Saturday, October 24, 2009

Heisman's "Three Showstoppers"

Last month, Dan Heisman's column at ("The Three Show Stoppers") set a lightbulb off for me. Which is odd, because he's discussing issues of time management, piece safety and piece activity that he's written about before. However, these concepts came together to form a "perfect storm" of chess instruction.

A theme of Heisman's is that there are certain basic skills such as time management and playing what Heisman calls "real chess" consistently on every move of the game. The trick, of course, is consistently. If 49 moves out of 50 you play properly, and 1 move out of 50 you launch a stinkbomb of a move because you moved too fast or a piece was hanging, then your chess strength is severely diminished. I think that, for most people, working on improving this aspect of their game will likely produce greater dividends than just about any other chess-related activity.

Easily said, but as the byline of this blog says: "Do as I say, not as I do." It takes gumption to work on this, and if most of your chess is online blitz then you're not going to be able to play "real chess" a la Heisman unless you're pretty gifted. However, in this column Heisman reduces the essentials to three principles:
  • Time Management: not moving too fast or too slow, but using the appropriate amount of time for each move
  • Safety
  • Piece Activity
Quoting Heisman:
As in math, some consistency in base issues is required before anyone can benefit from the multitude of advanced possibilities. From a graphical standpoint the chess bases look something like:

Slow –> Safe –> Active –> Explosion of all other strategies

Therefore, to get the full benefits of the wonderful world of chess strategy, a player should first be able to apply the base issues fairly well. In other words, since the base three issues are such critical “showstoppers” (i.e., chokepoints), we need to at least minimally pass them first before the main learning fun can fully bloom.

I've been pretty good at time management, but only, say, 95% of the time. In both slow and fast games, I'll occasionally toss out a disastrous fast move; in blitz games I'll often take far too long on one particular move rather than pull the trigger and move. Also, even when I ask "Is it safe?" before making a move, I still find that many of my mistakes are obvious shortly after releasing my moved piece.

I've thought for sometime that Blitz just reinforces bad habits, and that it's main useful purpose was to generate chess games that can later be analyzed (check the opening lines, analyze the tactics and blunders, review the endgame, etc.). However, for someone whose problem is with the "three show stoppers", I'm now wondering if these three concepts can be successfully practiced through Blitz at my usual time controls online.

First, a review of time management. If you assume a typical game length of 40 moves, you can calculate, with or without an increment, about how long the game should take and how much time should be spent per move.

If you take the time control in minutes, and add 2/3 of the time increment in seconds, you get the time you have for a 40-move game. For example:

2+12: 2 + 8 = 10 minutes
5+5: 5 + (10/3) = 8 1/3 minutes
22+12: 22 + 8 = 30 minutes

So, if you want to commit to a g/22+12, you should be prepared to spend an hour or more on the game (30 min x 2 players).

As for how much time to spend per move: For 40 moves, each minute on the clock gives you 1.5 seconds per move. So:
g/5: 7.5 s/move
g/5+5: 12.5 s/move
g/2+12: 3 + 12 = 15 s/move
g/22+12: 45 s/move

For my favorite time control of g/2+12, that means I should be spending 15 seconds per move, ideally. It also means that even if the game goes longer and I'm running short on time, I still have 12 seconds to think. That means I can keep up a regular pace of moves without having to change my pace much for longer games.

However, in tournament chess a time delay of 5s is more common. I've started playing g/5+5 instead, which not only replicates real tournament time pressure more closely, but also forces better time management. 15 vs. 12 seconds though doesn't exercise this skill as much...there's not much variation between the regular pace of moves and time trouble. 12.5 vs. 5 seconds is a significant difference, and a player that better paces their moves should have a significant advantage.

At 12 seconds per move, I can't hope to play "real chess" (I can't really play "real chess" even with g/60, or 1.5 min/move), but I can at least force myself to think about Heisman's other two "show stoppers" during that time: safety and activity.

I have noticed in my blitz play that I have a tendency to opt for a fancier, less clear and active continuation than a safer, clearer one. Heisman on the other hand stresses safety over activity. It may be possible to reprogram myself to value safety over activity on a consistent basis even as I play Blitz.

Ideally, I would do all of this but play slower games. I may try to switch to playing 30-minute games instead of multiple blitz games, or play against the computer to practice my thought process. For now, as an experiment I'm trying to apply these "big 3" concepts to my blitz play (as well as my weekly club games), and see if it has a dramatic effect on my blitz rating. If I can consistently manage my time, and within 12 seconds ask "what does my opponent's last move do?" and "is my next move safe?", it should.

Give Heisman's article a read, and ask yourself if the "three showstoppers" are still limiting your chess progress. I think for a lot of club players, the answer is "yes". Fixing this problem won't be easy, but I'm going to try and follow this protocol religiously and try to push myself to the next level.


Anonymous said...

I am a big fan of Heisman's Novice Nook and own several of his books. Reading your recent post reminds me of one of his points - the best blitz players got good at chess playing slow games, then blitz. He points out the obvious, one cannot play real chess at fast time controls. I believe the only answer for you, can be to play slow chess almost exclusively for the next year or two. I know how much I am struggling to apply real chess thinking process, and until it becomes second nature, I need more time than blitz allows. Try it, and good luck.


Grandpatzer said...

I agree about the slow chess part. I'm going to be seeking out rated games in my area (since moving here 2.5 years ago I've been content to play at the club and online), and also giving in and buying a digital chess clock at some point (I love my sturdy see-through analog clock, but I need to get with the 21st century).

I'm also going to check out the various slow-chess leagues on ICC and try to get more slow chess in that way. I'd like to get 2 slow games in a week (more if possible, but baby steps for now). I usually get one in at the club, so I would just need 1 game on the weekend (for example) to fill my quota.