Saturday, March 29, 2014

Earth Hour

Today at 8.30 pm people, corporations, cities, even whole countries can turn their lights off and cut their energy usage, donate to the cause and generally raise their awareness of the environmental issues facing our planet by joining Earth Hour. There are many issues such as sea pollution, air pollution, deforestation, overusage of natural resources, and the destruction of natural habitats. It is definitely time to do something and even if that is just one small thing that each of us does, then those small things will mount to make a difference.

I joined in with the power off for Earth Hour tonight, and I intend to take a keener interest in environmental issues in the future and even to become more active in energy conservation. I guess my recent visit to Hong Kong and it's heavily polluted atmosphere brought home how important it is for us to take care of the environment.

My small part tonight involved me turning off the lights and most of the electrical appliances in my house, and sitting with a candle with nothing but a chessboard and a pencil and paper for company. I'd actually googled the words 'chess' and 'environmentalist' and I found an excellent blog post on American chess patron, Maurice Wertheim. Wertheim was a rich man who had an appreciation of the arts, chess and environmental issues. For instance, he bought some land on Long Island as a refuge for natural wildlife conservation. This land he eventually donated to the US Government, and it has now become the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge.

The only chess game I found played by Maurice Wertheim was on the above mentioned blog, but I guess American Chess Journals of the past may have some more. There was a strong memorial tournament held for him in 1951, won by Sammuel Reshevsky ahead of Najdorf and ex World Champion, Euwe. This would have been sweet for Reshevsky who could count Wertheim as a patron. I'll have a look at some of these games over the next few weeks.

Candlelit chess analysis for Earth Hour

Anyway, in the game Marchand-Wertheim that was cited on the blog, there was one position that interested me.

In this position which had come from a weird French, white played 9.d3. I wanted to know what happened after 9.c4 which I felt was a better try (actually, Stockfish seems to agree with my judgement there, which is pretty pleasing). I gues the capture en passant must be examined first.

- 9..dxc3 e.p. 10.Nxc3 Qd8 [Going forward looks bad: 10..Qb3 11.Rb1 Qc2 12.Qc4 threatening both the bishop on c5, and to play Bd3 next move winning white's queen] 11.Ne4 when black will be hard pushed to defend d6.

 - 9..d3 is not good as white has 10.Qxd3 [10.cxd5 dxe2 11.Bxe2 Nxd5 looks good for black] 10..Qxd3 11.Bxd3 and it seems to me that white is a pawn up for not enough here.

So it looks as if black has to retreat the queen.

- 9..Qd8 10.Ng5 [This was the move that I fastened on as the natural 10.d3 allows black to take advantage of the hole on e3 by 10..Nf5. I didn't really spend much time on this, so maybe white can do some stuff.] 10..Nf5 [I spent a while trying to make 10..d3 work, but I think it's a speculative pawn sac] 11.Ne4 Be7 which I thought was messy, but Stockfish thinks black is good.

Anyway, I spent a whole hour analysing positions on a chess board and really enjoyed it. It stretched me as I have spent much of the past couple of years working on a computer. I think I'll save energy, and make myself work a little harder by analysing with a chess board and without a computer like I used to do in the good old days. On the whole, I found Earth Hour inspiring in more ways than one this evening.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Cities Can Be A Pain In The Neck

I remember when I first went to New York, the start of my trip was dominated by looking up, and consequently getting a stiff neck. Coming from the UK where much is built at ground level, or a few stories up, the WOW factor of the skyscrapers of Manhattan wove its spell around me. The same thing has just happened as I travelled from Melbourne which is a huge city geographically, but built at a low level, to Hong Kong which is compact but with a massive amount of high rise buildings. In fact, there is little space left in Hong Kong to build, so expansion pretty much has to happen upwards or underground. The high rise blocks are situated right next to each other, and there really is little space. If you're a couple of blocks from the harbour, it's doubtful you'll see anything of it unless you're on the 30th floor of a building. The down side of this is a terrible pollution problem, and when we were there, we both suffered  little from the poor air quality. The up side is the amazing architecture which constantly amazes tourists like Caroline and myself. Here's some pictures of some of those buildings which took our breath away, that is when the smog had left us any!

