Monday, April 16, 2012

Chess is Combat Against Self

Wolverine vs. Wolverine
I began playing chess almost four years ago to the day. I got into chess for a number of reasons but the main one being that my competitive tenacity is insatiable. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than crushing an opponent. In this regard, I am pretty sadistic I admit.

It took me playing for about three years to finally realize that your biggest opponent in a game of chess is yourself.

When I sit across from my opponent, combat begins. But the biggest and nastiest opponent of them all is me and my bad habits. My own self is way more prohibitive of my success than the skills of my opponent.

There are several mental landmines hanging around during a game of chess but a few of them are distractions, hunger, discomfort, annoyance, fear, thirst, anticipation, daydreaming, excitement, fatigue, anger, forgetfulness, and something else I forgot. Despite having to come up with good moves, you have all of these things to worry about hanging over your head too. It’s a wonder we can complete a game of chess at all.

The lessons I have learned from playing chess for the four years I have played have as much, or more to deal with how I manage myself during a game than actual poor moves. Or to put it another way, the reasons I lose games is usually because of a lack of discipline, not a lack of knowledge.  Everyone can identify when they make a colossal blunder, but the real art is understanding why you made the blunder.

There have been many instances in the last four years where I have flat-out dropped a piece. But in each case I identified the reason why and now I am aware of the conditions being present that frequently lead me to making a huge error. The two most frequent times when I make colossal mistakes is when I am clearly winning and when I am tired.

For the first two years of my tournament chess foray, every time I was clearly winning a game, I shut down mentally and thought, “I can just cruise to a win from here” or “I wish my opponent would just resign”. National Master Dana Mackenzie once said, “when you start thinking things like ‘I wish my opponent would just resign’ you had better open your eyes, you are about to blunder a piece”.

I found this to be true but learned it the hard way in one of my games when I was up a piece against my opponent, whom I had done some preparation at home against. Twenty moves in and I not only was I up a piece, I had three connected, passed pawns. Easy win right? Wrong. He kept playing the best moves he possibly could. I cannot adequately express to you how aggravated I was that he did not just tip his king over, he was clearly lost.

In my annoyance, I dropped a Rook late in the game and went from completely winning to completely lost in one swift stroke.  That game taught me a huge lesson. Now in the rare events that I am clearly winning, the celebration does not begin until the other person resigns or tips the king.  Clearly a defining moment in my chess play.

Often times when I am very tired, I try to conserve mental energy by going very lazy. I do not do this on purpose. However, subconsciously my thinking is lazy, fragmented, and chaotic. The sad part is I’m usually not aware of it until I drop my first pawn or so.

A few years ago I played at the Land of the Sky chess tournament in Asheville, NC. The night before the games started I only got about four hours of sleep. My first opponent was a kid who played notoriously fast (but very strong! he was rated over 1900). His fast play kind of sucked me into an autopilot mode where I was, without realizing it, matching him move for move in terms of speed.

About nine moves into the game I totally missed a desperado move that won him a pawn and eventually the game. I was playing thoughtlessly and robotically without even realizing it and it cost me my king’s head.

I am convinced that mental traps like these can only be overcome in two ways; one is by recognizing that mental traps exist, and two is by experience only.  Now that you are armed with the knowledge that there are mental traps all around while you are playing, go forth and gain your experience!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Making Steinitz Make Sense

Wilhelm Steinitz... bad ass.
Austrian-born, chess genius Wilhelm Steinitz was the first undisputed world champion and is the father of modern chess theory.   Aside from his world championship reign, Steinitz is best known for his work and discovery on chess theory on which modern chess strategy is based!

Before 1873

When anyone thinks of the years prior to 1873 they always imagine a wild, reckless, culture filled with frivolity and party-times. Designated drivers were unheard of prior to 1873 and operating a horse and carriage while intoxicated was dangerous business.

At this time, chess also reflected the wild, partying society. Players such as Adolf Anderssen and Paul Morphy reigned supreme with their unrelenting and fearless attacks. Chess was filled with wild attacks, wicked sacrifices, and was very much a spectator sport because of its blatant (but exciting) disrespect for material.

Steinitz himself was very much a part of this style of wild chess play, but in 1873 he ruined everything.  Steinitz introduced a new style of play which included numerous boring elements such as pawn structure, space, and king safety.  Steinitz introduced this new style of play, even though he was already a very strong chess player, and was ferociously criticized by his contemporaries as being boring, cowardly, and worst of all, inaccurate!

The reason Steinitz was met with such disdain by his peers is because he was suggesting a complete overhaul to the way a game of chess should be approached.  Many players took this assertion as changing chess for the worst.  It no longer was a romantic, swashbuckling, attacking game. It instead transformed into a boring, positional treatment which many attackers considered cowardly.  Furthermore, many argued that there was no proof for Steinitz’ wild assertions about the game of chess, and therefore making such staunch claims about the game were both damaging and irresponsible.

Despite all of the seething opposition Steinitz received, the proof was in the pudding. Steinitz became the first undisputed world champion in 1886 and from that time until 1894 he was almost unbeatable.  Up and coming chess players began recognizing Steinitz’ contribution to chess theory as correct. Most notably, Emmanuel Lasker recognized Steinitz’ ideas for being the basis for all chess theory.  Thus, Steinitz’ contributions to chess theory had become globally recognized the birth of modern chess theory.

Steinitz’ 7 Chess Principles
1-At the beginning of the game, the forces stand in equilibrium.
2-Correct play on both sides maintains the equilibrium and leads to a drawn game.
3-Therefore, a player can only win as a result of an error made by the opponent (there is no such thing as a winning move).
4-As long as equilibrium is maintained, an attack, no matter how skillfully executed, cannot succeed against correct defense. Such a defense will necessitate the withdrawal and regrouping of the attacking pieces and the attacker will inevitably suffer disadvantage.
5-Therefore, a player should not attack until he already has an advantage, caused by the opponent’s error. That justifies the decision to attack.
6-At the beginning of the game a player should not seek to attack, instead a player should seek to disturb the equilibrium in his favor by inducing the opponent to make an error-a necessity before attacking.
7-When a sufficient advantage has been obtained, a player must attack or the advantage will be dissipated.

Whoa! There are some awfully bold assertions in these seven principles. Chess is a forced draw? What? Computers have not verified this, how can some fellow in 1873 make such a stupid claim? Now, imagine being a really strong chess player in the late 1800’s and someone comes out with this trash. You are talking a complete changing of the landscape and understanding of the game of chess. No wonder Steinitz was met with such fierce resistance.

Most club-level players struggle with Steinitz’ claim that the game is a forced draw. Steinitz never said having the first move was not an advantage, because it certainly is. He only claimed that black has a correct defense (no matter how hard it is to find) that will maintain the equilibrium. That is providing, of course, that he maintained the equilibrium on the move prior, because a decisive mistake is a decisive mistake. The only way to regain equilibrium after that is by an opponent’s error.

I concede that it is quite an amazing claim without sufficient proof.  I cannot say what the percentages are, but I suspect most chess theoreticians agree that chess is probably a forced draw.

So how can chess be a forced draw and white has an advantage by going first? The advantage is mostly due to the imperfect play of humans.  White gets to decide the opening move, and thus pawn structure, etc. That means that white should be more familiar with the middlegame position than his counterpart (should be). 

Also, having the first move means completing your development first (again, should anyway).  Completing your development first means having the luxury of placing your pieces for future attacks, instead of developing them for defense as black is sometimes forced to do.

Here is another way to look at it. Most computer engines evaluate the position after 1.e4 to be about .33 in favor of white, thus recognizing the initiative as being a small advantage. This makes perfect sense because white is up a tempo and three tempi is worth about one pawn. Thus, one tempo equals about one-third of a pawn or .33.

