Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Haste Makes Waste

  At my youth chess tournament 2 weeks ago, a 12 year old was playing a high school exchange student from Bangladesh in a final round game in which the winner would tie for first place in the morning session. The players who were finished with their games were all gathered around and since it was one of the last games going, I was also keeping an eye on the action. The game was in the ending stages and both players had 4 pawns, a king, and a minor piece (a bishop for the 12 year old and a knight for the high school player). The 12 year old looked very uncomfortable at all the attention around his table and his composure wasn’t helped when I gave the players a chess clock to make sure the game ended by noon so everyone would know who won the tournament before leaving or getting lunch before the afternoon session. The 12 year old was moving way too fast (as most young players tend to do when confronted with a chess clock for the first few times), lost a pawn and had his bishop traded off for the knight. It looked like an elementary win for the high school player and I took a walk to see the other ongoing games and log the result in my computer so I could get the prize list printed as soon as it was official. Before I got back to the game, the players came over to me to tell me the game had ended in a draw. The high school player had misplayed his position, ending up with one extra pawn that was securely blockaded and unable to become a queen. The 2 players tied for second and third place and while neither player was happy at not winning first place, both were good sports and happy to have played a great game against a worthy opponent for high stakes.

  When the 12 year old and his family were leaving the tournament (they were not playing in the afternoon session), I congratulated him on not giving up after losing the pawn and fighting for the draw and the second place tie. He was happy that I had noticed his game and said he made a bad move to lose the pawn. The way he said it made me think he was putting himself down and I didn’t want him leave on a down note after a second place finish, so I told him the first thing that popped into my head which was ‘It wasn’t a bad move, just hasty’. I went on to explain that if he had been staring at the board for 5 minutes with his opponent threatening to checkmate him and instead of stopping the checkmate moved some pawn on the other side of the board, THAT would have been a bad move, but if he was taking his time he would never have made the move that lost the pawn and almost the game.

At the time, I was pretty pleased that I had gotten this young chess player to think about something positive he could do at the next tournament (take his time before moving) instead of something negative (Don’t make a ‘bad’ move). I thought about this on my drive back and forth to work last week and I may have stumbled on a universal lesson. I’ve been doing 10 minutes of tactics puzzles every day using my iPod’s Tactics Trainer app during my lunch time at work since I bought the program last October ($2.99!), but my progress has been measured in fits and starts. I hit a new high (as measured by rating) every few weeks, followed by a precipitous drop that takes me a few weeks to come back from and get a new high rating. What causes these dips? I haven’t temporarily gone insane or lost any tactical ability I may possess. For the most part I just don’t take the time to think about what I’m doing and just make the first move that looks good without examining the consequences. 2 weeks ago, I purchased Tim Brennan’s tactics database (at of 10,000 tactics puzzles. I don’t find the puzzles as challenging as ‘Tactics Trainer’, but Tim’s product has a lot of advantages. The puzzles come from real games and don’t have a ‘composed’ feel. Sometimes the answer is as simple as a mate in one move or taking a free piece. I’d like to think these sort of tactics are beneath me, but I miss them (in puzzles and in games) more often than I care to admit. I’m finding these puzzles are getting me to stop and actually look at the position, instead of trying to find a complicated tactical theme each and every time. Each puzzle also includes the entire game, so I can see how a tactic developed if I so choose. Tim recommends studying tactics at least 15 minutes a day and I’m doing 10 puzzles in the morning and 10 at night. At $19.99, I think it is the puzzle database is good value since it also comes with all the puzzles in PDF format and a training guide which contains time management tips and advice on helping to keep motivated. I haven’t used it enough to say it has improved my chess, but since almost all games at my level are decided by tactics, how can it hurt?

  I’ve been trying to get into a less ‘hasty’ frame of mind since on Sunday I’ll be off to Ames to play in my first tournament in over a year that has a time limit greater than game in 15 minutes. I know that if I bring the same mindset to Ames on Sunday that I bring to our weekly 10 minute tournaments I’ll make the hasty moves that are unpunished at shorter time controls but won’t work at longer time limits. I’m well past what is called the peak chess playing years, but both my quick and regular ratings are near my lifetime highs, despite being so busy with work and running chess tournaments that I have little time to study anything but tactics. I think this is because as I’ve gotten older I’m better able to get in the right frame of mind to play my best. A big part of this is being able to forget about the last game and even the last move and try to find the best move I can in the position in front of me. This is where the tactics come in. If I have a chance to knock somebody out with one punch, I’d best be able to identify it and take my shot. In ‘Rocky Balboa’, the classic movie about an overage overachiever, Rocky’s trainer Duke said it best:
“You know all there is to know about fighting, so there's no sense us going down that same old road again. To beat this guy, you need speed - you don't have it. And your knees can't take the pounding, so hard running is out. And you got arthritis in your neck, and you've got calcium deposits on most of your joints, so sparring is out…So, what we'll be calling on is good ol' fashion blunt force trauma. Horsepower. Heavy-duty, cast-iron, piledriving punches that will have to hurt so much they'll rattle his ancestors. Every time you hit him with a shot, it's gotta feel like he tried kissing the express train. Yeah! Let's start building some hurtin' bombs!”

  I’ll take a pass on Rocky’s diet of HGH and steroids, but I hope to take that attitude with me into this weekend. I wish I had everyone’s favorite Italian Stallion on my mind when I was talking to the 12 year old 2 Saturdays ago because I could have wheeled out another of my favorite Rocky Balboa quotes:
“But it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!”

  Here’s a pair of hasty moves from my recent on-line games.

  Hopefully, I can avoid moves like these on Sunday and land some haymakers of my own. And speaking of Rocky, here’s a quick update on my punching bag progress: