30 July 2011

Opening Study Methods

I've finally come around to a more holistic approach to chess study, openings included.  This stems from developing a better understanding of the purpose I am looking to achieve with openings, namely to reach favorable (or at least equal) middlegame and endgame positions that I am comfortable playing against anyone, regardless of strength.  (In contrast, some people like to try to win games in the openings, which is not my preferred style of play.)  While my opening study therefore needs to incorporate the resulting middlegame characteristics and strategies, some openings can also lead straight to the endgame, so that should be an additional practical consideration as part of the opening selection and evaluation process.

Given this approach to the opening, the most natural and effective study method for me is to look at complete games with annotations that are heavy on conceptual explanations.  The most useful openings book that I have ever read (and still refer to) is IM Nigel Povah's How to Play the English Opening - a 119-page book published in 1983.  Somehow he succeeds in presenting the ideas of all of the major variations in the opening, provides lucid and valuable commentary on all representative games, and transmits a great deal of opening knowledge in one slim volume.  It helps that the English is not full of forcing, tactical variations from early on - many of the games cited are still considered relevant to the practice of the opening today - but it is still an impressive achievement.

Close behind that book in my collection is Starting Out: The Caro-Kann by Joe Gallagher, which uses a similar method (as do others in the "Starting Out" series).  The main difference for me is that I already had considerable knowledge of the Caro-Kann when I picked up the book, whereas Povah's was the first I had read on the English.  The fact that I was still able to get a great deal out of Gallagher's book says a lot about the effectiveness of the complete game/conceptual explanation approach to opening study.  Because I was already a practitioner of the opening, a large part of that involved validating my preferred lines and gaining better breadth and depth on my understanding of them.

Looking back on my history of openings study, it is notable how much I have retained and been able to use effectively the opening knowledge gained using the above method.  In contrast, study which has involved sorting and memorizing variations without looking at many practical examples has been mostly useless in the long term.  On an intuitive level, if I don't understand the moves and their consequences, why should I be playing them?  This realization has been something of a breakthrough for me, as for some reason it often seems easier to closely imitate others than to rely on your own openings work.

The silliness of completely relying on others for your own opening evaluations is regularly demonstrated as everything from sub-variations to entire openings can come in and out of fashion relatively quickly, while true masters use openings as weapons regardless of the opinions of others.  Magnus Carlsen pulled out the Philidor Defense in order to guarantee his recent victory in the super-strong Biel tournament, while Garry Kasparov wasn't afraid to resurrect the Evans Gambit and Scotch Game, both of which had been written off at the Grandmaster level long before.

I have to say that I enjoy what goes into becoming my own openings expert, in part because it is something of a creative process.  Although I use opening books and occasionally DVDs as foundations, that is really just the start, as other possibilities are always revealed using games database and chess engine analysis, combined with one's own critical thinking.  Every time I step through a portion of my own openings book in this manner, I always end up refining things, typically choosing new sub-variations after examining the computer evaluation and running through various high-level games in the database.  Similarly, analyzing my own games tends to reveal new opening possibilities and improvements, for example in Annotated Game #3.  I believe that further deepening this opening study process will lead to strengthening my entire game, as the middlegame and endgame possibilities unfold and are better understood.

Annotated Game #3: Attack of the Clones

This tournament game from 2007 is against a Class B player (who however was significantly higher rated than myself).  The remarkable thing about it (and why I selected it for study) is that it is an almost exact clone of the previous tournament game we had played against each other.  It was relatively easy for me to remember the original sequence, since I'd never seen anyone else play a Stonewall-Leningrad Dutch hybrid before.  My database has exactly one game that matches the position after the 6th move, from the 1959 Czechoslovak championship (Adamek-Paroulek).

The first pass at analysis was done by Fritz 10 shortly after the tournament; in the past, I've made it a practice of performing computer analysis on my games shortly after they are completed.  I've found this to be good for seeing blunders and some missed alternative moves, but it hasn't done all that much in terms of improving my chess understanding and playing ability.  This time around, I provide the human perspective and Houdini the computer one, with better results.

What had bothered me about this game was that Fritz had given an original evaluation of White as noticeably better at the end, so as part of my training process I wanted to take a serious look at the concluding position to see what I had missed.  As it turns out, I didn't miss anything there, an assessment backed up by Houdini.  My guess is that Fritz's evaluation function had liked the additional space White possessed, but failed to see that it was essentially meaningless in the context of the coming endgame.

