Wednesday 25 April 2007

Video Blunder

You have to be terribly careful these days. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, there could be someone pointing a camera lens at you. I read a statistic recently about the number of times you appear on CCTV every time you walk down the street (I cannot recall the number but it was surprisingly large).

This even applies when you play chess... click here to watch me leave a rook en prise. I had no idea someone was videoing this, during a recent light-hearted rapidplay match between The Guardian and The Capablanca Club. With the help of the video I was able to reconstruct the finish. Don't bother setting up a chessboard because it is not terribly educational, but it might help to explain what is going on in the video clip.

John Saunders - Jovanka Houska, Guardian v Capas, 18.04.2007

39...Rh2+ 40 Kg1 Kxf4 41 exf6?? (Calmly blundering a whole rook! 41 Rd4+ Kxf3 42 Rd3+ should draw) 41...Rxd5 42 Re1 (A long pause as the awfulness of the blunder sinks in. Poker face – but I was screaming inside) Rdd2 (42...Rdh5 mates) 43 f7 Rdg2+? (Jovanka only had a few seconds left: 43...Rh8 wins) 44 Kf1 Rf2+ 45 Kg1 Rhg2+ 46 Kh1 Rh2+ 47 Kg1 Rfg2+ 48 Kf1 Rf2+ 49 Kg1 ½–½

I think I mumble something about “missing a win” (earlier in the game) but fail to mention missing a loss! Not sure the game merited a round of applause. Thanks to Arne Hagesaether, who took the video. More still photos of the event can be found at Jovanka's excellent website -

But here's what can happen in similar circumstances if you fail to keep your feelings in check. Not for the squeamish.

Tuesday 24 April 2007

Life Begins at 100

Well, there we are... I file a story entitled 'Life Begins at 70' and, two days later, one comes along to trump it...

Alec Holden is 100 today (born 24 iv 1907) and has made headlines after winning £25,000 from a bookmaker after placing a £100 bet with them a few years ago that he would make it to 100 (if you think about it, a bet which, if lost, hardly matters).

Asked the inevitable questions about how he accounts for his longevity (on this morning's Today radio programme), one of his answers was that he plays a game of chess every day and still runs a club. He is celebrating his birthday at a party later today and he made a point of mentioning that he would be taking his chess set with him.

There, that's official, then. Chess is good for your health. Tell your friends - and don't forget to add that there is a shop in Baker Street which sells the elixir of life.

Link to news reports about Alec Holden · purchase the elixir of life

Sunday 22 April 2007

Life Begins At 70

It has been an eventful month for Lajos Portisch. He turned 70 on 4 April 2007. This is way past the age at which most professional chessplayers retire (except for Korchnoi, of course) and his name has not been prominent much in recent years. That said, I checked the database and found that he has been turning out fairly regularly in both the Hungarian Champioship and the country's team championship. But last year he finished last equal. I recall noticing that at the time and half expected that it could be his final appearance.

But no: this month he has played a rapidplay match with Spassky (drawn 3-3) and is now engaged in a strong GM tournament in Gausdal. At the time of writing, Portisch has 3½/5 and is in second place on his own, half a point behind leader 16-year-old Magnus Carlsen. Today Portisch turned back time by beating 2661-rated Michal Krasenkow with the black pieces. He snatched what could have been a warm pawn with his queen but then simply outplayed the 43-year-old upstart. Portisch has black against Carlsen in round 7. I just hope I have not put the journalist's hex on the old boy by drawing attention to him.

Another notable thing about this tournament is that England's Gawain Jones is in the field. He's having rather a tough time, having score 1/5 to date. He lost to Carlsen in round four, being gradully outplayed in a rook and pawns endgame. In the fifth round he conceded a draw to 2260-rated, 48-year-old untitled US player Eric Moskow.

I noticed that the tournament is being played at standardplay (40 in 2, 20 in 1, ½ hour for the rest - sometimes worryingly referred to as 'classical' by those who would consign it to a museum). Sensible people, the Norwegians.

