Welcome to My New, Old Blog!

I have had a chess blog in one form or another since about 2011.  I started out here on WordPress, then I migrated to Weebly, and finally I started a new one on Chess.com.  I have decided to return to the place I started, wordpress.  I will still be publishing my blogs on Chess.com, but this will become my primary blog again.

Looking back at some of my old content from 2011 and 2012, wow!  I look at my performances on video and cringe.  I hear myself thinking out loud during those games and I cringe.  Hopefully, I’ve come a long way since then.  My FICS rating (which you can see in these old videos, was in the 1500s and 1600s) is now in the 1900s.  I think I’m a tad over-rated, though, and it will likely settle down into the 1800s eventually.  I now play most of my games on lichess.org where I am in the 1800s, also.  My chesstempo rating reached almost 1900 at one point, but I’ve only recently started taking that process seriously again, and I’m rebuilding the rating after a disastrous run with a high RD dropped it down just under 1700.  It’s in the mid-low 1700s now.  I’m confident I will be returning that rating to the 1800s and higher, soon.

I’m also hoping to bring some video content to the blog again.  I could post a few things I’ve done, but none of it has been really serious in a long time.  That should change!

Anyway, welcome back to my new, old blog, everybody!

Training Diary #2

Since my last entry, a lot has changed.  First of all, I’ve decided I just really don’t like How to Reassess Your Chess.  I cannot get through it.  The more I tried, the more I remembered I just really don’t like it.  I could get into the reasons for this, but that is probably better for a different blog entry or article.  I have spent some time looking for other things and settled on a course I had forgotten I even owned.  Igor Smirnov’s Your Winning Plan, which was suggested to me by a very strong player a few years ago.  While sampling all the resources I had trying to find something to replace How to Reassess Your Chess, I found myself riveted by this one.  So, that is my new tome.  Hopefully, I won’t be getting into the rut of starting book after book without finishing.  I will try not to do that.  So far, I like this one so much I’m committing to finishing it without even alternating weeks with the endgame book!  I’ve also got pages of notes I’ve taken on this course alone.  Those are definitely good signs.

I have been plugging away with tactics and openings, also.  In my last post I mentioned that I would be trying to find a way to detail my progress with the basic tactics that I drill for speed and recognition.  I use Anki flashcard software for that purpose.  I have a set of 1001 tactics from a popular tactics book called “Tactics Time” that I am converting into flashcards.  So far, I have 250 of them converted and I’m drilling those using spaced repetition in Anki.  If you are familiar with Anki, these stats may make sense.  If not, it may be gibberish, but here they are so far, current as of today:

The other side of my tactics training has to do with Chess Tempo.  I solve problems there daily, but I don’t have a set routine of how many or anything.  Basically, I just go do some problems whenever I feel like it.  I should improve this by making some sort of schedule or quota, but so far, I haven’t.  It’s somewhat easier to track my progress with that, because the rating graph will make more sense to more people.  The thing to remember with these is that I do not focus on speed here.  I focus only on accuracy–calculation/visualization, etc.  The pattern recognition I build up with past Chess Tempo problems and the Anki flashcards should help as well, but I do not use Chess Tempo to assist in building patterns primarily, it’s just a side-effect.

I have been playing long games as often as I can, both online and over-the-board.  I have committed to analyzing at least one game per week as fully as I can.  Sticking to this one isn’t hard because it’s something I like doing, anyway.  Some examples of the analysis I’ve been doing:

Just snippets of the full analysis.  I’m still working out how I want to format the analyses for actual publication.  The latter example is a pdf created with Open Office.  It looks very nice, but it is very time-consuming to make.  Analyzing in Scid vs. PC is fine, but it doesn’t look as nice and there’s no way to publish it without just pasting a PGN file somewhere (not ideal if you want people to actually read it).  Still working on this problem.

As always, comments and encouragement are appreciated!

TIL #1

Today, during an online (not chess.com correspondence) chess game, I learned that a typical tactical trick must always be carefully calculated before executed.  The typical tactical trick, from this position:

is simply to play Nxe5.  Of course, if white inserts the tempo-gaining capture, Bxd7+, the knight can hop out of the danger to capture the bishop.  If white just takes the en prise knight on e5 with Nxe5, the bishop is now hanging, so Bxb5 takes back a piece, resulting in the net of the originally captured e5 pawn.

