Interviews with freestylers (by Vasik Rajlich)

(dal sito Rybkachess -  27 aprile 2007 )


        The Pal/CSS freestyle tournaments are a sort of unofficial world championship of centaur chess play, although correspondence chess players who pour dozens of hours of sweat into their masterpieces may object to this description. One thing is clear - the presence of a time control in the freestyle tournaments shifts the emphasis from art to sport.

The latest installment of this tournament, the 5th Pal/CSS Freestyle, took place March 23-25 and was won by Danish centaur-play specialist Dagh Nielsen. We had a chance to catch up also with a few of the participants.

Dagh Nielsen, alias Flying Saucers (Denmark); Jiri Dufek, alias Xakru; Etaoin Shrdlu (Czech Republic); Arno Nickel, alias Ciron (Germany); Eros Riccio, alias Rodo (Italy); Nelson Hernandez, alias Intagrand, Cato the Younger (USA + England); Jochen Rindfleisch, alias Kaputzze (Germany); Nick Carlin, alias Flying_fatman (USA); Nolan Denson, alias Elshaddai (USA).

 (Nda: Quello che segue è il testo dell’intervista, della quale, esclusivamente per motivi di spazio, ho riportato, oltre alle domande di Vasik Rajlich, solo le risposte di Eros Riccio)  

Vasik Rajlich: Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and your involvement in chess?

Eros Riccio:  I started playing chess over the board at the age of 14 years, thanks to a friend who told me there was a chessclub in my city (Lucca) and in a few years I got a rating of 2100, which allowed me to take my first norm of National Master, but even now, after so many years, (I am 29 now) I am still trying to achieve my final norm to get the full "National Master Title". My current fide rating is 2175. I got my first computer with internet connection in 2000, and immediately started playing correspondence chess, first by normal (snail) mail, then by email, and now I prefer to only play on webserver. I have had very good results in these 6 years, in corr chess, in fact I am currently rated over 2500 ICCF and just achieved my Senior International Master title. About computer chess, I first discovered, in 2000, ICC, I used to play some games with computer there as centaur, and at the end of 2001 I got the fritz7 program that made me discover the great Playchess Server, which I preferred by far to ICC, and so I switched to engine room there, mostly 

 Vasik Rajlich: The first thing that jumps out when browsing through the games are the incredibly deep theoretical battles in the Najdorf. Many games follow the same first 20 moves. Are there objective reasons for this? Or is this mostly a matter of fashion?

Eros Riccio: well, Sicilian Najdorf is the most frequently played opening in chess, especially at high level, so I was not surprised to see so many of them in this freestyle. The theoretical battle also was great to see, everyone was so well prepared that I think some top level gm might steal some of the variation that were played there :-) I think the best Novelty might be Zacks' move in Rodo - Zacks game: 18.Kb1 Rxa2! (18.Kb1 seems to be a novelty for white too, even thought it has been played many times in playchess engine room, but after that move, I found no engine games that continued with 18...Rxa2!, that's why I consider the real novelty 18...Rxa2 and not 18.Kb1) 

 Vasik Rajlich: The Najdorf itself is disproportionately popular in these events, for both colors. What is it about this opening? And why do the relatively less well-prepared teams enter these battles?

 Eros Riccio: besides the things I said above, I may add that playing a main line like Najdorf guarantees first of all a sound opening, it's well known that main lines are very hard to refute, and it's also well known that when black plays Sicilian, Najdorf especially, he has good winning chances and the games are not boring at all. For these reasons, probably, even some players that usually wouldn't play Najdorf as their main variation, might have tried it, relying also on the advantage of being able to check databases

Vasik Rajlich: Can you tell us a bit more about your method of opening preparation? What fraction of your prepared moves are going to stand the test of time? How much preparation time goes into this?

 Eros Riccio: I am a firm believer of main lines. I always play them, unless I am trying to surprise my opponent. I repeat what I said before, there must be a reason why most of the top level players play them, they are sound and are formed by just the best moves that can be played! Every move of a main line follows the best principles of developing pieces, every move has a good plan to achieve. This may be true with sub lines also, but for example, a Nimzowitsch defense (1.e4 Nc6) will hardly allow black, with correct play by both colors, to find a good attack or just get a good position. This because 1...Nc6 simply doesn't follow at best the spirit of pieces development. Said this, I created about 4 years ago, my personal all manual opening book, I must confess that at first I inserted also some sub-openings like queen's gambit accepted, or modern Benoni as black after 1.d4, or Alekhine's defense after 1.e4, but just because I played those as human too and had fun in watching my engines play them too. But after some time I decided to abandon the personal fun, and gave up all the sublines and focused on Sicilian against 1.e4, and the Indians and semi Slav against 1.d4. As I said, I am working every day for some years on my book, what I do now that my main lines are well defined, is just watch my lost games (or games where I was out of book with a bad position), and find better moves to add (or realize which were the bad moves in book and mark them in red).

