26 February 2012

The Kung Fu of Chess II

From an interview with Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming at The Combative Corner:

"Art takes a lot of time and the right mind to truly appreciate and enjoy. Many things we do in our everyday lives and careers can be considered very complex and beautiful forms of art. Whether it is martial arts, music, writing, painting, engineering, speaking a language, healing and helping people, playing sports, playing chess, or whatever we concentrate on and dedicate ourselves to, the development and true feeling of the breadth of each art-form can only be felt when practiced diligently, with discipline, with humility, and with the right intentions. Without these things, the art you practice will always be only on the surface. You should continue searching deeper and deeper into your practice. Keep finding resources and people to learn from and help lead you. Don’t get stuck in the same spot. What you will discover is so rewarding. Keep your cup empty and you will always see the beautiful horizon ahead. If your cup is full, then there will be too many clouds obstructing your view. I began training martial arts because I wanted to fight, but from that time until now, after more than 50 years of practice, it has evolved into something so much more."

On keeping your cup empty:

A young Samurai swordsman entered the house of a famous Zen master. He looked at the master, bowed and said, "Master! I have reached a deep level of Zen, both in theory and practice. I have heard you are great so I come here to bow to you and hope you can teach me something." The Zen master looked at this proud young man. Without a word, he went into the back room and brought out a teapot and a teacup. He placed the cup in front of the young man and started to pour the tea into the cup. The tea filled the cup quickly and soon began to overflow. The young man looked at the old man with a confused expression. He said, "Stop, master! The teacup is overflowing". The old Zen master put the teapot down and smiled at him. He said, "This is you. You are too full already. I cannot teach you. If you wish to learn, you must first empty your cup."

25 February 2012

Annotated Game #32: A somewhat embarrassing draw

This next tournament game features an unusual variation of the English Four Knights, where Karpov's 4...Be7 is followed up by Black exchanging knights on d4.  White gets a pleasant plus out of the opening, which after a series of subsequent exchanges on d5 rapidly turns into an ending.  White's outside passed pawn gives him all the winning chances, but the double rooks and bishops mean that it won't be easy for him.  White fails to maintain the tension and exchanges off the outside passer for Black's d-pawn, essentially ensuring the draw for Black, as the resulting bishop ending with 4 vs. 3 pawns on the kingside is very easy to defend.

Useful points from the game analysis:
  • The early knight exchange on d4 does not appear to challenge White in this variation.
  • Provoking the series of exchanges on d5 and going into a double rook and bishop ending appeared to be the correct decision, due to the weakness of Black's isolated queen pawn.
  • White should have developed his rooks earlier and seized the c-file, although Black ultimately lets him do this anyway.
  • Silly 18th move by White was due to a poor thinking process and not examining his opponent's potential responses (i.e. failure to falsify the candidate move).
  • Unwillingness to preserve tension in the position on move 30 (a common amateur error) led to the disappearance of White's winning chances.
After my initial look at the game, I'd felt quite embarrassed, since I thought I had thrown away an easy win.  In fact, the win was likely there, but it wasn't so easy to realize (at least for a non-endgame expert) and the final position was in fact drawn, despite White's one-pawn advantage.  So I'm now just somewhat embarrassed by the draw.

22 February 2012

Book completed - Chess for Tigers

I recently finished Chess for Tigers by Simon Webb (Batsford, 2005 edition).  This is something of a "cult classic" due to its ability to both instruct and entertain.  The YouTube video review (linked above) is what hooked me into reading the book, although I'd seen several references to it before.

For those not familiar with the book, its 15 relatively short chapters all contain practical observations and tips for players who are interested in being "tigers" and improving their chess performance (i.e. winning more often).  This is not as silly as it may sound at first and the animal analogy is cleverly used, rather than being taken too seriously.

The basic premise of the author is laid out immediately:

"You could be a much better chess player than you are.

How? Simply by making fuller use of your natural ability."

The point is that the book is not about improving your chess knowledge - although that should occur as a side benefit if you play through the entertainingly annotated games the author provides as examples - but rather about improving your chess performance.  (For those who are unsure about the difference, perhaps a look at the Chess Performance Inventory would help bring home the idea.)

