31 May 2016

The phenomenon of plateauing


Lately there have been several top-flight articles in the international chess media about training for the improving player, highlighted here have been the interview on improving your chess with Boris Gelfand and the "How do you become a Life Master" blog post from Dana Mackenzie.  Another recent one and well worth the read is "Chess Progress: making the big leap" by IM Albert Silver.  Silver's take on improvement focuses in part on the phenomenon of plateauing, which is common to many long-term training programs.  Essentially you get diminishing returns, or show little progress, for an extended period of time before making another significant incremental gain in performance - or the "big leap" of the article title.

This phenomenon is well-documented across a large number of disciplines, including martial arts and sports, so it should be no surprise that chessplayers have to deal with it as well.  I've experienced it before in other contexts as well, including learning mathematics.  I recall quite well the effort needed to truly absorb and understand more complex topics like calculus, where it took a lot of extra, sustained effort for me before a mental lightbulb went off and I was able to grasp and apply the concepts.

Part of the lesson to take away from a proper understanding of the phenomenon is that sustained, regular effort will in fact pay off in the end, as long as it can be considered "effortful study" - that is, not simply doing rote exercises or ones that are already comfortably in your knowledge base.  The problem for me has been to free up enough time and energy to in fact concentrate on moving forward my chess knowledge and performance; for now, I don't feel like I'm making enough progress.  As an adult chess improver, it's been work and travel that has often gotten in the way and sometimes there's no good way around that - the job takes precedence or sucks up the majority of your time and energy for a while.  In fact, I'll be traveling for most of June and will be away from serious chess (and this blog) as a result.  But I have hopes for the second half of this year that I can dedicate the requisite time and focus more regularly on chess training.

I'll conclude this post with what I think is a relevant observation from the Silver article, worth reading in its entirety (linked above).
Chess progress for beginners, or at the very least players who have never truly challenged their limits, is more about spurts and bursts than slow and steady. The size and depth of this burst is what varies the most. Sometimes that burst of results is a blip on the radar, a magic performance we are unable to sustain, and sometimes it is simply our new reality. The latter is what we all wish for. How do we achieve that leap forward, and how do we know we aren't simply 'stuck'?

29 May 2016

Annotated Game #159: The dangers of distraction

This next tournament game illustrates the dangers of getting distracted from the central features and truths of a position.  As White, I achieve a comfortable game out of the opening and have a clear target in the form of my opponent's king in the center.  Then, at a key point (move 15) I allow myself to be distracted by my opponent on the queenside and a couple of moves later he has equalized, which was a disappointing turn of events.  Luckily, he then distracts himself with potential queenside prospects and moves his queen offside, allowing me to resume an attack in the center after all.

While there are some interesting tactical and positional points in the analysis, the main overriding theme for the game is the need to focus on central control and find any way to get at the opponent's king, including sacrifices to open lines (such as the variation on move 14).  Another personal theme revealed is my difficulty, which is something that has been highlighted repeatedly in analysis, of visualizing attacks, especially mating nets.  I had trouble looking at the series of moves from 22-25 and selecting the most effective ones, although my opponent had even more trouble finding his way and was fatally distracted by snatching a queenside pawn.  As a result, I was able to clearly see the sequence starting on move 26 and win.

