Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Blog highlights

In this survey of my favorite posts, I indicate my favorite with asterisks and my very favorites with two asterisks. The survey is broken up into several categories.

Some of the best content is in the comments, so a big thank you to all contributors to the blog.

Practical chess improvement
  • A chess improvement plan for beginners (**): for the true beginner, a program for improvement.
  • Things to remember before I play (*) : a practical list of simple principles to follow in games. I read it before every slow game. Contributions welcome.
  • Revised Fine's rule: (*) a twist on the old slogan "If you see a good move, look for a better one." The new slogan is, "If a move looked good when you imagined it N moves ago, look for a better one on the board in front of you!"
  • Lessons from blitz (*): an enthusiastic description of important things I learned about patzer chess during a month of playing blitz.
  • Blunderstanding: don't just smack your forehead when you blunder: take the time to understand the reason for the blunder. Includes a list of positions in which I tend to blunder.
  • How do you play when ahead?: a reminder to continue to play aggressively, not like a timid mouse, when ahead.
  • Analysis of data from chess tactics server: examines whether more problems at CTS improves performance at CTS. Data is interesting, conclusions are speculative.
  • FOVEA (**): a method for quickly learning a large set of tactical problems. This is perhaps the most helpful thing I discovered while doing the circles. I discussed an additional component of the method here.
  • The importance of positive reinforcement and analyzing wins: I argue that at patzer level, analyzing wins is important, and also that positive reinforcement should be considered an important component of chess improvement. Follow-up here.
  • Piece activity: (*) A practical definition of piece activity that breaks it up into three components: mobility, freedom, and coordination. I have found this quite useful in practice.
  • Accidental and coordinated threats: Describes two types of threats you can make. One, basic tactics, the other a coordinated attack against the King.
  • Combinations and narratives(*): I discuss the nature of combination classification, and more importantly discuss a cool experiment that reinforces the practical importance of constructing narratives (or to normal people, 'explanations') about positions.
  • Guided pattern recognition: on finding tactical patterns. In theory it's a cool practical tool, but in practice I haven't worked it into my games too much.
  • How to increase your rating fast: if you are rated less than 1400 at ICC, read this.
  • Who should do the Circles, and how? (*): there is this strange method of doing tactical puzzles over and over again. Who will it help most, and what is the best way to approach the tactical circles?

Thought process
  • What good is a thought process?: a summary, after much debate, of what a thought process is good for. I asked Heisman and he agreed.
  • Chessplanner thought process: (*) My chess thought process for use in the middle game. The detailed description of Chessplanner can be found in PDF form here (**) and the abridged (two-step) version can be found here.
  • Why start by looking at threats: (*) A justification of having the hunt for threats be the first thing you do after your opponent moves.
  • Analysis: when and how much?: (**) GM advice on the types of positions that call for deep visualization and those that don't. Very useful in practice.
  • Four visualization techniques: a summary of Soltis' views on various candidate move analysis techniques from his book 'How to Choose a Chess Move.'

Chess Theory

Scientific studies of chess
  • Eye movements in chess: some interesting things I noticed about eye movements while solving problems led me to discover an interesting paper that tracked people's eye movements during games.
  • Psychology of chess improvement: reviews techniques that psychological research suggests is best for chess improvement. Some of the conclusions are surprising.
  • Learning patterns as planting seeds: discusses the psychology of pattern recognition as it applies to learning chess tactics problems.
  • Confirmation bias and chess memory(*): a description of two studies, one a comparison of thought processes in beginners versus masters, the other a study of the limits of human memory.

Book reviews



Circles training and progress
  • Dante's discontents: (*) a compilation of all the criticism of the original Circles technique from the early Knights. Basically a list of links to such criticisms, sorted by Knight.
  • First day on program: starting with knight vision drills. A prescient quote that day in April 2005: 'I feel as if I've started to fall into a deep well.' Little did I know...
  • My regimen: a description of my entire training program, which ended with the Circles.
  • Done with precircle 1. Post when I finished the first 1500 problems in TCT with at least 90% correct. It feels like so long ago!
  • Starting the circles
  • Changing way of doing circles: A change in my approach. I decided to do mini-circles of 300 or fewer problems. Also contains little discussion of pattern recognition in chess.
  • Sick of Circle 1: glad I didn't give up.
  • I suck at chess: one of many posts discussing how much I suck at this game. Oh, the ups and downs of chess!
  • Intense tactics: near the end of Circle 2, doing 200-300 problems a day, unique kinds of errors come up which I documented here.
  • Circles Done!: What a relief it is.

Rating milestones
These posts are really fun to read, as when I started I was so earnest about hoping I could reach 1200.
  • Hitting 1000: I was all scared that my rating was inflated. I said, "I feel my rating is too high as many of my wins have been lucky." 1000 too high? Wow.
  • Hitting 1100: 'Someone call Pat Robertson, I'm in the 1100 club.'
  • Mistakes get me to 1200: I didn't believe it was accurate (too high!), but did have hope, saying 'I now feel fairly confident that when these circles are over, and I reliably use my thought process, I should be a solid 1200 player.' I was right.
  • Breaking 1300: not a lot of fanfare.
  • Hit 1400: from the post, "I feel very happy, as my goal when I started this was to reach 1200."

Knights Errant related
On blogging

Monday, October 29, 2007

How long to spend on postmortems?

I've been wondering if I should spend more time on postmortem analysis.

