Archive for the ‘chess’ Category

Today is the 130th anniversary of the birth of my favorite chess player, the Cuban José Raúl Capablanca (1888-1942). Happy birthday, old man! Capa was so talented, so natural a player, so calm under stress, that he could play a clear, elegant game while going over Niagra Falls inside a barrel.

Capablanca played more than 500 tournament games in his career, lost fewer than one in 10, spent most of a decade not losing anything, and was world champion from 1921 through 1927. Beginning in 1913, the Cuban government made him a permanent, roving emissary of goodwill, which means he spent the next 30 years playing chess para la Gloria de Cuba.

He also liked baseball.

If you want to learn how to play chess, you might start with a good chess book. Capablanca wrote two chess books for beginners, A Primer of Chess and Chess Fundamentals, but neither is really for beginners. They assume you know too much. You’d do better with Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess or the books at the top of this excellent list.

A book by a U.S. master from the 1930s, I.A. Horowitz, jump-started my chess career. If my chess career didn’t jump very far, well, that’s my fault, not Horowitz’s.

Published 1951, reprinted 1968. I won this copy in a tournament in 1970. I would rather have had this book than a Pontiac GTO. My parents would’ve made me give that back, anyway.

You won’t find How to Win in the Chess Openings on any greatest-hits list, and God knows the writing can be as turbulent as the water at the bottom of Niagra Falls (Horowitz made a living off the board by churning out chess books), but this is the book that acquainted me with all the concepts that Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana employ in each game. I just opened it and realized that it’s in such bad shape that I probably shouldn’t open it anymore, but when I did the memories jumped right off the page.

Fabio and Mag Wheels played to their eighth consecutive draw today. Do they need a good chess book? Hell no, they’re already playing in a higher league. Fabio, who had the better position, made a microscopic error with his pawn. Mag Wheels pounced like my lucky dog Lucky on a biscuit that fell from my pocket and just like that the position was equal.

Fabio has four games left to make something happen. If the match is tied after game 12, we head into the lightning round. First they’ll play some rapid chess (each player gets 25 minutes for all of his moves). If four games of rapid chess doesn’t decide anything, they’ll switch to blitz (5 minutes per side).

Guess who is the reigning world champion of rapid and blitz? Guess who sacrificed his queen two years ago in a rapid-chess tie-breaker to make his Russian challenger’s cranium explode and keep his crown? Do I have to say his name? I do? OK! Magnus Carlsen!

Caruana is better than average at rapid and blitz. In fact, he’s in the world top 20 in each. But that’s not first, is it?

Stay calm. That’s what Capa would do.





When I was starting out in chess, when Victoria was on the throne and Britannia ruled the waves, the U.S. Chess Federation had a simple philosophy: Chess is for old white males.

This wasn’t the USCF’s mission statement, but it might as well have been, because in 1967, when I played in my first tournament, everybody behind a board was old, white, and male. The tournament was a knock-out type. My friend Jeff and I lost to old white males in our first round and were knocked out. I had to call my Dad to come pick us up, and he’d only dropped us off 20 minutes before. He had just settled in for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. None of the old white males seemed unhappy to see us leave.

Somewhere in the late 1970s, the USCF’s leaders must’ve realized that if you don’t develop chess players when they’re young, who will play chess in the future? And how will you keep your jobs? Suddenly there were tournaments for children, and that meant tournaments for all children, regardless of gender, race, creed, or national origin.

One of the early financial backers of this work was Yoko Ono. Ono loves chess and even created a chess set in 1966, called Play It By Trust. Other distinguished 20th-century artists who played chess: The American Man Ray, who could take it or leave it, and the Frenchman Marcel Duchamp, whose career in art was derailed by the game. “I am still a victim of chess,” he wrote to a friend in the 1930s. He was speaking for millions of people over the past 1,500 years.

In the 1990s, while living in Seattle, I coached an elementary school chess club for Chess Mates. (Here in Portland, Oregon, I volunteer with Chess for Success.) We distributed buttons to our students that said CHESS MAKES YOU SMART. Everybody likes a good button. You feel like you’re on a cool team. But does chess actually increase your intelligence? I suppose there’s research to back this claim, but as a lifelong player and teacher and a person who vividly remembers his childhood, here’s what I believe are the reasons kids should play chess:

Chess teaches you to sit still, shut up, and think. This gets you ready to do your homework, do more reading, and do what you need to do to hold a job.

