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Friday, May 27, 2016

Improve Your Chess with GM Mesgen Amanov

GM Mesgen Amanov
I recently discovered Grandmaster Mesgen Amanov's website, Improve My Chess. I was impressed with the quality of his videos, so I contacted him to see if he would like to share some information about himself here.

He graciously accepted my invitation. We cover a few areas including his early development as well as some of his best chess results (including an annotated game highlighting his preparation and in-game thoughts). We also discuss some general training advice and GM Amanov shares why he started coaching and Improve My Chess

I found GM Amanov to be very friendly and open with his answers. I hope you enjoy his responses.

Unless otherwise noted, the words are GM Amanov's.

Early Development


I started playing chess when I was 5 years old. My dad taught me, he was about 1800-2000 level. I was just playing against my dad all day, didn't really have any chess schedule or lessons, just played for fun. In my school chess was a curriculum, it was like any other class, math or literature etc. So was going to chess class once a week, obviously I was beating everyone in my grade, so it was again just for fun.

When I was 10 years old, my father passed away. I thought everything is over, but luckily I loved chess very much that I decided to go the chess club and study chess with more advanced kids.
Learning chess in Turkmenistan (this is where I am from) was very different from USA. We didn't have private coaches, we didn't even know it was possible. We learnt in a group of 6-12 kids from a local coach. We had good coaches, mostly from 2200-2400 level. So from age 10 to 15 I was in that chess club, withing those 5 years I became 2200. 

To be honest I feel like becoming 2200 wasn't hard at all. I only say that because becoming 2500 from 2200 is about 5 times harder than becoming 2200 from 0. 

I went to college when I was 15-16 years old. And being 2200 is like nothing special at that age if you want to become professional chess player. So at age of 15 I started seriously studying chess and by saying seriously I mean 6-8 hours a day. How is that possible you may ask me while attending college? So let me explain: I went to Sport and Tourism University in Turkmenistan, majoring in chess coach (yes, we have that major!) :) 

Subjects were easy for me, my favorite was sport psychology, physiology and human anatomy. That allowed me to study chess all day. When I graduated university I was 19-20 years old and became International Master. I played bunch of International chess tournaments including World Youth, Chess youth Olympiads, Asian Championships etc.

Becoming a Grandmaster


At age 20 I came to USA to play in tournaments, I was still International Master. I studied enormous amount of chess here in Chicago with my friend GM Yury Shulman in average about 8 hours a day. 

Then I had to leave to play Chess Olympiad in Dresden in 2008. This was my most successful tournament, I had 7.5 points out of 8 with the performance of 2730! (FIDE rating). In 2009 I became a Grandmaster. 2010-2012 were by best years in my chess career. Those were the Years I professionally studied chess 6 hours a day.

In 2011, I had great performance between May and August. I got second place at Chicago Open (May) with more than 25 GMs, and Sargissian Gabriel from Armenia got first place. In July, I got third place at World Open with more than 30 GMs, first and second was shared between Kamsky and Michael Adams. In August, I placed second at the Metropolitan Invitational with more than 10 GMs, Michael Adams got first.

So after 2012, I was teaching more and more and my rating slowly started to drop. At some point I couldn't take any new students. I was completely booked, therefore no time to study chess on my own. Just teaching. 

The result of that is my rating dropped more than 150 points! My peak was 2614! And now I am below 2500. It is impossible to even keep your rating on the same level without studying. I feel like I know much more, but my calculation is not as deep, same as my concentration. Perhaps I will play again, but as for now my priority is teaching.

Bryan Castro: Mesgen shared the following game with us. Besides his excellent chess moves, pay particular attention to his comments as he provides much insight into the opening preparation and in-game decisions of a grandmaster. All of the annotations are GM Amanov's except in a couple spots where I make an observation.



Some General Thoughts about Chess Training


There are indeed many books written on openings, but I don't really think intermediate level players spend a lot of time on openings. Some teachers think so, but the level of opening preparation is pretty low here. But I agree that Middlegame and Endgame are more important to study first.

