Category Archives: Bryan Castro

Karpov on the Minority Attack

Anatoly Karpov was one of the all time greats. He was known especially for his positional play and accuracy in the endgame. One of the positional techniques he was particularly good at was the minority attack. He has several sparkling victories in which the minority attack was a featured contributor.

In this first example, Karpov saddles his opponent with the characteristic weak pawn. However, in this case, he doesn’t actually win the pawn. However, it’s presence is a constant reminder of the technical flaw in Black’s position, and Karpov engages in an endgame technical melee which ends when his own passed pawn threatens to promote.

In the following game, Karpov shows a couple common themes within the minority attack. First, he trades off his opponent’s light-square bishop. This bishop often defends the weak c-pawn. Second, Karpov brings his queen’s knight to a4, where it can often find a home on the c5 square. In this case, it gets traded off quickly, but Black subsequently loses the weak c-pawn and the game.

In our final example, Karpov shows that the weak pawn doesn’t have to be the c-pawn, as his opponent’s chooses to leave the a-pawn by exchanging first with his c-pawn during the classic minority attack’s b4-b5 advance. Karpov then gives us a master class on the proper use of the rooks in the endgame. Enjoy this video with my commentary on this beautiful game.

Anatoly Karpov is a master at many aspects of chess. However, his skill in executing the minority attack in all of its nuances have given us many masterpieces to study to improve this particular positional plan.

I hope to have given you a good start, but continued study of Karpov’s games will be rewarded both aesthetically and with a better understanding of the minority attack and positional play in general.

Bryan Castro

When to Follow General Principles and When to Ignore Them

“It is the aim of the modern school, not to treat every position according to one general law, but according to the principle inherent in the position”

-Richard Reti

When we start learning chess, we are often given general principles or “rules of thumb” to follow. Here are an example of some general principles we may have learned along the way:

  • In the opening, we should control the center, develop our pieces, and castle fairly early.
  • Don’t move a piece more than once in the first ten moves.
  • In the endgame, your rook should be behind passed pawns, both yours and your opponents.
  • A knight on the rim is dim.
  • When ahead in material, trade pieces but not pawns.
  • When behind in material, trade pawns but not pieces.

You get the idea.

These are very useful in our decision making process because they give us a short-cut and help to speed up decisions. They also give us a means to make evaluations within our positions. All-in-all, it is good to learn these.

However, there are times and situations where general principles should be ignored or at least verified through concrete analysis and calculation. Especially as we get stronger as players, it is important to discern when we should follow specific general principles and when it is correct to deviate.

How do we know when we should do this? Admittedly, I think most of it comes from experience and study. However, here are a few ideas that you can consider during and after your games.

  • When the position offers several viable moves with outcomes resulting in similar evaluations – e.g. one path is not clearly better than another – then following general principles can often provide us with a path to follow.
  • The more critical a position is – the more uneven the evaluations between the best moves and less-good moves – then the more one should rely on concrete analysis.
  • When you have a clear plan that can be backed up by concrete variations that leads to a clear advantage, it is often safe to ignore general principles.
  • After your games, evaluate your decisions. Did you make decisions based on general principles that didn’t apply to that specific situation? Analyze whether your conception of the position was incorrect – e.g. you used the wrong principles to evaluate – or whether you miscalculated – e.g. the principles were correct, but you made an error in calculating the resulting position.
  • Did you make decisions based on concrete variations that would have been better evaluated based on general principles? For example, quiet positions that may require deeper understanding of the positional elements but not necessarily the calculation of forced moves (since there aren’t many).
  • In your opening repertoire, do you select openings that have clear plans and can be played successfully based on general understanding and principles? Or do you play openings that require a lot of memorization and specific moves that don’t necessarily follow general principles? Understanding this is very important to selecting and studying your openings.

To illustrate these points, I’d like to share a game that I think balances the following and use of general principles as well as the selective (and timely) ignoring of such principles.

In the game below, Capablanca aggressively strikes out against his opponent, weakening his own pawn structure while his king remains in the center. However, as we see in the game, it is all part of a grand plan. His opponent, Aron Nimzowitsch, allows an opposite color bishop endgame that general principles lead him to believe he could hold, but Capablanca’s grasp of the specific nature of the position leads him to victory.

In closing, please understand that I believe general principles are very useful and essential. However, we must understand the “when” and “why” of their use and be willing to go against them when the specifics of the position call for it.

Enjoy the game!

Bryan Castro

The Benefits of Studying the Games of Morphy

“In a set match, Morphy would beat anybody alive today… Morphy was perhaps the most accurate chess player who ever lived. He had complete sight of the board and never blundered, in spite of the fact that he played quite rapidly, rarely taking more than five minutes to decide a move.”

Bobby Fischer

I’ve always been a fan of Paul Morphy. Ever since I studied his famous “Opera Game,” I enjoyed his clear attacking style. I think he is a good player for everyone to study, especially beginners.

Here are a few reasons why I think he is an important player to study:

Unlike many players of his era, Morphy set about developing his pieces before attacking. He seemed to value the development of his pieces highly, often sacrificing a pawn or two (as we’ll see in our example) to accelerate the development of his pieces.

Morphy was also a master of creating and sustaining the initiative. In looking at many of his games, I always felt like his opponents were stumbling backwards trying to defend themselves. His superior development of his pieces often aided in this, as well as the poor defensive skills of his opponents during this time period.

