1

Live Blog! – 2016 World Chess Candidates Round 4

Posted by David Smerdon on Mar 14, 2016 in Chess

EDIT:  Good work Dave; today’s a rest day! Oh well. I’ll pick up again tomorrow (Tuesday) at 12.oopm GMT. Also gives FIDE 24 hours to tell me if I’m doing anything wrong :)

There’s been a LOT of controversy about the World Candidates tournament in Russia, which plays its fourth round today. The issue revolves around the organiser’s decision to threaten to sue any chess sites that broadcast the live games, which is contrary to what current practice has been to date. I have no idea how this will all play out, as several sites have decided to ignore the legal threats, but things are definitely going to get ‘interesting’. For more background, check out this article.

Anyway, the main consequence is that chess fans around the world have missed out on getting a rewarding broadcast experience. There is live video commentary on the official page, in case you are interested. It requires (free) registration and the commentary can be a little dry, in my opinion, but it’s not bad.

But as I’m going to be watching the games anyway, I’ve decided to blog live about the games (also because I wanted to test out the plugin). From midday GMT (1pm Amsterdam, 3pm Moscow), you can see the moves and computer evaluations of the games themselves without registration at this official Norwegian broadcasting site, and I’ll be sharing my thoughts in the blog below. Let me know what you think!

 

 
11

Do women play less beautiful chess? A rebuttal

Posted by David Smerdon on Feb 28, 2016 in Chess, Economics, Gender, Non-chess

I generally try to avoid the Chessbase news site, as experience has demonstrated that reading its articles generally leads to me hitting my own head more than is considered healthy. But this morning I stumbled across what on the surface seemed an incredible article. Azlan Iqbal, a senior lecturer at the Universiti Tenaga Nasional in Malaysia, wrote an article claiming to have found evidence that women play less beautiful chess than men. He recently presented his scientific findings, based on his own advanced computer software, at the reputable International Congress on Interdisciplinary Behavior and Social Science.

 

Readers will know that I’ve previously weighed in on the “gender in chess” debate (see here, and in a more academic sense here). But I like to keep an open mind about things, especially if they are backed by scientific evidence, and so I made myself a coffee and sat down to dissect the groundbreaking research of “Azlan Iqbal, PhD”, as he himself writes under the title.

 

Despite my general rule of distrust for anything written by someone who feels the need to write “PhD” after their name, the fact that his paper was accepted at an international conference was heartening, and Iqbal also provided the slides from the conference and the academic paper for reference. The Chessbase article summarized the main findings, which seemed to conclusively demonstrate that women play less aesthetically than men in his exhaustive analysis of Chessbase’s “Big Database 2015”. It seems somehow absurd on the surface that this result could even be measured, let alone whether it has any truth, but I pressed on, eager to see the real analysis. As the coffee slowly made its way into my system, I decided to start with the conference slides and then move on to the more technical scientific article.

 

The introduction of the presentation starts with the smiling photos of Magnus Carlsen and Mariya Muzychuk, together with their ELO ratings and the comment that “Statistically, a player rated 2882 has an 88% chance of defeating a player rated 2530 in a game.” Of course, every chess rating system only gives the expected score in a game, and says nothing at all about the chances of winning. Not a great start, but an easy mistake to make and so, excuses made, I moved on. The next slide started with the bold statement “Research suggests that men are better at chess than women.” Ugh! As I (and many others) wrote about extensively, this is certainly not the academic consensus. But everyone’s entitled to their own opinion –  even though in this case it was hardly framed as one. I quickly moved on, and – ah! – the next slides have actual chess diagrams in them! Iqbal presents a simple example of a famous mate-in-three:

 

Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 13.48.38

 

Seen this before? Of course; it’s a beautiful and famous chess puzzle. Unfortunately, Iqbal’s next slide, purporting to show the solution, begins “1.Nxh6+”. This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Naturally we can excuse this as a simple double-typo, although the little errors by now were beginning to accrue.

 

I hastily moved on to the real analysis. Iqbal describes his methodology as follows: He wanted to compare all mate-in-three sequences by men and women in the Chessbase database of games, ranking them with his patented software ‘Chesthetica’ for aestheticism. Now you might immediately be struck by one obvious questions here, as I was. What evidence is there that executed mate-in-threes can reflect general beauty in playing chess? Unfortunately, the only justification given is that three-move mates give the most consistent testing results from his software. The natural follow-up question is then to ask: how do we know Chesthetica is really measuring chess beauty? Ah, but here Iqbal preemptively counters with that often-used and curiously vague ‘get out of jail free’ card: Chesthica has been “experimentally validated”!

 

Confused? Never fear; now we get to the real data. Of the 6.3 million games in Big Database 2015, Iqbal extracted a sample of 1069 games by women and 115 games by men. Wait, what? Less than 1200 games out of over six million, and only 115 games by men? What’s going on?! There’s nothing in the slides to explain this inconceivably small sample, so I finally delved in to the full academic paper. And that’s when things got strange.

 

The first incomprehensible feature of the data collection is that Iqbal extracted only the games where White checkmated Black. This shortcut immediately threw out half the sample. The only reason I can possibly think of for this is that he didn’t want to have to modify his Chesthetica software to be able to flip the colours when it analyzed the Black-checkmating-White games – although given that Iqbal’s profession is computer science, this seems highly unlikely. I honestly have no idea why half the games would be discarded in this way, especially as Iqbal goes on to make the excuse many times in his paper that the analysis suffers from too few suitable games.

 

But how is it possible that he ended up with fewer male games? Well, the second baffling component is that the sample was split by gender using an incredibly rudimentary method: by filtering for tournaments with “women” or “men” in the game data. And surprise surprise, there were very few men-only events. I have to say that this seems like an astonishingly lazy way to filter the data. Why not just cross-reference the sample against any standard database of female players? Or hey, even just sort manually over a day or two? After all, I guess this is what Iqbal next had to do anyway, because he goes on to write that his team “managed to identify enough additional games between males to bring the 115 set to 1,069 as well.”

 

I found the term ‘managed’ a bit comical, seeing as he would have had literally tens of thousands of candidate games to choose from. How did they select the games? Were they random? And why limit this to exactly 1,069? Any basic statistical comparison can handle uneven numbers in the samples, and practically always in science, ‘more data is better’ from an academic perspective. It it very strange to say the least to limit one’s sample to an identical match (and highly unlikely that this came about by chance).

