How I went from not knowing who painted the Mona Lisa to being a top 10% Learned League player in One Year

I knew it was one of those Ninja Turtles, but how was I to know if it was Leonardo, Michelangelo or Raphael?

I have always hated trivia. I don’t know things. Unlike chess, no amount of talent or creative brain power is going to help me figure out who was the king of England in 1200. So when friends of mine tried to convince me to join an elite trivia league called “LearnedLeague”, I was skeptical.

“It’s fun” they said. “There are levels for all different types of players, and even if you’re a total Trivia beginner, you’ll get matched with people your own level.”

The way that LearnedLeague works is that you are asked six trivia questions every day for five weeks. You are matched up against one opponent from your group. You both answer the questions, and also try to predict which questions will be most difficult for your opponent. 

Fun fact: In my second season, I infamously answered tyrannosaurus Rex to Question 5 at the last second, after having the correct answer down the entire day. 

There are 5 levels, ranging from groups A-E. The top 10% or so of players are in Group A. The next 10% are in Group B, and 20% each are at levels C-E. I figured – it’s just six questions for five weeks; I enjoy competition even if it’s something I’m not great at, so it would be a fun little thing to do to pass the time.

My first season began in May 2021… and as I expected, I got my butt whooped. I got 44/150 answers correct in my rookie league, playing with all the other rookies, and got placed in the E group. Not only was I in the bottom group, but from looking around at other players, it was clear that I was one of the weaker ones, and approximately in the bottom 10% of all players leaguewide.

Where does one even begin if they want to succeed at something in which the entire breadth of human knowledge is the subject of study?

Because the league had such a cool competitive setup, it was kind of annoying to me that I’d never have any chance to promote to Group D. I just didn’t know enough things. Where is the Caspian Sea? What is the Caspian Sea? What’s an Opera? I think I’ve heard of Nutcracker! Like man, I just didn’t know a lot of things, and looking back, I feel like even 44/150 was a bit of an overperformance. But fortunately, they ask some pop culture stuff that if you just watch movies sometimes then maybe you can get them right. I was also lucky to get a question about a book they forced me to read in high school (Age of Innocence).

Aside from knowing some things about sports & games, I was pretty bad in all categories. Where does one even begin if they want to succeed at something in which the entire breadth of human knowledge is the subject of study?

My System

I decided I was not going to try to be competitive about it, but just for fun, I’d learn a few things. Because trivia is so varied, and there are so many things to learn about, I didn’t want to pick and choose what to learn at first, as I feared that would lead to me becoming too focused on just one specific area, and leave the rest lacking. So my strategy was:

  • Go to JeopardyArchive, a cool site which has the questions and answers of every Jeopardy game ever played
  • Look at some of the recent Final Jeopardy questions
  • If I didn’t know the answer, study whatever the answer is

This way, I would get a pretty varied mix of topics, and keep learning something that was deemed important by the most famous quiz show in the world.

I amazingly got the first 15 Final Jeopardy questions wrong (I was really not good!), but it was fun learning about Leonardo da Vinci, Aaron Copland and whatever other random subjects came up at first.

I would make flashcards out of everything and store them in my Flashcards Deluxe app on my phone. At that stage, my philosophy was: it can’t hurt to learn a few things. Why not be a bit more cultured and worldly?

Then, I began to Google and make flashcards out of things like “ten most famous artists ever”, and “ten most famous paintings ever.”

Every time you learn a new fact, you are better at this game!

Sometimes, a famous book would be one of the answers, like Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. I would do a deep dive into the book, starting at Wikipedia, then going to the book’s CourseHero page. I would watch videos about the book, find major quotes from the book, and get detailed summaries of all the key characters. By the time I finished these processes, I usually felt like I had a pretty good feel for everything that happened in the story. I’m sure that actually reading it could be an option, but I feel like I pick up most of the culture, messages, and vibe of the books by doing it this way. While I do enjoy reading for pleasure, I enjoy maybe dozens of other things more, so I don’t really want to spend my time focusing on one book for hours.

At that point, it started to become obvious to me that I wanted to spend more time on this. It felt like a great hobby for the following reasons:

  1. It’s a fun competitive environment that has been created by someone who has been very diligent in making the competition as engaging as possible.
  2. It is extremely rewarding to actually know things. After knowing very little for 43 years (aside from a few areas I specialized in such as chess, poker, CrossFit, etc), it’s cool to suddenly be able to have conversations about history, art, literature and opera.
  3. It is very clear when you are improving. Every time you learn a new fact, you are better at this game. If you do the hard work, your performance in competitions goes up very clearly.
  4. The accomplishment of learning new things, and having the knowledge pay off, provided a huge dopamine hit.

My Stats

Let’s take a look at how my performance changed season by season. Keep in mind that each season you have to answer 150 total questions:

Season 1: (May 2021 – Rookie Group) 44/150 29%. In your first season they put you in a “Rookie Rundle”, which places you with other players who are competing for the first time. After that you get moved to a group between B-E, depending on your placing. My rookie performance of 44 correct answers put me in the bottom 5-10% of all players in Learned League, and off to Group E I went.

Season 2: (August 2021 – Group E) 60/150 40%: This was my first season in Group E. I finished somewhere in the middle of the pack, but my 40% performance was a major increase on my rookie season. On the plus side, 40% in Group E is typically well above average, so it was a good omen of things to come. While the improvement was great, I was still in the bottom 25% of players in the league.

Season 3: (November 2021- Group E) 82/150: 55%: This was my breakout season. Getting over 50% correct answers in Group E is a massive score, and I easily qualified for Group D the next season. My score would have even put me in the upper echelon of players in Group D, so with two months to prepare, I expected to be pretty competitive there too. Also this result put me in approximately the top 35% of all players in the league, which is a huge turnaround from bottom 25%.

Season 4: (February 2022 – Group D) 93/150: 62%: My percentage here was enough to handily win my Group D. I clinched first place with 1-2 matches left in the season. My performance also would have been one of the top performances in Group C. My performance this season put me in the top 20% in the league.

