Tuesday, January 31, 2006

1100 club

I finally passed an 1100 rating at ICC. Since my goal was to go from being a 950-level player to a solid 1200-level player, I think I am on the right track. So someone call Pat Robertson, I'm in the 1100 club.

Why the small but notable jump in improvement? Five Six major reasons.
1. Opening study. In two recent wins, I was able to initiate the Fried Liver attack as white, and within two moves mated my opponent! A few posts ago I said that the costs of going off book are minor at my level. This obviously ain't always true.
2. I am playing less timidly, pushing the game (as white) into quite open tactically rich games, with some very tricky and unforgiving lines in the opening, lines that I know pretty darn well. As black, my opening is still a disaster.
3. No more blitz. I am playing nothing less than 30/10 time controls. I think this is improving my ability to think, to remember what I thought about, and to relax during the games.
4. I have been working a lot on building a thought process, which I call Chessplanner. The upshot of all this is that I am finally starting to play plan-based chess. My plans are pathetically simplistic I'm sure, but as someone somewhere said, "A bad plan is better than no plan." The thought process is basically Heisman's Real Chess (see sidebar) coupled with some explicit plan-generation steps. You will hear more about Chessplanner in the future.
5. I am no longer putting my rating on the sidebar. I am only putting my rating maximum to date. This way I can track any upward trend and not worry about fluctuations that lead me there. It is less statistically valid, but who gives a rat's butt? I am playing more because I'm not worried about comments from the peanut gallery about how much my rating has dropped. :)
6. Statistical fluctuations, pure chance, blind luck, Caissa's pity.

Most of my losses are still due to my inability to see material threats (including mate, tactics, and combinations). However, I am making some new mistakes. For instance, last night I gave away the initiative in a position I probably was winning. One word: strategery.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

The Joys of Chess

From Vladimir Nabokov's novel The Defense (upon which the movie The Luzhim Defense is based):
The doctor...spoke of the fact that all around them was a bright, free world, that chess was a cold amusement that dries up and corrupts the brain, and that the passionate chess player is just as ridiculous as the madman inventing a perpetuum mobile or counting pebbles on a deserted ocean shore. "I shall stop loving you," said his fiancee, "if you start thinking about chess--and I can see every thought, so behave yourself." "Horror, suffering, despair," said the doctor quietly, "those are what this exhausting game gives rise to."

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Opening, Thinking, and Time Management

Heisman san, what do the three items in the title of this post have in common?

Young Patzer, walk with me. Which is more important in life, breathing or talking? Do not answer, oh chatting Patzer. Consider CT-Art problem 124. How many times shall it appear in your games? Then, ask same question of opening, thinking process, and time management.

I am but a novice, Heisman-san. Please speak in clear language. I've always hated zen koans.

Very well, petulant Patzer, if you actually slow down and read what is written, you would know the answer to your riddle:
The importance of a chess concept is directly related to how often it occurs. For example, managing your time or how you think affects each move and thus are both very important. The same, or similar positions early in the opening occur quite frequently so, from that perspective, understanding those positions is also relatively important.

Thank you for speaking so clearly, Heisman san. Does this mean I should should just memorize opening lines?

[Heisman smacks the Patzer with a reed]

How often is it important to control the center? Now think, impetuous Patzer, how often must one know to move 6. Nh5 in the Loud Liver Quiet Variation?

Thank you, sensei. Thank you! But what if I just like to memorize opening variations, the way I like to, say, watch the Simpsons.

Very well, young Patzer. But do not forget the principles.

One more question. Does all of this mean tactics aren't important?

[Heisman gives Patzer three smacks with the reed.]

Monday, January 23, 2006

Bookup is sweet

I have decided to stick to more mainstream beginner defenses than the accelerated dragon and the Nimzo-Indian. It's simply less work, and I want to keep the focus on the Circles. I am entering a new, simplified, repertoire in Bookup (a nice tutorial video is here). It is much better than using the Chessmaster opening book in two ways. First, the professional version has a 'Training Wizard' that will quiz you on your opening system. Second, it automatically finds transposes so you don't have to do any work to deal with 'em.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Evaluation factors and the plans they spawn

The ultimate goal in chess is to mate your opponent. Below I list the five factors that, during the middlegame, seem to be the most important in evaluating which player is more likely to reach that goal. The factors can be used in two ways, first to generate candidate moves, and second to select which candidate move to implement.

First, the five factors help to generate candidate moves. This is because each factor suggests specific goals (usually called plans) that help you think of moves to reach those goals. Because I want to incorporate the five factors into a concrete, plan-driven, thinking process, for each factor I include a brief discussion of some of its correlative specific goals.

Second, and probably more importantly, regardless of how you come up with your candidate move list, the five factors are used to select which candidate to implement. That is, for each candidate move, you need to think about what board positions will likely result from that move, and evaluate these positions using the five factors. The candidate move that leads to the best board position, evaluated using some combination of the five factors, should be your actual move.

In a future post, I will work up a middlegame thinking process that draws heavily from the present post. Any suggestions for improvement appreciated. I would especially like to know of any glaring omissions.

The Five Factors
A. Threats against material
This includes direct threats to the king, other material, and more subtle tactical possibilities. Especially look for forcing combinations triggered by checking and the threat of capture. Such combinations can control the flow of the game. Always start with this factor when generating a list of candidate moves, because if a threat against you is bad enough (e.g., check), you will have to deal with it.

General plan: preserve your own material, and take away your opponent's material. There are many specific goals/plans that are suggested by threats against material. For example, get out of check. Deal with that attack on the queen. Take the opponent's queen because she left it wide open. Look for tactical maneuvers to attack the opponent (forks, skewers, pins, etc). Pile up more threats on an already threatened piece.

B. Material
Who has more material? This is the factor that everybody intuitively considers, and rightly so: if you are down a queen and a rook, it is probably time to resign. Materiel advantages can be localized (e.g., less material overall, but good material piled up kingside). A kingside pawn majority is also a localized material advantage.

General plan: gain a material advantage. Plan examples: If I am way ahead in material, use material exchanges to get to an easy endgame. Don't use such exchanges if behind. Build a material advantage queenside. Push a passed pawn. If the game is open, try to take his bishops and preserve yours. If it is closed, take his knights and preserve yours. Also see factor A, Threats against material.

C. King Safety
Is the king well-protected? For instance, have you castled? Is his pawn barrier intact? Does he have escape squares if there are impending threats?

General plan: make your damned king safe, and make your opponent's king unsafe. Plan examples: Castle. Be on the lookout for encroaching checking/mating possibilities. Preserve the integrity of your king's pawn protectors. Place your bishop to remove the enemy king's escape squares.

D. Piece Mobility
How much of the board can be reached by your material? Are your pieces that do have mobility aimed toward valuable territory? Which pieces are locked in behind other pieces?

General plan: maximize your mobility and minimize the opponent's. Plan examples: Secure knights in the center. Improve queen mobility kingside. Activate your inactive bishop. Close your opponent's bishop in. Don't take your opponent's g pawn because it will give his rook a half-open file.

E. Pawn structure
Who has the healthiest pawn structure? Who has more pawn islands? Where are the isolated, backwards, doubled, and passed pawns? Are they good or bad?

General plan: strengthen your own pawn structure and weaken the opponent's. Plan examples: Exchange knights, forcing doubled pawns. Attack his backward pawn. Destroy his pawn structure with my rook. Create a pawn outpost for your knight.

In writing this up, I have drawn from many sources, most importantly Dan Heisman's Novice Nook articles and A First Book of Morphy.

A few caveats are in order. First, multiple books are written about each of the factors, so obviously the above discussion is schematic. Also, the factors aren't mutually exclusive: material considerations obviously overlap with considerations of material threats. Finally, the list is probably not exhaustive: there are arguably factors I have left out (the factor of 'space' is often used, but that is implicitly taken care of by piece mobility).

In a future post, I will describe a middlegame thinking process that draws heavily from the present post. Any comments, omissions, etc. appreciated. I would especially like to know if there are any major goals I have left out in the discussion of the individual factors.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Tasc Chess Tutor: Mating Howler #2

In the tradition of King of the Spill, another howler provided for your enjoyment from the Tasc Chess Tutor:

Notice I have mated black, but as you can see in the window on the lower left, TCT has informed me that I made an incorrect move (no, the goal of the exercise was not to avoid mating your opponent).

Overall, TCT is a great program, but it is nice to sometimes take the taskmasker to task. Someday I hope to start a thread of TCT mistakes that we can update, for future Knights.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Comments now posted: My Apologies!

I just realized that I had inadvertently changed my settings so that comments didn't show up until I approved them--the comments have been accumulating in a pile at blogger's server. This problem is now fixed, the comments are all posted, and I apologize to those of you whose comments were left in purgatory this week.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Real chess/Thanks to Sancho Pawnza

I have been making an effort to thoroughly think through the consequences of my moves, what Heisman calls 'Real Chess' (see sidebar). It is really hard to play Real Chess on every move, and I still screw up, especially near the end of the game when I am getting mentally drained. This makes the games more intellectually demanding, and involves using all the time on the clock, but so far it seems to be helping me win some games. I am hoping it becomes an automatic process, rather than something I have to think about.

