Saturday, 18 November 2017

Winter 2017 Chess Improvement Update

Back in June I mentioned how tiring it is to be playing regular tournament chess, when so many other life responsibilities seem to be there, waiting for your attention. However, that specific tournament I made a fatal mistake. I refused to take a bye and tried to play all 3 days, despite the Friday game being very challenging, you really have to be local to play a 4 hour game at 7PM as driving either side of that tends to be pretty bad. On the way there it's traffic, on the way back it's diversions, Friday night's party traffic! That night I ended up getting home way past midnight, shattered and that resulted on me trying to play less OTB chess, I even withdrew on Sunday. Ouch. Well, I think I learned my lesson and I am finally ready to get back to OTB classical time congresses. I am playing one next weekend and I am looking forward to it. I'll control my eagerness and take that first round bye... 4 games is enough. Even that is a lot. I got greedy when I tried playing all 5 and was rightly punished by Fortune that night. I think I was simply too eager to replicate my Frome Congress success.

Earlier in the year I also questioned why I hadn't learnt John's Scandinavian repertoire yet. I set this right and have picked up IM John Bartholomew's Scandinavian repertoire. I think I can play 90% of the lines with confidence, and this is an IM level repertoire so these days I really look forward to facing 1.e4. The more I play it, the more I study it, the happier I am that I finally learnt it. Based on this, my opponents would do well to take notice and play anything else really. However, I am also slowly picking up a GM level repertoire for Black against everything else. My goal here is to fully sort out all my openings as Black and really really learn them well. Then I can compare my results as White versus my results as Black where I know the openings. This would finally settle the debate about how important it is to know or not know the opening at our level of chess. Honestly, I might be biased, but whenever I play within the opening I know it's just so much more joyful. I faced an IM in my first ever rapid chess event and he struggled so much because I blitzed out 18 moves of theory that led to a drawish position. Yes, he did win in the end, after 70 moves in my heavy time pressure, but since he was 500 points higher than me I consider this a big result. He even thought he was losing at one point where he went a pawn down. Unfortunately, he had more than enough compensation and in the complications my time pressure was the most telling factor.

Aside from finishing up my Black repertoires, I want to note that I did have a complete repertoire as Black and White before, but it was very shallow, without going into too much detail and this was often telling. I got tired of being outplayed by people who knew a bit more theory, a few more plans, which is why I am putting the work of learning 300+ variation repertoires instead of the 100 lines I used to know. I think 100 lines is useful up to 1,800, but playing at 2,100+, or higher, people just know theory, whether they read it, or figured it out through self study, they are aware of the best moves and if you go off they punish you. My game against Koby Kalavannan in the Bristol Summer Congress, showed that clearly. I played a normal looking move which 4-5 masters have previously played (in the database), and it just turned out to be giving White a seriously big advantage... which my 2300+ rated opponent pounced on.

Once I sort out my Black repertoire, my plan is to focus on tactics and strategy only and see if my results as White catch up too. I might also try various Short & Sweet repertoires as White, maybe the London System, to try and find what openings I actually enjoy playing as White. I do love the Italian Game but most people will play the Sicilian against me, so maybe the London System would be good to avoid those sharp Siclian lines.

Another thing I've done lately which I feel has improved my game is to slow down my blitz time controls. I was playing 3|0, then 3|2 and struggling, getting frustrated, timing out. I had not time to think ever. I switched to 5|5 and really enjoyed it. My Blitz rating went up and the games I lost had clear reasons why, reasons I could work on. I think my rapid has benefited from that too and I am on my all-time high at I honestly think I'll hit a 2,000 rating somewhere. The goal I set myself, but maybe, it will happen sometime next year :)

Of course, I'm also somewhat of an endgame Master and can mate with Bishop & Knight! This is thanks to completing 100 Endgames You Must Know on Chessable. It's awesome, but in my games I don't get to benefit enough, or at least I don't think I do. Not too many endgames yet, but when one happens, my opponents usually pay... I had several games where I rescued them and won in the endgame.

Alright, I just wanted to log some of my progress and plans, so that it's there in writing documenting my chess improvement. See you soon!

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Hmm, will have to play less tournament chess.