Season 5: (May 2022 – Group C) 103/150: 69%: I had by far the most correct answers in my Group C, and clinched first place with one match to go. This was my most recent season, and like the past seasons, my performance would also have been strong one level up (My total correct answers would have tied for second place in the Group B division). Another cool thing is that the 6 day Jeopardy champion at the time of this writing, is in the same Group B that I’m moving into (she has since lost). With this result, my performance was just about top 10% in the league.

Since there are over 30,000 players playing in the league, I figured that people would be interested in a step by step guide to how to get a lot better in just one year. I have yet to find any other player on Learned League with such a stark progression as mine (basically going from one of the worst players in the league to top 10% in a year), and the very large majority seem to stay at the same level throughout time. Here is my stat page: https://learnedleague.com/profiles.php?56100

How did I improve so fast? Slowly but surely I turned into a trivia machine. I started out being very bad at Jeopardy. I would try and solve an entire board, untimed, and get about 25-28 questions correct out of 60. After a few months I got that number up to 40+. Then in February 2022 I started watching the games live and tracking something called the CORYAT score. That number started around 23,000, but it’s now June 2022 and it’s around 27,000, but it’s slowly creeping more and more towards 30,000+ (I got 30k+ in 4 of the last 5 games since writing this). It’s not a mind blowing number, I believe that lots of players with Jeopardy aspirations get 30,000+, but it’s high enough that if I was on the show, I could easily win a few games. It also helps that my Final Jeopardy and Double Jeopardy correct rates are well above the show averages.

There is a bit of a bump in May because I scored an old college tournament and did very well in it, averaging about 30,000. I suspect the questions are slightly easier.

I have studied every question on every Jeopardy board since the beginning of 2020, and every Final Jeopardy answer since 2012. I literally mean that I know the answer to every single question in the last 3 years, not that I have just casually glanced at them.

Some people have a strategy to focus only on the most commonly asked topics on Jeopardy. I feel like that’s a good idea if you are rushed for time and cramming for something, but I have all the time in the world, and because my Flashcard system makes it possible to retain information easily, I want to know everything. If its on any kind of quiz competition and I get it wrong, into the Flashcards it goes. This also prevents there from being too much of a ceiling in my potential. At some point, you’re going to be facing people who also know all of the basic and most common topics on Jeopardy, so to only focus on that stuff is a good short term solution, but long term it’s less ideal.

I have also memorized every single LearnedLeague question since Season 50 (that’s about 10 years of seasons, and about 6000+ total questions). The league tends to repeat questions every now and then, so it is really helpful and I include every question, correct or wrong, in my flashcards. Although I have to shamefully admit that I got a question wrong about “Ontology” in this most reason season, despite having already made a flash card about what Ontology from a previous Learned League season. To be honest I still don’t really know what it is. It’s something about the philosophy of the nature of being, whatever that means. But it’s okay, I have come to grips with the idea that occasionally I’m just going to forget things, however I try to put myself in the best position not to…..

My FlashCard Factory

How does my flashcard system work? I have manually created about 38,000 flashcards in the last year. I use spaced repetition, which basically means that when I get a flashcard correct, I will see it less frequently, and when I get one wrong, or if it’s a newer card, I will see it more frequently.

I use a very aggressive formula for the spaced repetition. I think that it’s very important not to be a perfectionist and to accept that I am going to forget lots of things. Perfectionism will kill you when you need to gain such a wide breadth of knowledge. The main thing is to keep adding new information and remembering as much of it as possible. It’s much better to know 85% of 38,000 flashcards than to know 100% of 2000 flash cards. Some things I get wrong over and over and I’m fine with it, it’s just one thing. Instead of spending too much time trying to fix that one issue, I’d rather be absorbing lots of new information.

If it takes me two years to learn a fact, that’s totally fine, as in the meantime I’m filling my brain with lots of other facts as well.

When I add a card for the first time, and I am first tested on it and I get it correct, I either mark it as correct (in which case the next time I see it will be in 8 days), or I mark it as super correct (in which the next time I see it will be 20 days).

Perfectionism will kill you when you need to gain such a wide breadth of knowledge. It’s much better to know 85% of 38,000 flashcards than to know 100% of 2000 flash cards.

I start each day by reviewing all the cards that are “due”, which means that the countdown to when they are supposed to be studied has been completed. I then count them as either “wrong”, “correct” or “super correct”. Correct means the multiplier of its current interval will triple. So if I haven’t seen it in 10 days, and I mark it as correct, I’ll see it again in 30 days. If I mark it as Super Correct, it will increase the interval by 6.7 times. I have a 5 second timer on each card, and if I easily get the card before the timer goes up, I mark it as super correct. The maximum interval is set to 730 days, and anytime I get an answer wrong, it cuts the interval in half, and it quizzes me on the question again immediately the very next day, forcing me to repair the connection in my brain.

Since I began this process about one year ago, I have been making just over 100 flash cards per day. I also strongly prefer entering cards myself, because I want to check for quality control, and because I find that you learn a lot through the flash card creation process.

When I add a card, if I don’t understand the reason for why something is correct, I do my own research and write all the reasoning down on the answer side. I’ll never just write an answer with no explanation, unless no explanation is required for full understanding.

I Never Play Anything “Just for Fun”

I tend not to watch or do any trivia related activity for fun. What I mean by that is whenever I get something wrong, I will make a flashcard out of it. Playing and studying without working to correct my mistakes would help me about 20% as much as focusing on what I got wrong.

For me, this is an important part of studying for any endeavor, whether it’s chess, poker, trivia or even something physical like CrossFit. In chess it can be tempting to play blitz game after blitz game without learning from your mistakes. It’s okay to have fun sometimes, but I know that I have massive amounts to improve, and if I don’t do this process, I won’t get there.

For instance, when I watch the Chase each week, I make flashcards out of every single question I don’t know. It’s a bit more time consuming because there is no website where I can just copy and paste the questions, but the idea of getting something wrong and not putting myself in the best position to get it right next time is too painful for me. It feels like nearly a waste of time to watch the show without going through this process.

Beyond LearnedLeague

I have recently joined two other trivia leagues:

BPTrivia and SchoolofTrivia

What I like about playing in all 3 of these leagues is that they all have different scoring systems and styles. Also you will learn things that will help you in all of the other leagues, and in Jeopardy. So you are not only competing but also training!

