At the moment controversy surrounds the holding of the 2017 World Women’s Chess Championship. It is being held in Iran and the contestants are forced to wear the hijab. Some potential contestants have announced a boycott. Human rights champions like Nasrin Sotoudeh have weighed into the debate.
It brought to mind a tournament to which I was invited in the early nineties in Indonesia – Indonesia proper that is, not Bali, which is what most Australians mean when they say they are going to Indonesia. I was forced to consider the fact that if I went, I would have to dress differently from usual. Non-bridge playing friends thought I should be refusing to go because of Indonesia’s on-going human rights issues.
I went. I went and hated being in Indonesia, partly because of the being female problem, partly because it was the first place I’d been to since a trip to Argentina in the dark days of 1978 that simply felt bad. Corrupt at best. Although in theory I believe that boycotts of sporting events do have a meaningful impact on the politics which inspire them, bridge is never going to do that. It is an exceedingly unpopular game with no media appeal whatsoever. At the same time, the tiny bridge community of Indonesia is (or at least was) Christian dominated. Christians who were around this time extremely concerned about the violence being inflicted upon them in Indonesia. To boycott the event would have been to abandon them and they were my friends and colleagues. So I went.
Nobody should be playing women’s events, they should all be boycotted. But beyond the usual reason why they should be boycotted – because to accept the existence of women’s chess/bridge is to accept inferiority – and beyond any personal sense of worth which is clearly weighing on the minds of some of these women contestants, I read that another reason for boycotting this event is the danger that it will be used as propaganda ‘[a] tool to tell Iranian women that even non-Iranians are comfortable with wearing the compulsory hijab’.
Places to read about the issues involved:
Iran, chess, and the psychological bullying of non-hijabi defiant women here
Why An Iranian Human Rights Lawyer Just Supported The World Chess Championship Boycott In Iran here
Women’s World Chess Championship 2017 wiki page here
The year this came out I was in London, hanging about the super GM tournaments and buying chess books. It had been seven years since I played a tournament game, but I had time on my hands and a lot of good books were being published. This one was hot of the press and really suited me. It takes a position from GM games and suggests various positional plans. You consider these and come up with an answer.
I loved this book! Not only that, at the end it grades you and I was a grandmaster – too easy!! The benefits still show. I think I’m still better in this area than the rest of my game and I’m sure it’s this book’s doing. Of course it’s hard to be tactically sharp when one doesn’t play but I never had a great love for that sort of hard analysis, the I go here and he goes there and …. As for Kotov and his goddamn trees, honest to God I would have happily started a forest fire and burned the lot of them. No amount of trying made me comfortable with this way of thinking.
Whereas looking at a board and making plans, visualising the future to me is a bit like science fiction. You are looking at an arrangement on the board and seeing some new world connected, but not the same.
Losing oneself in visualisation is for me the greatest joy of chess. Is that okay, any chess superiors reading this?
It’s not a new story, there is a vast amount of anecdotal evidence that children do better at school and life by learning chess. It has particular impact in disadvantaged areas and on kids who for socio-economic reasons find school difficult. It’s a leveller. It is obvious that chess helps build up the brain and the psychology of being able to deal with school.
This is an inspirational video as to the impact in poor multi-lingual areas of Amsterdam of chess for kids. Apart from anything else it explains clearly the impact on the frontal lobe of the brain of thinking before acting – really interesting! The kids are learning good habits in a very practical way. They are taught to sit on their hands after they have made their move. Cute. And the profound consequence is that kids build up that vital part of the brain that teaches restraint and self-control.
The video also goes into the relationship between chess and the community and the ways in which other cultural pursuits have been drawn into the net.
And it’s a story of how much one person on a mission can achieve.
For details on the Morphy Number see, for instance, the wiki page.
Mine is 4. I’ve played Frank Sulik. Sulik was one of Australia’s top players for many years, but rarely played at national level. He dominated chess in Adelaide. Before WWII he played for Poland in two Olympiads both of which saw Poland come second. After WWII he emigrated to Australia, like many Baltic players at that time.
Sulik played Tartakover, who is a 2.
