11 March 2018

Eight rules to do everything better (in chess)

While this blog is devoted to chess training, I think it's important to look at major principles that apply to any mastery effort.  The below categories are taken from "8 Rules to Do Everything Better" by Brad Stulberg - worth reading on Medium for the author's original take on the ideas - and listed along with some personal comments on their applicability to improvement in chess performance.

1. Stress + Rest = Growth.  For me, this is a good principle to help calibrate the amount of serious competitive play (stress) that results in advancement in playing strength.  One weekend tournament / month equivalent seems to be best for me; others may have different optimal paces depending on their energy level and needed recuperation time.

2. Focus on the Process, Not Results.  The fear and loathing that results from focusing primarily on your rating I think holds a lot of people back.  This is a recurring theme, I've even recently seen some (non-joking) commentary that to "win" your personal ratings competition (against whomever you've chosen as your rival, I guess) it's best just to quit playing when you're ahead.

3. Stay Humble.  See above.  Also, one of the main points routinely made by chess improvement coaches like IM Silman and NM Heisman is that you will lose a lot if you play a lot, so it's inevitable.  Realizing this will help you extract the best lessons possible from losses and not view them as devastating blows to your ego.

4. Build Your Tribe.  While it's not always possible to have a "buddy system" for training, one of the big accelerating factors for improvement is doing your chosen activity with: a) other motivated people, and b) having at least one master-level person to help show you the way.  Nowadays this can more easily be done online, if you don't have a local club.

5. Take Small, Consistent Steps to Achieve Big Gains.  Like with many complex activities, it's unlikely you'll have linear progression.  Rather, you work hard at tasks that push your boundaries and may plateau for a while, but then your brain "gets it" and you achieve mastery of an additional idea or particular skill.  Chess has a lot of these types of positional, tactical and strategic skills to be mastered over time.

6. Be a Minimalist to be a Maximalist.  Basically if you want to focus on improving your chess performance and put in the necessary time, you will have to forego other activities that compete with it on your personal schedule.  Where you draw the line is up to you, but you can't have five serious hobbies and expect to make significant progress at them all, for example.

7. Make the Hard Thing Easier.  This is about building positive habits, and/or doing small but important things to eliminate distractions.  Keep the tactics book out where you can always see it and thereby have it remind you of the 15 minutes a day you've committed to working problems, or have the tactics exercises site you use be your browser homepage.  Put the TV remote control away every time after you watch something, rather than leaving it conveniently at hand, or make yourself login to Netflix (or whatever) every time rather than it loading automatically.

8. Remember to Experience Joy.  If you don't do this in the long run, why are you even pursuing the path to chess mastery?  If you hit a stretch where it's not fun at all anymore, remember #1 above and reduce the stress.

24 February 2018

Annotated Game #187: A confidence-boosting endgame

This tournament game illustrates some key themes in the Classical Caro-Kann and also shows how queenside counterplay is important to disrupting White's kingside threats.  By move 30 a somewhat unbalanced endgame occurs, both in terms of structure and material.  Although the game is not a true endgame marathon of 80+ moves, half of the entire game is a very dynamic endgame struggle (White's R+B versus my R+N, with me moving from a pawn up to a pawn down).  The key decision is made to exchange rooks on move 46, thereby leaving White with an extra pawn, but not one that he can convert into a win.

