How I Got Here, and What Comes Next

by admin on June 26, 2015

First, let me make a promise: This will be the last post in which I write the number 2203. I am sure that some readers are getting bored of it by now.

However, I do want to write one more entry about how I got my rating over 2200 after these many years, because I know that one thing that arouses passionate interest among all amateurs is: How can I become a master?

Admittedly my situation is somewhat different, because I had been over 2200 before. However, that was so many years ago that reaching the milestone again was almost like reaching it for the first time. I am a different person, at a different stage of my life, and I think that I reached 2200 for different reasons. So, here’s what worked for me, with no guarantee that it will work for you.

When you look at my rating graph (two posts ago) you can see what looks like a distinct turnaround at about 2010. Of course there are random fluctuations up and down, but on the whole it looks as if there was a long-term slow descent from 1995 to 2010 followed by a more rapid increase from 2010 to the present. So: What happened in 2010?

There are two things that I can think of. First, I started going to Mike Splane’s chess parties. These parties are not just about banging out some blitz games. They are serious discussions of games and also of more general themes such as, how do you decide on a candidate move? How do you make a plan? More than anything else, the parties exposed me to the way that other strong players think — not just Mike but also Gjon Feinstein, Craig Mar, Richard Koepcke, Juande Perea, and others (I don’t want to offend anybody by leaving them out). So now I have a concrete point of reference: what it means to be patient like Mike or to plan like Gjon.

The second thing was that I started making a list of “chess aphorisms” and gradually got to the point where I would deliberately read over the list before every tournament game. None of them individually are anything extraordinary or anything that hasn’t been said before. Some of them are even hokey. But reading them over collectively puts me in the right frame of mind to take the game seriously and put all other irrelevant stuff out of my mind.

My list of aphorisms is as follows.

  1. Play with confidence. “I’m a 2400 player, they just don’t know it.”
  2. Focus on process, not outcome. This is so important, both during the game and after. The process is making good decisions quickly. If you do that, but lose anyway because your opponent played a brilliant combination, then no problem. If you win but got into time trouble for no reason, then the process was not good and needs to improve.
  3. Spend more time analyzing the position on the board, and less time dealing with your emotions. This is a huge problem for me, and one that I still need to get much better at.
  4. Patience, planning and ply. Strive to be patient like Mike Splane, plan like Gjon Feinstein, and go further in your analysis (more ply) like Rybka.
  5. Don’t overlook the penguins. This comes from a show I watched called “Brain Games” where they had volunteers watch a magic trick while, a few feet behind the magician, an actor walked around in a penguin costume. After the trick was over, they asked the volunteers, did you notice anything unusual? Not a single one of them noticed the penguin. The point is that when we focus our attention on one thing, we miss the other things going on — and that happens in chess all the time. You’ve got to step back, take a break, try to think what you are missing.
  6. Don’t waste time debating between identical pairs of jeans. Also from “Brain Games.” They gave volunteers two identical pairs of jeans and asked them to say which one was better. The volunteers constructed elaborate narratives and justifications for why they liked one better than the other. This also happens in chess. In choosing between moves, we try to justify why one is better than the other. This wastes time. If they’re equivalent, just play one.
  7. Use your breathing to get back to a calm place. Alas, I almost never remember this during a game. But when I read it before the game, I always tell myself, “That’s so wise!”
  8. Believe in destiny. Okay, this one is hokey. Maybe I should take it off the list. But occasionally it gets me to believe in myself more (see #1).
  9. Remember it’s not just chess. It’s chess within the time control. This is something my wife always tell me, so I finally added it to my list. Time trouble has always been a huge problem for me, and partly it’s because I tend to think of the clock as an annoying thing on the side that has nothing to do with the real game. But it does. You have to acknowledge that it is part of the real game.
  10. Have fun! This is the most important one of all! When you’re relaxed and enjoying yourself, all the negative emotions go away and you can just play chess.

