Thursday, May 31, 2012

Openings Manifesto

I just re-read this PDF:  Training in chess:  A scientific approach.  It emphasizes things that should be familiar to most Knights Errant, and most chess students.  But it also argues persuasively against many chestnuts.  I'll probably refer to it from time to time, as I have a few different ideas about studying than the traditional advice that gets passed down through the generations.  Today I'm concerning myself with the openings, and choosing an opening.

The typical advice that you see spewed out by wise coaches and spelling-challenged commentators alike is:  "Don't waste your time learning an opening!  As soon as you get done with your eight moves, or your opponent deviates, you're stuck and lost!  Learn endgames first, study a general strategy book, and play over master games."

As soon as you get done with your eight moves, you are not lost.  You are presented with a position that you need to come to understand.  You will see this position later, when you review your game, when you practice your opening, and when an opponent presents you with it again.  It is inefficient to keep chucking your pieces out there unsystematically and presenting yourself with new positions time after time.  As much as I love and value Silman's strategy workbooks,  I am not Silman and shouldn't yet be trying to figure out plans by looking at an unfamiliar position.  I should already have a clue as to what my plan should be, and test to see if it's still applicable and why.  You are much better off presenting yourself with a Dutch Stonewall repeatedly, and learning how to get your knight onto e4.

The same applies to endgame study.  Beyond learning the common endgame techniques, you shouldn't be studying general endgames.  You should be studying endgames that can be reached from your openings.  You should learn to win the endgames you've encountered in your own games, and learn to win won endgames of master games in your openings.  Of course, I'm dubious about the value placed on studying endgames for beginners, but it does provide good tactical training and brute force training on how the pieces inter-operate, so it's probably good advice after all.

The same applies to playing over master games.  You shouldn't be studying Fischer's games if you're trying to master 1.d4 or 1..f5.

Pattern recognition is key to chess mastery.  You need to master your positions, and it all flows from the opening.  Obviously, this isn't black and white or absolute or maximizing of optimal joy, but yes, every adult chess student should pick a partial repertoire of openings they like and stick with it for a while.  Yes, they should learn some of the moves by rote.  They should understand the plans they need to execute when they get out of their short book.

So now we turn to me, because it's my blog.  It will become clear shortly that I have typical newbie openings angst, the type of angst that the "Don't learn openings!" crowd is kindly trying to protect me from. The situation is this:

  • I should learn aggressive openings and learn how to attack.
  • I'm uncomfortable playing in a gambit style and wonder if I should choose aggressive non-gambits.  It seems stressful.
  • But I do have visions of swashbuckling at the local coffee houses!
  • I do value learning plan-based openings, with consistent structural demands.  "Attack" might be too broad a plan.
  • I value offbeat, especially at low to mid-amateur levels.  However, I'm conservative by nature.
  • I'd like to get onto the business of choosing a long-term repertoire, and learning those patterns and strategies.
Okay, let's get to it!

1. e4.  Gambit-y.  If not 100% gambit-y, it's because 100% gambits seems a little exhausting and stressful.  Do I have the wrong attitude?
  • Evan's Gambit (Italian)
  • Smith-Morra Gambit (Sicilian) - The Wing Gambit (2.b4) seems interesting, because it's easy to get to and gets me started on the 2.a3 Sicilian.  But SM gets me started on the Alapin.
  • Cochrane Gambit (Petroff) - Every gambiteer probably has one or two favorites.  I love this one!  How come the whole world doesn't play this gambit?!  Don't answer that.
  • Panov-Bottvinik (CK) - Maybe. But there are some gambits I might like.
  • Alekhine-Chatard (French) - The Alapin comes sooner, however...

Okay, this is where the crazy starts.  My Black choices are still in committee.  The bipolar nature of my choices reflects this.  Generally, these are the competing ideas: 

a) I think I might like the Dutch, starting with the Stonewall.  The plan is clear enough that even I might be able to get a handle on it.  I like the idea of sometimes having something different to learn about chess than gambits. I like the idea of taking a break from the gambits.  I also like the idea of having at least one "solid" opening I might like to keep for the long haul.

b) But the Leningrad looks good too and is tactical.  Aesthetically, I like the opening setup and the e5 plan.  However, my opening book says that the Stonewall position is crucial to understand even for the Leningrad.

c) I believe in the power of offbeat openings.

d)  Maybe I should just gambit it up as Black as well. The Dutch seems like a jarring departure from my themes.

Anyway, enough preamble.  These are the current choices:
  • Against offbeats: Just wing it for now.
  • Against 1. d4 and friends:  Dutch Stonewall, possibly starting with 1..e6 because...
  • Against 1. e4:
    • Balogh Defense (1.e4 d6 2.d4 f5), or 
    • Kingston Defense (1.e4 e6 2.d4 f5), or
    • Kingston Defense, Franco-Hiva Gambit (1.e4 e6 2.d4 f5 3.exf5 Nf6?)
Both the Balogh and the Kingston are Staunton Gambits Declined, and the move order avoids some of the anti-Dutches (I think).  I could learn the Staunton Gambit Accepted, but I don't like having to defend against a gambit when I'm the gambiteer!  Why should I let my opponent have that "advantage"?  I prefer the idea of turning the tables.  If I learn the Balogh or Kingston, and even play it as my e4 defense, then I will be very comfortable when I decide to face the Staunton Gambit.

