Thursday, January 15, 2009

MDLM invented the mini-circle

Michael de la Maza, it turns out, anticipated how difficult the Circles would be for people with a life, and recommended mini-circles in his second article:
Although this study plan was designed for class players, you may find that it requires too much time to complete. If so, you should shorten the calendar time devoted to [the Circles], but maintain the overall structure. For example, suppose that you want to complete [the Circles] in two weeks instead of four months. Do this by choosing 200 problems and implementing an 8-4-2-1 plan: Do an average of 25 problems per day for 8 days, 50 problems per day for 4 days, 100 problems on average for 2 days, and all 200 problems on the final day. In the 8 day circle, give yourself 5 minutes to find the first move and 5 minutes to find the remaining moves. Divide this by four when you move to the 4 day circle and give yourself 30 seconds per problem in the 2 day and 1 day circles.
Good to know. That's basically what I did with five sets of about 250 problems.

It's funny rereading his articles, as he says to do the Circles on 'simple' problems. But how many people think CT-Art problems are simple? Perhaps when he started he was not all that horrible at tactics. I used the software Chess Tactics for Beginners, which was great. Start with mate in one, and work up to three to five move combinations.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Scooby J'adoube Doo

J'adoube seems to be making a comeback. For those that don't know, he was the bulldog of the Knights Errant, a sort of kickboxer of the blogosphere whose blog was often embroiled in controversy. See this post for instance. His worst trait, by far, is that he roots for the Tar Heels instead of Duke.

He also had a lot of good stuff on chess improvement. His approach to the Circles (doing minicircles) was helpful as I started on the path of tactical insanity (Celtic Death was an early adopter of such a program, and Sancho Pawnza may have been the first to use such a life-compatible method).

If this is you, then you have come to the wrong blog

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Gears of war

An update on my recent chess efforts.

Coach B
A generous reader of my blog offered to help me with my chess, and gave me a great lesson on the phone tonight while going over some of my games at ICC. He's a 2000+ USCF player with a well-developed positional perspective. It was instructive to just hear him think about positions and the types of factors he considers when generating candidate moves. He made it all seem very simple, almost like even I could think like that.

On the side of tactics, he mentioned the site, which I have seen but never really read. He said he likes it because it isn't just problem after problem, but has particularly good explanations of how you might find or bring about the tactic in a real game. I just read a little bit of it and it seems excellent (thanks to those that have pointed out the site in comments here).

A few of the helpful points he made as we went over games:
1. Dream squares and dream lines
Especially when the pawn structure has stabilized, consider the 'dream squares' for your pieces (see Tempo's post on this theme). Where is the best square for your poorly placed Knight, for instance? Also, what lines are likely to be good for your long-range pieces? What is the dream file for your h rook? If you are lucky, you'll be able to get to the dream squares or open the dream lines. If there aren't any particularly good squares, what can you do? Perhaps your position is cramped, so you need to make some exchanges. Or maybe you should change the pawn structure to one that better suits your pieces.

2. Open for attack, close for defense
When attacking, or when it is time to attack, use pawn breaks to open up the position. When defending, consider pushing pawns that will close the position.

3. How will I win, and how will I lose?
To aid in long-term planning, think about how you can win the game, and how you can lose the game. What weakness would you go after if you were your opponent? You don't want to be surprised by the answer to such questions.

4. Don't exchange before it's due
If you plan to take his Knight on f3 with your Bishop on g4, don't rush it. Don't be scared to leave the tension in the position. Let him play h3 to weaken his Kingside pawn structure before capturing.

Safety is still first
I've been making good progress in my back to safety basics binge. I've been doing the Fritz attack training, and actually getting better at it (I scored 32 yesterday!), and have seen a slight heightening of my spidey-sense for what is safe and what isn't on the board.

I've also drastically increased my ratio of slow to fast games. I played five slow games in the last week. Playing too much blitz, as we all know, leads to sloppy thinking and vision. Slow games are just more fun for me. They also allow some time for cranking through variations, long-term planning, and such. That is, they allow you to think.

One thing I notice about good players is the immediacy of their recognition that something isn't safe. When showing them a move that overlooks basic safety they immediately scowl and ask "Why didn't you just take?" or "Doesn't that just leave this hanging?" The better the player, the faster and more visceral this reaction is, and the more complex the tactics that they immediately see. When I went over games with an IM, he was like that with complicated tactics involving multiple captures. He just saw the answer immediately. The Circles have helped me with this some, of course, but playing slow games and doing postmortems is also helpful.

When I started chess I began by working on tactics using software, none of which included problems where you just take a piece for free (they usually start with mate in one). This led to a habit where I would often would look for tactics such as forks and completely overlook simple captures! The past two weeks I've focused on repairing this hole in my safety net seems to be paying off (though I still miss pawn captures for some reason, especially when a pawn capture opens up that wasn't there before).

