Thematic training games - The way to improve for the working chess amateur
A chessfriend had asked me about the best way for the working professional (who has no time for private coaching) to improve his game. Should he read more books or study master games? My take was that the fastest way to get your game up to speed is to play training games with someone who is stronger than you (not someone who is likely to smash you to bits all the time though). A thematic match would be good too, if the openings are made known before hand so that you can improve your lines subsequently, especially if you get 'ambushed' by an idea you have never seen before.
Before the 1st week of October, I haven't played any tournament games since last December, having concentrated full time on chess coaching and book writing this year and in any case, I usually play only one or two events a year. Now, online blitzing (or in my case, rabid bulleting) isn't exactly good preparation to have when my wife found a nice Adelaide holiday for us with 2 chess events thrown in. However, IM Dr Hsu Li Yang (aka 'Legend') offered to play rapid training games to get me into competitive shape before my Oz events. Of course I grabbed the chance to train with an IM rated about 200 points higher than me (and whom I have never beaten in competitive play).
IM Hsu Li Yang (aka 'Legend')
So we just played 2 games a day online over two weeks at night, sometimes even when he went overseas for medical conferences. I got tough lessons indeed, frequently either losing 1.5-0.5 or holding him 1-1 on a daily basis. In the process, I also found my style changing - eg, I start to play faster than usual, not wasting too much time calculating unnecessary variations and I could 'tahan' (endure) worse positions better than before (which is a hallmark of Li Yang's games). It is inevitable that one will adapt his game in the course of a long match.
The final score was 12-8 (in his favour, of course ) but it really should have been about 14-6, since he made three finger-slips which put his queen en-prise in a won game, allowed me to promote a pawn unnecessarily in a drawish game and recaptured wrongly (in an unclear position) but I'll take the result anyway !
Here are four games which I felt are significant in helping me improve.
1) The unsuitable opening (or what not to play against an IM).
This is definitely the wrong choice of opening to play against a stronger opponent. A rope a dope line such as the Alekhine's Defence (and the line I chose) simply concedes space and the master can just keep the pressure on until it gets too much to bear.
2) You can't win 'safely' against a master. He will always find a way to generate counterplay if you dither too long trying to win without taking risks.
I was fortunate to take the point in this game after eschewing g5-g6 at so many junctures and had to rely on time trouble and some luck. So if you have a huge advantage and don't try to use it properly (in this case, the thematic g5-g6 pawn sacrifice), your edge will soon be chipped away.
3) Don't gamble on an opening which you do not have a solid grounding in against a master.
A painful lesson to learn and this guy doesn't even play 1 e4, let alone the Yugoslav attack vs Dragon - although he did prep for this game specifically.
4) Don't assume that your opponent will not accept a dangerous looking piece sacrifice.
Yup. The dare doesn't work, no matter how dangerous it looks. I was definitely much worse after losing material and I was fortunate that the winning move requires computer level calculation.
The training matches certainly helped me get into shape for the Adelaide events which I finished 3rd and beat a strong IM in the process. I was able to calculate faster + clearer and I used the clock better.
I guess the other issue would be...which strong player will bother to play training games with a weaker opponent to beef up the latter's play? Now that one, I hope you got nice friends who are willing to sacrifice their time for your sake .