On Chess Improvement
January 7th, 2015

Back

Good god, man, it’s been two years. I resolve herewith to return to this blog with some amount of consistency, thoughtfulness and rigour. Let’s see how that works out.

First, let’s talk about where things are right now. Since I last spent time on this blog ages ago, I’ve made some great strides in rating (see the sidebar). My acquired-in-the-meantime FIDE Elo is in outer Suckville, although it’s only based on 12 games (excuses, excuses), but my German OTB and my online ratings are starting to make more sense to me. I’m still not good, but I’m better than bad. At my club, I’m kind of at the top of the bottom of the heap (or the bottom of the middle? Would you rather be a D+ or a C-?), team captain for the BMM and somehow playing board 1 for my team in the Feierabendliga.

So what am I doing right now?

  • I’ve been reading Move First, Think Later by Willy Hendriks, a fantastic book. I actually started this a while ago, but suffered a sudden series of horrible game results, decided it was the book and put it down. I’m now reading it during my commute to work on my phone using Forward Chess and loving it.
  • I’m still taking lessons with IM Dan Vasiesiu (AKA LazyPawn on ICC). I’ve been going through my old lesson logs and entering them into what is becoming a massive ChessBase DB. So old game analysis, lots of tactical exercises, endgame positions. I have over 100(!) left to do, but I’m getting there. I’ve probably forgotten more than than I remember, so this is a vital task that I’ve been putting off for too long.
  • Since 2013, I’ve gotten more serious about openings. I’ve switched to a much more mainline repertoire as White (still with 1.d4, now improved with 2.c4). As Black, I’m still playing the Caro-Kann in response to 1.e4, but I’ve switched to the Nimzo-Indian with Black if allowed… Maybe I’ll talk about opening preparation in an upcoming entry.
  • Tactics, tactics, tactics. Mostly on my phone…
  • I’m also reading Improve Your Chess Pattern Recognition by Arthur van de Oudeweetering, also a great book.
  • And playing as much as possible, time permitting, OTB as much as I can. Because online chess sucks. But it’s good for keeping sharp, as sharp as a dull blade can get.

My goal for 2015 is to pull up to 1700 Elo (so I’ll need to start playing tournaments more regularly — one 9-round Swiss/year isn’t going to cut it), 1972 ICC (my birth year) and 1500 DWZ. Ambitious but not outrageously so. The Elo is the hardest one to change because I play so few Elo-rated games.

One particular problem I’m hoping to work on this year involves my difficulties with OTB games, whether it’s a question of 3D real board vs 2D computer representation, of noise, of sensitivity to smelly old people with onion breath sitting across the table from me. I simply perform better at home, relaxed, with headphones on. Jesse from the Komodo team suggested ear plugs, so I’ll be trying them. Maybe I need nose plugs, too, though?

 

 

Anyway, so that’s what’s on the menu for this year. Wish me luck.

Let’s conclude with a recent OTB game, nothing special, just a solid win:

January 7th, 2013

Winning, then losing, then winning at the BMM 3.2

First off, check out those ratings! I’ve had a bit of a bump in December on ICC, maybe a bit of luck as well, but I’ve broken 1500 (my “short-term” goal over a year ago, which permits me to buy a DGT chess board (which I bought already because I got impatient)), I’ve broken 1556.59 , ICC’s median standard rating, and if I keep it up, I’ll be kissing 1600 before too long. My trainer, IM Lazypawn, has stopped hurting my feelings for a while and thinks I’ve got another 300 points in me for 2013. Let’s see. In any case, it’s been a good 2012-2013 transition, and I feel like I’m starting to get better again, after plateauing around 1450 for way too long.

Anyway, today was round 5 of the 2013 Berlin Mannschaftsmeisterschaft, in which I’ve performed at a decent, but not spectacular level to date. I’m in the 10th Mannschaft (Klasse 3, Staffel 2) at my chess club, SC Kreuzberg, normally on board 5 (of 8). My team’s doing pretty well overall, considering our average rating of 1161 DWZ (about 1350 FIDE ELO, approximately), with 3 wins, 2 draws and a loss so far against generally much higher-rated teams.

Today’s home round was a played against the Serbo-Berlin club SK Dragojle Babic, and we walked away with a sweet 7:1 result. Dragojle Babic has an average 1523 DWZ rating, so no complaints from us.

My own game started out great, as my opponent botched the White side of the Caro-Kann, basically giving me the bishop pair for nothing in the Classical variation. Although I couldn’t find a decisive advantage, I was easily equalized, had good chances to win a pawn, and White was going to have to fight to pull a draw out of the position. Awesome.

But then I made a few bad decisions, maybe I got a little too confident, impatiently took the pawn that I’d been fighting for a tick too early, made some unnecessary calculation errors and soon found myself suddenly pretty much losing, 2 pawns down. Oh no!

