11 July 2017

Your first (serious) chess tournament

Image result for world open chess tournament
(World Open 2014 playing hall, from The Chess Drum)

Some first serious chess tournaments are disasters, and some are disappointments; rarely are they triumphs, although when newcomers with some real training enter the (typically) lowest section of the tournament as an "unrated" player, they may do quite well their first time out.

I ended up with an even score in my first tournament, a classic four-round "weekend swiss", in which I won my first game (which you can see in "Why I Play the Slav").  I was a young teenager at the time, which is a fairly common time to start trying organized and competitive chess, although a number of people now start out in scholastic tournaments at a young age, while others may come to the game only after they develop chess as a serious pastime in adulthood.

My first rating was in the low 1400s, which I was satisfied with.  Nowadays, especially in the USA, it's common to have a lower rating when first starting out, due to the depressing effects of scholastic chess on the lower end of the Elo scale; when I began, it was unusual to see anyone in an organized tournament below 1200 and almost never below 1000.  As related in "What I Learned From My 1st Chess Tournament" over at Chess.com - well worth the read, as it's done by a professional writer - it's now more typical to start out with a rating in the triple digit range, which can magnify the shock and disorientation that often accompanies the first tournament experience, and perhaps lead to a (hopefully temporary) bout of depression at your future chess prospects.  I would liken it to running a competitive race (say a 10K) after having simply jogged for exercise for a while - it's really a different level of experience and one that is likely to be humbling.

After you complete the tournament and mentally process the whole experience, either you become energized and want to raise the level of your game - what I think most people's ultimate reaction is - or you never (or perhaps only after a long gap) go back to competitive chess.  An example of the latter case is that of former blogger Blue Devil Knight - whose chess blog used to be good - who essentially was traumatized after choosing to play in the World Open for his first tournament experience.  To use the same analogy as above, this is like jogging for exercise for a while and then trying to run the Boston Marathon as your first real race.  Basically, this is not recommended for anyone.

While I think preparation for any chess tournament is best done by continually working on your skills and your mental toughness, I'll offer some specific suggestions for setting yourself up for a first tournament success (or at least avoiding feeling like it will be a complete disaster).  I'm also curious if people have other particularly relevant tips, or could offer helpful (or cautionary) examples from their own early tournament experiences.  (Note: these are intended primarily for people going to over-the-board tournaments, but I think largely apply to "serious" online tournaments, especially ones with slower time controls.)
  • Do have a basic opening repertoire, which will help define what types of games you can expect to play.  Memorization of variations is less important than understanding key ideas, typical moves, and common plans.  Having an opening framework will also help you better understand the games afterwards when analyzing them.
  • Don't worry about your rating either before or after the tournament.  Ratings fear and loathing is all too common, and is nicely illustrated in the Chess.com article linked above.  Your rating will simply reflect your current performance and over time will track with your overall strength.  What is more important is where you go after you get your first rating, rather than what it is exactly.
  • Do warm up by playing games similar to tournament conditions in terms of time control, rules (no takebacks, touch move applies), and mental focus.  Humans make the best opponents, but it's possible to configure chess software to play at a level appropriate for sparring.  If you can't exactly replicate tournament conditions, it's all right, just don't play blitz 100% of the time and think it will directly translate into tournament effectiveness.
  • Do show up early at the tournament site and read all of the posted rules.  Be sure to know the standard tournament rules about things like how to handle touch move, draw offers, claiming a draw by three times repetition, when to stop your clock during a dispute, etc.  Most of these things are in fact quite simple, but if you are not sure of the procedure, it can easily throw you off your game if you run across them.  Also inform one of the tournament directors that it is your first tournament, which may gain you some extra sympathy and attention, and at least will signal to the TDs that they should make some extra effort to explain things when needed.
  • Don't get discouraged by losses during the tournament (or afterwards).  If you continue with competitive chess, there will inevitably be a lot more of them.  You will also win eventually if you concentrate on playing the position on the board well, rather than on your own or your opponent's ratings.
  • Do (as mentioned above) keep a legible, accurate record of your games and analyze them once your brain has returned to normal after the tournament.  You will find improvements for both yourself and your opponents; if you treat it as a marvelously fascinating learning process rather than a way to beat yourself up, you'll make progress.

