Jan 09, 2017

The language of chess

The dust has barely settled on last year’s World Chess Championship match in New York: Norway’s Magnus Carlsen defended his title against the tough challenger Sergei Karjakin, in a close match. The event got me thinking about the language of chess strategy, and tactics, and the curious history, and multicultural origins of chess terminology.

Chess has been around for centuries and The Game and Play of the Chess was among the first books printed in English by William Caxton in the late fifteenth century. It is not actually a book of chess instruction in the modern sense. Rather it is an allegory of medieval society with a king, queen, bishops, knights, and rooks, and with pawns representing various trades. Each chess piece has its own moral code, together representing a kingdom bound by duty rather than kinship. Caxton used a French translation as the basis for his book and the English word chess is a borrowing from the Middle French échecs. But the story is older and more complicated than that.

Chess comes from the 6th century Sanskrit game chaturanga, which translates to “four arms.” The arms refer to the elephants, horses, chariots, and foot soldiers of the Indian army, which evolved into the modern bishops, knights, rooks, and pawns. The chaturanga pieces also included the king or rajah and the king’s counselor, which would later be reinvented as the queen. In chaturanga, the game ended when the rajah was removed from the board—when the king was killed.

Chaturanga was introduced to Persia around 600 AD and the rajah became the shah. Persian chatrang became Arabic shatranj and made its way to Morocco and Spain as shaterej. The word check, meaning an attack on the king, was adapted from the Persian shah. A player would say shah to announce an attack on the king. The expression checkmate came from the situation in which the king is attacked and has no defense: shāh māt means “the king is dead” and this connotation of regicide persists in the Russian name for chess: shakmati.

In Latin, the game was not named after the killing of the king, but after the attacks themselves—the checks. It was called ludis scaccorum (game of checks) or, when shortened, scacchi. The Latin word for check later gave us the Middle French eschec, which became échecs in the plural and chess in English.

Along with the modern name, French is also the source of some of the game’s fine points, such as the en passant rule, which permits the capture of an opponent’s pawn when it moves two squares on its first move passing a pawn of the opposite color. It is the source of the expression j’adoube, used when a player wishes to adjust a piece without moving it. For a time too, players would announce gardez when the queen was under attack or en prise. But the warning is no longer customary.

French also contributes to the confusing noun stalemate. The Middle English word stale is probably from Anglo-French estale which meant “standstill.” When a player did not have a legal move, that counted as a win, so stalemate was a victory by standstill. Today a stalemate in chess counts as a tie, and the word has been extended to a more general description for a deadlock. En passant, j’aboube, gardez, and en prise have been less successful as general terms. The same can be said for the Italian word fianchetto, from the diminutive of fianco which means “flank” and referring to a particular deployment of one’s bishops.

German is the source of a number of chess words, such as Zugzwang, referring to the situation in which players have no moves that will not weaken their position Zugzwang has been extended to refer to situations in which the pressure to do something is counterproductive, as in the following examples from Zugzwang fan Nate Silver (from 2008: “Either way, it is a reminder of the state of zugzwang that McCain campaign finds itself in” and from 2016: “For Clinton, this is a zugzwang election where she’d rather stay out of the way and let Trump make the news”).

German gives us the monosyllabic term luft (“air”) referring to a flight square made by moving a pawn in front of a king’s castled position, which we find in Luftwaffe and Lufthansa, and the derisive patzer, used to describe a poor player (cognate with the verb patzen meaning to bungle). The German verb kiebitzen (“to look on at cards”) makes its way to Yiddish as kibitz and refers meddling in games by spectators.

Many modern tactical terms are of English origin. There are pins (when a piece cannot move because it would expose a more valuable one) and forks (double attacks), both terms dating from the nineteenth century. Twentieth century coinages include the windmill (when a rook and bishop work together to both check the king and capture material) and the x-ray or skewer, where a piece indirectly attacks an opposing piece.

One of my favorites terms though is the smothered checkmate, a term which dates from about 1800. This occurs when the king is surrounded by its own pieces so that it has no flight squares and is checkmated by an opponent’s knight. It is a rare occurrence but when it happens it will take your breath away.

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Nov 16, 2016

How a Chess Champion Trains for the Big Game

Magnus Carlsen, the three-time world chess champion, believes the fitter the body, the sharper the mind.

