Measuring Progress & a Caro-Kann Chunk

October 15, 2016

In 2014, rated 1750, I asserted with some confidence that I was steadily improving. Two years later, my rating tells a different tale: After a brief spike, I dropped back to 1750. My blitz rating on has hovered between 1400-1500, my tactics rating between 1900-2000. For the past 6 years, I have beaten a few players rated above 2000, lost to a few players rated below 1700, and have a balanced score against opponents of similar strength. So looking at it from a purely performance point of view, I have not improved much at all.

However, chess is not just a numbers game, nor is it merely a sport. Chess is knowledge, too, and despite my modest to zero improvement as a tournament player, I feel as though my “chess sense” has developed. My awareness of key squares, plans, pawn levers, etc. has grown, as has my repertoire of chunks. Yet my limitations are keenly felt as well: Chess, as we know, is solving too many problems in too little time, and I do feel overwhelmed at times by what a complex positions demands. I struggle to come up with a decent plan and calculate the complications: in certain positions, I still burn a lot of time on moves that I then dismiss, only to make a move that’s terrible. Yet I am also a more patient player than I used to be; I have more trust in certain positions and do not feel obliged to play a forcing move just yet, and instead calmly improve my position. Occasionally, I commit egregious errors under time pressure, and my calculation skills are extremely limited in general, but it’s been a while since I made a serious tactical blunder while I still had enough time left on the clock.

With these strengths and weaknesses in mind, I have now decided it’s time to bid farewell to e4 and play d4 instead, and respond to e4 not with e5, but e6 and c6. A more solid repertoire, in other words, one in which tactical skirmishes and opening complications are a tad less likely. To celebrate this momentous shift in my chess career, here is a chunk from the Caro-Kann:

opening_carokann_queentradeBlack strives for an equal position, and this is a useful little chunk to simplify the position as a first baby step towards equality.

Bishop Pin on g5/f6

April 25, 2012

A rule of thumb for Black when playing against Spanish/Italian openings with a knight on f6: Don’t castle when your dark-square bishop is locked out by a pawn on d6; the pin created by the bishop on g5 against the knight on f6 tends to be very strong. Of course, if you know your theory, you’ll be able to wiggle out of the pin unscathed eventually, but for the less well-versed,having to defend against the pin is extremely annoying indeed. Hence, be wary of locking out your bishop and castling prematurely.

This works in very well in conchunktion (pun drum roll, please!) with the Bindelicious chunk.

Respect for Material

June 13, 2011

Despite the tumbleweeds skittering across this blog, I’m still playing chess, and I believe I’m improving, too, even though it’s not necessarily reflected in my rating. In any case, lack of time, but also lack of chunks has kept me from updating regularly, but today I’ve come across a nifty little chart I’d like to share that I found in Lev Alburt’s Openings for Black, Explained. The chart grades well-known chessmasters on a scale ranging from “healthy disrespect for material” to “healthy respect for material”.

Quite nifty, I thought. And a sensible way of looking at the play styles, too. I believe I currently belong more to the “healthy disrespect for material” camp, but often find myself opening with every intention of sacrificing for the initiative, and then ending up retreating to defend loose pawns at the first sign of danger, or unable to cash in my activity for a concrete advantage.

So I think it’s time for a change. For the past couple of months, I’ve chosen open games and aggressive openings to hone my tactics and improve my grasp of initiative and counter-play. And I think I made enough progres to now try a more conservative opening choice, especially for Black. Alburt’s tome recommends the Accelerated Dragon against e4 and the Nimzo-Indian against d4, so I’ll have a shot at that and see how it goes. If anyone wants to share their own experiences with these openings, you’re cordially invited to share! By the way: I used to believe firmly in the credo that beginners and intermediate players shouldn’t spend too much time on the opening. However, I’ve recently heard GM Jan Gustafsson challenge this, and I’ve also heard from a fellow club player who crossed the 2000 mark within 4 years (and is still improving) that he almost exclusively studied openings. This is not to say that I’ll abandon other areas of study completely, but I might reconsider my priorities. (Not that I’ve got much time to study chess these days, anyway.)

Plans in the Scotch Gambit

June 28, 2010

Me and my practice buddy met on FICS the other day. Topic was the Scotch Gambit. I must say, practice buddies are a great improvement “tool”, especially if they happen to be stronger than you! Nothing compares to listening to a stronger player articulate his plans.

