The importance of queen side counterplay

Back in 1994 when I was still playing competitive chess (I practically retired in a year’s time after a series of blunders under pressure), I had played in this one special tournament that was played to “prepare Karnataka youngsters for national events”. Though I wasn’t travelling to any of these events, being a “promising youngster” I had received an invitation to play.

It was a weird kind of tournament, for apart from us “youngsters”, there were these senior players from the state who participated in the tournament on and off. Their scores weren’t tallied – all they did was to make sure each “youngster” played an equal number of games against a “senior player” and only youngsters’ scores counted.

In the first round of the tournament, I faced off against a senior named Nagesh (if I remember correctly). Nagesh played white and played a King’s Indian Attack against my Sicilian Defence (part of this special tournament was to expose us to non-standard openings and plays). It was a hard fought middle and end game where experience ultimately prevailed, and I lost.

In the analysis after the game, Nagesh pointed out that while he had an established centre and strong kind side attack, I had managed to build up a fairly expansive position on the queen side, and that I should have “pushed harder on the queenside for counterplay” rather than simply defending. While I took his point, I didn’t see the point of expanding on the queen side to grab a couple of pawns and (with a remote chance) threaten to queen one of my pawns there when my king was under heavy attack.

This bewilderment continued through the next year, as I studied openings for which the stated strategy was to “get counterplay on the queenside”. Not being a particularly great endgame player (though I did show some promise in that in my brief career), the advantage that could be gained by the gain of a pawn was lost to me, and I would prefer to go for a more tactical game (which usually didn’t go too well).

As an adult, while I don’t play competitively any more, I continue to follow chess and watch videos from time to time for entertainment. I’ve developed more nuance on strategy, and in playing a positional game. I’ve seen how small advantages (like space, or even a pawn) can be turned into decisive victories, and given myself shit for not learning to play endgames better back during my playing career. It’s a more holistic view of chess than the one I had formed as a schoolboy having mugged up all the moves of Morphy’s 17-move win against the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard (I still remember that game by heart).

Though it doesn’t take much convincing now for me to appreciate the joys of positional play, and going for queen side counterplay when your king is under attack, I found the game played by Viswanathan Anand against Veselin Topalov in the first round of the ongoing Candidates tournament rather interesting.

The two players go for different strategies – while Topalov builds up for an attack against Anand’s king, Anand goes for queen side counterplay (the bit I didn’t get back when I was a young player) and goes pawn grabbing. It was a rather complex game and both players played rather inaccurately under time pressure, but it is an excellent example of how queen side counterplay can help defuse an attack.

Anand’s queen nearly gets trapped (in the press conference after the game, he said he was reconciled to giving it up if attacked). There is a massive piledriver of pieces Topalov stacks up on the king side to attack Anand’s king. There is absolutely no threat of danger on Topalov’s king.

Yet, from time to time, Anand’s pawn grabbing strategy means Topalov has to move back some pieces to the queen side for its defence, blunting the attack. Then, Topalov needs to recover lost material, and moves his rooks to the queen side for that purpose. There is a mad scramble around the time control (both players got into time trouble) when the position gets liquidated with a lot of pieces exchanged.

After the dust settles, we find that Topalov’s remaining pieces are horribly misplaced on the queenside (on a pawn recovery campaign), while Anand’s are now trained towards an attack on Topalov’s king. As Topalov scrambles to defuse this attack, he loses material, and ultimately resigns.

It was a fascinating game to get a potentially fascinating tournament underway. I hope to follow it as best as I can, though that might not be so trivial given the holiday I’m taking later this month. Watching GM Daniel King’s analysis of Anand’s game (linked above) started making me wonder if I’d have played differently had I had access to such high quality commentary when I was still a competitive player two decades ago.

As for that tournament, I ended up beating the other senior player I played against. He blundered his queen in a typical tactical Sicilian Dragon Yugoslav Attack position (I was white). I placed second among all the “youngsters” there, and got my only prize money from chess after that game – a princely Rs. 80 (which wasn’t that bad for a schoolboy in 1994)!

How computers have changed chess

Prior to computers, limited depth of analysis meant chess strategies were “calibrated to model”. Now they’re calibrated to actual results and that results in better strategies (unconstrained by aesthetics)

With the chess Candidates tournament starting in Moscow today (to decide World Champion Magnus Carlsen’s next challenger), I’ve been watching a few chess videos of late, and participating in discussions on why Anand has been finding it hard to play of late.

One thing that people have widely agreed is that computers have changed the way chess is played, and the “new generation” (Carlsen, Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana, Anish Giri, etc.) have learnt the game in a completely different way from the old-timers, which dictates the way they play.

For example, these new guys play the kind of positions that earlier generations wouldn’t dream of playing. Given a position and a bunch of moves that seem similarly strong, the moves the new generation picks is different from what an older player would pick. And computer analysis is credited with this.

The basic advantage with computer analysis is that positions can now be evaluated easily to a much larger “depth” (number of moves from current position) compared to earlier manual analysis. In the manual analysis, you could evaluate the position for a few moves after which you would reach a position that you would judge manually. Judging different possible continuations this way, you would evaluate a position and figure what was a good continuation.

The problem with limited depth search was that after a certain depth, you simply had to use your judgment on what was a good position, and this judgment (the “boundary condition” that went into your model) would have a profound effect on how you evaluated different moves. Over time, all you cared about was the aesthetics of the chessboard, and not really how you could translate the position to victory (or a draw).

In other words, in the days before computers, chess players were building their strategies by calibrating them to a model rather than by calibrating them to actual results on the board. And this resulted in a bias towards “pretty strategies” and those that gave advantages that were obvious.

With computers, however, there is no such constraint on the depth of ply. You can analyse the position to far greater depth and get really close to the result in the course of your analysis. And so you don’t really care about the aesthetics of the positions you reach, as long as you know how they can translate to the result you want.

So the “new generation”, which has always been trained using computers, see the game differently. People of Anand’s generation (there’s also Veselin Topalov and Levon Aronian in the ongoing Candidates tournament) learnt the game with classic aesthetics and optimise their play to get there. Carlsen’s generation has no such biases and they play to what is the actual advantage irrespective of aesthetics.

And that’s how the battle is building up! This should be an interesting tournament!

Government finances versus public interest

In an op-ed in Business Standard (I think) yesterday, Praveen Chakravarti (he’s with Anand Rathi now, used to be with UIDAI when I met him at the Takshashila Conclave last year) argues that fixed price allocation of telecom spectrum wasn’t such a bad thing since it kept prices for customers low and reasonable. As part of his argument, he mentions that due to the auction of 3G spectrum and licenses, prices of 3G services have been really high, way over the reach of the common man. Similarly, after the auction of the 4th telecom license in 2001, mobile telephony prices remained high, and came down only after the backdoor entry of Reliance and Tata Teleservices a couple of years later.

One of the points that the CAG mentioned in his report on Air India a few days back was about the granting of “sixth freedom” rights to international carriers flying from India. For example, twice this year I flew west (once to the US, once to Europe) from Bangalore, stopping over at Dubai. For both trips, Emirates sold me a single ticket (i.e. I purchased a Bangalore-New York ticket, not separate tickets for Bangalore-Dubai and Dubai-New York). The granting of this sixth freedom to carriers such as Emirates, points out the CAG, has resulted in substantial loss to Air India since no one flies Air India for international flights anymore. I didn’t believe it when I read it but one of the recommendations for the CAG was to cancel sixth freedom licenses to carriers such as Emirates. Another report around the same time recommended that “interior markets” (Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, etc.) be made Air India monopolies in order to protect its finances.

Now, there is a fine balance that needs to be achieved between government revenues through grant of licenses, and the economic impact on the general public because of the grant of such licenses. For example, the government (through Air India) may have lost significant amounts of money thanks to the grant of sixth freedom licenses to carriers such as Emirates. That has been counterbalanced with lower fares and easier flying options for travelers from hitherto less connected sources like Bangalore or Hyderabad. The government may have lost significant revenue by granting backdoor entry to Reliance and Tata Teleservices, but that was compensated by sudden drop in charges for mobile telephony, and the subsequent growth of the sector.

Given Air India’s history and performance, the government could have never invested enough to make Bangalore and Hyderabad as well connected with the rest of the world as, say, Bombay or Delhi. In that sense, granting of sixth freedom rights to Emirates was a cheap way for the government to provide international connectivity to these cities. Similarly, it would have been hard for the government to invest in MTNL or BSNL in order to take mobile telephony to the masses. Backdoor entry to two operators was a “cheaper option” to achieve this objective.

So what was the problem with what Raja did, you ask. The problem there was the creation of a playing field that was not level. He blatantly favoured certain players against others, and made hefty kickbacks from the process. That is the real tragedy of a non-auction process – in that there is “consumer surplus” left over with some of the companies after they’ve paid the fixed price for the resource, and some of this consumer surplus can be channeled in the form of kickbacks to government officials. I don’t know the parallel for this in the aviation space so I’m not able to comment on that.