Author Archives: Tim Hanke

About Tim Hanke

Tim Hanke is a U.S. amateur who still believes, despite much evidence to the contrary, that he can become a decent chessplayer.

Physical Fitness Promotes Mental Fitness

Many great players have emphasized the importance of physical fitness. Mikhail Botvinnik, that monster of self-discipline, wrote in his autobiography Achieving the Aim:

I was a round-shouldered lad and didn’t go in for sport. … As a present I was given a book by Muller which was quite well known in those days. For the half-century or so since then I have done morning exercises. The weak lad straightened up and, as they say nowadays, noticeably “filled out.”

Before Alexander Alekhine defeated José Capablanca in their 1927 world championship match—an upset if there ever was one—he reputedly gave up smoking and drinking and underwent a program of physical training. It seems likely that his surprising victory in their marathon match of 34 games was at least partly due to his better physical preparation. In other words, he wore down his opponent, who probably hadn’t taken the whole thing seriously enough. And who can blame him? He had never lost a game to Alekhine before.

In the recent Candidates’ Tournament, Vladimir Kramnik almost upset the heavy favorite Magnus Carlsen. Before the event, Kramnik worked hard on his physical fitness. Peter Svidler, who tied for third place, did the same. Of course, Magnus Carlsen is 22 years old, while Kramnik is 37 and Svidler 36—no amount of going to the gym can fool Father Time!

Ironically, Kramnik fell short in the end not because he was too old, but because of a “rookie” mistake. In the last round, he abandoned his usual defenses and played desperately, rather than maintaining his veteran poise and “dancing with the girl he brought.” If Kramnik had stuck to his usual openings in the last round, he probably would not have lost. Now we would all be talking about his remarkable come-from-behind victory in the tournament, and no doubt Kramnik’s physical training regimen would be given due credit.

GM Alexandra Kosteniuk, 2008 women’s world champion, wrote on her blog:

Many people ask me what’s the best way to improve at chess and how to prepare for chess tournaments. What should their training day look like, how much time spent on openings, middle game, etc.

I cannot stress enough how important physical preparation is before chess tournaments. Chess competition is tough, requires many hours spent at the chess board, with maximum concentration. You need all your strength and nerves to be in top form. Nothing will prepare you better than being in best physical form. All you need for that is to do some kind of sport regularly….

I try to start every day with a 5K run. …

So good luck in your chess preparation, but remember to go out and do some sports, it will help your chess, I guarantee it!

Mens sana in corpore sano

Descending from the sublime to the mediocre: I myself try to exercise every day, though I do not always succeed. As I have told my two sons, “You may not always feel like working out, but after you have done it you are always glad you did. You never regret going to the gym.”

Of course, exercise is good for you in every way, not just for your chess. It’s good for your heart, lungs, digestive system, skeletal structure, and helps you manage your weight. You reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke. You feel better; you have more energy. You look better. Your clothes fit. You have more self-respect. You get more respect from other people. Exercise even affects your outlook on life: we constantly hear of studies showing that exercise is just as effective as medication in treating depression.

You say you don’t have time to exercise? Fix your schedule to make time. As I read once in a book by the time management expert Alan Lakein, and I believe these words and try to live by them: If you are too busy to exercise, you are too busy.

Tim Hanke

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The Best Chess Training Program

Time spent on tactics is always well-spent. You may have heard the maxim, “An hour a day keeps the blunder away.” Solving tactical problems is always useful to maintain alertness and sharpness and should be an important and regular part of every player’s study program.

In a perfect world, perhaps the chess student should ideally break up his daily study session into several different areas: say, one hour of tactics, followed by one hour of endgames, etc. There are some arguments in favor of this approach. The student who thus organizes his time does not neglect any one area. This scatter-shot approach to learning is time-tested by the standard program in schools which has the student moving between several classes on widely different topics during the course of a single day.

However, amateur players are not likely to have several hours a day available to study chess: instead, they are likely to have only scattered hours and half-hours here and there, time stolen from other activities of daily life. They may even have to squeeze in their chess study while riding the train or bus to work. (This is true not only of chessplayers. The writer Andre Dubus III, author of the bestselling novel The House of Sand and Fog, which was made into a critically acclaimed movie, told me he wrote some of the book sitting in his car in his driveway, during odd quarter-hours and half-hours between his other tasks.)

