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Thursday, July 3, 2014

4-Steps to Analyzing Your Game for Improvement

I often hear and give the advice to analyze your games to improve your chess. This makes a lot of sense and many of the world champions including Alekhine, Botvinnik, and Kasparov have all been great proponents of this particular method of chess improvement. But how do we go about this work?

There are many people who have written about this as well. I heartily recommend GM Alex Yermolinsky's book The Road to Chess Improvement for a very full and personal account of Yermo's game analysis and methods (my copy is falling apart, because of his interesting and insightful instruction). Until you get that book, today I will give you a 4-step framework for analyzing your games.

I also developed a seven-question checklist to streamline the process if you are pressed for time. For your most important games, I recommend this process, but sometimes it is better to analyze your game a little than not at all.

Step 1: Self-Annotation


It is important to try to capture your thoughts that you had during the game. This information is very important because not only do you want to find out which moves you could have improved upon, but you also want to know why you made the suboptimal moves in the first place.

You would want to include the following information:
  • Your assessment of the position during the game
  • Any variations you calculated
  • Other candidate moves you considered
  • You general mood and energy levels
  • The time you took on each move (this is made somewhat easier in online play where the time is recorded such as on the Internet Chess Club).
This information will be very useful in the following steps.

Step 2: Identify Critical Positions


After you have done your self-annotations, you should go through the game and identify several key moments for deeper study. The general reasoning here is that you don't have the time to pick apart every single move you made. Instead you should focus on the 3-4 positions (or more if you have time) that will give you the most benefit in your chess improvement.

Here are examples of critical positions:
  • Positions where you were surprised by your opponent's move
  • Positions where you were confused or couldn't determine a plan
  • Transitions from one phase of the game to another (opening to middlegame, etc.)
  • Turing points in the game (where the game went from equal to winning or losing)
  • Complex positions where a lot of calculation is required or there are many forcing options
  • The position where you left your opening "knowledge"

Another way to find critical positions that I use sometimes is by turning on the chess engine. I don't look at the moves the computer generates, but I check out the evaluation. I look for positions where the change in evaluation is greatest (I'll have to make a video about this). These are turning points in the game usually (or blunders) and it is important to evaluate your thinking and performance in these positions.


Step 3: Research and Corrections


During this step, you will be analyzing and trying to find the "truth" to the critical positions you identified in the last step. There are many ways to do this, but the general idea is that you try to improve upon what you did during the game.

Here are some of the ways you can do this:
  • Analyzing on your own - I recommend you do this first as often your experience with the position during the game will help you find better answers than if you looked to an external resource first. Also, working on the problem on your own will give you insight into your own thought processes.
  • Working with friends/coaches - this is often helpful, but I would recommend you do some work on your own first.
  • Opening references/books - you should definitely do this for every game you play to improve your opening knowledge. Don't just look for particular moves, but what plans and ideas do the masters have in the types of position you are playing. Having a good endgame encyclopedia is good too to look up endgame types.
  • Chess engines - This should be a last step (except in the case of finding critical positions, as mentioned above). However, the chess engine can be particularly insightful in double-checking your analysis and pointing out tactics in a position. 

Step 4: Conclusions


In this step, you take all of the work that you did in the previous steps and come up with conclusions for your future chess study and review. This is an important step, because it can be prescriptive of what you need to do to improve, particularly after comparing conclusions from a group of games you played. Similarly, over time you need to refresh your memory with what you learned (check out my article on the 4-dimensions of learning to understand the importance of time in learning).

For example, you may come to certain conclusions such as:
  • Specific types of positions you need to study more (e.g. isolated queen's pawn positions, specific endgames, specific opening structures)
  • There may be certain aspects of your thought process that you want to improve.
  • You may realize you need to spend more time studying tactics.
To help you organize and collect these conclusions, you can use the following:
  • Chess database software (I use and recommend Chessbase)
  • Physical notebooks and binders (a little more work, but sometimes a tangible system is preferred by some)
  • Spreadsheets (to organize specific work you may want to do)
  • Journal - I write down my thoughts after my games and what I could have improved and look over this regularly.

Summary


I hope you found this post helpful. I will be breaking down specific steps within this with future tutorials. You can customize this process to make it more enjoyable for your preferences and learning style. Overall, any work you do to look at your games and learn from them will be beneficial.

As I mentioned earlier in the article, I sometimes also use this seven-question checklist when I don't have a few hours to analyze a game.

For those of you who enjoy watching videos or listening to the spoken word, here is a video I made on this topic:




Your Turn


Are there specific ways that you analyze your games for improvement? Share them with me and we can discuss them. I'm always trying to learn more and it may be helpful to others who read this article.


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Crush Your A.N.T.'s and Play Your Best Game Ever!

Most of our work to improve at chess involves increasing our knowledge and skill of the game of chess. However, there is another aspect to the game - the game within our minds. Sometimes, our opponent isn't just sitting across the table (or the internet) from us. Sometimes, our toughest opponent is between our own ears!

I had a very insightful and interesting conversation with Greg Liberto - the HEAD Coach. Greg is a professional coach, author, and speaker who primarily helps professional golfers play their best golf ever. He does this by helping them understand and eliminate their Automatic Negative Thoughts (A.N.T.'s). In this interview, we discuss A.N.T.'s and strategies to face and overcome them and use them to our advantage. We discuss the similarities between golf and chess, and Greg coaches me through discovering my A.N.T.'s and developing several strategies to use when I notice them during my games.

Automatic Negative Thoughts


  • A.N.T.'s occur in 90% of our thoughts and are automatic.
  • It is impossible to perform at our best when we have A.N.T.'s.
  • By developing strategies that describe high-level thought processes we can stop A.N.T.'s in their tracks.
  • These strategies - which are simple phrases - can be repeated to yourself when you have A.N.T.'s.

"Hit My Target"

 

  • A strategy to focus on what matters - what we can control
  • The golfer vs. the sniper - similar goals, but the sniper is totally focused on one goal, while the typical golfer is worried about bad shots he made, responsibilities at home, and other worries that don't matter in the moment.
  • By learning to "Hit My Target" - golfers focus on what they need to do in the present to play their best. Chess players can employ similar strategies to their games - move by move!

Sample Strategies

 

  • "Play Real Chess" (a concept introduced by chess coach Dan Heisman used here as a reminder to consider your and your opponent's options).
  • "Play Your Game" - Don't worry about what your opponent knows or what surprises he has prepared. Focus on what you know and what you have to do to play your best.
  • "Have Fun"
  • "Relax"

Greg goes into more detail in the video on these concepts and several more. He was very generous with his time and I truly appreciate the perspective he brings to us.

Enjoy the video!




Your Turn


What A.N.T.'s do you suffer from? Share them with us, and then share 3 positives to counteract them. Also, Greg will be following up with us so if you have any questions let us know in the comments. Also, I'll be posting 20 questions that Greg uses with his coaching clients to help them discover strategies they can use to crush their A.N.T.'s - adapted for chess.

If you want to contact Greg, you can e-mail him at Greg(at)theheadcoach.us (just replace the (at) with a @).

Resources

The HEAD Coach (www.theheadcoach.us): Greg's site where you can find golf tips and strategies.

18 Holes: How to Stop the A.N.T.s from Stealing Your Game: Greg's book about golf is a quick read and all of his advice can be applied to chess.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Conversation with IM Christof Sielecki (Chessexplained)

IM Christof Sielecki
I had a great conversation with International Master Christof Sielecki on June 16th, 2014. Christof has one of the most popular chess channels on YouTube, Chess Explained. He is a prolific commentator on this channel, uploading daily blitz games as well as analyzing games from some of the strongest tournaments in the world. Christof is a professional chess player and coach.

In this interview, we discuss several topics:
  • Christof's start in chess and his journey to the IM title
  • The importance of studying the right things in chess
  • How to study the opening
  • His upcoming chess book and insights he gained from writing it
  • How to use blitz chess to improve (and his encounter with the world's best blitz player)
  • New and exciting content planned for Chess Explained
I'll be breaking down some of these topics in future articles which I will link to this page, but for now, enjoy the interview! Also, very soon I'll be linking to a game of Christof's that he will be putting on his channel specifically for Better Chess Training. Stay tuned!



Update!

Since my interview with Christof, he has been busy! He has published a book on the Nimzo-Indian and Bogo-Indian and he also has a regularly featured show on the Internet Chess Club.

Christof also is an author on Chessable.com. You can study repertoires he has created and practice them on Chessable.com.

So happy to see his continued success in the chess world!



Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Chess Experiment: Time on Task

When you play a long game, what percentage of the time do you spend actually thinking about the game at hand?

If you're like many tournament players, it's probably not as much as you think. You may get up, get a drink of water, use the bathroom, watching the other games or checking out an attractive person across the playing hall. During a 4-5 hour tournament game, you may only actually think about your game perhaps 50% of the time. Well, at least that's what I observed during the 50% of the time I wasn't thinking about my games!

There is a concept well-known in education circles called time on task. In education, it's the amount of time that a student actually spends on learning! Research has shown that the more time a student engages in a learning activity, the better the student learns the material - a fairly logical conclusion. Since this concept was introduced in the 1970's it was further refined into concepts such as allocated time, engaged time, and academic learning time, but we'll keep it simple for now. 

My hypothesis is that if players increase the percentage of time on task during their games, the better they will play. I have some casual data on this topic based on my observations during tournaments. Normally, playing halls during tournaments are set up with the strongest players at one end and the weaker players at the other end. If you stick around and watch what happens during a tournament round, the players on the "weak side" finish their games first and usually end up watching the top boards.

I had the opportunity to play in the same tournament as U.S. Champion Gata Kamsky. As I watched him play - yes, I was done with my game - I noticed a few things. First, he seemed very focused for most of his game. He would occasionally get up, but even then, he was looking upward slightly toward the ceiling - perhaps visualizing variations in his mind. Once or twice, he got up to get a drink or use the bathroom. He rarely did what I see many amateur players doing during these long tournament games.

Finally, I remember an old article by Canadian Grandmaster Kevin Spraggett (although the web site seems to be gone now) where he discussed increasing time on task (he didn't use the term specifically). He attributed his rise from an "average" Grandmaster to becoming one of the top players on North America - winning several of the largest Canadian and U.S. Tournaments - to reducing the amount of time he watched other games and talked to his friends during tournaments and increasing the time his butt was in his seat focusing on the game.

A Chess Experiment


To help test my hypothesis, I'll be conducting a little experiment over the next couple months with my long internet games. These games would include my team league games which have time controls of 45 minutes with 45 second increment as well as my ICC Tuesday Standard Games with a time control of 60 minutes with no increment. I will record my time on task as a percentage of total playing time and record my performance.
  • I will start a stopwatch when I am seated and thinking about the game. 
  • When I get up from the computer or do anything not related to the game (e.g. browsing the internet or e-mail) I will stop the stopwatch.
  • I will then divide this time into the total playing time of the game. I also include my opponent's time in this as we can think during our opponent's time as well. 
  • I will record the performance of these games, including not just wins, losses, and draws, but also rating performance.
After this experiment, which I want to have a sample size of at least 10 games, I will look at the data in several ways.
  1. Comparing performance for the top 50% of  games based on time on task to the bottom 50% of games.
  2. Comparing the average time on task for my wins, losses, and draws.
  3. Observing the change over time of my time on task.
In true scientific fashion, we will see if increasing time on task actually makes a difference. In two or three months, I'll write the follow-up article to this one with the results of the experiment. At the very least, it will probably help me increase my self-awareness during my games, which is a good thing.

Your Turn


Do you want to help with the experiment? Post your time on task, total playing time, the rating of you and your opponent, and the result of the game. I will include your data along with mine. Please, only games with longer time controls (at least 60 0 or 45 45). Also, if you want to post your observations from doing this experiment, feel free to do so!

Resources


Time on Task: A Strategy That Accelerates Learning: A concise discussion about the topic from the Florida Education Association website with further references on the research.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Top 3 Chess Channels on Youtube

Chess videos are a great way to increase your knowledge in chess. Because video is a visual medium, you can see the pieces being moved. Also, the commentators usually are a little more conversational in their explanations of the moves, making it easier to understand than the terse comments sometimes found in books. The videos are often very well indexed, so you can search for specific openings or players. Of course, the videos can also be fun.

There are commercially produced videos for sale, but there are also many chess channels on YouTube with free videos. In today's post, I will be highlighting my favorite YouTube channels that I feel have the most instructive content.

#3: kingcrusher


This channel is run by Tryfon Gavriel, aka kingcrusher, a British FIDE Candidate Master who is also a top 50 Rapid player on the ECF Rating list in 2013. His channel has over 5000 videos, making it perhaps the largest on YouTube. He is also the webmaster of www.chessworld.net.

Kingcrusher has many types of instructional videos available, including analysis of master games, analysis of his own games, as well as live commentary of his blitz games and other instructional videos. Tryfon Gavriel has a very engaging style of speaking, and he uses the chess engine well to assist him in his analysis of positions. When I say he uses the chess engine well, I mean that he doesn't just say "Stockfish gives this line a +0.51 evaluation." Instead he explores the lines and explains in plain language the reasoning behind the move, which is very helpful.

I think his videos are helpful to players of all experience levels, perhaps leaning toward intermediate and above.

#2: Chess Explained


Chess Explained is run by German International Master Christof Sielecki. He is also very active, many times uploading multiple videos on one day, particularly of his blitz commentary. A majority of his videos are live commentary of his blitz games, but he also has commentary on current chess tournament games - often highlighting one or two of the best games each round. Also, he has a couple playlists with opening repertoires, where he outlines the theory and strategy for specific repertoires.

I think the strength of this channel is his live commentary. He tries to give you his thoughts while he plays (which is amazing when many of his games are 5-minute blitz games). By doing this, you get a feel that you are in the game with him, and can understand why he makes certain decisions. In my opinion, IM Sielecki also explains positional ideas such as pawn structure or piece value very well in his videos. He is also quite humorous at times, and self-deprecating when he blunders. I think it's good to see that masters can be human also!

I think Chess Explained is good for players of all experience levels, although some of his commentary videos again lean more towards intermediate players who may have more exposure to some of the basics of strategy and tactics.

#1: Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis


This Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis Channel provides a rotating cast of titled players that give lectures at the chess club. They classify their videos by level: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Some of their presenters include Grandmasters Yasser Seirawan, Ben Finegold, and Irina Krush among others.

This channel has a variety of content. They have the Beginner Breakdown, which is very accessible to the less experienced player. As you know from my book recommendations, I am a fan of GM Yasser Seirawan, and his lectures are not to be missed! The videos cover current games, openings, strategy, endgames, and other aspects of chess.

The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis Channel is my favorite on YouTube because of the variety of lecturers as well as the quality of instruction and production value of the videos. In my opinion, they are currently the gold standard for instructional videos on YouTube.

Conclusion


There are many different ways to acquire knowledge in chess. Books have been around for a long time, but the internet and videos are are great source of material to help you improve in chess. There are many channels on YouTube that provide great material by excellent instructors. The three I listed are my favorite. Be sure to check them out as well as the Better Chess Training channel. In future posts, I will be showing you different ways to maximize the benefit you receive from them. Until then, best of luck and of course Better Chess!

Your Turn 


What Chess Channels on YouTube do you enjoy that I haven't mentioned? Post them in the comments!


Thursday, June 5, 2014

Interview with a Master: Jari Järvenpää

It is my absolute pleasure to present an online interview I did with Jari Järvenpää, a FIDE Master who lives in Tampere, Finland. He is an active player and chess coach on the Internet Chess Club and on Chess.com where he is also known as NFork. His current FIDE rating is 2285. He was friendly and generous with his time as he provided with some answers that I think will be greatly appreciated by those wanting to improve in chess. All of my questions and comments are in bold.

Tell us a little about yourself (age, home, profession, etc.).

I am 33 and I live in Tampere, Finland. I am at the end on my university philosophy studies. I like jogging, training at the gym and swimming. I also swim on winter time and yes, in the lake as well.

Do you find that your exercise (jogging and swimming) helps you to play chess better?

Well most of the long sport that lasts at least 1 hour should increase the stamina and help to get better results also in chess. After all the games last 4-5 hours and some tourneys may last over week.

In my case I don't swim long distances so it is mostly just enjoying the water element which is very love for Finns, because Finland is the land of thousands lakes :) And not to mention sauna! I sometimes do 1-2 hour jogging or gym workouts and they should increase the points in chess. I know many players who play very persistently and defend their bad positions very long sometimes even winning them. They may not be well-fit, but certainly if players would be then there are better chances to fight longer in chess.

When did you start learning chess?

I started playing chess when I was 10-years-old. I always lost to my big brother on start: It was good training and I was motivated to play and search for the mistakes in my games.

As you were progressing to your current chess strength, what was the most biggest obstacle for you during your chess development? How did you get past it?

I could say a couple. The first obstacle (when I was around 2100 rated, but I might have had it also before that level ) was to combine solid positional style with moderately aggressive playing style that seeks the initiative and actively uses it. There were times I played speculative attacks and luckily won many games, but also there was a phase when I didn't play enough actively. This obstacle was mainly solved with general game analysis and also with thinking about forming plans plus realizing that playing too intuitively causes many mistakes.

The second was to avoid all kinds of emotions during games, because they often cause tactical oversights. For example, a lot of players become scared of a menacing opponent piece or overexcited of an advantage. It's clear that these are partly reasons for mistakes although lack of chess understanding also has some impact. Without emotions, the mind is more sharp in chess. But you can and you should use your intuition as well. In the past, I have used some self-motivating thoughts like "this is only beginning of the game" and "Easiest thing in chess is to get the advantage, harder is to turn that into win" when I have had the upper hand but trying to avoid overexcited about it! General hints are to change my attitude before the game to fight a long game and also during the game to notice the emotions and somehow try to get rid of them - for example, by going away for a couple minutes.

I am quite focused on the 2nd obstacle because in one tourney I managed to avoid almost all emotions and I got good results. Because of that I am thinking it was not a coincidence.

Were there any "Ah-ha" moments in your chess development where you made great progress or knew you were going to become a chess master?
Generally, it's much about patterns in chess. It all started very slowly with realizing there are superficial and deeper reasons for mistakes and I knew that when I was perhaps something like 20, but I didn't work it out much. Deeper reasons often are some patterns that are to be seen. They cause lot of our losses. It's natural for people to try to forget (painful) losses, but it's ironic, because losses would offer lot of information and hints how to improve. Losing is painful and partly because of that it is easy to make up some superficial reason why a mistake or a losse happened.

I have made silly mistakes in the past and sometimes I still do, but in the past I somehow knew that some day I will overtake those obstacles that cause too many silly mistakes. Of course, I have to admit that generally my skills are much weaker compared to higher rated players and for example psychological aspects of chess doesn't explain all my mistakes.

Are there any specific training or study methods that you used as you were progressing in chess that you found very helpful?

Please try to avoid blitz and rather play at least 15 5 games and analyze them a bit. I have done that a lot in the past.

Were there any particular chess books that you found helpful when you were a younger player?

I think most important book for me was "Two chess geniuses." although I am not totally sure about it's English translation. Nevertheless it was about Alekhine and Capablanca. I think there were lot of beautiful games where players formed a plan but also followed the plan.

Do you have a favorite player that you study or emulate (from the past or present)?

I used to admire Karpov's games. He played good strategical chess and what I wrote in question 6 could also be about his games. Just recently I remembered advice of some GMs to choose strong player who plays sharp chess to emulate his style and I chose Anand. I followed some of his great games and they were inspiring! I try to examine them in future as well. The games don't have to be his new games but also old ones.

What is your best (or favorite) chess result in tournaments?

6½/9 from Heart of Finland which was played July 2011. I could rather say the result from start, 6/6, because I managed to beat many higher rated opponents. I would like to get other good results.
I asked Jari to share one of his favorite games. He was very generous to provide the following annotated game (all comments and analysis are his):



 

I see that you teach chess. What is your philosophy or method when you teach students?

Deep game analysis first totally without engine. This includes first writing thoughts and feelings about the processing during game and write time usage. These are the only means to gather as much information and details about your playing and then analyse the games.
Do you find that a lot of beginner/intermediate players use the chess engines too much in their analysis? Does this hurt their progress?

Yes, most of the players do! Generally there are some problems with using a lot engine:
First, the engine tells only tactical lines so it also takes some skills and understanding how to turn that into human language. What is the reason tactics are working for white or black? On human language one of the reasons could be partly based on some weak pawn, pin, etc.
Also, the engine says mostly when you lose that you made tactical mistakes and blunders here and there, but you have to find out on your own what were the more deep reasons. Weren't you enough focused on some part of the board that you should have? Were you too tired? Did you think one move was a good one, but anyway refused it due to menacing piece opponent had because you wanted to chase it away?
The idea is to analyze first on your own and also see is your thinking process good and how you choose moves.

Engines are mostly right what move is the best, it doesn't matter if engines or humans are playing, but they end up on choosing a move because of different reasons than humans.

However, it is also bad thing to think that engines evaluations don't mean anything. After own analysis it is good to check engine analysis as well, because after all it is strong player and adds more information what went wrong.

