Sunday, August 02, 2015

Wait. I play chess?

That’s how it feels this summer. I’ve been caught up with typical life things called work and family. I haven’t been doing anything chess related since my last post and oddly I’m Ok with that.  I’m working on an interesting medical device at work and spending extra time learning new things.  Putting time into learning new skills seems to provide more bang for the buck  than boning up on the latest variation and nuances of the Caro-Kann defense.

Speaking of other satisfying pursuits, I’m also in a part time band. Again, learning new songs and techniques also seems to satisfy the neural plasticity excitation I was seeking for a long time with pure chess endeavors.  A part of my past is that I wanted to be a rock star back in high school ( who didn’t).  I had a parallel life.  Dad tried to convince me that the right girls were attracted to the guys in the chess club for their intelligence.  I doubled down and played in a rock and roll band because, well, Dad wasn’t always right.

This brings me to another topic, I’m writing about those wanna be rock start days and how it didn’t quite work out the way I had dreamed coming from a small college town in Brunswick.  I was inspired after reading several biographies of Rock and Roll stars, that I thought “ What about those of us not growing up in London, New York or San Fran who had a lot of misguided attempts and misconceptions and tried anyway.”  So I am investigating my misspent youth and how the partying and rock and roll attempts usually ended up in the wrong place.

Would any of you readers be the least bit interested in reviewing early material here as snippets from my chapters?  I am toying with this idea or do you want chess only posts from me?

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Building a better time machine

When I say time machine, what I mean is a chess clock. A few years ago I was involved in a project that was to add USB to a chess clock to aid TD and users in general who have trouble setting the chronos or other digital chess clocks especially in the large scholastic arena where the TD’s are expected to help set chess clocks.

I had worked on a proto type with a similar look and feel to the chronos.  I had a partner who was helping with supply chain and “ideas” but as things happen, my partner bailed and I was going through some “life stuff” that back burnered the project and the previous ~$2K out of my pocket start up costs for first prototypes etc.

I am at a point where I might resurrect this project again. But in 2010, USB was the siren call to help minimize set up time for users and lessen the headaches of my TD friends.  I am thinking today, USB would be nice but maybe a Bluetooth enabled chess clock so you can configure it with a smart phone?

What are your ideas fellow readers?  Do you see  adding USB and Bluetooth  for user interface of a chess clock a nice evolution? If so how much more would you be willing to pay for it?  What about the display?  How about other features ( move recording is not on the table for this iteration but I do have ideas on alternatives to DGT’s overpriced system). 

I may not be a great chess player, but I am a pretty decent engineer with experience in building things like this. So tell me what you would like to see in a “Time machine” from Blunderprone.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Mastery: Dabblers, Obsessives, and Hackers

From my last post, one reader commented that I should read some books about sports psychology. It reminded me of a book I did read on the subject a few years ago called Mastery: The keys to success and long term fulfillment by George Leonard.  You can read the cliff notes version of it from here:
The goal driven nature  entrenched in our society fuels a competitive atmosphere where we are constantly measured up against each other’s successes in various pursuits. This  puts the emphasis on the make or break end result rather than enjoyment of the pursuit.  What I liked about his approach is the caricatures  he presents as a result of the lopsided focus on results.

The Dabbler:

The Dabbler attempts each new sport, hobby, or interest with initial enthusiasm but quickly loses interest and moves on to the next shiny pursuit once the initial one slows down, or encounters difficulties.  Dabblers start many new things with gusto but once they hit a wall or plateau move on.

The Obsessive:

The Obsessive lives for the growth spurt in a skill. If he's not constantly and actively growing he presses himself harder and faster. Eventually the Obsessive burns out and moves on to something else. A  lot of the old “ Knights errant” had fallen  into this category.  I think Michael De La Maza was one as well.

The Hacker:

As for the HACKER, once he has passed over the first major growth spurt and is on the first plateau he just stays there. He doesn't actively spend time trying to learn and grow. He just tinkers with the bit of skill he's developed and remains satisfied at that level. But who wants to be just a hack in the competitive chess world?

So What are the keys to mastery then?

