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.  
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.


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.


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!

Your Turn

Did you enjoy this article? Share it with your friends. Thank you for reading and I hope you found it helpful.


  1. Another excellent article! Thanks, Bryan

  2. You are welcome! I'm glad you like it.

  3. Excellent ideas! In many ways, this mirrors the Zen concept of "beginner's mind." Until you can let go of the ego, you will continually fail to make substantial progress. I look forward to your next post!

    1. Robert, this will come up in my next article, but I think the ability to explain or break down the complex FOR beginners is also a sign of increased mastery. (This isn't a direct response to your post, but when you mentioned "beginner's mind" it reminded me of this. It is something I notice for example when I compare my own writing to those of good master-level writers. We may be saying the same thing, but because of their command of the topic is at such a high level, they say it much more eloquently. That is not to say that all chess masters write well about chess, but when one does, it is with such lucidity that it is quite impressive. Nigel Davies and Yasser Seirawan are two examples.

  4. Robert, thank you for commenting. Yes, although I am not very experienced in Zen concepts, the idea of beginner's mind is kind of at the heart of it. Also, the understanding that one will have to do a lot of imitation before moving on to the next stage, and one of my objectives was to help players - particularly beginners, but all non-masters I think - to be patient with their progress. This can be difficult at times - at least for me!

  5. Bryan, As a struggling wannabe successful chess player, notice I didn't say master. All chess players won't or can't achieve master status. But all can achieve success. By that I mean just getting better whether in baby steps or giant leaps or the mixture of the two. Your is article is relevant and beneficial cause many players don't know how to improve. This article gave some insight.

    1. Gilbert,
      Thank you for your comment. I think there are many paths to improving chess. One of the foundations though I believe is studying the great masters and seeing many examples of their play - hence the gist of this article. To try to learn in a vacuum without this education I think is suboptimal at least at the beginning levels but even at the highest levels, they are always looking at each others' games for ideas.