But I kept at it, and found a tactical solution to a decisive material advantage (although it turns out that it wasn’t good enough – my opponent missed a chance to stay on top, but it was hard to find), played an imperfect but sufficient endgame and won the point.

Anyway, an instructive game, see my annotations in the embedded board below! Click e7 to see the board from Black’s perspective.

July 19th, 2012

A Smothered Mate in the Caro-Kann Advance Variation

You’ll be glad to know that my thought process work is coming along well, and I’m enjoying my current all-time high rating of 1437 on ICC (still 100 points shy of my short-term goal, but I’m getting there). But that’s not what I want to talk about today, rather a “trap” in a sideline of the Caro-Kann Advance variation which I never noticed before, and which, had my opponent been aware, would have cost me a game today.

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 are the normal book moves here.

CaroSmother

White now plays the relatively rare 4. Bd3 and Black is happy to remove White’s good bishop with 4… Bxd3 after which White makes a questionable recapture with 5. cxd3? and Black has more or less already equalized at this point.

CaroSmother2

The game continued 5… e6 6. Nf3 Nd7 7. O-O Ne7 8. Bg5 and now Black has to be a little careful. All of Black’s play until now has consisted of good, solid development moves, but with this pin and the boxed-in king, White has some opportunities.

CaroSmother3

8… c5? looks like the ‘obvious’ break move in this sort of position, clearing the c6 square for the Ne7 so that the bishop is opened. But here it’s wrong. Since the Ne7 can’t move anyway due to the pin against Black’s queen, it delays the opening of the king for a precious tempo. Correct was 8… Qb6, which eliminates the pin and gives the king a little space with tempo against the b2 pawn. Next comes 9… Nf59… Qxb2 or maybe 9… c5 (not the strongest in this position), but Black doesn’t have any problems, in any case.

After 9. Nc3!, Black has to delay his plans. For instance, Black cannot play the tempting 9… cxd4??

CaroSmother5White to play and win!

10. Nb5! threatens a smothered mate with 11. Nd6#.

CaroSmother6

White will lose at least a knight with 10… Nxe5 to avoid the mate. 10… Qb6 is now useless as well, since after 11. Nd6+ Kd8 12. Nxf7+ Kc7 13. Nxh8 White has a decisive material advantage.

So instead of 9… dxc4, Black has to buckle down and play 9… a6 and fight a little harder to regain equality (Black can also play 9… Qa5 […Qb8 or …Qc8 are possible, but not really great]). Anything else loses on the spot!

My opponent was, luckily, not aware, and even crappier at tactics than I am, so the rest of the game was, relatively, a massacre. But this is a good situation to look out for when playing this variation. I was surprised to find 5 games in the ChessBase Mega Database in which 2000+ ELO players got themselves into this situation (the prize goes to D Bosnjak [2314]).

The game with variations below…

July 10th, 2012

The Importance of Thought Process

Here’s the bottom line: all of your opening preparation, middlegame flair and endgame technique, all of your carefully-studied master games, calculation practice, tactical ability, planning skills and visualization training are completely worthless if you don’t have a consistent, clear and logical thought process that you employ on each and every move of the game. That’s it.

This might seem self-explanatory, but it’s taken me a serious self-administered kick in the ass as the result of a string of disastrous games against weaker players to reach this moment of clarity. The problem is, it’s hard, and it requires careful, regular and exhausting practice to overcome the bad habits that are so deeply ingrained in my game. I’ve attached a sticky note to my computer screen with my step-by-step for each move, and now before I touch a piece, I go through them. And it’s still hard.

These are training wheels, of course. At some point, the sticky comes off, and I do this myself, automatically. But I’ve clearly demonstrated that I’m incapable of doing this on my own without training. I was doing alright for a while, but as with everything, laziness and inertia take over: the brain is a tricky and very lazy guy. He’ll fool you into thinking that you’re doing work that you’re not actually doing.

So here’s my chess thought process, to be employed on each and every move (including opening moves, once I’m out of book). This is based on my lessons with IM Dan Vasiesiu (ICC: LazyPawn), and I’ll swear by it. It’s essentially a threat management burger. Your chess knowledge is the meat and cheese, lettuce and tomato, but threat management is the bun, and without it, you’ve got a horrible, sloppy mess on your hands… I ask you: What good is a great burger if it’s dropped on the floor?

burgermess

Without further ado:

Pre-Step. Threat analysis: Why did he do that? What is he threatening? Do I need to defend, or can I do something stronger/faster? What is the threat level of the move (check -> mate threat -> capture -> material threat -> positional threat -> non-threat, strategic move)? What can he do to me if I do nothing?

Step 1. My Tactics: Calculate my threats, from strongest to weakest. If the opponent’s move was a threat, only examine moves of similar or higher level. If one of my threats gains something, keep looking for a stronger move, even at a lower level. If one of my threats gains something by force, STOP and go to Step 3. If no tactics are available, go to Step 2.

