17 June 2018

Annotated Game #190: Reasonable moves that don't work; blind spots

Analysis of this next tournament game produced a couple of interesting themes.  (It's worth noting that these types of insights are a common feature of analyzing your own games - lessons that will benefit your game in the future often simply highlight themselves during the process, in a very practical way.)

The first recurring theme is that my opponent makes some very reasonable-looking moves that don't in fact work in the position; examples include on move 8, move 10, and move 28.  How often do we make a move relatively quickly in a position, because it looks reasonable or perfectly normal, without actually working it out?  This can especially be a problem in the opening phase, when we reach a similar (but not exact) position to one we're familiar with, and make a move on autopilot that turns out badly.

The second theme is that of blind spots.  Here, for me it is the beautiful-looking Bg2 on the long diagonal, which I nevertheless should have looked to exchange around move 14 for a concrete advantage.  A lesser version of this long diagonal blind spot can be found on move 25, when I didn't even consider f3 as a possibility; however, when my opponent makes himself vulnerable on the long diagonal, I eventually find the idea.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class B"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A26"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "103"] [EventType "simul"] [EventRounds "6"] {[%mdl 8192] A26: English Opening vs King's Indian with ...Nc6 and d3} 1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 g6 3. g3 Bg7 4. Bg2 O-O 5. Nf3 d6 {my opponent indicates he is going for a KID formation rather than transposing into, for example, a Symmetrical English with ...c5} 6. O-O e5 7. d3 Nc6 8. Rb1 Be6 {a large number of different moves have been tried here by Black. The text move fights directly for d5, but may prematurely commit and expose the bishop.} 9. Ng5 { this takes advantage of the opportunity to pressures the Be6 and at the same time unleash the Bg2.} (9. b4 $5 {is also good, proceeding with the queenside expansion plan.}) 9... Qd7 10. b4 (10. Nxe6 {is preferred by the engine.} fxe6 {I thought at the time this would help Black, by clearing the f-file for his rook and strengthening his claim to the d5 square. However, White's queenside expansion comes first, beating Black's potential central play.} 11. b4 { and now the combination of the vulnerable Nc6 and b7 pawn becomes awkward for Black. For example} Nd8 12. b5 c5 (12... d5 $2 13. cxd5 exd5 14. Nxd5 Nxd5 15. Qb3 {now the Nd5 cannot escape the pin.} c6 16. bxc6 bxc6 17. e4 $18) 13. Qb3 $16 {with the simple plan of pushing the a-pawn.}) 10... Rab8 {a reasonable-looking move, with the rook protecting b7 and getting off the long diagonal, but White can rapidly realize an advantage.} (10... Bf5 $5 $14) 11. Nxe6 $16 Qxe6 12. Bg5 {done with the idea of getting the dark-square bishop off the first rank and potentially exchanging it for the Nf6, which is a key defender of d5.} (12. b5 {would instead force the issue for Black, for example} Nd4 13. e3 Nf5 {and now White has a pleasant choice of moves.} 14. Nd5 (14. Qa4 $5)) 12... h6 {I am perfectly happy to exchange.} 13. Bxf6 Qxf6 14. Nd5 { a nice square for the knight, but I should have been looking for more forcing opportunities on the queenside, which is vulnerable.} (14. Qa4 {this or immediately capturing on c6 are both good. I had a bit of a blind spot here, ignoring the concrete benefits of exchanging off the Bg2. It is beautifully positioned on the long diagonal, but capture possibilities should not be ignored as a result.} Nd4 15. Qxa7 c6 16. b5 $16) 14... Qd8 15. b5 Nd4 16. e3 { I've learned the hard way not to leave a centralized Black knight on d4, so immediately kick it. Without a dark-square bishop, having a pawn on e3 also does not cramp my pieces.} Ne6 17. a4 f5 {my opponent clearly wants to create some kingside counterplay, but the center of gravity is still on the queenside. } 18. Nb4 Kh7 {ignoring the coming threat.} 19. a5 {now Black's main problem is that the b-pawn cannot advance to b6 without giving up the c6 square to my knight.} Qd7 20. a6 bxa6 (20... b6 21. Nc6 Ra8 22. Bd5 $16 {and White's minor pieces are dominant.}) 21. Nxa6 {now Black's a-pawn is weak and isolated and my minor pieces are much more effective than Black's.} Rbd8 22. Ra1 (22. Bd5 { played first would have enhanced the bishop's domination and avoided Black's next move.} Ng5 23. h4 Ne6 24. Ra1 $18) 22... e4 23. d4 {the natural move, blocking Black's Bg7 and enhancing my central pawn structure.} Ra8 24. Nb4 (24. h4 $5 {is Komodo's idea, more or less forcing Black to fix the pawn structure on the kingside and then White has plenty of time to maneuver on the queenside. } h5 25. Ra2 $18) 24... Rfb8 $6 $18 (24... a5 {is the best try here, although it's not at all obvious, as it seems White can just take en passant on a6. However} 25. bxa6 $6 (25. Nc6 $16 {is best}) 25... c5 {and now Black has significant counterplay.}) 25. Ra2 (25. f3 {played immediately would be beneficial, as e4 is now vulnerable.} a5 26. Na6 $18) (25. Ra6 $5 {is a better version of the text move's idea of doubling rooks on the a-file. Black's a-pawn is blocked and the rook exerts lateral pressure along the 6th rank.}) 25... Rb7 $2 {now with Black lining both his rooks up on the long diagonal as targets, I find the correct move.} 26. f3 $18 Ng5 {the best try.} 27. fxe4 Nxe4 28. Qd3 Qe8 $2 {another reasonable-looking move that does not work.} 29. Rf4 ( 29. g4 {is the quicker path to victory, immediately undermining the Ne4.} c6 30. gxf5 gxf5 31. Rxf5 $18) 29... c5 30. Bxe4 fxe4 31. Rxe4 {at this point the game largely plays itself for White, although Black fights on.} Re7 32. Rxe7 Qxe7 33. dxc5 {following the rule of simplification when ahead.} dxc5 34. Nc6 Qc7 35. Qd5 {centralizing the queen and setting up a discovered attack threat against the Ra8.} Bf8 36. Rf2 {threatening a fork on f7.} Kg7 37. Ne7 {forcing material loss.} Qxe7 38. Qxa8 h5 39. Qxf8+ {and now with a 100 percent won K+P endgame, I simplify down. Black cannot protect his weak a- and c-pawns and also prevent the e-pawn from queening.} Qxf8 40. Rxf8 Kxf8 41. Kf2 Ke7 42. Kf3 Ke6 43. Ke4 (43. Kf4 Kf6 44. h3 Ke6 45. e4 Kd6 46. e5+ Ke6 47. Ke4 g5 48. h4 gxh4 49. gxh4 Ke7 50. Kf5 Kd8 51. e6 Ke7 52. Ke5 Kd8 53. Kf6 Kc7 54. e7 Kd7 55. Kf7 Kc7 56. e8=Q Kb6 57. Qd8+ Kb7 58. Kf6 a6 59. b6 a5 60. Qc7+ Ka6 61. Qa7#) 43... g5 {this is just a distraction, and now the g-pawn will also become a target.} 44. h3 h4 45. g4 {maintaining the opposition for White and forcing Black's king to give way.} Kd6 46. Kf5 a5 47. bxa6 Kc7 48. Ke5 {keeping the win simple.} Kb6 49. Kd5 Kxa6 50. Kxc5 (50. e4 Kb6 51. e5 Kb7 52. Kxc5 Kc7 53. e6 Kc8 54. Kd6 Kd8 55. c5 Ke8 56. c6 Kf8 57. e7+ Kg7 58. c7 Kh7 59. c8=Q Kg7 60. e8=Q Kh7 61. Qh5+ Kg7 62. Qch8#) 50... Kb7 51. e4 Kc7 52. Kd5 {and my opponent resigned.} (52. Kd5 Kd7 53. e5 Ke7 54. e6 Ke8 55. Kd6 Kd8 56. e7+ Ke8 57. c5 Kf7 58. c6 Ke8 59. c7 Kf7 60. c8=Q Kg7 61. Qf5 Kg8 62. e8=Q+ Kg7 63. Qef8#) 1-0

09 June 2018

Chess vs. Tennis - breaking through and momentum

The come-from-behind victory of Simona Halep in the 2018 French Open, which I just watched, reminded me of the Chess vs. Tennis lessons, as well as of course Andy Murray's breakthrough Grand Slam, after a huge amount of psychological pressure (both external and internal) to win.  The most important factor in Halep's victory was her being able to change the momentum of the game, which was all in her opponent's favor until partway into the second set (i.e. about halfway through the match).

Chessplayers experience very similar effects from momentum during an individual game, or over the course of a match.  The psychological impression of being under pressure, especially feeling that you are worse off and having to fight from an inferior position, can negatively effect your thinking and cause you to miss opportunities to equalize or even gain an advantage over your opponent.  On the other hand, it can also make us dig deep for strength and focus and lead to better play, eventually turning the tables on our opponent (as happened in Halep's match).

The best practical treatment of this phenomenon I've seen is in The Road to Chess Improvement by GM Alex Yermolinsky.  From the section on "Trend-Breaking Tools":
...Imagine a familiar scenario: your position is worse; moreover you feel that the trend is unfavourable.  You can't just sit around and wait, making normal, solid moves and watching your decline to continue - you may as well resign. This is what many chessplayers do - they mentally resign when things don't go their way.
Yermolinsky then goes on to offer several observations about how the momentum can shift, starting with a stubborn defence, assuming that the position is not in fact lost.  He says
...You may hate yourself for defending passively for many moves, but look at a bright side: your opponent knows he's better and he feels obliged to win - isn't that a pressure? ...Most of your opponents would be content with keeping their advantage in a secret hope that you'd go mad and self-destruct. If you simply can avoid that by just staying put, you'd be gaining some psychological edge even when your position is not improving.
He offers up a lot more besides this, but I'll let you see for yourself; the book is one of the best I've read on chess improvement.

