24 July 2017

DVD completed: The English Four Knights (For Both Colors) Volumes 1-2

I recently completed the two-DVD set from ChessLecture.com "The English Four Knights - For Both Colors", which is presented by IM David Vigorito.  This is my first experience with ChessLecture, which has been around for a while.  In terms of production values, it's a no-frills DVD, with a rather basic-looking 2-D board and audio narration.  So in that respect it doesn't provide extras like the ChessBase Fritztrainer products' interactive quizzes, included databases and live video of the presenter.  However, as long as the substance is sound, I think the extras are just that - extras - and the basic lecture format is still effective.

As a longtime player of the English, I used this product to supplement my understanding of the different Four Knights variations and get a more professional perspective on my preferences.  IM Vigorito does a good job covering the breadth of options for White, looking at all of the realistic move four White options (4. a3, d3, d4, e4, e3 and g3, in ascending order of popularity) as well as helpfully touching on some earlier move-order options for both sides, particularly after an earlier g3 by White.  If you play the English as White, then especially at the Class level the Four Knights will likely be encountered very often, so you should have one of the major lines prepared.  As Black, it's a good choice for a defense, with a lot of natural moves.

Some other personal observations:
  • Unlike the case with many opening products, IM Vigorito does truly present the opening from the point of view of both sides, without evident bias and balance content.  He has personal experience with both White and Black in these lines, which helps.
  • The lecture provides additional depth of understanding in many lines by explaining how certain move alternatives don't work, including common ideas that you may well encounter over the board at the Class level, rather than simply focusing only on the "best" theoretical lines.  I value this because it really helps with learning the "why" behind opening lines and what you can do to take concrete advantage of deviations made by your opponent.
  • From the point of view of an improving player, it was in fact helpful to look at the entire lecture series, rather than just the ones that pertained to my particular repertoire choices.  IM Vigorito provides insightful commentary throughout on typical setups, traps and concepts which can be applicable to similar position-types, or that are just good to know in general for your chess.  In my own case, I think being less narrow-minded and understanding how different openings work has been important to strengthening my overall game.
  • The DVD lecture is good for either a first intro to the Four Knights, or as supplemental material for study; it's not comprehensive and doesn't pretend to be.  I found it a little short on the 4. e3 variations, although they generally get good treatment, and there is just too much theory on 4. g3 to be looked at in real depth, although the various major choices are presented well.  IM Vigorito notes this himself and points out where you will need to be much more independently booked up if you decide to play certain variations.

11 July 2017

Your first (serious) chess tournament

Image result for world open chess tournament
(World Open 2014 playing hall, from The Chess Drum)

Some first serious chess tournaments are disasters, and some are disappointments; rarely are they triumphs, although when newcomers with some real training enter the (typically) lowest section of the tournament as an "unrated" player, they may do quite well their first time out.

I ended up with an even score in my first tournament, a classic four-round "weekend swiss", in which I won my first game (which you can see in "Why I Play the Slav").  I was a young teenager at the time, which is a fairly common time to start trying organized and competitive chess, although a number of people now start out in scholastic tournaments at a young age, while others may come to the game only after they develop chess as a serious pastime in adulthood.

My first rating was in the low 1400s, which I was satisfied with.  Nowadays, especially in the USA, it's common to have a lower rating when first starting out, due to the depressing effects of scholastic chess on the lower end of the Elo scale; when I began, it was unusual to see anyone in an organized tournament below 1200 and almost never below 1000.  As related in "What I Learned From My 1st Chess Tournament" over at Chess.com - well worth the read, as it's done by a professional writer - it's now more typical to start out with a rating in the triple digit range, which can magnify the shock and disorientation that often accompanies the first tournament experience, and perhaps lead to a (hopefully temporary) bout of depression at your future chess prospects.  I would liken it to running a competitive race (say a 10K) after having simply jogged for exercise for a while - it's really a different level of experience and one that is likely to be humbling.