 

The eagle-eyed observer, however, will have noticed an even stranger term in Iqbal’s last sentence: “between males”. And indeed, closer inspection reveals that the database includes games by males only against other males, and games by females only against other females. Why?! Is Iqbal testing whether women play more beautifully against other women, perhaps as an extension of the famous Maass, d’Ettole and Cadinu paper of 2008? Well, no, and in any case, this would still require a sample of checkmates by women against male players.

 

I can think of no sensible explanation for this restriction, except that perhaps this was what came out of the primitive “women” and “men” tournament search. The result of this piece of academic lethargy is a bit more serious than just reducing the size of the data sample, as in the above cases. It adds an extra potential bias to the data, which is most likely a serious one given that – as Iqbal himself quotes in the paper – research has shown that women play differently against men than they do against other women.

 

By now I was on to my second coffee and getting slightly worried: I hadn’t yet reached the main results of the analysis and already the data set was (a) unnecessarily small and (b) most likely corrupt. With more than a degree of trepidation, I turned to the slide with the chief experimental results, and breathed a sigh of relief:

 

Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 14.26.45

 

“Elo & Age Independent”! Yes! That was a huge relief to see; after all, the average Elo, a crucial component to aesthetic chess, is most certainly different between the male and female samples, and there’s almost certainly an age difference as well (although how relevant age is to chess beauty is debatable). But the fact that these factors had been excluded was absolutely necessary for the results to have any worth at all.

 

But I did begin to wonder how Iqbal had done this. After all, it would have required a reasonable (though not infeasible) amount of work to extract these variables from the Chessbase dataset, and all evidence so far had suggested that he was against excessive effort if it could be avoided. I turned back to the academic paper to find out the details. I took a sip of coffee, turned back to the paper, and almost spat it out as I read in black and white:

 

“There was no filtering based on age or playing strength as this study is concerned more with gender differences and aesthetic quality of play…” 

 

Well.

 

At this point, I considered whether I should even bother to read the rest of the article. It was of course possible that Iqbal had run multiple econometric regressions to try to control for the influence of age and Elo. But this would have run into all sorts of technical problems, such as the relationships between gender, Elo and age, as well as what we call ‘endogeneity’ – for example, one would have to prove that trying to play ‘beautiful chess’ in all your games doesn’t affect your rating. There are econometric techniques to deal at least in part with many of these concerns. None are mentioned. In fact, the explanation about Elo and age independence is curiously missing entirely from the scientific paper.

 

Not to worry; we shall persevere! I continued reading. Iqbal’s next result is to show that checkmates by strong players (Elo 2500 and above) are statistically more beautiful than average, according to his software. I doubt this surprises anyone. A major problem with this analysis is that checkmates that actually appear on the board in games are far more likely to occur in much weaker level games. It is very well ingrained chess etiquette for GMs to resign before checkmate is delivered, especially if it is forced (and forced checkmates are the only types Iqbal considers – don’t get me started about this).

 

So when might a forced checkmate actually be seen in a GM game? You guessed it: when it’s exceptionally beautiful. That’s the only time chess etiquette dictates that a player shouldn’t resign but allow the mate to be played out, if he or she wants. So this means that testing the relationship between Elo and checkmating beauty is inherently, inseparably flawed. GMs allow other GMs to deliver mate only when the checkmates are already beautiful – unless of course it happens during blitz, but no sensible study would include those games.

 

Well…it turns out Iqbal’s sample does include blitz games. And rapid, and exhibition games, and also – wait for it – games from simultaneous exhibitions.

 

I could go on, but you are probably already at the limits of your endurance. But allow me to leave you with just a few pearls of wisdom that can be found buried within the discussion in the paper. Iqbal is obviously proud of his main finding that females play less beautifully than males, as he extrapolates this to an insight into the psychological preferences of women, writing:

 

“Do the results then imply that women have less artistic appreciation of the game? Perhaps.”

 

He also suggests some keen intuition into the depths of – you’ll like this – the psychology of computers.

 

“This suggests that computers, regardless of their playing strength or ‘experience’ (if any), …perhaps [have] just no conscious or unconscious appreciation of art…”

 

All I can say to such shrewd perceptions is: thank God we have men.

 

It is not all bad news for females. Iqbal does, in a rare concession for the paper, offer the following caveat to his analysis:

 

“Logically, it would also follow that there are likely domains where women fare better aesthetically than men.” 

 

One or two do come to mind.

 

Reading over what I’ve written above, I feel a little guilty for the harsh and dismissive way I’ve criticized Iqbal’s work. So let me conclude with a positive note: In general, I am optimistic and supportive of scientific efforts to use chess as a tool to analyze different questions. There have been several interesting academic works in recent years that have done this, and I genuinely think that Iqbal’s Chesthetica software has its role to play in the future of chess research. But such research has to be conducted in a thorough, industrious and attentive manner, especially if it purports to lofty claims in areas such as gender. If not, the methodology is prone to stern aspersion or, even worse, outright dismissal.

 

I finished my second coffee just as I came to the concluding paragraphs of Iqbal’s paper. And here, finally, I agreed wholeheartedly with one of his generalized statements, and so it’s a good note on which to finish this rebuttal:

 

“In general, what we have demonstrated should not be taken too seriously…”

 

With that, I shut down my computer.

 

 

 
1

Book Review: Chess Informant

Posted by David Smerdon on Feb 24, 2016 in Chess

BOOK REVIEW: Chess Informant 125 / Chess Informant 126

 

125                                                          126

 

Tl;dr version: The old Chess Informant series is back with a new groove, and your author was suitably impressed. In terms of high-level analysis for a chess periodical, it’s the best I’ve seen. Moreover, the new style, with well-written and entertaining articles by top-level GMs, makes for an enjoyable read as well as an educational one.