Remember, if you can weather the storm and then start playing at the top of your own game, it can end with a victory...no matter the pressure.

Halep celebrates winning the French Open

05 June 2018

Annotated Game #189: Unnecessarily complicated

This next tournament game has the recurring theme of unnecessarily complicated moves by White (me).  At several points, I see tactical or other ideas which are slightly worse than the simple approach to the position, and choose to go with them.  This doesn't lose the game for me - an underdeveloped sense of danger about Black's advanced passed b-pawn does that - but it certainly contributes to setting up the conditions for the game-losing blunder.  Some useful lessons in there.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class A"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A22"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "84"] [EventType "game"] {[%mdl 8256] A22: English Opening: 1...e5 2 Nc3 Nf6} 1. c4 d6 2. Nf3 {this is actually not played very often and has a relatively weak score (51 percent) in the database. Black's last move strengthened e5, so Nf3 is less effective than the alternatives.} (2. Nc3) (2. g3) 2... e5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. d3 Be7 5. g3 O-O 6. Bg2 c6 {Black now has a rather effective version of an Old Indian Defense setup in place.} 7. O-O h6 {a classic restraining move, preventing ideas of White using g5.} 8. Rb1 a5 {restraining the idea of the b-pawn advance.} 9. a3 {White insists on the idea.} Re8 10. b4 axb4 11. axb4 Bf8 {part of the point of the earlier ...Re8, clearing f8 for the bishop, also a common idea in the Spanish Game / Ruy Lopez.} 12. b5 {the obvious follow-up for White.} d5 { the correct reaction for Black, who is well-supported in the center.} 13. Qc2 $6 {this does not in fact improve White's prospects any, so it would be better to go ahead and resolve the pawn tension.} (13. bxc6 bxc6 14. d4 Bf5 $11) 13... Qe7 {this queen move similarly does not do much for Black, although the idea of lining up on the e-file is clear.} (13... d4 $5 {is an interesting alternative, notes Komodo via the Fritz interface.} 14. Nd1 cxb5 15. Rxb5 Nc6 $15) 14. bxc6 $11 bxc6 15. Nxe5 {an unnecessarily complicated tactical idea.} ( 15. cxd5 Nxd5 16. Bd2 {and White has a comfortable game.}) 15... Qxe5 $11 16. Bf4 {regaining the piece via the skewer/double attack on the Nb8.} Qf5 17. e4 { this is slightly inferior and again unnecessarily complicated.} (17. Bxb8 Bd7 18. Bf4 $11 {and now if} dxc4 {which I was worried about due to the pin on the d-pawn,} 19. Ne4 cxd3 20. exd3 $11 {and everything is fine.}) 17... dxe4 18. dxe4 Qe6 19. Rxb8 Rxb8 20. Bxb8 Qxc4 {now the position is imbalanced, with Black having a passed pawn on the queenside. The engine rates it with only a slight edge to Black, but I think it's a harder position for White to play, at least at the Class level.} 21. Rc1 Be6 22. Qb2 Nd7 23. Bf4 g5 24. Nd5 {again with the unnecessarily complicated theme.} (24. Be3) (24. Bf1 $5) 24... Qa4 { White has an active position} (24... Qd3) 25. Ra1 Qb5 {Black chooses to force the queen exchange, as otherwise I would have two minor pieces hanging.} 26. Qxb5 cxb5 27. Nc7 {forcing additional simplification.} Rc8 28. Nxe6 fxe6 { my position has now improved strategically, with the two bishops and Black's pawns less able to protect each other, which should make it easier for me to play, although technically the game is still balanced.} 29. Be3 b4 30. Ra7 { active rook placement on the 7th rank.} Nc5 31. f4 $4 {the game-losing blunder. I neglect the concrete threat Black's advanced b-pawn is capable of making, which could be easily contained.} (31. Ra5 $11) (31. Bh3 {is also good, restraining b4-b3 due to the bishop's pressuring of e6.}) 31... gxf4 $19 32. gxf4 b3 33. Bd4 Rb8 {and now material loss is inevitable for White.} 34. Ra1 Rb4 35. Bc3 (35. Bxc5 Bxc5+ 36. Kf1 b2 37. Rb1 Bd6 $19) 35... Rc4 36. Be5 Nd3 37. Bf1 (37. Bh3 {is not the saving move} Bc5+ 38. Kg2 Kf7 $19) 37... Nxe5 $1 { well done by Black, giving up the rook for a winning position.} 38. Bxc4 (38. fxe5 b2 39. Rb1 Bc5+ 40. Kh1 (40. Kg2 Rc2+ 41. Kg3 Bd4 $19) 40... Rc1 $19) 38... Nxc4 39. Ra8 {just desperation at this point.} (39. Rb1 {there is nothing else anyway} Bc5+ 40. Kg2 b2 {and after ...Bd4 and ...Nd2 I'm lost.}) 39... Kf7 40. Ra7+ Kg6 41. Kf2 $2 {a blunder, but it just hastens the inevitable.} Bc5+ 42. Ke2 Bxa7 0-1

29 May 2018

How Carlsen makes us feel better about chess IV

What phase of your career do you feel you are in?
'I don't know. I feel that I have been in the game for a long time already and I think if you do the right things, you can be good for a very long time. I feel that I am closer to the start than to the end of my prime. I enjoy playing and I still have so much to work on. It's very obvious to me that I can still be much better, and from tournament to tournament I am trying to learn something new about chess or about myself. But it's not easy. I've got to be better now. I had a few poor tournaments last year. Then I felt like I turned myself around, but now I need to take the next steps. I cannot remain stuck at the level I am at now...not only as regards chess, but as regards the combination of chess and psychology'

 (From New in Chess 2016-4, interview with Magnus Carlsen after winning Altibox Norway Chess for the first time)

28 May 2018

Annotated Game #188: Simul vs. WIM Sabrina Chevannes

This next game is from a simul played against WIM Sabrina Chevannes at a chess festival.  I was pleased to see the London System on the board from my opponent, as I've had good results against it.  I handle the initial opening phase well (through move 7), first avoiding, but then running into a similar problem with White penetration of the queenside as occurred in Annotated Game #183.   Here the opening variation isn't really the problem, as the queen exchange for Black is fine (unlike in the linked game), but rather recognizing White's opportunity to target the c6-pawn from the side with the rook on the a-file.  Luckily my opponent missed this (rather unusual) opportunity as well and the game continued.  Other lessons learned from the analysis were the power of the ...e5 break for Black and the need to evaluate better the impacts of key piece exchanges.  In the end, I correctly trade off my passed central pawn for one of White's queenside pawns in the endgame and reach a drawn position, which I was happy to take.

