Saturday, 8 August 2015

2000 Tactics Fever & YouTube channel.

Quick little update, I seem to have settled into the 1,900 tactics rating level on, recognising the problems more and more often and thus increasing in rating.

Solving problems even if it takes 8 minutes per problem definitely helps remember the pattern, as opposed to failing it and then just seeing the solution. I am really striving to get at least 80% right each day. Some days I manage to do so really well but other days like today I get too focused on reaching a rating goal and fail. I really wanted to just hit 2,000 but after getting to the 1,980's multiple times I'd act too fast (to gain rating points) and instead end up losing points in problems I may have managed to solve.

This rating hunt needs to stop, of course, but I won't be too harsh on myself and aim to be a stable 2,000 in a month instead of in a day as I have been trying! Today, is a perfect example on how not to solve tactic problems as I got 11/30 wrong vs my usual 5-6/30 wrong, all to try and hit 2,000! All in all, I need to remember I could hardly leave the 1,800's a couple of months ago before I started this new way of looking at tactics. This month I almost hit my 40 hour target, and I would have, but for a week I had away exploring Huaraz in Peru!

In other news, I've launched a video channel on with the goal of improving on slower time controls. How will I achieve that? Well, If I know I am recording I try and take the game more seriously, I try to calculate better, I try to practise prophylaxis better, and in general, I just play better. Usually I'd get bored of slower time controls on-line and get distracted. This way hopefully I will build good habits, one in especially, always checking what my opponents best response to my move is before I make it, as I very often catch myself not doing that.

What else am I up to in chess?
I'm also studying openings still, getting pretty knowledgeable in the Najdorf but the opening is so complicated I reckon I need at least another whole month to learn all the important variations, but I am going to go for it, it's nice to be well versed in the Najdorf, such an exciting opening!

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Progress Update: June to July 2015

A quick progress update based on my last set of resolutions.

What worked?

#2) Deciding to stay in Ecuador for a while has given me more stability to take chess more seriously, it helped me achieve a few goals such as improving a lot in rock climbing and the next resolution:

#4) After being stuck in the upper 1700's and mid 1800's in Tactics Trainer, with a 55% successfully solved rate, I found myself depressed about my tactician skills. I resolved to solve for accuracy rather than speed and now I have stabilized at a 1900 rating with a peak of 1960! I could have probably hit 2000 but I got a bit too eager when I approached it and fell back down. This new approach has yielded almost 3 out of every 4 solutions correct (approximately 75%) and I do feel like I am progressing again. I will maintain this approach and hoping to update you from a stable 2,000 next month.

#6) I finished Pawn Structure Chess and a tiny bit of endgame study (got good at opposition, distant opposition, breakthroughs, mined squares, key squares in the endgame). I feel like this new chess knowledge will serve me well but I am well aware that any rating increase I will get will be mostly from eradicating bad habits, and creating good new ones. To this end, I am re-reading Chess for Zebras (the first time I only read about 30%) and hoping to find some nuggets that will help me get the next big rating jump. I imagine, I will just have to do more tactics or maybe opening guess the move and middle game guess the move kind of problems.

What didn't work?

#1) Planning each and every day, it's just next to impossible! I have however got a good solid morning routine so that by 11am I feel like I have done a lot of my chess things and I am free to do everything else that needs doing. Then if I can fit another 2 hours somewhere in the day my chess studying day has gone extremely well.

a) Also, I've played too much Blitz, and I feel like it is no longer benefiting me, my rating soared but it has reached a cap again. Once again, I believe playing slower games maybe including correspondence is the answer. So this next month, that is the goal. Correspondence chess!

New Resolutions
Finish Chess for Zebras
Continue training tactics as I have, solving for accuracy. Recently I saw a video where IM Bartholomew backs the approach as well, solving for accuracy!
Increase the amount of tactics I do by solving some paper booklets I have, or perhaps try and find a way to solve for opening moves or middle game moves to improve my strategic habits.
Ponder on other ways to improve my "skill" rather than my "knowledge" (see Chess for Zebras).

Here are some screenshots of my Tactics Trainer work during the last month, only around 18 hours, I think I should be doing at least 40 hours a month? Hmm.

