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Diary of a Woodpusher
I have decided to change my approach to chess studies a bit. An experiment if you will. To put it bluntly, and kindly, in the past my efforts were rather scattered. I would look at a little of this and a little of that, but bouncing from idea to idea does not allow the targeted concepts to take root. Which, perhaps, has resulted in the broken expert player you see before you today!
And so I am resetting the table. Instead of flitting from topic to topic, it is time to immerse myself in one aspect of the game for a prolonged period of time and really understand the concept in full. The topic in question is pawn structures.
I have confessed before to having holes in my chess education and, frankly, the biggest gaps involve my understanding of pawn structures. The whole game revolves around whatever skeleton of pawns we dangle out there, and the more familiar you are with them the better.
Instead of flitting from topic to topic, it is time to immerse myself in one aspect of the game for a prolonged period of time and really understand the concept in full.
Some well known formations, like the Carlsbad for example, I actually understand really well. I know the basic plans and ideas and can generally find my way. Other structures are a complete mystery, or at the very least leave me struggling as to discovering the most promising plans both players should follow. With some patience I believe I can close these gaps, become better aware of the typical middle game tactical shots associated with them, and even learn how to keep pressing for a win in the endgame.
Of course Black could have played better, but that's not really the point. The game well illustrates what happens when you do not have that d5 push as well covered as you thought.
My library of chess materials contains a treasure trove of seemingly useful material to assist me in that quest for knowledge. Among them are no less than seven ChessBase DVDs on pawn structures, including an excellent series by Sam Collins and a separate volume on isolated queen pawn formations. In the more traditional dead tree format, located on the bookshelf behind me, I have the classic Pawn Power In Chess by Hans Kmoch, the rather slim The Power Of Pawns by Jorg Hickl, and Pawn Structure Chess by the ever prolific Andrew Soltis.
I am a great collector of books, and media in general, but a terrible consumer of them. If you also count two pawn structure guides I acquired at chessable.com then I currently own enough instructional material on our topic to last well past the end of this year and into the next! If nothing else, in the short term, I am being introduced to some remarkable games such as the following...
Of course Black could have played better, but that's not really the point. The game well illustrates what happens when you do not have that d5 push as well covered as you thought. It introduced the idea of a timely exchange on f6 to gain control of the d5 square, and a timely pawn advance to clear that same important square d5 for a minor piece just a few moves later. Among the structures I plan to examine are the Carlsbad, Caro Kann, French, Slav, Hedgehog, and a bazillion Sicilian formations. And I will be sure to share with you examples that leave an impression.
Effective study does not take place in a vacuum. You need to apply what you have learned, otherwise the concepts and plans do not take root. What I plan to do, as I work through this material, is to save the games in a special database and play training games against the computer. That way the newly acquired ideas are practiced without competitive risk at a tournament, and the extended exposure becomes more immersive than mere passive reading.
Effective study does not take place in a vacuum. You need to apply what you have learned, otherwise the concepts and plans do not take root.
Recently I was able to play several games against titled opposition. And while I did not exactly distinguish myself, lessons were learned from the three losses. The first was a fairly lifeless game against IM Justin Sarkar. Afterwards I found FMs Dale Haessel and Alex Yam examining an endgame option I rejected. Alex felt that perhaps White can grovel for some time, but Dale demonstrated one or two ways for my opponent to turn the screw.
The challenge I present to you here is: set the endgame position presented here up with a friend or on your computer, and play it out. Black to move. Most importantly, whatever you do, no peeking at engine evaluations please! The computer is a ferocious defender and will put up stiff resistance. However, practicing how to win positions like this against a strong engine puts you well on a path to a nice fat rating. Getting better at chess requires a little work!
Diary of a Woodpusher
Pins and Kisses
Greetings fellow chess players! First and foremost I'd like to extend a massive thank you to Calgary Chess Club President Steve Sklenka and our webmaster Neven ... for this opportunity to contribute to the site. Steve, you have been exceedingly gracious and accommodating. Neven, thank you for all the help and advice, for proofing the articles and publishing my drivel for all the world to see!
My origin story, as fascinating as any Marvel superhero, will come to light over the next few articles, but in a nutshell: I have been an irregular fixture at the club for 15+ years, but a player since my junior days. I have spent the majority of that time hunkered in the Expert category with a couple forays north of 2200 that did not last long. I had been inactive for almost five years before making a disastrous comeback of sorts last year at the Calgary International. I have dabbled in a few events since then and couldn't be happier to be back playing.
Initially I had selfish motivations for writing these articles. It would be a great way to keep my mind on the game and an excuse to flex my increasingly atrophied chess muscles. However, I thought I might also provide some insight into how a career expert thinks and prepares, discuss the material they consume and what they take away from it...
The crux of everything I want to discuss boils down to how we can improve? I would like to visit the topic of plateaus and how to push beyond them. From time to time I will wax philosophic about fantastic books I think the world should read, DVDs you should consider, chess software and setups, using tech in your preparation, reviewing games that made an impression, and so on.
As a man with more good days behind him than ahead - now there is a morbid thought - I am keen to apply lessons I have learned in ever more efficient ways.
Regardless of the topic I choose, one thing we can probably agree on is that chess is hard! Getting better means doing solid work. Raw talent gets you to a certain level, but eventually training is required to excel beyond the mediocre. I am the first to admit a lazy attitude, and I am willing to share some of the pitfalls I encountered along the way in hopes you can avoid them. Approaches I will use draw inspiration from a variety of sources. And not all of them chess. As a man with more good days behind him than ahead - now there is a morbid thought - I am keen to apply lessons I have learned in ever more efficient ways. There exists no one size fits all approach, so you will need to experiment and tinker to see what works for you.
