18 March 2015

So who actually trains chess?

Not that many people, according to a recent, somewhat provocative and perceptive Streatham & Brixton chess blog.

I have to admit that upon first impression, I considered the post to be in the tiresome naysayer category regarding adult chess improvement.  That said, I further have to admit that they're probably right, at least in terms of the average tournament chessplayer.  I recently attended a chess event where it was apparent that serious training was not really part of anyone's agenda, including the idea of systematically learning from your mistakes (or even just learning).  Nothing wrong with just enjoying things, of course, and perhaps sometimes wishing you were better.  But as Mark Twain said, "Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."

I've posted several times before on the general topic and continue to consider the time/energy factor as paramount in explaining rating advancement (the visible aspect of improving your playing strength).  The strong, rapidly advancing tween and teen (or younger) players typically sink several hours a day into systematically organized studies, often with professional-level coaches who guide their progress, for a period of years.  Adults with jobs and other responsibilities (again, typically) simply don't have that kind of time or energy. (Even if you believe Michael de la Maza's story of how he advanced rapidly, that was in the context of an extended spell of unemployment and nothing else to do.)  In addition, the fact that kids can learn more rapidly than adults due to their brains' neural structures (i.e. their greater plasiticity) is certainly a benefit for them, but is too often cited as a cop-out for adult learning.

For those of us with a mix of responsibilities and other life interests, I think the best we can shoot for is to designate around an average of 30 minutes - 1 hour per day for mindful study, surge around tournament time or when we have more time, energy and motivation available, and take meaningful breaks from chess when necessary to clear our heads.  This all should be doable, although it still takes discipline and commitment.

16 March 2015

Annotated Game #144: Who deserves to win?

This fifth-round tournament game saw my opponent apply a great deal of sustained pressure and he clearly felt as if he missed a win.  To my benefit, he kept playing for winning chances past the point where he had any real threats and ended up in a losing endgame.  I was then able to finish him off shortly after the time control using two tactical maneuvers, which I credit my tactics training for allowing me to find and have the confidence to employ.

During the game I generally shared the perception of White having had all the chances.  White certainly held the initiative for a long period, but with careful defense I was able to neutralize all of his threats; analysis shows that White after his move 14 never had a real advantage.  My own negative perception of the game stemmed largely from some poor choices I made in the opening, essentially boxing in my own pieces unnecessarily (particularly the queen and the poor bishop on c8).  In the end, however, it was the reality on the board that determined the winner.  This is a good general lesson for when you are the defender in a game; simply because you are on the defense does not mean your game is bad, and you should not miss a chance to strike a winning counterblow.


08 March 2015

Annotated Game #143: Playing against your own defense is hard

In this fourth-round tournament game, I faced my own defense and did poorly in the opening as a result.  Not because the defense itself is overpowering, but because I was not well prepared to play against it either technically or emotionally.  I believe this is something common to chessplayers, especially amateurs, when we over-identify with a particular opening setup and invest it with emotional qualities.  Professionals often can play both sides of their favorite openings with virtuosity; for example, in the modern era Kramnik is often cited in this context.

As the game progressed, I managed to achieve equality via a strategic piece exchange, but then made another classic amateur error, that of assuming opening play was "safe" and moves made on principle would be sufficient, rather than always closely examining possible tactics and falsifying my moves.  This is a lesson that I have been presented with multiple times and need to take to heart for the future.

The other major lesson I take away from this game is to play out every endgame and not to give up on them.  Despite my opponent being a pawn up for most of the game, I was savvy enough to reach drawing positions, but let myself be affected by the accumulated pressure and repeated threats, eventually losing as a result.

02 March 2015

Annotated Game #142: Out of book on move 2 (!)

This third-round tournament game was notable for throwing me out of book on move 2, which is about as quick as possible in a serious game (short of White playing 1. h4 or the like).  In reaction, I chose a solid setup, which while good enough did not challenge White as much as it should have.  My opponent's provocative play starting on move 7 essentially provoked me into seizing a positional advantage, although I did not make the best of it.

The remainder of the game proved to be a seesaw back and forth; my main error was in giving too much credence to White's ephemeral kingside attack.  The unusual material balance that White (correctly) chose (3 minor pieces vs. queen) finally lent some real initiative to him on the kingside, but I spotted a key tactical sacrifice on the d-file that opened the position to my counterplay and should have led to a Black win, although the situation was complicated.  In the end, I was satisified with the draw, while if I had better understood the rook endgame we ended up in, I could have pressed for a win.

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.