Breaking Down How I Win Chess Games

First, let me celebrate.  I recently reached the 2100 rating mark … and then immediately lost a game to fall below it … then had a few draws … then I won and now I’m back over 2100!  It’s by exactly one point, but I’ll take it.

Over 2100

Just a few years ago, I had been stuck at 1800 most of my life. To have my rating now over 2000, let alone over 2100, is like a dream come true.

When I broke the 2000 barrier for the first time last year, I wrote a post examining exactly how I did it.  That is, I looked at every single victory and classified it by type.  For instance, sometimes I won by a mating attack, sometimes by an endgame advantage, and sometimes my opponents just hung material and I took it.  It was a good experience, and quite eye-opening.  I learned a lot about myself…

… and then I wondered, if this were so useful only looking at one year’s worth of games, how much more insight would I get from looking at ALL my games?  The thought never left my head, and after nearly three months of work, I present to you my findings.  It’s pretty awesome.

The Types of Victories

First, I need define the various victory types.  The ultimate goal in chess is checkmate, of course, but there are many different ways to get there.  When I looked through all my games, nearly 1,600 in total, several themes kept coming up again and again.  I concluded that there were seven in total, and though the boundaries can get blurry, they are mostly distinct.

I’ve defined them quickly here, but I’ve also created a separate post on each one in particular, including annotated games from my own practice.  Click on the title to see.

Number One, the Blunder. A blunder is a mistake, usually a very obvious one that loses immediate material for no compensation.  Now, every game played by non-masters has blunders in it, some of them subtle, some of them far less so.  If you want to stretch it, you could say virtually all of my games, won and lost, were decided by blunders.

Instead, I decided for a more nuanced definition: if someone hangs a piece, whether by oversight or a simple tactic, it counts as a blunder.  If the game wasn’t so much decided by skill on my part but by the carelessness of my opponent, then I call it a blunder.

Number Two, the King Attack.  This is fairly self-explanatory.  If you launch your pieces at the King and manage to mate him, you win.  Sounds easy enough.  Of course, there are many different types of attack, such as against castled King, King in the center, pawn storm, sacrifices to open lines and more.  I grouped all those under King attack.

Note that the attack doesn’t need to end in mate.  If I start an attack and my opponent has to give up a piece to stop it, that’s still a victory by attack.  Sure, I won in the endgame, but the attack did all the heavy lifting.

Number Three, Complications. This one is a bit murkier.  Some chess games feature crazy tactics and complications, where it becomes hard to figure out what is even happening.  Sometimes these involve Kingside attacks, sometimes not.  If a position gets wild and crazy, it’s complicated, and if I win because of that, it’s because of complications.

By definition, if someone sacrifices a pawn or a piece for an unclear result, that falls under this category.  Also, if a very nice tactical shot decides the game, so more than a two-move combination, then it falls here, too.  In short, if the game was sharp and tactical, and those tactics lead to victory, it’s Complications.

Number Four, Positional.  This would be the exact opposite of the above.  If the game is quieter and one side gains an advantage via maneuvering and outplaying the other, that’s a positional victory.  Same with creating weak pawns and later winning them.

In practice, if you win a game in the middlegame, and it’s not from a Kingside attack or a tactical shot, it’s positional in nature.

Number Five, Opening Advantage.  This is fairly obvious: I win because I got a huge advantage out of the opening.  Not the word ‘huge’.  This means my opponent did something wrong, either falling for a trap or just doing something very silly, maybe moving the same piece multiple times, and the game was over before it had even begun.

This boils down to traps and huge advantages, which are two separate things.  It does NOT mean the grandmaster definition of analyzing a position to death, figuring out a novelty on move 26 and winning that way.  I have never done that.  This is much more cut and dry.

Number Six, Endgames.  Also obvious.  If most of the pieces come off, it’s an endgame.  If I do most of my work here to win it, then that counts as an endgame win.  No problem.  Note that if my opponent blundered a piece and then fought in the endgame for 50 moves, I don’t consider than an endgame win; if my opponent blundered a pawn and I had to spend 50 moves to convert it, then that is an endgame win, as the endgame actually decided the outcome.

Finally, Number Seven, Defence.  This is the opposite of attack.  If the opponent throws pieces at you, making sacrifices and threats, and your accurate defence turns the tide, then that’s winning via defence.  I’ll admit, this almost never happens in my games.  In practice, it usually meant my opponent tried a dubious sacrifice and I successfully refuted it.

