Sunday, December 13, 2009

Been a long time...

I've been busy. Very busy. This will be a big post as a result, and I'm not even going to include most of the games I've played in the last few weeks. Most of them aren't so great anyway, either crushing wins or pathetic defeats, very little in the way of competitive play. I played in a local Open, which I had promised myself I wouldn't do (I usually don't have the energy after a week of work. I'm lucky to play my club games). I did okay...I only lost 7 points, though I did lose to a 1750 kid when I was dead tired Saturday night. The real mistake was not taking a bye that round. Here is one game from that event.


My opponent is a really nice guy, a middle aged college professor, but as you might expect give his background he isn't the most theoretically cutting edge player. As such, I was really worried about creating winning chances, which I had to do to have any hope of salvaging the tournament. As you can see, he mixed up his move order a little and I whipped up a little attack. When the opportunity came to go into a winning ending however, I took it. He made me work for it, but I got him in the end. I also played a few club games, two of which I'll post to show you the difference between B-class and Expert level play, as if you didn't already know there was a stark divide.



Aldo Lopez is a really quality player, probably of master strength (he beat GM Rausis at the Turkey Bowl with black), and I again had trouble with him despite doing a lot of prep. Oh well. No shame in that one. I was glad I was able to handle Gary so easily. Which brings me to a problem I've had recently: winning with black against lower rated players.

It's a real issue in Swiss system tourneys. In the first round especially, you need to win and if you have black and an unambitious opponent, it can be hard. For example, last week I played a 1650 player I've beaten like 3 times in a row, but I had black. It was the first round, and I needed a win. The best I could do, however, was a draw. I was better the whole game, but he didn't risk very much and ably held the draw. I am actually thinking about adding a slightly sketch line (the Modern) to my repertoire just to make sure that lower rated players can't kill the game. I may yet do it. I just hate playing boring, non-theoretical lines of the Sicilian or Semi-Slav and having to take undue risks to create winning chances. Ah well. I usually win anyway, I just wish it didn't take so long.

So I've been playing okay lately, got up to just a hair over 1900, and I have gotten the chance to read a few books. I suppose I might as well review at least one of them:

Secrets of Creative Thinking: School of Future Champions 5, by Mark Dvoretsky

I try not to simply jump on bandwagons, but I have to say I really like the works of Dvoretsky. A few caveats: I'm not strong enough for all of them. I use his Endgame Manual a lot, but I can't solve the exercises 60% of the time (at best). He's very high level. That said, this book is not about tactics, or endings, or openings, but rather about how to think creatively. Like most Dvoretsky books, it's not really a book but rather a collection of lectures that were given at one time or another at his chess school. As such, there are many authors (some quite well known), and a diverse array of topics. These chapters are of varying utility. Most are excellent musing on the way decisions are made in chess, half advice and half philosophical debate. I like these the best. A few are more polemical, such as a book review of a Sanakoev games collection. On the whole, this is a very interesting book that I would recommend. Unlike most Dvoretsky books, this one could be enjoyed by a wide range of players of varying strength. The points are more intellectual than technical, and will be interesting to all.

So I suppose this wasn't really that long of a post, but I'm very drunk and I don't care to keep writing. For one thing, I have to keep deleting and retyping mistakes, which is tiring, and I have to work tomorrow. I will try to get back to posting more often. Peace out.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Endgames Are Where 'C' Players go to Die

At least that's how I beat them. The last two weeks I've played two player rated 1600-1700ish, and in each case I've taken them into endings in which they're slightly worse (if not equal) and beaten them without a whole lot of trouble. I swear I'm not that good at the middlegame, except in terms of preparing favorable endings. My tactics are not so great but by God if I see a potential endgame weakness I can usually highlight it. It helps when your opponents are oblivious to their own weaknesses, or at least don't perceive the seriousness of them. Here are the games:



I feel that I've really consolidated my rating lately, so to speak. I pretty much always beat players 100-200 points lower than me, and I feel that's a big part of being a stronger player. You just can't give away points to much lower rated have to find a way to beat them. Drawing people slightly stronger on a regular basis is a big part of it too, and I've definitely gotten better at that as well. Of course, sometimes I get rolled by someone at a higher level, and I have a painful example of that as well from three weeks ago. The line is one that I believe is good for black if he's playing for a win, but it's not easy to play (it's a gambit in the Alapin Sicilian). Anytime black gambits a pawn a lot of accuracy is required, and I didn't have it. I really need to study this position deeply because I've had a lot of trouble with it both over the board and online. Still, I wouldn't give it up as it's one of the few lines versus the Alapin Sicilian that isn't drawish. Here's the game:


Ouch. That one still hurts. Though I have very little time to study now that I'm working (which is going well, thanks for asking), this position is worth some time and effort. I just can't stand the early ...Nf6 lines, they're just so boring.

In the chess stratosphere these days, Carlsen is owning everyone like they're a bunch of 'A' players in a weekend Swiss. This guy is really ridiculous. I love how in the last round of Nanjing he beak Javojenko, even though he had already won outright. How many GMs would have just taken a short draw? 80-90% would be my guess. He's as flexible as Kasparov in the types of openings and positions he can play well, and he has the drive to win every game like Fischer did. And I believe he's about to be 2800+ before his 20th birthday. If he keeps this up, he could challenge Kasparov for best all time. I realize that's preposterously premature, but the way he's playing is just astonishing. Nobody wins as many games these days as he does. Defensive technique is just too good, but he just seems to throw people off their games. I'm a huge fan. I hope Anand whips Topalov soon and that Carlsen gets his shot quickly thereafter.

You know who I think could be Carlsen's great rival? Aronian. He plays in a sort of offbeat way, but he's tremendously strong at simply playing the game (as opposed to opening prep) in the same way as Carlsen. A match between those two would be excellent. The older generation is starting to fade somewhat in my opinion, in prominence if not in rating, and it's time for Carlsen, Aronian, Radjabov, Karjakin, Grischuk, etc to step up. I look forward to it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Chess From a Different Perspective

So I've had to cut back on my chess study a great deal since I started working, as one would expect. I've only been studying three days a week, and then only for about an hour. I've been working 10 hour days, and after work I'm just too tired to think about chess. Since my wife travels all week the weekends are just for us. I've only played one game since my job started, and I was pretty tired when I went in to play it. I was also ready to enjoy it.

That may sound obvious, but think how often you sit down at the board more worried about losing or really, really driven to win rather than with the idea of enjoying chess in mind. I almost always did. Though I think chess is beautiful, what I mostly got from competing was the thrill of winning. Consequently, losing made me feel awful. I studied not just because I enjoy chess, but also because I hate losing so much. There was an element of compulsion in it when I was unemployed because I felt the need to show progress at something, even if it wasn't something very important to my life in the long term.

This is all preamble to saying that the game I played last Wednesday was probably the most enjoyable game I've played in a long time. I won, but the reason I enjoyed it so much was that I didn't care all that much whether I won or lost. I don't think I realized how much importance I was placing on my chess performance, but after starting work and thus having my priorities shifted it became apparent that I hadn't been treating chess as a hobby, but rather as a serious undertaking the outcome of which I let affect my happiness, opinion of myself, and even relationship with my wife (I get very angry and difficult after losing and am not pleasant to be around). Though I know I won't be making as much progress (if any) as I continue to play, and I won't be playing as often, chess truly seems like a hobby now and I like it that way. It frees me up to just enjoy the beauty and depth of the game. I still want to win, but if I don't I don't feel like a loser (except in's hard to be philosophical when you lose 5 games in a row on ICC, just human nature I suppose). I'd be interested to know how my few (but surprisingly loyal) readers approach the game and see themselves in relation to it.

