Thursday, April 07, 2005

Study Plan

So, I've been back playing in tournaments for about a year and a half. My USCF rating has dropped a little less than 100 points, which is not too bad considering that (1) I'm older now, and sometimes I can hear the synapses clicking when I think and (2) there's been 50 to 100 points of rating deflation since the early '90s.

Still, I'd like to get _better_. My FIDE rating is in the 2150s, and I'm aiming for the FM title, the requirement for which is a 2300 rating. So, how to gain 150 points?

As I wrote about below, I did Khmelnitsky's _Chess Exam_ a couple of months ago. It told me a few surprising things, but mostly confirmed what I knew already.

_Chess Exam_ identified three areas where I'm strong: standard endgame positions (over 2450), which figures since I've been working my way through Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual for over a year; openings, which I've done a fair bit of systematic work on; and defense (both of those last two around 2250). "Defense" is a little surprising, since I've always considered myself a poor defensive player; I get nervous when my King is under pressure. But apparently I have the skills, it's just a problem of psychology.

In most areas, the exam pegged me between 2150 and 2200, which is pretty close to my actual strength. In three key areas, it puts me in the low 2000s. Those areas are tactics, identifying threats (which is really a species of tactics), and (weakest of all) calculation.

Well, that figures. It would have been nice if it had told me that I was a strong player except for, oh, strategic play or endgames or attack; the methods for improving those are pretty clear, and mostly involve study to increase my knowledge. But how to make aging brain visualize better? Not so clear.

I knew when I came back that tactics were going to be a weakness, so I did a ton of problems. I've been walking around for two years with Reinfeld's _1001 Winning Chess Combinations_ or Alburts _Chess Training Book_ in my pocket (..._and_ I'm happy to see you). It did help limit the damage. But what next?

One problem with doing a lot of fairly easy tactical exercises is that I stop looking for defenses (this is why 'recognizing threats' showed up as weak, I think). "Oh, a deflection and then a fork, very nice." I'd say, recognizing the pattern. That's fine for a problem but in a real game, it runs into "oops, he ignores the first move and plays a zwischenzug and I'm busted," or more frequently "so I get the fork and then he has a counter tactic," which I didn't see in time because I didn't visualize the end-position clearly enough.

So, as valuable as the repetitive-exercises method is, I need something different now. From the training guide in _Chess Exam_, and from a couple of other sources (like Tisdall's _Improve Your Chess Now_), I've come up with this:

1) Solving endgame studies. Studies are mostly tactics. In most there are both 'tries' that don't work and multiple defenses in the main line that have to be worked out. I'm now carrying around a little booklet of 100 studies by Henri Rinck that I picked up at Fred Wilson's chess book shop.

2) Blindfold practice. _Chess Exam_ says to play over short games or practice positions blindfold, and Tisdall suggests playing over miniatures blindfold, trying to fix intermediate positions in your mind and to visualize and 'solve' the game at the critical position.

3) Memorizing games, then playing them over and trying to analyze them blindfold. Ziyatdinov in _GM Ram_ recommends memorizing classic games, and gives a selection. It's rather fun, and replaying them blindfold is (like the studies and tactics books) something I can do on the subway to and from work.

I've also been playing correspondence chess (which takes a lot of time) and am continuing to work through Dvoretsky (and trying to find the solutions to the exercises without moving the pieces). In theory I should be thoroughly analyzing my tournament games, but this has fallen by the wayside because of time constraints. Analyzing my own games was a big part of how I made the push from Expert to Master in the first place. I will start doing it more again as my current correspondence tournament winds down.

Anyway, that's what I've been doing since mid-February. We'll see how it works out.

Hey, if that bit about the ratings deflation of between 50 and 100 points USCF holds true, then I can consider myself a Class B player, albeit pre-1990. :)
Well, it was certainly a widespread belief back then that USCF ratings were 150-200 points higher than FIDE. But if you look at the ratings of people with both, you don't see that. I did a comparison in the Fall of 2003, and there wasn't much of a difference at all; especially below 2300 it's a toss-up which rating will be higher.

Not that that stops people from continuing to claim that USCF ratings are very inflated compared to FIDE.
I think you're right. In fact, there are a few examples where USCF is lower than FIDE for some players (e.g., NM Pete Karagianis).
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