Home Page arrow Chess Life Online arrow 2011 arrow Kostya Kavutskiy on Breaking 2366
Kostya Kavutskiy on Breaking 2366 Print E-mail
By Kostya Kavutskiy   
December 16, 2011
Kostya Kavutskiy, Photo Bailey Massey
It took me a little bit less than a year to raise my rating from 2000 to 2200, and I really thought I had it all figured out: how to study, how to improve, how to become a grandmaster, everything. This sheer naivety was probably the reason I barely gained any points the next year.

My first and only slump of my chess career came at a time where I was feeling as confident as ever. Up until that point, I was pretty much able to raise my USCF rating at will. I started at a young age and being somewhat talented at chess I gained points with almost every tournament and got to 2000 without doing any real training or studying. When I was 12-15 years old I would still gain about 100 points a year despite playing just occasionally. Mentally at this point I had already given up on chess, not really seeing any future in it, rather just focusing on school and playing a tournament only whenever I felt like earning 20-30 rating points. Then when I turned 16 I realized that I actually really enjoyed playing chess quite a bit, and decided that I wanted to reach my full potential as quickly as possible.

In 2009 I decided to take chess seriously and began training at home. I looked up a few openings, solved tactical exercises and played through grandmaster games almost every day. I even began to work hard during my lessons with GM Varuzhan Akobian. I had been working with Akobian for several years but since I did not take the lessons too seriously until 2009.
All these things, along with my small natural talent for chess helped me jump from an expert to a master in a little less than a year. What I failed to realize, and I'm sure this is a common mistake made by just about anyone in any level of any activity, is that as you get better at chess, or tennis, or swing dancing, or marine biology, it becomes more and more difficult to continue your pace of improvement. I was a cocky 17-year-old (currently I'm a cocky 18-year-old) with a flashy new rating. So even though I started to face master-level competition I failed to adjust my training regimen accordingly and for a full year made very little progress in terms of rating and actual playing ability.

After a year of bouncing between 2230 and 2260 I finally figured out that if I ever wanted to pass 2300, or 2400, or just get better, I would need to amp up my training at home. This would consist of a couple of things: Critically analyze and reflect on any games that I played, study my openings deeply, read many many chess books, and in general work harder at home and especially at the board

Near the end of 2010 I implemented this new training regimen and over the past summer, my efforts paid off. I gained about 100 rating points in a few months, scoring well in several strong tournaments. My biggest success came at the Reno Western States Open, where I tied for second place in a very strong field and raised my rating to an all time high 2366. In the era of pre-teen GMs, jumping from 2250-2350 is not red hot news. Still, I think my approach to chess improvement could interest readers.

I am feeling that this article so far seems like one of those scams where some jerk says he used to weigh 600 pounds and in one year became an amazing bodybuilder and now wants to share his secret workout routine with the rest of the world for three easy payments of $29.99. I don't want this article to read like that! The difference between me and this jerk is that I admit I don't have any training “secrets." Everything I recommend has already been recommended thousands of times by chess trainers all over the world. I'm simply interested in giving you my take on a few classic ways of improving your chess.

Analyzing Your Own Games

Analyze every tournament game you play. First, review the opening. If you played a wrong move in the opening you need to figure out the move you should have played. Now at least you are prepared if someone ever repeats the exact same opening moves against you. Secondly, ask yourself if you were able to find a good plan over the board once you reached the middlegame. If not, then obviously your understanding of the opening is lacking and you need to play through a bunch of high level games to increase your knowledge of the position.

Next, you need to find all of the mistakes you made in the rest of the game. More importantly, you need to understand WHY you made each and every mistake. Was it a tactical error or a positional misjudgment? Did you miscalculate something or poorly assess the resulting position? Did you miss an opportunity for yourself, or for your opponent? Ask yourself these basic questions and the answers will give you a hint of what you need to work on for the future. If you didn't miss any tactics but made several anti-positional moves then obviously you would need to work on your understanding of the game. If you played all the right positional moves but  made a lot of calculation errors then you'll want to focus on solving tactical puzzles during your training. It's rarely as simple or straightforward as that—in most games you'll probably make several tactical and positional mistakes, but at least it gives you an idea of what to work on for the future.

Psychological Mistakes

In my opinion, deep psychological deficiencies are usually the main culprit of any chess slump. In my case, I relied too heavily on my intuition. This was because of two reasons. First, I have had a natural feel for the game ever since I started playing and won many games playing solid, natural moves, without ever having to calculate anything substantial. Then, after losing many games at the master level, I quickly grew insecure of my calculating abilities and from then on was afraid to enter complications in my games. If I had an opportunity to sacrifice something, I would simply assume it was bad or be afraid of playing down a pawn and therefore reject the sacrifice and play a less critical move. If my opponent had an opportunity to sacrifice, I would often unnecessarily overprotect against the possible sacrifice and get a passive position, even though I was almost always seeing “ghosts."

After training specifically to improve my calculation and tactical vision, I had to start being braver at the board. I decided that regardless of whether my opponent was a grandmaster or an amateur, I should always play the moves I thought were objectively best, even if it meant entering complications. At first I struggled but then I started beating lots of stronger players. My newfound confidence helped me do it. See the following game against GM Alexander Ivanov as an example.

