Monday, February 27, 2006

Tactics Books: Brits vs Americans

I recently got two chess books on chess tactics in the mail (hey, I had to see if Amazon's new service, where they pay for 2-day delivery, was legit). Both books were highly rated at Amazon, and I can see why. The first, creatively titled Chess Tactics, by Littlewood, is a great overview. Each chapter contains four sections: one explaining the tactic, the second describing how to exploit it, the third describing how to defend against it (!), and the fourth contains problems. The second is Nunn's Learn Chess Tactics, a recent release. Each chapter goes over a tactic and includes problems. What is nice about the Nunn book is that the solutions section takes up almost a third of the book, as he provides unusually detailed explanations of the best moves.

For Precircle 3 in the Divine Tragedy I was going to read Seirawan's 'Winning Chess Tactics.' I am not so sure about this anymore. It just doesn't seem as good as either of the two books I just got. I will probably work through the two Brits' books in parallel for Precircle 3. Then, and only then, will I do the tactical circles.

In the meantime, I am still working through Wolff's excellent Idiot's Guide to Chess for Precircle 2. It is by far the best introductory chess book I own. While I haven't read them yet, the chapters on strategy look great, and include lots of helpful tests. My question is, where are the computer programs that emphasize strategic understanding for beginners? If I were better at chess, I'd make lots of money making programs! Perhaps Psalcido will exploit this hole in the chess software industry. :)

I have been spending too much time on chess lately, unfortunately, and will probably try to keep it to an hour a day from now on, until I am near the end of the Circles. It has become a kind of drug, and I need to cut back. I hope I don't have to go cold turkey....

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Sunday Gaming: Win against a 1300

I think I'll post a game every Sunday evening.

I am happy with this game not because I played brilliantly (I did not), but because it's my first win against a 1300+ player. Such wins are important for building confidence, I think. Also, he tried an opening I've never seen so I'm happy I was able to hold on and win it.

Thank goodness people don't consistently play Real Chess against me!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

When should you look for tactics?

Dan Heisman's article The Seeds of Tactical Destruction is good stuff. All of the following is directly from the article, though I have modified the grammar a bit to make things more clear. If anyone can think of any other Seeds, let us patzers know!

When solving tactical problems, each one has a solution, so the question, "Are there tactics here worth trying to find?" is moot. When you analyze a position during a game, do there exist features of the position that, when present, suggest you should spend time looking for a tactical combination and, when absent, suggest that such a search is likely a waste of time? So the problem becomes, what factors tell you, "Hey, spend some time; it might be worth it?" I call these factors The Seeds of Tactical Destruction.

Note that they are seeds, not the destruction itself. Just because a factor exists does not necessarily mean that you can take advantage of it. But if the factor(s) do not exist, then there is almost never anything on which you can base a combination, so the existence of a tactic is very unlikely.

Among the more common seeds of tactical destruction are:
  • Loose (unguarded) pieces -- "Loose Pieces Drop Off" = LPDO
  • Pieces that can easily be attacked by enemy pieces of less value.
  • One or more pieces that can be attacked via a discovered attack.
  • Weak back rank.
  • Pinned or skewerable pieces along the same rank, file, or diagonal.
  • Pieces (or squares) vulnerable to knight forks.
  • Overworked pieces (pieces guarding more than one piece or square).
  • Inadequately guarded pieces.
  • Falling way behind in development (overwhelming opponent forces).
  • Pawns nearing promotion.
  • King uncastled or lost pawn protection with queens on the board.
  • Open enemy lines for rooks, queens, and bishops to the king.
  • Pieces that have little mobility and might easily be trapped.
  • A large domination of one side's forces in one area of the board.
  • Threats that can be met in only one (or very few) ways.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Take that, Frenchy!

Click here to go through an annotated game I won against the French Sunday night (note it is a Java applet so it may take a minute to load, which is why I didn't put it directly on this page). I was happy with the game. Luckily, my opponent was kind enough to hand me an awful move near the end, and I was able to capitalize on this.

One thing that seems to be helping my game a little bit is not only trying to play with a plan, but playing as if my opponent is playing with a plan, and trying to figure out his plan on every move. While I didn't always respond to his plan in this game because I knew I could meet it anyway, it really seemed to help me stay on top of what was happening in this game. More than usual, anyway. This seems to be a useful enough thinking strategy that I should probably incorporate it into Chessplanner.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Blunderchecking: I should never play blitz

I lose a disheartening number of games because of straight out blunders. Clearly, I am not applying the 'blundercheck' step of my thought process very well. Hence, I have begun a blundercheck vision exercise, which Pawn Sensei helped me develop (see his post here).

The exercises involve training myself to quickly see threatened squares, much like the knight sight drill helped me get the knight's squares to pop out on demand. The exercise is pretty simple. First, bring up a random game in my Fritz database. Click along until the position looks complicated. I pretend I am one side, say, black. I make a white move, and write down how many black and how many white pieces are directly threatened (this was Pawn Sensei's idea, and it is a great way to have an objective measure of my accuracy while minimizing they time spent writing down answers). Material that is attacked twice counts as two attacks. Then, I look in the game log at black's next move, but do not make the move. I visualize making it, and write down how many white and black pieces will be threatened. I do this for ten full moves (20 tempi), and I time myself. I then go back and calculate my error percentage, with the help of Fritz's 'View Threatened Squares' feature.

