My Study List

The promised ‘lessons learned’ is in the works, but it has expanded from one post to a series.  I do not want to rush out a half-finished effort, so hope you will forgive me for the delay.  In the meantime, here is a list of the books and other resources I have found useful in the last year, as well as those I am intending to dig into soon.

Books

Calculation – Jacob Aagaard

A challenging exercise book (with explanations), which I am sure will improve my calculation significantly when I finally manage to finish it.  Not recommended for players rated below 1900.

Chess Tactics from Scratch – Martin Weteschnik

An interesting look at some well-known and less well-known tactical motifs.  I have finished this apart from the exercises at the end, and plan to re-read it at some point.

100 Endgames You Must Know – Jesus de la Villa

An excellent book, focusing only on the endgames the author has identified as being most useful for practical players.  As with ‘Calculation’, I am expecting significant improvement when I finally manage to finish it!

A number of opening books, mostly by Quality Chess and New in Chess.  These will remain secret for now, to avoid giving my future opponents too much information. 🙂

Next on the list: I got the complete Yusupov series for my birthday, and am planning to work mostly on that for the moment.  For those who own these books or other QC improvement books, I suggest you have a look at Jacob Aagaard’s recent post about the best order to read them in (and his answer to my question in the comments).

Videos

Chess24

I became a premium member during the last World Championship Match, lured in by the promise of a free mug and t-shirt.  I never got the promised freebies (in their defence, I haven’t bothered to chase them about it), but have enjoyed the video series immensely.  The only problem is that it is extremely tempting to dive into series like Peter Svidler’s one on the Grunfeld, even though I know working on an opening I do not play with either colour is hardly the most effective use of time. 🙂

Websites

Chess Tempo

Chess Tempo is a website with free tactics puzzles.  It is my home page, and I have a rule that every time I open my browser I must solve at least one puzzle before going to another site.

There are many other resources I have found useful in the past; the selection above is just what I have been working with recently.  Let me know what your favourite chess books, videos and websites are at the moment in the comments section below.

The Road Continues

A year ago, I gave myself an ultimatum: reach 2100 strength by September 2016 or give up this project.  Here is what I wrote:

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.)

For most of the year I have struggled to make significant rating gains, and to an objective observer it must have seemed unlikely that I would be able to continue in September.  Whilst I felt I was becoming stronger, most of my games were not FIDE-rated, and in those that were I was frustratingly inconsistent.

That all changed over summer.  I played in three FIDE-rated tournaments: the British Weekender Open, where I placed equal second with 4/5; a strong Open in Figueres, where I defeated an International Master for the first time in classical chess; and finally the 10-round Open Internacional d’escacs de Sants, where I drew with a FIDE Master and achieved some other good results.  As a result, my September rating has shot up to 2054, and the last tournament has not yet been included; by my calculations I should be 2076 when it is.  Whilst this is still short of 2100, I have performed at 2160 level over my last 24 games, which I feel adequately meets the disclaimer quoted above.  (Regular readers will also be aware of my missing 24 rating points from Belgium, which would have taken me to 2100 exactly.)

In light of the above, I am delighted to be able to say that I will be continuing my chess improvement journey, and continuing to blog about it here.  🙂  For now there is no new goal or study plan; I will be completing my ‘Road to 2100’ study, and hope to achieve a published rating of 2100+ soon.

A longer post will follow in due course about lessons learned from the past year.  As always, please share your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below.

Road to 2100: T-3 Review

I have played in two tournaments since the last update, both of which have gone well.  The first was an international team event in St. Petersburg, open to teams comprising people who work in the rail industry.  I scored three wins and two draws, which would have netted me 20 ELO points, but sadly despite the official nature of the event (Kirsan turned up for the closing ceremony) it was not rated.  One of my wins is given below:

 

 

Although some of my team did not fare as well (we ended 11th out of 14), the event was hugely enjoyable, and St. Petersburg is highly recommended to anyone looking for an interesting holiday.

The second of my tournaments was the British Championships Weekend Open, where I got off to a storming start with 4/4.  Facing the top seed (2226) with black in the final round, I needed only a draw to win the tournament, but despite getting an excellent position out of the opening he was able to outfox me.  Losing in the final round pushed me down to shared second with two others.

Ratings

FIDE standard: 1983-2020 (expected), +27 points

All of these points came from the British Weekender.  As previously stated, the railway event was unrated, and I may come to rue these lost points (together with the last railway tournament, that’s 44 extra points I could have).  Still, this is the first time I have pushed significantly above the 2000 mark this year, and it may still be just in time to make 2100 by September if the next two tournaments go as well as my last two.

