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The Four Tiers of Chess Skill

I was thinking about my recent games, and the scholastic games I’ve watched, and I would suggest that their are roughly 4 levels of chess ability, defined by how the player comes up with his moves.

Level 1: Random chess (roughly 0-1000 by rating)

These players know the rules, and maybe have an idea about really basic tactical ideas (e.g., what a fork is), really basic positional ideas (e.g., put rooks on open files), and what pieces are worth. But these players are defined by making the first move that pops into their heads, maybe stopping to consider if their opponent has an obvious reply. Within this level, better players will have a better understanding of tactics, and may have a better idea of what kind of move is good, but without developing a more practical thought process, they won’t break into class E.

Level 2: Hope chess (roughly 1000-1700 by rating)

These players have started taking their opponent’s moves into account, but not in a methodical way, and they still make the first move they like. The rule for these players is, “if you see a good move, make it.” As they go up the ladder from E to A, they improve their tactical vision, develop a better understanding of imbalances, and learn how to win simple but nontrivial endgames, and their instincts improve, but they’re still not using an efficient thought process. They’re playing what Dan Heisman calls “Hope Chess,” where they are only looking at the first possible move their opponent might respond with rather than really looking to see if their move fails against any opponsing response.

Level 3: Real chess (roughly 1700-2300 by rating)

The top amateur players reside here, where having developed impressive tactical skills and an effective thought process, they are now troubled by the difficulty of positional evaluation. Whild players here are much less likely to make obvious tactical errors, their errors are likely to be either in insufficient analysis (such as stopping short in a position that requires 6 or more ply of analysis to really figure out) or incorrect evaluation (such as incorrectly determining whether closing the position with a pawn push or exchanging is better for the position). Players above this are Masters, and are thinking about the game in a very different way from amateurs.

Level 4: Master chess (roughly 2300+ by rating)

Players at this level have developed a positional vocabulary; they know from memory who’s better and why, and what to do, in a wide variety of position types, and so when they analyze positions not in their vocabulary, they can rely on this vocabulary rather than on heuristic positional concepts. A 2000 player analyzes a Najdorf Sicilian middlegame and looks to see how each side keep control of critical squares and activates their pieces. A 2400 player looks to see if the line of moves leads to a position he knows is winning. Studies show that as you move up from expert to master to grandmaster, players have fewer and fewer positions each game where they have to figure out what to do from heuristic principles.

There’s a reason that only the most dedicated players can start playing Master chess. It requires a level of dedication and study that the average weekend player can’t match. Which is why my goal, for now, is just to reach first Expert (and the 61 point bump from the New York International will help with that!), and then maybe at some point NM. IM is the realm of professionals with a lot more time on their hands, and of child prodigies (who also have a lot more time on their hands).


Chess is Frustrating

Monday night’s game ended my non-losing streak, though only at the last minute. 45 moves of perfectly solid play leading to a drawn position against an expert, only to throw it away on one move with 13 minutes left on the clock.

Brian Beck (FIDE UNR, USCF 1790) vs. Edward Kopiecki (FIDE 2006, USCF 2041)
MCC FIDE Mondays Apr-May 2012, Rd 3
Ruy Lopez, Worrall Attack (C77)

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba5 Nf6 5. Qe2 b5 6. Bb3 Be7 7. O-O O-O 8. c3 d5 9. d3 d4 10. cxd4 Nxd4 11. Nxd4 Qxd4 12. Be3 Qd6

13. f3?!

Book moves are Nc3 or Rc1; h3 is also popular. 13. f3?! isn’t awful, and white is perfectly safe afterwards, but it’s very quiet and drawish.

13. … Rd8 14. Rd1 Be6 15. Bxe6 Qxe6 16. Nd2 Nd7 17. Nb3 c5

Computers evaluate the game as no more than 0.1 in either direction for nearly the entire game. The play proceeds naturally from here, as White concentrates on the c-pawn, trying to force Black to move to c4 and trade it for his backwards d-pawn, preferably leaving a weak isolated c pawn for black.

18. Rdc1 Rac8 19. Rc2 Rc7 20. Rac1 Rdc8 21. Qf2 c4 22. dxc4 Rxc4 23. Qe2 Rxc7 24. Rxc7 Rxc7 25. Qxc7

As planned; White’s pawn weakness is traded off and White’s pieces are slightly more active.

