Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Friday, August 8, 2008

Chess Stuff

I am now the Product Reviewer for, and as such my chess scribblings will now be hosted there. Check out my first Featured Article as Product Review Guy!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Chess Gear: Wooden Chess Game

When I first became serious about playing chess, I only played on or against a computer. Eventually, I was hankerin’ for some over-the-board play, so I decided to buy some chess gear. After a bit of investigation, I determined that I would buy two chess games. One of them would be portable so I could drag it to the local coffee shop (or wherever), and one would be wood which I would use at home. Both games would have kings of 3 3/4 inch height and board squares with sides of 2 inches. I also wanted an analog clock. I’ll deal with just the wooden game in this article.

Let’s be clear on one point. If I’m going to lay out a bunch of cash for something, the build quality must be high and it has to look good. Call me shallow, but my aesthetic values must be satisfied or it will be a purchase I regret for a long time into the future.

With my criteria set, I began my research. There isn’t a dizzying array of respectable online chess retailers, but there are enough to make me spend a considerable amount of time weighing the possible choices. Since I live in Canada, I first started looking at Canadian shops, thinking that cheaper shipping would result. As it turned out, it didn’t make a lick of difference. If a Canadian shop had lower (or even free) shipping, importing a game from the States would yield a lower cost game, but at increased shipping price. The chess kit that I finally bought was a somewhat bizarre example of this, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

So, I figured I was going to spend about 300 bux for the whole package, and with the issue of pricing pretty much out of the way, I set about to find the highest quality and best looking game I could find. It’s interesting to note that for a fixed money at the lower end of cost, the look of the Knight is generally what suffers most. This probably isn’t surprising as a decent looking Knight is probably more time-consuming to make than the other pieces. I was also looking at finding a chess game who’s colours, of both board and chess men, weren’t too constrasty. I figure I’ll be staring at this board for lengthy periods so I don’t want it giving me headaches. I settled on men made of boxwood and rosewood with a board made of maple and mahogany. I also picked up a clock with a mahogany finish, and a mahogany box for storing the pieces.

I could buy all this stuff from several of the online venders. I chose The Chess Store mostly because of the look of the Knights they were hocking in the French Lardy Staunton set. Imagine my surprise when I found out that they would charge me about half what other sellers were asking for similar kit!

Well, not so fast there, bucko. As it turns out, these little buggers were going to charge me upwards of $150 to ship my order to me! So, the price of the chess game was going to be about the same as anywhere else, just that much of the cost was loaded onto the (ridiculous) shipping price.

Ah well, it was what I wanted. I just wasn’t getting the great deal that I thought I was getting. Anyway, the point of me retelling this part of the tail is to warn you to watch for those shipping costs lest ye be caught on the back-end. Other than that, shipping was prompt and without any hassle.

I can state, however, that the quality of the board, men, clock and box are of excellent build and I expect them to keep me happy for a long time to come. Except for the men, everything else appears to be veneer with probably a pine center but they look great nevertheless and seem to be stuck together with fairly high precision.

While The Chess Store no longer appears to sell exactly what I bought from them, I’ll give you a list that closely approximates what I bought:

In conclusion, if you are interested in buying a wooden chess game, you could do considerably worse than ordering from The Chess Store.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Book Review: Modern Ideas

The full title of this book by I. A. Horowitz is “Modern Ideas In The Chess Openings, ” but that is way too long for this review’s title, so we’ll just call it “Modern Ideas,” shall we? In this case, you can pretty much judge a book by its cover. It is, in fact, a text describing modern chess openings. In a stroke of serendipity, an acquaintance lent me Modern Ideas, and I recently reviewed Yasser Seirawan’s Winning Chess Openings, so this is the perfect time for me to compare the two books.

Modern Ideas was published in 1953 so the term “modern” is somewhat relative in this case. I’m not sure from when the term originated, but these days it really just describes a particular era in chess history rather than a proclamation of anything new to the chess world.

I haven’t yet had the time to play though all the examples, but all these openings were covered in Winning Chess Openings. So, I am at least familiar with them, and thusly will I stick to a treatment of Horowitz’ narrative rather than a blow-by-blow of each opening.

I will say right off that I have an issue with this book: It uses descriptive notation rather than algebraic. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this mind you, but I, like many readers, are more adept at reading algebraic notation. The information is all there, it just slows things down for those of us not schooled in the descriptive. Of course, this is merely a consequence of the era in which Modern Ideas was published, but it does make the reading of it a bit of a slog for us descriptively challenged folks.