(first published in British Chess Magazine 2014)
The tale of how I have become a second will be for another day. Suffice to say it has happened. We’ve been playing for a Genevan club – club des amateurs d’echecs de genève or CAEG – and it would not be overstating the case to say the operative word for our club is amateur. The top team was in the C division when Manny first joined, got promoted to B division and this year, well, we haven’t given up on getting to A. But why would we, without a pawn pushed in anger yet? Manny mainly plays top board.
Now, if this were Magnus playing his first round of the Swiss B-league for 2014, his prep would be going something like this: a couple of weeks with his family in a resort somewhere nice. Perhaps he’d fit in a press meeting or two. ‘How do you think you are going to go against the Nyon Tigers’ first board, Mr Carlsen?’ Sun, spa, sport. Good food. Happy days. But it is Manny, not Magnus getting ready for the start of the season. I’d been priming Manny for months now about how he should be playing, how to make the most of himself. This is, I hope, something that might have wider interest. Not how the superstars of chess prepare for their best, but ordinary people with some talent and nothing much else on their side.
Manny came out of retirement here with the rating he had twenty years ago – 2300 in round numbers. Over the last 3 years it has stayed at that point. I think he can do better and I’ve been nagging him about it for a long time now. Manny’s pattern of play is like this. He generally gets a really awful position during the opening. He struggles on and achieves equality at some point. Then he offers or accepts a draw. He’ll say there was nothing in it, why should his opponent make a mistake?
This is why I’ve been nagging him. The point at which the draw happens is exactly the point at which he would now be playing at his full strength. Let’s say his rating of 2300 is an average of different parts of the game. In the opening he is much weaker than that. In the ending he is much stronger than it. He accepts draws out of the relief of having got through a bad patch, just when he should be rolling up his shirt sleeves for a fight. Does he listen to me? Not nearly as often as he should. The only reason he has been coming around to this idea is his observation of Carlsen, because Carlsen plays pretty much exactly like Manny except he wins more. He gets rubbish positions from the opening, but he doesn’t care as long as it is playable. If it is playable, now he is okay.
So, in brief this is the background to the start of this season. It was to be a season of renewed vigour, of playing the positions with an eye to extracting the most out of them. Yes, champ. We’re gonna get ‘em this year.
Oh, but the best laid plans. You know those shops you go to? The ones where you know the grim-faced person serving you is thinking how much better this shop could be run if it weren’t for the damned customers. I wonder how many other seconds feel like that about their players?
Exactly two weeks almost to the minute before the first game of the season Manny had a bad skiing accident. It was a compound fracture of the humerus – a broken shoulder in other words – and one of the breaks is not, as I write, healing properly, it is a bunch of splinters, not a clean break. We are waiting to see if it needs an operation. He has his arm in a brace and sling – his right arm, of course – and he spent a week knocked out on painkillers and the physical and mental stress of the accident. With a week to go before the round one, the first question is can Manny play? Yes, we decide. The team needs him to turn up, as it is the captain has had to agree to play and he doesn’t want to, so if Manny pulls out maybe they can’t even field a full team. Let’s face it, Carlsen’s interclub team doesn’t have to worry about things like this, but the reader probably knows the feeling.
The second question is how to make the most out of these rather invidious circumstances? For starters some time on ICC playing blitz. Usually he ranges between 2200 and 2400. Playing left-handed he started out more like 2000 and worked his way up until he felt like he could play at 2200. Next we got in one of the team for some practice with real pieces. Craig Thompson used to play for Scotland and is working in Geneva at the moment, a very welcome addition to our team. He and Manny played for a couple of hours to let him get the feel of pushing the pieces and the clock left-handed. What else could we do? Not much except hope that he could sleep okay the night before the game – it is an injury which is hard to sleep with for months. We’d done what we could. Manny sat down at the board and at move four he has already blundered:
Manny Rayner 2302 Murtez Ondosi 2421
1.Nf3 d5 2.g3 g6 3.Bg2 Bg7
4. 0-0? Usually Manny plays 4.d4 here, so he is already somewhere he doesn’t want to be. That is to say, that is to say, the question mark is a subjective one about the pragmatics of chess, not an objective one about the theory of the move. Other players might want to play this move, Manny did not.
