27 January 2012

Simplified Thought Process (that works)

As I admitted in the last Chess Performance Inventory, my thinking process has been a weak point in my play.  Starting out as a self-taught player, I found very little guidance on how to organize my thought process during a game when selecting a move.  Books like Kotov's Think Like a Grandmaster offered little practical utility for me, simply being too complex or unrealistic.  I found a few useful pieces of advice in the general literature, such as Botvinnik's practice of primarily thinking about positional characteristics on an opponent's time and calculating concrete variations on your own time, but that did not come close to fully addressing my needs.

The result of this lack of a structural thought process was most obvious in how I would regularly miss seeing good candidate moves, both for myself and my opponent, when examining a position.  My play therefore lacked a broad awareness of tactical opportunities and I was particularly weak in falsifying my own candidate moves.  Training games played since this blog was started had reinforced the idea that this was a key area that I needed to work on (nothing like blundering won games to a computer opponent to get you motivated).

But how to work on this area?  There has been a lot of material published on the chess thinking process, ranging from the superficial to the incredibly detailed and theoretical.  After a few months of absorbing material and deliberately working on testing my thinking process using the Chess Tactics Server, I was reasonably satisfied that what I had put together was a significant improvement.  (I've been studying tactics as well, so my overall tactical awareness has also improved.)  The combination of improved thinking process and tactical study has raised my accuracy on CTS from 80% to 90%.

The real test, however, comes in slow games and over-the-board (OTB) play.  I was fortunate to have the chance recently to participate in an OTB tournament, where despite some early round tiredness due to hotel issues, I was able to significantly raise the level of my overall play.  This included my best win to date in terms of my opponent's rating (2100+).  In large part, I credit the improvement in performance to the simplified, structured thinking process I've developed.  Here's the outline:

What did the opponent's move change about the position?
  • Examples include: new threats from the piece moved; new threats from other pieces uncovered by the move; squares weakened; new opportunities for checks, captures and threats on my part.
Checks, Captures, Threats (CCT)
  • Examined in the most forcing order of move types; look at all of the possible checks and captures - both yours and your opponent's - to avoid eliminating possible good candidate moves and to identify potential tactical threats.
  • Calculate until quiescence (no more forcing moves).
Update Plan / "To-Do list"
  • Do my current objectives still make sense in light of my opponent's move and CCT?
  • Are there new possibilities in the position for tactical or positional exploitation?
  • In the absence of a clearly superior/winning plan, how do I best improve the placement of my pieces?
Finalize Candidate Moves and Falsify Them
  • Look seriously at each move, to avoid dismissing a better move too early.
  • Look for overlapping ideas that can be applied from different variations (tactical themes and key in-between moves such as checks and threats).
  • Put effort into "switching sides" mentally and attempting to destroy your position after visualizing the selected move.
The usual caveats to thinking processes apply.  The sequence is generally followed rather than rigidly applied on each move and some elements will be emphasized more, depending on the nature of the position (e.g. highly tactical vs. closed).  It doesn't include everything I will think about during the game, especially strategic and positional considerations, but does represent what needs to be accomplished on each move in order to have it be sound.

Some annotated references:

"A Generic Thought Process" by Dan Heisman.  This was useful to read through and draw on for ideas, although I found it too broad and complex as something to remember and apply each move.

"Think Like a Strong Player" by the International Chess School.  Although I'm not an ICS student at this time (perhaps in the future), I greatly appreciate their approach to study and their willingness to put some of their foundation material on their site, which of course is a good way to attract interested people.

"Going in circles, so I'm making progress" and "Blown away by the idea of Checks, Captures and Threats"  by Temposchlucker.  His long-term theoretical research and experience did a lot to validate CCT in my eyes.

"How I won my section at the Portsmouth Open" by Blunderprone.  His paragraph-long description at the end is a good example of practical thinking.

"Real Chess, Time Management and Care: Putting It All Together" by Dan Heisman.  The lead quote by the author ("Your game is only as good as your worst move") sums things up nicely.

"My chess thought process" by Blue Devil Knight.  A lot of good points to consider.

[EDIT: see also "What to think about on your opponent's time"]

Annotated Game #28: End of a Second Era

This game marked the close of the second phase in my chess career, similar to how Annotated Game #12 highlighted the end of my first, scholastic phase at the Denker Tournament of Champions.  After this tournament was completed, I was away from competition for several years and did not give much real thought to continuing with chess as a pastime.

At least the game was a win, a good way to head into semi-retirement.  It illustrates well the types of positional mistakes that Class players are subject to making, in this case on both sides of the board.  I pick a solid but unremarkable defense to my opponent's King's Indian Attack setup and quickly obtain equality, but without much active play.  After neglecting development of my queenside and allowing my opponent to gain space with the d5 push, however, I find counterplay and go about undermining my opponent's queenside pawns.  After he permanently passes up control of the b4 square, my otherwise neglected knight soon establishes itself in that outstanding outpost, where its exchange only leads to my opponent's demise.

One of the tendencies I've noticed in play at the Class level is that opponents will often opt for a much quicker road to a loss by sacrificing material for nonexistent counterplay, rather than try to defend an inferior position under pressure.  This type of sacrifice occurred at move 24 in the below game.  This doesn't seem to be the best approach in terms of maximizing one's results, although I respect the attempt to play for a swindle in a losing position; at some point in the future I'll post my best one.  Most of the time, however, there is not enough of a threat to warrant a swindle attempt and the material is simply lost.  That said, it is certainly more difficult psychologically to suffer for a longer period of time in the hopes of your opponent making a mistake, rather than just hoping for the best and then getting it over with quickly.