SchoolofTrivia is particularly fun because I am constantly going head to head against well known Jeopardy contestants (and sometimes holding my own!). I was just in a group with 4-5 tournament of champions qualifiers for the current 2021-2022 Jeopardy season. This league has four divisions from Senior to Freshman, along with an elite division of the top 10 players. I was shocked at how competitive I was here, as I made it past the Freshman and Sophomore divisions in my first two seasons. I was particularly proud to win clear first place in the Freshman in my first season, going head to head with a 7 day Jeopardy winner and only passing her on the final few days. (Although she kicked my butt this last season!). This league is run by a former Jeopardy Tournament of Champions winner (and a poker player!) Alex Jacob.

BPTrivia has the hardest questions of the three, and has the strongest opposition. They also have a lot of other mini quizzes throughout the week. For the first 6-8 months of my Trivia life I sort of shied away from taking it seriously, but I’m finally at the point where I feel I can compete reasonably here too, and most importantly, I can learn more things.

This is an Inu

I have also started getting into CrossWord puzzles. I noticed that a lot of top trivia players are good at them, and I felt it might help all to make sure everything is connected and improve my ability at wordplay related clues (didn’t pay off in yesterday’s Jeopardy game in which I went 0/5 in a wordplay category). I started doing them back in January 2022 and have gotten a ton better and have started to become slightly addicted to them. Have only recently gotten to the point where I can complete the Thursday, Friday and Sunday puzzles without any help.

I am also on a 128 day streak on DuoLingo. At the moment, I’m studying Spanish, French, German, Japanese and Italian all at once. I don’t expect to get fluent, but it’s a fun little game to play, and I feel like it’s also good for the brain. Also knowing that “Inu” means “Dog” in Japanese got me an $800 question in a recent Jeopardy game.

One major takeaway from this, and anything you may want to put your mind to, is the extreme benefit you get when you really enjoy the process. Right now I enjoy almost nothing as much as cramming new information into my head and testing myself on it. Whenever I have down time, it’s a chance for me to learn one more thing, to look at one more jeopardy board, and to make Flashcards for every answer I don’t get right.

The next level up is always daunting. However at every step of the way, the next level up has seemed so far away, and then I’d reach it in a few months.

I’m curious to see where I will plateau, and whether it will come due to lack of the sustained effort that I’ve been putting in, or because my method is no longer sufficient to substantially improve. The fewer questions that I get wrong each season, the less likely it is that any studying will target those few topics.

The next level up is always daunting. I can barely imagine getting to 110 correct questions in the 150 question LearnedLeague season, yet alone 120, which is what I’d probably need to be a serious competitor in Group A. However at every step of the way, the next level up has seemed so far away, and then I’d reach it in a few months. 

To conclude, I’m pretty proud of what I’ve accomplished in a year. I know I’m competing against people who may have over a decade of trivia experience. Many of them have done Quiz Bowl, many have been on and studied for Jeopardy. It’s nice to start a new thing, decide to take it really seriously and then see proof that the work you do, and the methods you use are good ones. I honestly didn’t expect in my wildest dreams that I would improve this much in just a year.

Oh, and not to leave you hanging – it was painted by Leonardo Da Vinci in the early 1500s, and has been on display in Louvre since 1767, save for four years in Napoleon’s bedroom, a couple brief exhibitions in NYC, Tokyo and Moscow, and a scandalous theft in 1911.

I’m Poly

Everyone close to me has known that I’m polyamorous for at least a few years, and plenty of people who aren’t close to me know as well. But I’ve been increasingly feeling that it’s important to make this clear to the entire world and to explain more about what polyamory means.

Polyamory can mean lots of different things to different people. But the main idea is that you aren’t restricted to one romantic relationship at one time. That idea never seemed groundbreaking to me. Like many social norms, monogamy is simply self-reinforcing: it’s common and normalized, so often people do it without deliberately choosing it.

The main reason I feel it’s important to be public about polyamory is that there are an enormous number of polyamorous people who keep their identity secret, to avoid the judgement of conservative and closed minded friends and family. While it’s normal for monogamous heterosexual couples to post their couple photos on social media, it’s a lot more fraught with danger for polyamorous people to do the same thing. I have met many other poly people over the last few years, and a common theme is that they are rejected by people close to them after coming out as poly. Seeing so many people close to me faced with this type of judgement made me feel it is my moral obligation to be publicly poly and to do my part to normalize it.

I knew that I was poly for nearly fifteen years, yet I never had the courage to live a polyamorous lifestyle or even really tell many people about it. Part of this lack of courage was because of how controversial it is and how I thought it’d be harder to date or meet people who were on a similar wavelength. Part of it was that without being very deliberate and mindful, it is scarily easy to find yourself in implicit monogamous commitments because everyone assumes you are monogamous unless you explicitly specify otherwise.

Five years ago I was terrified to tell even my closest friends. I was absolutely certain I was poly but felt like I couldn’t tell anyone, and I am sure there are countless other people reading this blog who are in a similar boat. Eventually the fear of looking back at my life with regret, knowing that I didn’t live according to my true identity, was enough to make me finally be who I’m supposed to be.

Today I proudly tell anyone who asks about my love life what I’m all about.

I recognize that I’m lucky because I’m not going to get fired from my job for this, or discriminated against, or lose all my friends or family. But the fear of things like that can be a real obstacle to many people. It’s extremely common for people to be polyamorous and feel like they need to keep it a secret from at least one person in their life, if not from nearly everyone.

The type of poly that I identify with the most is frequently referred to as relationship anarchy. To me it means that there is no predefined structure to what my relationships should look like, and it also means that romantic relationships are not automatically the pinnacle of human connection. I don’t want to control anyone, I don’t want anyone to control me. I want everyone close to me to be free to love and connect with anyone they want in any way they want and to spend their time in any way they want, and I require the same freedom.

It’s a fantastic liberating feeling to know that at any moment I can meet any person I’d like, and my connection with that person can follow any path that naturally develops. There are no rules, there are no people I have to check with. Everyone important to me will support any relationship I foster with anyone else. Not only will they support it, but they’ll be glad to hear about it, just as I’m glad to hear about the people who are important to them.

