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1000 hours wasted ? February 17, 2008

Posted by dorigo in chess, games, internet, personal.
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I recently gave a look at the statistics table of my chess games on the Internet Chess Club, and was left wondering whether I should rather spend more wisely my time. Indeed, here is the table:

In it, you can read the number of games I played, separately for each of the time controls used. The main categories are “bullet” ( one minute per player),  “blitz” (two minutes to 15 minutes, if I recall correctly), plus the fixed “1-minute” and “5-minute” category, which include an automatic pairing system.

If you browse the numbers, you can see that I played a total of just about 10,000 games on ICC since I started with the handle “tonno” eight years ago. Ten thousand games correspond, very nearly, to about a thousand hours of play (5-minute games last on average 8 minutes, 1-minute ones on average 2).

1000 hours spent playing blitz chess! A thousand hours is a hell of a lot of time. They correspond to about seven months of work. In that amount of time I write on average two papers, sign 20 more written by others, present a talk at one international conference, and graduate a student. Am I wasting my life ?

I do not think so. Chess is a way to relax for me, and a very intellectually stimulating activity. I generate endorphines while I play. It is very nearly like a drug. And like a drug, it has anti-social connotations: my wife, in fact, hates it when I play online… But there is a sort of equilibrium which allows both of us to spend some evening time taking care of things we like.

Of course, the question remains… Maybe I could play a bit less and do other things instead. Well, yeah. Like, driving three hours to observe the night sky all night long….


Magnus Carlsen, a future chess champion January 27, 2008

Posted by dorigo in chess, games, news.
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Magnus Carlsen is well known to chess enthusiasts around the world. A child prodige once, and now a young adult -17 years old- who is quickly rising to the very top of the chess world. He has been making headlines since when, at an early age, could dispose of strong players with brilliant, uncompromising attacks reminiscent of the finest young Kasparov. He became a grandmaster at 13 years and four months of age, second only to two other prodiges, Karjakin and Negi. Since then, many have grown convinced he is bound to be a world chess champion very soon.

And the Carlsen bubble has not blown. He is playing the top chess event at Wijk aan Zee in the Netherlands, a classical tournament which is only won by the very best players in the world.  Yesterday, with a win with the black pieces against none less than Vladimir Kramnik – the winner of the Topalov-Kramnik world championship match last year – he came back excellently from a loss in the eleventh round against Viswanathan Anand. After the impressive disposal of Kramnik, Carlsen is still fighting for first place in the tournamant Here are the standings today, after round 12 and just before the last round:

1. Levon Aronian, Magnus Carlsen 7.5/12

3. Teymour Radjabov, Viswanathan Anand, 7.0/12

5. Vassily Ivanchuk, 6.5/12

6. Michael Adams, Vladimir Kramnik, Peter Leko, Shakhryar Mamedyarov, 6.0/12

10.  Judith Polgar, Veselin Topalov, 5.5/12

12. Pavel Eljanov, 5.0/12

13. Loek van Wely, 4.5/12

14. Boris Gelfand, 4.0/12

The game Carlsen won against Kramnik is a little gem. Not from an aesthetic point of view: it contains errors and oversights, as most games even at top level; but for its significance as a sports event and the tension that could be breathed even in the comments of the more than 1000 people following the game on the internet chess club online. I give it below, with minimal commentary.

Vladimir Kramnik – Magnus Carlsen, Wijk aan Zee 2008 (round 12)

1.Nf3, Nf6; 2.c4, e6; 3.Nc3, c5; 4.g3, b6; 5.Bg2,Bb7; 6.0-0, Be7; 7.d4, cxd4; 8.Qxd4, d6; 9.Rd1, a6; 10.Ng5, Bxg2; 11.Kxg2, Nc6; 12.Qf4, 0-0; 13.Nce4, Ne8; 14.b3, Ra7; 15.Bb2, Rd7; 16.Rac1, Nc7; 17.Nf3, f5; 18.Nc3 (see diagram 1)

The opening has led to a balanced position with dynamical possibilities for both sides. Now Carlsen starts a kingside expansion, trying to create activity against the white king.

