22 February 2015

Annotated Game #141: A long struggle

This second-round tournament game is not particularly long in terms of the total number of moves, but the struggle involved certainly felt long-lasting and intense.  As the middlegame kicks off on move 16 with White and Black playing on opposite wings, my opponent and I engage in a tense maneuvering battle which builds to a flurry of tactics around the move 40 time control.

This game is a good illustration of how important it is to spot key ideas and play them in a timely fashion.  In my case, spotting the idea of using an exchange sacrifice to clear the way for my advanced a-pawn should have been the winning one, but it was initiated one tempo later than ideal, a fact which gave Black his own advanced pawn on d3 that eventually won the game for him.

Despite the eventual disappointing result, I still felt that this type of game, which revolved around an exciting strategic struggle and tactical clashes, was a great experience and central to why I play chess.

17 February 2015

Annotated Game #140: The lessons of drawing twice in one game

After the disappointing results of the previous tournament (which finished with Annotated Game #139), for my last OTB tournament I was looking more to stabilize my results rather than hoping for a big breakthrough.

In this first round game, as Black I successfully neutralize my opponent's play out of the opening, a Classical Caro-Kann.  My opponent commits a touch-move fault on move 21, which however I offset by not pushing my (correct) claim for a draw by repetition a few moves later.  I play some sub-par rook moves and allow a small advantage and some pressure, but my opponent overpresses and nearly gets his rook trapped (which it should have been, with a neat little tactic).  Finally material is exchanged off into a drawn rook endgame.

Despite the goofs, I ended up feeling psychologically strengthened by the game.  The failure of my opponent to acknowledge the early threefold repetition I took as an opportunity to play out the position, in keeping with the "no draws" mentality I try to foster.  I was also able to learn more about the concepts involved in trapping a piece, through the missed sequence on move 37, which in this case would have involved sacrificing a pawn to lure the White rook to its doom.  In practice, this was not a bad result and I felt better about my play in general than I had in the previous tournament.

16 February 2015

Still playing after all these years

I've always been entertained by Viktor Kortchnoi as well as learning from his games (with a lot of learning still left to do).  He's currently playing in the Zurich Legends event, in this case a rapid match against fellow legend Wolfgang Uhlmann.  As noted in this ChessBase article, Kortchnoi also has the most recorded games in the ChessBase database, a testament to his staying power and love of the game.

Viktor Kortchnoi: My Life for Chess, Volume 1

Viktor Kortchnoi: My Life for Chess, Volume 2

01 February 2015

Improvement Program list - February 2015

In keeping with the eclectic training program format I am following, here is the list of chess resources that I am currently working on.  Once they are all completed, I'll generate a new list.  As I finish each, I'll be posting my "completed" thoughts for each, as I have in the past with other books and DVDs.

The Diamond Dutch by Viktor Moskalenko (openings)

Improve your chess with Tania Sachdev (Fritztrainer DVD) (middlegame strategy)

Improve your tactics with Tania Sachdev (Fritztrainer DVD) (tactics)

Essential Endgame Knowledge with IM Dr. Danny Kopec (DVD) (endgames)

26 January 2015

Chess Improvement Programs: Directed vs. Eclectic

Although people's learning styles vary significantly - meaning that there is no "one true path" to mastery that will apply to everyone for any skill - it seems obvious that possessing some type of chess improvement program is important for eventual success in gaining playing strength.  ("Do study techniques matter in chess?" previously addressed this idea in a broader sense, as did "Reflections on Training".)

Having a program - in other words, a structured approach to training that contains achievable goals - makes it more much more likely that you will in fact stay on your chosen path, rather than simply studying on a whim at random times.  "Whimsical" training can be done for fun and in some cases may make for a useful intellectual break from other tasks, but it is unlikely to produce significant results over time.

That leads to the question of how to construct a training program.  Here I would like to highlight some different types of resources available that are aimed at adult chess improvers, though they also could apply to up-and-coming juniors.  I break them down generally into "directed" programs, which are intended to be all-inclusive from a single source, and "eclectic" ones, which rely on independently gathering together chess resources.  Directed programs are by nature more highly structured (and demanding), which has its pluses and minuses.  I'll also discuss my own eclectic program as an example of that type.

Directed programs

A directed program, whether with a personal chess coach or following a set lesson plan and materials, is explicitly designed to achieve a set level of skill mastery.  We are all familiar with the "directed" educational programs involved in secondary education (typically through age 18), which aim (with varying results) to provide all students with a grasp of mathematics, science, literature, reading/writing, arts, etc.  The time commitment and need to follow a set plan week after week are what sets these programs apart - and make them more challenging to keep up with.
  • The most recent example of a full, amateur-to-master improvement course is that offered by Chess.com University through their "Prodigy Program".  Despite the name, it is open to adult students and the motto is "Master chess at any age, within 5 years".  Core features include: 7-page PDF weekly study plans; monthly online correspondence tournament; monthly master-level simul; and analysis of students' games.
  • The International Chess School's "Grandmaster Package" has been available for several years now, delivered online with PDF workbooks and video lessons; samples are available at the linked website.  An unofficial forum about the course was set up by former blogger Blue Devil Knight, although it is only active periodically.
  • Another example of a "comprehensive" packaged program is at GM Igor Smirnov's "Remote Chess Academy" which features his "Self-Taught Grandmaster" software along with some more specialized packages on openings and subjects like "How to Beat Titled Players".
  • Tiger Chess by GM Nigel Davies uses a subscription model, with currently 160 weekly lessons available, a monthly clinic with GM Davies, access to resources on openings, and guidance on outside books and internet resources.  A reduced membership level offers some introductory video courses.  A "Chess Improver" blog post talks more about the breakdown of time for various study topics.
  • The granddaddy of comprehensive courses, before online versions existed, was GM Lev Alburt's Comprehensive Chess Course.  Its series of instructional books is not fully integrated, but does run from beginner to advanced material and covers openings, tactics, middlegame strategy, and endings.
  • The modern version of beginner to master chess books is the three-set, nine-volume series by GM Artur Yusupov, under the set titles "Build Up Your Chess", "Boost Your Chess" and "Chess Evolution".  In this case, he breaks up the different topics (calculation, tactics, strategy, positional play, endgame, openings) by strength levels, so each of the three book sets is designed to be comprehensive for its particular level.
Eclectic programs

The line between "directed" and "eclectic" is not necessarily a hard one.  For example, if you follow Yusupov's book series in order, that is certainly structured learning, but not quite at the same level as receiving weekly lessons and exercises to complete.  Eclectic programs by nature rely on your interests and choices to drive the improvement process, which may be more fun and better match your own desires and personality.  The downside is that you will need to put more effort into determining what to study and in evaluating materials beforehand, rather than having it packaged up for you.

"Eclectic" does not necessarily mean disorganized.  Here are some resources designed to help the chess improver get organized for training:
  • IM Igor Khemeltsky's Chess Exam and Training Guide is a book for those looking to diagnose their strengths and weaknesses and receive follow-up guidance, this may be a good place to start.  He also offers an exam book on tactics.
  • Chess.com has "study plans" available on the site which link in an organized way to articles and videos available there.  Chess Mentor courses contain everything from basic tactics to advanced endgames, while the Study Plan Directory provides comprehensive links for training from beginners to intermediate (Class B) level.
  • Chess Training for Budding Champions by Jesper Hall, despite the title, is a rather advanced book on training designed for the ambitious amateur.  It does well in providing concrete ideas for setting up training programs, illustrates topics well with annotated games, and was the primary inspiration for my own focus on analyzing your own games.
  • More recently, Axel Smith's Pump Up Your Rating is another good single-volume work, with perhaps more focus on teaching the concepts rather than illustrating them, yet with training in mind.  I believe it's worth quoting an excerpt from the introduction, which echoes some of the themes I've addressed in this blog:
"[Serious chess training] can be summarized in five words: active learning through structured training...The four pillars of chess training described in this book, in decreasing order of importance, are:
  •  The List of Mistakes - analyzing your own games and categorizing the mistakes.
  • The Woodpecker Method - learning the tactical motifs and solving simple exercises to internalize them into your intuition.
  • Openings - studying them in such a way that you also learn middlegame positions and standard moves.
  • Theoretical Endgames - studying them only once."
My own eclectic program has a better chance of being followed this year, as I expect to have more time to concentrate on my chess.  What I would like to do is come up with a rotating list of chess resources (books, DVDs, significant videos/articles, etc.) that I complete fully before re-populating the list.  The list should be broad and contain opening, middle and endgame works, along with other general improvement topics.  Regular tournament-level play (online and OTB) and game analysis (both my own and master-level commentaries) will continue in parallel, along with tactics training via Chess.com's Tactics Trainer and the Chess Tactics Server.  I'll put up the next list once I have it together, as reference and to keep me honest by having a public goal.

No quick fix

Any improvement program requires significant time, dedicated effort and serious study.  The chess world is blessed with a large volume of books, software programs and online resources that allow us to make progress; in the end, however, it's up to us to do the necessary work (and play).  I would like to finish with the following quote from Grandmaster Versus Amateur, however, which gives a useful perspective:
"One happy aspect of being an amateur is that one can remain focused on the artistic side of the game, by not being in a permanent rush to win prizes and rating points."
So let's keep in mind the positives about being amateurs!