I am American born and raised, there is no chess culture in my family, I played my first tournament at an age when most top talents are already masters, I never had more than one hour of coaching per week, I went through the full American K-12 education system in the traditional timetable, and I completed a four year degree from a highly ranked university. Yet in spite of all this, I have been able to consistently improve my chess, and I have recently reached a new milestone- a spot comfortably within the top hundred players in the world at 2661 FIDE. All throughout my career, many players of all levels have asked me how I am able to keep improving, and this article will serve as an overview of one leg of the journey.
While the title and general theme is a ripoff of an excellent book that I thoroughly enjoyed, From GM to Top Ten by GM Judit Polgar, I decided to write the article because every chess player should have fond memories of reaching new levels, and it brings me great joy to share part of my journey. As all aspiring chessplayers know, improvement is highly nonlinear. A player can work very hard on their chess and not improve at all for a long time, and then all of a sudden have a huge growth spurt seemingly out of nowhere and reach much higher levels.
GM Shankland on the cover of the September 2012 Chess Life
Players will get stuck at different places. After getting my GM title, I made it to 2600 without much trouble, first crossing the barrier in September 2012. But, my quest from there to the top 100 took just over two years. It’s those two years I wish to write about here. Just as Judit did, I could easily write a book on this timeframe because so much happened, but I’ll save that aspiration for a later date and stick with some of the most important factors that lead to my improvement.
I started and ended 2013 with exactly the same live rating: 2602. The whole time I had bounced around between 2590 and 2610, and I was getting very frustrated with my inability to reach higher levels. A close examination of all of my games, regardless of the result, showed several weaknesses that I needed to address, and lessons that I needed to learn. While it took most of 2013 to identify these problems and this may be why I did not make any progress, once I was able to effectively address them in 2014, I shot to 2660 like it was nothing. I’d like to share 10 of these lessons here (in no particular order), with some examples from my own play.
1. One must challenge one’s own success and to learn as much from victories as losses
It’s very important to look for mistakes in all of one’s games, not just ones that ended unfavorably. The most glaring example from the frustrating 2013 calendar year can be seen here:
When I first reviewed this game, I brushed off the computer’s disdain for my speculation as unimportant. This was a very big mistake. Rxh7 is simply a bad move and the result of poor calculation, but I was so blinded by the success of the tournament overall that I was unwilling to accept silicon criticism. It did not take long for my coach to rain on my parade by listing several players who he believed would have disposed of me in 25 moves for my misplaced bravado. Looking at the position now, I entirely agree- I won the game because I got lucky, and it would not have been that hard for a strong black player to defend and win. While calculation can always be improved and is something I spend a great deal of time on, the big lesson I learned from this game is that I was not doing myself any favors by not looking critically at my victories.
2. Finding candidate moves and atypical or counterintuitive ideas is very difficult
When we first learn to play chess, every legal move is a candidate move. As we improve, the list of moves rapidly shrinks as our understanding prevents us from looking at moves we can dismiss with a glance as poor. In my case, this process went too far and I had started to miss candidate moves I should have been noticing. A particularly painful example can be seen here:
If there’s one good thing about a game like this, it’s that the pain it causes is so great that we are forced to address the problem immediately to avoid it in the future. My coach had me do a lot of exercises, and even just a few months later, the difference was staggering. After two good results I immediately jumped to 2630. My favorite example can be seen here:
3. Be very wary of “automatic” moves
There is a great story about Alexander Morozevich. He was playing a game and another GM was watching, shocked that Moro was thinking so long on a move where he clearly only had one choice. The GM kept walking and saw some other games, and then he realized there was actually a second possible move that looked very interesting. He then went back to Moro’s board only to see that Moro had played a third move.
Playing “automatic” moves without thinking is a recipe for disaster. In a rather subtle case I was quite proud of avoiding temptation:
I was really happy with myself for playing Re2, and after the game I thought that I had fixed this problem for good- obviously a foolish assumption to make after one success. It was then a rude shock when I went back to my old ways the very next round!
While I’ve made great progress here, there is still work to be done…
4. One should always work to identify shortcomings in general chess understanding
This is a very tough one because everyone has different weaknesses. It took me some time to realize one of mine, but when I finally did, the results really showed. I found that I was often underestimating the bishop pair as a long term asset. I would look at roughly symmetrical positions with no real pawn weaknesses or open lines and one side possessing the bishop pair, and I’d dismiss them as equal- I even have evidence of this in some of my opening notes from 2013. In the following game, I was amazed by how devastating the bishop pair became in a position where they initially lacked sensible targets or good diagonals:
This would not be the only time last year that a newfound appreciation for the bishop pair would earn me a victory. Twice more I won big games, each one against a stronger opponent than the last, and in all of the three games, the originally quiet bishop pair at some moment showed it’s explosive potential and lead to immediate material gains.
Everyone will have different gaps in their understanding, which makes identifying these gaps very difficult, and one of the many reasons having a great coach is very necessary. Luckily, once a gap is identified, it’s usually already fixed.
5. Come to the game ready to fight and play well in the first moves out of preparation
There is very little more frustrating than spoiling great pregame work with over the board ineptitude. There were countless cases in the past couple years where I played very poorly on the first few moves out of preparation, but none as ghastly as this:
There is not much specific training one can do for this, but I decided to impose a minimum time amount I need to spend on my first move out of preparation. It definitely helped out at Tata Steel last week: