ACIS of Caissa

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.




16 Responses to ACIS of Caissa

  1. Howard Goldowsky says:

    Great writing style, Chunky. You’re a good writer, use words well, and integrate your ideas into your post well. I was about to post a comment at Blunderprone’s blog, but I got sidetracked, to my delight, over here, first.

    What I’m about to post at BP is:
    (1) It’s much easier to create new, good habits than to eradicate old ones. (See The Inner Game of Tennis as a reference to this.)
    (2) Pushing ones skills to the limit, no matter how its done, is bound to create change and improvement. (Rowson would be my reference here.)
    (3) procrastination and laziness is basically the ego protecting itself. Drop the ego and procrastination goes with it.

    [Gee, now I can just copy and paste into BL’s blog.] :)

  2. Chunky Rook says:

    Thanks for your comment & the compliment. As for (2), I certainly wouldn’t disagree, but then chess improvement doesn’t necessarily have to be seen from a competitive “improvement at all costs” point of view… I’m more in the business of enjoyable, practical, fun improvement ;) Which is why my ego probably won’t let go of its procrastinating nature just yet.

  3. tommyg says:

    Hey Chunky Rook!

    My coach (who I see infrequently, as he is off too college) told me he doesn’t really have a thought process. He has just practiced calculation, tactics, endgames and what have you. And he played a lot and analyzed his own games a lot.

    Oh and I just found a Marshall game with an Isolated Pawn. I am going to analyze that (although how long that takes…who knows??)

  4. That was a great post, TCR. I myself too suffer from not just tactical oversights but a whole host of other problems.

    Do keep us up-to-date on your progress and best of wishes for your training! :)

  5. chunkyrook says:

    Thanks so much for commenting, folks.

    @tommyg: Of course when I’m mentioning Josh Waitzkin as my coach, what I’m really talking about are his interviews and chessmaster lectures, which are very inspiring, both chess- and life-wise. I don’t think I’ll hire a coach unless my improvement stalls and I develop an overwhelming desire to improve further.
    Great work with the isolated pawn. Just reminded me of something that I should put in front of every improvement post, something Loomis recently said: the best way to improve is to play, play and play games with long time-control. So should you be so inclined and have the time available, I’d be absolutely up for some training isolated pawn games, where we play the opening by the book until we’ve got our isolated pawn and then play seriously from there. I think that’d be a great way to improve. Maybe even first just two Blitz games with the opening, then a longer time control, then again Blitz… a mixture. Let me know if you’d be up for that.

    @tanc: I shall. I still haven’t got an official rating, so my official rating curve will be quite skewed. I know I’m somewhere between 1550-1750 in my country, but I’ve no clue how that translates into an USCF or FIDE rating.

  6. blunderprone says:

    I’ve been through several life changing events as well ( 2 divorces, too many kids, job chamnges). The only constant is change. Be well my friend. Take care.

  7. Chunky Rook says:

    Your wishes are very much appreciated. You take care, too.

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  9. wang says:

    Great post! Sorry, I’ve meant to add you to my blogroll for months now, however I just seem to not have gotten around to it yet. I will rectify this transgression immediately (sometime over the weekend).

    I agree and disagree with you, let me explain.

    Doing puzzles teaches you the patterns, but to an extent I don’t find it practical, I mean if a particular puzzle comes from a Sicilian defense game & I never play Sicilians because I open 1.d4 & I Play 1…e5 how useful is that puzzle to me? Yes you can see basic patterns as an x-ray, skewer etc…but I’m unlikely to have the same pawn formation in any of my games.

    The biggest shortcoming of the seven circles of hell was that there was no tactics learning. No book to help you along with basic ideas and explanatory prose. Kind of a Starting Out: book if you would.

    I guess my idea for databasing my games is actually a Wetzell idea, I think that tactics, tactics tactics, coupled with calculation improvement and actually learning tactics from texts is probably the most efficient cocktail for the ACIS.

    Or should I say the one that would be best for me. Perhaps INTJ’s should focus on the weakness than work towards their strength. Just a thought.

  10. Chunky Rook says:

    Where’s the disagreement part? :P That’s exactly my thinking, minus the 1-hour-a-day tactics drudgery plus the middlegame plans and endgame knowledge. Thanks for adding me to your blogroll!

  11. lihnuxguy says:

    Chunky Rook, that was interesting what you said on Blunderprone’s blog, how players talk. I think in some positions, the tactics become subordinate to the plan, like taking advantage of a bad bishop, that is a plan, and making the tactics reinforce that plan.