18…., g5; 19.Qd2, g4; 20.Ne1, Bg5; 21.e3, Rff7; 22.Kg1, Ne8; 23.Ne2, Nf6; 24.Nf4, Qe8; 25.Qc3, Rg7; 26.b4, Ne4; 27.Qb3, Rge7; 28.Qa4, Ne5; (see diagram 2) 

Black continues to amass pieces in the center to prepare an attack on the kingside, and leaves the a6 pawn undefended. Of course a2 is wanted in exchange, but Kramnik takes it, having seen that he will somehow force the exchange of queens. Kramnik is an endgame virtuoso, and at this point he probably underestimated his opponent’s technique. 

29.Qxa6?, Ra7; 30.Qb5, Qxb5; 31.cxb5, Rxa2; 32.Rc8+, Kf7; 33.Nfd3, Bf6; 34.Nxe5+, dxe5; 35.Rc2, Rea7; 36.Kg2, Ng5; 37.Rd6, e4; 38.Bxf6, Kxf6; 39.Kf1, Ra1; 40. Ke2, Rb1; 41.Rd1, Rxb4; 42.Ng2, Rxb5; 43.Nf4, Rc5; 44.Rb2, b5; 45.Kf1, Rac7; 46.Rbb1, Rb7; 47.Rb4, Rc4; 48.Rb2, b4; 49.Rdb1, Nf3; 50.Kg2, (see diagram 3)


This endgame is very difficult for white, but black can still spoil it. If the b4 pawn fell, black’s extra kingside pawn would mean very little and a draw would result. Carlsen however exploits perfectly the other weakness in white’s camp: the king can be framed in a mating net! 

50…., Rd7!

The b4 pawn is taboo! If 51.Rxb4?? Rxb4 52.Rxb4 Rd1 white is threatened by Rg1 mate, and is thus forced to  play 53.Ne2, to which follows 53….Ne1+; 54.Kf1, Nd3+;  55.Kg2, Nxb4 and black wins a rook and the game with it. 

51.h3, e5; 52.Ne2, Rd2; White’s fate is sealed: the intrusion in the second rank is the final blow to the already compromised position. The b-pawn can be prevented from queening only at the expense of material losses.

53.hxg4, fxg4; 54.Rxd2, Nxd2; 55.Rb2, Nf3; 56.Kf1, b3; 57.Kg2, Rc2 (see diagram 4)


and white resigned, since after 58.Rxc2 bxc2 59.Nc1 Ne1+ 60.Kf1 Nd3 the knight is lost. A tremendous achievement against a Kramnik!

UPDATE: with a draw in the last round against Teymour Radjabov, another young prodigy, Magnus obtained 8 points in 13 games, and he shares first place in Wijk aan Zee 2008 with Levon Aronian, who drew his last round game with Judith Polgar. Viswanathan Anand instead reached a very promising position against Kramnik, but failed to exploit it. Had he won, he would have shared first place with Aronian and Carlsen.

Goodbye Bobby January 18, 2008

Posted by dorigo in Art, chess, news.
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Bobby Fischer died today. A deranged but brilliant, brilliant mind. Chess players around the world cannot but be sad for this loss. Many had continued to hope for a further comeback from Fischer, the chess giant, and a few continued to claim to have observed him playing blitz on the internet chess club under anonymous handles, nonchalantly defeating the strongest grandmasters with weird moves. We will never know.

Still going strong September 25, 2007

Posted by dorigo in chess, internet, personal.
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Thanks Carl, who pointed me to a site offering a very nice chess test, I can today brag about my understanding of the game. I took the test – a quite lengthy one, where you have to find the move you would play in 24 different chess positions, with two minutes to spend on each – and I did not really score that bad! Here is the result:

I am flattered… Of course. Because

  1. I am not a master, but a mere candidate master; 
  2. my rating is in the 2100-2150 range (2275 is the rating of a strong master, in fact).

However, I must say the test is very well done. And, the fact that I got a 10.5/12 on tactics and only 6/12 on positional play accurately pictures my style of play – I am indeed a tactical player-, although I must say that in these tests one is normally driven to finding the most brilliant shot, and thus of the two processors, the one most active in the solver’s brain is the tactical one.

I have not played any strong tournament in more than five years now… Maybe I should organize a comeback!