The book goes on to describe the keys to mastery: Instruction, Practice, Surrender and Intentionality. Those last two we tend to forget about. Surrendering means being willing to lose a few as we change styles. For instance,   I knew I was going to lose rating points when I surrendered my old opening system a few years back ... and I did...but having done so  I have since gained valuable knowledge in D-pawn games.   Recently, I have become uncomfortable in open positions. I need to surrender and embrace the learning process once more.

As for Intentionality, this refers to focus. I lose focus with all the distraction life throws and then I fall into either of the three categories.  Getting to the point where I am OK with plateaus and set backs is hard when every cell in my body feels like it needs to be measured against some gage for success. Changing the mindset to be at ease with the way things are is a meditation in and of itself. It brings me back to basics as to why I love this game in the first place. I love the learning process. If I can remind myself of this more often before the games in a tournament, the more I can enjoy the journey.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Psychological Game: Confidence Index

I recently played in a one day G30 event with friends. Despite my deliberate practice honing chess skills with my opening repertoire, positions that may arise and tactics; when you’re off your mark, you will have poor results.  After a draw and three goose-eggs , I decided to cut my losses and not play in the last two rounds. The organizer for this mini event summed it up this way.

“ I look at chess skills in 6 factors, openings, middle games, endgames, positional, tactics and performance. It’s that last one, even if you are up on all the other 5, if you are playing as if someone keeps poking you with a tack, then your performance will suffer. “ -MK

I had some time to reflect on this.  In my last post (, I drew a game that had I played it correctly earlier I could have won, the end position was a loss for black but I was happy to come out of it with a draw.  Part of the issue is getting used to a faster time control, which I wanted to do and why I agreed to play in this event.  With my schedule getting into a once a month event G30 event  gives me 6 serious enough games to see my progress in my studies and keep the rust off.  So that’s my motivation.

Psych element 1: Worrying about ratings:

Depending on the event, if I come in at the bottom of the roster, I have nothing to lose in the first round and I find my performance is improved.  When I play in an event where I am in the middle or top, the first round can be a little more stressful for me in a swiss pairing event.  This is especially true when paired with a lower rated player ( going for it). In the round robin event of the G30, we were evenly paired in ratings.  Notice how I am taking about ratings?  I should just play the board, never mind about my opponent’s rating and how many points are on the line, right? In practice, I find this is not easy to do. I’ve tried many tricks like deliberately not look at the rating when the pairings are posted. But regardless of my efforts I fall into the rating trap.

The first Psychological element I bump up against is worrying about rating points ( one of the reasons I like playing “up”).  I usually give myself a few minutes of mediation before each round to keep this element in check but playing in a quick event or some venues don’t allow for me to go to a contemplative space to clear my head.  I’m not using this as an excuse, I am just making myself aware of how important that “Inner Game” is in terms of performance.
So, that first round in my head went kind of like this:

(on looking at the pairings) – “I see my opponent is only a few rating points higher than me, I could win this. “

( opening phase) – “ He’s playing an off beat variant of my Caro-Kann Defense, if I can get to a middle game, I’ll bet I can out play him.”

(Middle game)- “ Cool, I’ve got that advanced –pawn chain, I know what to do and now, look! I can get double advanced passers”

(End game) – “Crap, he’s now got pawn majorities on both sides, my king can’t keep them back. How’d I let this game slip away? ( spiral begins)  Thank GOD he offered me a draw under time pressure.”

Psych Element 2: Out of comfort zone

In round 2, I was paired with someone with a lower rating who played a Benko Gambit, my least prepared opening preparation.  Already my head was in a deficit mode about trying to outperform my opponent but I just was out of my element.  I had cursory knowledge of this gambit line and decided not to take that second pawn. Then odd things happened. Being out of my comfort zone, I found I had to rely more on my  calculation skills which are not that great even with “normal time” chess matches. In a G30, I found myself going “ Let’s see, I need to get e4 in play but he’s already got that square protected, maybe I should just take the pawn on b5 with my knight.. awe hell, Nxb5 (hits clock). “  The game kind of went along those lines so that by move 28 I dropped a piece:

Aside from needing to understand this gambit more and become more comfortable with the position ( it’s on my list), I need to figure out a way to “recover” from a disappointment  such as this.  My spirit was crushed. Didn’t Bobby Fischer say something about enjoying that moment when he crushed his opponent’s spirit?  

Psych Element 3: The Confidence index

When I play in a tournament, and have a first round win, the next couple rounds I play more to my chess skills and less to my psychological deficits.  I call this the confidence index.  After 2 disappointing rounds, I entered round three again looking at my opponent’s rating and AGAIN with an odd variant from my Caro-Kann (out of my comfort zone).  Here’s the odd part, Round one versus Round three, I reached the same exact position on my move 3.  The first round, I was brave and bold and went for 3…d4 to try something new and mix it up.  It may not be correct, but it took my opponent out of the book and gave me a middle game position I at least knew what to do with. I had MORE CONFIDENCE.

On round three, 3...d4 was NOT EVEN considered!  I was already playing with a mental deficit that had me looking at the higher rated player, out of my comfort zone, I wasn’t willing to take risks or even think of them! After the game, I was amazed at how that blind spot came up and I just went for “rote” moves ( dxe4, bf5 etc) because I was looking for familiarity. I wanted “comfort food” moves to just get through this game. I was mated on move 13.

Here’s this aberration:

The confidence index is a strong one and could sum up all these elements. When you are out of your element you lack confidence. When you worry about ratings, you lack confidence.  In my last game, I was OK in the opening stages despite the QGA not being my strongest preparation.  But I found my calculations, and ability to shift gears into an open position dropping my confidence and I lost rather quickly.  Hanging pieces is an indication for me that these psychological elements had taken over my actual playing ability. It was as if I was being poked with a tack.

The Take-aways:

  •        Yes, I need  therapy.  J
  •         I need to figure out how to just play the game and develop more self awareness of when these psychological elements start to come up.  If I am conscious of them, I have meditative techniques that I can use to regulate them.
  •         I have some work to do with my game: 2 Knights C-K solution, Benko Gambit,  understand Open pawn structures ( open center, open Queen’s wing). 

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Recent game where I used the Advanced D-pawn chain ( as Black)

Just a quick post showing a recent game were I played an advanced d-pawn chain as black with a PLAN! The issue is that I faced an “Anti-caro-kann”  set up twice in the same day. The first one I mainly went for the advanced d-pawn setup and had a clear plan.   The game is below.

My next post I will look at my losses and one with a similar Anti-CK  but how oddly it was that played the wrong moves and didn’t even consider the moves I played 2 rounds earlier.  A friends commented that despite knowing openings, middlegames, endgames, tactics and positional strategies, if your performance is off, none of that matters. I’ll explore this in more depth on my next post.  

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Looking beyond the basic pawn structures : Advanced D5 chain

One of the revelations I had at the Boston Chess Congress was that I could get to the middle game in most of my openings going on previous training and some rust removal.  In a couple of games where I played against the King Indian’s defense and a Nimzo-Indian, I reached a nice d5 pawn structure, giving me some space and some play. But I had no clue as to what that play should be and ended up playing to conservative and allowed my opponent to attack.

A few years ago, I was looking at pawn structures to help me understand the openings. You can see these as they are linked on my side bar. This was really helpful in understanding the ideas behind certain openings where these certain pawn structures show up.  This, I believe helps me with openings as I have a basic understanding of roughly where I want my pieces given certain structures.  Thus I no longer fret openings  and usually get a playable position.

With some pawn structures, I know more advanced ideas beyond “getting to a playable middle game”.   I know the basic concepts for handling  Isolated Queen Pawns whether I own it or attacking against my opponent’s.  I also have a comfortable footing with the Carlsbad pawn and know enough when I can get into a minority attack or launch a central attack.  But these only make up a small portion of the openings.  What I felt I needed to get a grip on was what to do when I reach an advanced d5 pawn chain.

Pawn Chains Basics to advanced concepts

I decided to dust off Andrew Soltis’ work on Pawn structure chess  and explore a little deeper on the advanced d5 chain.  He gives great praise to his predecessor, Aaron Nimzovitch. In My System, he has a chapter dedicated to Pawn chains and attacking the base. Andrew Soltis modernizes this in his 1995 work on Pawn structures.

My focus for this post falls on the chapter he calls Chain Reactions.  The goal for both sides is to break the chains. For white this means getting c4-c5 in to attack the base at d6. For black, it’s advancing f7-f5, g5 followed by f4 if allowed. Queenside versus Kingside attack boils down to who can get there first.

