Sunday, 28 June 2015

My love-hate relationship with chess

(Originally posted on Friday, 19 May 2017)

I love to play chess, but several times I was so fed up with the game that I didn’t play a single game of chess for several months. Chess, like any other game, is flawed. Well the life itself is flawed and every person sooner or later has to realize this simple fact. And sometimes when a particular realization comes we start to hate something (or even someone) we liked (or even loved). This is silly, but I went through this with chess and I would like to write about it.

1. Love – simple rules, but complex game.
This is what makes chess superior to other games, including computer games. The rules of chess are rather simple:
– the rules about how pieces move and attack (there are only 6 kinds of pieces and there are only 3 kinds of special moves: castling, capturing en passant and promoting a pawn),
– the rules about attacking and protecting the king (the king cannot be captured),
– the rules about the end of the game – most importantly the rules about a checkmate (a win) or a stalemate (a draw).
And that’s it. With a dozen or so simple rules we get a game that can be played in practically unlimited number of ways. And we don’t need a high-tech computer to handle good graphics, unlike in most of the computer games.

2. Hate – memorization and experience.
In chess, like in any other game, the number of playable (fairly good) moves is much lower than the number of all the possible moves. Some moves are clearly better than the other, but to learn why they are better you have to either LOSE countless of games making different moves OR spend some time studying chess (without playing). Chess openings and middle games are especially hard to learn for chess amateurs because they are too complex. Chess professionals have no choice and have to understand AND memorize HUGE amount of chess data, which is of little value in the normal life. Chess amateurs can ignore, to some extent, learning chess openings (see the point 15), but learning chess tactics is still very time-consuming and painful.

3. Love – from start to finish in very little time.
Some people who have never played chess think that a game of chess is boring and lasts for hours. The truth is that a vast majority of chess games is played in less than 10 minutes. In just 10 minutes you can enjoy strategical decisions in the opening, wild tactics in the middle game and cold blooded finish in the endgame. Below there's one of my recent games that is quite interesting, but I have to admit that I made some blunders – I missed some killer moves, but I never lost my advantage completely. I was playing white.

4. Hate – heart-breaking losses.
No other game can hurt you like chess. This is another thing people who have never played chess don't realise. Playing chess is VERY stressful, especially when you have little time on your chess clock. What's worse every player is bound to commit a painful blunder that WILL cost him (or her) a game. When you are playing very well your position is winning and you commit such a blunder it feels as if someone ripped your heart out. To make it worse, the only person to blame is you because it was you who made the blunder. Terrible, terrible feeling. Fortunately in amateur chess it is common that even several blunders can be overlooked by both sides.

5. Love – character-building.
Such heart-breaking losses are quite positive for your character – they teach you how to handle your own failures, without putting the blame on other people.

6. Hate – most chess players are biased against safe openings and draws.
I really hate it. It’s really pathetic to criticize a player just because he reached a draw when the only alternative for him was to lose. It seems to me that some better players simply wait to capitalize on mistakes made by weaker players and are pissed off when a weaker player isn’t blindly trying to imitate chess masters and plays a “boring” opening instead. What's worse they try discourage such “safe” players from playing unambitious openings and behave as if they expected that every chess amateur should be treated like a potential future World Chess Champion. Ridiculous and pathetic behaviour.

7. Love – most chess players are biased against draws.
There is a bright side to this anti-draw madness too! Many chess amateurs, influenced by better players, always play for a win, even in a dead-drawn endgame, committing a chess suicide by the way. I have won many games which should have ended in a draw just because my opponent was playing for a win. Personally I ENJOY very long games that end in a draw and I respect the other side for wisely choosing a draw instead of a stupid loss. In fact dead draws (where neither side had a winning advantage) can be very interesting or even nail-biting too. Here's an example (I was playing white):

8. Hate – winning on time.
This seems to be connected with the anti-draw madness too. Most chess amateurs prefer very short games without any time increment, probably because such games hardly ever end in a draw. I wouldn't enjoy a win on time if I had a huge material disadvantage, but many chess players would be happy with it. Nowadays I never play without a time increment (I play almost exclusively with the clock set at 3 minutes + 5 seconds per move) and because of that sometimes I have trouble finding an online opponent to play against.