For most amateurs, it may be simplest in practice to follow a program in which they start and finish an entire book and then move on to the next book, without jumping around constantly by working through a few pages in a tactics book, then a few pages in an endgame book, then a few pages in an opening book, etc. That way lies madness, and I am not sure how much good solid learning would occur. Perhaps it is better for them to start a book and go all the way through to the end, covering the material from start to finish without interruption as the author presents it, and without multiple confusing detours into other books.

I suppose, if you do have time available to study chess while riding the train to work, you might want to allocate that time solely to solving tactical problems, for reasons of logistics; reserving other studies, that require a board and uninterrupted reflection, for quiet time at home.

Probably no chess training program is perfect, let alone an amateur’s self-directed program. A perfect chess training program, if it exists at all, is likely to be one that is prescribed by an experienced chess trainer who knows you and your individual needs well. If you have access to such a trainer, good for you: most of us have to do without.

But even a perfect chess training program, if it could be devised, would only be as good as its execution. Perhaps there is an analogy to exercise programs. Even an ideal exercise program would be useless if you failed to follow it—perhaps because the gym was inconveniently located, or you found the routine boring, or the fees were too expensive, or the program took too much time out of your day, or the effort left you too tired for other activities of life. Therefore, as experienced fitness professionals understand, the best exercise program for you is the one you will actually follow!

Similarly, the best chess training program for you is the one you will actually follow—because you enjoy it, it suits your schedule, and the financial burden is manageable (books, software, teacher’s fees, tournament expenses).

So don’t overthink your chess training program. Make a realistic, even modest plan that you believe you can follow. Any plan will suffice, as long as you actually do follow it. Then follow it faithfully, making sure to log your work accurately, at least long enough to see where it leads you. As a guideline, one Russian trainer suggests at least six months is required before your chess work will show up in your game results. You might resolve to follow your new program for six months, then reevaluate. Rather than continually chopping and changing, pick a direction and follow it. Any direction is better than no direction: at least you are likely to get somewhere, and it will be a different place than you are now. Of course, if you are happy with the results you are already getting, don’t change anything!

Tim Hanke

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Aleksandr Lenderman

Young U.S. GM Aleksandr Lenderman, even if he never wins another chess game, has already been immortalized in the surprisingly readable 2007 book by journalist Michael Weinreb, The Kings of New York, subtitled “A Year Among the Geeks, Oddballs, and Geniuses Who Make Up America’s Top High School Chess Team.”

I say “surprisingly readable” because not every book about chess by non-chessplayers is readable, at least not with unalloyed pleasure. For example, The Chess Artist by J.C. Hallman, though mildly interesting, comes off as an artificial production, in which Hallman follows around the marginal U.S. master Glenn Umstead (who actually loses his master rating during the time covered in the book, which renders the title problematic), and provokes situations to give himself material for his book. In his attempts to make these situations seem significant, Hallman uses portentous language to imbue them with a false sense of drama. As filler between these lugubrious pastiches, Hallman provides historical information about the game and its players, but his tone is slightly off because he himself is not a real chessplayer and he does not really understand the game or its milieu. The entire work is weighed down by a heavy air of skepticism about chess and chessplayers, with the usual digs at chessplayers’ clothing, hygiene, and behavior, and the drabness of typical tournament settings. Hallman himself is a creature of writers’ workshops: his overwriting reeks of academic exercises. Back in the 1970s, Alexander Cockburn of The Village Voice attempted another deconstruction of chess and chessplayers in his notorious book Idle Passion: Chess and the Dance of Death, but Cockburn was a hip journalist rather than a writing workshop graduate and did the thing much better. Idle Passion is a hilarious account of Cockburn’s time with Bobby Fischer in the lead-up to the 1972 match with Spassky. Like Hallman, Cockburn adds reflections on the game of chess itself, which are so outrageous in Cockburn’s case that they amuse rather than offend. Of course Cockburn had the advantage of following around Fischer at his peak rather than Umstead at his nadir, but his prose is also more fun to read. Perhaps I exaggerate: I read Idle Passion over thirty years ago, and in those days my capacity for fun may have been greater, my critical sense less well-developed.