Standing below The Centre in the heart of Hong Kong

Kowloon restaurant shaped like a ship. Skyscrapers int he background

The clock tower by the Star Ferry terminal

A smoggy view of Hong Kong Island from Kowloon

The amazing Central Government Building behind Admiralty Train Station
A helicopter takes off from the exclusive Peninsula Hotel

The Peak Tower

Day view from the Peak

Night view from the Peak (a little blurred, but it was on my phone!)

Hong Kong Island, without smog, but overcast!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Being a Tourist in Hong Kong

The past few days have been exhausting as Caroline and I have tried to pack as much as possible into our time in Hong Kong. We knew we would have to be selective in what we could see as we only had a few days so we chose to explore both the cultural and the popular. We'd already visited Wong Tai Sin Temple and Flagstaff House in the first couple of days, and we added to the cultural extent of our trip with visits to the History Museum and the Chi Lin Nunnery.

The Hong Kong Museum of History is excellent, and we were lucky as our visit coincided with an exhibition of historical photo's detailing the history of photography in Hong Kong. The main historical galleries details a 4 million year timeline of the region which is currently Hong Kong. While the natural history of the region is fascinating, I think the most impressive part of the exhibitions were those which pieced together the historical development of man in the region from prehistoric times up until the 1800's. As someone completely ignorant of anything about Hong Kong, this was a great learning experience.

Pavilion of Absolute Perfection, Nan Lian Gardens

Another learning experience was at the Chi Lin Nunnery. This Buddhist temple complex and connected Nan Lian Gardens are well structured and beautifully kept. Compared to the Taoist Wong Temple we visited earlier in the week, this seemed more serene and austere, though no less beautiful.

Bronze Wishing Lamp in the centre of the Buddhist Halls of Chi Lin Nunnery
As tourists we don't just go to the educational sites. We've seen our fair share of touristy things (though we haven't bought a fridge magnet...yet!) including the Peak Tower view, Victoria Harbour Tour (we jumped on a junk that toured the harbour), Victoria Harbour Light Show (the buildings put on a light show at 8 pm each night), and just walking around the central areas looking up at the tall buildings. Here's a few photo's to show some of these things.

Peak Tower, great views from the top!

View from the Peak Tower

Chinese Junk, Victoria Harbour Tour

Avenue of Stars

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Another Full Day in Hong Kong

More murky weather led to Caroline and I planning another day of museum visiting, and shopping. Apparently, the weather is better tomorrow, so we are hoping for some views. We started the day with a visit to a renowned diner for breakfast. I was reading a blog about Hong Kong and we decided to try out one of the recommendations, The Flying Pan, in Wan Chai. It was a bit worrying to start with, as we came out of Wan Chai train station straight into a very obvious red light district. But in the morning it was rather sleepy, so we wandered down to where the diner was supposed to be, and it wasn't there. Well, it was, but that wasn't particularly obvious. It is hidden in what looks like an office block, and to enter one has to walk into a corridor and take a lift to the third floor. However, it is worth the effort, as the food, decor, and staff are all excellent. It was also convenient for us, as we could walk to or first destination.

Flagstaff House

First stop for us today was Flagstaff House and Hong Kong Park. We thought it would be a quick stop, but the park was so beautiful that we stayed around for quite some time. Also, we found ourselves suffering a little from the poor air quality, and walking around the hilly surrounds was tiring us out somewhat more than we'd have expected. Flagstaff House is a beautiful old colonial building, but much of it was unfortunately closed. Even so, the parts we could walk around were indicative of the grandeur of the house. We had gone to see a Teaware Museum hoping to see much of the history of this great cultural activity. Except the main permanent exhibitions of historic Chinese Teaware were closed and all we saw was the entries from the 2013 Ceramic Teaware Competition. To be honest, these were pretty amazing, but it still left us feeling a little let down.

