Category Archives: navel-gazing

2014 US Open: Rd 1

I caught a 6:40am flight from Omaha to Chicago to Orlando, arriving in town at about 1:30pm.  I had hoped to sleep on the flight, as I awoke at about 5am and slept fitfully before that, but could only doze on the first leg and struck out on the second. I’d never considered it before, but there are a LOT of kids on fights to Orlando, and more than one decided that mid-flight was the time to sing us all the songs of their people.  Oy.

After picking up my car, I headed over to the playing site.  The Rosen Centre Hotel is a very big place, and there are two or three large convention type events going on at once.  Besides the chess, I have seen some kind of Harry Potter event, a meeting of the Tuskegee Airmen (wow!), and various parts of the Miss America Outstanding Teen pageant.  Chess players and beauty queens.  Gotta love America.

Between 3 and 7, when rd 1 began, I wandered around a bit and got the lay of the land.  The bookstore is impressive.  (More on that later.) The playing hall is tremendous. There are lots of kids playing bughouse and blitz everywhere you look. And ICC is on-site, handing out free memberships to players in the Denker, Barber, and NGIT. Some 20 year ICC members (ahem) might also have gotten themselves a six month extension after banter with the on-site rep…

My round one game was against a young expert from Cleveland, OH named Zane Eisen.  I think I was better after 15 moves, but got too ambitious and missed a shot around move 25.  My attempts at complicating were for naught, and Eisen collected the point after time control was made.  We had a good post-mortem, and Al Lawrence dropped by to say hello. Al, former Chess Life editor and a Lincoln native, is one of the good guys in American chess, and it’s always good to see him.

As I am playing in the six-day, I took byes in rounds two and six so as to minimize my having to play two games a day.  So today I had breakfast with Nebraska’s NGIT player Jacey Tran and her mom, made a quick run to Whole Foods for coffee filters, and met up again with the Trans in the bookstore.  Later I’ll take some pictures during rd 2 of the six-day and I’ll also begin the work of my US Open games project, about which more will be said in a later post.

US Open 2014: Preparation

Things may seem to have gone quiet here at Chess Book Reviews, but this is not the case.  Much has been afoot behind the scenes, most notably the drafting and submission of a longer-than-usual review to Chess Life on opening videos.  I’ve been watching a lot of video from a number of providers, including ICC, chess24.com, chesslecture.com, chess.com and Chessbase.  Combine that with a lovely trip to see family and friends, and it’s not hard to see why there have been relatively few reviews in recent weeks.

In three weeks time I make my second appearance at the US Open.  Attentive readers will recall that last year I ‘live-blogged’ my experience and games there, and it is my intention to do so again.  I began last year’s bloggery with a description of what I’d been doing to prepare.  I will do so again in this post.

My chess has been miserable this past year.  After an abysmal showing at the Nebraska State Closed Championship, I decided that I had to do something radical to improve my game.  That radical step was, in truth, six steps – the six steps of the Dutch Stappenmethode (available in the States at Chess Steps and in an Amazon storefront) program for learning chess.

I will give an in-depth description and review of the Steps in the near future, but for now, let me say that the idea of the Steps is to offer users a systematic course for learning and improving one’s chess.  It is designed for children – my wife, in fact, asked me why I was so busy with children’s workbooks at the start of my project – but I find it equally ideal for the adult self-learner.  I have been busy solving all of the puzzles, including those in the Plus books, since the spring, and am now in the midst of Step 4.  My idea was to finally learn the basic grammar of chess, seeing as I, like most Americans, had a rather slapdash chess education.  I think it’s helping, but it’s too early to know what the long-term benefits (if any) will be.

I will continue moving through the Steps as I prepare for the US Open, and I will also be looking at a couple of other books, namely Chess Training for Post-Beginners by Yaroslav Srokovski and Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual by Mark Dvoretsky.  Dvoretsky’s book is a classic, but Srokovski’s book is new, and it will also (not coincidentally) be half of the subject of a review in Chess Life by yours truly later this year.

I will also try to get some practice in, both in set endgame positions against the computer and in solving middlegame problems on a board.  The middlegame problems will come from Krasenkow’s new book Finding Chess Jewels: Improve your Imagination and Calculation.  The endgame positions will come from Dvoretsky and from Aagaard’s GM Prep: Endgame Play.

