Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Get Out of My Head!

Get Out of My Head!: A Discussion on Introducing a Thought Process Into Your Chess

It has come to my attention recently that I am robbing myself of gobs of rating points by having a thought process that resembles the IRS tax code. This came to my attention while scouring some of Dan Heisman's Novice Nook articles and he relentlessly talked about thought process and how it is a infused into a disciplined player's mind. I got interested and picked up his book "The Improving Chess Thinker". The book was not so much about the acquisition of theory or how to select good moves. No sir! The book was about how to create an atmosphere where you perform at the top of your ability each time you play.

You all know the feeling. When you are playing your best you are lights out, you might play 200-350 points above your rating level when you are "on". However when you are off, man are you off! I believe anyone can easily play 1,000 points below their ability on some days for a multitude reasons mostly due to mental collapses.

Just to illustrate my point here is a sampling of my thought process.  Read this carefully.  I am a class B player.  No one has ever taught me how to manage a game of chess in my mind therefore as you might imagine it's convoluted.  I consider myself a good tactician, a reasonable middlegame player and a respectable endgame player. But, observe how fractured my thought process is about a given move. A sampling of my thought process usually goes something like this, I tried to be as accurate as possible:

"Ok he moved. That was kind of a sissy move, I need to figure out how to punish him for such a passive move. You don't play chess like that against me and expect not to get punished! Moving a flank pawn? Please, obviously just wasting a move to see what I'm going to do. Ok, let's see. I have a knight fork on e5, what can I do to execute that... Oh I need to write his move down. Hrm. Play for that knight fork on e5? Oh, that pawn move discovered an attack on my queen! I absolutely have to move her. Ok no matter what I HAVE to move my queen this turn. What should I do after that? I move my queen here, he has to respond by moving that bishop backwards. That's his only move right? Yep. What do I have after that? I need to play for a pawn break on the f-file that would lead to a nice kingside attack once I get my forces organized. I need some more firepower on the f-file though. I don't want to make the same mistake I did in my game last week against Jerry. I really did deserve to lose that game but man I got lucky. Dangit 3 minutes has gone by. Ok, think. How to bolster the f-file. Ah, I can pitch that knight fork on e5 and just play Ng5, ah that looks good! Ok, Ng5 it is, that works right? Here goes. Oh my god, I forgot I have to move my queen, whew that was close. Ok first Queen to e3 THEN Ng5 after that. Oh I can't play Qe3 that loses a pawn. Qd2 instead. Write down move... move... and press clock. OH GOD I JUST HUNG MY KNIGHT! Oh wait it's protected by a discovered check! Whew. Qd2 is a good move."

Some might call this thought process "flawed".  I would like to call it efficiency-challenged.   So I decided to follow the sage advice in Dan Heisman's book and adopt a thought process.  I'm not going to lie it's a little strange at first. Almost like some weird dude living in your house.  I mean it's weird like a dude that sits on your couch and bites his toenails and talks about grave rubbings and 16th century puppetry.  Just plain weird.  However, Heisman talks about how foreign introducing a rigid thought process into your game is at first.  Yet, it is necessary to get your process in place no matter how bizarre at first.  Pay your dues and they will eventually pay dividends when it matters.

So I tried introducing this process into my first tournament game last week and it was exactly as Dan described. It felt like an intruder into my game.  Heisman assures his reader that efficiency and speed will follow.  Here is a sampling of how it went.

Weak Square(1661) vs. Chris L.(1463)

1.e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bb5 a6
4. Ba4 b5
5. Bb3 Bc5
6. O-O Nf6
7. Nxe5 Nxe5
8. d4 Nxe4?!
9. dxc5 Qh4?
10. Qd5!

We played 18 moves but the game was pretty much over at this point so I stop my commentary here.

"I have white, this is a 90 minute plus 5-second per move game.  This game will last approximately 45 moves so I have two minutes and five seconds per move.  All right let's begin.  E4.  He plays E5.  I have two minutes to decide my move.  I am not in check.  Was his move safe? Yes.  Can I force mate? No.  If he were allowed to make another move what would he do? Eh, I don't know probably develop and try to play for control of d4.  So I can play my book move Nf3 here and he will have to defend his pawn.  Write down Nf3. Does he have any checks, threats or captures? No. Ok Move. Press clock.