[Event "Simul"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Chevannes, Sabrina"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "D10"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "66"] [EventDate "2015.03.17"] [EventType "simul"] [EventRounds "2"] {D10: Slav Defence: cxd5 (without early Nf3) and 3 Nc3} 1. d4 d5 2. Bf4 { an early entry into the London System, although now Bf4 is considered better than the originally less committal Nf3 in the opening structure. ChessBase considers the opening a Slav Defense (ECO D10).} Nf6 3. e3 Bf5 {I like playing this because of the symmetry and increased control of e4, and find it easier to play as opposed to developing the bishop on the queenside.} (3... e6 { is the most popular move in the database, no doubt because of all the Queen's Gambit Declined players.}) 4. c4 c6 {we now have a traditional Slav structure for Black, versus a non-traditional White setup.} 5. Qb3 {White immediately hits the queenside, as removing the protector of b7 is the main drawback of the previous move.} Qb6 {played in the vast majority of games. Black is not afraid to swap queens.} 6. c5 {this space-gaining push is a natural reaction and the most played. The trade-off for White is that it eliminates tension in the center.} Qxb3 7. axb3 {in exchange for the doubled pawns, which are not much of a weakness since I can't target them easily, White has the semi-open a-file. However, this is not as much of an issue as in some other Slav variations, since White also has trouble directly exploiting it.} Nbd7 8. Nc3 e6 {this is too conservative. I should have recognized the ...e5 pawn break possibility, although in this case it requires some assistance from the Nf6 and creative play; the break is a normal reaction to White's earlier c4-c5 push, which leaves the black pawn on d5 secure.} (8... e5 $5 {this works because of the Nf6's mobility and the fact that the c5 pawn depends on the d4 pawn for protection. The fact that we are already in an endgame-like position also means that Black has less to worry about regarding king protection.} 9. dxe5 Nh5 10. b4 Nxf4 11. exf4 g5 {offering a wing pawn for a central one, a good deal for Black.} 12. g3 gxf4 13. gxf4 f6 14. exf6 Nxf6 $11 {and Black has full compensation for the pawn, given better piece activity and the obviously weak White kingside pawns.}) (8... a6 {is also commonly played in this position, with good results for Black (56 percent). One example:} 9. b4 Rc8 10. Be2 h6 11. h3 g5 12. Bh2 Bg7 13. Nf3 O-O 14. O-O Ne4 15. Nxe4 Bxe4 16. Nd2 Bg6 17. Nb3 e5 18. dxe5 Bxe5 19. Bxe5 Nxe5 20. f4 Bd3 21. fxe5 Bxe2 22. Rf6 Rce8 23. Nd4 Bd3 24. Rd1 Be4 25. e6 fxe6 26. Rxh6 e5 27. Ne6 Rf5 28. Rf1 d4 29. exd4 Rxf1+ 30. Kxf1 Bd5 31. Nxg5 exd4 32. Rh4 d3 33. Rd4 Re2 34. Rxd3 Rxb2 35. Rg3 Rxb4 36. Ne4+ Kf8 37. Nd6 a5 38. Ra3 a4 39. g4 Ke7 40. Ke2 b5 41. g5 Rb2+ 42. Ke3 Rb1 43. Nf5+ Ke6 44. Nd4+ Ke5 {0-1 (44) Teglas,B (2172)-Deak,F (2259) Hungary 2009}) 9. b4 {proactively reinforcing c5 and preventing a7-a5.} b5 $2 { this is exactly what Black should not do in this position, giving White an inroad on the queenside; luckily, my opponent did not recognize the opportunity.} (9... Nh5 10. Bc7 Rc8 11. Be5 a6 $14) 10. cxb6 $6 (10. Ra6 $1 $18 {targeting the now-vulnerable c-pawn is winning for White.}) 10... Nxb6 $14 { obviously this is what I had intended on move 9. The c-pawn is now backward, but White has issues with her b-pawns being weak as well.} 11. b5 c5 { naturally not exchanging on b5, which would give White a great post for a minor piece and open up the c-file.} 12. Nf3 Nfd7 13. Ne5 Nxe5 $6 {despite my previous move, which was aimed at reinforcing both c5 and e5, this piece exchange is not a good follow-up. Afterwards White's minor pieces are improved in relative terms versus mine.} (13... cxd4 14. exd4 Bd6 {the key idea in this line. Now another piece is developed and White's hold on the center is challenged.} 15. Nxd7 Kxd7 16. Bxd6 Kxd6 17. Be2 $11) 14. Bxe5 $16 {Komodo likes White's position better, with the central Be5 a significant constraint on my play, including pressuring g7 and preventing my bishop from being developed to its best diagonal on d6.} Kd7 {mobilizing the king with the reduced material on the board is now more important than seeking to castle. There is also no good way to protect the g-pawn without giving White further advantage in space and development on the queenside.} 15. Be2 {not the most challenging move.} (15. dxc5 Bxc5 16. Bxg7 Rhg8 $16) 15... f6 $14 {taking care of the threat to g7.} 16. Bg3 cxd4 17. exd4 Bd6 18. Bxd6 Kxd6 $14 {my opponent apparently felt that safe exchanges and a slight plus were a better route to victory. White maintains some slight advantages on the queenside, but no longer has urgent threats, so I felt much better about my position.} 19. g4 { a rather direct approach which does not gain White anything.} Bg6 20. f4 e5 { this time, I recognize the value of the pawn break. The next sequence is essentially forced.} 21. dxe5+ fxe5 22. fxe5+ (22. f5 Bf7 {is fine for Black, with two connected passed pawns in the center offsetting White's kingside majority.}) 22... Kxe5 $11 {and now Black has a new passed pawn on d5. White will have to pay attention to neutralizing it, rather than advancing her own plans.} 23. Bf3 Be4 $6 {an unnecessary exchange that potentially weakens the central pawn's position.} (23... d4 $5 {is the more aggressive choice:} 24. Bxa8 dxc3 25. bxc3 Rxa8 26. O-O $11) (23... Raf8 $11) 24. Nxe4 $6 {following the general rule of exchanging knights for bishops, but here it helps me.} (24. Bxe4 $5 {is the better choice.} dxe4 25. O-O $16) 24... dxe4 $15 25. Bg2 Nc4 { making an obvious threat, but not a significant one.} (25... Rhf8 $5 {is actually the key move, mobilizing the rook and preparing ...Rf4.} 26. Rf1 Rxf1+ 27. Bxf1 Kf4 $15) 26. Ra4 {now White is more active again and I am on the defensive.} Nd6 27. O-O Rhb8 $6 (27... g6 {is necessary to reduce 7th rank threats from White's rook on the f-file.}) 28. Re1 {White evidently does not see the following sequence, a good example of CCT in action:} (28. Bxe4 $5 { the pawn is protected twice and attacked twice, but} Nxe4 29. Rf5+ Kd6 30. Rd4+ Ke6 31. Rxe4+ Kd6 32. Rd4+ Ke6 33. b4 $14 {with pressure, although the doubled extra b-pawn may not be decisive.}) 28... Rxb5 $11 {the correct choice, to reach a completely level position where White has no more real threats.} 29. Bxe4 Nxe4 30. Rexe4+ Kf6 31. b4 Rab8 32. h4 g5 33. Ra6+ R5b6 1/2-1/2

22 May 2018

Why Aronian Plays the English

In recent times I have taken a liking to this move. After all, in the main openings too much is already known, and contortions such as 1.d4 and, after any move, 2. Bf4 do not yet attract me. It only remains to rely on the openings of my early youth - the English and the Reti.
-- GM Levon Aronian, New In Chess 2016 #4

(From the introduction to Aronian's annotations to Aronian-Carlsen, Stavanger 2016 round 8)

[Event "Norway Chess 4th"] [Site "Stavanger"] [Date "2016.04.28"] [Round "8"] [White "Aronian, Levon"] [Black "Carlsen, Magnus"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A11"] [WhiteElo "2784"] [BlackElo "2851"] [PlyCount "61"] [EventDate "2016.04.19"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "9"] [EventCountry "NOR"] [EventCategory "21"] [SourceTitle "CBM 172"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2016.05.12"] [SourceVersion "1"] [SourceVersionDate "2016.05.12"] [SourceQuality "1"] 1. c4 Nf6 2. g3 c6 3. Bg2 d5 4. Nf3 g6 5. b3 Bg7 6. Bb2 O-O 7. O-O dxc4 8. bxc4 c5 9. d3 Nc6 10. Ne5 Na5 11. Qc1 Qc7 12. Nd2 Ne8 13. f4 Nd6 14. Bc3 Rb8 15. Qa3 b6 16. Bxa5 bxa5 17. Nb3 Nb7 18. Bxb7 Qxb7 19. Nxc5 Qc7 20. d4 Rd8 21. Rfd1 f6 22. Nf3 e5 23. fxe5 fxe5 24. Nxe5 Bxe5 25. dxe5 Rxd1+ 26. Rxd1 Qxe5 27. Rd8+ Kf7 28. Qf3+ Bf5 29. Rxb8 Qxb8 30. g4 Qb4 31. Nd3 1-0

20 May 2018

Annotated Game #187: Taking on the "Sniper" with a reloader tactic

(Note: this replaces a previous, duplicated Annotated Game #187)

In the following tournament game, my opponent uses the "Sniper" formation, which was popularized first in a 2011 book then a 2017 ChessBase DVD by FM Charlie Storey.  You can read in more depth about it in the previous links, but basically the idea is to have a system as Black with ...g6, ...Bg7 and ...c5 to meet all of White's options.  Since this formation is a component of some more mainline opening systems, it's not an entirely untrodden path in the opening, although it is an original approach.

Against the English Opening, I don't think the "Sniper" has as much bite, primarily because the key ...c5 pawn move for Black isn't as challenging when White does not yet have a pawn center built up.  Here we get into a Symmetrical English, which is not really what Sniper players are looking to do, and as White by move 9 I feel I have a comfortable, active game.

