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It seems a lifetime since I went through the Woodpecker Method. It’s been 4 months since I did the last problem … and then I basically stopped playing chess. From mid-April until mid-June, I didn’t play a game. I did some other chess-related activities, such as creating my free course on openings, but I didn’t play a single game.

This makes it hard to draw conclusions. I had hoped to play several hundred blitz, bullet and longer-games and then compare the results, if any. This post thus has less hard data, but I can still state some conclusions with decent certainty, I feel. Let’s take a look.

Chess Burnout

This is the most obvious. I spent 70 hours studying these tactical puzzles, devoting more and more time each week, and completely burned me out. For about two weeks, I barely even looked at the chess board. You couldn’t pay me to play. I went too hard, which is perhaps my fault, but it’s also what the Woodpecker Method demands: an ever-increasing workload with an ever-shorter timeline.

I mentioned repeatedly that this whole ordeal felt like work. And it did. And that’s the problem. Chess is supposed to be a game I enjoy, something I do for fun. By the end, this Woodpecker training became a second job. No wonder I needed a chess vacation after.

I had burned out from chess before, but never from over-training tactical puzzles. Not a fun feeling.

Minimal Immediate Returns…

The marketing materials for the book states something along the lines of one author doing the Woodpecker Method and then, boom, three GM norms in seven weeks. That raises the bar for expectations pretty high, and it didn’t really meet them.

When I first started, I got a nice boost to my blitz, bullet and tactics rating, which makes sense. I was training to solve tactics faster, so you would expected to see some improvement at the fast time controls.

That was it, though. I spent four months doing this, and nearly all the improvement came in the first six weeks.

… Potential for Longterm Growth

There are two indications that things may be looking up. First, look at my blitz rating graph (which is the rating I had hoped to improve the most):

The rating bounced up an down, but it more or less stayed in the same range as where I started (let’s ignore the uptick at the end for now). That’s, obviously, not ideal, and confirms the “no immediate returns” above. But there’s more:

For Blitz Chess

Literally all of my best victorie came in the middle to end of the Woodpecker training, and the same is true for my bullet:

For Bullet Chess

In this case, most of the wins came after finishing Woodpecker. If anything, my Bullet rating, the one I care about the least, may be what shows my most growth:

Before Woodpecker, my rating bounced between 1700-1800, and peaking in the low 1900s. Since February 2019, my rating hasn’t dropped below 1900, and I have been inches away from 2100 during some hot streaks.

Woodpecker has had an undeniably positive effect on my Bullet rating. This makes sense, because you don’t have time to think with Bullet: it is pure intuitive and pattern recognition, and that is exactly what Woodpecker training increases.

I’ll be honest: if my Bullet rating hadn’t taken such a big leap, I would conclude that the Woodpecker Method is all marketing spin. The fact that I’m seemingly playing better, faster, after never being good at this mode, is a clear sign that I’m improving. It isn’t exactly the area I wanted to improve (woohoo, videogame chess!), but improvement is improvement.

Does NOT Prevent Blunders

This is my biggest takeaway, in all honesty: I still blunder. A lot. I throw away material, miss simple threats and hang my Queen just as often as before. Maybe even more often. And this makes sense if you think about it.

Working with the Woodpecker Method, or virtually any tactical resource, is about looking for YOUR moves. You scan every sacrifice, every shot, every attacking move, and then you play the best one you find. That’s great and all, but that’s 70 hours where you barely think about your opponent’s threats.

As such, if I have improved, it’s through seeing more possibilities for MY pieces. My ability to see threats hasn’t changed. Going through Woodpecker likely won’t prevent you from still dropping pieces. Now, my rating and tactical ability is a bit higher than average, so maybe beginners and intermediates will see more improvement in this area. For me, at my level, it’s non-existent.

You Don’t Need the Book

The Woodpecker Method book is nice and great and filled with interesting examples, but you don’t really need it. The magic of the Woodpecker approach is doing the problems several times. It works with any problem set. Just find some puzzles and go.

I would recommend doing smaller sets, in fact. 700 problems is just silly. Depending on your skill level, go somewhere between 50-200, and repeat those several times. Then grab a different set. Repeat as often as you like.

I would also suggest, given the choice, on using slightly easier problems. If you look at my ratings, and my tactics rating in particular, the biggest jump came after I completed the Easy Section. Completing the Intermediate section, even after several times, had a lesser impact. The lower your rating, the more this applies: you want to see those simple tactical patterns instantly, so train simple tactics!

Recommended?

In the final analysis, I have improved, but not as much as I had hoped and not necessarily in the area I wanted. Part of this may be unreasonable expectations: perhaps I should be thrilled that my blitz rating is now mostly above 2000 rather than just below it. 50 rating points is pretty good.

When I trained with Smirnov’s courses, I went from 1800 to 2100 in correspondence chess, but that was over 18 months. Maybe there’s more to come? Maybe I’m still internalizing the intense puzzle training into my practical games?

