30 June 2012

Annotated Game #52: It's all about the attitude

This first-round tournament game is from a weekend open tournament.  My opponent was the lowest-rated player I had ever faced, a fact which negatively impacted my play (not an unusual phenomenon).  He started the opening reasonably well as Black, but touched his king on move 6, with the touch-move violation losing him time and the right to castle.  This set the tone for the rest of the game, as the mistake clearly weighed on my opponent and at the same time gave me a psychological boost.

White's subsequent play, however, is an illustration of what not to do when given a substantial, yet not decisive advantage.  At the time I had little idea of how to conduct an attack, which is clearly illustrated by White playing premature, aggressive-looking moves rather than simply developing and consolidating his advantage.  White in fact allows Black to equalize on move 14 and if Black had played 15...Qb6 he could have taken over the initiative.  After this, White, albeit mostly by luck, manages to sort out his pieces and avoid a skewer tactic on the d1-h5 diagonal, while creating threats on the c-file against Black's back rank.  Black fumbles badly and then it's all over.

There are plenty of good examples in this game - from the winner's side - of what not to do on the chessboard, ranging from awkward piece placement to overlooking the opponent's threats to neglecting development.  However, there's also the useful lesson that a player's attitude has a lot to do with the final result on the board.  White had an (unreasonably) positive attitude throughout the game, while Black passed up chances to play actively and take the fight to White, which would have allowed him to recover from his earlier mistake.


23 June 2012

Annotated Game #51: Closing with a victory

This game was in the last round of the tournament and was another victory, this time with Black.  A very unusual attacking variation of the Caro-Kann was used by White.  It's not clear whether this was a pet line of my opponent,or if he simply liked to conduct brazen attacks when not prepared for a particular opening.  I've included some more extensive opening notes than usual, since the line with 2. Nf3 (and certainly the follow-up 4. Ne5) isn't covered by opening manuals.

Despite White's unorthodox attacking play, Black is able to handily neutralize it and a balanced position results by around move 10.  White then conducts some artificial-looking maneuvering with a time-wasting and weakening move (13. b3), which Black immediately pounces on.  Black's relentless queenside pressure eventually leads to a breakthrough on the c-file and game-ending material losses for White.

I had the impression that I tend to do well in the last round of tournaments, regardless of my overall performance in them.  This was indeed one example of this.  However, after reviewing my database of tournament games, in reality there doesn't seem to be a clear trend.  Perhaps I just better remember the times that I succeeded in being mentally tough in the last round and focused on playing well, rather than the times I didn't put as much effort into the game.


20 June 2012

Book completed - The Psychology of Chess

This week I finished reading The Psychology of Chess by IM W.R. Hartston and P.C. Wason (Facts On File Publications, 1984).  Both of the authors were practicing psychologists in England at the time it was written, with Hartston being one of the top English players during the 1960s and early 1970s, prior to the "English chess explosion" of Grandmasters; he received his International Master title in 1972 and played competitively until 1987.

The book tackles the phenomenon of chess from the point of view of academic psychologists, although the writing itself is certainly accessible and the authors do not neglect the practical elements of the aspects of the game under discussion.  I acquired and read the book in the hope of receiving further insight into the psychological dimension of chess performance.  Although the book has a broader reach than this, there were certainly a number of useful observations contained within it, both about performance and about we chessplayers as people.

One of the better expositions in the book comes early, in the introduction, and I believe is worth quoting in full:

It is unclear what motivating forces compel a person to become a chess player.  Certain answers are fairly obvious and need little research - the desire to excel, the tension of an unremitting intellectual struggle, the absorption in a task which precludes the worries of daily life, the allure of self-improvement which in most of us evades a ceiling, and the attraction of constructing a pattern which is often beautiful and always novel in one way or another.

While the above description of motivations for chess may be "obvious" as the authors put it, I have rarely seen it so well articulated.

A large portion of the book consists of "big think" type issues about the nature of chess, its role in society as an art vs. science vs. sport, talent vs. skill development, and other aspects of the game which may be as much philosophical as psychological.  Sometimes the authors raise timeless issues in a fascinating fashion, in other places I felt that they demonstrated their educational grounding in the 1950s-1960s and their 1980s "current" perspective too much.