Rating Progress: 
Correspondence 1856 (97.4%)
Standard 1753 (97.4%)
Blitz 1714 (96.8%)
Bullet 1581 (94.4%)

Got extremely frustrated in my standard games, I think I am not very good at that time control, need to learn better time management for it is most likely to resemble real FIDE tournaments. Quite pleasant to be getting better at Blitz though, both at 10 minute and 5 minute time controls. For Blitz, I feel like my opening preparation is paying off, for slower time controls, it feels like it is not so much the opening that is affecting my play but other factors like double checking your moves and your opponent's best response to them as well as remaining patient throughout the whole thing.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Now that I'm a stable 98th percentile, it's time to step up my game. Here is the plan.

3 months ago I set myself a goal to hit the 99th percentile by basically, today. I had some concrete goals and plans set and now is the time to reflect on them. The benefit when you aim high and fall short is that, if you do fall short you can still achieve something you are proud of. Well, I am stable 98th percentile player now! That means on 15|10 chess I am ranked #14,044 of 817,724. That's and improvement of about 50,000 ranks in 2 years! Considering my studying has been all over the place at points, with many months where I did not study at all, I think this is great! Now, I am going to take studying chess seriously, since I no longer have to study my Masters in Psychology, but that's another long story.

It may not seem like much of a difference going from the 97th percentile to the 98th, especially when I was already flirting with the 98th percentile, but at this point every 0.10% I can go up matters to me, a lot, and I definitely managed to remain with my head above 98th and right now I am at 98.3%. In rating terms it means I went from being a high 1,600 to low 1,700 player on Standard to a stable 1,800 contender. Big difference compared to 2 years ago when I was stuck at the 90th percentile, happy if I managed to hit 1,500. Back then my goal was to get to the 97th and join a chess club. Well, I guess reflecting back on that goal, I have managed it, and I am now attending a small chess club in Cuenca every Saturday!

So what went wrong? Why did I not reach the 99th percentile over the last 3 months?

Well actually, I followed the 4 goals I set myself without even realising, almost to the letter. But things did go wrong, here they are:

1) I did not work with any form of schedule, aside from doing tactics mostly every morning, everything else was done at random times without any planning. This meant that if my mood was low (and in the last 3 months due to personal circumstances that happened often...!), then some things didn't get done or time simply flew away with random things.

Resolution: For the following 3 months, every night I will plan my next day's study & work schedule, including meals, this way, I make the most of my days.

2) A lot of life things got in the way of chess. Mainly making some complicated decisions, for instance, about where to live for the next 6 months (or longer). Would I travel? Would I settle down somewhere and get a job? Would I give my own business ideas a spin again? Difficult decisions, and when you feel like you will leave the country any day bound for an unknown destination sometimes it is hard to get a good study routine going.

Resolution: A couple of weeks ago I decided I would stay in Ecuador for at least 6 months and give a few of my business ideas a spin. This will provide a 6 month "stability" window to improve at chess and to try and generate an income again. I put stability in quotes because I still plan some weekend getaways, camping trips, mountain ascents, and perhaps even La Cordillera Blanca in Peru! Heck, this counts as stability in my life though! :)

3) To summarize (TLDR!), point 2, I let a lot of things interfered with my studying which meant my studying was all over the place.

Resolution: Try to write shorter paragraphs.

4) My tactics training was suboptimal. Although I managed to stay around 1,800 and hit 1,900 for a short period, the overall feeling was that of being stuck at 1,800 and not making any progress. After thinking about it, this was because the tactic problems that were hard for me I would consistently get wrong, and due to rushing because of the time vs. point dilemma , I would always rush. This rushing would make me get the problems wrong, again and again and not improve.

Resolution: Today, I reset my tactics training stats after almost reaching 100 hours (97.8 hours I believe!), I had about 55% problems right and 45% wrong in almost 7,000 solved tactics. More than half in the last 3 months I believe. I reset my tactics because my goal is to update you next time on my tactics and report at least 70% of tactics solved correctly as opposed to just 55%. I will no longer care whether I lose or win rating points while solving tactics, I will care about the percentage I get right. Period. I strongly believe this will allow me to familiarize myself with more patterns and eventually be able to stabilize my tactics rating at around 2,000 or more. Let's see!

5) My opening theory preparation was suboptimal. I attempted learning all the lines to an opening which took forever. While I am proud to report I am somewhat of a Nimzo expert as white, I found that people stopped playing the bloody Nimzo almost as if by chance and I hardly get to use my knowledge. Instead I often get lost in some obscure line of the King's Indian, Benoni, Slav, openings where I lack knowledge. In the rare case someone plays a Nimzo, they go off the book and I do not immediately know how to punish them. Hence many hours of learning opening theory have not yet reflected themselves on my rating, but maybe it has somehow improved my play by helping me recognise certain plans in certain pawn structures, maybe.