As for the game, it marked my return to playing 1.e4 after 1.5 years of all 1.d4s. I just got bored playing the same positions. I'll probably play 1.e4 for a while and then gradually just start switching. Luckily I learned enough theory when I was studying 2-3 hours each day that I can play pretty much any opening I want, which is really nice. The game was a pretty dry Scandinavian where my opponent was trying to equalize rather than seize the initiative. He got pretty close to equalizing but misplayed when I broke in the center. In the resulting complications I was able to win a pawn and gradually bring home the win. It's a pretty interesting ending. I actually made it a little more complicated than necessary, but I think the tactics are cute. Enjoy (after move 20 or so, anyway. It's rather boring prior to that).


There you go. I'm only playing once a week and don't have a lot of time to blog, so it may be a minute before I post again. Peace out.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Getting Back to Chess

So I've started playing again. I never really stopped studying or playing online, but I was a bit hesitant about returning to rated play, just because the US Open went so badly. As it turns out, I was over thinking it. I've found that the key for me is to be as relaxed about the result as possible and not to take the game too seriously.

That can be very hard, as we all know. To be good at chess requires commitment, and it's difficult to care about something enough to work hard at it while at the same time being unconcerned about short term results. I certainly haven't mastered that mental skill, but I'm trying. It helps to play in club tournies and avoid the big weekenders. There is so much more stress playing all those games in a row, plus the steep entry fees demand that you take it very seriously if you're playing at all. So I don't know if I'll ever play a big individual event again. Team events still sound like fun, but the major national tournaments are just too much investment, both monetary and mentally. Chess is my hobbie, and while it's a great hobby it's a horrible obsession because it's so unforgiving.

I have been enjoying chess in other ways lately. I've been teaching elementary kids, and that's been fun. Seeing how happy there are when they find the right move or watching the solution to a problem dawn on them is really rewarding. I'm going to have to stop teaching soon however as I'm about to start a job (finally, after all these months). I think getting a (good) job has actually been very beneficial to my attitude about chess as it's reaffirmed that chess is secondary for me, which has helped me to take it less seriously. In any case, I played my first serious game in about a month last night and it was very interesting.

My opponent was a guy I've played once before, and I've looked at his games a lot so I know his style and repertoire well. It's fair to say that he's an attacker to a fault, and I knew that if he got an initiative he could be dangerous despite our rating difference. Our previous game was in the Grand Prix Sicilian, and while that ended in a draw I was under more pressure than I liked. That game actually caused me to change my repertoire versus the Grand Prix, and I was happy to have a chance to play my new line. Joel knew that I had a new system as we're friendly and have discussed the opening several times, so he was a bit worried about playing his normal stuff. As a result he made a mistake and played something very offbeat which I imagine he'd never played before.

Look: when you're playing a higher rated player, you should just play your normal lines. At least you'll understand the position. If you play offbeat junk lines, then neither one of you will be familiar with the position and you're likely to get outplayed. If you put me and anyone 300 points lower than me in a position neither one of us have ever seen before, I'm usually going to win. I'll simply out calculate him, plus since my knowledge is broader than most 1600 players there's a great chance that any random position will be closer to something I know than something he knows. By playing a weird opening, Joel took away a lot his first move advantage because he no longer had the chance to steer the game into familiar (to him) channels. When you look at the game you'll see what I mean.

That said, it was a very sharp and entertaining game in which both sides took risks to try and seize the initiative. I went from winning by a lot to winning by a little as Joel found a series of accurate defensive moves, and eventually he obtained a drawn position. Up until that point he had played very well, way above his level, but then two consecutive endgame blunders left him with no chances to save the game. The finish of this one is also pretty cute as it appears near the end that white may have drawing chances, but instead he loses by one tempo. Here's the game:


Neat game, huh? It was a nice return to playing, and I'm looking forward to playing this Friday as well. Two games a week in club play is plenty for me, and I still feel like I'm improving though I imagine that will slow down now that I'll be working and won't have 2-3 hours a day to devote to chess. Hopefully I'll be able to study positions on my lunch break. I guess we'll see.

Friday, August 14, 2009

I may have gotten too good to enjoy chess...

...and I'm not really very good. I went to the US Open in Indianapolis (my hometown) and hit a wall. I didn't have any will to get into positions (to calculate deeply, that is), to do the hard work over the board that is required for success. I almost liked it better when I was 1600 and a win or loss seemed to be more a result of inspiration than grinding. I admit, I was a little out of sorts as I was spending the days with friends and family that I rarely see, but more was going on than that. I simply wasn't enjoying playing. I was lucky to score the 1.5 points that I actually managed. The loss to Magness wasn't such a big deal as he's a talented junior on the rise, but the loss to Pressici was the worst upset I've suffered in years. I even saw the tactic he laid on me before he played it, but I was too lazy to do more than a superficial assessment of its power. It wasn't that I didn't know I should look more deeply into it, I just didn't have the will.

It may be that after I get my mental shit together I'll be able to play well again. I've been pretty out of sorts on many levels since I wasn't selected for a Project Management job (I got through two interviews and was very confident), as my employment outlook is pretty bleak. Chess is very mood dependent, as least for me, and I have not been in a mood to play serious chess for some time. I hope I have the first again by September, as I like the idea of playing in the Miami Open. If I were to play in my current mental state it would just be throwing money away. I'd probably end up withdrawing like I did from the US Open.

Ironically, not getting the PM job freed me up to take the chess teaching position that I'd been offered. It's only an hour a week and thus won't screw up my unemployment as I continue to search for work. The irony lies in my accepting the position only as I become less personally enthusiastic about chess. It may reignite my love of the game to see it played by kids without agenda or fear of losing rating points, or it may just make me even more tired of chess by forcing me to think about it when I'd rather not. I'm hoping for the latter. We'll see.

Almost as a post-script, here are the games I played. Go through them and you'll probably see why I withdrew. All I can say is that I played as well as I could with everything else going on in my life and in my head. It was really bad timing that the Open came when it did.





Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Painful Return to Tournament Play

The US Class Championships in Boca Raton was my first weekend tournament in some time. I was using it primarily as a tune up for the US Open, and while the tournament was great for that purpose it was a competitive failure at +0=4-1. This was my first time playing in the 'A' group, and I must say that it was extremely tough going. I was repeatedly outplayed in the middle game, though I must say that my openings and endings proved up to the task. This was very gratifying since I've been working on both a great deal, but the pattern of getting a better position, becoming much worse in the middle game and then only saving the position due to superior technique was not encouraging.

I really shouldn't be so hard on myself, I suppose. In some senses I performed well: I overcame one of my worst habits, namely giving up (or at least becoming extremely pessimistic) upon realizing that I was worse. In this tournament, each time I recognized that I was worse I pulled myself together and resolved to hold the ending. In each case, I was able to do so, though not without considerable help from my opponents. The one game I lost I lost due to tactical oversight, certainly not from giving up.

It is interesting how even players of ~1900 not only seemed to play the ending very badly, but almost seemed to stop trying when they reached winning positions. It's as if the prospect of playing out a better ending was enough to sap their energy and resolve. I don't know why they expected the win to just happen, but that seemed to be a consistent mindset of my opponents throughout the tournament. Here's an example. I was so lost in the first round that at least three times I resolved to resign if my opponent played the best move. These were not terribly hard moves to find, mind you. Each time however, he let me off the hook. See for yourself.