Luigi Mondini, 1957-2007 September 13, 2007

Posted by dorigo in chess, games, news, personal.
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I think I understand now, having crossed the mark of 40 years of age, how hard it is to keep in touch with friends as time goes by. Your family, your job – everything conspires against your social life. But once enough time has passed to make you feel disconnected, another factor pitches in: getting back in touch with people you have not heard of for a while can be awkward. Quite simply, you are increasingly likely to discover things you would not like to know.

A few days ago, while searching for a chess position I wanted to post on this blog, I called on the phone my longtime friend Antonio Rosino, the patriarch of the chess club “Esteban Canal”, a  retired professor of Mathematics and Physics, and a still quite active FIDE chess master. Antonio is the one person I owe the most of my understanding of the game -and I share that debt with the vast majority of chessplayers in Venice. I knew he could have bad news in store after three years of mutual silence. And as he greeted me with his usual cheerful air, he landed a small but nasty blow: surely I had heard of Luigi ?

(Above, Luigi is observing a tournament game held in Venice in 1980)


An old self-mate September 6, 2007

Posted by dorigo in chess, games, personal.
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Disappointing 97% of my readers, my production today is a post about chess. And not only that: not even about real chess, but rather a chess problem. Worse: it is a rather uncommon problem stipulation, one according to which “White moves and forces black to mate white in x moves“. X=5 in the case of the position below. I found the diagram while putting order in my library – expect more finds in the near future!

Self mate in 5 – T.Dorigo, January 9th, 1999

I composed this problem in 1988, but revised it eleven years later to make it prettier. A look at the position is enough to show that, according to ordinary parameters, white is winning hands down, his material superiority being ridiculous. But that is of no interest here: what matters is the mechanism by which black is driven by force to actually win.

So a second glance suffices to see that in five moves, only the black bishop in d8 has a chance to be the piece administering mate to the white king. But how can white force it ? And how does white traps his own king in order to have no escape out of the long diagonal a1-h8, where a check by the black bishop is the only chance ?

The solution is rather pretty and simple, once one understands the required moves of the mechanism: the black bishop has to be lured on the fifth rank in order to parry a discovered check by the h5 rook, administered by the white f5 bishop moving to b1, where it takes crucially away one white square from the white king. Then, it will have to capture the white bishop in c3, once the b4 knight moves away giving another discovered check.

Here is the solution, which is twofold:

1. Na8!

with two variations – black in fact has only two possible moves:
A) 1…., Bc7 2.Bb1+ (luring the B on the fifth rank) 2….,Be5 3.Rd6!! (the first finesse: white prevents black from the option of escaping the e file while leaving the long diagonal) 3…,exd6 4.d5! (opening the diagonal and closing the rank) 4….,B moves (d4, f6, g7, h8 are all possible, while Bxc3 wins one move earlier) 5.Nc2+ (the second discovered check, which forces the capture) 5…,Bxc3++ and white is mated. Note that no other move of the Nb4 would have worked in this variation. Nd5 defends the B, Nc6 gives mate, and Nd3 allows 6.Nb2!

B) 1…., Bxb6 2.Bb1+ (as before, but this time the black bishop is lured to c5!) 2….,Bc5 3.Qg5!! (the second finesse – white needs to disentangle the black bishop from the 5th rank pin before he can lure it to b4 and c3) 3….,hxg5 (black has no other move and is thus forced to take and unpin its own bishop) 4.Nc2+ (white now forces black to parry the check) 4….,Bb4 5.Ne1 (but almost any move is ok now!) 5….,Bxc3++ – black has no other move with the bishop, which is pinned in the c3-a5 diagonal, and so can’t help taking, and mating white).

There is one additional subtlety in the second variation which, in my opinion, makes this problem one of the nicest I ever composed. After 2….Bc5 why can’t white just play 3.Nd5?!!, unpinning the bishop and simultaneously giving check, forcing the unpinned bishop to move to b4 at once, and thus winning a tempo with respect to the original variation ?

The answer is simple: white has no way to then remove the Nd5, or he will be giving black a check again with the Rh5! So after 3.Nd5 Bb4 he cannot force black to mate him, since the Nd5 will capture the offending black bishop once it takes on c3…

There is also, alas, a flaw in the second variation, i.e. the multiple knight moves that white can make at move 4 and 5 to get mated. Oh well…

I know that maybe only one or two readers have been able to read to this point. I hope they, at least, have enjoyed this composition… And I hope the problem is correct! One never really knows, there are always things one may overlook when one composes chess positions. So this is a dry run before I submit it to a chess composition contest!