For training and playing purposes, I would say that the following insights and observations, made by either the authors or found in the research literature they cited, were the most useful and relevant.
  • Despite the existence of prodigies, there are no cases of "instant" masters or grandmasters.  Master-level chess requires upwards of 10,000 hours of accumulated study/work and grandmasters typically spend at least 10 years of intense study before achieving the title (Fischer being no exception, having started at an early age).  Taken from the 1973 Simon and Chase study, this observation helps combat the myth that inherent talent defines your upper skill limit at an early stage in your chess career; instead, the amount of effortful study conducted is most important to advancement.
  • Decrease in winning performance as a chess master ages can be best ascribed to the growing perception by the player that avoiding a loss is more important than scoring a win.  The player, having already attained a high level of status, is more reluctant to lose their existing status than they are motivated to attempt to achieve a higher level of play.  This also helps explain the common phenomenon of World Champions having poorer tournament results and playing less dynamically after they win the title.  (I think a related phenomenon occurs below the master level, as career Class players often focus their attention on maintaining their rating at a certain level, rather than on seeking to improve their overall level of play.)
  • In order to win consistently and improve their performance, a chessplayer must be both strongly motivated to win and appropriately self-confident about their skills.  Overconfidence can lead to recklessness, but a loss of belief in your own abilities is even worse for your performance, as  expectations of losing can become self-fulfilling.
  • While pattern recognition on a large scale (upwards of 10,000 stored in long-term memory) is required for mastery, an essential point is that pattern recognition does not translate into stronger play simply by rote memorization.  Rather, it gives the chess player the ability to better identify and understand analagous positions and the types of moves/combinations that will lead to advantages or outright wins.  In other words, pattern recognition allows a player to much more rapidly - sometimes instantly - identify the best candidate moves in a particular position for subsequent calculation.
The book is rather slim, at less than 150 pages, so did not take overly long to complete.  While parts of it were more relevant or useful than others, reading it has led me to better frame and articulate some of my thinking on chess as a pastime, as well as reinforcing my understanding of what is necessary to advance along the path toward mastery.

16 June 2012

Annotated Game #50: Rigid Thinking

This was the penultimate game in the tournament and a much-needed win.  The opening starts out in an unpromising way, as White attempts to avoid mainline Queen's Gambit Declined (QGD) positions but in the process offers Black a chance to seize a clear advantage as early as move 6.  Black rigidly sticks to his own opening scheme, however, and the danger point passes for White.  White opts for a slow, solid strategy designed to wait and take advantage of any Black mistakes.  This eventually pays off, as Black allows White to break through on the queenside without the compensation that could have been generated by Black's play on the kingside.

Some useful learning points come out of this game analysis:
  • Avoid rigid thinking in the opening.  Both White and Black had early opportunities to significantly improve their game.  On my part, a largely emotional desire to avoid pushing center pawns - because I preferred to think of the English is a "flank opening" - limited my options.  Black appeared to similarly follow his preferred opening structure without considering other opportunities.
  • Avoid premature resolution of central pawn tension (as occurred on move 10).  This is a typical amateur mistake.  The resulting position needs to be fully evaluated and most often piece development before any such pawn exchanges will obtain better results.
  • Look for options which keep pieces dynamic rather than limiting their capabilities (White's move 18)
  • Consider longer-term consequences for piece placement, including exposure to attack (Black's move 18)
  • Examine any possible tactics close to the king (the missed Nxf2 sacrifice, a possibility in several variations.)

11 June 2012

Book completed - Understanding Chess Tactics

I recently completed Understanding Chess Tactics by FM Martin Weteschnik (Quality Chess, 2007).  Another revised/expanded edition has also just been released, with a new title of Chess Tactics From Scratch.  The 2007 edition that I went through had a number of fixes and improvements from the original 2006 edition, while according to the publisher's description the new 2012 version has added a large number of chess problems to the book.

What is this book about?  In the author's words:

"Chess is a visual game.  A chess player must be able to recognize elementary patterns, therefore the tactics in this book will be primarily explained graphically...Chess is also a game of logic.  Logic, in the same way as chess tactics, depends on collecting and processing information.  This book will show you how to accurately find the elements of tactics, and work with them creatively."

The last sentence of the above description is the most important one and is the reason I worked through this book.  As a self-defined "positional player" from early on in my career, as well as being completely self-taught, I have not been systematically exposed to tactical concepts until relatively recently.  Although doing tactics problems in themselves certainly helps the familiarization process, I also need to be able to think more coherently and completely about what tactical possibilities exist while I am playing a game.

