Saturday, December 1, 2012

National K-12 Championships this weekend in Orlando

Keep your eyes on the 4th grade and 6th grade sections....

Anna Ushenina takes Women's World Championship

Congratulations to Anna Ushenina of Ukraine, who beat former champion Antoaneta Stefanova of Bulgaria in a playoff today.

Enormous win for Nakamura

A win with Black against the #2 player in the world is a great way to start the London Chess Classic!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Giving Tuesday: Chicago Chess Center

There's a welcome new tradition this year: following the conspicuous consumption of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, charities are calling for us to help others on Giving Tuesday.

It's exciting to be in on the ground floor of something good. Since I entered the Chicago chess scene in 1977, I recall many fun days at Jules Stein's Chicago Chess Center, Richard Verber's various incarnations of the Chicago Chess Club, Les Bale's Lincolnwood Chess and Games (later transplanted to Lincoln Avenue in the city), Papa Dee's Chicago Chess Club, and (half a block from our apartment!) the Wild Onion.

Founders pass away and business models change: all these places are gone.

Keith Ammann came to me with a dream last year: why not found a permanent chess center in Chicago for Chicagoans? I told Keith that I was interested if we could do it in a way that would insure that the center remained after its founders were gone.

Our board (Keith Ammann, FM Albert Chow, Chris Christmas, Alyse Hammonds, Hector Hernandez, and myself; with the invaluable assistance of Les Bale) has made excellent progress. We've obtained nonprofit status for Chicago Chess Center NFP, Inc., we've received some generous donations, we're scouting for sites, planning fundraising events....and there's still so much to do before we open our doors.

Chess is not just a pleasant pastime, it transforms lives for the better. I know: I grew up in an Appalachian anthracite mining town. We lived in public housing, and my mother worked as a third-shift nurse's aide in a nursing home. Had it not been for chess, I never would have been admitted to MIT. For chess teaches critical thinking skills that helped me in math and science (and later in business), skills that are essential for success in our information economy.

We'd like to use the center to give Chicago's young people the same opportunities. And hey, adults are never too old to learn, never too old to share their wisdom with the young, and have a little fun in the process.

It's important to our mission that the site be accessible to those who need it the most. While our tendencies may be utopian socialist, we're also pragmatic enough to be committed to finding a site with off-street parking.

We also learn through competition.  The Center will have regular events open to all at affordable prices.

How can you help us open our doors in 2013?

  • Please become a Founding Member of the Chicago Chess Center today.   
    • If you'd prefer to use snail mail, please send your contribution to Chicago Chess Center NFP, Inc.,  230 W. Monroe, Suite 330, Chicago IL 60606.

  • Or give what you can afford: no donation is too small, and we truly appreciate your help.
  • If you'd like to make a capital donation to insure the future of the Chicago Chess Center, kindly drop me a line
  • Most of all, we need your input.  We need new board members, new committee members, legal counsel, and friends who offer good will. 
Chicago is your home and ours: your help today will help the Chicago chess culture for many years in the future.

Thank you for your support!

Bill Brock

CICL: a lucky escape

My Rogue Squadron teammate David Franklin doesn't get positionally rolled very often, but Mike Failor of Enova Financial inflicts some serious positional hurt. Then things get complicated, and both players miss some shots....

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Chicago Class vanity

I got outplayed by both of my opponents last Sunday. Psychologically, draws are not the most satisfying result, but drawing two games beats losing two games.  And in both games, both players were trying to win...

Try to predict White's move in the position below!

At the ICA Banquet the previous day, I had the honor of presenting the 2012 Broughton Award to Jim Brotsos. While Jim and I were bantering about his lifetime of service to Illinois chess, I had my iPhone in my hand, as I was about to read some email testimonials that Jim's friends had sent. Somehow, I managed to start playing a Peter Drucker audiobook in the middle of Jim's remarks.

Not having sufficiently learned my lesson, I forgot to turn my iPhone off before round 4. In the middlegame, I somehow triggered the iPhone in my pocket, and "Five Years" (the opening track of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars) began playing for the "benefit" of the players. For "Five Years," I was penalized ten minutes (which seems more than fair: I could have been forfeited).  My apologies to all!

Don't be an inconsiderate dope like me: turn off your cell phone before play begins. (I realize that family and work concerns make it mandatory for some players to be in touch at all times: put your phone on vibrate, and let the TD know what you're doing.)

