm really happy with the way it looks so far and can't wait for the next step!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

More Chess Board Aesthetics

Some of my music students "discovered" I had a blog and a Tumblr account this weekend.  They were laughing at me for posting pretty chess board colors.  I had a short discussion with them about the importance of chess board aesthetics, after which two things were confirmed to them: 1) I actually do care a lot about chess board aesthetics, and 2) they have a really strange music teacher.  I'd like to think they had confirmed that chess board aesthetics are important, too, but I'm not as sure of that one.

I brought up my "nightmare" chess board to them and told them I had a picture of it somewhere, but I wasn't sure where.  It's a stock photo of an absolute abomination.  It ticks all the boxes of horrendousness for me:

[x] Solid black pieces on solid black squares
[x] Solid white pieces on solid white squares
[x] Pieces way too big for squares
[x] Vinyl board curling up on the edges

If the vinyl board were curling up inside the playing area, it would be even worse, but this photo doesn't have that.  I have seen a photo that had that, too, but I instantly closed all the tabs, uninstalled my browser, slammed my laptop shut, and punched the person sitting next to me instead of saving it.

Anyway, I told them I would write a short blog post if I found where I had saved that nightmare chess set photo.  So here it is.  And, here is the photo:


Saturday, September 5, 2015

Chess Board Color Schemes

If you are new to, well, me, you may not know that I'm quite passionate about chess board aesthetics.  In an earlier post I detailed how I made my own board with colors I chose because the combination of blue and gray on a chess board is the most pleasing to me.  I have a particular set of preferences for light square/dark square combinations.  I suspect most people do, too, they just may not spend as much time thinking about it as I do.

On other blogging sites, I have posted some of my favorite color schemes for others to use.  It's time for another one of those.  These color schemes are actually not exactly in my wheelhouse, but they are definitely suitable, and I find them attractive.  I'm posting them here so that others can either use them or base their own color combinations off of these ideas.

Dark 112,162,163
Light 177,228,185

Dark 112,102,119
Light 204,183,174

Dark 111,115,210
Light 157,172,255

Dark 187,190,100
Light 234,240,206

Dark 111,143,114
Light 173,189,143

Dark 184,139,74
Light 227,193,111

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Joplin Summer Open, Round 1 Annotation

Monday, August 31, 2015

My First Tournament Win!

This past Saturday, I had the pleasure of playing in the Joplin Summer Open in Joplin, Missouri.  The tournament was four rounds of game in 60 with a 5 second delay.  This time control is a little quick for me, but I'm happy for any chance at over-the-board play.  This was an hour drive from me, but since it's a one day tournament, driving up and back on the same day is no problem.

I arrived at about 8:20 am and checked in with the tournament director.  The word was that we would have about 16 players play in the tournament with any more than that being just people that didn't notify the director they were coming.  Still, there might be 20 or so at the start of the tournament with a little luck.

As it turned out, we started off with 17 players.  I was paired with a player rated in the low 800s in the first round.

It was a shaky start for me as I inadvertently left my opening system early on.  I improvised a pretty solid opening, though, and I'm pretty sure I was better from the outset.  Then I forgot my e-pawn was hanging.

If he took my e-pawn, I still would've been better, but I would've had to fight harder to maintain that edge rather than immediately trying to capitalize on the edge I already had. 

Luckily, he didn't take it and I got to work improving my position. Once we were into the middle game, I cracked open the position with his king in the center and pieces awkwardly placed.  

I wound up winning a couple of pawns and later on a full piece.  

However, I stupidly threw my advantage completely away by letting his king invade in the endgame when I got short on time.  I thought my king had his blocked out, but it wasn't.  

I had to fight to even hold a draw, but my opponent pressed too hard.  Afterwards, he told me he thought I would lose on time if he didn't take the draw, so he allowed me to capture the dangerous passed pawn that I was struggling against.  However, I had no problem converting the position, even with 11 seconds on my clock.  The 5 second delay was what I lived on.  I used a few seconds double-checking that I wasn't stalemating him, and he resigned with 6 seconds still on my clock.  Disaster averted!

In the second round, I played a very solid player who was very near my rating.  I felt I played extremely well in the opening and again obtained a decent edge.  As the middle game began, we wound up castling to opposite sides and my attack was much faster.  I had my opponent against the ropes and only had to play the most obvious check on the board on multiple moves in order to finish him off.  For some reason, I convinced myself that continuing to build up before finally crashing in was the right move.  I managed to get myself into a pickle and had to give up my queen for two rooks, but I was surely still winning.  I wound up going up a full piece by the time the proper endgame rolled around.  This time, I did manage to toss away the easy win and only escaped with a draw as his king gobbled my last pawn (my lone knight was not going to be enough).

