What is your goal in chess?
“I’d like to break 2200 by the end of the year.”
“I want to earn my 3rd IM norm at my next tournament.”
“Ultimately, I dream of becoming a grandmaster.”
When you ask someone the question above, these are the expected answers. For many, a concrete goal, such as a title or rating, is a huge motivation, the light at the end of the tunnel that justifies all of their hard work.
For my own progress, however, I’ve found these types of goals to be counter-intuitive: They add extra pressure and lead me to focus on scoreboard points and rating progress instead of what matters most when I’m competing: learning and improving.
Right now, I’m aware that there are several clear weaknesses in my abilities, and, until I improve them and can consistently compete at a higher level, whether I gain or lose rating points in the short term is far less important.
When I’m ready to reach the next level, my rating will follow. It has never had any trouble keeping up with my abilities before.
In 2010, my rating was around the low 2000s, but I had had some realizations about the way I want to play chess, and I’d been studying more seriously than ever all summer. I played in the U.S. Open that year and gained 75 points on the spot. Within a few months, I was a National Master.
The title meant something to me because it symbolized all of the work I did to get there. I’d barely missed breaking 2200 when I was in high school, and it had left me with many “what ifs”: What if I’d just played this move in that one critical game? What if I’d skipped that tournament where I lost so many rating points?
Looking back, it’s obvious why I missed my goal: I was way too focused on whether I gained or lost points instead of on improving and enjoying the games.
So, for each of my tournaments this year, I’m going to set a short list of goals for the tournament based only on the quality of my play. Afterwards, I’ll assess the weaknesses and improvements in my games to figure out what I can learn—and what parts of my game need the most work.
My first tournament of the year was the Western Class Open. I was fairly rusty from not playing for six months, so I set fairly modest goals, and was mostly content to be playing competitively again.
This weekend, I played in the Memorial Day Classic, and I chose a few more ambitious goals.
- Be prepared for a battle.
- Combine intuition with precise calculation.
- Maintain a healthy diet throughout the tournament.
- Practice better time management.
1. Be prepared for a battle.
In his book about his World Championship match with Botvinnik in 1960, Mikhail Tal wrote that he had a “charming habit of beginning a tournament with a defeat”.
I’ve always related to this: I don’t necessarily lose all first rounds, but I do feel like the first round is about “getting my bearings”—remembering that I can play competitive chess and that I know how to win five hour, tension-filled tournament games.
Even at some of my best tournaments, the first round can be a clumsy mess to get out of my system.
This tournament, I certainly didn’t begin gracefully. After 20 moves, in one of my favorite openings, I blundered a pawn. My time management was also less than stellar: By the 28th move, I had left myself 7 seconds (with a 10 second delay) for the remaining 12 moves until time control.
Often, in that kind of situation, I’d give up mentally and lose quickly. For this game, I had a better mindset.
Somehow I found it in myself to keep trying, regain the pawn, make my 40th move, reach a fascinating rook ending, and turn that into a win. Even though the game had many inaccuracies, I’m glad I had a fighting spirit and kept trying.
“In rook endings, a more active piece is (usually) worth a pawn.”
-GM Andrew Soltis
2. Combine intuition with precise calculation.
“There is a time and a place for intuition, but it should only be applied when calculation is futile.”
-GM Daniel Naroditsky
Looking over my games from past tournaments, too often I jump into forced variations because I have some creative idea I’d like to work, but a creative idea isn’t enough on its own—it needs to be supported by concrete calculation.
During my 2nd round, I analyzed an idea of mine objectively, realized that the variation did not work, and played more practically.
This was a good choice for the situation. But, I did miss an opportunity for a simple, substantial advantage from the initial position. What should I have done?
Vanessa West vs. Albert Lu
White to move.
3. Maintain a healthy diet throughout the tournament.
“I would happily buy a huge steak dinner for my upcoming opponent since the blood would rush to his stomach, and his brain wouldn’t function properly.”
-GM Walter Browne
While I’m usually careful with what I eat right before a tournament game, I’ve tended to have a very indulgent dinner after all of the day’s rounds are finished. This seemed harmless: I have hours to sleep it off, wake up fresh, and have a healthy breakfast.
But, eventually, I’ve had to admit that my difficulty in morning games especially is due to more than “not being a morning person”.
I was being unrealistic hoping that a night’s sleep would completely eliminate the mental sluggishness that a creamy pasta dish or a cheeseburger and fries can cause.