Not an auspicious start, but at least I hadn't given up when faced with a difficult (in this case truly hopeless) defense. Garrett once told me I needed to become an 'old school scrapper from way back', and while he was half joking he was still completely right. The more I've come to see chess as a battle (as opposed to a display of skills and knowledge developed away from competition) the more successful I've been. The better I get, the more the psychological aspects matter. Toughness, resolve, these qualities can't be overestimated.

The second round was unlike the first in pretty much every way, apart from my playing badly in the opening. This was the first time I'd trotted out the Russian variation in response to the Grunfeld, and I knew there was a very real possibility that I wouldn't be prepared from a theoretical standpoint having only studied the most critical lines. My opponent in fact deviated early, but I didn't handle it correctly. What followed after was a mistake that indicative of my whole tournament, as well as all my chess as of late.: a tendency to enter complex positions merely for the sake of complexity, even when I had better 'solid' options available. I too often sacrificed a win in hopes of creating a brilliancy. While I got away with it here, mostly because I was white, it led to some really bad positions in later games against stronger opponents. I guess I've read too many Bronstein and Shirov books...but I just couldn't resist the urge to sacrifice my queen for three pieces once in my life.


I have to say, playing in this manner may not be solid but it is admired. I had several people (including my opponent) tell me that 'that's how chess ought to be played'. I assume they mean sharply, creatively...hopefully not dubiously. As neat as it may have been, it was still a dubious continuation and I'd have had a better chance of winning if I'd played more simply. While flights of fancy aren't bad, they should be at least not worse than other continuations; a discipline I wasn't able to enforce upon myself, as you'll see as you look through the other games.

The third round was an English that I couldn't resist spicing up, much to my dismay. Again, I chose complications over what I knew to be the best continuation. I was again lucky to draw, based upon the poor endgame play of my opponent.

De Luca-Rampley.pgn

The fourth round was the worst for me, being my only loss. I came in ready to kick some ass, expecting a white. Instead, I was given my third black out of 4 games. My parents were coming in to town that afternoon, and I had actually hoped to play my white and then withdraw to meet them at the airport. After this game, I was unable to withdraw because I had to get some self respect back.

A short digression...I have to say I had about the toughest draw this tournament that I've ever had. Here were my pairings (with color and opponent's rating)

Round 1 Black vs 1960
Round 2 White vs 1812
Round 3 Black vs 1940
Round 4 Black vs 1975
Round 5 White vs 1870

My only 'easy' game in the 2nd round he played an opening which I had just started working on a new system against. I do feel like I was a bit unlucky. For what it's worth I had the highest tiebreak score (due to average opponent rating and performance) or any player other than the winner. Enough whining, here's the fourth round game: a flight of fancy by my opponent this time catches me unaware and I go down in flames.


Couldn't save that one in the ending, as it never got there. Needless to say I was frothing at the mouth for my fourth round game. First however, I had to go through a little bout of self hatred and an attempted withdrawal before manning up and driving back to the tournament site to play the last round. The last round was much like the 2nd...I chose complications over a slightly better position. After dominating the opening, I felt an obligation to try and keep the initiative by entering a crazy line that I was pretty sure was dubious. Why did I play it anyway? Who knows. This is the big takeaway for me from this tournament: if you know (or even suspect) a move is bad, don't play it, regardless of how beautiful the conception is. Throwing away a better or equal position isn't beautiful, ti's stupid. It's not going to look like a stroke of genius when you just blundered. A valuable lesson, especially since I'll probably play down some at the US Open and really shouldn't take chances in games that I'll almost certainly be able to win from a better endgame position. Here's the game.


So that was my tournament. Good as a tune up, horrible as a competitive outing. I'm glad I played, but hopefully I won't have to repeat the same psychological mistakes again. Knowing one's own self destructive tendencies is the first step to correcting them. In the future I know to ask myself upon considering a crazy move: 'are you considering this because it's the best solution in the position, or just because it's crazy? Is it even playable, or are you about to do something dubious because it has a veneer of creativity?' If I can do that, I think I'll add some stability to my play and justify my ~1900 rating. As a post script, my tournament performance was about 1860, which I suppose I should take heart in since I was around 1700 in January. I've come a long way. See you at the US Open.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

How Good is Good?

So I drew a game against a master (with black), first time I've ever done so, and when I Fritzed it I was surprised. Not that I'd overlooked things, but rather that he'd overlooked so much, playing one or two pretty dubious moves. It's not that I assumed he'd play perfectly, since even masters clearly make mistakes, but even so the number of times he missed the best move seemed high. This guy has been a master for a long time too, with a peak rating around 2400, so he's no slouch. It got me thinking about what it means to be good at chess. By almost any standard, master is pretty strong. If you make it to master, you have a good grasp of the fundamental technical aspects of chess, and probably some areas where you possess truly exceptional understanding of the game. And yet...there's always somebody better (or something, in this computer era) to compare yourself to and come up lacking. So therefore we can't use purely comparative criterion. We also can't define chess mastery as not making mistakes because by that criteria nobody is a master. Beyond 'mistakes' vs. 'no mistakes', there are no absolutes. Mastery is an arbitrary definition we impose at an arbitrary rating of 2200.

Which brings us back to the comparative criterion. When I say we can't use it to define master, I mean that there is no formal way we can do so. In truth, mastery is whatever we say it is. John Nunn has done some comparative work that suggests that some participants in major tournaments at the turn of the last century were probably no more than 2000-2100 strength by today's standards, but in their day there were considered the leading chess masters. Considered is the wrong word...they were in fact the leading chess masters, based upon the knowledge developed at that time and the caliber of their opposition. In a way the development of knowledge in chess and the ease of disseminating that knowledge has made it harder to become a master, because it has raised the general level of chess play worldwide. The comparative criteria are stricter now for mastery than they've probably ever been.

In the end, how good you think you are is purely a function of who you compare yourself too. The better I get, the more I am bothered by small mistakes that wouldn't have worried me in the past. I find it hard to feel good about being 1800 (one point shy of 1900 now) because once you're there you recognize how much further you have to go. I think when you read GM annotations you get the sense that they feel the same way, because their self deprecation is almost always connected to errors they've made. The fact that those errors are so slight that a normal master wouldn't even rate them doesn't matter, no more than it matters to a master that I don't think his errors are gross inaccuracies.

This is a bit of a rambling post, but I really find this subject interesting. I remember one specific instance when I was talking to my buddy Garrett, who's about 2150. I was roughly 1700 at the time, and the conversation essentially consisted of him showing one of his games (which I believe he won) and repeating over and over that this move or that move was 'a blunder'. I recall thinking at the time 'wow, if that's a blunder then I wish I could blunder more often. These moves are at most small inaccuracies, 3rd or 4th best moves instead of 1st or 2nd'. Looking back, I completely understand that Garrett wasn't just being hard on himself, but was judging himself by the criteria appropriate to his level. As I keep getting higher, so do my standards. It's actually kind of a bitch, because it makes it hard to ever be satisfied with your play.

For today at least, I'm going to be satisified even though I took a draw when I could have pressed for more. It's still my first draw against a master. Here it is:


I won't be playing chess for another two weeks, so this may well be my last post for a minute. One final note: if you don't get New In Chess magazine and you can spare ~$100, then you should get it. The stories are great, and the annotations are by the top GMs themselves. I think the last issue I got had annotations by Aronian, Shirov, Leko, Carlsen, and Bacrot just to name a few. Congrats to Shirov for kicking some ass again. I would love to see him back in the elite mix. Peace out.

Monday, June 22, 2009

These Experts Ain't Shit...