Following up from this is his incredible skill in coordinating his pieces – particularly when conducting the attack. When you look at his games, you often see that nearly all of his pieces are working for him. This is especially important for beginners, who often conduct an attack with one (maybe two) pieces.

One other aspect of his games was that although he played the top players of his era, opening theory and defensive techniques haven’t been developed as much as they are now. This means that his opponents made mistakes similar to the ones you and I (and our opponents) might make (unless you’re a master yourself who plays other masters). Sometimes these games are more instructive than watching a subtle positional duel between two of today’s top players.

Paul Morphy was ahead of his time and head and shoulders above his competition. His moves stand the test of time and his play was entirely modern. I think you will find studying his games very rewarding.

Below is a video of one of his masterpieces with my commentary (geared towards beginners). Enjoy!

Bryan Castro

Chess Goals for the New Year

With the New Year coming, it is a great time to review our current plans for chess improvement and perhaps set new goals. In this article, I’d like to offer a few ideas you want to consider when planning for the New Year.

Take Stock

Before setting some goals for the New Year, it is important to figure out your strengths and weaknesses as well as what went well and what didn’t go so well last year. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • What aspect of your game improved this year?
  • What was your weakest area this year?
  • What training or study method worked really well for you?
  • What training or study method didn’t really help you?
  • What chess books did you finish?
  • What parts of your opening repertoire do you need to improve?
  • What middlegame concepts did you have trouble with?
  • What endgame positions or principles do you need to study more?

Write down your answers to these questions and any others you may have for yourself. The general objective here is to get a picture of what you should focus your time on in the coming year. For beginning and intermediate players, increasing your knowledge and generally learning more about chess will be the order of the day, but there may be a specific area that lags behind the others.

Focus on Process Goals

We may all have outcome goals such as improving our rating by 100 points or playing the endgame better. Nigel Davies discusses outcome and process goals in another article. These are not bad things to have, but to get there, we need to take action. It is important to develop a process or schedule to achieve these goals. By focusing on the process rather than the outcome, we focus on what we can control.

Using some of the answers from our previous step, we can come up with some process goals.

There are two parts of process goals. First, you have the action to be taken. Second, you have the frequency or schedule. This makes it very easy to know if you’re on the right track or not. I use an Excel Spreadsheet to track key process goals that I have. Here are some of them:

  • 10 minutes of meditation and visualization daily.
  • 7 hours of sleep daily.
  • Tiger Chess courses Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of each week.
  • Review missed Chessity and Chess Tempo problems on Friday of each week.
  • 20 Chessity problems daily.
  • Some form of exercise daily (including active or scheduled recovery days).

Track Your Progress

As I mentioned above, I track my completion of my daily and weekly process goals. I wrote a more detailed article about measuring and tracking your chess, but the general idea is that what you measure will improve. Part of it is psychological – e.g. you want to see “high scores” when you track things.

Here are a few examples of things tracked and my progress. These aren’t meant to impress you, but to illustrate the power of measurement and tracking.

  • I have currently done my tactics training for 70 straight days.
  • I have slept at least 7 hours for 3 straight days, but only about 50% of the days this month. I also average 6 hours of sleep on the days I don’t sleep at least 7 hours.
  • When I started using Chessity in October, my tactics rating was 1774. It is currently 1957, and I’ve crossed over 2000 on three separate occasions, all this month.
  • Since starting Tiger Chess, I have yet to miss my training during the week, but several times the training was completed a day after it was scheduled.

You don’t have to go into as much detail as I do, because I’m kind of a statistics nerd, but the idea is to get an idea of how your doing. It’s also very motivating. For example, I don’t want my tactics training streak to end, so I end up doing it almost first thing when I wake up each day.

Keep a Positive Attitude

After you have set your goals and have started working on your plan, make sure that you stay positive and confident in your progress. Sometimes, we have peaks and valleys when we try to improve at anything. The key is to stay positive during the valleys and remember that we will peak again soon enough.

There has been much research into the power of self-confidence and its effects on performance. With this in mind, here are just a few ideas for you to consider trying.

  • Keep a database or notebook with good moves that you’ve made. Review it regularly or when you need your confidence boosted. Remember that YOU made those moves and you’ll make good moves again.
  • Keep focusing on your process and schedule and remember that the consistency in your training now may not seem to be doing anything, but they will pay dividends. It’s like running a marathon: you may not be able to see the finish line but every step you take must bring you closer to it.
  • Observe and be mindful of how you talk to yourself and what you think about yourself. Think about what you are saying to yourself and ask yourself if this is something you would say to a beloved friend or to your mother – unless you don’t get along with your mother, in which case choose someone else.
  • Forgive yourself for any mistakes or failures you made in the past. Learn from any short-comings, but move on from them emotionally. Stop beating yourself up.

Final Thoughts

As you begin this new year, remember that now is an opportunity to wipe the slate clean. In fact, whether you had a great year or one that you would like to forget, it is a new year whether you like it or not.

I hope you find the advice in this article useful. As you may have noticed, I’ve shared some of my own personal goals and process. If you have a different method or way of organizing yourself, go for it! My way works for me and I’m continually improving and changing parts of it. The key is to get started!

I wish you the best this year and beyond. Hopefully, some of the ideas here will help make this coming year your best yet!