In a random postscript, let me say I was hunting through a pile of my old forgotten scoresheets recently, literally dusty and most of them never looked at since the games were played. Although I have only played a dozen or so games per year on average, and the USCF has probably had hundreds of thousands of different members during what for lack of a better word I will call my career, I discovered I had once played Umstead. What are the odds? (For the record: I lost.)

Why do I bring up Lenderman in The Chess Improver? Because Lenderman is a wonderful example of a self-made player, who could not afford coaching or much in the way of chess literature or travel to events, but played himself into a grandmaster. He probably could not have done this, if he had not lived in New York City. At least, he probably could not have done this anywhere else in the U.S.

Here is a chart of Lenderman’s USCF rating over time:

Rating Graph

Rating Graph

A cursory look at this chart may lead you to think Lenderman simply shot up the charts with great natural talent, and certainly he must have some talent, but there is a great deal more to his story than talent. Look at the following chart, showing how many USCF-rated games he played over the years, especially in his school days:

Games Played

Games Played

Looking at the list above, a number of observations occurred to me. The first one is that Lenderman has played an awful lot of chess in a relatively short time. You can also see that his rise to grandmaster was not meteoric or even easy. For example, after 55 rated games he was still a USCF Class D player, rated only 1368. At a similar age I played in my first USCF-rated events, and after only two events my initial rating was 1569—201 points higher than Lenderman achieved in his first two years of play.

In Lenderman’s third year of tournament play, he picked up the pace significantly, playing 154 rated games and reaching a peak of 1922. So it took him about 200 games to reach USCF Class A, which is two classes below National Master. I myself reached Class A, with a somewhat higher rating than Lenderman, in fewer games—perhaps half as many. No one thought I was a prodigy.

But then Lenderman really buckled down, and played an incredible 270 rated games in his fourth year. He achieved a 2214 rating, which is barely National Master. We will now stop talking about me, except to note, that by now in his fourth year of tournament play, Lenderman had already played more rated games than I would play in my entire life (to the present day).

So now Lenderman was on his way, right? It would all be easy sailing for him from here on out, as he rose inexorably up the rating chart.

If you thought that was the case, you would be dead wrong. In Lenderman’s fifth year he played another 169 games, a large number by almost anyone’s standards, but his rating only inched up five points, from 2214 to 2219. Think of how frustrating that must have been for him! Here was the young Lenderman, giving his all to chess, and playing a rated game about every other day on average for a solid year—playing more tournament chess than 99% of all players—and improving absolutely not at all by statistical measures, because five rating points is well within the margin of significance for a USCF rating.

Many players would have drawn the conclusion that they had peaked, reached their limit, and were now stuck on a plateau they could not rise above. But Lenderman, in the face of a painful year’s worth of evidence that he was destined to be no more than a very weak, marginal master, actually redoubled his efforts. I use the word “redoubled” with conscious intent, because the next year he played 322 games, almost double the number he had played the year before, and still his personal record. This was 2004, his miracle year of fabulous improvement, when he raised his rating from USCF 2219 to 2454.

In no year since has he played as many games or improved nearly so much (how could he?). In fact, his rating actually decreased in two of the next seven years. But every year through 2010 he played a very large number of games by almost anyone’s standards—he played 311 games in 2009—and his rating has continued to trend upward overall, reaching its peak of USCF 2710 in 2012. His playing schedule has eased off a bit in the last two years, but he has still played 90-plus games per year on average. So far in 2013 he looks on pace to play well over 100 games again. His current USCF rating is 2700.

What lessons can we draw from Lenderman’s career to date? Let me suggest a few.

First, talent rarely exists independently of effort. Whatever talent Lenderman had, required hard work to draw it out.

Second, even the best players can get stuck on plateaus. We can see from Lenderman’s data that he went through stretches of hundreds of games when his rating hardly moved—or even decreased. Again—try to imagine his frustration! Think of the inevitable nagging, corrosive self-doubts any player would have to deal with in such situations! Each time he found himself on a long-lasting plateau, he must have wondered: Is this my limit? Have I finally hit a hard ceiling, which I cannot fight my way through? Is this how good I am destined to be?

