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Saturday, August 7, 2010

Thoughts on Improvement

I haven’t posted much lately because I’ve been doing something I rarely do…playing 10 minute games on a couple of different sites. A lot of those games have been against players rated 1400-1600. While I’m well aware that server ratings have no correlation with OTB ratings, these players exhibited knowledge and style that’s probably pretty close to what one would see by “average” OTB players.

Rather than using ratings, it might be helpful to use a verbal description of the playing style of many of these players. For that I’ll use descriptions found at the Exeter Chess Club site which, BTW, has some excellent instructional material.

One thing they mention is Soviet trainer Vladimir Zak's description of the different stages of development of chess players:
1. Attack something - and if it doesn't move, take it
2. Both opponents base their play on elementary traps
3. Tactical operations without regard for position
4. Harmonious cooperation of the pieces and combinations
5. Ability to find the right strategic plan
The author observes that ~1400’s players are fighting clear of stage 3, although stage 4 isn't always apparent in the play of 1800 players! Here’s a slightly modified chart of levels of development taken from the Exeter site:

Level 1
Openings: know basic principles but sometimes incomplete and often too-simple development
Tactics: Basic tactics but easier to see their own.
Strategy: in planning don't use all the pieces and games often appear episodic
Endings: May be hesitant to use King and often don't know theory

Level 2
Openings: Play solidly and can trot out moves of their systems but not good at seeing or setting problems
Tactics: More complex tactics but usually in familiar settings.
Strategy: Can play soundly but can be inflexible; often have a marked preference for certain styles of play.
Endings: May defend rather than attack. Theory often not much better!

Level 3
Openings: Opening theory sound and can adapt to changed circumstances.
Tactics: Can see and set traps; moves have a 'point'.
Strategy: Understand most of the clockwork attacks; when solid are also flexible - keep their pieces active.
Endings: good at problem-setting in endgame, and seeking or limiting counterplay.

National Master Dan Heisman has given a similar description of player’s stages of development.

Flip-Coin Chess - They really don't care what their opponent does, and the winner is the one who accidentally makes more, or larger, threats that are duly ignored. At this level of play threatening checkmate, no matter how bad the move is otherwise, is often rewarded.

Hope Chess is practiced by 99%+ of the adults who do not play in tournaments, and by almost all tournament players rated under ~1600 USCF…if you don't play Real Chess, then you often allow your opponent to create unstoppable threats. Strong players …are consciously looking for all upcoming checks, captures, and threats…if you don't play Real Chess, you probably never will be really good, but if you do play Real Chess, that is no guarantee you will be a very strong player! You still have to learn about all the other things that players study: openings, endgames, pawn structures, planning, lots of tactical patterns, etc.

One key to promoting yourself from Hope Chess to Real Chess is checking for upcoming danger on every move, and not just most of the time…assuming the average game is 40 moves, twice each game (5% x 40) you open yourself up to an immediate loss. If you allow these two oversights each game, then you will play MUCH weaker than you will if you play Real Chess on every move. After all, it only takes one bad move to lose a game! So if you otherwise play 1700 strength for 38 moves but on two moves you play at only a 500 level, what do you think your average playing strength will be for the entire 40 moves?

No wonder that players who read tons of books and accumulate decent chess knowledge often lose to players with much less knowledge. The “well-read losers” can attribute their losses to talent or luck (usually the latter!), but often it is just that their opponent is playing Real Chess on every move, and they are not, and so their rating (and results) are relegated to the Hope Chess masses.

These descriptions are right on the money. One thing I noticed about all these players is that they all took the following approach:
1) Openings were either a) some wild, unsound gambit or b) very passive. The latter were especially interesting because they always played a few moves by rote but then did not follow the strategy dictated by the openings they had selected. The result was that they got passive positions then, rather than planning, they began simply reacting to any threats I had.

2) The end result was always a middlegame where I ended up with a crushing combination that finished them off. These tactics did not come from consciously playing for them; they were the result of a vastly superior position. Usually when they finally realized they were losing, rather than seeking legitimate counterplay, they would make an unsound sacrifice for the sake of a couple of checks. Many of them played exactly as Heisman described in his description of ‘Hope Chess.’

3) Endings were never reached in any of these games, so I can’t comment.

For the last 2 years I’ve been following the progress of a player who was initially rated ~1400 when he started his quest to reach 1800. He’s not bothered to study anything but tactics and openings. He changes his openings like most people change their socks; the end result is that he never learns the underlying strategic principles of any opening he plays. All he can do is get through 12-15 book moves, but after that, he has no idea how to continue. He refuses to play through master games to gain any ideas as to how the game flows from the opening. He also neglects endings. He’s learned enough about chess that at one point he reached a rating of well over 1700, but then it tumbled to barely over 1600.

What happened? He got strong enough that he could no longer enter events where he played only 1400-1600's and had to start playing 1700-1900 rated players and as the chart notes, these players possess knowledge he simply does not have and never will if all he continues to do is like he has stated in his plan to get his rating points back: he’s ordered two or three new opening books and is going to hit the tactic servers harder.

I advised him several times back when he started his quest that to reach his goal of achieving an 1800 rating hat he was going to have to stick to a couple of openings, study strategy and endings and play over hundreds of master games, preferably with his choice openings so as to get a feel for how masters handle the resulting positions and at the same time increase his pattern recognition skills.

He told me I didn’t know what I was talking about and my advice was nonsense because chess is 99% tactics. I finally gave up on him, and here it is two years later...his rating is still mid-1600’s and he’s just ordered more opening books and vowed to practice more tactics. He’s under the impression that what got him from 1400 to 1600 will get him to 1800, so it’s more of the same. Unfortunately he’s really not increasing his understanding.

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