It has been about a month since I hit chess puberty
. This metamorphosis included a lot of changes: more reckless, aggressive, antipositional playing style, a desire to play lots of blitz just to gain more experience on the 64 squares. Some commenters acted the concerned parent, but I just had to fly, had to stretch my newfound wings. And just as I'm glad I moved out of my parent's house (indeed it is really weird to live with your parents past a certain age), I am very glad I took this flight.
This meta-blitz has taught me a lot of lessons about chess in general, and the pros and cons of playing lots of blitz more specifically. Note that these lessons probably won't apply to more advanced players who already have superb tactical acumen, an acumen I clearly don't possess.1. Error patterns
Ninety percent of the games were decided by tactical blunders. The following plots the proportion of tactical errors, sorted by type, culled from looking over about 60 of the games:
Note that the highest proportion of errors are the simplest possible blunder: leaving pieces en prise, either my own or my opponent's. Such blunders make up nearly a quarter of my errors in these blitz games. Second most frequent are counting errors. The rest of the errors, from neglecting to consider checks, to calculation errors, make up a much smaller percentage of my mistakes.
I think this is largely a result of the fact that it is blitz that I'm playing, but I will next do the same analysis on 100 slow games, to see if the patterns are similar. My guess is that in slow games I will have fewer en prise blunders, more calculation and counting blunders. Not to say I don't make outright blunders in slow games, but the proportion should be less (I hope).
This reinforces the importance of using some kind of thought process that includes a blundercheck mode, a step that is easy to neglect in blitz games when I get too caught up in my own plans and schemes. It is quite amazing how easy it is to miss a piece out there hanging out, ripe for the picking.2. The predominance of short combinations
Going through the errors also revealed a very interesting property of tactical opportunities. There were hardly any complex combinations available in any of the games. Perhaps in 3% of the games, I missed four-or-more move combinations. Most realistic combinations are two or three move, typically one move. This is an extremely useful fact, and should be impressed into the minds of all beginners.
When I first started playing chess, I looked at the board as a structure with infinite tactical possibilities that were well out of my reach, I would sit and search for complicated N-move combinations, wrongly believing that they must be there, but that I was just too stupid to see them. My post-mortem showed me how naive my thinking was, and this is liberating.
The law of short combinations also makes sense from an analytical point of view (and could probably be proven mathematically): the longer the imagined combination, the more likely it is that the opponent will have defensive resources, will have in-between moves that are hard to see, the more likely it is that you are simply missing an obvious weakness in your attack or somehow miscalculating the combination. It reinforces the brilliant insight provided by GM Ziatdinov
, which I found out about from DK-Transform
I teach practical tournament chess. When it comes to tactics, I believe only in clear 1-2 move combinations. These combinations occur in every game, even between strong players, but most people cannot wait for simple combinations.
You can win without strategy. If you do not apply effective tactics on every move, you will not survive long. No amount of planning for the next few moves does any good if your forces are destroyed in the current position. This does not mean that long-term strategy is not important, particularly as a context for tactics, but the outcome of most games boils down to which person sees better tactically in the present situation.
In chess, there is strategy and tactics. Strategy involves long-term concepts, while tactics are immediate. Strategy is academic and theoretical; tactics are practical and concrete.
[An] effective method for improving your chess tactics is blitz chess...Blitz is about developing tactical bravery and intuition. Practice this form of tactical training and then analyze your chess "instincts" after the game with a computer.
Perhaps for players rated around 1600 this wisdom does not apply: I don't know, and don't particularly care. My goal is to reach 1500 and then maintain that level of performance so that I can enjoy a good game of chess, but get back to a balanced life
This all makes me extremely happy that I am doing the circles with Chess Tactics for Beginners, which is training me in combinations that are typically no longer than four moves in length. Until I can spot such tactics without error in all my games, the later levels of CT-Art are not time well spent.
