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Friday, April 29, 2016

Chess Tactics: In-Between Move (Zwischenzug)

Introduction

A knowledge of tactics is the foundation of positional play. - Richard Reti

Tactics are important for chess players of all levels. The simplest tactics, such as pins, forks, and discovered attacks, start the journey for the beginner to move into more advanced levels of chess. 

Today's article will be about an important tactical theme - the in-between move (also known as zwischenzug). An in-between move is a move that is unexpected as usually the preceding move is a typically forcing move, such as a capture or threat to another piece.

Examples of In-Between Moves

Here's an example from a game of the 3rd World Champion, Jose Raul Capablanca.


The reason this concept is so important is that it's often missed during calculation by players of all levels. Learning to consider these during your games both for your moves and for your opponent's moves will strengthen your ability to evaluate moves and find hidden resources in all positions.

For example, had I seen the in-between move (this is a blitz game so I'll forgive myself), I would have won the following game.


Spotting In-Between Moves

So now that you have an idea of what in-between moves are, how do you spot them in your games? Here are a couple tips:
  • Play longer time control games. It is hard to find these tactics during blitz games.
  • Follow the adage: When you find a good move, look for a better one! 
  • Look at all of your checks, captures, and threats as replies to your opponent's moves as well as your opponent's checks, captures, and threats (or as I like to call them, CCT's). This is good advice for all calculation, not just tactics. (Check out Dan Heisman's excellent article about "Real Chess" to understand this further).
  • Pay special attention to moves where there is a seemingly "automatic" reply such as a recapture or moving a threatened piece to safety. Check your CCT's twice during these positions!

In-Between Move Quiz!

Here are a couple positions for you to solve. The solution requires understanding and spotting in-between moves. Note that the in-between move may not be the first move in the solution.

Problem #1
Black to play

Problem #2
White to play

Problem #3

Solutions

Problem #1

The solution to this problem requires recognizing that Black's in-between move involves a check.


Problem #2


This problem is a little more difficult and involves several tactical themes, but the in-between moves before recapturing in the main line need to be seen to solve it properly.




Problem #3


This particular position is a variation from a famous game involving Dr. O.S. Bernstein and Jose Raul Capablanca. As mentioned in the commentary to the moves, White saw the in-between tactic and avoided this particular position altogether.




Final Thoughts

Zwischenzug - the in-between move - is an important concept to understand as well as spot in your games.

Also, one of my previous articles features an in-between move example on the Better Chess Training Youtube Channel.

Besides the advice and examples given above, I encourage you to practice your tactics on a site like Chess Tempo where you can find problems like these and many more. Also, I wrote a general article about improving your tactics that includes a tutorial video for Chess Tempo.

Your Turn

I hope you enjoyed this article. Please share it with other chess players you know and feel free to leave comments. Good luck and good chess!

Friday, April 22, 2016

Better Sleep for Better Chess

Sleep Can Improve Your Chess



Chess Dreaming

“Sleep is not a luxury. It’s a necessity for optimal functioning.” 
- Dr. James O’Brien

The life of a working adult brings many responsibilities. Work, children, house, bills, and community activities among other things fight for our precious time.

Somewhere in there we also try to get in some chess training and playing! Often, this comes at the cost of our sleep. After a particularly hard day at work, getting the kids to bed, and cleaning up the house, I often want to stay up to and watch some television, surf the internet, or play some blitz on ICC to "unwind."

However, sleep deprivation or loss of sleep can have a negative impact on our lives in general but particularly on our chess development and ability. In this article we will be discussing the following:
  • The benefits and function of sleep
  • The effects of sleep deprivation
  • How to get better sleep
After reading this article, hopefully you will appreciate the importance of sleep in our lives and consider it part of your chess training!

Why Do We Sleep?

Sleep serves many important functions in our life. There are some key physical and biological benefits:

  • Physical renewal
  • Hormonal regulation
  • Growth
Being healthy physically of course is important for both chess and life, but there are also some important cognitive benefits of healthy sleep that directly help us with chess.

Sleep seems to be integral in converting short term memories into long term memories. Think about those new opening lines in the Ruy Lopez or the Lucena or Philidor endgames. Besides repetition and practice, sleep may be the most effective method to remember them!