Pfew, there we go.  Note that, yes, games can fall under more than one category.  I might have a huge attack, my opponent defends very well and I only have a pawn to show for it.  I later win in the endgame.  I classify that as both an attacking win (the attack won material) and an endgame win (the endgame converted that material into victory).

With that out of the way, let’s look at the good stuff.

 My Victories Throughout the Years

Over the years my chess has improved.  I started barely knowing the moves, then I got decent, then firmly in the 1400 rating range, then the 1600s, etc etc.  Other events also shaped my chess career.  I’ve organized the following data around these events.

Note that almost all of these games are from the Internet, generally email-based but also some blitz and rapid chess.  Also, I only have access to the games I managed to save.  This thus isn’t a complete snapshot of my chess, but it’s 95% close.

From 1400 to 1800 Rating

When I started playing online chess, I was already a pretty decent player.  I had won the local  scholastic chess ladder, all against fellow kids, most of whom didn’t know anything beyond Scholar’s Mate.  When I went online, my rating fluctuated between 1300 and 1400 before firmly staying in the latter.  Over the next three years, I studied hard and improved to 1800 rating.  This chart shows how I did it.

You can click on any chart to see a bigger version in a new tab.

Do you know they say most amateur games are decided by blunders?  Ya, no kidding.  Nearly half of my victories were decided by unforced errors, literally people dropping material for no reason.  Don’t get me wrong, I did this, too.  Some games I blundered every third move.  I just eventually blundered less than my opponents, and my rating rose to show for it.

Honestly, that was the single biggest thing I did to improve all the way to 1800.  I didn’t learn new fancy techniques or tactics or openings.  No, I just stopped hanging pieces.

I’m sure you’ve been there.  You’ve been playing well, doing everything right, have a great position … and then you hang a piece or overlook an obvious fork.  Game over.  That happened to me more times than I can count, and then I make a conscious choice to not let it happen again.  It still did, of course, but by focusing on it I improved greatly.  At the bottom of my blunder post I’ve posted a video that, more or less, features the same approach I used to stop making blunders.

Finally, this chart confirms something that GM Smirnov said: virtually all amateur games are decided by mistakes and attacking skills.  Nearly 75% of all my victories came from either attacks or taking advantage of my opponent’s mistakes.  If you are stuck in this rating range, those would be my suggestions: focus on reducing blunders and learning good attacking skills.

From 1800 … to Still at 1800

Once I got to 1800 I hit a wall.  No matter what I did, what I studied, how much or how little I studied, I remained here.  I got very good at beating up those under 1600 rating, and that’s what kept my rating afloat.  People at 1800 rating more often than not beat me, and those 1900+ almost always won.  Well, not always, but it was a big deal when I did win.

This chart is interesting.  Half of it is virtually identical to my first phase: my defence, opening and endgame wins all remained constant.  My attack and complications categories remain more or less the same size.  The big differences are the positional green and the blunder blue.

Blunders shrank by nearly half.  It still occupies the greatest space, but it’s not as overpowering.  The reason for this is simple: better players blunder less.  Against 1400s, if I waited long enough someone would blunder.  Against 1600s and up, I would need to force the blunder, to pressure them into it, and that took more work.  Often I won by other means.

At the same time, 25% of my games still were decided by blunders.  Even at the 1800 range.  They were mostly simple tactics, not outright hanging a piece, but still, blunders.  I remember, as a 1400-player, thinking that the 1800s never made a mistake.  That’s not true.  We still make plenty of mistakes; they’re just harder to find.

With the blunders shrinking, something else needed to take its place, and by and large that was my positional play.  About 20% of my games were decided by positional pressure, not quite double from my first chart but still quite respectable.

That said, my base style of play remained the same.  In the first chart, nearly 70% of my games were decided by a combination of blunders, attacking and tactics.  In this chart, it’s about 65%.  I approached the game of chess the same way this entire period, which is why I never improved.  I was making less bad moves, but I wasn’t making good moves, either.

I should also note that during this time I actually gave up chess for awhile, playing a handful of games and then nothing for months or even years at a time.  It’s worth noting that the few times I came back, I was rusty, yes, but my games still fit in the above pattern.

