Blunder [bluhn-der] – noun; the one unfortunate part of chess that everyone wishes didn’t exist.
If they didn’t exist, we’d all be masters. But, obviously, that is not the case. Everyone makes blunders, which is one of the reasons that make chess the amazing game that it is – every chess player, no matter how strong he or she is (I’m talking about you, Magnus), has blundered in games, sometimes even multiple times in the same game. However, there are many things you can do to minimize the number of times you blunder. So how do you do that?
Well, there’s no definitive answer. It’s different for every person.
Many people try to solve the problem of frequent blundering at its root, such as by taking an introspective look to see if they can find what it is that they’re doing fundamentally wrong. Are they lacking focus? Are they moving too fast? Are they weak on tactics? Answering such a question can be extremely difficult, especially if blunders occur in different circumstances. At times, trying to solve the issue only makes it more frustrating. No matter the cause, though, it is certain to take some time, as many games would have to be reviewed.
But with that said, there is a very simple, straightforward, albeit temporary, way to limit the number of blunders you commit. This type process likely isn’t my own creation, so if you have heard of it before, then bear with me. All it entails is asking yourself a few questions before each move…
What did my opponent’s move change in the position? Unless you’re Nakamura and playing blitz against Rybka, pretty much every move in the game changes the dynamic of the position. Moving a piece may open a file, open up a square for another piece, or attack one of your own pieces. At any rate, if your opponent made a meaningful move, it is helpful to try to reason out why that move was played since seeing what changed is the first step to identifying possible threats.
Which of my pieces, if any, are en prise? GM John Nunn coined the term “Loose pieces drop off,” which couldn’t ring truer. Anytime a piece is undefended, it is possible that your opponent can simply capture it – either directly or through some other tactic – without losing anything at all. Simply protecting all of your pieces can minimize blunders, especially since the effect of the major pieces is limited. A queen can no longer threaten a bishop if it is protected by a pawn, for example.
What forcing moves does my opponent have? These include checks and captures. A check is obviously forceful as you have to do something to get your king out of check. With captures, if you can’t recapture that piece in question or another piece back, the material is lost. Thus, these possibilities should be examined in order to avoid blundering checkmate or material through a series of captures.
After going through these questions, you can start thinking of your next move, keeping in mind the answers to these questions that you asked yourself. After coming up with a candidate move, imagine playing it in your head and ask yourself these questions again. If your own move is forceful, keeping calculating through the variation to evaluate how viable the move is. If possible, try to parse through this method on as many moves as possible.
It is true that following such a method can be very time-consuming at the outset during tournament games, but the idea is to avoid frequent blunders. Eventually, asking these questions becomes a quicker and more fluid process, to the point where they don’t need to be thought of explicitly; rather, alarm bells will go off in our head if anything in the position seems out of the norm. Of course, not every potential blunder will be caught by this method, but it is a starting point to help eventually see the chess board better.
As always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time!
With my finals week over, an incredibly stressful semester has come to an end. In the course of four months, I changed majors twice, which meant taking a rigorous schedule to compensate. Ultimately, I had to leave chess behind to do well academically, as this term’s course load pushed me to become disciplined in my studies.
But that was yesterday! Even with the dreary Pittsburgh weather, I can’t help but feel a bit relieved, as for the next month, I get to be a full-time chess player! I’ve got four tournaments planned for May, so I’m looking forward to some over-the-board action. Here’s my schedule:
May 5-6: 2nd Haymarket Memorial (Chicago, IL)
After Beilin’s visit last March to the Chicago Chess Center, I decided I’d open my summer campaign here with a weekend tournament. I’ve actually never been to Illinois before, so that’s another state I can check off my list!
May 12: Marshall Chess Club G/50 Open (New York, NY)
I was hesitant to plan a trip to New York for two “rapid” tournaments, but a combination of wanting to play more games before the Chicago Open and frequent flyer miles convinced me otherwise. Besides, I won my first-ever tournament (I should clarify – non-scholastic) at the Marshall Chess Club!
May 13: Marshall Chess Club G/50 Open (New York, NY)
Playing in another tournament in back-to-back days is going to be exhausting. To prepare for this (and later the Chicago Open), I’ll need to work on my endurance and start running frequently. When I was preparing for Europe, I found the healthier I was, the better I performed.
