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A scientist's take on the Game of Kings
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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

My Book Review at

I have recently reviewed a book, Walter Browne's "The Stress of Chess", for the excellent website. You can check out my review, which I titled "A sometimes stressful read" at their site (now archived; 11/12/12).

Since I live on the East Coast, hurricane Sandy has interrupted my blogging efforts. Now, I am up against a deadline for a very important meeting with my thesis committee on November 6th (after which I will exercise my civic duty and vote). So, dear reader, please excuse the dearth of posts in the coming week. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Combating Anti-Sicilians with ...e5: Anti-Bc4 (Line B)

This post is concerned with the line 1.e4 c5 2.Bc4 e5 3.c3, or Line B in the series. See the introductory post for this series for Line A, as well as an explanation of the entire variation and some database statistics. 

This is part of a larger series on meeting anti-Sicilian lines with …e5. In a previous post, I covered how this move can successfully be employed against the Rossolimo Siclian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5).

In the introduction to this series on ..e5 against the anti-sicilians, I point out that Black needs to take care of d5, anticipating moves from White such as Nc3-d5, Na3-c4, and c3 followed quickly by d4. The move Bc4 also introduces pressure against f7. Black should be on guard for moves like Ng5 (which in the initial position is not possible due to Qxg5).

1.e4 c5 2.Bc4 e5

A) 3.Qh5
B) 3.c3
D) 3.f4
E) 3.b4
F) 3.Nf3 (Followed by c3, O-O, d3, or b4)

This post has been vastly expanded, as part of blog renovations described in an earlier post. If you would like to see the original analysis, please email/contact me.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Shake up at SOTS!

Warning! Grab a hard hat, because I am doing some renovation! 

OK, thats an exaggeration no safety equipment is necessary. But I am making a few changes to how I post games, as well as to the style of the site.

To my regular readers, I thank you for your audience; I hope you enjoy the new site design. I have to apologize, however, for some redundancy that will result.

Not only are the colors different, but I am doing away with the java replay applet. It was cool and stylish (thanks pgn4web!) but ultimately I felt that the annotations were presented in a clumsy format. I decided, therefore, to go to an more throw-back style and present annotations in text with scattered diagrams. Now, if you'd like, you can print out these posts and read them on the train/bus/plane/etc.

To those itching to replay the games, I will still provide PGN files. If you don't know what PGN is, or how to read it, you can view my primer on PGN (portable game notation) from an earlier post. There are a bunch of free viewers on the web and for download. Here are a select few:

Due to this change in format, the opening articles I had posted previous would become unwieldy. Therefore, I decided to break these up into a number of smaller posts.

This, I think, affords several advantages. For starters, different lines can be linked together, and you can explore different variations without wearing out the scrollbar. Secondly, it will allow me to post the analysis of individual lines, instead of entire systems at once. I'll be able to make each post more detailed, and you won't have to wait so long for an update.

So, in what will seem like a flurry of posts, I will be reposting the analysis of the lines starting 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 and 1.e4 c5 2.Bc4. There will be some updates, and the analysis will be more in depth in some lines. Soon to follow will be my long-promised work on 1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 e5

It's a shake up at SOTS! (Science on the Squares; I think the acronym has a nice ring to it). I welcome any an all reader suggestions on the site's format.

Occam's Razor in Science and Chess

Somewhere along their education, most scientists learn about Occam's razor. This principal, attributed to the 14th century logician William of Ockham, is usually stated as the preference for a simpler theory over a more complex one (as long as both are supported by the facts). When formulated this way, it might also be called the law of parsimony or economy, or just the rule of simplicity.

Occam's razor does not only apply to the hard sciences. This rule has been applied, sometimes in a modified form, to many fields. Even chess players may utilize Occam's razor. After all, while scientists use experimentation to falsify competing hypotheses, chess players engage in a similar activity by evaluating competing moves through analysis (often with computer help). Just as two different hypotheses may explain the facts, two candidate moves may appear (at first blush) to be playable. In either case, experimentation or analysis is used to find the correct choice between the alternatives.