What about openings?  Openings are not such a big part of my preparation this year, and for a couple of reasons.  I did a lot of opening work for the Nebraska Closed, and I did just watch a lot of videos on the opening.  Mainly I hope to review what I already play and fill in gaps where needed.

So ‘tune in’ during the Open for daily updates, and watch the British Chess Magazine later this year for a report by this foreign correspondent on the event.  And stand by for some new reviews before the Open!

The Book of the Year?

Smith, Axel.  Pump Up Your Rating: Unlock Your Chess Potential.  Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2013.  ISBN 978-1907982736.  PB $29.95.

In a year where chess fans have been blessed with a multitude of great books – Ivan Sokolov’s Sacrifice and Initiative in Chess immediately comes to mind, as does Bronznik and Terekhin’s Techniques of Positional Chess and the Aagaard Grandmaster Preparation Series   – International Master Axel Smith might well have written the best among them.

Smith’s Pump Up Your Rating is, in truth, two books in one.  The first half of the book is an advanced course in chess strategy and thinking.  The second is a tested and thoughtful guide to chess training and improvement.  Were either half sold on their own, they would be worth your purchase.  As things stand, this book is a must-buy for the improving chess player and – especially – for the player who isn’t improving, but would like to.

The first two chapters of Part I (“Positional Chess”) discuss two very difficult elements of chess mastery.  Chapter One, entitled “No Pawn Lever – No Plan,” introduces readers to the role played by pawn levers or breaks in positional play.  Smith argues, through examples from Agrest’s play, that in the absence of chronic weaknesses, it is pawn levers that help to determine plans and direction of play.  “If there is neither a weakness, nor an achievable pawn lever to play for,” Smith writes, “[…] it’s difficult to find a good plan.  That’s why pawn levers are the first think to look for when creating a plan.” (42)

Smith takes Ulf Andersson’s games as his model in Chapter Two (“Fair Exchange is No Robbery”).  Here we are lead through the different types of exchanges and material imbalances, and we are given thematic examples of how to play such imbalances properly.  It has recently dawned on me – particularly after watching one of John Watson’s games at this year’s US Open – that one of the marks of chess excellence is the ability to unbalance positions to one’s advantage.  This chapter is one of the finest explanations of this topic that I’ve seen.

Chapters Three “(“Auxiliary Questions”) and Four (“Calculation”) deal with chess thinking and proper calculation.  In Chapter Three Smith offers a list of questions that players might ask themselves as they analyze positions.  Among the most important of these is whether or not the position is critical, meaning that “a decision is difficult and can’t be taken back.” (118)  While I’m not convinced that a checklist of questions is really practical during over-the-board play, Smith’s questions show us how to suss out the essentials of any given position.

Chapter Four follows in the tradition of earlier works by Kotov, Buckley, Tisdall, Nunn and Aagaard, outlining a theory of how best to approach calculation.  Smith is generally skeptical of Kotov’s famed ‘tree of analysis,’ but argues that some structure of calculation is necessary.  He takes the best from multiple authors and sources, and in the end I think he offers a very well considered method of structuring our calculative efforts.  The chapter, in my opinion, stands up to the best efforts in the genre.

As useful as I found Part One of Pump Up Your Chess, Part Two was, frankly, even more impressive.  Here Smith offers a full-blown training program for chess improvement, a program that helped Smith jump from expert to IM in just over two years.  Now, data is not the plural of anecdote, and we should not judge Smith’s prescription solely from its success in his own practice or that of his talented students.  How does it look to the class player?

The training program involves four key components: (1) analyzing your games and making a ‘list of mistakes;’ (2) using a De la Maza-esque program to study tactics; (3) doing serious opening work via the creation of ‘opening files’ in ChessBase; and (4) mastering approximately 100 key theoretical endgames.  Clear goals are to be set and chased, and Smith repeatedly argues that improvement is most likely when players have training partners.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of Smith’s book is that it contains, so far as I know, the first system for chess training that integrates chess software and engines.  Authorities since Botvinnik have held that self-analysis of games is a necessary condition for real improvement.  Smith’s program for self-analysis in Chapter Five adds two key conditions to this task.

First, he explains why players should not (initially) analyze their games with the help of our silicon friends.  We don’t have access to Houdini during the game – unless our name is Ivanov, of course! – so we should get used to analyzing with the engine switched off.  After we check our analysis with our training partners and finally the computer, we are instructed to make a ‘list of mistakes’ derived from our analyses.  The list is to be updated after each tournament, with the goal of eradicating as many of the typical mistakes as possible.

