Road to 2100: T-32 Review

With 32 weeks to go until my deadline for reaching 2100, it’s time for another T- review.  This period included a bit of a break over Christmas, but I have played some league chess, including FIDE-rated games in my debut in the French League and in the 4NCL.  On to the figures:

Ratings

FIDE standard: 1957-1969 (expected), +12 points

Other ratings: No change

I am expecting to gain 12 points this period from two FIDE-rated games.  The first was a win against a ~1700 player for Les Cavaliers de Neuilly, in the French League; the second a win against a ~1900 player for West is Best in the 4NCL.  I am undefeated in my four games so far in the 4NCL, and my team is doing similarly well, with both first and second team in the mix for the promotion spots.  The rating is moving in the right direction, but I still have a lot of points to gain and the missing points from Belgium have not materialised, which is reflected in the assessment below.

Assessment: Red (cause for concern)

Study

After a number of periods where I have not managed to achieve my study target, I am pleased to report that I have met or exceeded it in all four weeks this time (study log to be updated).  The difference has been made by using stickK.com, a website where you can set a goal, with the option of monetary penalties for failure.  Money can be donated either to a charity, or to an ‘anti-charity’ – an organisation you dislike.  I have committed to donate $200 for each failed week to an anti-charity, and so far the extra incentive is working brilliantly.  I still have a lot of missed study to catch up on from previous periods, which is reflected in the assessment below.

Assessment: Red (cause for concern)

In summary, a broadly successful period, though I am keeping my two indicators at red for now, until more progress has been made.  Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Road to 2100: T-36 Review

This is the next in my series of ‘T- reviews’.  If you have not been following them, the concept is explained in the first one.

The main news this period is, of course, the London Chess Classic, which was a fantastic event as always, even if my results left something to be desired.  I took part in the 9-round FIDE Open, followed immediately by the weekend ‘Super Rapidplay’.  My performance  of 3.5/9 in the Open was somewhat disappointing, and I am expecting to lose around 5 rating points as a result.  It was all going reasonably well until the penultimate round, when I managed to change a winning position against a 2062 into a lost one in the space of a few minutes’ play.  Had I won that game I would have been gaining around 20 ELO points; as it was I was back to parity, and lost 5 points the next day for drawing with a very underrated junior (once more from a winning position).  My performance in the rapidplay afterwards was fairly disastrous, which I think can largely be attributed to exhaustion.

To understand why I was so exhausted, let me explain my routine for the tournament.  The pairings came out at around midnight each day, and I would stay up each night for two to three hours after that with my guest, GM Tal Baron, and prepare a file with lines I was intending to play against each of the possibilities for the next game.  I would then sleep until near midday, before resuming work on my lines, trying to understand in some depth the standard plans in each position.  We left for the games shortly after 3 pm, and for the first few rounds I relaxed as much as possible on the journey.  In later rounds I changed this routine, by adding my lines to the iPad app ‘Chess Opening Trainer’, and spending the journey to the game revising the lines.  There followed a long game (my longest was 108 moves, and most at least reached the time control at move 40), the journey home, and generally an hour or two’s rest before repeating the whole process.

Clearly this was a pretty intense routine, but it may have been sustainable if I had been sleeping properly.  Unfortunately I slept very poorly most nights, as I was sleeping in my living room and being woken up by my housemates leaving for work early every day.  I will have to think more carefully about my routine for my next tournament.  However, despite the impact this had on the rapidplay and the later rounds of the main event, it was still a useful experience.  Some of the opening work I did should pay off in future games, I have picked up some useful tips from GM Baron, and I will be able to draw some lessons from my games.

Ratings

FIDE standard: 1962 – 1957 (expected), -5 points

FIDE rapid: 1899 – 1877 (expected), -22 points

FIDE Arena blitz: 1944 – 1924, -20 points

I have explained these rating changes above; whilst it is never nice to lose points, I do not think they actually reflect a loss in strength.  However, I now face a long uphill climb to get the required rating points before my September deadline, so I am changing the red/green ranking of this section to red.  Note that I am still owed 24 points from my tournament in Belgium, but I do not know when these are likely to appear on the list.