I seem to have more trouble with other 'A' players than those over 2000 recently. In the last Boca Raton club tournament that just finished, I beat two experts, drew one, and the only game I lost was to another guy rated under 1900. My last round game was on the black side of a Colle against a guy I'd lost to in the same opening in the last tournament.

I really hate losing to offbeat lines like the Colle, Torre Attack, Morra Gambit, etc. It's not that they're so bad, it's that I feel a moral obligation to at least draw. I think it's because I write most of these openings off and so if I get beat by them, it feels as if all my work learning and playing main lines is wasted. I mean hell, if I could get just as good a position playing the London system and the English defense to everything, then I've been studying for nothing. But I don't think that is the case. Playing something offbeat with black can get you beat in the opening, but with white you certainly have bit more latitude. Most of these guys don't have study time, and so they just want a playable position out of the opening. While I can respect that, it's not for me. I do like to press in the opening, as I feel it's one of the strongest parts of my game.

Returning to the main point of all this, I lost to him last time from a very drawable position, and this time I was determined to at least draw. As it happened, he made a few errors (mostly subtle) and I won. The tournament raised my rating to 1899 (I couldn't have gotten one more point?!?), which is basically my goal for the end of 2010. I think I need to reassess my goals. New goal: get to 200o before starting business school. That means before fall of 2010...basically, I have a year. That's a pretty tall order if I get a job anytime soon, but otherwise I think it's probably attainable. Expert level has always been my goal in chess. If I could really do it, wow. I'd feel like I'd accomplished something. In any case, here's the game:


My opponent seems like a really cool guy, which was nice because it meant that I could talk to him about the game afterward. Post mortems are almost always valuable, even if you're quite a bit higher rated than the person you're playing. If nothing else, you end up giving a mini-lesson which helps you articulate what you were thinking at the board, always a useful way to retain knowledge.

So beyond the game, I've recently gotten the book Excelling at Combinational Play by Jacob Aagaard. I normally like Aagaard's writing and ideas but he has a horrible habit of disrespecting other authors which I find totally unnecessary and offensive. In this book he stays away from that (and actually makes a reference to not doing it, showing that he's aware of the criticism) and manages to focus on combinational play. If you've ever read a book of combinations, you know that most of them start out with some general advice on how to solve problems, the utility of doing so, etc. Aagaard is no different, and most of what he says is pretty standard for this sort of work. There was one thing however that really stood out, showing that Aagaard is still an active and practical player. He advises the reader to not just get the main line or see the idea of the combination, but to look so deeply into it that you know all the lines, such that if you were playing a game you could respond to any of your opponent's moves instantly. This is a tall order, and more work than most of do when solving problems. But think about it...if you're playing a game, you don't just want to play some sacrifice that gets refuted four ply down the line because you didn't look that deeply. You want to see to the end.

There's a connection here to the Hertan book Forcing Chess Moves which I reviewed recently. The way to know when you've analyzed enough is when you've analyzed all the forcing moves for both sides. You can't stop until you have, or else you risk a nasty surprise at the end of your combination. Any non-forcing replies are by nature non-critical, and so you don't have to analyze those. Certainly it's not always easy to even know what the forcing moves are four moves down the line, but that's a matter of board vision not the effort you put into solving. I find that if I do problems as Aagaard recommends, even four can take me an hour. When you think about it though, 15 minutes is not unreasonable for a critical tactical move during a game. I will go so far as to say that if you don't solve using this method of consistently looking through all the lines, then you're training yourself to overlook possibly critical responses during your games, like I did when I lost to Yin two weeks ago (see the archive for the game). If I'd looked at all the forcing responses he had, I wouldn't have miscombined like I did and would probably have retained the great position I gave up by miscalculating.

Returning to Aagaard, the problems in here almost all come from fairly recent games, and interestingly enough they're all from Sicilians. If you play 1.e4 or the Sicilian as black, then this book is definitely worth getting. Otherwise, it's just a good book on combinations with a few gems of advice amongst the boilerplate.

Final topic: I've changed the way I study openings. I used to spend a lot of time playing through one or two games trying to guess the moves of one side, thus forcing me to analyze the tabiyas of various openings. Not a bad method, but very slow. What I've been doing lately, and it seems to be working, is collecting a lot of annotated games (thanks !) in specific openings and play through them rather quickly, stopping to analyze only moves I don't understand. I find this gives me a good general feel for the opening, especially the differences between various branches of the opening tree. For example, I've been studying the Krasenkow (also called the Makaganov) variation of the KID, featuring an early h3. In this line sometimes you attack on the kingside, sometimes the queenside, sometimes you throw your g-pawn forward, or not, sometimes the bishop belongs on g5, other times on e4, etc. It's really hard to memorize all these variations, and it would take me a long time to learn the opening by playing through game after game in that slow, guess-the-move style. By playing through many games quickly (with pauses for deep analysis if I don't understand the point of a move), I'm starting to understand the differences between the systems and the underlying reasons for the moves the GMs play. The reason I can do this is that by looking at many games in a row I have the advantage of comparison, which is lacking when you just analyze one game very deeply. Give it a try. It's a lot easier mentally too, and would be much easier to make yourself do after a long day at work than trying to guess move after move.

Until next week. Peace out.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Reign of Inconsistency

The story of every class players life, right? You play a great game, then you blunder a piece on move 12. You concentrate hard and get an overwhelming position, then one careless move and you're drawing or worse, losing. I've been told I play at 21oo strength. If you looked at some games I've lost recently, you'd conclude I played at 1400 strength. Not surprisingly, my rating splits the difference.

I don't really know how to become more consistent. Practice, I guess. I notice that mood makes a big difference for me: if I don't feel much like playing, I may as well not because I'm probably going to blunder. If I could wave a magic wand and improve anything about my game, it would be consistency. Not least because it's the only part of my game I don't know how to fix through hard work.

As you're probably guessed, I have some up and down games to show. The first is a very nice effort against an expert (the first one I've beaten) played in Boca Raton. The game is an f3 Nimzo-Indian. It's funny that with since I moved up to the premiere division at Boca I've played 3 Nimzo-Indians out of 4 white games. I have always read that the higher your rating goes the more Nimzos you play, but it's funny to find it so true. It seems that after about 1800 there's a big move away from the QGD and the King's Indian to Nimzo/Queen's Indian and Slav systems. While that's not so surprising given the greater complexity involved in playing the latter systems, it's also enjoyable to start seeing a broader range of defenses. It certainly validates all the time I put in studying them when I was ~1600. In any case, here's the game:


Not a perfect game, but I saw a lot and played with energy. I was very happy after this one. Not so much the next game. In this one my opponent also played the opening passively, but I got way too eager to punish him and over-reached. I blame studying tactics. I've spent so much time lately on tactical puzzles that I've started seeing almost every position as a tactical puzzle. While this might help me find some resources that I'd otherwise miss, it also makes it hard to step back and look at the larger picture. Sometimes you have to play with restraint. In this game I saw what looked like a good sac (it wasn't) and once I realized it wasn't good the only option I saw was to sacrifice more material (also incorrectly). When I analyzed the game, I found that a quieter continuation leading to space gains would have given me an overwhelming advantage. I didn't even look at it.

To my opponent's credit, I didn't just lose because I played badly. I set him some hard problems, and he found excellent solutions to all of them. I thought he played extremely well after the opening. Take a look:


That one really hurt. I also blundered a game in Margate last week that I'm not going to show here, because I literally lost a piece to a one move tactic around move 20 (and to a guy I don't like too, which made it even worse).

