|Evan Rosenberg on Breaking 2200
|By Evan Rosenberg
|October 1, 2008
In April of 2007, I was faced with a sad reality. I had not gained a single rating point over the span of three years. Three years replete with ambiguous chess knowledge and overwhelming denial. Oh sure, I was still competitive. I regularly played in tournaments with reasonable success. But eventually one blunder would erase the rating points I had fought so hard to gain. It was a painful experience that continued to perpetuate itself. I seriously considered quitting chess, and accepting the fact that I would never move beyond the auspicious 2200 barrier. I hated to admit it, but the acquisition of the master title would require me to leave my chess comfort zone. I was badly in need of reprogramming.
Today I am 2239. I gained 113 rating points in the last year, and I gained rating points in eleven of the past twelve tournaments I competed in. Believe me, if there was some strict formula I followed in order to achieve that success I would tell you. But honestly, there is no exact science to chess improvement. There was, however, a combination of factors that contributed my gaining rating points. Here is a disclaimer for the skeptical among you: what follows is sincere advice from somebody who made master. These practical suggestions worked for me, and hopefully they will guide you in the right direction.
1. Buy a notation pad.
It is extremely generous of tournament directors to provide competitors with loose score-sheets. But their charity, albeit involuntarily, can easily lead to many lost games (lost in the sense that they can no longer be found, regardless of the result). A notation pad is the simplest and most convenient remedy to that problem. I had not used a notation pad since my scholastic chess days until, on a whim, I purchased one for $3.50 at the 2007 National Chess Congress in Philadelphia. I understand the economy is in a bit of a downturn, but it’s a solid investment. I even use it in spite of the sexy Monroi system available at many tournaments. It is extremely important to salvage all of your games, whether you won, lost, or drew. You know why?
2. Critically analyze all of your games
This cannot be stressed enough. It is easy to regard all of your wins as brilliancies and all of your losses as freak accidents. And the sooner you analyze the better, because your ideas and conceptions from the game will be fresh in your mind. If you work with a coach, they are obviously an extremely valuable resource. Otherwise there is no shame in cross-referencing with a silicon buddy. Chess engines are the most reliable for spotting tactics, but certain positions are beyond the computers horizon. So don’t underestimate your own ideas!
In the fourth round of the New England Masters tournament I was paired with FM Eugene Yanayt. I had played Eugene once before in Foxwoods, and I won after he played the opening inaccurately. Our colors for this match were identical from our Foxwoods contest, and I believed he would have found an improvement, so I deviated with an extremely hazardous opening choice. I defied my computers appraisal of some resulting positions, because I felt that the problems my opponent would face in unfamiliar territory over the board could not be quantified.
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Qc2 g6 5.Bf4 Na6
I played 5. … Bf5 in our initial game.
6.e3 Bf5 7.Qb3 Nb4
I anticipated (prayed) that Eugene would be out of theory at this point, and considering that I had discovered this outlandish move a couple hours before the round, I use the term “out-of-theory” loosely.
8.Qxb4 e5 9.Qxb7 Rb8 10.Qa6 exf4 11.c5 fxe3 12.fxe3 Rxb2 13.Nc3 Bh6 14.Qxc6+ Kf8 15.Be2 Kg7 16.0–0 Bxe3+ 17.Kh1 Ne4 18.Nd1 Rxe2 19.Qa6 Nf2+ 20.Rxf2 Rxf2 21.Nxe3 Be4 22.Kg1 Rb2 23.Rf1 Bxf3 24.Rxf3 Rb1+ 25.Kf2 Qh4+ 26.Ke2 Re8 27.Kd3 Rb4 28.Ng4 f5 29.Rh3 Qxg4 30.Qb7+ Rxb7 0–1
Heavy reliance on computer analysis will lead to confusion. Even though my Fritz program incorporates many hilarious interjections in our games (including a hysterical Russian impersonation), it cannot explain why the move it suggests as 0.34 is better than the move it evaluates as 0.32. I always appreciate chess books that use clear and concise language as opposed to lengthy variations. Don’t be afraid to analyze your losses. You are more inclined to digest the types of mistakes you made and therefore not repeat them. Occasionally we fall into opening traps, and that just plain sucks. So how did I change my approach to openings on my way to master? Not the way you might think.
3. Investigate many different openings
I bet some of you thought I was going to say I memorized reams of opening theory. There are certainly benefits to that approach, and the games you win because of your superior preparation are gratifying. But the true purpose of the opening is to gear the game toward a position where you feel comfortable, and you are aware of positional ideas and plans. At one low point, I wrote a letter to GM Joel Benjamin who authors a question and answer column on US Chess Online complaining about my switching syndrome. He politely answered that my self-diagnosed syndrome was actually beneficial because of the familiarity I was gaining in different types of positions. I don’t want to appear to be hypocritical. I definitely favor certain openings, and consequently certain types of positions, over others. I don’t blindly play openings I am unprepared to defend over the board. But that doesn’t mean I pass over every recent Grandmaster game that features the Ruy Lopez or Open Sicilian, just because they don’t enter into my opening repertoire. Those games are beneficial in ways openings just can’t account for.