Beautiful greenery of Hong Kong Park

Flagstaff House is situated in Hong Kong Park, and this was certainly not a let down. These magnificent sculpted gardens have water features, a conservatory, aviaries and sports facilities. I could have stayed for hours around the artificial lake which is home to Coy and Terrapins.

Coy in the artificial Lake

...and terrapins

We then took a train to the mainland side to see a 2000 year old tomb. Caroline and I both have a fascination with history and neither of us have much knowledge of South Asian or Chinese history. So we are determined to learn something of the history of the region. In the 1950's, after a fire destroyed a squatter camp, a building project was undertaken in Kowloon. While areas were being cleared a tomb was found in an area called Cheung Sha Wan. The Lei Cheng Uk Han tomb is situated in the middle of a residential area on original Kowloon land. One thing I've learnt from the visit to the tomb, is that much of Kowloon near Victoria Harbour is reclaimed land and Cheung Sha Wan is about 1.5 km further from the sea than it was 100 years ago. The tomb serves to place Hong Kong historically within the Han dynasty which ruled China from 200 B.C. to about 200 A. D. It is important because it bridges Hong Kong's pre history with its Chinese history. There is a exhibition of artifacts found in the tomb, and a viewing area to see the tomb (the tomb has been sealed off for preservation reasons).

Across the road from the tomb, we went into a cafe and had a coffee. It was an interesting experience as virtually no English was spoken by anyone in the cafe (coffee was a known word, and coincidentally, that was what we had), but everyone from staff to other patrons showed their friendliness with body language, smiling, waving, nodding to us. Any worries we may have had of being in an alien environment were allayed almost straight away as we walked in the cafe.

We then came back to Hong Kong island and spent a bewildering time finding our way around City Plaza which is situated right next to our hotel. It is a huge maze like complex of ultra modern shopping and entertainment which we struggled to come to grips with after wandering around old time Hong Kong for the past 48 hours. It goes to show that Hong Kong blends both old and new and as such is an interesting city to explore.

Amazing architecture towering over beautiful gardens

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

First Impressions of Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a busy, bustling city of over 7 million people. It is utterly compact, with a huge amount of high rise buildings and space at an absolute premium. Yet for some reason it doesn't feel as busy as I expected. I expected to be fighting through crowds, bumped around and jostled, and generally to be annoying to people who are trying to get somewhere while I'm sightseeing. Yet I've felt none of this. It is also rather more multicultural than I expected, though to be honest, perhaps my expectations weren't based on particularly much research! For example, we arrived at about 5 pm in Hong Kong and I was dressed in shorts and thin shirt as if for the Melbourne autumn. What I arrived to was an early spring evening, overcast and rather chilly. In fact, the weather has been pretty bad, and the air quality is poor which makes photography pretty difficult.

Overcast view of Hong Kong skyline from Kowloon
While the weather hasn't been great, a city break is less dependent on good weather than say a tour of country regions, so it hasn't really stopped Caroline and I from doing stuff, though we have had to duck inside a few times to warm up a bit (we must be getting old....more on this later!). The night we arrived, we were fairly tired, so we just ventured to Central Hong Kong and slowly wondered around. We ate an Indian meal, and then crashed out. On our first full day we planned to take in a few sights. So after breakfast in Central Hong Kong, we took a train to Wong Tai Sin to see the Taoist temple of Sik Sik Yuen. This was a truly amazing experience, witnessing the amazing surrounds of the temple, and especially the Good Wish Garden.
Main Entrance to Sik Sik Yuen Temple complex

Prayer and devotion along with sightseeing

The magnificent Good Wish Gardens

A God guarding of the Buddhist Shine

Fabulous detail throughout the complex
Caroline and I were fairly blown away by the temple complex. The architecture and sculpture were magnificent and fitting, the gardens were beautiful, and there was a display of bonsai, and the whole complex served as a devotional centre, with people walking round, alternating taking photos with offering prayers.