The goal is to be able to blundercheck quickly, with zero errors. So far, it takes me between six to ten minutes! There is absolutely no way I should be playing blitz. My goal is to get down to about ten seconds per move. Allowing 10 second for writing my answers, I should be finishing the exercise in under four minutes. At the very least, I will do the blundercheck vision exercises until I reach this goal. I also hope it takes less effort the more I practice. So far, it seems to be helping...

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Idiots and Openings

I have begun reading Wolff's Complete Idiot's Guide to Chess (hat tip to Pawn Sensei for suggesting it). It is a great book. I think I'll read through it twice. I really needed a text-heavy book rather than just another list of puzzles right away. This fits the bill perfectly. If there is something I need to work on, such as R+K vs K endings, I just fire it up in Chessmaster and practice until I'm really good at it. If I were starting over, I think I would start with this book before the Chess Tutor.

I have played 1...b6 long enough. I hate it. To illustrate why, here's a typical position from one of my games (note it is on book, according to Bauer's Play 1...b6), with black to move:

This is a typical line. There are two features that consistently are a pain in the butt. First and worst, white has two beautiful diagonals that are basically a highway for him to bring in supplies to attack me kingside. That is, the d1-h5 and c1-h6 diagonals are begging to be exploited. It it is really tricky to defend against an early attack kingside, and there is no obvious compensation black gets for this weakness. It often ends up forcing me to castle queenside, and I just all-around don't like it.

Second, what am I to do with the Queen's Knight? Bauer, in the book promoting this opening, says, "As practice will show you, playing 1...b6 does have a recurrent drawback in many cases: in the form of the black queen's knight placement" (p. 6). And how. That dam knight takes forever to find a good home, so development is slowed.

I have decided to do what I have previously said I should do as black: play according to classical principles. Nothing sexy.

Oh, and no more chess books for me for two months.

Monday, February 13, 2006

R.I.P. T.C.T.

I am finished with Precircle 1 of the Divine Tragedy. It consisted of the first 1500 problems of Tasc Chess Tutor. It took me 10 months, probably working an average of three hours a week (much less initially, more near the end). I worked through each section 3-4 times, until I got at least 80% correct on every ten-question test. In total, I probably worked through about 4500 problems. Here are the overall results from the Tutor:

Frankly, I have no idea if it helped me, or what I think about it. My ICC rating has gone up about 150 points in the past 10 months, so it may have helped. I am just glad to be done and am looking forward to moving on. In time I will better be able to evaluate the program.

During Precircle 2, I will work through, in parallel, Fine's amazing book Chess the Easy Way, Wolff's the Idiot's Guide to Chess, and Seirawan's Play Winning Chess. I will also earnestly try to apply my thought process, Chessplanner, in long games (40/10). I expect all this to take two to three months.

I'm gonna take a couple of days just to do nothing chess related, unless I feel the urge...

Monday, February 06, 2006

A deluxe apartment in the sky

I've decided to move on from Tasc Chess Tutor (TCT) after I finish problem number 1500, which should happen within week's end. There are many reasons for this switch. The main reason is that I have been working on TCT for nine months, and want to move on to The Circles. I want to learn the simplest tactical motifs cold. Flat. Fast. No thinking. Inside and out. You get the idea. I will still use the TCT instructional lectures as a supplement, though. They are a great resource (though in the later sections the English translations are getting notably more shoddy).

I will learn simple tactical motifs by doing The Circles using a close sibling of CT-Art, Chess Tactics for Beginners (CTB):

It contains over 1300 problems, and the interface is a lot like CT-Art. I am not quite ready for The Circles. As per the plan, I will stick with Precircles 2 and 3. That is, I'll work through Seirawan's Play Winning Chess for more general understanding and especially strategy (Precircle 2), and then his Winning Chess Tactics (Precircle 3). Then, finally...The Circles!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Test Table

This is only a test. If this had been a real Circle, you would be notified with a self-promoting message from Blue Devil Knight...

Circle #12345678
Total #7197195935931312131213121312
# Done00000000
% Correctnananananananana

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The 10 Biggest Roadblocks to Improvement

From an article by Heisman of the same name. Everything below is from the article.

1. Not learning an adequate thinking process.
When learning chess you are taught how the pieces move, but rarely given good advice on how to think.

2. Not adequately learning the basic tactical motifs.
Like the multiplication tables are to algebra, recognizing basic, recurring tactical patterns quickly and accurately are the keys to higher-level tactics. [This] takes time. Learning "cold" 500-1000 of the most basic motifs is worth 100-200 rating points, at least. On the other hand, practicing advanced tactical puzzles is only worthwhile if you know the basic stuff really well, and can almost be considered a waste of time if you do not.

3. Not practicing good time management.
Most weaker players play too fast no matter what the time control. This error is related to #1 because applying a good thinking process each move takes time. Visit any big OTB tournament and watch; if anything, top players will err on the side of being too slow.

4. Not playing enough very slow games.
If you study but never play, or vice versa, you cannot improve.

5. Misplacing general principle priorities and thus also misevaluating positions.
For example, a player might avoid [a position] because he gets doubled pawns, when the resultant gain in piece activity more than compensates.

6. Worrying too much about losing and ratings.

7. Never seeking help from stronger players.

8. Paying too much attention to memorizing opening lines instead of the two following pieces of opening advice: learn solid opening principles and avoid repeating opening mistakes.

9. Not reading enough game collections.
After repeatedly observing patterns of correct play, you begin to do it, too.

10. Not knowing how to properly evaluate trades.
So many players are so accustomed to the old "Reinfeld" average values of 3 pawns for a bishop or knight, 5 for a rook, and 9 for a queen, that they don't believe that these values are only rough approximations!