Tactics Trainer Revisited: The 2700 Club

This morning I managed to crack 2700 on chess.com’s Tactics Trainer, so I decided to do a revised post on that, with some key updates and coaching advice from my last post on the website’s tactical features.

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 13.03.11

I’ve used chess.com since my sophomore year of high school, with this coming November marking my fourth year of membership on the site. Aside from video viewership and Chess Mentor, one of the advantages of a diamond membership is unlimited tactics a day on chess.com. Since I started using the feature in 2012, I’ve attempted over 15,000 puzzles and climbed the ranks to reach 2700.

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 17.26.05
It may not last long, but for now, I’m ranked one spot ahead of chess.com’s CEO, IM Daniel Rensch.

So as a coach and an active player, how do I assess progress on Tactics Trainer?

For most of my students, I believe that your tactics trainer rating minus ~200 points roughly represents your level of play. While that’s true for most 1400-2000 rated players, I think what TT represents after it gives you a 2400+ rating is very different from the original intentions of its functionality.

For master level players, chess.com’s TT features are great for warming up or practicing calculation while on a bus, but it no longer serves as an exact gauge of your tactical ability. Since most of the puzzles are member-submitted, the target audience is usually 1500-1900, and sometimes even lower.

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 17.52.08
Even chess.com’s bell curve shows the target audience for TT, and the number of players above 2000 are minuscule.

Chess.com does two things two things make Tactics Trainer more challenging for stronger members: Limit the amount of time to gain rating points and more endgame puzzles. Once you break 2400 on TT, the emphasis becomes much more on speed in a position where perhaps you have many different pleasant options, and you have to find the best one. Endgame puzzles become more frequent at the higher levels too, but often times, simply knowing opposition and achieving it on the board is enough to reach 50% of the solution, merely finding forcing moves and the right move order should be enough to earn the other half.

Does this mean that Tactics Trainer is bad for top players? Of course not – you just have to realize that it won’t push you to be as creative as perhaps a position in Secrets of Chess Tactics because chess.com’s interface is programmed so that only one move can be correct. Which leads me to my next point.

No puzzle is a bad puzzle. It’s so easy to get a puzzle wrong, look through the answer, and think “this puzzle is bad” before moving on to the next problem. Already in doing this, you deprive yourself of the greatest learning opportunity you have: your own mistakes. Whenever we play a tournament game, our natural habit is to review the game (perhaps with the opponent) and spend lots of time calculating the lines of the most critical position. Chess.com’s TT lets you cheat in the sense that it takes away the rest of the game and only gives you a critical position. You getting the puzzle wrong means you failed to find the best resource in said position. From my experience, I’ve kind of learned the different tiers of wrong:

1) You weren’t wrong, you just weren’t rightOften I find that when I make an error in a puzzle my line works perfectly fine, it’s just that it is simply not as good as the best solution. This may be frustrating but it’s important to understand why your answer wasn’t as right.

2) Move Order! Move Order! Move Order! This is the next rung down the ladder, as now we make the descent into actual mistakes and game-losing blunders. A move order error could simply fail to win as much material/checkmate, or even draw/lose to a discovered attack. This is one of the main tests TT offers, and what separates the complainers in the comments from the users that give answers.

3) Calculation Error… Now things turn sour. Maybe you left a piece hanging, or the endgame you were analyzing is actually a draw because you missed the critical in between move. Full board awareness is a skill, and you have to develop it by asking yourself one question….

4) What can my opponent do? On some puzzles, the computer introduces the position by offering a move for the opposing side. Asking yourself why the opponent made that move and understanding his plan is the first step towards getting the answer right. Then you need to look for critical weaknesses and themes in the position. Is a piece overloaded? Is there a mating net? This can get you back on the right track.

As a coach, there isn’t a student I haven’t recommended Tactics Trainer to. It teaches discipline while simultaneously offering a lesson in full board awareness. That being said, as a player trying to become a master, I have come to terms that while TT is a great resource to warm up, ease into a practice, and get in the mindset of calculating, it simply isn’t enough to bear the weight of all my tactical studies.

Morning Coffee – Just a Quick Thought on Computers

Over the past years, I think I’ve really learned how to use a computer to analyze games. Many times, the 3000+ rated engines suggest moves we don’t understand or aren’t capable of finding over the board.

