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.


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!


  1. Bryan,

    This is an excellent series of posts!

    I also appreciate your ideas regarding kaizen and chess over on The Chess Improver blog. Lots of food for thought in that one too!

    I was trained in a variation of Dr. Demings Total Quality Management (TQM) and his 14 points under the US Navy's Total Quality Leadership (TQL) program, and learned to apply the concepts as a software project manager. It seems amazing that a series of small but continuous improvements can (eventually) have a big impact overall.

    I think one of the biggest problems we face (and do not resolve) as aspiring adult chess "improvers" is the continuous search for that ONE BIG "thing" that will miraculously transform us into the Master we believe ourselves to be. As the old Chinese sage observed, "A journey of a thousand li begins with a single step."

    I make a small suggestion toward improvement that I referenced over on Temposchlucker's blog. When working on tactical problems from a book, take a highlighter and mark out the "lines of force" for the obvious pieces involved in a tactical engagement. Draw the lines through obstructions (same side or opponent's pieces) to the desired target pieces/squares. While doing this, think in terms of motifs (the reasons for a possibility of tactical shots) and tactical themes/devices (forks, pins, discovered attacks/checks, etc.) Ignore the point value of the pieces involved until AFTER searching for ALL potential interactions.

    It's an easy to do, low tech way to force your "eyes" to saccade along the lines needed to "see" tactical inter-relationships. Surprisingly, it doesn't take more than a couple of hundred problems to "burn" the process into your mental habits.

    Try it and see if this "small improvement" helps overall!

    Highest regards!

    1. Robert,
      Thank you for your awesome comment. I can identify with that search for that one big thing. Whether it be the next book or coach or training program, I've been on that search for myself.

      I wrote about this in an upcoming Chess Improver article, where I urge the readers to take the "long cut" instead of looking for shortcuts in their training. Sometimes, I admit I write advice that I need to follow more myself sometimes.

      Regarding your tactical book advice - I think it's great!

      I welcome your comments here as I always enjoyed reading your comments in Temposhlucker's blog.

  2. Bryan,

    I have always tried to connect the things I learn in other endeavors to chess in the form of analogies. As I read your note above, I was thinking about the kaizen concept and realized something that connected with a statement from my own post.

    "It seems amazing that a series of small but continuous improvements can (eventually) have a big impact overall."

    In addition to being so applicable to TRAINING, this one statement seems (to me) to be a summary of classical strategy as defined by Steintiz. The accumulation of small advantages must result (eventually) in the big "impact" of a combination. I suspect part of my lack of mastery of chess is a failure to observe what I can do to make small (perhaps almost imperceptible) "improvements" to my position until the net sum builds to a combination. Instead, I'm looking for the ONE BIG combination, the killing tactical shot, without adequately preparing for it to appear of its own accord. This tells me that I need to pay much more attention to every little nuance of each and every position, "talking to my pieces" (Rowson) and letting them tell me how to improve their position, perhaps by just a tiny bit.

    DANG! I love it when you bloggers make me rethink my approach to improving! No matter how much I study, there always seems to be so much more to learn!

  3. I can't take too much credit, but glad that our conversation has been insightful! Your comments align with some future topics I might be writing about. I believe most beginners/intermediate players should study the classic chess players. However, a lot of the classic games involve a couple single positional flaws which eventually lead to a big attack - or in the case of Capablanca, a logical (albeit elegant) simplification into a winning endgame. However, it is interesting as I study the games of the more modern masters. The opening theoretical battles and subsequent middlegame maneuvering is about gaining tiny edges or improvements from previous play. Sometimes, there is a blunder or two, but with the tactical brilliance of today's grandmasters, most of the victories are very deep and hard to come by.

    That being said, all of the fundamentals of their positional reasoning was built upon the principles and games played by the classical masters starting with Steinitz.

    I think sometimes amateur players feel they can just plod along, develop their pieces, and as long as THEY don't make the big tactical mistake, their opponent will and they can take advantage. It is true that amateurs (myself included) make a lot of tactical blunders, but it is easier to help your opponent make hard decisions by preparing it with solid planning and positional play of one's own.

    Easier said than done against a strong opponent of course. However, with at least a glimpse of the reality of what we are trying to achieve, we can strive towards it.

  4. Bryan,

    I personally made a big step forward in skill when I focused on avoiding that "big tactical mistake." It didn't improve my play so much as avoid "giving away the store" in one gross oversight.

    Here's a position I was just studying from Tim Brennan and Anthea Carson's Tactics Time, problem 303.

    FEN: r1b1k2r/b1p1qNp1/p1Pp4/3Qp3/p3P1p1/2P5/PP3PP1/RNB2RK1 b kq - 0 1

    The "obvious" first thing to look at is 14. ... Be6, forking the Nf7 and Qd5.

    This is the "solution" given:

    "14. ... Be6 forks the White Queen and White Knight. White's best option is to give up the Queen for two pieces, but he is still losing. 15. Nxh8 Bxd5 16. Ng6 Qf6 17. exd5 Qxg6 and Black has a Queen for Rook and Knight. If 15. Qxe6 Qxe6 16. Nxh8 O-O-O and the White Knight is trapped."

    Although Black has horrible Pawn structure, the lack of activity of the White pieces gives little hope that he will survive to take any advantage of it. The open h-file beckons, with the Queen and Rook capable of reaching it quickly, supported by the Bishop on a7.

    I then committed a big error which is typical when playing OTB. I forgot to "respect" the opponent's right to have his own ideas, given the chance.

    Having arrived at the idea of attacking down the h-file with the Queen and Rook, I started trying to achieve that attack earlier, following the Lasker maxim, "If you see a good move, look for a better one!" This can be a recipe for disaster if not done soberly and carefully.

    I looked at the pin on the f2 Pawn from the Bishop a7. Hmmm. . . That means I can sacrifice the Rook with 14. ... Rh1+ and get the Queen to h4 with check: 15. ... Qh4+. I can then follow up with 16. ...g3 and the Pawn cannot be taken because of the pin. I am now threatening checkmate on h2. If White moves the Rook to d1 (17. Rd1) I can "cut off the King's escape on e2 with 17. ... Bg4. Checkmate follows.

    BEAUTIFUL! And dead wrong. The "fly in the ointment" is that after 14. ... Rh1+ 15. KxR Qh4+ 16. Kg1 g6, White is given a one-move reprieve from Black forcing moves. What I missed is that White can sacrifice the Knight with 17. Nxd6+ and suddenly White is in the driver's seat making forcing moves while being up in material.

    I forgot that the opponent CANNOT be given even a single move to counterattack during a sacrificial attack. Focusing on my own "bright ideas" to the exclusion of the opponent's possibilities can be disastrous.