Tuesday, January 18, 2011

First Steps ...

During the Liberty Bell Open of 2011, I was very fortunate to have two very young and promising players participating in the lower sections. One of my students drew the attention of the other 9 and 10 year old participants by not just being 5 years old and in Pre-K, but by his ability to keep score of his games, as is required by both the rules as well as all of my students, regardless of age.
"This kid is writing down his moves!" one such young fellow remarked to another as the players were settling into the 6th, and penultimate round.
"It's as easy as walking." replied the 5-year old.

I felt inspired by the need to chime in at this point.
"Fortunately, there are electronic wheelchairs available now called Monroi devices... and there is no longer any need to know the names of these 64 life-long friends that you will need to analyse deeply."

Monday, August 16, 2010

To Focus or To Concentrate?

All sports have an area of peak performance within the context of a period that many players call being "in the zone!" This 'zone' feels like a twilight state of anticipating, considering, reacting, and executing in the most professional manner, their best moves and plays. But while every player struggles to attain and maintain this state of perfect play and performance, the struggle itself takes away some of the appreciation for all of those times it arrives as magically as it is gone. The state has occurred for me as a runner, a football, softball, basketball, tennis, billiards and chess player. I'm also certain that many players have experienced this state without realizing it or appreciating it ...

Jeanette Lee, "The Black Widow" the professional billiards player, once signed her book for me with the addition of a single word, "Focus!" That idea, along with the competitive cousin, "Concentrate!" are believed to be the cornerstones to achieving an 'in the zone' state of performance. There is a certain prep to every sporting performance that a player goes through in order to attain the best possibilities of a peak performance. Runners stretch and athletes go through a variety of drills. Chess players however don't have an established method of preparing mentally for the oncoming struggle. Torn between the known elements of being certain to get enough sleep, problem solving, analyzing, or just perhaps playing slow or blitz practice games before the big game alternate in priority.

Whichever method you choose it often helps if it is 'your' method - something that within you establishes that comfort zone you will need to play at peak performance, in the zone, effortlessly. The more experience you can acquire, the better your feel for the game and the less volatility in your performances.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Free Beer Tomorrow!

This summer, which I had set upon with great enthusiasm for at least a couple of my students, has been two thirds of a bummer. The manner in which a student of any subject likes to cycle down when given a significant amount of downtime ... reflects on character. Discipline and planning have to be partly self-motivated, although most of the time it is taught by heavy handed parents and teachers.

"Tomorrow" is my least favorite word when planning to get down to work. It's a great word - and unfortunately it is used every single day. I believe it has to be second in popularity to ... "later".

Just last week - I ran into a young National Champion at the Marshall Chess Club playing in the "4 Rated Games" event. His claim that he's been working hard on his game all summer impressed me. Assuming he's studying properly, I'm willing to predict that he will surpass 2200, if not in rating then certainly in strength, just weeks into the school year. Kudos to him, and congratulations on a job well done as/if it happens. It isn't really hard to gain 200 points in three months unless you get either distracted or cocky and over confident. Most students don't know how to study for themselves and hack away at it, either by memorizing or just playing as many tournaments as they can.

About a month from now, 31 days give or take, students will all be back in school. Homework and new responsibilities will overwhelm many as they adjust to a higher grade and higher expectations. Two weeks of Chess Camp at the end of August are part of a jump start and a casting off of summer rust that is planned by many parents and perhaps the least anyone can do to get the minds back on the boards.

Of course, I don't mean to interrupt any particular mastery of procrastination by nudging about this now - you can always sign up later, maybe even tomorrow. But be careful - tomorrow never actually comes :-(

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Dangerous Dogma...

One of the most difficult thing for an aspiring player to do while climbing the ladder of mental strength is to shed the old skins of youthful openings, primitive attacks and rote thinking that while establishing the foundation for their strengths at the same time keeps them on a leash.

