Thursday, January 21, 2010

Thanks, Robinson

Useful analysis of MDLM from previous post comment section:
I think one thing that is often overlooked in Michael de la Maza's success is the high number of rated games he played over a relatively short period of time. I've read many, many of the past Knights Errant posts and I don't find a lot of comments about the number of rated, slow games being played as part of their improvement programs. (Nor do I find a lot on people talking about doing the micro-level drills).

MDLM played 193 rated games in 45 events from July 1999-July 2001. He's only ever played 4 games that were quick rated. These quick-rated gamers were in the second-ever rated event that he played in and he received a provisional quick rating of 1649, which remains as his quick rating to this very day. So, 189 slow, rated games played over a 2-year period. This is an average of nearly two serious games per week. He accomplished this by playing a combination of a weekly regular game and a number of weekend Swiss events.

His rating after this period was 2041. During these 193 rated games, he played 143 different opponents for a record of 116-55-22 (W-L-D) (.658). His best upset was vs. Robert Egan (1713), 417 points higher rated (08-22-1999). His best draw was vs. Edwin Burnett (1556), who was 295 points higher rated at the time (08-08-1999). His worst loss was to a player 479 points lower rated, Samuel Atwood (1043) (02-29-2000), who was also the lowest rated player he ever lost to in a rated game.

The highest rated opponent he ever beat? Joel Johnson (2207) (10-31-2000). The highest rated opponent he ever drew was Herbert Carswell Jr. (1991) (7-05-2001).

Against players rated higher than him, he was 33-39-9 (.463). Against those rated 100 or more points above him, he was 17-32-3 (.356).

Against lower rated players, he was 83-16-13 (.799). Against those rated 100 or more points lower, he was 57-10-5 (.826).

MDLM was 41-13-14 (.706) against players who had a rating within 100 points plus or minus of his rating.

If we consider MDLM's lowest rating, which is a rating and not playing strength, as 1163 (his provisional rating after his first 4 games), then we can say his ratings climb was 878 points in about 730 days. However, since his ratings climb happened immediately upon beginning playing rated chess, it is very difficult to make any determination about actual playing strength at any given time. Though he says his rating made him a "Class D player because I played, well, like a Class D player," he is being a little bit disingenuous because his rating immediately went up from there and in four months later he had a 1421 rating and four months after that a 1600 rating.

Perhaps the circles didn't help him as much as playing slow rated games. Because he did both, we can't separate out the effects. Perhaps the best way to improve at tactics is to play slow games and go over them after.

That's one reason why, for beginners, I emphatically do not recommend the Circles, but simply playing lots of games (as described in my Chess Study Plan for Beginners). As I said there:
Much like learning to sing or swim well, chess skills are built up largely from extensive practice. Hence, as a beginner, it is most crucial to simply play chess. Some people attempt to improve at chess by focusing on everything but playing: they do puzzles, read lots of books, or (worst of all) spend lots of time studying openings. As I discuss below, some of these things are important, but if you are truly a novice you need to develop some intuitions about the mechanics of the game by playing as much as possible.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, Robinson.

I agree with the main idea that playing a lot of games was a large contributor to his rating gain. I find it odd when chess improvement seekers practice long hours and play realtively few games. I think playing a lot of slow games is quite beneficial to me for several reasons:

1. I feel almost no pressure during individual games, because I'm likely to play 5-10 slow games per week some weeks. That removes one distraction that players who have a high practice to playing ratio have to deal with. If you practice 1.5 hours a day 6 days a week and then play games on say Sunday, you are going to really put pressure on yourself to show some improvement on Sunday. I don't believe that pressure is beneficial.

2. After you lose enough games to players rated 200 points below you and win games against players rated 200 points above you, you realize that everyone in the class levels has gaps in ability or knowledge. Losing helps you focus on your weak areas, i.e. where you went wrong and why. I no longer feel dejected when someone lower rated beats me, and I don't get really excited when I beat someone higher. I don't beat myself up over a single loss no matter how frustrating the circumstances. Ego takes a backseat to learning from each game.

3. For those people like MDLM and myself, you learn to give 100% effort to each game. I don't look at anything but the board when I play. I don't play when I'm tired, hungry, etc. I don't play if I have a lot on my mind from my job, private life, etc. Just by choosing the times you compete and playing lots of games, you will catch some percentage of opponents that are playing while distracted, hungry, bored, restless, etc. This would be the same OTB. Some people are going to mentally wear down at a tournament, feel dejected due to earlier losses, feel over confident due to a pior win, etc. My point in #3 here is that you can skew your performance until you reach a rating level where a relatively high percentage of the other players are approaching each game as seriously as you are.