Nevertheless, after examining the game more closely, I did find a number of earlier possible improvements for White.  While I may not run across this exact opening variation again (unless I play the same opponent once more as White), I should be able to retain some of the ideas for improved play in similar situations - for example, noting how an earlier d3 is more flexible than b3 for white and how to exploit the d6 hole in the Stonewall Dutch.

At the time, I was satisfied with the result of obtaining a draw against a higher-rated player.  In general and in a tournament context, that's not really a bad thing.  However, the path to chess mastery does not consist of ceding whatever advantages you have over the board so you can draw, it requires being able to exploit them so you can win.

23 July 2011

A word on chess analysis and annotations

On this site, the annotated games are being done for training purposes (and perhaps a bit of entertainment if people happen to run across them).  Even with just the two games looked at so far, the experience has reinforced my assessment that analyzing one's own games is definitely the best route to go in terms of learning useful, applicable lessons to improve chess performance.  You always are able to relate to yourself and understand your own thinking process.  You always work on a relevant opening to your own practice (even if - or especially if - the game is mostly out of your personal opening book).  Specific weaknesses in tactical sight are highlighted.  Knowledge or ignorance of how to play particular endgames is immediately obvious.

One of the best uses I have found for game analysis is in providing new and interesting paths to investigate.  Each game you play inevitably shows off your strengths and your areas for improvement.  As an example, take Annotated Game #2 and what it showed/taught me.
  • The early b3 opening variation in the English/QGD setup is viable if Black uses that move-order.
  • I will need to study this type of opening setup more, focusing on plans and the middlegame transition.
  • Strong players (GM Ulf Andersson, GM Bent Larsen) have played it.  I can study their games in my database for more insights on the middlegame positions, plans, and types of endings reached.
  • Don't be emotionally attached to particular moves (or not making particular moves) - this phenomenon prevented me from playing best on move 16 and directly lead to the loss.
  • Be alert to a broader range of candidate moves for both yourself and your opponent and do not focus on a single move threat only.  We both for example missed the strength of how ...b5 would cut off White's use of the c4 square for his pieces.  
  • Do what is necessary to "reset" your thinking after a difficult sequence, so as to not ignore new threats by the opponent.
Analyzing this one game therefore resulted in highlighting a series of next steps I can take in my chess study, involving openings through endgames.

Because the above points are all drawn from one of my own games, I will better remember both the specific moves/positions and the general lessons on psychology.  The analysis and annotation process forced me to both understand the game better and also to be able to articulate that understanding.  This is essentially the same as the teaching process - if you ever want to truly master a subject, put yourself in the position of teaching it or having to explain it to an outside audience.

It's worth noting that the type of game analysis that I'm doing, geared toward improving my chess playing,  is not the same as some other types that are out there.  There are purist annotators who are focused on determining the perfect move in each position.  Others work more and longer concrete variations in and leave off explanations in words.  These approaches have their merits, but I don't find either to be optimal for my own purposes.

Annotated Game #2: Tournament game (English/QGD)

This tournament game was against an Expert-rated opponent, who evidently plays the Queen's Gambit Declined (QGD) against Queen Pawn openings.  It's fairly common for a player opening with the English (1. c4) to have opponents use their defense against 1. d4, since most of the set-ups work reasonably well and closely enough to the original ideas; furthermore, if White plays d4 at any point early on, a transposition will occur.  In this case, the move-order selected by Black allows White to take a more original approach with an early b3.

I was intentionally not playing aggressively, both because of the rating gap and because of my unfamiliarity with QGD-type positions.  This is an area on which I expect to work further in my opening study and training games, due to the likelihood of running into QGD setups in the future.  However, I was satisfied with my opening play until around move 12 and was objectively fine until move 16 (somewhat ironically it's a d4 pawn move that gets me in some trouble, despite my avoidance of a Queen Pawn game structure).  At this point, my lack of a coherent plan shows and Black takes over the initiative.  However, both of us then focused far too much on Black preparing the pawn push ...e3, which at the time seemed to be the major threat, passing over other intermediate moves and possibilities.

As often occurs in competitive games, one player (in this case me) is prone to blunder when the psychological pressure is released after working through a difficult sequence.  Once I survived ...e3 my sense of danger vanished, with unfortunate consequences.  A useful lesson that will remind me to re-set my thinking and check for new threats after such sequences.

My opponent was quite gracious in victory, as she also thought the game was interesting, especially the tactical ideas surrounding the ...e3 push, where even if I missed some of the possible ideas for Black (e.g. b5 which would have prevented my use of the c4 square) I was able to see most of the variations, set a trap of my own, and emerge with a difficult but not lost position.

