An Experiment in Rapid Chess Improvement

Record of my experience in undertaking Michael de la Maza's "Rapid Chess Improvement" program.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Tragedy Strikes!

Well, my weekly game with OJ could have gone better. Things were going okay- I was playing the black side of the modern defense to the King's Gambit accepted. I was under a bit of pressure, but holding. Then I chose my next move, N8d7. The 8 was necessary when I wrote the move down because there were knights on both b6 and b8. So I wrote down N8d7 on my scoresheet, carefully checked all my opponent's reasonable replies, and seeing nothing threatening I made my move and pressed the clock. Then after a few seconds I realized with horror that I actually made the move N6d7, not N8d7 as I intended. Suddenly the position went from probably +/= to +-. About two moves later, my thought-process in tatters, I dropped my queen, and promptly resigned. The really frustrating thing was in the post-mortem it looked like a few moves later I would have won a central pawn and gained a strong position had I played the correct knight move. Sigh...

On a positive note I was doing a good job of considering my opponent's replies up until I moved the wrong knight. Unfortunately my friend is getting ready to travel for a few months, so I won't have a weekly game for a while. After today's loss, my record is against OJ is +9 -11 =3, so -2 overall. Not bad considering I used to get my clock cleaned regularly, so I've made up quite a bit of ground.

BTW I have now finished levels 10 and 20 on the second circle, so here's the stats so far:

Circle 1 % Circle 2 %
---------- ----------
Level 10 96% 99%
Level 20 91% 93%
Level 30 74%
Level 40 69%
Level 50 67%
Level 60 55%
Level 70 60%
Level 80 57%
Level 90 55%

So, a modest improvement in % overall, all while doing twice as many problems per day than in the first circle. I still missed a bunch of problems on level 20, but hopefully I'll do better on circle 3. In looking at my circle 1 percentages, it is interesting to note that my second-worst score in the first circle was on level 60. Weird.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Progress Report and a Thought Process Question

Progress Report
I am now three days into the second circle with 210 problems completed. Here's some things I've noticed so far:
  • My calculation seems to be more quick and more accurate. Still far from perfect (even on level 10-20), but much improved over the first circle. I remember struggling to calculate out a few problems during the first circle, but many of these I zipped through with little effort.
  • I seem to be recognizing more patterns than before. I think Don mentioned his increased "fluency" with rook and knight mates after getting into the program, and that is a pattern that I also had trouble with in the first circle. Now I seem to be doing much better with it. Improved pattern recognition also helps reduce my calculation since I see more winning lines instead of trying to calculate deeper and deeper looking for the win that I had missed a few moves earlier in my calculations.
  • Many of the level 10-20 problems I zip through in well under a minute (many I get in under 15 seconds), but I still am missing a few problems here and there and sometimes have to spend several minutes on some. I guess those patterns are not yet burned into my brain enough yet, so hopefully by circle three they will be second nature.
I regret that I don't have a USCF rating so as to measure my improvement in the MDLM program. That will sort of take away from my "success story" since it will never be clear how much I have improved.

I just figured out how to get the per-level stats out of CT-Art, so here's my stats from Circle 1:
Level 10: 96%
Level 20: 91%
Level 30: 74%
Level 40: 69%
Level 50: 67%
Level 60: 55%
Level 70: 60%
Level 80: 57%
Level 90+: 55%

Stats so far from Circle 2:
Level 10: 99%
Level 20: 94% (in progress)

As I go forward in the program, it will be interesting to see how my thought process and such changes versus the earlier circles (hence the major reason for this blog!).

A Thought Process Question
If you are an improving mid-range class player, I highly recommend reading the work of Dan Heisman, a well-known chess coach. In particular, his Novice Nook articles at Chess Cafe are very instructive (be sure to check out the archives for his series).

Anyway, I believe one of my biggest chess weaknesses is in my thought process. Heisman talks about playing "real chess", which basically involves checking that prior to making your move you can adequately meet all of your opponent's replies. It is pretty simple. Just visualize the board after your move, see what moves your opponent might have (forced mates, material wins, etc.), and if you overlooked something, come up with a better move. If you don't do this, you are playing what Heisman calls "hope chess": you make your move hoping that you can meet your opponent's reply, whatever that may be. To be a strong player, you have to play real chess 100% of the time. If you only check your opponents' replies 95% of the time, you will lose a lot of games due to that "risky" 5%.