I like to do my postmortem analysis the same day as my game, but am usually sort of tired, so my lazy postmortem consists of:
1. Go through once making annotations about thoughts during and after the game. I don't do much thinking here, just describing what I actually thought, and any obvious errors or good moves made. (10 minutes max)
2. Check up on the opening to see where I went off book. (5 minutes)
3. Fire up Fritz and go back over the game to check it against my annotations, especially to find tactics and other missed opportunities. I also use it to check how I did in positions on which I used a lot of time. (10 minutes)
4. Post the pgn with annotations at and link to it here (5-10 minutes).

I wonder if, perhaps, instead of playing more, it would benefit me to study my games more. That would mean postponing the postmortem to the day after a slow game. One fun thing I'm thinking about doing is finding miniatures in my database for games with the same opening. That would take some time, but would be great for finding attacking ideas.

Is there any received wisdom on the best way to do postmortem, and how long to take?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Finally a win

Tournament game win today with the Smith-Morra as white, game here. Normally I wouldn't even include games like these (he had no idea how to play it) but wanted to show the little mating combination at the end. It's exactly the type of problem you'd find in CTB or CT-Art. A typical attack against a timorous opponent, but I am happy as it is not typical for me to actually find the obvious attack. I just sat there, thinking "There has to be a tactic here: his position is just horrible." I just had this intuition grounded in not much, which made me look extra hard for that attack. This is something that is new for me. Note the annotations are my own: I'm sure I didn't play optimally and he had defensive resources he didn't exploit. I haven't Fritzed it yet.

I am starting to really like these tactical openings. Sure, the chances of crashing and burning are higher, but the same is true of both sides which just makes the games fun.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Another draw

Another draw in a theoretically very good position for me can be seen here. This was my tournament game today. I think it looks like I'm gonna have to start learning about endings. I have noticed this in quite a few Knights: after finishing the Circles they are better than their opponents tactically, which gets them to more endgames, which they are not that good at. If anyone can explain how I should have been thinking near the end, when I was up, and we both had three pawns on the Kingside facing each other from our second ranks, please let me know.

I think I need a King and Pawn endgame book. Not an advanced one, but a baby one if it exists.

Blowing a won game

Played a Danish again tonight. Great start, great piece activity, and I went up a piece by move 12. Then I proceeded to blindly follow the principle "Trade pieces when ahead", played passively in the endgame, got sloppy, and ended up with a draw. Game is here. If any of you endgame gurus out there have any principles I should have followed, please let me know!

In my first ten slow games after finishing the Circles I went 8-1-1. I'm pretty happy with that.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


I feel surpised and honored that a game I played last week won game of the week in the T45/45 league. It was that Danish Gambit. This is quite a big deal for me, as it includes all games from the league, not just those in my division. This is likely the high point of my chess life. I should resign now.

Winning by happy accident

Two slow games tonight. One Center Game miniature as white against a 1300 (fun!). The second, seen here was more interesting, a QGD against a 1420-something. Near the end he came up with a really beautiful idea for a combination that ended up being unsound, and I won. I include a lot of annotations, especially questions expressing my confusion about why Fritz liked certain moves so much more than the moves I played. PMscore(0.3)=0.79, which I am fairly happy with, but still clearly a win worth studying.

I need to learn something about the QGD.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Postmortem scoring

The final game score, a 1, 0, or 0.5, is a very crude indicator of how well you actually played for the extent of the game. To determine whether you need to go over a win (or even a loss), use the postmortem score, or PMscore:Where the numerator on the right is the number of moves that were not best moves, the denominator is the total number of moves in the game. This fraction is subtracted from 1.0 to yield a score between zero (none of your moves were best) and one (all of your moves were best). Rather than best moves, you obviously can be more flexible, adding a move to the numerator only if it is below some acceptable deviation from best (e.g., within 0.3 of best counts as best in the equation). We could make this more explicit in the equation, denoting the left-hand side PMscore(α), where α indicates what your threshold is for considering a move best.

Say you got a full point but your PMscore is a pathetic 0.1 because you played horribly but won with a swindle on the last move. Yes, getting such swindles is great, and you won, but there is lots of useful postmortem analysis to be done. Let the PMscore show you the truth about how good your play was!

Blogging has taken up way too much time today. Hence I've turned off comment moderation so your comments will show up without censorship until later tonight. :)

More on wins versus losses, reward versus punishment

Sven posted some very interesting comments on my previous post in which I argue that it is important to go over your wins (both to find mistakes to correct and to find what you did well). I think his comments are useful and respond to them here. His comments are in bold, my reaction in normal text: note I edited the order of some of his comments to make the flow more smooth. I like this topic because it is very practical. I think no research has been done on it in chess.

Everyone has ones own method and there is nothing that works for everyone.

Exactly. So why do so many instructors tell everyone to focus only on losses? My gripe is that the psychology of learning is clear on this: there are methods, often involving positive reinforcement rather than punishment, that work better for the majority of people. Why should chess be different? Is it a unique kind of learning problem for which techniques in other areas will not transfer? I don't believe that.

However, it is because of individual differences that in my previous post I said everyone needs to find the mixture of reward and punishment that works best for them. I just urge you to not trust your introspection about what works best for you. Do some experiments on yourself. You may be wrong about how you learn best, partly because of the dogmas perpetuated by the Russian taskmasters that have turned into self-limiting improvement habits. Chess players tend to like to beat themselves up, but is that the most efficient way to improve? See my post on blunderstanding for a slight twist on this. Indeed, I think this tendency amongst chess players may be a simple selection bias: that's how instructors work, so people who don't like those methods tend to not want to go far in chess (in fact, perhaps girls would play more if we used learning paradigms that were more in line with modern psychological theory than the methods used in the Gulag).

