Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Well, shit, I haven't posted anything in nearly three years. What should I be doing with my life? Shouldn't I be following the path of career and women (and not necessarily in that order).

Anyway, to get the ball rolling, let me quote an article in full from Tom Rowan, a guy who had some amazing advice.

Turning Your Chess Books into Grandmaster Strength Coaches
by Tom Rowan
[This article appeared in the May 2005 issue of Northwest Chess.]

Learning is difficult if you can't interact with your teacher. The lecturer may be saying brilliant and insightful things, but if all you can do is listen passively it's hard to absorb the lesson, let alone retain it for long.

I think most of us have a similar problem with our chess books. We may have Nimzovich, Fischer, Alekhine, Botvinnik and other greats sitting on our bookshelves, but most of their wisdom stays trapped in the pages. Just as we did with the classroom lecturer, we "listen" to those chess authors passively. We nod in agreement when we see a move or a comment that seems reasonable but we get no great insights.

There's hope, however. The wisdom in the chess books is still there. We just have to be more creative than "watching the moves go by" in order to get it out.

Here's an exercise you can try to accomplish this.

Start with a well annotated collection of classic games, Alekhine's best games for example.

You're going to be Alekhine when you play over these games. Instead of just watching the moves he plays, you're going to "play" Alekhine's opponent.

You'll need a bare game score - the moves without the annotations. You can create this by hand by copying the moves from the book, or you can retrieve the game from a chess database.

Set up the board and your chess clock. You'll also need a notebook to write down your move, why you chose that move, and how much time you took to decide on it.

Ready to play as Alekhine? Then start the clock.

For each of your moves in the game, take the following steps.

1) In the given position, think about which move you would make and why.

2) Write down (in blue ink) the move you chose. Also briefly write down your reasoning behind your choice and how much time you spent on the move. Leave room underneath your notes for additional comments later.

3) Uncover Alekhine's move on the bare scoresheet. Make that move on the board.

4) Uncover the opponent's move. Make that move on the board.

Repeat these 4 steps until the game is over. Stop the clock.

Set aside your pen with blue ink. Any further notes you make will be in red.

Now open Alekhine's book to the game you just played. Step through the game again. Sometimes you and Alekhine didn't play the same move. Sometimes your comments and his will be at odds. Maybe you commented heavily because you thought the position was critical but Alekhine didn't comment on that move at all. Or maybe Alekhine commented heavily but you didn't.

All that is OK. You're not being scored by how close your moves and comments came to Alekhine's. You're not being scored at all. You're trying to learn from the discrepancies you find.

As you replay the moves, make further annotations in red using Alekhine's moves and comments to assess and refine what you wrote earlier. Don't just mark up what you did wrong. Also note where your moves and annotations appear to be pretty close to the mark. Don't automatically assume Alekhine's moves and comments are the answer key. Be skeptical, and look hard at your comments and his before you decide where the truth of the position lies. If you do determine that you missed something important, try to figure out the reason you missed it. Write it down.

After you finish replaying the game, review everything you've written. Do you see any patterns in what you missed? What appear to be your strengths and weaknesses?

Above all, be constructive in your notes. There's no point bashing your play because it falls short of Alekhine's best. Everyone, including Alekhine, will fall short of that standard most of the time.

Instead, remember that the point of the exercise is to learn more than you could by just making Alekhine's moves and reading his comments. By immersing yourself in the game, you're transforming the book from a lecturer into an interactive coach.

Although the mechanics of this exercise are similar to those in the Solitaire Chess exercise that appears in Chess Life, there are important differences. Even in a chess masterpiece, I don't think it's valid to regard the move played as the best move, and I don't think it's very educational simply to try to guess the next move, even if it is the best.

I've tried this exercise with Alekhine games and with Fischer games, and have made several observations.

Having the clock running helps you take the exercise more seriously. It feels more like a tournament game. Also, recording the time you spend on each move helps keep you focused.

Annotating your moves as you go keeps you honest. You can't use your fuzzy memory to rationalize away your mistaken thinking.

Because you're actively participating in these games, you can get many of the practice benefits of playing over-the-board games without playing in a tournament.

I also made a couple of unexpected observations.

Many of these Alekhine and Fischer games are classics that I was semi-familiar with. More than once I chose a move by "remembering" what Alekhine or Fischer played, only to get it wrong. The lesson here is to play each position fresh. Trying to play from memory is hazardous.

One Alekhine game I played took longer than I expected. I was getting tired but I wanted to finish it so I stuck it out to the end. Although I was tired I was pretty happy with my moves and my annotations. Until I looked at the annotations the next morning. I was shocked to find that they were embarrassingly bad. That was a valuable lesson for me. Being tired hurt my play a lot more than I thought. Study is good but any benefits will be more than wiped out if it cuts into sleep time.

