29 December 2012

Annotated Game #77: Playing for a draw means losing in the end

If I had to pick one game to best illustrate what my core weaknesses were, this is it.  Playing a significantly higher-rated opponent in the third round of the tournament, I deliberately chose a strategy of trying to exchange down to a drawn position.  In the process, I passed up multiple active choices that could have given White a positional edge and the initiative.  My opponent, no fool, took advantage of my passivity and the positional crush that he executes against me is well played and an object lesson on how to use a space advantage.

In addition to the early decision to play for a draw, this game provides an excellent example of other major errors in my thinking.  In the opening phase, I was limited in my conception of how to play a flank opening, mentally not even considering the move e4 because it would have meant advancing a central pawn (horrors!), although this would have been advantageous at several points.  In the middlegame, I relied on the idea of piece exchanges (starting on move 10) to reach a draw. Exchanges can have far-reaching implications for the rest of the game, among other things determining which side's remaining pieces become more effective, so simply exchanging is hardly a recipe for a draw.  Finally, White's repeated pawn advances created major weaknesses that Black could exploit, showing how I failed to understand their long-term implications.

It's because of games like these that I saw a serious need to improve my mental toughness and stop worrying about ratings.  My attitude was completely wrong from the start here.  It's one thing to aim for a draw later in the game in an even (or worse) position, quite another to ignore any ideas of winning at the start of the middlegame.  Playing for a draw can often lead to losing in the end.

24 December 2012

Analyzing your own games is more than just analyzing your own games

Game analysis is one of those areas which seems to be an obvious necessity for an improving player.  Yet, there is a fair amount of conflicting advice in the chess community on the topic.  Here I want to cut through this and present a practical guide to the benefits of analyzing your own games.  In fact, one can make a strong argument for making this the guiding principle behind your chess study process.

I credit IM Jesper Hall's Chess Training for Budding Champions (Gambit, 2001) for bringing this idea to my attention in a focused, meaningful way.  After a short introductory chapter, the book's second chapter - "I Am Lucky to Have Made So Many Mistakes" - makes the point (based on a short anecdote about a visit to IM Johan Hellsten) that "in your own games, you have all that you need to train with."  The author's reformulation of this is in the first section, entitled "In Your Own Games, There is Everything You Need to Improve."  Why is that?
When you think about analysing your own games, it becomes clear how logical it is that this is the most important and natural way of training.  You are personally involved, you have a deep understanding of the position as you have played the game yourself...This gives depth, but also an insight in to the process of thinking during the playing situation.  That insight is impossible to obtain when you study games by other players.  I therefore recommend that you try to describe, with words, how you thought during the game, mixed with more objective analysis.  Then it will be easier to see what you misjudged during the game.  This is a perfect ground for your training as all aspects of chess are included, even your weaknesses.  With the games as a starting point, you can plan your training and add the knowledge that you lack.
In the same vein, here's a relevant quote from GM Alex Yermolinsky's The Road To Chess Improvement (Gambit 1999), an excellent book which I think I should read again, now that my own chess philosophy and practice has changed considerably.
The problem I had to acknowledge was the stagnation of my development.  I was simply going nowhere.  It's not that I lacked experience - I was 28 years old then, and I had been playing chess for some 20 years up to that point - it was a rather sad realization that my game was not improving.  In search for inspiration I decided to follow the most common advice one can find in the works of Alekhine (my favorite player) and Botvinnik (one of my least favorite ones) which can be put into simple words - study your games.  Ever since, every game I played has been extensively annotated.
Did I follow this excellent advice after first reading these books?  I did not.  Like many chessplayers, I preferred to look for easier ways to improve my chess knowledge than working through my games, many of which were painful losses.  Also, it seemed to me that analyzing my own games would be highly inferior to looking at master-level games, or following master-level advice.

This idea - that your games are of low quality and not worth studying - is one of the main objections or criticisms of the self-analysis process.  However, it ignores the one thing in common for all improving players: you have to do the work and you will be the one sitting down at the chessboard your next game - not someone else.  There are a number of implications to this.
  • In the opening, your understanding of its key positional features - including tactical possibilities - is what will get you to a good middlegame position, regardless of whether your opponent follows your "book" lines.
  • In the middlegame, your thinking process and ability to evaluate different candidate moves, along with spotting opportunities and threats, is what will determine your quality of play.
  • In different types of endgames, recognition of the relevant strategic concepts and positional evaluations will allow you to win (or avoid losing).
In Game Analysis for Improvement in Play I described the practical methods I use for analyzing and annotating a game in approximately two hours.  From a conceptual standpoint, I think the main points to get out of analyzing a game are:
The key point in all of this is that you are the one who has to make all the decisions at the chessboard from move 1.  You have to put it all together and understand what is in front of you.  The best guide to how you will play in the future is therefore how you have played in the past.  For improving players, it comes down to the simple fact that if you can't fix your own mistakes or recognize important gaps in your knowledge, you will not get any better.  No one can be perfect, but recognizing the truth about our own play, however painful it may be, is the first step on the road to improvement (as Yermolinsky noted).  Perhaps the most important realization I have had as part of the game analysis process is that I had failed to use a coherent thinking process in my tournament games.  This realization then resulted in the Simplified Thought Process (That Works).

