15 July 2012

Training Log: Championship Week

The Context

The Spokane City Championship was revived as an annual event in 2001. The title has been held by Curt Collyer, David Sprenkle, and John Julian. In 2008, I was the lowest-rated player ever to play in the match. I was 1738 and played FM Sprenkle, who was 2257 at the time.* My rating has climbed almost 250 Elo since then. As in 2008, I went into the event as the underdog. But, while I was rated over 500 below Sprenkle, the gap between John Julian and me is closer to 1/10 of that figure (2053 to 1982).

John Julian has been my second most frequent opponent. Including quick chess, we have played 26 rated games prior to this year's City Championship. John won 19 of those. My three wins and four draws have come in recent years. We played one quick-rated game in 2011: John won. In 2010, we played four games. He won the quick game. In our three standard-rated games, I won one and the other two were drawn. Prior to our draw in the Spokane Chess Club's Winter Championship, February 2010, all of our regular-rated games were wins for John. Since then, things look much better for me.

John is close to the age of my oldest son. When he was in high school, and we both were C Class players, we had some hard-fought games that he won. Then, he improved rapidly. He broke into Expert Class (rated 2004) in the 2005 Spokane Chess Club Fall Championship. In that same event, I finally broke out of C Class, rising from 1550 to 1601.

Although one game remained to be played when this week began, I was reasonably confident that I would have my chance to play John in the championship. With a one point lead, I had draw odds and good preparation for my only remaining opponent, Michael Cambareri. We played on Monday. After he made strong efforts to break down my defenses in the French, he offered a draw, putting me in the City Championship.

If I win, I might gain enough rating points to barely make it over the 2000 mark. The Expert mark is less important than playing well. Whatever doubts might have lingered concerning my ability to make Expert have been erased by my performance in the Collyer Memorial and Spokane Contenders. In 2012, I have eight wins and one draw against opponents whose average rating is high 1800s. Only three of those nine games have been against opponents below 1900.

There will be setbacks, of course. It may be some time before my rating exceeds 2000, or it may be soon. It is not a theoretical possibility, but an imminent event.

The Training

Through the course of the week, my confidence remained steady that I could do well against John Julian. My training has a sense of purpose in the short run, as well as part of my long-term efforts to make the climb to master.

Each day began with at least thirty minutes on Tactic Trainer (the iPad app). These problems are not timed. I seek accuracy without reference to speed. In thirty minutes, I usually complete two dozen or more.

White has a mate in ten
Sunday. I followed the Tactic Trainer session with thirty minutes on Chess Tempo. In standard mode, the solving time is recorded, but has no influence on the rating. I averaged slightly more than one minute per problem (77 seconds). Problem 95998 (see diagram) took me 4:45. Of 32 problems, I got 17 correct.

Training for chess competition should include diet and exercise. My food portions have become more reasonable since a few months before I turned 50, but there are days when I eat large quantities of bad food. Pizza cravings kill. For more than a decade, regular morning walks have been part of my routine. Sometimes, however, I go many weeks without this exercise. Bad weather, in particular, presents me with a ready-made excuse for laziness. I started this week ten pounds heavier than my lowest weight last summer. In March, I had set the goal of getting back to that low by July, and then losing another ten to reach the weight that I had in 1991. Despite my failure, I started this week with renewed energy.

My usual walk is to a park near my home, and then laps. Never having measured the distance, I estimate it to be roughly 3/4 mile around on the path. A typical 50 minute walk takes me to the park, around five times, and then home. On Sunday, I did nine laps--the most since last summer. I walked perhaps 75-80 minutes.

Sometimes I drive to the Spokane River Centennial Trail and walk there.

Monday. After thirty minutes of Tactic Trainer and review of some of my opening preparation in the French Defense, I took my walk, going six laps around the park. I met Michael at the downtown library for our game. After the game, I celebrated my tournament victory at the Arbor Crest tasting room in Riverpark Square. I drank a glass of 2009 van Loben Sels Cabernet Sauvignon. While enjoying this terrific wine (that will be vastly better in another five years in the bottle, IMHO), I used the little chess set in the tasting room to go through some of my prior games against John (and one loss to Kevin Korsmo which resulted, in part, from John helping him prepare).

Tuesday. After thirty minutes of Tactic Trainer, I spent some time writing the first part of this blog post, which will post at 5:57 am Sunday morning. Breakfast consisted of a protein drink. I played one 15 0 game on FICS, achieving another new peak rating of 1908. These fifteen minute games offer light training, and they serve to keep me away from blitz. After the game, I began anew Alex Dunne, How to Become a Candidate Master (see "Becoming a Candidate Master"). My walk lasted 72 minutes and included eight laps around Friendship Park.

It's funny how we measure our own progress. I did a tactics session on Chess Tempo during the mid-afternoon. I was drowsy, and got up from my chair several times to grab a bite or a drink. My sense was that the session was going poorly. Despite these perceptions, I correctly solved 11 of 19 (a better percentage than Sunday's session) and knocked my average time per problem down two seconds to 75. My rating went up a few points, too.

Another session two hours later was also below my expectations. I solved 11 of 22, and increased my average recent solving time to 81 seconds. In the last attempted problem, I made a correct move while falling asleep.