May 24-28: Chicago Open (Wheeling, IL)
This one needs no introduction. I’ve signed up for the open section, which promises to offer a tough schedule of players. I’m hoping that by using the entirety of May to prepare, I can bring my best form to one of the toughest open tournaments in the country.
I’ve got ten days to prepare for my first tournament since last January, and I’m going to have to train intensively to play my best chess. While I’m going to have to push myself, I do think the semester has made me more mentally prepared to play tournament chess. Right now, I’m not too worried about breaking National Master, I just want to play good games by training right and focusing on the right things – long term, the title and the rating will both come as an affirmation if I’ve succeeded.
Based on some of my past results, I’m hoping it stays that way.
Bringing the Brain Back
One thing I’m curious about is what will my chess look like now that I no longer have the distraction of school. I’ve experimented a little – played a Pittsburgh Chess League match with an opening I had never used before, taking on new opponents on my Twitch Channel, managed the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers, but more recently I entered a correspondence chess tournament on chess.com.
Typically I’ve been terrible in online correspondence chess, as being addicted to my phone means needing to terminate all notifications!! As you can imagine, this means that I usually blunder once every 15 moves because I’m multi-tasking, but during exam week, it made for a nice five minute study break. Nothing serious – just something to keep my mind off the Keynesian IS/LM model for a bit. Anyways, I had a nice win in an Italian Opening as Black that I thought would be worth sharing.
Tartan_Thistle vs NapoleonBonaparteIV (me), Chess.com Tournament
The opening was predetermined, as the tournament set all games to the position 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4
I’ve had a lot of interesting games as Black, most memorably a game I won in the 2016 Pan American Championships for Pitt. One aspect I like about the Italian Opening is that it’s extremely rich with ideas, yet its fairly easy to learn at a basic level. To avoid the Three Knights theory, I opted for 3…Bc5 and “normal Italian play” ensued, 4. c3 Nf6 5. d3 h6 6. 0-0 0-0 7. h3 d6 8. Re1
This was my first real think of the game. One fairly common idea for Black is to play ….Nc6-e7-g6, but if I played 8…Ne7 9. d4! more or less punishes my tepid play after 9…exd4 10. cxd4. I don’t really know where my bishop on c8 should go yet, so I played the least committal useful move 8…a5, which takes away a potential plan of b2-b4, while also creating a square on a7 should my bishop need to retreat. Now, should White try 9. d4 I can play 9… Bb6, and the point is that my knight (on c6 and not e7) supports the e5 pawn, so I don’t have to break the tension on d4.
White took on a much more restrained approach, and so the next few moves were somewhat simple 9. Nbd2 Bb6 10. Nf1 Ne7:
The difference in this position is that with my bishop on b6, 10. d4 is not as forcing so I can play 10…Ng6, having accomplished my relocation. Why is it that Black wants to put the knight on g6?
This knight helps support the center, but also hints at a …Ng6-f4 jump in the future. Additionally, by moving the knight away from c6, I can now match White’s pawn structure with …c7-c6, with the ability of either playing for …d6-d5 or playing …Bb6-c7 to thrust forward my b7 pawn.
White’s been following the basic plans for White too, but can he keep it up? 11. Ng3 Ng6 12. Be3 c6 13. Qd2?!
This didn’t feel right. I thought after 13. d4! White maintains a typical Italian Opening edge. Had White gone down this route, I think Black will need to find a long term square for the c8 bishop, and that’s not easy considering its presently safeguarding the f5 square. I figured White’s plan was to sacrifice on h6, so I just played 13…Kh7 to sidestep the threat and wait. I figured I can choose to play …d6-d5 later, so this didn’t seem like much of a concession on my end.
As it turns out, White actually had 14. d4! here, which I completely missed because it left e4 unprotected. Luckily for me, my opponent chose the move I had anticipated, 14. Nf5 but then erred – 14…Bxe3 15. fxe3? d5! and I won easily after that… even with a few careless moves.
