Preparing for the Washington International

A couple of weeks ago I made arrangements to play in my first nine-round tournament ever: the 7th Annual Washington International. Even though I will not be able to play in the top section, I am tremendously excited to play in the tournament because nine rounds against approximately equally rated opposition will be a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate good form and make serious rating gains. As I do not want to let such an opportunity go to waste, my chess studies in preparation for the tournament have been more focused, intense, and consistent than ever before.

Since the beginning of June, I have split my chess practice into two basic components: tactics/calculation and book study. The calculation practice ensures that I stay sharp and improve my board visualization abilities, whereas consistent book study allows for the acquisition of new concepts that will improve my chess understanding in the long run. While this may seem like a relatively standard training regimen, some of the methods that I have found to be very effective over the course of the past month may not be known to everyone. Allow me to dissect some of my favorite training methods from the month of June:

  1. Timed calculation with a real board: Setting up difficult tactical problems from online tactical training sites on a real board, and then giving myself ten minutes to solve each tactic using a chess clock has helped me tremendously in improving my tactical ability. I believe that the use of a real board and clock significantly enhances the calculation training because it stimulates tournament conditions: better focus due to time constraints and three-dimensional element of tournament chess. It is a good idea to keep some form of a log for tactics as it can be very rewarding to track one’s progress.
  2. Reviewing book material with a chess software: Up until late December of 2017, I would study chess books over the board, moving the pieces as I flipped from page to page. While this seems like a decent method, I found that I would not absorb everything that I studied, and more importantly, I would start to forget old material after only a couple of weeks. This frustrated me because essentially only 10% of what I studied actually aided my improvement in the long run. One day, I ran across a blog post by FM Daniel Barrish. In the post, FM Barrish discussed the technique of plugging chess positions from books along with corresponding analysis into a database software. The point of this technique is not only to exploit the benefits of active learning, but more importantly to create ready-made chess lessons on one’s computer that can easily be reviewed at any point in time after having studied the material. I tried out this technique myself with Artur Yusupov’s book series that I am currently studying, and have found it to be incredibly useful. With periodic review of old lessons on my computer, my recall of material has risen tremendously.
  3. Chess note cards: The idea of chess note cards came to me recently after having used Daniel Barrish’s technique for a while, and I am already starting to experience the benefits. A few weeks ago, I printed out many positions from the exercises in Artur Yusupov’s books and glued them individually onto the front sides of note cards; I then wrote the solutions for each position on the backs of the corresponding note cards, along with the names of the two players and the setting of the game (place and date). By now I have amassed quite a large collection of note cards based on the Yusupov books and am reviewing them periodically. As a result, I am able to recognize positions in my games that reflect certain positions from a Yusupov book, and then apply the same concept that was shown in the book. I highly recommend this method because it is a fantastic form of active learning: writing the solutions on the back of the note cards as well as reviewing them periodically engages the mind actively with the given position.

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Note card review underway!

I apologize for the lack of actual chess content in this blog, but I will be back to playing tournament chess as soon as the Washington International comes along. Stay tuned and until next time!

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Chess Training AI is Closer than We Think

My position just changed from +3.5 to -2.3. I often hear students say after analyzing a position with our silicon friends.

Have you ever wondered what all these numbers mean in the context of a game?

What if there is an English translation of the game analysis from the engines?

With growing AI advancement, the DecodeChess Team is putting the technology together to make translating chess engine language to English a reality.

Stockfish Analysis In English

For players U1500 and especially U1000, looking at the engine analysis feels reading an article in foreign language.

If there’s a brief English notation to go along the engine analysis, the experience of going over the Stockfish analysis will improve tremendously.

Let’s look thru a brief Demo of DecodeChess

Import the game

To get started, we’ll simply import a game using PGN format

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Once the game is imported, users has the option to decode any move during the game.

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After the the Decode: the app will provide a list of recommendation and notations

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We’re still in the early stage of the implementing AI into chess training.

However, with the hard work of DecodeChess team, we’re closer to have novice players utilize top-notch chess engines in a more effective way.

For anyone interested to try out DecodeChess, here is the link to the free trial experience.

 

 

Opening Repertoire For Different Ratings

It’s summer time and there are many chess tournaments all around the country. This is the time to put your work into practice.

While preparing for different tournaments, parents and students alike often ask how should they organize opening repertoire.

After some back and force debate in my own head and observing student’s results, here is my current point of view.

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As with my last article on topics for different levels, I believe different ratings should focus differently on their opening preparations.

