Why am I playing so well?

Why am I playing so well?


So my highest rating for Bullet, Blitz and Standard chess have all happened in this month, September 2014. What have I changed in recent months which helped me improve so much in all areas?

Well first and foremost, playing against better players. For years on this site I had a seek which allowed anyone 200 points higher and lower than my rating to accept. As you'd expect, I played more against players below me than I did above me, and this hurt my rating a lot more when I lost, than it helped it when I won. You can see this simply by looking at my Average Opponent Rating - a relatively small 1560 compared to my now 1827 rating.

Even if we ignore rating points (an objective assessment of my skill), I was subjectively not getting any better, as I wasn't learning much off of those who were (objectively speaking) worse than I was. How could I learn from people when I knew everything they knew?

I'm going to hazard a guess and suggest that around April this year I decided to change my attitude. I refined my seek to still allow those 200 points above me to accept my challenge, but changed the lower threshold to those only 50 points below me. This changed my rating (and subjective skill) dramatically. I was constantly facing opponents much higher rated than myself and from this I learned a lot. Objectively it helped my rating as I gained more when I won than I typically did when I lost, and assuming a 50% win ratio, this boosted my rating. Not to mention that by increasing in rating, I would verse higher and higher opponents.

NB: This change wasn't only to bullet, but to all the various time controls and modes. 

While playing under my old seek parameters I was winning ~60% of my games, yet not improving in rating or skill, I ask you (and myself) what's the point? To win and feel good about myself? I'll tell those of you reading right now, losing constantly while playing against higher rated opponents may not feel good in the short term, but when I broke 1800 in bullet and 1700 in blitz it was thoroughly worth it.

I'd take these numbers reversed and a higher rating any day!

The second change I made which helped my blitz and standard success was actually reviewing my games. I'd heard how necessary reviewing your own games was, but I had honestly rejected the idea thinking that it was much less beneficial than actually playing. However upon completing a few months of reviewing my games I have come to the, and I use this term loosely, profound realisation that there isn't much point in playing games when you don't know where you're making mistakes. All that's doing is causing you pain and stress when you can't figure out why you're constantly losing certain positions, why you're unable to defend against pawn storms, which you constantly have no space etc.

Ever since April, Deep Fritz and myself have been actively searching for the most common mistakes I make in each game, and more importantly, why. I am no longer interested in only looking at games I win, I obviously played well in them, I'm more interested in games I lose, especially those where I lose spectacularly. What features and subtlties of a position do my higher rated opponents see that I miss? How deep are they calculating forcing lines, and why am I not calculating as far? Why do I get cramped in certain openings, and how should I be avoiding these situations? 

The simple realisation that I have a lot to learn, and that the best way of doing that is by reviewing my own games, has really changed my outlook on chess and in particular, chess study. I find myself enjoying the learning process just as much as playing the actual game, and this is exciting for my chess future.

From being rated 1484 in March
to being rated 1722 in September - Just 5 short months of hard work.
The third major change I've made to my chess which has improved my results is finding a playing/study buddy, in real life. For the last few months I've been playing and going over games with my friend Jay. I've been playing longer than Jay and thus am a much stronger blitz and bullet player, but surprisingly I find myself lacking when I play him in longer time control games. He is relatively new to chess (I don't know specifically, but I'd guess he's only been playing seriously for about a year) compared to the 3-4 years I've been playing for, and so struggling against him in longer matches shows a real gap in my chess knowledge.
I'm not trying to say that Jay is a bad chess player, quite the contrary, he's quite a good player considering his time studying the game, and I expect at this rate he'll be at my level and pushing beyond it sooner than I'd like! However what I am trying to point out, that playing and studying with him has improved my understanding of how to play a long game dramatically. I've improved my time management, how deep I calculate, and my positional chess. Classical games are a completely different beast and attempting to tame it has helped my other game modes as well.
I just know he's calculating deeper than I am...

To conclude this post I'd just like to reiterate and say that the key to improvement, is testing yourself. Push past the fear of losing and step into the unknown where players are stronger, faster and more accurate than you are. Losing and learning is much better than winning and plateauing. If you only play chess for fun, by all means continue playing against lower rated players, however if you are serious about improving your chess and taking it to the next level please take my advice. Taking this step to play against better players is tough to do mentally, but once you realise that it's just a game and that to get better you need to play against better players, it's not so bad.
The only common factor in each and every game you play, is you. It's not Ben Finegold, it's not your local chess legend, it's not Deep Fritz, it's you. Therefore the best way to improve future games that you play, is to find out where and why you make mistakes. The player who makes the last mistake loses the game, this holds true. You must be prepared to accept you have weaknesses and take them head on to eliminate them from your game, and only then will you be free to take your game to the next level.
Even though The Mental Game of Poker is all about poker, a lot can be attributed to chess as well.
Finally I'd like to reiterate the importance of finding others to study and play with, specifically someone who can push your game and teach you new things. A chess career (or lifestyle) is a tough road to travel, so do yourself a favour and travel it with someone else. Not only will it be easier, but it will be more satisfying to help and watch each other grow.