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.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Storming the castle!

Here is a nice game I played on ICC last night. You can play through the whole game and I've included some key positions with comments.

Position after 8.Nh3: Sort of a King's Indian Samisch. White plans on lining up a battery on the c1-h6 diagonal, castling kingside, and going for a kingside pawn storm attack.

Position after 12...h6: Black would like to play 13...Nh7 and then prepare ...f7-f5 at some point to break in the center. However, this plan doesn't quite work in this position because 13.Qd2 forces 13...Kh7 to protect the h6 pawn.

Position after 16...Ng8: White can't quite take on h6 yet, and Black threatens to play 17...h5 to close up the kingside. White finds the solution in 17.h5! preventing Black from shutting the door on White's kingside attack.

Position after 19.Be2!: Offering up the rook. The idea was to trade the rook for the opportunity to bring the rest of my pieces into the action. At this point, check out the sequence on the game replayer to see how I bring in the rest of my army to make the final assault on the king, most of the moves with tempo.

Position after 25...Rh8: Black resigned. White has many ways to win here. Perhaps the cleanest is 26.Bg5+ Kg8 27.Rxh8+ Kxh8 (or 27...Bxh8) 28.Bxe7 and White is way ahead.

Lessons from the game:
1. Typical plans in opening systems need to be checked for tactical soundness before being played "automatically" - e.g. Black's common King's Indian plan of ...h7-h6, ...Nh7, and ...f7-f5.
2. During a pawn storm against a castled position (such as in the KID Samisch, the Pirc 150 attack, or in some variations of the Sicilian Dragon for example), don't allow your opponent to lock up the pawns and "shut the door" on your attack.
3. During a direct attack on your opponent's king, it is worth material to gain time to bring in reinforcements to the attack.

I hope you enjoyed the game. I certainly enjoyed playing it. As always, feedback is welcome and appreciated.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Chess9030 Tournament 101 Round 2

I played a nice game last night. Due to an inaccurate pawn break in the opening by Black, White emerged a pawn ahead. After some middlegame tactics, I was able to win another pawn, which turned into a monster in the endgame, crippling my opponent's remaining pieces and paving the way for my rook with each advance. My rook coordinated well with my bishop finishing Black off in fine fashion. Thanks to my opponent for being a good sport and friendly opponent. I'm now in first place in this tournament with a score of 2 after 2 rounds. My next game will be against the final player in our quad and I'm looking forward to it!

Bloom's Taxonomy and Learning Chess (Part 1)

I was reflecting the other day on how I study chess, specifically studying master games in this case. The "old" me would play through the moves, and read through the commentary and maybe play out a few of the lines in a particularly complex position. Although doing this was definitely beneficial, I wondered if it was the best way to do things - if there was a best way.

More recently, technology and media have allowed us to take this a step further, with chess videos, including those on the internet such as on the Internet Chess Club, or ones you can by from Chessbase or other producers. Again, I would listen and watch the video and "absorb" the information. Again, probably useful in my understanding, but again I wondered if it was the most effective way.

Concurrently, I was at my client's office (by day I work as a financial planner) and noticed a little spiral flip chart with a few words on it - Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. I talked to her about it, and she told me it was from Bloom's Taxonomy. I won't got into all of the details of Bloom's Taxonomy, as there are many aspects to it, but I would like to focus on the cognitive domain, with the six categories mentioned above. I will discuss how each level can be applied to my chess story (and maybe yours). The general idea is that the higher levels constitute higher levels of critical thinking and mastery. I will discuss it in the context of studying a master game. A note to those familiar with Bloom's Taxonomy: I am using the modern version of the concepts, which are slightly different from the original, with the main functional difference for this discussion being the change from nouns to verbs and the slight shift in the last two levels.

Level 1 - Remembering

This is the most basic level of thinking and it is important. This would involve recalling facts and basic concepts.

Chess application: Memorizing the moves of a game (as it may relate to an opening you play). If you were studying a master game, you could try to remember the moves after you have played through it once. This would also include remembering who played the game and what opening it is from. This indeed is very important as this information you remember is used in higher levels of thinking. Also, certain aspects, such as remembering a specific game, may help you access ideas and plans for specific openings. However, knowing is not enough. You need to understand...

Level 2 - Understanding

This level involves demonstrating understanding of facts and ideas by organizing, comparing, and interpreting.