Let’s take this position for example:

Screen Shot 2015-06-28 at 11.16.22

Steincamp (1993) – FM Lopez (2472)

I played this game in the third round of the Northern Virginia Open last November. Playing with the white pieces, I played the move Ke3 and offered a draw. My FIDE Master opponent thought for about 10 minutes and then agreed. When I put the position into my computer (Shredder for Mac, a weaker engine – but still much better than me!), it assessed the position as +1.04. I explored the analysis to find a potential break through, but the computer just told me play Ng4-f2 and wait for Black to play …e6-e5. I can slowly improve my position, but there is no distinct line that wins the game. While White is slightly better, I don’t think it’s fair to use the computer’s understanding of the endgame and say I should have won – as a knight v. bishop endgame is very difficult to win.

I found the best example of a computer suggesting an instructive move during the Norway Chess 2015 tournament in the Carlsen–Aronian game just last week.

Screen Shot 2015-06-28 at 11.25.05

Carlsen (2876) – Aronian (2780) Image Credit – chess24

Here Black holds a -0.82 advantage, but what does that mean? White has play in this position, as Carlsen threatens the move g2-g4. Aronian played the move 36…Qa1 but lost quickly after 37.g4 Qf1 38. Ne1!! as the rook is lost and all of the mating squares for Black are covered. So already, this position is worth looking at with a computer. We know with 36. Rc2, the black queen must move, but where? Common sense says …Qb4 (which is fine), trading the queens and moving into a risk-less endgame. What is the computer move? 36… Qb8! the only way to keep the advantage! The queen is on the same diagonal as the king, and if White gets greedy with 37. g4? then Black is winning – 37… Ng6 38. gxf5 exf5 -+ as now the queen must try to find squares that do not lose to a discovered check.

The takeaway from such a position, let’s say for Aronian, is not that he should have played 36… Qb8!, but a couple of different themes.

1) Full Board Awareness – The move 36… Qb8 is a very hard move to find (I only found it with help of an engine), but for a 2700+ rated player, it should not be unfathomable that Aronian could find it. Often times, players don’t like to retreat pieces in a position when they have the edge, but in this case, …Qb8 is the only active approach.

2) Playing Complicated Positions – I think for a ~2000 rated player, this position would be deemed equal if not for the …Qb8 move. Black is definitely on the attack, but it is unclear how Black would go about keeping the momentum while avoiding g2-g4 threats.

From using the computer in the second position, we quickly saw that the computer move was actually quite constructive. While Black isn’t completely winning yet, it shows how rerouting pieces is a crucial idea. I feel like from using an engine in this game, I can say I learned something and became a better player.

In my game, I think the assessment is correct, White is better. But at that time as a 1900 rated player, it is hard to see such obscure long-term ideas when playing a much higher rated player. I think looking back as a better player than I was in November, I should have played on – as the engine tells me here. But that’s it. The engine doesn’t give me the same constructive criticism as it did in the Aronian game.

So what does this all mean? I think engines are helpful – they find tactics, stronger positional moves, and solid continuations. But at the same time, as a player thats not a GM/IM, its hard to hold yourself to a 3000+ rated standard on every move. Everyone makes mistakes, and while we are all trying to get better, I think its a much better use of time to use a computer only in positions where we make bad decisions. Spend the rest of your times studying tactics!

Isaac’s Mailbag, 4th Edition

Hi everyone! I’m back with my fourth mailbag! As you know, each week I answer 4 questions that I have been asked since my last edition of the mailbag, either from coaching my high school team, or questions submitted by you guys, the viewers. Hopefully, you may find that some of these questions are similar to yours, and if not, maybe you’ll learn something new!

15460790041_1a4722c7b1_o

1) Congrats on breaking your all-time high rating this past weekend! What was your best game?

Thanks! As you may know, I played in the Open section of the Kingstowne Chess Festival. I finished with a win and 3 draws, finishing the tournament rated 1964. That being said, I think the best game I played was in the first round, my only decisive match

Ling – Steincamp (Kingstowne Chess Festival, 2014)

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 g6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nc6 5.c4 Bg7 6.Be3 Nf6 7.Nc3 d6 8.Be2 O-O 9.O-O Bd7 10.Rc1 Nxd4 11.Bxd4 Bc6 12.f3 a5 13.Qd2
Nd7

14.Nd5 This move was premature. My opponent wanted to play f3-f4, so this move is actually mistake. Because the knight protected e4 from c3, White now has less flexibility, and a smaller margin for error.

