Better Late Than Never

I know of many adults in the world of chess who never seem to be able to reach the 2000+ mark. My questions is why? They are dedicated, very interested in chess, and enjoy the game. So why are they not able to crack the 2000 rating level? I have some theories about this based on my own painful process the past 15 years of chess playing and learning.

First, a little bit about my abstract beginning in chess. My first exposure to chess is drastically different than the young authors at Chess˄Summit. My journey started without the influence and resources that the internet provides today’s young players.

I did not learn how the pieces moved and rules of the game until I was 25 years old, and somehow I have passed the 2000 rating barrier a couple years before my 40th birthday, and believe me – if I can do it, anyone can! My beginning started at a college party where some friends of mine were playing chess on one of those cheap fold up wooden boards where the pieces fit inside. I was instantly drawn to the game and to what they were doing. They explained the game to me in a quick and probably not very instructive way. They just wanted new blood to beat up on! All evening they took turns crushing me and enjoying laughter at my expense. I think most people would have been defeated by introduction to chess, but it only added fuel to my fire. My college friends continued to beat me for a couple of months until I won my first game! Now I was really hooked! Next venue was a famous coffee house in Cleveland Heights Ohio called Arabica where local masters and class players would frequent daily playing speed chess and casual games. This place was heaven! Chess at any time of the day, day or night There was also an IM who frequented the coffee shop and would give dazzling displays of time odd blitz, and often times free lessons to anyone who would listen. The only down side to this place is that this was before the smoking ban, so by the end of the night one could barely see across the room. I played for hours here and started to slowly improve my game. One of the regulars named Ray took me under his wing and tried to show me the tricks of the trade. One thing he would tell me when he would review my games, “You know what I need? A bigger 2×4 to wack you over the head with!” Again, I think this would discourage many players and pound them into submission, but I guess I was a fool for punishment and would always come back for more. The most important lesson from this hazardous beginning was the development and passion for chess and learning . After this I started playing in a Friday night game 30 tournament once a week and have been captivated ever since.

After all these years I think I know how I could have made this journey a little easier and less painful. I knew once I reached 1300 or so that I would like to be 2000 someday. Something about having the number 2 in front of your rating made it seem more official. Looking back, I studied chess in an unorganized manner, and was never consistent on what I did. I would change openings all the time looking for the Holy Grail (no such thing when it comes to chess openings). I would switch chess books all the time without really reading one the entire way through. I would take every persons advice on playing and learning and would become even more confused! Then I met someone who had a love of the game, who enjoyed talking about chess, and more importantly liked to discuss and research ways on how to improve. This friend of mine is also an adult, and yes he conquered the 2000 rating barrier as well. What I took from him that has been and is still helpful is that chess really is just hard work. I needed to become more familiar with simple patterns (please read Vishal Kobla’s excellent articles!), and repeat the same problems over and over until they became part of my DNA. Once I started to do this my chess rating started to climb. We both did John Bain’s Chess Tactics for Students at least 15 times.

CTFS

I even cut the problems out, taped them to 3×5 index cards, and would shuffle them each session.

Flashcard

We both got to the point that we could complete the entire book of 400+ problems in less than 30 minutes. We also did Gilliam’s book, Simple Checkmates over and over as well.

SimpleCheck

I ended up taking a long break from chess due to starting a family, only playing 2 tournaments in the past 4 years. As a result, I dropped below my peak rating of 2050 to around 1967. In order to get back in chess shape I have started doing the same study and practice methods mentioned above as I am slowly starting to play more frequently.

I am currently using the massive Laszlo Polgar book of 5,334 problems to solve daily exercises after a conversation I had with GM Jesse Kraai

Polgar

One could take this one book and be busy for years! Every chess player out there eventually comes across this massive black book of chess, but I have never met anyone who has gone through the book. Well that changed after having a great conversation with Jesse. He told me he went through this mammoth book three times! The only thing he did not do was play through the short games at the end of the book. All the mate in 1, 2, and 3’s were completed. I guess it comes as no surprise that he became a GM. He then proceeded to tell me that what he did is nothing! His friend GM Becerra completed the book blindfold! Someone would simply tell him where the pieces were and he would solve the problem in his head. What I have found in doing these mates is it is not about just solving the mates, it is more about seeing how the pieces work together in harmony. The pieces find a way to coordinate and have some nice conversations! Sometimes I have to ask myself how dedicated are we really to improving and becoming stronger players when you hear stories such as these? Most adult players do not commit a fraction of this kind of time to their own self-improvement. One thing I learned more than anything else when talking to strong players is yes, talent is important, but just down and dirty hard work is the real key to chess improvement.