 

As an ardent student of history, I love “Back in my day…” stories. Nowadays I could, if I want, do my entire preparation at a tournament via my smartphone, which contains a virtual library of chess books and articles as well as an internet database and link to my desktop engine at home. Can you begin to fathom how chess preparation has progressed?! Of course it was not always so, and I loved hearing GM Ian Rogers’ stories of his chess youth in which players would cart folders of hand-written files of games to their tournaments. The next step in the evolution of preparation was Chess Informant, an encyclopedic-sized, pan-lingual chess periodical that was replete with a fully annotated collection of the latest grandmaster games. These tomes contained a dazzling array of Wingdings-esque annotation symbols and virtually no vernacular, but it was all any chess professional needed to take on tour, regardless of their spoken language.

 

While a marked improvement on paper files, there naturally remained a substantial inconvenience to lugging around a bunch of Informants (or ‘Informators’, as I was taught) on the road. I’m old enough to remember doing just that when I was about 12 and playing in Europe. But of course the rise of truly portable computers and with it computer software and databases of games (albeit of significantly inferior annotation standards) removed the need for such manual labour, and being the indolent traveller that I am, I quickly replaced my treasured Informant collection with plastic and silicon. It sits, gathering dust, in the attic of my parents’ house in Australia, a relic to a pre-technology generation of chess preparation.

 

Or so I thought.

 

Despite my having abandoned the series, the Informant production has tirelessly continued unabated over the decades, but in recent years has rebranded itself from a pure data source. Like the proverbial phoenix, it has emerged from the ashes of the technological boom, reborn as an exceptionally high-quality chess periodical that combines cutting-edge analysis with a surprisingly entertaining literary bent. With over half of each book taken up by verbose GM-authored articles, Informant no longer caters to non-English speakers, but instead now provides enjoyable education and mouth-watering opening analysis by some of the world’s best chess analysts. And the rebirth, I have to admit, has been a complete success.

 

Does it sound like I’m gushing with flattery? I was accused of this by a chess.com reader recently after my review of the new Negi book – an accusation to which I most readily concede, as that book is outstanding! But just in case you feel like I’m overblowing the credentials of Informant’s authors, just look at this list of superstar contributors that feature in both of my review editions:

  •      Alexander Morozevich – perhaps the foremost contributor to original opening analysis today;
  •      Mihail Marin – unanimously considered one of the best modern chess authors;
  •      Karsten Mueller – arguably the most highly respected endgame analyst of the last decade.

 

Quite a dazzling line-up of stars, but the Informant team ‘bats deep’, as we say in cricket. There’s also Michael Roiz, one of the most reliable annotators around, as well as Emmanuel Berg, an outstanding opening theoretician, particularly in sharp variations after 1.e4. There are also some lesser well-known GM authors who, much like Marin, add a pleasant personal, retrospective slant to their articles. In Inf 126, for example, Ernesto Inarkiev writes a nice piece about life on tour as a chess pro, while GMs Leitao, Sethuraman and Shankland, in particular, give insightful peeks into their thoughts during the ups and downs of their recent World Cup campaigns.

 

With so many articles covered in each issue, there are always going to be favourites and less-favoured parts for each reader, as was my experience. In particular, I found the articles by one of the headliners and the top-rated contributor, Harikrishna, to be surprisingly disappointing. I was looking forward to really learning something from the thoughts of the almost-highest rated Indian player (at the time of writing, less than 1 ELO behind Anand!). Instead the two articles are rather dry with almost superficial analysis and a somewhat self-indulgent flavour. It is a shame that Harikrishna is also the annotator of the ‘Novelty of the Year’ (the amazing game Carlsen-Topalov from Saint Louis last year), as here, too, his analysis is disappointingly shallow.

 

On the other hand, I was extremely impressed by the article of Alexander Ipatov, who in Inf 126 also writes about his World Cup experience in Baku. The talented young Turkish GM is a surprisingly good writer, whose analysis is thorough and informative and who gives some really interesting insights into his approach to chess both during each game and more generally. This, for me, was an unexpected highlight. Another intriguing article is the unique ‘mirroring’ series by Emanuel Berg. In each article, he analyses a topical opening tabiya first solely from the white side, and then, in the subsequent game, from Black’s perspective. It sounds odd, and I’ve never seen it done before in such a segmented manner, but somehow it works, and I liked these articles very much.

 

But the flagship pieces in Inf 125 and Inf 126 are undoubtedly the very first ones in the two editions, both by renowned opening inventor Alexander Morozevich. As an academic, I’m always impressed when top-level chess players are willing to publish their opening discoveries to the wider community, a knowledge-sharing approach that helps further the ‘science’ of chess theory. Morozevich is one such author, and these standout articles containing his incredible analyses of the Rubenstein French (Inf 125) and the Benoni/King’s Indian Saemisch hybrid (Inf 126) are truly top-class. Even if one doesn’t want to purchase the whole book, no chess professional should miss being across the material published by Morozevich in each edition.

 

I have to make one point that regular readers will have come to expect of me by now, and which, as a native English-speaker and self-confessed ‘grammarphone’, might not be relevant to all. But regardless, I feel obliged to report: for a chess periodical that previously prided itself on being virtually language-free, the quality of the English writing is absolutely exceptional. My guess is that the articles are first written by the authors in their preferred tongues and then translated externally, although I could find no acknowledgement of a translator in the book. But the books read exceptionally well, especially compared to the standard we’ve come to expect in chess publications. Whatever the means or method, the Informant team deserves a big pat on the back for entering the English literary world at such a high entry level.

 

My final comment before you run out and buy yourself a copy – ah, who am I kidding? Who buys books outside their house anymore? – is that Informant is not for everyone. By this, I mean that the high-level analysis for which Informant became famous still remains, and to many amateur players this will be overwhelmingly daunting. In my opinion, there are still better periodicals out there from a pure literary-enjoyment perspective for the chess enthusiast, although the style of the new Informant makes it a worthy competitor. (Incidentally, Informant 126 contains a full-page advertisement for the New in Chess ipad app – now that’s really chess knowledge-sharing at its finest!) And for 99 percent of readers, these books are not designed to be enjoyed on the train or the beach, but require a table, a set and a reasonably serious attitude for maximum fulfilment. Still, in terms of combining superb analysis with enjoyable writing and a pleasing mix of articles, the resurrected Informant has definitely won me over. Perhaps in turn I should resurrect my bigger suitcase.

