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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Better Chess Training News

It's been a long time coming, but I'm in the process of moving the site to a new platform and server.

Because of this, I won't be adding any new articles for a few weeks while the new site is being designed and built. There's a bit of work to do, so I don't have an exact date.

However, I will still be writing occasionally for the Chess Improver site, so make sure to keep an eye out for my articles there!

Update 1/27/2017

Hi everyone! I'll be writing here again on Fridays.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Four Ways to Improve Your Chess That Require No Talent

Talent is Overrated


I have over the years run into chess players who talk about how they don't have enough "talent" to reach certain skill levels. Although this may be true, as I am not disregarding that we all may have natural limitations to our chess ability, I think that it can be something of an excuse as well.

When we think of our limits instead of our potential, we don't work as hard as we might. If you thought that the best you could achieve is an A Class (1800-2000) rating, then would you put the extra effort trying to break through to the Expert level?

The truth is that even master strength coaches do not always have a true grasp of what an individual player's potential may be. I think chess is too complicated of a game with too many individual factors to be able to measure the potential of a player (in the long run).

With all of this being said, I think you should strive as high as your aspirations (and resources) allow you to strive. To help you along the way, here is a list of things you can do to improve your chess that have absolutely nothing to do with your chess "talent."

Play Tough Competition


As I wrote in Who You Should Play to Improve Your Chess? the level of competition you face is very important to improving. You want on average to face players who are slightly stronger than you. 

It is good to occasionally play opponents who are weaker than you, so you can exploit their mistakes and demonstrate your winning technique. However, more often it is essential to play people who will exploit your mistakes and expose your weaknesses so you can go about improving them.

This is the reason many chess coaches suggest playing a rating class above your rating so you will face tough competition. 

This is also easy to do online such as on ICC or Chess.com. You can just set your rating window to only face opponents with ratings between -25 and +200 (for example). Play stronger players, and soon you will get stronger.

Focus Your Attention


In over-the-board tournaments, how often do you see players away from their board during their opponent's turn? Now, I'm not saying the occasional stroll around the tournament hall to catch a breather or see what the top boards are playing is a bad thing. However, all too often, I think players underutilize their time.

I remember once during a tournament my opponent itching to get out of his seat to take a stroll but I kept playing my move before he could. I had to be careful, because I almost starting moving faster just to frustrate his efforts to leave his seat.

The same is true for online play. How often do you click away from your game to check Facebook or to play a video on Youtube? 

Your time during your opponent's turn can be used to do many things, including:
  • Studying the imbalances of the position from a general point of view.
  • Considering the time control and planning out how much time you should use on your subsequent moves.
  • Reassessing your game plan.
  • Taking a breather to calm your emotions in a tense position.
Learn to increase your attention to the game and use your time more effectively. Here's a few ideas.
  • Increase the "on-task" time of your study sessions. For example, if you study tactics on a chess server like Chess Tempo, increase the times of sessions incrementally.
  • Take up a practice like breath awareness meditation, where you learn to bring your attention back to your breath. One site I use is Headspace.com.
  • Keep physically fit. Better health increases attention.
  • Make sure you are sleeping enough. Fatigue limits your attention.

Keep a Positive Attitude


Sometimes, we get disappointed about our chess results or our progress. Keeping a positive attitude about our play and our potential is essential to keep consistent with our training. Although this advice may seem a little esoteric, it is a technique that professional athletes of all kinds utilize to maximize their performance. 

Being positive is not the same is having an unrealistic fantasy of our chess potential. In fact, having a positive attitude allows you to actually see the reality of your chess situation.

For example, instead of thinking "I stink at chess endings" you might adopt the belief of "I can improve at the endgame which will improve my overall results." The attitude is positive and focused on the action required to solve the problem.

To improve your attitude, I recommend looking up my friend Greg Liberto who works with professional golfers. He has a lot of free information on the topic. I also enjoy the books of sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella. 

Being Consistent


I think one of the reasons I have not progressed as much as I would like in my own chess journey is a lack of consistency. I'm guessing some of you may be in a similar situation.

It is true that work, children, and other responsibilities often predominate our lives. However, I think it is possible to develop a consistent routine with some organization and accountability.

Think of chess improvement this way. For every hour you study or practice chess, you receive 5 units of chess strength. You can study for three hours once every three days, earning 15 units of chess strength. However, let's say you lose a point of chess strength for every day you do not study or train. You can equate this to forgetting or getting "rusty." So if you only train every third day, you gain 15 units of chess strength, but you lose two points on the two days you don't train.

Compare this to doing a single hour every day. You gain 5 points of strength, and you don't lose any points, giving you 15 points of strength increase. Perhaps not an accurate model of how this works, but I think you get the point.

Getting consistent can be as simple as developing the habit of doing a certain amount of training at a certain time every day. James Clear illustrates the importance of consistency in The Difference Between Professionals and Amateurs  and I recommend his writing if you want to improve your habits and life in general.

Conclusion


This list can go on and on, but I think these four will give you a great start. Talent for chess exists I'm sure. However, thinking about your chess potential in anything but a positive light can be an unhealthy thing for many amateur players. 

Instead, I think you should focus on things you have control over, including your attitude and your chess habits. Doing so will do more than worrying about what level of chess you can ultimately achieve.






Friday, September 9, 2016

Chess Advice to My Younger Self (Part 2)

In our last article, we discussed advice I would have given myself when I was younger. We covered the periods when I was in the Class E and Class D ratings sections. In this article, I continue my journey through my progression with more advice to my younger self.

Class C (USCF 1400-1600)


During this period, I was very active in chess. I lived in Rochester, New York at the time, where the Rochester Chess Center and Community Chess Club of Rochester are located. This gave me weekly opportunities to play against good competition. As mentioned in my last article, this is a key to development. I spent about a year at this rating, before breaking the 1600 barrier.

The following game was illustrative of my skills and typical difficulties. On the plus side, I was pretty good at offensive tactical vision - I could spot two or three move combinations fairly well. Also, I had a sense of what a good opening structure was supposed to look like, so I could hold my own in the opening phase. You'll see both of these points at work in this game.

However, I had difficulty coming up with deep middlegame plans. Once I was done making the "obvious" moves - e.g. grabbing an open file or making exchanges that would give my opponent a pawn weakness such as doubled pawns - I often had difficulty coming up with what to do next.

This also led me to difficulty when I had a winning position. I used my tactical ability to get an edge, but once I had it, I often fumbled trying to convert the victory. One of the things I had difficulty with at the time was understanding the importance of piece activity and counterplay. So although I had a material advantage on the board, I worked on maintaining that advantage without progressing the position towards a victory.


