Summation of a year in chess

(Originally posted as a reply on temposchlucker’s blog:)

(Note: OTB means Over-The-Board, as in while playing a rated game in person.  “Classical chess” means slow chess played OTB for a rating.)

I’ve spent the last year in particular mostly studying chess, so I’d like to add to your conclusion as well.

The tough Chesstempo problems, and visualization training (of course, these are all done in spots over the year, and not all the time by any means – except for hopefully OTB) have helped quite a bit. I would say that it helped tremendously, except that it overlapped the same skill I was already strong at, just made it stronger.

First, I’d like to preface by saying that there is a lag between training time spent, and when those results kick in consistently OTB.

Okay, deep breath, here is where all this training and results get separated. The number one thing to understand above all other things, for the moment, is that quick-chess and classical chess are simply not the same thing – perhaps for the elite some (Expert and above), but not for most. Okay, it’s already getting annoying having this Grand Chess Tour in Paris right now where it’s all rapid. Carlsen’s last tournament, Altibox in Norway, he went 8/10 blitz, and then with the same GMs he went 4.5/9 in classical chess – it’s even a common occurrence where a player will flag (a loss when time expires) in an equal position, in blitz.  (note: Magnus Carlsen, from Norway, is the current World Champion at chess)

The only way to know if these techniques and exercises have worked is to use them in slow, classical chess. I don’t know about your online blitz rating, but mine doesn’t improve and, if you have been studying the way I have, then yours “shouldn’t” improve either. This is not bad, in fact it’s mostly a good thing. If I had to play my average blitz opponent who beats me in online chess, I would probably destroy the lot of them in an OTB, classical time-control setting. These opponents are quite talented, and imaginative tactically, and yes their winning continuations do actually work, but it’s like a gunfight where you can be accurate but if the other guy gets the gun out of the holster first….and yes Classical chess slows all of this down for the stronger player, it’s like letting the slower player get the gun out of the holster first.

Eventually, my blitz skill may close the gap with my OTB skill, but that probably wouldn’t be for many years (and I’m already 50, not a spring-chicken). There is a reason for this gap, but it’s like the difference between playing a 100%, full-strength, no clock, blindfold game, and then doing the same thing except at blitz speed. In any case, blitz-chess should mainly be used for training on lines you don’t know, or to tone up your game before a tournament.

Anyway, now that that’s all out of the way, let’s talk classical chess. It is important to arrive at the game in some kind of decent shape. If you just busted your @ss moving furniture for three days, and then try to play a classical game on that day, then your physical stamina may collapse at an inopportune time. It’s sort of like bad-business, except here it applies to your chess “skill”.

Lastly, and most importantly, the Chesstempo and blindfold training does help with classical OTB chess. 1) When something unexpected happens at the board, you will be far more ready for it. 2) You will look at more lines deeply with more permutations. Depth is often a killer below the Expert level. Experts rarely make mistakes of a depth nature – they usually either do or don’t see the right idea. At the Class level, depth is a killer because Class players often do see the right lines, but _don’t_ have the ability to see them far enough for it to count. So, the Class player typically makes a weak move instead in order to avoid a wrong calculation. This is where a lot of the training we are doing should help.

Yes, it is all about patterns in a way, but if you are overly focused on solving tactics at blitz speed, and only concerned about memorizing patterns, well, let me just say that I don’t think chess works that way, as I like everyone else has tried that before at some point, in some way, and it didn’t work for me. Simple one-move mates could be solved at blitz-speed, and one guy used to do this as his pre-game warmup, but this is not the same thing as “solving” tactics. The biggest difference between blitz and classical chess is when it comes to _solving_ problems. In blitz, it’s at most 2 minutes, and then the clock in your head tells you to move. For me, a typical number would be 6 minutes in classical chess (longer than a blitz game) to solve a problem before I start getting antzy and just wanting to move – naturally, if I’ve spent time on the previous move, where I had mostly solved the same problem, then I would be itching to spend less time on that next move (whether right or wrong to).

I’ll get off the soapbox of my results here, but I really want to stress that the difference between time-controls (and this group generally gets this) is in the quality of _solving_ problems. Quick-chess is more of an I.Q. test than a chess test. Some of us slow-thinkers, I believe, can be talented in a way that we can bring more mental resources to bear on a problem, should we learn to think a more structured way because we naturally have a way our brains work when it comes to solving deeper problems.

