Over the past few months, I've had to ask myself a lot of tough questions about my chess. Am I past my peak? Is my priority performance or enjoyment? Should I keep working on trying to stay above 2500? Is it even worth trying to improve now? And if so, how can I best maximise my return on the limited time I have to devote to chess?
It was brought to a head during my supposedly 'triumphant' return to Australian chess at the Queensland Championships in 2017. It was my worst tournament result ever since becoming a grandmaster. Even more concerning was that first the first time ever, I wanted to withdraw from a tournament, for the shallow reason that I simply hated playing chess. Every minute, every move, I wished I was somewhere else, doing something else. I struggled through the final rounds distracted by the quite reasonable rationalisation that if these feelings persisted in the future, I'd best seriously consider giving up competitions. Depressing stuff.
And so, as 2018 started to come closer, I thought long and hard about what chess means to me, objectively assessed both my priorities and my potential, and devised a strategy. And what better time than the new year to put it into action?
The first revelation, or rather, decision was that I should stop caring about my rating. Ratings are useful when a player is trying to improve, as they set motivating goals and help to measure the fruits of one's labours - so long as one understands the lag time between knowledge and results. But realistically, I'm no longer looking to improve to any great professional level, and having a secular career, my time for both study and tournaments is limited. 2500 has always been some sort of psychological threshold for me, and I've managed to hover my ELO in the 2500-2540 range consistently for the last 8 years or so. But this level is more an emotional (selfish?) barrier than something that objectively matters. The real reason I've kept playing chess for almost 30 years is because I love the game: its richness, its excitement, its beauty. And, now that I'm old(ish), if there's a trade-off between points and pleasure in my chess, I choose the latter.
Making that decision was perhaps the hardest part of the whole process. It was something of a huge relief, to be honest, and creating a strategy after that was almost fun.
There are a number of elements to my new plan, but let me tell you about two simple ones. The first is a change in opening repertoire. For a long time I've played what I know, whether it be safe openings from my childhood (e.g. the 2.c3 Sicilian, the French Defence...), or new sidelines I've worked on myself (e.g. my Scandinavian). Occasionally I flirted the idea of learning one of the opening 'celebrities' like the King's Indian Defence and Sicilian Najdorf to my coaches and peers, but I always got the same replies: "These are lifelong openings people start playing when they're kids", "You can't play it seriously without hundreds of hours of studying theory", "You'll just get smashed by the pros". Particularly in the case of the King's Indian, I was told that I'd probably be the world's oldest GM to take up the opening, and that there was a good reason for this... But just like that crush you had on the most popular girl in school, you may as well just try. After all, what's to lose? A bit of pride?
So, I'm going to start playing the King's Indian. Easiest New Year's resolution ever.
But while I'm not going to make ratings my priority, I still want to keep sharp and maintain my chess understanding. To do that, I needed to find the best way to maximise the knowledge I can take in for the time I have to spend, seeing as most of every day goes into my regular job. And as any good economist will tell you, in such situations, the secret is to pay someone else! Hence, I signed up for a new venture: GM Max Illingworth's Patreon site, "The Future of Chess Learning".
I've never heard of Patreon before, or its novel structure of users making 'pledges' to the creators of content. But it seems like a pretty reasonable model to me. In any case, I didn't care about that, because I knew that when it comes to chess content, Max is really first class. In fact, I recommended him to my old employers Chess Publishing, where he continues to be arguably their best columnist, and even hired him as my own second in a (very successful!) GM round-robin event. He's fantastic. Basically, for $8 a month, I get sent at least four different chess articles by Max per day! Usually it's an interesting puzzle with detailed solutions, some new opening analysis with a couple of novelties thrown in, a lesson about structures or endgames, or a well-annotated recent game. Most importantly, the articles are quite short but straight to the point, so I can read them quickly and absorb the main take-away messages. And if I don't have time for a chess break on a given work day, I can always come back over the weekend and catch up on all the new stuff.
One thing I really like about Max's analysis is that he often uses top correspondence and engine games. He sent us 'Patrons' a really interesting post over Christmas, given my first resolution about the King's Indian. He used a recent correspondence game to analysis a sideline of the heavy Mar Del Plata variation and claims to have found an interesting fortress idea. Here's a screenshot:
You can probably tell by now that I highly recommend joining Max's Patreon site if like me you're looking to improve your chess but you're short on time (or just lazy). For about 25 cents a day, it really is a bargain. By the way, I don't get paid anything to review or recommend any of the sites, products or books I write about on my blog. In Max's case, I know he puts his life into chess analysis, and I genuinely hope his new endeavour is successful. In any case, given my new chess resolutions, I'm more than happy to be a Patron.