On the other hand, I play chess to enjoy myself. I also perform better in tournament where I’m enjoying myself. So, I didn’t want to set too strict a dietary limitation on myself. I decided to just keep in mind three guidelines when choosing meals:
- No fried foods.
- No red meat.
- No pasta.
I stuck to this the entire three days (and planned on having an epic Italian dinner as soon as the last round was finished), and I think it paid off. I felt focused and able to calculate well for the majority of my games.
4. Practice better time management.
This is definitely my Achilles’ heel. Looking over my time notes, there wasn’t a single game that I made it past move 30 with more than 5 minutes left.
The reasons range from:
- Insufficient opening knowledge: I often have to try to re-invent the wheel to compensate.
- Fascination with the position: I can become so interested in an idea that I feel compelled to consider it at length, to truly understand it before making a move.
- An impractical desire for perfection: I can’t possibly calculate everything… but I can try!
- Second guessing myself: When I’m feeling less confident about my form, I often find myself double-checking or even triple-checking variations unnecessarily.
This tournament, I was fairly familiar with the variations and ideas of the openings. In all but one of my games, I used no more than 10 minutes on the first 10 moves. Yet, in 2 of those games, I was in time trouble by the 22nd move.
This means that for a span of 12 moves, entering the early middlegame, I’m using about 85 minutes. Why am I burning so much time at that point in the game? How can I use less time while preserving the quality of my moves?
Throughout the tournament, during moves where I spent more time, I often remembered the words of Alexander Kotov in his classic text, Think Like a Grandmaster:
“In analyzing complicated variations one must examine each branch of the tree once and once only. You simply must not wander to and fro, here and there through the branches, losing time in checking. The reason for such checks can only be lack of confidence in oneself.
Better to suffer the consequences of an oversight than suffer from foolish and panicky disorder in analysis.”
During some games, that last sentence of Kotov’s words rang in my head over and over: “Better to suffer the consequences of an oversight…”
Wait a second, is it?
The more I thought about it, the more the advice seemed too generalized. If I’m checking a positional maneuver in a closed position for the third time, yes, this is most likely a waste of time. Looking over the time notes on my scoresheets, I spend far too much time on this type of move.
However, I don’t think I should stop myself from double-checking a complex tactical variation that requires visualization and in-depth analysis many moves into the future.
“Before making an important, potentially game-changing decision, briefly run through your calculations to ensure that everything checks out.”
-GM Daniel Naroditsky
In the 4th round, I suffered a particularly rough loss when I made a quick tactical move, attempting to preserve time for upcoming moves. It turned out that I didn’t need the time for future moves at all—The move I played was a blunder that lost on the spot.
Simply pushing myself to move faster or to never double check my ideas doesn’t seem like the correct mindset, especially for my playing style. I’d much rather spend the time coming up with an interesting idea than spend no time on a lifeless move.
What I need to aim for is spending the time where it counts.
Thus, I’ve started to devise time management guidelines based on the type of move being considered:
- Overall plan for the middlegame, only once each game (maybe twice, if there’s a major change to the position): 10-15 minutes
- “Little plans” – Small improvements and positional maneuvers: 2-5 minutes
- Pre-planned moves: 1-2 minutes (to check for my opponent’s ideas)
- Moves that drastically change the course of the game, such as sacrifices and complex tactics: No limit—I’ll take the time necessary to be certain of my decision.
During the last round, I kept these guidelines in mind. Yet, I spent 43 minutes on my 9th move. From the outside, this may seem like an absurd time waste, but I think it was completely worth it. I was considering a pawn sacrifice, which would define the course of the game, and I wanted to be certain of the ramifications.
Although 43 minutes on one move is extreme, after that long think, I knew what my next 6 moves would be and, by the 17th move, I had a winning position.
What I’ve Learned
1. Blunders are not standalone lapses. They tend to happen when we’re already uncomfortable with the position.
In round 4, throughout the late opening and early middlegame, I gradually obtained the better position with the black pieces against a higher rated player. Suddenly, I made a huge mistake.
Clearly, I wouldn’t have made such an elementary mistake if I was in top tactical form, but I think there was more to it than that.
I had a better position, and I wanted to be patient and keep making minor improvements to it, but I didn’t know how to. I had improved my pieces to a certain point and didn’t know how to progress further. This is why I started looking for a tactical win when I shouldn’t have.
Additionally, I was already semi-low on time because I spent a lot of time deciding on positional maneuvers earlier.