So here's the question. I know I need to do it. I know how to go about doing it. But for some reason I just cannot do it. How does one go about learning this skill? I am thinking I should write down a simple thinking process and play a few games against the computer and check off each step in the thinking process as I go. Hopefully that will help, but I've tried concentrating hard on doing it, but I always forget about it and slip back into my gutter days of not thinking about my opponent's replies carefully enough. So what is a poor chess patzer to do? Suggessions welcome!

Friday, February 18, 2005

First Circle Complete!

Weekly Match Result
Last night OJ and I played a game at G/1:55 w/ 5-second delay with my new chess clock. My thought process was a total mishmash, but despite me being worse in the middlegame, OJ went astray during some middlegame tactics and I ended up a piece. I think my technique was pretty good in the remaining KQRB vs. KQR and I didn't allow much counterplay.

It seems that many of our games these days follow a similar formula: OJ builds up a +/- or +- advantage by the early middlegame, I get lucky when OJ overlooks a tactical point, and I grind out a win. I really wish I could come out of the opening with a decent position, but I'm not sure I want to spend much time on openings. I'm getting better (and winning), but it is still frustrating to have to always claw back from a bad position (and be at the mercy of my opponent making a tactical mistake). At any rate, I'll finish the MDLM plan before I start working on other stuff such as openings.

As for total time used: I had about 36 minutes left on my clock. I think OJ used up about 8 minutes. So he's almost playing blitz while I'm playing a regular slow game.

Circle One Complete!
So I got home a little after 10 p.m. last night, so I decided to slog through the last 10 problems in CT-Art. There was actually a problem with 210 points (I got 171, one of my better results that night). I finished up with 45% for the final 10 problems, better than I expected.

My final Elo: 2573. Pity this isn't a "real" rating. IIRC I started at 1600. Here's a graph of my progress (though CT-Art will only show the last 813 problems):

Originally I started with MDLM's suggested schedule, but I found I was finishing the first two levels pretty quickly, but really started to slow down at level 30 which was killing me time-wise. So I revised my schedule to the following:

Circle One Schedule

Week 1: 41 problems per day
Week 2: 30 problems per day
Week 3: 19 problems per day
Week 4: 17 problems per day
Week 5: 15 problems per day
Week 6: 14 problems per day
Week 7: 13 problems per day
Week 8: 12 problems per day
Week 9: 12 problems on one day, 10 on the other 6 days
Week 10 (one day only): 10 problems
Total: 64 days, 1209 problems

I was planning on taking a day or two off, but I think I may jump right into circle two tonight.

Circle Two Schedule

Week 1: 70 problems per day
Week 2: 36 problems per day
Week 3: 29 problems per day
Week 4: 25 problems per day for the first four days, then 24 for the last day
Week 5: 24 problems for one day, then 22 for the remaining three days
Total: 32 days, 1209 problems

Wish me luck as I sally forth fellow knights!

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

So What Do You Really Get Out of This?

So What Do You Really Get Out of This?
Earlier today I found and read Chris Kilgore's blog. I was particularly interested in what he had to say since he is a MDLM "graduate".

Chris and Don (about 2/3 through the MDLM program) have both mentioned the major improvements they have seen are more in "tactical muscle" than anything else. Basically you get better at calculating and are able to do it longer without tiring. Of course this makes complete sense. If you lift weights every day for months you will be able to do it more easily and without tiring as quickly as before you started training. This is no different, but just something I had not really thought about.

Having nearly finished the first pass, here's the minor effects I am beginning to notice:
  1. Improving recognition of tactical patterns. No surprise here. In particular I find myself looking for certain ideas in specific positions that will make a combination work based on ideas I have seen in prior problems.
  2. Improving confidence in my calculations. On the more difficult problems where I cannot calculate things out completely I'm getting better at weeding out variations that just don't work out. When I started I would often think that a line would not work, when it turned out I had overlooked something. Now I seem to be overlooking less and can discard lines with more confidence. Often the "correct" move in the more difficult problems is either a move I did not consider (happens often when I have no idea where a problem is going), or I can calculate only so far and I cannot hold the position in my head clearly enough to make a definite assessment. Overall it is not something dramatic, but a small but growing difference that I am beginning to notice.
In some ways I was a little disappointed that Chris didn't feel like he has been better at recognizing tactics OTB. But, he felt his tactics were already pretty good prior to starting the program. Since my tactics are not all that strong, maybe I will get more out of it. I have certainly been doing better in my weekly matches with OJ, so maybe it is working a bit better for me.