25. … h6 26. a3 Bg5 27. Bxg5 hxg5 28. Qc3 g4 29. Nc5 Qb6 30. b4 a5?

Black’s first blunder; it turns out that White can safely capture on g4 here with a substantial advantage. I see ghosts, however, and play instead:

31. Kf1? axb4 32. axb4 Nxc5 33. bxc5 Qa6 34. Qxe5 gxf3 35. gxf3 b4+ 36. Kf2 Qb5 37. Qd5 b3

Now at this point I’m going to need to start checking to hold a draw, which I do:

38. Qd8+ Kh7 39. Qh4+ Kg6 40. Qg4+ Kf6 41. Qf5+ Ke7 42. Qe5+ Kd7 43. Qd6+ Kc8 44. Qf8+ Kb7 45. Qxf7+ Ka6

And from here, White draws in lots of different ways, such as 46. Qf8! threatening Qa8#, or 46. Qe6+ Ka5 47. Qd5!, after which an immediate b3 loses to Qa2+, winning the pawn and trading queens. Instead, miscalculating and missing lines with Qc5+ covering the promotion square, I throw the game away with

46. c6?? b2 47. c7 Kb7 48. Qf8 Kxc7 49. Qxg7+ Kb6 50. Qh6+ Qc6 51. Qf4 b1=Q 1-0

All that solid chess thrown away in one move!

GM Nigel Davies on Rust Removal

GM Nigel Davies: Maybe Long Play is Better. Davies noticed that he had a significantly harder time in rapid chess tournaments than in long play tournaments, and I’m noticing the same problem. When you come back, tactics, positional play, and endgames all come back easily enough. Those are concepts that are relatively easy to remember, just hard to execute.

No, the tough rust to remove is forgotten opening knowledge, and that’s where an extra few hours really comes in handy. When you need to start thinking up opening moves from scratch on move 6, you need a lot more time than your opponent who’s got the book lines memorized through move 12, and then has a good general knowledge of the strategies that come out of that particular opening.

I wonder if, for the resuming player, it makes sense to focus on more obscure but still sound lines of major openings. Like the Ruy Lopez Worrall Attack (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. Qe2), my new White opening of choice. Force your opponent to fumble around as much as you do. Of course, that doesn’t quite fit with my choice of black opening (Najdorf Sicilian and KID)…

Interestingly, not a problem

I’ve volunteered at 3 NYChessKids tournaments now, and I’ve actually had no issues with any parents. Coaches, yes, who think they’re entitled to watch kids games even after I shoo them out of the playing room for the fifth time, but not parents. Certainly, I feel safe from this sort of problem:

Man Rescues Boy, Mom Accuses Him of Being a Pedophile

Why do I think it’s unthinkable to be suspected of pedophilia as a male volunteer scholastic TD? Well, a few reasons:

1. Apparent authority. Despite a rash of teacher pedophile incidents in New York Schools, parents don’t yet think of teaching as a profession full of pedophiles. And somehow, as a TD, even though my Local TD credential consists entirely of, “Has a USCF rating, has directed at three tournaments, and has passed a multiple choice test on the rules of chess,” somehow that gives me an “Authority Figure” role, someone whom parents trust to watch over their kids for at least the 6-8 hours of chess. Crazy, isn’t it?

2. Chess gender roles. Chess is much more popular with boys, and so instead of playgrounds where 20 moms give dirty looks to the one single dad who shows up, chess tournaments feature a good mix of much less panicky dads.

These insane pedophilia scares have a lot of terrible effects, and one those terrible effects is discouraging men from volunteering with children. Fortunately, I think those of us volunteering in scholastic chess can be safe from this particular danger.

My non-losing streak continues!

Without any other half point byes showing up, I would have been paired against IM Jay Richard Bonin last night–not impossible to survive, but certainly close to it. Fortunately, a bunch of other players showed up taking half point byes in round 1, so I “only” was paired against Benjamin Katz (FIDE 2130, USCF 2172). Let’s just say I’m proud of everything in this game except moves 5 and 6…

Benjamin Katz (FIDE 2130, USCF 2172) vs. Brian Beck (FIDE UNR, USCF 1790)
MCC FIDE Mondays Apr-May 2012, Rd 2
Sicilian Defense, Smith-Morra Gambit (B21)

1. e4 c5 2. d4 cxd4 3. c3 dxc3 4. Nxc3 d6 5. Bc4 Nf6? 6. e5!

