Wednesday, April 23, 2014

400 points in 158 days.

398 points to be exact, but who's counting?  My initial return to OTB play has been a successful one.   10 games, 2 tournaments, and two ties for first in U1300 and U1500 sections.   I'm officially a class C player now and my next goal is to hit class B as quickly as possible.  If those 10 games were one big tournament, my performance rating would've been 1541.  Not bad, and right in line with my ICC rating.  I'm very curious how much farther I can go rating wise staying with my current training regimen of lots of tactics, a little endgame/opening study and reading over annotated game collections.  I don't see any reason I can't get another 200 points and hit class B with that, especially if my tactics vision improves a bit in my games.

Before we get to any games, here are a few tactics "puzzles" from my games.  One that I solved OTB (easy) and one that I didn't solve (not too difficult).

After a pretty uneventful middlegame, White has sacrificed a pawn for an attack on the enemy king while the Black queen is sidelined.  White has just played 25. Rd1, threatening to remove the guard of the g7 square.

The interesting part about puzzle #2 that I missed OTB, is that all the elements that make the tactics work are in my head when I'm looking for a move.  I had been thinking about knight or bishop sacrifices on c5 to attack the vulnerable e7 bishop for some time.  And I also see that potential skewer on the h1-a8 diagonal.  But I don't put all 3 of those ideas together in my head at once to find a forcing way to make it all work.  Instead I embark on a maneuvering plan on the queenside with an idea of switching to a kingside attack once Black gets tied up.  I eventually won the exchange + a pawn and later the game.  One thing I've noticed about my play, in general, is that I tend to turn off the tactics antenna once I come up with what I think is a good short term strategy to put the squeeze on my opponent.  I need to find a way to remind myself to look for the tactics when I see potential in a position like this.

Now on to a few of my most instructive games.

After I showed this game to Dan, he asked me what I had learned from the game.  My reply was "sometimes it's better to be lucky than good".  That got a good laugh out of him.

A well-deserved loss for my bad play in the opening and in general.

And finally, my favorite game that I've played during this stretch.  It went a bit like a lot of my games: I get an early material lead, White throws everything he has at my king and I defend mostly accurately.  Except this time I wasn't 100% sure if I was winning or he overlooked a forced win.  I couldn't wait to put the game into Houdini to get the real scoop.  As it turns out, I was winning almost the entire time, although I made 2 moves that could've given him an even game or advantage.  The finish was very amusing to me though.

Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good...

My biggest takeaway from my return to OTB play is to not go to sleep tactically in the middle game when I'm in "strategic maneuvering mode".  If I see lots of potential for tactics, I need to find a way to make it work for a few minutes before going back to my plan.

I also need to get better at being a more active defender.  In many of my games so far, I'll get a winning material advantage, then not find the most active defense which shuts down his attack for good or gives me the attack.

Related to both points above, I need to get better at kingside attacks.  I feel very comfortable most of the time in a queenside attack or maneuvering down the center while setting up some planned tactics, but I never really look to attack the king directly.  It's just something I need to get experience in I guess.

A lot of this is related to experience, but at least it gives me something to look for during the games.  I feel like I made a big improvement from my 1st game back to my 10th game just from the experience of managing my time properly and playing with something real (money/points) on the line.

A have a lot of work to do, but this is an encouraging start.  My 1 year anniversary will be November 18th.  Is 1900-2000 out of the question?  What setbacks will I have along the way? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Woolum Tactics Revision #2

I just completed a single pass of all problems in the Woolum workbook.  I finished my 1st revision of Woolum about 7 weeks ago.  Like my Bain revision, I did a set of supplementary training of problems that gave me the most trouble.  This ended up being 23.1% of all problems in the book, much higher than with Bain!

Here is chart with my supplemental training (set G/H) combined with my original revision.

Much like my experience with the Bain supplement, I had great success with these difficult problems, achieving over 90% of problems completed in under 15 seconds.  I was only able to achieve ~75% success rate on my initial revision of Woolum.

Here is the full graph for revision #2.

Problems completed in less than 15 seconds.

I improved slightly in this category from ~74.5% in revision #1 to ~78% in revision #2.  I experienced ~2% decline from revision #1 to #2 with Bain.  The improvement with Woolum is likely due to the increased amount of supplemental problems.