I will say this: I am using Woodpecker-style training currently with some other material, but nowhere near as seriously as I documented here. I find it enjoyable and helpful. I think training this way has real benefits, but don’t get suckered into thinking it will instantly make you 300 points better. Don’t get caught up in the marketing, and don’t think you have to do it X number of times in Y number of days. Just train some tactics, and then do it again.

I should finish with this: I set new highs for both blitz and bullet ratings this week. Both then fell back down, but they are still new personal bests. That feels good.

Bullet Max and Min

I said at the beginning of the year I wanted to get a rating over 2100. That looked impossible six months ago, but with a little luck, just maybe I can get there.

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At a certain point, almost every player has asked, “Which opening should I play?” Now, I’m on record stating that too many players spend far too much time on the opening, but you have to put SOME work here. Getting an opening repertoire isn’t a bad thing, as long as you don’t make it your only thing.

So, how do we chose? What should we look for?

I fell into my first openings by default; they were what everyone else I knew played. I then tried different openings at random, with some successes here and there but mostly poor results. ‘Random’ isn’t the best approach, but what is?

Well, I think I’ve found, if not the answer, then at least the right way to attempt to answer this question. The following is kind of like online dating, but with openings. You figure out what your priorities are, and then you find which one is your best match.

I’ve settled on a number of factors that can influence openings, which are explained below, and then ranked every major opening. The end result is a fairly reasonable guide to choosing openings, I think, and I found it eye-opening.

The Factors

Sound: The opening must not lose by force. Sorry, Englund Gambit, but you aren’t in consideration. In the chart below, only sound openings appear.

Popularity: The more popular an opening, the more common opponents will be with the main ideas. Less popular openings have more surprise value, and can induce errors more often. This may or may not be a factor in your consideration.

Asymmetry: If you want to play for a win with Black, you tend to want high asymmetry (an imbalance in pieces, pawn structure or material); if you want to play for a draw, you want low symmetry (identical pawn structures, generally)

Theory Level: How much theory you need to know to play at a decent level. Some openings have lots of theory, but you can get away without knowing much (like the Benko or Nimzo-Indian). Some openings if you don’t know the theory you lose. The higher this ranking, the more work you need to do.

Early Sidelines: In short, how often are you actually going to get to play your opening? If you want to play the Sicilian Najdorf, you also need to know a buttload of anti-Sicilian lines. The higher this ranking, the more work you need to do.

Ease of Play: In short, how difficult are the middlegame and endgame positions? Easy positions tend to be thematic, with common ideas and maneuvers occurring again and again; complex positions require great accuracy and calculation, which increases the chance for errors for both sides.

Those are the factors. Now let’s see how the openings stack up. Here are the major 1.e4 openings (let me know if the chart is readable):

OpeningPopularityAsymmetryTheory LvlSidelinesEase of Play
1…e5VeryNoneLow/HighNone/ExtremeModerate
SicilianExtremeExtremeExtremeExtremeDifficult
FrenchDecent/HighVery (or none)DecentFewThematic
Caro-KannDecentSomeDecentFewGenerally easy
Qxd5 ScandiSome (higher online)SomeLowVery LowEasy/moderate
Nf6 ScandiLow (higher online)VeryLowLowVaries
Pirc/ModernSomeExtremeVariableMany and yet NoneThematic, but requires accuracy
AlekhineLowVeryLowVery LowEasy / Moderate
Owens (1…b6)Very high onlineVeryLowNoneModerate

What does this tell us? Well, consider the different personality profiles below:

  • Want to Win at All Costs, Willing to Put in Work: The Sicilian is the obvious winner, bar none.
  • Want to Win, But Put in Less Work: Nf6 Scandi and Pirc/Modern are good candidates
  • No Studying Required: The Owens is simple, and if don’t mind ad libbing against gambits, 1…e5 and following opening principles works
  • Want Calmer Games, Less Risk: Caro-Kann and Qxd5 Scandinavian fit the bill
  • Surprise Opening for Must-Win Scenarios: Nf6 Scandi and the Alekhine
  • Just Want Interesting Positions: Pirc/Modern, though perhaps more the Modern in practice
  • Easy to Play, Less Theory, Decent Winning Chances (aka, the Smithy): The Alekhine, which surprised me when I first worked this out; also, the French, which is a terrible opening and we’ll pretend that doesn’t exist

We’ll now do the exact same thing with the 1.d4 openings.