Chess application: When you study a game, they key is to answer the question, "Why did Kasparov make this move?" or "Why does this plan work here?" When you listen or read masters' comments on a game, you can ask yourself: "Do I understand what he is saying? Does this make sense?" Some activities you might use to test your understanding include:

1. Asking yourself questions after reading the notes to a move: "Do I understand this?" If not, you may want to move the pieces around and figure out why. (Note: if it is very complex for you as it is often for me, it is okay to make a note of it and move on, because you may not have the basic knowledge necessary to understand the more complex concept - more on that in a future post)
2. When playing through a game, ask yourself: "Why was this move played?" Then compare what you think to the notes given by the author. This is another type of Solitaire Chess, where you cover the moves and try to guess what the master played, except on a level of comprehending the concepts instead of producing the moves. Both methods are great ways to train in my opinion.

Once you understand, then you can apply your knowledge...

Level 3 - Applying

Applying involves solving problems to new situations by applying acquired knowledge, facts, and techniques in a different way.

Chess application: Of course, this is what we are striving for in our chess games. I would contend that by doing it on a more conscious level we can accelerate our learning. Here are a couple methods and examples of applying.

1. When reviewing your games, try to make direct connections between something you learn to something you did. For example, if you learned about isolated pawns and thought to work at creating isolated pawns in your opponent's pawn structure, note this. This will strengthen your ability to use it in the future (as well as give you confidence that your studying is paying off).
2. Play solitaire chess using a game from the same opening as the master game you studied. For example, let's say you studied a game with the Sicilian Defense where you learned about the Sicilian queenside counterattack. You might want to find another master game in the Sicilian where Black won and try to guess the moves that the player with Black played.
3. Play the computer from the position you studied. Take the side of the winner. The computer will most likely play differently than the antagonist, but many of the positional or tactical concepts that were valid in the original game should be valid in this case as well. This involves being able to select the right positions to do this with.

Once you've learned to apply your knowledge, you can begin to deepen your mastery of the concepts through analysis.

In this article, I discussed the first three levels of Bloom's Taxonomy for cognitive learning, and how we can actively apply these principles to our chess study and training. Perhaps you may find some ideas you can try in your own training program. In Part 2, I will go through the next three steps and also discuss how understanding these concepts can help you construct or add to your own training regimen.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


The following was the position before the final move in an online tournament game I played this afternoon. Before looking at the answer, see if you can figure it out:

I believe all beginner and intermediate player should make it a priority to master tactical recognition and calculation. I have been thinking about this lately, and although it is not very profound (many instructors and masters also agree with this), I am reminded of just how important it is as a foundation to more advanced strategic planning and concepts.

This shows up when I am studying a position, thinking about infiltrating weak squares of trading off my "bad" piece for his "good" piece and I miss a mate-in-two. Often, the opportunity doesn't present itself again once it is missed.

In any case, here is the move: 30...Rd2! threatening the bishop on c2 as well as the pawn on g2 (which would lead White giving up his queen to avoid the checkmate with the Black queen entering the scene on h3). My opponent resigned here.

Tactics! Tactics! Tactics!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Pushing past limits

Today, I ran 8-miles, my longest run ever. It was somewhat grueling, but I've been slowly building up my distance over the last three months, adding about half a mile a week starting at 5 miles. It got me to reflecting about the limits in our lives and how for the most part, we set these on ourselves.

I also recently listened to the audio series by Dr. Wayne Dyer called Excuses Begone! In it, Dyer dispels many of the excuses we give ourselves and outlines principles we can use to defeat them and reach our true potential.

These confluence of events inspired me to share a couple actions I am trying to apply in reaching higher levels of chess. I hope you find them helpful.

1. Decide what you want. This is always a first step I noticed in all self improvement books as well as a logical step in any case. You may want to think broadly - e.g. I want to achieve as USCF Rating of 2200 - or maybe more specific - e.g. I want to improve my understanding of the Ruy Lopez. Dr. Dyer discusses the universal power of contemplating or envisioning what you want in your life and how the universe brings everything you will need to accomplish your goal. Whether you believe in this universal power or not, I think you can also see the usefulness of knowing what you truly want out of chess or anything in your life. If you want to become a national master for example, you will begin to seek out the information and training you need to start getting there. Obviously, your work and commitment to this vision is important, but knowing is the first step.

2. Recognize that your beliefs empower or limit you. Do you believe you're too old to improve your chess? Do you believe you are not born with the innate talent to become better than you are? Dyer discusses an amazing example of the placebo effect, where patients with arthritis were either given known surgical treatments or a "placebo" surgery where the doctor only made superficial incisions and pretended to work on the arthritic joint (the knee in this case). They followed the patients after surgery for two years and found that the patients in both cases improved at the success rate! They talked about patients who were able to play basketball, run, and do things they hadn't done for years. They were told after two years that they actually hadn't been treated, and the patients were amazed! Your beliefs both positive and negative have a profound effect on what you can and cannot do.

3. Be present in the moment. Do you let the regrets of the past distract you? Do you dream too much, without taking action in the present? Living in the moment prevents you from really making excuses, because you are just doing and being. In chess, when you are playing a game or solving a problem, think about just being present in the moment. Do not think of how you beat or lost to your opponent in past games, or even about a move you should have played in the past. Think about the current position at hand and focus your entire being into making the next best move. As Dyer says, the future can only be lived out in the present as well. I admit that this concept is difficult for me to wrap my head around, because I often try to learn from the past as well as plan out my future, but I don't think Dr. Dyer is excluding those useful activities, but instead that when reflecting on the past or focusing on the future prevents living in the moment through feelings of regret or distracting from the present is can be harmful.

4. Take responsibility. When you take 100% responsibility (a concept I've read in many books, including QBQ by John Miller and Success Principles by Jack Canfield), there is really no room for excuses. For example, a common excuse is that "I'm too old" to become a chess master, but if you look hard enough, there are many people who reach that desired title late in life. Similarly, excuses such as "I don't have time" and "it is too difficult" disappear when you truly take 100% responsibility for your results. As a good friend of mine said, "Who has time to play chess? Well, I guess those who make time."

NB As a side note, I wanted to share the technique of creating posteriorities in our lives (a concept I learned from Brian Tracy books). Where priorities are things we should do first and more often, posteriorities are things we should do last or not at all. We can take our time to improve at chess (or anything else) from our posteriorities. For me, my main posteriority watching excessive amounts of television and I can easily carve out an extra hour a day for my priorities by reducing the time in front of the tube.

5. Take it a step at a time. Sometimes, when we look at our long-term goals for chess and life, the enormity of the task ahead can be overwhelming. How do you eat an elephant? That's bite at a time. Do you want to get better at tactics? Well, doing 1500 tactical problems and understanding them deeply would certainly make you better. If you did 15 problems a day, which would take 10-15 minutes, you'd do just that in 100 days, just over three months. I'll give you a striking example from another hobby of mine - weightlifting. About 3 months ago, the most I had ever deadlifted was 140 pounds. However, by careful training and gradually adding 10-15 pounds each time I successfully completed the lift, I can now successfully deadlift 235 pounds! Now I know you greatest gains are made at the beginning of most endeavors, but that constant striving for improvement, even in little ways, over time will add up to great results. By the way, had I tried to lift 235 pounds 3 months ago, I would have seriously hurt myself and not even budged the bar.

There are many more insights that Dr. Wayne Dyer shares in his book and many other ways to improve, but I think the most important thing I learned from these experiences and his book are that we have an incredible power to create what we want in our life. We only need to have the vision and belief in ourselves, and be willing to live our lives with full responsibility for our results. Excuses Begone!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Opening Musings

Since starting to play again these last few weeks, I've been thinking about trying out some new openings. I'd like to put something together that I could have fun with and get better with. In general, over my lifetime, I'd like to have several opening choices for each option - not 4-5, but maybe 2-3. Here are some ideas for opening repertoire themes I've been thinking about:
1. An offbeat repertoire - something where I get the first surprise in. Typically, this type of repertoire ends up being a little trappy and I've played these types of openings before. For example, gambit lines with 1.e4 with White, the Scandinavian Portuguese Variation and the Hennig Schara Gambit with Black. More recently, I've been using the Trompowsky and Pseudo-Trompowsky with White, which can be fun too. The advantages of this type of repertoire is that you often have a surprise factor on your opponent, especially if it's a sharp gambit line. The cons are usually you limit the types of positions you learn, perhaps limiting your long-term growth. Also, since less of the best players play them, you may have to study games of lesser known masters (which can still be very rewarding I'm sure). Interestingly, my 1.e4 gambit lines have been very fun to play in blitz lately, and I still remember a lot of the ideas, even though I developed that repertoire about 10 years ago and hadn't played them in years before a couple weeks ago.

2. A classical repertoire - The would involve playing 1.e4 e5 and 2.d4 d5 with Black and either 1.e4 and 1.d4 aiming for main line classical openings. The advantages of this in my mind are that one would get a good grounding in overall chess play, as these openings have been played since the beginning of the game. Similarly, they are still being played by the best players in the world. The disadvantages to doing this is there is less of a surprise factor and usually you might be the one finding yourself in an opening surprise. Also, since these openings are so old, there is a lot of analysis, so stronger opponents may understand them a little more.

