Home Page Chess Life Online 2010 June Moving up the Ladder: A Class Player on Gaining 200 Rating Points
|Moving up the Ladder: A Class Player on Gaining 200 Rating Points
|By Christian Glawe
|June 8, 2010
1743 to a peak 1944 (USCF) in 6 months. Here's how he did it.
At 42 years of age, Christian Glawe
The plight of the Class Player in American Swiss tournament chess is a well-documented disease. Symptoms include (but aren't limited to): long ratings plateaus, uneven tournament performances, addiction to openings books, fear (bordering on paranoia) of higher rated players, confusion as openings transform into middlegames, etc., etc. Often the disease is terminal, with Class Player doomed to an eternity of weekend-crushing tournaments with no significant improvement in their chess rating.
The good news is that dramatic gains in playing strength are not limited to 15-year-old IM's. Even better news is that improvement for the class player is often much more dramatic and sudden than the IM looking for that final GM norm. In fact, I am living proof! At the age of 42, with a full-time job, I added 201 points to my USCF rating (1743 to 1944) in about 6 months. I'd like to share with you how I did it.
Study your games with an instructor
Anyone who is serious about improving their chess should have an instructor, ideally a titled player who has significant experience in teaching. I live in Los Angeles, and review my tournament games with IM Jeremy Silman. Jeremy is a world-renowned author and instructor who has a special talent for explaining chess subtleties in a clear and effective way that class players can understand.
I already hear the protests: "Teachers are expensive... who can afford that?", or "I live in a rural area where there aren't any titled players". If you're serious about improvement, you can't afford not to have a titled player review your games and find the areas where you can improve. Instead of buying those "Winning with the Dilworth Attack" and "Play the Allgaier Gambit" books, perhaps use those resources to spend an hour going over your games with a local IM. Instead of playing 2 tournaments a month, play 1 tournament every 2 months, and use the savings for internet lessons with a GM.
We've all lost games that left us scratching our head, uncertain of where it "went wrong". If you don't discover the reasons for each of your losses, you cannot expect to improve your chess in a significant way. And a good instructor is a critical part of finding the answer to the eternal question of "Why did I lose that game?"
Most Class Players are content to analyze their games with a chess engine, an effective method for finding tactical errors, but not the positional errors. Everyone blunders from time to time, but finding the positional errors in your game is the best way to gauge your "Chess IQ", and identify the holes in your chess understanding.
Here's a good (albeit painful) example:
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 d6 5.0-0 Bd7 6.c3 Nge7 7.d4 Ng6 8.d5
Objectively, this move is okay. But I didn't realize the ramifications of closing/changing the pawn structure in this way. I was fixated on trading my "bad" light-squared Bishop for his "good" one.
8...Nb8 9.Bxd7+ Nxd7
This move doesn't blunder anything, or even create a weakness. However, it does show a lack of understanding of pawn structure as it relates to middlegame planning. Unfortunately, I was a slave to rote, dogmatic thinking and thought I should just continue with the 'normal' Lopez maneuvers of Nd2, Re1, Nf1, etc., etc. But the pawn structure isn't a Ruy Lopez at all... in fact, it's a King's Indian Defense! And in this pawn structure, White must play on the Q-side with c4 and Nc3, while Black will play on the K-side with ... f5.
10...Be7 11.Re1 0-0 12.Nf1 Nh4 13.Ng3 Nxf3+ 14.Qxf3
During the game, I thought I was doing okay, but the reality is that White has achieved nothing from the opening. The problem is I'm pursuing the completely wrong plan! The Knight is on the wrong side of the board - it should be supporting White's Q-side expansion.
14...Bg5 15.Nf5 Bxc1 16.Raxc1 g6 17.Ng3 Qg5 18.b4?! f5
Black's last few moves all have to do with supporting his plan, the ... f5 break, whereas White has been drifting without a plan.
Around here, I started to realize I had big problems, but didn't understand how it went wrong.
20.Qh5 Qxh5 21.Nxh5 f4 22.g3 a5 23.a3?
Mindlessly reacting to his stuff. 23.gxf4 Rf5 24.Ng3 Rxf4 is bad for White.; 23.b5 Not good, but probably White's best option. Unfortunately, it kills any hopes of Q-side play, and concedes the c5 square. 23...Nc5 24.Re2 (24.gxf4? exf4 and the Knight is trapped.) 24...Kf7
23...Nb6 24.gxf4 exf4 25.Re7?-+
Being down a piece to an IM is not a recipe for success.
