INTO THE MAILBAG

by Steve Lopez

I've been receiving some pretty interesting e-mail; this week I'd like to share some of it with you.

I received this from Henri Arsenault in response to an old Chess Embitterment column:

I enjoy reading your column, and I'm tempted to use your column to claim a world record for the longest string of consecutive losses (13) in rated games. If only I could find the game from 1971 or so when I had a won game in the Quebec Winter Carnival Tournament against Montreal master Lazlo Witt, only to lose through a blunder. Boy, was he sweating! I DID win against an expert once, but that is another story...

Henri, I hate to embitter you (but, then again, why should I be the only embittered player around here?) but at the start of my tournament career, I lost my first 13 games straight. I won the fourteenth by virtue of the fact that I castled through check and neither I nor my opponent noticed until well after the game was over. I lost games 15 through 20 and managed to draw my 21st rated game (of course, it couldn't have been sooner when it would have had a greater effect on my provisional rating).

So I've at least tied you for a spot in the Hall of Shame. Can anyone out there top our current record of thirteen straight losses? Will anyone but the most terribly embittered even admit to such a feat?

Bill Simpson writes:

Could the PIC files in \NY1924\PICS\ be Zipped up so we can download them and used with the Glossary.htm file for viewing with MSIE..

Bill, I meant to do this and I forgot. I'll try to get this done (with an appropriate link to the ZIP file) in the next couple of weeks.

This came in from Bill Lathan:

Today I can purchase almost any computer book which contains code listings and find either a CD or a diskette as part of the book so that I don't have to key in the code myself. Why isn't that done in chess books? I don't know of one chess book which does this. With the proliferation of inexpensive chess programs which can accept pgn and other format files, I am surprised that such books don't do the same thing and include the games/fragments in the book on a diskette or CD and also perhaps include a freeware chess program. For example, if you publish Battle Royale (incidentally, I would purchase it!), it would be nice to find a CD/diskette with all the games plus a copy of CBLight. I suppose economics drives this, or perhaps the chess publishers just haven't caught on yet. Since you're in the business, perhaps you can put in a word to them.

Bill, this has actually been done a few times. ChessBase was involved in the publication of a book about Nigel Short a few years ago. The book included a disk with a "reader" program and all the games from the book. It was never conclusively proven that the disk's inclusion affected sales one way or the other.

I can tell you from personal experience that transferring chess material to disk is a bit labor-intensive. I did the disk version of Hayes Publishing's Combination Challenge about six years ago; it took me about 50 hours to enter all 1100+ combinations by hand. I was also involved in other book-and-disk sets that ChessBase USA offered as part of the ChessBase University series. All of them took a heap of work to produce and, consequently, incurred a heap of expense.

There are several basic obstacles in the way of widespread acceptance of electronic books or even companion disks for traditional books. First, few publishers are willing to embrace the electronic format as a valid alternative publishing method. In fact, quite a few publishers are a bit scared of it (I suppose they're a bit wary of the idea that books might be replaced by disks). Second, most publishers aren't willing to go to the extra expense of having a companion disk created to accompany a book. There really isn't enough data available on the effect such "bonus" disks affect the sales of a traditional paper book (note the Catch-22 here: the data is unavailable primarily because few publishers have taken the plunge into the area of bonus disks). I also think that many book publishers are unaware of how widespread computer usage has become and of the potential market for such book-and-disk sets.

From personal experience: ChessBase USA approached a major chess publisher in 1993 with this very idea, and nothing came of it. I also own a couple of chess books by a different publisher in which it's stated that "forthcoming" companion disks were going to be released. None were produced. So it goes...

John Wingfield wrote to me with an interesting suggestion:

I do not know how you feel about this, but I believe you should encourage everyone to build their own database in fritz5 by doing it BY HAND! I have a database of over 1200 games of all the super GM's (2600 and above) I have found that by putting games in by hand you can learn a great deal simply by repetition. Also people should insert their own analysis in these games, the analysis of course will not always be correct, but it will teach them more about chess than they will ever realize! I have found that people rated 1800 and below HATE to analyze GM games. They suffer by not understanding how valuable this is in helping them to be a better player.

John, I heartily agree with you! I learned many valuable lessons by inputting games by hand, rather than relying on games from disks. I still comb through chess magazines for games (particularly ones that start with openings I play) and put the games and analyses into my database by hand.

This goes hand-in-glove with a technique I advocated in CompuServe's Chess Forum a few years ago: annotating every move of a master or GM game you find in a book or magazine. I've been meaning to do an ETN column on this; perhaps I'll get to it in the next few weeks.

