The chess crucible

I have some serious holes in my chess game.

This is true for almost everybody below master strength. Whether it’s tactics, strategy, openings, endgames, time management, memorization, bad nerves, or a generally confused move-selection algorithm, we all have problems that need fixing.

Something really unfortunate happens along the road of chess development: You figure out what your weaknesses are, and perhaps you try to fix them, and you take some more beatings, and then … you start trying to cover them up. To avoid dry positions, you take up gambits. To avoid endgames, you go for cheap swindles. To avoid tactics and memorization you open all your games with 1.d4 2.Nf3 3.Bf4 4.h3 etc.

Tim Newman says the same thing happens in golf (if I can paraphrase a bit) – you have trouble with the wedge so you start making funky adjustments with some other club. And you learn the funky shot and you stabilize your handicap at 20 and there you sit for the rest of your life, rationalizing that “at least I’m not making myself look like an idiot with that wedge.”

I really am convinced that the only way forward is to end the cover-up and intentionally play the types of position where you stink. To burn the weaknesses and impurities out of your game in the fires of struggle, defeat and relentless analysis, preferably with the help of a coach and/or some friends.

So this is where I’m headed. Classical chess, balanced positions, symmetrical pawns. Bring it on. Positional binds, patient maneuvering, slight endgame advantages. The type of chess I’ve always hated and found boring and derided as “+0.001 chess”. 

Of course if I can learn to win that way, my attitude will change immediately. And I’m delighted to already have the help of friends like Tim, Mark La Rocca, Petr Jirovsky.

Crucible, here I come.


9 thoughts on “The chess crucible

  1. I even played a Queen’s Gambit as black recently.


    Can you believe it?

    But Tues. night I played a “pure” Dragon, even the old Qa5 line. Fun stuff. It actually petered out to a drawn K+P ending.


  2. Amen.

    Now when I come back on Tuesday night’s, Derek, I know how to play against you. :)

    What is at the core of avoiding work on weaknesses, is the fear of hurting one’s ego, which, basically, is the fear of losing rating points. Playing without ego is a difficult task. Sunil Weeramantry, Nakamura’s step-dad, is an inspiration for, and an originator of this thought. He has taught Hikaru how to be fearless about losing rating points. Look at the way Nakamura just goes out and plays — he doesn’t care about his rating. There’s a lot of good that comes from throwing your ego into the garbage while playing competitive chess; but it’s a difficult thing to do. (I admired this trait in Nakamura, and admired the way Sunil subtley infused this mindset into his step-son. This is the main reason I decided to interview Nakamura at one point.)

    Speaking of comeback: I’m going through my own meta-thinking about how to improve, now that I’ve given up interviewing for playing. In a weird, psudo-psychological way, ‘switching to chess journalism’ was like avoiding those particular golf shots or positions, avoiding playing, period. I’m ready to throw my ego into the garbage. At least I think so. I HAVE to if I’m ever going to improve.

    One thing I’m looking forward to with this ‘comeback’ is that I can look at chess in a fresh light after not playing competitively for over a year.

    Howard Goldowsky

  3. Hey Howard – it’ll be good to see you back in the arena. Bring some copies of your book so I can buy one and you can sign it.

    Rating points, yes, I’d like to say I don’t think about it but I do. But there’s also just plain old fear of losing. Losing stinks.

    In fact you can turn the rating issue to your advantage and think of it in terms of investment: I now give myself 100 points to invest in true improvement. That means I accept that my rating may plummet from 2020 to 1920 in this process of learning. I accept it because I think it’ll pay off by rebounding even higher as I start to grasp new ideasm, win the endgames I used to bungle, etc.

    A stock market approach to chess.

  4. Yes, that’s one way to think about it — the stock market approach. But the best thing for me to do is to get ratings-related thought completely out of mind. This is something I need to work on. Weeramantry had a favorite saying: “The rating will come by itself.”

    There’s a subtle difference between ‘investing’ 100 rating points and not caring at all. When you invest 100 points the stock holders still keep an eye on the CEO. This still causes some form of pressure. When you completely let the ego separate itself from your rating, then the “rating will come by itself” — literally.

    I never actually liked he idea of my rating being attached to my play. I know: by definition it must be, but the general perception of ratings feel too exact, too objective. This is one reason why I interviewed Mark Glickman. He explained the subtlety of why our ratings are really so uncertain, and why we play like people not like numbers. But even taking into concideration all the statistics involved and all the uncertainty, a rating still does not capture the art of the learning process. Most people ‘get confused with new material,’ ‘have a learning curve,’ etc. as they make progress. Ratings don’t capture this progress until a player’s ability reaches a steady state. In fact, we often lose games when we work on our weaknesses. We lose games, but we’re getting better. Hence, it’ll “come by itself” when it’s ready.

    PS: I’ll bring some copies of my book — I might start playing again in August or September. I might be by in August just to see the book seller.


  5. Thanks for your kind words D-Slay. I was happy with the game too. Come to think of it, the Qa5 line of the Dragon is kind of a “calssical” opening too. It was a good example of the Dragon pawn structure being so solid that, if the tactics, don’t work out, Black is just fine in about any ending. I did spend about 35 minutes on one move struggling to find a way to sac the exchange, but chickened out. Rybka showed my analysis was correct.

    Have a nice Vaca. Are you going to do what I did, lug around a bunch of chess books and a laptop and then not look at a single chess move?


  6. totally agreed. this is why in a long series of blitz against one opponent, i will play the kings gambit or 1.e4 as white, even though i am a dyed in the wool 1.Nf3 nd 1.d4 player. thank you as always. dk

  7. Hi David, Howard, Matt – coincidentally I came home to Chess Life and found the lengthy interview with various chess coaches. Craig Jones said in two words what I rambled to explain: “Remake yourself.” It’s a good article.

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