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.


ChessAdmin said...

If you were really going full-on old school, you'd be using an analog clock rather than digital...but I suppose allowances can be made. ;)

Looking forward to further thoughts on the method and on Kotov. I was impressed by "Think Like a Grandmaster" when I first read it, but it ultimately didn't help my thinking process very much in a practical sense. You may have put a finger on it re: candidate moves, as I've found analyzing my own games with several options presented by a strong engine (Komodo) to be most helpful in that regard. It's otherwise very hard to find moves/ideas you wouldn't ever have thought of in the first place. The engine functions as a coach in that sense, not as a final arbiter of the "best move".

One potential caveat in comparing your own analysis in detail to Kotov's, is that old school (pre-modern engine) analysis is often found to be flawed. I enjoy going through older books as well, but more for ideas than long calculated variations.

BlunderProne said...

Yes, It's a bit old school but I felt I need to back to basics and for chrissakes, if I did use an analog clock, which I do have, I'd scare off the young folks.

I'll be posting about the journey I have already taken with Kotov and the limits I found with his analysis ( I have Zurich 1953 also... and he references games from this but I found Bronstein better at annotating) as well as his ideas on coming up with candidate moves.

Robert Coble said...


Certain books can be useful for evaluating and developing a "thinking process" in chess. I'm not trying to present a series of book reviews; just an idea of where to look for additional information.

The IMPROVING Chess Thinker - Dan Heisman

Chapter 10 - The Thinking Cap covers just about every possible consideration regarding what you should be thinking about. Unfortunately, it's too easy to get mesmerized with the idea of making complete detailed lists that are unusable at the board. If you spend most of your time making sure you're following the "best" thinking process, you are obviously spending too much time on something other than playing good chess.

Chess Tactics from Scratch: Understanding Chess Tactics - Martin Weteschnik

Chapter 10 - Status examination "simplifies" the process to examining what each individual piece is or can be doing in a concrete position. This is part of the orientation (getting a "feel" for interconnections between pieces) in a preliminary overview, done prior to selecting candidate moves and calculating variations.

Improve YOUR chess NOW - Jonathan Tisdall

Chapter 1 - The Fabled Tree of Analysis directly addresses Kotov's thinking process. He proposes a technique called "variation processing" as an alternative process. The components of this technique are:

1) To aim towards the choice of a single critical variation (heresy!). Branches are dealt with when unavoidable, and primarily to navigate the chief variation.

2) The constant application of abstract assessment.

3) A scan for critical candidates.

If attacking, eliminate the less critical possibilities first. If defending, evaluate the most critical possibility first. (Figuring out which to do first is not critical to success: If you picked a move other than the most (least) critical, bad luck (it happens).

I was very stimulated by considering the question posed to GM Tisdall by GM Anatoly Lein: "I don't think like a tree - do you think like a tree?"

The Enigma of Chess Intuition - Can YOU mobilize hidden forces in YOUR chess? - Valeri Beim

Chapter 3 - The Elements of Chess Intuition provides a general step-by-step process for examining a position:

1) the quantity and quality of the forces on each side, in other words - material;

2) the king: its degree of safety in the middlegame, and of activity in the endgame;

3) the coordination between the forces of the sides, which means: a full note of WHAT IS ATTACKING WHAT, and WHAT IS DEFENDING WHAT;

4) an assessment of the coordination of the forces and the development of the pieces;

5) long-lasting factors, such as various forms of weaknesses and strong points, the quality of the pawn structure, etc.

Robert Coble said...


How to Calculate Chess Tactics - Valeri Beim

Part 2 - The Technique of Calculating Variations is a direct investigation of Kotov's suggested process:

How do we set about finding the solution?

First of all, let us consider what Kotov himself says about his theory of calculating variations:

"1) In beginning our calculations, we must first of all list all of the possible moves in the position - the 'candidate moves' - so as to ensure that we do not overlook some important possibility.

"2) Having done this, we then calculate each variation in turn. The order in which we do this depends on the character of the player and the characteristics of the position. Every player has his own way of doing this. One prefers to start with the most difficult lines, and only then turn to the easy ones, while another player prefers the opposite.

"3) All of the possible lines can be pictured as a ‘tree of variations’.

“4) The main rule in calculating is that the player must train himself DURING A GAME to go over each branch of the tree only once and must not be tempted to return to lines he has already looked at.”

Beim then analyzes these steps and gives the problems with it. His conclusion is:

He then analyzes several positions and proposes an alternative process. He dismisses Kotov’s third point out of hand.

BTW, I have Kotov’s book Think Like A Grandmaster, but have never done more than get a “feel” for the components of his proposed process.

LinuxGuy said...

I love this post, and the comments, keep up the good work! :-)

Don't forget the Stoyko method, since it is even more real for improvement than Kotov's method.

There aren't that many real teachers of chess improvement out there. Even this blog, and the comments, show a rare striving.

This is a video from one of the best (adult improver) chess teachers out there:

BlunderProne said...

Thanks everyone for reading my post. It's been a while. LinuxGuy and Robert you both make some great references here. I do have a vast library and I'll be touch base on these in subsequent posts... during my quarantine.