 
4

Facebook Chess

Posted by David Smerdon on Feb 4, 2016 in Chess, Non-chess

Towards the end of one of my recent economics tutorials at university, I asked my students if there were any questions. There was a brief discussion (in Dutch) among three boys in the front row and then one shot up his hand and said, “Sir, can you help us?” while waving his iPhone with the other hand. It’s not unusual for my students to have the lecture notes or even textbook on their phones, so I wandered forward to see what was up. To my surprise I saw that he had the Chess.com app open on the screen, and as I came closer he continued, “I’m playing a game against my Dad, and we googled you and saw that you’re a grandmaster, so we thought…”

The rise of the smartphone has given chess players a new lease on life when it comes to the chess world, with a whole raft of apps available for following tournaments, learning and playing. And quite a few of my friends outside of the chess world use apps to play ‘correspondence’ games with their friends or family, usually playing at most one move per day. I had a similar thing set up in my old share house where my housemate would write his move every day on a scoresheet we stuck on the fridge, and I’d reply in kind when I got home. And recently we set up a board in the living room of my new place and Sabina and I played a similar game (a surprisingly high quality one, too) over the course of a month.

And now there’s a new way to play while virtually ‘hanging out’ with your friends: Facebook Chess. There are over a billion people connected to Facebook and personally I use it for short messages to my friends far more often than email, text or even WhatsApp. The clever people at Facebook have now added an ‘easter egg’ – a tech term for a hidden computer function – to their messenger program. And despite it being pretty basic, it’s totally cool.

Using it is very simple: Just type  @fbchess play  to one of your friends as a Facebook message. That will automatically start a game in your personal chat thread with them (the computer will work out the colours, but if you want to get ahead, type instead  @fbchess play white ). After that, it’s just like one of those old-school command-based chess programs from the nineties. Just write the commands using algebraic notation, and don’t forget that they’re case sensitive too. So for example,  @fbchess e4  works, and so does @fbchess Bg7 , but not  @fbchess bg7 . Each move appears on the board in the messenger window so you can see where you’re up to.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 21.58.32

Anyway, if you make a mistake, it’ll tell you, and you can always type  @fbchess help  if you want a list of commands. Useful other ones include  @fbchess undo  (but your opponent has to accept the takeback, naturally!)  and – let’s hope not –  @fbchess resign .

You’ve probably already worked it out, but every chess-based command starts with  @fbchess ; if you want to just write a normal message (like “Ha, didn’t see that coming, didya?!”), just write it as you normally would.

Okay, it’s no Fritz, but I still think it’s kind of a cool hidden feature of something I probably use about thirty times a day. And you know those awkward Facebook chats where you can’t think of anything to say and are desperately looking for a suitable yet harmless emoticon because it’s your turn to write? Well. Now you can just play a move.

 
1

Hottest 100: My top ten

Posted by David Smerdon on Jan 24, 2016 in Non-chess

“You know, you’ve only got a day to go to write a certain annual post, mate.”

So said my mate Fitzy at breakfast this morning. I’m on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, a serenely picturesque region that encompasses glorious surf beaches, wildlife-filled swamplands and spectacular rainforests. I’m only here for three days (it is a work trip, after all), so why would I think about sitting on my computer to write a blog post?

But Fitzy was right: Every year before Australia Day I religiously get in my votes for Triple J’s Hottest 100. Triple J is Australia’s premier commercial-free radio station and at the start of each year it hosts the world’s largest music voting poll, ranking the top 100 songs of the last twelve months as chosen by its listeners. Then on January 26 (“Australia Day”), it plays the countdown starting from number 100 at midday through to the grand unveiling of number one. The countdown’s an integral part of an Australia Day experience, and I – an avid Triple J listener even from Amsterdam – never miss it.

It’s also the one day each year that I write with my ‘pretentious music critic’ hat on.

This year, for no good reason, my entries have taken on a decidedly more electronic flavour than in previous editions. I’m not sure why, as the bulk of my 2015 listening stuck firmly in the indie rock genre, as per usual. But somehow the cream that rose to the top had a bit more bass and beat than your typical glass-and-a-half alternative. Perhaps it’s because last year I finally tried my hand at music creation, and EDM (electronic dance music) is certainly the easiest genre to produce on a computer. Or perhaps it’s because I spent last summer in Greece, the mecca for deep house and annoyingly boppy dance tunes. Or perhaps – most likely – it was just the luck of the draw. Anyway, let’s get into it, starting with a couple of your more bread-and-butter indie ballads.

 

10:       SAFIA – Embracing Me

Readers of previous years’ editions will know that I’m not against voting for a track largely due to an exceptional video clip. This one is no OK Go (if you haven’t seen an Ok Go clip, click on this one immediately. And then block out the next half hour from your schedule as you find yourself on a whirlwind YouTube adventure of pure magic), but it’s encapsulating nonetheless. The song itself is nice in itself, though it probably wouldn’t have made my list if it wasn’t for the heart-warming video romance between two Amish youths. For that reason, I don’t imagine it to feature highly or even at all in the final countdown, but it’s a nice change for a bit of emotional depth in a charting song these days.

 

9:         The Meeting Tree – I Pay My Tax (I Hate Myself)

‘The Meeting Tree’ is made up of a bunch of Sydney boys who first got noticed last year with their debut urban EP entitled ‘r u a cop’. In general I loathe song titles that deliberately misspell words, so seeing that sin in an entire album title really made me shiver. But I have to admit, the deliciously quirky self-loathing of the lyrics in I Pay My Tax (I Hate Myself) is unexpectedly catchy. I didn’t recognize the lyricist Janet English so I was surprised to discover that she’s better known as a member of Spiderbait, while Seamus from Sticky Fingers also has a hand (ha!) in producing the track. Despite the chorus sounding almost like a somewhat depressing school camp fire, the roaring, heavy synths somehow manage to turn that title’s frown upside-down. And in a year where I had to fill out two tax returns in two countries, I had to giggle a little. You’ll end up singing along whether you like it or not.

