Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Do I Have To Setup The Board Again?

Here's a question:

When doing tactical exercises, how many of you actually bother to set it up on the board? Or do you solve them straight out of the book?

I admit that I am one the laziest people on this planet. When I do tactical exercises, I use Chessbase/Fritz's 3D board setup to setup the position and then try to solve it from there on the screen.

Okay, I admit that it's not ideal, I don't get a true graphical representation and my hand doesn't touch the pieces.

From the various advice in Daniel King Powerplay DVDs to Arthur Yusupov's Boost Your Chess book series, many chess authors and trainers have recommended doing it over the board.

The basic premise is that by physically moving the pieces, your mind connects the events and this adds as a self-reinforcement tool so that you can better remember the lesson learned.

The problem herein is that when trying to solve 5 tactical exercises, you need to setup the position 5 times. Setting up a board is no easy feat, you spend at least a few minutes just to setup the board. And then once you figured out the tactical puzzle, you replay the solution and this involves going back to the initial board position at the beginning over and over again as you run through the variations.

Some others have recommended setting up 2 boards, one to do the analysis and the other to act as a "variation" board to work through the different variations.

At this point, doing 1 puzzle can easily take as long as 10 minutes in terms of just running through the pieces, if not more. Try it for another 4 puzzles and suddenly, the task becomes extra onerous and you seemed to spend more time setting up the board than doing the tactical puzzles.

By putting the position inside Chessbase/Fritz and seeing it in 3D, I can run through the variations pretty quickly (true the 3D is nowhere near photorealistic as an actual board) with the touch of a mouse click (okay, several mouse clicks).

The point is: how well has my memory recalled the position by doing tactical puzzles this way?

In my case, surprisingly, not too bad. I find that I'm still able to recall certain puzzles once I recognise the formation/pattern and the solution to them but not all. However, if I were to redo the puzzles again and again, I find that the memory of the position somehow got "stuck" in my mind. Run it through 2-3 more times a few weeks later and it becomes embedded somewhere between medium-term and long-term memory.

True, none of us can be a Magnus Carlsen or Alexei Shirov where these GMs don't need to physically see the board to calculate variations so until we are all super GMs, what other recourse is there for us?

So what is your method of doing tactical studies? :)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Silicon Monster Annotations

When a player works with a chess engine, he/she has to understand the intricacies and the pitfalls behind letting the silicon monster do things like annotating the game.

Chess engines like Fritz and Rybka are enormously helpful in finding missed tactical combinations and how to create strategical plans arising from them.

However, where chess engines fail happens when a position is so incredibly complex that it requires a lot of processing power and time. So sometimes, it does not "see" the correct continuation until it enumerates all the various correct "tree" variations extensively before it finds the correct continuation. That is why in order for a chess engine to annotate properly, you must give it sufficient time to locate the correct variation. You cannot rush these things unfortunately (unless of course you happen to be Topalov and you have access to IBM's Blue Gene/P).

Chess engines can misjudge closed positions where sometimes, the moves suggested by the chess engine doesn't make any sense at all. It is particularly obvious to know the chess engine is floundering when it constantly sways its evaluation between 0.01 and 0.02 between different variations. This means that there is typically no advantage to be gained between choosing moves that gain a +0.02 or +0.01 advantage. This is where human evaluation takes over.

However, if the computer evaluation changes by more than 0.5 is where you must sit up and take note because it typically means that either you or your opponent has overlooked the position and either of you has made a slight concession/weak move.

In addition, in totally winning positions, chess engines may give you the best lines but as a human player under time pressure, if you know the position is winning, then you look for forcing moves to maintain your advantage.

Does the engine evaluations really matter for example, if you know the endgame is winning so you trade down to a winning endgame?

No, it does not (unless the engine is screaming checkmate in x number of moves). A difference between a +7.5 and a +8 advantage is going to matter little because the game is practically won.

So the next time you let a chess engine annotate your game, remember its flaws and its uses.

And one more thing, no player ever plays like a chess engine so there is no point beating yourself up over it if you miss a variation that changes by say, 0.02.

In the end, one must note: Chess engines are after all programmed by humans and humans do err.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Revealed: The Secret To Winning At Chess

The secret can now be revealed and it is:

"You beset your opponent more problems than he/she can solve.

I know what you're thinking: "No kidding, Captain Obvious."

But how do you give your opponent more problems?

That's the beauty of chess. There are so many ways one can do it. Below are some of the common ways:

- giving your opponent a permanently weakened pawn structure
- forcing your opponent to make concessions in terms of either tempo, space or exchange (and in converse, increasing yours in reverse)
- frustrating your opponent by either creating blockades or making patient defensive moves to repel his/her attacks
- forcing your opponent's pieces to go to bad squares
- stretching your opponent's piece mobility and range till they over-commit (eg. by attacking on 2 fronts)
- creating tactical mayhem on the board especially against a player who is tactically weak
- mastering and adopting the art of prophylaxis
etc. etc.

Sounds simple isn't it? But it's one that is very hard to accomplish and even harder to get it right.

And remember, as Saviely Tartakower eloquently put it,“No one ever won a game by resigning”.

Onwards! :)

Friday, July 2, 2010

Self-Training Motivation

Why do players like myself constantly make excuses to justify that our time that we've set out to do for our chess training seems to take a back seat?

Chess, like it or not, is as much a game of memory and as well as a test of how your brain's cognitive abilities.

In order to improve our chess skills, we need to build small little memory building blocks of certain tactics/endgames (psychologists refer to this as "chunking") and from there, we memorise (internalise) these combinations and ideas and commit them to long-term memory.

Basic techniques like deflection, skewers, blockade, forks etc. needs to be remembered and used effectively if we are to get better at chess.

And the problem is that as we move up the rating chain, it requires more and more effort on our part to make a smaller gain. We need more time to learn and grasp new ideas, concepts and the unfortunate thing is that not many of us can be like Bobby Fischer, who can simply pick up a book and remember everything.

And this is what makes chess improvement so hard to do for adult working players. We have so precious limited time to invest in this sport.

Chess is indeed an easy game to learn but a hard one to master.