21 January 2012

Peace = Victory

Here's something that caught my eye in the mental martial art category (i.e. the Kung Fu of Chess), as a very high-level example of the importance and efficacy of mental calmness:

Right from the opening [GM HIkaru Nakamura] obtained an edge, and after a couple of mistakes by the Czech [GM David Navara], it was sac-sac-mate.  When asked whether the rest day had been the source of the pixie dust, he responded that in fact it was his game against Anish Giri. For some inexplicable reason he had left that game feeling at peace, in a mood where chess just seems easy, and even regretted the rest day, anxious to play then and there.

(The original article on round 5 of the 2012 Tata Steel tournament in Wijk aan Zee can be found here on the ChessBase site.)

20 January 2012

Annotated Game #27: English/Queen's Indian

This short draw has little in the way of middlegame fireworks, but was useful to look at for opening study purposes.  This game, which took place in the same tournament following Annotated Game #26, is from a much earlier phase of my career (pre-database) and I didn't have the line in my current opening repertoire system, which I've now updated accordingly.

I correctly remembered to pursue the basic idea from the relevant English/Queen's Indian Defense illustrated game from Nigel Povah's How to Play the English Opening, which features Romanishin's counter-intuitive development of Bd3.  However, at the time I evidently didn't recall the basic idea behind the move, which is a classic openings goof by less-developed players: studying a line without knowing the why of it, which makes it much less effective (or even dangerous) in practice.  My follow-up was therefore sub-par and my opponent was able to immediately equalize.  His own threats were in turn quickly neutralized, however, and the position became mostly closed and apparently quite drawn, although if anything with a slight plus to White (as Houdini evaluates in the end).

16 January 2012

Morpheus/Neo Chess Training

Loading chess training program...

Tank: "Now we're supposed to start with these endgame studies first...that's major boring shit.  Let's do something more fun, like opening preparation."

Neo: "I know the Dutch Defense."

Morpheus: "Show me."

Morpheus: "How did I beat you?"

Neo: "You calculate too fast."

Morpheus: "Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with brute force calculation?  Again."

And the program continues...

07 January 2012

"Best of" Chess Carnival now open for nominations

Submissions for the "Best of" the chess blogosphere are now open at Robert L. Pearson's chess blog, for the next Chess Carnival in February.  This is naturally quite appropriate, with Carnival/Mardi Gras taking place the week of February 20th this year.

Thoughts on my contribution are posted here.

Annotated Game #26: Nemesis; Caro-Kann Classical

The following game was against the same opponent from Annotated Game #23, who despite being listed on the crosstable with a rating of around 400 points lower, as Black bamboozled me into a draw in that game (which occurred during the previous tournament) and then in this tournament, defeated me with White.  A true nemesis!

Before posting, I looked up his ratings history on the U.S. Chess Federation site.  This made me feel somewhat better, as he was only provisionally rated and his excellent result in the previous tournament had jumped him from Class C (where he actually was at the time in the live ratings) to Class B.  Another useful example of why players should ignore ratings.

My opponent deserves credit for his excellent opening preparation, as he avoids the main line of the Caro-Kann Classical but plays his sideline quite well through move 12.  At that point, I pursue an idea from the main line variation (the thematic ..c5 break) which however lands me in trouble, due to the differences in White's setup.  The remainder of the game is a complex and remarkable seesaw where my opponent repeatedly gets in strong moves, but I either find defensive resources or (more often) he fails to follow them up and put me away. I note the following key sequences:
  • Moves 12-18:  White punishes ..c5 by creating a strong advanced passed pawn in the center and opening lines for his pieces, but lets up the pressure enough for Black to set up a blockade of the pawn and free up his forces.
  • Moves 20-22:  Black recovers from a sequence where he moves away a key defender, not seeing White's threat.
  • Moves 25-29:  Black finds a key defensive idea, but then fails to resolve White's outstanding threats.
After some more nail-biting back and forth, Black can be said to be equal as late as move 40, but then defends shallowly and inaccurately and White gets in the final blow.

The problems I faced with the game dynamics were largely psychological.  White was pressing for the entire game, while objectively Black achieved equality multiple times, recovering from White's initial threats.  However, I felt like I was on the ropes and always having to struggle against superior forces, which clouded my judgment.  Failure to look for more active options (a key point from my games in general) was also a common theme.  All in all, an instructive game to analyze.

02 January 2012

Annotated Game #25: English (Irregular); playing on while down material

This second-round game followed Annotated Game #24 and was against a Class D player.  The opening started off in an irregular fashion on move 4 with ..Bd6, although White cannot usually immediately punish these types of positional errors in the English.  In this case it led to a loss of tempo by Black, which White could have exploited better on move 8 with more active play; this was one of the useful points found in analysis that will help inform my future play.  White also could have played more actively on move 10, seizing the outpost on d5 for his knight, which is a key theme in the English.

My opponent goes astray with moves 10 and 11, where he evidently thought he could get in the central break ..d5.  A tactical point instead allows White to win a piece and then work on consolidating his advantage.  In Class-level games, however, a piece advantage in and of itself is not an automatic win, especially if there is no glaring weakness in the position of the player who is down material.  This point was made in Dan Heisman's ChessCafe article "When You're Winning, It's a Whole Different Game".  By coincidence, I happened to read this just before analyzing the game, which illustrates the point nicely - I missed at least one neat way to wrap up the game (see move 31) and on move 32 missed a pinning tactic that gave back the piece.  Luckily when the dust cleared I was still up two pawns in a winning endgame and went on to convert the point with careful play.

The overall lesson here is to not put the brain on automatic in the opening (instead look for more active play and to exploit opportunities, even in familiar setups), nor when winning and up material where there is still play left in the position.