Monday, 8 August 2016

The WCSC Trip: Days 1, 2 and 3 – from Sheffield to Belgrade.

My trip to the European Chess Solving Championship (ECSC) in Kiev in 2012 had persuaded me never to fly again. There were late flights leading to missed connections both going out and returning home. There was lost luggage on the way out. There were multiple,  intrusive security checks, an aborted landing in Kiev and, finally, a delayed final flight home from Paris that was itself a later flight than booked because of a late earlier flight.
For all those reasons, and a few others, I decided to travel to the World Chess Solving Championship (WCSC) in Belgrade by train. This meant two and a half day’s travelling going there and another two and a half day’s travelling coming back. I searched the Internet for guidance on how to get there and found this page, and very useful it was too. The route I selected to get there was Sheffield to London St. Pancras, London St. Pancras to Paris, Paris to Munich, Munich to Budapest (on the overnight sleeper) and finally Budapest to Belgrade. I used almost the same route in reverse for the return trip. In each direction I stayed overnight in London.
This is the first of a series of blog posts describing the journey and also the event, and we start with the outward journey.
The train journey from Sheffield to London St. Pancras is these days just over two hours in duration. Not wishing to rush things, I decided to travel mid-afternoon so as to arrive at my hotel at about tea-time. Travelling on your own with luggage is stressful and I like to give myself plenty of time to allow for things to go wrong, as they often do. However, everything went smoothly, I arrived at my hotel at the right time, had a leisurely dinner and retired to bed for a good night’s sleep before the more tiring travelling of the next couple of days.
I took the mid-morning Eurostar to Paris, arriving at the Gare du Nord on time. Following a ten-minute walk to the Gare de l’Est, I sat down and waited for the TGV from Paris to Munich. I boarded that train and it left Paris dead on time. It is some years since I have travelled on French or German railways and things have improved in the intervening years, even though they were pretty good before. The new train was comfortable, air-conditioned and very fast. The screen at either end of each carriage kept us informed on the progress of the journey, the extent and reason for any delay, and, from time to time, the speed the train was travelling at, which at times approached 320 km/h! We did in fact suffer a signalling failure and we arrived at Munich HBF about fifteen minutes late. This did not worry me as my onward train, the overnight sleeper to Budapest didn’t leave for another three hours. It was very hot in Munich (as it had been in Paris), so I sat on a seat outside the station and had my dinner: a bottle of Coca-Cola and a cheese and ham baguette, purchased inside the station. It was at this stage that I started to feel tired. I found the heat oppressive and I began to wonder how the citizens of central Europe coped with it.
The journey so far had been smooth and almost stress-less, but little things began to go wrong from about now. As I had expected, the sleeper train was run by Hungarian Railways and, being old rolling-stock, was not up to the standard of the trains I had been travelling on so far. I had a single-occupancy sleeping compartment that had a narrow bed, a wash-basin and a cupboard, which contained two bottles of water (very welcome) and a couple of packaged snacks. There was adequate air-conditioning, but it was very loud. The wash-basin had a hinged lid, which was intended to be secured in the open position by a magnet, but the magnet wasn’t working, so actually using the wash-basin wasn’t possible. The cupboard had a similar problem: it had a door that couldn’t be secured in the closed position because of a failed magnet. Of course, once the train started moving, this door swung backwards and forwards, regularly hitting the cupboard and making a sleep-disturbing noise. This all meant that I anticipated a difficult night’s sleep, and indeed I had one, but not just because of the noise inside the compartment. I have never intentionally slept on a train before and I soon found that I was waking up every time the train came to a halt. One of the stops seemed to go on for some time, so I opened the window-blind and looked out. We were at Salzburg and it was the middle of the night.
At about 06:30 in the morning, three hours before we were due at Budapest, I gave up the effort of trying to sleep and got up. Shortly afterwards the coach-steward brought breakfast. This consisted of a cup of coffee (ordered the night before), a croissant and a sandwich, all very welcome.
All my train tickets, with the exception of the return trip between Budapest and Belgrade, had been bought online at either the Eurostar site or the one of Deutsche Bahn. Tickets for this trip, if bought in advance, had to be bought online at the Hungarian Railways site and then collected at Budapest Railway Station. I knew to look for a blue machine. I spotted a couple of such machines and duly keyed in my reference number to one of them. This prompted an error message, in English, telling me that the machine didn’t print tickets for international journeys. Luckily, next to the machines was the information desk. Before I asked anybody what I should do, I spied a notice in English saying that International Tickets could only be printed at the ticket office for international tickets. So, I looked around for a sign and found one, which led me to what was a closed and unopenable door to the required ticket office. There was a clear no-entry sign, but no instructions about how to enter the ticket office. I eventually found the entry to the ticket office (which didn’t appear to be sign-posted from inside the station at all) and, from the outside, looked inside for the blue machine. I couldn’t see one. All I could see was lots of people buying tickets from ticket machines or queuing up at the information desk. I entered the ticket office and eventually found a blue machine, hidden away in a dark corner. I keyed in my reference number and got the same error message I had got on the other machine. I assumed that this error message was itself an error as this time the machine also gave a couple of buttons I could press, both labelled in Hungarian. I picked one at random and the machine began to whirr, eventually printing six pieces of paper, all apparently  identical. As I was only expecting a ticket and two seat reservations, this was confusing. As the tickets were spat out of the machine upside-down, what I could see was the advertising on the backs. I turned them over and inspected them. At that point it became clear that what it had printed was two tickets and four seat reservations! I inspected the print-out of the confirmation email message I had got weeks before from the Hungarian Railway’s website: it listed two tickets and four seat reservations! I had actually bought two tickets and not realised it! At the time I had had to repeat my order with the site because it had frozen on a page where none of the options were working. I have to say that it was one of the worse web applications I have ever used. If I ever do this trip again, I will buy my ticket when I get to Budapest. Better for the pocket and the blood-pressure!
It was hot in Budapest too, so my wait for the train to Belgrade was uncomfortable. The train to Belgrade was the slow train: it seemed to stop at all the stations along the way. What I found most surprising was the lack of platforms at the stations. Passengers climbed up/down  to/from the train from/to the track-side. This must be difficult for young children or elderly passengers and for those with luggage. Passengers wait on the track-side behind a white line, sometimes even between tracks, and they walk over the tracks to get to and from the trains. This is the case even at the bigger places like Novi Sad. This seems dangerous, even when the trains are travelling as slowly as this one was. I can’t imagine the health and safely authorities allowing that in the United Kingdom.
The journey itself was, at over eight hours, interminable. There was air-conditioning, but it wasn’t working all the time, so we were all sweltering. At the last stop before the Serbian border, the Hungarian border police entered the train to inspect our passports. A mile or so up the track, at Subotica, the Serbian border police did the same.
I was very glad to arrive, somewhat late, at Belgrade station just after 21:00. I was even more glad to see that I was being met by one of the congress officials, who took me direct to my hotel, where I had a very light dinner and then went straight to bed.
To be continued …