I currently have a life filled with love and amazing romantic partners, platonic friends, and others who fall somewhere in between. It feels really good to be who I’m supposed to be. I hope that everyone else who knows that their identity is not what they currently put forth to the world has the opportunity to be who they truly are.

Fixing Chess

Chess is broken. A game can be broken and still be popular, entertaining and beautiful. Chess is still a beautiful game, and is even growing in popularity. But that doesn’t mean that it’s perfect or that it doesn’t need fixing. What we are doing to this game by refusing to make any changes is terrible.

Every major video game in the world does regular “balance changes”. These are just standard changes that are made to the game to make it more interesting or fix it because something about it is broken. There are so many things that are not ideal about chess, that the chess community refuses to address due to adherence for tradition, lineage and an obsession with sitting in the same spot for 6 hours.

Magnus Carlsen himself, the World Champion of Chess and number 1 player in the world, even admits it in his latest interview. He says “In general it’s good to incorporate more rapid and blitz in the world championship because to some extent it is a purer form of chess because preparation plays less of a role”.

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Photo by Maria Emelianova/Chess.com

I have lost all patience with the diehard “never change anything about chess” crowd. They are dinosaurs and are making a mockery of what a game should be

What are the main problems with chess:

  1. The draw rate is absurdly high at the top level. Do I have to see another article at some major super tournament where the author writes a glee filled headline because a few games actually ended in wins? A perfectly designed game should not be a tie as frequently as chess is and this is super obvious. The drawing margin is too high, and you can get away with too many mistakes and still draw, especially with the White pieces. Yes some of the draws were interesting, but how about create a format where it’s not a draw every single time? Maybe that would be even more interesting!
  2. Computers have taken a lot of the life out of the game. Chess players are no longer willing to play any risky looking moves in the opening, because they fear their opponent’s computer preparation. They know that it will be absolutely perfect and that they will stand no chance if they walk into home prep in a complicated position. This could be seen in Game 2 of the most recent World Championship match, in which Magnus intentionally avoided what looked to be the critical line. He knew it was the critical line, but he also knew that Fabiano would know everything about it. Magnus didn’t want to play against a computer, so he played a tamer line and was satisfied to just play for equality.
  3. The games are too long. The top players play exceptionally well in faster time control games. Give them a time control of 90+30 and they will still play near 2800 level. But for some reason we have to add an extra two hours so that maybe they will play at 2820-2830. It’s so ridiculous and a complete misuse of time and resources. You have to be so stuck in the past to think that a three or four hour chess game just isn’t enough, and that it simply must be six hours. The extra benefit is that when the time controls are faster, even just slightly faster than they are now, people win more frequently.
  4. There are almost no more memorable games in World Championship Matches. We have grown up studying the great games in the matches with Capablanca vs Alekhine, Botvinink vs Tal or Kasparov vs Karpov. Tell me one memorable game from the last 6 World Championship Matches? They will basically all be forgotten. You can pretend that Carlsen’s fortress defense from Game 6 will be remembered, but it won’t. Actually I take it back…..there was one extremely iconic moment from a recent World Championship Match that I don’t think will be forgotten easily. It’s when Carlsen played the beautiful 50. Qh6!! to win the title against Karjakin. It just so happens that came from a rapid game! Once rapid chess starts getting taken more seriously, we will see that the games and ideas are so much more beautiful and much more digestible to 99%+ of the chess audience. Players will once again be able to go for speculative sacrifices against the best opponents in the world.
  5. The current format is not likely to determine who the best chessplayer is! Because classical games end in draws so frequently, even if you increase the match length to 24 games, you are often going to see someone win the match with 2 wins to 1 and 21 draws. This does very little to differentiate who is actually the better player. Sticking to the low number of games, slow time control format, increases the chance that the weaker chess player will win.

I have already written my solution in a previous blog but I’ll reiterate it one more time, with a small change, because I do think it’s the perfect balance of retaining that classical chess tradition, while not allowing all of the life to get sucked out of the game:

This is how a chess game would work:

You play one game at 90 minutes plus a 20 second increment. The winner gets 10 points the loser gets 0

If that game is drawn you reverse colors and play one game at 20 minutes plus a 10 second increment. The winner gets 7 points and the loser gets 3

If that game is drawn you keep the same colors as the rapid game and play one game at 5 minutes plus a 3 second increment. The winner gets 6 points and the loser gets 4. If this game is drawn, both players get 5 points.

A perfect mix of Classical, Rapid and Blitz.  The Classical game is still worth 5 times as much as the blitz game. The Classical game is worth 2.5 times as much as the rapid game. The rapid game is worth 2 times as much as the blitz game. But all the games count, and all forms of chess count. Every single player will need to be equally versed at Classical, Rapid and Blitz chess to consider themselves the best in the world.

The best overall chess player will almost always win handily with such a format. If it’s truly very close, then we will see some really tight and exciting matches. Right now everyone is so good at the top and the draw rate is so high, that most matches with absurdly long time controls are going to end with the majority draws and maybe one or two wins sprinkled in.

I think that Fischer Random is also a great idea, but there is something beautiful about the starting position in chess, so I decided to retain that chess tradition in favor of simply speeding up the time controls. But Fischer Random has the added benefit that Computer Preparation is rendered almost meaningless.

The chess community needs to wake up. The World Championship was just all draws. The one before it was 10 out of 12 draws.  The idea of making the match even longer so that eventually someone wins is ridiculous. Where exactly were players avoiding risks? You could say it was Carlsen in Game 12, but I believe he only got that position because Caruana was so hell bent on trying to win and avoid the rapid tiebreak. This is all so stupid and it’s so frustrating to be part of a community who can’t see it.

Everyone loves to resist change, and they eventually get left in the dust because of it.

 

 

 

 

How to Make Chess More Exciting!

Good news everyone! I’ve finally figured out the ultimate solution to fix chess.

A lot of people are complaining about the World Championship Match right now, mainly due to the number of draws and the feeling that sometimes the players are avoiding risk. I honestly don’t completely agree that it’s so bad, and I think that:

  • There have been some really exciting moments both on the board (Game 1), and off the board (Magnus’s funny comments in press conferences, the whole video controversy and etc)
  • I think also that in a match this long someone will eventually win, and the mounting tension of draw after draw will make it that much more dramatic when it does happen.