OpeningPopularityAsymmetryTheory LvlSidelinesEase of Play
QGDHighNoneModerate/HighModerateThematic
QGALow/ModerateDecentModerateModerateCan be very forcing
SlavHighLittleLow/ModerateModerate/HighEasy/Moderate
Semi-SlavHighModerate/HighExtremeModerate/HighDifficult
DutchModerateHighModerateLow (many anti-Dutch systems)Thematic, difficult gambits
NimzoHighHighLow/HighExtreme (cannot be only opening)Moderate
QIDHighModerateModerate Extreme (cannot be only opening) Easy/Moderate
BenoniLowExtremeHigh/ExtremeSomeThematic, but extreme accuracy required
BenkoDecentHighModerate/HighMany; White must play 2.c4Thematic
GrunfeldModerate/HighExtremeExtremeSomeDifficult
KIDHighExtremeExtremeFewDifficult
BudapestLowHighLowMany; White must play 2.c4Moderate; thematic attacks

Note that I haven’t played 1.d4 in years, so my take on the popularity may be off, but it’s pretty close (and arguably the least important factor). Let’s look at those same personality profiles:

  • Want to Win at All Costs, Willing to Put in Work: The King’s Indian, the Grunfeld and the Semi-Slav are all options.
  • Want to Win, But Put in Less Work: Benko, Nimzo/QID and the Dutch are the clear options.
  • No Studying Required: The Slav is the closest, though nothing stops you from playing 1…b6 against everything I suppose; with a minimum of work in the 3.e4 lines, the QG Accepted can work
  • Want Calmer Games, Less Risk: The various Queen’s Gambits, though Nimzo and QID are also strong contenders
  • Surprise Opening for Must-Win Scenarios: Benoni is probably best; Budapest is also an option
  • Just Want Interesting Positions: It’s not as clear cut, but the Benoni and KID (perhaps a combination of the two, so KID with early c5 instead of e5) are perhaps best
  • Easy to Play, Less Theory, Decent Winning Chances (aka, the Smithy): The Benko, though my recent attempts have been poor; also the Dutch, which surprised me, but maybe it shouldn’t, as I had great success with it when I was younger.
My Results

When we normally think about choosing an opening, we are told to “pick based on our style,” whatever that means. I believe the above is a much more useful way of going about it. First determine what you want, and then find an opening that best matches it.

In my case, I’ve stated in the past that I prefer “calm asymmetry”. I’m not looking for the most complex position in the world; I just want a few imbalances to play around with. Give me clear plans, a minimum of required theory and I’m pretty happy. It wasn’t until I did this analysis that I realized two openings perfectly fit the bill.

First, against 1.e4, the Alekhine. Amazingly, outside of one thematic tournament, I have only played the Alekhine once as Black, back in 2003 (I’ll include it at the bottom). However, it appears to tick all the boxes, and I’m intrigued to learn more about it (especially as Chessable has a new course on it).

The second example, the Dutch, seems less my style, but I have played it many times in the past with success, and you don’t have to go all-out hack-attack. The best part is that the Dutch is excellent against the London, which is honestly my number one requirement for an opening against 1.d4 (and one of the big reasons I tried to learn the KID, even though, as the analysis above shows, it is as far away from the opening I want as I can get).

If I didn’t do this analysis, I wouldn’t have considered these openings, and I would be stuck back at “which opening fits my style?” and getting nowhere fast. Now I’m curious to try these out and see if this works.

Final Thoughts

I’ve been thinking about this type of analysis for quite awhile, and this is what I came up with. Curious to see if you agree on my criteria or if there is anything I left off.

Of course, in some ways this is superficial: there is a world of difference between the French Rubinstein and French Winamer, for example, and the same for almost all sub-variations of these main openings. The overall idea itself, though, I feel is sound, and I may expand it to include these common variations as well. Someday. Maybe.

Below is my one and only Alekhine game outside of thematic tournaments. Annotated briefly.

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Exciting, super-quick announcement! My Chessable course has finally been released! Take a look, it’s free!

https://www.chessable.com/smithys-opening-fundamentals/course/21302/

I explain everything on the course page, but the quick and dirty: you know those opening principles all strong players constantly talk about? Including me in many of my posts? That’s this.

Early feedback has been good, and if you’ve read any of my posts, you know roughly what to expect. Hope you give it a shot. Did I mention it’s free?

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This is a quick look at an interesting and fairly common Blitz opening, where Black avoids castling in favour of throwing an annoying pawn storm at White.