Moving to study, I'm finding it harder to study openings. They simply aren't as interesting as they used to be. I suppose that's not such a big deal since my opening repertoire is already much better than most players at my rating, but it's odd since the opening has traditionally been my favorite thing to work on. I don't have an explanation, though the pleasure I'm getting studying advanced tactics and endings may have something to do with it. Or it might just be a case of diminishing returns. I mention this because I've been toying with the notion of playing some 1.e4 again, though to do so means a lot of opening work. I'd just rather keep working my way through Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual and Forcing Chess Moves. It'll be interesting to see what helps my game more. I certainly do get some significant advantages in the opening. I hope I don't lose that during the process of improving other parts of my game.

One last note: I will be at the US Open in August. 6 day schedule. I'm super pumped. If anyone reading this is going to be there, leave me a comment and we can play some blitz. Peace out.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Two Games and a Lesson

So I went to the Miami Chess Academy for the first time. Had a lesson with the owner, IM Blas Lugo. It was very productive. It never ceases to amaze me how very strong players can just look at a position, any position it seems, and quickly come to a conclusion about the proper plans and ideas for both sides. If you're in Miami and you want some chess lessons, I'd highly advise the Academy. It is a little pricey, but chess lessons are expensive everywhere. One funny note: Blas told me $50/hour, which is pretty normal. I got there, and we sat down in a room without a clock. I had assumed we'd go an hour, even though Blas hadn't said anything of the sort. I think I assumed it because that was how the price was quoted. Anyway, we went through some games and then did some problems, and I was thinking 'this is more than an hour, is he giving me some extra time because it's my first lesson, or what?' only when I went to the bathroom and saw that three hours had passed did I realize that the rate was in fact, as Blas had said, an hourly rate and not a rate per lesson. For an unemployed guy (me), $150 is a lot to spend on a chess lesson, but it was extremely instructive. My wife insisted, by the way. She just laughed at me when she heard the price, because she knew it would bother me more than her. In the future I'll probably just stick to game analysis since problem solving involves lots of (expensive) time in which I just sit there and analyze. It's great to do it with a strong player there, but I can't afford that. $100 every 3-4 weeks wouldn't be so bad though. I plan on going back when I have enough questions to fill 2 hours. Not every game is worth going over with an IM, after all.

Speaking of games, here are two that I played recently. Both came down to endgames, which is a new thing for me. Think about it: when you are ~1600, your games are often effectively over by 30 moves or so. Someone drops a piece or otherwise blunders, and the endgame (if there is one) is usually just mopping up. Now that I'm getting good enough where I don't drop pieces or pawns that often, I'm starting to reach endings in almost every game. I really like the endgame, but I'm not so good at it yet because I've played so few.

But I have been (as I usually do) studying my ass off with Dvoretsky's endgame manual. I think one of the things I like most about it is how hard it is. The exercises are very challenging, and it's like having a teacher with high expectations. You get a sense for how hard you really have to work to get to a high level, and depending on your penchant for study that either excites you or scares you. I get excited because as I work and study I realize that I can in fact do it, I can see deep enough and calculate accurately enough if I really put in the effort. It's tough but rewarding (that could apply to almost any activity worth doing I suppose). I think it's already payed off, as you'll see from these two games. In the first, played in Boca, I made some mistakes in the middlegame and got into a clearly worse ending. I ended up sacrificing the exchange to maintain a passed pawn on the 6th rank which distracted my opponent enough that I was able to draw. He made some mistakes in the later stages, but they weren't obvious and it just goes to show how hard the endgame is to play well.


I really should have lost that game, but I feel I defended well and I'll always take a draw in such a position. I do feel that endgames tend to favor the defender. In the middlegame the attacker often has natural squares for his pieces and a variety of tactical threats, while the defender is forced to walk a razor's edge to avoid defeat. In the ending this situation is often reversed, and the side that's better has to find 'only' moves to avoid turning a win into a draw. If you have pressure in the middlegame, it's often sustained whereas in the endgame one inaccurate move can completely change the evaluation of a position. What makes things worse is that mistakes are often not obvious at all. I must say the subtelty of endings is one of the things that attract me to them the most. The next game is not so high quality in the opening or middlegame (especially on my opponent played the middlegame well despite a pretty bad opening), but the ending is a pretty example of how strong, subtle threats can get you a win without your opponent making any obvious mistakes. I am somewhat proud of my endgame play in this one. I didn't miss a beat, and that's something I can hardly ever say about my games.


I feel that Bruce played above his rating in this game, which makes it even sweeter to get the win. I believe it was Spielmann that said "play the opening like a book, the middlegame like a wizard, and the endgame like a machine". I've got the opening part down (at least for my level), and I'm rapidly improving on the third part. I wonder where I go to learn magic..?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Book Review and ...I Swear This Isn't Erotic...

...but I really love chess. I've had many loves (other than people) in my order, I think they were baseball, classical cello, Magic: the Gathering (because I was a big nerd 7th-1oth grade), rugby, Korean martial arts (Hapkido primarily), Judo, and now chess. The big ones were music, Judo, and chess. I got pretty good at the first two, and I'm improving at the third. What I love about chess is the way intricate, detailed calculation combines with fantasy to produce beautiful ideas. Chess is no different than anything else: to really appreciate the beauty of it, you have to be somewhat good at it. You have to give enough time and effort to it to understand its subtleties. Once you do understand them, they become beautiful. The better I get, the more positions I understand, the deeper I can calculate, the more I love the works of great chess artists like Fischer and Tal, Capablanca and Kasparov. The different ways in which they weave masterpieces are as unique as fingerprints. The simplicity and directness of Fischer and Capa, the imagination of Tal, the naked aggression of Kasparov. I really love them all. I strive to create the same beauty in my games, though at best I only play one or two beautiful moves every 20 games or so, and I still haven't played a truly beautiful game. I'm not good enough, and neither are my opponents in most cases. We make too many errors. A truly sublime chess game should be close to error free, and what errors there are should be subtle.

It is funny what people think makes a beautiful game. As I implied before, I think it's a combination of exacting calculation (i.e. chess 'truth') and fantasy. An unexpected and original idea supported by valid analysis is the recipe for beauty. It's not necessarily a brilliant attack or a deep combination, though those can be beautiful. Many attacks can be formulaic even if they involve multiple sacrifices. The beauty for me lies in the originality of the conceptions involved. That's why Tal's games are so pretty. Not because he sacrifices material, but rather the way he sacrifices material. The positions in which he does so, the unorthodox (but so often exceptional) compensation he recieves. Anyone can sacrifice. To do so in a position where no one else would even consider it but yet it's still valid is where the beauty lies. Another player whose games I am astonished by is Petrosian. He had as much appreciation for the possibilities of a position as Tal did, but rather than exploiting them directly he prevented his opponent from taking advantage of them. Playing through some Petrosian games is like watching Shaq play one on one versus Vern Troyer. He doesn't have to hurry and he doesn't seem to work particularly hard, because his opponent can do absolutely nothing to stop him from doing whatever he wants.

After that extended soliloquy, here's a game I just played which is not beautiful in the least, though it's an example of reasonably good play by both sides. Note to everyone: I hate the black side of the French. Really. Hate. It.


There you go. And now for a book review.

Forcing Chess Moves: the Key to Better Calculation, Charles Hertan

So this book won the Book of the Year prize for 2008. After getting it, I'm not surprised. This is an excellent educational tactics manual, which is a pretty hard thing to do. This tome goes beyond the standard review of a few typical combinative themes followed by problems. Way beyond.