    I just played out an ending with Crafty, a rook and two pawns versus knight and bishop. The rook side was superior because the rook could draw off the enemy king, and the king could infiltrate into the knight and bishop position. Those two minor pieces were more zugwangable, and the knight can also get trapped by king and rook.

    The Rose Rants were great. Thanks for that link!! :-)

    • lihnuxguy says:

      Incidentally, it was much easier to hold that ending with two bishops vs. a rook than knight and bishop vs. a rook. I’m guessing this is usually the case with pawns on both sides of the board, yet not all locked up (which would be good for the knight).

    • Chunky Rook says:

      As I wrote in one of my early posts, the distinction between strategy and tactics is an artificial one. Strategy is really tactics with moves that are less forced. Strategy could also be described as the art of guiding the position towards tactical motifs that you are familiar with. Case in point: endgame tactics. If you are good at endgame tactics and calculation, you have to use strategy to guide the position into that territory. If on the other hand your knowledge of tactics is focused on kingside attacks, your strategy has to focus on that.

      The strategy depends on your knowledge of tactical motifs (not brute calculation), and I’m trying to teach myself and absorb common tactical motifs (move sequences, piece placements) by means of animated gifs.

      The very last stage of a chess game is brute calculation. It is the pinnacle, the culmination of strategic knowledge and knowledge of tactical motifs. But calculation alone (as early computers have shown) is not enough. It is the mixture of strategic knowledge, knowledge of tactical motifs and calculation ability that produces chess mastery.

      As for your endgame training: I’d be very, very interested if there are certain repetitive patterns and move sequences and piece placements in that kind of endgame that you now think you’ve absorbed, or whether it’s pure calculation. My hunch would be that you do have certain patterns in your head, patterns that do not always apply but help you guide your exact calculation. If so, I’d love to hear what they are and turn them into a gif.

      Thanks for stopping by & commenting.

  12. lihnuxguy says:

    Yesterday I played a guy on FICS, he was around my rating. It was was a really sloppy game, but he resigned after I won a piece (so that he had two pawns still left, and an exchange for a piece).

    He was (still) easily winning (had pawn-rollers), yet he resigned.

    We played another game, I was White in his Sicilian Accelerated Dragon. I should have taken his a-pawn, but set up a trap to win another pawn. He gave me the pawn, then counter-sacrificed, and it was really over even if I had stepped out of it because my development was bad.

    The point is, it wasn’t so sloppy. He was in an opening he knew, his “little baby”, and played like it. That is the difference. In the previous endgame, apparently it wasn’t “his little baby”.

    A lot of the endgame must have been absorbed and known intuitively because I can look at a position and say White is wining, and another guy say Black is winning, and if it’s a draw, then both of us knew what we were talking about in some way.

    “Old chessplayers” can always fallback on endings because experience (through lots of games) really helps you there.

  13. chesstiger says:

    I always found the seven circles was more like an army drill then really learning. The “You have to …” part of it scared me away of this ‘circles crunching until you drop death’ method.

    I have nothing against learning tactics but in a tempo i find reasonable and sane. With other words, if i only want to solve one puzzle, or five, or … a day then its my decision and not from another person, like DLM, who pushes you to do as much tactical puzzles a day as possible.

    I think the way to improve is first of all to develop a good thoughtproces. Secondly a knowlegde of endgames comes in handy so that one knows in which direction one has to stir the game. Thirdly some tactics training might be usefull but only if its one of your weaknessess and last one has to study the opening, not only the theoretical moves but also the plan behind them and how to proceed in the middlegame.

    Another factor of improvement is that one starts to believe in oneself, selfconfidence is good but it may not become ego tripping, one still has to show respect for the opponent.

    So besides all the theory out of books, cds, dvds, coaches, internet, …, one also have to work on ones own self image. Not for the others but for oneself so that one is positive about oneself without becoming disrespectfull about the opponent. ‘I can win against this opponent but i have to be carefull’ is a good start in pumping up the chess muscles but still reminding oneself that one may never underestimate the opponent, no matter how low his ranking or rating may be.

  14. Chunky Rook says:

    Thanks, chesstiger. I agree pretty much 100%. Belief in yourself is certainly important. I think what’s even more important is to examine yourself objectively… not bashing yourself, but not letting yourself off the hook easily, both in your study and your game. To ask yourself whether the 30 minutes of study you’ve just spent have really helped you, whether you’ve put enough concentration and effort into it. Or at the board, when you’ve reached a comfortable position or a winning endgame, to give you yourself that extra nudge to focus rather than dull your senses by convincing yourself that you’ve already won. Josh Waitzkin has some great comments in that respect in his “psychology of competition” Chessmaster lecture series.

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