In grandmaster play, a one pawn advantage (or an evaluation of 1.0) is generally a decisive advantage.  So Steinitz claims that with correct play, black will maintain a positional score of .33 for the entire game, which will result in a draw. Ergo, white has an advantage by moving first, but not a decisive one.

But here is why going first is advantageous for humans.  For the sake of argument, let’s say that a positional (not tactical) mistake is worth about one-third of a pawn.  If black makes only two positional mistakes, suddenly the evaluation is 0.99 in favor of white, almost decisive victory!  However, white can make up to four positional mistakes before the positional evaluation shifts to from +0.33 to -0.99.  Black must walk a very fine line during the game not to lose. However, Steinitz claimed that black is capable of finding correct moves that leads to a drawn game, even if he fails to do so. Therein lies the rub; Steinitz basically says the opportunity is there, even if the ability is not.

Also I would like to take this opportunity to dispel a misconception someone hit me with the other day. When I was sharing Steinitz’ principles he claimed, “that’s a load of garbage, moving first is always advantageous!”

Not so.

Steinitz may not be correct. Maybe black has a forced win. I know it’s weird to think about but maybe white is in zugzwang at the beginning of the game. It’s certainly possible. Chopsticks, Othello, and Sim are all forced wins for the second person to play.  So there you go, three cases in which having the first move is not advantageous. Maybe everyone’s wrong and black wins by force! Wouldn’t that be something?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Tactics Should Never Take a Backseat

“Chess is 99% Tactics” – Teichmann

Last year I wrote a well-received article on how I gained over 400 USCF rating points in one year. The bulk of my hard work during that year span was related to intense tactical training. My tactical acumen got sharp, really sharp. I showed a few of my games to an International Master who told me that my tactical ability was equal to an expert.

Since that time I started focusing on improving other parts of my game. I began some intense endgame training, as well as trying to improve my middlegame play. I have been studying Capablanca’s 60 Best Chess Endings as well as 100 Endgames You Must Know. I have also been reviewing hundreds of annotated Grandmaster games throughout history.

My understanding of chess has reached a level I never imagined, and my rating has plummeted over the last six months. In my last 30 rated, long games I am 8 wins, 17 losses, and 5 draws. At one point during the last six months, I realized a span of six losses in a row. This of course is very frustrating to someone who is as intensely competitive as I am. Not to mention considering the amount of work I put into chess, the results are very disappointing.

A worse fate than constantly losing, is not being able to accurately pinpoint the problem. So it finally occurred to me in one of my recent losses that just about all of my 17 losses in the last six months have been due to miscalculating a combination, not seeing a line that gives my opponent an out, or underestimating the strength of my opponents possible response. In short, my tactical vision has gotten soft.

What used to be a strength in my game, that forged the way for me to experience a 400+ point surge, is now contributing to my dwindling rating. Yes, it’s true, I have not done any tactical study or exercises in nearly a year.

I foolishly thought that my tactical ability had reached a strong place and that effort in other parts of my game was now required to improve. I made the mistake of putting a sharpened knife in a case, and leaving it there to rust. I realize now that endgame study, middlegame study, and continued tactical study was required to improve.

At the beginning of this rant, I reference the Teichmann quote that “Chess is 99% tactics”. It seems silly to me now that I forgot about the 99% and started focusing solely on the other 1%. I truly believe that the 99% that Teichmann references separates 2400 from 400. The other 1% separates 2400 from 2800.

There's nothing wrong with spending some time, learning about the other 1%, but not at the expense or detriment of the 99%.

So here’s another quote for you:

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm” – Sir Winston Churchill

This article’s purpose is two-fold. One is to let others know about an easy mistake to fall into, and to hopefully avoid themselves. And secondly, this article serves notice to all of my future opponents, that when you sit down across from me over the board, no opponent you have faced will have worked harder at tactical study than me. You had better be prepared, because I certainly will be!