Which brings us inevitably to our third lesson: If you want to improve at chess, you must be persistent in the face of negative feedback! You will have setbacks, no matter how hard you work, no matter how good you are. You will endure long periods of apparent stagnation. You must face the self-doubts and overcome them. It is true that eventually you will hit a ceiling that you cannot break through: everyone does. But you must not pre-judge what that ceiling is, because you cannot know in advance what it will be. You must always believe that you can break through whatever ceiling you are currently banging your head against. Only by having faith in yourself, and persisting despite your own doubts and the negative opinions of others, will you be able to fight through the barriers you encounter, and become the best player you possibly can be. One day you will reach your maximum. But you will only recognize that day much later, when you are looking back at it.

Tim Hanke

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Train Well to Play Well

To make your training effective, you must practice the skills you will use during a game.

Tactics:

The most important skill you will use in a game is calculation. This is why time spent solving tactical problems is always well-spent, and will always help your performance in actual games. Fortunately, tactics are relatively easy to study on your own. You don’t even need a computer, just a book with diagrams. Some authorities recommend having a chess clock running while you solve tactical problems, but I do not go in for that degree of realism myself. Nor do I think it is necessary to set up a physical board: I think solving from the book diagram is fine. I do think it is important to do all the work in your head, without moving pieces around on a board to make it easier for yourself. That said, I am becoming less dogmatic in my old age, or perhaps a better word is lazier, and at times I do break down, set up a board, and move the pieces around when I am becoming frustrated. But I always feel guilty when I do it!

Endgames:

Endgames are less easy to practice. Here is what I do, and if anyone has a better way, I would like to hear it, because I am far from satisfied with my way.

First I read the explanations in the book about how to play a particular endgame position. Often I will ponder the diagram for a while first, and think about how I would approach the problem with my current knowledge.

Then, as part of reading the explanation in the book, I will usually set up the position on a board and play through the moves. If I have a question about why a certain move is not played, I may spend a bit of time trying to figure out the answer to my own question, moving the pieces around. My approach to learning endgames is much more hands-on, literally, than my approach to solving tactical problems.

When I feel I have a grasp of the ideas in a position, even if only a weak grasp, I will play out the position against Fritz, without the analysis window displayed.

Deep Fritz 13

Deep Fritz 13

Fritz will often not play like a human, which has plusses and minuses, mostly minuses in my experience. First the plusses. Sometimes Fritz will completely ignore the line of play recommended in the book, and stubbornly persist in playing the position its own way. I have found this to be useful, when Fritz finds a valid approach not explained in the book: then I have to come up with my own original way to deal with this new line of play. Another plus: when I make a tactical oversight, Fritz will punish me immediately.

Now for the minuses. The biggest minus is that Fritz, when defending a losing position, often fails to play the book moves. The book moves are usually tough for a human player to crack, which is why they are the book moves. Fritz, however, sees everything within its analytical horizon, and may suddenly pitch a piece or run away with the king like a chicken with its head cut off, obviously ceasing to resist, because the resulting checkmate may be a move or two further off than if Fritz had stuck with the book line. This is a big problem when you are trying to understand and overcome the sort of determined resistance a human player would put up against you.

Another minus: in positions requiring a more strategic approach, Fritz may not find the best plan unless you allocate enough time. True, Fritz will still typically find a good plan, and you may even learn more by having to face this different plan not explained in the book. But if you are trying to learn the specific plan explained in the book, this can be a minus. Your mileage may vary.

By the way, humans tend to devise multi-move plans based on logical concepts, while Fritz looks at every new position afresh and plays more tactically and opportunistically. If you do not play the moves Fritz thinks are best and therefore expects from you, Fritz has no qualms about turning on a dime and going in a totally new direction if the new direction seems more promising based on Fritz’s evaluation function. I am guessing this is why Fritz may sometimes vary from the book plan.

You see the essential problem I have found, when using Fritz to study the endgame: I don’t get the same kind of opposition I would from an intelligent human. As explained above, this situation is not without plusses, but it also has minuses.

I confess to being not very skillful with Fritz, let alone its partner-in-crime Chessbase, so I would hardly be surprised if others have come up with better training methods using computer-based tools than I have. There may even be existing software programs out there that address some of my concerns. I confess the limitations of my knowledge, and I am open to being instructed by others who are better informed.