An interesting part of this book is what Horowitz refers to as “chess movies.” These are chess games that are narrated both in text and images with the snapshots of the board displaying positions after every few moves of the players. This is quite useful and very effective. The reader needs to visualize only a few moves between each snapshot, so it’s a fairly simple act to follow along without having to resort to a board or computer program. As a side benefit, even if you are playing along with a board and chess set, life is made a bit easier by way of the “movie frames” as you can quickly be sure that you haven’t made any errors at the board and easily correct any mistakes that you do make. These sorts of errors are the bane of my existence so I appreciate the help from Horowitz.

Like I said earlier, this text doesn’t cover any openings that I haven’t previously (albeit not yet in depth) studied, but it is certainly instructive to get a second opinion. While Seirawan will give several variations and let the reader know which variation he prefers, Horowitz will not say which variations he prefers, but rather explain the feelings of other chess leaders. Horowitz also somewhat emphasizes which openings would most benefit players of which temperament rather than merely proclaiming which variations are best in the absolute sense.

Horowitz certainly covers each opening in more detail than Seirawan, but this isn’t surprising considering that this book covers far fewer openings than does the Seirawan text. In fairness, Seirawan often suggests finding longer treatments of specific openings, and Modern Ideas fills that void to some extent.

At the end of each chapter Horowitz gives “conclusions and recommendations” for the described opening. If you are already familiar with these openings, a quick flip through the book reading only these sections will probably reward you with something to ponder at the very least.

If nothing else, this book is interesting for its historical perspective. Horowitz wrote this book before the full onslaught of the computer age and it’s interesting to compare it to texts written with the benefit of computer analysis.

Props go out to Jim for lending me Modern Ideas In The Chess Openings.

As always, I’m Stick, and I’ll see you on the gridiron.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Book Review: Winning Chess Openings

With Winning Chess Openings, Yasser Seirawan’s writing style has much improved. In a previous article I mentioned that his pros are often a bit on the goofy side. This time around the syrup has taken a backseat to irreverence. Nay, even sarcasm at times. This is a Good Thing considering how dry this subject could be. Instead, Seirawan leads us through the maze of opening theory with a bit of humour to to egg us on.

Seirawan has decided that he will take us, his students, on the same journey that he took when he learned about chess openings, and I mean that quite literally. He begins by describing his earliest memories of chess, including his very first game in which he really had no idea how to start a game of chess. He then recounts his infatuation with Rook openings and on to his use of Queen raids against his opponents. He proceeds thusly in part to make us more comfortable while ramping us up towards beginning opening theory.

Of course, I have no idea if his early history matches what Seirawan has written down, but it’s amusing, compelling and effective, so I’m not complaining. I don’t think you will either.

I’ll interject here and say that Seirawan has updated the graphics for this book. Images depicting board positions use the Modern piece style as opposed the the old Book piece style used in his earlier books. A minor difference to be sure, but one that I appreciate.

After the comic recounting of his earliest chess debacles, Seirawan gets down to business with basic opening principals. This section is fairly brief, mostly covering things you should already know if you have read the first book in this series, Play Winning Chess. However, the information in this text is more compact so it’s not really a good substitute for the treatment of openings found in books geared towards absolute beginners. Seirawan also here first mentions the players and books that inspired him during his formative chess years.

Having the formalities out of the way, Seirawan dives into the meat and potatoes of openings, beginning with the classical openings, both Queen Pawn Openings and King Pawn Openings. Both attacks and defenses are covered and all the classic openings you’ve probably seen mentioned elsewhere in your studies are offered up for your consumption.

The text next attacks the so-called modern openings, and again covers both attacks and defenses. Also again, many of the names you will most likely recognize.

By this point in the book you will have learned just how complicated this whole opening mess can be. There is much to be memorized, but there is also logic behind the openings about which Seirawan does a good job imparting. Despite the myriad variations explained, the author will often say something like, “There are entire tomes dedicated to this opening, and I suggest you research them!” Yeah, right, Yasser, I’ll get right on that. Maybe in a few years after I’ve dealt satisfactorily with Winning Chess Openings.