The turning point of the game is a "reloader" tactic that I spotted the potential for, involving a sacrificial knight fork on g5 that gains me a pawn and a lasting advantage, although I give it back temporarily before my opponent gets too greedy with pawn-grabbing and neglects his king position, allowing me to break through with tactics involving forks, pins and sacrifices.
[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class B"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A34"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 10"] [PlyCount "65"] [EventType "simul"] [EventRounds "6"] 1. c4 g6 2. Nf3 Bg7 3. Nc3 c5 {known as the "Sniper" formation. Without a pawn on d4, however, it does not have independent importance.} 4. g3 Nf6 5. Bg2 { now we're in more familiar Symmetrical English territory.} O-O 6. O-O d5 { a more aggressive continuation than maintaining symmetry with ...Nc6. I am fine with exchanging the central pawn and opening the h1-a8 diagonal, however.} 7. cxd5 Nxd5 8. Qb3 {the second most popular continuation in the database. I liked the idea of hitting b7 and getting my queen on a good diagonal early.} ( 8. Nxd5 {is more popular, for example in this game by Kramnik:} Qxd5 9. d3 Nc6 10. Be3 Bxb2 11. Rb1 Bg7 12. Qa4 Qd7 13. Bxc5 b6 14. Be3 Nd4 15. Qd1 Bb7 16. Nxd4 Bxg2 17. Kxg2 Bxd4 18. Bxd4 Qxd4 19. Qb3 Rac8 20. Rfc1 Rc5 21. e3 Qd6 22. d4 Ra5 23. Rc2 e5 24. Rd1 Rd8 25. Rcd2 Qd5+ 26. Qxd5 {1/2-1/2 (26) Kramnik,V (2801)-Grischuk,A (2761) Moscow 2012}) 8... Nb6 9. d3 {needed to release the bishop. The d4 square is dominated by Black, but I nonetheless have comfortable development.} Be6 {taking the diagonal for his own, but in the process blocking any idea of advancing the e-pawn.} 10. Qc2 h6 {taking the g5 square away from the Nf3 (and the Bc1). However, Black is starting to get behind in development.} 11. Be3 {developing and targeting the c-pawn, which is isolated from its natural support (the b-pawn) by the Nb6.} Qc8 12. Rfd1 { here I thought for a while, as I saw no obvious plan for White. The rooks seemed to be to be well placed on the d- and c-files, so I decided to continue development that way.} Rd8 {in order to oppose the idea of my advancing the d-pawn.} 13. Rac1 $14 {by this point Komodo gives White a small plus. I have all of my pieces developed, while Black's queenside remains partially undeveloped. The c-pawn also remains a target, which my opponent recognizes with his next move.} Na6 14. a3 {making sure the Na6 does not come into b4, and also removing the a-pawn from the Be6's pressure.} Bh3 15. Bh1 {the engine ranks higher pretty much any alternative to this move, which preserves the bishop. At the time, I felt that its influence over the long diagonal was worth maintaining.} (15. Ne4 Bxg2 16. Kxg2 Nd5 17. Bxc5 {doesn't get White very much after} f5 18. Ned2 Qxc5 19. Qxc5 Nxc5 20. Rxc5 Bxb2 21. Nc4 Bf6) (15. Bxh3 Qxh3 16. Qb3 $14 {and now White has more play on the light squares with the Black bishop's absence, although it hardly seems decisive.}) 15... Qd7 16. Qd2 {threatening h6.} Kh7 {this obvious-looking move turns out to be a problem for Black.} (16... g5 $5) 17. Ne4 {this attacks both c5 and g5, with potential tacticsr on both squares. My opponent did not see the threat on g5, however.} Qb5 $2 {neglecting protection of the now-hanging Bh3.} (17... Be6 {appears to be the best option, as it's not so simple for White to take on c5.} 18. Nxc5 Nxc5 19. Rxc5 Na4 20. Ra5 Nxb2 21. Rc1 {although now despite the material equality there is still a plus for White because of the a-pawn weakness, Black's more awkward piece placement, and the Bh1's influence. For example} b6 22. Ne5 Qe8 23. Bxa8 bxa5 24. Bc6 Qh8 25. Qxb2 Bxe5 26. Qb5 $14) 18. Nfg5+ { a genuine "reloader" tactic! The knight fork on g5 is repeated.} hxg5 19. Nxg5+ Kg8 20. Nxh3 $16 {now I am a clear pawn up with no compensation for Black. I also am eyeing Black's weakened king position.} Nd5 {making my next move choice with the Be3 that much easier.} 21. Bh6 Qxb2 22. Qg5 $6 {here I was disappointed that my opponent had found a way to regain the pawn, and I overlooked how to continue with an advantage.} (22. Qxb2 Bxb2 23. Rb1 Bxa3 24. Rxb7 $16 {preserves the advantage, although it's not immediately obvious to a Class player (i.e. me) during the visualization/calculation process. The immediate threat is Ra1, winning a piece as both the Na6 and Ba3 are hanging. Black can avoid this, but the a7 pawn is also underprotected. Play could continue} Nab4 {(also protecting against Bxd5 followed by Rxe7)} 25. Bxd5 Nxd5 26. Ra1 Bb4 27. Raxa7 $16 {and I'm back to being a clear pawn up.}) 22... Bf6 $11 23. Qg4 Qxa3 $2 {this is simply greedy and gives me back the initiative and an advantage.} (23... Nc3 $11) 24. Be4 $1 {threatening to sacrifice on g6.} Kh7 $2 (24... Bg7 25. Bxg7 Kxg7 26. Nf4 $16 {and the attack continues.}) (24... Qa4 {pinning the Be4 seems to be the best practical chance for Black.} 25. Nf4 Nxf4 26. Bxf4 $16) 25. Qh5 {after a good deal of thought, this seemed to me to be the best follow-up, taking advantage of the pinned g6 pawn. Komodo agrees.} Rh8 26. Qxd5 Kxh6 27. Qxf7 $18 {material is equal but Black's king is under heavy pressure.} Rag8 28. Nf4 (28. Qe6 {is the idea behind a quicker route to victory by repositioning the queen.}) 28... Rg7 29. Qd5 b6 $6 {protects against the pawn snatching threat, but neglects the king.} 30. Bxg6 $1 e5 { a nice try on defense, blocking the route to h5, but the queen can reposition to again threaten the square.} 31. Qf3 Rxg6 32. Qh5+ Kg7 33. Qxg6+ 1-0

19 May 2018

FT: Boxer Wladimir Klitschko - 'Chess is war with an army'

As I've highlighted on this blog several times in the past, the Financial Times (FT) periodically publishes thoughtful chess-themed articles and interviews, the most recent one being with heavyweight champion boxer Wladimir Klitschko.  The chess itself isn't the really interesting part, although Klitschko knows both Kramnik and Kasparov; rather, it's how Klitschko has incorporated it into his life and his outlook on competition and winning.  Here are a couple of the more interesting points from the article for me; the full interview (linked above) is well worth reading.
According to my opponent, there are some unlikely parallels between top-level boxers and chess players. His friend Kramnik told him that grandmasters “lose an incredible amount of weight during a tournament”. “Some tournaments,” Klitschko says, “are long. It shows how much energy and calories your brain can burn. They lose like, if I’m not wrong, during the two weeks or week and a half, up to 20kg. If they go to sleep, they cannot really turn off their mind. It’s just constantly doing combinations and combinations and combinations.”
In his book, he says that before any fight, he visualised the fighting style of his opponents while also imagining victory. He believes the same approach can work in any negotiation. “Internalise your winning pose,” writes Klitschko. “Save similar motivational pictures on your smartphone and have a look at them if you have doubts.”
The champ appears genuinely elated and takes a photograph of the final board to send to Kramnik. “It’s an exciting game because it’s a war with an army,” he says of chess. “It’s a lot of co-ordination, a lot of focus, a lot of endurance. You have to be really agile in everything you do. It actually fits well into sporting life, into business life, into private life, into anything. It just matches with my genes.” 

17 March 2018

Resuming training and posting in May

Although I'll check in from time to time, I expect that I'll be mostly offline here until late May, due to other pressing demands on my time.  I'll look forward to getting back to chess, for sure.

In the meantime, something to consider...

How to come back from the chess vacation?

11 March 2018

Eight rules to do everything better (in chess)

While this blog is devoted to chess training, I think it's important to look at major principles that apply to any mastery effort.  The below categories are taken from "8 Rules to Do Everything Better" by Brad Stulberg - worth reading on Medium for the author's original take on the ideas - and listed along with some personal comments on their applicability to improvement in chess performance.

1. Stress + Rest = Growth.  For me, this is a good principle to help calibrate the amount of serious competitive play (stress) that results in advancement in playing strength.  One weekend tournament / month equivalent seems to be best for me; others may have different optimal paces depending on their energy level and needed recuperation time.

2. Focus on the Process, Not Results.  The fear and loathing that results from focusing primarily on your rating I think holds a lot of people back.  This is a recurring theme, I've even recently seen some (non-joking) commentary that to "win" your personal ratings competition (against whomever you've chosen as your rival, I guess) it's best just to quit playing when you're ahead.

3. Stay Humble.  See above.  Also, one of the main points routinely made by chess improvement coaches like IM Silman and NM Heisman is that you will lose a lot if you play a lot, so it's inevitable.  Realizing this will help you extract the best lessons possible from losses and not view them as devastating blows to your ego.

4. Build Your Tribe.  While it's not always possible to have a "buddy system" for training, one of the big accelerating factors for improvement is doing your chosen activity with: a) other motivated people, and b) having at least one master-level person to help show you the way.  Nowadays this can more easily be done online, if you don't have a local club.

5. Take Small, Consistent Steps to Achieve Big Gains.  Like with many complex activities, it's unlikely you'll have linear progression.  Rather, you work hard at tasks that push your boundaries and may plateau for a while, but then your brain "gets it" and you achieve mastery of an additional idea or particular skill.  Chess has a lot of these types of positional, tactical and strategic skills to be mastered over time.

6. Be a Minimalist to be a Maximalist.  Basically if you want to focus on improving your chess performance and put in the necessary time, you will have to forego other activities that compete with it on your personal schedule.  Where you draw the line is up to you, but you can't have five serious hobbies and expect to make significant progress at them all, for example.

7. Make the Hard Thing Easier.  This is about building positive habits, and/or doing small but important things to eliminate distractions.  Keep the tactics book out where you can always see it and thereby have it remind you of the 15 minutes a day you've committed to working problems, or have the tactics exercises site you use be your browser homepage.  Put the TV remote control away every time after you watch something, rather than leaving it conveniently at hand, or make yourself login to Netflix (or whatever) every time rather than it loading automatically.

8. Remember to Experience Joy.  If you don't do this in the long run, why are you even pursuing the path to chess mastery?  If you hit a stretch where it's not fun at all anymore, remember #1 above and reduce the stress.

06 February 2018

Book completed: The Stress of Chess ... and its Infinite Finesse

I recently finished GM Walter Browne's The Stress of Chess ... and its Infinite Finesse ("My Life, Career and 101 Best Games"), which is his annotated games collection.  You can see previous posts here related to GM Browne, including Annotated Game #1 (simul played in Las Vegas), Training quote of the day #12Insights from GM Walter Browne and GM Walter Browne: 1949-2015.

For chess improvement purposes, it's a great collection and perfect for using to go through a game during your lunchtime at work, which is how I worked through the book (and why it took so long to complete).  I think it's useful for both your chess skill and overall brain health to have some quality chess study time, even if no more than 15-20 minutes, to break up the work day and get your mind thinking about something completely different. (Unless of course you're a chess professional, in which case for your brain health I'd recommend focusing on an activity that had nothing to do with it at all).  I did the same thing with GM David Bronstein's Zurich International Chess Tournament, 1953 and will look for similar types of game collections in the future.

I found Browne's annotations to be relatively short and succinct in words, yet always valuable and relevant.  For chess improvers, another major benefit of going through a collection of a player's own annotated games is that you gain unique insight into their thought and decision-making process.  Browne includes a lot of these types of observations and it's highly educational to see a top-level GM (which he was at his peak) provide casually sophisticated evaluations of positions and share the considerations he took into account when making choices on how to proceed at key points.  As usually occurs when reading others' annotated games, sometimes you have to put some work into figuring out why a particular move is played (or not played) when it isn't explicitly explained or a variation given, but that's part of the value of engaging in effortful study - to grow in understanding by figuring things out for yourself.  Also, as with almost any games collection, there are at least occasionally a few typos and such in the notation that force you to puzzle out the real continuation, but the editorial quality is high enough that these are no more than a very infrequent and temporary distraction.