UPDATE: my last words above were sort of prophetic… The moment I posted the problem, I saw it is flawed. Not in a major way, but for a purist like me it is still not acceptable. The first move could just as well be 1.Ne8! In fact, the knight does not participate in the following events in any way. So hereby I propose a better version, see below:

Self mate in 5 – T.Dorigo, September 6th, 2007

Nothing much has changed, but for the absence of the Nc7 and the white queen having been placed in e1 rather than in h4. This works better! First of all, there is now only one possible initial move to solve the problem, namely 1.Qh4!! (otherwise in variation B white has no means of forcing an interference in the fifth rank). Second, the key move is quite hard to find now!

UPDATE 2: Oh, DUH! Wait. Now it simply does not work anymore: the white Rb6 has to be defended, otherwise the first move by black is 1….Kxb6 and things do not work anymore. So the original version only has one key, namely 1.Nc7-a8, defending the Rb6. Fine. I still prefer the cryptic manouver 1.Qe1-h4 though, so by adding a knight in a8 to the second diagram, we get to a reasonable -and working- position:


Self Mate in 5 – T.Dorigo, September 6th, 2007

Ok, I would now go back to work, so I really hope this works… 1.Qe1-h4!! is the key, with the followup I already explained above.

My 1987 interview with Vishy Anand September 2, 2007

Posted by dorigo in Art, chess, games, internet, personal, travel.
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Funny how we live our lives accumulating all sorts of documents and then forget about them, while they wait patiently in a drawer or at the bottom of a box for the moment when they will be drawn out, undusted, and then either discarded for ever or brought back to life. The typical lifetime of stuff stored in a storage box is, I think, 20 years, although it strongly depends on the life of the owner – how frequently one moves, how tidy one is, how much space one has to store stuff forever. It also depends of course on more extemporaneous events, as in the case one dies, leaving the burden of sorting out his or her belongings to his relatives.

Today is a Sunday, and my wife and I decided we needed to reorder the drawers of the living room. So I started to check a couple of them containing old audio cassettes – which we mostly have not listened to for years. My job was to make five piles: tapes to be discarded, good tapes with label and proper box, tapes without box but carrying a good label, boxes with no tape, and unknown tapes with no label. The latter category was of course going to be the one which would give me the most trouble: finding out what a tape contains may be a quite time-consuming job, so I left it for the bitter end.As I started to sort through the unlabeled tapes, and placed the first in the player, I heard two people discussing in English, and I did not understood straight away what they were talking about. I did not even recognize their voices, nor could I hear much given the low quality of the sound and the contemporaneous sounds from the TV, which was showing some cartoon for my kids nearby. All I heard was that the two people were discussing “players”.

I first thought it was an interview to a singer, but then it started to dawn on me. And I could not help smiling. I remembered the circumstances of that recording as if it had been yesterday – but it was exactly 20 years ago, and I had never listened to the tape since then.

The tape had been recorded in the lounge of the Sheraton Hotel in Brussels. It was 1987, and it was warm and rainy – for the life of me I cannot recall nor reconstruct whether it was April or September. I had traveled there to attend as a credited journalist  to the SWIFT tournament, which was being held there. Most of the world’s strongest players were there to play, and a few more just to look at the games. I had come with the idea of taking pictures and interviews, which I would then sell to an italian chess magazine, “Scacco!” (I did sell the pictures of the players and many made to the cover page in the forthcoming months – and I also published there an interview to Ulf Andersson one year later, but that is another story).

Among the players which were not taking part in the very strong tournament was Viswanathan Anand, a young player from India, which had just won the World Junior Chess Championship. Anand was a good-looking lean boy with black hair, intense eyes, and a charming smile, and I remember it did not take me long to obtain an interview. He was then just about to be given the grandmaster title and, although not yet at the elite of the chess world,  many had foreseen he was going to have a bright career…

So Anand and I walked down the stairs from the press room of the tournament to the lounge of the Sheraton. I bought him a fruit juice, and we started chatting. As I listen to the tape today, I remember more and more about that afternoon. It would be nice if I had the stamina to write here a full transcript of our chat, but most of the issues we discussed are quite outdated – the importance of GMA, the then newborn grandmasters’ association, which was challenging FIDE as a top chess organization; the situation of chess in India; his first steps in the world of chess; and many other issues. I remember well asking him if he had played any of the contenders of the SWIFT tournaments already, and he answered he had played Sax and won the game (Gyula Sax is a strong Hungarian grandmaster).

