Monday, February 04, 2008

The Inner Game of Chess

Since I haven't tracked down my score book quite yet, I won't be posting my game from last week for at least another day or so; but not having the moves in front of me has had an unexpected bonus. Reflecting on this game and my recent run of fairly good results, plus a few things I’ve read in the wonderful and ever-expanding chess blogosphere, has had led me to some insights that might otherwise have been lost in the details of “21. f4? (Ra4! Bxc3 22. Rxh4 and White wins)” or whatever. Having concentrated on my games for the last few posts, let’s get into something with wider application, and more universal interest, than just mememe—though since I’m intimately familiar with them, these provided the jumping-off point.

I’m +5 -3 =1 starting with the Western States Open in October, with a performance rating of about 1810 over those games. Not overwhelming, but a pretty good run. It just occurred to me that by an unusual string of circumstances, 7 of these 9 games had me playing Black, an oddity of taking some byes in the Swiss system events. As I go back over these games in my mind I’m struck by a couple of things; I feel like I’ve been “lucky,” for want of a better word, in several of the games, but I really don’t believe in luck, especially in chess. In my Chess for Humans post in October I wrote:

We all know, intellectually, that chess is just too hard for anyone not to make mistakes, and plenty of them, during a game, yet so many of us have a tough time really feeling that, and just looking at the position in front of us and doing the best we can, regardless of how we got there.

During this tournament I did a pretty good job of just playing the position--and I also noticed that there were more and longer periods during the games when the rest of the tournament room, and the world, sort of faded away, and all I saw was the board in front of me.

Now this didn’t have anything to do with studying openings (of which I’ve done little lately), endgames or tactics. These are valuable and important, especially the tactics, and I’ve definitely cut down on blunders lately partly due to tactical training. Out of the 9 games I count one real screamer (hanging queen), two “two-movers,” and one game against an Expert where I missed a winning shot and then, punch-drunk, a draw a few moves later. In 5 of the 9 games (4 wins and a draw) I made no serious mistakes, as far as I can see within my own limitations. Here’s the big insight, the common denominator that can teach me (and you) a lesson; most of the blunders came in the period between moves 22 and 30, and in all cases they came as I was beginning to tire from the calculation that had come earlier; also in most cases I had less than the ideal amount of time on my clock, though I rarely get into “serious” time pressure, which for me is less than one minute per move. The one blunder or serious mistake that was different came on move 10 of a game when I was pretty ill, and I later “woke up” and won that one.

I suppose my pattern of errors is different and unique, so maybe I can’t teach anyone else a “lesson,” but this examination has been really useful. It relates closely to something that the excellent Blunderprone referred to in a recent post about one of his own serious blunders, and a comment from FM Jon Jacobs that “anyone” will find useful:

This is related to how strong you are: At 1600 and above, most people already know enough chess principles that they probably defeat themselves (lose by making moves they already know enough to recognize were wrong) more often than they lose due to either lack of knowledge or an opponent's superior play.

And above 1900 or so, I am convinced that nearly everyone is knowledgeable enough that they'd get far more benefit from working primarily on understanding and improving their own psychology so as to maximize their use of what they already know - rather than continuing to try and suck up still more and more book knowledge (which always seems to flee from a player's mind at the exact moment you need it during a game).

I've summarized the above line of thinking into a catchy slogan I intend to copyright: "Fire Your Coach. Hire a Shrink!"

YES. There may be more gold regarding improvement here than doing 1000 problems on CTS. Chess tactics study is useful, there can be no doubt, but in my case after 25 years of (sometimes sporadic) tournament chess I already know quite a bit, consciously and subconsciously, about pins, forks, double attacks, the King’s Indian and Queen’s Gambit Declined, space advantages, etc. etc. My recent run of modest successes seems mostly due to a good attitude at the board, trying hard and concentrating (relatively) better, not worrying unduly about earlier events in the game and (usually) striking when the winning chance finally presents itself. My opponents make mistakes, too, and I’ve done pretty well at just doing my best and then knowing when they’ve made a serious mistake and what to do about it.

The pattern of my bad errors that I’ve identified here leads me to the following actions that might minimize them: 1) Use less time and energy on the opening, and really concentrate on getting to move 20 (in my usual 30/90, G/60 time controls) with at least 30 minutes left, and plenty of energy left, as well. It seems I very rarely blunder now when I’m physically okay and don’t rush, so a formula for success would seem to be to avoid these circumstances. I can't always have a perfect night's sleep and a peaceful day before a game, but I do control how long I take on each move. 2) When I’m in the situations where I’m prone to blunder, be aware of it, don’t sweat it, and just try to play my best. I don’t get very upset about losses anymore (admittedly, the blown win against the Expert was a slight exception) and so I will just take it easy when tired and short of time, and thereby avoid the stress and rush that almost guarantees blunders, for me and most everyone else.

