The rough draft of my personal study plan is directed largely at studying a large number of master games, for a few reasons. One is that I haven't played over that many annotated games, and when I have it's been sporadic. Another is that I feel the need to be exposed to new plans, ideas and moves (for an example of one plan I found striking, see "When Pawns Lie"). I can tell from my own play that I have a tendency to play certain moves stereotypically and superficially....for example, my opponent plays ...g6 and I play Bg5 and Qd2. I also have a tendency to resist changing the pawn structure and not use my pawns dynamically. I need to see more examples where counter intuitive moves are played, moves that make you think: "they can actually play that?!?!".
However, this plan is incomplete because I have not addressed the most important thing I need to do to improve as a player. The biggest gains come from fixing your most glaring weaknesses. I think that for myself, and for most club players, one of the best ways of improving your playing strength is to make sure you're playing "real chess" on each and every move.
I am using Dan Heisman's definition of "real chess" from his classic article archived at The Chess Cafe:
"REAL" Chess - You select
candidate moves and, for each, you anticipate and evaluate all your
opponent's main candidate moves (especially all checks, captures,
and threats). If you see a threat you cannot meet, you almost
undoubtedly cannot play that candidate move; instead, you must
choose a candidate move that allows you to meet all threats next
whereas I am prone to playing:
"HOPE" Chess - This is NOT when you make a move and hope
your opponent doesn't see your threat. Instead, Hope chess is when
you make a move and don't look at what your opponent might
threaten on his next move, and whether you can meet that threat on
your next move. Instead, you just wait until next move and see
what he does, and then hope you can meet any threats.
--not on every move....just a small number of them. However, it only takes one bad move to lose a game. As Heisman puts it:
A Chain is Only As Strong As Its Weakest Link
The best way to introduce the second part of my explanation is to
make an analogy. Suppose you build a home where the temperature
is -20 degrees outside. You decide on a one-room home with four
walls, a roof, a floor, and a heater. You decide to save a little time
and material by finishing the four walls, the floor, and half the roof,
but the other half you leave open. Even though you have completed
over 90% of the structure, the temperature inside your home will
still be about -20 degrees with half your roof open. If you want
your inside heater to be effective, you have to enclose all of your
The cold home analogy is similar to what happens when you play
Real chess for 90% of your moves, but not for the other 10%. You
think you are a good player, but weaker players beat you when you
let down your guard for that 10%. In order to be a good player, you
have to at least try to play correctly on every move, not just most of
them. Consistency is important: remember that your chain of
moves, in many cases, is only as strong as the weakest link.
I think the common misconception is that blunders are just tactical errors. Tactics are involved, and better tactical vision will certainly help reduce the number of these blunders, but studying tactics is treating the symptoms and not the disease. Consider the errors you make in a game. How many of the critical errors (those that change the expected result of the game--win, lose or draw) were immediately obvious to you, and how many required some serious thought or computer assistance? If you had to think about why your move was bad, or why your opponent's move worked, then the problem is related to some other facet of your game. However, if your error provokes an immediate "D'oh!", then it wasn't your tactics that were faulty but your thinking. If:
- shortly after you make your move you suddenly realize it was a stinker, or
- your opponent makes an unexpected move whose strength is immediately obvious, or
- your opponent makes a move that you didn't consider, but it's immediately obvious that you should have,
then your thinking process failed you, not your tactics.
Another helpful article of his is this one where he explains the critical importance of playing "real" chess reliably, and of using your time efficiently:
The interesting part about both Real Chess and Time Management is
that both have to be practiced 100% of the time – 98% does not nearly
work. For example, if on 98% of the moves (49/50) you play correctly,
but on one move you decide to just relax and “see what happens”, that
can be a disaster. By missing that one move each game you will
consistently play hundreds of points weaker than your strength would
have been if you had played every move carefully. It is similar with
time – if you play even one move fast that may be enough to cause you
to lose and, if you play too slowly and then have to play quickly
during time pressure (as many top players do), then again just one big
slip at the end may easily be enough to cost you the game.
I seem to be pretty good at time management in actual tournament games, so what I need to concentrate on is the "real chess" aspect. When I return home, I'll edit this post to give a couple of examples from tournament games of gross failures to play "real chess" reliably.
If the solution were to just read Heisman's articles and *poof!* problem-B-gone!, I wouldn't have to write an article about this. The critical question is: how do I train this skill?
It seems easy enough: when considering candidate moves, and before making my chosen move, ask yourself what your opponent can do and whether you can handle his response. In practice, I have trouble doing this on every single move. For example, one error I constantly catch myself committing is "use my time analyzing A and B, be dissatisfied with the result, and play unanalyzed move C". It seems that being aware of how you are supposed to think is insufficient. What's needed is to reprogram your brain.
As an analogy, consider golf. One thing you train is to be able to consistently pull off a certain shot, such as sinking all 3-foot putts or chipping a ball onto the green and 3 feet from the hole. After practicing a shot again, and again, and again, the "right" way to do it becomes programmed in your "muscle memory" and you can just execute it with minimal thought. When a player decides to make a change in how they hit the ball (e.g. wind up a bit tighter for a more powerful drive), even if it's a small change, they need to test it again, and again, and again, to "reprogram" themselves.
Returning now to chess: I think that playing too much Blitz, especially online, programs your brain through repetition to play superficial chess. It's impossible to play "real" chess reliably during blitz. I suspect the psychology behind this is like rats pushing a button for a treat, or a couch potato constantly flipping channels with the remote. You perform an action, you get some stimulus as a reward...you perform the action, you get the stimulus....
The solution would appear to be to play more games at long time controls and to absolutely force yourself to play "real" chess throughout. Where I currently live, however, there are limited opportunities to play live games at standard time controls. After my move, I should be in an area with a lot more chess activity, so hopefully I'll be able to play proper chess more frequently.
Until then, the other solution would be to set a program such as Fritz to a decently low level and practice "real chess" there. I've only made a few attempts at this to date, and have had trouble sticking to my guns. One problem is that it seems hard to set aside several hours to play against a computer rather than a person. Another is that there's still the "TV remote syndrome", where it's too easy to just hit a button and find out the result of my chosen move...plus there's that "takeback" button where I can pretend that my overly-hasty move never happened. However, if I'm serious about improving this may be the most important thing I can try. I think I'm going to try and keep a game score and clock running, to try and emulate a tournament game more closely.
Another thing that may help is how I read over annotated games. I tend to go on autopilot and play through most of the moves uncritically, except where something grabs my interest and I feel like exploring the variations. Instead, I should probably make myself do a quick "real chess" scan after each move and try to anticipate the next move played.
I would be interested in hearing from anyone that has successfully employed Heisman's suggestions and turned their game around, and how they managed to do it.