Bryan Castro

The Limits of the Chess Engine for Improvement

Chess Engines: Tool or Trap?

Using chess engines for chess analysis and practice has become very commonplace. Whether you are on an online chess server, internet forum, or even at the tournament hall, discussion of which chess engine one uses or what the latest version of Stockfish is seems to pop up frequently.

However, I think we must be very careful in using our silicon friend too much lest our conversations start to sound like this:

Peter Patzer: Move 23 in the Najdorf Sicilian Sozin line you played is busted. Why do you play this trash?

Wilson Woodpusher: What are you talking about? Blockfish 44.18 says that it’s only +0.32.

Peter Patzer: Oh, my friend, don’t you know? Blockfish is terrible at assessing lines played by Nakamura. You need to use Slomodo 96.32a especially calibrated to analyzing such complex lines. It says it’s +1.2 if you let it run to at least 33 ply!

Wilson Woodpusher: Ah…you are so wise, my friend. What is your rating again?

Peter Patzer: 1500, but Slomodo 96.32a has a rating of 3700!

Wilson Woodpusher: Oh yeah? Let’s have our chess engines play each other.

Peter Patzer: Challenge accepted!

Am I saying that you should never use a chess engine to assist you with chess analysis or practice? No. They can be very useful to check for blunders as well as practicing positions – such as endgames – when you don’t have a partner. However, we should be aware of their limitations and what they can’t do to help you improve your chess.

Chess Engines Don’t Teach

When you look at chess engine analysis, you see a lot of move variations and evaluations of the resulting positions. However, for amateur players, much of this analysis is near useless unless the position involves a tactical blunder or forced win or material.

For example, the engine doesn’t tell you:

  • What pawn levers you are preparing.
  • What positional elements should be prioritized in the position.
  • Why you should trade a specific minor piece or keep another.
  • What the typical plans are in a particular pawn structure.

This knowledge is much more important for you to understand and learn than to know that 23.Bxf6 is +0.13 better than 23.Nxf6 at 33 ply.

Chess Engines Pick Moves THEY Like

When looking at the suggested moves from the output of a chess engine, we must remember a couple things.

The computer doesn’t take into account the sharpness of the position, only the resulting position at the end of its horizon. So although a top move for a computer may end up in an advantageous position with best play, the types of moves that are required to get there may be incredibly difficult for a player – particularly an amateur player – to handle.

As an example, let’s say there are two paths to an advantage:

  • One move leads to an intensely sharp position requiring 5-6 “best” moves that results in a +3.5 evaluation. This might involve
  • One move leads to a comfortable position with several variations that lead to similar positions resulting in a +2.0 evaluation.

Both moves should be sufficient for victory, but which one should you choose? If you’re a computer (or GM Hikaru Nakamura), you might opt for the first choice. If you’re not a computer , you might choose the second move.

Also remember that the computer engine won’t tell you which path is which!

The Engine Won’t Be At Your Side

Finally, if you are mainly an OTB or tournament player – as opposed to a correspondence player – the chess engine won’t be sitting next to you when you are playing. Using the engines too much in analysis will dull your own analytical muscles.

Your ability to calculate and evaluate positions is a perishable skill. If you don’t use it, you will lose it. This is a skill that must be continually developed and practiced – especially for amateurs. However, this is often hard work which is why clicking the chess engine button is so tempting. I urge you not to give in – at least too early.

As I’ve heard taught in many endeavors including music, martial arts, and academics – you will perform the way you practice. If you practice analyzing positions with high effort, you will be able to put out that effort in your games. If you constantly rely on the engines to analyze your positions, you won’t have the habits and technique when it comes time for your most challenging positions.

A Place for Engines

As I said earlier in this article, chess engines have their place. To finish up, where are a few ways I think chess engines can be very helpful.

  • They can be tireless defenders when practicing specific positions, such as technical endgames. Positions that require more practice than memorization, such as King, Bishop, and Knight vs. King (KBN vs. K) work especially well.
  • After you have analyzed a position or game on your own and feel like you’ve exhausted your own abilities, having the chess engine check for obvious errors can be very helpful. Of course, you need to understand why it is an error as well and how you can improve your analysis next time.
  • In discussing this topic with GM Nigel Davies, he noted that he and other strong players use engines for high level opening preparation. However, I would caution amateurs in doing too much of this work, as masters like Nigel have an incredible foundation of knowledge and skill to assist them in understanding and evaluating chess engine output.

The chess engines are here to stay for better or for worse. They can useful in your chess training if used properly, but when in doubt, try not using it and think on your own. Your chess skill will be the better for it.

Bryan Castro

Developing Precision in Chess

I am not a bomber. I’m more about precision and being target-oriented. I have to rely on all parts of my game firing if I’m going to win.

Luke Donald, Professional Golfer

Small Differences

In chess and golf, small differences in position and in movement can mean either winning or losing. There are many positions where it is hard to determine the objective difference between several very good moves. Choosing these moves may often be a matter of preference or temperament.

However, there are many positions where the 2nd best move is not nearly as good as the best move. This can occur in very sharp middlegame positions as well as in many endgame positions.

Here is a position from a recent game I played that inspired this article. Although I won the game, I only played the 2nd best move in this position. Study my analysis, and notice how lucky I was that my opponent also played the 2nd best move on his turn.