He plays Nc6.  I know he's expecting me to go into the Scotch gambit.  Oh, I forgot. Write down move.  I am not in check, his move was safe.  I cannot force mate.  I'm going to play the Spanish. Bb5. Clock.

He responds a6.  That's a bit of a surprise. I pegged him for a Bc5 kind of player.  Oh I forgot again... write down move. I have 2 minutes and five seconds to decide my move.  Was his move safe? Yes. Am I in check? No.  If it were his move right now what would he do?  Well he would capture my bishop, so I have to move that... am I missing a step in this thought process here?  Oh yeah, listing all the benefits of his move, well it puts the question to my bishop while simultaneously preparing for queenside expansion with b5.  Is that all? Yeah. Oh geez a whole minute has gone by since he's played a6... aaaaand he's looking at me like I'm an idiot because I'm taking 60 seconds to play Ba4.  So, Ba4. Clock.

b5.  Ok am I in check? Eh... screw it, Bb3 clock.

Bc5, there it is.  This should enable me to play d4.  Oh that's right I forgot I can snap off his pawn on e5 with my knight then fork his knight and bishop.  Ew, I haven't played the Spanish in awhile, what happens after Nxe5 and then Bxf2?  I better castle first to be on the safe side. Ah, geez. Thought process. Ok am I in check? Was his move safe? Screw it. Castle. Push clock.

Nf6.  Reasonable. Ok I can play Nxe5 now.  Nxe5 push clock.

Nxe5, expected response.  d4, push clock.  Hrm.  Actually Nf3+ looks somewhat annoying.  Nxf3+, Qxd3 then Bxd4. Oh he can't do that he'll lose his knight on f6 after e5.

Nxe4? Wow that was a mistake. I should get a piece for a pawn after this.  dxc5 push clock.  

Yep now he sees the problem.  Qh4?? I didnt expect that, surely that's a mistake.  Ah Qd5 it sure is. Wait I can't play Qd5, because Nf3+ is really annoying, that defeats Qd5 altogether.  Qd5, Rf3+, gxf3 and now Qg5+ is disaster.  Re1 will do the trick. No I can't do that I'll get mated.  Qe2? Gosh that seems so passive for how much energy I have built up here.  I wish I could play Qd5 but that Nf3+ is a killer.  Let me look at it one more time.  Oh! Nf3+ doesn't work! I can just take, he can't play Qg5+ because my bishop guards g5... idiot.  Qd5 wins.  Move Qd5 push clock."

So as you can see, I started off strong in my thought process and it quickly descended back to my old habits.  It's obviously going to take more work and refinement.  I am determined to stick with it and make more routine moves smooth and more complex moves systematic.  In this case it was really the reverse.  My routine opening moves were probably too rigid and the moves that really mattered were too fragmented.  I have a lot of chess games coming up so I may drop some points playing with this thought process at first but I'm determined to make it work.

At the moment my thought process is just a weird intruder that had me screaming by move 4 "Get out of my Head! You're not welcome here devil!"  However I cannot kick out this bizarre guest, because what might be annoying and cumbersome now will eventually carry me to more disciplined and consistent chess down the road.

Dan Heisman's Website
Amazon Link - The Improving Chess Thinker

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Chess Books that Will Make You a Badass

badass [bad'• ass] - noun, adjective;


2. A person who inspires fear and dread in others by their mere presence.  This is often by reputation or physical appearance or both.
3. A person with Chuck Norris-like qualities (see def. 1 & 2)

sentence: "Chuck Norris is such a badass when he was born he came out feet first so he could kick the doctor in the face... no one delivers Chuck Norris but Chuck Norris."

1.Meant to emphasize extreme quality.
2. Exuding manliness.

sentence: "I got this badass set of special edition A-Team DVD's for Christmas."