There has been some research as well into sleep's role in creativity. Some of this may be related to sleep's function for memories, but some research has shown that people's problem solving skills improve after "sleeping on it." This is critical for chess, where we need to take various concepts including space, king safety, pawn structure, initiative, and material imbalances and interpret and combine them on the chessboard.

When We Don't Get Enough Sleep

There are some consequences when you don't get enough sleep. Interestingly, many of these are particularly detrimental to your chess play.

Lack of sleep can affect the following negatively:
  • Working memory
  • Long term memory
  • Decision making
In addition, when you are deprived of REM (deep) sleep, it is more difficult to concentrate on a single task. Research has shown that it is harder to pick up nuances in discussions or negotiations. Hopefully, we can see how this inability to focus and missing details can effect our ability to evaluate a chess position.

When you are lacking sleep, it also can reduce your vigilance - the ability the keep watchful for possible danger. It reminded me of a recent late night blitz chess session. I started out really well, winning my first five games, but as I got tired, the blunders came quickly and often, and I lost my next five! 

Here's a short video talking about these and other negative effects of sleep deprivation.



How Much Sleep Do We Need?

Much of the research I've read on the topic generally say that most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep. Some research has shown sleep deprivation effects for people who regularly get less than six hours of sleep. 

Sometimes life will not afford us a solid eight hours of sleep all the time, but fortunately, we can catch up on sleep. The concept of "sleep debt" is like monetary debt. We can "repay" it by adding a little extra sleep when we can at night and even through naps.

Getting More and Better Sleep

Here are a few tips to improve your sleep:
  • Avoid caffeine later in the day. It can take many hours for caffeine to leave the system.
  • Try to sleep in a darkened room.
  • Sleep in a restful environment. A cluttered room for example can be distracting for sleep.
  • Keep a regular schedule for sleeping - e.g. go to bed around the same time each night and wake up around the same time each morning.
  • When possible, try to wake up without an alarm clock.
  • Get regular exercise. Regular exercise improves how quickly you go to sleep as well as length of sleep.
  • Avoid alcohol and heavy meals before sleep. Alcohol can effect to reduce the amount of deep sleep we receive each night.

Conclusion

Sleep helps improve your memory and creativity for chess. Lack of sleep can effect your decision making, attention, and vigilance. I believe our sleep is a greatly underestimated factor in our improvement in all areas of life, including chess. Try to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night and follow the tips above to get a great night's sleep. You might just improve your chess strength as well.

Resources

I researched many sources in creating this article. Besides the direct links I included within the article, here are a few more that I drew from.


Friday, April 15, 2016

An Introduction to SCID for Chess Training

Quality Chess Database on a Budget

Having a chess database program is important to store and analyze your games. When my last computer crashed, I lost my Chessbase program which I was using as it was a downloaded copy. Although I could probably find a way to download it again, due to procrastination I decided to look for a free database program to use until I saved up enough money to purchase Chessbase again (which has been updated a couple times since the last time I purchased it). 

To my delight, I found Shane's Chess Information Database (or SCID for short). SCID is open source freeware, meaning you can download it and use it for free! I do recommend checking out Chessbase as it is perhaps the most powerful and widely used commercial chess database. However, if you are just starting out (and not sure if you want to invest a lot of money in software), SCID will probably do most of what you need (and more than you expected).

In this article, I'm going to discuss some of the main ways I use SCID. This isn't quite a tutorial on how to use SCID (although I may do more of those if there is interest). Instead, I'm going to highlight some of the ways I train and analyze using SCID which you can adapt to most chess database programs whether you use SCID, Chessbase, or most fully functional database programs. 

Storing Games

The main function of SCID (or most any database) is to store games. There are many kinds of databases that you can create for different purposes.

I know I have a  lot of databases!
Although I will leave the organization of your databases to your own style and imagination, here are a few types of databases you want to keep:
  • A database of your games. Places like the Internet Chess Club or the Free Internet Chess Club have interfaces that allow you to save your games in PGN format into a database. Within these databases you can analyze your games which we'll get into later. I have databases with my games - "MyICCGames" (which contains the games I play on ICC - surprise) and "MyGames" which include my OTB games and finished correspondence games.
  • A database (or a few) with your opening repertoire. I'll talk about this more in a bit, but basically a place where you can put key games or a "tree" of moves that you are trying to develop for your repertoire.
  • A big database with high quality games - games played by master-level players -  that you can use to look up specific players or openings. There are commercially available databases such as those sold by Chessbase. And there are places where you can download free databases. The commercial databases include perks like annotations by masters for a few of the games but if you're just starting out or on a budget, the free resources work very well also.
  • Databases containing the games or material from your chess books. Basically, these databases you create when you read a book and enter the games or positions into the program. As you can see in the above picture I have a database called "CapablancaMyChessCareer" which contains the games I am studying from My Chess Career by Capablanca. The great thing about this is that you can enter variations and analyze within the program.
These are just a few examples of the major types of databases you may want to keep.