Tuesday 17 April 2007

Dog's Dinner in Dresden

I've not had much to say about the results of 'Eurotrash 2007' - my disparaging nickname for the European Individual Championships in Dresden. I'm afraid I got cheesed off with the quality of the gamescores and rather lost interest. It became too difficult to work out if a move was a brilliant queen sacrifice or just an electronic input device gone haywire. Besides which I'm not impressed with the time control used for this event, and a monster swiss consisting mainly of non-elite East European GMs (who are really just trainee super-GMs) and chess tourists don't really do it for me. But I'll put in a word for Tatiana Kosintseva: 10/11 against some top women players was very impressive. Well done, her.

But apparently gamescores and dodgy time controls weren't the only problems. Some of the players became disenchanted with the quality of the food being served up for lunch and dinner and started asking questions. Subsequently I've seen some commentary on ChessVibes, in which Dutch GM Erik van den Doel highlights the disparity between the hefty daily fee the players paid to the European Chess Union and the amount which the hotel received for the food provided.

This is not the first time that 'Eurotrash' has been criticised for its poor conditions. In fact, problems with the first championship led to the foundation of the professional chessplayers' union, the Association of Chess Professionals. It will be interesting to see if the ACP picks up van den Doel's comments. I note that they have already posted Erik van den Doel's comments on their website.

Monday 16 April 2007

Susan Polgar on TV

UK readers: look out for former women's world champion Susan Polgar on British TV on Tuesday night. She appears on the science news programme 'Horizon' on BBC2 at 9pm (Tuesday 17 April). The programme investigates ways of measuring intelligence and puts seven high fliers in their fields to various tests of intelligence. It will be interesting to see how she fares in competition with a musical prodigy, a quantum physicist, an artist, a dramatist, an RAF fighter pilot and a Wall Street trader • Susan Polgar blogBBC Horizon website

Sunday 15 April 2007

Electronic Chess Wars - Stewart Reuben Comments

The following comments from Stewart Reuben were sent to me by email for posting here. His direct comments in italics:

"Mike Yeo expresses concern about cheating with players leaving the tournament venue and phoning a friend. Using a phone in the playing venue (which includes the toilets and refreshment area) is strictly forbidden, so that I think the Monroi device offers no new problems there. After all, you could send a message to Fritz or a friend and get a reply in the current setup.

"Mike correctly says that the cumulative add-on of 30 seconds is inadequate when using the devices. He is absolutely correct and I believe 30 seconds is inadequate anyway. When I wrote the FIDE Law that score had to be kept throughout when there was an add on of 30 seconds or more, I had no intention that it be solely 30 seconds. Events I run have an add on of one minute as in Gibraltar and Hastings. David Welch and I agree we would not use Monroi with only 30 seconds. Indeed, ordinary scoring is also too difficult for some older people with only 30 seconds. They may have to use two sets of glasses.

"Only events run by British and Australian arbiters use an increment of one minute. The world is out of step with us. Stewart Reuben."

In a separate email, Stewart says he thinks that they may not have used DGT in Dresden but may be building their own system for use at the 2008 Dresden Olympiad. I have no information about this - can anyone comment? Given the inconsistent output from the 2007 Euro Dresden website, it is hard to have confidence in such relatively untested technology with only a year to go. Stewart also makes the point that DGT boards have not been used for Olympiads to date. Russian boards are used. I have no information as to the brand.

Electronic Chess Wars (Part 2)

One of the errors I often make when reading other people's blogs is to overlook the little 'Comments' link at the bottom of a blog. Often the most interesting stuff is tucked away in the reactions to the original post. This is true here: I urge you to read Mike Yeo's considered response to my earlier 'Electronic Chess Wars' blog, based on his own experiences with MonRoi at a recent tournament in Zagreb. Click on the comments link immediately below the earlier blog.

I don't consider myself to be against the use of technology in the capture and transmission of chess games, but it is clear that we need open debate involving players, organisers, technologists and spectators if the technology is to be developed to the point where it satisfies the requirements of all parties. At the moment my feeling is that it is only really at the experimental stage. MonRoi hasn't been fully accepted by leading players, while neither MonRoi nor DGT have the full confidence of the audience.

