Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Death by Demo (The Demo board used for instruction in most classes)

"To be (instructed) or not to be (instructed)" is that really a question? Hamlet pondered a more serious subject with that great, dramatic line but students address this issue all the time when asked "which afterschool program would you like to take this semester?" Whether it's an afterschool, lunch club, or camp, students usually choose the one that they feel will be the most fun, not the most instructional.

Most chess camp and afterschool chess programs suffer from their own ambition, to instruct players and help them improve, or let them just play and be happy?! The general cut-off for instruction vs. playing time is around 30-40% but when the lessons get too long, enrollment drops. Then again, if there is no demo (demonstration instruction) time, the students get bored and have no sense of progress and move on to other things.

It's a tough delimma but most of the dedicated and academically minded students and parents know what is best ... the rest will pay more attention to whether they can bring their DS or Nintendo.
-John MacArthur

Monday, January 12, 2009

To Blindly Go ... ?!

So many years ago I stressed so often to a young Marc Arnold that any opening move is only as good as the strength and potential of the idea(s) behind it. Unfortunately many average players follow 'known' memorized theory as blindly as do computers, only to be dropped into a rich pool of complexity and forced to swim, suddenly, for themselves. Many players have been guilty of sleepwalking through the opening but the strongest player ever to fall into such a naive hole was no less than the greatest player in the history of the game, Gary Kasparov! But he went with his eyes apparently wide open.

Years ago in 1997, Kasparov attempted to capitalize on this 'known' computer weakness (following opening theory blindly, then waking up in a strange position) against Deep Blue, only to be tossed on his ear by a grandmaster team of assistants to the programmers led by GM Joel Benjamin. Kasparov's opening preparation was apparently based on the statistics of many lesser computers sacrificing a piece in a known variation of the caro-kann, then being unable to stitch together the necessary attacking compensation for the piece. Deep Blue did not drop the ball in the sixth and final game of the match, but ran with it and sent Kasparov crying...

Former World-Champion Mikhail Tal once spent the afternoon taking a bath while perusing the latest Russian issue of 'Chess Bulletin' ... at one point coming across an amazing sacrifice of a knight on e6 in a popular sicilian variation. The sacrifice appeared promising in all aspects and ... lost in thought and contemplation, a knock on the door reminded Tal that it was time for that day's round. His game that evening took the form of the same sicilian variation and Tal couldn't believe his good fortune. Following a bit of a dramatic pause, Tal sacrificed his knight on e6 confidently. His opponent sank deep into thought, occasionally glancing up at Tal in disbelief. Eventually, Tal's opponent shrugged his shoulders, accepted the knight and threaded his way through the complications to win the game.
Once concluded, the grandmaster asked of Tal, "Haven't you seen the refutation of this move in the latest issue of 'Chess Bulletin'?" Tal, upon returning to his room, turned the page of that issue to find his knight sacrifice disected and difused just as he'd experienced it.

Every day we follow advice of one sort or another without true understanding. Certainly there is something to be said for having faith or trust in the judgement of others. After all, we stand on the shoulders of giants in many popular variations, but at the same time these are not the only paths worth traveling.

Study widely, keep your eyes and mind open and be constantly on the alert for an overlooked or underestimated idea that you can call your own.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Soviet Equalizing Goats?

In the past 30+ years, many grandmasters have emmigrated to the U.S. wreaking the periodic amount of havoc on the swiss-system chess scene. They would have their successes, pocket a serious number of tournament payouts and have the other GMs grumbling, for a year or perhaps two. But then they would be figured out, lose their intensity or just plain succomb to the distractions of the diverse american culture (there is just too much good TV, I tell you) and relax on the chess study like a normal person here. GM Joel Benjamin touches upon those days in his book, "American Grandmaster" and others certainly recount verbal tales as well. The tradition started in the mid-seventies with GMs Shamkovich, Dzindzichashvili and Lev Alburt, continuing through GMs Gulko, Yermolinsky and Onischuk.

The earliest Russian GMs would apply a win with white, draw with black philosophy that, while working so well in the round-robin era, would have to come up short in the must-play-for-win-with-black mentality of the swiss-system. Uncompromising chess with black began with Fischer it seemed - and shaped the american landscape. If you wanted to play for a win with white against a former eastern-bloc GM, you had your hands full. Russian GMs were known to suffocate white's winning chances at every opportunity, breaking many of the unspoken swiss system rules of even trying to play for a win by generating counter-play. It almost wasn't fair.

Today, the Soviet equalizing goat philosophy with black has subsided. Students of the game can still learn from it though. Many new players often forget about the possibility of just playing solid chess with black and waiting for your opportunities. Playing good chess should be our first and formost goal when we start learning to master the game, but many times this goal is blurred by visions and dreams of success. Often coaches and parents emphasize winning and trophies, by putting too much emphasis on openings for example, rather than rewarding the practice of having their own ideas has behind the moves. In the last Columbia Grammar tournament I saw a strong young fellow lose with his coaches openings, rather than testing and learning from the validity of his own ideas. He agreed when asked, "those weren't my moves" he said "It was a terrible opening and I didn't know what to do."