Well, 'way beyond' may be an exaggeration. The chapters do consist primarily of many examples of tactics, followed by a set of exercises. I suppose it seems so different from a standard tactics book because it's so much better. I haven't seen any of the combinations before, and writing is enthusiastic, and then of course you have COMPUTER EYES.

I wrote the phrase in all caps because that is how it appears throughout the book. Just so you know, computer eyes is the phrase Hertan uses to describe the search for non-obvious but forcing, winning moves. Other reviewers have complained that it's a silly term repeated too often in the book, but I happen to find it a very useful concept. As I believe repetition is the mother of learning, I also think it's good that Hertan repeats it over and over. Truly, the idea of looking at forcing moves first even if they don't look initially promising is worth remembering. You can probably tell I really like this book, and I recommend it to anyone. I would add that if you're under ~1700, don't expect to get the exercises right. The examples will still help you though, and the idea of examining all forcing moves will probably raise your rating anyway if you apply it consistently.

New tourney at Boca starts Friday. Peace.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Return of the One Day Tournament...

...for me at least. Even though I was on a steady diet of these in Indy, it's been a while since I played one. This particular tournament happened to be G60 5/inc, with four rounds. The first round was dirty.


I'd beaten this guy two times in a row despite our rating differential, but I screwed this game up badly. What can I say? It was early, I miscalculated. I don't really enjoy playing these coffeehouse guys so much. They launch a crazy attack and either win or lose, play really fast, and their style is almost completely based upon tactics. I'm not saying that because they beat me...I usually do well against these types of players. I just don't feel like it helps my chess as much to play these guys as it does to play someone with a more classical style. This is not to say that coffeehouse players are patzers, because that isn't the case. Some very strong players play in this manner to a greater or lesser extent, I just don't have much respect for the style. I like chess that makes positional sense.

So the second round went better. I played Jon Haskel whom I've played twice before (all whites), and he seems to have trouble with me even more than our rating disparity would suggest. I've seen Jon play some good games, but when we play I always seem to roll him. I guess it's some sort of karmic justice since his son always kicks my ass.


I misnamed the file, but I promise I was white. Jon and I went to analyze and eat at Panera, and when I got back for the third round I found myself paired with Sergio Liberatore. He's an 'A' player who I had not played against before. I actually consider this my best game of the tournament even though I lost. It was very hard fought and only the short time control prevented a good finish.


A tough loss, though I didn't feel nearly as bad about this one as my round one loss. This was a good game, not a blunderfest. The fourth round saw me paired against another player I'd not played before, a medium strength 'B' player. He played a classical Dutch which I've never studied, and he got a good position from the opening. Unfortunately for him he blundered and gave me a nice tactic which resulted in a totally winning position. The game didn't last much longer after that.


This wasn't a horrible tournament for me, though I will lose a few rating points. I was only unhappy with my play in the first game, which is not so bad considering how self critical I tend to be. I played one more game this last week in the final round at Boca, and it was very frusturating. My opponent had no pretensions in the opening and I was at least equal, but I blundered into a losing endgame. The worst part is, I saw the drawing move and played a blunder anyway. I simply didn't realize that the position was critical. Those sort of oversights really piss me off.


I was not pleased at all with myself after that one. In other news, I went to the Miami Chess Academy in search of lessons. While I liked the owner IM Blas Lugo quite a bit, it's a very long drive for me. We'll see. I did get to meet Julio Becerra (sort of. He nodded and went back to ICC) and play some blitz with a master, so it wasn't a waste of time. I even won one of those blitz games. Peace out.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sicilian Reflections

The Sicilian is an interesting and singular opening within chess, and I've spent a lot of time studying it and thinking about its various branches. One thing that has always interested me is the mindset of open Sicilians versus 'anti' Sicilians. Examples of open Sicilians being the Dragon, Najdorf, etc. 'Anti' Sicilians are the Closed, Grand Prix attack, the Moscow, basically anything where white's second and third move aren't Nf3 and d4. Top 1.e4 players all play open Sicilians the majority of the time, though there are a few 2600+ GMs who consistently employ some of the 'anti' Sicilians. The best example of this is probably Tiviakov, who in fact maintains that the Alapin (charactierized by 2.c3) is a better try for advantage than the open Sicilians. When I used to play 1.e4, I always played the open Sicilians. I thought of it as a point of honor in a way to play what I thought were the 'best' moves, rather than cede equality to black by playing some inferior 'anti' Sicilian system. Now I'm not so sure.

For one thing, I used to play 1...e5 as black in response to 1.e4. Having no experience on the black side of the Sicilian and having never played the white side of any 'anti' Sicilians, I really had no basis for comparison other than what the top guys play. Since I've been playing the Sicilian as black, I've gained a lot of respect for the various systems at white's disposal. I find that I have more trouble against some 'anti' Sicilians that I do against open Sicilians. This is partly because I play the Classical variation of the open Sicilian, against which the Richter-Rauzer is the most testing response. However, nobody at my level plays the Richter-Rauzer because it's very theory intense and not a weapon they're going to use much (the Classical pales in popularity to the Najdorf and the Dragon at amateur level). People who play open Sicilians against me usually get a look of slight confusion on their face when I play 5.d6 and revert to either the English attack or play 6.Be2, neither of which are that scary. The 'anti' Sicilian players on the other hand know exactly what they're doing and often have a lot of practice doing it. After all, they get to play the same system every time an opponent answers 1.e4 with 1...c5. Open Sicilian players on the other hand may only see a given variation once in a blue moon. Think about it. If you as white play 6 Sicilians in a tournament and play 2 Najdorfs, a Dragon, a Sveshnikov, an Accellerated Dragon, and a Kan, you have to know so much more and be comfortable in so many more positions than someone who plays the Closed Sicilian.

Another thing to consider is that you really shouldn't go by what top players play. I don't mean that it's bad to play what they play, because it isn't. What I mean is that you shouldn't automatically play what the best play because their situation is completely different than ours. Two big things jump out when you start assessing the variations of the top guys. The first is that they have a lot of time to learn as many systems as needed. They're professionals who usually have seconds, plus they're so good that they can play any position they're given well. The second consideration, tied closely to the first, is that the top guys have the advantage of knowing what their opponents play. They can look in a database and see 'Hey Kasparov plays the Najdorf, and against the English attack he plays the Ng4 line'. This is a huge advantage because it means they only have to study one or two systems for each opponent. If you read match books (Tal-Botvinnik 1960 for example) you can get a feel for how much of a guessing game it is for top guys to figure out what their opponents are going to play. At that level it's also incredibly important because getting an edge in the opening really matters. Not so much at the class level.

Where I'm going with all this is that I think soon I'm going to start playing 1.e4 again and I think I'm going to play the Grand Prix Attack. Not because I think it's better than the open Sicilians, but because it entails so much less study time and I like the positions I get when I play it online. Here's a 5/0 blitz game I played using it on ICC. The game is of course not perfect, but it gives you an idea of how natural and strong white's play is:

Grand Prix Example.pgn

There are something like 4-5 legitimate answers for black against the Grand Prix, as opposed to hundreds of possible playable lines black can choose in the open Sicilian. It just cuts down on the number of things for white to study, bringing the Sicilian in line with the French or Open Games in terms of preparatory time. Frankly, I have a lot of trouble with the Grand Prix as black and I think it's a good system for white. I've also had my share of trouble against the Closed Sicilian and the Alapin, while the Bb5 variations are almost as main line these days as the open variations. A year ago I might have thought you were a little bit of a bitch if you didn't play the open Sicilians. Now I'm starting to wonder why any non-professional does so at all. Now if I can just find a way to get an attack against that damn Scandinavian, I'll be back to 1.e4 for good...