We focused on one line of the Scotch Gambit in particular: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 exd4 4. Bc4 Nf6 5. e5 d5 6. Bb5 Ne4 7. Nxd4 Ld7 8. Bxc6 bxc6. Here’s the tabia:

The conclusions we reached hark back to two classical principles: the principle of securing the centre before attacking on the flank, and the principle of two weaknesses. To get more concrete, here are some plans for White:

  • castle and develop (obviously)
  • challenge Black’s knight on e4
  • prevent Black from playing c5 (securing the centre before attacking on the flank)
  • attack on the queenside with pawns to provoke a second weakness in Black’s camp and distract Black’s kingside defenders
  • attack on the kingside with the pawn ram f3-f4-f5-f6
  • once you manage to get Black into a bind (if you do), either bring your pieces to the kingside or invade on the queenside

I won’t go into details, and I’m not quite sure how to convert such plans into gifs. Here’s a gif showing key positions from one of our games in which I’m steamrolled by White, who’s putting the above plans into practice.

Speaking of pawn pushes, here’s an idea: don’t move your pieces to squares where you intend to push your pawns ;)

Update: To rub it in, here’s a gif summing up some plans for the player with more space (partly also inspired by Silman’s The Amateur’s Mind).

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 8, 2009

(Adult Chess Improvers Driven To Really Improve Practically) is the acronym suggested by Liquid Egg Product over at Confessions of a Chess Novice to reinvigorate the chess improvement blogosphere under a new guise. I have never been a part of the Knights Errant, nor have I expressed much enthusiasm or indeed trust in the circles method or any tactics-heavy training programme. This is not to say that I dismiss tactics entirely; indeed, I do my 5-10 puzzless on ChessTempo every now and then (Rating: 1899.9, RD: 56.15). However, I still feel tactics puzzles are much too concrete and artificial (by virtue of your being told that there is a tactic) to acquire chunks. I value them for practising my calculation ability in general, e.g. for honing visualisation skills or for anticipating moves. I do not see much happening with respect to storing chunks, though.

In answering why this should be so, I am tempted to draw parallels between chess improvement and language development: once we reach a certain aptitude, an expert structure if you will, we will be able to incorporate (often unconsciously) chunks into the existing network of knowledge by merely consuming a lot of source material (in this case, tactics puzzles). As a non-native speaker of English who’s been reading and listening to English a lot, I often surprise myself with expressions that I use or recognise that I wasn’t aware I knew. This, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon. I first had to practise English for several years consistently with traditional methods before I could immerse myself in the language to a degree where I stopped worrying about conscious learning and picked up stuff unconsciously, and I would credit this ability to the fact that I already had an “expert structure” in place. New teaching methods use a similar approach; the “advance organizer” teaching method, for instance, seeks to offer students an overview of a topic first, where everything that needs to be known is already visible, and only then proceed to look at the various elements in detail. This runs counter to more traditional approaches where teachers used to keep knowledge “hidden” from students and only gradually revealed it.

So at this stage, I feel it’s more appropriate for me to absorb abstract principles rather than drown myself in tactics puzzles. And the approach I’m following, obviously, is the Chunky Rook approach: animated gifs illustrating abstract principles or move orders. Have I had any success since the blog’s inauguration in March? Back then, I said: “The moment of truth is the moment I make a (good) decision based upon an idea I retained from watching a gif, the moment I’m looking at wooden pieces on a wooden board when suddenly an animated bishop on blue squares pops into my head …” And I’m very happy to announce that this has indeed been the case. I’ve played roughly twelve serious OTB games since March. I lost 2–0-4 against a player rated at 2000. I have scored 4-1-1 at a tournament in the 1500-1600 bracket. My last four games were 1:0 against a 1730, 0.5:0.5 against a 1800, 0.5:0.5 against a 1700, and a loss against a 1500. Among those games, the last one was perhaps the most motivating. Take a look at this position from the game (I am Black, and it’s my move):

middlegame_bkffileI played badly that day. But what happened at this juncture was very reassuring. When I had looked at this position a few moves ago, I was instantly reminded of this:

middlegame_openlines_08And I remembered that taking the bishop in this situation would be a bad choice, because you help White to bolster his centre and open a dangerous file for the rook. And yet, despite recognising this instantly in the game, I thought, “fuck it”, it’s a knight for a bishop and he’ll have to prove to me that the pattern’s right. Now, the game could have gone either way. There could have been a blunder. According to Crafty, Black’s got an 0.3 advantage in the above situation that drops to 0.0 after the knight captures the bishop. So no big deal, objectively speaking. But that’s not what matters in my opinion. What matters is that the chunk entered my mind at the right time. That I was able to instantly recognise a feature and gauge a potential continuation of the position.