Analyzing Games

SCID has a nice interface to analyze games. In the game notation, you can add variations and text as well as notation symbols like "!" or "?" just like you can in programs like Chessbase. 

It is fairly easy to use although in my opinion perhaps not as intuitive as Chessbase. However, for the price and the power of the functions, you have to compromise on the design. That being said, it is not difficult to navigate if you have ever used database programs before.

Besides being able to enter the moves and commentary, SCID also has compatibility with chess engines, and you can use these to analyze on-the-fly or even annotate your games. There are various settings you can use to customize the type of analysis the engine does (see the screenshot below).


Regarding using chess engines, I will be writing a more extensive article regarding what I believe are "best practices" for chess engine use for improvement, but here are a couple guidelines to consider as you get familiar with SCID:
  • Enter your own analysis first, including variations you considered during and right after the game as well as your thoughts written out as text.
  • Do not use chess engines for early opening analysis. Except for obvious and big blunders, their output is almost useless for understanding and selecting opening moves.
  • Chess engines are great for tactical positions where there is a move that is a clearly superior move in the position. Positional or closed positions, where long term planning is more important than concrete analysis, are harder for the engine to evaluate (although admittedly they are getting better and better).
  • Chess engines cannot "teach" you chess - the why behind the what - so make sure you are educating yourself on basic tactics, strategy, and talking to stronger players to get an understanding of the moves beyond the evaluation and variations.
All this being said, I think chess engines are great tools when used correctly. However, generations of players were bred without the aid of the chess engines, and there is always a danger of becoming dependent and having flabby calculation and analysis "muscles" if you don't do enough on your own.

Solitaire Chess

Review Game in the Play and Training Menu
SCID has a neat feature that I am really enjoying and finding beneficial. SCID calls it the "Review game" feature (in the Plan and Training menu).

Basically, you play as one side through a game (or segment of a game). The program will alert you whether you played the move in the game or not.

The neat thing is that when you don't get the right move, it will comment on the quality of your move, whether it is a bad move (as determined by the chess engine), a good move, or a move as good as the engine's move (if it does not agree with the player in the game).

In the old days with a book or magazine and a board, we would cover up the moves and do the same thing. We called it Solitaire Chess.

Here are a few ideas of ways to use this:

  • Review the games from the point of view of your favorite player or hero. For example, I'm currently going through the games in Capablanca's My Chess Career
  • If you play in tournaments, set up a clock (say for an hour) and grab a master game from a database in an opening in your repertoire. Play through the game and analyze afterwards, trying to stay within your time limit.
  • Play out theoretical endings or middlegame positions you have learned. For example, I'm currently studying de la Villa's 100 Endgames You Must Know. After each position that I study (or maybe later that day to test my memory), I use the game review feature and go through it. If I get any wrong, I go back to the book to make sure I understand it.
For step-by-step instructions, I wrote a more detailed guide to playing Solitaire Chess with SCID.

Opening Training

You can customize your opening training
The other main feature I'm currently using is SCID's Opening Training. Basically, you can have SCID play the other side of your opening repertoire (which you set up in special databases). Then you can see statistics on how you did.

For those of you who have used Bookup (now called Chess Opening Wizard), this is similar to the training feature in that excellent program. I will say that Bookup has a lot of other features that are great for studying openings, but SCID does well enough to help you practice lines that you want to memorize.

Other Features

This is just a sampling of some of the ways you can use SCID to improve your chess. Here are a couple others that I didn't go into detail:
  • Managing Correspondence Games
  • Playing against the chess engines from set positions or whole games
  • Tactical training from customized databases that you can create

Final Thoughts

If you haven't figured it out, I'm a fan of SCID. I plan on creating some tutorials on using SCID in the future. Admittedly, I do miss using Chessbase and overall I think it is a more powerful program, but SCID has plenty of features to enhance your chess training program. If you are on a budget or not ready to invest in Chessbase, SCID is the way to go!