Nevertheless, deep problems are not solved at quick-speeds (although one could speed up their solving of deep problems). It’s a little sad that chess, of all endeavors, has been subjected to this information age pressure of pre-digested information (lines, results, etc.). Running these blitz tournaments the night before a regular tournament may be somewhat of a tradition, may appeal to fans and even the ego of the players, an ability unique to them which they can showcase, but in my view, it’s not the same thing, it’s mostly garbage-chess, or even a chess IQ test where there is no time to think, you simply have to “know”, ahead of time.

I don’t know for how many of you, your big thing is OTB, or postal, or online blitz, or casual chess etc. My big thing is OTB chess. I’ve spent a lot of time studying games in books, and my rating went up mostly as a result of calculation ability, before I realized tactical “patterns” were such a big thing – my chess, and even book-collecting, predates the internet, as I used to subscribe to all kinds of chess catalogues back then through the mail. The point I feel I am trying to make is that a site like Chesstempo can improve my strength quite a bit (just got four in a row correct, last one taking 18 minutes!).

The current generation, however, is different. They are getting their strength mostly from studying tactics (the opposite of how I started), blitz chess, playing a lot of chess in locales where the titled players play and hang out, and playing lots of blitz with Experts and Masters. I’ll sneer and say this is a bit of the sleazy approach, dropping off their kids to be “babbysat” by Experts and Masters. Surely, adult chessplayers don’t get quite this level of TLC on average!

Nevertheless, for me tactics helps, and even formally studying endgames, really, because it’s the opposite of where I started from. I never got too much into the formal study of openings, either, but that’s sort of a side-point when it comes to ratings because I can play certain lines (not always, the English Opening is a good exception to this for me) where I have quite a bit of experience built up.


2 thoughts on “Summation of a year in chess

  1. In response to a comment by BDK, I left this reply:

    BDK, I want to agree with you somehow (I can think in code, too. :-)), and I will say that what you say can also be a little shortsighted at the same time.

    I can have vivid dreams, have played chess many times while dreaming, and even as I wakeup I can talk with someone and still see the chessboard like that for say ten minutes, until I fully wake and open eyes. I could look at you in person, walk away and draw a picture of your face (I can also do this, right now, of people I haven’t seen in 30 years and only casually knew), don’t know if everyone can do this but suspect they can’t. However, with a chessboard I’ve found _everybody_ has problems visualizing this simple 8×8 board. How can this seemingly simplest of tasks be in any way difficult(??). That, my friend, is the proverbial $64,000 question.

    I will disagree with something said on one of your old blog posts, in that I do think it is important to know the colors of the squares – GM Spraggett says that people don’t give enough attention to learning the board.

    When I solve a problem on Chesstempo, and I hardly think there is a problem I can’t solve if I put my mind to it (endgame studies are by far the most difficult for me, or perhaps a Sam Lloyd puzzle), your observation that I can look at the board, and don’t need to blindfold is correct. Solving these problems is even more about solving the problems, and calculating variations, than it is about visualizing for me.

    I find blindfolding a better/easier way to think about a past or present position than a future position, and so this takes some explanation. For example, blindfolding a game just played is often not too difficult for some players, myself included. It’s like telling a story, and even other possible variations are much easier to see once a game is over.

    Blindfolding a present position is more difficult because you have to remember where the pieces are – e.g., look at a problem position, put the book down, and then set up the position correctly without once looking at the book.

    Blindfolding a future position is much tougher. By blindolding a future position, I do not mean seeing/visualizing lines in your head from a game that has been completed – that’s easier. I mean blindfolding a future position from a current game, while you are still playing it. Now all kinds of factors come in to block one’s ability such as emotions, expectations, seeing and anticipating threats, evaluating the position, personality issues, etc, you name it. Once a game is over, all that matter are the lines, which makes this blindfolding of lines much more easy, as nothing is on the line now save for the truth.

    To say kids visualize better is not enough. Kids will often use psychology more than adults to “cheat” as well. They will more often hover their hand over a piece, and then look at you to get a reaction, like a poker player waiting for a “tell”. Also, there is such a thing as “playing with the hands” You build up experience and intuition in your hands that surpasses one’s ability to calculate. Just because you didn’t touch a piece, when you hover with your hand your own hand can give you a read on what to do! Even many chessplayers have not yet learned this. Kids are often using more skills, and not just using one skill better than an adult.

    I have played kids, boys and girls who later became Masters, and beaten them while they were still kids. I’ve done this while I lived both in California and Colorado. One girl used to look at my shirt, or the wall behind me, and then suddenly make a move. In hindsight, it was obvious that she was playing the entire game in her head blindfold. The strange part to add to this is that I was often understanding what was important that was going on the position; I was finding her wins for her, OTB, as we say. Back then, I had OTB visualization ability, but not so much blindfold ability away from the board. Nevertheless, it was more important to understand what was going on in the position than to visualize it. Visualization is important for move verification, to see tactical side-possibilities, and even now I am still improving at this.

    Getting back to colors, it’s important to remember them without thinking because to learn blindfold, it’s easiest to start with just remembering the moves, and focusing on the moves, and not trying to see the board so much. People struggle because they try to see the board too much in advance.

    Let’s say we are playing King’s Gambit Accepted. 1.e4 e5, 2.f4 exf, 3.Nf3 Nc6, 4.Bc4 (4.Bb5 is easier) Bg4. Here is a natural stopping point. You will find you may spend longer than you thought you would replaying these moves in your mind to get the true visual of what this position currently looks like and how it got there. Now also you will spend time investigating the position. 5.Bxf7+ doesn’t work because of KxBf7, 6.Ng5+ QxNg5 a very common-tactic for anyone who routinely plays 1.e4 positions to know. Now, you pick a move like 5.d3 or 5.d4, and say you like 5.d3 (5.d4 can “hang” in some lines) and so calculate 5.d3 g5, 6.h4 (if 6…gxh, then 7.Bxf4). The g-pawn is not easily defended by the queen or another pawn, so 6…Be7 is likely. You may decide to play this line with 7.Nc3-e2 to help win the f4 pawn by playing h4xg5 first. so, 7…Qf6 could refute, so you choose 7.hxg5 Bxg5, 8.Nc3-d5, and now both your Bc1 and Nd4 are hitting the f4 pawn/square, so you should win this pawn back. I haven’t looked at a board this whole time, this analysis could work, it could be flawed, but I would go with my analysis OTB because that is all you have during a game is your own analysis. They don’t let you use computers or books during a game, you have to analyze and go with it and then react to whatever happens.

    We haven’t even gotten into the evaluation aspect of whether or not 6.h4 is positionally a good move! Of course, a KG player will know that it’s the KG, so that a question like that often turns into a minor quibble when it comes to the battle OTB. Theoretical questions like that are best left for pre-game analysis. OTB, if you find something you like that works, with no seemingly serious drawbacks, then you should often simply go with it.

    I checked my analysis with Houdini, and I forgot to play a move in my analysis! I left out Nc3..d6 (else …Bg4 can’t be played). So, after 1.e4 e5, 2.f4 exf4, 3.Nf3 Nc6, 4.Bc4 d6, 5.Nc3 Bg4, 6.d3(try) g5, 7.h4 Nd4 (Houdini’s move). Here, I was now looking at this on the computer. Candidate moves, my mind blurts out 8.hxg and 8.0-0 without even trying to visualize. Usually, OTB I do a really good job of listing the top candidate moves in my head that later Houdini agrees with. This time, I missed the top three! 8.Nb5! requires no visualization, only understanding. 8.Kf2! again where is the visualization besides simply seeing the move(!?), 8.Kf1.

    Okay, so I search much harder for candidate moves OTB, but aside one visualization glitch, and even the eval of 7.h4 was not a bad job, I simply missed the ideas – in this case, the other candidate moves, in the position. This goes to show that chess is mostly hard work! The visualization like this is important because it allowed me to study not the future, but the past! Having done this exercise, I will now remember going forward this opening line, this idea. It is the past that sticks with me, that makes this blindfolding so strong. The future was less about blindfolding, and more about finding and studying, and even comparing ideas (6.d4 was another move I looked at with Houdini). I would put it this way, if you can’t blindfold, you can’t remember the past! People who stay at low-ratings for decades miss patterns often-times because they can’t remember the past (because they can’t visualize the past), not because they can’t see the future!