Bryan Castro: Here I had commented that a lot of amateur players focus a lot of their study on tactics.

And yes you are right people "spend" too much time doing tactics. Why is that wrong? Because chess player have to develop other areas of chess understanding. Going over Grandmaster games, study endgames manuals, play training game more often, learn about positional chess etc. Doing just tactics is just wrong.

Bryan Castro: Based on his background in sports psychology and physiology, I asked him about training mentally and physically for chess.


Attitude and Psychology in Chess


Psychology in chess is so important, sometimes even more than any preparation. If you go to the tournament in a good mood, motivated, striving to play best moves and ready to fight till the last move your chances on doing well are very very high. I've seen my students preparing so much, worrying about the tournament and when the time comes to play a game, they make very simple mistakes, blunders and no deep calculation, because their worries blocking everything. 

Being worried and sometimes scared is a big enemy that you need to overcome first. Before any tournament I am trying to cheer up my students, so they understand even if they lose a game, it's not the end of the world, it's just a game of chess. 

I am always encouraging them to play brave chess, attacking chess. If there is some interesting idea that they see, but afraid to proceed because of the result, I make sure to explain that experimenting is always good, it is a creative process. If their idea didn't work, at the very lest they learnt and next time they would know when to execute such idea or not. 

That's why it is important not to stressed out yourself before upcoming tournament, instead be excited about it and look forward to some fighting chess!


The Importance of Fitness and Chess



To be a good tournament player it is to be in a good physical shape. I often recommend to my students to read autobiographies of the famous chess players, like G. Kasparov, V. Anand, M. Carlsen etc.

These exceptional world Champions are in great physical shape. Gym 3-4 times a week, soccer and tennis 1-2 times a week, jogging and simply walking on the fresh air, all that helps to stay focused during the game. Endurance is very important especially for them, because their tournaments are very long. 

Here in USA, tournaments are short 2-4 days, but you play 10 hours of chess in one single day, that is very stressful for our organism, that's why our body has to be prepared.

I myself all my life have been very active in all sports. I used to do gym, swimming, table tennis, basketball, running, soccer, martial arts, volleyball, arm wrestling -- basically everything because I was in the Sport University, now I do gym, swimming and table tennis. Those are my favorites. 


Becoming a Chess Coach


In 2012, I opened chess academy in Glenview, IL. Idea is that kids from 6 to 18 years old could get together and study in a group. Over these 4 years I had about 20 Grandmasters (not just GMs, teaching GMs, it's a big difference) giving lectures in my academy. I was watching them all and tried to become even better learning from them. Some of them are OK teachers, some of them are really good. 

In 2015, I felt that it is time to share with the world with my teaching experience. Why did I feel it was the time? Within those years I raised so many Experts and Masters and couple International Masters, raised one World Champion. All my private students are the state Champions. So I didn't need any more proof or push to start something that will change dramatically teaching of chess.


Launching ImproveMyChess.com


In September 2015, me and my partner Gary Aranovich, a very talented idea developer, computer guru and just a good friend, launched the Improvemychess.com program. 

Now after 9 months since launching we've received hundreds of amazing feedback. Chess players truly expressing their desire to work more and harder on chess. If chess players are not serious about their improvement my program is not for them. But if someone is seeking in real improvement my program will help 100%. I can see it for myself how our members becoming stronger and stronger, I just see it by their rating. 

My chess philosophy in teaching is very simple: to make my students happy. If I deliver the best lessons with the right information, to make sure my students understand the subject, to make sure they will be able to use it in their games.

What do I enjoy most about my teaching? To be honest...the results. I enjoy when my students say to me: "Mesgen I did so great at the tournament!!!" with a huge smile on their face. Nothing else matters to me,  I just want them to be happy.

The best way to contact me is through official page: www.improvemychess.com there is link "Contact me" 

This was a big interview, but very sincere. I could write much more, but the reader's time is precious. If you are that reader who wants to get better at chess and increase his/her rating, go to my site, sign up for free lessons and see it for yourself.