Chess gives you a way to interact with adults you’re not related to. You’ll meet them on a playing field where all that counts is how good you are. You’ll learn how to look an adult in the eye and carry on a conversation. (To any child reading this: Are you regularly beating adults? Don’t get cocky, kid.)

Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana were already grandmasters by the time they got to 14, and that’s something you do with immense natural talent and private coaches, not with 20 kids from eight different grades in an after-school program. But they didn’t look particularly smart today. After yesterday’s draw, which was as multifaceted and arresting as the Orion Nebula, today’s draw was more of a moth-eaten red dwarf. Maybe Mag Wheels and Fabio left everything on the road in the last game. In chess, moving first gives you a solid advantage, but I’ve never seen so many games where that advantage was null and void almost as soon as it happened.

To end on a more upbeat note, here’s the cover of a European magazine, New in Chess, from last May. The Women’s World Championship has an even more byzantine structure than I knew, as the current tournament is the second women’s world go-around of the year. No matter. I’m showing you this cover because I love it:


And I’ll bet that Yoko loves it, too.

“Which chess piece has the most sex?” Emma Baccellieri asked last year on Deadspin. She was reacting to the unveiling of the NSFW, pawnographic 2018 World Championship logo.

The knight was Ms. Baccellieri’s choice. The knight is sexy. The knight is DTF. Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana must feel the same way, because in the first 14 moves of today’s game, Mag Wheels moved his knights nine times and Fabio moved his 13 times. There was plenty more to come over the next 66 moves, and yet, when the players finally signed an armistice (6+ hours later!), one of the four knights was still on the board, foaming at the mouth and mad enough to melt deuterium.

The game went on so long that the on-scene commentators ran out of stuff to talk about, like baseball announcers during a rain delay. provides commentary in English and French. The sixth hour of the game probably sounded better on the French channel.

Mag Wheels, playing white, opened with the king’s pawn. Fabio reciprocated, and one move later they were into the Petroff Defense. The Petroff is old. You can find it in the first chess book, Gunter Glieben Glauchen Globen or How to Beat Your Dad at Chess (1490). It’s definitely a defensive system for people who like to move their knights. It’s good cover if you’ve forgotten how to move everything else.

(We call it the knight, but it looks like a horse. When I was playing in tournaments, my wife always cautioned me to “give the horsie a drink” from the top of the rook before each game.)

Today, the queens had their heads chopped off on move 8. Mag Wheels moved one of his knights to the edge of the board, which made me want to pull my hair out, because we always tell our chess kids not to do that. “Knight on the rim is grim!” Fabio broke the center open, Mag Wheels charged ahead with his king, Fabio didn’t castle until move 22, and somewhere north of move 40, Mag Wheels started hitting Fabio with left hooks that Fabio for all his pre-game prep never saw coming. The champ traded a knight for three of the challenger’s pawns and cycled from a losing position to a winning position to a losing position to the conclusion: a draw.

111618 game
A screen capture from, which I’m entitled to because I paid $20 for a subscription (approximately 7.2 million euros) (I rounded up). Stay hydrated, chess fans.

Six games, six draws. No world championship (and the men have had a championship since 1886) has ever begun with seven straight draws. Two championships began with six; the defending champions won both.

Tomorrow’s a rest day. Let’s get back to the music.

There are some weird things about chess. The people who play it, for example. OK, everything about chess is weird, beginning with the game’s raison d’être: the king.

The king was one of the original pieces from the launch of chess in the 6th century. He hasn’t changed a bit, not even during the chess reboot of the 14th century. The king, then as now, is tall but slow. He’s close to helpless. He reminds many women of their ex-husband.

But here’s the weirdness: As the game progresses and the bigger, badder pieces are removed from the board, the king can grow more powerful. This is particularly true once the queens exit. In an endgame where each side has a rook, a bishop, a knight, and a few pawns, the king becomes a berserker. Like today.

Carlsen has been more aggressive while playing black. As soon as the queens left the scene in Game 5, he charged forward with his king, decapitated three pawns, and camped out in Caruana’s kitchen until Fabio figured out how to evict him and force a draw.