After you complete the tournament and mentally process the whole experience, either you become energized and want to raise the level of your game - what I think most people's ultimate reaction is - or you never (or perhaps only after a long gap) go back to competitive chess.  An example of the latter case is that of former blogger Blue Devil Knight - whose chess blog used to be good - who essentially was traumatized after choosing to play in the World Open for his first tournament experience.  To use the same analogy as above, this is like jogging for exercise for a while and then trying to run the Boston Marathon as your first real race.  Basically, this is not recommended for anyone.

While I think preparation for any chess tournament is best done by continually working on your skills and your mental toughness, I'll offer some specific suggestions for setting yourself up for a first tournament success (or at least avoiding feeling like it will be a complete disaster).  I'm also curious if people have other particularly relevant tips, or could offer helpful (or cautionary) examples from their own early tournament experiences.  (Note: these are intended primarily for people going to over-the-board tournaments, but I think largely apply to "serious" online tournaments, especially ones with slower time controls.)
  • Do have a basic opening repertoire, which will help define what types of games you can expect to play.  Memorization of variations is less important than understanding key ideas, typical moves, and common plans.  Having an opening framework will also help you better understand the games afterwards when analyzing them.
  • Don't worry about your rating either before or after the tournament.  Ratings fear and loathing is all too common, and is nicely illustrated in the Chess.com article linked above.  Your rating will simply reflect your current performance and over time will track with your overall strength.  What is more important is where you go after you get your first rating, rather than what it is exactly.
  • Do warm up by playing games similar to tournament conditions in terms of time control, rules (no takebacks, touch move applies), and mental focus.  Humans make the best opponents, but it's possible to configure chess software to play at a level appropriate for sparring.  If you can't exactly replicate tournament conditions, it's all right, just don't play blitz 100% of the time and think it will directly translate into tournament effectiveness.
  • Do show up early at the tournament site and read all of the posted rules.  Be sure to know the standard tournament rules about things like how to handle touch move, draw offers, claiming a draw by three times repetition, when to stop your clock during a dispute, etc.  Most of these things are in fact quite simple, but if you are not sure of the procedure, it can easily throw you off your game if you run across them.  Also inform one of the tournament directors that it is your first tournament, which may gain you some extra sympathy and attention, and at least will signal to the TDs that they should make some extra effort to explain things when needed.
  • Don't get discouraged by losses during the tournament (or afterwards).  If you continue with competitive chess, there will inevitably be a lot more of them.  You will also win eventually if you concentrate on playing the position on the board well, rather than on your own or your opponent's ratings.
  • Do (as mentioned above) keep a legible, accurate record of your games and analyze them once your brain has returned to normal after the tournament.  You will find improvements for both yourself and your opponents; if you treat it as a marvelously fascinating learning process rather than a way to beat yourself up, you'll make progress.

06 June 2017

Training quote of the day #11

2017 U.S. Champion Wesley So
From a front-page article on GM Wesley So, published in the June 6, 2017 print edition of the Washington Post:
"...chess is not just about playing. It’s other aspects. I have to improve my mental state. I have to be tougher, more confident, more comfortable playing the top guys...And I also need to improve my physical conditioning, because each game can last to anywhere up to six hours and each tournament usually has around 10 games, so that’s a lot of work, and the person with more energy in the last hour has a lot of advantage.”

29 May 2017

How to think for yourself in opening preparation

One of the "secrets" of advancing towards mastery in chess, as in many other disciplines, is that the more advanced you get, the more you should be thinking for yourself in order to make real progress, not just uncritically following other people's recommendations.  In chess, I would say that this process of independent thinking should start relatively early on, once you get past the initial technical subjects to be learned such as mates, identifying and constructing tactics, fundamental opening principles, and basic endgames.  All phases of the game require independent thought, evaluation and judgment.  At the most basic level, chess players need to answer for themselves the question why they are making each move.

The opening in particular is subject to a near-overwhelming amount of advice and provision of expert information, in the form of instructional material (books/DVDs/etc.), computer engine evaluations, and database statistics.  It's certainly a good idea to take advantage of others' expert preparation and work, although it's debatable as to how much effort an improving player should put proportionally on opening preparation, versus middlegame and endgame skills.

