28 October 2011

Annotated Game #16: Comeback (round 2)

This game followed Annotated Game #14 in my "comeback" tournament and was played against Expert-level opposition.  The game is rather simple in structure and easy to understand, which makes for some clear analytic lessons as a result.

Black quickly equalizes out of the opening, a Colle System with 3..c5.  Although I'm not an expert in facing the Colle setup (d4-Nf3-e3) I've never had any problems with it from the Black side as long as the light-square bishop isn't locked in prematurely with 3..e6.  I realize the Colle is popular with a number of players, but unless Black plays an early e6, which seems to lead to a sustained slight advantage for White, I'm not sure what White can expect to get out of it.

Key points from the game:
  • A consistent weakness shown by my older tournament games is the failure to understand the positional consequences of piece exchanges, as occurs on move 10 here.  My positional knowledge has improved so that such exchanges are no longer automatic, as seemed to be the case here.
  • Black picks the correct strategy (queenside play down the c-file along with pressure against d4), but gets too cutesy with a queen exchange on b3, which would have allowed White to trap Black's Na5.  The simple, clear follow-up of exchanging on c4 would have given Black a fine game.
  • White goes astray on move 18, missing a key intermediate capture which saves Black's knight and allows Black to perfectly execute his strategy and gain major pressure with his rooks.
  • After a defensive inaccuracy by White, Black could have put away the game on move 25, but instead failed to calculate that doubling rooks on the second rank would not in fact lead to a decisive advantage.
  • Black manages to find a needlessly complicated way to achieve a losing position, then fails to put up as much resistance as possible by deciding to exchange down to a more obviously lost endgame.
Despite the loss, the game at the time reinforced the idea that there was no need to fear higher-rated opposition and served as a useful psychological stepping-stone to the last game in that tournament, which will be annotated in the future.


22 October 2011

Chess Performance Inventory

I've decided that it's worth the time to take stock of where I am regarding my chess performance.  I considered calling this a "skills inventory", which would be mostly correct, but I think some of the below categories (particularly tenacity) don't reflect what we would normally call a skill.  I also think that calling this a "performance inventory" is a useful approach, as it inherently makes the distinction between skill level (which is objectively demonstrated during play) and knowledge level (which is not necessarily manifested during play).

It's worth noting that there are a number of formal self-evaluation tests out there, two of the more popular ones being Igor Khemelnisty's Chess Exam and Training Guide (link is to a review at Wang's Chesshouse), which is comprehensive in nature, and the more narrowly focused Bain Rating Tactics Quiz at chesscafe.com.  While I may at some point tackle one or both as an improvement tool, by this point in my chess career I have a good insight into my performance strengths and weaknesses, in part stemming from recent analysis of both my historical and contemporary play (covered in Annotated Games #1-15 as of this post).

I give an overall grade in each of the below categories, with explanations and narratives that are designed to help guide subsequent training.  The grade is based on the standard A through F scale, with F being 59/100 or below.  In practical terms, an A (95/100) implies that there is little or no need for improvement, while the grades below that increasingly reflect either a significant performance gap between skill and knowledge level in the category, or simply a lack of knowledge.  For each category, I also give intended improvement steps ("Way Forward").  The first three categories look at performance during the traditional phases of a chess game (opening/middlegame/endgame), while the last three cover concepts that are more functional or universal in nature and tend to affect all phases of the game.

Opening:  B
This category covers openings selection and the evolution of an opening repertoire.  The criteria for openings effectiveness I discussed more at length in the latter post, but for me the essential, objective test is whether a player consistently is able to use their opening knowledge and understanding to reach favorable (or at least equal) middlegame positions against opposition of any strength.

This is one of my relative strengths as a player, with two solid, tested defenses against 1.e4 and 1.d4 (Caro-Kann and Slav) which also can answer almost any alternative setup by White.  The English opening (1. c4) as White has also been an effective weapon against players of all levels, although not one which is likely to score quick wins.  I have little experience or preparation in some of the more offbeat Queen Pawn openings, probably the largest hole in my repertoire.  With some English lines I also have very little practical familiarity, due to their lack of use by my opponents to date.