As I headed to grab a quick lunch, it was hard to be either happy or disappointed with the way the morning went.  I had 1.5 out of 2 points, but I should've easily won both games.  I had to tighten my play up for the second half of the day.

In the third round, I was paired against a young man I had played about a year ago.  We played to a draw, though I'm pretty sure I tossed away a win in that game, too.  In this game, I blitzed out one of the main lines of my Scandinavian Defense, while he struggled with each move.  I managed to have a time advantage after the opening for once.  I had a feeling I knew exactly when and how he was going to deviate from my opening repertoire and started mentally preparing for my guess before we got there.  I knew I didn't have a response prepared for what I thought he was going to do, so I needed to start thinking about it now.  It was actually a little funny to me that he was analyzing a position several moves behind the one I was thinking about.  I was exactly right, too.

I took a few extra minutes when he deviated to try to devise the correct plan.  I did decently, getting the first few moves of what I should be doing right, but I didn't find the right longer term plan.  I know now exactly how to handle what he did.  If I'd looked at that idea before-hand I would've gotten a very strong position right out of the opening.  As it was, I think I had just equalized.  A few moves later, though, I think he had created some weaknesses and I had solidified my position enough that I had a small edge.  I was feeling pretty good, and that's when I completely under-estimated one of his ideas, allowing him to win a pawn and get a pretty good position.  I fought as hard as I could, but I'm pretty sure I was completely lost.  However, he blundered and let me get some counter-play.  Finally, at the end, he blundered into a mate in two.  I think he thought he was going to checkmate me, but the position was actually a draw if he makes the best move.  However, the move that threatened to checkmate me allowed the mate in two.  He jumped on it without considering my reply, and he was devastated.  I felt pretty bad for him, but I'm now sitting at 2.5/3 and one game away from winning the tournament (nobody had 3/3), though I didn't really even know that at the time.

In the final round I was paired with another 2.5/3 rated almost 400 points higher than me.  Talk about a back and forth game!  In this game, I got an advantage out of the opening (A Queen's Gambit Accepted), missed a clear game-winning tactic that I knew was there but just couldn't find, still managed to get a winning position, tossed it away back to basically even by missing a tactic, then incorrectly sacrificed a piece for a pawn (thinking it was back rank mate if he took it, but it wasn't!), and regained the piece through some tactical bluffing, finally emerging to a two rooks and four pawns vs. two rooks and three pawns endgame (I'm up a pawn).  Ridiculous!  He offered me a draw since we were the last two playing and all rook endings are drawn, but I was having none of it.  I managed to play a pretty darn good endgame for once and hammered home the win.

After everyone left (except the tournament director, who I am friends with), I collapsed into the floor exhausted and very happy.  I asked if I happened to win prize money, and he looked at me like I was crazy.  "Uh, yeah, you just won the tournament!"  I honestly didn't even realize it at the time.  I helped him carry his equipment back to the car and got in my car for the hour drive home.

What a great day!  I had been waiting for everything to finally come together in one tournament for me, and it finally had.  My rating shot up 91 points, and I moved up from Class C to Class B.

I will post the games themselves soon, but I'd like a chance to add my thoughts before I do so.  If you'd really like to see them, here is a link to the raw pgn:


Monday, August 24, 2015

TIL #2

Today I learned a position in the Lev Alburt Chess Training Pocket Book has an incomplete answer.  The position, which I was checking out during a break in action at work today, is shown below:

As a tactical problem, the solution jumped out pretty immediately.  Rxd6 Rxd6 e5 seems obvious.  I felt, however, that the next couple of moves were also very important.  For instance, after Rxd6 Rxd6 e5 Ke6, it is extremely important to capture the rook with the pawn and not the bishop.  If Bxd6, after f6, the game is drawn!  Instead, white must capture with the pawn, exd6 after which the win is trivial.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Photo-Blog on Tumblr

I've started a separate blog for just the image stuff in my chess world.  Pictures of projects, study setups, equipment, and maybe some of me playing in tournaments (though those are difficult because I'm usually by myself at tournaments and nobody else cares to take pictures of me playing or at least share them with me if they happen to catch me in a shot.  We'll see how that aspect goes.

Here's the link:

Three Coats of Polyurethane Later

And, I'm finished!  I didn't ruin anything, but I think I did sand through the finish a little bit after trying to smooth out the raised paint edges after two coats of polyurethane.  It's ok, I'm still really happy.