Smithy's Opening Survey #2: The Black Lion / Philidor - YouTube
[Event “?”] [Site “?”] [Date “2019.04.19”] [Round “?”] [White “1.e4”] [Black “Philidor / Lion”] [Result “*”] [ECO “C41”] [Annotator “Pettit,Jonathan”] [PlyCount “24”] [SourceVersionDate “2019.04.19”] {There is an opening set-up that has become increasingly popular, especially amongst amateurs, in recent years. It’s a variation of the ancient Philidor defence, rechristianed the Black Lion.} 1. e4 (1. c4 c6 {Some Black players try this set-up against literally everything.} 2. Nc3 Qc7 3. g3 d6 4. Bg2 Nd7 5. Nf3 e5 6. O-O Ngf6 7. b3 Be7 8. Bb2 h6 {[%cal Gd7f8,Gg7g5,Gf8g6,Gh6h5,Gg5g4] Black has his familiar plan, even if it doesn’t make as much sense here.}) 1… d6 (1… e5 2. Nf3 d6 {[%cal Gf3e5,Gd7d6,Rf8e7] It’s possible to reach the same position from the traditional move order, but White has to cooperate somewhat.} 3. d4 Nf6 (3… Bg4 {as in the famous Morphy Opera game is, of course, not what Black should be doing:} 4. dxe5 Bxf3 5. Qxf3 dxe5 6. Bc4 Nf6 7. Qb3 Qe7 8. Nc3 {and Morphy went on to win in Morphy fashion.} c6 9. Bg5 b5 10. Nxb5 cxb5 11. Bxb5+ Nbd7 12. O-O-O Rd8 13. Rxd7 Rxd7 14. Rd1 Qe6 15. Bxd7+ Nxd7 16. Qb8+ Nxb8 17. Rd8# {Duke – Morphy, Paris 1858.}) (3… f5 {The Philidor Counterattack is at best dubious and it may well be refuted in the computer age. Simple is} 4. Nc3 {where if Black tries to keep playing in aggressive spirit} fxe4 5. Nxe4 d5 6. Neg5 e4 7. Ne5 {[%cal Ge5f7,Gg5f7,Gd1h5] leaves Black busted.}) 4. Nc3 Nbd7 {[%cal Gf8e7,Ge8g8,Gc7c6] And here it is.}) 2. d4 Nf6 3. Nc3 Nbd7 {[%cal Gg2g4,Gf2f4,Gc1a3,Rh2h3] From a practical standpoint, I believe White has three main options here: play f4, play g4, or play Nf3 but without playing h3.} 4. Nf3 (4. f4 {This avoids the mainline Black Lion and may well draw Black away from his normal play.} e5 5. Nf3 { [%cal Gf1e2,Gf1c4,Gc1e3] White will place his pieces on normal squares and then see what happens. Because the center is under much more pressure, Black likely cannot keep his King there for long.}) (4. g4 {[%cal Gh2h4,Gg4g5] This g-pawn push is visually stunning and completely stops Black’s normal set-up.} e5 (4… h6 5. h4 {Black can’t meekly stop the pawn pushes.}) 5. g5 Ng8 6. h4 { White is playing a bit like a caveman, but you could argue that Black started it! Once more, Black’s typical Lion play doesn’t work.}) (4. f3 {[%cal Gc1e3, Gd1d2,Ge1c1] is a possibility, where it resembles the 150 attack against the Modern/Pirc set-ups.} e5 5. Be3 Be7 6. Qd2 {[%cal Ge1c1,Gg2g4,Gh2h4,Gg4g5] White intends to castle Queenside and throw his own pawns at the Black King, a stark reversal in roles!}) 4… e5 {The Black Lion is designed to be a solid system where the center stays blocked/undefined, and if possible Black starts action on the Kingside.} 5. Bc4 Be7 6. O-O c6 {This is the basic starting position. Black plans on using his pawns to keep White’s pieces away and then to gain space, usually on the Kingside but on the Queenside as well if White lets him.} 7. a4 {Experience has shown that stopping Black from playing b5 is a good idea.} Qc7 8. h3 {This is the mainmove, and it’s probably fine, but it walks into Black’s plan.} (8. Be3 $2 {allows the Bishop to be harassed by} Ng4 {This is why h3 is played first.}) (8. Bg5 {is even worse, as it tempts Black to do his plan with tempo.} h6 {[%cal Gg7g5] and the pawns will happily march towards White’s King.}) (8. b3 $1 {[%cal Gc1b2,Gb2h8,Gd1d2,Gf1e1,Ga1d1] This is perhaps the best plan: White will put the Bishop on the long-diagonal, pressure the center and not create any weaknesses against his King.} h6 { [%csl Gf2,Gg2,Gh2] Because White’s Kingside is perfectly stable, the Kingside attack with g5?! doesn’t make much sense. Black’s attack would be many tempi slower, which means White is likely to break through somewhere on the Queenside or center that much faster.}) 8… h6 9. Be3 Nf8 {This is perhaps the most interesting variation.} 10. Qd2 g5 11. Rfd1 Ng6 {[%cal Gg6f4,Gh6h5, Gg5g4,Gh8g8,Gc8h3] We can see that this interpretation of the Philidor is breaking all the rules: Black is moving pieces multiple times, lots of pawn moves, not castling, focusing on attacking … and it still looks playable. When Black wins, he sucessfully gets his attack firing: some combination of Nf4, g4, Rg8 and maybe Bxh3 to fully open things up. White should keep playing normal moves and attempt to open lines in the center or Queenside. In particular, if all the center pawns were to vanish, Black is likely simply lost. This is an interesting way of playing, but as it violates so many opening principles, I would not recommend it to beginners or even most intermediates. For more information, Simon Williams has a free YouTube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7j12fhWid3g) as well as a premium DVD available from ChessBase.} 12. dxe5 dxe5 {[%cal Rc8d7,Re7d8,Rf6d7,Rf6d5,Rc6d5, Re7d6,Re5d4,Gb2b4,Gb4b5,Ga4a5] From White’s perspective, the annoying thing is that the center is half open, but every invasion square is covered. White’s planw ill be more akin to pushing his Queenside pawns: a5, b4-b5, with or without the c-pawn coming for the ride. If those lines open up, Black could be in trouble … if he doesn’t mate White in the meantime.} *