Side-by-side comparison of  my last pass in revision #1 (Pass 6) with my single pass in revision #2 (Pass 7) in under 15 seconds.

Oddly enough, I did slightly worse on the sets I had completed more recently, although that could be the fatigue factor.  4 hours sleep and 700+ tactics problems in a row might wear on you a bit.

Chess Hero seems to be having a good effect on my solve times.  My supplemental set for Heisman will be in the ~5% of problems range and my 15 seconds or less solve rate will be ~90% or better.  Hopefully this is due to better retention then just being faster than looking at a flashcard and clicking next.

I will finish my final set of Heisman on 4/14 then start on Polgar - Chess Tactics for Champions on 4/19.  I haven't even started to convert the diagrams into a pgn file for Chess Hero yet, so I need to get started on that ASAP.  I wish that sort of thing came standard with tactics books these days.  I know I could go with some tactics software, but I want to go through the same progress Bright Knight did with his tactics training.  After I finish Blue Coakley, my tentative plan is to move on to CT-Art 4.0 followed by Chess Tactics for Intermediate Players.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Training in chess: A scientific approach

Published in 2005 by one of DeGroot's PhD students.  I came across this while looking at an old Knights Errant improvement blog.  He summarized some of the findings and I just wanted to do a quick post going a little deeper in detail.

Explicit knowledge:
The example they give is the queen's gambit declined exchange variation.  A master knows that one of the plans in this opening is the minority attack on the queenside.  This is something that you learn explicitly.  The authors think it's best to have a small opening repertoire and study the methods in these positions thoroughly (this gets brought up again later).  Since this requires pattern recognition, you should use repetition to learn it.  They suggest going over the positions with different learning objectives in mind IE learn about the strategic aspects, then later go through looking for tactical ideas.

The opening:
As mentioned above, focus on a small repertoire of openings and expand later.  Rote learning is necessary.  Study your openings from different points of view that can be linked together.  Learn the typical middle-game and endgame positions that arise from that opening.  They recommend a "decomposition method" of taking a position from one of your openings then removing everything but kings and pawns.  Then gradually reintroduce more pieces to develop proficiency in the endgames that arise from your repertoire.

There's a series of books that Shereshevky wrote that are out of print called Mastering the Endgame Volume I and Volume II.  The idea was to cover the endings that arise from certain openings/pawn structures.  These books seem to fit that type of training and I don't think there are many like it.  Score another one for the "Russian Chess School". Mednis has From the Opening into the Endgame which is similar.  I haven't read any of those books, but the Shereshevky book came highly recommended from a native Russian speaker.

The middlegame:
Rote learning is less useful here because of the intersection of learning specific facts and general principles.  Specialize in the middle games that arise from your opening repertoire.

The endgame:
Start simple and acquire basic knowledge of all endgame piece configurations, paying special emphasis to pawn and rook endgames.  Study typical positions, and avoid arcane knowledge (Soltis mentions this in one of his books).  At later repetitions, add more complex endgames and also ensure your previous basic knowledge is still there.

They specifically recommended 3 books for this purpose.
Pachman - Les Finales/Chess Endings for the Practical Player
Averbakh - Lehrbuch der Schachendspiele (Band 1)
Averbakh - Lehrbuch der Schachendspiele (Band 2)

I assume Averbakh's Chess Endings: Essential Knowledge is a later compilation of those earlier German textbooks.

Study well annotated endgames by strong players for practical application of the theoretical endgame books.  They recommend 3 books for that purpose.

Shereshevsky - Endgame Strategy
Mednis - Practical Endgame Lessons
Euwe - Die Endspiellehre und ihre praktische Anwendung

I assume Euwe's A Guide to Chess Endings is the english version of the above.

A lot of what the chess improvement blogosphere already knows.  practice, repetition, chunking, etc.
They do cover some misconceptions about how to improve tactical skills.

  1. Calculate a branch of the search tree only once (Kotov).   
  2. Play blindfold chess.  They believe it's useless at best and possible harmful.  Blindfold chess skill is a side effect of being a good chess player, learning how to play blindfold doesn't make you better.
  3. Train with artistic chess problems.  Probably not good for competitive chess as the skills are different.  I assume these are things like Triple Loyds and other fun puzzles like switcheroos. Endgame studies are okay if they are practical in nature.

