Monday, May 30, 2005

Chess improvement: patience a cardinal virtue

I've starting slowing everything down in my chess training, realizing after all the feedback on my previous post that I was Quixotically trying to get good quickly. I was trying to rush through Tasc Chess Tutor (TCT), doing ~40 problems a night and not being careful enough. I've started to really take my time to think through the positions; for instance, when I find what I take to be a good move, I chill out and try to find a better move, and to think through counters to the move. Now I am taking almost a full 10 minutes for a lot of moves, so I can only do 1-2 tests (10-20 problems) a day in TCT. This has pros and cons, mostly pros I hope. I see more, I do better, and I hope that the patterns will be more embedded in my memory. When I don't understand the move by TCT, I export it to Fritz and study it. The major con: I was hoping to finish TCT, Precircle 1 in the Divine Tragedy, in 10 weeks. I think I need to recalibrate things and accept it may well take me longer. Quality, not quantity. Patience, not exam cramming mentality. Hopefully it will help!

Perhaps for bad reasons, I have modified this TCT precircle slightly. Instead of requiring 85% correct for all tests, I have lowered my standards to 80%. This is in the interest of enjoyment and moving on to the actual Circles a little more quickly. Eight-five percent seemed a bit too stringent: basically I could only miss one problem per (ten question) test, and I am having a bit more fun with it with the slightly reduced standards. We'll see if my conscience lets me keep things at this percentage: it certainly won't stop me from learning a lot!

In my rather radically revised Thinking Drills, I am starting to make new mistakes. I take this as a good sign. At this stage (Stage 1), I write down all my vulnerable pieces after my opponent's moves and right before my own moves. I have now started to write down threats that aren't there! That is, before my move, I write down pieces that were threatened before my move, but which would actually be safe after my move. At first I wasn't counting this as a mistake, but it clearly is: if I think I am in more danger than I actually am, then I might overlook a strong move!

Monday, May 23, 2005

When it comes to chess, I SUCK EGGS

Well, no need to worry about my rating being too high. I have dropped 10 games in a row at ICC, some foolish blunders, some due to lack of tactical skills, some because my opponent simply schooled my sorry ass from move one. I am playing people rated around 1050 or so, so it isn't that I am playing experts or anything. I just flat out suck at chess. This is kinda depressing: I have been playing it and thinking about it way too much for over two months now. I probably could have learned something actually useful in this time: e.g., bone up on circuit theory, built a model of the rat somatosensory system, or made a new weird behavioral task for my rats to learn. At any of these things, I would already have something quite substantive to show for it (data!). This game is flogging my ego: I consider myself a reasonably smart person, able to pick things up quickly. Well, NOT CHESS. It is kicking my ass and taking my name.

The most important thing is, I am not going to give up. I sometimes forget that my skills as a scientist are the result of many years of training at the hands of dozens of teachers, hundreds of hours spent working at math, data analysis, and general rumination about nervous systems. My skills in neuroscience were not there before that toil, but are built up out of it. I guess chess will have to be the same way. This is unlike any other game I have played before.

I am putting a hiatus on playing games until I've Fritzed the ten I just blew. I will also focus my energies on TCT and my thinking drills.

Caissa is a harsh mistress.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

What's a patzer to do?

I'm a little bit frustrated with Tasc Chess Tutor (TCT). It is overall a great program, and I loved it for one-move instruction (e.g., mate in one). However, now that I am moving into 2+ move problems, I am running into a dilemma: TCT frequently selects crappy moves.

I include here one position, but it is indicative of my plight. Check out the position at this link. The problem theme is 'Scare away or capture the defender', with black to move. The piece defended is the rook on D4, which my queen wants. Unfortunately it is defended by white's queen. All of these problems involve you forcing the defender to move. TCT says the right answer is Rxa4, capturing the knight. Fritz and Crafty agree. Howver, TCT also would have white play Qxa4 next move! Fritz and Crafty both say this is foolish. The right move for white (according to Fritz and Crafty) is b2-b3. Of course, black still has control and ultimately will end up with the desired rook, but this variation is a few moves down the line and I frankly was hoping to BUILD UP to such stuff. Since I rarely see such combinations myself, this puts me into the time-consuming cycle of checking things with Fritz when I am skeptical of TCT's analysis. Also, with this theme it is given a priori that you have only two moves in the 'correct' sequence, so if I find a multimove combination then I know it is isn't correct in TCT's evaluation.