Also, I discovered that lowering the leaves of the kitchen table allows this table top to fit right over the top and around the kitchen table, basically converting it into a dream chess table.  I'm still going to take it to school and use it there, semi-permanently, but having the kitchen table option at home is pretty awesome.

Works great for Sinquefield Cup viewing, too!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

First game on hand-made tabletop!

I took the tabletop to school today to kind of show it off and try a few games on it.  I told everyone to be very careful since I hadn't applied a protective layer to the surface yet, but I played a game with one of my students.

The best part is I realized that if I sat the board down on top of two old bookshelves I had sitting in my closet, it is a perfect height to play on and very stable.  The boards around the bottom rim of the tabletop keep it in place nicely, too.  This would be perfect!

I took black so I could try out my new Scandinavian Defense line.  I got a nice game and eventually won a piece and my opponent resigned.  I took a photo of the first ever game on it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Dual-Chessboard Project (DIY!)

I found a piece of wood in my garage that used to be the bottom of a baby crib. We had gotten rid of the baby crib a few months earlier (trash!), but apparently had forgotten to throw out this bottom board. When I noticed it, I immediately thought it would make a very attractive table top with two chess boards painted onto it. It's just how my mind works. I've been looking for some sort of a fun project with wood and paint that I might even get some use out of, and this seemed to be perfect.

I wish I had taken a picture of the board before I started on it, but I didn't think to do it. There were some warning stickers glued all over the board, so the first step was to figure out how to remove those. It was much harder than I thought it would be. Peeling and scraping was just not going to work. I tried just directly sanding them off with very little success. Finally, I thought to use google. Apparently, the trick is to warm a little bit of vinegar and rub it on the target area. I was amazed as it came off with just a light brushing almost immediately. First problem solved. This might actually work.

 I went to the store and picked up a few materials. I still expected something to cause this whole project to grind to a halt. I'd never done anything like this, and I had no idea what to expect. I picked up all the sandpaper I needed, some wood stain and a brush, and the three colors of spray paint I'd chosen.

 I sanded the board down with each of the different grits of sandpaper until it was very smoooth and brought the board outside to apply the wood stain. I actually have tried to use wood stain before, but that was a disaster because I didn't even read anything. This time, I at least knew how to do it. It seemed to go pretty well, though I don't think I wiped the stain off as thoroughly as I should've. It was here that I started taking pictures of the project, so here is the board after the wood stain went on:

The coloring didn't turn out to be as consistent as I'd like, but that got better as the stain dried.  Next, I measured out two 18" x 18" squares and centered them on each half of the board.  I taped around the board and covered everything but the squares and spray painted them gray.  I was pretty happy with how the board areas looked after I removed the masking:

After I waited a couple of days for the paint to dry, I drew light pencil lines to mark where the chess board's light and dark squares should go.  I taped over every other rank and file of each of the chessboards, leaving 16 of the dark squares exposed.  I painted the exposed areas oxford blue.

There was a lot more bleeding under the tape from the spray paint on these last two steps than I would like, and I kind of resigned myself to the fact that none of my lines would be as clean as I wanted them to be.  After the first set of dark squares dried, I covered the other set and painted the final 16 dark squares on each board.

Peeling off the masking tape after this last step revealed I'd made an error and had made one row of dark squares too big!  I'm not sure if I took a strip of tape off to reapply it and then never did, or what.  I really do not know how the error happened, but it clearly did!  I was pretty pleased with the rest of it, though.

I had to take a little extra time to fix the mistake, but it wasn't too bad.  All I had left to do was the 1/2" black border to really set things off.

When I peeled the paint off of the last bit of the black border, I was a little disappointed because there was even more bleeding than usual.  Then I realized that it didn't matter that much, because this board really popped!  I brought it inside and put it on a table and started setting up two sets of chess pieces on it for a little photo session.

Sitting down at the table for the first time with all the pieces set up was an almost surreal experience.  I had made something that looked really nice with my own hands, sure, but another part of the feeling was that the colors of this chess board had only existed on my computer screen before now.  I don't think there was any way to get these two colors on a real chess board before.  I have used this blue and gray chess board online for years.  Having a nice, real version of the chess board in front of me felt so incredibly right to me.  It was like being home for the first time in a way.

