Chess


Ugo Dossi

It turns out that I love chess. This is something I've known since I was 7, but when I taught my own two kids to play chess, I started to become obssesed again. There is something fascinating about chess' crystaline clarity, the haiku-like stricture to the moves that is beautiful.

Chess on the Net

Chess Over The Board

I play friends, like every chess player should. When I found out there was a Fermilab Chess Club, I joined it. It has a web page at Fermilab Chess Club. The Fermilab Chess Club is part of the The Chicago Industrial Chess League (!) which has been around since 1957. Interestingly one our our strongest players, Tommaso Dorigo, keeps a blog about physics, life, and chess.

I'll put my annotated games from the Fermilab matches online.

The Software of Chess

The best place to start with chess software is Linux and Macs! If you keep the software free, you can save your money for where it was meant to be spent: chess books!

The Base Linux/Mac Chess System

Tom Rowan has a wonderful site at http://www.tomrowan.com/chess/ that is well worth spending time at. His October 2003 Northwest Chess article on Free Chess Software for Serious Players is a classic. He suggests the combination of After playing a while, I concur whole heartedly. This pair provides you with a very strong package.

Merge!

Scid works with Crafty its analysis engine. What this means to me is that I can go over my games with Crafty as blunder checker and spotter of missed tactics. Then I can save what we found as an annotated game. The database of Scid comes in when we check our games against the practice of grandmasters. The best expression of this is again from Tom Rowan in his November 2004 Northwest Chess article on Prototype for a Personalized Chess Book. (I tell you- go spend some time at Rowan's site- every one of his articles are gems.) It tells you how to really use Scid, as a filter on all those grandmaster games. You are working on one your games, no doubt the one that you lost (after all, if you won it must because of innate brilliance), so you go look up the grandmaster games that have the same last position that you did. You look them over, and find the one that gives The One True Line. Then you tell Scid to "merge" it with your game, and it automatically inserts it into your game at the point where the games diverge. This is so cool. You now have a personalized book- one that is close to your heart and thus easy to browse over and remember.

Increased Power on Mac OS X

April 2006. This is a report from a moment in time. Things change pretty fast in this field!

The Speedy Engines

In the pursuit of the Truth one is better taking many views of the truth, combining those that see the same thing, and chisiling away the parts that don't fit. Use your own mind to decide the final Truth.

In the pursuit of Truth about a chess game, it is useful to take advice from many chess engines. I went looking at chess engine rating sites and chose a handful that were stronger than Crafty 19.3, which I have as my Scid analysis engine, and that would run on Mac OS X. As always, they must be free. I chose:

For comparison, the scidlet engine the comes with Scid rates ~1961. Also for comparison, Bryan Hofmann has a very nice site for speed optimized chess engines- but no Mac OS X compiles, alas. Another strong and relatively well known engine, Shredder, has a nice Shredder for Linux page, but not yet for the Mac.

The Well Laid Out Dashboards: GUIs

With the exception of Crafty, none of those engines work on the command line for the average user. They are designed to work with graphical user interfaces via one of two protocols: Winboard/Xboard and UCI.

Scid is clearly the gold standard in Mac OS X chess GUIs, because it is much more a database and annotation system than a pure GUI. It is designed to let Winboard protocol engines plug in, and there is a powerful adapter to place between UCI engines (all my candidate engines except Crafty are UCI engines) and a Winboard GUI. This is Polyglot (If you want to learn more about Winboard vs. UCI engines, look at Aaron's Chess Engines Page) Unfortunately, I could not get polyglot to work, either as an adapter to Scid or as an adaptor to Xboard.

So I went on a tour of chess front ends for the Mac. It turns out that Xboard is a GUI, and therefore not of interest to my analyzing/annotation needs. But there are others:

Both Sigma Chess and Jose let me plug in all the UCI engines easily. Only Jose handled Crafty easily- Sigma Chess floundered with my inability to get polyglot to work. UCI engines is a good place to start for GUIs, though it seems oblivious to the difference bewteen Windows, Linux, and Mac.

The bottom line is that both Sigma Chess and Jose are much sleeker than Scid, but Scid is more functional!