Anyhoo, the last major section of this book is dedicated to what Seirawan calls “Solutions” to the openings. I know what you are thinking. You are pondering the notion of skipping straight to this “Solutions” section and ignoring the rest of the book. I, however, advise against that strategy. While it’s true that the solutions section is very interesting in and of itself, and by working through it you will indeed gain much knowledge of useful openings, you would be missing much of the groundwork that would make these solutions intelligible. As I mentioned a little ways back, openings are not just about memorization, they are also about logic and motivation.

In case you are wondering about these opening “solutions,” I let you in on a little secret: They are largely based on the Barcza Opening, and they fall more under the monicker of “systems” than they are about specific orders of moves. What I mean by this is that, in general, you play towards a certain position which defines the opening, but the order of moves to achieve that position are in part determined by the moves made your opponent. The big advantage to this is that there is less to memorize. On the other hand, you better have your wits about you when you play these systems because inaccurate play will likely be your downfall. Trust me on this. It’s bit me on the ass a few times already.

When all is said and done, I heartily recommend Winning Chess Openings to anyone even slightly interested in the topic. It is will written, well presented, and even entertaining, which is fairly amazing considering how dry this subject could be otherwise. It certainly opened my eyes to a facet of chess about which I was quite naive.

I’m Stick, comin’ atcha wiff ‘ttude. Let’s go kick some kingside ass on the gridiron!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

McChess: Shredder Chess

First, the preamble, in case you missed it from my last McChess article. At the moment, I run OS X and only OS X, so although Shredder Chess comes in Linux and Windows flavours, I won’t say much, if anything, about the alternative platforms. You also may have noticed from my last article that I don’t say anything about the strength of the chess engines. I’m not anywhere near being a good enough chess player to evaluate such things. In fact, since all the major chess programs rate in the mid to upper 2000s on the Elo scale, chess engine strength will probably never be a concern to me. Or for most other chess players, for that matter. Unless, of course, you are the type that likes to use software to cheat during your online matches, but let’s not delve into that mess, shall we?

So, on to the review!

Shredder Chess comes in three versions for the Mac: Shredder Classic 3, Shredder 11, and Deep Shredder 11. The user interfaces are pretty much the same for all three, with the real distinctions among them being under the hood. Classic is sort of the starter version of Shredder with a lower and less powerful engine. The midrange version is Shredder 11 which has the latest and strongest engine, while Deep Shredder has the same guts behind it, but will load balance calculations in parallel if you have multiple cores or multiple CPUs, giving you a benefit of faster calculations.

More important for the chess bottom feeders such as myself is the user Interface. This is far and away the best chess UI I have used on the Mac. It has a minimalist look to it, which I appreciate. The menu system is (mostly) right at home on OS X. Options and actions are (mostly) where you would expect them, and (mostly) work the way you would expect. The graphical elements a simple but beautiful.

There’s a reason for all the parenthetical “mostlies” in the preceding paragraph, because there are a few bits of weirdness lurking in the UI that will perplex at least a few virgin Shredder players.

The first of the oddities is the Mode -> Levels dialog box. This is strangely modal [sic]. At the top of the box are the buttons for “Time Per Move,” “Blitz,” and “Time Controls.” That is all well and good, except that those three options are mutually exclusive, so whichever of the three is being displayed in the dialog box is the time control being used. You’ll note that the “Limit Strength” slider is at the bottom of the box for each time control option. This probably isn’t the greatest of explanations, but as soon has you give Shredder Chess a try, you’ll see what I mean. If you compare this dialog box to similar boxes in other OS X applications you’ll understand just how counterintuitive this all is.

The next somewhat dubious bit of the interface involves saving and loading PGN files. Shredder keeps games in what it calls “databases.” Basically this just means that the PGN data for each game are stored in a multi-game PGN file, which is what Shredder calls a “database” (Not to be confused opening book databases). So, you can load a game from a single game PGN file, but to save a game, it must be added to one of these database files, or you can create a new database file into which you save the current game. Again, this is a bit of an awkward description, but that just goes to show how bizarre this saving/loading thing works. At any rate, it’s highly unintuitive to the uninitiated.

One more complaint: If you want to pause a game, you choose Edit -> Stop Clock. That’s all well and good (although I don’t consider stopping the clock to be a form of editing, but let’s ignore that point for the moment). However, there is no “Start Clock” to be found. Instead, to get the clock moving again, you simply make your next move.

Considering how well Shredder Chess is put together, I don’t think any of the previous problems are accidents of inattention. In fact, once you realize what is going on, they are actually much more efficient methods of controlling the software. It’s a bit like how some folks feel about the command line. Many find it cryptic to learn, but once you get the hang of it, the command line method is actually the most logical and elegant solution.

