Thursday, April 30, 2020

Kotov’s Elements- TLAG part 2

In my last post I discussed how the Kotov method of tree analysis is only as good as you capability of picking candidate moves. In this post I’ll get into how Kotov approaches positional judgement, pawn structures and planning.  I’ll state again the flaw in TLAG (Think Like a Grandmaster) is the premise made in the first section on being able to come up with candidate moves in the first place. His explanation was paltry to say the least and then goes into a positional judgement and other parts of the game that builds on the understanding for gaining insight into candidate move selections.

“The ability to assess a position is just as essential as the ability to analyze variations.”  
– Botvinnik

Positional Judgment:

The second section in the book is devoted to positional judgement. He breaks it up into 4 key elements (as opposed to 7 imbalances if you are Silman follower… but similar ideas that do cross over… more of this on a future post).

  • Open Lines and Diagonals
  • Pawn Structures and Weak points
  • Piece Position
  • Space and Center

Open Lines and Diagonals:

Kotov makes references to Rubenstein’s ability to utilize open files setting the stage. I always thought Capablanca may have been that guy, but then again, it’s all about national pride I guess. For me, there were no real surprises or takeaways like I made in Silman’s  How to Reassess Your Chess .  For instance, beyond the normal :

  • Create pressure
  • Penetrate targets (7th rank stuff)
  • Major pieces important ( well Duh)

There was one interesting note I made about Queen- side attacks on the Diagonal. Building up pressure on the c- file for instance by putting a bishop on b5 and occupying the 6th rank is a typical strategy for opening up opponent’s queenside.  

Silman took it a step further and I’ll elaborate more on these in a later post.  Basically he felt that if there a no targets then don’t occupy that file. That meant if the king and the goods are all on the king-side and all you are going after ( in the middle game) are pawns on the queenside then you might want to re-think your plan and what the position actually tells you to do.  The same about the use of the 6th rank. It  can be as effective as 7th rank in the right instances in the later part of the middle game.

Pawn structures and Pieces:

Kotov spends a little time getting into a discussion on weak squares and weak pawns which branches into a pawn structure discussion.  I think other books do a better job at this like Pawn structure chess by Andrew Soltis or even Silman’s Reassess Your Chess.  Kotov providesa  cursory discsussion on passed pawns, weak pawns and pawn islands.  He gets into weak color complexes as a discussion leading into piece placement. Pawns on same color as ones bishop blocks the mobility of that piece.
On Piece placement of minor pieces, there are better discussion on this in Silman’s book ( I hate to keep comparing these as Silman rose to the occasion with the amateur in mind.  He does cover the basics for what makes a strong bishop, when a knight is more powerful and a brief idea on when to exchange. The discussion segued into poor positions but aside from cramped positions, his remedy to poor development was to “start making threats”. If there was no direct way …just wing it was basically what he said :
  • Keep him busy indirectly
  • Prevent completion of development
  • Play Sharp, Play Direct  ( more platitudes)
  • May involve sacrifices ( I liked that)

Space and Center:

This section was full of even more platitudes: “If we wish to gain noticeable advantage in space we must have a firm control over the center.”  But I did like the notion of learning to know if an opposing pawn center was an actual threat or not. “ Show respect but do not fear” was a quote from Kotov that I liked.

The general formula  of positional judgement versus concrete analysis underscores the need to internalize and formulate ones own ability around position evaluation.  For me, this means putting into words descriptively the plan for both sides.  The biggest struggle I find with positional elements whether they be from Kotov, Silman or even Nimzowitch ( My System) is how to value one inherent strength of one positional element  over another. Silman says this depends on the position as there is no one imbalance is better than the other.


The section on Planning could have been more of an extension of the pawn structures as Kotov breaks it into  several discussions on closed centers, open centers, mobile centers and fixed centers.
A closed center is one where both e- and d- pawns are locked in the center and we have a game that looks to the wings. There will be an active side as well as a defensive side with different strategies ( closed cramp defender will try to exchange to open up for instance while active position will play more like a boa constrictor) 
A Fixed pawn center is a variation of closed except you may have one of the central pawns missing.  Two IQP’s locked in a face off for instance. Typically these don’t have an active side or defensive side  as its more difficult to evaluate.  The dance is around the central elements and getting enough support with the pieces in the center before switching to the wing attacks.  Both will have some considerable amount of maneuvering.

The Open center is free of pawns. Pieces play a stronger role as well as quick development. The active side will use pieces to provoke weaknesses and then attack those weaknesses.  Usually there are no pawn storms here because extra pawn moves weaken or expose the vulnerability of the position. The defender will try to reduce the attacking forces through exchange of major pieces especially.

A mobile center is more dynamic with 1 versus 2 central pawns.  The active sides will occupy the center with the pawns and try to advance and get a passed pawn. If they can’t get a passed pawn out of the deal, then using the pawns to drive the opponent’s pieces away. Use it as a launching point to attack the king. As a defender, setting up barricades and slowing the advancing pawns down are par for the course. Of course, the old adage “a good antidote to a central attack is an attack on the wings.”

Next Up:

After going through Kotov’s TLAG at a slow pace and setting up the positions on a board, I was inspired to dig a little more into Jeremy Silman’s How to reassess your Chess.  I’ll begin a small series  of posts on the 7 imbalances and insights I gained from that study.  Down the road, I hope to stitch my middle game studies with how to map it to my openings which is still under construction. Thanks for listening.   

Friday, April 24, 2020

The Kotov Syndrome

In my last post, I discussed my slow approach to chess studies which included:     

  • setting up positions on a board
  •  developing a scoring system,
  • using a clock while evaluating a position 
  • doing my own analysis methods.

I started practicing these while revisiting Alexander Kotov’s popular Think Like a Grandmaster (TLAG) book committing to setting up each diagram on a chess board and going through the whole thing. Eleven years ago, when I was blogging about Zurich 1953, I did a brief post on highlights from Alex Kotov’s games of that match and provided a brief biography. 

In this post, I will get into the first section of this book as this really highlights Kotov’s approach with his “tree of analysis” calculations.  I’ll touch on what I thought were strengths in this section as well as big gaping holes leaving me scratching my head.

On the “Soviet School of Chess”

I’m a dinosaur. I learned chess back in the days when what was considered normal was playing  with analog clocks and playing chess in clubs where my older opponent would smoke a cigar and exhale in my face while I was deciding what my next move would be. We didn’t have databases, we had Modern Chess Openings (MCO) and chess informants.  The “soviet school of chess” was often referred to when looking up lines in the informants and getting books translated from Russia.  When Kotov and Keres published The Art of the Middle Game, it was first translated and published in 1964 by Dover publishing. This was a big deal.  Kotov saw a market in the US with the rise of interest from Bobby Fischer and continued to write books that would be translated in the 70’s. He has a whole series of his Grandmaster series due to the success of TLAG. Thus the “soviet school of chess” had a cadence and lots of fodder from this prolific Russian writer. Interest in gaining insight into how a Russian Grandmaster might think was fueled by a cold war and a world chess scene dominated by the triple K’s ( Korchnoi, Karpov and Kasperov).  Yes, I am old. Now, get off my lawn!

My 2020 motivation was to revisit this book and hopefully develop my ability to calculate positions deeper. I wanted to do more than a visualization exercise. I used to practice visualization training by playing blindfold against an old chess computer on the lowest level. I would play until my mind got jumbled and would have to “peak” at the position. I’d eventually get good enough to play that level until I could beat it quite regularly and move to the next level up. BUT THAT WAS 30 YEARS AGO.  Since then, once in a blue moon, I’d see how well I could play a game blindfold. For instance, back in the early 00’s on a family road-trip, I challenged my kids to a game in the car with my travel set. They had the board I had the road. (Yes, distracted driving… I know… but hey, play a gambit!) I managed to get pretty far along until I had to get a positional clarification.  Most recently, I attempted to play someone at work whom I sparred with quite regularly but seemed to be beating as well. To make it more interesting for both of us, I suggested I play blindfold in our timed match. I played the whole game ending with a winning position only to lose on time. Bottom line, you should try it, it’s not that hard and good visualization practice.

On the Tree of analysis
All that sounds like fun parlor tricks to play with your friends and all, BUT what I was noticing was difficulty in positional evaluations when I was branching and attempting to come back to the position at hand. Referenced in the book, Kotov parrots advice from Blumenfeld on visualizing the board using one’s imagination:

 “No matter how strong is your imaginative faculty, it is clear that the picture in your mind must be feebler than the one you get by looking at the board.  So, when your opponent moves, even when he has made the move you expected, you should never make the move you intended without further thought.”  --Blumenfeld

Basically, our mind’s imagination has a tendency to lie to us. Beware!

Enter Kotov. In his discussion of Tree of Analysis he covers various tree types:


  • Bare trunk
  •  Coppice
  • Thickets  

When do you invoke the powers of calculation? Am I to do this for every fricking move? No.  Consider the course of the game. You have your “book line” you are playing in the opening. When the first player takes a turn out of the book, that’s a good time to calculate. But further on into the middle game, coming up with a plan is one thing. Calculating the path to get there is another. A sharp position with complications on both sides is the key time to look deep into a position for the right move. Other positions require merely what he calls “positional Judgement” and Kotov loosely qualifies closed opening positions under this heading where its more a matter of positional posturing of the pieces rather than open combat in tactical play. So um, Good luck! This is an example of the Kotov-Ambiguity Factor I ran into.