Assessment: Red (cause for concern)

Study

I have added a column to my public study log for ‘intensity’, which will allow me to record some of the chess activity I do, such as fairly casual analysis of my games, which I do not regard as ‘deliberate practice’.  I will only be counting the high intensity activities (other than games) towards my weekly target.  I have counted some of the opening preparation I did during the Classic as high intensity practice, which means that for the first time I met my target one week and then easily surpassed it the following week.  I will be leaving this at a red ranking as I am still far behind my cumulative target (2070 minutes completed against a target of 4680).

Assessment: Red (cause for concern)

That’s all for now.  There will be a T-32 review on the 17th of January, but do check back before then as I may post some games from the Classic or some more ideas about studying.  As always, please share your frank thoughts in the comments section below.

Road to 2100: T-39 Review

Following my post four weeks ago, here is the next in my series of ‘T- reviews’.

Ratings

FIDE standard: 1957 – 1962, +5 points

FIDE Arena rapid: 1920 – 1920, +0 points (no games)

FIDE Arena blitz: 1936 – 1944, +8 points

I picked up a few points at the first 4NCL weekend, where I drew with a 1989 after missing a chance to be considerably better, and beat an 1810-rated junior rather comfortably.  The 24 points I gained at the European Railway Chess tournament have yet to appear on the list, but assuming they do at some point I will be up to 1986.  I have played very few Arena games, so tracking those ratings remains of little importance.

Assessment: Green (little cause for concern)

Study

The amount of study I am managing to do remains well below target; I have now done 1010 minutes of deliberate practice against a target of 3600.  The same reporting issues remain as in the last report – i.e. I am still not recording time spent analysing my games or doing other chess activities as I am not convinced it meets a strict definition of deliberate practice.

The crumb of comfort in this area is that I may be having some success establishing a pre-work study habit.  Initial attempts to establish a post-work study habit in a coffee shop before going home proved unsuccessful, as I was tired and hungry after my long day and just wanted to get home.  Instead I have been trying to get into work a little earlier and do some study before starting my day, and I managed this in four of the last five working days in the period I am reporting on.  It has been an exceptionally busy time at work, so I have reason to hope that I will fit in more early morning study in the future.

Assessment: Red (cause for concern)

The first big test of this phase of my project starts tomorrow: the London Classic.  I will be playing in the FIDE Open – nine gruelling rounds of classical chess over eight days – and following that with the ten round ‘Super Rapidplay’.  A post with some of my games will follow after the Classic, possibly incorporated into my T-36 review which is due on the 20th.

Interleaving and Calculation Training

I recently read an interesting book called Make It Stick, subtitled ‘The Science of Successful Learning’. In it, the authors expound a number of ideas about effective learning, most of which are not particularly common practice, and discuss the science behind these ideas. Some , such as spaced repetition, I was already familiar with. Others, like ‘interleaving’ (the topic of today’s post), were new to me.

Interleaving means mixing up the practice of different types of problem in a single session. The first study cited is of children learning to throw beanbags into a bucket three feet away. One group’s practice is confined to a bucket three feet away; the other group practises throwing into buckets which are two and four feet distant (but not into a three foot bucket). In the test, which features only a bucket at three feet, the second group does markedly better, despite never having practised at that distance. Whilst this may be surprising, it is hard to see what relevance it might have for chess study.

