All posts by John Foley

About John Foley

Director, London Chess Conference Secretary, Education Commission, European Chess Union Director, ChessPlus Ltd Promoting chess as a way to develop thinking skills

Chess and Technology

This year we have moved online in keeping with the theme of the Conference: Chess and Technology. We are inviting industry leaders, pioneers and startups alike. We are expecting 400+ attendees, mostly decision-makers, technologists and multipliers, and 25+ businesses to be present. In 30+ sessions of different formats, the conference will reflect on the fast developments since the start of the pandemic and offer glimpses of what we can expect in the near future. We also offer opportunities to exhibit products and to network.  For more information, visit ChessTech2020.

Explaining Chess

One of the great things about chess is that it is a crucible for so many aspects of computer technology. The development of chess engines has transformed chess over the last 25 years. Computers famously became much stronger players than humans. The latest artificial intelligence innovations from DeepMind’s AlphaZero combine neural networks with Monte-Carlo tree searches to produce new insights into chess theory (see Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan’s talk). The approach is now popular with the emergence fo the Leela Chess Zero project: an open-source chess engine based upon AlphaGo.

The well-known drawback to neural networks is that although they may produce excellent results, they are like a black box. You cannot interrogate a neural network in the same way that you could ask questions of an expert or indeed an expert system. If you look under the bonnet of a neural net you just see a bunch of numbers, no doubt finely tuned, but in themselves meaningless. Even if you use the leading conventional chess engine Stockfish you are stuck with its evaluations. It is not showing you, it is telling you. Step forwards Decodea’s Gideon Segev who articulated the issue and the solution.

Decodea is an Israeli company in the rapidly expanding field of Explainable AI. Their approach is take the output from an AI system, Stockfish in the case of chess, and then to provide an explanation based upon high level concepts such as deduction chains (“if this then that”) and counterfactuals (“if this hadn’t happened”). Gideon shows some examples from games in which surprising moves are shown to have an inevitable logic to them. These explanations convert the mysterious into the familiar. Where chess leads, other domains will follow.

Most women work below their level of competence

Tom Schuller author of The Paula Principle

London Chess Conference, Day 1, 30 November 2019

I had an unusual, and enjoyable, invitation last month, to speak on the Paula Principle – to a conference on Chess and Female Empowerment. The primary focus was on encouraging girls not just to start playing chess but to continue after the age of 11. 

Until that age, there are as many girls as boys playing, but apparently there is a very steep drop-off as they enter puberty. Why? Of course, in part, it’s because girls find other things to interest them. I assumed the main reason was that they dislike individual aggression, the hand-to-hand combat of chess. Well, we were told that girls are just as competitive. But they are interested in problem-solving as much as winning and in the social aspects of the game. So when it’s only about winning, and with little social interaction, they lose interest.

Be that as it may, there was convincing evidence from other speakers on the diverse positive benefits of playing chess. Some of these were fairly obvious: the mental discipline, concentration and logical thought. But I was impressed by convincing accounts of other improvements: in young people’s decision-making, in taking responsibility for their own actions, and several other life skills.

As I say, the focus was on young people, but I had the chance of talking with one participant who runs chess classes for adults as well as children, at the Acorns Chess Club. She impressed on me the value for every one of playing, and how chess improves people’s empathy and communication abilities, as well as the enjoyment of the game. But here’s a life-course gender difference: apparently men who have played chess as children quite often come back into the game in mid-life, but women rarely do. This means girls have few adult role models. It’s not clear why this should be – maybe just busyness – but it’s something that would be worth knowing more about. I wonder how far this is true of other sports and pastimes.

Before the conference, I had wondered how far the Paula Principle would be relevant. I assumed that the individual-combat nature of chess might exclude many of the potential lessons. But the discussions convinced me that it’s a game which for all its intense single-mindedness and competitive concentration also brings many other qualities – provided the context and culture are right.

This article is extracted from Tom Schuller’s blog.

The Paula Principle that most women work below their level of competence mirrors the Peter Principle in Organisational Development that people (mainly men in the 1960s) rise to their level of incompetence.