Unlike most chess software, at least as far as I can tell, there is no window that displays the captured pieces. This oversight is a bit surprising. I mean, let’s face it, even in OTB play you don’t have to count pieces; you just look at the side of the board to see what’s been captured.

Having got all that out of the way, I’ll give a rundown of the major features of Shredder.

Shredder has most of the options you would expect in a top-notch chess program. Customizing your opponent’s style and strength of play is straight-forward, if a bit hard to find. Preferences -> Engine Options -> Extended will land you in the spot you’re looking for. Here you’ll find lots of goodies, like your opponents preference for certain pieces, preferences for making combinations, preferences for aggressiveness, and so on.

There are options for installing your own chess engine and for adding your own opening book. Apparently there is a large online database of games that you can subscribe to, although I haven’t done that just yet.

You may recall from my review of Chessmaster that my main interest in that bit of software comes from all the learning tools it contains. For better or worse, Shredder Chess has little of that stuff. None of the chess lessons or drills or exercises. It will show you hints and threats, and if you turn on the “Chess Coach,” Shredder will happily tell you when you are about to make a boneheaded move. On the other hand, I find the analysis in Shredder to be more useful than that in Chessmaster. Admittedly, the analysis in Shredder is rather cryptic to a chess n00b like myself, but once you get used to it, I much prefer the Shredder style. Related to analysis is the histogram window, which is great when you are looking for where you went wrong in the game you are analyzing. Just run the game through the analyzer and look for the big spike in the histogram to find where your big mistake occurred.

Shredder Chess has no auto-annotation. At first, this seemed like a big plus for Chessmaster, but, as it turns out, this feature in Chessmaster is almost useless, so I don’t mind it’s omission in Shredder.

And, as they say, that’s that. I’m Stick, reporting from down on the gridiron. Back to you, Bob.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Stick's Picks

Audio: Silent Waters, by Amorphis

Back when the world was new ... OK, well not quite that long ago. More like 1994. I had my first encounter with Amorphis by way of their album Tales From The Ten Thousand Lakes. It’s a good thing that CDs were in wide use by then, because I would have worn a vinyl copy straight through to the turntable platter. As much as I loved that album, for reasons that completely elude me at the moment, I sort of lost track of Amorphis.

For probably similar nebulous reasons, Amorphis popped into my wee noggin recently and I decided to see what they were up to these days. Silent Waters is their most recent album, although it’s well over a year old by this point.

I’m not sure how best to describe Amorphis, but I’ll give it a shot. I’ve never been too hip to the various subcultures of metal; I pretty much just give a thumbs up or thumbs down and ignore the categories. Although I like grindcore bands like Panterra well enough, I prefer my metal served up with a bit of the progressive rock flavour and Amorphis suits me just fine in that regard. Originally, I think they were classed a death metal band, but now maybe more like a goth metal or progressive metal band. Take from that mess of a description what you will.

More importantly, Amorphis tends toward the melodic end of metal without producing the treacle that other melody-oriented bands manage. Another notable point about Amorphis is that they are one of the very few metal bands who’s arrangements include keyboard parts that actually both stand out and enhance the music without sounding like they were written by a bunch of retards. I would hazard a guess that if you like some current metal and also enjoy older bands like Rainbow and Deep Purple, Amorphis is probably right up your alley.

At any rate, Amorphis has been pumping out all sorts of great jams since Tales From The Ten Thousand Lakes, and if all my mumbo-jumbo sounds like your cup of tea, Silent Waters is a good first sampling of Amorphis-y goodness.

And, yes, they do seem to have some strange obsession with water.

Video: Darren Aronofsky

I recently had the opportunity to watch the movie Pi, directed and co-written by Darren Aronofsky. It’s the story of a mathematical genius who doggedly pursues his faith that there is order in the universe and this order can be described by math. The film is shot entirely in black and white, and while I would normally expect this to be the signal of a pompously artsy-fartsy movie, it actually works spectacularly well in Pi. The lack of colour allows the story to shine through exceptionally well.

Being as impressed with Pi as I was, I decided to check out some other work by this Aronofsky fellow. I subsequently watched Requiem For A Dream, and The Fountain, both of which, I am happy to report, are great.