I will be playing in Figueres and Sants back-to-back over the next few weeks.  Both are strong events in the Barcelona area.  If I am able to maintain my energy and play well in both it is certainly possible to gain the required number of points.

Assessment: Red (cause for concern)

Study

I have not (yet) returned to using my study log, and will not be doing so over the next few weeks either.  Still, I have been reasonably productive and have managed to patch up a couple of critical holes in my opening repertoire.  Naturally I will not be studying as normal during the upcoming tournaments, and will just be doing opponent-specific opening preparation and looking to go into each game well-rested and energetic.

Assessment: Amber (some cause for concern)

As always, I encourage you to post any questions or comments you have below, but I may not respond until after my tournaments.  This will likely be the last ‘Road to 2100’ review – for better or worse, see you in September!

Road to 2100: T-8 Review

Hello all, and apologies for the lack of updates recently.  Please rest assured that the fact I have not been posting does not mean I have not been playing and studying; quite the contrary, in fact.

Ratings

FIDE standard: 1985-1980 (expected), -5 points

Despite gaining a few points at Frome, this period will see a rating loss (my first since December) due to a poor performance at the e2e4 Gatwick Open.  To date I have played in two e2e4 events, each of seven rounds, but did not manage to win a single game until the (combined) thirteenth round!  (This was not my first full point though, as I got a bye in the twelfth…)  A combination of factors, including tiredness, a dislike for the time control used (game in 90 minutes, plus 30 seconds increment) and just coincidence are probably to blame.

Of course, this rating loss comes at an unfortunate time, and the path to reaching 2100 by September now looks very difficult.  Having said that, I have enough games planned to make it possible, if I am able to perform at around 2200.  I have not managed to qualify for the British Championships, so will be playing in two Spanish events instead, as follows:

5th-8th July: Railway Chess Olympiad, St. Petersburg, Russia

11th-18th August: XVII INTERNATIONAL CHESS OPEN MIQUEL MAS 2016, Figueres, Spain

19th-28th August: XVIII INTERNATIONAL OPEN CHESS SANTS, Barcelona, Spain

Assessment: Red (cause for concern)

Study

I have been studying with a renewed sense of urgency in recent weeks, though you would be forgiven for not guessing that from my study log.  I have been using an innovative method for recording my study, pictured below:

chess training diary

Yep, good old-fashioned pen and paper.  I have found I prefer writing notes by hand, and just the act of carrying this around with me helps with motivation.  At least I have the information recorded, and may get round to putting it online at some point.

One thing I have been working on with my coach, Tom Rendle, is my habits at the board.  I have been using a pre-game mental checklist for a while now, designed to remind me of and help me avoid some of my bad habits, which goes as follows:

1.  I will calculate short, sharp variations, and commit to conclusions.

2.  I will only continue to spend time when I think there is a reasonable chance my decision will be improved.

3.  I will not allow adverse events to affect my focus.

I have made decent improvement in these areas, and consider the next big area to be my concentration several hours into the game.  I have lost count of the points I have thrown away late in the game recently (including several at Gatwick).

Assessment: Amber (some cause for concern)

If you have any bad (or good) habits at the board, I would be interested to hear about them in the comments section below (and how you try to combat them).

Road to 2100: T-16 Review

Here is a position from one of my games in the final 4NCL weekend.  White to play and ramp up the pressure.  The solution is given further down.

McAleenan

Ratings

FIDE standard: 1993-1985 (expected), -8 points

A few disappointing results will see me shed 8 points in the next list.  A steady performance in the Central London Chess Congress gained me 2 points, but I did not play well at the 4NCL.  In the position above, I had played reasonably up to this point, and was looking to increase the pressure on black’s weak e6 pawn.  This can be achieved with the simple Rfe1, when Qxd4 runs into a fork after Nxe6, and Rfe8 allows Nxg6.  I saw both of these points, but strangely thought that Kf7 was holding things together for Black.  I can’t quite remember what was going on in my head at this point, but imagine I noted that Black had e6 adequately defended in terms of number of pieces, without bothering to check what those pieces were.  Of course, after Kf7 I can simply take on e6, emerging up material.  Instead of Rfe1 I complicated matters with Qc5, leading to an interesting rook and knight ending which was eventually drawn.  This was followed by my first and only loss this 4NCL season the following day, after another bad calculation error.  I recovered slightly on the final day by beating an underrated junior, but the damage had already been done.  This will make the uphill climb I face over the next few months even steeper.