We followed this with a short hop to the Jade Market which is an 'in-your-face' bazaar. It is totally the opposite of the tranquility of the Taoist temple gardens, with vendors hassling you and trying to stop you, and generally making you feel uncomfortable; 'just looking' isn't an option at the Jade market. We left the Jade Market and followed the main thoroughfare of Kowloon, Nathan Road, down to the Harbour. We passed an unbelievable amount of shops and cafe/restaurants of all sorts from high end jewellery stores to side street market vendors and everything in-between. I have to admit, that by the time I reached the ferry across the harbour, I was almost at the end of my endurance. I'm not sure how far I walked today, but it is certainly nowhere near as far as I've gone in the past so this confirms to me that age is taking its toll.

We took a slight detour to see the Avenue of Stars, though maybe we should have left this for a warmer day.

Hong Kong's most famous?

...or is this Hong Kong's most famous?
Transportation is pretty good in Hong Kong, and seems reasonably priced. We've been using the train service as there is a station almost right outside our hotel door. Buses seem absolutely crazy, as the drivers seem to delight in swinging the double decker's around at a fair pace. But most reasonable is the Star Ferry at $2.50 HKD for an expensive seat! The ferry links Hong Kong island to Kowloon and the mainland and on a clear day, would provide fantastic views of the harbour. Unfortunately, today was not a clear day.

All in all it's been a great start to our short break, mixing culture with shopping and experiencing city life in a culture that I don't really have much knowledge of. Tomorrow will be much the same, and Caroline and I are now going to try to plan our itinerary for tomorrow if we old timers can stay awake long enough!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Hong Kong

Just a quick post because it's late and early tomorrow morning I'm flying to Hong Kong with my lovely wife Caroline. This is going to be essentially a city break, but when you're a British Expat living in Australia, a visit to Hong Kong still seems like a trip of a lifetime. That's one of the beauties of moving across the World; it brings a whole set of other places nearer to you. I remember driving to Adelaide a couple of years back and thinking how amazing that was, and how I probably would never have done that on just a holiday from the UK to Australia.

Caroline and I love city breaks. Exploring the streets of a city, it's history and culture is something that really appeals to us. In the past we've been to New York, Amsterdam, Budapest, Salzburg and Kuala Lumpur. We've been to a lot of other places too, but these spring to mind. All cities have a vibe to them (or many vibes depending on which district you find yourself in), and a cultural heritage that is great to find out about. I'll be posting about our trip to Hong Kong here over the next week. Unfortunately, chess will not be getting much of a look in for the next week, even though the chess world is full of excitement at the moment.

Anyway, I have no photo's of Hong Kong yet, so here's one I nicked from Wikipedia.

View of Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong (wikipedia)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Year Off Chess

In December 2012 I was delisted from FIDE by my federation, the English Chess Federation (ECF), and could not play in FIDE rated events. I chose at that time to take a break from competitive chess, but after a while I missed the buzz of the tournament hall, and decided to bite the bullet, rejoin the ECF, get my FIDE rating reestablished and start to play again. I started playing tournament chess again at the start of February after a break of just over a year. Time to reflect on this!

First, I haven't been totally free of chess over the past year. I played a couple of 60 minute games, played some chess online, have been teaching chess, and generally thinking about it. But perhaps, that isn't the same as playing the full FIDE rated game which lasts around 4 hours. I have had breaks from the game before, but that was when I was much younger, once around my early 20's, when the break didn't really have any effect, and again in my early 30's. Each time I returned with a new lease of life, a new enthusiasm for the game and a rustiness that lasted a relatively short time. Now I'm in my late 40's, my calculation skills are probably not as strong as they had been when I was younger, and I am finding it takes longer to regain form. Funnily enough, my general strategic thinking is not worse than before, and perhaps is even better, but my pure calculation skills have certainly dropped off. This has shown itself in a number of ways. First, I am taking quite a long time to make decisions. Second, I'm struggling to focus for a full 4 hours and, especially towards the second half of games, I've noticed that I'm not processing variations clearly. Third, I'm missing things that I believe I would have seen before. These are usually simple things like checks and basic tactics, and this is causing me to blunder.

