The recently finished Grand Prix in Berlin produced a lot of fighting chess. I was very lucky to be able to observe the players on the stage, literally sitting next to them, as I was serving as a Fair Play Officer (FPO) for the event.
Apart from my duties as FPO I also followed the games as a fan and player. It is very different when you follow the games at home, even without an engine, and on the stage with the players. When I was there on the stage, I could more easily “plug in” and feel the position and the players. I tried to calculate lines myself and I had much higher respect for the moves the players were coming up with.
This last issue needs special mention. Since I am guilty of it myself I assume others are too. When I follow the games with an engine at home, I am so easy to dismiss the moves that are played if they don’t follow one of the engine’s top choices. This habit takes over very quickly and I soon find myself thinking the players are not very good. Yes, I understand they are very strong, 2750 rating is nothing to smirk at, but I easily forget the hard mental work and the calculations they had to do in order to come up with the move that I am so quick to dismiss just because the engine doesn’t rate it in its top 3 (or 5, 6…) choices. In other words, if a strong player calculates and thinks for a while and then comes up with a move that isn’t a clear blunder, then certainly there must be good reasons and definite advantages for that move to be played. I need to be reminded of this aspect when I am at home!
I didn’t fall into this trap when I was in Berlin. Simply because I was alone there, no engine, just the players and the positions. There I got to admire and respect their decisions again.
What I found to be an interesting exercise was to imagine the scenario of the games. There were two exceptional players who posed problems to each other and tried to overcome them. And then there was an engine, rated several hundred rating points higher, which would easily solve those problems and pose unsolvable ones to them. I imagined that it must be the same when I play opposition at my level, at higher level and at lower level, when I would be considered the engine!
This exercise helped me understand the need for consistency. Every single move had to be precise. At their level a single mishap is fatal. Connected to this is their constant creation of problems. Every single move poses a problem. I found some players easier to follow in this respect, for example I found Rapport’s moves easier to understand when it came to constant problem-posing.
By trying to get into the players’ minds I tried to understand their decisions from a psychological point of view. I tried to understand their approaches. For example both finalists, Nakamura and Aronian, had similar serve-and-volley approach when playing with White: the serve was the targeted preparation, often by entering a forced variation, aimed at catching the opponents unprepared and gaining time on the clock; if successful the rest would be the volley – converting the advantage.
With Black they were also very similar. They play solid openings against both 1.e4 and 1.d4 and don’t fear preparation in their trusted defences. If they change something it is usually a sideline within their repertoire, not the whole opening.
The experience in Berlin helped me greatly understand chess and the best players in the world much better. Unfortunately, most likely it won’t make me a better chess player because better understanding doesn’t directly transfer to better decision-making at the board. The latter requires practice of decision-making and that type of work is the actual calculation of variations. I did some calculation in Berlin, but that was far from enough to make me better at it.
They usually say that with time our understanding of chess improves, but our practical strength declines. I will try to fight that process, but for how long that will work I don’t know. In any case, I am grateful for every opportunity that I get to understand this game even a little bit better. May there be many more.