The Norway-born Mr. Carlsen, 25, has been playing chess since he was 8. At 13, he was one of the youngest people ever to be awarded the title of grandmaster, the highest level of chess mastery; in 2013, he won his first world championship. He is set to defend his world title at the World Chess Championship, playing a series of matches against challenger Sergey Karjakin in New York City through November 30.

Many parents will be sorry to learn that Mr. Carlsen keeps his mind focused by playing videogames. He gives his memory a workout by practicing chess blindfolded. At the Sohn Investment Conference in 2015, he defeated three challengers in simultaneous timed blindfold matches, to raise money for pediatric cancer research and treatment.

With regular matches at Mr. Carlsen’s level easily lasting five hours or more, and conceivably as long as three weeks at a stretch, physical stamina, as well as mental stamina, is needed. Mr. Carlsen says he believes a healthy diet and physical training are crucial for a chess master to remain at peak, just as they are for other types of athletes. “I get bored very easily, so I don’t do well in the gym,” Mr. Carlsen says. “Luckily for me, I have a real love of sport.”

While prodigies often set aside every other hobby to focus on one talent, Mr. Carlsen says he always made time for soccer. “No sport challenges your endurance like soccer, both mentally and physically,” he says. He still plays on a local recreational team in Norway called Lokomotiv Oslo.

In soccer games, as in chess matches, “games are lost or won in the final hours due to mistakes caused by fatigue,” says Mr. Carlsen, who is known as a chess player who makes very few errors while often causing opponents to do so.

When he is in his best physical shape, Mr. Carlsen says, he is able to sleep and relax between chess matches. He also practices yoga. He has three sisters who also practice yoga, and a yoga teacher is the head of his game-development company, Play Magnus. “I find that the routine of yoga helps me calm my mind so I can focus on strategies,” he says.

In 2013, Mr. Carlsen started training with Peter Heine Nielsen, a Lithuania-based chess coach. The two discuss mental and physical training routines by email and phone. “My goal is to get Magnus in the best mental and physical state possible leading up to big tournaments,” Mr. Nielson says. “Diet, rest and exercise are a big part of that. He also needs to have fun to keep the pressure off.”
The Workout

When Mr. Carlsen is on the road for a tournament, he depends on his workouts to help him relieve tension and relax. He might run intervals on the treadmill at a hotel gym, adjusting the incline and intensity for 30 to 60 minutes. “Running is a time where I can go through game strategies,” he says.

After he gets his heart rate up, he winds down with a series of stretches, or he will flow through yoga sequences for 20 minutes. “Much of my core work comes from yoga,” he says. “I’m not the type to go to the gym and run through reps and sets of exercise. I need something more fluid and fun.” If he can find a hot yoga studio, he’ll attend a class.

He says he likes the challenge and focus of yoga, but still prefers the competitiveness of soccer, basketball or tennis. If he has a rest day between matches, he sometimes gathers team members for a low-key pickup game of basketball or soccer. “Hard physical training, especially in a competitive setting, takes a lot of energy, so during tournaments we keep the training at a level light,” says Mr. Heine. “Never more than an hour or two of soccer or basketball.”

At home in Oslo, Mr. Carlsen goes to a 90-minute hot yoga class two to three times a week. He plays defense on his local soccer team but says he prefers to attack when playing casually with friends. He trains with his team one to two times a week for an hour and usually has one game a week. During Norway’s long winters, he goes cross-country skiing and hiking on weekends.

Whenever he has time to kill, such as when traveling or waiting in line at a store, he uses the opportunity to play games on his phone. “I have a team of grandmasters that create interesting chess-related games,” he says. Lately, he has been playing a text-based, multiplayer role-playing game called Avalon. It is played in real time, so players are constantly thinking about the next move. “It’s a mythological environment where you can create your own character and move through over 20,000 locations over 19 continents,” Mr. Carlsen says. “It’s easy to get caught up and play for hours.”

The Diet
Mr. Carlsen eats a mostly vegetarian diet. For breakfast, he makes a superfood smoothie with ingredients like açaí berry and hemp milk, or he’ll have a fresh pressed green juice, with ginger and lemon. Lunch is a salad topped with avocado, walnuts or pumpkin seeds. He likes Asian flavors and often makes a vegetable stir fry over brown rice for dinner. During tournaments he focuses on getting enough protein to maintain his energy over long time periods. He relies on plant proteins like beans, nuts, seeds or hemp protein and drinks water throughout the tournament.

