Monday, January 16, 2017

How Do You Capture ?

How do you capture?

What I am wondering is:  when you perform a capture using real pieces on a real board, how would you describe the series of motions?

An Example

In this position,  White is about to make the capture 8.Qxg7

2 Patterns

Watching people play chess, I have observed 2 distinct patterns in how this is executed:

Pattern 1:

  1. White picks up the pawn on g7.
  2. Picks up the queen on g4 (holding both the queen and pawn in the same hand).
  3. Places the queen on g7.
  4. Hits the clock (pawn still in hand)
  5. Places the pawn on the table.

Pattern 2:

  1. White picks up the queen on g4.
  2. Picks up the pawn while placing the queen on g7.
  3. Hits the clock (pawn still in hand)
  4. Places the pawn on the table.

Why would anyone use pattern 1 ?

In my career as a manufacturing process engineer, I have been trained to identify and eliminate wasted motion.  Clearly, pattern 1 takes one more arm movement than pattern 2.  If there were a work instruction for capturing a piece, I would require the use of pattern 2 so as not to wast time.

Strangely, my observation is that stronger players (masters and up) tend to use pattern 1 more than than lower rated players.  My best guess is that these players learned to play chess before they were old enough to hold both pieces in their hand at the same time, so they actually picked up the pawn (step 1) then placed it on the table (step 5) before moving the queen (steps 3 and 4).

Why you should use pattern 2

  • Fewer arm motion steps (this could be critical in time trouble).
  • The arm does not have to change direction as sharply in most cases (again time savings)
  • The order of the steps matches the notation:
    • 8.Qxg7 (the queen on g4 takes the pawn on g7)
    • Not  the pawn on g7 is captured by the queen on g4
  • Touch move rule:
    • If you touch the pawn first, you are obliged to capture it (with only one option)
    • If you touch the queen first, you are obliged to move it (with 14 legal options)
    • The less committal option could allow you more options to salvage a mistake.
  • Less likely to misplace the piece (I have seen the queen put back on the wrong square)
  • It just looks cooler

Your thoughts?

If you use pattern 1, please leave a comment explaining why.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Clock Progress - Wood Cut for Case

The wood is all cut out for the clock case.  For this first attempt, I used some cheap 1/2 pine craft board from Lowes so I could make all of my mistakes at a low cost.   If this turns out, I may re-build it with some nicer wood.

Next is sanding, gluing and staining.  Then the lever mechanism and the electronics will be stuffed inside and I will have a real chess clock.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Clock Progress - Lever mechanism for mechanical buttons

I have started working on my clock again.  Here is a picture of the lever mechanism for the mechanical buttons.   Magnets below each arm give the feel that the buttons are snapping into place.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Reasoning vs. Intuition

Two Types of Thinking

I divide the types of thinking that a chess player uses during a game into two categories:  Reasoning and Intuition.

Perhaps we should start with some definitions.


By reasoning, I mean the concrete calculation that goes on when a chess player is analyzing variations.  Reasoning is when a player is considering moves and consequences.  Reasoning is hard work.


Intuition is the mode of thinking that relies on experience, gut feel, instinct, rules of thumb.  Intuition is not exact calculation; instead it is a feeling about a move or position.

How Computers "Think" while playing chess.

To explore the ideas of reasoning is and intuition, I first need to take a look at how computers are programmed to find moves.    This is an overly simplified explanation, but it covers the important points.

The computer first generates a tree of variations.  For my example, the computer will only look 2 moves deep for each player, and will only look at 2 moves at each branch.  In reality, the programs will look at more moves and will look deeper in positions that have forcing continuations.

Next the program will calculate a value that represents an evaluation of the position for each of the final positions.  This score will be based largely on the material balance, but also positional considerations.  For my example I just generated random values between -9 and 9.  A negative score is in Black's favor, and a positive score means White is better.

What follows next is called the Minimax algorithm.  Working from the final position backwards,  the program first calculates the score for the position after White's second move by choosing the minimum score of the two choices of moves for Black.  Then the program calculates the score for the position after Black's 1st move by picking the maximum score of the two choices of moves for White.  This happens two more times until all of the positions have a score.

By applying the Minimax algorithm, the program calculates that the best move White can make is the one marked 'a' above, which has a score of -3.  The alternative has a score of -6 which is even better for Black.   Black's best response to move 'a' is move 'b'.  White's best 2nd move is 'c', and Black's best second move is 'd'.

Now back to Human Thinking

I showed you all that in order to discuss how reasoning and intuition are used when humans play chess.

While generating the "tree of variations" in their heads, humans cannot possibly consider every move at every branch.  Only a limited number of moves can be considered, and to decide which, we use intuition.  Rules of thumb help, which guide use to look at checks, captures and treats.  Experience can play a role if the position is similar to other positions we have seen before.  And gut feel can guide us into considering certain moves.  Intuition also guides us in how deep we follow each line.  Much like with the computer program, we use the rule of thumb to look deeper into lines with forcing moves.

