NM Pursuit #4: Hiatus

It’s been nearly two months since my last rated game, and this break from playing actively in tournaments has been a great chance for me to take some time off from chess altogether (i.e. Winter Break) and then to get into a fresh training groove. In the last couple of weeks I have been consistent every day with the following daily training plan:

  1. 5 tactics problems on a real board, with a clock set to 10 minutes for each problem
  2. 30 minutes of reviewing lines in my opening repertoire
  3. 20 minutes of reviewing key positions from Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual, as well as spending 15 minutes introducing 5 new key positions.

This regimen usually takes up about two hours of my day, but with the soccer season having come to an end, it is now doable for me with a bit of extra dedication. I have already noticed a significant increase in the quality of my online blitz play, gaining close to 100 rating points on chess.com’s live chess server.

Blitz Rating

Although online blitz performance should of course not be taken as an absolute measure of over-the-board playing strength, my superior online play is a reflection of the increased tactical sharpness and greater confidence in basic theoretical positions, both in the opening and in the endgame, that I have enjoyed as a result of my consistency in training during the last couple of weeks. My hope is that if I stay consistent with my chess studies in the coming months, I will have plenty of success to look forward as I return to playing competitively.

Stay tuned for a post on a rapid tournament that I will be playing this coming Sunday!

NM Pursuit #3: Reflecting on 2018

As the year 2018 comes to a close, one image has been at the forefront of my mind:

Progress #4

The following image of my rating progress this past year presents the following blunt, yet essential question: what went wrong? After all, I finished the year lower rated than when I started, dropping below the 2000 mark for the first time in quite a while. Moreover, I did work on my chess quite a bit, finishing the first book in Yusupov’s improvement series. As I reflect on my chess development this past year, two fundamental problems in my approach to improvement have suddenly become quite clear to me:

  1. I forgot about calculation. I don’t mean that I forgot how to calculate (in which case I probably wouldn’t even be a 1400 player), but rather that I forgot to work on and develop my calculation abilities. During my last few tournaments of the year, I suffered quite a few blunders and managed to lose multiple winning positions. The majority of these conversion slips were linked to sloppy calculation at critical moments.
  2. Lacking Theoretical Knowledge. This applies both to the endgame and the opening: most of the time I don’t really know what I’m doing by move five or so, with the occasional exception, and I often don’t manage to achieve the correct theoretical result (whether it be a win or a draw) in a given endgame position.

In order to address the two problems above, I will be focusing much more on tactics training with a board and pieces in 2019, as well as powering through Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual to develop my endgame knowledge. As for opening study, I will start reviewing my lines for at least thirty minutes every day rather than waiting until a tournament comes along and frantically preparing in the final minutes before each game. With consistent effort, and perhaps a bit of luck, I am confident that these changes in my training will reintroduce a positive trend to my rating graph this coming year.

Thanks for reading and happy holidays!

NM Pursuit #2: Training in a Time Crunch

As an amateur player with various dedications outside of chess, I have found it of utmost importance to make the most of my time in front of the board. While it may seem difficult to make serious progress with under an hour of spare time a day, here are a couple of guidelines that I have been following that have allowed me to make consistent improvements to my game.

  1. Intensity over volume! While it can certainly still be beneficial to spend hours passively reading over pages and pages of chess material online or from books, this type of low-intensity learning is not particularly efficient. In fact, I find that I get more out of an hour of intense calculation exercises where I am fully focused and am forced to actively struggle with new ideas, than I do from three hours of watching grandmaster commentary.
  2. Review old material! I described my chess note card method in an earlier post, and it is a method that I am starting to employ regularly once again as I make my push for 2200. The basic idea behind the note card method that it is much more efficient to actively review old material to ensure 100% retention than it is to go over more new material but forget half of that which was studied previously.
  3. Memorize names of specific games! While it might sound a bit overkill to look at a position from a game you have studied before and to be able to say “Ah, this is M. Krasenkow – A. Yusupov, Essen 2002” followed by the exact moves that were played, memorizing the details of specific games is, in my opinion, one of the most effective ways to anchor new knowledge. Knowing the names of specific games familiarizes your mind with the games at a deeper level, such that it is more ready to pull ideas from them when the opportunity arises. I also enjoy this method because it gives me a sense of accomplishment at the end of every day, knowing that I at least have twelve fresh positions from different master games (of which I know the exact names) firmly anchored in my mind.

Progress Update

This past week was blemished by a fever which I caught on Friday, but on Monday-Thursday I was able to follow through with my planned training. I also analyzed tournament games during the previous weekend and had a lesson with my coach, as I had committed to in the new training plan outlined in my last blog.

Progress #3

I will be playing a tournament in San Antonio this coming weekend and look forward to reporting on my games and experiences at the event. Until next time!

