Thursday, August 30, 2012

Life and Chess

As some of you may have noticed, I have not posted in a while. I have not played chess in a while due to life circumstances and changes of priorities in my life. However, the call of Caissa has brought me back. As I do so, I had a few revelations about myself and chess that I thought you might find interesting (if not somewhat obvious in some cases):

1. Mastering chess is a long term project. Indeed, my last effort a year ago to continue on this journey was met with life, and life won. However, in returning to studying and playing chess, I realized that I don't have to start from scratch, which I was planning to do. Now, sometimes starting over and building a new foundation is necessary in some things in life, but if one's foundation in chess is solid, then one can just build upon it and fill in the cracks. Although I'm a little rusty, as with the other times I've had a lapse from chess and come back, it only takes a short while to shake off the rust. However, proceeding to higher levels takes point number 2...

2. Perseverance is the key. I have to thank chess coach Dan Heisman, who mentioned this in a lesson with me over a year ago, but didn't really hit me until about two days ago. In his monthly Novice Nook article on Chess Cafe, he speaks about the concept of perseverance as well. Basically, it's getting through all of the difficulties along the way for as long as it takes. So in my own journey, I have not necessarily employed this concept, but perhaps I still can (or I'm certain I still can) by getting back on the horse as they say.

3. "Building" chess mastery. The metaphor of building is a good one and I use it as a motivational tool to continue on this quest. One of the reasons I quit playing chess for a while is that I was building a deck on our back porch. It took about a month, between a full time business and family obligations, but each time I got out to work, I noticed that I was a little further than the last time. Part of my decision-making is whether to start anew in my chess journey from scratch - i.e. New opening repertoire, new approaches, a fresh start in general - or to kind of continue where I left off. The former has its benefits in that you can "let go" of the pains of the past as well as the initial motivation of starting a new "quest." However, I realized - actually just a few hours ago - that this type of "starting anew" is what I've done throughout my life - in my career and in my personal life - and although it is fun in the beginning, it often grinds to a halt when the first challenges await. So I realized that in life as well as chess, I have to face the fact - and this is a positive in chess - that I've put a lot of time into this already. I don't need to start over and I have to face the fact of my past - not to let the pains of past failures bog me down, but to take the positive from the past and "build" from it. In a way, the foundational struts have been built. In a few places, I may need to rebuild due to decay or shoddy work, but we don't have to knock down the whole building and start over.

This last point may lead some psychologists to wonder about my emotional stability, and I do believe this revelation has many implications in my overall growth as a person. In any case, the metaphor of building has me very excited.

4. A step at a time. Perhaps building from the last point, I wanted to share another little story. I was burning some brush from cutting down some overgrown bushes and at one point, I got a little overwhelmed as I looked at the task ahead - does this sound familiar? However, I decided to have a little fun and focus on the present. I just took each branch and broke them down to pieces I could put in the bon fire. I ignored the whole of the task and focused on what I had to do next. In a couple hours, the task was done, and I had a huge feeling of accomplishment and actually had fun with the task! Chess is the same way. Sometimes, instead of looking at the totality of the goal - e.g. improving tactical mastery or developing an opening repertoire - one can focus on the branch - e.g. diving into a chess problem or studying a particular model game in your opening repertoire. I plan on doing this many times over and over again, and surprise, perhaps one day I'll find myself a chess master.

Conclusion As I continue on my journey I look back at what I've already done with chess and I can smile. I've enjoyed winning a few games against fellow patzer and master alike. I've passed on the game to my children as well as others when I ran a chess club at a local elementary. I've made many friends in over-the-board tournaments and online.

I look at the future, enjoying playing chess in tournaments and with my children. Perhaps writing as my actually proficiency in the game increases. Making new friends.

But I focus on the present, building chess mastery, one step at a time.

It's good to be back.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Blitz Tactics

After a few blunders in a tricky offbeat opening, I had the following position. What is the most precise win? I'll put the answer in the comments.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Studying Master Games Quickly

I don't think there's any dispute that studying master games is productive for increasing one's chess knowledge. Typically, the most common way to do this is to study an annotated master game in a chess book or nowadays, watching a chess video or studying a game on the internet. However, I did something a little different tonight that I found to be helpful in my specific situation.