If you look at the mistakes in your losses then you can realize sooner which mistakes are important and which are not. A difference that makes no difference (even if it could have) is no difference.

An interesting point. Let's consider why it is so useful to analyze our own games. It is because we will learn the ins-and-outs of positions that we are likely to see in the future: similar pawn structures, piece placement, and therefore tactics and strategies. Plus the emotional investment in the game makes it more likely you will remember what you have learned than when you are simply looking at compositions or puzzles from books.

So, given that, and the fact that I make significant tactical and positional errors in my wins (and not 1900-level errors that I don't need to worry about, but patzer errors: just look at the previous win I posted), it can only help me to study wins. I will learn elementary strategic and tactical patterns that are much more likely to recur in the future. And in the future, my opponent is likely to see the tactical opportunity I gave him, to exploit my positional blunders (especially if I am improving and am more likely to see better players in future games!).

Perhaps the better you get, the less you need to study your wins.

If you win, you might be tempted not to take them seriously as obviously the outcome of the game was in your favour even with the mistake being made.

I don't have this temptation. My hunch is that if you go over wins and see major errors (like Squirrelchess did) you will take them very seriously. Try it and see. If you just get bored and hate going over wins, then you shouldn't do it as this is all for fun. But you should realize you are missing out on some great learning opportunities.

Also, using your reasoning, you'd never be motivated to study annotated master games, as the outcome of the game is completely irrelevant. Again, this is fine if you don't like doing it, but many espouse the benefits of such study (see Heisman's most recent post for instance).

Finally, imagine not reviewing a game in which you were getting destroyed until the last move, where you were able to win via a crazy one-move mate swindle. It would be crazy not to review that game. So the question isn't whether to analyze wins, but which wins to analyze. I am bad enough that every game has lots to learn from. This brings us to the same point as the previous bit, maybe the better you are, the fewer wins you'll need to analyze.

Another point: The goal to get rid of mistakes ("subtract negatives" like Heisman says) is by itself a "negative task", so this is at the core of its being. If one uses a "positive method" one will avoid "regions of negative feelings" when using it and thereby avoid the core of the task.

I am not saying to avoid looking at negatives. It is incredibly important to understand mistakes!! I am saying that is only half the story (or perhaps 3/5 of the story), that for learning from one's games it is also important to reinforce and understand the good moves, especially the happy accidents (this is the essence of reinforcement learning: random exploration of behavioral space, with selection via reinforcement of those behaviors that lead to good consequences).

Incidentally, the word 'punishment' is not really a good description of what we are doing when finding mistakes: as with blunderstanding, we don't have to punish ourselves for mistakes, but can use a different more positive psychological orientation to the negative chess moves. The issues of reward/punishment and mistake/good move focus are orthogonal and I will have to think more about these distinctions.

In my next post I'll talk about why I think it is just easier (but not good) to focus exclusively on mistakes.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Punishment versus reward in the postmortem

Everyone in the chess improvement business agrees that it is crucial to go over your own games. And, it is always added, especially your losses. Indeed, my old coach would frown when I'd bring a win to the table for us to go over. The losses will highlight the weakest parts of your game, and it is necessary to eliminate weaknesses to get better at chess.

There are two reasons this approach to postmortem analysis is flawed. First, at my level, I make multiple errors in all my games whether they be wins, losses, or draws. The percentage of suboptimal moves is about the same in my wins and losses, so why forsake the opportunity to see how I could have played better in a win (e.g., my game posted yesterday was a win, but I made a few awful moves).

Second, it ignores the importance of positive reinforcement in learning. It is well known that animals learn faster if they are coaxed into a behavior via rewards rather than punishment. It can be quite useful to receive positive feedback on excellent moves that I made, moves whose power I didn't actually appreciate at the time, the happy accidents. Having such moves reinforced, studying them, making sure I see why they are good, will help maintain my skill level and make it more likely I'll make the move again in the future. Again, the frequency of such moves in my games is similar in wins, losses, and draws. Plenty of opportunity to learn.

This can be especially important in the opening: many novices play book openings without fully understanding why the moves are good. Pointing out the principles on which the book moves are based will reinforce them so that the student can be better equipped to apply said principles when they are brought out of book. This is better than merely quickly going through the opening until you find the first off-book move, and then simply looking up the right move. Of course, a coach doesn't want to waste the student's time. If your student is rated 2200, you don't need to tell her "That was a good move: it's called a fork and creates an unstoppable threat." Duh.

It is up to the teacher to know the level of his student and pitch his lessons appropriately. In solipsistic postmortems it is especially easy to know the level of the student, but harder to see without help the good and bad moves that you overlooked during the game. That's why Fritz can be so helpful: an objective teacher that will show you GM-level moves, but frustratingly leaves it up to you to explain why they are good (or why the one you played is bad). Fritz is a tiny super-GM that lives in your computer. Sweet. My new method of postmortem is to go over the game adding copious annotations on my own, and then go through one more time with the help of GM Fritz. When I was doing the Circles, I didn't have a lot of time for postmortem, so I would just quickly go through games with Fritz to get a sense for the good and bad moves.

The stuff above on positive reinforcement is teaching 101, something all teachers know. And what better people to learn from, about learning, than the people whose livelihood depends on its success? That said, they also know that different people have different styles. Some students learn better through punishment and guidance than through mere positive reinforcement. But it is easy to integrate both into your postmortems to find what mixture seems best for your personal learning style. It may feel like you are learning more when your self-esteem is shot, you are feeling the gut-wrenching agony of a defeat, having someone tell you how bad a move was and why. But almost a century of experiments in psychology suggest that you will learn just as much, if not more, through positive reinforcement. Don't you think you'll learn something when your teacher says "Damn, that was a great move! You've created a threat of a knight fork, you are opening up lines for your pieces giving yourself attacking chances, and at the same time dominating his bishop."