ChessAdmin - Class C

Result: 1-0
A16: English Opening: 1...Nf6 with ...d5
[...] 1.c4 d5 2.cxd5 exchanging a flank pawn for a central pawn is usually a good idea and this early on there are no potential drawbacks. 2...¤f6 3.¤c3 ¤xd5 4.¤f3 ¤xc3 5.bxc3 White is quite comfortable here, with a small lead in development and no challenges from Black. 5...¥f5 this move is something of a time waster.
5...g6 is the main idea for Black here, developing the kingside and staying flexible.
6.£b3 a (good) obvious move to take advantage of the bishop leaving the queenside. 6...£c8 ...b6 or ...Be4 are alternatives to protect the b-pawn, but White still gets more out of the Qb3 move than Black does in any of his options to counter it. 7.¥a3 not a bad move, but I should be focusing on control of the center and completing my own development. The idea is to make Black's own kingside development more difficult by restraining ...e6 due to the threat of Bxf8. My opponent decides (erroneously) that this is fine, however, so the move turns out well for me.
7.g3 e6 8.d3± and after Rb1 and Bg2, Black is going to have problems defending threats down the b-file and the long diagonal.
7...e6
7...c5 is a way to resolve the problem, costing a pawn but leaving White without any remaining threats. 8.¤e5 ¥e6 9.£b5+ ¤d7 10.¤xd7 ¥xd7 11.£xc5 £xc5 12.¥xc5²
8.¥xf8±8...¦xf8 this leaves Black's king more centralized and therefore vulnerable. (8...¢xf8) 9.d3
9.d4!? is more to the point, with Black's king stuck in the center, as White needs to seize territory and pry open the position.
9...h6 while preventing a knight hop to g5, this is dangerously slow for Black's development. (9...¤c6 10.¤h4±) 10.e4 not a bad continuation, but I could have done more with the position.
10.g4!? for example is now possible, since taking the pawn would lose to a queen fork on a4. 10...¥h7 11.¦b1 and now the b-pawn is doomed, for example 11...b6?!12.¥g2 c6 13.¤d4 e5 14.¤b5! and the Bg2 proves its worth on the long diagonal, since taking the Nb5 loses material for Black, but the knight's attack on the d6 square anyway becomes decisive. 14...£d7 15.£a3 f5 16.¤d6++⁠−
(10.¦b1 is also good.) 10...¥h7 11.¥e2 ¤d7 12.O-O ¦b8 13.¦ad1 now that Black has defended the b-pawn adequately, the obvious place to put the rook is on d1, to support a pawn advance. The Rf1 should stay where it is, as it can be better used on either the f- or e-files. 13...c5 14.e5 played to enable a follow-on push by the d-pawn, but this was not in fact necessary.
14.¤d2 is a solid move that would support the e-pawn and help reposition the knight to a better square.
14.d4!? immediately is something the engine likes. 14...¥xe4 15.¦fe1 ¥d5
15...¢e7 16.d5 ¥xd5?! (16...¦d8 17.dxe6 ¤f6 18.exf7 ¢f8 19.¥c4±) 17.¦xd5+⁠−
16.¥c4 ¥xc4 17.£xc4 cxd4 18.£xd4± White is a pawn down but Black is under heavy pressure in the center, with kingside weaknesses. For example
