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:
- Use a real board and set up EVERY POSTION in book and write down my own analysis before checking the answers
- Develop a scoring system for each position that evaluated my progress in: ( Calculation Depth; Overall Accuracy of my assessment; Candidate moves; Positional Evaluation )
- Use a clock set to 20 or 30 minutes and not move the pieces
- 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.
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.