Hat tip to Squirrelchess, who brought this topic up in a recent post.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Lucky tournament win

It can be seen here with fairly lengthy annotations. This was my game in the U1300 division of T45/45. He was good, and the previous day I had a crazy game against a 1700, and I wasn't that motivated. Thank goodness he did something to really piss me off right before the game started, so I was very motivated to win.

Don't worry, I'll be posting losses soon. And I should have lost this one. I overlooked a tactic he used to cripple my position, but then he made a few bad moves that gave me a killer King attack.

Better than mate

Last night...
we all wore goggles...

Saturday, October 20, 2007

My first tournament Danish gambit

My first trotting out of the Danish Gambit in a slow tournament setting can be found here. He was rated over 1700, the highest rated I've played in this league, and it was my first game in the U1600 league (time limit was 45 45) at ICC. Indeed, I wrote up yesterday's post about things I need to remember before a game because I was so scared of playing him this morning, and wanted to have something concrete to calm me down and ground me before the game. I got the full point. He was the highest rated player I've ever beaten.

I have learned a lot in the past year, but typically am bad at applying what I've learned. This morning was one of the first times I actually applied my thought process and remembered the principles on almost every move (at the end once I was up a queen I admit I relaxed a little bit, making sure mainly to avoid stalemate and losing my queen).

Friday, October 19, 2007

Things to remember before I play

The following letter to myself describes some principles of play I've learned the hard way, and too often forget. I'll add more as they come to mind...I'd be interested in hearing others' principles.

1. Beware of positions in which you tend to blunder.
Blundercheck every move in which you are not clearly in your opening book. Especially beware of positions in which you tend to blunder.

2. Look for the simplest of threats first.
Don't get caught up in complicated plans until you've inspected all checks, captures, and elementary tactics. Almost all your games are decided by one of the players overlooking such moves.

3. Don't spend a lot of time choosing between moves in quiet positions.
If there aren't any major threats or forcing moves available to either side, move relatively quickly to save your thinking time for complicated positions. Don't worry, the position will demand deep thought soon enough. You want the time to be there when it is necessary.

4. If you just went ahead in material, beware.
Your opponent may have a temporary advantage in piece activity, as you likely just traded your most active piece for a less active piece of greater value. Carefully look for threats he has available (thanks Blunderprone for explaining this many moons ago).

5. Watch the clock.
If you have used less than a third of your time after 20 moves, you are probably moving too fast. If you have used more than half your time after 10 moves, you are probably moving too slowly.

6. Use caution in the endgame.
Your closet is littered with rooks and queens that you gave up in won positions because you didn't check for basic tactics.

7. Don't respond to phantom threats.
Don't weaken your position to deal with a potential threat until you have analyzed the position to make sure there is an actual threat. It is easy to be lazy and make a "prophylactic" move to guard against a threat, but such moves usually weaken your pawn structure or put your pieces in passive defensive roles. Why do that to yourself when the threat isn't real? Don't be lazy with potential threats: make sure they are real.

8. When under attack, keep your cool.
You have found some beautiful defensive moves in the past. You will find more in the future. When you are under attack, you often feel the need to move quickly as if you were in a physical fight. You are not. You are in a mental fight, so level-headed analytical thinking is required, and this takes time.

9. When ahead in material, keep your cool.
It is easy to get overexcited, start moving quickly when you are ahead. Your opponent is doing everything possible to make sure you don't get the full point. You still need to think. You still need to use the time on your clock.

10. If you see a good move, look for a better move.
How many times have you gone up a pawn when you could have gone up a piece?

11. You can see the present better than you can see the future.
If move X seemed reasonable when you were considering it on previous moves, look for an even better move on the board in front of you. Plans are not set in stone: be flexible and adaptive. You can't see the future position as well as you can see the position in front of you now, so don't put unwarranted trust in analysis that carries over from previous moves. You may have missed uncovered defensive resources that your opponent now has. Try to see the position with a fresh eye. Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

12. If you blunder, don't move quickly on your next turn.
Yes, it will be tempting to move quickly to make your opponent think you meant to give away your rook, but chances are you will end up even worse off if you succumb to the temptation. You have won many games when behind material. Take a breath. Relax. It is time to think hard and make him work for his win. Look for complications, draws, swindles, counterattacks, anything to make the best of the situation.

13. In an unfamiliar opening, the principles work.
If he plays a weird opening, just use the principles. Barring tactical exceptions, move knights before Bishops, move kingside pieces first, move only your d- and e- pawns, and move each piece only once. Activate your army and fight. This guideline always works.

14. Defend with threats.
You will need to defend against attacks and other threats in many of your chess games. Often there are multiple moves that meet the same defensive goal. Try to take back the initiative by playing the defense that generate the biggest threats against the opponent. Sometimes it is even possible to ignore a threat by making an even bigger threat that your opponent must deal with.

15. The primary goal in the endgame is to promote a pawn.
It is crucial to concretely calculate through sequences that may lead to pawn promotion, the ultimate threat, and simultaneously stop such threats from the opponent. When considering other endgame plans, always consider how they relate to this primary goal.

16. Play the board, not the rating.
If he is rated higher than you, play the board in front of you. If he is rated lower than you, play the board in front of you. You can win this game if you just slow down and think.

17. Think sharp lines through to quiescience.
You often stop thinking through sequences of forcing moves because of a temporary loss of material, but if you just would have thought through the recaptures you would have gained material. Don't be lazy: just as you force yourself to think through forcing sequences that initially look good, do the same for those that initially look bad. It is OK if he captures your queen if for compensation you get a rook and a queen!