Conclusions


Thank you, Mesgen, for your generosity in the time you spent responding and sharing your thoughts with us. Through interacting with GM Amanov and watching his videos, I have found him to be friendly and sincere in his desire to help his students improve.

In this interview, GM Amanov shared many useful tips for improving our chess, including:
  • The importance of consistency in our study and training
  • Having a positive attitude and perspective before our tournament games
  • The importance of fitness and endurance for tournament players
  • Having a balance in our chess training and not focusing on one area to the detriment of others
  • Insights into preparation for an opponent

I hope you will check out improvemychess.com and see if the program can fit into your chess training schedule. The instruction is top notch - his students' results speak for themselves. 

Your Turn


I hope you enjoyed this interview with GM Mesgen Amanov. If you have questions for GM Amanov, please contact him at improvemychess.com or feel free to leave comments here and I will forward them to him.

If you did enjoy this article, please share it with others. Also, check out my other interviews with masters. Until next time, I wish you good luck and good chess!

Monday, May 23, 2016

How to Play Solitaire Chess with SCID

Introduction


One of the best ways to improve at chess is Solitaire Chess. Solitaire Chess is a training method where you play through a master game as the winner and try to guess the move. This training method has been around for a long time and is an incredible tool for improvement.

I wrote an extensive guide to Solitaire Chess on GM Nigel Davies' Chess Improver site, so I won't go into detail about Solitaire Chess here. Instead, I'd like to show you how you can use SCID's "Review game" feature to make Solitaire Chess more effective and fun.

SCID is a free and very powerful database, and I've been experimenting with it a lot lately. For more information, I wrote an introduction to SCID.

Step-by-Step Instructions


Step #1: Prepare your source material.

To play Solitaire Chess on SCID, you need to have a game in a database to play. If you are using a physical book, you can look up the game in your database or an online database such as Chess Tempo or chessgames.com. Then just open up the game by double clicking in your game list window.

SCID's Game List Window

Step #2: Move to the Starting Position

Trying not to look at the game notation (so your peripheral vision doesn't catch too many of the moves), use the right arrow key to move the game to the position where you want to start playing Solitaire Chess. Here are some ideas for where you may wish to start.
  • If the game is within your opening repertoire, you can start at move 1 if you wish, but may wish to move it forward several moves if the game uses a different move order than the one you use within your repertoire.
  • For most games, you may want to play through the first 10-15 moves so that you start in the early middlegame.
  • If you want to focus on the endgame, move foreward until it looks like you are transitioning from the middlegame to endgame. This could be anywhere between moves 30-40 depending on the specific game.
Also you need to orient the board to the side you want to play. For example, if you will be playing the Black side during the game, you need to rotate the board by clicking on the board option button on the lower right of the board module - see the screenshot below.

Rotate the Board to play Black

Step #3: Select the Game Review Option in the Play Menu

Click on the Play menu. Hover on the Training option and it will reveal another menu. Click on the Review Game option. 

SCID Screenshot

Once you select this, the Game Review module will pop up.

Game Review Image
Game Review Window
You do not need to worry about the settings very much. Because you will often be using a chess book to consult after your Solitaire Chess game, you do not need to (nor should you) rely on the chess engine analysis. However, at some points the engine analysis will be useful and you can further analyze it once you have completed playing through your game.

Step #4: Play Through the Game

The computer will take several seconds (depending on the "time" setting) to calculate its response. After that you will see "Enter your move." There is no time limit other than what you may determine for yourself, so play through the game as if you were playing in a tournament or online game. 

Once you make your move on the board, it will let you know whether or not you played the move in the game score. If not, you may have matched the engine's top score, and it will let you know as well. Also, any moves that are within a certain range (that you can adjust) of the game move or the engine move will be indicated with "You did not choose the engine move, but it was a good move."

If you do not select one of these moves or a blunder you will also be notified. This information, including the engine analysis when you blunder, will be added to the game score. This will be essential for post-mortem analysis.

