Saturday, December 5, 2009

Shifting Focus

{Coincidentally, in an interesting example of parallel evolution, there seem to be many other bloggers that have recently taken self-improvement much more seriously as well. Check out Blunderprone's blog for more info on his ACIS (Adult Chess Improvement Seekers) movement.}

 For the last while I've been content to learn more about chess –endings, opening repertoire, reading some of the classic game collections such as Alekhine's NY 1924 and Nottingham 1936 tournament books, and Botvinnik's 100 Selected Games, etc. However, as I enter my 40th year of existence, I look at the sidebar of this blog ("hopes to become a B-class player before senility sets in") and the subtitle ("Do as I Say, Not As I Do") and have decided to do more of what I say.

For me, I identified the following areas as needing the most improvement:

  • Heisman's "Three Showstoppers" of time management, activity and safety (in order of increasing importance for me)
  • spotting simple tactics quickly. Heisman has pointed out that you use tactics more for defense than for offence. There are a limited number of moves during a game where your opponent makes a tactical error, but you have the opportunity on almost every move to screw up badly.
  • Cleary visualizing and calculating variations. This is the area that is most vexing for me. Even in fairly shallow calculations, I am prone to visualization errors. For example, I may have the illusion that a piece is protected when it's not. Here's a howler from a recent club game:


I actually spent 7 minutes on that move and did a safety check. The knight "felt" safe!

And here's an example where I get needlessly "cute", thinking I have a windmill tactic that doesn't work:

1.Re7? Qxc4 missing that after 2.Rc7+ Kb8 3.Rxc6+ that the bishop can be captured. (In my defense, I really needed to visit the washroom badly. Drinking too much coffee can adversely affect your playing strength!)

Especially for 7-ply and deeper calculations, I will have calculation errors based on whether a square or line is blocked or not. For example I will calculate that my queen can move from A to B but not see that I will have a piece in the way at the time of execution. So far I've been trusting that, by studying chess in general, my ability to visualize and calculate would go up as well. Now, it seems clear that heavier lifting is required.

I'm now focusing on the weakest links: the areas that are holding me back from becoming a stronger player. Here's what I've already started doing:

Paying close attention to my time usage. My use of the clock has been pretty good in the past, but I've been working at making it better. The most common error is for me to play a move too quickly. I don't do this often, but it only takes one such move to lose a game. I now write the clock times for both me and my opponent for every single move. I also figured out how to get my ICC games to auto save to my .pgn file with the times per move included.

Studying lots of simple tactics. Previously I've focused on tactics with a level that tests my limits. This refocus on simpler tactics is mainly to help me find safe moves quickly. I have always felt that I spot tactical elements more slowly than my opponents. If I have two minutes on average for a move, I need to rapidly spot threats for both sides, then come up with a safe principle variation (PV). The better I get at spotting simple tactical elements quickly, the better I can choose candidate moves. A rule of thumb is that it's more important to look wide than deep.

One very useful trick I've done is figure out how to turn my online blitz games into a file of simple (5 ply or fewer) tactics problems. That will be the subject of my next post. I can quickly flash through positions from my own games that contained a simple but devastating tactic that should be solvable in seconds. One added benefit is that these include a fair number of pieces en prise, so I'm honing how rapidly I can detect loose pieces. I don't know of any commercial set of tactics problems that has such simple "find the best move" problems interwoven with more complicated examples, which I find is more realistic.

I'm also plowing through some of the books on Heisman's tactics list, even the super-simple Chess Tactics for Students by Bain. I'll be installing Chess Tactics For Beginners onto my laptop (previously completed the series on my desktop). If anyone has tried the upgrades for CTB and CT-ART, I would be interested in knowing if they're worth upgrading to. The CTB upgrade looks like it's for both I and II, so that could be a good deal.

Even though I have been studying tactics for decades, I'm finding that by doing a lot of simple tactics my speed of pattern recognition has gone up. Sometimes as soon as I see the position, the answer comes in a flash…a good feeling, since I've always felt my brain took too much time to digest the features of a position.

Improving how deeply and clearly I can calculate. The deeper a calculation, the more prone it is to error…hence the rule of thumb described above. However, as the variations become more forcing you have to be able to see through the fireworks. I have started working through Anderson's Chess Visualization Course. So far it's fairly easy stuff, but I think the material will rapidly get more challenging. The next two areas also work on my ability to visualize my way through variations:

Going back to more "talky" annotated chess games. I'm going to work my way through Heisman's list of recommended game anthologies at the bottom of this page, even those I've read multiple times (although I've recently read the Euwe and Bronstein books). I've been plowing through maybe my 4th reading of Chernev's "Logical Chess Move By Move". Many of his comments are obvious, and having him explain each and every game why 1.d4 or 1.e4 is a good move gets tedious fast. Still, there are things to be gained.

First, I've found when going over my games with a stronger player that there are natural, strong moves that I could have played but didn't. When I play through the annotated games I try to anticipate the next move, and I think that this is improving my feel for powerful moves that maintain the initiative. I especially pay attention to situations where the attacker attacks and the defender parries. Before I look at the next move, I consider what I would do and whether in an actual game I would play a move that loses the initiative, and then I see how the attacker dealt with it.

Second, even though I'm familiar with the rules of good chess play, I still fall prey to the consequences of breaking them. For example, there have been a few times where I've lost just because I never got around to finding the tempo to complete my development ("I'll castle next move…no, next move, no…well, shoot.) Seeing victims breaking the rules and being punished for it is reinforcing (even if there is an "annotation by outcome" bias that favours the victor).

Finally, I try to visualize my way through all the side variations. I've been playing these games over an tournament-sized board. If I can't visualize my way to the end of the variation, I make one move and then repeat. Whether this is the most efficient use of my chess time is debatable, but I think this is the best way to stretch the limits of how far I can see. I've also done this with with the works of other annotators (Alekhine, Botvinnik, Bronstein, …) but the variations in these beginner books are better suited for my visualization exercise.

Playing more slow, rated games. This, plus simple tactics, are the areas that I feel will improve my game the most. Since moving to a new city 3 years ago, I've been content to just play long unrated games at the chess club and Blitz online. I am going to try to play at least two slow games a week. I think this is probably the most important change I need to make. I am going to try to play monthly quads as well as slow games online, and play far less blitz. I'm actually refusing to play blitz online until I work up the gumption to sit down and play a slow game. I need to look into some of the slow leagues on ICC. If I can play one slow game on ICC a week, one at the club, and a quad each month, I should be in good shape. It will be interesting to see how my rating changes after this hiatus.

Any other aspect of chess besides these is getting put on the back burner. I'm only going to look at openings, endings, or positional material if they are related to a game that I've just played (particulary slow games). Let's see if focusing on the right things pays dividends.


dfan said...

One thing I try to rate myself on when "solitaire chess"-ing my way through an annotated game is to note whether the actually played move was on my list of candidate moves at all. I don't expect myself to be able to match a grandmaster's moves, but if I didn't even consider it, that means I have some mental block I should remove.

Grandpatzer said...

That's an excellent point. For example, there was one point where Chernev said something to the effect of "The Master decides what they want to play...and plays it anyway" in a case where an obvous and desirable move initially looks prohibited, but if you look deeper can be gotten away with because of tactics. Sometimes you glance at a move and think it's impossible, without analyzing if you might, just might, get away with it.