Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Secret of My 'Success'...

After six years...a personal best...

  My email was down for a few days a couple of weeks ago so if you sent a congratulatory message about my reaching a new record high rating of 2277 on the ‘Tactics Trainer’ let me take this opportunity to say I wasn’t ignoring you (my email wasn’t working) and thank you for your congratulations. If you are in the minority of the thousand or so visitors I get every week to the Broken Pawn that haven’t forwarded their congratulations or perhaps didn’t even notice don’t worry because I’m going to tell you all about it. is a free chess site with options to pay for additional features. I had a free account for many years until I started having my chess students playing on the site so I could monitor their progress (or lack thereof) by viewing their games. The free version of allows users to see the past month’s games. I had a need to occasionally look further back so I signed up for a premium membership which allows me to see the complete history of any user. has over 50,000 puzzles in their Tactics Trainer. The puzzles are rated and timed which means a user will receive more points the quicker a puzzle is solved and if the puzzle is solved correctly but slowly the user may only gain a single point. Most puzzles are solved in multiple moves and partial credit is given if a user gets at least the first move in the sequence correctly.

  The site used to let nonpaying users solve three puzzles a day (since raised to five free puzzles) and when I first started using the site in 2010 I was a puzzle solving demon, hitting a high of 2268 on November 28th, 2010. Then I hit a wall and bounced around between 2000 and 2200 before switching to the untimed and unlimited puzzles on in May of 2011.

  When I got the app for my amazing iPod I started doing my three free puzzles a day again when I found myself somewhere with wireless internet. I managed to get my puzzle rating over 2200 occasionally but more often found myself feeling rushed by the timed puzzles and making gut level decisions which dropped my puzzle rating to between 1800 and 2000 for most of 2013 and 2014.

  Once I got the premium membership I had access to unlimited puzzles instead of three or five a day. In January I had a puzzle rating of 1905 and set myself a goal to try to break my all-time high rating of 2268. I broke 2000 on February 7th, 2100 on April 13th, and got over 2200 on May 22nd. I got to 2260 on May 28th but was back down to 2025 on June 1st after some marathon puzzle solving sessions over the Memorial Day weekend which saw me only solve 489 of 1103 puzzles. I don’t know what made me attempt to solve so many puzzles but I’ve noticed I can become addicted to the puzzles and continually promise myself I’ll quit after ‘just one more’. I throttled back on the puzzle volume, broke 2200 again on June 17th and finally reached 2270 on June 27th, ending the day at 2277. Since then I’ve gotten my puzzle rating as high as 2286 and my new goal is to get to the rare air of 2400.

Here are three puzzles I ran into at the 2200 level. The puzzle on the left is a standard mate in two starting with Qh5+. The puzzle in the middle looks like there should be a checkmate but after Rf8+ and Rh3+ Black gives up his knight on f4 to avoid the checkmate. The puzzle on the right is trickier - Kb2 leaves the bishop only the g8 square when Rf6 forces the knight to f7 which allows Rg6 to force Bh7 and a rook fork on g7. Not easy but not impossible, especially if you see it more than once ;-)

  Attaining this personal best puzzle rating at the age of 55 ranks as one of the most meager of my many meager chess accomplishments. I know a number of players that struggle with the puzzles and so I am using this blog post to ‘pay it forward’ by outlining some simple tips for raising your puzzle rating.

1)  Use the app not the website
  In my opinion, the iPod app is perfectly configured for solving the puzzles and learning from them. The screen shows the puzzle and a timer with no distracting ads, pictures, or graphics. The website has a lot of excellent features including an incredibly detailed statistics page but using the app will keep you focused without any other screens or windows to distract you. In addition, the app has an analysis button on the bottom left that I will get to in tip 3.

