Friday 24 August 2012

Improvement in chess - Part One; How to change things

This text is going to be written to everyone who wants to improve their level of play in chess. I will share some of my personal experiences, but of course it is not possible to apply everything on everyone.
In the cases when something is written just to title players I shall point out that.
I have to write at the very beginning that this is not some revolutionary formula for your success, or something that you can not find on other chess sites, books or magazines.
It is just couple of advises which helped me improve my chess.
As I am in a kind of training period right now, I shall continue to write articles like this which will be like a compensation for lack of my games from the tournaments.

Are you at some point of your chess career (or just your chess experiences, if you are an amateur player) came to the point when you thought that you can not improve further or just stuck with your Elo rating at some level without significant improvements?
If your answer is Yes, than you are in the majority of chess players and if your answer is No than you are either liar or Magnus Carlsen.

All right, this should be a joke but with some elements of truth (like every joke).
Let´s assume that you have a possibility to play some chess tournaments and that you have access to chess literature, usual chess software, at least one computer engine and a few friends from the local chess club who spend some time with you analysing chess.
I did not mention chess trainer because than he probably knows better what should you do with your chess than I do.
Still, you have all this possibilities and can not make any real progress?
The right conclusion is that you are doing something wrong (I assumed that you are trying to improve your chess without waiting to became better doing nothing) and of course this have to be eliminated.

The very first thing is to be completely honest to yourselves and admit how many hours per week you are spending analysing openings, middlegames, endgames, your games, solving combinations, reading chess books and so on.
Watching games live on the internet usually with your engine turned on with cup of coffee is not considered chess training. It can be very informant for your knowledge in the openings, but it will not help you long term.
You chess training has to be balanced, if you are not on IM/GM level.
What that means?

It means that you can improve in all aspects of chess and you have to equally often do some works in the opening, middlegames, endgames and so on.
If your discipline is not on the high level (mine is on the very low level by IM standards), then maybe you should not do this on weekly basis but on monthly or some longer time period basis.
What I am trying to say is that you can train your openings one month (nothing wrong with that) but than you should try to improve your middlegame play next month e.t.c.
The most important thing is it has to be balanced.

The reason why I excluded IMs/GMs from this is that they can be the real experts in some areas while their knowledge or performance in other areas is weaker. Of course that they need to train their weaknesses. If you are rated under 2300 and above real beginner level and you think that you are expert in some bigger areas (like endgames for example), no you are probably not, you are just delusional.

All right, I am ready to do some balanced chess training. What should I do?
Time is money. You need to know how much time you can devote to your training (for example on monthly basis) and to manage your time in the best possible way.
I will explane this with example from my experience.

My own experience

When I became International Master, in the summer of 2010 I decided that I need to prove to myself that I am worth of this title (even if I now considered this title not a big achievement for professional player).
 My goal was to perform (or keep my Elo) over 2400 level in period of at least one hundred games.
To do so, I played some tournaments where I was invited before I made my third and final IM norm, but then I decided to do some training in a few months before I again start to play tournament chess.
 My training was based on improving playing strength. I did this by working on Dvoretsky´s books, first in the row was Dvoretsky´s Endgame Manual. 
Then I tried to work on my openings but I did not succeed in that because time before tournaments was running out.

I decided to play two tournaments in the row, Prague open 2011 and Marianbad GM tournament, both in January 2011. The first one supposed to be something like training for the second one. Before these tournaments I played one smaller weekend tournament in Malmö, Sweden just to test my abilities before the real tournaments.

However, things never went as I planed. Malmö Open was disaster for me but I went on to share the first place in Prague. I was very hungry of playing and nobody could stopped me at that time. What happened next is that I relaxed and did not enjoyed in Marianbad in the first GM tournament in my life. I scored -3 which was not disaster but neither the satisfactory result. I played quite a lot tournaments in 2011 and most of them were very strong tournaments. I managed to keep my rating above 2400 but what I noticed is that I can not win the single game against higher rated players.

