Saturday, March 13, 2010

ACIS Notes 003 -- I'm Back & positional vs. strategic? & quick update

I'm Back From the Caribbean

Yes, the Caribbean, quite awesome. We've been going for years, and this was the first time we had a flight disruption that resulted in us staying an extra day. It was during the wicked strong snowstorms that hit the mid-Atlantic. But no, it wasn't a snow cancellation, it was because of a nearby volcanic eruption (Monserrat)! Yes, we were "forced" to stay an extra day on the beach, listening to the waves pound the shore...

However, the place on the beach for this extra day was literally right next to the airport - LOL!

While we were there, in our usual place on the other side of the island from the airport, we did the usual sun, beach, pool, hot tub, pool, etc. And I got plenty of reading in. Great news, I finally broke my mental block concerning tactics. I made it all the way past "deflection" and completed John Nunn's "Learn Chess Tactics". I don't know why, but the last time I tried his book, I failed at deflections. Now I made it with ~80% success. Now I am in the last chapter of "Miscellaneous" grinding along, also using Pocket Fritz 4 (much better than Pocket Fritz 3) and CT-ART 4 (much better than CT ART 3) for tactics. The mental block of tactics has been lifted, now it is "just" practice, practice, practice...

Bottom line, I feel much more confident in tactics (not over confident). I know that doesn't necessarily translate to anything positive unless other good things happen...

I also finished Grooten's book (see previous posts) and I have to say it is an awesome inventory of techniques. But how to put it all together? For this I read Stean's "Simple Chess". This book is small, not too many variations, and an awesome read. At the end I understood the main point which is that the pawn structure determines your game. Duh. I intellectually knew that when I started my "adult onset" chess in the 90's, but I didn't have a visceral feel like I got when I read Stean's book. Not that I can replicate his genius, but I am slowly getting it.

And part of the "getting it" is the linkage between tactics, pawn structure and openings. I frequently complain about folks who "just study openings", yet at the same time drool at how they can get great positions using 3 minutes on their clock and without breaking a sweat (arg!). Yet I still struggle mightily in the opening. So who is the chump?

How can I "study openings" (even better, understand them!) without all of the apparent memorization? Well, perhaps I can treat it like tactics, something like:
  • If I can learn tactics by going through drills of particulars, but try to memorize only the patterns...
  • Then maybe, just maybe, I can learn openings by studying lots of pawn structures and transformations (such as in in Soltis' "Pawn Structure Chess") and doing an OODA loop such as...:
    • Study a pawn structure
    • Review a number of GM games
    • Then look at a few related opening "book" sequences
    • And (drum roll...) what are the typical tactical motifs for each opening sequence?
Perhaps this will help me avoid the "why the heck am I just memorizing stupid opening lines??" feeling. Maybe. So now I start the quest of pawn structure knowledge. Curiously, years ago Igor Foygel dropped by my house to give me a lesson while he was on the way to a scholastic tournament where he had some students playing. The lesson was to go through all my books and pick out two or three to study. He basically said all the books are useless (to me, the chess novice) except for two or three. In addition to tactics (of course!) which I am finally making progress on, he shoved a copy of a book by Colin Crouch "Pawn Chains". I can't find it in Amazon, Powells, and so forth so here is a snapshot:
I'll be using this as I finally try to figure out pawns...
    Positional vs. Strategic?

    In the introduction of Soltis' "Pawn Structure Chess" there is a game in which Soltis makes a seemingly innocuous remark, perhaps obvious to all the readers, but was shocking to me, then I had a realization. First the game:

    At 11.Ne1, the game (to my chess novice eyes) appears to be a typical French. Soltis says that with White's last move, he is preparing for a Kingside advance. This certainly makes sense (moving the Knight out of the way), but I would wonder if that is too slow (compared to what?). Black responds with 11...f5 successfully blocking White's advance with the f-pawn, and locks the Kingside. Soltis says while it is "structurally sound", it is "dynamically bad". Hmmm... Then White moves 12.b4 and Black takes en passant 12...cxb3. Soltis again makes a confusing statement (to my chess novice eyes) when he says Black's move was "positionally desirable" and "strategically awful". Whew! What am I to make of this? Can any reader please tell me their thoughts?

    Quick Update

    Of course if you play the rest of the above game out, you'll see that White wins, but is this proof of anything? I don't know, but it did make me think, and try to relate to a discussion with a fellow MetroWest Chess Club member while we were eating a meal before a round at the recent CCA Eastern Class Championship tournament. For the voyeuristic reader, I played four games (skipped the last round), and won one game, close in two others, and wiped out in my first game to the lowest rating player I played. Despite the paucity of points, I was generally pretty happy with my performance considering the crushing work schedule I keep. I am working to ameliorate that, but it won't subside till summer.

    Back to the dinner conversation The fellow MetroWest CC player is Robert Harvey and he is playing in the MetroWest CC Championships (Class level) this month so he is very strong. He goes on to tell me that his decision making strategy is guided by "I.M.P.L.O.D.E.S.". Honestly when I heard him say that, I thought "dang it I do that all the time over the board, why do I need help on that??"... Here is how he explains himself:

    • (I) - initiative
    • (M) - material
    • (P) - pawn islands (not necessarily all pawn structural aspects)
    • (L) - [I'll update if I remember]
    • (O) - officers, what is the relationship between his minor pieces (Knights, Bishops)?
    • (D) - [I'll update if I remember]
    • (E) - [I'll update if I remember]
    • (S) - space - oddly he puts space last. I think because he includes some of this in how he explained initiative (he counts how many times his pieces "invaded" his opponents territory)
    He then went on to say that from an opening/pawn structure perspective, he concentrates 80% of his energy on the Colle as White, and Modern as Black. I won't go into the specifics of his preparation (some of it home grown), but suffice it to say he has a routine, a groove, that he uses 80% of the time, and takes the time to improve his body of knowledge. Me on the other hand am grasping in the dark for a decent opening, and then I find myself opting for moves that Soltis calls "positionally great" and "strategically awful" all at the same time. Arg!!

    That's it for now. I'm still sorting my thoughts out, doing tactics daily (finally) and beginning my personal pawn structure/GM games/openings study journey...


    1. "positionally great" and "strategically awful"
      I think what is meant is this:
      In the long term (strategically) opening up lines on the queenside by taking en passant is bad for black. Now white gets hopes to launch an attack with his rooks against black's king.
      However, in the short term black gets a pawn on b3 which hampers white's pieces, and white gets a weak backward pawn on c3, and black gets access to the c4-square. These are all positional advantages.

      "structurally sound", it is "dynamically bad":
      The f5 push doesn't create weaknesses. Even if white would take e.p. then gxf6 still keeps a sound black position without weaknesses (except for g6, but that can be adequately covered by black and not exploited by white.) Therefore it is structurally sound.
      However, after f5 black can no longer open lines on the kingside with f6 and fxe5. Therefore, now the white king is very safe. Because the center is closed, and after f5 the kingside as well, black has no dynamic (pieceplay, attacking) options left, while white has all the time he needs to setup a queenside attack.

    2. "study openings"?

      What strength do you aspire in chess?
      Let me guess that 2000 FIDE ELO is your goal. Then you should start studying openings seriously when you have reached 1900. That is, opening study is good to make those last 100 points. Before that it is only a waste of time.

      Studying strategy, positional play and tactics do really increase your true strength. The stronger you become the easier it will be to memorise those openings. Openings are what you forget quickest. Therefore starting early with opening study is a waste of time.

      Also, forget about e4 and d4 initially as white. Consider the English, either pure, or in connection with Nf3, g3. Or else consider 1.b3. Never mind losing, every loss is a free lesson. Every win only boosts morale for a few hours.

    3. To first "anon":
      -- Thanks! I think I spend so much time trying to have good pawn structure that I don't see the bigger picture. Put another way, I need to see that strategy is bigger than pieces of good pawn structure.

      To second "anon":
      -- Thank you too! In my next post, I have decided to study Colin Crouch's Pawn Structure book. This will hopefully aid in my strategic and positional understanding w/out forcing me into memorizing lines yet. And I am still doing daily tactics...

    4. Pawn structure is only a means to an end. One of many. To reduce counterplay and to keep your own options open. Ultimately you want to checkmate his king. As soon as you have a serious attack then pawn structure becomes less relevant. After you have mastered positional concepts consider improving your attacking skills. For example with Aagaard's Attacking Manuals.

      Also defensive skills are very useful. Sometimes you can defend against an attack, sit it out, and then take over the initiative and win anyway. However, for this you must understand a lot of material.

    5. your opponent's implode looks similar to the silman's list of imbalances in reassess your chess...

    6. @Heather - I think so. It is his way to keep track of imbalances and tension. The interesting part is that it also represents his priority system. Initiative first :-)

    7. Hello,

      My name is Josh Specht and I'm the co-creator of ChessVideos.TV. On our wiki, I'm assembling a chess blog directory. I've added your blog to the list, but was wondering if you wanted to submit a short description of your site for inclusion in the directory. That way we can provide information about the sites we list. Furthermore, sites with descriptions will have higher priority in the directory. The directory is still in its very early stages, but is expanding rapidly.

      If you're interested, please send an email to josh [AT]