I won’t bother describing the latter two movies, except to say that they, along with Pi, are good and offbeat. They all fall in the range of weirdness that I generally like in movies. All are cleverly strange, but not so fucked-up-weird and art-housey that I can’t derive some sort of point from them.

Textuo: ?

I was sure I had something for this section, but I was wrong. I got nuthin’.

Stick's Picks

Audo: "Weezer (The Red Album)," by Weezer

The Stickness: Weezer is just one of those bands. You know what I'm talking about. They put out their first album and maybe the In Crowd loves them, or maybe your friends dig them, but all you can do is shrug your shoulders and say, "Meh." A while later the band puts out their second album. Again you say, "Meh." Maybe you don't shrug this time. And so it goes for a few more cycles until one day a new album is out by the aforementioned band and suddenly you say, "Now I get it," or maybe "Now they get it."

Weezer is just such a band for me, and I'm quite enjoying the new release from them. Not surprisingly to most, I like the more rockin' tunes on this album best, but it's all good stuff. Even the lyrics are very clever.


The Stickess: Think "The Daily Show with John Stuart," except that it's about the stock market and it's hosted by a cute chick.


The Stickness: This isn't really a pick so much as it is a question. Tumblr is sort of like Twitter on steroids. I think the term the Tumblr folks use is "micro-blogging," So, my question is: would you actually use this sort of thing? I got a Twitter account just to see what the buzz was all about, and I barely ever think to check the Twitter feed, never mind actually use the thing. I can't imagine I'd do any better with Tumblr.

So these are my questions: Do you Twitter? Do you Tumbl? Would you Tumbl?

Stick's Picks

Audio: "Indestructible," by Disturbed

The Stickness: This album is good stuff. It makes me think of Dream Theatre if DT had any aptitude for songwriting. To be fair, DT's "A Change of Seasons" is one of my all-time favorite tunes, but the rest of their songs ... not so much. Disturbed doesn't reach the heights of instrumental mastery that Dream Theater possesses, but really, how many people on this entire planet can match technical wizardry with DT, anyway? Never the less, I have little time for virtuosic wankery if the songs aren't any good, so Disturbed wins against Dream Theatre.

Maybe a better comparison would be saying that Disturbed is like a heavier version of Queensryche before the Q went all loopy on us.

The current single from "Indestructible." "Inside The Fire," is particularly baddass.


The Stickness: Admittedly this video podcast is very US-centric, but that makes it no less interesting. The chick that puts this thing together goes out onto the streets to interview folks about their takes on various topics. Always interesting and occasionally quite insightful. And, let's face it, if something is going on in the States, you can be pretty sure it will have some sort of bleed-over into Canada, so you should at least check it out.

Textuo: Edward Osborne Wilson

The Stickness: Check his entry in Wikipedia. I saw a recent program about this guy and it kinda blew me away. Originally, he became the foremost authority on ants, and in particular, the social and behavioral aspects of ant colonies. Since then he has branched out, applying his knowledge to other systems of creatures, some of his studies being about mass extinction. If you are the sort that concerns themselves about where our crazy species is headed, you really need to give this guy's work a look-see.

Spectacular Finish

Here's a cool game I recently played on I played a surprisingly good bunch of tactic in this game, and I'm unusually happy with the checkmate: a combination with a bishop sacrifice. Check it out.

Book Review: Winning Chess Strategies

Following on the heels of Winning Chess Tactics, Winning Chess Strategies is the third book in Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan’s seven book Winning Chess series.

If you are going to play chess, ya gotta have a plan. Some would argue that even a bad plan is better than no plan. At least with a bad plan you have some sort of metric to determine how well (or poorly) things are going, and gives you an opportunity to switch plans if necessary. At the very least, if your plan fails horribly you can vow to never repeat the mistake in future games.

While tactics generally attempt to gain dynamic advantage in a game, Seirawan defines strategies as methods of gaining static advantages. Let’s be a bit more concrete with these notions. Say you manage to castle before your opponents has the opportunity to do the same. You could now claim an advantage over your opponent, but only until he manages to tuck away his own king. So, between the move on which you castle and the move on which your opponents castles, you have a dynamic advantage. On the other hand, setting up a strong pawn structure would be considered a static advantage. Because pawns move slowly and can never move backwards, once the structure is solidified it is unlikely to change in a hurry.

