Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Playing kid's games

BDK asked the questions; The Kenilworthian tagged me and now, assuming he still stops by here on occasion, I tag Java Joe of the Chess Castle of Minnesota.

1. How long have you been playing chess? Have you played it consistently since you started, or were there lulls in your play? How did these lulls affect your performance?

When I was about 10 years old, I fell rather ill with asthma and was laid up in bed for about three weeks. During this time, a friend of my mother's gave me a book on how to play chess. Having nothing else to do, I read it cover to cover several times. After that, I played chess casually with friends now and again, but never took it too seriously.

Several years later I picked up a book on the Fischer-Spassky world championship match and played over each of the games. I'm not sure I really understood what was going on, and while I continued to play friendly games, I still didn't get serious about it.

When I was a freshman in high school, I decided to join the chess club since you were "supposed" to be involved in activities and I was hardly a candidate to join the football team. Chess was fairly serious at my high school. The team had won several State Championships over the years and always competed in the Nationals. The previous July, recent graduate and Expert Alan Trefler had shared first in the 1975 World Open with GM Pal Benko. Alan's brother Leon was in my class and was the best player on the team. Alan took me to my first tournament a couple months later, The Greater Boston Open. I think I achieved an even score in the lowest section and a month later I was proudly sporting my first official rating, 1098.

From that point on, I played constantly -- at school, in scholastic tournaments, and at weekend events. By my junior year, I was a B-player and played 2nd Board on the team behind Leon. During our senior year, we won the Massachusetts State Championship, the New England Championship, and finished in the top 10 at the High School Nationals.

Once I started college, I drastically curtailed my chess playing. Over the next 5 years or so, I probably played less than five tournaments. Nevertheless, during this period I achieved a rating of about 1900. Some of this was due to playing relatively well, but frankly, I think the main driver was that USCF was intentionally inflating ratings during this period of time.

For the next six or seven years, I didn't play at all. Instead, I was preoccupied with my first job, getting married and going to graduate school. Later, out of school and not particularly happy with my job, I came home one day and told my wife I was going to go nuts if I didn't get involved in some diversion that I enjoyed. At that moment, the grand "one night of chess per week" bargain was struck.

I returned to the friendly haunts of the Boylston Chess Club on Clarendon St., where I'd played frequently during high school, and entered the Thursday Night Swiss. For the first few months I played terribly and lost about 100 rating points, but then regained my form and my points. In the ten or so years since, I've played consistently one night a week at the club and only on very rare occassion have I played larger tournaments (for example, I played the US Open several years ago when it was in Framingham, but only after reminding my wife about it every week for the entire year prior).

Only in the last couple of years have I seen an improvement in my rating to the point where I'm peaking my nose over the 2000 barrier more often than not. I'd like to think that I'm improving as player, but since my primary training activity is blogging it's hard to explain why. Then again, maybe USCF is inflating ratings again?

2. Aside from playing games, what is your primary mode of training?

Outside of blogging and reading chess blogs, I typically do three things:
  1. Re-read the opening books I have on the openings I most frequently play, over and over again

  2. Use the ChessBase on-line database to review Master games in lines that I am studying or preparing

  3. Analyze and annotate all my tournament games with the help of Fritz
I've also been playing quite a bit of on-line poker (with play chips only), but I'm not sure how much that helps my chess game.

3. What is the single most helpful method of improvement that you have ever used?

I'm really not sure, but if I had to guess I would think it might be all the time I spent in High School learning K+P endings inside out. I've never made a concerted effort to study tactics, so I would imagine that my game would benefit if I did.

4. What is your favorite opening to play as white? As black against e4? As black against d4?

Since plenty of club members read this blog, I'm not inclined to make their opening preparation easier. Therefore, I'll limit my comments to what everyone already knows.

I play 1.e4. If you want to play against the c3-Sicilian, then play 1...c5. Otherwise, play something else.

Against 1.e4, I play the French. However, I've learned lots of different sub-variations in order to avoid being predictable. If I think you've prepared for my French, then on occasion I'll trot out something else, just to keep you honest.

The rest you have to learn about over the board.

5. Who are your favorite chess players and why?

Korchnoi - Because he's been one of greatest defenders of the French Defense and because he bears a significant resemblance to my grandfather.

Sveshnikov - Not just "because he plays some of my favorite lines" (as Michael Goeller wrote), but because he effectively reinvented them, many times over. The c3-Sicilian would have been played out years ago without his on-going efforts and creativity.

6. What is your favorite chess book?

Probably Hans Kmoch's Pawn Power in Chess -- though it's not too useful for beginners.

7. What book would you recommend for a friend who knows only the rules of chess?

I don't know, but I suppose you could do a lot worse than pointing him in the direction of De La Maza's two articles [1 & 2], not his bloated book, or Dan Heisman's archive at Chess Cafe.

8. Do you play in in-person tournaments? What is your favorite tournament experience?

I am a regular at the BCC Thursday Night Swiss except during Championship Season when I typically play in the Reubens/Landey and Hauptturnier. I've played in very few weekend tournaments over the past ten years for the usual reasons - family, job, etc.

Not much great insight here, but beating masters is usually a kick.

9. Please give us a link to what you consider your best two blog posts.

I'm particularly fond of my post on the Pete Tamburro chess journalism awards, though I understand he didn't care for it that much. There are also several pieces in my USCL coverage which are worthy contenders (2005 coverage, 2006 coverage).

10. What proportion of total chess time should be spent studying openings for someone at your level?

I suspect I commit too high a percentage of my time to openings, but since I typically play the same people several times a year, I feel like I need to change things up so it is more difficult for my opponents to prepare lines against me. At the same time, when I know my opponent advance, I will often try to prepare a line against what he typically plays.

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