Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Playing Down

Because of the busy schedule, I committed to chess by starting a club at work during lunch time. There are a lot of folks who “” and were eager to playing someone who played “seriously” or at least, used to. What this means is that there is a mixed bag of competition who’s playing strength is marginally on par with my most rusty capabilities… but I welcome it.
It’s like playing as the top seed in the lowest section of tournament. The expectation is that you’d win EVERY TIME… but reality is I don’t and it’s more embarrassing for me who can “talk a good game” but following through is much different story.  I also know playing up a section in a tournament is always better for improving performance than playing in the top percentile of the lower section.
But I need to take some rust off. So this once a week lunch time chess club is what I have to work with. The “” are also learning to play with real opponents, slowing down, playing with a real clock, and not just blitz and mouse clicks. So, I think I am also providing a service and spreading the enthusiast chess bug around. We play G15 time controls which is quick ( for an old timer like myself), have a club rating system and monthly matches for friendly bragging rights. The time control allows us to get a game in during a lunch break as the corporate world often bookends meetings around lunch breaks.

I use this as a sparring practice. G15 time control forces me to really not dwell to much in the opening and have a plan for the middle game so I can try to capitalize for the point. Problem is that, if I  get thrown a doozy of an opening variant… and I know I should be able to punish my opponent if I had the time, the quick and dirty “” are used to such shenanigans that they once in a while are able to squeak in a point.  I find going back to the database following a defeat sooths the bruised ego and I move on. Tactical training helps me in some of these games as I can see knight forks, discovered attacks and mating nets a little better than this group though that’s changing. As I am learning to adapt to their style of play, they are getting better as well.  So, it’s all good.

One other thing I will mention is how board blindness seems to be a big thing in G15 games for me and a couple of other players.  For myself, it happens when I am short on time and I hyper-focus on a small part of the board.  Others talk about how the clock is a huge distraction… talking about increasing time limits for the game. I’m reluctant, as I think this is good training for us and levels the playing field.  I’m older and rusty. Short time controls give my younger novice players a little more of an advantage as well as forces them to work within the constraints.

Sparring is good practice no matter at what level. I am using this opportunity to find ways to improve my quick chess skills as this has always been a hindrance for me. I also think if I can improve my ability at these time controls, my abilities at “normal time” will improve especially where I have run into time trouble. Learning how to be flexible with odd openings and players who play “out of the book” on move 2 or 3 is also good practice for me to better understand my repertoire and when mainlines are not played… how to capitalize on them…eventually. Tactics is still my middle name and I practice these as a baseline foundation almost daily. Learning  how to efficiently and consistently defeat players of developing strengths at my “rusty-yet-barely-above-novice-playing-level” is good to keeping my ego at check. I am blunderprone after all.

Who knows, maybe I’ll play in an OTB tournament later in 2018.  See you on the other side of the board.  

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Making room for Chess

Two years slipped by and it feels like yesterday. Let’s see, since my last post more “life stuff” happened. My other parent was in her last chapter, I changed jobs, kids got married, and lots of travel. Since my last real active blogging days 4 or 5 years ago, my priorities have changed dramatically in terms of chess. The time it takes to dedicate to this game is all a matter of perspective and what you really want out of it. Let’s face it, the goal of the 2000 rating is a siren call I see from a lot of us “serious players”.  But it requires constant upkeep of skills, self evaluation, and professional help ( coaches, instructions …well maybe even therapists). Where to fit all that in when life creates tsunamis round you making that chess board the lowest of all priorities.

What bothers me, is that the investment of time I committed to in the past, doesn’t just come back over the board like riding a bicycle.  It’s difficult not to fall into a small bit of self-loathing or pity over the  wasted hours spent learning the game only goes atrophy after months of inactivity. How did I used to play this opening? What are the themes going into the middle game? Does the horsey go next to he tower?  ( well not that bad… but you get my drift.)  It makes it harder to say …”THIS TIME I’M GOING TO JUMP BACK IN”.

How to feed my passion for this game when so many other things are demanding my attention?  I am trying out a path through work. I infected some folks at my new company with the passion for a little competition at work in this century old game.   I have started a weekly club  at work and that’s about all the room I have for it.

Do I want to play in tournaments again?… some day… maybe… just not now.  Moderate weekly sparring at work is OK for now. Don’t  I want to go after that 2000 USCF rating?  Right now, I’d rather spend a few cycles having fun in this game again.

So I wax nostalgically with the new players at work. Since my father passed, I inherited all his old sets and those from the days of the Brunswick Chess Club. I spent some time cleaning up 40 year old vintage club sets from the Drueke Player’s choice series ( weighted) and started bring these in for the company chess club.  I feel like I am playing on home turf as these were the pieces I cut my teeth on and learned this game.  Going back to my roots is always a good thing.

No promises, but I may keep you up to date once in a while.



Sunday, August 02, 2015

Wait. I play chess?

