Un-retiring from Chess, Twenty Years Later!

(April 2022 – My thinking on this has evolved quite a bit since I first wrote this – someday I will update, but right now it reads as I originally wrote it.)

I haven’t spoken much here about my past life as a tournament chess player. To sum up my prior post on the topic: I started playing in the early 1980s, rose to NM (National Master) level (a rating over 2200 – the top 1% of tournament players in the US), and then a short time later, abruptly left the game in the early 1990s when other things in life became a priority.

I’ve never really had the game seriously call me back, but on occasion I have given it some thought. Then I remember that in my latter years of playing, I had some holes in my opening repertoire which needed plugging. With the passing of time and with increased knowledge due to computers, those holes would be major breaches, and I might be lucky to make it out of the opening alive. The thought of retooling my entire opening repertoire just to be able to sit in the tournament hall would be a major disincentive to return after a long absence.

But more importantly, for those of us who last played the game as a youth, the reality is that due to the other responsibilities that adulthood brings, we do not have the same potential for upward mobility compared to when we were younger. (Another theory is that when we’re older, we don’t learn and improve as easily compared to when we’re younger.) Is the promise of constant upward mobility essential to enjoyment of the game, or is it possible to enjoy the game without it? Dodging the question a bit, the answer for me in the last twenty years is that I have been continually finding new interests outside of chess which have been new mountains to climb, as readers of my blog have seen, yet which aren’t as “consuming” as tournament chess.

But then my nine year old son started playing in chess tournaments. That changed everything.

He had been playing casually in an after school program for a couple of years. Then he was invited to their unrated Tournament of Champions (a collection of the best players from all of their after school programs) and really enjoyed the experience. Later, he started playing in USCF (US Chess Federation) rated tournaments and preferred the slower pace (and quieter environment!) compared to the more chaotic unrated tournaments.

When the opportunity came up to travel to a tournament with a nine year old and under division, we couldn’t turn it down. Of course, Dad couldn’t turn down the opportunity to do something with his son and play in the adult tournament in the same venue.

Since the last time I played tournament chess was around the time I graduated from college, it was only natural that I touched base with my college chess friends. Tom had struggled with repeated attempts to return, falling victim to losing to lower rated players, then returning to hibernation in frustration. He eventually came to the revelation he wasn’t playing worse, but that a player of a given rating today is stronger than a player of the same rating from twenty years ago. At first, I thought this may have been due to natural deflation in ratings caused by older players leaving (taking their rating points with them) and younger players (starting at a lower rating) entering the pool. Certainly that is occurring, but there seems to be more than that at play here.

(Later, I found out that the scholastic chess scene has exploded over the past twenty years, even in regions of the US which would not have previously been considered chess hotbeds. It’s only natural that if you flood a region with young, fast-learning players, you’ll see rapid overall ratings deflation, because you are introducing a huge point sink.)

Tom presents a plausible hypothesis for “ability inflation” on his blog. To sum up, while he and I were on hiatus from the game, computers got to the point where they could beat humans. That changed the game considerably, with the biggest impact being that anyone with a computer now had an instant coach. Even an average Joe using a computer at a bare minimum – logging the games from his paper scoresheets into a database for posterity – can have the chess “engine” running in the background, thereby seeing even the smallest of mistakes, learning from them and playing better next time. Twenty years ago, the norm was to do a post-mortem analysis with your opponent, and unless a stronger player was eavesdropping, most of the other opportunities other than the major ones at turning points in the game would go unnoticed.

In other words, the whole pool of chess players has gotten better over the course of a generation. I really had to let it sink in that the 90s Brian teleported to today would not be of NM strength. Does that lessen the value of the accomplishment of having reached NM? Of course not, I got there with the tools I had available to me at that time: mainly the school of hard knocks, just playing in tournaments, with no coach or formal instruction, and maybe reading a few books along the way. (On a related note, in August 2002, the USCF Policy Board codified that NM is a lifetime title with the passage of a motion stating “Any USCF member who has had a regular post tournament rating of 2200 or higher (published or not) has demonstrated a significant level of chess ability and is recognized by being automatically awarded the lifetime title of National Master.”) And if the 80s Brian came through a wormhole to 2015, he would have had the same tools as everyone else and possibly still reach NM after ten years.

But was I doomed to be a dinosaur in this new age of chess? Absolutely not! After all, I had access to the same modern tools as everyone else. The first thing I started with was the tactics trainer on chess.com – a collection of online chess puzzles where you have to find the best move. Of course, chess puzzles have always existed in book form, but the interactive form on the iPhone app made them much easier to use, especially during various small windows in life where you have a little bit of free time, such as waiting at the doctor’s office.

It was then that I discovered something about my playing style and ability: I was lousy at tactics – at least relative to my peers. Of course, I knew the basic tactical tricks, but most of my wins back in the day were due to putting the right pieces on the right squares due to intuition, playing a positional game avoiding unnecessary complications, and spending many a long endgame grinding out the win. The tactics trainer showed me that there were opportunities lurking in seemingly innocuous positions – again, opportunities I never knew existed because I had no way of knowing that I missed them.

Jeff, who has continued to stay with the game after our college years, recommended the book Forcing Chess Moves by Charles Hertan. The premise of the book is that grandmaster intuition is now no match for the brute force ability of the computer to calculate every possible continuation. While humans still need to use intuition to narrow down candidate moves because we can’t calculate everything like a computer, we can train ourselves (although I dislike Hertan’s expression about developing “computer eyes”) to more easily find those tactical “shots” that are not intuitive to humans, yet which the computer will still find due to brute force calculation. He has various chapters illustrating examples of several tactical themes from grandmaster games, many several moves deep, with exercises at the end of each chapter. In the afterword to the book, he mentions that he discovered after the fact that this methodology is similar to that of the old Soviet school of chess.

One other aspect of the Forcing Chess Moves book was the notion of how to look at different candidate moves: look at the most “forcing” moves first. A forcing move is a check, a threat, or any other type of move where your opponent has few responses. If the forcing move works, then this reduces your calculation “load”. This concept seems rather simple in retrospect, but in the past without this advice, I had been jumping all over the place in my mind when working out all of the possible variations.

Somewhere along the way, I also noticed GM (grandmaster) James Tarjan’s article in Chess Life about returning to the game after 30 years. I found myself nodding my head in agreement with several of his observations. Though one observation that I could not confirm or deny first hand was the notion of “purging the blunders” from your system. Since I had no one nearby to practice with, I dusted off my chess.com account and played some blitz games. Sure enough, the first few times I was hanging pieces left and right and falling victim to simple tactical tricks. After enough games, I was back in the groove again.

One trap I had to avoid falling into was letting my “low” 1850 chess.com blitz rating (at the time) get me upset, even though my USCF rating peaked at over 2200 for over the board play. Although both the chess.com and USCF ratings use the Elo system, a rating is only a relative measure of strength compared to others in the same pool, and it is often inadvisable to compare ratings across different rating pools. (I looked up the ratings distribution for chess.com, and it shows that 1850 is the 98.5% percentile of blitz players. Yet the latest available USCF ratings distributions show the 98.5% percentile to be about 2150.) Looking around, I noticed that there were some other NMs with blitz ratings in the 1800s. I even saw an IM (International Master) with a blitz rating in the 1700s! Furthermore, I was comparing ratings from blitz chess to slower tournament chess, which isn’t always advisable. So maybe I wasn’t doing so bad after all.

With limited remaining time before the tournament, it was time to shift gears toward openings preparation. I felt my openings repertoire was a bit shallow, and one of my future goals is to widen it. But there was no time for that, so instead I did a refresh of the lines I played twenty years ago.

I had wanted to do some preparation in the endgame. But not all games make it to that phase, so out of practicality, I made the decision to skip that preparation. If needed, I would just figure it out over the board.

So now onto the tournament update.

In Round 1, I chose an offbeat line, throwing my young opponent off guard and forced a concession to gain a slight advantage. But then I pushed too hard, looking for forcing moves that weren’t there, which backfired into an inferior position. I launched a desperate counterattack, thereby missing an opportunity to put up a decent defense. Loss.

In the middlegame of Round 2, my opponent continued to hold the slight edge that White normally carries out of the opening. But he couldn’t keep the momentum going, and I seized the opportunity to launch some counterplay and take the game into murky waters. My opponent slipped up in the ensuing tactical struggle, and I was able to take advantage of it. A much needed win.

In Round 3, I chose an offbeat line yet again. My opponent clearly didn’t understand my plan and lost a few key tempos. But once he figured it out, he mounted the correct defense and counterattack. I felt my edge slipping away, but the tide really turned when I blundered and lost the exchange. (Interesting post-game observation, according to my computer “engine”, I had been playing the right moves, and my edge really wasn’t slipping at all, it was relatively constant until the blunder.) There was still somewhat of a game after that, since we were both low on time before the time control. But my opponent was able to see things through for the win. Loss, but nothing to be ashamed about.

In Round 4, my opponent played an offbeat line was White, which blocked up the position. There was an opportunity to me to open things up, but I (correctly, I believe) decided that would have been over-reaching. But I may have missed another opportunity to unbalance things. Draw.

Pairings for Round 5 were up the night before, so my opponent saw that I haven’t played in twenty years. Since he knew what it was like to return after an absence, he tried to mix things up with tactical tricks. Seeing that I would have none of that (thank you, tactics trainer!), he liquidated to an even position. Draw.

The final result was two points out of five for my first tournament back, not bad. I can almost throw out my first game, because over the board my thoughts were going all over the place. But in my subsequent games I had settled down, and while I don’t want to say I was relaxed, I was in the “zone” and much less stressed than the Brian of twenty years ago. In the past, I’ve always strived to take the path which puts me in the driver’s seat keeping “control” of the position. But after my first loss, the fear of losing left my system, and afterwards I wasn’t afraid to go for the uncertainty of complications if the position warranted it.

One other yardstick I had for comparing my performance was two other people in the section who attained NM about the same time I did twenty years ago. One left the game shortly after I did, but returned six months ago after he retired from his day job. My tournament result was at least as good as his. So I was happy with my result. And I only lost 25 rating points.

But will I play in tournaments again?

I remarked in my prior post that another reason I left is that the game is that it didn’t have the same social aspect for me as it did in college and before. It is nice to have friends to hang around with between games, but since then I’ve learned the social aspect is much more than that. It’s also about having someone to commiserate about losses, discuss ideas, etc. I owe Tom and Jeff a debt of gratitude for reading and responding to my countless emails over the past six months. The NMs at my son’s chess program also helped fill this role.

Furthermore, I had forgotten that the game (at a tournament level) can be very “consuming”. The retired NM who recently returned to the game also expressed that notion. In retrospect, that is probably the main reason I left the game.

Though looking back, the game is only overly consuming if you let it be. Back then, I had a goal of reaching NM, which required all the time that I could spare. Nowadays, I have nothing to prove, and I can simply play for enjoyment’s sake. Furthermore, now with a larger pool of players around my strength, with presumably more options for playing them outside of a tournament setting, may make playing easier, rather than relying on tournaments which take up a whole weekend just to play suitable competition.

I don’t anticipate playing in tournaments anywhere near the amount that I did in the late 80s and early 90s. But if there’s another youth tournament held in conjunction with an adult tournament, count me in!