The English Chess Federation (ECF) yesterday published the new grades for the year ending 30 June 2015. My grade is now 108, which is 1510 Elo. Although that is still a relatively poor grade, I made really good progress since my first official grade last year, which was 78 (1285 Elo). I have a long way to go, but am satisfied with a gain of 225 points in my first year of trying.
With my new official grade known and the club season at an end, I thought this might be a good time to reflect on the past year. A lot of things have happened with chess for me, but the main thing is that the blurry “I want to get good at chess” has started to transform into a clear study plan and a clear goal.
So what did the past year bring? Firstly, I intentionally played more OTB games (37). Studying chess is all fine and well, but the proof of the pudding is in playing OTB with your grade at stake. The higher volume meant that I was sometimes less than well prepared, due to pressures at work or with my family. I won 13, lost 15 and drew 9 games. But part of the process of getting better is playing when you are on top form as well as when you are not. Go through the process and eventually your real strength will be reflected in your grade.
The year brought my best win to date, beating a player with a grade of 1800. That was an outlier; my next best win was against a 1660 graded player and my best draw was against a player rated 1700.
Then there were the lowlights. I was beaten twice by a guy rated 1330 and drew with a 1350.
Another highlight was discovering GM Nigel Davies’ training site Tiger Chess. It played a major part in shaping my study plan and the way I approach the game now. It has provided me with a solid if unspectacular opening repertoire which aims to get me to middle games with equality and familiar positions.
Which brings me to the first major lesson I learnt. Although deep opening study is not required at my grade, some opening study is. Too often I find myself 3 moves in and not knowing where to go. I can carry on with general principles of course and my results show that I don’t mess up too often, but if I am to reach the familiar positions for which I have plans, then I need to know how to get to them. That requires an amount of studying key lines for my simple repertoire. And it really is a simple repertoire – one set-up based on 1.d4 playing White (small variations obviously if the opponent does something specific), the French defence against 1.e4 and the Queen’s Gambit Declined against 1.d4 (or variations based on a similar pawn structure and set-up to the one I play as White).
The second lesson is the importance of tactics. It may sound obvious and even trite to say tactics is important, but I am amazed at how often games at my level, and even against players at around 1700, are decided by one or more tactical blunders. I had some howlers myself this year – tactics which, if presented as tactical problems, I would get in seconds, but over the board I just missed them. I can think of at least three games which I drew, where I had clear wins if I saw a simple tactic. I practice tactics often, but I don’t feel that I am progressing at a reasonable rate. For this reason I am going to try a different approach – making my own bank of tactical ideas. It has been said that to reach master level, you need to instantly recognise around 2,000 tactical patterns. That might be a stretch, but I have to start somewhere. Watch this space.
The final key lesson is around willpower. You shouldn’t spread yourself too thinly, because you have a limited amount of willpower. There are a couple of ways I use this information. Firstly, I now narrow down what I need to study next, then focus on that almost exclusively. If that is the one thing that needs work, then spend your time and willpower on it. If you think that is unbalanced, then that thing is probably not the most important thing; go and find what thing is. Secondly, if you run out of willpower, don’t just sit in front of the board or chess book. Take a physical and mental break. Go for a walk and listen to music. Read a book. Mow the lawn. Just get yourself away from the chessboard and away from chess. You need to recharge your batteries so that the next time you do want to study, you are ready for it.
So what will the 2015/2016 season hold? Even more focused study. Around 40 to 50 competitive OTB games. And maybe a 1600 grade?