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It’s been nearly two months since I’ve done anything of note with either chess or my blog in general. Well, that’s about to change. My Chessable course is set to be published later this month (end of June by the latest), and to complement that, I’m doing a general opening survey.

More specifically, I will be going through all the major openings and discussing the common ideas, plans and maneuvers associated with that opening. These general plans are designed to enhance the general principles I will teach in my course. In every opening you need to develop, but in the French defence, we tend to develop in this certain way, for example.

I’ll have a new one every week or so, at least until I start law school. I’ll try to complete the project before then, but that might be pushing it. The first one is below. Note that the video is more general and idea-based, whereas the accompanying board is more theoretical and move-based. Let me know if you like it or if there’s anyway I can improve.

Smithy's Opening Survey #1: The Open Games (1.e4 e5) - YouTube
[Event “?”] [Site “?”] [Date “2019.04.19”] [Round “?”] [White “1.e4”] [Black “… e5 General”] [Result “*”] [ECO “C42”] [Annotator “Pettit,Jonathan”] [PlyCount “16”] [SourceVersionDate “2019.04.19”] 1. e4 e5 {Of course, it’s impossible to summarize all 1.e4 e5 theory into a single lesson, but I can point out the general ideas. To start, the positions have a radically different flavour if White tries to play bloodthirsty, all-out aggression or if he favours the slow positional grind.} 2. Nf3 (2. f4 { The infamous King’s Gambit is perhaps the most bloodthirsty opening in chess. The positions can get downright silly, but there are several ways to reach ‘normal’ positions.} d5 (2… Bc5 {Simply declining the gambit and placing the Bishop on the weakened diagonal is perfectly acceptable.}) (2… exf4 3. Nf3 g5 {I would not suggest taking the pawn and trying to hold onto it, because things can become absurd, as in the Muzio Gambit.} 4. Bc4 g4 5. O-O gxf3 6. Qxf3 {White is down a piece but has everything aiming at f7. What a world.}) 3. exd5 exf4 {This is my recommended way of playing: Black returns the pawn for a free hand in the center. We don’t refute White’s opening, but we don’t get a crazy mess, either.} ) 2… Nc6 3. Bc4 {I will be focusing on this, as it is the most common move at amateur level and shows the difference between aggressive and positional approaches very well.} (3. d4 exd4 4. c3 {If White is playing in attacking-style, then something like this is common, and that leads to the main idea: Black wants to DEVELOP AS FAST AS POSSIBLE and STRIKE BACK WITH D5.} (4. Bc4 {White can also play in gambit style this way, but the approach is the same: avoid taking more material, develop quickly and hit back with d5 when you can.}) 4… d5 $3 {This is the sensible approach. Anything else gives White what he wants.} (4… dxc3 5. Bc4 cxb2 6. Bxb2 {In a practical game, White stands excellent chances. He has all open lines and Black needs to defend quite accurately. f7 is a constant weakness, and the central push with e5 will likely open more lines.}) 5. exd5 Qxd5 6. cxd4 Bg4 7. Nc3 Bb4 {Black is ahead in development and has the better pawn structure. THIS is how you want to play against gambits (and likely the exact thing a gambiteer does NOT want).}) (3. Bb5 {The Ruy Lopez is considered the absolute mainline. It shows the positional aspects quite clearly as well.} a6 (3… Nf6 {Though, it must be pointed out, a growing number of master games continue just like the postional Italian game we’ll see below:} 4. d3 Bc5 5. c3 {and with the exception of the placement of the Bishops, the opening is identical to the Italian, and the plans are similar as well.}) 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 {This is called the Closed Ruy Lopez, which leads to a maneuvering battle.} 6. Re1 b5 7. Bb3 d6 8. c3 O-O 9. h3 Na5 10. Bc2 c5 11. d4 {This is a popular variation, where White has the center but Black is fighting for his share as well. A long maneuvering game usually ensues, where White tries to combine play against Black’s Queenside pawns with potential Kingside aggression, whereas Black generally stays solid and hopes his Queenside space provides him play. To truly understand these positions, you’ll need to ask someone ask. They are above my paygrade, in all honesty.}) 3… Bc5 (3… Nf6 {The Two Knights defence invites White into a tactical mess early.} 4. Ng5 d5 5. exd5 Na5 { In the mainline Black gambits a pawn in return for easy development against awkwardly placed pieces.} (5… Nxd5 {This normally naturally recapture runs into problems with the so-called Fried Liver Attack. No, I don’t know where the name came from.} 6. Nxf7 Kxf7 7. Qf3+ Ke6 {and the position is an unclear mess, though practically speaking, you probably don’t want to be the side with a King on e6 by move 7.}) 6. Bb5+ c6 7. dxc6 bxc6 8. Be2 h6 9. Nh3 {Black has all the development, space and open lines he could want, but White has a pawn and no weaknesses. A tense struggle will ensure.}) 4. c3 {In the Open Games, this is generally the most important move for White. It either serves as a quick lever for d2-d4 and a smashing attack, as a pawn sacrifice in the many gambit lines, or as a way of slowly preparing play in the center or Queenside.} (4. b4 {This is the venerable Evans Gambits, an old favourite.} Bxb4 5. c3 Ba5 6. d4 {Similar to other gambits, White gives up a pawn for a fast d4 and attacking chances. Unlike other gambits, though, White still has both central pawns, which seems to give him a stronger grip there. It also means that the central files aren’t open, though, so there is less danger of an immediate attack on the e-file, for instance. Fascinating positions, really.}) (4. Nc3 Nf6 {Symmetrical development is symmetrical.}) 4… Nf6 5. d3 {The slower approach promises a more maneuvering game.} (5. d4 {The fast d4 follows the same ideas as the gambit lines earlier: Black needs to stay developed and hit back with d5 immediately.} exd4 6. cxd4 Bb4+ (6… Bb6 {was shown in the General Principles section of my course, and White’s center starts rolling too quickly.}) 7. Bd2 Bxd2+ 8. Nbxd2 d5 $1 {The key move, securing a good game. Without this, White would have everything he wanted: development, center, space, everything. With it, Black fights back and gets equal chances.} 9. exd5 Nxd5) 5… O-O {In these slower positions, where no pawns are exchanged early, the plans are more longterm, and play is typically all over the board. In general, the goal is to play d4 (or d5) at the right moment, where it gives maximum impact. In the meantime, White often gains space on the Queenside with his pawns, and Black often prepares d5 himself by moving his Knight and playing c6. Getting a Knight to f4 or f5 is often a positional trump as well.} 6. b4 Bb6 7. a4 a6 8. O-O d6 {The central breaks will decide the game. If White plays d4 too early, his Queenside pawns may be weak; too late and Black will ready for it. The same is true for Black’s d5 break. Timing is everything here. Also, playing d4 or d5 leaves the respective e-pawns undefended so both sides need to watch that as well.} *
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This will be last update on this particular topic, and maybe my last post for some time. Chronicling these goals and my progress initially seemed like fun, but it seems more of a silly obligation now, especially as chess takes an increasingly smaller part of my overall interests. Anyway, let’s get to it.