In that light, Seirawan explains much about things like counterplay, correct positioning of the peices and pawns, proper use of material advantage, creating targets and more. I found the chapter on space, “Territorial Domination,” to be particularly enlightening. He adds in a chapter about bad strategy practices in hopes that you will not repeat the mistakes of chess players that have come before you. Not surprisingly, there is a chapter concerned with the great chess strategists of days-gone-by.

“Winning Chess Strategies” is a fair departure from previous books in this series. The discussion tends to be less crystalized than earlier books, and there are very few tests. More annoyingly, even the solutions to the tests struck me as a bit airy-fairy. Initially, I found these issues irritating. However, as I proceeded through the chapters, I realized that the style of the book was induced by the nature of the beast. Tactics can easily be described through very specific patterns, while strategies are not so clear-cut and therefore require more discussion and fewer specifics.

With that in mind, I tried to cut Seirawan a bit of slack when it came to the section on history’s greatest chess strategists. The example games are, to be sure, very interesting, but it was often not at all clear as to what class of strategy they were intended to display. I suspect that a more advanced player than myself will find these games more useful and, most likely, I will gain more insight from them as my own chess-fu increases.

Overall, I’m not quite as stoked about this book as I am with its predecessors. On the other hand, I’m very much looking forward to attacking it for the second time. I learned many useful strategies to consider in my chess games, and I’m quite sure future study with this book will reap many benefits. If, like me, you want to get your foot wet in the waters of positional play, reading this book would be a good strategy.

Book Review: Winning Chess Tactics

Winning Chess Tactics is the follow-up book in Yasser Seirawan's Winning Chess series. WCT picks up where the sections on tactics in Play Winning Chess left off. Not too surprisingly, WCT details more subtle or less obvious points about the tactical issues of chess.

The author continues the discussion of the usual suspects such as forks, pins, skewers, and so on, and then explains specific subtypes of these tactics. For instance, in the chapter on pins, Seirawan explains the concept of both absolute pins and relative pins.

An important theme in this book is the notion of combinations and sacrifices. While PWC spoke to the basic tactics, WCT explains how to produce positions in which the basic tactics can be used. For instance, you may recognize on the board the potential for a devastating fork, but what do you need to do to actually attain that position? The text develops the topic of combinations, and how they can be used to reduce the game position to a known pattern, which forces an opponent into a losing position. This amounts to the use of sacrifices, decoys, et al. to produce an advantageous board position.

Although the topics in this book are more difficult to grasp than those laid out in PWC, the writing is still clear and understandable, although Seirawan has a bad habit of trying to be "cute" with his pros. That, however, is merely a minor annoyance and should in no way prevent you from reading this book.

An important part of this book is the copious number of tests. Be prepared to spend a lot of time over the board or with your favorite chess program. The real meat of WCT is contained in the tests, and without working through all of them, you really won't get much out of this book. Many of the concepts that Seirawan attempts to express are found only in the tests. This might sound a bit nasty, but it actually worked for me quite well.

Admittedly, the first couple of chapters were rather tough going, mostly because I found the tests to be very difficult and rather less than transparent. After slogging though the tests in the early chapters, things got better. The big problem I had was figuring out what, exactly, the damn questions were talking about. But, with some perseverance, it wasn't long before I passed that hurdle. That isn't to say that the later tests were easy, but at least they made more sense to me.

After the discussion of specific tactics come seven chapters dedicated to the games of some of the greatest chess tacticians of history. What can I say about this? These games are, in short, mind-boggling, beautiful, and testosterone injected feats of tactical brilliance. There's not much point in me describing them, so I'll simply point you to one of these historic games for you to evaluate yourself: Paul Morphy vs Duke Karl / Count Isouard .

Although this book is the second in a series of books, it is designed to be readable independently from the other books. However, if you haven't yet read Play Winning Chess or some similar introductory chess text, you may be in over your depth with WCT.

Arguably, I haven't actually finished my first pass of WCT. The last three chapters are nothing but tests, and I'm working through them a few at a time while I dig into Seirawan's third book.

At any rate, I learned quite a lot from Winning Chess Tactics and it will take several more go-rounds (at least) before I've plumbed the depths of this book. I highly recommend WCT to anyone that is willing to get their hands dirty at the chess board.

McChess: Chessmaster 9000

With any luck, this is the first in a series of chess software reviews. I should state up-front that, at the moment, the only operating system I use is OS X. So, although many of the programs that I will review have versions that run on other operating systems, I will only speak to those that run on OS X, and I won’t say much about the Linux and Windows versions.

