Category Archives: US Open

Making Better Decisions

This review has been printed in the October 2017 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Aagaard, Jacob. Grandmaster Preparation: Thinking Inside the Box. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-1907982354. HC 408pp.

There was a moment at this summer’s Paris Grand Prix involving Magnus Carlsen and Maurice Ashley that, besides being meme-worthy, was revelatory of the nature of competitive chess at the highest levels.

In the post-game interview after his tense rapid win over Etienne Bacrot, Carlsen took umbrage at Ashley’s characterization of the World Champion’s play as not entirely ‘smooth.’ Carlsen demonstratively pushed back against this line of questioning, asking Ashley what exactly he expected from him: “…what do you want me to do? Do you want me to get a huge advantage from the opening and then push it all the way [to victory]… is that the only way you can win a ‘smooth’ game? Is that your point?”

There was a time in chess history when these ‘smooth’ wins actually took place. If we look at the games of Capablanca or Alekhine, for example, we find precisely the kinds of talent mismatches that produce ‘smooth’ victories. The opposition often failed to recognize deep positional threats until it was too late, with the result being that many of these early contests are paradigms of strategy and attack. Numerous teachers recommend the collected games of Capablanca and Alekhine (among others) for precisely this reason.

Modern chess is not nearly so neat and tidy. With the wide dissemination of information in print and electronic form, and with the ubiquity of the computer, we have seen something of a leveling of the playing field at the highest levels. Players are much ‘wiser’ than they used to be, and what Alekhine once said of himself – that to defeat him, you had to win in the opening, the middlegame, and the ending – is true of all of today’s elite.

But Carlsen is still the World Champion, and he still wins more than he loses. How? There seems to be something of a consensus: what Carlsen does better than his opponents is solve problems. Instead of relying on a store of killer opening novelties, Carlsen is content to try and find positions that he understands better than his opponents, and use his superior decision making skills to successfully outplay them. It may not be ‘smooth,’ but it seems to work.

Isn’t this, at its core, the nature of competitive chess? The player who makes better decisions over the course of a game or, less charitably, who makes fewer bad ones, will usually come out on top. Training our decision making abilities would therefore seem to be critical for success in over-the-board play, and improvement would, quite literally, require that we rewire the way we think.

Such considerations have long been at the heart of Jacob Aagaard’s oeuvre. In one of his first books, Excelling at Chess, Aagaard implored his readers to think like humans instead of machines, sketching an approach to chess improvement on the basis of that key insight. He compared the differences between amateur and professional thinking in Inside the Chess Mind. And he served as the occluded co-author of Boris Gelfand’s Positional Decision Making in Chess and Dynamic Decision Making in Chess, both of which received high praise in these pages.

Aagaard’s latest book, Grandmaster Preparation: Thinking Inside the Box, is the sixth and final volume in the Grandmaster Preparation series and in many ways its lodestar. The title, a cheeky nod to Doctor Who, is also emblematic of Aagaard’s approach to improvement. It is only through the steady sharpening of basic chess skills, many already in our conceptual toolboxes, that we can begin to make better decisions and ultimately improve our results.

The great bulk of Thinking Inside the Box – most of Chapters 3 through 11 – revolves around decision making, and it is a useful lens for discussing the book as a whole. More specifically, it involves an in-depth discussion of the four types of decisions players encounter over-the-board. These are:

1. Automatic moves, or “decisions [that] you can make quickly.” (113) These might be theoretical openings or endings, forced moves or recaptures, etc. We are warned to double-check that the move is indeed automatic, and then to make it.

2. Simple decisions, which are largely intuitive and involve choosing between multiple candidate moves. These decisions rely less on calculation than on intuition or principle, and at some point, players simply have to guess when choosing the ‘best’ move.

3. Critical moments, where “the difference between the best and second-best move is large.”[1] Aagaard usually compares these to algebra exams. Critical moments can only be decided through intensive calculation, and any inaccuracy can lead to failure.