What I liked about this game is that it really shows you why it’s important to know how to open a game of chess. In many openings, having insight into what your plan for development is, and why its effective is a lot more beneficial than purely memorizing moves. This is how I handle a lot of docile openings without needing to know complicated theory – take this game I played against the Glek in Germany last year.
As I gear up for my tournaments this month, I’m going to be looking through a lot of my opening preparation. If I tried to memorize it all, I would drive myself crazy! So instead, look for key pawn structures, how your pieces work together, and key attacking ideas – these are the very elements the computer will never tell you! What you’ll find is that you will learn more from asking yourself questions than answering them!
In part 1, I left off after my round 5 draw, where I was supposed to be the one pressing but instead had to fight hard not to lose.
In round 6, I got my momentum back with a nice win against Qibiao Wang (2420 USCF, 2324 FIDE). Things got off to a good start for me, and we reached this position:
Only white can be better here, and I naturally opened the position up with 12.c4!. The isolated pawn is no big deal. After 12… Nc6 13.Nc3 dxc4 I took an interesting decision by playing 14.d5!?. 14.Bxc4 and 14.Qc1 were also viable alternatives. After 14… Ne5 15.Bxc4 Nfg4 I had to decide where to go.
Black is trying to get some activity and doesn’t want to be submitted to passivity. If white does something simple like 16.h3?, he gets hit with 16… Qc5!, double attacking the c4-bishop and the f2-pawn. 16.Nxe5 Nxe5 probably gives white an edge, but I chose a different and stronger option: 16.Bb3!. The bishop just gets out of the way. It’s that simple. Black has a dilemma where to put his queen: 16… Qf6 runs into 17.Ne4, and 16… Qd6 runs into 17.Bf4. The game went 16… Qc5 17.Ne4 Qb6 18.Bc3 after which white has a big advantage which I went on to convert in a powerful style.
That was a boost! Now I had 4.5/6 and was half a point behind the leaders. Oh boy… I wasn’t ready for the heartbreak that awaited me in my game against GM Gil Popilski (2578 USCF, 2502 FIDE).
Up to this point, I had played well, and the not-so-unreasonable notion that I’m better crept into my head. White’s bizarre pawn on e6 is a combination of a thorn and a weakness. Anyway, it’s white move, and he played 26.Rb1 to prevent Bb5. This opened up the tempting possibility of going 26… Bc2, but after 27.Rb7 Bd3+ 28.Bxd3 exd3+ 29.Kd2, black’s position looks nice, but he doesn’t have anything. 26… Bb5 should be a draw after liquidations. Instead, I got way too excited and played 26… Rad8?! completely missing his reply 27.Rhc1!. Rd2+ appears to be useless. I can’t go Bc2 anymore. Wait, what can I do?? After a long think, I decided to swallow my pride and play 27… Bb5 aiming for a draw. What I didn’t realize was that white is just better after 28.Bxb5 axb5 29.Rxb5 Rxe6 30.Rc4
With accurate play black should draw this, but it’s just easier to play with white. Over the next few moves, I drifted, and by the time we reached the time control, I was already in huge trouble. My resistance wasn’t enough, and I lost.
I won’t pretend that I wasn’t mad after this game. Really mad. I may or may not have spent a couple high quality minutes swearing in front of a mirror. Even if I remembered it, my post-game pep talk to myself is unpublishable. I had blown half a point in a pointless and idiotic fashion. I wasn’t this mad after my round 2 game, where I arguably blew half a point in a similar fashion, because I played badly and didn’t really deserve to get a half point there. This time, on the other hand, I actually played pretty reasonably overall and had had a draw within clear reach, only to have a minor brain freeze blow it all away.
A night’s sleep did me good. Next up came round 8, where I got white against Mario Arias (2342 USCF, 2245 FIDE).