Browne's career was interesting in its ups and occasional downs, and spanned a long period of time in American chess.  His personal observations about tournaments, opponents, particular controversies and so on are probably of more interest to those with some previous acquaintance with them, or just curious about tournament experiences in general.  I don't think anything would be lost from a chess training perspective by skipping his sometimes encyclopedic accounts of his chess career, although there are some particularly entertaining stories from the decade where he competed the most internationally (roughly from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s).  For those into the poker scene, he also towards the end of his book (and career) recounts some of his professional poker tournament experiences and has some interesting insights in that regard as well.

27 January 2018

Annotated Game #186: All rook endgames *should* be drawn

This last-round tournament game is another illustration of why persistence and active play can pay off (even if it does not actually, in this case).  Some relative weak opening play in an unfamiliar position leads to a failure to falsify a key move, which lands me significant material down.  Deciding that there was at least some hope for a kingside attack and pressure in compensation, I continue playing and the initiative shifts to me, despite being objectively lost.  Eventually my opponent can't take any more pressure and simplifies to what should be a drawn rook endgame...which isn't, however, in the end.  A good lesson on weak pawns, rook activity and other elements of rook endgames...which apparently all really should be drawn.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class A"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A25"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "184"] {[%mdl 8192] A25: English Opening vs King's Indian with ...Nc6 but without early d3} 1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. g3 Nf6 4. Bg2 Bb4 {the second most common move in the position, according to the database. The bishop needs to be developed, but this doesn't have as much bite as when the d-pawn has already advanced, since there's no pin on the Nc3.} 5. Nd5 {the standard reaction.} Nxd5 6. cxd5 Ne7 7. a3 (7. Nf3 {is played most here and scores quite well, over 72 percent.}) 7... Bc5 8. b4 Bb6 9. e3 {I'm playing a lot of pawn moves here and neglecting development. The idea is to bring the knight out via e2 rather than f3, to avoid it being harrassed by the e-pawn. It's rather slow, however.} (9. Bb2) 9... d6 10. Ne2 O-O 11. Bb2 Bg4 12. Qb3 $146 {inviting the minor piece trade on e2, which I think would be better for me. The king would be safe and my light-square bishop would then be unopposed.} (12. d4 {is the move that is begging to be played here.} f6 13. h3 Bf5 14. e4 Bg6 15. O-O Rc8 16. Kh2 Re8 17. f4 c6 18. dxe5 fxe5 19. fxe5 cxd5 20. exd6 Qxd6 21. Nf4 Bf7 22. e5 Qd7 23. Qb3 g5 24. e6 Bxe6 25. Nxe6 Qxe6 26. Rae1 Qd6 {Butala,M (2246) -Banic,S Ljubljana 2001 1-0}) (12. h3 $5 {also looks fine.}) 12... Qd7 { obviously aimed at exchanging off the Bg2 and taking advantage of the resulting light-square weakness on the kingside.} 13. h3 Bh5 (13... Bxe2 14. Kxe2 f5 15. f4 $11) 14. f4 $6 {this is not terrible, but not ideal either. It weakens the king position and now the exchange on e2 is better for Black.} (14. g4 Bg6 15. f4 $11 {is an improved version of the idea. My knight would be happy to go to f4 after an exchange.}) 14... Bxe2 15. Kxe2 f6 {blunting future potential threats on the long diagonal.} 16. Raf1 $6 {here I completely miss Black's imminent threats. The g3 square is now unprotected, thanks to the f-pawn advance.} Nf5 {with a simple fork threat that I handle terribly.} 17. Rf3 $4 (17. Kf2 {I'm uncomfortable here and will have to focus on defense, but the engine considers the position equal.} Rae8 18. Re1 $11) 17... e4 $19 { what explains not seeing this response to my last move? Probably over-focusing on the tension between the e5 and f4 pawns and looking at the exchange possibilities there. Also not seriously focusing on my opponent's possibilities in order to falsify my move.} 18. Rf2 Nxg3+ 19. Ke1 Nxh1 20. Bxh1 {although an exchange and a pawn down, I decide to fight on. Black's kingside is looking a little open now and I thought my only chance would be to try to attack.} Rae8 21. Rh2 (21. f5 $19 {is the engine's improvement, preventing Black from occupying the f5 square and seizing more space. The square f4 is also now available for a rook transfer.}) 21... Qb5 22. Qd1 $2 {another bit of territory lost, notes Komodo via the Fritz interface.} (22. a4 {would be an opportunity to regain some material.} Qd3 23. Qxd3 exd3 24. a5 Bxe3 25. dxe3 Rxe3+ 26. Kd2 $17) 22... Qxd5 23. Qg4 Qe6 {by this point I really am lost.} 24. f5 {another desperate move, to prevent a queen exchange.} Qf7 {here my opponent starts losing the thread, playing very conservatively instead of putting the final nail in my coffin.} (24... Qa2 $5 25. Rg2 Qb1+ 26. Kf2 Re7 $19) 25. Bxe4 {A bit of material back and a psychological victory, even if it doesn't change the objective evaluation.} d5 (25... Qb3 {my opponent still does not see the strength of this penetration idea with the queen.} 26. Rg2 Re7 $19) 26. Bd3 c6 27. Rg2 Bc7 28. Bd4 b6 29. h4 {although I'm still losing badly, at least it's nice to have some initiative. Watching the h-pawn grind towards him made my opponent react sub-optimally.} h5 {this stops the forward motion of my h-pawn, but also leaves the h5 pawn without much support.} 30. Qf3 Be5 { the best move, exchanging off one of my good pieces and getting closer to an easily won endgame.} 31. Bxe5 Rxe5 32. Rg6 {blocking the h5 pawn's protection.} Qe7 {a direct approach, doubling on the e-file, but not the best.} (32... c5 $5 $19 {would get Black's pawns rolling and support d5-d4.}) 33. Qxh5 Rf7 { my opponent continues to react conservatively to my threats, giving me a bit of hope.} 34. Qg4 Re4 $2 {my opponent decides to simplify rather than endure further kingside pressure. Komodo now evaluates the position as equal.} (34... c5 {is still a good option.} 35. h5 c4 $19 {and now ...c3 is threatened, undermining support for e3.}) 35. Bxe4 $11 Qxe4 36. Qxe4 dxe4 {we now have a rook endgame that is perfectly fine for me.} 37. Rg4 {conservative play.} (37. h5 $5 {the engine identifies the correct plan, which is to exchange off the weak h-pawn. It doesn't have to be done immediately, but there's no reason to wait. Unfortunately, I did not identify this as a strategic need.} Kh7 38. Kf2 Rd7 39. h6 Rxd2+ 40. Kg3 gxh6 41. Rxf6 h5 42. Re6 $14) 37... Re7 38. Ke2 Re5 39. Rf4 Kh7 40. d4 (40. Rg4 {was probably the best route to a draw, just shuffling the rook.} Kh6 (40... Rxf5 41. Rxe4 $11) 41. Rg6+ Kh7 (41... Kh5 $6 42. Rxg7 $14) 42. Rg4) 40... exd3+ 41. Kxd3 {while the engine still rates it as equal, my job is now more difficult, with more open lines in the center and a backward e-pawn.} Rd5+ 42. Ke2 {I pick the wrong side, concerned about my weak pawns. Now Black can more easily activate his queenside majority.} (42. Kc3) 42... c5 43. e4 (43. b5 Kh6 $11) 43... Rd4 44. Ke3 Rd1 {things are still equal, if uncomfortable for me. Black has the iniative.} 45. bxc5 {not an objectively bad move, but it gives me considerably fewer options to combat Black's queenside threats.} (45. Ke2 $5 {is much more flexible, harrassing Black's rook and allowing my rook space on the third rank.}) 45... bxc5 46. Ke2 $6 (46. Rf3 {is the only move that holds equality and is not obvious to find.}) 46... Rd4 $15 47. h5 {now I start crumbling, not having any better ideas.} (47. Ke3 {this is supposedly better according to the engine, but it still looks difficult.} Ra4 48. Rf2 Rxa3+ 49. Kf4 $15) 47... Rc4 (47... a5 $17) 48. Rf3 $2 (48. Kd3 {and White could well hope to play on, comments Komod.} Rd4+ (48... Ra4 49. Rg4 Rxa3+ 50. Kc4 $11 {Black will not be able to make progress on the queenside with separated pawns and the rook in front, versus my king close at hand.}) 49. Kc2 $11) 48... Rxe4+ $19 {now all of my pawns are weak, vulnerable and isolated. Black has a winning game now.} 49. Kf2 Rh4 50. Kg3 Rxh5 51. Kg4 Rg5+ 52. Kf4 g6 53. fxg6+ Kxg6 54. Rc3 Re5 55. Rc4 Rd5 56. Ke3 f5 57. Ra4 { the best chance, with a temporary defense along the fourth rank, but my opponent correctly takes the time to reset his rook position.} Rd7 58. Ra6+ Kg5 59. Rc6 {I figured I needed activity and threats to have any sort of chance to resist.} (59. Ra4 {is safer but still very much losing.}) 59... f4+ 60. Ke2 Re7+ 61. Kf2 Re5 62. Rc8 {with the idea of pursuing an "annoying rook checks" strategy to harrass my opponent.} a5 63. Rg8+ Kf5 64. Ra8 c4 65. Rc8 Re4 66. Rc5+ Re5 {this was an unnecessary concession by my opponent.} (66... Kg4 67. Rc6 (67. Rxa5 f3 $19) 67... Re3 68. Rxc4 Rxa3 $19) 67. Rxc4 {I began to have a bit of hope again now.} Rb5 $6 {this allows the next move with tempo.} (67... Kg4 $5 68. Rc8 a4 $19) (67... Rd5 $5) 68. a4 $17 Rb2+ $2 {now according to the engine, I can draw.} 69. Kf3 {Exerts pressure on the isolated pawn} (69. Ke1 $5 ) 69... Rb3+ 70. Ke2 Re3+ 71. Kf2 Re4 {Black threatens to win material: Re4xc4} 72. Rc5+ {here I thought I had to avoid the rook trade, not having fully calculated out the resulting K+P endgame.} (72. Rxe4 Kxe4 73. Ke2 {will also draw. For example} Kd4 74. Kf3 Kc3 75. Kxf4 Kb4 76. Ke3 Kxa4 77. Kd2 Kb3 78. Kc1 Kc3 79. Kb1 $11) 72... Re5 {Black threatens to win material: Re5xc5} 73. Rc3 $2 {this unnecessarily limits my rook movement and loses to Black's next.} (73. Rxe5+ {works, similar to the above variation.} Kxe5 74. Kf3 $11) (73. Rc1 $11 {and now my rook can check on g1 if Black's king goes to g4.}) 73... Kg4 74. Rc8 Re4 75. Rg8+ Kf5 76. Rf8+ Kg6 77. Kf3 Rxa4 $19 78. Rc8 Kf5 79. Rf8+ $2 Ke5 80. Re8+ Kd5 81. Rd8+ Kc6 82. Rh8 Rd4 83. Rh5 Kb6 84. Rh6+ Kb5 85. Rh5+ Kb4 86. Rh8 a4 87. Rb8+ Ka3 88. Rb7 Rb4 89. Rd7 Kb2 90. Ke2 a3 91. Rd2+ Kb3 92. Rd3+ Ka4 (92... Ka4 93. Rd1 a2 94. Rd8 Ka3 95. Rd3+ Rb3 96. Rd1 f3+ 97. Kf2 Rb1 98. Rd3+ Kb4 99. Rd4+ Kc3 100. Ra4 a1=Q 101. Rxa1 Rxa1 102. Kxf3 Ra4 103. Ke3 Kc2 104. Kf2 Kd2 105. Kf3 Rd4 106. Kg2 Ke3 107. Kg3 Ke2 108. Kg2 Rd3 109. Kh1 Kf2 110. Kh2 Rb3 111. Kh1 Rh3#) 0-1

20 January 2018

Annotated Game #185: Take those free tempi

This next tournament game continues the theme (from Annotated Game #184) of the value of a tempo.  My opponent at various times gives me a free tempo; in particular, 15. Qc1 is a turning point in the game, as I am able to then seize the initiative.  The value of the advantage of active piece placement is then demonstrated a few moves later, as various tactics hang in the air and my opponent misses a key square weakness.

The game also illustrates the strengths of the Caro-Kann Classical as a defense, as Black's setup allows his pieces to spring into action whenever White lets up the pressure; along those lines, see also the classic pawn break suggestion by Komodo on move 17.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Class B"] [Black "ChessAdmin"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B18"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "48"] {[%mdl 8192] B18: Classical Caro-Kann: 4...Bf5 sidelines} 1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6. Bc4 e6 7. N1e2 Bd6 8. O-O Nd7 9. Kh1 $146 { this just seems to waste time.} Qc7 {with the idea of opening the way for queenside castling, as well as establishing a Q+B battery on the b8-h2 diagonal.} 10. Bg5 Ne7 {this is the usual square for the knight in this variation of the Caro-Kann Classical, largely to further protect against an advance of White's f-pawn.} (10... Ngf6 {is certainly possible, however.} 11. f4 O-O $11) 11. Bxe7 {an unnecessary exchange of bishop for knight.} Bxe7 $15 ( 11... Kxe7 $5 {is a suggestion by Komodo, leaving the bishop on the better diagonal. Black's king would then drop back to f8 if necessary.}) 12. f4 O-O-O {Black now has a pleasant position. My king is well protected and my pieces are better coordinated.} 13. f5 exf5 {no need to let White exchange off my bishop.} 14. Nxf5 {White's knight fork is taken care of with my next move.} Bf6 {the two bishops are looking good together.} 15. Qc1 {whatever the intent behind this move was, it was too slow. Now I'm able to start taking the initiative.} (15. Bd3 Kb8 $15) 15... Nb6 16. Bd3 Kb8 {prudently moving the king off the h3-c8 diagonal.} 17. c3 Rhe8 {getting the rook into play on the open file.} (17... c5 $5 {is Komodo's idea, a pawn break which would further activate Black's pieces.} 18. dxc5 Na4 19. Ned4 Nxc5 $17) 18. b4 {this is aggressive-looking, but it just creates more weaknesses.} (18. Neg3 $5 $15) 18... Nd5 $17 {there are now various tactical ideas swirling, including a knight hop into e3 and a potentially overloaded Bd3. White currently has everything covered, but with his next move signals that he missed the weakness of the e3 square.} 19. Qc2 $2 Bxf5 $19 20. Rxf5 (20. Bxf5 Ne3 21. Qb2 Nxf1 22. Rxf1 Re3 $19) 20... Ne3 21. Qb2 Nxf5 22. Bxf5 Re3 {clearing the e8 square for the other rook to double up on the open file.} 23. a4 {White is still pinning his hopes on an attack on my king position, but again it is too slow.} Rde8 { White now has back rank problems and his pieces are vulnerable.} 24. Ra2 (24. Ng1 {there is nothing better in the position} Qf4 25. Bd7 $17 R8e7 26. Bh3 Re1 $19) 24... Qf4 0-1

11 January 2018

Book completed: Mastering Opening Strategy

I recently completed Mastering Opening Strategy by GM Johan Hellsten (Everyman Chess, 2012).  The book took a beastly long time to complete - more on that below - but I think it was worth it, in the end.

Instead of a detailed theory of opening concepts, a la Ideas Behind the Chess Openings, GM Hellsten's book has four core chapters that center around a number of annotated games and long quiz sections, along with a short fifth one on opening preparation.  The chapters are:

1 - The Nature of Development
2 - Crime and Punishment
3 - The Battle for the Centre
4 - Restriction
5 - A Few Words on Opening Preparation

My comments:
  • Chapters 1 and 2 overlap a great deal, in the sense that pretty much all of the examples show how the less developed side is punished for neglecting opening principles regarding the value of rapid piece development.  A lot of them revolve around king-in-the-center positions, which you learn must be cracked open as soon as possible, otherwise the slower side can consolidate.  Piece activity (via development) and looking for opportunities to initiate attacks with early sacrifices, done to open lines in the position (especially towards the enemy king), are key elements that are illustrated repeatedly.
  • Chapter 3 is interesting, as in a number of cases the importance of the center is underlined by efforts on the wings to undermine it.  There are plenty of examples of seizing central territory with pieces and/or pawns and using that to dominate the opponent, though.
  • Chapter 4 is primarily about prophylaxis, with the focus being on limiting (sometimes severely) your opponent's piece development.  This is probably the most sophisticated chapter and underlines the importance of understanding your opponent's plans as much as your own opportunities.  A number of positional crushes are presented at the top levels of professional chess, showing that this really is an effective and important concept.
  • Chapter 5 contains some useful principles on building an opening repertoire, although does not try to be comprehensive.  Hellsten's observations on the opening being the most apropos area of the game for exploring your personal taste/style were quite interesting, especially in light of previous insights shared here on the concept of style in chess.  Basically the idea is that you should look at openings with structural and style similarities when building a repertoire, with a number of different types of factors highlighted.  This is not necessarily a new idea, but Hellsten explicitly focuses on the opening as most suitable for the expression of "style" choices and largely discounts it for middlegame play.
  • Be prepared for a long time factor in working through this book.  Each of the chapters has a number of example annotated games, which works well, then a large number of games (long fragments, sometimes complete games) as quizzes where you are supposed to identify the next move.  For example, Chapter 3 has 34 example games and 37 quiz games.  If you take them seriously and don't blitz through them, even going through relatively rapidly (say 5 minutes per example game and 10 minutes per quiz game), that means a typical chapter will take you around 540 minutes = 9 hours.  So that means around 36 hours total for the whole book.  So if you go hard at it for an hour a day, every day without a break, it will still take you over a month to complete.  I typically did study sessions in 15-30 minute daily chunks, not sequentially and with substantial breaks sometimes, so that meant it ended up taking well over a year to work through it.
  • If you're expecting a detailed, systemic exposition of opening theory and principles, this really isn't the book for it.  If you're looking for a number of well-annotated illustrative games with connecting and recurring themes related to the opening phase, then that better fits the description of this book.  Repetition of the themes has ingrained the basic principles in my chess thinking and should help me take better advantages of these types of opportunities in the future, even without retention of all the details.

06 January 2018

Annotated Game #184: One tempo and the initiative

In this next tournament game, the role of the initiative is again highlighted.  As White, by move 16 I have achieved a great-looking position against my opponent's Dutch setup, but by a couple of moves later he is firmly in the driver's seat on the kingside, thanks to my losing the initiative.  I also make a critical mistake letting his knight into the e3 outpost, but then bravely (and somewhat desperately) sacrifice the exchange to get rid of it, in the hopes of eventual counterplay.  My opponent returns the favor later on, getting distracted and giving me a crucial tempo to let my queen penetrate his now-bare kingside, which gets me a perpetual and a draw.

It's interesting to see the importance of not wasting even a single move in tense positions and how quickly the initiative can turn - and then turn back.  It also yet again points out the importance of never giving up the fight until you are actually lost, with the game following a similar trajectory in that respect to Annotated Game #183.

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "ChessAdmin"] [Black "Class A"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "A10"] [Annotator "ChessAdmin/Komodo 11.2"] [PlyCount "66"] [EventType "simul"] [EventRounds "6"] {[%mdl 8192] A10: English Opening: Unusual Replies for Black} 1. c4 f5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Nc3 e6 4. d3 {making this an English rather than a true Dutch Defense. The placement of the d-pawn is a critical difference, as here White contests Black's control of the e4 square.} Be7 5. g3 O-O 6. Bg2 d6 {a Classical Dutch setup.} 7. O-O Nc6 8. Rb1 {initiating the standard queenside expansion plan, with a b-pawn advance as the main idea.} a5 9. a3 e5 {Black counters by advancing in the center. This however gives up the d5 square.} (9... Qe8 10. b4 axb4 11. axb4 Qh5 12. b5 Nd8 13. e3 g5 14. Nd2 Qg6 15. Qe2 Nf7 16. Bb2 g4 17. Ra1 Rb8 18. e4 e5 19. exf5 Bxf5 20. Nce4 Ng5 21. c5 Nh3+ 22. Kh1 Nd7 23. b6 c6 24. cxd6 {Schiendorfer,F (2190)-Kleinhenz,H (1920) Triesen 2013 1-0}) 10. b4 axb4 11. axb4 Nd4 $6 {Black will need to do something with the Nc6, but this doesn't help him.} (11... Qe8 {is almost always played here, with the idea of transferring the queen as part of the standard Dutch attacking plan on the kingside. Let's see a high-level treatment of this:} 12. b5 Nd8 13. Nd5 Ne6 14. Bd2 Bd8 15. Bb4 Qh5 16. e3 Ne8 17. Nd2 Qf7 18. Bc3 Kh8 19. Ra1 Rxa1 20. Qxa1 Bd7 21. Nb4 b6 22. f4 exf4 23. gxf4 Bf6 24. Rf3 Bxc3 25. Qxc3 Nf6 26. Rh3 Re8 27. Nd5 Nxd5 28. Bxd5 Rf8 29. Kf2 Qe7 30. Nf3 Rf6 31. Qa1 h6 32. Qa8+ Rf8 33. Qa1 Rf6 34. Qa7 Qd8 35. Rg3 Nc5 36. Ke2 Be6 37. Qa8 Qxa8 38. Bxa8 Rf8 39. Bc6 Bd7 40. Nd4 Bxc6 41. bxc6 Kh7 42. Rg1 Ra8 43. Nxf5 g6 44. Ne7 Ra2+ 45. Kf3 Nxd3 46. Nxg6 Nb4 47. Ne7 Rxh2 48. Ng8 {1-0 (48) Rustemov,A (2475)-Kobalia,M (2430) Moscow 1995}) 12. Nxd4 $16 {the next sequence is mostly forced.} exd4 13. Nb5 { I debated some time between this and Nd5. The text move is more critical.} c5 { otherwise the pawn on d4 is hanging.} 14. bxc5 dxc5 15. Bf4 {at this point White has a clear advantage, with the two bishops being especially effective. The Nb5 also combines well with the dark-square bishop in targeting c7 and d6.} Ne8 {this looks passive but does a good job of covering the weak squares.} 16. Bd5+ {here I wanted to dominate the e6 square and centralize the bishop, although it is also more exposed here. I thought that the gain of tempo would offset any problems.} Kh8 17. Re1 {I had another significant think here, as this is a critical position for White to try and find a good plan. The text move is OK, looking at opening the e-file, but I did not give Black's ...g5 response enough credit, even though I spotted it.} (17. Qd2 $5 $16 {and now if} g5 $2 18. Be5+ Bf6 19. Qxg5 $1 {and the Bf6 is pinned on both diagonals. Black's hanging Qd8 is a key component of this tactic.}) 17... g5 $14 {clearly the best and most active move. Now Black regains some initiative.} 18. Be5+ { I had seen this far but incorrectly evaluated how the piece exchange would result in a benefit to Black.} (18. Bd2 Nf6 19. Bf3 $14) 18... Bf6 $11 19. Bxf6+ Nxf6 {now Black has really solved most of his problems and can make some counter-threats on the kingside.} 20. Qb3 f4 {Black gets more space} 21. Bg2 { I thought for a while before playing this retreat. I had also considered the below option, but thought it would lead to a clear Black advantage.} (21. e4 $5 Nxd5 (21... dxe3 22. fxe3 fxg3 23. hxg3 {was what I was concerned about, but Komodo considers it equal.}) 22. exd5 $15) 21... fxg3 {now Black fully takes over the initiative.} (21... Ng4 22. Rf1 $17) 22. fxg3 Ng4 {targeting the f2 square and also eyeing the outpost square on e3.} 23. Qb2 $2 {with the idea of defending the second rank, but Black's next move keeps the queen shut out.} ( 23. e4 {was necessary to not let the knight into e3.} Ne5 24. Rf1 Rxf1+ 25. Rxf1 $17) 23... Ne3 $19 24. Rf1 {I considered sacrificing the exchange the only real way to continue playing with any hope of a draw, with some compensation due to the strong light-square bishop and Black's open king. Komodo shows this as a top choice as well (although all choices are bad by this point).} Nxf1 25. Rxf1 Rxf1+ 26. Kxf1 {I wanted to keep the bishop on the long diagonal, although this was not necessarily critical.} (26. Bxf1 Qe7 27. e4 $19) 26... Qf6+ 27. Kg1 Qe6 28. e4 (28. Nc7 {I of course looked at, but Black's queen goes to e3 with tempo and I really didn't like the idea of allowing it to get there.} Qe3+ 29. Kf1 Ra5 $19) 28... Qa6 {while this is still winning for Black, it indicates a lack of focus on the kingside, where I now have some hope for counterplay due to the open f-file and Black's exposed king.} 29. Qf2 {I had been looking at this idea previously and was very pleased that my opponent allowed me to play it. Now there is only one way for my opponent to keep the advantage, and he does not find it.} Qa1+ $2 {now it's a draw!} (29... Qh6 {is not an obvious move to find, for a human. Black has to keep the f6 square covered.} 30. Qf1 Bg4 $19) 30. Bf1 $11 {now Black cannot successfully defend both f6 and f8 from my queen.} Bh3 {defending against the mate threat on f8 and threatening to exchange the Bf1, but he never gets the necessary tempo.} (30... Kg7 31. e5 Ra6 32. Nc7 Rh6 33. Ne8+ Kg8 34. Nf6+ $11) 31. Qf6+ Kg8 32. Qxg5+ Kh8 33. Qf6+ Kg8 1/2-1/2

02 January 2018

What are your chess goals for 2018?

GM Gregory Serper has posted an excellent and relevant article "What are your chess goals for 2018?" over at Chess.com.  It's the season for New Year's resolutions, and he takes on several of the most common ones for chessplayers.  In particular, I found the below observation to be valuable in helping define how often one should play serious games:
2) Play more tournaments.
This is a very good resolution, provided that you use your common sense. It is difficult to get better in chess if you don't play serious over-the-board tournaments.  However, if you play a new tournament every single weekend and don't have time to analyze the games, it might be very entertaining experience, but you are not going to improve your chess much. 
Ideally you need to find a tournament frequency that will allow you to analyze the games, learn from your mistakes and play every new tournament as a new, improved self!
As mentioned in The Long Journey to Class A, over the past year I've found that playing tournament-level games on a monthly basis has let me strike a good balance between staying "warm" with competitive chess and offering enough time in between for meaningful study.

It was also a pleasure to see his reaction to the "gain rating points" goal:
When you set a goal to gain a certain amount of rating points, you shift your focus from chess to rating and therefore the fear of losing will ultimately stifle your creativity.
It's far better to set a goal of becoming a stronger player, ideally identifying the particular areas for personal improvement through your own analysis, and then let your rating catch up in its own good time.  Becoming a stronger chessplayer is fundamentally a lifestyle choice (establishing positive study/training/playing habits) and a longer-term commitment to excellence, rather than a quantitative goal.

My top chess goals for the year, in no particular order:
  • Integrate additional openings (or variants in my existing repertoire) into my play, by employing them in serious games, to help broaden the number of position-types that I'm familiar with and inject some variety into my game.  I've already started playing the Dutch Stonewall, to good effect.
  • Learn additional fundamental endgame positions by heart and delve further into the different types of endgame strategies (in rook endings, minor piece endings, etc.)
  • Make an effort to learn more comprehensively all of the typical middlegame structures and plans on a strategic level, so I better can recognize and apply them in my games.

01 January 2018

The Long Journey to Class A

Recently I broke the Class A rating barrier (1800), after spending my entire chess career at the Class B or Class C level.  My previous rating peak (in the high 1700s) was reached 25 years ago, just after I graduated from university and it essentially represented the tail end of my scholastic chess phase.  Since restarting tournament play in the mid-2000s, my rating had largely fluctuated around the 1700 mark, with some dips into the 1600s.  So finally achieving a Class A rating represents a significant improvement on my historical performance and is a milestone on the path to chess mastery.

There are a number of professional-level books and articles talking about what to do to get to the Master (2200) level and beyond, and a few that focus on the Expert level (2000), but there is a dearth of material talking about specific ways to make progress between Class levels.  Online search shows a few forum topics and articles about moving up to Class A, but no systematic treatments; naturally, different people will offer varying or contradictory advice.  There are also a number of general improvement recommendations that could apply to any playing level below Master, and some discussions about the differences in abilities between Class players and Experts, but they largely focus on defining the what of the differences and don't necessarily address how you make progress up the scale.  I've assembled at the end of this post what I would consider some of the most relevant material and links under "Other Resources" for those interested in perusing them.

