Lesson 3: Beware a draw offer from a stronger player

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When I play a much stronger player, my thought process is sometimes affected. On the one hand I feel I have the freedom to play aggressively and more instinctively, because a loss would not be unexpected. On the other hand I don’t want to embarrass myself by losing in 15 moves.

One of the impacts of this imbalance in thought reveals itself when I get to the endgame safely. Instead of thinking “He could not beat me in the opening or middlegame. How do I win this now?”, I seem to think “Thank goodness I survived the opening and middlegame. How do I not lose this now?”. That in turn means that, when I get a draw offer, I tend to jump at it. Mission accomplished, I did not lose.

What I don’t consider is that the draw offer might be an attempt by the stronger player to not lose. Here is an example from a recent game, where my opponent was rated about 1820 versus my about 1570. After a Queen’s Gambit Declined Exchange variation opening, we exchanged Queens by moved 16, with the rooks off the board by move 25. He initiated the rook exchanges, which made me think he wanted a draw. This was the position after 25.Bxe1.

In the Bishop and 6 pawns versus Knight and 6 pawns ending that followed, I managed to get my Knight onto a good outpost and my King to a good central square. His pawns were induced onto dark squares, so my position was looking pretty good after move 33 (below, where Stockfish 8 rates it around -0.3), but I didn’t know if I could convert. In honesty, I was just waiting for the draw offer.

White played 34.Kd3 here to stop my King from entering his position, but after some more maneuvering and what he told me afterwards was an attempt to get a win, his King went over to the king-side and his Bishop to the Queen-side, leading to this crucial position.

Now put that in front of me as a tactics problem, and I probably get it. But in the context of a game I am, incorrectly, trying to draw, I missed the winning 43…Kb5 44.g4 Nxc5! taking advantage of the overloaded b-pawn. Instead I brought my King back to d3 and after a few more moves he offered a draw.

So the lesson is, when a stronger player offers a draw and you have time left on your clock, take a minute or two to evaluate the position independently from the situation, i.e., your opponent’s rating and your aims with the game to that point.

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Lesson 2: When ahead, don’t overthink

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This is not a ‘sexy’ lesson with a big wow-moment, but it is the sort of subtle thing which is often overlooked.

My opponent, rated 1150, made life difficult for himself out of the opening, having to displace his King and losing castling rights after 1.e4 e6 2.Nf3 d5 3.d3? dxe4 4.dxe4 Qxd1 5.Kxd1.

He lost a pawn shortly after and after his 19.d4, this was the position:

Black has a winning advantage and there are a few good moves here. There might be a temptation to look for a forcing continuation which converts the advantage to a win quickly, but there is no need for that. When you don’t need to calculate, don’t calculate. It wastes time and energy.

Instead, if there is a natural looking move which helps your plan (here the plan is to trade down and win the pawn-up endgame, or take advantage if a better opportunity comes along in the meantime) and is safe. Therefore 19…cxd4+ should be considered. It meets both your aims, happens to be forcing (since it is a check) and can be played almost instantly.

Continuations might be:

20.Nxd4 Be5 21.N2f3 Bxd4+ 22.Bxd4 Rac8+

20.Nxd4 Be5 21.N2f3 Bxd4+ 22.Nxd4 Nxe4+

20.Bxd4 Bf4 21.Bxf6 gxf6 22.b3 Bb5

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Lesson 3

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Lesson 1: On (almost) every move, consider ALL Checks, Captures and Threats

This position arose in one of my recent games. White is better here to the tune of about +6, partly because of the knight on the great c6-outpost, the pressure on the backward c-pawn and the superior dark squared bishop.

My focus was so much on adding pressure on c7, that I didn’t even perform one of my normal steps at almost every move: consider all forcing and potentially forcing moves, that is checks, captures and threats.

Had I done that, I would have looked at 1.Qxf7+. Now I would have dismissed it fairly quickly, because it leads to nothing, but it would have alerted me to the fact that my Queen was staring down the f-file straight at Black’s bewildered King.

That would have been an important piece of information when I moved on to Threats, because 1.Nd8, threatening 2.Qf7#, suddenly becomes an obvious candidate move. It is, in fact, the best move by some margin.

But in my preoccupation with c7, I got carried away with the protected d8 square and played 1.Bd8, which is parried by 1…Qd7, and although White is still winning after say 2.c5 dxc5 3.d6 Qxd6 4.Bxc7, it is nothing like the advantage after 1.Nd8.

Here are some of the possible continuations after 1.Nd8:

1…Qd7 2.Ne6+ Ke8 3.Nxg7+

1…f6 2.Ne6+ Kf7 3.Bxf6 Nxf6 4.Ng5+

1…Nf6 2.Bxf6 bxf6 3.Qxf6

Lesson 2

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The beauty of pattern recognition in chess

Focussing on patterns in chess is a good idea. Depending on who you listen to, the number of patterns a chess player knows could be the difference between being mediocre and good, or between being a master and a grandmaster.

This is one reason I started building a pattern bank a few months ago. When I see a pattern that I think has meaning and is worth remembering, I add it to my pattern bank. I then go over the patterns to get them ingrained. I use Chessbase for this; with a database showing an initial position and normally a move or two to show the value of the pattern. I export it to Chessable to train using spaced repetition.

When doing a few tactics problems from Ivashchenko’s Manual of Chess Combinations 1a (MOCC) today, one of the patterns was helpful is solving two of the problems. Admittedly they are easy problems, but they were made even easier by using what I know about the pattern.

Here is the basic pattern. Key factors are:

  • The attacking Queen is diagonally in touch with the defending King.
  • The attacking Queen is protected.

The two key factors mean that the defending King has only two escape squares, in this example f8 and g7. The squares covered by the Queen are shown in red. So whenever you see the opportunity to give a check with the Queen in that position, one of the things to consider is whether you could take the two escape squares away from the King. In the example above, this was done by playing Bh6 earlier, which meant Qe6 was checkmate.

Here are the two tactics from MOCC. See if you can use this pattern to solve them. It is White’s move in each case.

Solution for the first problem.

Solution for the second problem.

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Book Review: “Deep Work” by Cal Newport

“Men of genius themselves were great only by bringing all their power to bear on the point on which they decided to show their full measure.”

– Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life, as quoted in Deep Work p.35.

Cal Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. Before writing Deep Work, he wrote three books on study practices, as well as So Good They Can’t Ignore Youin which he debunks the myth that to love your job, you must follow your passion.

There are many things I like about Newport’s work, key of which is that he appears to practice what he preaches. Furthermore, his advice is practical and flexible.

In Deep Work Newport explains the eponymous term, before giving advice on how to achieve this state.

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate. (page 3)

Newport argues that knowledge workers are losing the ability to perform deep work due to network tools, because they fragment their attention. Although people appear to be busy, this tends to be with shallow work, the non-demanding, logical-style tasks which do not create new value and are easy to replicate (p.6).

This shift toward shallow work creates an opportunity for those who master deep work. Deep work is a skill with great value in an information economy, because practitioners must be able to learn quickly and must be able to produce their best work. This leads to Newport’s hypothesis that deep work is scarce and valuable, and therefore “the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive” (p.14).

Many readers will be familiar with Anders Ericsson’s work on deliberate practice, even if through the popularised version presented by Malcolm Gladwell. Newport reminds us of the core components of deliberate practice (p.35):

  • your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve;
  • you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.

Focus is important (intense focus triggers myelination), and “to learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction” (p.37). To emphasise the importance of intense and uninterrupted focus, Newport proposes a law of productivity:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

(p.40).

Newport is a proponent of digital minimalism and he draws on the work of New York University Professor Neil Postman, specifically Postman’s Technopoly, to point out the flaws with society’s obsession with technology.

“Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and non-technological. Even worse, to support deep work often requires the rejection of much of what is new and high-tech.”

Deep Work, p.69

In speaking about the meaningfulness of deep work, Newport points out that “the connection between deep work and a good like is familiar and widely accepted when considering the world of craftsmen” (p.74), but that it is less clear when it comes to knowledge work. However, this does not mean that the connection does not exist.

Newport sets out four rules for deep work:

Rule 1: Work Deeply. Your willpower is limited, so let your routines and rituals help you transition into deep work with a minimum use of willpower.

Rule 2: Embrace Boredom. Use productive meditation (thinking about a specific problem while you go for a walk, for example).

Rule 3: Quit Social Media. Apps are tools. Approach tool selection as a craftsman would.

Rule 4: Drain The Shallows. You should identify the shallowness in your life and minimise it.

In relation to each of these rules, Newport provides practical advice and examples to help implement them into your life.

In chess, as in work, it is not enough to plod along if you want to improve. You need to find ways to stretch yourself, and to gain new skills and knowledge. As ever, it is up to you to take charge, but Deep Work provides an outstanding route map to get you started on your way to success.

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Latest ECF Ratings

The ECF has finally published the 2016 year-end ratings. For those who don’t know, unlike the USCF or FIDE, who update ratings very regularly, the ECF updates official ratings only every six months.

I am very glad to report that my rating has improved from 111 (1533 Elo) at end June 2016 to 121 (1608) at end December 2016. That now makes an increase of 323 points from my first rating of 1285 at June 2014, to 1608 two and a half years later. This is not spectacular progress, but frankly I am very pleased that I am still improving.

elo

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Review – 2016

If I had to sum up the calendar year 2016, I would say it was a year of distilling my study plan and approach, and remembering there is more to life than chess.

Here is a quick run-through of where I ended up.

  • I played 54 rated OTB games (all standard time controls; can’t see myself ever playing quicker controls). My ECF rating was 103 on the January 2016 list (1473 Elo); I expect it to be around 116 (1570) on the January 2017 list.
  • finally recorded / codified my opening repertoire (Tiger Chess Building an Opening Repertoire course),
  • did more tactics than ever,
  • fixed on the Yusupov course as my source of general chess improvement, supplemented by Tiger Chess videos.

For 2017 my focus will be on:

  • Openings: learn lines, build “Pattern-Groups” to study more deeply the plans, themes and patterns across different lines.
  • Tactics: continue the high-volume low-rating spaced repetition tactics sets, with some higher-rating low-volume tactics to build calculation and visualisation skills.
  • Endgames: continue to build on knowledge by working through books; build fluency of concepts through practice on ChessTempo.
  • General: Work through Yusupov’s course and Tiger Chess videos, continue to build and review pattern bank.
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