I hope you enjoyed that position. It was rewarding for me to analyze and annotate for you. Also, it is also my hope that it helped you appreciate the need for precision in chess.

Pattern Recognition

One way to improve your precision is to have a working command of many patterns – especially in the endgame. Why? Knowing various chess patterns frees your mind from having to “figure it all out” at the board – allowing you to use your mental resources to do deeper calculations.

What kind of patterns should you know? Here is just a few examples:

  • Pawn structures that occur in your opening repertoire (and what you should be doing in those positions).
  • Basic endgame concepts such as zugzwang and opposition.
  • Specific theoretical endgames such as the Lucena position.
  • Tactical motifs such a pins, forks, etc.
  • Basic checkmating patterns (such as smothered mate) and methods (such as rook and king vs. king).

Depending on how long you have played and studied chess,  you may pick these patterns up through various sources, such as books as well as analyzing your own games. However, you can also systematically seek out this knowledge. A good book in this regard is Jeremy Silman’s Complete Endgame Course for endgame knowledge. If you enjoy learning online I can recommend our own GM Nigel Davies’ Tiger Chess program for a complete curriculum of strategy and endgames to build your chess pattern recognition.

Thought Process

Another way to improve your precision is to develop your thought process. This topic is beyond the scope of this article but there are two questions you need to ask yourself for each move you make:

Question #1: What is my opponent’s best responses to my move?

This question will help you to avoid overlooking your opponent’s replies. You should examine your opponent’s potential checks, captures, and threats as responses to your candidate move. In addition, you may want to ask yourself, “What would my opponent do if it were his turn to move?” 

In my endgame position above, had I done this I might have noticed my opponent’s potential move and looked for another option – I don’t know if I would have found the best move but I would have at least looked.

Question #2: Do I have a better move in this position?

As Lasker said, “When you see a good move, look for a better one.” If you ask yourself this question during your games, you will look for alternatives. Sometimes, this will just confirm your first choice, but sometimes you will find something even better!

Things to look for include:

  • Different move orders (especially in tactical combinations)
  • Checking moves that you think are forced (both for your candidate and your opponent’s reply)
  • Alternative moves that accomplish the strategic objectives of your current candidate

Including these two questions in your thought process will improve the precision of your move selection.

Calculation Skill

As I discuss in another article about learning tactics, there are two parts to improving tactics – pattern recognition and calculation ability. We covered pattern recognition above, so let’s talk about improving calculation skill.

There are a few elements to calculation, including visualizing positions, organizing the variations, and assessing the resulting positions – just to name a few. I recommend checking out Kotov’s Think LIke a Grandmaster if you really want to dig deep into this topic, but here are a few methods for improving your calculation.

  • Checkmate problems: This is a good method to start with and I’ve used it off and on for years with great success. You can start with 2-movers, then move progress to 3-movers and 4-movers. The beauty of this method is that it really isolates the visualization and organization aspects of calculation as you don’t have to evaluate positions – it is either a checkmate or not.
  • Chess Tempo Standard problems: These are tactical problems that usually requires 3+ moves of calculation to solve – particularly with the higher rated problems. There may be other online chess servers that achieve the same purpose, but I think Chess Tempo’s higher rated problems are particularly good for developing your calculating muscles. There is only one solution to each problem, this specifically improves your precision.
  • Endgame Studies: This is probably the most difficult of the methods I will mention here as they often require some endgame theoretical knowledge to give you a clue of where to start – otherwise you are often just taking shots in the dark (which may improve your calculation ability if it doesn’t drive you crazy). However, this could also provide much pleasure as there are many beautiful endgame studies. For a more practical slant, you can check out Chess Tempo’s endgame training mode – which provide positions from actual games.

Conclusion

Improving your precision can be a great investment of your chess training time. The obvious methods including solving tactical problems and practicing calculation will definitely help. In addition, I also propose increasing your chess knowledge as well as improving your thought process as ways that will both improve your precision as well as every other aspect of your chess.

As always, I wish you good luck in your chess endeavours and better chess!

Bryan Castro

Five Ways Your Ego Limits Your Chess

Ego is the Enemy

In Ryan Holliday’s book, Ego is the Enemy, he discusses ways that our ego hinders our development in several ways. I think this truth applies to chess as well. In my own journey of chess improvement and many other players I have spoken to and observed, ego limits us. Unless one can put his ego in check (or perhaps one must checkmate one’s ego), our own chess skill will reach a ceiling of our own construction.

In this article, I will discuss a few of the ways ego limits our chess improvement and what we can do about it.

Getting Ahead of Yourself

When I was rated around USCF 1600, I remember talking to a player I had just beaten in a tournament. We had a nice conversation about chess books and studying chess. I said I was working on tactics and middlegame planning.

He replied, “Yeah, I’m done studying the basics…I’m focusing on openings now.” The thing was that I had won our game because he lost a piece due to a basic tactic. Perhaps he should revisit his tactical training.

Sometimes amateur players, once they get a grasp of the basics, want to feel like they have some understanding of the game. Thus, they study things that are over their head and skip over fundamental elements that are necessary to understand the more complicated stuff.

In my article What Chess Books Should I StudyI recommend Irving Chernev’s Logical Chess: Move by Move. When discussing this book with players under 1500, many respond that it is too simple for them and that the openings are outdated. However, these are the same players who make fundamental opening mistakes such as failing to develop their pieces or keeping their king in the center of the board (and subsequently getting it stuck there for the rest of the game).