Let's face it.  In the strictest sense of the word, no chess book will ever make you a badass.  In fact chess books will probably have the opposite effect on you.  The more you read, the more prone you are to getting your butt kicked by frat guys.  What I mean to imply with the title of this blog entry is, these are the chess books that will make you good at chess.  A viable mental badass if nothing else!

Note: If you are interested in an actual book that will make you a badass I highly recommend "The Alphabet of Manliness" by Maddox.   Make sure you are wearing Depends when you read it though because it will make you wet your pants with laughter.  Ok on to the goods!

With great respect to my friend Ralph Buske, I am blatantly stealing this idea from him. Not the content per se, but the actual idea and format.  You can see Ralph's list of books by following this link.


A Note about Chess Books:
There are a ton of amazing chess books out there. I can only speak for the group that I have read completely or partially.  Also I can only speak for the ones I believe will help you get to Class A. Furthermore I believe owning chess books is not sufficient.  A chess book will do you zero good sitting on a shelf collecting dust.  You will farm treasures in chess books dependent on the effort you put into them.  If you read through a chess book without a board glancing over variations and cutting out some sidelines, you probably wont get as much out of the book as if you went through it slowly and deliberately. I will present these books and try to give a brief mention of their value without giving a thorough review of the book.

These books are provided in somewhat of a cascading order.  If you are new to math a book entitled "How to graph polynomials" will do you absolutely no good.  However a book called "Math Basics" will probably have tremendous benefit for you.  Chess books are written with the same approach.  The hard part is sometimes players do not fully understand what they need and what they don't need. Therefore a CLASS F player for example, has no business trying to tackle "How to Think like a Grandmaster".  It would be nice if there were a recommended rating range in each chess book to serve as a guide to what material is appropriate for what level.  I believe reading certain books at certain levels can be somewhat counterproductive, or at least slow your progress towards efficient improvement.  In this vein please be careful about what you choose to read!  The best positional understanding in the world will do you no good if you habitually drop a knight for free.  I have tried my best to make these books class specific.

The Area Codes (Class F <1000)
Class F players need a good foundation for improvement.  These include tactical vision, an appropriate sense of danger and some basic mating patterns.  I believe at this level opening play is negligible.  The games are not decided based on opening knowledge, games are won by the player who makes the next to last blunder.  Openings should never be completely ignored but they should not be the focus of your effort at this level.

Complete Idiot's Guide to Chess: Patrick Wolff
This is probably where I would recommend beginning.  "I already know all the basics of chess".  Are you sure?  What rank must a pawn be standing on to capture en passant?  Do you know what a zwischenzug is?  Triangulation? Do you know the difference between an absolute and relative pin?

If you are uncertain about any of these answers... read this book.

Chess: 5334 Problems, Combinations and Games: Lazlo' Polgar

This book will serve you all the way up to Expert.  However, specifically the first 306 problems (Checkmate in 1) I believe is a must for Class F players.  In fact I would recommend doing them once a week for a year.  This will concrete simple checkmate in 1 patterns into your mind so that alarm bells will sound off when you get a similar situation in a game.  This is an excellent foundation for sound tactical play.  Once you get to CLASS E or D the mate in 2 problems are excellent to improve calculation and pattern recognition.  Class C and above will really benefit from the mate in 3 problems because they are tough!

Winning Chess Tactics: Yasser SeirawanThis book will educate you on every tactical motif.  Not only how to execute them, but also how to spot them and take advantage of them.  Tactical motifs include; removal of the guard, double attacks, forks, pins, skewers, x-ray attacks, back rank mates, geometric motifs, promotion of a passed pawn, loose king position and more!  With all of these tactical ideas it is important to know how to identify them and make your opponent pay. 

Class E (1000-1199)
At this level you should realize chess is not easy.  You will have to start working harder to improve.  If you are willing to do the work here are some excellent tools to help you along the way.  Tactics will remain your most important focus.  However it is time to start introducing some more sophisticated concepts into your chess study.  Openings become slightly more important at this level but are still not the reason games are won and lost at this stage.