Wednesday. My thirty minutes with Tactic Trainer ran from 6:30-7:00 am instead of the 5:00-5:30 am that had become a consequence of awaking too early. Time spent in the hot tub Tuesday night proved its value. One of the problems that was wrong reveals a lack of flexibility in king hunts. After three correct moves, including the rook sacrifice that took me a few minutes to find, I snatched the knight instead of the correct move forking queen and mating square. That snatching the knight also exposed my king to danger reveals a problem that also cropped up in my win against Jeremy in the Contenders. Just before he resigned, I was seriously contemplating as my next move a capture that would have given his queen a forced draw by repetition. To have been oblivious to such dangers in a clearly won position highlights an area needing work. ALWAYS CHECK THE SECURITY OF ONE'S OWN KING.

I tried to continue working on opening preparation. However, preparing openings for John is much more difficult than it was preparing for Sprenkle. Sprenkle plays relatively few openings, but plays them well. With John's help and two weeks to prepare, I was able to invest close to twenty-five hours on the Raphael Dutch and another ten to fifteen on a particular line of the French Advance prior to the match with Sprenkle. Ten moves into games two and three, I was still well within my opening preparation. John plays a wider variety of openings, and he loves to use transpositions to steer the game away from his opponent's comfort zone. Of course, I do the same. Games with John, thus, are often interesting struggles from the first moves.

My walk of six blocks around the park led to a late breakfast of oatmeal and fresh strawberries that was eaten while studying Dunne's book. Then, one hour of vigorous yard-work was invested in thinning two large shrubs one foot away from the fence to prepare for power-washing, and then painting. The weather was a relatively humid 80+ degrees.

My forty-five minute Chess Tempo session was humbling, as I scored a mere 38% correct (9 of 24). Average recent time per problem dropped to 78 seconds. Perhaps, longer time per problem would help, as one of those that I missed was a simple Boden's checkmate: Problem 97795.

Thursday. After my thirty minutes on Tactic Trainer, I wrote "Importance of Feedback," then did another ten minutes. I walked 91 minutes (ten or eleven laps--going in circles, it is easy to lose count), and then had a breakfast of yogurt with a banana, some strawberries, and a sprinkling of granola.

My day's chores included some hot tub maintenance and power-washing the fence, as well as a medical visit. In the doctor's office, I had a long wait, and used the time to solve 39 problems in the Chess-wise iPad app. Number 188 vexed me. I instantly saw the key, but in working out the verification believed that I had found a refutation. Hence, I searched for other ideas. What I failed to see was that the second move was double check. Seeking a particular checkmate pattern that I thought was latent in the position, I overlooked one that was much easier.

White to move and win
My plans to spend an hour on pawn endgames were foiled by a bad motivator, and a mere half-hour was invested in the enterprise. I successfully worked out the correct idea in a Ladislav ProkeŇ° study that I picked up while helping the Northwest Christian coach with his chess camp on Wednesday afternoon. When I played it against the computer, however, the resulting queen vs. rook ending was a tad more than I felt like tackling that afternoon. On the one hand, mastering this difficult theoretical win could give me confidence going into the weekend. On the other hand, frustration borne upon the failure to master the technique could produce unnecessary doubts.

Friday. Planned as a lighter day with a short tactics session in the morning, forty-five minutes of too many errors in Tactic Trainer provoked questions. Was it wise to step up training during this championship week? Would a day of fishing do more to prepare me for the match of my life than steady work on chess skills?

My breakfast of yogurt and blueberries followed a 65 minute walk on the Centennial Trail from The Islands to Mirabeau Falls and back (slightly less than five miles).

An hour long Chess Tempo session brought up the same questions provoked earlier in the morning. Nineteen of forty correct, average recent time per problem still at 78 seconds. Then, the day ended with a more relaxing afternoon and evening at Market Place Wine Bar. First, I met a man who hired me for some chess training that included correspondence games. Then, my wife joined me so we could enjoy the music provided by our friend Maxie Ray Mills.

Saturday: Game Day. Tactic Trainer session was a light fifteen minutes, intended as warm-up for the match. I calculate better when I am calm and focused. The session was not without errors, but after bouncing between 1850 and 1885 all week, I pushed my TT rating back over 1900.

I did some Facebooking, including posting today's planned status: "pet the tiger." I get that phrase from a friend who coaches cross country at my alma mater, where he coached my youngest son and two of my nephews. He urges the young runners to bravely dare to greatness, to achieve what seems just out of reach. His teams have made several trips to Nike Cross Nationals, one of the few national championships for high school competitors. They won the championship in 2008, and may have a shot again in 2012. The phrase seems apt for the biggest chess match of my life.

I went head-to-head with a FIDE Master in the city championship in 2008. That was big, but my chances of winning were slim to non-existent. This year, I have a chance. If I play the best chess that my skills permit, John should find it very difficult to beat me.

My slower than normal six-lap walk around the park (55 minutes) was followed by a breakfast of bacon and eggs. I packed a lunch that included a wrap made with some of the sockeye salmon that I smoked on Thursday.

In game one, I made a few positional errors and found myself in a very difficult position with most of my pieces immobile. John could have crushed me positionally, but chose to try doing so tactically. I defended well and we agreed to a draw.

In game two, I had White and played the English badly. John gained the initiative early on, and he went on to win.

Score after one day: Julian 1 1/2, Stripes 1/2

*USCF match guidelines state that a more than 400 point rating difference renders such a match ineligible for rating. Somehow we managed to get an exception to this guideline, and I gained 10 points as a result of my 2 1/2 - 1/2 loss to Sprenkle. He lost six rating points.


  1. Plenty of more times to even and tilt the score in your favor. Don't worry about the end result; always remember that the pressure is now on him now to defend his lead and focus on game to game. Don't forget to have fun! :)

    1. Thanks Tim. I lost before I had a chance to read your encouragement, but it's welcome and appreciated nonetheless.