This is not a quick and easy exercise. You could easily spend as much time and effort as in a tournament game. On the other hand, it's the only way I know to have an Alekhine or a Fischer comment on the moves you play.

Till next time.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

1967 - 200 points in 700 days

A very good year. England 2-3 Scotland. Also a very good rating. One might say "200 points in 700 days". I don't quite know what has accounted for the increase in my ICC Standard rating but it is not tactical problems, which I have to confess I have stopped doing. The key points for me are:

1. No blitz games. I have pretty much stopped this. But if I do play blitz, I analyse the opening phase.

2. Playing through lots of master games. I'm currently going through Larsen's account of Korchnoi-Karpov, my two all-time favourite players. My intuitive feel for what is "normal" in a game has really improved. Heisman is right.

3. As per the previous post, "guessing game" Yusupov, Nimzowitsch etc. everyone recommends this. I'll post a great but now unavailable post from Tom Rowan on this soon.

4. Analysis of your own games (with a "trainer") and honest appraisal of the faults and their true causes.

I find that if I have a position on the board, i automatically begin to analyse. This is the key, and this is what strong players do, they are inquisitive, they analyse, they test, they probe. As Polugaevsky says (grandmaster prep (and I paraphrase)), every well analysed position makes me a stronger player. Less is more - it's back to Nigel Davies who for me sums up the difference between the amateur and the pro:

"The reality is that you’ve got to move the pieces around
the board and play with the position. Who does that? Amateurs don’t, GMs do."

Monday, June 18, 2007

New highs

It's been some time since I posted, and progress on CT-ART/MDLM stuff hasn't been fantastic. I basically realised that my tactical skills are not yet good enough to really go beyond Level 30 on the program. I'd like to be able to achieve 100% on Level 30 before moving on to the higher and harder levels. Still, I'm averaging 88% on Level 30 with about 60 problems to go, which is respectable. I think its one thing to be able to do tactical problems on these programs but quite another to actually implement in practice. I've been going over my games with GM Kiriakov, and I still miss quite a lot of tactical possibilities over the board. This is largely due to a combination of two problems: (1) stopping analysis of possibilities too early; or (2) not noticing them at all. I often look briefly at the right move and dismiss it without going deeper into analysis. Last night was a case in point, when I briefly looked at but dismissed a knight sacrifice leading to a forced mate in 5, and chose an inferior continuation. I still won :) but the win could easily have slipped away. I also lost another game due to a basic tactical oversight, and drew another which should have been won, again due to not analysing some possibilities that I had looked at and dismissed too quickly. This is something that MDLM does mention - it's part 3 of his article on 400 points at Chesscafe. I think the key is to analyse briefly all captures, checks and threats no matter how absurd they may seem and to make this a habit. Another game I played recently both my opponent and I missed a queen sacrifice that would have won the game for him. If I can work out how to post games, I may put some of these examples up for your viewing pleasure.

Away from the MDLM techniques I have been playing a lot of 45+5 and 45+30 games with the good news being that my ICC standard rating has gone over 1900 for the first time. An improvement of around 50-60 points since I started up in April again after a few months' break.

Instead of spending a lot of time on CT-ART, I have been trying to take Rashid Ziatdinov's (and Tow Rowan's, and specifically Mikhail Shereshevsky's) advice and playing through GM games by covering up the moves and trying to guess what was played. I am playing through Rubinstein's games (Kmoch) and trying to guess the moves. These can take 45 minutes (Shereshevsky) or 3-4 hours (Ziatdinov) depending on how much time I have. I use the training feature on Chessbase to cover up the moves, guess them, make the move, and carry on to the end of the game. Then I look over the notes from the book to see what was considered important, what I missed etc. This is a very proactive way of learning and after only 6 games I have found it very interesting indeed, and made some observations:

(1) What I am most struck by is how even the games are. It's not like Rubinstein is going out and destroying these opponents - the games may be even for around 30 moves, with a slight edge for Rubinstein, then some inaccuracies come and he wins.

(2) It verifies the Lasker principle of attacking in accordance with the extent of your advantage. Rather than going gung-ho after the king, you have to assess your position and take action accordingly, not making any rash moves, consolidating if you don't have a big advantage.

(3) It's interesting to note where the players needed to indulge in a lot of calculation (which you can tell from the notes) and where simple blunderchecking and choosing a plan are prevalent.

(4) It emphasises the importance of having good technique to convert an advantage, however slight.

(5) It helps you to understand the plans in different types of position, mainly classical openings such as the QGD, Four Knights, Ruy Lopez etc.