Tim Hanke

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Chess Is a Street Fight

Chess is what man most delights in: a struggle. –Emanuel Lasker, 1868-1941, chess world champion 1894-1921

Chess is ruthless: you’ve got to be prepared to kill people. –Nigel Short, 1965-, loser of a world championship match against Garry Kasparov in 1993

A streetfighter in chess does whatever it takes to win. He understands that chess is not an intellectual abstraction, but hand-to-hand combat—not a high-minded search for truth by two partners, but a fierce and highly personal struggle between two foes.

But not necessarily a grim struggle. For there is an impishness at the heart of the matter, an undercurrent of humorous flimflam. The streetfighter must also be something of a con man. He must know when to seem confident and when to seem despairing, when to move the pieces quickly and decisively and when to let his hand hover over a piece hesitantly, as if stricken by a palsy of doubt. If all the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, to the streetfighter every game is a kind of performance art.

Some people reading these words may doubt them. “Real chessplayers, good chessplayers, don’t need tricks,” I can hear them say.

They could not be more wrong. Consider Mikhail Botvinnik, the great Soviet world champion who worked as an electrical engineer and was known for his systematic preparation and iron logic: even Botvinnik could stoop to conquer.

Mikhail Botvinnik

Mikhail Botvinnik

By 1960, Botvinnik was pushing 50 and had been world champion for most of the previous twelve years. As he wrote later in his autobiography, Achieving the Aim, “By that time, everybody was pretty fed up with me, most of all my fellow grandmasters. Just how much time can one occupy the throne of chess?”

When the dour and crusty Botvinnik was toppled from his throne in 1960 by Tal, the young and dashing Latvian whose combinations had a touch of magic, the chess world was delighted. Everyone said Botvinnik’s day was done; the 24-year-old Tal had swept him away with his brilliant new style of tactical fireworks.

The only person who disagreed was Botvinnik, who exercised his right to challenge Tal to a return match a year later.

The return match was hard-fought, but by the 15th game, Botvinnik had surged ahead and held a comfortable lead. Then Tal fought back, and the critical 20th game was adjourned in a position that seemed hopeless for Botvinnik.

For two sleepless nights, Botvinnik analyzed his lost position. He found a slight chance to draw the game, based on an unexpected stalemate possibility, but this depended on Tal being careless. As Botvinnik later explained: “I sat there and thought: how can I let it be known in the enemy camp that it is really hopeless for me? Then they will not work hard at it, and it is possible that they will overlook the stalemate.”

In conversations before the game, Botvinnik heaved deep sighs and dropped remarks to journalists such as, “You yourself must see how it stands” and “I shan’t say anything—I’m very tired.” Finally the time came for the game to be played out, and the crafty old warrior had one more trick up his sleeve:

After two days of play and two sleepless nights I was thoroughly tired out, yet I did not take my usual thermos flask of coffee with me to the adjournment session—this would be the most weighty proof that I would make just a few moves and then resign the game. It was during just these few moves that Tal had to miss the stalemate.

Needless to say, the overconfident Tal missed Botvinnik’s subtle trap, failed to win this critical game, and had to give back the world championship title to the old, “washed-up” Botvinnik. “Normally I do not have recourse to such tricks,” said Botvinnik, who reigned another two years as champion, while Tal never again came close.

Tim Hanke

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How Much Should You Play?

My thinking about how to improve at chess continues to evolve.

One of the biggest obstacles to my chess improvement is that I hate to lose. As a result, I don’t play enough games. I have decided I need to play a lot more often—not just for the valuable practice, but also to inoculate myself against the fear of losing.

Playing a lot of games might not be the right approach for everyone. For example, Botvinnik thought about sixty games per year was plenty of competitive chess. He preferred to use the bulk of his chess time analyzing and preparing for his occasional contests. Bobby Fischer, during the decade before he won the world championship in 1972, played in tournaments only sporadically. Of course, in between tournaments Fischer did play a lot of blitz chess, which Botvinnik did not favor.