The pieces are mysteriously scattered here: the white bishops on a4 and h2, the white knight on d3, the black knight on d4 of all places… Though he has an isolated pawn, black should be totally fine here. His pieces are a lot more active. Meanwhile, I had to make some tough decision with white. After the natural 22.c3, black can go 22… Nxg3 23.Bxg3 Ne2+ 24.Kh2 Nxg3 25.fxg3 Bf5! where he’s better. That doesn’t look good, not to mention that black also has …d4 ideas that could be very strong. Therefore, I decided to keep the tension in the center by playing 22.Qh5. If black still goes 22… Nxg3 23.Bxg3 Ne2+ 24.Kh2 Nxg5 25.fxg3, he’s probably still fine, but this is definitely a better version for white than with c3. My opponent decided to play 22… Be6 after which I took an agonizingly long think. If 23.c3, his plan is to go 23… Nxg3 24.Bxg3 Nf5 25.Bf4 d4 which appears to liquidate the center and promise him equality. Okay, what else do I have? 23.Re1 appears to be playable, but it didn’t inspire much confidence in me. Black should be more than fine there too. Anything else… Seriously, what am I going to do? If I don’t win this game, then what??
Then my little idea hit me. The game went 23.c3 Nxg3 24.Bxg3 Nf5 25.Bf4 d4 after which I uncorked my little idea: 26.c4!?
This is a pawn sacrifice, but I felt I had enough compensation. The game went 26… g6 (26… g5!? is also possible) 27.Qf3 Bxc4 28.Re1. Black’s position isn’t that easy. If he goes 28… Be6, I’ll go 29.Bb3 Re8 30.Bxe6 fxe6, after which I have more than enough compensation. His h6, g6, and e6 pawns are weak, the e5-square looks juicy, my pieces are more active… that’s certainly better than liquidating with no hope of an advantage! If 28… Qf6, then black is starting to get harassed after 29.Ne5, and 28… Qh4 29.Ne5 doesn’t inspire confidence. Black’s best move is actually 28… Qf8! just getting out of the way of everything. White enjoys full compensation for the pawn, but not more than that. My opponent’s next move, however, almost gave me a heart attack: 28… Ne3?
Oh my… If 29.fxe3 Bxd3, black is just much better. 29.Ne5 Bd5 looks terrible for white, not to mention that 29… Qb4! is lights out. Then, thankfully, I found the move that saves white: 30.Bc2! simply protecting the knight. Black is actually going to lose the knight on e3. Though black will have compensation, white is much better, and I won a few moves later.
Not a bad boost! It feels great when you spend 20+ minutes to find an idea that works like a charm. Going into the last round, I was 5.5/8. That’s actually the same score I had last year… There, had I won my last game, I would’ve gotten a GM Norm, while now I was losing rating. Unbelievable.
Anyway, back to this year’s tournament situation. 6.5/9 would win a solid prize, definitely four figures, while 6/9 would give me a couple hundred dollars. I was expecting to play up, but for the umpteenth time this tournament, I wasn’t. I was playing David Peng (2407 USCF, 2331 FIDE). I also got lucky that I got a double white. Not a bad tournament situation…
Last rounds are hard. When you have to win, there’s a lot of pressure on you… What to do? How much to risk? Even must-draw situations aren’t easy. And then there are games where you’re not sure if you want to play for a win or a draw… Anyway, I was playing this game for a win, no question about it.
I took a risky decision in the opening which turned out to be 100% justified. I was much better, though I misplayed it a bit.
So yeah, I have a piece for three pawns. If black gets coordinated, I could be in trouble, and I have to play against his coordination. Black can’t castle kingside because of Rxd7, and it looks like Bc6 is going to be his next move. Anticipating that, I played 16.f3! protecting the e4-pawn against his upcoming attack. Sure enough, he played 16… Bc6 which I met with 17.b4!. I should use those pawns! After 17… 0-0 18.b5 Bb7 19.Rb6 black’s position is already alarming.
The bishop is in serious danger, and he correctly played 19… Bc8 after which I played 20.Bc5 Re8 21.Bb4. I’m now planning to push my a-pawn. Oh boy, this is fantastic!! The only problem was that he put up resistance that I wasn’t able to crack. The game went 21… g5 22.a4 Ng6 23.a5 Bd7 24.Rb7 Ne5
Black has improved his pieces coordination, and he has a couple ideas. First, he can go Rec8 with the idea of harassing me with Rc4, and he’s also toying with the idea of going Nc4 in some variations. My next move, 25.a6?!, is very logical but reduced my advantage. 25.Rc7!, preventing both Rc8 and Nc4, was very strong. White is considering pushing both his a- and b-pawns, and there’s also the surprisingly annoying threat of Rc5 in the air. Black will probably have to go 25… Rec8, but after the rook trade, white’s life is much easier. The pawns will be much more powerful, and he doesn’t necessarily have to push them to victory. He can spend some quality time building up, while black won’t be able to do anything. The more I stare at this position, the more I realize that white is totally winning.