Monday, May 18, 2009

And So It Goes...

A loss, and not only a loss. A really horrid, detestable loss. Losing a competitive game against an opponent who plays very well is one thing, just not showing up is another. The game I played in the last round at Margate was one of the most pathetic I've played in the last year, certainly my worst since coming to Florida. I simply didn't feel like working hard at the board, and I didn't work. At all. And I got rolled. Blunderville.


I did win a game against a strong A player, but it was marred by his being a dick and not resigning for many moves after being a piece down with no compensation.


So those are my recent games. I think I'm going to take a break from playing twice a week for a while. I need to recharge.

On another note, I was asked in a comment what has led to my recent rise in strength. I didn't want to answer in the comments, so here are the reasons I think I've been playing better:

1. Studying. I've been studying a great deal, and that helps. My opening repertoire is much more solid than most players my rating, and my endgames are coming along.

2. Working. Working is different than studying. Chess is math, not history. What I mean by that is that to be good at chess regurgitation is not required, or at least it is not the main thing. Playing chess, like doing math, is the process of solving problems. The problems are novel, but are usually similar enough that practicing solving problems will help you a great deal in you own games. To play chess is to analyze. Practice in analysis makes it easier to go deeper, and imprints patterns that act as shortcuts when you are trying to solve problems OTB.

3. Analyzing. Analysis is not just a question of solving tactical problems, but also looking at positions and analyzing possible moves for both sides. This part of my chess work is closely tied to opening study, as the positions I usually choose are transition positions between the opening and middlegame (though I need to look at middle-to-endgame transition positions more). Solitaire chess is a good exercise at this stage.

4. Critically assess your own thinking process. After analyzing my own games at length, I found that I often did not take enough time to look at my opponent's possibilities. This led to me getting surprised by his responses to my moves. Once I started looking more broadly at the other side's chances, as well as trying to figure out what his plans were, I started playing much more consistently. This has also helped my planning, as often if you are at a loss for a plan then prophylaxis is a good option. Dvoretsky has said that consistent prophylactic thinking bring steadiness to your play, and I agree. You will have to find the flaws in your own thinking process, these are just some examples of mine. This step probably did more to improve my results than anything else.

5. Time. I put in the time, played a lot of games, and really got a handle on how hard you have to work at the board. While natural talent plays some role in chess, it's not that big of a deal for most of us. We lose because people outwork us, both at home and OTB. If you want to get better, assess your play critically and work hard to fix your deficencies. Chess will give back to you what you put into it (like everything else in life).

6. I've never had a teacher, but I have had friends and traveling companions who were stronger than me, and I can tell you that having stronger players assess your play makes finding your weaknesses much easier. I would love to have a titled instructor, or even a USCF master. It can be done on your own, but it's harder.

So that's about it. Work on your openings (though not too much), analyze positions from different points in the game, solve problems, and take the time to really examine your thinking process. If you need some help getting started, hosts a column by the excellent Dan Heisman called Novice Nook. Don't let the name fool you-it's a great column on thinking processes and everyone should read it. Go the Chesscafe archives and read them all. At the very least, they'll make you think. And for those of you who don't know why I've written all this mildly self indulgent prose, my rating has risen from ~1700 to ~1850 in about 6 months, and rose ~100 points the year before that, so I feel that I can pontificate just a bit about improvement at the class level. Can't help you make master though. Sorry.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Tiny, Barely Significant Win Streak

That's about all the love I can give to four wins in a row. Especially since two of them were against over matched players. The last two however I am quite pleased with. Both were against higher rated competition, and while neither were flawless they were both excellent efforts on my part.

In the third round at the South Florida Chess Club I had to play Paul Muro, who is a dangerous 'A' player and is in fact the only non-master I've lost to since coming to Florida. I had white in this game, and Paul played a fairly main line Benoni. I missed an early chance to become much better, but he in turn missed an equalizing tactic and a complicated middlegame ensued. I was able to maintain and even increase my space advantage while getting way ahead on the clock. An eventual pawn push on the kingside created too many threats for black to deal with, and Paul resigned in a losing position with less than two minutes left on his clock. I was very happy to get this win not only because Paul had beaten me in our last meeting, but because it kept me in a tie for first in the club tournament (which wraps up next Wednesday). Here's the game:

Rampley-Muro 2.pgn

My next win came on Friday in Boca Raton. Paired up against an older gentleman I had not played before, I was really in the mood to play. I misplayed the opening and he equalized easily, then he blundered and I won. ...Oh, wait, I forgot the part about how he made me keep playing after he was a piece down with absolutely no compensation. This is his prerogative, but I think it's pretty rude. I'm really not going to screw the game up that badly. Don't waste my time and yours. It's so much easier on ICC. There's that nice little resign button, and I can even suggest to my opponent that they press it. Not so easy face to face. I like to think my dirty looks said it all. As (I can only assume) consolation to me, he did withdraw from the tournament immediately after the game. Is it really that shameful to lose to me? I should have told him I've been on the rise. In any case, here's the game:


Quite a barn burner. Next week I think I'll probably play a master, or at least a strong expert. With black. I'm looking forward to it (really). On Wednesday I have to play a very underrated 'A' player to win the monthly tourney at the SFCC. If I win, not only do I get a cool $80 (they're very inexpensive tournaments to enter), but my rating would most likely go over 1900. That would be pretty sweet, but the way I've been playing I think it's probably only a matter of time. Assuming, or course, that I can stay steady. I'll let you know how it goes. Peace out.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Relatively Smooth Little Win, and Two Book Reviews

Okay, I made one blunder, but luckily it was late enough and I was winning by a large enough margin that I held on anyway. The game was an offbeat Sicilian. My opponent played too slowly and I was able to establish a dominant position. As quite often happens, once he realized he was constricted he lashed out reflexively without checking the variations thoroughly enough. I obtained a better ending, increased my advantage, blundered, but was still able to convert my smaller advantage into a win. Here's the game:


Not such a riveting affair, but I take wins where I can get them. In other chess news, I will not be going to the Space Coast Open since I still don't have a job and really shouldn't spend money on tournaments. Luckily I still get some free books, so here are a couple of book reviews:

Playing the Queen's Gambit, a Grandmaster Guide by Lars Schandorff,

This is a very high level manual for how to handle the white pieces vs. various black defenses to the Queen's gambit. I got this book to shore up my repertoire since many of the lines I play are covered. These include the Modern Exchange line in the QGD, the 6.Ne5 lines in the Slav, and Bg5 versus the Semi-Slav. There is also coverage of 3.e4 in the QGA which I don't play but might take up, as well as a section on less popular lines like the Albin and Baltic. The Chigorin is given it's own section, which is probably appropriate given how its popularity has increased recently. The Tarrasch has a stand alone chapter, as does the highly fashionable a6-Slav.

The book is organized in the complete game format, which I prefer, and there is a good mix of prose and variations. As this is a book aimed at higher level players however, the prose is not as explanatory as you might find in a 'Starting Out' book. Generally the author will give a 5-10 move variation with only a few comments as to why a certain move was played and to describe the underlying concept. This is exactly the level I want in an opening book, but may not be enough for some.

The variations are generally not too long, though as Schandorff has opted for a main line repertoire they can become very complex. This is not a book to get if you simply want a playable middle game and are happy to let black equalize as long as you retain play as white. The purpose of playing these lines is to get positions where white has a real chance of being better out of the opening, and to put serious long term pressure on the second player. That cannot be done playing the Colle (sorry Colle people. Please don't leave a ton of analysis in my comments. The Colle is playable but equal).

Schandorff's style is conversational without being too chatty. Many correspondence games are cited, and there appears to be a lot of original analysis. I was little surprised not to see Chess Publishing listed in the bibliography, but other than that all the major periodicals and books were used.

I like this book a lot, but I cannot recommend it if you are just starting to play the Queen's Gambit. For that purpose, Everyman has two good introductory texts that I can think of, one by Chris Ward entitled 'Play the Queen's Gambit' and of course John Cox's wonderful 'Starting Out: 1.d4' which is hardly a starting out volume at all and of the two is the more theory heavy. If you are however an experienced player of the Queen's Gambit, Schandorff's book is an excellent resource to help your understanding of the critical lines and a valuable update to some rapidly changing theory. I have in mind the Anti-Moscow Gambit and the a6-Slav when I make that statement. Don't buy this if you're under 1700. If you're over that, give it a whirl. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual, Mark Dvoretsky

There's not much I need to say about this book. The reviews have been uniformly stellar, and after working with this volume I can only agree. The material is well explained, and the presentation order is very logical and facilitates learning.

Oh, and it's really, really hard. Really. Really. Difficult.

That's not to say the concepts are hard to grasp. In fact the opposite is true; Dvoretsky's writing is clear and his jargon is kept to a minimum. When he does invent a term, such as 'mined squares' to describe squares your king cannot go to in pawn endings, his inventions are easy to digest and remember. What always kills me about Dvoretsky books is that he is one of the few authors who really does write only for masters. The exercises in this book are exceptionally difficult, requiring calculation powers way beyond my abilities. Dvoretsky books are definitely aspirational rather than practical for most of us, but that doesn't mean we can't improve by trying to solve the problems he sets forward. If nothing else, they force us to go beyond our usual variation threshold which hopefully will improve our calculation abilities.

So I guess the bottom line is, get this book, work through it, and try the exercises. Don't give up easily, but don't feel too bad if you can't solve them. They are extremely hard, and unlike many problems grasping the key ideas does not make the problem easy. These are not the sort of puzzles where you say 'oh, the knight's hanging after sacrificing the pawn, duh' and then the variations are easy to work out. These are the sort of puzzles where you say 'oh, if I move my king backwards in this complex pawn ending then 8 moves down the line after an only semi-forced series of exchanges, I think I'll have the opposition which may be enough to pick up the additional pawn and win by one tempo another 9 moves forward'. This is a book for the very serious player who is willing to endure a lot of headache and suffering, but who is committed to getting better. This book and these terribly hard problems will help you improve if you put in the work. Not great for the casual player, but a must for anyone who want to reach expert or master.

One final note, concerning FIDE's proposed changes to the K-factor. For those who don't know, the k-factor determines how much your rating changes with each win or loss. FIDE is thinking about doubling the k-factor, which would mean that when you lose you drop twice as many points as under the current system. The argument is that by increasing the k-factor you would make ratings a more accurate predictor of future performance in the near term. Rating guru Jeff Sonas has presented quite a bit of statistical evidence supporting the increase in the k-factor.

Of all the arguments for and against the change, one I haven't heard that often is that increasing the k-factor might reduce some of the gridlock at the top of the rating charts. It seems to me (totally off the cuff, no stats to prove it) that of the top 20 probably 10-12 of them are always there, even when their performances seem a bit lackluster. This increase would create more turnover at the top, which might put more players in the super-tournament and world championship mix. I get really tired of seeing Peter Leko and Peter Svidler draw 3/4 of their games at Linares every year. While it's true they are strong enough to draw often, I'd like to see players who take a little more risk (and thus could expect the commensurate payoff in rating points under the new system). In my humble opinion, anything that can be done to make the ratings system more dynamic is good. I personally think live ratings are the way to go, but FIDE will never go for that. Way too logical. Plus, it would be harder for FIDE to game the system for their favorite players. Did I just say that? I guess I did. Peace.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Little Theory First Thing in the Morning...

First thing for me, anyway, because I'm a bum. It's 11, and all I've done today is buy frozen pizzas. That's what I get for staying out late playing really, really atrocious blitz chess at the Boca Ale House. A couple of lines came up whose theory I couldn't recall, and since I went to the trouble of looking them up and saving them to my desktop, here they are:

Semi-Slav 9.exf6_.pgn

Wild shit there. Why do I play this line? My style is really (to steal a Korchnoi phrase) aggressive positional, not crazy tactics. For some reason though, I really like the Semi-Slav. Frankly, it's pretty unlikely anyone ever plays this much theory against me. I've had exactly one OTB game in the Botvinnik, and my opponent lost to a canned tactic really early, move 15 or so I think. Besides, I get almost all 1.e4 anyway.

This next game was a line I looked at in connection with still another obscure line, the From's Gambit. I like the From's, which is a gambit defense to the rare Bird's opening, but obviously don't get to play it that often. The problem with the From's gambit (1.f4 e5!? by the way) is that white can play 2.e4, transposing into a King's Gambit. So I need some King's Gambit theory. I watched an ICC video on the Falkbeer (1.e4 e5 2.f4 d5!?) and was thinking of playing it, until I saw the following games:

Falkbeer Gambit.pgn

I'll probably just keep declining the King's Gambit. It's really not worth the trouble to learn a good 'accepted' system unless I go back to playing 1...e5.

Still no interviews. Job hunting is probably the most depressing thing in the world. Google 'learned helplessness' for more info. Peace.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Two Out of Three ain't Bad

That's two out of three losses since I came to Florida coming against a master. The same master, in fact. I suppose that's not so bad for an ~1800 player, though my recent loss was much more painful than my previous loss. I had nothing in the first game, and lost pretty handily. This game was much more competitive, but I failed to take advantage of my chances. Didn't even look for them. Horrible. As I discuss in the game annotations, what bothers me is not missing tactics but rather not realizing the richness of the position and therefore not even looking for them. That's a bigger problem I think. Every game has critical positions and if you cannot recognize them and know when you need to look deeply then you will never be very good at chess, no matter how many chess puzzle books you run through. It's worth nothing that my master opponent spent A LOT of time on four or five of his critical moves, whereas I did not. That was probably the difference in the game. This is not to say Jeff wouldn't have beaten me anyway, but if I had lost because of a miscalculation or poor evaluation of a position I don't think I'd feel so bad. Not looking at all is a more serious problem than not understanding an obscure line in the Budapest. At least I have something to work on. Here's the game:

Rampley-Haskel 2.pgn

A very disappointing game for me. Still gained quite a few rating points for the tournament, drawing two experts and losing to a master. I think my performance rating was right around 2000, which is pretty good for me. Overall I'm happy with the progress of my play.

I've also been doing a bit of theoretical work. Ever looked at the Czech Benoni? It's offbeat, but it isn't so easy for white to prove an advantage. Black just has to be VERY patient. Here's a little analysis I put together, based mostly upon material from If you're at all interested in theory, then this site is a great investment and I highly recommend it. By the way, if you don't have a good defense to 1.d4 and you don't care for theory, this might not be a bad choice. I hate playing against it, for what it's worth.

Czech Benoni.pgn

I'll be playing in the premier section of the BRCC tournament again next month. My performance justifies it, and I'd rather get better than win $50 or whatever the prizes are in the U2000 section. Also, if you have any questions about any theoretical line after 1.d4 or in the Classical Sicilian, by the way, feel free to ask. I'm always happy to share analysis. Peace.