26.Nxf4 Rxf4 27.Rxc7 Rf7 28.Rxf7 Kxf7 29.Rd1 axb4 30.axb4 Rg8+ 31.Kf1 Rg5 32.Rd4 Rxd5 33.Rf4+ Ke6 34.Rh4 h5 35.Rh3 Nc4 36.Rh4 b5 37.Re4+ Re5 38.Rd4 d5 39.f4 Re4 40.f5+ Kf6 0-1
In this game, I had no clue what the pawn structure was telling me about an appropriate middlegame plan. I was still playing a Ruy Lopez on "auto-pilot", when the pawn structure was in reality a King's Indian Defense!
And that's not something a chess engine is going to tell you. Of course, IM Silman diagnosed it immediately. This painful lesson led to the realization that I didn't understand pawn structures as they relate to middlegame planning. Thus:
Don't study openings. Study structures and plans instead.
Just about every Class Player has, at one time or another, been absolutely convinced that that "Winning With The _____ Opening" book is going to turn their chess fortunes around. Class Player is going to dedicate his/her life to being more "booked up" in a rarely played opening than anyone else, and the entire chess world will succumb to the tactical shot found in variation 4a1bii on p. 164. In fact, I'm a serial offender! I have such titles as "The Complete c3 Sicilian", "Winning with the King's Gambit", "The Goring Gambit", and "Winning with the Elephant Gambit" in my library, alongside dozens of other openings books.
Sadly, it doesn't work this way... especially in Class chess. In my 300+ tournament games, I've had an opponent "walk into my prep" exactly twice. Once, I did get a superior position, but lost due to failure to find the right middlegame plan. The other time, I got so excited that I misremembered my prep, and fell into a worse position.
Nowadays, the only "openings" book I look at is the "Mastering the Chess Openings" series by John Watson. Instead of giving endless variations, Watson places emphasis on an opening's pawn structures, and the appropriate plans for those structures. Studying the opening in an Ideas-based way (as opposed to a Variations-based, or memorization approach) has a liberating effect on your chess, and you won't be caught off-guard by an offbeat opening. Here's an example:
This type of thing happens a lot in class play. You are going to face Bird's Openings, Wing Gambits, London Systems, King's Indian Attacks, Catalans, Blackmar-Diemer Gambits, Smith-Morra Gambits, King's Gambits, etc., etc. And that's just when you have Black! If you subscribe to a Variations-based (i.e., memorization) approach to opening preparation, a move like 1. b3 might freak you out. And that's exactly what your higher-rated opponent wants. But who really has time to *prepare* variations against Larsen's Opening?
1...Nf6 2.Bb2 c5 3.e3 g6 4.f4 Bg7 5.Nf3
White is playing for control of the d4 and e5 squares. Black will castle and contest those squares.
5...0-0 6.Be2 d6
Simply taking away the squares he's playing for. 6...d5 is also good.
7.0-0 Nc6 8.c4 a6
Black's pawn-chain points to the Queen-side, indicating that Queen-side expansion is in order.
9.h3 Rb8 10.Qe1
10.Nc3 in order to prevent ... b5. 10...Ne4 with the idea of ... Ng3.
I was much more direct and intentional about Queen-side play this game!
11.cxb5 axb5 12.d4 c4 13.d5!? Na5! (13...Nxd5 14.Bxg7 Kxg7 15.bxc4 bxc4 16.Bxc4 Be6=) 14.b4 (14.bxc4 Nxc4 15.Bd4 Nxd5 16.Bxg7 Kxg7 17.Bxc4 bxc4 And Black is solidly up a pawn.) 14...Nb7 15.Nd4 Nxd5
11...bxc4 12.dxc4 Nb4 13.Na3?!
Not necessarily a blunder, but not a strong move. Experts make mistakes, too! 13.Qc1 Bf5 14.Nc3
Black enjoys a pleasant edge out of the opening... Not bad for never having faced 1. b3 in a serious tournament game!