Other players, such as Karpov in his prime, have preferred to play often to stay sharp. He, too, liked to play blitz chess. Another reason Karpov may have wanted to compete often in tournaments, was to establish his dominance. He had to overcome the lingering prejudice in some quarters that he was not a legitimate world champion, since he had acquired the title without playing Fischer. Over his career, Karpov has probably won more high-level tournaments than any other grandmaster in history.

Most of today’s top players seem to think they must play often—perhaps to stay current with rapidly changing openings, or perhaps for the obvious reason that they need the money! Another possibility we have not yet mentioned, hidden in plain sight, is that they may enjoy playing chess.

I said above that I have decided to play more in the future. How much have I played in the past? To establish a baseline, let’s go to the data. A glance at the USCF online database shows that since records started to be kept electronically in 1991, I have played 297 rated games. That may sound like a lot, but if you divide 297 games by 23 years, you see I have played slightly less than 13 games per year on average. Thirteen games per year is really not enough for someone who has a goal of improving, even if you have done a lot of studying (I haven’t) or like to play online (I don’t) or play a lot of blitz (I don’t do that either).

What I have mainly done over the last 23 years is get older, which probably hasn’t helped my game. I have also bought a lot of chess books, which has had one concrete result: I have had to buy more bookshelves. But since I have actually read very few of these books, the impact on my chess game has been minimal.

If you want to improve at chess, perhaps you should ask yourself this most obvious of questions: “Am I playing enough games?”

Tim Hanke

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Great Escapes

Once I found myself inside a cigar-shaped windowless pod, about twelve feet by six feet, made of some sturdy space-age off-white material, with two other people who happened to be female. We were floating many miles above the Earth, on the edge of space, as part of a NASA experiment. We were waiting patiently to be retrieved and brought back to Earth.

The two women were seated on the smooth floor at one end of the pod’s rounded interior, and I was lying prone at the other end. I happened to sit up suddenly, and my movement jarred the pod. At once it lost the precious equilibrium that was keeping it delicately poised in orbit. My end of the pod tipped downward toward the world far below and we began to fall.

Although there were no windows, we could all feel that our vehicle was gaining speed and headed back down toward the atmosphere. This was not part of the plan, because the pod was not designed for reentry from space, and would surely disintegrate. Even if it did not disintegrate, there would be no way to slow our accelerating plunge toward the ground. Filled with regret, I awaited certain death, in minutes if not moments. There was no escape.

Except there was: I woke up.

As you can tell, I have a rich dream life. I am not a scholar of dreams, but I understand they can have practical functions. Unfortunately, some of my dreams, as above, resemble my chess games. You can wake up from a bad dream, but how do you wake up from a bad chess game? More often than not, I lose my lost positions without fanfare. Once in a while, I perform a “great escape.” Some people prefer the old-fashioned word “swindle,” but to me that sounds so judgmental.

The chessboard is neither a moral or immoral world; rather it is amoral, devoid of morality. In Emanuel Lasker’s Manual of Chess, he wrote, “Lies and hypocrisy do not survive for long on the chessboard. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie, while the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite.” Brave words, but I would argue that lies and hypocrisy and every kind of deception do very well on the chessboard, and are punished no more often there than in real life. How would anyone ever win a chess game if not for the opponent’s mistake? How many of those mistakes have been caused by tricky play? I could rest my case here, but as a capstone, I conclude with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous words about chess, mouthed by his even more famous creation, Sherlock Holmes: “Amberley excelled at chess—one mark, Watson, of a scheming mind” (from “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman” in The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes).

The chess world is rich in colorful remarks, though often lacking in more tangible assets. Who can forget Capablanca’s ingenuous egotism exemplified in this sentence from My Chess Career: “As one by one I mowed them down, my superiority soon became apparent.” Or Aron Nimzovitch, frustrated after losing a game to a lesser mortal whom history has forgotten, climbing onto a table and shouting, “Why must I lose to this idiot?” Even Bobby Fischer, though lacking in formal education, could be eloquent in his invective, once charging that Karpov and Kasparov had fixed all their matches, and calling them “the lowest dogs around.” One of my favorite remarks in all of chess literature comes from the entertaining book by I.A. Horowitz and Fred Reinfeld, Chess Traps, Pitfalls, and Swindles (there is that word again). In the contest below, between two amateurs, White is about to lose his doubled a-pawns and eventually the game. Schloesser, put to his shifts, devises an immortal “great escape.” Horowitz and Reinfeld write (and to me this sentence is even better than the game itself): “As is usually the case in really outstanding swindles, the first move is thoroughly enigmatic.”