NM Pursuit #1: A New Beginning

It’s time for a new beginning.

After coming back from the summer without having invested much time into chess, I managed to play myself back into form during the Washington International. Although I started the tournament rather poorly, I managed to turn the tide and win my last four games against only slightly lower rated opposition. While the games were far from perfect, I was happy to pick up a few wins and finish the tournament on a positive note. I even gained a few rating points and managed to finish in the top 10 with my late comeback:

Washington International Rating

Following the Washington International, I played in a small local tournament, scoring evenly against slightly lower rated opposition over the course of three rounds.

September Swiss Rating

My stagnant results, not only since returning from my summer travels, but also over the course of the past year, have caused me to think deeply about where I see myself in chess. I am currently a junior in high school, and therefore school is always a top priority. Furthermore, other activities such as soccer and jazz band take up reasonably large chunks of time on a daily basis. However, one thing is blatantly clear to me: I am not happy with where I am in my chess journey and want to keep progressing. My enjoyment of chess stems not only from the game itself, but also from my ability to grow in knowledge and skill. Neither “stumbling” from tournament to tournament during breaks from school, as I have during the past year, nor giving up chess completely are paths that I am willing to take.

Consequently, I have committed to making an aggressive push toward the 2200 USCF mark. This aggressive push, while comprised in essence of consistent training and playing, is outlined in a bit more detail below:

  1. 1 lesson from the Yusupov Series… Monday-Friday: What more can I say? Every day of the school week, I will be completing one lesson from Artur Yusupov’s extensive improvement series. If I am not able to complete a lesson on a given day, I will use Saturday as a “catch-up day” to complete that lesson. As I am almost finished with the first book from the series, exactly fifty-three more lessons lay ahead. These lessons will be the cornerstone of my daily training for the coming months.
  2. Coaching and game analysis: I recently hired a chess coach, and will be working with this coach on a weekly basis to help enrich my analysis of tournament games. My hope is that guidance from a strong titled player will help me identify the most gaping holes in my play and patch those holes as quickly as possible. As I have been reasonably consistent in analyzing my tournament games from the past year, I will continue to do so during the coming months. Game analysis and lessons from a coach will be the focus of weekends in particular, when I am not busy with Yusupov study.
  3. Playing! I plan to play in two major tournaments during the month of November and will continue to play actively in December and January. It is important to reap the fruit of one’s labor, and therefore I will be playing on a consistent basis as a part of my NM Pursuit.

October Spreadsheet

This neat little spreadsheet will keep me on track until the end of October.

When pursuing any type of goal, it is most important to understand your “why.” Why am I working hard for this? Why do I want to achieve this? My “why” is that I want to become a national master because it has been my goal ever since I started playing chess competitively, and it would make me incredibly happy to see this goal through. Until next time!

Washington International Part 1

On August 8th through 15th I played in the expert section of the 7th Annual Washington International Tournament. It is fair to say that it was one of the most impressive tournaments I have every played in: the top section featured an enormous pool of very strong titled players (including numerous grandmasters), wooden boards with adequate space were provided, and rounds were limited to two per day!

Aside from the very pleasant playing conditions, the first half of the tournament could be best described as a cold shower for me. After rarely studying chess for over a month during my travels in Europe, I came back to the board with rather rusty calculation skills and a serious dent in my tactical vision.

Round 1

I got off to a shaky start in round 1 against Sathis Nath (1817 USCF, 1861 FIDE) when I played with excessive ambition, only to find myself defending a seemingly hopeless endgame:

WI Round 1 #1

Black has just played the direct 18…e5 in an attempt to dampen White’s activity along the e-file. White could easily play 19.Bd2 and try to nurture a slight spacial edge, but I instead chose the much more direct 19.dxe6 e.p. After 19…Nxe6 20.Nxe6 Rxe6 21.Qxe6+ (What else?) Bxe6 22.Rxe6 Be5 23.Bxe5 Nxe5 24.Ne3 Qf8 25.Bd5 Kg7 26.f4 Nd7?!, White has very decent compensation for the queen. However, after achieving my desired position, I made a serious strategic mistake…

WI Round 1 #2

In the following position, White has a couple of decent options: 27.Re1 is rather natural, to stop Black from trading off rooks on the e-file, while 27.f5 is in fact the most forceful and arguably strongest move. The computer offers the following sharp line to demonstrate what happens if Black tries to trade rooks: 27…Re8 28.Bxb7 Rxe6 29.fxe6 Qe7 30.exd7 Qxe3+ 31.Kg2 Qd2+ = with a draw in sight. However, in the game I played the rather poor 27.Ng4, allowing my opponent to comfortably trade off my rook on the e-file. 27…Re8  (Black is able to swap off his inactive rook for one of white’s active rooks.) 28.Rce1 Rxe6 29.Rxe6 Nb6 and Black’s position is already looking quite promising. A few moves later, my situation began to look hopeless.

