Category Archives: Intermediate (1350-1750)

Critical Objectivity: Part II

“Find Fault …
Judge with severity …
… readily.”

If you were with me last week, you will likely remember that the above is the phrase I suggested that every chess player should live by with regard to each game they play if they are serious about their chess and would like to improve. In our constant search to further our chess understanding and to be better exponents of the game, we carry out post-game analysis. This, in my opinion, comes in two parts and we apply the above phrase to both. The first part, is the so-called ‘post-mortem’ analysis, which is done straight after the game, and preferably with one’s opponent. This was covered in my blog last week, and I advise you to read that first if it’s a stranger to you. The link is shown below.

http://chessimprover.com/critical-objectivity-part-i/

This week, we deal with the other part of post-game analysis, namely: Home Analysis.

Home analysis is very different from the post-mortem. It is usually done alone and takes a lot longer to carry out. In Home Analysis, our purpose (some would say ‘duty’) is to scrutinise our game — not only the one’s we have completed, but also our game as a whole. In order to do this, we must be prepared to make some sacrifices. The first is time, for in order for home analysis to be effective, it can not (and should not … must not) be rushed. The second sacrifice must be our ego, for a chess player who is too proud to be bluntly honest with his or herself wont progress very much. Before problems can be worked on (and trust me, no matter how strong a player, ones game is full of problems) they must first be identified.

As daunting as this sounds, it actually should be welcomed. After all, it means that it is possible to get better. With some dedication and hard work, honesty, and a strong will –not to mention a love for the game of chess, which is most important– it is my strong belief that any chess player can improve in some way, shape, or form. When a player tells me that they think they can not improve and have reached their peak, I usually ask them if they analyse and am not surprised that most don’t.

“I don’t have time”,
“I can’t be bothered”,
“it’s boring”,
“that’s only for grandmasters”. I’ve heard most excuses and this is more often the cause of any lack of progress.

So, we have covered the ‘why’, let’s turn our attention to the ‘how’ …

There are no hard and fast rules with home analysis, just like there aren’t with the post-mortem, it varies from player to player, and the more that one carries it out, the more it will gel and one will discover what works and develop their own technique. I do have a few general points of advice, however:

- Be alone and quiet. If possible, be totally free from interruption and distraction.

- Be comfortable.

- Analyse over a 3D, physical board, on which you can move pieces, not with a chess engine. This way, you will learn more, you will retain more information, you will gain more pattern recognition, and you will recall it easier and more accurately in your future games. It goes without saying, that the chess engine, opening book, and database/tablebase have value and can help a lot, but I think they have a danger of being over-used to the detriment of the brain.

- Be thorough, don’t rush or leave anything out.

- Treat the whole exercise as middlegame. Speaking for myself, I found that my analysis improved and became much more productive once I discovered this. Even if you have got in to trouble in the opening or endgame, I urge you to try to resist the temptation to open your openings book or tablebase. You can do this later on, and target those areas of your game specifically and that is best all-round. The point of post-game analysis should be to dissect the game that we have played, and to therefore evaluate how we play. Accordingly, we focus on our strategic understanding, our positional judgement, our calculation of variations, our tactical vision, our sense of danger. These things are the bread and butter of the chess game.

- Be Honest … bluntly honest.

When analysing, play through the game, armed with your notes from the post-mortem conducted with your opponent. These will already have given you some things to look at more closely. Do this at each move, not only from your perspective, but also from that of your opponent. What was played? What else was there? Explore the options, write the variations down along with your evaluations. Was the best move chosen, or was there something better? What was missed? What did you feel were critical positions? Again, you will already have an idea on this, make a note of it/them and delve in as deep as you like. This is a super exercise in itself and will be great for your pattern recognition.

Only when the analysis is completed should it be taken to the computer. Just a point of caution, however, computer evaluations of positions should be taken with a pinch of salt. You may think this is a bold statement, but even the best chess engine is very capable of giving a minus score in a position where White is actually doing very well. Likewise, it might show that White is up by +0.50 just before Black’s cramped position is about to explode in a fashion that would make Smyslov proud, and begin to dominate the whole board. Please bear this in mind. If you felt fine at a point in the game and your engine says your opponent is better, it does not necessarily mean you are wrong. Better does not mean winning, winning does not mean won. This is a unique feature with regard to chess engines, they are just sometimes not human enough.

