Sunday, October 31, 2010

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER

When one talks about confidence, a quiet knowing, what exactly does that mean?

 I can only deduce that this confidence comes with fore-knowledge of a particular course of action leading to a predictable outcome.

In chess, this translates to knowledge - in fact, GMs have about 100,000 bits of this knowledge in the form of principles of the 3 phases of the game, plus other patterns of chess tactics such as mating patterns, even endgame patterns where 1 look at the arrangement of pawns can determine the course of action to take. It is this knowledge that players need to seek, whether through the study of games, or by deduction in the course of analysing his/her own game.

There will always be some positions where it will be impossible to calculate owing to the many ramifications of the variations pending on the player's understanding of the game. In fact, some of the correct moves may not even be discovered during the course of the game as that possibility may not have existed owing to the player's ignorance of the pattern / know-how. Hence, a strong player ought to have good erudition of what's been uncovered by past masters and how they are applied in today's competitive context.


Though computers can be a big help in terms of charting the variations from the opening to the middlegame, I don't think they can be of much help in the endgame as we all know, they do not reason the same way as humans do here. Countless examples have been found where the computer can actually derive nonsensical plans based purely on calculation whereas the human has better bearings based on heuristics derived from past experience.

Ultimately, the study of chess will be rewarded if one focuses on the relevant bits pertaining to his/her playing level and reinforces it in attempting to apply them in competitive games.

Friday, October 29, 2010

STUDY THE CLASSICS!

What are they? I am afraid some of these names below may be alien to young chess players, who may not have even known who I am talking about. Let me just flash out the titles first, then I will go in depth on my next posting. I own most of them by the way.














BOOKS FOR SELF IMPROVEMENT

 Books that teach yourself are abound in the 80's and I present some of the well written ones, such as Zak's "Improve Your Chess Results".

I chanced upon this book while playing in the Merdeka tournament in 1990 at the Times bookstore in KL. The title attracted me so I started to pore over its contents. It was a revelation. Zak is a famous Russian chess trainer having coached many top players, such as Boris Spassky the 10th World Champion, Yermolinsky among others. He was a believer in the attack from the first move and advocated a thorough study of the Two Knight's Defence for young players.  

The major topics covered were: How Skill Develops, Typical Mistakes by Young Players, Developing a Repertoire which are relevant to the chess coaching nature in me. Let expand on the topic Typical mistakes by Young Players. The main sub-title under this chapter was " Playing openings without understanding the ideas". I quote:

" If a player learns variations without understanding the basic ideas of an opening and its characteristic type of middlegame, the result is that when he encounters something unexpected he loses confidence in himself., commits errors, defends weakly. Once in an unfamiliar situation, he is unable to think independently, racks his brains trying to remember book line. In such cases his alertness is abruptly diminished; this, as a rule, leads to mistakes and defeat".

Under Developing a repertoire, this is what Zak has to say: " Whereas in ordinary systems the basis of a correct approach is not the the learning of variations but an understanding of opening ideas, in gambit systems a precise knowledge of variations is quite indispensable...This is illustrated when we consider how to build an opening repertoire to 1 e4. There are 2 ways of solving this problem. One is to select some half-open system and study its hidden possibilities thoroughly enough to remove any fear of surprises by the opponent. Granted a certain rationale in this method, a more purposeful approach from the point of view of improving your play most rapidly is to opt for 1..e5!. Admittedly, this entails much more work."

Tisdall's pioneering work runs along the same lines as John Nunn's Secrets of Practical Chess below. They both deal with the problems of self-improvement, such as calculating ability, learning how to learn from reading chess books, the necessary endgame knowledge one needs to know etc. Tisdall deals with the topic of calculation better, as he explains how to go about it in detail. Nunn gives more examples, even expanding on the role of computers in today's chess preparation.

