07 March 2020

Top two things that hold you back

Progress in chess, as with many things in life, isn't just about gaining new skills and knowledge. It's about identifying flawed or unhelpful practices that are holding you back from greater success, and eliminating - or at least significantly reducing - them. As with any sort of bad habit, the most effective way of tackling them is to consciously adopt new and positive practices. Otherwise, it's too easy for your brain to gravitate back to its old habits, like a well-worn rut in the dirt just keeps getting deeper over time.

While amateur players normally need to work on all aspects of their game, I think picking the top two things that keep tripping you up, then consciously working on them in both training and game situations, can be an effective strategy for speeding up overall improvement. Analyzing your own games over time should naturally highlight what these major issues are, combined with some self reflection, although if you have a coach they should be able to point them out as well. I'll share mine here.

1. Materialism

This is a pernicious problem for many amateurs. Occasionally you may find ultra-aggressive players who never bother counting material and always play for mate, but most people still want to win material and will "count the points" - the traditional "scoring" scheme being 9 for a queen, 5 for a rook, 3 for a bishop or knight, and 1 for a pawn.

Once you get to a certain level of play, I believe using this scheme as part of your thinking process is much more of a detriment than it is a help. At the beginner level, some type of easy-to-understand guide to piece value is needed, so using the standard counting scheme and its variants (3.5 for a bishop and 3.25 for a knight, say) has its place. However, this is a very static way of thinking about the game. Failure to take into account dynamic factors will inevitably hold you back, both strategically and tactically. This is not just a human failing, either, as many computer engines before the most recent modern era - Fritz was notorious for this - had the same problem with materialistic evaluations. (More on the role of engines in a bit.)

One way to effectively combat this in the thinking process is to consciously assess (and reassess) the current and future potential value of each piece. Full details of how to do this is beyond the scope of this post; there are a number of positional/strategic books and lessons available that address this topic. The most basic questions about piece activity, however, will go far. Namely: how many squares does the piece influence? Are they important squares? Does the piece have the ability to move to a better square? Answering these questions will help both strategic and tactical thinking, by highlighting opportunities for your pieces, along with vulnerabilities you may have to your opponent's pieces. This is a major component of prophylactic thinking, which involves preventing your opponent's pieces from reaching their best squares.

An important practical tool in this evaluation is the use of an engine (after the game, of course). Modern engines such as Stockfish, Komodo, Houdini and others are very good at assessing the value of compensation for material, which essentially reflects the dynamic positional value of pieces. I find that Komodo in particular tends to give more weight to non-material factors, which is one reason I use that as my primary engine when analyzing. The engine will not tell you why it evaluates a position in a certain way, so it cannot replace your own study and insight, but it importantly provides an objective evaluation for you to ponder further.

Recognition of materialism as a problem has helped me take some practical measures, including:
  • Deliberately looking for ways to increase piece activity, including via methods like pawn sacrifices. The idea of clearance sacrifices, for example, is common in master-level play.
  • Consciously searching for other major sacrificial possibilities, rather than automatically suppressing them as part of the thinking process. This reveals opportunities that will otherwise be missed, for example in Annotated Game #5 (First Sacrifice). This is just as important to do when thinking of your opponent's possibilities, as in Annotated Game #233 (Boden's Mate).
  • Paying more attention to the comparative value of pieces when making (or avoiding) exchanges. Piece swaps are often taken for granted, as players assume that if the overall "count" is the same, then exchanges always have a neutral value. This is one way that masters end up beating amateurs on a regular basis, by better recognizing the longer-term value of the pieces (including pawns) that are left. My simul game versus GM Sam Shankland is a good example.

2. Laziness in calculation

The best training advice I have ever received (from a martial arts master) is "don't be lazy". This is especially important when calculating as part of the thinking process. This does not mean calculating endless variations every single move; rather, it's important to recognize when critical positions are reached. At that point, the variations being calculated have to work, otherwise the game's outcome will be affected.

Another meme-worthy formulation of this is "Don't think you are. Know you are" from The Matrix. In other words, don't think you know what will happen if you make a critical move, make the effort to know what will happen. This requires laziness to be banished and increased focus and energy applied. Fear and doubt can enter into the process as well, either when attacking or defending in a critical situation. It's better to put those things aside and focus on determining the reality of what will work and what will not.

Consistent application of a routine thinking process that involves blunder checking and looking at your opponent's resources is also part of this idea, of not being lazy. It's been too easy for me to over-focus on my own possibilities and then, unless I force myself to ask "what are my opponent's threats and ideas", get caught out by something unexpected.

Another aspect of laziness is stopping prematurely when reaching a key future position during calculations. This is normally a result of either dismissing a position as not being viable, when in fact it is, or the opposite problem, which is believing that the position is won/good for you, when in fact your opponent can bust the line with their next move. This means that you have stopped "one move short" of what should be done. Eliminating this problem is not easy, because of the inherently difficult nature of calculating and visualizing multiple potential future positions, but identifying when to make the extra effort and then applying it can go a long way to improving quality of play and your results.