22 October 2011

Chess Performance Inventory

I've decided that it's worth the time to take stock of where I am regarding my chess performance.  I considered calling this a "skills inventory", which would be mostly correct, but I think some of the below categories (particularly tenacity) don't reflect what we would normally call a skill.  I also think that calling this a "performance inventory" is a useful approach, as it inherently makes the distinction between skill level (which is objectively demonstrated during play) and knowledge level (which is not necessarily manifested during play).

It's worth noting that there are a number of formal self-evaluation tests out there, two of the more popular ones being Igor Khemelnisty's Chess Exam and Training Guide (link is to a review at Wang's Chesshouse), which is comprehensive in nature, and the more narrowly focused Bain Rating Tactics Quiz at chesscafe.com.  While I may at some point tackle one or both as an improvement tool, by this point in my chess career I have a good insight into my performance strengths and weaknesses, in part stemming from recent analysis of both my historical and contemporary play (covered in Annotated Games #1-15 as of this post).

I give an overall grade in each of the below categories, with explanations and narratives that are designed to help guide subsequent training.  The grade is based on the standard A through F scale, with F being 59/100 or below.  In practical terms, an A (95/100) implies that there is little or no need for improvement, while the grades below that increasingly reflect either a significant performance gap between skill and knowledge level in the category, or simply a lack of knowledge.  For each category, I also give intended improvement steps ("Way Forward").  The first three categories look at performance during the traditional phases of a chess game (opening/middlegame/endgame), while the last three cover concepts that are more functional or universal in nature and tend to affect all phases of the game.

Opening:  B
This category covers openings selection and the evolution of an opening repertoire.  The criteria for openings effectiveness I discussed more at length in the latter post, but for me the essential, objective test is whether a player consistently is able to use their opening knowledge and understanding to reach favorable (or at least equal) middlegame positions against opposition of any strength.

This is one of my relative strengths as a player, with two solid, tested defenses against 1.e4 and 1.d4 (Caro-Kann and Slav) which also can answer almost any alternative setup by White.  The English opening (1. c4) as White has also been an effective weapon against players of all levels, although not one which is likely to score quick wins.  I have little experience or preparation in some of the more offbeat Queen Pawn openings, probably the largest hole in my repertoire.  With some English lines I also have very little practical familiarity, due to their lack of use by my opponents to date.

Way Forward:  Continue to analyze my historical and contemporary games; examine little-used but major theoretical lines and transpositional possibilities more closely in the English; play additional training games to highlight holes in the repertoire; complete initial study of the Dutch Defense; review selected repertoire lines in the database to improve memory and position recognition.

Middlegame:  C
This phase of the game covers a lot of chess skill area and is generally not fully defined, but the two major subcategories I will address here are:
  • Strategic planning and evaluation.  This involves recognition of key positional factors, understanding of the typical plans available in different position-types, and knowing when to focus on attack or defense.  Here there is definitely a performance gap, as I am better able to understand a position analytically than to conceive and execute a fully correct plan.  This is also reflected in a tendency to have an advantage out of the opening phase, but then mishandle it into a more equal or even losing position; Annotated Game #15 is an excellent contemporary example.  One also needs to be aware of more sophisticated concepts such as prophylaxis, which I apply inconsistently.  My attacking play is also relatively weak.
  • Tactical sight and calculation.  This refers to being able to see the tactical possibilities for both sides in a position and then calculate the resulting sequences (whether forced or not).  For some reason I have historically been weaker at visualizing counting sequences (i.e. when a series of material exchanges occur), so that is a needed area of improvement.  Board sight, including the problem of tunnel vision (focusing only on one area of the board), is also a recurring issue.  I am now much better acquainted with typical tactical and combinational ideas than when I began this blog, but still need further exposure to them.  
Way Forward:  Play more training games; continue working through The Art of Attack in Chess; continue regular practice with the Chess Tactics Server; continue reviewing annotated games from various sources.

Endgame:  F
Pretty self-explanatory score.  I have given very little study to the endgame, so this is the one area where there is no performance gap; I simply lack the requisite knowledge.  I would give myself a "high" F since I know some basic ideas, especially from K+P endings, and some other fundamental concepts - for example, that piece activity is the most important thing in rook endings - but 50/100 is still failing.  It's interesting to observe that this weakness has not had a major impact on past tournament performance, since almost all of my opposition has been nearly as bad in this category.  However, relying on performance that is only good in relation to similarly poor opposition ("grading on a curve") is not helpful to longer-term improvement.

Way Forward:  Once current opening and middlegame books are completed, start introductory endings book.

Thinking process:  D
This is the first of the "universal" categories and is often considered to be bound up with tactics, but it of course literally affects every move we make.  There are plenty of cases of people thinking for 10-15 minutes in the first few moves, for example, when they are uncertain of which opening to pursue or if an opponent takes them immediately out of their opening knowledge.

