Haeggis of, err, ACIS of Caissa Improvement Post #2

November 27, 2009

Two Scotch Gambits played against a 1400-rated and a 1850-rated player. Two wins. One lesson from the first game: if your opponent is uncomfortably stuck to the defence of a pawn on one side of the board, consider using your more flexible pieces to invade on the other side of the board. The queen in particular becomes an extremely powerful intruder once the board gets emptier thanks to its mobility and the fact that trapping it is much less likely.

Lesson two: do not worry about moving the pawns in front of the king when you can use them as a steamroller for a strong attack when the opponent’s pieces are passive. I missed the following pawn juggernaut in my game because I was too worried about leaving my king in the open; thanks to the pawns, not only does White win a pawn, but he also gets a strong attack:

The green blocks simply highlight White’s active position.

Chunks from game two: a neat double attack with the queen and an advanced knight, and an even neater mating pattern with queen, bishop and rook.

This is what happened in the game. As Chess Tiger put it, “sometimes things go your way.”

Blunder, Blunder

November 24, 2009

I won a game yesterday against a 1400-rated player, but it wasn’t glorious. I missed a couple of winning combinations and had a hard time finding strong continuations. It was a frustrating experience to go over the game with the computer, but this morning I found comfort in the fact that the professionals are no less prone to chess blindness, as evidenced by Dennis Monokroussos’ entertaining take on the blunderfest at the World Cup. Comments on my game to follow.

Opening Pawn Fork

November 22, 2009

A super-common theme in openings where the bishops are developed to c4 and c5, respectively. Inspired by a game played and annotated by Prodigal Pawn.

Doesn’t always win material, but often puts the enemy’s developed pieces in disarray while at the same time developing the queen to an active square.

ACIS of Caissa Improvement Post #1

November 21, 2009

I have played my first two games since the inauguration of the ACIS of CAISSA: a draw against a 1750-player (90’+20” increment) and a win against a 1650-player (40 moves in 2h, +1h). I played as Black both times.

The 1750-game was a veritable chunk fest, not only thanks to the fact that my opponent is quite the wise chess sage and very willing to share his chess wisdom, but also because during our post-mortem we were joined by a 2000-rated player who offered his take on the positions. He talked a lot about “manoeuvres” — I love that word; it’s a great synonym for what I mean when I talk about “chunks” or “ideas” tied to piece placement and move sequences.

The first chunk was a cute idea for Black in the Ruy Lopez:

Then we discussed some thematic Ruy Lopez manoeuvres for White:

And here are two tactical motifs, let’s call them “pin fork” and “mate fork” (they never occurred in the game):

The “mate fork” tactic wasn’t particularly difficult to spot, but I was too absorbed by the idea of g5 and never even considered Nh5.

The game against the 1650-player was some kind of Tarrasch Defence Gambit variation. Nothing very chunky about that game unless you play the Tarrasch Defence.


November 17, 2009

An interference is a piece sacrifice with the intention of cutting off vital lines or blocking escape squares. White sacrifices the knight with check to disrupt the line between Black’s rook and queen. Source: Wikipedia.

In order not to lose the queen, Black is forced to sacrifice the exchange.

Endgame Narrative: How to Pick Up a Rook with a Queen

November 16, 2009

Queen and king versus king and rook endgames are a bitch to play when the king is close to his precious rook. The amount of tactical moments that have to be heeded are so vast that construing an endgame narrative seems nigh impossible. So for the time being, I’ve abandoned the quest to master that endgame, and will tell you the story of its little cousin instead, the very easy and simple queen and king versus king and rook endgame when the king is far away from his precious rook. Are you ready? Once upon a time, a queen checked a king…

endgame_queenrookThis technique may come in handy in several endgames: check out Sacrifice for Check and Winning the Lucena with a Rook Pawn.

