Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Satanic, Miss Rand, and Caissa

Why do I play chess? A deeper question, though, is: why do I keep coming back to it, after long periods of abstinence following a burnout? What profound human need does it satisfy for me? I think the answer lies in a combination of the following two ideas:

1) In Satanism, the way to immortality is through ego fulfillment. And what is a chess game, if not the battle of two egos trying to crush the life out of one another? (This idea, of immortality through ego fulfillment, can also be found in The Fountainhead.) In the Satanic Bible, Anton LaVey writes:

“If a person has been vital throughout his life and has fought to the end for his earthly existence, it is this ego which will refuse to die, even after the expiration of the flesh which housed it. Young children are to be admired for their driving enthusiasm for life. This is exemplified by the small child who refuses to go to bed when there is something exciting going on, and when once put to bed, will sneak down the stairs to peek through the curtain and watch. It is this childlike vitality that will allow the Satanist to peek through the curtain of darkness and death and remain earthbound.” (94)

2) In Ayn Rand’s “Open Letter to Boris Spassky,” she argues that chess, when practiced as an obsession rather than simple recreation, is an escape used by men who cannot deal with the difficulties of the real world:

“You, the chess professionals, live in a special world—a safe, protected, orderly world, in which all the great, fundamental principles of existence are so firmly established and obeyed that you do not even have to e aware of them.”

“The process of thinking is man’s basic means of survival. The pleasure of performing this process successfully—of experiencing the efficacy of one’s own mind—is the most profound pleasure possible to men, and it is their deepest need, on any level of intelligence, great or small. So one can understand what attracts you to chess: you believe that you have found a world in which all irrelevant obstacles have been eliminated, and nothing matters, but the pure, triumphant exercise of your mind’s powers.”

“Unlike algebra, chess does not represent the abstraction—the basic pattern—of mental effort; it represents the opposite: it focuses mental effort on a set of concretes, and demands such complex calculations that a mind has no room for anything else. By creating an illusion of action and struggle, chess reduces the professional player’s mind to an uncritical, unvaluing passivity toward life. Chess removes the motor of intellectual effort—the question ‘What for?’—and leaves a somewhat frightening phenomenon: intellectual effort devoid of purpose.”

“If—for any number of reasons, psychological or existential—a man comes to believe that the living world is closed to him, that he has nothing to seek or to achieve, that no action is possible, then chess becomes his antidote, the means of drugging his own rebellious mind that refuses fully to believe it and to stand still.” (Philosophy: Who Needs It?, 55-6.)

In spite of Ayn Rand’s moralizing tone (which certainly isn’t going to stop me from playing and studying chess as much as I want), I think she has an interesting point. To use myself as an example, I have always felt a sense of alienation from physical reality: I don’t much like to “get my hands dirty”, and the thought of applying my love of mathematics and the sciences to being an engineer doesn’t really excite me (though I do have great respect for those in this profession.) Perhaps I could aspire to be a theoretical physicist; however, these days that largely entails heavy-duty mathematics, and I don’t think that would really satisfy my ego in the same way chess does.

Alright, then: so the world of chess and the world of mathematics/theoretical physics each represent a sort of “closed system”, in which one may find joy and fulfillment independently from the physical world. The latter has the advantage of being more productive, generally applicable, and eternal, while the former has the advantage of directly satisfying the ego and providing the successful individual with a more tangible sense of accomplishment and recognition from his peers.

What to do?

I’ve wrestled with this question on and off for years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I cannot discover the answer by pure thought and introspection. Instead, I have to just, um, try things out. What I would currently like to do (but have little idea how to begin) is to find a method of approach to mathematics/physics by which I will have no fear that my efforts will go to waste, unnoticed, and whatever aspect of my soul that needed chess will be sated.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Almost 1800, lone trees in the field, and the power of Empty Space

So I've decided to take--*gasp*--a balanced approach to my chess study. I have now heard from two reputable sources that the purpose of endgame study early in one's career is not necessarily for the purpose of playing the endgame better. Rather, by doing so, one gets a feel for the power of each piece as an individual, as well as how, say, two pieces work together in harmony, e.g. learning to mate with Bishop and Knight. Of course, I won't necessarily study the B+N mate just yet; I do, however, have respect for the concept, used in the Soviet School of training and relayed to me by recent acquaintance Olexsandr Lozitskiy from Ukraine (USCF 1938.)