But despite my feelings that things are okay, I also believe they could be much better. And it’s also clear that as time goes on these problems are only going to get worse and worse. Change is inevitable, it’s just a matter of time until we all realize it.

Another thing that fixed this idea in my mind was something that Hikaru Nakamura said. He said he’s rooting for Magnus because “It doesn’t feel right to him that the world champion shouldn’t be someone who’s not also one of the best at rapid and blitz chess”

What is my solution that will fix EVERYTHING? Simple:

You play a classical chess game. It should be sped up SLIGHTLY compared to the normal time control, probably by removing a half hour from each clock, and slightly speeding up the following time controls.

If you win this game, you get 5 points. If you lose you get 0

If the game is drawn, you reverse colors and play a rapid game. If you win the rapid game you get 4 points. If you lose the rapid game you get 1 point.

If the rapid game is drawn you keep the same colors you had in the rapid game and play a blitz game. If you win the blitz game you get 3 points, if you lose you get 2 points and if you draw you both get 2.5 points. 

Why do I love this solution?

  1. Someone will win most of the time, which is MUCH more exciting and interesting for fans of chess
  2. It requires players to be skilled at all types of chess in order to be considered the best in the world
  3. It helps negate white’s advantage a bit because in the rapid and blitz game, the player with black in the classical game will have the white pieces.
  4. It still puts a high emphasis on classical chess. If you win the blitz portion the first four games you’d have a lead of 12-8. That would be erased in one game if your opponent won the next classical game.

This works in head to head matches and also in round robin tournaments. Literally everything will be immediately more exciting, without massively downgrading the quality of the classical game.

What are the downsides?

  • In order to make sure there is time for the rapid and blitz portions of play, we will have to speed up the time control a little bit. I’m not sure the best way to do it. One idea could be to lower the increment from 30 seconds to 15 seconds, while also removing a little bit of time from the clock (for example 90 minutes to start with a 15 second increment).
  • You may think that blitz and rapid chess is an abomination and should have no business being involved in any serious chess tournament. I happen to strongly disagree.

I honestly can’t think of any other downsides but I’m sure the lovely people of the Internet will point them out for me in the most polite way possible!

 

 

Stop Telling Me What to Do

The number one thing that gets my bullshit alarm to go off is when someone gives unsolicited advice, as though they are some kind of spiritual or intellectual life guru.

shhh

There are a lot of things I have opinions on, but once I start taking these opinions and voicing them in “advice” form, I become totally full of shit. Here are a few examples:

  • Before a chess game you should clear your mind and go for a walk instead of playing a video game or preparing for your opponent up to five minutes before the round.
  • If you didn’t get a good night’s sleep, don’t go to the gym.
  • When you travel, XYZ is a must see, you can’t miss it!!!
  • Put down your cell phone and enjoy the moment.

Do I agree with the above? Mostly no. I think that before a chess game everyone is completely different, and totally different routines will work depending on who you are.  But there are tons of people telling you exactly what you should and shouldn’t do right before a game.

I do think that you should generally skip working out if you didn’t sleep well, but often a 20 minute nap will rejuvenate you enough to make exercise worthwhile again. And for some people who have kids and a busy schedule and can literally never get enough sleep, I sure don’t suggest that they never work out.

I also want to strangle anyone who tells me I “have to see” anything in another country. Unless you know me unbelievably well, you have no idea what I have to see.

Also I can’t stand the anti technology commentary. I think it’s so overblown to the point of absurdity. When I’m alone I’m on my phone constantly, and I think it greatly improves my quality of life. I get to listen to music and dance down the street, and it makes me feel more connected no matter where I am.

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What am I trying to say exactly? When you give advice, most of the time, there should be some level of uncertainty.

I am a very strong chess player compared to the general population of chess players, however except for the most basic information there is, I don’t know if there is any advice I can give and be certain that what I’m saying is true.

It makes me sound really wishy washy sometimes, but I believe it’s more intellectually honest than stating something as a fact, when I don’t believe it is one.

I mean I can look at a chess position, and know that I believe white is slightly better, but I don’t believe it enough to say “White is slightly better”. I can say “I believe White is slightly better because of X, Y and Z”, but often I’m not certain in my belief. However players about the same level as me, or weaker, will confidently state things in public that I’m totally unsure about. How can this be? I know that they basically don’t understand anything, so why do they behave like they do?

Do I know the best way to study chess? Nope, I have no clue! I believe it’s different for everyone. The only thing I know is that studying one hour a day probably isn’t enough if you want to be World Champion. But for most people, I couldn’t even tell you if studying 2 hours a day is better than studying 6 hours a day. One is more sustainable, and one might lead to burnout. Probably the six hours is better, but it’s not an automatic answer.

Do I know what chess books you should read? I have some opinions, but when people speak like “You MUST read this book”…..well I literally believe that about no books. There are books I like and you can read them if you want, but it won’t kill you if you never look at it.

In CrossFit you see a lot of people online just throw out random advice as though it’s gospel. Many of them are just randos who have no idea what they are talking about. Sometimes they are coaches and have some knowledge, although even then I don’t think they do a great job of realizing that everyone is wildly different.

I think I’m pretty decent at CrossFit, but I basically don’t know anything. I know maybe a few strategy ideas in WODs, but in almost all cases they are athlete dependent. I do know that you probably shouldn’t row too hard in most WODs, but there are definitely lots of exceptions to that!

One thing that a lot of CrossFit affiliates like to preach is this militant anti-sugar mindset. I have sugar sometimes, and I think it’s TOTALLY fine to have sugar in moderation.I will throw up the next time someone acts like I’m going to die because I drink one coke. But who knows, maybe I’ll die of some donut related disease sometime soon and the psycho anti-sugar people will be proven right?

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If you are going to travel, do I know exactly what you should do? Not unless you tell me “hey this is a problem can you help me with it?”. Then I can give some advice that might be smart. But if you are just some random traveler and I don’t know much about you, I have no idea what to tell you. I can tell you what was interesting to me, but I’d never presume that my opinion on something was absolutely correct.