How much do you see?
Another thing Chris noted on a comment on my Feb. 14 installment was the difference in OTB play versus doing tactics problems. Yes, in CT-Art you know there is a tactic, and without an entire game on the line it is easier to sac a piece or whatever to see if something works. But on some of the more difficult problems (say level 70+) I find it hard to believe that anyone could see everything in a problem. There are just so many variations and non-forcing moves that it seems impossible to do that. So I wonder how much strong players actually see before they embark on a long sacrificial line.

But I do have to remember watching the Kramnik-Leko post-game press conferences during their 2004 world championship match. Chessbase has video excerpts of these. If you have never seen world-class players talking about chess you simply must watch some of these. Until I saw the videos I really didn't appreciate how much GMs really know about the game. Just to give you an idea, Kramnik and Leko are fielding questions from the audience, stuff like "Why didn't you play 23...g5?" Immediately Kramnik and Leko would begin talking about that specific moment in the game, giving 10 move variations and then an evaluation of the resulting position as to why they did this or didn't do that. All without a board, and after playing a long game. Simply amazing. So it makes me wonder- maybe a GM really can see all these moves?

Update on Wednesday, February 16:
Finished 10 problems tonight, 1190- 1199 (I did 1188 and 1189 yesterday right before bed).
All level 90+, score 49%. Boy, they were brutally hard tonight. (I had no idea I could get 17 penalties and still score 60/140...) Some of them just went on and on and on. I was particularly amused by one problem that was from a correspondence game of M. Blokh (the CT-Art creator) that spanned two years (1987-1989 IIRC). How am I supposed to find in 10 minutes what Blokh spent years on? Sheesh.

However, I think I should get bonus points for finding a better move than the solution on problem 1192. My forced mate was 6 half-moves faster than the forced mate given. So surely that is worth +25% to my final score, right?

Funny thing though, I was doing so poorly that I sped up and actually scored better when I went faster (actually completing each problem in 10 minutes rather than 15-20). I don't know if the problems just got easier or what. Weird.

Only 10 more problems to go in the first circle. Tomorrow night is chess night with OJ, so I may not finish until Friday. This will be the first time I can use my brand spankin' new chess clock. There is the Lone Star Open chess tournament on March 4-6 that I'm considering entering, so it would be a good idea to get some practice at G/120 time controls. I am sort of torn on whether or not to enter or not. I've hardly played anyone OTB, much less gone to a tournament. I won't even know how to read the cross table postings. My wife and I were planning a weekend trip that same weekend, but we may reschedule it so I can play. Hmmmm.....

Monday, February 14, 2005

Progress Report

Just finished my problems for Monday at 11:31 p.m.

Problems: 1168 - 1177 (Level 90+)
Score: 51% (ouch)

At least I got 110 / 110 on one. Doing well on one helps motivate me to keep going after a few < 20% on a few...

Update on Tuesday:

Finished problems 1178 - 1187 (Level 90+)
Score: 52%

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Catching Up and Goals

Catching Up
Since I fell a few days behind over the last couple of weeks I am trying to make it up this weekend. I've had twelve problems a day for the last week, but now the number drops down to ten per day (whew!). I just finished problems 1118-1127 (all level 80 problems) with a 60% score. Not great, but I'm hanging in there. By the end of day Sunday I need to have finshed through 1167, so I plan to do 20 more problems today, and 20 tomorrow to get fully caught up. They are taking me about 10-12 minutes or so at this level, so it will take a while. Hopefully posting my goal here will motivate me to get them all done. If I get back on track I'll finish my first pass through CT-Art on Thursday, but I play chess with OJ on Thursdays so I may not finish up until Friday. Maybe then I'll take the weekend off and start pass number two on Monday.