The other reputable source is the amazing Josh Waitzkin. Quoting from his latest book,

"Once he had won my confidence, Bruce began our study with a barren chessboard. We took on positions of reduced complexity and clear principles. Our first focus was king and pawn against king--just three pieces on the table. Over time, I gained an excellent intuitive feel for the power of the king and the subtlety of the pawn. I learned the principle of opposition, the hidden potency of empty space, the idea of zugzwang.... Layer by layer we built up my knowledge and my understanding of how to transform axioms into fuel for creative insight. Then we turned to rook endings, bishop endings, knight endings, spending hundreds of hours as I turned seven and eight years old, exploring the operating principles behind positions that I might never see again. This method of study gave me a feeling for the beautiful subtleties of each chess piece, because in relatively clear-cut positions I could focus on what was essential. I was also gradually internalizing a marvelous methodology of learning--the play between knowledge, intuition, and creativity. From both educational and technical perspecties, I learned from the foundation up." ("The Art of Learning, "pp. 34-5.)

In any case, I've purchased Silman's Complete Endgame course, and I'm working my way through it in addition to my opening studies and, of course, tactics. Speaking of which, if any of you followed Ziatdinov's "Training Tips" on, you would have found his rather bold claim that if you take a collection of 1000 tactical problems and learn them "by hand" (i.e. so automatically that all your calculations are actually subconscious) then you "will have the tactical ability of a Grandmaster." I don't know whether or not this claim is true; however, I'm going to, ah, pretend it's true, and spend the next year or so (as long as it takes) internalizing all main lines and side variations of the problems in CT-Art, to perfection.

As for openings, I've decided to switch to a more "solid" repertoire, for some very dark reasons of my own. (I'm very, very curious to see how this repertoire will combine with my "tactical ability of a Grandmaster," once I've earned it over the next year or two.) I still want to play gambits, but perhaps only against weaker players <:-)

Thursday, June 14, 2007


Well, folks, I have done it: I began Michael de la Maza's notorious Seven Circles program on January 10th, 2007, and completed it on June 8th 2007. The following day(s) I competed in the U1600 section of the KY Open and went undefeated. Since May 20 I have played twenty-four rated games, losing only three; my current USCF rating is 1568, but I'm pretty sure I will clear 1700 by the next supplement. These words are meant not to boast, but to inspire.

Here are my thoughts on the program:

One-Those of you who have begun the program might be frustrated with the requirement that you finish each exercise within ten minutes, as the last 200-300 problems simply cannot be fully understood within that amount of time by the average player. So why did MDLM demand such a short time limit? Here are three possibilities. They are by no means mutually exclusive:

A) Mr. De la Maza was a man of exceptional natural intelligence and memory, and was able to see all of the variations (including critical lines not listed in CT-ART) within ten minutes.

B) The positions can be understood in that time limit provided that one put his full focus into its solution. Many times during my training, I caught my mind wandering or at least ruminating over the same line. I really wish I hadn't done this, but then again, the art of concentration may be a nontrivial one.

C) MDLM was not going for perfection in his understanding of the position; rather, knowing and understanding only the given lines is sufficient, as is one's ability to assimilate subconsciously much of the material.

Two-As a result of my frustration with #1, I actually spent thirty minutes to an hour with many of those problems, analyzing unlisted variations with Fritz. I feel no shame in this, but it did cause me to take an extra month for the overall program (well, this and the fact that I took off ten solid days of training to catch up on schoolwork…)

Three-I am actually going to go back through the entire set of problems in CT-ART, at my own pace, and make sure that I perfectly understand and can calculate with lightning efficiency all side variations-listed or unlisted-that I deem important for my own understanding. This will be my "Eighth Circle," so to speak. Essentially, I want to make sure I know the positions "by hand," to use the terminology of my new chess love-interest, IM Rashid Ziatdinov.