Cost & Gear
He spends $30 a month on soccer dues. He likes soccer cleats made by Warrior. “I like to keep things simple and wear whatever is in my closet. I’m not overly picky about the brands I wear to work out.”

“I listen to a lot of rock music when I run, but my playlist is very diversified. One thing all of my music has in common is that it’s upbeat and keeps my momentum up.” His fight song is by gangsta rapper Lil Jon, with a title that can’t be printed in a family newspaper.


May 20, 2016

Interview with current Women’s World Championship Hou Yifan

At fourteen she was the youngest female player ever to gain the title of grandmaster, and at sixteen she became the youngest Women’s World Champion in history. She has won the title four times and is the reigning champion. Now Hou Yifan, 100 points stronger than any of her colleagues, has abandoned the Women’s Championship cycle. She tells us why and calls for a reform of the system. Her proposal is amazingly simple.

Skype interview with Hou Yifan

by Frederic Friedel-Editor-in-Chief of the ChessBase News Page.

Frederic Friedel: Hello Yifan, can we talk?

Hou Yifan: Hi Frederic, sure. But give me a minute – I’m in a library and will find a quiet spot.

FF: A library? But isn’t that the quietest of places?

HY: Not this one. But now I am in a quiet room and we can speak.

FF: So how are you in general? What are you up to?

HY: I’m busy with my graduation thesis and a presentation for an award of my University. Later this month, I will play Shamkir. And how are you doing? How is your knee?

FF: [had an accident and badly injured his knee – gives Yifan a brief medical rundown] But now to the questions that is burning on my mind: you have dropped out of the FIDE Women’s Grand Prix 2105/16 circuit. Actually, you played in the first leg in Monaco, and won it by two full points. The second event in Tehran was won by Chinese GM Ju Wenjun by half a point, and the third in Batumi by Russian GM Valentina Gunina – in both these events you did not play. Normally you would now be tied with these two at 160 points. But the current WGP standings have left you out.

HY: I decided to drop out from WGP cycle after I received an unclear answer from FIDE regarding the possibility of a change in the current Women’s World Championship system. I participated in all previous cycles, since 2009, and the main reason in recent years was that the overall winner got the right to play the Women’s World Championship match. I didn’t think this was actually reasonable, but it was the only option I had. Now the situation is different. I do not see any point in taking part in the different stages only to be able to play in the WWCC, especially when the opponents usually are at least one hundred points below me. For years now I have expressed my deep dissatisfaction to FIDE about this, but they didn’t accept anything I said. So I won’t consider staying in a system with which I completely disagree.

FF: Will you be playing in the knockout Women’s World Championship, which is scheduled for later this year?

HY: No, I won’t even think about it. I can’t agree with the current system. I would like to mention that since the previous WWCCh Match was postponed to this year, the knockout tournament should be held at least one year later. I mentioned this to FIDE, last year before I signed the contract of the Lviv Match, and the reply was that they had received my request and “would discuss it at the next board meeting”— same answer as always. Okay, back to your question: already in 2012 I hesitated with my participation. I had won the match against Humpy in Tirana, and then reluctantly played in the knockout world championship in Khanty Mansiysk, Russia, with a very unsatisfying result. Then the knock-out tournament in 2015, which was supposed to be held on late 2014, clashed with the Hawaii Chess Festival. This time I had no choice as I promised to play in Hawaii before FIDE announced the new dates of the event.

FF: You clearly don’t like playing in the knockout world championship…

HY: I’m flexible with any formats of chess events. The thing I can’t agree with is that such a knock-out tournament will decide who is the World Champion. A 64-player knockout event is mostly a lottery: you play two games, and if you lose the first for some reason you have good chances to be eliminated. It is something that can happen in any of the five rounds required to reach the final. I was lucky in 2010 in Turkey, but in Khanty-Mansiysk I was knocked out by Monika Socko in round two. In the same round the other top seeds Humpy Koneru and Anna Muzychuk were also eliminated, all three of us by players rated 150 points lower. The winners of previous knockout world championships have been Xu Yuhua, Alexandra Kosteniuk, Hou Yifan, Anna Ushenina, Mariya Muzichuk – strong players, but in some cases not close to the strongest in the world.