One more thing—when I had a study plan and posted about it every week I think it was good for me, whether I hit the targets or not, so here is my new one: One hour of Chess Tempo standard per week (my rating there dropped from 1801 to the high 1600s, so it’s a good time to start back up and show “progress!”), one longish internet game per week (probably the LEPers FICS tournament), and two hours of studying Grandmaster games or annotating my games (depending on circumstances). This will occupy my current available time to the full, or more. I still haven’t started the project of putting all my tournament games into ChessDB, but maybe I can sneak a few in here and there. Inputting these from the beginning of my career 25 years ago should provide some amusement and also some insight into my unique chess psychology and approach, and provide a lot more material for me to improve my “inner game.”

(ADDENDUM: After reading this again, it still seems to be mostly about me despite the statement in the first graph. Oh well, I hope it's still of general interest).


Polly said...

You ended this post saying this was all about you. That's okay. Blogs are an online journals, and journals are about the writer and his experiences and observations.

I think we all have learned things from each other as we share our feelings about our play, our study stratagies, our human failings that make feel like we're hopelessly sucky at chess.

I have to reread your Chess for Humans post because it reminds me of the discussion my opponent and I had after our game. I had a good position, but gradually I lost my edge. With the edge went a crucial file, then a pawn, and eventually another pawn. My opponent is a master. As he's gotten older he admits to sometimes simply playing "Fish to move, and lose." That was what happened tonight.

Anonymous said...

Polly's right. Make no apologies about your blog talking about your experiences. You're not that uninteresting so we'll so go sleep reading about you. ;)

Looking at oneself in the past is always fascinating. You surely will post on what you find when do start entering those 25-year-old games.

I don't know your usual exercise routine, but maybe a regular physical regimen can get you over the hump in moves 22-30? (Polly is probably more healthy than 90% of chess bloggers, including a 25 years younger me.)

I'll have a post on the LEP tournament tonight. We need to get that started!

Anonymous said...

Hi. I don't ususally comment here, but your experiences resonate with my own. What could help me concentrate? One idea that I've thought about, which I've yet to try, is meditation. It seems that meditating on where you want to be mentally during a game, might help. Josh Waitzkin has helped me realize that it's not good enough to want to have a certain mindset, one must meditate on that mindset each day, train your brain to behave the way it wants to behave. There's so little time to train on the technical side of chess, taking the time to meditate would be a big investment, and this is why I haven't gotten around to trying it. But I hope to soon. For all I know, meditation could help me think more efficiently and more relaxed, and isn't this what we want?

Howard Goldowsky

Unknown said...

Hi Robert, I have to agree with the rest of them. My blog is always about me. And when other characters do make my blog, it's because they did good and I recognized that. If others aren't on my blog, it's because they didn't do "good" yet. But you know, I have faith in them, they will in their own time take their rightful place and I will see it and recognize it.

By the way Robert, as you can tell by the "Dragon" post, and before that, I am adding art and literature and subtle games to make my blog a little more interesting.

For instance, my post "The Gunfighter..." keeps track of my 2008 record. My post "The Dragon Variation..." keeps track of my wins only in this line with "mysterious Dragon pictures" appearing everytime I win." Then my readers have to "find" the original post to see "who it was" that became the latest victim! That's what the numbers are about when I make a list. Just things I do to make it more interesting and to keep odd facts for my play in the year 2008. The tactical diagrams help me with my Middlegame study and "force" me to be less lazy in my studies.

So if you do talk about yourself, some of us would prefer that. We want to know what you are doing to improve! All the more so since there is no "one way" to improve and that many methods work with varying degrees of success.

Anonymous said...

WCM Claudia Munoz
10 years old

gorckat said...

We all know, intellectually, that chess is just too hard for anyone not to make mistakes, and plenty of them, during a game, yet so many of us have a tough time really feeling that, and just looking at the position in front of us and doing the best we can, regardless of how we got there.

That's one of the smartest things I've read about chess in awhile.

I agree with the exercise and meditation suggestions. Both are things I've been meaning to add to my life.

Robert Pearson said...

Once again my excellent commenters have given me material for a new post. I am very interested in performance psychology, fitness, and health in chess results and will bloviate further in the near future.