The Game of Kings

One of the greatest miseries of one with a love for writing is that period in which one doesn’t know what to write. It would be safe to say that I am very much entrenched in that morbid space. Every day for the last week, I have fired up my blog editor, stared into the void that is the text box for fifteen unending minutes, and then shut it down with the exasperation of Nadal trying to outwit Federer. But I have to get myself out of it, and the best way is, as old advice goes, to just do it. The more you write, the more you can write.

So this one’s about chess. Or more specifically, about my continuing wrestle with mastering chess.

It began quite late, this fascination with chess, when I was somewhere in the final year of my undergraduate engineering degree. I was aware of the existence of the game befoe that, but I only faintly remember trying to learn chess from my father. The spark in me was ignited only much later (partly due to the fact that no one at home or around me was maniacally passionate about chess, as I am now).

I remember playing hours together on the Internet (on the Free Internet Chess Server), a server that mostly serious players use. I used to play 20 games per hour for weeks, such was my intense liking for chess. I used Yahoo first, but found the interface much to my dislike and the players not exactly professionals. FICS has a userbase that consists of a heck of a lot of serious players–club, tournament and professional–and quite understandably, as it was started as a substitute for ICC, the Internet Chess Club, which is known to the chess playing community as the best place to find top players–including a lot of GMs. Needless to say, all this mucking around had adverse effects on my grades. But one has to be clear with his priorities in life, I guess.

Well, I got hooked, to say the least. I tortured everyone who came home into playing at least three games of chess with me. I used to literally bully them into playing, badgering them until they quietly (most of the times, that is) succumbed and desperately tried to just get it over with. Some actually beat me with sticks. But anyways, I offer them my deepest apologies.

The chess mania continued for about six months, but I was seeking admission into MBA programmes around that time, and the two subsequent years of MBA from IIM Bangalore completely wiped out any time I had for chess. Now that I’m free again temprarily to torture anyone who comes my way, I’ve picked up chess with a renewed zeal. I now go to a great club here in Bangalore (the Bangalore Chess Academy) headed by Vedant Goswami, an international master with more than 14 years of professional chess teaching and playing experience. 10-year old kids routinely beat me at blitz there, so he must be doing something right.

What was the point of telling you all this? I really don’t know, but let me get to what I really wanted to say.

What I wanted to articulate here was how my attitudes and impressions of learning (mastering) chess have changed since the last time I picked it up. (If you are not interested in chess, the following paragraphis are bound to be boring or incomprehensible to you, so feel free to skip it.)

I started out with the notion that one should learn opening theory as well as openings and variations intensely and then try to develop that into thinking strategically in the middle-game, use positional analysis to supplement them and then use your advantage in finishing the end-game. Turns out, this is an utterly stupid philosophy and the downright wrong way of becoming a strong chess player. Of course, anything goes if you happen to be a chess prodigy, a la Capablanca or Fischer, but I was pretty sure I was neither of them, so that was that. That explained why, even after going through many “advanced” books on chess, that study time translated into absolutely no increase in rating points.

Thankfully for that, I am much wiser now. The first major revelation was the discovery that it just simply takes time to become a stronger player. How much time will depend on how naturally gifted you are in terms of spatial visualization, prophylactic thinking and self-analysis. For me, I figure it’s going to take a year or two of consistent study before I reach expert amateur status. The learning curve becomes flatter after that, and I’d have to put in much more effort per increase in rating point to get to higher levels (namely, IM and GM).

But that’s a long way away. There isn’t a chance in hell that I’m going to be playing chess professionally, but I do want to become a strong player (ie, a player who doesn’t make obvious tactical errors, whose positional analysis is sound even if his strategic understanding of the game is underdeveloped–someone who can justifiably challenge a master, even if he loses the game.)

So here’s my improved game plan.

  • Tactics, tactics, tactics. Most amateur games are lost on simply tactical inferiority. And I realized this when I played professionals. So I’m going to devote some time regularly on improving my tactical ability. I frequent the Chess Tactics Server, and I see my tactical vision improving already. I heartily recommend this to both strong and weak players alike.
  • Master games. Study of annotated master games. This has had lesser effect on me (but of course, it’s too early to say, it’s just been four weeks), but I can clearly see the potential. This is something Vedant advises his students to do. The idea here is to go through games played by grandmasters. Vedant recommends the earlier masters like Morphy and Alekhine for initial study, simply because they were not guided by the vast amount of opening theory and analysis that is the hallmark of modern chess. Let’s say it’s a Morphy game. You take the place of Morphy and play out the moves on the board. You play the opponent’s moves from the game as it was played, but try to guess Morphy’s move (in other words, the best possible move). After you’ve made your choice, you compare it with what Morphy actually played and then analyze why his/your move is superior.
  • Control of the game. That’s easier to describe. Just play a lot of games. As much as you can. The more you play, the more control you will have over the game. There is no point in reading Keres and Kotov’s The Art of the Middle-Game if you can’t control your pieces or see a mate in three. It makes a lot of sense–you’d have more control over a language if you read a lot. Control of the game is a very tacit concept–it refers to an instinctual understanding of the game and comes only with constant play and experience.
  • Board vision. I have lost many an exchange just because I didn’t see a perfectly visible bishop in a fianchettoed position or a nasty rook hiding behind its own pieces at the end of a semi-open file. Playing blitz matches helps as you have to move fast and see the board faster to understand your position. It again relates back to tactics training. Another exercise that I found on the Web was something called the Stokyo exercise, wherein you take up a rich middle-game position and write out (yes, write out) all the different variations of play possible from it, without touching any piece on the board or moving it. You then pick out candidates for the most likely moves to be made by each side and decide on an evaluation of each position. You then take your evaluation to a good program (like Fritz) or a strong master (like Vedant) and analyze why each variation was good/bad and whether your evaluation was right/wrong, and why.

It’s pretty exciting, and I feel I’m finally on the right track to improving my game. Whether I will, the next couple of years will tell.

So that’s that. This has turned out to be a much longer post that I expected, so I’m going to do what the one remaining person reading this would want me to do: shut up.

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