Rapid Chess Improvement: Michael de la Maza
Before I get bombarded with comments about how awful this book is from chess coaches, please read this.  This is a controversial book.  The main criticism of the book is that is purports to be a study plan to get you to 2000.  Im not going to attack or defend this book or its criticism. What this book does however do correctly is provide an excellent study plan for you to work your butt off to become a sharp tactician. I hope you are seeing a pattern by now. I am a big fan of tactics study, especially at lower levels. The naysayers of this book have some legitimate claims, however the study plan is sound!

Winning Chess Openings: Yasser Seirawan
At this level, I believe players need some opening guidance but not being steeped in modern opening theory.  This book provides a reasonable, easy-to-play repertoire and clearly explains the ideas and the goals involved in your opening play.  It is a good and flexible approach that will allow you to get to a middlegame play with equality and activity.

The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played: Irving Chernev
If every chess book were this well written and this entertaining it would be so much easier to gain knowledge. Chernev is a fantastic writer and putting some serious effort into this book will allow you to glean some chess history, ideas and certainly some entertainment.  What this book allows you the most is the sense that chess is not just a "he moves here I move there then I do this" kind of game.  It helps to demonstrate that masters put so much more thought and principle into each move than class players do.

Class D (1200-1399)
Class D players are becoming more sophisticated chess players.  But it's time for you to put your head down and power through the line.  The amount of work you have to put into getting better at this level is going to get tougher.  There is a wealth of knowledge at this level and the next so most of my recommendations will be in these two sections.  At this level you should be able to dispatch just about anyone who is a casual, non-tournament player. Often times the difference between a Class D player and a Class C or B player is not knowledge, it's discipline.  It is the art of taking what you already know and using it to maximize your potential.

Ideas Behind the Chess Openings: Reuben Fine
Instead of spending countless hours pouring over and memorizing tomes of opening books... read this.  You really want to know what white is trying to achieve in the Ruy Lopez or the London? Opening study is fine.  However it is definitely more important to understand why a move occurs in this order or that before trying to memorize it.  The knowledge contained in this book will be a tremendous benefit to you for all of your chess career.

How to Reassess Your Chess: Jeremy Silman
You knew this one was coming sooner or later.  Reassess your chess forces you to rethink your chess.  The methods you have come to rely on will only take you so far.  Tackling this book will provide a whole new perspective on the game of chess unlikely to have been explored by a Class D player up till this point in his or her career.  Are you ready for a challenging but very rewarding book?

Complete Endgame Course: Jeremy Silman
While I am recommending books by Silman, I would be remiss to neglect this one.  This book is an excellent basis for any player who wants to improve (or even begin!) their endgame play.  This book is loaded with technical information about performing certain endgame maneuvers such as Lucena and Philidor positions, etc.  You cannot become a good chess player without absorbing the endgame material Silman presents in this book.  This book is intended to provide information all the way up to master on technical endgames.  This book is, however, only the beginning. A mastery of this book does not make you a good endgame player in its own right!

Capablanca's Best Chess Endings: Irving Chernev
Another masterpiece by Chernev.  Endgame technique is one thing, but endgame style and grace is quite another. What more could you ask for than 60 of the most beautiful and expertly annotated games of one of the greatest players of all time?  Most great players study endgame tablebases... but endgame tablebases study Capablanca!

Chess Tactics for the Tournament Player: Lev Alburt
Whoa!  I know you are thinking about a lot of new concepts; endgame, middlegame, openings, etc. But don't you dare forget chess is 99% tactics!  This book is a little more sophisticated than the Seirwan book and is a fresh challenge for a Class D player. 

Complete Book of Chess Strategy: Jeremy Silman
Let me start off saying that this book is FANTASTIC!  However it should not be named "Complete Book of Chess Strategy: Grandmaster Techniques from A to Z".  Absolutely no disrespect intended for Mr. Silman but if any grandmaster picked up this book they would probably scoff.  This book should probably be named "Things you absolutely must know to reach 1500".  I picked up this book and skimmed through it for about 30 minutes one day.  It is packed with great information but everything I read I already knew!  I immediately called a friend of mine rated about 1200 and told him he needed to drop what he was doing and go to the store and buy it right now.  There is so much good practical information in this book and I believe it is a great resource for any Class D-C player, however it is most certainly not Grandmaster secrets from A-Z!