So what advice would I give myself? Here's a list:

  • Continue to work on tactics. However, besides working on offensive tactics only, I would also work on spotting tactics defensively. My article, Building Your Tactical Shield, discusses this topic at length.
  • Study annotated games of positional masters such as Botvinnik, Capablanca, and Karpov. The games of these World Champions are a treasure trove for learning how to plan and positional play. Check out my article on instructive game collections for book suggestions.
  • Play out winning positions against your friends or the computer. These can come from your games or from other games you may see and study. Besides playing the games, focus on what your plan to convert a winning position into an actual victory!

Class B (USCF 1600-1800)


I spent a lot of time at this class. For one thing, I had finished college and graduate school and was working full time, which meant much less study time. I was still competing fairly regularly for a few years until I had children. During this time, I rose from 1600 to about 1780 over a two year span.

The following game was a memorable one, but also one indicative of some of my challenges at the time. I felt I played decent chess often, but great chess only sparingly and bad chess a little too often. It was a question of consistency.

I attribute the inconsistency in my play to a few things. First, I think I was a little cocky. During this time, I had held my own on occasion against expert and master level players. Because of this, I think I felt that my lack of improvement was due to having responsibilities in life.

Although that may have been partially true, reflection from 10 years later provide a little more insight. I don't think I built my foundation enough. I had read a lot of books up to this point, but there were a lot of holes in my understanding. As I write in my article series of steps to mastery, I should have spent more time going back to the basics of studying master games.

At this point, I was mainly analyzing my games and looking up games in my opening repertoire. I was doing some tactical training as well during this period, but only cursory study of the endgame. Also, besides playing blitz and standard games online, I was not doing any analytical "training" like Solitaire Chess.

I did a few things right, which helped me progress from the 1400's to the 1700's over two or three years. First, I played often against good competition. This cannot be underestimated. As I've found as well as observed in conversations with stronger players than myself, regular competition is important. Our chess knowledge may be embedded in our minds, but our skills including calculation and evaluation need to be practiced to maintain and improve.

Second, I was going over my losses and improving - although mainly in the opening stages. This is important and as I mentioned previously, analyzing your own games is very important. One mistake I made however was relying too much on chess engine analysis and less on my own efforts. Indeed, the chess engines helped me find better moves, but it didn't help me improve my thought process or my own personal analytical skills.

Finally, the major thing that helped me was working with several coaches - admittedly off and on - for those several years. They helped note a few flaws in my play and thinking. If I had the financial and time to engage a chess coach more consistently, I really believe I would have progressed even more. I will definitely write more on the value of a chess coach in the future.


I think this game woke me up in the tournament. After this, I won my final four games to finish second - although I won the first place prize because my opponent was unrated and not eligible to win the first prize.

Here is the advice I would have given my Class B self:

  • Continue (or restart) devouring master games. Combine faster study of games with more in-depth analysis to aid in understanding.
  • Do analytical training exercises to practice thought process and analytical skills. Solitaire Chess is a fun and effective way to do this.
  • Work on your thought process! Refine your process and practice it with long time-control games and training drills.
  • Make a systematic study of the endgame. As mentioned in my interview with Nigel Davies, endgame study is very effective. I did it haphazardly at the time, and I believe if I had been more organized, I would have progressed much faster.
  • Spend a lot more time analyzing without the use of a chess engine. I really believe that using the chess engines at the lower levels can be very detrimental. I think they are very helpful to correct analytical errors, but can also hinder our own analytical development.

Conclusion



I hope you found this article helpful and interesting. I enjoyed this journey down memory lane. As I progress in my own chess skills, I hope to write the Class A (and eventually the Expert) versions in the coming years.

As always, I wish you good luck and Better Chess!

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!


Your Turn

If you liked this article, be sure to check out Part 2, where I give advice to my Class C and Class B former self. Also, please share this article with your other chess friends!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Improving Your Chess with Deep Work

Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.
--Cal Newport
Our society is increasingly becoming one of short attention spans and distractions. Much of this has to do with the internet and the prevalence of distractions such as social media, smartphones, instant messaging, and other "tools" which can be used productively, but often are used to direct our focus and keep our brains "entertained" instead of actually helping us to be productive.

In chess - or at least in my own training - I find we have similar distractions. Between reading the tweets of chess grandmasters to playing a few dozen blitz or bullet games on the internet, I often find myself distracted from doing the very things that can actually help me improve in chess.

After a long day at work and then spending time with my wife and children, it is very tempting to watch the video recap of recent chess tournament commentary or some blitz commentary on Youtube instead of analyzing one of my recent losses.

Do you find this in your own life?

On the long flight to and from the Philippines - with a total of over 30 hours in the airplane - I had the opportunity to read an insightful book by Cal Newport called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. In this book, Newport - a computer science professor at Georgetown University among other things - discussed the issues underlying the statements I made above.

The premise of his book is that in a world where people have less ability to focus and produce value, those who are able to should be able to thrive, as there will be less competition. The book then lays out a few rules and guidelines on how to go about developing this ability.

There were several applications to chess, which is what we will discuss in this article.

What is Deep Work


Cal Newport defines Deep Work as the following:
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Mr. Newport is mainly referring to knowledge workers who make their living producing, calculating, or doing this with information that can't easily be done by a computer. He gives examples such as producing computer code, writing books and articles, or creating art such as music or painting. I think studying and training in chess are similar. 

By including "hard to replicate" in the definition, he is referring to activities that require training or education. For example, teaching someone to check answers on a multiple choice test does not require much training or skill. However, interpreting and editing mathematical proofs or long form written prose require much training, skill, and experience to do well. 

Here are some chess examples of what I would consider Deep Chess Work:
  • Playing Solitaire Chess for an hour or two then following up with an hour of analyzing your results.
  • Doing standard tactics on Chess Tempo for an hour or 90 minutes without distraction.
  • Playing long time control games against the appropriate competition.
  • Analyzing without the use of computer chess engine assistance - particularly with complicated positions.
The keys to these activities is actively stretching one's limits as well as doing it for an extended period of time. This type of work is arduous when you put your mind into it, and many casual players often avoid this type of work. However, those who do these things will benefit greatly.

Specifically, I have found the following benefits from increasing the depth of my chess study and training.

  • Ability to assess and analyze positions deeper and more accurately. I think part of this is the patience developed by practicing it during my tactics and analysis sessions.
  • Increased tactical vigilance - in my calculations, I find that I am able to see threats several moves further than before.
  • Improved mental endurance during long time control games. Again, I think having longer study sessions - e.g. 90 minutes to two hours - have helped me to focus for longer.

