My New Year's Chess Resolutions

Dec 28, 2012, 1:51 PM |

Ok, so it's that time of year. You know, when everyone is asking what your resolutions are for next year. What big things are we going to achieve? 


Over the years I've made lots of resolutions. But I've kept very few of them. Why? Largely I think it is because I've generally set very poor goals. They've been too big, to unspecific, generally poorly defined and I almost never really had an action plan in place to achieve those goals. I didn't really follow through and I had no mechanisms in place to hold myself accountable to achieving my goals. 


So this year I'm going to try to be different. I'm going to try setting realistic, measurable, achievable goals and I'm going to try to make myself accountable to those goals. 


So what kind of goals do I have in mind. Well, I want to get better at chess. 


What does that mean? For me, as an OTB player, that means one thing and one thing only: ratings. I want my official OTB rating to raise from where it is. But what is a realistic goal for that? Something that is a stretch and will take effort to reach, but which isn't over the moon and unachievable? 


I know from experience this last year that setbacks can and do happen. I had a horrible tournament performance in September that cost me almost all of my rating gains for the year, and it took me working like a dog the last few months of the year to get those points back. So how did I do last year? Well, going back a bit more than year (since I just got serious about learning to play chess again late in 2011, and looking at my rating history, I notice that I finished September of 2011 with a rating of 1288.  September of this year prior to my disastrous tournament, my rating was 1477. Roughly a 200 point gain during the year. I had a peak rating of 1529 during 2012. 


200 points during any one year is a pretty big accomplishment. I'm not sure if it's realistic to do that again. But I do think regaining my high from 2012 and adding to it is realistic. So I'm going to say that my goal is to get 150 points over my 2012 rating high: or a target of 1679. 


Wow, ok that's a lot of points, but it is doable.  So what will it take to get there. 


Ok, well, let's look at what make for good goals: 


They are SMART: 

* Specific! You know exactly what the goal is. 

* Measurable! You know if you are making progress to the goal and you know if you achieved it or not. 

* Achievable! If your goal is to lose 20 pounds in a weekend, that won't happen. Is the goal something a knowledgable person will scoff at as being unrealistic or not? 

* Relevant! Does the goal help you achieve a broader purpose or fulfill some mission in your life? 

* Time Limited! Does the goal have a definite start and stop point regardless of if it is met or not? 


Well, everything seems to be there except for "Relevant." How is my goal related to who I am as a person? 


The answer to that is a little complicated, but not that long. In all of my hobbies, I strive for excellence. I am a scuba diver, and I loved it so much I became a fully certified instructor. I did martial arts for many years, and made it to 3rd degree black belt and was able to teach classes for my Sifu. I play the guitar and am good enough to be asked to do small performances and I've taught lessons. I like to achieve and I also like to teach. 


In chess, I volunteer to coach my son's high school team. I do this largely because there are no teachers there who really know chess well and are stepping up to the task. But I am only a moderately effective teacher at this point. Part of my problem is that I'm not good enough at chess. Certainly that isn't the biggest issue I have, really learning how to teach chess effectively is a much bigger problem I face, but it is part of the problem. 


I also have limited credibility as a chess coach because my own performance isn't really that much above my very best students. I don't believe an effective coach has to be better than the person they coach, but they have to have the personal accolades to have the credibility to demand they be listened to. I don't have that in chess yet. 


I also have some personal reasons for wanting to get better. There are people at my local chess club I simply hate losing too. Don't get me wrong, they are great folks and I enjoy their company, but I know that I should be able to beat them and I struggle at it. Further, my own history of tournament performances has been less than stellar over the years. I like the art of chess and so I don't focus on results the way I really must in order to get the rating achievement I want. 


So my reasons for wanting this, for this being a relevant goal are: personal pride, ego, a sense of accomplishment, the ability to demand credibility as a coach, and the ability to be a better coach. 


Ok, so that's my goal. I have a clear goal and it meets the criteria of a good goal. Am I done? 


No way! I need to set together an action plan. 


So what's my action plan for achieving 150 point rating increase over my high of the previous year? 


Well that is easy to piece together from my games of the prior year. What are my failings? Why didn't I win every game? 


Well, they fall into a couple of general categories: 


1) Opening repertoire. I'm not a fan of the study openings above all else theory of chess improvement. But I"m also not a fan of the "ignore the opening phase and just do other stuff" school either. I have lost more than a few games due to poor play in the opening. I have two specific issues. 