One worry I have is that the people selling the equipment may be pushing the idea that their automated systems can save tournaments money in respect of human resources needed to input games. I used to be a professional IT purchaser and came up against this sort of salesmanship all the time. In reality I suspect that there are only limited savings to be made in terms of human resources. To do the job properly, you merely replace your expert games inputter with an expert DGT/MonRoi operator. And if the latter have scant chess expertise (i.e. cannot diagnose 'mad gamescore disease' at a glance), then additional chess expertise will need to be hired anyway.

Another problem is that chess organisers aren't necessarily any good at implementing IT solutions. Mike draws our attention to the difficulty of using a MonRoi with only 30 second increments. This also applied in Dresden. It strikes me as insane expecting a chessplayer to play chess and also act as a data input operator in the space of 30 seconds. Fortunately Stewart Reuben doesn't like 30 second increments so competitors in Hastings and Gib are spared this insanity. But FIDE is proceeding gung ho down this path.

Mike makes further relevant points about the visibility of the opponent's score. Added to my earlier point about needing to be 'square-on' to the screen to see what you are doing, and other points made elsewhere on the web about the limited visibility of a small computer screen (particularly for those of us well stricken in years), my growing feeling is that the current implementation of MonRoi is a system for which the world at large is not yet ready. When we have small computer screens which are as visible as a piece of paper at different angles and reasonable distances, and as user-friendly, then it might be different. I suspect we are still a very long way from this scenario.

Mike makes the point about a time lag in transmission being necessary to curb an easy way of cheating. There is a growing feeling that this is an essential step in the fight against electronic cheating. However I suspect it might prove to be technically difficult for anyone other than the most expert webmasters or system operators to build delays into web transmissions. And of course it does not preclude the use of stooges in the physical audience using their mobile phones to transmit current moves back to cheating HQ.

Both Mike Yeo and Stewart Reuben have put me right on one point: the women in Dresden were using the MonRoi system as it is part of the Monroi Women's Grand Prix. Thanks for that.

Saturday 14 April 2007

Electronic Chess Wars

England number one Mickey Adams now writes an excellent weekly column in the Saturday Daily Telegraph and it has become part of my essential chess reading for the week. Sadly, it doesn't appear on the web so the only way to get it is visit a newsagent and buy a copy of the paper. It's well worth it, and of course you would get Malcolm Pein's equally excellent daily column for your money (though you can get that one online too).

In his column for 14 April, Mickey mentions the Monroi electronic game recording system, which he had the chance to sample in Gibraltar. Here's what he has to say:

"Considering the quality of the handwriting of many chess players, this idea definitely has potential. Sadly for technophobes like myself it is quite fiddly and, particularly when you are under some pressure from the clock, it is easy to enter the wrong move. In my first experience with it, I had resorted to pen and paper by round two."

I've never used a Monroi for real myself, but I have examined one closely and know what he means. It is basically a PDA [pocket computer] and you have to position your face right over it to see what you are doing, avoid reflections, etc. With a paper scoresheet, you don't have to change your body position at the board; you just turn your head sideways, look and scribble - about all you have time for if you are playing to the FIDE time control. But Mickey's right, it has potential. He goes on:

"One other feature of the MonRoi system is that the moves can be fed directly to the internet without the need for a sensitive board. This attribute, which is achieved by making the entire playing hall a wi-fi zone, is distinctly double edged and has led to concerns about cheating."

Mickey doesn't go into detail and, I must admit, I've not heard anyone else mentioning a concern about cheating. How would that work, I wonder?

"On the plus side, it has enabled me to bring you some games from the Foxwoods Open in Connecticut..."

Mickey goes on to annotate a couple of games from the US tournament. Buy the paper if you want to read his annotations. This was of interest in another direction as I had just been reading (on the Chessvibes blog) about a hassle in the USA about provincial newspapers refusing to publish a chess column because it contained a Monroi-input game which was allegedly copyrighted by the MonRoi company. Mickey mentions nothing about this in his column, so presumably the Daily Telegraph is not expecting to get slapped with a writ for breach of Monroi's copyright.