My current opinion

  1. Casual players up to USCF U1200: Play any opening that catches your curiocity
  2. USCF 1200 – 1700: Be more specific; Prepare a package against d4 and e4 for black, and choose your favorite 1st move for white
  3. USCF 1700 and Above: Depending on your training regimen and work with coach to personalize best approach

Let’s dissect these in more details

Casual Players (U1200)

When starting chess, the most important opening focus is understanding the basic opening principles. The main ones are: Control the Center, Develop Pieces, and Castle Early.

When you see a brilliant game in the French, go try it out. Find ways to experiment, learn openings that bring out your curiosity to chess.

Regardless what opening you try, make sure to focus on the main principles. Avoid losing games because half of your pieces were not developed.

If your opponent does not follow opening principles, find ways to take advantage of that.

USCF 1200 – 1700

This group is when the training gets serious, and there are certain commitment to improve in chess.

I would suggest build a specific repertoire for both white and black pieces. Stick with the same openings for a while.

The idea is to learn the ins and outs of that opening, and improve your chess in general by understanding deeper concepts such as pawn structures and positional middle game concepts from the same opening.

One example repertoire:

  1. e4 for white; Alapin against Sicilians
  2. French for black against e4
  3. Queen’s gambit declined against d4

USCF 1700 and Above

Now we are pushing towards Master level and beyond. More personalization will be required.

What is your goal in chess? How often do you play in tournaments? How do you train to prepare for tournaments?

These are the questions you want to answer and possibly work with a coach to dive in deeper.

If you have aspiration to become a master and gain international titles, then you’ll need to start playing in many tournaments.

From these tournament experiences, you’ll learn about your strengths and weaknesses in chess, and figure out the amount of time focused on openings accordingly.

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These are my strong opinion now, but I held them loosely.

For all the active chess warriors, Good Luck to all of your summer chess adventures!

 

 

 

Topics for Different Levels of Chess Players

A new player does not need to learn double pins.

A 1200-rated player does not need to analyze 20-moves deep Najdorf variations.

During each level of ratings, we should build out rough guidelines to improve based on our chess understanding.

If you’re just starting to play chess, learning complicated topics that does not apply to your games will only overwhelm and provide more anxieties than enjoyments.

So what should students learn at different levels.

Let’s separate player strength into three groups based on USCF ratings.

  1. Under 500
  2. Under 1000
  3. Under 1500

I’ve been working with many U1000 and a few U1500 players, and the important themes that I’m seeing are as follow:

U500

-Reduce blunders, especially giving up free piece

-Learn basic tactics and checkmate patterns (1 move)

-Pay attention to captures, make sure you see two on one opportunities

U1000

Looking at the whole board

-Elimination of defenders

-Prepare mate and tactics (2+ moves)

U1500

-Activate pieces

-Space advantage

-Focus on important targets


As you can see, there are more strategic themes for U1500 then the lower rating groups.

Tactics is still very important for U1500 players. however, the opponents they are playing against will have just as much tactical prowess, therefore learning more strategic knowledge will be advantageous.

Let’s discuss Focus on important targets briefly here.

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Many newly-1000 players would play the passive looking move Rab8, protecting the b7-pawn.

For stronger players, b7-pawn here is not important. The main focus now is to activate one or both of black’s rooks.

After scanning the board for 10 seconds or so, a stronger player would immediately see Rad8 and then Rxd2 taking control of the 2nd rank will soon take control of the game.

On the other hand, for the U500 players, even if they did play Rad8, the game may still take a few twist and turns to get to an unknown outcome


To summarize: players at each level should focus and improve on certain themes.

It’s good for newer players to see the the higher-level topics, but it’s much more important to hammer down the fundamentals.

Studying Chess: Over the Board or Over the Internet?

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!
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I guess it wasn’t that long ago when I too was asking the same questions…
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

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Working through a Troitsky study in Schenley Plaza

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.
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Studying Aagard and watching the Russian Championships

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

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Working through tactics at The Bagel Factory on Carnegie Mellon’s campus

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.

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Can you use a board on a bus?

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.

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Flashback to the 2016 US Junior Open in New Orleans

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:

1st Tier: Calculation – Tactics, Pattern Recognition, Endgame Studies

2nd Tier: Intuition – Positional Exercises, Strategic Exercises, Reviewing GM games

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.
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Working with kids back in 2015

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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Have a burning question you want to ask our team? Feel free to send it to us at chess.summit@gmail.com, and we’ll give you our best answers!

Thinking about Chess Again: I Mean was I Ever Not?