The early occasions of shedding dogmatic beliefs occur when the knights don't seem to be doing enough on their magic squares on the 3rd ranks... everyone else seems to be moving their f-pawns... stronger players are not castling and getting away with it (i.e. in the French and Sicilian)... queens are coming out early... the bishops and knights aren't the same value anymore.

Everything comes into question once the fundamentals have been established and the students have to question for themselves everything in a position to find the right move, plan, tactic or strategy.

Before the December, Columbia Grammar Friday tournament (the next one is January 8th, 2010) several 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders warming up before playing began a theoretical opening argument ...
"You're supposed to play that move later!"
"No, you're not supposed to play that move at all"
"Wait, I'll show you the move you're supposed to play..."
Suddenly, they were interrupted by Grandmaster Joel Benjamin.
"Hold on a second there... you guys aren't 'supposed' to be playing anything. You should be thinking for yourselves!

Chess is an endless expression of mental coordination and critical thinking, not the rote spewing of openings and variations from books or classroom opinion. The rote learning can be internalized not memorized. Lessons learned are not what should be played, but rather a small part of the player's plans in the greater enjoyment of their game.

Friday, February 20, 2009

If You Think Others Have It in for Your Child ...

... You're wasting a thought, most of the time. Recently, a master strength player - suspected of commonly dumping his rating points once he's out of the money - was losing a late round game to a rising junior. Already you should picture the despair, the drama, the carefree attitude of an expert who is losing and leaving the board during a G/30 perhaps even to take a smoke break during the game. This master (who now plays Under 2200 sections) upon returning to the board might even exchange a few words in another language with a peer.
During the game at the heart of our story, several of these things, if not all, occurred. The master's clock runs under a minute - while the junior dwindles down from more than 5 minutes ... the master attacks a minor piece, and the junior fails to defend it. The whole room is watching as the junior collapses.
Shortly after the game the parent of the junior, questions the collaboration of others in her child's game. Of course, for the critical final part of the game the stronger player never left the board. The parent alludes to possible cheating again - as though it is common for strong players to scramble for help when playing younger, weaker players...
My personal favorite is when a parent assumes that entire lessons are devoted to preparing for their children.
This is just a game, a competitive game where one's development in the early stages is far more important than worrying about others.
If you're concerned that others are preparing for your child, they are doing it as a part of normal preparation to become better players; they are not concerned with the specifics of beating a particular player who plays popular openings... :-)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Death by Demo (The Demo board used for instruction in most classes)

"To be (instructed) or not to be (instructed)" is that really a question? Hamlet pondered a more serious subject with that great, dramatic line but students address this issue all the time when asked "which afterschool program would you like to take this semester?" Whether it's an afterschool, lunch club, or camp, students usually choose the one that they feel will be the most fun, not the most instructional.

Most chess camp and afterschool chess programs suffer from their own ambition, to instruct players and help them improve, or let them just play and be happy?! The general cut-off for instruction vs. playing time is around 30-40% but when the lessons get too long, enrollment drops. Then again, if there is no demo (demonstration instruction) time, the students get bored and have no sense of progress and move on to other things.

It's a tough delimma but most of the dedicated and academically minded students and parents know what is best ... the rest will pay more attention to whether they can bring their DS or Nintendo.
-John MacArthur

Monday, January 12, 2009

To Blindly Go ... ?!

So many years ago I stressed so often to a young Marc Arnold that any opening move is only as good as the strength and potential of the idea(s) behind it. Unfortunately many average players follow 'known' memorized theory as blindly as do computers, only to be dropped into a rich pool of complexity and forced to swim, suddenly, for themselves. Many players have been guilty of sleepwalking through the opening but the strongest player ever to fall into such a naive hole was no less than the greatest player in the history of the game, Gary Kasparov! But he went with his eyes apparently wide open.