Back to the game. After 25… Bc8 26.Rb6 Bd7 I repeated once with 27.Rb7?. In retrospect, this was a bad idea. After 27.Rbd6 Rec8 28.Bc5 Be8, white is probably close to winning, but black is holding on. Anyway, the game went 27… Bc8 28.Re7 after which I missed his reply of 28… Bxa6! 29.bxa6 Nc6! (29… Rxa6 30.Rxe8+ Nxe8 31.Rd8 is winning for white, and I had seen this).
I realized that I’m losing the a-pawn. I still retained my c-pawn and had good winning chances, but it was nothing compared to what I had before. I tried hard to win the endgame that followed, but it wasn’t enough. He defended well, and we drew.
Chess is hard. After this game, I wasn’t really mad, but I was disappointed. I had given this game everything I had, and it wasn’t enough. I had tried very hard throughout the entire tournament, and it wasn’t enough. But barely. I was so damn close to tying for second. What a comeback that would have been…
On Monday, the day after the tournament finished, I felt that I was incapable of doing anything productive. And I don’t think that going to bed at 2 am was the main culprit. What are the real conclusions from my fireworks show in Philadelphia? Looking at the games a few weeks later, I’m still not sure. The tournament was really a mixed bag. I had my fair share of good and bad luck. I had triumphs and tragedies. There is nonetheless one fact that stands out: I only played up once in 9 rounds. Okay, you could blame the round 2 loss, but it’s not like I completely crashed and was out of the running for most of the tournament. Compared to a year ago when my FIDE was in the low/mid 2300s and I played up 7 rounds out of 9, and with my 2400 rating I only played up once this year!? I really miss being the underdog.
It’s been a while since I’ve gone over some of my games, so this week I’m going to share some games that I played at the Virginia Open. The Virginia Open was a 5-round open tournament held from March 23-25. Since I hadn’t played in a tournament since the VA States a couple weeks prior and I hadn’t played in a long time control tournament since Nationals the previous December, I decided to take up the gauntlet and play in the open section just to see how I would fare. Safe to say, the tournament overall was rather interesting, as there were some high points but also some low points. Let’s take a look at some of the games that I played.
This game was likely rust from not playing in a long time. Despite having a sizeable positional plus coming out of an early queen trade, in a span of a few moves I essentially threw that away, ending up in an endgame position where I was going to lose a pawn. Nevertheless, I was able to hold the endgame, a task that was made somewhat easier by my opponent’s rush to trade rooks. After centralizing my king on d4, I had created a fortress that my opponent wasn’t able to break through, and had the game continued, I would have kept shuffling my bishop. Although this wasn’t an ideal start to the tournament, at least I was able to salvage a draw in a game that could have ended up much worse.
After spotting that tactic to go up a pawn, I was pretty pleased with my position overall. My pawns had mobility and I was able to protect them with my pieces while still pushing them. I eventually gave up my bishop for a knight to go into a good knight-bad bishop endgame where I was also able to infiltrate with my rook. After the last pair of rooks was traded, I could use my knight and king to nurse my passed pawns down the board, and my opponent resigned just before promotion. I was much more satisfied with my play in this game, and overall it was smooth-sailing after picking up the pawn in the middlegame. This win set me up to in the middle of the pack of 1.5 pointers going into round 3, so I could end up playing up or down, depending on how the pairings would work out.