4. Strategic (or “complex”) decisions involve difficult positions that resist being decided through any of our individual decision-making skills (calculation, intuition, theoretical knowledge, general principles, bald hunches). All of our tools must be brought to bear on these positions, but ultimately, we have to guess here too.

I happened to attend this year’s US Open in Norfolk as I was reading Thinking Inside the Box for this review, and it was constantly on my mind during my games. One position is particularly pertinent in this regard. Here, in my 7th round game, I had the White pieces, and my opponent had just played his 32nd move.

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After 33.Rc2! Rxc3 I realized that I had encountered a critical moment in Aagaard’s sense of the term, one where a miscalculation could turn what had once been a winning position into a draw. I correctly decided that I had to look as deeply into the position as I could, burning through 15 of my remaining 25 minutes in the process.

What I discovered was that after my intended 34.Rxc3? the position was drawn: 34. ..Bxc3 35.Rc1 e2 36.Kf2 e1Q+ 37.Rxe1 Bxe1+ 38.Kxe1 Kxe6 39.Ke2 Ke5 (39. ..b5! is also equal) 40.Ke3 b5!=. Luckily for me, there was an alternative, and I found the much superior 34.Rac1!. After 34. ..Rc5? (34. ..Bd4 35.Kf1; 34. ..e2 35.Kf2) 35.Rxc5 bxc5 36.Rxc5 e2 (36. ..Bd4 37.Rc1 e2+ 38.Kg2 Kxe6 39.Kf3 Kd5 40.Kxe2; 36. ..Kd6 37.e7!) 37.Rc1 Bd4+ (37. ..Kxe6 38.Kf2) 38.Kg2 Bc3 39.Kf2 my opponent resigned.

That some may view this example as an automatic decision instead of a critical one is a strength of Aagaard’s system and not a weakness. By focusing on decisions and moments instead of positions, he highlights the first-person nature of decision making in chess, as well as the ways in which effective training can sharpen those decisions.

This is the practical upshot of Aagaard’s methods. In studying the nature of our decision making and considering our specific strengths and weaknesses as players (Chapter 3), we can try to locate and correct our personal weaknesses. I have discovered that I struggle with simple decisions, calculating too much and taking too much time in doing so. You cannot imagine how liberating it was to read that even Grandmasters have to regularly guess, and with this admonition firmly in mind, I have managed to limit my time trouble woes in recent games.

Aagaard’s discussion of the nature and limits of calculation (Chapters 7-8) was similarly illuminating. Borrowing heavily from the work of Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, he distinguishes between two modes of thought: System 1, which is “fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic and subconscious,” and System 2, which is “slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, and conscious.” (157) Calculation for Aagaard is not merely ‘seeing variations.’ It involves “finding variations you do not see intuitively.” We improve our calculation by slowing down and actively searching for moves and ideas that are not intuitive, or those that we do not immediately see. This is Kahneman’s System 2 in action, and while Aagaard is careful to remind us that we must not over-rely on our calculative abilities (167), it turns out that even the World Champion could stand to activate System 2 from time to time.

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After playing 25. ..exd3 in his victory over Peter Svidler in the 2013 Candidates Tournament, Carlsen was asked about 25. ..Bxh3! in the post-game press conference. The idea is brilliant: after 26.dxe4 (26.gxh3? Qxh3) 26. ..Rg5 27.g3 Bg4 28.f3 Rb2!! 29.Qxb2 Bxf3 Black’s attack is irresistible.

Most commentators – including Ian Rogers in these very pages (June 2013) – argued that Carlsen had missed something, that he’d made a calculative oversight in not playing the bishop sacrifice. Aagaard, who was in attendance, saw something different. Carlsen just hadn’t seen the candidate move. Once he did, it was trivial for him to analyze it to its end, and Aagaard reports that it took Carlsen all of 10 seconds to confirm that it was “completely winning.”

