Saturday, November 21, 2009

How I Gained 434 Points in One Year

Every chess player is different.  What works for some does not necessarily work for others.  There are different reasons why someone may be rated 1400.  For example, Player A might be rated 1400 because his opening knowledge is master-level and most of the time he can get a pretty nice advantage out of the opening.  Yet Player B might be rated 1400 because he has an unwavering fighting attitude and solid endgame technique.  So obviously if both Player A and B asked a teacher, "How can I get to 1500?"  The answer should be markedly different.  I say all this to preface the statement, this is how I picked up 400 rating points in one year.  This is not how I suggest you pick up 400 points.

I was rated USCF 1209 a year ago.  This 1209 was not just a slump I was going through either.  It was my first official rating after 25 provisionally rated games and was established in October of 2008 right after our 69th State Championships.  In all of my provisionally rated games, I never broke 1300.  So it's fair to say I was a legitimate 1209 player.

After my rating was established, I finally had a clear idea that I needed to change some things.  Both in the method of choosing moves and my actual discipline at the board.   Regarding my play over the board, I made the decision to change two things; I had to start using way more clock than I was using, and I was going to play one section higher than I should be.  If I was going to lose I wanted to lose to good players who I could learn some things from.  Regarding my play, I picked up a study program from GM Jesse Kraii based on Lazlo Polgar's Chess: 5,334 Problems.  The first 300 or so problems are mate in one problems that intend to firmly concrete the most basic mating patterns, a fantastic basis for any chess player to build on.  The next 4,000 problems are Mate in 2 which combine the basic mating patterns and improve your powers of calculation.  I hit this book with gusto.  Combined with my decision to play up and use more clock I picked up my first 1300 rating in a month and a half.

After I was rated 1315, I was convinced the Polgar book was exactly what I needed so I hit it harder.  I completed the 300 Mate in One problems more than 5 times and did over 700 Mate in Two problems within the next two months.  I also completed several micro-game exercises recommended by Michael De La Maza in his book "Rapid Chess Improvement".  My favorite was the Knight Sight exercise that trains your mind to both use your knight for some serious harm and how to spot your enemy's knight forks.

My confidence was soaring.  By April of 2009, through regular tournament play and an occasional weekend tournament, my rating peaked at 1510.  Then I sort of leveled off.  From April to July my rating went from 1510 to 1483.  During that three month time, I decided the Polgar study plan had taken me as far as it was going to take me for now.  I needed a new approach.

I read and completed "The Amatuer's Mind".  I learned a vast amount of new chess knowledge in regards to middlegame and positional play.  Armed with my new knowledge my rating promptly went from 1483 to 1457 in the next two months.  The reason for the decline in my rating was my rethinking of chess.  I was relying on new methods instead of the methods that got me to 1500.  I still felt like I was playing better chess even if it was not showing in my actual rating.

After the Amatuer's Mind I decided to firm up my openings.  I purchased "Chess Openings for White, Explained" and its counterpart for Black.  My repertoire is not based exclusively on these recommended lines (for example I tried the symmetrical English as Black and freaking hated it.)  Chess Openings for Black recommends exclusively the Hyper-Accelerated Dragon against 1.e4.  Against 1.e4 I play e5, c5 and e6 for variety.  It also recommends the Nimzo-Indian against 1.d4 and I play the Dutch and the Queen's Gambit Accepted.  However, my opening play improved a great bit.  These books were directly responsible for 3 wins that I picked up in the last year based on easy (but extremely sound) traps that my opponent walked right into.  My rating held steady until August 2009 when I was rated 1479.

I then read and completed "Art of the Middlegame" by Kotov and Keres.  In one of the very best chapters in any chess book I've ever read, the Chapter entitled "How to Defend Difficult Positions" totally changed my perspective on the game of chess.  For the first time I realized the game is not just a game of wooden pieces and dry analysis.  It's a competition between two flesh and blood humans engaged in mental and psychological battle.  Aside from the excellent technical lessons learned from this book, this one chapter alone endowed me with a fighting spirit like I've never had before.   Armed with a new attitude and the heart of a lion and my previous work throughout the year, my chess play began to gel.  I picked up 75 points in one tournament and hit my highest rating ever of 1528.

In our next club tournament I picked up another 40 points and hit 1569.   On October 10th 2009, I took my 1569 rating to a weekend tournament out of town.  In my first round game I got paired against a guy rated 1703.  To give you an example about my change in attitude, I would have ordinarily said to myself "Oh wow, 1703, I'm going to have to play the best game of my life to beat this guy".  Instead I sat down across from him and looked at his rating and said to myself, "1703?  Wow this is going to be the highest rated opponent I will have ever beaten by the time this game is over."  I won.  When this tournament was over I was rated 1593.