Game Changer – The Alpha Zero programme

Each of the sessions at the London Chess Conference 2019 contained a wealth of wisdom none more so than the presentation given by Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan on their book Game Changer published by New in Chess which has received glowing reviews. The book won the English Chess Federation Book of the Year award and so we were pleased to invite them to explain what the book is about and why AlphaZero has been such a “game changer”. AlphaZero is world-beating chess software developed by Google’s Artificial Intelligence specialists at DeepMind.

The commotion caused by AlphaZero in the chess world relies upon the coincidence of two extraordinary factors. Firstly, there is the revolutionary “self-learning” software. This comprises a suite of algorithms that evaluate game performance and provide automatic feedback to update the move decision parameters. With fast processing, it only took 9 hours to process 44 million games which was sufficient to reach the pinnacle of chess strength – and to crush Stockfish. Until then, Stockfish was the top chess engine in the world, incorporating expertise from generations of chess players. By contrast, AlphaZero did not include any prior knowledge of chess. This is the significance of the suffix “Zero” – there is zero human chess expertise. In fact, the technical programmers of AlphaZero are not chess players.

The founder of DeepMind, Demis Hassabis, invited his old friends Matthew and Natasha to look over the games that had been generated in a private experimental match between the “machine learning” AlphaZero and the “expert system” Stockfish. Former British champion Matthew Sadler doesn’t play chess professionally nowadays but nevertheless remains (at the time of the presentation) the 2nd ranked player in England. He retired from chess pre-Magnus for a career in software architecture but keeps abreast of developments and practises on chess engines. His co-author Natasha Regan is a titled chess player and also a player of Go and Shogi. AlphaZero had emerged from a previous implementation (AlphaGo) in the game of Go where the world’s top player Lee Sedol from South Korea was comprehensively defeated – drawing the world’s attention to the potential for deep learning – the multi-level approach to machine learning.

The second extraordinary factor is the nature of AlphaZero’s games – brilliant and dazzling – a giant step for mankind. We are familiar with chess engines exploring deep and wide to analyse variations. What we get extra with AlphaZero is strategic vision. All of a sudden, the middlegame tomes have to be rewritten. Themes which were previously disparaged are now centre stage. AlphaZero has unearthed a new range of themes as described in Game Changer. The byword is strategic flexibility – e.g. being able to switch plans depending upon the position.

Perhaps the most visually striking theme is advancing the rook pawns as far as it will go. We tell beginners to keep their rook pawns back lest the king’s position becomes compromised. AlphaZero shows that this traditional advice is too cautious and that there are attacking possibilities as well as defensive advantages e.g. allowing room for the king to escape. AlphaZero also drew attention to the advantages of opposite-coloured bishops. The fear of draws is outweighed by the offensive capabilities. AlphaZero is much less materialistic than conventional theory. Pawn and exchange sacrifices are commonly used to increase piece mobility and open up long term attacking chances even though the justification may not seem obvious for several moves. Conversely, AlphaZero seeks to restrict the mobility of the opponent’s pieces.

Game Changer is their second book together. Their previous book was called Chess for Life and contained fascinating analyses, augmented with statistical analysis, of how to play against particular people and positions. I asked Natasha whether AlphaZero made them reconsider their opinions. She freely admitted that AlphaZero has led to a complete re-evaluation and gave the example of the Carlsbad pawn structure which typically arises in queen’s pawn games. White is conventionally expected to launch a minority attack. However, AlphaZero was much more inventive and just as inclined to launch a kingside attack. Whether ordinary players are able to follow these new precepts is debatable. In the video below there is a cameo from Magnus Carlsen in which he admires AlphaZero but recognises that he is not a computer.

Carlsbad Structure

We have Matthew and Natasha to thank for having brought to the world’s attention the breakthrough represented by AlphaZero. Clearly chess authors have a new lease of life as they update the theory of the middlegame. You can find more Game Changer videos from Matthew and Natasha on their YouTube channel.