Regarding statistics, I'm not planning on looking at my CT-Art Elo score until I am done. When I've used CT-Art in the past I was so worried about my rating that I would do really well and quit for a while, not wanting to miss a problem and drop. Obviously this is not a good mindset to be in, so I'm not even looking at it. Of course by now I'm used to missing a few points here and there...

Ratings and Goals
Speaking of ratings, I'd be curious to hear from other folks what their chess improvement goals are. Since chess is rather open-ended from an improvement standpoint, where do you draw the line? Class A? Expert? Master? What? How much is enough?

It reminds me of a point in a juggling book I read years ago. The short of it is that it doesn't matter how many objects you can juggle (three, five, ten, whatever), people always want to see you juggle one more than you can. So learning to juggle more and more objects (which gets exponentially harder for each object added after four) is a never-ending path. Hmmm, sound familiar?

My current goal is to reach expert level. At that point I will see how things went and decide if I want to attempt to go further from there. I guess a lot of it depends on how much I am enjoying the game, and if more study will make it more rewarding. Of course I have quite a few other hobbies and interests (did I mention that I'm also trying to learn to play the guitar while I'm doing the MDLM plan?), so with limited time, I have to make tough choices. For now I'm spending most of my time on chess, but I can't do nothing but chess forever you know...

So where does your chess improvement path end?

PS: I stop juggling after four objects, though I hope someday to make the time to learn how to do five.

Update at 10:15 p.m. local time: Just finished 1128-1137 with a 50% score. You know the problems are hard when you get six penalties and still get a score of 45 points out of 80. There were a number of problems where I just had no idea on the next move. Usually I have a few reasonable moves in mind to try, but for many moves I was clueless. This is probably because I moved into the "Conjunction of combinational motifs" section which are usually the most difficult themes within a level. Typically at the start of a level I do pretty well where the major motif in a problem is relatively straightforward (opposition of pieces, a loose piece, etc.). But when there are four or five tactical elements that, in the exact position I am presented with, just happen to come together to allow some tactical shot, that's when problems are really difficult...

Given that it is already past 10, it's not looking good to finish ten more problems tonight. I'll probably do a few more and then sack it in. Nothing like a wild and crazy Saturday night with CT-Art...

Update at 12:25 p.m. local time: I made it! Just finished 1138 - 1147 (5 in level 80, and 5 in level 90+) with a 62% score. It took 1 hour, 40 minutes. I even got 100/100 on one, woohoo! If I can do 20 problems tomorrow I'll be completely caught up. Now that I am cross-eyed from doing too many problems on the computer, I should probably hit the sack...

Update at 2:12 p.m. Sunday local time: Just finished 1148-1157 (all level 90+). 64% score in 2 hours, 27 minutes. I'm going a little over the 10 minute per-problem limit, but that's okay. On the more difficult problems you will be bumbling along thinking you are okay on time, and then as if on cue the problem splits into four variations that you have to work out. And I hate to totally guess without thinking at all just to get through the problem. Also, I think CT-Art's total elapsed time includes time since you started, so quick breaks (getting some water, etc.) are included. So I'm not sure the total time is a good way to come to an average time per problem.

Ten more problems to do today to be caught up! It's a beautiful day out so I should probably do something outside instead of sitting bleary-eyed in front of the the computer all day...

Update at 7:44 p.m. Sunday local time: I'm all caught up! I will now bask in the glory of completeness...until tomorrow.
Problems: 1158-1167 (level 90+)
Time: 2.9 hours (lots of breaks)
Score: 66%

Friday, February 11, 2005

Things are Getting Serious

USCF Membership
One major problem I have is that I don't have a good way to measure my improvement (or lack thereof, god forbid) on the MDLM program. I have no USCF or FIDE rating. I do play a weekly game with my friend OJ that has been going much better for me since I started spending all my spare time with CT-Art. I've gone 4.5 / 5 since I started, whereas before I was scoring 0.5 or 1 out of 6 or so, with my wins coming primarily from swindles when my opponent got lazy in completely winning positions. I used to play a bit on, but I only play g/15+5, not the long, slower games that I need right now, so my rating in the low 1600's there is not a really good barometer of chess improvement either. I hadn't played a rated game there in months but last week I decided to see how I did after being on the plan and I lost in a pathetic fashion to someone rated a hundred points below me (and responded to my opening of 1.e4 with 1...g5?). I think I was wigged out by playing with a time control after not having played with one in a while, but my play was anything but encouraging.

