Sunday, 12 December 2010

Chess Vision Drills, pt. 1

Some weeks ago I stumbled upon an interview with Michael De La Manza (MDLM). In it, he stated that there was a specific reason why he was able to work on his chess so intensively during that year or two and eventually gaining about 700 USCF rating points in two years. It was simply that he was unemployed and had a ton of time on his hands, thus allowing him to spend three or four hours a day on studying tactics. Well, I am in university and I'm happy when I find the time to solve a handful of tactical problems a day, and sometimes make it to the weekly chess meeting at my university.

I do like to work towards a goal, though. In fact, I am working on two particular goals. One is to go through the Chess Vision Drills described in an earlier post, and the other is working on my tactics by solving puzzles. Fortunately I really enjoy this. Practical play is currently just the icing on the cake, but I have more to say on this in a moment, too.

MDLM recommends doing the Chess Vision Drills for two weeks in a row. Thanks to a move and a heavy workload at university this didn't quite work out as planned, but have a look at week one anyway. (I don't know where I got the idea from to time it. Maybe it's just because I am a bit OCD.

Week One:

Day 01 (10 Nov): 39'04
Day 02 (11 Nov): 32'58
Day 03 (12 Nov): 23'38
Day 04 (13 Nov): 20'50
Day 05 (14 Nov): 19'50

Day 06 (16 Nov): 15'30
Day 07 (17 Nov): 15'08

I am tempted to say that the improvement is indeed drastic. The almost 40 minutes those vision drills took me on day one might be a bit exaggerated, because I was rather tired at the end of a long day, but I probably would have exhibited similar thinking processes in a more alert state, too.

Some of the improvements are obviously also due to simple things like keeping the pieces in your other hand, so that you can exchange them on the board quickly, but this doesn't amount for much, I think. Far more impressive are the improvements that are due to, after familiarizing yourself with the attack pattern, "scanning" for the relevant squares. At first, you might search the whole vertical for a square that pins rook and king, but after a while, this process was so ingrained that I only checked the relevant squares and quickly dismissed those that were impossible choices.

But how does this translate to actual OTB play? I did attend the weekly chess meeting at university after those drills. The range of opponents isn't especially large. First, I clearly wiped the floor with a guy I usually wipe the floor with. So, the end result wasn't much different. However, the game almost played itself on autopilot, and I did win by exploiting his tactical errors, and won two pieces in the middle game. He loves to play on, but his position was so bad that he preferred resigning over the humiliation of enduring a clearly lost endgame.

The other guy was  much tougher opponent. In previous matches, I often felt as if I had no chance at all, and the games often were an exercise in getting put in your place. But this time I did fairly well. Yes, I know that I should have written down the moves, but I won two pawns from him, and the first one with a beautiful exploitation of a structural weakness. Well, it was beautiful for me, but he was startled himself and said it was a really good move. Unfortunately (probably because I was literally falling asleep over the board), I was blundering away two pieces shortly afterwards and gave up. It would have been a technically won endgame otherwise, but nevermind that. Overall, though, I do see many more possibilities on the board already, and I am deeply surprised at the effect this relatively modest amount of study time has already had. And being ahead in material plus having a better position against a guy you usually lose against feels great too.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Michael De La Manza: Rapid Chess Improvement

Playing over grand master games is well and good, but this alone probably won’t catapult my rating in the 1800+ region. Somewhat by accident, I came across Michael de la Manza’s Rapid Chess Improvement. Well, first I was skimming some articles on, and suddenly I had two most promising columns on my screen, namely:

400 points in 400 Days, Part I
400 points in 400 Days, Part II

Later I read the book, which elaborates on some aspects, but if you have read the two articles above, the book will not teach you much new. But what the book or articles do is something rather unusual: attacking chess instruction and calling it unsuitable for a variety of reasons.

De La Manza's key insights are:

1) Chess knowledge is not the same as chess ability
…which is probably familiar to you if you know about “weak squares”, yet still leave pieces en prise.

2) GM instruction is sub-optimal at the class level
…fairly logical too. Top players are too remote from the needs of average players.

3) Quick fixes work at the class level
…and those quick fixes are chess vision and tactics training.

The book seems largely motivated by his frustration with chess instruction and disparaging attitudes by more experienced players who told him that he would never improve. Yet, his example alone is ample proof that maybe just the method of instruction was wrong. He himself rose from 1321 USCF to 1756 USCF in his first year, and after the second year he was at 2041 USCF. Those are substantial gains, but what Michael de la Manza considers “rapid chess improvement” is an increase in one’s rating of 200+ points per year, which is still very substantial.

Key aspects of his method are chess vision drills, i.e. simple setups on the board which should improve your ability to see skewers and forks immediately. This is a great method. I remember when I started out I viewed all pieces in isolation, and only after studying Tarrasch’s The Game of Chess and especially the section of tactics, I suddenly began to see lines and diagonals. They literally “popped out”. Needless to say, a basic knowledge of tactics went a long way of losing my patzer status.