At the end of the interview, I had prepared something for Vishy. I wanted to test him with a chess problem, which I laid down in front of him on my pocked chessboard. It was not a conventional problem, because I knew about his ability with tactics. No: I wanted to test him on a higher level of abstraction. So I put the pieces in front of him, and the white king in his hand, asking: “It is black to move. Where is the white king ?”.

Anand was evidently not introduced to the world of retrograde analysis, and he stared at me in disbelief. I had to repeat the question twice, and then he looked at the position, which still made little sense to him, for maybe five seconds. Then he gave me back the king, saying “I do not know how to solve this.” I was embarassed, because I would have imagined a more combative approach. I showed him the solution, he smiled, and we parted.

That was all. I met him again in Rome in 1991 at an open chess tournament, when he was looking at the ending of a game between two patzers who played in the third-category division. I pulled him apart and asked him, “Why are you looking at that game ?” He replied “It’s fun to look at patzer’s games”. And we chatted a bit more. Anand has stayed a very down-to-earth person even now, at the top of the world’s rating list. I am glad things have worked out well for him.

Oh, and the position. I have tried unsuccessfully to reconstruct it, but 20 years are 20 years. I remember that the black king is on the a file, and it is under check of a bishop which cannot have moved there, so it is a discovered check. I also remember there is a en-passant capture that one needs to guess in order to realize there is only one way the position has been reached by legal moves. If you know one such position with a white rook, bishop, and little else on the board, please send it to me… I would be glad to get it.

If you do not know what the hell I am talking about, let us look at a position which is quite similar in the concept, although different in the realization. I found it through a web search.

Here is the position (credits to N.Petrovic, 1954, 1st/2nd prize 4th thematic tourney). The stipulation requires one to guess what were the last six single moves that allowed the position to be reached by standard means. Let me quote from the web page where I have found the position:

White just gave check with his Ba1. This can only have been a discovered check but apparently no White piece could have been shielding the bK from the wB. Here an en passant capture explains the check: the wPe6 did it!

The last move was -1. d5xe6ep+ ! and the prior moves were -1 … e7-e5 and -2. d4-d5+.

Now what was Black’s move just before? It must have been played by the bK, running from a double check. The only possible move leading to an explainable double check involves another en passant capture. Black just played -2 … Ke6xPf6!!, and the moves prior to that must have been -3. e5xf6ep+ f7-f5.

UPDATE: A nice reader provided a link to the original problem I submitted to Anand. See the comments column.

A win against IM Vladimir Eljanov August 24, 2007

Posted by dorigo in chess, computers, games, internet, personal.
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It is always nice to win a game against a titled chessplayer, even if it is only a blitz game (5 minutes per player) and it is played online in the Internet Chess Club, thus preventing you from receiving a fair handshake at the end.

It happens rarely to me, but mostly because getting to play with international masters or grandmasters is tough even on the ICC, where many titled players are logged at any given time of the day. And then again, of course 90% of the times they dispose of me as quickly as you can dump the garbage.

To get the honor of playing against an IM or a GM you have to first boost your rating to a level which allows the automatic pairing system to give you that chance. It happened tonight, when I was lazily playing 5-minute chess while my wife was telling a story to the kids to get them to sleep. My opponent, patola(IM) on ICC, does not have a top notch rating for blitz games online, but has a FIDE rating of almost 2400, which is rather average for International Masters. He is the father of Pavel Eljanov apparently – and Pavel is a strong grandmaster.

Anyway, here is the game. Apparently, I managed to surprise him in the opening with a risky and bold pawn sacrifice… And then things snowballed for him, until he managed to mend his position to a level which still allowed him to hope. But with a few precise moves, I came out on top.

patola(IM)-tonno, ICC 5 0 – 24/8/2007

1.c4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Qc2 g6 5.cxd5 Bf5!? 

(see diagram 1 below)

A risky move, and not a totally correct one, but quite viable in blitz games, where the surprise factor is very important. My opponent indeed started to think… He knew h could take the pawn, but he would thus give black some play… On the other hand, if he did not take the pawn, he would have to lose a tempo with the queen… So he went for it. 6.Qb3 Nxd5 7.Qxb7 Nd7 8.Qb3 here 8.a3 would have brought white a small but steady advantage after 8… Rb8 9.Qa6 (but worse is 9.Qxa7 e5! with some play against the white queen, exemplifid by 10.dxe5? Ra8 11.Qd4 Nb4!)  Rb8 9.Qd1 Bxb1!

(see diagram 2 below) 

Here is the surprise! White loses the exchange. 9.Qa4 would have amounted to the same thing (9…. Bxb1 10.Rxb1 Nc3) and even the stubborn 9.Qc4 would have left black on top after 9…. Nb4! 10.Na3 Be6 11.Qc3 Nxa2 12.Qc2 Nxc1 13.Rxc1 Qa5, where black has gotten even with pawns and retains the bishop pair, the initiative, and a better overall structure. 10.Rxb1 Nc3 11.bxc3 Rxb1 12.e3 Qa5 13.Qc2 Ra1 14.Bc4 Nb6 15.Bb3 Nd5 16.Bxd5 cxd5

(see diagram 3 below)

17.a4? But here white had a chance to obtain some dynamical compensation by means of 17.Qb2! Rxa2 18.Qb8+. I do not really know what would have happened in that case, but for sure I was glad to see him playing the pawn instead. After this missed chance, the game goes downhill for Eljanov. Probably he played 17.a4 to divert my queen from the attack of c3, but it is an inaccurate move. 17…. Qxa4 18.Qb2! Still good now, but it does not win a tempo by attacking the rook any longer, so that black has time to create an escape for the king!(see diagram 4 below)


18…. f6! the last required accuracy. Now black is really safe. Other means of defending against the impending sortie of the white queen would have been much more troublesome. f6 creates the f7 square for the king, and avoids any knight jumps to e5 and g5. 19.0-0 Kf7! 20.Qb7 Qa5 21.e4 dxe4 22.Qxe4 Qxc3 23.Bd2 Rxf1+ 24.Kxf1 Qc4+ 25.Kg1 e6 26.h4 

(see diagram 5 below) 


A desperate attempt, but black’s position is easy to play and I by now had even more time on the clocks… 26…. Be7 27.h5 Qd5 28.Qf4 Bd6 29.Ne5+ Bxe5 30.dxe5 Qxe5  and in this hopeless position white allowed his time to end. A nice game, although admittedly not too well played by either of us.  I am curious to know whether 5. …Bf5!? is a novelty or if it has been played before. My guess is that it must have been played, if only by another fool. The database of my fritz 8 is not working for some reason. Carl, can you search the position for me ? 🙂 

The unextinguishable beauty of chess June 22, 2007

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Very sorry to all of you physics geeks, but here comes yet another post about chess. They come in waves, as my love for the game knows moments of high fever alternating dormant periods.

The title of this post refers to the fact that chess positions, unlike most other human activities, allow us to get to the bare, beautiful truth, and the process can at times give an intense satisfaction. Chess is an art, and it is a science, both in its very peculiar way.

A  comment by Derek Slater to my post on the nice queen sacrifice 27.Qc7+!! forced me to analyze the position a while longer. Here is the starting point, after Derek’s proposal of 26. … Nxe5 (instead than the move played in the game, 26….Na7):

Now, says Derek, it seems like white can still play 27.Qc7+ Rxc7 28.Rxc7+ Kd6 29.dxe5+ Bxe5, (more…)

One more nice chess game June 21, 2007

Posted by dorigo in chess, games, personal.
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Ok, I seem to be in a good vein lately with blitz games on the Internet Chess Club. I play at home, after a hard day at work (oh well, ok, I do not carry lead bricks around, but I do feel tired nonetheless when I get out of the evening train), and I am not supposed to have much inventiveness left. It does show from my results: my Elo rating for 5-minute blitz is floating at around 1850 points lately, which is at least 150 points less than it used to be. But still, I can salvage a good game for annotation here every once in a while.

So here goes today’s game: a nice 19-move attack.

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.f4 Bg7 5.Bd3 0-0

This is called “Pirc defence“, and the setup chosen by white is called “austrian attack“. (more…)