14…Nc5 15.Bxg7 Kxg7 16.Qd4+ e5 17.Qe3 Ne6

18.f4?? When I saw this I expected my opponent to sacrifice the knight and play 19. f5, but 19… Qg5 wins for Black. 

18… Bxd5 19.cxd5 Nxf4 20.Bd1

20…Qg5! White has too much to deal with. The threat of …Nh3+ is extremely strong, and my opponent had to find 21. Rc2 to stay in the game. After the text move, I quickly went up an exchange and converted the point in the endgame

21.Rxf4 Qxf4 22.Qxf4 exf4 23.Bg4 h5 24.Bh3 g5? 25.Bf5 Kf6 26.Rc7 b5 27.Kf2 Ra6 28.Rc6 Rfa8 29.Kf3 Rxc6 30.dxc6 Ra7 31.h4 gxh4 32.Kxf4 Rc7 33.Bd7 a4 34.Be8 Ke7 35.Bd7 Rxd7 36.cxd7 Kxd7 37.e5

37…d5! Creating a passed pawn.

38.Kf5 Ke7 39.e6 fxe6+ 40.Ke5 Kd7 41.Kd4 Kd6 42.b3 axb3 43.axb3 b4 44.Kd3 e5 45.Ke3 Ke6 46.Kf3 Kf5 47.g3 h3 48.g4+ hxg4+ 49.Kg3 d4 50.Kf2 d3 51.Ke1 h2 52.Kf2 h1=Q 53.Kg3 Qf3+ 54.Kh4 g3 55.Kh3 Kf4 56.Kh4 Qg4# 0-1

This was a nice game because I punished my opponent for his 14. Nd5 plans. The game was relatively easy after I got up the exchange.

2) The Washington Chess Congress is this weekend. How are you preparing?

With one week left, there is very little you can do to improve your game. I will be playing in the Premier Section (same section as US Chess Champion GM Gata Kamsky), and all I will do this week is tactical exercises and review my opening lines. Try to get in some practice G/15 games online or with friends to practice, but don’t stress out too much.

3) Last week’s tactic was tricky, can I have another?

Sure, no problem. This game was from 1971 between Beyen and Filip in Luxemburg. White has an attack but how does he win?

White to Move

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at 12.52.25

Answer:

1. Bxg6 hxg6 2. Re7+ Rxe7 3. dxe7+ Kxe7 4. Rd8 Kxd8 5. h7 1-0 and the passed pawn pawn is unstoppable. Kudos to you if you solved this one.

4) What’s your favorite song to listen to before a match?

Right now it has to be The Man by Aloe Blacc. Hall of Fame by The Script also puts me in a relaxed but battle-ready mindset.

Don’t forget to send in your questions for next week’s edition of the Mailbag! You can leave them in the comments section of this post.

Time Trials: A Study Technique to Break 1800

You’re probably familiar with tactics, opening study, endgame preparation, and the works. Boring much? I don’t blame you. Here’s a technique I learned in Japan from a friend, and expanded on it on my own. This is how it works:

1) Write down your time in tournament games

If the time control is above G/60, you should write down how much time you have left at the end of each turn (ex: in a G/60 match, 1. e4 (60) e5 2. Nf3 (59)). This is a good practice, because when you go over the game with your coach or computer, you can see if time was a factor in the decisions you made.

2) Go over the game immediately after the tournament

If you’re not already doing this, you’re making a big mistake. Going over your mistakes is the easiest way to find holes in your knowledge. We’re all human, so you’re bound to do something wrong in each round. I like to go over the game with my opponent after each round, and then again with my coach.

3) Come back in six months

At this point you’ve played many tournament games (hopefully), and in all likelihood forgot most of your analysis. That’s okay! Set up a board and a clock at the same time control that the game was played in. This is where you’re records of time come in real handy. For each turn, force yourself to calculate the position for as long as you calculated at the board, nothing more, nothing less. For example:

1. e4 (60) e5

2. Nf3 (59) Nc6

3. Bb5 (59) a6

4. Bxc6 (59) bxc6

5. 0-0 (57) Nf6

33. Kg3 (50) Qg4#

Okay, this isn’t a full game, but you can dissect something already from this notation. The white player spent 10 minutes for the whole game, which lasted 33 moves! The white player who would be doing this exercise should realize that he is moving way too quickly, and if he tried to calculate, he couldn’t possibly do a concrete job. This is one possible test to see if you are moving too quickly.

