English grandmaster, chess writer and two-time British Chess Champion, Matthew Sadler, wrote an article for ChessMoves about maintaining your strength as an amateur player.
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Chatting with Mike Truran during the lovely dinner at the RAC club after another thrilling Varsity Match, we got onto the topic of playing chess and maintaining your strength as an amateur player and Mike suggested I write an article for ChessMoves about it! It’s perhaps a little odd for me to be writing about this after having just dropped off the FIDE list due to inactivity ? However, it has been a topic that’s interested me ever since I came back to chess as an amateur after a 10-year break. Interested *us* I should say of course, as I really got into the topic when Natasha Regan and I collaborated on the lovely book “Chess for Life” in which we interviewed older players (male and female, professional and amateur) who had successfully maintained their strength into later life in order to understand their strategies. Read more: Jeroen Noomen and GM Matthew Sadler announce TCEC S21 superfinal book cooperation
Perhaps the abiding impression of those interviews – and the part that made it so much fun to do at the time – was the enormous sense of enjoyment in chess that all of our interviewees still displayed. We interviewed Nigel Short via Skype from his home in Athens and it was hilarious to see him continually triggered by the course of the interview into fetching another chess book from his library! For example, touching on Nimzowitsch, Nigel ran out to fetch his copy of “My System” in Latvian (“the best language in which to read it” he joked ?)
Of course, enthusiasm for chess in general and enthusiasm for playing chess are not always exactly the same thing. The key takeaway from our interviews was that as you get older, you need to think carefully about how you ensure that a chess tournament never becomes a grind. Nigel Short pursued his love of travel by playing chess in exotic locations which motivated him to give his utmost at the board, while Keith Arkell spoke of playing better with only minimal preparation before the game, conserving his energy for the long struggle ahead! Each of the players we talked to had a different strategy, but it was clear that – consciously or intuitively – they all had a good idea of how to approach a chess game – and endure a whole tournament – with the most positive feelings. And that often wasn’t how you thought someone should do it, but it worked for them!
Another facet of chess to tournament play is preparation. This is definitely something that players find difficult to maintain as they get older, and I’m no exception. I wondered why that was for a long time, but I decided eventually that it was because chess preparation is all about repetition. You prepare and learn your lines for a specific game, but within a week you’ve forgotten some key details and you need to revise and relearn them. I didn’t think twice about that as a professional, but when chess is your hobby, playing through an interesting game and analysing some key moments from it may fit the concept of fun – and improvement – much better than trying to stamp reams of variations into your unwilling memory again and again!
Perhaps the most important thing I did in general was to set myself the discipline of at least 15 minutes of chess every day. When I first started playing again in 2010, I tended to have little bursts of activity in chess, followed by a period of inactivity when I wouldn’t touch a chessboard for a couple of weeks (I was doing quite a few works exams at the time). Every time I wanted to pick up chess again, I felt as if I hadn’t seen a chessboard in six months. It really felt quite distressing getting the chess brain in gear again! I decided that there’s only a limited amount of space in your head, and there are many things from “real life” competing to fill that space; look away and chess simply gets squeezed out. So I set myself the task of doing at least 15 minutes of chess every day to make sure that I never lost sight of chess completely. Obviously, more was better, but I would always try and fit something in however busy the day became.
I also made a good decision (after some trial and error) for the type of work I would do by default in those 15 minutes. I decided that the most important part of the playing mindset is to be critical of your opponent’s moves: don’t accept or believe what they play, make up your own mind! In order to stimulate that, I started to re-read some of the older books I had such as a collection of Alekhine’s Best Games. While reading, I put aside my normal respectful approach to books and questioned every annotation, every variation and every move! It will amaze you how many discoveries you make when you do this! I felt this was really valuable work, both for my practical attitude and for my general chess culture. This work eventually became a series of articles on my blog (https://matthewsadler.me.uk/matthew-sadler-blog/) not just on Alekhine’s games, but also on those of players such as Efim Bogolyubow. Frank Marshall, Fred Yates and HE Atkins. The reason I chose historical books for this work is that modern books tend to be blunder-checked by engines so the chance of spotting tactical mistakes is much smaller… that’s much less satisfying!
When it came to playing tournaments or league games, the amount of work I did on chess tended to increase in the period just before the event. From that point of view, I feel very much akin to another “Chess For Life” interviewee Terry Chapman who spoke about how much he enjoyed the whole process of preparing for a game, and how much getting openings ready for a game filled him with anticipation and pleasure for the struggle! I’m exactly the same; if I just turn up to a game without any ideas at all, then I really wonder why I’m there. If I make the effort to spend a weekend playing chess, then I’d like to give everything I have to it, not just play on autopilot!
Perhaps the best thing I discovered from the preparation point of view was to start using self-generated engine matches to put together my openings. I describe the idea in detail in “The Silicon Road to Chess Improvement”. The idea was to pick an opening I wanted to play, enriched with a couple of my own ideas / thoughts. Then I’d pick out 20 or 30 interesting positions from that opening, put them in a file and let my engines play matches from those positions. After those matches were played, I’d have maybe 50 or 60 really interesting games in that opening… games that no one else had ever seen or would ever see ?I’d then play through those games picking out 10 or 11 that I thought were really typical and instructive, which took about half an hour. I might repeat that process a few more times if I had fresh thoughts or I saw something that wasn’t clear to me. And after a few iterations, I had a set of computer-checked lines based on some fascinating, evocative games that no one else had ever seen before! And all the effort I had made was to let my creativity run free a bit to generate some initial ideas, and then afterwards play through some spectacular games to put together some lines! Easy and fun! Nowadays, I do all my analysis that way – I can’t imagine doing anything else!
Whichever method you use to prepare however, the key takeaway from chess as an amateur must be pleasure. You might be driven by a love for the chess scene, by the love of the game itself or by the love of competition, or even a mixture of all three, but you should be able to look back on a weekend spent playing chess with the feeling that you have done something worthwhile. I guess I always have that feeling… If I played a good or exciting game, I got a lot of pleasure afterwards thinking about it and analysing in my head as I walked to my train. If I played a bad game, then it was sure to wake me in the middle of the night for a few weeks after ? Come to think of it, I still have some games from the 90s that give me nightmares! But well, those sorts of intense experiences are what makes chess special – I’ve had ups and downs during my work as an IT consultant, with successful projects and ghastly “all-nighters” to solve critical problems, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite as alive as after a well-played game based on good preparation! Long may it continue!