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)

2 comments:

  1. Congratulations, ChessAdmin. This must feel really great.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks! I feel it was important validation of the time and more serious effort I've put into chess improvement. At the same time, I also feel that I'm more towards the beginning rather than the end of the process.

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