I feel like this game was much more of my style. Following a weird transposition into a Sicilian-like position, I was able to start my attack before my opponent. A key takeaway from this game is White’s dark-squared bishop – many players are hesitant to give it up as it’s generally considered White’s most important minor piece. While this is at many times true, especially in the Dragon Sicilian, there are always exceptions. Here, after the g and h files became locked, my only pawn break was with the f pawn, and that was only going to happen by allowing Black’s knight to sit on g4. I decided to push anyway, and after my opponent played Ng4, I had the option of retreating the bishop to g1, but I figured it wasn’t worth it since I would have a bunch of pieces clogged on the back rank at that point. Instead, I pushed forward with f5, allowing him to capture my dark squared bishop if he wanted. The light square bishop ended up playing a more important role than what the dark-squared bishop would have, eventually allowing me to win an exchange. After that, the endgame was fairly straightforward, and with promotion coming, my opponent resigned.
This game was probably the most disappointing for me of all the ones I’ve shown. After going into an endgame, I was able to play fine for the most part. My opponent was definitely the one pressing, but I was holding, and after the trade of minor pieces, it was somewhat simpler. His rook was able to infiltrate, but I found a way to keep material from dropping off the board. However, it was when we reached the dreaded 40th move that I finally made a mistake. After 40. Rb7, I didn’t want to play 40. … Ke6 again as I was afraid of 41. a4, making havoc of my queenside and likely allowing his king to finally penetrate. In hindsight, 40. … Re6 was likely best, although it would bring about a change in dynamic after 41. Rd7+ Kc6. Instead, I played a much worse move and lost a pawn and the game. Obviously, if I had played Re6, I may have still lost, there is no way to tell. But, it would have given me a better chance than what I played in the game.
I ended up losing the last game as well to finish at 50% with 2.5/5 despite starting 2.5/3. What began as a promising start ended on the flip side. While there was much I wish I could have done differently, there were still good things to take away from this tournament. I’m not sure what the next tournament I’ll play in as SAT subject tests are on the horizon, but until then, I’ll have to keep in touch.
As always, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time!
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I was trying to decide which games to analyze for this post when I got a great question from a member of our Chess^Summit audience about how to allocate study time given the availability of study materials online. The mother of a young, up-and-coming chess player sent me the following:
“In your experience, did online play help improve you OTB? If you only have maximum two hours a day to study chess, should you play two slow games online or do tactics and positional study? I have one coach who wants [my daughter] to play three games online every day and one coach that says don’t. So I am very confused.”
This question comes after her daughter broke 1900 on tactics trainer and has begun growing skeptical of her growth while playing games online as compared to over the board play. With different coaches now giving her various recommendations, its easy as a parent to get lost in the weeds of chess improvement.
Again, great question, but first congrats on your daughter breaking 1900 on Tactics Trainer! If its any indicator, I was stuck at 1700 through much of middle school, so let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope this is a sign of great things to come!
I should probably preface this article by saying that my personal study methods should not be applied universally. However, in writing this, I do hope to provide a roadmap for how players (but more specifically parents) can best find the balance that works for them by explaining how I approach my studies. And to the mother who sent me this question – don’t worry – I’ll include my specific personal recommendations for your daughter at the end of this piece. I think you’ll be surprised what I say there!
My goal with this article is to help explain to non-chess playing parents how I study and why I make those decisions. The question I received is a good one because even though it’s narrow, it opens up a discussion as to when we should study with a board or with a computer. I think to do this effectively, I should take a step back and explain why I use both the board and my computer, and then discuss why it’s important to use both. Once I’ve established that framework, I’ll proceed by answering the questions.
Studying Over the Board
Practice the way you play. My parents didn’t know much about formal chess training when I was younger, but they stuck with this mantra for much of my adolescence. By studying at the board and using a clock, it becomes easy to simulate the environment of tournament chess.
For me, there are two main reasons why I like studying on a board. First, by not studying on my computer, I’ve eliminated the constant distraction: email, Facebook messages, Twitter notifications, sports scores. For the next two hours, I don’t need to worry about the outside world. Living in a moderately sized apartment with two roommates, using a board also means forcing myself to get out of the house and study. Whether its a park, or a coffee shop, or a classroom at Pitt, putting myself in unfamiliar settings to study has its distinct advantages.
For example, I have a desk in my room where I’ll often eat snacks, read the news, catch up on emails, and play bullet chess – not exactly the most productive. This semester, I’ve noticed that when I try to do homework or study chess at this desk, and within 30 minutes I’ll find myself falling into my “normal” desk habits. The brain likes to make these kinds of associations with activities and locations. I’m not a psychology major or anything, but I remember my freshman year psychology professor discussing a study that concluded that sleep insomnia patients should avoid stressful activities in their bed in order to sleep better.
