30 December 2013

A business model for effective training programs

By coincidence I recently read a business article that I found very relevant for chess training programs, bearing on ideas discussed in "Do study techniques matter in chess?"  The article "What Makes Strategic Decisions Different" by Phil Rosenzweig - from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) November 2013 issue whose theme is "How to Make Smarter Decisions" - posits that we need to understand what type of decision to make in different situations.  This means not simply applying a single optimized game theory or decision-making process.  The idea is that such an "optimized" approach, which works well in simple models with fixed rules we cannot influence, fails to take into account dynamic factors such as our own ability to influence the situations we face - changing the rules, as it were.

The model the author uses is a 2x2 matrix of different "fields" with the axes (variables) being Performance (absolute vs. relative) and Control (low vs. high); diagram below is reproduced from the above link.

Training programs fall into the category of High Control - Absolute Performance ["Influencing Outcomes", the author's second field].  In this case, we can through our own efforts materially effect the outcome of our decisions.  In the case of chess, this is reflected in performance improvement as measured on an absolute scale reflected by our rating.  Progress requires analytic ability and effortful study (your "control factor" over the long term).  However, individual competitions (games or tournaments) would fall under the category of High Control - Relative Performance ["Managing for Strategic Success"], which calls for a different approach, namely emphasizing a strong positive attitude (your "control factor" in the short term) and making informed choices that also take into account your competitors' abilities when possible.

The most relevant portion of the article for chess training purposes is excerpted below.  It's worth noting that "The Making of an Expert" article cited below used as a case study the training and performance of the Polgar sisters, so it's certainly not a stretch to apply these types of ideas to the chess world, given that some of them in fact originated there.
Many decisions involve more than selecting among options we cannot improve or making judgments about things we cannot influence ["Making Judgments and Choices", the author's first field]. In so much of life, we use our energy and talents to make things happen. Imagine that the task at hand is to determine how long we will need to complete a project. That's a judgment we can control; indeed, it's up to us to get the project done. Here, positive thinking matters. By believing that we can do well, perhaps even holding a level of confidence that is by some definitions a bit excessive, we can often improve performance...
Some activities call for us to move between the first and second fields, shifting our mind-set back and forth. The approach known as "deliberate practice," which can lead to expert performance (see "The Making of an Expert," by K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely, HBR July-August 2007), is based on objective and deliberate thinking before an event, full commitment with a positive attitude while taking action, and then a return to dispassionate analysis after the event--what is known as an after-action review. The ability to shift effectively between mind-sets is a crucial element of high performance in many repeated tasks of short duration, from sports to sales.
What the article describes above seems to fit well the general process that I've outlined here, in various places, that emphasizes similar elements: crafting a structured training program, creating a positive mental outlook when going into a competitive situation, then objectively analyzing your performance afterwards.

Given recent discussions about training methods, it might be worthwhile to put up a more comprehensive and updated post outlining my training program and methods, which would be personally useful as a reference and perhaps offer a suitable opportunity for others to share their own ideas and comparative experiences.

29 December 2013

Commentary: Snowdrops vs Old Hands 2013 - round 1

This commentary game features WGM Nastassia Ziaziulkina (18, Belarus, 2350) versus GM Iossif Dorfman (61, France, 2580), from round 1 of the Snowdrops vs. Old Hands 2013 tournament in the Czech Republic.  While the tournament theme of young, rising female players versus "senior" grandmaster types is something of a publicity stunt, all the players seem to enjoy themselves and it can be entertaining to follow; complete tournament results can be found here.

For those who don't play (or play against) the Caro-Kann, this is not a terribly exciting game, but for me it is a good example of pursuing opening study by selecting complete games to analyze, which also contributes to a a holistic approach to chess training.  I now have a much better sense of this sideline, which among other things saw some action in the 1960 Tal-Botvinnik World Championship (game included in the notes).  For me the key new items were looking at the all-important transition from opening to middlegame and subsequent strategic ideas that Black can pursue.

28 December 2013

Do study techniques matter in chess?

Part of the quest for chess improvement is, of course, some type of study plan.  I prefer to think of mine as being part of an overall training program, as this conveys more of the breadth and long-term nature of the improvement process.  Training is something that a professional athlete, martial artist or chessplayer is always doing, in some form or another, for their entire career.  Serious amateurs, ones who care about advancing their game, will also need to have their own training program - perhaps a less intense one and one that is not central to their livelihood, like the professionals, but nonetheless a program that is 1) structured in some fashion and 2) generally followed over time.  There are naturally a huge variety of ways to structure a chess training program or a personal study plan.  And unfortunately it can be difficult to follow any plan over time, as our energy wanes or other things disrupt our studies.