I've got the feeling that someone has got the wrong end of the stick here. I think what MonRoi may be trying to do is to ensure that their live games transmissions are kept exclusive, and that other chessplaying sites don't provide simultaneous webcasts of live play. That seems a reasonable aspiration on Monroi's part, though it may be hard to enforce legally. What I don't think they are trying to do is to slap a copyright on individual game scores to stop journalists using them after the event for columns and magazines. That would be unreasonable and unworkable. It is also out of line with accepted legal precedent for unannotated chess game scores.

At present, there seem to be two competing systems for automating the capture and dissemination of chess games. One is the DGT Electronic Board and the other is the MonRoi electronic scoresheet. One system captures the moves as they are made on the board, the other as the players record them.

It rather depends on your role in the tournament as to which system you are likely to prefer. As a player, you are probably more likely to prefer an electronic board as you don't have to do much - apart from that little ritual at the end when you put your kings on squares in the centre to indicate the result. Then you retain your duplicate scoresheet, throw the signed one on the arbiter's desk and leave. With the MonRoi system, you have to ask the operator for a print-out of the moves - and there might be a queue for this.

If you are a tournament organiser, you might just prefer an electronic scoresheet-based system. For one thing, you don't have to organise the moving of ton-loads of heavy wooden boards and sets, complicated wiring, hiring operators to run the system for it (and it is not straightforward, believe me). Of course, MonRoi needs an operator too, but there are no wires and the dinky handheld gadgets take up less space. To be fair, I understand that the DGT system is now capable of being run wirelessly too.

I've no doubt there are lots of other factors too. This last fortnight has provided an opportunity to see the two systems running in tandem, at the 2007 European Championships in Dresden. The electronic board method has been used for the men's/open championship, while the MonRoi has been sued for the women. I'm not quite sure why there has been this gender division; perhaps it is because the MonRoi system usually comes with women operators - or because they feel that women players will be more amenable to technological change (Mickey Adams is not the only super-GM MonRoi refusenik).

Anyway, it has been interesting to compare notes on the competing systems. I've already written something about the outbreak of 'Mad Gamescore Disease' in Dresden, and at the time I was referring to the open championship games, i.e. DGT-generated scores. Things have not improved much on this front. Every round seems to have featured a crazy gamescore which have sometimes been withdrawn from the web screen in mid-transmission.

I've only sampled the Dresden MonRoi transmission a couple of times. I was watching while Tatiana Kosintseva was completing her overwhelming victory in the penultimate round of the women's event. Towards the end of the game, there was a mad episode when she suddenly put her rook en prise, but Atalik didn't take it but put her own rook en prise. Just as I was suspecting a new strain of MGD, there was a flurry of pieces on the board, the MonRoi ship righted itself and the correct moves suddenly appeared.

So, based on a small sample of games, it looks rather as if MonRoi is scoring slightly over DGT on the accuracy and reliability stakes. But that is not the end of the story. I'm sure this technological war still has a long way to run. In truth, both systems have their drawbacks. One of them is that they both rely on the same inputter: the stressed-out, time-troubled - and unpaid - chessplayer. Here's an idea for all you technophobe chessplayers out there, to be used the next time you are confronted with a bit of unfamiliar technology during a tournament: at the end of the game, as you are reporting the result to the arbiter, why not also hand over an invoice for your services - "For Data Input Services - £5 per game - please make cheque payable to 'A Chess-Player'".

Friday 6 April 2007

Brit Biffs Belarussian

(Diagram left shows the position after 23...Qc5 from the game N.Pert-Aleksandrov, Euro 2007)

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: the above title may seem rather tactless or even tasteless in view of what happened the last time an English chess team went abroad. But I am only following the English Chess Federation’s robust lead when they titled their Dresden press release “‘Team England’ Launch an Assault on the European Chess Championships”. And let me reassure nervous readers that no innocent Belarussians were physically injured in the creation of this blog. The title refers to Nick Pert’s wonderfully brutal win against Alexei Aleksandrov. But I’ll get to that presently.