I reached the above position as black at a tournament in November 2007. Look familiar? It should if you realize that it is essentially an exchange Grunfeld position with colors reversed. My decision to enter this sharp position was influenced by the possibility that my opponent, a solid, positional player, would mishandle the subsequent middlegame, which is precisely what happened.
Look for examples of piece maneuvering, pawn structures, types of exchanges or sacrifices. The more games you analyze, regardless of the opening, the more ideas you will store in your cognitive database. Rowson supports this position, so if you don’t believe me, maybe you can follow his logic from the terrific book The Seven Deadly Chess Sins. “Realize the importance of abstract knowledge and try to assimilate as many new patterns as possible” I used to play the Trompowsky religiously as white. For a while I went through a serious drought, where I would be the one fighting for equality in the middle game. Blaming the opening was my ignorant excuse. The Trompowsky is an extremely flexible opening that leads to middlegames resembling various other openings, like the Sicilian, French, or Kings Indian, and I was unequipped to understand those middlegames properly. You will be surprised with the ideas you can incorporate into your games from completely unrelated openings.
4. The rest
I couldn’t think of an appealing segue for what’s next. But these were critical to me making steady improvement and collecting rating points in the process.
-Find your ideal time control, and play accordingly. If you have a penchant for time pressure, entering G/30 tournaments might well be equivalent to suicide. I personally try to avoid faster time controls because I like to think out of the opening and maybe experiment a little, but when I do play G/30 I steer clear of complications and I rely heavily on my intuition. I recently played in the New York Masters tournament with a quick time control and defeated an IM who is exponentially stronger than me. Ordinarily I would not expect to cruise to victory against anyone that talented, however the speed played a significant role in the contest and my opponent fell very far behind on the clock, ultimately sealing her fate.
The King’s Indian exchange variation has a drawish reputation, but it represents an ideal condition where you can modestly try to put your pieces on effective squares without any tactical risk. I have considerable success with the exchange variation, especially at faster time controls. Black could conceivably spend a lot of time in an attempt to punish White for their allegedly insubordinate opening strategy. This game demonstrates the cooperation between an uncomplicated positional approach and a fast time control.
-Equal positions and draws are not mutually exclusive. I covet rating points as much as anyone, so drawing a higher rated opponent and collecting some points is a considerable success, but attitude wise it could be extremely detrimental. Playing to draw is tantamount to a loss. There is nothing more satisfying for a Slav or French player to win on the black side of the exchange variation, and it typically happens when White decides to draw from the get-go. Playing on in equal positions is not only great for your chess, but it is also tremendously frustrating for your opponent who is trapped in a psychological draw mode.
-Don’t take yourself so seriously. This may sound obvious, and a little arrogant, but in order to win a chess game you only need to play better than your opponent. You are not competing with Magnus Carlsen for a novelty of the year contest. There are emotions involved when two human beings play each other, and becoming overwhelmed with anxiety or fear is not only possible, but likely. I developed a reputation in scholastic tournaments as a “cougher.” It was not out of the ordinary for me to puke before or even during my games, because I was exceptionally nervous. So remember, your opponent is playing under identical conditions. Don’t resign in positions where there is no immediate win. Don’t consume all of your time searching for brutal mating attacks when the position dictates that you accumulate small advantages. Just play solid, human chess.
For the sake of posterity, here is the game I broke 2200 with. I felt compelled to temporarily un-retire the Trompowsky, that feisty mistress who brought me so much joy, yet so much pain.
1.d4 Nf6 2.Bg5 e6 3.e4 h6 4.Bxf6 Qxf6 5.c3 d6 6.Bd3 Nd7 7.Ne2 c6 8.0–0 e5 9.f4 exd4 10.cxd4 Qd8 11.Nbc3 Be7 12.Ng3 Qb6 13.Nf5
I remembered an annotation in Aagaard’s award winning digest Excelling At Chess (incidentally another excellent book that utilizes a literary style as opposed to ambiguous variations) that made a deep impression on me. “Here I am in a rapid-play tournament – where a finish among the top ten would be a good result – and I am afraid of sacrificing a pawn? Basically I had so much doubt in myself and my judgment that I did not have the courage to play what I thought was correct. Seeing it like this made it easy to make the best continuation.” After playing 13. Nf5 I could completely identify with Aagaard, and I visualized the numbers 2201 like a bright neon sign in my brain.
13. ... g6 14.Nxe7 Qxd4+ 15.Kh1 Kxe7 16.Qf3 Nc5 17.Rad1 Nxd3 18.Rxd3 Qf6 19.Rfd1 [19.e5 Qf5 20.exd6+ Kd7 21.Ne4] 19...Qh4 20.f5 Rd8 21.g3 Qf6 22.e5 Qxf5 23.exd6+ Kd7 24.Ne4 Qxf3+ 25.Rxf3 f5 26.Nc5+ Ke8 27.d7+ 1-0
I hope the above provided some insight about practical changes can that positively affect your chess. Personally, I believe that any chess study is good chess study. Even playing blitz qualifies, to a degree. An extremely strong chess player and close friend of mine has reminded me on more than one occasion that your chess rating is simply a reflection of how well you are playing at the time. In other words, if you are playing at master strength, your rating should eventually indicate that. So don’t be discouraged. Get out there and break 2200. Believe me, if I can do it, as all of my chess friends will undoubtedly agree, anyone can.