28 August 2011

Training Game Methods

While I believe an approach to chess training should have a broad scope, one of the most critical parts of any training program is to actually play the game.  By now it is a well-known phenomenon that increased chess knowledge does not directly translate into improved performance at the board.  This should not come as a surprise, since it is the same case for any sport - doing well in a practice setting indicates that you have the component skills, but the main event adds more dimensions and challenges, both in the game itself and psychologically.

What I look for in training games is to achieve a decent approximation of the tournament game experience.  This means a slower time control - so no blitz, or anything really below 30 minutes per game with a five-second increment (G/30+5).  I've been playing a series of games at G/60+5, roughly on a weekly basis, and that seems to work well; it provides me with enough time to think when needed, while not taking up an unduly large amount of available leisure time.  The game quality as a result has been reasonable, with Annotated Game #7 the first to be fully analyzed.

As part of the training process, the only assistance I use during a game (with a computer opponent) is my openings database.  This is because I am not concentrating on having opening lines memorized, but rather on finding effective methods of play in the opening.  This also lets me investigate and add to my personal database whenever a new line is introduced by my opponent.  In practice, the majority of deviations from my known openings are demonstrably inferior and mostly not in theory, so the opening book reference doesn't play a large part in the game.  This does in fact replicate the tournament experience, when players often will come up with a move that is not necessarily losing, but not optimal either, and you have to start thinking on your own early on.  Having an appropriately deep understanding of the opening should make this a welcome opportunity, rather than making you feel that you've been thrown off your game.

For a long time I avoided playing computer opponents, largely due to lack of motivation stemming from a feeling of artificiality.  While that can't be completely avoided, I've been pleased with the playing features of Chessmaster: Grandmaster Edition (CM) and can derive some enjoyment from the games as well as using them for training purposes.  For me, aesthetics does have a role in enjoyment of play, in addition to having a sense of opponent beyond a faceless computer program.  CM has the best 3D boards that I've seen in chess software; in fact, it's the first chess program where I've used a 3D instead of a 2D board.  Its collection of simulated opponents ("personalities") is somewhat corny, but they fill the role of being an adequate substitute for human opponents, given their variety of playing styles and strengths (which are also customizable).  For training purposes, I play only rated games and then always play the suggested follow-on opponent, which is selected by the program based on your CM rating and your game performance.  In the future, I may expand this to use the tournament feature or conduct matches against a particular personality that I find challenging.

While I believe playing human opposition is much preferable to computers, it is often very difficult to arrange for this either in person or over the Internet, simply due to the logistics of matching up time schedules for slower games.  Another factor is the need to find someone roughly in your range of playing strength, so that both of you feel challenged and motivated.  If one person is too strong for the other, then what you have are really lessons rather than games - good in their place, of course, but not fulfilling the same role.

(EDIT: See the Slow Chess League post for information on finding online games.)

27 August 2011

Annotated Game #7: Training Game (English with 2..Bb4)

I've recently started playing slower (Game/60 minutes plus 5 second delay) training games; this is the first that I've judged is worth annotating.  Due to the lack of available human opposition at that time control, I've been playing rated games against Chessmaster: Grandmaster Edition personalities.

This game is against "John", who on my computer is rated by the CM program as a Class B. "John" goes for an interesting early sideline of the English (1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 Bb4), one that I've only faced once before (and lost badly, after playing 3. Qc2).  While I still like that in response to a Nimzo-English setup (1.c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 e6 3. Nf3 Bb4), it seems to me that it is not as good here, when Black already has the central pawn on e5.  2. Nd5 is a much more dynamic choice and has been examined in several New in Chess Yearbook articles, I happen to have the one in Yearbook 61.  Black has a wide range of possibilities, as does White, and there is relatively little theory to follow in most lines.

In the game, Black prematurely releases the central tension and lets White avoid any potential issues there.  As a result, by move 11, White has a very comfortable game and a good positional plus, although Rybka suggests an interesting and provocative line for Black, involving castling on opposite wings in a bid for counterplay.  I concentrated on maintaining and building on my positional advantage, particularly building up pressure on the d-file, along the way missing some interesting tactical ideas in the "simple" position; I should be able to keep an eye out for similar tactical tricks in the future. Despite the slow approach, White eventually cracked Black's position and won a key pawn, then strangled Black in the rook endgame.

Along with showing me several thematic tactical ideas, the game was valuable in fostering a winning mentality. While Black could have put up more of a fight, I was able to prevent most of his obvious counterplay and also focus on making moves that I knew would lead to a win, while not worrying necessarily about the absolute best move.  I think this is a necessary practical approach for tournament play, although I need to work to avoid making unwarranted assumptions about the lack of tactical possibilities in simple-seeming positions.