Step #5: Analyze Your Results

After you are finished playing, you will see how many of the moves you picked correctly. If you wish, you can record this in a spreadsheet to see your improvement over time. More importantly, you should go to the moves where you did not select the best moves and using your chess book and the engine analysis, try to understand your mistakes. Check out my Solitaire Chess guide for more details on this. 

Chess Analysis
Analyze Your Performance
As mentioned before, I recommend that you not rely on the chess engine variations, but they may be a good place to start to show you what you have missed in your own analysis during the game. Often, well annotated games in chess books will show you interesting or critical variations. When you are finished analyzing, your game score might look something like the one above.

Step #6: Adjust Your Training and Study

This step is ongoing. As you continue to play Solitaire Chess along with your other training, you may notice some patterns of common errors that you make. If you can find these, perhaps with the help of a chess coach or stronger player, you can adjust your training and study to strengthen these areas of weakness.

Here are some examples of errors you might want to look for:

  • Specific tactical themes - Do you make moves that lead to common tactics such as a pin or fork? Do you miss the opportunity to win material?
  • Specific positional themes - Do you miss opportunities to grab the two bishops when appropriate?
  • Mistakes in the endgame - Are there basic endgame positions you don't know how to play (e.g. Lucena and Philidor positions)?
  • Mistakes in specific opening structures - Do you know what to do in Sicilian pawn structures or which pawn breaks to use in the French or King's Indian Defense?
Chess improvement is an ongoing project, so finding a way to categorize and eventually reduce these frequently occuring mistakes will be very helpful over time.

Final Thoughts


Solitaire Chess is a great way to practice your chess skills as well as study great master games. SCID's Review Game mode is a fun and effective way to play Solitaire Chess. With these steps, you will be able to maximize your learning and results with this training method. This way of training is not easy, but regular Solitaire Chess including follow-up analysis will pay great dividends for your future chess development.

Resources


Measure and Improve Your Chess: Here are some ideas you may want to use to record your progress in Solitaire Chess.

4-Steps to Analyzing Your Games for Improvement: Analyzing your Solitaire Chess game is similar to analyzing your other chess games, and this guide can help you get the most out of the post-mortem analysis.

Think Like a Grandmaster by Alexander Kotov: This classic book explores a lot of chess topics, but goes into a bit of detail about types of analysis. Kotov describes exercises that are actually a variation of Solitaire Chess and attributes much of his development to employing these training methods.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Measure and Improve Your Chess

Optimize Your Chess Training

What gets measured, gets managed. - Peter Drucker

Several years ago, I was teaching a novice chess player the basics of chess. Although he loved chess and enjoyed our lessons, he never played a rated game. He played a lot of casual blitz and nonrated chess on the Internet Chess Club, but he never played a rated game. 

He often asked me how strong I felt he was. I basically told him that the only real way to know was to play some rated games and see where he stood. I encouraged him to do so partly because he kept asking me my opinion about his strength, but also because I believed that the competition would help him to get better. (You can read about why I believe that playing competitively helps your chess).

Well, after a few months, we amicably decided to part ways. He sent me a message about the lessons he was taking with a grandmaster who said he was probably a "Class B" player. Of course, I checked his profile and there were no rated games played.

Now I really didn't care whether he played a rated game either on the internet or over-the-board (although I think he really would have enjoyed the competition). The point behind this story is that you really don't know how you're doing on almost anything unless you measure it.

There's a reason why top performers in many high-stakes arenas such as business and professional sports measure everything - because it works! In this article, I will discuss how we can use measurement to improve our chess. 

How Measurement Can Improve Your Chess

There are two main ways that measurement helps you. First, when you measure what you want to accomplish, it motivates you (when done properly). Second, measurements can be prescriptive and help guide you in what you need to work on.

What You Measure, Gets Done

I first started measuring my activities when I started my career in business. I measured my calls, number of appointments, and results. I also applied this to physical fitness, measuring my minutes ran, sets and reps of my weightlifting exercises, and things like how many servings of vegetables I consumed daily. 