4. The most obvious benefit is more feedback than players who play less often. The more games you can accumulate against stronger ooposition, the quicker you eradicate bad habits and form good ones. For instance, I know that when I'm up 1 pawn early and I have the ooportunity to grab another but it will provide some counter attacks and I'll be behind in development and uncastled, I would prefer to castle and develop. Against very weak opponents, you can pawn grab, against intermediate and up, you are playing roulette. I can't imagine why anyone would want to accumulate game experience slowly while trying so hard to improve through practice alone. You will become great at tactics or endgames or whatever you are studying, but you will lose games due to still having the judgement of a player who has played 100 slow games versus someone who has played 500. If you blance the playing practice ratio, you get a more even progression in both knowledge/skills and experience at the same time.

5. You learn to trust your calculating ability. Sure, you practice tactics a few hours a week and learn to win positions that are set up for you. However, when you play 90 minutes to set up a winning position in a real game, you have invested time and mental effort and you don't want to blow your chance. You can either play a safe move and hope an easier tactical sequence comes around later or go for the win knowing that incorrect calculation loses immediatlly. You go through this enough and you begin to build confidence that you will find the right move and find it in a reasonable amount of time.

I disagree with the point about identifying his true playing strength. I experienced a similar jump as soon as I discovered tactical practice. I gained about 300 points in a couple months without changing any other variable or studying any other facet of chess.

1/21/2010 03:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As always, yet another entertaining piece on chess improvement. Thanks for that. Fantastic was the 'at-a-glance statistical projection’ of MDLM. Never really thought in that way.
100 tournament games per year in classical time limit is a significantly large number to cover (especially comparing my own 35 games in the last two years and even they were quite taxing!). However, this shows the commitment that MDLM had during that period for chess. This also implicitly says that he could invest time and efforts on chess at that period. Unfortunately, for many of us, efforts are there but time is not.
I never did circles. Nor am I much enthusiastic about say ‘3000 most important tactical positions over the chess board’ kind of stuff. It is not because these exercises do not have merit, the surely do. But somehow it never appealed me. When I first seriously started working on chess, I discovered that I was not being able to set up the traps as frequently and as subtly as my opponents were doing. I was playing well, was not blundering much, and drawing a lot. But, my games were almost exclusively reactive rather than pro-active. How can I set up these traps were my fundamental struggle. To achieve that, I began to read middle-game books and books on tactics. But most books start a position, from where a tactical solution can be achieved. The hardly say, how such position was created. It is true that some tactics are accidental. But it is also true, that you develop to your Bishop on d3 and always keep an eye on h7 for a possible Greek-gift. That means there are themes to be learned and if these themes are learned well then these relatively few themes can be combined to produce numerous different traps and tactics will follow. I am still doing that. The openings that I play and the openings that I usually encounter … I study the possible tactical themes that can be applied to them. First I go through the database games which ended very quickly (within 20 moves). This gives a fairly good idea about the opening mistakes. Then I try to find the key positions in each variation (say after move 16! in the very sharp Noteboom variation of the Semi-Slav). Here, I spend quite some time on each position and try to record as much variations as I can see. Only after being familiar with the advantages and disadvantages of that particular position, I venture into the important moves played by the masters and probable pawn structure that commonly arises in that line (very important if you want to win in the endgame). It is interesting to note that, often you will find in a similar line, say for English attack against Najdorf, different players are using different but almost equally strong answers. Here, you have to choose your own move suitable with your style and dig deep into that. This will both economize and optimize your strength as you would probably be able to analyze the resulting positions more deeply than venturing into all the possible lines.
Anyway, I am digressing. My point is if I can master couple of simple themes and really know how to construct them on the chess board, perhaps I will be able to economize my effort from studying a lot of tactical positions that may or may not ever arise in any of my games. I was greatly helped by three books in this regard. These are: i) Viktor Pozharsky’s three volume books titled, ‘Modern Chess Self-Instructor’, ii) Vukovic’s famous classic the ‘Art of Attack in Chess’, and iii) The Art of Middlegame by Keres and Kotov.
All the best to you and our chess friends.

1/21/2010 04:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, you're welcome. Here's the second half of my comment, which was too long to submit:

Another important point to remember: MDLM's rating went up 4.55 ratings points per game. Improvers set goals for improving so many ratings points per year without playing enough games to realistically do that. I don't think MDL should be seen as some kind of ideal model for improvers, because most improvers have languished at certain ratings levels for long periods of time or a large number of games, while MDLM did not. But, if we do take his results as an ideal curve for ratings improvement, then we cannot expect to gain more than 4.55 ratings points per game ourselves over any large number of games. So, never forget that a lot of playing of chess is needed to increase playing strength and a lot of rated games are needed in order for your rating to accurately reflect your strength.