It might not be so bad if TCT got the first move right, as it did here (after all, if my opponent made that queen move, I would respond by snagging white's rook). But I have also found positions where even the 'correct' first move is not what Fritz would do.

It is a little frustrating that my training program is not playing the way it should play. Is this like the SAT, where you shouldn't over-analyze for fear of getting your percent correct dropped? If I were a confident, competent chess player, this probably wouldn't bother me, but when I doubt TCT I have to go to Fritz to make sure I am not being stupid (I am being stupid about 90% of the time when I have doubts). It is just too time consuming and breaks up the flow of my drills.

Since TCT is just a precircle in the Divine Tragedy, and since usually my skepticism is flat out wrong, I think I will not stress about it too much. When I hit the actual Circles with Convekta's Chess Tactics for Beginners, then I will explore things a little more before moving on to higher circles. This Precircle is only meant to expose me to the basic chess knowledge that any aspiring C-class player should have. It is certainly succeeding at that!

What would MDLM do?

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Humbling and fun

I started Step 2 of Tasc Chess Tutor (TCT). I will have to repeat the first two modules in Step 2 (piece activity and Queen double attack), as I scored below 85% in some of the tests in each section. I can't imagine the kinds of problems the other Knights are solving in CT-Art! Maybe when I am done with the Divine Tragedy I will be ready for CT-Art Level 10. I can see some thinking habits developing as I work through TCT. In particular, in those tests that are not organized by theme, I have started to implicitly check for the following, in order, to be more efficient in my problem solving:
1) Am I in check?
2) Which of my pieces are under attack that I need to defend?
3) Can I mate him?
4) Which of his pieces are unprotected?
We'll see if any of this transfers to real games!

As for Stage 1 of my actual Thinking Drills, it is VERY helpful. I still have to spend a half-hour to successfully blundercheck ten full moves, and am impatient for when I can do this relatively quickly! It is very much like knight sight, except I am looking for en prise pieces to pop out rather than available knight squares.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

In blunderchecking as in tactics....

I got Fritz in the mail today! I am excited about the potential it has to help me improve, and I have barely scratched the surface of its helpful tools! So far, I have played around with the 'Threatened Squares' tool while working through a game between Kasparov and Nunn (one of many in the cool database provided). Unlike Chessmaster, Fritz doesn't just show which squares are under direct attack, but color codes them: green if the piece is well protected, yellow if the piece is evenly defended, and red if the piece is piled upon. It is a great way to exercise my counting muscles when evaluating position strengths.

Not coincidentally, I finally feel like I have hit on the right method for my Thinking Drills. As mentioned in my previous post, the first Stage of my Thinking Drills, avoid en prise blunders (blundercheck, for short), was not going real well. This is because I was trying to do it much too quickly during actual games, scanning the board for just a few seconds. I have now slowed down and am doing the Thinking Drills using other people's games from Fritz's database. I take my sweet time, serially looking at each piece of my opponent, even pieces I "know" can't be a direct threat because they are outside the main action of play. To go through 10 moves in a game, writing down each threatened piece right after black moves and right before white moves, took me over 30 minutes! Then, afterwards, using Fritz's sweet Threatened Squares detector, I checked my answers. In my first game, I neglected that a pushed pawn was under threat from capture en passant. In my Second Thinking Drill game I got zero errors, and more importantly started to feel like I was building up a blunderchecking muscle that will come in handy in real games.