If you do try out SCID, let me know what you think. Also, if you have any questions or comments about specific functions or training methods, I'd love to hear them.

Resources

Shane's Chess Information Database: Download it at http://scid.sourceforge.net/

Chessbase: You can check them out at www.chessbase.com. If you are considering purchasing the software compare prices and consider using this link to Amazon. (Full disclosure: I earn a commission if you purchase it through this link)






Tuesday, April 12, 2016

How to Play Chess

Learn the Royal Game

Welcome to my tutorial on how to play the game of chess. In this article, you will learn the following:

  • How to set-up the board 
  • General rules and order of play
  • How the pieces move
  • The objective of the game and how the game ends
  • How to learn more about chess

Board Set-up

Look at the diagram below:


This is the standard set-up for chess. Notice the following:
  • The right corner (from the players' point of view) is always a white (or light) square.
  • The queen and king reside on the back row (or "rank") on the middle two squares, with the queen's initial square matching her color - the White queen goes on the white square, while the Black queen goes on the black square.
  • To the outside of the king and queen are the bishops.
  • To the outside of the bishops are the knights.
  • At the corners are the rooks.
  • The pawns start on the second rank.
In this particular diagram, you can also see coordinates. We will use these to describe piece movements in what is called Algebraic Notation. This is the standard "language" to write chess moves and you can learn it in this article about chess notation on the Chess.com website.

General Rules and Order of Play

Before we learn how the pieces move, here are a few general rules.
  • The player with the white pieces goes first.
  • The players alternate turns, with each player moving one piece and then the other. You cannot "pass" or otherwise take a turn without moving a piece.
  • The game ends either by checkmate, stalemate, an agreed draw, or resignation. We will describe checkmate and stalemate below. (There are a couple other ways the game can end, such as via "three-fold repetition", but let's focus on the most common for now)

Piece Movement

Let's go over how the pieces move. Here are a couple points for you to note about all of the pieces:
  • The pieces can capture each other by landing on them and replacing them. The only exception is the king which in traditional chess cannot be captured - we'll discuss this later in this tutorial. (Here is a video about the relative value of the pieces)
  • With the exception of the knight, the pieces cannot "jump" over each other (as in checkers).
At the end of this article, we will view a famous game played by masters to see how all of these rules are put together.

The Pawn

The pawn, the humble footsoldier in the chess army, has a variety of moves it can do in certain situations. We'll cover each of them:

First Move
On its first, pawn can either move one or two spaces forward. After its first move, it can only move one space forward.


Capturing with the Pawn
Unlike the other pieces, which capture using their general movement rules, the pawn does not capture other pieces by moving forward. They capture by moving diagonally one square.

Look at the diagram below:


Note that the Black pawn on e5 can capture only the pawn on d4. It cannot capture the pawn on e4. If it were White's move, only the d4 pawn can capture the Black pawn on e5. The White e4 pawn cannot capture.

Capturing En Passant
This is a special move for the pawn in specific situations. En Passant is French for "In Passing." Here is the general rule for capturing en passant:

  • When your pawn has reached the 5th rank (rank 5 for White or rank 4 for Black using the coordinates),
  • And your opponent's adjacent pawn uses its initial move to move two squares "passing" your pawn.
  • One your next move only, you may capture the pawn landing diagonally on the square behind the pawn you captured.
Use the diagram below to move through an example demonstrating en passant (click on either the arrows or the move notation to see the pieces move.



Pawn Promotion
The humble pawn has a special move where it can be promoted to become another piece if it reaching the 8th rank. It can become a queen, rook, knight, or bishop. Check out the diagram below for examples of how this is done.
So hopefully this gives you a good idea of how to move the pawns.

The Rook

The rook can move in four directions: forward, backward, and to either side. Note the diagram below:


In this diagram, you can see:
  • The White rook (on d4) can move sideways and up and down, and can capture the pawn on d7.
  • The Black rook (on g6) can move sideways and up and down, but must cannot pass the g4 square, because its own bishop is blocking it on g3.
The rook also has a special move in tandem with the king, called "castling," which we will discuss below when we discuss how the king moves.

