25 May 2015

Adult chess camp

One of the major problems adult chess improvers face is a lack of sustained time to improve, as life gets in the way with its many responsibilities.  Although I've advocated setting goals and allocating consistent training time on a semi-daily basis as ways of helping address this, the fact is that time is always short.

One way to make a sustained effort for training improvement is to therefore get away from your responsibilities and focus on your chess.  Naturally, this works for anything else you can productively spend several days on improving, such as music, business (think corporate retreats), or martial arts.  While I can't vouch for it personally, Kopec's Adult Chess Camp is having a 2015 session and for those in the U.S. I'd recommend a look.  There used to be a week-long chess cruise ("Chess Moves") that offered similar benefits - see the 2006 page - but which unfortunately ceased several years ago due to organizer problems.

Getting away for several days or a week can clear the mind and break us out of a training plateau.  At the very least it can expose us to a lot of information, some of it likely completely new, that we can use to help take us forward to the next level.

15 May 2015

Book completed: The Diamond Dutch

I recently completed The Diamond Dutch by Victor Moskalenko, as the openings component of my current eclectic training program.  I found it to be an excellent example of a useful, modern-style openings book focused more on practical play rather than exhaustive theory.  As such, it does not attempt to be comprehensive in its treatment of every line of the Dutch Defense; rather, it examines all of the major variations and the less frequently played "Anti-Dutch" lines from the view of an experienced practitioner (on both the White and Black sides of most of the lines), focusing more on critical options.  This approach has great practical value and the author is candid about his evaluations and preferences, presenting them with clear, objective reasons (even if not always fully-fleshed out proofs).

Moskalenko is known as both a player and advocate of the Dutch Stonewall, so it is no surprise that the section on it is both the largest and (in my opinion) strongest part of the book.  The author's exposition of common plans in different set-ups, driven by White's primary strategy, is illuminating and particularly insightful, since a lot of the sample games are his own.  Rather than try to cover all the Stonewall possibilities, he focuses on what he considers to be the most effective lines from his own practice.  As Black, for example, Moskalenko generally avoids an early fianchetto of the light-squared bishop in favor of the more traditional development via d7 (and then to e8 and the kingside, most often).  This type of approach contrasts with the more comprehensive treatment in Win with the Stonewall Dutch, which also tends to favor the more modern fianchetto approach.  However, Moskalenko is not dogmatic about it and points out places where playing an earlier ...b6 can be good.  In many cases, as he does in other parts of the book, he may give one-move "!?" alternatives without further analysis.  In other works I've sometimes found that a frustrating practice, but here it made more sense to me, as it gives the reader other possibilities to investigate while helping reduce the complexity of analysis to a manageable level.

The section on the Leningrad Dutch is also meaty, if not quite as fully fleshed out.  However, in Leningrad theory there is more of a history of busted or now-dubious lines, in contrast with the more resilient Stonewall, so Moskalenko's focus on what he considers to be the critical tries appears appropriate.  He also does not neglect things like the move 7...Nc6 in the main line and offers the best recent high-level treatment of it that I've been able to find.  I also found his explanations of the problems with the 7...Qe8 line (dropped by most GMs a while ago) and the benefits of the 7...c6 option (the main line these days) to be quite helpful.  He also deals well with sidelines that are very important to know in the Leningrad, including some recent ones at the top level such as Aronian-Carlsen (Saint Louis, 2013).  Moskalenko's treatment of the Classical Dutch (and transpositional possibilities) is also good, although it is not my particular focus of study and I only looked at a few selective examples.

As usual with my opening study practice, I first went through the book using a physical board, then after each section used it as a reference in updating my opening repertoire database.  This sort of repetition I find both useful and aesthetically pleasing, as well as overall more comfortable than sitting down in front of a computer while trying to read and input moves at the same time on a first reading.  Moskalenko's (now-standard) approach of using reference games for each line, along with other game fragments as references for variations, is also helpful in constructing a more holistic understanding of middlegame and endgame considerations likely to arise from each variation.

From my point of view, this is a key book for any serious Dutch practitioner who wants both greater insight into the plans and possibilities for each side, while having the most up-to-date general treatment available on the key lines.

05 May 2015

DVD completed: Improve Your Chess with Tania Sachdev

This interactive DVD features Indian IM Tania Sachdev presenting lessons based on 15 of her games in ChessBase video format (with a viewer program included for those without ChessBase software), along with a series of 10 training positions/games at the end of the DVD which are fully interactive.  In both cases you can access the games in the database for further exploration or review after the video portion is done.

The DVD contents are focused exclusively on middlegame play.  Sachdev at various points comments on the importance of knowing opening theory, for example in the intro clip when emphasizing that you should at least know what types of positions you want to end up playing.  She does not discuss the opening phase of her games much, but a lot of the examples come from the early middlegame and show that "just playing chess" can still be important in a tournament game.

There is no overall theme or specific organization to the DVD, other than the idea of illustrating various important middlegame concepts.  These include, among others:
  • Using "small tactics" to obtain a positional advantage
  • Leveraging small advantages into bigger ones
  • The importance of piece placement
  • Common plans in different pawn structures
  • Doubled pawns as a weakness and as a strength
  • The importance of central pawn breaks
  • Identifying and executing a plan without getting distracted
During the 15 video annotated games, Sachdev does a good job of using the highlight tools to indicate things like key squares and threats, as well as asking the viewer to pause the video at critical points to think about possible continuations.  This type of interactivity is naturally enhanced in the final section of 10 "questions" which are presented similar to typical tactics trainer positions, with you making your chosen move on the board.  However, the instructional value is enhanced by Sachdev not only explaining the best move when you make it, but also discussing key variations (if you choose one of them) and/or specific elements to look for in the position (if you get it wrong).  With several of the games, there is more than one "question" position in them, which I found especially valuable, as it let me see how a game can progress through multiple decision points and longer tactical sequences, which is more like participating in an actual tournament game.

As a Class player, I found the DVD helpful and enjoyable to use, as Sachdev usually explains her concepts clearly and focuses on a couple of main points in each game.  If you are looking for something more structured and theoretical as part of your training, the annotated games approach might frustrate you, but from a practical standpoint I think the DVD works well; it's very much like having her available for a series of lessons.  There could have been even more interactivity, but the product shows off some of what can be done to enhance your training beyond simply watching a video.

04 May 2015

Chess computing resources for 2015 - ChessBase web-based applications

Since ChessBase recently posted its list of applications available on the web, I've decided to update my earlier "Chess computing resources for 2015" series with a link.  This increased availability of web-based resources is another step towards transforming the past model of players having to acquire multiple (and expensive) software packages with somewhat arbitrary separations in functions.  The list (you can follow the above link for them all) includes:

ChessBase online database (source of the above screenshot)
Fritz on the Web
Fritz and Chesster educational program
ChessBase's cloud database service
Tactics Trainer

All of them have free options, only a registration is required.  Given ChessBase's past tendency to charge on the high end of the market, this is welcome (and probably necessary from a business point of view, given other web-based apps' availability).

If you already have the full ChessBase software installed, some of the apps are redundant or scaled-down in terms of features, but they could still be helpful if you're away from your main computer.  From an aesthetic standpoint, I prefer the ChessBase/Fritz style boards to other types, so there's also some benefit simply from having better quality (and consistent) visuals in the different chess apps.