Technically, I'm not done with the project.  I will be putting a few coats of polyurethane on it to smooth the surface and to protect it.  However, the current state of this dual chessboard is quite satisfying, and I'm going to enjoy it for a day or two first just in case I ruin it with my first ever attempt at applying polyurethane!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Training Diary #2

Since my last entry, a lot has changed.  First of all, I've decided I just really don't like How to Reassess Your Chess.  I cannot get through it.  The more I tried, the more I remembered I just really don't like it.  I could get into the reasons for this, but that is probably better for a different blog entry or article.  I have spent some time looking for other things and settled on a course I had forgotten I even owned.  Igor Smirnov's Your Winning Plan, which was suggested to me by a very strong player a few years ago.  While sampling all the resources I had trying to find something to replace How to Reassess Your Chess, I found myself riveted by this one.  So, that is my new tome.  Hopefully, I won't be getting into the rut of starting book after book without finishing.  I will try not to do that.  So far, I like this one so much I'm committing to finishing it without even alternating weeks with the endgame book!  I've also got pages of notes I've taken on this course alone.  Those are definitely good signs.
I have been plugging away with tactics and openings, also.  In my last post I mentioned that I would be trying to find a way to detail my progress with the basic tactics that I drill for speed and recognition.  I use Anki flashcard software for that purpose.  I have a set of 1001 tactics from a popular tactics book called "Tactics Time" that I am converting into flashcards.  So far, I have 250 of them converted and I'm drilling those using spaced repetition in Anki.  If you are familiar with Anki, these stats may make sense.  If not, it may be gibberish, but here they are so far, current as of today:

The other side of my tactics training has to do with Chess Tempo.  I solve problems there daily, but I don't have a set routine of how many or anything.  Basically, I just go do some problems whenever I feel like it.  I should improve this by making some sort of schedule or quota, but so far, I haven't.  It's somewhat easier to track my progress with that, because the rating graph will make more sense to more people.  The thing to remember with these is that I do not focus on speed here.  I focus only on accuracy--calculation/visualization, etc.  The pattern recognition I build up with past Chess Tempo problems and the Anki flashcards should help as well, but I do not use Chess Tempo to assist in building patterns primarily, it's just a side-effect.
I have been playing long games as often as I can, both online and over-the-board.  I have committed to analyzing at least one game per week as fully as I can.  Sticking to this one isn't hard because it's something I like doing, anyway.  Some examples of the analysis I've been doing:
Just snippets of the full analysis.  I'm still working out how I want to format the analyses for actual publication.  The latter example is a pdf created with Open Office.  It looks very nice, but it is very time-consuming to make.  Analyzing in Scid vs. PC is fine, but it doesn't look as nice and there's no way to publish it without just pasting a PGN file somewhere (not ideal if you want people to actually read it).  Still working on this problem.
As always, comments and encouragement are appreciated!

TIL #1

Today, during an online (not correspondence) chess game, I learned that a typical tactical trick must always be carefully calculated before executed.  The typical tactical trick, from this position:
is simply to play Nxe5.  Of course, if white inserts the tempo-gaining capture, Bxd7+, the knight can hop out of the danger to capture the bishop.  If white just takes the en prise knight on e5 with Nxe5, the bishop is now hanging, so Bxb5 takes back a piece, resulting in the net of the originally captured e5 pawn.
     Bxd7 Nxd7
     Nxe5 Bxb5
The issue?  After the latter line (Nxe5 Nxe5 Bxb5) there is Qb3!  This forks the bishop on b5 and the f7 square.  After Qb6, attempting to defend and create an escape hatch, Qxf7 Kd8 Qxf8, white regains all the material with a tremendous attack.  Black is completely lost.
Luckily, my opponent did not spot the winning continuation and simply played Bxd7.  I went on to win the game in about 20 moves.  Maybe this is unfortunate, because the lesson will not be as painful!