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.c3 c5 6.f4 Nc6 7.Ndf3 Qb6 8.a3 Be7 9.h4 cxd4 10.cxd4 Na5 11.g3 Nb3 12.Rb1 Nb8N 13.Be3 Bd7 14.Bd3 Nc6 15.Ne2 h6 16.0–0 0–0–0 17.Kg2 Kb8 18.f5 Nca5 19.Nf4 Rc8 20.fxe6 Bxe6 21.Nxe6 fxe6 22.Bg1 g5 23.hxg5 hxg5 24.Nd2 Nxd2 25.Qxd2 Nc4 26.Qe2 Qb3 27.Rfc1 a5!


Threatening to play a5-a4 and fix White's pawns on the queenside, but to play this I must be willing to sacrifice a pawn... 28.Rc3 Qb6 29.a4 Stopping a5-a4 but giving me time for a different plan (29.Bxc4 dxc4 30.Rxc4 Rxc4 31.Qxc4 Rc8 Black is doing great here. For the pawn my king is safer, my bishop is better, and I'm going to get control of the light squares after Qc6+. This shouldn't be difficult to evaluate properly, but a year ago I would have been afraid to sacrifice a pawn for positional considertaions, espeically against a GM. I would assume that White has a way to simplify and liquidate into an endgame with an extra pawn, even though concretely that isn't happening.) 29...Qd8 With idea Qf8-h6 and mate 30.Rbc1 Bb4! Preventing the rook from being able to defend along the third rank (30...Qf8 31.Bxc4 Qh6 32.Bxd5 Rcf8 is also good, but I think the text move poses White more problems) 31.R3c2 Qf8!

Going for it! Honestly it wasn't too difficult to calculate the variation here--the hard part was convincing myself that my opponent hadn't set some nasty trap. A year ago I would have just assumed that I was missed something in my calculations and would have played some "solid" move instead. Then I would have spent the rest of the game (and probably the rest of my life) wondering about what could have been if I just went for what I thought was the best move. 32.Bxc4 (32.Bh2 g4! 33.Kg1 Qh6 34.Bxc4 Rxc4 35.Rxc4 dxc4 36.Rxc4 Bd2!–+) 32...Qh6 33.Bxd5 (33.Bd3 Rcf8–+) 33...Rxc2 34.Rxc2 Qh1+ 35.Kf1 (35.Kf2 Rf8+ 36.Bf3 g4–+) 35...Rf8+



You can find and improve upon specific mistakes you made during games forever without dealing with the root of your issues, I think only when you discover the true reason your play is suffering will you be able to make progress.

Working Harder

All right, obviously you need to work harder, but what does this really mean? It means push yourself whether you're at home training or playing a tournament. During game play, don't be lazy. Calculate everything out until the end. Push yourself to find the best plan in every position. Look for all the resources for both sides. I think it is pretty clear that most chess games are won when one player works harder than his opponent, so try and work harder than your opponent!  

The best time to improve a skill like calculation is during a game when your focus could not be higher. You need to strain your tactical eye like you're making orange juice. Make sure to squeeze every last drop out of the potential combination, and you will get better. I can not even begin to describe to you how good it feels to sit down at the board and see deeper into the position than you did the day before. To literally feel your chess prowess growing is a refreshing feeling to say the least. Almost as refreshing as orange juice.

Chess Books

Chess books are ridiculously helpful. Many many great chess players have written lots of books that are designed to help you improve your play. Why aren't you taking advantage of them? Here are a few that really made an impression on me:

A Contemporary Approach to the Middle Game, by Alexei Suetin – Written by one of the great Russian masters of the mid 20th century (who else could write such a classic?), this book is packed with  examples of fascinating middlegames. Reading this book will really improve your understanding of many different positions.

Attack and Defense, by Mark Dvoretsky and Artur Yusupov – This is one of several fantastic books written by these two guys. They are arguably two of the best chess trainers of all time and all of their books are filled with great training lectures and interesting practical advice. The main lesson in this book, which really helped with my psychological problems, is that the only way you can truly understand a position is by investigating it deeply through the use of concrete analysis. Accurate calculation will always overcome thoughts such as “my knight looks good on c5” which is the best lesson to take away from their books.

Perfect Your Chess, by Andrei Volokitin and Vladimir Grabinsky – If you are over 2000 you simply must get this book. Solve six problems a day and your strength will skyrocket. I am not exaggerating, this book is the closest thing to magic chess dust that we have. Of course you must also work hard as you find the best move in each example.

There are tons of other amazing books out there that will really help your game. Books that aren't filled with examples and analysis can also be helpful. Two examples are Endgame, by Dr. Frank Brady and From London to Elista, by Evgeny Bareev. The latter contains the games of three world championship matches featuring Vladimir Kramnik. The book, a fascinating read, explores what it takes to prepare for a world championship. Such books keep your interest in chess high and often inspire you to work harder than ever before.

There is no set recipe for becoming 2000, 2200, 2600, etc. But remember that recipes usually have many different ingredients, which means that you need to do a variety of things to improve your chess if you truly are serious. Find the time to study! Solve mate in twos in your head on the train, get your laptop out during class and play through grandmaster games. Don't expect to win every game you play once you start your training, substantial improvement takes time, but eventually your hard work will pay off.