The Knight

The knight is perhaps the toughest piece to explain in words, but fortunately a picture makes it easy. Basically, the knight "leaps" in an "L" shape:
  • Two squares either up, down or side-to-side, then
  • One square 90 degrees in either direction.
  • The knight does not "pass" through any of the squares between it's starting square and destination square, therefore it can go "over" other pieces.
Consider the following diagram, which illustrates the movement of the knight. 


Notice that the Black knight on h6 can only get to four squares while the White knight can reach its maximum 8 squares.

The Bishop

The bishop moves diagonally. Like the rook, it can move until it either runs into one of its own pieces or it can capture another piece (and of course it can stop at any point before this).
  • Each bishop stays on the same color for the whole game.
  • Each player starts out with a bishop on the light squares and a bishop on the dark squares.

The Queen

The queen combines the powers of the rook and the bishop as she can travel up-and-down, side-to-side, and diagonally. This makes the queen the most powerful piece (in general).


The King

The king can move in any direction exactly one square. There are a couple special rules for the king:

  • The king cannot put itself in a position where it can be captured on the next move.
  • When an opposing piece attacks the king (to where it can capture it on the next move if the king is not moved), then the king is in "check" and must attempt to escape check.
  • If the king is in check and cannot escape legally, then the king has been "checkmated" and the game is over. We will cover this in more detail in the next section.

Castling
The king has a special move - typically used to get the king to safety. This move is called castling. The maneuver goes like this:

  • The king moves two squares toward either the closer rook (kingside) or the further rook (queenside).
  • The rook moves to the other side of the king.
See the following diagram:


A couple rules regarding castling:

  • You cannot castle if your king is in check.
  • You cannot castle if you have moved either the king of the rook that you want to castle with.
  • You cannot castle if the king must travel through a square that can be attacked by an opposing piece. See the diagram below.


In the diagram above, it is Black's turn to move. Black cannot castle because the king is in check from the knight.

If it were White's turn to move, White would not be able to castle because the king must pass through the f1 square, which is attacked by the Black bishop on c4.

The Objective of the Game and Ending the Game

Checkmate

The ultimate goal for every player is to checkmate your opponent's king. As mentioned in our king section earlier, checkmate occurs when:
  • The king is in check - attacked by another piece where the king would be captured if it were the opponent's turn.
  • The king cannot escape check legally.
Example #1
Consider the following diagram:


It is Black's turn to move. This position is checkmate.
  • The White queen is checking the Black king.
  • Because the queen is protected by the knight on g5, the king cannot capture the queen.
  • The king cannot go to any other square because it is either blocked by its own pieces or the square is attacked by the queen.
Example #2
Check out the diagram below:


Here is another checkmate position:
  • The rook is checking the king.
  • The king cannot go to either the c8 or e8 squares because the rook can capture it next turn.
  • The king cannot go to the c7, d7, or e7 squares because the king attacks those squares.
Example #3

Is this checkmate?


Let's see:
  • The knight on g6 is attacking the king, so the king is in check.
  • The king is blocked in by its other pieces so it cannot move.
  • The pawn on h7 cannot capture the knight because then the queen would be able to capture the king on the next move. The pawn is "pinned."
  • So yes - this is checkmate.
This particular checkmate pattern is an example of a "smothered mate." We will cover common mating patterns in another article.

Stalemate

Checkmate is not the only way to end a chess game. The game can also end in a stalemate, which is a draw. Take a look at the following position:


It is Black's turn to move. In this position we can see:
  • The Black king cannot move legally as all of its squares are covered by either the queen or the rook.
  • The Black king is not in "check" as there is no piece that can capture it on the following turn.
  • Therefore, the king is in stalemate, and the game is a draw (despite White's larger forces).
  • Note that if Black had any other pieces that could make a legal move, this would not be stalemate (and White would probably go on to win).

Insufficient Material

If both sides lack the material force needed to deliver checkmate, then the game is drawn. For example, consider the diagram below.


In this position, despite being ahead by a whole piece, this game is drawn as a lone king and knight cannot checkmate the opposing king.

Note that if the knight were a pawn it may not be drawn as White may potentially be able to promote the pawn to a piece that could deliver checkmate with the king.

Other Ways to End a Game

The game may be ended a few other ways:
  • Both players may agree to a draw in any position.
  • One player may resign - quit -  if he does not want to continue.
  • The 50 move rule: Basically, if there are 50 moves without a pawn advance or a capture, a player may claim the game drawn.
  • The three-fold repetition rule: If a game reaches the same position three times, a player may claim a draw.
  • If you are playing with chess clocks, if a player runs out of time, then the other player may claim a victory. However, if both players' time runs out without either player before someone claims, it is considered a draw if either player claims it.