I think people in general like to see a numerical representation of their accomplishments. Think about your last over-the-board tournament when you played someone you didn't know. Either you or your opponent probably asked what each other's rating was (unless you copied it from the crosstables). 

I remember when I first started playing tournament chess. I couldn't wait until my rating was updated on the cover of my Chess Life magazine. When I started playing, the ratings weren't updated very often, so it also taught me patience.

Once you start using measurement for more than seeing your rating, you will find yourself accomplishing more than you could have imagined. We'll discuss what to measure in a little bit.

How Do You Know if You're Getting Better?

Besides the motivational benefits of measuring your activities (which would be worth measuring in itself), you can also use measurement to track your improvement in specific areas of chess, as well as tracking specific activities. 

Once you measure your activities and results in chess, you can start to make comparisons over time and adjust your training program. Accurate measurements can help you make very specific and effective changes to your regimen. Without measurement, you're just guessing.

What Should You Measure?


There are a ton of things you can measure, but where should you start? Before we can answer that, let me discuss two different types of measurements:
  • Performance measures
  • Outcome measures
Performance (or frequency) measures track the frequency or amount of an activity. This type of measurement is called a leading indicator as an increase in these typically happen before the desired change - in this case, improvement in a specific area. Here are some examples of chess related performance measures:
  • Number of tactical problems solved
  • Number of annotated master games studied
  • Amount of time spent analyzing
  • Number of blitz games played (for me this is a "negative" indicator as I am trying to decrease my volume of blitz play)
  • Amount of time spent studying
Outcome measures track the results of an activity. These are lagging indicators as they often follow from activity performed before. Here are a few examples:
  • Chess Tempo tactical ratings
  • Number of blunders made during a game
  • Bullet, Blitz, and Standard Ratings
  • Self-rating of levels of focus or attention during a game
  • Magnitude of errors made during a game (e.g. measured using a chess engine)
These are just a few examples that I am currently using or have used in the past. In general, you will want to use a mix of performance and outcome measures. 

Use performance measures when you want to increase (or decrease) the frequency of an activity. For example, Here are a couple examples of ways I've used these:
  • I felt that I was playing too much and not studying enough, so I started tracking how many minutes I either played, trained, or studied chess. I found after about a month that 25% of my chess time was spent playing, which was much lower than I expected (and perhaps as a result of measuring it in the first place). Below is an excerpt of the spreadsheet I used - created on Microsoft Excel. 
I found out I don't play enough!
  • I felt I wasn't sleeping enough and this was effecting my chess. I've started tracking when I go to bed and when I get up, and the spreadsheet calculates how much sleep I got that night. Ever since I started tracking this, the amount and quality of my sleep has increased, and so has my chess!
Use outcome measures to calibrate your chess activities as well as motivation to see your progress. Improvement in chess is a long term project (at least for most of you who are reading this article), and sometimes it is hard to stay patient. Using periodic measurement of outcomes can show you that you are progress, even though it seems slower than you would like.

Below is an excerpt of my current ratings tracking sheet. I've highlighted a calculation I do to show how much I've improved on a weekly basis and on a rolling 6-week basis. Doing this helps me stay consistent and motivated on the long journey.

Slow but gradual improvement

Once I've attained statistics for several months, I can start to make certain comparisons to see how my activities are affecting the results.

You can get really creative with measurement, but remember that these are only tools to our greater objective - to improve at chess.

Getting Started with Measuring Your Chess

Now that you understand the difference between performance and outcome measures, here are a few steps to follow when getting started.

Step #1: Assess Your Needs

Before you incorporate measurement into your chess improvement program, assess what you need to improve. This should start with an objective review of your games - perhaps with a coach if you have one. 

Where do you need to improve - tactics, positional play, endgame, openings? 

Are there certain chess improvement activities you know you should do but don't? 

The answers to these questions are great places to start measuring.