18. Remember candidate move killers!
Often you will consider a candidate move that it would be really nice to play, see that there is a decisive tactical problem with it, go on to analyze some other moves, come back to the original candidate move but having forgotten the tactical problem with it, and actually play it! When you find a candidate move killer, take a couple of seconds to imprint in your mind what kills that move. That way, if you come back to it, that will be the first problem you have to solve.

19. Fight like hell to win, but have fun.
Losing is important as you will be able to use it to learn. Chess is just a game, not an IQ test. It is largely a battle of who has more experience and who is thinking more carefully during the game. If you are thinking carefully, then you will either win or you will be able to learn a good deal from the loss.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Any 1000 rated players want slow games?

Then join our team in the 45 45 league at ICC! Email me (blue dot devilknight at yahoo -dot- com) if you are interested, and let me know your rating and handle at ICC and I'll help you get set up. It is a great way to get in one slow game a week. Our team, The King Assassins is in the U1300 division.

The best free game viewer out there?

Thanks to Samurai Knight for pointing out that has a great chess viewer. Here is an annotated game (game 2 from yesterday's set), now showing all the information I wanted to show. It includes a comment from Blunderprone on one of the moves as well as my kooky annotations. To post them, you just have to go start a blog, and it lets you insert games into the blog. It rocks! It is very very easy to use. Thanks

Those of you who just throw pgn files into your blog posts have no more excuses. My bet is that you'd get 80% more people actually looking at your games if you post them rather than just dump some text in our faces. I know I never look at 'em. Sometimes I'll say "nice game" in the comments just for kicks though. :)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

First four post-circle games

As planned, I'm focusing on playing. One slow game a day (40 30) then review and check up on opening. I am also doing 15-25 problems a day from CTB, just to review and warm up before the game. Playing is the best way to practice my thought process. I got lucky and won all four games, all on basic tactics. My only major blunder was in the fourth game. I have links to them below with the descriptions.

I have my variables at ICC set to accept game seeks only from people rated between 100 points less than me and 1000 points higher.

Game 1: English as black. I hate the English. I played a little passively at first, but once the game opened up I started aiming my minor pieces toward his Kingside, and he made a tactical error. I didn't finish up the game perfectly (I missed a check with the rook on move 25, as I was all wrapped up in a previous plan to exchange pieces).

Game 2: Smith Morra gambit as white. Luckily, he let me destroy him with a typical Smith Morra attack involving the light-squared Bishop and Queen.

Game 3: Scandinavian as black. I had no idea what to do on move three, so I just tried to weaken his pawn structure by exchanging Knights. Not the best move. I continued to help his pawn structure weaken and then got a swindle going up the exchange. I made sure to think a lot after this exchange, since as is typical after such swindles the opponent had a temporary increase in activity. It worked out and I won it.

Game 4: Smith Morra Gambit as white. After going up the exchange I made a mistake on move 22 (and probably move 21) which evened out the game. Funny thing is, I saw his tactic, and then forgot about it while I got caught up thinking about other things. The instant I see a threat, I need to scream "Don't forget this threat!" I won because I made sure to go slowly in the endgame: my opponent was moving very fast so I figured he'd likely make a mistake. He did. A big one. I got lucky.

All four games ultimately decided by simple tactics. Once I plateau with this playing, I'll start actually studying again, starting with master games (Art of the Checkmate). But now is the time to play.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Knight Shift

It's been fun being the Secretary King of the Knights Errant. I appreciate that you entrusted me with the sacred duty. Now that I'm done with the Circles, it's time to pass the scepter on to someone else, and Samurai Knight has accepted the responsibility. I leave him the keys to the new Knights Errant FAQ, to tweak and modify as he sees fit. Please take good care of the Knights, Samurai.

It will be very interesting to see what happens as the fourth generation self-organizes with fresh blood. I was the third generation listkeeper (first was Man de la Maza, then Temposchlucker, and then me). With each new generation there comes a change in the style and focus of the Knights. I look forward to watching things evolve.

And if you'll permit an old Knight to wax nostalgic...

In the past two years, the chess blogosphere has progressed from a close-knit hamlet to a medium-sized city. Being a Knight has added some stability to the ever changing and crazy city, kind of like a university or other venue that people with similar interests will congregate.

Even the Knights Errant subculture has changed quite a bit since I joined. The first Knights were hard-core purists in that they did the Circles, Seven of 'em, using CT-Art just like de la Maza. They were badasses. Then King of the Spill used another program (TASC chess tutor). I used CTB, Tempo used Chess Tactics Server. People started doing 'mini-circles': rather than work through all 1300 problems per circle, they hacked away at a smaller subset of problems multiple times before moving on (Celtic Death, J'adoube, and Sancho Pawnza started this trend, and I just copied their lead). Then PCT came on the scene (a program which no Knight has yet successfully finished the Circles on: who will be the first?).

As the chess-sphere has expanded there has been a trend toward less discussion of the Circles and tactics amongst the Knights. For one, back then there just weren't many non Knights out there to stir the pot, so discussion gravitated toward their tactical training. Plus, in those purist days, the Circles were just harder. It was like being in boot camp together, and they talked about the nuts and bolts of Circles training a lot more. Doing all 1300 CT-Art problems in one day was a time for celebration and awe. Now, when we finish, it is often doing 300 problems in a day or something do-able by mere mortals (indeed, this was what I did).

