Friday, September 18, 2015

Taking My Time

   I spent the summer teaching chess to five students and am happy to report that the future is in good hands. My students had blonde and black hair and light and dark skin but they all had one thing in common – they were and are very intelligent. I gave them a two to four pages of tactics homework from the ‘Chess Steps’ workbook for each lesson. Each page contained 12 tactic puzzles and all the students were able to complete every assignment.

  The homework had the giveaway that there were tactics in each puzzle and for the most part told the student what kind of tactic was involved. Even so, the students were all able to correctly identify the undefended pieces, under-defended pieces, knight forks, and checkmates. The other assignment I gave my students was to play at least one 15 minute game every other day on chess.com. That assignment wasn’t completed nearly as successfully as the homework sheets. In the games of the four students there were plenty of opportunities missed and given for the same undefended pieces, underdefended pieces, knight forks, and checkmates that were so easily solved in the tactic puzzles.

  My students missing the tactics in games that they find in their homework was not unexpected and underlines a basic issue with studying tactics as a means of chess improvement – there is no flashing light that suddenly appears when there is a loose piece or two ready to be captured in a real game. I completed the same Steps workbooks that I use for my student’s homework and I still missed two undefended pieces in my game in Jackson against Joe Hall-Reppen. I could have used a flashing light but there wasn’t even the blink of a fluorescent light over my table.

  This is a fairly common problem for most chess players below a certain level (including myself) despite the plethora of tactics books, software, apps, and websites that are readily available. My students and I all understand the most basic of tactics but we forget to look for them in the heat of battle. Luckily to go along with the plethora of tactics books, software, apps, and websites there is also a plethora of similar resources devoted to ‘thinking methods’. A quick google search will uncover books such as ‘Think Like A Grandmaster’, ‘Calculate Like A Grandmaster’, ‘Eliminating Chess Blunders’, ‘How To Calculate Chess Tactics’, etc.., etc…, etc…

  Working with my students this summer taught me that the common cause of these oversights is a lack of attention to detail. I have tried to impress on my students and myself that before every move we must examine ours and our opponent’s checks, captures, and undefended pieces. At my students current level paying attention to these three items will lead to many wins and also provide them a framework for determining their next move. At my level paying attention to checks, captures, and undefended pieces will help keep me from making silly mistakes which is only a start. Years of practice lets me find these items quicker than my students but since I am playing stronger opposition I have to try to look for moves that attack, damage the pawn structure, prevent or enable castling, open lines, and on and on and on. It is like peeling an onion – there is always another layer.

  When I take my time I can find most moves in the position – my problem is I don’t always take my time. That is why on of the goals I set myself in Jackson was to take at least one minute on every move after the opening. Normally I write down the time remaining every fifth move in order to make sure I don’t get into time trouble but in Jackson I wrote down the time remaining after every single move. It was quite a change for me. I play chess games every day where I only have a minute to make all my moves and here I was taking a minute for each individual move. Taking my time started out being boring but I stuck with it and found myself seeing more and more as the weekend went on. The only time I lost my focus was when I drifted into an awful positon against Joe and started moving quicker and quicker.

  It was unsurprising that I played better when I took more time. The trick for me is how to practice taking my time when I have limited time to practice taking my time. I had this rolling around in the back of my mind and then I stumbled on the training section at lichess.org. Lichess is a free chess website that I found out about by watching International Master John Bartholomew’s YouTube channel. Lichess doesn’t have many of the features of the pay or optional pay sites like chess.com or the Internet Chess Club but it does have a clean and responsive interface, a large user base, an assortment of chess variants, and plenty of tournaments to participate in.

  Lichess’s user interface is so responsive that it has become my preferred chess website for one minute games but I am using the training module more and more. Lichess archives all the games and the training module consists of tactic puzzles derived from this large database of games. The lichess tactic puzzles seem different from the other tactic sites in that they require a higher level of exactness in the solution and have solutions that go four or moves much of the time. I’ve played the correct solution for two or three moves, winning a piece, only to fail the puzzle because a sudden mate in two presented itself when the opponent made a substandard move in the puzzle. I’ve also failed puzzles for starting a checkmating variation in three moves instead of the mate in two that was on the board or winning the queen when there was a mate on the board. Here are some examples:

Black can win the queen for a rook with Rg6 with an easy win but that would be incorrect.
The correct answer is Bh2, Qxh3+, and Qh2 checkmate.

A 'simple' mate in four. 1.Re7+ Kg8 2.Nf6+ gf 3.Qxd8 Be8 4.Qxe8#

Another attractive line where White can clean up with 1.Re6+ Kxe6 2.Qxc6 Rd6 3.Qxa8
is incorrect because 1.Qf4+ Kd5 2.c4# wins in two moves.

  It’s frustrating to be told I failed at solving a puzzle when I selected a mate in three instead of a mate in two but in order to solve the puzzles correctly I have to take my time on every move. This dovetails perfectly with the habit I’m working to acquire – taking my time. I don’t know if the idea of doing lichess tactics puzzles to help me take my time will help more than any of the other ideas I've trued to improve my chess over the years but if it doesn't work I'll have plenty of time to try something else.