Step #2: Start Simple

Maybe it's just me, but measuring my chess activities has become fairly enjoyable. However, I encourage you to start simply with just a few measures. After you've assessed your needs, you can start with your most pressing need.

For example, after you've made a comprehensive review of your game, you decide that you want to improve your chess tactics. We all know that solving tactical problems is an effective way to improve our ability in this area. We can create a simple spreadsheet with the following measures:
  • Number of tactical problems (or amount of time spent on tactics)
  • Number solved correctly
  • Rating (if using a program that gives a rating such as Chess Tempo)

Step #3: Use Performance Measures First and Often

Typically, we want to measure what we want to improve or increase. This often involves adding to our current program. Use performance measures to track these. Track these daily. Don't worry if you miss a day. Over time, you'll develop consistency and your progress will follow.

Step #4: Measure Outcomes Regularly but not too Often

As you develop the habits you want within your chess activities, use the appropriate outcome measures to track your progress. For example, the various tactics servers on the internet often give ratings. You can enter your rating on regular intervals (e.g. once a week or once a month) and see your steady progress.

I would set a specific day of the week or month to record outcome metrics. I caution you against doing it too often. If you record these measures too often, you might find yourself getting discouraged as your improvement may be too gradual to notice in shorter time periods. Similarly, when it comes to ratings, there are often peaks and valleys, but a longer interval (such as monthly or quarterly for OTB ratings) will show a more useful trend line.

Step #5: Assess and Adjust

Once you've started measuring your activities and results for several months, you can start to evaluate the effectiveness of your training.

For example, suppose you are tracking your tactical rating on a server and your OTB chess rating (or say a standard rating on ICC or chess.com). If you notice that your tactical rating is improving dramatically while your chess rating stagnates, it would be reasonable to conclude that tactics are not your biggest weakness.

For another example, I found that I was "testing" myself too much - doing tactical problems are analytical exercises - but not "studying" - reading chess books and looking up games - enough.

The positive side of this was that my ability to assess and come up with plans at the board was improving. However, I was often finding myself in situations - particularly between the opening and middlegame - where I knew I had played similar positions, but felt like I had to figure it out again. It was like I had to reinvent the wheel over and over again.

So I shifted some of my training time toward looking master games in the lines I was playing. Here I could see what much stronger players did in similar situations and adjusted my thinking and my approach for future games.

I wouldn't have realized this in my training had I not meticulously measured how much time I was spending on each part of my training and study program.

Long Term Project

Improving at chess is a long term project - unless you happen to be one of those teenage grandmasters. If you want to systematically and accurately improve your play, start by measuring aspects of your training and play.

Metrics and statistics are tools. Some people I know (and myself at times) get too caught up in the how and why of statistics. When I first got into this, I felt like I spent almost as much time measuring as I did studying and playing chess. 

I recommend starting with one simple rule: Measure what you want to improve. 

Use the steps above to pick just one or two areas that you want to see a dramatic improvement. Measurement can be very powerful, so be careful of what you measure. One of my friends started tracking various aspects of his tactical training. Unfortunately, now he only does tactics and barely plays! You have been warned.

Your Turn

If you decide to try out some of this advice, I'd love to hear what measures you are using and how it's helping you. If you enjoyed this article and want more elaboration on how to go about this, let me know what you need help with and I'll write more articles detailing this process. 

Good luck and good chess!

Resources

Here are a couple articles you might find helpful:

4 Steps to Analyzing Your Game for Improvement: This is an article I wrote on how to analyze your games and if you don't already do this, it will be hard to know where to start measuring.

Pat Riley on the Remarkable Power of Getting 1% Better: James Clear wrote an interesting article on Pat Riley's philosophy that shows the power of gradual but consistent improvement and the importance of measurement.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Interview with National Master Jim West

Meeting an Independent Chess Thinker

National Master Jim West
When you want to learn something, like chess, it is often good to follow in the footsteps of those who have achieved what you are aiming for. With that in mind, I asked National Master Jim West, the prolific author of the chess site Jim West on Chess, to share some of his thoughts on chess. 