Does Chess Empower Girls?

The opening speaker at the London Chess Conference 2019 was April Cronin. April is a recently retired primary school headteacher and former Irish woman’s chess champion. She has been running chess in schools for many years where she has served as a role model for girls.  Nowadays she is devoting herself to extolling the benefits of chess in primary schools (age 7-11).  She is therefore uniquely qualified to make observations on what children gain from chess and to make informed observations on gender differences.

April Cronin opening plenary at the London Chess Conference

April’s main argument is that chess empowers all children and encouraging girls to play chess allows them to participate in this most enriching of activities. However, there are certain aspects of the way that girls engage with chess that we should accommodate if we are to give them the best experiences.

She acknowledges that there is a preponderance of boys in the school chess team, at the top boards and as participants in the school chess club. She notes that the after-school club comprises 75% boys. She estimates that at the adult level around 5% are women. 

April says that chess was very empowering in her own life and strongly believes it to be empowering of the children she teaches. Extra-curricular activities have protective effects in terms of social development and staying in school. She says that all children should be given the chance to learn chess at school which can turn out to be “incredibly empowering. Chess is empowering in ways we do not fully understand. 

She notes that kids love chess. The common experience of schools is that chess starts small-scale, perhaps focusing on the less sporty children, but then the chess programmes expand rapidly. Parents are usually delighted because chess is seen as developing the brain e.g. through improved concentration. There is also widespread social approval.

There is a reason chess so effective: simulated decision making. A child needs to make many decisions during each game. They have to evaluate options. No chance is involved – the child is responsible for the result of the game. Whether they win or lose, children enjoy this freedom of choice 

You can hear April Cronin present her analysis in the video below.

Judit Polgar promotes chess for girls and women in the media

Judit Polgár made a splash at the London Chess Conference when her perspectives on Chess and Female Empowerment caught the attention of the media. Until her retirement from competition in 2014, she was one of the top players in the world, competing in open tournaments, never in women-only events.

First up was the Guardian which on the opening day of the Conference published an opinion piece which called for a review of the segregation between male and female chess players. Judit regards such an arrangement as patronising although she recognises that many women place value on women’s titles.

At the final round table, Judit fielded a wide range of questions from the audience. In the extract below (2:10) she explains why boys and girls diverge due to small differences in how they are treated when they are young and the different level of expectations.

Extract from the final round table
Judit Polgár and Emma Barnett

The full video of the round table is available here.

After the Conference, Judit was interviewed on BBC Radio 5 by Emma Barnett who is one of the most popular broadcasters in the UK. They had an amiable and informative discussion for 20 minutes in which Judit talks about her life as a chess player.

The recording is available on BBC Sounds (1:40) for 28 days. Time to put on the headphones.

Judit was a top player and now is a top ambassador for chess. Her deep love of the game shines through her interviews in which she is invariably confident and charming. Her passion is to bring chess to children and women. If anybody can succeed it is Judit.

From Vera to Judit

The Conference starts today. It is time for some reflection on the history of women’s chess.

The modern era of women’s started with Vera Menchik who won the first recognised Women’s World Championship in 1927. The Vera Menchik Club was the group of male players that Vera beat – men that had never lost to a woman.

She lived a life which traced the sweep of European history. It is perhaps surprising that a full-length biography has never been published.

Judit Polgar was a grandmaster at the age of 15 was the highest-rated woman player for 26 years until 2015, becoming 8th ranked in the world. She is joining the conference on Sunday afternoon after receiving an award at a gala dinner tonight in Monaco as European Chess Legend (female).

A light-hearted video from gives a glimpse of the great moves they played.

A Queen’s Journey

by Jason Kouchak

Chess, like love, like music, has the power to make men (and women) happy.
—Siegbert Tarrasch, The Game of Chess (1931) 

Music is my first love and I have always had an affinity for chess, a sense of harmony and the similarities between music, ballet and chess. It is a combination to inspire and inform children of the importance of coordinating together and moving forward in the future. 

