So it’s been a while since I last posted, but do not be deceived! A lot of time spent not blogging has been spent practising chess :) A week ago I received my highest rating yet (around 1850) and I am cautiously confident that I am still improving. For those of you who’d like to know what I’ve been up to chess-wise:
- I’ve been an active member of my chess club, which is great fun. Apart from meeting lots of kind and interesting people, you catch the occasional glimpse into a stronger player’s mindset when they comment on your games, something that I believe is perhaps the easiest way to get a better grip on plans and patterns.
- I’ve purchased a chess.com membership and am solving puzzles daily (in my first year of membership, I racked up 66 hours of puzzle-time). I do not follow a strict tactics regime; the aesthetics of the site, the rating and the statistics are incentive enough to keep me going.
- I’ve consulted and re-consulted books and videos explaining basic strategic concepts. The best one so far was Michael Stean’s Simple Chess, who’s my favourite chess author to date. Been reading Silman, too, and am thinking about reading Soltis Pawn Structure Chess.
- I’ve been playing OTB games on a regular basis, including the occasional tournament, time permitting. Roughly twenty-odd serious games so far this year. I’m motivated to play more, but find it difficult to balance work and chess when it comes to playing weekend-tournaments, which is pretty much the only untapped source left for serious games because I don’t particularly enjoy playing online.
- Openings. I spend quite a bit of time on them actually, but I’m not especially happy about the way I go about it. First I tried the Chess Position Trainer, which was a disaster. Spent ages typing in my opening repertoire only to realise after using it for a couple of days that the drudgery factor of memorizing lines and playing through them is too much. (Not hating on the product, it’s just not for me.) I bought two Chessbase DVDs on openings (the only money I spent on chess apart from tournament fees, the chess.com membership and Stean’s Simple Chess) geared towards intermediate players. I’m semi-happy with them. They gave me a sense for what’s going on and what I’m opting for in a position, I suppose. Yet when push comes to shove, I often have a hard time deciding between several feasible moves and lose too much time making that decision. So there’s a lot of room for improvement.
- Openings, the second. I’m trying to change my repertoire from semi-mainlines to regular mainlines. Chess instructors (advertisers for their “repertoire”-DVD in particular, unsurprisingly) always point out that they are interested in an opening repertoire that doesn’t require you to learn tons of theory and where plans are more important than specific moves. But I’m getting the impression that the plans in mainline openings are actually also quite straightforward and you actually needn’t worry about booked-up opponents. Chances are that they are only as booked up as you if you’re playing against a player of your own strength, and at my level theoretical intricacies don’t matter much, anyway. The goal is to get a playable position in which you have a rough idea what you’re playing for: Do you want to initiate trades or do you want to keep pieces on the board? Do you or your opponent have one piece (e.g. a bishop of a certain colour) that’s strategically important to your setup? Are there typical pawn breaks you have to look out for? On which side of the board is your play, usually? On which side of the board is your opponent’s play, usually? Etc. etc. I suspect that the answers to these questions are about as easy to get in mainlines as they are in sidelines.
- I stopped following the blogosphere. Not intentionally, it just sort of happened. The same occurred with my reading of blogs on other topics I used to be interested in. As much I hate to admit it, there just isn’t enough time to do everything.
- If I had to name one aspect of my play that I believe has improved, I’d say I have become slightly better at assessing the long-term implications of moves. I am by no means a better calculator; I’m terrible at calculation. But more and more frequently, I contemplate the long-term pros and cons of a move. What outposts does this pawn-move create? Which squares does it weaken? Might this pawn become a potential weakness if I advance it? Or: What journey might this knight want to make one day to get to a square that might cause problems for my opponent? In other words, my focus has shifted a bit from making short-term concrete threats (“if I move my bishop here, then his knight has to move there… not sure what that accomplishes in the long run, but hey, at least I made my opponent do something) to more long-term strategic threats (“if I move my bishop here, then his knight has to move there, but then what? So I leave the bishop where it is and instead move my knight over there; it doesn’t achieve anything immediately, but maybe later it can come to this-and-this square, and then maybe in combination with my other bishop I can force him to move this-and-this pawn, which might become a weakness later on….” This goes hand in hand in worrying less about phantom threats and just have more confidence in my ability to defend or equalize a position as Black or my ability to maintain the initiative when playing White and trust in the natural flow of the position.
Now having said that, I’m still not particularly good at chess, and I still lose to 1600-players every now and then. Yesterday, for instance, I missed a winning move because I became obssessed with the task of defending instead of tapping into my offensive resources. So I failed to see the winning shot:
A typical attacking chunk. As soon as the opponent weakens the squares around his king (f-pawn / h-pawn) and your dark-square pieces (queen, bishop) and knight are pointing towards the king, be aware of your mating threats. Instead of seeing the “red arrows” and the attacking potential of my pieces in the game, I completely forgot about my knight on f6 and focused exclusively on the task of defending the queenside and eventually lost. It never even occurred to me to use the knight in combinaton with the queen and bishop for an attack. Definitely a blind spot I want to get rid of in the future.
Note: If White defends with Rxc5, you can easily convert into a winning endgame. Just gobble up the pawns with lots of checks, place the queen on a square that prevents White from any meaningful checks against your king with his queen, then take the rook. If White tries to defend the second rank with rook or queen, it’s mate in two.