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!

Friday, 3 June 2016

3 ways to study chess when you are knackered: between 5am and 8am.

So lately, I’ve been having 5am to 8am as some of my ‘spare hours’. Perhaps yours are different but also during times when you really can’t be bothered to do anything else, maybe midnight to 3am? It’s too early (or late) to do any work. It’s too early to do any serious studying or writing. So I’ve been putting most of that time onto Blitz chess, it’s ‘easy’. However, my rating and confidence are suffering as a result. No surprise there, most of the time I end up in time trouble and wonder where my time has gone. I move at the speed of a Galapagos tortoise. Blitz chess should not be something you do when you are tired and can’t find anything else to do. Definitely, definitely not!
In fact, anything that can win/lose you rating, is probably better left for when you are fully alert and can concentrate, after all, losing rating can hit your confidence and motivation if you don’t recognise that you are not playing like yourself. So don’t, don’t do it. I myself, will stop, what can you do when you are so tired you say? Here are 3 things that you could do and I will focus on more myself:
  1. Tactics Trainer
    Doing tactics when you are tired and not as sharp as you usually are can improve your “bad game”. The game you bring when you are tired or lost concentration. Therefore, this would be a productive use off these ungodly hours as in a normal tournament you may enter this state due to a bad loss or other reasons.
  2. Openings Training
    Review your opening lines. I do this using Chess Openings Mastery - Chessable and I get the lines correct most of the time regardless of whether I’m tired or not. Very productive use of your time. I will probably increase my time on the site at these hours.
  3. Review light chess material
    Reading, certain kinds of videos, famous games. Perhaps this is the least beneficial of the three as it will provide the least retention of knowledge or practical memory than the other two, but nonetheless, probably better than playing Blitz and killing your motivation and confidence.
Granted, I must admit any of these options are hard to muster motivation for when you are so tired and at weird off hours of the day, however, no one said the road to chess mastery was easy. What do you do when you are tired (sleep, right? haha!)? Do you play chess? Do you generally tend to do worse than during your best time of the day?

Saturday, 21 May 2016

New all time high ratings and a busy-busy schedule.

I’ve meant to write this post for five days. Finally, today I have time to get around to it. The point is not so much to say how busy I am (ok maybe a little bit), but rather to document well what is going on with my chess progress. I have been working on a business plan for Chessable, so as to raise investment and bring the chess community even more kick-ass learning tools. I have been working on my Master's dissertation and a few essays. Tried sneaking in a few programming updates onto Chessable when I could. And other than that, a bunch of personal life stuff has kept me busy. Regardless of all that, chess remains an important priority, and I’ve tried to do what I can to maintain my chess skills. Time to report on what has happened:
In the last two weeks, I achieved a few chess milestones, with no studying aside from practicing openings (and a few endgames) on Chessable. I would say, averaging 5–10 minutes a day at most. This has helped me reach a rating of 1,854 in Blitz chess online. To put things in perspective, exactly three years ago I one day clocked in at 1,131. That is a 700 points rating difference! I was euphoric, and then I got matched up with a WFM on blitz chess. Her FIDE rating about 2,100. I lost my games against her and went on a bad run, stabilizing around 1,750. Regardless of the slight loss (due to focusing on rating and not playing well), I was very happy with my on-line Blitz rating and went onto the 39th Hampstead Chess Congress with confidence.
I finished the Congress with a performance rating of 2,023. My highest as of yet. This means that my FIDE rating will break 1,900 for the first time, it should be a shiny 1,913. For a breakdown of my games on the tournament, see the FIDE tournament card here: Kramaley, David June 2016 FIDE Individual Chess Calculations
Obviously, I have failed to reach the goal I set myself, 2,000 FIDE by April 2016. However, considering how busy I have been, I am happy enough with 1,900, it's a step closer to 2,000. Where to next? Well, studying the openings further with Chessable is definitely something I will maintain. Other than that, I really think it is time to improve my endgame technique. How exactly that will be achieved is still a mystery. I will either use Chessable to memorise De La Villa's 100 Endgames you must know or find another way that perhaps is more useful to me right now. Or maybe both, needless to say, the endgame is what I should be focusing on and I will try to make time for that before the next tournaments.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Settling into 1800-1900 FIDE rating: an update on my chess progress.