The book is organized into ten chapters.  Each chapter presents a key tactical concept, relying on plentiful diagrams to illustrate both the basic principles and more complex applications of the concept, with a large majority of examples taken from master games rather than being composed.  At the end of each chapter are several problems to solve as an independent test.  I found the book to be quite useful without large numbers of additional problems included, since that's not what the book is really about; however, I'm sure the new 2012 edition will please those who would prefer to have a large associated problem set to solve.
  • Chapter 1: Becoming familiar with the pieces!  This provided a short illustration of the fundamental characteristics of pieces - how they move, influence squares, and can be restricted by other pieces - and the need to understand them as the building blocks for tactics.
  • Chapter 2: The pin.  This may have been the most valuable single chapter for me.  Everyone is familiar with basic pinning themes, when an attacked piece either cannot move (if the king is behind it) or if its moving away would lead to the loss of material (a more valuable piece is behind it).  I had previously thought of this tactic largely in the context of trying to win the pinned piece where possible, or just to give my opponent some difficulty in development.  Explicitly understanding and seeing examples of how a pinned piece no longer functions except along the axis of the pin, however, was something of a revelation.  Most importantly, such a piece no longer protects other pieces or squares, giving rise to a lot of other tactical possibilities.  The concept of creating a pin against a key square was also quite useful to see and deepened my understanding of the pin in practice.  Finally, the demonstrations of forcible breaking of pins or using the limited movement still remaining to a pinned piece was quite valuable, providing useful resources for the defender in these situations.
  • Chapter 3: The discovered attack.  I found this to be a straightforward chapter, although as in the previous chapter it was particularly useful in demonstrating how discovered attacks could be conducted against key squares, not just against the opponent's pieces.
  • Chapter 4: The reloader.  At first I was somewhat skeptical of this as a separate theme, but now I realize the value of understanding this as a discrete concept.  The phenomenon referred to is when a second piece with a similar function fills the place of a first on the same square, following a capture by the opponent.  For example, in the sequence 1. Bf6 exf6 2. gxf6 the g-pawn "reloads" the f6 square where the White bishop has just been sacrificed; assuming that White has a Qh6 and Black is in a typical fianchettoed king position (pawns on f7-g6-h7) but missing a Bg7 for protection, the situation is now deadly.  The point of the concept is that the second piece can fulfill the same function as the first, as in the above example controlling the g7 square for the queen to mate there, so getting rid of the first piece does the opponent no good.  The "reloader" phenomenon is in fact key to a number of sacrificial themes.
  • Chapter 5: The double attack.  This is probably the most fundamental tactical theme and the most commonly deadly one.  Again, the concept of searching for targets that included both pieces and key squares was valuable for me, as was the repeated motif of sacrificing material in order to create a decisive double attack situation.  While knights of course feature prominently, all of the other pieces (including the king) are capable of conducting double attacks, an important point to remember.
  • Chapter 6: Mate.  Here the focus is on understanding mating patterns and how they restrict the movements of the opponent's king.  The emphasis on dominating squares and how the different combinations of pieces can do this helped fill a gap in my understanding of mating attacks, particularly with patterns like the bishop and rook mate.  The examples provided show how recognizing the possibility of a mating pattern appearing on the board is the most important element; starting from there, even relatively complicated sacrificial sequences can be much easier to find.
  • Chapter 7: Gain of tempo/Intermediate move.  This is another chapter where I was skeptical at first of its value as a discrete concept, but was convinced by the end of it.  Actively looking to save or gain a tempo as part of your thinking process can easily win you the game and create additional tactical possibilities.
  • Chapter 8: The x-ray attack.  This concept, if not understood, can lose you games, particularly on the back rank.  Should be part of a player's thinking when considering how queens, rooks and bishops are interacting.
  • Chapter 9: Opening and closing lines/lines of communication.   This is where the author deals with things like interference motifs (closing lines of communication with pieces or squares) and how opening lines can create decisive tactics.  This is probably the most sophisticated chapter and was quite valuable for me for the new ideas and ways of thinking it introduced (although see below caveat).
  • Chapter 10: Status Examination.  Here the author brings it all together and recommends that players actively conduct an inspection of the status of all pieces, in order to uncover the tactics present on the board.  He takes a practical approach to it and provides a number of examples of how examining what a piece is doing (or cannot do) can lead to finding tactics involving that piece.
This book is specifically aimed at improving adult players who do not have a systematic understanding of tactics - although of course juniors should also get a lot out of it - so I am exactly its intended target audience.  It most certainly provides the conceptual foundation necessary for an understanding of tactical play writ large, along with numerous practical examples ranging from the relatively simple to the complex.  The only weakness I saw was that it could use a better and fuller description of the "removal of the guard" tactical theme, which is only covered briefly in Chapter 9 (as a disruption in the line of communication between defending pieces).  In practice, this theme appears much more often proportionally than the attention given it by the author. 