Way Forward:  Continue to analyze my historical and contemporary games; examine little-used but major theoretical lines and transpositional possibilities more closely in the English; play additional training games to highlight holes in the repertoire; complete initial study of the Dutch Defense; review selected repertoire lines in the database to improve memory and position recognition.


Middlegame:  C
This phase of the game covers a lot of chess skill area and is generally not fully defined, but the two major subcategories I will address here are:
  • Strategic planning and evaluation.  This involves recognition of key positional factors, understanding of the typical plans available in different position-types, and knowing when to focus on attack or defense.  Here there is definitely a performance gap, as I am better able to understand a position analytically than to conceive and execute a fully correct plan.  This is also reflected in a tendency to have an advantage out of the opening phase, but then mishandle it into a more equal or even losing position; Annotated Game #15 is an excellent contemporary example.  One also needs to be aware of more sophisticated concepts such as prophylaxis, which I apply inconsistently.  My attacking play is also relatively weak.
  • Tactical sight and calculation.  This refers to being able to see the tactical possibilities for both sides in a position and then calculate the resulting sequences (whether forced or not).  For some reason I have historically been weaker at visualizing counting sequences (i.e. when a series of material exchanges occur), so that is a needed area of improvement.  Board sight, including the problem of tunnel vision (focusing only on one area of the board), is also a recurring issue.  I am now much better acquainted with typical tactical and combinational ideas than when I began this blog, but still need further exposure to them.  
Way Forward:  Play more training games; continue working through The Art of Attack in Chess; continue regular practice with the Chess Tactics Server; continue reviewing annotated games from various sources.


Endgame:  F
Pretty self-explanatory score.  I have given very little study to the endgame, so this is the one area where there is no performance gap; I simply lack the requisite knowledge.  I would give myself a "high" F since I know some basic ideas, especially from K+P endings, and some other fundamental concepts - for example, that piece activity is the most important thing in rook endings - but 50/100 is still failing.  It's interesting to observe that this weakness has not had a major impact on past tournament performance, since almost all of my opposition has been nearly as bad in this category.  However, relying on performance that is only good in relation to similarly poor opposition ("grading on a curve") is not helpful to longer-term improvement.

Way Forward:  Once current opening and middlegame books are completed, start introductory endings book.


Thinking process:  D
This is the first of the "universal" categories and is often considered to be bound up with tactics, but it of course literally affects every move we make.  There are plenty of cases of people thinking for 10-15 minutes in the first few moves, for example, when they are uncertain of which opening to pursue or if an opponent takes them immediately out of their opening knowledge.

There are various different thinking processes described in the chess literature and blogosphere, often passionately argued over.  Here I'll focus on three sub-categories which should cover most of the substance necessary:
  • Candidate moves.  Can I see all of the reasonable candidate moves in a position?  Can I narrow them down efficiently for calculation purposes?  When do I calculate one more deeply?  Having too narrow a focus in the candidate move selection process is a traditional weakness of mine, although computer-assisted game analysis and annotation is helping address this. 
  • Falsifying moves.  This is closely allied to tactical sight and calculation ability, but does require additional thought and focus.  For those unfamiliar with the concept, it refers to the process (not unlike the scientific method of attempting to disprove hypotheses) of attempting to refute your selected move.  This involves seeing your opponent's potential threats in the current position and in the future positions that would result from your move.  A basic example is that your opponent has a mate in one threat on your back rank, which would falsify any move that did not protect against it.  This is a new concept for me and better incorporating it will go far toward addressing my failure to see and calculate my opponent's threats.
  • Consistency.  Thinking well on half of my moves is not enough, it must be done on all of them, at least to the minimum standard of reviewing my opponent's possible threats in a position.  This is probably the most simple idea in this category, but also one of the most difficult to apply in practice, due to the ups and downs of a game that have a psychological impact.  I am not consistent in my thinking process.
Way Forward:  Play more training games; institute a minimum baseline thinking process on all moves ("checks, captures, threats"); consciously broaden search for candidate moves prior to determining which should be calculated; aggressively attempt to falsify each candidate move being calculated.