Whilst my rating is not yet close to 2100, my performance for this year is getting there.  Over the 14 FIDE-rated games I have played in 2016 my performance is 2068 (sadly down from 2140 before the last 4NCL weekend), and in my 38 ECF-graded games it is 179, which equates to 2080 FIDE.  Combined that is a decent sample size, so I am confident that I am getting stronger.  Even so, another sizeable jump in performance will be required in order to get close to 2100 by September.

Assessment: Red (cause for concern)

Study

I have only hit the 6 hour weekly target in two of the four weeks this period, due to busy weekends.  The weekends have been busy with tournaments, so I have still been doing chess, but I would like to be able to fit at least 6 hours in during the week.  I studied during my lunch break at work today, and am going to see if that is sustainable.

Assessment: Red (cause for concern)

This weekend I am playing in the Frome Congress, in a last ditch effort to qualify for the main section of this year’s British Championship.  In the UK, winning the Open section of a weekend tournament is generally required to qualify for the British, but if the winner has already qualified the qualifying place moves on the next finisher.  This late in the season a lot of people have already qualified, so I am hoping finishing in the top 5 or so (still a big ask) will be sufficient.

As usual, do let me know if you have any thoughts or questions by posting in the ‘Comments’ section below.

Road to 2100: T-20 Review

Here is a position from one of my recent 4NCL games.  Black to play and draw.  The solution is given at the end of the post.

Screenshot_1

 Ratings

FIDE standard: 1991-1993 (expected), +2 points

I have played only one FIDE-rated game in the last three weeks, which was a win against a 1606 in the last game of the season in the French league.  I hope to report some real movement in my rating next time, as I will be playing four games in the Central London Chess Congress and three games in the final 4NCL weekend before my next report.

Assessment: Red (cause for concern)

Study

The study has taken a bit of a hit this period, as I had flu over Easter, so did almost none in that week.  It has got back on track since, though I have not been particularly good at keeping my study log up-to-date.  I have updated it today with some estimates of my recent study, and will endeavour to keep a more accurate record going forward.

Assessment: Amber (some cause for concern)

Finally, the solution to the problem posted above.  I was pleased to find this move, and feel I have improved at defending tough positions in recent months.  Saving half points like these could be key in my efforts to get to 2100 over the next few months.

 

 

Road to 2100: T-23 Review

Rather than putting out a T-24 review last week I have decided to bisect the 6 week gap to T-20 and do a T-23 review instead.  Thereafter we should revert to the four-weekly schedule.

Ratings

FIDE standard: 1973-1989 (expected), +16 points

I have played three FIDE-rated games this period; a win against an 1841 in the French League, and then a draw (vs 1943) and a win (vs 2023) this weekend in the 4NCL.  I was made to work very hard for that draw – 105 moves of suffering – but managed to hang on.  The rating continues to move in the right direction, but the real points will be won or lost in the tournaments I have planned for the summer.

Assessment: Red (cause for concern)

Study

I have again met my 6 hours per week target this period, and the ‘deliverables’ idea I introduced last time has meant that I am starting to make headway on Jacob Aagaard’s ‘Calculation’, which I had been putting off.  Whether 6 hours a week is really enough is an open question, but given that I am also playing 2-3 evening league games most weeks and working full time it is about as much as I can manage at the moment.

Note: my study log is not quite up-to-date at the moment; I’ll try to get round to updating it soon.

Assessment: Amber (some cause for concern)

If you have any thoughts you would like to share, please comment below.

Road to 2100: Halfway (T-26) Review

Apologies for not posting a T-28 review two weeks ago as scheduled; I decided to hang on until now as it is the midpoint of my Road to 2100 year.

Ratings

FIDE standard: 1966-1973 (expected), +7 points
Other ratings: No change

I am expecting to gain 7 points this period from a win I had against an 1837-rated player in the 4NCL.  The 4NCL season continues to go well for both my team (West is Best) and me personally, and with 6 wins from as many matches the first team stands a good chance of promotion to the second division.  This would give me the chance to play some stronger players next season.  Whilst my rating is still creeping up, I have to earn a lot more points in the second half of the year than in the first if I am to have any hope of reaching my goal.  A provisional idea of where I plan to earn these points is given below (note that not all these events are confirmed yet):

13/3/16: French league, 1 game
19-20/3/16: 4NCL, 2 games
3/4/16: French league, 1 game
23-24/4/16: Hampstead Congress, 5 games
30/4-2/5/16: 4NCL, 2 games
14-15/6/16: Hampstead Congress, 5 games
27-30/5/16: Gatwick Congress, 7 games
11-12/6/16: Hampstead Congress, 5 games
2-3/7/16: Hampstead Congress, 5 games
4-8/7/16 St. Petersburg Railway Tournament, 6 games
23/7-6/8/16: British Championships, 11 games

In total that is 50 games, which, as calculated previously, would be enough for me to reach my goal if I performed at 2150 level.