Over-zealous in my newfound excitement about understanding pawn structures and Queen-side play. The point is ... a5 is going to be a good move in a distant endgame. The option will be there for some time. Here, Black cedes the b5-square and gives life to White's Na3. [14...Qd7]
15...Bd3 16.g5 Nh5 17.Bxg7 Nxg7 18.Bxd3 Nxd3 19.Qe2 Nb4 20.e4 Ne6 21.f5 Nd4 22.Qf2 Nd3 23.Qh4 gxf5 24.exf5 Kh8
25.g6 fxg6 26.fxg6 Rxf1+ 27.Rxf1 Qg8 28.Qxh7+ Qxh7 29.gxh7 Kxh7 30.Rf7+ Kh6 31.Rxe7 Rg8+ 32.Kh2 Nf4 33.Nab1 Nf5 34.Ne4 Nxe7 35.Nxd6 Rg2+ 36.Kh1 Rxa2 37.Nc3 Rb2 38.Nce4 Rxb3 39.Nf7+ Kg7 40.Nfg5 Rb4 41.Nxc5 Rxc4 42.Nb7 a4 43.Nd6 Rc1+ 44.Kh2 a3 45.Kg3 Nh5+ 46.Kh4 Kg6 47.Ndf7 Rc4+ 0-1
When I review a particular opening, I use my games database to gather 50-100 GM games played in that variation. Then, I play through them quickly (perhaps 2-3 minutes per game, at most). As you rapidly play through these GM games, you will see common ideas and motifs over and over again. Don't try to memorize moves or variations. After 30 minutes or so, you will have a sense as to the basic plans and structures of a particular variation.
Once you commit to approaching openings in a holistic "ideas-based" manner, you no longer have to be afraid of being "out of book". And while we're on the subject of "no fear":
Play "Up" To Your Potential!
Our goal here is chess improvement. And not 25 points worth of improvement... I'm talking about moving up an entire class! If you're a C-player looking to make B-Class, you need to be playing with the B-players. If you're an A-player looking to make Expert, you need to be playing with the Experts!
Here's a secret: More often than not, it's a psychological advantage to play "up" in a Class tournament. If you're a B-player "playing up", a lot of A-players get nervous when they realize you're not going to shrivel and die in the face of their higher rating. And here's the bonus: Beating higher-rated players means the ratings gains come in larger amounts!
Many class players have an unnatural "ratings fear" ("She's an A-player... I can't beat her!"). I've seen players purposefully not look at an opponent's rating before a game. Often, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you really don't believe you can beat someone a class higher than you, you might as well resign before playing the first move!
In fact, it's tempting to give yourself permission to lose against a higher rated player. Some of you may have even thought "You were supposed to lose to IM Taylor - he's an IM, after all...". I say, "Bull!" I believe I'm going to win every game I sit down to play, and I don't really care who the opponent is. You must cultivate this fighting attitude - you will be pleasantly surprised how many higher rated players will either wither and collapse, or go bezerk (and blunder), when you punch them in the face (chessically speaking, of course!).
As you review your games with your instructor, you'll quickly realize that A-players and Experts aren't world-beating chess machines. They're prone to tactical blunders and positional misunderstandings like the rest of us.
Blitz chess is still chess!
One of my favorite scenes from "Searching for Bobby Fischer" is when Bruce Pandolfini admonishes his student, young Josh Waitzkin, for spending too much time playing blitz chess in the park. "I know you like it, I know it's fun...."
I don't believe that blitz is necessarily bad for your chess, but it needs to be an intentional part of your overall goal of chess improvement. And this means analyzing every blitz game you play, just as you would your tournament games! And if a blitz loss leaves you scratching your head, show that game to your instructor!
My approach to blitz is this: I don't care (that much) about my blitz rating, and I don't care (that much) about flagging in a blitz game (although I do insist on playing blitz with an increment of at least 5 seconds) - I'm still trying to find the best moves in any given position.
I do believe that intentional blitz play (committing to finding best moves, and analyzing your games afterward) helps maintain tactical acuity and, more importantly, boosts your confidence when confronted with time pressure in a tournament game.
Tactics, tactics, tactics!
It is my strong belief that significant chess improvement is impossible without tactical awareness. And the only way to improve your tactical acuity is through regular practice.
I do tactical training exercises every day for about 30-45 minutes on chesstempo.com. I like the chesstempo site for a few reasons: It's free (!), you can do timed tactical exercises (which comes closest to recreating the tournament experience), and it's rated, so you can chart your progress.
For most Class Players, the reality is that we don't have much time to spend on chess. Career and family can make it difficult to find even 30 minutes a day for chess. If you are serious about improvement (and you are reading this article, aren't you?!), you can find 30 minutes each day. And it's my belief that tactical training is the absolute best way to spend that scant 30 minutes.