That’s how it feels this summer. I’ve been caught up with typical life things called work and family. I haven’t been doing anything chess related since my last post and oddly I’m Ok with that.  I’m working on an interesting medical device at work and spending extra time learning new things.  Putting time into learning new skills seems to provide more bang for the buck  than boning up on the latest variation and nuances of the Caro-Kann defense.

Speaking of other satisfying pursuits, I’m also in a part time band. Again, learning new songs and techniques also seems to satisfy the neural plasticity excitation I was seeking for a long time with pure chess endeavors.  A part of my past is that I wanted to be a rock star back in high school ( who didn’t).  I had a parallel life.  Dad tried to convince me that the right girls were attracted to the guys in the chess club for their intelligence.  I doubled down and played in a rock and roll band because, well, Dad wasn’t always right.

This brings me to another topic, I’m writing about those wanna be rock start days and how it didn’t quite work out the way I had dreamed coming from a small college town in Brunswick.  I was inspired after reading several biographies of Rock and Roll stars, that I thought “ What about those of us not growing up in London, New York or San Fran who had a lot of misguided attempts and misconceptions and tried anyway.”  So I am investigating my misspent youth and how the partying and rock and roll attempts usually ended up in the wrong place.

Would any of you readers be the least bit interested in reviewing early material here as snippets from my chapters?  I am toying with this idea or do you want chess only posts from me?

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Building a better time machine

When I say time machine, what I mean is a chess clock. A few years ago I was involved in a project that was to add USB to a chess clock to aid TD and users in general who have trouble setting the chronos or other digital chess clocks especially in the large scholastic arena where the TD’s are expected to help set chess clocks.

I had worked on a proto type with a similar look and feel to the chronos.  I had a partner who was helping with supply chain and “ideas” but as things happen, my partner bailed and I was going through some “life stuff” that back burnered the project and the previous ~$2K out of my pocket start up costs for first prototypes etc.

I am at a point where I might resurrect this project again. But in 2010, USB was the siren call to help minimize set up time for users and lessen the headaches of my TD friends.  I am thinking today, USB would be nice but maybe a Bluetooth enabled chess clock so you can configure it with a smart phone?

What are your ideas fellow readers?  Do you see  adding USB and Bluetooth  for user interface of a chess clock a nice evolution? If so how much more would you be willing to pay for it?  What about the display?  How about other features ( move recording is not on the table for this iteration but I do have ideas on alternatives to DGT’s overpriced system). 

I may not be a great chess player, but I am a pretty decent engineer with experience in building things like this. So tell me what you would like to see in a “Time machine” from Blunderprone.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Mastery: Dabblers, Obsessives, and Hackers

From my last post, one reader commented that I should read some books about sports psychology. It reminded me of a book I did read on the subject a few years ago called Mastery: The keys to success and long term fulfillment by George Leonard.  You can read the cliff notes version of it from here:
The goal driven nature  entrenched in our society fuels a competitive atmosphere where we are constantly measured up against each other’s successes in various pursuits. This  puts the emphasis on the make or break end result rather than enjoyment of the pursuit.  What I liked about his approach is the caricatures  he presents as a result of the lopsided focus on results.

The Dabbler:

The Dabbler attempts each new sport, hobby, or interest with initial enthusiasm but quickly loses interest and moves on to the next shiny pursuit once the initial one slows down, or encounters difficulties.  Dabblers start many new things with gusto but once they hit a wall or plateau move on.

The Obsessive:

The Obsessive lives for the growth spurt in a skill. If he's not constantly and actively growing he presses himself harder and faster. Eventually the Obsessive burns out and moves on to something else. A  lot of the old “ Knights errant” had fallen  into this category.  I think Michael De La Maza was one as well.

The Hacker:

As for the HACKER, once he has passed over the first major growth spurt and is on the first plateau he just stays there. He doesn't actively spend time trying to learn and grow. He just tinkers with the bit of skill he's developed and remains satisfied at that level. But who wants to be just a hack in the competitive chess world?

So What are the keys to mastery then?

The book goes on to describe the keys to mastery: Instruction, Practice, Surrender and Intentionality. Those last two we tend to forget about. Surrendering means being willing to lose a few as we change styles. For instance,   I knew I was going to lose rating points when I surrendered my old opening system a few years back ... and I did...but having done so  I have since gained valuable knowledge in D-pawn games.   Recently, I have become uncomfortable in open positions. I need to surrender and embrace the learning process once more.

As for Intentionality, this refers to focus. I lose focus with all the distraction life throws and then I fall into either of the three categories.  Getting to the point where I am OK with plateaus and set backs is hard when every cell in my body feels like it needs to be measured against some gage for success. Changing the mindset to be at ease with the way things are is a meditation in and of itself. It brings me back to basics as to why I love this game in the first place. I love the learning process. If I can remind myself of this more often before the games in a tournament, the more I can enjoy the journey.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Psychological Game: Confidence Index

I recently played in a one day G30 event with friends. Despite my deliberate practice honing chess skills with my opening repertoire, positions that may arise and tactics; when you’re off your mark, you will have poor results.  After a draw and three goose-eggs , I decided to cut my losses and not play in the last two rounds. The organizer for this mini event summed it up this way.