Basically, I found a specific opening variation I have been studying and searched my database for it. After putting in specific variables - I wanted to study how masters carried out their plans against lower rated competition - I came up with 22 games. I played through the games fairly quickly, about 2 minutes per game.

The first few games kinda flew by, but then I noticed something interesting. I saw several positions like the one below:

Here, White had just moved his knight to e6. In several of my own games, I always wondered whether I should prevent this and if not how I should handle the annoying pawn on e6 after capturing with the bishop.

After playing through 5-6 games with this, I started to get a feel for what Black could do in this situation. Nothing too general, as each position was slightly different (that was a lesson in itself), but realized that it was something that shouldn't be feared. Now perhaps studying a few more games like this more in detail will help strengthen this knowledge, but getting an overall view through seeing it in several games was very helpful.

By the way, this concept of playing through master games quickly and in high volume is not a new one. Jeremy Silman, Dan Heisman, and Ken Smith mention it as an effective training method. It may seem a little passive for some, but I think it has some benefits:

1. By doing it quickly and in fairly high volume, I think your mind makes connections between common themes and patterns. for example, if the same 5-6 games were studied weeks apart, the connections might be more difficult to make without specifically looking for it.

2. It is a great exercise for when you're too tired to do intense training. Attention is still needed, but it's a little lighter than playing a serious game, or playing through a deeply annotated master game. For example, I decided to do this tonight because I was too tired to study and felt it would be more productive than playing some relaxing blitz chess (I think I was right).

3. It is easy with access to online databases (I used and the ability to filter games according to position, material, player ratings, and results allows you to customize this exercise to your specific needs.

In any case, I do have a few opinions on how to best do this:

1. I would suggest you pick a specific theme for the games you will study. For example, games within a specific opening variation.

2. I think at least one player be a strong player. For example, as I play the King's Indian Defense as black, I made sure all of the players with the black pieces have a rating of at least 2400 (I went higher, but I couldn't find enough games so I lowered it to 2400). As I mentioned, I think your subconscious mind picks up things you may not be aware of, so I would rather pick up the types of moves a 2400+ player would make than say, the moves an 1800 player would make.

3. Although this is a little more relaxing, it is important to pay attention to the board and not have too many distractions while doing it.

Of course, feel free to experiment with different variables. Let me know how it goes if you choose to try this out or if you already do this.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


The following position demonstrates that besides building up my knowledge and skill in various areas such as openings, strategy, and endgame fundamentals, it is always paramount for every player to be wary of tactics, both offensively and defensively. I offer the following position as both a tactics problem for you and a painful reminder for me to always be careful.

I am playing black and made the horrible move 1...Nxh4?? This move took a slightly worse game and turned it into a losing game. Unfortunately, my opponent did not find the solution and lost the game. Can you? Check the comments for the answer.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Road Ahead

I have to admit, I was in kind of a chess funk the last week or so. Things have been busy with work and family (mostly in good ways), so instead of training and studying, I have been mainly playing games for relaxation (not a bad reason to play I might add). However, I did some reflecting on my ultimate goals with chess - namely, to master the game and enjoy the journey along they way, so here I'm going to share some of my thoughts in a semi-organized manner.

Building a foundation
One thing I feel I've been lacking in my overall plan is building (or perhaps completing) a foundation of chess study. If you think of chess like language, this would be the alphabet and words (how I view tactics and combinations), and basic sentence structure (how I view strategy. This also includes the basics of your topic sentences and main ideas (openings), body (middlegame), and conclusions (endgame). The idea is to write a masterpiece of literature or deliver a powerful speech, you need to know how the fundamentals. Enough with the language analogy, but I hope I made my point.

In my collection of about 40 chess books, I picked several that I plan to read (or in some cases reread) to build my foundation. The point to rereading is to get the material in my database for future review. Here are a few of them:
Modern Chess Strategy by Ludek Pachman
100 Endgames You Must Know by Jesus de la Villa
The Art of the Checkmate by Renaud and Kahn

This also includes a progressive set of game collections of annotated master games. I wanted to mention and credit excellent chess coach Dan Heisman's influence on me in this regard. Going back to my language analogy, think of studying master games as studying examples of excellent prose.

Besides the foundational chess content, another important aspect to my personal improvement program includes learning from my playing experiences...

Learning from experience

Socrates said, "the unexamined life is not worth living" and as such the unexamined game perhaps is not worth playing. I don't truly believe this, but I do think if one wants to improve, you need to learn from experience. This isn't a profound discovery, as many masters and common sense would lead you to this conclusion. Here are the types of things one can learn from studying one's play:
1. Chess content such as openings - not just specific lines, but the feel of the opening. Such as the difference between technically learning a swimming stroke and actually getting in the pool and doing it. Similarly, tactical motifs and endgame positions that show up in your games are great material for study.
2. Non-chess content - this might include how you calculate (or don't calculate), time management (or lack of), concentration, energy as well as other factors.

Again influenced by Dan Heisman's writings as well as my own experience, I'll be focusing on a few things when I look for games to play:
1. Focus on long games with some blitz sprinkled in. This would involve time controls greater than 60 0. Dan Heisman talks quite a bit about this in his excellent Novice Nook column at Chess Cafe. Basically, I think long games give you the most material to work with for improvement (chess and non-chess content), while short games give you the ability to play a bunch of games (getting practice with openings and tactical shots). Intermediate term games (such as 20 0) should be avoided generally as they don't quite give you enough time to use and test your thought process for deep thinking and also not short enough to get the benefit of volume.
2. Try to play as well as possible. Fairly self evident, but to use a weightlifting analogy, if you aren't lifting hard enough, you won't get better. Also, but trying as much as you can, you get a better picture of what you can and can't do, as well as eliminating excuses based on not putting in enough effort.
3. Play strong competition. Similar to point #2, but as a friend of mine said, "If you want to play better tennis, play better tennis players." Stronger players will test you and punish your mistakes, exposing your weaknesses so you can improve them.
4. Go into each game with specific goals (based on your needs). For example, if time trouble is an issue, you can go into a game with the goal of being aware of the time control during play. During and after each game, one can assess how they are doing on these goals. This process is called self-regulated learning, which basically means taking responsibility for your learning and going into each experience with objectives. You can learn more about this in Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin or by looking up Zimmerman (the most prominent researcher on this process) and Self-regulated learning on the internet.

The General Plan

So what I want to do over the next couple years is systematically go through my foundational books as well as play "good" games and study them (working to improve any weaknesses I find). Again, this is not necessarily a new idea (I won't be writing a book on my training methods), but a systematic program that I haven't really followed consistently.

There are a few other ongoing training and study tasks that I will be enjoying as I work through my material and study my games. These include the following:
1. Practicing basic chess tactics (mainly using Chess Tempo) on a daily basis.
2. Studying and enjoying master commentary of games on ICC and
3. Analyzing positions with friends or on my own as I have time for and find along the way.

Once I've completed this foundational work, I'll hopefully be much stronger than I am now and also be in a better place to determine where to build from the foundation. Immediate thoughts to that regard include more focused work on openings and more game analysis (instead of studying other people's analysis).

The Road Ahead

If I stay consistent, patient, and persistent in this plan, I believe I'll get pretty good. By laying out some of the basics (a few more details can be found in my training log), I find myself at peace with the road I've layed before me and I'm looking forward to travelling it. Perhaps I'll meet you along the way!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Analyzing "by hand"

With the proliferation and availability of computer chess engines, it is tempting to use them for all of your analysis outside of actual games. I used to do that quite a bit. However, recently I have started doing my post game analysis very thoroughly "by hand" without the assistance of computer engines, and I have found the experience to be very helpful.

Now, this is not a new method of training or learning...this is what the players used to do before computers became strong enough to make better moves than most players. And perhaps many people still do. I know many who do what I did though...right after their game, they look at points where they were confused and fire up the engine to see what they should have played or to confirm their decisions during the game.

In this post, I'm going to discuss a few of the benefits and limitations of analyzing by hand and also how one might maximize its effectiveness.


1. Analyzing by hand helps practice skills of analysis used during games. These skills include calculation of variations, evaluation of resulting positions, and selecting candidate moves. Even if you are moving pieces on the board (instead of doing it all in your head), you still need to evaluate and organize the variations you come up with. If you do this with focus and self-awareness, I believe you will become more efficient and effective at it.

2. You will more likely remember what you discover in your analysis than if you didn't because of the engagement and emotions involved in your work. To use an easy example, consider the following position.