My last blog post about my chess progress was in October 2015, it's been quite some time. I set myself a goal to reach 2,000 FIDE by April 2016, and today being the 1st of April I can report that I am still not there! Why? If you are curious, read on, I've got good reasons why, and I still plan to get to 2,000 FIDE asap!
Chess wise, what has happened during this time?
  1. I played two more OTB tournaments, on one my performance was shocking and I went down to 1,844 FIDE, on the second I played pretty well and I've risen back up to 1,869. It's safe to say, the 1,800-1,900 range is an accurate reflection of my play, since I have got around 20 rated FIDE games at that performance and more in the BCF as I played for Bristol University Chess. Considering I haven't studied chess all this time, putting in a 1,950 tournament performance rating is impressive.
  2. I released the chess web site I announced back in early October 2015, which is something I have been working on since mid 2013 (first for personal, private use), and now it is available to everyone: Chessable. This is a great achievement because it took a lot of work to get it from private use MVP stage to public open beta MVP stage. We are now working on getting it out of open beta converting it into a stable, awesome product. I've hardly studied a drop of chess since October 2015, the main culprit is really all the work that has gone into Chessable. It has been worth it though and the value it will provide for future tournament prep and chess education, will be invaluable. Of course, anyone who wants to play the same openings I play in my OTB and on-line games, now can do so by learning the Able's repertoire on Chessable!
  3. I realised once again how important it is to stick to a repertoire you know well, it helps tremendously in Blitz chess. For instance, last FIDE OTB tourney I played an awesome game that while perhaps wasn't 100% accurate it was intense enough to beat strong opposition under a one hour clock, it was even shared by the TD on their official web blog. I came across a very similar looking position in a 1 min lightning game I played the other day and was able to employ a similar  strategy, with devastating consequences to my opponent who got checkmated in 12 moves, he did not have the luxury of an hour to find the best defense! Of course, this wouldn't work against the computer! Find the mate:
Chess wise, what should I do to get to my goal, 2,000 rating?
Okay, so I've admitted to not studying and perhaps I am lucky to maintain my respectable 1,850 FIDE rating, perhaps it is all the ground work I did before October 2015. However, 2,000 remains one of my main goals and I know I can get there. I do need to start making time for chess and at the moment it is unclear how that I will happen. I maintain, the reason adults can't learn skills (and chess) as impressively as the younger generation, is simply because we are multi-tasking so much, and multi-tasking is one of the worst things you could do if you want to have optimal performance! We have to earn our own money, feed ourselves, develop our careers, etc, etc. I am working full time and studying a taught MSc degree full time. How could I possibly make time? Well, it will have to come from somewhere at some point because to get to 2,000 FIDE here are all the things I need to do:
  1. Familiarize myself with the common middle game structures in the openings I play most commonly. I have done this with the Italian Game and I feel very happy and good playing those positions, however, I rarely get them. I need to learn more about Ruy Lopez middle game plans, Rossolimo Sicilian middle game plans, French, Caro kann, etc etc! This will take time.
  2. I need to work on my endgame, I still have not had much time to improve this area of my game and since the middle game plans are closely linked to the kind of end game you want to reach, this should be prioritized. Luckily, we are working on bringing efficient end game study to Chessable, so perhaps, while working on that I will make this task easier for myself!
Signing off for now, I hope this post is useful for someone also trying to improve their chess rating as an adult. We can do it, that's for sure, you've just got to make consistent study time!

Monday, 1 February 2016

Your Chessable: Newsletter #1
Sorry it has taken us so long to get in touch, we've been busy making Chessable awesome so that you can soon enjoy it.

John's YouTube Preview
John briefly introduces one of the key features of Chessable in today's video.
See The Video

Able: The Chessable Mascot
Meet Able. Our official Chessable mascot. He will make a few appearances around our site, let's just hope you don't have to play him, in the ape world he is a GM!
When will we open to the public?
We are hoping to finish up some key features and polishes by mid February, at which point we will launch the web site in 'Open BETA'.
Click here to Unsubscribe