Of the 2, in terms of advice on how to improve, my vote goes to Tisdall as his 2 chapters on the calculation are already worth more than Nunn's material. There is also the chapter on Pattern Training which I find most fulfilling as it stresses the need for the student to accumulate 'patterns' (whether tactical ones like mating patterns or
positional ones like play against the different opening pawn structures) and group their study under these patterns. 

By accumulating these bits of knowledge, it makes a lot easier in contemplating a plan and backing it up with analysis. Interestingly, this is the same approach advocated by Karpov in his latest book " Finding the Right Plan".


Some of the above books are meant for adults, but for those  aged14 and under, try this book. It was recommended reading for the Australian women's Olympiad team by the then-coach GM Ian Rogers! I love the approach by Simon Webb when he deals with how to play the man, trapping Heffalumps (or stronger players) or catching Rabbits (how to play weaker players) and most of all, how to swindle! Very entertaining in its approach and you'd learn in a fun way. Sadly, Webb was brutally murdered by his own son while retiring in Sweden some years ago. The man should not deserve such a fate for having brought this wonderful book to us.

Hope that suffices for the time being.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

SO YOU WANT TO KNOW ABOUT CHESS PSYCHOLOGY?

I've engaged someone across the Causeway in his postings about the process of creating a GM or grandmaster. Though he approaches it from the motivational speaker point of view, it is laughable ignorance on his part perhaps that several bloggers have tried to dispel  his thoughts which they think will only serve to misguide. So I guess its time to prove myself in what I know about his area of expertise (motivation and mind training) when it comes to chess players.

He is not wrong in that there are components in chess by listing the 2 player's minds, the chessboard, the clock. So I shall attempt to recommend the various books below which can help him understand the subject of chess better.

Having been around the chess training scene since 1982, although a volunteer then, I have researched quite a bit on the thinking process of the chess player and how it affects his/her  game. 2 landmark books come to mind:


Adrian De Groot's classic thesis on the thinking of chess players (from club player to World Champion) gives us an insight of the workings of the different class of chess players. What is interesting is his experiments by getting Grandmasters and World Champions to talk out loud what's in their heads as they see a position. We then realise that Grandmasters calculate not much different from the standard way of Check, Capture then Threat but they also are very good at grasping relationships between pieces while thinking. These bits of information (called chunks) allow them to orientate themselves in any position and find solutions to the problem at hand. A updated version of this book is Dan Heisman's the Improving Chess Thinker.

I have the utmost respect for Mr Heisman, who is only a National Master but speaks wealth of chess instructional knowledge in his Novice Nook articles found on Chesscafe.com. NM Heisman further continues the experiment by Dr DeGroot and expands on the peculiarities of chess players when analysing the same positions set by DeGroot 70 years ago. Not much has changed apparently, but it does give valuable information to chess coaches on how to work on the player's thought processes according to their playing strength. If you know how to think, you will play better moves. Not by shutting down 'noise' which should not exist if you concentrate on the what to think.



In the realm of chess psychology, nobody beats GM Nikolai Krogius. A GM himself, he set upon the task of defining the different aspects of the chess mind and how it operates when pondering positions on the chessboard. Some of the topics like Time Trouble and its causes/cures, nerves, visualising, the chess image are very relevant to the tournament player in that there are methods given to correcting such weaknesses. A good book to understanding how to deal with competition variables.



As a chess coach, one must learn and continue to receive good inputs from others. We certainly do not bury our heads in the sand as someone pointed. The 2 authors have given wonderful insights on a training method that has yielded results. I urge anyone who wants to task himself on creating a GM to sincerely read what they have to say, because they have a training system that works. No need to join dots, imagine fears and what not. 

Knowledge is what sets us free from ill-conceived notions of delusion, so I hope I have answered the sceptics who have doubts about my understanding about in the area of chess training.

GOOD ENDGAME BOOKS TO READ

Here are some of my recommendations for good endgame books to read. This covers the area of exact or theoretical endgames. You need only to study the 30 that I have outlined from the huge lot. 

What I like about these books is that they have lots of explanations in how the winning method is achieved. Some are even directed towards the level of players and what they should know - eg Silman.