In "Tournament Preparation: Chess Skills" I made the assertion that it is more important for a player to train all the various skill sets before a tournament, rather than how exactly they go about it.  This parallels my general outlook on chess training, as captured in the early post "Reflections on Training".  A recent thoughtful comment queried whether after my experiences in chess training over the past two years, I think that study techniques matter - one way to rephrase the concept.  A good question and one that, to answer fully, requires some further reflection on the entire chess training process.

Looking at any training program, one must consider the performance objective and how to train the component parts that go into it.  For chessplayers, the primary long-term objective is to increase your playing strength to improve game performance; put more simply, to win more often and against stronger opponents.  While it's not completely cut-and-dried, chess can usefully be broken down into opening, middlegame and endgame phases, with different principles and techniques that dominate in each.  To use a sports analogy (as in "Chess vs. Tennis - sporting lessons"), if one is training to be a better tennis player, the primary objective (win more and against better opponents) is exactly the same, while the game can be broken down into elements such as your service game, return game, baseline play, net play and shot selection.  Other sports analogies can be used as well, for example long-distance running.  That is an excellent illustration of the fact that while it's important to train a variety of things, the main focus needs to be on actually doing the activity you are training for; runners can do other types of physical and mental training, but in the end the best training for running is, in fact, running.  (My view of chess training is broadly similar, as reflected in "Analyzing your own games is more than just analyzing your own games".)

I use the sporting analogy because it may help highlight the idea, in a more intuitive way, that chess performance in the end is a combination and culmination of many different things - training of component skills, application and integration of those skills in a "real-world" environment, judgment, mental toughness and creativity.  Perhaps it's because so much goes into a chess game or tournament that our egos often become involved and if we're not careful, it can seem like our personal worth is on the line with the result.  The same thing happens in sports - I consider chess to be a mental, individual sport - as athletes have good days and bad days in team matches, or in an individual sport get crushed in one tournament but then find the mental fortitude to do well in the next one.

So how does this broader perspective factor into the question of study techniques in chess?  I think improving players can often lose sight of the goal, namely improving playing strength and performance in actual games, while focusing on training component parts.  This is most obvious with tactics drills, where it is easy to keep solving problem after problem and honing your ability to find 1001 mating solutions in the quickest way possible, then fail to find the way forward in over-the-board situations where mating attacks are nowhere to be found.  While the description is somewhat exaggerated, this is in fact a common trap.

Does this mean that tactics drills are useless to improve your performance, as are other specific study techniques for openings, middlegames and endgames?  Of course not.  I used to be quite weak on tactics (believing myself to be a "positional" player - the subject of "Playing Styles Deconstructed" - and therefore not needing to dirty my hands with it).  Once I realized the folly of this, I greatly improved my tactical understanding and performance by studying Understanding Chess Tactics and applying myself on the Chess Tactics Server and the Chess.com tactics trainer.  I do believe, however, that any training program that fails to take a holistic approach to chess and instead focuses only on training a single component skill will ultimately fail.  Also, your training program must be realistic and calibrated to your current level of understanding - pushing the envelope, as mentioned in "Mindfulness and Effortful Study", but not ripping it to shreds.

Finally, an important consideration when determining how you should study, as compared to generally what should you study, is your learning style.  Learning styles vary greatly and I think this fact is underappreciated in the chess improvement community.  Some common training principles are worth emphasizing, as I did in the tournament chess skills post, but especially at the amateur level I'm a big believer in the "whatever works" school of training.  This is because it's done as a pastime, for love of the game, so the motivational factor is so important; if you hate a training method, you're simply not going to want to do it any more, regardless of how effective it is supposed to be (according to Authority X).  If you don't believe this is important, simply search through the chess improvement blogosphere, which is littered with dead "Seven Circles (of Hell)" blogs.