14...b5 trying to get some space and counterplay on the queenside. This in fact works, as it distracts me from the task in the center. (14...¢e7 15.d4 ¦d8 16.¤d2²) 15.¦c1 (15.d4± continues the plan without distraction.) 15...£c7 16.d4 c4 now it's clear that the rook moves back and forth have just wasted time. 17.£d1?!
17.£b2 makes much more sense, keeping control of the b4 square. 17...a6 18.a4 this is a common positional theme, temporarily sacrificing a pawn to render the entire structure weak. 18...bxa4 19.£a3±
17...¤b6 Black now defends the d5 square and prevents a White breakthrough. I now have to regroup and come up with a different approach. 18.¤d2 ¤d5 the optics of the centralized knight look good, but the practical consequences are bad for Black. (18...¢e7 19.¥f3) 19.¥f3² the bishop would be happy to exchange itself for the Nd5 and open the way for the e-pawn to advance. (19.a4!? is again a good idea as well.) 19...¥d3 the Black bishop springs annoyingly back to life, although this is not a real threat. 20.¦e1 £a5? this removes Black's most powerful piece from the defense of his king, which is about to become the target of White's operations. (20...¤f4!?21.g3 ¤h3+ 22.¢g2 ¤g5 23.¥e2 ¥f5±) 21.¥xd5 exd5 22.e6+⁠−22...fxe6 23.¦xe6+?! premature. I thought for a long time here about the queen moves, but my brain by this point was fuzzy and I could not see a clear way to an advantage. My opponent however does not find the one defensive move that works.
23.£g4 seems obviously superior in hindsight, although it's a long variation to get to the final advantage. 23...¦f6 24.£xg7 £d8 25.¤f3 ¦g6 26.£h8+ ¢e7 27.£xd8+ ¢xd8 28.¤e5 ¦g8 29.¤c6+±
(23.£h5+ ¢d7 24.£e5±) 23...¢d7?
23...¢f7 and Black is OK. 24.£g4 ¦b6 25.¦ce1 ¢g8 26.¦e8 £a3
24.¦e5 again, Qg4 would be better, but now this is sufficient for the win.
24.£g4 and White wins, comments Komodo via the Fritz interface. 24...g6 (24...¥f5 25.£xg7+ ¢xe6 26.¦e1+) 25.¦a6+ ¥f5 26.£xf5+ ¦xf5 27.¦xa5 b4 28.¦xa7+ ¢d8+⁠−
24...¢c6 (24...¢c7 25.£g4 ¦f7 26.¦xd5 ¦d8 27.¦c5+ ¢b8+⁠−) 25.£h5 I thought again for a while and picked the wrong queen move. (25.£g4 £d8 26.£xg7+⁠−) 25...£xa2?? this is the real losing move, as the queenside finally proves a fatal distraction. (25...¦bd8±) 26.¦e6+ now I am able to construct the win with clear calculation, not worrying about getting there the fastest, just the surest. 26...¢c7 27.£xd5 only the third fastest route to mate, according to the engine, but a sure one.
27.£e5+ ¢c8 28.£xg7 £a6 29.¦xa6 ¦g8 30.¦c6+ ¢d8 31.¦d6+ ¢e8 32.£d7+ ¢f8 33.¦f6#
27...£a3 28.£c6+ (28.¦c6+ ¢b7 29.¦d6+ ¢c7 30.£c6#) 28...¢d8 29.¦d6+
29.¦d6+ £xd6 30.£xd6+ ¢c8 31.¦e1 ¥e2 32.¦xe2 ¦b6 33.£xf8+ ¢b7 34.¦e7+ ¢a6 35.£c8+ ¢a5 36.¦xa7+ ¦a6 37.¦xa6#
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21 May 2016

