Improvements: learning from losses

It was my last match of the season last night, so I thought I would show a loss of mine from earlier this season to demonstrate how to learn from your losses. It was generously written up in Downend’s match report as both players ‘taking risks’ but really it was me getting thrown in the opening and subsequently trodden down – lots of lessons learnt from my imaginary GM coach…

Why look at losses? Why not chuck the score-sheet in the bin?

Well – you can chuck them away if you want. I’m pretty sure we all play this game for fun – even if it is slightly masochistic fun at times. But I guess the point of looking back through painful losses depends on whether you see fun and improvement as dependent on each other (or at least natural co-habitors), or you see improvement as an optional thing which doesn’t impact on fun. Either is okay, but if you fit the former right now, critiquing your own play is among the best ways to improve. So do it.

The GM coach on your shoulder

I am going to analyse this game using this technique – imagining a GM peering at your moves and telling you what they think – honestly – about your moves. Clearly I don’t need my coach to be as good as a GM, but I find it easier to imagine a GM being ruthlessly honest about each move – Gordon Ramsey style if need be. So, here we go.

Mike Harris vs Chirag Hosdurga (Horfield B vs. Downend B – 23/10/18)

Full game re-playable here: https://www.downendchess.com/game/1106

Opening: A Sicilian with an early Qb6 – and White trying to play like Karpov with Be2 and Nf3-d4-b3… but Black equalises easily.

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Qb6 5. Nb3 Nf6 6. Nc3 e6 7. Be3 Qc7 8. Be2 a6 9. a4 Bb4 10. f3 d5

pos1

So Black gets in that key Sicilian move d5 with no issues. Something clearly went wrong – I ‘learnt’ this Nb3 idea from a book about Karpov called ‘Slay the Sicilian’, with some beautiful games by the world champ. Over to the coach:

GM coach: “Mike, you are not Karpov. He won a lot of games with Nb3 which you admire, but here’s the thing – he is a better chess player and more importantly he is a very different player to you. He wins games dictating positional subtleties from a distance – whereas you win most games with a sledgehammer. D5 is the key move for Black – and preventing it is an art, you do it sometimes with tactics and sometimes with strategy. But you don’t just let it happen and hope for the best… Yes, you may have won a few decent games which included the move Nb3, but it’s more of a coincidence – this system is not for you. Stop playing it.”

Me: Harsh. But true. And I will. Promise. Okay, on with the game:

Early middlegame: White’s h-pawn is under fire and the kingside lacks pieces. White tries to hold the pawn by threatening a bishop-trap – which fails.

11. O-O Bd6 12. exd5 Nxd5 13. Nxd5 exd5

pos2

GM coach: “Hmm.. I thought the point of Nb3 was to direct attention to the queenside, where you can make use of your control of it from the two bishops and your a4 prod. Now look at it! The knight and the pawn on a4 look quite useless – and the attention is all on the kingside. Again, this is why you prevent d5 – the centre stays closed then.

Okay, so we’re in a mess, let’s try to get out. First off, watch out for your h-pawn. You know the one protecting your king – it’s important… No, the opposing bishop will not be trapped on h2. It’s about the least trapped bishop ever. Just defend it or move it and move on – chess is a long game, you will get some chances again.”

Me: Yup. Sound advice. But that seems like too much effort, maybe I’ll just spend three moves not defending my h-pawn:

14. Kh1 O-O 15. Qd2 Re8 16. c3 Bxh2

pos6

GM coach: “(sigh) Ok, that’s bad. c3 was a waste – I know you were worried about the move d4, but trust me, you have bigger things to worry about. The h-file is now open for the queen or a rook.

But not to worry – try something else and then complicate things. Try to stay positive and look for your strengths in the position, there is still that isolated d-pawn… its not much but its something. Just don’t panic and play anything totally anti-positional like f4.”

17. f4

GM coach: “(winces) Oh dear oh dear. What was that? Do you still think you are trapping that bishop? You are now completely lost and you should resign.”

Me: Yeah… I’ll take my chances.

Mid-Middlegame: Black builds up more of an attack with the strong bishop on g3 while White has to deal awkwardly with a few attacks such as Qh6, threatening Qh2 – very difficult to stop.

17… Bg3 18. Kg1 Bf5 19. Nd4 Nxd4 20. Bxd4 Qd6

pos4

GM coach: “It’s still over – resign.”

Me: Okay, I’ll just try some random moves first.

21. Rf3 Qg6 22. Raf1 Be4 23. Re3 Bxf4

pos5

GM coach: “…”

24. Rxe4 Bxd2 25. Rg4 Rxe2 0-1

Me: Okay I resign.

Footnote

Very well played to my opponent in this game – who took advantage of the above mistakes with great efficiency.

Silver lining

So, what’s the point of analysing losses? Well, fairly serendipitously I played another game about a month later – and won by snapping up an a-pawn with a bishop, recognising that trapping the bishop was harder than it looked, and in fact it because a nuisance for my opponent and I ended up with an ending of 5 pawns vs. a lone bishop.

The rewards for studying losses will not always come this quickly – but we should recognise that there are many lessons from one game – like me and my attachment to the Nb3 move in the Sicilian. If you blundered in a game then it’s unlikely that was the only lesson there, or that the blunder came about all of a sudden. Look at the lead up to the blunder – what were your thinking patterns? What didn’t you understand about the position?

Sharing games on BCT and elsewhere

I am publishing this game for two related reasons:

  • To encourage others to analyse their losses
  • To encourage others to share their games to help others learn.

We have always asserted that in amateur chess we should all be sharing games (yes – including those cherished opening secrets) if we want to improve. After all, we are not grandmasters preparing novelties on move 27 for the upcoming world champs. We are all chess players on the same path – and looking honestly at our own mistakes must be the truest way to improve.

So share your games. It could be with a friend or clubmate, with your whole team (at Horfield there are frequently email threads going round discussing the match gone by) or on the internet for all to see.

As far as BCT goes, we will not continue just with our own games – that might get a bit repetitive. So without more contributions, we will eventually stop. If you want to see a friendly culture of improvement, then be the change that you want to see!

If you would like to take up the challenge of finding your worst game of the season – or any game you can learn from – email us at bristolchesstimes@gmail.com


mikecircle

Mike is a regular league player and co-editor of the Bristol Chess Times

A useful technique for assessing your chess opening repertoire

Competitive chess is traditionally a winter sport and therefore the summer months provide the ambitious amateur an opportunity to review the state of their chess.  Chess players love to tell themselves stories (‘I am just like Tal’ or ‘I’m so Karpovian it hurts’) but the reality of the situation is often very different. Today I would like to talk you through a technique or framework that I’ve been mulling over to help club players assess their opening repertoire.

In a previous article (“Is the Scandinavian holding me back?”) I reviewed my opening statistics for the last two seasons of competitive chess in the Bristol & District Chess League.  The findings were fascinating, breaking many of the assumptions that I had about my personal chess ability and skill.  For those who haven’t read the article, a thorough review of 54 competitive games revealed a considerable personal weakness when I face 1. e4 compared to almost all other moves.  It wasn’t the objective score per se that shocked me so much as the fact that if you had asked me what my strongest opening was I would have comfortably stated the Scandinavian. This statistical review led to me thinking about other types of assessment, which lead to my proposal for a new tool for amateur players.

“Do you feel lucky punk?”

It occurred to me that whilst just looking at raw statistics is pretty much what every chess player does, it doesn’t quite capture the human element and the different types of chess game that we have all experienced at different times in our chess career.  For example, the loss in a won position, the lucky escape, the bore draw or the “how the hell did I win that?” type scenarios.

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 12.17.26
At the conclusion of same games you know that both you and your opponent held the half point confidently…
Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 12.17.42
…whilst other times you know you took too many blows to the face because your opponent had faster feet.

It occurred to me that if we could create a classification for these emotional descriptions of game and then apply them to our games could this lead to a new level of insight about our repertoires and types of position we excel in?  Well lets give it a go!

To start us off I have identified six types of game:

  1. “I was amazing” – Totally deserved.  You played well throughout, perhaps utilising a favourite line, and sealed a comfortable full point.  Whether it was tactical or positional is not relevant at this stage, simply that you controlled the game and deserved the point.
  2. “Fair play mate” – Sooner or late you and your opponent had to shake hands.  This is the type of game where perhaps you probed a bit, so did she.  Perhaps you were up and then let your opponent back in.  Not a blunder per se more good play from the opposition.  In a solid draw, both parties have little room to argue over the result.
  3. “Ouch, I deserved that.”– A loss.  You were either never in the running or perhaps your opponent just knew more than you.  Perhaps you knew you were drifting and punched out with an unsound line.  Perhaps you were slowly crushed to death under the weight of your opponents play.  Either way, you recognise that your score sheet doesn’t deserve anything other than a zero in the column.
  4. “Phew! Let me buy you a drink” – This could be a win or a draw but either way your smile is bigger than it deserves to be!  Somehow you were up against it and have wriggled free from your opponent’s grasp. Perhaps they committed a gross blunder in the endgame.  Perhaps you tried the cheekiest most unsound move and it paid off.  Whilst it is possible to play in a lucky way (for example, always trying to get your opponent into time trouble”) sooner or later it will run out.  Look in the mirror and ask yourself if you truly understand the position you just escaped from or understand how you got into that mess?
  5. “I just about held that” – This type of game is a draw. But unlike the solid draw above, I’m classifying this as the type of game where you walk away with a share of the points but were only ever really playing for two results – a draw or a loss.  These are the kinds of games where you never felt like or indeed actually had any winning chances.   I also don’t consider these types of game a lucky escape.  You have justified the draw with good defence and play but victory was never in reach.  In football (soccer for our American friends) we might refer to it as “parking the bus”
  6. “Nooo, what have I done?” – The worst type of game.  We have all been there.  Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  Great play that at the last minute has somehow turned to dust.  Typically thee games involve gross blunders but it can also be that we achieve a winning position and somehow let it slip through our fingers over several moves.  Perhaps we achieve a great position and implement the wrong plan?  Whatever happened, these ones hurt. A lot.

