Slow, safe and active
I have just come to accept that I am a patzer. There, I said it. It's out there! My chess is really not as good as I like to tell myself, and definitely not as good as I would like it to be. The upside is that I believe that I have some untapped potential that will allow my chess to improve dramatically. Let me tell you why.
During the past years, I have sporadically read Dan Heisman's old Novice nook articles. And they are really great. I recently realized that Dan had developed this material into a book "A guide to chess improvement", and I bought a copy. If you are a patzer like me, I urge you to read this book!
Of the 20+ chess books I have in my possession, this is the best one I have read. But it also hurt. Because reading the book made me realize that I have some fundamental issues that I need to iron out in order to become a better player.
According to Dan, there are three skills that must be mastered before going for more advanced studies.
- Play slowly enough to identify and properly evaluate candidate moves.
- Ensure that the selected move is safe, which means checking for your opponent's tactics.
- Develop the pieces to squares where they have activity and can do something constructive.
Why is this important? The simple reason is that if you (like me) make unsafe moves that lose material or allow your opponent to checkmate you, nothing else matters. You can play like a grandmaster for 25 moves, but if your 26th move is unsafe and hangs a queen, you will still lose the game. Or, as Dan puts it:
All the chess knowledge in the world won't help you if, each time you move, you don't take your time and use the information that is applicable to your current position.
This has been my problem. I have spent countless hours doing tactics and developing my knowledge of openings, positional play and endgames. But I don't have the results to show for it. The explanation is as clear as day: I play too quickly, and make unsafe moves. More often than not, these moves lead to bad or simply lost positions. This means that my studies do not produce the results that I expect them to.
I have known for some time that I often lose due to unsafe moves, but I have not really embraced the fact. Instead, I have focused on other parts of the game and tried to boost ego and tell myself that "I played quite well apart from that one stupid blunder". And from this, I have concluded that there is not really anything wrong with my chess. I just make the occasional bad move. But I am sure you do not make this mistake yourself.
After reading Dan's book, I see this in a new light. I realize that I make a lot of the basic mistakes that Dan comes back to again and again. I do not play slow enough, I do not play safely, and I often place my pieces passively. As long as I keep making these basic mistakes, my chess performance will not increase, regardless of how much opening theory or endgame knowledge I gain.
Here are some examples from some of my recent games.
In the first position, I am black against a stronger opponent. We have played a relatively tactical position that has calmed down somewhat due to several exchanges in the center, including the queens. White has just captured a knight on e4, so I am temporarily down a piece. I had seen this position several moves earlier and had my reply prepared.
As you may have noticed, this wasn't a normal tactics puzzle. The "correct" move is obviously bad, since white takes a piece with check, and black is permanently down a piece and can resign. Instead, the obvious recapture on e4 is correct, and leads to a completely even position.
So why did I make this horrific blunder? Well, as I said, I had already seen this position and decided on my move. My mind was locked on to the idea of trading off more pieces, and I thought that Rxc1 was a nice in-between-move. Once the position was on the board, I played my move instantly, not even taking a fresh look at the position. I think that 10 seconds would have been enough for me to realize that Rxc1 is a blunder, and instead played Nxe4 or Bxe4. I played a good game up to this point, but then I failed to take my time, I didn't check if my move was safe, and I lost.
The next example is an opening blunder. I faced the infamous Smith-Morra gambit and had the audacity to take the pawn on c3. My opponent got quick development and activity for the pawn, but I thought I would make things hard on him and played a "threat" that turned out to be detrimental.
Once again, I made my move very quickly and did not consider the consequences. I thought that if he takes, I take back. I failed to check for the obvious and strong follow-up Qd5, threatening the piece on e5 as well as checkmate. Big oops!
I could include several more examples of silly unsafe moves that could easily have been prevented. But I think you get the idea. And I am sure you could find similar examples in your own games.
But now what? What can I do about this problem? Well, it's obvious, really. I need to follow Dan's advice and take it slowly, and carefully weigh my options before making a move. In order to do this, I will temporarily stop playing blitz, and try to play as many games as I can with longer time controls, and try to (as recommended by Dan), aim to spend almost all my time in every single game. I expect that this will allow me to realize my potential and achieve a playing strength that is at least 200 points higher than my current rating. I believe that I should be able to reach 1700 without any major problems.
But in order to make this happen, I need to stay clear of the basic mistakes that I tend to make, and consistenly keep to the program. Systematically take my time, identify candidate moves, evaluate each move and try to make my pieces as active as possible. In short: Slow, safe and active.
It shouldn't be too hard.