Annotated Game #158: Openings that aren't as bad as you think

The next tournament game features a provocative opening from my opponent (White), which however unusual, was not in fact bad.  This is a common theme in tournament play, where it can be easy to underestimate your opponent based on an unfamiliar or goofy-looking opening choice.  This can be as early as the opening move (1. b4!?) or, as in the below game, an early divergence.  These lines need to be evaluated critically and carefully and not simply dismissed as inferior, especially if your opponent has experience playing their pet lines.

In this game, the divergence comes quite early (3. g4) and is aggressive in nature, so had to be taken seriously; passive moves that diverge from standard "book" ones are obviously less of a threat.  I responded unevenly to the challenge and would have benefited from playing more according to opening principles, as shown in the annotations.  Among other things, I should have focused more on checking tactics in the openings (a recent theme) and concentrating on development and a central breakthrough once my opponent's king was stranded in the center.  Despite a flash of brilliance (moves 22-23) which should have led to a win, I let the game slip away and also missed a chance to win the resulting king and pawn endgame.  All in all, a very uneven performance, but I also give credit to my opponent, who played significantly stronger than his rating.

Class D - ChessAdmin

Result: 1/2-1/2
D00:1 d4 d5: Unusual lines
[...] 1.d4 d5 2.e3 ¥f5 played early to avoid White getting in Bd3 first. This has the disadvantage of allowing the game continuation, however. 3.g4 although this looks like a strictly beginner move, it's not as bad as it seems at first glance. 3...¥e4 the obvious "retreat" (forward) for the bishop, provoking the next move. 4.f3 ¥g6 5.h4 h6
5...h5 6.g5 e6 7.¥d3 ¥xd3 8.£xd3 ¥d6 9.f4 ¤e7 10.¤e2 ¤f5 11.¤d2 O-O 12.¤f3 c5 13.b3 ¤c6 14.c3 a6 15.¥d2 b5 16.O-O c4 17.£c2 £c7 18.b4 a5 19.a3 ¦a6 20.a4 axb4 21.axb5 b3 22.£b2 ¦xa1 23.¦xa1 ¤a7 24.£b1 ¤xb5 25.¥c1 £b7 26.¢f2 ¦a8 27.¦xa8+ £xa8 28.¥b2 ¥a3 29.¥a1 ¤bd6 30.¤g3 ¤xg3 31.¢xg3 ¤e4+ 32.¢g2 b2 33.¥xb2 £b7 0-1 (33) Budrewicz,H (1603)-Mietek,L (1959) Mazowsze 2009
6.h5 ¥h7 7.¥d3 ¤f6 a slightly unusual idea, but it gets Komodo's approval. The more conventional ...Bxd3 would also be fine, but I didn't want to leave White having the only piece developed and more space. 8.c4 (8.¤e2 c5)
8.¥xh7 ¤xh7 controlling the g5 square is actually a valuable mission for the knight here
8...e6 played as an "obvious" move, in order to develop the dark-square bishop. In the game I mis-evaluated the capture on d3 as benefiting White more, by developing the queen, but this is simply not the case. Taking on c4 and making the bishop effectively waste a tempo by recapturing is also a good option. (8...¥xd3 9.£xd3 ¤c6) (8...dxc4 9.¥xc4 e6) 9.c5?! this is a classic Class player mistake. The pawn chain is over-extended and can be immediately challenged and broken...although unfortunately this is not something I do. (9.¥xh7 ¦xh7 10.cxd5 ¤xd5) 9...¥e7 again played automatically, although it is not bad in itself.
9...¥xd3 10.£xd3 b6 11.cxb6 (11.b4 a5µ) 11...axb6µ Black will now be able to challenge for central control and gain space with ...c5, while the dark-square bishop will find a good home on d6 or e7 and help dominate the dark squares.
10.¤c3 ¤c6 again, not a bad move, but I am simply not understanding the needs of the position (challenge the advanced c-pawn and trade off the Bd3, as in the previous variation). 11.¤ge2 e5 this is a bit premature. (11...¥xd3 12.£xd3 O-O better prepares Black for the central struggle.) 12.¥xh7 ¤xh7 13.£b3 this was very annoying and something that I had not spotted, which resulted from a failure to check tactics in the opening phase. Now I place too much emphasis on the material, rather than development, which is a mistake. The fact that White's king is in the center should signal that development and a quick central breakthrough is the key to the position. 13...¥h4+?! taking advantage of White's dark-square holes, but in a premature way. The major problem with the move is that the Qd8 is now tied to the Bh4's defense.