So far in my coverage of Dresden I have concentrated attention on mad gamescores. Bernard Cafferty spotted this one, which must rank as the maddest of the mad:

Khairullin,I (2586) - Kalvaitis,S (2216) [B07] Round 3
1 e4 Nf6 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 Nxe4 4 Bd3 Nc6 5 0–0 Nb4 6 c4 Nc3 7 Be2 Nc6 8 Nbd2 Nxd1 9 Rxd1 Nb4 10 Nb3 Nd3 11 Be3 Nxb2 12 Rd2 Nd3 13 Rad1 Nb2 ½–½

What’s the German for “you’re ‘avin’ a laugh”? I wouldn’t know where to start trying to repair a gamescore like that, though there is something faintly reminiscent of a position from the Petroff in the minor piece configuration around move 6. But surely there is a potential grandmaster of gamescore recovery out there somewhere who could solve it in a trice. Bernard suggests that a prize be offered for anyone who could crack the puzzle. He suggests that the Euro 2007 organisers put up the first prize, which would be an express ticket to Dresden with the message “Komm schnell!”.

Here's my own idea: FIDE could consider running a ‘European Gamescore Solving Championship’ to run concurrently with the main event. As soon as a chess round ends, all the rubbishy gamescores could be handed over to the solving championship competitors to fix in (say) two hours. Not only would the organisers then not have to pay people to unravel the scores, they could even charge them a $200 entry fee, ramp up the hotel charges, make a handsome profit – and end up with a clean set of gamescores. How come those clever people at FIDE didn’t think of that before me?

In truth, the event which styles itself the European Individual Championship is not really worthy of the name. In many sports, such a championship ranks only slightly below a world championship but that is a long way from being true in chess. Most elite players give it short shrift because of the poor conditions and FIDE time limit (for any non-chess readers out there: ‘FIDE’ is a chess jargon word which, when used adjectivally, roughly translates as ‘silly’ or ‘ridiculous’). True, it counts as a world championship qualifying event, but even then the promised events to which it is a ticket do not always take place.

However, viewed purely as a tournament which attracts large numbers of 2600+ grandmasters and strong chess tourists, Euro 2007 is a worthwhile and important event for young or promising players looking for tough competition. To this end, the English Chess Federation has done very well to get together a squad of players who should derive great benefit from the opportunity. For this, all credit to the ECF International Director Peter Sowray and other officials behind the initiative; and also posthumous credit to my old friend John Robinson whose incredibly generous bequest to the ECF helped make the squad’s participation possible.

I won’t go into any great detail about how each of the squad is faring. Suffice to say that most of them are doing OK at the time of writing (after round three). But the following game stood out:

Nick Pert (2525) - Alexei Aleksandrov (2609)
Round 3
1 d4 d5 2 c4 e6 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 Nc3 Bb4 5 Bg5 Nbd7 6 e3 c5 7 Bd3 cxd4 8 exd4 dxc4 9 Bxc4 Qc7 10 Qd3 Bxc3+ 11 bxc3 0–0 12 0–0 b6 13 Rfe1 Bb7 14 Bb3 Rac8 15 Rac1 (A fairly unremarkable position which could perhaps have arisen from a number of other openings, e.g. the c3 Sicilian.) 15...Rfe8 16 Ne5 Nxe5 (16...h6 17 Bh4 Nxe5 18 dxe5 Nd5 19 Bc2 f5 20 exf6 gxf6 is another possibility, when the apparent breach in Black's kingside is not so easy to exploit as it may first appear.) 17 dxe5 Qc6 (After this, things get more difficult for Black. 17...Qd7!? is an ingenious move, with a view to the f6 knight relocating to e4. If 18 Qh3 Ne4 19 Bf4 h6 though 20 Qg4 appears to retain an edge for White.) 18 Qh3 Nd7 (18...Ne4? now runs into 19 Rxe4! Qxe4 20 Bc2 Qxg2+ 21 Qxg2 Bxg2 22 Kxg2 when the two bishops for rook and pawn constitute a hefty plus for White.) 19 Re3 Nf8 20 Qg4 (Amazingly, this is the first new move. Erashchenkov-Kornev, Voronezh 2003, continued 20 Bc2 Rc7 21 Qg3?! Kh8 22 h4 Qb5 23 Rb1 Qa5 24 h5? (24 Bf6 Ng6 25 h5 Qxa2 26 Bd3 gxf6 27 exf6 is unclear) 24...h6 25 a4?? hxg5 26 Rb5 Qa6 27 Qxg5 Nh7 and White resigned.) 20...Kh8 (A pass move. Black has little scope for any counterplay and must sit and watch as White deploys his heavy armour on the kingside.) 21 Rce1 (Played so that the other rook can go to g3 or h3 without having to worry about Black playing Qe4.) 21...Rc7 (21...h6 22 Rh3 Ng6 23 Bc2 looks equally unpromising in the long run.) 22 Rg3 Ng6 23 h4 Qc5

(Diagram at top of the blog)

24 h5! Nxe5 25 Qf4! Nd7 (25...Nc4 26 Bf6! is crushing. The best that Fritz could come up with is the ludicrous 25...Nf3+, demonstrating how utterly hopeless Black's position is.) 26 h6! (Not falling for 26 Qxf7? Rf8! 27 Qxe6 Qxf2+ etc.) 26...g6 27 Qxf7 Qf8 28 Bf6+ Nxf6 29 Qxc7 Rc8 30 Qe5 1–0

An excellent win for the young English grandmaster.

Thursday 5 April 2007

Mad Gamescore Disease

I see that there has been a nasty outbreak of 'Mad Gamescore Disease' at the 2007 European Individual Championship in Dresden. Here's an example from round one:

Gashimov,V (2644) - Handke,F (2459) [C92]
1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 Nf6 5 0–0 Be7 6 Re1 b5 7 Bb3 d6 8 c3 0–0 9 h3 Bb7 10 d4 Re8 11 Nbd2 Bf8 12 a4 h6 13 Bc2 exd4 14 cxd4 Nb4 15 Bb1 c5 16 d5 Nd7 17 Ra3 c4 18 axb5 axb5 19 Nd4 Rxa3 20 bxa3 Nd3 21 Bxd3 cxd3 22 Re3 Nc5 23 N4b3 f5 24 Qh5 Bxd5 25 exd5 Nxb3 26 Nxb3 Re5 27 Rf3 Qc7 28 Rxf5 Rxf5 29 Qd1 Qc3 30 Nd2 Qe5 31 Nf1 Qe2 32 Ne3 Be7 33 f3 Bf6 34 g3 Bb2 35 Bd2 Bd4 36 Qxe2 dxe2 37 Kf2 Ba7 38 Bb4 Kh7 39 g4 Bxe3+ 40 Ke1 Bd2+ 41 Bxd2 Kg6 42 h4 h5 43 gxf5+ 0–1

If you run that through the games software of your choice, you'll see what I mean. The score goes off the rails around move 23 or 24 and thereafter it is utter nonsense.

I used to pride myself on being able to find a cure for most ailing gamescores but this one is way beyond my surgical faculties. In the old days it used to be a case of looking for a 'wrong rook' going to (say) d8 - it is amazing how many highly rated players don't bother to record which rook is to move - or perhaps the inputter had mistaken a letter 'c' for an 'e' (or vice versa). But these days, the automation provided by DGT electronic boards or Monroi electronic scorepads can sometimes produce an absolute train-wreck of a score which defies all attempts at repair.

That is not a criticism of either product. Both are excellent - when used with care. However, some organisers seem to think that they can buy or hire a whole heap of electronic gadgets and the task of getting accurate scores then looks after itself. The big mistake is that they don't bother to hire operators with good chess skills whose job it is to vet the scores before they are published. In business terms, the organisational blunder comes down to one of two things at the budgeting stage: either (a) factoring in the costs of the tools needed to do the job, but forgetting to add in the running costs of skilled operators needed to man them; or perhaps (b) underestimating the skill level of the operators needed.

I suppose organisers may consider that some of the fault also lies with us, the consumers. We grumble when tournament websites are tardy with the gamescores, but also when they publish them quickly but in a poor state (as at Dresden). However, I don't think this is an unreasonable demand. Automation is useful, but only when it is properly implemented and overseen by skilled operatives. Before making games available for download, it is surely possible to get a couple of 2000+ rated players to run through the gamescores using Fritz, checking for score errors.

I've been in bed with a stomach bug for the past couple of days, so haven't been following it live. But I've been told that live coverage has also been a bit dodgy. Anyone care to comment?