Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Weakest Link

I happened to overhear a conversation that a father of a novice player was having with one of the NY chess coaches. The father was saying something like, "he seems really strong to me, he can play exceptionally well for 4-5 moves in a row but will then blunder a piece and throw away the game. If only he could play like that the whole game, I'm sure he'd do much better..." And the coach nodded and assured the man of his son's obvious talent for the game, etc.

I think this is really a common thought among parents of beginner or improving players. And it's pretty much universally true. Everyone could probably play 100-200 points stronger if they eliminated the 1 worst blunder from their games.

It's so common, in fact, that thinking this way is sort of a trap. It's easy to convince yourself that the player is somehow better than the results. The harsh reality is that the chess rating system is amazingly accurate given enough time. Rating is the unbiased, brutally honest measure of your strength as a chess player. I've often found myself thinking that Richie, for instance, should really be rated 200 points higher but why do I really think that? Perhaps it's because he beats me occasionally. But the problem is that when we play casually, do I really take the time to think and play near my full strength? Am I subconsciously soft-playing him? Surely letting him take back that one obvious blunder couldn't make a signficant difference. There's no way he'd make that kind of gross error in a slow tournament game, right?

I picked out a recent game to illustrate the point. Richie played this game against another player rated almost the same as him. Amazingly, even after putting this game through a chess engine, I could only identify 1 major blunder. In fact the game was within about 1.0 pt (1 pawn) of even until that blunder. It's no wonder that Richie playing strength seems to so hard for me to comprehend when he can play a nearly blunderless game with excellent positional control, only to uncork a stinker like 18... Bd3?? for no obvious reason. And this isn't exactly a fluke since he made an almost identical error later in the same tournament.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Structured Thought Processes

I was reading through some of Dan Heisman's excellent chess articles. One thing I like a lot about his writings on ChessCafe is his focus on the practical requirements to play well and improve. One lesson he gives is the importance of playing well throughout the game. After all, it only takes one major blunder to lose a game. At the scholastic level this is especially important. It's not a natural act for a young child to look at the board from their opponent's point of view or to weigh the consequences of their actions and consider multiple options before physically acting. The vast majority of players in the K-1 age group are playing the first decent looking move they can find. Alyssa and Richie have developed their basic skills enough and have been playing long enough that I thought it was time to introduce a structured thought process into their game. The idea is to have a few steps that you go through each and every move of the game. I had looked through some example processes in various sources but I thought for my kids that it was important to keep it relatively simple. It wouldn't do any good to give them a 12 step checklist since they'd never be able to do it.

The first thing I did was give them the analogy of the weakest link. I described a chain that had all its link made of steel and one of it's links made of play-doh. I asked them to imagine someone pulling on this chain. I explained that in a chess your game can only be as good as the weakest moves you make.

For the structured thought process, therefore I asked them to remember these things. Most importantly, I asked them to do this *every move* of the game.

On their turn:
1. Look for threats. Look at the last moved piece, scan the squares it attacks and check for moves that go through the square it left. This is far and away the most important thing to learn.
2. Choose three candidate moves that do not obviously lose material. Here is where you can really make things complicated if you want. But at this stage I wanted a realistic goal. In practice I've told them that some moves they should consider are moves that answer a threat defensively, moves that attack the opponents pieces or king, moves that move your pieces into more active positions. For Richie, I've asked him specifically to analyze in-between moves carefully.
3. Visualize their opponent's best response to their candidate moves, try to visualize at least three half-plies ahead, particularly if they are forcing their opponent to do something (e.g. checks, queen attacks, attacking a free piece).
4. Play the move they like the best

I noticed that during their games, they would focus when it was their turn but tune out when it wasn't their turn. I said that if you watched grandmaster's play, they thought just as hard during their opponent's turn as they did on their own. Since it can be difficult to guess what their opponent is going to do, rather than spend all their effort finding what they think might be likely continuations, I suggested that they should try something different.

When it's their opponents turn:
1. Look at all of their opponents pawns and pieces and identify which ones are weak.
2. Look for weak square that are not defended which can be reached by their pieces.
3. Look for three-move-plans. Pick an objective and find a three move sequence that helps accomplish that plan.

I've been talking talking to them about this process for about one month. I asked them recently to play a game against each other where they talked about the process out loud and I enforced the process at each move.

Not surprisingly they played a wonderful game. To all of our surprise, the game lasted nearly two hours and none of us noticed. Around move 50 I suspended the exercise and put them on a clock. The idea was to see if they could do an abbreviated version: look for threats, pick 2 candidate moves. Alyssa who was playing white and had been winning stumbled a bit under the time pressure but otherwise played well above her level in my opinion.

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