Thinking Inside the Box is an immensely rich book, and another review could be written about what has been left out of this one. The discussion of opening study is solid, as is the account of Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ and its relevance for chess improvement. The appendix on nutrition, however, seems out of place, and I do not see the need for Aagaard to once again dredge up his decade-old debate with John Watson. This is especially true as he ends up agreeing with Watson in describing rules as having pragmatic validity in a broadly Deweyian sense. (237-242)

Very few chess books have stuck with me the way that Thinking Inside the Box has. I think it is Aagaard’s finest work, filled with useful insights, and I find myself reflecting on it frequently as I play and study. It is not an easy book by any standard, but I suspect that most players seriously looking to improve and capable of self-criticism would do very well to read it.


[1] Aagaard, Jacob. “Critical Moments – two opposing definitions.” Quality Chess Blog (blog), Quality Chess. July 11, 2017. http://www.qualitychess.co.uk/blog/6113#more-6113

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2014 US Open: Rd 9

The worst game I have played in my adult chess life. I am showing my ass here, but what else can I do?

Other items of possible interest: common sense prevailed for one moment at the Delegates Meeting when the knee-jerk ADMs about the problems at the National Elementary scholastics were defeated. It left the room when we spent 30+ minutes on the wording of the rule which specifies that you must touch the king first when castling. A NY TD introduced a slew of ADMs that would have added rules / TD tips to the rulebook to cover the rarest and most inconsequential situations. That took up another 40 or so minutes.

Everyone has plays a real stinker now and again, but did I have to pay so much money for the honor of doing so here?

At least I have the rest of the day to do something … once the thunderstorm that just rolled through passes.

I finished at 4/9 and I will lose dozens of rating points. A recap may follow eventually. Or not. Whatever.

2014 US Open: Rd 8

It is both a blessing and a curse to serve as a Delegate (pdf of Delegate’s Call) to the United States Chess Federation. On the one hand, it ‘gives me a reason’ to come to the US Open. I even get a small bit of financial support from my state association.

On the other, I have to sit through the meeting.

I’m told that meetings in years past were just painful, especially during the years of the Polgar wars. This year’s meeting, unlike last year’s, stretched into a second day. (I’m writing these words on that second morning right now.) But like last year’s meeting, this one has been mainly palatable, with the transmission of information flowing well and the embarrassing speeches from the floor at a minimum.

*Note that I reserve the right to revise these words after ADMs 14-32 through 14-34, which deals with the debacle at the National Elementary in Dallas this spring, and for which discussion is about to begin.*

The USCF is in a good place right now. The transition to 501c3 status is complete, opening doors to new fundraising and requiring the USCF to begin to rethink and reimagine its role in American chess. We have a new Executive Director who seems both competent and enthusiastic. Our financial status is better than it has been in the recent past, but it will be stressed with the inclusion of two international team events (Olympiad and World Teams) in the next fiscal year. And the executive board actually functions with the best interests of the membership in view. Someone pinch me.

There were, of course, a few uncomfortable moments. The motion which was a thinly veiled plea from a Delegate to let him work at national scholastic events? That was embarrassing. The near-hour spent talking about the US Open time control, based on experience in two and three day events, all of which is less-than-pertinent to the only American one-a-day in existence? So frustrating.

My round eight game was against a nine year old from Florida rated just south of 1500. Great. Just what I want when I’m having a rough tournament! I sat down to play, thinking that I should just try to keep the tactics to a minimum and use my superior intellect and education to grind the kid down. And then I blew open the center on move 12.

The power of the bishops told, and I won the game. Like many ill-educated children, Reddy refused to resign. So I played it out, and right at the point where mate was imminent, he resigned.

Hey kid, if you read this: (1) making me play it out is rude. I’m not a six year old who will stalemate you when I have nearly two hours on the clock. (2) If you’re going to make me play it out, let me deliver the mate. I know it’s not your fault, but your parents and teachers have failed you by not teaching you manners and decorum.