Where your engine really does come in to its own, however, will be its calculation capabilities. What is it saying about your analysis of variations? What is it telling you that you have missed both during the game and after it? Which of your moves is it having a heart attack to? What brilliancies is it telling you were missed? Ignore them at your peril, include them in your annotations … and, very importantly, credit the engine.

When you’re done, click ‘save’ and then ‘print’. You will hold in your hand one of the most valuable things to your chess you could ever posses. From here, you should return to your board, and play through the finished product again. At the end of the exercise, you will have a much better understanding of chess, and a better insight into your play. Not only will it present technical areas to target for improvement, but it will also highlight some bad habits with which you are shooting yourself in the foot.

And believe it or not, that’s the easy bit. The hard bit is putting it all right — and, just like me dear reader, you are aiming to be the first player to have ever completely succeeded … ;-)

John Lee Shaw

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Critical Objectivity: part I

There is one very important ability needed by every chess player wanting to improve their game. Of course, chess has many different aspects to it, but without this certain ability, they all fade in to the background, and many may not even develop. The ability in question, is that of being able to be critically objective about one’s play.

It is very important to emphasise the word ‘critically’ here — taking a definition from the dictionary, “inclined to find fault or to judge with severity, often too readily.” For our purpose, let’s shorten it, thus:

“Find fault. Judge with severity. Readily.”

The chess player who strives to improve, should implement this after each game they play. After all, how can we get better without knowing our flaws? In truth, all areas of our chess are flawed in some way, (there is yet to be a player who has perfected the game), the challenge is pinpointing specifics so that we can work on them. This is done, of course, by carrying out post-game analysis. And this, dear reader, is the subject for my next two blogs.

It still startles me that many chess players do not analyse their games. This really is a great pity because they deprive themselves of great learning opportunities. However, perhaps there is a logical reason for this, as among the plethora of chess books on the market, there are not many (if any) covering the analysis of ones games. This is probably quite a commercial decision, considering that many strong players (and many not so strong players for that matter) make money carrying out the service.

Anyway, I am going to try to regress the balance, and offer what I can on the subject. It goes without saying, that there is no winning formula for analysis, no set rules or technique. Each person is different, as is each game, and what works in the case of one may not work in the case of the other. However, I do believe that it is possible to give sensible guidance on the subject, based upon experience, and what seems to work for me. The more that one analyses, a unique style develops and the framework will become like second nature.

My blogs this week and next week, will be of use to players who have either not yet embarked upon analysis of their games, or who feel that they are perhaps not getting what they should be from it. The reason that I have decided to split the blog in to two parts, is that in my opinion, there are two aspects to post-game analysis:

1). The so-called ‘Post-Mortem’ (immediately afterwards with the opponent).
2). Personal home analysis.

The Post Mortem

In my experience, it is very easy to tell a serious chess player, from a casual woodpusher, and even at tournaments there are examples of both. Serious players will find a quiet corner after they have finished playing, and embark upon a post-mortem of it with their opponent. Casual players might do this with good games, as an opportunity for glory, and their losses will get crushed up and disposed of.

The importance of the post-mortem can not be over-stated, it is one’s opportunity to gain the insight of the opponent — how was he/she feeling at certain points? Why did he/she play 18…Qb6, the move that caused great bemusement? Because chess is a battle of minds, this is a very crucial part of development. To approach chess solely with the self in mind is very often counter-productive — it certainly is in a game, after all. During the post-mortem, a player may already be startled at just how much they had missed in the game, and just how wrong he/she had been in evaluating the position, and the opponent’s options at certain stages, not to mention their own. This can be immensely deflating, especially when thinking that one has played a fabulous game, but it is a necessary pain that we must all go through in order to pursue that fabulous game.

Of course, the main objective is to discover what your opponent was looking for with their moves, what did they think they had, what did they think the moves achieved? What did they see that you didn’t and vice versa? Seek perspective, evaluations and opinion. Whether you won, lost or drew the game, you can learn from all of this. For your moves, you want to know their reactions, good or bad. Where did they feel you got it right? Where did they feel you got it wrong? What were they expecting — and was that better or worse than what you played? You might be startled at how often your opponent seems to have had a better plan for you than you did — and vice versa.