Time management:  A
This is the only category for me where there is no improvement needed.  I almost never have entered into unilateral time trouble (i.e. when the opponent still has significantly more time on their clock) and very rarely end up in mutual time trouble, for example in the last few moves of a time control.  (I tend not to think of the latter as a time management issue, as a player should theoretically use up nearly all of their time before a time control, in order to maximize their thinking.)  My relative strength in the opening phase has greatly helped in this regard, since as a result I normally have a significant amount of extra time to think during the middlegame, where I perhaps play somewhat slower than average.


Tenacity: C
This is something of a wildcard category, but nonetheless a very important one for performance purposes.  (See Braden Bournival's player profiles for another example of its use.)  How many times have we been hit by an unexpected move from our opponents that completely throws us off our game?  When a winning advantage is lost, it is also very common for the player on the downswing to make additional unnecessary mistakes and end up losing; see Annotated Game #13 for an example of this.  This kind of psychological effect is not limited to chess, as momentum and a positive/confident outlook (or its opposite) are powerful forces in other team and individual sports.  I would also put into this category a player's willingness to play a game out to the end, rather than take an easy draw while they believe they still have an advantage.

I can't think of another factor which so greatly affects our final win/loss results, but has nothing to do with our base chessplaying skills.  (Our overall health - both physical and mental - is of course also very important, as if we have the flu or are dealing with major personal problems, our ability to concentrate on a chessboard will be impacted.)  Some of my recent Chessmaster training games helped me understand how a lack of tenacity was affecting my results.  It was eye-opening to see that the majority of times that I blundered while having an advantage, I was in fact still at least objectively equal in the resulting position.  However, in one case I resigned outright, while in several others went down the slippery psychological slope and lost afterwards.  Since then, in training games I have gritted my teeth and refused to go down easy, with improved results to show for it.

Way Forward:  Mentally resolve before a game starts that I will not give up or panic after a blunder or an unexpected move by the opponent; do not accept easy draws when possessing an advantage.

Annotated Game #15: Blogger Throwdown (RLP)

I have been playing the occasional training game (at 60 5 time control, i.e. 60 minutes for the game with a 5 second increment) with Robert L. Pearson, who is a tough yet gracious opponent.  We seem well matched, although I believe he has a small edge overall in play (which so far has translated to a much bigger edge in results), likely a benefit of his more recent OTB tournament practice. (Edit: you can see RLP's commentary now here.)

In this game, my opponent angles from the beginning to maximize his kingside expansion potential as part of the opposite-wing strategy in the English, which was described in more detail in Annotated Game #12.  The result is an excellent illustration of the value of training games in general.  After a tense struggle where I miss some key strategic ideas during the opening-middlegame transition, along with a couple of saving tactical chances after the tide turns against me, I swindle a draw in a K+P endgame when we both have only seconds remaining on our clocks.  Even before turning to detailed analysis, I was able to recognize some patterns in my play that need correcting, most notably the temptation to go for an apparently safer closed pawn structure rather than maintaining dynamic play (see move 18).  Another, more specific issue highlighted was the failure to develop the dark-square bishop adequately (see move 11), which has been a consistent challenge for me in this type of opening.  (Effectively playing down a piece is never good.)

I found analyzing this recently-played game to be of even greater benefit than looking at my older tournament games, since I was able to recall my thought processes with much greater clarity.  Seeing the alternative move possibilities presented by Rybka therefore had more impact, since I was able to better understand why I did not consider them (or failed to give them enough weight).  It was also useful to see where Rybka validated my choices, positive reinforcement being as effective an improvement tool as its negative brother.