Here is a game showing what happens when Black doesn’t get counter play in. This  is  Rubenstein Variation of the NI. Later, I will look at a a Samisch Variation of the KID … This is why I liked the book these are opening variations I typically play:

 Botvinnik-Kholmov Moscow 1947

Move 15 is the critical position. Andy points out that Black has made a major giving up the Bishop pair without any compensation. The passive defense on the King side limits any counter attacks.  White plays 15 c5 and opens up the c-file to focus the root of the attack on c7. Go ahead and play the game, I will wait.

Samisch- KID position with Black getting coutner play on the King side.

(Position after 11…Nh5)  

It’s a race for who can score first. White can’t ignore the threat of f7-f5. 12. B4 does grab initiative for white and he can continue to build the pressure on the c-file with rooks to c2 and c1.  Balance this with threats of Black advancing a boa-constrictor of f5 g5 f4 etc.

The target for Black is the White king.  If white sees this coming and is castled on the kingside… side stepping to Kf1-e1-d2 is not uncalled for.  Positional games can allow for “slow” maneuvers if there are no forced moves.

What I gather so far:
As I see it, as White, in an advanced d5 chain, my goal is to open up the c-file by attacking the base on d6.  Build up a battery on the c-file supplemented by minor pieces to get my rooks to the 7th.  Got it, great!

Black *should* try to counter on the Kingside like any good little KID player by prepare a pawn advance to cramp up the white kingside.  Black will try to first break on e4 with f5 and open up the chain. If white has too many reinforcements on e4, then f3 is the next spot.
What to do if both are “going for it”?

Good question. Here I wanted to be careful of the platitudes that come from books like My system and Pawn structure chess.  There are no silver bullets and at some point you have to get a “feel” for how its played.  Generically, white can get a counterstrategy against Black’s king side advance with g2-g4 at some point so he can continue with the c4-c5 thrust to have the c-file action.  But by then Black may have counter measures of his own limiting  the effectiveness of White’s Queen side attack.

It’s all about Balance and knowing when to shift gears. White may find that exf5 needs to be played giving up the chain. If Black recaptures with a  pawn white will either try to fix that pawn with f4 or it now becomes a new target for attack.  If black uses  a piece to  captures on f5, white now has e4 as an outpost.  Nothing is easy. Mikhail Botvinnik always says “ One always captures on f5 with a pawn on f5 in such positions.

In this example, the critical position in on move 13 for black where playing e4 looked good but gives up strategic outposts.  The correct move is 13…exf4.

Where to go from here.

I went through complete illustrative games from this book and decided to see if this was true in my openings reference book with reference games for Samisch-KID.  I have to look at these games closer as the modern approach seems to tackle these chains differently than what was brought up in Nimzovitch’s time, or Zurich 1953  and the references made in Andy’s 1995 Pawn structure.  I see other ideas by white like going after the Fianchetto Bishop of the KID with an early h2-h4!  Other games showed opening the d-file with early Q exchanges that made absolutely no sense to me.

Bottom line

I can get behind the basic ideas of breaking the chains with opening c-file to get rooks on the 7th for White or Black’s counter attack on the king side with pawns to choke him… if he’s there.  I am starting to get the nuances of counter play with g4 and maybe making a stand-off on the f5 square in case its attack versus attack. But one thing is for sure, beware my next passive opponent if I am granted an advanced d5 chain… I’m going for the point. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Games I played ( Boston Chess Congress 2015)

For me, an adult with a full life outside of chess, there never seems to be enough time to prepare for a tournament, let alone any rust that forms after any long hiatus. I set aside the “poverty mind” , and signed up to play in a section higher than a comfort zone. This placed me 2nd from the bottom of the list. I knew I was going to take some lumps but I approached it as a learning experience  for the following:

1.      See what I recall from my past training
2.      Test the recent training with the Chess Notes methods
3.      Walk away with new directions to study
4.      Have fun

Before I get into each of the games, I thought I’d summarize the experience. First and foremost, I have the utmost respect for the tournament directors, Chris Bird and Bob Messenger. They kept the pace and their cool with the largest turn out to date for this annual event.  I won my first two rounds against players 200 points higher than I was. I was saying to myself “ when is the rust going to start showing?” but alas, it showed in the third round of the day as the time limit converged with the rest of the 3 day players as I entered into the 2-day schedule.  My morning round 4 the following day allowed me a great position in the KID but I couldn’t put a plan together if my life depended on it and gave the initiative away.  By round 5 my stamina was failing and I settled for a draw.

Round 1:

I had done a tremendous amount of recent work on the Slav defense  in preparation for this event. This was my weakest area and thus I spent the most time bringing it up.  The chess notes seemed to actually help as I felt a sense of comfort and familiarity with the position through to move 9. I had some clear plans and ideas.  I was granted a great outpost for my knight and I pounced on a tactic winning me material in the middle game. 

( I'm having trouble getting the embedded code from to display the games here at blogspot. You may be better just going to my blog for these: )

Round 2:

This was bit more of a straightforward QGD with a Carlsbad pawn structure. There was nothing recent in my studies that I covered on this. I was able to conjure up from my long term memory  the ideas around this pawn structure. I think the reason why this was an easier recall, was that a while back I studied these pawn structures quite regularly, went over games that had this pawn structure, and encountered them quite regularly and successfully.  This felt like putting on an old glove.  I knew about minority attacks, IQPs and center pawn pushes for these structures. 

Round 3:

I played the black pieces against an Advanced  Caro-Kann. I’ve struggled with this variation in the past. I simply hadn’t prepared well for this.  I managed to  hang on against a queen side attack I could have easily prevented had I played it correctly.  But being the third game of the day and getting bleary eyed, after the attack I castled because I was more anxious about leaving my king in the center than looking at the piece mobility of my opponent. It allowed the attack to shift to the kingside. White having more mobility I couldn’t swing my pieces over in time. Then I blundered a piece and resigned immediately after.  This is where the rust of an old dog started to show.

Round 4:
Oddly enough, I realized the loss in round 3 broke my momentum.  I had the white pieces as I walked into a King’s Indian defense.  I got an advanced pawn center, one I used to be familiar with but struggled in the past to have solid results ( unlike the QGD).  Part of my timid play could be partially a result of my “fighting spirit” partially broken from the round 3 loss. However, I’ve struggled with fully understanding  this pawn structure, it’s nuances and proper plans for white and what to watch out for from Black. In this game, I found myself playing more passive, not knowing what to do with the space advantage. Is this because I am too “at home” in the cocoon of a cramped position as black? 

Round 5:
I was familiar with the first few stumps of the Rubinstein variation of the Nimzo-Indian to get to a playable middle game.  But I struggled again with coming up with a plan. I could see my opponent was having the same issues. So when he offered a draw, I didn’t want to blow it. With tired eyes, I accepted and shook his hand. 


Every single one of my opponents was higher rated.  That meant finishing with a 2.5 score gained me almost 60 rating points.  Not bad for a getting back into the game.  I think there is some merit doing the chess notes for securing chunks in early positional understanding BUT… and this is a big BUT… I really need to be more disciplined on following up with the drilling with these notes in order for them to be effective.   I am giving myself until February  to see whether the hand written notes  is going to continue or if I go back to making my drills in a database.  On one hand I feel like I get a deeper understanding of the subject I am studying if I do this by hand and not assisted with the computer.  However, I am more likely to do drills (which reinforces the ideas)  using a computer. I may compromise and do initial studies with the “Cornell” chess notes methods with the intent of creating drill diagrams in a database I can take with me on my tablet.

Another thing that came out is how I really need to improve my ability  or, more so, my comfort level with playing the White pieces of an Indian defense where I can get more space.  It’s back to reviewing Zurich 1953. 

Did I even get to any endgames that required special attention? No, I was already lost in one N+R vs N+R ending.  I will prioritize my next round of studies on game studies mentioned above. 

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Attempting Deliberate Practice

I was away over the holiday and became ill, this slowed down my enthusiasm to train for the upcoming tournament on the  weekend of January 10th and 11th.  Despite these life obstacles, I still managed to continue my quest of creating more Cornell Chess Notes to drill with.  Since that post, several readers had responded that there aren’t any “silver bullets” to training and how I must explore other means.  I appreciate the well wishes and passionate discussions. Please, rest assure, I am way to ADD to use only one training method.  In this post I will let you know what other deliberate training methods I used.