Step 2. My Strategy: No tactics? Assess the position and derive a dream position, a plan. For instance, I have a lead in development, but a weak bishop. I could consider opening the center and going for his king; or to trade my bad bishop for his good one. And I need a move to bring me closer to my dream position. What is it?

Step 3. His Tactics: If I play a move, derived from the Pre-Set, Step 1, or Step 2, what can he do in response? Can he check me? Can he threaten to mate me? Can he attack or capture any of my pieces? This is his Step 1 and is very important! What can he do to me after my chosen move?

With this basic framework, all of the other stuff, all of your accumulated chess knowledge, can come into play. But it’s subsidiary to threat management. Remember: winning a pawn is useless if he can just mate you on the move.

An observation: if I apply this thought process to solving tactical exercises, my solve rate jumps up significantly. This is great: not only can I solve harder problems (thereby stretching my tactical skills), but I can practice this thought process whenever I drill tactics, and not just in games. Games, of course, are the real test of the technique, but getting in as much “thinking practice” as possible is necessary.

A consistent thought process in chess for every move is not necessarily the key to winning games, but it is most definitely the key to not losing them without a fight.

May 17th, 2012

4th Win in Berliner Klassenturnier

Another week, another win! I’m currently leading the pack in my section, although I expect my last game (in 2 weeks — next week is a bye) to be my toughest, against an opponent who will probably have the same score as I do after his next game.

This week’s game was fairly one-sided. White launched an aggressive pawn attack before developing his pieces and was severely punished for it, first by the loss of his queen (in return for a rook and a bishop) and then by a brutal series of double attacks which left his position in tatters, while his queenside remained completely undeveloped. It’s a fun game for the winning side, though.

For me, the game demonstrated the power of thinking 1 ply deeper when calculating the effects of a candidate move. Quiescent errors are borne of laziness and it’s been a struggle to force myself to do it. When I take the time to calculate just a little bit further, as in this game, it opens the door to extremely dynamic play.

Notes in the game. Hit ‘e7’ to see it from my perspective.

May 10th, 2012

3rd Win in Berliner Klassenturnier

Looks like I’m on a bit of a roll in the Klassenturnier. Last night, I had another win, this time against Herrn Gert Schröder, who put up a good fight, but ultimately succumbed to my vicious, but poorly timed, attack. I played pretty well, but inaccurately, maybe a little too carefully (I got chewed out by my teacher for not paying enough attention to my opponent’s tactics, so I was trying, maybe too hard, to find possible threats — I think I found some imaginary ones…).

Read all about it in the game notes…

May 4th, 2012

2nd Win in Berliner Klassenturnier

Although my OTB games are uneven, this one went pretty well: a hard-fought victory as Black against Wilfried Pilgrim in the Berliner Klassenturnier (my Wednesday night activity for the next 5 weeks). I arrived drenched in sweat after biking down from work on the bis dato hottest day of the year and probably won in part on the basis of my ripeness.

Anyway, I’m pretty happy with this game — there were no major blunders of commission (but a couple of blunders of omission where I just overlooked some much better continuations). Nevertheless, I think it’s a technically decent game, I felt concentrated and could calculate a bit more than usual. Themes: pins, open files, defusing an attack.

Notes, as usual, in the game text. Click on ‘e7’ to see the game from Black’s perspective… Enjoy!

May 4th, 2012

The only thing worse than losing is losing to a 15-year old punk-ass kid

This has to be one of the defining (and most humiliating) features of chess as a “sport”: it’s not uncommon for late 30-somethings to be paired against early 10-somethings. Showing up at 8:45am on a Sunday for the Berliner Mannschaftsmeisterschaft. Mannschaft 9 (of 9), Board 8 (of 8). White and Black are are sizing each other up… he don’t look so tough… and then, well, in this case, your late 30-something correspondent gets his ass handed to him, beautifully garnished and served with a smile.

See the note at move 17. I was somewhat nervous and on edge during this game, and I think that learning to play concentratedly and evenly, even in the face of pressure or (in this case) embarrassment, is a necessary skill to cultivate.

Enjoy, maybe there’s something to learn here. And sure, ok, congrats, Linus. Punk-ass.

April 26th, 2012

1st Win in Berliner Klassenturnier

Yeah, it’s been a long time, but only because I’m lazy about blogging. I’ve been working (very) hard, adjusting my training regimen, switching trainers (unfortunately, money is an object these days; I’m now working with IM LazyPawn, who I can’t recommend enough) and playing a bunch. And despite the occasional setback (remember the J-Curve?), it’s paying off. Check out the ratings curve to the right… ;-)

I’ve starting playing more OTB games, too, at my chess club, Schachclub Kreuzberg, a couple of games in the Berliner Mannschaftsmeisterschaft and right now in the BSV Klassenturnier. And had my first win against a rated opponent, Bernd Klausmann (DWZ 1251). Not an amazing win, but solid (despite one stupid mistake). Some themes here: rook maneuvers and open files, blockading, elimination of opponent’s counterplay.

October 9th, 2011

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