I believe that these results -- his excellent results against players rated lower than him and never losing to anyone rated lower than 1043 -- show that part of MDLM's rapid ratings climb came from minimizing the worst kinds of mistakes mistakes early on ("getting rid of the big squiggly lines") and taking all opponents seriously. Of course, what it really may show is that MDLM's was always under-rated compared to his playing strength. I'd definitely be interested in finding out more about the chess he played before he began playing rated chess and the lessons he received.

I agree with MDLM's basic premise that tactical competance is what is needed by class players to improve. Are the circles the ideal way to achieve this? I don't know if they are necessarily, but a lot of study of tactical problems is helpful and his plan, which includes a lot of play, is much closer to the ideal than the one that most amateurs follow. Once you see a lot of problems, you begin to recognize the features, understand what tactics are at work and why they work, practice calculation, and know the common ways to proceed from past similar problems. Are the massive problem, high-speed later circles necessary or even beneficial? I have my doubts. Once you have all the understanding of the features, know the likely ways to proceed and can calculate the solution, what is the point of being able to do the problems by rote memorization? When you get to this point of understanding, maybe bringing in new, different problems with similar features and trying to solve them as you during a game would be more useful. Instead of focusing only on recognition, I believe we need to focus on developing recognition, knowledge of certain procedures (removal of guard, distraction, etc.), understanding and calculating ability.

For class players, I believe there are three main methods of improvement: solving lots of tactical puzzles, playing a lot of serious chess (always trying to play your best), and playing over grandmaster games (ideally playing solitaire -- that is, playing over these games as if you were playing the game yourself from the winning side, covering the next move and using the same process you would use to decide your next move in an OTB game). These last two methods can compensate for a lack in the other -- i.e. not getting in enough serious chess? Play more solitaire. These I consider the main methods of improvement, because even though there are other ways to improve your chess, these three seem to be more than twice as effective a use of your time. If I were to list a fourth, it would be studying and practicing the endgame, and then fifth would be opening study. But both of these are a far less optimal use of time for most people. - Robinson

1/21/2010 04:56:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Great comments!!!

Late to go see Avatar will have to peruse later.

1/21/2010 05:22:00 PM  
Blogger BRF Fågelsången said...

A Great Blog attracts GREAT comments!

1/22/2010 02:18:00 AM  
Blogger Loomis said...

A great post. Most people do not put enough emphasis on playing games. But it's not true that it's been ignored completely amongst this niche in the blogosphere. Temposchlucker has mentioned it a couple times over the years. And I wrote it in the comments on your blog as recently as November (

1/22/2010 12:04:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Loomis: yes in the context of the Circles it has come up since the Knights Errant started blogging. What was new and helpful was Robinson's breakdown of MDLMs tournament experience.

1/22/2010 12:43:00 PM  
Anonymous said...

Iagree, playing alot of is the most beneficial to a beginner.Learning the rules and how the pieces move, as this may sound elementary, is the foundation to learning the game of chess. In this process you gain skills in accessing the game field, the beginning steps in stradegy building,and seeing the bigger picture.So get out there and play, your skills will build as your experience grows. All the reading and watching videos will not give you the building blocks to becoming good at chess, there are no short-cut for experience.

1/23/2010 05:46:00 AM  
Blogger BlunderProne said...

I play weekly in very same Club that MDLM was at. I don't make as much of the additional weekend events but let's say I add another 20 games in a year on top of the 52 I play at the club. I was doing that when I did circle training. Not fair to say " Knights errants did play enough OTB". I sure have.

1/23/2010 04:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can beat this subject to death. Some of us need to face the fact that we have no natural chess ability. From his rapid rating increase from the beginning it is obvious to me that MDLM had natural ability. Book smarts does not equate to natural ability in chess or else some of us would be Grandmasters.

I coached youth baseball for 15 years. Some kids had no natural ability at all and despite one-on-one instruction, showed no improvement at all over the course of their years on the diamond. They stuck with it for fun and to be with friends

We had a draft each spring of kids new to the area and those wanting to change teams. I made a kid that was new to the area my first pick even though he was not at the tryouts. I based my pick on talks with others who told me that he was an exeptional football and basketball player. Because he was not at the tryout, other coaches thought I was sandbagging. As it turned out, I wasted my first pick, because the kid, despite being athletic, had no baseball ability at all.

On another note, my parents wasted countless hundreds of dollars on piano and voice lessons on me. Despite years of lessons I could not make any progress, because I had no NATURAL ABILITY.

1/25/2010 01:07:00 PM  

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