17 July 2011

Annotated Game #1: GM Walter Browne simul

This game was played at a simultaneous exhibition by GM Walter Browne at the 2006 National Open in Las Vegas.  I was able to prepare the opening in advance to a large extent, researching in my games database what Browne had used against the Caro-Kann after determining he was most likely to open with e4.  Although I went off-book at move 12, I still understood the positional ideas well enough that it wasn't a major issue.  Both players miss a couple of interesting tactical points along the way, maneuvering into an even endgame with Q+B+pawns on both sides.

The original tactical analysis was by Fritz 8 some five years ago.  I went through the game again from a human perspective and also had the Houdini engine check some moves, which in some cases overturned Fritz's assessments and backed up my own original thoughts.

I selected this game because it is a largely clean one and I remember my thought processes well enough, even five years later, probably due to the preparation and intensity involved.  I'm a fan of Browne's games and was honored to be able to play him.

Tech note: the commentary font size varies a bit, I'll try to iron that out in future posts.

Reflections on Training

There is a good deal of scientific and even philosophical debate about chess training.  I tend to think there is an over-emphasis on trying to find a single, objectively best path for improving chess skill.  I honestly doubt such a beast exists, actually.  Certain components are going to be common to any chess training program: opening study (including ideas of the opening and resulting middlegame formations); tactical themes and practice; how to strategically evaluate positions in the absence of winning tactics; and endgames (especially how to reach key endgame positions that win/draw by force).

Exactly how one goes about studying each of these areas I assess is not as important as the fact that one is, in fact, dedicated to studying them, in some type of regular and systematic fashion.  Some people's minds work best with a great deal of organization and structure; others reject that in favor of more intuitive or loosely-organized arrangements.  Personally, I work best somewhere in the middle.  The point is, work (even if it is pleasurable work in hobby form) needs to be applied consistently over time.

From my observations, successful training occurs when a person is mentally committed to achieving a goal; understands at least in a broad sense what will be involved; and has the time and energy to maintain a regular training schedule.  The first point is more or less self-explanatory.  The second point is, I think, where many people can go off the track willfully or no, for example searching for "the way" to most quickly improve.  And mis-assessing the third point is a major reason for people having to abandon overly ambitious training programs.

I consider all of the above to be interrelated, although it's useful to break down training components to see if one is lacking in what is necessary.  Half-hearted commitment is worse than nothing, since it leads to wasted time on something you didn't really want in the first place.  A willingness to study material from various sources, think critically for yourself, and have a broad mind are all key to learning effectively.  Finally, we all have life constraints and trade-offs that require us to set realistic goals, if we wish to achieve them.

A word on cross-training I think is useful in this context.  Similarly to what occurs with cross-training in physical pursuits, mental cross-training does appear to have positive results.  My personal experience with training Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan), which has both mental and physical components, has given me a much better capacity to focus and have a clear mind during chess games.  Independently, I've seen more than one master-level player comment on this phenomenon - Josh Waitzkin being perhaps the most famous one - so it's apparently not just me.

To sum up, I believe that whatever methods work best for an individual should be how that person pursues a training program, since it is they who will be finding the motivation, searching for substantive knowledge, and setting aside time to in fact pursue it.  It is useless to follow training methods which work for others and even which may be objectively best, if they are in your case demotivating and unhelpful.  I find there is a major parallel with physical training programs, in that it is much more productive in the end to do a useful physical activity that you enjoy (walking, swimming, etc.) 3-4 times a week than to randomly try workout programs and then abandon them.

Book in progress - Zurich International Chess Tournament, 1953

This is an uber-classic by David Bronstein, one of the tournament participants. The 1953 Candidates' tournament, one of the strongest and most important in chess history, is fully documented game-wise by the author, who presents all of the games in the book. The extent of his annotations vary with how interesting he considered the game, which I think is a pretty good way to go about things, given the huge number of games he was analyzing.

One of the especially valuable things I find about this book is the author's insights into his own thinking process and that of his fellow players.  This is an element of player-annotated games that is lost in third-party analysis.  Bronstein's level of analysis is also very useful for a Class player, in that he provides frequent narrative insights and only goes into specific variations where he felt it was important.  Since he was not writing the book as a training tool (unlike Irving Chernev in Logical Chess: Move by Move), Bronstein is not addressing a particular audience, other than the chessplaying public.

I am currently going through the book with a portable chess set at the office during lunchtimes, which seems to be working out well.  Spending around 20 minutes per game - usually I only have time to go through one game a day - allows for a useful mental break in the workday along with some productive chess study.  Naturally, this means that the book isn't going to get finished very quickly, but it's serving an excellent purpose nonetheless.