What did your opponent feel were crucial points in the game? Spend some time on what are seen to be crucial positions, this will give you some work already for stage 2, home analysis. How was your opponent feeling at various stages of the game? This will give you important feedback regarding how you are reading not only the situation on the board, but also the body-language across it. Did you think your opponent was worried when you played that check on move 21, prompting him to hunch over the board? Only to find out that he was encouraged, thinking it was wasteful or over-ambitious on your part and that it signalled to him that you felt you had nothing better? Indeed, was he right? This would show a tendency to bluff, or to show some wishful thinking or denial … and it’s really going to bite one on the behind if it doesn’t get sorted out.

Very often, a post-mortem might only last a few minutes, but those minutes will often have you bursting with things to look at and use to improve your game. I started taking a notepad with me because post-mortems gave me so much feedback. One more thing: I always try ‘dig’ and discover if my opponent knows the opening he/she played well? The mere comment “I’ve never seen this before” or “interesting line” can prompt many to volunteer lines in order to show off their theoretical knowledge. This can give you some things to look at if you found yourself surprised or if the game has highlighted a particular gap you have in a certain line. Just as you don’t want to miss a trick in the game, try not to miss any after it either.

Above all else, if you have never taken part in post-game analysis with an opponent before, then you really should give it a go. It can be a very rewarding exercise. Perhaps the next time you play, write down your moves and go over the game afterwards with your opponent. See what you can discover about their thought process and feelings during the game. If the opponent is stronger than you, if you have felt out-done somewhere, see it as open season to pick their brain.

You will very often find, during the exercise, that you will have much cause to … “Find fault. Judge with severity. Readily.” If you don’t, no matter how great the game in question, then it is more likely to be the fact that you are yet to master the art of being critically objective, than it is that you have mastered the art of chess.

And if you think that’s fun, just wait until part 2 …

John Lee Shaw

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Chess Blindness: Part Three

There have been a few articles on this blog about the causes and effects of chess blindness. This is my third article on chess blindness that was not caused by time pressure. The game was the second time that I played Daniel Herman and it was also my second loss to Daniel. This time, there were no distractions of any kind. I just spaced out and blundered away a Rook!

Because this was the very first time that I played Black against Daniel I played the Modern Defense and then transposed into the Benko Gambit. Originally, I was going to play the Dutch Defense and then I changed my mind for some unknown reason.

Because of the unusual move order I was unsure of the best moves to play during the opening. It seemed to me that Daniel was too. I made some minor opening errors, but no outright blunders until move number 21 when I made a totally unsound sacrifice of my Rook. I did not even consider that White could just play 22. Rxa4!! winning my Rook for a pawn!

I usually try to castle by move number 10, but in this game I could not castle until move number 13. At that point I had equality. After that I played the typical maneuvers that start Black’s queenside attack. On move number 20 I missed a move that would have given me a clear advantage. On the next move I flat out blundered and then resigned. This game is another example of what happens when I fail to consider all of my opponent’s possible replies before I play a move!

Mike Serovey

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World Rapid Chess Championship

The FIDE World Rapid Chess Championship 2014 recently concluded with Magnus Carlsen winning, followed by Fabiano Caruana in 2nd place and Viswanathan Anand in 3rd.

There was an interesting endgame between the FIDE World Champion, Carlsen, and former World Champion, Anand. Carlsen uncharacteristically went wrong in an ending. In taking a pawn with his knight he missed a simple rook move that skewered his bishop and knight. Anyone can make such mistakes, especially in rapid chess, but when the World Champion does it, it’s called a blunder! Despite this loss, it wasn’t enough to stop Carlsen becoming the 2014 World Rapid Champion. You can view the ending play with commentary on the clip below.

Angus James

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Failing to Win a Won Game, Part 3

The following game is one of the first correspondence chess games that I played at the Internet Chess Club (ICC). I don’t know when this game was played nor do I know the ratings of both players at the time that this game was started. According to my notes on this game I lost most of those early games on ICC. Eventually, I won enough games to get my ICC correspondence chess rating over 1700 points. I quit playing correspondence chess there because I was having trouble getting paired into games and because of the repeated time control violations. Some of my opponents were repeat offenders and yet they still got off with warnings! Why have time controls if you are not going to enforce them?

I think that I made a notation error on White’s final move and that the White Queen went to g5 and not g6 on move number 24. Otherwise, my resignation makes no sense at all! Did I really miss the win of the White Queen and resign in a correspondence chess game? In an over the board (OTB) game I could blame such an error on fatigue or a distraction. I have no such excuse in correspondence chess! I prefer to believe that I made a notation error!