You might be thinking "But Sean, can a ruggedly handsome career expert, just shy of kissing 50 and with decades of bad chess habits under his belt, flagging stamina and huge gaps in his chess education really get to 2200 and beyond"? I am relentlessly optimistic, so for me the answer is yes. But let's see what that journey looks like, starting today.
For improvement to occur you need to be able to take an honest inventory of your weaknesses.
Today I am far more objective assessing my own play than I used to be. Early on I would often brush aside losses with assorted excuses like having missed simple tactics or falling victim to someone else's opening preparation. The inference, somehow, is always that my opponent got lucky. That poor attitude has been replaced by an appreciation for the moment where I started to lose the thread in a position, where I waffled between competing plans, where my opening preparation ended prematurely, marvel at deficiencies in my endgame play, and spot the moments where my nerves failed me.
For improvement to occur you need to be able to take an honest inventory of your weaknesses. I have plenty! Don't worry, we will get to each embarrassing one in time. Let's take a peek at a couple of examples that illustrate a particular tactical blind spot...
Many sins mark this game, but I will focus on just one for this article, namely 24.Qh6+ which seals Black's fate. The idea lends itself to classification with the generic motif of a pin, but feels as though it deserves a name of its own. I am going to call it a "kiss", of a variety that I need to avoid getting blindsided by again in future outings!
The idea lends itself to classification with the generic motif of a pin, but feels as though it deserves a name of its own. I am going to call it a "kiss", of a variety that I need to avoid getting blindsided by again in future outings!
I can try several things. First, I can keep on doing work on tactics, either utilizing online trainers such as those available on playchess.com or chess.com or continuing with any one of the amazing tactics books I have in my library. A steady diet of tactical puzzles is good advice anyway. Examples featuring the newly minted "kiss" theme are bound to turn up, and those will be moved into a special database - or perhaps a notebook for the less technically inclined - featuring problematic tactical ideas in general. This is all about future work. My own working database contains tactical shots I had difficulties with in my own games, but also other random and impressive tactical solutions by strong players. Basically, any time I come across a move or idea that completely eluded me ... that game gets saved for later review. In time my hope is that collecting these positions will lead to clearing up specific holes in my tactical vision.
You could, and probably should, do this for all manner of tactical slips in your own games. I will be creating databases for missed wins, endgame blunders, converting winning positions, opening mistakes, and so on. But more on this in subsequent articles.
I would like to show one more example featuring the "kiss" motif, which was every bit as shocking to me as 24.Qh6+ in my game against Jake. Johan Hellsten's excellent book Mastering Opening Strategy features the move in the notes to the game Najditsch-Belov, Moscow Aeroflot op 2007, and is another idea I would never consider...
I could, and probably should, spend hours reviewing a game like this. It's a fascinating piece of chaos ripe with nuance and aggression. And for all of it, the move 21.Be6! (in the notes to 17...Rf8) is what resonated with me. White goes from nearly busted to completely winning. Great stuff!
This idea of creating small databases to house a menagerie of your weaknesses does involve some work. But this is work that will pay dividends. The act of annotating your games, collecting the games of others, and cataloging them like this should be enough to start cementing these patterns into mind. If I were to let a game like mine with Jake go by without trying to understand my play, how could I ever expect to improve?
These are my first tentative steps towards really trying to evaluate myself, take corrective action, and measure the results. You might find a different way, a better way that works for you, and that's great. As long as you do something, it's a step in the right direction. See you next time!
Early History 1930 to 1971
Looking for a chess club in Calgary, some fifty years ago, was an adventure! There was enough interest in playing chess with friends or family at home, but to play in a club, that was something different. Somehow, around fifteen brave players found each other and gathered every Monday night in Maccabees Hall on Fifth Avenue between 9th and 10th Street SW. This was the year 1968.
Much earlier than that, chess was also played at a club called Eagles of Britain all the way back in the 1930s. One of the players of that era still played the game into 1980, and regretfully we never heard the entire story from those days many years ago. Some day, perhaps, someone else can fill that void with records from local newspapers or stories heard through friends...
Once we started, back in 1968, we tried hard to promote ourselves. There were simultaneous chess exhibitions at Westbrook Shopping Centre, Market Mall and others. The club grew to number 50 members in just one year. Branimir Brebrich became our first president. This was the year 1969.
But just when the club looked poised to take flight in earnest, disaster struck in the prosaic but serious situation of a $27 debt owed in past rent!
But just when the club looked poised to take flight in earnest, disaster struck in the prosaic but serious situation of a $27 debt owed in past rent! Members were summoned to talk about options in case we were to be evicted. One interesting idea was to join the German-Canadian Club in Bowness, but that would mean losing our own identity. After much lively discussion the name stayed, and the rest is history.
The crisis had been averted, and the club now formally registered its existence with the authorities. Two letters, sent to the Government of Alberta and the Albertan newspaper, respectively, and signed by Branimir Brebrich, J. Kassay Farkas, R.C. Korpan, R. Gjesdal, and B. Van Wieren asked to sponsor Branimir Brebrich's appearance at the 1971 Canadian Open in Vancouver. That application was rejected. This was the year preceding the famous Match of the Century between Robert James Fischer and Boris Spassky in Reykjavik in the following year. Chess finally made headlines!