Years ago in 1997, Kasparov attempted to capitalize on this 'known' computer weakness (following opening theory blindly, then waking up in a strange position) against Deep Blue, only to be tossed on his ear by a grandmaster team of assistants to the programmers led by GM Joel Benjamin. Kasparov's opening preparation was apparently based on the statistics of many lesser computers sacrificing a piece in a known variation of the caro-kann, then being unable to stitch together the necessary attacking compensation for the piece. Deep Blue did not drop the ball in the sixth and final game of the match, but ran with it and sent Kasparov crying...

Former World-Champion Mikhail Tal once spent the afternoon taking a bath while perusing the latest Russian issue of 'Chess Bulletin' ... at one point coming across an amazing sacrifice of a knight on e6 in a popular sicilian variation. The sacrifice appeared promising in all aspects and ... lost in thought and contemplation, a knock on the door reminded Tal that it was time for that day's round. His game that evening took the form of the same sicilian variation and Tal couldn't believe his good fortune. Following a bit of a dramatic pause, Tal sacrificed his knight on e6 confidently. His opponent sank deep into thought, occasionally glancing up at Tal in disbelief. Eventually, Tal's opponent shrugged his shoulders, accepted the knight and threaded his way through the complications to win the game.
Once concluded, the grandmaster asked of Tal, "Haven't you seen the refutation of this move in the latest issue of 'Chess Bulletin'?" Tal, upon returning to his room, turned the page of that issue to find his knight sacrifice disected and difused just as he'd experienced it.

Every day we follow advice of one sort or another without true understanding. Certainly there is something to be said for having faith or trust in the judgement of others. After all, we stand on the shoulders of giants in many popular variations, but at the same time these are not the only paths worth traveling.

Study widely, keep your eyes and mind open and be constantly on the alert for an overlooked or underestimated idea that you can call your own.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Soviet Equalizing Goats?

In the past 30+ years, many grandmasters have emmigrated to the U.S. wreaking the periodic amount of havoc on the swiss-system chess scene. They would have their successes, pocket a serious number of tournament payouts and have the other GMs grumbling, for a year or perhaps two. But then they would be figured out, lose their intensity or just plain succomb to the distractions of the diverse american culture (there is just too much good TV, I tell you) and relax on the chess study like a normal person here. GM Joel Benjamin touches upon those days in his book, "American Grandmaster" and others certainly recount verbal tales as well. The tradition started in the mid-seventies with GMs Shamkovich, Dzindzichashvili and Lev Alburt, continuing through GMs Gulko, Yermolinsky and Onischuk.

The earliest Russian GMs would apply a win with white, draw with black philosophy that, while working so well in the round-robin era, would have to come up short in the must-play-for-win-with-black mentality of the swiss-system. Uncompromising chess with black began with Fischer it seemed - and shaped the american landscape. If you wanted to play for a win with white against a former eastern-bloc GM, you had your hands full. Russian GMs were known to suffocate white's winning chances at every opportunity, breaking many of the unspoken swiss system rules of even trying to play for a win by generating counter-play. It almost wasn't fair.

Today, the Soviet equalizing goat philosophy with black has subsided. Students of the game can still learn from it though. Many new players often forget about the possibility of just playing solid chess with black and waiting for your opportunities. Playing good chess should be our first and formost goal when we start learning to master the game, but many times this goal is blurred by visions and dreams of success. Often coaches and parents emphasize winning and trophies, by putting too much emphasis on openings for example, rather than rewarding the practice of having their own ideas has behind the moves. In the last Columbia Grammar tournament I saw a strong young fellow lose with his coaches openings, rather than testing and learning from the validity of his own ideas. He agreed when asked, "those weren't my moves" he said "It was a terrible opening and I didn't know what to do."

Play well today, with moves full of ideas. Play to learn from your mistakes and adjust your understanding with the help of the school of hard knocks. We can be told, but there is no substitute for playing and seeing.
-John MacArthur

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Do The Right Thing!