First, my play against 1. d4 has been haphazard and weak. I have vacillated QGD, Nimzo-Indian, King's Indian and Queen's Indian games. And the only one I've gotten particularly good results with have been the QID, though to be fair that is also the smallest number of games. I need a defense against 1. d4 that I like, I can learn easily enough, and that I feel confident playing. 


Second, I have at best moderate success on the white side of Sicilians. I tend to come out of these openings slightly worse and it is generally due to a theory gap with my opponent where I"m playing 2nd and 3rd best moves consistently and creating move order issues for myself because I don't know the theory well enough. 


The rest of my opening knowledge is fine. I"m not saying I'm a GM theorist in other areas, but for my level of play, I do well enough. I don't find myself struggling against other 1. e4 defenses, and my own French defense is adequate to get me to very playable middle games with players who are rated several hundred points above me. 


2) Strategy, Planning, Evaluation and Analysis. Many of my losses against players in the next categories above me follow the same pattern. I get out of the middle game with a playable position, we start maneuvering pieces and I choose a less than ideal plan. Often in post-mortem I find that I am pushing in positions where I am at best equal, leading me to create weaknesses. I have a habit of making poor decisions regarding exchanging pieces without sufficient regard to how that effects the evaluation of the resulting position. I lose games because I'm simply outplayed in getting my pieces into the proper position. 


3) Tactics. Honestly, this is  a strength of mine for my rating. Again, I'm not a GM tactician, but I do find a lot of good tactical sequences on the board. But tactics are also a problem for me because I tend to be enamored with specific types of tactics that don't always end up working in my favor in the long run. I'll play some tricky maneuver to win a pawn, only to find my remaining pieces are completely uncoordinated and while I'm materially up, I've lost all initiative and am so disjointed that I can't even mount a solid defense. 


4) Winning Won Games. I'm a psychological wimp. When I've gotten to a winning position, I don't hunker down and find the best technique and force a decided victory. I instead start getting lazy in my calculations, presume my opponent will simply resign due to my superior position, and then find myself dismayed when he fights his way back into the game!


Ok, so how do I address each of these problems? What's my action plan?


A) Play OTB games and long games. My goal is to play at least one rated OTB game per week and analyze the game. I'll give myself 6 weeks during the year where I can get a pass due to illness, family conflicts, or whatever else may come up. 


B) Play In at least one 5 game or longer tournament per quarter. While my one-game-a-week club tournaments are tournaments, they don't have the same level of pressure as a "real" tournament environment. So I'm going to do at least 4 of them. That's 2 more than last year, but shouldn't really be too big a reach. 


C) Fix my opening repertoire. Decide on a consistent coherent repertoire as black against 1. d4 and play it well enough that by the end of the year my score against 1. d4 is statistically indistinguishable from my score against 1. e4 as black.  Also fix my response to the sicilian as white so that my performance with 1. e4 c5 is not statistically worse than my performance against 1. e4 not-c5. 


D) Learn more about strategy, planning, evaluation and analysis. I have books on this, but I haven't worked through them in a disciplined systematic way at all. I've started with the Yusupov books, but I need to go further in this regard.  I need to be more efficient when choosing to exchange pieces so that I'm not making my position worse with my choices, and I need to generate a better list of candidate moves at critical moments in the game. How do I measure this? How about work through at least one book on this topic every two months? 


E) Get better and at tactics in the context of my games. Hmmm, just keep doing tactical exercises I guess. How about average 30 minutes of tactics training a day?


F) Improve my technique. I think this is going to be a matter of learning from the greats how to put games away. I'm going to try to tackle this by playing through GM games. I'm going to try to average going through 20 games a week on average, so that at the end of the year I'll have played through 1000 GM games.Games i play through studying openings or reading strategy and planning books will count, so this is really likely going to consist of finding a few more games a week to play through. I also don't have to do deep analysis here, it's just exposure to the games. By the end of the year I want games where Fritz is telling me I am +- by move 25 will have a better result than I do today. Today I score 58% in such games, I want to up that to 70% by year's end. 


So now what? Well, I need to generate a list of GM games to study, decide on openings to study, and figure out what strategy and planning books I'm going to read. But I have measurable goals. This is my new year's resolution. Wish me luck!