One of the overall improvements I've made has been in the endgame, and it's been critical to getting better results.  Here I was pleased to have successfully played a long endgame (although not error-free) with the same amount of energy and interest as I've usually given to the other phases.  It's important in the endgame to be able to make critical decisions (as on move 46) and then have confidence in your ability to play out the resulting position.  Playing a few games like that can give you an overall confidence boost as well, which I think is important in the improvement process.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class B"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "B19"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 10"] [PlyCount "120"] [EventType "simul"] [EventRounds "6"] {[%mdl 8192] B19: Classical Caro-Kann: 4...Bf5 main line} 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nf6 8. h5 Bh7 9. Bd3 Bxd3 10. Qxd3 e6 11. Bd2 Nbd7 12. O-O-O Be7 13. Ne4 {this is played about 50 percent of the time, according to the database. White prefers to exchange off the somewhat passive Ng3.} Nxe4 14. Qxe4 Nf6 {there is no reason not to play this move, which develops the knight to a better square with tempo.} 15. Qd3 O-O { Black has postponed castling for long enough. Here I also contemplated playing ...Qd5, the other major option, but decided on safety first. This is the modern way to play the Caro-Kann, with opposite sides castling and more dynamic strategic tension. Castling queenside is also a legitimate option in many lines, however.} 16. Ne5 {taking advantage of the absence of the knight on d7 and occupying the central outpost. Black is fine, but needs to take care with White's sacrificial options, which now include sacrificing the knight on f7 or g6, along with the bishop sacrifice on h6.} c5 {generating counterplay is needed, otherwise White can simply proceed with organizing his kingside attack. This is a typical (and necessary) pawn break in the Classical Caro-Kann.} 17. dxc5 Qc7 {my first significant think, where I decide against the immediate recapture. The queen clears d8 for a rook and develops to a better square for its activity, while simultaneously pressuring e5 and c5.} 18. Qe2 Qxc5 {I had another significant think here, although not as long. I eventually decided that leading with the queen on c5 would allow better prospects against White's king position; most of the database games continue this way as well. However, it leaves the Be7 in a somewhat passive role.} ( 18... Bxc5 {is preferred by the engines.} 19. g4 Rac8 20. c3 Nd5 21. Kb1 Bd6 22. f4 Rfe8 23. Rdf1 b5 24. Bc1 f6 25. Nd3 e5 26. fxe5 Bxe5 27. Qf3 Qc4 28. Nxe5 Rxe5 29. Re1 b4 30. Rxe5 fxe5 31. Rd1 Rd8 32. cxb4 e4 33. Qf1 Qxb4 34. Ka1 Rf8 35. Qa6 Nb6 36. Qe2 Qc4 37. Qxc4+ Nxc4 38. Rd4 Rf1 39. Rxc4 {0-1 (38) Fedorchuk,S (2503)-Khenkin,I (2609) Ohrid 2001 CBM 084 [Lukacs]}) 19. g4 { my opponent plays aggressively and immediately advances a pawn for the attack, which is consistent with the needs of the position.} Rfd8 $6 {a significant inaccuracy. Black needs to assert his counterplay immediately as well, which is best on on the c-file.} (19... Rac8 20. c3 Bd6 21. f4 Qd5 $11) 20. g5 $14 Rac8 {now that the Nf6 is hanging, this move to the c-file has less impact, since Black will have to respond to the threat to the knight after White's obvious next move.} (20... Nd7 21. Nxd7 Rxd7 22. gxh6 Bg5 $14) 21. c3 hxg5 { another significant think here. I concluded that getting rid of the g-pawn would do the most to reduce White's attacking chances. Komodo doesn't fully agree with me.} (21... Nd7 22. Nxd7 Rxd7 23. gxh6 Bg5 $14) 22. Bxg5 {not the critical continuation.} (22. h6 g6 $14 {White is better here, but has to find the not so obvious idea of moving a rook to e1 to continue the attack.} 23. Rde1 (23. Bxg5 Rxd1+ 24. Rxd1 Nd5 25. Bd2 Bf6 {and Black is OK.}) 23... Qd5 ( 23... Nh7 $2 24. Nxf7 {a thematic sacrifice} Kxf7 25. Qxe6+ Kf8 26. Qxg6 $16)) 22... Rxd1+ {this seemed the easiest way to further reduce White's attacking chances, getting a rook off the h-file and additional material off the board.} (22... Rd5 {is suggested by the engine and was a possibility I considered for a while. Eventually I didn't see enough utility in the move after White's response f4.} 23. f4 Rcd8 {and now Black can also liquidate material effectively, for example} 24. h6 Rxd1+ 25. Rxd1 Rxd1+ 26. Qxd1 gxh6 27. Bxh6 Qe3+ 28. Kb1 $11) 23. Rxd1 Nd5 {played with the idea of getting counterplay going. White's c3 pawn is currently pinned and can be a good sacrifice target, while the knight can also go to b4 as a result.} (23... Rd8 {would continue of the original idea of reducing material.}) 24. Bd2 {Essentially a forced concession by White, as the alternative of swapping bishops on e7 would leave him with even fewer prospects.} Bf6 {I thought for a while here and was unsure if the bishop move would be the most effective, but in the end decided that the added pressure on the long diagonal was a good thing. I considered that my opponent's most likely response (which he did play) would lead to an equal game.} (24... Nb4 {I also considered, but did not see much of a point after} 25. Kb1 {The engine offers} Nc6 {as a possibility, however, which is a good way of getting rid of the Ne5 without ending up with a knight vs. bishop situation as in the game continuation.}) 25. Nd7 (25. h6 $5 {is of course more testing.} Qc7 26. f4 Bxe5 (26... g6 $5) 27. fxe5 Qc4 28. Qg2 g6 29. a3 Kh7 30. Rf1 Rf8 31. Bg5 Qc7 {with a slight edge to White.}) 25... Qa5 $11 {the correct response, threatening the a-pawn and maintaining the latent pressure along the 5th rank against the h5 pawn. An example of dynamic play.} (25... Qc7 {would of course be perfectly adequate as well.}) 26. Nxf6+ Nxf6 27. Kb1 {the obvious "safe" choice, jettisoning the h-pawn, but not necessary.} (27. h6 {is an aggressive try.} Qxa2 28. Qe5 Qa1+ 29. Kc2 Qa4+ 30. Kc1 Qe4 $11) (27. Qf3 Qxa2 28. Qxb7 Qa1+ 29. Kc2 Qa4+ 30. Kc1 {and Black can head for a draw by repetition.}) 27... Qxh5 {here I thought about the intermediate check on f5, but did not see how it would be of good use. The engine considers the alternative to be superior, however, likely due to the fact that the king on a1 is further from the action in the endgame, while also being more vulnerable to back-rank threats. If the king goes to c1, then the c-pawn is again pinned and the a-pawn again unprotected.} (27... Qf5+ 28. Ka1 Qxh5 29. Qxh5 Nxh5 { White's bishop is better than the knight and the rook is better positioned on d1 as well, but a pawn is a pawn.} 30. Be3 a6 31. Rd7 Rb8 $15) 28. Qxh5 { essentially forced, otherwise Black's queen is much better positioned for action.} Nxh5 {now we have the same position as in the above variation, only with White's king one square closer to the center, making the value of the intermediate check (a "tempo move") more clear.} 29. Be3 b6 {blocking the Be3.} (29... a6 {was the other possibility I considered. Both it and the game continuation are OK for Black, although it might have been a bit easier to play this variation's positions.} 30. Rd7 b5 31. Rd6 Ra8 $11) 30. Rd7 Ra8 31. Kc2 (31. Bd4 Nf6 32. Bxf6 gxf6 $11) 31... Nf6 32. Rb7 Kf8 {played on the general principle of bringing the king closer to the center, but also with an eye towards possibly trapping White's rook, if he makes an error.} 33. Bf4 Ke8 34. c4 {taking the d5 square away from the knight.} Nd7 {White is still fine, but the Rb7 is uncomfortable with so few squares.} 35. b4 (35. Bd6 Rc8 36. Bc7 a5 $11) 35... Kd8 {around here I started to get tired, which was reflected in the quality of my calculations, although I'm still able to see key ideas. The immediate ...e5 would be better, kicking the bishop first.} (35... e5 36. Be3 Kd8 37. c5 {otherwise the rook is trapped} bxc5 38. bxc5 Rc8 $11) 36. Bd6 e5 $6 {as I've often noted in my game analyses, another example of the right idea but played a tempo too late, thereby creating problems. Here I was thinking about trapping the bishop, too, but it doesn't work out.} (36... Kc8 37. Rc7+ Kd8 $11 {with the idea of ...a5 to follow up.}) 37. Kd3 $14 {simple yet effective. Now the c-pawn is protected, reducing my potential threats.} f5 $2 { here I needed to play the key ...a5 idea. The text move looks good, keeping the king from penetrating via e4, but now White's queenside pawns can effectively mobilize.} (37... a5 38. c5 {now this advance is opposed} Rc8 39. bxa5 bxc5 40. Ra7 $14) 38. f3 $6 $11 {simply marches past the door to victory, comments Komodo via the Fritz interface.} (38. c5 $1 {wins:} bxc5 39. bxc5 Kc8 (39... Rc8 40. Kc4 a6 41. Kd5 $18) 40. c6 $1 Nb8 41. Bxe5 $18) 38... g5 $6 { still not adequately seeing the danger on the c-file.} (38... Kc8 39. Rc7+ Kd8 40. c5 bxc5 41. bxc5 Rc8 42. Rxa7 Nxc5+ $11) 39. c5 $16 {now my opponent puts on the pressure, but this time he's the one who plays the correct move a tempo late, to less effect.} Rc8 40. Rxa7 $6 {my opponent's choice of going for the material allows me to equalize again, now that my rook can become active.} (40. Kc4 $5 bxc5 41. bxc5 $16 {maintains the pressure.}) 40... bxc5 $11 41. bxc5 Nxc5+ 42. Ke3 f4+ {a tough decision and a relatively long think here, but a correct one. White's king is pushed back by the combination of knight and pawns.} 43. Ke2 e4 {played after another relatively long, difficult think. I still harbored some hopes of being able to do something with the kingside majority, but this is not possible in the end.} (43... Rc6 {would have been an easier path to a draw.} 44. Be7+ (44. Bxc5 Rxc5 45. a4 $11) 44... Ke8 45. Bxg5 Ne6) 44. Be7+ {I had seen this far...} Ke8 45. Bxg5 {but now I realized that my planned ...Ne6 would fail to Re7+, so I have no choice but to liquidate and go for a drawn endgame.} exf3+ 46. Kxf3 Rc6 {I was pleased to find this idea, in fact the best, which is in keeping with the principle of emphasizing rook activity. After the f-pawn goes, I force a rook exchange and White cannot win with his remaining material.} 47. Bxf4 Ra6 48. Rxa6 Nxa6 {we could have stopped playing here, but my opponent wanted to see if I would commit an error. As long as the knight avoids domination or exchange by the bishop and Black gets his king over in front of the pawn, it's a draw.} 49. Ke4 Kd7 50. Kd4 Kc6 51. Kc4 Nc5 52. Be3 Na6 53. a4 Kb7 {an illustration of how ineffective a lone bishop can be in the endgame; in this case, Black dominates the light squares and therefore draws.} 54. Kb5 Nc7+ 55. Ka5 Nd5 56. Bd4 Nc7 57. Kb4 Ka6 58. Be5 Nd5+ 59. Kb3 Nb6 {the knight now can fulfill his destiny and end the game.} 60. Kb4 Nxa4 1/2-1/2