Putting It Together

Here is an example of a famous game played in the 19th century. You can see how the player with the White pieces - Paul Morphy - puts the moves together to checkmate his opponent. Paul Morphy was one of the strongest players in the early years of chess. This game was known as Morphy's "Opera Game" and Paul Morphy played the duo of Count Isouard and the Duke of Brunswick.


Learning More About Chess

I hope you found this tutorial helpful. Here are a few tips on how to learn more about chess:
  • Play your friends and enjoy the beauty of chess! If you don't know anyone where you live to play check out Chess.com or the Internet Chess Club.
  • Learn algebraic notation and record the games you play for future review. 
  • Remember that both winning and losing are part of the game. Be a gracious winner and learn from your losses.
  • Check out some instructive videos. Here is three of the most instructive chess channels on Youtube.
  • Check back on this site for the growing section for beginners.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Developing Good Habits for Chess and Life

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” 
― Jim Ryun

Often, we know what we need to do to improve ourselves in chess and in life. Of course, this site is focused on helping you to maximize your training and improvement, but in general, the types of activities are widely known. 

I think most intermediate players if not beginners know that you should study your mistakes, study the games of the masters, and work on solving tactical problems among other things (and you can read my article on these three specific activities if you want). Similarly, we know that proper sleep, fruit and vegetables, and exercise is good for our bodies.

However, knowing what to do though is not the same as doing! What keeps us from doing what we know is good for us? Well, the answer is perhaps more complex than I intend to get into today, but the basic answer is that we have not developed the habit of doing these activities.

In this article, I will give you some simple steps to develop new habits. These steps were adapted from author James Clear's excellent (and free) e-book Transform Your Habits


Step #1: Pick the Habit You Want to Develop


The first step is knowing what habit or behavior you want to increase. Since we are talking about chess training, here are a few examples of habits you may want to develop (or increase):
  • Looking up the openings to my games.
  • Studying annotated master games.
  • Analyzing my games without a computer engine.
  • Doing tactical problems.
  • Studying endgame positions.
These are just a few. I suggest you start with the one that will make the most impact on your skills (and you can add more later). For example, if you feel you are not very good with positional chess, then you may want to develop the habit of studying the games of positional masters such as Karpov or Capablanca. If you blunder often, you may want to do more tactical problems. Analyzing your games (perhaps with the help of a coach) and being honest with yourself will help you decide what to do next.

Step #2: Break Down the Habit

After you know what habit you want to develop, the next step is to break down the habit into a form that's very easy to do. James Clear says to make it "so easy you can't say no." Here's an example from my own study program. I have the wonderful book 100 Endgames You Must Know by Jesus de la Villa. However, I've started and stopped studying this book many times in the two years I've owned it. So I started a new habit:

Every three days, I study one endgame position.

Some of these positions are very easy, sometimes only taking 5 minutes to study. However, when I see this come up on my to-do list (I have it as an action item on my planner), it is so easy that I can't say no. I grab my book, set up the board, and work on it.

Here are some other examples of breaking down a habit so that's it's "too easy to say no."
  • Study 1 tactical problem daily (assuming you don't do any currently)
  • Spend 10 studying openings
  • Study 1 annotated master game daily
  • Spend 10 minutes analyzing my game with no chess engine assistance
Now, you may say this is too easy and I won't make progress this way. Well, first remember that we are talking about developing a habit that you have not done yet! The idea here is that we take "willpower" and "discipline" out of the equation by making our starting point very easy.

During this step, we develop consistency and confidence as we make progress day by day.

Step #3: Progress Slowly

Once you've developed consistency...once you've become the type of player who does your habit regularly without question...then it's time to increase the difficulty. However, do so gradually. As James Clear has written, it should feel easy.

For example, if you are developing a habit of doing tactical problems, maybe you started with doing 1 a day (or 5...it doesn't matter where you start as long as you're doing it regularly). Increase it by 1 for a while! Don't make the mistake of increasing too quickly. In your enthusiasm to improve, you may want to jump to extreme levels of training - I know I've done it! 