What final advice would you give to beginning and intermediate players to improve (players with ELO less than 2000)?

Focus on consequences of each move that is made on board or thought during a game and this includes avoiding a lot of intuition-based moves. Try to almost constantly question your views and habits and be open for new ideas.

Finally, what is the best way to reach you and on what online sites do you play/teach?
Feel free to find and chat with me (NFork) online on the Internet Chess Club (ICC) and Chess.com. You can e-mail me at Jari.K.Jarvenpaa(at)uta.fi (Bryan: I've taken out the "@" symbol so Jari doesn't receive robo-spam, so just replace it to e-mail him)

Thank you, Jari! I appreciate the time and thoughtfulness you took to provide such insightful answers to Better Chess Training. Chess Friends, say "Hi" to NFork next time you are on ICC or Chess.com!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

3 Key Ways to Improve Your Chess

Help! I want to get better in chess! Where do I start?

This is a question I found in a forum post recently and some of the things I find routine may not be so routine to others - particularly those who have recently decided that want to get more serious about learning chess. So in this short article I list the 3 key ways that you can improve your chess whether you are a beginner or a master!

Study Your Games


“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” ― Lao Tzu

One of the simplest ways that you can improve is by studying your own games - especially your losses. If you don't know what you're doing wrong, it is very difficult to correct it. This advice is not original, Alekhine and Botvinnik became world champions by deep analysis of their own games.

Check out this detailed article on how to get the most out of studying your games, but here are a few points you want to look for:
  • The opening: Did you follow theoretical or repertoire lines? Who deviated first? Were you ahead, even, or behind after the opening phase? How could you have improved your opening. This is where you can look up your opening in your reference books or in an online database like that found on Chess Tempo.
  • Shifts in advantage: At what point in the game did the evaluation in the position change (e.g. winning or drawn to losing or vice versa)? Why did this happen?
  • Tactical errors: Why did you miss specific tactics (e.g. was it an oversight due to distraction or lack of thought process, etc.)? Was there a new tactical motif that you didn't know before the game?
  • Any points of confusion: It is important to note any positions during the game where you were confused or didn't understand what was going on.
Once you identify these points, you should try to figure out how you should have played instead. To do this, there are several options:
  • Your own analysis: This is often very insightful, but sometimes flawed.
  • Using computer chess engines: These are very useful particularly in tactical situations, but you must be careful not to develop an dependence on them, so I recommend first doing your own analysis.
  • Stronger players or coaches: If you can find stronger players or coaches to help you analyze the games, it can be very helpful, because they can explain why certain moves are better than others.
Once you have analyzed your game and feel like you've picked up some new patterns, ideas, and knowledge, it is important to store these nuggets of wisdom for future review. I find using a computer database program such as Chessbase very helpful - I'll be creating several videos on how I do this as well as writing articles about it. However, you can also use things like notebooks with notes or creating flashcards. However, you do it, reviewing the material is very important - read my article on the 4 Dimensions of Learning for more discussion of the time factor in learning. 

For more detail on analyzing your games, check out my 4-Steps to Analyzing Your Game for Improvement.

Study from the Masters


Before I could engage my creativity, I had to learn enough of the classical theory clearly evident in the great works of art of my heroes. - Greg Allen

Just like in art, music, and sports, we learn from those who are better than we are. Fortunately, there is a rich culture of preserving the games and thoughts of the masters through the vast number of chess books (and now chess videos) available. By studying the games and theory from the masters, we stand of the shoulders of giants and gain ideas and systems that we can use in our own games.

As a little example of what I'm talking about, here is a recent position from one of my games:



The idea of 27...Qh4! is not too difficult to find. However, it is made that much easier by understanding that I had recently studied the following position from a master game (Van Wely-Giri from the Tata Steel tournament in Wijk aan Zee earlier this year):



This type of example is common once you study many master games and positions from the masters.

There is an enormous amount of literature out there, so here are some starting points for studying the masters of chess:
  • Look for annotated books or collections meant for instruction on different aspects of chess such as openings, strategy, tactics, and the endgame (for beginners, check out my foundational books for beginners).
  • Look up games or books covering your opening repertoire (although make sure the books is at your level).
  • Look up games or books by or about your favorite players. My chess took a great step up after studying Capablanca's Best Chess Endings: 60 Complete Games by Irving Chernev. 
As you study the games, positions, and ideas from the masters, it is again important to store these for future reference. My recommendation is Chessbase, but there are other database programs out there as well as the old-fashioned index card or binder (although that takes a lot of work).

Study Tactics


Chess is 99% tactics.  -  Rudolph Teichmann

This is perhaps the most frequent suggestions for improving your chess, particularly at a beginner level. This makes sense because tactics are the foundation for everything else in chess. Just like fueling and nourishing your body with food, tactical study is the nutrient rich diet for the chess player. I write a more detailed article about how to improve your tactics, but here are a few considerations to get you started:
  • Do some type of tactical training daily. It is the same as eating your vegetables and fruit. It's good for you, but better to do a little daily than a lot only once in a while.
  • Start out with simple problems. At first, you are just trying to pick up patterns that you will apply to more complex problems and in your games.
  • Find a chess tactics server on the internet and sign up. This way, you can track your progress because many of these servers have ratings for you and for the problems you do. My favorite one is Chess Tempo, partly because each of the problems have comments by other users to help you understand the problems.
  • When you get a problem wrong, don't go on to the next one, until you understand the solution.

 

Conclusion


Studying chess doesn't have to be a complicated thing. These three ways to improve your chess can be the foundation of your study and training program for the rest of your chess career. As with getting better at anything, although the path may be simple, it doesn't mean it is easy. Come back often to this site as I will give you advice on how to optimally implement each of these training methods. Let me know if this has been helpful to you. Best of luck in your journey and as always I wish you Better Chess!

Monday, June 2, 2014

How to Improve Your Tactics

"In general I consider that in chess everything rests on tactics. If one thinks of strategy as a block of marble, then tactics are the chisel with which a master operates, in creating works of chess art." 
-  Tigran Petrosian

How can we sharpen the chisel which we use to create chess art? There are many specific regimens you can follow. I will approach this task from the viewpoint of what you are trying to accomplish, then suggest a template for a method you can use, but you can modify it for your own needs.

Two Main Objectives


When you want to improve your tactics, I think there are two main objectives that you are hoping to achieve. The first is to increase your pattern recognition. This is the ability to spot a tactical motif or operation in a position. The second is to improve your calculation and visualization in order to apply the tactics in a position. Both of these objectives are intertwined - tactical patterns are the bricks while calculation and visualization are the mortar that build a house of tactical mastery.

Here is an example:

White to play

1.Nf6+! here wins the queen after the king moves. The tactical motif is the ever popular fork. Spotting it should be fairly easy if you've ever been exposed to it before. This is a position that comes from a variation of one of my recent games. However, during the game I was presented with this position:

White to play

I had drummed up a decent attack on the king. Not wanting to exchange pieces, I played 1.Ne4+ which also leads to a slight advantage after 1...Kd5 2.Nf6+ Kc4 3.O-O Threatening Rxc1+However, I could have forced a resignation by deflecting the queen with 1.Bxe8! and if 1...Qxe8 2.Ne4+ Kd5 3.Nf6+ as in the first diagram above. If 1...Bh6 counterattacking the queen then 2.Nf6+ Kd5 3.Bxc6+ followed by 4.Qxh6 wins.