When selecting what to study in chess, make sure that you have built a solid foundation. This would include general opening principles, basic tactical and checkmate motifs, pawn structure, strategy, and endgames.

Moving On

Although I have observed that people tend to study “above” their ability, the opposite problem is also possible and also due to our egos. Sometimes, players will focus on chess material that is too easy for them or that they understand. For example, they may focus on solving simple tactics over and over without ever challenging themselves with more difficult problems. Note: My criticism is not with solving simple problems, as pattern recognition of these basics is important. Instead, my emphasis is in the lack of challenging oneself.

So there are two aspects to this. First, we need to make sure we are studying material that is appropriate for our level. Like Goldilocks, it shouldn’t be too difficult or too easy.

The second aspect is that we need to find ways to test our knowledge so we know whether we should move on to more difficult or more complex concepts. One way to do this is Solitaire Chess – the moves you get incorrect may indicate areas where you need to improve your understanding.  Another great way is with the help of a chess coach who could help suggest appropriate books based on analyzing your games.

Before you can get really good, you have to be comfortable being bad. This means not being afraid of mistakes. This also means not only slowing down when you need to, but moving forward when the time is right as well.

Your Opening Selection

My first chess hero was Bobby Fischer. My second chess hero was Garry Kasparov. So naturally, as soon as I started studying openings, I decided I would play the Sicilian Defense and the King’s Indian Defense. I found a book by Drazon Marovic (which actually is quite a good book looking at it nearly 20 years later). However, with a rating of USCF 1300 or so it was definitely over my head.

I remember playing in a tournament in Cleveland, Ohio about 15 years ago and my opponent and I got about 15 moves deep in theory in a Sicilian Najdorf. However, as soon as we left our theoretical knowledge our chess looked like the 1300 players that we were at the time. I won a piece due to a tactical blunder and another tactical blunder on my part gave back the piece several moves later. I admit I might have burned my scoresheet after losing the game after yet another blunder of a piece in the endgame – otherwise I would show it to you here.

There is a thrill in playing the openings of the best players in the world. In fact, I am not going to tell you not to play these openings. What I am going to ask you to consider is whether your opening choice is hindering or helping your chess development.

For example, in the above-mentioned game, although I lost the game due to tactical blunders, the other problem is that I had no idea what to do strategically in the game. My opponent and I had memorized the theoretical moves but really didn’t have much of an idea of positional play, which probably made us even more susceptible to tactical errors.

When it comes to your openings, there are several options. I write about this in more detail in my article Opening Repertoire Strategiesbut I will discuss two of them here. One view is to use openings that you plan to play for a while based on your ambitions in chess. This is a view I discussed with IM Greg Shahade in an article on developing your opening repertoire. This method can be very effective for higher rated players who already have a good grasp of the basics mentioned above – the types of students that IM Shahade works with.

Another view is to choose openings that allow you to practice specific structures and plans. This is a view taken by GM Nigel Davies in his Tiger Chess program. This may involve playing less complicated openings, which can be difficult if your ego tells you that you need to be playing the “best” openings.

They’re “Just” Mistakes

Another way your ego prevents you from improving is that it keeps us from facing our mistakes. How many times have you heard (or thought) the following:

“Oh, I was totally crushing him. I just blundered is all.”

The key word here is the  “just.” This tells me that this person is downplaying his mistakes. Our ego keeps us from wanting to admit (or realize) that maybe we need to work a little harder in our tactics. So we “just” had a little oversight, but we totally outplayed them…now stop wasting our time so we can get back to studying the Najdorf Sicilian.

What are your “just” mistakes?

  • just let him draw me in an endgame where I was a pawn ahead.
  • just misplayed the opening. If I knew more theory in this variation, I would have won.
  • I was just tired. I would have won the game if I was rested.

All of these “just” mistakes may be valid. However, what are you going to do about it?

If your “just” mistakes, consider the following questions?

  • Does this mistake indicate a chess pattern or structure that you don’t understand? What can you do to fill this gap?
  • Is your mistake due to a lack of attention or focus? Is it fatigue or distraction?
  • Do you have a consistent thought process that helps you avoid making systematic mistakes such as missing your opponent’s checks?

If you notice yourself making “just” mistakes, take it as a cue to study those particular positions carefully for future training and study.

Our Losses and a Personal Example

About 15 years ago, I played in the World Open in Philadelphia. Between the rounds, Grandmaster Pal Benko generously analyzed players’ games in front in one of the skittles rooms. I remember one of the players – rated around USCF 2100 –  coming up and I will summarize the essense of what he said after GM Benko asked him to give a little background to the game:

“Here I played the [insert “fancy” opening variation here]. BAM! My opponent deviated from the book at move 12 and then I capitalized by moving my queen here. BOOM! Then he unwittingly fell for my trap and I redeployed my bishop here. POW! Finally, I sacrificed my bishop and it was mate in three. KA-CHOW!”

He then shook Pal Benko’s hand and walked off triumphantly. GM Benko smiled, shook his head an asked for the next game.

The fact is we don’t like to show other people our losses. Our ego keeps us from publicly showing our weaknesses. Besides, our losses are usually caused by our “just” mistakes, which means that they are not truly representative of our true strength anyway. At least that’s what your ego wants you to believe.

If we really want to improve, we need to checkmate (or at least stalemate) our ego – sorry, couldn’t resist. We can’t be afraid of our fellow players knowing we are human and make mistakes. Posting your wins against players 200 ratings points below you won’t really help you. By the way, there’s nothing wrong with posting those victories, but they probably aren’t the most instructive.

Progress comes from learning from the painful losses. It comes from the games where you really didn’t have a clue what was going on at certain points. The games where you were trying your best and fell short. If you have the courage to study these games and perhaps show them to other players or your coach – then you have a chance at really getting good.

With that in mind, I’ll be concluding the article with one of my painful losses. I’ve annotated it with a few of my thoughts as well as some of the lessons that I came away with. If you’re not sure how to analyze your games, check out Seven Questions to Ask Yourself After Each GameThat article illustrates the method I used to analyzed the following game. I’ve adjusted my annotations and cut out some of the analyzed variations for clarity and enjoyment.

Bryan Castro

Strong Character for Strong Chess

The human element, the human flaw and the human nobility – those are the reasons that chess matches are won or lost. 
-Viktor Korchnoi

Chess is a game of the mind. Not just because it is game of logic, memory, and analysis, but also because chess tests your very character. Chess is played with 32 pieces and pawns on a board with 64 squares, but it is also played in our heart and soul. To me, this is what is beautiful about chess – that it is an expression both of our intellect and reasoning, but also of our creativity, desire, and determination.

In this article, I want to discuss four character traits that I believe are essential to becoming a really good chess player. In addition, I offer suggestions on how you can enhance and develop these.

Desire

The first quality that you need to cultivate as an aspiring chess player is desire. You need to want to improve. One of my favorite motivational speakers Eric Thomas says, “You need to want to succeed more than you want to breath.” Maybe that’s a little extreme for the average amateur chess player, but you need to want to improve enough so that you will do some chess study rather than say watching some television or a video game.

A good question to ask yourself is why you want to get better at chess. If your answer is something external like winning prize money or impressing your friends, then it is unlikely that you will sustain the necessary dedication to succeed.

However, if your desire to become better at chess is derived from an internal motivation such as trying to improve your mental capabilities or a deep appreciation for the logic and aesthetics of the game, then that combined with some of the other character traits I will mention may help drive you up the chess ladder.

To improve or stimulate this quality within yourself, I suggest you write down the reasons that you want to get better at chess on a piece of paper or index card. You can make it a short essay or perhaps a few bullet points. It can also be a simple sentence.

After you’ve done this, review it regularly. Doing this will do one of two things. It will either increase this desire for improvement within you…or you’ll realize you don’t really want to improve that much at chess and you’ll cease this exercise.

Your desire to improve will drive you to make positive decisions about your chess.

However, desire alone isn’t enough.

Perseverance

Perseverance means sticking with something despite delays and difficulties in reaching it. This quality is especially important for chess players as becoming really good at chess takes a long time (for most people). Even if you are particularly talented and pick chess up very quickly, it might still take you at least five years to become a master.

I started “trying” to become really good at chess about 20 years ago. During that time, I’ve gotten married, had three children, a couple career changes, as well as the other struggles that life brings. A couple times, I’ve stopped playing chess altogether for several years at a stretch.

However the call of Caissa is a sweet one and once you’ve heard it, it is hard to turn your back on her forever. I’ve returned to playing chess and my desire is back stronger than ever, so now I have to back it up with perseverance.

How can I do this? I think it is important to examine your beliefs because what you believe will affect your attitude and your willpower to persevere. Consider the following questions:

  • Do you believe you have the potential to get better or do you think you’ve reached the highest point of your chess ability?
  • Is mastering chess is a matter of talent alone or the result of a long process of improvement?
  • Does your age factor into your ability to improve? Is getting really good at chess for young people only? Can you guess that I’ve been mulling this over lately?

Your beliefs about yourself and about the reality that mastery takes time is key to your persevering through the struggles of life as well as struggles at the chessboard.

Finally I suggest that you simply refuse to give up. Although life may happen and you may need to take a break from the game, remember that you can always come back. You only fail if you don’t come back.

Consistency

While perseverance is about sticking with it for the long haul, consistency is about the regularity and frequency of your training.

Each time I came back from a layoff from chess, it took a little while to get back to where I left off. I had to brush up on my openings as well as sharpen my tactical skills. This could have been avoided if I had stayed consistent.

Developing consistency is essentially making chess training a habit. As I write in my article Developing Good Habits for Life and Chessthere are a few steps to create a new habit:

  • Identify the habit you are trying to develop.
  • Break down the habit into smaller parts or behaviors.
  • Progress slowly and gradually increase the frequency, intensity, or volume of the habit.
  • Keep it easy – e.g. increase the habit gradually enough that your perceived effort is similar to before.

Developing consistency is also understanding that shorter training sessions done over several days is more effective in general than one long training session every once in a while. A problem I in my early days was trying to keep up a schedule when I trained or studied for 4-5 hours per day. Other parts of my life suffered as my daily activities were out of balance.

Now, I do an hour or two a day and on the busy days, I get in 20-30 minutes of tactics or studying a mastery game. I realize that eating an apple a day is much more effective for keeping the doctor away than trying to eat seven apples in one day!