3. A similar positions repertoire - I can mainly think of a few examples of this. One would be a hypermodern style repertoire, involving the Reti opening with White and the King's Indian and Pirc with Black. Another might be the use of the English opening and Sicilian Defense to try to reach similar positions. Another might be an opening repertoire that leads to Isolated Queen's Pawn Positions (such as used to some extent by Sveshnikov). The advantages to this is mainly playing positions that are similar and that familiar plans and themes. Conversely, since the positions are limited, again one's overall development might be stunted.

4. Favorite player repertoire - This would involve taking a favorite player and playing selections from their opening repertoire. The advantages to this approach include studying the games of your favorite player to enhance your knowledge, perhaps playing games that fit together somewhat (e.g. if your favorite player is Kasparov, many of his openings will be sharp and tactical whereas if your favorite is Karpov, the openings will tend towards the positional). The disadvantage to this approach is perhaps your favorite player's style may not match up with your natural strengths. Also, if your favorite player is older, the openings played may not be up to date with theory (although I don't think this would be such a problem until higher levels of play, and at that point, one can update the repertoire with more modern games).

In any case, these are some of the themes I've thought about in creating a new repertoire. By the way, I don't think it's the most important thing to focus on openings, but for me creating a new repertoire is fun and I get much middlegame and endgame knowledge from studying the whole games within those openings. I'll update you once I've made some decisions as to what I'm going to do.

As I'm making these choices, I have a few things in mind:
1. I want to be able to hold on to these choices for a while (as I get better), so I don't want them to be total junk trick openings. This doesn't eliminate offbeat openings, as I believe many offbeat openings such as the Trompowsky are perfectly sound alternatives.
2. I want to improve my overall chess game by playing these openings. This would probably eliminate the similar positions approach (at least for now) for a more diverse repertoire.
3. I want openings that are still played a little today. They don't have to be absolute main line, but I don't want them to be too obscure that no 2600+ GM's play them.

I hope my opening musings have been interesting for you, and perhaps they might inspire you to try out something new. Cheers!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

ICC July Standard Tournament Round 1

One of my goals is to play competitive long games. Here is the first round of the ICC July Standard Tournament. My opponent is a bit lower rated than I am, but I am not taking anything for granted. I had a couple goals going into the game:
1. Concentrate
2. Consider the big picture (not just tactics)
3. Focus on piece activity
4. Calculate, don't guess at moves.

I accomplished those fairly well for the most part. I do admit though that my focus wilted slightly as I found myself with more of an advantage. This will be corrected naturally I think as I play tougher competition and get punished for lapses in concentration. Each game I go into I have 2-3 little goals like this depending on what my needs are at the moment.

I will be looking up this opening, which I haven't played in a while as well as review my thought process throughout the game. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Slight shift in plan

I decided to shift my training plan a little to perhaps increase my chances of sticking to the plan and to attend to my current needs. First, I am simplifying my schedule a little, as I'm finding with my two kids, wife and business, that I don't always get the specific time allotments I strive for. In any case, my plan will focus on the following areas:
1. Tactical training on Chess Tempo. Currently, my focus is on tactical pattern recognition (as opposed to an emphasis on deep calculation) so I'm using their blitz settings.
2. Playing long games against good competition and then analyzing those games deeply. The analysis will focus on finding the best moves I should have played as well as identifying the reasons behind any mistakes I might make - for example, was my error due to time pressure, laziness in calculation, lack of knowledge, not formulating a plan, etc. This analysis would also include looking up my openings.
3. Studying master games: This includes games from books, videos, and games I find in my database. I'm not going to specify at this point a specific schedule, as I think the key is just getting through the games. For example, one day I may be in a mood to study a master game from a video on ICC or on (one of my new favorite chess sites), or I might feel like delving into one of my chess books, such as Chess: The Art of Logical Thinking by Neil McDonald. I'll try to find "relevant" games to study - e.g. a game with an opening I just played - but again the key is to study games and positions and seeing how the masters did it. I usually will also try to stay engaged in the material. For example, when watching a video and the commentator says, "and on this next move Polgar found a powerful tactic" I will pause the video and try to figure out the move. I am a big fan of solitaire chess and this type of work I think helps in the long run.

I think I've spent a little too much time trying to "perfect" my training schedule and not enough time actually working on it. I think by having these areas of focus and staying a little flexible, I get out of the rut of getting disappointed if I miss a day, or feeling like I'm not optimizing my training. The benefits of enjoying the training and actually engaging in the training will overcome any detriment due to not "structuring" the training perfectly I believe.

Also, I'm going to move my specific training journal to's forums. Here is a link to my training journal. On this blog, I will focus on my game annotations, philosophy of chess training, cool positions I find, etc. Those who wish to delve into the details of my chess training can do so in my training journal.

Well, my kids and wife just got up, so off I go. Have a beautiful day!