After they shook hands, Mag Wheels and Fabio plunged into a discussion of the game using the coded speech of chess and pantomime – rapidly gesturing at squares and the pieces that had stood on those squares two hours before – but I couldn’t follow what they were saying and pointing at even though I paid $20 for a subscription and had four camera angles to choose from, all of them obstructed, PLUS the announcers and analysts WOULD NOT SHUT UP! They probably had a collective meltdown back in Norway.

US $20 is approximately 2.2 million euros.

I thought today’s game was the most entertaining of the match, but the analyst called it “mild-mannered.” He’s not going to settle for anything less than Caruana and Carlsen tossing the caber at each other. Perhaps there will be enough fireworks tomorrow from the weird Royal Game to keep ChessBase happy.

Fun fact: Special guest Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, threw out the ceremonial first pawn.

Music trivia: This is supposed to be a music blog, isn’t it? I’m listening to “The Best of the ’60s” channel and The Miracles just came on, singing “Going to a Go-Go.” I just realized that I always thought they were singing “Going to a Boat Show.”

Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana are playing for a purse of one million euros. How much is that in real money? About $29.16 in the U.S., $31.20 in Canada, enough to buy a nice dinner for four in Mexico or a two-bedroom house in China with off-street parking.

Each member of the World Series winners, the Boston Red Sox, could buy and sell chess 50 times over.

Why is chess so little valued, when it’s one of the most important activities on the planet?

Mag Wheels and Fabio are playing for less money than the stakes in the 1995 Garry Kasparov/Deep Blue match. (Elon observed at the time that IBM wasn’t sponsoring the match, they were paying Kasparov to debug their program.) (What Deep Blue intended to do with the money if it won has never been disclosed. Deep Blue took the rematch in ’96, but IBM responded by taking the machine apart.)

Why isn’t IBM sponsoring this match? How about Amazon? Google? Netflix? Dunkin’ Donuts?

Who is the sponsor? PhosAgro, a Russian fertilizer company.

Because I am too sad to riff on that, I want to mention that the Women’s World Chess Championship is going on right now in Russia, in the city of Khanty-Mansiysk (where one million euros won’t even shine your shoes). The 64 highest-ranked women in the world are playing in a knock-out tournament similar to basketball’s Final Four.

There have been 21 women’s chess champions since 1927, all of them from the Soviet Union, Russia, China, the Ukraine, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Among the 64 players in this year’s battle, there are six from the Western Hemisphere (two from the U.S. and one each from Canada, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Peru). The field is dominated by China, India, Russia, and places that once belonged to Russia, with lone wolves from Western Europe, North Africa, India’s neighbors, and countries as mysterious and unknowable as Scotland.

Though the women are being trounced in the TV ratings war with the men and can’t even land a fertilizer company as their sponsor, and even though the men’s championship is called the World Championship but the women’s is called the Women’s World Championship, it’s worth noting how far women have come from the days when they were herded into tournaments designed to keep them out of the men’s hair, tournaments that produced a “ladies champion” who was laughed at by the men.

Vera Menchik, who was born in Moscow in 1906, was the first women’s world champion. Her father, a Czech, taught her how to play. In 1921, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, she and her sister, who also played chess well, joined their mother in England.

By 1927 she was good enough to represent her birth country in the first women’s world championship, which she won. She reigned until 1939, when World War II froze chess in place. Menchik defended her title six times, five representing Czechoslovakia and, in her final match, representing her adopted country, England. Menchik and her family were killed by a German V-1 flying bomb in 1944. The Czech Republic put her on their postage in 1996. She was inducted into the World Chess Hall of Fame in 2011.

One of the best chess stories is what happened when our heroine entered a prestigious tournament in Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia, in 1929. The Viennese master Albert Becker declared that she didn’t belong there among the men and that anyone who lost to her should become members of the Vera Menchik Club. It was Menchik’s first international competition, and she finished last, but one of her two wins was against Albert Becker.

I’ve had my share of challenges as a chess player, but nothing compared to being the only woman in a tournament full of men who think you’re there to bring them coffee.

Let’s all raise a lone finger to honor Herr Becker. Tomorrow: Game 5.

(Editor’s note: Due to technical difficulties, all of them involving my ISP and wheezy old laptop, yesterday’s post only appeared about an hour ago. Run-DMSteve regrets this error.)