Although the pattern of a fork would have been easily found no doubt, the pattern of deflection (or decoy depending on what book you read) combined with the discipline of calculation and visualization was not with me when I played the game. Unfortunately, for other reasons I went on to lose (but that's another article for another time).

You need both pattern recognition and the ability to apply it through calculation and visualization to master tactics.

Training for Pattern Recognition


Although solving tactical problems will improve both aspects of tactical training, doing different types of problems in different ways will enhance each objective more efficiently. To improve pattern recognition, here are some suggestions:
  • Start with simpler problems that present individual or simple tactical motifs. Books like Winning Chess Tactics by Yasser Seirawan do this nicely. Chess servers like Chess Tempo are helpful too, because of the number of problems available.
  • Solve the positions fairly quickly. Do not spend more than 60-90 seconds on any particular position.
  • Stop after 15-20 minutes OR after getting 3-4 problems incorrect.
  • Whenever you make a mistake, study the position carefully and try to understand the elements of the motif.
  • If you are using a book, continue until you can solve the problems almost instantly, taking no more than 15 seconds to recognize the answer.
After several months of doing this, you will amass a great memory for these tactical motifs and will be able to spot them easily in your games.

Training Calculation and Visualization


The other side of the coin of course is applying this pattern recognition through calculation and visualization. In this case, you are practicing the skill of calculating and visualization. Here are some recommendations on how to do it effectively:

  • Choose a book of problems or use a chess server.
  • Set a time for the training session (I typically do this type of training twice a week in 30-60 minute sessions).
  • Treat the position like a serious standard or long game. If you play mainly over-the-board, you may want to to set a real board up to simulate the way you play the most.
  • Try to calculate all of the possible forcing variations before you make your first move.
  • As before, if you get the problem wrong, try to see where you made an error - e.g. did you calculate far enough? Did you miss a forcing response by your opponent? Over time, you may find errors in your thinking process that you can
  • Occasionally, write down your calculations in a notebook. As you do this, you will find that your mind will get more organized about your calculations. Also, when you play out what you visualized on the board (or computer) you will be amazed at what you both saw and missed. Whenever I do this exercise, I gain many insights into my own thinking process. However, sometimes it is good to practice without writing it down too, as it can also be a crutch as you look over your writing (since you cannot do this during your games)

Stages


It is helpful to practice both of these types of tactical training. However, depending on your specific needs, you may emphasize one more than the other. For beginners, it is helpful to train mainly for pattern recognition because these are the foundation of your tactical ability. As you increase in strength, you will need to improve your calculation skills to fully apply the knowledge of your tactical patterns.

Chess Tempo


Finally, I wanted to recommend a great resource. Chess Tempo is a great site that you can use both of these training methods to improve your tactics. Of course, it is not the only one out there, but it is the one I use and recommend. Here is a video summarizing some of the points I made above and applying them using Chess Tempo.



Conclusion


Improving your tactics is one of the best ways to improve your chess strength. As Petrosian felt, it is at the very foundation of all chess strategy. I hope you can apply some of my advice to enhance your tactical training. If you have any other ideas about tactics training that you have found helpful, share them in the comments section. Otherwise, I wish you good luck and Better Chess!

Resources


Chess Tempo: In my opinion, the best tactics server on the internet. Besides training tactics, there is also endgame training and a large chess database.

Winning Chess Tactics by Yasser Seirawan. A great book to teach you the basic tactical themes.

Building Your Tactical Shield: An article I wrote on GM Nigel Davies' Chess Improver site with additional methods to aid in transferring your skills from training to your games.

Friday, May 30, 2014

3 Ways to Get the Edge in Chess (Part 2)

Question: What does flossing and chess training have in common?

Answer: They are both easy to do, but if you neglect them, your teeth and your chess skill will decay!

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about the importance of your philosophy in your attitudes and actions towards chess and other parts of life. In this installment, I'm going to discuss how mastering the mundane - the simple, little, sometimes boring things - can dramatically improve your chess results over time.

Master the Mundane


Many chess players I know (myself included at times) are always looking for the "quantum leap" - that new opening gambit, that chess software or book - that will propel them into the next class of chess. Unfortunately (or fortunately once you read this article), the answer is often found in the simple, routine things we do every day and every week that truly matter in improving at chess.

I recently played a FIDE master online. The time control was 90 30 (90 minutes plus 30 seconds for each move). However, I used less than 30 minutes of my time while my opponent had used about an hour by the time the game was over. I lost and after the game my opponent asked me, "Why didn't you use more of your time?"

The actual answers to his question is a topic for another article perhaps, but the question he asked was very insightful. Notice that he didn't ask, "Why didn't you play X in this opening variation?" OR "Didn't you notice the long term endgame inferiority you would have incurred when you played Y? "

I have observed that sometimes I look for something external to blame for my losses - the next move in opening theory that I didn't know, or the endgame position that I haven't learned. Of course, I do believe that we need to increase our knowledge in chess especially at beginner and intermediate levels.

However, I think sometimes we overlook the internal reasons for our losses. This would include things like being careful, doing a safety check before we make our move, and managing our time wisely during our games (in my case using more of my time to make better decisions). It also includes more subtle things like focus and attention, eliminating distractions, and being well rested. I think we need a to balance improving both the internal and external factors in our pursuit of chess improvement.

Easy to Do, Easy Not to Do


There are several reasons that we undervalue or ignore the mundane in our chess training. The first is given pretty plainly in Jeff Olsen's The Slight Edge. These things are easy to do. How hard is it to use more of your time on your chess clock? They are also easy not to do. We can see this clearly in other parts of our lives. For example, think about flossing, going to bed on time, exercise, and even saying "I love you" to your children.

Another reason we ignore the mundane is that we don't see the effects right away. I was reading a thread on a chess forum (I will not link to it to protect the innocent) about analyzing our own games - which inspired another article I will write soon. One of the people wrote that he only analyzed the games where he thought both he and his opponent played well. I thought to myself, "What percentage of your games is that?"

His point was that he felt that it was not worth analyzing a game in which he or his opponent blundered really badly. However, I think these are exactly the games that we need to pay attention to and analyze the reasons we make those mistakes! Now...maybe a grandmaster doesn't need to necessarily analyze a big blunder he made if he only does it in 2% of his games, but for an amateur player this probably happens in at least half of his games. How much do you think your strength would improve if you reduced your blunders by 50%?

It is perhaps painful to do some of these mundane things, but over time, day by day, these little things add up to dramatic changes. Consider the following picture:

Imagine all of your study, training, and habits filling a cup. For a while, you may not notice a difference (although you might). However, after weeks and months of doing something simple to positively improve your chess, something "clicks" and you see a sudden rise in your playing strength.