As for the Cornell Chess Notes:

I focused on my weakest opening structures as black to really “fill the pages”.  I knew the nuances of move orders in the Slav  have tripped me up in the past where I “think” I recognize a pattern which requires a certain piece positioned ( like Black’s QB) only to find out the move order calls for a different strategy.  I made several opening patterns around the first several move choices for the Slav so I could drill on White’s and Black’s plans. I chose about 5 complete games to walk down this trail.  The positions from the branches  all became “notes fodder”.  

I was studying endgame strategies and wanted to create drills to remember key concepts more than move orders. I have only a few key positions for rook and minor piece endgames with dynamics for each side that require understanding.  Writing the ideas seems to help underscore an important concept but, without any drills to refresh in the memory, I can see how this will escape through my sieve.

I wanted to create some positional strategy drills. I tried combining using the strategy lessons along with the Cornell Chess notes methods. This created several drills with the starting position of the lesson and 4 or 5 bullets of strategy from the lesson for single page summary.
It goes without saying that IF I DON’T DRILL myself of the positions regularly, I will not retain ANYTHING from these notes. Being sick as I was, I had a hard enough time sticking to a regular regimen.

Playing against an Engine:

To help with the opening and game retention, I would play my opening to practice against ANY chess engine I had available depending on if I was in an airport, on my tablet, phone or at my desktop. I managed to set up an opening line to practice. I used my notes as a guide at first and would continue to play against the computer until I could do favorably well through to move 10 or 12.

I’ve yet to do this with the endgame positions I studied. I think it would be a great way to drill and experience the consequences first hand when I make the wrong choice. Not sure I’ll have much time between now and the event but this will become a part of my regular training routine. Likewise, the strategy positions I created would be great exercises to review.

Using the Lessons:

I decided to use the interactive lessons on to augment the deliberate training  for positional strategies. My weakest part in the game is transitions in general. This can be transitions from opening to middle game or from middle to endgame. Thus my focus on positional strategy lessons over at 

The problem with these “canned” lessons is that they are never tailored to typical positions of the repertoire I tend to play. Some were relevant but others were not.  Yes, the advantage of getting a real coach for this type of training can be the value add… but I am cheap and I was sick and on vacation trying not to infest relatives.

I played over annotated games from my repertoire and created similar “strategy” notes for the drills. I found these just as effective as the stuff for strategic goals  and much more relevant to my games. 

Deliberate Practice with a Database.

One of the articles I mentioned in a previous post about studies with amateurs versus experts indicated that one of the common themes of the experts was their training with a database. Again, because of the travel, I had a multi-path approach to this. On my PC I have Chess Opening Wizzard and have built up a huge database on my repertoire. I couldn’t travel with this. So I imported PGN’s to various applications for my phone and tablet with marginal success.

One tool I found moderately helpful was Perfect Chess Trainer on my Android.  The opening database was limited but it contained enough of a games database that I still could get move statistics through to move 12 in most lines. It also allowed me to get through a line and “play against the computer” from that node.   

The games database allowed me to import PGNs of annotated games. This helps in my positional strategy studies as well.

Whether openings training or positional training, on hard stumps, my intent was to create handwritten notes  to help with the learning process.  I’ll be honest here, with all the travel, getting sick and distractions, this became more of a passive activity. At best I would create a separate PGN of a position and save it in the database to review later and mark up as Cornell Chess Notes.  

No Perfect system: 

I never said I had a perfect system. I love experimenting on myself to see what works.  As much as I like the Cornell chess notes for learning, I am having trouble disciplining myself to follow up with the drilling that is required.  This is where some folks were mentioning the benefits of the modern age and all, yes… I agree. The question I have to ask myself is whether it is better to risk a less qualitative approach to note taking ( making digital diagrams purely with  a database) with an improved chance of following through with drills versus the method I described in the previous post with a less convenient  implementation to drill.

With anything new, it’s always good to try it for 30 days as much as possible before throwing it out.  This would give the new method more of a chance of sinking in as a vice or habit. For the sake of the old “college try” I shall continue.