9. Love – bad habits of chess amateurs.
This is connected with the previous point. I have won many games just because my opponent played more quickly and/or more aggressively than he (or she) should have played. This is a very bad habit that chess players get when they try to win on time instead of trying to checkmate their opponents. When such a player joins my table he often doesn’t realize that this +5 seconds per move time increment means additional 3 minutes per game when the game is just 36 moves long. The difference between playing 3 minutes per game and 6 minutes per game is HUGE. Not to mention that with my calm opening strategy a game can sometimes last more than 60 moves and that would mean more than 5 additional minutes per game, making it over 8 minutes per game in total. Some players get very pissed off when they realize that they won't win on time against me. Of course I sometimes lose on time anyway, but in many games I can survive the worst onslaught and come up with a clear advantage. Such win-on-time players seem to implode at some moment and they blunder terribly, sometimes twice in a very short span of time. Here's an example (I was playing black, so flip the board upside-down):

10. Hate – you can’t win against the “AI” on the highest difficulty setting.
Even the World Chess Champion can’t win a single game against either of the best chess engines. If you want to play a “single player” chess game with any chances of success then you need to play against the “AI” that is GREATLY “dumbed down”.

11. Love – you can’t win against the “AI” on the highest difficulty setting.
This simple fact has a deeper meaning – it proves that any single player computer game featuring the AI is “playable” only because the AI is designed NOT to be deadly on purpose. It's not that the game designers are stupid, on the contrary – they are in fact very clever and they only pretend that they can't design a better AI. With chess engine designers it is the other way round – the chess engines are so good that they now play only against each other and their designers are always working at the top of their abilities.

12. Hate – chess is as addictive as any other enjoyable thing.
The fact the chess is based on very complex positions with many different options means that the need to spend more and more time improving your abilities can become VERY strong. If you are not careful you can end up spending LOTS of time playing chess. Below there are some examples of online chess accounts with over 120,000 games played. Each one of them with AT LEAST one hundred twenty thousand chess games !!! The record holder has played over 170,000 games of chess, but I wonder if that's really just one person or maybe more people are using this account. No matter what, such numbers are disturbing, to say the least.
My own online account doesn't look so bad after all, even though I used to play definitely too many games of chess per day:

13. LOVE – you can get one of the best chess engines totally for FREE!
It's called Stockfish and can be downloaded (together with its open source code) here:

Here’s a site showing which chess engines are currently the best, pointing out which are free (open source or free non-open source):

Currently I use the chess engine Stockfish 8 with a free graphical user interface (GUI) called SCID (version 4.2.2.) that can be downloaded here:

The option “Annotate…” (available only while an engine is already running) is fantastic!

14. Love – a good strategy with some basic endgame knowledge can work miracles.
“A good chess strategy” means “a way of playing that maximizes the chances for a good result”. Every chess player is different, so for every chess player a good strategy means something else. In case of chess amateurs a good strategy is to play a safe opening and exchange pieces in the middle game to have a chance to reach an endgame without suffering big material losses. Chess amateurs are usually weak at tactics, so they are likely to blunder in sharp openings or sharp middle games, which would MINIMIZE their chances for a good result. The endgames are much more simple and clear, so chess amateurs are much less likely to blunder then. When they play a safe opening and a safe middle game and they reach an endgame they MAXIMIZE their chances for a good result (a draw) or a great result (a win). Yes, a draw is a good result for a chess amateur!
Interestingly even basic endgame knowledge greatly increases one's chances for a win in an equal endgame or for a draw in a slightly worse endgame. The endgame is a whole different game on its own and you have to know how to play it. When you play it regularly you have a clear advantage over players who hardly ever reach this stage of a chess game.
Thanks to chess engines the basic endgames knowledge can be learned without any teachers – it’s enough to set up an empty board, place a few pieces, start a chess engine and experiment yourself. The most important endgames are:
– a king vs. a king and a rook (a MUST for offence),
– a king vs. a king and a pawn (a MUST both for offence and defence),
– a king vs. a king and two bishops (very rare, but instructive for chess newcomers),
– a king and a pawn on the 7th rank vs. a king and a queen (helpful both for offence and defence).

15. Love – you can piss off better players.
To compensate my lack of opening knowledge I play my own opening, which is practically never used by chess players (either amateurs or masters). It's similar to London System, but I play it my own way (I start with 1.d4, never play c4 and try to make a central break with e4). Maybe I will describe it in detail in another post (someday). The point is that my opening is not ambitious at all – I am not trying to “force” an advantage out of the opening, I play in a very safe way and I don't avoid “drawing” lines. Most importantly my position is VERY solid and black can't force a big advantage either. When I used to play in real-life chess tournaments and I played against better players they seemed to be surprised at first, then irritated, then worried and finally relieved when they managed to crack my position (or plain annoyed when I succeed in drawing the game). It was a good feeling, but I didn't like the amount of stress that hangs in the air during chess tournaments and nowadays I play chess only online. By the way: with black pieces I play either Slav Defence (1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6) or Caro-Kann Defence (1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5) – the most solid, universal and not too complicated defences available for black.

As you can see there is more love for chess than hate in me, but the line is very thin. Nowadays I usually play only one game of chess a day and I analyze it with Stockfish. On average I have more success this way than when I was playing more games a day, but any losing streak gets really annoying.

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