I'll offer here some background and observations on my own journey.  They won't necessarily serve as a template for everyone's progress up to Class A, but at least I can present what has worked in my case and why.  I've decided to do it in a Q&A format, which I think is a good way to address the broader questions involved, as well as offer some candid thoughts about my experience with the chess improvement process.  If readers have additional questions they'd like to see addressed, I'll do my best to respond in a thoughtful manner.

Q: Why did it take so long to progress to Class A?

A:  Neither the answer, nor the question, are in fact straightforward.

I started playing in tournaments around the age of 14, so one could say it took me 30+ years, if measured from the very beginning.  My initial rating was in the 1400s (Class C) and it took me over two years to make it to Class B (crossing the 1600 threshold), and another year to cross into the low 1700s, which is where I finished my scholastic career.  So during this period, I was gaining an average of somewhat less than 100 rating points per year before plateauing, albeit with one last spike up to the high 1700s.  Looking back, I attribute most of the forward progress during this phase of my career to frequent tournament-level play and "learning by doing", as I had no formal training.  I (erroneously) considered myself a "positional player" and avoided systematic tactics study - being barely aware it even existed - although of course I took advantage of those tactical ideas that I could spot in-game.

The next period of serious chess effort took place in the mid-2000s, most of which was nevertheless spent below a 1700 rating.  My frequency of tournament play, if not good, was not terrible, but my preparation remained poorly conceived and in retrospect it was not really serious.  It mostly consisted of opening study, which at the time largely meant reviewing variations rather than obtaining a deeper understanding of concepts and typical structures/plans; going over some annotated master games in magazines and books; and reading various middlegame books for pleasure (not working through them thoroughly with a board).  My chess training also was not consistent over time, rather being typically concentrated in the couple weeks before a scheduled tournament.  Essentially I made no progress at all for a decade using these superficial practices.

The last phase of my chess career began (and continues) with a more focused, structured and self-aware approach, made concrete by starting this blog in 2011.  Prior to that, I had spent a couple of months looking at a large number of other chess improvement blogs - after discovering that there was a flourishing online community - and was inspired to commit to my own creative effort at improvement.  The decision also stemmed from the feeling that I was sick of being a journeyman making no real progress at chess, and wanting to move towards mastery of one of my personal interests in life.

During this last period, my chess knowledge (especially of tactics and common positional themes) has grown considerably, along with my perceived playing strength.  But after an initial rise and what I felt was a breakthrough in my first year, including beating my highest-rated opponent ever, my rating fell back to fluctuating around 1700.  This was naturally frustrating, and in part it reflected a generally uneven and infrequent level of tournament play for a couple of years.  In contrast, I played a lot more in 2017, basically on a monthly basis, and in the last two tournaments of the year had results that pushed me over the 1800 threshold for the first time.

So in measuring the necessary time period to go from Class B to Class A, in terms of when I began to apply serious study/effort, one could say that it took me over 6 years to make the breakthrough as an adult player.  However, when measured in terms of the combination of consistent training plus frequent tournament play (defined as tournament-level games on a roughly monthly basis), that would instead be approximately 1 year to gain 100+ rating points.

Q: What was most important to making the breakthrough in performance?

A:  Naturally there is no one "magic bullet" that is responsible.  I primarily credit an investment in daily chess skills practice, with 15-30 minutes minimum, and longer time periods spent on a weekly basis (typically 1.5 to 2 hours on a weekend morning) devoted to analyzing games.  Extra time beyond that has been invested in deeper learning from DVDs and books.  Even if one can't achieve 100% regularity with a training schedule, building in these baseline study habits helps one return to them more easily after a break in schedule.  Effortful study, rather than only recreational (as I did in the mid-2000s), is also key.

I would additionally point toward the below specific practices as being the most important for me in reaching the next level:
  • Serious play on a monthly basis, as alluded to above.  Chess performance is a different animal than chess knowledge and there is no real substitute for actual game play to show you where your weaknesses and strengths lie; that way you can target your training work on the former, and consciously choose to play to situations involving the latter.  While I personally prefer OTB tournament play when it's possible, other alternatives such as slow time control online play and correspondence chess are available.
  • Analyzing my own games regularly.  Without this, I would not have been able to diagnose the aforementioned strengths and weaknesses, and it has been by far the best method of obtaining concrete ideas for improving my overall play, including the establishment of a structured thinking process.  It's also been the most effective method of opening study for me, as among other things it helps me remember key ideas in specific lines based on meaningful experience, rather than rote learning.  (See Annotated Game #183 and Annotated Game #63 for example.)
  • Systematic study and practice of tactics.  This builds your conceptual and mental library (via pattern recognition) of tactical ideas, meaning that you can often spot them instantly (or at least eventually) on the board and get yourself an advantage, or (just as important) avoid an opponent's looming threat.  The best resources I have used for deep learning of tactics are Understanding Chess Tactics by FM Martin Weteschnik and Ward Farnsworth's Predator at the ChessboardThere are by now a large number of quiz/practice websites, apps, etc. which can productively be used to test your tactical acumen, but doing exercises was not enough for me to fully grasp and utilize the full suite of tactical patterns.
  • Investigation of standard plans and structures in my chosen openings (and beyond).  This serves a similar function for building a mental library of strategic/positional patterns.  After analyzing my games, it was very apparent when I would drift planless, or make moves that did not conform to the needs of the position (which I did not really understand), something which almost inevitably leads to a worse game.  While it's most important in practical terms to look at the typical middlegame structures arising from your personal opening repertoire, broadening study to general ideas illustrated by master games also adds to your playing strength, and reduces the number of positions where you find yourself at a loss as to what to do.
  • Playing under the rules of mental toughness, in particular forcing myself not to offer draws unless the position in front of me is in fact dead drawn.  If I had given into the temptation to make draw offers to higher-rated players (a common practice), I would have missed out on several key victories.
  • Not being afraid to enter the endgame.  It's still not my favorite part of the game, but it's no longer completely foreign to me, and consciously adopting an attitude of attacking it with a similar level of interest and energy (see below) as the opening and middlegame phases has made significant differences in my final results.
  • Energy management and an ability to stay focused.  When I get tired, I get lazy and can start to play "Hope Chess" rather than fully calculate out my opponent's threats; at the very least, my calculation abilities are noticeably reduced.  Again, the process of analyzing my games illuminated how I would often do well for 25-35 moves (typically the first 2 hours or so of a tournament game) and then rapidly tank.  This was not a reflection of a sudden loss of chess skills, rather I did not have the energy and focus to adequately apply the skill that I possessed.  Techniques for energy management include: adequate sleep; strategic food consumption before a game (enough protein and not too much sugar/carbs); exercise (which should be viewed not as draining your energy, but an investment in your future energy level during a tournament); and having an energy drink available at the board (NOT necessarily loaded with caffeine - juices work) to help alleviate decision fatigue.  In addition, you can use a variety of methods to achieve greater capacity to focus, including cross-training in various disciplines and improving your overall brain health.
If forced to pick what was most important from the above list, I would actually rank energy management and improving focus first, as these practices have had the most impact on my practical performance level.  You are only as good as your worst move (NM Dan Heisman's saying), so regardless of the level of your previous brilliant play in a game, if you blunder due to lack of focus then your game can be over.  This was essentially my situation over the last several years, as I began to see a lot more good ideas and played more "!" moves, but I was not sufficiently eliminating the "?" moves to make ratings progress.

Q:  How long do you expect it will it take to reach the next level?

Good question.  I'm actually heartened by the fact that I've reached the Class A level and still have a great deal of chess knowledge to delve into in all phases of the game (see Training Quote of the Day #9).  What that means to me is that, if I can invest the requisite time and effort going forward, I expect eventually to be able to make further significant progress.  How quickly that comes will in large part depend on my ability to maintain a consistent training and playing schedule.  That said, by now I've built in chess study as a positive habit that I should be able to return to following any disruptions.

Other Resources:

How to be a Class A Player by FM Alex Dunne - this 1987 book is out of print, although you may have some luck in getting it on interlibrary loan to check it out (if in the USA).  Description states it consists of annotated games between Class B and Class A players, with comparisons made by the author.  For a modern approach to examining comparative skill levels of chessplayers, although not limited to Class B vs. Class A, I would recommend either IM Jeremy Silman's The Amateur's Mind or NM Dan Heisman's The Improving Chess Thinker.

"Moving up the Ladder: a Class Player on Gaining 200 Rating Points" by Christian Glawe at Chess Life Online.  The author shares what worked for him in this article.  There are some important similarities with my own path (energy management/physical conditioning, studying structures/plans instead of memorizing openings) along with obvious differences (I don't have a coach, and don't play blitz chess).

"How to Study Chess" by Vanessa West, an article at the USCF website.  Vanessa, an Expert-rated USCF player, responds to a question by a Class B player asking for advice on improvement.  She offers some guidance on studying all phases of the game and takes a fairly comprehensive look at the improvement process.

From Class B to Class A - Chess.com forum topic based on a question about how to get to the next level.  Below is excerpted from the (IMO) best comment, by NM zkman:
From a general standpoint, there is always room to improve tactically and in your calculation. Dedicate a certain proportion of your time to studying tactics each day. In addition, focus very little on your time on openings and of that time focus on learning the resulting middlegame positions.
Lastly, (and most importantly in my opinion) analyze your games. Find out what went wrong and what you can do to improve. The most common mistake in this step is to use and engine and find out what you did wrong. This takes out a huge amount of learning that could be gained by attempting to find these mistakes first. Another large step missing from many amateur player's analysis is WHY you made a mistake. For example, you missed a tactic. The common reaction is to look at this mistake and say "I'm an idiot." This is the wrong attitude. The way to best improve is to say "I missed this because .... (I didn't understand this pin motif well enough, I was focused on this positional theme,etc. 
1800+ players - How did you do it? - From reddit.com (/r/chess)