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Friday, July 29, 2016

The Most Instructive Annotated Chess Game Collections

Not All Games Collections Are Created Equal

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

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

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

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

Logical Chess Move by Move

Author: Irving Chernev

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

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

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

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


Winning Chess Brilliances


Author: Yasser Seirawan

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

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

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

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

Get this book. Thank me later.


The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played



Author: Irving Chernev

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

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

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

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

Best Lessons of a Chess Coach

Author: Sunil Weermantry

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

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

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

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


Understanding Chess Move by Move


Author: John Nunn

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

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

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

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

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

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


Other Good Books

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

Conclusion

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

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

Your Turn

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

Friday, July 22, 2016

Integration: The Second Stage to Mastering Chess

Integrating Our Knowledge



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

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

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

Characteristics of the Integration Stage

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

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

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

Understanding the Tradeoffs between Material and Other Imbalances

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

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

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

Some examples of this include:

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


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


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

    Getting Past the Positional "Shiny and New"

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

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



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

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

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

    Question Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Testing Your Knowledge


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


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

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

    Annotate and Integrate


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

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





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

    Conclusion


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

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

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

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

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

    Your Turn


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

    Sunday, July 17, 2016

    State of the Site and Upcoming Content

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

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

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

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

    Survey Results

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

    State of the Site

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

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

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

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

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

    Upcoming Content

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

    Your Turn

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

    Friday, July 8, 2016

    Imitation: The First Stage to Mastering Chess

    Before You Can Innovate, You Must Imitate

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

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

    Bulking Up Your Chess Knowledge


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

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

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

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

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

    Breadth Over Depth


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

    All the Great Ones Have Done It


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

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



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



    Humility and Apprenticeship


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

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

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

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

    Recommendations


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

    Conclusion


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

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

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

    Until next time, good luck and better chess!

    Your Turn

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    Saturday, July 2, 2016

    Can Chessable Help You Learn Openings?

    Chessable.com Review

    In this article, I will be reviewing the training tool Chessable at chessable.com. Chessable is a tool that helps you to remember your chess opening sequences using spaced repetition learning. Besides learning about Chessable, I will also be discussing the usefulness of memorizing openings and memory and chess in general, as well as how Chessable takes advantage of other aspects of science to help us learn chess.

    In general, I like Chessable and I think it does what it does well. The question we will discuss here is whether or not that is beneficial for chess players and various levels. I will give my recommendations on how you might most benefit from Chessable if you choose to include it as part of your training program.

    How Chessable Works

    With Chessable, you follow this process to memorize (and learn) openings:
    1. You enter (or upload a pgn) your opening moves into Chessable.
    2. You then "learn" the moves as Chessable presents them to you. 
    3. Over time, depending on whether you remember the moves or not, it will present you specific positions based on their spaced repetition learning algorhthm. 
    Theoretically, by studying the opening moves in this fashion, you only have to learn the opening moves once, and the rest of your time on Chessable is spent reviewing positions over time in the most efficient manner possible. Then you can spend the time you save (because you do not have to review openings as much) on other aspects of chess and life.

    Chessable testing my Two Knights Defense


    What I Like About Chessable

    There are a few things I really enjoy and I think are useful about Chessable. These include the following:
    • The user experience is enjoyable and fun. Chessable uses concepts of gamification, such as a streak meter, experience points, and "rubles" (the currency of Chessable) to make the process of studying and training enjoyable. This is not to be underestimated as consistency and persistence are two aspects that are both necessary for long-term memory retention as well as two things that are often lacking in player's training programs. There are many reasons gamification works (check out this article on gamification on Inc.com if you are interested).

    Keep your streak going, earn Rubles, and level up!
    • Spaced Repetition Learning works. I have long been a fan and proponent of this type of learning. I write a little more about it in my article on 4D learning. Chessable does this well. As you repeat the moves in certain openings, the program will present positions you know well less often and review those positions you "fail" on more frequently. This presents certain implications that I will discuss later in terms of your choice of openings to include but the point here is that Spaced Repetition Learning is both supported both by scientific research and by logic and common sense. I personally have been using this type of system to retain knowledge for chess as well as other pursuits (such as language learning and business).
    • The Developers. I corresponded with the developers of the program over a couple e-mails. I was impressed with their dedication to improving Chessable as well as the general pleasant interactions. In perusing their forums, the developers seem very responsive to issues as well. Software will more often than not have problems along the way, and if you are going to invest your time and money into something for your long-term chess improvement, you want developers who are going to keep the software up and running. 
    • The "Difficult Moves" Feature. Chessable notifies you about the moves you don't know as well. You can then use the "Overstudy" this particular line to see it in context with the rest of the moves in the line. I also think in general it lets you know that perhaps you need to try to understand this move a little more. This feature is available in the Pro (premium) version only.
    • The "Overstudy" Function. The Overstudy Function allows you to quiz yourself from the beginning of a line to the end in order. Although you will be looking at individual positions from your openings - e.g. not always starting from the beginning of the line - there are times when you will want to study a line from the beginning. Such times would include perhaps when preparing for a known opponent. During my evaluation of Chessable, I found another user who used it to memorize favorite or key games and used the Overstudy function to go through each game.

    Things that Made Me Go "Hmmmm."