Getting Back Into Chess

After graduating university, I made some attempts to get back into chess.  I played more games in my first month than the previous two years … which meant playing five games.  Before I show the chart, a caveat.

This period has very few games, and it was played in a very different style.  There are less than 40 games, which makes it not very statistically relevant.  Also, I had a different motivation for playing.  Before, I always tried to win, while here I wanted to have fun.  I mean, yes, I still wanted to win, but the focus was playing exciting chess, interesting positions above all else.

Here we go.  We can instantly see the differences.  Just to get an idea of the scale, the dark green at the top represents one game.  Every game, then, has a large effect on the chart, so take it with a grain of salt.

First off, very few blunders.  That may be because I committed all the blunders, and this chart shows my wins, not my loses.  Second, attack and positional are about the same size, with the green actually having the advantage.

This is interesting, because I wasn’t playing extra-positionally.  No, it’s the opposite: I tried to attack and make sacrifices.  A number of my sacrifices were declined, so instead of getting a speculative attack I got a dominating position.  I won with positional pressure almost despite myself.

Regardless, this still shows the first real shift in my playing.  I was looking for the most fun move, not necessarily the best move, and it gave me some good games … if not the best practical results.  Still, I kept my rating just below 1800, so it couldn’t be that bad.

Finding Smirnov

The big change occurs now.  I had first found GM Smirnov‘s YouTube channel back in 2011, and I watched his free videos several times.  In 2013, I decided to take chess seriously again, and I bought one of his courses.  I watched it, was blown away, and then I bought the rest of his catalogue.  A heavy investment, but one I consider well worth it.

This shows over 100 victories, half of which came last year.  This chart is thus much more statistically reliable, and it also clearly shows how I’ve changed as a player.

Before, blunders, attack and tactics took up well over 50%, and now the three are less than half.  Attack is very low, the lowest it has even been.  The green positional section has grown, now being the single biggest section, but don’t forget the opening and endgame sections, which are also the biggest they’ve ever been.

Almost all of this is from one thing: GM Smirnov’s course Grandmaster’s Positional Understanding, or GMPU.  This course completely changed how I view the chess game.  I mean, I got to 1800 rating, so I wasn’t a complete patzer, but this course opened my eyes.  I was blind, and now I could see.

GMPU explained the concepts of positional and strategic play so well that I absorbed them into my core.  I now think of these principles before anything else, and it’s changed my game in a huge way.  This course is almost singlehandedly responsible for my rating going from 1800 to over 2000.

Before, I always looked for the attacking moves, things like f4 and Bxh7, you know, thematic stuff.  Now I had a much deeper understanding.  In particular, I saw that most standard attacking moves carry many positional concessions, and I wasn’t willing to do that.  I valued my new positional understanding too much to try for speculative attacks … and this worked.  It really worked.  I won game after game without needing to attack.

In addition, this improved positional sense made my openings and endgame play better.  Endgames are mainly positional anyway, and following strategic advice helped keep my openings from going off the rails.  My game became consistent, logical and powerful.  Seriously, I can’t recommend GMPU enough.

What I’ve Learned

Looking back, a few things stand out to me.  One, the enormous role of blunders.  Even in this last chart, against mostly really good players, blunders dominate.  Forget learning openings, we need to learn how to stop making blunders.  That should be priority number one of all amateur players.

Beyond the blunders, I think I can safely say what separates strong players from weaker ones is positional understanding.  I got to 1800 rating by knowing how to attack and by making fewer blunders.  That’s quite a good rating, but I was still missing something.  That something was positional understanding.  Once I understand the importance of that, once I fully learned it, that’s when the results really started to come.

Finally, doing this exercise showed me a) how much I’ve improved in some ways, and b) how much I can still improve in some areas.  For instance, I had good attacking skills when I was an 1800 player … for an 1800 player.  Now that I’m 2000+, my attacking skills have remained the same, as I haven’t practiced them to the same degree as my positional skills.  I’m now a better player overall but a worse attacker, if that makes sense.

At this point, my positional sense is already strong, perhaps my single strongest element of my style.  I can thus shift my study to other areas, trying to improve there.  In fact, not only should I do that, but I must do it if I want to keep improving to the next level.

This was an intensive, exhausting study, but I’m happy I did it.  It shed light on so many things, and I look forward to repeating it in a year or two to see how things change.  Here’s one last chart, showing all of my games combined.


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