And a few other items:

  • Play what you know. (Especially in the opening.)
  • Don’t get rattled.
  • Do avoid situations that get you rattled. (i.e., time trouble!)
  • Ruthlessness > Cleverness. If you have a choice between a steamroller and a fancy trick, choose the steamroller.
  • Ply > Courage. If I’m considering a risky move, like a sacrifice, a lot of my time is spent screwing up the courage to play it. That time would be better spent by looking deeper (or broader). A lot of times if you can see deeply enough, you don’t need any courage at all — your position is just winning. Of course, this advice is much easier said than done. It’s based on the many times I’ve analyzed a combination with my computer and seen that I would be completely winning after four moves. I think, “If I had only known that during the game, I wouldn’t have had to spend all that time trying to get up the courage!”
  • How bad can it be? This question comes from Juande Perea, who said it several times while showing us one of his games at a Mike Splane party. The move looks sensible, you’ve checked it for obvious blunders, how bad can it be?
  • Don’t calculate in a position that doesn’t need calculation. Calculation uses a lot of brain cells. It takes time. And many positions can be better understood by strategical thinking. An especially bad habit is re-analyzing the position every move when it hasn’t changed much. 5 minutes one move, 10 minutes the next move, 7 minutes the move after that, and pretty soon I’m in hella bad time pressure. And that’s when we will finally arrive at a position where I really need to calculate!

Notice that every one of these nuggets of advice has to do with psychology and thinking methods, not chess. For strategic chess, there is a different set of questions, which I’ve written about here before but will include again for completeness:

  • Where are the pawn breaks?
  • What are the best and worst-placed pieces for me and my opponent?
  • What are the targets?
  • What are the possible trades, and which ones are good for me?
  • What are the best squares for my pieces?
  • Who would be winning the endgame?
  • Who has the safer king?
  • Which side of the board should I play on?
  • How am I going to win this game? (The Mike Splane question.)

I admit that I apply these relatively infrequently during a game, but in a position where I’ve thought for five minutes and still don’t have a clue what to do, these give a good way to orient myself.

By reading over all these things before the game, I put myself in a frame of mind to play real chess.

Okay, how do you apply these to your own games? Well, first, you’re welcome to borrow my list of aphorisms and questions, and add your own. Figure out what are the things that are costing you games, and prepare yourself before the game to deal with those issues. As for the Mike Splane parties, well, obviously I can’t tell you to come to his parties because (a) he has to invite you and (b) he probably lives 3000 miles away from you. But the important lesson from my experience is not to go it alone. It will be easier for you to improve if you have a supportive network of players who are also trying to improve. And don’t just play speed chess with them.

Things that haven’t helped me much, but might help you:

  • Reading books.
  • A chess coach. I’ve never had a coach, and it’s probably hurt me. When I was a kid they didn’t exist, and now I’m too old and set in my ways. They would tell me to quit playing the Bird Variation of the Ruy Lopez, and I’d kick them out the door.
  • Listening to chess lectures. In principle I like these better than books, but in practice they are a little bit too passive, and also they are inconveniently hard to refer to later. I did love Jesse Kraai’s lectures for ChessLecture, but he stopped around 2010 and so they are gradually fading from my memory.
  • Studying openings. I’ve talked about this before; some people agree with me, others vehemently disagree. I don’t think you should memorize the latest fashions in grandmaster openings; I do think you should build your own repertoire and understand the ideas behind that repertoire. It is a really great feeling when you have an opening that you feel will never let you down.

What Comes Next?

Getting back to 2200 has been perhaps my #1 goal for such a long time… but getting past that number allows me to think about setting some new targets. I’ll state them publicly but with some trepidation. Remember that it’s the process, not the outcome, that matters the most, so in some sense focusing on these goals is putting the cart before the horse. And rating goals, especially, are very questionable because a rating is meant to be a reflection of your progress, not a goal unto itself.