Reviewing the book's contents again for this post reminded me of some important themes and I expect that I'll return to it repeatedly in the future for reinforcement and added understanding of tactical concepts.  Digesting a book like this along with regular tactics practice should be a potent combination for improvement on the tactical side of your play, not least because explicit mental identification of the various concepts used to solve tactical exercises ("x-ray attack", "gain of tempo" etc.) will aid you in remembering and spotting the themes again during play, and is a key aspect of tournament preparation.

(EDIT: as mentioned below, here's a link to the Predator at the Chessboard site.)

10 June 2012

Annotated Game #49: The evil e-file

The following tournament game was against a much lower-rated player, who nevertheless played well and solidly out of the opening, a Caro-Kann Classical.  Certain decisions he made, including playing 10. c3, indicated that he was probably aiming for a draw rather than a win.  That might help explain him missing 16. Qxd5! which would have nastily exploited the pin on the e-file.

Caro-Kann players need to have an internal radar/warning system about White's play up the e-file, in the Classical variation especially.  While the pressure White can exert with a rook or Queen (usually both) appears to be going nowhere, danger can lurk in various forms, including potential piece sacrifices on e6 and tactical ideas (as in this game) involving the e-file.  Having a solid opening doesn't mean there is no danger, something in the past I repeatedly overlooked by failing to check for tactics on every move.


07 June 2012

Playing Styles Deconstructed

A major breakthrough that has allowed me to make progress lately is leaving behind the idea of playing according to a particular chess "style" - that is, the idea that a chessplayer can (and should) be classified a certain way according to their personal abilities and preferences.  I have come to believe that this kind of self-identification can be trap for players who believe themselves to be either "tacticians" or "positional players" (the two main style types), one that leads them to both consciously and unconsciously limit their capabilities.  One can of course come up with a rather long list of perceived styles, including such subtypes as "contrarians" (who avoid classical-type moves whenever possible) or "barbarians"/"cavemen" (who always attack the king, regardless of the situation).  Perhaps you've seen some other examples of particularly memorable styles in your own chess career.

One of the things that helped me make the mental realization of how impractical a "style" can be came in an excerpt of an interview that I read last year; unfortunately I can't find it again to link, since I didn't bookmark it.  In it, a grandmaster commented that style was largely an illusion among the top ranks of the chess world, as (for example) in a 40-move game, once out of the opening phase where both sides were relying on their book knowledge, only with perhaps 4-5 moves of the remainder of the game would there be any real divergence of opinion among GMs on the best move, leaving it open to the player's personal preference.  This translates to roughly one move in seven having any real personal "choice" involved.  (EDIT: see "A robust and deep insight on playing style" for the original quote, which I eventually found.)

At first, the concept sounded rather shocking to me and also seemed quite limiting for a player's freedom of choice.  This gives you an idea of how I used to think about the phenomenon of playing styles: namely, that they reflect your innate abilities and thinking process and therefore determined almost every move of the game (or if not every move, perhaps one in two or one in three).  The concept that the grandmaster presented, of style having an influence on play in certain unclear situations but not determining what should be played in most positions, was a new one for me.  It's worth noting that a similar overall concept - that whatever move objectively works best in the position is what should be played, regardless of any set of general principles or beliefs about chess - is also the centerpiece of John Watson's masterwork Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy.

This is not to say that no such thing as a style of play exists.  However, the perception of style is apparently greatly exaggerated at the top professional level; furthermore, as will be discussed more below, misunderstanding the concept can be a serious limiting factor for Class players.  At the top levels, one can easily find examples of "positional, defensive" World Champions like Tigran Petrosian playing brilliant attacking chess and combinations, or "tactical, aggressive" players like Kasparov winning with relatively quiet, maneuvering games such as in the must-win final game of the 1987 World Championship.  Certain strong players have deserved reputations for liking and playing particular position-types - and the openings that usually lead to those particular position-types - but that should not be confused with an inability to cross the tactical/positional divide when the position requires it.

The most important aspect of this for the improving player is not a theoretical debate about the styles of World Champions, though, but how the idea of "style" can affect our play and hold us back.  Regardless of what we call ourselves, either tactical or positional players, I think mentally over-identifying with a style has some major detrimental effects on our performance.  Most seriously from a practical standpoint during a game, it necessarily limits our ability to perceive and evaluate candidate moves as part of our thinking process.  Moves that we consciously or unconsciously characterize as being outside of our style are either not examined or incorrectly evaluated, usually in a dismissive manner.  What occurred in Annotated Game #2 when I wrongly and consciously dismissed a key move possibility, for example, was an early indication in my chess study that this was a problem for me.  That and other examples from my analyzed games pointed out rather starkly that emotional and other illogical attachments or aversions to particular types of moves were measurably dragging down my performance level and causing me to lose games.

