Chess Improver of the Week of February 23

Feb 25, 2015, 10:24 PM |

Greetings, fellow chess improvers. Each week, members of the Chess Improver group submit losses for analysis and I choose the most instructive submissions to feature as lessons at that level, as well as a showcase win by the submitter to show what good play at that level looks like. The submitter then becomes our Chess Improver of the Week.

Our Chess Improver of the Week is jammufox, whose games will provide a lesson at approximately the novice or beginning intermediate level.

Novice and Beginning Intermediate Level Players

The novice has advanced beyond the improving beginner stage, and for the most part no longer commits simple, one-move blunders that lose material or allow instant checkmate. The novice has mastered the common endgame checkmates and the king and pawn versus king ending, and in addition to basic strategic concepts and more technical endgames, is mainly focused on learning tactics.

The beginning intermediate player has progressed to building short combinations out of individual tactical devices, and is beginning to understand more complex topics such as rook and pawn endgames, attacking the king's position, and pawn structure concepts.

How Novice and Beginning Intermediate Players Lose Games

jammufox said that he is "losing more games to higher rated players" and that he most often plays 1.e4 as White and the Sicilian Defense as Black against 1.e4, and he asked for advice about how to improve:

  1. against higher rated players
  2. as Black
jammufox further related that he thinks that he fails to visualize the patterns that his opponents have available, and that he has difficulties finding the best move, or the weakest link in the opponent's defense. He wants to play better moves and offer tougher resistance to higher rated opponents.

Without even looking at his games, my conviction is that jammufox has misidentified his problem areas, as so many of us so often do.

0) The mention of 1.e4 and the Sicilian Defense implies that jammufox thinks that the openings in his games are somehow related to his results. It is almost a truism that specific opening knowledge is never the reason for a player's losses at this level, so I doubt that openings are causing the issue.

1) It is highly unlikely that jammufox plays at a strong level against lower rated players but then at a weaker level against higher rated players, so I doubt that the rating of his opponents is causing the issue.

2) I doubt that jammufox plays substantially better as White than as Black. This is another implication that jammufox considers that the opening should be his primary concern, because the difference between White and Black - if there actually is any - lasts only through the opening and into the very early middlegame.

In this first game, we see jammufox losing as Black with the Sicilian Defense against a lower rated player. The game seems to be conducted in two acts: in the first act, Black plays steadily, gaining, maintaining, and then increasing his advantage; in the second act, the evaluation swings wildly back and forth. White plays weakly in the opening, and by move seven, it's already clear that the Sicilian Defense has been a tremendous success. An inaccuracy by Black on move eight is rewarded by the unforced winning of an important pawn on the eleventh move. Black then identifies White's weakened kingside as a target and commences an attack that results in a winning advantage for Black. Black's 20th move throws away all of the advantage, immediately after which White returns some of it but Black insists on handing White the advantage, and then on move 23 White slips back into a losing position again. On move 25 Black missed a quick forced mate, and then on move 27 walked into a forced draw. On move 30, Black was winning again, but one move later slipped back into a drawn position, and then a White error on move 33 would have resulted in a Black win if Black hadn't preferred to repeat the the same drawn position, and finally Black's 35th move walked into a losing position. Unfortunately, this time, White did not return the favor, and Black resigned after White's 36th move.

This was a "Online" (meaning correspondence) game with a time control of 5 days per move beginning on January 25, 2015, and ending on February 15, 2015. That means that 71 moves were played by both sides in 22 days, for an average of just under 8 hours per move (consider that each player had other things to do during the day, among them six to ten hours of sleep, and we realize that the actual time per move was far less than 8 hours ... I'd be willing to bet at least 7:55 less than 8!). We therefore know that all of the moves of this game were rushed by both sides. There is no other explanation for the fact that in the final 17 moves, the evaluation swung wildly no less than ten times! So there's my first piece of advice for how to improve: don't rush your moves. In correspondence games such as these, try to spend at least an hour or two on each move, and I advise you to decide on your move, record it along with notes showing why you chose it, and then on another day - maybe the very next day - come back and check your move before actually playing it. In other words, you should at least average 2 days per move. Whatever time control you're playing by, use the time you have available to you.

jammufox had identified as one of his problems failing to visualize the opponent's patterns, which I would rephrase as "failure to consider the opponent's possibilities". Of course, this is an issue for all players at the intermediate and lower levels, but I think jammufox actually is taking the time to identify his opponents' ideas. Take Black's 20th move as an example. Black seemed to have identified White's good response to 20...f5 (21.Bxe6+), and so addressed the check that would delay Black's attack. The problem isn't failing to identify the opponent's possibilities, but that it seems that Black ended all thought there and played that move. This is just a step above what we call knee-jerk reaction. Your opponent has a threat and you play the first move that you find that addresses that threat. There are several other possibilities: perhaps there is a more important threat, perhaps there is at least one other, better way of dealing with the threat directly, perhaps the threat can be dealt with indirectly, or perhaps the threat can be ignored because it simply isn't strong enough to worry about, or perhaps your opponent can be "pulled off balance" so to speak by allowing the threat to be executed. In the game, for example, Black could have improved on 20...Kg7? by ignoring White's threat and playing 20...f5 immediately. Even better, though, would have been 20...c4, eliminating not only the possibility of the check, but also the capture on e6, and gaining time by the attack on the bishop.

That was a specific example, a particular symptom, let's say. The general problem is the lack of concrete calculation. Looking over this game, it seemed to me as though Black played virtually on autopilot, with almost no concrete calculation of any kind. In my experience, this seems to be the curse of the intermediate player. Once a player acquires a certain amount of knowledge and a certain level of understanding, there seems to be a tendency to stop thinking, instead applying general principles and whatever relatively few strategic and tactical patterns the player has mastered up to that point. This is where progress stops for many of us, and we languish at the class level, never improving either our understanding or our results beyond the intermediate level. It is the curse of many promising players. It is more than obvious that toward the end of the game, jammufox wasn't calculating at all. This is very common. The takeaway here is that concrete calculation is not something that can be avoided, in spite of what you think Capablanca or whoever said about how many moves he tends to calculate. Aside from visualization, calculation is the most fundamental of the five fundamental chess skills (visualization, calculation, analysis, evaluation, and planning); you should be applying it often, in every game.


  1. Don't rush your play; use the time you have available.
  2. Do not react precipitously to your opponent's threats. In general, "sit on your hands"; follow Damiano's advice: if you see a good move, do not play it immediately, but look for a better one.
  3. Don't replace conscious thinking with general principles; in particular, don't avoid concrete calculation.

How Novice and Beginning Intermediate Players Win Games

In direct contrast with his two main concerns, let's see how jammufox wins against a higher rated opponent, with the Black pieces. In this game, jammufox once again obtained the advantage out of the opening (though nowhere near as cleanly as in the previous game) and won an important pawn, White failed to generate any meaningful counterplay, and after a brief exchange of somewhat inconsequential moves, jammufox nailed the transition into the endgame, and continued the pressure even after that, finally putting on an endgame clinic on how to win with two connected passed pawns in a bishop ending.

Even in that game, there were signs of the same weaknesses we identified, but more of jammufox's strengths came to the forefront, and the result was a nice win against a higher rated opponent. Solid beginning intermediate play!