It took some time before I started to win games against GMs and in the last 16 months I won against many GMs ( Smeets, Stojanovic, Chernyshov, Negi, Markus, McNab) and many IMs .
However, during 2011 I noticed that I stuck on my level somewhere between 2400 and 2425, and that I can not win games regularly and that I can not expect bigger improvement with my very tight opening repertoire.
One month before Manhems GM tournament in 2011 I decided to work with my openings and I managed to find some interesting alternatives in my 1.e4 repertoire against two most frequent answers 1...e5 and 1...c5.
I did not used everything what I analysed against 1...e5, but against 1...c5 I scored some interesting wins in The Closed Sicilian (and some horrible defeats as well).
However, my changes in opening repertoire were cosmetic. Yes, I played some new things, but to go from King´s Indian Attack ,The Clamp or Accelerated Rossolimo (1.e4,c5 2.Nc3, Nc6 3. Bb5)  to The Closed Sicilian was not such a big thing.
Also, in my Black repertoire I experienced some problems.

I need to explain this in details. If you are playing Kings Indian Defence and you know that you have some problems in some lines (or you just do not like to play these lines) it doesn´t mean that you have problems because your opponents don´t know this. The real problems begins when somebody plays that against you, and than other players can find that in the database. Than everybody can give it a try as your play was shaky or simply not good.
What happened to me is that I played in ECC (European Club Cup) against very strong opposition and they could underline all weaknesses in my repertoire.

I remember that I talked to one Swedish IM (I will not publish his name) and told to him that I have some problems with my openings. He told me that he likes my openings and that my repertoire was well done. When I said to him that I am disgusted by my openings he told me that it is maybe time for change.
Although he said that in one month I can build up the whole new repertoire with white and black, I did not shared his opinion, as I am kind of classical player who ,once when I learn new opening, can play it all my life.
All in all, it was time to do some drastic changes in my opening repertoire.
I decided to change my openings with White.
I played 1.e4 almost all my life and I decided to try with closed systems. To start with 1.d4 was  to big step for me, as I did not want to play systems with king´s fiachetto (1.d4; 2.Nf3 ; 3.g3) because it would be almost identical to my black openings ( KID and Sicilian Accelerated Dragon), my choice was 1.c4 and The English, but this was just a one step to 1.d4 which I could adopt with time.

I worked quite a lot on this, and I did not managed to build up my repertoire with black pieces before Marianbad GM 2012.
There I played 1.c4 in all of my (serious) white games, and I managed to score 3/4 with white pieces (I even played a little on 1.d4 area).
I was forced to work on my repertoire with black pieces between tournaments, and some of the work was very successful.
My intention was to play as much as possible just to get many games in new opening which I could analyse later. By now I can say that I succeeded in that.
Together with new openings I got something more. My interest for classical position increased (IQP positions, Hanging pawns positions e.t.c.).
I became unpredictable for other players and it is much harder to prepare against me.
All right, but what all this has to do with balanced training?

Very much.
By playing all the time and analysing just openings, my level of tactic dropped and I lost many games because of tactical mistakes (or just blunders).
It caused that my Elo dropped below 2400 during the springer 2012.
In the last couple of months I stabilized my play in the new repertoire and my Elo started to grow again.
It is wrong to conclude that it will grow further and not do things which can help me improve even more.
I think that I need some big training sessions in order to improve my calculation and understanding of dynamical chess. This will eventually balance my training, even if I am talking in terms of years now. I am sure that it could be done quicker and more effective but if it is done slower it is much better than if it is never done.
This is what I am going to do this Autumn (how I train my tactic will be explained in the next article).
It is not as easy as it seems, and the biggest problem for a player is to abandon his comfort zone.
All right, I shared some of my chess plans and thoughts, but you have to do a plan and try to apply this on your own training.

Plan your training

If you drew right conclusions about what is that you need in your chess (how to do that I will write in the next article) and if they are correct, than you should think about what literature you need.

My recommendation is to buy chess books not just download it from the internet. It can never be the same feeling sitting with real chess pieces and reading from the book, and watching at the screen of computer and moving a pieces on computer board.
On the picture you can see some of the books that I bought or borrowed in the last twelve months. Choose carefully!

If some book is popular or just good it is maybe not that you need in order to improve.
If you are going to  buy some book, ask yourselves a question: Am I buying this book in order to entertain me or I really want to improve?
In principle, I am against chess DVDs because it will present a material quicker but you will not devote enough time to think about it. It is in a way lazy approach and  improvement and laziness are not the best friends.

To be continued....

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