2)  Understand the nature of the puzzles
  The puzzles repeat and repeat often. It is very important to subscribe to a premium service so you can see the same puzzles over and over without waiting for them to cycle through your three or five free puzzles a day. I’ve seen some of these puzzles so many times that I know the answer as soon as I see the problem. I have not seen this repeating action on the website which is another reason to use the app. Understanding that the puzzles are repeating should keep you motivated after a miss because as long as you learn the answer you will get more points from solving the puzzle eventually than you lost by your failure to solve it the first time you saw it.

Among the amazing array of statistics provides are the last 25 tactic puzzles attempted. Notice that puzzle #0039815 appears twice within 10 puzzles. This is not an uncommon occurrence when solving tactics puzzles on the iPod app.

3)  After a miss play it over and then use the analysis window to find out why your solution didn’t work
  This is the most important step in raising your puzzle rating. When a puzzle is completed, an analysis button appears. Pressing the analysis button brings up the puzzle’s starting point and a computer evaluation. It is important to see why the move you chose didn’t work and why the move the computer grades as correct does work. This will give you a sort of ‘muscle memory’. This process takes a bit of time (it is far easier on the app than the website in my opinion) but I have found that while my mind naturally gravitates to the same wrong moves I previously made after reviewing the solution I’ll catch myself because I’ve already seen why it doesn’t work. You should also do this if you happen to guess the correct solution if you aren’t completely sure why your answer was correct.

4)  Take your time always (and in all ways)
  It is important to take your time when solving the puzzles. Thinking about the ticking timer will distract you from the task at hand. Taking your time also applies to the process of figuring out why your answer was incorrect and why the listed solution works. Another way you can take your time is being patient when you fail to solve a few puzzles in a row. Get up, take a break, remember that you will see these same puzzles again, and remind yourself that as long as you remember the solution the outcome will be different next time! Another thing to remember is that the puzzles will get harder as your rating rises. This is no big deal but at some point you will cycle from the puzzles you know the solutions for into unfamiliar puzzles you will need to learn.

5)  When all else fails – cheat!
  If you come across a puzzle that you have no clue how to solve or get distracted for a few minutes and don’t want to lose any rating points for failing to solve the puzzle simply close the app or the browser! There is no penalty for not attempting to solve a puzzle – only for incorrectly solving the puzzle. Since this is by design I’m not sure it is even cheating. If you really want to cheat and getting a high puzzle rating on is THAT important you my advice (along with my profound sympathies) is to hire somebody to login to under your credentials to get you the high puzzle rating you desire so badly. Send me a private email for my rates!

6)  When cheating fails – cheat some more!
  Have you ever taken a test where you knew what the questions were going to be? You may say no but if you've ever taken a spelling test I believe you would have to say yes since the words you studied are the words which are going to be on the test. The app affords the same capabilities for those who are desperate to improve your puzzle rating but can't afford to have someone else attain their fraudulently high rating. Simply go into the Tactics Trainer and watch for the computer move. Then press the back arrow and the puzzle position will be on the home page next to the text inviting you to enter the Tactics Trainer! The position will not include the computer move you need to respond to which is why I advised you to remember it. You can put the position on a board and move the pieces and for the truly desperate you can even input the position into a computer to get the answer. When you have the answer reenter the 'Tactics Trainer' and the same puzzle will start over again with your timer still where it was when you exited the screen.

Clicking the top left arrow in the first picture will bring you back to the home screen that looks like the second picture. The position in the top thumbnail should look familiar. This is an unnecessary trick since the same exercises are given over and over. You could also just exit and reenter the app until you see the puzzle on the right and solve it (1.Rc3 b2 2.Bc1 b1=Q 3.Ra3#) repeatedly.

  I know that there will readers asking the burning question : What does this advice on getting a high puzzle rating has to do with getting better at chess? The answer is very little. There are thousands of books, blogs, articles, videos, websites, etc… to help people get better at chess and I don’t need to add to that menagerie. I am merely offering advice on the niche subject of getting a higher puzzle rating. I do want to stress that while this advice has worked for me your mileage may vary. If you want a higher puzzle rating on go ahead and give it a try – after all it’s not like I’m asking you to walk on hot coals or anything…

Do this!

not this...