Ok, time to take a look at a few examples of my rusty play!

Here's a classic miscalculation. I had arrived at this position as black against Paul Kovacevic, planning to play 21..Ne8 driving white's rook back. I thought I could then play Rd8 and my knight will be able to get to d6 with or without trades of rooks. I thought I had equalised this position. Then I noticed that I might have something "better". I saw an interference tactic cutting off the 2 rooks, and spent an age looking at it, but saw nothing. 21..Bd5? was what I played which I soon regretted when my opponent simply won 2 pieces for the rook with 22.Rxf6. In my mind I had failed to see that the rook could take the knight. Interesting that I should be aware of a line closing feature, but not a line opening feature! Interestingly, 21..Nd5 is a better move as black will get rook and pawn for 2 pieces.

Actually, even worse was to come. In the above diagram I was playing black against Svetozar Stojic, and again I'd played well up to this point. As black I planned ..Re8 with a good game for black based on the pressure against white's weak e-pawn. However, I was so keen to play it I made a beginner's mistake, failing to examine my opponent's move. White played 21.Rd1 and I whipped out 21..Re8? without thinking. If I'd have listened to my own coaching mantra echoing the famous words of Cecil Purdy then I would have been alerted to white's threat: "Examine ALL checks and captures!" White played the check 22.Nxb6+ winning a pawn and he went on to win the game. Of course, I just needed to play 21..Kb7 and then ..Re8 will guarantee black a good game.

Then came last night. I had played energetically, though maybe not fully correctly, sacrificing a pawn for piece play while my opponent's king was stuck in the centre. The game swung backwards and forwards and then I started to spend a lot of time over moves which really shouldn't have taken much time at all. This wasting of time meant that I arrived at a rook ending with just an increment of 30 seconds left to consider my moves. Sometimes, extra time can be gathered by playing a few quick moves but this might come at the cost of accuracy and this can be costly in the endgame where accuracy is paramount.

This is not the only error in the game between myself and Simon Schmidt, nor perhaps even the worst, but it is indicative of my lack of form so I'd like to show it. As white, I had maybe 40 seconds to consider what to do. Simon had just retreated his rook to a8, and I tried to buy some time by playing quickly. I played 57.Kg7? which creates a path for my pawn, but ignores what my opponent plans. Simon played 57..Ra4! and the position is level, and we agreed a draw in a couple of moves which was a fair result overall. I wonder what would have happened if I'd had 5 minutes left? Would I have fallen into pure calculation mode and thought about pushing passed pawns? In the diagram above 57.h6 wins. After 57..Rg8+ 58.Kh5 Rb8 59.h7 white threatens to take on b5, and also just push the g-pawn up the board. To be honest, I'm not sure if I would have seen it and this is another issue with coming back to chess after a lay off. There is uncertainty in my mind about my ability to see things and this is the main reason my play is not at full strength. I'm double and triple checking moves, taking too much time over moves, dithering and my lack of confidence is then exacerbated by simple errors.