So this is an entry to log the fact that I plan to play less tournament chess. I entered the Bristol Summer Congress 2017, but I had to withdraw for the last day. It's simply humanely impossible to raise a kid, grow a start up and make time for monthly tournament chess.

Due to my last awesome performance, I really wanted to play. However, each of my games took four hours, and after the second game (4 hours and 30 minutes) I was absolutely knackered. Not to mention I only had 3 hours of sleep that night (driving to the tournaments is quite the extra energy sink, especially due to bloody diversions!). I messed up a won endgame and gave my 2,100 rated opponent the draw. Shame. I think having a won position got to my head; I got over-excited. Good for my opponent though as to be honest, I miscalculated in the early middle game and only got an advantage due to a cheap-shot tactic (due to a mistake by my opponent!). Would have been nice to bring home the win. I also drew with black vs. an opponent rated 1630, again I felt like I messed up the endgame. I had a good knight vs. bad bishop which quickly due to my mistakes turned into a good bishop vs. bad knight. How ironic. Held the draw.

Finally, for my third game, I think I must have had a mating combination somewhere, but honestly, all I wanted is for the game to be over quickly and messed it up along the way. Ironically it still took 3 hours.

So this entry logs my intention of abandoning my 2,000 rating goal this year, seeing as that would take at the very least three more five game tournaments for which I currently do not have the energy. Instead, I will change my goal and aim to improve my online rating and play some online games again. Maybe one serious game once a week recorded and straight away analysed on youtube. Analysis is important, and after playing for 4 hours, I admit I have not analysed any of my last 10-12 tournament games... shame on me. I think it's a good goal and definitely possible. I'll do that instead! Then, if my online rating increases I'll go for some OTB tournaments next year and hopefully finally hit 2,000. The problem with that is I need 10 wins vs 2,100 opposition which is tough; then I'd hit 2,000. The time commitment is just pretty big, 4 hours per game x 10 games (at least...), more like 15-20 games... and you can start to see why I am hanging up the gloves for this year!

Its not like me to withdraw or give up. Hence I will start posting videos on my Youtube channel, and of course, I will continue to study on Chessable where my streak is looking pretty impressive. Fortunately, pretty soon we'll offer some serious endgame study on Chessable so as to broaden our offering, I can really use studying some endgames. :)

Sorry if this post doesn't read well, I'm too knackered to refine it :D Just wanted to log what's happening and my plans so that I can refer to it in the future when I look at my path to chess improvement.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

New accomplishments, winning at 2,000+ level regularly, rating to follow?

So I played the Frome Chess Congress 2017. I took one bye and had four games. I won 2 vs opposition rated nearly 2,100 FIDE and drew one vs a 2,000 FIDE. I lost the last one vs a 2,100 FIDE because I played out of my knowledge, instead of sticking to my chess openings going for an attack completely out of my book. Serves me right, for getting to greedy.
Pretty proud of my other games though:
As white with the Bishop’s Opening at I played a lot of “Excellent” moves. It was a difficult game, to see the full game please scroll down.

My other win seems even more impressive to me considering I was playing an opening I don’t know very well (and hate). However, I had previously lost by pushing d5 so I was keen not to repeat that and came up with a funky imbalance that the PC doesn’t mind too much. I think black does have the advantage at one point but once I get it back I don’t let go. Really happy!

The other two games are not that noteworthy, I am sure I made some mistakes and missed winning chances in the draw. The loss, well, don’t play out of your opening repertoire as much as I did. For some reason i went into a Stonewall Dutch… never played it in my life, misplayed it. Blundered, lost.
All in all my two wins should spice up my ELO but one of the players was only ECF rated. Still, this is my third 2,100 scalp out of the last 4 2,100 players I faced. I need to face some more and my ELO will follow. The 2,000 goal seems closer, i just need to maintain this form.
Will try to play some more OTB chess soon so I can update you all on my progress :)
By the way, the only studying I’ve been doing is Chessable, so something must be going right :)

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Spring 2017 Chess Update

It's been a while since I posted so I thought I'd write a quick update to keep this blog alive and well. The main reason I've been so inconsistent is that I have not been able to make much time for learning chess. Instead, I have been busy raising funding for my start-up, Chessable. We just completed our first round of funding, so even though it took a while, we got there!