Of course, there is also the opposite problem too:

24. Nd4 (24) Nc6

25. Nxc6 (17) dxc6

White spent seven minutes calculating this exchange, so clearly this position gave him trouble. Hopefully, when doing this exercise, the White player can do the same analysis that he did on the board six months prior in less than 7 minutes. If this is the case, this is good! It means that not only are you learning from your games, it means that your ability to calculate is improving.

I found that this exercise really helped me realize that I was moving too quickly in critical positions, and after I implemented this practice, I not only improved my calculation techniques, but also my time management skills. Here’s a funny story, I actually stopped this technique for a few months, and for that period of time my rating remained stagnant. However, now that I’m doing it again, I’m playing better chess and calculating much more effectively.

 

Feel like I missed something? Feel free to comment below!

Building Up Your Tactical Arsenal

Rather than going over another game today, I figured that it might be better to give a study recommendation. I’m sure that everyone has heard of Lazlo Polgar’s famous book, 5334 Problems, Combinations, and Games, and furthermore, I’m willing to bet a fair number of people own it! The reason why I want to talk about this book today is to break down how you should use it.

If you are a student of mine, you know I emphasize that you should study from this book every day. Polgar’s puzzle book offers puzzles, but if done consistently, teaches patterns as well. Write down your answers on a sheet of paper, and then check your answers when you are done. Below is my breakdown of how many of each type of puzzle to do. Keep in mind, you do not have to limit yourself to 16 puzzles, feel free to do more, but I recommend keeping these proportions on a day to day basis.

Rating: unr – 300 (20 minute time limit)

Mate in 1s: 13

Mate in 2s: 3

Mate in 3s: 0

If you fit in this rating range, its really important to understand all of the basic checkmates. By doing 13 mate in 1s everyday, you will force yourself to look for forcing moves, which is critical for improvement. Three mate in 2s everyday will allow you to apply your knowledge of forcing moves to slightly more complicated puzzles.

Rating: 300 – 550 (25–30 minute time limit)

Mate in 1s: 6

Mate in 2s: 10

Mate in 3s: 0

Getting into this rating range means that you recognize basic mating patterns and are ready for a bigger challenge. Mate in 2s may seem easy at first, but the further you get into the section, the more difficult the problems become.

Rating: 550 – 750 (40 minute time limit)

Mate in 1s: 0

Mate in 2s: 13

Mate in 3s: 3

Tactical patterns are now the most important aspect of your improvement. Continue doing mate in 2s but dabble in the mate in 3s section a bit! Try to become more efficient, you need to average 2.5 minutes a problem!

Rating: 750 – 900 (50 minute time limit)

Mate in 1s: 0

Mate in 2s: 8

Mate in 3s: 8

Odds are you’re starting to win games thanks to your tactical expertise, but that doesn’t mean you are done! Mate in 3s should prove far more challenging, but will help you understand famous mating patterns. I would say aim for under 2 minutes for the mate in 2s, a little over 4 minutes for the mate in 3s. If you have both leftover time and 100% accuracy, that is a sign for great things to come!

Rating: 900 – 1100 (65 minute time limit)

Mate in 1s: 0

Mate in 2s: 4

Mate in 3s: 12

Studying chess is time well spent, but you have to make the most out of it. Skip to the last few mate in 2s (Puzzle #3169 is a good starting point) if you haven’t gotten that far yet, as some of those problems are trickier than the mate in 3s (Hint– Not all the first moves have to be forcing)! As you do more mate in threes, you’ll learn more patterns, meaning more wins. I would shoot for less than 3 minutes for mate in 2s, roughly 4 minutes for mate in 3s.

Rating: 1100 – 1300 (48 minute time limit)

Mate in 1s: 0

Mate in 2s: 0

Mate in 3s: 16

Learning these patterns is integral to becoming 1400. At this point you need to only focus on mate in 3s, but here’s the catch: 3 minutes a puzzle for a total of 48 minutes! Hopefully you’ve seen many of the patterns already, as they will be repeated over and over again throughout the book. Efficiency eclipses tactical vision now, as you have to imagine you are in a tournament game and facing time trouble.

Rating: 1400+

If you’ve been using this book correctly, you have a solid base of tactical knowledge. However, as you may have already found out, you need to expand your studying beyond tactics: openings, endgames, positional play. If you want to keep tactics in your studies (like you should!) I’d recommend Artur Yusupov’s nine book series Build Up Your Chess! This is a good next step as it challenges you with tactics, endgames, and some intriguing positional concepts.

Have your own way of breaking down your studies? Feel free to comment below!