I’m not sure what scientific studies have been conducted relating productivity and associations we’ve made with various locations, but I think you’re starting to get my point. This is why I enjoy playing casual games at chess clubs, in-person lessons, and most importantly, over the board study.
Secondly, I think there are certain chess skills that need to be developed away from the computer, the most important of which is evaluation. When I’m on chess.com, or using Stockfish, I can turn my brain off with the click of the button. Suddenly because I’m choosing a move that has a +0.21 advantage compared to a +0.15 one, I feel like a genius, yet am blind to the most critical details of the position.
For some of our higher rated readers, let’s imagine we went through Aagard’s Positional Play book on a computer… You would be cheating yourself of one of learning from one of the most instructive positional books for 2000+ rated players! Setting up these positions on the board removes the temptation of knowing all together. Rather than asking about a particular line, we force ourselves to come to our own conclusions, no matter how long it takes. At least if we move pieces on our board, we still need to actually try and make good moves and understand why!
Now you’re probably thinking: hey, only use the engine after I have a solution to each problem! One thing I’ve learned while both training with others and on my own is that our brains loathe effort. I recently read an article where GM Alex Colovic wrote:
“The brain doesn’t want to work, it’s lazy. Forcing it to work is extremely uncomfortable. It tires quickly, having grown out of the habit to calculate on a daily basis.”
And I wholeheartedly agree. When solving tactics, endgame studies, or strategic exercises, its easy to find a move/idea you really like and tell yourself it’s right. You’ll look at a few candidate moves, but you won’t really challenge your idea because you think what you have is sufficient. When you check it with an engine, you got it right – someone gets a gold star!
But in doing this, you’ve really only tested your intuition at a surface level. Great, but in a tournament game, is your thought process going to be the same? Of course not, this is how blunders happen! You know this, so you start calculating, but you haven’t calculated with this kind of intensity that often at home. You’ll take longer, maybe play a few good moves, but ultimately get in time trouble and find a way to blunder later on because of it. Practice the way you play.
Things like deep calculation, endgame studies, positional exercises – these all take time and need to happen without a computer to be fully understood. Don’t worry about cramming a certain number of exercises into a certain time period. Speed comes if you build the muscle, so just focus on accuracy.
Studying on my Computer
Let’s not get too caught up in the romanticism of studying chess over-the-board. Sure, being able to physically move the pieces and go through the motions of being in a tournament are beneficial, but sometimes its just inconvenient.
If you’re studying openings, its becoming impossible to analyze a position without the assistance of an engine. Nearly everyone who actively studies chess has a “grandmaster repertoire” these days (I find this debatable, but this seems to be the trend), so you absolutely have to know the best moves in your repertoire. With a computer, I can search all of the games played in a position with one click, which I can’t exactly do with a book. As you can imagine, this is extremely helpful!
Beyond all of this, there are tons of instructional mediums online now with deep analysis available: online videos, broadcasts, tactics trainers. I remember after taking an extensive break from chess in middle school, I was overwhelmed by the amount of new online material when I returned… and that was in 2011.
So from a research perspective, I think a computer is mandatory. It’s hard for me to quantify how much time someone should study on the computer based on skill level due to my own limitations as a 2100 rated chess player, but I imagine if we were to construct a representative function, it would be hyperbolic. While a novice player doesn’t need a computer to learn the Four Knights opening, a 1900 rated player would benefit from one to learn how to play against the Marshall Gambit.
As the mother mentioned in her question, the computer also offers the potential to play games online. Being from Richmond, Virginia, online games were at one point of extreme importance to me. For much of the time since I’ve crossed 1800, I’ve been one of the roughly five strongest players from my hometown, which when discussing opportunities for growth over the board is really bad. Conversely, despite now being over 2100 and in Pittsburgh, I’m not even sure if I’m in the top 15 of Pittsburghers – more opportunities for high quality games, and less of a need to find games online.