The Shallows


Mr. Newport defines Shallow Work as:
Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Now, he does go into detail in the book that not all "shallow" work is bad, and in fact some is necessary in many jobs. For example, if you are a customer service representative, your work is critical for the success of your company, but it isn't necessarily cognitively demanding and can often be done with Facebook or Twitter in the background. This isn't meant to be demeaning, but instead as an example to differentiate between deep and shallow work.

In chess, I think we also have many activities that can be defined as shallow work. Some of it, we have to do and indeed I think some of the activities can be used in conjunction with the type of deep work activities I mentioned above. 

Here are some examples of "productive" shallow chess activities:
  • Looking up your openings in opening manuals.
  • Repeating your opening lines for memorization (within moderation)
  • Checking your analysis with chess engines.
  • Post-mortem discussion of your games (which can become deep work depending on how intense your analysis is with your opponent/partners)
  • Studying chess books (which again can become deep work depending on focus and attention)
  • Organizing your chess databases.
All of the activities in the above list cannot be categorized as Deep Work because they don't push your cognitive limits and do not require your unique abilities to complete. However, these activities are beneficial as they help to increase your knowledge and are often needed to help consolidate and organize the work that was done in the Deep Chess Work listed above.

Here are some examples of "non-productive" shallow chess work:
  • Excessive Blitz and Bullet games
  • Watching excessive chess videos
  • Playing online chess while flipping over to Youtube, Facebook, or Netflix (I've been guilty of all three)
  • "Casual" chess engine analysis (where no effort is made to understand the position on your own)
Regarding the last list, all of these activities can have some value, but they don't necessarily stretch the limits of your capabilities and are often done for entertainment and distraction rather than for improvement. 

Chess is meant to be enjoyed, so I'm not telling you to avoid all the "shallows" totally. However, only you can determine whether or not your time spent in the shallows might be better allocated - at least partially - towards Deep Chess Work.

Practical Suggestions


I'm like many of you. I have a full time career, children, and other responsibilities. So being able to piece together a couple hours here and there to train and study is often difficult. However, I believe that increasing the amount of deep chess work in your training will yield great dividends over time. 

Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
  • Track the amount of deep work you currently do to get a baseline. Check out my article on measuring your chess for some guidelines on doing this.
  • Schedule your deep chess work. For example, three days a week I get up an hour early to get some training in before my children get up.
  • Reduce your shallow work such as blitz games and videos. Replace those sessions with deeper work.
  • Work with training partners who will keep you accountable. For example, I have a partner whom I send my annotated games to. He doesn't have to study my games - but he knows to expect them and it adds some positive pressure to analyze my games.
  • Reduce other distractions such as social media while you're doing chess work on the computer. When I first tried doing this, I found it difficult not to click open Facebook while doing some analysis.
  • Commit to analyzing withoutchess engine assistance for a set time (and use a timer). For example, analyze your own game for an hour before checking your variations with the engine.
  • Occasionally have a long training or study session lasting say two hours. This can include long time control games if you do not play them very often.

Resources


Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. This book is very interesting and a fairly quick read. I highly recommend it.

Interview with Cal Newport on the Psychology Podcast. An interesting discussion that compares Deep Work to concepts like deliberate practice and flow.

Conclusion


Let's face it, chess is getting faster and our attention spans are getting shorter. The volume of chess videos (which can be beneficial) and blitz and bullet chess (which can also have some value) have overshadowed deep work. This is exacerbated (at least for adult chess players) by responsibilities of work and family which prevent us both logistically and in terms of energy to pursue hard deep chess work. 

However, if we can create a few habits and seek out opportunities to increase the moments of deep chess work, I believe our skill and knowledge will benefit greatly.

Go deep and play better chess!

Your Turn


What type of deep chess activities do you enjoy? Share it in the comments!

Friday, August 12, 2016

Innovation: The Third Stage to Mastering Chess

Insight into Wisdom

In some ways a genius is nothing more than a person who is unwilling to quit when he is discouraged by frequent failures and unwilling to settle when he is universally affirmed.  
--Michael Minkoff 
It is with some difficulty that I write this final installment of the stages toward mastery. In the first stage, Imitation, we accumulate knowledge. In the second stage, Integration, this knowledge coalesces into a personal worldview - in this case, of chess.

In this final stage, we understand the knowledge and concepts of the first two stages at such a level, that we can combine and create them into something new. This is the stage of Innovation.

I don't consider myself to have reached this stage, so I am pleased to supplement my thoughts with a few generous insights provided for this article from friend and grandmaster Nigel Davies of tigerchess.com. (You can also read an interesting interview I conducted with him).

Redefining Genius

Artist: Jeremy Adams
Part of progressing toward the Innovation stage is realizing that it isn't something mystical that you are born with. It would be naive to underestimate or ignore the role that innate talent or ability may play in the development of skill in any art including chess, However, we must also appreciate the role that consistent and prolonged effort play toward our improvement.

In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoffrey Colvin asserts that it is the immense amount of deliberate practice conducted over years that creates world-class levels of skill. Colvin cites the story of the Polgar sisters (well known to us chess fans), and how their father developed methods of training for them which took all of them to high levels of chess proficiency - in particular Judit, who had spent many years as one of the top then players in the world.

In the article that inspired this series, author Michael Minkoff discusses this interaction between innate talent and work fairly clearly:

Genius is both innate and learned. If Mozart had not been a “performing monkey” in his very early toddler years, he would not have had the skills necessary to execute his genius. It is hard to say whether his genius already existed in his younger years, simply because at that time it evidenced itself as a proclivity, not an already-established body of new ideas.
I think many people (chess player or not) thinks that mastery is something your born with, not something you can create. However, examples such as Mozart - whose father was a professional musician who drove him to practice and perform from a very young age - or the Polgar sisters - whose father also drove them to work hard towards learning chess from a young age - demonstrate that it takes not only talent but also hard focused work to create "genius" level skill.

Innovation is not necessarily a statethat one reaches after crossing some mythical threshold. Perhaps it is a culmination of accumulated knowledge and skills accumulated over time - e.g. passing through the Imitation and Integration stages.

I asked Nigel about any specific processes that he used to reach his level of mastery of chess. His response helps to illustrate the importance of this attainment of knowledge and subsequent understanding:

Overall I'd say it was a cumulative process over many years. But one thing I did that I think helped me a lot was just to play around with certain ideas on a pocket set. It wasn't so much formal study as experimentation.
He brings up another very good point here, in that besides a lot of study and hard work, Innovation requires independent thinking and experimentation - which means putting your own thoughts and ideas on the line.

