Lonewolf Season 21 Recap

Published on 17 May 2021

At the end of last year, I decided my approach to time controls had to radically change: no more blitz, maybe some rapid, mostly classical games. I joined the lonewolf tournament so that I could have at least one planned classical game per week.

As it’s the first time I discuss the lonewolf league here on the Chess Atlas blog, I expect this will be a somewhat lengthy read. Here’s a table of content so you can read only what interests you:

What did I expect

Before joining the tournament, I had never:

  • Played consistent classical Chess
  • Prepared for an opponent
  • Annotated my games

I went into the tournament expecting to learn new things about regular tournament play and, hopefully, play only stronger opponents. Sure, it’s not an over the board tournament but it’s 2021 and I think the lonewolf league is the best next thing given we’re dealing with a global pandemic.

How did it go

In terms of pure performance, it went much better than I expected. I scored 5.5/11 with 4 victories, 4 losses and 3 draws (one was a bye though). The tournament is well run. The steps to follow are simple:

  • You join the league
  • You get invited to a Slack workspace
  • A moderator welcomes you and suggests channels to join (very thoughtful)
  • Every week a bot creates a private conversation with your opponent so you can figure out when to play
  • Once you have a date, you write that in a pairings channel
  • One hour before your game you get a reminder in the private chat the game is about to start
  • Once the games starts, the bot picks it up automatically
  • You do the same thing every week

As for my opponents, here’s my experience:

  • Scheduling the game has been always easy, especially considering that some weeks I had difficult constraints (like only two spots in the entire week)
  • Some opponents enjoy a post-mortem analysis (which I loved!) but most left abruptly after losing the game
  • I think there was no cheating in any of my games

Overall, I consider the way the tournament is run truly excellent and would recommend anyone to join. It’s worth noticing I had nothing “slack specific” to learn as I’ve been using it since 2014 for work every day. I can imagine newcomers may experience a different first impression if they’re not familiar with slack.

What did I learn

I annotated all the games in a Lichess study so here I will only go over what I consider the most important moments of the tournament. There’s a lot to share so let my dive straight into it.

I don’t believe in good moves, I believe in psychology

Let' start from the beginning. Game 1 thought me something very important about Chess. The kind of thing you know it’s obvious when someone tells you but that it has a completely different effect on you once you experience it yourself:

Your state of mind will significantly affect the way you evaluate a position

I get it, I really do. It sounds obvious. But then, again, once you feel it yourself, it’s different. Now consider this position from my game one (playing black and black to move):

a few obvious things:

  • The white king is exposed but there’s no immediate/obvious way to take advantage of it
  • The black queen is under attack and I have to do something about it
  • Two moves seem viable to address the previous points: Qc8 and Nd7. I think I like Qc8 more as it’s more active but it’s a messy position

In this position, I played 13 ...Qe7 and the game was over because:

How did I blunder such a simple tactic in a classical game? Here’s what I think happened:

  • I was too excited, everything was new
  • I blundered a pawn on move 2 (yes, really. My opponent thought it was an opening sac they didn’t know about) because when the game started my excitement about being part of the tournament was off the charts
  • Because I blundered a pawn so early I thought I was going to lose (more about this in the next point)

That’s the thing, nothing to do with missing a simple tactic. It wasn’t a Chess knowledge problem, it was my inability to stay calm and focused.

I can’t recover from mistakes

I’m also not very good at recovering from mistakes. It is strongly connected to the previous point, I think. But let me explain the situation via a position from Game 7 (playing black and black to move):

I mistakenly thought Bf4 was not possible in this position (now that I look at it one more time I have no idea why I though so. Hence, the mistake) so I played the horrible Qc7 which, well, allows Bf4 and loses a pawn. As soon as my opponent played the move, I got really upset with myself and it affected every single move from there on. That’s the core of the problem: I’m going to make mistakes but they shouldn’t always cost me a point. Rationally speaking, my opponents are not Magnus Carlsen so they won’t always convert a +1.1 advantage into a win. I have to learn how to judge the current position for what it is now and ignore how I got there. This game is a perfect example of why that’s important. A few moves after my mistake, my opponent blundered almost all their advantage in one move and we ended up in a very instructive endgame position where white is a pawn up but black has a very scary looking bishop pair on a completely open board:

Obviously, I lost this endgame. I was so upset about my mistake a few moves before I fixed my mindset around “I made I mistake so I deserve to lose”. I played out this position with LeelaRouge (more about this at the end of the post) and could drew it with just a little focus. So it’s not that I don’t know how to draw this position. It’s how I feel when I have to play it out.

I must admit I do not have a concrete plan in place for this just yet. I’m aware of the problem and I started practicing walking around the room when I’m not convinced about my position. I will try some breathing exercises as well as more than one person suggested that to me. I think this is going to take a while.