So, blunderchecking, as with tactics, is a skill that can be built up by slowly studying very simple scenarios until the skill has become automated and fast. Or so it appears to this beginner...Stay tuned for my inevitable humiliation.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Rating Fetishism /Tragedy /Thinking Drills Revision

I am a little scared, as my rating has been going up at ICC (I passed 1000!!!). This concerns me for two reasons: first, I feel my rating is too high as many of my wins have been lucky. I want an accurate rating. (I have read that most chess geeks think their rating is too low: I look forward to when I am that sure of myself!). Second, I have developed a little attachment to my above 1000 rating, and this is counterproductive to my goal of just getting better at this stupid game. As Heisman always says, ratings will follow your strength so quit fretting. Play for fun, play to improve, and don't worry about the flippin' rating!

I am near the end of Step 1 in TASC Chess Tutor, Precircle 1 in the Divine Tragedy. The problems are a lot of fun, and it never ceases to surprise me that I can sit there looking at a position for 5 minutes and miss a mate in 1! This is not an infrequent event! The program is really good: it has little instructional "videos" followed by specific tests for the material just taught, and then more tests that are cumulative in scope. If you get a problem wrong it will reveal what type of problem it is (e.g., mate in 1) to get you started, but not without a percentage drop for its trouble.

I have significantly revised my Thinking Drills. Requiring perfect performance for 10 games in a row before I move up a Stage is too lofty a goal: it was making me stress about the game, and especially was hurting me in situations that were time sensitive. Hence, I have modified the drills. Now, instead of doing the drills during actual games, I am doing them on games from a database. Also, I have to write down all the threats so that I can more objectively decide afterwards if I was right (e.g., for Stage 1, training to avoid en prise blunders, I have to write down which pieces are under direct attack after my opponent's move as well as right before my candidate move). After twenty games with no errors on these selected moves (determined after the fact by software), I get to move on to the next Stage. Also, in the board positions set up by TCT, I first try to see en prise potential, so there is good feedback between the Divine Tragedy and the Thinking Drills.

[Edited 5/14/05]

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The ball keeps rolling

Hello all. Thanks to everyone for the helpful comments on my MDLM knockoff, The Divine Tragedy. I have been continually updating the plan as I chew on the feedback provided. It has shaped up into something that should be fun (well, except for those last few Circles).

A lot has happened in the last week with my training. Here's what is going on...
Knight Sight
Finished knight sight drills last night. They were very helpful drills: I can now make the knight's squares pop out when I need to , and am much better at quickly calculating how to get the knight from one square to another. Some of the longer paths are still hard for me to work out quickly, so I think I should still work on that a bit.

Divine Tragedy: Precircle 1 Started
I started Precircle 1 today, which entails slowly working through TASC Chess Tutor. I already like it: it feels a lot more like I am working now than when I was doing the vision drills. After 40 minutes, my brain already ached! The initial levels are very easy (e.g., make a legal move with a pawn), but got more challenging fast. I am excited as I can see interactions between this and my Thinking Training (see below). Working on problems as simple as getting my king out of mate has forced me to put more effort into making hanging pieces 'pop out', and this is precisely the skill I need in Stage 1 of my thinking training. Overall I am very excited to be on this new phase, and since I really like doing chess puzzles I think I should continue to dig it.

Thinking Drills
Oh, the damned thinking drills. As you can see by my sidebar, I suck at this. I am always leaving pieces en prise. It often happens when I am excited and just want to make my "brilliant" move (then BAM my rook is gone because I didn't check to make sure I wasn't leaving something hanging). In general it happens whenever I haven't taken the time to carefully look over the board after every move my opponent makes and before every move I make. I am trying hard to build up "en prise vision" so that such pieces pop out. This will take work, but I am glad I am keeping the embarassing record of it in my sidebar. It motivates me to keep at it.

Most importantly
I am starting to enjoy chess more. I see more possibilities in board positions: I see my opponent sneaking up with forks, I see my own forking potentials, I am getting better at coming up with cool checkmates. Before when I looked at the board I had no clue what the hell was going on, and now I have started to see things pop out. It is beautiful. Usually I jump the gun and try to mate too early (as Fischer said, 'Patzer sees check, patzer makes check'), but it is cool to see the vague outlines of a more competent player starting to emerge. I think this is partly because I try to play as much as possible, but also because of the reading and drills I have done thus far. Yippeee!