Rules are good
Reading Rowson's book has been very enlightening, and I am now an official member of the Rowson fan club. But as I said in some comments, I'm just not ready to play rule independently. If there is an open file, my rook is going to it unless I find a clear tactical refutation. I won't sit there chewing up time thinking of subtle ways it could go wrong. I am almost always wrong when I think I've found them.

I've been playing as a rule-slave for the past week or so, and have been happy with the results. I don't think as much before quiet moves, and typically end up with a better position anyway.

I was reminded of this during my lesson tonight, when Coach B said he thinks one reason children get better faster is that they are better at following directions than adults. When a good chess player tells them they should do X, they do X. When someone tells me to do X I try to find the eight million exceptions (example here).

No more. Unless I can find a clear tactical refutation, I'm gonna play by the rules for a while. If only that were the only reason adults are slower learners than kids!

Chess Drum
The Chess Drum is a nifty blog. It tends to be news rather than improvement oriented, but the discussion in Men's Superiority in Chess Explained? is interesting.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Durham's Underground Chess Club

They meet at Francesca's on 9th St in Durham on Tuesday's and Thursday's at 7:30 7:00 PM. Blogger Loomis was there, plus three others. They were all good chaps, and it was a good time. I plan on going every Thursday, and perhaps intermittent Tuesdays. It only took a few games to get my 3-D board vision. I did manage to win one game, using the Danish Gambit as white.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Chess for Zebras, Chapter 6 (Why chess is hard)

A summary of Chapter 6 of Rowson's Chess for Zebras. This is the first chapter in Part II which he calls 'A mental toolkit for the exponential jungle.'

Chess is hard. We all know this. The number of possible legal moves increases exponentially as we look ahead in the game tree. It is surprising that we feel we have any understanding of the game at all.

One way that people tame the exponential jungle is via heuristics that quickly trim down the game tree in our minds, focusing our attention on a small proportion of the total number of lines. One of the most useful concepts we use is that of material value: we don't bother exploring lines that would give away a Queen for free. There are also strategic ideas such as piece activity that filter out certain moves as not deserving consideration.

Such concepts we use to trim Kotov's tree can be useful, but in this chapter Rowson focuses on how they can be harmful.

Thinking in words versus thinking in chess
While it is often useful when a chess book explains a position in words, in practice much of our thinking during a game is not formatted as words, but as images. Words can be helpful in sizing up a position, serving to simplify the immense complexity in front of us, but they can also distract us from visualizing the concrete position, and blind us to the complexities that are actually crucial to see. Rowson says that GMs don't usually think in words nearly as much as amateurs.

Why are amateurs so attached to their word and rule-based thoughts? It is partly because amateurs have learned many fewer patterns than the great players, so the complexity of the position is overwhelming. To tame the complexity they use the only concepts they have at their disposal.

GMs, on the other hand, have learned many patterns and this eases the cognitive load on the visualization process. Their imagery is more abstract than the amateurs: they don't visualize individual pieces and where they are, but configurations of pieces and how these configurations relate to one another (e.g., most of us probably have such a chunk for the configuration of a castled King: Rf1, Kg1, f2, g2, h2). They don't imagine the pieces as colored, as having a certain shape, there is nothing inessential in their imagination. Recall my discussion of Binet's study of imagery in chess masters: I wrote that specifically to supplement this summary.

Rowson urges amateurs to think less in terms of words, more in terms of images. This will be a daunting task. How can you work on this skill? With a variant of Rowsonalysis of course! Rowson says:
To reduce the role of words in your thinking during play, you need to practice thinking about positions with as few prejudices as possible and observe your thoughts closely to watch for the pseudo-explanatory verbal 'solutions.' This can be quite a scary experience. Glimpsing 'the abysmal depths of chess' is highly worthwhile when done in moderation. If you can manage it, and if it doesn't put you off chess completely, it should help you to start building resistance against one of the main habits of mind that prevents you from improving.
This experience of staring into the abysmal depths of chess, free of our beloved rules and narratives, can be quite disconcerting, but it can also enhance your creativity and candidate move generation process ('What if I take his Bishop with my Queen and let him recapture?' is a thought you will be unlikely to have when thinking abstractly of 'material', but it could be just the right move in the position).

Rowson's take on Aagaard versus Watson
Recently Watson and Aagaard fought intensely about the importance, or lack thereof, of rules in chess. Watson says that great players play in a rule-independent fashion, while Aagaard has fought this idea vehemently. Rowson, to adjudicate the dispute, says that there are two senses of 'independent' that need to be differentiated. First, you can play independently of the rules if you are simply ignorant of the rules. A case in point is the beginner who doesn't know that Knights are poorly placed when on the rim. The second sense of independence is what Rowson calls rule-transcendence. Those that have transcended the rules have studied them well and fully absorbed them. However, they are good enough that they never accept a rule mindlessly and always consider the concrete position on the board.

