Thursday, June 30, 2005

Warning of the Surgeon General

Chess Tactics Server (CTS) is highly addictive and may be harmful to your health. I mean that you must be very careful not to adopt bad habits and play a move on first sight without double check it. If you double check on CTS then you lose rating points.

Can CTS be recommended as training device? In my first enthusiasm I thought yes, but after some posts and comments of the Knights I am not so sure any more. There is a saying that you do not improve in chess when you play blitz, and CTS is surely blitz. I checked the top ten most active CTS users and found what I had suspected: With thousands of problems done their rating remained in a band of roughly 100 points. That is, a top rated player was top rated already when he started on CTS. And a player who was 1400 at the start is still there after thousands of problems.

So I come to the conclusion: CTS is an excellent device if you want to test your instant pattern recognition and basic tactic abilities. But forget it as a training tool.

I agree with Temposchlucker that the first step should be finding a target, and the second step finding a way to attack it or to prevent an attack on it. So what I need besides my X-Ray Training is a Target Scan Training Method. I hope to find one soon. I'll keep you informed.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Two Keys for Tactics

The parts of the puzzle begin to fit. All the ideas of the Knights Errant, such of the «System» of Temposchlucker, my Board Vision and X-Ray Scans, my wins and losses, all this begin to form a general pattern. The whole issue of tactics is a matter of just two key aspects: First you must have a target, and second you must have a weapon to attack it or, if the target is on your side, to prevent an attack.

What Temposchlucker does in his System is a scan for targets. What I do with my X-Ray Scans is learning to use my weapons better and better, that is, improve my King, Queen, Rook, Bishop, Knight and Pawn Skills. For a tactical success one key is not enough. You always need both of them: See a target, and use the right weapon to attack it.

Finally, you still need a structured Thought Process that tells you when to look for positional or tactical patterns, when to look for defense or look for attack, what to do if you are in the opening, in opposite castled positions, with a closed or an open center, in an endgame, or if you are winning or losing, and how to manage time.

At the moment my training is one part Chess Tactics Server, every single problem that I solve or fail to solve is recorded here, so I won't blog on this. The link to this page is also in my sidebar under Tactics Rating. You even may look for the details of each problem and see how other Knights Errant performed on it. I do roughly 100 problems a day if possible. The main goal of this training is quick target spotting: Loose pieces, forks, skewers, pins, x-rays, zwischenzug, correct sequence of taking, safe check parrying, and the like.

The other part of my training is still X-Ray Jogging as described earlier, my speed at the moment is about 2 seconds/ply.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Hey, Knights, have your tactics rated!

Yesterday, when I discovered this Chess Tactics Server, I was really excited. This is great! Not only is it the best way of training tactics that I can imagine, but it also rates you with a system even more sophisticated than Elo, and each of tens of thousands of problems is also rated. The system pairs you with problems that are roughly your level, such as in a Swiss tournament. The problems on my level (1300 to 1400) are mostly very easy, just simple blunders as may occur in any game. It is the stuff that matters OTB. While the stuff generally is very simple, the time is not.

You have 6 seconds to look at the position before the problem makes its move. Then you have 3 seconds for free. After that every second is punished, depending on the rating of the problem. If you need, say, 15 seconds for a problem rated below you, this may be counted less than a draw, and you lose points. It's really hard.

The King of the Knights, at the moment, is JavaManIssa, followed by Bahus, Nezha, myself and, incognito as «prospero», Generalkaia.

All you other Knights Errant are welcome to join the pack!

Update: I have the great pleasure to welcome Knightwizzy, Jadoube, Sancho Pawnza (incognito as Incognito), Celtic Death, Temposchlucker and ... (to be continued)

Monday, June 27, 2005

A bunch of board vision exercises

I have been asked to be more precise about what I am doing. Well, let's have a try. First I give some definitions of what I am speaking about. Second, some variations of exercises. While MDLM suggested to use an empty or nearly empty board, I prefer real chess positions or whole games for my board vision exercises.

X-Ray: Look at the squares that are under control of a piece regardless of the possibility that the piece can reach these squares or not. This means looking through the pawns and pieces that are on the board, in the manner of an X-ray device. In a strict sense only long-distance pieces such as Q, R and B can do X-Rays.

Real Scan: Look at a real piece on the board and have pop out all squares under control of that piece.

Virtual Scan: Look at any square on the board, regardless of what is on the square, assume that a certain piece is on that square and do a scan for that piece. A variation of virtual scan is the Chameleon Scan, that is doing a K, Q, R, B and N scan from that square. The sequence of these scans may vary.

Pawn Scans: If pawns are connected, then have pop out all squares under control of the pawn chain at once. With pawns I only do real scans, but maybe virtual pawn scans would also be a good advice. I never tried.

