Sunday, September 21, 2008

Mind stalling

When a position becomes more complex the time I need for a move grows exponentially. My short term memory is generating overload errors and I feel paralyzed. The effectiveness of my thinking comes to a grinding halt.

The past 8 years I have focussed on improvement in the right area of the graph above. In terms of the graph I have shifted the point that indicates how much complexity I can handle in 3 minutes considerably to the right. My approach has been multifold. I have tried to increase my ability to handle more complex stuff (probably to no avail) and I have simplified complexity by breaking it down (probably the most fruitful direction to head for). At the moment I don't feel I make much progress in the right area of the graph anymore.

The problem with the right area of the graph is that you have only time to calculate variations. There is no time to contemplate about the finesses of the position. About the pawnstructure, the strategical issues or whatsoever. When every move counts, can decide the game at once that is, then mere calculation is the only thing to embark on. The general advice is to calculate until quiescence. Or even better, to quiescence + 1. Speaking about nonsensical advice, here you have it. I am only able to calculate till my mind stalls. If every move seems to lose I even calculate till the mind stalls + 1. Where the + 1 stands for losing 1 hour on the clock. When I don't want to lose on time I have no other option than to gamble. Complexity downgrades chess to a game of chance.

In order to master complexity I had replaced my opening repertoire by gambits only. For years I haven't played different. With gambits complexity starts at move 3. So gambling and time trouble has been the bane of my play past years. With the acquiring of nerves of steel as added bonus. Of course I have made little progress on the more subtle side of the game. During the games I had simply no time to think about that. There is another side to it. In order to win from a lower rated opponent with a gambit you have to play much better than him. The gambitplayer has taken the responsibility to make the game. You must create the threats. While your opponent has only to react. To only parry all threats in the reassuring knowledge that one slip of you results in a won endgame. He will suffer much less from time trouble than you. On the other hand, the gambitplayer will blow away a much higher rated player every now and then.
There is another disadvantage with playing gambits and that is that you are not free to play in whatever direction you like. You can't trade off to an ending at any moment and you cannot trade queens for instance.

But playing the Polabia, as GM Danielsen pronounces it (the Polar Bear), has shown that it is possible to stay clear from complexity and to steer the game into the left part of the graph. This is by the way a proof of the steerability of a game, about which we discussed much in the past. Of course, if my opponent insists in complexity, he can create it. But the gambits against the Polabia don't look all that rosy and premature attacks are, well, premature. And remember, you have to play much better when playing a gambit, for reasons described above.
And, I might add, I'm not afraid of gambits since I know what a gambitsplayer hates the most:)
Thus my opponent can only steer into complexity with the odds against him. Which is fine with me. Complexity was the bane of my play, after all.

In the left part of the graph there is time for contemplation. Here I refind the issues that the positional chessbooks talk about. The subtleties for which I had no time in the past, busy with complexity as I was.

The Polabia with both white and black has replaced 75% of my gambits. Now I have to find something against 1.e4 which keeps me on the left side of the graph and which suits my taste. Maybe the Scandinavian with 3.Qd6? The rumours of the demise of that opening are clearly exaggerated, according to Rybka. Usually such rumours are of great help to prevent people from preparing themselves against it.


  1. How about the Alekhine's Defence vs 1.e4.
    It has become obvious to me that there are only a handfull of players who really are prepared to meet that. Isn't that also why you took up the Polabia? To have a certain advantage over your opponent from the get go? If you do, i suggest the non-theoretical repertoire as in 5...c6 (Miles variation) and 1. e4 Nf6 2. e5 Nd5 3. c4 Nb6 4. d4 d6 5. f4 dxe5 6. fxe5 c5 to meet the Four pawns attack...

  2. I had forgotten about the Alekhine. I have played it long ago. I must look at it again, thx.

    To have a certain advantage over your opponent from the get go?

    That's not quite the only reason. The opening must be slightly off beat. Take for instance the Najdorf: Most people can play that as white until move 8. That means that only at move 9 I know if I'm up against a grandmaster or a bungler aping one. That's too late.
    Further the opening has to be solid, a theoretical backwater, declared busted a few times, Rybka must score it close to even. For now the French and the Caro Kan are dismissed as not suiting my style. Maybe I should have another look at the Petroff.

  3. you are loved!
    great stuff!
    thank you.
    you do, indeed,
    show the right way.

  4. you are loved!
    great stuff.
    indeed, you show all of us,
    the right way.

  5. I think that the scandinavian is an excelent choice for the following reasons:
    1. The scandinavian does not have an exchange variation;
    2. The pawn structure is the same in most variations;
    3. It is sound enough to enter the middlegame with confidence in every variaton, and offbeat enough to have an advantage in knowledge over most opponents.

    So I would say give it a shot!

  6. Hm. I was thinking Petroff. Philidor has some virtues, too. You can consider the Pirc move order 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 e5.

    Or a Lopez sideline like the Cozio or Modern Steinitz (of course, you'd have to prepare against Italian and Scotch as well).

    Sicilian Kalashnikov, maybe? But you have to learn various sidelines. Scandanavian with 2...Nf6, except White can make you play a Panov Caro-Kann.

    In the Alekhine's, 6...c5 against the Four Pawns is a theoretical minefield. Depends on how badly you need to avoid lots of theory.

