Saturday, November 03, 2012

Evaluation of chess skills post hiatus: Learning to recognize emotional based memory markers..

Because of time constraints, I opted to take only half of the test ( first 50 problems) in IM Khmelnitsky’s Chess Exam and training guide. I used a spread sheet to tally the score and adjust for the 50% portion. After making these adjustments and checking the percentiles, I highlighted the 4 weakest areas in order of priority:

-Recognizing threats
- Middle Game
- Openings

I scored rather well ( relative to my current rating) in  Counter Attacks, Standard Positions and endgames.  Falling in the middle ground were, Calculations, Sacrifice, Attack and strategy.  

I wasn’t all that surprised to see the low score with tactics but it was very discouraging to see such a low score given I’m a disciple of the MDLM ( Michael De La Maza)  circles training having done the 7 circles of hell method ( aka Knight’s Errant) 4 times since 2007.   For those not familiar with the “circles” method, you start with a set of problems, either with a book, website or program and work through all of them 7 times each. The idea is to cram as many patterns into memory as possible so you become better at pattern recognition and less reliant on calculation.

The problem I have is memory. Some problems stand out more than others. When it comes to doing tactical problems, it’s as if I have chess Alzheimer’s and each time I see the problem, it’s like I am solving it for the first time, OVER and OVER again. For me, part of this issue has to do with a short term memory incapable of handling “chunking” patterns into my active playing region.

Scoring better in the counter attack seems counter intuitive if you group counter attacking in a more general category like tactics. Counter attacking  is a defense mechanism. The position is already under an attack, and I have much practice in playing the underdog.  The reason I can recall these “patterns” is because I’ve already mapped this to my long term memory  through practical experience. Memory markers made from a fight for survival scenario in a game has a longer lasting effect than static tactical problems.  The emotional struggle fighting with the logic of the moves creates a lasting narrative that I can then retrieve when that SAME EMOTION is triggered.

Engames and Strategy being in the upper middle is an indication of the pawn structure analysis I labored through to understand. These are reinforced more in practical play in my games as I struggle with the strategy of positional games. The memory markers for these are also emotional based. This is not as much of a fear trigger as it is more of an annoyance or discomfort trigger. With pawn structures and endgames, usually there is  goal I’m trying to make, but my opponent will either annoy me, or make me very happy. The struggle of working through the annoyance creates another one of those illogical memory markers for me that resonates a “ I’ve ran into this petulance before, what did I do then?”

Recognizing key chess patterns through  emotional responses  is a way I can unlock my memory mapping of the concepts in this game that seems to be just out of grasp. Its an internal narrative that acts like a director on a movie set shouting “ CUT! Bring in the action double.”  Finding the key narrative is similar to unlocking learning a new language. Once it’s practiced out, it eventually moves from the long term memory to more of a motor memory and thus becomes a bonafide skill.  Until then, I can only expect to be a novice/ amateur.

The question now becomes, how can I train my tactics in a way that creates an  emotional struggle to resolve ?  I’ve tried to approach this in the past from looking at  practical applications of typical tactics in my games. Setting up my own problem set from my games was only marginally successful. Though, to be honest, it was a pain in the ass to set up and I lost motivation building the data base. I looked for short cuts to build up a problem set based my openings and related traps. 

Some of those things seemed to work for me as long I practiced them before the an event, but then again, I always seem to over prepare for the rare chances and under prepare for the curve balls always thrown. This always came back to “annoyance” and the need to resolve that struggle.

I am searching, and open to new techniques for tactical training that may improve my chances of actually recognizing these in practice.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Chess on a busy schedule and limited resources

My chess pieces feel so neglected they are about to form their own EMO-punk band singing songs of prolonged neglect and searching for wood chippers. Life has a way of getting real and limiting my ability to enjoy my favorite hobby. My last foray was a debacle with a rating plunge like a daredevil skydiving from 24 miles up.

I am still busy and have “life stuff” front and center demanding all those brain cells I used to waste on chess. Yet, I would like to “get back in the game”.  However, I’ve discovered that I am not that good with balancing things. I like to “fully commit” when I engage in an activity but it means something else has to let go.  How can I keep the rest of things in balance with a demanding hobby like chess? 

