Saturday, January 30, 2021

Tripping over my shoelaces  

I’ve tried many different ways to learn openings. Brute force rote memorization doesn’t work. I might have short results but in the long run it is not a lasting thing for me because it soon becomes a jumbled knot of branches. What I end up remembering is the move for another line and end up in an inferior position rather than a stronger one for this line. Thus, my analogy of tripping over the shoelaces at the start of the game.

Adding to the frustration is the fact that for the first few moves, there are so many off the beaten path variations and traps to watch out for that it’s next to impossible to keep track. Playing at the “class level” (non-master), I encounter a lot of these non-mainline variations because I know… my opponent, like myself doesn’t want to spend hours learning a main line response to an opening that their opponent is all “booked up” on.  So, they game becomes a cat and mouse game of can I trick them out of the book first into comfortable positions I remember.


Over the years, I am finding a problem with that logic as the branches can get trickier to recall if all you do is rely on memorization.  Unless you have an eidetic memory, you are like me and out of luck. Especially as you advance in age and you realize your brain has become more of a leaky bucket.


Rolf Wetzell’s book, Chess Master at any age, talks about this and asks the question what comprises chess skills in his chapter on Components of Chess Capability. He lists them as follows (and I will paraphrase):

  • Images of positions
  • Ability to visualize positions
  • Move Selection
  • Mental state (Attitude, Discipline and tenacity)
  • Physical state
  • Personal biases (favored pieces, positions, ability to be flexible)
  • Genetics (memory and internal clock)


I won’t get into all these or debate them. I knew Rolf when I used to go to the club and I picked up his book because of the hope in old dogs learning new tricks thing. I also picked up at the height of the MDLM rapid improvement in chess … or as I call Dante’s 7 circles of hell in tactics training.  The method behind all that was to increase the number of “images” into your noggin until you had it in motor memory to play tactics automatically.

But here’s the thing, after countless hours and thousands of tactical puzzles, over time, my leaky bucket was forgetting the bulk of them.  Part of the problem, with the rapid approach was that I was mindlessly making moves without really putting any thought behind it to “get through this set” as quick as possible.  This was purely brute force memorization and only benefits short term effects. For anything longer lasting, I need more mindful processing in addition to the piece movement.


Back to the topic of openings and images of positions.  I need to understand opening position branches better rather than memorize “if he goes there, I go here”.  I shifted my tactical training for a slower learning using more of an internal narrative, naming the type of position, tactic or strategy going back to basics. I am not going for quantity but longer-term quality for sustaining results. I decided to start a similar approach to studying openings.

I’ll share in another post on what tool I am using and how it fits in with the database activity and books I have later.  But for now, I am creating several short stack puzzles using the first 8 moves only of my key repertoire and doing repetitions in these and asking myself the following when I am struggling to find the move:

  • What’s different from the previous branch?
  • What’s really needed in this position?
  • Can I still apply “main-line” ideas?
  • What positional triggers do I need to find my move?


Taking a more mindful approach to learning this as well as iterative training to build up the capability seems to be helping me initially in recent games.  I’ll elaborate next time I as test this experiment out a little more.






Saturday, December 19, 2020

Memory versus  skills

Where did I put my glasses?


I found in preparation for the virtual WO, though I was eagerly trying to engrain and develop skills at a deeper level, I found myself simply falling back to relying on my inadequate and deteriorating short term memory skills. I front loaded with “database training” on opening variations which ended up being a futile effort as after move 4 or 5 the divergent paths of variations played by my opponents, no matter how hard I “trained” ( read: attempted to memorize too many variations) ended up mixing up move orders or just fell short of really understanding the position.

I know. Don’t memorize. Try to understand the opening and its fundamental premise rather than memorization.  I had every good intention of doing just that. Really, I mean it. I even got the very verbose Everyman series of openings I was developing.  The problem I have is that as long as my opponent played along with the lines I was training for; I was OK for maybe up to move 10.  I was happy with that as I could switch to more long-term memory skills and use positional judgement as flawed as they may be for me.  But that’s not how it goes. Most of my games NEVER went down the lines I was “trained” for and preparing for the deviations was strained.

All the prep I did for the world open was not for loss. As I am warming up for the Boston Chess Congress in a couple weekends, I am playing online “cold” without any going over variations or practice. I want to see what’s working and what’s not.

Litmus testing:

 I am playing some Blitz ( G5), Rapid (G10) and Fast/Standard (G30). I evaluate each game immediately following taking note of thought process, decisions, and where memory versus skill was taking over.

Blitz for Breadth of opening understanding:

 I am using G5 to test breadth of opening “confidence” and looking for the biggest holes.  In the post-game analysis, I look for the divergence beyond what I “know” and whether I was on fuzzy memory or trying to use positional skills ( time consuming). Here I am looking what I need to understand at a more fundamental level from moves 4-8 as middle game set ups are taking form.

Rapid for Breadth of positional understanding:

I use the rapid time controls to test more of my ability to “think on my feet” so to speak and see what’s still working and if I did indeed pick up some concepts when I “deliberately trained” on positional evaluations earlier in the year.  I am seeing some fruits of that labor take place as I seem to have a quicker positional evaluation meter to pick ..semi decent moves…not necessarily the best but playable positions I understand. This is better than where I was at the beginning of the year.

Fast/Standard for depth:

Here, I am looking for focusing on thought process and  training my mind to be in “tournament mode”. I  evaluate if I even use a thought process. I am still in the process of developing one that works for me and when to use it in which part of the game. Transitions are always difficult and when to stray from opening mode, to positional and analysis. What about safety checks? I am still not regular with that and thus my avatar.  

Skills lay in long term memory

Yes, my memory sucks. I blame having too much fun in the 70’s and 80’s. Add to that the fact that I am getting older.  I need to rely less on short term memory in preparation.  I’ve blogged about deliberate training  here and on memory here.  Old dogs can learn new tricks. I know this. I am constantly learning new skills for my profession though, it’s slower than when I was in my 20s. 

What I find, when I am developing skills, is that the following items seem  to be needed.

  •  Focus
  • One at a time 
  • Right time of day
  • Periodic breaks
  • Repetition

To touch on these briefly:

Focus:  This is always tough for me as I am wired for distractions. I do know I have it in me to hyperfocus and I see it especially when I am fully engaged in an activity I that I really commit to (Playing in a tournament, guitar or something in a creative spirit especially). To learn something new, I need to be engaged completely otherwise the information gets sliced and only tidbits are retained if any.

One at a time: On a similar note, I know I am better at learning one thing at a time. I make this mistake a lot.  Meaning, I can’t set down to learn the fundamentals of all my responses to 1.d4  in one session. Rather, I need to say to myself, “This is the time to wrap my head around the basics of move 4 variations of  the black side of the advanced Caro-Kann.”  The idea here is to set a goal for my self and a way to evaluate it. This is the essence of DELIBERATE PRACTICE.

Right time of day: I know there are some times of day when I am ripe for retention of facts and other times when I am too fatigued to go any further. I might as well have read gibberish when I am at that level of input because I will not retain a damned thing.

Periodic Breaks: The other thing I realized is that learning is supposed to push you out of your comfort level. If I want to get better at playing my instrument, playing the same stuff will not enable me to learn new things. I have to get comfortable not being comfortable.  It’s the practice of staying in practice as I heard once before. Because of this comfort zone pushing, you need to do this in intervals not much more than 30 or 40 minutes at a time or you reach a point of diminishing returns.  PLUS, taking a break and thinking of something else gives your mind to process the information which helps file it in the long-term memory cabinet.

Repetition (and evaluation) : Finally, like learning a language, constant repetitive exposure to test the new skill is needed to help reinforce and rebuild the neural paths struggling to retrieve the information. This is in essence what I am doing above with the G5/G10/G30 playing. I use this to evaluate the skills being called upon and reinforce that training if needed.  

Friday, November 27, 2020

Because I am still Passionate about Chess….

It’s been a few months since my poor performance at the Virtual WO this year. Life got busy and it was easy to put chess on the back shelf. We’re on the cusp of Holiday season and I realize I hadn’t posted anything since September!  Honestly, with all the training I was doing for the WO over the summer, I needed to take a break. 

As this crazy year comes to an end, my work life puts me in a position that really needs me to take time off. In that light, I am toying with the idea of playing in the 27th North American Open which will be on line:


  • The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. In that light this is my tentative structure for the next month building up to the event ( If I really decide).

  • Deep analysis of critical positions from my games at the WO taking note of the thought process that lead me in a different direction.

  • Not so frantic with the openings study  as I ALWAYS struggle with memorizing versus completely understanding.

  • Play more slower games for strengthening the positional understandings  and strategical elements  as this will be my GOAL… to develop a BETTER understanding in these during games.

  • Plan to play a section higher than my comfort zone.


When I approached the summer’s WO tournament, what was my main goal? Sure I wanted to win games but I started the year out taking off some rust and working on a thinking strategy after looking at Kotov’s and Silman’s ideas.  What I was trying to accomplish was using a consistent thinking strategy for my games and I failed because I’m finding thought strategies need to be more dynamic. I was too rigid, fell short and fumbled.

These are some ideas I think I’d like to build up to and may expand on my journey over the next few weeks.

  • On openings:  No deeper than Move 5 or 6 as variations and “anti” variations really deflect my understanding. If I can really understand why the first few moves are main-line and why early branches are made, I think I can play to favor the underlying line if minor variations are played instead.

  • Getting to a playable middle game: Barring opening traps, minor variations, and anti-variations, getting to a middle game strategy I can understand… or know enough to win or equalize. I’m starting to have a few positions I understand better than others ( ei. Minority attack).

  • Knowing R+P endgames is essential.  King and Pawn endgames as well and knowing when Minor piece endgames are meant to be played to win.

  • Intangibles: My physical health… I’m doing things to get heathier daily and it’s starting to pay off. Mental health, taking breaks between learning to allow the process to set in long term memory and challenge at the right frequency for deliberate learning, and Spiritual health, not beating myself up over a mistake, catching myself when I spiral into an “I’m an idiot” internal dialog ( don’t listen to the committee of idiots in my head).

Stay healthy and follow your passion.



Monday, September 07, 2020

Why Continue?

I put what I felt was a lot of effort in preparing for this year’s online version of the World Open only to have a performance that was lacking any indication that my efforts were paying off. After 9 games, I finished with a 3.5 score in a section that was within my ratings. Six of my opponents were minors and one of those points was from a forfeit when my opponent didn’t show.

Chess knowledge and chess skills are two different beasts. Consistently putting knowledge into practice, for every move I make, is a discipline that separates me from reaching higher ratings.  I tried training specifically for weaknesses in my skill only to fall short in a “real” or “virtual real” setting. I’ll admit it’s discouraging and not the first time I hit this wall. I’ve reached periods where I’ve actually thrown away my chess set and sold my books in frustration. This time, I took a reflective month off.


A couple things came to mind here:

  1. I didn’t play up a section ( or two).
  2.  It takes more “actual practice” in tournament conditions to solidify knowledge to skills


My first mistake was playing in a large tournament’s section within my rating range. I didn’t go into it  expecting to win that section, rather I would have been happen for a middle of the pack  4.5/9 games played score not the abysmal 2.5/8 played ( not counting the forfeit). With 66% of my opponents have a better neuroplasticity along with a rating that had more momentum, yes, I got my butt handed to me. Historically, when I play in “my section” at these events, I never fair well.


Playing up is better because it removes the “performance” pressure of shooting for a score indicative of where you feel you *should* land. Wins are always a upset and losses are not as painful. Should of, could of, would of,….. Will I learn this time?  The other benefit of playing up is getting to play those opening lines a little deeper as stronger players tend to stay truer to the mainlines or more common lines than the “gotcha” cheap shots too often seen at the level I play.


I should have continued my practice regimen following my results after the World Open, but I needed a rest. When … and I will get back in this arena…I do come back, I will find a better balance of study and real practice. The good news, I have found ways to do this with the virtual space and the different timings. I also have a growing database and various notes of what worked and what didn’t.

I’ve been fighting the same demons over and over. What to do when faced with an odd opening move. How to sustain an efficient “safety” check before moving so as not to generously blunder away material or the position. I hindsight, I can say that while I getting better at these  in most cases, all it takes is that ONE MOVE where my guard is down and I regress to a weaker thought process.


All good things…

All good things either come to an end or come to those who wait.  My crippling chess addiction is too strong to throw it all away ( though my wife would be happy I suspect… putting up with my ups and downs in this hobby).  I’ll get back on the horse and remind myself of the deliberate practice techniques, the various thinking processes I’ve reviewed, and the joy I get in reviewing games and just uncovering more to learn.

So what if my rating sucks. Here’s a surprise. I’m not doing this for you. I’m not seeking you to respect my chess knowledge based on my rating. Sorry, I respect myself without your validation. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a few more wins under belt as an indication that I’ve managed to develop another aspect of the chess skills always in need of a fixing.  