The next step for me was the 70th South Carolina Championships.  This tournament was exactly one year after my 1209 rating was established.  I was determined to perform well.  My first game I won as black versus a 1400 rated opponent.  I had to take an unforseen second-round bye.  The third round game I got paired off against a player rated 1350 who I really had to fight hard and wound up with a draw when I was a pawn down. I was very lucky to not lose this game.  My fourth round game I beat the same 1700 player as mentioned in the previous paragraph.  My final game I defeated a 1650 rated opponent to finish with 4 points out of 5 in the Under 1800 section and a shiny new 1643 rating.  My performance was also good enough to be awarded the "2009 South Carolina Amatuer Co-Champion", split with another guy who I never got a chance to play.

My General Advice on Improvement
Obviously I can only speak for players around 1000-1400 on how to improve.  However, there is absolutely zero substitute for hard work.  You have to enjoy the work you put into chess as much as the games you play.  There is no shortcut to get to anywhere that's worth going.  Secondly, you have to be a fierce competitor.  I love competition and I believe my fighting spirit echoes in my play.  Thirdly, you have to have a solid foundation.  Pattern recognition, basic tactics and generally active play will take you a long way.  Finally, you absolutely cannot be afraid to change.  If you notice, two or three times during this article, I said "I realize I needed to change".  You absolutely cannot continue to rely on the methods that got you to where you are to get you further.  Sometimes you have to tear down your building and rebuild it so it can be taller.  Now matter how good of an engineer you have designing your building, your foundation will only take you so far.  Never be afraid to destroy your foundation and rebuild it stronger.  I believe those resistant to change are the ones who will be stuck in their rating.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Interview with Gregory Kaidanov

Grandmaster Gregory Kaidanov is one of the strongest chess players in the United States and one of the top 200 rated players in the world. I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Kaidanov a few months ago when he came to South Carolina and toured around 4 cities putting on various simuls and lectures to promote the South Carolina Open. I had the opportunity to have lunch with Gregory and found him to be tremendously pleasant and also a true gentleman which I hate to say is missing greatly from a game that is supposed to be "the gentlman's game".

Thanks for visiting.  Sit back and enjoy my interview with chess sensation, Gregory Kaidanov.

Grandmaster Gregory Kaidanov Interview with the Weak Square
WS: Hello Mr. Kaidanov, first off let me thank you for your time and right off the bat I just have to say you are not near as pretty as the last GM that I interviewed, no offense of course.

GK: If you would say that I'm pretty, it would make me worry.

WS: Who is your favorite player ever and a few lines about why?

GK: I don't have a favorite player. In different times of my career I enjoyed studying (and benefited from) the games of Tal, Botvinnik and Karpov. Nowadays I enjoy looking at the games of young players like Carlsen, Aronian, Gashimov, Tomashevsky. When I see that not a very well known player wins a strong tournament I am always curious to see how did he does it and what his style looks like.

WS: Do you have any rituals or superstitions you abide by before a serious game?

GK: I am no different from majority of professional players: preparation, meal, short walk, etc.

WS: My rituals usually include trying to slip my opponent some kind of laxative, but we're all different right? Have you ever experienced such a devastating loss that you considered giving up chess permanently?

GK: Many times! The first one was when I was 10 years old. It's an interesting story, you can read about it at

WS: What's your favorite beer?

GK: I like dark beer though I am not a heavy drinker, Killian's Irish Red is one of my favorites.

WS: My favorite beer is "free" with it's close cousin "stolen".  Speaking of beverages, were you the guy inside the Amp Can? (

GK: Was not able to open a link

WS: I'll take that as a "no". But for those not in the "know" a guy dressed up as an Amp can and went to Washington Park and started whipping a bunch of tail in chess.  Ok so next question, I imagine making a transition to English was difficult enough as a second language but were you able to pick up the Kentucky accent when you moved here?

GK: Didn't succeed in picking it up, but made a big progress in understanding it. :)

WS: I still have trouble understanding the hillbilly dialect and I was born and raised in the South, I can't imagine what it must be like for a foreigner, moving to Kentucky what a culture shock. Anyways, what advice would you offer to an adult class player who has hopes of reaching 2200 one day?

GK: This advice will differ greatly depending on the age, level, style, types of mistakes this player does, etc., etc.

WS: Does your wife or your children like chess?

GK: My wife is 1500-1600 player strength, though she thinks she is better than that :) My kids enjoy an occasional game, but that's about it.

WS: Your wife is in the same boat as every other chess player I think. So other than reading my blog on a daily basis, what is your favorite activity aside from chess... keep it clean please?

GK: I have many hobbies: poker, reading, hiking, movies are just a few. Unfortunately there is not enough time for everything.

WS: I understand you offer chess lessons via phone, Internet, etc. Would you like to say anything in regards to that? Are you currently welcoming new students?

GK: I am currently working around capacity, especially when it comes to evening hours. Even Saturdays and Sundays are very busy. So far I didn't turn down anyone, but I will have to change something, maybe rising prices again (though I did it just a few months ago). I am very passionate about teaching, but at the same time feel very sad that I almost had to give up playing, to combine both at this stage is virtually impossible.