He makes a bold statement “When analyzing complicated variations, examine each branch of the tree only once.” Here is where the Kotov-syndrome comes in. I can only speak for myself but I know others may have suffered the same fate.  The clock is ticking, I am evaluating a line of a move I think looks good (more on that later), I get to a position in my poor memory and replay the steps over and over. I finally realize that move won’t do so I look for another… rinse-lather-repeat. I finally realize 30 minutes ran on my clock and I panic, I look for ANOTHER move and make THAT MOVE  without any thought and hit the clock. You can deduce the result from there.   

The assumption Mr. Kotov seems to make in this first chapter is that the reader can already evaluate positions really well and are able to select proper candidate moves. Thanks for having that much confidence in my abilities Mr. Kotov.  You do realize I am blunder-prone and am trying to change that? 

Sure, there are trees with bare trunks where one move really sets things in motion. A slight variation is where forced moves are played. Combinations are another factor where a singular trunk would come in. These are easier trees to evaluate but knowing when a combination is in a position is another skill to be developed.

A coppice (shrub) is a position where you may have several options but they can be a bit easier to evaluate as each branch is more or less one or few move variations that presents an easier evaluation. Think endgames and positions that are fairly uncomplicated.  

It’s when you come into the thickets (each branch may be 5 or 6 moves deep), a complicated position that could go either way, is where I struggle the most. These are positions that offer many variations which diverge into quite different lines of play. These are the positions I most likely fall victim to the analysis paralysis “syndrome”.  I can’t for the life of me find good candidate moves, let alone ANY candidate moves worth evaluating.

On Candidate moves:

YAY! There’s a section on this in section one. I was delighted to see this and couldn’t wait to get to this section. (Is the expectation set right?) How, then, does a chess player choose which move to play in a given position?  To which, Mr. Kotov’s reply

“There is no easy answer; each player goes about choosing in his own way.”  

Thanks a lot pal.  This falls about two thirds the way through the first section on analysis and all he does is provide anecdotal stories of Lasker, Petrosian and other soviet masters’ unique approaches. For instance, he quips, Lasker considered developing the ability to analyze accurately by seeking out moves that are either most necessary and/or  most interesting. If I wanted platitudes, I would have hung out in a corporate conference room and read the placards.  

 I almost threw the book away at this point. This is the critical juncture of the whole book and his trees of analysis. Being able to come up with candidate moves to evaluate in the main position AS WELL AS each variation you need to examine is a skill that we now find varies from maser to master.

Parsing out some of the techniques in his homage to other player’s anecdotal ways on how to develop an eye for picking candidates requires:
  • Better understanding of strategies 
  • Knowing how to recognize tactics ( some of us have been down this path)
  • Need to develop  a Bird’s eye view of what’s happening in the position

I would have preferred the book to start with chapters on how to develop the skills around picking candidate moves BEFORE getting into a lengthy discussion about the tree of analysis.  I think this was the biggest shortfall of the book.  For the next sections, he does a cursory discussion on Positional Judgement, Planning and Ending which are necessary elements in getting to candidate selection.  He then devotes a whole chapter on A Player’s Knowledge. I skimmed that section. I had reached my end point and felt that this was rather trite and full of platitudes.

Don’t get me wrong, I trudged through the next three sections in the book to see what I could learn from Kotov’s Soviet school of chess. Next post I’ll wrap up the TLAG discussion and get into the following sections on Positional analysis and Strategy, which lead me to a couple side diversion and my eventual decision to transition to Silman’s How to Reassess Your Chess (future posts to come).
Thanks for listening.. now GET OFF MY LAWN!!!

Friday, April 17, 2020

I used to go fast

Back in a day ( over 10 years ago), I was a disciple of the MDLM (Michael De la Maza)  Rapid chess Improve school. A group of us known as “the Knight’s Errant” did the seven circles of hell solving tactical problems in ever increasing rhythms using various tactical tools and engines.  In general, those below 1800 ELO seemed to benefit more from this in terms of a rating boost. However there was a point of diminishing returns and for myself, I hit a wall and burnt out.  Had I taken more time per position to savor the nuances, build a better mental image and understand the types of positions, I might have found longer lasting benefits.  Instead, I was crazed. I wanted to go through as quickly as possible and go on to the next task. “Maybe this will get me to 2000!”  I took this approach in learning openings, middle games and endgames. “How quickly can I *learn* this new idea?”. I rapidly read through Silman’s How to reassess your chess  thinking I had “mastered” the concepts of the 7 major imbalances.  I peaked to just over 1800 before I burnt out and took a hiatus of several years.