Every travel article makes me want to smash my computer. I mean I literally don’t give a crap about almost every major tourist attraction, and that includes the Sagrada Familia, which everyone tells you that you’ll probably die if you don’t go to see it. I’ve been there and I really just don’t care about it at all. It made no impact on me whatsoever, except for “why am I waiting in a line to see a church?”.

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Do I know what you should do with your money, or your time, or your love life? I maybe have some opinions, but that’s all they are.

The Internet seems full of “gurus”, who want to give you spiritual, intellectual, or financial advice on anything. Anyone who tweets advice for no reason I figure is either pompous, a charlatan or an idiot.

Now I’m aware I probably do this from time to time, especially in an offhand way with friends. But I will never make a tweet saying “Do this, spend more energy on this, focus more on that, blah blah blah”.

So what am I saying? Just phrase things with more uncertainty. If you want to post some quote for how someone should live their life…be like “hey I read this and it resonated with me”, instead of “You should meditate for 30 minutes every day in order to achieve the maximum inner harmony” or whatever bullshit everyone is peddling.

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Wtf am I doing?

Two days ago I booked a one way ticket to Seoul, South Korea.

I have no idea why I did it. I love traveling but It’s also really scary. Im traveling across the world to a place where I don’t speak the language, don’t know anyone and have no plans. The whole idea fills me with anxiety.  

It would be so much easier to just come home. I love it at home. I love my wife. I love my friends. Every day I get to wake up and do things I love, see people I love, workout, and of course go to Chipotle.

But instead I’m going to Seoul, probably Tokyo after, and then back home in a few weeks. And I’m doing that because I know if I don’t do it now, while I’m already in San Francisco and closer to Asia, that I’ll always find excuses not to.

So while I’m super nervous, I know it’ll be fun and that I’ll have a good time, because I always do. It helps that I’m mostly comfortable being alone for long periods of time, but I also use a few ways to meet people while traveling that have worked well for me in the past.

I’ve already started bombarding everyone in Seoul on the site couchsurfing.org. I’m not trying to stay in anyone’s house but I’m just looking for local people to meet up. I’m not amazing at meeting people organically, and it’s especially harder when you don’t speak the language, so couchsurfing is great for me. I’ve made a ton of friends there so far, and looking forward to meeting more.

It takes a lot of work though, because you may have to write a lot of people to guarantee that someone will meet up. People are busy and have their own lives, so I may have to write well over a dozen people.

Another good strategy is checking out the Couchsurfing meetups. I went to one of them in L.A. and it was really fun and I met lots of cool people. 

Meetup.com is another site I may use. I haven’t used it much while traveling in the past, but I may have to get more creative on this trip.

It also helps that I feel at home whenever I drop in to a CrossFit gym. Everyone at CrossFit is really friendly and it helps me get some guaranteed human contact every day. Also I get to stay in shape at the same time!

One more thing I do when I travel is I’m very active on social media and chat to my friends at home. It sounds weird because you’d imagine that when you travel you shouldn’t be doing as much of that, but really I have a full day every day to do whatever I want. With my style of traveling there’s always a lot of down time and it helps me to feel connected. 

I also text while I walk. Like I’ll just wander around and if someone texts me I stop and text back, or maybe I check twitter at one corner, check Instagram at the next corner and etc. The travel snobs will tell you there’s something wrong with this, but it makes me really happy.

Why am I sharing this? I know it’s daunting to travel on your own. I can’t even believe that in a few hours I’m going to be halfway across the world with no idea what to do. Maybe something I’m writing will resonate with others, because I don’t think it’s normal advice. At least I’ve never seen a travel blog that encourages spending lots of time texting your friends.

It feels good to turn my world upside down every now and then. It’s supposed to be scary and make me feel vulnerable. These are feelings I like to keep feeling from time to time, and this is the best way I know how. Maybe for other people it’s not such a big deal to just go to another country on their own, but it’s still tough for me.

Lastly if anyone who reads this knows some cool people in Seoul/Tokyo (or anywhere in Asia for that matter, as my plans are still totally flexible), please let me know! Oh yeah, that’s the other way I meet people when I travel: I write blogs begging people to introduce me to their cool friends.

Can We Please Fix the Tiebreak Situation at the Candidates?

The tiebreaks at the Candidates Tournament are ludicrous, although I’m surprised to admit that it’s not as ludicrous at it seems at first glance.

It’s absurd to determine who will challenge for the World Championship due to Most Wins, or any other tiebreak system in a Round Robin.

The only reasonable way to break a tie in an event of this magnitude is to play a tiebreak match for it.

I could easily end the blog here, and the majority of the chess playing community would agree with me. However it’s not quite as simple as it seems.

What does it mean that there is no tiebreak after tomorrow’s games? It means that these are going to be the most intense classical chess games that you’ve ever seen

Karjakin, Mamedyarov and Caruana are going to be fighting like wild animals in a classical game, because there is no chance for any of them to coast to a tie and aim to win a tiebreak match. This means that the audience is going to be treated to the most dramatic day of chess that we’ve seen since at least 2016. If a tie resulted in a tiebreaker match, you would be likely to see more conservative play among the leaders at almost every point throughout the tournament.

The key point is: By removing any tiebreak match, and instead using a tiebreaker, even if it is a flawed tiebreaker, the classical chess play becomes much more exciting. 

This is a win for fans, but at the same time we are talking about a very serious topic. We are talking about who will go on to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the World Chess Championship. It’s not enough that it’s exciting, but it also has to be both fair and logical. It is fair as all players play by the same rules, but it is not logical. There is no real reason why someone with more wins should qualify over someone who has the same score. There is certainly no logical reason why a Sonnenborn-Berger score should have any effect at all.

Fortunately I have the perfect solution, and one that I believe has been proposed before, but absolutely should be a staple for all future Candidates Tournaments.

The tiebreak should take place before the first round!

The above system is used in some tournaments to determine the draw, such as who gets the extra white and which pairing numbers and etc. But in this case it should be used as the tiebreak.

For example, you could have a one day round robin tournament with a time control of 15+2, or you could even make it a double round robin that takes place over two days. The winner of this event wins on all ties, the second place finisher wins on all ties against lower placed players and etc. In fact with this format, the entire field would effectively start the Candidates a half point behind the winner of the rapid tiebreak tournament.

