Lesson 4: Beware the Red Herring

This problem presented itself recently while I was doing tactics training on ChessTempo.

The three features which jumped out were the semi-exposed king on the g-file, the unprotected knight and the awkwardly placed queen. I quickly dismissed the opportunities presented by the first two features and spent almost ten minutes figuring out how to trap the queen.

That wasn’t the solution at all though. If I investigated all forcing moves (Checks, Captures, Threats), I would have investigated e4-e5, threatening the knight and realised that after 1.e5 dxe5 2.fxe5 the knight has no good square to go to. The only seemingly saving move is 2…Nd7, but that fails to 3.Qg4+, a good old double attack costing Black his knight.

The lesson: beware Red Herrings. Don’t get caught up in one idea at the cost of others. It is a good habit to investigate your candidate moves one level at a time (what Adriaan de Groot called “progressive deepening”*) and to not discard candidate moves until they prove worthy of rejection.

* See “Thought and Choice in Chess” page 106

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Lessons from my up and down tournament

Following a recent up and down tournament, I reviewed my play and decided to make some adjustments to my study plan. Here is what I learned in my review. In a later post I will show how I decided to use that knowledge to adjust my study plan.

OPENINGS

  • Most players played ‘scheme’ openings against my 1.d4, such as the King’s Indian Defence, Queen’s Indian Defence, or Semi-Slav. Similarly, the 1.d4 players I played against tended to play scheme openings. I meet 1.e4 with the French, so that limits White’s options.
  • I often didn’t know how to proceed against these scheme openings, only remembering vaguely that the standard Colle set-up is not appropriate for such-an-such a Black reply.
  • Where I did know the opening lines, I saved a lot of time by simply playing them quickly. In a couple of games, after around 12 moves, I had more time on the clock than I started with (there was an increment), while my opponents had used more than 20 minutes.

ENDGAMES

  • In some games I did not play accurately in a won endgame, but still won. Just more slowly.
  • In some games I had a won endgame, but gave the advantage away and had to settle for  a draw.

TACTICS/ BOARD VISION

  • I allowed my opponents to set up tactical opportunities. That is, I did not foresee the threats.
  • I did not always pay due attention to all of my opponents’ threats, sometimes only seeing some or one of their possible moves.
  • In my Worst Game Ever Played, having won two pawns by move 15, I proceeded to hang two pieces in the space of five moves. This was due to poor board vision; in the process of giving away his pawns, my opponent decimated his kingside structure. This gave his queen free reign over his second rank, which in my mind’s eye was still covered by pawns.

THINKING PROCESS

  • There were times in the middlegame where I was planless. In this type of situation I think having a pro-forma thinking process is a good idea.
  • In two games I had tunnel vision on a certain plan or idea, then either missed the chance to win a pawn, or was not patient enough to convert a good position. Again I think a simple thinking process would have helped.
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An up and down tournament

At a recent tournament, I played in two sections; U140 (1750) and U160 (1900). There were five rounds in each section. In one I scored 1.5/5 and in the other 2.5/5. With my rating of 121 (1608) you might think you know which score came from which section…

But no, I played mediocre to outright poor chess in the U140 section (including the worst game I have played OTB to date), and okay, but not great chess in the U160 section. My performance rating for the two sections differed by 500 points!

There were many lessons from this experience, the key ones being:

  • Players in the 1700-1850 range are better than me, but not much better. With (much) better consistency and more skills, I am fairly confident I can get to that rating range.
  • Players in the 1300-1500 range are worse than me, but not much worse. I need to play against them using the same approach I use against higher rated players. And I need to be much more consistent in the quality of my play.
  • There were themes across the ten games which made me rethink my study plan. I have not changed it drastically, but have made tweaks aimed at addressing my weakest points. More on this in the next post…
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A familiar tactical pattern

The first game in Zenón Franco’s Morphy move by move, features a neat finish by the 12-year old Morphy.

From a king’s gambit opening, Morphy sacrificed a piece to expose Black’s king and then opened the centre to launch an all-out attack, reaching the position below.

The winning move is of course 17.Qc7#. What made me sit up though was not just Morphy’s brilliance at this young age, but the fact that the mate is a version of a pattern I used in a recent post. There I showed this example:

where the attacking, protected queen is diagonally in touch with the defending king, with the king’s only two escape squares being cut off by another attacking piece, here the bishop.

The Morphy-Rousseau finish is a variation of the same pattern; the queen is protected (by the knight) and the king’s only escape squares (d5 and e6) are covered by White’s light squared bishop.

Here is the full game for your enjoyment: Morphy-Rousseau, New Orleans 1849

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June 2017 ECF grades

A week or two ago, the ECF published the June 2017 month end grading list. For some reason they still only update gradings twice a year, despite the technology being available to do it almost by the day. They certainly could take a leaf out of the USCF book.

In any event, my own rating stayed where it was at the beginning of the year – 121, or 1608 Elo. I don’t know exactly which games they included in this update, but I played 28 games from 1 Jan to 30 Jun, so the grading will be fairly representative of my form. Although I have played some decent games, I still play far too inconsistently. Some games just seem to flow naturally, while in others I feel like an absolute beginner.

More on that inconsistency in my next post…

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Estimating your Elo rating

If you play regular, long time control, rated, over the board (OTB) chess games, you will have a fair idea of your rating, or playing strength. I play around 50 OTB games a year, so  I can place some worth on the rating the ECF gives me.

At the moment, according to their update for the end of 2016, I have a rating of ECF 121, or 1608 Elo.

If you don’t play regular, long time control, rated, OTB games, there are a number of ways you could get an estimate of your rating (although I would argue none is a proper substitute for real gameplay). This could be by playing online, using a tactics trainer such as the one on chess.com, or the various options at Chesstempo (where you also get a FIDE estimated rating based on your performance in Standard tactics).

One tool I would not recommend you put much faith in, is the one supplied at Elometer. It was created by academics from the Dusseldorf University, but based on a sample of around five people reporting their results on the Chessable forums, it consistently overestimates ratings, in some cases by a large margin. Based on the 76 tactics and endgame problems you are asked to complete, it estimated my rating as follows: “Based on your move choices, our estimate of your Elo rating is 1945, with a 95% confidence interval of [1820…2070]. “. So that is almost 350 points above my actual rating.

Have a go, if no other reason, to do a bit of tactics training, but my advice would be to not pay too much attention to the outcome.

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Lesson 3: Beware a draw offer from a stronger player

Back to Lesson 2

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.

Back to Lesson 2

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