The discussion of opening study in Chapter Seven is more enlightening yet.  Here Smith describes his method for creating opening files, an example of which is available from the Quality Chess website.  We are admonished to approach opening study as human players, to moderate our use of the engines, to analyze human-looking moves, and to annotate key positions with our own words and not just with Informant signs.  A slew of tips and tricks for ChessBase use are scattered both here and in an appendix, many of which will be new to even the power user.  (I’ve been using ChessBase since its DOS days, and I learned a lot here.)  The discussion of preparation also warrants repeated reading.

To study tactics, Smith borrows from his friend Hans Tikkanen and prescribes a two-tiered approach.  Players should first go through basic motifs and themes.  After that, they should select a set of mixed theme problems and solve them repeatedly until they can run through the set quickly and without mistakes.  This second part, which resembles the infamous De La Maza program for improvement, is not uncontroversial.  Still, Smith makes a case for his recommendation, and even those unconvinced by the need for repetition will find much here to study.

I’m also less convinced by his method for endgame improvement.  Here, Smith says that you learn endgames by playing them and then analyzing them afterwards.  There are also approximately 100 theoretical endgames to memorize, all of which Smith provides in pgn format at the Quality Chess website, and four of which – Q&P vs Q, QvR, ‘short-side’ R&P, and R&P where the king is cut off – are analyzed in Chapter Eight.  It suffices, Smith argues, to study these theoretical endings only once, after which they need only be looked at once a year.  From my perspective, this approach seems impractical, especially for the class player.  Some Shereshevsky or Muller & Pajeken is useful insofar as they teaches a feel for endings and for strategic chess more generally.  The feel is the hardest thing; Philidor can be memorized, but becoming a good endgame player is more than just getting to theoretical positions that we’ve seen before.

These are, of course, minor concerns when set against the overwhelming value of Smith’s book.  Pump Up Your Rating is among the best books of its kind, offering its readers a training program that takes advantage of chess software and engines while not being stultified by them.  It leads its readers through some elements of chess strategy that aren’t often treated in the literature, and it does so with skill and aplomb.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Or, to put it differently: recently I learned that I qualified for the Nebraska State Closed Championship.  I will be the lowest rated player in the field, and I have a lot of work to do on my game.  Pump Up Your Rating is the blueprint I’m using for that work.  That’s how highly I think of this book.

Eighty percent of success is showing up

After a few days detoxing from my descent into US Open madness, I’m back in the saddle.  A new review should be up by the weekend, and a retrospective and diagnostic of my games from the Open shortly thereafter.

I thought that some backlash might be coming from my winning the CJA ‘Best Chess Blog’ award, given the nature of the blogosphere and my candor regarding its occurrence.  But even I was a little surprised at the speed with which the backlash came.

Enter Mark Weeks, a prolific chess blogger based in Belgium.

Weeks is peeved, it would seem, because there were originally no entries in the blog category as of July.  I relate the story of how I met Niro and Roland (thanks for reminding me to fix the typos, Mark) and how they came to know of my blog in a post I wrote mid-event.  I also describe my surprise and embarrassment upon learning of my win; my audible response was, I believe, “you’ve got to be kidding me.”

Here’s the thing about Weeks’ post that irks me.  It’s based on a lot of innuendo and conjecture.  He thinks it odd that I reviewed a book that won the CJA award, hinting at some vast conspiracy while lacking any evidence whatsoever.  (Is he the first ‘booker,’ a new variant on truthers and birthers?)  He links to my ‘About’ page without a word as to its content or lack of spelling mistakes.  He says nothing about the quality of anything I’ve written, save to point out typographical errors.  His remarks regarding my blog are nothing but potshots, and his consummatory congratulations ring tinny and hollow.

The CJA board read my work from stem to stern, and they deemed it worthy of an award.  Is it possible that there were more deserving blogs out there?  Absolutely – but none entered.  I ran into some people who read my work, judged it, and rewarded it.  Eighty percent of success, as Woody Allen (maybe) said, is showing up.  I showed up.  I’m proud of the award, and I’m proud of my work on this blog.

There are certainly problems with the CJA as it stands.  The organization is moribund, and the Awards process needs a dramatic overhaul.  Here again, I’m showing up.  I’ve joined the CJA and have offered to join the Awards Committee to help fix what’s broken about the process.  I’ll also be nominating my blog for the 2014 Best Chess Blog award as soon as nominations open, because I’m convinced that my work here stacks up against anything else in the chess blogosphere, American or otherwise.