Play well today, with moves full of ideas. Play to learn from your mistakes and adjust your understanding with the help of the school of hard knocks. We can be told, but there is no substitute for playing and seeing.
-John MacArthur

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Do The Right Thing!

I have always been a diligent and dedicated coach and teacher for every student regardless of gender, heritage or even school affiliations. But recently I've become seriously concerned about the quality of other coaches when teaching for modest rates or perhaps even across school affiliations.
With relatively quiet optimism, I would like to believe that most coaches train all students equally, in an unbiased manner, to the best their abilities. Therefore like many others, I am royally irked and disappointed when those coaches let me down. Parents who are concerned, should assess their chess tutors periodically... as there are three dominant qualities that concern and easily categorize private tutors.
The Teacher
Everyone starts with a teacher. This is someone who lays the groundwork for solid understanding. Foundations in tactics and strategy along with principles, maxims, vocabulary and a general understanding of exceptions are all interwoven in a coarse, but very strong fabric to capably catapult a student toward genuine success. Class rooms and new or young students should have good teachers.
High school students, an uncle who claims to be proficient or even people in your building who play, have no idea what they are doing when it comes to laying the groundwork for true learning. All areas of education need to be approached equally, or to coin my old favorite metaphor... A table must have several, if not many, solid legs if you expect it to stand well.
The Coach
Coaches concern themselves with getting results based on student or team capabilities. Coaching abilities are based mainly on psychology. This includes tweaking expectations, eliminating fears, overcoming obstacles and emphasizing strengths while motivating students to approach the task at hand with right attitude and to the best of their abilities. A coach asks for, outlines, and encourages students to attain the discipline necessary to perform at and certainly above their ability.
The Trainer
Trainers are usually master strength players, most often international or grand masters, who refine and sharpen a student, whose foundations are solid, and who has the discipline and commitment, like a tool with a fine edge or exquisite detail.
Mixed Intentions
Misunderstanding expectations of either the student or the tutor in either direction results in disappointment for one or the other and certainly for parents of young students. It isn't uncommon for one Trainer, to criticize someone for being an inadequate Teacher in one area or another. It is very important when and how those foundations were lain and by whom. A Trainer has to assume a certain level of knowledge in order to expect understanding let alone results, especially when dealing with a higher order of openings such as is required in the Indian and Sicilian Defences...
Can someone expect to persue a career in medicine without at least a general if not complete understanding of biology and related sciences? Many parents, nevertheless, save money on the coaching and training while expecting great results by skipping steps ... sometimes relearning - at the student's expense - the maxim 'You get what you pay for'.
Doing the right thing at the right time will save a lot of wasted time, money, psychological agony and stress in the long run.
- John MacArthur, Teacher, Coach and a something of a Trainer!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Make Time for Competition!

Recently a parent commented about a concern that their child was too(!) competitive. I took this with a smile, reflecting on how so many parents look out for their children in both aggressive and non-aggressive fashions. Competitive characteristics are shared most commonly by the most successful people in the world. Incentives for success are so appealling and luxurious that the opportunities our children have today to hone their "type A" personality or winning skills are plenty.
Unfortunately most parents look only to sports programs for developing 'winning' skills. Of course sport requires physical coordination and often team work - so it must not be overlooked. I'm happy to hear more often today about math olympiads and music program concerts and other cultural/academic outlets in addition to chess. Each of these contributes so much more to the mindful success of a well rounded student.
Competitions, and events such as music concerts that culminate in a test of one's development, prowess in handling stress in the preparation for such an event, and the opportunities to prove oneself are priceless and unfortunately far too few.

'Have you no ambition, Master Po?'
'Only one. Five years hence, it is my wish to make a pilgrimage to the Forbidden City. It is a place where even priests receive no special status. There in the Temple of Heaven, will be a festival The full moon of May. It will be the thirteenth day of the fifth month in the Year of the Dog.'
'That is not such a great ambition.'
'But it is ambition, nonetheless. Who among us is without flaw?'" -Master Po

Setting aside time in our calendar for competition or such an event on a regular basis defines our everyday focus and study.
-John MacArthur

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Discipline Goes A Long Way - by necessity!

Everyone(!) has geared up for playing a stronger player ... but playing strongly against lower rated players takes discipline from within.
There is a reason why your opponent has a lower rating than yours - and it may take nearly every move of a game to determine why!? All too often draws are agreed to, by mutual respect and fear. Playing on in an objectively even position is something we start the game doing ... but later when the advice of the opening gods is no longer available - it's easy to wimp out.
Do you really want to have the same rating? Are you happy with maintaining the status quo? If you're reading this, I seriously doubt it. Play on! ("Fear is the only darkness." -Master Po)
Uncompromising character is a key championship ingredient. It may take only 10 moves or minutes to beat an opponent, but if it takes many moves and or many, many hours - your inner strength will be tested and that much greater for the experience.
The strength of character in each of my 5 national championship students has revealed itself only through diligence and determination. I look forward to students proving themselves, not just over the board - but in their own spare time. Putting time and practice in away from school is a great display of discipline.

"In the Shaolin temple there are three kinds of men: students, disciples and masters." -Master Kan

Every student must perfect discipline before acheiving mastery.
-John MacArthur