I started to ask some personal questions about my own chess study that some of you might be able to relate to and offer advice.

1.) How much am I learning by passively watching chess videos?

2.) How much am I learning playing countless hours of online chess?

I think online chess has much to offer the developing player if used in moderation and if it does not just become an addiction or an escape from life. There are many other healthier things that we can do besides passively taking in chess information. I have started to take long walks and just think about positions or a game I have played. You can get incredible insight this way.

I have also started writing out analysis in notebooks with just pen and paper, no computers! (see photo)

notebook

It really does not matter if your analysis is wrong, just that you are starting to analyze and get your ideas on paper. This is something else that Jesse Kraai strongly recommended to me during our conversation. I guess the biggest thing is just being fully present when you are studying or playing – there are plenty of other things we can enjoy in life besides tricking ourselves that we are learning or improving our chess by trying to take in the overabundance of chess materials out there! Lastly, I have started to make goals that are not focused on ratings or results such as; 1.) Manage my time, 2.) Relax and eat healthy between rounds, 3.) Play with confidence, 4.) Do not offer or accept draw offers if there is any play at all in the position, etc… By doing this you remove extra external pressure that result goals create. See Isaac Steincamp’s excellent article Reflecting on the 2016 US Junior Open for more about not focusing on result based goals

Here is a link to one of my recent games in the DC Chess League as I make my adventure to getting back into playing chess tournaments more regularly. All of the notes in the game were done without the use of a chess engine. I think this is a great improvement idea to first analyze without the use of a chess engine, and only later to check your analysis with the computer.

http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2016/8/4/Game1723811625.html

Thank you everyone for taking the time to read my first article! I welcome and appreciate your comments and feedback.

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13 thoughts on “Better Late Than Never

  1. Jason Braun

    Interesting article and good to hear from someone who’s not a millennial! I started playing a long time ago (early 70’s) and like you, always wanted to break 2000. I spent several painful years in the 1400’s, then the 1700’s before breaking through 2000 in 1980 (waaaaay before chess engines!). I spent 10 years bouncing between 2000 and low 2100’s, never quite being able to make another big move. I basically quit in the 90’s due to some frustration and other priorities but decided to become active again in about 2003. By then, the game had completely changed, everyone was “booked up” on openings, my openings had gone out of style and I couldn’t just fake my way through a game. I immediately dropped to my 1900 floor before I was able to make some progress again. I was very proud of breaking 2000 again at age 55 (even more proud than the first time!)! Unfortunately it didn’t last long (I had to “re-break it again at age 59!) and now I’m struggling, trying to get back for good, maybe even over 2100 at age 60, I’ll try to incorporate your techniques in my training. I’m also thinking that a good coach would help because I can tell that stronger players just understand the positions better than I do. Good luck!

    1. Paul Swaney

      Thanks Jason! Wow, your story is very impressive! Please share some of the methods you have used since they obviously were successful. I hope to write more in the future about this topic, and discuss some of the chess and non-chess things I am doing to try and improve. One book that has been inspirational is Grit by Angela Duckworth. Highly recommended! All the best, Paul

      1. Jason Braun

        I’ve been trying to be more prepared in openings. Yes, I know that’s frowned upon by the purists but it really helps on the clock to be prepared (in addition to getting better positions). You just can’t figure out the all those opening intricies over the board. I have some thick folders of games, maybe 30 for each main variation of each opening that I play as white or black (I use Chess Assistant a lot). I constantly tweak those lines over time. But sometimes it’s difficult to know if my results aren’t good due to misplaying the opening or the fact that it just doesn’t fit my style.
        I’ve been working on tactics also (always a weakness), doing problems, forcing myself to look at more candidate moves during the game and calculate more accurately. I’m also trying to put more time into endgame study.
        During the actual games, I need to improve my focus and avoid time trouble. My results with black also need to improve and I’ve actually been completely revamping some black openings. Sometimes it helps to get a fresh look by studying the positions that arise from completely different openings.
        I’m actually in the process of moving from Maryland to Las Vegas, and hoping to find a coach here. I would like to get back to 2100 again!
        Good luck to you!