Independent Thinking and Experimentation


A key ingredient to reaching the stage is the be able to think independently as well as experiment. In a previous interview with me, National Master Jim West who attributes his progress from expert level to master level on his ability to think independently.

Although one of the premises of this article is that Innovation builds upon the knowledge and experience accumulated during the Imitation and Innovation stages, thinking critically and experimenting can start early in development, as GM Davies shared with me:
For me thinking up my own ideas has been an essential part of the development process. Actually I did it from very early on, though my first experiments just weren't very good.

Of course, experimentation often works best when you are grounded in the foundations of the art. As mentioned in the previous installments, both for visual artists such as painters as well as chess players, having studied the classic masters for both arts are critical stepping stones for future mastery.

A characteristic of masters (and future masters) to apply independent thinking and experimentation is the ability to endure failure. This takes humility as well as courage.

Compelling Incentive


Pushing oneself toward mastery take a lot of hard work as well as the courage and humility to experiment despite potential failure. One other element that it takes is the motivation and determination to push past obstacles and not quit.

For chess players, there are many motivations. For some, it is the satisfaction derived from creating something aesthetically pleasing. For others, it is a competition and they want to see how far up the ladder they can climb. And maybe for some like myself, it is a path towards self-awareness and personal development. Understanding your "Why" is just as important as the "How" and the "What" of becoming a chess master.

In several books, including Unlimited ChallengeFormer World Champion Garry Kasparov talks about the "need" for Anatoly Karpov in reaching his greatest creative levels. Without someone on Karpov's level to push him to his limits, he would not be able to have achieved what he did. Indeed, he lamented that it was a shame that Fischer never faced Karpov in a World Championship match, as he postulated that it would have pushed Fischer's own creative production to an even higher peak.

This is one reason why it is important to play stronger players than yourself. I have written about this elsewhere (and I dedicated an article to it). This would include playing in higher sections at tournaments as well as seeking out competitive situations that will stretch your limits.

"Getting There"


One thing I noticed when discussing this issue with GM Davies as well as studying the process and acquisition of mastery in general is that those who reach it understand that they are at a certain level, but most continue to strive for more. 

In fact, when I first approached Nigel with the concept of innovation and mastery, he noted that it felt it would be difficult for him and other masters to answer some of these questions, because for him it appears to be a constant journey. 

I asked him what it felt like to be at a level of mastery:

I feel it now sometimes, when I'm analyzing with other people and we both know that I'm operating on a higher level to them. There again players stronger than myself make me feel as if I'm working things out too slowly.
This response belied both an acknowledgement of reaching a certain level, but also a recognition that perhaps it was a continuum. Knowing Nigel, there is also a sense of humility in his response, as I have found with many of the highest performers in many fields.

Nigel generously shared a game in which he felt a sense of mastery. The overall sense for me was that of GM Davies calmly placing his pieces where they need to be at the appropriate moment, responding to the threats of his opponent (himself a FIDE master) without undue haste or force. There is a sense of ease as the wave of aggression from Black dissipates, leaving him lost and surrendering as White's own counter-wave is about to rise.

The comments to the game are from GM Davies, with the exception of one observation of mine indicated towards the end of the game.



Unending Journey


As we come upon the conclusion of the current discussion, I hope you have noted that the Innovation stage and the "attainment" of mastery isn't a single destination, like landing at a destination after a long flight. Instead, it is like a point on a long journey.

Indeed, from observing masters in chess and other fields like art, sports, and business, I notice masters or high level performers always going back to early stages of development. Chess masters continually seek out new ideas not only on their own, but by studying the games of other players. As mentioned before, they do not let their ego stop them from using an idea that was discovered by someone else.

As the master continually jumps back to the Imitation and Integration stages, this provides them with a broader and deeper understanding from which to continue to Innovate. 

We as humble non-masters, should seek to imitate their example.

Conclusion


I hope you found our discussion on the process of mastery both enjoyable and useful. To conclude our conversation, I wanted to give you a few takeaways from this article as well as a final clarification on the Innovation stage of the process of becoming a master.

Some practical advice:

  • When your own curiosity leads you to question the opinion of authority, pursue your curiosity. Whether your research ends in a new discovery or in confirmation of the previous view, it will be profitable for your development.
  • Learn to embrace failure and set-backs in your training and development as a necessary part of progress.
  • Don't worry about what you perceive to be your "potential" or "talent" - study and train as if you had no limits - don't give up!
  • Seek out challenges that will drive you to work hard and expand your horizons - occasionally play up a class in tournaments or seek higher rated players when playing on the internet.
  • Recognize that mastery is not a destination, but a journey. Be patient with yourself and strive to make continual progress on a daily and weekly basis. 
Finally, I wanted to make a clarification. Innovating is not just about coming up with theoretical novelties or new systems of thought to chess. It's about insight which can be used to meet the needs with the tools and constraints that one has. For an artist or writer, it is about meeting the needs of one's audience using the tools of medium (for visual artists) and words (for writers). 

For the chess player, it is using the 64 squares and pieces and pawns on the board to meet the needs of a particular position. Sometimes it requires a new treatment - resulting in a theoretical novelty - while sometimes the tried and true really is the best method. It takes the knowledge and experience as well as the courage and humility to understand the difference. This is mastery.

To conclude I share Minkoff's words:
To summarize, the spirit of imitation pursues how. The spirit of integration pursues why. The spirit of innovation pursues what, when, and where.

Your Turn


Did you find this article helpful? Tell me where you think you are in this process and tell me what you are up to. Also, if you enjoyed this article, please share it.

Until next time, good luck and Better Chess.





Friday, July 29, 2016

The Most Instructive Annotated Chess Game Collections

Not All Games Collections Are Created Equal

Chess books should be used as we use glasses: to assist
the sight, although some players make use of them as if
they thought they conferred sight."

-Jose Raul Capablanca
As I and others have written, studying annotated master games is a very helpful way to improve at chess. In this article, I will be presenting what I believe are the most instructive collections of annotated games. If you could only buy a limited number of chess books, this is the list I would start with if you want to improve your chess.

There are many good collections of chess games. However, I focused on the following characteristics when making my selections:

  • The annotatations should be instructive. Certain annotations, such as long complex variations, may be useful for very strong players, but they are not necessarily meant to "teach." So many of the books listed include more instructive prose. For this reason, books such as Mikhail Tal's Life & Games of Mikhail Tal, which definitely should be in your collection, do not make this list.
  • The collections should be fairly diverse. For this list, I focused on collections that are generally diverse in nature. For example, they cover different openings, players, and phases of the game. So I've excluded excellent books such as Bobby Fischer's My 60 Memorable Games. Similarly, 
  • The quality of the games should be fairly high. You should be studying games where the winner of the game plays a fairly solid game with relatively few errors. Now, in some of the collections that contain early games, one may criticize the opening theory, but in general, principles that are explained in the game should be sound.
Okay, let's get on to the list! I have arranged the list as a progression in the order I believe they should be read.