Since this was a new training game, I decided to analyze and annotate it using Rybka Aquarium, as something of a learning experience with the software.  Here's the result:

8 8
7 7
6 6
5 5
4 4
3 3
2 2
1 1
ChessAdmin - John (CM Class B)
1-0, 8/27/2011.
[#] 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Bb4 3.Nd5 Be7 +0.18 4.d4 +0.07 the most common line against Be7 4...d6 +0.18 5.e3 +0.07 of the variety of choices here, this scores the highest in the database (over 70%); however, only a dozen DB games go this route. 5...Nf6 6.Nxe7 Qxe7 7.Nf3 Nc6 first move out of the database.
[Of the three games in the DB, two continued 7...O-O 8.Be2 Bg4 ;
The other continued 7...e4 8.Nd2 O-O 9.Be2 c5 ]
8.Be2 exd4 +0.18 prematurely releases the pressure in the center 9.Nxd4 Nxd4 10.Qxd4 c5 11.Qf4 +0.15 Bd7?! +0.60 Rybka now shows a significant positional plus for White, who has the two bishops, a space advantage and a comfortable game. Meanwhile, Black has a significant weakness on d6.
[Rybka instead prefers the provocative 11...g5!? 12.Qg3 Rg8 13.f3 Be6 14.O-O O-O-O with counterplay for Black.]
12.O-O Ne4?! +1.27
[12...Bc6 instead seizes the long diagonal, if only temporarily.]
13.Bf3? +0.00
[This overlooks a tactical exploitation of the d-pawn's weakness: 13.f3! Ng5 14.Rd1 f6 15.Qxd6 Qxd6 16.Rxd6 ]
13...Bc6 +0.26 14.Rd1 g5 15.Qf5 O-O +0.44 16.Bd2 +0.22
[I had considered 16.b3 but was afraid of 16...Nc3 which however fails to the neat tactical trick 17.Bxc6 Nxd1 18.Be4 ]
16...Nxd2 +0.76 Premature, Black should shore up the center with Rfd8 first. 17.Rxd2 Rab8 +0.98 18.Rad1 Bxf3 +1.17 19.Qxf3 Rbd8 20.Qg3 f5 21.Rd5 Better to insert h4 first:
[21.h4 h6 22.hxg5 hxg5 23.Rd5 Kh7 24.Rxd6 Rxd6 25.Qxd6 Qxd6 26.Rxd6 ;
And not 21.Rxd6 f4 ]
21...Kh8 22.Qf3 g4 23.Qe2?! +0.64
[I was too concerned about the Queen being trapped somehow, which is impossible now; Black must lose a pawn after 23.Qf4 ]
23...Rf6?! +1.27
[23...f4!? 24.Qd3 fxe3 25.Qxe3 Qf6 instead gives Black some counterplay.]
24.Qd2 +0.64
[24.Qd3 is preferred by Rybka, pressuring f5]
24...Kg8? +1.75
[24...b6 is required to stop the Rxc5 idea]
25.g3 +0.76 in order to lock up f4 and provide the king an escape square. However, I missed (and so did "John") the following idea over the next few moves:
[25.Rxc5! dxc5 26.Qxd8+ ]
25...Qe4? +1.75 26.Qd3? +0.37 Rh6?? +2.88
[26...Qxd3 27.R1xd3 b6 ]
27.Qxe4 fxe4 28.Rg5+ +1.55
[28.Rxc5 instead picks up two pawns.]
28...Kh8?! +2.38 Kf7 would be much more active 29.Rxg4 Re8 30.Rd5 Rf6 31.h3 Ref8 32.Rf4 Kg7 33.Rxf6 Rxf6 34.Kg2 h6 35.g4 Kf7 36.Kg3 Ke7?! +3.25
[36...Ke6 makes it much more difficult for White to make progress, although Rybka points out 37.g5 hxg5 38.Rxg5 ]
37.Rf5 Rg6 38.h4 Rg7 39.Rf4 a5 40.Rxe4+ from here on, the game is a lock, although I am careful not to allow any Black counterplay. 40...Kf7 41.f4 a4 42.f5 Rg8 43.Re6 a3 44.b3 h5 45.g5 Rd8 46.e4 b6 47.Rh6 Kg8 48.Kf3 b5 49.cxb5 d5 50.exd5 Rxd5 51.Re6 Rxf5+ 52.Ke3 Rf1 53.Ra6 Rf8 54.b6 Rb8 55.Kf4 Kf8 56.Ke5 Ke7 57.Kd5 Rd8+ 58.Kxc5 Rc8+ 59.Kb5 Rb8 60.Kc6 Rc8+ 61.Kb7 Rd8 62.Ka7 Kd6 63.b7+ Kc7 64.Rb6 Kd7 65.b8=Q Rxb8 66.Kxb8 Ke7 67.Rh6 Kf7 68.b4 Kg7 69.Kc7 Kf7 70.b5 Kg7 71.Kd6 Kf7 72.b6 Kf8 73.b7 Kg7 74.b8=Q Kf7 75.Qd8 Kg7 76.Qf6+ Kg8 77.Rh8# [1-0]