 

8:         Jai Wolf – Indian Summer

I love all things Indian, and music is no exception. The oriental theme runs strongly through the entire piece, but meets an interesting musical fusion with massive synth chords and spliced vocals. This track begins with charming finger clicking and basic piano synths to accompany the beautiful pitched-up vocal melodies, but when the slow beat is dropped, the track morphs into a more euphoric piece that almost musically defines “feel-good”. It wouldn’t at all feel out of place on the wonderful Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, one of my favourite film-based albums, but the young New York producer has given the genre an electronic twist of his own. This is, incredibly, his very first musical release, although the backing of the Foreign Family label is already a strong indication of his musical talent. When I first listened to Indian Summer, I found my imagination reaching for the long train montage from Slumdog, and I can definitely see the track being sampled in future films. Definitely watch out for more from this guy.

 

7:         The Cat Empire – Wolves

From one type of wolf to another; but I must confess to being biased in next this choice. I’ve loved the Empire since they rose from the depths of Melbourne’s Fitzroy to take the international stage by storm, perhaps due in part to the fact that lead singer Felix liked to frequent the same café on Brunswick St as me. Blending a mix of South American street carnival vibes with grungy Aussie hip-hop, these guys are just the bomb. I’ve seen them live a bunch of times now, most recently a few months back in Amsterdam when their manager gave me some free tickets to celebrate our engagement. Seriously, how awesome is that?! But personal biases for the band aside, Wolves is an awesome track that sends a strong signal for their upcoming new album, which will have to do well to beat the outstanding Steal the Light from 2014. Having listened to a couple more tracks in the concerts that I assume will make the final record, I can tell you that the whole thing’s probably worth adding it to your wish-list already.

 

6:         Foals – Give It All

Moving away from electronic fusion for just a moment, Foals are a band that capture the lyrically deep indie vibe that is desperately lacking from the popular charts these days. Give It All is soft, dark and compelling. Both the lyrics and the moving video clip tell the story of a man suffering the deep aftereffects of a breakup, so pick your mood wisely when deciding to go all-in on this one. And particularly if you end up stumbling upon the music video director Nabil’s ‘Director’s Cut’, which has a somewhat more ‘intense’ finale. It’s probably not a song to get the party started, but like all good art, you’ll think, and you’ll feel.

 

5:         Set Mo – White Dress {Ft. Deutsch Duke}

Ok, so that last description was too pretentious even for me. Let’s lighten the mood somewhat with some classic summer house: Heavy bass, deep male baritone vocalist, simple harmonies, basic lyrics, and a couple of earthy synths thrown in for good measure. Think sandy beaches and cocktails, late nights and Mediterranean cuisine, sun, sea and summer romance. Get your deep house on.

 

4:         Vallis Alps – Young

The opening bars of Young sound suspiciously like Gooey by Glass Animals, the #12 hit in last year’s countdown. The high-pitched riffs are soon replaced by the sultry whispers of lead vocalist Parissa Tosif. Parissa is a good old fashioned Canberran, and she paired up with Seattle-based musician David Ansari to work on their breakout EP that took Triple J Unearthed by storm last year. Since then they’ve decided to work together out of Sydney and I’m really excited to see what they manage to come up with in the future. Take a listen to their flagship track and you’ll soon be, too.

 

3:         RÜFÜS – Innerbloom

RÜFÜS has been a real find this year, and the Sydney group’s alternative dance style has really endeared themselves to my eclectic music tastes. Their debut album Atlas reached number one in Australia featured a whole bunch of classy alternative-dance tunes of a similar style. But the released singles of their very recent second album Bloom, cleverly marketed to hit the virtual shelves just in time to get some heavy airtime during the countdown voting, are amazing. I expect all three of You Were Right, Like an Animal and Innerbloom to make the final 100, but even though the latter is supposedly the weakest on other popular metrics, it is definitely my favourite. It reminds me a little of Flight Facilities’ Clair de Lune (#17, 2012 Hottest 100) in that it’s a long, epic piece that hits the smooth notes and keeps a steady emotional grab. In fact, at almost 10 minutes long, Innerbloom will almost certainly be the longest song to enter the final countdown – and it’s worth every minute.

 

2:         Major Lazer – Lean On {Ft. MØ/DJ Snake}

What’s to be said about this track that hasn’t been said already? Major Lazer continues to impress in both the mainstream and indie charts, giving the guys wide airtime across multiple genres and earning them many fans from different backgrounds. By their own admission, their styles mixes EDM with features of reggae, dancehall, electronic, reggaetron, house and ‘moombahton’. No, I don’t know what it is either. In any case, their 2013 hit Get Free was a classic dance-chill track that also got a sniff into the Hottest 100 of that year, but they’ve outdone themselves with Lean On. The oriental harmonies are coupled with a similarly themed video clip, but for me it’s the the huge synthed beat drop in the chorus that wins the day. Expect to see Lean On finish in the top three on Australia Day, and possibly even take out first prize.

 

1:         Jamie xx – Loud Places

Although Lean On will almost certainly finish the highest of my votes, it would be disingenuous of me to claim it as my favourite track of the year. That honour goes to a song that’s slower, sultrier and sexier. I’ve been partial to the dulcet tones of the enigmatically named ‘Jamie xx’ since his remix of “Islands”, the huge 2009 track by – wait for it – ‘The xx’. Confused? Don’t be; The xx is made up of Jamie’s schoolmates, and the lead vocalist, Romy Madley Croft, is the voice behind this classic. She features a few times on Jamie xx’s album In Colour, which is all-round gold in terms of mood and background music. But the beat behind this track, coupled with groovy percussion bells and well-crafted lyrics, turns Loud Places into much more than just a chill-out track. It was even voted the UK’s ‘Anthem of the Summer’, and with good reason. Press play, hit repeat. You won’t be disappointed.

 

If you want to see how my picks end up faring in the countdown, you want to feel some Aussie love this Australia day, or you’re just a fan of good music, tune into Triple J on January 26. The countdown starts at midday Australian Eastern Standard Time.

 

 
1

Leaping into 2016

Posted by David Smerdon on Jan 21, 2016 in Non-chess

The worst thing about taking a long hiatus from a blog is all the spam.

That aside, I’m back, and looking forward to a big year. It’s always nice when the chess and regular olympics coincide, and in a leap year no less. I was trying to find something more mathematically special about the number 2016 than the simple fact that we get an extra day in a few weeks. I struggled. It looks similar to the supremely addictive “2048” game (click the link at your peril – hours will be wasted!). But it’s not. The best I could come up with was that if you add its square to its cube, you get a number that contains every digit from 0 to 9 exactly once. Hardly dinner-party conversation.  [EDIT:  We can do better. Get your math geek on below.]