Here are some examples of his chess vision drills:

Here you move the rook in concentric circles around the king. With every move of the rook, you ask yourself whether there is a way a white queen could be placed so that you would win the rook (without getting captured in return). Those drills might be relatively simple, but you can always do it as quickly as possible.

But once we move to the knight, the typical beginner to intermediate player might break a sweat. Try calculating the path the knight has to take from one square to another, and for added fun calculate all minimal paths:

De la Manza goes into greater detail in the drills, and in Rapid Chess Improvements he has many more suggestions how to improve your chess vision should you get bored.

Once you are done with the drills, which you should nonetheless repeat from time to time, you move on to “Seven Circles”, i.e. you get about 1,000 tactical problems, ranging from easy to difficult, and solve them seven times. The first circle should take 64 days (how many problems is this per day?), the second 32, and so on. But not only does the number of days per circle decrease, the time allotted per problem does to and goes from 10 to 5 minutes and so on.

If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is.

I’m convinced of De la Manza’s approach, mainly because I felt that my game only improved after studying tactics, and I still lose games due to tactical oversights. But let’s see how much fun it will be to put in well over an hour a day. ;)

In any case, read Rapid Chess Improvement or the two articles I have linked above for the proverbial kick in the butt. For about a week now I have been working on tactical problems, but more on that in another posting. (De la Manza recommends a software program called CT-ART for the “Seven Circles”, but it’s only available on Windows. There are some other options, though, which I will talk about.)

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Seirawan: Winning Chess Brilliancies

I’ve always enjoyed playing over chess games by grand masters, some of which helped me a lot to understand some strategic motifs. Well, given my current level of play this doesn’t mean much, but going over games from books such as Irving Chernev’s Capablanca’s Best Chess Endings surely helped me beat my friends with ease. Well, I still get whipped at FICS pretty good. To ease my mind into studying chess again, I picked up another collection of games, and it certainly was the most elaborate one I have ever encountered: Yasser Seirawan’s Winning Chess Brilliancies.

Seirawan goes over pretty much every single move of the 12 games he has selected. Unfortunately, this meant that as a relative beginner you got some great basic information in the first few games, but at the latest at the 50% mark there is a certain amount of repetition and possibly even tediousness involved. Nonetheless, I got some great insights due to Spassky:

Sometimes there is nothing to do on the board!

This was quite a revelation for me because I thought I always had to “improve the position”, but if you are defending, then it’s okay to move the queen from one square to the left to one square to the right and wait for your opponent to launch his attack. After all, weather the storm and you might well be victorious. It didn’t help Spassky defend his title against Fischer (1972 World Championship, Game 6).

 In later games, though, Seirawan lost me at points. There were quite a few instances of him going into complicated variations, which doesn’t quite seem to fit the book otherwise. I’ve enjoyed Winning Chess Brilliancies, but it’s hardly a book that makes you work really hard. You learn a bit about chess strategy, get to read pieces of not-so-recent chess history --- the book was published in 1995, yet goes as far back as 1972 ---, and all of a sudden three pages of variations hit you on the head. Well, not me because I skipped them. If you want to make me work, give me something to do throughout, and don’t pull out that stuff out of thin air! I prefer getting my fix of tactics and analysis in more concentrated form.

Anyway, it was an enjoying read nonetheless. Yet, I don't quite know who the target audience of the book might be. Probably it's a good book to give as a gift to someone with a side interest in chess.

Monday, 13 September 2010


I discovered chess fairly late in my life. While I have learnt how to move the pieces when I was six or seven years old, well over one decade had to pass until I made an effort to study the game in greater detail. A well-meaning friend of my father gave me an old chess manual as a kid, and needless to say, an utterly tediously written book such as the German Lehrbuch des Schachspiels by Dufresne managed to completely extinguish any enthusiasm I might have had.

At university, I made friends with some guys who played chess somewhat regularly and with some dedication. Having someone to talk me through some basic mechanics and recommending a couple of books did excite me, and I worked through Tarrasch's The Game of Chess as well as Reinfeld's The Complete Chess Player. In addition, I studied some classic games, basic tactical problems, and within a few months I was able to play at least not like a complete patzer. I played somewhat regularly online on FICS and also over the board.

After some practice, I began to see lines and corridors, where I saw nothing at all before, and the game opened up to me. Even the occasional surprising tactic was not beyond my reach. I am by no means a great player, but I enjoy the game, no matter whether I am playing against friends or solving the occasional puzzle.

I have recently decided to study chess more intensely. This blog is mostly a tool for me to record my progress, to document anything interesting that I discover, and to hold me accountable. It may grow into something else entirely, though.