      2. Senior Patzer

        Hi Paul,

        I found your post via David Milliern who posted a comment here: https://www.chess.com/forum/view/general/my-nominee-for-hungriest-u2000-amateur-who-s-yours

        What I really took away from your post is how losing and being mocked for being a lousy patzer helped fuel you and your desire to improve. And the other takeaway is writing things down by hand helps (more than passively watching chess videos and playing countless hours of blitz.)

        And of course, the main thing is that it’s just plain HARD WORK.

        P.S. Jason, I really enjoy your posting about your chess journey. Hope your move to Vegas goes or went well. Would be happy to hear of any updates to your chess journey.

  2. Good article, Paul. I can tell you it is an inspiration for the rest of us 25+ year olds out there trying to break 2000.

    I created a thread on chess.com with the sole purpose of identifying adults who picked up the game and eventually broke 2000. With over 200 posts in the thread, only 2-3 people have been identified (4-5 now). 🙂

    Here is the thread, if you are interested:
    https://www.chess.com/forum/view/chess-players/inspirational-adult-improvers

    Cheers,
    Kevin

  3. Great article. I started playing at 49 years old and I am now 52. I have started beating people at the local club. I managed to tie for third in the Missouri blitz open championship and have won money in the last 5 tournaments I have played (class prizes). But still I have a long way to go to reach 2000 strength and I may be suffering from age related hurdles. Still I think I may be able to make the 2000 leap as well. Thanks for the article. It’s inspiring.

    1. Paul Swaney

      Appreciate you taking the time to read my story…I really believe that anyone can do it if they are willing to sacrifice. At an older age we have more real life distractions. I am trying to phase out things that are not important such as TV, Youtube videos, etc…And just focus on the chess when I have free time. I would be interested in hearing about your progress! All the best, Paul

      1. Rick Arnold

        I am an engineer and a pretty extreme case as far as being old (49) when I started learning chess. I spend my time in life on 3 things now, my family, my job and chess. I have about 3 years of daily learning under my belt. I enjoy chess and I am pretty much OCD anyway, it fits my lifestyle. However, I have learned that I do have a big gap to bridge because of my age. I did not mention above that I live in a small town and have little access to over the board opponents. I do drive 50 miles to get to that club, I mentioned. I think I am am near 1800 strength now. I wish you luck Paul. I am not sure how I will progress but I am fairly intelligent and working on my game. Its unclear to me how a person like me who learns the game so late will do. I have focused totally on visualization and tactics. Like you I am trying to do more active learning then passive learning and really I need to pickle my brain with a huge dose of tactics training and visualization so it can learn the language of chess. Looking forward to more of your thoughts.

      2. Paul Swaney

        Thanks Rick! You are doing really great! Thank you for sharing your story. More than anything, chess is just a daily grind. I worked on chess quite a bit today, but it is not clear as to what degree it helped me – that is the mystery. You can put in a ton of work, and then one day poof! Everything starts to click. I hope to share more here on Chess Summit in the future! All the best – Paul

  4. Thanks for the article. This is the first case I’ve heard of someone learning how the pieces move after the age of 25, who still broke 2000. I’ll be watching your progress, since I have a theory that players starting after 25 have a ceiling of around 2000, as I’ve followed about 18 different serious players starting after 25 y.o. who sputtered out just before 2000. (It’s also no surprise that much of what you have to say [and what they’ve said] about success after 25 is grounded in intense tactics pattern acquisition.) The list of players who I have followed, who have any kind of chess background as a kid, and who became serious late in life, have all approached very close to 2200, and had no problem with the 2000 “barrier,” so I am very interested to see if you get to 2100. It will really change things for me, if you manage it.

    Best of luck on future successes, and congratulations on those past!

    1. Paul Swaney

      Hello David, Thank you for your kind words. I think tactics patterns are the musical scales of chess. Intense tactics training is really just learning the language of chess. Whether or not I excel past this mark, I know I will just continue to play out of love of the game. All the best, Paul

  5. Pingback: Free Game Analysis: Attack of the West Windsor Warlord! – chess^summit

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