13...O-O!?14.£xd5
14.£xb7?!14...£d7 15.£b3 ¦ad8µ with ... Ng5 to follow, giving Black major pressure in the center and the kingside.
14...¥f6 and Black has full compensation for the pawn, for example 15.£xd8 ¦axd8 16.dxe5 ¤xe5 17.O-O ¦fe8 18.¢g2 ¤d3
14.¢d1²14...O-O?! this would now allow a legitimate snatch of the b7 pawn by White, but my opponent does not take advantage of the opportunity.
14...exd4 can be played immediately. 15.exd4 ¦b8 16.£xd5 ¥f2 17.¥f4 ¥xd4 18.£xd8+ ¢xd8²
15.¤xd5?! taking the wrong pawn. (15.£xb7 exd4 16.exd4 £f6 17.¦xh4 £xh4 18.£xc6±) 15...exd4³16.e4 although the previous move correctly supported the Nd5, the d4 pawn is now a thorn in White's side. 16...¤a5
16...¤f6!? bringing the knight back into play is better, as the b7 pawn is tactically protected. For example 17.£xb7??17...¤xd5 18.exd5 £xd5−⁠+ and Black is dominant.
17.£d3 ¥e7? played to get the bishop out of the line of fire, but ignoring White's potential threat. (17...c6!?18.¤df4 b6) 18.b4
18.¥f4!18...¥xc5 19.¥xc7 £d7 20.¥xa5 £a4+ 21.¢c1 £xa5 22.a3 £a6 23.£xa6 bxa6± gives White an easy plus, as Black finds the d4 pawn hard to protect and has doubled a-pawns.
18...¤c6 19.¥b2 threatening the d-pawn, but this is not so critical.
19.¥f4!? is best, but no longer packs the same punch as in the previous variation. 19...a5 20.¥xc7 £d7 and White has too many things to worry about (the b4 pawn, the c7 bishop, etc.) to be able to consolidate the pawn advantage. Not to mention that his king is stuck in the center.
19...¤f6³20.¤xe7+ my opponent understands that simply capturing the d-pawn is not good, but this actually makes things worse for him. Part of his problem is that the Qd3 is hanging, giving Black some tactical ideas. (20.¤xd4 ¤xd5 21.¤xc6 bxc6 22.exd5 ¦b8µ) 20...£xe7µ21.a3? an obvious move, to reinforce the b-pawn, but now Black's forces swing into action. (21.¤g3!?µ) 21...¤e5 22.£b3 d3−⁠+23.¤d4 ¤xf3! this should have been the winning move, cracking open the center. 24.£xd3 (24.¤xf3?24...£xe4) 24...¤xd4 25.¥xd4 ¦ad8 26.¢c2 ¤xg4µ obvious, but not best. Conceptually, it would be better to bring other pieces into the attack first. Also, White has an obvious response that generates a threat. (26...£e6!?27.¦he1−⁠+) (26...¦fe8−⁠+) 27.¦hg1 ¦xd4?! this was unnecessary.
27...£e6!?µ is something that I completely missed, a subtle queen move that solves Black's problems.
28.£xd4³28...¦d8 29.£xd8+ £xd8 30.¦xg4 at this point I started thinking draw, although the engine shows an advantage for Black. Queen endings are tricky in general. In this case, I had an ideal one, with White's king being in the open and lots of space for my queen to maneuver. 30...£d4 31.¦ag1 £f2+ (31...¢f8!?µ) 32.¢b3 £d4 showing a lack of imagination. (32...£f3+ 33.¢a4 ¢f8 34.¦xg7 £xe4µ) 33.¦xg7+ £xg7 heading for a drawn K+P ending. 34.¦xg7+ ¢xg7 35.e5? I knew this was a mistake, although I didn't take full advantage of it. The pawn is unsupported and can be traded off to Black's benefit. (35.¢c4!? might be a viable alternative) 35...f5 (35...f6!36.exf6+ ¢xf6−⁠+) 36.¢c3 correctly not exchanging. 36...¢f7 37.¢d4 ¢e6 38.a4? unfortunately my lack of endgame familiarity leads me to miss the win. (38.b5 c6 39.a4 f4³) 38...f4 (38...a6−⁠+ and Black gets the upper hand.) 39.¢e4 f3 40.¢xf3 ¢xe5 41.¢g4 b6 (41...c6!?42.¢f3 a6 43.¢e3 ¢f5 44.¢d4 ¢f4 45.b5 a5) 42.c6 (42.cxb6 cxb6 43.a5 b5³) 42...a5 (42...a6!?³) 43.b5 and now there's no escaping the draw, for either player. 43...¢e4 44.¢g3 ¢e3 45.¢g4 ¢e4 46.¢g3 ¢e3 Twofold repetition 47.¢g4 ¢e4
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