My own observations:
  • The central theme of the book - how to maximize your existing skills - is one that is often overlooked in chess literature.
  • Sound advice on self-analysis is given in chapter 3 ("Looking in the Mirror") which may be the section of the most benefit to the average person.
  • The emphasis on the practical consequences of chess decisions is refreshing and insightful. I found particularly valuable the author's observations on how to optimize your thinking process in different situations for the best possible results.
  • The author's approach to openings is broadly similar to how I view them, so that was nice to see for validation purposes. He makes a number of useful points in weighing how best to go about your opening study and preparation.
  • I have some reservations about his chapter on how to take on much stronger opponents ("How to trap Heffalumps"), which presents some contradictory advice for the reader. His central recommendation is to head for complicated positions where neither you nor your opponent know what to do. At the same time, he also recommends that you follow your own openings book, since you are more familiar with it than your opponent (I agree with this approach). He also presents some other sensible advice such as play actively and avoid exchanging down for its own sake. A related discussion occurred in the Ratings Fear and Loathing post.
  • Perhaps the most useful chapters for me were the ones on "How to win won positions" and "What to do in drawn positions"
  • As I've mentioned elsewhere, any material presented by strong players (as the author was) which dispels the myth of perfect chess is a useful mental reality check. The author in fact specifically recommends that we play to win (by methods we can understand) and not to attempt to always play "the best move" (which is in any case often debatable).

19 February 2012

Book completed - How to Play the English Opening

I've now finished How to Play the English Opening by Anatoly Karpov (Batsford, 2007).  (EDIT: not to be confused with the book with the same name by Nigel Povah.)  As part of my opening study practice, I decided back in December that I needed something more in-depth to look at regarding playing the English.  I've had long experience with the opening (as shown by the links to the annotated games on the sidebar) and it's done well for me.  However, I think part of the success I've had in the opening has been due to its surprise value in tournament play and other players' general unfamiliarity with it.  In order to gain true mastery over the English and employ it most effectively, I came to the conclusion that I would have to put more work into understanding it.

This book certainly did not disappoint, from the point of view of in-depth study.  The title may be somewhat misleading, however; this is in no way an instructional book for opening novices, rather a collection of key games in the English annotated by Karpov, with an emphasis on explaining important move choices in critical variations.  In the process, the reader also acquires an understanding of how and why grandmaster practice in the opening has evolved.  This excerpt from the author's introduction reflects exactly what I was looking for:

"Be assured that a careful study of the presented games will be more beneficial for mastering the English Opening than the blind memorization and learning by rote of different variations and schemes. As a result you will be able to penetrate deep into the opening and discover its close connection with the middlegame and even the endgame. You will discover strategical plans of struggle, learn some technical devices, and trace the development of various ideas in this opening. Besides this, getting to know the games of famous grandmasters is in itself a pleasant and useful pursuit."

While you can read a summary review by IM Jeremy Silman at the above link, here are my own observations.
  • The participation by Karpov in a majority of the featured games presented in the book (on both sides of the struggle) gives the material the added dimension of being presented by an experienced practitioner.  He is able to authoritatively comment on his own thinking and preparation and also has deep background on the games of other famous GMs that are presented.
  • This book is not for wimps.  It demands your attention and will require effort on the part of class-level players to understand why Karpov judges some positions a certain way.  Not all tactical points are explicitly explained, either.  However, this is no different from what would be involved in studying other GM-level annotated games and working things out for yourself when necessary is in itself a useful study practice.
  • Unlike with many opening books on the market, the author has no set point of view on the opening to sell (this isn't entitled Win with the English Opening), so his explanations and evaluations come across as objective.
  • The level of the material requires the reader to have some previous familiarity with the English Opening as well as a solid grasp of positional concepts.
  • The formatting was fairly dense but readable, with 1-2 diagrams per single-column page.  Due to the large number of side variations (often including complete game scores) presented in each of the 30 main game chapters, I think this was a good choice for how to present the material.
  • The writing was high quality.  I saw at most two typographical errors in the narrative text and only found one game score error, and that only after completing the book and looking up the game in question in a computer database.  (The book error did not in fact materially impact the analysis and was from a partial game score.)
I went through the book with a set in front of me, playing through the principal games and most of the side games and variations, resetting each time from the start.  This method takes advantage of the repetition required for learning purposes, as well as allowing for more deliberate focus on each line studied.  Shorter annotated sidelines were visualized, in order to train board sight and visualization skills.  While I use a variety of computer tools, I find working through books with an aesthetically pleasing set to in fact be of more practical use, as it encourages concentration and allows for a physical and mental experience directly related to OTB tournament play.