 

Basic Chess Endings has been around for years as the 1st encyclopedia of chess endgames. Though there are quite a few errors, what I like about this book is that it gives sound advice on what to do when you have no definite idea how to proceed. Take for example pawn endings. So you have 1 pawn more than your opponent. Fine's advice?

" The winning process in endings with a pawn ahead as follows:

1 Force a passed pawn

2 Sacrifice the pawn at a moment to get either

a a pawn that queens by force

b a sufficient proponderence (means more) of material

c a win in one of the basic positions"

So its good to just get the advice. The analysis in the other books below are more trusted.


 For the post beginner about P1 or 2, this is quite a good book to read as Silman carefully divides the material to what you should learn at the level you are playing. The exercises are good and easy to understand.
 



This book is the most concise for the primary school player. It covers many of the methods with an explanation, but you will need to sit down and play over quite a few examples to understand how it works. It is like a cookbook - with recipes but you need the basic skills first. The book is not quite written for children so it does take a little motivation to read.


For the more serious player who's playing for school competition, you should own 1 of the few below:

Grivas's book is known as the textbook of endgames for the FIDE trainers today, rightfully so as he's the main man in planning materials for the FIDE training course for endgames. It is well-explained, but needs a level of 1300 to understand it. Definitely not for those just starting to play chess. 


Before Grivas what do we have? Paul Keres's classic of course. This book is out of print I believe, but if you have friends or relatives who used to play chess in the 80's they may own this book. We carry it to tournaments often as it contains most of what you need to know when you need to win a particular position. Very concise, but again not many like its approach - Keres tests your patience by giving you the same arrangement of pieces in the centre, then shifts it 1 file to the left, 1 rank up toward the last rank just to prove a point. Some of my peers hated this. But Keres is trying to make a point in that not all the methods work everywhere on the board - you need to pay attention to the contours of the board too, as some manoeuvres cannot be executed owing to lack of squares either on the side or up front.



Finally, the KING of theoretical endgames books - the author needs no introduction as he is currently acclaimed as THE chess trainer, having produced world class players like Dolmatov, Dreev and Yusupov. He wrote this to correct the number of ghastly produced encyclopedias from the past 40 years  which he feels has no relevance in todays competitive context. Selecting 200 positions which he believes a serious FIDE-rated player should master, he gives you all the necessary methods and exercises (very tricky ones) to test you. This is a workbook - you should have to read it, practice the examples until you understand the material and then watch your endgame grow. 

Endgame Strategy books are rather hard to come by these days, not many are good. I have these 2 to recommend.

 

I enjoyed this book a lot - it teaches by the student asking questions and the master answering them (and your questions too) on what to focus on endgames. Most players see the endgame as the need to memorise many winning methods and are unsure about how to conduct them. Reading this book will at least remove that fear and give you a new set of eyes when looking at any endgame.



For those who have started playing chess competitions, this is the best book I can find that introduces the strategems of chess endgames to the reader. When this book was first published, it sold out really well as it was the only 1 of its kind - explaining the mysteries of the champions when it comes to endgames. Many of the topics covered are so relevant to the competitive player in that by just knowing them, you've gained so much understanding in how the top-players work during endgame play. Sit through 1 example, read the notes, then try to guess the moves of the winner. This is the best way to work through the book.       
                    

LB Hansen's book was about 20 years late but he makes up by expanding the number of strategems and added more later examples. The later examples may not necessary mean better instructive ones though. Some of them are quite complicated to follow so primary school children I feel should not attempt this one.   


If you are already FIDE-rated and want to go for the FM,IM or GM  titles, this book will be a good investment. You should arm yourself with the full arsenal of endgame weapons given in this book.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

THE ENDGAME

As promised, I shall now dwell on the business of chess improvement based on my experience.

Most players, weak or strong,  fear and respect the endgame respectively. Unlike opening variations where one can devote time to learn 'tricks' to catch the opponent off-guard to snare a piece, a queen or even mate, the endgame does not reward the student in this manner.