This is one of the aspects of my game that needs the most work: how to continually maneuver my pieces to the best squares and make minor improvements even when my opponent has no clear weaknesses.
How does one improve this aspect of their game?
Study the games of players who are great at it. Many of the top players today excel at it, such as Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana. Additionally, two past players that come to mind are: Anatoly Karpov and Tigran Petrosian.
“I was amazed during the game. Each time Petrosian achieved a good position, he managed to maneuver into a better one.”
Improving at this skill will definitely be one of my top goals for my next tournament.
Update: Since discovering this weakness in my play, I’ve been searching for a book that focuses on the subject, and I’ve recently found one: In Mastering Positional Play, GM Daniel Naroditsky writes an excellent chapter, titled, “Maneuvers”. I highly recommend it.
2. Resilience is more important (and more achievable) than perfection.
In the past, my 4th round blunder may’ve been the final word on my tournament. I’ve often allowed one tough loss, especially a blunder in a winning position, to haunt me long after the end of the game… into the next round or even future tournaments.
In fact, the last time I played in this exact tournament, the Memorial Day Classic in 2012, that’s exactly what happened:
At the time, I was studying My 60 Memorable Games by Bobby Fischer and was inspired by Fischer’s style of play. Because of this, I’d played an old Ruy Lopez line with a Nd5 pawn sacrifice that Fischer was known for, which resulted in the following middlegame position:
Vanessa West vs. Alex King
White to move.
The benefits of the pawn sacrifice are abundant: Every single one of my pieces is active, aiming at the black king. My bishop on e4 controls long diagonals on both sides and can never be dislodged.
Black’s pieces, on the other hand, can hardly move. Several are tied down to kingside defense, and the ones that aren’t have no way to breakthrough—My bishops elegantly take away all of the possible penetration points on the d-file.
How should I continue?
After I missed that winning variation, Black defended well, my attack lost its strength, and I soon blundered. I became so discouraged about losing from such a strong position that I became haunted by it. I even had a nightmare about the game and the missed winning variation.
The next round, I lost to a lower rated player without a fight, and then I withdrew from the event.
I always thought the problem with that tournament was that I missed that one key move.
Over the past year, I’ve been watching super-GM tournaments more than ever before, and I noticed something. Before observing these games in detail, I had the misunderstanding that super-GMs were on the verge of infallible—that that’s what made them such strong players.
Yet, it’s actually not that uncommon for a super-GM to blunder or overlook something. Here are a few examples:
“…there is not a single grandmaster, not to mention master or player below that class, who has not made the grossest of blunders in his time.”
-Alexander Kotov, Think Like a Grandmaster
Recently, Sergey Karjakin, the World Championship Challenger and one of the best defenders in the world, made a substantial mistake against Anish Giri with 34…Rhe8. How can White get a winning advantage?
White to move.
What makes Karjakin a super-GM if he’s capable of overlooking a simple tactic?
He consistently shows resilience in the face of defeat. The very next game, Karjakin bounced back and defeated no. 12 in the world, Pentala Harikrishna, in a hard-fought game.
Everyone is capable of mistakes. The best players recover from them.
Magnus Carlsen’s most recent blunder occurred just before a four tournament winning streak. Can you find what he overlooked after 45. Rg8?
Despite this blunder, Carlsen was unfazed. The very next month, he went on to win both the London Classic (as well as the entire Grand Chess Tour) and Qatar Masters. Since then, he’s also won Tata Steel and Norway Chess.
Thinking about all of this, I realized that it was never one critical mistake that messed up my tournament: It was that I let one mistake affect several games.
This time, I became determined to wake up the next day and play some resilient chess.
I’m glad that I did: My last game was my best game of the tournament.
3. A king attack doesn’t have to end in forced checkmate or a win of material—Often, converting an attack into a substantial positional advantage is enough to win.
After missing my opportunity to play for a win in the 2nd round ( by simply winning a pawn), I was determined to be more aware of the entire board during my games—even when attacking the king. This lesson was really useful in my last game.
How would you play for the win here?
Vanessa West vs. Brandon Yang Xia
White to move.
Between my soul-crushing blunder and my exciting last round victory, it was definitely a turbulent tournament. Overall, I’m glad I played.
There were a few moments where I played well, such as my endgame play in the 1st round and my use of the initiative in the last. I’ve also gained an awareness of improvements I can make, such as a better understanding of positions that require slow maneuvering and more practical time management.
Stay tuned for my next event, the National Open in Las Vegas!