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Yeah, they weren’t kidding about Gaucho. Hands down the best restaurant in Pittsburgh!

I mean do you even know me? Of course I’ve been thinking about chess this whole time! But with less than a month until this semester finally finishes, the difference is that I’m thinking about chess again – like for real …what?

This semester has been hectic at best for me: changing majors, managing the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers, becoming a chess.com streamer, and on top of that, the usual class course-load. Tied down with all of the commitments, I had to put my goal of earning the National Master on hold, and in doing so, I have only managed to play one tournament game since the Cardinal Open (I’ll get to this later). So while I’ve thought about chess in some capacity every day, I haven’t dedicated as time to my own chess as much as I would have liked.

Admittedly, with less than four weeks until the end of the semester, I’m thinking about playing tournament chess again, and I couldn’t be more excited. I’ve started running regularly, eating healthier, and gotten back to regularly solving tactics. This alone won’t get me back to my best form, but it’s a manageable start – especially since I still have finals to study for. Speaking of tactics, I found a nice tactical shot at the end of my most recent chess.com stream:

What am I working towards? I’m planning on competing in the Chicago Open, and despite my eligible rating, I’m bypassing my chances of scoring big in the U2300 section to swim with sharks in the Open. In all seriousness, I’m going to be a massive underdog in nearly all of my games, but I want a chance to see how much I’ve improved since I last tried something like this at the 2016 World Open.

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Playing against Maggie Feng last January in Columbus (Photo Credit: Kelly Bloomfield)

For those of you who’ve been Chess^Summit readers for a while, you may recall how the 2016 World Open was not exactly pleasant to me. In the aftermath of my 1/7 score, my coach GM Eugene Perelshteyn had a field day finding weaknesses in my play, and while enduring six consecutive losses is an ego-bashing no chess player should be on the receiving end of, I learned a lot from the experience, and it parlayed into my later success in Europe.

So I’ve got to start somewhere to get ready for Chicago, and last week I built up the nerve to play my first tournament game in months without any prior preparation – and by preparation, I mean any studying. I’ve got some tournaments planned in early May, but I really didn’t want to wait anymore and guaranteed White against another 2100-rated player was just too good to pass up.

Wanting to sidestep any my opponent’s preparation, I chose 1 e4 for just my fifth time (in a standard game) since the 2017 Reykjavik Open, and it was clear I had succeeded once we reached the conclusion of the opening with 11. Qf3 – the Scotch Four Knights:

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Steincamp–Park, position after 11. Qf3

While I failed to win, I built a reasonable advantage before squandering it after time control. Even with a few mistakes, I was more or less fine with my game – honestly, I was just happy to be at the board again. I’ll need to improve if I want to perform well in May, but knowing that I can play an opening I’ve never played before and do reasonably well is a good sign.

And with a somewhat amicable result, my preparation for the Chicago Open had begun. With just two months to go, I have a lot to do – but I’m mentally ready to make a comeback to tournament play.

 

Confidence and Patience

Teaching chess takes a set of skills. Teaching chess to kids takes a completely different set of skills.

When kids 6-10 years old first picks up chess, two typical scenarios are:

Group A: ‘Oh Oh Oh Oh, I know this’. They’ll react instantly, want to get to the answers immediately, and keep going forward with the argument until there is not much left.

Group B: think, search, think, search, and think for more to get to the right answers, and still not sure how to respond.

We’ll call A Confidence, and B Patience.

Both wants to win or solve the puzzle, but they go from different routes.

Strength

Group A are willing to try things, and they are not afraid to be wrong.  They have 10 ideas in their head within 5 seconds.

This will help them become more creative as their chess vision expands.

For the patience Group B: they are detail orientated, they want to check all the possibilities.

Their meticulous calculations will help them analyze both deep variations and broadly as more than one variation is possible.

Weakness

On the flip side, these same strengths are often what give parents the most headaches.

Group A misses many opportunities. They often choose second best options, or worse, completely irrelevant ideas.

Group B becomes very indecisive that it feels paralyzing. And the thought of playing chess with a clock is unbearable.

How to improve

The best way is to have both. Telling Group A to slowdown is probably unfruitful. Try ask them to calculate the variations deeper or ask if there are other possibilities instead.

Similarly, telling Group B ‘just make a decision’ will introduce more anxiety.

Instead, ask what you have calculated, and what outcomes did you see in your calculations. Did you make the decision faster than last time?

In the end, we want to have both, confident but also patient. It will take practice, but learning chess will be more fun.