Until next time, 


Friday, July 31, 2020

Who is playing in the (online) World Open this year?

I decided to throw my hat in the ring and signed up for the 9 rounds next weekend ( August 7-9). I wanted to put a short post out there asking who might be attending this and how are you preparing?


Since March I was shifting gears from OTB to rapid time controls and improving my blitz rating. I needed to down shift and get back to slow play and practice focusing on thought processes and calculating as the 48th World Open is G60 matches.  So, here’s my short list of preparation:

  1. 20% tactical studies
  2. 10% Opening reviews
  3. 40%  G30 online ( Focus on thought process)
  4. 30% Middlegame studies (Focus on thought process)


Focus on thought process:

After studying Silman’s Imbalances,  Kotov’s trees, Heisman’s “Is this move safe” and Andy Soltis’ “inner game of chess”  I distilled this to recognizing when to calculate versus when a plan is needed and evaluating positions as best as possible.

For now, I am trying to recognize when to calculate under the following:

  • Out of opening book preparation
  • Sharp positions with a lot of dynamics ( Initiatives and development imbalances)
  • Combinational opportunities ( Unprotected pieces, overworked pieces, double attacks)
  • Control of weak squares

Sadly, I am so used to playing fast that I tend to recognized when I should  calculate after I made a move and played a “gut reaction” or a “feel good move”. Recognizing these triggers now so I can better realign my thought process come WO48.


Hope to see you there.



Thursday, July 02, 2020

How I gained 300 points in my online Blitz rating

I’m a slow player, I still blunder and I forget to follow my “thought processes” religiously, but yet, I was able to climb out of a 3 digit “area code”  Blitz rating to one approaching the 4-digit  middle ages in a matter of a few short weeks.  I posted back in April about going slow to work on my OTB game. Times have changed. In order to get some practice games in, playing online is the way to go in the days of social distancing. Playing on line slow games always leaves me feeling suspicious of playing against someone’s computer. So, I had to adapt to faster games.


Like I said, I’m still an amateur and no where near master level. However, I have an infectious passion for this game and love exploring ways to improve my chess experience as I share about this here.

What I plan to touch on in this post:

  •           “Hot tub time machines” versus finding a club of trusted peers with some action
  •           Frozen in time
  •           Set modest goals
  •           Focused opening training
  •           Going back to basics in tactics
  •           “En prise”


Hot tub time machines


I’m not talking about the stupid 2010 movie. Playing live ARENA blitz games is as confusing as falling into a hot tub with a magical knack for throwing you back into the 1980’s. There are usually several hundred who sign up, you join and SPLASH off you go. Is this studio 54 and who the hell am I dancing with if you call this dancing?  I never really got into disco.

I use blitz arenas for experience and getting more comfortable with the time controls.  Not being one who enjoyed G5 all that much, I needed to acclimate. But it’s a hot mess, you never know who’s next and the quality of the games (your own mistakes included) seem to vary player to player as there is no consistency.  I use the arena games to chock up experience and COLLECT DATA. On and other online chess communities, you can download the PGNs into your database.

When I started getting into online blitzing, I joined my local chess club’s weekly Blitz tournament. I knew the players; I could even look them up on and scroll through their archives and prepare. More on that later, sorry if that creeps you out.  I kind of know the playing strength from the OTB experiences.  The problem was that I was always on the bottom of the ladder and kept losing.

Frozen in time:

My first hurdle was to overcome clock fright. It was taking away precious processing time in my head. I’d look at the time remaining and panic. I’d look back at the position, try to come up with a move but in my head, I heard “tick tick tick”. I’d glance back up at the clock and bam! I’d lose either on time or make the worst move possible. I found the experience  similar to the Kotov syndrome except, instead of analysis paralysis being the main driver, it was excessive time control anxiety.  The only way for me to overcome this minor neurosis was with exposure therapy in the hot tub time machines of the arenas.  I had to set my mind on not caring about the rating. Rather, I wanted to play through games and not lose on time and use these games to learn from.

Set modest goals:

This brings me to my next concept. What I really wanted to do was ultimately play better blitz games when I joined my club’s weekly event. I set a goal of initially winning 1 game for that night. Notice how I didn’t say “I wanted my rating to jump a gazillion points”. Overcoming my time fright anxiety was a requirement and using the larger arena events to acclimate to this was in order.  I met my first goal.