Endgame Narrative: Rook versus Rook and Pawn on the Fourth

November 15, 2009

In my ACIS improvement plan, I mentioned “memorising certain endgame positions with the help of gifs”. Endgames, like everything in chess really, are about knowledge and technique. On the one hand, it’s helpful to know that you can checkmate with a rook against a king, but not with a bishop against a king. It makes your life easier to know that bishops of opposite colour tend to be drawish, or that a queen against a single pawn isn’t always a win. That’s endgame knowledge. Then there’s technique: the actual skill of executing a mating attack with a rook against a lone king; how to achieve a draw with bishops of opposite colours; how to prevent the pawn from queening if you have a queen versus a lone king and pawn, or how to draw if you’re on the side with the pawn. Etc. etc.

I’ve recently posted two endgame knowledge gifs: rook vs rook and pawn on the 4th rank, and rook vs rook and pawn on the 5th rank. I consider those semi-useful. Maybe they’re not that useful, but it’s kinda cool to know such things by heart. And I included some hints as to the technique of how to play those endings. However, those comments are a far cry from actually mastering this type of endgame. Therefore, I need to study and practise the technique involved. The first step towards mastering the technique, I believe, is an endgame narrative. Just as chess is a narrative that progresses from opening to middlegame to endgame, the endgames themselves are narratives. For instance, mating with a rook: you progress from trapping the enemy king in a box with your rook, closing in with your king, and making the box smaller and smaller until mate. Of course, you’ll still have to calculate precisely and be watchful at every step that your narrative doesn’t deceive you. Nonetheless, narratives are extremely useful because they give you at least a hunch as to what kind of moves to look out for.

Therefore, I intend to post gifs of endgame narratives. I shall replay a certain endgame with the help of the Nalimov Tablebase, try to understand with my patzer instincts the essential technique and based on that add a running commentary to the gif. Of course such a narrative cuts out crucial details and ignores important variations, but it should give me at least a general idea as to what type of move sequences are involved in such an endgame. It remains to be seen whether absorbing such a narrative does more harm than good.

So here’s some endgame knowledge (if the Black king is on a red square, it’s a draw, otherwise it’s a win):

endgame_rookpawn4thAnd here’s the corresponding endgame narrative:


My ACIS Improvement Plan

November 14, 2009

Several bloggers have posted their improvement plan for the ACIS “project”; the links can be found at BlunderProne. For my own ACIS improvement plan, I shall focus on the following:

  • watching my gifs repeatedly before every serious game or whenever I feel like it (I might add a website to that end)
  • churning out new gifs illustrating mostly middlegame and endgame piece placements and move sequences
  • studying the opening (reading and rereading introductions and annotated games about my repertoire; watching videos on unfamiliar openings; no memorising)
  • studying the endgame (reading and rereading Silman, practising with the Endgame Simulator, studying positions with the Nalimov Endgame Tablebase; memorising certain endgame positions with the help of gifs)
  • no tactics puzzles except the occasional once-a-week-5-puzzles-in-a-row on ChessTempo whenever I feel like it
  • practising calculation (replaying one master game per week by choosing the White or Black pieces, covering up the other side’s moves and giving myself about 1-15 minutes to calculate and decide on my own move before uncovering the text)
  • playing as many serious OTB games at the club as possible
  • collecting my serious OTB games in a database, giving them a computer run-down and quick annotations, revisiting them every now and then
  • playing occasional long-time games online (if you’re up for this, do let me know!)
  • occasional 15-30 minutes of blitzing on FICS whenever I feel like it

That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing and what I will continue doing until I feel my progress is stalling. Comments as always are very welcome, especially from fellow ACIS people who’re looking for a long FICS game.

ACIS of Caissa

November 10, 2009

This another improvement theory post and a follow up to A.C.I.D.T.R.I.P., including Blunderprone’s comment. Let me preface this by saying that yesternight I had what’s likely going to be a life-changing experience (not chess-related, and hard to fathom whether it’ll be for better or worse), that my head is spinning, that I’ve hardly slept and yet can’t find sleep, and that I’m going to use this post go get my mind off of things, if only for just an hour or so. That’s something I’ve always loved about the long OTB game in chess: how you can lose yourself on the board, how you are given this set space of 64 squares and 3 hours in which the rules are clear and it’s just you and the board and the pieces. Chess, despite being a harsh mistress sometimes, despite often being a jungle, despite its frustrations and setbacks and unforgiving nature, can offer you that certain tranquility of the active mind, a focus on something ephemeral, seemingly useless even, and yet a clarity and challenge often missing from life that can set your mind at peace for an hour or two.

For those who’re not in the know and haven’t followed Confessions of a Chess Novice or Blunderprone, A.C.I.S. (adult chess improvement seekers) is the new moniker for the adult improvement movement, if you want to call it that. Having followed the adult improvement scene (oh stop the snickering already, I’m talking chess here) for quite some time, but having missed out on the MDM Knights Errant craze, I’d be honoured to participate in this new effort in one way or another. Obviously, I’ve been trying to make my own original contribution to the chess improvement scene with this blog, and I’m very happy with the result so far, if I may say so myself. But it’s one thing doing your own spiel and another being involved in some kind of group effort. As Blunderprone has mentioned in the comment, it’s just a whole different ballgame, both in terms of effort and motivation, when you’re part of something bigger. Hence I’ll be watching and lurking but also trying to actively comment and post on how the ACIS of Caissa fend for themselves.

My first attempt in this regard is a response to Blunderprone’s comment. To wit:

My current ACIS of Caissa quest, is to actually follow a model of Rolf Wetzell suggesting to create patterns from your own experience to retrain you out of the bad habits. It’s easier said than done. First there is entering the games, especially the ones from the losses. Coming to terms with my blundering requires looking in a mirror without flinching and wincing. After I enter the game, then its further self abuse of creating the training positions to study. I sit down with the intention of doing such a thing but find every excuse to avoid it. I answer email, read one last blog, perhaps check facebook… you get the idea… avoidance.

I’d like to say two things about that: First, when I compare this to my chess study, I feel I am indeed looking at an entirely different personality type. While I tend to be more reluctant to type lost games into my computer, I by no means dislike it. Quite the opposite; I think analysing my own games with the computer is enormously exciting, especially because of the blunder factor. These moves are my moves; they’re closest and most familiar to me; I know exactly why I made them (be it a strategic decision, a tactical decision, laziness, time pressure, what have you)… I’ve reached an intimacy with the moves and the game that otherwise I’d never have, and putting the game into the computer is like finding out more about this intimate stranger that’s the game, confronting your own thoughts to the brute force of calculation. And I never wince at my blunders. I mean, they’re frustrating, and they’re discouraging, but most of all they’re motivating. They’re telling me that I’ve got to look harder. I won’t say I don’t savour the occasional blunder-free performance, but I definitely don’t mind the occasional blunderfest. Although I must say I share the feeling about avoiding opportunities for improvement and serious study, about missing out on true commitment and dedication. I’ve come to regard this as something I’m just really not good at. Some coaches, notably Josh Waitzkin, have inspired me to work on that to a degree, but I still haven’t embraced it, let alone put it into practice, to any significant extent.

Which brings me to the second point: Wetzell’s flashcard system. I’m not familiar with Wetzell… so I’m basing my judgement on your explanation that Wetzell wants you “to create patterns from your own experience to retrain you out of the bad habits”. I imagine this means a picture of a board and maybe a commentary such as “Black moved 23. g4” and you have to figure out why this was a bad move at the time and what you should have moved instead. As I’ve said several times now, I don’t necessarily dislike this method; for one, I think it’s an improvement over the traditional tactics puzzle because it’s tied to your own experience your own mistakes. On the other hand, the criticism still applies: it’s an artificial situation that pretends not to be. You’re facing a very concrete position, so you are led to believe that you’re actually playing chess, but at the same time you know that something’s wrong with the position, and that’s a luxury you don’t have in an actual chess game.