One such jump happened for me several years ago. I had a chess lesson with GM Greg Serper. I was fortunate because he lived in the same city I did at the time and had the lesson in person. We only had one lesson, but I learned many insights. One of the things he said to me that has stuck with me was "we should not be so concerned with our opponent's mistakes as with our own." Ever since then I was an avid annotator of my games, especially my losses. I was rated around 1200 at the time, but rose steadily over a year to 1400. The following year, I made a similar rise from 1400 to 1600. Although I did a lot of things at that time to improvement chess, including reading several key foundational chess books, studying tactics, and playing good competition, that mundane (and sometimes painful) practice of studying my losses was essential to my improvement, and continues to be to this day.

Some Good News


It is always difficult to suggest that someone change what they're doing. However, the changes don't need to be extreme, and the more you do them, the easier it gets. Experts in the field of behavior change universally agree that about 21 to 30 days of practicing a new habit will make it fairly permanent and habitual. In the realm of chess (as well as fitness and other endeavors), the practice also becomes easier.

When I first started analyzing my losses, it was like pulling teeth. However, after the first dozen, I started systematizing my work and organizing in my database. It became a creative outlet, trying to understand myself while also trying to increase the quality of my annotations and analysis. The difficult became easier.

I have a good friend who lost about 180 pounds over the course of a year. I asked him how he did it. His answer was profound and yet so simple: "Well, I started to walk as far as I could. At first, it was just to the end of the street. Then the next day, it was a couple houses further. Then after about a month, I started to jog. After three months, I walked a 5K..." His program didn't involve doing interval training or scheduling rest periods and perhaps exercise trainers wouldn't necessarily think it was the best way to do it. However, I found it quite elegant in its simplicity and we can't argue with the results. He did something mundane - He walked as far as he could every day. And he did it for 365 straight days - maybe he took a few days off, but you get my point.

Your Turn


I hope you have found this article interesting and insightful. Now it is your turn to take some action. Here is a list of mundane practices I have developed and practiced over the years (not necessarily daily, but regularly). Maybe one or two of them are things you can add to your regimen:
  • Annotating my losses
  • Studying tactical problems
  • Going into each game with a couple mental objectives (I'll write more on this in another article)
  • Asking my opponent is he wants to discuss the game afterwards (when time allows)
  • Looking up a master game in the opening variation of a game I just played
  • Taking a short walk before each of my tournament games
  • Not looking at other boards during an Over-the-Board tournament
This is not an exhaustive list. You will notice that each of these things are not very complicated or take very long to do. However, each of these things have helped me over the years.

I hope you will follow-up and apply this concept to your own training. Please comment and let me know what you are going to try and how it works out. As always, I wish you good luck and Better Chess!

Resources


The Slight Edge: Turning Simple Disciplines into Massive Success and Happiness by Jeff Olsen. This book has helped me change my life as well as my chess training. I think it's a must read for any person wanting to improve any aspect in their life, from business to parenting to chess.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What Chess Books Should I Study (for Beginners)

Chess books have been and probably always be one of the primary ways to study chess for improvement. In this article, I will discuss what are the first chess books you should study as you move from beginning chess to the intermediate level of chess. This guide will be useful for players who have just learned the game up to around USCF rating 1400. In a future post, I will discuss how to best learn from these books.


Book Selection


The selection of the right books to study is important. I remember when I was rated around 1300 and I went to a chess bookstore and the owner convinced me to buy Kasparov Versus Anand: The Inside Story of the 1995 Chess Championship Match. Not knowing any better I purchased it and eagerly started to play through the games. It only took me a couple games to realize that although the annotations were very detailed, this book was way over my head and written for a more advanced audience. Your personal chess improvement program will not only include studying books, but also playing (and analyzing your own games), and other activities like solving chess problems and maybe watching chess videos, so our goal is starting with a good foundation, and then after that is built, you can tailor the future books you study to what you need.

Principles


There are a few guiding principles that should help you find good material to study as well as a few recommendations:
  • Focus on books that have more text explanations rather than copious move variations. 
  • For now, books that are more general in nature are more useful than ones that are very focused. For example, a general book about openings is better than a book about a specific opening variation.
  • You only need one decent book in each major category of chess study (and I'll make a list below). As you progress through the books and get better at chess, your specific needs will dictate what further study materials you require to progress.

Foundational Books


With the preceding principles in mind, here is a list of books I have found helpful as I was moving from the beginner to intermediate level:
  • Game Collection/General Instruction: Logical Chess: Move By Move: Every Move Explained New Algebraic Edition by Chernev. This is a classic that explains the reasons behind every move. The games are older and illustrate a large number of fundamental principles, strategies, and tactics that are the basis of modern chess. After learning the moves of the game, this would be my recommendation on the next book to get!
  • General Opening Guide:  Winning Chess Openings (Winning Chess - Everyman Chess) by Yasser Seirawan. This book is not only comprehensive, covering many major openings, but also very enjoyable and logical to read for beginning level chess players. My general philosophy is that much of your opening study at this point should be general, and that you need to experience a lot of different types of positions and opening structures before focusing on a specific repertoire. This book will help you get that foundation.
  • Strategy: Winning Chess Strategies, revised (Winning Chess - Everyman Chess) by Yasser Seirawan. I admit I'm biased and many chess instructors recommend Jeremy Silman's The Amateur's Mind: Turning Chess Misconceptions into Chess Mastery. However, I enjoy Seirawan's writing style and easy to understand explanations of the concepts. Both books are very good and I would recommend getting one of them to start and you could always pick up the other one at a later point.
  • Tactics: Winning Chess Tactics by Yasser Seirawan. This is a very easy to understand and comprehensive look at tactics. The thing I like about Seirawan's books on strategy and tactics is that at the end of the book he has some very nice annotated games illustrating the principles that he discussed with the book featuring chess history's greatest strategists (such as Capablanca and Karpov) and tacticians (such as Tal and Kasparov). After studying this book and doing the exercises, you can go onto one of the online chess servers, such as Chess Tempo and practice your tactics.
  • Endgame: Silman's Complete Endgame Course: From Beginner To Master by Jeremy Silman. This is arguably the only endgame book you'll need for a long time. Study just the part indicated for your rating class and then put it away and study the other stuff until your rating and strength improve then you can study more. I actually had a different book that I used as I was moving up, but after reading this book, I feel that you should just get this one for your endgame study and after you reach 1700-1800 get the more encyclopedic Fundamental Chess Endings as a reference guide.

Conclusion


If you study each of the books on this list (or use it to fill the gaps of the books you already have), I believe you will have a solid foundation for your chess future. As you progress in chess, your study will go from this general foundation to more specific study, including developing your own opening repertoire and looking up specific strategies and endgames that you find interesting or challenging. This future study will be based on discoveries you make within your own games. I hope your journey is as insightful and enjoyable as mine was.

I hope you have found this guide helpful. As always, I wish you good luck and Better Chess!

    Friday, May 23, 2014

    Who Should You Play to Improve Your Chess?

    Get a Better Tennis Partner

     

    The late business philosopher and speak Jim Rohn said, "You are the average of the five people you hang around most." One of my friends used to tell me, "If you want to get better at tennis, get a better tennis partner." If you want to get better at chess, you need to play people who are better than you are. Basically, in order to get past where you are, you need to hang out with people who have better mindsets and better skills than you do. The same is true in business, tennis, and chess.