    My results with the Caro-Kann have been superb, and I wound't have thought it suited my style either. The 4...Nf6, 5...gxf6 line is very out of favor these days, but isn't so bad--it may suit you if you don't like the main lines.

  7. Phaedrus,
    what do you mean by "The scandinavian does not have an exchange variation" and why is that important?

  8. Ed,
    a lot of interesting suggestions. I will have a close look at them all.

    My goal is to enter the middlegame with a good pawnstructure in a not too crampy position.

    The French, the Caro and the Sicilian tend to become crampy in my hands. I have the feeling I'm not ready for those openings yet.

    The opening I'm looking for will be of a temporary nature. Just like I played gambits temporary for the sole reason I wanted to learn tactics, I now want an opening that stimulates me to think about the position and the pawns in a positional way.

  9. I just realized the following.
    While in the right area of the graph trying to break down complexity into bite sized chunks I clearly missed something. Trying to get grip on complexity while in the midst of it made me blind for positional subtleties.
    Now I'm dwelling in the left side of the graph every now and then, it is very natural to contemplate about these matters. Since I don't master positional play in simple positions, I certainly will not be able to master it in complex situations. And thus I have missed an opportunity in the past to simplify complexity. Before you can break down complexity into simplicity you must first be sure to master all the simple topics. Those things that are easy to see in a simple position. For some reason I have limited myself to see tactics only in simple positions. High time to correct this, at first in simple positions.

  10. Ed,
    can you give the line of the CK with gxf6 from move one, please, I'm uncertain which line you extactly mean.

  11. The line I mean is 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Nxf6+ gxf6. (I play 4...Bf5 myself, but 4...Nf6 satisfies "a theoretical backwater, declared busted a few times".)

    Of course you'd have to have something against the Advance and the Panov. If cramped positions are a problem, you might not like the Advance.

    If Caro-Kanns after 3.Nc3 dxe4 are too cramped for your style, Scandanavians and Alekhine's won't be suitable either.

    The nice thing about the Sicilian Kalashnikov as opposed to other Sicilians is that Black gets his full share of the center.

    Otherwise, you might be happiest with 1.e4 e5.

  12. Excellent, clear writing in this post. Where did Tempo go?

    I wouldn't think of that time as wasted (not that you did: indeed you seem to see it helped you with tactics, but only serve as a temporary measure). Until you have mastered the simple tactics, it is a waste to focus on positional things. I remember when I first learned about weak squares, I would focus on them first and foremost after my opponent moved. I was so scared of weak squares that once I even gave away a bishop for free, as protecting it would have required creating a weak square on my side!

    It seems you are maturing from the often mentioned gambit phase to a more modern phase, where you no longer have to obsess about whether you will miss a tactic, so can afford the luxury of positional thinking.

    I really like the graph, and the idea that gambits force you into the right-hand side. Indeed, that's why I started playing gambits, because I am so bad at calculation and complexity and attacking that I wanted to force myself into that region to build that muscle. I can't see myself growing out of it, but perhaps I will!

    What about the Philidor? I heard 'The Philidor Files' is a really good book. It covers lots of early variations. One nice thing about the Philidor is people tend to underestimate it, don't spend much time booking up on it.

  13. From the last chapter of The Philidor Files (italics mine):
    In the past the Philidor has been mistakenly considered to be somewhat passive. It's true that Black's counterplay can be delayed for some time, but it does arrive. This apparent tranquility makes your opponent feel confident, but that is an illusion!

    As a final note, I can recommend the Philidor to players of a 'lazy' nature, those who attach more importance to the understanding of strategic themes, rather than the memorization of variations.

    Damn...I might just buy that book.

  14. You asked me: "Phaedrus,
    what do you mean by "The scandinavian does not have an exchange variation" and why is that important?"

    What I was trying to make clear was that the scandinavian does not allow whiter to create a symetrical pawnstructure. These kind of positions (espacially when there is an open file, often lead to simplifications.

    Notorious is the french exchange, but also the exchange variation of the Alekhine can lead to a rather lifeless game.

    The scandinavian almost always leads to an reasonably imbalanced pawnstructure, which is good if you want to create winning chances.

  15. Interesting to see how biased we are towards the opening. Actually the post was based on idea's about the middlegame and the endgame.

    Thanks everybody for the great imput though, there are certainly a few interesting idea's in it. I will sort it out and let you know.

    It's too early for a final verdict on the opening. Before you can say something about the opening you must know something about the middlegame. Before you can say something about the middlegame you must know something about the endgame. Capablanca said so, and I'm paraphrasing him.

    For the moment I need a temporary opening that don't pushes me to throw the sink at my opponent every game. The power of the "Polabia" is that you can force a freeing pawn break almost every game (e4 as white, e5 as black). After that there is usually no cramped position anymore. Nor a symmetric pawnstructure.

  16. Interesting to see how biased we are towards the opening. Actually the post was based on idea's about the middlegame and the endgame.

    After you said:
    Now I have to find something against 1.e4 which keeps me on the left side of the graph and which suits my taste.

    One axiom of chess blogging: Mention openings, especially that you are looking for a new opening, and you are sure to get a million suggestions from the peanut gallery. :)

  17. Hello, I am presently conducting an experiment which might be interesting to you. Give my blog a visit. It deals with effort and improvement in chess, and is a rather ambitious plan...