That said, it is clearly a Good Thing that the blogosphere has ballooned: a broader perspective on chess has emerged and there is more great content to choose from. Chess is not only tactics (unless you are Glenn Wilson), and you guys won't let the Knights forget it! Near the end, I found the non-Knights out there to be as much of a source of support and encouragement as the Knights themselves. That's pretty cool.

Anyhoo, before this becomes a dissertation, I just want to again thank Tempo and the Knights for entrusting me with the job of keeper of the lists, and thanks to Samurai Knight for taking over. I'll keep on blogging as my focus shifts to integrating this new knowledge into games.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Did it work?

First, the news
Jack le Moine is sick and hasn't been able to get the carnival up. Please send him good thoughts. The Carnival is being hosted instead this Sunday by our very own Samurai Knight. Thanks for taking up the slack Samurai Knight.

I started a site devoted solely to hosting the Knights Errant FAQ. This way, Knights won't have to update their FAQ link on their sidebars every time the Secretary Knight position changes hands, which it will on Monday. You can even email the Knights Errant! Their email address is secretary -dot- knight -at- yahoo -dot- com.

And that's it for the news. Back to you, Blue Devil.

Back to our regularly scheduled program
Did it work? That's the big question. I used to get very frustrated when a Knight would finish the Circles and not tell us right away whether it helped, like...that day! Now I understand why they couldn't answer such a question right away. I clearly learned a bunch of problems well. But how will that help in games?

I just finished, but how can I tell if it helped before I actually work to apply this knowledge in real games? It takes time for the knowledge to really sink in. de la Maza himself didn't improve rating-wise after finishing the Circles: he had to work on a thought process first that would help the knowledge actually show itself as chess skill. That's my present goal: focus on staying sharp with my new tactical baseline (do 25-50 problems a day from CTB), and play with an eye to using my thought process on every move. The timing worked out well, finishing Chessplanner and the Circles this week.

That said, it has clearly helped already. My original goal was to reach a rating of 1200 at ICC (I was 950 when I started: yes I really sucked but I was really a beginner, not a "beginner" who played with friends all the time). I passed that goal pretty quickly, so my new goal became to reach 1500 (I am presently around 1400). We'll see what the next two months of consolidation brings. Frankly, I'm perfectly happy as a 1400 player. I now appreciate the subtleties of the game and tactics a lot more than I did before, and that was another one of my goals.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

I Finished the Circles

HUZZAH!!!! I am finally a graduate of the U of MDLM (BA in Tactics). Say goodbye to the rotating head at the top of the page. He can finally rest from his endless circling. The picture below shows Buddy and I celebrating my graduation. I'm the one on the left.

Thanks to everyone for the encouragement when I struggled with this quite taxing program of study. First, my wife Julia! Also, without the Knights Errant, I would not have finished this Quixotic quest. No freaking way. Especially helpful was the the first wave of Knights that came before me, their patience and willingness to engage with topics was unique. It was a small town back then, but the chess blogosphere has become Los Angeles. I'm a small-town kinda guy. So special thanks to Tempo, Tak, J'adoube, Pale MD, Celtic Death, King of the Spill (the first Knight's blog I ever saw), Nezha, Sancho, Man de la Maza, Chris Kilgore, for bearing with me as I took my first steps with chess and with blogging.

I'd like to thank some others. DK Transform has been a constant source of inspiration and befuddlement. Patrick (chess for blood) helped me see a broader view of chess and keep a sense of humor. Then there is Zenchess, DG, Michael Goeller, chessloser, and .... Hey, wait, don't start the music yet, I'm not done thanking people. Sorry they are telling me to get off the stage...if I didn't mention you sorry I wanted to but they are music-ing me off. Thank you blog readers!

The final table:

# CirclesPercent Correct
Problem Set 11498-99-100-100-100-100-100
Problem Set 21590-93-96-99-99-99-99-99
Problem Set 3885-93-97-99-99-99-99-100
Problem Set 41373-87-93-96-98-99-99
Problem Set 5969-92-96-99-99-99-99-99-100
NOTE: Circles undertaken with CTB.

A total of 59 minicircles and over 15000 problems solved before I knew all the solutions by hand. It took me over a year but feels great.

P.S. My new banner includes pictures of the amazing sculpture, The Confessional.
P.P.S. New Secretary Knight will be announced Monday.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Chessplanner 2: any suggestions?

I just finished writing up version 2.0 of my chess thought process. The PDF of the document can be viewed or downloaded here. It is radically different from the original version which I posted ages ago.

I consider this the penultimate draft, the final draft to be completed based on any feedback I receive here. I will be eternally grateful to anyone who provides feedback. I spent a ton of time on this, as I have fine-tuned it to make it something that can actually be used in real games. Any errors, problems, things that aren't clear, important topics left out, typos, etc pointed out would be greatly appreciated.

The thought process integrates information from Heisman, Soltis, Buckley, and many others (especially commenters here at the blog) into something that I have found quite useful in practice. I don't think there is much original in the document, but rather the originality lies in the collection, collation, integration of information from all these sources into something with a consistent vocabulary and an outlook biased toward playing attacking chess. If there is anything original (and it probably has been done), it is the view of the heirarchy of plans in chess and their relation to candidate moves (illustrated in Figure 1 in the document, a page that may be hard to see on your computer screen which may justify wasting a precious page of murdered tree pressings).

As for the name, I hate naming it, but it just makes it easier to write a 12-page document typing 'Chessplanner' rather than 'this thought process' every two paragraphs.