Logical Chess Move by Move

Author: Irving Chernev

This was one of my first chess books and remains my highest recommendation for new and beginning chess players. What Chernev does very well at this level is explain what a master is thinking about when he looks at a position.

Concepts like development, weak squares, outposts, attacking the king, and pawn breaks are explained in context of beautiful and well-played games by some of the greatest early masters like Capablanca, Morphy, and Rubinstein.

Every move is annotated, and although sometimes it gets a little repetitive especially with simple recaptures and in the opening, at the beginning levels, I think this is very important. Things that seem mundane for intermediate and advanced players isn't so for beginners. I recommend this to any player rated below USCF 1400, but I think all players would benefit and enjoy the games within this book because of their beauty and instructive value.

I believe Logical Chess Move by Move belongs on everyone's chess bookshelf.


Winning Chess Brilliances


Author: Yasser Seirawan

While Logical Chess Move by Move contained earlier games, Winning Chess Brilliancies covers games from the 1970's to the 1990's. This makes sense, as this starts when GM Yasser Seirawan first started playing chess (in the 1970's) to when he was near his peak (in the 1990's).

This is most fortunate for us, because this time period also contained some true chess titans, including Bobby Fischer, Anatoly Karpov, and Garry Kasparov - all of whom have games featured in book.

This book contains twelve games, but they are perhaps among the greatest games every played. For example, Mr. Seirawan's coverage of Bobby Fischer's masterpiece against Boris Spassky in the 6th game of the 1972 World Championship match (which was mentioned in my interview with National Master Jim West) is worth the price of the whole book.

Besides the wonderful games, the value of this book is Yasser Seirawan's annotations. One of the great marks of someone who truly understands chess is the ability to explain the intricacies in a way that a novice can understand while still being valuable to an expert. Yasser is a master communicator. Studying his annotations, analysis, and stories will not only make you a better player, but also inspire you to seek chess mastery, if only to have a glimpse of seeing the game the way someone like GM Seirawan does.

Get this book. Thank me later.


The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played



Author: Irving Chernev

In The Most Instructive Games Every Played, Chernev focuses on high quality games that illustrate a positional theme. For example, the first game features rooks on the seventh rank (Capablanca-Tartakower, New York 1924) while the third game features the knight outpost on d5 (Boleslavsky-Lissitzin 1956).

Unlike Logical Chess Move by Move, this move does not have annotations for every single move. However, Chernev focuses on explaining important points relevant to the positional aspects he is illustrating. Although I recommend getting a positional handbook like How to Reassess Your Chess (which breaks down , seeing the strategy in the context of a whole game is very instructive. You can see how the opening moves set up the strategy in the middlegame and endgame.

Chernev also points out potential tactical missteps that players could make, which was important to me when I studied this, because I would think "what if I try to do this." Chernev often would have a variation to explain why this wouldn't be a good move. He doesn't analyze every move, but I was surprised how often he seemed to know what I was thinking.

I think this is a valuable book for players under USCF 1600, although I would definitely read Logical Chess first if you haven't done so. Besides the instructive games, again it is Chernev's passion and love for the game that shows through his writing that justifies inclusion on this list.

Best Lessons of a Chess Coach

Author: Sunil Weermantry

Although this is not a "move-by-move" book, I think its style inspired many of Everyman's Move-by-Move series. FIDE Master Weermantry (who also happens to be the stepfather of GM Hikaru Nakamura) takes you under his wing and teaches you, asks you questions, and provides supplementary material in ten beautiful and instructive games.

Like The Most Instructive Games Ever Played, Weermantry has a primary positional theme that he is illustrating. However, through the course of the game, there is much description and instruction of the opening phase, tactics, attack, defense, and many more points in addition to the primary theme of the lesson.

Besides the ten primary games, Mr. Weermantry gives many supplementary games illustrating the lessons as well as quizzes and exercises throughout. It is as if you are sitting in his chess class, with homework to reinforce his lessons.

Although Best Lessons of a Chess Coach is accessible to beginners, I think it is best read after studying the first three books in this list - at the very least after having read Logical Chess Move by Move. I would recommend this to players with ratings between USCF 1200 to Expert.


Understanding Chess Move by Move


Author: John Nunn

Recognizing the need for a more modern treatment of the move-by-move instructional concept, GM John Nunn provided the gold standard for instructional annotation in Understanding Chess Move by Move.

John Nunn balances prose and analysis at appropriate moments. He chooses high level encounters, so often there are a lot of sharp positions which require alternative variations to understand the quality of the move actually chosen during the game.

One thing that this book does moreso is explain some of the theory and the reasoning behind it. This is important because at the stage that this book is most suited for - high intermediate to advanced players - specific opening theory will be more important to learn.

One thing John Nunn mentions in his introduction which I found interesting is that this book doesn't "replace" older books such as Chernev's Logical Chess but instead updates it. I think it is good to note that you shouldn't skip the other books and just read this one, but instead build upon the others with this one.

Finally, this book does a great job of covering diverse openings and topics, including openings principles, strategy, tactics, attack, defense, and the endgame. His choice of games is excellent for both quality and soundness as well as the effectiveness of the games illustrating specific elements of chess.

If you made it through the first four books with earnest study, you will have learned a lot about chess, and this book will help complete your "basic" training. I recommend this book for players above USCF 1700.


Other Good Books

Here are a couple other games collections books that just didn't quite fit but I think are quite good as well.
  • Chess The Art of Logical Thinking by Neil McDonald. This book is kind of in between Chernev and Nunn, but I didn't quite find the annotations as good as either. However, the selection of games is good and I almost included this in the main list. Worth checking out if you enjoy games collections.
  • Books in Everyman's Move-by-Move series (by various authors). I haven't read many of these books, but I've browsed a few and talked to friends about them. I think the quality of the books are independent of each other, and I've heard good and bad things about individual titles. 
  • Zurich International Chess Tournament by David Bronstein. This is a classic book, and many a master have put it in their top book lists.
  • Modern Chess Move by Move by Colin Crouch. A decent book with some great chess clashes, but I felt it relied a little too much on presenting many variations without as much prose as I would have liked.
  • 50 Essential Chess Lessons by Steve Giddens. Each lesson is a master game. The games range from 1935 to 2005. I thought Mr. Giddens' annotations were very good.