Moving beyond the general issues described above, here are some specific thoughts on how over-reliance on a "style" can hold you back as a player.

Tactical Style: this (as with any other style) will only get you so far as a player.  It seems that low Expert level (2000-2100) is probably the top limit for tactical specialists; Michael de la Maza's well-known story is one anecdotal indication of this.  (For those who are into statistics, you can look at his career record and make your own judgments about his playing strength versus various classes of players.)  Naturally, a 2000 rating would sound good enough for a lot of people, but it is still short of mastery.  Also, for those of us without hard-wired chess brains, the ratings ceiling for being a tactical specialist may be much lower than 2000.  Here are some other typical limitations that may be associated with this style:
  • When tactics are not currently present in a position, cannot identify a useful plan to make progress.
  • Default plan is a kingside attack, regardless of the position.
  • Neglects study of positional factors, since everything is about tactics.
  • Neglects endgame study, because doesn't expect to make it that far, either winning or losing in the middlegame.
Positional Style: based on my personal observations, an insistence on "playing positionally" and ignoring tactics will not get you along the path to mastery even as far as the tactical specialists.  I was a "positional player" most of my career, which has so far limited me to a Class B rating, and only in the past year have I made a real effort to study and implement tactical ideas.  The missed opportunities in Annotated Game #46 are just one example from my own play of how a positional player needs to be able to spot tactics in key positions, in order to win.  Some other general limitations on playing effectiveness include:
  • Avoiding entering into tactical play, even when it would result in material or positional benefits.
  • Being unwilling to undertake gambits or sacrifice material.
  • Being unable to effectively conduct attacks on the opponent's king position.
  • Having a tendency to draw a won position rather than win it.
I think a majority of players start off tactical and then acquire positional knowledge, although a significant minority (including myself) think of themselves as positional players from the start.  Normally we identify with a general approach to playing chess that we like the most, based on our early experiences.  However, that's not necessarily the best approach for us as players over the long-term; furthermore, we all acquire some bad habits or erroneous ideas as we struggle to understand the game.  The point of breaking free of the limitations of a self-defined style isn't to negate our own preferences; rather, it's to free us from our mental chains and open up a new world of possibilities on the board.  Regardless of the path we choose, it takes time and effort to think in new ways and then apply our new knowledge.  I hope to continue moving along the path for a long time.

02 June 2012

Annotated Game #48: English-Leningrad Dutch Swindle

This sixth-round tournament game featured the first time I had taken on a true Leningrad Dutch-style defense by Black in the English Opening; Annotated Game #3 doesn't really count, as it contained a major (and inferior) deviation by Black.

It's amusing to see how both sides somewhat mishandle the opening, for opposite reasons.  White, at the time unfamiliar with the opening, wastes a bit of time with an early Qc2, then a few moves later makes the strategic error of exchanging his dark-square bishop for Black's Nf6.  Black in the meantime, despite his evident experience with a true Leningrad Dutch setup, did not think to seize the opportunity offered by the English-style approach taken by White, which he could have done by playing an earlier ...e5.

The position is therefore level going into the middlegame.  From my perspective, it was instructive to see how the delay in White's queenside pawn advance and the bishop exchange significantly weakened my overall prospects for good play.  On the Black side, his putting the queen on d7 meant that the standard kingside attacking motifs would not be available to him.  Nevertheless, after White prematurely resolves the central pawn tension, Black is left with whatever play there is in the position by move 17.  White then chooses to trade queens, but thereby leaves himself with a difficult queenless middlegame.

Despite Black's threatening central mass of pawns, White almost manages to finesse things with 21. d4, but then misses two tactics in a row, while Black only misses the first one, leaving him with a winning positional and material advantage.  White therefore goes into swindling mode starting on move 25, playing actively and aggressively, trying to create situations for Black to go wrong.  As occurred in Annotated Game #37, my opponent failed to fight off the swindle, being distracted by White's threatening play; in fact, the game becomes won for White.

Alas, I too go wrong in the endgame and the swindler is in turn swindled into a draw due to a nice rook sacrifice from Black, with White then having to force perpetual check or let Black queen a pawn.  The endgame play is overall rather typical of Class players, with neither side understanding the kinds of winning ideas that needed to be executed.  While I'm not particularly proud of my play in this game, at least it's another plus sign for my tenacity.