Don't go overboard with lots of strategy books as there's a big diminishing returns.  Study a couple and move on.  They recommend 2-3 classics plus a recent book on strategy.

Euwe - Judgment and Planning in Chess
Kmoch - Pawn Power in Chess
Nimzowitsch - My System

Strategic education is best gained by building your opening repertoire.  Example books using this method are:
Nunn - Benoni for the Tournament Player
Watson - Queen's Gambit: Chigorin Defense

There's a new series of "Move by Move" opening books published by Everyman Chess which might be good for that purpose, but I haven't read them.  Caro-Kann Move by Move, Ruy Lopez Move by Move, etc.

Other methods not recommended:
  1. Practicing visual representation.
  2. Practicing short-term memory
  3. Practicing deep calculation.
    1. They recommend that acquiring more knowledge is better than trying to think further ahead.  Pattern recognition narrows the list of candidate moves in a given position. They even suggest that knowledge is more efficient at improving your ability to look ahead.  This makes sense as someone with more knowledge will have better initial candidate moves and will focus less on bad variations which increases ability to look ahead more moves.

Start with a small opening repertoire and master the strategy, tactics and endgames that arise from them.
Study lots of tactics to build your pattern recognition.
Read annotated games meant for instruction.
Get a coach.

Sounds like the advice you'll hear from most strong players.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Games #19, #20, #21, #22, #23, #24

I can't believe it's been a month since I last posted some games.  I've continued to play 2-3 standard games per week in that time, I just haven't been updating the blog.  I've been playing like crap lately and it bugs me.

In game #19, I get into my standard time trouble, get a better position and fail to find several good moves to secure the win.

In game #20, I miss two elementary tactics that would have resulted in an instantly won game and only manage a draw.

In game #21 I just screw up big time when analyzing a series of captures.

In game #22, a simple piece placement error followed by doing everything possible to make my bishops the worst in the history of chess leads to a suffocating position capped off by a glaring oversight.

In game #23 I learn another way to get cramped in the Caro-Kann then miss multiple drawing opportunities with a small clock advantage.

In game #24, I end with a pick me up to show all is not lost.  Here's a miniature on the Black side of the Caro-Kann.

March was definitely not my best month of chess.  I also went on sort of a blitz spree.  I went from about 50 games of blitz played to over 700 in about 2 weeks.  It's definitely addictive.  It's helped me in some ways and hurt in others.  In some of my games I've played a little too quickly and speculative like I would in a blitz game.  Heisman says you should never get bad habits from blitz games.  In a standard game you just look at the clock and realize you have more time to play the positions and do that.

The good news is that I've gone from a sub 1000 blitz player on to 1300+.  I'm now in the 81st percentile, whereas I was in the bottom 25% before.    I've also learned how to play some positions I struggled with before and have learned more about my opening repertoire.  It's been a frustrating month of bad play and missed tactics, but you have to lose thousands of games in order to get good.  Hopefully I don't keep repeating the same mistakes.  I'm starting to get a little better with my time management, but it's still my biggest issue.  I'm still using a scattered thinking process during games.  Even after annotating and coming away with eureka moments for my process, I go back to doing the same thing in my next game.

My focus after each move is what does that move do?, CCT, list of candidate moves, then choosing a move.  Sometimes I'm even repeating it in my head over and over to force myself to do it.  I can't wait until it becomes second nature.

Current stats:
Class E +3 -1 =0 75%
Class D +6 -0 -0 100%
Class C +3 -4 =3 45%
Class B +3 =6 =0 33.3%
Class A +1 -4 =0 20%
Expert +0 -0 =0 0%

37 standard games played, and I finally hit my 20 game mark on ICC to qualify for the Team 45/45 league so I should be getting an additional standard game in each week when T61 starts.  I now have an official rating of over 1600 @ ICC and looking at my stats that looks about right.  If that means I'm only a 1400-1500 player USCF so be it.  That's still a huge jump up from my high school days.  I need to get into an OTB tournament at some point but I feel like I'm not ready.  Am I really as good as I've been playing or will I fold the first time I sit down at the board to a 1100 player?  I'm afraid of being overconfident, although this past month should've been a reality check for my ego.

For the next month I want to refocus on playing 4-5 standard games per week, annotated game collections and finishing the Howell endgame book (I've said that before).  I've been playing so much blitz I've neglected everything else except going through my tactics training.