24 November 2017

"Analyze This" at chess^summit

Analyzing my own games has long been the centerpiece of my training program and it still is paying dividends, in terms of improving my play both conceptually and practically.  On a related note, I recently ran across the "Analyze This" post at the chess^summit site, which discusses the benefits of analyzing games, starting with a more basic view of the process.  They also highlight two things that are worth knowing about for all levels of improving players:
  • The simple way you can now use online resources for game analysis, with an illustrated example of copying and pasting a PGN game file into the Chess.com analysis board.  I think it's important to have your own databases set up to store analysis and training references, which you can for free with the Scid vs. PC software and (champion) Stockfish engine. That said, the ease of use of online tools is a welcome evolution. 
  • An offer by the site to do free game analysis, if you would like to solicit a more expert human take on your game.

19 November 2017

How far can you get in one month of training?

By now, the story of the "Month to Master" guy, Max Deutsch, playing Magnus Carlsen has drawn a lot of commentary, as can be seen at the above-linked ChessBase article (which also has the original Wall Street Journal video article link; it's an entertaining watch).

The mastery challenge is an interesting outgrowth and example of the "Personal Growth" movement, which like the older "Self-Help" category contains a lot of good ideas under its umbrella, but also a lot of puffery.  The idea of trying to challenge yourself exponentially rather than only incrementally is in fact one way to achieve personal breakthroughs; Max in fact did quite well at the other challenges, which were all realistically achievable skills (if not easy at all).  His success with them reflected the mechanism of effortful study, while the emphasis on constant learning is, in any case, a great brain health practice.

Naturally Max didn't even come close to beating Magnus, because chess is far too complex an activity/sport/art.  One parallel would be someone who took French in a classroom environment for a few years being asked to win a debate with a native-speaking Sorbonne philosophy professor; it's just not going to happen.  Similarly, an amateur tennis player is not going to suddenly raise their skill level in a month to beat Andy Murray.  This is one of the attractions of chess for me, as a matter of fact - it is infinitely deep and you will never stop learning on the path to mastery.

15 November 2017

Chess and brain health improvement

From BeBrainFit.Com
It's interesting to see where the benefits of chess training and brain health intersect and why.  I don't find it surprising to note that practices described as benefiting the brain the most health-wise are also what should be most effective in terms of improving your chess.  I've found the following observations particularly useful in that regard (my emphasis added in bold text).

From Sort Your Brain Out (Capstone, 2014):
The Einstein Aging Study...followed 2000 people aged 70 and above who were residents of the Bronx district of New York City for four years. Every year these residents were put through a variety of tests to monitor changes in their physical strength, balance and coordination, along with a wide variety of cognitive abilities. As well as undergoing these tests images of their brains were captured with an MRI scanner.
...They found that four activities were associated with a significantly reduced likelihood of developing the symptoms of cognitive decline: playing a musical instrument, playing chess, dancing and reading all seemed to have a positive impact on slowing the rate of cognitive decline. It was noted that none of these activities made the slightest different to the outcome unless they were practiced regularly.
 ...all of the above activities are mentally taxing - the other defining feature of activities that actually inspire the brain to make changes. If you don't up the ante in terms of tackling more and more challenging versions of the same activity then the brain will stop making the necessary changes for further improvements.
...Chess requires potential moves of both players to be imagined and held in mind so that further moves can be thought through and evaluated. Opportunities and pitfalls of each potential sequence of moves must be analyzed to select the best strategy. The more moves in advance a person tries to plan, the harder the brain areas in their Frontal and Parietal Lobes that support working memory...are pushed, to try to keep in mind where all the pieces would stand after each imagined move.
The harder working memory is put to the test during the day, the more work will be done overnight to reinforce the synapses connecting Frontal and Parietal brain areas to increase its capacity for next time.
 From The Brain Warrior's Way (New American Library, 2016):
The more you use your brain, the more you can continue using it. New learning creates new connections in the brain, but the absence of learning causes the brain to start disconnecting itself. Regardless of your age, mental exercise has a global, positive effect on the brain. Learning has a very real impact on neurons: it keeps them firing and it makes it easier for them to fire...Like muscles that don't get used, idle nerve cells waste away.
...The best mental exercise is acquiring new knowledge and doing things that you have not done before. Even if your routine activities are fairly complicated, such as teaching a college course, reading brain scans, or fixing a crashed computer network, they won't help your brain specifically because they aren't new to you. Whenever the brain does something over and over, it learns how to do it using less and less energy. New learning, such as learning a new medical technique, a new hobby, or a new game, helps establish new connections, thus maintaining and improving the function of other less-often-used brain areas.
The following list describes which mental exercises provide the best benefits to specific areas of the brain:
-- Prefrontal cortex (PFC): language games...strategy games, such as chess...meditation. [The correlation between chess and verbal skills is rather interesting and is also one of the benefits listed at "10 Ways Chess Builds Your Brain"]
New Learning Tips: Spend fifteen minutes a day learning something new. Einstein said that if anyone spends fifteen minutes a day learning something new, in a year he or she will be an expert; in five years, a national expert.
The above points track with observations made in some previous posts here, for example on The Kung Fu of Chess and especially Mindfulness and Effortful Study.  I also think that the observation about your brain using less energy to perform previously learned tasks could well be correlated with the power of pattern recognition, as reflected in Magnus Carlsen's comparison of the roles of intuition and analysis.