…Nxe5

     Bxd7 Nxd7

     Nxe5 Bxb5

The issue?  After the latter line (Nxe5 Nxe5 Bxb5) there is Qb3!  This forks the bishop on b5 and the f7 square.  After Qb6, attempting to defend and create an escape hatch, Qxf7 Kd8 Qxf8, white regains all the material with a tremendous attack.  Black is completely lost.

Luckily, my opponent did not spot the winning continuation and simply played Bxd7.  I went on to win the game in about 20 moves.  Maybe this is unfortunate, because the lesson will not be as painful!

A Great Hidden Feature in Lucas Chess

There are probably dozens of things that fit that description, but I want to focus on one feature I’ve really been using a lot lately.  The feature is simply called “Moves Tree” and is buried in the Utilities menu of the main game windows.  It is both more powerful and more useful than it initially appears.

Let’s start out by making a new game from scratch using the menu items “Tool – Create Your Own Game.”  Now, for the purposes of this article, let’s just pick a random opening position.

Now, if you go to the menu item “Utilities – Moves Tree” you will get a new window with a list of every possible move from that position.  The first move of the list is on the board because it is highlighted by default.  You can single-click any other move in the list and that move will appear on the board.

Well, that’s useful, but we don’t want to look at every possible move.  What we should do instead is narrow it down to candidate moves.  There are two good ways to do this.  One is to just select the moves you want to assign a rating yourself.  Another is to let the computer assign evaluations to some or all of the moves and rate the moves according to that.  If you wish to do the former, just leave out the computer analysis step and go ahead and manually assign the ratings.  For this article, I will be allowing the computer to evaluate the moves for instruction’s sake.

To start, click the yellow rectangle icon (fourth from the left) in the icon toolbar above the move list.  The tooltip for this icon is “Analyze.”  You will want to set the engine to a strong one and decide how long you want it to “think.”  Also, you should decide how many moves you want it to evaluate for you.  I chose 60 seconds for the time and maximum for the number of candidate moves to evaluate.

Again, great information, but not what we really need.  Our goal was to pare down the list of moves to a reasonable list.  Based on the data the engine gave us, it appears there is one good move to make with several others that are speculative at best.  For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to rate the top two moves.  Highlight the top move and then click the purple square icon in the icon toolbar whose tool tip is “Rating.”  Here, you choose a color-coded square icon for each move to describe the quality of that move.  For the first move, I just selected the blue “Good move” rating.  For the second move in the list, I called it a “Speculative move.”  How you rate the moves is really up to you.  The main idea is that the moves you want to keep for the future you give some rating to.

Finally, click the light bulb icon on the icon toolbar whose tool tip is “Show/Hide.”  Select the menu items “Hide – No rating.”  You are left with a much more manageable list of candidate moves for the position.  Click back on the first move in our list and click the plus icon in the icon toolbar whose tool tip is “Open new branch.”  This is where you will start to see the power of the feature.

You will see a new list of every legal move from the position after that first candidate move was made.  If you pare this list down to a few candidate moves and repeat the process a few times, you will have the first branch of a move tree.  If you go back to our original branch and click the plus icon, you can make an entirely new branch off of that moves.  Of course, anywhere along the way, you can make new branches for each move in the move list of your branch.

But wait, there’s more!  Click on one of the moves in your tree and then click the speech balloon icon in the icon toolbar whose tool tip is “Comments.”  You can add a description, annotation, evaluation, or whatever you’d like for each node in the tree with this function.  It will display in the tree in the “Comments” column.

Now, click “Save” in the top left corner of the window, and you’re done.  The craziest part is any time you come back to that position, even when analyzing a totally different game, that moves tree will show up for that position.  Try it!  Close the created game you were making and start a new one without saving the previous one.  If you make those same moves again and open a new moves tree window, you will see your previous moves tree with the branches closed.

To re-open a branch, just click the plus sign while highlighting the move.  In the saved tree view, you can see if a move has a branch hidden under it by the “up arrow caret” symbol next to the move.

I hope you find this feature as useful as I do!

More on Learning Openings

In an earlier post, I went into some detail about how to use Lucas Chess to help learn openings.  Two other tools are very useful in learning openings for me: Chess Position Trainer and Scid vs. PC.  The latter is free, the former is not, but has a pretty useful demo version (though it is well worth buying!).

Today, I am working on the Benko Gambit as white.  I have entered some variations I want to study into Chess Position Trainer.

The beauty of Chess Position Trainer is that entering the moves and variations of an opening is as simple as making moves on the board.  A tree of variations is created and saved to your repertoire database as soon as you make each move.  I have selected one particular line (shown above) to use as an example.  You can see how many distinct lines are in your opening by navigating through what are called “Leaf Nodes” (you can see I have selected to navigate by leaf nodes in the top left corner).  Leaf nodes are basically the ends of your branches.  If I hit the arrow to go to the next leaf node, it will move to another position that is at an end of a branch.  It will tell you how many leaf nodes you have in your opening in the status bar as you navigate through it this way.  Going to a leaf node lets you see one distinct line of your opening.

What I like to do is take one leaf node and enter the moves into Scid vs. PC for comparison with my main database of chess games.  I use the “GorgoBase,” which is a collection of just over 2.5 million games.  It is compiled from all of the games ever released by TWIC and all of the games compiled at the PGN Mentor website.  The goal was to get a mix of both modern and historical chess games.  You can download this database for Scid or Scid vs. PC for your use at my website, http://gorgonian.weebly.com/pgn.html

Once I have the moves entered into Scid vs. PC, I filter for all games that reached that position by going to “Search – Current Board.”

This leaves me, in this case, with just over 100 games to look through.  From here I just select the first game in the list and step through it quickly using the right arrow key.  When I reach the end, I hit “ctrl+down” to load the next game in the list and step through it, too.  I look through as many of the games as I can this way, hopefully all of them.  This gives me a good impression of where pieces belong, typical pawn breaks, what the endgames usually look like, etc.  I may select a few games for deeper study if I find a game by certain players or if a particular game catches my eye for one reason or another.

After doing this, I will use Lucas Chess to play a weakened computer opponent from the position I’m studying and analyze it.  Sometimes, I will play several games this way (if I do this, it’s usually some blitz games).  After doing this, going back and re-reading the book (or re-watching the video) the line originated from should help you gain even more insight.

After all that work, it’s time to check out the next leaf node!

Training Diary #1

After taking a lesson from International Master Attila Turzo, I have decided to begin making blog entries detailing my goals and what I’ve been working on to achieve those goals.

My studies will be divided into several distinct areas.  First, I will be doing tactics training every day.  I divide that into two areas: adding patterns to my “instant-bank” (tactical patterns I can recognize as close to instantly as possible), and using those patterns in combination to calculate harder tactical problems.  The first area I train by solving simple problems using spaced repetition to build up the pattern in my “bank.”  The second area I train by solving problems at chesstempo.com that are appropriate for my ever changing tactics rating there.  This week so far, I have improved my standard tactics rating by about 130 points!  (I haven’t done serious tactics training at chesstempo in a while, and my rating was languishing at some absurdly low 1500 rating, so this is rise is just correction-related and not indicative of some hard work paying off, most likely)

I will detail the “instant bank” side of training that I do in a later post, as I work out a good way to track it statistically.

Mr. Turzo recommended I pick out a set of books for each phase to concentrate on, and commit to them and finish them.  The idea we agreed on is to alternate the three books by week to avoid one book getting stale.  I have thus committed to:

1) How to Reassess Your Chess – Silman

2) 100 Endgames You Must Know – Jesus de la Villa

3) Chess Openings for White Explained  – DPA (Roman D, Perelstyn, Alburt)

I have since decided that I’m going to study a different source for the opening phase based on some feedback from others and a review by John Watson.  The book is consistent with a lot of openings I like, which is why I chose it, but the content isn’t the greatest.  This also coincides with a desire I’ve had lately to try out 1.d4.  Therefore, I’m going to be learning a whole new d4-based repertoire.  I’ll be leaving my black repertoire alone for now, and revisiting that later.

I have read a lot of How to Reassess Your Chess in the past, but never systematically studied and finished it.  I have committed now to studying it thoroughly and 100% finishing it.  Well, the 100% is slightly wrong, because I’m going to skip the random section on the endgame thrown in at the beginning, since I already have a source for that.  So far, starting at the beginning, I have worked up to pg. 42.

Finally, I will be practicing visualization by training for blindfold chess.  One intriguing idea Mr. Turzo recommended to me was to place a knight on a chessboard in my head and try to move it from one square to another, of course, only in my head.  Initially, I didn’t know how to select a start and end square for this journey, so I wrote a little script to pick two random squares.  This worked when I was sitting at my computer, but I found that I would be out somewhere waiting in a line or something and realized it would be nice to practice it right there and then!  I then decided to do it systematically.  I put a knight on a1, mentally, and tried to move it to b1.  Then a1 to c1, etc.  When I finish with a1 to h8, I’ll change the start square to b1 and do it again (starting with c1, not a1–I’m not going to do it backwards until I do it forwards all the way).  I can, of course, do this with other pieces, but the knight work has really helped me build up that “mental board.”

I also do some blindfold play on the computer from time to time.  I found something interesting when I tried this for the first time.  After 15 or so moves, I had a pretty decent idea of what the position was, but I decided to turn the display back on and look to see how I did.  When I did, I was blown away by how chaotic the position looked.  It felt like there were twice as many pieces on the board when I saw them visually.  It was a stark contrast from the empty board I  had been looking at.  It was almost as if my mind was much more calm when I couldn’t see the pieces.  It was much harder, of course, and calculating and evaluating while blindfolded is a skill I have almost none of, but it was the first time I’d ever thought of seeing the pieces being something like a “distraction.”

I’ll conclude my first entry with some goals.  First, I would like to attain a 1700 rating in the USCF rating system by June of next year.  I would ultimately like to achieve a 2000 rating some time in my life.  Second, I would like to make one training diary blog entry per week, and annotate at least one long time control game of my own per week, also in this blog.  My last goal is to finish the books I have started, no ifs ands or buts.  If you have any suggestions or comments, let me know!

On Calculation Visualization, and Positional Analysis

One of the most critical skills a chess player can have is actually a combination of three other skills. Let’s look at a practical example to demonstrate the concept:

This game of mine played at the 2015 Arkansas Open featured a Scotch Gambit (declined). On the seventh move, white allowed a common tactical idea, the “center fork trick.” If black captures on e4, white’s knight and bishop can be forked with d5 after the recapture. One question we could ask about this position is “should black play Nxe4?” However, let’s look at this from white’s perspective by asking two related questions:

1) Should white have allowed this?

2) If white just missed the idea and black plays it, how should white respond?

Our “most critical chess skill” must be put to use here. First, we have to calculate white’s possible responses to Nxe4. In this example, there are three main options which preserve material equality (black captures a pawn with Nxe4 so white must regain a pawn to stay even materially). If you want to play along, try to figure out three separate main ideas that do this.

Once, we have discovered our options, the second critical skill must be utilized. The lines must be played out mentally to “quiessence” and the ending position visualized.

Finally, the ending positions of each of these lines must be evaluated positionally and compared to each other. The line that leads to the best position for white would then be played. Or, if possible, if the best option for white is worse than other options available, white should not allow the tactic.

So, let’s look at the result:

A 7…Nxe4 8.Nxe4 d5 9.Nxc6 bxc6 10.Bxd5 cxd5 11.Nc3 c6

B 7…Nxe4 8.Nxe4 d5 9.Ncx6 bxc6 10.Bd3 dxe4 11.Bxe4

C 7…Nxe4 8.Bxf7+ Rxf7 9.Nxe4 d5 10.Nc3 Nxd4 11.Qxd4 c6

These were the three main lines to be calculated. Is one of them clearly better than the other two? One clearly worse? Is the best one good for white or black? Why? Let’s look at the positions.

Position after A

White has a slightly better pawn structure, but black has a better center and the bishop pair.

Position after B

Black’s structure is critically weak. The position is otherwise even.

Position after C

Black has a slightly better center, two bishops, and a rook activated by the half-open f-file. White has a slightly safer king and a slightly awkward knight on c3.

In my opinion, the ranking of these three positions for white would be B, A, C. In fact, white would probably be pretty happy to have the position after line B.

In order to make the correct decision in a game situation, all of this must be done mentally while looking at the first position (or after Nxe4 has been played, depending on the situation). To review, this requires three separate skills used in succession:

1) Calculate the possible responses. Here, we calculated three lines that retained material equality.

2) Visualize the resulting positions accurately.

3) Positionally evaluate each position and compare the evaluations.

If you had trouble with this procedure, hopefully this exercise helped diagnose the problem. Improving in these areas should help your chess skill immensely. Be on the look out for errors in this type of procedure in your games to monitor your progress.