In the second, more pertinent study, students were taught to calculate the volume of four different three dimensional shapes. One group practised solving all the exercises for one type, before moving on to the next type, solving all those exercises, and so on. The exercises for the other group were ordered randomly, so that a student could, for example, find herself solving one exercise for shape A, then one for shape C, then one for shape B and so on. Intuitively, I suspect most people would expect the first method to be more effective; it seems that it would allow the student to really master solving one type of exercise before turning her attention to the next type. Indeed, during practice the first group fared better. However, on the final test a week later, the first group averaged only 20%, while the second group eclipsed that score with an average of 63%. A possible explanation is that the effortful recall involved in remembering how to solve a particular type of exercise was very effective at strengthening the neural pathways for that particular skill; clearly this is something the second group had to do much more of during practice. The book goes into more detail, for those interested.

Another interesting book I own, but have yet to read very much of, is Calculation, from Jacob Aagaard’s highly acclaimed ‘Grandmaster Preparation’ series. In it, a few hundred difficult calculation exercises are presented, divided into themes such as ‘Candidate Moves’, ‘Comparison’ and ‘Elimination’ according to the calculation method most useful in solving them. Each theme has an explanation, which is followed immediately by exercises designed to reinforce that explanation in the student’s mind. I would imagine that Jacob intends students to read the book from start to end, following the same method as the first group in the volume calculation experiment presented above. I intend to use the second group’s method instead, and have used this tool to order the problems randomly. My hope is that the greater amount of effortful recall involved will result in far better retention of all methods after finishing the book, but of course with myself as the only experimental subject I will not be able to prove that it has worked. If any chess teachers out there would like to try an interleaving experiment with their students I would be very interested to hear the results!

P.S. For those of you coming here to read my ‘T-40 Review’, I have postponed this by a week and will be presenting a ‘T-39 Review’ next Sunday instead.

Road to 2100: T-43 Review

I have decided to appropriate an idea from my day job doing project management for Network Rail, and have a series of ‘T minus reviews’ leading up to my deadline for making 2100.  T- reviews give a snapshot of your progress towards a goal at a given point in time, and help you to identify any areas which require extra attention.  I propose to write the next one in three weeks (at ‘T-40′), and then every four weeks until the deadline (or until I hit my target).  Feel free to suggest changes to the format if there is additional information you would like to see.

Ratings

FIDE standard: 1957 – 1981 (expected), +24 points

FIDE arena rapid: 1920 – 1920, +0 points (no games)

FIDE arena blitz: ~1980 – 1936, -44 points

The main news here is that I gained (well, regained) a healthy number of points at the recent European rail industry team chess tournament in Belgium (and also picked up the board three prize).  For some reason these have yet to show up on the rating list, but I expect they will do so on the next list.  I am also tracking my FIDE online arena ratings, as they should align reasonably well with my over-the-board FIDE rating.  I have yet to play a rapid game online, so no change there from my default starting rating of 1920.  I have lost a number of blitz rating points (not sure exactly how many as I did not note my rating in the last list), but I am not overly concerned as some of these can be attributed to the poor internet connection in my last house.  I have now moved house, and will be looking to use my improved internet connection to regain these points for the next report.

Assessment: Green (little cause for concern)

Study

Though the rating gain is on track (if I gained 24 points for each review I would have crossed 2100 by T-24), the study is not.  My public study log reveals that I have done 590 minutes of deliberate practice since records began on the 20th of September against a target of 1800 minutes (three times as much).

Part of this shortfall may be unfairly caused by my strict recording of only ‘deliberate practice’.  Deliberate practice is a term coined by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson to describe effortful, highly focused practice, carefully designed to bring about maximum performance improvement.  It seems clear to me that problem-solving type activities fit this description, but less clear that analysis of one’s games fits.  A lot of my game analysis is done on my tablet on the way back from a game, and is not particularly intense or effortful, so I have not included it, although I still think it is useful.  Had I included this my study time would probably have nearly doubled.

I am going to try to establish a post- or pre-work chess study habit by the next report, either going into work early and studying there before most people arrive, or going to a coffee shop to study before returning home.  I think this will be more successful than trying to do all my study at home.

Assessment: Red (cause for concern)

That’s all for this review, and I hope to have better news in the next.  Let me know your thoughts and anything else you would like to see in the next review (for example, a games section) in the comments below.