The topic of chess study and brain health, however important and positive in terms of its benefits, also deserves a few caveats:
  • Chess is not necessarily a uniquely beneficial activity.  I do think that its inexhaustible depth of possible new learning, however, is tailor-made for benefiting your brain.  Analyze a new opening variation, endgame type, strategic motif, tactical theme, etc. and you can get your 15 minutes a day (and more) of brain exercise, while adding to your skills and storehouse of knowledge.
  • Brain health is a different topic than IQ and other measures of raw intelligence.  There is a lot of disagreement about whether learning chess boosts intelligence.  I think it's something of a moot point from a practical standpoint, if it can enhance your brain functions, regardless of the (also controversial) existence of an innate "ceiling" to intelligence.
  • It's clear that binge studying followed by long layoffs won't help either your chess or your brain make progress over time.  Consistency is more important, even with relatively short time periods devoted to training; chess is not unique in that respect.  It's also noteworthy that this framework of structuring your activities parallels the practice of implanting positive habits.

26 October 2017

Trends in chess openings - personal observations

The above chart (based on August 2017 TWIC data) was recently highlighted in a ChessBase news article.  As usual, the best way to view any statistics is with a critical eye.  With that in mind, here are some observations related to my personal repertoire, which I know best, and some other opening trends that are highlighted.

At first I was surprised at the high popularity of the Caro-Kann (#4), my primary defense to 1. e4, but after you start adding up the various Sicilian variations, it makes more sense and does not in fact represent a big surge for the Caro-Kann.  The main point is that the Caro-Kann is reliably popular and a solid choice at the professional level (more on that point below), to the point of beating out the most popular variation (Najdorf) of the Sicilian.

Likewise with the Slav (#7), my primary defense to 1. d4, but that actually seems to be more logical as a separate category in the queen pawn opening complex, with the main 1...Nf6 choices ahead of it.  It's interesting to note that it does beat out the more historically popular Queen's Gambit Declined, but only (I expect) if you include the Semi-Slav complex of openings, which I don't have in my repertoire.

On the White side, it was nice to see the English well represented, with various main trunks taking up 4 of the top 20 spaces.  This makes sense, as it's a great must-win opening (said only partly jokingly).  It's worth noting that the reply 1...e6 is on the list, as in opening manuals it's often treated as a sideline (if at all).  While there are a lot of transpositional possibilities, it's something that every English player should look at.

A couple of general observations on the list:
  • The absence of the Ruy Lopez / Spanish Game is not completely shocking, if you've been paying attention to the top-level games over the last couple of years, but is still very interesting as a novel historical development.  Basically the top White players seem to have switched to the Giuoco Piano (#18) as holding better prospects for advantage.  Seeing the Caro-Kann at #4 and the Ruy Lopez nowhere on the list is still a bit weird, at least for those of us who have been playing for more than a decade.  The "Spanish Torture" seems to have lost its edge.
  • The #1 place for the Reti in my opinion is a reflection of the trend at the top, especially with players like Carlsen and Kramnik, to adopt a meta-strategy of "just playing chess" and seeking to win by relying on a deeper understanding of their game, rather than trying to fight it out in a theoretical duel.  This is a common idea at any level, actually, as the strategy seeks to take away the advantage of "free good moves" that a lower-rated player is offered by going into a well-prepared and analyzed line for 15-20 moves.  The caveat, of course, is that you actually do have to have superior knowledge of the resulting position-types, even if things like exact move orders are not always crucial, or there is a lack of forcing moves.
  • I have to admit I was surprised by the continuing popularity of the Modern Defence (#20), as I thought its peak time was past.  On the other hand it's a flexible choice, can be played in response to pretty much any White first move, and has the advantage noted above of being less forcing and more favorable to someone who knows the resulting positions and their requirements well.
  • In general, I tend to look at the "top openings" lists as indications of what master-level players consider to be completely solid openings that will yield the best chance for an advantage and/or counter-play.  Openings which are viewed as now being too drawish (the Ruy Lopez now, along with the Petroff) drop off in use as a result, but this lack of professional popularity should by no means influence amateur opening choice, when the openings in question are actually too solid rather than questionable.