Friday, September 26, 2008

Simple combination missed

White (me) to move. Can you find the simple combination? I didn't, but I still managed to win the game. Highlight below to see answer.

[1. Rxe6+ fxe 2. Rxf8+ Kxf8 3. Nxe6+, leaving white up a pawn in what should be a "technique" win.]

P.S. After almost a year off slow games at ICC, I've started them up again, and I just went above 1500, a rating high!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Chess for Zebras, Chapter One (Skill versus Knowledge)

Here is a summary of Chapter One of Rowson's Chess for Zebras, entitled 'What to do if you think there's a hole in your bucket.'

The main thesis of this chapter is that chess expertise is a skill or habit, not something you can acquire from reading chess books or listening to chess lectures. Rowson says, "Many players 'work' on their chess as if they were working on an academic subject, but improving your chess is much more like improving your driving, or improving your play on a musical instrument, than it is like preparing for an exam." Chess improvement is not a matter of filling your mental bucket with new facts.

Like learning to play the guitar, chess improvement is a gradual process of constructing skills and habits. It isn't at all like learning facts such as 'George Bush is the president.' Unlike fact-based learning, an instructor can only do so much to help you acquire new habits. You have to train on your own to improve to any significant degree.

The problem is that motivated adult players tend to be good at studying chess, but not so good at acquiring skills. They can spend hours going over an annotated game, coming to understand the strategic and tactical factors that shaped each move. However, this is of limited use, as they are developing a conceptual understanding of games that have already happened (hindsight). Such understanding does not usually give them the ability to anticipate and make such moves themselves in their own games (foresight). Rowson says, "such hindsight might give chess-players knowledge, but what we need is foresight."

OK, Rowson: give me foresight into how to develop chess foresight. Rowson has a few suggestions. One is somewhat mystical, the others form a nice tidy list.

First, the mystical. "Unlearn your chess, grasshopper."

We already have many habits and concepts that are likely holding us back. Hence, we should try to "unlearn" what we think we know about chess. If you "know" having the two bishops is an advantage, then you will be somewhat blinded to the idiosyncrasies of the position in front of you, you will have the habit of exchanging knights for bishops even if it isn't in your favor. Hence, Rowson suggests you look at each position "with fresh eyes, as free as possible from prejudices. Unlearning is really a way of constantly looking at the baggage you bring to chess positions and trying to work on the baggage that is most obviously problematic." Rowson suggests that you "surrender your dearly held notions of what chess is like and start to try to work things out at the board."

Aside from unlearning bad habits, Rowson realizes we need to develop good habits. You can never play free of habits, but you can steer the quality of your habits. Rowson says:
If you want to become a better player, you need better habits.

The best way to cultivate better habits is to try to work things out on the basis of your existing habits, and look closely at how you are falling short. You will find that most mistakes do not come from not knowing things, but from not seeing things, or not doing things.

You can work on this by
1) Playing and then analysing your games honestly
2) Solving complex chess problems
3) Trying to win won positions against strong analysis engines.
4) The intelligent use of blitz games--whereby you don't analyse the positions in depth, but compare your first impressions of positions with the way they actually developed.

With these approaches you are not taking in any new "knowledge" so you might feel that you are not growing as a player. However, if the arguments in this chapter make sense to you, and you can trust in that kind of training process, I believe you will find that your level of skill improves, and with it, your results.
While he didn't place much emphasis on improvement methods, it is useful to know which in the zillions of methods out there he believes meshes most with his 'habit not knowledge' slogan. [Note he didn't break them up into a numbered list, I added that to his plain text to highlight his suggestions].

Overall this is a fun and interesting chapter that touches on many themes we have been throwing around the blogosphere (Tempo and I have extensively discussed declarative versus procedural memory, know-how versus knowledge-that, habits and skills versus conscious concepts, etc). That is, the chapter was largely preaching to the choir, but it was nice to see a few suggestions about how to incorporate this into an improvement plan. Of course, the Circles are basically an attempt to build up better tactical skills.

I have some more critical comments about the chapter, but I will save them for another time (hint: this study).

I'll finish with some interesting quotes from the chapter:

For the Knights, Rowson gives a little mention of de la Maza's book:
I agree that until you are about 1800 "your first name is tactics, your middle name is tactics, and your last name is tactics." That said, if your aim is not just gaining rating points but deepening your appreciation of the game, then you shouldn't deprive yourself of aspects of the game that you enjoy more. For players rated below 1800 who desperately want to improve (and are willing to suffer for it!) I recommend Michael de la Maza's thoughtful and honest book, Rapid Chess Improvement.
And a quote that Rowson cites from Davies' wonderful article The how and the what:
I recently saw a newsgroup discussion about tournament preparation.

Everything under the sun was mentioned from openings to endings and strategy to tactics with everyone having their own idea about how it should be done. I just commented that “the how is more important than the what."

It really doesn’t matter what you study, the important thing is to use this as a training ground for thinking rather than trying to assimilate a mind-numbing amount of information. In these days of a zillion different chess products this message seems to be quite lost, and indeed most people seem to want books that tell them what to do. The reality is that you’ve got to move the pieces around the board and play with the position. Who does that? Amateurs don’t, GMs do.