I know quite a few people who love playing games online, but there are a couple elements of it that I’m skeptical of. First, I have less patience than in a real game. I can’t get up and look at other games like I might in a tournament, so I have to spend extra energy staying focused and not checking my emails. Because of this, I start wanting to play faster games, and sooner or later, I’m trying to bring my bullet rating back over 2200…
Ignoring all the emails and texts I’ll get during a game, I can’t take my opponent super seriously. Why? I can’t see them – I don’t get the same cues I might get in a real game. Are they playing the game with the same intensity? To further this point, I also feel like players behave differently online than they do in tournament games. Maybe they won’t resign after making an obscene blunder, or maybe you’ll feel more willing to take greater risks without the needed calculation. Lastly, you never have time for the most important parts of the game. And isn’t the endgame the most complex anyways?
So I’ve decided that my online games shouldn’t exceed 15 minutes a side, with the sole purpose of reviewing or trying out openings. Even when I try this, I hardly count it as studying, because I feel the effort I bring to an online game is hardly my best. Just compare my online ratings to my USCF rating, and you’ll recognize one is significantly lower.
Building a Balance
Okay, that was a pretty hefty summary on my thoughts on using a board or computer. But then there’s actual practice. As a college student, I feel like during the semester, my studies are limited to my desktop, but during breaks I have more time to use a board and analyze. Not optimal, but my study habits for now will have to do.
Chess is fun, and its important to study what you find most interesting. But you also can’t afford to neglect parts of your game if you hope to improve, and sometimes you have to do things you don’t like as much.
In my case with online games, when I was preparing for the 2016 US Junior Open, much of my practice at home was through playing online games and analyzing them deeply. Sure, sometimes it felt like pulling teeth, but I knew it was my only option in Richmond to get quality games. It wasn’t a pure substitute for over-the-board games, but at least it was something!
So to answer one of the original questions, if given two hours a day to study chess, I wouldn’t stick to one activity each session. First off, I just want to say, I would do anything for two hours a day of chess now… luckily I only have to wait two more weeks until I’m free for the summer!
But more seriously, given how young your daughter is, developing her ability to calculate and assess positions of extreme importance. If I had to rank tiers of training for U2000 players it could look something like this:
3rd Tier: Mechanics – Reviewing opening lines, playing practice games
4th Tier: Preparedness – Cardio, Physical fitness, Psychological training
I’ve deliberately made these tiers vague because I think there can be a lot of overlap between them. That being said, based on my experience, if I were your daughter and only had two hours a day, I’d want to maximize my ability to calculate and develop a strong intuition. These are the kinds of qualities that I think are most important when trying to become an expert level player. Note how the study recommendations for both calculation and intuition have a limited use of engines, if any at all.
Playing online games are helpful in developing these skills as well, but they are less direct. In my opinion, I think there’s only so much you can get out of a game without the help of an engine or a stronger player analyzing it with you. Reviewing games on your own is an important part of growing as a chess player – but, chances are you’ll find better moves based on the knowledge you already have (you can’t see what you don’t know). Rather than using your entire time every day playing games, its much more important to build that foundation by increasing your overall knowledge of chess doing other activities.
Be Your Own Doctor
Finally, to answer the question fully of the mother who’s had to read this article in its entirety while anxiously waiting for a solution. Your daughter has three coaches right now. The two coaches who formally teach her, and herself.
When it comes to training, I think your daughter is her best coach – that’s not to say that she doesn’t need formal chess instruction, but she knows how she likes to study best. That’s not to say that her coaches aren’t giving quality recommendations, its just that your daughter is becoming increasingly aware that there are several ways to reach the same goal. Her coaches should respect her preferences, and suggest alternative training methods to accommodate for them.
If she doesn’t think playing online games is what she needs, then she’s probably right. She’ll definitely need a way to practice what she’s learned (more tournament games, in-person practice matches), but based on what you’ve told me, it really is starting to seem like your daughter has begun to develop a self-awareness that some players take years to recognize when studying (not to mention these skills are great for school too).
I guess as a parent this can be a difficult time to give the best recommendations to your daughter, but don’t worry – this is the fun part! Once your daughter learns how to study independently, she’ll be well on her way on her journey upwards!
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