06 June 2017

Training quote of the day #11

2017 U.S. Champion Wesley So
From a front-page article on GM Wesley So, published in the June 6, 2017 print edition of the Washington Post:
"...chess is not just about playing. It’s other aspects. I have to improve my mental state. I have to be tougher, more confident, more comfortable playing the top guys...And I also need to improve my physical conditioning, because each game can last to anywhere up to six hours and each tournament usually has around 10 games, so that’s a lot of work, and the person with more energy in the last hour has a lot of advantage.”

29 May 2017

How to think for yourself in opening preparation

One of the "secrets" of advancing towards mastery in chess, as in many other disciplines, is that the more advanced you get, the more you should be thinking for yourself in order to make real progress, not just uncritically following other people's recommendations.  In chess, I would say that this process of independent thinking should start relatively early on, once you get past the initial technical subjects to be learned such as mates, identifying and constructing tactics, fundamental opening principles, and basic endgames.  All phases of the game require independent thought, evaluation and judgment.  At the most basic level, chess players need to answer for themselves the question why they are making each move.

The opening in particular is subject to a near-overwhelming amount of advice and provision of expert information, in the form of instructional material (books/DVDs/etc.), computer engine evaluations, and database statistics.  It's certainly a good idea to take advantage of others' expert preparation and work, although it's debatable as to how much effort an improving player should put proportionally on opening preparation, versus middlegame and endgame skills.

Regardless of the total amount of effort spent on opening selection, evolving your repertoire, practice and understanding holistic concepts, I believe it's important to underline the benefits of doing serious evaluations of your opening lines (and finding new ones when necessary).  This level of mental engagement will not only serve to strengthen your overall repertoire, it will - perhaps even more importantly - boost your recall and effectiveness when playing the openings in question, as you are regularly and actively evaluating different lines and their resulting positions.

This type of active management of your openings is easily implemented using a simple database structure, which can be updated whenever you run across related material.  A recent personal example of doing this on a systematic level was comparing the recommendations in Play the Caro-Kann (made easier by its e-book format) with my repertoire database and evaluating the author's recommendations.  By no means did I accept all of her ideas, but studying the differences and determining why I preferred one line over another (or perhaps an entire variation) was valuable in itself.  This process is also quite useful when going over individual master-level annotated games that you come across, as in the Gormally example below.

Computer tools can be quite valuable for your preparation, but also misunderstood or misused.

Database programs easily display for you the most popular and highest-scoring lines, but their statistics can be misleading in various ways.  On the positive side, databases can identify shifts in popularity of particular lines and you can relatively easily pick out the important games that cause them.  On the other hand, sometimes there is a quick shift away from using a particular line that means the "old" (and maybe busted) version still has a relatively high percentage result, one of the reasons why you have to evaluate lines for yourself.
  • Popularity may also depend on the predicted result of the line - for example, many people may avoid a frequent drawing line as White, but perhaps you in fact want to have that as a solid weapon against higher-rated players.  Other lines may be unbalancing or relatively risky, but again that may be exactly what you need, as long as you understand the trade-offs in the positions you reach.
  • It matters which databases you use and why.  Correspondence games can be far more accurate than OTB collections, for example, so are very valuable to theory.  For practical use in OTB or online tournaments, though, it can be a bad decision to pick the theoretically "best" line if it runs 20+ moves of memorization, with multiple branching variations, and any deviation from it will likely benefit your opponent.
Engine recommendations also cut both ways.  They can be helpful, mainly for checking tactics and ideas to see what responses are likely and/or best.  They can also be potentially harmful to your game away from the computer.  Anyone who has worked extensively with engines knows that they may come up with certain moves in the opening that may look all right in the short term, but go against the main (human) ideas for the opening and so will cause problems 10-15 moves later.  One example I ran across early in my studies was in the main line of the Caro-Kann Exchange Variation, where most engines (even up until recently) evaluated 7...Na5 as best; you can even still see this on the ChessBase LiveBook with Fritz evaluations showing this as recently as 2016.  However, as Fischer-Petrosian (Belgrade 1970) and others have shown, it really does not work very well in practice.
  • Sometimes engine preparation can also give you a false sense of security, as illustrated by this entertaining example from GM Danny Gormally on a failed experiment in the Slav's Geller Gambit (as White).  On a practical level, I found his annotations useful and adjusted my own related Slav repertoire line as a result - but only after checking other database lines and engine possibilities and looking for myself at the positions.
  • Some computer products will give you a hard-coded numeric engine evaluation for literally every opening move, or you can replicate that by just running an engine.  I don't believe that these are very helpful in general and to evaluate lines you will have to follow them to the end and understand the why rather than letting something like a computer's "+0.25" fully define your view of them.
On a broader level, I think it's also important to understand and acknowledge the amount of work that will be needed in order to understand your chosen opening's positions and typical middlegame plans, then execute them in practice.  Some level of memorization is needed, if not of entire variations then things like key ideas, squares and principles for a particular opening.  Examples include the central important of the d5 square in the English Opening, the theme of the f5-f4 pawn advance in the Dutch, and the critical importance of the light-square bishop for Black in the King's Indian.  This type of opening lore I think is among the most valuable information for improving players and is why finding insightful explanatory material or having a coach who understands and can impart these principles is more important than following the latest professional theory, which often times is only expressed in long variations.