Imagine lifting weights. Let's say you bench press 100 pounds for 10 reps. It would be foolish to try to increase your bench press by 100 pounds (to 200) in your next workout. However, if you could increase your bench press by 1 pound every week, in about two years you will have increased your bench press by 100 pounds!

Here is an example of how I plan on increasing my endgame study.
  • Currently doing one position every three days.
  • In a couple weeks, I plan to do one position every two days.
  • If I am successful with that, I plan to do one position every day until I finish the book.

Step #4: Keep It Easy


So you've built up a habit or two to improve your chess. In this next step, you want to keep things easy. For example, let's use our tactical problems example. Let's say you've built up to doing 15 problems a day. If time is an issue or you are tired, maybe break them up into three sets of 5 done over several sessions during the day. 

When you're developing a new habit, you are not trying to beat yourself up. There are chess improvement "programs" out there like Michael de la Maza's Rapid Chess Improvement. It caused a stir for a while and many people began doing the program. Like anything else, a ton of people dropped off because they did not have the willpower, discipline, or time to implement the rigorous program that de la Maza proposed in his book. Incidently, I am not recommending that particular book although certain people may find it beneficial, particularly if they are weak on tactics. International Master Jeremy Silman gives a thoughtful review of it here.

Now, I am not saying that getting better at chess is going to be easy and you will never have to work hard. However, if you want to make long lasting changes in your routines and habits, following these steps will help you to avoid burnout and frustration.

Final Thoughts

Follow these four steps when you are trying to develop a new habit and you will find it easier than ever to create consistency and steady improvement. Here are a couple more things that will help.
  • Set up your environment for success. If you are trying to finish a certain chess book, leave it out by your chess board or computer.
  • Tell your chess buddies about your goals and habits. Ask them to check up on you occasionally. Help them out too!
  • Set up a tracking system for your progress. For example, you can set up a spreadsheet to record your Standard rating on Internet Chess Club or Chess.com weekly (this is what I do). After a few months, you'll see steady progress which is always motivating!
I hope you found this article helpful. When you develop good habits, chess training becomes less daunting and just "something you do." Please let me know what habits you are working on and any other comments you might have. Have fun and best of luck!

Resources

James Clear's Blog: He is not a chess player, but his articles on habits and achievement are very good. His advice and research helps me in all parts of my life.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Ultimate Beginner Guide to Opening Chess Moves

How to Learn Openings as a Beginner

I have had the opportunity to teach children and adults how to play chess. It has been a joy to do so, and I have often been asked how to go about learning openings. During my classes, I often don't have time to go into detail, and often go into the commonly known general principles:
  • Control the center
  • Develop you pieces
  • Get you king to safety
However, to someone who has just learned chess this is hard to conceptualize. Searching on the internet I have found some decent resources but they either are too general, repeating these same general principles, or too specific and thus too advanced for beginning players.

So hopefully with this guide I will try to find a good middle ground so that if you've just learned how to play chess, you can find a way to navigate the opening moves of a chess game. 

I hope to do this by first giving a little more information about the general principles. Then I will actually show you some examples and show you how these principles are executed by good players. Finally I will give you some practical advice about how you can learn more as well as some resources such as books and videos you may find helpful.

The Principles of Opening Play

It is important to note that the principles are just a guideline. Sometimes you may have to break one of the principles for a specific reason. It is beyond the scope of this guide to go into too many of the exceptions but just remember this as you learn more about chess and run into an "exception to the rule."

Principle #1: Controlling the Center

Controlling the center in the opening is very important. There are a couple reasons for this:
  • When you control the center, your pieces have more room to maneuver and can coordinate better for both attack and defense.
  • Conversely, if your opponent cannot "get a piece" of the center, his or her army will have less room to move. 
What is the center?
Generally, the center are the squares d4, e4, d5, and e5. As seen here:


In practice, when both sides are fighting for the center, they will often concede some of these squares to the other in order to plan specific strategies around them. These involve lines of attack, key squares for a piece, as well as well-timed pawn breaks. I'll write more about these things at another time. In general though, against good competition, it is difficult to have full control of the center, but you want your fair share of it.

Principle #2: Develop your pieces

Besides controlling the center, your opening moves should also get your army mobilized. Usually, the pieces are developed in the following order (but again do not feel you have to stick to this if your specific game situation calls for other moves):
  • First, a pawn or two are played to place a foothold in the center.
  • Next, typically the "light" pieces - your bishops and knights - get developed next.
  • Finally, you develop your rooks (usually one of them via castling) and your queen. 
We will look at a few examples after we discuss our next principle.

