Friday, April 29, 2005

A Divine Tragedy on the horizon

[Note: this message will change as I adjust my plans. Once I finish, the message will remain as a description of my Tragedy. Last revised 10/29/06]
After sifting through everybody's criticisms of the the official MDLM Seven Circles, I have come up with the following chess training plan, which I call the Divine Tragedy:

Precircle 1: 04/16/05-02/12/06
Work through the first 1500 problems (Steps 1-3) of the Tasc Chess Tutor (TCT) to build up basic chess knowledge. I worked through it in chunks of 200 problems. Every 200 problems, I redid those sections in which I scored below 80% on any tests. Once I got 80% in all the tests for that problem chunk, I moved on to the next 200 problems. I also imposed an 'instant redo' rule: if I scored below 50% on any test, I could not move on to another test until I got above 50%.

I was originally going to work through all of TCT, but after 10 months I had finished Step 3, and was sick of it and wanted to move on. I probably solved 4500 problems in 10 months. In retrospect, the beginner books (see Precircle 2) are better for general chess knowledge, so I should have started withthem and postponed TCT until after the Circles. TCT focused a lot on tactics and mate, which was helpful, but after the first three steps I realized I needed more breadth in my very first formal chess training.

Precircle 2: 02/16/06-04/11/06
Continue to ground myself in more basic knowledge, by slowly reading through Wolff's The Idiot's Guide to Chess.

This was a great book, especially the chapters on tactics, pawn structure, and weak squares. The chapter on the endgame was weak compared to Tasc Chess Tutor's treatment of the same topic. I would recommend that beginners start with this book.

The Circles: Started 04/11/06
I am using Convekta's Chess Tactics for Beginners (hereafter CTB).

CTB has 1300 problems split into 5 Stages of increasing difficulty. At each stage, you can either work through the problems sorted randomly or by tactical theme. For my circles, I am working through each stage many times, until I can do them very quickly (see the answer within a few seconds), without thinking about them. The first time through, I do 5-10 problems/day. Then 20/day. I stay at 20/day until I am doing the problems with low error (95% correct). I then double the number of problems per day until I am doing the entire stage each day. I go until I am doing the entire set of problems each day, 100% correct, with no thinking. Then I will move on to the next Phase of CTB. I also go back and repeat earlier phases periodically to make sure I still remember the problems.

Postcircles: Party!!
Smoke a cuban cigar (Cohiba) while sitting on my back deck eating a Mounds bar, while serenely watching my dog Buddy chew on a nasty old bone. Three hours should be enough for this stage. After this, I don't plan on adhering to any strict chess-training regimen for some time. Assuming my rating is 1200 by then.

Realistically, I plan to spend a minimum of 15 minutes a day, six days a week, on chess improvement. Day seven is slack for when I have other things on my plate.

May God have mercy on my soul.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Thinking Drills Progress Report

I have been at Stage 1 (avoid leaving pieces en prise) in my Thinking Drills for a three days now. It is fun, gets me to play, and motivates me to analyze my games for mistakes afterwards. I thought this would be easy, but I have had to reset my game count twice already! So far, my mistakes come at the end of games when I am under some time pressure, or when I neglect to look for discovered attacks on my pieces. This has made me realize that, to play without making basic mistakes, I need to play longer games (e.g., probably 30 minutes).

One cool observation is that Stage 1 is easiest to carry out quickly when I actively engage the chess vision I have built up in concentric squares: the chess vision allows me to quickly scan the board for pieces I am leaving hanging. It is energizing to experience this interaction between the MDLM and the Thinking Training: they are mutually reinforcing exercises. While I was left somewhat crestfallen by the skepticism from some of the more veteran Knights, my experience after a few days is encouraging. As I've said, I think this is because I am such a beginner that I can actually benefit from this (just as I have benefitted from concentric squares which many Knights skipped because they had the skills already).

I also realized that each stage is really just a small incremental addition to tactical thinking (e.g., avoiding discovered attacks, pins, skewers are all in there, until Stage 5 when there isn't a simple algorithm, and you are basically trying to maintain progress on the simple cases).