Side note, I tried using the online bots… because… I hated “embarrassing” myself to live players. I got over myself and suggest you do the same as these bots didn’t really provide the training I was seeking. It was as “organic” as playing human players. I prefer my opponents to be free-range and organic.  

Using all these experiences to collect the game data, I started tracking those I lost on time versus losing by dropping pieces or not SEEING A MATE IN 1.  The time loses were now more attributed to prolong decision making because of openings and middle game transitions making me reassess my preparation.


Focused Opening Training

Easy now, don’t go hog wild here.  However you do your opening prep, make sure you focus on a few key points:

  1.          Only work on the most common variations from your “data collection” phase
  2.          Start with the first 4 or 5 moves ONLY
  3.                Know your responses to the stupid “anti-variations” that WILL come

I found it very unnecessary to go 11-15 moves deep into a main line variation as in most games, by move 4 or 5 my opponent is through some curve ball. If I don’t even understand the basics of my opening at move 4 or 5 to respond with confidence to a “minor variation” then maybe I need to chose a simpler less complicated opening.  Once I built up my confidence on the first few moves of the variations, I was most likely to encounter, I found myself losing less on time and better able to get to a playable middle game under blitz conditions.

Iteratively, as I play more games, I review the lines played ( mostly minor variations off the main) and go deeper. I am now at the “8-10” move threshold understanding for most of my repertoire. But my mind is a leaky bucket, requiring repetitive reviewing and training to patch the holes. My longer-term goal is to understand the major tabiya of each of my openings. There’s always going to be something to work towards.

Oh… and a rant. I’m getting tired of the “anti-blah blah blah’s”.  I am a Caro-Kann player, I see a common theme and I think some players are smiling and rubbing their hands together when they throw a 2.Bc4 or some other odd ball minor variation.  Even the Nxf7 sac or the Qe2 … I know these… I can see your queen; I’ll eat your knight …I will hurt you.   Bottom line, you better know these trappy variations as most times, you can walk out and do rather well once the storm passes.


Going back to basics in tactics

I used to be one of those Knights Errant who did the seven circles of hell from Michael De La Maza. Look it up if you’re not familiar… long winded story. The issue I mentioned before was not seeing simple mates or …more embarrassingly, having a  winning position with a rook and king versus king and not being able to mate them before you lose on time. That frosted me at first but also told me not to resign even when behind as the clock can be your redemption!

Rather than circling the seven circles of CT-ART, I needed a more focused approach and one for blitz games.  I found a series of Mate-in-one puzzles (however you choose) and did the 200 plus set iteratively for about a week.  This turned out to be my BIGGEST BANG FOR THE BUCK!  I climbed out of the area code rating and reached the 1100’s in a matter of a couple weeks.

Caveat: People cannot live on tactics alone.  I was at a “comfortable” point in my opening preparation but started getting too cocky with the tactics…like I did 10 years ago after doing the MDLM circles of hell… and started playing unsound tactical moves.

I know, you may be thinking, “But Blunderprone, isn’t that what Blitzing is all about? Throw some crazy half thought out complications at your opponent hoping that they waste time to see if it really is unsound?”

You may be right, but I know I am not Magnus Carlson or some other GM. In most cases, my complications are probably unsound. I had to dial back my urge to play craziness (lets face it, thrill seeking is fun) and chant to myself “NO COWBOY MOVES!”  Yee haw.

En Prise!

In most cases, these “cowboy moves” usually meant I was leaving my queen or some other piece hanging. I found out; I have an unnatural overconfidence in my queen’s ability to protect herself. I believed she’s such a good fighter that I didn’t worry about her safety.

Dialing back the gusto and swallowing some humble pie, I needed to work on tactics that focused on just capturing pieces to help recognize and refocus my mind back to piece safety. Dan Heisman also has a nice book titled Is your Move Safe? It has puzzles for every aspect of the game to get you thinking less of “cowboy moves” and back to thinking of safety first!


Dan Heisman is a wise man. He knows his audience and doesn’t take the same condescending voice like Silman in some instance. To paraphrase Mr. Heisman, if you want to get good at blitz, you really need to get better at slower games first.  

My rating is stuck in the 1200’s right now. I am looking at refining my blitz preparation processes and see if I can get into the 1300 or 1400’s by end of summer. I’m finding a new club that offers a variety of formats with some rated slow events. Yes, it’s back to turtle chess in-between the hot tub time machines.

See you in the hot tub!

Until next time and wishing you all the best,