    Recently, I was in a discussion on the Chess.com forums. In that forum, one of the members, a beginner, asked how to get better while showing us a game of him trouncing someone who was even more of a beginner. People made various comments, but I said that he needed to play stronger competition to expose his weaknesses. He asked, "But won't that make my rating lower?"

    I answered that perhaps it might in the short run, but as he played stronger players, he would see what he was doing wrong, and do things to improve upon them. Also, he would pick up on the strategies and tactics that his stronger opponents were using on him, and then learn to use them on other people.

    The Benefits of Stronger Competition


    I think sometimes players get comfortable at their level. When I first started playing USCF Rated tournaments, my first published rating was 1071. The main tournaments I was playing in were G/30 Quads (a 3-round Round-Robin tournament with 4 players). I played weekly for about 3 months during the summer while I was in graduate school. I got to know the players in the 1100-1400 range.

    I was on my way up, but there were guys there who were in that range for years. Now, there's nothing wrong with that if you're happy with that, of course. Who am I to judge anybody else? However, one thing I noticed was even thought their ratings were within one class of each other, they had kind of a pecking order. Joe (not his real name) was at the top, with a rating of about 1350 or so, and he kind of talked down to the other players, even though they were within 50-100 ratings points of them. He didn't talk to the stronger players either. In any case, my point is people get comfortable with where they're at. If there's no need to get better (because you're the top of your food chain), then you won't (or at least you usually won't).

    And that's the first benefit of stronger competition - it gets you out of your comfort zone! For example, I used to play a lot of unsound gambits when I was lower rated. I can't blame the gambits, because some of them are played by much stronger competition, but the point was they would surprise my weaker competition and give me a false sense of confidence in my playing ability. As I started playing higher rated players, however, they would play the strongest defenses to my tricky openings and I was left wondering what to do. I ended up abandoning those openings, because I usually ended up a pawn down (my gambit pawn) with little compensation and then just getting ground down and losing a pawn down endgame or blundering.

    My lesson was that I needed to learn the different aspects of chess. I had been spending all my times learning all the tactical tricks in my openings in case my opponent played fell into my traps. It's just that the stronger players didn't fall into the traps! So I had to learn proper openings. I eventually found out that I could get exciting or at least fun positions starting from at least a level position. Also, I learned to use strategy and tactics in different types of positions for a more well balanced game.

    What I also found out from playing stronger competition is that often, they could give me advice about positions that were confusing to me. I would ask them what I could have played differently and better, and many of them would tell me what they would expect. Part of their generous attitude probably contributed to being stronger in the first place - they liked to analyze and talk about chess.


    Hikaru Nakamura has the Right Idea


    Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, the strongest player in the US and in the top ten in the world, has not played in the US Championship in a few years. His reason is that he only wants to play against the best competition in the world, such as World Champion Magnus Carlsen and other top players such as Levon Aronian and Former World Champ Vishy Anand. As much as US Chess Fans would love to see him play in the US Championships, I believe he is making the right move for his career.

    His goal - if I understand correctly from his interviews and articles about him - is to eventually compete for the World Championship. In order to do this, he has to play those who will push him and motivate him to become the best chess player in the world. He can't "waste" his time playing against the other top US players, because they simply aren't strong enough to push him.

    To use a non-chess example, I recently had knee surgery to repair a torn ACL and meniscus. I had to stay off my leg for two weeks before starting to put any weight on it. Amazingly, right before my eyes, my quadriceps and calf muscles atrophied to approximately 50% of their size. The change was quite dramatic, and being someone who was fairly active with martial arts and running, it was a little shocking. I found out the hard way that the body is very efficient at harnessing resources on what is needed most - and cutting off resources from what is not needed or being used.

    For Mr. Nakamura, his chess muscles need to be pushed constantly to continue to grow or to maintain his world-class strength. Even playing other grandmasters who are not in the upper echelon would be the chess equivalent of taking weight off your leg for two weeks.

    So Who Should You Play?


    Of course, since chess for most of us is a hobby, we should play who we want to, and I'm not proposing that you refuse to play anybody except better players. However, if you are trying to get better at chess, on average you should strive to play those who are slightly better than you, with the occasional game against those who are not as strong as you are.

    This is easy to do on chess servers such as the Internet Chess Club and Chess.com. You can set your rating parameters however you like. I usually play people up to about 50 ratings points below me and up to 200 points above me. That way, I know on average that I'll be playing people who are better than I am.

    Summary


    Playing stronger players will do several things for you. They will help you expose your weaknesses, which you can then work on improving. They will provide you with feedback, so you can start to think and play like the stronger players. Finally, they will push and motivate you to improve and reach their levels and higher. Do like Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura and only play competition that will help you become better. Of course, occasionally play those who are not as strong - chess is a game to be enjoyed after all - but maintain a diet of healthy competition and see your rating rise. As always, good luck and Better Chess!

    Wednesday, May 21, 2014

    How to Think in Chess: Better Chess Thinking 1

    Hi there!

    Do you sometimes get lost in a position?

    It's natural, and happens to all players, from beginners up to the World Champion. Of course, the stronger the player, the more capable he is of handling positions that are novel or confusing. They can do this because of experience in similar positions as well as being able to notice positional and tactical patterns even in positions they've never seen before.

    Adriaan de Groot, a Dutch chess master and psychologist, studied how players analyze positions, and did some very interesting experiments in the late 1930's. Chess master and coach Dan Heisman has incorporated some of this research into his own training for his students and has written an interesting article about it in his popular Novice Nook column on Chesscafe.com.

    In this article, he discusses how de Groot took players of all levels, including World Champion Max Euwe, and other top grandmasters at the time such as Reuben Fine and Paul Keres, and had them analyze specific positions. In analyzing the responses of the players, he observed that the top players followed a general thought process which I repeat here (the descriptions of each step in the process are mine):
    1. Orientation of the Possibilities: Getting the lay of the land, including positional and tactical possibilities such as king safety, pawn structure, open files and diagonals, the initiative, etc.
    2. Phase of Exploration: During this phase we take the elements we noticed in the first step and come up with possible moves and plans that can maximize the specific elements to our advantage. This is where we figure out our candidate moves and come up with preliminary plans.
    3. Phase of Investigation: Here, we take the plans and candidates and subject them to analysis, including calculating specific variations (especially forcing ones) and evaluate the positions that result from it.
    4. Striving for Proof: Finally, here we try to prove that the candidate we plan on making is actually better than the others. This is often a step that many beginners and intermediate players (myself included) skip. We often find a move that isn't a complete blunder and we make it.
    We will improve our thinking in chess if we try to incorporate these four steps into our games. There is much to be written about each of these phases and topics such as calculation, positional imbalances, evaluation, and books have been written about each of these topics. However, it's often good to experiment with the concepts and make our own conclusions. Also, it may be helpful to observe the thought process of stronger players.

    In this regard, I first recommend checking out Dan Heisman's book The Improving Chess Thinker: Revised and Expanded where he goes a lot more in depth with de Groot's exercises and you can read some of the answers from players of different strengths.

    Secondly, you can check out this video series I'm starting, where I take positions from master games, my games, and games from others and go through the thought process to try to find the best move. I can't guarantee that I'll always be right, but I want to demonstrate that by systematically analyzing your positions, you can gradually improve your decision making.