Regardless of the total amount of effort spent on opening selection, evolving your repertoire, practice and understanding holistic concepts, I believe it's important to underline the benefits of doing serious evaluations of your opening lines (and finding new ones when necessary).  This level of mental engagement will not only serve to strengthen your overall repertoire, it will - perhaps even more importantly - boost your recall and effectiveness when playing the openings in question, as you are regularly and actively evaluating different lines and their resulting positions.

This type of active management of your openings is easily implemented using a simple database structure, which can be updated whenever you run across related material.  A recent personal example of doing this on a systematic level was comparing the recommendations in Play the Caro-Kann (made easier by its e-book format) with my repertoire database and evaluating the author's recommendations.  By no means did I accept all of her ideas, but studying the differences and determining why I preferred one line over another (or perhaps an entire variation) was valuable in itself.  This process is also quite useful when going over individual master-level annotated games that you come across, as in the Gormally example below.

Computer tools can be quite valuable for your preparation, but also misunderstood or misused.

Database programs easily display for you the most popular and highest-scoring lines, but their statistics can be misleading in various ways.  On the positive side, databases can identify shifts in popularity of particular lines and you can relatively easily pick out the important games that cause them.  On the other hand, sometimes there is a quick shift away from using a particular line that means the "old" (and maybe busted) version still has a relatively high percentage result, one of the reasons why you have to evaluate lines for yourself.
  • Popularity may also depend on the predicted result of the line - for example, many people may avoid a frequent drawing line as White, but perhaps you in fact want to have that as a solid weapon against higher-rated players.  Other lines may be unbalancing or relatively risky, but again that may be exactly what you need, as long as you understand the trade-offs in the positions you reach.
  • It matters which databases you use and why.  Correspondence games can be far more accurate than OTB collections, for example, so are very valuable to theory.  For practical use in OTB or online tournaments, though, it can be a bad decision to pick the theoretically "best" line if it runs 20+ moves of memorization, with multiple branching variations, and any deviation from it will likely benefit your opponent.
Engine recommendations also cut both ways.  They can be helpful, mainly for checking tactics and ideas to see what responses are likely and/or best.  They can also be potentially harmful to your game away from the computer.  Anyone who has worked extensively with engines knows that they may come up with certain moves in the opening that may look all right in the short term, but go against the main (human) ideas for the opening and so will cause problems 10-15 moves later.  One example I ran across early in my studies was in the main line of the Caro-Kann Exchange Variation, where most engines (even up until recently) evaluated 7...Na5 as best; you can even still see this on the ChessBase LiveBook with Fritz evaluations showing this as recently as 2016.  However, as Fischer-Petrosian (Belgrade 1970) and others have shown, it really does not work very well in practice.
  • Sometimes engine preparation can also give you a false sense of security, as illustrated by this entertaining example from GM Danny Gormally on a failed experiment in the Slav's Geller Gambit (as White).  On a practical level, I found his annotations useful and adjusted my own related Slav repertoire line as a result - but only after checking other database lines and engine possibilities and looking for myself at the positions.
  • Some computer products will give you a hard-coded numeric engine evaluation for literally every opening move, or you can replicate that by just running an engine.  I don't believe that these are very helpful in general and to evaluate lines you will have to follow them to the end and understand the why rather than letting something like a computer's "+0.25" fully define your view of them.
On a broader level, I think it's also important to understand and acknowledge the amount of work that will be needed in order to understand your chosen opening's positions and typical middlegame plans, then execute them in practice.  Some level of memorization is needed, if not of entire variations then things like key ideas, squares and principles for a particular opening.  Examples include the central important of the d5 square in the English Opening, the theme of the f5-f4 pawn advance in the Dutch, and the critical importance of the light-square bishop for Black in the King's Indian.  This type of opening lore I think is among the most valuable information for improving players and is why finding insightful explanatory material or having a coach who understands and can impart these principles is more important than following the latest professional theory, which often times is only expressed in long variations.

In the end, perhaps it's best to recall Kortchnoi's advice (mentioned in Annotated Game #175) to just go ahead and start playing a new opening, as - if you analyze your own games - that is how you will learn best what works and what doesn't in the opening.