My Chess Hot Rod

In the pursuit of the perfect system to get at the Truth of my chess games (which usually is that I blundered three times!) I now have a process to analyze and annotate my games.
  1. Scid: I load the game into Scid and give it my human chess perspective annotations. Mostly this is the thought process that went on during the game, partly the after-game analysis, and partly the middle of the night if-only-I-had's. I use Crafty as Scid's engine, and I have it running while I do the annotation- if I see it showing a blunder or a nice tactic, I push the "add variation" button. At the end, I have a very good annotation, but one that can be made better.
  2. Sigma Chess : Next it is saved, and a copy fed into Sigma Chess. I use the four engines, ( Glaurung 1.02 Fruit 2.1, Gambit Fruit 1.0 Beta 4bx , and Toga II) one at a time to produce purely engine driven annotations. (Any annotations that exist when the engine analysis starts are discarded, though not in the database). If the threshold is at 0.5 pawns, this produces perhaps 5 annotations per engine. These are saved as annotated PGN files, which are then fixed for a Sigma Chess "feature": ^M litter the PGN. See below for a simple fix.
  3. Scid: I then go back to Scid and go over my human annotations with an eye towards what the engines developed. If they are interesting enough, they get placed into the main PGN file. This is by hand, but that is part of the learning process- one has to see the truth from many angles before one can discern the Truth. The tedious drawback is that Sigma Chess adds the annotations as annotations rather than as variations, so the variation has to be added by hand (by Scid, that is).
  4. Jose: If there are any interesting postions that could use more possibilities, I load the new annotated games into Jose. There I can look at the variety of best and nearly the best moves available at any one positon, using any of the 5 engines.
  5. Scid: Lastly I take the PGN into scid for a last go over, and here is where I go to the grandmaster games and see if there are gems to be added by the magic merge step. Scid is the platform the I use to publish the PGN, most often as Latex compiled to PDF.

    This process still has Scid at its heart. It is the most powerful system available for a) free, and b) on Mac OS X. It is the best human driven annotation system. Sigma Chess has the best engine driven annotation- truely useful. Jose has potential and that variety of best moves display that I find useful enough to not discard Jose. And Scid remains the plubishing center of choice. I should say that this system of having mutiple engines to analyze the games is the one that Larry Kaufmann used in his repertoire book The Chess Advantage in Black and White. He points out that he has an understanding of the personalities of the chess engines and that helps him judge the moves they suggest. That will come to us as we use this chess hot rod system.

    Fixing the ^M in Sigma Chess PGN
    Fixing a Sigma Chess brain-deadism: it outputs its PGN files with the dopey dos style "^M", an abomination to mankind. I found the following fragment from vajonez:
    #!/bin/sh 
    zip -qr foo.zip "$@" && unzip -aqo foo.zip && rm foo.zip
    
    Save that in a file called "dos2unix" in your ~/bin, and use it to strip away the annoying "^M^. It's claim to fame is that it leaves binary files alone (like images) but fixes ascii files.

    My Repertoire

    My Repertoire is always a work in progress! As white:
    • 1.e4
      • 1... c5: 2.Nc3 The Closed Sicilian. As Danial King tells it, he spent an alarming fraction of his life learning Open Sicilian lines. I'll just follow Boris Spassky, he of the From Russia With Love game (a brilliant Kings Gambit game against Bronstein), and learn to love the closed Sicilian.
      • 1...e5: either
        • 2. Nf3 heading to a Ruy Lopez, the queen of chess openings, or
        • 2. Bc4 and the Bishops Opening, just for fun.
      • 1... everything else: I'm working on it!
    As black:
    • 1.e4: either
      • 1... e5 and the open games, heading to a Lopez if that is what white wants, and using two knights defenses against all others, or
      • 1... Nf6 and the Alekhine's Defense. This is like walking a tight rope, but when played with clarity it is a tough, unbalanced, fighting game. Alekhine Defense games are very, very rarely games where black spends 50 moves defending an inferior position- if black is going down it happens real fast!
    • 1.d4: 1...Nf6 and the Kings Indian Defense. I just love that pawn structure and the fight around it. Fun games.
    • 1. anything else: The Kings Indian Defense.

    Having said all that, I'm still looking forward to John Emms book Building a Repertoire from Basic Principles. I'm always looking for advice from the grandmasters! Especially if they say: "The Open Sicilian? Nah-". I do bow, however, to Jill Malter's review of another Emms book, which in reality is more paen to the virtures of the open Sicilian: "Your pawns fly down the board to open lines." and to lines like the Yugoslav attack against the Dragon: "And, of course, you trade your trashy queen bishop for Black's gorgeous Dragon Bishop." Almost, but not quite, enough to make me take it up!


James Annis
March 2006
Chicago

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