Analyzing your own games also offers a near-infinite number of ways to improve your chess.  With a database program (free or otherwise), you can explore and analyze how other games in your chosen openings have turned out, focusing on key variations and decision points, and identify model master-level games for further study.  With a chessplaying program, you can take key middlegame and endgame positions that you've identified in your analysis and play them out.  If you've determined that you lack some specific knowledge that is holding you back from better results, you can find books, videos or other tools to address that.  Naturally, this is where chess trainers can come into the picture as well; good ones will look to use your own games as a guide for your training.  In any event, let your own games be the practical guide to what you need to accomplish most.

Below are some resources (some of which have been cited above) for those looking for methods or examples of how analyzing your games can be beneficial.  If anyone has had particularly good (or bad) experiences with other resources, comments are welcome.

This blog:
Other sites:
  • Study Your Games by GM Nigel Davies at chessville.com
  • 10 Tips for Analysing Your Chess Games at roman-chess
  • Professional players may offer services that involve analyzing and reviewing your games.  Ones I have run across references to include GM Nigel Davies and IM Yelena Dembo, although there are many others out there.
  • Over at chess.com there's a new series of videos being made by IM David Pruess on "How to Analyze Your Own Games" - so far it's up to an intermediate-level introduction.  It's behind the paywall, though, so you will need to be a subscriber to watch more than the first two minutes.

23 December 2012

Annotated Game #76: Strategic blunders in the English

The most notable feature of this second-round tournament game is the two strategic blunders made by White out of the opening, an English vs. King's Indian Defense (KID) setup.  Move 10, where White pushes b4 without the a3 pawn to support it, is an excellent lesson in how not to execute the standard queenside expansion plan.  White's rook, after retaking on b4, is pushed around and Black easily takes over the initiative after White's second strategic error on move 13.  With 13. Qc1, White was attempting to play on the kingside and exchange off the Bg7, but this is far too slow and never actually happens.

There are some other interesting points to the game, which I managed to draw in the end.  However, the strategic lessons of 1) not pushing b4 when opposed by a5, until the b-pawn can be supported by the a-pawn, and 2) not haphazardly switching from a queenside to kingside strategy, are the most valuable for anyone playing a similar setup as White.  For those inclined to play the KID as Black, the game and analysis variations included offer a good guide to exploiting these types of errors.

15 December 2012

Annotated Game #75: Colle System goes awry

This game occurred in the first round of the next tournament after Annotated Game #71.  I always enjoy facing the Colle System as Black, as it never really seems to go anywhere against my preferred Slav-type setup, which was played in this game.  I've observed that the Colle seems to work best against Queen's Gambit Declined type defenses, in which Black shuts in his light-squared bishop.

Here, Black exchanges off the light-square bishop immediately and then focuses on development as White goes pawn-hunting on the queenside.  White's sense of danger was not operating and after his queen is nearly trapped, he is forced to give back material in order to save it.  Although the material balance was then roughly equal (3 pawns for a piece), Black definitely had the superior position.

In the remainder of the game, Black passes up several active options for improving his position and pressuring White, which unfortunately has been a common characteristic of my games.  If I get nothing else out of these annotation efforts, they have certainly driven home the importance of playing actively with both pieces and pawns.  In this game, White also missed some active possibilities, including the remarkable 20. f4!? and the counterintuitive 26. b4, which loses the b-pawn but gains a strong positional advantage for White's passed pawns.  In both cases, the strategic idea would have been to effectively mobilize White's pawn majority, where he had a favorable imbalance (to use Silman's term).

White eventually goes for a draw by repetition after striking a tactical blow against Black's kingside and winning a pawn there.  My opponent evidently did not trust his own position due to Black's possible threats.  At the time I was perfectly happy to acquiesce, not seeing how I could make real progress against White, who was also higher-rated.  The final result seems justified in this case, given the board situation.  Had Black been looking to win, it would have been better tried earlier, for example with 18...Ne4!?

11 December 2012

The importance of CCT: example 5 - London Chess Classic Round 9

As another entry in the ongoing series featuring the importance of CCT (Checks, Captures and Threats), here is the final round game from the recently-completed London Chess Classic between Hikaru Nakamura and Luke McShane.  At first glance, on move 32 Black appears fine, with his Ne5 protected and attacked twice after White's 32. R1d5 move. However, a CCT check would reveal that this is not the case and the "obvious recapture" after the move played (33. Qxe5+) simply does not work, due to the Bd7 which will be left hanging at the end of the sequence.

09 December 2012

Annotated Game #74: Round 3 - Round Turkey Tournament

This final round of the 2012 Round Turkey Tournament was the decisive one, as any of the players could theoretically have won it.  I had no idea how Tim Clark (aka Moth) was going to open the game, although I did prep the Caro-Kann Advance variation to some extent, since it is a popular choice for White these days.