That’s why I’ve decided for myself that at this stage, I shall make my chess study decidedly abstract and artificial. My chess gifs don’t pretend to be real chess positions. They illustrate abstract principles tied to specific piece placements and move orders. What they’re not training at all is visualisation or chess thinking. Staring at a gif repeatedly doesn’t help you with your calculation skills. Now, I don’t question for a second the overwhelming importance of tactics in chess. I’ve come to believe that right now I’m at the stage where I don’t commit outright blunders (e.g. hanging a piece) in longer games, but also fail to make deep calculations. However, I also believe that as an adult player below 2000 it’s more important and more practical to study abstract principles or typical middlegame patterns to score practical results and only once you reach 1900/2000 start worrying again about tactics. That doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring tactics training altogether; we don’t want to throw out the bath water with the baby, after all. What it means is a different set of priorities: focus on opening study, on general middle game patterns for piece placement, move sequences and plans, and learning certain typical endgame positions by heart. I feel that only once that’s been achieved, intense tactical training aka puzzles becomes necessary, and that indeed only then are you able to really soak up the patterns found in the puzzles, because you’ll be at a level where you look at a position and recognise certain positional features instantly, and that allows you to situate the specific tactic into a larger framework of reference.

I realise I’m really talking out of my ass here and that the proof of the pudding lies in eating it. I’m very willing to keep you up to date with my approach and the progress I’m making. One recent article I read that I thought confirmed my thoughts was Tom Rose’s (Lack of) Progress Report. A mid-life 2000-player trying to improve, Rose initially seems to champion the tactics-tactics-tactics approach, saying “It is only when you have painfully worked out the truth from your own experience that you notice, and more importantly, really deeply feel, what chess teachers have been saying all along [namely that] strategy makes the game smoother or rougher; it is tactical play that wins and loses.” Later on in the article, however, he comments on puzzles as a means to improve your tactics skills:

The answer is that these tests do not measure real-life tactical skill at all, any more than skill in juggling a football with the feet demonstrates effectiveness as a soccer player.  The ability to solve selected tactical puzzles does not automatically carry over to competitive chess. It is only one component of useful tactical skill.  The big difference is that in a puzzle you know there is something to be found.  Often you are even told what kind of combination you are looking for.

He comes to the conclusion that one major way to improve is to follow a move-analysis system for each move. Which brings us full circle to the Knights Errant and BDK’s and Temposchlucker’s discussion of such systems.  Maybe it’s time to revisit the great effort they’ve put into articulating such systems back in the day and to ask questions not only about what system to use but also how to best practise it.



Minority Attack

November 9, 2009

I feel as though Chesstiger’s comment at Blunder Prone is a concise summary of what I was trying to say in my previous post:

I recently talked with some of the youth players who passed the 2000 otb rating border at my chess club and with chess players who have already a long history of being a 2000+ player. They say that solving tactical puzzles help but that they also learn or search for the middlegame plans of the openings they play. With other words, they all agree that tactics are handy but that a chess game contains more. They also point out that before you have a tactic you must have a position. With other words, positional play to set up a position is also a requirment.

These middlegame chunks are exactly what I believe I benefit most from; they are the “move sequences” and “piece squares” I was referring to in my last post.

As it happens, I encountered such a middlegame chunk just yesterday: the minority attack. In a column named “Middlegame Motifs”, Nigel Davies explains the principles behind a pawnstorm with a pawn minority to undermine an enemy pawn chain.  For further reading, see this post by Chess Training.

From White’s perspective, the focus is on a favourable pawn exchange that opens attacking lines for rooks and creates weak pawns in Black’s camp:


From Black’s perspective, the focus is on preventing pawn exchanges (with either b5 or a6) and exploiting the weak square left by White’s b-pawn at c4, usually with a knight, while counter-attacking on the half-open e-file:

middlegame_minorityattack2There are, of course, more motifs to the minority attack, but these seem to be the two most important ones.