Friday, September 9, 2016

Chess Advice to My Younger Self (Part 2)

In our last article, we discussed advice I would have given myself when I was younger. We covered the periods when I was in the Class E and Class D ratings sections. In this article, I continue my journey through my progression with more advice to my younger self.

Class C (USCF 1400-1600)

During this period, I was very active in chess. I lived in Rochester, New York at the time, where the Rochester Chess Center and Community Chess Club of Rochester are located. This gave me weekly opportunities to play against good competition. As mentioned in my last article, this is a key to development. I spent about a year at this rating, before breaking the 1600 barrier.

The following game was illustrative of my skills and typical difficulties. On the plus side, I was pretty good at offensive tactical vision - I could spot two or three move combinations fairly well. Also, I had a sense of what a good opening structure was supposed to look like, so I could hold my own in the opening phase. You'll see both of these points at work in this game.

However, I had difficulty coming up with deep middlegame plans. Once I was done making the "obvious" moves - e.g. grabbing an open file or making exchanges that would give my opponent a pawn weakness such as doubled pawns - I often had difficulty coming up with what to do next.

This also led me to difficulty when I had a winning position. I used my tactical ability to get an edge, but once I had it, I often fumbled trying to convert the victory. One of the things I had difficulty with at the time was understanding the importance of piece activity and counterplay. So although I had a material advantage on the board, I worked on maintaining that advantage without progressing the position towards a victory.

So what advice would I give myself? Here's a list:

  • Continue to work on tactics. However, besides working on offensive tactics only, I would also work on spotting tactics defensively. My article, Building Your Tactical Shield, discusses this topic at length.
  • Study annotated games of positional masters such as Botvinnik, Capablanca, and Karpov. The games of these World Champions are a treasure trove for learning how to plan and positional play. Check out my article on instructive game collections for book suggestions.
  • Play out winning positions against your friends or the computer. These can come from your games or from other games you may see and study. Besides playing the games, focus on what your plan to convert a winning position into an actual victory!

Class B (USCF 1600-1800)

I spent a lot of time at this class. For one thing, I had finished college and graduate school and was working full time, which meant much less study time. I was still competing fairly regularly for a few years until I had children. During this time, I rose from 1600 to about 1780 over a two year span.

The following game was a memorable one, but also one indicative of some of my challenges at the time. I felt I played decent chess often, but great chess only sparingly and bad chess a little too often. It was a question of consistency.

I attribute the inconsistency in my play to a few things. First, I think I was a little cocky. During this time, I had held my own on occasion against expert and master level players. Because of this, I think I felt that my lack of improvement was due to having responsibilities in life.

Although that may have been partially true, reflection from 10 years later provide a little more insight. I don't think I built my foundation enough. I had read a lot of books up to this point, but there were a lot of holes in my understanding. As I write in my article series of steps to mastery, I should have spent more time going back to the basics of studying master games.

At this point, I was mainly analyzing my games and looking up games in my opening repertoire. I was doing some tactical training as well during this period, but only cursory study of the endgame. Also, besides playing blitz and standard games online, I was not doing any analytical "training" like Solitaire Chess.

I did a few things right, which helped me progress from the 1400's to the 1700's over two or three years. First, I played often against good competition. This cannot be underestimated. As I've found as well as observed in conversations with stronger players than myself, regular competition is important. Our chess knowledge may be embedded in our minds, but our skills including calculation and evaluation need to be practiced to maintain and improve.

Second, I was going over my losses and improving - although mainly in the opening stages. This is important and as I mentioned previously, analyzing your own games is very important. One mistake I made however was relying too much on chess engine analysis and less on my own efforts. Indeed, the chess engines helped me find better moves, but it didn't help me improve my thought process or my own personal analytical skills.

Finally, the major thing that helped me was working with several coaches - admittedly off and on - for those several years. They helped note a few flaws in my play and thinking. If I had the financial and time to engage a chess coach more consistently, I really believe I would have progressed even more. I will definitely write more on the value of a chess coach in the future.

I think this game woke me up in the tournament. After this, I won my final four games to finish second - although I won the first place prize because my opponent was unrated and not eligible to win the first prize.

Here is the advice I would have given my Class B self:

  • Continue (or restart) devouring master games. Combine faster study of games with more in-depth analysis to aid in understanding.
  • Do analytical training exercises to practice thought process and analytical skills. Solitaire Chess is a fun and effective way to do this.
  • Work on your thought process! Refine your process and practice it with long time-control games and training drills.
  • Make a systematic study of the endgame. As mentioned in my interview with Nigel Davies, endgame study is very effective. I did it haphazardly at the time, and I believe if I had been more organized, I would have progressed much faster.
  • Spend a lot more time analyzing without the use of a chess engine. I really believe that using the chess engines at the lower levels can be very detrimental. I think they are very helpful to correct analytical errors, but can also hinder our own analytical development.


I hope you found this article helpful and interesting. I enjoyed this journey down memory lane. As I progress in my own chess skills, I hope to write the Class A (and eventually the Expert) versions in the coming years.

As always, I wish you good luck and Better Chess!