Nevertheless, human psychology is what it is, and goals seem to be an important part of motivating ourselves. So here is a list of my future goals, arranged roughly from simplest to hardest.

  1. Never forget that the process is more important than the outcome.
  2. Break my personal (USCF) rating peak of 2257.
  3. Beat a 2500+ player.
  4. Win an open tournament. Better yet, win several.
  5. Get my FIDE rating back up to 2200. (That was my first FIDE rating, and my peak.)
  6. Reach a USCF rating of 2300.
  7. Beat a 2600+ player.
  8. Beat a grandmaster.
  9. Win a state championship. (This will be very hard to do in California.)
  10. Win a U.S. Open.

Oh, and of course…

11. Write the best darn chess blog on the planet!

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Edward June 26, 2015 at 5:08 pm

What about “play winning moves”.

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MaryKaye June 27, 2015 at 6:37 am

Hey, your story gives me great encouragement, I don’t mind hearing it a few more times!

I quit playing competitively around 1987 with a USCF rating of 2170. So close! But I was about to flunk out of graduate school, and also I was super stressed about chess and not enjoying it (I felt like an imposter after the rapid rating rise from 1900 and thought I would blow it all, and I was way too concerned about rating).

Last year I started playing again, and have fought my way doggedly back to just under 1900. I would still like to be a master. This is perhaps not a totally realistic ambition but if I can enjoy myself en route it’s all good.

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Joel Johnson June 27, 2015 at 9:47 am

Great column! See you in Phoenix next month so you can work on your bucket list (US Open)!!

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Mike Splane June 27, 2015 at 2:18 pm

Thanks for the nice write-up of my parties in your latest blog post. You are clearly not the player you were five years ago, and I mean that in a good way,.

Before seeing this post I looked at your ratings graph and wondered how big a role you thought the parties played in your improvement. I was planning to ask you on Sunday, at the next one. Now I won’t have to ask

At the parties you listen carefully and thoughtfully, take notes, ask good questions, defend your own ideas well, apply what you learn, and accept constructive criticism cheerfully. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that you have made a leap in playing strength,

Congratulations – Mike

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Ernie Hong July 1, 2015 at 6:59 am

Great advice, Dana. I might have to copy your whole post into a memo to myself. I’ve been having semi-weekly study sessions with a couple friends. It’s hard to measure effectiveness until one of us breaks into a new class, but I think we all benefit.

To win a state, you should get an address in Nevada. Top player is 2300 with no titled players, as long as Gareev, Sevillano, and Vigorito don’t get the same idea. My most recent post was echoing the dialog in the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer about “wanting the certificate”. – Ernie

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Todd Bryant July 1, 2015 at 8:32 am

“Use your breathing to get back to a calm place”

This is legit–I recently played a very stressful game on the Black side of a Dragon where my king was getting pounded forever, and I had to find some extravagant defensive moves and finally a king walk to survive. On my opponent’s time, I would step into the hall or outside and focus on deep breathing. I felt silly, but it helped me stay focused and confident! I managed to avoid time pressure and went on to win.

I’m also interested in meditation before games.

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admin July 1, 2015 at 8:43 am

Todd, going over my list of aphorisms before the game is a sort of focused meditation. It’s only partly about reminding myself of the content of the list; the other part is simply preparing myself mentally for the challenge of a chess game. You’re not ready to play chess if you’re still thinking about what happened at work yesterday or the traffic on the way to the tournament site.

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MarkH November 3, 2016 at 5:38 am

What you’re describing is a process all chess players go through. It’s trying to explain something (to yourself or others) with words when words are not the language of the game. There’s no getting around it, but at some point you’ve got to produce MOVES, not words. Good luck with that!

I like the Splane parties idea. My local chess club is where I try to create that kind of atmosphere weekly. The general public may think chess players are old, quiet and slow, but in reality we’re a talkative, argumentative bunch and it’s fun.

Thanks for the post. I identify with it a lot.

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