Coach and Study Regime

As I mentioned recently, I have been looking for a coach.  I am delighted to say that I have now found one, and will be working with IM Tom Rendle.  We have had two sessions together so far, which showed great promise, and I hope it will be a long and fruitful relationship.

So far we have been de-constructing my thought process, trying to find the reasons why I frequently either fail to find or fail to choose the right move, and working on calculation.  This was not part of my earlier ‘2100 Plan’ for the simple reason that I did not have the confidence to do this on my own, but knew that I could successfully work on openings and endings alone.  However, it seems clear that managing to improve my thought process would have a positive impact on all parts of my game; with Tom’s help I believe that I can do this, so for now that is what I will be focusing on.

Study schedule

Tom has told me that when he seriously trying to improve, he played around 100 competitive games of chess a year.  This seems like a reasonable figure to aim for; ambitious, but just about achievable whilst working full-time.  Estimating an average of 3 hours per game, that comes to 300 hours, which I will aim to match 1:1 with study, making a total of 600 serious chess hours over the year, or about 12 hours per week (6 hours of study).

In the past, too many of my hours have been dedicated to activities of questionable benefit, like nodding along to a DVD explanation but not really paying full attention, or playing online blitz games.  Going forward I will try to make my tracked hours of study as efficient as possible, doing something the pschologist K. Anders Ericsson called ‘deliberate practise’.  I intend to discuss that concept more in the future, but for now I will just note that it will probably involve a lot of problem solving.  I will no doubt continue to do ‘softer’ chess activities, but these will be in addition to the 6 hours of hard study per week.

Accountability

I have set up a Google spreadsheet to record my training on, and hope this will be a better way of sharing it than my old weekly progress reports.  If you would like an invitation to view and edit this spreadsheet, pop your email address in the form in the sidebar at the top right of your screen (no need to do so again if you have done so in the past).  Feel free to add your own tab to the spreadsheet if you have your own training goals you would like to be held accountable to.  I will also be doing progress updates on the blog, perhaps every four weeks, and am thinking about other metrics such as online ratings to track for these.

Games

As stated above, I will be aiming to play 100 serious games by September 2016.  Of these, I would like at least half to be FIDE-rated.  I have created another Google spreadsheet to calculate how many FIDE-rated games I would need to play at various rating performances to reach 2100, and this indicates that I would need 49 games at an average performance of 2150 to hit the goal.  (This sheet may be of interest to people as well, since it can easily be modified for your own calculations, so I will also share this with people who sign up above.)

I am intending to play in the ‘Four Nations Chess League’ and the London Chess Classic this season, which together will give me around 20 FIDE-rated games.  That still leaves me 30+ to find, so tournament suggestions or invitations are welcome.

That’s it for now, and please do let me know your thoughts on anything I have written in the comments below.

Kavala Open, part 1

In August I played my first long tournament since last year’s Major Open, in sunny Kavala.  Kavala is a seaside town in eastern Greece, where the attractive beaches compete with the chessboard for players’ attention.  Fortunately, although my morning preparation may have suffered a little, they did not manage to prevent me from turning up at the board.

My preparation for the first round was sub-optimal, to put it mildly.  My Gatwick to Barcelona flight was delayed, which meant that I missed my connection to Thessaloniki.  Instead of putting me on the next direct flight, Vueling elected to send me first to Rome, then to Athens, and finally to Thessaloniki, which resulted in me reaching Kavala at around 2 am on the day of the first game, after a hellish 40-hour journey.  I was paired with an International Master, and after getting slightly the better of the opening, I miscalculated and lost quickly.