Jim was very thoughtful and insightful in his answers. His passion for chess was very evident to me and his conviction on certain chess subjects was refreshing. 

Our interview covers a few topics, including Jim's start in chess, progressing to the master level, his chess books, and of course some advice on training and improvement in chess.

On a side note, he has posted on his site every single day since 2007 (and the last few days of 2006). Now that's dedication!

Starting Out in Chess

Jim, how did you learn to play chess and how old are you when you first started?

At approximately age seven, I learned the moves by hanging out at the playground during the summer and watching the older kids play chess in the shade when it became too hot to play baseball.  

At age twenty-one, I joined the U.S. Chess Federation and the Marshall Chess Club in October 1972, in the aftermath of the Spassky-Fischer match.

As you progressed in chess, who were your chess heroes?

Early on, my chess hero was world champion Bobby Fischer.  My prize at the first tournament that I won was two chess books.  I chose My 60 Memorable Games and Bobby Fischer's Chess Games. Both books were studied intensely by me.  

In later years, I became aware of Paul Morphy's brilliance through my researching of the Philidor Counter Gambit which Morphy championed.

Do you have any favorite games from Fischer or Morphy?

My favorite Fischer game is game six against Spassky from their 1972 match.  The film Pawn Sacrifice claims it is the greatest chess game ever played which is a bit of an exaggeration, but it might well be the greatest chess game ever played by Bobby Fischer.  It is like a well choreographed ballet in which Fischer's pieces dance around Spassky's.

Here you can view this wonderful game. Annotations by Bryan Castro with his own analysis as well as analysis and commentary from several sources including Jim West's video on the game. I also adopted material from Yasser Seirawan's annotations from his excellent book Winning Chess Brilliancies. and videos by Life Master AJ Goldsby and kingcrusher.



My favorite Morphy game is his Philidor Counter Gambit win against Thomas Barnes.  I think of it as the French Revolution game because Morphy sends his minor and major pieces to the guillotine while his lowly peasant of a pawn emerges triumphant.  Considering that Philidor called pawns "the soul of chess," this game is the quintessential Philidor Counter Gambit.

Below is that exciting game with annotations by Bryan Castro.



Master Level Chess

What were your most successful chess results?

In 1990, I finished first in a Futurity at Elmwood Park, New Jersey.  This was my best personal result. 

As a team player, my best result happened in 1999 when I played board one on the winning team at the U.S. Amateur Team East tournament in Parsippany, New Jersey.

Do you have a favorite game that you played?

I have two favorites.  Playing as Fischer did in game fifteen against Spassky in 1972, I defeated FIDE master Brian Hartman (who later became an international master) at the 1990 World Open in Philadelphia. It appeared in Informant 50, annotated by FIDE Master Rudy Blumenfeld.  

Below you can examine Jim's battle against Mr. Hartman. Almost all of the annotations are Jim West's (which you can view from his original post on the Jim West on Chess blog) with just a few comments by Bryan Castro. (Bryan: I hesitated to add anything to Jim's excellent annotations, and my additions reflect only my humble attempts to understand the complexities of this game)


My second favorite is my win with the Philidor Counter Gambit against 2300-rated Greg Achonolu at the USATE 1999.

Check out this complex game below. Annotations by Michael Goeller originally posted on the Kenilworth Chess Club site. Morphy would be proud!



Tell us about your books on the Philidor Counter Gambit.

In 1996, the Chess Journalists of America awarded me top prize in the Best Analysis, Openings category for my articles in Atlantic Chess News on the Philidor Counter Gambit.  For a few months in 1994, my first book The Philidor Counter Gambit (Chess Enterprises) was a best seller at the USCF.  

Two years later, I authored The Dynamic Philidor Counter-Gambit (Chess Digest), mainly to include analysis of the 4.exf5 variation which had been omitted from my first book since no one ever played it against Paul Morphy.  