Principle #3: Get your king to safety

Because the object of the game is to checkmate your opponent's king, king safety is essential. usually this is done by castling either kingside (the short way) or queenside (castling long). Modern chess theory - moves that have been tested and refined by chess master throughout the history of chess - sometimes has exceptions where it is best not to castle the king, but a majority of the major opening systems and lines of play involve castling. The reasons that castling makes the king safer include the following:
  • Since you are fighting for the center, a lot of piece activity will be happening in the middle of the board. Keeping your king in the center makes him a target of that action.
  • Typically, your pawns on the side are not moved very much in the beginning of the game, so you they can provide cover for your king.
  • Castling also develops and "connects" your rooks so they can protect each other.

The Principles in Action

Here I just want to show you how these principles play out using some popular openings. One thing to note is that at this stage, I encourage you not to try to memorize the moves, but instead try to understand the purposes behind them. As you continue your research and progress in chess, you will start to learn and commit to memory the moves you want to play.

Example #1: The Italian Game

Here is an example from a popular opening. As you continue your chess study, you will find the rich history of specific opening lines. This particular line has been played since the mid 19th century and still played by masters today!


Example #2: Queen's Gambit Declined

In our first example, we looked at an opening initiated with the King's pawn (1.e4). This next example is a popular opening starting with the queen's pawn. I think beginners should start with one of these moves with White. There are other good moves and we'll go over those as well in future articles, but for a long time, these two moves were considered the strongest for White and the strongest players in the world still use them regularly.

For more examples of these principles in action, Chess Grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez goes into a little more depth with these basic principles and how the openings developed around the basic concepts such as the center and development.


These are just a few examples for solid opening moves for White and Black to give you an idea how to apply the general principles. We will have other opening systems in future articles, and there is a lot of information in books and on the internet. This will give you a good start.


Advice on Studying Openings

Now that you know the general principles and have seen a couple examples of how chess masters throughout history have applied them, here are some next steps you can take to improve your opening play.
  • Get yourself a general book on the openings that cover a lot of the common and popular openings. As a beginner, I would not use an encyclopedic work that has moves but not much explanation. Instead, I recommend the book I used when I started studying chess: Winning Chess Openings by Yasser Seirawan. Yasser has a fun conversational style and as a former US Champion, he knows his stuff.
  • After each of your games (which you should record if possible), look up your opening in your book. See where you (or your opponent) deviated from the moves in the book and try to figure out why. 
  • In the beginning, don't worry about memorizing the moves. The basic rule is: Don't memorize a move that you don't understand. You will remember the moves more easily when you understand the purpose of each move. There are openings where it is important to understand and remember specific orders, but don't just blindly memorize.
  • If you use chess software such as Chessbase or SCID to record your games, avoid using the chess engines to analyze the opening moves. At this point in the game, the analysis generated is fairly useless for you in trying to understand the opening. The only time the engines may be useful is if you or your opponent made a big blunder that can be exploited by tactical means. Even in this case, I recommend you try to figure it out without the engine first and then let the engine check your own work. More on chess engines in another article.
  • Try different opening moves. Don't specialize too early in your chess development. First, learning different openings will expose you to many different positions and will help develop you as a player. Also, you will learn more about your own personal style and temperament as you discover which openings feel better for you. As you strengthen your overall game, you can start to study specific openings in more detail. I will write more on developing an opening repertoire.
  • Remember to study all parts of chess - not just openings. It is a dangerous trap that many beginners fall into. Studying openings can be fun, and there is the allure to "surprising" your opponent with a new opening. Don't do it! Remember to study middlegame strategy as well as endgames and practice your tactics as well. 
  • Besides using your book, you can look up whole games in specific openings with a database like Chessbase or online resources like Chess Tempo (www.chesstempo.com). It is good to study whole games played by masters to see how good players handle the positions in your opening.

Conclusion

The opening is an important phase of the game. Learning how to start your games properly will allow you to get a healthy position where you can launch attacks or defend effectively. Chess openings have a rich history and can provide aesthetic pleasure also. Come back often to learn about more common openings as well as other aspects of chess. Good luck!

Your Turn

What are your opening questions? Are there moves you don't understand? Let me know and maybe I'll create an article to answer your questions.