Monday, 6 June 2016

Meson Chess Problem database - new facilities

When I gave my website a makeover I added a couple of new facilities to my Meson Chess Problem Database.

There is now a facility to search by Problem Identifier (PID), useful if someone sends you one. Of course, you can still send or receive a link to the actual page with the problem on it.

More notable is the addition, on the general search page, of a facility to retrieve problems within three ranges of number of pieces used. The three ranges are Miniature (less than 8 pieces), Meredith (less than 13 pieces) and Heavy, all the rest. Meredith is a term named after a famous American chess composer of that name.

Since putting the new website live I have been using my new Kalulu chess problem testing program to generate and add solutions to some of the mates in 4 and 5 in the database. These solutions are in a slightly different format to the mates in 2 and 3, which are generated via a Java program when they are added. Each time I do update work on the database, I generate more solutions, but I don't know how long it will take for them all to be added. There are plans to add solutions to problems other than directmates, but as I haven't yet built that facility into Kululu, I can't say when that will be. In due course I will replace the solutions generated by the Java program with solutions generated by Kalulu.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

New website after a week

My new website has now been live for just over a week and in that time I have been investigating its usage, both during that week and in the month before that. A couple of interesting facts have come to light.

During May, when the Joomla site was there, the administrator login page was accessed over 3000 times. All but a handful of those accesses were not by me as I was too busy developing the new site to regularly update the old one. As nothing was changed, I assume that all the login attempts not by me failed. This huge number of unfriendly accesses was not new, but was about average for any month. This was one of the reasons why I decided to abandon Joomla.

Now that the Joomla site is not there, the administrator login page is not there, but there have nonetheless been 48 attempts to access it in the last week. There also appear to have been 8 attempts to access a non-existent WordPress login page. I have never used WordPress on this site.

Putting the new site live has caught the search-engine crawlers on the hop. At least three of them have all week been attempting to access pages that are no longer there. These attempts make up the vast majority of the traffic. I suppose that this is to be expected given the large amount of data in the Meson Chess Problem Database. I haven't made any checks, but I would imagine finding the new site via a search engine is not yet possible.

Before the change, Meson was the most popular part of the site, and still is. This week 743 chess problems have been retrieved and viewed, which is just about the same as when the old site was there. Hopefully Meson now looks better and is easier to use.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

New website now live!

