Wednesday, November 30, 2011

More Chess and Brain Stuff, Plus BLITZ HERESY!

Regular reader(s) will have noticed that I'm interested in relating discoveries about the brain and consciousness to chess. For the latest, see Chess Stories in Our Heads and Brain Folds and Memory.

An excerpt from a book by neuroscientist David Eagleman, Your Brain Knows a Lot More Than You Realize is also relevant to this interest of mine (if you're intrigued, the book is Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain). Eagleman makes an argument  many of us have heard of, but we could use reminding:

The concept of implicit memory has a rich, if little-known, tradition. By the early 1600s, René Descartes had already begun to suspect that although experience with the world is stored in memory, not all memory is accessible. The concept was rekindled in the late 1800s by the psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who wrote that “most of these experiences remain concealed from consciousness and yet produce an effect which is significant and which authenticates their previous existence.”

As almost everyone concedes, stronger players have more "skill" at chess than others, but they also have a lot more "intuition" (whatever, exactly, that means). They know when a move "looks right" most of the time. They are said to have 10,000 patterns in "memory" but this is the implicit memory referred to above. they can't sit down and tell you exactly what these 10,000 patterns are. I read somewhere that Najdorf, a world-class player, said that most of the moves he actually played were the first ones that his unconscious, his intuition, served up to his consciousness. It's interesting to note that Najdorf was known as a great blitz player and one of the greatest blindfold players of all time.

And now for some mild heresy...I think that blitz chess could be a very efficient way to develop your unconscious chess memory and improve results at all time controls, if done with conscious intent. That is, after each blitz game, take a few minutes to review any blunders (and sometimes, marvel at how nicely you played even though you took only a few seconds to move!). I use the engine that's available on FICS and often I learn something useful by spending about five minutes reviewing a game that took about five minutes to play. Look hard at the position and burn the RIGHT move into your memory and then...forget about it.

The opening moves are another area where blitz can give you a lot of useful experience and a storehouse of unconscious knowledge. I suggest that you stick to your main lines for as long as you know them and then briefly see where the players deviated from the moves in your favorite openings book. Again, just a couple of minutes will suffice to make an impression.

Blue Devil Knight wrote about this in relation to tactics exercises back in 2008:

I'm not convinced simply "memorizing" 1000 positions is all that bad. It all depends on how our brain treats those memories once they are implanted. The brain may (with no conscious effort on our part) integrate these different memories into more general categories, form cross-links among categories, striving to build an ever-more coherent picture of the chess world, even while we sleep our brain probably does this. If this speculation is right, the individual problems are like nodes in our brain that are initially implanted, but connections are formed among these nodes so ultimately it becomes a more general and useful integrated tactical skill set.

I am currently reading Roger Penrose's book The Emporor's New Mind and I expect to relate some insights from this fascinating volume to chess as well. Meanwhile, for my next posts I will do something I've never done before, share a few blitz games where something wild, entertaining and hopefully useful happened. I think my approach to blitz has some merit, and I would like to know what you think.
(NOTE: Dec. 1 is the last day to submit to BDK's Chess Carnival. Go here to submit.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book Review: Play 1. e4 e5! A Complete Repertoire for Black in the Open Games by Nigel Davies

(This review also appears at You can read all of my Amazon reviews here.)

Not Just a Good Opening Book, a Fine CHESS Book

I have had Play 1. e4 e5! in hand for about three months and it has become one of my favorite chess books. I have periodically replied to 1. e4 with e5 in my 30 years of serious chess, but the vast majority of my games as black against 1. e4 have been Center-Counter (aka Scandinavian) (1. e4 d5), Sicilian (1. e4 c5) or Pirc/Modern (1. e4 d6). My reasoning has always been that 1. e4 e5 is "giving White what he wants," that is at my below-Master level a chance to play a sharp gambit. I just never felt comfortable playing against the celebrated King's Gambit, and it seemed that other gambits also required a lot more study time than I wanted to use to meet them. Of course, the Ruy Lopez is an enormous complex unto itself.

Since I like and respect Grandmaster Nigel Davies for his "Power Chess" books and his fine Chess Improver blog I thought I would give this book a go, partly based on the other, positive reviews. I am very glad I did.