18 February 2012

Annotated Game #31: In which a Caro-Kann becomes a French

This game demonstrates how a vague familiarity with your chosen opening line can lead to long-term trouble.  I had by this point in my career adopted the 3...c5 variation against the Advance Caro-Kann, but had not put much effort into actually looking at it.  Black with 5...e6 makes a common error out of ignorance and ends up simply with a tempo-down French Defense.  This is amusing to look up in the database, because the position is easily found, but the computer thinks Black should get two moves in a row (if only!)

By move 11 White has a significantly superior position and correctly decides to start operations on the kingside.  However, he does not conduct his attack in the most rigorous manner and Black could have fought back and seized the initiative himself on move 16.  The position at this point is particularly worth studying, since it illustrates how one side can change the course of a game with bold thinking and active play.  I was psychologically on the defensive at that point and not looking for such moves; at the time, I also was more timid in my move selection.

Black nevertheless has a more or less reasonable game, albeit slightly worse and without much counterplay, as he simply tries to respond to White's threats.  A characteristic thinking process flaw (not focusing on the full range of your opponent's threats) derails Black on move 24, as he removes a key defensive piece from its square; this also reflects another thinking process flaw, not understanding what your pieces are doing in a position.  White immediately spots a way to make multiple threats that cannot all be dealt with and emerges up a piece.  Black decides to fight on tenaciously, but after good defensive play by White any counterchances on the kingside are nullified.

15 February 2012

Be a Self-Taught Grandmaster

Actually, I don't think I'll ever be one - I'll be quite satisfied to achieve the master title, if that happens in the future - but the following quote from such a person happens to echo some of my previous posts on training.

"It is possible to draw a clear dividing line between two schools of thought when it comes to chess training. One advocates that you should start by studying simple positions, mainly endgames, before working up to more complicated material. The second school starts at the beginning of the game and works forwards from there. I myself belong to a group of players who had to teach themselves, and I believe the most important thing is to start at the area that interests you the most, whether it be endgames or openings. It should not be forgotten that it is possible to study endgames through openings and vice versa! The most important thing is to study in depth."  -- Swedish GM Tiger Hillarp Persson

11 February 2012

Annotated Game #30: English vs. Double Fianchetto

This next tournament game features an opening which presents major decisions as early as move 3, which I find both interesting and refreshing.  Black however seems intent on playing a "system opening" in which he pursues a double fianchetto of his bishops without regard to what White is doing.  While the formation is not a particularly bad choice against the English, this sort of rote play starts going off the rails with 5...e6, which might have been a better idea if White had established a traditional pawn center.  White grabs the initiative on move 7 and has a strategically won game by move 12, although Black had some tactical counterplay possibilities on move 17 that would have greatly improved his position and chances.

While I've previously identified endgame play as my greatest weakness, the Bishop endgame that arises (which admittedly should be easily won) is played well by White.  This is the other side of the coin of analyzing your own games; not only should your areas for improvement be identified, but credit should also be given for competent play when it happens.  This is a confidence booster and it is useful psychologically for the improving player to know that they are in fact capable of such play.

06 February 2012

February 2012 Chess Carnival - Openings (plus commentary)

Robert Pearson has the 2012 edition of the Chess Carnival off to a big start with The Best Of! Chess Blogging Part I: Openings.  Logical place to begin, right?

One of my own posts is included and openings study has been a recurrent theme of this blog, despite the common advice - which one can find repeated in various places, sometimes with great solemnity - that improving players should not study openings until reaching a relatively high rating threshold (take your pick, anywhere from 1800 to 2400).  Openings study is termed a waste of time for lower-rated players and the argument is made that such study will not materially affect their results.  (I'll note that sometimes similar advice is given about studying endgames, but that's another topic.)  In any case, this advice strikes me as somewhat facile; I wonder if a majority of players giving such advice actually followed it themselves while moving up the ratings ladder.

I do acknowledge the validity of the basic argument, in my experience most clearly articulated by Dan Heisman (for example here), which is that until a certain threshold of playing strength is reached, players lose games mostly because of poor tactical play. Therefore, a player of up to 1400-1600 strength will get a much bigger return on their investment by concentrating on studying tactics and improving their thinking process.  This is mathematically demonstrable, not just opinion, so I respect that.