There’s no doubt that the application of such chunks is limited, that they only stick if they are very basic, and that there’s always a danger of neglecting concrete calculation or missing something. And yet I still believe the approach has merit. While analysing a game recently with my opponent, I asked him whether the following knight manoeuvre in the Ruy Lopez was typical, which he confirmed.

opening_ruylopezknightI had not anticipated this manoeuvre during the game, but the moment he moved the knight, an illustrated gif formed in my mind. I believe this is an example of how you become better and better at absorbing patterns or chunks once an expert structure is in place; in this case, the expert structure might be called “certain openings use certain standard manoeuvres” or whatever. Doesn’t really matter. What matters is that when you practise chess on the basis of abstract principles, you create a structure (be it intuition or explicit knowledge) for standard situations, which serves as a coat hanger for absorbing more and more concrete patterns pertaining to that structure. Judging from my current experience, such chunks are extremely valuable to me in practical play. They give me ideas about my own plans and my opponent’s plan tied to concrete move sequences or piece squares, and that makes the calculation load and the burden of deciding on a move much easier — a very practical benefit indeed.

Openings, Openings

October 13, 2009

In her new column at Chess Café, Abby Marshall sums up nicely the reasons for playing the Tarrasch Defence:

It’s a great opening for improving players, because it’s very important to learn how to play open positions with active piece play; while not any position can become closed, any position can become open. The Tarrasch can also be played against almost all queen-pawn openings. And, it’s fun.

This is exactly why I am currently building my opening repertoire around isolated pawns and opt for openings such as the Tarrasch. Prodigal Pawn has kindly agreed to share some annotated games on the subject of the isolated pawn, and has a freshly annotated game by Anderssen against Morphy up at his blog.

Meanwhile, Michael Goeller harkens to the Smith-Morra’s siren call. I’ve been playing the Smith-Morra myself against the Sicilian because I was concentrating on open lines and thought the Smith-Morra offered plenty of opportunities to practise attacking play. I’ve even scored a (dubious) victory against a 1750-player in a 90/20 game. However, I’ve got this hunch that the Smith-Morra doesn’t tend to follow “natural” attacking patterns, so I might drop it in favour of the Alapin variation — sticking to the c3-push but with a more solid long-term plan. In case you’re interested in the Smith-Morra, Michael links to a “super Smith-Morra webliography”. Good stuff.

Attacking f7, Winning the Queen

September 27, 2009

Sacrifice on f7, followed by knight intrusion on e6, smothering the queen:middlegame_f7queenwin1 Sacrifice at f2, followed by discovered check, winning the queen: middlegame_f7queenwin2

Suffocate the Heavies!

May 30, 2009

Incorporating opening patterns into the Chunky Rook project proves difficult, but I’m going to give it a shot with this pattern from a recent tournament game of mine.

The idea: always consider the breathing space of heavy pieces. We all know that bringing your queen out too early is dangerous because the lady might be chased around (or even hunted down) by minor pieces. But it’s easy to forget that the same goes for rooks: when you see a rook in a cramped position in which your minor pieces are well developed and the pawns near the rooks are hindering the rook or allowing access to your pieces, think about the breathing space of the rook and whether it can be exploited. In this case, the rook at a8 has only two squares to go, allowing an attack with a double threat: gaining the exchange and threatening mate.

The opening: this position arose from a Smith-Morra gambit. The Smith-Morra (or simply “Morra”) is an anti-Sicilian (1. e4 c5 2. d4!? 3. cxd4 c3!? 4. dxc3 Nxc3). Generally, the gambit is not supposed to be uber-sound, but not unsound, either. In other words, it’s perfectly playable until you reach 2000+, at which stage you might want to consider other options.

Be that as it may, the Morra features some interesting attacking ideas, especially if White manages to prevent the Black king from castling. One of the key ideas of the Smith Morra is that three or four of your minor pieces can lead a devastating attack against an uncastled and underdeveloped Black position. Sometimes, the result is mate, and sometimes it’s snatching up a heavy for a minor piece. So when you play the Smith-Morra and exchange queens, consider the attacking potential of your minor pieces against the cramped position: Heavy breathing for the heavies!