    Here is the first position that I used, taken from a game of my friend. It's Black to play:


    Take up to 20 minutes and try to see what you would play as Black. See if you can incorporate de Groot's thought process into your analysis. Then, watch the video to see how I did and the solution.





    A consistent thinking process is developed through practice and experience, as well as study of chess strategy, tactics, and positional play. However, having a template to start from is always helpful. There are many books that give various ways to think about chess, but often simple is the best. With de Groot's 4-step Thought Process, you have a simple method you can incorporate with your own methods, refining it as you develop as a player. Try it out, and let me know how it works for you.

    As always, I wish you the best of luck and Better Chess!


    Resources



    The Improving Chess Thinker: Revised and Expanded by Dan Heisman. A very interesting read and very insightful.

    Learning from Dr. de Groot by Dan Heisman. An archived article from the Novice Nook column on Chesscafe.com. (update 4/28/2016: Chesscafe.com is now a subscription website and access to this article is only for members only. However, if you happen to be a member or want to become one, this article is a good one)

    Monday, May 19, 2014

    4 Dimension Model of Learning Chess (and Anything Else)

    How do you know whether or not your chess study (or any other topic you learn) is going to be effective? 

    In today's post, I'm going to share with you a the 4 Dimension Model of Learning (or 4D for shot) that I developed so that you can use it to plan out and monitor your study sessions for maximum effectiveness. I will lay out each dimension briefly and expand on them in future posts and videos.


    Dimension 1: Relevance


    Is what your studying relevant to what you need now as a chess player? Will the material you are studying - book, video, web site - be useful for you in the future? An affirmative answer to both of these questions is critical in maximizing your study efficiency with the precious time you use towards your chess improvement.

    Selection is an important aspect of creating your chess study and training program. Check out this picture:











    You can optimize your chess improvement by studying things that are closer to the bullseye. As your knowledge increases, your target expands as you have to fill in gaps. For example, if you are rated below 1400 and you are losing to knight forks or giving up one or two-move checkmates, then understanding the intricacies of the 21st move of the King's Indian Defense will not help you as much as learning basic tactics. However, when you are rated 2100 and you regularly reach move 20 in the King's Indian Defense within theory, then knowing the 21st move is very relevant for you.

    So choose your study material wisely!

    Dimension 2: Engagement


    The more you engage the task at hand, the more you will understand and remember the material. When I teach classes to adult students, some of them sit there with a glassy look in their eyes particularly after a long day at work. Others will be leaning forward, watching intently, scribbling notes as I speak. Which one do you think will retain more of the information I'm teaching?

    There are many ways to increase engagement in your chess study. Here are a few:
    • Check yourself by asking - I do it out loud sometimes - do I understand this? If the answer ever comes back "no" you can decide what to do from there.
    • When studying master games, try to guess what the winner is going to play (while covering up the moves) - I call this Solitaire Chess and I think it's a great training method.
    • Ask yourself "what if" often and try to determine what would be the best line of play if something other than what the author wrote was played (e.g. in a chess book). 
    • When studying one of your own games or an unannotated master game, write in your own words what you think is going on. 
    • When watching chess videos, pause it often and think about what is going on and whether or not you agree with the presenter's opinion. 

    The bottom line is finding ways to think more about the material while your studying it will help you learn it better. Another way to put this is to be a more active learner vs. a passive learning. Years ago, I had a chess lesson with Grandmaster Gregory Serper. He told me that one of his assignments was to correct a collection of annotated games by Garry Kasparov - without the use of computer engines. He was given this assignment by Kasparov himself. Let's just say his level of engagement to complete his assignment was very high!

    Solving tactical problems is often very effective for quick improvement for beginning and intermediate students since by forcing the student to produce the solution, he is forced to engage the material at a very high level.

    Dimension 3: Challenging


    Like Goldilocks, the level of difficulty of the material you learn has to be just right.

    If the material is too hard, first off you won't learn anything. Second, you will just get frustrated and perhaps quit. Even if you do plow through and think you have it, it may not be applicable to your level of play.

    If the material is too easy, you will get easily bored and won't learn anything new. Unfortunately, this can also lead to overconfidence.

    Material is just right illicit the feelings of being challenged as well as stretching oneself to become better. This material should have elements of things already known material to build upon. At this level, you will often feel an A-HA! moment during your study session.

    This is also the reason that it is important that a majority of your opponent's should be within 50-100 rating points of your rating. Of course, it is good to play stronger players and occasionally to play weaker players, but you will learn best if your opponent's are just slightly stronger than you on average.

    Dimension 4: Time


    Chess author and coach Dan Heisman has stated that amateur players often lose not because of knowledge they didn't learn, but because they didn't apply it at the right time. Also, have you noticed that it's easier to play an opening after you've just studied it or played it recently than if you hadn't? Dimension 4 if focused on the effect that time has on our learning.

    After we learn something, we should review it - fairly frequently at first, and less often as time goes on and the material is more strongly connected in our brains. This type of learning is called Spaced Repetition Learning and I will be discussing it more in future posts because it is one of the cores behind my personal training program.

    Here's a picture to illustrate:


    Each upward spike represents someone learning or reviewing the material. After each presentation, the downward sloping line represents the forgetting that happens between presentations. As time goes on, forgetting slows and retention increases for each repetition. There are factors that effect this of course, including Dimensions 1, 2, and 3 as well as things like emotional state during learning, fatigue, and other factors.

    To maximize Dimension 4, we should have a regular routine of reviewing material we've learned in the past. You can use spreadsheets, calendars, and other tools to do so. There are also some commercial programs that use sophisticated algorithms to determine the optimum spacing (not too frequently or not too long between repetitions). I use this type of program - Supermemo - in my own training regimen.

    Summary


    I hope that you will use the 4 Dimensions of Learning in your own chess endeavors. I didn't create 4D to come up with a new theory of learning. Instead, I needed a practical way to know whether I was getting the most out of my chess study. I checked that the material I was studying was relevant and challenging, I monitored myself while studying to make sure I was engaged in the material, and I put the material through systematic review over time to make sure I retained it and could apply it. I wish you success in using it as well. As always, I wish you the best of luck, and of course Better Chess!

    Resources


    The 4D Model of Learning is not a sophisticated model based on some academic theory. It is simply a result of asking myself what elements need to be in place for learning to be most effective. I have been influenced by several books and authors, including:

    Supermemo: Based on Dr. Piotr Wozniak's research on memory, it is a program that helps space out learning repetitions for items of learning. This site includes some of the research behind spaced repetition. I will be doing some tutorial videos on how I use Supermemo in my training.

    Brain Rules by John Medina. This book has a lot of neat information on how our brains work and the types of things we should do to maximize our brain's performance and memory.

    The Talent Code: by Daniel Coyle. This book discusses (although he doesn't use this term) the concept of engagement in one's training. He looks at it from the viewpoint of world class athletes, musicians, and authors, but it's very interesting and relevant to chess as well.

    Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoffrey Colvin. This is one of my favorite books that I have read through several times. In it is he describes Deliberate Practice, a process by which someone gets better than something. If you do read it, notice the similarities of the first 3 Dimensions. I will be also doing some posts describing Deliberate Practice and how it can be applied to chess training.