Know Yourself

From Evolution to Intelligent Design by Ish Ramdewar

How can I get better at chess? This is the question that most players in any club are asking. One answer is to play games. Playing games gives experience, and is an essential element of improvement. But simply playing games with no reflection on mistakes made is tantamount to evolution: A very effective process that produces amazingly advanced and adapted results. If given millions of years!

So, how then to reflect on your own chess in order to move from trial and error to a systematic system where you build the game you want to build? Of course, the answer is far from simple and must be adapted for the player and stage in his or her development. Essentially, you need to know two things: Where am I? And… How can I move on to the next stage? Many people attempt to do the second one before the first. If you think of your talent as a tube of toothpaste, when you first take up chess, it doesn’t matter where you squeeze, you’ll get some toothpaste (improvement) out. Later, though, you might find yourself making less progress than you might as you’re squeezing areas where you’re already relatively strong. This session is dedicated to helping you reach your potential through self-reflection. I hope you find some, or all of these tips useful, they work for me! I’m not saying that my way is right in any way, and if you think it’s a load of rubbish, feel free to ignore everything I say.

So how to find out where you are? One simple, easy way is to get a book. There is at least one excellent one about: Chess Exam and Training Guide by Igor Khmelnitsky. This book will give you an overview of your chess. Be willing to spend around 10-20 hours working through the problems and solutions. It will then give you an overall elo rating, and break this down into opening, middlegame, endgame, tactics, strategy, calculation and more.

My second recommendation is to play a lot of longplay games. You can then analyse them thoroughly (more on this later). After this is done, you can affect some change. What works for me is to keep all of my games together in one book. A 100-game hardback scorebook will set you back about a fiver and should last 2-10 years; depending on how often you play. Not bad for a hobby, eh? I still go back to my old one when I’m feeling bad about my current chess. It shows me how far I’ve come.

h3Gathering Information/h3 pMy next piece of advice is to write down the amount of time left on your clock when you write your moves down. You might be surprised at how you use your time. The long and short of it is that you should be aiming to use almost all your time in a game (leaving, say, 10 mins to spare so that you’re not in time-trouble). The reason for this is that we all play better moves when we take time to check our decisions and our opponent’s possible responses. Playing too fast or too slow is easy to see when you spend only 10 mins on a longplay game, or 30 mins on one non-critical move. Put a star by the critical moves after your game. Did you spend long enough on them? Once you’ve gone through your game, you can easily see whether you blundered by rushing. I put a dashed line on my annotation after I run out of ‘book’. This provides a quick-fire way of telling how deeply you know this particular opening.
h3 How to Analyse Your Games /h3

If you can, go over your game with your opponent. They often have ideas that you missed or interesting insights, even if they are ‘weaker’. Play the moves out on the board with him and analyse variations. Pick out where you think you went wrong, both strategically and tactically. If you can, write notes. If you can’t get to go over the game with your opponent, or even if you can, go over the game in your own time, without a computer. What you’re looking for are flaws in your own psychology. “I blundered a piece” is not good enough. Why did you blunder it? Were you in a tough position because of earlier positional mistakes? Did you rely on intuition too much? Did you rush? Were you overconfident in your own position? Every game should be looked at with this in mind.

Next, go over the game with computer assistance. There are now some very strong programs around. The strongest currently is called Rybka 3, with an estimated elo of 3000 on your average PC. Rybka not only plays tactical positions well, it can also play positionally. You can pick up a copy for around £30-£70 depending if you want the multiprocessor version and opening books… OR you can use a free copy of Rybka 2 (which still beat Michael Adams 5.5-0.5 in a match). This is available here: Dave has also asked me to point out that there are other options:

Download and install the free version of Fritz 5: And Winboard:
For doodling, download and install Winboard:
I know Simon also likes SCID.

Fritz or Chessmaster are other good options, but Rybka is the best in my opinion.

How to use Computer Analysis

After you’ve done the analysis on your own, you’re ready for computer assistance. The computer will often see things that you won’t. I suggest running automatic analysis for a couple of hours. Computers, just as humans, play better when they have more time. Fritz, Chessmaster and Aquarium all have their own versions of this.

When this is done, check your own notes against the ‘answers’. The longer you give your computer to ‘think’, and the stronger engine you use, the more you can rely on its analysis. Where your analysis agrees, you can be happy that you’ve come to the objective truth. Where you disagree in your analysis, or you’ve missed something, go over the position in infinite analysis mode. Remember that sometimes you might be right! The computer is not an all-knowing oracle, it’s just better than us on average. Champion your side and play the computer’s ‘best response’. Try to come to some objective truth and note this down. Do this for both your moves and your opponents. It will help you to analyse objectively in your own games.

Using Statistics to Analyse Your Chess

By the end of the season, you should have lots of information on individual games. It might be worth your time to classify this. Using stats, as in the example I’ve done can help you gain insights in where you often go wrong, and where to focus your efforts. In my case, it appears to be on the early middlegame, and the Sicilian Defence for both sides. The first thing to do is to list your openings and opening outcomes. This shows you which openings are going well and which aren’t. Your self-analysis and computer analysis will make this a breeze. It took me about 30 mins to knock up a season’s worth of stats- well worth doing!

Then, I suggest you classify your early and late middlegame outcomes. This will show you whether your positions improved, got worse, or stayed the same on average. For me, the numbers were telling. You can break it down further by keeping it per-opening, but I personally lumped the lot together to get an overview.

You can then do the same with your endgames. You can break them down by piece too. (e.g. Queen Endings, Rook and Pawn, etc.) I personally scored very well during endgame play this season, and have decided to focus my efforts elsewhere.

These methods were suggested by Simon Webb and adapted by myself. I know it all sounds time-consuming, but pick and choose the bits you like most. Sometimes you can get a feel for your mistakes just by analysis without a computer and with no stats. Personally, I like the hard data and find it not too hard to produce.nbsp;

Lastly, ask other members where they think your weak points are. I’m sure they will have some good insights.

In all your analysis be very hard on yourself. You want to root out the problems in your thinking, don’t you? Happy hunting!

Where Next?

By using some, or all of these methods, you should have a good idea about your own chess. Now you know where to focus, there are some excellent options to choose from on where to improve.

My top books:

Winning Chess Tactics, Winning Chess Strategies, Winning Chess Endgames Chess for Tigers (easy-reads).

Van Perlo’s Endgame Tactics, Chess Combination as a Fine Art, Reassess Your Chess, (medium reads).

Think Like a GM, Play Like a GM, Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual (Hard Reads)

Top exercises:

Chess Tactics Server

Memorising positions and playing them blindfolded.

Playing blindfold games.

Doing puzzle books (e.g. Chess Exam).

Doing deep analysis of positions and comparing with commentator and computer analysis. Draw a ‘tree of analysis”.
Analyse GM games using the same methods as described for your own games.

Good luck!

p Ish also offered a thorough review of his games from the last season, which is included here