Sunday, April 28, 2013

How to Approach Studying

OK, I'll admit it...I don't have all the answers.

One of the issues that I find myself bumping up against is how to study.  More specifically how to  structure my study time.

i.e. let's say that I need to work on openings and endgames (hey, I do!) and I am using The Sicilian Taimanov: Move by Move and The Russian Endgame Handbook (hey, I am!) to study.  If I have two hours of study time on a given day I can't figure out if it makes more sense to study each subject for an hour or choose one and dedicate the entire two hours to it.

I've tried both and I'm not sure that one is more effective than the other, etc.

My issue is that right now I need what I feel to be extreme amounts of work on both my openings and my endings.  I don't want to set one aside to work on the other, but I'm almost to the point where that seems to make the most sense.  i.e. I'd study nothing but openings for several weeks followed by studying nothing but endings for several weeks.

I'm wondering if anyone has any input based on their own experience.

Please let me know your rating when you reply.  I don't think that a higher rated players opinion automatically makes them more qualified than a lower rated player  For example, would you rather listen to someone who's gone from 1000-1600 in two years or someone who's gone from 1800-1950 over ten years?  Instead, I am curious as to whether there is a "rating bias" towards one form or another.  I don't think that there will be though.


"There is No Fate But Which We Make" - Sarah Connor

I've been reflecting on those words both last night and this morning.

Yesterday I entered a two day five round tournament with a time control of 30/90-SD/60.  I figured that this would be a great chance to get some quality chess in.

Instead, after the first two rounds I was 0-2 and withdrew.

Now it's true, seeing as how my rating had me near the bottom of the section starting out 0-2 wasn't altogether unexpected.  My first round loss was to a 1940 and my second was to an 1850.  I didn't withdraw because I was 0-2, I withdrew because I was playing badly.

My play was so poor that I'm not even going to bother to post the games.  Suffice it to say that in my first game my opponent played 1.c4 and after 1...e5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. Nf3 f5 4. d4 I was essentially positionally lost.  The reason I was lost at this point is because I didn't know the theory at all.  I know the Grand Prix somewhat as White, and so I figured I'd play it against the English.  Of course the issue is that after 3. Nf3 I shouldn't be playing ...f5, I should just play 3...Nf6 and play the Black side of the English Four Knights.  Instead I played without thinking. 

Of course after 4. d4 it turns out that the worst thing in the world Black can do is play 4...exd4.  There is no reason to allow White to get their way.  But I was looking at 4...e4 and realizing that the play would be extremely sharp and that I had no idea of how to navigate those waters.

I spent another 20 or so moves being ground into dust.

My second round game was a Grand Prix.  Once again I was faced with an altered move order and I got into a bind.  I then managed to get some counterplay and thought I might get some winning chances but I then walked right into a sacrificial mate because I wasn't calculating.

I just couldn't focus.  I don't know why but I just didn't have it.

So rather than continue to insult Caissa I decided it was time to pack it up and call it a tournament.

So why the opening quote of "no fate but which we make?"  Because I did this to myself.  The bottom line is that I had a five day weekend last weekend and should have used the time to do some serious intense preparation.  Instead I did some extremely light prep.  I didn't tune up my openings at all.  I did some endgame work and some tactical work, but not nearly enough of either.

While I have a lot of hobbies outside of chess, I don't take any of them nearly as serious.  If I am serious about my desire to become a master I need to act like it.

Poor opening play is just not acceptable any longer.  At the Waukesha Memorial last month I was talking with a local Expert, Scott Haubrich, between rounds.  I had just gotten crushed on the White side of the 9. 0-0-0 line of the Sicilian Dragon.  I said something like "I couldn't remember the theory." to which Scott replied "Some club players just blow my mind.  The time for learning to play new things is not during a tournament.  You should come here with all that stuff ready to go."

At the time I nodded in agreement.  But clearly the lesson was lost on me.

So where do I stand now?  Well, my rating will probably dip 15 points or so as a result of this tournament.  The last round of a local club tournament is Thursday and I drew a 2100 player in Round One then had to take a half point bye in Round Two.  So a win (or draw if I'm paired up) should get me right back to 1700ish.

The question is will I honestly decide that I am sick of just treading water and do the work, or will I let more of the sands of time slip through my fingers as I talk a good game?

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Wisdom of Yermo

I don't know about the rest of you, but I know that speaking for myself I really enjoy listening to GM Alex Yermolinsky.  Not only is he quite entertaining, but he has a way of imparting wisdom in a way that is easy to digest for the average club player.

Shortly after he started his Every Russian Schoolboy Knows series for ICC he had a lecture that said that it was important to find a "chess buddy" to study with. 

Lately I have been doing that with a couple of friends of mine.  Here is what I have noticed...

First of all, studying with a friend(s) will force you to look at the position actively.  When I study on my own I can fudge a little here and there.  I can say "I'd do X" without having to really look deeply into the position.  After all, there is no one there to challenge my ideas.  And with no one to challenge them who's to say that they are wrong?