Resiliance

The final ingredient that I will discuss today is resilience. Resilience is bouncing back from set-backs. Similar to perseverance and aided by desire and consistency, resilience brings you back to the chessboard after a disappointing performance or frustration with your progress.

Like the other traits I mentioned, I believe that this can be improved. Here are a few steps you can take:

  • Keep a positive view of your chess abilities. Like I mention in my article on game analysis, it is important to note not only your mistakes but the good moves you made. Review these whenever you feel frustrated with your progress.
  • Keep things in perspective. Remember that a loss is but one game of hundreds or thousands that you will play in your lifetime. Use a loss or set-back as fuel for your training.
  • Stay in contact with your chess friends or perhaps your coach when you are feeling down about your play. They will help you keep things in perspective and a coach can help you find any systematic or regular mistakes you may be making.
  • Embrace mistakes and losses as a chance to learn and grow. As Capablanca said, he learned a lot more from his losses than he did from his wins.

One great example of resilience was Kasparov’s comeback after going down 4-0 in his 1984 World Championship match where he challenged the champion at the time Anatoly Karpov.  Despite a crushing deficit in which Karpov only needed to win two more games, Kasparov held on, playing to sixteen straight draws before losing again! Kasparov finally won his first game of the match in game 32. He also won games 47 and 48, bringing the match to 5-3. Unfortunately, the match was controversially stopped due to various reasons. I believe Kasparov would have eventually won, and in the return match he edged out his rival to become the World Champion.

Here’s the score of the 32nd game – Kasparov’s first victory in the 1984 match.

Conclusion

Today’s article was about character traits. Some people believe that you either have these or you don’t. After studying the topic and observing others, I tend to believe that although you may gifted with an abundance of one or more of these traits, that you can develop them.

The beautiful thing is that once you develop these traits with regard to your chess improvement, you can apply them to other parts of your life (and vice versa). Understanding the power of desire, you an foster these in your work and family life. Similarly, developing consistency as a habit need not be limited to your work on your chess. Finally, life is full of set-backs. The greatest stories are those of people overcoming their set-backs in life through resiliance and perseverance.

In a way, chess becomes a training ground for life, and our life experiences can contribute to our chess success as well. Combine this with some tactical skill and strategic acumen (and perhaps a solid opening repertoire) and you’re well on your way to success in chess and life!

Bryan Castro

Keep Hammering Away

When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.

-Jacob Riis

Do you sometimes get frustrated about your chess progress? Unless you are not human, most likely you have. This is natural, especially with an endeavor like chess improvement, because chess is not easy! However, the challenge of improvement and mastery keeps us going. In today’s article, I’d like to discuss how to stay patient with your chess journey and encourage you to take the “long cut” to chess mastery.

Pounding the Rock

It’s important to remember that even though it doesn’t seem like it, you are gradually making progress – assuming you are training and studying sufficiently.

For example, let’s say a player makes four big blunders a game. Let’s also imagine that these blunders on average lose at least a piece, which should be sufficient to lose in most cases against stronger competition.

After studying and practicing his tactics, our friend reduces his hypothetical blunder rate to two per game. He’s reduced her blunder rate in half, which is incredible improvement. However, because each of these blunders are game losing moves, his rating remains the same.

Eventually, as he continues to progress, eventually all of the habits, knowledge, and experience will combine into more wins.

Stick with the Process

Although we all have our aspirations of winning the big tournament, or moving up a ratings class, or eventually becoming a titled player, we should realize that it is the daily and weekly work done consistently over years that will get us to our higher goals.

In his article Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.,  self-improvement writer James Clear encourages us not to focus on the long-term “outcome goals” but instead to focus on the system to get there.

For example, instead of focusing on becoming awesome at endgame play, you would focus on studying endgames for an hour twice a week. By focusing on your schedule and sticking to it, you will definitely improve your endgame play over time. Sometimes, focusing on the long-term goal can be motivating, but sometimes it can also be disheartening if we focus on it too much. instead, but focusing on the system or process we set up to get there, we will make continual and consistent progress.

The Long Cut

People love shortcuts. It is the reason that books and articles with titles such as Rapid Chess Improvement and Improve Your Chess, Fast! are popular. However, we all know in our hearts that mastery of something as complex as chess is going to take years, if not longer.

Instead, I propose you take the long cut towards chess improvement. What is the long cut? For chess, it is building up your knowledge and skill over time. The process can be optimized and improved of course. Reading good books, working with qualified coaches, and playing tough competition will help you improve over time. Doing so systematically and thoughtfully will do so more efficiently.

This is where working with a coach and learning from the experience of others can be very helpful. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to studying chess. A systematic program such as GM Nigel Davies’ Tiger Chess program provides a comprehensive solution to studying chess strategy. Combining such a program with study of your own games and tactical training can help you cut down on seeking out your own materials. Of course, sometimes plotting your own course can be part of the fun. The choice is yours!

Conclusion

Ratings eventually follows chess strength, although sometimes not instantaneously or even gradually. The climb could be a general upward slope with many jagged peaks and valleys. Sometimes, it looks like a plateau with a sudden jump.

Don’t be fooled though, sudden increases in rating result from a longer period of much consistent study and training. This takes perseverance and determination.

Embrace the long cut and keep hammering away.

Bryan Castro

Sharpen Your Chess with Kaizen

Years ago, I was introduced to the concept of kaizen – Japanese for improvement. Simply put, kaizen is continuous refinement and improvement. This concept was introduced to business partly by the work of Dr. W. Edwards Deming – famous for his work after World War II in Japan.