Evaluating the positions at the end of each branch also involves intuition.   We humans don't have the processing power to do a computer-like evaluation, but we can estimate how much we value differences in material, pawn structure, piece activity, weaknesses, etc.  Rules of thumb are useful for the material imbalances.  Instinct may tell us that piece activity may compensate for a weak pawn.

The human equivalent of the Minimax algorithm is where we use reasoning.  Visualizing the possible moves at each branch and assigning mental scores is where we can use pure calculation power.  As I mentioned above,  reasoning is hard work.  It takes mental discipline to do a thorough evaluation of the important moves and the opponent's replies.

The role of Time 

Reasoning also takes a lot of time.  You may notice that at long time controls, you will use reasoning much more than you do at 5 minute chess where it is mostly intuition.  Something else to consider is that your reasoning will often benefit by spending more time,  but your intuition will not.

Improving your Reasoning and Intuition

Reasoning is a skill, and is improved by practice.  Solving tactical positions and working through endgame studies are good ways to improve your reasoning.

Intuition is based in part on your knowledge and experience,  so reading books on strategy and playing over master games are good ways to improve intuition.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Openings for Beginners

What opening should I play?

I see this question a lot on internet forums.  There are so many openings, with multiple paths and transpositions, it is no wonder beginners are confused.

General Advice

The advice most often given to beginners is to play the open games.  These are the openings that start with White playing 1.e4 and Black responding with 1...e5.  These openings are called the open games because there are usually pawns traded on the center squares resulting in open central files and diagonals.  With all these open lines, the pieces come into play quickly and it is often easy to figure out the best squares for your pieces.  Quick development, king safety, and the fight for the central squares are usually the main priorities of the open games.

All of the above tends to make the open games good for learning, but I think the best reason to play the open games is that when you lose, it will usually be easy to figure out your mistake because it will be punished tactically right away.  In the closed games, your positional mistake may not be exploited for another 10 moves, and the beginner will not be able to make the logical connection.

Who is the target audience of this advice?

The title says openings for beginners, and certainly anybody just learning to play chess should consider the opening advice listed below.  I would think players rated under 1200 should also be trying out these openings.  All the lines I give have been played by masters, so there is no need to worry that these lines are unsound.  If they suit your style you could play them as you progress up through ratings of 1600 to 1800.

I should also note that these recommendations are intended to maximize learning, not increase short term performance.  You may lose a higher percentage of games at first if you adopt these openings, but I am confident that your understanding will improve, and in the long term, so will your results.

Now for some specifics

To cut to the chase, I am recommending the Scotch Game, but using a modified move order.

The Scotch Game is usually reached by:

1. e4  e5
2. Nf3  Nc6
3. d4

when Black almost always plays  3...exd4

The move order I recommend is:

1. e4  e5
2. d4  dxe4
3. Nf3

and if Black responds with 3...Nc6, then we will have reached the same position.


Why this move order?

There are a couple of reasons why I recommend this particular move order.

  • Some of Black's best options are avoided with this move order (see notes below)
  • There are more opportunities for Black to make a mistake
Of course nothing comes for free, and Black will have a few options against this move order that are not available otherwise, but these are of little consequence.

What if Black doesn't play those moves?

That is a very good question.  I first want to show some lines in the Scotch Game, then I will give some advice on how to play if Black plays moves other than those that lead to the Scotch Game.

The Scotch Game

We will consider two main variations in the Scotch Game following these moves:

1. e4  e5
2. d4  exd4
3. Nf3  Nc6
4. Nxd4

Black will usually play either 4...Bc5 or 4...Nf6.   You will also need to prepare for 4...Qh4.   Beginners will sometimes play 4...Nxd4, but this should cause you no trouble.

Gambit options for White

White can choose not to re-capture the pawn on move 4.  There are some options where White can sacrifice a pawn to gain a lead in development with lots of open lines that may lead to an early attack.
4.Bc4 is the Scotch Gambit
4.c3 is the Goring Gambit.

When Black does not play 3...Nc6

These are some moves that Black may play instead of 3...Nc6
3...Nf6 is a variation of the Petroff Defense
3...d6 is a line in the Philidor Defense
3...Bb4+ and 3...Bc5 are options that are unique to this move order, but not problems for White.
3...c5 is sometimes played by beginners and is just bad for Black.

What if Black does not play 1...e5?

That will have to be another chapter.  In most cases, the idea of playing 2.d4 will be the right move, and against the Sicilian, you can follow up with 3.Nf3.


As White, I recommend beginning players aim for the Scotch Game (or possibly the Scotch Gambit) using the 2.d4 move order.   This will lead to positions that beginning players will be able to understand and learn from.  This last diagram is a summary of the lines discussed above.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Working Prototype

Here is my working Prototype

It is hard to get a good picture of the displays.

The clock on the left is counting down.  The button on the left is lit indicating which player is on the move.  I will try to post a video soon.

Making all of the wiring cables, and soldering everything to the perf board took a lot more time than I had expected.