The only exception to this short-combination trend that I found in my games were sequences with forced moves (i.e., mating nets, sequences of checks, threats against the queen that couldn't be met, or counting problems with sequences of captures). Luckily these are also relatively
easy to calculate through, as there are typically not tons of side-variations as the moves are usually forced (though not always, as even counting problems can be disrupted by a smart in-between move). This is proably why the GMs say that in quiet positions, you shouldn't waste a lot of time working through variations in your head
.3. Memorizing opening variations is useless
Another positive lesson from blitz is that the opening doesn't matter. Coming out of the opening with a 0.5 pawn deficit doesn't mean shit if I drop a piece, and almost all of the games are decided by blunders in which the evaluation graph drastically fluctuates during the game (just as MDLM observed). While avoiding opening traps is important, that is essentially a tactical matter. To reach the levels I want to reach, detailed opening study is not necessary, especially if I have a good grasp of the opening principles.4. Strategy ain't that important
This is a corollary of the discussion in 2 above. Having a backward pawn doesn't matter if you are down a piece. Until you have stopped dropping pieces to simple tactical combinations, you just don't need to spend a lot of time thinking about subtleties of pawn structure. The only strategic consideration that really influences things, precisely because it correlates highly with tactical opportunities, is piece activity
, and not typically of a subtle variety (more of the 'My bishop cannot move so I need to activate it' variety).
This also suggests that studying games between GMs is not all that important for beginners. In such annotated collections, typically you have two people playing extremely well tactically, and the entire game hinges on extremely subtle positional factors. In real games between novices at my level, this is not how it works. You are not learning the kinds of things that will make a big difference in your games. Once you have stopped dropping pieces, though, studying GM vs GM games will probably be more helpful. (This is another implicit advertisement for the Euwe's Master vs Amateur book, which shows master versus amateur games).5. Endgame expertise is not important
I am not losing games because I don't know how to mate with a Q against a R. In most of the games, if they even reach an endgame, the material disparity is so large that subtle endgame knowledge is simply not needed. I know how to mate with the two bishops, B and N, and Q versus N. None of these have ever been useful in a real game. While they say you should 'start' with the endgame, they should also say 'Don't learn too much endgame if you still drop pieces.' Basic K/P versus K is extremely useful at my level, as are the basic mates. Beyond that, not much is needed. Silman realized this and brilliantly incorporated it into his recent book (which I initially thought had ridiculously low expectations of people rated U1400: these low expectations are based in practical considerations about what you will actually need at those levels--more Kudos to Silman!).6. Experience, for beginners, is key
My coach (an IM), Chandler (in How to beat your dad at chess), and GM Ziatdinov (above) all recommend that beginners simply play
. And play some more. Build up skills, practical experience, intuition. Tactical exercises are great, but playing thousands of games, and losing lots of them, will build up a bedrock of experience that is indispensible. Especially when starting out in chess, playing mindful
blitz (thanks, Wahrenheit), going over the games quickly afterwards to get a sense for the patterns of error and success, is extremely helpful. Yes, there is the danger of becoming one of those people at ICC with 10,000 games and a rating of 900, but my hunch is that if you have a half decent head on your shoulders, and use it
to analyze your blitz losses, that won't happen. There will always be time for slower games once you feel you have hit a blitz plateau.
So, beginners, play. Lose. A lot. Get nailed with the back rank mate 10 times. If you analyze afterwards you will slowly build up a feeling for safe positions, dangerous positions, positions in which crazy fun speculative sacrifices are likely to work, and those in which they are not. Most importantly, you will not fall into the trap of becoming a chess scholar
(on the same level as philosophers in academia in the heirarchy of tournament chess), someone who has tons of book knowledge, subtle understanding of the intricacies of move 19 options in some strange variation of the Philidor Defense, but gets his ass kicked in 20 moves by the kid who just started playing 6 months ago.7. The downsides
There are some clear downsides to blitz overdoses. For one, in slow games, it is hard to get back into the careful mindset required in such controls. I have found that I have started to get bored
in slow games: it just isn't as fun as the crazy pie-throwing contest that is blitz.
Second, blitz is
largely a pie-throwing contest. A blitz game itself largely tests the knowledge you already have, how quickly you recognize basic tactical motifes, rather than the depth of your understanding of the beautiful subtle aspects of the game. You are also likely to not remember the mistakes you made, and definitely not likely to learn anything new about the game during
the game; the longer the game, the less likely you will have these problems. You need to be careful of playing blitz mindlessly if your goal is to improve: if you just play and never think about your losses, you could end up that 900 rated person with 10 zillion games. It's important to play blitz mindfully.
Third, your games will simply be uglier, unimpressive, and messy. That is, blitz games don't have the aesthetic of a well-thought-through slow game.
OK, there's my mind dump. So far, it has been very fun, but I will now play about 100 slow games to get a sense for my error patterns. It will be interesting to see how they compare to the errors in blitz games.