I think that I was playing this game without the use of a game database and that was why I didn’t play this opening very well. The first eight moves are typical of what I would play against a Closed Sicilian Defense and I have usually done well with this. My queenside expansion may not have been the best idea and I missed playing f5 at a key point in this game. Playing my Queen to a5 on move number 12 was probably the beginning of a series of small mistakes that lead to my demise. I was also guilty of not developing my Bishop on c8 and thus not connecting my rooks on my back rank. This also caused problems for me. I compounded my errors with pawn grabbing and leaving my King under protected.

Someone stated that the ultimate chess blunder is resigning in a won position. I have done that at least once before this game. Did I make the same blunder here too? At the point where I resigned, I was up a Queen, Rook, Knight and pawn! However, my King was totally naked and had nowhere to run or hide.

Mike Serovey

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Future Masters

Future masters have to start somewhere and most in England learn their skills on the weekend tournament circuit, in junior events and adult events. It used to be the case that it would take many years, even for the most talented, to become masters, but now things seem to have speeded up with access to databases and coaching.  It is remarkable how quickly juniors can improve now. One kid from nearby went from a beginner to the top player in the county for his age category in just 3 years. I guess he will have his first master title in another 3 years, such is the trajectory of his progression.

I recently had a look through some of my games in the 1990s, the decade when I first started playing chess. In 1996, I played in the World Amateur Championship in Hastings. I played a future IM, Thomas Rendle. He was only about 10 at the time, graded perhaps around 1500 elo, while I was about 1700 elo – although the ratings are a bit irrelevant as we were both heading for ratings hundreds of points higher. While I was a bit more experienced, he had the confidence of youth. He was in the habit of wearing bow-ties, as I recall. I thought he was a bit reminiscent of Walter, the arch enemy of Dennis and Gnasher. Anyway, he played the French Defence, which he still does today, although he’s no longer wearing the bow-ties!

In the game below he played well until he saw an opportunity to win two minor pieces for a rook, missing that his king would get into trouble.

Although I won this encounter, ten years later he become an IM while I hit a wall and stopped making significant progress. I like to think that the reason why I didn’t progress to master level was that I only came to chess as an adult, and annoying things like having to earn a living got in the way. While there is probably a little bit of that involved, it is probably more because I didn’t want to improve as much as he did and didn’t prioritise it enough. What are you prepared to sacrifice to improve? If you’re not giving 100% to chess, forget becoming a master. And watch out for the kids – some of them may be future masters!

Angus James

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Improving Concentration

Being able to concentrate at the board is easier said than done, yet it is vital if you are going to play your best chess. Among the issues that could impact on your concentration are tiredness, fitness level, health, distractions and worries at home/work, etc.

Health and fitness are easily taken for granted, until you reach middle age and realise they are not a given. To be fit, well and rested for a tournament or match you have to train not just your chess brain, but also take care of yourself. It is notable that professional chess players spend a large amount of time preparing for matches just focusing on fitness. Great stamina is required to play at a high level for hours. Concentration is something that can be improved by increasing your fitness level and maintaining good health.

Getting a good night’s sleep before playing chess is an obvious one, but not always easy to achieve when you’ve got a family. Try to get an early night and avoid too much alcohol or caffeine.

On the day itself, get some fresh air before the game with a walk or some form of exercise. This is likely to help to get your body and mind energised for the game. Last minute opening preparation will most likely be a waste of time.

Some players find it useful to turn up 15 minutes early to games to get into ‘the zone’ before the game starts. Apparently Botvinnik did this. If you only get into ‘the zone’ 15 minutes after the game has started the whole game could be decided by then. Being calm will most likely put you in a better position to cope with whatever is about to occur at the board or around it.

When you do finally get started – after you’ve done your fitness program, healthy lifestyle regime, got a good night’s sleep, had a walk in the morning and turned up early - there can be really irritating distractions. Like talking in the background by inconsiderate folk, eating at the board (especially crisps and wrapped sweets), slurping tea/coffee, table shaking, etc. These things are often more distracting than someone’s mobile going off, but no one gets defaulted for them. Your opponent is not supposed to distract you, but rather than having a dispute that requires arbiter intervention, it might be better to remain resolutely focused on the position and not let yourself be distracted by it all. Maintain a Zen-like calm, and don’t let those pesky distractions get to you!

Spend as much time at the board as possible, concentrating as hard as you possibly can. You might find it helpful to get up regularly to take a little walk around, but try and limit these leg stretches in terms of time so that you’re not tempted to take your mind off the position. There is nothing worse than returning to the board and thinking, ‘what was I planning to do next?!’ and spending 15 minutes to re-acquaint yourself with the position.