06 February 2018

Book completed: The Stress of Chess ... and its Infinite Finesse

I recently finished GM Walter Browne's The Stress of Chess ... and its Infinite Finesse ("My Life, Career and 101 Best Games"), which is his annotated games collection.  You can see previous posts here related to GM Browne, including Annotated Game #1 (simul played in Las Vegas), Training quote of the day #12Insights from GM Walter Browne and GM Walter Browne: 1949-2015.

For chess improvement purposes, it's a great collection and perfect for using to go through a game during your lunchtime at work, which is how I worked through the book (and why it took so long to complete).  I think it's useful for both your chess skill and overall brain health to have some quality chess study time, even if no more than 15-20 minutes, to break up the work day and get your mind thinking about something completely different. (Unless of course you're a chess professional, in which case for your brain health I'd recommend focusing on an activity that had nothing to do with it at all).  I did the same thing with GM David Bronstein's Zurich International Chess Tournament, 1953 and will look for similar types of game collections in the future.

I found Browne's annotations to be relatively short and succinct in words, yet always valuable and relevant.  For chess improvers, another major benefit of going through a collection of a player's own annotated games is that you gain unique insight into their thought and decision-making process.  Browne includes a lot of these types of observations and it's highly educational to see a top-level GM (which he was at his peak) provide casually sophisticated evaluations of positions and share the considerations he took into account when making choices on how to proceed at key points.  As usually occurs when reading others' annotated games, sometimes you have to put some work into figuring out why a particular move is played (or not played) when it isn't explicitly explained or a variation given, but that's part of the value of engaging in effortful study - to grow in understanding by figuring things out for yourself.  Also, as with almost any games collection, there are at least occasionally a few typos and such in the notation that force you to puzzle out the real continuation, but the editorial quality is high enough that these are no more than a very infrequent and temporary distraction.

Browne's career was interesting in its ups and occasional downs, and spanned a long period of time in American chess.  His personal observations about tournaments, opponents, particular controversies and so on are probably of more interest to those with some previous acquaintance with them, or just curious about tournament experiences in general.  I don't think anything would be lost from a chess training perspective by skipping his sometimes encyclopedic accounts of his chess career, although there are some particularly entertaining stories from the decade where he competed the most internationally (roughly from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s).  For those into the poker scene, he also towards the end of his book (and career) recounts some of his professional poker tournament experiences and has some interesting insights in that regard as well.

27 January 2018

Annotated Game #186: All rook endgames *should* be drawn

This last-round tournament game is another illustration of why persistence and active play can pay off (even if it does not actually, in this case).  Some relative weak opening play in an unfamiliar position leads to a failure to falsify a key move, which lands me significant material down.  Deciding that there was at least some hope for a kingside attack and pressure in compensation, I continue playing and the initiative shifts to me, despite being objectively lost.  Eventually my opponent can't take any more pressure and simplifies to what should be a drawn rook endgame...which isn't, however, in the end.  A good lesson on weak pawns, rook activity and other elements of rook endgames...which apparently all really should be drawn.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class A"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A25"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "184"] {[%mdl 8192] A25: English Opening vs King's Indian with ...Nc6 but without early d3} 1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. g3 Nf6 4. Bg2 Bb4 {the second most common move in the position, according to the database. The bishop needs to be developed, but this doesn't have as much bite as when the d-pawn has already advanced, since there's no pin on the Nc3.} 5. Nd5 {the standard reaction.} Nxd5 6. cxd5 Ne7 7. a3 (7. Nf3 {is played most here and scores quite well, over 72 percent.}) 7... Bc5 8. b4 Bb6 9. e3 {I'm playing a lot of pawn moves here and neglecting development. The idea is to bring the knight out via e2 rather than f3, to avoid it being harrassed by the e-pawn. It's rather slow, however.} (9. Bb2) 9... d6 10. Ne2 O-O 11. Bb2 Bg4 12. Qb3 $146 {inviting the minor piece trade on e2, which I think would be better for me. The king would be safe and my light-square bishop would then be unopposed.} (12. d4 {is the move that is begging to be played here.} f6 13. h3 Bf5 14. e4 Bg6 15. O-O Rc8 16. Kh2 Re8 17. f4 c6 18. dxe5 fxe5 19. fxe5 cxd5 20. exd6 Qxd6 21. Nf4 Bf7 22. e5 Qd7 23. Qb3 g5 24. e6 Bxe6 25. Nxe6 Qxe6 26. Rae1 Qd6 {Butala,M (2246) -Banic,S Ljubljana 2001 1-0}) (12. h3 $5 {also looks fine.}) 12... Qd7 { obviously aimed at exchanging off the Bg2 and taking advantage of the resulting light-square weakness on the kingside.} 13. h3 Bh5 (13... Bxe2 14. Kxe2 f5 15. f4 $11) 14. f4 $6 {this is not terrible, but not ideal either. It weakens the king position and now the exchange on e2 is better for Black.} (14. g4 Bg6 15. f4 $11 {is an improved version of the idea. My knight would be happy to go to f4 after an exchange.}) 14... Bxe2 15. Kxe2 f6 {blunting future potential threats on the long diagonal.} 16. Raf1 $6 {here I completely miss Black's imminent threats. The g3 square is now unprotected, thanks to the f-pawn advance.} Nf5 {with a simple fork threat that I handle terribly.} 17. Rf3 $4 (17. Kf2 {I'm uncomfortable here and will have to focus on defense, but the engine considers the position equal.} Rae8 18. Re1 $11) 17... e4 $19 { what explains not seeing this response to my last move? Probably over-focusing on the tension between the e5 and f4 pawns and looking at the exchange possibilities there. Also not seriously focusing on my opponent's possibilities in order to falsify my move.} 18. Rf2 Nxg3+ 19. Ke1 Nxh1 20. Bxh1 {although an exchange and a pawn down, I decide to fight on. Black's kingside is looking a little open now and I thought my only chance would be to try to attack.} Rae8 21. Rh2 (21. f5 $19 {is the engine's improvement, preventing Black from occupying the f5 square and seizing more space. The square f4 is also now available for a rook transfer.}) 21... Qb5 22. Qd1 $2 {another bit of territory lost, notes Komodo via the Fritz interface.} (22. a4 {would be an opportunity to regain some material.} Qd3 23. Qxd3 exd3 24. a5 Bxe3 25. dxe3 Rxe3+ 26. Kd2 $17) 22... Qxd5 23. Qg4 Qe6 {by this point I really am lost.} 24. f5 {another desperate move, to prevent a queen exchange.} Qf7 {here my opponent starts losing the thread, playing very conservatively instead of putting the final nail in my coffin.} (24... Qa2 $5 25. Rg2 Qb1+ 26. Kf2 Re7 $19) 25. Bxe4 {A bit of material back and a psychological victory, even if it doesn't change the objective evaluation.} d5 (25... Qb3 {my opponent still does not see the strength of this penetration idea with the queen.} 26. Rg2 Re7 $19) 26. Bd3 c6 27. Rg2 Bc7 28. Bd4 b6 29. h4 {although I'm still losing badly, at least it's nice to have some initiative. Watching the h-pawn grind towards him made my opponent react sub-optimally.} h5 {this stops the forward motion of my h-pawn, but also leaves the h5 pawn without much support.} 30. Qf3 Be5 { the best move, exchanging off one of my good pieces and getting closer to an easily won endgame.} 31. Bxe5 Rxe5 32. Rg6 {blocking the h5 pawn's protection.} Qe7 {a direct approach, doubling on the e-file, but not the best.} (32... c5 $5 $19 {would get Black's pawns rolling and support d5-d4.}) 33. Qxh5 Rf7 { my opponent continues to react conservatively to my threats, giving me a bit of hope.} 34. Qg4 Re4 $2 {my opponent decides to simplify rather than endure further kingside pressure. Komodo now evaluates the position as equal.} (34... c5 {is still a good option.} 35. h5 c4 $19 {and now ...c3 is threatened, undermining support for e3.}) 35. Bxe4 $11 Qxe4 36. Qxe4 dxe4 {we now have a rook endgame that is perfectly fine for me.} 37. Rg4 {conservative play.} (37. h5 $5 {the engine identifies the correct plan, which is to exchange off the weak h-pawn. It doesn't have to be done immediately, but there's no reason to wait. Unfortunately, I did not identify this as a strategic need.} Kh7 38. Kf2 Rd7 39. h6 Rxd2+ 40. Kg3 gxh6 41. Rxf6 h5 42. Re6 $14) 37... Re7 38. Ke2 Re5 39. Rf4 Kh7 40. d4 (40. Rg4 {was probably the best route to a draw, just shuffling the rook.} Kh6 (40... Rxf5 41. Rxe4 $11) 41. Rg6+ Kh7 (41... Kh5 $6 42. Rxg7 $14) 42. Rg4) 40... exd3+ 41. Kxd3 {while the engine still rates it as equal, my job is now more difficult, with more open lines in the center and a backward e-pawn.} Rd5+ 42. Ke2 {I pick the wrong side, concerned about my weak pawns. Now Black can more easily activate his queenside majority.} (42. Kc3) 42... c5 43. e4 (43. b5 Kh6 $11) 43... Rd4 44. Ke3 Rd1 {things are still equal, if uncomfortable for me. Black has the iniative.} 45. bxc5 {not an objectively bad move, but it gives me considerably fewer options to combat Black's queenside threats.} (45. Ke2 $5 {is much more flexible, harrassing Black's rook and allowing my rook space on the third rank.}) 45... bxc5 46. Ke2 $6 (46. Rf3 {is the only move that holds equality and is not obvious to find.}) 46... Rd4 $15 47. h5 {now I start crumbling, not having any better ideas.} (47. Ke3 {this is supposedly better according to the engine, but it still looks difficult.} Ra4 48. Rf2 Rxa3+ 49. Kf4 $15) 47... Rc4 (47... a5 $17) 48. Rf3 $2 (48. Kd3 {and White could well hope to play on, comments Komod.} Rd4+ (48... Ra4 49. Rg4 Rxa3+ 50. Kc4 $11 {Black will not be able to make progress on the queenside with separated pawns and the rook in front, versus my king close at hand.}) 49. Kc2 $11) 48... Rxe4+ $19 {now all of my pawns are weak, vulnerable and isolated. Black has a winning game now.} 49. Kf2 Rh4 50. Kg3 Rxh5 51. Kg4 Rg5+ 52. Kf4 g6 53. fxg6+ Kxg6 54. Rc3 Re5 55. Rc4 Rd5 56. Ke3 f5 57. Ra4 { the best chance, with a temporary defense along the fourth rank, but my opponent correctly takes the time to reset his rook position.} Rd7 58. Ra6+ Kg5 59. Rc6 {I figured I needed activity and threats to have any sort of chance to resist.} (59. Ra4 {is safer but still very much losing.}) 59... f4+ 60. Ke2 Re7+ 61. Kf2 Re5 62. Rc8 {with the idea of pursuing an "annoying rook checks" strategy to harrass my opponent.} a5 63. Rg8+ Kf5 64. Ra8 c4 65. Rc8 Re4 66. Rc5+ Re5 {this was an unnecessary concession by my opponent.} (66... Kg4 67. Rc6 (67. Rxa5 f3 $19) 67... Re3 68. Rxc4 Rxa3 $19) 67. Rxc4 {I began to have a bit of hope again now.} Rb5 $6 {this allows the next move with tempo.} (67... Kg4 $5 68. Rc8 a4 $19) (67... Rd5 $5) 68. a4 $17 Rb2+ $2 {now according to the engine, I can draw.} 69. Kf3 {Exerts pressure on the isolated pawn} (69. Ke1 $5 ) 69... Rb3+ 70. Ke2 Re3+ 71. Kf2 Re4 {Black threatens to win material: Re4xc4} 72. Rc5+ {here I thought I had to avoid the rook trade, not having fully calculated out the resulting K+P endgame.} (72. Rxe4 Kxe4 73. Ke2 {will also draw. For example} Kd4 74. Kf3 Kc3 75. Kxf4 Kb4 76. Ke3 Kxa4 77. Kd2 Kb3 78. Kc1 Kc3 79. Kb1 $11) 72... Re5 {Black threatens to win material: Re5xc5} 73. Rc3 $2 {this unnecessarily limits my rook movement and loses to Black's next.} (73. Rxe5+ {works, similar to the above variation.} Kxe5 74. Kf3 $11) (73. Rc1 $11 {and now my rook can check on g1 if Black's king goes to g4.}) 73... Kg4 74. Rc8 Re4 75. Rg8+ Kf5 76. Rf8+ Kg6 77. Kf3 Rxa4 $19 78. Rc8 Kf5 79. Rf8+ $2 Ke5 80. Re8+ Kd5 81. Rd8+ Kc6 82. Rh8 Rd4 83. Rh5 Kb6 84. Rh6+ Kb5 85. Rh5+ Kb4 86. Rh8 a4 87. Rb8+ Ka3 88. Rb7 Rb4 89. Rd7 Kb2 90. Ke2 a3 91. Rd2+ Kb3 92. Rd3+ Ka4 (92... Ka4 93. Rd1 a2 94. Rd8 Ka3 95. Rd3+ Rb3 96. Rd1 f3+ 97. Kf2 Rb1 98. Rd3+ Kb4 99. Rd4+ Kc3 100. Ra4 a1=Q 101. Rxa1 Rxa1 102. Kxf3 Ra4 103. Ke3 Kc2 104. Kf2 Kd2 105. Kf3 Rd4 106. Kg2 Ke3 107. Kg3 Ke2 108. Kg2 Rd3 109. Kh1 Kf2 110. Kh2 Rb3 111. Kh1 Rh3#) 0-1

20 January 2018

Annotated Game #185: Take those free tempi

This next tournament game continues the theme (from Annotated Game #184) of the value of a tempo.  My opponent at various times gives me a free tempo; in particular, 15. Qc1 is a turning point in the game, as I am able to then seize the initiative.  The value of the advantage of active piece placement is then demonstrated a few moves later, as various tactics hang in the air and my opponent misses a key square weakness.

The game also illustrates the strengths of the Caro-Kann Classical as a defense, as Black's setup allows his pieces to spring into action whenever White lets up the pressure; along those lines, see also the classic pawn break suggestion by Komodo on move 17.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class B"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B18"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "48"] {[%mdl 8192] B18: Classical Caro-Kann: 4...Bf5 sidelines} 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. Bc4 e6 7. N1e2 Bd6 8. O-O Nd7 9. Kh1 $146 { this just seems to waste time.} Qc7 {with the idea of opening the way for queenside castling, as well as establishing a Q+B battery on the b8-h2 diagonal.} 10. Bg5 Ne7 {this is the usual square for the knight in this variation of the Caro-Kann Classical, largely to further protect against an advance of White's f-pawn.} (10... Ngf6 {is certainly possible, however.} 11. f4 O-O $11) 11. Bxe7 {an unnecessary exchange of bishop for knight.} Bxe7 $15 ( 11... Kxe7 $5 {is a suggestion by Komodo, leaving the bishop on the better diagonal. Black's king would then drop back to f8 if necessary.}) 12. f4 O-O-O {Black now has a pleasant position. My king is well protected and my pieces are better coordinated.} 13. f5 exf5 {no need to let White exchange off my bishop.} 14. Nxf5 {White's knight fork is taken care of with my next move.} Bf6 {the two bishops are looking good together.} 15. Qc1 {whatever the intent behind this move was, it was too slow. Now I'm able to start taking the initiative.} (15. Bd3 Kb8 $15) 15... Nb6 16. Bd3 Kb8 {prudently moving the king off the h3-c8 diagonal.} 17. c3 Rhe8 {getting the rook into play on the open file.} (17... c5 $5 {is Komodo's idea, a pawn break which would further activate Black's pieces.} 18. dxc5 Na4 19. Ned4 Nxc5 $17) 18. b4 {this is aggressive-looking, but it just creates more weaknesses.} (18. Neg3 $5 $15) 18... Nd5 $17 {there are now various tactical ideas swirling, including a knight hop into e3 and a potentially overloaded Bd3. White currently has everything covered, but with his next move signals that he missed the weakness of the e3 square.} 19. Qc2 $2 Bxf5 $19 20. Rxf5 (20. Bxf5 Ne3 21. Qb2 Nxf1 22. Rxf1 Re3 $19) 20... Ne3 21. Qb2 Nxf5 22. Bxf5 Re3 {clearing the e8 square for the other rook to double up on the open file.} 23. a4 {White is still pinning his hopes on an attack on my king position, but again it is too slow.} Rde8 { White now has back rank problems and his pieces are vulnerable.} 24. Ra2 (24. Ng1 {there is nothing better in the position} Qf4 25. Bd7 $17 R8e7 26. Bh3 Re1 $19) 24... Qf4 0-1

11 January 2018

Book completed: Mastering Opening Strategy

I recently completed Mastering Opening Strategy by GM Johan Hellsten (Everyman Chess, 2012).  The book took a beastly long time to complete - more on that below - but I think it was worth it, in the end.

Instead of a detailed theory of opening concepts, a la Ideas Behind the Chess Openings, GM Hellsten's book has four core chapters that center around a number of annotated games and long quiz sections, along with a short fifth one on opening preparation.  The chapters are:

1 - The Nature of Development
2 - Crime and Punishment
3 - The Battle for the Centre
4 - Restriction
5 - A Few Words on Opening Preparation

My comments:
  • Chapters 1 and 2 overlap a great deal, in the sense that pretty much all of the examples show how the less developed side is punished for neglecting opening principles regarding the value of rapid piece development.  A lot of them revolve around king-in-the-center positions, which you learn must be cracked open as soon as possible, otherwise the slower side can consolidate.  Piece activity (via development) and looking for opportunities to initiate attacks with early sacrifices, done to open lines in the position (especially towards the enemy king), are key elements that are illustrated repeatedly.
  • Chapter 3 is interesting, as in a number of cases the importance of the center is underlined by efforts on the wings to undermine it.  There are plenty of examples of seizing central territory with pieces and/or pawns and using that to dominate the opponent, though.
  • Chapter 4 is primarily about prophylaxis, with the focus being on limiting (sometimes severely) your opponent's piece development.  This is probably the most sophisticated chapter and underlines the importance of understanding your opponent's plans as much as your own opportunities.  A number of positional crushes are presented at the top levels of professional chess, showing that this really is an effective and important concept.
  • Chapter 5 contains some useful principles on building an opening repertoire, although does not try to be comprehensive.  Hellsten's observations on the opening being the most apropos area of the game for exploring your personal taste/style were quite interesting, especially in light of previous insights shared here on the concept of style in chess.  Basically the idea is that you should look at openings with structural and style similarities when building a repertoire, with a number of different types of factors highlighted.  This is not necessarily a new idea, but Hellsten explicitly focuses on the opening as most suitable for the expression of "style" choices and largely discounts it for middlegame play.
  • Be prepared for a long time factor in working through this book.  Each of the chapters has a number of example annotated games, which works well, then a large number of games (long fragments, sometimes complete games) as quizzes where you are supposed to identify the next move.  For example, Chapter 3 has 34 example games and 37 quiz games.  If you take them seriously and don't blitz through them, even going through relatively rapidly (say 5 minutes per example game and 10 minutes per quiz game), that means a typical chapter will take you around 540 minutes = 9 hours.  So that means around 36 hours total for the whole book.  So if you go hard at it for an hour a day, every day without a break, it will still take you over a month to complete.  I typically did study sessions in 15-30 minute daily chunks, not sequentially and with substantial breaks sometimes, so that meant it ended up taking well over a year to work through it.
  • If you're expecting a detailed, systemic exposition of opening theory and principles, this really isn't the book for it.  If you're looking for a number of well-annotated illustrative games with connecting and recurring themes related to the opening phase, then that better fits the description of this book.  Repetition of the themes has ingrained the basic principles in my chess thinking and should help me take better advantages of these types of opportunities in the future, even without retention of all the details.