As is probably obvious from the fact that I played 5. … Nf6?, this was my first time playing against the Smith-Morra (I played the Caro-Kann throughout my scholastic career, but the sharper and more open Sicilian fits my style much better). Of course 6. … dxe5?? would lose instantly to 7. Bxf7+!! Kxf7 8. Qxd8. 6. … Nfd7 turns out to be the best, and really only move, but I got scared off from variations involving 7. e6; turns out that with White not having a knight on f3 yet, the attack fizzles and black equalizes. So instead, I play

6. … Qc7?

I analyzed out 7. Bb5+ Nfd7 8. Nd5 Qd8 over the board, thinking it looked really ugly but less ugly than the immediate Nfd7. Turns out I was wrong, because after 9. Bg5!, white’s attack is devastating. Fortunately, Ben also doesn’t see it (Chessbase indicates that he doesn’t normally play the Smith-Morra), and instead plays

7. Qb3? d5!

The only move that saves the position for black, giving back the pawn to shut down white’s attack. The discovered attack against e5 stops white’s aggressive responses, and he has to settle for taking back the pawn and letting me finish developing.

8. Bb5+ Nfd7 9. Qxd5 e6 10. Qe4 a6!

Black strikes back, and removes all of white’s potential tactics involving Nb5, a stronger approach than the immediate Nc6. Black takes the initiative, and develops the remaining pieces with tempo:

11. Bxd7 Bxd7 12. Nf3 Bc6 13. Qe2 Nd7

13. … Bxf3 is better according to Fritz, forcing white to weaken his kingside to save his e-pawn.

14. Bf4 Bb4 15. O-O Bxc3 16. bxc3 Bb5!

And now White has to throw away his c pawn to keep the exchange:

17. c4 Qxc4 18. Qe3 Qc5 19. Rfd1 Qxe3 20. Bxe3

20. … Be2!

Removing the defender on e5, though it turns out white has a zwischenzug allowing him to avoid losing another pawn:

21. Rdb1 Bxf3 22. gxf3 Nxe5 23. f4! Nc4 24. Rxb7 Nxe3 25. fxe3 O-O 26. Rc1

Hoping for 26. … Rfc8? after which 27. Rxc8 Rxc8 28. Ra7 wins the pawn and leaves white with the better endgame. I see it, though, and play instead

26. … Rfb8 27. Rd7 Rd8 1/2-1/2

Agreed to a draw; black can play 27. … Rb2 instead safely, but the pawn structure will make it very hard for black to turn it into a win. If I were feeling better and didn’t have work the next day, maybe I’d plug away for another 2 hours to try to catch white in a mistake, but here I’ll take the draw and head home.

With that, my streak continues; I haven’t lost an OTB game since my first comeback game against FM Asa Hoffman back in February (and no shame in that loss, certainly). And next time, I’ll know how to play the black side of the Smith-Morra.

Another Directing Day

Directed at my third NYChessKids tournament yesterday, in charge of the Championship (Over 1600), Open (1300-1600) and Classic (1000-1300) sections. Directing three sections, I had less time to watch particular games, but there were some fascinating moments, including:

* A dispute in a Classic section game over where black’s queen was, requiring thorough review of the players’ scoresheets to determine the correct position.

* A blitz playoff for first in the Open section between Corwin Cheung of Hunter and a Dalton player, both finishing 3-0. Corwin took first, winning both blitz games.

* It was one of the largest and longest NYChessKids tournaments ever, with Open and Classic section rounds all running to the time control. 4 G/60s, or 3 G/75s, makes for a long day for the kids (4 G/45s was already a pretty long day at the Marshall Club). My sections didn’t get out until around 6:00–not for inefficiency, but simply because the games ran so long. I think 4 G/45s makes for a more manageable scholastic day.

One annoyance at these tournaments is the privileged position that some NYChessKids affiliated coaches seem to have. There’s a general “no coaches or parents in the playing room” rule, which the parents follow but the master/IM level coaches ignore. For my own reference, when I start running my own scholastics, I’d rather have a blanket spectator area rule, allowing parents, coaches, and players to watch from a distance. If I’m running tournaments in the Midwest, where there’s more space, that’ll probably be easier.