In the end, perhaps it's best to recall Kortchnoi's advice (mentioned in Annotated Game #175) to just go ahead and start playing a new opening, as - if you analyze your own games - that is how you will learn best what works and what doesn't in the opening.

28 May 2017

Annotated Game #175: Epic Stonewall exhaustion

This final round tournament game followed Annotated Game #174 and was the first time that I had essayed playing the Stonewall Dutch, outside of a simul game with GM Sam Shankland.  It taught me a lot about the opening, above all the need for patience (which I did not have enough of) when constructing a kingside attack.  There are many ups and downs in the course of the game - the critical phase starts at move 28 and goes all the way to the end of the game - and we were one of the last ones to finish in the round.  The toll of fighting a complicated battle for 30 moves straight along with the psychological downward trend in the end did me in, as I was exhausted from what felt like an epic fight, with my opponent on the ropes but eventually coming back.  However, there will be other opportunities.  It's also another data point telling me that energy management is something critical to watch (and improve) for my overall performance.

On that note, it's worth recalling something GM Viktor Kortchnoi said when asked about when someone should start playing a new opening they are in the process of learning.  Basically he asserted that you should just go ahead and start playing it in serious games, why not?  Losses will be inevitable, but there's really no other way to get better at it.  I like this outlook, which shouldn't be taken too literally by Class players - some preparation and study is essential, beyond just knowing the first few moves of a chosen opening - but it helps avoid the perfectionist trap of always thinking that your preparation is never "good enough" to play.  At some point, you just need to fire away.