Here is the Introduction, pulled straight from the document:
Chessplanner is a five-step procedure for selecting moves in the middle game of chess. Like all chess thought processes, it aims to increase the likelihood that the knowledge you already have will be put to use in games. Every beginner, for instance, knows that they shouldn't leave their queen en prise, but we have all left her hanging, appalled at our sloppiness. Diligent application of a thought process will drastically reduce, if not eliminate, such blunders.

I should stress at the outset that consciously following an algorithm for move selection is not the end goal. The great players do not walk themselves through a step-by step procedure for picking moves. Consciously thinking "OK, now I need to look at checks, captures and threats" is inefficient: it is much more economical to simply consider all checks, captures, and threats. Hence, the objective is to implicitly carry out all the steps without consciously thinking about them. Unfortunately, chess novices tend to impulsively make the first move that pops into their heads. An explicit thought process is meant to counter such impulsivity. During this learning period it is necessary to think about thinking, but any thought process should be looked at as a ladder that we will ultimately discard once its application is second-nature.
Now I just need to work on applying it more consistently, every move!!! And finally, here is a clip from the end, meant to appeal to the nay-sayers (J'adoube, Funky Fantom, etc) who say that thought processes are useless:
Decision-making in chess is as idiosyncratic as decision-making in real life: people muck about, doing the best they can, using what has worked for them in the past to help them decide what to do in the future. While Chessplanner seeks to make explicit what the masters say they do in real games, if it sucks the fun out of the game, if someone already uses a different decision procedure that works for them, or if they are past the stage of needing a thought process, then they shouldn't use Chessplanner.

Monday, October 08, 2007

It's getting closer

Within a week...Cranking through problems in Circle 5.7 very quickly. Errors now are almost all either misclicks or because I confuse two very similar problems (this happens in every set of Circles as I start doing more than 100 problems a day).....

Curse you MDLM. At least I've got my Sam, the Knights Errant! Speaking of which, don't get too close:
The end might be offensive to the delicate. I can't remember who sent me this video last week. If it was you, thanks!

Friday, October 05, 2007

Eggheads, solution-focus a panacea, and conformity

First, thanks to Liquid Egg Product (LEP) for awarding me the coveted and rare Worthless Blogger Award. The owner of LEP sucks, but his mascot rules! He and chessloser are like the tag team of funny in the world of chess blogging. And that's saying...ummm...well I guess it's not saying much, but it's saying something! I'll be putting the award on my sidebar soon.

OK, on to even more fun. Zweiblumen posted an interesting comment on my previous post:
[A] while back you mentioned that when doing tactics you are spending less time on the problem and more time on the solution....[T]his seems very similar to the constant struggle between looking over your games without a computer vs the temptation to just ask fritz right away. All indications point to the idea that one should wait as long as possible to consult the machine...
Thanks for the comment, Zweiblumen.

First, for those who don't know what Zeiblumen is talking about, the original post on the solution-oriented method I am using is here. I've expanded on, revised, discussed the method further over multiple posts here, here, and here.

I originally developed the technique to help me finish these damned Circles faster. Given that goal, it is undoubtedly working (as discussed in those posts above). I just wish I had started with it earlier: learning this set of 1300 problems would have taken me half as long! My understanding of the positions using solution-focus is uncompromised. I haven't simply acquired the moves, but also learned principles, explanations, key pieces. I am convinced that, if the goal is to understand what to do in a position, this method is great.

Note the solution-focused approach is not passive: you don't just look at the solution and go on. In fact, I found it much more intellectually demanding than the stare-for-ten-minutes method. It forced me to actively generate explanations for every move in the solution, explanations for why certain other moves didn't work, involved visualizing the entire solution from start to finish without moving a piece, etc.. It was tough. The first time through, anyway. After that it got much much easier because I remembered a lot about each problem.

However, the method is not for practicing calculation, practicing a thought process, etc.. It is mainly for enhancing the memory of how to play in a given position. Perhaps that is not what someone is after when going over their own games.

However, why shouldn't that be their goal? I'm not convinced a similar method wouldn't be good for studying my own games. Let Fritz show you the move (after you briefly think about it), and then think very hard about why it is the best move, using the method.

It's like going over the game with a super-GM coach, but he won't explain the moves to you, only show you what you should have played. This reticent and annoying coach makes you explain the move. If you want to learn from your mistakes, this method seems great. This is a postmortem technique that couldn't even exist 20 years ago. Computers have revolutionized chess, and the repercussions for chess training are unclear.

It could also be useful for going over master games: cover and guess, but don't cover too long; guess quickly and then spend tons of time interrogating the solution. Then you will be more likely to really understand and know how to handle similar positions in the future.

It's a panacea!!! :)

I like the following video. It is a psychological study of conformity (a little cheesy, but a classic study):

I'm not sure how it is relevant....Perhaps breaking free from tradition, breaking free from what everyone says is right, might be useful for renegade chess improvers. I'm not a renegade, as after all I'm in the cult de la Maza. :) Perhaps conformity is most prevalent in people's judgments of what openings are good.

Of course, the tendency of humans to conform is the kind of thing that crackpot pseudo-scientists like to point out, too. Evolution, for instance, has been clearly refuted, but everyone is just genuflecting to the scientific priesthood of atheistic evolutionists. So, beware. You can be a nonconformist and still be completely wrong. But be careful of groupthink all the same.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Accidental and coordinated threats

Based on Tempo's recent explorations, I have gained appreciation for two dimensions of threats in my games. One, the dimension of basic tactics, or 'accidents' (e.g., your opponent gives you the opportunity to skewer his queen or fork his king and queen). I now see this dimension as superficial but extremely important. This is the dimension that I first really focused on in my chess training: the side with more material wins, so do what you can to gain a material advantage. Since my games rarely reach anything but a very lopsided endgame, this approach works. Limited endgame and opening knowledge required. Tactics is God. I call this superficial because avoiding accidents is necessary but not sufficient to understand the full nature of threats.