 I agree with Andy Soltis when he says the chief phobia about endgames is chiefly caused by the chess authors way of presenting the subject. Tons of exact endgames knowledge (where if you know the moves you can win) in the form of encyclopedic information about  how if your pieces lie within the zone you win, if not you draw, or who wins if he has the move etc. Too much of such information is utterly useless as the when the time does come to apply such information over the board, much of it would have been forgotten.

On the other hand, there's the other area of practical endgame strategems such as the fortress, creating 2 weaknessess, widening the beachead, centralising the King etc that would need to be understood before one can conduct a decent endgame.

So with limted time on our hands, how should one go about apportioning time for the endgame? It depends greatly on the level of the player. The stronger the player, the more emphasis on knowing theoretical endgames and less on strategy. As for the primary school chess player at school level, learning 30 theoretical endgames and knowing about the 10 main strategems should suffice.

Where to get this knowledge? Of course, coaches will know where but for those who do not have them, the internet is abound with such information. What I would do is list the necessary endgames for the student to go do reasearch on.

EXACT ENDGAMES :

1 Checkmate with K and Q vs K
2 Checkmate with K and R vs K
3 Checkmate with 2Bs vs K

Pawn Endgames
4 Opposition
5 Key Squares
6 Square of the Pawn
7 Floating Square rule
8 Outflanking
9 Shouldering
10 Outside and protected passed pawns

Pieces (and K) vs Pawn (and K)
11 Q vs b,d,e,g pawn on 2nd or 7th rank
12 Q vs a,b,c,f pawn on 7th rank
13 R vs P on 4th, 5th rank pawn 

Rook Endgames
14  R and a,h pawn vs R
15  R and b,c,f,g P vs R
16  R and a,h pawn after 5 rank
17  R and b,c,f,g pawn after 5 rank
18  R and central pawn d,e vs R
19  Lucena's position
20 Philidor's position
21 Back rank defence
22 Short side for K, long side for R
23 Using pawn as Shelter for the King
24 Checking distance
25 Rooks behind passed pawns
26 Active Rook and its importance

Bishop vs Knight ending
27 B and pawn vs N
28 N and pawn vs B
29 Good N vs Bad B
30 B vs N and pawns on both sides

STRATEGEMS

1 Centralise the King
2 Activate pieces
3 Pawn structure and weaknesses to avoid - isolated, doubled,pawn islands
4 Principle of 2 weaknesses
5 Creating a passed pawn
6 Playing with the whole army
7 Widening the beachead
8 Zugswang
9 Creating pawn weaknesses by attacking pawns
10 Gaining critical tempo (esp in pawn endgames)

SUBLIMINAL LEARNING

Quite a big word, subliminal. I had just learnt it from reading Andy Soltis's STUDYING CHESS MADE EASY. 

I would recommend this book for the serious player wanting answers on how to improve his/her chess through the various ways of studying chess. There are many methods which I find I had in common with the ones he explained in his book.

The one I liked best was Subliminal learning - using methods to input chess knowledge to the mind subconsciously. How can this be done? Reading chess books and analysing every diagram one comes across. In his book he gives countless examples of top players doing that, Each time the book is read, different thoughts and perceptions are picked up by the player. One such book I find which does this is Nimzowitsch's MY SYSTEM. You can read this book at different phases and it tells you different things.

The other way which Soltis does not talk about and is my own invention, is Chess Game watching. You will need a game-viewer or Chess database like chessbase to do this. This manner of learning I find is applicable to learning openings and middlegame plans right out of the opening, particularly useful in theoretical openings like the Ruy Lopez and Sicilian.

Select an opening variation of say 15 moves deep. Select about 50 games where the same 15-moves  were made and White wins subsequently later. Try to keep the games short, say about 35 moves max. Load them onto the viewer and get it to replay the game with an interval of 1 sec a move. Watch the game like a movie. Once the game is ended, the viewer will automatically start the next game. Sit through this 50 game movie and I assure you, your mind will pick up many useful bits of instruction as to how White went about winning his games.