Conclusion

When I decided on this list, I really wanted to pick the best books for you to study. Books that I had personally learned a lot from, but also that I think if read as a progression, a player can really get a firm grasp of the game of chess. 

After reading these books, plus a few specific books on strategy, tactics, and the endgame (check out my list of books for beginners), I believe you can start to focus your study on your specific openings through good books and videos. Until next time, good luck and better chess.

Your Turn

Is there a book you would have put on this list? Do you disagree with any of my picks? Let me know and please share this article with your chess friends.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Integration: The Second Stage to Mastering Chess

Integrating Our Knowledge



Last week, I discussed the three stages toward mastering an art such as chess. These three stages are:
  • Imitation
  • Integration
  • Innovation
We focused on the Imitation Stage last week. That stage involves studying the moves and games of the great masters of the past and present in order to develop a base of knowledge. 

If a player does this enough, eventually things will start to click. He will start playing moves that were once hard to find but now seem obvious. He will think thoughts such as "Why didn't I see this before?" 

Before I delve into how to move into the Integration stage, it is important to remember and accept that we must go through the Imitation stage before getting to the Integration stage. There are no shortcuts! So if you haven't read my article on Imitation, do so now!

Characteristics of the Integration Stage

"When I was eleven, I just got good."
-Bobby Fischer

There isn't always a clear demarcation between the Imitation Stage and the Integration Stage. As I mentioned in the last article, often times you will be at various stages with various aspects of chess. Often, things just seem to "click" as they did for the eleven-year-old Bobby Fischer.

In my own progress from the Imitation to the Integration Stage, I noticed a few key breakthroughs in understanding I made along the way. Below are a few examples.

Understanding the Tradeoffs between Material and Other Imbalances

Most players when they start out are very concerned about material. Indeed, it is a very important aspect of chess. However, as Jeremy Silman explains eloquently in How to Reassess Your Chess, it is but one of several imbalances.

I think all players at some level understand that we should try to improve our position while preventing our opponent from improving theirs. However, for a long time, I (and I believe many players) are essentially materialists - or kinghunters.

I think a significant move from Imitation to Integration occurred when I truly understood when and why other imbalances outweighed material (other than a sacrifice to force mate).

Some examples of this include:

  • Sacrificing the exchange in order to get control over key squares. 
Here's an example that impressed me.


  • Sacrificing a pawn to clear a square or line.
  • Foregoing a material gain in order to maintain the intiative. 
Here is a famous example of declining to win material for a greater positional advantage.


    In short, you begin to understand "Why" as well as "How" good moves are made in chess. Integration happens when the many various pieces of knowledge that you learn during the Imitation stage start to come together - hence "integration."

    Getting Past the Positional "Shiny and New"

    Reading How to Reassess Your Chess and Sunil Weermantry's Best Lessons of a Chess Coach opened a whole new world for me. Positional play started to give me some direction in what types of moves to make. However, because I didn't have a minimum level of integration, each new positional element I discovered was like a hammer and every chess position looked like a nail.

    The following game excerpt from Best Lessons of a Chess Coach among other things introduced me to the concept of the knight outpost.



    After this game, I played a friendly game with a friend. Jeremy Silman wrote in How to Reassess Your Chess that an advanced outpost was so important that it was worth a few moves or even a pawn to create one. So I spent five or six moves creating an outpost for my knight on my opponent's queenside. I was so proud of my achievement!

    However, the knight was so far from the action of the game that I ended up losing to a kingside attack. As my friend told me, "Everyone on the planet knew you were creating that outpost for your knight. None of us knew what the knight was going to do once it got there."

    As I progressed in my understanding, I learned when it was appropriate to use this positional tool and most importantly - where! Integration combines each newly learned element of chess knowledge and puts it into the context of our other knowledge.

    Question Everything

    "I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious."
    -Albert Einstein

    To move from the Imitation stage to the Integration stage, it is helpful to become a master of asking questions when you are studying chess. In the Imitation stage, I recommend not dwelling too long on moves that were too difficult to understand.

    There are a couple reasons for this. First, because in that first stage you would be devouring much chess information that is new, it is important to let you brain digest it and process it. Some of this happens subconsciously as you see repeated examples of the same theme.

    Second, and this is very important to understand - at the beginning stages, players simply are not ready for advanced concepts. It is not that they are not intelligent enough to learn it. It is that they have not developed the consciousness of chess knowledge. In a way, players during the Imitation stage do not know what questions to ask!

    Put another way, before you can write a coherent sentence, one must learn the alphabet.

    However, once this "alphabet" has been learned through the proper books and materials, aspiring players should continue to seek out the knowledge they need to progress, asking questions along the way to guide them.

    What are some examples of the types of questions I'm talking about? Ultimately, you will need to develop your own questions, but here are some examples.
    • Why did the master play this particular move?
    • What was the plan behind this move or maneuver?
    • What other opening structures might this concept be used? 
    • How does this game fit into my overall understanding of the game?
    • What did I learn during this game that I didn't understand before?
    • What don't I understand? (This is useful when seeking out what to study next)
    The more questions you ask and seek to answer, through your accumulated knowledge and experience, the more you will integrate your knowledge into a cohesive whole.

    Testing Your Knowledge


    One basic method from moving from Imitation to Integration besides questions is to continually test, compare, and revise your thinking. 


    There are several training methods you can use to do this. 

    • Solitaire Chess: Find a good annotated game collection and play through the games. You can find detailed instructions in an article I wrote on the Chess Improver site
    • Annotate and Compare: A variation on Solitaire Chess would be to annotate an non-annotated score of a game and then compare it to the notes from the master. 
    • Training Positions: Find a position that you feel you understand well, and then play it out against a training partner or the computer. For example, you might practice the minority attack either as the attacker or defender. Compare your play with the master source game.
    The key behind these exercises is to see where your understanding needs improvement, and continue to study those areas.

    Annotate and Integrate


    When you play a game or study a game, try to look at each position from different angles. I encourage you to annotate chess games, both yours and master games you come across. Follow the example of Mikhail Botvinnik, and publish your games on your favorite chess forum. 

    Here are some things to keep in mind when you annotate games.
    • Try to understand moves from different angles. For example, looking at moves from both a strategic and tactical view.
    Consider the following position.