Year Type Won by (report link) Venue 200464-player knockout Elista, Russia200664-player knockoutEkaterinburg, Russia200864-player knockout Nalchik, Russia201064-player knockoutHatay, Turkey2011ten-game matchTirana, Albania201264-player knockoutKhanty Mansiysk, Russia2013ten-game matchTaizhou, China201564-player knockout Sochi, Russia2016ten-game matchLviv, Ukraine

FIDE had a similar system for the Men’s World Championship in the past, with 128 players starting a knockout tournament. But this was abandoned since similarly the title was won by players who were not in the top ten or twenty in the world.

FF: If you do not play in the next 64-player knockout event we will have a new Women’s World Champion, and you will not be able to challenge her in 2017, since you have left the Grand Prix cycle that selects the challenger. You will lose your title without playing a match, and would also be out of the WWCC cycle for the near future.

HY: That’s true according to the current Women’s system, and that is why this is the right moment to improve the system. I’m not proposing this after my first title win – I’ve been doing it for six years now. Apart from the previous reasons I have given, the general point is that the overall system is not logical: the winner of the knockout tournament will be called “World Champion” and the previous World Champion loses her title. By the way: what happens if I played the knockout and won it? Would I challenge myself? No, the challenger will be the runner-up of WGP. My match with Humpy was because she’s finished second in the WGP cycle at that time – I had 465 points and she had 380. Anyway, I have showed my performance in the different tournament formats, including knockout, closed tournaments and matches, for the past six years, and now is the time to make a change. I have had this idea for a long time, but until now I kept thinking to myself “you are not strong enough to ask for changing the system”, and “probably FIDE will seriously consider it if you win more events”. These and similar thoughts encouraged me to continue playing in the World Championship cycle, but after winning three matches, and with FIDE still rejecting all my proposals, I did not see any point to continue playing in an illogical and unfair system.

FF: How exactly would you like the system to be modified?

HY: Basically it should be held like the men’s World Championship: qualification tournaments, a Candidates tournament, and the winner plays the reigning World Champion. This is the way the World Championship was handled for most of chess history. However, if FIDE says it is too complicated or too difficult to find sponsors, I have a very simple solution: keep the current system, exactly as it is, or even extend it, as in the men’s Grand Prix, so that more women players can participate. But there should be one important difference: the lucky winner, at the end of the cycle, is not the new Women’s World Champion but the Challenger. She gets the right to play the reigning Women’s World Champion in a ten-game match.

FF: So a full WWCCh match every two years instead of every year?

HY: Yes, of course. Having one every year – or in fact two Women’s World Championships in a single year, as is theoretically possible in 2016 – reduces the value of the title. Magnus is the perfect example: he is the strongest player (by far) in the world, and has won two World Championship matches against a qualifier who was picked by Grand Prix, World Cup tournaments and Candidates. Last month Sergey Karjakin was the lucky winner of the 2016 qualification cycle. He became the third Challenger and gets to play a 16-game match against Magnus in November. Why can’t we have a similar system for women?

FF: Sounds perfectly logical. However FIDE has said that the current Women’s system is very popular amongst the girls since they get to play a lot of interesting events …

HY: Yes, but that would stay exactly the same, except that the lucky winner doesn’t get the highest title in women’s chess, but only the right to challenge the current title holder for it.

FF: What does FIDE say about your proposals?

HY: They keep promising to consider my requests, to discuss them at Presidential Board meetings and talk with the other women players. They will try to figure out a solution later on. That has been going on for three or four years now. So I have decided to exit the WGP and wait to see if it will be reformed.

FF: FIDE says that it is impossible to get funding for the knock-out event, which the other women love, if it is not a world championship but only produces a challenger…

HY: Yes, of course you can make any tournament more interesting by making it a world championship. Just imagine if Wijk aan Zee, St Louis or Norway Chess would produce world champions and the reigning World Champion would automatically lose his title. Naturally the organisers and the players might love it, but it would very much reduce the value of the title.

FF: Yifan, if you drop out of the women’s cycle you could become a kind of Judit Polgar: you would be the strongest female on the planet, a hundred points ahead of everyone else, but only playing in men’s tournaments?

Top ten in women’s chess today

Top ten in women's chess today

HY: Well, not exactly. Of course Judit represents a great example for women’s chess to encourage girls to play, but I am looking forward to making my own way. If the system could be improved in a reasonable way I think I would not entirely quit women’s chess, at least not right now. But as long as the winner of the World Championship match automatically loses her title, without a match, I unfortunately have no other choice than to stop participating in the cycle. However, thinking positively, this may not be that bad. It would allow me to focus on the top level, on the “men’s” field. I could try to become stronger, to be more efficient, as there would be no obligation to play the women’s tournaments anymore.

FF: A final question: if FIDE accepts your proposal, if they agree to make the winner of the knockout tournament the Challenger and not the World Champion, would you be willing to re-join the cycle? Would you defend your title against the Challenger in 2017?

HY: Of course. Please remember that I did not quit the whole system, I only withdrew from WGP cycle. If the winner of the next knockout championship will only be the Challenger, then I will continue my participation for sure. The logic is like this: if FIDE keeps the current world championship system I will drop out from it all together. But right now I have the World Championship title and am willing to defend it in a match against any Challenger.

Article source chessbase

May 20, 2016

What do the chess titles GM, IM mean? How are they earned?

Chess, unlike most other competitive sports, maintains a system of titles granted to players of exceptional skill and talent. The highest title awarded in the world of bishops and knights is International Grandmaster (GM). While it sounds mysterious, the title’s origins are tied to the conception of mastery, like that of an artist or craftsman who has attained the highest level of achievement recognized by one’s peers.

Prior to the titling system’s formalization in the early 1950s by World Chess Federation, the term Grandmaster existed only as an approbation granted to the very best players in the world. The lore surrounding some of the title’s first usage dates to the last days of the Russian Empire when Tsar Nicholas II held a tournament of “grossmeisters” (German for Grandmasters). That title was never formally given. Chess had always been informal through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Such informality even allowed World Champions to avoid challengers who might beat them or to play against lesser contenders to assure themselves the retention of the crown.

In 1946, international chess would find itself in a crisis and in need of a more formal structure after the death of World Champion Alexander Alekhine. Although the Soviet Challenger Mikhail Botvinnik had offered the best sponsorship and funding for a match with Alekhine, events and politics made the hosting of a World Championship match impossible during WWII.

The postwar era opened the door for the World Chess Federation to regulate the many aspects of the game that, up until that point, had been informal or ad hoc. Its rules committee authored a new version the Laws of Chess universalizing international chess competition. It regularized the system under which players could qualify and play for the World Championship, and held a large, international tournament in 1948 to crown a new champion after Alekhine’s death. Finally, it created a set of rules for the granting of titles to chess players.

In 1950, two new titles were created: International Grandmaster and International Master (IM). Similar to university degrees, these titles were a hierarchical system with GM higher than IM, and once earned, the bearer would hold his or her title for life. To earn each title, a player must achieve three quality performances, each known as a norm, in tournaments meeting a strict set of regulations on the composition of the player pool.

In general terms, to earn one norm:

  • a player needs to score quantifiably well in a tournament where at least three other players already hold the title being sought
  • the average rating of all the players in the tournament must be above a minimum threshold (2380 average for GM norms)
  • a minimum of four national federations must be represented

After all three norms are earned, the player must achieve rating over 2500 for GM or 2400 for IM.

These rules for chess titles created a natural break on their proliferation. In the 1950s, only about 50 Grandmasters existed. The international nature of norm qualified tournaments meant strong events held in the United States or the Soviet Union often would not consist of required number of foreign or titled players. It was not until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with its exodus of Eastern European and Russian players to the West, that the GM title started to spread more widely. Today, there are more than 1,000 Grandmasters worldwide. To put that number in perspective, it is estimated (2012) that around 600 million people play chess worldwide.

Although norm tournaments have become more common in the United States in the last few decades, they are still onerous to organize because the of the time commitment required and the resources needed to attract foreign or titled players. But norm tournaments are essential for the promotion of professional chess, as they are often the first introduction players have to invitational round-robin tournament chess and only way to earn international titles. Those who earn the GM title can trace a line to the past and count themselves among chess’ elite players.

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