Season review – 2014/2015

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.

I know that progress from here will be slower (Hugh Patterson coincidentally wrote about this today at The Chess Improver), but I know there is still much potential for progress in me.

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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?

16 thoughts on “Season review – 2014/2015

  • 25th July 2015 at 8:07 pm

    Congratulations on this nice first year.

    I think subscribing to Nigel Davies’ website was a smart move, as he has lots of good advice for us ‘mature’ chess players (I’m 43 myself). It looks like you have a very balanced approach to chess.

    However, I also think you’re right about tactics. No matter how you want to look at it, seeing tactics fast and good is extrememy important to post consistent results. If there’s one area where you can afford to experiment and push yourself beyond the limits, that’s probably the right one to try.

    Good luck on your chess journey !

  • 25th July 2015 at 9:23 pm

    Congrats on the rating rise! I am finally experiencing a slight uptick in rating as well. More importantly chess games are becoming more fun….even the losses. (most of them at least!)

    I am curious about the Nigel Davies building a repertoire video course! I am thinking about purchasing it. Does he give specific lines or is it more of an actual tutorial on how to choose and build openings?


    • 26th July 2015 at 11:04 am

      Hi Tommy, and thank you. Nigel does give specific lines for the opening repertoire he recommends. Mostly the move order isn’t essential, but where it is for some tactical or strategic reason, he points it out. I can definitely recommend it – you get tremendous value, because it is almost 140 videos (most around 10 minutes). Good luck and I hope your rating uptick continues.

    • 28th July 2015 at 11:18 am

      I’d like to add that Nigel Davies’ repertoire is build with a specific purpose in mind, ie. playing (very) solid positions with characteristic pawn structures, so you can develop your middlegame skills without having to worry too much about being ‘killed’ in the opening. The repertoire is also fairly simple (which doesn’t mean the middlegames will be easy). In his genre, I think it’s probably the best repertoire around. His coverage is also very thorough (probably good enough up to 2000-2200 level). For some players, the downside may be that the lines are a bit dry.

  • 28th July 2015 at 1:06 am

    Excellent job. I haven’t seen any of your games, and I don’t know if you’ve posted them, but it sounds like you are playing d4 mostly. Is that right? Many children in the Russian School are told to play e4 to develop a “normal” degree of tactical awareness; and Eastern European trainers say the same thing. My personal problem is that I only play e4. My coach, GM Miroslav Miljkovic, has encouraged me to start playing d4 to balance out my game. Doing this will make my rating dip a little, initially, but go up faster in the long run. I encourage you to do the same, though you may experience a sharper decline in rating briefly, because open positions breed tactical possibilities.

    Speaking of tactics, I don’t know if you’ve skimmed through Michael de la Maza’s “Rapid Chess Improvement,” but I recommend his exercises and his primary program, called “The Seven Circles of Hell.” In short, you commit to memory tactical patterns (as “chunks,” the given term in neuroscience) rapidly by passing through 1,000 problems 7 times, with increasing speed. The first pass is done in a calculating fashion, as is the second and maybe the third pass; but passes four through seven are auto-recall, i.e., pattern recognition. The idea is extreme and it seems nuts, but I’ve had great success with it, and other (non-de la Maza advocates) say that memorizing certain things and “chunking” information is important for rapid success. For example, the author of GM-RAM and some other authors think that certain master games should be completely memorized because of the degree of unique ideas they contain.

    Just thoughts, and I wish you the best. Keep in touch, sir.

    • 28th July 2015 at 8:56 am

      Hi David, thanks for the comments and good wishes.

      Yes, I play 1.d4 exclusively for now and plan to do so for a good while. From what I’ve seen in players up to 1800, I don’t think there is a need for balancing my repertoire before I reach at least that level. I may feel differently if I reach a plateau at 1600, but for now my plan is to stick to 1.d4 and properly learn and understand the strategic ideas that flow from the positions I tend to reach.

      I’ve only heard of de la Maza in passing, but having read a few reviews on the back of your comment, he seems to divide people strongly. Jeremy Silman wrote a very damning review of the book on his site. I like the idea of the seven passes though; it seems a natural way to attain and then retain patterns. I guess you have to choose and keep a set of tactics problems for this to work? How did you do this, since most of the sites pick the next problem at random?

      • 28th July 2015 at 11:56 am

        Not at random, but there is no systematic choice for a person’s ratings. If it were a year ago, I’d say Tim Brennan’s “Tactics Time” would be a good choice. Maybe it still is, depending on where you are tactically. If you were a little strong, Reinfeld’s “1001 Combinations” would be an ideal choice. You are sort of in between these, I think. Probably, looking to a book where the problems are challenging but not impossible to solve within 5 minutes indicates a good book for the exercise.