The idea is also that learning an unknown, somewhat weak opening is a nice placeholder to cut down on the theory I have to learn initially, a placeholder that will still have practical value against the Staunton Gambit when I start to fill in my 1.e4 defense repertoire.

The computer engines don't think much of the Kingston, and they hate the Franco-Hiva.  However, the Balogh is somewhat weak, but not horrible.  Either would give me home turf advantage, and move order flexibility.

Or, alternatively as a Black defense, I could
  • Learn the Scandinavian gambits against e4 (Marshall, Portugese, Icelandic)
  • Learn the Soller Gambit against d4
The Soller and the Icelandic look cool.  But I feel obligated to learn a lot of theory for all these gambits.  And it all seems so "nerve-wracking", as Temposchlucker concluded after seven years as a gambiteer.  In fact, I'd say that Temposchlucker's repertoire decisions are very close to mine, except I'm several years behind him.  Non-risky by nature, we realized we needed to learn tactics and how to attack.

It's way too soon to decide, but I imagine myself doing something in the Bird/Dutch/Polar Bear.  I find the idea of consistent pawn structures and plans very appealing.  I like the Dutch, and I like that it's less popular.  But who knows.  I have a lot to explore.

It's still Tactics, Tactics, Tactics.  This is a lot of words for very little upcoming study.  But I'm getting ready!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Progress Not Perfection

Thirteen years ago, a new friend asked me if I played chess.  When I responded that I didn't, he looked crestfallen.  He seemed like a nice fellow, and he was also one of the few people around that had a car to escape the miserable college campus where I was stranded.  I offered, helpfully and hopefully, that from childhood I knew how the pieces moved and knew the rules.  Off we drove to a coffee shop where I happily received drubbing after drubbing, sipping on my $2 coffee.  I'm proud to say I pushed out 1. e4 and 1..e5 every time.  Right out of the gate, I was winning by force!... even if I failed to find that win.

But I vowed revenge (as well as vowing to give my friend a decent game) and I secretly embarked on a passionate, library-fueled study of chess.  I did eventually get some vengeance.  But time and difficulty and poor studying plans took their toll, and I eventually abandoned the path.  It wasn't a heartbreak, but I never could bring myself to give away all my chess books...

I've rekindled my interest.  This is a chess patzer's blog.  I've never blogged, and I don't know that I want to be a blogger.  But I do know that I want to be a Knight Errant, and this is a prerequisite of membership.  Now that blogging is a given, I'll try to use it to advantage. 

The Plan
My study plan is different.  Before, I had wanted to hide behind closed pawn structures and avoid having to become a tactical genius.  Tactics were cool enough, but it wasn't elegant.  I realized eventually that in order to post your knight to the fifth rank, that knight has to gallop through a minefield of tactics.  Moreover, many positional moves seem impossible, until you dig deep enough and see that the obvious countermoves fail to tactics.  Any review of the games of a closed position master demonstrates this.

Now I embrace tactics and the attack.  This is my plan.

My current goal isn't to improve at chess.  My first goal is to improve at a game called Tactical Chess Puzzles.  I want to get a Class B rating in Tactical Chess Puzzle.  I've heard this game is based on chess.  To this end, I'm embarking on a de la Maza-style Seven Circles. I wanted to start with easy tactics.  I want to have a firm grip on the foundational patterns and work on ever harder tactics with subsequent Circles.  I ordered Chess Tactics for Students, by John A. Bain.  It hasn't arrived yet, so I've started on 303 Tricky Chess Puzzles. I'll probably merge the two when the Bain book arrives.  750 problems is more than I would have liked for my first effort, so perhaps I'll use all of the Bain book and just use the easiest half of the 303 book.

I'm halfway through the 303 book, and some of them are out of my reach.  I'm pretty sure I'm a worse tactician than I was thirteen years ago, and I was never very good.  Now I'm older and more tired.  But it doesn't matter.  Right now my sole training requirement is to do my daily tactical puzzles.  Everything after that I consider "for the love of the game" entertainment.

I am a complete convert to the College of Tactics, Tactics, Tactics.  Graduate studies are more varied, but demand this prerequisite.

Seirawan's openings book recommends Nf3, g3, Bg2, O-O, and I obeyed.  I can't imagine a worse recommendation for beginners.  This otherwise fine introductory book should be banned from libraries everywhere, for this offense alone.  These type of openings might be more my style (I actually have no idea yet!), but I absolutely have to learn how to attack.  Up until now, I've avoided using the term "positional" in place of "closed positions".  Open, tactical situations are positional and they have positional demands - the demand is that you have to use your force and tempi.  To the extent I'm learning openings, my repertoire now includes many good gambits and many somewhat dubious gambits.  To be honest, they make me uncomfortable, but closed positions become open, and opponent defensive mistakes must be identified and pounced upon.

I have Vulkovic's Art of the Attack and Alburt's King in Jeopardy.  I might eventually make a study of those.  Gah.  I have so much to learn.  I'm so clueless.

That's the plan right now.  That's it.  Circles and attacking openings.  The extras (Openings, Goals, Tools, etc.) to come.