Peering through the amber...

Dec 13, 2014, 4:45 PM |
I recently saw a post by The Great Patzer ( who was looking for what happened to :
“A Great deal of people who have enthusiastically blogged in pursuit of higher ratings seem to have left their efforts; while there games, there thoughts and strivings remained preserved; like ancient creatures in amber....”
There are times I feel like I am stuck in amber. The thing is, I was happily on my way obsessing over rating and improving as an adult player going for that ever so close yet WAY too far lofty goal of reach 2000 ( USCF/ ELO/FIDE…insert your favorite yard stick here) that the rest of my life got way out of balance.  Things came to a head for me back in the fall of 2011 when I found myself isolated from family and friends and wondering what the hell happened. It wasn’t all about the chess, but I realized rather quickly I had to back burner the effort.
So my blog suffered. Who knew people were going to look back on my stuff and wonder “what happened”. I’ve seen it happen to my favorites in my hey day and vowed it would not happen to THIS chess enthusiast, but alas it did.
I made a couple of weak attempts to come back always trying to promise another one of my series partly to keep me motivated and hope to spark some flames of kindred spirit. But what I found happening is that my rating was rapidly approaching a floor and my ego didn’t want to disappoint my followers who were looking for the next nugget and proof that an old dog can learn new tricks albeit gradual and slow. HA!
Reaching  new lows!!!!

The good news is that my training efforts chronicled on this blog from 2006-2011 got me my first USCF floor of 1500 ( and then when I BRIEFLY peaked 1800 ( , I got another floor at 1600.  Below 1400, there are no floors so reaching that first threshold when I started at a rating of 1353 was quite something.  Let’s hear it for floors in the USCF rating system!  I recall how satisfied I felt knowing I never had to fall below 1600 again…. I mean I could play tournament after tournament in the U1700 section ( as long as I was 1600) and play as reckless as a swashbuckling gambiteer and not ever care about my rating…EVER!
It may sound like a case of reaching new lows but today I hold on to that as 3 years after reaching 1800, when I couldn’t maintain the pace I once held with the daily studies to include tactics, opening variations and scrimmages; the weekly chess club ( or two as I am lucky to be in an area where there are many) , and hitting tournaments on a monthly basis.  When I dialed this back to once or twice a year now… maybe doing 10 tactics puzzles a day and playing for fun a couple times a month at work, my rating quickly deflated from 1800 to 1630.  So I am grateful that I have a floor that puts my peak still within a 200 point reach.
50 Shades of Grey Matter 

What The Great Patzer reminded me of was a burning curiosity I keep around retention of skills. Take myself and someone who may have once peaked into 2000. Let’s say the two of us both started a hiatus in 2011 and we decided to approach the board again in 2015 “cold”. The game between the two of us, I would still have my butt handed to me.  Why?  What makes someone rated 200 points higher than me more skillful?  What nuances of positional evaluation has he been able to retain that I missed?
Here I can only offer my observations of what I think I retained as a “once peaked into 1800 but now performing at my floor of 1600  ( on a good day)”:
  •         Openings are OK though instead of 8-12 moves deep with variations fresh in my short term memory, I can do alright with the first 4 to 6 moves and figure out the rest.
  •         Tactics, despite practicing over 10,000 puzzles repetitively, I still miss them,  and hang pieces.
  •         Middle games are weak. I once knew all the subtleties of Q-pawn games for a variety of pawn formations but all that is muddy and has become more of a blur. This requires me to use more time on my clock during OTB practice.
  •         Endgames, Really basic stuff like K+P and  R+P YEAH! All the other stuff forgot it. Can I even play the Lucena anymore? I know I have to build a bridge.
There's no kryptonite when you realize you're not a superhero: 


The fact of the matter, is that as a mere mortal ( none master) I don’t have an eidetic memory ( I did a post a while back on this: . I believe that the really good masters got there because they can retain more because of their photographic memory. To summarize a volume of work by Aadrian DeGroot ( , the main difference between a Master and an amature is the master has a capability to recognize an order of magnitude or more patterns in chess over the amateur.  Which also aids to the ability of positional evaluation required when calculating candidate moves.
I’m curious to hear from readers on:
1.    What do you feel you can retain at your level of play given any hiatus?
2.   If you are a master ( or not) do you have an eidetic memory and if so, how does it contribute  to your chess skill?
3. How do you approach “learning” versus memorizations?