Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Some Thoughts on Blitz

Wormwood at the rarely updated but always thoughtful Burning Castles gets to 1506 on ICC at 5-minute Blitz and his observations on raising the rating at blitz chess are well worth waiting for:

F i n a l l y ! It's been over two years since I first crossed 1400 on ICC 5-minute, and even though the effort has been sporadic at best, it still took more than enough time. I've had these spells of blitz in which I decide to work on it properly, but they've seldom lasted for more than a couple of weeks at a time. Then 3-8 months of hiatus, and back on it. -It's always been hard to keep myself motivated to train blitz more, as slow chess has always gone so much better for me. Obviously you always much rather do things you're good at. Hopefully that'll change for the better now after reaching a basic level of not dropping everything in every game, so my strategic/positional strengths should also begin affecting the games. Still much to do on the basic technique though, and I'll also no doubt dive back under 1500 soon enough. Gotta just keep hammering.


Notice that he speaks of "working on it properly" and "training blitz," showing his approach is specific. It gets even more interesting:

So what worked and what didn't?

Well, for one, I must say that tactics never did anything for my blitz, even though it's always advertised as the holy grail of fast chess. It has benefited me hugely on correspondence chess and the ability of solving tactical puzzles, but my blitz never improved on bit before I begun playing blitz heavily. Although obviously you have to have some basic proficiency in tactics, you can't just expect to survive in blitz if you never drilled tactics. But it isn't the bottleneck, at least on the low levels.


Amazing! I think this is exactly opposite of what we would expect. And maybe other people have had different experiences. But Wormwood reports in a precise, rational manner that leads me to think he is giving us the straight dope. Now for the BIG surprise:

Slow games haven't had much effect either. It's the area I've always used most time since the beginning, analyzing positions for hours every day. The outcome has been that I'm great at seeing what I did wrong afterwards, but that's just too little too late. The ability to analyze slow games is just too, well, slow. The revelations must come instantly, without thinking, or otherwise you lose on time. -Perhaps the slow games will some day reach a critical number, so I'll have seen all the basic situations so many times that playing them correctly becomes instinctive, but after 4 years it still takes conscious thinking time. People who've played for decades are probably in a very different situation regarding all this.

That pretty much leaves openings. The unappreciated love of beginning players, on which the experienced players always tell you not to waste study time. -And in slow chess that's actually true. But in blitz... I don't think so anymore.

During the past year that I've finally focused on my openings properly, it's become obvious that my opening knowledge has been abysmal. The shallowness and uncertainty on even the things I thought I knew has been simply enormous. As the cliché goes, I'm only beginning to understand the extent of my ignorance. I now study openings every day, and it's paying dividends especially in blitz. I'm actually outplaying my opponents on book knowledge, and to top that I'm even understanding why their non-book moves are inferior. Of course that still happens mostly in the mainlines, and quite early at that, but it's a promising start. I'll continue on that vein and see where it'll get me.


So what's my take on all of this? My own highest blitz rating was 1442 on FICS in 2007 (which I assume to be roughly equivalent on ICC, though if you, the reader, have a different opinion I'd like to hear it). Right now I'm at 1316, and I have been as low as 1250 and as high as 1406 in the last few months. Part of the roller coaster for me is that I often play only late at night, when all of life's other tasks are done, and that's certainly not conducive to best play. But one takes what one can get.

I play quite a bit of 3 0 and the factors I've found at that speed that really help are 1) playing faster than I think I should, and; 2) something related to Wormwood's experience, playing openings I know, playing instantly while in my "book," and once in the middle game, doing what I call "watching the opponent's pieces," that is, keeping his stuff in my visual field between moves and not staring at my own men and thinking about what I want to do to him.

As for speed of play, Rolf Wetzell, whose book Chess Master at Any Age I've written about a number of times (have I actually followed his program? No, but that's another story...) had some very interesting thoughts on how fast one should play at various time controls. In sudden death, whether G/3 or G/120, he made the excellent point that one needs to have time to execute mate! He notes that many sudden death time-control games are played to mate or until someone's flag falls, thus you should plan on playing 60, 80 or even 100 moves in one of these games. I've made it my goal to get to move 60 before losing on time (or, hopefully winning on time or mating the opponent!) and this seems reasonable at 3/0, averaging 3 seconds per move. I can't play much faster and not throw stuff away left and right.

I also play 2/5 sometimes (5 seconds added per move made) and this seems to me to be almost a completely different game! With a 5-second increment I feel like I can grind out winning endings and there's often the chance to make a few quick moves and build some time for calculating how to finish a game off more precisely. Probably I should only play this time control, as I find it much less stressful, and conducive to pretty decent chess (sometimes). But always there is the Siren Song, the call of the adrenaline rush of 3 0...

I'm coming around to the view that blitz is an entirely legitimate field for experimentation in techniques for raising one's rating. There are some similarities with just "getting stronger at chess" in general, but based on Wromwood's report and my own experiences there seem to be significant differences, as well.

I would be very interersted in hearing in the comments any thoughts and/or experiences of readers on this subject of raising one's blitz rating.


Anonymous said...

Blitz seems great to test openings, to see what kind of lines you like. A lot of variations can be played in a short amount of time.

This doesn't really apply to mid- and endgames, where there's little guarantee of getting a particular type of game to practice.

Blitz can also be a indicator to see how much you've improved.

Due to the short time control, a lot of the game is played on instinct rather than calculation. How you play a position quickly and well may indicate a good grasp of the position's concepts.

Rolling Pawns said...

My rating on FICS is 1460, recently reached 1500 (with max 1525 half a year ago). I agree about openings, it's where blitz makes the largest contribution in your OTB improvement and vice versa your work on openings pays off well in blitz. It's not one-one correspondence, since for example I have good results with Smith-Morra in blitz, but have yet to play it OTB, maybe max in G/90.
But French really pays off. Another resource in blitz to improve is (as actually you suggested) saving time for theendgame. I tend to lose pretty often there just because of making critical errors or losing on time. Tactics, yes I agree too, you just need to see basic things, you actually don't have time to calculate more. Not sure how much it can be indicator of your overall improvement, since deep calculation/endgame technique are not quite tested in blitz.

wang said...

1445 max 5/0 rating on ICC
Right now I'm at ~1150
I don't take my blitz too seriously, I usually use it to occupy myself for short bursts of time or to try out new opening ideas.