Saturday, December 05, 2009

Phaedrus said, You shall hear, if you can spare time to accompany me.

Phaedrus said:

"Reading this post I do get the feeling that it does seem to imply that good positions are created. I tend to believe that this is more or less a false assumption. We only achieve an advantage if the opponent allows [himself making] mistakes (or "creates" weaknesses). There is a strong case to be made however for the assumption that it is possible to create imbalances, and with them the targets that can be attacked. My feeling is that if one tries to understand endgame play, it is better to talk about imbalances than about advantages."

Tempo said:
It is tempting to talk semantics about advantages versus imbalancies, but that would obfuscate anything to be learned from these erudite words, my dear Phaedrus. Let us see what's the fabric of which imbalancies are made. In order to get an imbalance, the opponent must make a mistake, you said. Implying that you cannot force it, the opponent must cooperate. A mistake can happen when there is a difference in the database of patterns of the players. This can have one of the following forms:
  • Both players have the same omission in their patterndatabase. The mistake goes by unnoticed.
  • Only one has an omission. In that case he makes a mistake and won't notice it. This will usually not happen in tactics, since both players at our level know the few tactical combinations there are all too well. To expand your database you need the help of somebody else. Be it a coach or a chessbook author.
  • There is a transferproblem. Both players know the pattern, but one of them fails to remember it behind the board. For me, the coathangerrack is the solution for the transferproblem. Take for instance the coathanger I use do decide on a positional move in the middlegame: "the pawns decide which piece is active". By just remembering this one sentence, everything I know about outposts, open lines, strong squares etc. comes to mind.
  • There is a valuationproblem. Both players recognize the pattern, but one of them misjudges the consequences. How often do you hear yourself say "I thought about that move, but I rejected it because. . ."? Being wrong with hindsight.
  • There is a difference in skill. If you cannot calculate far enough, or have difficulties to visualize a position, you can make mistakes which you can't help. A lot has been said about skill and skilltraining. It certainly takes quite an effort to fix it.
  • A blunder is made. It looks a bit like the transferproblem but it is more basal. With the transferproblem it is normal that you don't remember it behind the board, but with a blunder it is unusual. Discipline and good habits are your weapons here.
How many difference can there be in our patterndatabases? The tactical database consists of only 15 items or so while the positional database has about the same amount. It is difficult to make the difference there. Ok, an openingsdatabase can become big, so there can be some relation between work and result, but since you are left on your own when you are out of book it usually doesn't bring you very far either. The same is true for an endgame database.

This leaves three topics to make a real difference:
  • Transfer. As said, coat hangers are imho the solution for me.
  • Valuation.
  • Skill. We already talked too much about this. Read my blog if someone doesn't remember it:)
Aha! Valuation! Now everything else is excluded by rhetorica, the only possible culprit of our abysmal chessperformance is left, dear Phaedrus!
And indeed, if I look at my latest loss against Lysias, I quite ignored that little passer at the rim since I thought the game was about killing his king with a beautiful combination. So even when I had the chance to get rid of that little bugger I followed the figments of my deluded mind instead. How wrong my judgement was!

So what we need is a database with evaluations, my friend.
A database where we put in our experiences in order to make use of them later.
Thus speaking, our main enemy appears unhidden before our eyes: Forgetfulness. Our thirst let us drink from the river Lethe all too much. Forgetfulness is very useful for our daily life. If we wouldn't forget where we left our car the day before yesterday, and the day before the day before yesterday, our remembrance where we have left the car yesterday would soon be obscured by a cloud of memories with all possible places where we have left the car ever. But forgetting our chess experiences will yield mediocracy.


  1. "our main enemy appears unhidden before our eyes: Forgetfulness"

    I couldn't agree more. Acquiring new knowledge and skills is useless unless we can access them OTB with our memory. Of course, there are different kinds of memories, and then there's the harsh reality that most of us don't have enough time and opportunity to practise chess to rely on "memorising by doing". In other words, most of those can't play enough chess to have chunks magically appear in our memory due to encountering them time and again.
    Also, unlike a violin player, you cannot just practise one song until you got that song right in chess, because the "song" in chess is written over the board. So the question is: what are the best "finger-exercises" for chess? I try to keep those finger exercises as simple by using comparatively simple ideas and straight-forward lessons in my gifs, and re-visiting those again and again and again. At the same time I tend to avoid things that are fun but easily forgotten -- say, playing over master games or studying opening variations. I find it very hard to muster the honesty to admit that I don't retain much from replaying master games or opening variations; but that's very much the reality I'm facing. I don't know about how others experience this. (Read: My memory is shite.)

  2. Phaedrus said:

    First of all, thank you for giving my small comment the honor of a complete post. It gave me a lot to think about.

    But as sharp and to the point as you were, you did misquote me. I did not say: "In order to get an imbalance, the opponent must make a mistake". My point is that there is a fundamental difference between an imbalance and an advantage. To get an advantage, the opponent must make an mistake. But imbalances can be created. I am speaking about imbalances like:
    - material against development;
    - queen side majority against king side majority;
    - bishop against knight;
    - etc.

    This is not just semantics. Creating imbalances is a way to raise the tension in a position. This is a way to increase winning chances but it also increases the risk of losing a game. So there can be a large imbalance in a position without an advantage for either player.

    IMHO opinion in most cases it is neither important nor productive to think about who has the advantage and who doesn't. But it is important to be aware of the imbalances and seek for ways to use them.

    I don't know the score of your game against Lysias. But it might well be just the thing I a talking about. You are going for a kill on the king side. It might well have been that you thought this was the way to go because you had an advantage. But maybe (just maybe, I realize I am speculating here) if you had looked at the position in terms of imbalances, you might have considered to get rid of the only imbalance (the passed pawn) that favored your opponent.

    Maybe this is all projection, but my results improved after I got rid (at least up to a significant amount) of thinking about having or not having an advantage.

  3. @Phaedrus,
    I was aware of the point you wanted to make. I only wasn't fully aware that the words imbalance and advantage were essential.

    The post had a momentum of its own, and I decided to elaborate later on that specific point of you. Since your point in your comment was actually the subject of the post you commented on I thought this was permitted for the moment.

    I will elaborate on your point later.

  4. @Chunky,
    I find it very hard to muster the honesty to admit that I don't retain much from replaying master games or opening variations; but that's very much the reality I'm facing.

    The coathanger is my main weapon. [Broken record on] you can't get answers if you have no questions [sqeak] You can can only remember what you learned conscious [sqeak] You can't learn on automatic pilot [broken record off]

    Da capo al fine.