Class C - ChessAdmin

Result: 1-0

A85: Dutch Defence: 2 c4 Nf6 3 Nc3
[...] 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.¤f3 e6 (3...¤f6 is the Slav Defense.) 4.e3 f5 with this move-order we have what is called a "Slav Stonewall". 5.¤c3 ¤f6 6.¥d3 ¥d6 the Modern Stonewall, instead of ...Be7. 7.O-O ¤bd7 ...O-O immediately is much more common here. No reason to wait. 8.b3 a standard plan for activating the dark-square bishop. 8...O-O 9.a4 done to allow the bishop to get to a3 and exchange off its counterpart on d6. 9...¤e4 a standard and often necessary move for Black in the Stonewall. In this position it is forcing, as the Nc3 is unprotected. 10.¤e2 £e7 keeping my options open and also deterring Ba3. 11.¤e1 I welcomed this, as I felt it was a waste of time for White. The intent is obvious, to push f3, but moving the knight back to the first rank does not seem worth it. 11...g5 I was in an aggressive mood from the start of the game and this move shows it. Not a very sophisticated approach.
11...a5!? would be good prophylaxis against White's queenside play. 12.f3 ¤g5 13.£c2
12.f3²12...¤ef6 13.¤c2 g4 a logical follow-up, as Komodo agrees.
13...¢h8 however might have been best to play immediately, as the king needs to vacate the g-file for a rook and I only do this much later in the game.
14.¥a3 c5?! not a good decision, although my opponent does not take advantage of it.
14...¥xa3 is what the engine considers best. During the game, I wanted to preserve the bishop for use in the kingside attack. 15.¤xa3 ¢h8²
15.cxd5!? dissolves the center to White's advantage. 15...¤xd5 16.e4 gxf3 17.exd5 fxe2 18.£xe2±
15...¤xc5 16.b4? now my opponent is too aggressive. 16...¤xd3³17.£xd3 b6?! it seems that I am not really looking hard at the position and its requirements. Developing the Bc8 is a nice idea, but there are other things that are more urgent, given the pawn tensions at f3 and c4 and a potential weakness at h2.
17...gxf3 would be the direct approach. 18.¦xf3 dxc4 19.£xc4 b5 20.£xb5 £c7³
17...£c7 gives White no good options. 18.cxd5 ¥xh2+ 19.¢h1 ¥e5³
18.cxd5 this would have been strong earlier (move 15), but now I'm OK. 18...¤xd5
18...gxf3!? is better, as once the Nf6 moves away it no longer can recapture on g4 and get a good outpost. 19.gxf3 (19.¦xf3 ¥b7³) 19...¤xd5³
19.b5 my opponent now looks to simplify.
19.fxg4 would break up Black's kingside to good effect. 19...£c7 20.g3 fxg4 21.¤cd4²
19...¥xa3 20.£xa3 ¥b7 21.£xe7 ¤xe7 we now have a very equal-looking middle/endgame position. 22.f4 ¦ac8 23.¤cd4 threatening e6. 23...¢f7 24.¦ac1?! this "obvious move" gives me the initiative as my Ne7 now springs to life. (24.¢f2) 24...¤d5³ returning the favor by threatening e3. 25.¢f2 ¤b4 threatening the fork on d3. 26.¦b1 (26.¦fd1 ¦xc1 27.¤xc1 ¥e4³) 26...¤d3+ this is still a strong move. 27.¢g3µ White's king safety is now something of a problem, which along with my nicely centralized Nd3 gives me an advantage. (27.¢g1 h5µ) 27...h5 here I correctly find the logical follow-up, which raises mate threats. 28.¦fd1? this should lose, but the winning continuation is not obvious. (28.h4 gxh3 29.¢xh3 ¦g8µ) 28...¥e4 a good follow-up move, but not nearly as good as the best move.
28...h4+ secures the point, comments the engine via the Fritz interface. 29.¢xh4 ¤f2! now the White king has no way back. 30.¢g3? (30.¤xe6 ¦h8+ 31.¢g5 ¢xe6−⁠+) (30.¤xf5 ¦h8+ 31.¢g3 ¤e4+ 32.¢xg4 ¦cg8+ 33.¢f3 ¤d2+ 34.¢f2 ¦xg2+−⁠+) 30...¤e4+ 31.¢h4 ¦h8#
29.¤c6µ eyeing the jump to e5 and threatening a7, something I gave too much weight to. 29...¦h8? now I'm not thinking aggressively enough.
29...¢f6 removes the check on e5. 30.¤c3 h4+ 31.¢xh4 ¤c5µ
30.¢h4 this is enough to restore equality.