Regarding learning, despite not having much learning time, I have kept a 100+ day Chessable streak, so I am very sharp on my openings. I have made some time for some endgame studies and am also pretty sharp on tactical patterns. Lately, I've been trying to pick up an improved French repertoire as White, although I have been questioning the reasons why I never decided to learn the book by Chessable co-founder John Bartholomew on the Scandi!

I am playing a congress next weekend, and hopefully, after that and after a few things post-investment settle down I will be able to dedicate more time for improvement. Nonetheless, I feel that at long time controls I am currently under-rated at 1,817, after all at a tournament I played a few months back, I beat a 2,100 FIDE rated player as black. Except, he was only ECF rated, so I didn't gain any rating for that. I hope to continue such performances, and hence my rating should stabilise around 1,900.

2,000 is still my goal this year, although it does seem somewhat remote.

Stay tuned :)

PS.- Here is a game, just because.

Friday, 28 October 2016

I used to suck at chess openings, now I just suck at the other bits (at least my openings are awesome!)

It’s been a long while since I have updated everyone on my own chess improvement. This is mainly due to bootstrapping our startup Chessable and a little secret I seldom mention, having a sleepless baby in the house! Therefore my daily life can be summarised by:
  1. Wake up very early (3–4am) to help with baby (work/study/read if she sleeps further)
  2. Study on Chessable about 15 min/day
  3. Work on Chessable about 10 hours/day
Anything else fits around that schedule, including playing chess. This is a shame because to get better you need to be playing at the longer time controls. Hence, last month I started making more of an effort, sleepless or not, I want to keep improving.
I started playing a few 15 | 10 games on the chess server, and I am happy to say that my rating holds at a very pleasant 1,850ish, with a new highest at 1880 (Sep 23, 2016). I am very happy with this as you can see just around 3 years ago I just started making my way from 1,250 and it took some work to get to 1,400! It has always been a challenge to consistently perform above 1,800 but I think I am finally part of the club! :) My own self-analysis of these online games shows that my chess openings have stabilised and I almost always get a playable and/or great position out of the opening. I have also begun exploiting my opponents weak opening moves as I can now recognise they have played a sub-optimal line and I then opt for more active/aggressive continuations.
Of course, a few 15|10 games (must be 10–12 in a month) is not enough to improve. One of the best correlations obtained by scientists interested in chess is that the more OTB games you play, the higher your ELO gets. Really you should be playing at least 50 quality OTB chess games yearly if you hope to get to master level. While 2015 (and the first part of 2016) lent itself well for that and I even went above 1,900 FIDE, lately I haven’t had the energy and time to play OTB!
Nonetheless, for diary logging purposes I will relate that I gave two OTB games a try recently (90 minutes no increment)! Again using my chess opening knowledge, I sailed through the openings and build a 30 minute time advantage. This should be enough to win, just keep the position solid and your opponent will blunder under time pressure or time out. I am sad to report I gave both winning positions away. But hey, at least the problem is no longer the opening?
Yesterday I spent 3 hours driving (total) to make this ECF league chess game, and I was up way past my bedtime. I put the loss to a lack of concentration at a crucial moment where I thought I had the game won (I was at +2), all I had to do is trade Queens. My opponent correctly avoided a Queen trade and made life difficult. Wanting to get on with the drive home, I got frustrated, I did not check for opponent counterplay after I compromised my King Safety a bit and boom, enormous blunder, game lost.
Now being a trained psychologist who has read plenty around expertise, learning and also chess performance, I am happy to say I have some awesome ideas on how to stop these kinds of errors from occurring in the future. Obviously, not being exhausted is one of them, maybe drinking a coffee would have been another one, but I am of the belief that once you get a process from conscious to subconscious routine then those things don’t matter. This is why a GM would never make such a blunder, they’ve trained so well that even when they are exhausted they would automatically check for counterplay and convert the win. My conscious overlooked that for a second and my subconscious has no clue about that stuff yet, hence, the blunder!
Fortunately I am also a computer scientist so I look forward to implementing some novel ideas that will help us all (or at least myself ;-) ) to improve and cut these kind of errors out of our games. I can happily say that I am always happy with how I play the opening, and I know that a few months back I still suffered during openings and got sub-par positions. Since that doesn’t happen anymore, it’s time to focus on the other bits! Stay tuned.
Here are the pictures of my performance over these last 2 OTB games. I played White on both. Both games against stiff opposition ECF 160ish (1900 FIDE). Game 1 I blundered after squandering a 30 minute time advantage. Game 2 I blundered after having a won position and a 40 minute time advantage. Oh the shame. Good material to improve on ;-) Again, at least the opening went well huh? After all, that is the sole thing I have been having a chance to study. Time to build some more kick ass chess tools :D
Game 1:

