Fans of chess improvement have no doubt heard on "The Seven Circles", a term coined by MDLM and used by Knights Errant extensively. If you are not familiar, then I recommend the blog by Blunderprone (see "My Blog List" on the right) for history and humor of the "movement". The Seven Circles is a method to improve your chess via practicing tactics. There have been plenty of anecdotes pro/con, and some quantitative evidence in its favor. I've even tried, but I can't get completely through even the first circle - I get jammed midway around level five of CT-ART.
So I stall, give up, come back to it, realize I truly suck in the openings, fret about that, but never formulated a plan I could stick with for any period of time. I'd like to stick to a plan for a while, so I can measure and see if the plan is working. For as much as some people say "don't worry about your rating", what other measure is there really, to say that you are improving? I think rather the statement should be "play and practice as hard as you can, and while doing so, don't think about your rating". But you still need to step back periodically and see if what you are doing works.
Recently I got tired of my free fall in USCF rating, and decided to do something about it. Was it my intense work schedule making me tired for night games at MetroWest CC? Am I truly incapable of learning openings? Is age a factor? Am I capable of the willpower chess demands? I thought about my chess and work and decided to be a bit more disciplined and systematic about how I approach chess. It helps in work, and who knows, maybe in chess as well. I've been developing this method, and gradually formalizing it in my head. Most recently I'm trying to put some real structure around it, so when I get 15-30 min free time I can exercise a bit of the method. Part of the method is getting away from the notion that the only way I can improve is if I can grab several hours at a time. That is simply too unrealistic and has held me back.
I've been down this new path just a couple of months and already regained ~100 USCF ELO points. That's not very impressive if you note that I am all the way back to 1399... but still. The chart is below, and you'll have to squint to see the up tick in the last couple of months...
So what is going on? Is this last up tick significant, or just another fluctuation on my slow but sure spiral downward to my floor of 1000? I'd like to think that I am at an inflection point of steady improvement. I'll show below how I am trying to think a bit more holistically about my chess improvement, and have grouped my activities into the "Three Hills of Sisyphus", take-off on the phrase "Seven Circles"...
Hill One - Drills
This hill of Sisyphus is all about tactical drills. The pure MDLM method is CT-ART, but I've found that no matter what packaged set of drills you use, there are biases, so why not rotate? People criticize CT-ART for too many queen sacrifices, Emrald for too fast time controls, etc. I forced myself (yes, unpleasant at first) to learn how to use and appreciate four tools. There are many others but here is what I am using, and how:
This hill is the best when I just have a few open minutes. The ideal is to start with a few chess.com tactics. I am a "Gold" member, so I get 30/day. The time control is relaxed, and you get partial credit for making it part way through a sequence. This is good for warm up, so my rating on this one is probably artificially low (~1300). The next is chess.emrald.net for the Chess Tactics Server. This experience is like a series of flash cards, and to get full credit, you need to answer within three(3) seconds. A lot of "remove the defender" and "king hunt", and after a while you try to get "an eye" for hanging pieces and such. My Emrald rating is ~1200-1250. Next is chesstempo.com tactics training, and this one allows for much more time, and the problems are harder. My rating is >1500. Last is CT-ART v4 and I alternate between theme and difficulty. Current I'm sorting by difficulty and doing all the counterplay examples too, but in practice (untimed) mode. My rating on this is >1800. Sample screen shots of ratings below. I'm starting to get in a groove, and I expect my tactical performance to increase substantially over the next few months.
Hill Two - Praxis
This hill of Sisyphus is all about practice. Since I have a crazy work/travel schedule, I use a combination of OTB and correspondence chess games. The OTB games are usually long, and primarily via MetroWestChess.org, and CCA (chesstour.com) weekend tournaments. The correspondence chess is both casual as in chess.com, and also official such as CCLA (chessbymail.com).
I'm trying to overcome some bad habits with this new approach to praxis. For example in my CCLA (or ICCF) games, I would obsess over moves, sometimes looking at 20-30 variations at each move, which gave me a good rating (ICCF >1700), but I never got a feel for the overall game, and thus I never really improved much. So in my recent CCLA games, I'm trying to move quicker and think overall themes. My CCLA rating is ~1550. In my chess.com games I'm trying to get better at my annotation, which is aided by the fact that the games are already online and easily accessible. I still have a mental hurdle with my other OTB games because my CB database is such a mess. I am thinking about simply starting a new DB for my Eastern Class games (Mar 2011) and make a fresh start. My MetroWest CC games will follow suit.
Hill Three - Skills
This hill of Sisyphus is all about putting everything together into a balanced set of skills. This is still emerging but is roughly divided into book knowledge, multimedia DVD training, reviewing master games, and recording what I want to play as a repertoire.
The current incarnation of this hill of Sisyphus is as follows:
For book knowledge I am going through the Silman Reassess v4. This is a great improvement over v3 which I found tiresome because of the obsession with Bishop v. Knight. That is important but there are many other imbalances, and that is exactly where my games fall apart. In v4 Reassess the #1 great feature are his exercises in which he assigns a rating band, and tells you why (similar to his rating bands in his endgame book). I can now see some curious gaps in my knowledge. For example, in a number of exercises, I can "see" a move for a "2000" rated player but will miss some features of that position he expects a 1600-1800 player to get - and some of these features will determine whether the "2000" level move would work or not in a real game. As I worked through more of these, I realized that where I was going wrong is in not "seeing" the whole board, and that there can be multiple themes of activity, competing activity, going on simultaneously. This incomplete board vision surfaces in tactics exercises too...
For training DVDs, I am currently working through some opening Fritz trainer DVDs for openings (General ABCs, Queen's opening, French Defense, etc.). I am not trying to memorize lines. I am trying to continue picking up on structure and theme ideas (continuation of my earlier ACIS Notes blog entries). I was surprised to learn that the most important thing I am picking up in my first pass is what really is and is not "scary". I'm learning how Masters evaluate positions, and just hearing them speak about various positions, and what is most important to them is invaluable. All without memorizing any lines.
For game collections, this varies between looking at a player's games (like a Petrosian collection), and looking at a tournament book (like Zurich '53, or Curacao '62). Currently I'm going through a Curacao book, but that is on hold right now.
For repertoire, this is my true missing link. I recently downloaded the latest in Bookup, and once I get done with Eastern Class, my pledge to myself is to annotate my games, and start building an e-book of White and Black repertoires.
The Hills Are Alive With The Rocks of Sisyphus
I don't have a lot of time, so the way I work my way through the Hills of Sisyphus is as follows:
At least every other night spend 30 minutes pushing rocks up the Drill Hill. I try to get through chess.com and Emrald at a minimum , usually some chesstempo.com, and on the weekends toss in some CT-ART. Most nights I push rocks up the Praxis Hill (30 min) checking moves in a few correspondence games (< 10 at any given time). At night, spend ~30 min with a book. On travel days, maybe every other weekend try some chapters out of the DVDs. The repertoire, well that's still a twinkle in my eye.
So I have boiled this down to about an hour a day, which is too much for some, way too little for others. I'll see over time if it is the right amount for me.