So, I’ll press onward. Chessmaster has plenty of flaws, some of which are pretty nasty. First of all, its user interface is a bit of a horror show. In fact, it’s so screwy that I’m not sure how to describe it except to say that it is entirely out of place on OS X. The menus don’t follow any of the conventions common to most OS X software so finding the menu items you want can be a bit of a chore.

Some of the interface is just plain broken. The most annoying manifestations of this problem are the occasional invisible buttons. This is incredibly irritating and makes some of the dialog boxes completely unusable.

CM9k insists on chewing up CPU cycles even when it’s not doing anything. There is an option to tell CM9k to use fewer cycles when it runs in the background. As it turns out, this makes things worse, rather than better. Without this option selected, CM9k uses up processing whether or not it is running in the foreground. However, with this option turned on, CM9k uses all possible cycles on one CPU core when it’s running in the foreground. When it’s in the background it uses no cycles, but the messages sent to it by the OS pile up. So, when you eventually bring it back to the foreground it takes forever to respond to user input.

There are other UI related problems, but you get the idea. I think that much of this can be explained best by a brief history lesson about Chessmaster.

The Chessmaster franchise is owned by Ubisoft. CM started out life as a Windows program, and by all accounts the Windows version of CM suffers from none of the problems that I have just described. In fact, many of it’s users consider CM to be the best bit of chess software available for that platform.

The problems with CM began when Ubisoft decided it wanted to have a version of CM running on the Mac. Not unreasonably, Ubisoft decided to farm out the Mac port of CM to a company that specializes in such platform-related conversions. Unfortunately for us poor Mac users, Ubisoft chose Feral Interactive to do the conversion. Feral Interactive decided that instead of doing a proper job of this port, they would do the minimal amount of work to get CM running on OS X. Hence the incredibly shitty interface, and all types of other nasty bugs. In fact, from reading forum posts from irate CM9k users, for many people it took a couple of years before Feral Interactive produced enough patches to even get CM9k running on some machines. Yikes.

Here’s another little piece of bullshit: Chessmaster is one of those annoying games that requires the CD to run. Once CM9k has started, you can eject the CD, but you’ll have to drag it around with your laptop if you are going mobile.

Me, being the diligent sort that I am, did my research and knew about all this crap before purchasing a copy of Chessmaster. Considering all the nasty problems with Chessmaster on the Mac, you may be wondering why I didn’t just skip CM9k altogether. Despite all the cons, I figured that the pros were sufficient for me to take the plunge. There are actually many good reasons for using CM9k.

The first of such reasons is the inclusion of many learning aids. CM9k has a veritable cornucopia of tutorials, exercises, drills, and more. It also has a database of important historical games from which to study. For me, these features alone were enough to make me purchase CM9k.

Chessmaster’s analysis is fairly decent. Unlike most chess software, CM9k’s analysis includes auto-annotation that attempts to give plain language descriptions of its analysis. This is at least sometimes helpful with deciphering the analyses.

Another feature that I find useful is the tournament mode. At first, I considered this bit rather useless, but I’ve since changed my mind. If you play rated games in CM9k, it keeps track of your ratings, which, for me, is a great feature. I don’t really care much about my rating except that it is a good indicator of how well (or not so well) I am progressing as a chess player.

Speaking of ratings, another little nicety is the ability to choose your opponent’s skill level by category rather than by a numerical rating. You can choose from Beginner, Novice, Club Player, Strong Opponent, and Grandmaster, or “At My Level.” Particularly when I first started using Chessmaster this was a good bit of syntactic sugar because, well, what the hell is an Elo rating, anyway? Of course, I can answer that question now, but at the time I didn’t know what it was and I certainly didn’t know what *my* Elo rating was.

CM9k has a list of “personalities” against which you can play. This is something else that I originally thought was pretty goofy. It turns out that this idea of personalities is actually fairly powerful and an interesting concept. Each of the preloaded personalities not only have their own chess rating, but they also have a variety of other characteristics. For instance, some personalities are more aggressive than others, some prefer to keep their King safe, while others willingly bring their King into the fray. Some personalities prefer Bishop play over Knights. You get the idea. Better yet, you can create your own personalities against which to play. Like the strength ratings, this is surprisingly useful. If you find yourself having trouble playing in the real world against certain types of players, you can simulate them in Chessmaster and then get some decent practice in before you play your nemesis in your next grudge match.