The second dimension is the art of attacking the King. Instead of just hoping to get to an endgame with more material, which happens less and less frequently, it becomes a goal to coordinate pieces and attack the enemy king. This goal is guiding every move. Opening lines and coordinating pieces for an attack becomes the main goal once the pieces are developed. Of course, staying on top of accidents is still necessary, but they are constraints within which the real action is taking place. And sometimes you just have to defend against an attack yourself to stay alive!

Different players typically start out in chess with a focus on one or the other dimension. I started with the first, and I have a serious deficit in my knowledge of attack as a result. I have a tendency to place pieces somewhat haphazardly, where I think they will encourage isolated little accidents from my opponent. I am just starting to try to coordinate my pieces with the goal of king attack instead (all within the constraints of avoiding and exploiting accidents, of course). When I finish the Circles, after taking a little break I will read what many have called the Art of Attack for the novice, The Art of Checkmate (see their summary on when to attack here). I should read that post before every game. I have been trying to use their ideas to help me guide my planning during the game. It seems to help a lot.

Many, such as Seirawan, started by focusing on attack as the key goal, not simple tactics. Many other people I play obviously have the same starting emphasis. They tend to be better players in the long run, if not a bit easy to parry when they are just starting out (they tend to go for Scholar's mate in every game). My cousin (who never read a chess book) and I played a game about two years ago. His sole purpose was attack. What did he do? Opened his lines with a pawn storm, moved the rooks to those lines, and attacked. He didn't even bother to castle, as it wastes time. He beat me. He's quite good at chess, and his only education in the game was playing a lot, and independently developing an overall plan: push pawns to open lines, and then destroy. He is also incredibly smart, which probably helped. Of course, such aggression can sometimes backfire, but it sure makes for fun games, and my main point is that starting with such an approach will ultimately lead to a more interesting command of, and understanding of, the flow of a game, more than the accident-focused approach to threats.

I think an inadequate feel for attacks in chess is my main stumbling block to reaching my goal (a rating of 1500). As Stean suggests (in one of my favorite chess excerpts of all time), once I get competent with attack, I will start to realize I need to learn some strategy. This is the natural chess learning progression...

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The return of the better half

Margriet, aka Princess Errant, who finished the Seven Circles many moons ago, seems to be cruising the blogosphere again, even leaving a new post at her blog. Welcome back! For those who don't know, Margriet is none other than the better half of Temposchlucker.

Monday, October 01, 2007


I usually think of 'blundercheck' as a step in any good thought process: once I've decided on a move, do a quick inspection of the position to make sure I am not leaving a piece open for the plucking. Unfortunately, I am not always diligent about applying this: I still leave opponent's pieces out there en prise that I could have taken.

How do I deal with such blunders? First, I slap my forehead. If I don't notice that I did it until Fritz shows me in my postmortem, I usually slap my forehead twice, telling myself how stupid I am. Is this the most productive way to deal with blunders? Probably not. I should be using them as learning experience, the same way I use opening mistakes to help me expand my opening knowledge. Such blunders are not random, but follow typical patterns. I should first lighten up, and screw myself up to analyze why I missed this move, so in the future I will be less likely to overlook them. I need to turn that self-hatred into blunderstanding.

It is easy to literally not see a capture: to see what I mean, open Fritz-->Tools-->Training-->Attack Training. The training game is to click on all the pieces that can be captured. Sounds ridiculously easy, no? Those of us obsessing with pattern recognition for basic tactics should be able to see all the captures immediately, clicking the mouse with the speed of somone angrily trying to close a hanging program on our desktop. That's not been my experience. It is humbling how easy it is for simple captures to be invisible, what some authors call a visual illusion.

Rolf Wetzell, in his generally ponderous and out-of-date book Chess any age, has some good stuff on this:
It is important to reflect philosophically on blunders. Many players chastise themselves for making blunders, but a blunder is simply a specific move with a bad outcome...The harm caused by chastising oneself for making a blunder is that it leads to the false believe that blunders can simply be "willed away," that they are a momentary aberration of thinking. With this attitude about blunders, that person doesn't think it's necessary to unearth the connections to other thoughts, since this was a random event that shouldn't repeat itself. So a blunder, even a gross blunder like a master leaving a piece en prise when not under time pressure, should be carefully contemplated to search for the cause.
While it is easy and accurate to say "I should have blunderchecked," it is possible to get better at this simple step by being aware of the circumstances that tend to produce gross errors.

The following are some of the circumstances in which I blunder. I hope to continue to expland this list in the future. If you have any to add, please put them in the comments.
1. Under time pressure.
2. Mentally or physically tired, especially in the endgame or after a long think on a previous move.
3. Attacker is far from the piece it can capture (especially bishops).
4. Piece needs to move backwards to capture, especially if diagonally (bishop or queen).
5. Rook needs to move sideways for the capture.
6. When I am caught up in plans I concocted on previous moves, and don't check to make sure the plan is still safe.
7. When I am thinking about potential complicated tactics I often miss simple captures I can make.
8. The opponent has put me in check (I sometimes even miss that I can simply capture the piece doing the checking!).
9. I just went ahead significantly in material, and am clearly winning. Time to really look hard at opponent's threats (and whether I may have even more threats: don't let up)!
10. Knights in enemy territory.
11. Attacking piece is "hidden" in a little cluster of other pieces so it doesn't stand out visually.
12. You are unmotivated, your competitive spirit isn't afire.