Saturday, 30 June 2007

Teaching my wife to play chess

I have been happily married to my wonderful wife Catherine (pictured) for 7 years and although she loves me, she doesn't share my passion for chess. As a result, she has tolerated my addiction with (mostly!) good humour but has never expressed any desire to share in my hobby - until now.

A few days ago, and quite out of the blue, Catherine decided that she needed a hobby and since I play chess, she thought playing chess would be a good idea since I could help teach her and we would share an interest.

I wasn't sure if she was really serious or not, but the next day she asked me when she could have her first lesson. I was happy to oblige and have now given her two lessons and she seems to be enjoying it. She's also reading The Immortal Game (which I recommended) to learn a bit about chess culture.

I'm not sure how to react to this turn of events. I feel like I might be about to become a living example of this humorous story! Has anyone else ever taught their partner to play chess? If so are you still together after the experience?!

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Is playing chess good for you?

The great Benjamin Franklin (pictured) was a big chess fan. His essay on the 'Morals of Chess' is well known. A flavour of his opinions can gained from this quote: "The Game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement. Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it, so as to become habits, ready on all occasions."

Does playing chess really help develop transferable skills that can be used outside of the 64 squares? Great claims have been made for chess as an educational tool in more recent times but does anyone know of any peer-reviewed studies which have shown any measurable effect?

Among other things, I have read claims that chess can:

  • improve concentration
  • develop logical reasoning
  • improve planning skills
  • develop better calculating skills
  • improve memory
  • help improve attention span and develop patience

If all this is true then surely it should have a measurable effect that can be proven? It should also be introduced onto the curriculum in every school so that children can reap the rewards of regular chess play and study.

This seems to be the aim of an organisation called America's Foundation for Chess, but I can't find any hard evidence to back up these claims on it's website.

On the other hand, George Bernard Shaw thought that chess was 'a foolish expedient for making idle people believe they are doing something very clever, when they are only wasting their time.'

So who is right? What do you think? Is chess good for you or is it a waste of time?

Friday, 8 June 2007

Chess Gamesmanship - a confession...

I have something to confess. I wish to seek forgiveness from the Goddess of chess, Caissa. My actions as a foolish youth have troubled my conscience for over two decades and I feel that I the time is right to prostrate myself before her and apologize to my unfortunate opponent.

When I was an impressionable young lad I read an excellent chess book called 'Chess for Tigers'. Unfortunately, I choose to interpret one part of the book in an unfortunate way. I no longer have a copy of the book, so I'll paraphrase as best I can - "A chess tiger doesn't care about making pretty moves or even playing the best moves - all he cares about winning".

With this advice fresh in my mind I reached a position in my next game where I hatched an evil plan to trick my opponent. Unfortunately I have lost all the gamescores to my earliest games, so I have simulated the position in the diagram above.

I moved my rook from e1 to c1, waited a few moments and then proceeded to shake my head, "tut" audibly at myself and generally put on quite a show for my opponent.

It was a contemptible trick to play. I was pretending that I had overlooked that I was leaving my pawn on e3 undefended. After a few anxious minutes and more head shaking and moaning from myself, my opponent (an elderly female player, which makes it worse for some strange reason) fell straight into the trap and took my pawn on e3 with her Queen.

At least I had the decency to feel guilty. I even considered not playing my next move, but after a minute or so I went ahead and played Bxh7 check, discovering an attack on my opponents Queen, ensuring victory. I went on to win the game, but the nagging sense of guilt remained. Even my team-mates were ashamed of me. "I won too", one of them gloated, "and I didn't need amateur dramatics to do it!"

So here I am now, many years older and hopefully a little wiser and I would like to publicly apologize to my opponent for what I did. I hope that my opponent and Caissa will forgive me!

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Too old for Chess?

As I surveyed my face in the mirror this morning I reflected on the fact that although my hair may be starting to turn grey and also wear inexorably thin on the crown of my head (damn that male pattern baldness), at least I have gained the wisdom that comes from "experience" during my 36 years on this earth.

Then I thought, what wisdom? Sure, I know know that running with scissors in your hand is a bad idea and I should look both ways before I cross the road, but what about chess experience? What nuggets of wisdom have I accumulated in that sphere of my life?

I realised then that although I have read a lot of chess books and played a lot of chess games, I'm still confounded by this wonderful "game of kings" and perhaps that will never change. Even if I packed in my job and jetted off to Iceland for personal chess lessons with Bobby Fischer himself for the next 10 years, I'm very unlikely to get to be a grandmaster.

Perhaps chess improvement a bit like keeping fit. We promise ourselves that we will go to the gym 3 times a week, do sit ups every morning until it hurts so much we cry, and eat 5 portions of fruit and veg a day like our chain-smoking doctor tells us to. But in reality we wake up too late to do the sit-ups, are so tired we collapse on the sofa when we come home from work, and the fruit dish hasn't seen any fruit since you brought some home from your last hospital visit.

So it is with chess. My best intentions to study go up in smoke as I succumb to the temptation to watch TV or check my favourite websites again. But does it matter? I enjoy playing chess and can't really imagine life without it. I'm just going to keep trying to improve, make lots of chess friends and enjoy myself. Who could ask for anything more?

Friday, 1 June 2007

The Hitchhikers Guide to Chess

Here's a question for you. Just answer quickly with your gut feeling: Bishop v Knight - which is stronger?

Of course, the standard answer to this question always begins with "It depends on...", but is there really an ultimate answer? There is even a book devoted to just this topic (if anyone has read it, please let me know what you think of it). But has anyone ever surveyed chess players with this question to find out what they think?

Mikhail Chigorin had a distinct preference for knights. Bobby Fischer was a fan of the bishop. What is your preference? What do you feel comfortable with?

I think I've discovered that I'm definitely a fan of the bishop. I recently reached the diagrammed position in a practice game with my Palm Chess Hiarcs (I'm Black, to move). I had just exchanged rooks 25...Rb8xRb3 26. c2xRb3 assuming that I was better in the endgame because I have a bishop against a knight. I proceeded to lose the endgame quite badly!

I would be interested to hear other players thoughts on the position. Would you rather be White or Black and how should the game continue?

If computer software could be designed to analyse all possible chess positions and assign values to the minor pieces, after millions of years of analysis what would it discover? If it produced an answer that bishops are worth 3.51 pawns and knights are worth 3.49 pawns we would have an answer, but would we be any the wiser?

Perhaps you have to understand the question to understand the answer. Like the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy where the answer to the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything was discovered to be 42. You have to know what the real question is to understand the answer.