Adair-Uedemann, 1879

Here's another delightful post on local chess history from A Chess Reader.  Louis Uedemann and J.D. Adair were very well-matched when they played for Chicago bragging rights, and their play looks energetic and reasonably sound 133 years later.

The Chinese room as seen from the dentist's chair

On Black Friday, I had two impacted wisdom teeth pulled. Our dentist is an artisthe puts his patients at ease, he's conscientious, he's fast, and like every good professional, he knows his limitations. The extractions were as close to painless as one could hope for.

Still, it was not completely painless. Squeamish person that I am, I didn't want to think about what was going on inside my mouth. 

Instead, I began thinking about (what else) chess.  One difference between human chess players and computer chess players: pull a card out of the computer's motherboard, and the computer generally doesn't say "Ouch!".  One computer chess player was famously afraid, but that was in the movies, so I don't think that counts (yet).

Half an hour earlier, on the walk to the dentist's office, I'd been listening to one of John Searle's 2011 lectures on consciousness. (The whole series can be downloaded at  In the seventh lecture, Searle argued that Deep Blue's victory over Kasparov proved nothing about Deep Blue's understanding of chess. Theoretically, a human with no knowledge of the rules of the chess could be thrown in a locked room, given Deep Blue's algorithm for finding the best move, some scratch paper and sharp pencils, and (after the arbiter slips Kasparov's move through the mail slot) replicate Deep Blue's decisions.  (Granted, the human might need a couple millennia to make certain moves, but hey, it's a thought experiment.) Would we award this hypothetical human the title of the world's strongest chess player?

Searle argues that this hypothetical human has no understanding of chess whatsoever.  As Deep Blue  and Houdini 3 are doing nothing more than executing an algorithm, they too don't know what they're doing.  This is a version of Searle's famous "Chinese room" argument: as summarized by Wikipedia, "a program cannot give a computer a 'mind', 'understanding' or 'consciousness', regardless of how intelligently it may make it behave."  Passing the Turing Test alone doesn't make a computer self-aware, wise, able to enjoy victory subjectively and suffer defeat stoically, or have the intuition of a Capablanca.

Human experts are not like computer experts.  A master dentist can approach problems from both intuitive and analytically rigorous perspectives.  Suppose the patient after me also had impacted wisdom teeth: my dentist may have been able to tell from a glance at the X-rays that this patient's molars were going to be much more difficult to extract, so he referred that patient to an oral surgeon.  Being a professional is not just executing an algorithm, it's also an art.  (On the other hand, the most conscientious artist can make an error: Daniel Kahneman discusses the limitations of snap judgments in Thinking: Fast and Slow.)

Chess masters make snap judgments all the time: how else could grandmasters play forty players at once successfully?  In some positions, a master "knows" at a glance what the right move must be.  Of course, not every snap judgment is correct—grandmasters do lose games in simultaneous exhibitions—but the quality of the grandmaster's snap judgment is much higher than the quality of our considered judgments.

(I remember consoling one well-known local master after a critical loss to Aleksander Stamnov: "The problem with playing Stamnov is that he makes good moves very quickly."  He replied, "Yes, and he also makes bad moves very quickly.")

Some recent chess books tell us to look at positions with "computer eyes," calculating all the forcing moves; others advise us to move first and think later.  What's a patzer to do?  Some positions demand brute-force calculation (we can never compete on an even level with chess engines in this sphere), others ask us to use our "feel" for the game. And most positions ask us to use some of each way of thinking.

These two ways of thinkingKahneman calls the intuitive way "System 1" and the analytical way "System 2"—actually occur in different parts of the brain.  Thinking in System 2 is hard work!  As we're surfing through the complications of each chess game, we have to toggle back and forth between the two modes of thinking.

I'll close this rambling (hey, it's a blog) with two observations:

Narrowly: you may never be able to beat Houdini, but you already understand much more about chess than Houdini ever will.  I remember a Scientific American article circa 1979 about programmers who hoped to make chess programs think in a more human fashion.  That turned out to be an absolute dead end, and "brute force" alpha-beta searches won.  It's true that useless branches of the analytical tree are pruned by the top engines, and it's true that evaluation functions have been improved, but still...chess engines are "merely" executing an algorithm, and executing an algorithm requires no understanding whatsoever.

Broadly: similar musings about the failure to date of the "strong AI" project and about how humans become expert at what they do are very much in the air right now.