“ I look at chess skills in 6 factors, openings, middle games, endgames, positional, tactics and performance. It’s that last one, even if you are up on all the other 5, if you are playing as if someone keeps poking you with a tack, then your performance will suffer. “ -MK

I had some time to reflect on this.  In my last post (, I drew a game that had I played it correctly earlier I could have won, the end position was a loss for black but I was happy to come out of it with a draw.  Part of the issue is getting used to a faster time control, which I wanted to do and why I agreed to play in this event.  With my schedule getting into a once a month event G30 event  gives me 6 serious enough games to see my progress in my studies and keep the rust off.  So that’s my motivation.

Psych element 1: Worrying about ratings:

Depending on the event, if I come in at the bottom of the roster, I have nothing to lose in the first round and I find my performance is improved.  When I play in an event where I am in the middle or top, the first round can be a little more stressful for me in a swiss pairing event.  This is especially true when paired with a lower rated player ( going for it). In the round robin event of the G30, we were evenly paired in ratings.  Notice how I am taking about ratings?  I should just play the board, never mind about my opponent’s rating and how many points are on the line, right? In practice, I find this is not easy to do. I’ve tried many tricks like deliberately not look at the rating when the pairings are posted. But regardless of my efforts I fall into the rating trap.

The first Psychological element I bump up against is worrying about rating points ( one of the reasons I like playing “up”).  I usually give myself a few minutes of mediation before each round to keep this element in check but playing in a quick event or some venues don’t allow for me to go to a contemplative space to clear my head.  I’m not using this as an excuse, I am just making myself aware of how important that “Inner Game” is in terms of performance.
So, that first round in my head went kind of like this:

(on looking at the pairings) – “I see my opponent is only a few rating points higher than me, I could win this. “

( opening phase) – “ He’s playing an off beat variant of my Caro-Kann Defense, if I can get to a middle game, I’ll bet I can out play him.”

(Middle game)- “ Cool, I’ve got that advanced –pawn chain, I know what to do and now, look! I can get double advanced passers”

(End game) – “Crap, he’s now got pawn majorities on both sides, my king can’t keep them back. How’d I let this game slip away? ( spiral begins)  Thank GOD he offered me a draw under time pressure.”

Psych Element 2: Out of comfort zone

In round 2, I was paired with someone with a lower rating who played a Benko Gambit, my least prepared opening preparation.  Already my head was in a deficit mode about trying to outperform my opponent but I just was out of my element.  I had cursory knowledge of this gambit line and decided not to take that second pawn. Then odd things happened. Being out of my comfort zone, I found I had to rely more on my  calculation skills which are not that great even with “normal time” chess matches. In a G30, I found myself going “ Let’s see, I need to get e4 in play but he’s already got that square protected, maybe I should just take the pawn on b5 with my knight.. awe hell, Nxb5 (hits clock). “  The game kind of went along those lines so that by move 28 I dropped a piece:

Aside from needing to understand this gambit more and become more comfortable with the position ( it’s on my list), I need to figure out a way to “recover” from a disappointment  such as this.  My spirit was crushed. Didn’t Bobby Fischer say something about enjoying that moment when he crushed his opponent’s spirit?  

Psych Element 3: The Confidence index

When I play in a tournament, and have a first round win, the next couple rounds I play more to my chess skills and less to my psychological deficits.  I call this the confidence index.  After 2 disappointing rounds, I entered round three again looking at my opponent’s rating and AGAIN with an odd variant from my Caro-Kann (out of my comfort zone).  Here’s the odd part, Round one versus Round three, I reached the same exact position on my move 3.  The first round, I was brave and bold and went for 3…d4 to try something new and mix it up.  It may not be correct, but it took my opponent out of the book and gave me a middle game position I at least knew what to do with. I had MORE CONFIDENCE.

On round three, 3...d4 was NOT EVEN considered!  I was already playing with a mental deficit that had me looking at the higher rated player, out of my comfort zone, I wasn’t willing to take risks or even think of them! After the game, I was amazed at how that blind spot came up and I just went for “rote” moves ( dxe4, bf5 etc) because I was looking for familiarity. I wanted “comfort food” moves to just get through this game. I was mated on move 13.

Here’s this aberration:

The confidence index is a strong one and could sum up all these elements. When you are out of your element you lack confidence. When you worry about ratings, you lack confidence.  In my last game, I was OK in the opening stages despite the QGA not being my strongest preparation.  But I found my calculations, and ability to shift gears into an open position dropping my confidence and I lost rather quickly.  Hanging pieces is an indication for me that these psychological elements had taken over my actual playing ability. It was as if I was being poked with a tack.

The Take-aways:

  •        Yes, I need  therapy.  J
  •         I need to figure out how to just play the game and develop more self awareness of when these psychological elements start to come up.  If I am conscious of them, I have meditative techniques that I can use to regulate them.
  •         I have some work to do with my game: 2 Knights C-K solution, Benko Gambit,  understand Open pawn structures ( open center, open Queen’s wing).