Planning in pencil, playing in pen
Given that words and narratives are sometimes counterproductive during a chess game, what about planning? Plans typically involve concepts such as material, pawn structure, piece activity, etc.. Does Rowson think such heuristics we use to trim Kotov's tree are useless, that they should be totally abandoned? Should we live in the abyss of concrete chess, sitting there imagining variation after variation? No. Without plans we would get lost in the abyss. The point of the previous section is that we need to be careful of getting too locked into narratives that can blind us to important variations we do need to visualize.

So Rowson thinks planning is fine, and necessary, for good chess. He stresses that plans (which often use narratives) should be flexible and adapt to the particulars of the position. You should be ready to exchange the Knight you have on the great outpost if it will yield even larger advantages. An exchange that was a bad idea on a previous move might now be perfect given the change in the position. Plans are just ideas, so don't be afraid to change them or reject them outright. Moves, on the other hand, are permanent.

There is a Greek God Proteus who can change his shape at will. Rowson says that good chess players are protean, or flexible, in their thinking. Many chess authors say you should play 'consistently', or stick with your plans. Rowson tells us that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, that we need to constantly adapt our battle plans to the circumstances on the battlefield.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Safety first!

Fellow patzers: when it is your turn to move, do not waste your time thinking about pawn structure, whether to exchange your Bishop for his Knight, or similar strategic jambalaya before doing a basic safety check.

Safety must be the first and last thing I think about when it is my turn to move. Which pieces are unsafe and are potentially free for the taking? It is all too easy to forget the importance of safety when I get caught up in the beauty of strategy or the drudgery of endgame technique.

I have known this since I was a total beginner in the game, but when I study other topics (e.g., knight outposts) I often forget that safety is the top dog in the priority hierarchy. My description of the situation a year ago is still quite apt:
Obsess about the safety of your material. Don't worry about subtle strategy before looking for obvious code-red tactical opportunities and pitfalls. It is stupid to think about a mosquito on the horizon when there is a gun to your head.
Safety is the wheel of my chess unicycle, and I'm sick of rediscovering it.

The quick safety inspection is also the bare minimum skill required when visualizing the consequences candidate moves. If I make the move, will I be leaving material out there for free?


To maintain my safety vision, I've been getting back to brass tacks, working to maintain and develop my intuitive sense of which pieces are safe on the board. It's a three-pronged training regimen:
1) Safety Blitz
Play blitz games where my only goal is to perform a blundercheck on every move. If I succeed at that, I count it as a win. This gets me into the habit of thinking first and foremost about safety, no questions asked. In slower games I can think about girly things like piece activity.
2) Fritz attack training
Fritz has a training mode where positions are put up and you simply have to click on all the pieces that can be taken. When it takes me too long to click a piece, I stop and examine why that capture was invisible to me. This is very helpful. Some say that missing simple captures is a sign of sloppy thinking. This is often not true. There are patterns to the blunders that reveal deficits in your chess vision.
3) Forks and Skewers
A great free downloadable game that implements de la Maza's forks and skewers drill. As fast as you can, click on the squares that let you fork or skewer the King and another piece.

The above three exercises, done daily, are helping me keep my elementary safety muscles toned. I'd be curious to hear about others' experience with Fritz's attack training mode. I average a score of 13 using a three minute window.


I have written about the topic of safety quite a bit. Making it the highest-priority focus in my games was the key to my initial chess improvement. To increase the odds that I'll remember this lesson, at the end of this post I've appended an annotated set of links to my most memorable posts on the topic. Also, I recommend Heisman's articles on safety, counting, tactics, and all that--he has done more than anyone to emphasize this dimension of patzer chess.

Of course I know that other factors such as combinations, attacks, pawn structure, etc, are important in chess. It is embarrassing to admit it, but I am still crappy enough at chess that I need to actively work to maintain basic safety skills.

The moral of the story is, 'Don't give your shit away for nothing.'

Related posts with excerpts
  • Threats rule in these parts: Don't worry about the mosquito on the horizon when there is a gun pointed at your head!
  • Lessons from blitz: Most tactical possibilities that arise in games between patzers are only one to three moves long. This fact should be impressed into the minds of all beginners.
  • Why start by looking at threats?: Imagine analyzing pawn structure for ten minutes before looking for threats. If it turns out you are about to lose a piece, then you've wasted ten minutes.
  • Develop your blunderstanding: blunders are not random, but follow certain patterns. I need to analyze why I blundered, so in the future I can avoid it. Turn that self-hatred into blunderstanding.
  • My thought process (PDF): Because of the relative importance of mating attacks and material advantages, your primary goal on every move is to keep your own material safe while seizing opportunities to attack the enemy King or kill members of his entourage.