I am sure we have all similar struggles. I’d love to hear from you on how you find balance with this hobby and not tip the fragile balance of all the other “life stuff”.

What Shall I do? Reduce scope?  Can I really just do chess for enjoyment instead of trying my damndest to prove that an old dog can learn new tricks?

This is tough since  I tend to be mission driven. I have to set goals.  For instance, I still feel it’s my MISSION to find that great white whale known as Adult chess improvement. I’ve even seen glimpses of  this mythical beast in other “late bloomers” on the net, at the club, and even in my own games.  The real question then becomes, how can I seek improvement with limited time and resources? I think the answer lies in how to recalibrate my goal.

 I love this game, I enjoy playing,  and I really enjoy the learning process. Getting to a USCF rating of 2000 does seem like it’s within reach at least in a short term to midrange goal. Something keeps lifting the stick  with a carrot on it when I reach out my hand.  I peaked over 1800 for the time in my chess career about a year ago but the carrot was yanked rather quickly as life events challenged my ability to even sustain the performance.  I had managed to sustain a solid mid 1700 rating for most of last year, but after the peak, I tumbled pretty fast.

Enjoying what I have:
It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell. --Buddha

Instead of pining for what I  lost or what don’t have, I think my goal for the next few months should  be to focus  on a more efficient approach to sustain a solid Class B rating.  Before, I had a sporadic approach to training between matches. It included various activities around tactics, understanding pawn formations, marginal endgame study before the match and club play.  I never found a good mix for these study areas. I always felt I was deficit driven when I reached the board in competition and felt like I never had enough time to actually prepare.

What I was actually experiencing was the effects of a lack of discipline in my training. Instead, I took a buck shot approach which required more time and I never really got a proper handle on successful training techniques.

That’s not to say I never had some successes. For instance,  I had found a method that helped me get a better positional grasp on  learning openings and variations.  I also know more efficient ways to study tactics that impact my own personal games.

The financial commitment was steep as well, on top of the USCF membership and state memberships that allowed me to play in local and national events, I had club fees, tournament costs and internet memberships.  Here, I need to scale back as well.

In one of my other lives, I’ll call the working-Blunder, we are encouraged to set personal goals for the projects we are assigned.  They use the following mnemonics:

SMART : Specific Measurable Attainable Realistic and Timel

I will make an attempt to use this model in my blunderprone chess life:

Here’s my plan:

      1)      Understand myself
a.       Know where my current deficits are
b.      Chess Exam- scoring  for a baseline ( specific and measurable)
       2)      Focus on Discipline from now until end of year. ( attainable, realistic and timely)
a.       Map out the spare hours I can dedicate to training ( specific and measurable)
b.      Use those dedicated hours specifically on focused aspects of where I need training the most.  ( More specifics after the evaluation)
c.       Blog about my training as way to keep track and motivate
       3)      Target One Tournament between now and end of year
a.       Renew State and National memberships
b.      Renew membership
c.       Club membership on hold until more time is available
d.      Harry Nelson Pillsbury Memorial may be my target on Dec 2 ( time)
       4)      Re-evaluate end of December
a.       Evaluate how well I stayed on track with the disciplined schedule
b.      Re-take a chess exam evaluation
c.       Compare against baseline
d.      Set new training goals.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Blunderprone finds chess in Montreal.

This past week I’ve been vacationing in Montreal QC with my wife instead of hanging out in Philadelphia with all the other riff-raff at the World Open. I left the chess board behind but could not help keep an eye on the games in the evenings after our daily excursions  thanks to the live feed and replay through the monroi website.

It must have been the side trip we took outside the city to Drummandville ( about an hour northeast of Montreal), where we were sipping café au lait du glace ( ice coffee) outside a little café in centre-ville. It was there that I ran into some chess players in the park. I observed the local wood pushers and promised my wife I would not “engage”.

When we got back to the hotel, I did a google search for chess in Montreal and discovered quite a rich culture. Concordia University hosts a chess club (  with monthly rated events. For pick up games, PI café and Brainwash Cafe is the place for casual chess and quick events.  But the place that I was most attracted too was Chess and Math center on 3423 Saint Denis. I was able to convince my wife to allow me a quick visit after a trip to a museum that was stones throw away.