1. Chess

What update can I provide? I haven’t played a game, not even bullet, since mid-April. I don’t think I’ve solved a serious (non-blitz) tactic since that time as well. I haven’t started my endgame study, nor do I have any burning desire to do so.

Right now, chess to me is like architecture. I enjoy looking at it, and it’s pretty if done right, but I have no intention of doing anything about it. That’s basically it.

2. Non-Chess

My non-chess life is slightly complicated. In general, it is going great! I’m just not willing to share it to the world, not at this particular moment.

For those that have stuck around for a while, sorry for the lack of content, and I have no idea when or if I’ll get back at it. Just know that things are well and I’m happy. I’m just living my life less online and without documenting it. Hopefully no one begrudges me that.

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Here’s where I normally write about my progress towards my myriad of goals, mostly focusing on chess. I won’t be doing that this time. There’s almost nothing to update. I spent this last month doing nothing.

If I want to be charitable, I could say that I spent several hours a week, and a good chunk of my freetime, creating my Chessable course, which should be released in a few weeks. That only covers, at best, half the month. What have I done the other half?

Ever since I finished the Woodpecker Method, I’ve had absolutely no desire to play chess. In the first three months, I average nearly 100 blitz games a week. I don’t think I’ve played 50 in the last month. Desire is completely gone.

This extends to studying chess as well. I’ve kept my Chessable and ChessTempo streaks alive, but my activity is way down. I’m doing silly blitz tactics instead of deep calculation; I’m barely trying on my Chessable reviews. It’s just … not there.

And it goes without saying that the desire to produce videos or blog posts is beyond non-existent.

It’s funny, because I still like chess. I think about it during my lunch break at work, and I’m genuinely eager to learn more. I just can’t break out of my malaise, unfortunately.

This also extends beyond chess. I’ve barely done any workouts; I’ve largely stopped my pre-law studying; I’m just sorta existing. This is fine, of course. It’s like a mini-vacation, and I’m certainly spending more time relaxing. It’s not the first time I’ve went through such periods, and they almost always end with me going into an extended good streak. It’s frustrating, though, to think that a month has passed where I essentially did nothing.