A Great Hidden Feature in Lucas Chess

There are probably dozens of things that fit that description, but I want to focus on one feature I've really been using a lot lately.  The feature is simply called "Moves Tree" and is buried in the Utilities menu of the main game windows.  It is both more powerful and more useful than it initially appears.
Let's start out by making a new game from scratch using the menu items "Tool - Create Your Own Game."  Now, for the purposes of this article, let's just pick a random opening position.
Now, if you go to the menu item "Utilities - Moves Tree" you will get a new window with a list of every possible move from that position.  The first move of the list is on the board because it is highlighted by default.  You can single-click any other move in the list and that move will appear on the board.
Well, that's useful, but we don't want to look at every possible move.  What we should do instead is narrow it down to candidate moves.  There are two good ways to do this.  One is to just select the moves you want to assign a rating yourself.  Another is to let the computer assign evaluations to some or all of the moves and rate the moves according to that.  If you wish to do the former, just leave out the computer analysis step and go ahead and manually assign the ratings.  For this article, I will be allowing the computer to evaluate the moves for instruction's sake.
To start, click the yellow rectangle icon (fourth from the left) in the icon toolbar above the move list.  The tooltip for this icon is "Analyze."  You will want to set the engine to a strong one and decide how long you want it to "think."  Also, you should decide how many moves you want it to evaluate for you.  I chose 60 seconds for the time and maximum for the number of candidate moves to evaluate. 
Again, great information, but not what we really need.  Our goal was to pare down the list of moves to a reasonable list.  Based on the data the engine gave us, it appears there is one good move to make with several others that are speculative at best.  For simplicity's sake, I'm going to rate the top two moves.  Highlight the top move and then click the purple square icon in the icon toolbar whose tool tip is "Rating."  Here, you choose a color-coded square icon for each move to describe the quality of that move.  For the first move, I just selected the blue "Good move" rating.  For the second move in the list, I called it a "Speculative move."  How you rate the moves is really up to you.  The main idea is that the moves you want to keep for the future you give some rating to.
Finally, click the light bulb icon on the icon toolbar whose tool tip is "Show/Hide."  Select the menu items "Hide - No rating."  You are left with a much more manageable list of candidate moves for the position.  Click back on the first move in our list and click the plus icon in the icon toolbar whose tool tip is "Open new branch."  This is where you will start to see the power of the feature.
You will see a new list of every legal move from the position after that first candidate move was made.  If you pare this list down to a few candidate moves and repeat the process a few times, you will have the first branch of a move tree.  If you go back to our original branch and click the plus icon, you can make an entirely new branch off of that moves.  Of course, anywhere along the way, you can make new branches for each move in the move list of your branch.
But wait, there's more!  Click on one of the moves in your tree and then click the speech balloon icon in the icon toolbar whose tool tip is "Comments."  You can add a description, annotation, evaluation, or whatever you'd like for each node in the tree with this function.  It will display in the tree in the "Comments" column.  
Now, click "Save" in the top left corner of the window, and you're done.  The craziest part is any time you come back to that position, even when analyzing a totally different game, that moves tree will show up for that position.  Try it!  Close the created game you were making and start a new one without saving the previous one.  If you make those same moves again and open a new moves tree window, you will see your previous moves tree with the branches closed.  
To re-open a branch, just click the plus sign while highlighting the move.  In the saved tree view, you can see if a move has a branch hidden under it by the "up arrow caret" symbol next to the move.
I hope you find this feature as useful as I do!

More on Learning Openings

In an earlier post, I went into some detail about how to use Lucas Chess to help learn openings.  Two other tools are very useful in learning openings for me: Chess Position Trainer and Scid vs. PC.  The latter is free, the former is not, but has a pretty useful demo version (though it is well worth buying!).
Today, I am working on the Benko Gambit as white.  I have entered some variations I want to study into Chess Position Trainer.
The beauty of Chess Position Trainer is that entering the moves and variations of an opening is as simple as making moves on the board.  A tree of variations is created and saved to your repertoire database as soon as you make each move.  I have selected one particular line (shown above) to use as an example.  You can see how many distinct lines are in your opening by navigating through what are called "Leaf Nodes" (you can see I have selected to navigate by leaf nodes in the top left corner).  Leaf nodes are basically the ends of your branches.  If I hit the arrow to go to the next leaf node, it will move to another position that is at an end of a branch.  It will tell you how many leaf nodes you have in your opening in the status bar as you navigate through it this way.  Going to a leaf node lets you see one distinct line of your opening.
What I like to do is take one leaf node and enter the moves into Scid vs. PC for comparison with my main database of chess games.  I use the "GorgoBase," which is a collection of just over 2.5 million games.  It is compiled from all of the games ever released by TWIC and all of the games compiled at the PGN Mentor website.  The goal was to get a mix of both modern and historical chess games.  You can download this database for Scid or Scid vs. PC for your use at my website,
Once I have the moves entered into Scid vs. PC, I filter for all games that reached that position by going to "Search - Current Board."
This leaves me, in this case, with just over 100 games to look through.  From here I just select the first game in the list and step through it quickly using the right arrow key.  When I reach the end, I hit "ctrl+down" to load the next game in the list and step through it, too.  I look through as many of the games as I can this way, hopefully all of them.  This gives me a good impression of where pieces belong, typical pawn breaks, what the endgames usually look like, etc.  I may select a few games for deeper study if I find a game by certain players or if a particular game catches my eye for one reason or another.
After doing this, I will use Lucas Chess to play a weakened computer opponent from the position I'm studying and analyze it.  Sometimes, I will play several games this way (if I do this, it's usually some blitz games).  After doing this, going back and re-reading the book (or re-watching the video) the line originated from should help you gain even more insight.
After all that work, it's time to check out the next leaf node!