WS: And how much would you be willing to pay me for chess lessons? I've picked up over 400 points in the last year, I'm sure you could learn a thing or two from me.

GK: Don't worry, everyone who plays poker knows, it's just a variance.

WS: Touchet! Chess is a fascinating game and draws people from all walks of life. Because of this there have been countless bizarre, outrageous, strange and unbelievable things in chess history. I say all this to preface the question, what's the most outrageous thing that has happened to you during a game?

GK: I heard many such stories, but the most outrageous things which happened to me were couple of cases when the lights went off during the game. Sorry to disappoint.

WS: Thanks again for your time, best wishes as you continue your playing career.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

End GameLesson #3: Bishops of Opposite Color - Another Draw?

My year long chess end game study continues.  I have been at it for about seven weeks now and I feel like my end game has improved drastically.  However, that is a double-edged sword because of the old saying, "The more you learn the less you know".  I believe this nugget of wisdom to be truth.  The more you learn the more you realize there is a vast ocean of information you simply don't know.

Opposite-Colored Bishops Endgame
"Without other pieces (but with pawns) these endings are notorious for their tendency to result in a draw. These are the most difficult endings in which to convert a small material advantage to a win. "
-Wikipedia Article-

I cannot count the number of times I've heard over the last two years (amount of time I've been playing tournament chess), "Blah. Bishops of opposite color endgame, it's a draw."  This is dangerous thinking my friends.  I know the principles.  I know the general rule that bishops of opposite color endgames are drawish.  Yet these generalizations are not gospel, they are simply that... generalizations. 

It's white to move here.  Ok granted, black has a tough road to walk down for a draw with two enemy pawns on the 7th.   But is he really that bad off?  Both queen squares are controlled, the white bishop is totally passive and black has an outside passed pawn of his own.  Moreover, white's bishop controls neither queening square.  If black can decoy the white bishop off of the h2-b8 diagonal he will win the pawn on c7 and then just sit back and wait to snipe the pawn if it ever moves to g8. 

White's only chance to win this sucker to force black to give up his bishop for the g7 pawn and then bring his king over and protect the c-pawn while the white bishop pulls guard duty on the black a-pawn. Sounds easy right?  Let's show one quick example of how this fails with tremendous flair.

1. Ke5 a5 2. Kf6 a4 3. Ke7 Kc8 (3... a3? 4. Kd8!+) 4. Kf8 a3 5. g8(Q) Bxg8 6. Kxg8 a2 7. Be5 whew, looks like white has it covered.

Black brings white back to reality with 7... a1(Q)! 8. Bxa1 Kxc7=

Ok back to the original position.  So now we see the problem as clear as crystal. That a-pawn is throwing a wrench into our cogs.   If white can stop the a-pawn and continue with his own ideas then he will be winning.  It just so turns out in this position with white to move he can force a win.  Let's take a look.

1. Kc3!  (buying valuable time) Bf7 (the Bishop absolutely has to stay on this diagonal or he is toast) 2. Kb4 (now black cannot safely push his pawn) Be6.

Now that our first goal has been realized we have to look towards the next step in this operation.  The white king will never be able to force the black bishop to give itself up if it is pulling guard duty for this dinky little rook-pawn.  So we have to get the white bishop over to a5 where it blocks the a-pawn and defends the c-pawn.

3. Be5 Bf7 4. Kc5 Bb3.

Here is the position.  It would seem like white cannot maintain guard on c7 and black's a pawn but...

5. Kd6! (Black still cannot play 5... a5 on account of 6. Kd7 and white will queen one of his two pawns.)  5... Kc8 6. Bc3 Bf7 7. Ba5 (bingo) Be6 8. Ke7 Bb3 9. Kf8 Ba2 10. g8(Q) Bxg8 11. Kxg8

Black could resign with dignity here but he plays on because he has one more sinister trick up his sleeve.

11... a6 12. Kf8 Kb7 13. Ke8 Kc8 14. Ke7 Kb7 15. Kd8 Ka7

If you thought it would be a good idea in this position to play 16. c8(Q) then pat yourself on the back, you're the proud owner of a Bishop and Queen in a completely drawn position.

16.  Bc3! a5 17. c8(Q) and black has several different ways he can choose to self destruct but white scores a pretty mate after 17... a4 18. Bd4#

Remember, there is no room for mechanical thinking in chess. This principle is amplified in the endgame.  Thinking that a bishop of opposite color end game is an automatic draw is dangerous thinking whichever side you find yourself on.  Imagine how stupid you would feel if you traded into the original position as black with the assumption you had a draw in the bag.  I admit it would have been hard to work out that entire 10 move sequence where black has to give up the bishop to save the game, however all of the possibilities are certainly there.