I have always been a diligent and dedicated coach and teacher for every student regardless of gender, heritage or even school affiliations. But recently I've become seriously concerned about the quality of other coaches when teaching for modest rates or perhaps even across school affiliations.
With relatively quiet optimism, I would like to believe that most coaches train all students equally, in an unbiased manner, to the best their abilities. Therefore like many others, I am royally irked and disappointed when those coaches let me down. Parents who are concerned, should assess their chess tutors periodically... as there are three dominant qualities that concern and easily categorize private tutors.
The Teacher
Everyone starts with a teacher. This is someone who lays the groundwork for solid understanding. Foundations in tactics and strategy along with principles, maxims, vocabulary and a general understanding of exceptions are all interwoven in a coarse, but very strong fabric to capably catapult a student toward genuine success. Class rooms and new or young students should have good teachers.
High school students, an uncle who claims to be proficient or even people in your building who play, have no idea what they are doing when it comes to laying the groundwork for true learning. All areas of education need to be approached equally, or to coin my old favorite metaphor... A table must have several, if not many, solid legs if you expect it to stand well.
The Coach
Coaches concern themselves with getting results based on student or team capabilities. Coaching abilities are based mainly on psychology. This includes tweaking expectations, eliminating fears, overcoming obstacles and emphasizing strengths while motivating students to approach the task at hand with right attitude and to the best of their abilities. A coach asks for, outlines, and encourages students to attain the discipline necessary to perform at and certainly above their ability.
The Trainer
Trainers are usually master strength players, most often international or grand masters, who refine and sharpen a student, whose foundations are solid, and who has the discipline and commitment, like a tool with a fine edge or exquisite detail.
Mixed Intentions
Misunderstanding expectations of either the student or the tutor in either direction results in disappointment for one or the other and certainly for parents of young students. It isn't uncommon for one Trainer, to criticize someone for being an inadequate Teacher in one area or another. It is very important when and how those foundations were lain and by whom. A Trainer has to assume a certain level of knowledge in order to expect understanding let alone results, especially when dealing with a higher order of openings such as is required in the Indian and Sicilian Defences...
Can someone expect to persue a career in medicine without at least a general if not complete understanding of biology and related sciences? Many parents, nevertheless, save money on the coaching and training while expecting great results by skipping steps ... sometimes relearning - at the student's expense - the maxim 'You get what you pay for'.
Doing the right thing at the right time will save a lot of wasted time, money, psychological agony and stress in the long run.
- John MacArthur, Teacher, Coach and a something of a Trainer!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Make Time for Competition!

Recently a parent commented about a concern that their child was too(!) competitive. I took this with a smile, reflecting on how so many parents look out for their children in both aggressive and non-aggressive fashions. Competitive characteristics are shared most commonly by the most successful people in the world. Incentives for success are so appealling and luxurious that the opportunities our children have today to hone their "type A" personality or winning skills are plenty.
Unfortunately most parents look only to sports programs for developing 'winning' skills. Of course sport requires physical coordination and often team work - so it must not be overlooked. I'm happy to hear more often today about math olympiads and music program concerts and other cultural/academic outlets in addition to chess. Each of these contributes so much more to the mindful success of a well rounded student.
Competitions, and events such as music concerts that culminate in a test of one's development, prowess in handling stress in the preparation for such an event, and the opportunities to prove oneself are priceless and unfortunately far too few.

'Have you no ambition, Master Po?'
'Only one. Five years hence, it is my wish to make a pilgrimage to the Forbidden City. It is a place where even priests receive no special status. There in the Temple of Heaven, will be a festival The full moon of May. It will be the thirteenth day of the fifth month in the Year of the Dog.'
'That is not such a great ambition.'
'But it is ambition, nonetheless. Who among us is without flaw?'" -Master Po

Setting aside time in our calendar for competition or such an event on a regular basis defines our everyday focus and study.
-John MacArthur