What happened? We were under the misapprehension that it was compulsory for him to write his moves. I found that rather unlikely, there must be times when a player can play, but can’t write, surely there must be some provision for this? Well, yes, but we didn’t know at the time of the game. Writing left-handed was as stressful and difficult for Manny as actually playing the game. So there he is, it is move four, he is playing a substantially stronger player, 2421, and he is already out of his comfort zone. The only good thing about this is that it isn’t so different from usual, Manny has had some atrocious positions by move ten, so it doesn’t get him down. Good temperament is worth its weight in gold. Or points in this case. He settled down, struggled hard, but made no headway. It should have been depressing for me, but I’ve learned never to give up because Manny doesn’t.
4…e5 5.d3 Ne7 6.e4 0-0 7.Nc3 d4 8.Ne2 c5 9.Nd2 Nbc6 10.f4 f6 11.Nf3 Be6 12.fxe5 fxe5 13.Ng5 Qd7 14.Rxf8+ Rxf8 15.Nxe6 Qxe6 16.Bd2 h5 17.Kh1 Nc8 18.Ng1 Nd6 19.a3 Nf7 20.Bh3 Qe7 21.Nf3 Bh6 22.Kg2 Kg7 23.Qe2 Ng5 24.Bxg5 Bxg5 25.Rf1 Be3 26. Nh4
We are at this position:
I could scarcely believe my eyes when Ondozi played 26….Nd8. Manny can play 27. Bf5! Indeed he did, having seen this a while before. Now White has a won game. So, why did Manny draw a few moves later by repetition? His plan had been not to get into time trouble, of course, given that he wasn’t going to be as reliable as usual and especially given he had to write down the moves too. But in fact he had started running short of time. It wasn’t time trouble yet, but he simply didn’t feel confident about playing on under the handicaps he faced. Hence he took the draw. The team won, despite an average rating deficit of 40 points.
26…Nd8 27.Bf5 gxf5 28.Nxf5+ Rxf5 29.Rxf5 Qe6 30.Qxh5 Nf7 31.b3 b5 32.Qg4+ Kf8 33.Qh4 Kg7 34.Qg4+ Kf8 35.Qh4 Kg7 36.Qg4+
This is not a publishable game, but that’s the point. Most chess is like this. It isn’t about evergreen, profundity, brilliance. It’s about struggle, not giving up, grabbing the moment if it comes. Pragmatism, optimism, staying power. Insofar as this is what Magnus does, there is nothing special about it. Anybody can bring this resolve to the table. And it’s amazing how much you can salvage if you set your mind to it.
I love watching tournaments like this. A hall of spectators dead silent watching 10 players deep in concentration. Some, like Adams, have eyes that never leave the board. Others prowl around from time to time, but you get the feeling they are thinking about their games for every second they are away from the table.
And then there is Anand. He fidgets and when he is looking around, he looks like he is looking around. He doesn’t look lost in thought. He looks like he is looking for something that isn’t on the board. Come on Anand. Pull your socks up! (He has just lost two in a row.) And stop looking at….us!!!
Click on the picture to make it big.
In the post WWII period, chess has been taken as the perfect experiment in the search to make a computer ‘think’ like a human. In practice the developers quickly lost sight of that. Instead they focussed on how to make a computer beat a human, a project that involved increasing the brute force of the machine at the cost of the original goal of understanding how humans think and transferring that ability to computers.
Now an English MA student has made what looks like a breakthrough in the original plan. While bridge, as has been the case for many years now, only has any publicity in the mainstream press for cheating – and my, what a field day at the moment – chess is in the press for all sorts of reasons, this being one of them. The Daily Mail broke the story with the headline
Computer that can learn from its mistakes teaches itself to become a chess grandmaster
If you want the story complete with the Daily Mail’s righthand sexist strip on women, you can get there here.
If you want to read the MA thesis by Matthew Lai, complete with politically correct usage of gender language, on how it was done,
Giraffe: Using Deep Reinforcement Learning to Play Chess
you can find it here.
It is short and readable, I do recommend it. On can only assume, since the original idea was to make computers in general capable of human learning, that this could be a defining moment for the course of computer learning in the world in general. Exciting!