The past couple of years, I came back in fits and starts still trying to hang on to the old glory days and try to continue to climb. Now, my training was even more feverish. Maybe I’d do a fast batch of tactical puzzles. I had an opening trainer ( Chess Opening Wizard) I queued up with my repertoire and rifled through each of the variations repetitiously AS FAST AS POSSIBLE. How was my performance? It sucked. I rapidly fell to my rating floor (1600 USCF).  

Life in the SLOW Lane: 

Back in January, after evaluating my most recent tournament games, I realized most of my gaffs came from having difficulty looking deep into a position and going through calculations. I pulled my dusty old version of Kotov’s Think Like a Grandmaster off the shelf. Again, this was a book I “rapidly skimmed and thought I mastered” back over 10 years ago.  This time I down shifted. I slowed down my approach and realized there was no need to rush.  I committed to doing the following:
  1.    Use a real board and set up EVERY POSTION in book and write down my own analysis before checking the answers
  2.   Develop a scoring system for each position that evaluated my progress in: (  Calculation Depth; Overall Accuracy of my assessment; Candidate moves;  Positional Evaluation )
  3.   Use a clock set to 20 or 30 minutes and not move the pieces  
  4.    Use my own methods for notating position  to record my analysis/evaluations etc.

I’ll spend the rest of this post elaborating more on my method. Next post, I’ll get into some of the learnings I found about myself and Kotov’s methods.  I know…I know… there is a folly about Kotov known as the “Kotov Syndrome” where a player is so deep in analysis paralysis then looks at clock and plays some random move that was given no thought. Guilty. More on that next post.

Why use a real board?

  I am training for over the board (OTB)  tournaments ( hopefully post Covid-19 that we can do this in the future). I love the experience of OTB over virtual. In my mind, nothing like it.  So, if my goal is to play with real set, I must train my brain to see problems in 3 dimensional space. The act of setting up the position, checking to make sure I did it accurately  and staring at it while I evaluate the position is a much richer visceral experience using more senses to lodge into my memory that I find it actually helps with retention and recall.

Scoring system

I wanted a way to measure any progress or learning gaps to see if I was actually gaining something from Kotov’s teachings.  In his book, the main emphasis was on improving calculation so I thought I’s use that and look into how many ply  moves I could go per problem.  Mind you, depending on the section of the book, some were really deep for complicated problems and some were singular branches and forced move sequences.  My overall learning was to improve my ability to calculate without moving the pieces.

The reason I list Accuracy and Positional evaluation separately is to differentiate the positional evaluation of the starting position and its nuances to the accuracy of the positions I could see down the branches. One is based on my ability to accurately see and evaluate down a branch. The other is overall evaluation of the starting position.

My ability to find candidate moves will be a topic in a further post. I’ll cut to the chase. I suck at it… still did after my journey with Kotov and will elaborate more on why I feel his book didn’t do enough justice on this topic. More on that in a later topic.

Using a clock

Kotov suggested this as well in his book and the overall practice of setting up a board with a position from either a book, magazine or from you own games to review. Putting 30 minutes on the clock to take the time to jot down all the lines you are considering and your evaluation is a good simulation to OTB experience.  I tried several increments… 30-, 20-, 15-, and 10- minutes. I found the sweet spot for me was at 20 minutes and some of the time I was in “Kotov Syndrome” mode by minute 15. This was good to recognize while not in a tournament and take a step back and ask “what am I missing?”  If my thought process is spinning its wheels 10 or 15 minutes into a session, I’m either not understanding the position correctly or I’m obsessing over trying to force MY MOVE to work and getting discouraged.  This process with using a clock was proving to be extremely valuable in better understanding myself and my ability to evaluate a position under time pressure. I highly recommend it.

Developing a method for notating positions

Taking it a step further and even slower, I have a note book where I jot down concepts from the book and  key insights from where my thinking process went wrong when verified with the book.  I also needed a method to record positions/ variations “off the board”. I thought of having an analysis board or using my computer and notating my thoughts. These would all be  valid methods. I chose to use a study sheet with a diagram. I created my own using a blank Diagram and lots of space to write my analysis. For the position I used a hand drawn method I learned from another book, by Rolf Wetzel Chess Master at any age. This was a cool book about a guy who reached master class after turning 50! There was a section about creating flash cards ( a bit old school) which I liked using for the diagrams.

This is an example analysis notes I had from a position in the Kotov book.  I “corrected” my analysis with a red pen.