Since getting a USCF rating would help measure my improvement, I figured a good start would be to renew my USCF membership. I was in USCF for a year but let my membership lapse in January 2004 because (1) I wasn't doing much with it, (2) I wasn't getting much out of it, and (3) I was a bit peeved at how Anna Hahn, 2003 U.S. Women's Champion, got shafted on the whole 2004 Olympiad fiasco. The women's team, sans Hahn, did well (second place), but was second place (or first, for that matter), worth crawling through all that mud? I hope so.

Anyway, I'm sure that my one-year absence has really hurt the USCF and taught them a lesson, so I opted to come back and give them another chance. As of this morning, I am once again an active member.

A Clock
In order to get used to playing long games under time pressure, I need a way to time them. So I bought a chess clock. Since I've always wanted one of those DGT electronic chessboards (though not enough to spend the $400-$500 it costs) I decided to get a DGT clock so if I do get a DGT board, my clock will work with it. I got the DGT XL, which was waiting on my doorstep after work today. Seems like a nice clock, but how would I know the difference since I've never actually used one? At any rate, I figured I'd better get used to using one if I am going to begin rated OTB play. I'll start by using it in my weekly match with OJ. He makes each of his moves in about 10 seconds, whereas I am slower than a crippled tortoise. An average game takes about three hours, and with each of his moves taking 10 seconds, you do the math. I think I will soon be reacquainted with the joys of time pressure. I'm sure OJ cannot wait.

So now that I have an ID and a clock, the next step is to find some more opponents in the Austin, Texas greater metropolitan area. Oh, yeah, and do a few more chess problems in the meantime...

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Did anyone read the TOS carefully?

What and Why
My chess study plan is based on suggestions by Michael de la Maza's book "Rapid Chess Improvement". Since his plan has been well documented elsewhere, I will assume if you are here you know what this entails. If not, read his "400 Points in 400 Days" articles on or get his book from your favorite bookseller.

Today at work I read all of Don's chess improvement blog (don't tell my boss). Informative and entertaining. (I thought the "letters to Santa" piece was inspired.) While my time is quite limited (who has time to spend 2+ hours doing chess problems AND maintain a blog?), Don noted it was helpful to track his thoughts as he goes through each of the "Seven Circles" in MDLM's plan. Sounds like a good idea to me, so if I'm going to do it I may as well share with others who are also on the MDLM plan.

I think the Knights Errant de la Maza group is great. It's nice to have a "support group" when subjecting oneself to such bizarre forms of self-abuse, er, I mean self-improvement...

The Terms of Service
I pretty much always read all the mind-bending legalese in software licenses just to make sure I know what I'm getting into. If you read the entire TOS you will find the following amusing section:

Now, this next part seems really damn obvious, but everyone else has it in their TOS's so someone's probably gotten sued for not having it. So: In order to use the Service, you must obtain access to the World Wide Web, either directly or through devices that access web-based content, and pay any service fees associated with such access. In addition, you must provide all equipment necessary to make such connection to the World Wide Web, including a computer and modem or other access device.
I also thought the following LOL (limitation of liability) was amusing as well:

Hey, at least someone has a sense of humor...

Now for the Chess-Related Content...
I am currently in the first pass of the 1209 problems in CT-Art 3.0. Tonight I finished through problem 1115. I'm currently doing 12 a day. Tonight it took me about 2 hours, 15 minutes and I got 61%. Not bad for level 80 I suppose. According to my schedule, I will complete the first circle a week from tonight. I am a couple of days behind but I plan to make those up this weekend.

Levels 70 and 80 have been pretty difficult. I often have to guess the first move based on the tactical elements in a position and often have no idea of the followup. Some problems, however, are long forced sequences and I tend to do better on those. But even in the most difficult positions (which are clearly way over my head), I still think it is useful to go through them. At some point in most (but not all) problems you get to something you know such as a forced sequence, a mate in two or three, a double attack that wins massive material, etc. So I try to keep alert for these possibilities.

Happy solving! I look forward to reading how the other Knights are progressing...