WI Round 1 #3

After 34…Qxa3, Black is easily winning due to his two connected passed pawns on the queenside that will be ushered down by his queen. By some miracle, involving some help from my opponent, I was able to escape from this position alive and managed to draw the game.

Rounds 2-4

After coming so incredibly close to a round 1 loss against a significantly lower rated opponent, I played rather safe and uninspired chess in the following three rounds, finishing on 2/4 against approximately 1900-rated opposition. I knew that if I was going to make something of this tournament, I had to step up my game for the remaining five rounds. Step up my game I did!

Fitness and Chess

In the past year, fitness has become a critical part of my life: I am addicted to the direct and fairly linear strength progress that comes from consistent weight training. Meanwhile, my chess improvement seems to have come to a halt as I have been hovering around the low 2000 mark for quite a while, causing me to feel rather uninspired to continue working on my game. This got me thinking. If I applied the same principles from my fitness journey to my chess, could I possibly boost my results and be more consistent? Here are a couple of comparisons between chess and fitness that I have drawn up, and they seem to reveal quite a bit about how I should be approaching my chess training:

  1. Diet: There is no need for a comparison here! Just like good food is essential to nourish your body, your brain needs nutritious foods to function properly.
  2. Cardio/Endurance and Tactical Sharpness: The last thing you want during a difficult workout is to reach cardiovascular failure before muscular failure. Moreover, in a sport or competition of some kind, you won’t be able to apply your strength and skill if you are completely out of breath the whole time. This principle works the same way in chess: there is no point in having incredible positional and endgame skill if you are regularly dropping pieces or missing simple tactics. Tactical alertness is fundamentally essential for any chess player!
  3. Strength in upper body and lower body vs. strength in calculation/middlegame/endgame: In fitness it is standard to follow so called “split routines” where one works out legs on one day and upper body the next; these “splits” can be broken up in many different ways. The same principle can be applied in chess: it makes sense to concentrate fully on solving difficult tactical puzzles one day (calculation), studying a master game the next (middlegames), and finally learning endgame theory on the day after that (endgames). Splitting up chess study like this ensures that you get the most out of every session rather than jumping constantly from one aspect of the game to the next, without attaining complete focus.
  4. Consistency is key: You won’t get anywhere in fitness if you work out with intensity for 3 weeks straight, and then take a month long break, only to then repeat the cycle. Unfortunately, that is exactly what I have been doing with my chess: it simply doesn’t work! Having a set structure or plan for chess study that you follow every week will guarantee progress if you are patient.
  5. Warm up: Before a game or a difficult workout it is always a good idea to warm up and get blood flowing with some easy movements. The same is true in chess: there is no harm in solving 5-10 basic tactics before a study session or game to ensure that you are ready and focused.

While some of these points may seem very intuitive, I have found thinking about the parallels between fitness and chess to be very helpful as they have inspired me to form a chess routine that I will stick to. Until next time!

Building Good Habits

With summer coming to an end, I have been thinking a lot lately about what I can do to facilitate chess improvement during the inevitably busy school year that lies ahead. As my daily schedule will be packed with course work and other activities, it will be quite difficult to find time for chess or even just find the motivation to put serious effort into studying the game.

When time is lacking and motivation is low, I find good habits to be a fantastic way to keep hopes of attaining a certain goal afloat. When it comes to chess, I have been working diligently on integrating a few positive habits into my daily routine that I can rely on to sustain my improvement during the upcoming school year. While I will no longer be able to study chess for large chunks of time every day like I was during the summer, smaller chess training habits will allow me to keep improving even during the busiest of times.

Training Habit #1: 30 minutes of tactics

The title explains it all: half an hour every morning of focused tactical training on an online tactics trainer. Daily tactics training is extremely beneficial because it reinforces tactical patterns that crop up perpetually in games and keeps one’s tactical eye very sharp. Since reintroducing tactical training into my daily chess routine, I have been blundering much less often and calculating more efficiently during games.

Training Habit #2: Book review

Every day after completing my tactical training, I spend about thirty minutes reviewing a lesson from the Yusupov book that I am currently studying. I strongly believe that reviewing old or previously studied material is just as important as reading new chess material because it ensures that more information is retained.

Training Habit #3: Read one chess article

Taking as little as five minutes every day to read a chess article about a recent GM tournament, a strategic principle, or a neat endgame can go a long way to maintain interest in the game. Personally, I have not only thoroughly enjoyed following but also learned a lot from articles covering recent top level events.

Over the course of the next month, I plan to stick to these three habits every day so that by the time school comes around, the three activities above will be second nature. Thanks for reading and don’t forget to leave your thoughts in the comments below!