    • Try to connect positional and tactical motifs to the opening structures they come from. For example, the exchange sacrifice on c3 common in the Sicilian Dragon or the ...f5 pawn break in the King's Indian Defense.
    • Connect the plans of the players with the pawn structures. For example, how do the masters attack pawn weaknesses such as isolated or backward pawns. 
    • Which minor pieces do the masters keep in specific situations. Note them and try to explain the reasoning behind these plans.
    • Try to use words when possible to explain what's happening. It is true that sometimes positions require variations to explain complex tactical ideas, but for most amateur players, this eventually evolves into relying on computer generated analysis - which is pretty much useless in helping those player improve.
    • Regarding the chess engines, don't use any analysis that you can't explain in plain words. If you can't explain it, you probably don't understand it. I'm not saying that you shouldn't use the chess engine at all, but I've seen so many examples of players who use the chess engines to analyze their games and have no idea why the moves the engine spits out is the best move. 
    • Try your best, and don't worry if you don't get it always get it right. You are doing this to improve your understanding of chess.

    Conclusion


    The first stage of mastery was Imitation - studying the play of the masters through annotated games and positions. Once you have developed your chess vocabulary through this study, you will start moving into the Integration stage - where all of the knowledge you accumulated will start to make sense. In this article we've explored a few ways to enhance this progression through the use of questions, the active testing of your knowledge, and through annotating games - both yours and others' games.

    Most players do not make it past the Integration Stage - and some don't reach it. It takes a lot of work and study as well as a persistent curiosity to understand "Why." Those who reach Integration but not the next step - Innovation - become what author Michael Minkoff calls a skilled "craftsman." 

    This is not a bad place to be. At this stage, you can play decent chess games and understand at some level the games of world class players. Indeed, you must pass through this stage to make the final stage even possible. 

    We'll discuss that next time. Until then, I wish you good luck and better chess!

    Check out the next part of this series - Innovation: The Third Stage to Mastering Chess.

    Your Turn


    Did you find this article helpful? Which of the training ideas will you try this coming week? Let me know how it went.

    Sunday, July 17, 2016

    State of the Site and Upcoming Content

    Typically, I try to publish an article once a week - usually on Fridays. However, this past week there was a health emergency with a family member - she's okay now - that took me out of town for a few days.

    I wasn't able to complete the second part of my current article series - the Three Stages to Mastery - this week. I am currently working on the second article and should finish it in a couple days, but I didn't want to rush it. I will then work hard on finishing the final part on time.

    Sometimes, I get ahead on my writing and would have had an article ready to go on Friday, but alas, that wasn't the case as well.

    So I thought I would just share a few thoughts about the state of Better Chess Training and some thoughts for upcoming articles.

    Survey Results

    In June, I put out a reader survey and got some very good feedback. In general, all of the feedback was positive and I really appreciate all of the readers who took the time to complete the survey. Here are some of the conclusions I came to based on the survey:
    • Readers enjoy the articles on psychology and training methods.
    • I will start doing more reviews of chess books and software.
    • I will start including more instructional chess material - particularly geared toward beginner players.
    I plan on doing this type of survey regularly - perhaps annually or semi-annually - because although I enjoy writing immensely, I enjoy knowing that my writing is helping others.

    State of the Site

    I am really enjoying writing for my readers and meeting you through your comments and correspondence. It is very rewarding when I play someone on ICC or chess.com and they send me a message after our game like, "Hey! I enjoyed your last article" or some other message.

    Besides continuing to provide quality content, I am trying to improve the look and design of the site slowly as time and finances allow. However, the focus currently is to stay consistent with my publication schedule and to continue to find interesting topics to write about. 

    Since I've started writing again regularly these last few months, I've also become an occasional contributor to GM Nigel Davies' Chess Improver site, which has some great writers including Mr. Davies himself. This has been very rewarding and I'm glad to be part of that as well.

    I realize that not all chess sites can be all things to all players, and I think I'm homing in on my niche in the online chess world. This may evolve as my own abilities as a writer and chess player improve. 

    I hope for the most part, I've provided you with some value for the time you've spent with me. I plan to continue to do so and any suggestions on how I can improve is always appreciated.

    Upcoming Content

    Besides finishing up the series on the Three Stages to Mastery in the coming week or so, I have a few other articles I'm working on and would love your ideas for articles you would like to see. Here are just a few that are in the works:
    • An interview with a certain International Master regarding a certain chess site he or she is involved with (I'll leave it a surprise for you).
    • A monthly or quarterly - I'm still deciding - chess quiz series to test your chess knowledge and skill. I am toying with the idea of creating a contest out of it.
    • More in-depth articles on chess psychology, including mental training to increase focus, attention, and improving attitude.
    • Some follow-up material for my chess class students that I teach in person here in my community. This might included annotated games and booklists to complement the introductory instruction given in the live class.

    Your Turn

    So that's what's going on with me. I would love to hear from you. Here are a few questions:
    • Is there a particular player you'd like me to interview? I ask often, and some say no, but many say yes. Let me know and if I agree, I'll give it a shot.
    • Is there a particular book you'd like me to review? Give me the title and why you think I should review it.
    • What is your current struggle with chess? If there's an article or series I can write to help you, I'd love to do that.
    Thank you for continuing to be a part of Better Chess Training!

    Friday, July 8, 2016

    Imitation: The First Stage to Mastering Chess

    Before You Can Innovate, You Must Imitate

    By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.  
    ~Confucius
    I had a conversation with a young artist friend of mine. We discussed his development and his ambition to create art that was unique and new. I compared the development of visual artists to that of chess players. We noted some of the similarities in development and as I thought about it, I realized that understanding these stages and the implications it had for study and training might be useful to chess players.

    Atlhough there are probably many ways that categorize the various stages, I like the way Michael Minkoff describes it in an article about mastery in art:
    1. Imitation
    2. Integration
    3. Innovation
    In this article, we will discuss the first stage - Imitation.

    Bulking Up Your Chess Knowledge


    When we first start learning chess, we first learn by imitating the moves masters. This makes a lot of sense if you think about it. A painter needs to learn the fundamentals of line, color, texture as well as practical matters such as brush and canvas types, Similarly, a chess player needs to learn about concepts like control of the center, open files and diagonals, good and bad bishops and techniques like planning and calculation. 

    At this stage of development, I think it is often best to observe how high level players play and win games - via annotated collections of games for example - and let it simmer. In several of his excellent articles, chess coach Dan Heisman discusses the need to "read" through a lot of masters without spending too much time on each one. He had several reasons for recommending this, but I think much of it has to do with this particular stage of development. You need to have the material knowledge of various openings, positional themes, tactical motifs, checkmate patterns, and so on before you can paint on your canvas - which is the chessboard.

    My artist friend spends much time working from models - works of art from other artists - and simply (or not so simply) copies them. He is practicing and developing his technique. Similarly, in the beginning stages players should "read" many well annotated master games (or watch good videos). This includes instructional texts about strategy and tactics. 