OTB Exercises: Use a real chessboard and pieces of wood, and real games. After every move (ply or full move), do a lot of (virtual) scans, preferably from every square of the board, beginning for example with a8 --> h8 and ending with h1 --> a1. You also may use the spiral pathway MDLM describes in his concentric cercle exercises. Going through a game changes the position all the time, and this is important, because the real position on the board interferes with the scans, making them more difficult than just on an empty board.

Screen exercises: Go through real games, after every move do a scan from the piece or pawn that has moved, then go to the next move. The goal is to use less than one second per ply without much effort. I call this exercise X-Ray Jogging. While jogging through a game this way, try to get as much as possible from the game: What threats emerge, how can they be parried, what is the general strategy, who stands better, and the like.

Advanced exercises: I am far from these, still working on the simple ones. But if a simple scan can be done in, let's say, 500 or less milliseconds, then the next step will be to do scans not from single pieces to squares, but from multiple pieces and pawns to board regions (for example, whole mate nets popping out immediately).

Board Vision Days 10-12
4 hours of X-Ray Jogging, speed: 2.3 sec/ply (goal: 0.5 sec/ply)

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Setting the goal

Dan Heisman, in his article on time management, estimates that triple speed is equal to a gain of 200 Elo. So, if I want to gain 400 points, I should speed up 9-fold.

My training at the moment is what I call Chameleon X-Rays. This means, from all the 64 squares of a crowded board, doing a King, Queen, Rook, Bishop and Knight Scan. I do not know exactly how my speed was at the beginning of my X-Ray Training, but I estimate it 15 to 20 seconds. Let's take 18, so my goal is 2 seconds per chameleon scan.

My Queen Vision has improved dramatically. Now it is no more a problem to have pop out all the squares under control of a Queen at once. I noticed that this pattern recognition has extended beyond the area of sharp vision, I just see at a glance if a piece at the periphery of the board is under the attack of the Queen, even if I do not recognize exactly the piece.

At the moment, my pop-out rate is about 8 squares per second, and my goal is to raise this to 32 squares per second.

Board Vision Day 9
768 Chameleon X-Rays, 7.34 sec/scan

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Blitz Test successful

Yesterday we had our second club blitz competition. I have been doing my new X-Ray training for a week, and this was my first test. I expected that, if the training works, I should be able to see patterns faster than before, thus becoming a stronger blitzer. And yes, it worked! In my first game I managed to get a better position against a 2000+, it looked ripe for a tactical shot, I used a lot of time to find one, then became nervous and made some weak moves. He gradually got better, and finally won. I made 3.5 points out of 7 games. Compare to the 1.5 points in my first event.

Maybe, for all you others reading my blog, I should explain a bit more what I do. Just looking at a Queen or Knight and the squares it can hit, isn't this beginners stuff? Is this what a graduated Knight Errant, proud member of the Table Round in the Hall of Fame, should do? You may shake heads and call me silly. But then you miss the point. And I ask you: Are you able to look at any position and really see what happens on all squares? Which are under control of pawns or ready landing bases for pieces? Which are under own piece control, which under the opponent's, or under equal control? And, please, do this in one scan, so that all squares of a certain quality pop out immediately.

I only can repeat what other Knights blogged: Beginners see pieces, masters see squares. I want to become a master. So I must learn to see squares. When I say «see» then I am speaking of milliseconds and of the ability to see two, three or more patterns at the same time.

Board Vision Day 8
320 Chameleon X-Rays (K,Q,R,B,N), 10.88 sec/scan

Postscriptum: Here is a similar post of Sancho Pawnza

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Full Scan Program

All this remains to be done: Queen Scans, Knight Scans, Pawn Scans, Chameleon Scans (doing K, Q, R, B, N from one square), done as real scans (from pieces that actually move) or virtual scans (from any position of the board, systematicly or at random), Multi-Scans (2 or more pieces/pawns together), important for trapping and mating. Sounds like a bit of work.

Today, I did Pawn Scans: Play a game, after every pawn move scan the pawn structure that has changed, as a whole. Of course not the Pawns themselves, but the squares they control and the holes they leave open.

Board Vision Day 7
Pawn Scans, 447 moves, 4.16 sec/ply

Monday, June 20, 2005

Speedy mouse

You may call me Gonzalez. Nearly double speed in Queen X-Rays after 2k scans. It works. I am a weak blitzer, but my blitz strengh should have improved already a bit. We have a series of blitz events at our club so I'll be able to test it there. At the last event I got a pathetic 1.5/7 points.

Board Vision Day 6
1472 Queen X-Ray scans, 4.20 sec/scan

Sunday, June 19, 2005

New focus on Queen X-Rays

I changed my training, using a real board. Take a game. Play the first moves for White and Black. Do 64 Queen X-Ray scans beginning with a8 to h1, ending with h1 to a1 (imaginary Queen positions). Play second moves, repeat the 64 scans. Play third ... Stop time required.

There are some good reasons: I want to improve my OTB vision. I realized that I need 5 to 10 seconds for a Queen scan, 3 times more than for any other scan. A Queen scan is also a Rook and a Bishop scan. A Queen scan from an imaginated Queen (without the Queen being actually there) is an important element of calculation. Doing this on a crowded board with changing positions of pieces and pawns is important for the X-Ray fitness, the ability to look through the pieces.

My dream is once to have a Queen Star pop out as a whole. Because this is not possible, I do a Queen scan in 3 steps. First the Queen Diamond, that is the intersection area of Rook + and Bishop x around the Queen (see below). Then, as mentioned earier, a Rook scan and a Bishop scan. The sequence may vary, according to the position.

x x x
x x Q x x
x x x

Board Vision Day 5
1344 Queen X-Ray scans, 7.81 sec/scan

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Queen Vision

I just cannot do a Queen Scan in one step. Can anybody do this? I need 3 steps: First a short-range scan within a Knight's reach: All squares except the 8 of the Knight Circle. This needs sort of an inverse scan, which I find extremely difficult. Maybe this will improve with my X-Ray Training. What I can spot quite fast is the Queen Diamond, that is the short range 5x5 square without the 4 corners. Second a Rook Scan, third a Bishop Scan. My idea is to do these scans faster and faster until they merge to one single Queen Scan.

Board Vision Day 3: Anand games
797 full moves, 3.84 sec/ply (simple x-ray)

Friday, June 17, 2005

100 Day Training Plan

X-Ray Vision Training is really great. I do not specially look for threats, but to my surprise they just jump at me. When going through a game with X-Ray-Vision I have the feeling of a switch similar of silent movie to sound movie. I begin to hear pieces talk to me. It is quite a babel of voices and most of them I do not understand. But I am encouraged to proceed this way. And this is my plan for the next 100 days:
  1. Board Vision (X-Ray Vision). Playing master games. Time per ply. 50 days.
  2. Simple Candidate Move Vision: only after checks, captures and threats. Playing master games. Time per ply, percentage of moves seen. 20 days.
  3. Weak Pieces Scan: Loose pieces (first and second grade), overworked pieces, cramped pieces. Playing master games. Time per spotted target. 20 days.
  4. Checklist Training: All 12 steps of my Checklist for Thinking. Playing amateur games, taking the role of the winner. 10 days.
  5. Play 9-round Swiss Winterthur Chess Week.

Board Vision Day 2: Topalov games
648 full moves, 4.72 sec/ply (simple x-ray)

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Board Vision Training started

My checklist is quite long, so I must be able to speed up with every point. Board Vision is most important in steps 1 and 5. I have 100 days left to my next big tournament. The coming 50 days are scheduled for Board Vision Training.

I select games of a player (change each day) from my 800k megabase. I size the diagram to full screen to get near OTB sight. I play the games. Simple Board Vision: After every piece move, have pop out the squares controlled by the piece that has just moved, be they occupied or empty (x-ray vision). After every pawn move, have pop out the strong and weak squares of the pawn and the lines and diagonals opened by the pawn move. Advanced Board Vision: Have pop out not only the pattern of the moved piece, but also adjacent patterns of other pieces and pawns.
  • Pawns: Strong Fork (2 squares) and Weak Triangle (3 squares)
  • Knights: Knight Circle (8 squares)
  • Bishops: Diagonal X or V or /
  • Rooks: Orthogonal + or T or L
  • Queens: Queen Diamond (12 squares) plus X(V,/) plus +(T,L)
  • Kings: Royal Zone (8 squares)

I begin with 5 seconds/ply simple Board Vision, and my goal is 1 second/ply advanced Board Vision. Duration of a training session 1 to 2 hours.

Board Vision Day 1: Kasparov games
380 full moves, 4.89 sec/ply (simple x-ray)

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

X-Ray Vision

Tempo brought up an important issue in his post: invisible patterns. In order to make them visible, what do we need? I think it is x-ray vision! In search of a common concept for the hundreds of patterns I encountered in the Circles, I found that most patterns can be described with just two fundamental principles: Forks and X-Ray. A Fork is a K, Q, R, B, N or Pawn attacking two (or more) targets with one move. An X-Ray is an attack that goes through a piece aiming at a target that lies behind this piece. With these two fundamental principles you can describe skewers and pins. Both are x-ray forks. In skewers the x-rayed piece is of more value, in pins of less value than the target piece. In skewers the x-rayed piece must move, in pins it cannot move except in the direction of the attack. So what I am going to do in my future training is X-Ray Vision. That is, looking not at pieces on the board, but at the squares they attack. That's what computers and grandmasters do, and that's why they beat us all the time.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

My Checklist for Thinking

I follow MDLM with this checklist. The idea is that you need structured thinking to prevent blunder. MDLM's original 8-point list does not fit my needs and my thinking style. So I invented my own list and added what I can do while the opponent is thinking. I am greatly indebted to Dan Heisman, for many of his ideas can be found in this list. I also added the most important tactical and positional patterns. Of course, if the opponent plays fast, most of the second list has to be done on own clock.

After opponent's move:

  1. Look: Board Vision. Check? Capture? What is threatened? What can he do that he could not do before? What can he no longer do that he could do before?
  2. Write: Opponent's move.
  3. Think: If check, capture or threat then parry, else Ideas First (update, continue or change plan).
  4. Elect: Candidate Moves. See a good move and try to find a better one. Decide best move. Sit on hands.
  5. Check: Visualize disappearing on old and appearing on new square. Board Vision for simple tactic: Mate? En prise? Counting? Check? Fork? Pin? Skewer? Discover? Trapping?
  6. Move: If ok then play best move and press clock, else back to 4.

On opponent's clock:

  1. Write: Own move.
  2. Clock: Pressed? Write down own time. Opponent's time? Benchmark? Game duration forecast. Speed up? Slow down?
  3. Targets: Whole Board Scan. King safety (mating patterns)? En prise? Loose pieces? Cramped pieces? Poorly defended pieces, pawns, squares or board regions? Overworked pieces? Geometry ready for forks, skewers, pins, discovers? Hidden geometry (to be created by forcing moves)? First scan own position for safety, then scan opponent's position for attack.
  4. State: Game State (opening, closed center, opposite castled, open center, endgame, won game) and Positional State (who stands better, by how much, and why?). Criteria: Safety (=Tactics), Material, Activity (piece mobility and coordination), Pawn Structure.
  5. Plan: According to game and positional state. Simple plans: Lose no time in the opening; first develop then attack; develop piece to the square that offers most options; make worst piece better; make best opponent's piece worse; trade own bad piece against opponent's good piece; open position when better developed and keep closed when less developed; activate rooks in the middlegame; control open center with pieces; attack on stronger side; flank pawn storm when center closed; counterstrike in the center against flank attack; create targets (weaknesses) by provocation or threats; create outposts in opponent's ranks; overprotection of advanced strong points (Nimzowitsch); double threats; when up a piece trade pieces, when down a piece trade pawns; activate king as soon as endgame begins; push passed pawn to the most advanced defended square but then stop.
  6. Wellness: Relax. Enjoy the game. Get a drink. Focus. Stay cool, not euphoric when winning and not panic when losing.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Where I am after 155 MDLM days

It's time to take a look back. A year ago my rating had dropped to an all-time low of 1592. My diagnosis was tactical weakness, and I began with tactical training. I played a 9-round swiss tournament with +3-6 against stronger opponents and gained back 30 points. I analyzed my losses and found that I needed a systematic training. That's why I started my MDLM venture.

I spent a total of 200 hours for vision drills (28) and the 7 Circles (172). I have been playing 12 rated slow OTB games meanwhile. In all my 5 wins tactics helped. In all my 3 draws tactics helped against loss. In all my 4 losses tactics, often very simple, played a key role, but also a number of positional and endgame blunders.

And how is my play now? Openings: I get active play in most cases even against 200+ stronger rated opponents, but sometimes losing time. Middlegame: I need a better view for positional patterns and a sense for the right plans. Endgames: Still my point of weakness, I may blunder away many drawn endgames to loss or won endgames to draw or even to loss.

But my main weakness is lack of thinking discipline. I am prone to be euphoric or panic and then forgetting to apply what I know. In other words, I do not lose because I do not know certain things. I lose because I know them but do not apply them.

I come to this conclusion: The MDLM program is a fine thing and I recommend it to every chessplayer who is willing to take a lot of time and effort to improve. After having finished the 7 circles you get a sharp weapon, a sword made of the finest Toledo steel. Not less and not more. But then the real task begins. I mean, take this sword, go to the battleground of tournaments and learn to fight with this weapon! Be a proud Knight Errant!

Even Michael De La Maza did not improve right after his circles. He first had to learn how to think. This is exactly my experience. I got 1 (one!) meek point out of my last 5 (!) games against opponents of a level I want to reach soon. It is not lack of opening or middlegame strategy. It is not lack of tactical vision. It is not bad time management. It is much simpler. Sorry for repeating this, but it must be said time and again: Knowing well, but not doing it.

The 30 rating points I gained since my MDLM start mean nothing. It could be zero, so what? The point is: My improvement has begun now, and my future training, I see it clear as a crystal before me. It must be thinking training. The Seven Circles are necessary, my friends. Keep doing them. But keep in mind that the Real Stuff comes after them. The Real Stuff is Thinking Process.