06 January 2018

Annotated Game #184: One tempo and the initiative

In this next tournament game, the role of the initiative is again highlighted.  As White, by move 16 I have achieved a great-looking position against my opponent's Dutch setup, but by a couple of moves later he is firmly in the driver's seat on the kingside, thanks to my losing the initiative.  I also make a critical mistake letting his knight into the e3 outpost, but then bravely (and somewhat desperately) sacrifice the exchange to get rid of it, in the hopes of eventual counterplay.  My opponent returns the favor later on, getting distracted and giving me a crucial tempo to let my queen penetrate his now-bare kingside, which gets me a perpetual and a draw.

It's interesting to see the importance of not wasting even a single move in tense positions and how quickly the initiative can turn - and then turn back.  It also yet again points out the importance of never giving up the fight until you are actually lost, with the game following a similar trajectory in that respect to Annotated Game #183.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class A"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "A10"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "66"] [EventType "simul"] [EventRounds "6"] {[%mdl 8192] A10: English Opening: Unusual Replies for Black} 1. c4 f5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Nc3 e6 4. d3 {making this an English rather than a true Dutch Defense. The placement of the d-pawn is a critical difference, as here White contests Black's control of the e4 square.} Be7 5. g3 O-O 6. Bg2 d6 {a Classical Dutch setup.} 7. O-O Nc6 8. Rb1 {initiating the standard queenside expansion plan, with a b-pawn advance as the main idea.} a5 9. a3 e5 {Black counters by advancing in the center. This however gives up the d5 square.} (9... Qe8 10. b4 axb4 11. axb4 Qh5 12. b5 Nd8 13. e3 g5 14. Nd2 Qg6 15. Qe2 Nf7 16. Bb2 g4 17. Ra1 Rb8 18. e4 e5 19. exf5 Bxf5 20. Nce4 Ng5 21. c5 Nh3+ 22. Kh1 Nd7 23. b6 c6 24. cxd6 {Schiendorfer,F (2190)-Kleinhenz,H (1920) Triesen 2013 1-0}) 10. b4 axb4 11. axb4 Nd4 $6 {Black will need to do something with the Nc6, but this doesn't help him.} (11... Qe8 {is almost always played here, with the idea of transferring the queen as part of the standard Dutch attacking plan on the kingside. Let's see a high-level treatment of this:} 12. b5 Nd8 13. Nd5 Ne6 14. Bd2 Bd8 15. Bb4 Qh5 16. e3 Ne8 17. Nd2 Qf7 18. Bc3 Kh8 19. Ra1 Rxa1 20. Qxa1 Bd7 21. Nb4 b6 22. f4 exf4 23. gxf4 Bf6 24. Rf3 Bxc3 25. Qxc3 Nf6 26. Rh3 Re8 27. Nd5 Nxd5 28. Bxd5 Rf8 29. Kf2 Qe7 30. Nf3 Rf6 31. Qa1 h6 32. Qa8+ Rf8 33. Qa1 Rf6 34. Qa7 Qd8 35. Rg3 Nc5 36. Ke2 Be6 37. Qa8 Qxa8 38. Bxa8 Rf8 39. Bc6 Bd7 40. Nd4 Bxc6 41. bxc6 Kh7 42. Rg1 Ra8 43. Nxf5 g6 44. Ne7 Ra2+ 45. Kf3 Nxd3 46. Nxg6 Nb4 47. Ne7 Rxh2 48. Ng8 {1-0 (48) Rustemov,A (2475)-Kobalia,M (2430) Moscow 1995}) 12. Nxd4 $16 {the next sequence is mostly forced.} exd4 13. Nb5 { I debated some time between this and Nd5. The text move is more critical.} c5 { otherwise the pawn on d4 is hanging.} 14. bxc5 dxc5 15. Bf4 {at this point White has a clear advantage, with the two bishops being especially effective. The Nb5 also combines well with the dark-square bishop in targeting c7 and d6.} Ne8 {this looks passive but does a good job of covering the weak squares.} 16. Bd5+ {here I wanted to dominate the e6 square and centralize the bishop, although it is also more exposed here. I thought that the gain of tempo would offset any problems.} Kh8 17. Re1 {I had another significant think here, as this is a critical position for White to try and find a good plan. The text move is OK, looking at opening the e-file, but I did not give Black's ...g5 response enough credit, even though I spotted it.} (17. Qd2 $5 $16 {and now if} g5 $2 18. Be5+ Bf6 19. Qxg5 $1 {and the Bf6 is pinned on both diagonals. Black's hanging Qd8 is a key component of this tactic.}) 17... g5 $14 {clearly the best and most active move. Now Black regains some initiative.} 18. Be5+ { I had seen this far but incorrectly evaluated how the piece exchange would result in a benefit to Black.} (18. Bd2 Nf6 19. Bf3 $14) 18... Bf6 $11 19. Bxf6+ Nxf6 {now Black has really solved most of his problems and can make some counter-threats on the kingside.} 20. Qb3 f4 {Black gets more space} 21. Bg2 { I thought for a while before playing this retreat. I had also considered the below option, but thought it would lead to a clear Black advantage.} (21. e4 $5 Nxd5 (21... dxe3 22. fxe3 fxg3 23. hxg3 {was what I was concerned about, but Komodo considers it equal.}) 22. exd5 $15) 21... fxg3 {now Black fully takes over the initiative.} (21... Ng4 22. Rf1 $17) 22. fxg3 Ng4 {targeting the f2 square and also eyeing the outpost square on e3.} 23. Qb2 $2 {with the idea of defending the second rank, but Black's next move keeps the queen shut out.} ( 23. e4 {was necessary to not let the knight into e3.} Ne5 24. Rf1 Rxf1+ 25. Rxf1 $17) 23... Ne3 $19 24. Rf1 {I considered sacrificing the exchange the only real way to continue playing with any hope of a draw, with some compensation due to the strong light-square bishop and Black's open king. Komodo shows this as a top choice as well (although all choices are bad by this point).} Nxf1 25. Rxf1 Rxf1+ 26. Kxf1 {I wanted to keep the bishop on the long diagonal, although this was not necessarily critical.} (26. Bxf1 Qe7 27. e4 $19) 26... Qf6+ 27. Kg1 Qe6 28. e4 (28. Nc7 {I of course looked at, but Black's queen goes to e3 with tempo and I really didn't like the idea of allowing it to get there.} Qe3+ 29. Kf1 Ra5 $19) 28... Qa6 {while this is still winning for Black, it indicates a lack of focus on the kingside, where I now have some hope for counterplay due to the open f-file and Black's exposed king.} 29. Qf2 {I had been looking at this idea previously and was very pleased that my opponent allowed me to play it. Now there is only one way for my opponent to keep the advantage, and he does not find it.} Qa1+ $2 {now it's a draw!} (29... Qh6 {is not an obvious move to find, for a human. Black has to keep the f6 square covered.} 30. Qf1 Bg4 $19) 30. Bf1 $11 {now Black cannot successfully defend both f6 and f8 from my queen.} Bh3 {defending against the mate threat on f8 and threatening to exchange the Bf1, but he never gets the necessary tempo.} (30... Kg7 31. e5 Ra6 32. Nc7 Rh6 33. Ne8+ Kg8 34. Nf6+ $11) 31. Qf6+ Kg8 32. Qxg5+ Kh8 33. Qf6+ Kg8 1/2-1/2

02 January 2018

What are your chess goals for 2018?