    I'm not saying that you shouldn't be actively engaged in analyzing your games or questioning the moves in master games - nor am I implying that you shouldn't play at this stage. However, at this stage, it's more important to get a "feeling" of how chess works through experiencing dozens or hundreds of examples from master level play. This - along with experience from your own games - will surely set you on a path towards mastery.

    To use a bodybuilding analogy, you need to first increase the size of your muscles before you can sculpt and refine your muscles.

    Breadth Over Depth


    If you are a beginner, and you had the choice between spending 5 hours studying one master game or spending 5 hours reading through 15 (assuming 20 minutes per game), I would choose the later. Here is my reasoning:
    • At the beginning stages, nuances such as color complexes and sacrificing a pawn for the initiative and any long variations - things you would do if you spent 5 hours studying one or two master games - are totally over the head of the beginner. So much of the benefit of studying these games so deeply will be lost by the beginner.
    • By reading and studying many games over the same amount of time, beginning players will start to see many examples of things that beginners needs to learn. Things such as playing a pawn or two in the center in the opening, castling at some point in the first ten moves or so, and concentrating pieces in the area that you want to attack. 
    • Seeing 10 examples of putting a rook on a half-open file and then perhaps in 5 of those seeing the rook attack a weak pawn is much more useful for a beginner than seeing one example of an exchange sacrifice in the Dragon Sicilian. 
    • At this stage, breadth is more important than depth - and you should be using quality books and videos (or coaches) to learn these concepts at the appropriate level. 

    All the Great Ones Have Done It


    As Michael Minkoff mentions in his article, many artists undervalue this stage of development. Similarly, I think many chess players often try to shortcut this step - for example, by playing off-beat openings to cut down their study time (which in itself isn't a bad idea once you've developed a base of knowledge). However, when you talk to chess masters or read about them, there is often an underlying theme of how they were influenced by the masters before them. 

    The idea of "standing on the shoulders of giants" is known throughout chess, as the modern masters have all studied the classics on their path to mastery. Here is a wonderful example from a famous game.



    Imagine how interesting it was when I found the following game during one of my study sessions. Although the theme of sacrificing a pawn in the Semi-Tarrasch was probably fairly common by the time Polugaevsky played it, early games with the theme such as this battle between greats Keres and Fine must have been known to him.



    Humility and Apprenticeship


    Diligently going through the stage of imitation can be difficult as this stage may span several years. Actually, there are probably certain aspects of your game that are at different stages. For example, when learning a totally new opening, intermediate and advanced players must enter the imitation phase again when studying games and concepts that are new to them. 

    This stage takes patience and humility. Humility doesn't mean self-loathing though. I do think we should celebrate when we make small leaps in understanding along the way. Author Ryan Holiday discusses this in his book Ego is the Enemy. The general concept is that our ego prevents us from admitting that we have more to learn and doing the mundane tasks - such as reading and studying hundreds of master games - that will help us to improve.

    Think of the artists during the Renaissance. Many of them studied under an older master as an apprentice for years. In some cases, I'm sure many of them were more talented or eventually become more famous then their master. However, the years of learning the basics and practicing the fundamentals - the imitation stage - were necessary for their future greatness.

    So it is in chess. Become the apprentice under the great chess authors. For beginners, authors like Chernev and Yasser Seirawan are very accessable and enjoyable. As you progress, you can "apprentice" under the World Champions like Alekhine, Botvinnik, and more recently Kasparov who have wonderful collections of their best games.

    Recommendations


    How can we make the most of the imitation stage? Here are a few suggestions:
    • Read and study a lot of chess! Read my article on which books to study for beginners.
    • Avoid books that are too complicated for your level. For example, I purchased Alexei Shirov's excellent Fire on Board after reading rave reviews of it years ago when I was rated around 1400. After studying a couple games, I put the book away because I didn't learn much at the time. I picked it up again recently (now rated around 1800) and think I'm perhaps on the very low end of the target audience for this book.
    • Don't jump ahead! Sometimes players roll their eyes when I suggest books like Chernev's Logical Chess Move by Move to them - as if it's somehow beneath them. However, when I see them make simple positional mistakes such as letting an opponent double rooks on an open file unopposed or failing to secure an outpost for their knight, I want to tell them that reading Chernev is much more useful than studying move 23 in a variation the Sicilian Najdorf in some 400 page opening encyclopedia.
    • Study the classics (along with well-explained modern games). This is recommended by GM Vladamir Tukmakov in Modern Chess Preparation. Summarizing his reasoning, classic games are easier to understand and provide the foundation of positional and tactical elements that make up modern chess. As mentioned, Chernev's books do this nicely.
    • Don't dwell too long on positions you don't understand. Some may disagree with this, but the idea is that if you are really a beginner, you might not be ready for something that takes you a couple hours to figure out. As you mature in your knowledge, you can return to that position with more context. Definitely take a few minutes to analyze or try to understand things that confuse you, but at this stage, you'll at best be repeating something you will learn later on from another game or another book. Positions like this I catalog in a special database I created and will go back to it every couple months and it is always very satisfying when I can fill in holes in my chess understanding.
    • Avoid using the chess engine in analying your games or master games. You are not ready for this. In an interview with IM Greg Shahade, he notes that most players under 2000 simply don't know how to use chess engines properly. They can spit out moves and variations to you, but they can't explain - and if you are a beginner, you can't really interpret - why you should make a certain move or how you can figure it out in the future.
    • Ask stronger players or chess coaches when you do not understand a move or concept. When you play a game, and don't understand what and why you should play a certain move, try to ask someone who can explain it in words other than "e4-e5 is +0.3 than the move you chose."
    • Be patient. I remember when I was rated 1200-1400 and I wanted to start finding theoretical novelties in my openings. I spent so much time analyzing opening positions when most of my games were lost because I simplified into a losing king and pawn endgame or more typically I simply blundered a piece. Once I was sufficiently humbled, I started reading chess books that made sense to me and I improved very quickly.

    Conclusion


    Mr. Minkoff states that many artists don't move past the imitation stage, suggesting it is a reason that some denounce or reject it in any case, for fear of being "stuck" in it. Perhaps this is also the case of many chess players.

    I know many players who have read many books and been playing for decades, so still sit around the rating range of 1200-1300 range. Now there may be many reasons for this. One reason for this is that perhaps they kept studying chess books like I suggested above, but never took that next step of integration - which we'll discuss next.

    Here is the next installment of this series - Integration: The Second Stage to Masterying Chess.

    Until next time, good luck and better chess!

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