29 August 2019

Avoiding and overcoming negative game trends

One thing that happens when you keep analyzing your own games is that you start seeing meta-patterns across games. One of the earlier examples for me was the realization that I did not have a real thinking process in place, and as a result was doing especially poorly at discovering the best candidate moves for both myself and my opponent.

During the last set of annotated games (#216-218), the idea that stood out to me - not for the first time - is the idea of negative game trends and how to overcome them. It has been an all-too-common pattern to see: making a series of sub-optimal moves in the opening and early middlegame, based on an incorrect evaluation or shallow understanding of position's requirements. Overconfidence often can play a part, by encouraging you to not "switch on" and apply a full thinking process until too late in the game, typically resulting in assumptions about your position's safety that are quickly proven wrong.

It's interesting to see how this phenomenon works in practice. Analysis shows how an initial less-than-optimal decision may only result in a slightly less positive evaluation of a position. However, from there it becomes a slippery slope, since it is hard strategically to recover from implementing the 'wrong' idea on the board of what the position truly demands from you. Mathematically, this manifests itself in a reduction in the range of different moves that will keep you in the game (equal or better). This means that the necessary good moves inevitably become harder and sometimes nearly impossible to find for a human. As with other pitfalls of computer analysis, it's misleading to think that an unchanged top-line engine evaluation means that you are in fact playing optimally.

I think one of the practical elements of chess strength is an ability to persevere long enough to break a game's negative trend, including finding the optimal moment for starting counterplay. GM Alex Yermolinsky's The Road to Chess Improvement has a whole section on trend-breaking tools, which shows that this is a challenge at all levels. Personally, in analysis it's been evident time and again how I've missed chances to strike back and equalize, or even win, after being under pressure for a number of moves. One of the elements of my breakthrough in this particular tournament was the ability to find that chance and seize it, most cleanly in Annotated Game #216. As with anything else in chess, however, it's a work in progress.

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