I would suspect, however, that many scientists  do not appreciate the rationale behind this razor, as well as it limitations. They may be in danger of over estimating the power of this principle. In fact, I'd wager that chess players are more aware of the proper use of Occam's razor. Some of the original justifications for the razor where aesthetic (simpler theories and more elegant moves must be better), but this rationale is quite simply irrational. There is no good reason to believe a priori that either the inner workings of the cell or the strategy on a chess board must be simple. Even if many successful theories rely on simplicity, this does not preclude a phenomenon (or a position) being studied that requires a complex explanation.

Select 'Read More' to see the complete article, in which I discuss the justifications for Occam's razor using examples, and exceptions, from the chess world. The law of simplicity is more of a guideline, a way of prioritizing experiments and guarding against circumstantial theories. 

As Sherlock Holmes might say, understanding Occam's Razor is "Simplicity itself!"

Monday, October 15, 2012

Bryant Park Blitz: An Einstellung loss?

A few weeks ago, I was in the city on a Sunday, killing somme time while my girlfriend was recording some music (Check out her itunes page!). Naturally, I took the opportunity to get in a game of chess, and headed down to Bryant Park. There I found a player, sitting smugly with sunglasses on (it was a nice September day) taking on various opponents. Most of the opponents he played were crushed, making fairly simple mistakes and dropping pieces to simple tactics as the bespeckled player jokingly taunted them. I noticed, however, some errors in his play (both tactical and positional), and his tendency to underestimate the counterplay of his opponent.

I have posted the game below for your enjoyment. It was played with the time control of 5-0 (5 minutes each side, no increment). In hindsight, I think that this game might be a good example of the Einstellung effect. This effect is essentially when you become fixated on only certain moves or ideas, miss the optimal continuation in a position. I recently posted about some research concerning the Einstellung effect on chess players (it is a more generally phenomenon), and it brought this game back to my mind. In fact, I otherwise would have not posted the following game, because it contains some really rather sloppy play (I'm usually sharper that this tactically, I swear!), but is nonetheless instructive on several points.

In particular, I became fixated on the pressure my opponent was exerting on my King in the above position, and missed an excellent resource on move 21; I played the awkward 21.Bf4, when a combination of 21.fxg6, Rf7 and Rh7 would have easily secured the win.

Select 'Read more' or the following link to view the whole game.

The time pressure of blitz can sometimes highlight our tendency to overlook important possibilities. What examples of the missed possibilities and the Einstellung effect do you have in your own games?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Science of Chess: Fernand Gobet and the Einstellung effect

Since this blog is about Chess and Science, it is only natural to discuss the nexus between the two: scientific studies that examine some aspect of Chess. The game of chess is used by some social science, psychology and neuroscience researchers as a model or tool to examine memory, expertise, decision making skills, or some other process that two combatants engage in over the chessboard.

A few chess players may be already familiar with an example of this type of work, perhaps the highly cited studies by Adriaan de Groot. In some of the studies conducted by de Groot, chess players of different skill levels were tasked with position recall and were told to analyze a position while thinking out loud. This has led to conclusions about the way expert players organize their memory, and how they search and evaluate a position. (I'll probably revisit de Groot in a future post)

A contemporary researcher in this field is Fernand Gobet, a professor at Brunel University, West London. (See his professional homepage). Gobet has dual qualification to study chessplayers, since he is both a cognitive psychologist and an international master (a qualification not unique to the researchers in this field). He has published a number of interesting articles on a variety of aspects of the game, ranging from memory, visualization skills of chess players, and even gender differences between players. Of particular note, Dr. Gobet has attempted to simulate certain aspects of expert memory and skill using commuter models.

Below, I'll give you my reaction to a paper by Dr. Gobet that deals with the interesting Einstellung effect. While I am scientist, cognitive psychology is not my field, so the experts will have to forgive me if I do not assess the work correctly. Also, I provide below only a brief sketch of the work; I might someday blog about the individual topics in more detail, as I learn more about them.

I'd love to hear from you, dear reader, if you have some insight onto to the work of Dr. Gobet or others. In particular, please feel free to let me know if I have gotten something wrong. You can do so by leaving a comment.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Combating Anti-Sicilians with ..e5: Anti-Bc4 (Line A)

In this post, I'll begin to look at answering either 1.e4 c5 2.Bc4 or 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 with …e5. This is part of a larger series on meeting anti-Sicilian lines with …e5. In a previous post, I covered how this move can successfully be employed against the Rossolimo Siclian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 e5).

Where the move ..e5 against the Rossolimo drew parallels with the Ruy Lopez, the reply …e5 against the Bc4 attack will appear similar in some lines to the Guicco Piano (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5). However, the presence of a pawn on c5 instead of the Bishop, together with the weakness of the d5 square, makes for some important differences.

In the introduction to this series on ..e5 against the anti-sicilians, I point out that Black needs to take care of d5, anticipating moves from White such as Nc3-d5, Na3-c4, and c3 followed quickly by d4. The move Bc4 also introduces pressure against f7. Black should be on guard for moves like Ng5 (which in the initial position is not possible due to Qxg5).

Unlike the line with Bb5, the Bishop on c4 may prove to be a target for Black, and White needs to watch out for a6-b5, which may threaten to capture the Bishop. Furthermore, the Bc4 move does less to put pressure on the Black e-pawn, and gives the second player more flexibility in their response.

In this post, I will only cover line A. In subsequent posts, I will consider several other variations. Lines A through E concern with the immediate 1.e4 c5 2.Bc4 e5, while Line F considers a delayed version 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 e5.

1.e4 c5 2.Bc4 e5

A) 3.Qh5

B) 3.c3
C) 3.Nc3
D) 3.f4
E) 3.b4
F) 3.Nf3 (Followed by c3, O-O, d3, or b4)

It is worth noting that, if Black can successfully meet 2.Bc4 with ..e5, then he has a defense not only against a rare anti-sicilian, but to the Bishop's Opening as well (Replying to 1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 with …c5). Even if White can secure a space advantage or some initiative, it makes a good surprise weapon against a weaker opponent, if you are prepared to suffer a bit!

Out of 29 games that open with 1.e4 c5 2.Bc4 e5, White is winning 70% (W19 D3 L7). Download the full opening report. Remember, with these small samples sizes, the numbers may not have much significance! As always, they can be skewed by some games in which Black lost for reasons unconnected with their opening play.

Also, remember to check back to this post occasionally; I will continue to do analysis and update the post if necessary (I wasn't able to complete the survey at the time of the posting). If you spot an error in my analysis, or think you have a better idea then what I came up with, please post your moves and lines in the comment section!

This post has been updated and is still under construction!; for an explanation, see my post describing the blogs renovation. If you would like the original, truncated analysis on all of these variations, please email/contact me.  The full analysis of remaining lines will be posted eventually.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Molecular Biology Primer: Obtaining and Interpreting Data

As mentioned in the previous post in this series, molecular biologists are primarily concerned with studying the expression, structure, and function of proteins in the cell (sometimes this necessitates the study of the genetic material which encodes the protein, particular when the proteins expression is being questioned). 

How do scientists go about answering these questions? What are their tools of the trade, how are they used, and what are their limitations? Here I explore some of the broad limitations common to many techniques used in molecular biology. If you'd like to learn more about some of the more common techniques, I have provided at the end of the article short descriptions and ample links for more information.

I'd also like to hear from you! What experimental limitations have I omitted or underestimated? If you know of some cool new techniques, please help me grow the list I have compiled by adding a comment.