If Schloesser’s unwary opponent had noticed the deep pitfall prepared for him after 1 Kf1!!, he could have played 1…Nd5! and then captured the hapless a-pawns at his leisure.

Several years ago, I found myself in a difficult position as White. Somewhat like Schloesser, I had a weak and isolated a-pawn, vulnerable to a battery of heavy pieces. Like Schloesser, I set a trap, which my opponent could easily have defused if he had seen it. Like Schloesser’s opponent, he was too eager to capture the a-pawn, and did not.

Yes, trickery does pretty well on the chessboard, in spite of idealists who would argue otherwise. But isn’t that part of the fun of chess?

Tim Hanke

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The Virtue of Sitzfleisch

Improving at chess is all about engraining neural patterns, which means lots of repetition, which means (for most of us earthbound mortals) it’s a long-term project. It will probably be a long, hard slog. So you had better be motivated, not only to start but also to keep going, especially when you encounter setbacks, which you will. Oh, yes indeed. You will.

In this connection, I have a confession to make. I am not temperamentally equipped for long, hard slogs. Rather my natural style is to work very, very hard for short, spirited bursts, followed by much longer periods of quiescence, inactivity, resting, recovery, regeneration, hibernation, sloth, a marked reluctance to rise from my couch and engage the foe—call it what you will.

To use an analogy that will be familiar to runners, I have an abundance of mental fast-twitch fibers, but maybe not quite so many slow-twitch fibers. So this project of chess improvement, which demands patience and a steady output of intellectual energy over the long haul, does not exactly play to my strengths. I have always found consistency to be the hardest thing in the world for me.

If your flame tends to waver in the slightest breath of air, like mine, I don’t know what to say, except you may find chess improvement a challenge that is beyond you. Not because you aren’t smart enough (whatever that means), but for reasons of temperament.

I don’t really think it’s a moral issue, because chess improvement for almost everyone is an optional activity. We engage ourselves in optional activities as much as we are inclined, no more. If you are not inclined to sit down at your chessboard (or nowadays, as often as not, your computer) every day for an hour or more, it doesn’t mean you are a bad person. But it does mean you probably won’t improve at chess as much as someone else who has perhaps less native genius than you but more sitzfleisch.

If you haven’t heard it before, sitzfleisch is the old term, whether German or Yiddish I’m not sure, for the capacity to win chess games by outsitting your opponent rather than outplaying him: “Winning at chess by use of the gluteal muscles,” or more politely, “The ability to endure or persist in an endeavor through sedentary determination.”

Sitzfleisch was more important in chess before clocks were introduced as a needed reform: it is said that Louis Paulsen’s slow play reduced the great Morphy almost to tears. But stolid unwavering focus still has value in chess, and especially in chess improvement.

Tim Hanke

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Is “Hope Chess” Unfairly Maligned?

Dan_Heisman_bookLeading U.S. chess teacher Dan Heisman says you should never play “hope chess.” I believe he would define “hope chess” as making a move and hoping your opponent will respond in a certain way, rather than expecting him to play the best move. “Hope chess” has entered the chess lexicon as something evil and depraved to be shunned, like leaving your king in the center or trading off the Dragon bishop, at least in the northeastern U.S. where I live and play most of my chess.

Well, I’m here as the devil’s advocate, to tell you that hope chess has its place in your game. Even if I am wrong, it’s only fair that you hear another point of view. As Mark Twain wrote about Satan himself,

“All religions issue bibles against him, and say the most injurious things about him, but we never hear his side. We have none but the evidence for the prosecution, and yet we have rendered the verdict. To my mind, this is irregular. It is un-English; it is un-American; it is French. … Of course Satan has some kind of a case, it goes without saying. It may be a poor one, but that is nothing; that can be said about any of us.”

