An Experiment in Rapid Chess Improvement

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

Sunday, November 13, 2005

First Chess Lesson

Yesterday I had my first chess lesson with NM Dan Heisman. Overall I would say the lesson was interesting, if not a bit insightful. In general I was not expecting too much since it was only an hour, and I was certainly not disappointed. Overall I enjoyed it and found Dan pleasant to work with.

So what did we do? After discussing my goals (make expert), particular areas of focus (thought process and time management), and situation (I'm a working adult, etc.), we started off with a problem in which I was supposed to decide if the king and pawn position was a win, loss, or draw for either side . It was not too complicated and I had "unlimited" time to think about it (unlimited in that all the time I'm willing to pay for :-)...and I bungled it horribly. I was fairly surprised I messed it up, especially since I saw the major elements, etc. The really interesting thing was that it took me a looooong time time notice a few things about the position. The takeaway is that I really need to work on my board vision...just noticing basic things about positions like what pieces or pawns are hanging, etc.

We then started to go through my game vs. OJ this past Thursday (a terrible affair...I played horribly, survived a massive attack to emerge a rook ahead, allowed a perpetual check, and then decided to try out a stupid idea just to see if there was any possible winning resources in it...and I lost shortly thereafter). Unfortunately, one hour flies by and we only got partway through the game.

As a result of our first session I've decided to work some more on tactics and board vision. Tactics are easy (more CT-Art and other simple tactics...nothing too complicated, just working on recognizing basic tactics instantly, so I'll probably stick to level 10 and 20, maybe level 30), and doing the MDLM Chess Vision drills which I skipped the first time around. I also dug out my copy of Chess Mazes which is a fun way to work on board vision.

I figure I'll do 3 or 4 more lessons at a minimum and then decide if this is something I want to continue longer-term. Overall I'm relatively happy with the first lesson. Dan's and my schedules don't match up very well for the next couple of weeks so I won't be able to do lesson #2 until mid-December or so.

BTW There is a tournament in San Antonio the first weekend in December, so I'm trying to decide if I should make my tournament debut. It is a 4 game Swiss system, slow time control (30/90, SD/60) event, so it would be perfect to test the water and actually get a USCF rating. I'll probably enter the reserve ground (U1700) so I'm sure I'll get beat up by a bunch of grade-schoolers, but it will be fun and good experience nevertheless.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Chess Lessons!

Boy, I'm just barely squeaking by on this "one post a month" requirement to be an active knight...

Chess Lessons!
The big news is that I'm trying out chess lessons with NM Dan Heisman of ChessCafe's Novice Nook fame. My first lesson is Saturday and I can't wait. He's not cheap (US$65/hr), but I figured I would try it out and see how I like it. Heck, I'm already spending 12+ hours a week on chess, so if it adds to the enjoyment of the game then it will be well worth it. I'll just buy fewer chess books instead.

Why did I decide to take lessons? Well, I have been playing two slow games per week for a few months now and carefully analyzing the games afterwards. This has been incredibly helpful. The main benefit has been to expose flaws in my thinking and analysis process. For example, a couple weeks ago I had white in a French Tarrasch against fellow knight Chris Kilgore. I was analyzing an unfamiliar position for maybe 10 minutes and had decided on a fairly commital plan that I had decided was of mixed benefit to me (trading knights and altering the pawn structure). During analysis I discovered I should have just played a simple move, improving the position of my queen slightly, but not making a major change to the game. Apparently the lesson was retained, because this past Sunday I had in a Sicilian Dragon and again spent 10 minutes and was poised to make another fairly commital move that I was not 100% sure was beneficial. However, this time I remembered my lesson and played a different move. So the move I chose was not best, and I still spent 10 minutes on it, but the point is that I'm improving.

What does all this have to do with Mr. Heisman? Well...I had recently read a novice nook about how the worst positional defect in your position (doubled, isolated pawns on an open file) is worth a little over one pawn. So the worst single positional weakness is worth less than a pawn, so in many cases if you are faced with material loss of even a pawn, unless you are getting significant positional compensation you are better off saving the material regardless of the cost (Dan calls this the "Principle of Tactical Dominance".) Recently I had a game where I had finally figured this out something similar to this on my own (before reading the article), so when I read the article I wondered how many of these other "principles" are there that I am missing? Anyway, I decided to give it a shot so I'll let everyone know how it goes.

Current Focus
In case anyone is interested, here's what I'm doing chess-wise these days:
  • I play two slow games per week (G/120). One is with OJ over-the-board, and one is with Chris Kilgore over the internet (though I set up a board, clock, and scoresheet to simulate tournament conditions). So this is 6-8 hours per week.
  • I analyze the games in detail. This takes maybe 2-4 hours.
  • I'm working on building up an opening repertoire. The time taken on this varies, but sometimes I spend up to 6-8 hours per week on it.
  • Various other stuff (some tactics, playing Pocket Fritz, reviewing master games, etc.)
One thing that Chris and I have been doing that has been helpful is to practice specific opening lines. This way we can both work on our repertoires. It's been helpful, and now I feel like I have a basic grounding in playing white in the French Tarrasch (whereas before I was clueless after two moves).

I need to be doing more tactics problems, but I really want to get a basic repertoire hammered out before I jump back on the tactics. I sort of miss the endless hours in front of CT-Art you know...

Anyway, if you are not playing regular slow games, I cannot recommend it highly enough.