So instead, I’m finishing my Triple J Hottest 100 votes. Forthcoming.

Happy 2016!

 

(…turns out 2016 is quite cool after all. It’s triangular: 1+2+3+…+63=2016. And if you take the square root of the triangle of these cubes, √(1³ + 2³ + 3³ + • • • +63³), we’re also back in 2016-land. But the coolest is probably its binary representation:  2016 = 11111100000)

 
0

REVIEW: 1.e4 vs The Sicilian II (Parimarjan Negi)

Posted by David Smerdon on Dec 19, 2015 in Chess

Book review: “1.e4 vs The Sicilian II” – Parimarjan Negi (Quality Chess)

 (click to buy from Amazon)

Even after all these years, I still get a kick when I receive a new chess book. But there’s something special about getting a Negi book. Perhaps it’s knowing that the pages are full of exciting and practical novelties, or maybe it’s an expectation that each volume contributes concretely to furthering modern opening theory. Or maybe I just like the writing. Regardless, the third of the series lived up to my hopes once again.

The second Sicilian volume covers the Dragon, Accelerated Dragon, Rauzer, Lowenthal, Kalashnikov and Sveshnikov variations, which is an incredible achievement in itself. In the preface, Negi allows himself to reminisce on his work on the series to date, which I found interesting. He says that his writing style has evolved from heavy theory to trying to help the readers feel comfortable with the resulting positions. I’m not sure he’s quite got there yet, to be honest, as this book is again more of a theoretical monster with plenty of novelties and inexplicable computer moves to wrap your head around. But there’s a little more in the way of general explanation than the previous volumes, and Negi is correct in claiming that the book links the approaches in different chapters together much better.

Still, in my opinion (as you have no doubt guessed by now), the main trump of the Negi series is in the theory. Negi continues to find some wonderful new ideas, both for White and, crucially, for Black. This to me is one of the stand-out features of these books (by the way, this is a practice repeated in Gawain Jones’ recent Dragon books, which I will review in due course). It’s one thing to find improvements over current practice by choosing to address only those moves found in the database, but it’s a whole other level to actively seek out and then tackle new ideas for both colours.

But enough chit-chat; I bet you’re dying to know what Negi recommends against some of the most dangerous and popular Sicilian variations around. I have to admit up front that I was a bit surprised by some of his choices. Against the Dragon I would have predicted a 9.0-0-0 repertoire, but Negi instead opts for 9.Bc4, avoiding the classical Soltis in lieu of 12.Kb1. This in itself is not so surprising as without the inclusion of Kb1 and Re8, the Soltis Yugoslav attack is well-known to lead to a draw pretty much by force in every line. On the other hand, this move-order allows Black the option of playing the ‘Topalov Dragon’ with 11…Nxd4, a pawn sacrifice recommended by Jones, well utilized in correspondence chess and even employed by yours truly. Could Negi really have busted this bastion of the Dragon?

The answer is: almost! In this heavily analysed variation, Negi utilizes and then extends the current state of theory in the correspondence world to put new pressure on Black’s defences. The main line, shown below, culminates in Black needing to find the strong novelty 21…Rb8! after which things end in a draw by perpetual check after further fireworks. This seems like a fair result of the author’s labours: Busting the Dragon was always going to be an unrealistic goal in my opinion, but being able to pose new challenges that only the best-prepared opponents can navigate is all one could possibly ask from a repertoire book.

But while the Dragon is confirmed to be a risky but playable opening by Negi’s analysis, the real surprise for me was to be found in the second section on the Dragon’s hyperactive younger brother, the Accelerated Dragon. Here I would have bet money that Negi would recommend the Maroczy, but instead we see an invitation for Black to transpose back to a regular Dragon after 5.Nc3. Negi admits that it was hard to choose between the two approaches, but in my opinion the current state of theory is still that the Maroczy should promise White a slight advantage and is in principle the reason why the Dragon is a main-line Sicilian while the Accelerated has been relegated to the category of ‘popular sidelines’.

Still, things are definitely more exciting after 5.Nc3, so I was glad as well as intrigued to see it recommended. Unfortunately (well, for White), my suspicions were confirmed in that Negi’s analysis doesn’t quite manage to bust the best defences. On the one hand, Negi does an excellent job of obtaining pleasant advantages against the popular 7…Qa5, 8…e6 and 8…a5 variations with some strong theoretical contributions. I was also very impressed by the chapters on the ‘main line’ with 8…d6 offering a transposition to the Dragon, and in particular Negi’s presentation of two options for White after 9…Bd7: 10.Qd2 and 10.h4. However, one reason why the Accelerated can be a real pain to face is that there are just so many sidelines to consider if one chooses 5.Nc3, and I think two of them still seem to be holding up for Black at the moment. The stubborn 8…Re8, which keeps increasing in popularity, probably proved too difficult a nut to crack in the end (although the analysis presented is very valuable, and practically White has an easier game), while I’m not completely convinced by the conclusions following the interesting sideline 8…d5!?.

This was in fact essayed recently by the women’s World Champion against none other than Negi himself. White deviated from his own recommendations in that game, which led me to investigate the variation further. My conclusion is that although White is the one pressing, Black’s chances of equality seem higher than White’s chances of getting a stable edge, although arguably this is still a perfectly acceptable repertoire recommendation. And if this is as close as it gets to me finding a hole in the entire book, well, that’s probably as strong an endorsement as I can give!

 

 

An interesting conclusion that comes out of the first two sections is that, if we ignore the Maroczy argument for the moment, the Accelerated Dragon may well be sounder than the regular Dragon. This might be hard to swallow for some, but actually, I’ve recently been converted to this opinion myself (although it’s probably still a minority view among GMs). But moving on from dragons of any description, I was very impressed with Negi’s work on the Rauzer and in particular his strategic explanations. I found this especially useful as this isn’t an opening with which I’m well acquainted. But further investigations seemed to indicate that Negi’s conclusions here are again state of the art. The same goes for the Lowenthal and Kalashnikov, two sidelines that begin to look increasingly unsound to me in light of these chapters. One could have predicted that these would be variations that White should objectively be able to prove an edge against, but Negi goes further to bring his lines to almost decisive advantages.

But one could hardly expect those sorts of results against the stable Sveshnikov, arguably the soundest of the Sicilians covered in this volume. And indeed, this is indeed Negi’s final conclusion, although he proposes several routes for White to pose problems for the second player. In this final section, we really begin to see how Negi’s approach to the series has changed, as the emphasis is much more on creating practical problems and taking the style of the game out of one’s opponent’s comfort zone. This coincides with the chief recommendation for White, 13.Nxb5!? in the main line after 10.Nd5 f5 11.Bd3 Be6 12.c3 Bg7, giving up a piece for three pawns. Usually in the main lines of the Sveshnikov, Black looks to sacrifice a pawn for long-term activity and attacking chances, but in the variation following this material imbalance, Black’s position somehow lacks the usual dynamism that the opening promises. On the other hand, this is quite a committal variation for White because the slightest mistake can easily lead to popping a pawn here or there and landing in a lost endgame.

Still, for the practical reasons mentioned above, I highly approve of this recommendation. My opinion does not really carry much weight when it comes to the Sveshnikov, to be fair, but this line also has the approval of several strong correspondence players, which is not something to be taken lightly.

For a work of this kind, and in this sort of series, it’s understandable that it will be measured also solely on the quality of the analysis. However, I’m a stickler for writing, style and typesetting norms, so I will add a few words to those respects. Once again, the prose is clear and easy to understand, and although there is improvement on the past two works, the explanations are light and fall a little into the background as compared to the heavy analysis. But this is what this series is all about, and I don’t mind the ratio given the high level to which the book is pitched. Once again I struggled to find typos, while the diagrams and typesetting are both very pleasing. The one thing I wouldn’t mind seeing in this series is the inclusion of small text chapters in between the major sections to sort of bridge the work between openings. As it stands, the pages run straight from one opening to the next and a page or two of text would help break up the reading as well as introduce the new topic in more general terms. But this is just my stylistic preference.

To sum up, this book is once again an outstanding work and worth every penny, if only on a novelty quota alone. When I review a new book, I review HARD, and I go out of my way to look for holes. This makes it difficult for any author to meet my high expectations, but Negi continues to impress me. If I weren’t so lazy, I’d even take up the Open Sicilian myself after reading this one! Another Negi book, another five stars.

CONTENTS

Series Introduction 4

Preface 5

Symbols & Bibliography 6

Dragon

1 Sidelines 7

2 10…Qa5 and 10…Rb8 21

3 11…Nxd4 31

4 12.Kb1 53

5 12…Nc4 67

Accelerated Dragon

6 Rare 7th Moves 79

7 Various 8th Moves 90

8 8…Re8!? 105

9 Various 9th Moves 118

10 9…Bd7 10.Qd2 127

11 9…Bd7 10.h4!? 141

Rauzer

12 6…Bd7 and Others 162

13 6…e6 7.Qd2 Qb6 183

14 7…Be7 201

15 7…a6 8.0–0–0 h6 225

16 8…Be7 234

17 8…Bd7 243

18 9…b5 258

19 13…b4 266

4…e5

20 Lowenthal and Kalashnikov 287

21 Kalashnikov – 7…Be6 and 7…Be7 306

Sveshnikov

22 Sidelines 317

23 10…Bg7 330

24 10…f5 343

25 14…Bd7 360

26 15…0–0 372

Variation Index 389

 
1

Superstars describe superstars

Posted by David Smerdon on Dec 8, 2015 in Chess

Check out this awesome video from the London Chess Classic where the participants take turns describing their fellow competitors in one word. So entertaining! Honestly, I wish organisers did this sort of thing more often. They have such an opportunity with so many top players gathered in one place, basically at their command, and yet the organisers always seem to end up choosing something bizarre for the GMs like tree-planting or wearing funny hats. But this is what we really want to see!

PS Somebody needed to tell Grischuk about the whole one-word thing…

 
2

Computers can’t blunder…right?

Posted by David Smerdon on Nov 11, 2015 in Chess

The TCEC superfinal between Komodo and Stockfish is currently taking place. I have the games (a 100-game match I believe!) running in the background while I work, kind of like test-match cricket. It’s somehow soothing, a silicon version of Enya if you will. I bet noone’s ever used that analogy before.

Yesterday, in game 22, something amazing happened. Stockfish blundered. Stockfish, currently two games behind, was completely winning and gave its evaluation of the position as +26. Then, in two moves, it was 0.00. Really! And these guys (girls? its?) are supposed to be 3200+. If that’s not what you call throwing away a win, I don’t know what is.

You can see the game here. 64.Bc2 wins, although it’s a long, complicated variation (and obviously not one that I found myself!). After 64.Kg4 both computers immediately recognised the draw.

(Hat tip to Mark Watkins for the link.)

 

 
1

REVIEW: Understanding the Queen’s Gambit Accepted

Posted by David Smerdon on Nov 7, 2015 in Chess

The Queen’s Gambit Accepted: A Black Repertoire
by A.Delchev and S. Semkov


I recently got my hands on a couple of new opening books by Chess Stars, the Bulgarian publishing house perhaps best known for the Openings For White According to Anand series. After the subsequent Openings For White According to Kramnik range, the guys decided to branch out with their coverage, and now we’re seeing plenty of interesting and diverse opening titles. With author names such as Dreev, Beliavsky and Delchev as well as their ‘poster child’ Khalifman, there’s reason to take the new selection seriously.

For this review, I want to focus on the new title by Delchev and Semkov: Understanding the Queen’s Gambit Accepted. The QGA feels like it’s been around forever, but of late I’ve noticed more and more top GMs adding it to their repertoires, so much so that I’ve even added it to mine. So, being familiar with the latest trends in this opening, I was extremely curious to see how the authors managed to squeeze not just one, but two entire QGA repertoires into such a tiny book! With a mere 240 pages of A5, it’s about a third of the size of my own new release, which is on a far less theoretical opening. However, despite my initial scepticism, I have to admit that the guys have done a remarkable job, and that the book indeed offers complete coverage.

Delchev seems to be the main engine behind the repertoire, and so there are many valuable insights from a top GM’s own repertoire and practice. That’s one of the nice things about this book: It offers a practical repertoire that the authors themselves employ, so they offer first-hand practical advice for your own games. This is enabled by what I found to be a pleasant and intuitive structure. Each chapter is broken up into three parts: a wordy section on the key theme and ideas, a systematic (but not overly heavy) theory section, and finally some annotated games. This allows the club player to use the book either with or without a chessboard; the sections on ideas and games are ideal for light café reading, while the theory requires a little more concentration.

Furthermore, the book offers a repertoire based both on the Classical System (…Nf6/…e6 against 3.e3 or 3.Nf3) as well as Delchev’s preferred repertoire based on 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 Bg4 coupled with 3.e3 e5. The authors also offer some interesting, though less rigorous, analysis on the topical 3.Nf3 a6!? 4.e3 b5, as well as a brief discussion of the dubious 3.e4 b5?! (in addition to their preferred 3…Nc6). And again, yes, all in less than 250 pages! This gives the reader a lot of options as to how he or she uses the material to construct one’s preferred repertoire. For the slightly stronger reader, I can attest that one can digest an entire repertoire from scratch and feel prepared to play 2…dxc4 over the board after, say, only four hours with this book. Now that’s a serious achievement.

However, to cram everything in to this mini-masterpiece, the authors had to cut a few corners here and there. While I find this book incredibly practical in terms of what the reader could reasonably remember for one’s games, not all of the natural options for White are always covered. If you’re the sort of player who when learning a new opening often asks “But what if my opponent plays THAT?”, you might find this a little frustrating. Fortunately, the variations in Delchev’s main repertoire (3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 Bg4, and 3.e4 Nc6) are reasonably plan-based and less reliant on concrete lines than other options.

I particularly like how the authors often employ explanations of general strategic themes in between detailing complex lines. Somehow, this breaks up the workload for the student and helps one to keep a broader sense of the positions. The following excerpt is a typical example.

 

 

“Let’s compare this position with the standard set-up with Nc3.

Both sides are deprived of their most common plans. White can not [sic] play Nfd2, nor can he jump to c4 since the e4-pawn is hanging.

Black, for his part, lacks the option of …Nf4 [with the plan of …Kh8, …Rg8 and …g5] due to the fork on e5 after Bxf4 and e4-e5 (White’s knights are connected so …Bxf3 does not help!). On the other hand, his “plan B”, which is based on undermining the centre with …c6, gains in strength because of the passive stand of the d2-knight. That transpires from variations like 12.Ne1 Bd7 13.Nd3 c6 14.dxc6 Bxc6 15.f3 Bb5…”

You’ll notice I cheekily highlighted a tiny grammatical mistake in this extract. [EDIT: It was pointed out to me that this is in fact not technically a mistake – my apologies!] I’m not trying to be pedantic, but simply want to mention that for those who are, there are a couple of funny little English slips in the text. Given that the book is written and edited by non-native speakers of English (in fact, I’m not sure there’s a native speaker on the Chess Stars team), this is to be expected, and the errors, like the one above, are hardly glaring. The language is simple, and the authors have chosen to replace verbosity for instruction. It’s not a book that will have you rolling in the aisles, but you’ll get every point the authors make. Moreover, in terms of typos (my personal bugbear when reading chess books), I couldn’t find any!

The book’s theory is really quite up-to-date (games up until mid-2015 are included), and the analysis has made use of engines as well as correspondence games. This really should be mandatory for all opening books but, alas, really isn’t, and so I commend the authors for this. However, readers should remember that the theory on these lines has been accelerating in recent years and so one should probably keep an eye on upcoming developments. For some of the variations (e.g. 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 Bg4) this is less important, but for, say, the current ‘drawing line’, 3.Nf3 a6!?, I’m sure we’re going to see plenty of theoretical action in the near future. After all, this line is either a forced draw or a forced win for White!

Another variation that certainly will soon have a definitive evaluation is the crazy 3.e4 b5?!. I’ve played this move myself, and I really enjoy these lines. How often does Black get to boldly sacrifice an exchange after only six moves?! So of course, this was the chapter to which I first jumped in, and I agree with Delchev’s assessment that the variation is ultimately unsound. However, it’s here that I’m for the first time going to criticise this book, as I feel the authors are too dismissive of Black’s chances, both practically and objectively. The refutations given rely on White playing incredibly accurately and remembering a string of only-moves deep into the middlegame, while deviation from the correct path is often fatal. Moreover, engines are also too sceptical of Black’s long-term counterplay after the sacrifice, which can lead to many analysts to settle for superficial rebuttals. For example, one of the key resources often underestimated by many from the white side (but, to be fair, mentioned by Delchev) is that a commonly reached endgame sees White with an extra exchange but Black with ‘four versus three’ on the kingside. These endings are rather trivially drawn, but are often the source of a computer giving an evaluation around +1.00 or so. But enough vagueness; let’s get into specifics!

 

 

But seeing how crazy these lines are, it’s no wonder that the authors chose to focus on more intuitive repertoire variations in their handy little guidebook. And despite my maniacal love of the positions after 3.e4 b5, I must say that I really like the analysis presented after the relatively rare 3.e4 Nc6, a Delchev speciality. And it’s certainly easier to learn.

There is one final point I want to highlight about this book. In addition to learning sections, theory, annotated games and multiple options for building a repertoire, the authors even managed to squeeze in a couple of final pages about how to handle alternatives to 2.c4. This is actually really important in my opinion, because one of the things that might put players off learning the QGA is the extra work required in learning extra variations to handle 2.Nf3, 2.Bg5, 2.Bf4 etc. I really appreciated Delchev’s simple yet logical solutions to these problems. I would have also appreciated something on the Torre (2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bg5) in addition to the Colle, Tromp and London systems, and I really would have liked to know Delchev’s consistent recommendations against 1.Nf3 and 1.c4 – but I guess I’m just way too greedy! Hopefully Delchev and Semkov might consider producing a complementary title in the future to handle flank openings that works in with a QGA repertoire. [EDIT: In fact, the authors wrote to tell me that just such a book is in progress!] Given the excellent way they’ve handled the current material, I’d be one of the first in line.  Four stars.

 

 

Copyright © 2016 davidsmerdon.com All rights reserved. Theme by Laptop Geek.