A B C D E F G H
8 8
7 7
6 6
5 5
4 4
3 3
2 2
1 1
A B C D E F G H
ChessAdmin - RLP
1/2-1/2, 10/15/2011.
[#] 1.c4 g6 +0.22 2.Nf3 +0.15 Bg7 3.g3 Nc6 +0.18 4.Bg2 +0.15 e5 5.Nc3 Nge7 +0.18 with the clear aim of advancing f7-f5 in the future 6.O-O O-O 7.d3 d6 8.Rb1 +0.15 Bg4 9.h3 Bxf3 +0.37 an interesting strategic choice by Black. This enables White's light-square domination, but in exchange removes a defender from the White kingside. 10.Bxf3 f5 +0.52 N First move out of the database. Rb8 is given in the Aquarium database, with Qd7 also suggested. 11.Nd5 +0.37 this thematic occupation of d5 is perhaps a little premature. Finding a useful square for the c1-bishop would be better here.
[11.Bg5 is a common idea designed to provoke a Black weakness 11...Bf6 (11...h6 12.Bd2 develops the bishop and gives White a potential target at h6) 12.Bxf6 Rxf6 13.e3 and Black's strong dark-square bishop is gone.]
11...Rb8 +0.41 12.b4 Nxd5 a good exchange for Black, although White retains control of d5. 13.Bxd5+ Kh8 14.e3 I had a long think about this, eventually deciding that control of f4 was worth shutting off the diagonal. Rybka agrees with the idea. 14...Qd7 15.b5 Ne7 16.Bg2 keeping an eye on h3, given the Black queen on the c8-h3 diagonal. 16...d5 +0.89 at this point Black has several alternative moves/plans to choose from, none of which are particularly obvious.
[16...c5 17.bxc6 bxc6 18.Bd2 Rxb1 19.Qxb1 Qc7 +0.48 is Rybka's preferred line for Black.]
17.Qb3 +0.56
[A more effective option for White, activating the dark-square bishop to great effect, is 17.Ba3 dxc4 18.dxc4 Qe6 19.Bd5 Qf6 (19...Nxd5 20.cxd5 Qd7 21.Bxf8 ) 20.Qa4 +0.89]
17...c6?! +1.55 while analysis shows this as not objectively best, it poses White some thorny problems, which he fails to solve.
[17...dxc4!? 18.Qxc4 Nc8 19.Rd1 Nd6 20.Qc5 Ne4 +0.56 is Rybka's preference.]
18.f4?! +0.41 Here I was focused more on Black's potential kingside attack and decided to pre-empt it. I actually had briefly considered the subvariation where White exchanges the queen for two rooks and considered it positive, but then failed to consider it again in my decision-making process. The main variation Rybka gives below is rather wild.
[18.bxc6!? dxc4 (18...bxc6 19.Qxb8 Rxb8 20.Rxb8+ Nc8 with a significant plus to White, who has the two bishops and can eventually combine rooks to deadly effect.) 19.cxd7 cxb3 20.Ba3 bxa2 21.Rb5 +1.55]
18...e4?! +1.17
[18...Rfc8!? 19.Bb2 Qc7 20.Rfe1 Rd8 21.cxd5 Nxd5 +0.41]
19.d4? -0.11 a bad decision, shutting down White's dynamic play and allowing Black the initiative on the queenside.
[This was the last chance to go for 19.bxc6! bxc6 20.Qxb8 Rxb8 21.Rxb8+ Ng8 22.cxd5 +1.17]
19...dxc4 20.Qxc4 Nd5 21.Bd2 Rfc8 now White is clearly on the defensive. 22.bxc6 Rxc6 23.Qb3 another long think here, this time about where to put the queen, this being the best/least bad square. White's piece activity is being increasingly circumscribed. 23...Bf8 24.Rfc1 Rb6 25.Qc4?! -0.85 here I simply miss Black's strong follow-up, negating White's play on the c-file.
[25.Qd1!? Ba3 26.Rc4 Rxb1 27.Qxb1 b5 28.Rc2 -0.11]
25...Ba3 26.Rd1 -1.02 Rc8 27.Qf1?! I couldn't decide between placing the queen on f1 and e2 and eventually decided that the coming pin on the second rank was better avoided.
[27.Qe2!? Rc2 28.Rxb6 Nxb6 29.Bf1 Qd5 30.Qe1 -1.02]
27...Rc2 28.Rb3 -2.38 this is a tricky move that makes it much more difficult for Black to find the best continuation, although Rybka points out the rook exchange is objectively best.
[28.Rxb6!? Nxb6 29.Qe1 Nd5 30.Rb1 b5 31.Bf1 -1.06]
28...Rxb3 29.axb3 Qc7?! -1.55 a bit of a letup for White, as I'd been expecting
[29...Bb4!? 30.Qf2 Bxd2 31.Rxd2 Rc3 32.Re2 Rxb3 -2.38]
30.Qe1 b6 -0.41 also leads to a decrease in pressure, Qb6 would have kept it on. 31.Bf1 -0.93 by now I was feeling the time pressure and played the obvious move to bring the bishop into the game. My opponent was also getting short on time, allowing me to scrape my way back into contention.
[31.Ra1 Bb2 32.Ra2 a5 33.Bf1 Rxd2 34.Qxd2 -0.41]
31...Bb2?! -0.33
[31...Nc3!? 32.Ra1 Bb2 33.Ra6 Bc1 34.Bxc1 Rxc1 -0.93]
32.Bc4 Qc6?! +0.26
[32...Nc3!? 33.d5 Qd6 34.Qf1 Kg7 35.Kh1 b5 -0.37]
33.Rb1 b5 34.Bxd5? -0.89
[34.Qd1! I considered this along with Bxd5, but under time pressure hallucinated a refutation for Black. 34...bxc4 35.Qxc2 c3 36.Rxb2 cxb2 37.Qxb2 +0.26]
34...Qxd5 35.b4 Qc4 36.Rd1 Bc3 37.Bxc3 Rxc3 38.d5 -1.06 the only way to try and stave off Black crushing me. 38...Rd3 -0.72 39.Rxd3 -0.80 exd3 40.d6
[The immediate 40.Qa1+ leads to a perpetual check, far beyond my thinking horizon. 40...Kg8 41.Qe5 Qxb4 42.g4 Qc5 43.Kf2 fxg4 44.hxg4 b4 45.Qe6+ Kf8 46.d6 d2 47.Qe7+ Kg8 48.Ke2 Qc1 49.Qd8+ Kf7 50.Qe7+ Kg8 51.Qd8+ ]
40...Qd5 41.Kf2 Qxd6?! -0.29
[41...Kg8!? 42.Qa1 Qxd6 43.Qc3 d2 44.Qb3+ Kg7 -0.80]
42.Qa1+?! -0.80 I'd been focused on this check possibility for so long that the c3 alternative was ignored.
[42.Qc3+!? Kg8 43.Ke1 a6 44.g4 h6 45.Kd2 -0.29]
42...Kg8 43.Qd4 -11.50 at first glance this looks good (even necessary), but it leads to an eventually losing K+P endgame. This however does not occur until move 53. 43...Qxd4 44.exd4 Kf7 45.Ke3 Ke6 46.Kxd3 Kd5 47.g4 h5 48.gxh5 gxh5 49.h4 a6 50.Kc3 Ke4 51.d5 Kxd5 52.Kd3 Kc6 53.Kd4 Kd6 in time trouble as well, my opponent doesn't find the somewhat counterintuitive winning line
[53...Kb6 54.Ke5 a5 55.bxa5+ Kxa5 56.Kxf5 b4 57.Kg5 b3 58.f5 b2 59.Kxh5 b1=Q ]
54.Kc3 Kd5 55.Kd3 Kc6 56.Kd4 Kd6 57.Kc3 Kd5 -11.50 Game drawn by repetition [1/2-1/2]