26 December 2013

Commentary: Nakamura-Li, World Team Championship Round 5

This next commentary game also features American super-GM Hikaru Nakamura as White.  His play in this game is something to be emulated, as he expertly calculates, evaluates and makes winning decisions all along the way.  His play is dynamic and very instructive in the way he sacrifices a pawn in the opening, then immediately takes over the initiative with active piece play, tying Black in knots using repeated threats and then regaining his material while maintaining his positional advantage. Some highlights:
  • Black's decision to take the pawn on d4 may not be the worst move in the position, but it certainly leads to strategic problems for him. One of the variations included shows how Black could retain the material, albeit with major difficulties as White has more than sufficient compensation. In the game continuation, Black ends up with less than nothing to show for his troubles and his dark-square bishop is also traded off, giving White a major strategic and tactical advantage.
  • White's b-pawn is tactically protected or "poisoned" for the entire game in a remarkable fashion, due to a variety of different tactics.
  • White makes the practical decision to exchange down to a winning endgame, rather than go in for additional middlegame complications. The point is that if you can calculate to a point where you evaluate you can win the game, it doesn't matter whether computer analysis afterwards would give you additional points for a different continuation.

22 December 2013

Commentary: Nakamura-Kramnik, World Team Championship Round 2

The following game, a Nimzo-Indian opening played in late November between Hikaru Nakamura and Vladimir Kramnik during round 2 of the World Team Championship, helped the U.S. team defeat Russia 3-1 that round.  I picked it out at the time for being of particular personal interest and have now gotten around to doing commentary for it.

The game stands out in several respects, including:
  • The way Nakamura is able to use his dancing central knight, creating two different outposts for it and also bolstering it with his rook, while Black's knight languishes in the corner.
  • White's ability to see key tactical ideas and use them strategically, for example how moves 16 and 19 change the course of the game.
  • The simplification into a winning endgame for White and the tactic that justifies it.
  • The psychological dynamic, as Nakamura has developed a personal edge in his games with Kramnik, who seems to either not be coping with Nakamura's style or perhaps is psyching himself out too much.
For improving players, the game I think is both comprehensible in terms of tactics (with some work) and an outstanding example of some key strategic and positional ideas.  It's also useful to study in terms of the decision points and why Nakamura chose to go a particular way - not necessarily the best according to the engine, but that's real chess.

For another take on the game, you can also see this video analysis by Kingscrusher.

14 December 2013

Annotated Game #110: Failed opening experiment

The following game from an ongoing Slow Chess League tournament features a failed opening experiment, in this case on move 9 for Black.  I decided to avoid the main line and venture off into an "easier" sideline to remember, involving an offer to exchange queens and simplify, which would work in Black's favor.  My opponent correctly rejected the offer (after some thought) and went on to win the game.

It is worth underlining the fact that the idea itself did not immediately lose, but it put Black in a less desirable position developmentally versus the main line, essentially a tempo down on developing the kingside, which gives White some additional tactical possibilities. What did lose more or less immediately - but not obviously so - was my decision to castle queenside a few moves after White's aggressive response with 11. c4.  From previous analysis of similar games I knew that this was a relatively risky decision, but as far as I could see, White could not directly exploit it with good defense by Black.  Unfortunately, I was wrong and the decision doomed me strategically.

The game is unusual in that respect, as normally a single error is either an immediate blunder (obviously non-recoverable) or can be recovered from later on with better play.  Here Black is put on an inexorable path of doom, which only materializes a number of moves later.  My opponent deserves full credit for taking the time to work out how to do this, although he missed a chance on move 19 to more quickly put me away.

In this case, although the opening experiment was a failure, it's helped give me more insight into the opening and middlegame dynamics for future use in the main line with an immediate ...e6 (and more confidence in that being the best way to proceed).

07 December 2013

Annotated Game #109: How to play against your own opening?

It's always difficult to play against your own opening, psychologically speaking.  You normally will have faith in its superiority (or at least its preferability), the flip side of which is that you naturally will tend to dislike the other side's position type.  Of course strong players can often play both sides of an opening equally well, but that is one of the reasons why they are exceptional.  Overcoming a psychological bias and deeply understanding an opening's characteristics from both sides' perspectives, including the middlegame and endgame play that results, is I think a characteristic of mastery.

In the following game, played in the opening round of a tournament in the Slow Chess league, I face an early opening choice as White when my opponent replies with 1...c6.  Rather than transpose into more standard lines against my own defenses, I stick to an independent English Opening continuation that involves gambiting a pawn.  This is the first game that I have played with this line, so I'm pleased with it for training purposes, as well as content with the result.

One of my long-term flaws as a player has been being too materialistic, so learning to play more dynamically and with "compensation" is good for my chess.  In this game, the compensation for White is positional rather than in the form of a direct attack, although I was able to obtain some tactical play once Black castled queenside.  Houdini's assessment throughout was that White had full compensation for the pawn, which is useful validation of the line and my handling of it in this debut game.