Assessment: Red (cause for concern)

Study

I am pleased to report that I have once again met my study target of six hours’ deliberate, focused training per week, which now makes ten weeks in a row.  Having said that, not all of that time has been spent on the material I believe will make the most difference, as I frequently choose an easier option.  For example, ‘Calculation’ by Jacob Aagaard is a book I have been trying to work through for a long time now – it seems like an excellent book, with well selected problems, and I am sure that a careful reading of it would improve my chess – but I often do some quick tactics puzzles on ChessTempo or Chess24 rather than the more difficult problems in ‘Calculation’.  To counter this tendency I am introducing a set of ‘deliverables’, listed in a new tab on my study log spreadsheet, which I must spend at least six hours on per week.

There are currently 276 deliverables, split into three categories: calculation, opening and endgame.  My focus on calculation/thinking was explained here.  The opening and endgame items have been included because, whilst I feel I am making progress with my thought and decision-making process, it is not clear when that it going to translate into a big jump in practical play.  Given that it is now only 26 weeks until my deadline, I am taking no chances and intend to improve my openings and endgames as well (note that this is something of a throwback to an earlier plan).

Assessment: Amber (some cause for concern)

As usual, I would be interested to hear your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below.

Nodding Along Training

I’ve done a lot of what I have decided to call ‘nodding along training’ in the past.  By this I mean listening to or reading an explanation of something, whilst nodding inwardly and thinking “that makes sense” or “I understand that”.  You may or may not be paying full attention to the explanation, but either way it’s not the most active form of training.

In my later years at secondary school, nodding along training was my main form of study for exams.  I would listen to an explanation of a method or concept in a maths lesson, think I understood it, but frequently fail to prove my ‘understanding’ in the exam.  Of course, the way to avoid this is to do plenty of practise exercises before the exam, to expose the areas you do not understand fully.

When it comes to chess, watching opening videos is a major form of nodding along training.  (If you watch them in a comfortable chair and with a beer in your hand, it can even become ‘nodding off training’!)  It is very easy to listen to Kasimdzhanov or Shirov explain the Nb1-d2-f1-g3 manouvre in the Giuoco Piano or Ruy Lopez and think that you have understood something profound about the game of chess.  However, when you have the opportunity to employ this deep new understanding in your next competitive game, you often find that you were mistaken.

By way of an example, consider the position below:

Vuilleumier 1This is a position from my game against IM Alexandre Vuilleumier from the recent London Chess Classic.  White has just played h3, and with very little thought I mirrored him with h6, thinking something along the lines of “h6 will always be a useful move, and I’ll decide on a plan next move”.  White played Nh2, and I then decided to employ a plan which had been mentioned to me by my guest GM Tal Baron as playable in a similar position.  I played Nd7, the idea being to go f6, Re8, and usually either Nf8-e6 or Nc5(-e6) depending on circumstances.  This would have been an excellent idea on the previous move, but now that I have played h6, it makes very little sense to play f6, as the light squares around my king will be weak.

Vuilleumier 2My opponent immediately highlighted the potential weakness of the light squares with Qh5, and I was forced to abandon my plan halfway through and come up with another one.

So, how do we guard against ‘nodding along training’, and try to ensure we learn material well enough that we can usefully apply it in games?  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Use material with built-in questions or tests.  The ‘move by move’ series of books by Everyman is a good example of this, and some ChessBase DVDs also include questions nowadays.
  2. Ask yourself questions.  If done properly, I can see this being even more effective than answering questions which are provided by others, as it makes you really think about the material.  For example, you might ask yourself ‘Under what circumstances is Nd7/f6/Re8 a viable plan?’, ‘When would the knight go on to c5 and when would it go to f8?’ and ‘What are the indicators that this plan may be inadvisable?’ (One answer: ‘your pawn being on h6 rather than h7’).
  3. Play out positions against a partner or the computer.  If you are studying an opening, you don’t necessarily have to play to the end, but playing some moves forces you to think and apply what you have learnt.

Have you been guilty of doing nodding along training yourself?  Do you have any other ideas for combating it?  Let me know in the comments sections below.

P.S.  For those interested in seeing the conclusion of the game quoted above, here it is:

 

 

 

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.