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)