So there we have my six definitions of the different types of game that I am sure we have all experienced at some stage.  Im sure some readers may think of others or quibble with my particular definitions but for now, lets see how we could use this framework.

So is the Scandinavian really holding me back?

Again using the same 54 games dataset as previous, I worked my way through the 17 games of the Scandinavian that I have played in competitive OTB in the last two seasons.  Obviously applying this technique requires the chess player to be completely honest with themselves (unless you work through it with a friend or coach).

Here are my results:

  1. “I was amazing” (a deserved win) – 2 games
  2. “Fair play mate” (a deserved draw) – 3 games
  3. “Ouch, I deserved that” (a deserved loss) – 5 games
  4. “Phew! Let me buy you a drink” (a lucky win or draw) – 3 games
  5. “I just about held that” ( a solid tough draw that was never going to win) – 4 games
  6. “Nooo, what have I done?” (a tragic loss) – 0 games

I don’t know about you but I find this really interesting as an additional level of analysis to the statistical breakdown that most players start (and stop) with.

As a quick recap, from our 17 game sample of the Scandinavian I had scored 41% against opposition typically ranked 10 ECF / 75 ELO lower than me. Not great.

But by applying our framework we start to see that even in games where I scored some points, often they were in positions where I was lucky or was holding onto the draw.  Seven of the 17 games (1 win and 6 draws) I was able to classify as either a lucky escape or defensive rearguard action.  This does not install confidence that I know how to play the kinds of positions I am getting in the Scandinavian.  It also goes someway to explain the amount of games in the “Ouch I deserved that” column (5 games).  If you are constantly clinging on then sooner or later you will fall off.

Another telling piece of analysis is that it shows I have not been unlucky or riddled with blunders.  None of my games with the Scandinavian featured horrific blunders.

The application of this technique has really helped reinforce a belief that I already suspected regarding my play in the Scandinavian.  That is that my tactics are mostly good but I don’t seem to understand or play well in the positions I find myself.

I haven’t been swindled.

I haven’t thrown won games away.

I was never winning them in the first place.

Conclusion

I have found this technique a fast and rapid way to get some additional insight into my opening repertoire and fully intend to apply it to the rest of my games.  I feel that for the amateur player it could prove to be a valuable tool to break the cycle of telling ourselves false narratives around our play.

Its human nature in chess to remember the glorious wins whilst forgetting the crushing defeats but perhaps a lot of amateur players are missing a trick by blinding themselves with this bias.

Across the six types of game I have defined it seems possible to indicate a type of approach or teaching need for each type of game that you play with an opening:

  1. “I was amazing” – You obviously know the opening and understand the plans associated with it.  Well done!
  2. “Fair play mate” – You again understand the opening well but perhaps need to work on identifying the right plan to help you push ahead and convert those draws into wins.
  3. “Ouch, I deserved that” – Go back to school!  Something has gone wrong for you and if you are having a lot of games classified in this category then start at the beginning again or get a new opening.
  4. “Phew, let me buy you a drink” – A tricky conclusion.  Being lucky can feel great but it may be holding you back in the long term.  For example, always fluking a win against 1600 opposition may all be well and good but that might also explain why you don’t beat those 1800’s you so desperately want to.  Is your luck blinding your inadequacies in understanding?
  5. “I just about held that” – You get it.  You understand the opening.  But is it enabling you to push on.  Having learnt the opening, how do you find winning lines or should you look for something a little more double edged?
  6. “Noooo, what have I done” – Study tactics. Study endgames. Your problem isn’t the opening.

I hope you have found this technique interesting and can see the potential in spotting flaws (or even maybe coaching others).  Its early days and I am sure some readers have some comments on the classification scheme.  Keep talking to me and let me know how you get on using it.

Until next time!


mecircle

Jon Fisher

Jon is the Editor of The Bristol Chess Times and Publicity and Recruitment Officer for The Bristol & District Chess League. He plays for Horfield Chess Club and has been known to play 1. b3 on occasion.