GM Gregory Serper has posted an excellent and relevant article "What are your chess goals for 2018?" over at Chess.com.  It's the season for New Year's resolutions, and he takes on several of the most common ones for chessplayers.  In particular, I found the below observation to be valuable in helping define how often one should play serious games:
2) Play more tournaments.
This is a very good resolution, provided that you use your common sense. It is difficult to get better in chess if you don't play serious over-the-board tournaments.  However, if you play a new tournament every single weekend and don't have time to analyze the games, it might be very entertaining experience, but you are not going to improve your chess much. 
Ideally you need to find a tournament frequency that will allow you to analyze the games, learn from your mistakes and play every new tournament as a new, improved self!
As mentioned in The Long Journey to Class A, over the past year I've found that playing tournament-level games on a monthly basis has let me strike a good balance between staying "warm" with competitive chess and offering enough time in between for meaningful study.

It was also a pleasure to see his reaction to the "gain rating points" goal:
When you set a goal to gain a certain amount of rating points, you shift your focus from chess to rating and therefore the fear of losing will ultimately stifle your creativity.
It's far better to set a goal of becoming a stronger player, ideally identifying the particular areas for personal improvement through your own analysis, and then let your rating catch up in its own good time.  Becoming a stronger chessplayer is fundamentally a lifestyle choice (establishing positive study/training/playing habits) and a longer-term commitment to excellence, rather than a quantitative goal.

My top chess goals for the year, in no particular order:
  • Integrate additional openings (or variants in my existing repertoire) into my play, by employing them in serious games, to help broaden the number of position-types that I'm familiar with and inject some variety into my game.  I've already started playing the Dutch Stonewall, to good effect.
  • Learn additional fundamental endgame positions by heart and delve further into the different types of endgame strategies (in rook endings, minor piece endings, etc.)
  • Make an effort to learn more comprehensively all of the typical middlegame structures and plans on a strategic level, so I better can recognize and apply them in my games.

01 January 2018

The Long Journey to Class A

Recently I broke the Class A rating barrier (1800), after spending my entire chess career at the Class B or Class C level.  My previous rating peak (in the high 1700s) was reached 25 years ago, just after I graduated from university and it essentially represented the tail end of my scholastic chess phase.  Since restarting tournament play in the mid-2000s, my rating had largely fluctuated around the 1700 mark, with some dips into the 1600s.  So finally achieving a Class A rating represents a significant improvement on my historical performance and is a milestone on the path to chess mastery.

There are a number of professional-level books and articles talking about what to do to get to the Master (2200) level and beyond, and a few that focus on the Expert level (2000), but there is a dearth of material talking about specific ways to make progress between Class levels.  Online search shows a few forum topics and articles about moving up to Class A, but no systematic treatments; naturally, different people will offer varying or contradictory advice.  There are also a number of general improvement recommendations that could apply to any playing level below Master, and some discussions about the differences in abilities between Class players and Experts, but they largely focus on defining the what of the differences and don't necessarily address how you make progress up the scale.  I've assembled at the end of this post what I would consider some of the most relevant material and links under "Other Resources" for those interested in perusing them.

I'll offer here some background and observations on my own journey.  They won't necessarily serve as a template for everyone's progress up to Class A, but at least I can present what has worked in my case and why.  I've decided to do it in a Q&A format, which I think is a good way to address the broader questions involved, as well as offer some candid thoughts about my experience with the chess improvement process.  If readers have additional questions they'd like to see addressed, I'll do my best to respond in a thoughtful manner.

Q: Why did it take so long to progress to Class A?

A:  Neither the answer, nor the question, are in fact straightforward.

I started playing in tournaments around the age of 14, so one could say it took me 30+ years, if measured from the very beginning.  My initial rating was in the 1400s (Class C) and it took me over two years to make it to Class B (crossing the 1600 threshold), and another year to cross into the low 1700s, which is where I finished my scholastic career.  So during this period, I was gaining an average of somewhat less than 100 rating points per year before plateauing, albeit with one last spike up to the high 1700s.  Looking back, I attribute most of the forward progress during this phase of my career to frequent tournament-level play and "learning by doing", as I had no formal training.  I (erroneously) considered myself a "positional player" and avoided systematic tactics study - being barely aware it even existed - although of course I took advantage of those tactical ideas that I could spot in-game.

The next period of serious chess effort took place in the mid-2000s, most of which was nevertheless spent below a 1700 rating.  My frequency of tournament play, if not good, was not terrible, but my preparation remained poorly conceived and in retrospect it was not really serious.  It mostly consisted of opening study, which at the time largely meant reviewing variations rather than obtaining a deeper understanding of concepts and typical structures/plans; going over some annotated master games in magazines and books; and reading various middlegame books for pleasure (not working through them thoroughly with a board).  My chess training also was not consistent over time, rather being typically concentrated in the couple weeks before a scheduled tournament.  Essentially I made no progress at all for a decade using these superficial practices.

The last phase of my chess career began (and continues) with a more focused, structured and self-aware approach, made concrete by starting this blog in 2011.  Prior to that, I had spent a couple of months looking at a large number of other chess improvement blogs - after discovering that there was a flourishing online community - and was inspired to commit to my own creative effort at improvement.  The decision also stemmed from the feeling that I was sick of being a journeyman making no real progress at chess, and wanting to move towards mastery of one of my personal interests in life.

During this last period, my chess knowledge (especially of tactics and common positional themes) has grown considerably, along with my perceived playing strength.  But after an initial rise and what I felt was a breakthrough in my first year, including beating my highest-rated opponent ever, my rating fell back to fluctuating around 1700.  This was naturally frustrating, and in part it reflected a generally uneven and infrequent level of tournament play for a couple of years.  In contrast, I played a lot more in 2017, basically on a monthly basis, and in the last two tournaments of the year had results that pushed me over the 1800 threshold for the first time.

So in measuring the necessary time period to go from Class B to Class A, in terms of when I began to apply serious study/effort, one could say that it took me over 6 years to make the breakthrough as an adult player.  However, when measured in terms of the combination of consistent training plus frequent tournament play (defined as tournament-level games on a roughly monthly basis), that would instead be approximately 1 year to gain 100+ rating points.

