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Chess+Champ+Vishwanathan+Anand+with+Vladimir+Kramnik+of+Russia+29Oct08.jpg

What does it take to win tournaments, to become a champ? "You must have mastered the necessary skills" is the obvious answer but is it enough? Usually there are many players on the same level so the psychology plays an important role. You have to believe that you can win.

For a chess patzer like me the situation isn’t that different. At the moment I lack the skills to be on the same level as the masters but, as we have seen in countless games, even they make mistakes. You must believe and wait for your chance.

And if the chance doesn’t come or I blunder first? Well, this gives you the opportunity to learn from your own mistakes - and this is what chess is all about. To become better you have to go wrong, correct it and try again. Quite simple. :)

Accepting defeats shouldn’t be too difficult for most of us, they are part of the game. What is more interesting is that believing in our skills covers other areas as well. When you think that you are bad at calculation, visualization or playing endgames then this negative thinking will manifest in the games.

  • you stop calculating too early, or don’t trust the result and spend endless time to verify it
  • you overestimate your opponent’s chances because you don’t have enough trust into your position
  • you play quick moves in the endgame because "sooner or later you will err anyway"

There is this famous quote from Henry Ford:

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Imagination plays an important role in our life. It’s time to put down the Patzer attitude and let our mind know that we are currently master candidates who will become masters and win tournaments!

For adults it’s difficult if they see no progress. You get stuck, don’t know exactly what to fix and think that "this one special book" will open your eyes and start the breakthrough. The bad news is that it doesn’t exist but this is a topic for next time.

To keep the motivation up and guide the mind into the right direction it’s a great thing to use your imagination. If the desire is strong enough then the mind will follow, otherwise the conscious mind will never stop arguing that "you will never make it", that you are "such a poor player" or that "you are too old to compete with the kids".

This is all very logical but did mankind go to the moon because it looked logical? No, they accepted the challenge and made it happen. It didn’t take away the real work, the countless hours, frustration and it didn’t prevent disasters. It put the mind at work and it succeeded…

It’s your choice what you believe – make the right choice.

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Soon back again

It’s been some time, dear followers, but I plan to post regular updates to my blog very soon. It will be about chess again and I will document my tries here so that one can see if the approaches have worked or not.

The reflection how something has worked is a pretty important step when it comes to learning. Everybody thinks and learns different so taking the time to find out what works best for me and then to review how effective it really was is time well spent.

Just to give you a quick idea, in general people learn from visuals, from listening and from doing something. Usually there is a preference, e.g. I am able to grab things quickly when I hear them or play with words that sound similar. Visuals are also good but other people are able to visualize things much better than I do which is extremely useful in chess. Being able to see positions and variations helps enormously.

What does this mean for me? Do I have a disadvantage? Maybe, but it’s something that can be fixed. I just need to focus harder on visualization, which will help me to memorize key positions better. Everybody can do it, it’s just a matter of training and focus. Recognizing this shortcoming was the first step.

We have to think big and embrace our dreams!

Chess and Goals

We hear from the super motivators out there that you have to set high goals to achieve something. That’s the way to create our own future, to force our brain to look for hidden ways to make something happen.

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So what is a good goal? When I say I want to become a chess grandmaster then this isn’t really a smart goal. It’s a dream that not only depends on me but also on my opponents and while I only have to win against many GMs, it doesn’t exactly tell me how to do it.  

There are some interesting research studies available that point out that outcome oriented goals can quickly kill the motivation unless you already have the abilities (like Nakamura who sees himself as the big threat for Carlsen). It creates fear and puts a lot of pressure on you to perform well and for us Patzers this is a sure way to feel frustration. The same goes for internet chess with its ELO rating. Playing fast games doesn’t help to make progress, it’s just an indicator and pretty accurate. It’s our wrong self picture (hey, I am 100 points stronger and I must close the gap) that boycotts honest efforts and hurts in the long run.

Process oriented goals are different. They focus on doing something right and forgive mistakes. One knows that learning a skill takes time and failing is part of the process. The motivation stays up and one day you have made it. At least in theory. :-)

In chess you can for instance

  • learn to avoid blunders
  • learn to think right to find better moves
  • learn a good opening repertoire
  • practice tactical motif 1 to x
  • practice calculation
  • learn about elements of chess strategy 1 to x
  • study typical middlegame positions
  • etc.

Each single item can be tracked and once you have mastered everything you should have the skills to beat the masters. The actual game will help you to find out what is still missing so instead of being afraid to lose you look forward to it to measure your progress.

In our success oriented Western culture it’s not easy to follow such an approach. Calming yourself, giving your best in a game and knowing that on any day everything is possible will help. If you run into a line that your opponent knows much better than you can easily lose against weaker players.

Should this make you upset? No! Learn from your mistakes and next time you will play better. One also has to keep in mind that at a certain level winning requires taking risks. This will backfire from time to time but without taking risks too many games only end in a draw.

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Of course we don’t want to be like Edison who has found 10’000 ways that wont work until he had the best material for his light bulb. We stand on the shoulders of chess giants, from Steinitz to Carlsen, and can learn from their games.

Chess Motivation

As a DIY improver it can be pretty hard to keep up the motivation. There are tricks, e.g. “form a group”, “talk about it in public”, “follow a strict plan”, “surround yourself with masters” but we all know that it’s not easy especially when the results don’t come. Nobody expects to improve much in 3 or 6 months but what about 1 year? Or 3? How much dedication is needed to master the game?

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It’s so easy to fall into a fruitless cycle. You think that with everything you have read and studied you should be much (at least 100 or 200 ELO points) stronger so you feel disappointed when you lose against better players. On the other hand winning against weaker players is no real challenge and you don’t get much joy because they are not on the same level. Don’t be like that!