My experience in writing these books is that I received a few positive book reviews but some negative ones as well from critics who, by their own admission, have never played this opening in their lives.  Why these critics would think that an opening system invented by Francois-Andre Danican Philidor (who was a chess immortal) is unsound is something that I still have difficulty in understanding, unless their dislike of Paul Morphy who championed it is the real issue.  

The critics would have it that I must prove the playability of the Philidor Counter Gambit, despite the fact that I have a plus score of better than 250 after more than 900 over the board games with this opening.  

But, in my opinion, the burden of proof is squarely on the shoulders of the critics because the Philidor name brand is strong everywhere else. Philidor's defense to the King's Gambit is highly regarded in opening theory. In the middlegame, Philidor contributed the smothered checkmate known as Philidor's Legacy.  His analysis of the  Philidor drawing position in rook and pawn endings, as well as his analysis of the ending involving rook and bishop versus rook, is definitive.  

Why would the critics think that Philidor was wrong about his Counter Gambit when he was right about all of the above?

Chess Training and Progress


What type of training or study helped you to move from a Class B or Class A player to Expert and eventually to the Master-level rating?

The answer is simple: by playing a lot of games and then studying them, often with the help of my opponent during post mortem analysis. I never took a chess lesson in my life because I could not afford the expense.  But I read as many chess books as I could, often borrowing them from the public library.  

The final litmus test for my attaining the title of national master was thinking for myself.  Most players who never become master are too afraid to think independently.

Please elaborate on independent thinking.

By thinking independently, I am reminded of past conversations with two experts, both of them knowing as much about chess as I do but neither of them ever attaining the title of national master.

The first expert told me that he agreed with my analysis of the line in the Najdorf variation seen in Hartman - West, Philadelphia 1990, but that he would never play the line himself until grandmaster Eduard Gufeld included it in his book on the Sicilian defense.  

The second expert agreed with my opinion that a sharp variation in the Philidor Counter Gambit is playable for Black, but then he immediately contradicted himself by saying that the line must be better for White because that was the opinion of Carl Schlechter.  

Far from being masters, these two experts were slaves to the opinions of other chess players.


Chess Advice

What advice would you give to beginning players to improve?

Try to survive the opening.  I recommend the King's Indian Attack as White, a safe way to reach an equal middlegame.  Devote your study time to middlegame strategy and endgame technique.  Too much time is spent nowadays on opening theory.


Regarding studying the middlegame and endings, are there any particular books you would recommend or that you use with your students?

The middlegame game books that I recommend are Simple Chess by Michael Stean, Modern Chess Strategy by Ludek Pachman, and My System by Aron Nimzovich.  The best endgame books are Endgame Strategy by Mikhail Shereshevsky and Silman's Complete Endgame Course by Jeremy Silman.


Contacting Jim West

I see you also coach chess. What is your teaching philosophy or approach?

My teaching philosophy is to spend as little time as possible in studying opening theory and devoting as much time as possible to studying the middlegame and endgame books mentioned above.

How can potential students contact you?

I offer private lessons and group lessons at residences of students in the northern New Jersey area, as well as on-line lessons at the Internet Chess Club, using Skype for video and audio communication. Interested parties can contact me by e-mail at jimrwest(at)msn.com. 

You can also contact Jim through his chess site: Jim West on Chess.

Conclusion

Thank you for your interesting responses, Jim. I think chess players of all levels can appreciate the beautiful games you shared as well as benefit from your advice and insight into getting better at chess. 

Here are some of the highlights of Jim's advice:
  • Play a lot of chess and (perhaps just as importantly) study your games afterward.
  • Don't spend too much time learning opening theory. Playing an opening such as the King's Indian Attack will help you achieve a playable middlegame without a lot of theory to learn.
  • Focus your study time on the middlegame and endgame.
  • Learn to think for yourself - don't be a slave to others' opinions.
As a corollary to the final point, chess can often be thought of as creative expression of ourselves. Learn from others, but be yourself. From reading his site and this interview, Mr. West has done just that. 


Your Turn

I hope you enjoyed this interview. Please share it with others if you did. Also, check out my other interviews with chess masters!