If there’s one funny thing, though, it’s that I’ve still topped the KID leaderboard on Chessable:

A large part is the weather, I think; it’s been a terrible spring here, with cold temperatures, grey skies, the odd snow flurry and no relief in sight. That starts weighing on you, especially when a good spring is my favourite time of year… and there’s not much worse than a bad process.

Still, things are looking up, I feel. I’ve been feeling more motivated the last week, and things are about to turn a corner. Which is great. But April 2019 was definitely a poor month for me and my goals.

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I haven’t written much, done many videos or played many games the last month. What’s up? Am I sick? Not quite, just busy. My chess time has been spent on a pretty cool project, which I’ve just finished the first draft.

Announcing shortly: Smithy’s first Chessable course, Smithy’s Opening Fundamentals!

I’m better at chess than I am at making logos.

It’s a free course on Chessable, which will teach the basics of opening play: the general principles, common tactics, punishing mistakes and the like. I have completed all the materials, loaded it into Chessable, and now it’s the debugging and beta testing time.

I’m pretty damn excited about how it came out, and I’m hoping I can include videos in the course. That will be up to the Chessable staff, and if not, I’ll just upload the videos to my YouTube channel.

I’ll post a formal announcement when I know when it will be released. In the meantime, if anyone who reads my blog both uses Chessable and wants to help betatest (so testing for completeness, spelling, the right move being marked right, etc), let me know and I’ll hook you up. You’ll both be part of the testing process, get to see the behind-the-scenes aspect of creating the course and contribute to what (I hope!) will be a pretty awesome final product. You’ll also get access to the material earlier and can offer suggestions and feedback. Completely optional, but I figured I’d offer to blog readers before the Chessable community.

Exciting times! I’ve contributed to some chess content before, but this is my first time publishing as sole author. Can’t wait until it’s released! Check back for updates, but I imagine in the next few weeks or so.

Bonus: Here is the eventual course promo video (currently unlisted):

Introduction - Smithy's Opening Fundamentals - YouTube
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I’ve written about this in bits and pieces, but I’ve never fully laid out how I approach a chess position. I wrote a brief version on Chessable earlier today, and I thought I would flesh it out more here.

Many players do not have an organized thinking system; they look for moves near randomly, and they shift from idea to idea, never having any solid direction to their game. Perhaps the biggest take-away I learned from studying with GM Smirnov’s courses was the power of an organized, consistent thinking system. I hope this helps. Here it is in brief, and I expand on it below:

  • 0: Evaluation
  • 1: What is my opponent’s idea?
  • 2: Are there tactics and/or What can I attack?
  • 3: If no tactics, how can I improve my position?
  • 4: Is my move safe?
Step Zero: Evaluation

Before you can decide on a move, you need to evaluate the position. For example, if you are up loads of material, you are happy to exchange pieces; if your opponent is cramped, you want to avoid exchanging pieces. If your opponent has a weak King, you look to open lines there; if instead his King is safe but he has weak pawns on the Queenside, you tend to look there.

Evaluation may take just a few seconds (“I’m way ahead in development, let’s attack”), or it may take several minutes as you evaluate a dozen different factors (King safety, pawn structure, good and bad pieces, material imbalances, etc). Once you have a sense of the position (ie, if it is balanced or if one side has an advantage), you can then decide on a move.

This is Step Zero because it is not something I do every move. If we castle on opposite sides, that generally means attacks and pawn storms. As long as we are both attacking, I don’t need to re-evaluate this position. Only when the position changes (such as the Queen’s being exchanged, or if he plays a move I completely missed) will I need to re-evaluate. A lot of people waste time thinking about evaluation on every move; that’s unnecessary. Trust yourself: evaluate once, and then move some moves.

Step 1: What is my opponent’s idea?

Also known as “What is my opponent’s threat?”, but I like using ‘idea’ more. Sometimes our opponent doesn’t have a direct threat, but he does have a concrete idea. For instance, say he prepares to castle on the opposite side. His idea, then, would be to attack our King, likely with a pawn storm. Once we know this, we can either stop it (stop his castling or exchange Queens, say), dissuade it (start pushing pawns and open lines on his side) or ignore it (just keep playing in the center).

Part of this is related to evaluation, but I prefer to call it judgement. That is, you need to see your opponent’s idea and then decide if it’s good or not. If he’s castling straight into your attack, let him. If he threatens your Rook but you calculate that it doesn’t work tactically, great, ignore his threat, but never ignore his move.

The best way to stop most blunders is looking at your opponent’s last move and seeing what he is trying to do. Never skip this step.

Step 2: Are there any tactics?

Basically, before you do anything else, ask if there are any tactics. Can you do a combination to win material? If yes, do it. Most of the time there won’t be, of course, but you’ll only find something if you’re looking for it.

