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Friday, August 26, 2016

Chess Advice to My Younger Self (Part 1)

Introduction


Do you ever think back and say to yourself, "If I had only done X I would be much further than I am now" or something similar? The truth of course is that we can't turn back time. However, perhaps some of you can learn from my experience. 

Although I learned how to play chess at a young age, I didn't really study chess until I was in my 20's. (You can read more about my story on my About page). My first USCF Chess rating was 1071. I am currently rated 1810 (although admittedly I haven't competed in USCF-rated tournaments in a couple years). 

In this article, I will share the advice - as well as some practical training suggestions - I would have given to my younger self at each of the earlier stages of development.

This will be a two part article - advice for Classes D and E this week, and advice for Classes B and C next week.

Caveat: My chess needs at each of these levels may have been different then your needs currently. However, in talking to a lot of players over the years at various levels, I think the advice should be applicable to many.

Class E (USCF 1000-1200)


At this point, I knew some general opening principles as well as a few elementary checkmates. However, when it came to the middlegame, I just kind of floundered around. I often won or lost depending on who left a queen en prise. 

The general advice at this stage and every stage thereafter is to study tactics to avoid this. However, I think this is only part of the problem. I think the main problem for me was to understand the general flow of a chess game and how to use the pieces to attack and defend together according to a plan. 

So the advice I would give myself at this stage would be to devour annotated master games written for beginners in mind. The following articles I have written have a list of books you can check out:
Read through these games and make sure you understand most of what you are reading. Don't try to memorize the games or understand every little nuance. Try to develop a feel for how good chess looks. 

At this time, I also started using a database to store and analyze my games. This is critical, and the following links are helpful if you don't do this yet.

Class D (USCF 1200-1400)


Class D was kind of a fun time. I felt like I had some decent games (at the time) with some actual plans and a few tactical combinations. Also, at this point, I could pretty much beat anyone in my family who wasn't a competitive chess player. However, there are a few things I would have done differently.

First, I would have starting playing tougher competition. I did win a couple class tournaments here and there against other sub-1400 players, but I think this hampered my development because I wasn't getting punished for my mistakes. You can check out my article for more detail about who you should be playing to improve

If you're a Class D player, you don't have to play in the Open Section against Experts and above to improve. Just play in more U1600 events. This advice means you won't win as many tournaments. In fact, you will lost more games this way. But trust me, the acceleration in your chess development will be worth it. Particularly if you have followed the Class E advice of studying your games and devouring master games.

At this stage, I think I started focusing on playing "trick" openings and gambit openings that were generally unsound, but fun to play and occasionally picked up a win against an unprepared or unsuspecting opponent. Don't do this! This is like learning the "Rope-a-dope" technique in boxing and hoping to trick your opponent instead of solid fundamental jabs, cross, hooks, and uppercuts. 

When it comes to openings at this stage, I recommend experimenting with various openings, but stick with sound (or somewhat sound) openings that you can play for a while. No need to go too deeply into any particular opening variation because I believe you should experience a bunch of different positions as part of your development and there is a lot of other aspects of chess to study - such as positional play, endgames, tactics, etc.

I spent way too much time trying to study a narrow opening repertoire and memorizing variations. This definitely hindered my development so avoid this trap at this stage. 

Conclusion


Each stage of my development as a chess player came with its own challenges. In the beginning, it was understanding how to get from general opening principles to a position where I could checkmate my opponent - or force him to resign. As I improved, I learned that I could only get so far with trick openings and had to learn "proper" chess in order to progress. In the next installment, I'll share the advice I would have given myself when I was a Class C and Class B player.

I hope you enjoyed this article. It was a reflective exercise for me as I  reviewed my progress and growth over the years. I hope you can learn from my experiences and I hope to develop myself as a player more in the future so I can share even more with you.

Good luck and as always, Better Chess!