Preparing for opponents is hard and fun

I underestimated how exciting it would be to get a new opponent every week, go over their games, try to prepare a little for the positions that may arise in the game. Now a little premise for those who don’t know this about me: I don’t do any particular opening work. Maybe that’s the reason why I enjoyed this process so much. It looked like this:

  • Get an opponent
  • Go to openingtree.com (a pretty amazing website)
  • Get a sense of what your opponent is going to do

I believe I do this very superficially at the moment. I want to be more systematic about it. Feeling “ready for the game” will help me psychologically. By now I get it will affect my performance.

This process also changed my mind a bit about opening preparation. While I’m still convinced it makes no sense for me to go over thousands of variations of a single opening, I now understand I need to build an opening repertoire. At least the basics:

  • Basic pawn structures of the openings I run into more often
  • Collect master games in “my openings”
  • Deep-dive into the things I either find more interesting or more difficult (like the Ruy Lopez Marshall attack or opposite side castling Sicilian positions)

I’m starting slowly this month already but I plan to increase the effort a little by introducing a “prep evening” for the upcoming season of the lonewolf league. The idea is to write things down, collect games, and look at positions over the board in a more systematic way one or two days before the next game. That way I should get enough material for a very basic opening repertoire after season 22.

I enjoy annotating my games

Before joining the tournament, I had never annotated a game. I had taken notes for some rapid games but they were always too short so the quality of the moves was too low for the annotation process to be valuable. I understand it’s sometimes interesting to look at a given position, no matter the time control it arose from. But my main goal is learning and therefore correct my decision making process in selecting the move to play. It’s where I think annotating games make a big different and why a lot of strong players will suggest you to do so with your own games. The problem though is that I found very little material out there on what makes you a good annotator. I started reading the improving annotator by Dan Heisman and the introduction contains very valuable suggestions.

As the tournament progressed, I started refining a process for annotating my games:

  • Immediately after the game, write down:
    • First impressions of the game right after it
    • Key moves, mistakes, blunders
    • Evaluation of key positions
  • After a day or two:
    • Go over the game and annotate it using Chess annotation symbols
    • Verbalize why you evaluate a position in a specific way
    • Go over some key variations on a real board

This two-step process is very fascinating to me. It helps me seeing the difference between how I evaluate a position knowing how I got there in the heat of the moment and how objective I can be when I’m not emotionally attached to the position anymore. The idea is to close the gap between the two as much as possible.

After I’m done with these steps, I like to go over everything with an engine to check:

  • What the engine says about I wrote about specific moves (aka was this a blunder?)
  • The variations I came up with
  • Missed tactics

I did not always follow this exact process though. Funnily enough, I did not do enough of this with the games I won. But I’m sure it would be as helpful as with losses. There’s always more to learn. I did follow the process to annotate all my losses which was a little painful but very helpful. I’m also proud I shared in public (in the chess lounge discord server, full of helpful people) the only loss in which I felt completely outplayed. I feel good about such an healthy reaction and people did help me understand I clearly missed the point of the structure behind the position.

Overall, this may be the best thing I learned during the tournament. I’m sure my annotations are still very poor but I enjoyed doing them so much, I’m kind of sure it’ll get better.

Sometimes you’re just lucky

Funnily enough, my best win in this tournament was purely luck. That’s something I didn’t expect I would ever say about a Chess game. But clearly I just don’t have enough experience to understand the intricacies of the game yet. Let me show you what I mean. Here’s critical position of the game (playing black and black to play):

A couple of things:

  • I was out of book on move one 1. b3 so felt uneasy with the position
  • It’s messy so a simple rook move like Rfe1 should do

I played d4 because I wanted to simplify the position and did not realize that, while not completely forced, I had just “sac’d the exchange”. After being an exchange down, I considered resigning on the stop but then I recalled I should look at positions for what they are and not based on how I got there. I used a little of the learning I made in previous rounds! I spend a minute pondering the situation then I saw a plan that would make the game much harder to convert and I went for it. Here’s the full sequence from d4:

In the resulting position, white is still better but for me it was really hard to find a constructive plan for them. My opponent thought so too I guess because they spent almost all their remaining time in this position thinking about their next move. After a few moves, the time pressure was too strong and they blundered and resigned. I never expected to be this lucky in a Chess game.

Collecting endgames

In some of the games, I run into very instructive endgames so I started a lichess study to collect them. Of course instructive is highly subjective in this context. These are endgames I find instructive because:

  • I’m not sure what’s the best plan
  • The starting position is somewhat unclear (to me in particular. Surely I ignore what the engine has to say about it)

The idea is to have a bunch of positions I can use to play through and practice with Leela. I enjoy the practice and also the idea of having my personal collection of “interesting endgames from my own games”. I’m sharing this mostly because I did not see this coming when I joined the tournament so you may find that interesting as well.

What’s next?

I already joined next season. I think it’s obvious I’m very happy with the experience and don’t see a reason to stop. I’m actually considering joining their league tournament as well in one of the upcoming seasons (I can’t just yet as I’m trying out the Chess lounge discord server league at the moment. Yes, I will write a blog post for that as well when it’s over).

The goal is to build up on what I learned in the first season and see where Chess brings from there.