So I fully recommend this method - it does not have to be too time consuming - you can go through a game in around 45 minutes (having played through the opening) and then take 15 minutes to go over the notes.

I've also spent some time going over some excellent "old" books, Lasker's Chess Manual (positional play) and Znosko-Borovsky's How to Play the Middlegame. I also recommend these to understand the classical methods of play.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Quick, Quick, Slow

Well, I've been pretty quiet for a while but am back in the world of competitive OTB chess and still ploughing through CT-ART at the rate of about 5 problems a day. I have also nearly been through Clarke's great book "Petrosian's best games of chess 1946-63". Some masterpieces, and interesting games in there. One of Petrosian's great strengths is to stifle counterplay and play across the entire board, switching play from the queenside to the kingside and vice versa. Very instructive. I think simply absorbing master games has helped my play and my rating is back up to where it was previously after a massive slump.

I am now convinced that the key to improvement is process, rather than knowledge. It is doing things, analysing positions, solving problems, practising blindfold games etc. As Petrosian himself says:

"After untold hours of work and study, Tigran said (before the defence of his world title in 1966 against Spassky): "You know, all these lofty matters we have been studying strategy and endless opening subtleties are not the main thing. The match willbe decided, first and foremost, by our calculation reflexes duringplay, or, as they say, who is better at doing 'you go there, and I go here'".

What I am finding helpful in going through GM games, is playing out the moves, but all variations in my head and concentrating on visualing the position after going through it. The discipline of training is very hard though. Maybe if was unemployed....

Monday, February 19, 2007

Playing through master games

Things are now coming along well, with the new minimalist tactical programme. 10-15 minutes per day is just about right as far as I am concerned; I re-started the MDLM programme on CT-ART 3.0, and have so far completed 250+ problems in the first circle. By the time I get to level 60 I may be only doing 1-2 problems a day, but the training will just have to take longer. I also need to get back into playing competitive chess after a break of a couple of months, and will line up some tournaments in March and April.

I've never made a consistent effort to play through GM games before, but the benefits are beginning to make themselves known. I am really enjoying the Petrosian games and have now played through around 25. I am not using the Nimzowitsch method of covering up the moves and guessing, but rather taking around 30 minutes to play through each game (at the moment on Chessbase 9.0 rather than using a board and pieces), trying to absorb the contours of the game, where to put the pieces, and picking up certain specific details as I play through.

How should you play through master games? There are clearly a number of different schools of thought, but everyone is decidedly clear that it is an important part of the development of any player. Here are some suggestions, firstly from Dan Heisman:

"I suggest a norm of getting out a chessboard, playing each move, reading what the author has to say about the move, and then making the next move. At this rate, it should only take 20-40 minutes to play over an annotated game. I am often asked, “But should I play out all the analysis lines?” The answer is, “Of course, if you want to, but it is not absolutely necessary.” I would play out any analysis line that answers a question you don’t understand. For example, if you wonder why one player did not capture a pawn, and the variation explains it, then by all means play out the line (use a separate board for analysis moves if that makes things easier or quicker)".

Here is a radically different approach from, you guessed it, Rashid Ziatdinov, whose advice I find very illuminating. This is an approach to take if you have sufficient time on your hands and you are disciplined:

"The easiest and most effective method of training is when you are guessing the moves of a strong player. It has to be really guessing, do not try to "understand" (the attitude of "understanding" is wrong in a training session). If you choose a move not played in the game, you must be sure that your "teacher" at least considered your move. You should be upset if your guess was wrong, but your error has nothing to do with not "understanding" chess and everything to do with your chess vocabulary. You should be very upset if you missed a tactic or guessed a blunder.

Every game in which you guess moves should take about four to six hours. If you are not able to finish such a long session, stop and continue at the next session, but do not rush to get to the end. Do not hurry even if you're sure about the next move - and again, enjoy the solution. It is a kind of meditation. You can sit for hours trying a few possibilities in your head. Maybe your "teacher" is stronger than you, but you do have one big advantage - unlimited time; this makes you equal. Do not debate which move is better, yours or his (for it must be clear - if you did not find the master's move, you are wrong). For this exercise, you need a cold, objective attitude. To attempt this guessing-game, training without a master sitting beside you is a very difficult task. I have not met a player rated below 2200 who could demonstrate this attitude for a training session. Instead, everyone wants to be shown the correct move to "understand" it. Russian chess masters discuss concrete moves and variations, but never try to "understand" them."

Another interesting comment from Ziatdinov is that you should pay attention to why moves were not made rather than why the actual move in the game was made. His view is that assessing candidate moves that were not made can often give more information than assessing the move that was actually played.