The first floor was a chess shop with sets, games and all kinds of accessories for this great game. I made my way up to the fourth floor where the club exists. I met George Fournier, the director of scholastics programs. “ Do you need help?” I was asked.

“Yes, I am a chess player, and I need a lot of help!”  I replied.

That broke the ice and I got a warm reception from my kindred fellow Canadian chess players.  The Montreal Chess Club has a rich history dating back to the mid 1800’s having notable chess players of the day like Henry Bird, Blackburne, Zuckertorte and George Mackenzie. Back in the 1980’s the club became affiliated with the Math and Chess associations. This seemed to keep the venue going in its form today, catering mostly to a scholastic clientele over the summer with an assortment of chess camps and lessons from local masters. 

Mr. Fournier gave me some fliers for upcoming events.  There is an Open Championship coming up July 21-28th right here in Montreal at the College Jean-de-Brebeuf. It has an invitational section for GM’s, and several open sections ( Open, Under 2000, Under 1700 and Under 1300) Top prize in the invitational is $4000 and subsequent sections at $1000, $800, $600 and $400. There are prizes all the down to 6th and 7th place in the top two sections. Prize guarantees are because this event seems to have commercial sponsorship, something we don’t see much in the States. Molson being one of the four sponsors! USCF should take note.
There is a second event in August ( 15-19) sponsored by the chess’n math association called the “SuperFest Chess Event 2012” . The venue is the Hotel Le chanteclor at  Round Lake in the Laurentians. (

In any case, I may not have “been allowed” to play a game during a vacation with my wife, I definitely felt like I got a cursory “chess fix” by meeting these friendly folks at the Montreal Chess Club.

Bon Chance et Merci Beaucoup!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Leaning into the sword

Someone suggested I post a couple of those horrendous games I mentioned from the previous post.  
I did a position search in the data base to see where I veered off or my opponent and not to my surprise it was rather early on. Also, I found myself play "rote" moves... meaning making comfort moves of what I think is familiar rather than playing what the position dictates. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Well, THAT completely sucked!

Well, THAT completely sucked!

After a hiatus in chess due to life events last over 6 months, my plan was to take some rust off at the club in May, play in the Mass Open and then really bring a good game to the Rhodes Island state championship.  The activity at the club definitely showed the rust  that gave way to training opportunities. Not feeling the least bit curtailed, I went into the Memorial day weekend Mass Open in good spirits and a sense of “ I’m going to have some fun in spite of myself”.

At the Mass Open, I had a draw I probably could have one but was too tired to fight it out, then I lost a game on a tactical fault and another game lost after having the upper hand. I let up on the pressure just enough to allow my opponent to fight back.  I made the best of it that weekend by  having a make shift tailgate party with a portable grill, burgers and dogs and fed a couple weary souls between rounds.   
I then spent the time looking over the games and making copious notes on what my thinking process was like to garner some insights  where I fell off my horse.  In most of my games, I come out of the opening strong with some advantage in either space, development or more active pieces. I don’t need help in the OPENINGS… I need help in my CLOSINGS!. In the games at the MASS open, I had serious troubling finding the right move that would convert the temporary advantage into a permanent one and eventually a point.  So, I left the Mass Open with a plan to improve that part of my game through more training in tactics, strategy and playing against the computer with a temporary advantage.

“There’s always the next event.”

Because life is never that simple, my intentions to spar with the computer to improve that aspect were minimized.  I did do my regimen of tactical and strategic puzzles but not nearly enough as I had hoped in preparing for the  RI state competition. The time control was G/75 and required a little different mental prep.
First round, I ran into the same old dilemma from the Mass Opening, not effectively turning a strong position into a permanent win against a Hippopotimus, of all things….in a swamp. Instead, I sacrificed a pawn for a more active rook on the seventh rank and well connected pieces. But the break through allowed the hippo to munch on my wing pawns and prepare a strong counter attack. I lost the game.

Before the start of the second round I realized my wallet was missing! I had to make a quick decision as to what to do. I took a bye for round two and did a sling shot back to my house and back to the tournament. Fortunately, the wallet was found, fell out of my pants pocket int eh morning haste to get out the door.  I made it in time for round three only to have my opponent not show up ( I had a forfeit at the Mass Open as well). Getting a full point due to a forfeiture is like eating a candy bar when you are hungry, empty calories and no nutritional value. Found out my opponent had made a mistake thinking only two rounds a day.  Oh well, very frustrating 3 rounds and nothing to really show for it.

Hoping to start playing some real chess, I played a Slav in the forth round  and fought with myself to not play a Meran, which I had only recently studied but never really employed it. Played the 4….dxc4 version and was faced with a   5.e4  instead of the usually 5.a4. I played to keep the pawn and piss off his knight on c3. I had what I thought was a decent game and played what I thought were sharp moves getting my queen to a5 bishop to f5  while my opponent had all his pieces on the back rank.  But I couldn’t sustain the attack and at one point made an error in judgment as the queens went off the board and castled when I would have been better moving Ke7. The castling required me to lose tempo in avoid back rank mating threats and my opponent got a dangerous passed pawn.

I withdrew after that fiasco. I should have listened to the warning with my missing wallet and withdrawn after round 1… the thought came across my mind.  But I LOVE this game. I don’t have many opportunities to play these days due to other recent life complications. I can’t afford the tournaments I used to attend, definitely not heading to the World Open this year, and I go back to teaching next month meaning the two jobs will be consuming my time.

I was hoping to resurface in August at the Continental in Sturbridge but today I am felling rather humiliated from this game. Makes me question why I keep putting myself through this every time. I lost 51 rating points in May alone and probably another 30 after this weekend. I wish I could lose what like I lose rating points.  I know its not about the rating but once in a while, it would be nice to have things fall in place a little more. Instead, a series of bad performances like this, makes me really think about hanging up the goddamn pieces.  They’ve been a traitorous bunch lately. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Part 2: What have I forgotten? Holes in my games.

I played three games this month at the chess club after a long absence. I went in with the intent of see where my biggest memory loss is showing up and what skills have remained. 
The first round game was an abysmal mess. I totally missed the point in QGA and played the opening all wrong and gave up e5 too easily. I managed to struggle back only to forget some simple rules of when ahead simplify. Missing some tactical errors, I allowed black to regain  some lost material.

The second round game, I was black against a Colle system. My opponent offered a piece and instead of simply taking it, I complicated matters and overlooked an in-between move which just ruined my incentive. 
When he offered the draw I jumped on it to save myself from further embarassments. 

The third game I was faced with another QGA. This time I recalled some things from the first round and managed to hold my ground and gain some good central attacking chances. I underestimated my opponent's counter attacking chances and totally missed a saving move in the heat of battle. Had I played the correct move, I might have even won this one. 

Overall, looking at these games, TACTICS is the one thing that seems to jump out. My board vision is as sharp as it had been before I took this haitus. 

Thursday, May 03, 2012

What have I forgotten? Part 1: On tactics

Its been a while since I’ve really been able to devote serious attention to chess. I can say at least 9 months have passed, though I had a couple of cameo appearances back during the holidays. Back then, I was looking to see what I could retain from training and what I had lost from memory with a focus on “rust proofing” my training.  I had some marginal success and managed to not drop terribly too much in rating and performance.  So now that it’s been even longer since my last serious look at my studies, I thought I’d spend the month of May re-immersing myself back into the practice of chess improvement.

I am not so concerned about chasing the ratings than I am about learning a key concept about learned skill versus memorization. I really think that the positional studies I did with pawn formations last year really helped me develop a skill of positional understanding. I also realize I can’t escape the memory issues as certain variations and sharper lines do require this aptitude.

What are things that can be regarded as skills?
  •           Tactics
  •           Knowing Key positional concepts ( ex: IQP, Minority attacks)
  •           Endgame techniques
  •           Transitions
  •           Time
  •           Handling imbalances
  •           Defending
  •           Attacking
  •           Playing out of your comfort zone
  •           Knowing “your game”

I am sure there are more and I deliberately left out openings as I feel that this idea falls into the category of some memorization required.  Like coming back to a musical instrument, you may remember the scales or your old favorite song from motor memory, but that difficult piece you once played after practicing it  for hours before a single performance, doesn’t come back as easily. You only recall fragments.

So as I come back into this game, the first I look at are my tactical skills. About six years ago, I started on the MDLM journey of improvement my tactics through the seven circles of hell. I’ve completed two sets of 7 times 1200 problems  and had been on my third pass through when I realized that there was diminishing returns.  Before 2006, my tactical skills were abysmal. At the very least, the MDLM approach BURNED into my memory key patterns and underlying themes behind the tactics. 

So why do I still struggle with tactics despite being a rapid improvement “graduate” twice over?  It has to do with how I went about it.  After a certain threshold, my ability to recall and recognize patterns  were not mapped correctly. I wasn’t consciously creating my own narrative during each puzzle and most importantly during the ones I missed, not taking the time to understand why I missed it. Instead, because of the repetitious nature of the MDLM method, it was masked over with subsequent success and a false sense of security. In order for me to utilize the pattern recognition powers of my prefrontal cortex, I need to employ the correct supervised learning technique that only comes from the internal dialog when you are FIRST struggling with the problem. This process creates the right labeling that I can then use to recall the correct technique. Otherwise it falls under unsupervised learning and I take the “canned” labeling providing by the tool which doesn’t really mean anything and tend to cluster similar ideas together increasing my failure rate during recall.

In other words, even though the lower level of tactics  may seem easy to some, simply rushing through them to get to the next level without classifying each instance on your own terms  leaves you with clusters of patterns that may seem alike but require a nuance to perform correctly.

So as I started back up on tactical training to take the rust off, I was well aware that I had some patterns well mapped because I recalled the inner dialog I associated with the pattern.  For instance “ This is a geographical motif with a knight, but I need to remove the guard first and then white wins a piece.” If I don’t have this down for ALL THE BASIC THEMES, solving the higher levels becomes that much more difficult as those problems compound on top of each other.

Well it’s back to basics for me but with a new twist, “Supervised Learning”.   My blogging friend Temposchlucker at has several posts about breaking down tactics and his own supervised learning approach.

My next post I’ll look at the supervised learning techniques I  used for positional understanding and how it’s been impacted with my absence from play.

Friday, April 27, 2012

A letter to Caissa, my demanding mistress.

Dear Caissa,

Yes, I’ve gotten your emails, texts, voicemails and even your FB friend invite. Linked-in too? Really? I know, I’ve been distant the past few months but I just needed some “space”. Our relationship was just getting out of hand. I had other demands and other areas of myself I needed to explore.

I don’t know how to tell you this, but your intuition is probably correct. I have been tangled with another mistress called Kali ( goddess of math). She’s logical like you, not as spirited as you. It started out casual. I thought I was going to be able to manage both of you but then she just dominated me and locked me in her dungeon insisting I sing of her praises to a bunch of kids who didn’t know what was coming. Oddly enough, or perhaps a case of Stockholm Syndrome, I found her quite principled an

d actually liked our conversations. She respects me and is letting loose of her chains ( as the semester is ending).

So here’s the thing, I’ve come to realize I don’t need you to complete me. I do miss our conversations and your enchanting ways you dance on 64 squares. But I refuse to fall for your teasing and humiliation when I fall short. I can do without the demeaning annoying cackle as you throw your head back in satisfaction of destroying another dream.

Don’t get me wrong, we had some good times. I will always remember Philly, the Pillsbury Memorial and that special Tuesday night when I “bagged” the master. I’ve just had to come to terms with a few things. For instance, my rating doesn’t make me. I actually enjoy the struggle and would rather look for the lesson than just the mere increase in rating. Given what I have going on and what I am willing and not willing to give up for you, I am complete. Getting to a better place with you would be great, but it’s not my destination.

I won’t be able to take you out on Tuesday’s for our “date night”. Kali actually pays her own way and helps me now. That’s our night. I regret to tell you that a week in Philly won’t be a reality this year. You want too much caviar and I can’t afford it. Besides, it brings out the worst in both of us. I’m open to a different date night. I hear Wednesday’s in Fitchburg can be inspiring.

If you are up for a more tame plutonic relationship and some good conversations with the occasional 64 dance, maybe at the end of the month we can do a weekend locally. Keeping it low keyed is better for me these days.

I know you must be upset, but please consider my offer. Maybe we can chat over coffee and see out the month of May looks like.

With respect,