Game 2:

Friday, 15 July 2016

How studying the opening with Chessable can help you easily win a game in 14 moves and become a Chess Master.

A few weeks ago I posted my take on scientific research that argued for the importance of learning chess openings, see 8 Reasons for Learning Openings Now! Some comments I received showed that some people did not like the article too much. They argued that “memorising” opening lines is a waste of time. Really?! Let’s take a look at one of my recent online games:
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Bxc6 dxc6 5. d3 Nf6 6. a4 e6

So far, all these moves stem from my very basic opening preparation on Chessable, all memorised and played very quickly. Why should have I stopped at any point before now? I shouldn’t have; memorisation is working perfectly up to this point! However, now we are getting to a point where more complex decisions have to be taken. What’s the plan?
People who argue against “just memorising” openings keep saying that “just memorising” doesn’t help you understand the plans in the structures, where the pieces should go, etc. In my opinion, they must be memorising things completely the wrong way because memorising these lines is exactly what helped me figure out a plan in this position… b3 and then Bb2, Nbd2 and Nc4 were all in my head immediately, saving me time and giving me a concrete plan.
Granted we are at a point where if the position should change drastically, White should re-assess. For instance, if Black started playing out of the ordinary, e.g., h5, I’d have to stop and consider whether I still wanted to pursue the moves I’ve just described. However, when you are playing confidently, it’s easy for your opponent to go wrong:
7. b3 Qc7 8. Bb2 Bd6??

I’ve played 8 logical moves from a plan I picked up while studying on Chessable. My opponent was probably trying to keep up with me on the clock, not knowing that I am very very familiar with the structure he has driven the game to with 3…a6 and therefore, quickly blunders a whole piece. Can you see the tactic?
Of course, as is often the case, when you make one mistake, quickly others follow:
9. e5 Nd5 10. exd6 Qxd6 11. Nbd2 b6? 12. Nc4?!
Okay. Inaccuracy. Best move was Bxg7. However, I saw it but did not play it because I did not want to give my opponent counterplay with an open file against the side I was about to castle on.
12... Qc7? 13. Be5?!
Another inaccuracy. At this point, it doesn’t even matter, though, again the best move was Bxg7, but I prefer to harass his Queen a bit as is done in certain positions in the Rossolimo. I picked this up by studying these lines more in depth, on Chessable, by importing lines from a book on the Rossolimo that I own. A move like Be5 is not a move I’d normally consider, it looks odd. Had it not been for opening lines memorisation this sexy move may not have happened. Of course, it leads to the final blunder.
13... Qb7??
Find the last move to finish the game:

I have many more games that follow the same pattern. These games usually I end up with very low centipawn losses and great play. Sometimes my opponents get angry and accuse me of using a bot or cheating because my play ends up being so perfect. It’s not cheating; it’s learning openings in an efficient way.
Obviously, my rating is only around FIDE 1800, so I am by no means an expert at chess openings yet. In certain other games, I quickly sink. I won’t go over those until I get a chance to study them a bit more ;-) To improve in those openings, I need to take my Chessable depth level from 5–7 to 12–16 as I’ve done for certain parts of the Rossolimo.
So how do I go about studying openings? What I’ve done is I’ve learned some openings very superficially which is NOT enough for high-level play but good enough to get a decent position out of the opening. This means if I have time, for example, in an over the board game, I can sit down and find the good moves after these first few solid moves.
However, now that I’ve got those basic repertoires as a base, I delve deeper into some openings I like. 12–16 moves deep. By memorising lines this long, it helps me understand concrete ideas and middle game plans. I identify weak squares, outposts, typical tactics, good piece placement and a lot more by studying lines more in depth. Slowly, as I do this for every single part of my opening repertoire, my game should become solid in all areas, and I will improve.
This approach has its scientific foundation in the seminal work of Simon & Chase decades ago. It works for me, and it should work for you. Moreover, Chessable offers discussion tools that help you clarify and understand any position in your repertoire by getting the help from our active community. Do give it a try, it’s great to bounce ideas off other players and develop that deep understanding we all seek.
Lastly, today I am happy to post a case study of a Chessable power user who has used opening study on Chessable to achieve his lifelong ambition of being a chess master. It’s a great interview, well worth reading. Do check it out.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Clear learning path and no time.

