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Archive for October, 2008

Slowly I get it.

Years of playing chess and reading books and articles didn’t help me much to make real progress. I know most of the basic principles but didn’t know how to apply them properly. Well, I thought I knew how to apply them but obviously I was very wrong. Unfortunately at this early stage it’s almost impossible to learn from other games unless one tries really hard to understand why a move has been played. Without some kind of checklist that helps you where to look at this is just wasted time. Learning tactics is always good and will help later in the game but it wouldn’t help to avoid a position that is strategically lost.

It’s clear now that when you start you need someone who explains to you why one move is better than the other. In easy words. Someone who helps you to formulate a plan. Many books can’t do this but at least there are 2.

Logical Chess Move by Move is one of them. It shows you how important it is to develop pieces and that you should bring your king into safety. It also has nice examples about how to put pressure on a square, which helps you to find the right plan and shows how to execute it. Some reviewers have complained that the analyses are not 100% correct – but who cares?

The other book I want to mention is Best Lessons of a Chess Coach. The author not only teaches ideas and concepts, there are also question / answer paragraphs for some of the moves that go into more detail and show why a move is superior. This is a great concept and very valuable because it succeeds in replacing a real chess coach. It also helps to keep the focus on a game. Instead of skipping some moves and jumping to the end you are forced to think about it. A similar approach would be to guess the next move but this is rather for advanced players. I will try it but I don’t know if I am very successful with it. To get something out of it I must find a way to understand why my proposed move is not so good.

My biggest problem in the past was that I didn’t understand enough about mobility, quick development and finding the right plan. These terms were to general for me. When I study the games from the books I see how one player gets a superior position or starts an attack but if I would have been in the same position I doubt that I would have played the same move. It’s easy to play something that looks good but doesn’t meet the demand of the board. As a beginner it’s quite hard to figure out why another move is better and without good explanations this won’t change.

I think I am on the right track now and I am eager to play some serious games to test my knowledge. I am looking at my chess material with different eyes and this is a huge step forward. Let’s see what the future brings.

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This will be a lengthy post – you have been warned!

I have set myself a new goal: I want to spend more time on chess and make some real improvement. As most of us know, three things are important:

  1. Practice
  2. Analysis
  3. Study

1. Practice

Some time ago I considered joining a chess club but my time is too limited and I could not seriously commit myself to it. So the other option is to play against computer engines and with a Pocket PC the anti-social aspect of the PC is gone. You can sit together with your beloved one and enjoy a good game.

My first program was Pocket Fritz 2. It’s based on Shredder and has a very good GUI. I like it very much for analysing my games but playing against it can be very frustrating. On easy level 3 I am able to beat it almost every time, on level 4 I hardly win. A time setting of 1 second is also too much so I am a little bit stuck. Loosing games is okay but not every time.

The second program I have bought was PocketGrandmaster. It has as well a very good GUI and it’s possible to integrate some strong freeware engines. Again I had the problem to find the right difficulty level and slowly got frustrated.

The main problem is that I am tempted to play too fast. The computer moves almost instantly, which puts some psychological stress on me. Instead of finding a plan and checking all candidate moves, it’s more like trying to play intuitively. I am not a Wunderkind so this approach fails completely.

The other problem is that with a fixed search depth the programs it’s hardly possible to simulate weak players. The positional understanding increases rapidely and tactical traps are found very quickly. If you look at the commercial programs today, the minimum ELO value is usually 1600 and I am not ready for it yet.

To reduce the stress I have started to get out a real chessboard and make the moves there. This seems to work better but, to be honest, I’d rather skip this step. The challenge then is to find a chess engine that plays weak enough to be beatable but it should also be able to play some exciting chess.

After some googling I stumpled upon Delfi, an engine that can emulate weak players in the ELO reange of 1000 – 2300 (or 2500). In addition it takes its time before moving so it behaves like a normal human player. While the program thinks I have time to check possible combinations and threats. This is exactly what I need! And above all, a version for the Pocket PC is available (a free one and a commercial one). I have tried the free version and I am very satisfied with it. Some more searching revealed that the engine is also used in Pocket Champion (sold by Convekta) with more features.

The choice is clear: I will use Delfi for playing games.

2. Analysis

The next step to improvement is to analyze the games one has played. This will reveal weaknesses on which one can focus during the study. The only requirement for this kind of analysis is that the chess playing program can save the games in a database and is reasonable strong (of course).

So far I am happy with Pocket Fritz 2. Usually I make a serious error in the middlegame which leads slowly (and sometimes fast) to a lost game. Fritz suggests alternatives and allows me to play through variations.

PocketGrandmaster comes with the very strong Open Source engine Toga. It should be stronger than Pocket Fritz 2 and slightly weaker than Pocket Fritz 3. I haven’t done analyses with it yet but will try it in the next weeks. The question is if I really need it because serious analysis on the Pocket PC is not required in my opinion, simple blunder checking is sufficient. Today’s desktop pcs are ~ 15 times faster and will let you dive much deeper into a position. The strongest program currently is Rybka and I use it a lot. There is a brand new GUI called Aquarium with some very nice features such as IDeA or Randomize Matches. You should definitely try it, a free demo version is available.

Besides analysing ones own games, real progress can also be made by taking the games of grandmasters and guessing their next moves. This hasn’t worked well for me yet but I haven’t taken it seriously enough. With a Pocket PC one could slowly play through a game and take notes on paper or keep them in mind (entering the moves on the board would show the real move played and/or give too many hints). A good collection already comes with Pocket Fritz 2 and is called Great Games 2.

3. Study

Fortunately for all Pocket PC users, Convekta has published some of their training software! I own some of it and can highly recommend it. The GUI is very well done and it has never been easier to study tactics, endgame, middlegame and opening.

If you ask around you will learn that beginners should mostly focus on tactics. I am not completely convinced because too often I have the feeling that I get lost early in the opening. Memorizing some of the lines I often play is definitely a must. Besides that, using programs like Pocket CT-Art will definitely boost the playing strength and sharpen the tactical eye. It’s well structured and has a lot of excercises. My goal is to work through it in the next months.

Maybe you have heard of Michael de la Maza. He has written 2 famous articles about Gaining 400 points in 400 days. He archieves this goal by doing a special sort of drill. It sounds very interesting but I am not able to commit so much time and energy so my own program will look a little bit different.

Training programs are just one part of studying the art of chess. Books are another one. The big trouble with chess books is that you often don’t finish them. I thought it’s just me and was surprised that I am not alone so the golden rule is to finish the book. Stop buying and start reading them. 🙂 I am currently half way through Logical Chess Move by Move, one of the classics which explains every move. The book itself is not without flaws but it explains the underlying fundamentals in a convincing way. Of course there are always exceptions from the rules but it’s better to follow them first and later learn when it’s safe to abandon them.

Opening training is a little bit different. First the challenge is to find a good repertoire and to memorize at least the first moves. In addition it’s important to understand the basic ideas. A good method seems to be to pick 20 games with the opening of his choice and alternately study a game where White wins and then a game where Black wins. This will give a good idea about what works and what not.

I must confess that I still struggle with a good repertoire. I have found some openings I like but I will need more practice. Now that I have found a good chess computer companion for me I hope to make progress quickly.

Conclusion

The programs available for the Pocket PC very well support using the handheld as training device. I cannot praise Pocket Delfi (or Pocket Champion) high enough as they come close to a real human player with strengths and weaknesses. If pure power is required, Pocket Fritz and Toga are available to help you to understand what’s going on on the board. The training software from Convekta are able to train every part of the game individually and are in my opinion much better than books.

I will keep you updated about my progress. Bear with me.

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