Staying hydrated by drinking water before and during games is wise, particularly if the venue temperature is warm. This may mean you need to visit the bathroom once or twice, but better that than being dehydrated, which is proven to negatively impact body and mind performance. If you need to eat during the game, apparently bananas are good for slow release of carbohydrates, so that you don’t have any high or low blood sugars.

Angus James

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Failing to Win a Won Game, Part 1

This game is from Round 1 of my most recent Over the Board (OTB) chess tournament played in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This game illustrates a number of points that I want to make. First, I am not ready to play chess before noon! Second, this is one of too many games in which I outplayed my opponent in the opening and still lost the endgame! This clearly illustrates that no game is over until it is really over. Third, I don’t play well when I am not properly rested or ill. Fourth, sometimes kids will beat experienced players because the kids are healthy while we older adults often have chronic health problems. And fifth, I really do need to slow down when I am winning so that I don’t blow the win again!

I learned this opening back in 1975 from my younger brother, Steve. He got it from his only chess book, MCO 10. What we both liked about this variation was all of the traps that our young opponents often fell into. Back then it was called the Four Knights variation of the Sicilian Defense. Now, it is called some kind of Taimanov Variation of the Sicilian Defense. I will always call it the Four Knights Variation. Another thing that I like is that most of my OTB opponents do not know the main lines so I usually get an opening advantage.

After falling into an opening trap, I failed to find the best move to play on my tenth turn. Even so, I was still winning. My opponent gave me plenty of chances to either win or draw this game and I missed about half of them. Throughout most of this game I was feeling dizzy and light-headed. This could have been caused by not eating enough breakfast or from my sensitivity to rainy weather. Either way, my USCF standard rating has been at or near its floor of 1500 for about ten years now! These one-day tornados have killed my rating!

When I first started playing rated chess back in November of 1974 the typical first time control was 40 moves in 60 minutes. The second time control was sudden death in 30 minutes with any time that was left over from the first time control being carried over to the second one. That gave me an average of a minute and a half per move and I could pace myself accordingly. Now, I tend to rush my moves if I get more than 10 minutes behind my opponent.

Back around 1976 an expert in Texas named David Wheeler asked for some games in which the Four Knights was played. I sent him some that Steve and I played and he used two of them in his booklet. As a result of using our games David sent me a free copy of his booklet. I am planning to do something similar with my games. Any book on the Taimanov Sicilian or good database will cover the main lines of this opening. My intent is to write a book for the club player and feature lines that will be more likely seen in OTB games against non masters.

All of my notes are included in the game below.

Mike Serovey

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Checkmate Patterns

Players who have moved beyond the beginners stage and have reached the stage where they wish to improve their play, need to do a lot of work on tactics. This will improve their board vision and help to eliminate mistakes such as leaving pieces en prise. Of course, mistakes  never get completely eliminated from one’s game - even masters drop pieces from time to time - but by making very few serious errors a player will be tougher to beat.

One of the good ways to start is to acquaint yourself with mating patterns. As many instructors have said before, pattern recognition is very important in chess. If you’ve seen a pattern and can memorise it, when something like it happens in a game you’re playing, you will hopefully ‘see’ the pattern and know what to do without really thinking. ‘Intuition’ at the board - just ‘knowing’ what to do without really calculating at all - could partly be to do with natural talent, but it is also likely to be the result of training and practice.

You can read about an array of checkmating patterns here. Some of the names of these mates I didn’t even know had names, although I was familiar with them having utilised them enough times in my own games! I leave you with one example game, which features Anastasia’s Mate. My students are always pleased to see the theoretical applied in practice, and this is certainly a pretty neat game.

Angus James

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Dutch Disaster

English GM Keith Arkell won the recent European Individual Seniors for those age 50+. But he is a relatively young veteran compared with some of those playing! Following the individual event was the European Senior Team Championship where the following miniature was played between a 69 year old and an 81 year old. Congratulations to these two old masters who create a wonderful spectacle. Who says chess is just a young persons game? With people living longer perhaps in the future we will see more adult age categories. Besides 50+ and 65+ perhaps an age 80+ category? Viktor Korchnoi, for example, is 83 and still playing. Anyway, this game is the kind of sparkling game that inspires people to play chess, so I can’t help repeating it here.

Angus James

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