</soapbox>

Curious fact: this week at the Rosen Center and the surrounding area, there have been (at minimum) the following groups meeting:

Most notable have been the large numbers of young pageant ladies wandering about all week, besashed and bedazzled, both the aspiring Teen candidates and the current Miss America state crownholders. I saw just about every state, but not once did I see a Miss Nebraska – until last night.

Check out the pictures from yesterday, which include Jim Tarjan’s postmortem after his round 8 draw, and my picture with the 4th place finisher in the MAO Teen, Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Morgan Holen. Omaha represent!

2014 US Open: Rd 6, 7

I took a bye for round 6, leaving most of my Friday open.  I saw my good friend Abhinav Suresh, the NE representative to the Denker, along with his father in the morning, but as I had an early lunch scheduled, I had to pass on breakfast.

In an earlier post I alluded to the fact that I had undertaken a project to collect and preserve games from this year’s US Open. I think it is a scandal that there is no longer a bulletin service at the US Open. I think it is a scandal that the only preservation of games played is via Monroi. Many of the top players do not like to use the devices, and there are only so many devices to go around. Some weeks ago I contacted the event organizers and asked that I might make an effort to sort through the scoresheets and save what games I could.

The idea was twofold. First, I would encourage all players to e-mail me their games after the event for inclusion in a crowdsourced database. Flyers are up near the pairing sheets, the results sheets, and next to the scoresheet dropbox. I had business cards printed up to be distributed at each chess board before round 9.

I also planned to sort through scoresheets, sift out the top 20 boards from each round, and photocopy them for input into ChessBase. The organizers – Franc Guadalupe, Jon Haskell, and Alan Losoff in the backroom – have bent over backwards to accommodate this windmill tilt, and I would like to thank them publically. What I learned yesterday morning sifting and sorting was that my original plan would not work. Many of the yellow carbon copies of game scores would not photocopy. So the organizers agreed to ship me the scores, making my life much easier.

Lunch was had at Emeril’s Orlando with my friend John Watson. Being the fan of NOLA food that I am, Emeril’s was kind of a ‘gumbo patch’ for my NOLA addiction, and it served its purpose nobly. The trip out to the CityWalk was, if I am honest, disturbing. The sprawl of tourist sites shocked my Midwestern sensibilities, and I couldn’t understand how all of them – all the hotels, all the restaurants, all the waterslides – could make money. Maybe the economy isn’t as bad as everyone says it is.

I got back to the Rosen Center Hotel just in time to make part of the Publications Committee meeting, which was a bit of a shambles, and the Chess Journalists of America meeting, which was not. Injecting new life into a moribund organization takes time, and the CJA is transitioning. A few new initiatives were mentioned, and the Chess Journalism Awards were also announced. The home team was sadly shut out in all three categories for which it was nominated. Oh well – I’ll just have to work harder and win next year!

My round 7 game was against Steve Kuzma of Texas, who I learned was a former (and perhaps future) Husker like myself! I managed to win the exchange on move 15 and converted the point, although not without some difficulty.

This game was a good example of where my chess is at these days. I saw his idea on move 13, and nearly immediately saw the refutation at move 15. This kind of brute tactical idea is something that I think has improved in my game, and I attribute that mostly to the work with the Stappenmethode workbooks. I am stumbling, however, in positional areas. I’m too willing to eat a pawn and try to hold on. And I think I underestimate passed pawns while overestimating the bishops. The drive to improve never ends.

As I write these words, I am sitting in the Delegates Meeting, ‘enjoying’ the goings-on. More on that (with some pictures) tomorrow.

2014 US Open: Rd 4, 5

This was not a good day for me.  Well, not chess-wise, anyway.

My Thursday began with a visit with an old friend who I’ve not seen since my wedding some years ago.  This was lovely.

