22 July 2012

Back to the Mines: Training Log

Assessing Weaknesses

My play in the City Championship match with John Julian revealed a weakness in my openings. In each game, I played either a dubious or a risky move early on. Each time, I found myself in a difficult position and then felt that I played well. The third game might be an exception insofar as post-game computer analysis suggest that my position may have been better than it seemed to me while playing.

For many years, I have been one who cautions others against obsession with studying opening theory at the expense of tactics and endgame training.* However, now that I am a solid A Class player with ambitions to climb into Expert Class, opening preparation needs to occupy a far larger share of my preparation. Thity-five years ago, I studied openings and played through master games, but did not work tactics problems, nor spend any significant time on endgames. My opponents rarely played book lines beyond the third or fourth move, but I was able to win often enough to feed my illusions that opening preparation gave me an edge.

When I returned to chess after some ten years away, I immediately started into opening study. I quickly established a C Class USCF Rating. Only when tactics training and endgame work became part of my regimen did I rise out of C Class and begin the climb to my current level. Even so, I have continued to work on openings, albeit mostly through database use during correspondence games. That practical opening study focuses on specific lines before me. It differs substantially from developing in-depth understanding of particular opening systems. Nevertheless, through years of play and limited study, I have become proficient at a modest level in certain openings.

It is time to do more.

Developing a strong opening repertoire for specific systems, however, creates a problem for the blogger who publicizes his ongoing training efforts. Too much information shared makes it easier for my opponents to prepare a surprise that I must confront over the board with the clock running. I prefer that my opening preparation be revealed only in the course of play.

Training Regimen

Much of the past week was invested in analysis of my three games with John Julian. Game one was completed Monday and posted Tuesday morning. Game two took longer, but posted Saturday morning. Expect to see game three sometime this next week.

In "New Year's Resolutions" and "Training Log: Mid-Year Report," I outlined three key training activities for 2012. In "Training Log" (25 March), I added a fourth element. Consistent efforts to solve more than fifty problems per week have been successful. Some weeks I have solved many more. The process of moving from relatively easy problems to harder ones has been less consistent, but not wholly unsuccessful. My endgame work needs improvement, as does work adding whole games to memory.

1. Tactics

The Shredder iPad app has been getting less use since starting to use the Tactic Trainer app. Nevertheless, I intend to complete the second cycle of its one thousand problems by early fall. At that point, I will reset the statistics and begin anew. Presently I have a 78% success rate after 1712 puzzles. On the third cycle, I will aim for 85%.

The past couple of weeks, I have split my tactics training time between Tactic Trainer and Chess Tempo. Active use of Lev Alburt, Chess Training Pocket Book II and Paata Gaprindashvili, Imagination in Chess remain unrealized goals.

2. Endings

One of the advantages of creating flash cards for important endgame positions is that they are portable. This past week, I have had my pawn endings flash cards with me more often. While enjoying the summer evening with some fine Bridge Press Cellars Rosé on the deck, I flipped through the cards studying them.

In game three, John and I played a nice endgame with bishop versus knight. His additional pawn helped him prevail. He told me after the game that he had been studying this type of endgame a few months ago because he is working through Irving Chernev, Capablanca's Best Chess Endings (1978). As it happens, Dill Books was set up to sell chess materials at the Spokane Falls Open, and had everything on discount. I accepted John's advice and bought a copy of Chernev's text.

3. Openings

Studying openings and memorizing games goes hand in hand. After spending some time learning Carlsen -- Wang Hao 2011, I started using Carlsen's set-up against the Caro-Kann in blitz play. As I work more seriously to develop my opening repertoire, selecting key games in that repertoire to commit to memory seems worthwhile.

I have a shelf full of opening monographs, print and electronic versions of the Encyclopedia of Chess Openings (ECO), an old copy of Modern Chess Openings, a handful of New in Chess Yearbooks, ChessBase 11, and other opening resources. This past week, I have been reviewing some of my games over the past year and identifying sections of ECO to study.

*Once this week I was browsing the chess books listed by an online bookseller. Some 90% of these books were opening monographs. Most of these books are of limited value to most players, yet they buy them in droves. When they wonder why they do not improve, I say because they are wasting their time studying the wrong things. On the other hand, opening books remain scarce that do a good job of explaining general principles for several opening systems (Reuben Fine, The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings) or for specific openings (Everyman Chess "Starting Out" series).


  1. Practical opening books are hard to find, despite the large number of opening books published. Fine is out of date, but Starting Out type books can be very helpful. I recently bought a copy of Fundamental Chess Openings. It looks good for explaining the basic ideas and main lines of all the openings and giving an appreciation of their history (which helps in their understanding). Cheap too.

  2. Three cheers for the sentiment that amateurs tend to devote way more time to openings than they should. Along the lines of books explaining general principles for multiple systems, another instance is Watson's _Mastering the Openings_ series. (Nice blog, by the way. I just noticed it by way of a search engine hit for a Smyslov post of yours; he's my all-time favorite.)

    1. Thanks Ed, and welcome! Smyslov is one of the greats. My 2011 summer chess camp was built around his games.

  3. Watson's books have a good reputation. Chess Opening Essentials, Stefan Djuric, Dimitry Komarov, Claudio Pantaleoni is another multi-volume work in the same vein.

    FCO has 479 pages, and the current MCO has 798 pages. That is much more than Ideas Behind the Chess Openings and Fine's edition of MCO. Nonetheless, players' memory capacity has not increased, and neither has their free time.

    Surprise is as important as a small objective advantage. The best moves for a 2000 player are not necessarily the same as those for a GM. We have to be able to play the resulting positions. We have to be pragmatic.