Daily tactics training keeps my chess mind sharp, even if I go a month or two without tournament play. Maintaining a strong level of tactical acuity keeps my confidence up - I'm not afraid of entering tactical complications against an Expert, and my "Cheapo Radar" remains finely tuned!
Weekend Swiss tournaments are grueling affairs - 2 rounds a day (sometimes more!), not to mention travel time getting to and from the site. It is my belief that reasonable physical conditioning can grant a tangible advantage, especially in the last round of a weekend Swiss.
Does this mean you need to hire a personal trainer, or run a marathon? No. But some sort of regular physical exercise (even if it's walking for a half-hour), along with a sensible diet, will give you a significant advantage during the last round of a 5 or 7 round Weekend Swiss. There are few things I like more than slowly wearing someone down over several hours on a Sunday afternoon!
These are the prescriptions that helped me add 200 points to my rating in 6 months. I hope these ideas will help you rocket into the next ratings category! I'll leave you with one last example of what can happen when all the elements come together:
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5+ Nc6 4.0-0 Bd7 5.c3 e6?!
Not highly thought of. Both 5... Nf6 and 5... a6 are more common. Black is suffering a bit from "rote opening play" - ... e6 is a fine move in many Sicilian variations, but I am steering the game into Ruy Lopez territory.
6.Re1 Be7 7.d4 a6 8.Ba4 b5 9.Bc2 Nf6 10.Nbd2
10.d5! exd5 (10...Na5 11.e5 dxe5 12.d6 Bf8 13.Nxe5 Qb8 14.Nxd7 Nxd7 15.Bf4 is strong.)11.exd5 Na5 12.Bg5 0-0 13.Qd3 c4 14.Qd4]
10...e5 11.d5 Na5 12.Nf1 0-0 13.h3 b4 14.Ba4!?
It's not typical for White to trade his light-squared Bishop in this manner. Plus, it's usually not best to trade pieces when you have an edge in space. However, I wanted to trade his "good" Bishop for my "bad" Bishop, and attempt to create weaknesses on the light-squares. [14.cxb4 cxb4 15.Bd3 gives White the typical small Lopez plus.
14...bxc3 15.bxc3 Rb8
15...Qxd7 makes more sense.
16.Qc2 is better, preventing ... f5 ideas. 16...bxc3 17.Qxc3 is fine for White 17...c4? 18.Ne3!
17.Qxa6?! isn't advisable 17...Ra8 18.Qe2 Nb3
Taking away the c4 square from Black's Knights, and fixing the weakness on b4.
Black hinders his only chance at counterplay, ... f5. Black had to try 18...f5
19.Ne3 Nd7 20.Bd2
Patience! Black's Q-side weaknesses aren't going away any time soon - time to get more pieces into the action! 20.Qxa6? Nc5 21.Qe2 Nxe4
20...Rb6 21.Nf5 Nc5 22.Rac1 Qd7 23.Rc2 Rfb8 24.Rec1 and White is much better.
Defending the e-pawn, and hitting Black's weakness on b4. Moves that both attack and defend are usually good!
21...g6 22.Nxb4 Qb6 23.Nc2 Nab7 24.Na3
Eyeing the c4 square.
Getting the rook off the a1 square in anticipation of ... f5 and ... e4.
Black finally plays actively, and we arrive at an instructive point. Oftentimes, when you have a clearly superior position, your opponent will "lash out", and attempt to complicate the position. Have faith in your better position, and continue to crush the guy! Don't mindlessly react to his "active" play... you have more important things to do! Your daily tactical training will give you the confidence to negotiate the complications.
It would be easy to panic here, seeing that Black can soon land his Knight on d3. But again - don't become blinded by his "threats"! You have more important things to do, namely kill the guy!
27...Nd3 There's nothing to fear here. 28.Rc6! Qd4 29.Ne6 Qxd5 30.Rc7 Rf7 31.fxg6 Rxc7 32.Nxc7 Qf5 33.gxh7+ Qxh7 34.Rf1 leaves White ahead.
28.b4 Nd3 29.Rc6 Qd4 30.Bc3 Qxd5 31.Qh5
31.Rc7 is actually a quicker win. 31...Bxc3 32.Qh5
31...Rf7 32.Qxh7+ Kf8 33.Nxf7 Bxc3 34.Ng5 Bxe1 35.Rc7 Bxf2+ 36.Kh1 mates
32.Bxg7 hxg5 33.Qh8+ Kf7 34.Rc7+ 1-0
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