I'll make additional observations once the book is completed.  This is my third attempt at finishing the book, which has in the past defeated me due to its length and the time required to work through it a piece at a time.  One interesting thing that's worth mentioning now is an incident which reinforces how valuable studying well-annotated games can be.  One of the earlier games covered by Bronstein featured a maneuver in which white penetrated into his opponent's queenside with the move Qa7, something which Bronstein highlighted.  Not a week later, I was going through a contemporary high-level international tournament game on the Chessbase news site, when what should appear but almost the same exact maneuver with Qa7.  A minor but telling point about the book's enduring relevance.

Book completed - Logical Chess: Move by Move

Today I finished Logical Chess: Move by Move by Irving Chernev (Batsford's new algebraic edition from 2002).  This is a classic work, originally published in 1957.  I read it through without use of a chessboard, relying on the frequent diagrams to aid visualization of the moves and analysis variations.  For more heavy-duty books, this method would not be as productive, but for this one I could handle most of the commentary with the diagrams as reference points. Occasionally I was a bit lazy and didn't work through everything in my head, but I'm generally satisfied with the result.

While you can read a master-level review of the book at the above link, here are my own observations:
  • Formatting: frequent use of diagrams and clear explanatory text allowed for an enjoyable read-through without a chessboard (although requiring some concentration at times).
  • Openings: the greatest utility of the book is not as an openings manual, although you will learn something concrete about the opening ideas in each game. Opening popularity is subject to fashion and I increasingly find it useful when looking at annotated games to not limit myself to those that feature openings that I currently use.  For example, Randy Bauer's linked review (from 2003) noted that a plurality of the games featured the Queen's Gambit Declined, which at the time was out of fashion. Now (2011), the QGD is appearing all the time in top-level games.
  • Middlegame: the book really shines here, looking thematically at different types of middlegames.  For example, the first section is all about the kingside attack and similar attacking themes appear and are reinforced across the different games.  The last section, featuring higher-quality classic master games, is also quite valuable in showing how small errors and advantages can be exploited.
  • Endgame: mostly in the last section (games rarely reached the endgame in the first section) this is also a valuable resource on endings.  I found a couple of games to be particularly instructive, although this is not an endgame manual.
  • Typos: I found two move typos, which isn't too bad for a book of this length.  All the diagrams were correct.  While minor, the errors do help point up the fact that all chess books should be read in a critical way for understanding, rather than blindly following the text.
For Class-level (below Expert rating or ELO 2000) players such as myself, this type of work I find to be extremely valuable.  Annotated games in general are, I believe, one of the best ways to improve chess understanding and get new ideas which can then be applied to your own games.  The level of annotation is highly appropriate for Class players, while at the same time containing a number of observations and ideas that go beyond the basic, for example on certain position-types and the relative strength of pieces in different positions.  The latter especially is the mark of master-level games, which often feature material imbalances or sacrifices for positional advantages.

A word on titles and such

Before creating this blog, I searched on "Path to Chess Mastery" in order to make sure that no one else had already claimed the title.  Not unexpectedly, there were two similarly-titled blogs that popped up - "The Path to Chess Mastery" by stringplayer 92 and "chess mastery" by Sentinel.  The first one consists of one post from April 2009, while the second one stopped publishing in May 2010.

Given the fact that this blog's title is at least slightly different and that the other two blogs have gone dark, I feel comfortable in keeping it.  However, I believe it's worth giving the others their due mention, especially in case someone is looking for them and stumbles across this site instead.

Seeing the abandoned blogs was also something of a cautionary tale, since both the authors apparently had the intention of keeping them up as a training tool, as well.

Setting the Scene

This blog will be employed primarily as a training tool.  The main feature will be a weekly update including a fully annotated game, drawn from either my training or tournament games.  One of the consistent themes emphasized by chess trainers is that players' own games are the best fodder for improvement.  Once analyzed, they provide personal insight into chess strengths, weaknesses and mindset, as well as universal chess truths.

As a Class B player who has the objective of eventually reaching Master strength, this weekly process of playing and analyzing games will help give my training program focus and structure, without being too onerous.  The fact that this blog is public also provides some additional psychological motivation for maintaining a consistent pace with my training and scheduled updates.  That said, I don't intend to worry about strictly enforcing self-imposed deadlines or the like, a practice which tends to add unwanted pressure to what should be a labor of love.

Another reason that this blog is public is because it might provide some utility (or at the very least some brief entertainment and amusement) for other players.  It is in fact partially inspired by other chess blogs (such as Robert Pearson's) that provide annotated/narrated games written from the point of view of the author, but also with a sense of objectivity.  No guarantee is provided, however, that any commentary made here will in fact be useful to you.