Fred Maymir checks in with some good advice:

Just read your T Notes about how to learn the openings.... Your system will work, but I just can't stand to just "study"....So, I make it so the study doesn't look like studying....What I do is play against my computer, but using my opening books to select my moves.....Either I play against the computer and reach for the books I need according to the line of play selected by the computer, or play a few moves for both sides first in the opening I want to practice and then let the computer select his moves from then on.....While the book takes me along, I'll be learning subconsciously because I try to reason out where the computer wants to go and also where my opening book variation wants to go...For a while I'm only "watching" (although I do some selecting where a choice is available in my book) when the book doesn't go on anymore, I continue the game on my own...The results are always instructive and the best part is that it doesn't feel like "studying", it feels like "playing" It is not important whether you win or lose the game with the computer, it is only important that you learn something and you had fun doing it! I play correspondence chess the same way...Using my opening books against my remote adversary and trying to use the book's ideas to gain a better position out of the opening.....eventually I run out of book, or my opponent deviates from the known theory, in either case, I simply continue on my own, usually from a pretty decent position, and usually capable to still learn some more from the continuation of the game. Obviously, from this "on my own" part against either the computer or an opponent, come notes that get added to my opening book(s)

All of that without ever "working" at it!

I don't know how it will work for other people, but it works fine for me!

Fred, this is an excellent technique, particularly when the computer throws an unfamiliar opening at you. Your suggestion may seem like "cheating" to some readers, but you really can't cheat an inanimate object when you're using it for training purposes. The idea behind owning and using a chessplaying computer is to improve your own game.

This is how I learned the White side of the Schliemann Gambit in the Ruy Lopez. One of my many computer opponents has a preference for the Schliemann. I have to confess that the first time it hit me with it, I didn't know a thing about it. So I reached for a general opening book and followed the recommended line. I did this for the first half-dozen or so games. Now I can play against the Schliemann without consulting a book. While I'm no expert on that opening, I've found that I can get out of the opening alive and reach a playable middlegame.

The basic rule of thumb when playing a computer at home is to use whatever methods or techniques that will most benefit your development as a player. Trust me on this point: your computer doesn't care whether or not you're "cheating" by human standards.

Harl Myers offered this sugestion:

I bought the ATTACK cd. It is great (68,38,56,45 so far). I was wondering if anyone has considered contacting Bruce Pandolfini about putting all or what he considers the best of his "Solitaire Chess", on a similar cd. I would stand in line to get a copy of that.

Harl, I would stand in line to get the chance to work with Bruce on a project like that. I'm happy that Bruce revived Al Horowitz's old "Solitaire Chess" series in the pages of Chess Life (I was a huge fan of the column back in pre-computer days, when you were basically up the creek if you couldn't find an opponent). I think "Solitaire Chess" is tailor-made for the training feature of .CBH format. Perhaps I'll contact our friends in Germany and see what they think...

The March 15th Chess Embitterment column elicited a pile of e-mail. You may recall it as the column in which I told the story of a five-hour game against a Gata Kamsky clone.

John Wingfield submitted this gem:

I can go you one better. I once (years ago when I played tournament chess) after finising my game, walked by a young man, studying a chess board with ONLY THE KINGS ON THE BOARD!! And may the lord strike me dead if this is not true, I ask him if this was a actual position from a game,expecting him to say no, but he replied, SWEAR TO GOD, "yes, I think i have the initiative." I was dumbfounded as you can imagine but I just walked away, not saying a word. I have told this story many times over the years and I don't believe many ever thought I was telling the truth.

P.S. The tournament by the way was the Western States Open, held in Reno Nevada.

I laughed for about twenty minutes after reading this one. I once knew a young married couple who asked my advice about a King vs. King position they'd tried to play out (and argued over quite bitterly -- they've since divorced), but neither of them was a tournament player. This was the first time I'd ever heard of this happening at a tournament. Thanks, John! That one made my day!

There is a double danger to annotating one's own games for all the world to see: first, one's terrible play is exposed to public scrutiny. Second, one's even worse analysis is also on display. Dennis Mays write to correct my analysis of my game against "Poindexter":

I thought you might like to know that I noticed what appears to be an error in the Chess Embitterment article on 3/15/98. I don't have a set and board here at work, but I think White is completely winning after 53 Kxg3 even without the knight (assuming the diagram is correct). In the line you give after 56...Kb4 57 Kd3 Black's king is forced to give way to its counterpart. For example, 57...Kc5 58.Kc3 Kc6 59.Kc4 Kb6 60.Kd5 Ka5 61.Kc5 Ka5 62.Kc6 Ka6 63.b4. In my opinion, this is not "one of the rare cases where White cannot force a win" (even without the knight). With that being said, it is nice to see chess annotations down in the trenches where the emotional and physical elements play are not to be underestimated.

I'll cop to the error. A few days before annotating that game, I saw a similar position in an endgame book in which it was shown that two outside connected pawns sometimes don't win (it's possible to stalemate). This was evidently not one of those positions! Keith Rust reinforces the point:

Great story, I've played against a few kids who don't know when to quit. I don't think your note to move 53 is right. Two connected pawns should always win. You just need to give away the a-pawn at the right moment. See for example Fine's Basic Chess Endings position 16a.

So I'll readily admit to the error. By the way, Dennis, I really loved the "in the trenches" comment -- so much so that I've stolen the expression and used it once or twice in ETN.

That covers my mail up to mid-March -- with one important exception. We'll look at that letter as well as the ones from the last six weeks in next week's Electronic T-Notes. Until then, have fun!



You can reach me by e-mail with your ideas and suggestions. Hammer me with them! I'm listening!