Essentially, Dr. Deming seeked to improve business by looking at all aspects of the business and making improvements – sometimes seemingly insignificant ones – in the various processes present throughout the business. This might include processes for manufacturing, service, sales, marketing, and management. The small improvements in the various processes lead to better products, elimination of wasted resources, and better service which would culminate in more profits.

What does this have to do with chess? Well, in chess our “products” are the moves we make on the chess board. To improve our chess, of course there are many things we can do – studying tactics, studying master games, playing strong competition, analyzing your games, etc.

Applying kaizen to these activities means breaking down the processes that go into playing chess and finding ways to improve them in all the chess activities we do.

How do we do this? Well, Dr. Deming provides a method we can apply to all of our chess training. It is the PDSA Cycle – Plan, Do, Study, and Act. For those in education, this is very similar to using metacognitive strategies.

By applying PDSA to our training, study, and games, we will gradually improve our thinking and the way we learn, ultimately culminating in improving our chess results.

Here is the PDSA Cycle explained with some chess examples.

Plan

This is where you identify objectives that you want to accomplish during your training. These objectives should be measurable to some extent. They provide a guidepost for your thinking as you do your training. These objectives are not simply to complete the task at hand. I want you to think like an engineer and break down what you really trying to do.

Here are some examples that I have used:

  • Complete the training session without checking e-mail or Facebook (if doing chess work on the computer).
  • For each problem, I will come up with more than one candidate move (and write these down in my notebook).
  • During Solitaire Chess: List my principle variation (PV) for every move I make.
  • During online games: Every time I feel negative, I will try to look for the postive aspects of my chess position/situation.

Your own self-awareness of your needs (or those suggested by a coach) will help you choose objectives that are appropriate for you. Notice that each of the objectives I listed were process goals – not outcome goals. (Nigel Davies wrote about the difference in a recent post and I discuss it in my article about measurement as well).

Do

The next step is to go through your training, keeping the objectives in mind. The key here is to be self-aware of your thinking during this session. Actually, setting the objectives in itself will help you focus on your thinking.

During this phase, if I’m doing training such as tactics or Solitaire Chess, I’ll make objectives that I can record in my notebook. For example, my example of writing down my principle variation during my Solitiare Chess training sessions forces me to write down a variation (of at least 3 ply) for every move. Similarly, sometimes my objective is to look more broadly at positions, so I will write down all of the candidate moves I suggested. This simply makes things simple for the next step in the PDSA cycle.

Study

After you have finished your activity, the next step is to study the results. There are two aspects to look at.

  • First, did you accomplish your objectives that you set.
  • Second, how did that affect the task.

For example, using the Solitaire Chess example, I will first note the percentage of moves that I wrote down the principle variation for. Surprisingly, it’s usually not 100% – which in itself is an important discovery.

Next, I will notice how successful I was in selecting the proper moves compared to how I usually do. One thing to note is that if you are new to setting these objectives (and metacognitive learning strategies in general) is that you may see a drop in performance at first while you are getting used to thinking differently. This is normal and the benefits should start to appear after a few sessions.

For example, with the example we’ve been using, I noticed that I didn’t get through as many moves in my time period (usually an hour or 90 minutes) than I did before. This is easy to explain, as I had to think about what my principle variation (PV) was and then write it down, whereas before I was just writing down the final move I selected. However, I noticed that my percentage of correct moves increased. I’m confident that my efficiency of doing this – either on paper during training or in my mind during my tournament games – will improve.

Act

In this final step, we have to choose how we will act on the information gained in the first three steps. Using our example, if my move selection performance improves drastically by writing down my PV, then perhaps it is something I need to focus on doing more (and of course the act of practicing it will improve its occurrence). However, if over several sessions there is not signicant improvement, it is possible that another issue (and thus another objective) is hindering performance and should be explored.

Recommendations

Here are a few ways you can start to incorporate Kaizen and the PDSA Cycle to your training.

  • Talk to your coach about what objectives you should pursue during your training.
  • During every chess activity, identify at least one – and one is often enough – objective to pursue during that session.
  • Track and monitor your progress and the objectives you are trying to accomplish. A simple spreadsheet works quite well.
  • Experiment with different types of objectives. For example, try objectives involving your mindset, your thinking process, and your environment (e.g. distractions).
  • Learn more about PDSA and metacognitive learning strategies.

Conclusion

Kaizen is not just a specific process, it’s a way of thinking and living. Many people study and train their chess in a haphazard fashion. By applying the PDSA Cycle, you can learn to control more aspects of your learning process.

Another benefit of applying these concepts is that you realize that there are things you can control and things you can’t. You may not be able to control that your opponent played a great game and thus defeated you. However, you can control your attitude and your own thinking before, during, and after the game.

By measuring and studying your objectives, you may realize that you are improving even though the result of the game doesn’t appear to support that conclusion.

By improving the way you think and your mindset, as well as controlling environmental factors that affect your performance by applying Kaizen as well as increasing your chess knowledge through dedicated study and training, the result cannot be anything other than improvement.

To close, I want to share one of my favorite quotes:

He who stops being better stops being good.

-Oliver Cromwell

Be better – little by little, day by day. Good luck and better chess!

Bryan Castro