Resolution: I want to memorize shorter lines, instead of knowing an opening 20 moves down the opening lines, I am going to try to prepare my repertoire to 10 moves or so across a wider variety of openings. I also would like to study the book Pawn Structure Chess as I have noticed how important it is to recognise plans based on pawn structures, when your opponent is not giving you anything else.

6) I did not add any new chess knowledge. While I am very familiar with the strategic concepts of positional chess talked about in Simple Chess, I thought I would learn something new in the book "My System" which I did finally finish. It turns out, Simple Chess recycled everything My System talks about, and I must say, Simple Chess is easier to read than My System. Therefore, I did not learn anything new, which got me wondering, is there anything new to learn? While watching IM and GM videos it seems I am extremely well versed in any strategic concept they talk about, but indeed, some areas I have recognised I lack knowledge in are pawn structures and their according plans as well as perhaps some imbalances that IM Silman talks about, although I think Silman probably mostly talks about the same stuff as the author of Simple Chess and Nimzowitsch. I also lack a lot of endgame knowledge.

Resolution: Study the endgame, study pawn structures.

Having now completely recorded my progress and reflected on my weaknesses, I will set a new goal. My goal is to hit the 99th percentile on Standard Chess 15|10 within 3 months and be able to remain there without  dropping below it. I also want to hit the 99th percentile on on-line chess. I have a lot of motivation to achieve this goal as there is a FIDE rated tournament coming up and If I can reach the 99th percentile, I may play it. I say may, because I really wanted to be closer to 99.9% before doing so, but heck...!

Just for recording purposes, here are all my ratings:

Correspondence 1839 (97.1%)
Standard 1814 (98.3%)
Blitz 1603 (94.4%)
Bullet 1503 (92.4%)

Two things stand out, I managed to really pick it up on Bullet chess by getting a lot of games and thus practise in, before this I used to play at 60th percentile level on Bullet, it was almost shameful. The second thing is the lack of progress on Correspondence chess, but this is because I got caught up playing a lot of Standard, Blitz and Bullet games. Time to go and sort this out. 99th percentile, here I come.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Flirting with the 98th percentile.

On both turn based chess and live standard time controls I have managed to hit 98th percentile very briefly. Then back down to 97th I went! I have not had a plan or discipline studying chess for a while now. Taking a step back, here is what I need to do to hit the 99th percentile. Hopefully, next time I write, thats where I will be on both 15|10 and turn based chess.

  1. Play a max of 4 turn based games of chess at a time. Any more and I don't take them seriously enough because I get tired investing the mental resources required on every single game (I had like 14 going recently!).
  2. Take every live standard game I play seriously.
  3. Do tactics every day without failure for at least 60 days.
  4. Study more opening lines, it really helps knowing the book moves for the most common openings I encounter, as it helps save prescious mental resources for when the oponnent leaves the book.
I am going to try and put together a disciplined plan to achieve this 99th percentile goal within the next 3 months. Hopefully, the next will be a positive update. Regardless, I am pretty proud of my playing level considering the lack of time investment into chess, as even when I am at my worst I no longer seem to drop below the 96th percentile, ever. Woop!

Friday, 30 January 2015

Still Unrated

While I have successfully resisted the urge to play blitz games, I have also allowed all my chess efforts to stop for the past 8 weeks. Too much travelling about, celebrations, seeing friends, family, studies, all of that left little time for chess.

This is a big hint towards the reason few people manage to become grandmasters as adults: it appears that it takes more than just discipline as you juggle all of your wants, needs and obligations. It may take superhuman discipline (after all I consider myself a pretty disciplined person!)

If you have many needs & obligations, little time is left for chess, and the little time left you may just spend playing rather than studying the subject!

If you have many wants, like me, juggling priorities may leave you achieving little in one of the fields you are really interested in. I want to travel more, I want to learn more languages, I want to learn psychology, I want to read more books, I want to learn chess, I want to keep friendships & family close, I want to rock & mountain climb, I want to snowboard more, oh, and I want to make money again! As a kid, you don't question all your wants and just go for one of them. As an adult, I seem to be wanting to perform the most complex balancing act to make sure I get ALL of them. Is this realistic? Only time will tell.

When you combine all of it, eventually one of these ends up taking a back seat. This last 8 weeks, that happened to my chess progress. Luckily, today I've resolved to get back to it. Today I'm warming up to get back into action, I've done some opening revision and I'm going to solve at least 20 tactics. The next few days I will follow the same routine until I feel I can unpause my  games and continue the full scale project. I am also going to pick My System back up as I left it about half way read. Hopefully, these steps will help me reach a next milestone in my chess progress.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Resisting the urge to play blitz games.

Yesterday I bought a nice travel sized chess board so I can properly study chess again. I also got a copy of My System, long on my to read list. I read and went through the positions in the first few pages today. Nothing new so far aside from the incredible importance Nimzowitsch gives to tempi and his great explanation on when to exchange and when not to. I enjoyed it but going through the positions was a bit exhausting.

I've kept up practising tactics and so far I am nowhere near my all time high of 1990 in tactics. Hanging around the 1700 level. Just had a massive urge to "test" my newly acquired knowledge in a live blitz game, managed to resist it until I keep my promise and get to the 99th percentile in corespondence chess. Wasn't easy, but instead I managed to get a few more tactics in. Over and out!

Friday, 21 November 2014

Tilt, Learning Plateau & Future Resolutions

A couple of months ago I seemingly got stuck at the 97-98th percentile of correspondence chess. This frustrated me and I lost 100 rating points quite quickly. After recovering about 50 points I decided the reason I reached a plateau was that correspondence chess was boring me a bit and I decided to go back to live games. I picked the Blitz format because my rating there was the most mediocre, 90th percentile, say what?!

Fast forward a couple of months and a couple hundred or so blitz games later and I reached the same problem. Stuck at the 93th percentile, tilting, losing 10 games in a row making the most horrendous moves. It was at this point I realised I play completely different when my rating is below what I think I should be, a common characteristic of chassing your losses, tilting. I took a step back and decided to find a solution. My search led me to a book entitled The mental game of poker by Jared Tendler, a sport psychologist. The insights I drew were extremely helpful.

Jared cites the Adult Learning Model (ALM) theory in his book which describes how certain skills we know (or don't) have four different levels of competence. The levels are Unconscious Incompetence, Conscious Incompetence, Conscious Competence and Unconscious Competence. Most GMs can win blindfolded against multiple opponnents because most of their skills lie in the Unconscious Competence category.

The problem that we, as learners have is that most of the skills we think we know are actually still in the Conscious Competence category. These skills are fragile and require utmost attention and focus for us to execute them properly. If emotions show up, including time pressure, these skills go out of the window and we start playing a subpar game. Jared argues that emotions are difficult to control and perhaps counterproductive as well, therefore the best way to stop emotions (or tilt) affecting your play is to move more skills to the Unconscious Competence category, aka the skills that show up irrelevant of how you are feeling.

Think about it, even in time pressure, you won't try to move your queen like a knight, right? That's an example of UC and that's where we need to bring the rest of our skills up to. Furthermore, if you are a beginner then it's likely a lot of your skills are either in the UI or CI category! For instance, if you know that moving a piece twice during the opening is considered bad, but do not know what to do about it then that skill is in the Conscious Incompetence category. Once you learn that you must complete development of all your pieces because it is an integral part of the game, this skill moves up to the Conscious Competence category.

Jared also uses a helpful example of an inchworm to drive the point home, but to keep things short I will put forward some concrete findings based on this principle that apply to my game:

1. When I reach a plateau and stop climbing rating points as fast, I get frustrated, my emotions are all over the place. This means I start playing worse than usual because all the things I think I know go out of the window.
2. To improve, I need to identify which of these skills are still at the CC level and study them to finally get them over to the UC level. When I do this, my rating will naturally climb up until I reach another plateau at which point I have to find the next UC skills to promote.
3. On the basis of that logic, I realised that I do not practise prophylaxis on every move as I should. Therefore I resolve to make it a commandment that I shall ALWAYS analyse what my oponnent's move intends before I plan my own move. Sounds simple enough, but the trick is to get used to doing it EVERY move. Bring it to the UC level.
4. I also realised how I stopped studying as much, and therefore I resolve to quit playing live games once again until I reach the 99th percentile on correspondence. Meanwhile, I will do the tactics trainer and hopefully double my tactics time from 48 hours to 100 hours. Bring some more tactical patterns to the UC level.

I realise this post is very technical, psychological and lacks detail. However, in order to go in more depth I would end up writing a chapter of a book. I will leave that for later.