    I just solved my highest-rated problem (rated 2024.9) on Chesstempo, and they gave me a “Mammoth Hunter” badge. hehe. My rating there is now 1861. I think it’s funny how they rate these problems. The 1500 level problems on Chesstempo are hard, for instance. Once you realize that all the problems there are hard, then all the problems start to get easy; it’s more about solving the problems than how difficult they are.

    The thing that amazes me about super-GM blitz chess is when both players solve these problems with under 15 seconds on their clock, and the audience, myself included, are left scratching their heads “Why did he resign?”. It’s this reason that I find their blitz games virtually unwatchable. Then you get no answer as to why that happened because it’s on to the next game for them. Blitz games are virtually unwatchable, IMHO, although at first they seem more watchable because the moves come in quicker at the start.

  2. In response to another comment by BDK:
    BDK, someone in the Chess Book Collector’s on Facebook forum just asked if there were a book to blindfold better from, and I was tempted to write “Whatever blindfold abilities I have, they are far exceeded by the immediate moves/threats/ideas that I don’t notice which are right there in front of my face and under my nose.”

    When I go on a run of solving problems correctly on Chesstempo, I always first do a material count, try to remember positions of pawns and pieces (at least attempt to), and make a very conscientious assessment (more than just a scan) of what the threats are. When I start getting answers wrong, and get frustrated, then I just look at the problem, try to figure out the answer, and miss that the answer is to take a hanging piece, which I didn’t even notice was hanging, and I had previously solved this exact problem on Chesstempo once before. doh!!! So, apparently everything is a separate skill, even the “ability”/patience to scan the board for threats completely every time (particularly with those backward-moving/retrograde recaptures).

    If there is one true benefit of blindfolding a position, like in some ultimate way, it would be that you examine a position from your conscience’s part of the brain, and then you do notice possibilities which one might assume away, and thereby not see, in the egotistic pleasure of battle.

    One thing about these “kids” that we assume away when they are playing well is that they probably do tactics drills (because that is the rage since delaMaza, it’s just that everyone keeps it under the lid now, and wants you to think they have a high-rating now because they are geniuses and knowledgeable strategically, etc, but I can tell the difference). My point is that, unfortunately, and at least for adults, super-human people aside, is that we do need to solve tactics regularly to stay in shape else we begin to miss all kinds of things that are hanging for multiple moves in a row. Some people, Experts and above, really do seem to have this ultimate board-scan like it’s just part of their bodies now, but even they have occasionally lost focus and dropped pieces, so I think it helps everyone to stay sharp with tactics (just because it enforces board-discipline, even if it weren’t important to keep seeing new patterns).

    Compared to the population of non-tournament players, a 1200 level player will generally beat every normal person until someone says “Hey, I know some guy who plays chess and he’s really good, he used to be the blah, blah champion.” and then this kung-fu chieftain of chess could be a problem opponent for them, but generally not until then. ;-D

    Kids have a bunch of hyper-frenetic energy and free-time that they can waste on chess. Their brains have to be more open in a way because otherwise they wouldn’t learn how to handle authority and adult stuff like that.

    If you think you are just slow or something at threat scans, check out some games from the blitz portion of the Paris Grand Chess tour that finished yesterday. Other 2800 level players dropping things to Magnus like a baby. Players like Magnus and Karjakin keep up with the threat-scan faster than their colleagues. It’s a skill, and I’m sure it’s a skill where one can improve at.

    My friend Alex’s chess strength has gone up, and he will usually tell you it’s “process of elimination” and finding “multi-purpose moves”. I think the strength a player should want to improve at is calculating by “process of elimination” as quickly as possible, i.e., work on how quickly you do this when solving tactical problems. Also, a “multi-purpose move” is one that does two or three different things, but look for one that attacks and defends at the same time – this may seem trivial, but it can have a big effect on your practical results.

    Here is a interesting problem to look at:
    I spent a long time on process of elimination (the most reliable, but not the most efficient way to come to the answer). If you think of the multi-purpose move idea above you will come to the answer much more quickly. These two methods will only get you so far, but they sort of ensure that you are playing at a certain strength, OTB.

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