There are options to ask CM9k to give you hints and advice, but I haven’t used those much yet, so I can’t really say if they are useful or not.

CM9k includes the usual stuff for a chess program, such as saving games, setting up board positions, and so on, as well as customizing the look of the board and the chess set.

Something that might be interesting to some folks is the option to play games in 3D. Personally, I can’t stand this feature because selecting the pieces is always a bit annoying on 3D boards. I find this is a problem with all chess software, so it’s not a fault that is particular to CM9k. I don’t like it, so I don’t use it, but it’s there if you are the sort that likes that kind of thing.

Overall, even with it’s glaring faults and warts, I have found Chessmaster 9000 to be a useful tool in my chess arsenal. If you think you can put up with the more irritating bits, it’s probably a useful addition to your software collection.

Book Review: Play Winning Chess

First, a bit of backstory is in order.

I started taking chess semi-seriously about three months ago when I started playing Facebook Chess. I decided I would do some reading and get my learn on. Of course, I started with reading whatever I could find on the web that seemed relevant. There's lots of good information for the beginner out there, but most of it is poorly organized and difficult to collect into some sort of coherent whole. To attempt to solve that problem, I went to the library to borrow and read two books, Chess for Dummies and The Chess Player's Bible. I didn't borrow these books for any other reason than they seemed like the least crappy books that my local library had to offer.

Both book are decent. Chess for Dummies is actually pretty good for the chess newcomer, and I will recommend it to folks looking to take a first shot at chess. However, it is not a book you are likely to refer to ever again after your first reading, so I suggest you do as I did and just borrow it from somebody.

I only bring up the issue of my web reading and book reading to show that I have at least a little bit of context on which to base my review of Play Winning Chess.

I will also mention that in my search for some modicum of chess skill, I bought a copy of Chessmaster 9000, which has oodles of good drills, exercises, and tutorials. Some of these tutorials were written by Yasser Seirawan, the author of Play Winning Chess (PWC). The tutorials he wrote were so helpful I decided I would read some of his books, and PWC is the first in a series of seven books called Winning Chess.

Now, to the issue at hand. PWC begins with an introduction to chess. It describes the board, the pieces, the legal moves, algebraic notation, and so on. Pretty much what you would expect for an introduction to chess. Seirawan injects information about the origins of the game and about the evolution of chess into what it has become today.

The real meat of the book comes next, where Seirawan breaks down chess play into four main topics: force, time, space and pawn structure.

Force, as the author describes it, is a measure of the pieces on the whole board, or on a section of the board (material on the kingside, for example). Along with showing how to calculate force, Seirawan shows ways to use force, or to increase relative force. There are some subtleties to calculating and using force, such as doubled pawns, the risks of developing the queen too early, and so on.

Time is a somewhat more ephemeral subject, but Seirawan handles it quite well. He explains how important it is to develop your pieces quickly and he explains ways to increase your time advantages with various tactical plays. He also describes how to successfully use an advantage in time once you have gained it.

Next comes a section on space. As with force, there is a description of how to calculate spacial advantage. And as with force, there are additional subtleties that tag along with the spacial count. I found this section particularly enlightening as I had not previously seen a good treatment on the subject of space.

The fourth section is on pawn structure. The author explains the types of pawn structures, such as pawn chains, pawn islands, passed pawns, backward pawns and so on, and he shows how they are important in relation to he abilities of the other pieces. He also shows the importance of the pawns during both the middlegame and the endgame.

After all of that, Sierawan sets out to use examples from real chess games to show the applications for force, space, time and pawn structure. Whether or not they are famous games, I have no idea. However, they are excellent examples never the less.

PWC is shot throughout with short sections about historic chess players as well as quizzes and tests to puzzle your by-now-squishy brains. You really must run through the quizzes and tests if you want to get the most out of this book as they will give you at least as much incite into the game of chess as the annotated games.

You've probably guessed by now that I think this book is great. The writing is well organized and clear, which tends to be rare among technical books. The writing style is also quite light, so those of you that are allergic to dry tomes of knowledge shouldn't be scared off by this book. Beyond all that, unlike Chess for Dummies, you will likely continue to refer back to this book for quite a while into the future.

PWC, along with Seirawan's tutorials from CM9k, have given me a fair bit of faith in his writing, so I've begun reading the second book in the Winning Chess series. It, however, is about an order of magnitude more difficult to digest than PWC, so don't expect a review any time soon ...