Naturally, when you are never forced to admit you are wrong it can hamper your development.  Studying with other people you will often find your ideas challenged.  Also, even when you are correct you will still learn more than you would alone.  That's because you have to understand your ideas well enough to explain them to others.  So it's no longer enough to say that "Bg5 is the correct move" then glance at the solution and say "Oh, I was right!"  Instead you'll need to KNOW that Bg5 is correct and be able to explain why it is.

Another benefit is that you get multiple perspectives on a position.  For example, one of the two people I generally study with has a highly refined positional understanding.  The other knows general chess principles rather well.  My contribution is a feel for taking the initiative.  But if we were studying individually we wouldn't have all of those perspectives.

Something else that is nice is that you get a good feel for how others approach studying in general.  For example, you see what kinds of books/dvd's/etc they have and what sort of "laboratory" they have set up to use.

So there is a lot to be gained by doing things this way, and I highly encourage everyone who wants to improve to find a friend to study with.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Rook Endings

Well, as promised I've been doing some work on endgames.  Specifically rook endings.

So yesterday I worked though a few pages of Dvoretsky & Yusupov's Secrets of Endgame Technique and then I watched about an hour and a half of Karsten Muller's Rook Endings DVD (No. 8 in his series.  Not the No. 2 one...)

I did realize last night at the chess club that just watching a DVD and reading a book isn't what I should be doing.  I should be setting up those positions in Fritz and playing them.  What good is theoretical knowledge without practical application?

And how better to train than to have a training partner that never blunders?  I can recreate the halcyon days of the Pioneer Palace right here in the comforts of my own home!

So I am going to re-read some of the R v R+2P material and then set up those positions today.

But first I have to go to the dentist...blah.

If Only You Believe in Miracles

So would I...

I think that Jefferson Starship aptly sums up my experience last night.

Last night I was playing a floored 2100 player whom I have played twice before, scoring a draw when I was 1500 and a win when I was 1700.

Needless to say I got cocky and felt like there was no way I could lose.  As a result I violated a cardinal rule of chess, which is play the board, not the opponent.  That then led to some bad over the board decisions.  For example, I was cramped but I intentionally avoided trading down any material at all for some time.

After a while I found myself losing the game.  My position was becoming more desperate and in fact Fritz 12 gives the evaluation after move 21 as +4.89.  Ten moves later Queens were off the board and my position was so cramped that I was certain I would lose.

But at this point something interesting happened.  My opponent psyched himself out.  The position was completely winning, but would require a bit of patience to make progress and win.  Whereas I had been down about 35 minutes on the clock suddenly I was a few minutes ahead.  Ray started getting up from the board and shaking his head and just kept sighing and pacing.

This gave me renewed hope that I would somehow be able to hold on and I became more determined than ever to just resist as long as I could.

Then I made a major blunder when  I played 34...f6.  34...Ra8 solves the majority of my problems.  I was caught up in the idea of not wanting his pawn to advance past the sixth rank that I neglected to realize that letting it do so would completely immobilize it.

Then came move 41.  Bxc5.  Finally, the equality I craved so much had arrived!  At this point I knew I would be able to hold the draw!

On move 42 I strongly considered 42...Ne6 rather than going into an opposite colored bishop ending.  But I finally decided that even though 42...Ne6 retains some winning chances, the fact that I was surviving at all was good enough since I was getting low on time (less than 10 minutes.)

I offered my opponent a draw after 42...Bxd6 and was told "Oh no, we're just getting started." but since the position was totally drawn I wasn't worried.  We played 19 more moves and my opponent finally took the draw.

See the game here.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Redemption Song

"Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds" - Bob Marley

I think that this wonderful bit of lyrical poetry pretty much sums up a game I played last night.

To set the scene...after achieving my all time rating high of 1724 I've shed 39 rating points in a couple of four round G/60 events over the past few weeks.  However, I knew that a win last night should get me back over the 1700 mark. 

Last night marked the final round of a six round tournament with one game per week.  My opponent is someone whom I have played numerous times but had never beaten.  I believe that my record was something like four draws and one loss. 

The two of us have been relatively close in rating since I started playing again a couple of years ago although lately I had opened up something of a gap.

I have been working a bunch of hours lately and was exhausted all day yesterday.  To compound the problem I had several energy drinks at work just to get through the day so I felt like a hot mess towards the later part of the afternoon and seriously thought about not playing at all.

But I finally decided that I felt good enough to play.

There are a few interesting things to me about this game...

The first is that I found an interesting "best move" which is when I played 8. Be3.  It just felt "right" to retreat after having provoked something of a weakness once Black had played ...h6

Another is that this is the first time I've ever had a game in which every piece of mine was off the board before a single pawn was.

Yet another is the fact that even in an eight pawns vs seven pawns ending in which my two sets of doubled pawns could have come in to play I was able to dominate.

Having used the "dominate" word I should explain that had my opponent not played 28...b6 then the win would have much trickier.  Still relatively easy, but with a requirement of much more precision.

So, on to the game, which can be viewed here.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Don't Take Your Eye Off the Ball

One of the first lessons we are taught as a kid learning to play baseball is to not take your eye off the ball.  If you take your eye off the ball bad things generally happen.  If you are up to bat you might strike out.  If you are fielding you might not catch the ball.