There are several clues that can point you in the right direction. Undefended pieces, weak squares, a lack of development, exposed King, all of these things increase the likelihood of tactics. As you gain experience, you start getting a sense of when tactics are likely to appear. In those critical moments, you want to dig in deep and carefully examine every possible sacrifice or combination.

Another hint can be your opponent’s last move. Say he moved his Bishop from the Queenside to the center. That means there are some squares on the Queenside that he no longer controls. Can you take advantage? It’s amazing how often our opponent’s last move can open him up to potential tactics. If you’ve ever made a move and then your opponent immediately take advantage, you know what I’m talking about.

Of course, there’s a big difference between looking for tactics and being able to accurately calculate those tactics. I get that, but still, you want to search. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. If you do lots of tactical puzzles, you’ll start getting a sense of when forks, pins and the like are possible, and that will help as well. As a general thinking habit, though, just remember to look.

Step 3: How can I improve my position?

If there are no immediate tactics, then you just need to improve your position. Sounds simple, right? Right…

Improving your position is shorthand for positional or strategic play. It encompasses Rooks on open files and healthy pawn structures, of course, but it has so much more. In the opening it means development, and in endgames it means pushing passed pawns; it encompasses King safety and pawn breaks and Bad Bishops and blockades and, in short, every single concept in chess. All in one step!

Needless to state, this is easy to say but incredibly difficult to do. Chess is a hard game! If it were easy we’d all be masters. Anyway, the idea is the same: even if can’t do it perfectly, our goal is to improve our position.

Step 4: Is my move safe?

Lastly, before making any move, we want to take a moment and make sure it is safe. The Blunder Check, if you will. What moves can our opponent do? What can he attack? Does he have any thematic sacrifices? Do we have tactical weaknesses?

In most positions, this is just a few seconds to make sure we aren’t hanging anything or falling for a simple tactic. If you are sacrificing something, or if you feel unsure about your move, you spend a bit longer. And once you do it, you make your move and the cycle repeats itself.

Conclusion

This isn’t the secret to chess, nor is it likely perfect. Rather, this is my way of organizing my thinking in a game. It’s a way of applying my knowledge. It helps keep my thinking on track and not getting pulled in a million different directions. I still make mistakes, of course, but as a general scheme it’s pretty darn good.

If there’s any questions, feel free to ask, and I’ll try to flesh this out even more.

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I listed several big chess (and life) goals for 2019, as well as several smaller, more niche goals as well.  Each month I’ll give a quick update, just for the record, and hopefully to keep me motivated and on track.

March was less good because, well, I had my wisdom removed (half at the beginning of the month, and half last week), and that made it hard to do certain things, like training (apparently, you’re not supposed to exercise after surgery, if you can believe it). That’s finished now, thank the Goddess, so hopefully this was just a speed bump.

1. Go to Law School

Yup, still going, and I’ve put my first deposit down. Not much to update here.

2. Finish Woodpecker Method

You better believe I did this!  I did something silly like 3,000 problems over the last three weeks.  I then did the entire Intermediate section not just once, but twice!  As I wrote, the Woodpecker Method has nothing more to teach me, and I’ll be moving onto…

3. Learn two Openings: the Scotch and the KID

I’m still 60% of the way through the King’s Indian course, as my attention was predominantly on Woodpecker and tactics training. I have started making the KID my main weapon against 1.d4, and I’m not doing terrible, which is a good sign. Here’s a recent example. Goal will be to finish the course in April.

Even with not much studying relative to the last two months, I still was the best person for the last month, so I’m not doing nothing:

4. Endgames

Once I learn the KID, it will be endgames full-time.  After doing so many tactics, I’m looking forward to endings, if you can believe it.

Smaller Goals
  • Play 1,000 Blitz Games: I’ve lost track of my games counter, but it’s roughly when I get to 2,000 total games on lichess. I’m 149 away from that currently, so soon.
  • 50 Classical Games: Opps. Try again next month.
  • Get a rating to 2200: … … does lichess tactics count? Because I might get that one.
  • Beat someone rated over 2100 in blitz: None in the last month, but I’ve had several in the year, and I had a moral victory against a nearly 2300 player.
  • Sac my Queen and win: Nothing stands out in the last month, but I have three to my credit on the year.
  • Win a Game in the KID: Lots! See example above.
  • Review 50 Master games in the KID: still at 0, but will get some done this month certainly.
  • Read preparatory law books: Still plugging away, though slower than I had planned.
  • Hold a Handstand for 10s: no practice this month because of surgery; in the next week I’ll be recovered and back to trying.
  • Get bodyfat percentage below 10%: similarly, will get back on track in the next few weeks; I’m naturally lean anyway, so no worries!
  • Perform 20 strict pull-ups and/or 1 strict pull-up with half bodyweight added: same as above
  • Perform 100 strict push-ups: same as above.

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