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Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” — Leonardo da Vinci
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Saturday 21 November 2015

how chess works

How chess games work

People have always wondered, “How to play like a grandmaster?” But when the question is “How to get into IIT?” the simple answer known to everyone is study hard and solve all problems; also make sure you solve them on time during the exam. But when it comes to chess, I found it really hard to come up with “what do players actually do to win the game?” Or what causes a grandmaster to play better than anyone? If the question is about IIT-JEE, the simple answer would be, “Just know them all, and solve problems on time”. Nevertheless when it comes to chess, it is quite hard to determine how a good chess game should be played.

Chess is a battle, where you mustn’t make mistakes. You might already know that any standard chess engine running on an ordinary machine would easily defeat the world’s top grandmasters. If you have tried playing with one such chess engines, you would think “Fine, that’s obvious. The computer is unimaginably strong. Beating it is impossible”. Not so soon; if a super grandmaster plays ten games with the computer, he is bound to lose most of them. But not all of them! This clearly shows that not all chess games played by a computer is unbeatable. If you are someone (like me) who have tried to improve your chess by trying the beat the engine, but failed unbelievably but finally managed to bring the game to a draw, after several “reverse moves” and finally realised that you have mistakenly set a lesser “fixed search depth” value; and badly want to know how chess works. You have come to the right place.

So what is so different about chess grandmasters? Or perhaps, any strong player (especially if you have got the awesome opportunity of playing chess with a chess grandmaster, being an ordinary player). Let me tell you the secret. You need to always make sure that you do the following each time you play:

Maintain balance
This is one of the most important factors to be remembered at all times while playing. Imagine that every coin on the board balances every other opponent coin on the board. Let’s say that one of the players loses a pawn. Then, assuming that the other player manages to exchange the remaining pieces with every other piece (which is more “easier” so more likely to occur) then the one who is a pawn up will remain a pawn up and has a good chance of winning (depending on the situation).

Is this the only kind of balance? Not exactly. A player faces great trouble when his opponent has the amazing opportunity to cause continuous attacks on his side, which causes his position to get distorted. Usually, each move a player makes on an ideal situation will be a consequence of either an attack he foresees or a line which gets him immediately attacking the opponent, kicking his pieces around for a while. This causes an imbalance among the pieces, which ultimately proves fatal for the player. The "balance" as such, refers to the fact that every piece defends the position evenly such as not giving way for any foreign attacks. But unfortunately the opponent might get the opportunity to distort this order, causing the position to ultimately tremble.  

You also need the maintain balance between the attacks you launch and the defences. If you are going forward for an aggressive play, taking your pieces to attack the enemy camp, you must remember that you are randomly moving pieces towards the week ends of the camp. But if the enemy manages to secure his vulnerability, your attack will be turned against you. Simply because your pieces won’t be in your camp defending other pieces. But instead you go for a trade of pieces, it won’t cause harm, as much as what an attack would cause. Play an aggressive game only if you have calculated the position thoroughly. Any miscalculation would turn terribly fatal for your position.   

Calculate, when you don’t know what to do

You might have faced situations where you probably won't know what to do. In such situations, it is good to try and calculate variations to understand the positon better. Random calculation will give away potential moves that the opponent might make use of against you. Note that you don’t need to always know what attacking move you ought to do to get the situation to worsen for the enemy camp. Not all positions are vulnerable. And remember that your enemy loses only if he makes mistakes and not because of your aggressive moves. If someone loses, it is just that they weren’t able to foresee an attack. The next section, we’ll see the calculation process in detail.

How do you calculate?

Calculation is the most vital part of chess. You just need to check out variations. Like for each black move, what white move must be done, and for each white move what black move must be done. This is one kind of calculation. The other kind is where you consider that your enemy camp is frozen and try to find the combination of moves that prove fatal for the enemy camp. Note, the only way a good player loses is not because he leaves a piece undefended or something, because all the attacking coins attack a particular weak square or a weak coin threatening to take it. Once you are a piece up, all you have to do is keep playing a passive game, defending all your pieces well and attacking only when needed.
Soon, after having traded of all the pieces, you will be left with a piece extra. Especially when the board is almost empty, this extra piece would seem more powerful.

Opening, midgame and endgame

During the opening, because of the presence of too many pieces on the board, the possibilities are enumerable. As pieces get traded off, the number of pieces decrease in count. This reduces the complexity that prevails on the board. Once the complexity decreases, the players are open to a relatively heavy calculation demanding positon. I have a small ratio to assist me through this evaluation process. Roughly, more the number of pieces on the board, the more we must concentrate on setting up “hidden attacks”. More towards the midgame, players must emphasize on setting up these “hidden attacks” (which will be explained in detail in the forthcoming sections) at the same time calculating through to avoid immediate attacks.

During the midgame, we calculate as well as set up these attacks. But during the opening phase, you won’t have to calculate too much; as long as your opponent plays the right opening lines. If either you or your enemy make a mistake in this phase, there is a sure chance of the position to shatter apart. During the endgame, especially if the position is a draw position, which cannot be won, you generally play calculative positions. You can’t set traps in this phase, unless you wish to defeat your opponent by matching his stamina. But traps set in this phase can be foreseen with a bit of thought.    

Generally, in grandmaster games, players resign when they are faced with a bad position and the game evolves into an endgame. But as long as your opponent has a piece down (or a point down) and it’s the endgame phase, it doesn’t matter; as long as you play a calculative game. Even if the game seems to go on for ever, at one time, it has to converge to a point where your opponent will be compelled to trade off a piece. Or at times, even better. If you have your king well defended and the opponent’s defence vulnerable, you’ll have your extra piece or ‘point’ guiding you through your game. Having each piece balancing each other piece, you would finally have a piece to attack your opponent freely.

On a theoretical bases, this seems fair enough. But on a practical scale, sometimes the opponent, thought having a piece down, would have his pieces in perfect shape. Ready to attack your side. During that time, until the tempo subsides, we can consider the position to be equal. So does that mean that just because you are a point up during the endgame it is not quire finalised that you’re going to win? Yes, that’s true. It also depends on “what you can do with your pieces immediately”  

Setting up, and enhancing hidden attacks

One point should be made clear: Every player, who plays chess averagely should be able to beat the grandmaster given that he has one day to make a move (and so does the grandmaster). A player who has the entire day to think of the move will hardly make any mistakes. Both the average player and the grandmaster who is playing against him, would find no difference in the strength levels. Thereby, they would be playing an equal and a fare game. On most occasions the game would end in a draw, when played like this. But at the same time, there is quite a chance for the average player to also win, if he spends his time deciding on the move properly, before making it.

So it all depends on the time, dose it? Yes, it does. To what extent, especially if we play a classical game, it could go on for six hours. That’s a lot of time right? But still, when the grandmaster or any other player plays leisurely having one day for a move, then the game would always end up in a draw (disregarding exceptional cases).

Now coming back to our topic, how do we set a hidden attack? It could either be that the player places his bishop in a strategical location such that later with a set of anticipated train of exchange of pieces (usually would be unclear in the earlier stage), the bishop would be pointing to a strong square. Soon, the player could take advantage of it, almost immediately. You don’t have to exactly know what would happen, but you can know what would happen if something happens!         

On hidden attack is setting up a train of exchanges after which your camp’s pieces conquer the most squares. The only way you can take down an enemy piece if it is all set such that more than one piece attacks another piece and eventually, defending the undefended piece is kind of hard or loses defence elsewhere.  

 copyright (c) 2015 K Sreram, All rights reserved

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