Vasik Rajlich: What are the most important qualities of a top centaur player?

 Eros Riccio: He needs, like in all things, experience in the field. A Correspondence player, which is used to analyze with engines, has probably a big advantage. I completely agree with Ciron when he says Freestyle is like blitz Corr Chess. Of course, differently from corr games, the centaur player needs "cold blood", in order to avoid excitement which may lead to mouse slips with little time left on the clock. I was very impressed by the centaur operator of Cato the Younger, in his game vs. Flying Saucers. He demonstrated to have the "coldbloodness" I was talking about, I saw him play some of his moves, without mistakes, in a very difficult position, with only a few seconds left on the clock.

Vasik Rajlich: It's pretty evident now that a top centaur combination is stronger than an unassisted engine. How would you quantify this difference? By what margin could you win a match against the newest Rybka running on your strongest machine and using Noomen's latest RybkaII.ctg opening book?

 Eros Riccio: the advantage(s) of the combination Human(s) + engine(s) is obvious: In general, an engine alone is "stupid". It plays random openings, wastes precious time on forced moves, stubbornly wants to play for the win, sometimes forcing the position and losing, when a draw would have been enough to qualify... so, relying on an automatic engine may be quite risky... a human instead, may control all those things which an engine can't. The only advantage of automatic engine I can see, is with little time left in difficult positions, as there is no risk of mouse slips and losing on time.

Vasik Rajlich: It's also pretty evident that many strong over-the-board players have trouble adapting to this format and play under the level of a standalone Rybka. What is the reason for this? Could one week of good training, supervised by a centaur-play specialist, overcome most of the problems? Or are there deeper issues, for example with the opening repertoires, etc?

Eros Riccio: Indeed, I don't understand why still so many players let their engine run alone, in important games, instead of playing themselves as centaur... I have no idea, maybe they just want to enjoy the game as kibitzers... we should ask them about this :-)

 Vasik Rajlich: How well do you think Anand or Kramnik or Topalov would fare in the freestyle final without any engine assistance? How about the late-90s version of Garry Kasparov?

Eros Riccio: I think the freestyle tournament is by far the highest-level tournament ever! I think for sure the top GMs and even Kasparov in the late 90s wouldn't have been able to qualify for the finals.

 Vasik Rajlich: Two players in the final, including GM Nickel, drew all of their games. Browsing these games doesn't reveal any especially drawish behavior. Is there some subtle reason for this? Or should it be viewed as a normal result?

Eros Riccio: The big quantity of draws, I think, are due to rybka. Rybka is just extremely good at defending even in very difficult positions.

Vasik Rajlich: On the other extreme, the winner of the tournament, Dagh Nielsen, won 3 games with black, all in ultra-sharp Najdorfs. Can this trend continue?

Eros Riccio: Flying Saucers was really impressive. What made the difference, in my opinion, was his excellent book preparation (mostly) and his experience as centaur.

 Vasik Rajlich: It gets harder and harder to win games in these tournaments. The draw rate continues to sit at around 60 to 70%. The fight to qualify to the final for the top teams is mostly a fight against draws. Will changes to the format eventually be needed to deal with this issue?

Eros Riccio: I don't think so. Now with Rybka around, most players will continue to only draw, the strongest players will win one or two games more, and they will qualify. The standings will be very short, but I like it that way too. What I mean is the best players will still win, with more difficulties, but they still will. Draws may be seen as boring, but I think it's an unavoidable thing with general level of play improvement.

Vasik Rajlich: Are there any changes to the tournaments that you'd like to see? Feel free to mention anything - format, rules, tournament software, participant composition, etc.

Eros Riccio: The latest freestyle was excellently organized in my opinion, the only important thing the server should fix is, when one reconnects let's say after 15 minutes, the game should be resumed with the correct time on the clock.

Vasik Rajlich: Thank you for your time. Wish you good luck in the next Freestyle event!

Pubblicato il 20/6/2007 alle 11.4 nella rubrica Diario.

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