I would be interested to hear from anyone that has used the Ziatdinov approach and how they felt it benefited their play. It reminds me of another quote from Nigel Davies, whose advice I have a lot of time for:

"'Understanding' comes on many different levels. The people who manage to 'digest' are the ones who will sit for hours in front of a chess set, tinkering with ideas, or those who play THOUSANDS of games with particular ideas. Not those who just read and nod..."

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Test of Time

Ok, MdLM is back. In a more refined form - my idea, to balance sociability, work and the long-term nature of chess improvement is to double the time taken by MdLM to achieve his goal. I'm convinced that tactical drilling is the basic key to improvement: my online blitz ratings shot up while I was doing those 900 CT-ART problems ( & ICC +200 points). The issue - my taste for chess went shooting down to the point where I felt I had to leave it for over a month without as much as playing a single 1. Nf3 (hey that's an improvement on 15 years, the last hiatus).

There is nothing wrong with this approach - take Rashid Ziatdinov, who recommends taking a year, even two years to do what a jobless MdLM did in four months. We need to get realistic here. As my great Siberian leader and teacher Petr Kiriakov acknowledges, this is a slow-burn game. Rapid improvement is only available to those who live and breath pieces of wood 24/7.

Valery Beim says in "How to Calculate Chess Tactics":

"The first important point is to work regularly. If you work on tactics and calculation 5 or 6 days a week, then it will be quite sufficient to spend only 10-15 minutes a day, no more. But it must be done regularly!"

This backs up Ziatdinov's views. The relentless and remorseless self-punishment of doing 90 minutes of tactical problems a day culminating in a marathon 12 hour session is just not necessary - it may speed up the goal, but you may end up loathing chess because of it. What did MdLM do once he had completed the programme? Thrashed some tactically weaker patzers and promptly gave up the game for the rest of his life.

So how did I rediscover my enjoyment of chess? The answer: Petrosian's Best Games of Chess by Peter Clarke. I even started playing 1. Nf3 in blitz games, with surprisingly good results...

A final quote, from the greatest there has ever been:

"One's mastery of chess is greatly helped by studying leading players' annotations to their own games; this should be done more and more attentively and thoughtfully. This work will help you understand how the real masters solve specific problems, and which factors they consider paramount in particular positions. At first, many of the annotations will be incomprehensible to you. Then there will be a period when it all seems incontrovertible, fully accurate. But finally there will come a time when you start to have questions for the annotator: "But why do you consider this necessary and not..?". That will mean that your playing strength has increased." [KASPAROV]

Monday, January 01, 2007

A New Year

Happy New Year to everyone. It's been a bad month. But it's a new year. And that's the main thing.

Tactical problems have gone to seed. I got to 900 on CT-ART and then work took over in a big way. Being a lawyer and a chessplayer just doesn't fit. I feel I have let myself and all of you down. Just as things were starting to look promising, just as certain patterns were burning themselves into my brain, as my ICC rating was increasing with alarming rapidity, I found myself in the office until 10pm, sometimes 11pm, occasionally 1:30 am. Rather than follow the hallowed path of our great unemployed leader, I am sorry to say I chose the path of greed and temptation. Work, a home, and a salary had to come before the pure path of the 64 squares.

But there is hope. In the form of Rashid Ziatdinov. Let me share his wisdom with you:

"Strategy should not be a subject of inquiry for the non-master. No strategy! Absolutely none! Only amusing, paradoxical tactical tricks should be investigated. Chess is a funny tactical game of two-move combinations and unexpected endgames".

"To study tactics, I recommend my timed tactical software program, or similar software programs... Basically, set up a cycle of ten positions, go through them until you get a perfect score, then set a cycle from 10-20, get a 100% score, then go through problems 1-20, repeating this cycle until you can go through 1000 problems "by hand" (not mind) without any mistakes. If you try this method with my tactics program and complete it, you will have the tactical ability of a Grandmaster. I have had more than a hundred students and nobody had enough will power to finish this tactical training method. Is it my students or is it me? Well, take only thirty minutes a day and slowly memorize 1000 problems; take a year or two if you have to. It comes down to will power, and that I cannot provide".

So I haven't been able to keep up with MdLM, and I doubt I will. Now and again, I just don't have the time. But I am determined to complete the seven circles on my own terms. I note that Ziatdinov recommends a similar approach to one that some of the knights have adopted: do a certain number of problems first and do those seven times, rather than trying to do all of them at once. I have to admit that problems on CT-ART from 900+ are too difficult and time consuming for me at the moment. My task is therefore to learn those 900 inside out, and at my own pace. I will take my time; the other thing I don't trust about the MdLM method is that it is so intense, I think you can lose your taste for chess. It's no coincidence that the great unemployed one gave up the game pretty much as soon as he finished the course.