Well, that’s Sunday’s news. Tonight: my first FIDE rated game, where I probably get smashed by a 2400 who gave up a first round draw!

Beating Little Girls

Well, I had planned to start out the FIDE Mondays tournament at the Marshall Club last night, but documents had to be produced. Money and time are the obstacles to adult amateur chess aspirations.

So, in lieu of a post about last night’s nonexistent games, let’s go back about a month to the NYChessKids PS 77 Tournament on Mar. 25, where I got to direct the Classic section (K-12 rated 1000-1300, though in practice K-8 U1300). I really like directing this section–the kids are still young enough that they’re respectful to adults, and still weak enough that I can play coach a little.

The March 25 tournament was a lot less eventful than the March 18 tournament, where 2 kids broke down in tears (one after losing on a touch move violation, and one bizarrely after merely dropping a pawn in the opening. If these kids could reliably win from a pawn advantage, they wouldn’t be in this section!) But, thanks to a late entry and a first round half-point bye, I got to be a house player in round 1 against top rated Juliana A., the late show who wanted to get in a game:

Juliana A. (1315 USCF) vs. Brian Beck (1785 USCF)

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. Be2?! [Unusually passive move in the Sicilian–most kids at this level seem happy to jump into a main line] Nf6 4. Nc3 g6 5. d3 Bg7 6. Be3 [Typical lines in the Dragon feature h3 to stop this] Ng4 7. Ng5 Nxe3 8. fxe3 e6 9. Nf3 d5 10. exd5 exd5 11. d4 cxd4 12. exd4 O-O 13. Qd2 Nc6

Black is slightly better due to his excellent bishop on g7 and bishop pair. White currently has a vulnerable d-pawn, and the best way to defend it is to find a better place for the c3 knight and puch c3. With no dark square bishop, White has no significant kingside attack, and will have to create opportunities by playing for the center, particularly on the e and f files. Black will play down the c and b files in this scenario, trying to undermine the d-pawn and turn it, or a future backwards c-pawn, into a long term weakness.

14. O-O-O?!

A curious choice with the f-file already open for White’s rook, but Miss A. seems to be remembering her usual Dragon lines featuring a White kingside pawn storm. The problem is that in those lines the center is closed; here, black has an active bishop and an open e-file to play with along with the usual half-open c-file. A kingside pawn attack is just too slow.

14. … Bf5 15. Kb1 Rc8 16. Rdg1?

Removes a defender of the d pawn, boxes in the h-rook, and threatens nothing. The answer is 16. … Be4!, after which White can’t do anything to dislodge the nasty bishop because of the undefended d4 pawn. White can keep the game in play by acknowledging the error, returning to d1, and slowly extricating himself, because the d5 pawn falls as well if Black simply captures the f3 knight. But instead White effectively gives up:

17. Nxe4? dxe4 18. Ne1 [It’s worth noting that computers recommend c3 over this, as White’s knight has been reduced to something worse than a pawn–a rock] Bxd4 19. Rf1 Ne5? [allows c3, letting White trade reduce pressure and trade queens into a losing, but not dead lost ending] 20. Rf4?? 21. Qb6 c3 22. Be3 Qd5 23. Qxe4 Qe3 24. Qxb7 [more dignified than resigning?] Qc1#

The key idea out of this game is to not confuse open and closed positions just because they come from similar openings. Put extra pawns on the e-file closing the position, and the classical Dragon “throw everything at each other’s kings” strategy makes sense. Here, though, White readied for a kingside pawn attack while Black’s pieces gripped the center, and was dead before she could push a pawn.

Anyways, after that game, the section evened out and I went back to just directing. Little Juliana proceeded to get a few warnings on sportsmanship (saying “Yes!” excitedly when her opponent picked up a queen–but the punishment fit the crime here, as she had miscalculated her trap and simply had hung a piece), and made serious early errors from sloppiness in her last 2 games. However, once she realized she was lost, she buckled down and tried to find creative swindles, one of which worked impressively in her last game.

The winner, a young boy named Akira N., won through simple, solid chess–get a small material advantage through tactical proficiency, hold on to the edge, win in the endgame. He went 4/4 in the section simply by winning won games. At this level, that’s really how the game works.