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Rating Quest - Ep. 2: Two Steps Back

Some days you win, some days you lose - twice.

I got myself up to 1715 in 10-minute Rapid and was starting to feel like I had some momentum. Today was also a snow day in Fargo (both my daughter's high school and my university campus were closed), so I figured it wasn't a bad idea to set aside some time in the morning to see whether or not I could keep climbing.

A word about how I tend to approach playing Rapid games: I'm not much for the arena format or just kinda queuing up game after game. I try to wait until I'm really ready to focus on the game for a bit and decide in advance to play either 2 or 3 games at one go regardless of the outcome. Today, I decided that number was just two games - enough to spend 30-40 minutes during a break in grading my students' work. Two games might take me up to ~1730 or so, which would be close to my all-time peak of 1750!

This was not at all in the cards today, though. Instead, I lost both of my Rapid games and find myself right back on the edge at 1700. Instead of really diving into both of these games in depth, I want to spend some time looking at some specific features of my play during these two losses to say a bit about big-picture stuff I need to find a way to work on. With that in mind, I give you the first of these games in its entirety below:

There are a few things I can say about this one in general that have to do with some work I just need to do one of these days. First, it's a Modern Defense, which I still consider myself very weak against. I've had this on my to-do list for opening study for a while and just haven't found time to really learn about it more. Second, however, despite my weaknesses with these lines (and a lot of Hypermodern stuff more broadly) I hold my own pretty well! There are some real missteps in the opening (more on these in a bit), but even though I don't have true prep against the 1. ... g6, I manage to play fairly principled chess and end up with a mostly decent position. This leads naturally to my third point...I won!

OK, no - no, I didn't.

BUT, what I did manage to do is lose on time in a 10-minute Rapid game where I had something like a +4 advantage as the clock ran down. This is the thing I need to work on - I'm slow! Even at the 10-minute time control I just...take...too...long. Here's the thing, though - take a look a the evaluation of my game below.

I had 6 "Great" moves! I've been working on more positional play and practicing my tactics, which I think has overall given me better board vision, but that board vision that I want to make use of seems to just chew up too much time. Also, while I'm making Great and Brilliant moves with a higher frequency than I used to, I haven't managed to set aside those Mistakes, Misses, and Blunders. Here's a doozy from this game - take a look at the position below:


At this point in the game, I have ~21 seconds left and all I can think about is finding some way to get that Bishop to stop bugging me. A good idea that helps achieve that goal is 55. f4, which at least puts the question to the Bishop about where else to go. Instead, you know what I do? 55. Rg5?? which just completely blunders a fork from the very piece I was concentrating on. This one was under time pressure, but there were other mistakes early on that weren't. I'm looking, I'm trying to make plans, but I just take too long to do so while still missing some glaring problems.

From the cognitive science perspective (my field of expertise), this feels like a learning problem, but a particular kind of learning that chess players describe as "pattern recognition." That is, the ability to quickly grok the arrangement of pieces in a position and remember how to move and win. This is probably more implicit than explicit memory, so I may just need to build up a vocabulary of positions that includes more stuff. More puzzles? More Woodpecker exercises? I don't know, but either way I've got to speed up.

What about Game 2? Honestly, nothing too exciting - except this time it was my opponent with 5 Great moves and a Brilliant one! This was very likely a direct byproduct of me getting caught out of my prep on the Smith-Morra Gambit, which is still my favorite approach to the White side of the Sicilian. I was trying the Alapin for a while, and while I do like it I also feel like there are a lot of funny sidelines that I need to be careful with. It turns out that this is true of the Smith-Morra too, however, as I quickly found out here when my opponent declined the gambit.

Ah, well. As I said at the beginning, there aren't paths upwards that don't involve a few steps backwards. Hopefully the next round of Rapid games brings some more forward progress, but we'll see. In the meantime, how do you speed up your play? Do you have study strategies that have helped you stay out of time trouble? Let me know in the forum!