This means that everyone will be playing catch up from the very start, resulting in a clear cut standing in every round. Whenever there is a tie at the top of the crosstable, you will always know who is ahead based on their performance in the rapid tournament. It’s simple for fans and adds another day or two of exciting chess for everyone to enjoy.

This is a much better system than the current one because:

  1. It ensures the classical chess that takes place is maximally exciting, because seven of the eight players will always be clearly behind the leader.
  2. It’s fair to all players
  3. It’s logical, unlike our current system. The players who win on tiebreaks will have clearly earned the right to their victory.

This is the second most important event in chess and the idea of what to do on a tie needs to be taken more seriously, instead of the lazy solution that is currently being used.

 

How to Defeat Aging

Whenever anyone tells you that you’re going to get worse at something as you get older, it’s bullshit.

I know that sounds simplistic, but for the most part it’s true. Let me explain why:

We are used to seeing famous superstar athletes get worse as they age. Eventually their skills erode to the point where they retire. This happens to everyone, whether it’s Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Roger Federer. For some athletes it happens a little earlier, and for some it’s a bit later, but it’s usually sometime around the age of 35-40.

The same thing happens in chess. Sometime around the age of 40-45, players seem to lose a step. There are exceptions of course, Vishy Anand has been killing it lately, but for the most part this is true. Even in his case it would be true, as while he’s still insanely good, he’s gone from the World Champion and a fixture in the World Top 3, to having to fight to stay in the top 10.

The above seems to disprove everything I’ve said about aging. I’ve just given you some clear cut examples of athletes and sportsmen who aged, and whose skills degraded as a result of their age.

Why is all of it bullshit? The reason that you can get better at ANYTHING is because you are probably not a world class athlete.

I can improve at literally anything. I’m currently 39, and by the time I’m 45, I could be better at any single thing I want to, if I put the energy towards it.

I could be better at chess, all I have to do is work harder. The reason Anand’s skills degrade a little bit is because he has already worked as hard and intelligently as any human can possibly work at chess. Therefore the only thing left is that age will slow him down very slightly. He has nothing left of himself to give. Almost none of us have tapped that much of our potential in any field, and therefore we can still improve.

I’ve spent the last few years studying very little chess. If I wanted to gain 50-100 points of strength in chess, I’d just have to intelligently devote hours every day to that goal. Maybe if I was younger it would be easier, but I could still do it if I really wanted to.

The same thing is true in athletics. I am in the best shape of my life at 39 years old, and I am sure that if I wanted, I could be in even better shape at 45. While I owe CrossFit for my current athletic ability, I have not taken it so seriously that I have reached my peak potential.

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If I wanted to get stronger and more fit, I would just have to work harder. My age might mean that I have to work a little bit harder than if I was 25, but there is absolutely no doubt that I could be better in five years than I am now.

I write this because I see age used as an excuse a lot of the time. I don’t want to speak for people who are significantly older than me, because I don’t have that life experience yet. But I know that at this point, nothing stands in the way of improvement. I could learn languages, I could get better at chess and I could literally learn anything in the world and get much better at it.

For some people it may be that they just don’t have the time to devote to improvement due to work and other commitments, or they could have suffered a major injury that holds them back. But it’s almost certainly not their age stopping them, and it’s not what’s stopping me. When I don’t improve at something it’s always that I don’t want it bad enough.

Unless you are an elite athlete or performer, and have given nearly everything you could have to your art for many years, you can get better at anything if you want it badly enough.

10 Reasons to Watch the 2018 PRO Chess League

The PRO Chess League is about to start again, and the 2018 season is going to be AMAZING! Here are ten reasons why you should definitely call in sick from work on January 18th and stay logged on to chess.com for 14 hours straight:

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  1. Even more of the top players in the World are in the league:

Last year we had 11 players rated above 2700 in the league. This year we have 17, with the potential for more to join throughout the season.

Here’s a list of some of the big stars, and the teams they represent, in 2018:

Magnus Carlsen: Norway Gnomes

Fabiano Caruana: Saint Louis Arch Bishops

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave: Marseille Migraines

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov: San Jose Hackers

Viswanathan Anand: Mumbai Movers

Hikaru Nakamura: Seattle Sluggers

Hou Yifan: Montreal Chessbrahs

2. We have a brand new website!

Please go check out the new PRO Chess League website! It will have almost anything you could possibly wish to know about the league. You can follow your favorite teams, there will be a live scoreboard at the top and there will be post match recaps. The fans asked for this and we listened.

3. There are fewer teams, which means that every match will be more competitive

Last year the PRO Chess League had 48 teams, with some of the teams being much weaker than the strongest teams. This led to a lot of lopsided and uninteresting matches. It also resulted in too much action for fans to follow.

This year we decided to cut the field down, and also create qualifiers to determine our new teams. This time around it’s very unlikely that you’ll see complete wipeouts, as every team is capable of putting together a lineup near the 2500 rating cap.

The bottom two teams in each division will also be removed from the league and have to qualify again in a very competitive qualification process (we had 40 teams fighting for just 8 spots this year!). That means that even teams who are eliminated from the playoffs, will still have something serious to fight for.

 

4. There are an insane number of GM’s competing

While there are 17 players rated above 2700, we also have more than 150 GM’s on team rosters. It’s an average of nearly 5 GM’s per team!

5. Lots of young stars are competing

Young superstars like Sam Sevian, Awonder Liang, Nihal Sarin, Jeffery Xiong and Kirill Shevchenko are competing this year. It’s going to be great watching them face off against experienced Grandmasters on a weekly basis.

6. The commentary is going to be AWESOME!

We have four new regular commentators in 2018:

IM Danny Rensch

WGM Jenn Shahade

GM Robert Hess

GM Ben Finegold

They will all get their own weekly slots that they will share with a co-host. Check out all of our commentators here.

7. There is going to be a Fantasy Contest EVERY WEEK!

Each week you will have the chance to pick 16 players from that week’s matches. The format will be that you’ll pick one player from each board (1 through 4) from each division. It’ll be quick, easy, but also a really fun way to follow your favorite players, or perhaps make some new favorites during the season.

There will of course be prizes, in the form of premium Chess.com memberships, every week!