I predict that doing Thinking Drills in concert with, rather than after, microdrills and Circles will help me a lot in the long run.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Thinking Drills: Chess Cross Training

1. Introduction
I believe that one shortcoming of the standard MDLM program is that it delays any work on "chess thinking" to a third stage, to be done after the Microdrills and the Circles. Also, at the third stage he throws you full-bore into an 8-step thinking process and expects you to somehow manage to master it. This goes against the spirit of what makes the Vision Drills and Seven Circles so useful: repetition of problems sorted by difficulty to build up automated skills. Why not apply the same strategy to improving your chess thinking? Why not work out a piecemeal set of chess thinking drills, of increasing difficulty, for use during actual games? This would ideally be carried out in parallel with (i.e., at the same time as) the microdrills and tactical study. This should help avoid the common problem (e.g., see this, this, and this post) that people have with MDLM: applying their newfound skills in actual games! MDLM had the same trouble, and added his Phase 3. My attitude is, why wait?!

So, I have worked out a system of thinking drills to perform in parallel with my Circles. They start out very simple and build up in complexity. The goal is to gradually develop good thinking habits and avoid knee-jerk responses to opponents' moves. Many of the stages below are probably too simple for most of the Knights Errant, but so far even lowly Stage 1 has kept me from committing some awful blunders in real games.

2. Thinking Training
The training consists of four Stages, which I delineate shortly. How do I progress through the stages? From a game in a database, I pick ten contiguous full moves from the middle of the game (typically starting after move 10) for analysis. I can move on to the next stage only when I get ten games in a row in which I make zero analysis errors in those ten moves (as determined by computer analysis afterwards).

Stage 1: Avoid en prise blunders
This is meant to build up en prise vision, getting your pieces under direct attack to 'pop out' on the board in the same way that the Knight sight drills cause the Knight's squares to pop out.
Right after opponent's move: write down which of your pieces are under direct attack (i.e., he could capture them in one move).
Right before your move: visualize the board after you have made the move. Write down which of your pieces will be left open to direct attack after your move.

Stage 2: Find en prise blunders
Right after opponent's move: write down which of your opponent's pieces are under direct attack (i.e., you can capture them now).

Stage 3: Chess vision defense
After opponent's move: Write down which of your pieces can be forked, skewered, or pinned on his following move.

Stage 4: Chess vision offense
Before you move: Write down which of your opponent's pieces can be forked, skewered, or pinned.

3. Comments and Caveats
Note that successful implementation of the task at a given Stage is necessary but not sufficient for successful chess play! For instance, I am at Stage 1 in my Thinking Drills, but my thinking process for chess is not exhausted by the skills required by Stage 1 training. If all my thinking during a game consisted of looking out for direct threats, I would lose every game! On the other hand, to be successful, you clearly cannot leave pieces en prise, so this Stage explicitly addresses one of many necessary elements of good thinking.

I would love to hear people's thoughts on this. Suggestions for modifying or adding to the Stages would be especially interesting.

[Last revised: 7/18/05]

Sunday, April 24, 2005


I finished with concentric squares training. By the end I was finishing them in 10 minutes (note I only did it for the bishop, rook, and queen). In real games, I need to actively practice visualizing the lines of vulnerability ('chess vision') for any of the skills to transfer: it is far from automatic and effortless. I have begun the Knight Sight drill, and am doing it in concert with Knight concentric circles. I am starting to see the Knight's squares pop out in my games, which is nice. Again, this is not effortless, but requires me to concentrate a bit on seeing the knight's squares pop out. It is a cool effect, though, and I am no longer calculating, but 'seeing'. While this is an active seeing, it takes much less effort than calculating the possibilities, which is what I had to do before.

I will start the Circles in two weeks. I have narrowed my choice down to two programs. What I will probably do is work through both programs once in Circle One and afterwards evaluate which program to use in the remaining circles. First, I will work through Tasc Chess Tutor (TCT), because it will give this beginner a well-rounded introduction that includes openings, tactics, and endgame. On the other hand, I frankly don't feel like I am losing games in the opening, but in the tactics-rich middle game. Because of this, I will also work a more traditional DLM program (i.e., tactics focused) using Convekta's Chess Tactics for Beginners. It starts out very simple (1 move mate), but gets hard for me pretty fast. Also, none of the Knights are using it so it would be fun to be the first to report on how good it is (;-)). I know that both programs will help me.

For opening study, I have started making regular use of this and this site: they each have great graphical interfaces for opening study. I use the first site to find the name of the opening, and the second site to study it in more detail. I am using them to help me after games when I see an opening I am unfamiliar with. I have used them to learn the standard response (move 2 only!) to the Sicilian, French, and Scandinavian defenses. This has helped me gain speed and confidence in the start of a game, and I think it helps create contexts with great tactical potential (that I always fail to exploit).

Monday, April 18, 2005

Dante's Discontents

Since I will be starting the Seven Circles (or some variant) in about a month, I went through the blogs today and found all of the criticisms/suggestions for improvement. Here is the result of my studies from all the Knights who have discussed it. I am going to read all of them closely over the next weeks as I plot my course to improvement. Maybe I should be called the listmaker knight...

Man de la Maza: origins of the famous Don's Inferno!
[1] [2]

Sancho Pawnza: great thoughts on maintaining a life while doing the Circles, and his training regimen, The 2-2-2 Plan (post 4 below):
[1] [2] [3][3] [4][5] [6] [7]

Pale Morning Dun: sums up some of the discussion and rationale for not doing all of the problems in CT-Art.
[1] [2]

Celtic Death: an ambitious modification of the traditional MDLM program, with lots of mini-circles followed by ubercircles.

J'Adoube's dramatic withdrawal and re-entrance into the Knights, followed by his infamous revision of MDLM, the Circles of Death:
[1] [2] [3]

Pawn Sensei: posts that he is struggling with what to do. Not sure exactly what he is doing now.

Nezha: decided to follow a book (not sure what book by Blokh), and has suggested that 500 problems may be better than 1000 for each circle:

Temposchlucker: I am not quite sure what he is up to: seems to have a 400 circle program over the next 32 years...:)
[1] [2]

Fussy Lizard: improving on the fly.

King of the Spill: a rapid plan using various books in addition to the Tasc Chess Tutor.
[1] [2] [3] [4]

[Note added 5/9/05: my MDLM-inspired plan, The Divine Tragedy, which takes into account many of the above strategies, is here.]

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Third step of MDLM's program? Think.

It seems that the third stage of MDLM's program (as he puts it, Learn how to think), is neglected amongst the Knights Errant. Do people like the 8-stage thinking process outlined in his book (and his article here)? As a beginner, I am finding it very helpful and am starting to try to integrate it into my chess playing from the start rather than wait until I have finished my micro-drills and Circles training. Applying this technique is challenging for me because it is an active process and doesn't allow for laziness. I think this is a Good Thing, and will try his technique for thinking actively during chess until I find good modifications.

Progress report
After 10 games at ICC, my rating is 946 (2 wins, 8 losses, average rating of opponent is probably 1100). I am actually starting to feel like I am building up some skills, putting up a good fight even in my losses. For my micro-drills (I am on day 9 of concentric squares) I have started moving the king around on the board to a different location each day, and it is still only taking me 20 minutes. I miss very few forks, pins, or skewers now.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

First week of vision drills done

Well, 6 days anyway. Given my uber-beginner status, I have modified MDLM so that on day 7 of each week I will only play games, no MDLM exercises. I hope to play at least one long game at ICC tomorrow night, with notebook in hand, treating it as an actual tournament game.

I am in a definite rhythm now with the drills: I am finishing them in 20 minutes (queen, bishop, and rook only) when it used to take me an hour. Also, just as advertised I am now almost doing them without thinking, while on my first day my brain told me in no uncertain terms that it had been thinking hard for that hour.

That said, after a little under 2 months of thinking way too much about the game, I am still ridiculously bad at chess. I want to learn an opening system. Right now I use a few strategems like develop your pieces fast and try to control the center, but I think it would be good for me to have a target on my side to aim for (e.g., where, in an ideal world, would I place my pieces?). I am also trying to learn how to develop a pawn structure that establishes a stable territory rather than establishing that I have no idea what I am doing.

On a positive note, one thing I have found helpful is going to ChessFm to watch the flash animations of games with commentary by IM Bill Paschall. They give me a better sense of the game, and how to spot diagonals I should be attacking. My favorite so far was two hypermoderns staying away from the center at all costs in the opening. :)

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Found my home at the ICC

I looked at all of the major chess playing outlets online, and my favorite was the Internet Chess Club, or ICC. One cool thing at ICC is the TrainingBot function, in which you work on over 1000 tactical problems arranged in order of difficulty (from 1 to 8). It doesn't store statistics on your progress or anything, but they are fun, and you work on them against their chess engine so you can get real-time feedback. I plan to use ICC as a rough indicator of my progress, and OTB as a solid indicator. I'll post my rating every 10 games.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

2 down, 179 to go....

Yesterday I learned the patterns needed for the concentric circles, and today I was able to finish it more quickly (40 minutes, though I still missed a few forks and pins here and there). Unless I have a mind-blowing insight, I aim to post once a week on my progress with the vision drills.

Thanks for the name, J'adoube

Thanks to fellow Knight Jim, aka J'adoube, for baptizing me with an appropriate moniker for this forum, Blue Devil Knight.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

One day down, 180 to go!

I feel as if I've started to fall into a deep well :)

      I started on schedule this morning with concentric squares. It was a great learning experience: I saw basic relationships and patterns that had eluded me before. Some of the forks were quite beautiful. After an hour I only got through the rook and bishop, but decided to stop because my brain had already been numb about 20 minutes. I had assumed this would be a trivial exercise, but I actually missed quite a few forks and even had some false positives (what I initially thought were forks but then realized weren't). It will be great to be able to do this without thinking!

      As another slight revision of the MDLM program, I am going to integrate the knight concentric exercise into my knight sight drills. I figure why torture myself with knight concentric squares if I don't even have good knight vision yet?

Friday, April 08, 2005

Seven Circles Software List

This open-ended list of software aims to help people decide what software to use in the Seven Circles. It'd be great to hear additional suggestions for inclusion in the list or personal experiences with any of the software. Note, if you search around online you may be able to find better prices than those listed, which are simply manufacturer's suggested price. Also, if any of the links are broken, please let me know! Here's the list:

  • CT-ART 3.0 is what everyone knows about from MDLM's book. I have read criticisms of some of its move choices amongst the Knights (and besides, it is too hard for me), but it is the gold standard. It goes for $26.

  • Chess Tactics for Beginners and Intermediate Players each has over 1000 puzzles arranged into five Stages. Each Stage contains increasingly more challenging themes (e.g., mate in 1) until Stage Five, when there are no themes given: you must just find the best move. Made by the same company as CT-Art, they have the same general setup, but unfortunately they differ from CT-Art in that they do not give you the the option of working through all the problems in order of difficulty with all the themes intermixed. They go for $26 each.

  • Intensive course tactics and Intensive Tactics II each includes over three thousand problems from multiple databases. This review said that the programs are great, and this review is also quite glowing. This review also gives high marks, but is a little more critical. The software is $27. These programs look great, and I am surprised that no Knights have tried to climb these Mount Everests of tactical problems.

  • TASC Chess Tutor (or TCT) is popular amongst the Knights, and lies somewhere between CTB and CT-Art in difficulty level. It includes over 2000 problems broken up into Five Steps, each of which contains lessons on about 15 subjects. Lessons start out very easy, covering subjects like algebraic notation for squares, but quickly become quite challenging (e.g., mating combinations involving multiple tactics). Each lesson presents helpful instructional text that teaches a basic concept. This instructional material is followed up with two to four problem sets (ten problems each) set up to blast the concept into your brain in practical terms. At the end of each Step is a test with about 80 questions in which the questions are not categorized by topic. If you get stuck, it will give you hints or the correct answer. It costs about $30.

  • Personal Chess Trainer is becoming increasingly popular amongst the Knights. No surprise, as it is essentially built to implement the Circles for you: if you get a problem wrong you must repeat it right away, and a problem is not considered 'solved' until you have correctly solved it six times. Each subject is divided in Training Modules, which start at a simple level and then gradually reach more complex ones. The subject Tactics includes 6 modules with 51 units each for a total of 4,320 different exercises. There are 3 endgame modules with 51 units each for a total of over 1400 problems. Finally, there are 3 strategy modules with 51 units each for a total of around 700 problems. The official price is $80, but they often have a half-off sale at the site. I won't be surprised if this becomes the new Gold Standard for the Knights.

  • Chess Mentor allows for four different options that range from absolute beginner level to advanced. Prices range from $15 (beginner package) to $330 (the full package that includes everything). The $75 Comprehensive Chess Course in particular looks like it might be circle-appropriate, as it includes over 1200 problems.

  • 1001 Tactical Exercises, all in PGN format, are available for free download from Chessville. They are taken from Fred Reinfeld's book 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations. You can get the problems organized by theme or all together. The price is right!

  • [Last revised 05/27/06]

    Thursday, April 07, 2005

    de la Maza, my hero!

    [Update 5/5/05: See this post for my actual program. I wrote this before I had actually started working!]
    I just finished reading de la Maza's book, and while I hate to jump on any sort of bandwagon, the book is eminently reasonable from a psychological perspective. When I started playing six weeks ago, I bought a few books. Most of them were way over my head (e.g., Pawn Structure Chess, by Soltis) and seemed to involve a lot of memorization of lines and names rather than pattern recognition. de la Maza's book, Rapid Chess Improvement, thankfully inverts this pedagogically backwards style, focusing almost exlusively on building up pattern recognition skills. Exactly what a beginner like me needs!

    So here I am, a new initiate into the Knights Errant, that twisted group of jesters aiming at chess improvement via a masochistic regimen . Here is the version of the de la Maza inspired program I aim to work through, starting Saturday April 10:
    1. Vision drills (~6 weeks)
    a) Concentric squares (~2 weeks)
    b) Knight sight (~2 weeks)
    c) Knight flight (~2 weeks)
    2. Five Circles (~20 weeks : 1000 tactical problems, each done five times!)
    Circle 1: 10 weeks
    Circle 2: 5 weeks
    Circle 3: 2.5 weeks
    Circle 4: 9 days
    Circle 5: 5 days
    Realistically, I plan on working 5-6 days a week, 30 to 90 minutes a day. Also, I plan to take one day a week to do no training, but just to play actual games. This is because I have a tendency to get too into problem solving and then become stressed about playing an actual game of chess! I can't let myself get scared to lose. I need to lose a lot to get better at this game.

    I have one question the Knights Errant might be able to help with: I am not sure where to get the chess problems for the Five Circles. I am trying to decide between books and computer programs. As for computer programs, CT-ART is too advanced for me, and seems to have all sorts of problems that other people have pointed out. Any other suggestions? How about Chess Mentor or TASC Chess Tutor?

    Wednesday, April 06, 2005

    Best place to play chess online?

    Where is the best place to play chess online? A nice list of sites can be found at, though they did leave out a promising new site, Kurnik. After I check out each site I will give an update on what I found.

    From my experience with Hex , I know that the following criteria are useful for evaluating a site:
    a) Do lots of people play there? (i.e., how often are the game rooms empty?)
    b) Is there a broad range of skill levels? (i.e., are there too many experts or too many beginners?)
    c) Are the board layouts and controls high quality and easy on the eyes?
    d) Are there options such as timing of games, turning off timing, move retraction, board rotation, etc.?
    e) Does the site save game histories or allow you to email game histories to yourself?
    f) Does the site have tournaments? If so, are they at convenient times or can users initiate tournaments?
    g) When you play someone of a similar rating, are they likely to be at a similar skill level?
    h) Is it an English speaking site? [Obviously this applies to my linguistically impoverished brain]
    i) Does the site attract mean people?

    Tuesday, April 05, 2005

    One more narcissistic blog

    In fact, this is a particularly narcissistic blog, as I am hoping it will help me to improve my chess game.

    After vaguely knowing the rules of chess most of my life, I started playing it earnestly about six weeks ago. I am not a willing participant in this cult, but was dragged here because nobody likes to play my favorite game, Hex . After six weeks of playing chess, I entered a tournament in Raleigh, North Carolina and lost 3/4 games, ending up with a provisional rating of 900. That puts me in the F class, which is the bottom 10% of all rated chess players.

    At any rate, just saying hello for now and seeing if this blog actually works. I'll post some content later.