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.

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