Play 1. e4 e5! is a complete repertoire against 1. e4, with the exception (as others have noted) of Alapin's Opening (1. e4 e5 2. Ne2). I don't consider this much of an omission, since it probably gets played in about .1% of e4 e5 games. To be completely thorough, also not covered here are unusual second moves for white like 2. a3, g3 and c4. These do get trotted out occasionally, mostly at below-master level, and it's not a bad idea to have replies prepared for these rare moves. Some coverage can be found at the beginning of John Emms' Play the Open Games as Black which I think is a good book, but not as directly useful for me as the Davies. Emms' book, published in 2000, is in the bibliography of Play 1. e4 e5! and is cited in the text as well, but the repertoire there is more complicated (e.g. King's Gambit Accepted) and it doesn't touch on the Ruy. You have to get a whole different book for that.

The final difference is one referenced in my title for this review. A great strength of Davies' book is that it has 65 main, annotated COMPLETE games (plus more in the notes), and the annotations don't end after the opening. The author comments on various turning points throughout the games (in 14 of which he was the player of the black pieces) and close study of these games can improve your play in all phases. This is what puts Play 1. e4 e5! a cut above many other good opening books.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Musical Interlude

This rocks so hard it will shake the very foundations of your weltanschauung. Seriously, as a cello player myself (admittedly, mostly inactive since high school) I can't tell you how proud I am to share this with you:

2Cellos, "Welcome to the Jungle"

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

November Chess Carnival is UP

The Prodigal Pawn has it.

A post of mine is not in it because I forgot to submit one until after the it goes. There is a bunch of stuff, which reminds me I need to figure out what to do about I have such limited time for chess right now, probably nothing. I play a bit on FICS and once in awhile play real live people here in my town. For study, I have maybe 50 books in my collection that I've bought over the years and never spent any time on...I guess I don't really need, but there is apparently a good bit of fine content there.

The next, December, Carnival will be hosted by long-time Manager Blue Devil Knight, and you can submit here. After that, he is going to let someone else take over or the Carnival is going to lie fallow. Let him know if you're interested. I'm thinking about it.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Chess Stories in Our Heads

From a NYT article on neuroscientist Dr. Michael Gazzaniga:

The left hemisphere takes what information it has and delivers a coherent tale to conscious awareness. It happens continually in daily life, and most everyone has caught himself or herself in the act — overhearing a fragment of gossip, for instance, and filling in the blanks with assumptions.

The brain’s cacophony of competing voices feels coherent because some module or network somewhere in the left hemisphere is providing a running narration. “It only took me 25 years to ask the right question to figure it out,” Dr. Gazzaniga said.

“One of the toughest things in any science, but especially in neuroscience, is to weed out the ideas that are really pleasing but unencumbered by truth,” said Thomas Carew, former president of the Society for Neuroscience and dean of the New York University School of Arts and Sciences. “Mike Gazzaniga is one of those in the field who’s been able to do that.”

Dr. Gazzaniga decided to call the left-brain narrating system “the interpreter.” The storyteller found the storyteller.

Emergent Properties

Knowing the breed well, he also understood its power. The interpreter creates the illusion of a meaningful script, as well as a coherent self. Working on the fly, it furiously reconstructs not only what happened but why, inserting motives here, intentions there — based on limited, sometimes flawed information.

The whole article (and the whole field) is interesting to me, but let's briefly relate it to chess.

Waaay back four years ago I wrote about Jonathan Rowson's book Chess for Zebras and briefly noted his references to "myth-making" and the stories we tell ourselves about what's going on in an individual game and what "kind" of chess player we see in ourselves. This brain research seems to back this up. Not only do we tell "stories" about the game of chess we're playing, it's probably impossible not to do so.

On the other hand, as my hero the late Grandpatzer Dr. Kenneth Mark Colby wrote, one way to get beyond patzer level is to emulate the computer in calculation and take "ego" out of the equation. One of the phenomena of blitz chess that intrigues me is how wonderfully it focuses the mind on the game. There is no time to look around at other boards, eat snacks or feel much emotion (until the game is over and one exclaims, "How could I make such a stupid move?!).

It occurs to me that at longer time controls, perhaps the ideal is a blitz-like total focus for a few minutes while calculating, and after the move is made let "the storyteller" of the left hemisphere have its way for a bit before becoming more of a "computer" again when it's your turn to move.

(NOTE: The great book Secrets of a Grandpatzer, which I wrote several posts about (link above) was out of print for years but has been reissued with a new introduction and...Japanese page headers? That's trippy. But the text looks the same. Highly recommended)