This is a well-known checkmating pattern that I and many others can instantly spot: 1...Nf2+ 2.Kg1 Nh3+ 3.Kh1 Qg1+! 4.Rxg1 Nf2#

I first discovered this pattern in a problem from a tactics book. I can spot this pattern, or at least consider it now whenever the appropriate elements of it are in place (e.g. the positioning of queen and knight, the weakness on f2, etc.) as opposed to if I had just been shown this without figuring it out myself.

The remembering I think is partly due to the emotional aspect (e.g. the satisfaction or frustration you may feel) of your involvement with the analysis.

3. Analyzing by hand helps to develop understanding of positions. When you fire up your chess engine to figure out a move, the computer is not telling you why the move is the best move. However, when you work thoroughly through various variations, seeing why "obvious" moves you might make work or don't work, and then taking a step back and looking at your work as a whole, you begin to have true understanding of the chess position you were analyzing. I believe this ability improves itself with practice. The key is the willingness to work at it.

Now, there are a few limitations of this type of work:

1. It takes a time. Analyzing by hand will take more time to find the answers than if you used a computer chess engine. This is a situation where the benefits far outweigh the cost. This is of course if your purpose is not only to find the best moves in the position, but also to better yourself as a player.

This reminds me of something I learned from GM Gregory Serper. I had taken a lesson with him years ago, when we both lived in Cleveland. We only had one lesson, but it made a big impact on me. He told me how as one of his assignments when he was studying under Kasparov was to correct the analysis in one of Kasparov's books. He said, "and I didn't cheat by using the computer." He said this took him several months (or a couple years...I forget exactly) but by the time he was finished his strength had grown tremendously to where he is now a Grandmaster (although I believe he is currently retired from active play). Note that the assignment wasn't just to correct the analysis but to gain experience and knowledge from the process of doing it!

2. You may not find the right answer or best moves. This is certainly a limitation and here is a couple suggestions to help with that. First, set a time limit to how much time you will spend on a position (perhaps depending on complexity of the position and whether you think you are on the right track). After your time is up and you feel you're spinning your wheels (which to some extent is a good thing), you can then either go to a stronger player or chess engine and see what you may have missed.

For example, consider the fundamental Lucena Position:

When I first saw this type of position in my games, I tried analyzing for about an hour and actually figured it out. However, unless you figure out the "bridge building" technique, all of your analysis may be frustrating. I think a little frustration is good for learning, but a lot may be counterproductive. So if you don't know the answer to this position, then try analyzing for say 15 minutes before reading the solution.

The solution is 1.Rd2+ Ke7 2.Rd4! (building a bridge for the White king to clear a path for the pawn) 2...Ke6 3.Kc7 Rc1+ 4.Kb6 Rb1+ 5.Kc6 Rc1+ 6.Kb5 Rb1+ 7.Rb4 and White's pawn will queen. Black's best resistance is 5...Rb2 (waiting patiently behind the pawn) 6.Re4+ (pushing the king further away) 6...Kf5 7.Rc4 and the king will escort the pawn to the promotion square.

Once you have learned the pattern, then it's with you forever (with some occasional review). So by using chess engines and reference sources after you've tried analyzing it yourself, you get the benefit of learning important patterns as well as the practice of analyzing. And as I mentioned in an above point, you will most likely remember the pattern more deeply by doing the previous analysis.

3. Analyzing by hand can be difficult. This is a definite limitation, but playing chess well is not easy, which is why it is worthwhile. I won't belabor this point, but I guess we all need to ask ourselves (and any answer is valid) whether or not putting in the effort and time (analyzing by hand) is worth the benefits (getting better at chess).


Now before I conclude this post, I do want to mention that this advice is aimed at mid-level amateurs like myself (I was going to put a level range, but instead I will describe what I mean). Players who are beginners may not have many "tools" in the toolbox for super-deep analysis, so may want to limit the time they allot to a smaller amount before seeking help from a stronger player, reference, or chess engine (in that order). Strong players who have developed their analysis skills to a high level may want to use the chess engines for assistance earlier in the process so they can cover more ground faster. Obviously, it is up to each player to determine what level is right for them.

In summary, I think analyzing by hand is a great way to practice and learn chess. Those who have the tendency to fire up Fritz, Junior, Rybka, or Crafty right after their games may want to consider taking a little time to analyze by hand first. The use of computer analysis after this is done may enhance your work. I hope that if you don't already, you may try this and not only experience the benefits of this type of training, but also the joy of analyzing and solving interesting positions.