    • Tree of Variations Not Visible. Unlike chess database programs like Chessbase, Chesable doesn't allow you to view a game score where you can see all of the variations. This can be useful if you're trying to scan for a specific position or line. Each "variation" is a separate line for Chessable, which doesn't really matter for the positional review using Spaced Repetition Learning, but for general study and viewing, not being able to view an opening with a game score style tree is a disadvantage.
    • Does Not Handle Transpositions Automatically. Since Chessable handles each opening line as an individual entry as opposed to a positional database (like a program like Chess Opening Wizard), the program does not deal with transpositions. This is not necessarily a huge problem, as the problem can be mitigated by careful entry of variations into the program as well as good indexing. Part of this criticism is based on the fact that I was a long-time Bookup user and this was a key benefit of Bookup. Also, I maintain a fairly narrow opening repertoire in that for each position I only play one (maybe two) variations, so transpositions are important in my openings, while someone who plays a broader repertoire may not worry about it so much because they may have several responses they play.
    A view of my Black Repertoire (part of it, at least)

    • Software is web-based. Chessable is a web-based subscription software. I know there is a move towards this as it gives developers a steady income while providing users with automatic updates and quick fixes to their software. Call me old-fashioned, but I like being able to pay one price, download the software and choosing if I want future updates. Also, I like to keep all of my chess data on my hard drive and be able to back it up. There is always the risk (albeit a small one) that the software company either has problems with their servers or with their business and all of the work I put into entering and refining my opening repertoire goes away. 


    The Benefits of Memorizing Opening Lines

    About 15 years ago, I purchased Bookup, which I enjoy quite a bit. The main purpose of that software was to memorize your openings as well. I knew my opening lines quite well, but my general playing strength did not improve just by memorizing openings.

    I realized a couple things about learning opening lines:

    • Memorizing lines that you do not understand is almost useless.
    • Thoughtful and active repetition and memorization of opening lines can lead to deeper understanding.
    These two discoveries may seem at odds with each other, but learning openings works in both directions. I definitely believe you should try to understand the reasons behind every move you play in the opening - at least to some extent. Failing to do so will just lead you to problems later in the game when you do not understand how the move you made on move 5 affects the decision you make on move 20. Until you are a fairly strong player, it is important to use good books or chess coaches that can explain the reasons behind the moves. I discuss this in another article with IM Greg Shahade.

    However, if you understand the basic reasons behind each move, repeating and memorizing the moves will help lead to deeper understanding. As you study more games within your opening lines and connect the plans and strategies to the moves you made in the opening, your efforts to memorize your openings will increase your understanding. This will happen if you ask yourself a few questions when you make your moves. Here are a few examples:

    • Why is this move the best here (as opposed to other reasonable moves)? The answer lies in the future plans of the position.
    • What can my opponent do if I don't make this move that he otherwise can't make? The move may prevent or discourage a specific move that your opponent wants to make in the position. 
    • What tactical or strategic aim does this move serve? Some moves are simple reactions to your opponent's previous move - e.g. avoiding a piece being taken - while some moves have more future implications - e.g. trading a bishop for a knight due to the structure favoring one over the other.
    Besides this, there are certain openings that do not require specific move orders to reach their key positions. For example, openings such as the London System, Colle, or King's Indian Attack are focused on more of a piece and pawn set-up as opposed to specific move orders. These types of systems do not need memorization of their opening moves because they play very similar moves no matter what the opponent plays. With these types of openings, I still think Chessable can be helpful, if one uses it to memorize key themes by using model games instead of many variations.

    However, some openings, such as the Dragon or Najdorf Sicilian, require a little more specific move orders, and thus can benefit much from memorization. In these types of openings, different choices in move orders will require different responses, and you will need to enter many variations to cover the critical lines.

    Using software like Chessable can be very useful because memorizing openings can help you learn chess overall if you do it right.

    Recommendations for Using Chessable

    Overall, I think Chessable is a neat tool for learning and remembering chess openings. Here are a few recommendations on how to best benefit from Chessable:
    • Selection of the right opening material is important. Using good books, videos, or coaches to provide instruction before you start memorizing is recommended. There are places to enter notes into Chessable for each position and you should use these if Chessable is your main tool for storing your opening lines.
    Add comments to your positions
    • I store my opening repertoires and model games in a database like SCID or Chessbase and only enter the lines that I feel I need to memorize. For example, some of the lines of the Ruy Lopez as Black I feel are a little sharper and the moves need to be very precise, so I enter those into Chessable. Other lines I feel are better studied by understanding the key ideas, and I do not enter these into Chessable. If I did, I would enter the specific game and set Chessable only to study certain moves of the game (which is another feature of Chessable - the key moves feature).
    • Over time, you will need to continually maintain your repertoire - this is true no matter what tool you use. Some lines you will choose not to play anymore. With these, you can stop studying them and Chessable will take them out of the repetition rotation without deleting them from your data (just in case you pick the line up again).
    • If you are a Pro (premium) subscriber, you can use Chessable to memorize key games (since free members can only study up to the 10th move in a variation). I think this is a great feature in memorizing model games to remember key strategies in your opening repertoire.

    Conclusion - A Final Warning

    In general, my opinion of Chessable is positive. I think if you follow my recommendations and use the software every day, you will remember the opening lines that you enter into Chessable. I only caution you to not overdo it. This software is fun to use, and I think like other types of fun chess software - CT-ART comes to mind for tactics training - it can get overused to the detriment of studying other critical parts of chess. That being said, it is great for what it does and overall I encourage you to give Chessable a try.

    Your Turn

    Have you used Chessable? What do you think of it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


    Disclosure: I have no financial interest or affiliation with Chessable.com. They did provide me with limited-time access to the Pro (premium) version of the software for the purposes of writing this review. However, I have no incentive to write a positive article, and my opinions and recommendations are my own.