Chess is not a game that can be learned from a book any more than tennis or golf. It may look rather academic and there are some scientific elements to it. But the truth is that wiles and playfulness count for far more than “knowing the book.” Interestingly my grandmaster colleagues tend to be quick witted, jovial and street wise rather than serious and lofty intellectuals. And most of us will recommend keeping a clear head both before and during a tournament rather than hitting the books.

Chess for Zebras, Introduction

After hearing lots of glowing praise for Rowson's book Chess for Zebras: Thinking Differently about Black and White, I decided to give it a shot. This is partly because the praise is often not accompanied by many specific things they liked, or concrete nontrivial take-home messages. That is, the reviews have had a bit too much adoration, not enough content, often discussing only the first chapter (for examples, see Silman's review here (discusses only content in Chapter 1) and the Chessbase review here--nice summary of Chapter 1, but then nothing).

Hence, I bought the book, and will write up brief summaries periodically (eventually of every chapter) to provide a more synoptic picture of the book. While I'll focus on summarizing the book, I'll of course not be able to resist injecting commentary as well.

The book is broken up into three parts. Part I (five chapters) is called 'Improving our Capacity to Improve'. It is a relatively abstract discussion of the psychology of chess and its relationship to chess improvement. Part II (five chapters) is entitled 'A mental toolkit for the exponential jungle' and is more concrete, discussing how to navigate the tortured complexity of the the game of chess (for instance, when it is time to temper your attacking urges and play some defense?). Part III (four chapters) is 'Thinking Colorfully about Black and White', and discusses issues surrounding which color you are playing.

Next post will be a summary of Chapter 1, 'What to do when you think there's a hole in your bucket.' Summaries will come every week or two.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Experience quality versus quantity, with a top seven list

Experience playing chess is important for improving at the game, but not all experience is created equal.

Tonight, extremely tired, I jumped onto ICC to play a quick blitz game. Got one against a 748-rated player who has played four thousand blitz games. Not to pick on this chap in particular, as this is quite common. For all I know, he doesn't even want to improve at the game. I have no problem at all with that. He is probably more sane than we are. My point is that those that do want to improve need more than just playing time.

This is sort of obvious, I know. But sometimes I get the impression that people think you can build up GM-level intuitions just by playing a ton of games. It is a kind of natural reaction against that other horrible fate: becoming a chess scholar. One who knows more than anyone else about the game's history, strategy, the names of all the mating motifs, but who simply sucks at the game. I'd rather kick the chess scholar's ass at chess than have his book knowledge.

So, how do we navigate between the Skylla of the hyperexperienced patzer and the Charybdis of the ineffectual chess scholar? It must be the quality of the time spent with chess as a whole. Am I using my chess time in a way that will promote improvement? Given my present level, what should my improvement priorities be? These are hard questions to answer, but they should be answered for oneself periodically in the quest for improvement, at least every six months (my own suggestions, geared toward the beginner, are here).

On to the list. If I have missed any please add them in the comments.

Top seven ways to get the smallest possible return on your chess investment
1. Never perform a postmortem analysis of your games. Don't think about them at all once the flag has dropped.
2. Do not get a chess coach or advisor and go over your games with her, or seek advice about ways to improve.
3. Play only blitz.
4. Play only lower-rated players.
5. Never study chess when you are not playing. Don't study the endgame, tactics, go over annotated master games, or read the chess improvement literature on the web.
6. Do not try to optimize how you select moves in games. The first move that pops into your head is probably best anyway.
7. Spend your chess time blogging.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Did Kreider independently invent the Circles?

I just discovered an article published in 2002, written by S Evan Kreider, called Practicing Tactics. In it, he advocates a Circles method of tactical training. Note de la Maza's original article was published in 2001. So either Kreider plagiarized, or independently discovered the Circles method.

Here's the money quote, and the program he is referring to is CT-Art (the same program de la Maza recommends):
Start with the level one problems. The first time through, work each problem out very slowly, step by step, making sure you see and understand everything there is to see and understand about it, and visualizing the tactical patterns clearly. It’s especially important to work through the entire problem in your head before moving pieces on the board. Don’t cheat and move the pieces around while you are trying to solve them! You don’t get to do that during a real game!


Once you’ve worked your way through the entire set of level one problems, go back through them again. This time, you should be able to go through them with greater speed and accuracy. You’ll probably remember some of them, and be able to solve them instantly. Some of them may require that you work through them again as described above, but will go more quickly. Others will take a just as long as before, and still others will stump you all over again. Just make sure that you work through them again as thoroughly as you need to solve the ones you can and understand the ones you can’t.

Q: "How many times should I go through the same set?" A: Until you can go through the whole set (preferably in one sitting, or at the very least in as few sessions as possible) and score at least 90%. Then you’ll be ready to move to the next level of problems. Repeat the process until you’ve worked through all ten levels. There’s no set schedule for this – take as much time as it requires, even if it’s a year or two or more, as long as you work through them thoroughly and spend at least a little time on them every day. As you can probably tell, it’s quality rather than speed or quantity that I’m advocating.
Wow, this is exactly what I did (except I did it with CTB, and did each problem set until I got 100% correct).

It is funny that some self-proclaimed experts like to say how stupid the Circles are, how no experienced coach or master would suggest doing them. Maybe it's my confirmation bias speaking, but some sort of Circles method is popular with many top-notch chess coaches.

On a different topic, I found a good article by a fellow named Andres Hortillosa, in which he outlines an eight step procedure for avoiding blunders, titled On Mastering Tactics. It reminds me quite a bit of Chessplanner.