In 2015 I established the concept of the Queen’s Journey to encourage more women and girls to play chess. Through music, ballet and chess the Queen’s Journey educates and entertains in equal measures. In addition to being a fun and social activity, chess improves the players’ generic life skills by developing their logical thinking, situational awareness and planning ahead, as well as their communication skills. Music, ballet and chess are gender-neutral activities that connect people through time and space. They are a profound medium of communication that has no barriers of language, age, gender, ethnicity, religion, physical ability or social status. 

Since its establishment, the Queen’s Journey has toured in the United Kingdom and internationally including the United States and Hungary in various events promoting equality and encouraging women and girls to play chess as a means of building life skills that help them to be strong, look forward and strive towards their own goals. Thanks to its pioneering concept i.e. educating and entertaining through music and ballet the Queen’s Journey can adopt different themes and be always relevant. 

So far, the performances have included a ballet-chess music production at the British Museum in 2015 as well as a brief history of the evolution of the queen and an explanation of how chess can inspire.

I believe that ballet is a way to encourage girls to make their moves on the chessboard and would like to see more girls to be involved in chess. In 2016 the theme of the Queen’s Journey was “power and grace” to mark the Queen’s 64 years in reign. This included the printing of a 3D chess queen design project to inform and inspire more girls to see chess from different and new exciting perspectives.

To illustrate the power of women and girls supporting one another the theme in 2017 was “chess connects”. This included a special artistic moment at Judit Polgar’s Global Chess festival in a format of a human display in which eight chess queens danced on a giant chess board following their own paths and without obstructing each other (see video).Music

In 2018, the Queen’s Journey toured under the theme “empowerment” to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of women’s rights and empowerment in the United Kingdom. The piano performances that year included “1000 Faces of Chess” and “Music Mosaic” at Judit Polgar’s Global Chess festival’s opening ceremony and directing a chess-themed ballet performance at Holland Park, London. 

The Queen’s Journey concept of empowerment has been especially popular in Nordic countries. This year at Norway Chess in Stavanger and at the ‘Heart of Finland’ chess ceremonies, I performed the world premier of the “Queen of the Knight” based on Philidor’s “Princess of Norway”.

In 2020 there will be a ballet and chess performance of ‘Alice through the Looking Glass’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum celebrating the ‘perfect vision’ of Alice as she looks and moves forward finally becoming a Queen.

Each game of chess is like a new melody which beautifully resolves at the end of a journey. I hope by using a combination of chess, music and ballet we can inspire and inform children, specifically Chess Queens, the importance of coordinating together in the future

As a proud Goodwill Ambassador of Artistic Values of Chess awarded by Judit Polgar, I hope to continue the themes of female empowerment. The visual aesthetic, melody and movement remind us that the game is always greater than the player. 

Jason Kouchak is a classical pianist and composer based in London and Paris. He has performed worldwide in the United States, Europe and Japan. Find out more at ChessBallet.

Girls in Chess

Let’s hear it from the girls. The US Chess Federation has shared a short video by Jenny Schweitzer, a New York-based director. In this inspiring film, young female chess players explain the emotional and intellectual impact of chess in their lives and the challenges they’ve faced in the game.

Schweitzer wrote, “Even at their young ages, the female chess players in my video are keenly aware of being stereotyped. And their ability to articulate their frustration is startling. When I asked them what a chess player most needs, they didn’t talk about strategic thinking or rules of the game; they mentioned determination and the ability to face a challenge without being intimidated.”

Girls in Chess was filmed at the 2018 KCF All-Girls Nationals in Chicago, Illinois. US Chess is building upon the video’s momentum to attract more girls to the game via its US Chess Women initiative, which includes hosting girls’ clubs at mixed-gender tournaments, celebrating female accomplishment in the game in our print and digital publications, and setting up networks for girls and women.

US Chess is well represented at the Conference including its Chief Executive, Carol Meyer, the chair of the Women’s Committee, Maureen Grimaud, Kimberly Doo, Karsten McVay (Girls to Grandmasters) and Sophia Rohde (Little House of Chess).