Let me start my brief by asking the court to grant at least this much: “hope chess” is better than “despair chess.” Too often in my games, I get positions in which despair is the only rational response. But do I despair? Well, yes, sometimes, followed later in my room by a fit of weeping. But other times, and I would prefer to dwell on these finer moments, I decide not to despair. While recognizing that things on the board don’t look good, I try to find a way out of the mess I am in, by giving my opponent chances to go wrong. I play the cleverest, most devious move I can, and hope my opponent falls in with my plans. Do this often enough, keep a sharp eye for tactics, and you are in with a chance.

Often, hope chess involves intuition: your best guess as to how the opponent will respond to a certain move. Sure, you may see a refutation to your own move, but will he? Maybe not. You’re tired and tense; maybe he is, too. In truly bad positions, all of your moves are going to have refutations anyway. So why dwell on what move he should play? That will only depress you and lessen your spirit of resistance. Instead, focus on the moves you hope he will play, and lure him in that direction as skillfully as you can. Like the Israeli psychic Uri Geller who can bend spoons with his mind, try to bend your opponent to your secret will.

I will give a concrete example of the triumph of hope chess, from one of my own recent games. Two weeks ago I scored 5-0 at the grandiosely named World Amateur Team Championship in New Jersey. This annual event used to be called the U.S. Amateur Team Championship-East, perhaps better known by its acronym USATE. Since very few of the players are from anywhere in the world besides New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and southern New England, while other regions of the U.S. have amateur team championships of their own on the same weekend, perhaps the old name was good enough. But I digress.

My score was far less impressive than it sounds, since I was playing on board four, and only one of my opponents was rated above 2000 USCF. I would say that in every game, I succeeded by making the next to last blunder. However, I am cheerful despite the unevenness of my play: like the nineteenth-century New England transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, “I accept the universe.” Thanks to the famous “equalizing injustice of chess,” I am sure the games I won unfairly at this event are offset by other games I should have won at various times in the past.

I had the black pieces in rounds one, three, and five, and played the Sicilian Dragon all three times. Here is my round five game: hope chess in action. When has Black ever won a game in 20 moves after making so many mistakes?

This was, I believe, my worst game of the tournament, but it has the virtue of being mercifully short. It also illustrates an important point: if you keep “wishing and hoping, thinking and praying” (in the immortal words of Burt Bacharach), sometimes it all works out in the end.

You can visit other websites to see how grandmasters play, but here you see how the war in the amateur trenches is really fought. Hope chess, for all its flaws, is an important weapon for us.

Tim Hanke

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How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

It’s an old joke. An out-of-towner asks a New Yorker, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” and the New Yorker says, “Practice, practice, practice.”

If you are a classical musician, you may have to practice eight hours a day to be competitive in your field—and even that level of effort doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a paying job. It just means you are putting yourself in position to succeed.

The chessplayer who wonders how to improve at chess should take a hint from the musicians, who after all may be considered fellow performing artists. They work very hard at their craft. Do you?

As a chessplayer, you should ask yourself: “Am I playing enough serious games, with a long enough time control that I can actually try to apply what I am learning in my chess studies? Am I studying enough material, of the right kind, in the right way?”

Playing too much chess without enough study, especially if it is fast chess, is not conducive to learning and improvement for most players. Rather, it is a good way to engrain bad habits. On the flip side of the coin, spending too much time in your lonely room studying even the best books, without playing enough serious chess on a regular basis, will not allow your ideas to coalesce into practical applications. (You probably won’t get many dates either, but that’s a different problem.)

There are exceptions. Some great players—Karpov comes to mind—loved to play speed chess in their youth. (This may have been one reason Botvinnik disdained the young Karpov, once famously saying of him, “He has no talent.”) Botvinnik was the epitome of the scholar-chessplayer, taking months and even years away from competition, developing his deep understanding of chess by analyzing games and complete opening systems, while also earning a doctorate in engineering. Fischer was so completely devoted to chess, that eventually it didn’t seem to matter much how often he played: he continued to learn and develop during the 1960s and early ’70s, while playing serious chess only occasionally, all the way up to his victory over Spassky in their 1972 world championship match. After that, he succumbed to his mental problems, perhaps because he could not imagine a meaningful next step in his life.

Few of us, however, need to worry about what we will do after winning the world championship. For the rest of us, there will always be another step to take. If we want to take that next step, we must practice, practice, practice.

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