30.¦xd3! is a simple forking tactic that gets two pieces for a rook. 30...¥xd3 31.¤e5+ ¢f6 32.¤xd3±
30...¤c5 31.¦b4 this solves the dual threat to the Rb1 and a4, but not in the best way.
31.¤e5+!?31...¢f6 32.¦bc1 and now Black cannot go pawn snatching: 32...¥xg2 (32...¤xa4??33.¦d7! with mate coming.) 33.¦xc5 ¦xc5 34.¦d7 and now 34...¦xe5 is forced. 35.fxe5+ ¢xe5 36.¤f4² snagging the bishop, as a fork on g6 is threatened.
31...¥xc6 was the other option. 32.bxc6 ¦xc6³ this had the advantage of getting rid of preventing the knight from reaching e5.
32.¤e5+ I was quite aware of the fact that I had potential mating threats, but now so does White, given the location of his knight and potential rook action on the 7th rank. 32...¢f6 33.¤g3 naturally the h5 pawn is poisoned and can't be taken, due to the subsequent pin against the king. 33...¥d5 34.¦bd4?! (34.¦c1!?) 34...¤b3 the best move, but at this point I was tired and had relatively little time on the clock, so I didn't have a coherent follow-up plan. 35.¦4d3? looks obvious, but should lose.
35.¦xd5 is necessary and only leaves White slightly worse. 35...exd5 36.¦xd5³
35...¦c2−⁠+ again another best move and obvious follow-up, but without clear vision of a winning continuation. However, the next series of moves are simple enough. 36.¤f1 ¦hc8 37.¤d7+ ¢e7 38.¤e5 ¤c5 good but perhaps not best. I felt I should at least keep making threats, feeling somewhat frustrated that I could not find a breakthrough. 39.¦d4 ¢f6 played to take away the g5 square from White's king. 40.h3 now I felt I should be able to break through. 40...gxh3 41.¢xh3 ¥g2+ unfortunately here I could not find a winning idea, under pressure.
41...¤e4!? would bring another necessary piece into the attack, since d7 does not in fact need to be guarded. 42.¤d7+ (42.¦xe4 fxe4 43.¤g3 ¦c1−⁠+) 42...¢e7 43.¤e5 ¦g8 44.¦xe4 ¦g1−⁠+ and mate threats mean White loses material.
42.¢h4 ¥d5 43.¢h3 ¦g8 (43...¤e4 again is the key. 44.¦xe4 fxe4 45.¤g3 ¦c1−⁠+) 44.¤g3 h4
44...¦g2 Black missed this excellent chance, comments the engine. 45.¤xh5+ ¢e7 46.¤c6+ ¢d6−⁠+
(44...¦h8 is also good, preparing to push the h-pawn.) 45.¤h5+µ45...¢e7 46.¤c6+ ¢f8 now we're back to equality... (46...¥xc6 47.bxc6 ¦gg2µ) 47.¤f6? except that this (again) should lose for my opponent.
47.¦xd5 leads to a perpetual. 47...exd5 48.¦xd5 for example 48...¦g1 49.¦xf5+ ¢e8 50.¤f6+ ¢f8 51.¤h5+ ¢e8 etc.
47...¦gg2 48.¦h1 ¤e4?! unfortunately this was a good idea several moves ago, not now.
48...¦g3+ and Black wins 49.¢xh4 forced 49...¦g6 with a double attack on the Nf6 and the h6 square (threatening the Rh1 via a skewer check). 50.¦xd5 exd5−⁠+
(48...¦g6?! immediately doesn't work, as White simply replies Nxd5.) 49.¤xe4³49...¥xe4 50.¦d8+ ¢g7 51.¦d7+? again my opponent offers up an opportunity. (51.¤e5) 51...¢h6−⁠+52.¤e5 ¦g3+ a great idea...on move 48. Here it blows the discovered attack by the Be4 on the Ra1, since the Rg3 will be hanging.
52...¦gf2 moving to e2 works fine as well. 53.¢xh4 forced 53...¥xh1 54.¤f7+ ¢g7 55.¤e5+ ¢f8−⁠+
53.¢xh4 by this point I'm totally exhausted and out of ideas. 53...¦g7 simplification is actually a good route to go and should result in a draw. 54.¦h3 ¦xd7 55.¤xd7 ¦g2 keeping hopes of a mate threat alive. 56.¤e5 The knight dominates, comments the engine (correctly). 56...¥c2 57.¦h1 ¥xa4 58.¦a1 ¥xb5 59.¦xa7 ¥e8? this really made no sense, but my brain was too tired from all the calculating and I missed the simple follow-up. The original idea was to dominate the Ne5. (59...¦g7 was simplest.) 60.¦e7 at this point I just gave up, seeing that I would lose the two pawns and was exhausted. The game is far from over, though. (60.¦e7 ¥a4 61.¦xe6+ ¢g7 62.¦xb6²)
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