Sunday, October 11, 2009

Building A Repertoire, And Mastering It

"I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand."

For the last months I've been busy building up an opening repertoire. Not that I didn't have one before, as I've played the same openings for a year or two already. But although I did put some work into it, it never was very systematic nor thorough. Reading books, studying games, blitzing the openings, sure, but I never really focused into it as with tactics. And I probably didn't need to, except maybe considering blitz where it really turned out to be surprisingly useful. There was just always other more important things to train.

So, now I've finally reached the point where I feel it's usefull to dive deep into it, and will be properly focusing on openings for some time. I began booking up on my selected openings a few months ago, going through videos & books and putting all the relevant lines into a database. All of which I've gone through many times already, so I'm somewhat familiar with the ideas, but shaky on the actual variations. Such knowledge is simply not digestable without extensive drilling, and although some of it stays with you, most of the details evaporate fairly soon.

It's still very much a work in progress, as playing a sicilian there's just such a huge ground to cover. I'm also already training the parts I've already plugged in, but still only beginning to cover anti-sicilians, not to even mention polar bear. I've got maybe 30% of the eventual material plugged in, of which I've now drilled (exhaustively) about 30%. So maybe 90% of the drilling still ahead, and also getting rest of the planned material into a database. This might take a while. It's not hard, but time consuming. A year, or two, but months at minimum. There are existing dbs, but I really want to construct my own versions, handpicking what I need.

The method of training is very much the same as with tactics: Drill the positions until they're second nature to you. Effortless, instant recognition of familiar elements and related patterns. -In practice I've got the lines in Chess Position Trainer, every opening as a separate sub-repertoire, from which I drill random lines until I know them inside out. Currently I'm doing lines from move 1 into the end of the line, around 16-30 moves deep generally. In sicilian the first 11-12 are pretty much fixed, so it's manageable. Also, I might not remember people's names, but this is the type of memorization I excell in.

In time I plan to switch into drilling from random positions, which requires accurate recognition of all the elements present in the given position. Out of order recollection. So far it seems that might turn out to be much easier than it sounds, the lines are not only sinking in well but also the triggering details start sort of popping up. Many of which you never knew about before, but somehow just deduce from constant exposure in different but similar positions. The black box of the brain at its best, nonverbally and unconsciously classifying patterns from a jumble of data. It doesn't need reasons or narrative, just feed it huge amount of data and let it do what it evolved to do best.

What I'm seeking to gain with all this, is a basic, rock solid opening repertoire. It won't be 'complete' by any definition of the word, nor it will be final. But it'll provide my brain a blitz-proof model of all mainlines and basic deviations, a geometry I can instantly recollect and recognize with no calculation. A base on which to build further understanding of the related typical middle- and engame positions and schemes. And when it's all in I'll probably start adding other openings as well, just to complement the understanding by learning different types of positions. But that's another project for another time.

Well, enough banter, back to work.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

1506 on ICC 5-minute Blitz!

F i n a l l y ! It's been over two years since I first crossed 1400 on ICC 5-minute, and even though the effort has been sporadic at best, it still took more than enough time. I've had these spells of blitz in which I decide to work on it properly, but they've seldom lasted for more than a couple of weeks at a time. Then 3-8 months of hiatus, and back on it. -It's always been hard to keep myself motivated to train blitz more, as slow chess has always gone so much better for me. Obviously you always much rather do things you're good at. Hopefully that'll change for the better now after reaching a basic level of not dropping everything in every game, so my stratItalicegic/positional strengths should also begin affecting the games. Still much to do on the basic technique though, and I'll also no doubt dive back under 1500 soon enough. Gotta just keep hammering.

It took me 1002 of 5-minute games on ICC, and 2679 on FICS, so roughly 3700 games in total over the four years I've played chess. From what I've heard from other people, they've needed less than half of it to get onto the same level. Maybe it's a side-effect of starting chess 30-years old, but frankly I doubt they've been that counting the amount that precisely. It's so easy to underestimate things like this, forget old accounts and whole sites you've played on. If I'd have to give a guesstimate on my own total amount without my training diary, I'd probably say something like a thousand games in total. But I know I've played exactly 1002 5/0s on ICC, 149 other blitz time controls, 2679 5/0s on FICS, and about 60 games on other sites. So I'd guess their real number of games is much closer to my 3700 than the 1000-2000 they often estimate. Then again, my long pauses in blitz training can't be good, so maybe... Well, I don't know for sure. But I wanted to document these things so other beginner can have at least one exact reference of how much work it took. I would've killed for data like this in my first two years.

So what worked and what didn't?

Well, for one, I must say that tactics never did anything for my blitz, even though it's always advertized as the holy grail of fast chess. It has benefitted me hugely on correspondence chess and the ability of solving tactical puzzles, but my blitz never improved on bit before I begun playing blitz heavily. Although obviously you have to have some basic proficiency in tactics, you can't just expect to survive in blitz if you never drilled tactics. But it isn't the bottleneck, at least on the low levels.

Endgames, well, that's a sort of mixed thing. Although my endgame studies have been far from what I'd like it to be (in quantity/quality), it has had some effect. But, I think the blitz endings get played 'wrong' far more often than 'correctly', so the theory doesn't have that much impact. I'd assume the training effect of playing blitz endings 'incorrectly' for thousands of games is much more relevant in practice, as is any other kind of training practical endings. On higher levels the correct theory will have an increasing effect of course, but at 1500 everybody is still playing everything 'wrong'.

Slow games haven't had much effect either. It's the area I've always used most time since the beginning, analyzing positions for hours every day. The outcome has been that I'm great at seeing what I did wrong afterwards, but that's just too little too late. The ability to analyze slow games is just too, well, slow. The revelations must come instantly, without thinking, or otherwise you lose on time. -Perhaps the slow games will some day reach a critical number, so I'll have seen all the basic situations so many times that playing them correctly becomes instinctive, but after 4 years it still takes conscious thinking time. People who've played for decades are probably in a very different situation regarding all this.

That pretty much leaves openings. The unappreciated love of beginning players, on which the experienced players always tell you not to waste study time. -And in slow chess that's actually true. But in blitz... I don't think so anymore.

During the past year that I've finally focused on my openings properly, it's become obvious that my opening knowledge has been abysmal. The shallowness and uncertainty on even the things I thought I knew has been simply enormous. As the cliché goes, I'm only beginning to undertand the extent of my ignorance. I now study openings every day, and it's paying dividends especially in blitz. I'm actually outplaying my opponents on book knowledge, and to top that I'm even understanding why their non-book moves are inferior. Of course that still happens mostly in the mainlines, and quite early at that, but it's a promising start. I'll continue on that vein and see where it'll get me.

ICC 5-minute: 1506, 1002 games, +484, -504, =14.
RHP: 2061, 324 games, +226, -81, =17.