Q: What was most important to making the breakthrough in performance?

A:  Naturally there is no one "magic bullet" that is responsible.  I primarily credit an investment in daily chess skills practice, with 15-30 minutes minimum, and longer time periods spent on a weekly basis (typically 1.5 to 2 hours on a weekend morning) devoted to analyzing games.  Extra time beyond that has been invested in deeper learning from DVDs and books.  Even if one can't achieve 100% regularity with a training schedule, building in these baseline study habits helps one return to them more easily after a break in schedule.  Effortful study, rather than only recreational (as I did in the mid-2000s), is also key.

I would additionally point toward the below specific practices as being the most important for me in reaching the next level:
  • Serious play on a monthly basis, as alluded to above.  Chess performance is a different animal than chess knowledge and there is no real substitute for actual game play to show you where your weaknesses and strengths lie; that way you can target your training work on the former, and consciously choose to play to situations involving the latter.  While I personally prefer OTB tournament play when it's possible, other alternatives such as slow time control online play and correspondence chess are available.
  • Analyzing my own games regularly.  Without this, I would not have been able to diagnose the aforementioned strengths and weaknesses, and it has been by far the best method of obtaining concrete ideas for improving my overall play, including the establishment of a structured thinking process.  It's also been the most effective method of opening study for me, as among other things it helps me remember key ideas in specific lines based on meaningful experience, rather than rote learning.  (See Annotated Game #183 and Annotated Game #63 for example.)
  • Systematic study and practice of tactics.  This builds your conceptual and mental library (via pattern recognition) of tactical ideas, meaning that you can often spot them instantly (or at least eventually) on the board and get yourself an advantage, or (just as important) avoid an opponent's looming threat.  The best resources I have used for deep learning of tactics are Understanding Chess Tactics by FM Martin Weteschnik and Ward Farnsworth's Predator at the ChessboardThere are by now a large number of quiz/practice websites, apps, etc. which can productively be used to test your tactical acumen, but doing exercises was not enough for me to fully grasp and utilize the full suite of tactical patterns.
  • Investigation of standard plans and structures in my chosen openings (and beyond).  This serves a similar function for building a mental library of strategic/positional patterns.  After analyzing my games, it was very apparent when I would drift planless, or make moves that did not conform to the needs of the position (which I did not really understand), something which almost inevitably leads to a worse game.  While it's most important in practical terms to look at the typical middlegame structures arising from your personal opening repertoire, broadening study to general ideas illustrated by master games also adds to your playing strength, and reduces the number of positions where you find yourself at a loss as to what to do.
  • Playing under the rules of mental toughness, in particular forcing myself not to offer draws unless the position in front of me is in fact dead drawn.  If I had given into the temptation to make draw offers to higher-rated players (a common practice), I would have missed out on several key victories.
  • Not being afraid to enter the endgame.  It's still not my favorite part of the game, but it's no longer completely foreign to me, and consciously adopting an attitude of attacking it with a similar level of interest and energy (see below) as the opening and middlegame phases has made significant differences in my final results.
  • Energy management and an ability to stay focused.  When I get tired, I get lazy and can start to play "Hope Chess" rather than fully calculate out my opponent's threats; at the very least, my calculation abilities are noticeably reduced.  Again, the process of analyzing my games illuminated how I would often do well for 25-35 moves (typically the first 2 hours or so of a tournament game) and then rapidly tank.  This was not a reflection of a sudden loss of chess skills, rather I did not have the energy and focus to adequately apply the skill that I possessed.  Techniques for energy management include: adequate sleep; strategic food consumption before a game (enough protein and not too much sugar/carbs); exercise (which should be viewed not as draining your energy, but an investment in your future energy level during a tournament); and having an energy drink available at the board (NOT necessarily loaded with caffeine - juices work) to help alleviate decision fatigue.  In addition, you can use a variety of methods to achieve greater capacity to focus, including cross-training in various disciplines and improving your overall brain health.
If forced to pick what was most important from the above list, I would actually rank energy management and improving focus first, as these practices have had the most impact on my practical performance level.  You are only as good as your worst move (NM Dan Heisman's saying), so regardless of the level of your previous brilliant play in a game, if you blunder due to lack of focus then your game can be over.  This was essentially my situation over the last several years, as I began to see a lot more good ideas and played more "!" moves, but I was not sufficiently eliminating the "?" moves to make ratings progress.

Q:  How long do you expect it will it take to reach the next level?

Good question.  I'm actually heartened by the fact that I've reached the Class A level and still have a great deal of chess knowledge to delve into in all phases of the game (see Training Quote of the Day #9).  What that means to me is that, if I can invest the requisite time and effort going forward, I expect eventually to be able to make further significant progress.  How quickly that comes will in large part depend on my ability to maintain a consistent training and playing schedule.  That said, by now I've built in chess study as a positive habit that I should be able to return to following any disruptions.

Other Resources:

How to be a Class A Player by FM Alex Dunne - this 1987 book is out of print, although you may have some luck in getting it on interlibrary loan to check it out (if in the USA).  Description states it consists of annotated games between Class B and Class A players, with comparisons made by the author.  For a modern approach to examining comparative skill levels of chessplayers, although not limited to Class B vs. Class A, I would recommend either IM Jeremy Silman's The Amateur's Mind or NM Dan Heisman's The Improving Chess Thinker.

"Moving up the Ladder: a Class Player on Gaining 200 Rating Points" by Christian Glawe at Chess Life Online.  The author shares what worked for him in this article.  There are some important similarities with my own path (energy management/physical conditioning, studying structures/plans instead of memorizing openings) along with obvious differences (I don't have a coach, and don't play blitz chess).

"How to Study Chess" by Vanessa West, an article at the USCF website.  Vanessa, an Expert-rated USCF player, responds to a question by a Class B player asking for advice on improvement.  She offers some guidance on studying all phases of the game and takes a fairly comprehensive look at the improvement process.

From Class B to Class A - Chess.com forum topic based on a question about how to get to the next level.  Below is excerpted from the (IMO) best comment, by NM zkman:
From a general standpoint, there is always room to improve tactically and in your calculation. Dedicate a certain proportion of your time to studying tactics each day. In addition, focus very little on your time on openings and of that time focus on learning the resulting middlegame positions.
Lastly, (and most importantly in my opinion) analyze your games. Find out what went wrong and what you can do to improve. The most common mistake in this step is to use and engine and find out what you did wrong. This takes out a huge amount of learning that could be gained by attempting to find these mistakes first. Another large step missing from many amateur player's analysis is WHY you made a mistake. For example, you missed a tactic. The common reaction is to look at this mistake and say "I'm an idiot." This is the wrong attitude. The way to best improve is to say "I missed this because .... (I didn't understand this pin motif well enough, I was focused on this positional theme,etc. 
1800+ players - How did you do it? - From reddit.com (/r/chess)