8. This year we have an All-Star Game

Using an exciting format, with $5,000 in prizes, fans will be treated to a one of a kind blitz battle to determine which division has the best four players. Read here for more details

9. It will be much easier to follow your favorite players

Last season some fans had difficulty finding the games of their favorite teams. That won’t ever be a problem in 2018, as when you watch the live show on chess.com/tv, there will be links you can click on that will automatically observe the games of any team you wish.

10. We have 5 new teams from our Qualifier

Our PRO Chess Leauge Qualifier welcomed 8 teams into the league. 3 of those teams were already in the league last season (Minnesota Blizzard, Mumbai Movers and Seattle Sluggers), but 5 teams will be getting their first taste of PRO Chess League Action. Those teams are:

Chengdu Pandas: Our first Chinese team, managed by GM Li Chao, and led by 2750 rated Yu Yangyi, and near 2700 players Wang Yue and Ni Hua. They are sure to be one of the most dangerous teams in the league.

Australia Kangaroos: A well balanced team from Australia with many well known Aussie players. Anton Smirnov is a 17 year old GM and will be getting some great experience for the team. GM Max Illingworth, who has a cool Patreon page, will also be part of the team

Estonia Horses: Perennial U.S. Championship Contender, Alex Onischuk, is playing for the Horses. Also the well known chess announcer and streamer, GM Sergei Shipov is part of the team. They are managed by former World Championship Candidate, GM Jaan Ehlvest.

Armenia Eagles: The Eagles have a whopping 8 GM’s on their roster. With a very motivated manager, Artak Manukyan, they have managed to sign lots of strong Armenian talents.

Oslo TrollsThe Norway Gnomes made the PRO Chess League finals last year, but many of their members jumped ship to join the new Norwegian team. The Trolls are a younger group of players, with lower ratings than their Gnome counterparts, but you can see that they are a hungry and motivated group.

On top of all of these reasons we will have a brand new format of matches held twice per season, called Super Saturday. This will pit teams from different divisions against each other in a sixteen team free for all. We will also have some of the most well known chess streamers taking part in the league, such as Eric Hansen, John Bartholomew, Kevin Bordi, Andrey Ostrovsky, Andrew Tang, and many more.

Stay tuned for even more exciting details to be announced as the season progresses, and tune in on January 18th for the first round of action. Our normal match day will be held on Wednesdays, but our first match is on a Thursday to coordinate with the rest day at Tata Steel.

I Must Crush my Mom at Scrabble

I have no idea why I’m telling this story, but it’s pretty demented so that’s a good reason.

When I lived in Philly with my mom, me and a friend would occasionally play Scrabble (Ben Johnson, host of the International Sensation: Perpetual Chess Podcast).

While we played my mom would be going about her business, but occasionally peek over to make fun of our plebian words and tell us how bad we were. In some families this might be considered child abuse, but in ours it’s another way of showing affection.

Mom: “Did you seriously just use an S to play the word CATS?”

I would ask to play her, and every time the answer was the same “Haha, sorry but it’d just be no fun to play you, you don’t even know the 2 letter words, you wouldn’t stand a chance”.  Of course she was right.

It’s possible she was still mad about a controversial incident from early in my childhood. She was going to play with her friends and asked me to count the tiles for them, probably to give me something to do. I came downstairs and told her 

Me: “There were 98 letters”!

Mom: “are you sure? There should be 100?”

Me: “Oh yeah but two of them didn’t have letters on them so I threw them in the duck.” (Child slang for heating duct).

I’m not sure why I thought it was a good idea to not just use a simple trash can, but apparently these blank tiles really bothered me. And while my mom found it super amusing and retold the story for years, it also ruined their game.

When I grew older and moved to New York, I happened upon the book “Word Freak”, about a writer who decided to immerse himself in the Scrabble world. It was a pretty awesome read, and I remembered all of the abuse my mom hurled my way and decided I’m going to crush her at Scrabble.

So I did the normal thing and downloaded some software to help me memorize words. I holed myself up in my bedroom for about a week and quickly learned all the 2 letter words, then decided I had to know every 3 letter word. I also learned maybe the top 500-1000 most popular 7 letter words and maybe the top 200-300 8 letter words. I studied a bunch of important words that had key high scoring Scrabble letters in them: J, X, Q, Z. Lastly I played a bunch of training games on the Internet Scrabble Club, and could tell I was at least halfway decent. I was now ready to crush my mother.

I called her up and said “Oh hi mom, I thought I’d come visit for the weekend, are you busy”.

Mom: “No, it’d be great to see you!”

So I got on the train but I was there for one reason and one reason only: for the Ultimate Family Scrabble showdown.

I got home and pretended to just be there to hang out. Maybe we ate dinner, chatted for a bit, and then I casually asked “Oh hey mom, maybe we could play a quick game of Scrabble?”

I got the same answer about how I’m too much of an idiot to play against her, but somehow I convinced her to play. I didn’t want to sound like I was studying too hard, but I said something like “Oh I think I know most of those 2 letter words, so it should be fun”.

I completely destroyed her!! Very early in the game I played a relatively obscure 7 letter word…something like: ENTASIA. Basically a word that no one who doesn’t specifically study Scrabble has ever heard of. I won by almost 200 points. She couldn’t believe what was happening. She probably already realized it, but I had to let her know “Oh yeah, I’ve been studying a bit’.

She immediately challenged me to a rematch and played a much more defensive and strategic style. In the first game she didn’t take me seriously so left me a lot of openings, but now she knew she had to be careful and while my word knowledge was decent, I wasn’t really great at strategy yet. She ended up winning Game number 2. We went back and forth and I think I was ahead 4 games to 3 before I went home like a conquering hero.

Note that my mother, while taunting me for my subpar Scrabble skills, was always very supportive of both me and my sister in any games we pursued, and was always so proud when we became really good at them. It was fun to finally be able to compete with her in this game that I had seen her playing with her serious gamer friends for all her life.

I have since played one official Scrabble tournament three years ago and managed to win it (the Beginners section because it was my first time). It will probably be my last one, but who knows…maybe if someone taunts me enough I’ll lock myself in my room for a few weeks and play once more.

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Live shot of me crushing a 10 year old in my only Scrabble tournament