I remember the days when I made my first leaps in rating learning chess, I had a ton of spare time. I was living off savings, enjoying life to the most. A thought crossed my head. If you achieve chess master level, some might put it down to me not have a “real” adult life! (I really did have that much spare time!). Well fast forward a little bit and sparing you all the details, today I hardly have time to have a break. I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum now.
If I had to estimate my chess study time since 2016 begun? I’d say 50 hours in total in almost 6 months, most of that in Chessable opening study (which has paid off its dividends!). Contrast that to the 50 hours I’d put in just one month before when I made quicker gains in chess performance.
On a positive note, I have been improving my chess-meta-learning skills. Due to writing my MSc Psychology of Education (BPS) dissertation (it has to do with chess), I’ve been picking up ideas and direction on the most optimal way to improve. What does this mean? Well, once I can make the spare time and put in the hours, improvement should happen! Here are the important points (not all, I'm saving a few sweet details for perhaps, a future publication):
1. No Blitz: Blitz only helps once you’ve improved a lot on slow time controls. Until then, it can be but a disheartening confirmation of your lack of improvement. I’ve endorsed Blitz for opening repertoire “hole” finding before. I still do, but only at the early stage of your repertoire building. Thanks to opening study on Chessable, I am now at a stage where most Blitz openings I get right, and there are few surprises. The problem comes in the first few middle game moves, or last few opening moves when you really need to have a good plan, recognise the pawn structures, and play accurately. If you don’t, and in Blitz you often don’t, it's a gamble, whoever makes the first mistake is on the back foot, defending an often unpleasant position. This can happen in ‘slow’ time controls also, when a couple of logical looking moves got me into trouble resulting in my last tournament being a flop, 2/5, 1700ish performance rating. Ouch. So how do we get these last few opening/middle game problems sorted? See 2.
2. Play more slow games. If I could play one classical FIDE/BCF rated game a day, that would be awesome. Of course, they can last over 3 hours. I’d happily put in the 3 hours 5 days a week, but there are no FIDE/BCF games daily, and right now I don't have the time anyway. So I have to go back to serious online time controls again, at some point, when I have the time. Perhaps my Youtube 15 10 rapid games will do? We will see, I'm currently playing none of those anyway. I have to figure out the best approach, but the goal is to make sure that you are comfortable in all the positions that arise from your opening repertoire. If you are not, you better do some studying to make sure you are. It's important. I have a few ideas on how to go about this which I will try and if they work out well, you can expect them to be part of Chessable in the future.
3. Make sure you review the games where you've felt uncomfortable so that next time, you do better (and by playing slow games, this will hopefully give you more material for this point!). Very often we just go through the computer eval without figuring out why. If the opening is part of your repertoire, you really should know why. I know I haven't done so always, but from now on I will, and I've got some great plans on how to do this. I will let you know how it went.
4. Endgames. Really. No matter how good you think you are at endgames you need to be better to the point you are confident of converting and endgame against a GM. That's the end goal anyway, isn't it? Chessable has a few end-game repertoires, this one by John being particularly good, and thanks to Chessable I've mastered them, but this point is about more complex endgames. Mastering the simple ones is a great first step, but not enough.
I don’t know how much time I will be able to devote to studying chess in the near future, Chessable is a big priority (and of course, finishing my dissertation!). However, as soon as the spare time becomes available, I will have a concrete plan to follow, and I do expect 2,000 FIDE to be an achievable goal pretty soon. I look forward to referring back to this post when I get there!