        Silman’s scathing review is entirely because MDLM talked crap on him in his book: MDLM said that coaches like Silman suck money out of players, particularly adult, and don’t really given anything nearly commensurate back to the student. He actually, has a small point, if you read what he actually says, and I think it was possibly partially true enough to make Silman angry. Interestingly, MDLM didn’t target Dan Heisman, probably because he is a slightly smaller name, and despite the fact that Silman and Heisman have many, many, many similar views on chess pedagogy, Heisman doesn’t see MDLM’s program, itself, as a bad thing. Heisman does criticize it for being hard, taking some of the enjoyment of chess away, the opinion that it burns players out, etc. I think most players not using metrics to show progress during the “Seven Circles” program will lose interest and get burned out. It’s a small point, and MDLM doesn’t mention it explicitly, but he did have a metric: he used CT-ART, which allows him to track his tactics rating. I was using blitz online to see my improvement, and I will be using tactics training software to mark my progress with its ratings. I mean, these numbers are all arbitrary, but you can graph them, watch them rise, and you really get a sense that your time is being spent doing something worthwhile.

  • 29th July 2015 at 2:52 am

    My Two cents regarding MDLM’s Rapid Chess Improvement, The Circles, and Silman.

    In terms of pure pedagogical soundness Systematic Repetition of a core skill will make you better able to recall that skill and react in the moment! That is all that MDLM’s Circles are really. So the idea is completely sound. Tactics are like scales in music. Building blocks so you can string the notes together to make a melody. (a combination being our chess melodies!)

    The burn out problem stems from the only issue I see with MDLM’s Circles. He makes finishing the Circles too much of an intense GOAL. Yes we should have goals but most of the bloggers I saw made finishing the circles the goal and they lost the forest for the trees.

    I do repetitive tactics training all the time! And I track my progress! It is an essential part of my chess study and is slowly but surely getting better. But I haven’t made that the goal.

    With regards to Silman: I find him less and less appealing the longer I am in chess. He has some really good things to say but he isn’t an author I feel drawn to anymore for various reasons. I think his ripping of MDLM is a bit over the top!

    • 2nd August 2015 at 5:50 pm

      Silman is just upset that MDLM hurt his business a little, besmudged his credibility as a coach, and was personally insulted. MDLM said, what is probably true (but should not have bothered Silman so much), namely, that someone who is 1200, for example, doesn’t need an IM coach. Not to choose sides, because I am a huge advocate of Silman, but I honestly don’t know what the hell a low-level player, who does not know basic tactical motifs and strategy, gain from a super strong player with sound pedagogy. When a player makes it to 1500 (in strength, regardless of rating), coaches become important. MDLM was selling his method on the very reasonable ground that players need to learn tactics or studying under someone like Silman is meaningless in competitive play and in terms of genuine OTB progress. I personally know players who are rated 1500-ish, have defeated, very rarely, a Master or Expert, yet lose to 1200-1600’s, and it is because they all aboard the Silman train, but don’t know tactics.

      Long story short, an unbiased coach of the same pedagogical pedigree, e.g., Dan Heisman in Philly or Jerry Meyers in Pittsbugh, agree with the sentiment of MDLM over Silman’s railing. They don’t emphasize or necessarily advocate MDLM’s particular method, because most aren’t zealots –plus, they work with kids, and understand the importance of making the learning of tactics fun or, at least, bearable. Both, however, are completely fine with MDLM’s method, if you ask them behind closed doors and let them know that you are a zealot, and that all that matters is improvement and winning.

      Also, for my students, I don’t push the Seven Circles on them, though I do advocate it more for adults. I have my students put together flash cards of motifs contained in the books recommended by Dan Heisman. (He says those books, listed on his website, contain well more than 90% of basic tactical motifs.) Magnified positions with those motifs, and sweeping through them, with no set schedule, works well. Kids get bored to death very easily, as in the case of sitting in a car for more than a few minutes, so having the laminated flash cards on a metal key ring, ever at the ready, is proving very effective. Naturally, if the kids have the access, they prefer video games, so’s Tactics Trainer or similar servers work well, too. One last thing for adults: doing smaller circles with less problems is just as much an option as 1000 problems. I am training a senior adult beginner who has had a rating of 680 for about a year. A bit more than a month after beginning to work with him, his rating has shot to a bit over 1000. Smaller circles can be the way to go.

  • 14th September 2015 at 3:23 pm

    Have you tried ? I like it!

      • 15th September 2015 at 6:28 pm

        You should check your account. You have some messages. 🙂

  • 16th September 2015 at 7:04 am

    Hi David. Thanks, I will today. I was on holiday and then snowed under with work when I came back. Slowly but surely catching up.. 🙂

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