There are various different thinking processes described in the chess literature and blogosphere, often passionately argued over.  Here I'll focus on three sub-categories which should cover most of the substance necessary:
  • Candidate moves.  Can I see all of the reasonable candidate moves in a position?  Can I narrow them down efficiently for calculation purposes?  When do I calculate one more deeply?  Having too narrow a focus in the candidate move selection process is a traditional weakness of mine, although computer-assisted game analysis and annotation is helping address this. 
  • Falsifying moves.  This is closely allied to tactical sight and calculation ability, but does require additional thought and focus.  For those unfamiliar with the concept, it refers to the process (not unlike the scientific method of attempting to disprove hypotheses) of attempting to refute your selected move.  This involves seeing your opponent's potential threats in the current position and in the future positions that would result from your move.  A basic example is that your opponent has a mate in one threat on your back rank, which would falsify any move that did not protect against it.  This is a new concept for me and better incorporating it will go far toward addressing my failure to see and calculate my opponent's threats.
  • Consistency.  Thinking well on half of my moves is not enough, it must be done on all of them, at least to the minimum standard of reviewing my opponent's possible threats in a position.  This is probably the most simple idea in this category, but also one of the most difficult to apply in practice, due to the ups and downs of a game that have a psychological impact.  I am not consistent in my thinking process.
Way Forward:  Play more training games; institute a minimum baseline thinking process on all moves ("checks, captures, threats"); consciously broaden search for candidate moves prior to determining which should be calculated; aggressively attempt to falsify each candidate move being calculated.

Time management:  A
This is the only category for me where there is no improvement needed.  I almost never have entered into unilateral time trouble (i.e. when the opponent still has significantly more time on their clock) and very rarely end up in mutual time trouble, for example in the last few moves of a time control.  (I tend not to think of the latter as a time management issue, as a player should theoretically use up nearly all of their time before a time control, in order to maximize their thinking.)  My relative strength in the opening phase has greatly helped in this regard, since as a result I normally have a significant amount of extra time to think during the middlegame, where I perhaps play somewhat slower than average.

Tenacity: C
This is something of a wildcard category, but nonetheless a very important one for performance purposes.  (See Braden Bournival's player profiles for another example of its use.)  How many times have we been hit by an unexpected move from our opponents that completely throws us off our game?  When a winning advantage is lost, it is also very common for the player on the downswing to make additional unnecessary mistakes and end up losing; see Annotated Game #13 for an example of this.  This kind of psychological effect is not limited to chess, as momentum and a positive/confident outlook (or its opposite) are powerful forces in other team and individual sports.  I would also put into this category a player's willingness to play a game out to the end, rather than take an easy draw while they believe they still have an advantage.

I can't think of another factor which so greatly affects our final win/loss results, but has nothing to do with our base chessplaying skills.  (Our overall health - both physical and mental - is of course also very important, as if we have the flu or are dealing with major personal problems, our ability to concentrate on a chessboard will be impacted.)  Some of my recent Chessmaster training games helped me understand how a lack of tenacity was affecting my results.  It was eye-opening to see that the majority of times that I blundered while having an advantage, I was in fact still at least objectively equal in the resulting position.  However, in one case I resigned outright, while in several others went down the slippery psychological slope and lost afterwards.  Since then, in training games I have gritted my teeth and refused to go down easy, with improved results to show for it.

Way Forward:  Mentally resolve before a game starts that I will not give up or panic after a blunder or an unexpected move by the opponent; do not accept easy draws when possessing an advantage.


  1. Great post ChessAdmin!

    I am going to put this into the November blog carnival!

    And I might steal your grading idea for my own chess game in late November as it is going to be my 4 year anniversary pursuing this lovely and crazy game.

    I really liked that you graded intangible factors as well!

  2. Hey, thanks for stopping by! Glad you thought the inventory was useful. I'll probably review it myself about every six months.

  3. Downgraded my Tenacity rating to a C...still having problems shaking off unexpected moves.

  4. I think I have learned a lot about tenacity (presenting problems for the opponent even when things are going the opponent's way) by playing against and doing post mortem analysis with the engine Junior. It often presents problematic solutions that could cause problems for an opponent OTB.

    I have also noticed that opponents get really frustrated when they have a slight edge and but I don't give up and keep presenting problems.

    Of course MUCH higher rated opponents don't get frustrated at all as they know they have the edge and they just wait for the right moment to pounce on me. :)

  5. Hi Chess Admin.

    This is a great post and I whole-heartedly endorse it's inclusion for the November Carnival!

    In particular endgames are perenial weakness for most amateur players. So many of my games don't reach the endgame, or if they do the position is already decisive for one side or the other. I have found that as my standard has improved I've started to reach a lot more ending positions that have equal or at least close assessments. Time to start studying endings I fear!

    Eugene Znosko-Borovsky's old but classic tome "How to play chess endings" if the book to reach for in my view.




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