18 April 2015

How Natalia Pogonina makes us feel better about chess

The 2015 knockout FIDE Women's World Championship finished earlier this month, with Natalia Pogonina coming in second.  She had some perceptive things to say about the mental side of chess in her follow-up interview with ChessBase; some of these points relate to an earlier post on mental toughness.  Others speak to the value of training and the need to focus on the task at hand when in a tournament situation.  Pogonina's calm, mature attitude combined with an intense fighting ability has served her well.
My preparation was more serious than usual. In early March I played a training match against a strong GM. We agreed to keep his name a secret, although if he finds it acceptable, I will gladly reveal the mystery. We played standard time control chess, rapid, blitz and even Armageddon. This was very interesting and useful. I believe the match helped me a lot, especially since I hadn’t played anywhere after the Russian Superfinal in December. I was rusty and lacking practice. Without such training it wouldn’t make much sense to participate in the [women's world championship].
One shouldn’t set any limits for oneself. I didn’t have any particular goals and didn’t treat it in the “the minimal task is to reach round X” way. I was mentally prepared to go home after the very first round. If I move on, it’s nice. If not, it’s also fine, because I will return to my family. Maybe this attitude helped me to focus on the game itself instead of dwelling on the results. My attention was on the game, not on the outcome.
...I demonstrated certain psychological weaknesses in the Final. I made blunders: not just chess ones, but human mistakes, so to speak.  Also, of course, I was very tired, so I wasn’t able to recover and readjust my game. I didn’t have a fresh head for the Final. I spent too much time studying theory. Even if we caught Mariya in preparation from time to time, I didn’t have enough stamina and mental strength to capitalize on it.
During the post-match press conference I was asked how I felt about being the Vice Women’s World Chess Champion and what expectations I had. My answer was that I don’t have any particular emotions and that I am already occupied with preparing for the upcoming World Team Championship. As to expectations, my reply was that now I have a chance to play the Grand Prix events and have secured a spot in the next World Championship. The audience has burst out laughing. Did I say anything wrong?
What are my expectations? The event has granted me valuable experience. It is also nice that some people watched me coming back over and over again and have arrived at their personal conclusions. Hopefully, they will be setting fewer mental barriers for themselves and will believe more in their own powers. One’s duty is to do one’s job well and to hope for the best.

06 April 2015

Annotated Game #146: Fog on the tactical horizon

This last-round tournament game is primarily interesting for the calculation error which leads to my loss.  I correctly spot the way to take advantage of White's move 19 oversight, but lose my way in the tactical complications.  First, I missed the very important in-between move that White has on move 20.  Second, I despaired once I saw that all of the options for Black were apparently bad.  I dismissed 20...cxd5 out of hand, once I saw that Black's knight could not escape following its pin against the queen with 21. Rc1.  However, this was a premature shortening of the calculation horizon, as Black has an impressive desperado tactic with the knight to end up with two rooks for a queen and a positional edge.  In the actual game, I picked the worst recapture option on d5, trying to complicate matters for White, who then showed impressive calm and skill to finish me off carefully, with a nice deflection tactic at the end.

30 March 2015

Annotated Game #145: Imbalance and attack

The following sixth-round tournament game revolved around the strategic imbalance between Black's queenside pressure and White's central/kingside dominance.  Out of the opening, Black had a small plus and the initiative, but a relatively complicated unforced sequence starting on move 16 led to me winning a pawn and establishing the structural imbalance.  During the game I was worried about Black mobilizing his queenside majority (including an advanced passed c-pawn), but my central pawn roller and kingside attack - helped by an opened h-file - were decisive, developing too quickly for Black to develop any counterplay.

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.