Class C (1400-1599)
Look at you! Getting to be a pretty good chess player.  Chances are you've beaten some people rated much higher than you and lost to some people rated much lower.  When you are playing your best you are difficult to beat.  Opening study is becoming a little more important at this point in your playing career while absolutely not neglecting the other things that got you here.

Amateur's Mind: Jeremy Silman
I believe this is Silman's best work.  I am a big fan of the psychology of competition and Silman sets straight some very bad habits in this book. I laughed several times while reading this because my analysis of a position was just as faulty as one of the 1100 player's he was coaching.  In a very de Groot style, Silman gets his students to think about positions and moves out loud and he presents them in the book and talks about their errors in both thinking and analysis.  It is based on his imbalances method presented in full in Reasses Your Chess.  However I think this book is more about psychology of analysis than the actual method of treating a position. It was also a very enjoyable read!

Logical Chess Move by Move: Irving Chernev
The book annotates excellent games played at master level while the master explains, literally, every single move and the thoughts behind it.  All the way from 1. to #.  What astounded me was there was nothing mystical or intimidating about how grandmasters chose most of their moves.  "I place my bishop here because it gets a piece off the back rank, prepares for a pawn break at e4, connects my rooks and points towards his king."  Wait a second... you mean you didnt see 10 moves deep that bishop belonged on d3 instead of e2??  What I am getting at is, the fact that this book is simple does not necessarily mean it is a beginner's book.  I reserved this book for this section because it was an eye opener to me, even as a Class B player how much I try to calculate forcing variations while a master makes simple, clean and very sound moves.  Less energy, more efficiency.

Practical Chess Exercises: Ray Cheng
What is nice about this book is the fact that it is 600 problems. Now that you are versed in both tactics and positional play this book mixes both!  The thing I like (and some hate) about this book is the fact that it gives you no direction. Just white to move.  It might be mate in 3. It might be playing Bd3 to play the e4 pawn break, it might be a deeply hidden knight fork.  This book should keep you on your toes and is challenging enough for you to stay sharp.

The Improving Chess Thinker: Dan Heisman
Oh man. You want to talk about an eye opener for bad habits?  Did you know your mistakes in your manner of thought could be costing you an entire class rating?  Heisman sets out to provide the user with practical advice on adopting a routine for each chess move including blunder checks, clock management, threat analysis.  This book could benefit anyone of any level however if you want a serious reality check, give this one a look.

Class B (1600-1799)
You're on your way!  Now it gets tough.  These books are ones that I am currently reading and enjoying. I hope they deliver me to class A and I hope you can find some benefit in them as well.

Art of Attack in Chess: Vladimir Vukovic
Be aggressive. B-E Aggressive!  The name says it all.

Art of the Middle Game: Alexander Kotov and Paul Keres
Perhaps my favorite chess book I have completed. It was a challenge as all I had was the (1.Pk4) type of translation... I don't even know what that's called!  Anyone under 30 I'm sure has a hard time reading the old school notation, but I toughed it out and finished this book.  "How to defend Difficult Positions" is a chapter in this book that will motivate you to fight like an animal when you are down material instead of just packing it up and going home.

My System: Aron Nimzowitsch
I read once that 19 out of 20 Grandmasters have read this book. If it is good enough for them, it's good enough for you!  This book is no cakewalk though. You better be prepared to put some effort into this one.

Pawn Power in Chess: Hans Kmoch
Very very very tough read.  A wealth of information about pawn play however.  This is an excellent resource for understanding pawns. Philidor said, "Pawns are the soul of chess, they alone form the basis for attack and defense."  If you can get through this one you will have a whole new appreciation for middle game strategy based on pawn levers (or pawn breaks) and how to situate your pieces to achieve them while simultaneously preventing your opponents ideal pawn breaks.

None of these books contain the secret to being a master.  Some of these books that worked great for my improvement may do nothing for you.  Each chess player is different.  Unfortunately there are many I may have left off and probably a few no other person would recommend.  However, these are books recommended by me so you'll read it and you'll like it or else!