It’s not always easy for players to continue playing through busy periods in their lives. Going off to tournaments is time consuming in itself, and then there’s the issue of preparation. It’s this latter consideration that I would like to address here.
Players who like playing sharp openings in order to gain an early initiative are going to struggle to find time for maintenance. Opening theory is constantly changing and they will struggle to stay up to date with sharper lines. The obvious solution would be for them to switch to quieter lines when they find themselves with less time. But the problem with switching is twofold. First of all they may not understand the new stuff as well. And it can also be out of tune with their entire approach.
For this reason it can make sense to adopt a more solid approach from the start. Instead of teaching just gambits, tactics and attacks, why not focus on solid openings, strategy and endgames? Many junior coaches will argue that kids find such things boring. I would argue that it depends how they are taught.
One player who seems to have adapted well to a busy lifestyle is GM Jonathan Parker. Playing quiet openings and relying on middle game skill is serving him well in the few games that he plays. Here’s an example from a couple of years back:
Here’s a game of mine from the recent Manchester Open which was very much a strategic affair. I improvised the early 6.Nc3 and 7.Qc2 and fortunately managed to get a strong position in the early middle game.
The decisive moment came when Black played 23…Ng5 rather than 23…Bg5, which allowed me to saddle him with a really bad bishop and lots of light square weaknesses. My king just marched in:
Many chess enthusiasts know about Frank Marshall’s brilliancy against Livitsky in which he sacrificed his queen, probably because gold coins were then thrown on the board. On the other hand very few people will know of Nicolai Rossolimo’s very similar sacrifice against Paul Reissmann, which was also a better game. Was this because Marshall was better known? Possibly.
Here anyway are the two games so that readers can judge for themselves. One thing is clear though, there was no gold for Rossolimo:
This fascinating video helps put our Elo ratings into perspective. The moving finger of fate writes, and having writ moves on!
It’s all very well to have good ideas on the drawing board, in practice they might not work. History is littered with great theories and good intentions which ended up backfiring horribly.
Chess is like that too. We might have the idea to learn a really ‘good’ defence against 1.e4, such as the Sicilian Najdorf, only to find that the learning and upkeep required is simply impractical.
How should we combat this tendency? Essentially by listening carefully to the feedback we get from implementing our ideas in practice. Are they working as expected? What were the problems and/or concerns that arose? Making notes can be very useful in this regard, for example by keeping a tournament diary.
Experience has taught me to be very wary about making big chess improvement plans, preferring instead to feel my way and listen carefully to the feedback I’m getting. There have been times where I kept a tournament diary, and the learning experience proved to be invaluable.
One thing that kept coming up was basic opening preparation, having a game plan against the various things my opponents could throw at me. The answers didn’t need to be the best and sharpest available, it was simply a question of getting a playable middle game position.
Did I go home and do the necessary repairs? Sometimes, but not always. And the problem was in getting distracted by some more grand plans.
Thus far my comeback has gone better than expected. I have finished first (either jointly or on my own) in all three tournaments I have played in despite taking a half point bye in the first round of each of them. Out of the 12 games played there have been 10 wins and 2 draws with a rating performance that is around my previous peak in the mid 1990s.
Why does it seem to be going OK? For one thing I’ve been doing chess for around 20 hours a week despite not playing, either working with students or preparing material for Tiger Chess. When you teach something you learn a lot in the process, and during this time I’ve become much better at endgames and certain position types.
It’s harder of course if you do relatively little on chess, which I suspect has been the case with Garry Kasparov. He’s still a tremendous player but his other interests seem to have distracted him. And as recent events have shown he is not as good as he used to be:
I came across this game recently and thought it worth publishing. It features a young Christer Hartman (who went on to become an International Master) beating a well known Grandmaster with a queen sacrifice.
The opening did not go well for Hartman, who lost a pawn to 10.Bxh7+. But the opposite colour bishops gave him some attacking chances on the kingside, and he cleverly set up the ingenious 21…Qxg2+.
Benko obviously missed this shot, as had he chosen 21.Nfd5 he would still have been well on top:
As The Chess Improver prides itself as being on the side of individual freedom, I though it worth taking a look at where chess and chess players have been banned by various authorities. Bill Wall produced a good list of chess bans here and there’s another good one here.
One of the most disturbing features of both lists is the high number of recent cases. Many of the bans have been religious in origin, others for political reasons. Typically these are examples of authorities dishing out penalties, presumably for some perceived ‘good of the collective’, or perhaps no reason at all. The cynic might think that such actions originate in the drive towards authoritarianism with ever more regulation and ever more punishment.
What neither list covers is the effective ban of strong players from certain tournaments, there is simply no section for them to play in with the ones that are available being rating restricted. I do wonder about the message this sends out, that if someone becomes too good at the game they are simply not welcome. Of course it is unlikely that it was intended this way, many events find that the top sections attract fewer participants and yet higher prizes are expected.
In any case I think it is worth balancing such budgeting concerns against the idea that chess itself is a profound expression of personal responsibility and individual striving. You get what you deserve with chess, it is hard to make excuses and the nobility of the game lies in our efforts to improve and do a bit better next time. Penalizing strong players can be seen as being in direct opposition to these ideals, which creates the possibility that such actions may diminish or even destroy the game itself.
Regular exercise is known to help the mind. For some reason a rating improvement can motivate people far more than longevity, though several UK Grandmasters have recently expressed an interest in exercise and veggies in order to outlive colleague(s)!
Aerobic exercise seems to be to the main type for brain benefits. Rather than join a gym I’ve found that having an exercise bike at home saves time and money. Some people may find things like riding an exercise bike rather boring, in which case they could take up some sport with aerobic benefits. My son Sam and I have been playing a lot of table tennis of late, which is both fun and very healthy.
The incidental effect aerobic exercise has of stress relief can be tackled more directly by breathing exercises, yoga, tai chi and meditation. I’ve been practicing tai chi for around a decade now and it really has helped a lot in terms of relaxation and stress relief.
On the other hand it does not really get the heart beating. So probably the way to go is to practice both an aerobic and a meditative type, for example running plus yoga or table tennis plus tai chi.
There is software around which is specifically designed to help certain individuals use engines when they play chess online. This is enough to put honest players off online competition, and I can understand why.
I don’t believe it will ultimately be stopped by cheating detection, I know of several people who have been accused of using engines in their online games when I am quite sure that they did not do so. Equally I’m quite sure that subtle use of engines is possible and that it will get below whatever radar is in use.
At the same time there is a positive side to playing people who cheat, we get stronger opponents. Obviously we don’t want to treat such games as ‘fair competition’, but for training purposes they are excellent. There’s not much point playing some dummy who makes elementary mistakes, it’s much better that they are engine guided. It’s true that the person employing the engine will get zero benefit from these games but then that’s not our problem. They get an ego massage by getting their ratings up (and it seems that some can overlook the fact that it wasn’t their own doing), we get better training games.
Of course we might not want our true identities to be known when losing to these cheats, which is why it’s best to play under a pseudonym. But if we do this the cheats can only help us improve.