Following a considerable amount of work, my new website is now live. I have carried forward most of what was on the old site, but also added new content.

I now have to settle down to preparing for the World Chess Solving Championship in Belgrade at the beginning of August.

Friday, 22 April 2016

ECF Team Problem Sovling Championship for juniors

I duly finished preparing the material for the ECF Team Problem Solving Championship for juniors (at Imperial College, London) and sent it to the director of the event, Phillip Beckett. However, I didn't make it to the competition myself, having stupidly injured my arm some days previously. It would have been a very long day, with lots of travelling, and I just couldn't face it. I am glad to report that the event seems to have gone off OK and that my arm is on the mend. You can see a report of the event, written by Phillip Beckett, on the ECF website.

In other news, I have now transferred all the photographs from my old site to my new site.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

From Nottingham to Imperial College

I completed the preparation work for the BCPS residential weekend at Nottingham and duly attended the meeting.

The solving tourney comprised 11 chess problems and one endgame study. I knew that at least one former World Chess Solving Champion (Michel Caillaud of France) would be taking part, so I had to make it tough. Nobody solved the endgame study (a nice original by Steffen Slumstrup Neilsen of Norway) and Michel also failed on the more-mover, so perhaps the whole tourney was too tough? In the event it was Michael McDowell who came first, with 51 points out of 60 and Michel came second on 46.5. As Michael was the top-placed British solver, he also won the Ron Brain Cup for yet another year.

The first six problems were all two-movers - directmates, selfmates and helpmates - and formed a tourney within a tourney for those who just wanted to solve shorter problems. Of the three solvers who elected to take part in this minor competition, Barry Barnes and David Shire both handed in their solutions within the first hour, Barry being faster. Neither of them scored full marks, both dropping points on one of the selfmates, but, as Barry was less careless than David, he took the first prize.

I proposed the theme for the Fairy composing tourney, the challenge being to compose problems using the Checkless Chess fairy condition, with or without fairy pieces but with no additional fairy conditions being added. As I decided many years ago not to judge composing tourneys we managed to persuade Stephen Emmerson to do the honours. Stephen wasn't actually at the meeting, but the entries (10 of them) were transmitted to him by email early on Sunday night. His award arrived sometime late on Sunday night while I was in the bar chin-wagging with Neal Turner. The top-placed problems were by Michel Caillaud, Michel Caillaud, Christopher Jones and Michael McDowell.

The solving tourney wasn't the only thing that was difficult. Steve Giddins concocted a trivia quiz around the Inspector Morse TV stories and John Rice presented a chess-themed crossword.

Of course, the meeting was about far more than competitions. We had several lectures. John Rice gave a talk about the late Jeremy Morse. Steve Giddins also talked about Jeremy, showing two of his endgame studies together with two studies by the late Adam Sobey. Neal Turner talked about his mind-bending speciality of SAT and grasshopper kings. Barry Barnes talked about another recently-deceased composer - the great Valentin Rudenko of Ukraine. We even had the unexpected pleasure of a brief visit from John Ling, who gave a very short presentation of one of his favourite problems by Comins Mansfield.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable weekend, despite some difficulties encountered in the hotel.

I am now in the middle of preparing a solving tourney for an ECF Junior event taking place at Imperial College in London on Wednesday next week. The juniors will have mates in one, mates in two, selfmates in two and helpmates in two to challenge them. Just two rounds of that to do now.

This afternoon I have done more work on my new website. I have now included all the endgame study material from the existing site and also added four further columns from my series in Chess, taking that collection up to the end of 2011. When time permits I shall start moving the chess problem material to the new site.

Monday, 28 March 2016

WCBCSC move completed

I am happy to say that I have just completed moving all the WCBCSC (Winton Capital British Chess Solving Championship) content from my website to that of the BCPS. In recent years this has included lots of photographs of solvers and controllers at the finals. This has been a lot of work and I am relieved that it is now over. I have removed the WCBCSC content from my website, but retained the menu item for it, which now links to the BCPS site. All this material does not yet comprise a full archive of the competition. I have several years yet to add from my own archive as director, but there are many years where such records don't exist and these years will need to be researched. I will add to the archive as time permits. Complete or not, it will form a useful source of practice material for budding chess solvers.

I have also been continuing to migrate material to my new website from the existing one and producing new content for it too. This is another of those long jobs and I am not sure how long it will take. In the next few days I shall be preparing material ready for the BCPS Residential weekend in Nottingham - a solving tourney and a fairy composing tourney.

I am sorry that I didn't prepare another weekly BBC radio drama preview. I was just too busy with other things. However, I don't rule out doing further previews in the future.