Black has a relatively easy time of it in the opening and by move 9 has his pieces comfortably placed.  I decided not to get too fancy in the early middlegame and was thinking about quietly increasing the pressure on the d-pawn when White threw in the tactical surprise of 15. Nxd5.  Black is objectively fine here, but the failure by both of us (apparently) to spot the key ...Nxe5 countermove - made possible by the unprotected White queen on d3 - is quite instructive.  I had the mental assumption when both queens were on the d-file that opening the file would not do anything, only seeing the ...Nxe5 possibility once I had a rook on d8.  This is a good example of how doing a general tactical status check can be a help (and should be a regular feature of one's thinking process).  (I first saw this idea expressed in Understanding Chess Tactics by Martin Weteschnik.)

Despite missing the best reply, I manage to hang on and after the sequence is completed, regain equality.  White nevertheless retained what initiative was left in the position and I soon felt under pressure again after he pushed in the center with 24. d5.  Further inaccurate defending by Black leaves him with a somewhat scary-looking position as of move 29, although it was still objectively OK.  Attempting to counterattack in the center, I play Rxe3, which would have lost had White taken the fleeting opportunity to play d6 that was presented by Black's overloaded pieces.  Luckily for me, I immediately extricated myself and then was able to head for a setup that would force perpetual check.

My opponent didn't want to accept a draw, though, so decided to roll the dice with a rook exchange that lost him two pawns, leaving us with a R+P endgame featuring three Black kingside pawns versus two White kingside pawns.  With time growing shorter, White got very aggressive and failed to do a CCT (checks, captures and threats) check on move 41, allowing White's rook to check and then pick up the b-pawn.  The end came quickly afterwards.

My thanks to Tim for playing an interesting and strong game, which gave me a lot to look at during analysis.

For anyone else who wants to join the fun during the next cycle, the 2012 Double My Egg Nog FICS tournament still has a space available.

How Carlsen makes us feel better about chess

The Financial Times this weekend has another article on chess, this time in its Lunch with the FT column.  Each week a personality - perhaps the best way to describe the people interviewed - has lunch with one of the FT's reporters and has an informal interview and conversation.  This week, it's Magnus Carlsen, who gave the interview just before the start of the London Chess Classic.

Similar to Kramnik's commentary in "How Kramnik makes us feel better about chess", I found Carlsen's approach to chess and his views on playing and training to be refreshing, having a simplicity and mature clarity about them.  When top players matter-of-factly discuss how positions are unclear and admit their own limits, it's an important lesson for improving players as well.

The article is worth reading in its entirety, but I've excerpted some of what I consider the most relevant points on mental attitudes, the importance of developing intuition and the role of planning.
  • "...what at first seems like studied indifference is a genuine character trait of not easily becoming worked up, of taking things in one’s stride rather than needing to feel always in control. In fact, Carlsen seems unfazed by many things, among them not knowing whom he is playing when, how well he has to do in the London Classic to beat Kasparov’s record, or, for that matter, where to meet for lunch." 
  • "...Carlsen says the difficulty with being tired when playing chess is that things don’t come intuitively. I point out that the stereotypical image of the game is that it is won not through intuition but hyperrational analytical powers. 'Of course, analysis can sometimes give more accurate results than intuition but usually it’s just a lot of work. I normally do what my intuition tells me to do. Most of the time spent thinking is just to double-check.'"
  • "Still intrigued by the claim that intuition has pride of place, I ask him about the importance of spontaneity in chess. 'Of course, you make plans but the positions are often too complicated for proper planning. Then suddenly you get an idea.'"
Carlsen also emphasized the importance of being able to feel the joy in chess, rather than having it become a grind.  This and all of the above points I think are quite applicable to the improving player.

02 December 2012

Annotated Game #73: Round 2 - Round Turkey Tournament

Round 2 of the 2012 Round Turkey Tournament featured a struggle with Rocky Rook in the English.  The first three moves produced an Old Indian-style formation on Black's part, as was previously seen in Annotated Game #35.  Unlike with that game, where White played an early d4 to exchange in the center and then fianchetto his bishop on g2, this time a central strategy is followed, with a very different-looking game.

Rocky's decision to push 5...e4 I think determined the whole strategic character of the game.  I was reasonably familiar with the idea, having looked at it in other closed-type English positions, so it didn't bother me too much.  Here I thought it was going a little too far out on a limb for Black, since the pawn would be difficult to support properly.  That is in fact what occurred, as White in the early middlegame is able to pick up the pawn.

I was worried about some of Black's counterplay shortly afterward, for example if he had chosen to penetrate on the second rank with 19...Rc2.  By the time he decides to try for counterplay a bit later on the kingside, however, I was able to calculate - after some initial trepidation - that it would come to nothing.  Once Black's threat was dealt with, I was able to find active, attacking continuations that increased White's positional advantage and eventually led to a mate threat.  This is in contrast to earlier in the game, where I passed up several interesting, aggressive continuations (8. g4!? and 19. e4 stand out) in order to put safety first.

Thanks again to Rocky for an interesting game and of course for his good work organizing the tournament.  I plan on participating in the next one on FICS, the Double My Egg Nog tournament, which still has one space free for an interested player.