Pandemic, Obsession, and 64 Squares

Off topic
Reflections on the "Chess Boom" and plans for the future

Shortly before the pandemic, I revisited a account that I set up in 2018 but had rarely used. I did not have many goals other than to have fun while on my commute or to have something to do while bored. The pandemic, which provided me and millions of others around the world with an opportunity to spend more time on chess, prompted me to inadvertently turn this casual interest into something of an obsession. Now that (fingers crossed) the worst of the COVID 19 pandemic is over, I thought it worth starting this blog to track improvement, reflect on the obsession, and solicit feedback.

My father taught me chess when I was a child. I do not recall a particular lesson, but I do remember playing a few games with him and remembering his advice to "put your queen next to the king in a protected spot." During my high school years, I would sometimes play chess at the local public library and check out books on chess history and theory. These years provided me with an introduction to Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Tal, José Raúl Capablanca, the Ruy Lopez, the Caro Kann, and much more. I rented Searching for Bobby Fischer and Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine. I never attended any tournaments or played much online. During university I played with one of my uncles occasionally and played a few online games. Between completing my post-graduate degree and the end of 2019 I played very little.

During the beginning of the pandemic, I sought to improve using all the worst methods. I would play blitz, analyze my games with engines, rush through puzzles, play for cheap tricks, and focus on my rating. Chess was becoming an obsession; it occupied my mornings and many evenings. I scoured online resources, discovering Youtube personalities such as the Chess Brahs, Hikaru Nakamura, Levy Rozman, John Bartholomew, Anna Cramling, Daniel Naroditsky, Andras Toth, Eric Rosen and the Chess Dojo crew. I discovered the #chesspunks community, Ben Johnson's Perpetual Chess podcast, the Lichess 45+45 league. I joined r/chess, bought a chess set as well as a bunch of books. I began playing more of my chess on Lichess in large part because of its study features.

Some of these resources were excellent for improvement (shoutout to Andras Toth, the Lichess 45+45 league, Chess Dojo, and the #chesspunks in particular). Others were better for entertainment. Yet with all of these resources at hand I began increasingly frustrated with my lack of improvement. Around the end of last year I realized that I had hit the plateau so many players had discussed. At the beginning of December 2019, my rapid rating on was 1026. I peaked at a little over 1600 earlier this year, but for most of 2020-2022 I was in between 1450-1600.

In the last six months, I seem to have abandoned any serious attempt to improve, playing a lot of mindless blitz and not spending much time on tactics or strategy at all. The last six months have been among the most stressful in my life, which hasn't helped (international move + job hunt + selling property + a visa process made worse by the situation in Ukraine = stress and not much time for hobbies).

This recent game of mine helps illustrate some of the problems I know I need to fix.

Sure, I won. But who cares? 17. Ne3 is mind boggling, and my inability to play c5 is frustrating and disappointing. I know openings are not that important at my level, but even so an inaccuracy on move three is pretty embarrassing. After a few years of taking chess pretty seriously I am left disappointed with how I played.

It is one thing to hear or give advice but it is another to act on it. I know that I need to play slow games, spend more time on competing puzzles properly, pay less attention to my rating, and return to endgame and strategy study. Part of my motivation for starting this blog is to commit to a weekly accounting of how I have done in the previous week. I am not committed to a certain rating improvement. Rather, I intend to commit to completing the following each week:

  1. One classical game + analysis. I will analyze the whole game without an engine before consulting one
  2. At least 15-30 minutes a day on puzzles
  3. Progress on at least one chess book on endgames or strategy

Readers can also expect occasional reflections on chess news, the all-consuming nature of the game, book reviews, and ponderings on chess improvement.

Thanks for reading. I hope we meet over the 64 squares some time soon!