For the rest of the summer, I plan to study only tactics and openings. Silman and Shereshevsky will come next (as will an end to my blitz-free diet!), but not until I am at least a solid Class A player. Yes, I did say openings-I believe it is important that I play this phase of the game quickly and confidently. Further, I'm going to defy the spirit of RCI and play some "real" openings (Sicilian, Scotch, Benoni), rather than offbeat lines like the ones MDLM used to throw off his opponents. This is because I plan to make Master someday, and I think MDLM's dubious opening repertoire would have hampered his ability to make it there. (Not that he wouldn't've made it, it just would have been a really tough climb, tougher that if he had played better openings.)

Monday, February 26, 2007

Fallen Knight :-(

So I started to get behind in my schoolwork as a result of behind too obsessive-compulsive about the details of the tactical problems I was working through. My brain overloaded, I started to get depressed, and I had to drop the chess program :-(

I am doing a good job getting caught up in school, however, and once I am I will work tactical problems in my spare time. I'm going to save the Seven Circles for this summer. I think it would be best if I didn't blog anymore until I am done with the program, or at least with the first circle; then things will get interesting.

Saturday, February 3, 2007


The other night I had a flu-induced nightmare about chess. With a superior game, I moved my Queen where it could be captured, and my opponent simply took it. I made another move then immediately resigned in disgust, seizing the offending piece and hurling it against the wall, where it shattered.

On that note: I am nearly a month into my First Circle, not having missed a single day of training!

Some of the exercises, I have found, are meant to be "felt" positionally: you make a move or sequence of moves that sets you up for an attack, and at the end of the exercise your attack is clearly winning, though you have yet to either deliver checkmate or make any sort of material gain whatsoever. For example, consider the following position from a game by CTA's author, Maxim Blokh:

I believe this is exercise #910. The correct move is 1....b4!, opening up lines for an attack on White's king. Initially, the main thing to understand is that this move is NOT a sacrifice: although White has three pieces attacking that square to Black's two, the d5-knight will be removed on the next move. If that knight is the first to capture on b4, however, then 2....Nxe5 wins back the pawn.

Would everyone agree with my assessment of this kind of position, namely, that in some of the exercises you have to "feel" how good your resulting position will be, rather than know a concrete set of variations that lead to mate or win of material?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Survey: Why do you play chess?

Post replies as comments. Answers may be as detailed, simple, serious, or humorous as you like.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Beginning: 6 days, 600 problems!!!

This is my First Circle. Over the past six days, I've blasted through all of the Level 10s through the Level 30s. I was surprised at how many of them I recognized from my attempt last May to complete the 7cir program. (Not that the solutions popped out immediately, but I got this "I've seen this before" feeling, and it didn't take long to find the solutions.)

Most of the problems were pretty straightforward. A few, however, have inspired hour-long exhaustive explorations into the reasons behind every variation, especially logical-looking defensive moves that the opponent did NOT play.

For example, the next one I need to work on before I move on to the Level 40s is the following sacrifice by Tal:

Question Number One for me will be: Why is 1.Rxf6 superior to Nxf6? "Positionally" speaking, I know that the Queen and Knight work well together, as their moves complement one another, although concretely speaking, I will certainly need an answer like "the knight needs to remain there to guard the crucial c5 and d6 squares."

[Edit: Immediately after posting this, I saw that 1.Rxf6 threatens (say, after 1....axb3?) 2.Rxg5+ Nxg5 3.Qxg5+ Kh8 4.Qxh6+ Kg8, though this may not be best for White.]

It seems that the "real" tactical program has for me begun tonight, now that I am encountering problems in which these analyses are helpful.