Very rarely can you succeed when you take your eye off the ball.  And when you do it's luck rather than skill that prevailed.

Early in the week I posted that I was at least picking up my work on tactics.  Since that post I haven't done any work at all barring a few puzzles I did this morning.  I took my eye off the ball.

The result?  Yesterday I played in the Hales Corners Challenge XVII and went 1-3 while shedding 19 rating points.  From 1704 down to 1685.

I will post more about the tournament later, including my games, but suffice it to say that in the first round I easily won against a 1505, then in round two I lost to a 1943 after achieving a winning position.  Round three saw me losing to my current coach who is rated 2124, then in the final round I pressed way too hard to win and lost against a 1515.

Had I not taken my eye off the ball I would have likely won either my second or fourth round games.

So I will now punish myself as promised earlier by reading One Move Checkmates

After that I will spend some time working through some of the exercises in Chess Tactics for Champions, which is a book I thoroughly enjoy.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Update for April

Well, I have been doing an OK job of working on tactics in April and so far it has shown in my games.  I played three G/24 games last week and felt tactically competent in them.

I do need to step up the rook ending study quite a bit though.  I have studied my horrendous endgame against Jeff Cooper from the end of last month and have learned a lot.

In addition, I have looked at some of the stuff in the Russian Endgame Handbook, but not nearly enough for my liking.

I have a four round G/60 this Saturday (those seem to be the theme of the last six weeks for me) and then my five round two day event in two weeks.

So it's time to dig in and get some work done.

Tactics are looking better at least.

My brother is here through the end of the week so I won't get any in depth work done this week.  Which means that the next two weeks will be of the utmost importance in making progress.

I have three days off coming up.  The 18th, 19th, and 22nd.  So a five day weekend.  I will need to use it for rook ending study.  I will then prep openings the last few days before the end of month tournament.

Time will tell.  But at least the tactics don't suck as bad!

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Plan for April

So far my "the plan for" posts have mostly revolved around what I will be doing for a specific week.

This time the plan is for this month.  The reason for that is that I have a two day tournament coming up the last weekend of the month and I plan on being prepared for it.

Along the way I am playing in a one day four round G/60 event on the 13th, along with continuing to play in club events on Wed & Thurs nights.

The event at the end of the month is the Arpad Elo Open.  My goal is to play well in every game.  I want to come out of every opening with a playable position (which is not typically the case for me) and I want to play with a grinder's attitude.  I do not want to think "maybe I'll get a draw" as much as I want to think "If it takes me until 1am to grind out this win then that's what I will do."

So how do I get there?  Well, I see it as a three step plan...

  • Strong Opening Preparation
  • Continued Work on Tactics
  • Intense Rook Ending Study

So the plan is this:

Strong Opening Preparation

That means that for this tournament I can't go in with a "play anything" attitude.  I need to decide now what I am going to play.  I am leaning towards 1. e4.  My prep as White is strong against most openings.  I have done some work on the White side of the Ruy Lopez although I haven't played any of it OTB, I am learning the White side of the Dragon (although I blew it in my game at the Waukesha Memorial by playing Bh6 when the correct move was Bd4), am solid on the White side of the Najdorf, and play the Panov-Botvinnik very well for my rating.

This means that I will have to do some work on the White side of the French.  I will look at some lines and decide what I want to play.

As Black I need to continue to work on the Black side of the Sicilian.  I also need to firm up my prep in the KID.

Continued Work on Tactics

I will continue to work on tactics for 15-30 minutes per day using the Tactics Trainer on, or by reading various books I have on tactics.  I will not overdo it on tactics, but neither will I let my current tactical abilities slip.  I consider this to be the most important, although least time consuming, part of my training.

Intense Rook Ending Study

Exactly what it sounds like.  I can't give away half points like I did against Jeff Cooper this past weekend.  I will read John Emms's excellent book Survival Game to Rook Endings.  I plan on spending maybe only 25% of my time working on this.

In addition to those three items I will of course continue to play through annotated games to further my overall improvement.

Waukesha Memorial

This past Saturday I played in the Waukesha Memorial, which is a one day four round G/60 local tournament that I have played in each of the past three years since I returned to playing chess.

My results were as you would expect for my rating, which is to say that I won against players rated 1315 and 1467 and lost to players rated 1953 and 2200.

However, the thing that I take away as both blessing and curse is that I missed a win against the 1953 under inexcusable conditions (I had plenty of time to calculate and miscalculated what was an unsound sacrifice rather than determining that I could accept my opponents unsound sacrifice (i.e. in my second round game I could have played Bxa2 rather than Bxf7+).

In the game against the master I was better after 20-25 moves and I blew it.  I lost a pawn, but could have drawn in the rook ending.  At that point, however, I had no time left to calculate. 

So I leave that tournament knowing that I am improving but still have some room to improve.

On the plus side, I think this is the first time I've gained rating points in this tournament!

To see the games go here.

Also, trivial note of interest...Black won all four games I played.