I had just finished a game at ICC last night, and got a hello message from none other than our own Knight Victorious Sancho Pawnza. He generously analyzed two games I had just played. It was very helpful, and despite the fact that Sancho's rating is ~900 points higher than mine, I could actually understand what he was saying. Very helpful analysis: thanks, Sancho!

Sancho helped me see that I am a bit passive in my play. Whenever possible, I need to consider what advantages I can squeeze out of the forcing moves following a check. Sancho saw some beautiful forced combinations early in my games. While I probably would not have seen most of them, some are within my talents, so I need to be a little more bold in my attacks. My fear is that I will miscalculate and lose a major piece, but I think I need to at least start considering such forcing moves. I am so worried about losing a piece that I don't even consider putting my opponent in check until I am sure I have a mating combination.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Cigar manufacturers marketing to the Knights?

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Opening binge...I need to purge

My opening binge has been fun, and has made me realize a few things.

Most importantly, it has made me realize that the disadvantages that accrue from going off book are typically so small that they just don't matter at my level. The "off book" openings are often just barely worse than "on book" openings: I was naively imagining that when my opponents go off book, my opening would supply a simple recipe to punish them with a suite of well-known responses that would put me up at least a minor piece. Alas, it just don't work that way : typically the repertoire has a series of moves that make the game equal after 10 moves rather than slightly in white's favor. A 5 centipawn improvement is not going to win this patzer any games. I now better understand why people try to teach beginners opening principles rather than opening systems.

The binge has also showed me that obscure opening systems are a double-edged sword. In the Ruy Lopez even Patzers like me usually stay on book for 5 moves (until 5. Bb3). However, when I play the Accelerated Dragon and Nimzo-Indian white is often "off book" by move 2. On one hand this is good, since in theory when someone goes off book that is supposed to be an opportunity to punish them (but see previous paragraph on why this isn't really all that big a help). On the other hand, it means I have to learn a lot more variations: when other people don't know what is "on book" they play lines I haven't investigated, and I am simply not good enough to immediately see why one line is worse than another. Another pitfall is that when I am in "opening book" mode during a game my thinking cap is in the desk drawer, so I need to be very careful to stop and think after the first move that is out of my repertoire (I remember reading a Heisman article that advises precisely this strategy).

Thirdly, the strong excitement I had for 'Chess Openings for Black, Explained' (see two posts ago) has begun to give way to reality. One frustrating thing is that they sometimes overstate how good its moves are, saying things like "Black's chances look good here" when the board is one on which I would much rather be white. Also, any opening book that gives the advice to not switch openings, to just stick with it, is in some ways cultish and self-serving. If you are a master and have been playing the Guico for years, I grant that switching would be a big pain. But for people just starting out, switching around is probably good for gaining overall knowledge of the sport, and will help me find the best system once I have a better sense of my chess style. At that point, I will be better suited to pick that opening which best suits my style, and should probably more rigidly stick to the "don't be a switcher" advice.

Hence, in conclusion, ipso facto, cogito ergo sum, caveat emptor, I am glad I have been focusing mostly on tactics all this time rather than openings! Putting my official opening study near the end of the Divine Tragedy is a sound strategy.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Openings: Chessmaster and Kenilworth

I recently got Chessmaster 10: it is great. Very user-friendly, other than the lame-ass fact that you have to have the original CD in the drive to start the game. I finally figured out how to use it to make an opening book, so today I have inaugerated my first opening book (hyper-accelerated dragon in response to e4, and Nimzo-Indian in response to d4).

Making an opening book in Chessmaster is wicked fun: just enter the moves by sliding the pieces around and enter annotations at will (my annotation for 1. e4, for instance, is 'This is the most played opening in chess. If you don't have a good response, you are screwed!'). The only fear I have is that I'll get too into opening study: it is so fun and easy with Chessmaster. Even the authors of the opening book from the previous post suggest that you don't spend a whole lot of time on opening study (OTOH, I haven't spent any time officially studying opening, so perhaps I am deserved some leeway). Never fear: I have not abandoned my tactics, and am still working the Divine Tragedy.

On another topic, hats off to Patrick, who in a previous post, pointed me to the Kenilworth Chess Club's excellent page of links to opening study. Those folks in New Jersey seem to have caffeine in their blood, as they tirelessly make fantastic lists.

Anyway, having lots of fun with the opening book thing today!