Be proud of your achievements!

Every game must be won no matter how weak your opponent is so be happy with your good result and have others cheer for you. Allow yourself to feel good.

Treat every game as a lesson that brings you closer to mastery, and be grateful for that.

Of course everyone wants to win but the opponent wants the same and you cannot guarantee a victory. Instead use the opportunity to identify a weakness so that you can work on it in your future training.

In my first game this year for instance I ran into time trouble twice. This made me lose game #1 despite having winning and drawing chances, and I had to settle with a draw after messing up my winning chances in game #2. Strict time management became the rule of the day and this truly helped to play better in the following games.

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Blunders are another typical problem. Keeping up the concentration after 2-3 hours is easy for some and harder for others. It’s important to find an anti-dote, a mental reminder that will slow you down when you are about to make a sub-par move. Tournament players are quite good these days and chances are low that you can recover easily.

What helped you most in your chess career?

Chess Personalities

Some time ago a friend of mine sent me the link to the following interesting page:

What is your Chess Personality?

Answer 20 questions and you will know which master you should follow. After taking the test don’t forget to make a screenshot because the exact distribution in the 4 categories is not saved. I tried it back in January and another time right now and the result was always the same: I am a Chess Assassin like Bobby Fischer.

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If you want to post your own results in the comment section. :)

I don’t like the “recommended opening” part (although I already play the Ruy-Lopez and the Sicilian but not the Najdorf), this is far too simple to look at it that way. It might be true once you are an IM or GM but for us Patzers it’s too early to focus on a special “playing style”. Instead it makes more sense to identify your weaknesses and work on them. This allows you to play flexible at the board and chose a continuation that is inconvenient for your opponent.

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When I look at the Nebula nominees this year I get the feeling that something is different. Has my taste changed and is now in line with the jury’s or has the quality increased? Whatever it is, reading the short stories nominees was a great pleasure this year!

The ratings are A for great, B for good and C for “didn’t like it”.

  • (C) “The Sounds of Old Earth” by Matthew Kressel (Lightspeed 1/13)
    Earth is completely messed up and dying but an old man doesn’t want to give it up. I am glad that I read this story last because otherwise I would have dismissed the Nebula as another wasted year. I am sure that other people will like it as we get some nice descriptions but I didn’t care about what was going on.
  • (B) “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons 1/7/13)
    A mildly interesting story with a somewhat surprising ending that, in my opinion, doesn’t fit.
  • (A) “Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer” by Kenneth Schneyer (Clockwork Phoenix 4audio version)
    This is a very unusual story in which the narrator is the curator of an art exhibition who, according to the author’s notes, misunderstands the meaning of the paintings. Very innovative although it requires some work from the reader to figure out what’s going on.
  • (A) “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky (Apex 3/13)
    A marvelous and very poetic meandering with some great metaphors. It’s one of the stories that you either love or hate so I suggest you go out and read it on your own.
  • (A) “Alive, Alive Oh” by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (Lightspeed 6/13)
    A couple decides to live for 10 years on a planet that is some lightyears away. They have to face some unexpected challenges… This is another great story with a very human touch. We often only get to see the male viewpoint (strong, logical) and it was a pleasure to experience the events from a different perspective. I loved it!

In round 2 of the city chess championship I knew that my opponent plays the English opening. It was time to prepare!

Day 1

I look at my resources. There is book 1 of the Complete Hedgehog, a marvelous effort by GM Sergey Shipov, and I have the Chessbase DVD by GM Lubomir Ftacnik. Both authors ensure me that the hedgehog is a viable system for Black so I decide to employ it against the English opening.

shipov_hedgehog1    ftacnik_igel

Day 2

I start to watch the Ftacnik videos. He shows the games rather quickly and I have to stop from time to time to explore move orders and variations. I get a good feeling of the weak points and learn the options that Black has to survive the critical opening phase but the pace is of the DVD requires a lot of concentration.

Day 3

More variations and in some White can exchange most of the pieces to get a drawn endgame. This means that this is not the all-purpose weapon for Black and once I am rated above 2000 I probably have to play different against weaker players. For now I don’t have to worry. :-)

There are some remarkable games on the DVD, especially the one by Kasparov against Huebner, and I finally understand the idea behind the b5 break move. My mistake mainly was the futile try to calculate the resulting positions and to find an advantage. Calculation is of course necessary but you rather have to look for weaknesses in White’s camp that can be exploited when the position opens up. Pieces can be pinned or double attacked and the rooks have nice files to work on.

Day 4

In the last part of the DVD Ftacnik presents some common but dangerous sidelines that require a different approach from Black. Let’s hope that I can remember all of this, although it’s perfectly fine to lose games if I learn something in the process.

I checked the Zurich 1953 book and found 3 games in the English. Really useful was the one between Gligoric and Smyslov. White wanted too much and was outplayed in a fascinating endgame.

The Shipov book was too overwhelming. I played through some of the games but for a one-week-preparation this is hopeless. It’s better to use in the post-mortem analysis or after gaining more experience with the system.

Day 5

I finish the videos and feel confident.

The game starts in the evening and we play indeed the English Hedgehog. My 1850 rated opponent enters a more passive sideline with d3, e4 and Re1 that I wasn’t really prepared for. The game is pretty complicated but in the end I reach a winning position – the hedgehog has prevailed. :-)

The critical mistake happened in the following position:

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White played the tempting move Qf6, completely underestimating that he was under fire. I played the second best move which was 40…Rxe2. Together with the other kibitzers we later analyzed 40…Rd2 in more detail, which was even stronger.

You can play through it here (use the “Export” function if you want to save it as pgn).

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