My round four opponent, Theodore Biyiasis, handed me a deserved defeat on the the Black side of the McCutcheon. I accepted a gambit pawn and failed to absorb the pressure.  After the game, we had a fruitful post-mortem and I got to speak a bit with Ruth Haring, current USCF President, while we located a set for analysis.  Both the post-mortem and the chat with Haring made up for the lost against the 2000+ Biyiasis.

In round five I lost, mainly through self-inflicted actions, against Alex Little, a 1630-ish player from Georgia. I got a dream position and then thoroughly misunderstood the lay of the land, giving up two minor pieces for a rook, a pawn, and the phantom of the initiative. By the time I understood that I stood worse, it was too late, and I folded like a house of cards. Kudos to the winner, but this one was on me.

As the night wore on, I had a few drinks with friends, and ended up meeting the coming scion of a salacious publishing empire at the bar.  He is in town for LeakyCon, the end-all of Harry Potter cons, and we traded stories about our respective events for a time. It’ll make for quite a tale for our friends back in Omaha.

Here are the games with light annotations.  I’m trying to avoid getting too deeply into analysis while the event goes on, preferring to focus on rest and socialization.  (I have even cut back on the opening prep after last year’s experience.) Today I attended the Publications and CJA committees, and my round 7 game is tonight. Let’s hope that this Lazarus can arise and play decent chess once more.

2014 US Open: Rd 2, 3

After a decent night’s sleep – decent, not sufficient! – I awoke to breakfast with Nebraska’s brightest young female chess player and her mother.  I took a quick jaunt to the Whole Foods to find coffee filters for my Hario V60 pourover, visited the bookstore with Jacey and her family,  and meandered a bit after they left for shopping and their flight home.

(Pro tip: if ever you forget to bring your special V60 filters with you on a trip. you can jerry-rig Melitta #4s and still brew your delicious, non-hotel coffee.  Don’t say I never did anything for you.)

Let me say something first about the bookstore, run this year (as last) by Chess4Less and the Rochester Chess Center. These guys do a great job stocking books, equipment, and swag. They are on-site for hours and hours, answering questions, suffering fools gladly, and letting bloggers like me take pictures.  Lots of them are provided in a link below.

As part of my quest to preserve the game scores from this tournament, I also dropped by the Director’s Room. The Director’s Room is where pairings are done and where the gruntwork of running a big tournament like this takes place.  I was tickled to learn that USCF directors have named their computers after world champions.

After a quick bite to eat, I dropped by the Scholastic Chess Committee meeting at 2pm. There was a bit of a kertuffle in Dallas this year at the National Elementary School Championship, as a team from WA were admitted to a section for low rated played for which they were dramatically overqualified.  Their USCF ratings did not represent their actual strength, while their NWS ratings (local to the NW) did. Naturally, when they won the event, things got ugly. Chess parents are about as delightful as stage parents.

So there has been a push among certain verbose members of the USCF community to make radical changes to procedures for dealing with foreign rating systems.  As I am the Nebraska delegate to the USCF, I thought I should learn about this issue and thus attended the Scholastic meeting.

What a mistake.

The meeting was filled with petty, backbiting nonsense from some of the ‘leading’ players in American scholastic chess.  One eminent figure repeatedly whined that no one contacted him to access his vast knowledge at key moments. (Nevermind the fact that this eminent fellow is no longer on the the Council, etc.) Another started to shout – literally – because he had to have the last word when his alleged ‘facts’ were corrected by someone with first-hand knowledge of a specific matter.

I think institutional memory is invaluable, but man, the USCF needs some new blood in a desperate way.

I managed to grab a quick nap and eat before my round three game.  As I took a half-point bye for the afternoon game, I started with 0.5/2.  My opponent was a plucky 11 yr old from Florida, and I managed to defeat him without too much difficulty.

In other news, Jim Tarjan drew the top rated player as he continues his comeback to tournament chess, and John Watson won his game to take his score to 4/5.

As promised, here are about 60 pictures from Wednesday!

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.