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.


Blogger Glenn Wilson said...

I like the list.

4. If you just went ahead in material, beware.
Exactly. Your pieces were positioned for one goal that may no longer apply and need to be regrouped.

6. Use caution in the endgame.
It surprises some players how tactical endgames can be. In endgames, it is still all about the tactics. (Remember rules 1 and 2 in the endgame).

8. When under attack, keep your cool.
I would add to always look for the counterattacking moves not just the pure defensive ones.

I would emphasize your rules 1 and 2 the most as they apply in every position (yes, I am capable of blundering at any time).

10/20/2007 06:07:00 AM  
Blogger Temposchlucker said...

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.

Now I have read My System myself, I notice that people have the wrong idea by the word "prophylactic". It is often used as "defensive". Nimzovitsch advises in most cases to make no attacking moves nor defensive moves, but moves that load up your position with vitalizing power. Power that automatically comes free when uncorked. Prophylaxis is most of the time just a side effect of such vitalizing move. If you have the choice between two vitalizing moves, chose the one which add prophylaxis.

Pure defensive moves are usually bad. Since they accomplish only one task. Especially when your opponent is thinking along other lines, such move tends to keep the phantoms out. Those moves have to be avoided at all costs, whenever possible.

10/20/2007 07:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good advice. i dont have a specific list, if I had to make one of 4 main principles, it would probably look something like this:

1. be aware
2. take your time
3. dont get nervous
4. the decision each move is about this move and not about future moves and not about past moves.

I think those points are already incorporated in your list.

kind regards,

10/20/2007 09:38:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Glenn: good point on number 8! I agree also, rules 1 and 2 are key every single move. I am starting to appreciate that more and more. It's like I'm not learning more, I'm learning how to prioritize what I already knew. And it seems to all help.

Tempo: That's why I put the term in 'scare quotes' (the double quotes) to signify derision. :) It isn't real prophylaxis, but "prophylaxis".

But point well taken that pure defensive moves tend to be bad, as Glenn also alluded to. I had never thought of things that way.

Svensp: A nice, succinct list. Succinctness is not my strong suit!

10/20/2007 12:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I like your list, but I think there is something missing. Sometimes the position is so HOPELESS that I believe it comes to a point when you should decide that you are playing for a draw. Incidentally, it does not mean that you should play passively and without threats, as the position is hopeless, but that you should focus the threats to create a draw (sacrifices to get perpetual, for example). I have found playing for a draw very useful in my own games, as is always better to get a draw than losing.

11/29/2007 06:18:00 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

Great list.

I would perhaps also suggest;

"Follow the pawns. Decide which side of the board you should play on, and try to play consistently, whilst also bearing in mind that play in the centre takes priority."

[On an unrelated note, the link in your rotating blogroll to chessmasterorbust is dead]

3/26/2010 08:07:00 AM  

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