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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Saturday Chess Thought: Keep it Simple, and THINK

I so often hear that people want to get better at chess, and what books they should buy. Books? Yes, they can be beneficial, but it starts with you, it really does. No book in the world can fix your faulty thinking if you don’t want it to. Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say you’ve adopted an opening. Like the rest of us, you’ve probably skimmed a book, looked at a few master games, and even watched a video on the thing. You are ready for battle. Watch out, opponent, because I’ve got a few moves up my sleeve!

Then you lose. A lot. You get angry at the opening, and abandon it, but why?

Every expert, master, FM, IM, and GM in the world will tell you that memorizing lines is almost 100% useless. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You need to understand the IDEAS behind openings or certain setups, rather than just their existence and move order.

If, for instance, you adopt an opening which thematically fights for the d5 square, but you don’t realize that, you are bound to let that d5 square go to your opponent more often than not, especially if he understands the goals of the opening you choose. Or, maybe you’ll choose to fight on the sides of the board, while your opponent reroutes his men to take control of d5.

You will never understand why you lose game after game, because the d5 square is a mystery to you. That’s why I always recommend playing s-l-o-w chess, and analyzing what your foe is trying to do, each and every move.

If he wants a square, take it away. If he sets up an attack, defend. If he leaves you an opening, launch your own attack. But, bashing out the first ten moves of your pet opening in three seconds is going to lose, and it’s going to lose often. Chess is a thinking game, and if we don’t think about each move, we aren’t thinking about the game. That’s all there is to it.

Remember, when studying a chess book, the goal isn’t a certain amount of pages per day; the goal is to understand each page before you move to the next. If you average one page a day, so be it. You either want to improve at chess, or you do not.

Here is a sample thought process from the very *first* move, if you can believe that:

“Hmm, e4, eh? Okay, so he controls d5 and f5 right away. As black, I have to get as much out of the opening as he does, theoretically. So, what can I do, here? If I move my pawn to e5, I control d4 and f4, and claim equal stake in the center. If I play the French with e6 and d5, I’ll control these particular squares, with the idea of c5 in few moves, challenging his center...” etcetera., etcetera., etcetera.

This really is what you should be doing as a beginning or intermediate-level player. If you don’t think critically about chess, don’t get upset when your opponent does and whoops you. Just saying.

If you complicate your game with ideas and moves you do not or cannot grasp, you don’t have a chess game. You have an experiment. Which is fine, if you are ready to lose as often as you win, and tread water.

Chess really is simple. When your opponent makes a move, try to figure out why and if it was good or bad. If it was a good move, cook up a good one to counter it. If it was bad, show him why it was bad and come up with a plan. Chess is about plans, not moves. Once you get to thinking like that, your rating will soar.

Friday, February 17, 2012

What's in a Rating?

I know a lot of folks worry about their ratings, but in many cases the thinking is backward on the subject. They want a great rating, but they just keep playing the same old chess, and do very little studying. Ratings don’t just climb on their own; we must improve.

So, what *is* a rating, exactly? It’s just a number which represents the overall average of your playing results in a given time control or variant. It does not necessarily reflect your true strength, but rather a ballpark figure based on *results*, not skill. The reason for that is inconsistency. Even GMs have off days, but when they do they might play ‘only’ at the 2300 level, whereas if us plebeians have an off day and lose 300 points, we really suck. Badly.

Example: My bullet chess.

I play bullet sometimes on WCL, even though I shouldn’t; it’s horrible for your long game. The point is that sometimes my rating is in the 1800s, and sometimes it’s in the 1500s, and that can swing the full 300 points in a single hour. So, what’s my bullet strength? I cannot say it’s 1800 truly, because that’s the upper end of the spectrum. I’m definitely not a 1500 bullet player, either, although some days I play like one. Averaging the two out gives me 1650, and that’s probably about right (using the Glicko system). 1650 is a safe bet. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s better than the 1300 I was a few years back.

So, when a beginner asks how to improve his rating, he’s really asking how to improve his game, because that’s the only way to truly improve our numbers. A few opening zaps and traps are good to know, but they aren’t chess; they are memorized traps and zaps. My advice on improving your rating is to think critically about each move, starting with move *one*. Don’t hack out the first ten moves in a second-and-a-half because you “know the line”. That is a critical error. Keep your eyes open for mistakes, because doing so could turn a 34-move draw into a 15-move checkmate for you.

If you aren’t pleased with the number by your name on your favorite playing site, here’s what you do: log off, break out a chess book, and really go through it slowly and carefully. Your goal should be to learn a few new ideas, and have them sink in. You wouldn’t go into battle without a weapon, would you? The same principle applies to our chess: If we are unarmed when we start a game, the chances of our rating increasing aren’t so hot.