Rd 9: A Deserved Hiding

I got to sleep in on Sunday, since the Delegates – miracle of miracles! – had managed to finish up all their business on Saturday.  After a late breakfast with John Watson, I tried to clear my head and get ready to play some chess.  The round time, as is common, moved up on the final day to 3pm.  My opponent came ready to play.  I did not.  This game is the result.

http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2013/8/7/Game32095973.html

Multiple flaws in my game are on display in this little disaster.  My bishop belongs on e7 and not c7; I got carried away with ideas of pushing …e6-e5 and breaking up White’s center, but even there, the bishop should be on e7 to hit the c5 pawn.  My calculative abilities, if one can call them abilities, were shocking.  I just don’t seem to have the sense of danger that I should.  If any readers have ideas on how to train that, I’d be much obliged.

The silver lining is that while Team Hartmann had a miserable event, Team Watson had a very good one.  John went 6-1 (plus two half pt byes in rds 1 and 2) to finish at 7-2 and grab a share of the U2400 money.  More important than the money was the quality of his play, which was very strong indeed, and all the more impressive given his time away from the competitive arena.  There is only one of his games in TWIC, but it’s a fairly good one, and well worth your time to track down.  Below is a picture of John analyzing with his rd 9 opponent and other future members of the US Chess Olympic team.

DSCN7706

Rd 8: A Professional Job

I’m home after a long drive yesterday, and after some much needed sleep.  (Who knew chess tournaments took so much out of you?)  Now it’s time to catch up on Rounds 8 and 9, and then I’ll cap things off with a recap, review and reconsideration of my game.  I’ll return to book reviewing shortly thereafter with a review of Christian Hesse’s book.

Saturday was Delegate Meeting day.  Oy.  I’ve been told it was Kissinger who once said that academics argue so much because there’s so very little at stake.  I’m sure, however, that if he’d attended the Delegates Meeting, he’d want to modify that statement.  Chess players just love to hear themselves argue over the smallest things, and while I’m sure it’s part of my training in informal logic that makes me say this, I heard some of the dumbest arguments imaginable on certain barely consequential votes.

That said, I did rather enjoy being a Delegate, if only because I could tune out and look at things on Chessbase if the discussion went sour.  I learned quite a bit about the state of the USCF and its finances, which, all things considered, are decent and perhaps even on the upswing.  Michael Khodarkovsky gave a report about FIDE and Americans in international play.  We learned that Franc Guadalupe is actively working to get some kind of online play for USCF members and, perhaps more importantly, is bargaining with Random House to publish the long-awaited 6th edition of the Rulebook.  Guadalupe seems incredibly competent, which naturally means we can’t induce him to stay on as full-time director.  Oh well.  A boy can dream.

Two motions were actively debated.  The first dealt with the introduction of an age-limit for Delegates.  This makes sense, and legal opinion apparently was on the side of age-limiters.  But youth prevailed, if only because (1) there was a 14yr old Delegate already seated with whom the majority of the grandparently delegates were smitten, and (2) people were convinced by some of the least well-thought speeches I’ve ever heard.  So we can seat toddlers as delegates… because states rights.  (Seriously.)

Second, Jim Berry tried to introduce a plan to allow scholastic players up to the age of 12 to buy life memberships for $500.  Sounds great, right?  Most scholastic players drop out, so that has got to be a cash grab for the Federation.  But it would seem that no one actually did any cost-benefit analysis to determine how many players drop out and come back, what percentage of players would have to disappear as adults to make such a cheap price point feasible, etc.  I was moved to make my one and only comment from the floor here, telling the delegates that most of them were far older than me and that I (and my coming governing cohorts) might have to deal with the consequences of a plan that apparently wasn’t worth their doing basic math or anything.  Luckily reason – or non-insanity – prevailed here and the motion failed.

It turns out my evening game was against another delegate, this time a woman from Wisconsin.  After some dodgy opening play, I was able to tie her defenses down to a backward c-pawn and then open up a second attack on her kingside.  I probably could have won faster, but in the end I’m basically pleased with my play here.  The resistance could have been stronger, but it wasn’t a blowout and I had to actually, you know, do something to win.  This left me at 4.0/8 heading into the last round.

http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2013/8/6/Game23773039.html