December 2020 Update

Published on 31 Dec 2020

December is a good month for self-reflection, it’s almost natural to look back to the year and draw some conclusions and come up with fresh plans for the new year. I think this kind of post may become a tradition over the years for the Chess Atlas as December is also the birth month of the project, it’s just natural to look back. It’s been one year already and it’s hard to believe. I imagine the whole planet had a pretty intense year but this is a Chess blog so I’ll focus on that.

So what do I make of this year? Let’s get the bad parts out of the way:

  • Chess is hard, there’s so much to learn it’s overwhelming
  • Often enough I saw no measurable improvements

Let me expand one statement per time.

I created the Chess Atlas using a metaphor I found very fitting: Chess is so vast you’re going to need a collection of maps to avoid losing yourself into the vast lands of openings, middle games, endgames, and so on. The metaphor works because, indeed, Chess is so vast it’s overwhelming. My initial plan was to primarily focus on one aspect of the game: the endgame. The plan evolved from its initial form and then it changed again. What happened is probably relatable: once I got over the most basic endgames I started feeling lost in the middlegame. That lead me to study strategy a little and then I finally got lost again.

Now onto the second statement: no measurable improvement. This statement is only half true. In the first part of the year, mostly while I was working through the easy exercises of the woodpecker method, I saw a pretty steady progress in my rating on Lichess. In the second half of the year though, I pretty much got stuck in a 200 points range. My rating (both blitz and rapid) went up and down pretty much randomly every other week. It was very frustrating, at times I thought of giving up on Chess and spend my free time on something else. To add up on this frustration, there’s also something else I find hard to explain. I felt like I understand Chess better now than, say, 9 months ago. But then why isn’t my rating going up at all? I’ve heard a lot of people saying you shouldn’t be too rating driven. I agree in theory but I can’t shake it off: if you’re a better player than one year ago, your rating should reflect that. And if it doesn’t, you’re not really getting better aren’t you?

It sounds depressing, and it was for a while, but it was also revealing. I started examining the second part of the year up close and the conclusion was relaxing:

I am not really studying anymore. I’m doing some casual reading here and there but I spend most of my free time just playing mindless blitz games.

This “silly revelation” lead me to create a plan. The rest of this blog post is a little selfish: it’s just the excuse to write down a structured plan. I have two reasons: I’d love to get some feedback about the plan but, most importantly, I don’t have a good history with structured plans. So, you may ask, what changed? What makes you think this time it will work? Well, I really want to get better at Chess. And, to come back to the Atlas metaphor, Chess is too vast and a plan to chart its maps can’t be that bad for me.

The core idea of my plan is to use the amount of time I spent playing (an incredible 740 hours!) almost exclusively to study and dedicate a bit more than the time I spent studying to play. Inverting the tendency for good. The idea is simple but it still poses a few questions.

First of all: the time control approach must change radically. I eliminated blitz all together already and plan to play only long rapid/classical games. The only way I see this work is to play with people I know, possibly stronger than me. A “let’s meet once per week online and play a long game” kind of deal is what I’m looking for and maybe some additional rapid games here and there. The reason I want to do this is simple: I have a hunch I do actually understand the game better now but I can’t put my learning to practice in blitz games. There’s no time to think. Furthermore, I want to review my own games once per week so that I can see my mistakes clearly and hopefully correct them. I see no point in reviewing blitz games at my level. So, there is is: blitz is no more.

Second step: I will keep ignoring openings. I may do some light reading here and there the openings I enjoy the most but I don’t see myself spending my time going over variations every day.

Third step: tie up loose ends with the middlegame and strategy studies I started a couple of months ago. I read “Simple Chess” by Micheal Stean (and soon enough I will add it to the Atlas reading list. I loved it) and currently going over “Winning Chess Strategies” by Yasser Seirawan (definitely not as good, also pretty infuriating). After I’m done, I will re-read parts I found most interesting from both (which in the case of Simple Chess is mostly re-reading the whole book).

Fourth and final step: introduce a more structured approach. Here’s how a week should look like:

  • One day to review games from the week before
  • One day to play games
  • Four days of:
    • Tactics
    • “theme of the month”

Yes, it’s sixth days per week as I’d like to leave a day for writing. I want to add new content to the Atlas in a more regular fashion. I think I’d benefit myself from it quite a bit as I tend to retain much better ideas and concepts I write about.

For the tactics training part, right now I’m using the woodpecker method book intermediate exercises. The current goal is to go over the “intermediate exercises”, at least 6 per day (basically one page per day). It may not seem that much but they’re actually hard enough for me and overshooting will only discourage me. The goal is to learn new patterns every day by doing just a few but immediately checking the solutions. I may want to test some other tactics training system over time. For example, the new Lichess puzzle system is very appealing.

The shiny new part in this plan is the “theme of the month”. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. There are too many areas to improve and unfortunately I don’t have enough time in a week to study more than one subject per time. I tried and failed pretty miserably. I’d rather focus on one thing per time and try my best to absorb new ideas in that specific area. Every month, I’m going to choose a different theme and, as soon as my life gets more stable again (the expectation is that things will get a bit more relaxed for me when my kid goes to kindergarten and, hopefully, sleeps a little more too:)), I will hire a new coach and take it from there. I will share the theme of the month on twitter every time I have a new one.

So this is my first attempt at a structured plan. My expectation is clear: I want to get better at Chess and, at the same time, write much more for the Chess Atlas. Now, let me get to back to work on my Chess!