Round two saw me paired with an 1806-rated junior; always an unpredictable proposition, as they can easily be a couple of hundred points stronger than their published rating.  Despite still being tired, I played reasonably well and had good winning chances, but didn’t take them and only managed to draw.  The second day featured a double round, so after the long morning game I had to play again in the afternoon.  This did not go well, as can be seen below:

 
In Swiss tournaments, it can be very difficult to to put a bad start like this behind you.  I tried hard to come unaffected to the next game, but made a few questionable decisions at the board and shortly before the time control found myself close to defeat against another 1800 player.  Had I gone on to lose this game the entire tournament could well have been a disaster, but fortune smiled on me, and after hanging on grimly for a few moves my opponent blundered on move 41, handing me my first full point.  This buoyed my spirits considerably, and the following day I returned and played the following nice attacking game:
 
A report on the second half of the tournament will follow.  In the meantime, please comment below to let me know your thoughts on the first half.

The Final Year?

As seems to have become my habit recently, there has been a gap of many months since my last post.  This is not because I have not been playing chess; I have been continuing with London and UK league chess, and even travelled to Greece earlier this month to play in the Kavala Open (my first tournament abroad since Pardubice).  Nor is it because I lack ideas to post about; there are a number of chess-improvement topics I am quite excited about, and would like to share.  No – the lack of posts is because I have not been consistently working hard on my chess, and consequently have not been making progress. Without these things this blog has no reason to exist.  I could write about the ups and downs of club chess, or my untested training ideas, but many such blogs exist.  Without wishing to take anything away from those blogs, this one was supposed to be different.  It was supposed to be a test of what was possible for an average club player, with hard work and real commitment to getting stronger.  I know many of you share my frustration that I have not so far been able to realise this vision, and I recently received the following email from a reader:

“Hey. You had a nice goal, but not updating your website in a year or so and not leaving any comments about your progress is just cowardice. If you can’t reach your potential and have no improvement plans, you should make your viewers aware of that. Just admit that you were not up to the challenge – people will accept that – or make regular posts about your progress. Otherwise this site has nothing to provide.”

In light of the above, I have decided to set myself a deadline.  If I have not reached at least 2100 strength by the 1st of September 2016, I will set aside my goal to become a GM and discontinue this blog.  (A small disclaimer: by 2100 strength, I mean that ideally I would have passed 2100 ELO, but if it is abundantly clear that I have reached that level (e.g. I have performed well above it in my last few tournaments) but I haven’t been able to play enough games to gain the points, I may continue.)

This goal strikes me as very achievable, but given my previous failures to keep myself consistently motivated I will be taking no chances.  Einstein famously defined insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’, so I will go about things slightly differently this time.  To this end I am finally looking to hire a coach.  Suggestions/applications for this position are welcome, and I am open to working in person or online.  Ideally I would work with my coach at least a couple of times a week, but if the coach’s rates make this unaffordable I would consider other arrangements.

I will post details of my new training regime once I have found a coach.  Given my previous failures I would understand if not everyone chose to follow this time round, but I hope at least some of you will choose to stick with me for what could be the final year of this project.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!

Chess in London

I’ve been settled into my new job and new life in London for a while now, and an update is long overdue.  I’ll share a game and a few words about London chess today, and update you all on my training in a week or two.

Chess in London is quite different from chess in rural Somerset.  I’ve joined two clubs – The Drunken Knights in the London League, and Muswell Hill in the Middlesex League.  Both are rather strong; I generally played board 1 for my Somerset club, but would play board thirty-something for the Drunken Knights if they were ever at full strength.  My hope is that playing stronger players on a regular basis will be good for my chess.

Evening chess after a long day at work is, unsurprisingly, proving more of a struggle than after the shorter days I have been used to.  Fortunately upgrading my habitual Diet Coke to a Red Bull seems to keep me relatively alert, and although my chess has not leapt to Nakamura‘s or Sachdev‘s level, I am so far more-or-less holding my own, with 1.5/4 against mostly stronger opposition.  My most interesting game so far, against a new Drunken Knights, Muswell Hill and West is Best (my 4NCL team) teammate, is given below with brief comments: