30 March 2008

Titled Players, Sizing the Data

Continuing with Titled Players, Soviet and Otherwise, my first task was to come to grips with the historical rating data. The data that I'm using spans 38 years and has gone through many hands, including my own. There are inconsistencies from year to year that can cause problems with any comparison across time.

The following table compares data from four different sources.

  • 1974: An early rating list that included titles.
  • 1978: Chapter 9.4 of Elo's 'The Rating of Chess Players Past and Present' (RCPP).
  • 1999: The first of the more recent FIDE lists that included titles.
  • 2008: The January 2008 list published by FIDE.

Most of the table's columns are self-explanatory. For example, the first line says that in 1974, there were 91 GMs with an average rating of 2535.

The last column 'Src' (Source) is an attempt to document some of the data's quirks. Elo's RCPP listed two ratings for the titled players: the FIDE rating on January 1978 and a 'Best 5-year Average' rating calculated by Elo. All but four of the players on his list had one rating or the other, and many players had both.

The values for 1999-M and 1999-W document a small problem in the 1999 data. Players were listed with two flags: one indicating whether they were titled and another indicating whether they were women. Where a woman was titled, the value in the title field was her women's title (WGM etc.). Where the woman also had an unrestricted title, it was flagged against her name. For example, the three Polgar sisters were listed like this:

g; Polgar, Judit (GM) ; HUN; 2677; w
g; Polgar, Sofia (IM) ; HUN; 2505; w
g; Polgar, Zsuzsa (GM); HUN; 2565; w

For no particular reason, I list men and women separately. Finally, in 2000 or earlier FIDE started flagging certain players as 'Inactive'. This shows in the data for 2008.

The bottom line is 91 GMs in 1974, 1109 in 2008. Somewhere between those two years, the GM club lost much of its exclusivity.

28 March 2008

Lewis Demisemiseptcentennial

Uig Chessman 2006 (4:53) • 'The Lewis (Uig) Chessmen, a set of 12th century chess pieces carved from walrus tusk, were found on Uig Sands in 1831. The video shows a carved wooden chessman being placed, close to where the originals were found, to commemorate the event.'

Or Quartoseptcentennial? Or Terquasquicentennial? Or Septaquintaquinquecentennial? Whatever you call it, I like the video!

26 March 2008

Four Fischer Analytical Errors

The diagrammed position arose just after the position in Kasparov Stops Fischer's Attack. Instead of Larsen's 23...e5, Fischer commented that 'On 23...e6 24.gxf7+ Kxf7 (24...Rxf7 25.Bxe6) 25.Bxg7 Kxg7 26.Rg1+ Kh7 27.Qg2 Qe5 28.Qg6+ Kh8 29.Rg5 Rg7 30.Rxh5+ Kg8 31.Bxe6+ Kf8 32.Rf5+ Ke7 33.Rf7+ wins'.

Portoroz Interzonal 1958
Larsen, Bent

Fischer, Robert
(After 23.g5-g6)
[FEN "2r3k1/2r1ppb1/3p2P1/pq5p/1p1BP3/1B3P2/PPPQ4/1K1R4 b - - 0 23"]

Kasparov noted that Fischer's analysis contains four errors that he called 'holes'. Each would have avoided the subsequent analytical error.

  • 27.Bxe6 Rf8 28.Bd5 Qe8 29.e5 Kh8 30.Be4 wins
  • 27...Qe8 draws
  • 29.Bxe6 wins
  • 30...Qxh5 31.Qxh5+ Rh7 32.Qxh7+ Kxh7 33.Bxe6 Rf8 draws

Fischer made four analytical errors in a single variation? Extraordinary!

24 March 2008

Kasparov Stops Fischer's Attack

Continuing with Fischer - Larsen, Portoroz 1958, in the diagrammed position the game continued 22.Rxh5 gxh5. Here Fischer gave 22...Bxd4 23.Qxd4 gxh5 24.g6 Qe5 25.gxf7+ Kh7 26.Qd3! and ended with the comment '(intending 27.f4) should be decisive'.

Kasparov gave 22...gxh5 a '?'. After 22...Bxd4 23.Qxd4 gxh5 24.g6, he improved on Fischer's analysis with 24...Rc4 ('!!'). His own analysis, omitting the subvariations, ran 25.gxf7+ Kxf7 26.e5 a4 27.Qf4+ Ke8 28.Bxc4 Qxc4 29.Qf5 Rc5 30.Qxh5+ Kd8 31.Qf5 Qe2 32.Rg1 Rxe5 'with equality (weakness of the back rank!)', and 25.Qe3 fxg6 26.Qh6 Kf7 27.f4 Ke8 28.Qxg6+ Kd8 29.Bxc4 Qxc4 30.e5 Qe2 'and again the weakness of the back rank denies him any hope of success.'

Portoroz Interzonal 1958
Larsen, Bent

Fischer, Robert
(After 21...Nf6-h5)
[FEN "2r3k1/2r1ppb1/3p2p1/pq4Pn/1p1BP3/1B3P2/PPPQ4/1K1R3R w - - 0 22"]

The idea starting with the countersacrifice 24...Rc4, and resulting in a weak back rank is a grandmaster conception. Kasparov could have ended his analysis there, but remarked,

It is psychologically understandable why Fischer missed this possible defense in his analysis: it casts doubt on the entire conception of his commentary, beginning with 'the losing move' 15...Rac8.

In other words, Fischer missed the defense because he was not objective about his own play. This is the sort of gratuitous commentary that so often endeared Kasparov to his contemporaries.

22 March 2008

Titled Players, Soviet and Otherwise

In response to an About Chess post on Ratings of Titled Players, Tom Chivers of the Streatham & Brixton Chess Club blog asked, 'I wonder how many Grandmasters there have *ever* been?'. This is a question that fits in with my series on Soviet players, since so many GMs were Soviet. I imagine that FIDE could answer the question easily, but I doubt it would interest them very much.

I have two database resources that should help tackle the question. The first is a list of titled players from Elo's 'The Rating of Chess Players Past and Present'. The second is the set of FIDE historical ratings.

Elo's list was compiled as of January 1978, while the rating files for the years 1971-74 and >1998 have a field flagging titled players. That leaves a gap of 21 years. Informants published during that gap should help identify players missing from the intermediate years.

Perhaps I'll discover that there is already a list on the Web. Failing that, I should be able to construct a preliminary list over the next few weeks.

20 March 2008

Matters of Technique

A Google search on 'chess "matter of technique"' picks up the usual complaints about this phrase commonly used to annotate chess games. Most people who complain about it have never had to write notes to a game that is obviously won for one side. It's also a reasonable bet that they often don't bother to play through the subsequent moves when they encounter the phrase.

Having said that, I agree that it wouldn't hurt chess writers to summarize a winning technical procedure in a sentence or two. This could also be done on annotated games instead of abandoning all further comments long before the loser resigns ('the rest is not interesting').

Google picks up a number of MOT uses by Robert Byrne, a long time chess columnist for the New York Times, now retired. Byrne had a knack for summarizing a complex game in a few paragraphs by pointing out the critical positions and the key variations. When he wrote 'matter of technique', it was to avoid wasting precious column inches on an obvious procedure.

Here are links to the games where Byrne used the phrase in one of his columns, plus a links to the games on Chessgames.com. Can the technical phases be explained briefly?

My search also picked up a book title. Here's a link to the Amazon.com page...

'Excelling at Technical Chess' by Jacob Aagaard

...The book's subtitle is 'Learn to Identify and Exploit Small Advantages'. The back cover says,

'And the rest is a matter of technique' is an annoyingly common phrase used in chess literature. The implication from the author is that the task of converting a typically winning position into a full point or converting a drawing position into half-a-point is relatively straightforward. However, as all of us practical players realize, it's not always as simple as this, and many hard-earned points are wasted through 'a lack of technique'.
In this valuable book Jacob Aagaard aims to solve this perennial problem. He arms the reader with several endgame weapons that every strong technical player has in his toolbox. These include important skills such as schematic thinking, domination, preventing counterplay, building fortresses and utilizing zugzwang. These tools are illustrated in deeply analyzed games containing numerous different themes. A serious study of this book will ensure that the reader no longer need fear the word 'technique'!

I would think that 'exploiting small advantages' is not the same as 'converting a winning position', but this might be a lack of knowledge on my part. Better to read the book before passing judgement; it's now on my watch list.

18 March 2008

Secrets of Opening Surprises

While working on a review of Secrets of Opening Surprises Vol.7, I discovered that the contents of all volumes except the first are available on the New in Chess site as PDFs. Using these as a reference, it's possible to construct an index to all SOS variations. Here's an index to the NIC pages.

16 March 2008

Occam's Razor on Soviet Ratings

Getting back to a look at Soviet players after a pause of several weeks, I tackled a couple of open points from previous posts. In Soviet Players on the FIDE Rating Lists, I mentioned, 'It might be useful to investigate why the counts [of Soviet players] drop in certain years, e.g. 1982-83-84 and 1985-86'. After an analysis of 1982-83-84, I concluded that inactive players were removed from the rating lists. This activity undoubtedly outweighed the number of new players being added.

In The Year of Big Changes, I asked, 'Why the difference between 695 USR players in 1990 and 1123 ex-USSR in 1991?' Another analysis shows that substantial numbers of lower rated players were added in 1990. For example, there were 154 players rated between 2400 and 2499 in 1990, but 241 in 1991; 213 rated between 2300 and 2399 in 1990, but 376 in 1991; etc. It might be useful to see if the increase in lower rated players happened across all federations, or only in certain federations. I'll tackle that another time.

The most straightforward explanation is often the best.

14 March 2008

Ilyumzhinov as a Chess Boxer

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as a chess boxer! (4:15) • 'FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov in a chess boxing match (Elista 2008).'

The chess starts at around 2:20.

12 March 2008

Look What Google Dragged In

Like many people who have a web presence, I use Google Alerts to keep informed about comments etc. related to my web scribblings. Most of the references are routine, but sometimes I learn something new. Here's a sample from the past few weeks.


I'm ambivalent about the value of Wikipedia. The way it often works is that someone copies into a Wikipedia article some info that I've placed on the web, duly crediting it with a link. Later, someone deletes the link. Someone else then adds the link back, and someone deletes it again. After some back and forth the link disappears for good.

My problem with Wikipedia is that it discourages independent web sites. Why take the time to research a topic and place the results on the web if it just gets sucked into Wikipedia? The original researcher ends up not being compensated for the initial contribution, even by a simple link.

Here's a service that identifies references on Wikipedia.

Here's a Wikipedia reference that copies some stats I developed for an About Chess article.

I didn't 'claim' anything; I calculated some numbers. It doesn't mention that my stats were calculated in January 2004 or that they were taken from several dozen random samples recorded at different times of the day. This is an example of why I find Wikipedia strong on fact and weak on opinion. Anonymous contributors with an agenda or with an ax to grind can easily use the service to promote their own self-serving ends.


Plagiarism and outright copying are rampant in Internet content. Google flagged the following blog post.

The post is a direct copy of 1972 Fischer - Spassky Title Match: Highlights. I couldn't see any references to my site or my name, so I suppose they were deleted after Google picked them up. Note that the author, in his only piece of independent work, couldn't even spell Bobby's surname ('Fisher') correctly.

Many plagiarists, when confronted with their misdeeds, insist they haven't done anything wrong. Here's one response from Slate.com: Eight Reasons Plagiarism Sucks.


Some of the references are from services that seem to serve no useful purpose. I tagged all of the following as 'What's this?':-

More investigation required...

10 March 2008

Sac, Sac, ... Mate

Has it really been over a month since I posted Fischer - Larsen, Portoroz 1958? At that time Fischer's death was still fresh in memory, but the memory has now faded.

The first flurry of annotator's symbols occurs after the diagrammed position. White continued 14.Nd5 Bxd5, where both Fischer and Kasparov note that 14...Nxd5 is bad because of 15.Bxg7 Kxg7 16.exd5 Bd7 17.Rde1. Somewhat curiously, Fischer referenced a game ('Suetin - Korchnoi, USSR Championship prelims') that Kasparov says was never played.

Now instead of 15.Bxd5, both World Champions give 15.exd5 Qb5 16.Rhe1 a5 17.Qe2 as better.

Portoroz Interzonal 1958
Larsen, Bent

Fischer, Robert
(After 13...b5-b4)
[FEN "r4rk1/p3ppbp/3pbnp1/q7/1p1BP3/1BN2P2/PPPQ2PP/1K1R3R w - - 0 14"]

Fischer gives Black's 15...Rac8 ('after the game Larsen explained he was playing for a win') a '?'; Kasparov gives '?!'. Better was 15...Nxd5, when Kasparov agrees with Fischer that 16.exd5 Qxd5 17.Qxb4 offers more chances than 16.Bxg7 Nc3+ 17.bxc3 Rab8 18.cxb4 Qxb4+ 19.Qxb4 Rxb4+ 20.Bb2 Rfb8.

The retreat 16.Bb3 merits a '!'. Fischer wrote

Now I felt the game was in the bag if I didn't botch it. I'd won dozens of skittles games in analogous positions and had it down to a science: pry open the h-file, sac, sac, ... mate!

Since 16...Qb5 loses a Pawn to 17.Bxa7, Black tried 16...Rc7. After 17.h4, the idea 17...Qb5 was too slow, while 17...h5 fails to 18.g4. White continued 18.h5, and Fischer won on the 31st move.


Later: Re 'Fischer referenced a game ('Suetin - Korchnoi, USSR Championship prelims') that Kasparov says was never played', this was explained in My 61 Memorable Games: A Mystery by GM Larry Evans: 'the 10th edition (1965) of my Modern Chess Openings page 195 note "d" of the Yugoslav Attack in the Sicilian Defense sourcing "Suetin-Korchnoi." This error probably was carried over from the 9th edition. In those days no massive databases were available to check these references.'

08 March 2008

About.com's CEO Exits

In Chief Is Leaving the About.com Unit of The Times,
the New York Times reported, 'The chief executive of About.com, The New York Times Company’s lucrative information and advice site, said Wednesday that he would leave the company next week. The departure of Scott B. Meyer comes as the company is under intense pressure from a major shareholder to increase its investment in Internet operations like About.com.'

Gossip: Scott Meyer ousted in About.com staff revolt;
the comments are interesting. • Background: A Bit About About.