Friday, February 10, 2006

Where I've been, and a review of Chess For Zebras

Since the start of the year, I've been working long hours again. When I'm doing that, I don't like turning on a computer when I'm at home. Also, I decided that analyzing games with the help of a computer engine was not helping me that much, and that when analyzing on the computer, there's too much temptation to turn on an engine "just to check for blunders".

For these reasons, I'm doing my chess work with a board and pieces, and pen and paper. But not having the computer on at home means no blogging. I will try to post a little more often, though.

I had forgotten how much slower it is to analyze using a real board, and having to write down all the lines. I have pages of analysis on just one game from the Marshall Championship. Eventually, I'll put it all into SCID and then pare it down to post it here.

Chess For Zebras

At Christmas I got a copy of Jonathan Rowson's Chess For Zebras, which has been getting a bunch of interesting reviews, each of which seems to concentrate on different aspects of the book from the others. Here's my short take, based on my own specific concerns.

Rowson is a very entertaining writer, and some of the things he says about the advantages (and disadvantages) of having White are quite thought-provoking. However, I'm mostly interested in books that can improve my play, and Rowson says some important things about improvement as well.

I now have the impression that after your rating stabilizes at a certain level it is rare for this level to change significantly regardless of the amount of effort you put in. However, I think it is possible to improve with a different kind of effort.

I've often heard it suggested that it's basically impossible for an adult player to improve much, especially if he's already a strong player. I always thought this was nonsense: I'm still getting better at other things; I'm a better programmer now than I was five years ago, and was better ten than I was ten years ago, for example. Why should improving at chess be different then anything else? Rowson continues:

The core idea is that aspiring players should place much more emphasis on developing their skill than increasing their knowledge. This means that chess work should be less focused on 'learning' and more about 'training' and 'practicing' whereby you force yourself to think.

This makes sense to me; after all, improvement in other areas is mostly about improving skills: learning the basics of a new programming language, for example, is mostly about writing small test programs, and imitating examples found in books or on the web, until the new languages way of doing things becomes your natural way. In other words, a little learning and a lot of practice.

In a footnote, Rowson adds:

I believe this advice applies at all levels of play, but the kinds of positions you think about, and what you think about them, will vary according to your level of play. Chess is a concrete game, but the stronger you become the more strategic considerations predominate.

However he agrees with Ken Smith's advice about the predominant importance of tactics at lower levels:

For players below 1800 who desperately want to improve (and are willing to suffer for it!) I recommend Michael de la Maza's thoughtful and honest book _Rapid Chess Improvement_.

which should be good news to the Knights Errant. I think the 1800 cut-off is probably well chosen; based on my experience, I don't expect that players much above that level will get as much out of intensive tactical training.

In the chapter "What to do when you think there is a hole in your bucket" (and how can you not love a book with chapter titles like that!), he quotes GM Nigel Davies:

It really doesn't matter what you study, the important thing is to use this as a training ground for thinking rather than trying to assimilate ... information. ... The reality is you've got to move the pieces around the board and play with the position. Who does this? Amateurs don't, GMs do."

What it all adds up to is to structure your study time to concentrate on problem-solving: doing exercises from books and playing over games "solitaire-chess" style (analyzing each position) being the obvious approaches.

A worthwhile book.

Training plan

So, I'm currently working my way through Silman's _Reassess Your Chess Workbook_, which I picked up at a library book sale. I'm also finishing up _Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual_, which is structures so encourage treating each diagram as a problem. After that, I also found one of the Dvoretsky "School of Chess Excellence" books at a used-book store, and I'll work through that. I still have my own games to analyze, and if that doesn't fill up all my study time, I'll do the "solitaire-chess" thing on one of the annotated games collections I own.

Welcome back Ed!
Thanks for the book review, I'm glad to see that I'm hopefully on the right path by shifting my focus towards playing through games and trying to develop plans for key positions. Those
are the in game variations that I need
to calculate.
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