So how long will this go on until I regain my strength? Or will I ever be as strong as I was? Well, I am optimistic. One thing that has improved over the year I spent off chess is my ability to assess where I'm going wrong. Many adults without trainers/coaches find it difficult to identify their weaknesses and to attempt to correct these. I have seen a number of problems in my play, and I would like to try to remedy these. As a non player I was able to be less subjective about play as mostly I was looking at the games of others. Now as a player I need to be objective in the criticism of my play, and allocate the correct training to resolve the problems in my play. So over the next period, I need to...solve lots of tactical exercises, build up my opening strength, improve my endgame technique, analyse deeply lots of games and positions and....hold on, there's only so much time in life! Another year off would come in pretty handy now.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Autumn Update

Inspirational words on the pavement in Port Melbourne

It's been over a month since I posted last, and an explanation is, I think, required. Simply put, I've been working like a dog and have been too tired to write this blog. My 9-5 job (more like 8-8 at the moment) as a chess coach has been extended to some managerial duties and has seen me putting in long hours. As well as that I've started playing chess again, and have tried to put some work into that. All told, these factors have pushed this blog to the side for the past month. Well, I see some light at the end of the tunnel, so I'm hoping to be able to update this blog a bit more regularly (though I've said this before).

Firstly, I will explain to the chess playing readers that this post will have nothing to do with chess. I am planning to blog about my feelings and experiences of coming back to chess after a year off, but this probably won't be until Tuesday. No, this is a post about things non-chess that interest me. It won't be in any order. Rather, I'll just allow my murky mind to wander over things which have come up in the last month. A couple of weeks ago, after the excessive heat of late January and early February, Caroline and I headed down to Port Melbourne to see the Queen Mary 2. It really is a magnificent sight, even from the outside. Compared to other ships that dock in Melbourne, it is absolutely huge. I've never been on the ship, but I saw a great blog post which shows the interior pretty well.

Queen Mary 2 dwarfing Port Melbourne
Queen Mary 2

The QM2, originally from Southampton changed its registry to Hamilton, Bermuda to allow on-board weddings.
I must admit that my work involves perspiration rather than inspiration. For inspiration I look at life around me. My life in Melbourne is great, but that doesn't stop me from wanting to travel to new places. Next week, for example, I'll be off to Hong Kong for a week (more about that soon), and Caroline and I are already planning trips in the future. Meanwhile, I start work at 8 am Tuesday to Friday, and a bonus is travelling to work and seeing the sunrise balloon trips over the city.

Low flying balloon dominating the Kew skyline

I saw this one landing, probably in the grounds of Xavier College in Hawthorn
To be honest, it doesn't take much to brighten my day. I love reading, though I was saying only earlier today that I find it hard to read non fictional subjects, probably because I read so much technical, historical and biographical works on chess. But I am an avid fiction reader, and always have a novel with me. There are times during the week that I just have to drop into a cafe and spend half an hour getting lost in a novel while drinking a long black coffee.

It is easy to take for granted just how good life is for us in Melbourne. I arrived here 9 years and 1 day ago, and to some extent it still feels like a holiday. That doesn't mean I'm not settled, or that I want to return to the UK. No, this is my home, but the move, the emigration, was an amazing, inspirational boost to my life. Today Caroline and I spent the early part of the day with our great friends Nick and Zoe. Nick had recently been back to England sadly because of the death of his father. The huge distance from here to our relatives is the only down side of living in Melbourne and the advent of the internet social networks and communications has been a godsend to many expats far from their place of birth. Both Caroline and I, and Nick and Zoe have plans to visit the UK next year. Nick's recent trip was a necessary one that most expats dread, and I was happy to see him in good spirits today. In fact, he brought back some interesting mementos from his father, including an original membership book of the "Ancient Order of Froth Blowers". The AOFB was a charitable organsation from the 1920's and 1930's which I'd never heard of before. After reading about the AOFB, it seems that it was a decent sized thing in the late 1920's, and it even made it into a poem by John Betjeman:

I started a rag in Putney at our Frothblower's Branch down there;
We got in a damn'd old lorry and drove to Trafalgar Square;
And we each had a couple of toy balloons and made the hell of a din,
And I saw a bobby at Parson's Green who looked like running us in.

Somehow it seems fitting that something which displays such British qualities as charity, humour and drinking should appeal to the popular Poet Laureate. Anyway, thanks to Nick, here's the opening page of the booklet that members of the AOFB received.