Now use the same variation and select 50 wins by Black. Go through the process and now you will learn exactly how Black defended and won, subconsciously. Your eyes and mind learns at a speed way beyond your imagination.

I gathered that this is how human beings derive what and what not to do when playing computer games, not just by memorising patterns of steps but subconsciously programming and reprogramming themselves to do the right thing till it works out to perfection. Then they proudly defeat the game. However, computer gamers are now re-introducing the human element into the domain and allowing humans to pit their wits and knowledge against each other, so there is a wider dimension of plans that can counter archtypical setups and steps. The computer gamers are learning from chess after all, so why shouldn't we learn from them in how to learn ?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

THE IMPORTANCE OF READING

Back in the last 30 years, most of what's known as theoretical chess knowledge existed purely in the form of the printed word - chess magazines, chess books, Informants. These were the main source of information one can get on the latest trends in opening theory, or the presentation of great games played by the masters with great comments from the authors.

That trend was completely changed with the Computer Age - the use of chess databases, playing programs like Fritz or Rybka and instruction videos. The poor chess student is really flooded with tons of information coming at a ridiculous rate that it is near impossible to find the time to rummage through, let alone study, the essence of the material.

With time controls of 25 mins or less per player to complete the game, one wonders why is there the need to invest time and effort to learn chess when there is hardly enough time for the student to ponder about the plans and strategies one has learnt, hoping to find some use for it in their games??  Most games I reckon would mainly be decided on either tactical blunders or loss of material given en prise. To play well in the rapid 25 min time control, would it not be enough just to practice on tactical shots and play gambits? Do you honestly think the child will be able to do something like " Oh..White has just made the same error as XX did vs YY at the 20NN tournament so the finish goes like .."? Short of the player having a photographic memory (which does help in remembering loads of opening theory), to figure such things out within the time frame of a total 50 minute game is not possible in club play. Hence it is best to have games of 1 hour per side or more per player to give him/her the luxury of recalling the chess knowledge that has been learnt to devise the right plan of action. When this happens, the satisfaction of winning a game is far greater and thereby reinforcing the notion that chess is very much a thinking game, rather than the slow-motion version of an arcade shootout.


Is it therefore any wonder that today's children know next to nothing about reading chess books for improvement, or watching a video they can get their hands on? The chess culture that we've had for the past 30 years, seems to have been eroded over the last 10. How ironical, because it is precisely the last 10 years that chess information has been mushrooming and today I would say there are relatively few secrets left in the chess world of knowledge. Books and videos explain to a T what you need to know to play a specific opening, how to handle play in specfic pawn-structures like the Isolated Queen Pawn, tactical exercises online that you can practice to sharpen your skills. The only realm where knowledge  is not so clearly digestible  is in the endgame. Though computers today can work out endgame solutions of any position where the number of pieces on board do not exceed 5, it is near impossible to expect the human being to play that way. I see the endgame as the last bastion where human ingenuity is still called upon to win a game rather than the reliance of total chess knowledge to dictate the play.

Sadly, learning about endgames is the bitter bit of chess that even strong players do not enjoy,  because of the lack of excitement in such positions and the cold clinical accuracy one must have to execute the winning routine. It is precisely in this realm that we can teach kids about the logic of planning. As in most theoretical endgames, a clear winning solution is presented even against best play by the opponent. Learning the methods can certainly help in understanding how the pieces work together towards the strategic plan. Learning tactics acheve the same end, albeit with a lot more excitement.

Hence I will focus on bringing in useful excerpts of good books that I've had the fortune to read over the last 35 years, for the young budding player in mind of course. I will start with Basic Chess Endings by Reuben Fine. Though its an old book,Pal Benko has revised it but the instructional part of it is crafted by Fine himself. I would not vouch for the analysis of moves as it has been found to have quite a few errors, but what I like about it is the way it offers advice on how to conduct specific positions with a few pieces.