A more general argument is that "opening theory" is useless (see Dana Mackenzie's provocative post referenced in the Carnival) and/or so is memorizing opening lines.  Unlike the previous argument, this one is not so clearly provable as a theoretical statement.  In practice, however, the point is taken that mindless memorization of move sequences or attempting to keep up with all the 20th-move theory improvements of professional players are not really worth doing.  This probably should be common sense, but it seems enough players do these things to generate the "don't study openings" advice.  (I confess I began my tournament career as a Class C player memorizing lines from Modern Chess Openings, a practice which I've since broken to good effect.)

This all still leaves the question of when an improving player should begin "serious study" of openings.  For example, NM Heisman in the article linked to above noted that he hadn't "learned a great deal about specific opening lines" until he was a Class A player (around 1900), but that's a somewhat fuzzy description of the state of his opening knowledge and study practices at the time.  There is also the related question - to my mind, the most important one - namely, what exactly is serious openings study?

The Opening Study Methods post addresses this in more detail (with some practical examples), but the key for me is having openings study fully integrated into one's overall approach to the game.  This means achieving a deeper understanding of your chosen opening and how it affects the entire game.  This includes a recognition of common early traps, standard middlegame plans, and long-term factors such as decisions affecting pawn structure that can carry through until the endgame.  Someone who is a true openings expert will be able to explain both the reasons behind each move and its consequences.  (Substitute the word "chess" for "openings" in the above statement and you may find that it's even more to the point.)

One could argue that a deeper level of understanding of the game is beyond the comprehension of (____) rated players (fill in the blank as desired).  However, chess improvement (or any skill improvement) is the result of "effortful study" in which a person continually tackles challenges just beyond their current competence (pushing their envelope, in other words).  I would argue that any meaningful effort in this direction is worthwhile when it results in greater insight into the game that is practically applicable.  Take a look at this recent post at the Prodigal Pawn, for example.

As an amateur chess player, I am under no illusion that my own study practices are comparable to those of professionals, nor are they even necessarily optimal for someone at the Class level.  However, I have to say they're working pretty well in practical terms for me and I've had similar positive results in the past when I've undertaken serious openings preparation (see Annotated Game #1).  Openings study has been a major contributor to solidifying the foundations of my game and a good method for overall improvement, when pursued in-depth.

05 February 2012

Annotated Game #29: Back as Black

Following the second phase (post-scholastic) of my chess career, which ended with Annotated Game #28, several years passed before I played any serious games.  The next one was in fact Annotated Game #6, from the world record simultaneous exhibition in Mexico City.  I saw a notice for the event and remembered that I liked to play chess, so why not participate?

Over another year passed, however, before I came back to tournament play.  This first-round game showed that I was still capable of hanging with the competition, despite a disappointing final result.  In a Classical Caro-Kann, my Class A opponent made two separate attacking demonstrations (on moves 16 and 26) which however ended up being nullfied, due to a lack of a robust follow-up on his part and some good defending on mine.  A dynamic endgame then ensues, with a material imbalance of R+R vs. R+N+pawns.  After some tense play, I make some judgments which allow White to stop the pawns and then go on to win.  No doubt fatigue played a role, as this was a long, hard-fought game.  However, the primary factor was probably my weak endgame knowledge.

Some lessons learned from reviewing the game:
  • Look at getting in the ...c5 break in the Classical Caro-Kann as early as possible (move 14)
  • In this variation, always keep in mind the potential weakness of e6 and tactical ideas associated with that for White (moves 16, 25)
  • Look beyond superficial one-move positional analysis when deciding on piece placement (move 19)
  • Passed pawns must be pushed! (move 41)
  • Take advantage of concrete advantages when they occur and calculate the consequences (move 48)

04 February 2012

World's most influential Grandmaster

With all due respect to Garry Kasparov, it's probably Ken Rogoff.  The Financial Times weekend edition has Rogoff featured in its "Lunch with the FT" column, which is always an entertaining read.  (You may have to register at the site to read it.)  ChessBase news also has done stories on Rogoff, most recently in December at the London Chess Classic.

Interesting to note that it's the retired GMs that are most influential in the world, but then again the active ones have to play chess for a living.